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Last Friday, I departed Belize for Honduras.
Whenever I move on to a new country, I always get those jitters, that feeling of newness and change and excitement and anticipation of what to expect (since I rarely know or have time to exhaustively research any town).
But with Honduras, it was a little bit different.
After a couple months in Belize, I was getting accustomed to a certain reaction when I told people I was traveling to the country most known around the world for its extreme poverty and recently, a migrant caravan that trekked more than 2,500 miles to the U.S. border around the time of the 2018 midterm elections (many of the migrants have given up on gaining entry, deciding to stay in Mexico or go home).
“Why?” many Belizeans asked me. “Why would you go?”
I was finding, in many places, that the stereotypes we sometimes consider uniquely North American persist throughout Central America too.
The morning of my departure, I browsed with some curiosity, a Lonely Planet “guide” to Puerto Cortes, the port city I was boating into from Placencia. In dozens of conversations in Belize, no one I had spoken to had actually been to Puerto Cortes, but a few felt compelled to warn me of its particular “dangerousness” anyway.
Now, this guide felt so much like a context-free warning itself that I wondered about the purpose of even writing it.
Under the banner “Welcome to Puerto Cortes,” it read: “If you’ve just arrived, don’t worry: Honduras only gets better from here. Unfortunately, the country’s main port is a throughly depressing and ugly town.”
Aside from two more sentences, that was it. The entire section of “Drinking and Nightlife” said simply: “There’s some very gritty nightlife here that’s not recommended if you’re concerned about safety.”
I laughed out loud.
A couple hours later, I boarded my transport boat, seemingly saying goodbye to Belize as soon as I stepped into the hull. The language switched, instantly, from English and Creole to Spanish. A plastic cooler held hand-sized baggies of water (to drink as though from a bottle) — a Honduran product.
Bags of dried plantains were opened as snacks. The cabin was lively with told jokes and stories. The little boy next to me, his bright yellow t-shirt matching his emoji pillow, kneeled on a bench, his eyes wide and happy as we passed through the mangrove-lined canal that is Mango Creek to Independence, where we would wait for Immigration and where I would purchase stewed chicken with fry beans and journey cakes at the little snack stand for breakfast.
Soon, we were out of the inlet and into the open sea, the faint hazy outline of mountains I was barely aware of while staying along the coast pressed against the expanse of the cerulean sea.
There was something exhilarating about being on this open boat, in the open sea, forehead to the sky, arms to the waves, sea sprayed as we traveled this way, from one land to another.
Waves swelled in the way that you know you’re far from land, rocking the boat, sending one side skyward only to quickly dip back down. I felt a bit like a bull rider at some watery rodeo, holding onto my seat and stretching and contracting with the waves’ leaps and kicks.
Not everyone was as enthused as I — one woman got very sea sick — but for me, it was one of those moments where I could see my life from the outside, and I smiled in on it. As with any country I visit for the first time, Honduras felt full of possibility and intrigue.
Even so, before boarding, I had felt that momentary twist in my stomach, an instant of hesitation that even then, felt short-sighted.
That morning, having a goodbye coffee in Placencia with my friend Jana, I reiterated to her as though a mantra, as though I was trying to remind myself:
“You know, so many people give me opinions,” I said. “People that haven’t even gone to this place are giving me opinions. You don’t know what’s real.
“I try and hold my judgment until I arrive and talk to people who live there, on the ground.”
Still, I told her, I’d be lying if their cautions hadn’t gotten to me a little.
“I’ve reconsidered taking my computer out on the boat,” I said.
And why? Because there were presumably Hondurans on the boat? Because they were inherently more dangerous people? Because they were following me all the way from Belize just to rob me on their home soil. It was a ridiculous fear at best and an ignorant, harmful insult at worst.
Now on the boat, I felt a deep shame about this stupid way of thinking, and how logical, for a moment, it felt.
It was time to check myself, too.
My first glimpses of Honduras were layers of great towering hills, like a watercolor painting, shaded in tones of blue and gray. As we entered the Puerto Cortes bay, one side of the boat revealed a massive cargo terminal, giant cranes and bridges on stilts — looking like an industrial version of the Golden Gate — formed one skyline. On the other side, houses and hints of a beach abutted the tranquil harbor.
Getting closer, and passing under the Calle 15 bridge, I saw kids swinging from ropes into the water, and men with bicycles hanging on the rail overlooking the port, waiting for our boat to arrive.
Trekking through the harbor area — which was flanked by a public market, where I perused the fresh fish stands and purchased a new SIM card for my phone — and across the bridge to the place where I was staying, I kept waiting for the “ugly” and “depressing” qualities to show up. What I saw, in its place, was a picturesque alcove filled with boats and surrounded by waterfront restaurants, framed by colorful houses and the surrounding hills beyond. My mini apartment was housed in a quiet charming neighborhood, in a yard boasting fragrant cinnamon trees and a colorful mural that read “welcome” in English. It made me angry that anyone would characterize this place the way that article did, as if there were no redeeming qualities in the entire city, when I could clearly see a few in my first hour.
What I would find, in the better part of a week, though, was a complex portrait of the place.
The city was lively and in many areas, beautiful. Downtown was marked by U.S. chain restaurants and a hoard of cars, motorcycles and bikes competing for the same space, but the Parque Central was filled with tall, old trees and was always abuzz with families playing and people meticulously sweeping and cleaning. The area around the port, meanwhile, felt almost quaint. I sat at the same waterfront table at El Delfín for a coffee or a beer every day, and watched as teenagers jumped some 40 feet from the bridge above into the green sea below and leathery-skinned men in wooden canoes paddled directly up to the railing to sell freshly caught fish to the cafe owner.
I asked her (the sweet cafe owner), and my hosts a lot of questions that first day — Was it safe to walk around? How about at night? Could I bring my computer out to a cafe during the day? Where couldn’t I walk? At what time of night should I opt for a taxi? Which taxis were safe? What else did I need to be aware of?
The answers, I found, shifted as the tide, with context and time.
My host’s daughter, Monserrat, told me initially “everything is safe,” but then called out to me “Hey, watch your cellphone!” as I left the house for my first walkabout. The owner at El Delfín gave me directions to walk to the local super market telling me “Yes you can walk, just stay on the main path. Don’t go down any of the side roads. This neighborhood is safe. But DON’T go down any of the side roads.”
In case I hadn’t absorbed her warning, she again called to me not to go down the side roads as I walked away.
I got a many mixed messages like this, and soon understood why. The dangers of the town didn’t appear to be with gangs or drugs — but with a culture of extreme sexual harassment and aggression. The problems weren’t necessarily with certain neighborhoods, but with the context of fewer people around (at night; down side streets) to deter an episode of harassment becoming assault.
My host, Jose, qualified the safety warning I had received initially from his daughter — informing me I would be targeted since it was obvious I was foreign (in a place with little to no tourism; Jose told me he often gets overnight guests who have just arrived to the country by boat, but I was the first one to stay longer than a single night). JHis and Monserrat’s worry for me seemed to grow exponentially by the day; they gave me the national and local emergency numbers; after the second night they were messaging me just after dark to wonder where I was, even though I hadn’t yet told them of my frightening interactions.
All the while, I kept discovering the city’s charms. The seafood dishes, especially the rich seafood soups, laden with crab and caracol (conch) and arriving with a pile of rice and plantains were skillfully made and cheap. The coffee, too, was of high quality no matter where you got it. The markets, several strewn across town, were filled with fresh juice and produce and snacks like the pastelita — a empanada-like pastry filled with rice and meat and topped with an herbaceous salsa — that I consumed on Saturday.
On Sunday, I rode my bike past the Naval base over to Playa de la Coca Cola and quickly drew in my breath. The sun was just beginning its retreat into its watery bed, and the beach was electric — filled with kids swimming, lovers strolling and carts selling juices and hot dogs and rum drinks and grilled corn. All along the stretch of pavement that lined the beach were restaurants and bars and asada stands, their grills sending smoke swirling into the golden light. Although the beach was more grass and mud than sand — and sadly strewn with trash — with its curved mouth abutting the Merendón mountains, and the sun melting opposite, it was quite the image, indeed.
Later that week, I would day trip to nearby Omoa, and see its beautiful church, lovely beaches and the astounding Fortaleza de San Fernando, a 16th century Spanish fort with incredible views from the top.
Still, I began avoiding interactions or looking at anyone who passed me, retreating to my room every night before 7.
After my first day, I had told Jose that I was considering staying longer. Beautiful and off the tourist map, I wanted to love it. But on Monday, he asked again and I told him no, I would move on, explaining the problems I had encountered. I didn’t feel I could make friends, here, and my attempts to do so were beginning to break me thanks to their common finale.
He shook his head, sadly.
“Puerto Cortes is calm,” he said. “The only problem is with the culture of men, to act this way.”
My wonderful interactions with him, and his daughter Monserrat — an incredibly bright young woman who speaks English, Spanish and German, and is currently studying Mandarin; who practices karate, and skips school only to deep clean her room and re-paint her bed — and a handful of kind cafe servers who grew to know and greet me, with smiles, by name, only served to further complicate my view of the city and its people. I grappled with how to represent what I had experienced, and the place as a whole, in a way that was both real and fair.
In many ways, it’s been a difficult week.
But a part of me wonders were I to stay longer if my impressions would change — if, perhaps my bad experiences had been out of proportion and with time, would be evened out with the good. This is the danger of writing about a place you’re only passing through; you always wrestle with whether you are being true to your subject, characterizing it adequately. It’s something I think about constantly.
Regardless, I realize, those good experiences wouldn’t mean the place is without danger and fear just as those bad experiences don’t mean this place is without beauty, without redeeming qualities, without gracious, genuine people. In fact, that’s the heart of it — that a single place can boast both kindness and malice; both beauty and ugliness. They don’t cancel each other out, they only serve to form a complexity that most places probably carry, in some capacity, if we look deep enough.
Puerto Cortes, I still feel, is worth that perspective. It’s worth more than a quick dismissal as “dangerous.” More than a short sentence about its grit and depressing state.
As I move on to other parts of the country, I’ll lean into that memory, accepting the struggles with the victories, cherishing the beautiful moments and appreciating them all the more for seeing the flip side. After all: without the bad, what lens would we have for appreciating the truly good?
Oh, and I know there is so much more good to come.
Honduras, I’m excited for what is next.