“Banana Republic.” ‘Indian’ vs. Indú. Christopher Columbus. Language mishaps. Indira Gandhi, bindi, and beef. Geography. And me, in the middle of all this.

A recipe for hilarity.

The year was 1984. At the time, I was studying for a Master of Science (MS) degree in Environmental Studies at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA. The University had signed an agreement with a group in the Central American country called Honduras to set up machinery that would take sugar cane juice, convert it to ethanol, and introduce that into the market as an alternative to fossil-fuel based materials.

It was to be set up near a village called El Bálsamo (EB) in northern Honduras. We were to work with a group consisting of the presidents of several agricultural cooperatives of sugar cane growers.

There were four of us graduate students assigned to work on this project – Harold, Lisa, Nan, and I. I was the only non-white person. We had a crash course in spoken and written Spanish for a month in the end of 1983 during which Ms Carol Martinez taught us the basics. We were then supposed to use this to learn ‘on the job.’

Nan and I were going to set up a study with which we would learn about domestic energy consumption patterns, income, diets, and so on – in general, about the social-economic issues in EB.

We reached the Farmers’ Training Centre in Agua Blanca Sur (ABS), a few kilometers south of EB in early February 1984.

You will recall the terms acclimation, acculturation, and assimilation that I have previously introduced in connection with migration. Well, we four went about these things rather assiduously. In our group, Spanish speaking abilities were initially mainly with Nan. I landed in Honduras and promptly forgot all that Ms Martinez had taught us! Except how to ask, “Where is the toilet?”, in a rather urgent manner.

Upon reaching ABS, we explored the nearest small town, El Progreso (EP). So, we went walking around to locate various places we would need to know about – shops, restaurants, local agency to get driving licence, agency to get my visa renewed (every month, I had to get it renewed because I had an Indian passport), and so on.

Everywhere we went, we were the objects of much curiosity. Random Hondurans would walk up to us and look at me specifically and rattle off something in Spanish. I would look totally blank and simply point to Nan who spoke more Spanish than the rest of us combined. And the conversation, in Spanish, would go along these lines:

Honduran (H): Why doesn’t he speak Spanish?

Nan (N): Oh, he’s Indian.

H: Okay, but why doesn’t he speak Spanish?

N (with great patience): Well, because he’s Indian.

H (looking befuddled): Yeah, yeah. Then why doesn’t he speak Spanish?

This would lead to frustration on both sides. I would play the role of Mute Spectator Number 1.

Central America and Caribbean.
Source: Perry Castañeda Map Library, University of Texas, Austin.
Click on the image to view a larger version in a new tab.

About a week or so of this daily drama and it dawned on us. Our problem was with Mr C. Columbus – he of the early 15th century expedition looking for a route to … yes, India! You remember that everybody wanted to find a sea route to India to get pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, etc. to take back to Europe to make tons of money? Well, CC kept calling every place he landed “India” and the locals, therefore, “Indians.” Therefore, the word “Indian” is even today used for many many native tribes up and down the Americas.

Naturally, when Nan told them that I am Indian (in Spanish: indió), they presumed I was from one of the native tribes. And this they could believe because, physically, I resembled most Hondurans. This realization made us feel extremely foolish and clever at the same time.

So, the conversation pattern changed. Now, Nan would say, “He’s from India.” Since my own Spanish had improved somewhat, I started responding, “I’m from India.”

This resulted in even more hilarity.

Our Honduran interlocutors’ faces would light up with comprehension, they would smile broadly, and say, “OOOOOH! You are Indú!” Now, it was our turn to knit our brows in incomprehension. It turned out that, no matter what your religion is, if you are from India, you are Indú. Yes, they pronounced my name correctly (well, the Chandra part anyway). But I was forever, everywhere, and to everyone known as “el indú” (the Hindu). I thought that was that.

Not by a jugful!

The moment they got a fix on my geographical origins, they all had three questions.

Question #1: How is Indira Gandhi?

Question # 2: Why do Indian women wear that dot on their foreheads?

Question # 3: Why don’t Indians eat beef?

The first question was always the same, but the second and third questions were not always in that order. Respectively, my answers to the questions were: “She is fine” (all the information I had led me to believe that she was), “Because it looks beautiful” (well, it does!), and “Some people do but most don’t, it’s just the way it is” (well, it is!). I did not have the vocabulary to give them a long lecture on Indian dietary history and geography.

Remember, all this was in 1984. Information flow was far less than now. There was no way for people to just plonk themselves down in front of a computer and look up information about India and where el Indú is from. But the fact that everyone asked about Indira Gandhi really fascinated me. The world was very large and it was remarkable when people knew something about where I came from.

Unlike then, now we are awash in information. We can find out so much about the world and its geography so easily. There is little or no reason for us not to know about the world. For the record, I did not use a computer until the autumn of 1984! From then to now the world has, almost literally, become smaller.

Next time, I will tell you about one or two other hilarious things that happened as part of the process of our acclimating and acculturating to Honduras.

Use this interactive map to explore further

Some things you can do:

  1. Locate Honduras in an atlas. Study its latitudinal and longitudinal spans. Is it landlocked? Is it mountainous or flat? What kind of vegetation is to be found there? Which countries neighbor it?
  2. How do its latitudinal and longitudinal span and location compare with that of India?
  3. If you have access to Google maps, explore the territory of the country in the area of the places mentioned above. This gives you practice in manipulation of geographic scale by zooming in and out on that map.
  4. Honduras is considered part of Latin America. Find out which areas are included in “Latin America” and why is that name used?
  5. Many of the countries in Central America were (are?) called “banana republics”! Find out who call(ed) them that and why. Is that a complimentary term or an insult? In either case, why do you think that?

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald, Student Edition, on 26 February 2015.


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