by Hank Leukart
September 22, 2008
How to win your ex-girlfriend back (in Honduras)
A Central American love story.
The ruins in Copán, Honduras include a Mesoamerican ballgame court.
OPÁN, Honduras — I admit it. My trip to Honduras in the summer of 2004 was part of a bold plan to win my ex-girlfriend back. We had ended our relationship a year earlier for a variety of good reasons, but over time, I had realized that our decision was a mistake. For the past year, she had been teaching at an elementary school in Tela, Honduras, and when one day she e-mailed me to tell me that she had broken up with her new boyfriend, I ignited my master plan. I e-mailed with her and talked to her on the phone frequently, and when the Central American school year ended, I knew it was time to move to my plan’s next step: visiting her in Honduras. I assumed that if I could spend some time with her, I could convince her that we had made a mistake. Plus, the trip provided me with a perfect opportunity to explore the original banana republic, visit a World Heritage site, and learn how to scuba dive, all in one trip.
After convincing her that my visiting her in Honduras was a good idea, I jumped on the next plane to San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city. When I arrived in the airport’s run-down, disorganized baggage claim, even more nervous than I was on our first date, I spotted her beautiful gray eyes across the room. It wasn’t hard, since we were the only two white people in the airport. We hugged meaningfully, and after finding my bag among the beaten-up, antiquated suitcases that could have been found only on a flight to Honduras, it was time for the next step of my plan: a trip to the ancient Mayan city of Copán to become reacquainted. As the bus to Copán bounced us up and down violently on the dirt-covered, hilly roads of Honduras, we flirted shamelessly, and it felt like our first date all over again as we caught each other up on our past year’s life events. She told me about the fun and frustrations of teaching at a school far from her own home and culture, and I talked about my tech job in Seattle. We felt the same excitement we felt when we first met except more intensely, in a way that can only happen after reuniting with someone you know intimately. The bus was dirty and hot, and sometimes Hondurans boarded it carrying chickens, but nevertheless, my plan seemed to be working.
Copán, which the United Nations designated as a World Heritage site in 1980, is an astoundingly well-preserved collection of ruins and a fascinating window into an ancient Mayan kingdom. Among the remarkable stone structures, we saw a large collection of tall, stone slabs engraved with portraits of the ancient rulers of the city known as stelae, small stone pyramids, and a large court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. As we imagined living among the pyramids and worshipping primeval gods, we acted as tour guides for each other, reading details from the educational brochure aloud. Discovering relics from a bygone age feels poignant regardless, but teaching each other — even from a brochure — made the adventure a surprisingly powerful bonding experience.
After a rousing game of Mayan handball, we hired a Honduran with a pickup truck to take us through undeveloped countryside to Aguas Calientes, a hot spring in the middle of an ocean of lush, green, deciduous trees. As the road’s bumps knocked us around in the bed of the truck, we held on to each other as we told funny stories of our recent failed relationships — she talked about the experience of being courted by a Honduran tree farmer, and I related my stories of dating a navy JAG and a competitive jump rope champion (all true). When we arrived, we walked down a forest path inhabited by rainbow-colored butterflies, then soaked in the rushing river water, enjoying the alternating hot spring and cold river water on the humid equatorial day. The sauna-like mist of the hot spring transformed us. It wasn’t our first date any more. We were relaxed. It was just us, together again.
In the sticky night air of the town of Copán, we ate a traditional Honduran meal (mostly rice and beans) and drank wine on the outdoor balcony of a candlelit restaurant. The plainness of the town’s best restaurant and the simplicity of the food reminded me of Honduras’s status as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the West; it wouldn’t be long on the trip before I became desperate for any kind of food not involving rice and beans.
After dinner, we checked into a hotel in the center of town. Exhausted from a busy day, we collapsed on the bed. We were about to fall asleep when we started kissing — at the beginning, like it was our first time — and soon, like we hadn’t ever stopped.
Honduran chickens save the dayI
n the middle of the night in our hotel room in Copán, Honduras, I awoke next to my ex-girlfriend in complete darkness — the kind of dark darkness you see only when you’re in the middle of nowhere in a developing country. Urgently needing to relieve myself, I stumbled toward the bathroom and tried the door but found that my partner-in-crime had mistakenly locked it behind her on the way to bed. I tried desperately to defeat the door’s privacy lock but failed. Not knowing what to do, I opened the window — a second floor window that led to the roof. Then — I’ll be honest — I peed on the hotel’s roof. She awoke and asked why I was standing outside.
“I’m peeing on the roof,” I said. When she asked me why, I explained that she had managed to lock us out of the bathroom. Groggily, she got out of bed. When she too couldn’t manage to get the bathroom door open, she joined me outside. The pitch-black night hid our transgressions from the world.
Though peeing on a hotel roof was not, in a strict sense, one of the steps of my plan to win my ex-girlfriend back, I nevertheless awoke the next morning with the sense that my plan was working. With the woo-her-at-a-World-Heritage-site step of the plan out of the way, we were ready for the next step: packing her belongings to prepare her for leaving Honduras. She had spent the past year teaching at a Honduran Episcopal school, and I knew that once she returned to the States, we had a much better chance of rekindling our relationship, especially if I were an integral part of the transition. We proceeded by bus to Tela, where I met some of the adorable children she taught, some of her peer teachers, and her roommate. At her house, with the unbearably hot and muggy Central American summer constantly enveloping us, we were soaked in sweat by the time we finished packing. Because her roommate was another schoolteacher, we felt it would be appropriate for us to sleep separately, with me on the couch in the living room. But after just an hour napping in the afternoon on the couch, I realized I couldn’t handle a night in the sweltering room without spontaneously combusting from the heat.
We arranged instead for me to stay the night at Cesar Mariscos, an inexpensive, boutique hotel on Tela Beach with modest rooms and a view of the ocean. On the way there, we stopped for dinner at Auto Pollos al Carbón, one of the most popular restaurants in town. While the restaurant’s billboard seemed to make it clear that patrons would get to eat adorable cartoon chickens driving coal-driven cars, Auto Pollos actually served barbecued chicken and stale white bread under blaring televisions to customers on picnic tables. The bread left something to be desired, but the chicken’s lack of ricey-beaniness managed to win me over. The greasy, savory barbecue even lessened the pain of the constant drone of cloying Honduran pop music — which to me sounded like random combinations of the Spanish words ojos (eyes), amor (love) and corazón (heart) strung together. Though, when I attempted to sing a ridiculous parody of these songs to my ex-girlfriend, she was not impressed. I reminded myself not to diverge from the plan.
Still jetlagged from my trip, I assumed I would fall asleep immediately at my hotel after she returned home, but instead, I felt strangely restless and unsure why. I went to take a walk on the beach, but when I stepped out of the hotel, I heard a rock band down the street playing already-familiar Honduran tunes about eyes, love, and hearts. Unable to pass up any chance to watch a live band, I went to investigate and happened upon a carnival organized in honor of Tela’s patron saint, San Antonio.
Acutely aware that I was the only tall, white-skinned, blue-eyed person at the festival, I self-consciously walked through the dense crowds of people. Honduran heads turned as I attempted to take photographs surreptitiously, walking past mechanical horse rides, marble rolling games, and teenagers holding hands, in love. Eventually, I discovered a roulette-like game, in which I could bet my bright orange lempira, the Honduran currency, named after a famous warrior and chief of indigenous tribes. As tiny Honduran girls with large brown eyes and stringy dark hair stared at me curiously, I placed my bets on a colorful board with eclectic cartoon icons, including a barrel, flowers, birds, and fruit. I thought that maybe Auto Pollos had given me a sign earlier, and I kept betting my money on the cartoon rooster. The other players and I watched as the barker excitedly spun the rudimentary, plastic roulette wheel, hoping for a cartoon match. By the end of the night, with the silly chicken’s help, I made off with lots of extra lempira. Everything in Honduras, from the mostly agriculture-based economy to the roulette wheels, seemed to gravitate toward chickens.
With my newfound riches, I returned to my hotel and quickly fell asleep, dreaming of ojos, amor and corazón, cartoon chickens, and the next step of my plan: a romantic trip to an eco-lodge in the Honduran rainforest.
In Honduras, a perfect momentM
y ex-girlfriend and I took the bus east to La Ceiba, checking into the Lodge at Pico Bonito, a beautiful eco-lodge in the Honduran jungle. Nestled among banana trees and climbing monkeys in the verdant rainforest of Pico Bonito National Park, the lodge offered excellent opportunities for bird watching, hiking, horseback riding, and white water rafting. More important for my plan to win back my ex-girlfriend, the lodge’s secluded location made it exceptionally peaceful and romantic, far from any Honduran pop music, making it easy to spend time together without distractions. Our charming jungle bungalow felt like a magical tree house with its rustic furnishings, cute porch hammock, and private surroundings.
With the help of the world’s biggest machete, a naturalist guided us on a hike through the seemingly enchanted adjacent rainforest, where he showed us cocoa plants, wild fruit orchards, and monkeys playing on huge tree branches above our heads. Eventually, he guided us into a hidden valley, where below the thick tree canopy, we arrived at a sparkling waterfall. Covered in sweat after the demanding hike in the sultry air of the Honduran rainforest, my ex-girlfriend and I stripped off our clothes and jumped into the river. The cool water was at once relaxing and invigorating. After I spent some time like a six-year old trying to dunk her head under the surface, we swam to the waterfall, and under the exhilarating shower, we kissed.
After our romantic stay at Pico Bonito and a quick side trip kayaking in a mangrove forest, she and I jumped on a plane and arrived on a tiny airstrip on Utila, a small, remote island off the coast of Honduras. While living in Honduras, my ex-girlfriend had been working toward a professional-level scuba diving certification and had been begging me during our trip to learn how to scuba dive. So, for the final step of my Honduran wooing plan, I agreed to stay on Utila and attend scuba school with her for a week.
The smallest of the Bay Islands, Utila is only 24 square miles, with a limited infrastructure of small inns and scuba diving schools, and golf carts and mopeds for transportation. We checked into a room for about $12 per night at Rubi’s, a small, family-owned inn filled with twenty-something backpackers looking for a clean but cheap place to stay. Our sparse but charming room had a shower, a bed, and an ocean view from the hammock on the balcony outside the door.
Strangely, the delicate curtains that covered our room’s windows are one of my most vivid memories of Utila. The wispy, white, flowered drapes made our empty room seem somehow simultaneously luxurious and charmingly plain, and they were easy to use: we tied them in a knot to “open” them and loosened the knot to “close” them.
Like the knotted curtains, our life on Utila was simple. Refreshingly, every day was the same. Early each morning, I woke up and walked to the Utila Dive Centre, our scuba school. After eating a deliciously moist and savory hot cinnamon bun from the vendor across the street, I boarded a boat and took two scuba dives for my certification class. While I recovered from my dive-induced lightheadedness with a huge banana smoothie, my ex-girlfriend met me for lunch. Then, I returned to the inn for a nap while she went on her own dives for her certification. After my nap, I woke up and read on the balcony until she returned, and then we spent the night together.
We had no television to entertain us, no computer to distract us, and no newspapers to worry us. When we were bored, we talked together or read books in our hammock, looking out over the ocean. When we were hungry, we walked across the street to one of only a few restaurants. When we felt amorous, we unknotted our curtains.
One evening, with only a couple days of our trip remaining, as we lay in bed, with the unknotted curtains blowing in the breeze, my ex-girlfriend began to cry. She cried for a long time, and as the emotion flowed out of her, I hugged her, but I didn’t know what else to do. I realized that I had no idea why she was crying. Then, I went into a panic. If I didn’t understand why she was crying, maybe I didn’t understand her at all. What could she be crying about after we had just spent two wonderful weeks together? Maybe this woman, who I thought I knew so well, was someone I didn’t know at all. My master plan to win her back suddenly seemed ridiculous and childish. I had been taking cues from clichéd pulp novels, trying to create forced romantic moments in an attempt to win a target — a beautiful woman I clearly didn’t understand and whose feelings I had barely even considered.
And so, I began again. Talking late into the night, we discussed our hopes and fears surrounding our relationship, like adults. I discovered that she was crying, not because I had done something wrong, but because she didn’t know what she wanted or how to react to the feelings we were both having. We fell asleep feeling closer but more confused than ever.
On our final days on the island, we went on dives together, playing in the weightlessness of the water, watching sea turtles, whales, and sharks through our masks. Sometimes, we tried to communicate underwater using sign language, which we found difficult at first, but our skills improved with each dive. Under the surface of the ocean, I thought about how much of our trip had been spent underwater — in hot springs, river waterfalls, and the Caribbean Sea. After our dives, we lay together on the bow of the boat, with our salty, goosebump-covered arms touching, toasting in the sun.
During our last evening on Utila, as I waited for her to return from a scuba class, I sat in the hammock outside our room, reading the epic love story The Time Traveler’s Wife and watching the sun set. The magic-hour light created a striking indigo glow over the ocean, and I looked out across the water. On the dock, another couple sat gazing into the horizon’s abyss. A feeling of serenity overwhelmed me. I realized my plan hadn’t worked — not exactly. But it didn’t matter. My travel partner appeared in front of me. Her beautiful gray ojos looked at me. She smiled. It was a perfect moment — the kind of moment you experience only two or three times in an entire life. Despite my plan, we were in love. WB