photo by joel martin

"I've never been given a photo before."

I walked through the cobblestone roller coaster streets of Copan, getting my bearings. Seven years previously I had walked through the same streets, and seen these same buildings. I had strolled straight through the middle of the town square and stood on the same street corners. I was 17 years old then, on a volunteer project in Honduras with about twenty other classmates from high school. And here I was again, on a much different adventure this time around, but still right back in the same place.

Sometimes memories can be deceptive, and the construction and makeup of a place that has lived only in your mind for several years seems different when you actually end up there, and don’t have the nostalgic quality of your memory to support it anymore. I had anticipated that Copan would feel this way when we finally got here, that perhaps what made it so incredible to me the first time around had to do solely with the fact that I was 17 and freer than I’d ever been before. But Copan was ready to embrace me once again, and it was a warm feeling. Recognition was washing over me and occasionally I would turn a corner and be overcome with just how familiar it looked.

I turned around and spotted what I was looking for, a steep downhill drop at the far corner of the town square. I knew at the bottom of this hill was a hotel, the one I had stayed in before, and I wanted to go back. I was probably just looking for the next “high” of getting hit with a rushing recognition wave, but who’s to judge? I walked down the hill, made a sharp right at the bottom, and just like that I was standing in the entryway. I was shocked at how perfectly rendered the hotel was as it stood before me. The courtyard looked so definitely the same as it always had. Even the plants looked as though they had been frozen in time, as though they had no more and no less roots under them, and leaves sprawling from them. No one seemed to be around, so I just walked up and down the stairs until the rush of excitement dwindled, and I had had my fill of nostalgia. I walked down the corridor towards the front door and the moment before I had both feet out of the building, I heard a woman’s voice calling out.

I turned around and there was Marta, an elderly woman not much more than five feet tall. Looking at her I sensed familiarity once again. We jumped into conversation, and I depleted my comfortable Spanish knowledge quickly. We exchanged “Holas.” Next up was “Como te llamas?”, “Mucho gusto,” and “Soy de Alaska.” At this point I thought I was pretty much tapped. I always feel that I’m good at communicating in Spanish until I actually have to communicate in Spanish. All the words I think I know somehow get swept away in the anxiety of it all. But here Marta and I were, in the middle of the day in Copan, no one else around and no reason to be anywhere else at all. Though silence was beginning to engulf the air between us we both understood that we wanted to have a real conversation, if we could. Marta broke the silence by pointing at a nearby chair and saying “Sientate,” which I remembered was “sit.” I smiled, took a seat, and with this newfound level of comfort, began to feel Spanish words coming from somewhere inside.

Ten minutes later I walked away from the hotel smiling from ear to ear. I had just had my first real Spanish conversation, a conversation that had gone beyond what kind of meat I wanted in my taco, or what size of beer I wanted from the store. Somehow I had been able to explain to Marta that I had been to the hotel seven years previous, and she told me that she had worked there for 14 years herself, so we must have met at some point in the past. We talked about the project, I told her how we had come from Montana and made it all the way here to take photos. She asked me how much I was paying for lodging in Copan and I told her six bucks a night. She countered by offering five at her hotel, to which I promptly said “SI!” and ran to get the rest of my vanmates.

We pulled in to the hotel a few hours later and Marta was still there, people watching on the stoop. We checked in, and I grabbed a camera, snapped a photo of her when she wasn’t looking. When I printed it off and gave it to her, a huge smile came over her face. “Uno mas!” she cried, and I snapped another and went off to print it. When I returned with it she had money in her hand. She wanted to pay for the photos. “No, no!” I said, and she looked truly baffled. For the first time in our very short relationship we weren’t really communicating. She tried to give the photos back. “NO!” I cried again and pushed her hands away. She kept saying something that I just couldn’t understand so I called Aidan, over to translate. They exchanged some words and Marta was back to her usual warm and smiley self.

“What was that all about?” I asked Aidan.

“She’s never been given a photo before,” he said.

I looked back over at Marta who was out in front of the building excitedly showing someone her freshly printed portraits. I felt a huge rush come over me, just knowing that this woman had gone over half her life without ever receiving a photo of herself and now here she was, as excited as a young girl out in the streets showing the prints to anyone who passed.

photo by joel martin