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.

On retreat near Lake Yojoa
Lately I've been struck by how supremely frustrated I've become by aspects of life in Honduras, and how overwhelmed by the country's beauty at the same time. I realized I haven't written much about what living here is like and I figured now might be a good time, a time when both my love for this still very foreign country and my discomfort in it have reached a particular peak.

We're in the midst of a water shortage here at Amigos. Every year during the dry season water becomes an issue, but this year has been especially bad for our well. After weeks of super unreliable water, we've gone on a ration system. The water gets turned on three times a day for about 15 minutes each. During that time we do any dishes or cleaning we need to do and fill up all our water containers: our bottles and pitchers for drinking; our pila, the concrete basin where we wash our clothes; the giant tub in our shower we use for bucket showers; the pot we use to flush the toilet. I thought cold showers every night were hard. Cold bucket showers are worse. For awhile it was terrible not to know when you would be able to fill up your dry water bottle, or not knowing if after a long sweaty day the water would be on when you wanted to shower. Although there's a schedule, the short bursts of water are still a little unreliable. But we still even at the worst times have it better than a lot of others in Honduras. I recently stayed with my host mother in Copan again for a weekend. She told us that in early March they lost water for 10 days in a row.

The waterfall Pulhapanzak
At the same time, I've had a lot of moments lately where I've gotten to see the amazing side of this country. The first time I had been stopped in my tracks by the amazing aroma of coffee blossoms was during our second volunteer retreat. We took it near the lake Yojoa, Honduras' only lake. We stayed in a hotel in the middle of a tropical rainforest. One day was completely silent and all of us individually had time to explore nature trails throughout the hotel. The grounds used to be a coffee farm so paths were lined with the waist-high green shrubs, covered in white blossoms. The scent wafted all through the grounds. The forest was lush and green and dotted with incredible tropical flowers. Once I saw a black bird with a long startling turquoise beak.

On the same retreat, we had the chance to hike behind a huge waterfall. A guide took us along slippery rocks and waded through side pools to get close to the great roaring, spraying thing and then took us through the caves that have been formed behind the rushing water. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. At points I was gasping for breath while the spray blinded me and the roar deafened me. At another, just under the main cascade, I was able to look up and see the sun shining behind the water as it poured over the cliff. It's something I'll never forget.

Then again the other day in the library I reached for a book and almost grabbed a spider the size of my hand. There are just little animals everywhere. Little gnats that swarm around a light in the dark, tiny ants that invade our kitchen during the day, scorpions that have been known to hide in our couch or in the bathroom, frogs that live in the clean pila water we use to wash clothes. There's the dogs barking constantly at night. Dogs don't get "fixed" here. People think it's kind of weird. So they're everywhere, roaming around the streets, or the ones with owners, in and out of houses. Our own resident puppies are driving us all insane, peeing on the porch, carrying off our shoes to mutilate them in the corners of the yard, barking and fighting at night.

At the Lake Yojoa
There are cultural things I don't understand either. I'm pretty much proficient in Spanish now, but I still feel I'm not completely "me" in Spanish, like I have a different personality. There's a whole world of innuendos and jokes and cultural references and plays on words and sarcasm that I don't have yet in this language. I can communicate, but I can't be fully myself. Or maybe I never will be, but the equivalent Spanish personality just hasn't emerged yet. There are social norms too in the culture that I haven't fully assimilated. What I'm learning is that no matter how many similarities exist, it takes a lot of work to make another culture really feel like home. There's a level of comfort in your own language, in your own national identity, that's hard to feel elsewhere. How hard to be an immigrant.

Tonight as I stood in prayer circle holding hands with two of the kids looking around at the big ring of faces, it struck me: no matter how much I may love or become exasperated with this country, all I really know (in Spanish you would say conozco, the "I know" you use for knowing a person, another human) is just this tiny corner, a few acres in the north, in the department one local called "the Texas of Honduras" for its cowboys. This hogar and the 110 kids in it I've grown to love will be the realest Honduras to me, the tiny piece of this country I called home for 12 months. This country I really don't know at all with all its poverty and corruption and violence and pain, I will always love because of them.

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