This past week I, along with maybe 100 Peace Corps Honduras and (a handful of) Guatemala Volunteers made the trek to the beautiful city of Copan Ruinas for the annual Halloween Party made famous by Peace Corps Honduras. Apparently over the years, Halloween has been a time in Honduras for many of the volunteers in the far flung parts of the country (like me) to get together and see each other for what may be the first and last time in an entire year in some cases. For this reason, from what I can tell (I haven’t been here for every holiday) in the Peace Corps Honduras World Halloween is the biggest holiday, and has got to be probably the biggest - official or unofficial - gathering of Peace Corps Volunteers in Honduras. Of course not every one can or wants to attend, but I would say there were easily between 80 and 100 of us there. Basically it’s a good excuse to go to one of the few real tourist towns in Honduras and enjoy some good company, good food, and the occasional* beer or cocktail from a real bar - all while forgetting your Spanish, spending enough of your living allowance to to cut meat entirely out of your diet for a week or two upon your return, and getting a chance to be to be those loud, arrogant Americans you hear about on TV.
On Saturday, the 30th, there was actually a Halloween Party between three of the more popular bars in town, and we showed up in force with some great costumes. My favorites (that weren’t me) were a buddy who dressed up as Mario in Mario Cart, complete with everything - hat, mustache, gloves, suspenders, and RACE CAR - very well done, then there were the girls from my department of Olancho who all went as a different version of Lady Gaga, and they got their costumes down to a tee. On my end, myself along with two of the other guys from Olancho - Matt and Josh - and my buddy Eben from out west, were each one of the four national beers of Honduras - Imperial, Port Royal (me), Salva Vida, and Barena. We won the “Best Costume” prize, while the beautiful ladies of Olancho swept the “Sexiest” category - So I guess you could say Olancho took it home. Our costumes next year may include something to do with the words “better than you.”
We had this idea pretty randomly just a few weeks before Halloween, and there is still debate about who’s it was exactly. Anyway, we found a woman in Catacamas who makes beautiful piñatas, and asked her if she could make us beer bottle piñatas - that we could wear. To our surprise she didn’t even blink, and answered yes, of course. She measured us and sent us out to bring her back empty** bottles of each brand to use as a guide, and then got to work. A mere five days later she had made four enormous, beautifully detailed, paper machete, wearable beer bottles - and here’s the wild part: She only charged us L.200 for each one! That is $10.00... We had to negotiate with her to let us give her another L.200 for all her work!
However, as you can see, these things were quite large. Even getting them from this woman’s house back to where we were staying in Catacamas included a feat so strange and harrowing I can’t even write about it for fear of what Peace Corps might say if they saw it. And what’s more is that Matt was due for most of the week in Tegucigalpa for an appointment, and Eben lives 14 hours away, so it was just Josh and I handling these costumes from the point of pickup all the was to Copan Ruinas. You have to understand, not only are these things each about four feet tall with a circumference of three and a half feet, but they are also extremely fragile, and would melt if ever exposed to water (we live in a rainforest, during the rainy season). Getting to Copan Ruinas was definitely the best part. Josh and I woke up at 3:45am to walk (because these costumes would not even come close to fitting in a taxi) about a mile to the bus terminal with our luggage and two stupidly big piñatas, wrapped in garbage bags with jerry-rigged duct-tape handles, apiece in order to make the 5:00am bus to Tegucigalpa. We barely made the bus, but the piñatas fit underneath without problem and we could at least sleep soundly for the four hours it takes to get to Teguz. Once in Teguz, we had to switch busses, and once again, to get the piñatas where they needed to go, we had to do something else so stupid that I have to censor it for fear of Peace Corps, but we’ll just say that they, and us, none too easily, made it in one piece to the next bus terminal. Form there we waited about two hours for the bus we needed while we took advantage of the time and cajoled management to let us put the piñatas underneath in the storage compartment in a place where they couldn’t be crushed. Finally they acquiesced and we were on our way. Six hours later to San Pedro Sula, and seven more to Copan Ruinas, and we miraculously made it - literally cross-country - with these fragile, man-sized, paper-machete piñatas, each one defiantly continuing to be its own different kind of beer-bottle-shaped awesomeness.
When the night actually came to don the costumes we soon discovered we were celebrities. We found this out while just walking the few blocks form our hotel to the bar where the party was at. I understand that this is going to sound made-up, but it absolutely happened as I describe it. As we made our way down the street locals and tourists alike began lining the sidewalks cheering and taking pictures. It took us a half hour to walk four blocks, as every twelve steps someone would stop us to take a picture. Once at the threshold to the bar, we walked in to a spontaneous round of applause, and the back of the bar was - unintentionally - converted into a photo-studio where people waited to get their pictures with the beers and Lady Gagas... How could we not have won? But I have to say, by the second bar the costumes came off, and it was nice to be able to dance, buy drinks, and, well, sit down...
The party itself was a ton of fun. It was great to get to see so many new faces and old friends. It’s a strange feeling, since I had only known some of these people a few weeks during training or a few days from conferences, but once united it was like seeing old friends from your home town or college. One of the best parts of Peace Corps is that once you go into this with these people, it’s like you’re bonded by something greater than the common interests or forced company that forge so many friendships from back home, but rather some uniting goal (even if we don’t always see eye to eye about it) and the fact that we’re all in the same fight. I know this is nothing like it, but I think I have a better understanding now of how people become best friends in fox-holes.
While I was there I also had the incredible opportunity to visit the Mayan Ruins of Copan. I believe there are few things in the world that upon merely seeing them change your life in some small way, but the Copan Ruins are one of them. During its heyday between 300 and 900 A.D. Copan was the second biggest Mayan city behind Tikal, and with a population of over 1,000,000 was bigger than any city in Europe or the U.S. would be for more than several hundred years after the Mayans had disappeared. Copan is considered the best artistically preserved Mayan city, as it was never demolished or “cleaned up” by missionaries or “improved” by the wild-cat amateur archaeologists that discovered many other Mayan sites.
The Copan Ruins are truly one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen. If anyone’s interested I would highly recommend a visit. In my opinion, the monuments of London, Paris, and maybe even Rome pale in comparison to what these ancient people who didn’t even have the wheel or iron were able to leave behind. Check out the full sized versions along with the rest of the Copan photos here.
I’ll leave you with an interesting thing about the Mayas that I think we should remember when thinking of our own national problems: While many people believe that the Mayans - like the Aztecs - were wiped out by the western conquistadors, that is not in fact the case. While Mayan indigenous groups existed - as they do now - upon the arrival of Cortes, their culture, knowledge, technology, traditions, and language had all but disappeared more than 200 years before the first blond-haired, green-eyed European stepped foot on the new world. This happened because the Mayans were not an empire, but rather, like ancient Greece, a collection of fickle, warring city-states. As they grew bigger they began to clash over resources like jade (their equivalent to gold) and food resources. The Mayans cultivated hill sides and otherwise unnamable land by practicing a type of sustainable slash-and-burn agriculture that included ingenuous crop rotations and fallow cycles that Europeans wouldn’t stumble upon for another 200 years. However, as they grew bigger and bigger it became imperative to grow more food, use more land, and clear more forest. Eventually city states like Copan and Tikal began to reach the capacity of what they could comfortably produce. Now for over 100 years historians and scientists have said that the world has hit its “carrying capacity” but we’ve always innovated and progressed to a point where each time those doomsayers are proved wrong. However, to the Mayas, the problem was a zero sum game and the prime answer was to physically take more land, and - more gruesomely - make more sacrifices, as they viewed blood as the literal link between this world and the divine fertility of the land. Therefore by the end of their apex, Mayan city-states were not only starving to death, but fighting wars where the sole point was to take prisoners to sacrifice, while leaving entire cities abandoned. This was the end of the great Maya Civilization. One of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known was not demolished and assimilated by the conquistadors, but instead imploded through a slow, anticlimactic process of endemic, resource-centric warfare.
** This definitely turned into a two hour trip...