I was sitting toward the edge of a crepe paper-lined tiki bar in Honduras when I realized I’d had it. My five coworkers had to be the most insufferable cruise companions of all time: their priorities consisted of getting up early to nab the best chair on the sundeck and figuring out a rotation for who would go grab the next bucket of Coors Light. And while I’m capable of appreciating the occasional rendezvous with day-ruining sunburns and week-ruining hangovers, those activities just aren’t on my to-do list while I’m exploring Central America, thank you very much. But it was my own damn fault: I didn’t really know these people—I just wanted to go on a cruise through the Western Caribbean—and in my naïveté I assumed they’d want something, anything, to do with Honduras, Belize, the Bahamas, and Mexico. They didn’t.
When our cruise ship docked at Roatan—a small island off the coast of Honduras—I naively assumed we were about to put on our explorer hats, don our khakis proudly, and head out on an adventure full of slithering, poisonous snakes, hikes up serpentine trails to ancient ruins, and run-ins with shrewd and slinky vendors who drove a hard bargain. Instead, we hailed a cab and booked it to the nearest bar. For a few bucks, our cab driver took us to the birth of a shoddy, war-torn, hungry street and dropped us off with our “tour guide”—his seemingly-mute daughter, Gabriela. She quietly led the way down the road, ignoring with each of her flip-flopping steps that this can’t have been what Norwegian Cruise Lines had in mind. Chunks of powdery pavement crumpled beneath our feet, windows seemed armed and at the ready for trespassers, and wooden boards that presumably once kept out the vermin of the city were now littering the street, like some exhausted, overworked interior decorator had called it quits and stalked off in a violent, explosive rage.
A quarter of a mile or so later, the likes of the ghetto unchanging and still not a peep out of Gabriela, she stopped and pointed at our obvious, almost glaringly-offensive and out-of-place destination: a three-walled tiki bar. The counters were lined with grass skirts and margarita mugs, though not a tourist was in sight. With the sun still well in the East, the 6 of us hunkered down at the bar, one by one. Gabriela sat by herself at a corner table, barely making eye contact with the paper toucans decorating the walls.
It had to be some sort of new-age torture. The only respite I could cling onto was that my strawberry margarita tasted like jam. Maybe the bartender got me—I soon found out that we were both from the Midwest, after all. Much to my ever-increasing dismay, the six of us had settled down with six margaritas carefully concocted by some runaway ex-pat from St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis. Home of the Cardinals, Nelly, and the Gateway Arch. We were a bunch of kids from Iowa sitting at a bar in exotic, toasty warm, eye-opening Honduras talking to a pale, lonely Midwestern boy from Missouri. I didn’t come this far to get a sugar high from an excuse for a margarita at a second-rate version of my local watering hole. If I wasn’t the travelling solo type before then, I was now.
So, I gobbled up the remains of the jam at the bottom of my margarita, popped up off my fake-bamboo chair, and made a bee-line for the only worthwhile conversation partner I might be able to find that day: Gabriela. She couldn’t’ve been more than 12 years old, 80 pounds sopping wet, and seemed like she had a handful of older, more glamorous siblings whose shadows she slept in at night. It’s a feeling I understood, in both English and Spanish. I walked up to her a little nervous myself, but it couldn’t be worse than what I had left 10 feet behind.
“…Hola, Gabriela. Me llamo Jackie. Uhh…te gustaría…una bebida?”
I saw her hide a slight smile, obviously amused by my subpar Spanish skills. But it jetted away like someone might catch her in trouble, and she just shook her head. I was trying my hardest. 4 years of high school Spanish was just barely not leaving me high and dry.
“Aww, c’mon. Te gustaría…una coca-cola?”
Another head shake.
“…Anaranjada? Wait. Crap! Naranja?”
A little smile, but nope, nope.
And finally I saw a glimmer. I latched onto it like it was a golden ticket out of hell, which it was, in a way. “Okay! Una Sprite por mi amiga nueva!” and never gave her a chance to stop me. I saw another smile, this time accompanied by a small giggle. I was always afraid to speak foreign languages to my classmates and professors even after years of study, but she gave making an ass out of myself purpose, as if my neurons were firing slowly for some grander reason I didn’t understand.
I nabbed a fresh bottle from the bar and set it down in front of her. At that moment, it felt like a band of Care Bears could not have made any child happier. Though I was only capable of asking her very simple questions, like what music she liked or what she was studying in school, it was still the best conversation I had had all week. After her last grateful drink, she looked back at my three-margarita-deep companions, looked at me, sized me up momentarily, and whispered in a hopeful, innocent-but-scheming air,
“Quieres ir de compras? Las tiendas están cerca de aquí.”
I couldn’t help but get excited. “Claro, Gabriela. Me encantaría.” And we walked out the door, two bandits on the loose, running away from our shadows.