Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Surreal Countdown and Lots of Good Times

Let me tell you about my day.

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.

Two of the teenagers had come up on horseback. As we set off back down the mountain at about 4:30 I stopped and admired one of them. About a quarter of the way down, they were passing us and the teenager I had talked to got off the horse. "Get on," he said. I have wanted to ride a horse since I got here! He had been riding with another of our younger teenagers, about fifteen. This kid sat behind me and held the reins. He's a tough guy but while we rode the whole way back to the hogar, probably half an hour ride, he was reassuring and talkative, answering all my questions about the horses, even cracking jokes, patient even though I was in his way, even eager to teach me. We went down steep inclines and galloped through flat stretches. We passed the dispersed members of the hogar on the road home, all of them staring at the strange spectacle making lord knows what kinds of jokes. The horse was so beautiful and richly brown, the countryside was so gorgeous. The heat of the afternoon had turned into a breezy evening. I didn't want the ride to end.

By the time we got back to the hogar it was time for dinner. I thanked the teenager who had given up his place on the horse and walked all the way home so that I could ride. I still can't believe he did that, but also I can. That's the kind of person he is. He takes care of the younger ones here, he's very responsible, he has an amazing work ethic. He's just a good kid.

After dinner I had appointments with a few of the kids to check Facebook and e-mail on my computer. One wanted to put new songs on his memory stick. Those are the kinds of computer chores I've done with kids all year. It can be annoying sometimes but I do it because very soon I'll want to be able to keep up with these kids on Facebook and I'll hope that one of the new volunteers will take on the mantle of computer go-fer, 15-minute time limits and all. As I sat on the steps outside the house with a teenager and my laptop, the trees and distant mountains were silhouetted black against a brilliant pink sky threaded with orange clouds. A cool breeze in Honduras is one of the sweetest things I know.

The kids were watching movies. I walked into the comedor to fund a bunch of our girls watching a talent show type of program on our newly acquired cable (we got it just in time for the World Cup). I was so tired I came home early. It had been a busy day.

This Tuesday makes three more weeks. I guess I always knew that just before leaving I would want to stay. Part of me always knew too that it would be because I knew I was leaving. Who knows, if I did have four more months, or six or twelve stretching out in front of me I might feel differently. I might not feel as ambivalent as I do now towards the bucket showers, not as tolerant of the noise and mess of eating meals with 100 children, not as patient with the bugs or the heat or the dirt. Not as forgetful of the painful ache of being away from the ones I love back home, and the one they feel for me. I can almost say with certainty I know I wouldn't, because about a month ago all of those things had exasperated the hell out of me and I was ready to leave. But then there were 8 weeks left. And now there are only three.

And then again I changed jobs (summer camp started three weeks ago and suddenly lesson planning was over!), got a whole lot less stressed, and realized with a start that I have made some amazing relationships here. That I feel comfortable here with the kids in a way I never thought was possible. That I love being around them, the way they make me laugh, the way they impress me with their virtues, the way, some of them, many of them, respect me. It's true. I realized this month - and it almost brought me to tears - I actually have earned their respect. How about that.


So much has happened in this last month and a half! I have a class of second graders I'm responsible for in summer camp, which has been awesome. Yesterday we took a field trip with the whole school to Copan Ruinas, where I started out in language school. It was a blast - the kids talked about it all day today. The kids were up at four in the morning. We left at 6:30 in a yellow school bus that usually works a public route (it was fitted inside with plush tour bus seats) to make the two and a half hour drive. In the morning we visited the Mayan ruins and in the afternoon went to a zoo for tropical birds where the kids got to have giant blue and green and red macaws sit on their arms and shoulders. Then each kid was given 30 lempiras (the equivalent of a dollar fifty) and half an hour in the city to spend it. Oh how that money was well spent. Full of soda, chips, cookies, snow cones, and ice cream we piled onto the bus for the ride home.

This month I organized our third and final service trip for a group of our teenagers to a home in San Pedro Sula for severely disabled kids and adults. I've never written about these trips but I should have. Each time the experience has been too much for me. This trip especially deserved its own post, but I know it won't get done. So I'll just add it on here and make this one too long. About fifty people live in this home run by an order of Honduran sisters. Most are wheelchair-bound and suffer from severe physical disabilities along the lines of cerebral palsy. Many also have mental disabilities and delays. The majority can't speak or move many of their limbs or even their heads. Some are bed-ridden, and walking through the home you encounter people with shriveled stick-like limbs and bloated heads, bodies only a few feet long, that could be teenagers or adults. Their eyes look up at you and you can't be sure whether or not their minds are there. After our first trip I decided to only take our oldest boys since it can be a scary place to visit, even though the people are meticulously cared for. Almost everyone, for example, must be in a diaper. But there is not even the faintest smell of urine in the home. The incredible sisters who run it are small models of the home's name: Buen Samaritano, Good Samaritan.

Each time we have gone we follow a similar structure. We wheel several people onto the home's back patio and almost everyone that can walk also comes and joins us. We end up with a group of 15 to 20 of some of the home's highest functioning residents. We bring bubbles, paints and crayons, bingo, and other activities and hang out with the residents for about two hours. A lot of the boys have spent much of their time just pushing people around the patio in their wheelchairs. Unfortunately there are no pictures from these visits because the home does not allow it.

There are a few residents each time that make a particular impact. Two wheel-chair bound young men with advanced cerebral palsy but sharp minds are always favorites. They are 16 and 17 years old, about the same age as most of the boys on the trip. One has a radio he dials with his thumb. He constantly is listening to music or to the news or to a soccer game and can talk about soccer with expertise. The other has a big, vibrant personality. He fills the patio with his laughter and his loud voice. "You, you!" he'll shout, having forgotten the name of whatever teenager he's been hanging out with. "Draw me another picture!" And then he'll give minute instructions. One time both got into a competition to see who could have more pictures drawn for them. There are big smiles on both of their faces all the time. Their positivity is incredible. They make our visits genuinely fun. Another is a young man who does not speak and does not have any use of his arms or hands. He does literally everything with his feet. He would get our attention and make us understand with a lot of effort that he wanted a book placed on the ground for him. He took a marker between his toes and colored. He could actually lift a bubble wand to his mouth with his toes like a contortionist and blow bubbles. He moved his wheelchair alone with just his legs and feet and could really get some speed.

Two of the youngest teenagers (both 15) I brought on this particular trip did something amazing. The day after I let them know they were on the trip they came to me with the idea of bringing a piñata. I was obviously really excited about their enthusiasm and I didn't want to let them down, but in my head I was thinking there is no way. What would we fill it with? How would the residents, most of whom had no control of their arms or hands, break it? I called the home to run the idea past the head sister. To my surprise she said no problem. Just fill it with plain crackers or cookies. Still feeling a little hesitant myself, I told the boys it was a go. For the next two days the piñata was all either of them talked about. First came the wire frame, made from scraps they had found somewhere. Next they had to hunt down newspaper but they found it and covered the frame with two layers, held together with watered down glue they were able to borrow from the school. Finally they covered their creation with crepe paper, as well as a scrap piece of PVC pipe that they decked out with paper and streamers to be a beater. The final product was meant to be a rubber tire, but one side end up being lopsided so they called it a flat tire. It looked awesome.

When the time came we hung the piñata from the patio's basketball hoop and gathered all the residents in their wheelchairs in a semi-circle. We started by pulling one of the residents who was not wheel-chair bound up to give the piñata a whack. She loved it! Next came a woman with a walker. Residents were signing that they wanted a turn so we wheeled up wheelchair after wheelchair to let people take whacks with the beautiful stick. The piñata was a huge success! It was without a doubt the best part of the trip that day. We decided after a while that it was time to rip open the piñata and pass out the cookies. But as one of the boys was doing so, the man who does everything with his feet busted into the circle. He hadn't had a turn. We pulled the piñata up on its string one last time, and he began to beat at it with his feet! As we watched on laughing and applauding and mostly in shock he ripped open the piñata! It was one of the most unforgettable things I have ever seen. The boys, anywhere from 15 to 20 years old, carefully opened the packages and fed people their cookies. The two boys who had organized the whole thing seemed overwhelmed, but happy. Later they said it was their favorite part of the day.

The last hour of our trip is lunch time and we help the sisters give out food. Most of the residents are spoon-fed. It's one of the hardest parts of the day and I told the boys it was optional. Every one of them did it. As I looked around the room at the boys spooning food, wiping mouths, slowly and careful giving juice, I felt so incredibly proud to know them, so overwhelmed with emotion. Our boys have known what it is to go hungry. They've known what it is to scavenge in the streets for food. They know what it is to be the recipients of charity, to be fed. Here, in a room surrounded by people who could only eat by another's hand, they were the ones doing the nourishing.

After the trips we do a bit of reflection and the boys have a chance to write their thoughts in a notebook. To close this bit, I'd like to share pieces of their reflections:

"For me, it was beautiful to be near people like them. They can't speak, they can't walk, they can't do different things like we can. All of us can run, eat well, wash clothes, anything we want to do. They can't do anything on their own, in everything they need help."

"My experience was incredible. It was fun to be with them. Helping them do what they can't do, that changed my life and my attitudes."

"It was a fun experience, but at the same time very sad to see these people who need the love of other people. Even though they couldn't express themselves in words, they expressed themselves with their hearts."

"I felt happy that I could visit them. My favorite part was the smiles."

"It made me think about how God has given us everything. I believe they don't get angry with him, but even we complain to him a lot."

"This trip was very interesting. Since the trip I've been thinking differently about what has been and happened. That's why it's good to visit these places, to see how things are different."


Also in June, my mom visited! (Hi Mom!) With my younger sister Theresa!! I had given up hope of anyone in my family coming for a visit, and it was sad for me because I knew that meant there wouldn't be anyone in the family I'm coming home to live with that would really get what it's like here. Now there is! Of course, beyond just the realities of a third world country they got to experience, like sweating constantly, feeling dirty all the time, eating strange and not very tasty food (till you get used to it), they got to meet the kids. These kids, who I have so fallen in love with, they got to meet and fall in love with too (literally in Theresa's case, but that's not a story for the internet :]). We also did some traveling, which included its own set of quite unintended adventures involving Honduran public buses. Another story I wish I could tell, but I'm falling asleep.

If you made it all this way you are either my Mom or a very patient reader. Thank you, in all seriousness, for reading this blog, this jumble of feelings that I've been posting to for a year. For you dedicated readers I promise one blog post more, a closer. And then this chapter has closed, but not completely. Nothing really ever ends.

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