In Many third or second world countries, organized public transportation is virtually non-existent. For major routes scheduled “chicken” buses depart from parking lots or sometimes in the larger cities and actual bus station. But for locals to shuttle from small towns to slightly bigger towns for market, visiting friends or simply getting around, transportation is handled by taxis, three wheeled moto taxis or some sort of makeshift “bus”. So pickup trucks, mini-vans, flat bed trucks and a collection of other vehicles can serve as the local transport.
As I rode through the fertile lowlands of the Copan valley along the Rio Copan, I started approaching a late model white toyota pick up truck. Speeding at about 40 mph. About 100 yards ahead of me, the bed was packed full of men, women and children. Some sitting on the floor the bed, others leaning against the cab and still others simply sitting precariously on the tailgate and sides of the bed. This is a common site for me on my bike. Sometimes it’s a small container truck packed with people, products and livestock. Other times, it’s simply a pickup. I usually try to make eye contact, smile and then pass as I watch the passengers try to shield their faces and keep their clothing from flapping in the wind. Today, several men are wearing white cowboy hats, and as I gain ground on the truck one flies off the head of a young man sails in the air and rolls to a stop in the middle of the road.
I brake hard as the truck disappears around the corner. A young boy walking on the side of the road watches me curiously. I lift my helmet and ask him to hand me the hat. He smiles and obliges and I quickly accelerate hoping to catch the truck before it turns off into some obscure village hidden from view. And before it registers in my brain I spot a baseball cap in the middle of the road. But my speed is too much and while it is likely from one of those passengers, I’m eager to catch the truck. And I do just as it turns onto a dirt road. I pull off and follow. The gleeful and cheering owner of the hat tries to reach for it as the driver is clueless what’s happening in the back of the truck. Finally one of the passengers sitting against the cab bangs on the roof and the truck comes to the a stop and the hat is reunited with its owner and I head back to the pavement for the coast as locals sitting on the side of the dirt road stare, smile and wave.
The terrain starts to roll and I slowly climb as the river continues winding below me. Ironically, Honduras is the only country in Central America without a volcano. This is rich agricultural land and as I get closer to the coast the vegetation turns from fertile pastures and wooded mountains to more tropical. Bananas, pineapples, mangoes and more. Years after the Spanish colonial rule faded, it was the fruit companies that ruled Honduras. And perhaps Honduras IS the original banana republic.
Economically, Honduras is perhaps the poorest country in Central America. After gaining independence from Spain in 1821. But the country seems to have been bitterly embroiled in conflict between liberal and conservatives each taking control of the government back and forth for the past 175 years. In an effort to build infrastructure, bolster the economy and provide jobs for its residents, Dr. Marco Aurelio Soto, a liberal elected in 1876, set the tone for Honduras for many years. He believed that foreign capital was the only way to spur economic development. So he let foreign companies (primarily mining) move into Honduras on extremely favorable terms. They had to employ people and that was it. Meanwhile the government was saddled with the task of building roads, schools, ports and infrastructure.
The same thing happened with the banana industry 50 years later. With government concessions in place that exempted foreign trade from custom duties , US fruit companies quickly moved into the northern lands near Tela and La Ceiba where I was headed. These larger companies pushed out smaller Honduran and other comapnies and competition was squashed. An ill-fated plan to build railroads in the mid-1800’s was resurrected by the Honduran governemtn with more concessions to the fruit companies. These companies increased their interests in land, railways, energy and telegraph companies and ultimately with government parties — on both sides.
Since Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998, what little economy existed was set back dramatically. Crime has increased, and though I’ve never felt in danger once during my journey through Mexico or Central America I was taken back by a warning sign and a very “Americanized” Texaco gas station complete with mini-mart: no guns allowed inside. I could have closed my eyes and opened them and thought I was in a California gas station. But two armed guards, one at the door and the other by the pumps, were a quick reminder of just where I am.
Passing mile after mile of banana trees and through La Lima, the headquarters of United Fruit (Chiquita bananas) and El Progreso, a non-descript town with a couple fastfood eateries and banks of ramshackle houses. Nearly an hour later I pull into Tela, a quiet beach town with white sandy beaches and a small river (Rio Tela) that runs through the small shabby town center. But I settle into the pleasant Sherwood Hotel on the beach. Scenic palms swing in the breeze and I quickly settle in gazing out over the ocean for the first time since I left La Paz in mid-October.