Will Honduras Endure Us?
Moving to a Third World nation with no job and no concrete plans for the future was an interesting plan, the kind that could seem reasonable under certain circumstances--like when you've reached the part of the tequila bottle when you're faced with the decision of eating the worm. At this point, a lot of insane ideas could occur to you. You have a round, ribbed invertebrate in your mouth: moving to one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with a kid, maybe even two, could seem like a really good idea.
However, my mother didn't drink. So as we discussed her imminent plans to flee the United States with my father, I leaned against the kitchen counter in my parent's middle-class suburban Phoenix home, amazed that I was staring at a completely sober individual. After all, that was half my gene pool standing in front of me--not even one of those genes drove her to consume alcohol?
My mother happily gnawed away on a piece of red licorice and explained that she had limited their choices down to two potential areas: Asia and Latin America. Each of these places had its benefits and drawbacks. For instance, India would be the cheapest place, but it had the most frightening diseases. Did I have any opinion on this?
"I think you should avoid leprosy at all costs, Mom."
"Good point," she said, drawing a line through half a dozen countries. "Anything else?"
"Guerrilla warfare--also not a good thing."
"Hmmm. How about Guatemala?"
"Too soon after the era of peasant disappearances."
"The beginning of democracy after years of socialism--not a stable political climate."
"You're not making this easy. Do you have any suggestions?"
"How about Italy?"
My mother shook her head vehemently.
"What's the matter with Italy? Red wine, pasta, hazelnut gelato. No one could possibly object to a nice place like Venice, Rome, or Florence."
"No, no, no! Do you know the percentage of homes with running water there? We could never afford a First World country."
As if the idea should have been obvious to me from the beginning, my mother took a frustrated sigh and stressed that the goal was to choose a poor country where their funds would stretch the furthest. In certain Central American nations, a thousand dollars a month would pay for a luxurious four-bedroom house, living expenses, even cover the costs of a full-time maid. This was the whole reason they were planning to leave the United States in the first place. If they found a favorable exchange rate, they could live off their savings and would never have to work again.
"Well, where are you going to go?" I asked.
"There's one place left."
As my mother said the word "Honduras," the other half of my gene pool asked me to go to the fridge and get him a stiff drink.
Fleeing to a new place and leaving one's problems behind was a proud family tradition. My mother had grown up this way, having been raised by army parents who roamed all over the world and finally retired in Mexico. And there was an alarming indication of it on my father's side as well. My grandma Barb had managed to live in Arizona for more than thirty years, took a vacation to Hawaii one day, returned home long enough to pick up a few things, kissed her husband good-bye, and moved to Honolulu.
My uncle Bob was the only one in the family who hadn't quite come to terms with the concept of travel as a means of escape. His work as an international photojournalist had taken him out of the country often enough, though he'd always wound up in nations with even more problems than the ones he was trying to avoid. In an attempt to elude his ex-wife, he'd fled to Central America in the eighties, though after a few years of running from guerrillas, the governments of crazed dictators, and paramilitary forces out to kill him, the idea of being chased by a diminutive blond woman started to seem pretty damn appealing. He returned to the States, vowed never to set foot in a Third World region again, and locked himself away in a private manicured neighborhood in suburban West Virginia, where the majority of his time was spent reading gourmet cookbooks and consuming expensive foods and wines with Italian names.
A typical conversation with him would go something like this: "It's not pen pasta. It's pen-eh. And whatever you do, if you ever decide to travel, make sure you go to Europe."
He was the most vocal opponent of my parents' impending move, but the pesto-stained letters that arrived in their mailbox with the message "Don't do it" did little to deter my folks. They were used to picking up and heading off to exotic places. They had taught us kids early on that distancing yourself from your problems was as easy as calling up the moving company. The Dale family members dialed the toll-free number for Allied Movers as if it were a crisis hotline.
By the time I was sixteen, my dad's mining engineering jobs had taken us to Arizona, California, Tennessee, South Carolina, Minnesota, Montana, and Peru--and this nomadic lifestyle was something I never considered a hardship. Whenever times got rough at school (which they inevitably did for the new girl who spent her free time in the library reading about the latest scientific discoveries in Discover magazine), I knew that all I had to do was endure the barbs of the kids for a little while, because soon we'd be leaving.
I approached all of our impending departures with unwavering optimism. Each time, I convinced myself that this move had to be the one that would take me to that scholastic utopia I was seeking, a place where the students got together during their free time for fun and informative didactic chats, where they met up after school happily exchanging useful tips on the periodic table, evolution, and relativity.
In South Carolina, the kids just called me booger-picker because they were ignorant--everybody said "over yonder" and "young 'uns"; I became convinced that all we had to do was move to a place where they didn't speak this way. In the northern part of the United States, I was sure eighth-graders sat around debating the finer points of quantum mechanics.
When I was thirteen, and my mother came into my room yet again to explain that my father had a new job, there was only one thing I needed to know about our future destination of Minnesota: "Mom, do they say 'you guys' there instead of 'y'all'?" (The answer to this question was yes; however, for anyone who has never been to Minnesota, I feel the need to tell you that the eighth-graders do not in fact sit around discussing particle physics over lunch. Apparently there is still some distance between the phrase "you guys" and the phrase "Newton's corpuscular theory of light failed to adequately explain why the empirically measured entropy of pure substances at equilibrium tends toward zero as the absolute temperature decreases toward zero.")
Growing up, moving had never been a big deal for any of us, and now that my folks planned to go to Honduras without even visiting the place beforehand, no one in my family was entirely shocked. My mother explained that this was the best thing for my father--he needed a change of pace, a more relaxed existence, and I couldn't possibly object to something that was supposed to do my father good.
Everyone in my family was slightly in awe of my dad. All the good attributes came from his side of the family--he had wound up with brains and looks. When I was twenty-three and got diagnosed with gallbladder disease (the same thing had happened to him a decade earlier), he guiltily said, "I promise, it's the only bad gene I gave you." And it was true.
But high intelligence wasn't necessarily the key to a contented existence. My dad had traded personal happiness for the material comfort of his family, giving most of his adult life away to mining engineering work he had hated. Every two to three years, he'd find a better paying job in a new state, but in the end he'd always wind up where he began--spending his days in an office feeling like his life was pointless.
But this time the move was going to be different. My dad wasn't going to Honduras because he had a new job; he was headed there because he'd never have to work again. For once, he'd get the chance to stop and smell the roses--or at least the banana plants.
My sister Heather and I were going to be mostly unaffected by our parents' departure--we were both living on our own--but there were still two kids at home. A month before leaving, my folks gave my seventeen-year-old sister Catherine two options: okay, you can come with us to the poorest country in Central America or you can spend your senior year of high school without any adult supervision. It was not a hard choice.
Before they had time to change their minds, Catherine quickly found herself a nearby apartment in Tempe with another senior who had also chosen to be guardianless for the year.* And like jubilant Price Is Right grand-prize champions, the two of them set about to filling up their new place with my parents' television, couch, stereo, VCR, computer, and dining room set that Mom and Dad would be leaving behind in the States.
My eleven-year-old brother, Richard, was not so lucky. He was going to have to whittle his possessions down to the contents of one piece of luggage. This was not too difficult; what was a problem was that most of the items he had chosen to take with him were forbidden by all international airline carriers. Years ago as a precocious eight year old, Richard had decided that his future lay ahead of him in the ever-growing field of weapons design so what he considered essential items were contraband in most developed nations.
"But Mom, why?" he cried as my mother pulled another offending item out of his suitcase.
"You will not be bringing nitroglycerine to Honduras."
"Okay, but let me keep the gunpowder. Pleeeeease."
Rich didn't understand why his parents were dragging him off to the Third World. After all, none of his other friends had to spend their Saturdays getting yellow-fever vaccinations. They were eating soft-serve dairy-based frozen food products, playing video games, and surfing the Internet. But I told him to look at the bright side: he wanted to be blowing things up, and it sure was going to be a hell of a lot easier in Central America.
"So, what do your parents do?"
In the past, this question had never caused me to hesitate. I had always been able to provide a simple one-word answer, a title like "engineer" or "geologist" in my father's case and the label "housewife" to describe my mother's role. But after my folks headed down to Central America, coming up with a response suddenly wasn't so easy. I sought in vain through my dictionary, my thesaurus, and any other reference materials I was able to get my hands on and finally resigned myself to the fact that there wasn't a term that expressed the concept: "They sold their house, their car, and their furniture and took my brother and two suitcases to Honduras."
"Wow, what are they doing there?" people would respond, intrigued.
I was led to the dictionary again, searching for a way to describe what it was my parents actually did in Honduras and remarkably enough, this term did exist. The word was "nothing."
However, saying that you do nothing is a difficult concept for most Americans to grasp, I knew; I had had the do-nothing conversation many times before.
"What did you do today?"
"You couldn't have just done nothing. Come on, what did you do all afternoon?"
"You're right. Actually, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling."
A brief moment of silence would follow, after which the other person would condescendingly respond: "Oh, you mean you really did nothing."
Of course, it was much more complicated if you were a writer because there were days that you lay on your bed and stared at the ceiling and it was called working. But this was a difficult concept for most nonartist types to grasp.
My sister Heather was getting asked these types of questions as well, but she was the only one clever enough to derive advantage from my parents' move to Honduras. She was at Vassar on a full scholarship, one of a handful of middle-class kids at an otherwise elite school. There, like at any other Seven Sisters or Ivy League college, "doing nothing" was synonymous with trust fund or was code for sitting on a yacht, playing golf, and attending charity luncheons. So Heather actually looked forward to being asked the question. She would lean back in her chair, cross her legs, and answer, "They're abroad." And everyone would be quite impressed when she added, "Doing nothing."
Even though we often lived in geographically distant places, the six members of my immediate family had always gotten together at Christmas. According to my parents, there was simply no plausible excuse for not showing up, not "Mom, I'm sick" or "Dad, I have to work" or even "Sorry, but you guys live twenty-four hundred miles away in a Central American country."
This year, we were going to be spending our first holiday season in Honduras. To avoid any potential reticence on the part of her daughters, my mother sent a letter explaining that she and my dad were springing for the airplane tickets--not that her children really needed any convincing when it came to hopping aboard an airplane. I was in desperate need of a trip abroad--it would bring some much needed excitement to my dull existence of employee newsletter writing, and for several weeks prior to departing, the high point of my workday was witnessing the puzzled look on the aeronautical engineers' faces after they innocently inquired into my plans for the holidays.
Did I plan to go home?
Where was home?
"This year it's Tegucigalpa."
"Yes, you know, the capital of Honduras."
They weren't sure if I was kidding, but since the exchange had already used up several minutes of valuable rocket-making time, they would smile uncertainly and quickly excuse themselves to go back to the safety of their secret labs and soundproof rooms. Alone in my office, I would chuckle happily at the private joke they had not understood, reassured in the fact that I was not one of them after all.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals by Wendy Dale. Copyright © 2003 by Wendy Dale. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.