Bridging the Americas

Adventure, ecology, and archaeology in Honduras: a spring break with a difference, a gate to the wilderness, and a chance to uncover a civilization.

Touching Lives

By Susan Kauffman

It seemed a long way to come to dig a ditch. I’d never lifted a pickaxe in my life, much less in a tropical country under a blistering sun. Yet there I was on spring break in Honduras, chipping away at compacted dirt with a group of Duke students half my age. I could only work three minutes at a time before needing shade and bottled water, though I took some comfort in the fact that the students didn’t last any longer than I did. As one experienced Habitat for Humanity volunteer grumbled, this was “hotter than roofing in Memphis in August.” It took us three days to carve out a thirty-six-foot trench that a back hoe could have handled in an hour.

Seventeen of us from Duke—including six undergraduate and eight graduate students—spent eight days in March as guests of the Episcopal Church of Honduras. We had gone to help victims of Hurricane Mitch build a community in a little valley outside the city of San Pedro Sula. As a member of Duke’s public affairs office, I thought I had mainly come along for the ride to get a story about Duke Chapel mission trips. Though we’d done some homework and some team-building exercises in Durham, most of us did not know much more about Honduras than we did about each other.

In the course of a week, that all changed. Remembering to pop anti-malaria pills, inhaling the odors of garbage and diesel fuel, and adjusting to more primitive toilet facilities were the easy parts. Confronting dire poverty and illness, on the other hand, put our best motives to the test. Amazingly, no one’s spirits flagged, and no one got sick. The sweat produced by hard physical labor washed away the mental stress of work and school. Our spirits were lifted by vistas of cool, inviting palm trees, smiles and hugs from hordes of young Honduran children,
and spicy food lovingly prepared. The spiritual camaraderie helped forge friendships among us.

“Most of our friends went to the beach to lie in the sun,” said J.C. Richard, a sophomore from Minneapolis. “That doesn’t even sound fun to me compared to getting to experience another culture.”

Our adventure began at 5:30 a.m. on the freezing morning of March 10, when we met at the campus Episcopal Center before driving to the Raleigh-Durham airport. Preparations had begun several months before. You don’t just join a Duke mission trip at the last minute. After a lengthy application process, we had been carefully interviewed and selected by group leaders Will Malambri, a lanky Divinity School student who had traveled in Indonesia and Africa; John Willard, a fifty-six-year-old retiree and volunteer adviser at the Episcopal Center, who led a similar Duke trip to Honduras last year; and Aby Algueseva, our interpreter, an artist married to a graduate student in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

We’d met half a dozen times, usually in the basement of Duke Chapel around nine p.m. to accommodate student schedules. We touched on the history and culture of Honduras, the original “Banana Republic”—a country the size of Tennessee, located south of Mexico and north of Panama, one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. Unemployment has hovered around 30 percent since Hurricane Mitch, the savage storm of 1998 that killed 13,000 Hondurans, destroyed about 80 percent of the agricultural land, and left more than 35 percent of the population homeless.

Our group began to coalesce the moment we got on the plane. The Divinity School students were already friends. Two—Katie Boutwell and Kris Bryant—had announced their engagement before the trip. Still, it seemed the undergraduates weren’t really keen on being with so many older students. Some had never been on a mission trip; Sarah Bagley, a junior from San Diego, had never even been out of the country.

By the time we landed in San Pedro Sula, though, our strangeness to each other had started to wear off. Now we faced a more daunting strangeness. The heat hit us like a brick as we boarded an old yellow school bus with no air conditioning, driven by Pedro, a Honduran who became our friend. As the bus made its way to our destination—Nuestras Pequenas Rosas (Our Little Roses), a church home for sixty abused or impoverished girls referred there by Honduran courts—we passed by horse-driven carts of bananas making their way alongside Toyota trucks, and by several “maquilas,” the massive, gated clothing factories known back home as sweatshops.

The gated complex of Our Little Roses, located in a middle-class neighborhood of small, gated, stucco houses with carports and an occasional tethered horse, was guarded by an armed security officer. By relief work standards, our accommodations were luxurious. We couldn’t flush toilet paper, but we enjoyed air conditioning, a fridge stocked with soft drinks and exotic juices, hot showers that worked most of the time. Women bunked in one room and the men in another, sharing a common living space with a television (with cable, which allowed us to cheer the Blue Devils on to victory in the ACC tournament).

It was already hot by eight o’clock on our first morning. We breakfasted in the orphanage dining room on cereal, fresh pineapple, mangoes, freshly squeezed orange juice, and rich Honduran coffee. After saying a prayer, twelve clean-scrubbed little girls, ages two to eight, waved from the long table next to ours. Then we hopped on the bus to ride about ten miles out of the city to the Episcopal Relief and Development’s Proyecto de Fe, Alegria y Esperanza (Faith, Hope, and Joy Project). A new community of 200 cinderblock houses being built with donations from the United States, the project is home to many families whose shanty dwellings washed away during Hurricane Mitch.

A friendly face

 

A friendly face. John Willard.

 

About 115 houses had been completed, a church building was half-finished, and plans had been drawn up for a medical clinic and school. The two-bedroom, one-bath houses, without telephones, washers, or dryers, cost $3,500. The residents spoke of them as castles, though, because they featured electricity, bathrooms, and potable water—a huge improvement over the “aguas negras,” the river sewage that thousands of Hondurans must use.

“We’re not just building houses—we’re building lives,” said Padre Blanco, the robust Episcopal pastor who oversees the Faith, Hope, and Joy project. “We’re not here to push a faith on the people,” he continued in Spanish. “We’re building a church because they asked for one.” Blanco’s red-haired wife serves both as surrogate mother to dozens of young children and as the community’s ex-officio social worker, evaluating which of the 2,000 applicants will get to live here, and helping families brook medical and emotional crises. Deeds to the homes are placed in the names of the women and children as well as the men, encouraging family stability in a male-dominated culture plagued by domestic violence.

During our five days at the site, some of us helped residents start six more housing foundations. Matthew Schlimm, a Divinity School student from Michigan, helped a young Honduran electrician wire five houses. My group carted dirt for the floor of the church and dug a trench to support church columns. The work was slow. It quickly became clear that our unskilled labor was not going to be much of a contribution. There weren’t enough shovels, and the ones they had weren’t the best kind for digging. Still, there was no hardware store to run to for supplies, and we gained a newfound appreciation for people who work with their hands.

“I never understood before why construction workers would sit on the side of the road,” said Dan Gray, a lawyer who is studying at Duke to become a youth minister, wiping sweat from his brow. Jane Cho, a sophomore whose parents emigrated from South Korea to the United States, said, “I’m grateful to my dad and my relatives who have done manual labor to make a living.”

Of course, we didn’t work all the time. In the community center that also served as a school, led by a seminarian who doubled as the construction foreman during the week, we joined joyful church services in Spanish.

A Honduran Home

 

It makes a village: The Faith, Hope, and Joy project helps Hondurans replace shanties with sturdy homes, and pride. Susan Kauffman.

 

A Honduran Home

 

Foundation builders: juniors Katie Gres, left, and Kate Miller, right, digging at a new home site. Aby Algueseva.

 

Parishioners sat in little wooden desks and young children ran circles around the seminary student. Divinity School student Katie Boutwell, from Alabama, had brought her Polaroid camera along and walked through the unpaved, dusty streets of the community with Erin Stone, a sophomore from Oklahoma, taking pictures of every child in the community to leave as mementos. The children, many barefoot or wearing the white shirts and blue skirts or pants of their school uniforms, flocked around the Duke students as though following the Pied Piper.

Our week included a bumpy bus trip to Tela, a beach town on the Carribean frequented by Hondurans. There, we were serenaded at a seafood restaurant that advertised Alka Seltzer on the menu. Three live red, green, and yellow toucans perched on swings and “talked” to us. Several of us paid a young Garifuna girl (an Afro-Carribean Honduran) to transform our hair into “trenzitas,” or corn-row braids.

One night, after a lesson from the teenagers at Our Little Roses, we went to a discotheque and attempted an expressive Honduran dance that places emphasis on the hips and pelvis. Perhaps in honor of our group—welcomed by the disc jockey—Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was on the song list. Even Dean of the Chapel Will Willimon, who joined the group for a few days with his daughter Harriet, danced up a storm, prompting some laughs. “Now, every time I see Dean Willimon in the pulpit, I’ll picture him running in place out on the dance floor,” Sarah Bagley confessed with a giggle.

We also learned of the long ties that bind members of the Duke University family when we toured the spectacular Mayan ruins of Copan, a three-hour bus ride on mountain roads northwest of San Pedro Sula. John H. Park, A.M..’70, now the Episcopal Archdeacon of Honduras, joined us and explained how his Duke experience dramatically shaped his life. It was on Duke’s soccer fields that he forged a friendship with Ricardo Agurcia ’74, the son of a former ambassador to the United States. “I found the church while I was at Duke,” Park said. And [Agurcia’s] the reason I’m in Honduras.” Agurcia, now a leading Honduran archaeologist, greeted us in a Duke baseball cap and thanked us for the work we were doing for his people and his country. Touched, we followed him on a private tour of Rosalila, the hidden temple he had discovered.

A Honduran Home

 

It makes a village: The Faith, Hope, and Joy project helps Hondurans replace shanties with sturdy homes, and pride. Susan Kauffman.

 

Despite the stunning natural beauty and the sense of adventure, evenings at the orphanage also ranked among the highlights of the trip. It became a little ritual for the girls to cluster around the Duke students on a covered basketball court before dinner. Some of us gave piggy-back rides; others chatted with the teenagers about their favorite singers—Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera. At nine each night we convened for a half-hour of informal, student-led devotions, reflecting on our day and whatever spiritual insights we might have gleaned. The quiet time allowed us to get to know each other in a way that team-building exercises in Durham had not.

Some students said they had expected the country to be more primitive and the people more downtrodden. How people who could afford only one meal each day, or a family of twelve living in a two-room house, could smile and laugh so much proved a powerful lesson that contradicted our all-too-common belief that you’re not supposed to be happy if you’re poor. “Being at Duke, probably being in America, we think we have everything to teach everybody else,” said Katie Gres, a pre-med student from Florida who led a devotions session with me that included shoulder massages. “I’ve seen how much we can learn from others.”

Hondurans making $90 a month in a factory showed us such incredible hospitality and appreciation that it was almost embarrassing. “I thought, ‘We haven’t done much—what are they thanking us for?’” said Sadie Walker ’99, LL.B. ’02, whose parents live in Jamaica.

“One man who didn’t know English and clearly had barely any means at all brought twelve sodas out to a group of us students,” said Kate Miller, a junior from Virginia Beach who had studied in Spain. “People who have nothing have every reason in the world to hate us and be jealous of us wealthy Americans with our modern luxuries of cameras, watches, work-out clothes, and sunglasses. Yet for some inexplicable reason they were so generous and loved us unconditionally.”

We saw many people of all ages looking out for each other—children carrying younger children, women holding hands of kids not their own. “You’d think they were from one family,” Katie Boutwell said one evening at devotions. “There is no racism among them, no differentiation. It’s as if they’re part of one body.”

Certainly, the experience put our lives and worries about papers and assignments into a different perspective. “As I read a book for a class here at Duke, where I am paying more than $30,000 a year to attend, I cannot help but picture one nine-year-old little girl telling me that she could not learn how to read because she could not afford to buy a book that cost 10 pesos,” Miller shared with the group.

This kind of questioning and soul-searching lies at the heart of mission trips, Will Willimon explained. Though a little-known tradition at Duke, more than a hundred students travel on such trips each year, he said. Another student group, for instance, also spent spring break in a small, rural village in Honduras, building a house for a midwife. They went under the auspices of a Honduras-based organization called Christian Commission for Development, with which Duke has been associated for more than a decade.

Eleven years ago, Ollie Jenkins, a former director of the Wesley Fellowship, made a real commitment to mission trips in the Third World. Willimon calls him “a great catalyst.” Groups sponsored by Duke Chapel have an educational and Christian focus, based on Christ’s charge to serve the poor. Our group happened to consist primarily of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists. We all asked family and friends for donations for the group and for the projects, so that any Duke student, regardless of family resources, could afford to go.

“We have a saying that you can’t change Honduras in a week, but you might change a Duke student,” says Willimon. “Duke is an elitist, privileged place, but there is an amazing number of people who want to make sacrifices and help others. For some, it becomes their life.”

Mission work may not become my life, but it proved to be a whole lot more than ditch-digging. Ostensibly, we went to help Hondurans rebuild their lives. In reality, the trip helped us build Duke community – and to connect with people who live in very different, very difficult circumstances but who possess an inner joy.

Kate Miller put it well: “I definitely got out a lot more than I put in. We can hear about, read about, see pictures, and even watch a video about poverty, but until we actually meet someone face-to-face, see the conditions they live in, and listen to their story, we are not truly affected.”

A Change of Pace

By Shawn Nicholls

Kent Forte '90

 

Kent Forte '90

 

When Kent Forte ’90 was preparing to graduate from Duke with a major in biology, he was struggling to solidify his plans. He had considered graduate school, but wasn’t sure about a specific discipline, and felt he needed some time to make that decision. “I wanted to travel a bit and get some practical experience and perspective to help decide which field I should follow,” he says.

After attending a Peace Corps recruiter’s meeting on campus, he submitted an application. “Before I knew it I was offered a position in the Philippines in marine fisheries, which was my field of choice, having spent a semester and two summers at the marine lab in Beaufort and later becoming interested in environmental policy,” he says. “I accepted, but the program was canceled due to political instability just weeks before I was scheduled to leave. Eventually, they offered me a position in Honduras, and not having any other plans at the time, I decided it was the kind of intense overseas experience I was looking for.”

After arriving in Honduras, Forte received six months of training, which included learning the language, the culture, and the technical skills necessary to be effective at his job. From there, he spent two years in Tocoa, in the province of Colon, where he worked with the government agricultural extension agency as the regional fishculture specialist. The job put him in touch with independent producers, cooperatives, and schools, trying to help interested parties determine if fishculture was appropriate for them. He also taught a couple of courses at a local trade school.

As his service with the Peace Corps came to an end, he again faced the decision of what to do and where to go next. He says he was immediately attracted to the mountains, rainforests, and rivers of La Ceiba, on the north coast of Honduras. It was there that he first became involved in eco-tourism.

He met a group of U.S. investors from Chicago—Wilderness Gate, Inc.—who were interested in developing small ecologically friendly tourism lodges. His interest in the local ecology and experience in construction led them to hire him to find sites and lead the development effort.

From choices including Venezuela, Grenada, Trinidad, Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica, Forte helped the investors select a location right outside La Ceiba. There were two and a half years of bureaucratic delays. So Forte explored the country, built himself a house in the national park, and paddled the rivers of Honduras in a kayak before they finally started building The Lodge at Pico Bonito, in which he played a major part. “As the only employee of the project, my role included everything from the design, legal aspects, organizing local financial participation and financing, and eventually oversight of the whole construction.”

Now, more than ten years since first arriving in Honduras, he is a partner in Wilderness Gate, Inc. and they are looking to expand in Copan. “I am working on a number of design options for a project there. With this next project, I would like to go several steps further toward an ecologically friendly project—entirely off-grid, with more local building methods and materials incorporated.”

Forte, who has been married for about a year and has a two-month-old daughter named Maya, finds life in Honduras much different than what he experienced in the United States, especially in terms of concepts of time. “Nothing can be planned with precision and one can never expect things to run as planned,” he says. “While this sounds miserable, in reality I think of it as the double-edged sword of living in Latin America. While it can be very frustrating trying to accomplish things here, I much prefer the texture of life to the predictability of life in the States. While deadlines are one’s bane here, I really appreciate that time is relative and nothing is ever considered set in stone.”

For Forte, this makes life exciting. “I used to always say that the emotional ride here is one of extremes—the highs are as high as they get, and the lows are as low as they come. But all and all, I prefer living a life with a rich variety of emotions to one of consistent and constant predictability.

“I don’t want to ever have to wear a tie or check a timeclock and I never want to be far from absolute wilderness.” 

Unearthing Mayan Secrets

ByEric Larson

 

On site reproduction of a Copan artifact

 

Facing history:an on-site reproduction of a Copan artifact that's now being conserved in a Copan museum. Aby Algueseva.

 

Copan, Honduras, is a Mayan city with an Aztec name, but the contradictions don’t end there. If not for the 150,000 foreign tourists who visit each year, the site would be considered a rural backwater. Only 20,000 people live in Copan proper, a number unchanged for 1,200 years. The genes of the area’s earliest inhabitants are noticeable in the faces and customs of today’s citizens. However, the ancient Maya have for centuries been regarded as magical beings to be revered, not blood relations from whom to draw strength. 

Half the size of Manhattan, Copan was once the epicenter of the Maya Nation, which originated in Central America in 200 C.E. and thrived for seven centuries. This era of artistic, scientific, and cultural achievement is known as the Classic period, and during this time, a complex Mayan society flourished. Governments were centralized, and the people were divided into classes and professions. Copan was just one of several major Mayan cities of the period, along with Tikal in Guatemala, Palenque in Mexico, and Quirigua, also in Honduras.

Between 900 and 1500 A.D., following territorial wars and, some researchers believe, overuse of environmental resources, Mayan society began to fall into decline. The major cities became centered in the Yucatan, and the weakened civilization eventually fell prey to the conquistadors. After the Spanish conquered the Maya in the sixteenth century, indigenous pride was devalued and the civilization all but disappeared. 

Today, Mayan awareness is being re-ignited by discoveries at Copan, discoveries giving flesh to their ancestors and showing the Maya as successful in a way few civilizations have been, before or since. More than 1,500 years later, Copan is the jewel of Mayan archaeology, in no small part because of archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia ’74.

“Copan is one of the classic Mayan sites,” says Agurcia, who has spent twenty-three years as a liaison between the lost Maya and the modern world, working with other scientists to uncover and preserve the Mayans’ lost history. The son and great-grandson of ambassadors—his great-grandfather was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras early in the twentieth century, and his father was the Honduran ambassador to the United States in the 1980s—he has worked as a research associate of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History. Now he is the executive director of the nonprofit Copan Association, which works to preserve and research the site. A recently televised NOVA documentary on PBS, “The Lost King of the Maya,” featured Agurcia and the secrets he is helping to uncover.

If you’ve ever visited Honduras, you’ve probably been to Copan. No less than 86 percent of all tourists to Honduras visit what the locals consider as Disneyland and the Grand Canyon rolled into one.

The first gringo visitors to Copan arrived in 1839, nearly 400 years after the scattering of Copan’s Mayan populace. Modern scholars attribute the demise of the Maya to poor management of natural resources exacerbated by drought or other natural disasters. Today it is an archaeological cornucopia, and scholars from around the world have come to this “Athens of the West” to reconstruct its history.

Much more would be known about the Maya if the sixteenth-century Spanish bishop Diego de Landa hadn’t burned most of the culture’s codices in a devil-purging exercise. (The clergyman’s boasts about the act survive in his writings.) Only four texts out of hundreds survived, helping researchers to make huge strides in the decoding of the sophisticated Mayan language and system of celestial calendrics. For instance, we know that Mayan buildings were constructed in alignment with the sun and the planet Venus; even the scheduling of human sacrifice was timed according to celestial events. Meanwhile, mathematicians still credit the Maya with originating the concept of zero.

Agurcia uses his

Table tour: Agurcia uses his "treasure" to teach. John Willard.

One surviving text is the longest pre-Columbian text of all, a mountain of glyphs written on the 2,200 blocks of stairs leading up Copan’s acropolis. Essentially a series of temples stacked by Copan’s kings, the acropolis is thirty meters high and a full half-mile square. Excavation of this layered cake has been both aided and confounded by the Copan River, which flowed through the acropolis until Harvard and Carnegie Institute researchers diverted it in the 1930s. The river destroyed a portion of the ruins, but also helped to reveal what is inside.

The Maya seemed to do little that wasn’t well thought-out, and the acropolis was no exception. Recorded on a stone altar near the acropolis are important clues that have helped Agurcia and other scholars construct Copan’s earliest history. Altar Q, as the stone altar is called, depicts sixteen of Copan’s kings. The altar is most silent of all on the first leader, giving just the date 426 as his arrival date from western lands. Scholars constructed 
a name from the headdress of the figure, calling him Yax Kuk Mo, whose right arm sports a warrior’s shield. Was Yax Kuk Mo a paternal figure of history like George Washington, or was he more akin to Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome? 

As it turned out, details of the myth were confirmed when a male skeleton of a man in his fifties was discovered entombed in one of the acropolis’ earliest temples called Yenal. Burial in the temple alone pointed to royalty. Furthermore, the skeleton’s teeth were studded with jade, and the minerals embedded there were found only north of Copan in modern-day Mexico. Most uncanny of all was a fracture found on the specimen’s right forearm, the shield arm that a left-hander would have used to take the brunt of a blow during battle. In effect, all signs pointed to Copan’s first king as a real person, and his people as geniuses in memorial-making.

Momentous as the skeleton’s discovery in 1996 became, it did not overshadow Agurcia’s own treasure-find. In 1989, he was helping to unearth an area at the heart of the acropolis known as Structure 16. Digging slowly, Agurcia came to something solid. He began looking for an edge to dig it out. “I kept pinching myself,” he says, “because every other building I’d found was trashed. I kept wondering when I was going to find the cut.”

He named his find Rosalila, the best-preserved temple in all of Mayan archaeology. Rosalila was “perfectly embalmed,” the delightful consequence of early Mayans filling in the temple with dirt to keep it from crumbling, also serving to protect hundreds of statues, pottery, and eccentric flints cached there. Rosalila proved all the more amazing by surviving two calamitous natural disasters, the earthquake of 1934 and Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. 

According to a hieroglyph on its front stairway, Rosalila was built in 571 by the tenth ruler of Copan, Moon-Jaguar. Artwork on its exterior identified Rosalila as a “house of smoke,” a place where kings would reconnect with ancestors of the underworld. In addition to scepters and other artifacts, scattered in the temple’s four rooms were spines of stingrays that the worshiper would use to bleed himself, soaking a cloth that he would then allow to smolder. The smoke supplied the vision. “If you want to see the temple of Rosalila in action, go to the Church of Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango, Guatamala, where they still cover the floor with flowers and pine needles,” Agurcia attests.

Copan sites draw150,000 visitors a year

 

Mayan legacy: Copan sites draw 150,000 visitors each year. Aby Algueseva.

 

A goodly portion of Copan’s artistic wealth is scattered in museums around the world. Since 1940, Honduran officials have worked diligently to stem the flow of artifacts out of the country, an effort bolstered when Agurcia helped to write important protective legislation in 1982—legislation now held up as a model for patrimony law in other developing countries. Locals who might have been tempted to loot are now seeing how hands-off pays off through millions of dollars a year in tourism revenue. Today, visitors to Copan can journey into the acropolis to view the original Rosalila behind Plexiglass. An amazing full-scale replica with the original coloration has been included as part of the Museo de Escultura Maya de Copan, found within the national park that borders the site.

The legacy that Agurcia has helped to preserve has much to do with his own background. Born and raised in Honduras, then educated in the United States, Agurcia majored in anthropology and psychology at Duke. He traveled to Tulane for a master’s in anthropology, studying the settlement patterns of early American societies. Then in 1978, he found a job working with researchers in Copan, “and I got sucked in.” Four years later he was director of the institute—the youngest ever. 

When Agurcia started work at the ancient site in 1978, debate was still raging as to whether Copan was a city or merely a burial place. Over the next few years, researchers helped prove Copan’s significance as a vibrant urban center. Agurcia, meanwhile, worked to have the site named a national monument and a United Nations World Heritage site, allowing for more extensive research into how Maya culture might have evolved. 

“Now you can go to Copan and not just see what the kings did, but how the ordinary people lived as well,” he says. Genetic studies, meanwhile, are attempting to trace the origins and movements of the Copan Maya, who are closely related culturally to the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, hundreds of miles away.

Others have joined Agurcia in treasuring Copan. Enhancing the Copan experience for visitors while protecting landscape and artifact is the purpose behind the Copan Maya Foundation, a nonprofit enterprise started in 1999 by Catherine Docter ’92. Docter’s parents were Mayan history buffs who reared their daughter to appreciate antiquity; she majored in art history with a concentration in Mayan art. 

Docter was with her family in Copan for the March 21 equinox in 1998 when her father, Stephen Docter, recognized Agurcia from the photograph on Agurcia’s book, Copan and Tikal. As they talked, Catherine realized she’d heard Agurcia speak at Duke in 1991. “Then he proceeds to pull out his key chain and says, ‘I didn’t just visit there to lecture—I went to Duke, too. I am a Blue Devil!’” she recalls. “We hit it off right away. My father got a promise out of Ricardo that if we came back he would take us into the tunnels. Ricardo said he would—never suspecting, I think, that we would take him up on it.”

Out of the chance meeting grew the idea of the U.S.-based foundation “to see what we can do as visitors and armchair scholars to help the Copan community,” Docter says. The foundation (www.copanmayafoundation.org) has its headquarters in Santa Barbara, California, where Docter runs an art and design consulting company. Though they have raised and given away just a few thousand dollars in the foundation’s short history, Docter and other foundation board members have already helped facilitate one children’s museum, Casa K’inich, funded by the World Bank, that teaches Honduran children about Copan. The foundation’s boards of directors and advisers include Ricardo Gutierrez Mouat ’74, Wood Turner ’92, and Dorie Reents-Budet, a former 

Copan ruins

 

John Willard.

 

Duke art museum curator, and the group took part in an international symposium at Copan in mid-July.

“CMF will not just be fund raising, but people-raising,” Docter says. “We want to help Copan get the best international people for whatever project is needed.” Next on the foundation’s docket: an educational nature trail and onsite learning resource center. 

Copan’s initial glory died with its seventeenth king, U Cit Tok. Agurcia is working to reconstruct statues and architecture that have broken or deteriorated over the years, a jigsaw puzzle of immense proportions that might well consume the careers of future archaeologists as well. “We’re not talking about a dead culture,” Agurcia says. “The work we do has a lot to do with the people of today. I’d like to see another generation of Central Americans having a sense of the Maya as their ancestors.” 


Larson ’93, a frequent contributor to the magazine, lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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