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The barista arrived at my leather banquette table armed with a tray full of equipment.
The pourover stand, with a glass decanter at its base. A stainless kettle with a delicate, gooseneck spout. A canister of the coffee itself, which she allowed me to whiff before beginning the precise brewing process, ensuring the shape and stream of the water flow was optimal for my single perfect cup.
Around me, bright murals covered the walls. Edison lights hung from the ceiling. Japanese siphon contraptions, which were also used to brew this organic java, were strategically placed around the cafe, like art.
I was in San Pedro Sula, dubbed “the most violent city on Earth.”
And I was having a lovely time.
I’d be lying if there wasn’t some vague fear in my gut upon booking a week-plus stay, unsure of what to expect in Honduras’ most maligned city. Everything I had heard prior to arriving in the country a couple months earlier was pretty grim.
In 2014, the Business Insider wrote an article with that headline after the city claimed the world’s highest homicide rate in multiple years.
The photos, labeled “what it’s like in the most dangerous city in the world,” show arrests and guns, tattoos (still a symbol of gang membership in many parts of Central America) and drug raids, masked men and crying women.
If you’re from the U.S., perhaps photos like those have defined your opinion of the city, with good reason; there’s a strong chance that the only things you’ve heard about Honduras’ second largest city revolve around this theme, around the MS-13 gang creation story, around the fact that San Pedro Sula was the starting point of the migrant caravan that gripped the U.S’ attention last fall.
To an extent, that information is fair. As a whole, the city is fraught with violence and corruption; it would be irresponsible or naive to suggest otherwise.
But it’s also not the only angle from which to view San Pedro Sula — a place where nearly a million continue to live their lives despite the security hurdles and potential pitfalls.
I arrived there from Tegucigalpa by bus at the beginning of April, and new friends whipped out the city map to explain San Pedro’s anatomy: to the west, relative safety (but don’t walk at night); in the center, exercise caution (and don’t even go there at night); to the east, the forbidden zone (don’t venture over there for any reason). I was advised keep my cell phone tucked away, to take private cabs — the ones you flag can be dangerous — and to avoid getting on any city bus, which the locals told me is run by one of many mafias.
The broken and intermittent sidewalks brushed up against flowering bushes, their branches at times filled with juice cartons and discarded plastic. Concrete walls separated much of the world from the streets, making it hard to see the city from ground level, and offering a hint of just how much there is to keep out.
This wasn’t the entire picture, though. Amidst the overt poverty was great wealth, too. Mansions, replete with their own armed guards and coils of razor wire, rose in clusters on the edges of town. And throughout, the residents of San Pedro walked to work, shopped for dinner, bought snacks in the park and pulled their TVs out into the street, to sit on plastic crates with their neighbors and watch a futbol game.
As it turned out, the “most violent city on Earth” also had Chemex. It boasted house-made brioche and counters overflowing with intricate pastries. There were fancy hair salons. Beer gardens. Early morning power walkers in yoga pants.
My hostel, La Hamaca, was one of the hottest spots in town thanks to the inside-outside bar, laden with retro design and string lights overhead. There were only a handful of people staying there during my eight nights in San Pedro, but the cold craft beer, the lax rules and the pool table seemed to draw all the local movers and shakers, characters, artists, students and professors each night.
At the bar, every conversation went deep; small talk is not a thing in Central America like it is in the U.S. In La Hamaca, people yelled and cried, danced, hugged and argued animatedly, and sat for hours, smoking cigarettes and more, probing issues and politics and privilege and purpose.
My new friends and acquaintances lamented what it meant to live in this city. Even as the obvious lucky ones — they had money for beers and for ceviche and for cool clothes — they told of horror stories, of corrupting infecting daily life, of a firm, palpable ceiling to their goals.
“No one likes it here,” a young woman named Francis said to me, mulling her future. “What is there for me here?”
Between those moments of honest vulnerability, though, were moments of honest exuberance.
The blender was always full of fruit juices and jalapeño-infused tequila; La Hamaca was where guitars were played, where sushi was delivered, where meditation sessions were happening in the living room, where business deals went down, where friends, perhaps for life, were made.
For some reason, I think our minds have a hard time understanding complexity when it comes to a place that is far away from our home. It’s not hard, given the kind of news we regularly perceive, to conjure an image of a place with decrepit streets, violence in the open, danger around every corner and a people who live in fear and animosity.
While traveling Honduras, I heard from many on social media who expressed surprise that a volatile country like Honduras could also have pretty cafes and IPAs and natives with fresh sneakers and money to burn. For some, it seemed confusing.
“I have had trouble reconciling the beauty you capture,” one man recently wrote to me, “and the absolute desperation that would cause people to subject themselves to the thousand-mile trek and the inhumanity they must know they will encounter at our border.”
Last night, after arriving in Cincinnati — in case you missed it, my plan is to travel around the U.S. for the summer — I made friends in a bar and the obvious first question was “is Honduras really as dangerous as it seems?”
It’s a hard question to answer.
Spend any time in Honduras, and the presence, the threat, of violence is obvious. The backdrop of corruption is pervasive. The poverty, in many parts, in the shanty towns that line the highways, is clear.
But it’s also not a wasteland. Many cities can and do contain multitudes: violence and peace; poverty and wealth; despair and joy.
Traveling, I’ve found, is the only true way for the dark corners of our minds to gain perspective and context; to begin to comprehend a place’s identity beyond the pieces of it pulled out for the purposes of shock and outrage.
Being in San Pedro Sula was a reminder that the city is more than its headlines. Life goes on. And in many instances, it goes on beautifully.
The most violent city on Earth? Perhaps its in the running. But it’s also more.