Monday, October 24, 2011

Into the Great Wide Open

If it wasn’t shocking enough arriving back home to La Esperanza after 10 days in the States, we took a trip to a small community the week after we got back to do an initial evaluation for a water system which ended up being about as big of a contrast with the U.S. as one could find. We had planned the trip over a month ago at the request of a convent of nuns that is working to get funding for the system. They wanted an evaluation of the water source and for us to take some GPS points to make sure the water would reach all the houses and the school before Nolan would do the actual survey and design. Of course, they also told us that the whole thing needed to be completed (i.e. surveyed, designed and built) by March or the funders would back out, typical last minute Honduran planning. We’ve barely seen systems completed in a few years let alone a few months, but nuns are wishful thinkers I guess.

The bus schedule was such that we planned for a three day trip, one daily bus leaving La Esperanza to get there in the afternoon, a day with the community and the third day taking the one daily bus back. I decided to tag along really just for the “fun” of it and to see if while Nolan was doing the survey later I could do some charlas or trainings on basic health, HIV/AIDS or income generation.

We left Monday at 11 am on a lovely chicken bus in slightly drizzly weather for our 3 hour bus ride to the municipality of Monteverde. Long bus rides are not all that bad to us anymore, and neither are unpaved roads, but the combination of the two can be lethal. An hour in and our butts were aching from the poorly insulated seats and my shoulder was practically purple from knocking into the window every time we went over a bump (which were numerous). There was one point the bus could hardly make it up a slippery slope and we had to retry the ascent after the ayudante (bus assistant) threw some rocks on the roads for traction and we picked up speed from farther back. The scenery was the only redeeming aspect, mile after mile of lush forests interspersed with mud-brick houses and plots of farmland with beans, corn, potatoes and broccoli, followed by the expansive Valle de Azacualpita with grazing cattle, then the upper virgin pine forests with hardly a soul in sight. Then we were there. But where exactly…

The bus had dropped us off, not in the center of town as we requested but farther up so we had to hike back, downhill luckily, into the town. Town is hardly what you would call the center of Monteverde, a handful of buildings (school, pulperia and few houses) haphazardly scattered around a largely out-of-place church with an attached house for the nuns. This was it, we were in the middle of nowhere, where the road ends. To boot, Monteverde was not even the community we would be doing the water evaluation for, that community was a 2 hour walk uphill from Monteverde. More on that later.

We found our nun host and settled into the rather comfy dorm accommodations they had set up for visitors. Seeing as how there was nothing else to do and it was only 2 pm, we took two rocking chairs on our little patio and read and watched the local happenings, some kids playing soccer, other kids trying to climb trees, and a whole host of people just standing around. The nun’s house was pretty much the center of activity for the town and we overheard many interesting conversations.

Action in town

The first was the nun talking with a family of three that had come into town to “run errands.” Only this errand run, if you could call it that, had cost them an 8 hour walk from their home, one direction. They explained how they had left very early in the morning to get there, and now, each toting a box of goods, at 3 pm, they were going to begin their 8 hour journey back home. Hopefully the moon will be good, they said, since we will arrive late. I looked at their feet to find the mother and daughter in nothing more than a pair of Old Navy flip flops. These people’s lifestyle was by far the most rural and challenging that I had witnessed thus far in Honduras. How often did they make this trip? I wondered. How much did their feet hurt? How would the little girl ever go to school? And what was it really like to live 11 hours from the nearest “major” town like La Esperanza where you could buy non-powdered milk or a pair of pants?

Next was a woman who came for something of a confession I supposed, because the nun guided her into a private room, spoke with her for awhile, then she was gone. Two young girls then approached and asked a question, after which the nun returned with tubes of medicine of some sort and advised them how to use it for whatever ailment they had. Then a woman brought purses made out of recycled chip bags that she in turn sold to the nun who said she sold them in the U.S. Then some men brought firewood and squash. Finally a woman brought our dinner. This nun was running a church, pharmacy, artisan store, community center and hotel all in one! But considering as how none of these other things existed in the town, I guess it made a lot of sense. But the real fun had yet to begin…

After a quiet evening and early to bed, we woke up at 5 am to leave by 6 to head out to the community. Luckily, instead of having to walk the first 30 minutes, the nun gave us a ride. But it was all uphill from there, literally. We spent the next two hours hiking almost straight up a mountain, the Hondurans skipping along like mountain goats while I thought multiple times that I might pass out and then roll back down the mountain. I am all for hiking, but this was excessive. Luckily I had a very tolerant husband and group of Hondurans with me who didn’t seem to mind me stopping every 5 minutes for a breather. But at last, we arrived, somewhere. It was a house in the middle of the forest with a view out over layer upon layer of bluish green fog-tinged mountains, a view that someone would probably pay millions for if they knew it existed.

Kitchen of the house

We had a cup of coffee which revitalized me, then headed to the fuente or source of the water for the system. Nolan directed our newly acquired team of community members how to set up a pipe in the stream and measure the flow of the water, counting how long it took to fill a bucket. These people’s willingness to work was unmatched; guys using their hands to chip dirt and rocks from the banks to build a dam, young boys hacking away branches with machetes to make space for us to stand, the president of the water board up to his knees in the chilly water trying to place the pipe securely, and a random dog around for good measure, everyone covered up to their elbows in mud, but all with big smiling faces. It was inspiring.

From the fuente we followed the anticipated path of the water line, stopping at houses that would almost magically pop out of the underbrush to take points with our GPS to get an estimate of the distance and altitude. Unfortunately, we arrived at the school only to find that it was too high for the water to reach it. This provoked a discussion about their options which were basically to not have water reach the school or to find a new fuente that was at a higher altitude, a big decision either way. After visiting a good portion of the houses, we were served lunch, a delicious but over-salted meal of fried egg, rice and blue corn tortillas (my favorite!).

We then began the journey back “down” to Monteverde. Whilst I had thought our whole initial journey had been uphill, apparently a good portion had been downhill because as we began our hike back, we were suddenly faced with another huge mountain to climb. At this point, I had already been hiking for 4 hours and my rubber boots were beginning to create blisters and I had no tolerance for more uphill. But our charming guide, who had so kindly whittled us walking sticks in the morning, didn’t seem to mind my slowness and let me go at my own pace. We came to the top of the hill and looked out one direction over the community that we had just surveyed dispersed among the mountains, then over the other side looked out and could see the church of Monteverde in the distance, our starting and returning point. Both looked so far away, and it hit me what a great trek I had made that day, and I felt proud.

That white building is where we are headed

We arrived in Monteverde just as it started to sprinkle and discovered that the nun was headed down to La Esperanza and would give us a ride. We jumped at the chance since it meant us avoiding the 3 am bus ride back the next day. The ride back was quicker than the bus, but we were mostly too tired to speak or think. After the rural mountains of Monteverde, La Esperanza was practically New York, glistening in all its dusty, commercialized glory. We were happy to take a hot shower and relax with a movie, but the reality of Monteverde and the community had stuck with us. There’s is a place that only a handful of Americans may ever have a chance to visit, that few in the U.S. could even imagine, but nevertheless it is a lifestyle that thousands of people fight to live every day without so much as a complaint, in such extreme conditions that it puts all of our supposed discomforts to shame.

Friday, October 14, 2011

In a word...excessive

Having just returned from our first, last, and only trip back to the U.S. during our service, we realized that we could sum up the U.S. in one word, excessive. Excessive seems like it always has a negative connotation, but in this case, it was both positive and negative. Our life in Honduras is not exactly difficult, but in comparison to the U.S. it certainly is simple and austere in a sense, no frills, no pomp. It’s like the U.S. is an ornate Victorian house and Honduras is the split level home next door (you know, like in the game of LIFE). Both are livable, just one is more luxurious than the other, maybe somewhat unnecessarily so.

What hit us first, almost literally, as we stepped into airport after airport and airplane after airplane on our journey in, was the air conditioning. We brag that we are hardened to the cold in Honduras where in the winter we live in a 45 degree house with no heat or insulation, but even in jeans, jackets and fleeces, we were still freezing to death everywhere we went in the US. The A/C was on full blast, even in Detroit where the temperature outside was colder than the air conditioned interior. Even more shocking was that others didn’t even seem to notice. While we huddled together for warmth, people strolled about in cargo shorts, flip flops and tank tops, seemingly oblivious to the arctic temperatures. We can’t remember the last time something was really air conditioned in Honduras, but in the U.S. everything from the grocery store to the corner deli had A/C. It seemed, well, wasteful. What a huge expense to cool places that didn’t need cooling, just because you could.

The next thing that hit us was the transportation network. The Detroit metro area is not famous for public transit, so of course, someone picked us up at the airport in a luxuriously not-a-pickup car, then drove us to Nicki’s grandma’s house. The scale of the airport, the traffic lanes, the number of cars, was astonishing. Four lanes of highway in each direction, sometimes six, a median as big as four lanes of traffic! The biggest highway in Honduras is just NOW being expanded to two in each direction. Four lanes felt awkwardly large, six felt incomprehensible. What do people do with all this? Street lights were a wonder (every block!). There was just so much concrete and asphalt it was ridiculous. Of course, we have a more urban mindset and this was the suburbs, but it solidified our feeling that we might never be able to live somewhere with so much road and so little of anything else.

At Nicki’s Grandma’s house, another wonder was in store. Refrigerators. Not just refrigerators per se, but refrigerators taller and wider than the both of us, literally overflowing with every condiment known to man, leftovers for weeks, and enough extra food lying around to feed a Honduran family for possibly a month. Poor people in Honduras rarely have refrigerators and certainly do not have the double doored, ice-producing monstrosities we’ve always known in the U.S. Our fridge is only ever half full at best, as we fear a random power outage will destroy anything we buy. Why would anyone need to have so much food on hand? Why would you cook three times what you needed to eat? Just to stick some in the fridge? Mind-boggling. But at the same time refreshing to know that you could open up the fridge for lunch and know there were 10 delicious options awaiting you. For people like us that enjoy food so much, it was a welcome excess.

After being cooped up in cars, planes and houses for a few days, we knew we had to get out and get walking. It was like we were forgetting you could walk outside to go places. Nicki’s grandma lives in Dearborn, an inner ring suburb of Detroit where things in are far, but not that far. A trip to Nicki’s grandma’s favorite deli was only a 20 minute one-way walk, a common jaunt for us in Honduras. But what silently shocked us were the sidewalks. Luxuriously large at 3 feet wide, smooth and crack-less, and complete with handicap ramps, the sidewalks were fitted on every single street. Even the ridiculous eight lane boulevards had them! There was no worry of where the sidewalk might end, or tripping over a crumbling curb, or falling off into the muddy gutter, just pure sidewalk goodness. But guess what? NO ONE WAS USING THEM. We saw maybe two fellow walkers in our entire round trip (and they were walking dogs, another American oddity to us ‘HondureƱos’), and the passersby in cars seemed to stare at us as if to ask why we would dream of walking. All this beautiful space and no one to use it, tragically excessive considering the fact that we would die to have these same sidewalks in Honduras to avoid the slip and slide of mud that is our entire city street system. Could we get some of those imported down here if you’re not using them?

Not only sidewalks shocked us, but the whole landscape in general. Magnificent trees lined every street. Houses were fronted by polished lawns and gardens overflowing with mums and gnomes. Even medians, the wasted space that they are, were trimmed and manicured. We also arrived at the perfect time of year when the air gets crisp and the leaves are beginning to change and fall, the landscape a blend of bright oranges, reds and yellows that is unmistakably Michigan-y. Apples were in season and pumpkins lined every store front. Halloween decorations were in full force (we almost forgot it existed). It was beautiful to be sure, a level of urban design that Honduras has clearly not arrived at. But again, it was a little excessive, but nicely so this time. We realized how much you miss the climate you call home, not just the house and people.

Water and water appliances were another big deal. We more than once pitched the t.p. into the trash instead of the toilet, whoops! Who knew pipes could handle it!? We always seemed to be second guessing ourselves when it came to filling up a glass of water from the tap, brushing our teeth, or using a newly cleaned cooking instrument without drying it first. It just felt wrong. And what a wonder is the washing machine that can cut our laundry time from 2 days to less than 2 hours. In a world of amazing appliances, we put aside for 10 days all the fear, questioning, and caution we’ve come to know in our daily life in Honduras. And it felt…. Relaxing. Almost too good. Almost like we shouldn’t be indulging in these excessive modernities while we knew that so many people go without them, more so than we do even in Honduras.

We indulged in so many things while there, huge sandwiches from Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, a Michigan football game rout over Minnesota, apple cider, caramel apples, pumpkin donuts, grilling, kettle chips, public art, wine, sushi, dining out, good beer, a swanky rental car, 24-hour cable t.v., superstores (that would literally take up ¼ of our town in area), drive thru banking, hot water (in the sink!), and most importantly our friends and family. It was hard to pull ourselves away, but we did so knowing that our life waiting for us back in Honduras would be one of simplicity and ease that we have also come to love.