In my last weeks of Honduras something unexpected and amazing happened – a Brazilian documantarian decided to come to Honduras to do an episode on Aurelio and the Garifuna for Brazilian TV. The amazing part, is that they decided to film it as a road trip with Aurelio and his band to his hometown of Plaplaya, the most distant Garifuna town of all nestled in the middle of the Mosquetia rainforest, the biggest and baddest patch of jungle in the New World outside of the Amazon. I naturally decided to tag along for the ride.
Being in the jungle is really about getting to the jungle, and its no easy task. It involves cars, boats, rafts, rivers and seas, the end result total peace, hammocks, and killer mosquitoes. From La Ceiba we stuffed the pickup truck with speakers and other types of gigantic musical gadgetry, spent some hours waterproofing it all, and headed on our way. The crew: the great Aurelio Martinez, the aforementioned Chiche Man – giant-baby-genius, Luis – a skittish and sprightly little Brazilian man with a very expensive video camera, and Luisito – a small and soft-spoken ladino piano player who both looks and talks exactly like the Beaker from the muppets, and who’s only true loves in life are classical music and prostitutes.
After some hours, including various stop offs with brief visitations to some of Aurelio’s illegitimate children sowed across the country, we arrive at Bonito Oriental, the place where the paved road ends and thus a sort of frontier town bustling with the commerce of people who only come once a month to buy things from stores. From here on out its straight-up Discovery Channel mode, and as we turn past the police checkpoints and hurtle down a poorly-kept dirt road into the lonely expanses of the rainforest with the setting sun, the warm tingle of the unknown settles into my toes. From there on its hours without passing a house or car or be-muled campesino, we hurtle past crater-sized potholes and across various rivers. Many of the bridges are busted out from the recent rains, so we just drive through the river. Soon its getting dark though, and it becomes obvious that we are not making it all the way today. At the same time, we are passing through a string of Garifuna villages, Aurelio stops to chat, flirt, and thunderously laugh with passersby, he’s letting the world know that THE Aurelio Martinez has come back to the jungle, and youguns’ who never met him shriek with boy-band-induced hysteria, soon everyone will know we’re in town.
We stop off for the night in a nearby town just in time for the inauguration of Honduras’ very first hospital in Garifuna lands, of course put together by the tireless Cuban doctors that, of all the 5 million NGOs from 17 thousand countries operating in Honduras, seem to be the only people actually doing anything. Aurelio is convinced to play a song, but once Aurelio plays one song, he can’t stop, and soon word spreads through the region and two-by-two the people arrive with their flashlights and what follows is the true Garifuna musical experience, four hours of unmitigated wilding, of course replete with miraculous bootyliciousness, and raucous sing-a-longs, all in the near complete darkness of a land before the time of electric light. I try to grab a bass or piano when nobody’s looking, and play until Aurelio shoots me a disapproving look. When it finally winds down, the Cubans are drunk and clamoring for salsa; when salsa is finally delivered they begin to dance like professional actors in a movie about people dancing in Cuba, it is unreal to me just how amazingly they danced salsa, and I am suddenly filled with envy, knowing that as a un-Cuban person I will never be so effortlessly cool. We of course don’t know where we are going to sleep the night, but it is of course nothing to worry about given Garifuna hospitality, we are quickly put up in an empty old house. Luis, Chiche, and I hang out for a while by candlelight conversing, smoking spliffs, and grubbing little cooked fish with cassava out of a plastic bag. This strikes me as amazing, how in the lord’s name has the universe conspired to but three people from entirely different worlds in empty house in the jungle in the middle of the night, eating little fish and discussing universal topics like morning bowel movements in a language that none of the three grew up speaking. You can’t write poetry that good.
At 5:30 in the godamned morning Aurelio wakes us up, the inhuman senator/pop star of course fresh as a freshly bloomed daisy, and we get back in the pickup for yet more journey. We eventually meet up with family (everybody more or less seems to be family) who are waiting with a boat in a river – load up said boat, and head out to the ocean through a river, where we travel at seemingly insane speeds along the shore for two hours, jumping over very tall waves and landing with very big splashes which comically seem to deposit several gallons of water exclusively on me, every time. We head back into a river, and all of a sudden it’s the jungle for real, not in the flippant way I might use the word to describe any place jungle-ish, but the real deal motherfucking rain forest, and its breathtakingly beautiful.
Plaplaya, for the few days I was there, felt like Paradise. It was, puzzlingly, comparatively prosperous next to the rain-beaten miserable stick hut villages we passed by, and its people did remarkably well for themselves considering their myriad challenges of living in the middle of the jungle. The town was all stilted wood houses with thatched roofs, flimsy porches overhanging majestic rivers for drinking beers on, upturned canoes dozing on shores, endless empty windswept beach, lying in hammocks, killing the ceaseless onslaught of malarial mosquitoes, sitting outside an talking about things, playing soccer, fishing, eating freshly picked coconuts, and no running water or electricity to be seen. We spent our days walking around town and catching up with people Aurelio hadn’t seen for years, all somehow related, playing music, lounging in hammocks. I imagine a town probably seems friendlier when you come with its most famous citizen ever, but I couldn’t imagine being treated better. We spent our nights drinking beers with whoever was around in open air bars, mostly talking about music, laughing nervously every time Luistio said something about wanting an underage girl, turning off the music and hushing when one of the drug-smuggling boats slinked guiltily by in the middle of the night, eventually walking home in a darkness and silence that I never knew possible – with no refrigerators buzzing nor televisions flickering, there is a true peace, freedom from the white noise of modern life, only the white noise of your own over-active brain to worry about, and then there’s just the night and its countless mosquitoes.
Plaplaya is really only Garifuna town in the Mosquitia; the vast forests are mostly populated by the Miskito, another Afro-Indigineous mixed ethnicity with a whole different language, culture and history, who very successfully live from lucrative but dangerous lobster-diving and other junglish pursuits and mostly don’t bother to learn Spanish. Alongside are various enterprising ladinos (mestizos, but disparagingly called “indians” by the Miskito) driven to the jungle by land shortage and hoping to burn down a little homestead for themselves. In recent years, the jungle has been a major conduit for Colombian cocaine, which has made some of the Moskito towns both rich and dangerous. Further upstream live the Takawah and Pech, the real original inhabitants, now surviving off selling to the Miskito giant canoes outfitted with little motors (tuk-tuks), the general means of transportation in these parts.
The amazing thing to me is that this bizarre world of rivers and canopies more-or-less works. Quite a large number of people live somewhat modern lives here without roads or telephones, and despite the enormous difficulty of getting any kind of goods or services to such a godforsakenly inconvenient place, there are nice wooden houses and functioning schools and corner stores and canoe-buses punting the rivers with 10 foot polls getting people around. Far from stereotypes of clueless “traditional” indigenous people, everyone I met was well educated and well spoken in their second language, many having traveled the world in fishing boats and oil tankers, seeing everything and eventually coming back home. And – try not to roll your eyes at Marlon-style romanticism – people say they are really happy, and wouldn’t leave unless they had to. Plaplaya, at least, was fairing a whole lot better than the urban slums of Santo Domingo or the rural poverty of inland Honduras. And despite encroaching modernity threatening the Garifuna from every which way, the traditions are strong here, and the kids still speak, and people still live from the bountiful land instead of waiting for fat New York checks, and its in some ways its really a better deal.
Soon after arriving, Brazilian Luis found out that his camera equipment got royally soaked due to poor placement in the boat, and proceeded to blood curdlingly scream, then cry, then whimper, in a pathetic human puddle on a dock facing the river. This was not cool with Garifuna. Whatever you do, you have to be chill. Aurelio spent the rest of the trip snickering at his wimpy documentarian when he wasn’t looking. The show went on, however, and we organized a badass spontaneous concert for the community, and I took many interviews, and it was good.
I didn’t want to leave, truth-be-told, but it was time, and because we couldn’t get a ocean-side boat all the way to our car, we had to start off at 3:30 in the morning in order to catch the 5 o clock trucks that provide the only land transportation to and from the Mostquita. We squeezed a good 20+ people into the boat, and wove our way through twisted rivers in the crisp sunrising morning, past various Miskito towns with their English-style little wood houses, past all sorts of river traffic already out and about in the extremely early morning. We tied our speakers and guitars to the top of a converted pick-up, settled down on skinny wooden benches in the back, and bounced down paths leading out of the Mosquetia, dodging fatal branches coming to decapitate. Here we passed the most traditional villages in the country, places of unprecedented hardcoreness, hurricane battered collections of huts where tough women in tall boots lugged huge loads of firewood across hills while presumably their husbands were catching sustenance for the day. When the path ended, the truck lumbers onto the beach, where for the next several hours drives in the surf. This, to me, is insane. The most insane part, however, is when it reaches every one of four rivers too big to ford (think Oregon Trail, again), they have to put the truck on a raft, block the wheels, and a guy on the other side pulls it across with a rope. After the fourth time, we get to the dirt road, and things are relatively sane from there on out. The whole experience, however, was definitely the greatest travel adventure of my life, thus far.
More updates of what I’m doing in Uruguay and how the hell I got here, to come.