Utila, The Honey & The Way North
By Elijah Nouvelage

Tropical drink and hammock graphic

"For afterward a man finds pleasure in his pains,
after he has suffered long and wandered long."

-Homer

"What is more beautiful than a road?"
-George Sand

The journey's the thing, as Shakespeare might have said had he been born with a wandering heart instead of a wandering pen. This is a sentiment echoed throughout the history of time, from Jesus to Buddha, Herman Hesse to Paul Theroux. And while the simplicity of the statement, the bumper-sticker essence of it, might be cliché after so long, it is still true, and in the end, that should be all that matters.

What mattered to me though, on Sept. 10, 1999, as I lay sweating in a hammock off the coast of Honduras, was the whisper of a relationship. Although I was more than 3,000 miles away from Arcata, Calif., my destination point, I was never out of contact -- whether in Mexico City, Guatemala City, Antigua, Guatemala, or Utila, Honduras -- as e-mail was only a click away. I had become adept at finding Internet cafés, although in places such as Guatemala City it wasn't hard, with one or two every other block. Entering Honduras from the Caribbean side of Guatemala, I expected this veritable treasure trove of communication ability to dry up, but in case anyone doubts that we really are in the 'Digital Age,' let me be the one to say YES, WE ARE. I found an Internet café off the coast of Honduras, on an island no more than 2 miles long, with a population of 1,500 people, and reliable electricity.

Utilia beach and pierIt was on that island, Utila, that I received an email from a friend of mine. She was the girlfriend of another friend of mine, and I was in love with her. At least I thought so at the time. She was moving out of her parents' place and was looking for a 2-bedroom apartment. She was also having some relationship problems and wasn't sure where her life was heading. She asked: What were my plans? What did I want to do? I emailed her and asked that she not decide on a place for a week or two, but didn't say why. Victory goes to the swift, but I had a lot of distance to cover with little money and even less time -- the traveler's equivalent of a Molotov Cocktail. In other words, things had the potential to get messy.

It was while reclining in my hammock on the beach on Utila that I made the fateful decision to try to hitchhike as much of the journey as I could - 'for the experience,' I told myself. I had barely enough money to take buses all the way home, but then I would arrive home flat broke, and I would never get an apartment then. Hitching seemed the logical alternative. Like a stubborn child who decides arbitrarily to do something, I could not be dissuaded, even though I knew that it might not be the easiest or safest trip to take on a whim.

I left a day later.

Taking a road trip on speed is just stupid, but taking a speed road trip, and alone, is a serious undertaking. It requires of the undertaker abnormally high levels of stamina, energy, street smarts, faith, and luck. In my travels it's mostly faith and luck, because I am, by nature, far too trusting to have any street smarts. I credit my successful journeys to my faith in fate and my positive attitude, although they don't work so well individually.

I have always come off the road in one piece, even though sometimes it doesn't feel like it. My mind strained close to the point of bursting from perpetually having to stay alert through too many consecutive sleepless nights on the sides of lonely roads or under the haunting fluorescent glow of gas stations in the dead, still, sewery parts of the morning. Yet this was what I was looking forward to. And it is what I got.

I left Utila the next day on the noon ferry to the mainland (the only one daily). It was Sept. 11, 1999. Leaving that day, I had a vague and hopeful intention of catching a succession of buses westward, and making the Guatemalan border by nightfall. I made it as far as the bus connections would go before the lines shut down for the night - at a ramshackle bus station in Santa Rosa de Copan. This was a town I only barely remembered from my map, and to this day I have never seen it in the daylight, but the night I spent there will live in my memory forever. I arrived at almost 10 p.m. and quickly made five new friends among some Honduran teenagers who were hanging out at the bus station. I passed the night drinking rum and Coke, lighting off my Mexican fireworks, and waxing nostalgically to anyone who would listen about how entwined my soul was with the soul of Latin America, and Mexico in particular. How the simplistic and spiritually wholesome lifestyle of the men and women I'd met in Mexico made my heart happy, content, and full of yearning for a different way of life from the one I knew in the United States. That night I felt so unbelievably free.

Utilia beach and resortI remember looking up at the fiery tail of my just-launched Mexican firecracker/missile and praying drunkenly that it would miss the power lines crisscrossed across the night sky like from some cosmic schizophrenic spider. I realized then exactly what I love so much about being on the road, on any road, and just how empty I would feel when I wasn't. I began to wonder if this trip was worth it. At stake was the (remote) possibility of a meaningful relationship, versus the exhilarating, life-affirming, rush of being in motion. It was, for me, the devil's bargain -- either one would kill a piece of me.

Traveling can sometimes be simply the most picturesque way of running away from your internal conflicts. I know this to be true, because I have. That is not to say I didn't have some amazing adventures, memories I hope to take with me into old age as buoys to cling to. But in the end, I didn't solve much. I felt that I needed to come to terms with my own inner conflicts, and really get to know one other person intimately, both emotionally and physically, if I was ever to survive the mental evolution process. Survival of the fittest, as Darwin put it. I had run and played for too long. And as the sparks showered, and as my new friends and I and the echoing 'boom' of the rocket rang in my ears, I knew without a doubt that I needed to stay put for a while somewhere I felt wanted. California, ho!

The following day I hitched across the border and across half of Guatemala, into Guatemala City. My final ride of the day dropped me off six blocks from the bus station and gave me 100 Quetzales for my journey (roughly $20). He also gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him in a few years so I could come back down and help build a house for him and his family. The final (paid) bus ride of my trip took me to the Mexico border - a sketchy bridge crossing over a deep ravine.

It was close to 1 in the morning when I arrived, and I kept my hand on the pepper spray in my pocket as I crossed the no-man's land between the border posts on each side of the bridge. I had been told by the bus driver to be careful while actually ON the bridge, because legally, it didn't belong to either country, and my safety wasn't guaranteed. In the dim light cast by the streetlights on each end, I could barely make out several huddled shapes along the sides by the stone railings, and by my count, almost 15 milling around under cover of night. For the first time on my entire journey across three countries and numerous borders, I was scared. I tried not to walk too quickly, so as not to arouse interest, and tucked my shoulders in to appear smaller, closer to the size of the more diminutive Guatemalans and Mexicans around me. I crossed safely, but the next question confronting me was how to continue at such an hour. I could take a cab into Tapachula, but there were certainly no buses running. I opted to curl up uncomfortably in a hard plastic chair in the room where, during busy days, travelers sat waiting their turn to receive a stamp to leave or enter Mexico. The lights were out and the desk was not scheduled to open until 8 or 9 in the morning, but there were armed guards outside, and it seemed like the safest place to stay put for seven long hours. I closed my eyes, but was never able to sleep. To sleep is to dream, and I needed that to keep clear the reason for this insane road madness. In the dim light of the customs office, I opened my laptop and searched for a poem I knew would help me pass the night. Shakespeare's 27th sonnet;

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired,
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body's work's expired.
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see.
Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel (hung in ghastly night)
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for my self, no quiet find.

Such words and thoughts made the next week easier to bear. First, let me state one thing I have learned -- the Mexican people are secretly romantic and chivalrous. Because of this, my story, and my reason for haste, appealed to their sense of beauty and justice in the world, and it spirited me from city to city, ride to ride, and new friend to newer friend for a whirlwind week of virtually nonstop forward motion. The stories relating to this part of the trip need to be told in their own time. They deserve more time and space than I can afford them now. A striking difference between Mexico and the United States, it seems to me, is the classic manner in which both of our countries view women and relationships. In Mexico, women are to be desired and wooed, romanced and loved. They are things of beauty and perfection. In the United States, from what I gather, women are just sexual objects. My romantic quest tapped into the classic Romeo in every Mexican male, and my trip seemed blessed from start to finish. I explained to Pedro, one of my final rides, somewhere north of Mazatlan on the west coast of Mexico, the reasons why I loved this woman so much, and why I felt she might be the one for me. He looked at me funny and laughed.

"You speak just like a Mexican. You really are one of us!"

And yet, she is still with her boyfriend, my friend. They are going to get married soon, and I wish them the happiest of years together. They are both lucky people, but so am I, for different reasons.

 

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