Adventure Facing the Odds in Central America

Most people who know my art only know about my cartooning.  Those child-friendly faces are all over the world and used by teachers everywhere.  I know this because I hear from people every week, from the most unusual places, who use my art.  But, I also like to draw portraits of interesting faces that cross my path as I travel.   I know, when you look at the art, it doesn’t look like the same artist could possibly do both, but that’s just the way it works.  I’m not sure what that says about me.

My portraits come from all kinds of sources.  Some of the faces belong to friends.  Some of the faces belong to people I’ve had a brief encounter with along the way.  And, some of those faces are of people who didn’t even know they were photographed.  Each portrait has a unique story and I’ve gotten into the habit of drawing them every time I travel.  It’s a very personal documentation of my journey in life.  But, whenever I finish a portrait, I stuff it in a portfolio and go on to the next one.  Nobody else has ever seen all of them.  And, none of the strangers have ever seen my work.

Since I visited Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras just a year ago, I thought there was a chance that I might be able to locate three men I photographed and drew.  I had never been able to do this before and I was so hopeful.  The first young man worked on the streets of Playa del Carmen, my favorite tourist trap in the world.  He roamed around dressed as a Mayan king.  He knew I took his photo.  I had to pay for it.  This was his job.  Sometimes, it is just worth it to get the right photo.  The second man, a tour guide in Tikal, had no idea he was photographed.  Finally, the third man, a charming old Honduran cowboy, readily agreed to pose when I asked.  He was adorable, wearing a United States Postal Service jacket.  I had to take his photo!

Since I had to pay for the photo in Playa del Carmen, I had the opportunity to speak to the Mayan king.  Javier was a lot friendlier than his stern warrior pose indicates.  On my return to Mexico, I knew where to look for him.  There is only one main tourist drag in Playa.  You can see mariachi bands, Aztec dance troupes, the high flying Voladores swinging upside down from poles and, of course, a Mayan king or two.  If I was going to find Javier, there was only one place to look.

It only took me an hour upon arrival.  What were the odds?

Actually, I found another Mayan king and asked if he knew Javier.  As it turned out, these two kings were good friends.  However, Javier had since given up his feathered head gear for a new job.  But as soon as I showed him the portrait, king number two personally brought me to the job location.  We were less than a block away.

Javier was even more delightful than I remembered.  The portrait took him completely by surprise and he was thrilled.  On this second visit, I had the chance to ask a burning question.  He was not a Mayan king, even though he was in the heart of Mayan country.  Nope, he was an Aztec.

One down, two more portraits to go.

Javier before and after

The second place I revisited was Tikal in Guatemala.  The Mayan ruins were simply majestic.  I had one eye admiring history while the other was on the lookout for a curious looking guide wearing a crazy hat stuffed full of multi-colored feathers.  Neither history nor the man could have been missed.  I took in all the history.  But, alas, the Tikal tour guide was a no show.

Very fortunately for me, one of the guides spoke excellent English when I stopped to buy a cold drink.  I asked if he know all of the guides at Tikal.  He thought he knew most, but wasn’t sure why I asked such a strange question.  Then, I explained the photo and my portrait.  He was willing to look, but he made no promises.

A smile crossed his face when I pulled out my work.

Everyone knew Santiago.  He gave French tours and was called, “the man with the feathers”.  Now, sometimes I capture a good likeness of the intended person.  Sometimes I create a good drawing, but it does not look like the person at all.  I don’t know why.  That’s just how it works.  But, I really captured Santiago.  The English speaking guide showed the portrait to six friends standing nearby.  There was a lot of rapid conversation, but none of it was in English.  The only word I understood was “feo”.  That means “ugly”.  One of the other men said that Santiago was an ugly man, but I did a wonderful job to make him look good.

I thought I did the best I could to get the portrait delivered under the circumstances.  But, just to cover my bases, I looked up a French restaurant in Flores.  One waiter also recognized Santiago.  He also promised to deliver the drawing.  Hopefully, one of them would come through for me.  I was off to Honduras.

I was one for two, which was not bad odds under the circumstances.

Copán Ruinas was a sleepy little town.  It was that charm that brought me back to Honduras.  On my last visit, I stayed less than twenty-four hours.  I needed more time there.  And, for so many reasons, Hotel Lastenia was the right location for me.  Both Humberto and Gilma recognized my old cowboy.  Copán Ruinas was small enough for everyone to at least recognize each other.  They didn’t know his name for sure, but Humberto thought it was Juan.  I just loved the sound of Don Juan de Copán as the name of the portrait. 

Don Pedro before and after

It wasn’t meant to be.  His name was Don Pedro.  And, in case you don’t know, “Don” is a respectful title like “Mr.” is in English.

Humberto brought me to Casitas Copán to discuss a possible mural.  While I spoke to the director, who should pass by the orphanage but my eighty year old cowboy!  Humberto ran after the poor little man.  I don’t think my little cowboy fully understood why a gringo wanted to see him.  However, we set up an appointment to meet in the town square that afternoon.

Don Pedro showed up and I presented him two copies of my portrait.  Again, I really captured his likeness.  But, I didn’t get much of a reaction.  I can’t speak much Spanish and dear old Don Pedro wasn’t speaking any.  There was a long silence and a lot of awkward waiting.  I really didn’t know what to do.  Finally, fortunately, a man on the other side of us decided that he had to intervene.  Someone had to rescue the situation and this stranger rose to the occasion.  He explained, in Spanish way better than me, that I visited Copán Ruinas last year and drew the portrait of him.  There was conversation.  There were smiles.  The situation was rescued.  And, I appreciated the kindness of a stranger more than I could express in Spanish.

I saw Don Pedro several more times while in Copán Ruinas.  It really wasn’t a very big place.  It would have been hard to not cross paths.  I wondered if he thought a gringo was stalking him.  However, the last time I saw him, he spotted me first and called out.  So, I was very pleased.

Two outta three was still very good odds.

Life sometime gives me surprises that I just never could imagine.  I love it when it happens, but I never dream big enough for some of the things that come my way.  I was in Copán Ruinas for nine days.  Cloudy weather, mural scheduling and life just got in the way.  I didn’t make it to the archaeological site outside of town until my last day in Honduras.  It was the last day of my entire trip as a tourist.  I had two very long days of travel ahead of me to cross Guatemala, Belize and head north to Cancún for a flight home. And, I wasn’t visiting Copán Ruinas without a trip to their archaeological treasure.

I entered the gate to the site and headed to the ticket office.  When what to my wondering eyes should appear but a strange little man with some feathered headgear!  Santiago!  Yep, my little tour guide from northern Guatemala was in Honduras with a herd of fourteen French speakers.  I approached him, called him by name, and asked if he spoke English.  He said if I wanted to talk in English, I needed to talk to the woman to my right. 

I smiled and said I had to talk to him.  I didn’t communicate well in Spanish.  I don’t think he understood me.  However, when I pulled out one of my drawings, he knew exactly who I was.  AND, HE HAD MY PORTRAIT OF HIM IN HIS VAN!  So, I got a photo of him holding my portrait.  I have never been good in math.  I accept the fact that I’m an artist and I’m happy with that.  But, I would love to know the odds that I would come face to face with Santiago in Honduras.  I’m guessing those odds are pretty high. 

Santiago and a miracle

I think that the odds on three outta three in three countries is a traveling miracle.

Copyright 2015 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.