A lot of emotions accompany a return. There’s a certain familiarity since it’s not a new experience. But there’s also uncertainty over how much it has changed since your last visit, or maybe how much you have. The last few years of my life have been filled with returns. A return to the U.S. after 11 months in Southeast Asia, a return to the University of Scranton for the first time in three years, a return to playing summer lacrosse, and now a return to Honduras. I left here just over a year ago after six weeks of volunteering at the Good Shepard Bilingual School in Camasca, Intibucá, Honduras. I lived with a wonderful host family, formed lasting friendships with other volunteers and people in the community, and broke down stereotypes attributed to a third world country. So far in my experiences living abroad I’ve continuously sought out new opportunities. I chose not to stay in Malaysia for a second year or to extend my teaching in Chile. When I was trying to decide my next excursion I had a myriad of options. My TEFL (teaching english as a foreign language) degree would’ve allowed me to pursue full time jobs in the Middle East, Asia, and possibly even Europe. I would’ve had a salary and housing. The deciding factor for me was the kids I had grown so close to here. I felt that I owed them more than six weeks. Over the last year I’ve found myself watching the Changing Camasca video and not once did it fail to bring a smile to my face. So I made a compromise. I spoke with Laura and Paul, the directors of Shoulder to Shoulder, about coming back. I expressed my interest in continuing to work at the bilingual school but also a need for new challenges and opportunities that would allow me experience more of Honduras. I’ll be a volunteer at the school until I leave here in November and then when I return yet again in February it’ll be in an entirely different capacity. But more about that at a later time.
I arrived in Tegucigalpa on the 28th of August at 11:30am. Laura and Paul met me at the airport and we spent the night at their home in La Esperanza, the closest city to Camasca. After almost a full day of trains, shuttles, flights and trucks I collapsed in a heap of exhaustion and slumbered for twelve hours. The next day Laura and Paul informed me that were we going to drive directly to the school before unloading my things at the volunteer house. My stomach was full of jitters. I’d thought about going back, hoped to see those adorable faces once again, and here it was actually happening. I tried to remain calm in the truck while thousands of scenarios flooded my brain. What if they don’t remember me? What if they’re not as excited as I am? This vulnerability is what keeps me grounded. You can have all of the confidence in the world, but you also only see things from your own perspective. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be a six year old Honduran child who forms a bond with a tall, lanky foreigner only to have them leave after a short time. Volunteers are always coming and going and one can only hope that they’ve made a lasting impression. When we got the school grounds I first received a tour of the new building. The previous two house the K-3 grades and the new building is home to the 4th graders. Next year they would become the first 5th grade class and the following year the first 6th, before the inaugural graduation. As Laura told me about the plans for the classroom and the construction process I feigned attention. I was practically bursting with excitement. As I turned the corner into the 4th grade classroom there was a moment of silence. At first I don’t think they recognized me. My beard is thicker and my stomach is larger. Seconds later I heard the first murmur from a student in the back. “Mateo?” He questioned. I smiled widely and the rest of the students turned to each other and confirmed it. At least they recognized me. There was a similar reaction in 3rd grade, whom I hadn’t spent much time with the past year. What I was really waiting for was the 2nd graders. Before I was even completely in the room there were shouts of “Mateo!” There was a stampede of second graders that practically knocked me off of my feet. Immediately there were inquisitions. “Stickers?” “Great Big Moose song?” I lightly touched each of their heads in greeting as almost every one of their names came rushing back into my memory.
I only spent a couple hours at the school the first day. I hugged the other teachers, whom I had kept in contact with through WhatsApp over the past year. Lunch was papusas (a tortilla filled with refried beans) covered in tomato sauce and cheese. Laura and Paul introduced me to the other volunteers: Sandy and Paul, a couple from Ohio and Grace a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. From there, with a heart bursting at the seams, we drove the short distance to the volunteer house. I was familiar with it from last year where I had spent many an evening using the wifi. I was pleased to learn that the antenna had been moved and the signal was even stronger this time around. There are three bedrooms; one is vacant and Grace and I occupy the others. There is a shared kitchen, living space, porch with hammocks, and a bathroom. It is on the second floor of the home of Doña Carmen, who sends her grandchildren to the bilingual school. This time around I thought it would be better to live on my own. There would be more privacy, freedom in meal choices, and wifi (did I mention that already?). The disadvantages of this arrangement are having to sleep in a bug net, lower standards of cleanliness and missing out on some of the familial events that I was fortunate enough to partake in last year. I saw Profa Iris later on my first day in Camasca and we spoke at length. One of the more remarkable differences, not to be too selfish, is my Spanish ability. We talked for almost an hour and my comprehension was nearly perfect. She mentioned that I’d have a much easier time communicating with people, and then promptly invited me over for two separate meals. I think my worry about missing out on events was all for naught. Another difference this time around is the season. The rain has been arriving like clockwork between four and five every day and continuing late into the night. For most of the time its a steady downpour but there are sporadic bursts of intense, apocalyptic, sky-emptying torrents of water. Thankfully my room is secure. I have two cups set up to catch the few drops that do manage to permeate my quarters. The sound on the tin roofs is so loud you can’t hear yourself think, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic sense.
Tomorrow will mark the first week in Honduras. It has gone by in a flash. The week was filled with different events, dinners and celebrations. We celebrated Danelia’s, the Kindergarten teacher, birthday on Thursday. I assisted in the preparation of fried chicken, a strange version of pasta salad, and an actual salad. There were a few Salve Vida beers, the Honduran version of Bud Light, some dancing, and a tres leches (3 milks) cake that is delicious. It’s not as though I never felt included before, but being able to follow a conversation for the duration of a meal in Spanish makes it all the more enjoyable. Last night, Saturday, we had an early celebration for Paul’s birthday. There were the volunteers, Profa Iris and Don Julio, Profe Edwin and his wife Cindy, Gustavo who is the brigade coordinator and Danelia. It was catered with carne asada (barbecued steak strips), rice, refried beans, pico de gallo, tortillas and a salad. As the cake was brought out we sang in both languages. Afterwards we sat around the room and told various stories and jokes. Laura and Paul talked about how they had met while Laura was working at the Diocese of Springfield and Paul was still a priest. Gustavo told a hilarious joke that involved Hondurans trying to cross the border into the U.S. and a lack of understanding of English. I contributed my grandfather’s joke about an Irish couple giving birth. I informed the Spanish speakers that I needed to tell the joke in English in order to do the accent but I think they got the gist of it. My favorite event of the past week, however, was the folklore dance competition that took place this past Friday. There were two divisions, one for preschool/kindergarten and another for older students. The bilingual school won 2nd place in both. My students were dressed in the traditional outfits, beaming as they gracefully performed the choreographed steps. The boys all wore white shirts that were trimmed with three colors. The younger girls wore bright colored dressed while the older ones wore white ones with the same three color pattern as the boys. After the competition I was asked to take photos of the groups. All of the parents guided me to the front of the pack for shots with the ‘professional camera’ as they put it.
My goal for this blog is to put out a weekly entry. The topics will not be defined nor limited. There is plenty here to keep me occupied for the next few months and I’m sure that time will fly. As always I welcome your feedback and questions and look forward to sharing this experience with you. Also, this Tuesday is Honduras vs. USA in World Cup Qualifying!
All my love,