All this…

A couple of weeks ago we went to Mass on Sunday morning in La Esperanza as is our custom.  Both Laura and I had a sense of déjà-vu as we sat in the familiar pews that have become our own.  It’s May, the month dedicated to Mary.  Any given Sunday in May, the faithful come to the church with spring flowers to present them at the altar of Mary.  I recalled, we both recalled, that on one of our first visits to the church we encountered the same celebration.  I had even written about it in this blog on June 2, 2014.  It dawned on us that we’ve had our home in La Esperanza for an entire year now.  This does not seem at all possible.  It only seems like weeks ago that we watched the pious procession of May flowers.

Our Church: Nuestro Señor de Intibucá

Our Church: Nuestro Señor de Intibucá

A full year has passed for us in this quaint little town of La Esperanza.  It has certainly gone by like lightening.  I suppose that comes from our sense of welcome and familiarity.  We are tremendously content and grateful to be here.  I recall how anxious we were when we first came to Honduras.  We were bouncing around from place to place, from organization to organization, and it didn’t seem like we were going to find a fit.  But, after all the bouncing around, the anxieties that we wouldn’t or couldn’t appreciate the culture, and the uncertainties of finding an organization where our goals and its goals could mesh, by fortune’s fate, we have eased into a feeling of home.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, we’re only in La Esperanza now on the weekends.  We spend most of our time in the extremely, rural town of Concepción.   Our home there, rented for us by Shoulder to Shoulder, is very comfortable, but Concepción is so small we’d likely go bonkers on the weekends looking for things to do.  But, in La Esperanza, we have a thriving social life.  We’ve befriended a whole array of US volunteers and ex-pats.  We meet them at the supermarket, or at the restaurants, or walking along the streets.  We think of ourselves as La Esperanza’s welcoming committee for gringos, having had many of them to our humble home for dinner.  But it is not only the English speakers that greet us with familiarity.  Walking down the street it is not at all uncommon to hear someone calling out our name: the restaurant owner, the hardware store couple, or one of the teachers from Maestro en Casa.  We have become part of this community, and it yields such a sense of contentment.

Market in La Esperanza

Market in La Esperanza

After so many fits and starts with organizations, it was refreshing to find Shoulder to Shoulder.  The philosophy is what really draws and sustains us.  There is a commitment to collaboration with Hondurans that is rarely witnessed by other charity organizations.  This sometimes makes for difficult and challenging work.  Oddly, Hondurans don’t always agree with American imperialistic ideals (I’m being purposely hyperbolic).  There is always give and take, the messy, exhausting, and frustrating work of maintaining relationships, but at the heart of the mission is a sense of dignity and integrity.  We also never have enough financing, the budget is always in the red, but we use black ink to record the measure of our hearts.  I don’t suspect I’ll be remembered for my money, and I don’t want to be anyway.  Besides, it’s me that’s been enriched for being here.

We have plenty of work.  In fact our job descriptions have doubled or tripled since last month’s board meeting in Tegucigalpa.  We were “hired” as the Directors of Communication and Development.  That was enough work certainly.  But now we are also part of the on-site brigade management team, organizing and executing all of our service and medical groups, about eighteen a year and growing.  We are also taking a strong leadership and development role at our bilingual school.  We are busy.  But both of us love the work.  It sustains us.

Street Scene in La Esperanza

Street Scene in La Esperanza

Settled, content, anxiety free, connected, enriched by friends, unencumbered by money, and just plain happy, we really couldn’t ask for more.

There is more, though.  As I write this, we are two days away from returning to Massachusetts for a short visit.  Though it is always important to reconnect with family and friends, this time it is truly special.  Laura’s daughter Emma married Kay a year ago in a civil ceremony.  They did it with some haste for legal reasons of convenience.  Kay is a naval officer and Emma is working as a Social Worker and returning to school for her MSW.  They are an amazing couple, truly committed to one another and their dog and two cats.  They also just closed on their new house and moved in last week.  What we are going home for is the celebration of their marriage with friends and family.  It will be Friday, May 29th.  This will be such an exciting event.  Though I am not Emma’s father, and she has one who is a tremendously loving parent, I still feel quite proud.  Still, that is not all.  Emma and Kay are going to return here to Honduras with us.  They will visit us in La Esperanza and Concepción.  We have not yet had the experience of a personal or family visitor.  How wonderful it will be to share with them all that has inspired and sustained us.  After their time with us, they will head off for their honeymoon in the beautiful, tropical island of Roatan, Honduras.  Unfortunately, Laura and I are not invited.  With any luck, I can convince Laura to go before we leave Honduras.

Laura working outside.  Great Internet!

Laura working outside. Great Internet!

When I was still a priest and people would share with me some particular joy from their personal lives, I would always respond with the same phrase:  “All this, and heaven too.”  I suppose it was a way of honoring their joy, but for me it was simply a pat phrase.  I never really reflected too much on its meaning.  But, after a year and a half living the dreams of our hearts, I guess I’m much more aware of how singularly important happiness is.

Ants, Lizards, and Air Conditioning

It’s been a good while since I published on this blog.  Laura and I have been very busy as of late with Shoulder to Shoulder projects.  It isn’t that I haven’t been writing.  I’m publishing at least a once a week blog on our website.  If you enjoy reading this one, you would most definitely enjoy reading the website blog.  If you want to sign up for our newsletter on our home page, then you would get an email notice every time a new blog is published.

Our bed (note the plate under the leg)

In many places in Honduras, the dry season is over or almost over.  That’s not the case here in the Dry Corridor of Honduras.  Our house sits on the top of a sand mound.  It is essentially an ant hill.  Due to the dryness, we have ants all over the place, including in our house.  They majority of them are very tiny, black ants.  They are actually quite amazing to watch.  If we drop a green bean on the floor or out on our cement porch, ten minutes later we’ll watch it slowly being dragged away by four to ten of these little creatures that have teamed up for the task.  Mostly they don’t bother us.  They don’t bite.  We can manage to share our house with them as long as we are careful about keeping our counters clean and properly storing our food.  But there is one thing about the ants that is totally unacceptable.  They have been very deliberately sharing our bed.  For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to get rid of them: stripping the bed, washing the sheets and bedding in Clorox, airing out the mattress, washing down the bed frame, etc., etc.  Nothing seemed to work.  Then, I had a brilliant idea.  I placed plastic plates under the four legs of the bed.  I checked to make sure that nothing, especially the sheets and bedding, touched the walls or the floor.  I filled up the plates with vinegar.  Ants hate vinegar.  It worked!!!  There is a bit of a trade off.  But, tolerating the strong odor of vinegar is certainly preferable to waking up as something crawls across your face.  If anyone reading this has a problem with ants in your bed, though I can’t imagine that anyone would, please feel free to implement my solution without concern for any patent violations.

Front of our house

Front of our house

We had just solved the ant issue, sleeping soundly for three or four nights in a row, when we were invited to Tegucigalpa.  Our president, Wayne Waite, and the board secretary, Dwight Armstrong, visited us in the Frontera a week before the board meeting in Tegucigalpa.  It was a whirlwind of a trip for them with very little time and a multitude of meetings.  Certain aspects of their trip encouraged and enlivened them.  The bilingual school — the brightness of our children and their willingness to practice their English — assured them of the rightness of our mission.  They explored new possibilities of expanding into agricultural development and food security.  This is tremendously exciting.  They also faced the challenges of limited financial resources and the need to better our organizational and managerial skills.  The hope inspiring dreams and the anxiety provoking limitations were equally present and followed them back to Tegucigalpa and the board meeting.  It reminded me of an old TVpromo for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Living in the isolated, rural territory of the Frontera, Tegucigalpa is almost as much of a cultural shock for us as returning to the US.  This is particularly true in the tourist section of Tegucigalpa where we stayed at a very nice hotel.  They have electricity, cold and hot running water, nice restaurants, coffee shops, air-conditioning, cool and soft bed sheets, and, above all, no ants.  We felt pampered.  But we also felt an incongruous surrealism.  The same conflicting themes, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, permeated the discussions of the board meeting.  This created a certain feeling of vertigo that was exacerbated for Laura and me as we tried to reconcile the luxury we were enjoying in a Tegucigalpa hotel with our recent daily struggle of keeping ants out of our bed.  We had originally thought we would stay two nights, Friday and Saturday, leaving on Sunday.  But on Sunday we were asked to stay until Monday for important meetings.  On Monday we were asked to stay until Tuesday for important meetings.  If this kept up, we feared we would end up getting onto the plane with them to fly back to Cincinnati.  We hadn’t brought enough clothes and ended up doing some laundry in our bathroom sink.  At least this, doing our laundry by hand, better conformed to our lives on the Frontera.

Not an art or a lizard

Not an art or a lizard

The meetings were great.  For all of the challenges we face, we are clearly doing good things in the Frontera.  We are holding firm to our mission:  working shoulder to shoulder, establishing and maintaining relationships of empowerment, creating pathways from poverty and oppression to development and liberation.  This is found not so much in the details of our planning, nor in the gravity of our challenges, but in the integrity of commitment.  On Monday night, we went to a restaurant high on one of the hills surrounding Tegucigalpa, La Cumbre (The Mountaintop).  It owns a view of Tegucigalpa that is overwhelmingly beautiful; the lights of the city stretching out in all directions.  Clearly this is a privileged view.  Few ever see it.  It is a chimerical beauty, however; a mirage created from distance and altitude.  To descend the mountain and stand in the city is to recognize that its true beauty is still only hoped for.  But still, the vision, the hope, and the opportunities enkindle passion.  Laura and I love the hope almost as much as the reality.

Paul with Wayne Waite at Good Shepherd School

Paul with Wayne Waite at Good Shepherd School

We took our time getting back to the Frontera.  We spent another full day in La Esperanza, easing our way back to the scarcity of pampering amenities.  First thing I did when we got back was to check our bed.  Still, no ants, we’re making progress.  But a seven inch lizard had taken up residence in our house.  I’m certain she’s harmless.  She may be the off-spring of the iguana that lives in our back yard.  But I didn’t want her crawling on me while I slept anymore than the ants.  I made various attempts to sweep her out of the house, but the rascal was elusive.  Finally, just before retiring, I got her.  No lizards, no ants.  Life is good.

Delights

Mountain trail on the way to the village of Delicias, San Marcos de la Sierra.

Mountain trail on the way to the village of Delicias, San Marcos de la Sierra.

Generally, the times that I am conscious at 3:00 AM are unintentional.  But last week Laura and I stood outside our home at 3:30 PM to be picked up by a Shoulder to Shoulder driver in his pick-up.  We wanted to see first-hand some of the more demanding work our Equipos de Atención Primaria (EAP) (Primary Care Teams) accomplish.  We wrestle into the extended cab to join the driver, the health promoter, the lab technician, and the dentist.  On the way we pick up the doctor bringing to seven the number squeezed into the vehicle.  We turn off the main highway, such as it is, and head down.  A good forty-five minutes later along this single-lane, rutted, wooded road we meet its end.  It’s 5:10 AM, still dark, and we’ll be footing it for the next two hours toward our destination, the health center in the small community of Delicias (translation – “Delights”).

Why?, you ask.  Once every two months one of these EAP health teams visits Delicias.  This insures health care for the residents of this community and its four surrounding communities.  As we travel, the residents in those communities who need health care also travel, sometimes three hours or more to visit the clinic in operation.  There are no roads out here, only well worn paths through mountain passes.  Out of the truck, the six of us shine our flashlights to the ground to secure our footholds as we continue down the extension of what had been the road.  Fifteen minutes later we reach a river bed, the first small descent accomplished, and we’re pleased dawn has broken and we can see where we are walking.  From here we go up, then follow the edge of a ravine descending more slowly, then up sharply for a good hour to reach the summit, and finally down again to the small complex.  The path is mostly a wide one, well traveled, a main thoroughfare where we meet many men and a few families traveling in the opposite direction.  The vistas are outstanding, looking down into valleys, out onto mountain ranges, with the undersides of clouds circling mountaintops to greet the sunrise.  The travel is not so much treacherous as it is exhausting, but the freshness of the experience energizes us.  Without warning, out from the thickness of the forest, we arrive at Delicias.

Health Center in Delicias.

Health Center in Delicias.

The clinic looks exactly like every other Honduran government designed clinic.  The school here was falling apart.  They tore it down to build a new one with aid from Germany.  The make shift school, roofs suspending over bamboo poles, is set up in the back yard of the clinic.  The newer school, just above the clinic, will be large enough to accommodate the 150 students, its construction to be completed in May.  There is also a small church, presenting as Catholic, but perhaps doubling for any number of other denominations and providing space for secular meetings.  A family has a home where supplies and snacks are stored and sold, and meals cooked at the outdoor kitchen.  It’s surreal, this little oasis of civilization so singularly distant from the rest of the world.  A well and pump provide water, but only within this small development.  There’s no electricity, save for the generator the construction team operates.  The dentist, young, newly hired, transplanted from the city, and assigned here after her graduation from university, questions why anybody would choose to live here.  Good question really, but no one chooses to live here.  They inherit it, bequeathed as it were, from one generation’s poverty to the next.  Walking in and out is hard enough, leaving is virtually impossible.

The kids arrive for the morning session.  There are only two teachers now.  Four more will come for the afternoon session and stay for the week in a room they use in the clinic.  The dentist gives instruction to the kids on brushing and dental hygiene.  She’ll give a check up to each one individual.  She can’t fill cavities out here, too expensive, but in two months when next she comes, the kids will get a fluoride treatment.  The pregnant women’s club arrives.  They, along with individuals seeing the doctor and even the construction workers, get health talks on Chikungunya (similar to Dengue), tuberculosis, and other public health concerns.  They call all this a health fair and there is a sense of celebration.  It’s a reason to gather, to meet up with friends, a special event.  By 1:00 PM, the dentist and the lab technician are finished with their work.  The doctor will probably be seeing patients until three.  But Laura and I, the dentist, and the technician decide to start our walk back.  We’ll walk leisurely and the doctor and health promoter, leaving later, can catch up so we’ll all meet the pick-up at the same time.

Shoulder to Shoulder dentist educating children in their outdoor classroom.

Shoulder to Shoulder dentist educating children in their outdoor classroom.

Laura and I will only make this walk once; the doctor, dentist, and lab technician once every two months; and the health promoter once every two weeks.  Some of the people who live here probably never leave, but they’re all accustomed to the hiking.  It’s their routine and they don’t think about it as anything special.  The materials for the school, how do you think they got there?  On the backs of the residents.  We’re told that the men carried three to five cinderblocks at a time, the women one or two.  We are indeed walking leisurely, the sun beating down, and the dentist, the youngest among us, stops every few hundred yards to rest in the shade.  Persons are passing us in both directions, carrying one-hundred pound sacks of corn meal, or beans, or cement.  We have to move off the side of the path when a man balances and guides a 30 foot roll of sheet metal roofing for the school.  Then two familiar women come up behind us.  They were with us at the clinic, participants of the pregnant women’s club, now going home.  It’s not so much that they’re making better time than us.  It’s not so much that they don’t even seem to perspire.  The thing that just seems unfathomable is that they’re wearing flip-flops.  One tells us she’s eight months along, and all I can do is pray.

Construction workers learning about Dengue and Tuberculosis.

Construction workers learning about Dengue and Tuberculosis.

Finally, we make the river.  All that’s left is the last rise to where the path turns back into a road.  It was dark when we were last here, casting our flashlight beams to our feet.  Now I realize that the entire hill is deforested.  A small slip, a tumble, and a roll, and it would have been an unobstructed fall 200 feet into the river bed.  Silly me, I thought we started out in the dark to make better time and to avoid the heat.  We come up on the road, slightly wider, much less gutted.  Though they left a good hour and a quarter after us, the health promoter and doctor join us within twenty minutes.  Another fifteen and our truck arrives to take us home.

The long ride home gives me time to reflect.  I am happy to have had the experience.  It’s so beautiful, romantic even, to live so connected to the rhythm of nature.  I now know what it means to visit the Delights, but I will certainly never know what it means to live there.

If you’d like to read more about Shoulder to Shoulder, click the link below:

Shoulder to Shoulder

Educate a Child — Save the World

Outdoor classroom - no indoor space available.

Outdoor classroom – no indoor space available.

We’ve been here, in Honduras, almost one year and a half. Is that possible? Tempus fugit. It seems we’re staying now as we just renewed our second year of our two year residency. That will expire in March of 2016. We had so much difficulty getting our residency last year, we expected more of the same with the Honduran bureaucracy. We dreaded the whole affair, particularly now that Tegucigalpa is over six hours away. At best we thought it would be two trips, but at worst, five or six. What a surprise it was when we arrived at the immigration offices at 8:00 AM and by eleven we had new residency cards. Finished. Just when we thought we knew Honduras. The most difficult thing we had to do was to pay the fee. In Honduras, when you make any large payment, or when you’re making payment to a government agency or utility, you pay at the bank and they give you a receipt. There’s not a lot of trust here when it comes to money. As usual there was a long line at the bank. The security guard, who carries a machine gun, decided to make order of the line. He put us up to the front along with this Cuban-American gentleman with whom we had become friendly. He did this in error and the rest of those waiting in line had every right to be upset. They began arguing adamantly with the security guard. This is when I decide to pretend I don’t understand a word of Spanish. The gun almost always has that effect on me. The Cuban-American gentleman had gotten into the bank. I saw him speaking with the other security guard inside the bank before he came back out. Coming out, he leans down to me and says, “You’re next.” The inside security guard opens up the door and whispers to the outside security guard while pointing at me. I overhear what he says, “Tercera edad,” translation, “Senior Citizen.” To the complaints of the other fifty persons that were legitimately ahead of me, he lets me in. I consider, very briefly, telling him I am not over sixty, but realize this will make everyone even more angry, especially the guy with the gun. So I somewhat ashamedly go into the bank and pay. After that, another hour getting our pictures taken and our cards made, we’re done.

Kindergarten class at Good Shepherd Bilingual School.

Kindergarten class at Good Shepherd Bilingual School.

Apart from the bank, the rest of the process was really smooth. But lest we think we died and went to a developed country, most things here in Honduras don’t go so smoothly. For instance, today is a Sunday and we are in La Esperanza. We have running water every other day in La Esperanza. Today it’s on. Yipee!, showers! But, just as we were ready to take our showers, the electricity went off. We still had water, but the heater unit on the shower head depends on electricity. It’s still cold here, believe it or not, so neither of us wanted to take a cold shower. We could heat up water on our gas burners, but taking bucket showers isn’t fun either. We decided to wait for the electricity to return. It finally came back on at 5:00 PM. Unfortunately, because this is about dinner time and everyone is using their water, the pressure is very low. The heater does not come on unless the water pressure is strong enough. So even though we have some water and electricity, a hot, running water shower is still not possible. Maybe by seven or eight, there will be enough water pressure to turn the heater on. Let’s hope. Because we haven’t had any electricity, we also haven’t had any internet all day. Our landlord’s modem on which our internet depends has been off all day. He’ll have to reset it. He’s not home. Something else we’ll have to wait for. At least we no longer have to do our laundry by hand. Oh no, spoke too soon. We had a long spell in Concepcion when we were water challenged at our house. That was a little rough, but we carry our laundry to the clinic where we work and where there is a machine. They always have water there. About two weeks ago, however, we started getting a great deal of water at our house. That was great. Unfortunately, this miracle corresponded with the clinic running out of water. So our laundry has been sitting up at the clinic, waiting for sufficient water to run the machine. On Friday we had to take some of it home and do it by hand. I wonder how long I can go without washing my jeans. Jeans are just not fun to wash by hand. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to… do the laundry.

There was a time when all these things would drive us wild. But after a year and a half, it’s all just a part of what it means to live in Honduras. Joking with other Americans, we use the initials TIH – This is Honduras. We smile at one another, we laugh, and we wait. Not getting personal amenities in a developing country is understandable. Not getting other more essential things is another matter entirely. Also after a year and a half, our experiences have driven home the fact that the education system here is dismally inadequate. Children are only required to go to school through the sixth grade. The school buildings we have visited make most farm barns look like palaces. Crumbling, unpainted concrete walls, often dirt floors, rooms designed for twenty housing forty children are just some of the obvious shortcomings. If the buildings are poorly constructed and maintained, the teachers are as poorly trained and prepared. Children may only receive instruction during about half of the day while the teacher is busy doing something else. There aren’t any books (maybe a bible if the teacher is religiously zealous) or educational materials. Here in the Southern Intibucá, in one of the most rural and poorest areas of Honduras, over 60% of children will not receive any further, formal education after graduating from sixth grade.

Kindergarten student at Good Shepherd Bilingual School.

Kindergarten student at Good Shepherd Bilingual School.

Over our year and a half, Laura and I have had first-hand experience of the failure of the Honduran education system. It has become painfully clear that development in Honduras is dependent on improving this system. Imagine how much talent and how many resources are lost, trashed really, because children are simply not educated. Shoulder to Shoulder, where Laura and I are now, recognizes this fact and has dedicated its efforts toward improving education for the children and families of the frontier region of Intibucá. For years they’ve had a scholarship program to assist children in continuing education beyond the sixth grade. They also have a highly successful girls’ empowerment program that challenges the poverty cycle of girls becoming pregnant at a very young age and gives them viable alternatives and builds self-esteem. In the last three years, Shoulder to Shoulder in collaboration with the Good Shepherd Catholic community of Cincinnati, has built and operated an accessible, public, quality, regional, bilingual, primary school in Camasca, Intibucá. The school now features grades kinder through third grade with about sixty students. Construction on a new building to accommodate more students and grades will begin this year.

This is where Laura and I step into the picture. The school is a most ambitious project. It needs a tremendous amount of commitment and financial support to continue to offer a quality, bilingual education. Laura and I were charged with designing and implementing a sponsorship program for the children at the school. We have done so and have enjoyed some success. Nine of the children at the school have full sponsorships at $100 per month. Some of you who are reading this are sponsoring children and we are extremely grateful. But we need more. We are doing two things. We have initiated a campaign to raise $12,000 by the end of this year. We are also trying to expand our donor base. We are looking to you to help us. We are not necessarily asking you to help us by way of a financial commitment, though we would be extremely happy if you could. But you have families, friends, and associations. Please help us to get the word out.

March blog - Juan Carlos

Laura and I are extremely committed to this endeavor. We think that right now it is one of the most important things happening in all of Honduras, and we are honored to take a small part in it. I have outlined below the various ways that you can help us.

  • Sponsor a Child:

You can begin a relationship with a child that will support an ongoing, quality, bilingual education for all our students at the school. The financial commitment is $35, $70, or $100 per month. Go to Sponsor a Child to make that commitment.

  • Make a one-time gift to the campaign:

Go to Educate a Child – Save the World! Make your donation through razoo.com.

  • Facebook:

If you have a Facebook page, here’s what you can do that won’t cost you a penny. Just go to our Facebook page at StoSFacebook and repost our campaign post on your timeline. Our campaign post, “Educate a Child – Save the World!” should be the first or second post you see on Shoulder to Shoulder’s timeline. Like us and follow us.

  • Email your friends and contacts, talk us up, and promote us at your church and other associations.
  • Website: Read about Shoulder to Shoulder on our website at http://shouldertoshoulder.org/.

The Shortest Distance…, or Do You Know the Way to Guachipilincito?

Quachi 015February 18, 2015

When Laura and I were still at Montaña de Luz we took a few trips to Danli, a small city about an hour east toward Nicaragua.   A few years back, the Catholic Church built a monumental cross on a hill overlooking the city in the style of many large cities.  It’s become quite a draw for pilgrims and tourists who want to climb the hill and see the cross and the view of the city.  Unlike a lot of roads in Honduras, this one is well paved with hard concrete.  Also, it mostly climbs straight up at a steep angle, rather than zigzagging, perhaps to offer a penitential journey with the Stations of the Cross along the way.  On our second or third trip to Danli, Laura and I climbed up to the cross.  The view of the city and the surrounding mountains was sensational, well worth the strenuous climb.  I recall watching the others who climbed up and down with us.  Mostly, they zigzagged from one side of the road to the other to lessen the strain on their legs and bodies.  Here in Concepción, Laura and I walk up to the Shoulder to Shoulder clinic, about twenty minutes, every day.  The cobblestoned hill out of the town is as straight and steep as that hill in Danli, but not nearly as long.  We’re a little winded at the summit, but the cardiovascular workout is worth it.  The colegio (school from seventh grade through high school) is located just outside our town along the same route.  We’re usually walking at the same time the students are walking to school.  Most of the students take that same zigzag route up the cobblestone hill that we observed in Danli.  They’re younger and in better shape than Laura and me.  At witnessing this, I’ve pondered, is there something in Honduran DNA that demands crooked journeys, or are these kids just lazy.  But then again, nothing here seems to travel along straight lines.

Today we had a very personal, even a bit frightening, experience of this phenomenon.  Two Shoulder to Shoulder medical brigades arrived here this past weekend, one from Virginia Commonwealth University and one from Brown University.  Laura and I are always very busy when the brigades are here.  We like to meet them when they first arrive to introduce them to Shoulder to Shoulder’s mission and projects, and then once again while they are working to take photos.  We saw Brown, a small group of six, on their first night at their hotel in Esperanza.  We also traveled out to their site in Guachipilincito in a pick-up truck on Sunday.  We did this just to see their site because we’ve never been to Guachipilincito.  It’s actually very physically close to Concepción, but because there are no such things as direct routes, it takes over an hour with a four wheel vehicle.  We learned that there was a more direct footpath that only took an hour and fifteen minutes.  We got directions and set out walking at seven this morning to avoid the strong heat.

Quachi 001We followed our directions well, but still almost missed the first turn off a main dirt road.  I asked a man in his house and discovered the path we needed started at his driveway.  He also told us to go straight up the hill from his house, through the gate at the top, and then straight down along the well traveled path.  But he also made a sweeping gesture with his arm off to our right that I knew was the general direction toward Guachipilincito.  We found things just as he said, the gate at the top and a well traveled path zigzagging down a steep hill.  But also at the gate was another path going off to the right in the general direction of Guachipilincito.  We walked two thirds of the way down the steep hill and into an area that opened up to the mountain terrain.  Seeing the vista I was certain we weren’t on the correct path.  We were traveling in the opposite direction of where we were going.  I could not see or imagine how the path could right itself toward Guachipilincito through the rough terrain.  I was convinced that we needed to take the path to the right of the gate.  The man’s sweeping arm gesture must have been meant to indicate this.  Laura wasn’t as certain as I, but generally defers to my sense of direction.  We hiked back up the mountain and took, what became, the path less traveled.

Though the path was overgrown at times (and me without a machete), though we climbed over or under five or six barbed wire fences, we consistently moved correctly west.  I saw glimpses of what I believed was Guachipilincito.  When we got to a bit of a clearing, I definitely could see Guachipilincito.  It wasn’t very far away, a mile at most, but between us and it was a deep ravine and a treacherously steep mountain.  Disappointingly, I could also see a well traveled path on the opposite mountain.  On that path, apparently effortlessly traveling to Guachipilincito, was a cow, followed by a man, followed by a woman.  As close as we were, there did not appear to be any means to get to that path.  Our path was now becoming somewhat unpathlike, and we eventually ran up against a very impassable barbed wire fence.  We had gone the wrong way.  We were now two hours into our one hour and a quarter hike.  We dreaded going back.  If we went back we’d probably just go home, feeling defeated.  Instead, we walked down the ravine, hoping to find a path up on the other side.  We landed in a dried up river bed (where I also saw cows, but Laura didn’t believe me) with no discernible path up the other side.  But I did see a rock bed where water must cascade down into the river during the rainy season. It led directly up to the path.  It would be a steep climb, but only about 300 yards up, and then we’d be home (or Guachipilincinto) free.

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Tough going, but we got to about thirty feet below the path.  That was where the rocks ended and the loose soil began.  We were now actually mountain climbing at about a seventy-five degree angle.  I was probably fifteen feet away when I made the terrible mistake of looking behind me.  It wasn’t that far, but is a hundred foot drop any less mortal than a four-hundred foot drop?  I froze.  But for all of fifteen feet, we were going to have to go back.  I started to slowly slide back down.  But, I found a small hope in the thicket to my left.  I wiggled my way in.  I zigzagged under, over, and through the brush, ascending ever so slowly that last twenty feet.  I made it to the path above.  From my now secure perch, I directed Laura through the same thicket.  We both made it, unintentional mountain climbers.  The rest of the journey was quick and uneventful.  We had left at 7:00 and arrived at the clinic at 10:30.  It had been a very straight journey, but I now know why it is sometimes better to trust a crooked path.  We walked back the long way.

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The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  That’s a mathematical truism.  But as I found out today, distance seldom equates with comfort and security.  The rugged terrain of Honduras makes traveling in straight lines a virtual impossibility.  The terrains encountered in relationships and in service are often just as rugged.  Even though we so often look for that shortest route, more often zigzagging is best.  Those high school students are not lazy.  Though they themselves may not recognize it, they are in fact very wise.

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Dentists and Dinosaurs Part II

paul on dental brigade

I’m writing a second blog immediately following the first.  The earlier one feels a little bit like cheating to me since I wrote it for our Shoulder to Shoulder blog.  The story was true enough and personal enough (hoped you liked it), but there is more going on for us right now that is not necessarily appropriate to share in the NGO blog.  You can consider this a bonus blog.

At the end of last week, a very dear friend of ours died.  He’d been ill and his passing wasn’t entirely unexpected, but losing someone, under any circumstances, always sets one reeling.  We felt ourselves fortunate to have seen him at Christmas.  He seemed very tired and we both felt he was readying himself.  We thought we might try to go home when he passed.  We are close to his family and would have liked to be near them physically in their mourning.  But it was so soon after our Christmas trip.  It would have been a very expensive and exhausting journey.  Instead, we remembered him here and sent our condolences on to the family.  We’ve been thinking of them since.  It’s the only real hard part of being here in Honduras.

As it turned out late Saturday and early Sunday I developed a very bad ear infection.  Those of you that know me well know how bad my ears are and that I’m prone to ear infections.  I’m about three-quarters deaf in my right ear.  The left ear is simply challenging.  Of course it was the left ear in which I contracted the infection.  It hurt tremendously, and though I still felt a little guilty about not making the trip back home for the funeral, I dread how I might have felt if the infection had erupted on a plane.  I wanted to fight my way through it as is my usual response.  I thought I could get by without needing an antibiotic.  But by Sunday it was really bad.  By Sunday afternoon I desperately wanted an antibiotic and pain killer.

kids shaking toothbrushes

Honduras is quite different from the States when it comes to pharmaceuticals.  You don’t need a prescription for most anything.  You simply walk into the pharmacy and tell them what you want and buy it.  The pharmacist, theoretically, should be able to tell you what the drug is for, its side-effects, and the proper dosage and how long to take it.  The drugs are relatively cheap because there is no insurance, but there are also few controls.  It’s a bit of a crap shoot.  We were in La Esperanza on Sunday afternoon looking for a pharmacist.  La Esperanza is always a busy town with all the traffic from the surrounding small towns coming to purchase supplies.  It’s like the Dodge City of rural Southern Honduras.  Busy that is except from Sunday afternoon through Monday afternoon when everyone is hurrying back to their little towns for the work week.  There were no pharmacies open.  We planned to return to Concepcion on the 6:15 AM bus on Monday morning, but we decided to delay that until the 10:15 AM bus so I could find the drugs.  The pain and a fever kept me up most of Sunday night, but we went out in search of a pharmacy at 7:30 AM on Monday morning.  We passed three pharmacies that we felt were more or less reputable that were unfortunately still closed.  The fourth one would not have been my first choice, but it was open.  The short, aging woman found an antibiotic and some ibuprofen with relative ease among the dusty, poorly organized shelves.  She seemed very certain in telling me to take the antibiotic at six-hour intervals for three days, and the ibuprofen at eight hour intervals as needed for pain.  I purchased the drugs, feeling more confident than not.

The ibuprofen gave me some relief from the pain right away.  Still, I had the bus ride ahead.  I know I spend a great deal of time talking about bus rides in this blog.  It’s a big part of our lives here.  The bus ride from La Esperanza through the Frontera is really something that cannot be appreciated without experiencing it.  I was fine for the first hour and a half.  The ibuprofen seemed to be holding up well.  But, the combination of the constant jostling, the dramatic loss of altitude, the wearing down of the efficacy of the ibuprofen, and the intensity of the infection, did me in.  The pain returned with a harsh vengeance.  Screaming in public is considered as culturally unacceptable in Honduras as it is in the States, so as strong as the impulse was, I restrained myself.   I barely made it off the bus and up the short hill to our house.  But I did make it.  The drugs have been working fine and I’ve been slowly but surely improving.  Of course, I can hardly hear.

On Thursday morning I had finished my regimen of antibiotics and ibuprofen.  I felt much better, but my ear was still impacted and I sensed something was wrong.  I saw one of the docs at our clinic and asked her to remove the wax from my ear.  She took one look and declared that my ear remained infected and inflamed and queried me as to why I had stopped the antibiotics.  As per the instructions of the pharmacist, I answered.  What a surprise, the pharmacist had given me incorrect directions for the medicines.  I needed to take the antibiotics and the ibuprofen for a full week.  The length of time between doses was also incorrect.  I’m on the right track now, however, and I’m certain I’ll be fully recovered by early next week.  Last week, before my infection, we had a group of pharmacology students from Buffalo here.  Timing is everything, I guess.

girl sitting pensively - dental brigade

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been reflecting on loss, disappointments, discouragements, challenges, and the fragility of life.  It seems life is as beautiful as it is delicate.  It needs to be attended to and appreciated.  Laura and I had the joy of visiting the school with the dental brigade on Wednesday.  I loved those dinosaurs (see last blog).  They had a great deal to say about what is truly special and sacred about life.  I think our friend whom we’ll miss would have very much appreciated the children at the school.  How important it is to be present to all of that.  We don’t always do that.  We often get caught up in ourselves.  We are fragile and we do suffer, but oh how beautiful it is to be alive.

Dentists and Dinosaurs

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I can fairly well remember my first experience as a child visiting the dentist.  Like the experience for most kids, mine held the potential to be a traumatizing event.  He was an older, unfamiliar man who seemed way too anxious about becoming my friend.  He placed me in this strange, inclining, mechanical chair with straps on it.  How could a little kid think of anything other than Frankenstein?  Then this man I didn’t know who smiled at me way too widely, who now wore a bizarre green gown and a surgical mask, shown a tremendously bright light into my eyes, pried open my mouth and squinted oddly to peer profoundly into my oral cavity.  His peering had obviously not satisfied his curiosity because he continued to poke and prod in and out of every crevice with sharp metal instruments, relics of torturing tools from the Inquisition.  If anyone ever wished to publish a manual on how to traumatize a kid, they would simply accurately describe a first visit to a dentist.  Yet, I wasn’t traumatized.  In fact, I don’t even remember any of the business end of the visit to the dentist.  Still, I do remember it.  What did I remember?  Why wasn’t I traumatized?

Dinosaurs.  After the exam and perhaps a quick brushing (I didn’t have any cavities and thus was spared the true horror of a whizzing drill), the dentist lead me, my mother in tow, to a small supply room.  There, displayed on a counter at about my eye level, were herding, plastic (actually probably rubber since it was the 60’s), green, red, blue, and yellow dinosaurs.  They were only about one and a half inches tall, but they were mesmerizing.  Then the dentist said a truly magic word.  “Pick one.”  Whatever maniacal experiment this deranged man had performed on me had been worth it, because I had hit the mother lode of prizes, my own dinosaur.  Though I should have been traumatized by such a foreign, terrifying event, I wasn’t.  The principal part of the visit, picking out my personal dinosaur, far overshadowed the otherwise haunting, intrusive nature of having someone stare into your mouth.

I remembered the dinosaurs, and the brilliance of my first dentist, just yesterday in a most unlikely, and yet again, foreign environment.  We followed the dental brigade to the small village of El Cerrón.  Though it is still vacation until February 2, the kids from the village met them at the small schoolhouse.  The school is already enrolled in Shoulder to Shoulder’s school dental program.  Most of them know the importance of brushing and the dangers of gluttonous consumption of sweets and junk food.  They also get fluoride treatments and trips to the dental clinic when they need work.  Even so, here in Honduras where dental disease from poor dental hygiene is an epidemic, the message can’t be repeated often enough.  In any case, the boys all had rings on their fingers; little plastic rings that I assumed were gifts from the dental brigade.  Then I noticed one boy playing with another boy, poking his ring at the other boy’s ring.  I focused to see the two plastic, ring dinosaurs engaged in mortal combat.  I laughed audibly.  Though you may think otherwise, things have not changed that much in forty-five years.  Closer scrutiny made me realize that some of the rings featured dolphins as well, and the girls had stick-on jewelry proudly attached to their bodies.  When it came time for the kids to line up for their exam, when these very tall, very foreign people with bright flashlights wanted to poke around inside their mouths, the children showed no hesitancy, but rather raced to be first in line.

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It really is easy to help others.  It really is easy to communicate healthy habits to others.  It really is easy to reach out across culture divides, to overcome the fear derived by the response to what is foreign by celebrating the joy discovered in what is shared.  We do great things here at Shoulder to Shoulder, miraculous things, tear-jerking heroic things.  Our brigades come down because they want to be part of it, and they are.  They do miraculous things.  We are proud of our and their achievements as we should be.  Still it is sometimes the littlest things we do, the things most people wouldn’t notice or remember, that are the most powerful.  Someone thought enough to bring dinosaurs, dolphins, and stick-on costume jewelry.  Maybe even they didn’t think it would be that important, given all the heroic acts they would be involved in.  But forty-five years from now, one of those kids from the small schoolhouse in El Cerrón might remember the magic of a dinosaur.  Truly miraculous!!

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