Thursday, April 19, 2007

Semana Santa 07

Well, I’m back from a rather long and patchwork vacation, in which I spent the week mostly visiting other volunteers and otherwise participating in events related to Semana Santa.

Semana Santa, or holy week, is a holiday mostly observed over a period of five days – from Wednesday until Sunday, celebrating the events immediately before, during, and after the crucifixion of Jesus. In the states we generally only celebrate Easter Sunday, and now that I have a somewhat outside perspective on the situation, I have to say that we have some pretty strange customs considering the actual significance that the event is supposed to have. But whatever.

Here, as everywhere in Latin America, the greatest festivities take place on Good Friday, when Jesus was actually crucified. There are long processions, costumes, re-enactments, mannequins, crosses, you name it. Most of the activities on Friday and all the other days of the week have to do with some kind of re-creation or remembering of all the original characters and events that took place on those days. It’s a fun holiday; serious and very authentically traditional but energetic at the same time, filled with that Latin flair for the dramatic.

I didn’t quite set out to spend much time checking out the “genuine” Semana Santa festivities; it’s not a holiday I’ve ever celebrated much (not even Easter) and the fact that nobody works at all that week makes it an ideal time to go on vacation and visit friends. That’s exactly what I did, but by chance I managed to get in some cultural sightseeing as well.

I left town way before dawn on Sunday the 1st of April, starting the trip up north to the area near Lake Yojoa where my friend Jeremy lives, one of the Protected Areas Management volunteers from my training group. His birthday was that same day and I wanted to get there at a decent hour in order to participate in some of the festivities, hence the ridiculously early start.

I was going to walk down to the nearby village of La Fortuna, which has an earlier bus than Agua Fría, but the sugarcane workers’ bus caught up with me at about 4 am right after I got down to the main road, and I jumped on it. There were only a few people on it at the time, dressed in ash-smudged clothes and all carrying big water jugs and the same type of wide, flat machete that looks like a cross between a meat cleaver and a scythe. As we went down the mountain, passing through other communities along the way, the bus kept filling up until there were three people wedged into every single seat. They almost all smoked a cigarette or two on the ride, besides the youngest kids, some of which couldn’t have been any older than twelve. It was an extremely rowdy, macho atmosphere; a kind of secret men-only club that I hadn’t glimpsed before here and hadn’t even imagined. They told off-color jokes and made fun of me all the way to Choluteca, laughing about how they were going to invite the gringo along for a day of real men’s work. I imagined what it must be like for the youngest kids, the first day they rode on the men’s bus to chop burnt sugarcane all day in the burning heat of the flatlands, teased and praised by all the older workers. What an initiation into manhood! How proud they must feel to be part of that group, to be going off to blister their hands and earn $5 with “their own sweat”, as the men say here.

I got to the city at 5:30, earlier than I’d thought possible (my previous record was 6:30) and immediately jumped on a bus to Tegucigalpa that rolled up to me as I was walking to the bus stop. By about 3:00 pm I arrived in Jeremy’s site, Cerro Azul. There were already a bunch of other Volunteers there, and more arrived soon after me. We visited for awhile, went on a hike to see a really nice waterfall near his house, visited some more, made some food, played some cards, visited, etc. Everyone left the next morning, and I was left without a solid plan of what I wanted to do for Semana Santa.

I called around to some other Volunteers who I had talked to beforehand, trying to get a feel for what people were up to, and most of my leads petered out (everyone seemed to be too broke at the time to travel), but I finally got a positive response from Suzanne, another geologist volunteer who maintains one of the blogs in my links. She and some friends were going to the city of Comayagua to see some special activities they do there, but not until Wednesday. I decided to keep heading north and use the spare time to see the city of La Ceiba, one of the more well-known touristy destinations in the country, which I had never visited before.

I was in La Ceiba for a couple days and it turned out to be a fairly uneventful leg of the trip; seeing the town and going out once to one of its famous nightclubs. At that point though I was running on three consecutive days without sufficient sleep, and mainly just trying not to nod off and get robbed, so it wasn’t a terribly exciting experience. I mostly strolled around, saw the dirty and drug-dealer-infested beach, sampled some of the north coast’s distinctive cuisine, and visited with Max and Lynette, two volunteers who live there (my OTHER link is their blog). Then on Wednesday morning I caught a bus which Suzanne and her site-mate Christy were already on, coming from their town Olanchito, and we headed back south to the center of the country – the city of Comayagua.

We were in Comayagua for three days, eventually joined by three other friends of Suzanne and Christy – an older couple named Jim and Deb, and a Health volunteer named Robin. We hung out and saw the sights and mostly took it easy. On Friday we saw a couple processions of people depicting various stages of the day Jesus was crucified. In the morning, people had built dozens of colorful “rugs” made of damp dyed sawdust along the processional route for the people carrying the figure of Jesus to walk along. They were beautiful, many of them really detailed works of art, and they only lasted about two hours before being messed up by people walking all over them, and then swept up. I felt privileged to see something made with so much care that was only intended to last two hours.

That same night we went out determined to find some margaritas and realized everything was closed, but we lucked out and found a place run by a young Honduran who’d lived for most of his youth in the US (like fifteen years). We got to talking and I found out that his favorite drink was a White Russian and his favorite movie The Big Lebowski. Small world! He insisted on paying for three of our drinks so I hid a fifty-Lempira bill under a coaster when he wasn’t looking. That’s like $2.50, lest you think I’m bragging about my generosity.

My final stop, starting on Saturday, was the site of my friend Joshua Bogart, just north of Tegucigalpa in a miniscule town called El Majastre. He is engaged to get married in June to a Honduran teacher from his community, and I got to meet her and a bunch of her family during the visit. Josh and I talked a lot and ate some great food and took a hike to some of the most beautiful forest I have ever seen a couple kilometers above his house; a deep and lush grove of immense oak trees draped with beautiful orchids and hundreds of other epiphytes. I’d be tempted to say I liked it even better than the rainforests I saw in Costa Rica. What a lucky bastard! Fortunately, I’m going to be back in the area again soon for the wedding. Josh is going to be sticking around for some time to come, so if my application to extend my service gets approved, we may have time to try an expedition up into the highest parts of the Biological Reserve he lives right next to, which I would REALLY love to do.

On Monday I finally started the trip home, stopping off in Tegucigalpa for a couple hours to confer with my project manager Menelio and drop off my request-for-extension form. I got to Choluteca at night and made it back to my site on Tuesday.

All in all I think it was the best “vacation” trip I’ve taken so far (besides the ones with the fam, obviously). I especially enjoyed hanging out in Comayagua; we had an awesome hotel with a pool and (GET THIS) an elevator, and it cost about the same as a shitty hotel in Tegucigalpa. Suzanne was unfortunately feeling crappy but her friends were a hoot and the weather was unseasonably cool the entire time.

Here’s some trip statistics:
Days: 9
Stops: 4
Kilometers traveled: At least 800
Different buses taken: 14
Interesting new people met: 13
Objects lost/stolen: 1 black leather belt (misplaced somewhere), 1 cellphone (pickpocketed in a crowded bus).
Books read on the bus: The Botany of Desire
Future trips thought up: 2

Since then I’ve been doing more work with the cooperative, mainly polishing the proposal for funds from FORCUENCAS and doin’ the teacher thing. I spent a day making maps of coffee fincas cuz the organic certifier Biolatina is requiring them and most of the producers can’t really make one to the level that they’re asking. So I’m going to be helping out with that (like 6 down…. 36 more to go… should keep me pretty busy). It’s really fun work. I get to go hang out with all the different producers, tour their fincas, and then draw a map of it afterwards.