Making Our Way

The mountains of Intibuca, Honduras (photo courtesy of Richard Buten).

The mountains of Intibuca, Honduras (photo courtesy of Richard Buten).

I feel a little guilty for not having regularly posted on the blog in some time.  I did post our Thanksgiving adventures, but in fact I was cheating since I wrote that blog for Shoulder to Shoulder.  There are multiple reasons for why I haven’t posted so frequently since we began our new job.  The most obvious one is that Laura and I are busier in this new position than we have ever been since we came to Honduras.  We were relatively busy at Montaña de Luz, but our time off was very secure.  The leisure space allowed me to find a routine where I could reflect and write.  At Maestro en Casa, the program ran very well.  We found things to do to help out — teaching, helping to build the greenhouse, helping with administrative needs and paperwork, etcetera — but again the routine gave us space.  Here at Shoulder to Shoulder, things are much different.  We find ourselves hopping.

Shoulder to Shoulder is an extremely active NGO.  They run two major clinics in Concepción (where we are) and Santa Lucia with medical, maternal, nutritional, dental, and preventative care services.  Concepción and Santa Lucia are called municipalities, but that is a cultural misnomer by US standards.  They are perhaps best described as hamlets where there is a semblance of civilization in a one to two square mile area with six or seven cobblestone streets.  Outside that area there is nothing but dirt roads, paths, and mountain passes where the majority of the people live.  It is extremely poor, extremely rural, extremely isolated, and above all, an extremely harsh place to live.  Shoulder to Shoulder contracts with the Honduran Government to staff and operate almost all of the smaller clinics along the swath of territory known as the Frontera, the Southern section of the department of Intibucá.  There are five other “municipalities” and an almost endless amount of remote villages, many of which are only accessible by walking; trucks, motorcycles, and horses can’t get through.  Delicias is the most remote village in the municipality of San Marcos.  There is no electricity or running water.  The clinic there has a nurse, but no doctor.  Anyone requiring hospitalization would suffer a five hour journey simply to get to the main road (comically referred to as the highway).  Anyone unable to walk would need to be carried in a stretcher, otherwise known as a hammock.  Under the best of conditions this trip is treacherous, passing along cliffs with sheer 1000 foot drops on one foot wide eroding ledges.  Once reaching the highway, the patient might be lucky enough to get a Shoulder to Shoulder ambulance, but the journey into the real city of La Esperanza is yet another hour and a half over bumpy, jarring roads.

Sunset in Intibuca (photo courtesy of Richard Buten).

Sunset in Intibuca, Honduras (photo courtesy of Richard Buten).

If this was all Shoulder to Shoulder did, it would be most impressive.  As it turns out, they do much more.  They partner with nine US universities to host medical brigades.  They come throughout the year with teams of students, doctors, nurses, interns, and other professionals.  They form relationships with Shoulder to Shoulder and the local communities to provide otherwise unavailable services, local empowerment and development.  Laura and I have already seen Virginia Commonwealth University, Rochester University, and the University of Wyoming.  As impressive as they were, we were even more impressed with a three day brigade offered by the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) from Tegucigalpa.  They are partnering on a long-term basis with Shoulder to Shoulder and the municipality of San Marcos to provide opportunity and development, and empower the citizenry.

The brigades form a substantial part of Shoulder to Shoulder’s mission and a great deal of time and effort is expended on them.  Still, Shoulder to Shoulder’s work extends beyond the brigades.  Primary education in Honduras is a complete disaster.  Children in Honduras are only required to go to school through the sixth grade.  The good news is that at least this, primary education through six years, is almost universal in Honduras.  These schools are plentiful and the children get to them.  But because resources are so limited in Honduras, the buildings are inadequately small and in serious disrepair, teachers are abysmal in their abilities and knowledge of subject matter, and educational materials are essentially non-existent.  Education beyond the sixth grade gets a little better.  But there are fewer schools.  A two to three year high school track perhaps gets even a little better, but again there are less offered and physically far apart.  Education through high school is “free” in Honduras.  But after the six grade, the expenses of paying for uniforms, materials, transportation (or accommodations if the child actually has to live in a distant town), and other things makes further education an impossibility for most families. Many kids, in some areas most kids, don’t go beyond the sixth grade.  They work on farms, pick coffee, harvest sugar cane, or find a low paying job that will only employ them for a few years until someone younger replaces them.  There is nothing wrong with any of these jobs, except that in this socioeconomic system, they keep people desperately poor.  Graduating from high school and attending university is perhaps the only way in Honduras to achieve success, at least legally.  But even so, because the quality of education is so poor at the foundational, primary level, even supposedly well-educated Hondurans probably don’t realize their potential intellectually or creatively.  The one caveat to all of this, however, is that the privileged are unaffected as there are sufficient private schools to meet their children’s educational needs.

Front of our house in Concepcion.

Front of our house in Concepcion.

The educational problems in Honduras are legion.  Those problems are greatly exacerbated in the Frontier Region of Intibucá where resources are even scarcer and travel is an almost insurmountable hurdle.  But how can a people advance and develop, overcome cycles of extreme and debilitating poverty, without education?  I don’t have an answer to that question.  Early on in its existence, Shoulder to Shoulder recognized that accessible education needed to be part of its mission.  For many years, by developing a committed donor base, they have offered local scholarships to children who want to continue their education beyond the sixth grade, but whose families lack the resources.  This program is very successful, even as some sponsored children now attend university.  But, primary education had not been part of Shoulder to Shoulder’s mission until three years ago.  The community of the Good Shepherd in Cincinnati, OH, partnered with Shoulder to Shoulder to found and build the Good Shepherd Bilingual School in Camasca, Intibucá.  The school, now with classes for kindergarten, first, and second grade, is public.  It is forming a unique alliance and agreement with the government of Honduras.  Qualified, bilingual teachers; a state-of-the-art-building and plans to expand the campus; and abundant, proven educational materials all speak to the excellence of the school.  Most importantly, the school is accessible to all children.  The parents do what they can to financially support the school and maintain the quality education.  Shoulder to Shoulder continues to look for donors and sponsors so the investment will yield a return.  The school is considered a model school in Honduras.  Laura and I have designed and initiated a child sponsorship program on the web site and hope that it provides the financial backbone for the school.

Back of our house in Concepcion.

Back of our house in Concepcion.

So, Shoulder to Shoulder does a ton of work.  Laura and I don’t do any of it.  We just watch everybody else, take photographs, and then write about it.  We are in charge of communications and development.  I have my dream job, writing articles on the web site, expounding upon the various missions and events.  We work on the web site.  That can be quite a challenge because the internet is very tenuous in this part of the world.  That is yet another reason why this blog posting is so late.  We do a lot of traveling and visiting.  We have gone out to the remote brigade sites, up to Camasca to visit the bilingual school, down along cliff ridges to visit families, and back and forth to La Esperanza on our weekends.  Travel is unique here.  It is never straight nor flat.  We are either climbing or descending along snaked roads and paths.  Our destination is often within view, seemingly mere minutes away, but we side windingly inch our way towards it, and minutes become hours.  There are large holes that we bump over, and loose rock and soil that we slide through.  But we see such incredible things.

We are extremely busy and we love it.  We have a wonderful house in Concepción.  But because there is very little of anything in Concepción, we have kept our house in La Esperanza.  We take our weekend time there, enjoying the sensibility of urban life and utilizing the internet we can’t get in Concepción.  La Esperanza is urban, Concepción is rural.  La Esperanza is cold, Concepción is hot.  La Esperanza is rainy and damp, Concepción is cloudless and arid.  They are two hours, twenty miles, and 3500 feet in altitude apart from one another, but are so thoroughly distinct.  We have the best of two worlds.

Check out Shoulder to Shoulder on the web.

Laura and I will be in the greater Springfield, MA area from December 21 through January 6 for a small vacation.  We hope we have an opportunity to see many of you while we are home.

Happy Holidays

turkeyHappy Thanksgiving title

There is something unique and special about this American celebration. It is not surprising that those of us in Honduras feel a little more isolated and longing for home at this time of year. It is also not surprising that those of us here go to great extremes to replicate the celebrations and traditions. At our house in Concepcion, Laura and I gathered together disparate friends, and for this day we became family. We hoped that our day would present a traditional Thanksgiving feast and we went to great pains to see that happen. Unfortunately…

The most important thing would be the turkey. Frozen turkeys are available in the large supermarkets in the major cities, although extremely expensive. We had even seen them at one supermarket in La Esperanza. But living in the Frontera of Intibucá presents particular challenges. Carrying the turkey on a bus for four hours, having it partially defrosted and then needing to refreeze it, was not possible. We talked to our neighbor who assured us he could get us a turkey from a local farmer. It would be slaughtered and plucked, ready for us by Thursday morning. Turkey secured, we needed to work on the incidentals. Dressing, mashed potatoes, fresh fall vegetables, gravy, cranberry sauce, rolls, and of course the all-important pie, especially pumpkin pie.

Dean and Melissa, a couple we know from La Esperanza, who run a religious NGO, committed to coming. They would bring two interns. As important, they would bring a stuffing, a southern- style dressing, and a pumpkin pie. Kate from Shoulder to Shoulder committed to coming. She would bring fresh made rolls and banana bread. She would also bring Joshua, a med student at the University of Rochester spending ten months in San José doing a census study for Rochester University’s continuing work there. We had not met Joshua nor one of the two interns. Kate had not met Joshua, Dean and Melissa, nor the interns. Joshua had never met anyone. But we all shared being American and looked forward to this unique celebration.

It seemed all was so well prepared, planned out to the most minute detail. I, for one, was very excited, as I’m sure everyone was. The first tragedy was the turkey. On Wednesday afternoon our neighbor informed us he couldn’t find one. We ran out into the town and found the local store where we could buy frozen chickens. We bought two five pound frozen chickens. It was a disappointment to be sure, but we could still make it work. The electricity had gone off early in the day, at around 12:30 pm. This is relatively common and we had no reason to believe that it would be a problem. At 7:00 pm it was still off. We couldn’t bake the cake we wanted to bake in the evening. Still, we could probably shuffle the use of our oven among the chickens, the sweet potatoes, and the cake on Thursday. No big deal. Oddly when we woke up on Thanksgiving, the electricity was still off. My anxiety rose as the hours, 8, 9, 10, and 11 am, passed. Our guests would be arriving at noon. We had no food to offer them other than chips and warm drinks. Something had to be done. Laura had the great idea of bringing our chickens to the Chinese restaurant (the only restaurant in town) and asking them to cook for us. They agreed. But you can only imagine that a Honduran running a Chinese restaurant in Concepcion, Intibucá has a very limited understanding of traditional, Thanksgiving cuisine. Not having an oven himself, but only a gas stove top, he deep fried the chicken. Additionally, he sold us fried rice and salad.

Dean and Melissa and the two interns arrived, from whom we learned that the power was off in La Esperanza as well, and probably in most of Honduras. In fact the electricity did not return until Friday at 7 pm. They bought a chocolate cake they purchased at a bakery, but no dressing, no stuffing, and (horrors of horrors) no pumpkin pie. Kate and Joshua arrived shortly after that. Kate was able to quickly bake her rolls and banana bread on generator power the night before. Our Thanksgiving fare had been radically reduced: fried chicken, fried rice, salad, rolls, banana bread, and chocolate cake. Ah, I almost forgot, we did have a can of cranberry sauce, a clear symbolic remnant of the pilgrim/indigenous celebration. We sat down to eat, without the need to carve anything.

Thanksgiving feast ala Chinese style!

Thanksgiving feast ala Chinese style!

Miraculously, however, without the proper fare, without true family with generational commitment, without Macy parades or football, without falling asleep because of the tryptophan, and even without pumpkin pie and a dollop of whip cream, it still felt like Thanksgiving. We talked, we laughed, we shared stories mostly about what had brought us to Honduras. We gave thanks for one another, our sharing, and our freedoms. Apparently, even without everything we think makes Thanksgiving, we celebrated a bounty. Happy Turkey Day, with or without the turkey.

The post above is the same post I published at Shoulder to Shoulder’s web page.  You can see what Laura and I are doing by going to:  Shoulder to Shoulder.  You can also get updates on what’s happening at Shoulder to Shoulder by going to:  Shoulder to Shoulder Facebook.

Extreme

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We really should know better!

Violet is a young woman from upstate NY. She recently obtained her undergraduate degree in engineering from Buffalo. She’s been volunteering at Maestro en Casa since September 1st. Laura and I have really enjoyed her energy and youthful spirit. She left this past Monday to move on to Nicaragua for a few months before returning to the States. We wanted to treat her to a fun day so we invited her to come with us to visit the caverns at Taulabé on Sunday. Unfortunately she wasn’t feeling well that day and opted out. Laura and I decided we needed the day away and headed off for our adventure.

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The caves are about an hour and a half away on the main road heading north toward San Pedro Sula. They are only a few miles south of Honduras’ one lake, Lake Yojoa, and literally about 100 yards from the main highway. Apparently, they were discovered in the 1970s when they were building the highway. We got off the bus, walked across the highway and entered the empty parking lot of Las Cuevas de Taulabé. Sunday morning at 10:00 am at one of Honduras’ few tourist spots and the place was deserted save for the two tour guides and the ticket guy hanging out at the admissions shack. It turned out that the ticket guy also ran one of the stands out on the highway that sold homemade honey. We had low expectations of what the caves would offer. As we were walking in our phone rang (we only have one), and Laura went off to the side to take the call, while I went up to the admissions stand. The older of the two guides gave me a rundown of the prices for the tour. The basic tour, 300 meters into the illuminated part of the cavern, cost thirty lempira ($1.50) for Hondurans and $4.00 for foreigners. As residents we could get the Honduran rate. But the guide was pushing the ‘extreme’ tour. The extreme tour brought you 300 meters further into the cavern. It was not illuminated and you needed to carry flashlights and wear a hardhat. For the regular tour, the guide was optional, but for the extreme tour he was required. This tour cost an additional 150 lempira ($7.50), and the guide’s tip was not included. By this point Laura had returned from her phone call. I explained to her our options, very suspect of the extreme tour. But Laura was apparently up for an adventure and we opted for the extreme tour. That word ‘extreme,’ particularly in Spanish, seemed to carry a foreboding air.

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Outside the entrance, some 40 feet from the admission booth, the guide asked us if we had a camera to take pictures. As almost always is the case, we didn’t. The guide explained that people usually like to take a before and after picture because we will probably be extremely dirty upon our exit. We laughed, believing him to have made a joke, but he hardly smiled, and we both realized he hadn’t been joking. The caves were gorgeous with huge stalagmites and stalactites, and unusual formations pointed out by our guide. We, the lone tourists, wound our way along a well laid concrete trail with railed stairways. It was breathtaking and we realized our low expectations were premature and unwarranted. Then we came to the end of the 300 meters and saw the posted sign “End of Tour.” I read the sign and had a flashback to seminary days and reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” It was the beginning of the ‘extreme’ part. Our guide led us beyond the concrete walkway to a muddied path that rose at about a sixty degree angle to a rock ledge ten feet above us. Our guide stopped us there and gave us very serious, ominous instructions on how to hold our flashlights and the importance of sticking together. “If you feel as if the rock you’re using as a foothold seems loose, find another one.” For this we were paying an additional $7.50 plus tip! Pride and our American sense of ‘getting what we paid for’ pushed us to continue on. It had taken us all of fifteen minutes to amble our way through the first 300 meters. For the next hour and a half we scaled muddied walls and slid down the other side, inched our way along crevices over fifteen meter drops, and ducked bats. In one chamber, our guide had us turn off our flashlights. The blackness was invasive.

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We were going in a downward direction for most of the journey. This meant less oxygen and more heat. We also discovered we were not alone. Probably twelve, young, Red Cross volunteers were also on the extreme tour running emergency simulations. It didn’t seem at all fair that they had ropes. We nervously joked with them that maybe they’d have opportunity for a real emergency situation with us. But, we made it, unbruised and covered completely in mud. I gave our guide a healthy tip knowing that we would probably be the only idiots that day to take the extreme tour.

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We took the bus further down the road to Lake Yojoa for lunch at one of the thousands of restaurants along the lake shore (well, maybe not thousands). It was a brilliant day, sunny and warm, as compared to sunny and cold in La Esperanza. We both looked like we had crawled out of sewers. None of the locals seemed to notice, however. I suspect they’re accustomed to American tourists coming from the caves. We both had a new take on what it means to be an “ugly American.”

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We said goodbye to Violet that evening, laughing with her over our experience. Our muscles have been remembering and complaining about our jaunt through las cuevas all week. It’s also been a week of goodbyes for us. We’ll be heading off to Concepcion this coming Monday to start our new job with Shoulder to Shoulder. The kids at Maestro en Casa are finishing up their school year. We’ll make sure to come back for graduation sometime in late November or early December. We’re looking forward to Concepcion and Shoulder to Shoulder. I’m sure that whatever we encounter, it will be yet another extreme experience.

Dampened Spirits, Uplifting Grace

 

 

Dirt Road 1

It is the heart of the rainy season in Intibucá, Honduras.  We went through the heart of the rainy season in Morecelí, El Paraiso a year ago, but we don’t remember it anything like this.  We had been used to it raining about four out of every five days.  The rains were always hard, but they usually wouldn’t start until about 3:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon and they would generally end by the time we went to bed.  But lately it has been raining every day, often starting in the morning and not ending at all.  It’s been a constant, dreary sort of rain with overcast skies and a penetrating dampness.  To top that, however, unlike anywhere else in Honduras, it’s cold in La Esperanza.  Wearing long sleeves and a sweatshirt is not mentioned in any of the Honduran vacation brochures.  I guess being so high up the clouds just get caught in these mountains.  I’m sure that La Esperanza is feeding all the rivers throughout Honduras, but it can’t possibly be raining as much anywhere else.  If it were not for the dry season, this would certainly qualify as a rain forest.

Dirt Road 3Dirt Road 4

 

 

Tuesday we planned for a dinner party.  Colorado State University is doing a long-term study down here on the health effects of indoor cook stoves.  They’re in the initial stages and we’ve been helping them to get acquainted with La Esperanza, and particularly finding them housing.  Two of the post-docs, a boyfriend/driver, and a Honduran partner arrived in La Esperanza on Monday and we invited them for a home cooked meal in the evening of their first full day.  During the day, in-between the rain, we were curing wood that was being used to build false, slanted roofs over our flat roofed buildings at Maestro en Casa (flat roofs, torrential rains ongoing for months, equals leaking ceilings – not a brilliant design idea).  Curing the wood consists of painting the wood with an oil and gasoline mixture.  By the time we were walking home, we were soaked from the rain and smelling of gasoline.  Still, we were looking forward to hosting our dinner party.  At 3:30 pm the electricity went out.  It usually comes back on, but not this time.  Our guests got lost trying to find our house.  I had to go out and stand at the corner in the downpour to find them and lead them to our house.  Cell phone service was spotty so we kept losing their call.  They finally arrived and sat down in our dark house.  Our electric lantern was losing battery power and we had no candles.  The dinner, however, cooked on our propane stove was excellent, and we all laughed at the complex challenges we face.  The bomb shell came when Benjamin, the Honduran, asked how Laura and I had managed the earthquake from last night.  This came as a total surprise to Laura and I who had slept through a rather significant shaking.  Apparently at 10:00 pm the previous evening, a rather strong earthquake centered in El Salvador shook our department of Intibucá relatively harshly.  I guess we were tired because neither of us had woken up.  The lights came on as our meal was ending and we all applauded.

Dirt Road 2

The next day, Wednesday, we had planned a trip back along the Frontera to Camasca and Concepcion.  We’ll be living and working in Concepcion (we’ve found a beautiful house that I’ll tell you about in a future blog) come November.  The bus leaves at 6:00 am, so we decided to get up at 4:30 am.  It was a good thing that Laura had set her cell phone alarm because sometime during the night the electricity went off again.  To my knowledge, there were no further earthquakes.  We were in almost absolute darkness preparing ourselves for the journey.  It was raining again.  And the absolute worst thing – no coffee.  But we made the bus.  Either because of the earthquake or the rain, or more likely, both, the road was even more gutted and fallen than it had been.  The treacherous passes were perhaps a little more treacherous, and unless it was my imagination, the sheer drops along the cliff edges seemed even more profound.  But we got there.  We saw our bi-lingual school in Camasca where we’ll be soliciting sponsors so all kids will be able to attend.  In Concepcion we stayed at the clinic and met some wonderful people visiting from the States.  It was an incredible trip and we are really excited to be part of the team.

Dirt Road 5

Alex is the tech support man at Shoulder to Shoulder.  We met him the last time we were in Concepcion.  He’s a great guy and we’ve had wonderful conversations with him.  He’s from La Ceiba on the North Coast.  On our first visit he told us he was expecting a child in a few weeks. On this visit I asked how the mother-to-be was doing.  He said she was fine, but it would probably be another couple of weeks before he would be a first time, proud father.  As we were leaving today, he was outside the clinic by the gate on his cell phone.  He ended the call to say goodbye to us.  Laura wished him luck with the prospect of his soon to be child.  He informed us of the arrival of his daughter, Grace Alexandra.  Grace seems an apt name.  It wasn’t raining when we left.  It isn’t raining now since we got back.  So at least that’s a plus.

Our Anniversary

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Laura and I are celebrating something of an anniversary.  We just returned from our third consecutive Conference on Honduras in Copan Ruinas.  The conferences always occur in the Fall, September or October, and they always bring together a wide network of non-profit organizations.  In a sense these conferences mark milestones for Laura and me.  We came to the first when we were investigating sites for possible volunteer placement.  We met the folks from Montaña de Luz and also Susan Stone from Maestro en Casa where we are at now.  Last year at the conference we initiated our volunteer experience in Honduras.  This year we went again.  It provided us a good space for reflection on our one year anniversary in Honduras.

Copan Ruinas is unlike any other town in Honduras relative to its comfort and attention to its tourist trade.  We stayed at a hotel that had the availability of a pool a short walking distance away.  We arrived the day before the conference and took advantage of this to walk down to the pool.  There was hardly anyone else there and Laura and I had this luxurious comfort all to ourselves.  We lounged back next to the pool and after a few minutes, Laura leaned over to me and jokingly asked, “Are we still in Honduras?”  That evening we also had a nice meal at a fancy restaurant where the prices were also unlike anything in Honduras.  We could have had four meals at a restaurant in La Esperanza for the price of the one there.  Still, it was extremely nice that we felt thoroughly pampered for a few days.

Birds at Macaw Mountain, Copan Ruinas

Birds at Macaw Mountain, Copan Ruinas

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Lest you think that our personal delight and indulgence was all we got out of our conference, the “anniversary” did inspire our reflection on what we are doing and will do in Honduras.  The conference focus is on the sustainability of charity and developmental work.  The conference confronts the question of whether the work of NGOs here is truly enabling and transformative.  If you have ever read the book Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton then you are aware that even good will can be harmful if all it does is create dependencies.  True charity comes from a place of respect and dignity.  At the conference someone said something about the absolute difference between pity and compassion.  Pity is the emotion that distances us from the reality of suffering.  Compassion draws us in.  I wondered about that in reflecting upon our year in Honduras.  Our year has not so much been about what we’ve done or accomplished.  We have not created a tally sheet of our good works.  It has been much more about what we’ve met and encountered in people, events, and realities.  We’ve been transformed in those encounters.  Wanting to do something, to meet a need, to solve a problem, simply to help, always seems to be the starting point for compassion.  I’m sure that is why both Laura and I have come to Honduras.  But it has not been the end point.  This journey of compassion is much more about relationship than it is about particular outcomes.  In the poverty of Honduras, among people who many might pity, we have been abundantly enriched.  It is only our hope that we might have yielded some enrichment for others.

The three conferences we’ve attended have always marked the time for our reflection on our time here in Honduras.  When we came to Maestro en Casa we knew that our time in Honduras would be limited by our lack of resources.  Maestro en Casa is not in a position to offer us a salary or a stipend.  That has been fine with us as we believed in its mission.  We have certainly found our lives transformed here, particularly with the students whom we have come to know.  You will recall, however, a couple of blogs ago, I spoke about our trip to the Frontera (border of El Salvador and Honduras) and our encounter with a medical NGO, Hombro a Hombro, Shoulder to Shoulder.  They have offered Laura and me a job as Communications and Development Director.  Our discernment has led us to agree to accept the position.  We will continue our work with Maestro en Casa through the end of the academic year here in Honduras and be present for the graduation sometime in November.  Through the upcoming month of October we will take some time to travel to and from the Frontera, acquainting ourselves with the mission and work of Shoulder to Shoulder and looking for a residence.  We will officially begin the new position in November.  The salary will satisfy the expenses we incur here in Honduras and allow us to stay in Honduras without concern for our well-being.  It is extremely difficult to make a decision between two goods, which is what we have done.  It will be sad to leave.  But thankfully, we will leave with gratitude.  It is also exciting to move forward, knowing that new experiences of transformation await us.

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I don’t know if we will return for next year’s conference.  After each one we have said that it would be the last.  I am sure, however, that there will yet be another time and place for us to reflect on the wonder and beauty of our lives and to discern the new paths that yield transformation.

An additional note:

Many of you who read this blog have been financially generous to Laura and me and the work we have been engaged in at Maestro en Casa.  As always, we are indebted and grateful.  Maestro en Casa is an excellent program that provides quality education to persons who want and need it.  Laura and I intend to maintain our relationship and support of Maestro en Casa.  You are welcome to do the same.

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.