“The Visit” by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras)
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.
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I am second generation Peace Corps and a son of the forty-year marriage mentioned above. Hearing my father’s stories of Honduras growing up, sparked an interest that helped me to join: Panama (2015-2017). His books are good too!
I like this joyful story. I have learned how rare joy is. Lawrence Durrell when he was in his 60’s wrote a poem for his friend titled SEFERIS as homage to the Greek NOBEL LAUREATE his friend. Here are the final 6 lines of the 24-line poem:
“HOW MARVELLOUS TO HAVE DONE IT AND THEN LEFT
IT IN THE LOST PROPERTY OFFICE OF THE LOVING MIND,
THE SECRET WHISPER THOSE WHO LISTEN FIND.
YOU SHOW US ALL THE WAY THE GREAT ONES WENT,
IN SILENCE BECALMED, SO WELL THEY KNEW
THAT EVEN TO DIE IS SOMEHOW TO INVENT.”
This poem begins with the lines
“TIME QUIETLY COMPILING US LIKE SHEAVES
TURNS ROUND ONE DAY, BECKONS THE SPECIAL FEW,
WITH ONE BIRD SINGING SOMEWHERE IN THE LEAVES….”
The second stanza begins
“THUS THE FADING WRITER SIGNING OFF
SEES IN THE VAST PERSPECTIVES OF DISPERSAL
HIS WORDS FLOAT OFF LIKE TINY SEEDS….”
The third stanza
“YOURS MUST HAVE SET OUT LIKE ANCIENT
COLONISTS, FROM DELOS OR FROM RHODES,
TO DARE THE SUN-GODS, FOUND GREAT ENTREPOTS,
NAPLES OR RIO, FAR FROM MAN’S KNON ABODES,
TO CONFER THE QUAINT GRECIAN SCRIPT ON OTHER MEN;
A NEW GREEK FIRE IGNITED BY YOUR PEN.”
As another returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Brasil 69-71) I enjoy reading Mr. Lihosits’ writings. I have read many of his works and his style is like sitting down with a friend and hearing of his latest adventures. I enjoyed reading the excerpt from “The Visit’ and will most likely buy the book. Those of us who served in the Peace Corps have a lot of tales to tell (Especially those who served during the Viet Nam Era) and Mr. Lihosit is one of the better story tellers among us.
It’s interesting, Larry. However, I think you should have explained why there are black natives in Honduras. People will think all the natives are black. Dee Dee
Yo! Dee Dee. Still sharp! Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment. I can’t make it to the reunion in October but hope that you will share my good wishes. About the black people: they lived along the river’s edge and washed cloths in the river, walking back over the bridge once they dried in the afternoon. To talk about all that would have made the piece some kind of anthropological whats-a-ma-call it and would have detracted from the action. This is an adventure piece. However, it is a great comment and I recommend you explain it better in your book. The more memoirs the better.
La Ceiba had 43,000 residents when we worked there. Today the estimates are over 250,000. The wooden bridge was torn down years ago and replaced by a new steel girder thing. Likewise, the river does not overflow its banks anymore like it did in 1977. AID funded river channelization not too different than I recommended as a hard-drinking volunteer.
The changes seem natural enough. I have less hair, less teeth and am wider.
Really enjoyed The Visit, particularly since I served in Peace Corps in Honduras with Larry and Armando . The story that Larry tells definitely brings back some great memories. Such a shame that Honduras is such a terrible mess now.
In this excerpt and in all of Lawrence Lihosit’s travel adventures I find a wealth of sensory detail that makes me feel like I’m along for the ride. I finish reading and wonder where the last five hours went. On the other hand the dialogue is often sparse, but just the same it captures the personality and the essence of the situation. If you liked “The Visit” I would certainly check out his other books!
Mr.Lihosit’s story transported me back to my days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. I also made many trips through the jungle, crossing streams, and traveling over muddy, rutted roads. I could definitely relate to those experiences, but could never express it as vividly or eloquently as he does. Kudos!
Jerry- Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I agree with you. Rob Thurston (the Associate Director of foresters when we were there) read this and commented that it reminded him of his trips to visit volunteers. He went on to say that many of those same roads would be must too dangerous to drive along today.
interesting and captivating read. Keeps you wanting for more!
Another great essay painting a picture of adventures in the Peace Corps by my friend and fellow author. Thanks so much for sharing your stories with us, Lorenzo!
Jerry- About five years ago I drove to the Bay Area to hear Paul Theroux talk about his latest travel book dealing with southeastern Africa (The Last Train to Zona Verde). While he was autographing a copy for me, I asked when he had been to La Ceiba since Mosquito Coast mentions a Barrio Ingles cantina.
“1979,” he answered, handing me my signed book. “That place has really gone downhill.”
Lihosit’s narrative crackles with realism and energy. I’ve read quite a bit of his stuff, and his descriptions always take me away to distant places and amazing adventures. I also usually learn something from his stories or novels – about human behavior, exotic places, or life in general It’s really good writing!
Once again, Mr. Lihosit paints a vivid picture of life in the Peace Corps. He began his hard drinking long before his experience in the Peace Corps, when we were planners in Scottsdale. Fortunately, he somehow convinced Margarita to marry him, and she got him somewhat under control, enough to raise two accomplished sons. And, he continues to create engaging books. Regarding Honduras, I am left wondering what has caused so many of its citizens to flee. Is it the United States’ insatiable demand for drugs? Or just the usual government corruption? What should the US be doing to help Honduras get back to being a positive place to live?
Ross- Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I wish I could answer your questions but it’s been forty-two years since I last saw Honduras. It would be like me guessing about how to improve Scottsdale. It’s a different world.
Ross- There is a giant American air base located five miles south of Comayagua in violation of the Honduran constitution. While working briefly at an American air force base, a coronel befriended me who had been stationed in Honduras. His most vivid memory was drunkenly shooting his forty-five pistol from the beach towards the ocean in the company of his Honduran counterpart. Likewise, an enlisted man who routinely traveled to Latin American countries to protect American politicians during foreign visits confided that his most vivid memories involved prostitutes. When searching for serious answers to bread and butter issues, the military is not good source material. That’s like asking a football center to design a water system.
Ross- After some thought, it might be wise for Congress to appoint a small committee to visit the three nations with the highest number of immigrants (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) as a fact finding mission. They could travel to each (maybe ten days per country) before preparing a report on the situation and make recommendations. The commission could include at least one retired diplomat with extensive experience in Central America, a professor from U of A or the University or Texas/Austin, a Congress person a member of the Rotary Club and a member of Doctors without Borders. They should be given a timeline for submission of the report (90 days after return) and a maximum number of pages- 100. The commission could be under the auspices of a standing Foreign Relations committee, Budget committee or even an Immigration committee. I would steer away from paramilitary committees that involve Homeland Security.
Hi Larry! Loved reading the Visit. I could hear the scrape of the branches on the Jeep and the cackling laughter of Armando, and see the anguish of the volunteer as he kept wiping his brow. Nicely told, Thank you! Alice
Hi Larry, Excellent story and look at the details of local life down in La Ceiba when you were there. Your story includes many of the details that someone who hasn’t been there would not think about and that most tourist would never take notice of. Those details would be lost if there was not someone to take note of them and share them with others, and by doing so in written form those details and stories will become part of the collective memory into the future. Your recollection of a simple event from your days in the Peace Corps gives people a chance, if they want to look, to see what the place and people were like, not the tourist image of local people that don’t have real lives when the tourist leave. But people living and working in an environment that most North Americans have never experienced or can conceive of. Thank You for volunteering your time to be in the Peace Corps and especially taking the time to record and share your recollections and experiences with those that will never see those places as you have.
Thank you for the kind words.