Another day another border
Okay, so the guys loitering at the border may look a bit dodgy, what with their wasted eyes, gold-capped teeth and menacing air. This is Honduras, after all, a country where it doesn’t always pay to read the section on SECURITY ADVICE AND WARNINGS before you arrive. ‘Is anybody following us?’ I ask, ten minutes after entering the country. Here are a couple of sobering statistics that leave you feeling ever-so-slightly under siege: Number 1) Apparently there’s a murder in this country every 74 minutes. And Number 2) There are 86 homicides per 100,000 of population. In Mexico this figure stands at 18. In Nigeria it is 15. In the United Kingdom it amounts to just 1. That kind of puts things in perspective. Just imagine being the chief executive of the Honduras Tourist Board when, in 2012, the United Nations announced the country had become the murder-rate capital of the world. Now wouldn’t that be a fun job to have right at that moment? I doubt it. It should be, though, for we’re soon driving through rolling, alpine country, the people are friendly, shiny-new SUVs glide past us, the houses are neat and tidy and made of brick, they have modern shopping malls with ATMs and Mr McChicken and Chips, and the guard in the car park with the twelve gauge shotgun seems so bored he’s twiddling his index finger inside the muzzle of the barrel. So what’s all the fuss?
The “Banana Republic”
According to the Economist the term “Banana Republic” actually refers to a country in which foreign enterprises push the government around. Of course, in Honduras’s case this really did begin with bananas. At the turn of the 20th century the United States found the growing conditions for various fruits to be vastly superior to those in their own country and so huge US enterprises such as the United Fruit Company, an ancestor of Chiquita, set up shop in Honduras. They built roads, ports and railways in exchange for land, and were soon telling the government exactly what to do and what not to do. Today, however, it is a far more sinister agricultural product that is ruling the roost – and it’s causing havoc with the country’s security. Central America has long been a backwater for dictators, revolutionaries and adventurers. In the 70s and 80s the region was just another theatre for the covert battles of the Cold War, as Marxist-inspired guerillas battled US-backed tyrants in the myriad of civil wars and coups. Political and social unrest was the order of the day. Sadly, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall effectively ended the Cold War and the battles are still raging here. The countries of Central America’s northern triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) are said to be now amongst the most violent places on earth. Any country where governments are infiltrated by the Mafia, and with a judicial system that achieves a single conviction in every twenty murders, is manna from heaven to the narco-traffickers, and particularly the cartels of Mexico, who have been flushed from their own country in a clampdown by the Mexican authorities, and are now calling the shots over here. It’s a shameful fact that no matter how many resources are thrown at combating it the narcotics trade will always be akin to chasing a gob of mercury round a plate. And no matter how much the US might not want to hear it, as a market with an insatiable appetite for cocaine and marijuana, the origin of the problem lies at its own doorstep. Official reports state that 80% of the narcotics en route to the US via Central America are funnelled through Honduras. As ever the repercussions are blitzing the nation, from the wise-guy in his bling Hummer to the drug-addled, petty thief from the barrios, and quite a few in-between. Even the US Peace Corps pulled out of here in 2012, when one of their members was shot through the leg whilst travelling on a bus – and that’s before they talk about the kidnappings, the car-jackings, the banditry and the run-of-the-mill robberies. Presently the country enjoys a growing tourist trade, but for how much longer? According to Lonely Planet many people visit here without a problem. I’m sure they do. Of our own journey through the country I can say we experienced only courtesy and good humour from all the Hondurans we met. Overlanders who don’t much like the sound of the country can cross it in a few of hours. We lasted 5 days and 21 hours – not that I was counting.
The origin of football
The origin of football has been variously attributed to the Greeks, the Romans, the Zhan Guo Ce Chinese military manual, the Japanese imperial court and the Inuit of Greenland. But it could just be that the game of football we know today originated in the jungles of Central America. Rubber ball games have been played by indigenous people throughout Meso-America since the 2nd millennium BC. In general the game was played in an I-shaped alley between two sloping benches, with a solid rubber ball weighing around eight pounds. Rules and preferences varied from city to city. In the case of Copan the bench markers positioned for scoring purposes were of six carved macaw heads. The symbolism underlying the game tied it to the death and rebirth of the sun, moon, heavenly bodies and the agricultural cycle. The purpose of the contest was to perpetuate these natural phenomena by symbolically defeating the forces of evil. Legendary football manager Bill Shankly might once have quipped, ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…’ but for the Maya it really was. Much like today sacred songs were sung during the game. The more important games were of a gladiatorial nature, more “Rollerball” than “Beautiful Game” in its ruthlessness, with the losers being subjected to bouts of genital blood-letting, ceremonial bludgeoning and the loss of a still-beating heart or two. A header no doubt had an entirely different meaning back then. And such terminology as “good in the air” probably had more to do with the loser being flung from the top steps of the temple. Had Lionel Messi, captain of Argentina during the recent world cup, been playing with the Maya his next multi-million pound signing might have been the last thing on his mind!