Sunday, June 12, 2011

Vacation #2

The past week we had our second of three week-long vacations.  Originally, I was unsure about how I felt about going on vacation, because I had just returned here and was just starting to get back into the swing of things, and it seemed too soon to break the rhythm again.  However, the week ended up being a nice way to see more of Honduras and to balance out work and everything else that was stressful with some relaxing activities and sojourns.
We started the week traveling to San Pedro Sula with the sisters, and from there catching a bus to La Ceiba.  On that bus I sat next to a guy from Cleveland who had quit his career a few months ago to start traveling in Central America and had some interesting conversations with him about everything from healthcare to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Of course, we didn’t quite agree on everything, but it was just nice to have an intelligent conversation about something outside of school.  I have definitely enjoyed my time separated from the US and the problems/issues that consume our news and politics, but at some point it’s nice to be plugged into what’s going on, at least for a little bit.
In La Ceiba we took a taxi to Andrea’s house, a friend of MaryAnne Capelleri, who works at Stonehill.  MaryAnne was one of the people who interviewed me for this program last July, and one of the leaders of the HOPE group in March.  While she was here, she gave us Andrea’s contact information, who helps run an orphanage in Trujillo called “Finca del Niño.”  Before the vacation, we got in touch with Andrea to see if we could travel out there and check out the orphanage, which actually ended up working out really well for us.  We stayed at Andrea’s house Friday night and enjoyed her amazing hospitality, then on Saturday caught another bus to Trujillo, where we took a taxi out to the orphanage.  We stayed at the orphanage until Monday morning, and while we were there, we got to see a very different perspective on service.
The orphanage itself has about 35 kids and 19 volunteers on site.  There are also Honduran families who are hired to live in the houses of the children (separated by gender and age) to act as mothers/fathers/aunts for the kids and provide a stable family-style environment.  They also have a school at the orphanage, which is not only for the resident children, but also for the children of their neighbors.  
The set-up of the orphanage was interesting, because it seemed to try to do its best to provide a real-life environment to these children who have never had a stable, real-life environment to live in.  However, it also gave me a weird vibe because it most definitely was not real life.  I suppose it’s impossible to have an orphanage that functions in real life, and they’re doing the best they can.  However, while we were there, it seemed to be more like a summer camp than anything.  The orphanage is right on the beach, and the volunteer house (we didn’t really see inside the orphans’ homes, other than the initial kitchen area) seemed like a bunkhouse you would find at a Boy Scout camp.  The community of volunteers also seemed to be somewhat disconnected.  They have no real connection with the community outside of the orphanage, so everything was much more Westernized.  When you bring kids in to a community run almost exclusively by gringos who have very little contact with Honduran culture, the only culture the children are going to grow up with is that of the volunteers.
Besides the atmosphere at the orphanage, the thing that bugged me the most was that, although they commit for two years, they are given six weeks vacation each year, and the program pays for one trip back to the States.  Therefore, what most people end up doing is that they take a month off at some point and go back home for four weeks at a time.  To me, this effectively stops the service experience and restarts it again when they get back.  It was hard enough for me to readjust after just a week back in the States, so I can’t imagine what it would be like to be away from the service, community and Spanish for a whole month and then try to return right away to working.  In addition, we noticed that many volunteers look forward to their vacation like a necessary break from their work.  Essentially, they have a countdown to when they can escape the challenge, instead of dealing with it as it unfolds.  Right before we left, we had a conversation with Jacob, the volunteer coordinator, who said exactly the same thing, and who had a lot of questions for us about how we make our intentional community work, because he is looking for ways to bring his community closer and more in-tune with their work.
Overall, though, it was good to see the orphanage because it showed us a very different side of service.  They are doing amazing things for a fair amount of children who otherwise would be stuck in extremely impoverished conditions until they were crushed either physically or mentally.  In comparison though, it also made me happy that I ended up where I am now.  There are so many opportunities and options for service, and every day I feel like I have been blessed with this opportunity and the decision I made.
After we left the orphanage, we went to an eco-tourism park, where we did some zip-lining with a guy who ended up being a Honduran Congressman.  He was definitely an interesting character, and there’s a lot to tell about him, and our experiences with him, but I won’t go into that now, for the sake of saving some space.  He ended up driving us an hour or so from Trujillo to Tocoa, another small town where we tried to catch a bus back to La Ceiba.
Unfortunately, we missed the last bus and got taken advantage of by a taxi driver who just drove us down the street to where his buddies tried to convince us to go with them all the way back to Ceiba (charging six times more than the bus ticket).  So, I started walking down a side street to try and find a place where we could sit and look through our travel book for a cheap place to stay.  After a short while we found a little store with benches in front, and looked through our book.  It turns out, though, that Tocoa was not in the travel book, so we were out of luck with that one.  In desperation I turned to the women behind the counter and asked if she knew of any cheap hotels nearby.  She had no reason to be nice to us--we hadn’t even bought anything from her--but she really was trying to help us when her husband showed up.  When he arrived she told him what was going on, and he immediately started racking his brain for any information that may be useful to us.  Eventually he remembered a hotel nearby that could have cheap rooms within our budget, and he gave us directions.  
While the three of us were discussing what to do, he stood there, listening, and then offered to go with us to the hotel and show us where it was.  I was so thankful for his help, and could sense that was a good person, that I immediately accepted his offer.  I expected him to just walk us down to where we needed to make the last turn, but instead he walked around back and started up his truck, then drove us the whole way there.  We were really in a bad situation, not having the slightest clue where we were, and he and his wife really came through.  It was as if our guardian angels came down and were acting through this couple.
The only problem with the hotel is that it was that it was called the Hotel California, and that on the way through Trujillo a couple of days ago, we had passed the same hotel, and I made the bold claim that I would never, ever, stay in a hotel named “Hotel California.”  Then, there we were, Chris and Cassie laughing at me, underneath the large sign with red letters on a black background.  And, I’ve got to say, it was not exactly a lovely place.
The next morning, we stopped by the little shop and gave the man and his wife a thank you note because I was just so thankful for their help (yes, we made it out of the Hotel California).  Then, we caught a bus to La Ceiba, where we met up with volunteers from the orphanage who live in an apartment for the Phase II kids--those who have graduated from the orphanage school and decided to continue with high school.  After hanging out for a bit and eating lunch, we walked around Ceiba, spending time at the beach (where I stayed out of the loose sand to avoid the syringes and the dead dog I found there), walking through the market, and through some small shops where I found a book of poetry by a Honduran author (until this point I had been unable to find any type of original writing by Hondurans and was disappointed by the apparent intellectual void), which I will read and then take into school to use in my poetry workshops and leave in the school library.  
The next day, we took a short chicken bus ride out to El Pino, an aldea at the foot of Picot Bonito park, the largest reserve in Honduras.  By the time we got there, and hiked up the wrong path, there was no time to find a guide and do some serious hiking that day, so we walked back down to a place called Natural View, where we ended up staying the night.  It was a very cheap place where we rented our own cabaña, were able to use the pool, hammocks, and other amenities they had available, and were able to set up a guided hike for the next morning.  
That next morning, we hiked through the outskirts of Picot Bonito (most of it is off limits to any type of intrusion) with a guide, whom we had met the day before in his artesian shop on the road going towards Natural View.  He was a really cool guy, about our age, who knew a lot about the trail and even more about birds, which we saw a lot of.  He is also actively involved in recycling and methods to protect the environment, which is extremely unusual for a Honduran, so it was pretty refreshing to talk with him.  
The hike that day was beautiful, and I have great pictures, which I unfortunately probably won’t be able to share for another few months.  That afternoon, we headed out to Sambo Creek, a Garífuna village on the other side of La Ceiba.  The Garífuna are a group descended from the African slaves that the Spanish brought over, and have their own language, but many of them also speak Spanish and English.  At the mass on Sunday night there were several songs and prayers in Garífuna, which was really cool because it was really involved and energetic, including several dances.  It’s a very different aspect of Honduran culture than the one that we are used to out here in the middle of the country, far from either coast.  
Sambo Creek itself was also interesting.  We got to go swimming for a bit, saw the sun set behind the fishing canoes tied up on shore, and ate at a seafood place where I had a seafood soup that had king crab claw, lots of shrimp, conch, and the front half of a fish in a Garífuna broth.  It was very different, but very good.  We were talking with our waiter and hitting it off pretty well, and he was also pretty bored on a quiet Thursday night, so he secretly brought over shots of a traditional Garífuna drink for us to try.  The drink is supposed to be medicinal, but they add rum to it and get really drunk, so I’m not sure how medicinal it really is.  
I also felt like Sambo Creek was the least safe place we stayed in.  While I was down on the beach collecting shells for my class, a woman approached me and asked if I wanted to buy drugs.  I told her pretty firmly that no, I don’t want to buy drugs, but she explained anyway that what she sells is really good and that she will be at the discotec right next to our hotel if I changed my mind.  In the Garífuna villages there also seemed to be more signs of a gang presence, with gang signs and names tagged on walls of buildings.
Despite this, it was really cool to see a different part of Honduran culture.  At times, while walking around Sambo Creek, it felt like we weren’t in the same country we have been living in for the past five months.  Even a country like Honduras, which is much more homogeneous than the US, has many different faces if you look in the right places.  
The next morning we started as early as possible to travel back to Guaimaca in three buses, which took us a full twelve hours.  We arrived back here very tired, and pretty smelly, but in all, the vacation was enjoyable and a good opportunity to see a lot of Honduras that we normally wouldn’t have gotten a chance to, and that in reality, wasn’t planned.  Before we left, the only really definite plans we had were to go to the orphanage and Andrea’s house, so we were fortunate that it worked out so well.  I also enjoyed this trip more than our first one because it was simpler, explored more of the landscape and culture we hadn’t seen before, and had more variety.  But, in the end, it felt very good to return home to Guaimaca (and to have a bed to sleep on).


  1. This vacation certainly qualifies as an adventure!

  2. Thanks for the post Matt. I can't wait to hear more about this adventure - see you in a few days!