It was a hot May day in Copan, Honduras, in 1999. I was travelling with a group of students from the King’s University and Redeemer University College. For nearly a month we’d participated in a development project to bring water to the tiny rural village of Las Mangas. Copan is a spectacular archeological site of an ancient Mayan civilization dating from the 5th to 9th century AD. Our visit there was a bit of a reward for our previous weeks of work.
“Be careful,” warned our missionary contact. “There will be all kinds of urchins trying to sell you cheap replicas of Mayan artifacts, and don’t be surprised to see local indigenous people begging on the streets. It’s best to ignore them or they will follow you everywhere.”
The main town of Copan, like many old Spanish towns in Honduras, has a central open square around which are located shops, municipal buildings and, in this case, a beautiful Spanish-era Catholic church. As we tumbled out of our Toyota minivan buses, I noticed a very old indigenous couple in tattered clothing standing along the curb of the central plaza. The man, with whom I presumed to be his wife, was holding a crudely hand-lettered sign saying HAMBRE (hungry). They were clearly begging. We ignored them. I similarly followed our missionary’s advice and ignored the pleas of a little urchin girl who introduced herself in broken English as “Jenny” and held out a basket of cheaply-made souvenirs of Mayan artifacts.
A previous team leader of the annual Honduras Water Project had mentioned that there was a little restaurant in town run by a Dutch expat, a good place to eat. I found it truly remarkable to eat Dutch croquettes, a sausage and kale casserole and other Dutch “delicacies” in Honduras. A conversation with Hans, the proprietor, revealed him to be a man who had left the Netherlands many years before in search of adventure and an escape from what he experienced as his narrow Dutch Reformed church upbringing. When he discovered that I was a professor at a small Christian university in Canada, he told me, over a bowl of gehakt balletjes (hamburger ball) soup, that he thought most of what he had been taught about the Christian faith in his home and church in Holland was utter nonsense. In further conversation, I also learned that Hans had translated the Spanish labels of the exhibits in the local museum into English. When I expressed an interest in visiting the museum, he kindly lent me his loose-leaf binder of carefully translated labels that made my visit to the museum far more informative, given my inability to read Spanish.
The next day, before our departure from Copan back to Honduras’ capital city of Tegucigalpa for our subsequent flight home, I quickly hurried back to the restaurant to return the binder to Hans. Sitting at a small table under a tree in the open courtyard of Hans’ restaurant was an old Spanish couple carefully eating what looked like a huge plate of boeren kool met worst (kale, potatoes and sausage). They were clearly the same couple we had seen begging in the town square the day before. As I handed the binder to Hans, I tilted my head slightly towards the couple and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“I think,” he said, “that your Jesus told us to feed the hungry, didn’t he?”
Upon boarding our minibus back to Tegucigalpa, I spotted Jenny among the gaggle of urchins selling their wares, beckoned to her and picked out two souvenir artifacts.
“I sell cheap to you,” she said, smiling eagerly. “Five Americano dollars for two.”
I guiltily pressed a 10-dollar American bill into her hand as I took my two souvenirs. They still occupy a prominent place in one of my study’s bookcases.
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