I had taken a wrong turn.
In search of Castillo Belluci, a crumbling Italian-built castle in the hills of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, I had stumbled past a great iron gate. It seemed to be the right area of the Leona neighborhood. It seemed a gate worthy of such an attraction. So I walked right in.
…And abruptly found myself in someone’s front yard. Beyond the plant-lined stairway where I stood, a man and two women sat at a long, al fresco table, slowly savoring a bottle of wine. Seeing a gringa suddenly appear in their garden, they raised their arms.
“Venga,” come on down, the man called. “Esta es su casa.”
Realizing my mistake and, assuming the sentiment about it being my house to be sarcasm, I covered my face with my hands. “Ay perdon, perdon,” I shouted. But as I spun to leave, they called again, dramatically gesturing with their arms that I join them.
I wondered, for a moment, whether they were expecting someone else and had confused me for their guest.
Soon, I saw there wasn’t any misunderstanding at all: by crashing into their lives, rather, I had become their guest. They had watched a confused, white tourist barge into their garden, and they simply chose to respond with such graciousness that I felt I had been bound there, all along.
It was the latest and most impressing example of the generosity I’d felt in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras — a place where the stout, colorful houses of 1 million residents crowd the slopes so much that the skyline appears, in some places, like a Lego kingdom.
Coming from smaller towns in central Honduras, I hadn’t know much of what to expect. On the coast in Puerto Cortes and then in the hills of Gracias and Comayagua, I hadn’t exactly connected. I learned hard lessons about where to be at certain times, what to wear, how to walk on the street.
On the heels of those experiences, a couple friends who had travelled the country warned me that, well, the capital city wasn’t exactly charming. I didn’t necessarily doubt those assessments.
In general, I tend to be attracted to smaller towns when I travel — I’ve long believed that ordinarily, people are friendlier and more interested in talking about their home to strangers, in those places.
But even in Gracias and Comayagua — two small, colonial, quaint towns with beautiful cafes and clean parks — I had gotten worn down by the at times vitriolic street culture, the incessant foreign feeling. The flip side, I’ve realized lately, to small town travel, is that I’m more exotic in those areas, more of an intruder. I represent, in those places, a greater disparity of life.
So why not give a big city a chance? I thought.
And indeed, in Tegus, the energy was different.
I saw there that life was hard but big. While poverty was more apparent, so too was great wealth. As in many big cities, the left and the right, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the successful and the unlucky, converged in public transport, in parks, giving Tegus the diversity of experience and opportunity, and the sort of awareness that can come along with such blending.
More than in most places I’ve traveled, I saw people help each other. Twice I was a taxi when the driver pulled over to hand money to someone on the street.
Those cab drivers, while navigating the traffic-clogged streets and inclines that would give San Francisco a run for its money, were eager to chat friendlily about where I was from, where I was going and every site we passed.
Cat-calling, at least in the way I had become accustomed to it, all but stopped amid the urban sprawl — food vendors and graffiti-covered walls topped by tangles of wires mixing with food truck parks, wine bars, beer gardens and museums.
Even walking in the evenings, I never felt unsafe — perhaps with the exception of highway peril. While I was in town there arrived news of a deadly but apparently common pileup on the city’s edge after a truck’s brakes failed while plummeting down one of the many great hills.
The city, ever hazy thanks to wildfires burning in the encircling bluffs, was beautiful in its own way. Down every street was a new sightline. On Sundays, it seemed the whole city gathered on Calle Peatonal, shopping for underwear and kiddie pools and avocados and cellphone chargers on towels laid out along the walking street.
It was greater evidence of travel’s ability to surprise; another reminder — imprinted lately into my brain — that expectations rarely matchup with reality.
Last week, on the day that president Trump announced he would be cutting aid to three Central American countries, including Honduras, I got an email from a reader, warning me that welcome for traveling Americans might be “cooling.”
There’s little doubt that attitudes toward the U.S. here are somewhat strained, and why shouldn’t they be? After all, the past policies of both Democrat and Republication U.S. administrations, the consequence-laden support for militarization of the Honduras government, contributed in a big way to what the country is dealing with now — and why Hondurans are heading for our border in the first place.
But despite the hushed reaction I sometimes experienced when telling people from where I hail, I was finding that my treatment as an individual in Tegus was anything but “cool.”
That morning, at one of the public markets in town, I sat down at a stall and ordered a Sopa de Mondongo, or tripe soup. When it arrived, I found it to be really sweet for my taste, and decided to rapidly pay and ditch the meal.
But as I walked away, the woman who’d sold it to me chased me down through the packed weekend corridor.
“You didn’t like it,” she implored. “Let us make something else for you.”
While marketgoers clustered, two deep, around her modest counter, she was attending to one customer who hadn’t even complained — bringing me cups of other broths to ensure I would enjoy my next meal.
It was some of the best service I had received in all of Central America, coming from a market stall.
Later, I crawled up the nearly vertical streets from the center to Parque Leona, an elevated patch of green from which the whole world seems to abruptly drop off. Clotheslines, strung with inside-out jeans in the back yards encompassing the park, dangled over 5-star views.
Soon, I was barging into the Bustillo home.
Bouncing with the fortuitousness of accidental company, the man (I wish I could remember his name) launched into a guided tour of his beautiful home — the terrace bearing a painted mural from a local artist, the courtyard that led to his mother’s house just 10 yards away. He brought me into his home office, and I almost gasped: the small but perfect room was lined with books and draped with culture; stunning tapestries and Peruvian tribal weapons acted as one-of-a-kind souvenirs from his travels. Best of all were the typewriters. There were about half a dozen of them, in various colors and of various ages. I grinned and showed him the tattoo of the typewriter on my inner wrist, telling him I also collect.
He smiled. “This is my oldest one here,” he said. “It’s from my father.”
Out in the front garden, his mother Yvon and wife Aida ushered me to a seat at the table, instantly wrapping me up in the conversation as if we’d known each other for years. Not taking no for an answer, Aida’s husband made me a small plate of the pork flank and chorizo links they had just grilled and poured me a cold beer, a little at a time, with the clear joy of someone who takes pride in true hospitality.
I took a minute to breathe in and look around, trying to secrete in my mind’s eye, what I knew to be a special memory, a precious encounter with shared humanity amongst strangers, further proof of all the good, the kindness, the authenticity in this world. Around me, mimosa trees, bamboo stalks and red-potted cactuses lined the rust-colored pavers, framed the rust-colored house. But the beauty of all that surrounded me paled in comparison to that of my company. I had the feeling of being with old friends, at an Italian villa.
And in a way, I was.
Because after sitting there, with the Bustillos, for a bit, it came out: they owned and managed the castle ruins I had originally been seeking.
I had been bound for this very place all along.
Though the Castillo was closed for renovations — the Bustillos were working to connect it with the park above and transform it into an open-air museum with local artists’ works, a beautiful idea — they showed me to the adjacent gate, unlocked it, and let me walk through anyway.
I snapped photos of the crumbling facades, the faded brick archways, the circular tower, and a smile melted over my face.
This little experience I was seeking, I had achieved it.
But in the process I had gained so much more.