We began our trip that day in the quaint little resort town of Omoa on the coast about 10 miles WSW from Puerto Cortes. Omoa is a backpacker destination which usually means cheap places to stay. For six of seven days of the week backpacker numbers are significant but not on Sunday. When we arrived the tourists were overwhelmed by drunken day-visitors from San Pedro Sula. Cheap beer and seafood, loud music, and the cool coastal breeze draw the Sunday pick-up crowd. They can be found parked on the beach and staggering along the beachfront till the wee hours trying to pick fights or make ‘friends’.
After Omoa our destination for the first full day in Honduras was the port city of La Ceiba. She is the main port town for the Bay Islands, and our eventual destination was the largest of these Islands: Roatán. The trip was a little circuitous avoiding the marshlands at the coasts and the Cortes and Yoro mountain ranges, keeping to the relatively fast paved main roads, south via San Pedro Sula, NNW toward Tula and on Westwards to La Ceiba.
There were a couple of toll stretches but rates were reasonable compared to Mexico (around 15 Lempira in all). The trip took about seven hours by road.
First stop was Puerto Cortes, a major port and a busy centre of commerce. Like most commercial port cities it is rather ugly. However we were happy to find banking facilities, ATM’s that did work, fast cheap Internet and of all things a supermarket! We stocked up on goods that do not spoil in a hot vehicle and headed south toward the capital Tegucigalpa till we reached San Pedro Sula.
San Pedro Sula is Honduras’ second city. It is a major center of trade. It is also a city surrounded by Dengue infested poverty. In the year 2003 San Pedro proudly announced a major control program for the Dengue. Dengue Fever comes in two forms and is the result of infection by mosquito bite, a variety that bites during the day, unlike those that carry Malaria. The symptoms are difficult to treat and there is no cure or vaccine, nor preventative measure like anti-malarials. The most common form is relatively innocuous causing a minor fever but the other more serious hemorrhagic dengue is often fatal especially in children. So-called because of the symptoms of bleeding in internal organs this form is a major cause of death in Central and South America. Dengue is endemic from tropical Central Mexico to the Amazon region. The authorities in San Pedro Sula decided to alleviate the problem by spraying certain still water areas, a city canal in particular, thought to be the gestation site of Mosquito larvae. The result was rather underwhelming, this season there were ten times the number of incidences of Dengue in 2003 than in 2002 in San Pedro, despite their campaign.
After five months in Mexico and Guatemala it was shocking to see the influence of US commerce on Western Honduras, San Pedro Sula in particular. Esso gasoline stations sported full-functioning air-conditioned, fast food restaurants; their super-sized customers, staff and vehicles parked outside. The sickly lighting inside reflected the chilled cans of US-made beers in the freezers on the walls.
Though gasoline is more expensive in Honduras than Guatemala people were driving some ridiculously oversized 4-WD vehicles for such an urban area. As one might expect to find in London or San Francisco these behemoths were scrupulously waxed and scrubbed. I suspected that few were ever used off road except maybe for an afternoon run with a few Kilos of Cocaine from the Mosquito Coast. Such a weekend trip can supplement the income nicely paying for the luxuries in life: the mistress, the Gasoline and the new super-sized truck each year.
Even in larger Honduran cities white skinned visitors encounter little or no intimidation from Government/Security officials in the daytime anyway. In the words of a fellow traveler from San Francisco, Hugh Diamond: “They’re thugs all right, [the Honduran security services] but they’re our thugs!” I was driving with California plates so they naturally thought me a Gringo. You don’t meet too many Europeans in San Pedro Sula. I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough.
Outside of San Pedro the road heads west to the industrial new town of El Progreso. This rather ugly new town should be best twinned with Milton Keynes in the UK or maybe Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. One had the feeling that it’s industries like the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juarez could also find it difficult to compete with China if CAFTA or PPP is signed. Economic reviews published early 2004 of the first ten years of NAFTA’s effects on Mexican industries have not proven positive for the weaker trading partner. A maquiladora is an industrial complex fuelled by young, mostly single, cheaper and union-free labor. In Mexico these are conveniently located just south of the US border. These plants compete for low skilled contracts to assemble car-parts, clothing etc. for eventual consumption in the US.
Though labor costs are kept very low in Mexico the maquiladoras have tried hard but failed to compete with Chinese labor laws and pricing. NAFTA has had interpretation problems with sourcing of imported goods. US corporations insist that goods manufactured abroad benefit from NAFTA’s streamlined exportation into Canada and Mexico even if the goods are manufactured outside North America, in China in particular. Mexican contractors vying for low wage assembly contracts want this law to be interpreted in a different way, sourcing should apply only to US made goods. Such is not the case and many maquiladoras are closing up shop simply unable to compete.
The US corporate accountants have spoken. Current transport, manufacturing and tariffs costs mean short-term gains are to be made from outsourced Chinese manufacturing not manufacturing within NAFTA and that’s all there is to it! Short-term gain leads to short-term shareholder value — the one true God of the market. So long as the market accepts “Made in China” and the media downplays Chinese labor violations China can maintain US ‘permanent’ MFN (Most Favored Nation) status. With NAFTA expanding the markets of US-based marketing corporations the toxic combination of NAFTA and ‘permanent’ MFN for China can even undercut the cheap labor supply of Mexico. So why not Honduras? Mr. Clinton pushed through both Chinese MFN and NAFTA at about the same time ten years back, one wonders if the Mexican trade negotiators weighed in the China effect?
It is difficult to predict what might happen to these small plants in El Progreso if CAFTA mirrors NAFTA? Could they too find problems competing? How will US and Honduran trade representatives write the definition of ‘sourcing’ into their agreements? Will these small plants be competing with the industries of the north or will their true competition be in Asia, their tariff barriers breached by irrevocable treaties with the US?From El Progreso it was relatively smooth sailing to Tula and on to La Ceiba through vast fields of tropical monoculture, mainly pineapples, the signs warning of agricultural vehicles were in Spanish but with Dole logos.
Arriving in La Ceiba in the early evening we drove straight to the port; I wanted to ship the vehicle to the Island rather than leave it at paid parking on the mainland for a Month. Prices were high and bargaining difficult but many boats left for Roatan at midnight. It eventually cost me six hours and just over $100.00 US to get two persons (smuggled) and the car to Roatan on a boat loaded with live cows, pigs and Honduran Chiquita Bananas. We arrived exhausted in the port of Coxen Hole our ugly gateway to paradise.
The mainly European dive master clique of the pretty West End village refers to Coxen Hole as “Toxic Hole”. They only go there to renew their work visas, buy cheap food, drugs and cigarettes. Open sewers are the norm in ‘Toxic’ as prostitutes skirt the heavy police presence and chronic traffic congestion.
It was such a relief to get to Half Moon Bay though the prices had suddenly doubled. Welcome to the traveller dive resort of the West End!