Here’s something for everyone who’s getting tired of winter. In June of 1995 I spent a couple of days on the Caribbean coast as part of a six week stay in Honduras. It was absolutely sweltering; the humidity was intense. I fell in with some Garifuna (Afro-Carribean people who have maintained a very West African culture and language) and smoked some really strong ganja – which instantly made the heat not only bearable, but pleasant. The ocean began to talk to me.
Postcards from the Caribbean Coast
A piece of banana leaf serves as a wrapper
for a loosely rolled joint–
Me and him have two fincas allá en la montaña
& the rastaman bundles his hair up into a topknot
The guidebook recommended a restaurant called
Luces del Norte, “Northern Lights,”
where electric fans are aimed at every table
& the black waitress has mastered the art of killing flies
A puff of sea breeze accompanies each wave
up the beach & dies in the dunes
Sitting on the sand in the stifling heat
one quickly learns how to breathe
in time with the sea
A pimp & three young girls from town
The sea keeps on wagging
its swollen tongue:
Todo . . . Nada . . .
Todo . . . Nada . . .
Note: a finca is a small farm or simply, as in this case, a large clearing in the jungle [montaña]. Most Garifuna men are fluent in both Spanish and English, and switch rapidly between the two when addressing non-Garifuna.
There’s something vaguely fraudulent about travel poetry: one must live in a place for some time, I think, to really learn anything useful about it. On the other hand, the visitor experiences things perhaps more vividly than a life-long resident can ever hope to. Though the tourist’s gaze may not penetrate too far beneath the surface, surfaces themselves – clothes, masks, fur, bark, surf, the trembling ground in a cloud forest – concentrate mystery of a particularly elusive sort. (See Deeply superficial, on Mark Doty’s poetics of surface, and Mask and pageant.) Then, too, there is the problem of what to leave out, how much to reserve for the notes? The following two pieces avoid this dilemma by remaining in prose form. I am deeply indebted to my brother Mark’s expertise as a cultural geographer and long-time resident of Honduras for much of the information in these essays. (Hot tip for writers of place: go on tours with professional geographers!)
Excerpts from a Travel Diary: The Geography of Power
You could say that Carías is governing us from the grave. I read somewhere that he adored birdsong, and that while he listened to the birds he often ordered an assassination or an imprisonment.
Roberto Sosa, 1981 interview (translated by Jim Lindsey in The Difficult Days)
Back in our hillside barrio after a trek through the cloud forest–a landscape so strange most ordinary terms, including landscape, don’t really fit–the backyard birdsong sounds so homey, so familiar. I hear robins almost like ours, & the breathier counterparts of mourning doves; & from sunup to sundown a pair of wrens, exuberant cousins of the Carolina wren, finish each others’ riffs with the virtuosic speed of tenor saxmen in a head-cutting contest.
So runs the soundtrack to my day-long fever, penance for drinking unboiled water in the campo. A fever that leaves me literally emptied, flat on my back & ready for at least a taste of that tropical specialty, the fever dream. Perhaps if I raked open the scabs on my legs, offered the god of mosquitoes a little more blood? I need to understand some things, like why the shadows take on such striking colors.
Because even the sun is a bit of a stranger here–sudden in its comings & goings, & omnivorous as the god of Abraham and Lot. I think of the Mayas, their storied temples collapsing into the forest, kings turned to pillars of stone like the arrogant little girl in the Hans Christian Anderson story who trod on her mother’s loaf & was swallowed up. Paralyzed in the underworld: a stinging & biting half-life of vengeful familiars with claws & tails & wings. Condemned to listen as the gears of their pitiless calendar go on grinding, driving the turbines of El Cajón, the largest hydroelectric plant in Central America.
I remember my guided tour through the bowels of the dam, after a long, winding descent past campesino shacks without electricity. It was cool and damp and full of tremors, like a cave with six heartbeats. Banks of knobs and dials looked as if they’d come from the set of a 50s sci-fi film. And the engineer in charge deferring to my friend, the park superintendent. It’s widely acknowledged how tightly the fate of the reservoir is tied to the fortunes of the cloud forests in its watershed: they act, as the popular image has it, like giant sponges. Aquifers on the peaks; the mirror images of glaciers. So when too many trees are cut–whether by desperate peasants or wildcatting transnationals–all the country’s lights go out.
And of course the city water supply is even more tenuous. Here in the barrio La Leona the water comes on once every third day, announced by a kind of death rattle way down in the pipes. No wonder the most expensive hotels, like the Hotel Maya with its foreigners-only casino, depend exclusively on their own buried generators. While the U.S. embassy, swollen lymphatic node of a more abstract kind of power, draws water from its own wells–even has its own septic system to demonstrate Environmental Sensitivity. The John Wayne behind bullet-proof glass at the cafeteria demands a You Ass passport as collateral for a drink at the water fountain.
The lush lawns of the embassy compound provide little nesting habitat for native species; only the invasive grackles and English sparrows flourish. From the window of his high air-conditioned office the ambassador must enjoy an uninterrupted view of the familiar peaks with their scruffy wet backs of cloud forest. Ah the range of possibilities on the horizon for this fledgling democracy, he may actually find himself thinking, forgetting for a moment the papers covering his desk, the thicket of bureaucratic prose waiting to be cleared with a few powerful strokes of his fountain pen.
Notes on the Economy of Scale in Tegucigalpa
Tegucigalpa was a mining town–& probably a colony as well–even before the Spanish arrived with their Mandinka engineers. Its name means “Hill of Silver” in the language of the Aztecs. The streets are said to follow the miners’ paths. My brother, the geographer, once saw a picture of a web woven by a spider on caffeine, & pointed out that it looked just like a map of Tegucigalpa.
It makes it easier if you think of the beggars as spiritual ATMs. At any hour of the day you can toss spare change to the halt & lame in hundreds of convenient curbside locations. They sit like yogis or cigar-store Indians, blanketed in diesel fumes, open hands resting on their knees. And if there’s a lull in the traffic, you might catch a bit of their patter: non-stop blessings, as gentle as an all-day rain.
Children here sing nursery rhymes about the black vultures. These beloví¨d birds waddle around the streets like enormous bald pigeons & eat the garbage, scouring the banks of the river–which in turn provides several essential services, free of charge, to the body politic. Across the river is a separate municipality, Comayagüela. People go there for the sprawling indoor/outdoor market, an organic accretion of very disparate parts, redolent with sweat & peppers & the cheap perfume of fresh mango peels, dangerous with garlic- & guaro-breathing drunks. Light years away from that expatriate Nicaraguan, Rubén Darío, & his immaculate black swan.
If Tegucigalpans were ever to change the name of their city, they could save trouble by choosing “Coca-Cola.” That’s what the huge, Hollywood-style letters on the mountain south of town spell out. (San Pedro Sula–Teguz’s commercial rival to the north–sports a similar mountainside sign for Pepsi). But at street level, the Coke logo is one of a pantheon. This is a poor country; why pay to paint the front of your store if someone will do it for free? In 1995, that someone seems most often to have been a hireling of the American Tobacco Company: the trademark for Lucky Strike, so uncommon in the States, was ubiquitous. Wherever in the city I wandered, I always felt as if I’d arrived. Because somewhere not far away, a big, red target marked the spot: Lucky Strike. A pictograph even the Aztecs would’ve understood.
Ugh! Too many ideas, too many adjectives. Now I remember why it’s best to stick to poetry . . .
Hotel Agua Azul
Held captive for the diversion of furtive
couples on weekend flings,
below the terrace a spider monkey
swings by his tail, kicking off
the tree trunk with one hind foot
while the other clings to the chain
dangling from the collar. He keeps it up
for hours, as if driven by hidden
gears & springs. But draw a chair
within range & the pendulum stops,
he clambers onto the deck & slings
a hairy palm in your face, importuning
food, trinkets. Whatever brings relief
to a life of boredom, you think,
searching your pockets, going through
your things. How friendly he seems–until
you notice the strength of his grip,
how he enrings your leg. It takes
the help of half the hotel staff
to pry him loose, & days later
the spot where he bit still stings.