..: Seat of My Pants :..

Sunday, March 12, 2006

La Ceiba, Honduras - 1999

The threat of rain had us a little disappointed, but surely must have made more than just us cast our eyes heavenward. Hurricane Mitch had waded through Honduras the year before and taken so many lives and so much property with it that it felt like a permanent scar on the collective psyche of that small nation.

Mitch had become a storm unlike any other previously in Honduras. It battered Tegucigalpa and raged over the small Carib islands off its eastern coast. There are three small islands that are the most populous in the area and Mitch took a special interest in one of them, Guanaja. It hovered over that little island like it had a purpose, an intention. When finished with it, Mitch left the island without even vegetation. All that could be discerned of prior human habitation was the angular runways of a small airstrip, tarmac’d for posterity as the lone survivor of the storm’s fury.

We arrived in La Ceiba, enroute to another meeting with Doctor’s Without Borders (MSF). There was a small village inland from the coast being jointly rebuilt by Spanish and French contingents. We were to follow a French civil engineer into the bush to a water source that had recently been rebuilt to supply a village down-country. We met him at the local MSF office in La Ceiba and he shook our hands gruffly, looking down. I took him at first to be a shy man, but quickly revised my opinion to feel his distaste for us, whom he evidently perceived of as cheap eco-tourists. Maybe it was just French reserve, but he answered questions in monosyllables and sighed a lot when we needed clarifications on things. I needed to know how many people the water source served in order to determine whether we needed to travel to that village as well, whether or not the pipe supply was above ground or below as it would depend on the equipment I might bring with us, if Hondurans had been told of our coming beforehand or not… All these questions had a bearing on the day. We crowded into the familiar white MSF Toyota trucks and rattle-banged off into the country.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Balfate Colon (‘Bal-fat-ay Ko-loan’), the commercial capitol in the area – a village of a couple of hundred people, and I found quickly that this was, in fact, the village being supplied by the water source up in the hills. Being a structural engineer, the Frenchman was helping to rebuilt houses and offices with proper regard for foundations and roofs. He had also designed and overseen the construction of the cistern at the source and its pipe’s snake trail through the bush and out into the village. He was one of those varieties of MSF staffers with no medical training. He was a ‘logistician’, in MSF parlance, providing on-the-ground know-how in everything from how to mix cement, how to test the tensile strength of metals for use in piping and what indigenous woods were best for building.

We arrived at the edge of a wall of forest. I slung my camera bag over my shoulder and across my chest. I preferred to hike with it that way. I would tuck my arms behind me, clasping them under the weight of the bag, tipping forward as I walked. This had a comfortable feel and reminded me of my father, for some reason. He never had a camera bag like mine at all, nor did I ever go hiking with him – skiing yes, and many times, but not hiking. In the many ways in which one hopes to improve upon the characters of one’s parents in oneself, there are some pockets of character here and there that I strongly wish to retain in me. I laugh and sneeze precisely like him, which I like very much. I can hear his voice in mine when I laugh and its comforting to feel him in me. I am not an orphan, I was not adopted. Carrie had her gear arranged as well and I turned to see the Frenchman already off and away on the trail.

I grimaced a bit and we set out after him. He set a very fast pace, and we later supposed that he was going to show these cheap eco-tourists what it meant to tap into real work and real purpose. We clambered over roots reaching our mid-riffs and around huge leafs stretching out from acacias and jungle palms. It was wet and humid as it has been in other jungles I have set foot in and while great for your senses, quickly reduces your clothes to sodden boat anchors. We struggled a bit a first to keep up, but soon adjusted to the pace and had little difficulty in keeping up. A white pipe perhaps eight inches in diameter slid through the brush and joined us on our trek up into the hills. We were gaining ground steadily and the white pipe became a metal one, often arcing up over us and suspending from tree limbs. I saw that the path was wet and muddy and well-trodden as I ducked more and more often under fallen limbs and dripping fronds. We paused for breath a few times, but the Frenchman was set on getting in to the source, and after some time we reached a large concrete bunker set into the earth.

There were some Honduran men clustered around the cistern and had its cap off waiting for us. I peered down into the bunker and saw that it was nearly full. I was desperate for a gulp of it, but hadn’t the nerve to ask, nor the confidence that it might actually be potable. The Frenchman seemed more at ease somehow. Perhaps he was now wholly in his environment and therefore more relaxed, I’m not sure. Perhaps we had passed some sort of muster and proven ourselves a little bit to him. Its true that for the balance of the day he was more talkative and we learned some more detail about him. He spoke later of his postings in Bosnia and Russia, where is said he spent five years that he’ll never get back. He was reasonably happy to be in Honduras, but I could tell that this was perhaps his last posting, and that he was starting to long for croissants and French companionship. I had met a Canadian male nurse in Cambodia who had gone the other way and married a Cambodian woman and had no feelings whatsoever for Canada and didn’t think he’d ever return. I just could not conceive of that possibility. Never returning to the country I thought best on earth? Seriously, there is no better nation on the planet, except maybe New Zealand – and I haven’t even been there. Without getting into the whole thing of the criteria that makes up a ‘best place to live’ argument, and the nationalism it can engender (witness the repugnant US government), Canada offers the evenhandedness of civility that we should all aspire to (hand-wringing over recent violence in Toronto notwithstanding).

The Hondurans at the site were jovial and less inclined to a quick trip back through the jungle. We sauntered, rather, back down the trail (after I’d done some photography) and slanted off out onto an open hillside part of the way down, following the pipeline. Men were burying the line a couple of feet down in red earth. We passed a small farm and I could see several red macaws on a perch outside the thatched buildings. I turned to look back the way we’d come and saw a toucan very close near the top of a large acacia, looking back at us in return. We didn't really belong there and we on our way out. Six years later now.... I wonder if the Frenchman is back in France?


Post a Comment

<< Home