Back in 2006 I visited a place that would have a lasting impact on me, for various reasons. This was the town of Copan, located in the country of Honduras, near the border of Guatemala. This hot, sleepy, dusty town, located in a fertile river valley among small hills was one of those places which even today, 8 years on, I recall fondly amongst my many travel memories. The town is the gateway to the famous UNESCO world heritage site that is the Copan Ruinas (Ruins of Copan) and while yes, they are very impressive, it was the people I met here, and the company that I was with, that forever is in my heart.
Copan is a charming little town of cobblestoned streets and pastel colored buildings. As with most central american towns, the main plaza is the focal point of the town. Being the main town for the surrounding coffee plantations, it was not uncommon to see men walking around with long machetes, with most of them wearing jeans, checked shirts and cowboy hats and boots. It had a real “frontier town” feel about it. After a quick orientation I went my separate ways from some of the group to check out the small museum in town, that held most of the more smaller and valuable relics from the ruins site. While small, it had some really cool artefacts, like skeletons, pottery and numerous jade pieces, including the famous “jade in teeth” that the Mayans were renowned for..
In the late afternoon a group of us hired a little utility that had two bench seats fitted in the back to take us up through the surrounding countryside to the ‘aguas calientes’, or hot springs. Safety is obviously not a strong point – the way were flying in the back of the ute on the bumpy country roads was something I was not too fond of! Once we arrived though we got to chill out in the pools, with many of the locals having the same idea as us. The guys from the excellent “momo’s” meat restaurant in town were on hand to cook a BBQ. Really cheap and yummy BBQ’d chicken and beef along with some rums and beers. It was great. On the way back it was night – once again hurtling in the back of the utility in the dark was stomach churning. Add to that the heat and a few rums and you can guess what happened next – yes, I chucked over the tailgate of the ute, much to the delight of the local children who were running behind us yelling for money. lol! Everyone thought I was drunk, but I barely had anything to drink, I blamed the heat and the ride!!!.
After a night of recovery the next day was to explore the star of Copan, the reason for coming – the Copan Ruins. We had a local guide called Saul, who was extremely intelligent, witty and an informative fellow. He really made the tour of the ruins fun, even though it was a stinker of a day with temps well above 35c and humidity to melt! Copan was a powerful city that ruled the southern area of the Mayan area, with its height of power being around the 5th to 9th centuries AD. While I personally found the ruins at Tikal being more awe inspiring and ‘grand’, the Copan ruins are famous because it has an intact “ball court”, where one can almost picture the ancient peoples playing “ollamalizti”, a game where they used their elbows to knock a ball into a ring. The site also has some well preserved stellae, showing some really clear images and expressions. We had a very informative tour, and learnt alot, but after a few hours in the searing sun (the copan ruins are not as well shaded and covered by jungle like in Tikal either) we decided to head back into town and cool off.
After a daytime nap a few of us decided to visit a local orphanage. Birgit, our guide, knew the ladies who ran the orphanage, and whenever she passed through town she would visit and bring supplies for the children. I decided to go along, not knowing quite how hard it would be to see.
Now, I have few thoughts on this visit. Part of me felt like it was wrong… going to an orphanage, playing with the kids a bit, satisfying the ‘tourists need’ of “giving back” to those less fortunate than us. It just felt a bit uncomfortable. I wonder what the ladies who run the place think of us “rich tourists” rocking up in our expensive gear, hanging out a bit, then going back to our hotels to sip cold beers. It felt a bit uncomfortable for me. But then, when I saw the joy in the children’s eyes, to have new people to play with, to see us coming in with shopping bags of fresh milk, nappies, drawing supplies, fruit etc… those faces were priceless. I think surely it was a good thing to do, even if only for a fleeting moment in my life. Yet, even though we spent a few hours there, this visit was something that has always stayed with me, and perhaps even changed me somewhat. From the moment we entered, the children ran up to us, begging for hugs. There was one girl in particular, Laura, who hung behind the others in a corner, not wanting to get close. I approached her and said “hola” and from then on, we were inseperable. Even with my limitied spanish I learnt that her life was one of abuse and sadness. When it was time to say goodbye we hugged and hugged for ages, and I said to her in spanish that we were “friends forever”. It broke my heart to leave. As we left I cried and cried. Life was so unfair for these kids, yet they were always smiling and full of love and joy. For me this is what I take most from my days in Copan – the smiles of children, the generosity and kindess of the women who take care of these kids, the hope that they can have for a better future.
To this day I wonder whatever happened to Laura. I hope she is living a wonderful life.