As Easy as A, B, Si

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005

The last shred of the bubble popped on their eighth day in Copan. A couple of suburban American mothers, walking up the street in this hilly mountain town in western Honduras, saw a motorscooter taxi careen by in the usual helter-skelter way. These red tuk-tuk cabs are the transit water bugs of Copan, scuttling around town, picking up passengers and depositing them a few blocks away for a handful of lempiras. Sometimes entire families of five or six would jam into the three-wheeled carts for a bouncing ride over the cobblestones. But in the back seat of this one were just two tiny blond heads, instantly recognizable to the surprised moms as their own youngest children, a couple of pre-kindergarten tourists on their own in Central America.

"That's when I knew we had surrendered to Copan," said Katie Sebastian, a normally obedient, look-both-ways, don't-talk-to-strangers parent. "We looked at each other, but just decided to trust the situation. And off the kids went on their merry way."

When last seen, Cole, 4, and Tyrie, 5, had been safely ensconced in a private language school, playing counting games and singing Spanish nursery rhymes. But class had ended while their older sisters, Isabel and Dillon, both 7, were still playing Spanish Scrabble in their own class and the moms were on a walk to the empanada shop. For the kids' teachers, it was the work of a moment to pop the tykes into a tuk-tuk and ship them off to the homes of the local families where they were living. That's just how you get kids from one place to another in Copan.

Katie's traveling partner was my wife, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, and they were the only parents present. Katie's husband Jim and I, conserving precious vacation time at home, wouldn't join them for another few days. They didn't seem to need any backstop from us.

"Suddenly we found ourselves in that idyllic small-town comfort zone of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' " said Ann, ordinarily another safety-first acolyte from the Washington suburbs. "I'm sure some people wouldn't think it was funny that we let these kids be sent off without seat belts on some stranger's taxi, but we could tell how much these people cared for children. They didn't need an insurance company to tell them how to take care of them."

If Montgomery County were a disease, Copan just might be the cure. That's what two Takoma Park moms and their four young children discovered on a two-week language-school holiday in a little town where willing tourists are granted instant citizenship. They started out looking for a place to give the offspring -- all of whom were in or about to be in Spanish immersion schools back home -- a real-world language workout during summer break. What they found was a town that also unwrapped some of the cloying binds of risk-free modern life. Copan is a place where community still trumps liability, where you still have to trust your instincts and maybe a stranger or two, and where even a kid can climb up on a rented horse and go for a bona-fide gallop across the countryside.

My Family Is Your Family

The idea of traveling alone for a month with kids in Central America wasn't particularly daunting for two former Peace Corps volunteers, but settling on Copan for the first two weeks was a challenge. Spanish schools abound in the region, but Katie and Ann rejected several in Mexico as too institutional, and the great clot of them in Antigua, Guatemala, as too touristy. Copan, a dusty out-of-the-way stop on the Mayan ruins circuit, held promise as a picturesque, unspoiled small town with just enough tourist infrastructure to supply a decent mojito when called upon. The director of one of the Spanish schools there, Guacamaya, also impressed them with his detailed responses to their blizzard of e-mail queries: What could they do with really young kids? Was it safe? Could they accommodate vegetarian guests? The director, Enrique, had answers for everything, but his underlying message was: Don't worry about it. If you come, we'll take care of you.

And so they did. The six of them arrived on a blistering hot Saturday (the only kind of Saturday they have in Copan in August) after a five-hour bus ride from Guatemala City. The massive Mercedes coach filled the town's narrow streets from sidewalk to sidewalk; men in white cowboy hats pressed back against the stucco walls to let the beast squeeze by. The highway from the border was a good one, but the streets in town were tiny, steep and mostly paved in stone. They were lined with flat pastel walls and, at midday, barrel-tiled eaves provided a pencil-width of shade for drowsy dogs and arriving tourists. Most everybody else was indoors. Through open windows came the scent of simmering beans and the soft applause of hundreds of lunchtime tortillas being slapped into being by dozens of unseen hands.

They climbed a pitched stairway, thankfully in the shade, each step opening a wider view of their home for the next two weeks. Copan is a tight web of streets laid in a crevice of Honduras's western highlands. In a lush, flat river basin at the foot of the town sit the Copan ruins, the stone remnants of a city that marked the southernmost reach of the Mayan empire from the mid-5th century into the 9th. It's not quite as large as the Tikal ruins that tower above the jungle canopy in northern Guatemala, but with extensive finely carved monuments and temples, Copan is the more exquisite setting. (See story, Page P7.)

The ruins have drawn a small but steady trickle of tourists to Copan for years, giving the place a sort of college town sophistication, with a stock of cafes and museums otherwise unlikely in a backwater village. There's a landing strip, but the closest significant airport is about 2 1/2 hours north in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Ann and Katie, researching, had collected Copan raves from the kind of travelers who delight in outposts that are remote but welcoming.

A town square anchored the grid of streets down near the river, with residential streets leading off the corners. Heading uphill, one or two houses on every tightly packed block stood out with fresh paint or a recent addition. These were the families with someone "away," meaning at work in the United States and sending money back through the heavily guarded Western Union office in the town down the road.

Here and there a saddled horse was tied up, still being the preferred conveyance for some of the weathered old men who rode in from the campo for supplies or to tie on a Sunday drunk. One clopped by as the newbies found their school.

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