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.

Quachi 013

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.

Quachi 010

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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Christmas Tree, Honduras style

Christmas Tree, Honduras style

I hope everyone’s celebrations of the holidays were joyful and that your new year has started out with great expectations.   Laura and I truly enjoyed being home for a little more than two weeks.  Laura had some quality time to reconnect with her family since we were in Atlanta in September for the wake and funeral of her younger sister.  Nancy is well remembered.  Her spirit was certainly felt as we gathered around family tables at Christmas and the New Year.  Though we only saw them briefly for four days after the New Year, Laura’s children are doing wonderfully.  We travelled to upstate New York on the weekend after Christmas and visited all of my brother’s fast expanding family.  Last year I only had five grand nephews and nieces.  This year I have eight, two beautiful, identical twin sisters, Ava and Sonia, and Justine, their cousin.  Laura’s family has yet to begin the next generation, but Laura’s nephew Chris and his wife Kaitlin proudly passed around an ultra sound image that assures us all that soon a new epoch will begin.    This abundance of life and love that surrounds us in our families is so sacred.

I suppose we all could do better at recognizing what is really important as compared to some of the trivial things that often disproportionately occupy our time.  Laura and I really hit the jackpot with our housing arrangements while in the States.  Through the internet, a service called Airbnb, we rented a room in someone’s home in Springfield for $30 a night.  Good deal in and of itself, but it turns out that the owner decided to leave and stay in Oklahoma City for the whole time we were there.  We had his whole house to ourselves.  We enjoyed all the amenities we usually lack in Honduras.  We relished non-contaminated running water 24/7, full power electricity that didn’t go out, reliable internet, the ability to flush toilet paper down the toilet, and cable.  Even with all of that, I was annoyed that his cable service lacked ESPN and all the sports channels.  I mean, it was the college bowl season.  I tried to laugh at myself as if my complaint was really just sarcasm.  I live in a country where people feel fortunate to eat rice and beans seven days a week, and still I would complain that I can’t see the Rose Bowl?  Silly, right?  But my complaints, seemingly offered tongue in cheek, had a ring of truth in them.  I certainly felt that I had the right to watch sports as an American in America.  So much for my canonization campaign.

In the US there is just so much choice, so many gadgets and toys, aisles of soap detergent and toiletries, and billions of commercials for miracle products that will make your life perfect.  Why shouldn’t I get some of that?  When I’m there, I’m like everyone else.  I want it all.  That’s why I like being here so much.  The choices just aren’t here.  Because they’re not here, I don’t want them.  And because I don’t want them, I’m content.  Hopefully, maybe just a little, I can figure out what is really important when all the noise and distraction is taken away.

Laura and I did not exchange Christmas presents this year.  We managed something of a token gift for our friends and family.  But they were very small; symbolic expressions of our love and gratitude.  I think they were well received.  Many people were very generous with us and we were certainly grateful.  Mostly we enjoyed having some time with everyone with whom we hoped to have time.

"Congratulations, Laura"

“Congratulations, Laura”

Monday was Laura’s birthday.  I published it on Facebook and she received a plethora of Happy Birthdays.  We asked a few friends over on Tuesday night, a simple, humble gathering.  We wanted to keep it very small because, even though our house is ample in space, we only have six chairs and a couch.  The party was scheduled for six pm., but at four-thirty one of the invitees called and asked if she could bring three more of the doctors from the clinic.  Knowing that in Honduras there is always room for more people, we agreed.  We ordered Chinese take-out from the same restaurant that saved our Thanksgiving meal.  He had plenty of fried rice.  He told me he could make fried chicken or a beef dish if I would come back tomorrow.  “But the party’s tonight,” I said.  We settled for pupusas.  That is a typical Honduran dish; a mass of corn meal, infused with cheese, squashed into a pancake, and fried.  Not exactly what I had in mind.  But the ten of us, six in straight back chairs and four squeezed onto the couch that barely sits three, ate well and heartily laughed at our ‘Chinese’ cuisine.  I felt like I had let Laura down because I had no cake.  The previous day in the neighboring town a family learned it was her birthday and surprised us with a cake, “Congratulations, Laura” etched in icing.  All I had was an assortment of Hostess style cakes (imitations of the good ones you are used to in the States) that I purchased at one of the local snack stores.  But we put a candle in the middle of the tray, sang Happy Birthday in Spanish and English, and she blew out the candle.  Though it was hardly a butter cream marvel, we all seemed to enjoy it.

Prof Iris, Laura and Mejia family

Prof Iris, Laura and Mejia family

Everyone was smiling and having a good time.  What more could we want?  All but three guests left.  Those three would be traveling with us on an early morning bus, so we put them up.  One had a bed and a mattress (luxury), one had a mattress on the floor (acceptable), and the third got the 3-4 seater couch (at least it’s a horizontal cushioned surface).  I didn’t turn on any sports because we don’t have cable.  Actually, we don’t even have a television.  Oh well, I don’t think I really missed it that much.





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.