Tomorrow, Laura and I will complete one month at Montaña de Luz. It has been a very exciting month. We were asking one another yesterday whether it seemed shorter or longer than a month. I thought that it had gone by quickly because of the many challenges we are facing; learning the language, culture, and our place and role at Montaña de Luz. Laura thought that it had gone by slowly because of the many challenges we are facing; learning the language, culture, and our place and role at Montaña de Luz. I guess the same reality can be internalized emotionally in different ways. In truth, however, parts have gone by quickly, and other parts more slowly. This morning we walked to church as has been our custom. We gave our “saludos” to the “vigilante” (watchman) who opens the gate for us. As we left and started down the mountain toward the town, Laura said that it seemed like yesterday that we had last told the vigilante we were going to church. Perhaps we are starting to feel something of a fit with the rhythm of Honduras and Montaña de Luz.
Some things, however, I think I will continue to see as a mystery. There are kids here everywhere. You can look up the statistics if you want, but Honduras has one of the youngest populations in the world. It seems like for every adult (and most of them appear to be in their 20s and 30s), you must see about 20 kids between the ages of six and sixteen. Admittedly, this government is extremely poor, but you would think that if there was one thing that the government ought to invest in, it would be education. And yet, the pedagogy here is simplistic; rote memorization. Kids have workbooks, published and sold in school supply stores, with pages upon pages of phrases like “El papa ama a la mama.” The child has to copy that phrase hundreds of times into the workbook. Imagine the problems that teachers have with a child that is either exceptionally bright or has ADD, or both. This is one of the reasons, along with that of some prejudice, that some of the kids here have been pulled out of the public schools and Montaña de Luz has hired a private teacher. If that wasn’t bad enough, however, school is constantly being called off. There must have been about eight days off during the month of October. Three were feast days that only a few of the people and none of the kids knew what was being celebrated. Another three days were taken off because Honduras won in soccer the night before. The other days I wasn’t sure why the kids had them off, and no one could tell me. Then teachers don’t show up, or they go on strike because they aren’t getting paid. Laura and I walk with the younger kids to their grammar school every morning. There are six kids that go. Last Friday we only had three, because three had been told by their teacher not to come in – three different grades. We left the three off at the school and we start walking back after they have filed in through the gate. Two come running up to us from behind before we can get too far because their teacher was sick. They have no such things as substitutes and they can’t double up the classes; there are already 41 kids in the same class. So out of six children, one went to school.
Laura and I have a better idea of what our principal role will be here at Montaña de Luz. The older boys, seven of them, have been living in their own house in the small town of Nueva Esperanza. They have only been there for the last six months or so. It has been a difficult transition for them and continues to be. Laura and I will be working closely with them as well as with their “Tias” – aunts, or in this case the women employees who principally are assisting and supporting them. The idea is to try to help them with their transitioning to become more independent and responsible for their lives. One has already turned eighteen, and three more are within a year of that benchmark. It is a very scary reality for them. They are teenagers. They act out. They test. They manipulate. But they are facing unbelievable challenges on a series of different levels. It is humbling. I don’t know what Laura and I will do. I do know that we will do a lot of listening, and hopefully accompany them on their journey.
Things are different here culturally. Process is more important than results. I don’t know, sometimes I think that’s because they really have no sure way of arriving at the desired result so they become much more involved with the emotional journey. Most Americans are not like this. Tuesday night before going to bed, I got bit on the neck by a centipede. There are simply called “gusanos” (worms) here, with the more formal title of “cienpies” used less frequently. They are roughly the same as the ones we have in the States, but there are a lot more here. After I got bit in the neck, the gringa executive director, who would be returning the following day to the States, gave me some antibiotic cream. This worked great for about three hours until I woke up with excruciating pain. I thought I was going to die, but I took some aspirin and was able to get back to sleep. The following day it still hurt, but it subsided. As I told the gringos and the Hondurans about my experience, the responses were completely different, but culturally consistent. The gringos analyzed it, asked me what I did, what remedy worked, etcetera. Their concern seemed sincere, but was expressed analytically, and according to the need to find a remedy. The Hondurans that I told, even a doctor who is well known here, all had the same initial reactions. Their eyes widened and they displayed care and concern in their expression. Not one of them asked me what I did, not even the doctor, but they all said that they knew this was extremely painful. Laura and I may try to analyze things, find the remedies and solutions. Still, the most important thing is probably just to be entirely present to what’s going on, especially when it’s painful. There is a lot of wisdom in knowing that there isn’t always a solution to every problem. Sometimes, feeling it is the only thing that can be done.
Not that Laura and I would necessarily know what a normal week is like, but we are both pretty sure that this past week was not normal. This past Saturday, Montaña de Luz offered an open house. They do this once a year. We invited anyone and everyone that has a relationship to Montaña de Luz to come and celebrate with us. There is a program in the morning and everything wraps up with a lunch. The beauty for the attendees is that everything is free, the atmosphere is festive, and the views from the mountain are spectacular. Montaña de Luz establishes and deepens important networks.
The preparation for the day was extensive and exhaustive. Everything got cleaned and spiffied up. Everything got decorated. The streamers that hung all over the property were not simply bought at a party supply store and then draped. No, the snowflake squares were hand cut from square pieces of tissue paper then physically attached to twine with Elmers glue. There was probably well over 100 yards of this, and Laura and I personally attached about half of the snowflake squares. Laura and I also made the mistake of volunteering for some work duty. We miscalculated that volunteering for the coffee break table would be a light duty job while affording us the opportunity to meet a lot of people. We did meet a lot of people, but it was anything but light duty. We hadn’t realized when we signed up that the coffee break also included a snack of tamales. Of course everyone (all 200 people that came) had to have one, and some came back for a second serving. With each tamale we had to scoop up a special sauce to pour over the top. Of course, the coffee urn did not function properly, the coffee barely streaming from the spigot. It poured so slowly that I had to manually ladle the coffee into the cup. The program started late and ran longer such that people were getting hungry waiting for the program to end and lunch to begin. That’s when they began to return for an additional tamale. We ended up at the coffee table from the beginning of the program at 9:00 AM until we began to serve lunch at around 1:30 PM. Though we were exhausted, the program was wonderful and Laura and I had the opportunity to meet many people; good contacts as we discern the work we will be doing.
Apart from the turmoil of preparation and execution associated with the open house, the Executive Director, the Director of the Mission Programs, and the Director for marketing and public relations are all here. They came for the open house. Still, their presence means a great deal of time spent in meetings for planning future projects and directions. Again, this is quite a bit outside of the normal routine. We seem to talk in the ideal, “the best laid plans,” but the execution of those plans usually meets with a myriad of challenges. Almost two weeks ago we had to go to the state capital and the juvenile courthouse. The state capital is a quaint mountain town with cobblestone streets and few cars. It used to be a mining town, but the mines have all closed. It is extremely poor, but extremely charming. After Montaña de Luz’s business at the juvenile court, Laura and I were introduced to the judge. The judge is apparently a Pentecostal who immediately asked us if we belonged to a local Pentecostal church. He went on to ask us if we were properly catechizing the children of Montaña de Luz as it was his conviction that this was what they needed to have a successful life. So much for the separation of Church and State. We smiled and nodded and pretended not to understand Spanish so well. It felt something like filling up a coffee cup from a spigot that didn’t stream too well. Maybe normal just doesn’t really exist here. But somehow we’ll muddle through.
Today Laura and I complete two full weeks at Montaña de Luz. You might think that things have been difficult what with our dealings with scorpions and tarantulas, but that has not been the case. Whereas there are a lot of new things to which we need to acclimate ourselves, we are both extremely happy. We are meeting incredible people who have been extremely welcoming. We are a bit overwhelmed as we sometimes find ourselves scratching our heads as to why people do things the way they do, but we are doing our best to maintain an attitude of humility. We are the students and our hosts are the teachers.
Still, some things can be incredibly frustrating. Laura, for instance, is dumbfounded as to why this town has no running water. In Montaña de Luz itself we have running water, but in the town below where Laura and I will live in another two weeks, there is no running water. The people get water the best they can, many walking to the river, miles away, with huge containers to push back on wheel barrels. Why is there no water, you ask? The owner of the well had a rather old and defective pump to draw the water into the town’s water system. The town is only about 12 or 13 years old, since Hurricane Mitch. The owner of the well claims that it needs to be replaced and that he hasn’t gotten paid by the municipality for providing water. The bottom line is that the owner wants about $18-20,000 dollars to restore the service. This basically means about 500 lempira (about $25 US dollars) from each family living in the town. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s a lot more than you think. It might mean dinner for a family for a week or maybe more. The families also can’t trust that if they give the money, the owner of the well will keep up with his side of the bargain. So it’s the expense, the lack of trust, and the possibility of corruption that keeps this whole community from getting water. They’ve been without water since April and every day there is yet another promise that the service will be restored. In the meantime, people walk miles upon miles to the river to fill their containers with the brown slime from the river that passes for water. However, I’m pretty sure that Laura will fix the problem if it still exists when we move into town in two weeks.
Last Wednesday we took the van into the little town of Ojo de Agua, about five miles away from us. A little girl, age 9, named Cristal lived in that town with her mother and two older brothers. The girl, her mother, and the two brothers were all familiar to Montaña de Luz. The mother and Cristal are both HIV positive, but her sons are not. A few years back Montaña de Luz was supporting the family by paying for their rent in the town of Nueva Esperanza. The mother and Cristal received emotional and medical support as well through Montaña de Luz. This program was eventually discontinued for a variety of reasons. The mother now has some work that takes her away from her family and pays her very little. She had to move from Nueva Esperanza to Ojo de Agua because she couldn’t afford the rent. The mother is now petitioning Montaña de Luz to take her daughter because she can no longer provide for her daughter’s physical safety in the community, nor can she maintain a sanitary environment conducive to her daughter’s ongoing HIV care. We drove our van as far as we could in the rutted, washed out channel of gravel that substituted for a road. Then we walked another quarter of a mile up a hill among the houses built into the shale rock of the hillside. Although most of the homes looked humble and poor, Cristal’s house was undoubtedly the poorest. The house had three little rooms, without any evidence of a bathroom, a kitchen, or any electricity. Below their home was a brook with very grey water barely streaming down the hill. The assumption was that was where they did their laundry, bathing, and gathered water for drinking, washing, and cooking. Cristal was dressed in a beautiful blue dress, all smiles, knowing exactly why we had come, and on her best behavior to impress us. Cristal spent all her time with Laura and the rest of us talked. The mother pleaded with us to take her child. After a long conversation, the filling out of paperwork, the collecting of documents, everyone, the mother, the brothers, Cristal, and us, drove back to Montaña de Luz. Cristal had her backpack ready; all of her earthly possessions fit into a school-sized backpack! After an hour or two at Montaña de Luz, after the family shared a final meal with Cristal and the children of Montaña de Luz, we drove the family back to Ojo de Agua. Cristal stayed.
We all have mixed feelings about this. Cristal will be safer. Cristal will be healthier. Cristal will have better material supports and her life will be more secure. But is Cristal better off without her mother? Even though her mother and brothers are five miles down the road, she will realistically see very little of them. Cristal’s mother wanted to see Cristal at Montaña de Luz. Cristal herself wanted to come. But what of the emotional burden that will follow Cristal and her mother for the remainder of their lives? Service is not always about doing what is best. It is often only about doing what is possible. And still there are thousands of Cristals for whom even the least will not be possible.
On the thirtieth of September, Laura and I were picked up in Tegucigalpa by the van from Montaña de Luz. David, the hired van driver and a Honduran who had lived in Ohio for three years, Kristen, the in-country director and the only US employee of Montaña de Luz in Honduras, Amanda, a US volunteer who will be here through December, and Dunia, a Honduran volunteer, met us at the Clarion Hotel. Montaña de Luz is preparing for an Open House on October 19th. The staff and the volunteers have been busy delivering invitations to organizations and individuals with connections to the orphanage, such that they were taking advantage of picking us up to hand deliver the invitations. Hand delivery is the only secure means of delivering anything in Honduras. We met a sixty year old motorcyclist who belongs to a motorcycle club at a grocery store as we headed out of Tegucigalpa. He and his motorcycle “gang” have made a number of trips to Montaña de Luz to be with the kids and give them rides on their bikes. They’ve done this at a lot of the orphanages, generally referred to as “hogares,” homes. Whereas Montaña de Luz concerns itself with abandoned or at risk kids who are HIV +, Honduras has a vast number of kids living in institutional settings; abandoned, neglected, or simply labeled as “at risk.” As we made our way out of the rim of the crater which encircles Tegucigalpa and down the mountains, we were about to meet some of the most “at risk” kids in Honduras.
But one of the most promising and inspiring realities of this world is that kids, from whatever culture, speaking whatever language, always express the greatness of our humanity in their capacity for love and trust. They gathered with a banner that read “Welcome Laura and Paul” and “We love you” to greet us upon our arrival in the van. They all tried to speak English, but were relieved to learn that we spoke sufficient Spanish that they didn’t have to. We were exhausted the first day and did little more than acquaint ourselves with our quarters and went to bed. We learned that we will be living on campus here for about a month before moving down to town. Both Laura and I have felt a little insecurity. What will we do? Do they really need us here? What if they don’t really like us, or want us? But the next day the kids gathered around us. We have been reading with them, coloring with them, and learning their names – trying to distinguish one from the other. They have been climbing all over us. Laura and I have enjoyed walking with them to school in the morning, and walking back down into the town with them in the afternoon to see the progress of their bicycles. A local mechanic is fixing them. They have been wonderful; a joy and a privilege to get to know.
We have also been trying to figure out what our work will be. We have been reading and organizing files. They were in something of a neglected state, and we are trying to give them a semblance of order. As you might imagine there are horror stories contained in those files. We will probably be working on meeting families and other agencies of support in the community, developing some plans to return these children safely and securely to the communities. We have already begun laying some of the foundations for this. We will probably also work closely with a new psychologist who was hired six months ago, again developing plans for the adolescents and perhaps figuring out a means of further training for the staff here. There is plenty of work to be done. We won’t be bored.
In one week we’ve been anything but bored. I have personally killed three scorpions. Last night we witnessed a tarantula climb over one of the walls where we are living and disappear into the room where the psychologist has been staying through the weekend. We can’t be sure if it was the same tarantula, but tonight after returning from a trip to visit another hogar, one hung high on the wall in our kitchen. I wasn’t scared or anything like that, but not knowing the protocol, and not wanting to insult anyone by taking away his job, I told the vigilante (watchman) here, and he came and killed it. He was very appreciative that I called upon his skills and talents. Yesterday, I spent the day running to the bathroom, perhaps because I accidently drank some water, but today I seem fine. Our meals have been, well, the word ‘interesting’ comes to mind. Some have been great, but last night’s scrambled eggs with a side of sour cream will probably not win any culinary awards. There aren’t many cars here, and the lack of them must convince the horses and cows that the roads were placed there for them. We have running water at Montaña de Luz, but there is not any in the town. The electricity has gone out only once. There have been a few challenges, but we love it and we’re still smiling. But then again, what else would we do?
We have a video of the release of the macaws, but were unable to post it on the blog. If you would like a copy, please email and we will send it to you.