The People's Guide To Mexico

People's Guide Tours

Discovering the Roots of Enchantment
in Guatemala and Honduras

By Sharon Luckerman

Published: November 2001

What does an elder Honduran or a Guatemalan Mayan have to offer a vacationing Jewish woman from the U.S.A. about her past? About her sense of place or of culture?

Sharon Lukerman wearing a Guatmalan headdress
As I prepare the last minute details for my journey to Guatemala and Honduras, I detect a peculiar anxiety beneath the typical pre-trip jitters. Though I haven't been to Honduras before, my first trip to Guatemala four years earlier was a spectacular adventure. From the moment I saw Guatemala City from the air at night and mistook the ring of volcanoes for forest fires, I never doubted the country's magic; I thought and felt little else whether climbing the jungle ruins of Tikal or exploring the misty mountain village of Todos Santos.

And I'm worried that my expectations for this second trip will be impossible to meet. Though I'm eager to go, I dread the possibility that what I once experienced as intimate and beautiful, connected in a mysterious way to my own past, will no longer exist for me.

My doubts never leave. They surface again as we are ascending the Santa Barbara Mountains in Western Honduras, leaving behind the Uzi-protected city of San Pedro Sula, the dramatic waterfalls and caverns in Pulhapanzak, and the jungle ruins at Los Naranjo near Lake Yojoba, our destination for two nights.
Max Elvir

We are a group of eight friends who have hired for a second time Carl Franz and Lorena Havens, author and editor of The People's Guide to Mexico, to guide us through the towns, ruins, cloud forests and markets of Honduras and Guatemala. Carl and Lorena, in turn, have hired Max Elvir, a Honduran agronomist, to accompany us for our week in Honduras.

It is day three, and as we drive toward the old city of Santa Barbara, I'm still an unwilling tourist, unable to escape a sense that I needlessly splurged time and money: this trip's a mistake.

The heat intensifies the higher we climb in the Russian Red Army surplus van that Max converted into his "eco-cruiser." We rise above vast fields of pineapple and coffee where occasional clumps of banana trees stand out, their glossy leaves sparkling in sub-tropical light. Whips of magenta and orange bougainvillea vines drape against tall palms; wild orchids and bromeliads sprout around tree trunks and high branches.

We haven't passed a village for miles when the van starts to lose power on a difficult slope. Max frantically shifts gears but we come to a complete stop.

Great, I'm thinking, imagining several days in the middle of nowhere waiting for a part from... where? The Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore. From Russia? Belarus? Afghanistan?

As we pile out into the heat, however, I'm pulled into focus. Energized. Thanks to the good old days when I dropped out of school and drove west, and later ventured on to Europe, Yugoslavia, and Israel, I have learned that the unexpected in travel as in life often leads to the best part of a journey.

A half-hour later, after we push and coax our van to start without success, Lorena hails a passing bus to Santa Barbara de Copan, that day's destination. We follow her while Carl and Max stay behind with the vehicle and our luggage. (Miraculously, a local gas station not only carries the ignition switch they need, but the mechanic fixes it in just a few hours.)

The Professor
Our adventure begins in town, almost an hour late for our meeting with "the professor," the man Max selected to show us around and give us some historical background of the area.

We wait in the central square, the only foreigners and objects of attention, as Lorena scouts for our man. Several children and adults buy ice cream and sit across from us to watch -- or case us out. A shoeless, elderly woman drags a little girl past us, and asks for money. The lovely old square is a maze of greenery, flowering trees, and benches, a typical white colonial church at one end of the street and sand-colored official buildings on either side.

It isn't long before Lorena returns with a handsome elderly man dressed in a summer suit and tie. Dignified yet weary, the professor addresses the men in our group in Spanish. Among us only Lorena really understands him, and the men, in turn, direct the professor's questions back to Lorena.

Three things are clear. The professor expected Max to interface between him and us; he is uncomfortable with English, and perturbed that a woman is leading a group with men older than her. But he takes our lead and finally addresses Lorena directly.

"You have a list of what you want to see?" he asks.

"We'll make one," Lorena offers patiently, while someone murmurs, "How are we supposed to make a list for a place we've never seen?"

He lets us know he can't walk fast or far, his knee is acting up.

We moan, "We're starved." Hot and tired, we agree that food is the easy and pleasurable solution to many a difficult moment.

Lorena makes the suggestion in Spanish to have lunch.

The professor snaps, "Is it on the list?"

We control our smiles as Lorena, translating, writes it down.

The professor leads us down the dusty stone streets of his quaint town, once the capital of the area but now fallen on hard times. Through opened doorways painted blue, yellow or pink, we see men sewing leather saddles, women weaving straw hats and selling soda, coffee, bagged spices and fruits. We stop in front of a past president's mansion in disrepair, a low complex that takes up a whole block and has become a community center and a Red Cross station. Adults and children gathers outside, while a constant trickle of people come and go. Overhead, in the mountains barely visible through a thick evergreen forest, the professor points out a former presidential castle, now abandoned.

As we continue toward a place to eat, people stop and greet the professor warmly, our first hint of another side of him we will meet later that afternoon; an unlikely occurrence had we not been forced to relate to each other in Max's absence.

It's one of the pleasures of traveling, coming up against the unexpected connections. What you think you know about yourself, about others, is up-ended, suspended, when looking at people through the diverse lens of cultural differences. Common sense is not so common. For someone who learned to fear so much as a child, I am surprised how comfortable I am, more, the pleasure I have meeting people whose language I don't understand, and yet who I want to meet.

At first, I'm surprised that I'm drawn to this cranky, somewhat charming professor. But his discomfort, I sense, has to do with the meat of life and not simply bothersome tourists. He reminds me of a part of my past that keeps bumping into this trip. This time the sensation is clearly connected to my grandparents, who also spoke English grudgingly, and whose primary language, Yiddish, I barely understood.

Continue with Part 2 of Discovering the Roots of Enchantment in Guatemala and Honduras

Sharon Luckerman writes articles for the Detroit Jewish News, a weekly magazine in Detroit which also has a website:

Book Reviews: The Sweet Waist of America
I....Rigoberto Menchu
Other Favorite Guatemala Books
Index Pages: Guatemala
The Ruta Maya
Websites on Guatemala, Honduras

Waterfall near Santa Barbara, Honduras

©1972-2006 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens