Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #23: Mad Rush Through Honduras, El Salvador & Belize – Honduras, El Salvador, Belize

#22: Mad Rush Through Honduras, El Salvador & Belize

19 Apr 2002

Honduras is one of Central America’s largest states, and yet one
of the least populated. Only 6 million people live in this country. This is
my second visit to Honduras. Last year, during my trip to Guatemala, I
crossed the border to visit the great Mayan city of Copan, which lies
within Honduras (pictures).

Fortunately, visas have been abolished for Singaporeans in Honduras recently and I
could get in without paying bribes as I did last year. The other great
attraction of Honduras are the Bay Islands in the northeast of the
country. They are one of the best diving spots in the world. I am not
a diving person and so I am skipping that region. I will just pass
through Tegucigalpa, the capital.


Hurricane Mitch’s devastation is still evident in Tegucigalpa

Tegucigalpa (what a mouthful to read that! Let’s call it Tegu), with
about 1 million people, lies in the southern edge of Honduras, along the
banks of Choluteca River. Tegu entered world headlines in 1998, when
Hurricane Mitch devastated the city (and much of the country).
Choluteca burst its banks and whole sections of the city center and its
suburbs were wiped away. The mayor of the city was killed when his
helicopter crashed in the rescue efforts. Even today, many parts of the
city along the river are just wasteland, including the part of the city
center along it. Facades remain of some of the larger buildings, no
different from those you see in Sarajevo or Kabul. Many bridges are
mere temporary steel structures, like those used by the army in military
maneuvers, and I suppose they probably are, though new ones are being
built with international aid.

Tegu is a dirty and messy city. The roads are narrow and traffic
horrendous. Buildings are not maintained properly and paint is peeling
off even in the Congress Building � normally among the most well
maintained buildings in most capital cities. The Cathedral looks in an
advanced stage of decay too, not helped by the burning tropical heat.
The saving grace is the church Los Delores, with its attractive
primitivist sculptures on the facades.

ATM machines � their availability and functional state � are often an
indication of the country’s state of development. In Tegu, I had
difficulty finding ATM machines and when I did manage to find them, they
often failed to accept non-Honduran cards. When I went to the banks to
change my dollars, I had to deposit my bags outside the bank, go through
metal detectors, and then, assuming there were no lines, show my
passport, during which the bank staff filled out all types of forms and
made various phonecalls. All this to change US$20. Honduras simply
isn’t geared up for the global economy.

I do not like Tegu. Maybe my two day stay was too short to do justice
to it. The streets are too narrow and dark, even in day time, which
meant that I didn’t feel safe walking around. It’s also too hilly to
walk around comfortably in the oppressive tropical heat. In a way, I
felt trapped here, and spent a bit of time reading in a nice caf� in the
Fine Arts Museum, an escape from the messiness that is Tegu. Whatever
it was, it was better than Managua, where there was no city center to
speak of. I stayed at a hotel run by a Hong Kong immigrant family who
came here more than three decades ago. They could hardly speak Mandarin and
we had to communicate in English. Apparently, quite a number of Hong
Kong Chinese moved here a few decades ago, running restaurants and small
businesses. I was invited to a Chinese casino, gambling being the
favourite Chinese pastime worldwide. Worn out by yet another early hour
journey, I declined.

After Tegu, I moved on to El Salvador. Another ultra early departure at
6am. After a few hours through the dry dusty hills around Tegu, it
reached a green valley which forms the common border with El Salvador.
This was the scene of the infamous Football War of 1969. Riots broke
out in the qualifying match of the World Cup between fans of both
countries, followed by ransacking of Salvadoran businesses in Honduras
and Honduran businesses in El Salvador. Honduras began clearing the
farm sheds of Salvadoran immigrants on the border regions, where
landless Salvadoran farmers have lived for decades. The Salvadoran Air
Force reacted by bombing Honduras and marching into the country. The
war lasted for two weeks with thousands dead. Football was the excuse,
but land and economics the real reason. It wasn’t helped by the fact
that both nations were ruled by military dictatorships anxious to prove
their worth.

Customs was easy enough and we sped through El Salvador to the
capital, San Salvador. Coming across the border from Honduras, the
roads were significantly better in El Salvador. New highways are being
built and we encountered few potholes on the existing ones. We passed
many shiny new shopping malls, especially in the city of San Miguel,
the third largest in the country. The stunning Volcano San Miguel stood
in the vicinity of the city, cloud-free at its summit. Wow � this is
what a volcano should look like, textbook version, that is.

Salvador del Mundo

Salvador del Mundo

Within three hours we arrived in San Salvador, capital of the republic. The country
and city are so named by the Spanish Conquistador Gonzalo de Alvarado,
who believed that it was Christ the Savior who saved his brother Pedro,
the more famous Conquistador, from death during his conquest of this
valley from the Indian tribes. Today, the huge monument Salvador del Mundo (Savior of the World) stands in the city center, overlooking the
traffic island and the horrendous smog produced in this city of 2
million people. Save us from air pollution!

El Salvador is the smallest Central American state by surface area but
with 8 million people, is the most densely populated. The nation
entered world headlines in 1979 when civil war broke out between the
military and leftwing guerillas calling for land reforms. The
Sandinista Revolution had just succeeded that year and the United
States, anxious to prevent a new Soviet client state in its backyard,
supported the Salvadoran military with heavy military aid.

The civil
war lasted till January 1992 when the peace agreement was signed by both
sides, which allowed for the integration of the guerrillas into the Army
and the participation of the guerrillas in national politics. More than
70,000 were killed, more than half of whom were civilians killed by
right wing death squads, including the charismatic Archbishop Romero,
who is now being beautified as a saint. He has spoken out loudly
against the military abuses and was assassinated by death squads in the
middle of a mass.

It was also during this period that millions of
Salvadorans moved abroad, especially to the United States. An estimated
3 million Salvadorans live in the US and another 2 million elsewhere.
Some say that Los Angeles is the second largest Salvadoran city, with
1.7 million Salvadorans, just slightly less than San Salvador itself.
More than half the population have relatives living abroad.

Cathedral in San Salvador

Cathedral in San Salvador

There isn’t a lot to see in San Salvador, but I liked the clean, smooth
highways and huge shopping malls, especially those in the Metrocentro
complex. They are a nice change after the slummy mess of Managua and
Tegucigalpa. They project the image of a prosperous looking Salvadoran
middle class, with all their bulging shopping bags and North American
style lifestyle. It is hard to believe that this is a society
recovering from 10 years of bitter civil conflict. It is amazing that
whilst Honduras had not gone through the devastation that El Salvador
did and was in fact a large recipient of US aid during its years as a
“frontline” state (against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and
the leftist rebels in El Salvador) during the Cold War, it remains a
poor country with lousy infrastructure.

El Salvador, in contrast, is
not only recovering rapidly from its civil war, but also erased many
traces of the damage caused by the disastrous earthquake it suffered in
early 2001. The locals attributed this to their work ethic, which they
felt is far superior to that of their Central American neighbours.

The country also has a better educational infrastructure and is a
manufacturer of basic goods. It also produces good coffee, bestowed by
the rich volcanic soil of this land. I have seen many Salvadoran
products in the supermarkets of neighbouring countries I have visited.
Even then, however, we mustn’t forget that the largest source of revenue
for the country is that of remittances from overseas Salvadorans. These
have powered a lot of the consumerism here. Indeed I find prices fairly
high here. Food sold in the food centers (similar to hawker centers in
Singapore) and restaurants are very high, more expensive than Singapore
and almost similar to southern European levels, when the country’s GDP
per capita is around US$3000 (relative to Singapore’s US$25,000 and
USA’s US$32,000). Souvenir t-shirts start from US$12, while you can
find these at a fraction of the price in Guatemala or Costa Rica.

El Salvador is beautiful country that should be able to lessen its dependence on
remittances in the future. It is an under-visited country with lots of
potential. The violent reputation of the past have put off many
potential travelers. It is a pity for the country (but blessing for
those who do go there) that many of its sights are free of travelers
now. It has great surfing beaches and in my opinion, the volcanoes more
spectacular than those in Costa Rica. There is little harassing of
tourists and few souvenir vendors. The country deserves better.

Volcano San Miguel

Volcano San Miguel

Some say the most remarkable thing in this country is its hospitality.
It’s a small country with a big heart. I met Mauricio, a Salvadoran
engineer who is also an enthusiast in archaeology � what sort of person
would go to Tikal or Copan a few times a year? We clicked right
away and he drove me to the country’s beautiful beaches in the south, as
well as exploring the beautiful colonial towns in the western part of
the country. He also introduced me to the amazing delights of
Salvadoran cuisine, which I dare say are far more diverse and tasty than
those in other Central American states. It was a pity I hadn’t planned
to stay a long time in El Salvador and had just booked a flight to
Belize. Otherwise I would stay longer in this beautiful country. I
hope to return one day.

I have decided to skip Guatemala on this trip as I have already been
there the year before. Besides, I
would need a visa for Guatemala and that would take away more of my
already scarce time. So I decided to hop into Belize on a TACA flight.

Belize is a strange creature in Central America. First settled
by Mayans, followed by English pirates, adventurers, free logsmen,
escaped African slaves from the Caribbean, refugees from wars in the
Yucatan and all sorts of wayfarers. It became a British colony in the
mid-19th century and became independent in 1981. Belize has only
250,000 people and is the only English speaking country in Central
America. It is blessed with the second largest barrier reef in the
world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It also has a number of
Mayan sites and some jungle lodges. Over the years, it has turned itself
into a top end ecotourism destination.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by English signboards everywhere. What a
welcome change after four-plus months of being a functional illiterate in
Latin America. Listening to the locals, however, can be a problem.
They speak Creole among themselves and that can be incomprehensible.
Good thing is they do try to speak proper English to foreigners.

I checked into a hotel in Belize City not knowing that this so-called city
of 80,000 people is dead on a Sunday. I had thought about going to the
new Belize Museum and looking around at local souvenir and bookshops.
Instead I found a dead town with only one overpriced cafe open � and
even that cafe was empty. Apart from that, there were only kids fishing
in the creek running through this ramshackle tropical town of fading
paint and corroding iron grilles. I returned to the hotel and got a 50%
refund. I hopped onto a ferry for Caye Caulker, a reef island off
Belize’s coast.

Caye Caulker is Belize’s backpacker paradise, literally an island for
budget travellers in this rather expensive holiday destination which
aims for a higher value end of the tourism market. Even then, an
average restaurant main course here starts from US$8 and even rice
with chicken in a plastic box sold by street vendors here costs about
US$5. Gone are the basic beds of US$5 in Latin America. Here they
start from US$15 for something real basic. Internet for US$5 to US$10
an hour. The place was cool enough. Coconut trees swayed in the skies,
white fine sand, and beautiful people walking around in swimsuits.
Reading a book while sipping a US$3 coffee in a strategic location was
probably worth it.

A large section of the tourists here are Americans,
although it is also fairly international as well. There is even a
Chinese restaurant here, not to mention that the largest supermarket is
also Chinese, owned by Hong Kong immigrants. In fact, upon arrival at
Belize Airport, I passed numerous buildings and shops with Chinese
signboards. Many Hong Kong Chinese have moved here in the 1980’s, when
Belize was selling local passports at low prices, and Taiwanese
businessmen have also set up shop. As in other Central American states,
Belize is a large recipient of Taiwanese aid and receives substantial
Taiwanese investments.

I went snorkelling in a strange place full of human friendly nurse
sharks and eagle rays, and went manatee watching in a mangrove cove.
This is a fun place, but my heart calls out for the mystery of the
Mayas, and a lustful dose of ethnic colour and exoticism. And so I
crossed the border into Mexico on Tuesday.

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