The first week in a new country is always a learning process. One can’t help but make comparisons to other, previously traveled, countries and of course, one’s homeland. It is a time to absorb, decipher, and be exposed to a variety of new stimuli. For some reason I’ve found myself constantly thinking back to Malaysia. On a micro level these countries couldn’t be more different. One is predominantly Muslim, the other Christian. Malaysia has a budding, metropolis capitol in Kuala Lumpur, while Honduras has a capitol, Tegucigalpa, whose reputation for being riddled with poverty and crime precedes it. The two countries may be almost 11,000 miles apart but their similarities have surprised me. To aptly grasp them, one must adjust their perspective from micro to macro. I still greet the majority of people on the street each and every time I leave my place of residence. The ‘selamat pagi’ (good morning) that I extended to Malaysians, has been converted to ‘buenas dias’. The rice found with every meal previously is now beans and corn tortillas. Soccer still reigns supreme as the king of sports. The pace of life is much slower than the U.S..There is little to no separation of church and state, only this time I am greeted by the steeples of churches instead of the domes of mosques. Many businesses here are closed on Sunday, the day of rest, whereas in Malaysia it was Friday. It is still common to see laboring men wielding machetes in the streets. The same universal brands are founds in stores; Coke, Doritos etc. The children are just as energetic, the laughter just as loud, and the smiles just as wide. And I am just as happy.
Honduras is a country of mountains. They impact all aspects of life. From transportation to agriculture, the mountains’ presence are felt. Before I left Tegucigalpa I searched the maps.me app on my phone for a little known town called Camasca. It told me that I was only about 150 miles away. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that it wouldn’t consume an entire day getting there. I was wrong. And even more so I didn’t expect the rigorous, car vs terrain battle that would ensue. After arriving in La Esperanza the night before with the medical brigade from Virginia Commonwealth University, I awoke to familiar faces in Laura and Paul, the directors of Shoulder to Shoulder. I had met them in the States in December, where we shared a similar culture shock in being back in our home countries after extended time abroad. I loaded my gear; a traveler’s backpack and a small duffle bag, into the bed of their pickup truck. Kate, the other volunteer riding to Camasca with us, and I crammed into the back seat. As we left the small city behind us, the roads went from paved, to dirt and gravel, to primarily stones. The transformation was incremental as we ventured farther into La Frontera. While Laura explained the basics of the program and our living situations, I struggled to focus. My right hand held a firm grip on the outside of the truck as we rounded corners, and my left was ready at a moment’s notice to protect my head from slamming into the roof in the event of bumps. My eyes were averted from Laura in the front seat to the memorizing views unfolding outside. If Vermont is the Green Mountain State, then Honduras is the Green Mountain Country. The small pockets of towns and villages visible from the truck were marginalized by the immensity of the ridges and peaks. In a society where we feel the need to constantly rank and categorize I thought to myself, they may refer to this as a third world country, but this is certainly first world nature.
The other four volunteers currently working at the school with me; Kate, Ben, Jon, and Tabi, all live together in a rented space above a home in Camasca. Being the latest commitment to the program and the first to leave at the end of July, I have been assigned to a host family. Any initial hesitancies were quelled by the desire to improve my Spanish, and the realization of the luxury of not having to cook or dine out every meal. My Honduran parents, as they call themselves, are named Iris and Julio. Julio, a taller, broad man with a quiet demeanor and a respectable mustache, is the mayor of Camasca. Iris, a shorter, motherly, jovial woman works at the high school and also with Shoulder to Shoulder. They have two sons and two daughters, the youngest of which is fifteen. They are blessed with three grandchildren and anticipate more in the future. Their home is a quaint, single story brick house decorated with family photos and mementos from trips. Employed by the family is Juanita, a seventeen year old girl in charge of the maintenance of the house and cooking. Every meal she places plate after plate in front of me until I eventually surrender. Fresh pressed juice is waiting for me each day after school. In the evenings, when everyone returns from work, we make small talk about the events of our day, family, and any other topic which my Spanish will allow. They are patient as I am learning, and speak slowly to aid my comprehension. The other day they asked if I had a ‘novia’, a word which I was unfamiliar with. I asked them to wait a moment as I looked it up in the dictionary only to find out that it meant girlfriend. In my moment of understanding I looked up with wide eyes to find laughter at my confusion.I am so fortunate to have been welcomed into such a loving family.
About a ten minute walk from Profe (short for profesora) Iris’ home is the Good Shepherd Bilingual School. It is the only government sponsored, public bilingual school in all of Honduras. Any other students who wish to learn English must be sent to a private, usually religious sponsored school. As of now the school consists of grades K-3. There are eighty students that attend. Most come from Camasca, but some are bused in from a nearby town. The four classrooms are each taught by a Honduran teacher, all of whom are bilingual with the exception of Kindergarten. The students are constantly hearing, repeating, and writing English. I currently am spending my mornings with the 3rd graders and afternoons with the 1st graders. The 3rd grade students were the inaugural class. The goal is to have a brand new building, adjacent to the existing one, finished by next year to house the remainder of the primary school grades; 4th through 6th. During break times, the courtyard is littered with soccer balls, and the screams of laughter as students chase each other around. I am referred to as Matt, Mateo, or Matematicas (mathematics) by a few students who find themselves hilarious. A lot of my assistance the first few days at school was with pronunciation. I provide encouragement, stickers and with the first graders, plenty of hugs. I never thought I would have to be selective about when to give out hugs but each one usually results in a hugging mob, comprised of the entire class, that distracts from the lesson for a solid five minutes. This week the students are on vacation, but beginning the following week I will be implementing some of my own ideas in to the classroom. You’ll just have to stay tuned to find out more.