I get pretty indignant when my boyfriend decides to settle an argument between us using force.
The indignance is that much more profound when that force is being used to pry an old, saggy, somewhat asymmetrical pair of panties from my clawed hands with a frustrated, “No, Sam! You´ve already worn them once!”
“I said no, Sam!”
Unlike our ordinarily skint and thrifty selves, we´ve been trying to spend some money lately, with the intention of supporting (and possibly salvaging) businesses that we have come to know and love. Our hostel has felt like something of a real home for us– our clean, bright, and airy room is a sanctuary for us to retreat to after a hard day at school. Since we´re just about the only people here, and they have given us a steep discount, we have decided to try to spend money here by using their laundry service. It isn´t expensive… about 20 lempiras (1 USD) per pound, but it´s more than we´re used to spending (wearing them into the shower, after all, is free!), so I´ve been trying to offset the cost by using them a few times before plunking them unceremoniously into the communal laundry bag.
For the moment, we´re still in the beautiful town of Copán Ruinas, in Western Honduras. We just finished our second week of Spanish lessons, and Spi is simultaneously making her way through reflexives, preterite, and a rousing game of Two Dots while Sebastian tentatively forms his first complicated sentences– a mere week after his very first class ever. I spend my days trying to trick my teacher into thinking that I remember more than I do so that we spend less time on preterite and imperfect (which I hate), and more time on conditional and subjunctive (which I also hate, but which has come to serve me well as I lapse into fits of unmitigated whining), and spend my nights listening to uninspiring lectures on pareuresis (shy bladder syndrome).
Until this morning, Sebastian, Spi and I comprised 3 of the 4 students in the language school. It´s already stressful enough spending 4 hours staring into the eyes of the person who you´ve hired to pick out any and all errors in your speech, without hearing your own trembling voice echo back to you in the stillness of a nearly empty garden. We struggle to meet our teachers´ expectations while struggling to stay awake in the warm afternoon sun, cloaked in air that hangs with the weight of dozens of empty chairs, empty wallets, and the stillness of a town that is dying.
The first time I came to Honduras, 5 years ago, I spent a month here. In the mornings, I marched down to the clinic clad in my most professional attire (a bright yellow T-shirt, and pinstriped pedal-pushers), and clumsily pumped patients with the pads of my ignorant fingers. After 4 hours of exasperating everyone in the office, I would run home to complete my homework, then be off to school for 4 hours of one-on-one instruction in the afternoon. I didn´t have much time to chat with other backpackers, but the town, albeit small, popped with the life that a bustlingtourist industry brings. New faces appeared every evening, and finding space in any of the language schools (never mind finding long-term space in a hostel here), was near impossible.
After a few weeks here, I made the acquaintance of a plucky Israeli girl, and together, we made our way back into Guatemala and down into El Salvador. I had intended to come back after spending a few weeks surfing off the coast of El Tunco, but by that time, a military coup had overtaken San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, and it was the utmost of missions to figure out when and how to get back. Suddenly, access to the country depended upon borders which open and shut unpredictably. With the opportunity to go back swinging in and out of my reach like a tray of eggrolls aboard an out-of-control lazy susan, I eventually tired of waiting and hopped the boat to Nicaragua instead.
But I never did forget my desire to return to Honduras, and although I ordinarily have a very strict rule about never returning to a place that I´ve loved, especially one that had meant so much to me in my backpacking infancy, I decided to return with Sebastian this summer, mentally prepared to see the tiny pueblocito I had fallen in love with in 2009 turned into the Cancún of Central America.
Some things have changed – they are smoothing down the streets so that the peoples´ tires don´t bust all over the place. The technicolor chicks are nowhere to be seen, and the market has moved caddy-corder to its former location. But more than anything, the clusters of backpackers that used to file down the sidewalks with noses buried in Lonely Planets, the tight knit families walking hand-in-hand toward the ruins, the expats drinking coffee and discussing Honduras´potential,.. they´ve all but disappeared. Friends tell me that it all happened in nary a week after the military coup. Yet still, 5 years later, Copán – one of the most “touristy” spots in Honduras – is ripe with the fading twilight of its passed popularity.
Ultimately, it is not only Copán that has suffered. The positive feedback loop between violence in the cities, the publicity surrounding such violence, the reluctance of travel insurance companies to endorse Honduras as a destination, and the resulting poverty when foreign money stops pouring in has meant that hostels and language schools have closed, buses between cities have stopped running, and Honduran children are being sent, alone, to try for a better life in the US.
While I do often wish that some towns or islands or places that I´ve loved never mutated into the backpacker medusas I´ve seen here and there, it has been crushing to see it come and then go. My teachers´ kids have been pulled out of college. My favorite hostel has shut and reopened under different ownership. The language school which taught me more Spanish in 2 weeks than I learned in 5 years at home, and which set me up with the volunteer opportunity that made me realize that I even wanted to be a nurse, is now on the cusp of shutting down.
In a way, backpacking is a two-faced monster. It is a kind of travel that denotes discomfort and clashing with customs that are not your own. It is hot, and sticky, and lumpy, and peppered with diarrhea. It forces you to make the best of every situation, and to be oh-so-thankful for a mosquito net, or a scrap of toilet paper. It pushes you to your limit and forces changes within you that you could never have anticipated. So, as locations become easier, and more people that are just like you come to see what the fuss is about, and what you ask of yourself as a traveler and as a person becomes less and less, those with the gnawing need to get that same travel high start looking at maps again with what Rolf Potts calls, ¨the narcotic tingle of possibility.¨ And yet, every time we reach out- pushing further and further as mainstream tourism clips at our heels- it exposes and changes places that will never be the same again.
Another traveler in Tulum told me about how, in some parts of Latin America, the young indigenous population is strongly resisting Spanish, and choosing, instead to stick to Ch´orti, or Quechua, or whatever language that their people spoke before, citing that they´d prefer not to speak the language of their oppressors. This traveler insisted that there was no need to learn Spanish for them because, after all, why should they have to learn that language? Everyone in their remote jungle pueblo speaks their native tongue, and making them learn Spanish is… well… it´s unjust.
Except that, as development companies start to eye those parts of the Amazon, and as jobs become more and more inter-related, it´s the kids that speak Spanish that can fight for the rights to their land and chase positions that can buy their parents some security. It´s not fair, and it´s part of the death of culture, but you can´t argue that things can go back to the way that they were anymore. People need to empower themselves with language, and once-tourist towns need to continue being tourist towns. There is no going back. Obama even points this out when he says that, “the idea of poverty had been imported to this place, a new standard of need and want that was carried like measles” by people who had come from outside. Spanish is already the standard, as is the changed way of life in Copán. Places and people do not simply recover and go on as before, like a tide that strikes down a sandcastle and leaves everything smooth and level again (yeah, I know it´s a cheesy metaphor, but I wanted you to get a visual).
Anyway, we can´t spend our whole lives here, taking Spanish classes and having our laundry washed. We´re off to Lago de Yojoa and the Bay Islands soon, and although Copán is even more beautiful now than it was the last time I was here, I, for the first time in my life, I am praying for tourists to come.
“When suffering knocks at your door and you say that there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he brought his own stool.” –Chinua Achebe