I once secretly longed for Christmas during a hot summer day in the jungles of Central America. I know it sounds strange, but at least it was not the Christmas of gaudy light displays, department store stampedes and wrapping-paper hangovers. I had no desire to dismantle a tower of gifts, empty stockings or drain a large bowl of eggnog. I'd never really known that version of Christmas anyway.
No, I pined for something more along the lines of the Christmas get-together - breaking bread at an extra long table with friends and family. I hungered for shared laughter and a dose of that fabled "holiday cheer." You see, my rich adventure in the tropics of Central America had somehow turned impossibly lonely.
But there I was, still well over four months shy of that family feast and spending my nights on a thin mattress in a bug-infested, cinder block hostel and my days alone, wandering the cobblestoned streets of Copan, Honduras.
It was supposed to have been a season of dreams. I'd landed a dream job, crewing on a 48-foot yacht and sailing guests around the Caribbean outskirts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. I had the dreamy luxury of returning home to nothing more than a sophomore year of college. And I'd met a girl that I was pretty sure qualified as dream status.
Unfortunately, all of those dreams shattered easily. At some point, the boat's captain, a washed up 50-year-old hiding down south from the DEA, decided that girl was actually his dream. When she disagreed, he parked the yacht for the rest of the summer, kicked us off the boat and snuck back into the U.S. to check up on his "investments." Dream girl then happily jumped my ship, calling home to her folks and arranging a first class ticket back to some posh Denver suburb.
My resources were a little more limited. Out of work and with five weeks to spare before my flight home took off, I set out on the great Central American bus trip. Eventually, I wound up in Copan. I don't mean to do Copan a disservice. Aside from my accommodations, the generally poor state of my pocketbook and the fact that I was utterly alone, it could have easily fit into that summer of dreams. Instead, its colonial charm was lost on me, the grandeur of its ruins only a faint echo.
The curse was broken almost by accident. Walking along the village's outer edges, I somehow stumbled upon a perfect singletrack trail, the serpentine dirt emerging from a dead-ended cobblestone street. Having long been an aficionado of singletrack and having little else to do, I had no choice but to follow. The trail rapidly climbed out of the valley that held Copan and began to penetrate the lush, surrounding hills. I hiked for miles into the back of beyond, the weight of my problems gradually falling away. My first human contact was a group of three women, wading waist deep in a creek of perfect aquamarine blue. Amidst a cascade that tumbled through house-sized boulders, they scrubbed lavishly bright clothing, briefly resting to wave at the pale stranger.
Beyond the creek, the singletrack again climbed steeply, and at the top of this rise, coffee fields spanned as far as the eye could see. In the middle of this head-high sea of green, a squat dark woman stood topless with little more than a basket concealing her naked form. The container was nearly overflowing with the little green beans, and as I passed, she answered my American discomfort with one of the brightest smiles I've ever seen.
Only 5 miles from the village of Copan, I came upon another village, this one containing eight small adobe structures, and suddenly realized that my singletrack was actually a Central American superhighway. Inside this true village, I was immediately greeted by a teen-age Mayan boy and invited into one of the squat buildings.
Seated inside the dirt-floored, palm-covered home were six men all huddled around a battery operated radio. They sat perfectly still enraptured by the sounds of a far-off soccer game. The men hung on every one of the announcer's words, jumping up in celebration at one moment, collapsing in defeat the next. Their concentration was broken only after they spied me in the doorway. The game was cut short, and I was offered a seat in the circle and a cup of gritty but delicious coffee.
I was never asked for money; they never offered to sell me anything. The experience was more about mutual curiosity. They wanted to know everything there was to know about "El Norte." I was more interested in the idyllic life I'd absent-mindedly stumbled upon. Over the next few hours, we talked story, me in broken Spanish and them in surprisingly good English.
I made the hike out to visit my new friends another three times, and each time was offered a seat and brought that familiar dark cup. Over time, we laughed, talked, joked and found that shared human spark. Over time, my loneliness faded, and I no longer longed for that elusive Christmas table. I'd found family where it was least expected.
As I approach the holidays this year, my thoughts are admittedly elsewhere. These days, breaking bread at an extra long table no longer tops my list. Instead, I'm bent on summer in the tropics and somehow finding my place back into that circle, taking a seat on that dirt floor and sipping on that gritty but delicious cup of coffee.
- Will Sands