Saturday, March 28, 2009

Loading bus for trip to villages

Red Cross tent

Pts. waiting in line

Barb w flashlight, minor surgery

Sugarcane press

Sisters waiting for exams

Chinches, Chagas carriers

Barb w school sign, author R. Amaya Amador


Waiting for solar shower


Honduras Revisted, February 2009

Honduras Revisited, February 2009

Dear friends and faithful readers,
As many of you already know, I spent most of February in Honduras, once again, experiencing a whirlwind of adventures, challenges, and losses. Life does not stand still and each trip yields surprises. This was my 4th visit there in the five years since I left Peace Corps and my first in two years. My report here seems to be verging on the beginning of another book!

Meanwhile, the actual book, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras has garnered a number of five-star reviews on, which is gratifying, but book sales there have not been spectacular. I’ve done a few readings that have been well-received and have distributed books acquired at my author’s discount there, but the best and easiest way to get the book into circulation is on-line through Amazon. So I’m asking my dear readers, if they liked the book, to please recommend it to their friends, especially to their on-line address-listed friends who can order it easily via and get it within days. And, if you should feel so inclined, posting a review on Amazon would be greatly appreciated as well. Thanks.

But, on to Honduras in 2009.

Packing Up
Packing was the first challenge, involving filling a rather rickety, but very capacious, suitcase with clothes, toys, coloring and sticker books, medications, and reading glasses. Included, as always, were dozens of small, light, compact items recommended for any international traveler, magic towels. These tiny colorful balls or disks unfold “magically” into regular-sized hand towels, delighting their recipients. I also took along copies of my book to pass out. Even without knowing English, folks would enjoy seeing photos of themselves there. I resolved to give the books mostly to people in the north and west, since some things said about southerners was not too flattering and surely would be translated if they saw their names in print.

Additionally, I’d collected seven pairs of crutches, mainly from yard sales. How to transport them was the problem. I finally obtained an empty bicycle shipping box with the help of Abbie, another returned PC volunteer, who lives nearby and has a car. The crutches fit nicely into the box and I was able to pack clothes around them. However, the box was subjected to X-ray by curious airport staff at various junctures. My personal belongings, as usual, fit into a small carry-on.
(Readers living in the DC-Virginia-Md. area are cordially invited to help me collect more used crutches for my next trip. Hope you won’t be needing any crutches soon, but if you should need some temporarily, please remember to recycle them through me.)

On this visit, my friend Irma, director of the training program for adult blind in Santa Lucía, was unable to meet me at the airport since she was busy picking up students to enroll in her program for the upcoming academic year, beginning just then in early February. Still, she suggested I stay again at the school for blind kids in Tegucigalpa, a place familiar to readers of my book, Escuela Para Ciegos Pilar Salinas, named for its founder, Irma’s late mother.

Big surprise! The Tegucigalpa airport has been renovated after the fatal accident of last year. Now passengers exit through mobile tunnels, not on the tarmac, and there is an escalator and air conditioning.

One preparation I had forgotten was to carry some single dollar bills. As a result, at the airport, I ended up giving $5 each to two guys helping me put my stuff into a cab and $10 to the driver who took me to the school, the smallest bills I had available. Translating those amounts later into lempiras, the local currency, Honduran friends were horrified. Some Hondurans earn only $5 a day.

One of the joys of visiting Honduras is that I’m always made to feel welcome, even when my hosts haven’t been expecting me. That was the case at the blind school, where Irma had neglected to mention my impending arrival, even though she had invited me to stay there. Everyone, both staff and the few students already there, greeted me with delighted surprise and hugs and kisses on both cheeks. Okelí, a talkative boy about 13 with partial sight, carried in my belongings, including the bike box holding the crutches. He told me that he and five other kids of high school age were going to try an experiment in mainstreaming for two months at a local private school.

Angelina, a middle-aged sighted matron who sleeps with the younger boys in their dorm, showed me to my old room, a second-floor storeroom with a private bath, that is, a room with a plastic basin filled with water for bathing and for flushing the toilet but no sink. She showed me proudly that she had kept the lacey red pincushion heart I’d given her years before.

Borrowing a cell phone, I called Karla Patricia, one of the older daughters of Gilberto, a Honduran environmentalist living near Washington, DC, whom I’d helped obtain political asylum. She and another sister had not been allowed to accompany nine other siblings to the US because of being over age 21.

Karla Patricia arrived later that afternoon, but her older sister, who lived with her, could not come because her baby was sick. Karla gave me a book of her poetry and I gave her $50 for her and her sister. She said neither was working, but that the father of her sister’s baby and their own father sometimes sent money from the US. I told her that her father no longer has a steady construction job due to the severe recession in the States. She had not been able to find any work herself either, but had volunteered to teach dance to young people in her neighborhood to keep them occupied and out of trouble. She also revealed something I was never told before, that is, that one of her younger sisters, Sandra, now living with the family outside Washington, also has a child, whom she left in Honduras in order to accompany the rest of the family. Neither Gilberto, his wife, nor Sandra has ever mentioned this child. I snapped a photo of Karla Patricia to give to her parents.

After she had left, I joined others for a light supper of tortillas and beans prepared by Juanita, the cook who has lived and worked at the school for many years. She reported that Chapín, the kitchen cat, had died recently after ingesting mice poisoned by the neighbors. Paloma, the resident pigeon, or its current successor, was still there, eating crumbs off the floor. Juanita washed dishes in cold tap water and dried them with a dingy rag, making me cringe, but I needed to buck up if I was going to eat there. Juanita filtered all drinking water through what looked like an ordinary rubber tube, so I decided to draw the line there and stick with bottled water. Suddenly, I noticed two mosquito bites on my arm and immediately realized I’d left my malaria prophylactic behind. Then, I silently chided myself; how could I get through this trip if I worried about every little thing? “Stop!” I told myself sternly.

One of my supper companions was Antonia, a feisty blind woman of 52 who had been educated at the school with her older brother. Her brother and his sighted wife had invited her to live with them, but she preferred to live alone in her own apartment. How did she manage that? She worked as a telephone operator, a rare case of a blind woman supporting herself. She said other blind people were envious of her job, but she considered them “too militant” in demanding better opportunities; she had found a job and so could they. Like Gloria, an older blind woman mentioned in my book, who also ate with us, she was an outspoken Liberal, the party of the current president, Mel Zelaya. The party’s color is red and the more conservative Nacionalistas have the color blue, the opposite of our own political configuration. Gloria, once an ardent Zelaya supporter, was not as enthusiastic as when I last saw her. “All politicians lie,” she sighed. Gloria, now 79, was wearing blue earrings that matched her skirt. She’s always been careful about her appearance.

I made a quick tour of the school, peering through a window into the locked computer room with its eight old-style desktop computers. Now, I was told, older students are taught to use these donated computers, programmed for Spanish speech.
I had come prepared for sleep with a small blanket, using bunched up clothes as a pillow.

Around the City
Next morning, I crossed quickly in front of the neighboring San Felipe Hospital, where a broken water main had flooded the wide boulevard and a steady stream of cars rushed by, splashing water. Glancing back, I noticed a banner at the hospital entrance announcing the dates for Operation Smile, starting right after I would be finishing with the International Health Service brigade, where I was committed to go first. So, I decided to come back and help out with Operation Smile. I changed some money and also bought a special cream for Marciel, the girl with facial burn scars who lived near Guasaule on the Nicaraguan border.

I then went over to Peace Corps (PC) headquarters, where I noticed the guard needed glasses, but I hadn’t brought any with me that day. I asked the guard to keep calling people I knew inside until one answered and invited me in. I found Luis, my former office mate from La Esperanza, working there temporarily and also greeted the current country director, Truby, who was our health trainer in 2000. I noticed one of my own photos (of the two paperboys on p. 149 of my book) displayed along with others at the office entrance.

Things had changed at PC headquarters. To save money, the international version of Newsweek had been discontinued and all training was now being done by regular program directors, not contract staff, right on there on the premises or in temporarily leased space nearby. As a result, offices were compressed and the volunteers’ lounge had been reduced to a few computers and no TV. No longer did departing volunteers leave their discarded medical kits on the “free” shelf. Instead, these kits and their contents were recycled to incoming volunteers. The number of volunteers in Honduras had been reduced from over 300 to under 200. But their allowance had been increased to match the new Honduran minimum wage, about $270 per month. And all, apparently, had cell phones.

OAKS, the support group for older volunteers that I had initiated, was no longer listed on the bulletin board; however, there was a new one, MARV, for married volunteers. Current volunteers told me there were no older volunteers in Honduras any more. One young man said that at age 27, he was the oldest member of his training group. If my book gets into broader circulation, that age imbalance should be remedied somewhat.

Walking out through the cathedral square, I heard someone behind me shout, “¡Doña Bárbara¡” I turned around to find Dr. Orlando, my PC health program director, now with a Honduran ministry concerned with child nutrition.

So many people in Honduras now have cell phones, a big change from two years ago, when there were few towers. These phones require a prepaid card for making calls, but receiving calls is free. Certainly even a dirt-scrabble subsistence farmer would make every effort to get a cell phone; the phones have provided a real communications revolution. But caution is required using them in cities, since anyone talking openly on a cell phone is likely to have it snatched away and I heard stories of people being approached at gunpoint on the street and patted down, not only to steal their money, but their cell phones.

Back at the blind school, I was excited to find my old friend Timoteo, who had once obtained a wheelchair for Bessy in Guasaule, as recounted in my book. Both he and David, a blind massage instructor, were dividing their time between the school and the adult center, teaching Braille and travel skills at both places. Tim is a can-do guy, so he arranged for a friend of his to drive me, for a fee, of course, that same evening to Choluteca with my big suitcase and box of crutches, thereby saving me an arduous bus ride. The friend picked me up in the afternoon after his work, dropped me and my luggage off, and drove back himself that same night. During our ride, he commented on the furor former President Clinton had aroused with his hanky-panky. “Ridiculous, we men do have certain necessities,” he declared.

Entering a city like Choluteca at night, I was struck by how different the lights looked from those in a U.S. city. The latter is a shimmering blaze of bright white, but in a Honduran city, night-time lights are much farther apart, softer, rounder, yellowish, and less pulsating.

So, I spent my second night in Honduras in Choluteca, at the family home of the young woman called Loni in my book. Her family welcomed me with a glass of pinol, a drink made of ground-up toasted corn, cinnamon, and sugar. Alfredo, Loni’s nephew, had grown tall and was now working evenings as a disk-jockey at a local radio station. His sister Andrea, also taller and willowy, had become quite glamorous, as I would have predicted. The temperature was, as usual, well over 90 F, so I slept in front of an electric fan.

The family home, I noticed, was lit by power-saving, curlicue light bulbs, usually rather expensive. I learned that due to a new treaty, such bulbs were donated en masse by Venezuela and exchanged for existing bulbs all over Honduras. So far, no great saving on electrical bills were noticed by this household. But, nationwide, such an exchange should certainly result in reduced power consumption.

I saw that Loni’s father wasn’t around and was told he was staying “at the other house,” presumably that of his “other woman.” He did come by briefly the next morning to greet me and took a set of crutches for a relative with one leg. He complained that he had four vacancies now among the 18 rooms out back, while fried chicken sales at the family’s market shop were also down, yet here he was trying to support two households! (Maybe having another woman is a luxury that Honduran men can no longer afford.) I never saw him again, either at the house or the family’s market shop, El Regalón, a situation that Loni’s mother did not seem too happy about.

Two of Loni’s siblings each quietly confided that they hoped that Loni and her husband would invite them to visit them in the States and, presumably, send the necessary plane ticket if they successfully obtained a visitor’s visa. The American Embassy, I was told, has upped the price for a visitor’s visa interview to $125, whether or not the visa is granted. I don’t know whether Loni and Seth, who have a child now, can afford visitors’ air fares. Loni has begun studying nursing, being unable to practice medicine in the US.

In Choluteca, folks typically arise early to beat the heat. Rev. Daniel, someone else mentioned in my book, arrived promptly at 7 am in his recently purchased battered 1994 Toyota pickup lacking any inside door and window handles. He reported on new rules limiting the back compartment to six passengers (though I saw many more in passing vehicles) and mandating the use of seatbelts. His seatbelt mechanism wasn’t functioning properly, so whenever we approached a police checkpoint, he would tie it awkwardly around himself to comply with the law.

Daniel transported me first to Teletón, the local rehab center, where I had been determined to deliver the crutches, as few charitable donations arrive in the south. I was glad I had done so when I saw so many disabled people waiting patiently for consults without any crutches. After that, Daniel drove me to José Obrero, a local Goodwill-type shop selling second-hand goods donated from the US. There, I found even more crutches and a walker and bought them to pass on to Teletón, but they were rather pricey and I wasn’t given a break, even though I told the proprietor where I was taking them. The Teletón staff said that José Obrero never donates them anything, although they have asked.

Daniel gave me some unwelcome and surprising news. His school-teacher wife had fallen in love with a merchant marine and filed for divorce. He had agreed to give her their house, custody of the children, and child support and school fees, while he moved into a small rented room where the children stayed with him on weekends. Between sea-going assignments, her lover stayed at the house that she and Daniel had built together. Naturally, all this was pretty hard for Daniel to take. Nonetheless, he had a new church of his own design constructed and was obviously much sought after by his congregants, as I witnessed when they stopped him to talk whenever he drove by.

Daniel and I sought out Jorge, the boy who had lost the fingers of his left hand due to infection after remedial surgery, as recounted in the epilogue of my book. He was now 16 and, as we waited for him early one morning at his school, I almost didn’t recognize him, but he immediately recognized me. “Barbara Joe,” he said, “what are you doing here?” He was quite thin and I noticed that he kept his arms folded, with both hands tucked under his elbows. Once sweet and shy, his manner now was aloof and prickly. As a teenager, it must have been hard for him to live with deformed hands, since he had also lost the tip of one finger of his right hand in his first surgery. I wondered if he blamed me for the maiming of his left hand, since I had sent him for that surgery without being there with him. I asked whether he was still interested in becoming a teacher. “No,” he declared, “now I prefer computers.” Working on a computer, his hands would certainly be visible. I asked to take his photo and he agreed reluctantly, with arms tightly folded and wearing a serious, almost grim, expression. Ironically, the nurse who had helped us find Jorge’s hospital records four years earlier had died of cancer.

El Triunfo
Daniel, ever so graciously (after I filled his fuel tank), drove me to El Triunfo, where I was in for another unwelcome surprise. A man I had frequently teamed up with at Corcride (the now-defunct evangelical development organization), José Luis, like Daniel, had separated from his school-teacher wife, at her initiative. What was this, Honduran women, boldly seeking separations and divorces? I’d never heard of that before. And those two, Daniel and José Luis, I considered to be wonderful guys: decent, honest, dependable, hard-working, caring. I’d never heard of either of them being unfaithful, beating their wives, or failing to help out with the children. Both were 41 years old and, truly, if I had been 30 years younger myself, I might have considered either one a worthy mate. José was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of one of the rooms at La Cosecha (The Harvest), where he worked, an evangelical center with a medical clinic and school. He acted a little stunned regarding his recent separation, but Daniel was offering him experienced guidance and moral support.

Because JL was living at his workplace, he arranged to have me stay with his mother. When I asked why he didn’t stay at her house himself, he said he preferred to be alone. Daniel then left me in town, promising to come back the next afternoon to drive me out to see my trusted village health promoters, Lea and Blanca.
JL’s mother lived with a 13-year-old maid, Suyapa, who vacated her bed for me, while the two agreed to sleep together in the mother’s bed. I was washing out some clothes at the pila out back when the electricity went out and we thought it was just the usual outage. But, no, someone from the electric company had come by to cut the wire feeding electricity into the house, because the bill was overdue. No problem, JL and a neighbor reattached the wire. Thank goodness, as it was oppressively hot, making it hard to sleep without a fan.

During my rounds in El Triunfo the next morning under blazing sun, I was often stopped by people on the street remarking, “Hola, Doña Bárbara,” or, sometimes, “Hola, Doctora Bárbara.” I took photos of various acquaintances, promising to send the photos by e-mail to Daniel to print out and distribute. Among my subjects was Neris, my young greeting card collector grown into a comely teen, as well as Erenia, the former secretary at Corcride, still working as a secretary in the very same building, now occupied by another organization. Deris, the former Corcride accountant, also greeted me and Reverend Jaime came by, looking jaunty, and currently working at Hondutel, the phone company. At least he still had enough political pull to land a job after Corcride folded and after being removed from pastoring his church when his infidelity was revealed.

I found, Yasmín, my young friend with spina bifida, sitting in her wheelchair wearing a new flowered dress and dangly earrings. She had just celebrated her quinceañera, her age-15 coming-of-age party. I gave her a magic towel and took a photo that I promised to send with Daniel.

I also visited sisters Mariana and Mercedes, the only survivors of a once numerous clan, who knocked down a grapefruit for me, as well as María Elena, the faithful post mistress. And, the three lip-palate siblings, all, of course, now grown much taller. I carefully avoided passing Mango Man’s house.

A woman approached me on the street, thanking me for helping with her nephew’s cleft-palate and lip repair. “He looks just fine now, talks normally, smiles,” she said. She noticed me carrying a bag of Spanish-language books (some donated by my friend Anna, who had once visited me in Honduras). “What have you there?” she demanded, “Books? I’m a teacher and you know we always need books.” I gave her one appropriate for kids, but saved the others for Pedro Joaquín, the would-be librarian.

At PJ’s house, I took a photo of his twin girls, now first-graders, next to the woodstove. He wondered if library funding from Riecken Foundation, a group we had approached before, was still available, since local momentum for opening the library was finally building. If it ever opened, I promised to come back for the event. I later learned that the foundation had been invested heavily in toxic securities, even, it was rumored, in Madoff, and so now was broke, at least in Honduras, where the Teguc office and all its contents had been liquidated. So that didn’t appear to be a likely source of funding, though when I got back to the US, I Googled the foundation’s website and it was still up, soliciting donations and making no mention of any financial problems.

Preparations were being made for the local Valentine’s Day festival with numerous fireworks stands being set up and the assembling of a diesel-powered merry-go-round, rickety Ferris wheel, and rusty flying cars. Seeing the festival preparations, I found myself missing Doña Marina and her house, where I’d spent several sleepless nights during previous festivals.

Stopping by Marina’s daughter Reina’s, I found her daughter Solei preparing for her own upcoming 15th birthday celebration. Reina said one of her sons living in the US had lost his job and wasn’t sending any money. She asked me to please come back for her daughter’s birthday, but I can hardly do that.

The daughter now knew she was adopted, thanks to a gossipy neighbor. At first, the revelation had caused great distress for Solei and her twin down the street, a feeling soon tempered by their adoptive mothers’ obvious devotion and the realization that they were actually sisters. Now Solei seemed more affectionate than ever with Reina. Reina had begun selling soy chitlings, ghastly-looking puffed up snacks in bright colors and bizarre shapes. They didn’t taste too good either.
Daniel showed up as planned, taking me out to the villages of Río Grande #1, where we found Blanca talking on her cell phone! “So you haven’t forgotten us,” she said. Of course not. She asked for money for her kids’ school supplies. (Daniel later advised me to give goods, not money, but I didn’t have time to go get supplies with her.) Next stop was Matapalos, where the river was low and easy to ford, though the road’s steep, rocky incline presented quite a challenge. At Lea’s house, I was surprised to see one of the same curlicue light bulbs powered by a gasoline generator. Lea gave us a bunch of ripe coconuts and I later gave one to JL’s mother, who saved it for the next morning, since coconuts and coconut milk must never be consumed at night.

Daniel then drove me to Guasuale, on the Nicaraguan border, where Marciel’s mother was still making tortillas day-after-day to support her nine kids and three grandchildren. She said she was only 39, but she was missing quite a few teeth and looked much older. I gave her the cream for Marciel’s face. She said the girl was doing well in school, but was still self-conscious about her burn scars. She looped her arm through mine and wouldn’t let me go. With her still clinging to me, I introduced her to Daniel and together we went in search of Bessy, but neighbors reported that she had gone out in her wheelchair to the border, begging, no doubt. We looked around, but couldn’t find her. And the house where Santos, the elderly man with Parkinson’s, had lived, had completely vanished, leaving only bare, dry ground where it had once stood.

Goodbye Camera
I returned to Cholu that same evening and took a bus the next morning back to Teguc, no longer burdened by the crutches. A man walking up and down the aisles was selling various types of watches on his arm, probably stolen. A blind beggar got on the bus and sang, but he couldn’t have been too destitute, as I heard his cell phone ring. Child food vendors got on at every stop or lifted long sticks hung with edibles up to the windows. Sitting by a window, I chatted with two different seatmates, the first a Cuban volunteer doctor, the second a Honduran who had been visiting relatives. The second guy, I’m convinced, stole my digital camera right out of my drawstring Peruvian bag, where it must have been visible. I had opened the bag to read some magazines en route and failed to draw the string tightly closed again. I was probably looking out the window when he snatched it. When I was getting off the bus before him, it seemed odd that he didn’t get up to let me by, obliging me to climb awkwardly over his legs in the tight space afforded by a school bus meant originally for elementary-age students. Juggling my carry-on and Peruvian bag, and trying to climb over, I asked, “Permiso,” (Permission), which usually the other person answers with, “Suyo,” (It’s yours) and then moves aside. But this guy didn’t say anything and didn’t budge. Right after I got off, I noticed my camera missing, and decided he must have hidden it behind his back—that’s why he didn’t get up.
I was sad to lose my camera, which had been with me in Sudan, in Germany, and on other Honduran trips, and even sadder to lose the photos that I had already taken, especially those I’d promised to send via Daniel. It put me in mind of a bus ride my father took in Mexico, carrying a leather bag containing two cameras, then discovering when he got off that the bag had been slit at either end and both cameras removed without his feeling a thing. So, gentle readers, you are now spared either the pleasure or pain of viewing my photos of this trip.

I lamented my loss with a young woman who shared a taxi ride with me, as she was going near the blind school. She was an amazing Frida Khalo look-alike, with a long, flowered skirt, a single continuous eyebrow, faint mustache, and long black hair.

Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?
I returned to the school, where even more children had arrived to start the academic year. Angelina handed over the key to “my” room, assuring me that everything would be just as I’d left it, since that was the only key, a rather odd-looking key fitting into a cross-shaped slot. Yet, someone else must have had that same key, because the room was not as I had left it. My plastic tub of water in the bathroom, filled up before I left, was now almost empty, and the toilet seat was raised and the toilet had not been flushed. A man, no doubt, had been there and had even slept in my bed! I ruefully noted the rumpled sheets. Copies of my book were still just where I’d left them, but my little black flashlight was gone.

It was a cool evening and out on the patio below, kids were circling as they had before, but not in as many chains as described in my book, and only three or four linked up at a time. Of course, not all the students had arrived as yet. At night, youngsters banged on my door and hooted. I left for La Esperanza by bus the very next morning, taking some books to distribute there and deciding to leave nothing of value in the room this time.

La Esperanza
The bus I took to La Esperanza vibrated with ear-splitting music, which I asked the driver to please turn down, as I’d been told to avoid loud noises ever since that errant thunderclap in El Triunfo. Luis had arranged for me to work with the International Health Service (IHS) brigade, a Minneapolis-based organization with no paid staff. I had served with IHS back in 2005, as described in my book’s epilogue under “Hortensias Brigade.” Now, as then, I was being sent to work with IHS by the Esperanza Red Cross, along with a few local volunteers.

I stayed again at Luis’ home going to and from the brigade, a house built in part with help from Habitat for Humanity. The weather was not as cold as usual for this time of year. When I arrived, the two children hugged me enthusiastically, “Bárbara, Bárbara, Bárbara,” and sat readily on my lap. The girl remembered me. She was five now and very quick to grasp the concepts in the colorful story-workbook I brought her. She was attending a bilingual school and proudly recited some phrases in American-accented English. One of her teachers was an American doing her student teaching there. When a plane was heard flying overhead, the children raced outside, lifting up their arms, shouting. “Take me, take me with you!”

Luis, who, as I said, was working at PC headquarters in Teguc, came home on a late-night bus every Friday and left again on Monday before dawn. Before that, he had worked at the Pepsi warehouse near his home, so the PC job was preferable, although temporary and far away. I felt kind of eerie when the family assigned me to the room once occupied by Luis’s mother-in-law and young niece with Lupus, who had died a few months before. The mother had then moved away. Immediately after my arrival, the wife’s brother, with his own wife and little son in tow, showed up for the brother’s medical appointment at the Esperanza public hospital. Where everyone else slept, I’m not quite sure. In such cases, whenever I’ve expressed concern about displacing someone else, Hondurans have always advised me, “Don’t worry.”

Outside, five dogs barked fairly regularly, two of them chained up because they were said to run away and attack chickens. Why so many dogs? To guard the property—dogs are not pets.

Luis’ kids—and, indeed kids in every house I visited with a TV set—were always tuned into programming dubbed in Spanish on either the Discovery Kids or Disney channel. Since I don’t own a television set, it was a revelation to me that these programs run all day long, and have all been translated into other languages.

Luis’ wife, Wendy, was quite distressed because her maid had quit just the day before to accept a job offering more money. Wendy said she could not pay more, but she still needed a maid because she works as a nurse at the local public hospital. Her in-laws, living in the same block, could fill in caring for the children, but not permanently. (I gave Wendy a package of disposable gloves.)

When Luis arrived home, he borrowed his father’s car and he and Wendy drove up to a neighboring village, Yarmanguila, in search of a woman who had been their maid once before and who now had a son age 5, the same age as their daughter. The woman agreed to leave her son with her mother and to take the job, with the proviso that she have two weekends off per month instead of the usual one, so she could go home to see her son more often.

I noticed that Luis and Wendy’s two little children drank black coffee at most meals or else a Kool-Aid type beverage made with purified water, as did their little cousin. I asked about milk, but was told they didn’t like it. Sometimes, they did have milk poured over cornflakes.

Walking around town, I had to be careful, as sewers were being installed in the central area, though not in Luis and Wendy’s neighborhood. The charming cobblestone streets were being all torn up and would be replaced with asphalt. At a bank where I exchanged money, the teller recognized me. At the women’s coop, I bought a few trinkets. “¡Doña Bárbara, you came back!” one of the women exclaimed. I also stopped by the home of Norma, my former landlady, a pioneering special ed teacher, who had seen a need and convinced school officials to let her teach children with learning and physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, the burnt-out market had not been rebuilt, but vendors had taken over the streets. I soon found Antonio, my wheelchair-using friend, still selling lottery tickets. But his right leg was missing. Why? He explained that he’d had a pressure sore that didn’t heal and the leg was removed at the hip. Antonio, now 36, had been abandoned by his family after he was shot and paralyzed at age 22, and had moved in with friends outside of town, where he traveled daily along a rough highway in his wheelchair. I said I was very sorry that he’d lost his leg, even though it hadn’t been very useful. He just shrugged and then answered an urgent call on his cell phone.

Chunga was still in her temporary market quarters in a parking lot where she rented space. She was still paying off her fire debt. She told me she had twice applied for a tourist visa to visit her kids in the US and twice had been denied. One of her sons had lost his job and was now thinking of coming home. Luis, Antonio, and Chunga were all recipients of signed copies of my book. Flipping through the book to show them their photos, I came upon an error on p. 248, where a comma ends the sentence instead of a period. Oh dear! No doubt, other errors exist as well. But, I’ve rarely read a book without an error or two.

My Girls
Luis, via cell phone and radio, sent messages out to the parents of two girls, Sandra and Arcenia, whom I had previously taken together to San Pedro Sula on the north coast for surgery with an ortho brigade sponsored by an organization called CURE International. Their photos appear in the epilogue of my book. In his messages, Luis announced that I wanted to meet the girls with their parents at his house and would reimburse their transportation expenses. They showed up separately, Arcenia with her dad and Sandrita with her mother, who was also carrying her newest baby, her sixth child.

Arcenia and her father arrived at dawn, having ridden a bus all night long to reach La Esperanza. Arcenia was now 18, looking rather glamorous with a new hairdo, earrings, and makeup. I had feared that her surgery might not be too effective because of her age and the severe in-turning of her double clubfeet. But after I made her remove her shoes, I was very pleased to see that her feet, though small, looked quite normal. More importantly, she could walk well on those feet, though she did say that the left one ached a bit when she walked too long. She had been going to school at last and had learned to read. Previously, it had been too hard for her to walk the distance to school. So Arcenia’s surgery had been a great success.

I had hoped that Sandra would arrive at the same time, so the girls could see each other again. But Arcenia and her father had to catch a return bus to their town and we didn’t know whether Sandra’s family had even heard our message. So I endorsed one of my books with Arcenia’s photos in it and handed her father my large battered suitcase, now empty after everything had been given away. I also gave Arcenia a magic towel for old times’ sake, as we had amused ourselves with the unfolding of such towels when we were all together at the San Pedro hospital waiting for the girls’ surgery.

Sandra showed up later with her mother and newest baby brother, and I gave her a magic towel, a small blanket, and a Cinderella sticker book. I also signed one of my books for her. She seemed to be walking better than before, but when she pulled up her pant leg, I suppressed a gasp, as it looked like her tumor had returned. Luis and I got on the phone to Dr. Vásquez, a Honduran physician in San Pedro who works with the CURE team. I told him of my suspicions and he said to send Sandra to their clinic immediately, as the ortho surgeons were due to arrive in two days. Sandra’s mother could not accompany her because she had to care for the other children. I was already committed to the IHS brigade starting the very next day. But the girl’s father, who was picking coffee in another province, had a cell phone (very handy, those cell phones) and so we called him to come home and accompany Sandra to San Pedro. I left money with Wendy for their transportation and expenses.

IHS Brigade
The next morning at the local Red Cross office, we met with the other members of the IHS team, a Minneapolis-based organization with no paid staff. Over a dozen people— including two physicians, a nurse, two pharmacists, and a dentist—from all over the US, had joined the brigade. Our services would include not only regular medical care, but also dental (only pulling teeth and giving out toothbrushes), fitting eyeglasses, and providing medications. Some participants had come before and spoke some Spanish; others were complete newcomers. The two physicians whom I would be helping spoke virtually no Spanish. One volunteer was a dental assistant from California expecting her fourth child on only her second trip abroad; the first was a family vacation in neighboring Belize.

In addition to paying their own airfare and other expenses, as well as donating their time and expertise, brigade folks each paid $500 into a fund used for buying medications and other supplies. Unfortunately, the IHS warehouse in the Caribbean coastal city of La Ceiba, located in a Honduran Red Cross compound under 24-hour guard, and fortified with thick cement-block walls without windows, was broken into through the ceiling. Furthermore, a bus carrying our meds from La Ceiba to the Esperanza Red Cross office—a journey of several hours—arrived with five boxes of medications mysteriously missing. We then had to send to Teguc and spend more money for replacements. I was responsible for my own airfare, but didn’t pay the extra $500 and my food was covered by the Esperanza Red Cross. Luis also loaned me a tent.
Local Red Cross volunteers helping us told me that I spoke with a Dominican accent. That’s a new one. I’ve visited the DR several times, but hardly long enough for such an accent to rub off.

We slept in individual tents and bathed in a plastic shower stall using solar-heated water, that is, water left outside in the afternoon sun in heavy plastic bags. The water was not actually hot, but pleasantly warm. We brought along purified drinking water in large plastic bags. Also, a few extra granola bars and M&Ms.

Our consults were held in schoolrooms vacated for our use and powered by solar panels, with the electricity sometimes going out at odd times. Some patients appeared with cell phones, which they plugged into our solar-powered sockets to charge.

In each location where we stayed, a local woman prepared our food. At the first of our stops, our meals consisted mostly of very thick tortillas, about four on every plate. Most of us could not eat that many, so, after each meal, I gathered up all the extra tortillas for the hungry children always lingering outside. A few were thrown to emaciated dogs as well. We also passed the kids plates of our uneaten rice and beets, which were served at every meal; I happen to like beets, but not everyone on our team did. When we left each location, our left-over food source would dry up for both children and dogs.

Our brigade was slated to go to only three towns over a 10-day period. Instead of having us traveling from village to village, residents of villages neighboring each hub were advised by radio when it was their turn to come in for exams. Monday in Dolores, for example, was reserved for certain nearby villages, Tuesday for others, and so on.

The very first night, I became violently ill with cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea, requiring me to exit my tent abruptly several times during the night, not so easy with arthritic knees and sleeping on ground level. I was reminded of when I visited Helen during Peace Corps training, as recounted in my book. Fortunately, here I was surrounded by medical practitioners, who advised me to take three days worth of Cipro, the powerful antibiotic used against anthrax, which zapped my bug almost immediately.

If I ever join IHS again, a sleeping bag would be advisable, as it was rather chilly at night. The nurse who headed up the group, occupying a tent near mine, had an alarm clock that aroused us early every morning, announcing in English, “5 am” then the temperature, which was usually “55 degrees.” That’s not frigid, but is rather cool, especially if you don’t have much covering you.

We started seeing patients at 7 am, and they started lining up well before that. We aimed for volume, but slowed down when someone had an important or urgent problem. On our biggest day, 7 am to 7 pm, we saw almost 250 patients and, most days, over 200. That was with two physicians, who told us that at home, they would examine only a small fraction of that number in a single day, maybe 24 and a few in the hospital. Some families arrived with nine or ten kids in tow. One family consisted of 15 members. Many mothers were nursing babies, some over a year old or even older. A surprising number of women admitted having had tubal ligations at the Esperanza public hospital after the birth of their last child. Midwife births seemed rare. Pregnant women were allowed to listen to their unborn’s heartbeat through a stethoscope. All kids got a colorful cartoon sticker for their shirts after they were examined. Nearly all the children and their parents had very long, lush eyelashes and thick, dark hair. Once I sat on a plastic chair where a child had apparently peed. My whole backside got wet; I changed and washed my out my clothes as soon as I could take a break.

After the doctors saw the patients, they were referred, if indicated, to the pharmacy, then for glasses, and then to the dentist, all in adjacent school rooms. We performed minor surgeries, those that could be anesthetized with injections. I helped, much as I used to with Dr. Loni as PC volunteer in El Triunfo, beaming a flashlight on the spot, handing out instruments, wiping up blood. During the brigade, we cut out small tumors and cysts, cut loose a young man’s tongue rooted to the floor of his mouth, and removed bothersome stitches left by a tubal ligation done a year before. Dr. Tom, one of two physicians with our group, also gave a woman a cortisone shot in her shoulder that instantly relieved her chronic pain. Many women complained of shoulder pain, attributable to muscle strain due to washing clothes, carrying children, and crushing tortilla corn. Men complained of back pain from chopping wood and farm and construction work. The men were small in stature, but lean and muscular. Dr. Tom commented that all had healthy low blood pressure and none were fat. Nearly all the women wore skirts or dresses and all the men wore long pants, no shorts.

Most complaints were rather routine: head lice, scabies, athlete’s foot, headaches, colds, stomachaches, and diarrhea. We gave everyone anti-parasite medicine as a precaution, since we had no test for parasites. A nurse friend of mine back in the US felt that was overkill, since usually only 30% of a given population has parasites at any one time. Our problem was determining who, so we decided on blanket treatment.

Some emotional moments occurred, such as when two men carried in a homemade stretcher bearing an 80-year-old woman who had had vomiting and diarrhea for the last week. She was very emaciated with sunken cheeks and she vomited right in front of us. The doctors rigged up an IV that was held aloft by her son and plans were made to transport her to the Esperanza public hospital, despite her weak protests. Likewise, young parents were shocked when they were informed that their two-year-old daughter’s failure to thrive was probably due to a hole in her heart, heard via a whooshing sound through a stethoscope.

Then there was a scantily-clad 18-year-old girl with long earrings, plucked eyebrows, and heavy make-up who confided that her period was late. “Could I get pregnant after only one time?” she asked rather plaintively. “Yes,” Dr. Kate, a pediatrician from California, and I agreed, it takes only one time. A pregnancy tested confirmed her fears. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes, “I don’t dare tell my mother. She’ll be so angry; she already has nine children, including a new baby, and no husband.” I asked where her mother was and she reluctantly pointed her out, sitting a little ways back on a small school chair in the waiting line, clutching a tiny infant and holding the hand of another child with Down Syndrome. I gestured to the mother to come in and sit next to our young patient on the examination table. “Do you have something to tell your mother?” I asked the younger woman. She shook her head. “What?” asked the mother. Finally, the daughter blurted out, “I’m pregnant.” “Oh, no,” sighed the mother, “yet another problem.” We found out the mother was only 36, so she must have had her daughter at age 18, the same age as the daughter now. We gave the mother a year’s supply of birth control pills with detailed instructions for their use.

We also found three kids with congenital cataracts, whose information I took down to try to help them later. And, there was a girl with a recent severe hearing loss after suffering a fever.

We were concerned at discovering a few chinche bugs, carriers of the slow to develop, but eventually fatal, Chagas disease. These insects typically infest thatch- and tile-roof houses in rural areas, falling on their sleeping victims during the night. If a bite is noticed, immediate treatment can halt the disease in its tracks.
Some IHS folks rode horses after hours just for fun, but not me. As my readers know, I’m not so fond of horseback riding, though I will do it if there is no other transportation available.

In a second town, where we spent the weekend also seeing patients, we were joined by two Honduran dentists, invited by the local Red Cross. Their borrowed Ford sputtered and jerked climbing up the rocky road and when it sputtered to a stop in the schoolyard where we were setting up operations, the dentists suddenly realized that they had put diesel into a gasoline-powered vehicle! After an anti-siphoning device thwarted their efforts to drain out the diesel, the Esperanza ambulance (donated by the Japanese government), which had helped in our own transport, was dispatched to get some gas to put on top of the diesel to help dilute it, but without success. The Ford’s battery was running low because of continued efforts to start it, so the ambulance battery was then pressed into service, but still no go. Finally, a cell-phone call was made to a mechanic in La Esperanza, who came out, used tools to drain the tank, and charged the equivalent of $100. The leader of our IHS group refused to cover this cost, which was paid by the Esperanza Red Cross.

The school in this second town, I noted, was named for the late Ramón Amaya Amador, author of numerous novels, his most famous being Jacinta Peralta.

IHS makes two annual trips to Honduras, one in February to the Esperanza area, as we were doing, and one in October to La Mosquitía, the remote eastern province inhabited by Misquito Indians. Participants told me that October’s was the more arduous trip, requiring travel in a Russian transport plane (probably like one I took in Sudan), and along rivers and across lakes via open boat, sometimes battered by storms, as that is still the rainy season. I think I’ll just stick with La Esperanza.

I couldn’t help musing that while in the US, being without electricity and running water is considered an emergency, in Honduras, many thousands of families are living without these amenities all the time. Of course, the climate is milder, but still, their carbon footprint is miniscule. Also, in Honduras overall, perhaps because many are already living at a subsistence level, the economic downturn did not seem to be having such a drastic effect, relatively speaking, as in the US.

When I returned to Wendy and Luis’ house after the brigade, I learned that Sandra’s tumor had indeed returned and that she would have to have surgery again when the surgeons’ returned again in August. I don’t know whether I can go back for that. I want to talk with the surgeons in the US to find out more particulars first. By radio and cell phone, we again asked Sandra’s father to come to La Esperanza with the girl to explain exactly what the doctors had said. Instead, the mother arrived with her two youngest children and no Sandra. But, I couldn’t be too miffed, as she brought me a live chicken.

Back at School
I left the brigade and returned by bus to the blind school in Teguc on a Sunday afternoon. One of my bus companions asked me to help his 7-year-old daughter who had a kidney problem that caused infections and made her wet the bed. She had been seen already at two Teguc hospitals.

When I got to the school, all the students were now present, classes had started, and there was much noisy activity in the patio and hallways. I made my way to the room occupied by my friend Gloria to visit with her. Not only was she there, but her roommate Marta (also mentioned in my book) had arrived recently, along with Julisa, the abandoned blind girl she had informally adopted. Gloria’s own young charge, María Lourdes, was there also. Both girls were 11 years old and shared the room with their foster mothers.

We were sitting on beds in the room, just chatting amiably, when Marta crumpled silently to the floor. Julisa, who had been sitting beside her, let out a loud wail. I rushed over, but Marta was unconscious and felt like dead weight. On a cell phone, we called an ambulance and I alerted one of the sighted staff, Bethy (pronounced “Betty”). Fortunately, she was able to find Marta’s ID and medical card. Although we were right next to San Felipe Hospital, I was told that Marta was not authorized to go there, only to Seguro Social (Social Security). While we waited what seemed an interminable time for the ambulance, Julisa practically went into hysterics, sobbing and crying out “Mama Marta.” Lourdes then went calmly over to Julisa, felt under the bed for her shoes to put on her feet, and led her to the outer passageway where all the other girls gathered around to comfort her.

When the ambulance finally arrived, the attendants couldn’t get the stretcher through the narrow door to the room where Marta was lying, so they just picked her up and carried her outside. Bethy and I went with her in the ambulance, while Marta lay on the stretcher with an oxygen mask over her face. With sirens blaring, we wove through crowded city streets. In the hospital emergency room, it was determined that Marta, a diabetic, was suffering from low blood sugar and with an IV infusion, she was soon awake, though still groggy. She remembered nothing about falling or the ambulance ride. She wanted to get up and leave the hospital immediately, but was found to have too many red blood cells and was placed in bed #16 in a ward with 20 women all sharing a single toilet. I could see that a blind person would not want to be left in such an unfamiliar place, but the hospital staff insisted that she stay.

Soon Irma and her husband arrived in the emergency room, having been called by someone at the school. Irma’s formerly hennaed hair was now completely white, “No time to dye it,” she remarked. She told me she was practically going crazy now, trying since her mother’s death to direct both the school and her adult center. She urged me to spend a night again at the women’s dorm at the center. Remembering the time I had stayed there with Denise, as recounted in my book, I said, “No thanks.” “But it’s totally new, you really must try it,” she urged. That would be the only time I would see Irma on this trip.

The next morning, I noticed Julisa sitting out alone after the students had had their usual breakfast, consisting of tortillas, beans, and black coffee. She looked quite forlorn, so I sat down beside her and identified myself. I told her that when I’d left the hospital the night before, Marta was awake and talking and that she hoped to be released soon. She had said she was worried about Julisa. The girl slipped her right hand into mine—her left is somewhat awkward, due to an apparent congenital stroke affecting her left side, which may also have caused her blindness. Julisa is an attractive girl with curly light-brown hair who speaks with a slight lisp. She began rambling on rather fancifully about a magic wind that would soon bring Marta back. Then she told me that her hands were cold. Yes, they were. Would I bring her gloves next time? She clapped her hands together, “Yes, yes, I need gloves.” I told her that gloves would blunt the feeling in her hands, but that on my next visit, I would try to remember to bring her some for cooler weather.
Other girls came to sit down next to me and also a few boys. The boys were rather bold, searching my pockets, which was really a little too fresh.

One little sightless boy of 8, but the size of a baby, was not walking, had no intelligible speech, and wore diapers. A blind sister, two years older, was developmentally normal. An older sighted sister was also staying at the school, assigned to take care of her younger brother. The three were said to be orphans who had no other home.

The students were convened to recite morning prayers and sing the national anthem, continuing to sing in a chorus afterward, while their blind teacher played the piano in accompaniment. They sang so sweetly, boys on one side of the room, girls on the other, in prefect harmony. Later, I heard some kids playing recorders and one, even, an electronic keyboard. Those kids, especially Julisa and Lourdes, have since appeared in my dreams.

Operation Smile
I then spent a few days at the adjacent San Felipe Hospital helping out with the harelip/cleft-palate brigade, called Operación Sonrisa in Spanish. Several high school students from a bilingual school were also serving as interpreters. I mostly helped speech therapists passing out balloons and other devices designed to help children learn to use their mouths in new ways after surgery. Most kids were either still coming out of anesthesia or cranky. One of the Honduran nurses told me that her husband was an American and gave me her contact information.

I tried to promote milk-drinking among the kids—recommending powdered milk mixed with purified water. Parents nodded, but I didn’t know if they really planned to comply. I almost sat on another chair where a child had peed, but this time noticed it in time.

After finishing with IHS and Operation Smile, I began fading—the old familiar compassion fatigue was setting in. I greatly admire people who can keep on going. My limit in Honduras now seems to be only three or four weeks. How did I keep it up for 3 ½ years in the Peace Corps? Only by taking breaks now and then.

Santa Lucía
While waiting for the bus from Teguc to neighboring Santa Lucía, I talked with a patent medicine salesman who works the buses. His sales were down. He also said that he had slept very close to a fan one night and, ever since, had been hearing an annoying ringing in his ear. I told him that, unfortunately, such ringing is often due to nerve damage and is usually not curable. He could either try to mask the sound or just learn to live with it, though he should consult with an audiologist just to make sure. He said he couldn’t afford to see one.

The girl sitting next to me on the bus to Santa Lucía had been working as a maid in another town, but had become homesick and quit. She asked me to take her to the States with me. “You’d get even more homesick there,” I observed.

At the adult blind center, Irma’s husband told me that she was off somewhere, but had authorized me to stay at the women’s dorm, so I needed to return before 9 pm, when the doors were locked. I sought out Maribel, where Sandy was staying. Sandy, as you will recall from my book, is a former PC health volunteer who comes every year to Honduras to help children attend surgical brigades. She said her fundraising had fallen off this year, but she was still able to bring podiatrists from California to do clubfoot surgeries and she planned to stay a few months in Honduras, as usual, following up on patients and perhaps helping some kids who needed surgery in the States to get there. I had nominated Sandy once before for a PC award for older volunteers, the Lillian Carter Award. But, somehow, she had missed the ceremony, so I nominated her again this year. [She came in second, but did not win.]

That evening, Maribel and Sandy invited me to accompany them to a spaghetti dinner at a neighbor’s house, where we were also served piña coladas. Classical music played softly in the background. That was the most luxurious, most relaxing, meal I had in Honduras, making me aware how attached I am to creature comforts.

Before 9 pm, I returned to the blind center and chatted with a few male students standing around outside, including Gernán, the man with skin scales all over his body, still living there. Then I entered the women’s dorm and introduced myself to the dozen women lying stretched out on bunk beds. All were surprised by my arrival. Irma had mentioned nothing to them. But they were quite hospitable, tossing me an extra sheet and bedspread on the empty bed I had selected. I mentioned that Denise and I had spent a night in the old dorm back in 2003 and some of them had heard of her, always described to them as a shining benevolent angel from California who had come once, but never returned.

At the end of the dorm room was a bathroom with two toilets in open stalls with no doors and two shower stalls. When Denise and I had stayed in the old dorm, there had been a single shower over a claw-foot tub placed in a corner of the room with a shower curtain around it. The only toilet had been located down a long outside hallway.

In the darkened dorm room, the women began talking softly among themselves. One lamented being separated from her two children, another, from her boy friend. I slept fully clothed, as the thin bedspread lent me was insufficient covering against the night chill.

Promptly at 5 am, everyone got up and started talking and singing. Two women began vigorously sweeping and mopping the floor in their bare feet, feeling across the surface for dirt with their toes. I went into the kitchen, where a partially sighted woman was preparing breakfast: beans and plantains fried in lard. It didn’t look too appetizing, so I went over to Maribel’s for breakfast.

The day before my departure, I accompanied Sandy on rounds in a car that she keeps in Honduras. As we entered the parking lot of the presidential palace in Teguc to deliver some official papers, the guard at the entrance exclaimed, “¡Hola Doña Bárbara!” I looked at him quizzically. Surely my fame had not spread here. He turned out to be a younger son of Blanca, my faithful health promoter back in Río Grande #1. I hadn’t seen him for several years and he was now all grown up. He advised me not to confuse him with his older brother, the officer who had gone to Iraq. “I’m just an ordinary soldier,” he shrugged.

Sandy took me to a hotel where she keeps a pool membership and rents a poolside cabaña. Wealthy Hondurans and their children were splashing around.
My last night in Honduras was spent at the home of Loni’s friend Sandra, whom she had insisted I visit. Sandra’s husband had gone to live with his other woman and she said, good riddance. “We’re only women living here now,” she declared, “No men allowed.” Because her husband was a public employee, her child support was automatically deducted from his wages. Sandra had enrolled in a course at the university, but wasn’t working.

Also sharing the little house were Loni’s sister Fátima, a young female cousin (both of them students as well), and Sandra’s two daughters. Space was tight, only two crowded bedrooms, one with bunk beds, and a very tiny bathroom. A chirpy parakeet was in a cage set on the kitchen table. Two dogs remained outside as watchdogs. The rooms were very cluttered. Again, I felt I was imposing, but it would have given offense if I had left after all the anticipation of my visit.

On the following morning, I was awakened at 6 am by a blaring radio. Hearing the rosary being recited on air, I realized that the day before had been Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent. Suddenly, over the sounds of the radio, the three women began talking excitedly about turning their miniscule living room, with its old couch bursting with stuffing, into a pulpería, a convenience store selling snacks, purified water, and mondongo, tripe soup, on weekends. Another nearby residence offering those same services had decided to close its doors. Their main problem was lack of capital to buy the initial supplies, but when I left, there was much bold talk about starting out small and growing exponentially by reinvesting their earnings.

Out at the airport, I noticed a bookstore selling books in English, including several guidebooks to Honduras. I had already given away all the copies of my book, but I thought it would be a natural to be sold here and asked for contact information.

I then made a stopover in Miami, visiting Armando, a man with a rare kidney disease who had been unable to obtain his medications in Cuba, despite its vaunted health care system. I had brought him to the US via Mexico years ago and he was now married to a Nicaraguan woman trying to bring her daughters to the US. I also visited Jorge Valls, an ailing Cuban poet-philosopher, some of whose works I had translated, who had spent more than 20 years as a political prisoner. And I did a book reading at a Haitian restaurant in Miami Beach organized by my childhood friend Erika and again at the Delray Beach public library, where my brother lives.

Other members of the IHS brigade e-mailed me their photos, some of which are posted above. One is of a sugarcane press being used by a small boy, producing sugarcane juice, a popular beverage. Another displays chinche bugs, the carriers of Chagas disease.

Why do I keep returning to Honduras? That’s a question often asked by those who wonder why I joined the Peace Corps in the first place. What can I say? It’s a chance to live intensely, experience high adventure and drama, and contribute, however modestly, to human welfare. It has broadened my perspective and helped me get beyond the loss of my cherished son, my foster son, and other loved ones. And, it doesn’t hurt my ego either that folks are always thrilled to see me. On this trip, when Hondurans asked me whether I’d be back again next year, I said, “Si quiera Dios,” God willing.