We pass slowly through the neighborhoods surrounding La Esperanza. The roads are bad, the bumping is already making me sore. The houses are normal and most have regular water access. The roads get increasingly better as we leave town, fewer ruts and potholes. It’s probably because fewer vehicles travel on them and the rain washes off to the sides rather than down the middle. The whole day we only see 5 trucks, including ours, on the road to Las Hortensias. Not even the minibuses run to this area, it’s probably not populated enough, although this leaves the people who do live there rather stranded. The few pickups that we pass have whole beds full of people, up to 15 or 20, plus sacks of potatoes, corn, beans and other staples, so heavy that the bed is starting to sag and looks like it could break off.
We start ascending into the montañas. First is the pine forest. Nothing but big full pine trees in all directions, a forest that surrounds the road. We head up, up, up. Past dirt canchas and a few random houses barely perceptible through the forest. We suddenly hit an elevation where we break out of the pine forest and into something else entirely. Huge, lush, rolling mountains unfold in front of us covered in a patchwork of terraced farm plots of papas, maiz, broccoli and cabbage interlaced with a jungle-like vegetation of vines, ferns, mora bushes, and leafy trees. The montañas are dotted with bursts of color: cream, white and tan brick and adobe houses; black, white and brown cows; pink, green and yellow pañuelos on the heads of the Lenca people working their fields. Thousands upon thousands of acres of pristine land spill out from the road in all directions, as far as you can see. The scale is more massive than I could explain. It reminds me of so many different places I’ve seen in my life, but to compare this to those places would diminish its uniqueness, this is simply Intibucá, Honduras.
We pass plenty of people on the side of the road, running barefoot, driving a yoke of oxen, pushing wheelbarrows, riding horses, walking with machete in hand, and every one of them gives us a good long stare, curious about the gringita in the paila no doubt. A few of the kids wave happily, then smile even bigger when I wave back. We wind our way higher and higher past dozens of small farmsteads, people living in modest homes with no electricity or water.
We know we’ve hit Las Hortensias when we see the calle lined with huge blossoming hortensia bushes bearing blue, white and yellow flowers. They pop out of their green hilly background and tower up to 10 or 15 feet tall in some spots. Hortensias grow naturally in this area, but the Lenca women here have also started to cultivate them, planting them in rows along the property lines and the road. The group we are meeting with sells the flowers for a living, bringing them into La Esperanza a few times a week. The group is having problems though with its members and wants to separate into two groups. That is what we are here to discuss. We spend the whole morning just chatting with the women, walking around their property, drinking coffee, eating tortillas and cuajada (fresh cheese). The view from one woman’s house is so stunning and surreal that I feel like I’m in a screensaver.
The motto of this and every women’s group that I’ve heard from here is always “Siempre estamos trabajando, siempre estamos luchando” (We are always working, always fighting). It sounds so simple, so obvious, I didn’t really read much into it until my visit to Las Hortensias. These women take care of their households 24/7, which here is more than just fixing dinner and doing laundry. It’s growing food, raising animals, grinding corn, making tortillas, taking a day trip to town to buy TP and soap, sweeping constantly, tending to children, sometimes those of relatives, making clothes, gathering fire wood and so much more. Many of them are sick or are taking care of family members who are sick. Kidney disease and diabetes are common. Their husbands or significant others are often not there, some have left for the U.S., some work in town, others are bolos. Yet despite all this, the women want to earn money to have a reasonable standard of living so they cultivate flowers or vegetables or make woven items to sell. They form caja rurales or cooperatives and work together to support each other. These women are strong in a way that is impossible to understand unless you are living their lifestyle, which even we as Peace Corps volunteers are far from experiencing.
Suffice it to say that after a long day up in the montañas we finally headed back into town, loaded up with some hortensia clippings and a bag of freshly picked broccoli as a gift.