Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sam and Chanel Come To Visit!

The highlight of the end of March and beginning of April was a much anticipated vacation with two of my best pals from college. My good friends, Sam and Chanel, came for a ten day journey through Honduras. Chanel is moving to Virginia soon and so this would be one of the last chances for us three to be together for a long time. I’ve broken down this entry by day so you can read the chapters of the adventure as you please.

Day 1: Sam arrives at noon, Chanel arrives at 7 pm to San Pedro Sula
Even though their visit was for longer than a week, traveling by bus prevented us from having as much time as we would have liked at the places we visited. Also, we lost a day at the beginning and at the end because of different arrival and departure times from the airport. Luckily, the only transportation problems that were had was when I alone was heading up to San Pedro Sula to get to the hotel before Sam arrived. My bus broke down and we had to wait on the side of the road for another to pass and pick all of us up.

Sam and Chanel got to get excited about the trip before me as they had to pack, board a plane, and travel here to Honduras. For me, I just had to go to San Pedro Sula to meet up with them. And since I’ve already ridden that bus numerous times, it didn’t actually hit me that they were going to be in Honduras until I was in the hotel and the owner told me, “I think your friend is here”. Right about then, I got that sudden heartbeat-rising feeling. Without warning, I was suddenly experiencing the joy and comfort that comes from simply meeting up with those whom you have long-standing relationships with. The luxury of actually seeing a friend from the states has been foreign to me for ¾ of a year (Shade’s visit is an exception because we met abroad and have never actually met up in the states). So I hadn’t even imagined how it would feel to be here in Honduras and actually get to see those who I have missed for so long.

Sam and I had the day to hang out in San Pedro Sula before we were to pick up Chanel at the airport. San Pedro Sula is a dangerous city and so we stayed on the streets near the hotel. To my delight, and Sam’s chagrin, the hotel was within walking distance of the city mall! I tentatively asked Sam if she wanted to go inside, knowing that while I was imagining all the different kinds of foods and imports that we could look at inside, Sam had just left the states and didn’t need to be reminded of it so quickly. In the end, I think my assertion that it would be air-conditioned and we could escape the extreme San Pedro heat convinced her to consent. That night after we met Chanel at the airport, we met up for dinner with another volunteer, Ian, who lives near me. His parents had come to visit and wanted to treat us to a very nice traditional Honduran restaurant. After dinner, we were spent and had a long day ahead of us.

Day 2: Travel from San Pedro Sula to Nueva Esperanza
We caught the 6 am bus from San Pedro to Santa Rosa de Copán (3 hours) then a bus from Santa Rosa to Gracias (1 ½ hours). The plan was to catch the last bus that leaves Gracias to my site at 1 pm. But in Gracias, Sam and Chanel wanted to walk around and shop a bit instead. Gracias is a nice colonial town and is pretty touristy, so there is a fair amount of stuff to do and see. (I had scratched the hot springs in Gracias out from our schedule to leave us more time on the north coast). So, we spent the afternoon walking around, shopping, visiting Dan, another volunteer stationed in Gracias, and Sam found her heaven . . . the fruit and vegetable market. El Mercado (the Market) is a huge building that takes up about a block where you can find anything from fruits and veggies to dried fish to sunglasses and shampoo. But since Sam is trying a new local-only raw food diet, we lost her in the fruits and veggies section. In fact, Sam took so long in the market, that Chanel and I bought some groceries, got hungry, left the market to eat lunch at a nearby restaurant, came back and Sam was still there so full of bags of fresh produce that they took up almost every corner in my apartment. After the market, it was off to the best “jalón” (hitchhike) spot to Nueva Esperanza to wait for a truck to pass or see if there was a moto-taxi that would take us for a good price. Since we had missed all the buses, this was how we were getting up the mountain.

In the moto taxi heading up to Nueva Esperanza

Sam and me cutting up veggies for dinner

Day 3: Getting to Know Nueva Esperanza

In Nueva Esperanza

My new house!

Sam and Carlitos

Of everything we did during our vacation, this was the most memorable and special day for me. And I believe this day left not only an unforgettable imprint in our memories, but also in the memories of the people of Nueva Esperanza as well.

Chanel at the pila

I had told many people that my two friends were coming and they all wanted us to stop by when they arrived. So we started off the day with stopping by my friend, Genara’s, place to look at her pottery. Sam and Chanel got to see the fresh clay used to make the pottery, the red earth that is used to paint the artwork, and all the tools and materials that are needed to carry out this traditional Lencan process. They learned first-hand from the artist herself about this ancient process that is unique to this western part of Honduras. Before we left, Genara shared more of the culture and brought out a traditional. . . drink? Pretty much it was squash cooked with dark green dulce (from sugar cane) but boiled down so that you ate the thick, dark green, stringy liquid from a glass with a spoon. Genara had told me earlier that she wanted to make something for my friends for when they came but she didn’t know what. So I suggested anything Lencan and was eager to see what she had made.

Chanel, too tall for Honduras!

The rest of our day was spent walking around the community, greeting people along the way, buying pottery, and making a few stops here and there. I really wanted Sam and Chanel to meet Simeon and his wife, Berta (who makes the best tortillas in Nueva Esperanza) but we ran into their daughter on the way to their house and she told met hat both had gone to Gracias and hadn’t returned yet. So, our last visit was to see a woman named Nila who lives further away in Oromilaca, the next community over. Truthfully, I just started to get to know Nila about a month ago when we met in the street and she invited me over for lunch one day. Since then, I had visited her only a few times even though we really connect and enjoy each other’s company. At Nila’s, Sam and Chanel were in awe of the beautiful array of flowers, trees, cacti, banana trees, pineapples, and pataste (a green thorny vegetable like squash) that she has growing on her bit of land. She gave us a tour and picked two ripe pineapples from her garden to serve to us. It was the freshest pineapple I have ever tasted, still slightly warm from being out in the sun all day.

Nila cutting the pineapple

While Nila was cutting up the pineapple, Sam and Chanel were exploring the kitchen, having fun grinding a little bit of corn and taking pictures of the tools used to make tortillas. When Sam and Chanel had both successfully mastered the grinding process but still hadn’t actually made a tortillam Nila suggested we stay for dinner and all learn how to make tortillas together! Nila even promised to make rice even though it’s not usually eaten at dinner. (She knows I love her rice, I think it’s the best in Nueva Esperanza). That night, I was planning on making “plato típico” (a typical Honduran meal) but even better to have one made by a Honduran herself. So we all helped to make a superb dinner.

Chanel at the corn grinder.

Sam performing the next step to make tortillas

I had originally planned for us to be heading back to the La Campa before dark, but taking advantage of the few precious hours we had in Nueva Esperanza turned out to be a much better idea, and the walk under the stars was the perfect ambiance to reflect on how welcoming and magnificent people can be. Half-way home, we ended up catching a ride in the back of a pick-up the rest of the way. Thus, Sam and Chanel got to experience all types of transportation in the area: bus, moto-taxi and jalón.

Sam, Nila, Chanel and me at dinner

Day 4: Copan Ruinas

Today’s plan: catch the first bus out of Nueva Esperanza, get to the Ruins, and take a tour so we can leave for Tela tomorrow morning.
Lesson learned: never make plans when you’re at the mercy of the Honduran bus system.

If we had a car I imagine we would have had no problem getting to the Ruins at a reasonable hour. However, even after leaving on the first bus out of Nueva Esperanza (which passes before 7 am), we didn’t roll into the town of Copan Ruinas until about 2 pm, too late to catch a tour of the Ruins (which are a little outside of town) or do any other touristy things as all surrounding parks and reserves close at 4 pm. Instead, we did the next best thing . . . shopping! There were a ton of tourist shops as well as a lot of vendors selling jade from Guatemala. Copan Ruinas is very close to the border and jade is very popular to sell in this part of the country. At the end of the day, Chanel and I checked out the bar scene and relaxed over mango daiquiris and tequila sunrises in two quaint bars near the Central Park.

Day 5: Tour of Copan Ruinas

The Mayan Ruins

Giant Ceiba

We were up early to get to the Archaeological park right when it opened. If you’re reading this and plan on going to the Ruins, I recommend paying for a guide. It was a little expensive but worth it because the park lacks descriptions or historical information written on signs anywhere. There are bilingual guides that are very knowledgeable and answered our questions from how the traditional games were played by the Mayans to what trees and plants were around and how they were used by the Mayans. After the tour, Sam stayed behind to do a nature hike while Chanel and I got lunch and bought tickets for our bus ride that evening to Tela. By 2pm, we were outta there.

If there’s one thing that you learn in Honduras, it’s that you have to ask several people before you get a correct answer. And sometimes you still get the wrong answer. We had bought tickets for a bus thinking that it would take us straight to Tela and that it was a Directo (only stops to let people off but doesn’t stop to let people on and thus can potentially arrive hours earlier than non-Directos). However, this bus definitely picked up whoever waved it down and then the driver told us that it only goes to San Pedro Sula and from there you have to take a taxi to another terminal and catch another bus to Tela. He also said we would arrive with plenty of time for us to catch the last bus to Tela that left at 6 pm. By the time we rolled into San Pedro, it was after 5:30 and the other terminal was at least 20 minutes away! This is one of those rare times where I felt happy the fast-paced lifestyle of the states has rubbed off in some parts of Honduras. I’ve been on some pretty scary bus and taxi rides, but even this guy had me holding my breath and bracing myself. Right as we arrived to the terminal, the bus was just pulling out and we were able to get on. Phew!

Day 6, 7, 8: Tela . . . beach, seafood, heaven!

Garifuna woman selling pan de coco
The next few days have all kind of meshed into a lazy haze. On the beach, the sand was soft and very fine; and you could walk so far out without it ever dropping off. All I remember is swimming in the warm Caribbean Sea and waking up on the beach to find that hours have slipped by (. . . and that I didn’t put sunscreen on very well). In Nueva Esperanza we have the Lencan ethnic group. On the north coast, there are the Garífuna who look like they are from African descent and are best known for their pan de coco (bread made out of coconut milk) and braids. For some reason, everyone wanted to braid Chanel’s hair and one woman even braided a bit of her hair for free, but Sam ended up getting them.

We ate a lot of shrimp, seafood, pan de coco, fresh mango, and fresh fruit licuados (smoothies) in these three glorious days. We also signed up for a tour that took us through a Garífuna village, to another beach, and kayaking through mangroves. There were some Australians on the tour and it was fun listening to them debate about the Aussie Rules Football teams and thinking back to my junior semester abroad in Melbourne. Too bad I could only remember like two team names.


Our last night, we ate at a restaurant on the beach and then climbed the lifeguard tower to listen to the ocean and look at the stars. What a perfect way to end an awesome vacation. The next day, we spent the night in San Pedro Sula and the next morning, Sam was off at 4 in the morning and Chanel later in the afternoon. Did it all really have to end so soon?

Going back to my site after this vacation and readjusting to being gone for so long was the toughest part. Even back in Nueva Esperanza, I was still in vacation mode for at least a week it felt like. But it was also nice to come back and be with the people that got to meet Sam and Chanel and see how they still were glowing from meeting them. I don’t think Sam and Chanel realize just how much it meant to them that they came and cared to know them. They were able to bring joy to them in ways that I don’t and were able to support them in ways that I can’t. On the other hand, Honduras left such a lasting impression on both Sam and Chanel that they want to come back before my two years are up. If you guys are reading this, thanks so much for coming down. I miss you already and had sooooo much fun just being around you guys. I hope you uphold your promise of coming back because all of us here can’t wait to see you again!