In Memorium

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We received terrible news on September 3rd.  It will be difficult for me to forget that day as it was the day before my birthday. Laura’s youngest sister, Nancy, died.  She had battled breast cancer, seemingly successfully, and was in remission for four years.  Two years ago her cancer metastasized into her bones.  She accepted the physically challenging treatments for a second time, attempting to stave off the progression of the disease.  She maintained her courage, hope, and dignity, but must have tired greatly.  At the end, she did not linger or seem to suffer greatly, certainly a gift to her family and friends.  As soon as we received the news, we made arrangements to fly out to Atlanta the next day.

I recall similarly returning from a visit from Honduras some years ago.  I had then received news that my mother’s sister was in a coma.  She died the day after I returned home.  It is a surreal experience to make such a trip under the cloud of grief.  The expectation, of course, is that you are on vacation, but the reality could not be more distant.  There is no means to make the buses or the planes go faster, and anxiety increases with each mile passed.  In Atlanta the immigration officer asked us his standard series of questions.  “So, you’re taking a vacation?”  “Actually,” I hesitantly responded, “we’re here for a funeral.”  His face fell, he sincerely expressed his sorrow, stamped our documents, and let us through quickly.  It was a powerfully transcendent moment of connection where our common humanity was honored.

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Life is so precious and yet so fragile. We attach ourselves so thoroughly to those we love.  Millie, her mother; Laura and Jane, her two sisters; Michael, her brother; Rob, her husband; Robert, Andrew, and Daniel, her three sons ages 20, 18, and 15; her close friends and family, are forever attached to Nancy.  So intensely beautiful, while at the same moment so intensely sad.  Laura and I feel so fortunate to have decided to take our quick trip in late June.  We saw Nancy and her family.  It was one of the principal reasons we made the trip and the reasons why we couldn’t manage to see all of our family and friends.  But we spent quality time with Nancy, something we will always cherish.

My personal faith has always been premised on the inner feeling that so much love present within me, and my trust of its presence within others, could not possibly be limited to the brevity of physical life. That accounts for the sense of the surreal in our rushed trip to Atlanta.  We’re back now.  Nancy and her family were much better off than most of us and they enjoyed comforts that few of us do.  It’s impossible not to consider the extreme difference of what life is like there as compared to here.  That is also quite a challenge for me, and an added dimension to the surreal quality.  Without making judgment, it’s always jarring.

Yet, I have to say that this time I was struck with how superficial the differences really are.  Our friends here, upon learning of the loss of Laura’s sister, offered the same condolences.  The connection to our humanity, the knowledge of vulnerability, is the same here as anywhere.  There is so much more that unites us than differentiates us.  It is truly sad that we so seldom live with a sense of our common humanity.

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September 15 is the commemoration of Honduran independence. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are all parade days here in La Esperanza.  On Saturday, all the kindergarten kids march.  On Sunday, all the escuela children (1st – 6th grade), and on Monday, the actual day of independence, the older colegio teens (7th – 9th grade).  They all dress in band uniforms, a military look.  It seems every child in town is given the chance to march.  Walking around the town along the parade route, all of the families wait in anticipation for their son or daughter to pass.  When they do, they beam with joy.  Cell phones are raised over the heads of the crowd to get a snapshot.  I imagine if the family has a little extra money, they get that picture printed and post it to their wall.  The pride and joy seem to flow from one family to the next.  Though the context and the cultural expression are so different, the feel for what is truly important never changes.  How precious.

Life is a gift. Love is its honor.

A La Frontera

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One of our friends just emailed us, slightly concerned because I have been remiss in updating the blog.  I have been aware of this and feeling somewhat guilty.  I can assure you that we are both fine.  I do have to say that it has been a challenging month for me while recuperating and healing after my fall.  Everything we had read on the web informed us that healing from broken ribs takes from 4 – 6 weeks.  Still, those for whom it applies don’t want to imagine that ‘they’ must have said that so as to avoid giving anyone false hope, and in reality healing must take a much shorter course.  For me, however, celebrating four weeks today, webmd.com seems to be right on the money.  I am at the eighty-five percent phase and suspect that I will take the full six weeks.  Last week I was able to get to work every day, but mostly I left early.  I would like to say that I was either in too much pain or too tired to write the blog, but that would be misleading.  I have been doing a lot of reading and downloading movies, so sometime after the severe pain from the first week and a half lessened, I certainly could have written.  In fact, mostly staying at home, I had very little inspiration.  You would think with all the time in recent years that I have spent in recovery of some sort, that I would have become rather good at it.  But I am a lousy patient, tremendously self-centered and needy, most certainly driving Laura crazy.  The four walls have simply not become my bosom friends.  I needed an adventure.

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So we took one this last weekend.  We really wanted to get more of a feel for the rural department of Intibucá.  We had recently made a contact with a young woman working for a health and education NGO, Hombro a Hombro / Shoulder to Shoulder, in the southern section of Intibucá.  She had given us a general invitation to come down and visit.  We sort of forced a long weekend out of last weekend and took her up on her offer.  It is, after all, Labor Day, and all of you are enjoying picnics as I write this.  My birthday is coming up this week, and Honduras is entering its independence month.  We had plenty of reasons, and excuses, to treat ourselves to a mini-holiday.  We have seen some of the North, East, and West of Intibucá, but we had not experienced the South.  It’s called La Frontera (the frontier) partly because it extends to the border of El Salvador and partly because it is unimaginably rural.  The trip all the way to the “municipality” (truly an overstatement) of Santa Lucia is about 40 kilometers or 24 miles.  It took four hours by bus with very few stops as there is little to stop for.  It’s almost entirely an unpaved journey which at various points appears more like a river bed than a road.  In that forty kilometers we dropped about 5000 feet (gratefully not all at once, but at times that seemed a little too likely).  Ah, but such incredible beauty!

There were vistas, unadorned, uncelebrated, and uncommercialized, that challenged the majesty of the Grand Canyon.  There is a sense of purity to the geography and the people who live here that witness a sacredness that we felt privileged to experience.  Santa Lucia and the two other towns we visited, Concepción and Camasca, are built into the hilly landscape.  The houses and the few small businesses are knitted closely together, either because of the challenging topography or the social need to huddle securely together, or both.  The small in-town roads are all cobblestoned, and quickly end a few hundred yards from the central square.  The bright colors and intricate designs of the buildings, reminiscent of the ginger bread houses of Martha’s Vineyard, betray the pride of the people.  The people themselves are sincerely amicable and literally go out of their way to welcome you.  So pastorally idyllic, it would be easy to forget the hardship of what it means to live there.

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But it would be truly arrogant not to notice.  Outside of the quaint towns and beyond the breathtaking vistas, people live in some of the most extreme poverty that exists in our world.  Lack of clean water supplies, lack of adequate nutrition, no electricity, exposure to extreme heat and torrential rains, no access to medical care, little or no education, and a host of other unmet basic needs mean that life is a constant battle for survival.  That is of course why Shoulder to Shoulder is there.  We were impressed with the little we saw of dedicated service.  They have a large staff of doctors, nurses, nurses aides, health promoters, and teachers.  Unlike other NGOs, they have only one non-Honduran employee on the ground in Honduras.  They are committed to sustainability and empowerment in a very visceral way.  They care about the people they serve.  For some families it could be as long as ten hours to the nearest hospital.  The clinic, gratefully, can be reached in one or two hours.  As awed as we were by the beauty and privilege of visiting the place and the people, we were spiritually moved by the service.  Would not our world truly reflect the inner beauty of our humanity if we took greater consciousness of caring?

It was good to arrive back in La Esperanza:  civilization and coolness.  We hope that we also can reflect the same generosity of Spirit that we encountered on our journey through the frontier.

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.