Yes, my Central America trip report at long last appears below, all you wanted to know and then some. I could easily write another book about my several return trips, six so far. I’m still working on the trip photos, to appear shortly. Meanwhile, excuses, excuses about the delay.
For example, I was authorized by Amnesty International-USA to attend the Annual General Meeting in New Orleans April 8-11 (now past), but by the time I was given the go-ahead, it turned out to be too late. After spending countless hours searching by phone and Internet and not finding a vacancy in any nearby accommodation in the French Quarter where the conference was taking place and after airfares were coming out even higher than my trip to Honduras, I gave up. But precious time had already been invested in the search. Surely, I thought, the attendance at our conference was not causing this huge demand. In fact, it turns out, that weekend the annual French Quarter Festival was taking place and, as an Amnesty friend living in New Orleans discovered, even more than that, to wit:
Hey Barbara Joe:
I wanted to let you know what I found out. The French Quarter Festival and the National Republican Southern Leadership Conference will be in town - Palin, Huckabee, and all the big whig elephants are going to be in town - I think they are the reason why high priced hotel rooms. I really think it's the Repub Leadership conference that is taking up all the hotel rooms - I'm thinking the tea party peeps are descending on New Orleans!
Recently, I met a man who said he can read Kindle books on his cell phone and was considering ordering my book on Kindle. I am continually surprised at how rapidly technology is changing the reading experience. Regular book publishers will soon go the way of newspapers.
The local Spanish-language press reports that undocumented Chileans in the US demonstrated in front of their embassy, asking for Temporary Protective Status in the wake of the earthquake and exhorting their new president, Sebastian Pinera, to raise the issue in his meeting with Obama. They’ve also started a Facebook page on the issue. Most readers know that I’m in favor of allowing undocumented folks who have established a crime-free life here (traffic tickets and misdemeanors don’t count) to remain, not only for their sake and that of their native countries, but because of the demographic catastrophe that awaits the US without their labor and social security contributions. Let’s face it, our native-born population is getting progressively older and is not replacing itself. If we don’t become more friendly to immigration, we’ll end up like Japan with an ever-expanding older retired population being supported by a tiny number of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
An opinion piece in the Washington Hispanic speculates that Cuba’s Women in White, who march every Sunday in total silence carrying flowers, might be able to spark political reform in Cuba after other efforts over the years have failed.
In other news, the presidents of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were planning to meet to discuss normalization of relations with Honduras. The Honduran government is being asked to name two members of a truth commission, headed by the Guatemalan vice president, that is investigating the Zelaya affair.
I finally renewed my driver’s license after undergoing an eye exam (finding I don’t even need glasses to drive) and getting a clean bill of health on a physical exam, as per DC requirements for driver’s whose license expires after age 70. I was in a hurry to get the renewed license since Rob, a new housemate, was being held back in getting his own DC driver’s license and car registration because he needed my valid driver’s license to back up the paperwork attesting to his residence at my address. He tried using my license that had expired days earlier, but it was not accepted. Then he went down with the renewed license and discovered that a year ago, in adjoining Md., a state that has reciprocity with DC, he was clocked exceeding the limit by a speed camera, but the notice never reached him. Now he must pay off that whopping bill, which has accumulated some penalties and interest, before finally being able to obtain his DC license. Is driving worth it? I’m just as glad not to have a car and to rent one only when I need it.
Won’t tell you about all my interpreting assignments, most that tug on the heartstrings, the intellect, or both. But one stood out, involving a family recently arrived in this country after years of waiting for (legal) immigrants’ visas and not yet speaking English. Without identifying them further, I will only say that it was a juvenile case involving a boy who said he had been feeling suddenly ill after school and went into a bathroom that turned out to be a girls’ bathroom, though he said it wasn’t marked. A girl came in and informed him of that, so he says he left. Later she accused him of exposing himself, which he hotly denied, “That would be against my religion.” Still, the school suspended him. The family, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, gave me a brochure in Spanish, assuring me of eternal life and the end of my suffering. They also wanted the accused and the girl to be subjected to lie detector tests. Instead, the case was dismissed since it was a matter of “he said, she said” with no witnesses. The boy had changed schools after the suspension, but the family still felt aggrieved and wanted justice and were not reassured at being told that juvenile records are confidential. I tended to believe the boy’s story because the girl had failed to appear to make her own case and had only reported the alleged incident the day after. An unfortunate way to start out in a new country.
On March 27, Nancy, a GAO fellow from Kenya, arrived in DC, jet-lagged, hungry, and cold. We had been having warm weather for the last week and a half before, but the night before she came, the temperature dipped below freezing. Worse yet, the radiator in her room did not heat up. I gave her an electric heater and piled her bed with blankets.
The next day, we had belated birthday celebration for me with daughter Melanie from NC and her family, including her daughter Natasha and Natasha’s son DeAndre.
Some items about Cuba—I agree with Hillary Clinton that the Cuban government does not want the embargo to end. However, the US could still end it unilaterally, right? After all, we imposed it to begin with.
LOS ANGELES: Sun., Mar. 28,2010, Hunger for ChangeinCuba.com and march with Andy Garcia
The Academy Award nominee and past Roots conference keynote said "We are walking in silence, dressed in the white-the color of peace and absolute freedom-to show solidarity with the Cuban people, and especially the women in white (Damas de Blanco)." Please join Cubans in L.A. from 2-5 PM at Jose Marti Statue in Echo Park. Procession begins at 4pm. (Note: Please wear white and bring a flower.) For more info on Hunger for Change, please visit www.ChangeinCuba.com
Castros sabotage ending U.S. Cuba embargo: Clinton
Reuters – Friday, April 9, 2010
WASHINGTON - Cuba's President Raul Castro and his brother, ex-leader Fidel Castro, have sought to sabotage U.S. moves to improve ties because they fear it will threaten their power, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.
Clinton said Cuba's response to Obama administration efforts to enhance cooperation revealed "an intransigent, entrenched regime" that had no interest in political reform or ending the isolation imposed by Washington's 48-year old economic embargo on the island.
"It is my personal belief that the Castros do not want to see an end to the embargo and do no want to see normalization with the United States, because they would lose all of their excuses for what hasn't happened in Cuba in the last 50 years," Clinton said
"I find that very sad, because there should be an opportunity for a transition to a full democracy in Cuba and it's going to happen at some point, but it may not happen any time soon."
Obama has said he wants to recast ties that have been hostile since soon after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro stepped aside as president because of illness, with his younger brother Raul formally taking over in 2008.
The United States has over the past year lifted limits on Cuban Americans traveling and sending money to Cuba, and initiated talks with Havana on migration and mail service.
But Obama has said the economic embargo will stay until Cuba improves human rights and frees political detainees, and Clinton said the outlook was not good on either front.
"If you look at any opening to Cuba you can almost chart how the Castro regime does something to try to stymie it," Clinton said while answering questions at Kentucky's University of Louisville.
Clinton noted that in 1996, when her husband former President Bill Clinton was seeking to improve ties, Cuba shot down two small U.S. planes that were distributing leaflets. The incident effectively ended that overture.
Over the past year, despite Obama's willingness to improve ties, Cuba arrested a U.S. contractor on suspicion of espionage while political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after an 85-day hunger strike in protest against prison conditions, Clinton said.
"It's a dilemma," Clinton said. "I hope (they) will begin to change. We're open to changing with them, but I don't know that that will happen before some more time goes by."
February 2010—Panama-Honduras: Medical Brigades and More
Panama 60 years later
Not long after midnight on Feb. 1, I boarded a shuttle to Washington DC’s Dulles airport for an early morning flight direct to Panama City. Panama City (!?) you may ask; that’s not in Honduras. Right, but at no extra charge, I was able to stop there for a few days on my way to Honduras, thanks to an invitation from Peace Corps volunteers who had read my book. The shuttle driver, from Malta but now living in NYC, had been transferred temporarily to DC because of greater demand, sleeping in a special group residence. Another passenger, Tomas, was on my same flight to Panama, but changing there for Santiago, Chile. We were dropped off at 2am, before the gates actually opened at 4am. Tomas fell asleep on the floor, but I was hardly in the mood for sleeping. I had to be patted down by a female agent after my bobby pins set of f the alarm, no chances being taken after the underwear bomber. My late mother, whom I used to accompany on Thanksgiving flights to Florida, steadfastly refused to remove her shoes and always had to be patted own. A woman in line behind me from Buenos Aires tried to convert me on the spot to the Pentecostal Church, saying I needed to be baptized with water (I was) and that she was cured of cancer by the Holy Spirit (but apparently not of her mobility problem).
A rather unappetizing breakfast was served which made me feel like upchucking as all the blood drained from my extremities. I searched in vain for an airsickness bag and made a hasty exit toward the aisle, waking Tomas, occupying the aisle seat in my row. Of course, the lavatories were occupied and when they vacated, my nausea had passed. I arrived at Panama City’s Tocumen airport—in Teguc, the airport is Tincontin, likewise an indigenous name. Outside the airport were colorfully decorated recycled American school buses, the typical yellow so common in Honduras all painted over.
At Peace Corps headquarters, located in a building shared with the fire department, I met volunteers, staff, and the country director and donated a couple copies of my book. (See my photo standing out in front.) Bob, a Peace Corps Response volunteer near my own age, then invited me along on visits to folks he was working with, including members of a women’s agricultural coop. PC Response volunteers, readers of my book will recall, have already honorably served a regular term and now agree return for assignments usually of six months, though possibly lasting anywhere from three to twelve months. Bob, who had served in Colombia years ago and learned Spanish there, had started out with a six-month stint, then renewed for an additional six months.
I had not been in Panama for almost 60 years, when our family sailed through the canal on our way to the west coast of Colombia. Naturally, much had changed. Panama, which has only 3 ½ million people (the same as the greater DC area), seemed to me more “American” than Puerto Rico and relatively clean and prosperous. You even can drink tap water. Streets and sidewalks have no trash and there are curb cuts for wheelchairs. Radio announcements were asking for text donations to Haiti relief. Most people have cell phones, so the whole country’s phone book is only about an inch thick. Dollars are the official paper currency, though called balboas, but coins are locally minted. Superhighways, new cars, establishments with English names, and buildings in the former canal zone (turned over to Panama 10 years ago, according to an agreement made with President Jimmy Carter during his term) all give the country a US look and feel.
Only out in the countryside do more typical Latin American vistas appear. Panama’s unemployment rate is only 4% and the worldwide recession has reportedly had little effect. Panamanians are not economic migrants, so the economy is not dependent on remittances. However, the dollar’s fall in value has affected imports.
Panama’s new president, conservative millionaire Ricardo Martinelli, renounced his presidential salary. He owns a national supermarket chain, Super 99, modeled on Wal-Mart, which he learned about from Sam Walt himself when he was studying in Arkansas. He claims to be incorruptible, but his underlings with less wealth cannot make the same claim in Panama’s famously corruptible government. I noticed in the local press that much anti-Chavez feeling was expressed and that 50 Cuban ophthalmologists and their assistants had been asked to leave a few months early because of alleged faulty treatment and misuse of records. Whether or not that was actually true, I was in no position to judge.
The weather during my few days’ stay was dry (it was dry season) and warm, peaking at about 90F, but not unbearable. At night, it fell to about 80F, comfortable enough with a fan blowing.
Sharing challenges and adventures with a Peace Corps Response volunteer
Being in Panama among Peace Corps volunteers, especially Bob, a PC Response volunteer, I felt the urge to re-up, though it would be hard to get out of my present family and work obligations. I am already age 72, and if I were away from my interpretation work more than the annual month I spend in Honduras, I am not sure a job would still be waiting for me on my return.
Outside Chitre, Bob’s town, was a mosque and many residents, Bob said, are of Chinese or Palestinian origin. We met some of them. Bob seemed to have good rapport with the members of the women’s ag cooperative we visited, but, as is not unusual, he faced opposition from a local guy who thought Bob was encroaching on his territory and threatening a lucrative contract he had with a UN agency. Although Bob had made arrangements in advance and confirmed them the day before for our visit to the coop, this man had made sure most of the women were away at a distant workshop and he had also convinced them to cut down a big stand of gandul (pigeon pea) bushes producing valuable protein-rich beans, “simply to annoy me,” Bob said. I introduced myself to the guy and extended my hand, but he neither shook my hand nor replied, instead turning rudely away. The few women present appeared embarrassed and apologetic, but afraid to say anything. Bob had hoped to have another volunteer follow him in working with these women, but I told him that if an experienced person like himself was being thwarted by this UN-designated guy, there was no way a new volunteer would be able to cope. Bob hated to abandon the women, especially since the UN guy was causing their agricultural work to be totally unproductive, but his own efforts were being deliberately nullified by the opposition of this one man, who had told the women (so they confided later) that they must never trust the US government, especially, the Peace Corps. The only remedy was to encourage the women, who were also very unhappy about the situation, to go above the guy’s head directly to the UN funders. However, they were hesitant for fear that nothing would be done and that they might suffer reprisals as a result.
While Bob waited outside, I introduced myself to a rural health center, similar to those in Honduras, but better maintained and equipped, with most patients, at least in that particular region, apparently of African heritage. Patients pay a dollar a visit.
On our minibus journey around the region, we passed sugarcane and rice fields, air plants and orchids growing on electric lines, and sprouting fence posts. A fellow passenger was carrying a pet monkey, a tiny, dark-furred creature with enormous eyes that peered out of holes in a cardboard box.
In a rural town, we stopped at the home of a couple Bob knew. The wife said she had married her husband when she was only 11, but they’d been quite happy together now for 30 years. They had built their cement-block house themselves with its outdoor pila and latrine and with only curtains between rooms, no doors, like those I was familiar with in Honduras. But unlike similar Honduran houses, they had electricity, using energy efficient light bulbs (as in Honduras, a gift of Venezuela), and also had a TV set and a computer, but no Internet.
Bob and some other volunteers were called away to an unanticipated training session during my visit, but Bob let me stay in his neat, comfortable apartment for a couple of days in the small city of Chitre in his absence. There was no hot water, but it really wasn’t necessary. The electricity never went off, but sometimes the water did. Bob said there are no street names in Panama and no postal delivery except to PO boxes. I tried to get an earlier flight to Honduras after the volunteers left, but no seats were available. So, I explored Chitre on my own and also went to a local dentist, who for a reasonable price and with no advance notice, cleaned my teeth and replaced a broken filling. For a dollar, I bought a sugar cone heaped with two flavors of homemade ice cream, Maracuya and Guanabana, a tasty combination. I also looked in on the town’s three casinos and bought a few prescription drugs, some of US manufacture, costing less than half their price here, something I had also experienced in Honduras and Mexico. You may suspect that these were fake medications, but they did the trick in lowering my blood pressure and helping my arthritis, so if they were really fake (notwithstanding their normal appearance down to the small-print product inserts), they were certainly effective placebos. My contention is that pharmaceutical manufacturers deliberately jack up prices for US customers, which is why they fought so hard and successfully to prevent re-importation of drugs under health care reform. For other countries, drug companies are willing to accept lower profits, especially since otherwise, their drugs wouldn’t sell there. Charges are geared to what the local market will bear.
Among people I met in Panama was a Cuna (San Blas) Indian woman (see photos), who had journeyed from her native islands to be with a daughter giving birth to her second child. I also met Bonnie, a former Panama PCV who had given up her job and residence in the US Midwest to start a bed-and-breakfast called Casa del Puerto in Guarare on the Pacific coast. Panama, a long snake-shaped isthmus, has extensive Atlantic and Pacific coasts and long stretches of lovely beaches. In Panama, the minimum monthly wage is $250. In much more impoverished Honduras, it was raised to $270 by Zelaya, certainly, by comparison, out-of-sinc with that country’s economy.
In Chitre, I also met a rather-eccentric looking man about my age, Raul Espino, son and nephew of two former president brothers. A thin, pale, small man with bluish eyes, he had long white hair and a droopy Fu Man Chu mustache and beard. Despite the heat, he wore a long-sleeved drab shirt, wrinkled pants, and a hat pulled down over bushy white eye brows. He looked almost like a beggar or bum, but, no, he spoke (Spanish) with precise diction and grammar, almost poetically, reminding me of a Cuban philosopher friend. He said he had cared for his parents for 20 years until their recent deaths. He also was carrying a black folding umbrella under his arm, as he said he had been hiking in the mountains and is very susceptible to sunburn. He identified himself as an artist, a painter, and now free of caring for his parents, so he planned to travel north through Central America by bus, then south through South America. He looked so frail and innocent, I warned him to be careful on buses as other countries have more crime than Panama apparently has. He reported that he had moved out of the family estate into a small hotel and was offering the property for sale for $230,000, exactly as it was when his parents lived there, complete with furniture, linens, dishes, nicknacks, and ample walled gardens. He was planning to leave everything behind for a peripatetic life. When he mentioned his 21-year-old granddaughter, I said I have one that age too, but with a two-year-old son.
Because I was traveling with two large suitcases of goods destined for Honduras and because Chitre is located about 4 hours from the airport in Panama City, I decided not to try to get there on buses, especially being unfamiliar with Panamanian buses and their routes. Instead, I hired a taxi, bright yellow like all Panamanian taxis, whose driver paid me the compliment of asking whether I was Honduran. Our flight to Teguc stopped first in San Jose, CR. Then there was our usual precipitous landing in Teguc, with applause from the passengers aboard.
From Teguc to Cholu and points south
In Tegucigalpa, by prearrangement, I was met at the airport by Rev. Daniel who arrived from Choluteca in his battered pick-up. He picked up a friend to guide us to the school for the blind, where I left off one of my heavy suitcases, asking folks there to hold it until I returned. A building being constructed in the vicinity had dumped piles of scrap metal into the street, which Daniel loaded onto his pickup to give to a church member who sells scrap metal. Because I was on a tight schedule, we drove immediately to Choluteca that very same evening. On the way, Daniel told me that he would soon be departing Honduras to head up a church in his native Guatemala, leaving behind all the rancor of his divorce. Perhaps there he would meet a new wife after his several years of celibacy. He planned to stay initially with his mother, who already had his childhood room prepared. He realized he would have to adjust to the cool temperatures of his original highland town after so many years of living in overheated southern Honduras. The main problem was leaving behind his two children, as he had been helping their mother with much of their upbringing. However, the kids had already visited his Guatemalan town and were eager to spend vacations with him there.
In Choluteca, without prior notice, I entered the functional chaos of Lesly’s (Loni in the book) family home where everyone played musical beds to accommodate me, with the usual series of people coming and going, some staying over, none ever introduced. I’d say, “Hello, I’m Barbara, a friend of the family who worked with Dr. Lesly in El Triunfo when I was in the Peace Corps there.” Do they ever reciprocate by telling me who they are? No.
The high temperature each day I was in the south exceeded 100F and I had only one hot weather outfit, a pair of red shorts and a T-shirt saying Haitian Elections 1990, from my time there as an election observer. Each evening I had to wash and hang up those clothes. On the first evening, while we all were sitting together outside, the air was so still and stifling that a daughter-in-law placed a standing electric fan in the doorway to blow out a little air. I poured water over my head, which helped. Lesly’s family, especially her brother, were strong Zelaya supporters, but seemed reconciled to the fact that he would probably never return. Most had also voted for Lobo, the president of the National Party elected in Nov. Meanwhile, according to the TV news flickering through the open doorway, record snowfalls had engulfed DC.
The next morning, Daniel and I went to the second-hand shop San Jose Obrero to buy items for Teleton, the rehab center. I was looking specifically for crutches, having not brought any along this trip because of my initial Panama stop. There were no crutches this time, but I found some walkers and also a folding transport wheelchair, that is, one with only small wheels so the occupant has to be pushed and cannot self-propel. It was also missing an armrest and a footrest. Nonetheless, I was so enthusiastic about getting it for Teleton, even in its imperfect state, that I did not bargain as I should have and ended up paying almost $100.
Before leaving, I met the priest in charge, Father Alejandro, a native of Cuba, who has an arrangement with friends in Miami to send cargo containers periodically to the Caribbean port of La Ceiba. He said I was welcome to send anything I liked in his container free-of-charge, but he has no storage facilities in either port, so getting it to and from the container would be my responsibility.
Quads at Teleton, Jorge again
We took my purchases over to Teleton, then toured the building, where I met the Cuban doctor in charge and a Cuban occupational therapist working with a hand patient. However, a staff member said that when the term of the current Cuban medical workers is over, Cuba won’t send any more because of unhappiness over the Zelaya affair.
I not only observed what hand and physical therapists were doing (not so different from in the US), but also interventions with kids with developmental disabilities, including infants. Among the infants was a set of 9-month-old quadruplets, three girls and a boy. The mother and grandmother were both there, working with them because of developmental delays and their premature birth. The young mother told me it had been her first pregnancy and that she had really been surprised and overwhelmed when she gave birth to four babies all at once. I guess so!
At the home of Jorge Beltran, the boy with the amputated fingers (read my book), now 17, I learned that he wants to study IT after graduating from high school. I really intend and hope I will be able to help him with his future studies. Not only do I feel I owe it to him, but he is bright and has definite potential (though he could very well resent me for having propelled him to the surgery that cost him his fingers.) But, unfortunately, with Daniel now leaving, I will no longer be able to funnel money to Jorge through him. This trip, Jorge seemed less bitter and guarded than when I saw him last year. He gave me an awkward hug, barely touching me in the intense heat, and handed me a necklace with a little amulet that he was wearing. I mistook the amulet for a palm tree, but found out from my kids later that it really is a marijuana leaf!
From there, we drove to Guasaule on paved roads with white lines between each side, a new development. Signs on rocks and buildings proclaimed “Mel” (Mel Zelaya, deposed president) and Micheletti (interim president). Caricatures of Hugo Chavez had an X drawn through them. We were stuck behind a truck labeled Heritage, New Hampshire’s Most Trusted Plumber. In Guasaule, I found Bessy, the paralyzed woman, lying in bed naked, as usual, lamenting that her wheelchair had a broken foot pedal and that she had no money at all to buy urine bags. There was nothing I could do about the wheelchair on the spot and, quite frankly, when the temperature is 104F, it’s hard to think straight about any problem. I pressed some bills into her sweaty hand and made her don a slip before I took her picture. Daniel waited outside talking to the neighbors, as it was stifling inside her hut. Just as last year, no vestige of the house where the elderly Santos had once lived remained and no one appeared to remember him.
Weaving my way down a hill and through a barbed wire fence to the tortilla stand behind the Guasaule market, instead of Marciel’s mother, I was surprised to find Marciel herself standing there cooking over a wood fire. We embraced. Now 17, still bearing facial burn scars incurred when a kerosene lamp overturned when she was small, she seemed more at ease with her appearance and said she was doing well in school. She is another youngster I would like to help with her education. Marciel was working instead of her mother because the mother was at the public hospital in Choluteca with her younger brother, who had been severely burned by a bunch of firecrackers carried in his pocket to celebrate the upcoming St. Valentine’s Day holiday. Poor mom, a second child with serious burns! With 9 or 11 children, I forget the exact number, and as a single parent living in primitive conditions and working every day of the year, it’s no wonder that the mother has been unable to supervised her kids properly and protect them from harm. I gave Marciel a scar treatment cream that probably will do little good at this late date and some cash for lack of any other assistance while Daniel, not eager to be walking around in the heat, was waiting for me somewhat impatiently in his car on the roadway above.
Sometimes I just feel overwhelmed by all the problems I encounter in my small sphere of influence in Honduras and my modest ability to remedy them. Beyond simply handing out money, which is of some assistance, I wish I could afford these youngsters more sustained guidance and moral support, but my means and time are limited. I also have family responsibilities back in the USA, now going down to the third generation with great-grandson DeAndre. In olden days, young people helped support their elders! This is not happening to me, especially since the recession.
We visited my champion health promoters, Lea in Matapalos and Blanca in Rio Grande #1. I didn’t think Daniel’s ancient vehicle could make it up those rocky roads, but somehow it did. At Lea’s, I began giving out reading glasses in various strengths to the adults and magic towels as well, tiny balls that swell up and unfold into small towels when immersed in water. The word must have gone out, as more and more neighbors kept arriving with their kids until almost all my magic towels and eye glasses (100 of each item) were gone. Lea expressed vigorous support for Zelaya, saying, “He was for the poor, for us.” Daniel was not particularly enthusiastic about Zelaya, but felt he had no right to comment as a Guatemalan. Differences of opinion were expressed among those gathered, with all agreeing that the rough way that Zelaya was removed was not right, but some felt he had indeed violated the constitution and gotten too cozy with Chavez. All said that Honduras now needed to move on and to give the new president, Porfirio Lobo, a chance. I left my suitcase with Lea, carrying the rest of my goods in plastic bags, since last year, Lea was shortchanged, as I had gotten to her place last.
Blanca was chatting on her cell phone when we arrived. Her family and their neighbors were all talking excitedly about the immanent installation of electricity and the men were busy cutting down trees to accommodate the lines. One of Blanca’s teenage sons lay in a hammock, recovering from an almost lethal bout of hemorrhagic dengue. Since three sons were in the army, I asked Blanca what they had felt about Zelaya and his removal. “They don’t enter into politics,” she said, “they just obey the orders of whoever is in charge.” Of course, that was one of the problems, who was actually in charge?
Swiss Peelers prove a big hit
I should mention at this juncture that my friend Bob K., who sells handy, durable Swiss peelers back at the Eastern Market near my home in DC, gave me a number to pass out during my trip. Like drug-store reading glasses and magic towels, they are light to carry and immensely popular. (Hence all the photos of women peeling vegetables posted on this blog.) The Swiss peelers had to be given out selectively, as I had only a few.
Wayward wives, old friends, the younger generation
In El Triunfo, my first Honduran home town, I dropped off some medical items at the health center and found Dra. Jeannette absent as usual. Across the street at the home of Yasmin, my young friend with spina bifida, her tearful mother told me she had died recently of a herpes infection. If the Honduran diet contained more folic acid (contained mostly in wheat), it would prevent not only most cases of spina bifida, but also harelip and cleft palate and possibly even clubfoot.
I stayed with Jose Luis and his mother and their 15-year-old maid, Suyapa, the same girl living there last year. Jose Luis reported that La Cosecha, the evangelical school and health center where he worked, was short of medications because missionaries bringing them from the US had cancelled their trip after a State Dept. advisory against travel to Honduras. JL had been a mayoral candidate for a 3rd party that reportedly had made a strong showing, but had failed to win.
As readers of my book are well aware, Honduran husbands are notoriously unfaithful, often taking up with another woman openly and with genuine bravado. Unfaithful wives are rare, but as women enter the workplace, they are becoming bolder. My friend Jose Luis is one of those husbands abandoned for another man. He was still feeling bitterly betrayed about his discovery last year that his wife was having an affair, complaining that everyone else knew, including his own brother, but never told him. The wife is now seeking a divorce and living with their children with the other man. Jose Luis also confided that Daniel was leaving Honduras in part because his former wife now wanted to reconcile, after insisting on a divorce and marrying another man who had lived for a couple of years with her and the children in the home that Daniel and she had built. Now she was separated from the second husband and wanted to return to Daniel after all the legal formalities and disruption the whole family had endured, something Daniel was understandably reluctant to do. (Daniel never told me this himself.) For his part, Jose Luis said he was determined to stay single for the rest of his life. Both Daniel and Jose Luis insisted they themselves had never been unfaithful and I believe them.
Making my rounds in El Triunfo, I found octogenarian sisters Mercedes and Mariana complaining of various ailments, but still among the living. “How really fat you are,” they told me admiringly. Their neighbor Pedro Joaquin was still guarding the many books we had collected. I had to break to him the news that the Reicken Foundation that used to fund Honduran libraries had gone under, partly because of the recession, partly because the American director had invested heavily in Zelaya’s successful presidential campaign. Pedro’s twin girls seemed bright and healthy, as did their brothers. “At least my wife cannot have any more kids,” Pedro remarked, since she had had a tubal ligation. “But, of course, I still can,” he added mischievously.
Neris, the girl appearing with me on the lower right corner of my book cover, is now a pretty, buxom 17-year-old (seen in a photo with Daniel, holding a cat). She told me she was now in complete charge of the house, shop, and her siblings because her mother had moved to another town after marrying recently. The kids were left on their own.
Neris is another youngster I’d like to help with her further education but don’t know how to do it now without my reliable and trusty local partner, Rev. Daniel. I would not feel comfortable sending money directly either to her, Marciel, or Jorge via Western Union since they are all so young. Their needy parents might well talk them out of using the money for their education. I might have to go with them in person to pay their educational fees. I still haven’t found anyone else to replace Daniel, whom I’m appreciating all the more now in anticipation of his absence. Jose Luis is honest and reliable, but may not be up for the job, as he still seems pretty devastated by his marital separation and also has no car. I did not see Rev. Jaime on this trip.
The three lip-plate siblings seemed to be doing well. Their parents gave Daniel and me each a very welcome cold drink of coconut milk and pineapple juice, one of several refreshing juice drinks they sell from a fridge in their front room, much better than a soda on a hot day.
Dona Reina, Marina’s daughter, was on an extended visit with her sons in the US. She had to leave 17-year-old Solei behind because Solei’s visa is always denied. Staying with her was family friend.
In the evening, I walked around the Valentine’s Day festival rides, games, and food sales, everything powered by diesel generators.
At the blind school
Having divested myself of one suitcase and its contents, with the other waiting for me at the school for the blind, I was sufficiently unencumbered to comfortably return by bus to Tegucigalpa. Once our bus had climbed out of the valley and begun approaching the city, the temperature had moderated to a relatively comfortable 85 F. Outside the blind school, Mailo, a sighted instructor, was taking some kids out on the street to practice walking with white canes.
Inside, I found my old bed in the storeroom had been moved to make way for classes. Irma, who since her mother’s death, now directs both the Santa Lucia center for the adult blind and the residential school for blind children in Teguc, greeted me warmly. She explained that I was to share a room with Marta and her charge, Julissa, now 12. Readers of my book and my blog may remember that both are blind and that Julissa also has some left-side paralysis. Marta took over as Julissa’s foster mother when her own family abandoned her. Marta has diabetes and I’d accompanied her in an ambulance to the hospital last Feb. when she collapsed. She looked positively emaciated now and said she had been hospitalized again in Nov. Their former roommates Gloria and her little charge, Maria Lourdes, were no longer there. “Gloria was 80 and kept falling down, so I retired her,” Irma said matter-of-factly, adding that Gloria had returned to her rural family home. Meanwhile, Maria Lourdes had been placed in one of the girls’ dorms. She appeared a little lost without Gloria.
So now I would be sharing a room with Marta and Julissa, assigned a bed with only a bare mattress. However, in my suitcase, I had a few acrylic wraps sent by my friend Brenda, intended for use when I would be sleeping in a tent with the IHS medical brigade. These and a small pillow came in handy now. I spent only one night at the school before departing for La Esperanza and the medical brigade. But before I did, I gave Julissa the gloves that she had begged for last year, three pairs in all, one black, one green, and one red velvet. The velvet gloves were her favorites, though it was difficult for her to put a glove on her limp left hand. I observed that the climate in Teguc hardly called for gloves, which provided a further handicap for a blind person relying so much on feeling with her hands. Julissa thanked me profusely, saying, “Dona Barbara, I love the way you talk.” “And how is that?” I asked. “I don’t know, I just like it.”
I also gave Julissa a backpack. Marta wisely put the gloves inside the backpack and told Julissa that she was storing everything safely inside a wardrobe in the room. Julissa clapped her hands, “Mama, mama, guantes, guantes, [gloves, gloves].” The girl evidently has some mental or emotional disability in addition to her blindness and partial paralysis, as her speech and demeanor are childish and rather odd and she rarely socializes with the other girls. The others were playing “school” outside in the hallway after classes, with one in the role of teacher, but Julissa preferred to sit on a bed next to Marta, repeating a series of rhymes that she’d made up: “Elefantes con guantes, guantes bastantes.” [Elephants with gloves, gloves aplenty.]
Marta, often assisted by other staff, helped Julissa to bathe and dress. In the same room where we were sleeping was a toilet stall and a separate shower stall, both on high raised cement platforms that were hard for Julissa to climb up and which I did not find easy either. Since there was no water most of the time, when water did flow, a barrel was filled with water in the shower stall. But I was reluctant to use it, as Julissa was said to have hair lice and her shampoo floated on top of the water in the barrel. I insisted on hauling water from the pila in a bucket upstairs to our room for my bathing. Wake-up time at the school was always before dawn and Julissa was bathed first and outfitted in her school uniform, so it was more convenient for me to bathe at night. I ate at the school with some reluctance after seeing Juanita, the cook, wipe off my plate with grubby rag before serving me.
Irma, joined by Timoteo and David, two blind instructors I’ve mentioned previously, enumerated a “wish list” for me and Denise, my blind visitor of years ago, to fulfill. I explained that Denise is now married, with two small children. No matter, she had helped them before and she could do so again. After all, she is living in the good old USA, land of plenty. I pleaded economic recession, but they observed, quite rightly, “Here we’ve always been in a recession.” Their list included Braille paper, slates and styluses, child and adult-size white canes, Braille writers, Braille and chiming watches, and cassette players. Such items can be mailed free (surface mail) from the US to facility to the blind in another country, as I have done before, but the postal clerks have always had to look up the regulations. Boxes cannot exceed certain dimensions and weight, and who knows how long this policy will continue in effect with the PO looking for ways to cut costs? I will do my best for them again, but it’s getting harder to obtain the items they asked for, especially for free.
Irma gave me news of some adult blind students I had known. Law student Juan Carlos had died of the brain tumor that had cost him his sight. Gernan, the man with scaly skin, had finally left the adult center after years of living there because no one, blind or sighted, had tolerated his rough touch and constant shedding of scales. He had met a blind girl friend at the center who apparently had accepted him, scales and all, and they’d established their own household, really kind of a miracle.
Irma told me she had never supported Zelaya, but she was upset by the way he had been taken out. And, of course, the whole country was still suffering from the combined economic effects of the world recession and the sanctions invoked against Honduras. Micheletti, she said, had turned into a dictator, an opinion I’d heard others express. Posters depicting Micheletti were often overwritten with terms such as “murderer.”There were still billboards of Zelaya wearing his trademark hat and mustache, smiling broadly while shaking hands with farmers or workers. Sometimes an X was drawn through them.
Irma said the school currently has 50 residential and 20 day students, less than before, because urban schools are trying to mainstream blind kids, especially in high school. The school now only goes to sixth grade. Students are not only younger and fewer and come from more rural areas, but often have disabilities besides blindness, as I myself observed. Again the family of orphaned siblings (from La Esperanza) was in attendance, consisting of a sighted teenage girl who cared for her disabled, blind younger brother, and had a blind, mentally normal, sister between both their ages. CAIPAC, the adult center, has about 45 residents.
I saw no more walking chains at the school, a tradition that may have died with Dona Pilar, since Irma disapproved of it. Occasionally, I would see four kids walking together to class or their dorms, but not circling around the patio any more.
Whenever I took a cab (Honduran cabs are white), I asked the driver about the Zelaya matter and also questioned everyone I met, including the blind school staff, both blind and sighted. Most wanted a return to “normality.” The demonstrations, some of which turned violent, had scared some folks (I remembered my own experience with protestors in Teguc). Some thought for a while that Zelaya really could provide them with a better life, but they had become disillusioned. Others said they had been threatened by Zelaya supporters when they had gone out to vote and had turned back out of fear.
At Peace Corps Honduras headquarters
I talked also with staff at Peace Corps headquarters, where I gave the guard a pair of reading glasses he had sorely needed since last year. Staff expressed pride that the Peace Corps had continued functioning as usual throughout the crisis. Volunteers were scattered around the country in rural areas, while most of the unrest had occurred only in the capital. However, training of the last group had taken place in the DR, not Honduras. A new volunteer visiting headquarters recognized me from my book, which she had read before coming to Honduras. She was quite excited to meet me in person. I gave Trudy, the current director (who had been my health trainer), a copy of the book, which she promised to make available to staff and volunteers. I spoke with an older health volunteer who told me that our OAKS support group was still going strong.
On to La Esperanza
I left by bus for La Esperanza with my remaining suitcase full of gifts. On buses, at every stop, vendors, young and old, traversing the aisles or lifting up contraptions outside windows on a long stick all were selling the same stuff: plastic bags of soda and water, sliced mangos, homemade cornmeal biscuits called rosquillas, popcorn, and tajaditas, that is, shredded cabbage over fried plantain chips topped with hot sauce. How about a little more variety and imagination, folks?
La Esperanza, my second Peace Corps site, was characteristically foggy, drizzly, and cool, maybe 50F. I soon donned my cold-weather clothes worn when I left DC. I would be staying at Luis’s house, but he was in Teguc working with the Peace Corps and when I arrived, his wife Wendy, a nurse at the local hospital, was still on duty. After leaving my belongings at Luis’s mother’s house, giving her my condolences over the recent death of her husband, and exchanging hugs with Luis’s kids and their cousins (Hola, Dona Barbara), I ventured out to distribute some Swiss peelers, also to inquire about about Zelaya and his ouster. My coop ladies tried out the peelers on potatoes and pataste (a watery green vine-grown vegetable) and pronounced them fantastic. My lottery selling friend Antonio liked the hat that Bob had given me in Panama, so I let him have it. Both he and the coop women said sales have been poor lately, but they hoped the economy would pick up again now that the political crisis was over.
Chunga was in her old spot in the now-rebuilt market, still all of made wood. Since the municipality did nothing, the vendors took matters into their own hands and rebuilt everything themselves. Chunga is still working on her fire debt. Of her 13 children, only 5 remain at home, including Chunguita, now 18, who was visibly pregnant. Was this the same girl who (in my book) resisted male overtures in an evangelical play? Chunga herself is 62. I gave her a backpack, scarf, shoes, and, of course, a peeler. Chunga confided, “I wasn’t either for Mel or Micheletti, I just wanted it all to be over and return to normal. Normal is hard enough.”
Chunga invited me to a birthday party for a friend’s child, where I received many kisses on the cheek from adults and kids alike. A pinata was duly broken as youngsters, dogs, and parents milled around the tiny space.
Later, back at Luis’s house, I chatted with him after he’d arrived home for the weekend from his Peace Corps job in Teguc. He told me that many of Zelaya’s followers considered Zelaya a sellout because he had agreed to drop his referendum plan to change the constitution. Those more radical followers continued on without him to form a new party and won four seats in the legislature, constituting a small, but vocal, minority. But their movement does not have the wide appeal that Zelaya himself once enjoyed. And the November vote turnout, despite Zelaya’s call for a boycott, approached 50%, about usual. However, more Nationalists voted (winner Lobo’s party) than Liberals (Zelaya’s party).
Wendy and her mother-in-law both got peelers. Luis insisted that I use the only electric heater that I believe was for the kids. I protested that I didn’t need it, but he insisted and it was rather nice to turn it on before dressing in the morning, especially after a cold shower. The family no longer has a maid, as both kids are in (private) school, and the maid’s room has been converted to their son’s bedroom.
The next morning was Sunday and the family left early on a trip with Luis’ mother, traveling in the pickup belonging to Luis’s late father. I waited alone for the arrival of Sandra, a little girl, now 10, with a recurrent leg tumor who had just had surgery again in June. (Her photos appear near the end of my book.) I was hoping that this time, her tumor was finally eradicated. Sandra arrived with both her parents at 7:30am.They gave me 2 huge bags of potatoes from their own fields. I always accept such gifts, even from needy people, because I think giving should be a two-way street and a certain self-esteem comes from being able to give something to others, however modest the gift. I gave them the suitcase and most of its remaining contents, including cold weather clothes and a pair of gloves they said were much needed in their mountaintop home. I had no change, so gave the parents each 100 lempiras (about $5.50) for their transportation, which they protested was too much. I asked if Sandra was in school, but they felt it was too far for her to walk until her leg was stronger. She has never attended school and I feared that she was falling too far behind. “I teach her at home,” her mother reported proudly, “She can already write her name.” I could see that the parents were resisting, so I didn’t press further. I gave them some pens and an old workbook left by Luis’s daughter.
I examined the leg carefully, which had a scar, but felt completely flat to the touch. I advised the parents to keep alert for any bump that appeared. They said Sandra had had an appointment to return to the clinic in January, but they couldn’t afford the trip. (Treatment itself is free.) Besides, Sandra, after two painful surgeries, had been reluctant to return there. Sandra nodded in agreement and made a little face. She said she never wanted to go back to the hospital again. I had sent them money via Luis for the trip for surgery, but didn’t know about the Jan. appointment. Luis is my reliable, capable Esperanza partner just as Daniel has been in the south. When Luis gets money, he calls the family on their cell phone. However, there is no tower where they live, so they cannot get messages or receive calls until they go down to a lower elevation. They had wanted to charge their cell phone at Luis’s house, but the electricity was out in the whole town. They did use the bathroom, however. I asked whether they had voted in November. No, because Zelaya had urged people not to vote. As for President Lobo, “Let’s see.”
The parents asked me to please visit their home next year when I come to Honduras. I’ve been there once, quite a trek uphill from the nearest vehicular road. I promised to try. I was tempted to inquire whether they knew how to prevent having more children, but considered it indelicate in front of their daughter, the only girl among four brothers.
Next morning, I washed some clothes and hung them up to dry, then visited my old landlady, Norma, but found only her mother at home. The mother begged me for reading glasses and I gave her my one spare pair. She also got a peeler. At noon, I met the other IHS (International Health Service) brigade participants who had arrived by bus after flying into San Pedro Sula to the north. Fortunately, the town’s electricity came on just as they arrived.
The group was accompanied by a Red Cross volunteer, David, who had lost his job in a brassiere factory because there was no money for parts when the machinery broke down. An evangelical Christian, he considered that the way Zelaya was removed from Honduras to be “un-Christian.” He also had appreciated that fuel was cheaper under Zelaya, thanks to oil subsidized by Chavez, since then withdrawn. Un-Christian as well were the sanctions imposed on Honduras, which only the US had lifted so far. David had been invited to a Christian conference in Missouri and wondered what his chances of getting a visa might be, given that twice before his visa requests had been denied (each costing $100!). I said that as a young single man, his chances were bleak, but maybe the church connection would help this time.
Two brigade participants had already come down with serious intestinal illnesses, not helped by their long bus ride. They took some of the Cipro brought for our patients. As usual, some meds had disappeared in transport between the port of La Ceiba and La Esperanza. I said meds had to be locked up in secure containers and an IHS person assigned to ride the transport bus, keeping an eye on them at all times.
We set up in the school of our first town, Quiaterique, that same afternoon. I had borrowed a tent from Luis again, but others had brought their own tents with them. The town had no electricity, so it was early to bed with folks snoring from their tents all around me. I realized suddenly that I’d forgotten to bring a flashlight. Surely I would need one to use the bathrooms down the hill (bucket-flush facilities) at night, but had to get along without one. My tent was small and I couldn’t stand up inside it. I had to crawl out and then stand up on my arthritic knees. I was surprised that no one had stolen the toilet paper we’d left in the two bathrooms. Also, our plastic solar shower bags remained intact, though there was scarcely any sunshine to heat the water.
Early each morning, long lines of patients stood waiting in the morning drizzle. I helped a doctor who knew some Spanish, but not enough. The other physician in the group was from Argentina and two of her relatives had come all the way from there to help out with the brigade. My role in this brigade has always been as a medical assistant helping out with minor procedures and asking a few questions of my own, as well serving as a cultural and language interpreter. For example, “my” doctor, though he had once been a Peace Corps volunteer in another Spanish speaking country, was puzzled when asking a patient: “How long have you experienced these symptoms?” at hearing the person answer, “Ya dias,” meaning literally, “For days now.” But it more usually means, “For a long time.” He also wasn’t up on medical terms, having become a physician after leaving the Corps decades ago.
A woman patient came in with 14 children, another brought 10. One, only age 26, already had seven kids. An IHS volunteer pharmacy student the same age observed that she has no kids at all herself, at least not yet.
A boy who had fallen out of a hammock apparently had broken his collarbone, so we fashioned him a sling. A boy named Lesther Valentin, age 8, was born with an undescended testicle, a cancer risk. I am making a note of his parents’ cell phone number, 9643-5519, to be able to follow up later with advice about surgery.
Most patients had fairly minor complaints and many had the same ones: lice, athlete’s foot, aches and pains, sore throat, ear infections, intestinal or stomach problems, fever, cough. We treated both spouses in cases of suspected venereal infection. Of course, we had no lab.
We gave everyone vitamins, but told them to take one every other day to make them last longer and to make sure that kids did not eat a whole bunch of chewable vitamins all at once. We also gave everyone anti-parasite meds. People who needed reading glasses tried on different strengths, just as I did with the glasses I had brought. Without electricity, teeth could only be pulled or cleaned, not filled. And so we examined and treated perhaps 200 patients or more each day. I realized that we were seeing patients on
Ash Wed. when some came in then with ashes on their forehead.
A TV reporter from La Esperanza drove up and interviewed the head nurse, Jenny, and me, especially me because Jenny is shaky in Spanish. We gave ample praise to Luis, who had organized the Honduran Red Cross’s supporting participation, even though he could not be with us himself because of his Peace Corps work. I found out for the first time that La Esperanza now has a local TV station.
There was a minor rebellion among the ranks when the three Argentines, including the physician, decided they were going to Las Hortenisas [The Hydrangeas], the village where I’d worked with the IHS in 2005, as chronicled in my book (and where I’d first met Sandra, my leg tumor patient). We had originally been scheduled to go there this year, but Hortensias was removed from the itinerary because the mayor had not agreed to cooperate. Arguably, the residents of Hortensias, mostly indigenous Lencas, are especially needy and lacking in medical care. However, it would be necessary to have some local support before invading a town and taking over the school for our operations. The Argentines, as Spanish speakers, were confident that they could establish a sufficient local connection and rapport, so they packed up their tents and sleeping bags and asked an Esperanza Red Cross truck to take them there, self-righteously leaving the rest of us to deal, with our reduced staff, with the towns already on the schedule.
Hortensias, readers of my book may recall, has an especially high elevation and is especially cool, sometimes even reaching freezing. As it turns out, after their dramatic departure, accusing the rest of us of turning our backs on the deprived residents of Las Hortensias, the Argentines were frantically calling us by cell phone to be picked up, as Hortensias proved to be just too darn cold. Sheepishly, they returned to the fold.
Typically, an IHS medical brigade moves from town to town and announces its availability via radio. About three towns were on this year’s schedule, each appealing to residents within a reasonable radius able to get there on foot.
Back to Teguc and home
I had to depart from the brigade early because the dental team had to leave and Jenny asked me to escort them to the airport in Teguc to make sure they got on their flight safely. As a result, I spent a couple more days than I had intended back at the blind school until my own flight. I observed what kids staying over the weekend did: play Braille bingo and cards , kick around the soccer ball, and climb around on a jungle gym. They sang and played guitars. Boys and girls clustered around me, asking continuous questions. What are airplane wings like? Like a bird’s or a butterfly’s? No, I said, they are metal and fixed. I extended my arms. How does a heavy plane fly up in the air? Beats me, I admitted.
I noted that the blind kids, all of elementary school age, segregated themselves by gender, with the girls sitting together and whispering to each other, while boys kicked around a soccer ball with a bell inside amid whoops and shouts. A few kids were definitely excluded and wandered or sat by themselves or just twirled in circles. One boy hanging around the edges was invited into a group, then pushed roughly out, bringing him to tears. I was reading a battered paperback of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds borrowed from the Peace Corps circulating library when one of the ostracized girls, bigger than the others and somewhat learning disabled, felt the book in my hands and begged me to give it to her. I explained that the book was in English and in print, not Braille, but she insisted and subsequently carried it with her everywhere and even slept with it. The other girls, just out of meanness, took it away from her and had to be forced to give it back. Cliques, pecking orders, bullying of weaker members, seem universal among groups of kids, regardless of culture and disability.
Juanita the cook, age now 76 and in her 28th year at the school confided that she was considering retiring and that I probably would not see her if I came back again next Feb. She cheerfully accommodated some extra lunch guests on Sat., 11 seminarians, playful and earnest young men who shook hands with all the children, chatted with them and promised to return every Saturday.
The school had a water bottle with a spigot filled with water daily, supposedly filtered by Juanita using what looked like just an ordinary rubber hose. Not only was the water’s purity suspect, but the kids all drank from a common cup, returning to top of the tank when each had finished drinking. I thought of how much it would cost to provide disposable paper cups, day-in, day-out, to the school. No, that was not a priority. Anyway, looking at it from an environmental viewpoint, too much paper would then be consumed. And, to rationalize further, some experts now believe that overprotection from germs actually makes many American youngsters more vulnerable to infection. Certainly I observed no rampant illnesses spreading through this school.
On Sat. night, we had an extra guest sleeping in the room with me, Marta, and Julissa. Her name was Dinora and she and her blind husband and three sighted children live in Ciudad Espana, the model town built after Hurricane Mitch, mentioned in my book. Dinora, who spoke quite credible English, comes into Teguc every weekend to sing and play guitar with a blind band that goes around to restaurants soliciting tips. With four women now using the bathroom, we ran out of toilet paper, so I brought some at a nearby supermarket.
It’s perilous to cross the street in Teguc as cars don’t stop for pedestrians. As I made my mad dash to the supermarket, I envisioned myself getting smashed flat and my poor kids having to come to peel my body off the pavement. I also noted with surprise that Teguc now has street cleaners. They told me they had been hired by the new mayor who took office in January.
I tried calling Maribel, with whom my friend Sandy usually stays in Santa Lucia, but her phone was disconnected and I decided not to chance taking a bus up there and finding her gone. Operation Smile was starting the day after my departure in the adjacent San Felipe public hospital, but I could not stay for it, as I had to speak at a Kiwanis annual meeting back in the DC area and could not extend my time.
Antonia, the blind telephone operator mentioned in my report of my trip last year, is a rare Honduran woman who lives alone, even rarer because of her disability. She admitted that she had been robbed numerous times—blindness is no protection. She came over after Sunday Mass, she said, because she’d heard I was in town. Irma discourages former students from hanging out at the school, so we had to sneak her in. She said she had liked Zelaya, but not his alliance with Chavez, “a pure communist, a dictator disguised as a democratic socialist.” She had voted for a third party as protest against the two major parties. Bethy, an impossibly thin woman and one of the girls’ caretakers, said she’d voted for Lobo because he belonged to the Nationalist Party that had brought electricity to her home village. The watchman then chimed into conversation: “I didn’t vote, but the sanctions against Honduras are unfair. The poor suffer, not the rich.”
Before leaving for the airport to catch my return flight to Washington, I gave my small pillow and last remaining wrap to Maria Lourdes, scant compensation for the loss of Gloria, her guardian. Irma had said, “We are not a home for the aged. I cannot afford to take care of people who start falling down.” True, the hard reality is that Irma is working with very limited resources and must devote them to her students. Nonetheless, I felt compassion for Gloria and also for Maria Lourdes, and I missed Gloria’s lively opinionated banter and her strict fashion sense (everything color-coordinated). I had known her since I first joined the Peace Corps in 2000.
Returning back to my stateside life is always a shock, no matter how often I go through it. Thank goodness for my Spanish interpretation work that spans both my worlds.