Peter Francis May

Navigation by Defacation

Military rule ended in 1979. By 1982 they had a new constitution. In 1986, the people of Honduras were ready to elect a new president. I was there shooting news and it was an exhilarating time in this new democracy! I can remember driving in from the airport and being amazed that every building, large and small, flew a flag for their candidate; red for the Liberals, blue for the Nationals. Their voter turnout in ‘86 was 87%, just like in America! Just kidding. Actually our voter turnout was 36.4% that year.

Despite progress in politics, Honduras remained a poor county with poor infrastructure. In Tegucigalpa, “Tegu,” the capital, a million residents suffered with bad roads, intermittent power, questionable water and one disorienting infrastructure issue for visitors: Tegu had no street signs! Really. A million people and no street signs.

On our last afternoon in Tegu my reporter Greg and I decided to visit the Mercado Central; the sprawling open-air market downtown. Even without street signs it wasn’t difficult to find. What was difficult to find was a place to park! It was so crazy. Cars, carts and trucks blocked every street, alley and sidewalk. So we started circling and after a few arbitrary turns we got lucky, found a spot for the rental and wedged it in. As soon as I got out of the car a little boy, maybe four years old, runs out into the street, stops maybe six feet to my right, drops his drawers, squats down and proceeds to … delicately put; pinch a loaf? Right in the middle of the street! An epic turd. Gigantic! Greg and I laughed – it was kinda funny and very third worldy. No offense to the third world or Honduras. I mean, I don’t want to imply that people all over Tegu were crapping in the streets. This seemed to be a one off. Coulda happened in America I thought, given the right combination of plumbing problems and a child’s unbridled sense of personal freedom. Anyway, moving on …

The closer we got to the mercado, the denser the crowds became. The market was a jumble of streets connected by alleys and covered arcades. Stalls packed every square inch selling everything from ancho chilies to zapatos. Toys, tools. There were musicians and dancers. Colorful clothes on crowded hangers. Buyers and sellers bargaining and bickering. Children hawked roasted corn in charred husks … by the way – delicious! Flies buzzed around butchers and fish, pyramids of fruits and vegetables, bootleg cassettes blared over tinny speakers.

Now, I never get lost. Greg? He could get lost in a porta-potty. So, it was always my job to remember where we parked the car. Well, I either overestimated my sense of direction or under-estimated how dizzying this old market could be! Either way, when we were ready to leave, I was completely spun around. I had no idea which way to go. Nothing looked familiar and we’d made too many turns to retrace our steps.

All we could do was like establish a grid, wander around, look for landmarks and try to stay calm. “I can’t believe you lost the car!” Greg was never good at “Calm.” “Yeah, maybe I should have written down the name of the street but there are no street signs!” It was getting late and we were getting agitated until finally, luckily, completely by chance, I got my bearings. I spotted an unforgettable landmark that led me straight to the car. A epic, gigantic brown landmark right in the middle of the street.