Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Long Day, Well Worth It

(September 2) Once again, we were up well before dawn. Amazingly, so was the staff at our wonderful hotel, who had prepared us breakfast at 3:30 a.m.! Now that's service.

Shortly after 4 a.m., Gustavo, our driver for this leg of the journey (too much to do in one day by bus) arrived and we loaded up, heading for Copan, Honduras. Ellery and I slept for the first few hours, but eventually woke up for a second roadside breakfast around 9 a.m. During this break, we had time to chat with Gustavo, an adorable guy who spoke terrific English, thanks in large part to his having visited his sister in Atlanta every year.

Crossing the border into Honduras was fairly straight-forward, owing in large part to the fact that visitors to Guatemala often make this journey to Copan. And it is definitely worth the side trip.

Copan is very different than Tikal, and we had a great guide, Juan Carlos, to show us around. Because the stone in Copan is hardened by the lava of the volacnoes, unlike Tikal, much of the carvings are in terrific condition. So, while the scale is not the same, the quality is supurb -- Mayan kings, serpants, and jaguars all come to life on the massive stones. Just as facinating is the history of the excavations, including the diversion of the Copan River, which had been erroding much of the site. Copan also has a fantastic on-site museum, where many of the sculptures are displayed.

After about 3 hours in Copan, we proceeded to Puerto Barrios, on the Carribean coast. Again, the landscape changes were very evident as we returned to the land of tropical plants, cowboys and thatched roof huts. Still, not all was unfamiliar -- at Ellery's request, we stopped for lunch at a McDonald's.

Gustavo dropped us off at the dock in Puerto Barrios where we hopped on a skiff taking us to where we would spend the night, Livingston. Livingston is a tiny town at the mouth of the Rio Dulce and, I confess, there's little to recommend it. The "capital" of Garifuna culture, it's little more than a main drag, a few tattered restaurants, and a few even more tattered hotels. Garifuna is similar to reggae, and clearly music is very important to the people here. And the language is certainly a unique one -- not Spanish, not a Mayan dialect, not English -- it's unlike anything I've heard before.

Anyway, our housing options were limited and night had fallen, so we ended up staying at what was probably the most tattered of "hotel" of them all. Without going into details, suffice it to say, it was the opposite of where we had been and where we were going. We slept on top of the sheets and didn't use the bathroom (which we paid extra for). It was, however, less than $9 for the night.

However, the stop was worthwhile simply for seeing the place, and for meeting Phillipe. Phillipe appeared at first to be your average hustler, trying to get us to buy things, taking us to hotels and restaurants where he would receive a kick-back from the proprieters. But, he was facinating in his own right. If his stories hadn't been so detailed, including facts that you had to live to know, I wouldn't have believed him, and I'm still not sure I do. But Phillipe, born and raised in Livingston, found himself with admission and a scholarship to the University of Illinois thanks to the local priest. With a dual degree in music and environmental sciences, he went to work for the US Navy at Point Mugu in California. But neither navy life, nor life of a scientist suited him, so he went back to music, playing all up and down the west coast and in Mexico. Eventually, he returned home, and found himself hanging out with Jerry Garcia. (I checked out this last one and apparently the "rumor" of Garcia hiding out in Livingston is not just Phillipe's). In any event, whether any of this is true or not is almost beside the point; Phillipe was a great story-teller and made the night a most interesting one.