Radio Free Honduras
The town of Tela, Honduras, has many things to offer. Lancetilla Botanical Garden (billed as the largest managed botanical reserve in the Americas) is a three-mile bike ride from town and is famed for having plants you might not see unless you were deep in the jungle. Punta Sal, a rainforest preserve accessible only by boat, is another treasure from which Tela is the launching point. The beers you drink on the wide, white sand beach will only set you back about fifty cents. Hotel rooms and complete lobster dinners both come in at less than ten bucks.
I try to spend at least a month or two every year in Tela. I love this place for all of the reasons listed above and more, but the main reason I spend so much time there is because it is so different than the place I live and work the rest of the year. About the only thing Tela has in common with Raleigh, North Carolina, is that the radio stations suck.
As you might figure, most of what you get on the radio is Spanish music. Spanish pop music. When a song gets on heavy rotation down there, it is played once every hour. Imagine, for a minute, having to hear “Macarena”, in Spanish, every hour on the hour for a month. As bad as that sounds, it gets worse. There is an American music station that apparently only owns records made by Madonna, Michael Jackson and George Michael. I spend a lot of time in the same two or three bars in Tela, and the bartenders think they are doing me a favor when they switch over to this station.
Completely by accident, and with a little help from Steven Jobs and Chip Robinson, I was able to change the way many folks listened to music in Tela, if only for a while. Jobs, of course, is the CEO of Apple Computers. Chip is a less widely known entity, but no less important to this story.
X, Jason & the Scorchers, Uncle Tupelo. Somewhere, elsewhere, these bands were helping to jump-start alt-country (whatever that is, yeah, yeah). In Raleigh, however, the Backsliders were the catalyst. The Backsliders were followed by Six String Drag and Whiskeytown. The Backsliders mattered in Raleigh. Chip was the lead singer of the Backsliders and a good friend of mine. We shared an interest in this kind of music. From this common interest, he became a important figure in the resurgence of roots music, and I ended up with a great record collection.
On a recent trip to Tela, I took along my iPod, loaded with about 1500 songs (heavily skewed toward the kinds of bands mentioned above) — plus a little transmitter that Chip gave me to plug into it. The transmitter allowed the iPod’s tunes to be picked up on the dial of any radio within a couple hundred feet.
My original plan was simply to use the transmitter in my hotel room so I could listen to the iPod on my boombox. In the bars and on the beach, I would listen through earphones. Didn’t work out that way. The iPod in itself was a curiosity, and I kept having to hand over the earphones. After a day or so, I just brought the transmitter with me to the bar, and had the bartender tune their stereo to pick it up.
At any point in time, there might be forty gringos in Tela — a dozen or so who live there year-round, a few like me who live there intermittently, the rest tourists spending a day or two in the town. During the day, you can find the majority of these folks, headphones on, spread out along the half-mile of beach that is the focus of the town.
Las Cascadas, more familiarly known as Marvin’s bar, fronts the beach right about in the middle of the half-mile stretch. When Marvin had the iPod tuned in, gringos started stopping by, asking him if he was playing a CD or the radio. Marvin would send them to my table. I would show them the iPod and the transmitter, and explain to them how to tune it in on their own radios when they were in close enough range.
It took less than a week for the entire gringo population to figure it out. Rather than spreading out along the entire beach, all the pale people were crammed together in a little stretch right in front of Marvin’s. Marvin raised the price of his drinks (by a nickel!) and started picking up my tab.
In the beginning, I put the iPod on random and let the chips fall where they may. Then I realized I could force these folks to listen to anything I wanted. Using my iBook laptop, I put together programs, with themes. I took requests, but only from people eating in the bar. (Did I mention that Marvin started buying me drinks?)
Tela is a small town. You look it up in the guide books and decide to visit Lancetilla and Punta Sal. You get there, hit the beach with your headphones, and end up spending an extra day or two. You think, hey, all these Mayan pyramids look the same after awhile, but this is some damn good music! You can thank Steven and Chip for that.
Maybe thank Marvin, too, for picking up my tab.