by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77)
Armando Votto Paz wasn’t just any Community Development foreman. He not only got us what we needed but stood by us whistling away the dark clouds. I didn’t want to let him down but being young, my genes were jumping. I was in love and had just slunk back from a clandestine trip to Mexico City.
Secrets (like a Mexican girlfriend) are easier heard than kept. I feared the worst when Armando surprised me at my La Ceiba office where I was typing legends for my own maps. He paged through my report’s appendix, checking calculations and smiled before suggesting that I take the day off. He had to visit another volunteer in an isolated village. Since I had never been to the place and he could use some company, he thought it a good fit. We climbed aboard his brand new imported North American four-wheel drive vehicle. The sunlight, reflecting from the dashboard, made me shield my eyes.
Within thirty minutes, he had crossed the one-lane wide bridge constructed of railroad ties which crossed the Rio Cangrejal. He drove almost due east, bumping along a dirt rut which wound through jungle only a quarter mile from an invisible ocean shrouded by a green mass. Parrots chattered but if you listened attentively, you could hear waves lapping the shore, somewhere to our left. Gone were the sounds of railroad engines, bells, clinking as a train engineer backed down the wooden dock pushing boxcars full of green bananas to be loaded into German or Japanese or British or Chinese or North American freighters only two blocks from my office; gone was the white, blinding sunlight illuminating silhouettes of men stripped to the waist as they furiously worked aluminum conveyor belts; gone was the salt brine suspended in air that stuck your sweaty back. Huge bright green and orange jungle parrots squawked loud as Armando’s jeep slowed to cross a stream which had washed out our rut. A break in the canopy above permitted a single ray of white light to shine down, reflecting off the clear running water that gurgled as a bead of salty perspiration dropped off my mustache onto my lips. Only a few miles from the third most populated city in the nation and there was no visible sign of man except for a lone orange colored rut, sliced by streams.
Armando whistled, hung one crooked arm out of his open window, steering with the other as we plowed through the stream. The jeep fishtailed while he pumped the accelerator and laughed. A shower of water flew up past our side windows like geysers. Then we stopped dead. The parrots squawked louder.
We were stuck. Trucks did not pass often, sometimes for days. We took off our shirts, rolled up our pants and waded out. We gathered vines as close to the water’s edge as possible since Honduras had pit vipers, tropical rattlesnakes, fer-de-lance, coral snakes and even bushmasters. Within forty minutes we had created some fair ramps and Armando whooped as the jeep lurched forward and through the stream.
Armando laughed and pulled the jeep up onto solid ground as I splashed in the water like a crazy man. My brain was verb-conjugated fried by that report in Spanish. I suspected that Armando must have felt the same after months of sitting stiffly behind a desk in the capital city, wearing a tie and repeating “Yes,” to his boss. He got out of the jeep and joined me in the stream. Soon, we rolled and played in the water, laughing hysterically while parrots squawked.
Armando was a fine guide. Later, after an hour following close to the ocean, he stopped in front of a shack built of discarded lumber, rough hewn logs and metal alongside a bridged creek where white water rushed over boulders. A toothless old woman dressed in greasy rags sold us two warm soft drinks and some saltine crackers. Armando opened the bottle with his teeth just before we reboarded the jeep. We drank and ate as he drove.
A tall black Carib who wore only trousers and carried a rifle stepped in front of our jeep. Armando stopped and quickly told me that this was the watchman. Just up ahead, the ocean’s waves crashed. The underbrush thinned and on both sides of this dirt rut, palm trees towered. As the man stepped up to Armando’s window, Armando told me in English that this had once been a foreign owned plantation for the export of coconuts. Although still foreign owned, it had been abandoned when the price dropped.
Armando told the man in Spanish that we were sent by so and so because we were scientists who had just discovered that coconut was a cure for cancer. In no time, said Armando, the foreign company would reopen and there would be jobs for everyone. The man smiled and ran ahead. He climbed a tree and brought down coconuts for us. Overhead, dry palm fronds crackled. The rhythmic waves broke. After a quick swim in the ocean, a refreshing drink of raw coconut milk and a meal of its white meat dug out with homemade coconut skin spoons, we drove off. The man waved his rifle in the air while smiling broadly.
Armando took a fork in the road that led up a mountain. We left the sound and smell of the ocean behind and they were replaced with bushes and thistles scraping across the jeep’s body and birds taking to wing. My back itched from the dried ocean salt which clung to my back in white strips. Armando drove into a tiny hidden valley where corn stalks choked the narrow rut.
He parked in front of a low ranch style adobe building with a corrugated tin roof. He slipped on his soiled white shirt, combed his hair straight back while looking in his muddy side-view mirror, explaining that it was wise to look like authority. What’s-his-face (a pseudonym), the volunteer we were here to visit, had problems. Armando put on his dark glasses before his door creaked open and a mist of dust floated in.
Within minutes, Armando climbed back in alone and jammed the transmission into reverse, crunching gears. “He’s not at work again.”
Armando drove two miles out of town to a lone tiny adobe home. Its metal roof reflected waves of heat. Inside, what’s-his-face lounged on a living room hammock. At first, he was friendly, only occasionally wiping his dark hair from his brow in a peculiar habit. When Armando asked a few questions about work, what’s-his-face began to pace while he wiped at his hair faster, even when it was not on his brow. His voice rose to a squeal. He told stories about a string of failures and had reason for each. Armando listened and told all the same stories over with a different twist. The volunteer paced faster still.
Armando unloaded some supplies from his jeep a left a handbill about our upcoming group excursion across the country to the island of Ampala on the Pacific coast. He told what’s-his-face that he could charge his travel expenses to the Peace Corps as a per diem.
“I expect to see you,” Armando told him in English. We climbed back into the jeep. “He needs a vacation,” said Armando while turning the ignition key.
For the next two hours the jeep’s engine whined. We were bucked up and down, side to side, as Armando veered past chuckholes. He maneuvered angles and forded streams without stopping until we neared the railroad tie bridge on the outskirts of La Ceiba. We waited as a large group of black women dressed in turbans and simple long pieces of cotton cloth wrapped around their bodies, walked across while carrying bundles on their heads. Without the jungle canopy it was much hotter. Armando unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt, took off his dark glasses and ran a hand through his hair. He slumped back into the seat and quizzed me about my Mexican girlfriend. He knew her name but never mentioned my secret vacation.
“My cousin José married a Mexican girl,” he said as he thumped his palm on the steering wheel. “They have a saying in Mexico: you marry the bride’s entire family.” Armando looked at me smirking, “Watch out gringo.”
The is an excerpt from South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir. The author will soon celebrate forty years of marriage to his Mexican sweetheart. Together, they raised two sons in California’s Central Valley. Recently during a spat, he reminded her that she married for love. “I won’t make that mistake the next time,” she responded with a smile.