Saturday, February 18, 2012

Full circle to our new place in Copan Ruinas

Sitting in our new place in Copan Ruinas, I’m struck by how far I’ve travelled to get back to where I started.
Our apartment has a table, two plastic chairs, a bed and one end table, plus a fridge and a stove that doesn’t yet work because the gas line can’t reach the propane tank. Jorge the landlord has to chip a hole through the brick work that supports the sink for the rubber line from the secondhand stove.
Today I bought some $33 speakers from Jeox computers, so we have music. They sound pretty good. (In an interesting twist, the Pine Family’s Horse Girl just came on as my iPod shuffled through songs; a fine piece from one of the best bands you probably haven’t heard.)
We’ll scratch up more furniture.
But in the meantime, the lineup matches, eerily, the sparse furnishings of my apartment when I arrived in Red Deer some 40 years ago. (All right, in 1976.)
I had one wooden kitchen chair, a table, a foam mattress on the bedroom floor, a steamer trunk that served as a coffee table, and a turntable and amplifier. No speakers; I listened to albums on headphones. The lack of mobility, and the need to change album sides every 20 minutes, were useful in making me treat music as something to pay attention to, rather than as a background soundtrack. (Though that is a fine and rich role.)
I ended up in Red Deer by chance. I’d driven west from Montreal, with a plan to spend three or four months hiking in the Rockies before heading back east, applying for newspaper work along the way and stopping in the first town where a newspaper would hire me. (My career planning has always lacked a coherent strategy.)
The drive west was bizarre. I’d bought a secondhand Toyota Corolla with a 1200 cc engine and an automatic transmission, an unfortunate combination.
It was my second car. My first was a 1961 Fairlane my grandfather, my mum’s father, gave me after he had an accident somewhere near his home at Lansdowne and St. Clair in Toronto, and decided he didn’t want to drive anymore.
It was a fine car, heavy and light brown, with a straight six, and could pass anything as long as there was a clear three-mile stretch to get up to speed. In its last year or two, rust had eaten a a hole in the floor in front of the back seat. In Montreal winters, water splashed in during warm spells and froze into tiny ice rinks when the temperature plunged. That would have been unpleasant for passengers, except the rear passenger door latch had ceased to function, so I tied a rope from the driver-side door to keep it from flying open when we went around corners. Sitting in the back seat was only an option if I untied the rope and had passengers willing to hold the door shut.
The Corolla, palely insipid, had less charm and even less power. I spent days driving across Canada - Sudbury and the northern shield stick in my mind - without passing a single slower vehicle, except for the occasional farm tractor lumbering along the shoulder.
Long days. I was camping. I had nowhere to be. But I was seized by a strange compulsion to keep driving. At 5 p.m., the sun sending long shadows across the road, I would vow to myself to stop at the next campground. But when the sign loomed, I found physically unable to touch the brake or turn the wheel. I still regret driving past a sign, somewhere north of Superior, that pointed to some petroglyphs. I am unlikely to pass that way again.
Back to the Red Deer apartment and its sparse furnishings. I hiked, by myself and with my brother John and my future and former brother-in-law Murray, in Banff and then bought a bad tie and set out to look for newspaper work. The Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald both, foolishly, said no, but both also suggested the Red Deer Advocate. Those were days in which newspapers were thriving and journalists could leap from job to job. Sending people to the Advocate let the city papers keep an eye on them, and hire them away as needed. It was a good system.
So I rewrote a press release on an Underwood 5 typewriter, which had a sticker identifying it as the former property of the Edmonton school district, was interviewed and hired as night desker. (That deserves a separate post.) After six weeks in the Buffalo Hotel (another time worthy of a separate post), I found myself, most happily, in my apartment with almost no furniture, a few pictures cut from books - I remember a great shot of Bert Lahr playing Estragon in Waiting for Godot - and the Corolla in the parking lot out back.
I accumulated more stuff - concrete blocks and a couple of sheets of plywood to raise the foam mattress off the floor, a used couch, a house, another house, two more houses, and many things to fill them all.
And now I’m back where I started. Happily.

Postscript: Jorge chipped a hole for the gas line, and we bought two more plastic chairs and a dresser, dishes, and a watermelon, pineapple and bananas (and an $8 bottle of Honduran rum). Now if we can just find a sofa.
Lest things seem too grand, note that only the ground floor of the house is ours.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Visiting the ruins, and Mayan street hockey with real flames

I have come to Honduras and seen the future of hockey - or street hockey, at least.
An innovation borrowed from the Maya could add life to the game, and bring its long awaited breakthrough in the southern U.S.
We spent Saturday catching up on the Mayan presence in Copan Ruinas. It’s spectacular. The town’s name comes from the remains of the Mayan city and settlement about a kilometre outside town, a UNESCO world heritage site.
The principal site has pyramids, sprawling plazas, the residences of the elite and surreal carvings in much better shape than more northern sites. That’s because, according to Saul, our guide (and part-time rock musician), the rock here is less prone to damage than the limestone used in Guatemala and Mexico. Whatever the reason, the carvings - stellae and sculptures and features on the buildings - are fascinating in themselves, and have that powerful effect of taking you back to the reality that people were living here in these buildings, and producing this art, in a complex (and doomed) society 1,100 years ago. It provides, for me, anyway, a useful perspective of the significance of our own brief lives. (For a similar sensation, make the drive out to Carmanah and stand among those giant trees as the rain filters softly through their branches.)
The excavations continue (our new landlord is an archaeologist at the site), and some 5,000 ruins have been identified in the Copan valley.
The buildings aren’t as huge as some of the pyramids at Teohuitican and Chichen Itza, though still amazing, and the site has a spectacular setting, with the Copan River running a few hundred metres away and green hills rising all around, a mix of fields and semi-tropical forest.
We’ll be back to the ruins. We only saw a small portion, and I’m looking forward to visits in different seasons and times of day.
In the evening, there was a Mayan theatrical presentation in the square. It was supposed to start at 6, according to the poster I saw, but by 7 things were still being set up, meaning we had time to grab street food - grilled chicken for Jody, beef for me, served with refried beans, local cheese, a big pile of pickled vegetables and tortillas. Delicious, abundant and $4.50 each, with enough left to feed a couple of the skinnier dogs in the square (which is very skinny indeed).
The presentation started with drumming, a sounding conch shell and flute, as people in loin cloths and startling white face paint came into the square. There were ceremonies and a wordy - and for me largely incomprehensible - narration as the music went on.
Then six young guys in loin clothes and sandals, wielding branches shaped like hockey sticks, entered a rectangular space marked by an 18-inch-high fence of widely spaced branches. The crowd pressed around, as a priest, I assume, staged a small ceremony and then rolled a six-inch, flaming ball into the centre of the two teams. The object was to whack the ball into the other team’s end boards.
The moves were entirely like hockey, if hockey also involved avoiding burns, or setting your hanging loincloth on fire when the puck came your way. The ball was soaked in diesel or lamp oil, and lasted for five minutes before disintegrating, when it was replaced. Occasionally, it bounced out of the playing area and we leaped back, parents hauling small kids away from the flames. Sensible people would have choreographed the play. (Well, really, sensible people would probably question the idea of fiery hockey game in the midst of a crowd.) But these were teens with sticks, and they just wanted to win. It was better than most NHL games.
A few fireworks at the end of the show, and up the hill. I like this place.

Note: Peloto photo by Jody Paterson