Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Last Post (by Todd)

Well, I'm sorry I haven't posted in a while. I was just so busy getting ready to go, I didn't have time.

But I am now back in the good old U S of A, in the middle of orientation for medical school. It is different to be back. I feel often like I'm living the high life, living extravagantly, with everything I buy, and throw out, and eat. I'm amazed at how soft my clothes are after a machine wash and dry. I keep trying to throw out my toilet paper instead of flushing it. I forget that I can drink the tap water, and go searching for a water bottle when I brush my teeth. And my showers have been lasting upwards of 20 mins, as I relish the limitless hot water.

It was a wonderful year. I learned so much, and it was very, very sad for me to say good bye to all the folks I'd come to know and love in Honduras. It especially tore my heart out to leave the aldea of Los Izotes.

Of course, I wish I could have gotten farther along in some of my projects, but that will have to be for the new group of volunteers. It took a while to figure out what I was doing, but that was the nature of going as one of the first group.

I am very happy with the work I did, all that I learned, and especially the relationships I formed. For now, it's back to my US life. But my year in Honduras will leave an indelible mark.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Cutest Pictures Ever (by Todd)

Whenever we go to Los Izotes, James takes a children's book to read, as part of his ongoing project to read to kids to promote education and literacy. If James can't make it, I'll take the book so the kids won't be disappointed.

Today's book was, "Donde Viven los Monstruos" ("Where the Wild Things Are"). During the story, I had the kids make monster faces and growl and gnash their cute!! Take a look:

Gosh, those little guys are cute!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Things that seemed strange when we first got here, which we have gotten used to, but which may not be obvious to all of you in the US (by Todd)


All over the highways of Honduras you see yellow school buses. Many of them will have writing on the sides along the lines of "Garret Park County Schools," etc., etc. Are these Honduras' extensive school transporation system? Nope. They are public buses, which Honduras buys for cheap from the US. I would estimate that more than half of the public buses are yellow school buses, although they often have some design or name painted on the back.

You would be surprised at the number of people that can fit in these buses. You know those signs they often have in the front, saying "maximum capacity: 50 passengers"? Well, those are a lie. When the seats fill up, you squeeze three onto a two-person seat, or you stand people in the aisle. When it's really full, you can even squeeze two rows of people into the aisle.

The buses roll through at a roughly set schedule. On their front they usually have painted their destination, like "Talanga-Tegucigalpa." There is also a "wingman" kind of guy who rides standing next to the driver. Every time the bus stops, he gets out and shouts the destination of the bus, getting passengers to come on board. His job also includes collecting the fare once the bus is underway and organizing the passengers when it's crowded ("everyone standing move to the back of the bus." or "make two rows!").

When you want to get off the bus, you ask the driver to let you out. There are a few regular stops, but anywhere in between is fair game. If you want to get on the bus somewhere that is not a regular stop, that's fine too. You just wave the bus down.

There are also vendors who will get on the bus for a short time to sell food. They get on at one stop, walk up and down the aisle with a basket full of pizza, or bags of popcorn, or cold sodas. Then they get off the bus, and catch the next one going in the opposite direction.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Field Regrowing Over Ashes (by James)

A verdant green has grown over the blackened wasteland. In a previous post I have talked about the brushfires that have been lit over the past few months in the hills around Talanga, clearing out the undergrowth by burning everything in their path and leaving a blackened waste behind. Last week on the drive to Los Izotes there was post-conflagration blackness on each side of the road as far as the eye could see.

On the drive this week, the scorched earth has been covered over by a lush green meadow, and where there was once an expense of black there is now a light-green field. The Los Izotes area now looks like a well-maintained country club; three inch tall green grass with occasional trees and not a weed or bush in sight. Now I see the logic behind the burning - all of this short grass, with no bushes in the way, will be great grazing land for cattle. The cost, however, is the damage to the ecosystem and the coughing smoke that fills the valley.

Seeing the blackened wastes turned to green reminded me of the Easter season we are in, a time of rebirth and renewal, where we are reminded of how Christ died and rose. The landscape of Talanga could be analogous - burned to ash, it has been renewed into fields of green.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Did you know Paul Simon was a Catholic hymn-writer? (by James)

One thing I love about church in Honduras is the singing. At my home parish in the States, the choir tries their best to get the congregation singing but our hymns are not as great as they could be. In Talanga, everybody sings with enthusiasm, and claps too. Hymns here have a tricky clap rhythm, where one has to double-clap on every eighth beat. There is a national Catholic songbook and many of the faithful here know the music to almost all the hymns in it by heart.

There are a few hymns that stand out, especially 'The Missionary Song' which has become sort of our theme song, with the words 'llevame donde los hombres necesiten tus palabras' (Carry me to where the people need your words)

One hymn that will surely catch a north american visitor by surprise is the Honduran version of the sung 'Our Father', which is sung to none other than the tune of Simon & Garfunkel's 'The Sounds of Silence' Where Paul Simon sings 'and the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made' the congregation here sings 'Un la pan de unidad, Cristo danos tu la paz' (In the bread of unity, Christ give us peace)

The sixties folk repertoire is also present in the hymn 'saber que vendra' (to know He will come) which is sung to the tune of Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' in the Wind.' Most Hondurans first heard these songs in their hymn versions, and are unaware that the tunes are derived from sixties folk hits. The faith community here has taken two pieces of popular culture and made them their own, reworking the lyrics into songs of praise.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Pray for Nelson (by James)

This is a prayer request. Please pray for Nelson, our friend. He has been hospitalized in Tegucigalpa. He has a neurological condition that is damaging his brain cells. so he is losing motor control, especially the ability to hold objects. He has been in the hospital for over a week, and his prognosis is “mid-term.” He is one of the strongest people I have ever met, and he was formerly a professional basketball player. Nelson’s goal is to earn his teaching certificate. Please pray that Nelson’s health improves.

Frightening Hospital (by James)

A waking nightmare. That is the only way I can describe the Hospital Escuela, Tegucigalpa’s public health facility. Last week I went there to visit our friend who has been hospitalized there. The deplorable, unsanitary conditions were shocking, and showed me just how dangerous receiving care in a third-world hospital can be.

I rode the bus into Tegus and took a taxi to the hospital, for visiting hours at 3:30 PM. I had been told to arrive early, and I saw why. There was a queue of at least seventy people lined up to get in to visit. The line stretched along the side strip of Tegucigalpa’s main artery road, with not even a guardrail between the waiting people and the busses and taxis that hurtled by. We stood there for an hour breathing in the black smoke belching from the busses and seeing cars justmiss careening into the line.

Eventually we were let into the hospital one at a time, and had to go through a full frisking. All my pockets were searched, and after passing security I was sent in through the front gate, a blue A-frame that could be mistaken for an IHOP. Ironically, after entering the hospital I realized that I still had my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket – all that waiting and security, and I still walked right through it with a knife in my pocket.

The hospital is a labyrinth of dirty gray-green walls and even dirtier floors. There is barely any signage to find one’s way by, and what signage exists is spray-painted on with a stencil. Lost in the maze, I asked a nurse, who was a Garifuna woman (the Afro-Caribbean culture that lives on the north coast) and she kindly gave me directions to the sixth floor. It was a delight to hear Spanish spoken with a Jamaican-like, lilting accent. Her directions led me to the stairwell, though I worried what it must be like to come to the hospital in an emergency, and to be unable to find medical services due to the lack of signage and the labyrinthine hallways.

Our friend’s room was six floors up the stairs. On the third floor, I passed the neurosurgery ward – with the world “neurosurgery” spray-painted in stencil and flaking off. I wondered what it must be like to have one’s brain operated on in a ward with a stenciled sign. On the fifth floor, my way was blocked by a cadaver, simply laying there on a gurney in the doorway, so I found an alternate route. On the way I stopped to use the bathroom, where there was human waste all over the floor. There was also no soap in the bathroom. How can a hospital be sanitary if one can’t even wash one’s hands?

Eventually after asking directions a few more times I found the sixth floor men’s ward. The room was filthy, with mold growing over the room’s mirror. Our friend's family was already there, and we spent time with him together. The side table was covered with trash, including beverages that had been left out for hours in the hot room.

After some time a nurse came in to change the catheters. This scene shocked me to the core. He changed the catheter needles without wearing gloves. Then he took the bloody cotton swab that had been covering the catheter – with his bare hands - and simply placed it on the side table. Not in a biohazard box, or even any kind of container. He just put the bloody cotton ball on the table’s surface next to the open beverages. This was one of those situations where you want to say something, you want to scream what are you doing for goodness sake? But you can’t.

The hospital is in chaos. An atmosphere of dirt and decay is everywhere, from standing on the side of the main road waiting to get in, to bio-hazardous waste simply placed on the table and left there, to a cadaver blocking a main stairway. If a patient does not come into Hospital Escuela with a disease, it appears they are likely to leave with one. Please pray for the patients at the hospital that they receive the care they need despite these conditions and come out safe.

103... (by Todd) the number of flies I killed (with a flyswatter) today at Casa Pasionista. It's a new Passionist Volunteers record for flies killed in one day. Thought you all would like to know.

Well, to give a little background to the killing spree, I'll say this. Much of Casa Pasionista is open to the air - it's got a central atrium/garden (unroofed), which is surrounded by a covered area that has no walls. This covered area connects to the kitchen and living room. So flies can fly around at will. And sometimes, we just get a ton of them. At which point, I go nuts and start the killing.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Hilarious!!! (by Todd)

Last night I was relaxing in the house after a full day in Los Izotes. Since I was a computer science major in college, one of my favorite ways to relax is to program computers. In other words, I was doing a little programming for fun.

At one point, James was reading stories to three little boys who are 5 to 7 years old, and they wandered into the room where I was programming. James, trying to model positive career options, told them that I was programming the computer, and that they could someday learn that if they wanted.

"Can you program computers?" James asked the kids. They all bounced up and down, saying sure - you move the mouse this way to go right, this way to go left. I smiled ruefully at James and said, "I don't think they really understand what computer programming means."

So James explained it to them. "Look," he said (in Spanish), "I can give you instructions." Pointing at one of the boys, he said, "Brinca," which means jump. The boy jumped. Then James pointed at the other two boys. "Brinca. Brinca." They jumped, giggling.

James continued. "'Jump' means brinca in English," he told them. "I can tell you to jump in English." "Jump" he said in English, pointing to them. After a short hesitation, they all figured it out and jumped.

Then James made his point. "Todd can give the computer instructions in a language called Java," he said, "just like I can give you instructions in English." (For those of you who don't know, Java is a computer programming language).

The little boys nodded and seemed to understand. Then one of them turned to me and said, "Tell the computer to jump in Java."

James and I must have lauged for five minutes straight. Hilarious!!!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Rains Have Come (by Todd)

I realize that it's not obvious to all of you back in the States, but we have already past the hottest part of the summer. March, April, and the first half of May were really, really hot - sweltering. That was the thick of summer for the Hondurans.

About a week ago, the rains came. (Here in Honduras, summer is followed by rainy seasons). For the past two weeks, we volunteers have been thanking our lucky stars for the almost daily downpours that cool things off and tame the dust of Talanga streets.

(It was really hot before).

So, basically, now things are cooler, although it is still hot. But I believe the worst is past. Although we do have to contend with mud and numerous drips in our roof. Oh well.

Monday, May 22, 2006

La Hora Nueva (by Todd)

On Sunday, May 7, Honduras jumped ahead an hour, switching to Daylight Savings Time. This is the second attempt to do so ever made by Honduras.

The last attempt, made several years ago, met with overwhelming public opposition, criticism, and strikes, and was revoked.

This year, the hour change brought a good deal of confusion (witness: we had arranged a meeting in Los Izotes to which everyone showed up an hour late). However, as far as I can see, the Hondurans seem to be taking it a little better this time. Still, a lot of the people I know are quite bent out of shape over it. There seem to be several different responses people make:

OPTION #1: Ignore the time change completely. In the aldea of Terrero Colorado, everyone just pretends the time change doesn't exist. "Mel (the president) can keep his hour"

OPTION #2: Accomodate the time change but refer to it by the old time. This is my personal favorite. For example, at a school, the principal announced, "School now starts at 6am instead of 7." Did this mean that school was starting at 6am by the new time? Nope. It meant that school would be starting at 7am new time, but that we would just refer to it by the old time.

Similarly, a friend of ours complained to the girls that she had to leave for school in Tegucigalpa at "4am!!!!" When pressed, however, we discovered that, well, ok, it was 5am with the time change :)

OPTION #3: Complete acceptance. It seems to me that the farther you get from major cities, the less likely this option is. Most of Talanga is now on board, though not without some grumbling :)

The most common reaction, however (at least for the first week or two) has been to maintain BOTH time frames, using the terms hora nueva (new hour) and hora vieja (old hour). If we state both, we can avoid any possible confusion. For example, "We will meet at 7pm hora nueva, 6pm hora vieja."

As for us volunteers, being seasoned gringos already accustomed to bi-yearly obfuscations of the clock, we're taking it in stride. We are laughing quite a bit, though.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Family Systems (by James)

In a previous posting, I talked about the children who have been showing up at our doorstep to listen to stories. I have gotten to know many of the children in the neighborhood by sharing the story of Noah's Ark or Sleeping Beauty with them. But I know almost nothing about their homelife, where they come from, or what they face during the rest of the day. I learned a little bit about that today.

While walking back from bringing the Eucharist to the sick, as Todd and I do Sunday mornings after the 7 0'clock Mass, I ran into Christian, who comes to my house for stories. He showed me to his house, made of blocks and daub with the floor about a foot below ground level, and introduced me to his brothers, children I was acquainted with but previously did not know were his brothers - everyone in Talanga seeming to be related by interwoven family networks.

Upon entering his house, I was introduced to his grandmother, a thin woman in her eighties. The grandmother told me that she is the sole caregiver for Christian and his brothers, since his mother left with a marero 'gang member' and left the very old grandmother to care for a group of 8 to 11 year old boys on her own. This confirmed what I heard earlier about the mother being a drug addict.

This made me worry for the future. What will happen when the grandmother dies, probably sometime when Christian is in his early teens? Who will take care of the boys then? They will be a group of young men on their own with practically no family network, and will become what the government calls 'at-risk youth'. I worry, without family, what they could be involved in, and am scared to think that the smiling children who come for stories could become involved in the maras for lack of family. The hardest part is that there is nothing I can do about the situation, except to keep reading stories and trying to be a positive role model.

At orientation we had a workshop on 'family systems', which at the time seemed a lot of irrelevant sociological theory, but now I see its relevance. When the representative from Catholic Medical Missions came to visit the aldea Los Izotes with us, we talked about burning the fields, which I wrote about in a previous blog. When I asked how to stop the burning, he explained that 'people burn the fields because their father and his father burned the fields, and it will take three generations for a change to be made.' Three generations is a very long time to wait.

A Disclaimer on Politics (by James)

Living in Honduras has been an eye-opening experience. Here I have been saddened by poverty and inspired by how Hondurans transcend it. My consciousness has also been raised as to the possible factors which lead to and perpetuate poverty in Central America.

To that end, on this blog I have expressed my opinions on legislation regarding immigration reform and economic globalization, which I felt is germane to understanding the situation of poverty here. Speaking about justice I felt is in accordance with my duty as a Catholic to proclaim Catholic Social Teaching, the Preferential Option for the Poor, and the Latin American tradition of Liberation Theology. This can involve some rocking the boat. As Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, said, If you feed the poor, you're a saint....If you ask why they're poor, you're a Communist."

Some blog readers have commented on my opinions on these issues, and I thank them for their thoughts and input. In writing about specific pieces of legislation and certain politicians, I may have given the mistaken impression that the Passionist Volunteers International as an organization takes a political stance on these issues. To be clear, PVI is a *service* organization and does not have a political platform or take a position on legislation. To clarify this, I have removed my blog postings on politics from this forum and reposted them on my personal blog.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Slight Change to the Blog (by Todd)

I've made it so that the main page only shows the first part of each post. Click "SEE THE WHOLE POST" to read the rest.

I figured this would make it easier for people to skim posts and find the ones they want. If it seriously bugs you, please do let me know :)

Just to show you how the text gets cut off early, I'll keep typing a little bit here. La-ti-da-ti-da.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bible Stories (by James)

For the past two weeks, every evening, an eleven-year-old boy from our neighborhood named Christian shows up at our door. He is quiet, with a winning smile. Christian is in third grade (grade levels here have little correlation with age) and cannot read yet. Since he found out that I like to read stories, he has been coming by our house every night to listen to Bible stories.

We bought an illustrated children's Bible in Spanish, which as been a great resource. It summarizes each Bible story in one paragraph with simple language, and an accompanying illustration. Each evening we read three or four stories. Whenever we have completed some passages and I think that Christian would want to leave the next story for tomorrow, he always asks to 'read one more.' We started with Creation, and are already up to Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors after only two weeks!

It is very rewarding to help share my love of reading with a young person, which I hope will encourage him and give him more enthusiasm for learning to read on his own. I also been glad to be able to pass on the important stories of our Christian and Catholic tradition. And it is such a delight, after having heard these stories so many times, to witness a child hearing Adam and Eve or Noah's Ark for the first time!

After each story I ask comprehension questions to help develop higher-level critical thinking skills. As products of the Honduran school system, children such as Christian are able to memorize rote facts - the names and occurances of the story - but have great difficulty thinking critically, since those skills are not part of the memorize-and-repeat educational approach here. Questions like 'what are the names of the man and woman in the garden' are answerable, but questions like 'why do you think this character feels this way?' or 'what do you think will happen next?' present a great deal of difficulty.

One approach to teach reading to children not yet able to decipher the letters is to show them the pictures and ask the child to 'tell you the story' based on what they see. This increases book-and-print-awareness (awareness of what a book is and how it works, which needs to be learned before decoding letters) and predicting and critical thinking skills, and gives Christian pride that he is already 'reading'. This also gives his creativity a chance to express his self. Some of the his interpretations of the story, based on the pictures, have almost nothing to do with what the text says but are wildly creative understandings of the book in their own right. As a plus to this reading, I have been learning a lot about the Old Testament that I did not know before. The text of the Old Testament is so dense in my Bible, so having the summaries and illustrations has shown me passages I would have overlooked before, and made those I know more clear. Did you know there is a scene in the Book of Numbers where a donkey talks? I look forward to reading with Christian again tonight, when Joseph will interpret Pharoah's dreams.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Reading to Children (by James)

'Read me a story!'

Over the past few weeks, an increasing number of children have been showing up at our door asking to hear stories, and this has been one of the more wonderful and rewarding parts of my service here.

Honduras has an adult illiteracy rate of 27.4% according to the UN, and many more are functionally illiterate. Reading to children is not a commonplace part of the culture, and from my observations it seems that reading to children is barely done in the schools either. Education here consists almost entirely of rote memorization of facts and copying passages out of the textbook, regardless of whether the students understand what they are copying or not.

The primary reason that I love to read as an adult is that my parents read to me as a child, and I wanted to share that with the children of Talanga, to expose them to books and the joy of reading where they would not see them otherwise.

So I went to Talanga, bought some children's books, and just started reading. On Mondays, I read a story to every class from 1st through 6th grade in two public schools, and on Tuesdays I read a story to the whole school in the Terrero Colorado aldea school. The kids love the stories! Some of them have never seen a children's book before, and they are captivated by the pictures and the tales. When I finish a story they want to hear another one!

I also read to a group of about twenty children after the children's Mass on Sundays. I want to try to put books, and the message that books are fun, before as many children as possible so that hopefully they will be encouraged to continue reading on their own.

Since the word spread that Jaime the Gringo reads stories, children from our neighborhood have been showing up in the evenings to read bedtime stories. I have been reading from an illustrated children's Bible, and understandable text. We are already up to the Tower of Babel!

One difficulty I face is finding books that reflect and affirm the culture of the children who listen to them. Most of the books I found in Tegucigalpa are Disney movie adaptations. Here I am reading stories about kings and princesses and nobility before poor children. Also, even in Honduras, I have had a lot of trouble finding books whose characters look like the children of Talanga. The edition of 'Sleeping Beauty' I found was in Spanish, but still portrayed 'Beauty' as a blond haired, blue eyed, and skinny woman. I ask myself if the benefit of reading story to kids and sharing a classic is outweighed by portraying an upper-class and Nordic idea of good looks. Because this 'Beauty' looks nothing like the golden-skinned and ebony-haired children who are listening to it, nor does she have the body type of people of Mayan descent. I would really like to find books that look like their audience.

Nonverbal Communication (by James)

Italians and other speakers of Romance languages are famous for speaking as much with their hands as with their words, and speakers of Honduran Spanish are no exception. Learning the language of gestures has been a significant part of learning to communicate here. Here are some particularly Honduran gestures and turns of phrase.

THE LIP POINT: To indicate an object in the distance, one squeezes one's lips together as if to kiss someone, and then turns and twists the lips in the direction of the object being indicated.

THE NEGATIVE FINGER SHAKE: To indicate 'no' or a negative response, rather than shaking their head, hondurans raise their index finger and wag it from side to side. This simply means 'no' - the fruit vendor might give me the Negative Finger Shake to say simply 'we don't have any pineapples in today'. However, this is the same gesture that grandmothers in the United States use when chastising naughty children. So at first, when someone gave me the finger shake, I felt like I was a bad boy being castigated, and felt a little piqued. It takes some getting used to.

THE HONDURAN HANDSHAKE: Among youth, rather than shaking hands, youth will slap their palms together like a horizontal High Five, then form a fist and punch their fingers against the other's fist.

THE CATHOLIC TRINITARIAN HANDSHAKE VARIATION: Especially popular among seminarians, here is the Catholic greeting. First, the hands are grasped pointing down, and both handshakers say 'Father', then the hands are flipped upward and grasped vertically, and both parties say 'Son'. Then both people link their thumbs together and flutter their fingers like a dove, saying 'Holy Spirit.'

THE 'WHAT NEXT' HAND RAISE: To ask 'what next', both arms are raised, elbows down, palm upward. This can be a gesture indicating not understanding, or to ask the next item in a sequence. The shopkeeper might do the hand raise to say 'you want milk and eggs, what do you want next?

THE BLOWN SMOOCHIE: 'Piropos', or catcalls, are an unpleasant fact of life in Honduras. Picture that image from old movies of a group of construction workers in the 50's hooting and commenting as an attractive woman passes by. This happens all the time, for both genders, and is something that just needs to be tolerated. For piropos from men to women, the men typically call out the four or five words of English they know in a taunting voice - 'I love you forever' is a common one. For women harassing men, they wait until the man passes by and squeeze their lips together to make a loud smooching sound.

THE 'ANDA' EXPRESSION: According to a Spanish textbook, the verb 'andar' means to walk, but in Honduran Spanish it is the General All Purpose Omnibus Verb. 'Andar' can be used to express almost any action, and can take the place of many other verbs. 'Andar' can be used to ask if one is carrying something ('Anda money? Anda a tissue?') to be in a space (he anda in his house) to be going out with someone (he anda with her) to be in an emotional state (he anda happy or unhappy) or any other verbal expression.

THE 'BIEN' CONSTRUCTION' - The adjective 'muy', which means 'very much' is almost absent in Honduran Spanish. It is replaced with 'bien', which means 'well'. If someone is very rich, he is 'bien rico', and, somewhat oxymoronically, if someone is very bad he is 'bien malo' (very well bad?) One delightful moment in seeing this turn of phrase was when we did a skit about scripture with the children in the aldea Terrero Colorado. Each week we read a passage and then have the kids dramatize it. This week, it was the story of Adam and Eve. When the child playing God showed his ire at Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, he said 'yo ando bien enojado' - a particularly Honduran way of God expressing himself.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Cave of the Glowing Skulls (by James)

Honduras' history is ancient, with a legacy that stretches back to the Mayan Civilization and even before, to other previous civilizations so far back that almost nothing is known about them. Yesterday we saw one of the traces of one of these ancient societies from so far back in time.

We went to the Cave of the Glowing Skulls, near the city of Catacamas in Olancho. Olancho is the largest departamento (or state) of Honduras' 16 divisions, and the one most comparable to Texas. It is Honduras' 'wild east' as the guidebook says, a land of ranchers and cowboys, with a spectacular landscape that reminds me of Glacier National Park in Montana (sans snow). It is fiercely independent and Olanchanos have much pride in their homeland. I have been out to Muralla national park in eastern Olancho before (see previous blog). This trip took us far out into Olancho's west, a three hour drive from Talanga. Our guide was Fr. Daniel of Talanga, who took us on a day trip.

The cave is a spectacular underground cathedral, with a cool wet interior that was a welcome respite from the heat. We penetrated deep into the underground, past fantastic rock formations that formed over millennia and into great halls that reminded me of the inside of Notre Dame or the Dwarven Halls in Tolkein. The Maya and their antecedents believed that caves were the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld, and so they were used as sites for burial, rather than habitation.

Ten years ago archaeologists found a spectacular find in this cave - a burial area full of skulls and bones that glow! These bones were buried almost three thousand years ago, from a civilization that predated the Classic Maya society by over a millennium. Over the course of time, dripping calcite, through the same geological process that forms stalactites, coated the bones with minerals so that they now sparkle and glow in the light.

The society that built these bones built stone mounds in the area around Catacamas. The bones were excarnated (had their flesh removed), coated with a red ochre, and buried according to social class. I think it is fascinating to find that civilization in the Americas reached far back before the Maya, or even the Olmecs. In the darkness of the cave, I felt a sense of the awe at being in the underworld that the Maya conceived of as Xibalba.

Getting back to Catacamas, we ate one of my favorite Honduran foods, 'tilapia'. It is an entire fish fried and served with red onions. Eating tilapia is a delicate process to pick through all the bones, but is definately 'bien rico' (very good)

An Ethical Dilemma (by James)

Today we faced an ethical dilemma as a group, another illustration of the complexity of our situation, and the fact that so little is black and white and so much is gray in Honduras. As I have spent more time here, I have found my understanding of poverty becoming more complex and deepening. I used to have a pseudo-Marxist style of thinking, that all poor people were poor because they are oppressed by the rich, and if only the oppression were removed poverty would disappear. In some ways, that analysis is correct, but in many situations, poverty is not so starkly defined. Here is the quandary.

We drove from Talanga to the town of Valle de Angeles, a touristy area frequented by many foreigners, drawn, like us, to the handicraft shops that offer discounts for missionaries. When we parked our truck, a man offered to wash it for us, and we politely declined.

A few minutes later, he was washing our car.

We made it politely but firmly clear that we did not want our car washed.

When I came back an hour later, the man had washed the entire car, washed the tires, rinsed out the flatbed, and when I arrived, had lifted up our windshield wipers to clean under them.

My reactions were mixed, and confused. We had made it clear we did not want our car washed. So, in lifting up our windshield wipers, he was invading our space and our property. We were being guilt-tripped into paying for a service we did not ask for. On the other hand, how can you see that someone has cleaned your truck spotless and not pay him? Maybe, considering Honduras' drastic unemployment, this is his only source of income and by not paying him we would be refusing to support a worker. Then again, this all took place outside the town park, where a huge renovation project is underway, and most of the workers were this man's age, so there is employment available. There is no way to completely know the situation. The other side of the coin is that, if we were to pay him, we would be saying it is alright to somewhat extort foreigners and supporting a cycle of exploitation and dependency. As I came upon him cleaning our tires, this was the dilemma that ran through my mind.

The man sat beside our car the entire day as we walked around Valle de Angeles, waiting for us to return to pay him. After a lot of thinking, we came to the conclusion that not only would we be paying him for a service we didn't ask for, we would be paying for a service we specifically asked him not to do. So, with a degree of guilt, we drove off with the man glaring angrily at us.

Was this the right decision? I'm not sure. He did wait and work all day without pay, but he also took advantage of us. This is just an illustration that the dynamics of poverty are more complex than they appear.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Facts of Life and the Honduran Dream (by Todd)

Facts of Life:

According to the Inter-American Development bank, in 2004, money sent back to Honduras from workers outside of the country (primarily immigrants in the US) constituted 15% of Honduras' GDP.
see: (it's in Spanish, though)

This percentage has increased sharply since the devastating Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998. Workers remittances in 2003 were 4 times greater than foreign investment in Honduras.

It is claimed that without this source of income, the Honduran economy would collapse.

Also an interesting article:

The Honduran Dream

In the US, we have the American dream: to work hard and get rich, no matter what background you come from.

Hondurans have a dream too: to sneak into the US, work for several years, make a lot of money, then come back, by a house, and live comfortably in Honduras.

Obviously, I'm generalizing, but so, so many people here want to get to the US. Most of them plan to come back for a few years, although a good number eventually decide to stay. And almost every family has a parent, son or daughter, or cousin in the US or in Spain.

It makes me so sad sometimes to see families split by working in the US. On the other hand, very often people are trying to do the best for their families, given that the Honduran economy and job market are not great. We know one family where the kids have not seen their parents in 7 years (because they are illegally in the States, and can't come back). However, these kids are also better off than most kids here. It's a tough trade-off.

This morning, in the aldea of Los Izotes, James and I spent an hour talking with a 14-year-old about his plans to go to the US illegally. We were asking him questions, sort of joking, because I doubt he'd be able to go anytime soon. But even though it was all joking, I think the responses are telling.

"How will you get there?" "Walking."
"What state will you go to?" "I don't know."
"What work will you do?" "What I find when I get there."
"Where will you live?" "They'll give me a place to stay where I get a job."
"What if you get sick?" "I'll go to a doctor." "How will you pay for it?" "With the money I get from working." "What if you are afraid to go to a doctor because you might be deported?" "I don't know."
And of course: "What if they arrest you and send you home to Honduras?" "I'll go back."

It is very striking, and representative, that this young kid at 14 years has been planning for 2 years to go to the States to work. That is his career goal.

I suppose this all ties in to the Day without Immigrants and all the hubbub about immigration recently. Here's my political two cents (seems sort of obvious to me). All the immigration legislation in the world is just a band-aid that doesn't get to the root of the problem. It's like sticking your fingers into holes in the dam instead of changing the flow of the river. The ultimate solution to immigration is to economically develop the countries sending the immigrants. As long as those countries are poor, people will keep trying to get to a better life.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

¡Levantame! (by James)

¡Levantame¡ means 'pick me up' and I hear it from children in Talanga whenever I walk through the town. Often three or four will come running at once all shouting ¡levantame! and then '¡yo! '¡yo!' for 'me!' asking to be picked up first. I respond by picking up a kid and throwing him into the air, or swinging him around by his arms, and they always want to go again. Often by the time I get back to our house from the market or the internet cafe, I will have had a good upper-body workout from picking up every kid along the way.

This got started during the first weeks I came here, when I wanted to engage with the kids here but what I could say in Spanish was limited. So I played the kind of games my father played with me when I was little, getting picked up and thrown into the air. The kids love it! Quickly word spread through the Talangan four-to-seven-year-old grapevine that Jaime the Gringo will throw you up in the air. Since then, every journey through town is accompanied by throwing kids up in the air. The especially like playing 'basketball player' or 'astronaut walking on the moon' when they 'jump' and I do the rest of the lifting and they jump high into the air.

Since I've gotten to know the kids from playing around, those connections have grown into effective ministry. Many of the children who now come to my story time in the park when I read kids books I met from them coming to me and saying 'throw me up in the air.'

I have not posted much to the blog recently because I've been wrapped up in our work, but I am going to start posting more often, there is so much to tell about.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Christmas in May (by James)

A much-belated Christmas shot of all of us, Fr. Lucian, and Fr. Neil. No tickling, Todd! :-)

Us and Capt. Hook (by James)

This picture is from our trip to El Patio Restaurante in Tegucigalpa. This is a neat place to eat, full of Mayan decor and lit by lightbulbs coming out of cow skulls. Imagine an open-air Hard Rock Cafe with a Maya theme, and that's El Patio. They serve 'pinchos,' which are these giant shish kebabs about two feet long - my favorite are the all-shrimp ones. We had a nice meal there with the internos from the Casa Pasionista, and here is a picture of two of the internos, Saul and Reina, myself, and our friend Captain Hook.

...and to dust ye shall return (by James)

It’s everywhere. It works its way into your lungs and nasal passages, creating coughs and phlegm. It burns your eyes red. It drives people to the medical clinic with respiratory problems.
It’s the dust and air pollution of Talanga.

Talanga is a very dusty town. None of the roads are paved, and all the streets are made of compacted dirt. When it does not rain, as it has not rained for the past few months, the ground becomes bone-dry and with no moisture to hold the dust to the ground, it gets kicked into the air with every passing car. There are so many dust particles in the air that it creates a sooty fog that makes faraway objects blur.

The dust works its way into everything. Every day we sweep and mop our entire house. If we didn’t, it would quickly become buried under the dust and the air would become unbreathable. Each morning, I run a Lysol wipe over our coffee table, and when I pick it up brown dirt covers the wipe. That evening, only eight hours later, I wipe the table again and pick up the same amount of dust.

Wherever you walk in town, you are breathing it in. When I go to blow my nose, the snot comes out brown-black from all the dust that was caught before it went into my lungs, and I wonder how much I breathed in. Just breathing the air here must be equivalent to smoking a few cigarettes a day.

When I spoke to a man from the health clinic and asked him what the most common illnesses in Talanga are, he told me he sees more respiratory problems than any other ailment. This is not just from the dust, but from pollution from the wood mill outside of town. The mill is making people sick, but no one complains because it is such a major employer. The choice is a slow death from lung contamination, or a faster one from unemployment.

More air pollution comes from everyone driving diesel cars, and almost no enforcement of emissions laws. Trucks belching out thick black plumes of acrid smoke are common. Many of the poor cook on wood-burning stoves, which adds to the smoke. Even worse, many of the poor do not have chimneys for their stoves, so the smoke circulates in the house. I am reading a book called "Donde no hay doctor" (Where there is no doctor) which is a medical guide written for campesinos who live in rural areas without access to medical care. The book cites wood-burning stoves without chimneys as one of the main causes of respiratory problems.

The other major polluter is the constant fires that blaze on the hills all over our region. Every night I can see a brushfire burning on one of the hills outside of town, and when we drive by them we see that many of the hills have been burnt to a black waste. We are in the dry season, so it has not rained for months and the brush and forests can go into flames like a tinderbox. But most of the fires are intentional. They are deliberately set.

Some are from farmers burning off their fields. "Milpa" agriculture, practiced by the Maya for millennia, involves slash-and-burn farming with the fields allowed to lie fallow and rejuvenate after burning. When done correctly, this type of farming is sustainable.
But the fires that are set here are often are uncontrolled and chaotic. The popular belief is that burning kills off the pests in a field, or for livestock farmers , the burning leads to grass growth later in the season that can be used for grazing cattle. When a farmer lights his fields on fire, though, there is almost no way to stop the fire except to let it burn out. The fires can spread for acres and burn down any forests, houses, or aldeas in their way. The people who start the fires don’t seem to care. They simply light the fields and let them burn as they will. The people of the aldea Todd and I work in, Terrero Colorado, just had to fight off a massive acre-wide blaze that came within meters of their homes - some person who started a fire and didn’t bother to stop and control it. There seems to be an "I’ll take care of my field and forget the rest of you" mentality. I wonder what the people who start these uncontrolled blazes are thinking. Don’t they realize that the fire is going to keep burning until it runs out of fuel, and often that fuel is people’s homes?

After asking about the deliberate brushfires, I have been told that many of them are not lit with any agricultural purpose in mind. They are lit for the sake of seeing something burn. People who are angry at the world, or bored, light the fires and watch them go, knowing that the lax police force and understaffed firefighters will do nothing to stop them. People seem to vent their aggression and rage by watching the fires burn for kilometers over the hillsides. They are especially common in the shantytowns outside of Tegucigalpa, where the cinderblock houses of the poor are build packed together on impossibly steep cliffs. Driving back from Tegucigalpa, we saw fires burning just meters from homes, with no firefighters or police on the scene - they are simply apathetic. I wonder how many people were burned out of their homes, or died that night, because someone was angry at the world and lit a fire that was unstoppable until it burned itself out.

Needless to say, these fires generate huge amounts of smoke and pollution. In fact, if you go to the Weather Channel website and look up the forecast for Tegucigalpa, they will sometimes predict "smoke" in the weather report! The sad reason for Honduras’ spectacular sunsets is that the sunbeams are touching the dust particles in the air. Sometimes I wake up with my throat full of phlegm and a persistent smoker’s cough, a cough I have not had since I was a child in similarly-polluted Germany.

At times I have thought about the question, if I were to suddenly come into a large sum of money which I could use to develop Talanga, what would I do with it? After seeing the dust, my first choice would be to pave the roads. This would seem a strange priority. Why not spend the money improving the schools, or the medical center?

Paving the roads would dramatically reduce the amount of dust in the air, which would improve the health of the entire community. Recently I visited two other towns of about the same size as Talanga, Cantarranas and Copan Ruinas. Both of these towns had cobblestone streets, and the improvement in air quality was remarkable. The air was breathable. Also, paving the streets would create much more employment. Local jobs are desperately needed; otherwise many young people will risk going to the States "mojado," or illegally, looking for work.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Cardinal Visits (by Todd)

Last Saturday (April 1), Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez came to visit Talanga. For those of you who don't know, a Cardinal is the highest position under the Pope in Catholic Hierarchy, so this is a fairly important guy.

It was a really nice visit. He came and met with the active members of the church (including us). We all went out to lunch, then to look at some land the Talanga parish is thinking of buying. Then we came back for a few more meetings, and a big Mass, which was absolutely packed. (Hondurans really love the Cardinal).

This is the second time we've met the Cardinal, and what struck me most for the second time is that he is such a humble man. For as important as he is (and the Cardinal here in Honduras wields A LOT of influence - a whole ton more than a US Cardinal), he doesn't put on airs. He's not intimidating at all. My favorite moment was when he took about 10 minutes to jam on the keyboard with the choir. Just smiling and bobbing up and down and plucking out notes on the keyboard with some of the young people of Talanga.

I really like Cardinal Rodriguez. He had a wonderful way of making time to listen to all sorts of people and to give them encouraging words. And he's really focused on the needs of the people - education, ways to keep kids out of drugs and gangs. After he left, everyone was really excited to keep on working on projects. He gets an A+ in my book.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Honduran Mafia (by Todd)

They're not really the mafia. That's just my nickname for them. They are actually the "Comite Económico" for the Catholic church. Their job is to undertake fundraising projects and stuff for the church.

The first time I attended one of their meetings, I was met outside the door by four older men. They all talked in husky voices and addressed each other as "Don So-and-so." We had Don Mario, Don Guillermo, Don Guillermo, and Don Daniel. You can see where I got the mafia impression.

Most of their work these days is raising money to build a second Catholic church here in Talanga. Which is a really good idea because it takes an hour or more for some people to walk from the other side of Talanga to the church, and that's a big bar to participation for people who would like to come.

I have been working with them a lot. The Comite Económico is the comittee that is administering the scholarship fund I have started. One of them is a "public health promoter" in the Centro de Salud, and he has been invaluable in helping us set up for building latrines in the aldeas.

They are a great, great crowd. I really like working with them. They are enthusiastic and driven, and really excited about working to help other people. I could not have done the scholarship project without them! I realize all the time how much I don't know about how things are done in Honduras. But they have been so wonderful about managing the scholarships that it has compensated for my ignorances.

I just sort of stumbled across them one night by chance, but lucky me!

Tomorrow we have 4 college students arriving. They are coming for one week to volunteer here. I expect we'll be quite busy putting them to work all next week. They're going to build two pilot project latrines for us in Los Izotes.

Ok, I'm off! Until next time!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Los Izotes (by Todd)

By the way, just so you all know, it's not that I'm stingy about posting pictures. It's just that it takes forever, because the internet is so slow. For example, to post all the pictures for Terrero and Los Izotes has taken me a full 7 days of uploading pictures.

Anyways, here are the pictures from Los Izotes. James and I go there on Fridays. I think Los Izotes is the aldea closer to my heart. The people are just so welcoming (we can't visit a house without being offered food).

It's also farther from Talanga, which means that it is poorer. It takes us about 50 minutes driving to get there. They do not have electricity or running water. There is a bus that runs from Los Izotes to Talanga Fridays through Mondays, so that they can get into town fairly easily.
And they have AMAZING coffee. I don't even like coffee normally, but they grow, roast (in the sun), and grind their own coffee, and it tastes INCREDIBLE!! I doubt even the richest people in America have such good coffee. Not that I'm really an expert.
Ok, here are the pictures:

A view of a small part of Los Izotes. It is so gorgeous in this aldea. Sometimes I wonder if that's what really made me fall in love with it. You can't see the beautiful horizon in this picture, but take my word - it's gorgeous.

Also, that building whose roof you can just make out all the way on the left is the Catholic church, where James and I spend a lot of our time.

I'm really proud of this picture too. It's a shot of some sugarcane, which a lot of people in Los Izotes grow and sell to make some extra money. There's even a "galera" in Los Izotes - a place where the sugarcane is ground up, the juice heated until it turns the consistency of molasses, and then dried into cubes of sugar.

This sugarcane is probably 12 feet tall. The part you see sticking up is just the flower. Beneath it is a stalk like bamboo, which contains all the sweetness. The kids in the aldeas love to peel those stalks and munch on the tissue underneath. I like that too. It's not super super sweet, but its a bit sweet and cool and refreshing. And I feel quite Honduran munching away on it :).

Me with several of the kids in Los Izotes. They're a cute bunch.

Again, several of the Los Izotan kids.

James rides a horse for, I believe, the 3rd or 4th time in his life. They let him ride it in a circle around the house several times this day. James really likes that horse!

James and I run a youth group in the afternoons. Here, the kids are playing an icebreaker called "The Human Knot" (under James' watchful supervision). They all grab hands in a tangle, and try to untangle themselves without letting go of the hands. At first, they were super shy, and it was like pulling teeth to get them to play. But now, after several months, they go right to it.

This is me with my little friend, Cesar. For some reason, he has always been very attached to me (they say he mistakes me for his father). Whatever the reason, he likes playing with me a lot. A few weeks ago, we had a good scare, because poor Cesar got a really bad case of diarrhea, which kills a lot of young children here. They took him to a doctor, though, and fortunately, he pulled through just fine.

Several of the kids from Los Izotes, in front of the church. The people of Los Izotes are really proud of their church. They've worked hard to build it. It's still not done - you can see that the walls are unfinished, as is the floor inside. The big hitch is that they can't afford the materials. The cinder blocks and roof of the church were donated. From time to time, they have fundraisers to raise the money to continue work.

That's all the pictures for now. Until next time!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Terrero Colorado (by Todd)

James and I work in two aldeas: Terrero Colorado and Los Izotes. I've finally gotten around to putting up some pictures for them.

This entry is about "Terrero." It's the closer of the two aldeas to Talanga. James and I spend every Tuesday there. At first, it used to take us half an hour to get there, bouncing over this bumpy, pot-holed, dirt road. Now that we're old hands at the deal, James and I can get there in 15 to 20 mins.

Terrero Colorado is divided into two parts, an upper and lower part. In between, there's a stretch of road with no houses. The lower part has a pretty good water supply, although it is not piped INTO their houses, just to right outside. The upper part has water that goes INTO their houses, into sinks and stuff, but that water supply fails for most of the summer. No one has electricity.

As seems typical of the aldeas, the men typically work during the day, in some sort of agriculture. The women stay around the house doing house work. And the kids go to school or play around.

James' and my typical schedule is like this: In the morning, we go in and play with the kids. Since school started, instead of playing, we've been helping out in the one-room, one-teacher, 50+ kid school. Around lunchtime, we visit a few houses, just to spend time with the people and see them in their homes. Then, in the afternoon, we run an adult's group (the idea being that the adults can help us organize the community), followed by a youth/kid's group.

Ok, enough talk. Here are the pictures.

This is a view from the road through Terrero (in the lower part). You can see how gorgeous the vistas are - I love them. You can also make out three houses. They're spread far apart, which is pretty typical.

Gosh, these guys are cute. They're three of the younger kids we know well: Mauricio, Fernando, and Marcela.

This is me with Margery (left) and Bessy (right), two of the kids we know best from the aldea. Since day one, these two love to hang out with us and play games all morning. At this particular moment, we were singing Christmas Carols, and, unbeknowst to them, I was preparing to tickle them!

This is us with a bunch of the kids from the youth/children's group we run. More than anything, they love to play games. Sharks and Minnows, Red Light Green Light, Marco Polo - all of them are HUGE hits.

I am quite, quite proud of this picture :). I really can't claim credit; it was just dumb luck. Her name is Danisela - she's three years old and just ADORABLE. She's also a bit of a terror to all the animals that live around. She's been known to toss kittens through the air and leave puppies stranded on a stool. But she is cute.

I took the picture when they had just harvested the corn, which they themselves grow. Most of their food they buy with the wages of the men, who typically work with crops for some bigger land owner. But they grow their own beans and corn (for tortillas). For about a month there, every time we'd visit a house, the people would be scraping the corn kernels off the husks.

I love this picture. I like to call it, "James enjoys the company of the children in Terrero Colorado." As they all grab his ears. Heh heh.

And that's Terrero Colorado. This is one of the aldeas where we are sponsoring two girls to go to secondary school.

Until next time!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Halfway There (by James)

´Whoa, we're halfway there
Whoa-oh, livin' on a prayer!
Take my hand, we'll make it I swear
Whoa-oh, livin' on a prayer!'

- Bon Jovi

Three days ago, we completed our six month anniversary in Honduras. I woke up to Lauren playing this song on our stereo. We really are ´halfway there´ and time has flown by quickly. It is hard to believe we boarded the plane in New York six months ago, so much has changed. I am looking forward to the next six, I have seen how far our mission (and my capacity in the Spanish language) has developed since then, and it will be neat to see where they are in the next six months. Livin' on a prayer...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Scholarship Profile - Karen (by Todd)

Story #2:

Karen is 14 years old. She graduated from elementary school at age 12, but couldn’t go to secondary school last year because she got sick, and for financial reasons. This year, she will be going because our scholarship fund has committed to pay for her three years of secondary school.

Karen’s father died 8 years ago. She lives with her single mother, Euphemia, who is still raising 3 of her 8 kids. Euphemia is also raising four grandkids – that’s seven children and one single mother.

Euphemia – the mother – is the midwife for the small town of Los Izotes. She wanted to be a nurse, but was never able to afford the education. Karen wants to be a nurse just like her mom did. Before I told her about the scholarship, Karen had a plan to become one. She would study for two years as a seamstress, which she could do very cheaply. Then she’d work for a while until she raised enough money to pay for secondary school. Then, probably more work to get the money to pay for training as a nurse.

As it is, we’ve saved Karen at least three years and made the possibility of her becoming a nurse much more real. Besides the fact that it is wonderful to enable a child’s education, I am thrilled because little towns like Los Izotes need nurses. It’s an hour walking to the nearest nurse for the people of Los Izotes. A whole day to get to a doctor. They need better health care. And it’s my hope that in accepting Karen, we’ve not only helped her, we’ve helped a whole town that she might some day serve.

Make a Donation to the scholarship fund.

Scholarship Profile - Ana (by Todd)

I'm going to post stories about some of the scholarship winners. Here's the first one.

I was in the aldea of Los Izotes, walking around, and inviting people to apply for the scholarship. I came to a house (withabout half a dozen giggling kids in tow) where there live two girls who we know pretty well from coming to Los Izotes every Friday.

One of the girls is fourteen, the other is twenty. I told them about the scholarship, and then sat down to answer any questions. To my surprise, the 20-year old, Ana, bombarded me with questions. I sat talking to her for 45 minutes! Normally it takes me 5 minutes.

Is there an age limit? How important are grades? What else is it based on? What does it cover? -- I could tell by all her questions that she was very interested.

And then she asked me if she could take the scholarship and go to school in Talanga.

Let me do a little bit of background here. Los Izotes is a small aldea of about 300 people. It is about an hour away driving from Talanga, where we volunteers live. Talanga is a ‘big’ town of 30,000, with four secondary schools. Los Izotes has no secondary school. But there is a nearby, larger aldea, which does. That school is about an hour away from Los Izotes walking. With a bike, which is included in the scholarship, it’s 15 or 20 minutes.

So I was surprised that she would prefer to go to a school in Talanga, which would mean she would have to live with relatives during the week. Going to the nearby school, she could live at home with her family.

So I investigated more. It turns out that girls do not feel safe making the trip to that high school alone. They don’t even feel safe walking with other boys from the town. Ana told me that two girls would have to go together for it to be a safe venture.

As a result, no girls from Los Izotes currently go to secondary school. Three boys do. As I thought about it, I realized people had been talking around the fact all along. One mother earlier that day said she’d send her daughter to school if another girl went.

“Wow,” I thought to myself, “I was in this for social justice, and lo and behold, it intersects with feminism too!” (Maybe I wasn't that eloquent when I was thinking to myself, but you get the idea :).

But that’s not all. I asked her why she had never gone to secondary school, since she’d graduated from elementary school some five or six years earlier. She said that she enrolled in school, but that after a few months, her father pulled her out. “He said he didn’t have the desire to be putting a girl through school anymore.” As it turns out, the same thing happened to her 14-year old sister.

Feminism again. I guess there are two things going on here. First, there are these two girls, at least one of whom clearly has great desire to go to school, and they can’t because of their family structure, and because they’re girls. But giving them a scholarship would enable them to go, even if they didn’t have that support from their father.

And second, there is the fact that one girl alone can’t get to the secondary school. I think it’s a bit of chicken-and-egg: the few girls who want to go to school are all waiting for someone else to commit to going before they commit themselves. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “What if we funded two?” If we could fund two girls, not only would it be getting those two girls to school, it would be opening the door for other girls to go as well.

Secondary school in Honduras is three years long. For those three years, any girl who wants to go to school will know that there are at least two other girls going with whom she could go safely.
As it turns out, we did commit to fund two girls from Los Izotes. And Ana was one of them. And in addition to those two girls, two other girls (for a total of four) will be entering "colegio" this year. I am so excited about that! Although I admit, I was a little surprised to find that in my pursuit of social justice I was doing a little bit of feminism on the side (my sister will be proud :) .

Make a Donation to the scholarship fund.

Honduras Scholarship Fund (by Todd)

In my previous post I alluded to scholarship fund I've set up to help some of the children in the aldeas get to secondary school. Let me tell you a little more about that.

Most of the kids in the aldeas make it through primary school, but virtually none go on to secondary school because the cost is too high. So it seemed a natural idea to try and organize a scholarship fund to help "apoyar" (support) education in the aldeas. And it's not just a matter of paying for one kids to go to high school. My hope has been that the scholarships will also be "icebreakers" - that once the children see several kids going to secondary school, the barrier will be lower for them to want to go as well, even if they don't have a scholarship.

I priced out what it would take to send a kid to secondary school, which is three years in Honduras, with everything they could conceivably need paid for. I came up with a sum of $700, to which I added an extra $100 for unforseen expenses.

So for $800, we can put a kid through all of secondary school. $800 doesn’t seem like a whole lot, especially when compared with, say, tuition for a year at college. But many of these families live on $15 a week. You can see how the cost is prohibitive.

My next step was to organize a group of Talangans to administer the scholarship, for two reasons. (1) I'm leaving in August, and someone needs to make sure the scholarship continues. (2) Talangans know much better than I all the little nuances - where to buy school supplies, what constitutes good performance in school, etc. etc.

As it turns out, the "Comite Economico" (economic committee) from the Catholic church in Talanga was really excited to take on the project. This is the group that organizes fundraising for the church - they just finished with a big raffle of a car. They are perfect, because they know all about managing finances! Plus, there are several teachers in the group.

About four weeks ago, we picked our scholarship winners. We have six (all of them girls, actually) from four different aldeas. The past two weekends I've gone shopping for school supplies with them (in Honduras, the school year has just started), and they were SO EXCITED at buying shoes, clothes, and a bike. it was really gratifying to see the looks on their faces.

On top of that, it's even more fulfilling because I know several of these girls pretty well from my work in their aldeas. So I know their stories, where they're coming from, and what the scholarship means to them. That's really neat. I think that's really a strength of our focus on accompaniment. I'm not only giving aid, but I really know the people I'm helping. In fact, I'll put up some more posts about them so you all can know them too.

At this point, I will put in my fundraising blurb: I am still trying to raise the money to cover the rest of these girls' educations. I've got enough for this year, but I am still working for the next two. Any money that doesn't get used this year will be used next year, for someone else just as needy. So, if you have an inkling, even a small donation will be helpful, since the dollar is so strong.

You can see the post here for how to donate. If you want to earmark your donation specifically for the scholarship fund, please put "Honduras Scholarship Fund" in the comment field. Thank you.

It's a really neat project. I'm always thinking about ways to make sustainable changes. Education is a sustainable change. It’s an opportunity for these kids to learn skills and have a better life beyond just my short stay in Honduras or three years at school.

And let me tell you one more story - this is really, really neat! Last year, there were four students, all boys, enrolled in secondary school from the aldea of Los Izotes. We gave two scholarships in Los Izotes. This year, there are SIX students enrolled in just the first year, four of them are girls. At least one was definitely not going to go until she found out our two scholarship winners were going. So I think we really have helped break the ice there, which is GREAT!!!!

The Aldeas (by Todd)

Here is a little piece I wrote about our work in the aldeas.

“They can’t play,” the kids told me, pointing to two 11-year-old sisters.

“Nonsense,” I said (in Spanish). “Anyone who wants to can play Go Fish with us.”

But I soon realized what they meant. The two sisters didn’t know their numbers. If someone asked, “Do you have any nines?” they would answer yes or no at random. They really couldn’t play, because they’ve never been to school.

We were in the aldea of Terrero Colorado. James and I roll into “Terrero” every Tuesday morning, and into another aldea, Los Izotes, every Friday. It takes us 30 minutes on ugly dirt roads to get to the first, and a full hour to get to the second. The towns are small – about 300 people. They have no electricity. Some houses have running water that comes to a valve outside. The vistas are gorgeous – green mountains swooping up to meet a bright blue sky.

James and I have worked on getting to know people and building community. We typically spend our mornings playing with the kids who swarm around as our truck pulls in. Later on we visit houses – just spending time with people, in the Passionist spirit of accompaniment. In the afternoons we run a youth group and an adult group that helps us plan activities..

We are also working on some projects for the future. The two biggest needs that we see are health care and education. We plan to bring doctors in for free consultations and to offer public health education. We’ve set up a scholarship fund so that some of the kids will go to secondary school.

And we’ve hoping to get school supplies donated from Talanga, so that kids too poor to get to primary school won’t have, for example, uniforms as an obstacle. That way, everyone could play Go Fish.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Honduran Houses (by James)

During my weekly Sunday visits to the sick and going to many community meetings in people’s homes, I have been in many houses in Talanga. Being inside a Honduran casa is quite different than a North American home. In my hometown of Longmeadow, MA, houses were large and set far back from the street. Most people did not know their neighbors. Each house had multiple floors and many rooms. So observing the dwellings that people live in is an interesting cross-cultural observation.

The houses that the poor live in here are not all that different from the houses that the poor lived in during the Maya civilization. They are made of mud brick, whitewashed or painted green. The roof is either tin laminate or red tile. With all the red tiled roofs, looking down on Talanga from the hill outside looks like a view of an Italian Mediterranean city. Since there is no need for insulation, there is a gap between the roof and the wall that air can flow through. Most houses have only two or three rooms at most. Lawn chairs suffice for furniture in many houses. If the family has a television or stereo, it is set on a large metal frame entertainment shelf, sometimes in the shape of a heart. Houses are not built separately but directly adjacent to the next house, making a solid row of homes around the block. Inside the block there is often a large courtyard where cars are stored, gardens are kept, and there are the workshops for cottage industries such as shoemaking.

Hondurans decorate their walls by hanging all manner of pictures, paintings, and icons. When children graduate from school, next to their diploma and class picture is a shot of each child sitting behind an executive-like desk, with telephone and globe, pen in hand, like they are businessmen. Kindergartners also have the executive-desk photo, but their desks have stuffed animals and Mickey Mouse faces instead of phones and globes.

Religious icons, especially the Sacred Heart, are very popular. Many show Christ pulling his cloak apart to show His flaming Heart, others wearing crown and scepter as King of Kings. The remarkable thing about these icons is how feminine Christ looks. His soft eyes look like they are wearing eyeshadow, and were it not for the thin beard, He could pass for a young woman. Perhaps this makes the icon easier on the eyes to contemplate, and I believe that Christ values all gender expressions, but I wonder how the scruffy-tramping-through-Galilee guy Jesus was in person ended up being portrayed in such an effeminate manner. Also popular are images of Mary. The most common is Our Blessed Mother wearing an oversized crown and holding a toddler Jesus, who presents us with Scapulars (devotional items worn around the neck) in His hand. Below, damned souls burn in Hellfire, yearning for Mary.

Family photos are commonly posted, with one thing in common – nobody smiles. Hondurans do not smile for pictures. Flashing a smile for the camera is an American custom. Hondurans simply face the camera as they are. However, when the photos come out it often looks like they are glowering. For weddings, photos of the bride and groom are taken to painter, who paints their faces onto a frame that already has a brides gown and groom’s suit, just the faces missing. He paints in the faces based on the photos. Since the images are not smiling, and the realism of the photo-painting contrasts with the cartoonish dress-and-suit frame, it creates an image that to me is very eerie. But every married couple has one, so it is considered beautiful by the culture.

Those who have children in the military hang their army diplomas. Once I saw a diploma from the School of the Americas (SOA) on an old lady’s wall. The SOA is a school were the US government trains torture and death squads in Lain America, that have murdered many including nuns and priests. But, at the same time, attending the SOA was probably the only way that this woman’s son could get out of their small village and see the larger world, and have opportunity. Nothing is black and white.

“Cute” images are also hung, things like kittens and puppies, with a Bible verse alongside. One really popular one is a chubby naked baby boy with a baseball cap. Everyone has this naked baby on their walls.

One image that is very telling is that many people hang pictures of mansions on their walls. In many houses I have seen large prints of beautiful mansions from Malibu hung up on the wall of a two-room brick house. This is the same fantasy as watching the affairs of the rich on the telenovelas, dreaming vicariously about a life of wealth they cannot have.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Meeting the Queen of Honduras (by James)

Last week I took part in a perennial Honduran tradition - the Suyapa pilgrimage. During this week, innumerable pilgrims come by bus, motorcycle, or even on foot to Tegucigalpa to pray before the patroness of Honduras, Mary, the Virgin of Suyapa. I went by bus with our parish on the 27th, and the Cathedral of Suyapa was already packed, and I have been told that yesterday, Suyapa's feast day on February 3rd, there is a sea of humanity pouring out of the Cathedral into the city. People from as far away as El Salvador and the Bay Islands journey to Suyapa on her feast day. What inspires such devotion?

Our Lady of Suyapa is one of the many titles of Mary, the mother of God. She is known by various titles around the world that highlight one of her attributes or describe her patronage over a certain area. Mexicans have Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Portuguese have Our Lady of Fatima, and the Inuit have Our Lady of the Snows. Suyapa is her title in Honduras, where she reigns as spiritual Queen of the nation.

Suyapa herself is a six centimeter tall doll of Mary. The doll is covered with a gleaming dress streaming out from her and a gold frame with twelve stars. The story goes that 257 years ago two campesinos (fieldworkers), from the aldea of Suyapa were trying to sleep in a field, and couldn't get any rest because something kept digging into their back. One man, thinking it was a rock, took it out and found it to be a tiny statuette of Mary. Believing this to be miraculous, a great devotion grew up around the doll and now she sits enshrined in a large Cathedral on a hill above Tegucigalpa. The cathedral is fantastic, with a massive echo that sounds like the booming voice of God when someone talks, and stained glass windows of triumphant crosses and a lion that look like illustrations from the Chronicles of Narnia.

When I first heard of Suyapa, I have to admit it seemed to me a little comical. All this profound devotion, the building of a Cathedral, and journeying from all over to see a little doll found in a field? I wonder how our devotion to Mary went from praying with a fourteen year old Jewish girl from Nazareth to a six centimeter doll encrusted in gold. But then I realized that the doll itself is not the point. Mary as the mother of the world is universal, and each culture depicts her in a way that they understand and which is relevant to their culture. The pilgrims are not worshipping the doll, but rather reflecting on Mary made understood to the Honduran culture and mindset. She makes herself relevant to each culture in the world.

Outside the Cathedral are a large amount of vendors selling all manner of religious articles and knickknacks. I also got to eat there my favorite Salvadoran pupusas, a filling wrapped in a circle disk of melt-in-your-mouth bread.

Also around Suyapa are a group of beggars, who make their living sitting by the church door and hoping that the Christian charity inspired by seeing the Virgin will move them to give. Three ancient women sit by the smaller church, and outside the main shrine sat another man begging. I went to talk to him, and we chatted for a while. I had burns over the right side of his body, such that his lower arm was fused to his upper arm by the burn. He had an open bleeding sore in a ring around his wrist, because he could not afford skin grafts to cover it. He has been making his living by begging at Suyapa for twenty years. We had a good conversation and he was very open in sharing his life and his suffering with me. So many times we pass by beggars and, in ignoring them, dehumanize them to just another face in a crowd of suffering people. It was good to get to know one begging man as an individual.

Since we came as a parish bus trip, we went to the Mall in Tegus after the cathedral. My friend Maria and I supervised a seven year old named Jose from our church. It was his first time at the Mall, and he was awed and amazed by everything. I imagined what a shock it must be to grow up in Talanga and then see a Mall. (In a pun, 'Mal' also means 'bad' in Spanish) He thought the escalators were the coolest thing, and we spent a long time riding up and down and up and down the escalators with him.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Two Nights in Los Izotes (by James)

Every Friday Todd and I visit Los Izotes, one of the two aldeas, or outlying villages, that we work in. It is set far back from the highway, along a rutted road that winds through forests of thin pines and steep hills. Usually we take the truck in, listening to a musical or a book on tape on the way. This time, however, the truck was in the shop, so we took the bus in. The bus only runs this route on Fridays and Sundays, so if we went in, we would have to stay the weekend. We packed our bags and rode in. We had the wonderful hospitality of Doña Esmeralda, who welcomed us into her home for the two nights. Her house is set high up the hill, along a road we have only attempted once in the pickup because it’s one of the ugliest roads we’ve ever seen. Where there are not craggy rocks or foot deep holes, there is slick mud. From her house is a gorgeous view of blue hills fading into the clouds, and with the mist and pine trees it reminds me of the Pacific Northwest. Here they have the best, richest coffee I have ever tasted. There is some bean that is crushed into the coffee to give it a warm cinnamon taste. They grow and grind their own coffee, and Doña Esmeralda showed me how the beans are dried in a sieve and then ground in a hand-cranked machine. Like during my ride with the cafeteros in Olancho, I was reminded again how much labor goes into making a cup of coffee. She also showed how tortillas are made from scratch, ground corn meal pushed between a press. The first tortillas I tried to make looked like misshaped disks and must have been the weirdest looking tortillas in history, but I will practice on other visits.

Los Izotes has no electricity. So we passed the evening by candlelight, telling jokes and stories and performing skits. This is what people do without television, they get entertainment by spending time together and passing on the spoken word. We saw one skit whose message was not to go to “brujos” (witch doctors) if you are sick. The man playing the brujo waved a plastic bag around his patient to “cure them” and there was laughter. Then I told one of the two children’s stories I have translated into Spanish and figured out how to tell like a storyteller, “The Rich Fool.” The next night, I told “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

The next day was the main event of the weekend, the horsemanship competition! The aldea had organized an equestrian championship to raise money for the church, and we looked forward to being present at this important event of the aldea of which we now feel part of the community. For the game, the men of the town lined up with their horses. Then, rings about an inch wide were hung on a string between two poles. The objective of the game was to gallop toward the poles at full speed and try to spear one of the rings with a twig. The winner received a handkerchief and a kiss. It had been raining all day, and the ground was muddy and slippery, and the spectators took shelter under a tent. The men took their turns charging for the rings. Then someone suggested I enter the competition. Now, I have only been on a horse three times in my life, and two of those were on a pony ride at the town fair. The other was a short riding lesson in Los Izotes the last visit. So, having no horsemanship experience and no idea how to steer or stop a horse, I entered the competition. I think all eyes were on the gringo as I mounted a big gray horse, and considering I failed at my first two attempts to even get in the saddle, this did not look promising. After a five minute riding lesson, which consisted of “pull left to go left,” my horse walked to join the others waiting to charge. Hey, this isn’t so hard, I thought, I can steer this bronco, and I entertained the thought of how cowboy-cool I must look; then I realized just how far the fall is from the top of a horse. The other competitors charged in turn, a few horses slipping and even falling in the mud. Then came my turn. Throwing all caution to the wind, I kicked with my feet (though not so hard because I didn’t want to hurt the horse) and my noble steed took of galloping. I kicked again and the stallion picked up speed to a full charge. The line between the poles loomed closer as the horse bucked under me and I held on to the saddle knob for dear life, thinking I would get clotheslined. As I got closer I drew my twig – and missed the ring. But my horse got past the poles, and I didn’t fall! I was even able to steer the horse back to the starting line for another try! In all I made three attempts, all galloping like Paul Revere on caffeine, and missed the ring each time, but had a lot of fun.

That evening in the church we had a vigilia, a spiritual cultural night with prayer, songs, Bible readings, and dramas. The church was packed as the generator slowly started working and the lights came on. The community began to sing and praise, and watch the skits. Drama is an important part of spiritual life here, and most evenings run by church groups have a least a few plays with a moral or spiritual theme. They are somewhat like the Medieval mystery plays. A typical drama would be a woman burdened by sin, represented by actors dressed as demons hanging signs saying “crime” or “alcoholism” around her neck, and then a white-robed actor portraying Christ takes off the signs and redeems the sinner. So the vigilia continued like this…and continued…and continued, until two in the morning, and then when the congregation was about to enter dreamland, we had the Celebration of the Word. After that we had to walk back to Doña Esmeralda’s house, and with a large overtired congregation and only two flashlights among us, we had to find our way back up the hill along the ugly road I described earlier, in close to total darkness. We made it safe, and had only two hours sleep because we needed to catch the early bus back to Talanga, and spent the next day catching up on sleep from the all-night vigilia.