tlf news Vol. xvi, #2 June, 1995

On the Trail of Stephens, Catherwood and the Mojados

Departure from the teatro at 7:15. Destination: Mezo-American Theatre Festival in Tapachula, Chiapas. We head across the valley toward San Pedro Sula, take the short-cut through the cane fields, and climb into the mountains on the other side. The deforestation is as devastating on this side as it is on the Progreso side. I dodge a flock of zopilotes: the terminal crack in the windshield is witness to one of our previous encounters. The road is in good shape and there is not much traffic. Oscar puts on a tape of Mozart horn concertos; the troupe drowses; soon we're on the long straight-away leading into La Entrada, the point where we got stopped on our way to México last year: a group of campesinos took the road seconds before we arrived to try to get the government to listen to their demands. They let us through after five hours. On our trip to México the year before, a group had taken the Pan-american highway in Chiapas and held us up for twenty-four hours.

We stop at La Entrada for a fill-up and a coke at 9:15. The station attendant recognizes teatro la fragua ("When are you going to do a show here?"). Major decision time: shall we continue on the main road to Ocotepeque and Aguas Calientes, or try the shorter (though largely unpaved) route via the Copán Ruins. The Copán route (the more remote border crossing is easier and more economical) wins out.

We wind through the mountains down into the Copán valley. We haven't been to the ruins as a group for several years; now that Copán has moved into the international tourist circuit it's far out of our economic range. About a kilometer before the ruins, the van swerves. "I thought this trip was getting too boring to be real," Pedro pipes up from behind. The crew changes the tire quickly; we stop at the filling station at the ruins to get it fixed. There are a lot of tourists visible.

We stop in the town for lunch, then plunge onto the unpaved road. This is the route of John Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood when they "discovered" Copán in 1840:

We entered a thick wood, dense as that of the Mico Mountain. Our road lay directly along the edge of a precipice, from which we looked down upon the tops of gigantic pines at a great distance beneath us. Somewhere on this road, but unmarked by any visible sign, we crossed the boundary-line of the state of Guatimala [he spells it that way] and entered Honduras.

The pines are long gone. On their way out Stephens and Catherwood followed the river:

For some distance the road lay along the river. The Copán has no storied associations, but the Guadalquiver cannot be more beautiful. On each side were mountains, and at every turn a new view. We crossed a high range and at four o'clock again came down upon the river, which was here the boundary-line of the State of Honduras. It was broad and rapid, deep, and broken by banks of sand and gravel. Fording it, I again entered the State of Guatimala. There was no village, not even a house in sight, and no difficulty about passport.

There are clapboard government buildings and crossbars on both sides, but nothing else. It's quiet. Rosa takes the passports to start the paperwork; a minivan of French tourists pulls up, then a couple of trucks. The border agent says there is a problem on the Guatemala side: a group took the road in the next town at 9:00 in the morning and they won't let anyone pass until the government sends someone to negotiate their demands. We finish the paperwork to get out of the country. A couple of trucks pass the other way. They are coming back because they can't get through. The tourist van turns back. " I thought this trip was getting too boring to be real."

We cross to the Guatemala side. One of the truck drivers knows of an alternate route over the mountains to La Unión -- for high, four-wheel drive vehicles. They estimate five hours to the other crossing at Ocotepeque, which would put us there between 7:00 and 7:30. Will we be able to cross the border at that hour? They THINK so; there is electricity at Aguas Calientes. But nobody is sure. The alternative is to cross here and wait until the road-takers decide to take off for dinner. If they do. We decide to turn back and take the other route.

As we pass the ruins again it clouds up. At 3:40 we're back in sight of La Entrada (where we were at 9:30 in the morning). The van swerves. Flat tire. The same one. The patch put on at Copán was lousy and has burst. There is a tire-fixing place just around the curve. We leave the spare on.

It's raining lightly as we climb out of La Entrada, enough to make the road slippery. We're now on the route of the mojados (wetbacks), evidenced by a pick-up full of them that we pass in Santa Rosa. As evening falls we're climbing toward the continental divide; the light rain continues and it's foggy towards the top. Then the pavement gives out and we hit road work all the way down to Ocotepeque.

The rain stops. We take the right fork toward the Guatemala border (the left goes through town to El Salvador). It's very dark: there's no electricity along here, just the occasional gleam of lantern-light, and it seems a much longer way to the border than anyone remembers. Maybe the truck drivers were wrong and there isn't electricity and the border will be closed. We come around a curve and see the glow ahead.

We park behind the French tourist van; they are doing the immigration thing. I sit on the step outside and three muchachos whom I don't at first recognize in the dark come up to greet me: they're on their way back home to Progreso after being nabbed mojados in México City. Rosa has trouble with immigration: we've already left the country, according to the stamps on the passports. That calls for a fine. And no receipt (A sign prominently displayed on a wall: "Persons, vehicles and merchandise proceeding from countries of the Central American area are not obliged to pay any fees.")

We cross the the Guatemala side. 20 Quetzales per head. ("Persons, vehicles and merchandise proceeding. . . ."). Rosa barters them down: the final bill comes out to 120 for persons and (after an inteminable wait for the agent to hunt and peck on some form) 40 for the van (". . . .are not obliged to pay any fees"). "We're not permitted to give receipts here."

The French van loads up and almost smashes into ours. We consult with bystanders about the road ahead. They advise us not to try to reach Chiquimula at this hour: there have been night assaults along the road. Everybody remembers the stories we've been hearing of the new upsurge of murders, kidnappings, and disappearances in Guatemala this year. We decide to stay the night in Esquipulas, a few kilometers in.

Descending, the clouds were lifted, and I looked down upon an almost boundless plain, running from the foot of the Sierra, and afar off saw, standing alone in the wilderness, the great church of Esquipulas, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Caaba in Mecca, the great church of pilgrimage, the Holy Place of Central America. Every year, on the fifteenth of January, pilgrims visit it, even from Peru and México; the latter being a journey not exceeded in hardship by the pilgrimage to Mecca. As in the East, "it is not forbidden to trade during the pilgrimage; and when there are not wars to make the roads unsafe, eighty thousand people have assembled among the mountains to barter and pay homage to "our Lord of Esquipulas."

In Stephens' day, "there was one street nearly a mile long, with mud houses on each side. At the head of this street, on elevated ground, stood the great church." The church still dominates (brightly illuminated at night in this age of electric light), but the main street is hard to find among the jumble of souvenir stalls and small eateries and popular (not cheap for the quality) hotels. It is very clear that "it is not forbidden to trade during the pilgrimage". On the hillsides perch luxurious accomodations for the contemporary aristocracy bent on buying their salvation. The town is quiet at this time of year, and as soon as we turn in we are accosted by messengers of the good tidings of such-and-such hotel. Oscar and Edgar investigate and settle for one a few blocks on the other side of the church. We dine in a shack across the street from an open-air bar whose juke-box is blaring mariachis and rancheras. A band of strolling mariachis plays a couple of songs, but quickly realize that this crowd isn't going to fork up. Several of us walk over to the church past a couple of blocks of deserted stalls; at this hour of the night the grounds are locked up tight.

I'm awakened at some early hour by fireworks; that doesn't keep me from rolling over and going back to sleep. When I awaken and shower and dress, I discover the troupe have all done the tour of the church in the early hours. The "fireworks" were a nearby building being demolished.

We're on the road at 7:00. There seem to be more trees left on this side of the border, but the road is not as good as the best Honduran roads and there is a great deal more traffic than on the other side. It is windy and relatively cool; we pass groups of Indian children on their way to school. An hour in:

Crossing the ridge, we reached a bold precipitous spur, and very soon saw before us another extensive plain, and afar off, the town of Chiquimula, with its giant church. On each side were immense ravines, and the opposite heights were covered with pale and rose-colored mimosa. We descended by a long and zigzag path, and reached the plain, on which were growing corn, cochineal, and plantain. Once more fording a stream, we ascended a bank, and at two o'clock enterred Chiquimula, the head of the department of that name. In the centre of the plaza was a fine fountain, shaded by palm-trees, at which women were filling their water-jars, and on the sides were the church and cabildo.

It's not that romantic as you skirt it on the highway today. Further on:

The sun was obscured, but occasionally it broke through and lighted up the sides of the mountains, while the tops were covered with clouds. We had a distant view of the great plain of Zacapa, bounded on the opposite side by a triangular belt of mountains, at the foot of which stood the town. We descended and crossed the plain, which was green and well cultivated; and, fording a stream, ascended a rugged bank and entered the town. It was by far the finest we had seen.

Maybe. We take a left onto the Puerto Barrios-Guatemala City road. Excellent road. For ten kilometres. Then construction, then the old road. The deforestation in this area makes us feel at home. We pass El Progreso ("We've been driving all this time and we're still in Progreso?"); we pass a field with a couple dozen anti-aircraft (or some big monster) guns in formation. At this point in last year's trip the guerilla had just blown a bridge, which caused us a three-hour detour through the mountains. There is a military checkpoint further on, but they are only stopping those leaving the city.

In a few moments the great plain of Guatimala appeared in view, surrounded by mountains , and in the centre of it the city, a mere speck on the vast expanse, with churches, and convents, and numerous turrets, cupolas, and steeples, and still as if the spirit of peace rested upon it; with no storied associations, but by its own beauty creating an impression on the mind of a traveller which can never be effaced. An immense ravine was still between us and the city. It was very dark when we reached the bottom of this ravine, and we were almost trodden down by a caravan of loaded mules coming out. Rising on the other side to the top, we entered the outer gate, still a mile and a half from Guatimala.

The ravine is still there, but we cross it on a bridge: precariously hung shanties climb the walls on one side, and on the other a cemetery with crypts clinging to the flat places of what may have been the original path up the sides. The "mile and a half" have vanished: a large Burger King sign is the "outer gate" to the Calle José Martí (could Voltaire have invented a greater irony?), the street a jumble of trucks, busses, taxis and cars, lined by innumerable small business establishments.

We navigate onto a circumferencial highway to skirt the city traffic. On our way out, I mention that we should be on the look-out for someplace to stop to eat. It was the wrong moment to mention it: we round a curve and into view spring the Golden Arches. "Please, let's stop here, I've only seen McDonald's on television . . ." (This is one empire that hasn't yet invaded Honduras; Burger King and Wendy's and Pizza Hut in the rich areas of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, yes, but McDonald's no). Such a gringo luxury is far beyond our normal budtet, but this is clearly a popular rebellion. For the statisticians; 8 McPollos to 3 big Macs. And the rest rooms were clean.

Back on the road we get stopped at a military checkpoint. We have to pull out the whole library of papers and everyone is frisked. They finally wave us past and we head down.

After a beautiful ride under a hot sun, but shaded nearly all the way, we reached Escuintla, where was another magnificent church, roofless, and again with its rich facade cracked by an earthquake. Before it were two venerable Ceiba trees, and the platform commanded a splendid panoramic view of the volcanoes and mountains of the Antigua. In the streets were soldiers and drunken Indians.

The Ceiba trees are gone; the church has been rehabiliatated and is surrounded by market stalls and small commerce. The town square and main street are behind it; there we find Guatel (the telephone central). Rosa makes a call to Pedro Joaquín, the organizer of the festival in Tapachula: we should be arriving around 5:00 (the sign said 195 kms). We wait on the main street. The "soldiers and drunkern Indians" are still in evidence, along with a considerable contingent of druggies. Stephens climbed the church tower:

On the east the dark line of forest was broken by the curling smoke of a few scattered huts, and backed by verdant mountains, by the cones of volcanoes, with their tops buried in the clouds, and by the Rock of Mirandilla, an immense block of bare granite held up among the mountain tops, riven and blasted by lightning. On the west the setting sun illuminated a forest of sixty miles, and beyond shed its dying glories over the whole Pacific Ocean.

We leave Stephens' route and take the Pan-american highway to the east. We are back on the coastal lowlands and the road continues good for a few kilometers. The "forest of sixty miles" is a forest of cane fields. At 2:30 we are stopped for road work. The line is several kilometers long. A kid about 13 is hawking cokes; his strangely deformed feet look like huge hands. After twenty minutes the line starts to move slowly, and we continue through a long section that is under construction. Soldiers at the entrances to the cane fields and on all the bridges. We are stopped at a one-way Bailey bridge thrown up on the ruins of what must be a bridge blown by the guerilla. We have to wait until a long caravan of used cars being driven down from the States passes. Shortly after, the construction ends and we're back on the road. There is no doubt it needs repair.

We climb back into hill country. At 5:15 we pass a sign: "Frontera 69 kms". We're not going to make our 5:00 goal. We pass a large, heavily-fortified army post, and then the checkpoints begin every ten kilometres. The voices begin to modulate to the Mexican melody. A large flock of birds flies across the road in the direction of the border. "Look, they're going mojados."

At 6:30 we arrive at the border. Rosa goes inside to get us out of Guatemala. 160 quetzales. ("Persons, vehicles and merchandise. . . .are not obliged to any fees.") Of course, "we're not permitted to give receipts here."

We cross to the México side. It's 7:00. Pedro Joaquín has just left. He left a note with the Señor at the immigration desk: "Go to the Hotel Loma Real." The Señor at the immigration desk has a problem. (He stares for a few minutes at a paper in his hand). Of course, if it were up to him he would let us through. (He stares at the back of the paper). But since the representatives of the festival aren't here anymore. (The signature of this paper is a calligrafic gem). How are we going to get through the checkpoint ten kilometers in? (The back of the paper holds a clue to the meaning of the universe). The paper says we were supposed to be here at 3:00. (The seals on it bear the smile of the Mona Lisa). Everybody comes up with some excuse like "they had taken the road." (There is a stain on the paper that speaks to profound regions of the soul). Perhaps we can find a solution. (Is it the Rosetta stone of Mayan script?). But we need a fotocopy of this paper and the only machine is on the Guatemala side. . . .

The office on the Guatemala side that has a Xerox machine is closed. So is the other to which they direct us. Behind the "official" buildings Oscar discovers a cantina-town. He talks someone into turning on his machine -- for triple the normal price. He brings it back to the México side. The Señor studies the copy. He has everyone do a line-up and checks passport picture against face. He studies the paper. He studies the copy. He reaches into a drawer and pulls out the Hope diamond: a rubber stamp and an ink pad. With sexual delicacy and tenderness he seals the original and the copy and hands the copy to Rosa. An hour has passed. Customs does a thorough search of the van. The DX-7 arouses suspicion, but Pedro Joaquín must have paid the bribe in advance: they let us through. Tapachula is about 20 kilometers in; the checkpoint on the way lets us right through ("The paper has the seal of immigration").

The sign says "México 1209 kms". We ask directions to the hotel; on the way a fancy van pulls in front of us with "Hotel Loma Real" on the back. We follow it. Then Edgar notices five stars painted under the name. A cheer goes up in the van. ("¡Cinco estrellas! Remember the hotel in Medellín where Avianca put us up last year when our flight was overbooked.") A large sign indicates the entrance and we climb a hill on the outskirts of town. Edilberto: "Somebody is playing a cruel joke on us."

We pull in among the Mercedes in the parking lot and Rosa and Edgar go in to the desk. The lights of Tapachula twinkle below us. The anticipation of the troupe is tangible. After ten minutes I go in to see why it is taking so long. A very snotty young desk clerk ("The servants of the rich are more jealous of their class privileges than the rich themselves") refuses to deal with us or to let us use the telephone.

We get back in the van ("I knew it was some kind of joke"). We manage to find the main square and the Casa de la Cultura; there is still a secretary in the office. She knows nothing but looks up the home phone of Pedro Joaquín; he may be at the theatre. We go to the theatre. It's dark; the watchman says there was no show tonight. We find a public phone. We test for the right coins for the phone. Nothing works. A passer-by informs Rosa we need an old 100-peso coin. Somebody comes up with one. Pedro Joaquín is not at home. His wife is very nice: "You must be starving. Go eat dinner at the Jardín Tropical on the main square while I look for him; he'll meet you there."

We pass a pair of troop transports on the way to the square and a lot of Indians sleeping in the streets. The central plaza in Tapachula is very pleasant: a row of open-air restaurants on one side, the church and various muncipal buildings on another, store-fronts completing the rectangle, a band-stand, a playground. It's suprisingly alive for a Thrusday night. Pedro Joaquín shows up. They had gotten a donation of hotel rooms for the Festival from the owner of the Hotel Loma Real, but he had taken off for Europe and they were having all sorts of problems with the arrangements. We finish eating and he takes up back up to the Loma Real. There is a new desk clerk. He straightens it out. It comes out two to a bed, but they are large beds. The five stars seem to be auto-bestowed. (Oscar: "I give it two.")

Breakfast on the square. There are more kids begging than last year. Two troop transports pass while we are eating. We load up in the van to go to the theatre; we are behind a pick-up with three dudes in the back dresssed in civvies but with menacing rifles: hunters of Central American mojados.

The muncipal theatre of Tapachula is a beauty inaugurated last year. The tech crew is waiting for us at 10:00; the greeting is of old friends. We decide how to set up the stage, and I go up to the light booth to greet Ramón and Iván. We spent a great day last year trying to figure out how to use the state-of-the-art lighting system: the building had only been open a week, the computer manual and program are in English (well, computer English), they had no experience of lighting design ("I got the job because my cousin has a friend who works in the ministry of . . . ."). They've learned a lot in the year and are pleasant and efficient to work with; in a little more than two hours we have a good design programmed in and we finish up run-thru by 2:00. I wait for the actors in the lobby. Across the parking lot is a new landmark: squatters' shacks have sprung up under the watchful eye of a sign proclaiming the Mexican housing authority's accomplishments. Edgar has calculated the number of seats downstairs: 842, and close to that in the balcony.

We follow another pick-up of Central-American-mojados-hunters to the plaza for lunch, then return to the hotel for a siesta and a dip in the five-star pool (well, two). Back at the theatre at 5:30 Pablo (named changed to protect the innocent) is waiting for us: an ex-fragueño who is a mojado in Tapachula. We have two shows scheduled, at 6:30 and at 9:00. We are doing the Honduran Stories, the piece we have been using for internationa presentations the last year: dramatizations of Honduran and Central American folk tales. The first show is almost full. Ramón lets me run the light board; it's incredibly easy once it has been programmed in and it looks great. The audience is very receptive: the technicians all watch the show (other than lights, there's nothing technical to do) and seem to enjoy it thoroughly.

I leave the booth for the break between shows and see that it's raining hard. That blows our chances for another full house the second show. I go back-stage and wrench the actors away from the groupies to give them a little sermon.

"It's raining so obviously we aren't going to have the same house for the second show. I trust I don't have to repeat all the clichés about rainy nights. But I think it is worth saying one thing which I realized during the first show. In my experience, technicians NEVER watch the show: they play cards, they go out to the lobby to cuddle with their girl-friends or smoke cigarettes. These technicians watched the show. They remember details of the show we did last year.

"We've seen today what Hondurans are to the people in this town: mojados, animals to be hunted, a couple of steps below the Indians who sleep in the streets. We all know that a show isn't going to give a roof to those Indians; it isn't going to give a decent home to the squatters on the other side of the parking lot; it isn't going to give a meal to the kids begging food in the plaza. But as I watched the technicians I remembered the respect with which they greeted us in the morning. Tonight they were laughing at Honduran jokes and humming Honduran melodies and enjoying stories from Honduran folklore and Hondurans were no longer animals to be hunted but brothers sharing their experiences with them, and they and the thousand-plus people in the audience have a new vision of who the Honduran is. I think that's important."

When we pull out of the hotel in the morining, Tapachula stretches out below us and the sunlight dances on the mist in the Guatemalan mountains beyond: Central America beckoning us home.

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