Scene #5: bad apples in Honduras

Scene #5: bad apples in Honduras

I’m in the fruit aisle, holding my breath.  Next to me an armed policeman, dressed for warfare and carrying a machine gun, is stroking the apples one-by-one.  Have they done something wrong?  Have I done something wrong??

Eventually, he gives me a look, and moves away.  The apples breathe a sigh of relief.

I’m in a small supermarket in a supposedly dangerous part of the city.  (I say “supposedly”, but it is full of armed policemen, so maybe there’s something in it.)

These apples are little white-and-red mountain apples, sort of guilty-looking, about the size of a kiwi.  Mainly though, they are really absurdly cheap.  And for good reason: it’s apple season in Honduras, and it feels like the whole country is made up of green valleys filled with the sweet smell of apples rotting in the grass.

They’re cheap because there’s lots of them.  This is the market functioning.  The natural channels of commerce all flow downhill, and they say: buy a cheap apple.

But I don’t want to buy an apple.  I want to buy a cheap paperback book, by a Honduran author, and ideally I want it to be in English.  But, as I’m learning, the currents of commerce do not flow this way.

This is San Pedro Sula, a city once famous as the so-called “Murder Capital of the World” (a title it lost in 2016 to San Salvador, then taken by Caracas this year).  I’m here to travel along Honduras’s northern coast, to a town called La Ceiba.

By some pig-headed logic, I’m here solely because I’ve been told not to be.

Those who know Honduras will be thinking, if I’m on my way to La Ceiba, no doubt my destination is the ferry terminal, on my way to the famous Bay Islands to enjoy a slice of coral paradise. Following the easy currents of tourism.


“Go to the Bay Islands, and go to the Copan Ruins”, everyone tells me – from Lonely Planet to other travellers.  That’s if they recommend going to Honduras at all.  I go to neither.

Copan, admittedly, I’ve already been to on a previous trip.  The Bay Islands are different.  They are the Everybody Hurts of Honduras’ tourism experience.[1]  The one that everyone’s heard of, but is nothing like the rest.

My journey will be neither charming, nor efficient.  I am not going to anywhere that could feasibly be called a “destination” except in its most literal sense.

There is no Lonely Planet guide for Honduras, but the chapter in the Central America omnibus has some words about the route I’ll be taking.  Usually so chipper, the writers clearly ran out of rose-tinted spectacles at this point.

I’ll be going past Puerto Cortes (“a thoroughly depressing and ugly town […] there’s nothing of interest to travellers beyond the ferry to Belize”) and stopping off in Tela (“a run-down urban resort whose beaches are sadly full of trash and in many places simply unsafe even during daytime.  Its town centre is fairly unattractive and definitely not safe after dark”).

Finally, I’ll be arriving in La Ceiba (“expect searing heat and punishing humidity (and take care after dark).  There’s otherwise very little of interest in Ceiba itself: local beaches are polluted and unsafe and the downtown has a crumbling neglected air.”)

At which point I am going to look for a bookshop.  (I still do not want to buy an apple.)

Cow near La Esperanza. Full of apples and watching me wee.

The most famous book about Honduras is undoubtedly Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (1981) eventually made into a film with Harrison Ford – about a man who against all advice stubbornly moves to the northern coast of Honduras with his family.

I’m not here because of Theroux though.  I’m here because of another man; a man who moved to the same place in the same year as Theroux’s book was published: Guillaume Yuscaran.

Yuscaran is originally from the United States (birth name: William Lewis),[2] but is now a naturalised Honduran having moved there in the 1980’s.  (He now lives in Tela: one can only assume he has a better opinion of the area than Lonely Planet does.)  He’s a painter, and also happens to hold the honour of being the only Honduran author published anywhere in English.[3]

He has published a lot of books, and you could be forgiven for thinking him an amateur were you to judge a book by its cover (which, in one case, is just a blurry photo of his dog) but this collection of short stories shows an expert at his craft.

Yuscaran writes like he paints: bright splashes of faux-naïf colour, mythic scenes, drawing heavily from local indigenous culture and rural life.  Some of the stories feel just like small sketches, but read together they form a larger work.  Every story features the same character: an old man called Toribio, who plays various parts: a drunk, an old god, a substitute father figure.  Thematically, much of the stories are similar: a lost boy is usually the central figure and a woman dies in almost all the stories, which revolve around life in Northern coastal Honduras.

They have a hypnotic quality which feels totally appropriate to the landscape, the heat, and the people.

Although they really should be read in a farming village somewhere in the highlands, I settle for a cantina on the central plaza in La Ceiba. On one corner of the plaza is the local cathedral: on the other is the tourism office.  Both are derelict, and the latter is full of dogs. I read the stories slowly with my rice and beans.

Everyone I talk to expresses a cautious optimism about the country’s future, mentioning the slowly growing economy, reducing crime, and big business investment projects like Honduras 2020.  Still, there’s concern that activities north of the Rio Grande could have negative effects, and especially what impact Trump’s immigration controls will have, given that a significant part of the economy is still made up of remittances sent home by migrant workers in the States.

In my time in Honduras I only meet a handful of other travellers (plus two busloads of Christian missionaries) and I go three cities in a row where I’m the only guest at my hotel.  At one, they have to turn the power back on to the rooms, which had been switched off for two weeks. [4]

Honduras is a beautiful country, full of wonderful people.  It also has writers: people talk to me of novelists like Ramón Amaya Amador, who wrote the country’s most famous book Prison Verde, and the poet Juan Ramón Molina, for whom the National Library is named.  None are available in English.

The lines of trade are not yet sufficiently well-trod here, and the paths are overgrown.  But, one day, these poets and the towns they live in will be just like those apples: strokable in a supermarket near you.

[1] Naturally Copan is Losing My Religion.

[2] I did worry about whether this appropriately met my overall aim.  Just before I left Honduras, I found an ebook online by another Honduran writer, this time by birth.   The book, a novella, is The Man Who Fooled the Border Patrol by Roberto Quesada, and it can be found here, in case anyone is retracing my steps.

[3] Actually, not true.  Roberto Quesada, as above, is a second example.  And, if my conversations with bookshop owners in Tegucigalpa is anything to go by, he’s potentially more famous in Honduras.  Unfortunately I didn’t learn this until my penultimate night in the country.

[4] An exception to this being the amazingly international D&D hostel by Lago Yojoa, full of wonderful people and homemade blueberry ale.  I don’t make travel recommendations on this blog, but if you’re ever in Central America, it’s a must.

This article is part of my journey reading books around the world.  It is a wholly subjective account of the country and the book, written with only good intentions.  A marginally less subjective list of reading recommendations from this country is sometimes published separately.