Sep 20, 2006

COPAN, Honduras –  The nag limps past more children with machetes, high in the hills above the ruins. I swallow my fear.

Minors with lethal weapons: not my idea of a good time. Anywhere.

Clearly they're just slashing brush (boys) and gathering firewood (girls). But their stares – wary and curious at the same time – unnerve me. I am so pale an interloper here, such a strange sight.

The stirrups and reins were configured for a compact Mayan rider, not my rangy 5'8" frame. The guide doesn't speak English, my Spanish is point-and-grunt primitive; we rely on sign language and physical comedy a lot. Prissy English-style posting – which I learned covering a Colorado dude ranch – guarantees a laugh.

I try to muscle through the discomfort, nodding at farmers and pedestrians. When road repairmen shift their truck to allow us past, I wave, rather than quailing.

So much of me wants to quail. Quail right back to my hotel and hide under the duvet with a Jorge Amado novel.

But the young gringa did not come to Honduras to cower.


"Andale!" shouts the guide Elmer. Our horses stumble uphill, past the thatched huts, which could well be deadly. Yesterday Gustavo explained: "A little bug lives within the mud walls, bites people and gives them mal de chagas. By the time it's detected – in 20-to-30 years – the heart disease is terminal. But people still build mud huts, no matter how hard the government campaigns."

Onwards I ride, clucking to the horse, clearly a dog food reject. I pat, I coax, I even prod my heels into its ribs a few times.

The quixotic beast creaks up the hill, oblivious. I stare at the children of the corn and they goggle back, machetes aloft. Worlds collide.

I wonder why I'm not in the hotel jacuzzi. Or quailing with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.

But the young gringa did not come to Honduras to be comfortable.


Finally, we crest onto a ridge and there's La Pintada. This Mayan village wants to lure in tourists, rather than outsourcing all its talent to the beaten path.

Unusually, the town already has electricity, thanks to grants and local enterprise. Its citizens hope to open a restaurant and hammock hotel here, alongside the craft shop. The profits will go towards a bilingual school, so kids could learn English without leaving home.

Two young girls, Alba and Haydee, form my entourage, plus a trailing toddler, naked from the waist down.When he falls in a spray of limbs and mud and tears, no one reacts. Finally I scoop him upright and coo. Then I blanch, uncomfortable beside a stranger's stripped-down child.

Together with Elmer, we all survey the construction site that might someday be an ecotourism center. Tobacco fields blossom down the valley. Mountains corrugate the horizon.

I treat everyone to cokes at the cafe – two tables outside a family's home. Alba and Haydee's eyes flare wide. Both run off with the bottles, but return to peddle corn-husk flowers. I buy their trinkets, so much dust-catching crap. What else can I do? Deny them a few cents towards vitamins or a chagas-free hut or a stab at that English school?

The young gringa did not come to Honduras to be stingy.


Elmer and I wend down the hill. Stable-bound, the nags stumble with more enthusiasm. "Vamanos mas rapidamente?" – can we go faster? – I finally ask.

"Andale, ANDALE!" my guide shouts, lashing his steed's flanks with a plastic rope. The horse canters at least 15 feet before subsiding into a plod. And so we race the storm clouds back to Copan: trotting and trudging, trotting and trudging.

The young gringa did not come to Honduras to go slow, it's true.

But she's learning.


  1. More brilliant stuff ... love the photos.

  2. Thanks.

    I left out the naked-from-the-waist baby, though.

    Too creepy.


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