After seven months of planning, work days, skype sessions and a lot of anticipation, on April 11, 2015, the Museum’s Connect US team consisting of Sharon Turner, Museum Assistant; Meg Clovis, Monterey County Cultural Affairs Manager; Jessica Potts, MCARLM Executive Director; Dr. Maria de la Fuente, Director, University of California Cooperative Extension Monterey County and Jose Sanchez, Director, Greenfield Community Science Workshop, departed for Copan, Honduras. The Museums Connect project, Common Ground: Connecting Communities through Gardens purpose has been to give young people in both Honduras and the US opportunities to actively engage in environmental stewardship through gardening and share their experiences with each other and their local communities. By gardening on a local scale, students from both countries have come to understand how the pieces of the world’s ecological puzzle interconnect, that environmental challenges are complex and cannot be understood in isolation. A part of the project includes each team to traveling to the others home to see first-hand the project and to meet the children that have been instrumental in its success, as well as to learn more about each other’s culture and industry.
Flying from San Jose to Atlanta then to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for us was an overnight flight, losing 3 hours and then regaining 2, leaving at 10:45 pm and arriving at 10:30 am. Disembarking the plane in San Pedro Sula, we were greeted with a blast of heat and proceeded to work our way slowly through the emigration process before finally descending down to the main airport to meet our host, Liz Nutter-Valladares, Project Manager, Asociacion Copan and her husband Mike who is a wonderful tour guide in Copan. Ready to drop after a night of
travel, we only had 3 ½ more hours before us as we drove up the mountain to our final destination, Copan Ruinas. Our first cultural lesson as a group was that there are few, if any traffic rules in Honduras. Passing and right of way seem to be decided for the most part by a light beep of the horn, and while to the untrained eye, it seemed to be chaos, the drivers all seemed very in control and there were no wrecks that we saw during our entire trip. During our trip up the mountain the changing scenery showed our weary eyes glimpses of the local neighborhoods and meager homes mixed along rivers and streams and lush greenery.
Pulling into Copan Ruinas was a sudden change from what we had seen the previous three and a half hours. As we drove under the village’s welcoming arch and we passed onto cobblestone roads, relief flooded the van as we were finally arriving at our destination. Driving through the town, down narrow streets lined with white adobe buildings, that secreted little shops, restaurants and hotels, many with surprisingly lavish and pretty private patios lined with potted plants, we passed the town center and arrived at our hotel which would be our cool escape for the next 4 days. After almost 12 hours of travel, the group was tired and ready to collapse. Heading to our separate rooms, we all took a couple of hours to rest, relax, shower and refresh enough to regroup for our first meal in Honduras. After dinner we mustered enough energy to wander around for a brief tour of the small village and then headed to bed to catch up on needed sleep in preparation for a busy schedule that was planned for the next couple of days.
Day one of our trip, after a traditional breakfast known as “typico”, we were greeted by Donaldo Martinez, Educational Facilitator, Asociation Copan who escorted the group to the Asociation Copan offices, where we were joined by Liz and met Ricardo Agurcia, Executive Director, Asociation Copan. Ricardo, a native Honduran archaeologist is well known for his discovery of Mayan temple, Temple 10L-16, better known as Rosalila. After a meeting that gave us the opportunity to learn more about Honduras, Ricardo and the Asociation, we climbed aboard an adventure on wheels called a tuk-tuk (also known as an auto rickshaw or mototaxi). This cross between a motorcycle and a golf cart was something to experience as it bounced roughly yet swiftly along the cobblestone streets, darting around cars, other tuk-tuks and random pedestrians. Hanging on tightly and laughing from the excitement of it, we made our way up to the hilltop home of the Casa K’inich Children’s Museum. The museum is located in the renovated Fort Cabanas, a military fort built in 1940 in honor of General Jose Trinidad Cabanas. The fort was built to station Honduran armies to safeguard the western borders and provided amazing views of the town and the valley of Copan Ruinas.
Waiting to provide us with an in-depth tour of the museum alongside Donaldo, we met Karla Morales, Director of the Casa K’inich Children’s Museum. The museum is designed to teach visitors of all ages about the Maya culture and is done so through interesting hands-on interactive exhibits that are inventive and draw you in to participate and learn more. The museum was created with the intention to produce a future of Hondurans that care about the World Heritage site. While the museum is small, it is full of great information. Exhibits teach visitors about Mayan history including topics like reading, writing, counting and math in Ch’orti, a Mayan language, as well as learning about the 16 different Mayan rulers and even a section about native plants and animals from the area.
As a part of our trip, we expected to see amazing sites, drink world renowned coffee and be moved by memorable people but we never expected to sample wonderful cheeses. Our lunch stop was a pleasant surprise though as we dined with the entire Museum’s Connect group (finally meeting the final members of the Honduras team, Paola Carias, Executive Director of the Copan Ruinas Chamber of Commerce; and Jesus Guerra, Owner of El Mirador Finca and Agricultural Consultant for the project), at Café San Rafael. Café San Rafael is a Coffee Farm/Roaster, Bistro and Cheese shop. What a wonderful surprise we got as we were taken on a tour of the small, on-site cheese making operation. As it turned out, the small operation makes some really amazing cheeses, something none of us had expected to find in Honduras. The bistro menu consisted mainly of cheese sandwiches and cheese plates and lunch ended with a homemade piece of rich tart cheese cake and of course, coffee.
Our afternoon meeting was with Copan Chamber of Commerce president, Don Raul Welchez who is also the owner of the beautiful Hotel Marina and the Finca Santa Isabel which produces the Welchez brand coffee. Talking with Don Raul, we discussed farming practices and issues both in Honduras and in California and learned more about business in Copan. That evening, Jose and Jessica were taken to a small public television station called CTV20 and interviewed about the garden program. Jose, being the fluent Spanish speaker did the majority of the interview and talked about the benefit of the program to the children involved and what it was teaching them on a local and global level. The response from the watchers was instantaneous as e-mails and texts began to flood in, many wondering if the program would continue and grow to include more Honduran children. All good questions and food for thought.
The morning of day two, we set out early to try and beat the sweltering heat, which we found to be a real force to contend with. This day of our trip was much anticipated, as we were all excited to visit the Copan Ruins. During what is considered the Classic Maya Period, Copan was one of the greatest cities in the Mayan world and was able to sustain their power for over 400 years. During this period 16 rulers oversaw the city’s growth. Today the ruins are considered to be one of the best archeological sites and are a popular tourist attraction. The valley is about 10 square miles and displays the remains of Maya pyramids, stone structures, monuments and Stelae’s. A Stelae is a carved stone slab erected as a monument. Our tour of the area by tour guide Mike Valladares took us into the Great Plaza which had many examples of Stelae. Walking into this valley with the Scarlett Macaw flying in pairs over-head was surreal. From the Plaza through the Altar and celebrated Ball Court, we headed to the Petroglyph stairway of ‘Structure 26’ with stairs to the gods and a sacrificial alter at its base.
From there we ventured up and around to the West Court to stand before Structure 16, the Rosalila Temple that was discovered by Ricardo, and then around to look over what was once a town of ‘upper class’ Mayans and is now referred to as the Cemetery. Tradition of filling and destroying a dwelling after the occupant passed led to this name, as when the area was discovered and uncovered many of the structures housed bodies of Mayans. Passing through the East court to the top of the Temple, we had a perfect view of the entire area. Looking at the work that was put into the renovation of these great temples makes a real impression to the dedication of the people that put in so many hours to save this piece of world heritage.
After visiting the Mayan ruins, we were treated to a personal tour by
Ricardo of the Sculpture Museum. This museum is the protective home to many pieces of Maya works of art.
Walking down the entrance tunnel into the museum, we came face to face with a full-size replica of Rosalila. The temple was found completely preserved inside of pyramid Structure 16, and was completely reconstructed to scale and color in the middle of the Sculpture Museum. The works of art that the museum houses show the amazing amount of skill and craftsmanship that the Mayan people possessed and the in-depth tour by Ricardo capped off the visit to the world heritage site to bean experience that will not be forgotten.
From the history and awe-inspiring sites of the Copan Ruins, we moved on to visit Casita Copan. Casita Copan is a community-based organization in Copan, and home to many of the children that are participants in the Common Ground Garden Project. The Casitas homes are designed to be loving homes with a family environment for abandoned or orphaned children. They also provide free day care for at risk families. For more information about this amazing program visit their web page at www.casitacopan.org. Our visit to the center was moving and eye opening. We were able to tour the facility, talk with the children that were there and met a few of the children that are a part of the program. Some of the best moments of our trip took place during this visit. Maria joined a group of students and helped them with their homework. The entire group received hugs from numerous children who were so happy to see us and have our attention, even if for just a few moments. The facility provides the children with homework assistance, nutritious meals and a safe clean place to spend their days. This sparse house provides little in the way of furniture or toys but is obviously staffed by a group of volunteers that provide attention and affection to the children it helps. Down the street from the Casitas is the local public school, one of two in the area, and where the students that are a part of the Common Ground program attend school.
On our final day in Copan, we were picked up outside of our hotel by a small bus filled with the majority of the children from the project. As we walked up to the bus, we could hear the kids welcoming us with so much excitement that we could feel it. We were warmly embraced as we entered the bus, each of us grabbed by a child eager to have us sit with them. The children talked the entire way to Macaw Mountain, where their garden is located. We could tell that we were getting close, as the enthusiasm from each of the kids vibrated the entire bus. When we pulled up to the garden, located along a river and surrounded by forest, the kids flooded from the bus, dragging us along to see the work that they have done. They showed us radishes, cilantro, the compost bins and talked to us about the plants that they planted and were then stolen out of the ground. We then split to take separate tours of the Macaw Sanctuary, a place to learn about and interact with the intelligent and colorful birds of Central America. The birds at this sanctuary are rescued or donated by people that find themselves unable to care for them or are concerned about their well-being. Currently, the sanctuary houses over 20 different types of birds in various aviaries. The facility is spread out over acres of forest so the tour travels along winding paths and picturesque views.
Mid-way through our tour, we met back up with the children from the Common Ground Project to gather for a BBQ lunch prepared Lloyd Davidson, one of the owners of the bird park and nature reserve. After lunch, it was time to gather the children so that they could unpack the community suitcase. The suitcase was packed in Greenfield by the youth participants from the US team to show examples of what was important to the kids in American and give the Honduras kids a taste of American culture. Jose unpacked the case with the kids, explaining to them why each item was chosen, by whom and what it represented. To end our precious time with these lively, wonderful children, we presented to them a California t-shirt, a gift from our team. The day with the children was by far what made the trip so special. Filled with emotions, we all left Macaw Mountain deeply touched, with memories that will be lasting and spirit changing and with a deep desire to see this project continue to touch lives and do good. Back at the hotel, we gathered for a project meeting with Ricardo and Liz, during which we discussed possibilities for continuation, shared notes of success’s, problem areas and general thoughts on the program.
Our trip came to an end with an emotional day, meeting and learning more about the incredible children that we had only meet via skype to that point. The trip was fascinating, amazing, eye-opening, inspirational and definitely once in a lifetime. The sites we saw and people that we met made a lasting impression on all of us and is one that we will not soon forget. It was an honor to represent the US by visiting Honduras and meeting the other half of the team that has been working on this worthwhile project. Thank you to Liz, Ricardo, Donaldo, Karla, Paula and Jesus for hosting us and showing us an amazing time and sharing your community with us. We look forward to returning the favor when you visit us at the end of May.
Common Ground: Connecting Communities through Gardens, a Museums Connect project, is made possible by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs and is administered by the American Alliance of Museums.