Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Apodo Effect

"He's calling me a nickname!" says Victor, his arm fully extended as he points at Joel his classmate. He's looking at me with an intensely hurt expression that's a warning I understand well: "I'm telling the teacher now, but in about a second I'm gonna hit him." I'm glad Victor, a short 12-year-old built of pure muscle, has chosen this more diplomatic option for now, but I know it's basically inevitable that Joel will get hit, go on using nicknames, and go on being called them by Victor (who's just as guilty truth be told).

The word here for nickname is apodo. It's a useful term; kids use it to talk about the nicknames they have here at the hogar or the ones they use for other people. It's also a negative thing, as it was for Victor that day (every day to be honest). "He's calling me a nickname" in this sense of the word really would translate to English as "He's calling me names." But there's a sense of ownership in it, too; he's not just calling me names, he's calling me my name, the one assigned to me, the one that hurts because it's just mine, and it's kind of true.

Nicknames are an incredibly common part of life for the kids here, and for anyone who comes to live here. Everyone, no exceptions, has a nickname, or seven. It's one of the first of the many idiosyncrasies of the kids' lives here an outsider notices. In some cases a nickname has morphed into the person's everyday name. In others, the apodo is a hated kind of insult, but sticks just the same.

Apodos are, very often, hilarious because they are so accurate. I am always impressed when a new nickname emerges (I've been here to see a few) by the kids' perceptiveness, eye for detail, and crushing accuracy. For example there's a 9-year-old here, a short little ball of a boy. He can be sweet, but he's mostly infamous for picking on the other kids and causing trouble. His nickname is Shrek, the character from the Dream Works movie. I would never have had the ingenuity to invent the name, but with his perpetually shaved head and especially the ears that stick out from its sides, there is something unmistakably Shrek-like about him that's hard to forget once you've heard the name and that draws an immediate laugh of recognition. He hates his nickname. The other pequeños, our younger boys, love to get a rise out of him by calling him his apodo. It always works.

As much as the kids might hate them, I can't help but feel like there's also something to them that means belonging. Being given a nickname means you've been taken in as part of the family. One of the first things that happens to a new kid who arrives is the bestowal of a nickname. Give it a few weeks and the boys will find some oddity of appearance or personality and assign it the perfect name. One of the boys I teach arrived to the hogar in December. He was here for less than a month when the kids found it: zombie. Once again, I never would have found such a fitting word for that whatever-it-is about him. But zombie sort of nails it. He loathes the name. "Don't put apodos" is a constant in my school day.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Ups and Downs

Walking back from school today, the cloud of acrid grey smoke followed me. The pit where we burn our trash is all the way on the other side of the school, up a hill, set behind the buildings, but today the wind was not on my side and the cloud had drifted over the three tin-topped buildings of our school to follow me home. There isn't a trash collection infrastructure in Honduras. Everyone burns their own trash. Our school pit has everything in it from scraps of paper, to plastics, to brush and leaves, to (yes it's gross) the papers we toss in the wastebasket after using the toilet (you can't flush paper here, or in most parts of Central/South America). 

Burning trash - the bitter smell of it, the grey smoke - is a common feature of life. We have our own pit behind the volunteer house, and others dot the Amigos property's obscure corners. The smoke drifts over the campus at various points throughout the day. Walking to the nearby village, small fires will be going on the side of the road. While Hondurans keep their own yards and properties meticulously clean and swept, the lack of easy trash disposal means that it's more or less culturally acceptable to throw trash in public places (there are almost never public trashcans to be found anywhere). People commonly leave trash in the road when they walk or throw it out of the windows of cars and buses.

As I continued my walk home from school, gradually the smoke dissipated. I took the back way home, a secluded, tree-draped path through a bit of forest. The path is bounded on one side by a wall of earth, the side of a high hill, and a descent down to a small creek on the other. The walk only takes about 3 minutes, but in that short time I feel like I'm in another place. It's not quiet, but it's not the usual kind of noisy. There are no children to be heard, but the forest hums with insects and strange bird calls and the groaning of the cows in the pasture just past the stream. The trees are covered with tropical oxygen-feeding plants and moss. Today as I walked a new scent filled my nose, a beautiful, intense scent I've only ever experienced here. As I looked down the hill I saw that the usual tangle of green foliage had exploded in tiny white flowers: coffee plants. In the space of a day the flowers had opened, pouring out their sweet perfume. I stood their drinking it in, thinking how beautiful this country is.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Trying to Take a Picture with Jose - A Photo Essay

On a lighter note, this also happened on family day...



Family Visit Day

Hi friends and family! Needless to say my resolution to post more often has fallen through. But better late than never!

A few weekends ago was family visit day. Like so many aspects of life at the hogar it was a day of both happiness and heartbreak. Many of the kids here have family members that are able to come visit them - aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, grandparents, sometimes even a parent - for various reasons. Many have none of these.

Amigos did a great job of finding visitors for the kids without family members. Several of our youngest kids were visited by the nuns who had cared for them in another home. Volunteers who had been regular visitors at the state-run children home were invited to visit our kids who had lived there. Teachers from other schools where some of our children had previously attended were invited. The teachers from our school came to be part of the festivities; neighbors from the nearby town, former madrinas, all were there to be the family a lot of kids don't have.

Everyone congregated for the day up at the school, with its picnic tables and open green lawn. There weren't planned activities so that the children and their family members could have time to just visit. There was a little store where visitors could buy soda, food, and snacks and the children without visitors were given an "allowance" to spend there. Lunch was brought up to the school and in the afternoon there were piñatas. With all the people milling around, all the children playing and all the food and snacks, the whole day had a festival feel, like a summer barbecue.

One little boy had sat with me crying on New Year's Eve because he missed his grandmother. I got to meet her, a sweet and worn old woman. He sat close beside her all day, doing most of the talking. When I went up to meet her he said, "do you want to see a picture of me when I was a baby?" And he took out of his grandmother's purse a worn picture of the two of them when he was probably three. Tucked behind it was a postcard, one of those "Your donation makes a difference in the life of a child" cards, written in English, with empty fields for name, address, donation amount, and a tragic-looking picture of him probably around age 5. Holding it in my hands I was struck by the bizarreness of it all. Now, at age 11, the usually silly, frenetic boy, while standing at his grandmother's side, was glowing with a mature kind of happiness I had never seen in him before.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Kisses Goodnight

Hello friends and family!

Sorry it's been such a long time. I was shocked to see that my last post was about two months ago. It certainly doesn't feel that, but time here flies faster than I've ever known it to fly. Especially these last eight weeks.

They were probably some of the toughest I've had here in Honduras. During the first four, we were in the midst of the Christmas, New Year's, and Epiphany festivities. The kids were still off from school and I was feeling weird. Without my days filled with teaching, I had too much time to think about home and to over-think my relationships with the kids. I began to compare myself to other volunteers, entered the deathly spiral of believing everyone else was more liked, needed, loved than me. It was a deeply selfish time, but it taught me a lot about myself. Everyone says how much this year teaches them about themselves; now I think I see why. It's an incredibly humbling thing, self-discovery. But so very valuable.

The weeks were'nt all bad at all. They were typical of all the other weeks I've spent here in the way they were shaped as the cliché emotional roller-coaster, only the dips were lower than they had been in the past. But the peaks were still amazing. During our time off from school we volunteers were assigned shifts to work as madrinas and padrinos, the children's full-time caregivers. The staff shrinks during the holidays because half of the padrinos get to spend Christmas at home and the other half gets New Year's. Being a padrino is a hard job. As the kids' full time caregivers, they are on duty constantly, keeping track of where all the kids are and getting them to do their chores, not break the rules, and participate in the activities. They wake them up in the morning and get them into bed at night and spend the whole day with them in between. And when there's no school, they get very little time off. As hard as teaching is, I wouldn't trade jobs.

One of the things I discovered as a madrina was the joy and heartbreak of saying goodnight to the kids. On Christmas Eve I was assigned to the younger boys' dorm. I moved from bunk to bunk doing tuck-ins and kisses goodnight. At some point it struck me that if I wasn't the one doing it, no one would. It also struck me, with a great deal of force, that I wouldn't be the one doing it next year. One of the toughest things to come to terms with here is that as a volunteer I'm just another impermanent, transitory person in the kids' lives. 

The boys, aged anywhere from 7 to 13, are at their best when they're being tucked in goodnight.  Those normally with a chilly teenager attitude were smiling young kids again. Kids who loved to be disrespectful were cute and smiley. Boys too cool to spend too much time talking didn't want me to leave.There is something so intimate about sitting on the edge of a child's bed and talking to them as they lie there on the verge of sleep. I loved the kids so much at those moments, and I hurt for them so much too. "Tomorrow is Christmas!" I whispered and they would break out in big smiles. The boys who have come since I've been here and who would be spending their first Christmas at Amigos were especially fun to talk to. They were full of questions. "Will there be presents?" "There will be new clothes! Presents on the Epiphany." "And a fiesta?" "We'll dance till midnight." We whispered conspiratorially as the boys at their most innocent and vulnerable let me be part of the moment with them. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Through the comedor window, the multi-colored lights on the Christmas tree twinkle. There's something about seeing Christmas lights through windows that has always made me feel nostalgic for home. From the outside, you can imagine the warmth within. Garland hangs around the outside of the building and on the slope of the hill is a display of nativity scenes set in a large box draped with lights. Farther up the hill, there is a sign of lights bearing the Amigos crest, a cross in the center of a heart circumscribed in a circle. At the crest of the hill, much farther up, the huge white cross gazes down serenely as always.

Chrsitmas is a beautiful time at Amigos. For the 15 or so new kids that have come to Amigos since I've been here it must be overwhelming. Kids come to Amigos for all different reasons; some were living on the streets because their parents could not afford to support them; some were abused at home; some have parents who have died or been killed. Some come directly from their family's homes, others have been living in other children's homes from an early age. It's hard to know what their Christmases have been like in the past. For the new kids here, the only certainty is that they've never experienced one quite like this.

If I let myself think too much about the holiday I'm afraid of the terrible homesickness that could overcome me, so I've kept it at bay somewhat, not letting myself imagine home. But we'll see how long I hold out. Since coming here I've never felt the absence of home so much, the warmth and comfort of it, the rightness and belonging of it. It's made me think about what home means, what family means, in a totally new way. More than anything else it's made my heart break for the kids. Each one left some sort of home once at some point to come to this new place. Some came with siblings, others with friends from other homes, others were left to face a new home all alone. For the 15 kids I've watched arrive, this is all new. And those are just those children who have arrived since I've been here. I learned a few days ago that since Amigos has been growing so quickly, this year just under 40 children will be experiencing Christmas here for the first time.

These past two nights we've had our first of many posadas. Posada is a tradition celebrated in many parts of Latin America. The way it's done here is  a group of family members or friends comes to the door of a house. There is another group inside and alternating back and forth the two groups sing a traditional song. The people outside represent Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay for the night so that Mary can give birth to Jesus. The people inside are the innkeepers of Bethlehem. At first those inside tell those on the outside to go away; there's no room. But by the end of the song, realizing that the savior is at their doorstep, those on the inside sing for the "holy pilgrims" to enter, and then everyone eats and celebrates together. 

We'll have a posada at Amigos every night now leading up to Christmas, one at each of the major houses and dormitories of the campus. Last night's was at the school and we did it outside, on either side of the gate leading up to the school grounds. All of the school children and the teachers were on the "inside" and the teenaged boys walked across the long soccer field towards us as the pilgrims. In the darkness, their candles shed a beautiful glow, and on our side colored lanterns illuminated our song lyrics. The teenagers sang at the top of their voices. I was holding one of our little chiquitos who stared wide-eyed at the flame for all eight verses. Tonight's was held at the chiquitos' dormitory. We volunteers and several of the older boys were on the inside to boost the singing while the whole rest of the hogar came to the door. On both nights after the ritual, there was food and laughing. On both nights I watched the older boys scoop up the little ones in their arms for the singing and tumble around with them afterwards as everyone hung out eating snacks. And it felt so much like a family, it felt so much like a home, albeit one with more than 100 siblings.

All of these kids came to the door of Amigos once for the first time, a time that had to have been a type of lonely and scary and foreign that I can't even begin  to comprehend; that took a type of courage I don't know if I have. What each one of them has found, God willing, is a warm inner room of home and family, joy and love. It's not the same thing as the mom and dad that every one of these kids deserve, but my prayer for these kids at Christmas is that on nights like tonight it feels like family, it feels truly like home.

Check out Amigos' countdown to Christmas on the Christmas fund facebook page! The pictures are adorable. Many of you reading this have already supported my year of service and Amigos. If you are interested, this is a great time of the year to continue supporting Amigos' mission. At Christmas time all the children get new clothes, their only new clothes for the year, and a toy. Donations to the Christmas fund make their Christmas special. Thank you all so much for all of your support!! Feliz Navidad y hasta pronto.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Reunion

I was riding in the back of one of the pick-up trucks (one of my favorite things about living in Honduras) with the other volunteers returning from our vacation weekend when Levin spotted us. He sprinted up to the side of the car with his giant smile on his face. "My hermanito (little brother) is coming!" he squealed. My heart was bursting. "I know!" I laughed with him, and we collided in a hug as I jumped out of the truck.

Levin is the eight-year-old boy who ran away from the hogar on his very first day (you can read about it here). He was trying to go to the city where he had been living a state-run temporary children's home to get back to his little brother. He agreed to stay at the hogar on the condition that we would bring his brother. The team here had been working on bringing his brother even before Levin arrived at the end of August. Levin had adjusted to living at Amigos and seemed happy, but he never stopped asking about his brother. Now finally, at the beginning of November, he was coming. 

I had gotten the news before we left for our vacation and thank goodness we left. I wasn't allowed to tell Levin, just in case it didn't work out, and I don't think I would have been able to contain my excitement all weekend if we had been here at the hogar. When one of the volunteers told me the news, I surprised myself by instantly beginning to cry. I hadn't realized how much I, like Levin, had been hanging on to the promise of his brother coming to the hogar, how I had been storing up in my heart all the times Levin said something like, "He's very very little, my little brother. Much younger than me; he's 6. When is he coming?"
That Sunday night after dinner, I learned that I had been given the day off from teaching so that I could go into the city with Levin to pick up his brother from the court. I was elated. The next morning we were on the road by 6 a.m. I've never seen Levin sit so erect and still for so long in his life, but for the first half hour of the car ride, he barely budged. Sitting in the middle of the back seat, his eyes were glued out the window as though he could hardly believe we were going, only moving to throw grins back at me over his shoulder every few minutes. Levin is a challenging child in a lot of ways. He doesn't like to listen when he's told to do something, he whines for what he wants when he's not given it, and he throws terrible fits over absolutely nothing, things like not getting his way immediately. He's gotten a reputation among the other boys his age as a cry baby. As I've gotten to know him better over the last three months, it's been hard to see the unpleasant side of him come out, even as he continues to adjust to life here in this safe, stable environment. But I'm still crazy about him. As we drove, I thought about how having his little brother around might help him grow up a little bit. I could see being a good role model as a powerful force in improving his behavior.