Inevitably a Witness
On traveling alone in Central America
I tried in every way to stifle the nerves that came with moving to Honduras at twenty-two but they still showed in unexpected ways. As a recent graduate, I flew down to Honduras to work for a year, and when I arrived in San Pedro Sula from Chicago, rushing to catch a bus five hours west to a tourist town near the Guatemalan border, the quick exchange from plane to taxi to bus had me feeling faint, with my heartbeat hastening. I told myself that it must be the altitude change coming from Chicago, still too young to realize the depth of my nerves. As I chatted with German tourists and found my vision start to blur, I did what most people do in times of physical unrest: I breathed in and out deeply and then when that failed to work, I searched my purse for pills.
All I had with me was Imodium. Although I had hardly eaten in the country, the placebo worked quickly. Once on the bus, I felt fine, comfortable even, talking to the man sitting next to me. Over the next few hours, we watched out the window as we passed houses that sat on the edge of the two lane highway. It was late afternoon. Men were home from work, napping in hammocks while women scrubbed laundry on concrete washboards nearby. Just beyond the houses we passed, small fires erupted on the side of the road in ditches where trash gathered. Honduras, like many third world countries, disposes of its trash by burning it. With the country being lovers of Pepsi products, the trash rose up from the grass in a fiery, toxic smoke.
Hours in, the bus stopped on the side of the road, pulling over to let the cars behind us pass. There was no explanation to our delay. After a few minutes, my friend next to me turned to me concerned. “Oh no, we’ve stopped,” he said.
I looked at him, questioning what he was alluding to.
“Ladrones,” he said. Robbers.
I had heard of robbers hijacking buses to take passengers’ belongings, at times even holding them ransom. With my friend’s warning, my eyes beamed wide, my heart sank. I had been in Honduras only a day.
And then, my friend laughed and laughed. He rested his hand on my arm for comfort but kept his head back, laughing. The bus soon closed its door and started again on its journey. I smiled faintly, realizing that we would be spared that day, presumably like the many other buses that bypassed us as we traveled on.
I went down to Honduras to work for a year at an orphanage outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital city, though orphanage does not seem an apt translation for the place. Orphanage denotes staleness, conjures up images of an underresourced hospital where babies cry from their cribs but I found myself on a ranch, with eucalyptus trees growing near the children’s homes. Each home was polished clean with flora decorating their wide patios. Children played soccer at all hours, watched movies in their bunks come Friday, woke up on weekdays to put on their uniform and head to school. I prefer instead the Spanish translation for the home: casa hogar. A house home, it translates to directly. A group home, if you will.
Three hundred children lived on that ranch while a few hundred more lived and studied in the city. I never knew much of where the children came from because most days, we were too busy; there were chores and meals and playtime as usual. Besides, as someone who moved into their home for just a year, I always felt that the most I could do was be one less person the children had to tell their story to.
To be sure, my family at home were quietly holding their breath while I was away in Honduras but I was removed from the violence that plagued the country. A guard watched over the ranch at night while I slept in a house full of other volunteers. I never stirred in my home; never saw anyone threatening out my window except cows passing through. There were murmurs of the violence of the city creeping its way toward our perimeters. There were stories, always, of assaults in nearby towns, justice killings, requests for extortion but in the end, I had the protection of my naivety, the excuse that because of my foreign status, these threats were not meant for me.
Pretty soon, I began venturing off the ranch’s premises to leave the illusion of Honduras that I found myself in. I was hoping to dive in, para meterme, to immerse myself, to throw myself into my new home. “Once you get a handle on the language, you’ll see the real Honduras,” a friend told me in a taxi during my first weeks there. A novice at Spanish, I walked through the city streets in a daze in the beginning, hearing the noise of the city with natural blinders up, no idea what they were truly saying.
To rein myself in, I came into my new home with a list of things I would never do: I wouldn’t hitchhike. I would never venture out at night in the city. I wouldn’t trust so blindly. But my first two weeks there, I found myself stranded and those rules quickly faded into more lenient policies. I had traveled three hours away to nearby hot springs with a few friends and spent the day at the pools, taking in the plant life that was dark green and grew without a name, overgrown all around us. When my friends and I were ready to leave at the end of the day, we went to the highway to wait for a bus home but thirty minutes passed without a car passing by. “Must have missed the last bus of the day,” the attendant told us when we walked back down to the parking lot.
We took out our guide books, double-checking his assertion but like many things in the country, we knew there was no schedule to be sure of. We stood in the parking lot, distressed, talking through our options when a man packing up his stuff came over. He was Honduran, a father who had taken his extended family to the hot springs for the day. After we told him our story, he said, “No hay problema.” He could give us a ride home. At first there was skepticism ‒ he was after all a stranger ‒ but our hesitation quickly turned to gratitude as we climbed into the back of his pick-up truck, rearranging his family’s belongings and finding a place between his teenage daughter and four-year-old son.
We rode through the surrounding mountains as the sun turned the sky a soft pink. An hour in, the car peeled off the highway onto side streets until we made our way to an unidentifiable, white adobe house. Our driver hopped out of the car, looking at us. “Mind if we stop at my in-laws for a cup of coffee?” he asked. We laughed, realizing where our day had gone.
His in-laws, it turned out, lived on a coffee plantation. They were feeble, welcoming, with cups of hot coffee waiting for us as we walked in the door. With coffee in my hand, I sat on their front porch while children pulled mandarins from the trees in the front yard for us to eat, and the family introduced themselves one by one. Nearby, an uncle took a machete and cut down sugar cane from the fields and passed it out as we ate the treat like an ear of corn. My friends and I looked around and wondered where we were, how we got there, but never questioned if we’d make it home.
With a cool mountain breeze descending, the Honduran heat ‒ often brutal at mid-day, often inducing violent thoughts ‒ felt palpably pleasant at dusk. In the air, I felt a coolness that helped me breathe, a warmth that helped me to thaw.
The other volunteers and I often talked about our tendencies to hitchhike. It was a common practice in Honduras, as the majority of people didn’t own cars. It was part of their vernacular: para buscar un jalón. To find a ride was a common phrase, so much so that they soon took the English word “ride” and in a thick accent, a man at the front wheel would slow down to ask, “Necesitas un ride?”
As foreigners told constantly to be vigilant, we often swore to stop the practice. No more hitchhiking, I’d tell myself after hearing from my Honduran co-worker that she fell out of a pick-up truck while hitchhiking years ago and hasn’t walked the same since. But when the sun was beating down and a bus dropped us off with a mile to go on a gravel road before the hostel, we weighed our options and at times climbed in to recline on the hard steel of the pick-up, welcoming the magic of the manmade breeze.
Nothing was safe or unsafe in Honduras; everything just murky in between. I flew down knowing well the intimidating stereotype of a Honduran gang member ‒ a seemingly cold-hearted male, face covered in tattoos ‒ but I only saw a figure like this once, and he was walking down the street with a Bible in hand, next to a preacher. In reality gang members were less noticeable, more likely to be dressed in a polo shirt, collar popped, hair slicked back with gel like their favorite reggaeton star. It was a widely cultivated look, and like everything that spun me on my head during that year, the more time I spent in Latin America, the more I began to find it attractive.
The locals knew better than I, knew the violence that plagued street corners. (Even I saw the horror of violence displayed before my eyes on my commute to work one day, a man covered with a sheet, stopping traffic, a deep red draining slowly onto the concrete. I looked down at my feet, walking on, quickly as I could.) At times it was easy as a foreigner to look past the shanties, the beggars and see the colorful markets, the pastels of the country’s fruit used as paint colors for their architecture. As Paul Theroux pointed out when he traveled across the border, “By curtailing the door with faded laundry, and adding a chicken coop and children, and turning up the volume on his radio, the Mexican makes a bungalow of his boxcar.” Like Theroux, one crosses the border, hears the music blaring, filling the streets with noise, and stops cold at the sight of such resourceful beauty. Despite all that it lacks, life in Latin America still comes across as celebratory.
But I don’t know how many Hondurans enjoy living in their country these days. A friend of mine in the city, Wilmer ‒ an elementary school teacher who listens to American blues and plays shows on the weekend at the city’s sports bars ‒ told me over coffee one day that he didn’t have many problems living in Tegucigalpa. “It’s more who you know here,” he said. The following week though, I saw on Facebook that his bass guitar had been stolen from his apartment in the night. In all, it was one of the more innocent stories of misfortune that I heard, though it felt tragic in its own way.
Still I carried on, travelling to neighboring countries, exploring ruins, dancing bachata at night, waking up every morning to study my Spanish, cataloguing new words to help me better interpret the new stimuli. On the dance floor, I learned the meaning of tumbao (rhythm), although at times in vain, not always following the beat of the conga. In the city square, I learned to understand and roll my eyes at men’s piropos (catcalls), and shouted back, when offended, ¡que asco! (how gross), ¡que barbalidad! (how barbaric). The common vocabulary quickly made itself apparent: engañar (to cheat), chismear (to gossip), regalar (to give), enterrar (to bury), and aguantar (to endure).
As Honduras slowly became my home, I found that Latin America was as the Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolaño, said, “the insane asylum of Europe.” It seems that Bolaño understood the contrasts of this world at a time I was trying hard to grasp the nuances I saw. “Maybe, originally, it was thought that Latin America would be Europe’s hospital, or Europe’s grain bin. But now it’s the insane asylum,” he said in an interview. “A savage, impoverished, violent insane asylum, where, despite its chaos and corruption, if you open your eyes wide, you can see the shadow of the Louvre.”
After a while, my eyes began to open, taking in a wider view. The country was chaotic for sure; I saw men walking without necessary limbs in the heart of the city and recognized Tegucigalpa by the sudden smell of diesel exhaust that hit coming in from the countryside, but being a place where people worked and played every day, there were also children in uniforms eating ice cream cones from McDonald’s, suited men grabbing coffee while on a break from work, vendors who knew my name. On many occasions, there were fireworks on holidays and during soccer matches that the country won or lost, which went off without rest, riotously and violently but beautiful and unfettered still.
As my days became months, I inevitably noticed the locura (madness) of Honduras and slowly, the normalcy that existed by its side.
During the day at the orphanage, I worked as a Communications Officer, marketing the NGO to funders abroad. This usually meant that I spent my time alone in an office on a hill, designing Christmas cards in August for donors back in the States. On better days, I was in the field, heading to the city for interviews, donning scrubs at the clinic and going into surgery with my DSLR, driving into the remote mountain towns with the outreach coordinator as she distributed anti-malaria pills.
The odd part about my job was that inherently as a writer, I was never expected to cross over the line of observing. I never distributed pills, never tutored the children, never took vital signs of people coming in from the pueblo. I wrote during the day and put the children to bed at night. In many ways, the limitation of the writer is similar to that of the tourist: always, inevitably just a witness.
For one of my stories, I had to coordinate transportation in the city with a co-worker, Farid. Over the phone, Farid asked me minutes before I was leaving to meet him if I was afraid of motorcycles. Deadline caused me to answer the question preemptively: “No, no tengo miedo de motos,” I answered, unsure of the truth. I knew that I should be wary of motorcycles ‒ also the traffic among the two lane highways in Tegucigalpa ‒ but I needed to be somewhere that day so I figured I would go by whichever way I could.
When I met up with Farid, he gave me a helmet (a tad too big with a broken buckle) as he bent down to fine-tune the machine. Farid was young, a twenty-two-year-old university student who had the cheer and dependability of a class president. At that time, he was on a break from school so he signed on to help high school students at the ranch obtain internships in the city; a project that I was highlighting for the website.
After fiddling with the motorcycle’s engine, we both climbed on and went off, heading toward the highway that runs along Tegucigalpa’s perimeter. I had been on that highway before but never so close to the pavement. In minutes, we escaped potholes, each one concerning, while the diesel fumes rose up heavy and harsh. We passed stands selling fresh watermelon, pineapple, and mangos, weaving through both the fruit and the vendors baking in the traffics’ exhaust.
It was apparent Farid wasn’t in a rush. For a while we took our time riding through the city streets, heading up and over the city’s hills. My arms, tight around Farid, started to relax as he narrated our ride, telling me the names of the neighborhoods while we drove past. Too loud to hear his voice, I nodded behind him and smiled without a care. Nestled in a deep valley, Tegucigalpa looked beautiful as we zig-zagged through its streets. If one squinted, I thought it had the look of San Francisco beneath the exhaust.
All of my time travelling the country in buses, my head resting against the window pane, I realized then that the structures kept me from this place. There was a possessiveness in me ‒ a naivety, sure ‒ that felt grateful at that moment for the lack of a barrier. Like any woman unwilling to let her gender dictate her actions, I craved the dangerous and risky if only to be able to wander a bit closer to the reality that my privilege (and my intermittent reservations) often kept me from.
That morning, Farid and I travelled around the periphery of the city, and then made our way toward where we needed to be, entering a neighborhood otherwise off limits to my gringa self. Before entering the factory we came to visit, I quickly looked around at the women peeling mangos on their front stoop and the men beside them staring at my blonde hair and tall stature. In Honduras, a tattoo is not a form of self-expression but an emblem of your gang affiliation, and at that moment I noticed that the men were all marked with ink.
With the security of Farid, my pseudo-fixer, I walked into the shoe factory and toured the facilities, interviewing the owner who had allowed a few students to intern at his factory. After the tour, we hopped back onto the motorcycle rather than linger in the neighborhood for much longer. Riding back home, it felt like a peak life experience: spontaneous, visually stunning, slightly dangerous, a voyage into parts still unknown, an employment of all senses as I raced through the streets, both foreign and increasingly familiar.
Farid asked if I wanted to go on another ride on the motorcycle weeks later, sensing my eagerness after the first ride, and without hesitation, I said yes, claro, of course. Later though, I retracted my statement. Thinking it through, I decided to decline his offer, recognizing the danger of it all: the obvious and hard to stomach notion that I am safe until I am not.
As absurd as it sounds, I have a hard time with this lesson. As a woman travelling alone, it is hard for me to reconcile this dilemma, to know when I should remind myself of my powerlessness and when to grab the defective helmet and just hop on. Honduras, for me, was a lesson in pushing my boundaries, eschewing paranoia, actively ignoring the outsider’s persistence to live in fear and then quickly reminding myself how lucky I was to come out unharmed.
But despite my reservations, in the end, I did come out unharmed, and by the end of my year, I had the chance that most Hondurans do not: the option to leave. When it came time for my departure, I spent the preceding weeks staring out the window during my commute into the city, wondering what life would be like when the mountains, brown and dry, were not my daily view and when the children wouldn’t dictate my life. I wondered what it would be like when I traveled back to a place that forcibly tuned out Spanish, pretending it was not our second language, our people, but really I knew the States well enough to know what I was returning to.
When I arrived back home after a year, people asked me about my time in Honduras, and I often became flustered when responding, wanting to add nuance to their idea of the country. They would ask about the violence, and I would affirm that the media reports were true (As I arrived back in Chicago, children from Central America were crossing the border in record numbers. The faces of eight-year-olds, often Honduran, were displayed on the cover of my morning newspaper as I ate my cereal, unnerved and unscathed). But being summer, Chicago was making headlines as well, as the murder rate always spikes when the weather turns. While I adjusted to the new security I felt stateside and reveled at my ability to walk the city at night with ease, I still found myself bombarded with relatives and neighbors telling me to be careful. The concerns reminded me of the sentiments of a Mexican tour guide who once asked me, “You’re from Chicago? Oh I hear it’s dangerous there.” I laughed at the time but it seemed upon my return that his statement was partly true. In a way I returned to violence as well, although of a slightly different kind.
The thing is, I believe in the desire for safety but it often comes at the price of insularity and segregation, meaning that I have no real interest in it. So as I had done in Honduras, I tuned the danger out. I lived my day to day consciously ignoring the daily news. I knew very well the broader issues, as well as the murder count, but the specific details affected me too greatly, especially in the morning. To keep some sanity, I focused on my immediate surroundings, the mundane sights that I witnessed every day. I found a job in Humboldt Park ‒ a gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago that still grapples with the effects of gun violence ‒ and found solace in my daily lunch spot: the neighborhood park where fathers fished with their sons at the lagoon, children ran shirtless in the playground’s sprinklers, and wildflowers grew vibrantly in the sections of prairie throughout the park.
Soon the Chicago winter started to descend so to keep my spirits up, I began dancing salsa at a nearby dance studio, spending my time outside work among others also living within crossroads. At night in my apartment, I cooked with Latin music blaring, thinking that one day I would acclimate myself to my native language again but instead I just delved deeper, listening to Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, the Fania All-Stars. Even as a year passed, my obsession for the music and the language never waned. The following summer, I found myself at a street festival to see the Guatemalan singer, Gaby Moreno, live. Enveloped in the smell of pupusas and street tacos, I sat on the curb waiting for the show to start, talking with friends I had recently met. The majority of the group had come from different countries in Latin America, namely Guatemala and Colombia and Puerto Rico. Waiting for the show, they asked about my time across the border, and so I told them the places I traveled: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. “And I survived!” I joked, after seeing their concerned faces. “And she survived,” they said in unison, holding their beers up in the air, like we could all toast to it.
As the sun began to set that night, I became comforted by the sight of children walking the streets, the juice of their paletas dripping down their arm. The bungalows and red brick so familiar to Chicago appeared radiant; the flowers blooming in broken plastic pots on the front stoops of apartments gave it a different air. At dusk, Gaby Moreno finally came out with her guitar, and I proceeded up to the stage with my friends. She sang confidently, her voice naturally strong and bluesy, but there was an added aspect of beauty, hearing how the lyrics corresponded differently with the melody in Spanish. Vengo desde muy lejos, she sang, Buscando el azul del cielo / Siguiendo predicamentos / Vengo desde muy lejos. She sang of migration, of coming from afar. Enveloped by the crowd, I glanced to my friends at my side singing along, knowing full well that despite my immersion, it takes more than a year to be fluent, to truly understand what those words mean.