Gratitude

 

Maestro en Casa's first greenhouse.

Maestro en Casa’s first greenhouse.

For most all of my life, I have been accused, unjustly I have held, by friend and foe alike of being accident prone.  I have vigorously defended myself against such characterization, always believing that I maintained the high ground.

“How was I to have known that the huge tree limb that I was sawing off from our roof would fall unto my leg?”

“It seemed to me that the seat back would support my weight as I decorated the altar.”

“It never occurred to me that stepping onto the icy, make-shift ramp over the stairwell with rubber soled shoes was not a good idea.”

My excuses seemed reasonable enough to me.  But over the years, the evidence of broken bones and other injuries have seemed to mount against my reasoned protests.  To risk the use of trite metaphor, I have lost my leg to stand on.  This past Monday, I, along with a teacher from our program, the maintenance man/gardener/watchman, and a student, were working together on the construction of the second greenhouse for Maestro en Casa.  This has become more imperative given our present fiscal crisis.  We were placing the upper crosspieces, attaching them to the pylons that had earlier been cemented into the earth.  The crosspieces were placed at about fourteen feet from ground level.  Our borrowed tools included two metal step ladders:  one about ten feet high, and the other about seven.  As I am almost always taller than any Hondurans in my company, I was assigned to the seven foot step ladder.  It was very rickety and the ground was very uneven.  Still I, with the sense of immortality generally associated with children and teen agers, proudly stood on the top step so as to easily reach the height I needed to achieve.  I did well through the morning.  By the afternoon, however, the ladder had seemingly become even less secure.  In a fateful moment it tilted a little too far to the left and I was at a loss to compensate.  As always is the case, it all happened in slow motion, and I came crashing down on top of the ladder on my left torso.  Long story short, I broke at least one of my ribs, possibly more.

Site of the 2nd greenhouse (to the left of the first one)

Site of the 2nd greenhouse (to the left of the first one)

This has been very painful.  I haven’t been back to work since, save for teaching Friday’s second socioeconomics class.  I was barely able to make it through that.  Otherwise, I have just been sitting around and catching up on some reading, and it has given me a little space for some reflection.  I know that this is going to sound like I am begging your admiration and praise, but I do consider myself very lucky.  I have some Percocet that we had brought down with us when we first came.   We also have some ibuprofen that seems to be working well.  Even if we didn’t have these drugs with us, I would be able to walk into any pharmacy here and buy them, relatively cheaply and without a prescription.  I’m also not at risk for losing my job even as I am going to need some extended time off.  It would, however, seem rather inane to fire someone who doesn’t have a salary.  I am in a position where I can afford this.  The only thing about this that is irritating is the discomfort of my pain and my impatience for rest and healing.  After three or four weeks my life will return to normal and I will little remember my inconvenience.  The only scar that will remain will be that I will have to admit, still rather reluctantly, that I am indeed accident prone.

But most Hondurans here are not so lucky.  An accident similar to the one I’ve just experienced would be a life changing one.  The Honduran would likely attempt to go back to work, not having the type of security that I’ve grown accustomed to.  Going back to work in such a condition would likely cause him more severe medical problems.  Eventually, he would lose his employment anyway.  Though the drugs would be as readily available to him as they are to me, they are only relatively inexpensive.  He would probably not be able to afford them.  There is no such thing as workman’s compensation.  There is no disability, no safety net.  My accident has become a challenge to my comfort and an assault to my ego.  His would become a challenge to his survival.

Some of our friends ask Laura and me if we feel safe here.  Isn’t there a lot of crime?  Isn’t there a lot of drug traffic?  Are you worried you might be assaulted or kidnapped?  Aren’t the people desperate?  It is a different world here, and in some ways we have to be a little more vigilant than we normally would be in the States.  But recognizing just how tenuous life is here, realizing that the line between managing from day to day and struggling for survival is measured by the insignificance of one, rickety ladder, I am always surprised by how orderly this society actually is.  People manage to smile, manage to laugh, and always figure out a way to care for those less fortunate.  They have always been nothing other than kind to us.  My accident has made it abundantly clear to me that I do not have to live, and don’t live, in the daily peril that most Hondurans do.  I am fairly certain that if I did have to live as they do, I wouldn’t smile as frequently, nor laugh, nor be as kind to those less fortunate.  Most definitely, I would not be as kind to people like me.  So, in the end, how could I be anything other than justly grateful?

Harrowing Passages

Laura and I had a taste of what our teachers experience on a weekly basis traveling out to the remote villages and towns to offer classes to seventh, eight, and ninth graders.  We normally wouldn’t have that opportunity as, with the teachers gone, we’ve been staffing the office on those days.  But the State Department of Education has mandated that we have photos on file of all our students.  We went out on Tuesday and Wednesday as official photographers of Maestro en Casa.  Tuesday’s journey brought us to Jesús de Otoro, a relatively large town just off the main highway that, like La Esperanza, serves as a commercial center in support of the smaller aldeas in the surrounding hills.  It only took us about an hour in the car.  It would be a little less for the teachers, who would generally travel by motorcycle.  It was a pleasant trip and we had the fortune of meeting more of our students.

 

Memorial Cross on the way up to San Isidro.

Memorial Cross on the way up to San Isidro.

Wednesday’s trip was something altogether different.  San Isidro is an extremely small, poor, and isolated village.  To get there, we had to come all the way down the mountain from La Esperanza into the valley of Otoro.  Then, we went back up again, probably two-thirds of the way, along an unpaved, rutted and washed out road.  We traveled a good two hours (again less time on a motorcycle) into the wilderness, treacherous inclines and declines, at an average of about ten to twelve miles an hour.  The few people that live there, do so in order to harvest the coffee.  You can’t make much of a living harvesting coffee, and the people basically live off of the beans and corn they grow, completely cut off from the rest of the world.  It was an absolutely breathtaking experience and one I doubt we’ll ever have again unless I can get Laura on the back of a motorcycle.  Not likely.  The four wheel drive vehicle we were in is old, held together by prayer and duct tape, and we would seldom take it on such a trip.  As most vehicles in Honduras, it was reconditioned from an automatic to a standard transmission.  Sitting in the front sit, I could feel tremendous heat coming from the stick shift as it struggled up the steep rises.  On the way back we stopped briefly at the site of a memorial cross marking the spot where a bus with twenty plus people lost its brakes and plummeted down four to five hundred meters into a canyon.  As we started back out, our driver, Arturo, stopped immediately, pumping the brakes vigorously.  The heat from the transmission had thinned out the viscosity of the brake fluid, almost causing the brakes to fail.  After a few minutes, the pressure returned, and we drove on without further difficulty.  I did, however, wonder whether there would be room on the memorial plaque to add our names.

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More than anything else, the two days of travel gave Laura and I a deep appreciation for the commitment of our teachers.  They don’t get paid a lot.  At least three of them do not have electricity in their home, and, like many Hondurans, at least one has a home with a dirt floor.  It is clear that they work at Maestro en Casa because they need jobs.  But, it is equally clear that they fervently believe in the value of what they do.  As so often is the case in the thankless job of education, here and in the States, they do what they do because they have hope in their students.

Money is very tight right now.  I’m told that this is not an uncommon event for Maestro en Casa at this time of the year.  The school year will go to November.  At that time we’ll have an influx of registration and an infusion, albeit modest, of income from tuition.  As we are yet a ways off from November, we’ll knock on wood and rely on the kindness of supporters and foundations.  Hopefully, we’ll squeeze by as I’m told we have in the past.  But, we are living from hand to mouth, a very sobering feeling.  I jokingly told one of our administrators here that Laura and I would be happy to give up our salary.  It’s easy to be generous when the donation is zero.

Laura with students outside classroom in San Isidro.

Laura with students outside classroom in San Isidro.

Almost four-hundred students, and our yearly budget is about $40,000.  You can do the math, but even in Honduras, the per-capita cost is incredibly low.  We’re a no frills education program, and the lion’s share of our income directly serves the educational needs of our students.  Maybe a quarter of our operating budget comes from student’s tuition.  Another half comes from a small amount of rental income, private donations, and foundational grants.  That leaves us with about one-quarter, about ten-thousand dollars, that we are short.  If you’ve read the website, you know that we have a greenhouse where we produce tomatoes.  A second greenhouse is in the process of being built, but presently the construction is on hold as we look for funding to complete it.  The hope is that the revenue the greenhouse will generate will meet that $10,000 short-fall and Maestro en Casa will become virtually self-sufficient.  There is good reason to hope that this will be the case as the greenhouse, after only its first season, is beginning to produce fruit (pardon the pun).  Still, we are not there yet.  We continue to confront the day to day struggle of meeting expenses while holding onto the long-term vision of creating a sustainable, regular source of income.

San Isidro

San Isidro

Laura has been working on applying for foundational grants, both to meet our annual budget and for the greenhouse.  This is encouraging and hopeful, but the results will not be immediate.  We are also reaching out into the community here to make more contacts.  There are some leads that indicate we may be able to rent some of our unused space.  We also might offer computer classes and/or English classes on a fee basis to interested parties in the larger community.  That could help a lot, but it is very unlikely that it will completely fill the gap.

The people who read this blog, our family and friends, have been incredibly generous to Laura and I personally, and to the first program we were involved with in Honduras.  Since coming to Maestro en Casa in La Esperanza, I have not asked for any money.  Given your great generosity, it didn’t seem appropriate.  But necessity is always humbling.  And here and now, we feel great need.  Anything you can give will be of tremendous value.

On line, you should go to http://lencaeducation.org/support-us/.  That will bring you directly to the page that you need to be on to make a donation.  If you simply go to the web site, click on the tab “support us” that appears on the top of the page on the far right.  Do not choose any of the five drop down menu items on this tab as you will end up on an entirely different page.  Instead simply click on the tab heading, “Support Us”, and that will bring you to the correct page.

I hope you’ll see the tremendous value of your donation.  My expressions of gratitude for your unselfish generosity are insufficient.  I am confident that you will shame me once again.

 

Finding a Fit

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Paul teaching English to the 11th grade class.

Tomorrow will mark the second month here in La Esperanza and Maestro en Casa, minus the brief time back in the States.  We know that because tomorrow our monthly rent of a whopping $150.00 is due.  I defy anyone to find a two bedroom house in the States for that kind of money.  If you don’t want to spend any money, come to Honduras.  Unfortunately, if you don’t want to make much money, namely none, come to Honduras.  In any case, after two months we are both beginning to feel we are settling in.

It’s taken more time than we anticipated to find our fit.  That was not the case at all where we had been.  At Montaña de Luz there was always a lot to do.  Things needed to be responded to on a daily basis.  But, here that is not so much the case.  The program runs fine, albeit on a shoestring of a budget, and would run fine with or without us.  Our task here, therefore, has been much more open, subtle, and creative.  It falls to us to discern how we might present ourselves in such a way as to help the program to become that much more efficient and sustainable, and become a little more impactful on the students who utilize it.  The teachers teach, and they do a very good job of it given the limitations, mostly financial, of the program itself, and the challenges of an extremely sub-par education system in Honduras.  The program is administered well.  There have been quite a few short-term volunteers who have come and gone.  They would mostly teach English, or involve themselves with construction projects, or other short-term endeavors.  There haven’t been many long-term volunteers at all.  I suppose the founder, Susan, could have been considered a long-term volunteer as I suspect she never took much of a salary, if any, from Maestro de Casa.  Presently, she is semi-retired, and living in Vermont.  So, when we first arrived, I think the staff at Maestro en Casa had to wonder what to do with these crazy people for the next year plus.  But we were welcomed by people of great commitment, and through a series of fits and starts, we have begun to figure out how we can be of assistance.

Paul having fun with the class.

Paul having fun with the class.

We walk in and back to Maestro en Casa six days a week.  Monday is our only day off.  Tuesdays and Wednesdays are mostly office days as there are no classes scheduled at the facility.  Some of the teachers are off-site teaching classes at some of the smaller villages.  These days we are often correcting papers, recording grades, and managing some of the endless bureaucratic demands of the Honduran government.  What they lack in quality education, they make up for in administrative nonsense.  Laura has been searching out and applying for foundational grants.  Thursday through Saturday are class days at the center.  On Thursday, we teach English to about 25 Bachillerato I students (10th grade).  On Friday, we teach English again to fifteen Bachillerato II students (11th grade) who will graduate in November.  In a few weeks we will begin a Socio-Economics course with these same kids.  I have come to a new appreciation for teachers.  Preparing for the classes (Laura’s talent – not mine) and then actually attempting to get kids to learn something has to be one of the most difficult jobs in the world.  Somehow though, we have a great deal of fun doing it.  Laura and I team teach.  It has been joyous and I think the kids get a lot out of watching us interacting.  Saturday is a more relaxing day as we, ourselves don’t have a class.  We usually have opportunity to involve ourselves with the kids, either formally by way of proctoring a test or filling in, or informally.  Sunday is not officially a class day, but one of the teachers runs a computer course.  Laura is very much partnering with the teacher on this, and today took the class to teach Excel.  The work day ends at around noon on Sunday, giving me time to write this blog.

 

We are very busy, and we are carving out our little space.  Still, if you haven’t noticed, very little of what I described in the last paragraph could rightly be called social work.  So why are we here again?  And why am I saying that it feels as if we’re beginning to find our fit?  One word answer, really.  Relationships.  The longer we are here, the longer we present ourselves as non-threatening, and the longer we seem as if maybe we might have something to offer, the more willing people are to build relationships.  It is said over and over again in Social Work classes that the foundation for any meaningful change is trust and rapport.  Still, we often skip this step.  We rely on programs and paradigms, systems and analyses, and we avoid the hard step.  Here, we don’t have a lot of those professional, social work supports.  You can’t skip the first step, and it makes all the difference.  It is only now, after two months, our bright faces showing up day after day, that a few of the teachers are finding confianza (trust):  starting to share with us their personal stories, their dreams and fears, personally and for the program.  That is really what is making us fit in.

Remember doing this? Conjugating verbs.

Remember doing this? Conjugating verbs.

We met three Americans this week, all three in the same way.  They have cars and drive in and out of the main town.  We walk in and out of the town every day.  After they had seen us maybe a dozen times, they stopped and asked if we wanted a lift.  The first is a gentleman who runs medical brigades in conjunction with the local hospital.  He also runs a shelter at the hospital for pregnant women from the outlying towns so they can receive medical care and be close to the hospital around delivery time.  We met him when he was returning from San Pedro Sula after dropping his wife off at the airport for a trip to the US.  The second man was with his wife.  He is the vice-principal of a private, bi-lingual school that teaches according to the American educational model (therefore they are now on “summer” break).  These persons, I’m sure, will be vital contacts, and perhaps even vital supports and friends, for Laura and I.  The point, however, we would have never met them if we had not simply been present.  It is extremely important.

 

What do we hope to do as we build these relationships at Maestro en Casa?  We lose a lot of kids over five years of study.  The great majority of them come in with great hopes to receive their high school diploma and perhaps go on to college.  This is a dream that is mostly achievable in developed countries.  Over a hundred students enter our program in the seventh grade.  But, somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five actually leave our program with a high school degree.  Some of them perhaps go on to a different program.  But the great majority simply return home.  There is a great deal of challenges and frustrations.  Sometimes that frustration can turn to anger, alcohol, and drugs.  As we meet these kids and get to know them, we might be able to help them sustain their hope and meet their challenges.  I hope so, anyway.  One thing I’m sure of.  If we aren’t here, and we’re not known, it won’t happen.

Guilty Pleasures

A treat brought to Honduras from from the US.

A treat brought to Honduras from the US.

It’s been a long time, right?  You probably thought we were on vacation.  Well, we were.  We went back to the States for a brief trip.  We only told a few people because we weren’t going to have a lot of time and we had a lot of ‘have to’ things to do.  We went to Georgia to see Laura’s sister and family, then we went to Virginia to see Laura’s daughter Emma in her new digs.  That left us with a very little time in the North, only a matter of days.  There we had to get a few warmer clothes and other things out of our storage unit.  We also had to get a prescription for a Typhoid vaccine.  There was very little time left for visiting.  We knew that when we left so we told only a few select people we were coming.  People we did see, we just showed up at their doors.  Boy, were they shocked – look what the cat dragged in.  We hoped we would see more people, but it just didn’t happen.  I imagine a few of you, particularly some of my own family, might be a little upset that we didn’t see you.  I’m sorry.  I had hoped too, but it just didn’t work out.

Actually we got back on our anniversary, Tuesday, July 8.  I wanted to get off a quick blog post earlier so that those who didn’t know we were on vacation wouldn’t think we were dead.  But I just kept putting it off.  In retrospect, I think I was probably feeling a little guilty.  Certainly that was partly because I hadn’t seen everyone that I wanted to, but mostly it is because being in the States is such an overwhelming experience.  I think I might be feeling like the teenager that runs off to do something very special with his closest friends, but doesn’t tell his other friends he is going.  The U.S. is just so incredibly wealthy as compared to what we experience here.  I was on stimulus overload – the glitz, the glamour, the endless choices of consumer products, the paved roads, the clean bathrooms with toilet paper and running water, and I could just go on and on.  After our four hour bus drive from La Esperanza to San Pedro Sula (a thirty degree raise in temperature), we took a taxi from the bus station to the airport.  The taxi was beat up.  There were no instruments that worked left on the dashboard, a hole where the radio used to be, and you had to reach your arm outside the window to open the door from the outside latch.  The vehicle stalled at least two times at every stop.  We started up a conversation with the man who was very interested in going back to school to finish his high school education, but he couldn’t give up his job while supporting his family.  Laura made the mistake of commenting that the man’s taxi seemed a bit old.  The man was incredulous.  “This taxi’s not old!  It’s a 2000 and in perfect working condition!”  Three hours later we were in Atlanta.  We did not see a vehicle that looked anything like that the whole time we were in the States.

Caught in the act of "indulging"!!

Caught in the act of “indulging”!!

Don’t get me wrong.  I thoroughly enjoyed the excesses of the decadent capitalist culture.  I must have gained ten pounds back of the thirty I have lost (we don’t have butter here).  And we brought back things we just can’t get here.  Two huge jars of peanut butter would have cost us about eight times as much here.  As I am writing this, I am munching on Stacy’s Multigrain Pita Chips – you couldn’t even describe what that is here.  Dark chocolate, little speakers for our computer to watch the DVDs we also got in the States, and various sundries are exquisite pleasures.

I really like these things because I am thoroughly American.  But I do feel guilty.  Both Laura and I felt guilty in our first English class back at Maestro en Casa.  The students wanted to know what we did on vacation.  We explained to them where we went and asked if anyone had been to the States.  One kid did spend three months in Washington, DC. (He’s the same kid, and only kid, who also had a car.)  But of the three months, he spent two in a detention center before being deported.  That spawned a discussion on immigration, going wetback, and what’s a visa.  After the class, one young girl who is slightly older than the other students shyly approached Laura.  In a soft, insecure whisper she asked how she could get a visa.  She probably lives on her own and is also probably desperately poor.

Typical Honduran fish dinner.

Typical Honduran fish dinner.

Television is something we don’t have down here either (that’s just us, not everybody), but I don’t really miss ad-infinitum reality shows.  At one point on our vacation, someone was watching CNN or MSNBC or FOX or something like that.  The pundits were debating over the immigration crisis and the kids being dropped at the Mexico / US border.  The conservative was saying that the kids were coming to escape poverty and that was not a legitimate reason to grant amnesty.  He also said that the narcotraficantes were sending them here to bog down the immigration system so that they could more easily smuggle drugs with less chance of detection.  That second argument is just absolutely absurd.  The liberal pundit was making the case that families were attempting to rescue their children from the threats of intense violence and, therefore, these children did qualify for amnesty.  I found the argument puzzling and frustrating and I didn’t think that either of the two really understood what it means to live in Latin American.  Here, poverty is violence, and the victims of violence are almost always poor.  If we want to be citizens of the world, we really ought to figure that out.  Even if we drive on good roads, eat rich food, choose our television programs from 2000 channels, and decide upon the tastiest snack dip at the grocery store, we really ought to figure that out.

 

 

El Maestro en Casa

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I’ve been reflecting on how best to communicate with all of you about what Laura and I are doing here.  It’s not an easy question to address.  Firstly, what we are doing here specifically is a work in progress.  We are teaching two English courses to Bachillerato (High School) students.  We are helping out with administrative tasks.  We are applying for grants, and looking for other sources of funding, so that we can keep the place financially viable.  Mostly, we are trying to get to know the students, their backgrounds, their dreams and aspirations, and the barriers they face in making them reality.  This is a fluid reality and every day we are gaining an appreciation of how we might be of some small benefit to the vision and mission of the program and maybe a student or two.  Secondly, what Maestro en Casa is, and what it does, is very hard to understand without a feel for life here in Honduras, particularly in this mountainous region of Intibucá, and the education system.

Laura and I already had some insight into the quality of the education system here in Honduras from our time at Montaña de Luz and Nueva Esperanza.  It isn’t at all controversial to say that education here just isn’t very good.  Children are only required to attend school through the sixth grade.  The primary pedagogy is memorization and rote learning.  Teachers are often not well educated themselves, many if not most only receiving a high school diploma.  School is often cancelled when teachers are on strike because they haven’t received any pay, or they are sick and there is no replacement, or for a variety of other mysterious reasons.  Children often do not learn the curricula, but end up getting passed to the next grade.  The end result of all of this is that students don’t appreciate the role of thinking when it comes to learning.  Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  Hondurans think very well.  They are extremely intelligent, resourceful, and creative.   But because of the burden of an extremely substandard education system, learning as a product of an independent, curious mind, is simply not supported or valued as it could be.

Why is it like this here?  I wouldn’t profess to know all the reasons for this, but the role of poverty and its mirror image of oppression are obvious culprits.  The resources simply don’t exist.  Twenty-five years ago, Sister Marta Eugenio Soto (it seems there is always a nun behind innovative social programs) founded Maestro en Casa in Tegucigalpa.  She established it in an attempt to bring education to poor, isolated campesinos who had come to the city because they could no longer survive on their small farms.  Maestro en Casa (Teacher in the House) is its common name.  Its official name is Instituto Hondureño de Educación por el Radio (Honduran Institute of Education by Radio), IHER.  From seventh grade through High School, once a week students come to a class.  Often this is the only school they can get to either because no other school exists beyond the sixth grade, or work and family duties preclude them from going every day.  The expectation was that on the other days they would be reading materials, studying, and that curricula would be supported by radio programs.  The radio component of the program is, unfortunately, long since defunct due to lack of adequate funding.  Still, the program has had great success and has spread throughout Honduras and has also taken root in Costa Rica and Guatemala.

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Laura and I live in a small city and enjoy urban amenities.  We can walk down the street and purchase our groceries and household items at one of many small stores or the farmer’s market.  We can go out to dinner.  We seldom loose our electricity (relatively), and we have running water (every other day).  But this small city only exists because it is supported by a legion of small aldeas spread out around its periphery.  The people living there bus themselves into this city regularly in order to stock up on supplies.  Two kilometers outside of the city in any direction the roads are no longer paved and they wind themselves through mountain passages and tracts of farmland.  Thousands more live there than here, and they do so without electricity, without running water, and generally without schools.  Almost all of them trace their heritage to the indigenous Lenca.  They maintain traditional customs and are farmers.  It is mostly this community that our program of Maestro en Casa serves.

If it wasn’t for our program, many, if not most, of our alumni would never have extended their education beyond the sixth grade.  A great many of our graduates have even gone on to higher education.  It is clear to us that Maestro en Casa provides a vital and meaningful service.  To be honest, it is a very small percentage of young people that benefit from what we offer, about 350.  But we are one of the very few opportunities for those who really want it.  It is impossible to measure the benefit.  But both symbolically and concretely, Maestro en Casa makes a difference.  It is not without its challenges, and I’m sure that in the weeks to come I will relate many of them to you.  Still, it is very exciting to be part of something that is so clearly important in the lives of the people we meet and to the larger community.

Bus Rides

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Laura and I took two very different bus rides this past week. The first was a field trip with the first year high school students to Comayagua, the former capitol of Honduras. We had a contracted bus, about twenty-five students, very comfortable, and everyone had a seat. The trip was about two hours, about half-way to Tegucigalpa. Although Laura and I had stopped at the Comayagua bus stop on various trips on the north / south highway of Honduras, we had never seen the Colonial Center of Comayagua. Comayagua holds much of the history of Honduras / Guatemala Kingdom from the Conquistador / Colonial Era. But some twenty years ago the colonial buildings, architectural treasures, and historical artefacts from one of the earliest and most important cities of the New World were in horrible states of decay, abandonment, and blight. The then mayor decided to funnel resources into the restoration of the colonial center. That has truly paid off, for the city as well as the mayor, who is still mayor today. The grandeur of the Cathedral, the colonial buildings, the parks, and frankly, the spirit, within the colonial center was simply beyond anything Laura and I have experienced in Honduras. Our walking tour guide was enthusiastic and extraordinarily knowledgeable about the city and its history. The professionalism of the tour rivaled most US National Parks. Even though Comayagua is not that far away – though there was a temperature change of about 15˚ due to the drastic change in altitude – most of the kids had never been. I´m sure that they were awed by what they saw and experienced. Even more importantly, they gained a sense of pride in their country and its history.

 

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Our second bus ride, no less memorable, was more typically Honduran. On Monday, our day off, Laura and I wanted to explore the Rio Grande Waterfall. All of the guide books speak about the breathtaking 150 meter (about 500 ft.) waterfall just 17 kilometers outside of La Esperanza in the small community of Rio Grande. Buses travel daily to and from Rio Grande. What the guide books don´t tell you is which direction out of La Esperanza, which bus station, or which bus. Laura and I started out at 7:15 AM and proceeded to the bus terminal we know. That was, of course, the wrong one, and we were sent to a second one that, of course, was also the wrong one. Finally, we were sent to a third one that indeed was the correct one. We had walked about two miles only to discover that the bus station we needed was about ¼ mile from our house. The bus we needed had just left and we would have to wait one and one half hours. We went for coffee and came back, but the bus for Rio Grande still wasn´t there. We struck up a conversation with a bus driver, Nelson, who had spent about four months in Arizona. When he discovered that we wanted to see the Rio Grande Waterfall, he told us that his bus to Togopala would bring us closer to the falls than the Rio Grande bus. We decided we´d go with Nelson. We watched as two buses to Rio Grande left the terminal (I think one might have left and returned) as we waited on Nelson´s bus that didn´t leave until 10:30 AM. Having left our house at 7:15 AM, we were finally in transit at 10:45 AM. Nelson had to slam his door about six times before it finally stayed shut. The seat directly in front of Laura and I had no back such that one of the five, young, inebriated men sat directly in front of me and used my knees as his support. There were also two large sheet metal laminates for roofs, rolled up into 25´ long tubes, laid out along the middle aisle of the van style bus. The passengers had to balance themselves, walking on top of these, as they entered or exited the bus. This was a particularly challenging adventure for the five, inebriated men. This was nothing like the bus experience to Comayagua. I also found it strange that Nelson had three assistants traveling with him. Usually, there is only one. As we went along, however, we realized why. Nelson was the regular transport agency for many of the persons living in the extremely small and isolated communities along our route. Nelson would stop, without any passenger getting on or off, and one of the assistants would jump off, hoist a sack of beans over his shoulder, and run it up to the small provision´s store. This happened over and over again along the route. The image I had in my mind was Nelson as the Han Solo of Intibucá and his bus, the Millenium Falcon. The ride was memorable.

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It was maybe about 12 miles that we traveled. But because of the terrible road conditions (unpaved the whole way), Nelson´s bus, and the numerous starts and stops, it took almost an hour and a half to arrive at Togopala. Whatever two or three buildings constituted the town of Togopala, we had passed about ten minutes earlier. Nelson had reached the end of his route: an indeterminate spot on the road where he did a three-point turn and would start back. This was where we and the other three or four passengers left on the bus had to get off. Nelson was conscious of the fact that we didn´t have a clue where we were. A woman who lived very close to the falls offered to be our escort / guide. We walked with her along the country road, a couple of houses here and there, but no restaurants or stores. We wondered if we would have anything at all to eat for lunch. After five minutes (Nelson was true to his word) we crossed a small bridge and stream. The Rio Grande turned out to be the Rio Muy Pequeño, a little bit wider than a stream. After crossing the bridge, we followed the path along the rio´s bank for a couple hundred yards. We got to the place where we could hear the roar and rush of the water. We could also see where the stream suddenly stopped. Our escort told us we had arrived. But we were above the waterfall and the thick foliage made it impossible to get a sight of it. It was clear, however, that we were at the top of a very profound cliff. You could get a sight of the waterfall itself by edging over to the edge of the cliff, grabbing hold of the trunk of a tree, and swinging yourself out over the abyss. Laura was able to get something of a view of the falls. I never did. Still, it was all very impressive: natural, undeveloped, but very impressive. There was no way down to the bottom, at least none that was obvious from the top. I suspect we could have found a guide in La Esperanza who could have taken us hiking to other spots where observation might have been possible. But there was something incredible about this natural experience. Laura and I wouldn´t have had it any other way.

 

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Our guide left us after explaining to us how to walk back to the main road. Turning left would bring us to the town of Rio Grande, and turning right, back to where the bus left us off. We walked around a bit, enjoying the breathtaking view of the profound ravine in front of us. We never could catch a glimpse of the river below, or of the waterfall save for where the water ended. We decided that since we had time we would walk into the town of Rio Grande, hoping we could find something to eat. It was about a ten minute walk. Nelson was right. His bus brought us closer to the falls, by all of five minutes walking. The two buses traveled the same road from opposite directions, but neither of them actually continued on to the Falls. We came to the center of town: a grammar school, a health clinic, and one small store. You probably think I´m exaggerating when I described this, but I´m not making this up. That was literally all that was in the town. The students from the grammar school were on their lunch recess. It´s not every day that they meet Americans and have opportunity to practice their English. We spent a good twenty minutes with them, calling me ¨grandfather,¨ before they had to return to afternoon classes. From there we went over to the small store. We purchased some sweet bread and a warm Coca Cola, warm because there is no electricity. We sat on the man´s porch eating our bread. The owner came out to join us along with an older couple. We satisfied our hunger and spent a half-hour in conversation.

We decided to walk back to where Nelson had left us off. He had told us he´d return to the exact location at 3:00 PM. We didn´t really feel an obligation to Nelson, but we feared that if he returned and we weren´t there, he might be concerned that the inept Americans had fallen over the Falls. The walk back was along the serpentine, mountain road. This was just beautiful land. The pastoral scene held small patches of farm lots with workers tending the rows of vegetables with hoes. The houses were all about the same size, one story, modest, but not tiny, with white, stucco walls and red-clay tile roofs. They looked like chalets in Switzerland. It was so peaceful there, and Laura and I felt privileged to behold such beauty. As a storm came up and we found shelter under a tin awning of a closed provisions store, we also realized how very hard life must be out here. A younger boy with two older men came walking along the road, each with a two-hundred pound sack of rice slung over his shoulder. How long would they have to walk, down and up the rolling hills, and in the rain? There was no electricity out here. No lights, no modern conveniences, and you were dependent on Nelson and his bus to connect you to the rest of civilization. There isn´t much opportunity for education after the sixth grade, but as a male you will have to work on the farm and as a female, in the house. Life is healthy and clean and beautiful, but everything is about survival. This is where the majority of the kids in Maestro de Casa come from: little, farm communities like these, and ones further out, even more isolated. Laura and I can at one and the same time see the tremendous need for education as well as the seemingly insurmountable challenge to obtain it. On our two bus trips, Laura and I were honored to witness the grace of colonial history preserved, the beauty of living unpretentiously close to the rhythm of nature, and the struggle of a people to overcome the limitations of their society. It was all truly amazing.

Beauty

Maestro en Casa

Maestro en Casa

 

We’ve been pretty busy since we got here, going into the Maestro en Casa school center every day, acquainting ourselves with the operations, students, and staff; settling in.  To this point, I have to say, it’s been a very welcoming and affirming experience.  We like it here, though we haven’t yet had much time for ourselves.  Today was our first free day, albeit totally unexpected.  We were suppose to help out with a morning computer class, but after having walked in, there was no electricity.  It’s rather difficult to hold a computer class without any electricity, so we walked home and are enjoying some personal time and space.  The walk is a little arduous, almost three miles in and then three miles back.  It’s uphill both ways.  Actually, it’s pretty flat here as the cities lie in a small valley.  I don’t much miss the hike up the steep hill to Montaña de Luz.  It truly is beautiful here.  The clouds often hang on the mountains as we are so high up.  There is an abundance of pine trees and fruit trees, and everything is green.  When the sun is out, as it was for the first four or five days, the days are warm, but never humid or oppressive.  The nights are cool.  There is a fresh crispness in the air that reminds me of the Berkshires in late Spring and early Autumn.  When the weather is like this, you feel very privileged to live here.

 

But we’ve had hard rains over the last few days.  That’s tested our nerves and our resolve a little.  We don’t have a washer or a dryer, so we wash our clothes in the pila (an outside cement pool with a cement washboard attached to its top), then let them dry on the line.  Here’s a tip:  don’t leave your clothes out on the line during a rainstorm – particularly one that lasts for four days.  We both have only about six changes of clothes altogether.  When half of our clothes were still wet after three days, some panic started to set in.  We’re going to be all right, but for a while it looked like we weren’t going to be able to leave the house.  So much is controlled by water in Honduras.  We only get running water here every other day and we don’t have an elevated tank.  We have to think about things that you would never think about in the States.  Can I shave today?  Can I flush the toilet?  Is there enough water in the pila to do the dishes?  The drinking / cooking water we have to buy five gallons at a time.  When we do have running water, we have an electric, shower head heater so we can get a hot shower.  It doesn’t seem to work, however, if the flow of water is not strong enough.  I’ve never had a problem, but I take my shower first.  Three times in a row, Laura was without hot water.  Thank God she finally got the thing to work, for her sake as well as mine.  When there is no running water, we obviously have to fill up the toilet tank manually.  The mechanism inside has been working correctly at about the same rate as the electricity and the water.  All these things tend to be frustrating and they distract from our otherwise idyllic existence.  I have to admit that yesterday, particularly discouraging, I was feeling a little sorry for myself.

 

Cactus, flowers, and Paul in our backyard.

Cactus, flowers, and Paul in our backyard.

The people here are wonderful.  They are friendly and welcoming.  But at the same time there is both a cautiousness and weariness to them.  You can sense this as you pass them on the street.  They walk with their heads bowed.  Their clothes are worn and faded.  Their faces seem to hold a lot of worry.  They generally look much older than they actually are.  Yesterday Laura and I went to the 7:00 PM vigil mass at one of the two principle churches in the town:  Nuestro Señor de Intibucá.  The other church is Nuestra Señora de La Esperanza.  It’s apparently just around the corner from the one we go to, but we haven’t actually seen it yet.  The 7:00 PM Mass should have been the Sunday liturgy, but May 30 is the feast of the Visitation and the Marian feast was somehow more important.  The church was packed, at least double what it was when we attended the previous week.  Most everyone had flowers clutched into their hands.  Those who didn’t have flowers were given flowers by those who had brought extra.  In the middle of Mass, everyone processed up to the statue of the Virgin Mary to present their flowers.  As a priest, I’ve seen this a thousand times, this seemingly exaggerated, piety on the part of the Latino community.  I’ve always respected it, but never really fully understood it.  I’ve just chalked it up to not being part of my cultural and religious experience.  But there was something else here.  I sensed there was a strong message that I needed to hear.

 

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker and in my opinion a modern day saint, was often critical of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and its insensitivity to the struggles of the poor.  But ironically, she frequently reflected on the peaceful, beauty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  It’s an opulent place, and many would argue that the outlandish amount of money spent on its construction and upkeep would have better served the needs of the poor in New York City.  But Dorothy Day experienced how the poorest of the poor found self-worth and dignity simply by sitting in a pew in the cavernous shrine.  To the poor, this space, this refuge was theirs, even if the hierarchy greedily imagined it to be their own.  It was their space.  That was what I experienced at Nuestro Señor de Intibucá yesterday afternoon.  The people were all smiling.  They all wore their best clothes.  Their heads were held high.  There was a sense of pride, belonging, and worth.  I realized at that moment that all of my frustration with water, and electricity, and toilets, was but a small taste of what most of these people experience every day of their lives.  Their lives are indeed toilsome.  While I’m worried about whether my clothes will dry, they’re worried about whether five pounds of beans will last the month.  And yet they are so beautiful.  And yet they are so beautiful.