Saturday, July 19, 2014
I let myself sleep in this morning, skipping Saturday's pancake breakfast. Funny, when I got here it was my favorite breakfast of the week! Real almost-gringo pancakes, and even though there wasn't syrup, my sugar-deprived body quickly learned to like honey. Now the sugary sweetness of an all carb breakfast makes me nauseous and weak the whole morning. Give me a hearty plate of beans and rice, with salty cheese and tortillas, the usual fare the other days of the week.
We do chores on Saturdays. While I was cleaning the bathroom I heard Levin's voice calling from the gate. The kids know they can't come in without permission so high pitched endlessly repeated versions of "Laura!!" "Emma!!" "Emilia!!" "Joanna!!" are a common occurrence, drawing either a groan or a smile from whoever's being summoned depending on the kid. This time for me it was the latter. He had brought me two deep red "moras," a raspberry-like berry that grows nearby. He's done this for the last three mornings now. I told him the first time I really liked them and he hasn't forgotten yet.
My project for the morning was to continue organizing and labeling the new books that came for the library when the annual container shipment arrived about two weeks ago. I grabbed my computer for tunes and set out to round up some willing boys. After about fifteen minutes I had my crew, seven helpers, and we set off for the school. Listening to my by now impressive selection of super cool Spanish music they worked, sticking on different colored labels to storybooks in English, not a single complaint, not one slack worker. They ranged in age from 8 to 15. They didn't have to go, but our kids like helping, simple as that. I never stop being surprised at how willing they are to pitch in. It's something to do, and this is their home, their family. They want to be part of it. Also they got to hang out in the library and read books afterwards, which they love.
After lunch the plan was to take a hike to the phone company tower that sits in the highest mountain near us. We're out in hilly farm country so the hike starts when you exit our gate, turn right, and continue going up on the dirt road that leads to the hogar. And up and up and up! It was 2 in the afternoon, the sun was intense, and I was sweating about three minutes in. Everyone but the youngest children were in on the hike. I walked most of the way with three of the youngest guys. They were troopers! We climbed steep hill after steep hill, and it was oh so very very hot. One guy kept repeating over and over how un-thirsty he was. He would say something suddenly like, "I'm tired," *pause* "but I'm not thirsty," and trudge stoically on. We walked passed pineapple fields blanketing rolling hills and through pine forests interspersed with broad-leafed shiny tropical plants and brilliant orange and red flowers. We reached the peak and the tower at about 3:30 and the view was spectacular. We looked out over miles of flat farmland, the shape of the vast valley we live in suddenly apparent: far in the distance was a wall of blue mountains mirroring the ones we stood upon. The wispy clouds brushed their peaks. "From those mountains you could touch the clouds, huh," one of my little guys said.
Saturday, June 7, 2014
My four original students, all demonstrating pretty accurately
their individual personalities. All photo credits go to the amazing
My thoughts and feelings about leaving are, as always, a mix. The last month was harder than I expected. I had hoped, starting out in May, that the last three months would be easy ones, filled with great parting moments with the kids and finally a sense of deep-rooted security in my place here. The month started with our final retreat as a volunteer community. We went to the beach and spent a long weekend in a beautiful practically-beach-front house donated to us by friends of friends. It had air conditioning, hot running water and cable TV, so basically paradise. I spent my 23rd birthday on May 8 floating in the Caribbean Sea and chowing on spaghetti with meat sauce and red wine. It was a wonderful retreat. We all enjoyed one another's company more than we ever had before and had plenty of down-time to be in it. The retreat consisted mostly of looking back at our time at Amigos. We shared stories, laughed and cried together. And we ate amazing, ultra-gringo food, like bagels and cream cheese and cold-cut sandwiches. (As Amy, our director, observed oh so aptly, Hondurans never eat cold food! Even the milk in breakfast cereal gets heated up).
Over those four days I missed the kids a lot. I wrote down stories of things that had happened and spent a lot of time thinking about the kids who were important to me, the things they had shared with me, their terrible suffering, the ways they had made me laugh so hard, and the intenseness of my love for them.
I came back from retreat ready for the last three months to be one big high culminating in a heart-wrenching goodbye. I still haven't learned that there will always be good and bad, that there has to be. That life here, and everywhere, is always a mix of ups and downs. We aren't, after all, really in paradise yet. The bads make the goods real.
|The boys and I present our science fair experiment, |
"The Amazing Egg," another good moment in May.
The week before I got sick, four new children came to the hogar, a four-year-old boy, two girls aged 8 and 10, and a 10-year-old boy. My main teaching job during the day is working in our transitional classroom, which is theoretically supposed to be just for new kids who come to the hogar, assessing their levels and placing them in appropriate classrooms. The thing is, since our bilingual program can't take new kids after Christmas, kids who might be a fit for one of those classrooms have to stay in transitional. We had gotten three new kids right before Christmas so those three were in my class, plus a fourth with such severe behavioral issues that there was no other place for him. I had had those four boys since starting with the classroom after my vacation in January. It had been tough. Three of the four have learning disabilities, all are at different academic levels, and all have behavior problems. But the four had gelled. I had English goals for them and was working through a science curriculum. In math I worked with just the most advanced two and it was enough because even with two the levels were completely different. Even though behavior was a constant battle, I felt like I had finally begun to get a handle on it and had a system that they at least understood, if they didn't always respect it.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
The heat has been oppressive the last few days. It's like a blanket, as my fellow volunteer Emma described it. A big heavy blanket that clings to your skin, weighs down on you head, makes it hard to breath. You start sweating as early as 7 a.m. and lie in bed at night without sheets to the sound of the fan pushing warm air around. The water in the big bucket in our shower feels warm after a day of sitting in the super heated air.
The only thing that brings relief is the rain. It's rained about four times now since the start of the dry season in late February. The heat and heavy humidity are worst just before the rain. This week the pressure built and built unable to find release. In school I felt sapped of energy and just as cranky as the kids. The fans are too loud to have on during class so we bake under the tin roofs of the classrooms, continually wiping the sweat off our faces.
Finally last night we began to see the tell-tale signs of coming rain. The general haziness of the sky had collected itself into a broad grey sheet. The wind picked up and began to set the papaya tree in front of the comedor waving. The kids stood in their lines in front of the comedor for prayer, but were allowed to run off quickly before eating to move their laundry indoors from the laundry lines. Almost all of the young boys and teenagers broke from their lines, whooping and running towards their dorms, caught in the exuberance of the promise of rain and the break of routine. They ran towards and past me as I watched behind the roof of the comedor the wind pick up a cascade of dry leaves and heave them into the air in front of an ever-darkening, billowing sky.
As we finished dinner, the drops started on the roof. Rain here is always loud, filling the rooms with its echo on the metal roofs. The prayer was scarcely audible over the din. When it was over, the kids poured outside, the teenagers standing coolly watching the rain from under the overhanging roof, the little ones screaming and running out into the water. Before long a soccer game had begun, of course, the littlest ones running around the older ones' feet and darting back again under the cover of the roof.
Two of the teenagers leaned jauntily against one of the dorms as the rain fell, watching the general hilarity in the yard in front of the comedor, the pequeños especially relishing the mud, rolling around on the ground, soaking themselves to the skin. "It's as if they've never seen rain before," one remarked disdainfully to the other.
I sat watching the rain come down, loving the feel of the cool wind and the cold rain that blew onto my face. Little Levin, my Levin, came and sat down beside me. "Let's tell stories," he suggested. So we did. He went first, a story about a group of good lions unjustly killed, but in the end somehow they had all come back to life again. He knows I like happy endings. I told one I recycled from a book I had read in the library. In front and around us, the yelling and playing of the other kids made the air noisy. Nearby on the porch where we were sitting were groups of jovenes, teenagers, laughing and talking. But I felt like it was just the two of us, sitting there, enjoying the coolness of the air, the smell of the rain, the freshness of the water and the rapt attention of each other.
I don't often realize how much moments like these mean to me until later when I can't stop thinking about them. There is such richness to my life here. Part of that richness is the sadness of knowing how soon my time will come to an end. C.S. Lewis defined joy as inseparable from a kind of sadness. Joy is all at once a great happiness mixed with the great sorrow of knowing it cannot be grasped or held in place, that it cannot be totally fulfilled here and now. It has a necessary element of loss and longing.
When I say these moments are full of joy for me, I mean it in that sense. The beautiful moments I sometimes share with the kids - of their vulnerability, of my learning to love them, of mutual trust - fill me with joy, a joy that always implies the sadness of the brokenness of their pasts, of their families, of the country they will grow up in and one day need to survive in on their own; the more selfish sadness of my own impermanence.
But joy is joy. Like rain that falls like tears bringing release and relief.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
"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
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
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.