There and Back Again

I haven’t written anything in over a month. Dear readers, what must you think of me? Or wonder where I am? I am home once again, in Louisiana.

I don’t have plans to return to Honduras. Spanish lessons in Honduras gave me a boost in language acquisition. Language skills could help if I eventually decide to move again to a Spanish-speaking country.

One thing I neglected to write about was that I arrived a day after a festival in Siguatepeque, Honduras. Obviously, the citizenry had called a city-wide party in which everyone spent the day with the express purpose of  spreading litter. Soda bottles, plastic bags, and all manner of paper were spread across the town.  One could scarcely walk the streets without said rubbish sticking to the soles of one’s shoes.

In addition, all dogs, owned or stray, had been invited to make their mark on the streets as well. It must have been a great turn-out, one of historic proportions. I was amazed at the output of the varied canine population. My shoes bear the marks, too, of the dog-in-street celebration.

Seriously, Siguatepeque has a litter problem. And a dog control problem. In stark contrast, the neighboring city of Comayagua was nearly spotless. The historic center of Comayagua had actual garbage bins strategically placed. I didn’t see any food wrappers in the streets although the city was full of poor farmers  from the surrounding villages there to sell their wares as well as buy goods in town on the Saturday that I spent in Comayagua. There was not one stray dog to be seen the entire day I spent in Comayagua.

Moral of this story: Visit Comayagua and enjoy a provincial city with colonial buildings. If you should visit Siguatepeque, don’t wear sandals. Wear old shoes to trample the trash underfoot that’s everywhere in the city.

That’s all folks. I will try to write a bit more frequently.

 

 

 

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The Octopus Seller

I am in Siguatepeque, Honduras for a Spanish language intensive. I am at the midpoint of my 3 week stay. Classes are going well.

I walk to and from the school each weekday. I share a home with a widow and another student. Her house is an easy walk to the school, taking about 15-20 minutes to walk to and from the school.

Everyday I pass about 1/2 dozen small stores. They sell the kind of things one finds in convenience stores in the States: soft drinks, chips, over the counter medicines, toilet paper and other such stuff. In Central America, these small mom and pop stores are called pulperias.

Pulperia, by definition, means a place to buy octopus. No, you won’t find any octopus in these stores. How did that name become the de facto name for tiny one-room stores all over the region?

Some people say it’s because the owner needs to have eight arms working in all directions to find  items in the tight spaces of these small stores. I don’t think that’s where the name comes from.

In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the banana companies had a virtual monopoly as far as employment in these small countries. There were very little other work available to those seeking wages. If one didn’t work on a coffee plantation, the only other alternative was the fruit companies.

The reach of the United and Dole fruit companies cannot be underestimated. They controlled the economies of the small countries of Central America. The locals referred to their employer as The Octopus (El Pulpo in Spanish). The word octopus was used because the company had tentacles everywhere, much like an octopus. When workers received their wages,  it was in company script which could only be used in the company store.

So, the name Pulperia emerged. It was the store owned by El Pulpo, or the Octopus. Today, one can stop at any pulperia for everyday items.

Want a cold Coca-Cola? The pulperia always has them stocked.

Need a tablet or two of Alka Seltzer? They are on hand. And because this is Central America, a cold  drink and a dose of Alka Seltzer are often just the thing one needs.

 

Siguatepeque, Honduras

The Spanish Institute of Honduras

I am in Siguatepeque, Honduras, to improve my Spanish language skills. I am studying at the Spanish Institute of Honduras for three weeks.  On Wednesday, I flew from New Orleans to Houston, and then on to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The school sent a driver to pick me up for the 90 minute drive to Siguatepeque.

Siguatepeque, or Sigua as the locals say, is a city of about 80,000 people. It’s nestled in the heartland of Honduras, right in the middle, nestled high in the mountains. Elevation is about .7 miles, or 1,100 meters.

Siguatepeque seems to be growing. It’s equidistant between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the two largest cities of Honduras. There’s a superior highway running between these two cities, just as good as any in the US. Good roads, an excellent location and a highland climate make the town attractive to newcomers.

Wednesday was my first day in Honduras, or 1/2 day. I arrived at the airport around 12:30 in the afternoon. My driver and I traveled another hour and a half to get to the city of Siguatepeque. I dropped off my luggage at my home that I share while I am here, then spent a few hours taking care of banking, shopping and other details that I needed to settle for a three week stay. On Thursday I unpacked my things in to the house I am sharing with my hostess, her niece, and another student. My hostess is a widow of nearly 70 years old. She  is providing both room and board, but I purchased a few snacks and beverages for my own use, too.

Purchasing things in Honduras can sometimes be hard work. For instance, personal care products are in locked glass boxes in some stores. When one needs deodorant, one must find an attendant to unlock the box. Then the product is hand-delivered by the attendant to the cashier. I didn’t bring a large tube of toothpaste. All I head was a travel-sized tube with me.

To buy toothpaste I had to visit a special section of the store that was guarded by an attendant. I gave her the toothpaste, and she put it in a locked, plastic box to take to the cashier to be unlocked and purchased.  Is it expensive?  I bought a medium size tube of  Colgate for 23 lempiras (one dollar). If the store managers were hoping to catch me stealing the dollar bargain toothpaste, they were disappointed. I dutifully carried my toothpaste in the large plastic box to the front of the store.

Friday was my first day of lessons. As I suspected, I need to work on verbs. My Spanish skills have gotten rusty, and I misuse verb tenses more than I previously thought. I returned to the school on Saturday morning for my second four hours of instruction and practice.  I am not wasting my time here.

Saturday afternoon, I spent looking around the downtown area as well as getting a hair cut. I wanted to do that before I left, but due to a miscommunication with my regular stylist I missed getting my hair fixed before traveling. That was regrettable. My hair had gotten past the point of looking like anything this side of decent.

I arrived in Honduras looking like a drowned cat with cow licks all over. I got a great cut and style for ten bucks in downtown Siguatepeque.  I thought about buying a blow dryer, since I neglected to pack one. However, I think I may just go the salon for a wash and style once or twice a week. That would probably cost five bucks each time. Why buy a new dryer when I can get an excellent style job for Now 5 dollars?

The one negative thing about getting my hair styled for $5 once a week is that the hair salon had no ventilation. Nothing. No open windows, no open door, and of course, no forced air through an air-conditioning system. By the time the stylist was finished with the blow dyer and flat iron, I felt like a glowing ember of charcoal. I must say though the finished product looked very good, indeed.

This morning, I visited a local church. The service was al fresco, as I think the floors are being renovated in the main building. Under a large tent, revival-style, we enjoyed an excellent service. It was just the right temperature for an outdoor service, probably near 70 with  sunshine and a steady cool breeze.

It’s hard to tell just how good the sermon was, as a few other Americans came in late, took the chairs behind me, and talked nonstop. I think the three young people are teaching in a bilingual school in town. They were blatantly rude and bored. However instead of leaving or walking away from the tent, they stayed in their seats and talked loudly to each other throughout the service. The image of the Ugly American came to my mind. They were far too superior to care about those seated around them. It was just horrible to hear them carry on and on, laughing and talking through the service. Besides, they weren’t even saying anything particularly interesting, If one feels compelled to talk in church, at least make the chatter interesting to those of us who have to listen to it.

After church, I ate at Pizza Hut with a classmate. If anyone has read my posts when I lived in Honduras a few years ago, one might recall what I said about Pizza Hut of Honduras. It’s rather classy. It’s a nice restaurant with a hostess that seats you and a full menu that has items beyond pizza. I settled on the chicken lasagna and a side salad.

I enjoyed being seated in a place that knew that air-conditioning, if you have it, should be kept on enough time to cool the room, as well as leaving it on sufficiently to keep it cool. Most places in Honduras, if an air-conditioner is on the premises, put it on just long enough to make the room a few degrees below 85 or so. When it hits 80, the manager or owner snaps it off with a remote. Not Pizza Hut. The air stayed  for my entire meal. Remarkable, really.

My friend and I enjoyed our meal, paid, and left. We visited a grocery store before returning home for a few odds and ends, such as snacks and soap. Then we took a taxi home for 25 lempiras each. That translates to $1.06 per passenger. I’ve already used the taxi service 3 times, and every time, the rate is the same. I think $1.06 per person is a good deal, don’t you?

Tomorrow I hit the books again, as I continue my ongoing struggle to master the Spanish language. Until next time, hasta la vista.

 

 

 

 

Livin’ la vida loca

la vida locaI landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras yesterday afternoon. After a two hour drive, I arrived at my destination, Siguatepeque. I’m going to be here three weeks for an intensive course in Spanish.

I’ll write more later about Siguatepeque and language school. For now, I am just happy to be here. Odds were not in favor to get here.

Yesterday morning, my friend Marsha picked me up at five in the morning to get to the airport. I live on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a lake which separates my community from the city of New Orleans. I needed to cross the Causeway bridge, a 23 miler, to get to the airport.

In the dark, we pulled up to the toll  booth. Everywhere the darkness was pierced with flashing blue and red lights. The bridge was closed, and police were directing traffic to turn around.

Of course, no one actually told us the bridge was closed. I had to look it up online as the police stood around talking to each other. How long would it take to reopen? The police, again, in their way, decided it was not worth the time to let us know any details. Their job was to park their cruisers across the highway and light up the predawn darkness with flashing lights. That’s all they did, too.

Obviously I was going to miss my flight. I had no faith, not a speck, that I could make the flight. My friend was undeterred. She suggested we take the highway that goes around the large lake.

If you are not from Louisiana, then you don’t know how big Lake Pontchartrain really is. It’s the eye in the boot of Louisiana  that is on grade school maps of the United States. It’s big.

She drove calmly and resolutely all around the lake, a distance of over 40 miles.

“We need speed, girlfriend, ” I said to myself over and over. “We need to move like we are living la vida loca.” 

She didn’t pick up on my frenzied thoughts of living la vida loca on the highway. She drove sanely and moderately.

And we made it. I told the group of porters at the entrance that I needed to catch a flight to Houston that was leaving soon. A young, skinny, gangly youth jumped up, took my passport, ran to the ticket counter and checked me into my flight. I completed the relay with papers in hand at security and then to the terminal with about five minutes to spare.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. I am here in Siguatepeque* writing this post as I wait for breakfast in the home of my host for the next weeks. A rooster or two or three are crowing nearby.

*To pronounce Siguatepeque, follow my handy phonetic aid: SI gwa tay PEK kay.

 

 

A Bear Named Napoleon

It’s official. We broke a record for the coldest temperatures in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Low temperatures were in the mid-teens in most of the area for the past two nights. With icy roads, staying home was just about the only option most of us had. My little house is on piers. Combined low temperatures and wind were too much for the heater. During the worst of the storm, the heater could only push my house into the upper 50s inside.

Well, it’s almost over. Temperatures tonight will be bearable, hovering just below freezing. After that things will warm up to a more moderate level.

What does that have to do with bears and Napoleon? Nothing. But it’s worth noting it’s been wicked cold here just like in most of North America for the past few days.

Ursin Napolean Matherne.jpg
Ursin Napoleon Matherne

Now, on to Napoleon and bears. A few weeks ago, I wrapped up a photo/essay book about my father’s family. Probably the most intriguing ancestor in the book was Ursin Napoleon Matherne, my great- grandfather. Ursin is a derivative of Ursa, which means bear in Latin. And yes, his middle name was Napoleon.

Ursin’s life spanned the 19th and 20th century. He was born shortly after the Civil War ended, and he died as the Great Depression took hold of the country.

Ursin Napoleon Matherne was a conqueror of hearts, not nations. Ursin had many lovers, and many sons and daughters, too. He was officially married only once, to my great-grandmother, Clinda.

However he had lovers before her and afterward. He even seduced his wife’s sister during his marriage. She had his child, a boy who would forever live with a cloud over his head due to his father’s bearish ways.

His last lover was an Indian woman. She loved him fiercely, and he died with her. When he died, she cried over his body, and scarcely could bear it when the rightful, legitimate sons came to take his body away in a horse-drawn cart.

A bear when it’s angry can be fearsome. Ursin was fearsome in his love. His love, that had no regard for law or fidelity, wounded all who were close to him.

Irene Matherne school.jpg
Schoolchildren in front of Matherne School, cerca 1925.

In between ravaging hearts, Ursin Napoleon also found time to be quite successful. He started life as a hunter, selling hides to his uncle in New Orleans. When he died, he owned enough land to be measured in square miles, not just mere acres. He founded a school and a graveyard. He was a charter member of one of the sole Protestant churches in the region.

Church, you say? Yes. Ursin returned to his wife and sought forgiveness in the church over and over in his lifetime. One of his closest friends and confidantes was the pastor and founder of the Bayou Blue Methodist Church, in the midst of the community he lived. My mother tells me that the old folks used to recount that Ursin, when he was repentant, prayed most eloquently. Despite his faults, he managed to also be somewhat of a pillar of their little community.

matherne cemetery
My eventual resting place

I am a descendant of Ursin Napoleon Matherne. I was christened in the church he helped establish. One day, I will be buried in the cemetery he founded. And when the spirit moves, I can pray quite eloquently.

This essay concludes the family series. If you’re interested in this occasional series, find the tab marked family above to read the posts about the Matherne family.

52 Places to Go in 2018

st charles grocery (1)Earlier this week, I mentioned Fodor’s list of places to avoid in 2018. Almost as soon as the ink dried on that post ( or digital imprint made), I heard on local radio that the New York Times listed 52 places to go in 2018.

What’s number one on the list? New Orleans, Louisiana. I almost laughed out loud. I will never forget the naysayers in the days, weeks, and months after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the city.  I won’t easily forget the stinging words of the people who sheltered me in Baton Rouge for a few days after the storm. I heard other remarks through the months afterwards, too.

“New Orleans deserves it.”

“God sent Katrina to punish the city’s inhabitants.”

“It’s never coming back.”

I love New Orleans. I lived there for many years, and now, I live just a few miles north of the city.

No one deserves a hurricane. Or a fire. Or an earthquake. Check your New Testament, please. Jesus said rain falls on the just and the unjust.

I laugh because New Orleans refuses to die. It’s come back different. It’s smaller, more versatile, and in my opinion, better than before.

2018 marks  the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans. She’s moving on quite nicely these days. Many old venues are stronger than ever, like the Saenger Theatre, Preservation Hall, and even the once-ravaged Super Dome. The food is still better than almost any other place in the nation. Neighborhoods in many places are quietly gentrifying and getting a new lease on life with new blood who like our unique culture.

New Orleans has always been a gumbo pot of a city. Every group that settled here left a mark on her to separate her from rivals. The natives, the slaves, the free Creoles of the Carribean, the French, the Spanish and even Yanks are part of the DNA of a city that no one can quite define.

Come on and see for yourself why it’s Number One for 2018. There’s no place quite like New Orleans.

“We dance even if there’s no radio. We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large and, frankly, we’re suspicious of others who don’t.” – Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic, 2006

Fodor’s No List 2018

While skimming headlines this morning,  I saw that Fodor, the travel guide, has a top 10  list of places to avoid in 2018. Honduras made the list. Since I lived in Honduras for a number of years, and I plan on returning  later this month, I thought it was worth my time to read the article.

Honduras has experienced widespread protests and instability over a recent presidential election, but Fodor doesn’t mention those issues. Fodor cites the high murder rate, especially within the homosexual community. If one were to go to Honduras, I assume that looking for dates among the LGBTQ community would be ill advised. Got it. Of course, traveling anywhere for the express purpose of dating/intimacy seems dangerous, or is it just me that feels that way?

Back to Fodor’s list.

It seems reasonable to advise people to stay away from places like Myanmar, where there are incredible amounts of people fleeing the country due to ethnic cleansing. It just makes sense to avoid GOING to a country when 600,000 plus are LEAVING for neighboring Bangladesh. It sounds unstable, right? The travel guide writers didn’t have to overthink that one, I would guess.

Did you know that Missouri is dangerous, too? In the country’s midsection, this state is supposedly a hotbed of civil rights violations gone amuck. They cite an example of two men who were hunted down and shot by Missouri citizens who suspected that the men were Muslim.  Then there was a debate in the Missouri  legislature concerning rights of the LGBTQ community wherein one legislator argued that homosexuals may or may not be human.

You can find the complete NO LIST for 2018 here. I am still planning on going to Honduras at the end of January. If something would deter my trip, I’ll let you know.