Saturday, February 3, 2007
Service-Learning Honduras Part 1: Living with Mountain Farmers
The plan formed on a whim. During my first year of college at Southwestern University, I noticed a flyer in a hallway advertising a "service-learning" program to Honduras. The program was relatively short and relatively inexpensive (as I read the words, I could immediately spot the ways to sell my parents). I would receive 3 hours of credit, improve my language skills, and, to top if off, help some Hondurans in the process. Most importantly, my summer stay in Amarillo would shrink by four weeks, which was fine by me.
There were a few things I did not realize at the time. My prior international travel had only included trips to Mexico, Norway, England, France, Japan, China, German, Morocco, and Canada . . . through the country pavillions at Epcot Center in Orlando. I had seen the Canada side of Niagara Falls, and I had stopped in briefly on a couple of Caribbean Islands as part of a short cruise. Despite this vast experience, I had yet to acquire a passport.
Perhaps I was naive, but I figured that jumping into a four-week homestay with rural farmers in the cloudforests of Honduras would be a great way to join the initated. And it was . . . though it definitely did not turn out to be anything close to what I expected . . .
Finally in Honduras, several months after signing up, I knew I was in for a unique time when I saw a friend from a neighboring town wandering up with a bloody knee to give an update on another student's intense digestive woes . . . but to create some motivation for reading through this series, that story will come in the next part.
Before the trip, the leaders of the program tried their best to introduce us to what would come our way. The director of study abroad at Southwestern lead a program on culture shock. She showed graphs charting the process: from excitement to horror and misery to mistaken comfort to more bearable misery to comfort. Of course, if we reached comfort, our return would likely produce similar, if less dramatic, waves of shock. The graph seemed abstract and, while it would later prove to be absolutely correct, I tended to disregard this information.
I also remember being required to rent various Latin American films. I watched Amores Perros and two zany Argentine films. I was not sure how this would ready me for the trip, but the introduction to Latin American cinema was interesting nonetheless.
Finally, I paid extra good attention in Spanish class that semester. While I cannot remember what class I was taking at the time, I remember that it involved some criticism of literature or film (oh yes, we're talking advanced Spanish here). Obviously a close reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez stories would help me converse in Central America . . . obviously.
First some maps to set the scene. The first one features Central America. Our flight landed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital. We arrived in Teguc (as those-in-the-know call it) almost three years after Hurricane Mitch had ravaged the country. The disaster was still apparent. We also encountered groups of children who abated their hunger my sniffing industrial glues--meaning that teenagers often had the mental capacity of three-year-olds. It was a shocking introduction to life in a less developed country, but I was glad to have the experience. In fact, three hours in Tegucigalpa sparked a transformation in my political philosophy that was solidified over the coming weeks and years of travel . . . but back to the maps.
The next two maps feature close-ups of Intibuca, the department we were in just north of the El Salvador border. The region was mountainous with thick forests known for heavy, low-lying cloud-cover. We arrived in rainy season, so our mornings began with thick, can't-find-the-outhouse sort of fogs. The afternoon usually involved an hour or two of rain so thick that the entire atmosphere seemed transformed into a swimming pool. The last map shows La Esperanza, the "big town" near our outposts. Our group would be split between La Esperanza and two tiny villages (by "tiny," I mean the town hall meetings might gather thirty people). I would be in Pueblo Viejo.
Our group turned out to be excellent. Nate stayed in La Esperanza doing research on microcredit programs. In fact, my involvement with that research and microcredits in general are discussed more fully in my Maasai village posting. Our village housed Jill, Seth and me. Cayley, Maggie, Pat and Amanda were in the other village.
We had several goals on the trip. Primarily, we were to work with Save the Children-Honduras to build a school in each village. My village would have a school made from mudbricks and mud mortar (adobe construction); the other village would build theirs from cinderblock and concrete (a much more viable option during rainy season).
Our second goal would be hygiene education, first aid education, and some environmental education in honor of Honduras' Dia de Arbol (Tree Day). Before departing the States we had assembled large first aid kits and school supplies to hand out during our presentations at the area schools.
Other than that, we knew we would occasionally have some email access and get to take one vacation weekend over to Copan Ruinas, a Mayan ruins on the Honduras-Guatemala border.
After a quick stop in Teguc, we headed out in 4x4 Dodge pick-ups toward Intibuca. My first experience on Honduran roads caused intense panic: cows wandered across the path, buses seemed to play chicken with each other, chickens played chicken with the trucks, etc. It was intense. While wet roads in Tibet made these Honduran roads seem like the Autobahn, at the time, I was terrified.
My anxiety only climbed as we approached Pueblo Viejo hours later. My head was racing. I knew I would be living with farmers, but the rest was a mystery. As we came closer to Pueblo Viejo, I realized more fully that my next four weeks would be a drastic change from my normal existence, but, to refer back to the culture shock graph, I was still in the excitement stage.
We finally pulled up to the home of Don Salome Garcia, his wife Patricia, and their grandson, Wilmer. I immediately felt relief. Don Salome wore smile lines on his face, and I felt overwhelmed by the kindness in his eyes. His wife Patricia had rough hands from years of working masa (ground corn), but she also radiated friendliness. Wilmer, a three-year-old, would obviously become my good friend. Unable to say "Brad," Wilmer began calling me "amigo," which I enjoyed better anyway. In all fairness, no Honduran ever learned to pronounce my name, so a nasal "Bran" was as close as anyone could come.
I surveyed my surroundings. Some chickens milled about near a massive bull. The house contained one main building with a separate corn crib, outhouse, outdoor shower, and wash baisin. The home was clean and simple. I dropped my bags into what would be my bedroom. The bed was large and made from local trees. The mattress, stuffed with lumpy cotton, was supported by ropes strung between the frame. I was shown where my candles would be for the nights, but I assured them that my flashlight would work--they could save their candles.
The living area featured a small sofa near a television powered by a car battery. I soon learned that the television would only turn on for national soccer games, which proved to be gripping even with the hazy reception. The main room also featured a blackboard where Don Salome taught a Thursday "Bible" class. I put "Bible" in quotations because the class was really much more. The blackboard featured a list of key problems in the community: emigration, deterioration of traditional culture, rise in materialism, and loss of spirituality. I immediately realized that Don Salome and I would have plenty to talk about. I knew from some pre-departure reading that Honduras faced a steady drain of brains and talent to the United States. I also knew that Central American cultural products were dwarfed by the large Mexican music and film industries as well as US culture. These cultural imports exacerbated the loss of traditional culture. Originally, the area was inhabited by an indigenous group known as the Lempira. Don Salome and most in the area were still called "Indios" for their Lempira heritage, but the age of colonization had whithered their culture and modern culture threatens to extinguish it entirely.
The kitchen proved to be the main social area for my time in Honduras. It featured a table that sat five, a battery powered radio, a wood-fired stove, and a long table for preparing meals. We gathered there at 5 AM for a first breakfast of coffee and either a corn tortilla or pan dulce (sweet bread . . . if I was lucky . . . this stuff really amazed me). Then I would head to work at the school for a few hours before returning for a second breakfast of coffee, beans, and corn tortillas. Then after more work, I would enjoy a late lunch: beans, coffee, corn tortillas and an avocado slice. Finally, dinner around 5 PM would feature coffee, beans, corn tortillas, some rice, sometimes tomatoes, and occassionally a piece of meat of some sort. After dinner we would chat over the day's events, discuss politics a bit, and listen to the radio. Finally, sleep would come around 8 PM.
The food was fairly repetitive but really tasty. The beans were mashed and seasoned with salt or sometimes sprinkled with a mild cheese. The coffee was magical and harvested from nearby. The beans were then roasted on the family's cooker, ground on a stone, and the water used for percolating had previously boiled fresh sugarcane. The coffee alone would be worth the return trip.
Wilmer, the three-year-old, also loved coffee, and it really showed. He would spend his days chasing the dogs and chickens with a machete. In the evenings, he would tell me absurd tales of the goings on of "otro Wilmer" ("other" Wilmer), his imaginary friend that tended to break dishes and chase monster "guzanos" (worms). Whether the stories were linked to to the caffeine, I will never know, but conversations about the "guzanos" tended to provide good laughs (Don Salome and Patricia were slightly less entertained).
The outhouse was nice, actually featuring a porcelain basin. The shower, pumping frigid water through the cold, mountain air, was a weekly relief, and I was soon thankful I had buzzed my hair short.
All in all, after some ups and downs, I settled in nicely to my surroundings.
The Other Homes
My companions were often not as fortunate. Pat slept on a cot in the kitchen of his home. Initially, the family chickens lived under his cot. While he found this disturbing, he could definitely handle the situation. Weeks later, the handful of chickens ended up producing forty baby chicks, and his situation grew worse.
Amanda slept in a small building detached from her family's house. One night, she woke to some strange creature on her chest. She screamed loudly while fumbling for a flashlight. Eventually she managed to open the door to her room to find the father of her household standing at the door completely naked. I'm not sure she ever recovered from the trauma (and we have yet to discover the nature of the creature: I suggested rat, but she swears this beast was of much larger proportions).
Finally, Maggie ended up in a slightly weird home where her family would lock her in her room at night. The family seemed slightly "off" to all who met them, and I think she looked forward to the occasional weekend away in La Esperanza.
All in all, our group was set for a fascinating time. We had prepared as well as we could, and we all landed in decent homes for the weeks to come . . .