Café Lempira (1 of 4)

We never would have gone into the Café Lempira if it weren’t for the old man, but when he rasped “Bienvenidos,” and beckoned us toward him with a skeletal arm, Alain jerked his head and darted across the narrow cobblestone street.

I followed, the timeworn stones slick under the soles of my muddy hiking boots. “Alain, man, we’re filthy. Let’s find rooms and showers first. We can check this place out later.”

Alain ignored me and kept angling toward the café.

The old man watched us from a small wooden table shadowed by intertwined bougainvillea bushes. He wore a sparkling white guayabera, white linen pants, and sandals woven from a pale fiber I didn’t recognize. His wrinkled brown skin was drawn tight over the bones of his face, and his eyes — as shiny black as his hair — gleamed with something more than intelligence.

Alain and I were as grubby as the backpacks we carried. Most of my freckles were hidden under a layer of dirt and mud that darkened my reddish-blond hair. Alain’s brown curls hid the grime better, but his olive skin and red-and-white friendship bracelet were liberally smudged with dirt.

As we drew closer, I began making excuses in Spanish. His eyes on Alain, the old man ignored me. He smiled, revealing bright white teeth. “Please,” he said, gesturing to the two empty seats at his table, “join me.”

Alain leaned his pack against an earthenware pot holding a cactus draped in a net of purple and blue morning glory vines and sank into a carved wooden chair next to the old man.

I gave up making excuses and sat next to Alain. I was across the table from the old man, whose smile was now even wider.

The café took up the entire front room of the building, and a riot of flowering vines bursting from terra cotta pots took up most of the floor space. Carved wooden tables nestled in small alcoves hacked out of the indoor jungle. Above each table, brightly colored murals painted in vivid detail on thick adobe walls brought to life the ancient cities of Copán and Yarumela and bloody scenes from the Spanish invasion.

A large archway led to the open-air patio in the center of the house where an enormous bird cage, at least twenty feet tall, stood. Strangler figs and vines grew through the gleaming bars toward second- and third-story wrought-iron balconies. The mass of plant life blocked most of the late-morning sun from reaching ground level.

The old man sipped from a small clay cup I hadn’t noticed before and looked at Alain and I in turn. “You two are brothers?”

Alain and I shook our heads in unison. Our eyes were the same brownish green, and the brother question had become a recurring joke since we’d met at the Hedman Alas bus terminal in Copán Ruinas, both of us tired of studying Spanish and eager to experience more of Honduras. We’d set our sights on climbing Pico Celaque, the highest mountain in the country, and abandoned the bus terminal to try our luck hitchhiking, which is how we’d arrived in the town of Gracias. Three days of hiking and two nights of camping later, we’d summited the mountain and returned to Gracias to clean up and plot our next adventure.

The old man was unphased by his error. “But you are both norteamericanos.”

I nodded. “Soy de California.”

“No soy americano,” Alain said. “Soy canadiense.” He raised his left hand. Dirt darkened the red and white threads of his bracelet so that it looked more like puddles of blood on a dirt road than red maple leaves on a white background.

“Estados Unidos, Canadá.” The old man pursed his lips and shrugged. “Both your ancestors arrived on boats and stole land from the people already living there, no?” Alain drew breath to argue, but the old man changed the topic before he could say a word. “You came here for coffee. Our coffee is grown on the mountains around Gracias. I roast it myself.” He made a vague gesture toward the back of the building.

“Espresso,” I said. “Un doble, por favor.”

“Americano,” Alain said. “Gracias.”

The old man nodded to a waiter, also dressed in all white, who had appeared silently next to the table.

Alain nodded toward the patio. “Check out that bird.”

An unusually large rainbow-billed toucan perched near the top of the massive cage. Like the old man sitting underneath the bougainvillea, the toucan kept to the shadows cast by the leaves of creeping vines thick with brightly colored flowers. As if sensing our attention, the toucan made a strangely triumphant croaking sound and shifted back and forth on its perch. The bird croaked again, louder, and fluffed up its feathers, as if offering a challenge. It hopped toward a branch closer to us, and a silver band fixed around its left leg glinted from the shadows.

Despite the warmth of the day, I shivered. “That bird’s a trip, that’s for sure.”

“The tucán is very smart,” the old man said, “and he plays checkers very well.”

Prompted by Jesse Allain: toucan, coffee bean, Honduras. Avec fromage, mon ami. 

Photo by Leonard Reese on Unsplash