Honduras – Departing from a Journey in the Depths
September 8, 2012 § 6 Comments
On my last night in Honduras, I gathered with renowned artist Guillermo Mahchi, TV host and dentist “la Doctora” Ivonne, and the yoga students I trained to become instructors – Chris, Jenny, and Hadith – at the yoga center they had recently built. After nearly two years in Honduras, I was standing in something that I had never thought was possible: a yoga studio in San Pedro Sula that was dedicated to yoga and only yoga.
The surprise was mainly due to the reaction of the people of El Progreso, the neighboring town, to my yogic practices. Untrue to its name, El Progreso is far from progressive, and more than a few Progreseños looked upon me as a godless, diabolical sun worshipper. Others viewed me as a strange hippie with Prince Aladdin pants who carried around an overused blue yoga mat much the way Linus from Peanuts did with his blanket. There were others who were made certain of my insanity the day I stuffed a rubber tube up my nose and pulled it out of my mouth on live television to demonstrate a yogic cleansing technique. That said, I did have my fair share of fans. Among them were the people who dubbed me as Michael Gaga in response to my sporadic television performances (i.e. the time I jumped out of a Christmas present and sang and danced to Poker Face with two Dutch women on Teleprogreso).
But standing outside of the yoga center (WeYoga), observing the occasional flash of heat lightning that would brighten the night sky, my Honduran tale somehow felt resolved. OYE, the non-government organization I was working at, was no longer in the financial crisis it had been when I arrived, which meant I had achieved a major professional goal. One of the most impressive leaders at OYE, a young woman named Fabiola, who I referred to as “The Machine” for her work ethic and ability to get things done, cried when I left and told me that she had learned a great deal from me. That was a big accomplishment, since I had been convinced that the mission-focused Fabi, who stomps around El Progreso to what I imagine to be the Darth Vader theme, had a heart of steel.
And then there was this yoga center that sprouted into being. Even though I had no responsibility in creating it (minus the handful of flowers I planted and the windows I so diligently Windexed), I trained the people who did.
I had arrived to Honduras with the intention of positively impacting my community, as many a well-meaning foreigner does in a new setting. Along the way, I met so many people who went out of their way to make me feel at home in a country that wasn’t mine but sort of started to feel like it was after two years. Fortunately, on my last night, some of the most special of those people had decided to get together to offer me my bittersweet despedida.
The downside, of course, was that it might have been the last time I’d ever be with all of those people again.
It was nearing 9pm and we were all exhausted and hungry from a busy week. Hadith had just finished teaching the class, and the last of the students had trickled out from the studio.
“I’m starving…let’s go eat!” Mahchi declared. He stared at us through large glasses that made him look like the wise turtle on the Tootsie Roll Pop commercial. “It’s my treat!”
His treat? I wondered. Mahchi was usually willing to host people in his five star house, which is home to an enormous Mark Rothko, a Tamara de Lempicka that ended up in a rinky-dink art store in El Progreso after it had probably been stolen from an old Jewish lady’s attic on the Upper West Side, a signed copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Buddhas of various shapes, sizes, and nationalities. But treating a table of people to dinner wasn’t something I had ever seen the wealthy artist do.
“What’s the occasion, Mahchi?” I asked with a grin.
“I have coupons,” Mahchi stated proudly. “But we only have three choices…Burger King…KFC…and Pizza Hut. Your pick, Mikito.”
I lowered my head and sighed. It was a fitting end after two years of living in a town where Popeyes was considered gourmet and “nutritious” meant putting chunks of avocado on top of the blobs of butter and refried beans spread over flour tortillas.
Fortunately for me, Pizza Hut was the only place on the northern side of Honduras that served a decent salad bar. As a vegetarian, there wasn’t any other choice. Mahchi’s coupons were calling.
While sitting at the restaurant’s wooden table in my cushiony red chair, I couldn’t help but look at each one of my friends think about how my Honduran experience was truly approaching its end. In front of me I saw Chris Padilla – a forty-year-old woman whose heart will be forever twenty-five and whose compassion for the human spirit is boundless. Chris has the seductive stare of an intent mistress, her eyes causing most men and many a lesbian woman to swoon. I recalled the first time I looked into them back on the first day of Chris, Jenny, and Hadith’s yoga training.
“I want your body!” Chris had told me while sitting in the cross-legged position on her yoga mat. “Except with boobs!”
Chris, who shares my birthday, is a bona fide Scorpio. She was by far the most flirtatious person I had ever come across in Honduras. She would tell me things like, “You are so beautiful,” and “I like when you wear that shirt,” and “Can you please have my babies…really?” The comments adequately stroked the ego that I was supposed to be actively suppressing through yoga, but they also created an automatic sense of comfort. What I saw in Chris, and what I suppose she saw in me, was the beauty of the human spirit – something that you can’t help but sense when you are in the presence of someone like her.
To Chris’s right sat Jenny, who is not your typical yoga personality. Think of the strictest teacher you ever had plus the most intense boss in the world. Mash the two together, combine them with the fire-breathing Maleficent dragon, multiply it by seventy trillion, and you have Jenny.
Jenny is a teacher with years of experience in the non-profit world, and she knows how to abide by the rules. In a country where corruption is rife, even at the level of non-profit organizations, Jenny always made conscious efforts to be a model of leadership and morality. Whenever her old supervisor would ask her to do perform tasks that she deemed ethically questionable, she would demand that he make the request to her in writing. She was also quick to call out people for lack of judgment and abuse of power. The attitude wasn’t one that pleased her incompetent supervisor, and it was in all likelihood the chief reason why he decided not to renew her contract at the end of her term.
As an elementary school teacher, Jenny worked to develop impressionable young Hondurans into individuals with a sense of morals and responsibility. One of those students happened to be a child with a bladder problem. The child’s father had approached Jenny, warning her that his son tended to go to the bathroom at least three to four times per hour. He had asked Jenny to look out for his son and to try to help him if she could find a way.
Jenny found a way, and it was refusing to let the child leave more than once per hour to go to the bathroom. She held firm to the rule, even as the child’s eyes would shift to the clock and he would squirm about in his seat. Once, Jenny caught the boy swigging a bottle of water. Jenny snapped at the child, commanding him not to drink in gulps but in sips.
“El agua se toma en sorbos,” she said. “¡No de sola una vez!”
Lo and behold, with time the child’s need to go to the bathroom lessened. Through structure, discipline, and – most likely – untold amounts of fear, the boy learned to control his constant need to urinate. It was a valuable life skill that he might have never learned had it not been for Jenny.
And then there was Hadith. The daughter of a Gnostic priest, Hadith is an eclectic, quirky, and insanely talented television show host who was studying full time while teaching yoga on the side. Hadith, whose light brown hair falls to her tailbone, stares at you with the wide-open eyes of a curious five-year-old. She, like many a Honduran from my or older generations, grew up under constant threat of the Chancla – a flip-flop a Latina mother throws at extremely high velocity to discipline her children. But Hadith’s puppy-like eyes protected her from many a chancla toss, causing her mother to think twice about throwing even when Hadith had been asking too many questions or started prying into things that weren’t hers.
Hadith’s childlike sincerity never abandoned her. When it came to providing constructive criticism to the other yoga students during group reviews, she wasn’t bashful about setting their performances straight with utmost honesty.
“I think you forgot to tell us about the precautions for that position,” she’d say.
“Something is telling me that that’s not how you’re supposed to transition between moves at all.”
“You seem like you’re in a bad mood today. I’m just not getting the same happy vibes you usually give out.”
Hadith’s candor during the constructive critiques of the yoga training inspired Chris and Jenny to be just as sincere whenever evaluating Hadith’s lessons. Nothing seemed to please Chris more than the day Hadith forgot to mention the precautions for a posture that wasn’t meant to be practiced by someone with heart problems or high blood pressure. Chris then went on to forget the precautions herself, after which Hadith clutched at her heart, rolled her eyes, and keeled over, pretending to have died of a heart attack.
These were things that simply didn’t happen during training at the ashram in India…
At the restaurant, la Doctora Ivonne laughed out loud to my left in response to something Mahchi said. It was an unrestrained, jubilant chortle that would easily score a 15 out of 10 on a laugh-o-meter if tested. Always dressed to the nines, Ivonne was wearing a sundress with yellow straps and flowers of every color. The outfit matched her perfectly, since Ivonne is sunlight personified. Every moment spent with Ivonne leaves you feeling like humanity’s existence is worthwhile because someone like her was born from it. In many ways, her spirit seems too pure and too wise for this world. Like Remedios the Beauty from One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ivonne might take off one day unexpectedly, ascending into the sky and leaving us all behind in a patch of bright light to wonder how we could have ever come across someone so beautiful.
That’s not to say that Ivonne hasn’t ever treaded in the shadows. In yoga, Ivonne’s favorite pose is Ugrasana, also known as the furious pose, for a reason. The posture involves spreading one’s legs to the sides in a sort of split and then lowering the crown of the head to the floor with the hands on the feet. She performs the posture so well that Chris, Jenny, Hadith, and I renamed it Ivonasana.
Ivonne’s fury is most easily provoked by liars. Take, for instance, the time a government official had sent a political activist to Ivonne’s office to get dentures. The official had asked Ivonne if she could give the activist a deal. She agreed, discounting the procedure by fifty percent. When the activist arrived, Ivonne told him about the reduced price. He agreed to pay the following week after Ivonne had set the dentures in his mouth. When the procedure came…and went…the activist promised to make the payment to Ivonne at the required follow-up procedure.
But as fate would have it, the activist never showed up for said procedure.
It wasn’t until years later (a few months ago, to be exact), that Ivonne saw the activist at a social gathering of Honduran political families. Ivonne, wearing a metallic red dress and matching lipstick, approached the activist with a light step and a smile on her face.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time, Mr. Maldonado,” Ivonne told the activist.
Mr. Maldonado’s face came alive with light. It was only natural, for he was in the presence of la Doctora.
“La Doctora! How lovely it is to…”
It took less than a second for Ivonne to thrust her fingers into the man’s mouth and snap the dentures free from his face.
“You give me those teeth!” Ivonne yelled. She opened up her bright red purse and tossed the slimy dentures inside. “These are still mine, after all!”
Mr. Maldonado fell to his knees and babbled between his flappy lips, for he wasn’t used to forming words without the aid of his stolen teeth.
“May everyone here know what you did,” la Doctora Ivonne said. “You’ll get your teeth back when you pay for them!”
Within minutes the money was in Ivonne’s purse, above the stain left by Mr. Maldonado’s rancid and crusty teeth.
Guillermo Mahchi loved to tell the tale Ivonne’s dentures story. If there was anyone in the world who was a bigger fan of Ivonne than me, it was him. Mahchi and Ivonne are both divorced, and together they became my adopted Honduran parents. While their separate married lives may not have ended happily ever after, their pretend marriage was absolutely joyful. Mahchi, Ivonne, and I would often paint together as a family – mostly nude women in the style of Picasso. We’d share meals and go to Mahchi’s botanical gardens. Mahchi even created a special garden just for Ivonne – a serene area next to the river canyon that is decorated with nothing but white flowers.
Mahchi, who proudly labels himself as “Divorced” on Facebook, had over fifteen years to recover from his marriage’s collapse. Ivonne, on the other hand, was only recently divorced, and her husband’s betrayal had devastated her. I never knew how devastating that was until the day Ivonne broke down in tears in the middle of a one-on-one yoga class. She opened up about the divorce and how hard it had been on her. The tears were only temporary, and I helped Ivonne carry on with her practice that day and in the days that followed. Week after week, I noticed that Ivonne was becoming stronger. Before long she started calling me her angel, telling me that I had shown up in El Progreso at just the right time in her life. Without yoga, she said, she simply didn’t know how she would have been able to find the peace of mind necessary to make it through it all.
Occasionally, Mahchi would join us for yoga class. He would usually interrupt it by saying things like, “Oh, look at la Doctora doing those splits!” or “She knows how to keep her man excited with all that karma sutra!” The man Mahchi was referring to was Ivonne’s new love interest. Of course, it didn’t take long for someone else to try to sweep la Doctora off her feet.
Mahchi never made it through a full yoga class of mine, but when he would perform his postures, he would do so as though he was experiencing the highest form of pleasure. He would moan and groan and moan some more, unbothered by the fact that he was practically orgasming in the presence of others. Inevitably, he would get up to smoke a cigarette, after which Ivonne and the other students would burst out laughing.
When Ivonne started dating her new man – who turned out to be Honduras’s most famous writer and poet – she sought me out and made me promise not to tell Mahchi. She was worried that he would criticize her for dating someone who had a history of womanizing. I maintained the secret of Ivonne’s love affair as the writer tried to win her over, repairing the roof of Ivonne’s home, writing her well-crafted love letters, counseling her children with life advice, and traveling with her to Tela beach. At the same time, she was careful not to get too close, since she sensed the sixty-year-old writer was looking for a caretaker. After having been through one divorce and having raised three children, Ivonne wasn’t so excited about slipping back into the role of domestic goddess. It was clear that she would be keeping the situation on her terms, just as she had done with the activist and his dentures.
Back at Pizza Hut, I noticed that Mahchi was also eating from the salad bar. Mahchi had tried to become a vegetarian a few times since I had entered his life, a commitment that he would inevitably break with a meal of meat. Each time he would fall back into his omnivorous ways, he would fail to acknowledge the fact that he had ever attempted becoming vegetarian in the first place. The next time he would try, it would be as though it were the first. But I didn’t mind the cyclical nature of Mahchi’s attempts. Any meal spent with him was entertaining, and we ended most of them with spiritual I Ching readings that would predict our futures. All good futures were reflected upon with awe and satisfaction. All bad futures were immediately dismissed as flukes.
Mahchi had taken me under his wing early on in Honduras, as he had a special fondness for the foreigners who came to work for OYE. The adventures of Mikito and Mahchi were many, with the first being the wedding we crashed in Copan Ruins. Mahchi, who believes deeply in the power of karma, had no qualms about barging in on a wedding that he hadn’t been invited to. As it turned out, neither did I. Little did we know that the invisible karmic forces had begun to flow, and not in our favor.
Halfway on the ride from El Progreso to Copan, Mahchi’s rickety pick-up, which he had somehow been fueling with water, broke down. We waited for two hours, conversing as an orange sun set against the tropical landscape. Eventually his mechanics arrived in an equally rickety truck and we picked up from where we had left off on the way to Copan. Then an ominous thunderstorm set in as we wound through the narrow mountain passes, surrounded by immense, cliff-side drops that were hidden in the pitch to our left and right. To make matters worse, the truck’s windshield wipers were no longer working, which meant that we couldn’t see a thing. To help the driver, one of the mechanics hung out of the window, manually forcing the wiper to clear the windshield with his hand. But the attempts were futile, as the rain was too powerful. Meanwhile, Mahchi moaned in the back, huffing and panting as a corpulent lady in pearls might on a sinking cruise ship. He kept telling me not to worry – that we weren’t going to die and that everything would be okay. I needed little convincing, as the near death situation had caused me to doze off – my body’s typical response to stress. Fortunately, we ended up making it to the wedding alive and in time for a massive buffet of Honduran dishes. By that point, everyone else was drunk, the bride’s once white dress had gone brown with mud, and the dance floor had turned into a grimy mosh pit due to the rain. But everyone was dancing as though none of that mattered, the bride included. It was a night to be remembered.
The rain affects so much in Honduras, and my last night was no exception. Once we had left Pizza Hut, I was shocked to see that the mall’s parking lot was flooded with several inches of water. The rain was cascading from the sky, and the city roads were completely flooded. Returning home before the conditions worsened any more was a matter of urgency, and I knew Ivonne and Mahchi had a long way to go to get back to El Progreso.
Mahchi didn’t seem to want to say goodbye in the parking lot – as if doing so would only confirm the fact that our adventures had truly reached their end, in this lifetime at least. Or perhaps by not saying goodbye he hoped that we’d carry on from where we left off sooner than either of us would have ever imagined, albeit in some other geographical setting.
Ivonne, on the other hand, couldn’t help but give me a big hug. She looked at me the way my biological mother did the day we parted ways on my first day at college.
“I’m really going to miss you, Michael.”
The words absolutely crushed me. When I saw Ivonne get in the car and drive away with Mahchi, I felt as though I had been cast into the frigid extremes of the northern hemisphere during the season of permanent night.
The darkness and the constant splashing of the rain masked my tears as Chris and Jenny drove me to their home through the flooded streets of San Pedro Sula. After so many years of living in and moving from different places, I had thought it would have been so much easier to part ways with my friends. If anything, it only felt harder.
The roads of San Pedro Sula had turned into rivers. I had never seen anything like it before. The water was rushing so fast on some of the main roads that I wondered if our car would be able to force its way safely through.
At one bridge, which was a shortcut to Chris and Jenny’s apartment, I was certain that safety was no guarantee. The bridge went over the Rio de Piedras, or the River of Rocks, which received its name from the number of sharp and jagged rocks that formed the typically dried out riverbed. Yet now the bridge was suddenly overcome with rushing rapids that were descending from the hills.
The bridge was impossible to cross, or ford, as the case was. But in the middle of it, a car was dangling over the edge. One side of it was being pummeled by the rapids, while the other was angled towards an angry, uncontrolled abyss of water.
A large crowd had formed on the bank of the river. No one dared to near the water, which was certain to wash away anyone who dared to step foot into it. Chris, Jenny, and I got out of the car to join. At that point the rain had stopped, but the flooding river was still raging.
I watched as a man’s silhouette escaped from the side of the angled car, with one foot balanced on the bridge and the other on the vehicle. My eyes widened and my breathing stopped as the car slipped and fell, the man lost his grip, and his body became one with the River of Rocks. People screamed and cried. Chris, Jenny, and I stood in stunned silence, for we were absolutely certain that what we had just witnessed was a human’s death.
The car fled down the river and lodged itself between trees and rocks. I looked into its windows to see if there was anyone inside. It looked empty. Rumors from among the crowd were that children were trapped inside. Policemen arrived on the scene, but no amount of training could have prepared them to ford the untamed river. In the absence of any type of equipment that could help rescue anyone trapped inside of the car, the only option was to wait until the flooding calmed over the course of several hours. The following day, the River of Rocks would be dry once again, but the amount of time the people in the car had, if there were any people left, seemed increasingly uncertain.
According to the newspaper the following day, three men had been in the car. One was found alive but comatose. The other two were dead, with one having washed up in a distant town.
The storm was an eerie coda to my time in Honduras – a cryptic, morbid event that left me wondering how fleeting our moments and memories were in the grand scheme of our mortality. Impermanence has been etched into us from the very beginning, but to observe the demonstration of that impermanence was something that I hadn’t been prepared for at all. Just as I hadn’t been prepared for the possibility of never seeing my loved ones again by virtue of physical separation.
The joy. The sorrow. The hunger. The pain. It can all disappear so quickly, even before it has fully manifested. The floods left me wondering what I could have done to alter that disappearance – what choice I could have made but failed to do that might have helped things turn out differently.
The floods carried away a great deal. Not just lives and memories, but the sense of constancy I had in a world that seemed so stable. The world had never explicitly presented itself that way to me, but somewhere along the way I had convinced myself that it had. Nature had been the one to persuade me that I had been absolutely wrong.
Supposedly, Christopher Columbus had been quoted as having said, “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de esas Honduras” (Thank God we have come out of those depths) after his exploration of Honduras’s northeast coast. While my journey in the depths of Honduras had filled me with a great deal, it had also come with sacrifice. Two years of youthful life. Time that could have been spent with family or friends at home or in the other parts of the world where I had lived previously. The potential for a long-term relationship. The opportunity to work in a profession that could pay me a great deal more than anything I could have found in the Honduran social sector.
But I wouldn’t take the opportunity back for anything. Anything that the Honduran depths might have taken is infinitely outweighed by the knowledge I have acquired, the natural beauty I observed, and the people whose influence has impacted me in a way that is so far from fleeting.
Having made it through the experience has left me in a state mixed with relief and gratitude. Similar to Columbus, I can’t help but feel comforted by the fact that I survived it. Likewise, I can’t help but wonder what remains of the journey and under what circumstances its purpose will come into clarity as the future manifests into present.