Don Juan was in prison.
His daughter Ana ran to tell me the news as my pickup rattled into the wide spot in the dirt road the people who lived there called Galeras. It isn't a town, not even a village, just a collection of houses that had to be built somewhere, and for unknown reasons they were built here. A tiny place, a hard place, a lonely place. Forty-five minutes of gravel, dirt and potholes to the nearest paved road. Water runs down from natural springs higher up in the hills, through plastic pipes and hoses put there by CARE in an attempt to give the people something they could call potable water. There isn't any electricity, except for the generator at Ruperto's house where I spent most weekends. Folks here are farmers, raising corn and pigs and children, all considered essential for a reasonably long and marginally prosperous life in rural Honduras. Juan had a small farm with dismal looking corn, five children, and a two-room adobe house with a clay tile roof. That's where I met Juan, where we became friends, under his roof.
For some reason we hit it off from the beginning. I'd get to Ruperto's house about three in the afternoon, drop off my backpack, and begin my ritual walk around Galeras, talking with people and generally looking out of place, the only person within miles with more than just a hint of European genes. One afternoon I met Juan. He invited me in for coffee, and we talked about politics, crops, the weather, his family, his life...the things that men with more empty hours than hopes talk about. We passed whole afternoons together. If times were good he'd ask his wife to bring us tortillas and fresh cheese, or some tamales she'd made from corn masa and mysterious pieces of meat. We'd sit and talk until dark, then he'd light the homemade lamp, an old brake fluid can half-filled with kerosene and a strip of cloth for a wick. The flickering orange light it provided was only slightly brighter than the darkness around us, but in it I could see Juan, surrounded by all his worldly goods, his face lined from days in the sun, his eyes alive with friendship. Now he was in prison. He was my friend. I went to see him.
The prison was at Yuscarán. Forty-five minutes back to the highway, another half-hour to the turnoff, then thirty minutes of dust and gravel and I was there. A gold mine birthed the town in colonial times but that played out, and now the main sources of employment were the distillery, a few unimportant government offices and the prison. I presented myself to the guard, and asked if I could visit a prisoner. A full body search later I entered Juan's new world. There was a large central patio of sandal-packed dirt. Surrounding the patio were cells built for ten and holding thirty. I looked for Juan and found him in his usual T-shirt, brown pants and sweat-stained straw hat. Vacant brown eyes came alive when he saw me. We didn't shake hands, Juan grabbed me and hugged me, a manly Latin abrazo. I hugged back. He was embarrassed to be in prison, but, life is that way, isn't it? A man struggles just to make a living for himself and his family, then celebrates the sale of a good corn crop with a bottle of aguardiente and...his shrug spoke eloquently.
"Please, let's find some shade," he said, and we headed towards a wall. On the way we passed an inmate selling bananas. Juan reached into his pocket, pulled out ten centavos, and bought two bananas. He smiled and gave me one. It was almost too precious a gift to eat. We squatted in the shade, sitting on our heels, our backs leaning against the wall. We talked, not looking at each other because of his shame. Yes, he was doing fine, but missed his family. Yes, he had enough money to buy extra food to supplement the prison's meager rations, but...well...he needed money to pay a fine. Or a lawyer, I was never really sure which, but it didn't matter. He needed $100. A pair of shoes to me, but freedom to him. Would I please give the money to Ana, and she'd make certain the legal expenses were paid, and he'd pay me back a little at a time until the debt was cancelled? Certainly. Within ten days Juan was home with his family.
Juan was a prisoner who could be set free because he was held behind walls of concrete and bars of iron. Galeras held other prisoners not so easily given their freedom. Prisoners of ignorance, of tradition, of poverty. Most are there still, only a very few have been set free.