Monday, February 25, 2013

On the road to Tomalá, and the miracle spring

So there I was in Tomalá, having coffee with the mayor, perched on a couch in a dark living room, bags of newly harvested coffee stacked along the wall.
I had been minding my own business, sitting outside on the hotel’s plastic chairs, working on case studies on a couple of interesting women’s projects being done by OCDIH, the NGO I’m helping. (We love acronyms in development land.)
Then the mom of the family who owned the hotel brought her son, Edgar, and pushed him to talk to me. Last year, they sent him and his younger sister to an English-language collegio - high school - in a town a couple of hours away. She wanted to make sure the kids were learning.
They were. We talked, and their English was great. The parents stood watching critically.
Then the mayor came by, with a TV journalist from Globo, doing a piece on Tomalá and its big fair. 
The mayor wanted me to come to see a sacred spring, water with healing properties thanks to a sighting of the Virgin Mary there.
How could you say no? Simply by being a gringo, I had a vague celebrity status.
So we walked - the mayor, his wife, the hotel owner (an ex-mayor) and his wife and brother, the kids and the TV guy - up the cobblestone street a block and down a lovely path to El Posito de la Virgen. 
It’s a little pool, very clear, where water apparently trickles out at the base of a 15-metre rock face. It’s credited with healing powers, though I never really got the back story.
Some people were there, washing up. The TV reporter filmed the mayor talking about the spring with his little handicam. The mayor and his wife downed glasses of water from the pool. (I passed.) 
I noticed the TV guy kept framing his shots to get me in the background - I supposed it made it look like there were gringo tourists in town. He even did a brief interview, in which I uttered flattering generalities about Tomalá and Honduras in bad Spanish.
The mayor hopes publicity for the spring would attract devote Roman Catholics to the town, providing a badly needed economic boost.
That seems a long shot. Tomalá is pretty enough. But it’s almost in El Salvador. To get there from Copan de Ruinas - the nearest town with many visitors - we took four buses. The actual travel time was about seven or eight hours. Half the trip was jammed into rapiditos with too many people. 
And the last hour was up a dusty dirt road  in the mountains to get to Tomalá. The climate in the province of Lempira’s high country is extreme even by Honduran standards, with six months of drought followed by six months of torrential rain. The road would be frightening in the rainy season.
Tomalá, without the vendors
The mayor noted that the town is pushing to have the road paved. But Honduras has about 70 stalled construction projects now because the government hasn’t paid the contractors. Main highways are potholed and risky. Unless Tomalá’s spring does have miraculous powers, the chances aren’t good.
I liked the mayor’s optimism. And it’s surely necessary. There’s some subsistence farming and a little coffee. But it’s hard to see how anyone earns a living in Tomalá. (It’s not even on the drug transit routes.) 
The town - about 6,000 people including the settlements in the hills - hopes that it will get dividends if a talked-about hydro project goes ahead in the nearby mountains, but those tend to be developed by foreign companies with proceeds to the national government.
Judging by the number of people who tried out a “Hello, how are you” greeting, the town likely does benefit from remittances from residents who have made the long, dangerous to the U.S. (About 19 per cent of Honduras GDP is money sent home.)
There were visitors. We were there, because CASM, the organization my partner works with, has an office and she came to talk about communications and learn what they do. There were a half-dozen people from Minnesota, down on a project to hand out glasses in nearby, even-poorer villages. (Quite a good project - there’s a story here.)
And that weekend, the town was jammed with vendors for the saint’s day feria. Literally jammed. Makeshift stands were set up everywhere there was a three-metre square space, selling everything. Clothes, shoes, housewares, fruit, dried fish, vegetables, candy  - lots of candy - tools, and, of course, meals. 
Kitchens were cobbled together in a few hours. Hammer together a rickety wood surface - always, it seemed with reused wood and nails. Then top it with adobe, build a couple of rough cookstoves out of more adobe, start the wood fire and away you go. Vendors slept in the stalls at night.
It was festive. The fair saves Tomaláns, if that’s what they’re called, the two-hour bus ride to San Marcos to shop. (We changed buses in San Marcos; dustiest place I have ever been. If you are on the run someday, I’d suggest hiding out there.)
But not festive enough to attract tourists.
Which explains the mayor’s enthusiasm for the miraculous spring. It might seem a little desperate, but he’s trying. Better desperation than hopelessness. 


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

I've been in Tomalá several times, including once about a year ago at the invitation of the mayor. The miraculous spring and the image of the Virgin in the Church are very important for the community.
As an aside, I do believe that the spring may have miraculous powers.

rahmat said...

where is Tomala?