60-something Pete looked like he was on heavy sedatives, and to my unsettling surprise, he was also a professional pilot.
“So, you flew commercial airplanes for Air Canada, with passengers in them?” I asked.
“Yes indeed,” answered Pete with half-comatose eyes, the words pleasantly escaping from his upturned mouth.
“And you retired, but you still do charter flights with your own private plane?”
“And you moved from Canada down here to Honduras three years ago, to run this inn?”
“That’s right! I flew down here with my wife. We took one look at this place and bought it on the spot. Maybe we could have done a little more research, but look at it, it’s beautiful!”
He was right—the inn was comprised of half a dozen yellow, green, and pink cabanas leading down to a stretch of sparsely populated beach on the blue Caribbean Sea. That being said, Pete’s wife still lived in frigid Canada, for reasons unknown to me.
At the moment Pete was eating breakfast in the open-air dining room with me and my friend Conor, who came on this trip to celebrate my 30th birthday. Conor and I had been students at Vassar College years ago, where I’d majored in Hispanic Studies. Like so many privileged young people, I majored in a culture that wasn’t my own, because I had nothing better to do. Biracial people love stuff like that, because we don’t belong to either group, so why not adopt a third and become a “citizen of the world.”
“Mister Pete, your oatmeal is ready. Is there anything else I can provide at this time?” asked Yojar, a young, bright-eyed Honduran guy with dark, resplendent skin, who was Pete’s main employee at the inn.
Yojar consistently spoke the Queen’s English; he never spoke Spanish to Pete or to any of the guests, ever. Yojar’s hands were usually folded behind his back like a butler—a butler who wore shorts and a tank top, though at 100 degrees in the shade, all of us wore that uniform. My tight curls had expanded into a full-on afro upon first contact with such punishing humidity.
“Thank you Yojar!” said Pete in English, equally pleased about his oatmeal as he’d been about his coffee, his airplane, or anything else.
“Conor and Sarah, can I bring you anything?” Yojar asked.
“No thanks, don’t worry about us,” I answered, pleading with my eyes that he would not wait on us hand-and-foot. It was awkward enough that he answered all of my Spanish with English, and I wondered if Pete had instructed him to do that.
“OK. Well you just let me know the moment you need anything at all. Mister Pete, I’ll be in the back.”
Yojar receded into the kitchen in a calm and orderly fashion, and I turned to Pete.
“So, Conor and I would like to head into town regularly. Is there a bus nearby?”
“That’s a very interesting question… you know, I really have no idea,” said Pete, running a hand through his gray hair and looking to a palm tree for answers.
“I just take the Land Cruiser,” Pete added, referring to his shiny black SUV that was larger and sturdier than many Honduran homes. I paused for Pete to possibly offer us a ride, for which we’d gladly compensate him, but apparently he was just recalling the SUV’s existence.
“Well, we’ll figure it out,” I answered. “Have you ever been to the local museum?”
“Hmm… no, I sure haven’t.”
“How about that little town Santa Fe, just down the road?”
“Nope, seems I haven’t been there either.”
“The national park?”
“Now that I definitely have not seen. You two are really going afield!”
Later that day, I overheard a couple at the inn asking Pete where they could kayak. Pete told them he had kayaks, but had no idea how to get them to the right part of the beach—this he said while leaning against his SUV with an empty rack on top.
I wondered if Pete was just lazy, or if he actively avoided his Honduran surroundings. I figured Pete was basically harmless, and that he chose Honduras because it was both gorgeous and inexpensive.
I approached Yojar in Spanish with the questions Pete couldn’t answer, and he responded politely in English. He said a colectivo (a re-purposed yellow school bus) passed along our dirt road every couple of hours, and we could take it into town for eight lempiras (about 40 cents). Yojar hadn’t been to the museum, but he recommended walking to Santa Fe sometime for lunch. He’d also hiked up the mountain at the national park and said the view up there was spectacular, and we could ask at the park office in town if any guides were available.
The next day Conor and I found ourselves having breakfast with Pete again, and Pete invited us to see his private plane. Apparently there was a runway just outside of town, seldom used and badly damaged by Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged the entire Virginia-sized country back in 1998. Pete paid for repairs to the runway himself, which required very little in the way of official work permits, and then he built himself a small hangar for his six-seater and hired a Honduran security guard.
Pete drove us to the hangar in his refrigerated Land Cruiser. We pulled up and the security guard nodded at us as we walked into the hangar; Pete nodded back silently, and suddenly I felt uncomfortable. In such a poor country, I was embarrassed to be with someone wealthy enough to employ his own bouncer, but then again, Pete had given this guy a job in a country where work was often scarce.
Pete led us around, showed us a couple of apartments he was building onto the back, and then took us up into his very shiny plane. Pete spoke to us at length about the mechanics of flying a non-commercial aircraft, about which I couldn’t have known less. More urgently, Pete failed to notice how hot it was; it had to be 100 degrees outside, 115 in the hangar, and 130 in the plane itself. Nearly choking on humidity, I suggested we pile out, and Pete was going to drop us off at the town plaza. But first he had an errand to run.
We pulled over at a small, dusty veterinary supply store, which was empty except for two young girls sitting behind the pale yellow counter. Pete took off his sunglasses and approached them.
“Umm… habla… English?”
The girls looked at him and shook their heads no. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized: I had never heard Pete speak Spanish because he was literally unable to do so. He couldn’t even finish the phrase “habla inglés” and he’d been living in Central America for three years. Maybe he was afraid of the local language, or maybe he resented it, or maybe he considered himself above it. Or maybe I wasn’t giving him enough credit; I had studied Spanish for ten years and took the basics for granted.
“Sarah, I don’t suppose you could ask them about some de-worming pills for our stray kitten?” Pete asked me.
“Of course,” I said, and I was happy to do it. Plus, Pete made my proficiency in Spanish look like native fluency.
I got the de-worming pills and explained to Pete how to administer them. Later that day I saw Yojar giving the tiny half-pills to the fluffy ginger kitten, who was frail and malnourished.
Conor and I liked Yojar a lot. He was sweet, eager to help, happy to share stories, and he was obviously a hard worker. Sadly his job was to be at Pete’s beck and call. Pete never made his own breakfast, lunch, or dinner; never washed his own khaki shorts and tropical shirts; never cleaned his own living quarters; couldn’t speak a word of Spanish.
One afternoon Pete had been out sailing and threw down the anchor a ways from shore. To avoid getting wet (quelle horreur!) after this perfect outing, he called Yojar from his cell phone while still on the anchored boat. Yojar rode a stand-up paddle board out to the boat, let Pete paddle back, then swam back to shore behind him. As I watched this transpire from the beach, my opinion of Pete took a dive, and I wasn’t sure I could recover my image of a harmless, lazy retiree.
“That’s absurd, right?” I asked Conor. “Or am I being too harsh?”
“No, it’s completely absurd.”
“I didn’t want to use the dreaded C word, but don’t you think that Pete has, maybe… a colonial relationship with Yojar?”
Our alma mater was a leftist liberal arts school where the worst thing you could possibly call someone was a “colonizer,” a person who established a master-servant relationship with someone of another race, particularly in that other race’s homeland. The real “c word” was thrown around by many Vassar girls, whose sexual profanity would make a pirate blush.
“You might be right,” said Conor. “Pete’s been living in Honduras on the cheap with a personal servant, and he’s managed to avoid all contact with his environment.”
“And Yojar calls him ‘Mister Pete’ instead of ‘Mister Whatever-His-Last-Name-Is.’ Doesn’t that have an eerie, pre-Civil-Rights ring to it?”
On the other hand, what did I know? In college I’d studied the colonization of Latin America, wars and migrations, poetry and novels within the brick walls of a snobby college in upstate New York, so I was well-read and not much else.
Conor and I watched the rapport between Pete and Yojar all week, and finally I decided to consult a third party. Yojar’s wife worked at the inn too, but we rarely saw her, and in fact it took some time for us to figure out who she was. She didn’t speak any English, so she never spoke to Pete, and she likely assumed all the guests were monolingual as well. When I approached her in Spanish on the beach, far away from both Pete and Yojar, she did a double-take.
“You speak Spanish!” she said, beaming.
“Sure, I didn’t come here to practice my English,” I answered. I liked her already.
“So how are you and your husband enjoying yourselves?” she asked.
“Oh, he’s not my husband. We’re friends from school.”
Her eyes doubled in size and she put a hand to her mouth.
“We’re actually celebrating my thirtieth birthday,” I added.
“Oh my goodness! I thought you were twenty! I’m only seventeen.”
“I get that a lot,” I said, knowing that 30 was almost grandmothering age in Honduras.
We talked for a while about our families, my one brother and her eleven siblings, how we’d both been raised in the country, how much it sucks to be a teenage girl, no matter where you live. But I was afraid I wouldn’t get another chance to talk to her frankly, away from the men, so I pushed toward my real question.
“Tell me, how do you and Yojar get on here?”
“Pretty well,” she said, narrowing her gaze on me, not sure what I was getting at.
“How does Pete treat you, honestly? Do you have a good life here?”
“Oh, Mister Pete is fine,” she said with a flick of her hand. “He doesn’t speak Spanish, but we make good money and we have a nice apartment here on the beach. Overall our life is very good, and when our son is born we’ll have money to care for him,” she said, patting her tiny, emerging baby bump.
I supposed that had to count for something, as we sat there on the beach watching the sun set over one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.