Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September 22: Antigua, Copan and Stuck in Tela, Honduras

I’ve been through some re-orgs in my life but this one takes the cake. This is how it went down: The President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, had some issues with his party and some of the voters when he tried to extend his term limits, among other misdeeds.
A few months ago, his Vice-President Bain Michellette and the military decided to enact a coup, or a golpe de estado, and ushered him onto a plane and out of the country in his pajamas. He was in exile in Nicaragua, making a lot of noise, with one attempt to re-enter the country, when his plane was blocked from landing at Tegucigalpa (the capital of Honduras) Airport. There were protests along the border with Nicaragua, and some unrest in the cities. Some Hondurans were angry at the way things went down, that in a democratic country processes were not followed. The country eventually calmed down. Here’s where we come in. We had planned to avoid Honduras, but were told that the situation was over, and that all was good. We crossed over from Guatemala about 5 days ago (more on this later) and went to the ruins of Copan.

We then headed to the port city of La Ceiba, and are now in the small beach town of Tela. The day before yesterday when we left La Ceiba (where we had no television), we had a 5-hour ride, checked into the hotel here and wanted to go into the center of town. We were told that the stores were closing; the country was enacting a curfew/martial law for everyone to be off of the streets by 6pm. Turns out that some supporters had smuggled Zelaya into the country at dawn yesterday and he was taking refuge in the Brazilian Embassy, with the support of the Brazilian President. Protests, tear gas, injuries in the capital city prompted the government to enact a 24-hour curfew yesterday. The airports were also closed, and all flights suspended indefinitely. The U.S. Embassy has also closed but is posting updates online. So…as much as we want to get out of here, we just have to sit and wait until we can get on the road. Interestingly, the Honduran government has been periodically taking over all channels with speeches by the current President, suspending other newscasts, so people can’t even find out what is going on or get a balanced view. Talking with people here, feelings are mixed; the former President seems to be closely aligned with Hugo Chavez, which makes anyone nervous…however, some feel he is a ‘man of the people’. Others feel strongly that he has stolen from the country, is promoting socialism, and should just back off, stop inciting violence, and let the new government proceed. This is a first, and we are just trying to lay low and see what happens.

We hadn’t even planned to come to Honduras, but to go from Guatemala right to El Salvador. We, however, met a group of bikers- 20 in all- from the U.K. while in Antigua, and they invited us to ride with them across the border to visit the ruins of Copan. We thought it would be fun riding with that many other BMW riders, so we left Guatemala and headed in. Once at Copan, we spoke with some locals who assured us that the country was quiet, so decided to explore a little…and here we are.

Honduras is a big change from Guatemala. You don’t see the indigenous people in their brightly colored clothing; the locals wear large white cowboy hats and western clothing. It’s all about bananas here…..they serve them with everything. Little wonder Chiquita has their headquarters here, in San Pedro Sula…banana plantations abound. The country seems a little worn around the edges with litter everywhere, and dark, intimidating city squares. A definite change.

Guatemala was great. While in Antigua, we drank amazing coffee, visited one of the local coffee plantations by mountain bike and learned a lot about the process. Did you know that coffee is grown 2 ways: in direct sun or in shade? The direct sun process is used in Brazil and other countries and is much more inexpensive. The process of growing in the shade is done by planting large trees throughout the coffee plantation, or “finca” and this process produces a richer, mellower coffee. The coffee grown is called “Arabica”. Also, the coffee, at least in Guatemala, is picked by hand…bean by bean…mostly by indigenous people, whole families that work together in the fields. For every 100 pounds of beans they pick they are paid the equivalent of $5.00 U.S. Wow.

We also did a hike to the active volcano called Pacaya. Now THAT was an experience. We signed up with a tour company that offered a staggeringly good price. Hello! Danger!

They picked us up in a rickety van with 4 other people, and the guy driving was definitely under 20 years old. He had a small boy with him of about 6, along with an older lady who may have been his mom. We drove around Antigua for a bit, and when we started wondering what was happening, he told us that he was having problems with his alternator, but not to worry. By then it was about 3pm. We headed up the mountain and it began to rain, and as he careened around corners on bald tires while talking on the phone and gesturing to the young boy we kept wondering how exactly he was controlling the steering wheel. This was on Sept 14, the day before Guatemala’s Independence Day, and the roads were full of people doing the traditional things related to this day: Groups of young people with lit torches running, blowing whistles and waving Guatemalan flags. On the roads were busloads of people cheering, chanting, and throwing water balloons and buckets of water at nearby cars. Traffic was crazy and it took us over an hour to get to Pacaya. By then it was 4pm. We met up with our guide, Rodolfo, and began the long, steep hike up to the area with hot lava and amazing scenery. At 6,500 feet we were gasping for breath as we climbed the shifting black sand to get higher and higher.

There were young boys with horses, yelling “Taxi, Taxi” and some older tourists finally gave in and mounted the horses. By halfway up those horses were looking pretty good; but we resisted. Finally we reached the area near the top, and realized the climb was worth it. Big chunks of volcanic rock, glowing fiery red, breaking off and rolling down the mountain with loud sizzles, greeted us.

Chris had brought some marshmallows, and we used sticks that we had broken off to roast marshmallows in this hot volcano; a real first. A German woman near us exclaimed loudly, and we looked over and realized that her designer sneakers had melted soles. The heat was intense, but the views amazing. As it started to get dark Rodolfo tried to hurry us, but with the group taking pictures progress was slow.

He was concerned, as security left the mountain at 6 and there were lots of robberies there in the dark. We began to make our way down the steep, rocky hill in the dark, guided by our small flashlights. When we finally got to the bottom our maniac driver was waiting for us. When we boarded the van he told us that his alternator was almost gone. This meant that we had to descend the twisting, turning roads crammed with holiday traffic….in the dark. It also meant that we were totally exposed to the gangs of people hurling dirty water, because he couldn’t get the electric windows up. So, for 3 hours we inched down, stuck in traffic, inhaling diesel fumes, with our raincoats over us to protect us from the incoming water. What a night.

The next day Chris and I decided to visit a local curiosity, a church in a small village about an hour from central Antigua, where they worship San Simeon, who they also call “Maximon”.

This is another of those formerly-catholic-converted by the indigenous people to their own religion and belief-system churches, and boy was it interesting. People light candles, perform rituals, but it all centers around a statue on the altar of this “saint.” Offerings are made to him…not incense, but cigars, liquor, food and treats. Conveniently, there is a cantina adjacent to the church where you can buy aguardiente to offer Maximon. We stood and watched some of the offerings, and it was an amazing sight. I met a woman who was a local ‘shaman’ and she offered to give me a ‘limpieza’ or a cleaning of negative energy for a small fee. I couldn’t resist. So, I was up there with Maximon, getting hit over the head with some leaves filled with aguardiente, followed by throwing some of the potent liquor over the statue in an offering. How’s that for a travel experience?

Well, if we can get out of here, I will (as scheduled) board a plane on Thursday for home for a short catch-up trip, while Chris gets the heck out of Honduras. If the airport stays closed we will get on the bike and head for Nicaragua. This means we will have to skip going to El Salvador, which makes us sad but means that we won’t have to enter Honduras again to get to the next country.

The adventures continue!