Author's Blog

Black Jesus

I had written down all the numbers for my meager budget for the trip in a spiral bound notebook ( the Escudo Nacional on the front cover,times table on the back )which I had bought for 50centavos at Leonela Bowman’s store . I only had 100lempiras to my name . I needed at least 200 and so I borrowed 100 from Leonela , God rest her soul. I would have to dive everyday , and catch a lot , when I returned in order to pay her back. The trip was unexpected and there was a sense of doom about it. I felt deep down inside that I would never come back to my wife and unborn child.

I had overstayed my Visa and although my permanent residence was in tramite the Immigration officer was having none of it as he slurped his fish soup while seated at his government issued metal desk , the kind that deafens you when a drawer is opened or closed. Montes was his name and although always affable with me on the occasions I had visited him previously , this day he seemed irritated. His eyes were red and face puffy so it must have been a bad goma. I could speak very little Spanish and so my mother in law had travelled with me to translate . ‘Tenes una buena suegra’ , punctuated by a noisy slurp of soup , ‘pero igual , siempre tenes que salir del país por mínimo 24 horas’

5 lemps for the dory to Oakridge , 10 lemps for the bus to Coxenhole , 42 lemps for the plane to La Ceiba it was all written down to the last mortadella and cheese sandwich , a line underneath it all to make the grand sum of 200 lempiras ( $100 in 1987 ) . In those days the bus trip from Oakridge to Coxenhole was an Odyssey in itself especially in rainy season since the roads were not paved ; it took 4 hours through winding roads and sleepy villages with brightly painted wooden houses on stilts and rusty tin roofs. The further I travelled from Helene the farther I felt I was from those I loved and the closer I felt to losing them.

The plane was a noisy old DC-3 ( Dak we knew them as in Africa ) that made the hop over from the island with the door open , the sultry hen on the lap of the passenger next to me did nothing but stare and blink. Leaving Ceiba and passing El Porvenir I counted my money for what must have been the 50th time while looking at my spiral bound text book , getting increasingly dogeared each time I thumbed through it. The bus was not comfortable by any means but it was within my 200Lemps round way to Guatemala budget. Seating was a thinly upholstered bench with a backrest. It was a novelty for the first hour seeing the mountains and then in the Lean valley miles upon miles of Banana plantations but the repetitive scenery was soporiphic and I found myself nodding off and banging my forehead on the metal piping on the backrest of the seat in front of me which provoked a grin from the snotnosed urchin sitting on his mother’s lap in the seat across the aisle. It took 6 hours to reach Ocotopeque close to the border with just 2 stops along the way to use the toilet and buy goods being peddled at bus stops in distant , dusty villages . “Pan de Coco , Pan de Coco” sold by solid Garifuna matrons in Tornabe , outside Tela and “ Rosquillas “ from Lencas in Siguatepeque. I had my half dozen Johnny Cakes lovingly baked and packed in a muslin cloth by my wife of which I had calculated ( much in the same way I had managed my budget )at what time I would eat each one. After Siguatepeque it was all a blur , I barely remember the names of the towns just La Esperanza , I remember because it means ‘Hope’ and Ocotopeque closer to the border where we changed to a minibus .The border post was called Aguas Calientes and since I was learning Spanish I had made a habit of translating all place names and anything I read on signs or newspaper headlines. With the pink glow of a disappearing sun on the horizon behind it , I read a flimsy sheetmetal sign that appeared to have lost its lower half , that announced “Pecadores” which I realized was ‘sinners’ and not “Pescadores” , ‘fishermen . It tormented me for a while to know what the sign had once warned or even promised sinners . I crossed as a Britanico into Guatemala , leaving Honduras behind me with only the thought of my loved ones faraway which was bringing a lump to my throat. A 20 minute minibus ride took a handful of us into Esquipulas where we arrived in the dark and chill of early evening. I headed for the cheapest pension which was also called La Esperanza ( Hope , again like the Honduran town ) apparently a popular and affordable option for pilgrims.

It wasn’t much . The room so resembled a prison cell that even the tiny window had bars on it. It had a rickety steel framed bed with unwashed sheets and a hairy blanket poorly folded at its foot. The smell of Pine Oil pervaded the poorly lit corridors and my room for the night. The key was tied to a wooden block with the number ‘5’ crudely carved into it which looked like an ‘S’. There was no door to the bathroom and so it was dark and the tiny soap didn’t lather much with the freezing water but I could brush my teeth. I ate my Johnny Cake ration and thumbed my notebook adding and recalculating the pittance I was travelling with expecting it to somehow have multiplied like the five loaves and two fish.

As dawn broke I thought I would venture to the Basilica to see the famous Christo Negro , Black Christ . I had heard about it being a shrine and that there was a statue of Christ with a dark complexion within. The statue had been carved by a Portuguese some 400 years prior and had been housed in a nearby hermitage and then moved to the Basilica 200 years later. It wasn’t a coincidence that the statue was black , the Chorti villagers who commissioned it specifically asked for it to be of dark complexion like them. Years later I read in a newspaper ( in the days before internet and social media ) that Pope John Paul had visited Esquipulas and named it the Central American capital of the Catholic faith. Outside the Basilica ladies dressed in colourful Indigenous clothing were selling small bags of clay tablets , tierra bendita , as I walked between the stone pillars at the entrance and up the stairs I smelled corn tortillas roasting on a griddle somewhere closeby. Nearby , a bus was leaving out from the terminal with a sudden loud trumpet blast of its horn which startled the ancient who was hunched over in prayer with his sombrero in joined hands , opened upwards to heaven. His crude walking stick lay by his side. Not being Catholic I was amiss at crossing myself upon entering but did so when I noticed everyone doing so. As in all such high buildings with hard , cold floors which produced an echo , there was a constant hiss of reverberating noise . I picked a pew halfway and sat trying to be as inconspicuous as possible which was not easy since I was taller than most there and it was quite obvious I was European , despite my bleached hair from days of sea and sun while diving. I looked up at the Black Jesus and actually mesmerized by His agony and sad , pleading stare ( and I say His because the wooden statue seemed alive to me ). The crown of thorns jammed on to his skull , his sagging knees , the dislocated shoulders and torso slumping forward. It was as if the Portuguese sculptor all those years ago had relived Christ’s suffering and divinely transferred this passion through his chisels and mallets to the dark wood . He was alive to me in that Basilica far from my birth home , adopted home and all of my loved ones and I was inspired to think on Him and my life and what I had done with it , a reflection of where I had come from and what I had done with it thus far and where I thought it ought to be headed. Such was His presence that I felt compelled to pray and instead of my usual foxhole prayers in desperate situations to get me out of a bind , I felt myself repeating what I had heard a Holy man say once , “ Thy will , not mine , be done”.

 I lost track of how long I was there for but the lump in my throat hadn’t gone away and the unexpected burst of emotion had left me drained. I had allowed 2 quetzales for a breakfast and coffee and after I had finished I killed time by reading Dubliners , people watching and mulling over my plight in the parque . I had planned and budgeted to spend 2 nights and a complete day , that particular day ,in total which would take me to well over the 24 hours I had to be out of Honduras. So it would be one more meal and a night , that night and back across the border and closer to home. It was back in the day before cellphones and internet cafes and so there was no way I could know how things were at home. As the day dragged on I became more anxious and restless , it became impossible to concentrate on reading. Midday came and all around the parque was a bustle of activity ; cars honking , peddlers announcing their wares in that melancholy way that made it sound like a lament. The earthy smells of lunch , beans , chicken stew , fried ripe plantain. It was like the ebb and flow of the tide . After lunch things calmed down as everyone rested. Rebajando la comida they called it.

Around 3 o’clock things started flowing again. In my book , I was at The Dead and realized I was like Gabriel , many doubts about where I was in my young life at that point. Not entirely convinced of the path I had chosen , a fear of failure and humiliation had begun to creep in to the back of my mind. What was my hope for the future ? Nothing really , an adventurous yet mundane existence of hand to mouth the enjoyment of simple pleasures each day as it came and went. Living on a small island in a land forgotten in time , fishing , diving and farming punctuated by the joys of a whole packet of cigarettes instead of 3 or 4 or however many I could afford or an ice cold beer on a very hot day after a long hard day of diving. Was this the life I was to lead for ever ?

I had supper in a simple comedor with rickety handmade tables and chairs. It was my only meal of the day ( besides my Johnny Cake in the morning – there were 3 left by then ) as the Sun was leaving and pinking the sky behind the mountains in the near distance. The Chorti lady with a sleeping infant tied to her back slept as she kneaded the balls of maize flour into tortillas then proceeded to place them on the griddle. A man was keeping the fire going by feeding a piece of firewood into the embers and keeping them at just the right glow by blowing through a piece of metal tubing which seemed to be a part of a bicycle. They were a proud , dark people ; not as dark as the Christ that adorned their Basilica but cheerful with their simple lives .Of course they were , they knew nothing else. The night was difficult and sleep eluded me . Doubts about my travel back the next day and doubts about myself kept the squirrel cage turning ; at one point I turned the light on and did the numbers once again to convince myself I had enough to get back home. Eventually my mind wandered back to the comfort I felt in the Basilica and the warm reassurance I felt in the presence of God and I felt a ‘still small voice ‘ urging me to give Him my burdens and He would sustain me. I slept fitfully until dawn and packed my meager belongings , settled up with the sleepy caretaker who seemed to be the owner and nightwatchman as well. I made my way to the terminal de buses and sat chewing one of my dwindling supply of Johnny Cakes and drinking freshly squeezed orange juice out of a plastic bag while waiting for the minibus to the border. As the bus pulled away with a trail of black behind it I took a glimpse at the Basilica which was a block away , thinking it was my last but deep down knowing it wasn’t.

Along the road to the Aguas Calientes I pulled out the spiral bound textbook and did the numbers once more and surprising myself with a “what if”. What if they didn’t let me pass and I had to stay another night ? The rate for a night was 15 Quetzales ( 25 Lempiras ) and a meal was 10 , It would leave me with just enough to get to San Pedro without meals. I walked in to the Migracion on the Guatemalan side which was a doddle , I was leaving. I walked the 100yards to the Honduran side , no one was in there and the officer was an overweight lady doing her crochet looking down over her double chin over her spectacles perched on the tip of her fleshy. “Pasaporte” she mumbled with an irritated tone ( most of these positions were political and so they couldn’t be fired ) and as a result customer satisfaction was unheard of in that day and age. “? Joven , Ud apenas viene cumpliendo los 24 horas afuera y ya quere ingresar de nuevo ¿La ley ahora exige 48 horas , hay que regresar”I understood exactly what she had told me but with my limited spoken Spanish , I was unable to convey my frustration and plead some consideration. I was forced to humiliate myself with some words strung together in a crude sentence that just elicited a faint smile from chubby cheeks. “Dinero no tener mas para dormir in Guate “ , embarrassing myself there was a line forming behind me and I was getting nowhere. Montes on Roatan had said that 24 hours was the norm , why was it 48 here ? I walked slowly out of the musty , heavy atmosphere of the immigration office and back to the minibus stop to Esquipulas.  Back in the town , a stranger in a foreign land again , all I could do was sit on the knee high wall around the trees in the park that served as a bench. The concrete ledge on the top of the wall was smooth and shiny polished by years of seated Chorti in polyester trousers. Should I tough it out and sleep in the park or should I spend my dwindling resources on a night in the pension. My still small voice told me to head for the Basilica.          

It was still relatively early and there was a group of colourfully dressed Chortis led by a priest with a wooden cross strung around his neck which he was holding ahead of him as he shuffled histrionically in deep reverence towards the shrine of the Black Jesus at the front of the Basilica. As I walked up the nave to take a pew there was a murmur of a the many , perhaps a hundred odd faithful who were at prayer. The murmur was exacerbated by the echo in the high building and huge space above us , there were many people and each his own prayer but the reverberation of this was one slow busy hum as if all the prayers , although distinct were in synch upwards to the TodoPoderoso. I must admit I was swept up once again in this same charismatic zeal which so moved me the day before and was compelled to kneel on the hard floor in my pew and bow my head as if a gentle force was coercing me. My prayer was not of desperation or fear . It was a submission and a realization that I was at that moment a ‘fallen man’ as Emmett Fox called it ; someone who had mostly relied on my own will to make decisions and solve problems instead of submitting to the simple realization that there was a force all around us which was God . I was in his presence and nothing was blocking me off from the sunlight of His spirit and it was then that I submitted to his will entirely and asked that he show me what his will was for me and the situation I found myself. Whether It was to return to Honduras and the small Island to continue to scratch a living with what I had been doing thus far , farming , diving and teaching English School or to return to the safety and comfort of the civilized world , at that point it was no longer for me to burden myself with. A peace consumed me and the burden of my own will was lifted from me.

Once again I lost track of time in the Basilica of the Black Jesus basking in the self confidence I had been given , akin to the energy and glow one gains after completing a long run or hike. It was close to 11 as I exited slowly with a slight reluctance almost and a sense that upon leaving this place I would be leaving His presence but it wasn’t so. Surprisingly I had lost my fear of running short of money and spent the 10 Quetzales on a breakfast even paying for doble tortillas.   

The following day I was on my way from the border to San Pedro Sula on one of the many yellow ‘urbano’ buses called La ñata (  nariz chata or flat nose because the engine was behind the windshield next to the driver making the front of the bus flat as opposed to trompudo or long mouth with the engine in front of the windshield under a hood ).The migracion officer seemed half asleep and didn’t want to be bothered and didn’t give me the hassle I had experienced the day before and he stamped my passport and waved me through . I was making this trip using my last few lempiras with no idea how I was to get home from there. It occurred to me that I no longer had the habit of referring to the spiral bound notebook reworking the numbers every hour as if I had miscalculated expecting a miracle to occur since the last time I checked. I was not in the least bit bothered because in my heart I had made my prayer that if it was His will that I was to remain on the island , in Honduras that it would somehow be revealed to me and that if it was not to be , my difficulties would continue. I had a family who cared far away and mother’s number memorized as a final option but my decision to move to the tropics and start a life here was met with alarm , even a tacit disapproval and my  pride would not allow me to make the call asking for money unless it was life or death. If it got to this point then I knew this would be His sign for me to abandon my daydream of living life as a diver and farmer or teacher.

It was night time around seven when we arrived at the terminal in San Pedro . I had no money , I had a spare change of clothes in a well worn rucksack and 1 remaining Johnny Cake , hard as a piece of driftwood by then. The soles of my 3 year old Dunlop greenflash takkies were on their last few miles. All that was left for me to do was look for somewhere to sit and consider my fate and pray. I reasoned that it was too dangerous to fall asleep there although there were plenty of people milling about and the large waiting hall was well lit. Hours passed and as they did there were less people passing through the terminal and the bus horns announcing that they were leaving were fewer and far between. In between people watching I would close my eyes and pray but not a desperate fearful intercession but more of an acceptance and remembering and praying for others who were dear to me. I felt the reassurance that His spirit was there with me as it had been in the Basilica of the Black Jesus and I had complete faith that my dilemma would be resolved and it might not necessarily end the way I wanted it to.

At around 11 with arms folded against the chill of night sitting on a chocolate brown board bench and my back against a cold , filthy concrete wall that was once painted cream , I must have nodded off . I had a dream that I was diving off Long Reef and came across a huge round rock full of lobsters but it was deep and I couldn’t catch all the lobsters and I was starving for breath and didn’t think I would make it to the surface. When I woke up I must have been gasping for breath because the old lady sweeping the floor in front of me was looking at me with a frown , “Estas bien muchacho ?”. My stomache growling with hunger and the last hard Johnny Cake long gone , I picked at the crumbs left inside the cloth in which I had brought them. I was drinking water from the tap inside  the public toilet and filling my water bottle as time went on. I reasoned that I had two options , one …wait for one of the many freight trucks passing with bananas or oranges and hitch a ride , Jalon , or two…if it came down to it I could sell or pawn my Seiko diver’s watch ; foolish ideas especially since my Spanish was limited at best but it was hope. In between ‘sleep and ‘wake as Islanders would say and a hint of the pinkish glow of dawn appearing over the Merendon Mountains to the west around half past four in the morning a shadow blocked my view outside for a moment and after clearing my blurry eyes could see a white man approaching me , lovely soft white curly hair and a face so pink I could see the veins under the skin of his cheeks and nose. He had on a formal short sleeved collared shirt and black trousers , neatly pressed and well polished black Oxfords. A soft glasses case was clipped inside his shirt pocket. He took a seat to my right next to me on the bench and held my shoulder with his left hand and looked directly into my eyes with his startlingly green eyes which were warm and hopeful. His accent was neither distinctly American or Canadian or European but an undiscernible mix that I couldn’t quite put my finger on which was odd since I was good with accents.

“ I have been awake since two with a strange restlessness and being in a fast I sought out Jehova’s will in prayer.  What was the cause of my restlessness ? He told me to go the Bus Terminal and there will be someone there who has lost his way , far from his home “ . The man appeared to be a missionary.

 “ On my way here I felt compelled to reach into my trouser’s pocket and there was a 100Lempiras which I feel is yours somehow , that He is compelling me to give it to you. I do not know you ,son , but the faith I have is not fickle and when I am led to intercede for Him , I will.” His voice was as soft and warm as his light green eyes and there was a comforting warmth in my shoulder where his hand rested , I didn’t want him to take it away quite honestly.

“ You will continue your journey , it is what he wants for you now and so if you will allow it we will both pray for your safe return “

We prayed and whilst doing so I was aware intuitively ( ‘discerned’ my Sunday School teacher would say )that the white haired man with green eyes and the same calming presence in the Basilica of the Black Jesus were one and the same. After he had stopped praying I kept my eyes clenched shut for a short time before opening them , and when I did he was no longer there. Had he even been there ? The 100lps was folded up in my hand , so he must have been.

In the dory on my home to Helene knowing now for sure that this is where I belonged and I was to stick it out and forge a life in the islands , I felt a lump in my throat when we left  Fort Cay channel and I got a glimpse of Rocky Point , knowing that I would soon be back with my new family. What of the man in the bus terminal ? A few years after this event when I was starting my first steady job I found out that there was a Jehova’s Witness mission in downtown San Pedro Sula and I vowed to seek out this man and thank him and know more about him. I had a training trip to attend for a week over in the city and I located the mission and visited it , I didn’t locate anyone looking like him and described him to one of the elders and explained , without going in to details , that I had met this man at the terminal 6 years prior. You would have thought with the soft white curly hair and green eyes he would have been easy to identify but no one had knowledge of anyone meeting his description.

Join My Reader List

Get Notified about new releases