Exploration, agrotainment and campesinos getting all hopped up on jugo de cana
PORTRERILLOS--I met Max Elvir about 0900 in Parque Central and we packed into a small four-door pickup with five others inside and a local TV cameraman in back. Still within the Santa Rosa city limits, just off the highway that would take us into Ocotapeque and eventually to El Salvador, we made a left turn that took us up into hillside neighborhoods I'd seen from afar and then farther, up and up into the mountains.
We drove the rutted, hard packed road along ridgelines and through forests of pines and palms, cactus and bamboo, hanging vines, fantastic conglomerations of big leafed jungle plants, parasitic orchids and bushes bursting with flowers of red and purple and yellow. Passing houses, the people would wave hello, call out their greetings and skinny dogs would attack, menacing our tires with slavering yellow teeth. Off in the distance, farther to the west were still higher mountains covered in the alternating patchwork of brown earth, light green crops, dark green trees. Beyond these were the pointed peaks of long eroded volcanos. Their summits were clothed in dense forest and wreathed in mists and I wondered how many times men had stood on those heights. It would be sheer romantic folly to think no one ever had but I wonder if the mental dysfunction of mountain climbing is as prevalant amongst people who have more important tasks than saying, "Because it was there." I do think, however, that there may well be many peaks untrod by the big booted feat of gringos. Why, exactly, this should matter is up for debate...
We rattled on down the miles of bad road, letting our bodies go half-limp to move along with the unpredictable jolts and eventually arrived at the place called Portrerillos, an Aldea home to around 50 families, 250-300 people. About 30 men, women and children gathered on the long porch of one old building to hear the presentation of Max Elvir with the tourism board and Blanca Miriam, Municipal Director of Social and Environmental Development. The idea, said Max, is to bring tourism and hence money and hence that magic word, development, to this place. City slickers in search of a day in the country could buy tickets at the tourism kiosk in Parque Central and a bus would take them here via another road (perhaps longer and less scenic but also less likely to induce motion sickness, fractured teeth or bruised kidneys). The villagers would cook a country lunch including the homemade chicken soup Max said all Hondurans crave. There would be locally grown fruits and crafts for sale and the meal served up on linen draped tables with a spectacular view of the mountains and a glimpse, for the mainly Honduran audience, of their own vanishing rural past. Glasses of fresh squeezed cane juice over ice would accompany the food along with cane candies for desert.
I thought of Clevelanders coming down for a weekend in Wayne and Holmes counties to gawk at the Amish, eat hearty food and drink the local wines of the country vineyards while squeeling in delight at real live pigs and chickens scratching in the dirt instead of sizzling on a plate.
The money raised by the project, said Max, would go to the villagers who could decide on their own to use the funds to fix the school or church or to improve the water supply or provide electrification.
The big draw of Portrerillos, aside from the scenery, is its major industry: sugar production from the broad cane fields in the flat plain below the village. There stand the crushers, cast iron machines on wooden bases with long poles on top to turn the mechanism by man or ox power. It is here, I gather, that the tables would be erected for the tourist luncheons. The floor of the clearing is covered in a solid, springy mat of crushed canes and a pile of green canes awaiting their fate stands between the two machines. It is harvest time now, through February and March. By April the cane will have dried out. Men compete to see how fast they can push the pole, laughing as the sticks are sucked between the crush wheels and green-gold juice spurts into large wooden bowls. They pass the bowls around, quaffing long draughts of the juice of their labor. They pass the bowl to me and I drink deeply, tasting sugar and sunlight.
I examine the iron casings more closely and see the words cast into their surfaces: No. 2200 Monitor / Manufactured By / The C.S. Bell Co. / Hillsboro, Ohio, U.S.A.
When I ask how old these are the men shrug and reply, "Old." I try to imagine the journey they made, from an Ohio ironworks to a Honduran field deep in the mountains of the Occidente where they were mounted on hand hewn bases and fitted to leverage man and beast power; how they represented progress over however cane was crushed before they came.
I am often depressed that the world has been explored, the blank spaces mapped, the dragons slain and the mermaids caught and drowned in tuna nets. But not today. I had made it here ahead of the tourists and find it likely that no one I know will ever tramp on this place with their floppy great gringo feet. I am not sure why this matters, this illusion, but it does. It is not the Mountains of the Moon nor a peak in Darian looking on two seas but for today it is sufficiant.
As we drive the teeth rattling track home I spy, in a field of corn and flowers, a relic from another age. There, covered in moss and lichen and mud is a large, old-fashioned sattelite dish. It is gratifying to see it there, improved by its organic coating, looking almost as if some Mayan had carved it from stone. I imagine a future explorer hacking his way through the jungle, finding the thing and thinking, "Here is the proof I have sought... Aliens landed here..."