Hey, chochachos! Heaven knows what you people have been doing to entertain your minds during my long blog hiatus, but I can only hope it’s been productive and enlightening. You’ve all probably been brain-storming about your respective Halloween costumes, buyin’ the fabric store out of fake bear fur and googly eyes…time to get SEXY! Am I right, or am I right? As I shall be spending my third consecutive Halloween here in Honduras, where there is no real candy to be found and no one dresses up, I’ll probably spend the night weeping alone in my hammock and sucking down pineapple juice, pausing occasionally to stagger outside and contemplate the spooky, scary moon while Igor tries in vain to wiggle out of the adorable rotten pumpkin costume I will make him out of a garbage bag.
In the past one and a half months, I have leapt over the chasm of uncertainty and fully transitioned from a humble volunteer to just another unemployed twenty-something in need of a haircut. During the first couple weeks in September, I finished up all my projects and then headed to Tegucigalpa for the week, for our “Closing of Service” examinations and final interviews. I turned in many a report to the Peace Corps, who responded by giving my tender areas a cursory prodding (all healthy, yippee) and tossing my residency card into the incinerator. “Peace out, loser,” said Uncle Sam, and suddenly I found myself just another tourist in the donut-hole of Central America. I spent a week moseying around, saying adios to various old host families from training and visiting a few pals. Then I headed back to the Lubey Lubes on October 1 for a surprise attack on Douglas’ third birthday, arriving in style in the back of a dump truck (no buses due to rain) with a cake, piñata and crappy plastic tricycle balanced on my knees. The kids were delighted and much merriment was exchanged. I hung around for a few more days, being a creepy doppelganger on poor Margaret, the new volunteer, and enjoying the novelty of lying in my hammock all morning and not feeling guilty about it. Then I carefully rolled my shorts, undies and t-shirts into little burritos and inserted them into my backpack, tossed my house keys to Nely and the kids, and strolled out of town to go north and meet the one and only Kayleigh Gamble, my partner in crime from the ‘ol college days.
Ah, to be free! No more reporting vacation days and telling the Peace Corps where I am (or rather, explicitly not doing that and hoping they won’t find out), no more cramming two weeks of adventures into five days because I have to get back to site…let me tell you what, people, ain’t nothin’ like traveling around as an unemployed person. (Money concerns not being an issue because when you use a credit card, it’s like the ATM is giving you money for free…hell yes, Science.) Fortunately, Kayleigh is also wallowing happily in the mucky-muck of semi-employment, and was able to obtain three whole weeks from her employer. The dame stepped off the airplane with a saucy little travel pack and a duffle sagging with forty pounds of SNACKS. Freakin’ chex mix…reeses peanut butter cups…trail mix…pretzels….dried fruit…for she is a lady of my own heart. Of course, adventuring around with Kayleigh would have been just as awesome without the duffle ‘o snacks. First of all, she is a smoky burrito of kindness, excellent humor, insatiable spunk for adventure, and silliness, with a mixture of shredded intelligence and wit melted on top. Mmm. Second of all, our names rhyme. This was an issue we addressed when we lived together in The Tit by creating nicknames, which were Turbo (me) and Nitro (her). However, these don’t translate as well in Spanish, or to the international backpacker community (which is made up mostly of 20-year-old Israeli dudes with pierced nipples and bulging muscles, we found), so we soon developed a great comedic timing when people inevitably asked our names. “I’m Hayley,” I would respond, looking to Kayleigh mischievously. “And I’m Kayleigh,” she would say with a sigh, rolling her eyes, both of us obviously so over the fact that we had rhyming names and were traveling together. Man, we had fun.
Snacks in tow, we headed to the Honduran coastal town of Omoa, where, according to Kayleigh, we spent the afternoon riding beach cruisers around in the surrounding villages “just like Korean business men” (in that we were incongruous to the environment and the people, obviously). I love riding bikes. We spent the night at a little backpacker’s hostel called Roli’s Place, which had beautiful green lawns, mossy mango trees and at least four different bunnies hopping around. However, they go on my Screw That Noise List because when the lady discovered that Kayleigh and I had climbed a tree to eat some snacks and contemplate the late afternoon, she screamed at us for like four minutes, some nonsense about “you are not children” and “I can’t believe you would smash an orchid like that.” Alright YES WE SMASHED AN ORCHID AND I AM VERY SORRY, but it was already half dead, and there were like 5,000 other orchids all over the place. And it wasn’t even flowering. We felt ashamed but later just pity, because she thinks climbing trees is an activity restricted only to children and will never know the magic of eye-level epiphytes at sunset. In retaliation, Kayleigh snapped off a piece of the water faucet in the bathroom (she claims it was “accidental,” but I saw right through that little facade). The next day, we scurried away under the lady’s reproachful glare and swung across the border into the little Guatemalan Caribbean town of Puerto Barrios, where we ate some beans and then took a boat up the Rio Dulce. We then alighted at my favorite little lodge, the Finca Tatin, which is a bunch of awesome tree-house bungalows in the dang jungle, right on the edge of the deliciously green river, which flows lazily to the sea. We’d been there not an hour when, low and below, who steps onto the dock but none other than MY FAVORITE PEACE CORPS BUDDY GABE!!! And his lady Heide!!! I almost peed myself with surprise and delight (actually, I might have let a couple drops escape…my bladder control ain’t what it used to be) and we celebrated this most unlikely coincidence by immediately hurling ourselves off the rope swing into the river. The four of us spent the next three days kayaking miles down-river and into eerie mangrove channels, hiking in the jungle, eating copious amounts of delicious food, sweating out toxins in the Mayan sauna, and then replacing the toxins by drinking cold beers in the hammocks. It was delicious.
Our upper arm muscles bulging like the youth of Israel from all that kayakin’, Kaylz and Haylz then bussed it north many hours to the little town of El Remate, which is between Flores and the Mayan ruins of Tikal. We spent the night at an eco-lodge called “Mirador del Duende,” in a little open-air adobe hut, which the Flintstones might have enjoyed had they really wanted to contract scabies and sleep on filthy mattresses that smelled like a homeless grandma. The next day we wasted all kinds of time and hitch-hiked into the ruins by early afternoon, just in time for the crowds to dwindle, but far too late to miss the once-a-year opportunity of “Dia de la Raza” (sort of like cultural history day), in which all the important Mayan chiefs come and do hella important ceremonies with their villages. JAGUARS BE DAMNED. We totally missed all the dancing and everything…but at least we were able to waft some smoke from the smoldering ceremonial fires onto our t-shirts. The families walking around were dressed in beautiful typical Mayan dress, with loom-woven skirts and embroidered shirts. We scrambled all over the ruins, drinking bottled water and taking pictures, just as the Mayan gods would have wanted it. We saw the sunset atop the breathtakingly-high Temple IV, which towers above the jungle canopy and was maybe one of the most beautiful evenings I’ve ever experienced. The ruins are built within the dense jungle, connected by narrow paths and neat signs, and the forest is filled with all kinds of monkeys (we saw howlers and spider) and birds and crazy mammals. In the evening, everyone starts hollering and the noise is majestic. That night, we camped in the grounds just outside the entrance to the park, suffering terrible cold and what was perhaps the Nastiest Mattress In the World (we fools opted not to bring my tent and camping supplies, thus falling to the mercy of the Guatemalan parks service). We spread our raincoats on top and spooned. We awoke at 4:00am, hustled to the entrance and tried to bribe our way into the park two hours early to watch the sun rise from Temple IV, a common activity, but the guards had drank too much Asshole Power Shake that morning and spitefully refused us entry. When we finally were allowed in at 6:00am, when the park opens for realz, we’d missed the real sunrise and I was supremely pissed. Kayleigh calmed me while I spat angry bitter words at the selfish pricks, and we galloped off to the temple to see what was left of Father Sun stretching his melty fingers over the treetops.
Our next stop was what is often toted as “the most beautiful place in Guatemala,” Semuc Champey. I didn’t really know what to expect, other than “a real pretty swimmin’ hole.” Oh my my, oh yes yes, it was. We drove for like seven hours south from Flores, through winding mountains and little villages, roaring past women and children walking along the road, dressed like cotton rainbows and carrying mysterious bundles of woven blankets on their backs by way of forehead strap. We finally arrived in the little town of Lanquin, which I can only imagine used to be a quiet little village until people discovered that tourists would pay money to go swim in their river. Now, it’s blossomed into a rather bustling little town full of hostels and places to eat. Kayleigh and I decided to feed the social monkey on our backs and stay at the “El Retiro Lodge,” which is nestled on a lovely rushing river and has over 100 beds, all filled with dirty backpackers (mostly Israelis). Clutching my dinner tray and staring at the buzzing open-air dining room, scanning the tables for a pair of seats near the cool kids…my god, it was like being back in middle school. Only with beer and less social anxiety…and my armpit glands produce far less sweat now than they did then. We did indeed make some friends, and it was a fun couple of nights, I must say. But the best part was the next day when they toted us all along the windy roads for half an hour to some awesome underground caves, filled with a rushing river which we have to navigate as we scrambled around, waving candles and gasping through waterfalls. After the cave adventure, we hiked a bit into the National Park and…my god. It was like something out of Fern Gully. Nestled in a towering mountain canyon of dangly jungle lies a series of deep limestone pools, all bright turquoise. The water is deliciously cool and so crystal clear you can see it when the fish poop. The water comes roaring down the mountain and grinds its way under a 20 meter natural bridge of rock, then suddenly calms and becomes....the most beautiful spot in Guatemala. We spent the afternoon diving around like awestruck mermaids and buying homemade chocolate from local kids. I’ll never look at the color blue the same way again.
“Enough nature, let’s go buy textiles,” said we, and so it came to pass. Kayleigh and I bussed it to Guatemala City, and then on down to Lago Atitlan, an enormous clear lake in the south-west-ish part of the country, bordered by hells of volcanoes and beautiful little traditional villages (at this point, I might as well just admit that I always felt too embarrassed to aim my camera at unsuspecting village women, so I in fact have nary a picture of their traditional dress, which is shameful and sad. Whatever, though, you guys can just go to Wikipedia.). Kayleigh and I spent the next four nights delighting in the lake, trying to stop each other from buying 90 pounds of woven items and other artisania but ending up just enable one another in such binges (ah, textiles, the crack cocaine of the tasteful lady) and making more new friends. We stayed in the town of Santa Cruz, at this cool little hostel called La Iguana Perdida. The food was INCREDIBLE, the beds were clean and comfy (we stayed in another open-air room, but it was 7 kinds of delightful), and the people were lovely, too. We spent a day hiking for four hours through a literal orgy of wildflowers, and came home with so much pollen on our noses that our day-long binge of my second-favorite drug of choice (next to handmade crap) was obvious to everyone. Flowers I love you flowers! We went to the market one day and attended a cross-dressing bon-fire party one night, as well (not much of a stretch for certain individuals). After several nights on the lake, though, it was time to leave (Kayleigh was close to getting us kicked out for befriending the kitchen ladies and trying to help them chop vegetables, a noted no-no).
We bussed it back up toward the city and parked ourselves in Antigua for the night, where we wandered for close to an hour before we found my most delightful Peace Corps friend’s grandmother’s house, a beautiful old home in the center of town. Despite our tardiness, Ana’s grandma Margarita and her mother, Sonia, who happened to be visiting from the states, greeted us in their time-worn nighties and presented us with bowls of beans, fancy French bread, and fistfuls of Milk Duds and Whoppers. We all giggled in Spanish late into the night before tucking in, lulled to sleep by the indignant commentary of Roberto, the pet parrot. I pretended Margarita was my Guatemalen grandmother and it was delightful. The next day, deliciously well-rested, Kayleigh and I headed to the capital and began the multi-bus adventure down into El Salvador and to the coast, where we crashed onto my most favorite beach just after sunset. I’ve had the good luck to visit Playa El Zonte about three times previous, and it was just as excellent as always…huge waves, black sparkly sand, toasty sandwiches and hunky dudes all over the place. Mmm, surfers. Kayleigh and I spent the next day riding waves and exploring tide pools, and had the great fortune to have arrived on the same night as a local “Gastronomical Fair.” We rode in the back of a truck bed with the rest of the hotel’s staff for half an hour in the warm, salty air under a perfect full moon, spotting owls and enjoying the way pine trees frame the Mama Moon. Then I ate so much awesome food I was farting out my ears and it was amazing. Tamales, soup, empanadas, cake, hot cocoa…my god. Once we got back, I played a late-night game of ping-pong with a goofy, tender-hearted local guy named Javier, which turned into an all-night series of conversations about everything and culminated in a beautiful sunrise. A few hours later, he cheerfully (albeit drowsily) drove Kayleigh and I into the capital, where we caught a series of buses all the way to the Honduran border and he hurried home to have his weekly fish lunch with his grandpa. Then, hip hooray, hot damn and hell yes, Honduras Honduras Honduras! After two weeks of amazing adventures, I couldn’t believe how happy I was to be home once again. We crashed at my Peace Corps friend Jessie’s home, and I bummed around the south for two days while Kayleigh rekindled friendships in several villages where she had volunteered a couple years ago. We met up two days later, bussed into Alubarén, and Kayleigh was given the whirl-wind tour, complete with swimmin’ hole cannon balls and meetin’ the baby possee. (The kids had made a surprise for me—a two-layer mud-cake with rose-petal décor, and the ladies made me another—six sheets embroidered with various sentences and images, including a huge one of Igor and his brother, Kaiser, facing one another, which were all layed out on my bed with a sign on top declaring everyone’s love for me.) My god but it’s good to be home. We spent the night in our final embrace of pretend sisterhood and the next day, our Slumber Party with Credit Cards was officially over, as Kayleigh headed out solo to catch her flight up in San Pedro Sula and I was left with nothing but salty tears, an over-squeezed heart, and way too many tiny woven coin purses.
Dudes and ladies, I would like to reflect further on what it’s like to be in the final stretch of my Honduran life, as I leave in exactly 10 days for the United States of Deliciousness, but it is late and I am sleepy and I must awaken in the bowels of the night to take Igor on the 4am bus to Tegus so the vet can declare him healthy enough for you people. Therefore, please await Part II of the Final Blog in the coming weeks, in which I shall ruminate poetically about what it’s like to leave your second family behind in a cloud of jet exhaust. Until then…nighty night.