About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 7

Day 7: Honduras

(Day 1, here)

As soon as we had put a few miles between us and the checkpoint, Carlos pulled over and stopped. "It's not safe to drive in the dark," he announced. "We'll sleep here." Which we did, shifting uncomfortably from time to time. At least it was cool.

In the morning we realized we were low on gas, and lost time trying to find a station in the villages we passed. It was New Year's Eve, and everything was closed. "Come back tomorrow," someone told us at the third gas pump we found.

We found a café that was still open; they served us coffee, fish and rice, and the owner let us use the washroom in his family's living quarters. While we ate, he went to find a friend who might have some gas. Afterwards, he led us down a mud road to a back yard and a rusty barrel half-full of gasoline, which his friend ladled into our tank using an empty oil can and a dented tin funnel. I hoped the gas was clean, although it didn't seem possible.

In spite of the delays we were all in good spirits. Raquel and Paco were good traveling companions, relaxed and cheerful, never complaining. Carlos talked constantly. George was quiet; unusually so, I realized. On the first leg of the trip, from Toluca to Mexico City, he had talked with Raquel the way he always did with young women, joking and telling outrageous stories, but since then he had let Carlos lead the conversation. Now I kept stealing sidelong glances at him, wondering. He seemed content enough; he still smiled at Raquel when she spoke to him. He would be all right, I decided; it was just the crowded conditions. I wouldn't worry.

It was mid-day before we got to the border of Honduras, mid-afternoon when we finally pulled away from the customs shed. Once again, the army helmet attracted notice and sharp questions; when we re-arranged our belongings after the inspection, Carlos buried it deep in the blankets. As we turned onto the highway, I saw two guns pointing at us from a stand of shrubby trees, camouflaged except for the last foot or so of barrel and the black saucer-sized mouth. George was driving, now. I think he saw the guns, too; he drove away very slowly, as if to show that we were not escaping.

The section of highway that crosses Honduras is short, just a thumb's breadth on the map, but when night fell we had not reached the Nicaraguan border. There had been a couple more checkpoints and the road in places was crowded with army trucks. We were still afraid to drive in the dark, so in a village that was little more than a gas station and a couple of houses, we stopped. A building wore a sign; "Restaurant", but there were no lights, and when we went over, we found the door locked. Across the way, a few soldiers lounged in a porch. Someone shouted drunkenly. Carlos went the other way, and knocked at the door of the remaining house.

The door opened a bare crack, letting a ray of light spill across the swept-dirt yard. Carlos spoke quietly for a minute, and the door swung wide. A man stepped out, gesturing towards us.

"Come in, come in!" he called. "Come in, all of you!"

Inside, our host introduced himself. He was the mayor of the town, he said. There would be nothing open tonight, no place to sell us food; it was New Year's Eve. But he would be honoured to count us as his guests for the night; would we stay?

And we would be honoured, too. The appropriate polite phrases were repeated, the women complimented, the host praised for his hospitality, our men for their generosity in taking succour to the earthquake victims, all with the required disclaimers; "No, no, no, you flatter us."

We were shown to rooms where we could change, mud-walled bedrooms with sagging beds; we would be sleeping there later, but first there was supper waiting. Once again it was rice, boiled green bananas and cheese, the worst cheese I had ever eaten; sour, salty and with an after-taste of dust. Our host's wife served us silently and retreated into the back of the house. The mayor ate with us. When we had cleaned our plates, he shouted, "Coffee!" and his wife reappeared with steaming cups. She collected the plates and left.

It was New Year's Eve, which meant that we had to stay up until midnight to see the year in. We sat on straight-backed wooden chairs around the table for three or four hours. Raquel and I, taking our cue from the woman of the house, pushed our chairs ever so slightly backwards so that we were out of the cone of light from the single bulb. The men formed a close circle, elbows on the table, and talked.

In a situation like this, George usually monopolized the conversation. He made an effort now, talking about the situation in Nicaragua, and our car-load of supplies. But Carlos had a better topic: our host himself. He knew someone in Costa Rica with the same name, a very important man; was our host related to him in any way? And with a little stretching of the rules, and a transformation of possibilities into certainties, it turned out that yes, the mayor was a kind of a cousin of Carlos' acquaintance, by now become a close friend, almost, you would say, a brother. Which made Carlos, then, the mayor's newest and best buddy.

Once this business was settled, George attempted again to turn the talk his way. But the mayor smiled politely at him, and turned back to Carlos, who had just said something about tracing their kinship back to Columbus. George subsided into a sulky silence.

In 1492, Carlos told us, the Jews in Spain had been ordered to convert to Catholicism or suffer the consequences. Many of them did; many others fled the country. Most of the sailors on Columbus' ships were Jews, Carlos said.

Of course, they had to take a "Christian" name to avert suspicion. But the names they chose were a secret code. By changing a letter or two, you could find the original family name. Carlos' own name was one of these; Benavides. If you changed the letters back, you would get Ben David, a good Jewish name.
In fact, Carlos informed the mayor, his name, Andrade, was another of these code names. He, Carlos, hoped the mayor was not offended by this, but he was a descendant of these brave Jewish sailors who had first discovered the new world!

No, the mayor was not offended. He threw his arms around Carlos, pounding him affectionately on the back; they were brothers!

All this took much longer to tell, that night; the story was corroborated with a great number of details, occasionally confirmed with an "Isn't that true, Paco?" to which Paco always nodded.

Finally, there were gunshots outside. Our host looked at his watch: "Midnight," he said. "Happy New Year, all!"

"Happy New Year!" we answered. The mayor pushed back his chair and we all rose. He shook the women's hands, embraced the men, pummeled Carlos' back again. The evening was done; we went to bed.

To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


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