La Ceiba

La Ceiba is slightly cooler when we arrive. In the distance to the south, we see a hoard of clouds descending upon the mountain peaks. The flight had been beautiful but bumpy, although it is the first I’ve taken without air con.

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We walk out to the main street in efforts to hail down a taxi. My tour book has told me this is much cheaper, but you must go colectivo.

The failure in the plan is that it is the Sunday on Christmas day and there is no one out.

Within a few minutes, a taxi passes by with one white guy in the back.

Taxi to where? The guy in the passenger seat asks.

Zona Viva, I say.

Twenty dollars.

No, forget, I say, and start turning around.

Okay, 10 dollars, he says, for both, and we get into the cab.

Our cabbie cannot find the Rotterdam Hotel, and it’s only when he overshoots it and I see Amsterdam 2001 that I tell him to please stop. We are here.

I pull into my fanny wallet and pull out a $20 to pay my friend.

You don’t have anything else, he says. Slightly irate. No, I say, and hand him the $20.

Then it’s good, he says, taking a look at the $20.

No, it’s not good, I say. You told me $10.

Ah, but I have no change he says, handing me back my $20. Maybe one of these hotels.

I search for the entrance to Rotterdam and/or Amsterdam and find nothing really. I walk through the gate at Rotterdam and see a beautiful Honduran girl sitting behind the reception desk. Cambio? I see meekly, holding up my $20. I have to pay the taxi.

Noo, she says. Try the restaurant.

I walk past my cabbie to the little dutch restaurant that is adjacent. There are two tables of locals fanning themselves. In front, a Honduran man plays with a young child. What do you need? After I explain the situation, he says, ok, maybe you talk to my aunt.

Cynthia had 500 lempiras and I had a $20 in hand. We could either break the 500 lemps or she could exchange my $20. Whichever is easier, she says, and I hand over my $20. When she gives me back 370, I am pissed.

That’s it?. I say. That’s not the exchange rate.

I’ll show you, she says, going back to retrieve her calculator. 20×18.5.…

It’s not that I don’t trust your math (idiot…), you’re screwing me on the rate you’re exchanging my money, I think to myself.

No, no, I say. The exchange rate is 18.8. (And even then, I am somewhat irritated because the guys at the airport that forced me to change with their rates had given me an 18.8 rate or so. And I was convinced they were already screwing me. This granny was taking it even further.)

No, it‘s because I have to take it to the bank and then change them… she says. I call bullshit.

I pay the cab 180, and she relents and gives me a 18.8 rate.. Or 7 lemps more. And I feel stupid for making such a big deal out of such little money. It’s in the principal, I say to myself, trying to justify the situation.

We go Hotel Rotterdam to check in. The young Honduran girl logs us into the guest book and leads us our room and opens the door. We are apparently the only guests there. We are surprised.

When we peer inside Room 4, we are slightly disgusted. The place is… somewhat dump. The colors are dingy and the rooms are simple but relatively clean. The paint peels from the walls, amid an overhanging fan and uniquely bulby, circular lamp that is connected a wall behind one of the beds. The windows are slatted open, and the air is humid and slightly moldy. I see a exoskeleton bug crawl up the wall behind a bed. But what can you really say? It’s only 13 dollars for both of us.

We had hoped there would at least be a dorm to meet other travelers, and I find out later that there is… at Amsterdam 2001 (not that it would have mattered since we were the only patrons.

I run back outside to talk to the girl. I want to make sure that I book my rafting tour with Omega Tours tomorrow, I say to the girl in my awful Spanish. Can I please use your phone. It will only be for a few minutes.

She looks at the phone and then to me again, unsure if she should let me use it. Please, I beg, It’s only for a very short while, I say. You’re sure, she says. Yes, yes, I say eagerly. Just a few minutes. So she gives me the phone, and I ring Omega Tours, certain that no one will pick up. But someone does (thank God), and whoever it is speaks amazing English. We confirm a day-long rafting tour for the next day, and a shuttle to come at 7 a.m. to get us from the hotel.

Cynthia and I settle in for some showers after a long day of traveling. We already know that there will be no hot water. The water is so cold, I can’t even bring myself to wash my hair. Sorry, Cyn, you’ll have to deal with my stinky.

With no tv or internet connection to speak of, we decide to check out the town of La Ceiba.. At least in the Zona Viva area. We walk west two blocks and turn onto a street with a beautiful sprawling hotel built in a grandiose, almost Spanish style. From the pictures I had seen before, I know right away that it is La Quinta, the hotel we have booked for tomorrow night.

Oh, look, it’s beautiful! We say to ourselves, and admire the chandeliers in the lobby and full service staff milling around in the front. In between the hotel and the conference center, there is an entrance to the beach, so we walk along the sand, past the La Quinta swimming pool, bar, and patio. Families play, couples drink, and we can’t wait to stay there.

This is where everyone must be staying, I say to Cynthia. And tomorrow, we will too.

We walk down the strips of sand, not entirely clean, but not bad. The water color is bluish-grey, pretty, but nothing to write home about.

La Ceiba beach

La Ceiba beach

We walk a few hundred meters before the beach starts to look kind of sketch and the beachside hotels and bars disappear nearly altogether. We loop back onto the main street to check out the bars, clubs and restaurants in this neightborhood. Most are open air places, a few large restaurants flanked by rows of shanty-looking structures converted to restaurants. Smoke pours outside of grills set out onto the street where local cooks are grilling pollo and carne.

Basically the problem is that everything is closed because a Sunday/Christmas Day combination couldn’t be worse for trying to find an activity. When we get back to the La Quinta street, we decide to go to a restaurant by the beach to catch the sunset. When in doubt: eat.

We end up at Snake Bar, a little bit further up the beach, where we had seen four tables sat, drinking beers and chatting.

Cyn and I come up from the beach entrance and struggle for a good 10 minutes to find staff. We at least want to let them know we’re here.

The place is a huge…a main bar, restaurant area, a large patio with tables and a 2nd floor patio with more tables. We sit at a table on the 2nd floor between a group of boys drinking beers and a couple drinking some fruity drinks, kissing in the sunset.

An older man, perhaps in his fifties, the only waiter there, brings us a couple of menus. Que tome, he asks us, and I struggle to ask him what the local beers from Honduras are.

He says something unintelligible.

Quiero una cerveza de Honduras…. Hay las cervezas de Honduras? I ask again.

He says something unintelligible again, so I order a Barena and move on. Cynthia tries to ask if there is diet coke.

What? He says. Fanta? Sprite? Fresca?

No, we say., Diet coke.

Coca cola sin azucar, I try to explain.

Ahhh, he says. Okay. And leaves. We’re not so sure we’ve actually ordered anything.

He comes back 10 minutes later with a Barena for me and nothing for Cynthia. We don’t have, he says, after all.

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Cynthia looks crestfallen at the loss of her favorite drink, but settles on a juice made from mixed fruits. She points to it, and he says okay, preparing to leave.

Wait! I say, we’re ready to order!

On the menu, there are several photos of food that look delicious. Cynthia wants the fried chicken looking photo with fries, and I am eager to try something that looks like a salad with calamari and lobster.

We would like to order the photos, we say. Que en la lista estan los fotografias? We try to say?

Our waiter begins to list everything listed under the chicken header on the menu.

Ah, no, we don’t want all of it, I say. Just the photo.

He again begins to list everything under the chicken section. Frustrated, we say, ok, just that then, pointing to a pollo frito.

It is equally difficult trying to order my salad looking thing, because we absolutely have no idea what number it is on the menu. We are at his mercy. He lists everything under the Mariscos section of the menu again and again, and I point repeatedly at the photo of mixed seafood.

When he leaves, I turn to Cynthia. I have never had so much trouble trying to order! I say. My God. I really hope he doesn’t bring us back an order of everything.

Half an hour later, the boys at the next table leave. Great, it’s getting dark, and Cynthia’s fruit juice is no where to be found.

We move down to a table closer to the beach, and closer to the lights that light up the strip of beach we are at. We had heard, because the beach was so dark, it was not safe at night to move around the grounds. Inside, eventually, someone flips a switch and we are sitting underneath the warm glow of Christmas lights. The bigger green bulbs look old and dusty… many of them are a scratchy mix of green and yellow.

An hour later, Cynthia has no drinks still, but the waiter brings back two salads with lettuce, a beet, a slice of carrot, two tomatoes and some beans.. All covered in a leche type dressing. Interesting, we think, and Cynthia swipes a sip of my beer because she still is thirsty as hell.

The waiter comes back to collect our plates 20 minutes later, and by now, nearly all the tables that had been seated when we sat down are gone.

Sprite? Cynthia says. She will drink anything at this point.

The waiter tries to stay and talk to us for a minute, but it is useless. We cannot understand his Spanish for the life of us. We simply dig into the food when it comes–two amazing plates of fried chicken with plantains and two lobster tails cooked in a bubbly, rich creamy sauce in a makeshift lettuce bowl. We dig into the chicken, coated in a layer of cumin and peppery spice. We are always amazed by the tenderness of the chicken. It is incredible, I think.

When dinner’s done, we have little else to do and head back to the hotel, walking past several bars that Lonely Planet has mentioned. It looks like every where’s empty and no one is out.

When we get back to Rotterdam, there are two men sitting across the street from the hotel, leaning back and chatting in white lawn chairs. The garifuna that we had seen pacing up and down the streets earlier, and the other–a Dutchman whose belly stretches out his red polo–rises out of another.

“Hey, my friends,” he says. How are you? You are the new guests. I wasn’t expecting anyone today because the buses weren’t running. I think you still have to pay he says.

Well, I said, we had wanted to go out to eat to make change for paying the place. We were trying to break our 500s (I didn’t even want to ask next door because of the experience from earlier). But we ate too much.. I said.. 488 worth.. And now we still don’t have change to pay.

No worries, he says, and introduces himself as the owner.

He tells us that this place, this whole block in fact, had been owned by his mother who had passed away earlier in the year. His sister owns the dutch restaurant down the street and rents out some of the spaces to the two bars/restaurants flanking the hotels on either side. He runs this place.

I stop him for a moment. Do you drink rum? I say.

Well yes, he says. I was rather hungover from last night, but I’m quite well now. Why not?

I run back to my room where Cynthia has headed because she is getting eaten alive by the mosquitos. I grab the two bottles of Flor de Cana that I have carried from Nica and set them down at the bar.

Pouring through a (very small) bottle of rum, we talk about the history of the country, the politics and the growth of the tourism industry in La Ceiba… all with a little drug trafficking thrown in for the mix.

These big hotels have sprung up all over the last five years. Huge hotels that always sit empty. I get all the business around here, I am full every night. But these big hotels with huge staffs.. How do they make money?

I asked my friend if he was interested in going into investing in a hotel like that once. My friend told me to build a hotel like La Quinta, it costs 60 million lempiras. If you were quite full and charged over $100 a night, you still wouldn’t make back your investment for 30-40 years.

That hotel is NEVER full, he says. I look over and it’s always empty. So they have 2 for 1 happy hours and invite people in just so they look full (Shit, I think to myself. The people milling there was just a cover).

You know what it is, he says. Money laundering.

That hotel down the street, the Villa Paraiso, just went up. It’s always empty. When you do some research, it’s held in the name of a guerilla fighter, and you wonder, how does a guerilla fighter have the money to own a hotel.

He is backed by a drug lord who cannot have his name on anything. So I’m sure he says, ok, I’ll put this hotel in your name and you give me the money every month.

I sometimes thin to myself, why doesn’t this guy just sell the hotel and turn a profit and run. But he will be killed.

Not only him, but his mother, his kids, his aunts and uncles.

Yes, my Dutch friend nods. That is true.

I want to save some of my Flor de Cana for when Jason comes to try it, so I explain and we head down to the two 24-hour liquor stores that are open to get some more rum.

When we hop into his car, the streets are road blocked by police.

They do this every night, he say, to check on drunk drivers. He had wanted to show me a discotec down the street that looked like a castle, he said, but looking at the road blocks, he changes his mind, and we settle on a small bottle of rum from the DR.

He tells me of a run-in he’s had with the Honduran police at one of these checkpoints.

They stop me in the street and ask me to blow in their faces, he says. Instead of blowing in their faces, I open my mouth and suck in. Usually they let me go.

Except on time, I hit another car and knocked the light off. So the police come, and as soon as they smell me, they say, are you drunk? I don’t even try to argue. Yes, I’m drunk! I declared and they escort me out of the car. Someone has to drive your car somewhere, and you have to spend the night in jail, pay a 5000 lempira fine and go to court.

I’ll pay the fine, I say, but I am not going to jail. I have to go to an Atm to get money. So the police drive me to an ATM and I get out 1000 lempiras and roll it up in a wad so that they cannot see how much money it is easily. I give it to the leutenient. There you go. That’s enough for the fine and the damages to the car, but I am not going to jail. The LT slips the money into his pocket and tells me now, we have to find someone to drive my car home.

See, says the Dutchman. They don’t care about safety. They just want the money.

He continues to tell me about the travelers that he’s seen from all over the world… that Americans are often the rowdiest and drunkest. He had once caught a Canadian couple naked on the roof. Caught being that they had climbed up butt naked and could not get down. The bomberos had to be called to let them down, and a maid had to provide the couple with towels.

That’s why I had to build the staircase up to the second floor, says the Dutchman gleefully.

There is another story about a gay couple and a flashlight, and yet another about an American girl who managed to get addicted to crack and came around telling travelers that a cab had driven away with her backpack and she needed only $50 to get to Tegus to find the US embassy. She told the same story for months, he said, until I found out she was an American living with a local Garifuna, and they were both addicted to crack.

There were stories about an American who was making counterfeit bills and paying for prostitutes with them. And another about a child molester who was staying at a local hotel. He had convinced 5 kids from Tegus to come down for a holiday weekend and when the police found him, there were children in his room and more than 1000 photos on his hard drive of child pornography. Within a few days, the man had been released and the hard drive had somehow disappeared.

I suspect there was money involved, the Dutchman says. Because all of a sudden, the media are asking about the photos and the police are saying, no we are mistaken. We thought there was evidence but there wasn’t.

He tells me about how Honduras is ruled by 10 large families, almost like a mafia, and the large discrepancies between the rich and the poor. How everyone was suffering because the government is not recognized by most of the world, but is supported by the United States.

Honduras is a country of beggars, he says. When UNICEF or other organizations have money for supporting certain diseases, Honduras always asks for handouts. When AIDS became popular, the Honduran government said, AIDS? Yes, we have that here. Ohhhh, big AIDS problem in Honduras, so that they get the UNICEF money. Then all the people talk to each other and go, have you heard about this AIDS thing? What is this AIDS thing? They have no idea. And the media swarms and everyone thinks there is a big AIDS problem in Honduras. When I came back from working on a shipping vessel, I find a box of condoms at my reception. UNICEF rules, they say. I have to give condoms to all my guests. WHAT? I said. There IS no problem in my hotel.

I suspect the U.S. is behind the most recent coup, he says to me. And then tells me about the airstrips all over the Honduran jungle where US military craft regularly go to refuel. He suspects the government is involved in the drug trafficking trade on an institutional level. George Bush apparently had an office in Tegus years ago, and it was always empty, but things were going on, he says.

The stories keep pouring out for hours. About how he manages to not pay taxes, and how the Dutch government is getting more strict about paying out pensions. And by the time we are done talking, I am quite a bit drunk and it is after midnight. He leaves to drive home, in a round-about way to avoid the road blocks he says, and I debate going out to D’Vey for a minute before I finally decide to go to bed instead. I am lulled to sleep by his stories.

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