Monday, February 5, 2007

Service-Learning Honduras Part 2: Politics, Missionaries and Heading Home

So, settled into our environment, we grew accustomed to our day-to-day tasks. The work at the construction site was fairly simple except for the fact that we were trying to build with mud during rainy season. The project, led by a very clever fellow nicknamed "Enano" for his lack of height, moved rather slowly. Our foreman seemed motivated mainly by the prospect of teaching us local slang for various body parts.

Otherwise, the construction experience became an interesting political forum. The other workers tended to spend a lot of their time asking about life in the US--more specifically, they wanted us to find ways to bring them back with us (no, I told them--a baggage compartment of an airplane would be a bad, bad way to travel). One of the workers informed me that cash piles up in the streets throughout the US, and all he needed to do was to show up and scoop some cash up. Despite my best efforts, I could not convince him otherwise. Apparently these rumors had been spread by a person in a neighboring town who had been deported from the US . . . twice. We tried to explain how hard immigrants work to succeed in the US, but they could not be persuaded.

Don Salome took a different approach to these problems. He disliked the fact that the young in the community looked toward the US for their future instead of developing the resources around them. I admired the faith he had in the land and in his neighbors. Indeed, several of them had started small developments that began a move toward bigger economies. Jill's family had saved up and purchased a mechanical corn mill. For a small fee, people around town could use it to grind their corn, saving time and energy. Seth's family had invested in pigs and made some money selling pigs at market. These enterprises had moved the families beyond mere subsistence, and they could better provide for themselves and their future.

On the topic of foreign aid, Don Salome seemed skeptical. He suspected the motives of most donor nations and saw aid as a method for securing underhanded trade deals. Any development, he suggested, would have to come from within. I soon realized my notions of a "peasant farmer" had been exploded--I had so much to learn from this man. There was an interesting undercurrent to the conversation. After all, I had arrived as a form of "foreign aid," but soon into the construction, I realized that my efforts provided little help. Sure, I offered another back, but these folks have been building efficiently for centuries this way . . . and they moved toward the inefficient rainy season for our benefit.

Eventually, I would ask Don Salome if my visit, my foreign aid, was a benefit or a burden. He thought for a while before responding and explained that my visit helped initiate a project that may not have happened. While my work itself would not be a huge help, he had learned from me, and he knew that I had learned even more. These lessons were why the trip was valuable--the work itself could be forgotten.

La Esperanza

Naturally, our group tended to return to the "big city" of La Esperanza for lukewarm showers and meat-filled meals. Our transportation varied. Often Save the Children arranged vehicles for returning us to town. Otherwise I accompanied Don Salome by hitch-hiking in the backs of trucks--a very common transport system. Any truck bed is assumed to be available as a means of public transport. It is also assumed that the passengers will toss a few bills toward the driver on exiting. The system works remarkably well, and I enjoyed the experience.

In town, we found time to catch up on the NBA finals, make quick calls home, and try to check email at the one Internet cafe in town (that was 2001: I imagine the place is now crawling with Starbucks and cell phones . . . maybe not). We would also zip by the markets and avoid the loose dogs and occasional knife fight (might have been a small town, but it sure could be exciting).

We quickly learned that US visitors to the area fell into basically three categories. The long-term visitors were Peace Corps volunteers who worked on water sanitation projects and agricultural support efforts. We fit into a second category of folks traveling with different NGOs--some doing medical relief, some delivering school materials, etc. The third category consisted of missionaries.

I made one encounter with missionaries during an evening in La Esperanza. I saw two tall and lanky guys standing on a corner being confronted by a police officer. Assuming the guys were in trouble, I thought that perhaps I could help them out. At this point, my language skills had greatly improved--I even found myself dreaming in Spanish. As I approached, I realized the confrontation was friendly, but I also realized that the two US guys spoke no Spanish.

The police officer soon waived me over to see if I could translate. Apparently the police occasionally let some prisoners out of the jail cells for a game of basketball (I know, sounded very unusual to me as well). The police team frequently loses to the prisoners, so this police officer wanted to recruit some tall US guys to play on the police team so they could finally defeat the prisoners. Okay.

So I translated for the linguistically-challenged duo, and despite their Indiana roots, they expressed little interest in the game. I translated, and the police officer became curious about why we all had come. I told him I was in La Esperanza to work with Save the Children. When I asked the guys from Indiana what they were doing, one replied, "We are going into the mountains to save the people for Jesus."

I translated for the cop . . . and he immediately laughed. Then he began a long tirade in Spanish that baffled the guys from Indiana. The police officer explained that he was tired of folks from the US trying to "save the people." He said he had seen US television shows and heard about US culture, and he suggested that Honduras should send religious missionaries to the US. He was really confused by these guys who spoke no Spanish--how were they to share their message without being able to communicate? I was similarly baffled. Having attended a church service in Pueblo Viejo, I realized that the police officer was right. I have rarely seen such strong faith as in that part of Honduras and wondered what these guys hoped to accomplish.

Unsure how to translate the message without having the situation escalate, I told the Indiana guys that the officer thanks them for coming . . . and I quickly walked away. Religious missionaries, it seemed, present another puzzling aspect of foreign aid.

Sometimes we show up in places planning to "help." Often, we find we are the ones receiving all the benefit.


By the last week of the trip, I had traveled the culture-learning graph mentioned in Part I. I had been excited, but a few days of repetitive diet and heavy rain had left me a little more bummed about my situation. I had become more comfortable only to find myself uncomfortable again. Finally, upon returning from a great trip to the Mayan ruins at Copan, I had settled comfortably into my home.

Our last week, I began work at the project as usual when I noticed one of the fellow students coming into Pueblo Viejo from a neighboring village. Even at a distance, I could tell he walked awkwardly and seemed to be limping. As he got closer, I noticed a red gash on his knee where his jeans had been torn away. I decided to rush down to the road.

There, Cayley began speaking quickly, "Brad, Pat is really sick. Really sick. If Sandra (our professor, guide, and personal hero) or anyone from Save the Children shows up, tell them to get a vehicle to Pat's house to get him to a doctor quickly." And then he turned to walk away.

So I asked him about the massive gash on his knee. "Oh that? I got hit by a truck on the walk over here. No big deal. The truck slid in the mud and smashed me into the hillside." I was stunned at his relaxed mood. Pat must really be in bad shape. I forced Cayley to bandage up before heading back (Pat ended up seeing a "doctor" who wore a Hawaiian shirt and gold chains before prescribing something unusual--back in the US, Pat found that he had been prescribed some sort of veterinary medication . . . getting sick in certain places can be a bad deal).

With Cayley patched and Pat healing, we headed back toward the US. In Tegucigalpa, we found a Papa Johns, and we were all soon ill on pizza. Apparently pizza is tough on a digestive system after weeks of beans and corn tortillas.

Arrival in the US was bliss. I showered off in my empty dorm room, readjusted my belongings, and got ready for an early morning flight . . . I was actually headed to Disneyworld. And maybe it was just going from Honduras to Disney, but that reverse culture shock thing can be brutal . . .

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