Why are bus stations usually in the dodgiest part of town?
From the moment I arrived it felt ugly. I’d spent the last three hours in the bus attempting to understand the vague drawl that the Hondurans imagined to be Spanish and as we arrived in Tegucigalpa, the capital city, the bus emptied in seconds.
The bus station had the air of an underground parking lot and at 11am the streets were dead. The only people in sight were the four menacing thugs who marched up within centimetres of me and shouted:
“Taxi! Taxi!” I had no idea where they might want to take me but I couldn’t imagine it could be anywhere good.
A tourist with a backpack on is like a neon target in a bad neighbourhood for every mugger, drunk and hood that might be trawling the streets. And it’s a perverse and peculiar logic that the bus stations in big cities re almost invariably situated in the worst neighbourhoods imaginable with minimum security and dimmed lighting. Almost as bad is the trend amongst manufacturers of luggage to produce backpacks with a mix of day-glo bright colours that advertise to anyone within 1km range that a disorientated stranger has just arrived. Add a picture of a target on the back with a dollar sign for the bull’s eye and the conspiracy would be complete.
On this occasion I looked around for the bus driver and begged him to help me find a safe place to stay until the morning. He nodded in understanding and escorted me up the hill to the hostel where he also planned to stay the night. Neither he nor the hotel manager seemed top understand my Spanish and communication was almost all in impatient one word utterances. The corridors stank and the whole place was like one bad dream of dirty concrete. I got my room and slid the bolt across the door, certain not to show my face until it got light.
Listening all night to the strange medley of groans, cries and shouts that ricocheted up and down the neon-lit corridor, I had the sensation of being in jail. There was no window opening onto the daylight and only when I heard a substantial hum of traffic did I feel confident enough that the morning had arrived.
I headed down to the market with my face set into a stern mask. It was a beautiful day and I was feeling good but I still hadn’t seen anyone smile and I didn’t want to appear vulnerable.
Wooden stalls were stacked with fruit on either side of the road and I squeezed my way past a jam of shoppers, vendors and trucks unloading produce. I passed hotels with room to rent by the hour and the number of unfriendly stares I received were a clear warning that this would not be a good place to be at night.
On the other side of the bridge I found a less threatening vibe at the market around the church of “Los Dolores” (The Pains). Here there were people who smiled and even made light conversation. I found a cheap hostel and moved my things to this side where the life expectancy was that much higher. I even found a few other tourists at the guest house and they looked at me as though I was crazy when I told them I’d spent the night on the other side of the bridge.
“But didn’t you read in your guide book that it’s completely dangerous over there! It’s full of gangs carrying knives – even locals are scared to go there at night!”
“I don’t have a guidebook,” I told them apologetically. They avoided me after that, assuming that I was either completely dumb or else too loco to know.
Although my new neighbourhood was much safer and relaxed there were still teams of security guards everywhere with big guns and bad attitudes. Even outside Pizza Hut there was a young guy in uniform with a shot gun crutched in his arm and I’m sure he wouldn’t have been there unless it was absolutely necessary. Where many shopping malls in the West might carry ‘No Smoking’ signs, here it was more common to see ‘No Guns Allowed’ on the wall. It wasn’t uncommon to see a bulge in the belt of the bus driver either and more than once I got a glimpse of the pistols they carried as extra insurance. I hope they got paid danger money.
In the mornings the main plaza was filled with vendors of lottery tickets. The wads of numbers were weighted down with rocks so as not blow away in this windy city and there was no shortage of customers. In England the lottery is sometimes called ‘the tax on the stupid’, referring to the unlikelihood of actually winning something. Here it represented for many the one chance that most people had at ever achieving wealth.
A long bench was manned by a line of shoe shine men in red shirts and they too had a steady custom. Each had his own lock up box beneath the bench and they maintained almost a military appearance. A smart appearance is often more important in poor countries than rich as people like to make their aspirations clear. No businessman in Latin America goes to work without polished shoes.
Tegucigalpa is a city set on a series of hills with stretches of wasteland in between accompanying the thin, unhealthy river that divides the city in two. The hub of activity was in Los Dolores but the looming green cliff on the edge of town was just half a kilometre away. The winds and the wasteland gave the city a wild, unprotected kind of feeling and I never felt quite secure. Every day in the newspaper I read accounts of stabbings and gun shot victims in the rougher parts of town.
I saw at least four kinds of police patrolling the streets and the main plaza was patrolled by the military; young conscripts with shaved heads, round helmets and semi automatic guns. They watched everyone pass with petulant adolescent scowls and it looked like they were itching to exercise some power. I took care never to look them in the eye.
But though there were many police and security guards to be seen by day, they were only there to protect commerce and once the shops shut the atmosphere quickly degenerated again into the rough and ready. It was explained to me that to calls someone a ‘market vendor’ was considered an insult in Honduras as it inferred that you shared the same manners and morals as someone of that class. I saw what they meant every time a shapely woman walked through the marketplace – a wave of hisses, smooches and ‘come here, baby,’ often followed her.
I spent my days chatting to people in the main plaza by one of the stalls where coffee and a roll could be bought for about ten cents. The Honduran accent began to unfurl to my ear and my new friends taught me all the vulgar slang that the marketer vendors had been slinging at me all week.
I wasn’t sorry to leave Tegucigalpa but it was one of the wilder places I’ve been and good for a story or two. That’s the luxury that the traveller has: he can always leave.