01 December 2006

Once Upon a Time In Honduras

SANTA ROSA de COPAN—Once upon a time there was a bar called Paris in the Western Highlands of Honduras owned by a French woman with a complicated past. I met her only once, very briefly, my first time in Central America when the doctors I was writing about for The Daily Record had their going home party at her establishment. I would like to report she was beautiful but she wasn’t -- though once she might have been. Her face was lined and shrunken from too long in the tropical sun and too many years of late nights. I was told that in the past she had kept a monkey but by the time I got to Paris the monkey was dead. Her kitchen served a sublime breast of chicken in a brandy, garlic and cream sauce and other dishes alien to that country.
You walked into Paris, up off the cobbles of Calle Centenario into a small ante-room painted a deep blood red. There was a short bar to the left and some small red tables to the right. You continued on into a courtyard filled with tropical plants, long tables and a wall painted with phantasmagoric Gauguin foliage.
Less than a year later I quit my newspaper job to work indefinitely as Documentary Director for the medical relief group I had been reporting on during my first trip. The group’s factotum, Javier, picked me up at the San Pedro Sula airport and since my Spanish didn’t yet extend much beyond what I knew from growing up in the Southwest and his English was not so good as that, it was a long, silent ride up into the green mountains.
Javier dropped at my new apartment and left. I unpacked, arranged my few things and was lonely and hungry. I knew no one and it would be several months before the medical teams arrived, so I wandered down the hill wondering what I’d gotten myself into. I stopped for dinner at the Hotel Elvir where I’d stayed those months before. The Elvir was, at the time, far and away the best lodging in town. It was owned by the mayor’s family and out of the price range of Peace Corps volunteers, backpackers and the likes of myself, let alone the locals. But being my first night I treated myself to a steak dinner and struck up a conversation with a heavy set, middle-aged gringo at the next table. He worked for the Mina San Andreas, a gold mine about 25 miles from Santa Rosa, owned by a Honduran bank and managed by a team of Canadians and Americans. This man didn’t live in Honduras but was in town for a few days to work with some of the permanent in-country staff. After dinner he invited me to continue the evening. Only later it was confessed that he found the random meeting at the restaurant suspicious and wanted me along so my credentials could be established as either with, or not with, the CIA or some similar organization. The mine dealt in large amounts of high-explosives in a potentially volatile area. No one was to be trusted but as Dave, who I’ll mention later put it, “We checked you out and we don’t think you’re CIA but if you are, we’re not doing anything wrong and if it all goes to hell I want you to know where I am so I get a seat on the helicopter…”
I told him I’d see what I could do.

At Paris, that night, the sign overhead read “Lily’s”.
The interior was unchanged and I was introduced to characters who would become fixtures in my life over the coming months. They were those types one only meets in Honduras and places like it – the ones who never will be going home --whose stories belong in novels and instead are on file with the various alphabetic agencies of whom I was suspected of belonging.
Their names matched their stories. There was Butch from Montana: tall and cowboy-lean with close-cropped, steel-grey hair and a matching moustache, dressed in straight-leg jeans, boots, a big belt-buckle and a Marlboro Red dangling from his lip. He had been in the only, ill-fated, parachute drop in Vietnam -- been shot through the stomach and managed to fight his way out on foot -- killing two enemy soldiers in the process. Those men still haunted him. Butch had a pretty, young, Honduran common-law wife named Nori with whom he spoke an incomprehensible garble of English and Spanish they had invented together. He was the mine’s head electrical engineer and built experimental aircraft in his spare time. He also had a horse of which he was very proud that, in his description, was a stalwart if fiery cross between Silver, Traveler and the Black Stallion. His friends claimed it was a bad-tempered, swayback hammerhead he’d been suckered into paying a lot of money for.
Then there was Red, or Rojo, from Sasquatchewan. Red was a bit older than Butch and his hair retained only a hint of the color that had given him his moniker. Red was the mine’s mechanical engineer, in charge of keeping the monstrous rock crushers and earth-movers in working order. He had a wife back in the States he would never see again and a son who had died in a hunting accident. The marriage never recovered. As a young man he’d served in the Canadian Army and later as a mercenary in the Belgian Congo. As the stories went he had killed many men. Some said over 200. Every now and then he would tell me stories of that time and they were without either rancor or braggadocio. He told me how he got separated from his unit and had to slide back down the river through enemy lines. They seemed like practical lessons on how to stay alive.
Sometimes, when talking to Butch, he told me how he hated that Red could have killed so much and not to suffer for it. Red would say he was tired of Butch’s whining. But I think that Red did suffer -- certainly for the son he had lost and I have a series of three photos I took one night, three negatives in a row. In the first he is drinking from his glass of rum and his face is black with shadow. In the second he takes a pull on his cigar and looks warily confident. In the third he stares off into space and seems very far away. Drinking; smoking; thinking. We all did a lot of those at Lily’s.
And finally, of the ones I got to know well, there was Dave, the mine’s manager, also a Canadian. He was a few years older than I, in his late thirties, legally married to a educated Honduran woman with a young son. Dave had begun his studies at the seminary, but when it came time to graduate he was told he had to choose a denomination. He refused and quit the whole thing; from there he’d gone to the Colorado School of Mines.
Dave and Butch and Red had worked, often together, at mines in hardship stations around the globe and were unanimous in their opinion that Guiana was the worst place on Earth. To my knowledge Dave had never killed anyone. He was, however, pathologically afraid of midgets and would freeze in terror anytime one walked by which was, even in a country full of very short people, quite rare.
The bar was owned by Lily, a Honduran in her early 30s, five feet tall and 90 pounds. Red liked to say that having sex with her would be like making love to a sack of deer antlers. He didn’t use the words, “To make love.” Her boyfriend Heido was a tall scary bastard who worked for the anti-drug police. Stories circulated about the things he’d done that you really didn’t want to hear. When rough-looking customers (he didn’t know) wandered into Lily’s Heido would materialize by the bar, casually leaning on the end with a big stainless Magnum in the front of his tight jeans.
Lily’s, then, was a good place and if the food was no longer quite up to Parisian standards it was tasty, filling and often free. Things never got out-of-hand and that’s the way the gold miners wanted it. And that’s why Lily owned the bar. When the Frenchwoman left there’d been a minor panic. These experienced expatriates didn’t want to bar-hop anymore. They had their place; they’d staked a claim, made it safe, profitable and relatively untouched by the annoyances of the Honduran world a few feet down the steps. When they were in danger of losing all that they banded together and raised $10,000 to keep it the way they wanted. They bought it for Lily, who’d been a waitresses they had liked. In turn she kept it essentially unchanged. They could meet their friends, tell their tall tales or drink in solitude. At Thanksgiving and Christmas the mine would finance extravagant affairs with turkey and all the fixings including bottles of Johnny Walker black, Flor de Cana rum and wine as centerpieces.
I, like everyone it seemed, was trying to get over a broken heart of one variety or another. I drank far too much and ate far too little and day after day I would sit in the red room and write my articles. Lily would set a huge bowl of homemade chicken soup and a pile of tortillas before me. I learned to stop protesting and she stopped protesting that I only finished a few spoonfuls.
There was a pretty waitress named Sofia upon whom I had a crush. I think she liked me too but I knew I couldn’t promise her anything. Butch and Red, who had no qualms about dating the locals called me a fool.
“You want to learn Spanish, Andres?” Red would say, “Well go get yourself that long-haired dictionary, Sofia. I see her looking at you too.”
I told myself it would be fine with an American or European, someone who would know the cold math of modern love overseas -- that a Honduran girl would have expectations I could never fulfill. I explained this to the guys and they told me again I was a fool, that I was insulting girls who knew the score as well as anyone and better than most. Still, I couldn’t get over the corrosion I knew I’d feel romancing a girl whose language I couldn’t speak, who I would never know in the way I wanted and with whom words would never breach the loneliness that rubbing flesh could only exacerbate. So I never kissed Sofia; nor did I upset the equilibrium of my adopted bar.

For almost five years before this time I had dated an inappropriate girl. She was bad for me and I was bad for her although it was often a lot of fun. If you ever have to escape a bad relationship then the Western Highlands of Honduras are a pretty good choice. I had, for a long time, tried to imagine someone better and towards the end of my time in Honduras I met Lena from Sweden. While I was documenting the sick and poor in the hospital she was working on an academic paper on domestic violence in Honduras. She walked into police stations and huts interviewing victims, perpetrators, cops, judges, lawyers. I had a show of photos at the local art center and she saw my photos before she met me. Later she told me in her barely accented English, “When I saw how good your photos were I assumed you must be old and probably ugly….But you are not…”
We spent the weeks we had left deep in conversation. Once we went out to Lily’s and Heido the cop was very drunk. His friend on the force had been killed earlier that day in a motorcycle accident. He asked if Lena and I were together and in our gringo coolness said no, we’re just friends. So he strongly flirted with her in front of me while Lily stayed to the back with crossed arms and an angry mouth. It was the only real uncomfortable moment I ever experienced there.
When it was time for me to leave Honduras Lena said, “I will meet you in Guatemala after I finish my business in San Salvador.”
When I asked her to marry me on our first date I was, in truth, only half joking.

Finally it was time for me to leave. After meeting Lena in Antigua, Guatemala for Holy Week I would take the bus home to Ohio through many adventures. I went out one last night and Lily held me tight, cried surprisingly hard, and said that of all the gringos ever she liked me best. I felt like a heartless Tinman being hugged by a little Dorothy.
The next morning I left town in the early, hot light, feeling vaguely like a criminal or deserter, stealing away while no one was looking.
Two years passed and sometimes all I could think about was that hot sun and Butch and Dave and Red. I wondered if they were sitting in the usual spots ordering cold Salva Vidas from Sofia. Then, in the dead of winter, I got an e-mail from Dave. He began by asking how I was, if I was still taking pictures, then wrote, “Butch and Nori were coming back from the mine on New Year’s Eve, trying to make it to Santa Rosa for midnight with some of her relatives in back. They hit a bridge abutment. There were no survivors…”
I didn’t tell anyone, least of all my father who loved stories about Lily’s and those rough and tumble, larger-than-life men. I looked through my negatives for a picture of Butch and couldn’t find a single clear one. They were all blurred and indistinct. One deep-freeze night a few weeks later I was out on the town with 016. After upscale cocktails we parked outside a crappy little no-name Ohio bar built in a second-rate old house. For some reason I began telling her about Butch and without meaning to I broke into wracking sobs. I cried as hard as I ever have, wet and ugly drowning gulps. Finally I was done and wondered if anyone else had cried for Butch even if what I was crying about was mainly a host of different, accumulated traumas. And so there was his wake, in the parking lot of a rundown Ohio bar. Inside I bought Bud long-necks like he used to drink and I told 016 some of these stories. I felt that she despised me, just a little, for showing her weakness for the first time. Later she let me hold her, told me everything was all right but I knew it wasn’t, that our association would end and that when it did there would be that pain like broken ribs grinding in the chest when you try to breathe, the thinking of everything that might have been and never will.
Three years later, according to a plan I’d built up in my own head, I took a bus into Santa Rosa de Copan. Instead of catching a cab I shouldered my pack and camera bag, walked the long, steep hill to the center of town and stumbled into the cool interior of Lily’s covered in sweat. She came around the bar and hugged me, tiny and bony as ever, showing less surprise than I’d imagined she would. She knew I’d be back eventually and so I was. If I never had returned, then, well, I never did. I left my bags behind the bar and ran a small errand. When I returned there was a cold brown bottle of Salva Vida sitting next to a steaming bowl of chicken soup. She said they were on the house and for once I ate the whole thing. Lily asked me about Lena, if I had married her, and when I said ‘no’ there was a disapproving set to her mouth.
“You should have,” she said.
I tried to explain that Sweden was a very long way from Ohio and she told me that that was no excuse.
“You’re right,” I said, and meaning it, “but my heart’s not broken anymore.” I patted my left chest and smiled.
“Si. Si.,” she replied, wiping her hands and going back to the bar with a quick look at my eyes, at the place I’d just touched and her face called me a liar.
I returned that night and had three beers. There was a television behind the bar that the waitresses watched to ignore the patrons. Sofia had found herself a man and no longer worked except for him. Butch was dead and Red and Dave had been transferred to Nicaragua. The new patrons were a hard-faced group of young Honduran men who strutted around the bar and went behind it to help themselves. Heido the cop had moved on too. I stopped in a few more times but was barely tolerated. Time had moved on, passed me by, become relegated to that mystical place where all bar associations go when the group disperses, gets married, moves, dies.
The next year I returned to Santa Rosa de Copan once more. The sign reading ‘Lily’s’ was there but the gates were locked. There were fancy new places to eat and drink and some of them had clever posters on their walls. Lily’s was closed and I was told that Lily herself had moved to the States. It is as it should be. Santa Rosa, in the space of five years, is safer and more civilized. It no longer needs a place like Lily’s for men like Butch and Red and Dave and the others who will never go home. They’ve moved on, farther into the periphery where they belong. Santa Rosa became too much like home.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1:55 AM  
Anonymous that girl said...

...sigh...
You get so wrapped up.
The thing I am not sure you have really experienced is a gentle expat...
these seem to be the kind that have sordid pasts and presents, with dark and nebulous futures.
Interesting for stories, but nothing more than an entertaining personality in passing.
Your next mission is to find a true expat in the community you visit... because in them you can find the better story.

11:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:32 PM  

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