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Life in Honduras

Part Three

By Don Moore

This article was originally published in the December, 1995 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.

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In this series of articles, I've been looking back at features of every day life in Honduras during my time there with the Peace Corps in 1982- 84. This time, however, I promise you we won't delve into personal hygiene, hi!

OLD SCHOOL BUSES NEVER DIE

Up here in North America, have you ever seen an old school bus in an auto junkyard? I never have, and I know why. Old school buses never die - they get sent to Central America. As few people have cars, buses are an important means of transportation, both between towns and within towns as urban transportation. But, poor countries can't often afford new buses, so they have to make do with ones that our school kids have already wrecked.

When the buses get to Central America, no one bothers to remove every reminder of their previous life. For example, many buses in Honduras still have signs with the school board's rules of behavior posted in the front of the bus. Of course, the signs are in English so no one follows them. People in Honduras don't throw spitballs too much, anyway. But then there's the rule that says no standing. In Central America when the seats are full, people stand. Lots of people stand. Actually, in every country it's illegal to have standees on the buses, but the rules are rarely enforced.

The fullest bus I've ever been on was between Jocotan (location of Radio Chortis, 3380 kHz) and Chiquimula, Guatemala. I was standing in the aisle, totally unable to move either foot. The bus seated 54 people, but I counted 95 and probably missed a few. But the national police were conducting their annual brief crackdown on standees in the buses, so when we got to the outskirts of Chiquimula, the driver stopped and told about half the passengers to get off. I played the dumb gringo and pretended that I didn't understand what was going on, so I got a seat for the rest of the ride into town.

When old school buses get to Central America, they are almost always repainted, in all sorts of colors. Some are green, white, and red and others white, green, and yellow. My favorite was always white, orange, and blue. It's very unusual to see a bus painted only one color, and they never use that orange-yellow that the bus was originally painted. Along the side, the name of the bus company is painted in big letters - something like CORTISBA or Transportes Silva. Of course, a company that operates half-a-dozen rejected US school buses in Central America isn't exactly on the Fortune 500 list, so don't take that term "bus company" too seriously.

On the front of the bus, above the windshield, the route is painted, like Santa Barbara - San Pedro Sula or Siquatepeque - Comayagua. Also, a route number is given, like Ruta #18 or Ruta #101. Ruta #101 was very popular; a lot of different routes used that number. You see, the route number doesn't have any significance. It's just a number the bus owner liked and decided to paint on his buses to make them look more impressive. Once in a while a bus wouldn't get painted and would be driven around with the name of its old school district still on the side. Lakewood Schools and Mesa Valley School District are two that I remember among the city buses in Tegucigalpa.

Central American buses may be old and worn out, but the system works. For example, all Americans familiar with the urban bus system in Tegucigalpa agreed that it was better than anything they knew of in the States. The system was set up so that you could get between any two points in the city taking no more than two buses at a cost of only ten cents per bus. Except for late at night, waits were rarely more than ten minutes and often less than five. No wonder when I tell Latin Americans about the Davenport bus system, where buses are scheduled an hour apart, they are shocked.

Inter-city bus routes are likewise cheap and frequent. The San Pedro Sula - Tegucigalpa route was the most traveled one in the country, and three different companies had about fifty buses a day scheduled to make the run, with at least one leaving every hour around the clock. The 150 mile trip took about 4 1/2 hours and cost $3.50. On this most important route, the buses were the Greyhound type with double reclining seats. The air conditioners had long ago broken down, however, so passengers had to keep the windows open. From San Pedro Sula, one could go on to Guatemala City via two buses in another twelve hours, including time for meals and border formalities, for a total cost of about eight dollars.

So, they may not be comfortable or sparkling new, but when it comes to the basic purpose of getting from one place to another as cheaply as possible with as little waiting as possible, Central American buses are the tops in public transportation from my point of view!

TAXIS

Taxis are the other side to the coin of public transportation in Honduras and Central America. As many middle class families do not own a car (and almost none own more than one), taxis get a lot of use through necessity. Yes, people do use those city buses I just got finished praising. But, as efficient as they are, buses do not provide door-to-door service and if you are on your way home from a shopping trip with a handful of sacks and a couple of kids in tow, a taxi sure beats a bus if you can afford it.

Most Hondurans are too poor to ever use a taxi. But, there are enough car-less middle class people, that all sizable Honduran towns have a taxi service and in the main cities there are hundreds of taxis. Most taxis are driver-owned, but in each town or city the drivers have their own unions. Mostly this means that they have set up policies to take turns in prime waiting spots and have agreed on approximate fees for distances so that they don't end up undercutting one another. That is important, as Honduran taxis do not have meters. Instead, passengers need to agree on a fee for their destination with the driver before getting in. In Tegucigalpa, fees were usually around two to three dollars, although could go up to about five for trips to the far reaches of the city. In San Pedro Sula, most taxi fees were around a dollar. If you are a foreigner, it is especially important to agree on a rate beforehand, as if the driver senses you don't know the local customs and appropriate fees, he may sock you with a ten or fifteen dollar charge when you arrive at your destination and its too late to back out.

Taxis are always easy to spot. They are licensed by the government and each one has its number (two or three large digits) and the word "taxi" painted on the car in several places. In Honduras, taxis can be any color and any type of car - whatever the owner happened to buy. More often than not, taxis are older cars - few people buy new cars to make them into taxis. Most taxi drivers buy on the used market and then drive their car until it falls apart - and some nearly are. Of course, the owners of the worse-looking ones know better than to bother waiting for fares outside the better hotels. If you don't see a taxi, just listen. Drivers of empty taxis honk their horns periodically as they cruise the streets looking for customers. They are especially mindful to honk at foreigners, who they assume would not bother taking local buses...

A DIFFERENT KIND OF SCHOOL

As noted in the first article, I worked with the Peace Corps from January, 1982 to April, 1984. After Peace Corps, I stayed in Honduras until November, 1984, teaching English at the Honduran Air Force Academy at Palmerola Air Base just outside Comayagua. My students there were the most motivated I've ever had, and they had reason to be. School policy was that anyone who failed a test was put under arrest (i.e. not allowed to leave the base) for thirty days and anyone who misbehaved had his head shaved. Of course the teachers had to report problems in order for punishment to be meted out. I always "forgot" to report it when a student failed a test and no one ever misbehaved enough to cause me to want to have his head shaved. They were good students; they all came from lower- middle class Honduran families and this was their chance to get an education and be something.

Several times the students and I got into political discussions, and I was surprised at the wide range of political viewpoints, from the left to the far- right. I remember one lieutenant (not a student - students didn't have rank yet) who was an admirer of Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D'Abuisson. Condsidering the Lieutenant's personality, I could have easily pictured him carving up a political prisoner and I avoided dealing with him whenever possible.

Palmerola is also the main US military base in Honduras, and there were always more Americans at Palmerola than Hondurans, at least when I was there. Even during official "down" periods when the number of US troops in all of Honduras was officially under one hundred, there were obviously several hundred U.S. troops at Palmerola. As I worked for the Honduran military, I rarely had contact with the US presence except for illegally using the post office. The APO post office was in the building next door to my classroom and I was the only American on the base working for Honduras, not the US, and therefore ineligible to use APO. But the folks at the post office didn't know that...

WAIT A WHILE

The main reason I took the job at the Honduran Air Force Academy was that Comayagua was only an hour away by bus from San Jeronimo, the village where my (then) fiance‚ Theresa worked. As Theresa had started after I had, she still had some time left to go on her two year commitment with the Peace Corps. Shortly after starting moving to Comayagua I went to San Jeronimo for a weekend visit. The primary school that Theresa worked in was having a Mothers' Day pageant, and while that sort of thing isn't exactly high entertainment, rural Honduras doesn't have much better to offer. And, Theresa was expected to be there, anyway.

The pageant was to begin at 7 p.m. and the school was about a five minute walk from Theresa's house, so we left at 6:30 to be sure to get seats. When we arrived, only a few teachers, students were there and preparations had barely begun, and none of the audience had arrived yet. We walked over to the park, a block away, and sat on a bench watching the people go by. People would walk by and then finding no one else waiting for the pageant, would turn around and go home, to return in another twenty or thirty minutes. Even after everything was set up and ready to go at the pageant, people would still walk by us, see the lack of an audience, then go back home. Maybe in the park they would meet some neighbors on their way to the pageant. Then the first group would tell the second group, "Oh, no sense in going there. No one else is waiting yet." And then they would all head home. Of course, a few people did stay each time. About 7:40 Theresa and I walked back and got good seats. Finally, around 8:05 the place was reasonably full and the program got started. Members of the audience continued to straggle in over the next half hour.

What is surprising about this is not the attitude of the townspeople, nor the fact that the pageant started over an hour late. The surprising fact is that I had lived in Honduras for about 2 1/2 years at that point, and Theresa for 1 1/2 years, yet we actually left the house a half-hour early to get seats. How could we have been so stupid? We should have known we could leave the house a half-hour late and not only get good seats, but not miss a thing!

Most people outside of Latin America have heard of how time functions in Latin America - the so called ma¤ana syndrome. A meeting scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. will probably get underway at about 3 p.m. If you arrive at two, you can count on having some time alone to relax first. If a friend says they will call for you at seven, be ready by eight. In my two years at the Normal School in Santa Barbara, not once did a teachers' meeting begin on time. Go to a carpenter's shop and ask him to make you some chairs. He'll tell you they'll be ready in three days when he knows it will take five. But, if he told you five days, you might think he meant seven. Go back in three days and the carpenter will be surprised and patiently explain that he will have them ready in another day or two.

I don't want to sound like everything is late. Some things are reliable. When movies are advertised to start at five, seven, and nine, they will start at five, seven, and nine. Likewise, larger stores and restaurants post hours and keep them. Some things can even be ahead of schedule. Buses will leave early if they're already full.

So, by and large, the rule in Honduras is "mas tarde", or "later", be it an hour or two, a day or two, or even longer. But, it is hard to break old habits. Like with the pageant, even after over two years in Honduras, I found it hard to stop being a gringo. I had difficulty not arriving late and would normally be on time unless I was otherwise occupied. I spent a lot of time waiting for that reason. But one thing I did learn in Honduras was to take my time. If going somewhere, I never hurried to be on time. I learned to patiently wait and read a book or just contemplate my surroundings while waiting an hour or more for a bus along a dusty rural roadside. No one rushed in Honduras, and it wasn't hard for me to stop rushing either. In fact, when I came back to the States, I had to learn how to rush all over again.

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This website is maintained by Don Moore,
Association of North American Radio Clubs
DXer of the Year for 1995
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