It's Raining in Honduras (2003)

17.01.03: 9.45am. Dropping through the clouds coming into San Pedro Sula, I get my first sight of Honduras. Sure enough it is of bananas, a rich green landscape of fruit plantations stretching out into the distance. This was the original banana republic, a country governed through much of the twentieth century for the benefit of three rival US fruit companies, who bankrolled political factions and ruthlessly put down union movements. During the eighties, with the fighting in neighbouring Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Honduras was the key to US control over the region, and American aid and troops were poured in, a period which came to an abrupt close with the Iran-Contra scandal and the end of the cold war.
These days Honduras is back to fruit and coffee, and its fortunes are governed by the ups and downs of the international commodity markets. American visitors are more likely to be tourists than CIA operatives training Contra guerillas, and after a decade of more or less peaceful democracy the government is looking enviously at the success of Costa Rica, now known as a destination for travellers seeking a taste of the extraordinary environmental riches of Central America, but nervous of its reputation for political instability.
So I notice bananas. And pineapples. And another thing: 100% cloud cover. It is raining hard.

11.45am. By now I am supposed to be on the island of Roatan, a place illustrated in the pamphlet I'm carrying with one of those pictures tour operators put on Underground posters to traumatise winter commuters. Azure sea. White sand. Central casting palm tree. Instead I am standing in a striplit hall at San Pedro Sula airport staring out of a window at the tropical storm chucking water over the other side of the plate glass. It seems Honduras is experiencing a 'late rainy season'. Roatan airstrip is closed. The boys at the airline counter wear philosophical expressions and make mention of God. Maybe a plane will take off today, they say. I am getting a kind of long-term feeling from them.

4pm. I am bored. The security guy is bored. The woman tending the bar looks like she was born bored. No plane today, not now. Time to head in search of San Pedro Sula. I get my case from behind the airline counter and hunt for a taxi.

9pm I am the sole patron of the Garden Court restaurant here at the Hotel Princess. It is a place of starched tablecloths, formally-dressed waiters, four-line menu items and gilt. Lots of gilt. Pleased to have a customer, the maitre d signs for the muzak to be turned up. I listen to Bright Eyes, I Will Always Love You, Cavatina and The Lady In Red and eat something which may be chicken. Outside, the 'garden court' itself seems to be under an inch of water.

6.30am 18.01 Juan Carlos is driving me in his taxi back to the airport. He speaks good English, which he learned in Indiana. He worked there (without papers) in a carwash, and sold a little coke and heroin on the side. Then he got caught and spent two years in prison. You do some crazy things when you're young, he says.
We stop at a tollbooth, where we find out that last night someone shot dead the goalkeeper of the national football team. They take football seriously, the Hondurans. In 1969 they fought the so-called Soccer War with El Salvador, a four-day conflict which kicked off as the two national teams met in the world cup qualifiers. However it turns out that this was just a bungled robbery. No politics involved. Juan Carlos is annoyed. The guy was the only good keeper they had.

12pm. This departure lounge is beginning to remind me of the Sartre play where the characters sit around and then realise hell is other people. In my case the other people are mostly midwesterners, dive tourists trying to get out to Utila, one of the other Bay Islands. The islands have been a fixture on the dive circuit since the seventies, and are known for having great reefs and cheap PADI courses. The dive tourists are just passing the time, playing cards, drinking beer, laughing at the humorous slogans on each others' caps, showing off small covetable pieces of technology and reading books with titles like God Is My CEO and Jesus Inc: Your Share In The Lord. They are doing nothing to me, but somehow I hate them. Especially the guy playing a pinball game on his laptop. Him most of all. Maybe I hate everybody. What is happening to me?

12.45pm. A flurry of excitement. A plane was announced to Utila. The dive tourists cheered and high fived each other and got on. Ten minutes later they came back. The break in the weather had closed up again. I find I have certain rather Old Testament feelings about this.

2.15pm Maybe God is my CEO. I am airborne, somewhere over the water in a little fifteen-seater twin-prop plane.

4.00pm. Wayne and Glady are retirees from Sasketchawan who have been coming to Roatan's West Bay every winter for the last five years. We are sitting at the main bar of the Paradise Beach Villas resort and the barman is mixing us all another round of mojitos. Wayne and Glady finally found somewhere they liked, and this is it. Each year it was always the same, the nice apartment with cable tv and all mod cons, the glassy water, the sun, the good shrimp place just down the beach. But this year it has been raining for the last eighteen days straight. Right now, water is pouring in an illustrative torrent off the thatched roof of the bar. High winds have been sending big waves crashing up the beach, far enough to fill the beach-bar's sink with sand. Water visibility is zero, so Liz from the dive school has no work. The wind has even brought the tv cables down; they're only loosely strung through the trees. Wayne and Glady are booked in for five weeks. They are having doubts.

5.00. Our laconic Texan manager (let's call him Bob, in case any of his ex-wives are reading) has a good rainy-day idea. Apparently in a resort just down the beach, two hundred Italian package tourists have been stuck indoors for the last seven days without anything to do. They leave tomorrow. Hell, says Bob, they're climbing the walls. I ain't never seen anybody look more pissed. We could take a few kitchen knives down there, hand them out and they'd fight like cats.

5.10 Bob and I have decided to come down without the knives. We are drinking espressos and watching the (mostly Milanese) inmates of the resort-of-the-damned shuffle disconsolately about the bar. They smoke cigarettes and scowl at each other. In the corner a young man in a tour-company teeshirt is singing Italian pop songs, accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard. A group of onlookers is beginning to form around him. I don't rate his chances of making it to the end of the number.

Two days later: The rain has been coming and going, but it's still grey and cold. With the beach out of action there's not much to do in the West Bay so I drive into Coxen Hole to run errands with Bob. Bob is a mine of information. On things to do in San Pedro Sula when it's raining (best whorehouses in Latin America), how to get through a Mexican bus journey (30 mil of diazepam and a fifth of rum per six hundred miles), and notably those animal species which make a good boot. I am talking to the proud owner of footwear assembled from the skins of boa constrictors, moray eels, elephants, sharks, alligators and unborn calves. Eel wins out for general use, apparently.
At its best Coxen Hole would be an unlovely coagulation of tin-roofed houses. With the rain sweeping household rubbish off the hillside and its streets churned up into muddy ruts it presents a particularly unappealing face. Most tourists hate it, with its stray dogs and loafing drunks and one room family shacks built on stilts to protect them from inundation by the sea. But after 48 hours in holidayland I am happy to be back in a real place, where you can buy a plastic bucket at the Wordy Boutique or get your hair cut at Shear's Delight. I watch the Coxen Hole cops parade outside the station and help Bob buy provisions at a supermarket owned by one of the local families who have made a killing out of the tourist boom. The boss sits behind a desk, gold watch glinting on his arm. Land here is shooting up in value, some of it being developed for hotels, but much of it for retirement homes. Several units at Paradise Beach are owned by elderly American couples, the wives with leathery tans and small dogs, the husbands with the grizzled look of men who may well have got to know this place by doing 'government work' in the eighties.
Bob flirts with the girl in the bakery ('Shoot, you're getting married? Well, I'm hoping y'all will argue…'), with the girl at the tire fitters, and the one in the little office in the wharf where we go to buy fish. Through a hatch I watch Honduran workers flash-freezing and boxing up Snapper as the American guy who owns the boats and the little processing plant moans to Bob that because of the weather he has 19,000lbs of fish he can't get to the mainland.

21.01 Raining again. But today is cruise ship day, which means that a floating white monolith has disgorged several hundred pasty-looking people onto the beach. Bob Marley's greatest hits blast out of a set of palm-tree speakers and one or two bedraggled hawkers have set up, in case anyone is short of a necklace or needs their hair braided. The cruisers shiver on white plastic sunloungers, their blue and white towels wrapped round their shoulders. Some even apply sunscreen, as if by following traditional beach rituals they could force the weather to improve. One contingent have been issued with snorkels, masks and identical yellow life preservers, and are foundering around near the wooden jetty. Big Don is an American with a papa Hemingway beard who is renovating a house on the beach. He has come down to watch the show with an umbrella and a six pack of beer. As a particularly heavy shower begins, sending all but the most hardy sunbathers running for cover, he convulses with laughter and asks whether this ain't the funniest thing I ever saw.

22.01 11.45am Of course today, the day I leave, Roatan shows its other side. The sky is cloudless, the water tauntingly still and blue. I snorkel out to the reef and swim with brightly-coloured fishes. Then I let the sun dry me off, drink a farewell beer and reluctantly head for the airport. A new party of Italians have arrived. They are laughing, promenading on the sand.

6pm Looking on the positive side, I now have an opportunity to compare and contrast various styles of rain. Jungle rain has a completely different character from island rain. Here in the national park of Pico Bonito it comes off the hills, rolling down as mist and then disgorging an unimaginable volume of water over the beautifully-landscaped grounds of the Pico Bonito Lodge. I'm back on the mainland, near the town of La Ceiba, staying in a hideaway for affluent eco-tourists, twenty-odd discreet cabanas which offer immense comfort while giving the illusion of roughing it; no television in your room, but the magazine left by your bed advertises Fabergé pen trays and two thousand dollar alligator golf shoes.

23.01 9.15am There are five guests at the lodge. Two American honeymoon couples and me. As far as I know, we are the only tourists wandering around this particular zone of natural beauty. So what are the statistical chances that if you hike out to a river, strip naked and dive in, by the time you get out to the middle, all the others will have arrived on the bank?

1pm. Raining again. I am bored of reading, writing and setting up complicated self-timer shots with my camera. So I turn to Honduran FM radio. Super Cien 100.3 is playing the complete works of Bruce Hornsby and the Range, interspersed with adverts for cough medicine and multiple plays of "The Girl Is Mine" by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. Michael, I warn you. I think I may be a fighter, not a lover.

24.01 10.45 am. I am covered in mud and enjoying myself immensely. The sun has come out and Herman ("I am jungle man") the guide is leading me to the "Unbelievable Falls". We wade through rivers. We scramble up steep banks. On the way we see Toucans, woodpeckers and other bird species. Unlike many of Pico Bonito's guests, I can't get very worked up about birdwatching, and even though some of the small brown ones are rare/sing/behave unusually/can get you on the guestlist for parties, they don't really float my boat like a good toucan. We pick cardamon, coffee beans and wild coriander. Agouti flee into the bushes as we squelch and slide our way up the path. This is the real point of a visit to the Honduran forest. If you're a keen naturalist, it must be like Christmas. The staff at the lodge are knowledgable and disarmingly enthusiastic. Over breakfast I had a long discussion with Kent, the manager, about the exact definition of a bract, with reference to the banana family.

26.01 It is not raining, and I am up in the hills, at the ruined Mayan city of Copan. Along with Tikal in Guatemala and sites such as Chichen Itza in southern Mexico, this is one of the major archaeological treasures of Central America. Every stone seems to have been intricately worked, and in the main ritual zone, pyramids and a ball-court are laid out according to spookily-precise cosmological principles. The symbolism of the carvings is complex, rulers representing themselves emerging from the jaws of serpents, surrounded by corn spirits, figures of ancestors, crocodiles. The Mayans are thought to have bound boards to the heads of their infants, to give an attractively receding brow, and to have considered being cross-eyed the height of attractiveness - though my guide concedes it possible that this was due to incest, not aesthetics. Even the names of the kings - Eighteen Rabbit, Smoke Shell, give a sense of distance, a feeling that this was a society with profoundly different values to the one now organising coach tours to view these ruins. At the same time, certain local phrases and traditions are directly traceable to the people who abandoned this place in 900AD.

28.01 Back in San Pedro Sula, in another sephulcral hotel, I watch too much cable tv and write email in the business centre. A few well-heeled urbanites flit around in the lobby. As I leave for the airport the rain is coming down again.

[A version of this piece appeared in The Observer.]