Laura and I took two very different bus rides this past week. The first was a field trip with the first year high school students to Comayagua, the former capitol of Honduras. We had a contracted bus, about twenty-five students, very comfortable, and everyone had a seat. The trip was about two hours, about half-way to Tegucigalpa. Although Laura and I had stopped at the Comayagua bus stop on various trips on the north / south highway of Honduras, we had never seen the Colonial Center of Comayagua. Comayagua holds much of the history of Honduras / Guatemala Kingdom from the Conquistador / Colonial Era. But some twenty years ago the colonial buildings, architectural treasures, and historical artefacts from one of the earliest and most important cities of the New World were in horrible states of decay, abandonment, and blight. The then mayor decided to funnel resources into the restoration of the colonial center. That has truly paid off, for the city as well as the mayor, who is still mayor today. The grandeur of the Cathedral, the colonial buildings, the parks, and frankly, the spirit, within the colonial center was simply beyond anything Laura and I have experienced in Honduras. Our walking tour guide was enthusiastic and extraordinarily knowledgeable about the city and its history. The professionalism of the tour rivaled most US National Parks. Even though Comayagua is not that far away – though there was a temperature change of about 15˚ due to the drastic change in altitude – most of the kids had never been. I´m sure that they were awed by what they saw and experienced. Even more importantly, they gained a sense of pride in their country and its history.
Our second bus ride, no less memorable, was more typically Honduran. On Monday, our day off, Laura and I wanted to explore the Rio Grande Waterfall. All of the guide books speak about the breathtaking 150 meter (about 500 ft.) waterfall just 17 kilometers outside of La Esperanza in the small community of Rio Grande. Buses travel daily to and from Rio Grande. What the guide books don´t tell you is which direction out of La Esperanza, which bus station, or which bus. Laura and I started out at 7:15 AM and proceeded to the bus terminal we know. That was, of course, the wrong one, and we were sent to a second one that, of course, was also the wrong one. Finally, we were sent to a third one that indeed was the correct one. We had walked about two miles only to discover that the bus station we needed was about ¼ mile from our house. The bus we needed had just left and we would have to wait one and one half hours. We went for coffee and came back, but the bus for Rio Grande still wasn´t there. We struck up a conversation with a bus driver, Nelson, who had spent about four months in Arizona. When he discovered that we wanted to see the Rio Grande Waterfall, he told us that his bus to Togopala would bring us closer to the falls than the Rio Grande bus. We decided we´d go with Nelson. We watched as two buses to Rio Grande left the terminal (I think one might have left and returned) as we waited on Nelson´s bus that didn´t leave until 10:30 AM. Having left our house at 7:15 AM, we were finally in transit at 10:45 AM. Nelson had to slam his door about six times before it finally stayed shut. The seat directly in front of Laura and I had no back such that one of the five, young, inebriated men sat directly in front of me and used my knees as his support. There were also two large sheet metal laminates for roofs, rolled up into 25´ long tubes, laid out along the middle aisle of the van style bus. The passengers had to balance themselves, walking on top of these, as they entered or exited the bus. This was a particularly challenging adventure for the five, inebriated men. This was nothing like the bus experience to Comayagua. I also found it strange that Nelson had three assistants traveling with him. Usually, there is only one. As we went along, however, we realized why. Nelson was the regular transport agency for many of the persons living in the extremely small and isolated communities along our route. Nelson would stop, without any passenger getting on or off, and one of the assistants would jump off, hoist a sack of beans over his shoulder, and run it up to the small provision´s store. This happened over and over again along the route. The image I had in my mind was Nelson as the Han Solo of Intibucá and his bus, the Millenium Falcon. The ride was memorable.
It was maybe about 12 miles that we traveled. But because of the terrible road conditions (unpaved the whole way), Nelson´s bus, and the numerous starts and stops, it took almost an hour and a half to arrive at Togopala. Whatever two or three buildings constituted the town of Togopala, we had passed about ten minutes earlier. Nelson had reached the end of his route: an indeterminate spot on the road where he did a three-point turn and would start back. This was where we and the other three or four passengers left on the bus had to get off. Nelson was conscious of the fact that we didn´t have a clue where we were. A woman who lived very close to the falls offered to be our escort / guide. We walked with her along the country road, a couple of houses here and there, but no restaurants or stores. We wondered if we would have anything at all to eat for lunch. After five minutes (Nelson was true to his word) we crossed a small bridge and stream. The Rio Grande turned out to be the Rio Muy Pequeño, a little bit wider than a stream. After crossing the bridge, we followed the path along the rio´s bank for a couple hundred yards. We got to the place where we could hear the roar and rush of the water. We could also see where the stream suddenly stopped. Our escort told us we had arrived. But we were above the waterfall and the thick foliage made it impossible to get a sight of it. It was clear, however, that we were at the top of a very profound cliff. You could get a sight of the waterfall itself by edging over to the edge of the cliff, grabbing hold of the trunk of a tree, and swinging yourself out over the abyss. Laura was able to get something of a view of the falls. I never did. Still, it was all very impressive: natural, undeveloped, but very impressive. There was no way down to the bottom, at least none that was obvious from the top. I suspect we could have found a guide in La Esperanza who could have taken us hiking to other spots where observation might have been possible. But there was something incredible about this natural experience. Laura and I wouldn´t have had it any other way.
Our guide left us after explaining to us how to walk back to the main road. Turning left would bring us to the town of Rio Grande, and turning right, back to where the bus left us off. We walked around a bit, enjoying the breathtaking view of the profound ravine in front of us. We never could catch a glimpse of the river below, or of the waterfall save for where the water ended. We decided that since we had time we would walk into the town of Rio Grande, hoping we could find something to eat. It was about a ten minute walk. Nelson was right. His bus brought us closer to the falls, by all of five minutes walking. The two buses traveled the same road from opposite directions, but neither of them actually continued on to the Falls. We came to the center of town: a grammar school, a health clinic, and one small store. You probably think I´m exaggerating when I described this, but I´m not making this up. That was literally all that was in the town. The students from the grammar school were on their lunch recess. It´s not every day that they meet Americans and have opportunity to practice their English. We spent a good twenty minutes with them, calling me ¨grandfather,¨ before they had to return to afternoon classes. From there we went over to the small store. We purchased some sweet bread and a warm Coca Cola, warm because there is no electricity. We sat on the man´s porch eating our bread. The owner came out to join us along with an older couple. We satisfied our hunger and spent a half-hour in conversation.
We decided to walk back to where Nelson had left us off. He had told us he´d return to the exact location at 3:00 PM. We didn´t really feel an obligation to Nelson, but we feared that if he returned and we weren´t there, he might be concerned that the inept Americans had fallen over the Falls. The walk back was along the serpentine, mountain road. This was just beautiful land. The pastoral scene held small patches of farm lots with workers tending the rows of vegetables with hoes. The houses were all about the same size, one story, modest, but not tiny, with white, stucco walls and red-clay tile roofs. They looked like chalets in Switzerland. It was so peaceful there, and Laura and I felt privileged to behold such beauty. As a storm came up and we found shelter under a tin awning of a closed provisions store, we also realized how very hard life must be out here. A younger boy with two older men came walking along the road, each with a two-hundred pound sack of rice slung over his shoulder. How long would they have to walk, down and up the rolling hills, and in the rain? There was no electricity out here. No lights, no modern conveniences, and you were dependent on Nelson and his bus to connect you to the rest of civilization. There isn´t much opportunity for education after the sixth grade, but as a male you will have to work on the farm and as a female, in the house. Life is healthy and clean and beautiful, but everything is about survival. This is where the majority of the kids in Maestro de Casa come from: little, farm communities like these, and ones further out, even more isolated. Laura and I can at one and the same time see the tremendous need for education as well as the seemingly insurmountable challenge to obtain it. On our two bus trips, Laura and I were honored to witness the grace of colonial history preserved, the beauty of living unpretentiously close to the rhythm of nature, and the struggle of a people to overcome the limitations of their society. It was all truly amazing.