Slowly making my way home

Beautiful moments as I take my leave of Honduras.  Until next time…

Where thieves break in and steal

I groggily shuffled over to the doctors’ house for my normal 6:30am coffee before hospital report – only to find the house in chaos.  Thieves had come in the night breaking the lock on the backdoor and creeping into the house while the family was sleeping.  The vulnerability and feelings of violation from a break-in are certainly compounded when you know the robbers were actually in the house with you while you slept.  Fortunately the valuables were locked in the study, but they managed to slit the screen doors on the hanging food cabinet (it hangs from the ceiling to prevent rats from getting in) and break through the door to the pantry.  All the flour, sugar, eggs, bread, cereal, and any number of miscellaneous food items were gone.  We had a birthday celebration for Dr. Rudy yesterday and they stole the all leftovers from his big chocolate cake (although they left the banana cake that I had made intact – not sure if I should be happy or insulted).  They emptied the sugar out of the glass sugar container.  Worst of all they took all the coffee in the house.  Dr. Rudy was coming in from his morning run and saw a pair of his shoes and a towel on the ground and an empty jam container, with the back door ajar.  It was fortunate indeed to just lose food, and some miscellaneous items, but the feeling of insecurity lingers.

After trying to account for everything lost, and recounting everything to the police, we were left to the emptied house.  Dr. Norvelle gathered everyone around and said she wanted to pray.  She asked for protection from evil, for peace of heart, and some others things I didn’t quite translate fast enough to understand… and then Dr. Rudy added in at the end: “and please Lord have mercy on the robbers.  Please help them not to starve.  Help them to find jobs so that they can feed their families without thievery, and bless them.”   Oh yeah… the robbers.  I had been so upset about the missing coffee and feeling bad for the doctors that I hadn’t even thought about the people who must be desperate to break into a house just to find food.  How hungry must you be to come to that point?  I certainly have never experienced that hunger.

Peter (the doctors’ son) just turned 15 recently.  For his birthday he asked for a nerf gun, a birthday cake,…. and a bag of rice, some beans, and cooking oil.  Wait, what?  I was confused when he unwrapped the huge 50 pound bag of rice.  We have enough food in the house… why did Peter want more?  Then, that night, all the local boys came over and Peter cooked them rice and beans.  Ever since his birthday, every couple days the boys all pile into the house in the evening and cook together.  Rice,beans, and sometimes they bring some fish recently caught at the river.  I never thought that these skinny soccer boys I see every week might not be eating regularly, but Peter knew.

Even after 6 months here, I still do not recognize all the poverty around me.  There is so much need.  I plan on buying another bag of rice, and some beans to leave with Peter.  At least the soccer boys will get another month or so of regular meals.  Perhaps with enough food in their stomachs they will be able to concentrate in school and affect their future.  Perhaps not.  I don’t know how to fix the larger problem, but the reminder is good.  There is always someone who could use a hand, if I could only stop focusing on my little problems long enough to see them.

Waste not, want less

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As I think on what I want to take away with me, what lessons I hope to implement in my life as a result of my stay, I think much on need and waste.

I am so impressed by the amount of reuse here.  There are no recycling plants within a thousand miles, indeed people do not even know that word , but waste is an abomination.  When you are poor, you are loath to waste any of the little you have.  When you don’t know how big your next meal will be (if it comes at all) you care about every grain of rice.  Along with the wonderful boon of solar energy here (during the day the entire hospital and the surrounding buildings are run completely off solar power, the generator is run only for a couple hours at night to charge the batteries), there are many examples of conservation and reuse.  Small soda bottles are washed out and used to dispense liquid medications in the pharmacy.  Pages from magazines and newspapers are folded into tiny envelopes to carry pills and other small items.  The large three liter (soda bottles here are 3, not 2 liter like in the States) plastic bottles are frequently used to tote water up from the river to the house.

Water is of particular importance since it is so much work to procure.  Another frequent usage is to pack the bottles full of nanche berries and fill with water – providing the family with an easily transportable food source that will not spoil for several weeks.

The nurses reuse the outer packaging that IV bags come in to send hold the cytology slides.  The rubber bands you see in the picture are actually the wrist of a surgical glove that’s been torn out.  At times the hospital has run low on gloves, and they have to wash them out and hang them up to dry.  From an infection control standpoint many people would cringe, but is it not better to have a reused glove than none at all?  It is an amusing sight to see a “glove tree” with many plastic hands flapping in the air as they dry.

Everywhere you go there are products being reused, and new uses found for them.    Ziplock bags are washed and dried instead of being thrown out.  I remember my mother (who grew up here) doing this when I was a child, and being confused that she wouldn’t just get a new ziplock from the box?  Now I understand where she came from, and the wisdom of avoiding waste.

So now I return to my country of good and plenty, where I can have all the ziplock bags that I ever could want, and what will I do?  I remember a conversation about economy with my dear friend Wendy, wherein she remarked on the simple idea of using up your toiletries before buying new ones.  Such a simple concept, but so often I impulse buy whenever I see a nice smelling lotion, or a new facial product, and end up with a  huge backlog of makeups, toiletries, and random soaps building up in my bathroom.  Or clothes?  How many extra do I have that I never wear – yet keep buying new ones?  Here in Ahuas I started washing my hair every third day this last month to stretch out the last little bit of shampoo until I could get out to La Ceiba and buy some.  Then one of our visiting doctors left her shampoo behind and I can wash my hair everyday!  Truly wonderful in this sweaty country, and a nice reminder that it is good to go without for a time, in order to truly appreciate something when you have it.  I hope that I can find ways to limit waste in my life at home.  I hope to reuse whenever possible, to avoid needless impulse buying, and to limit waste.  I hope I wash my ziplock bags.

Last week in Ahuas

Granted the unexpected boon of little to do for my last week in La Moskitia.  Went a wandering with camera in hand….

I wandered winsome…

I wandered winsome as a breeze

Through village path and verdant field

And beauty as Truth – and Truth to be

Upon my soul was sealed

On fresh loam clothed in royal hue

The children walked and waved

Young palm leaves too were scattered ’round

As once a kingly pathway paved

I’d woke nigh to amanecer

My thoughts in disarray

Of planning, leaving, and job to find

Sometimes I wish that I could stay

 

A walk was cure for heavy thoughts

Truth calmed the stress and ponder

Trust I in Him, where next I go

Truth will I find, where’er I wander

A deep, but dazzling darkness

Today I flew over Honduras with a dead man.  A very young man, just newly achieving to that status of manhood, and now never to live in manhood anymore.  He died in his father’s arms just as I was saying to the pilot that you cannot but feel close to God when you are looking down on mountain tops.  I turned to look behind me, and saw the father sorrowfully covering his son’s face with a sheet – for he breathed no more.  He was coming home to die.  His organs were failing, his body shutting down.  When the latest of many doctors gave him only days to live his family flew out to bring him home.  Home to La Moskitia, home to Ahuas.  Home to die surrounded by loved ones instead of in a sterile hospital bed.  Although he did not make it home, I think flying through the heavens, and embraced in his father’s arms was as good a way to die as any.   His family was waiting at the airstrip.  The wailing and lamentations crescendoed as we taxied into the hanger.  They wrapped him in a white sheet and took the body home.  They will keep vigil by his body tonight, and then the long procession to the burial.

It was chance that I was on the plane.  I only thought to stop over in the capital and pick up some things I needed.  I held the young man’s hand and looked into his yellowed eyes as they loaded him on the plane.  I wondered how many days or weeks he might live.  And then he was gone.  Only months ago he was living his life as any young man might, and now he is dead.

I have not the words for all that I wish to convey.  I am sobered by this remembrance that death can come unexpectedly, at any time, to those both young and old.  If I were to die this very moment, what would be left undone?  What wrongs have I done that I have not righted, what things have I left unsaid to my loved ones?  Does my father know how much I respect him, how blessed I feel for all his wisdom and guidance in my life?  Somehow it is easier to voice disagreements than thankfulness.  Do my three remaining Grandparents know how much I love them?  How thankful I am that they raised wonderful children, and  have passed along such a wonderful legacy to me?  It is so easy to get caught up in the cares and business of adult life and a hectic work schedule, and not reach out to make that contact.  There are more thoughts, so many things, that pass through my mind.  I am thankful that I was on that plane.  Thankful for the reminder of things left unsaid in my life.  And tonight I mourn with the family for a life that passed so quickly.

Tostones!

Last week Theo (Dr. Norvelle’s sister) and I made Tostones  – fried plantain hors d’oeuvres!  I first encountered this deliciously unhealthy food in Nicaragua last year.  Several friends and I had an amazing whirlwind trip filled with  photography, food, dancing, and the most amazing wedding I have ever attended.  Along the way we decided that we liked Tostones enough to make them at home.  They were a great success.

Theo showed me a new twist on the Nicaraguan recipe, and I can’t decide which I like better.  I suppose I shall just have to present both!

Tostones, which here also go by the amusing name of “Caras del gatos” (Cats’ faces) are fried plantain (platano) – the thick cooking banana.   They are delicious.

Tostones

First take several  plantains when they are not fully ripe and peel them.  Cut them into chunks about the width of a finger joint  and have them ready.

Heat a pan with oil deep enough to at least halfway submerge the slices of plantain.  Wait until the oil is hot enough that a drop of water sizzles and skitters around the pan and then add the plantain.  You can do it in batches if there are too many slices.  Fry one side for a minute or two then flip over.  You want to see a color change towards a golden brown, but you are not trying to cook everything through and through – just to evenly fry the outside.  When both sides are fried remove the plantains from the oil.

The next step is to flatten the just fried-chunks into flat little pancakes.  This usually works best if you place them between saran wrap or waxed paper and then use the bottom of a heavy cup or perhaps a small cutting board to mash them into little pancakes.  Not too thin or they fall apart.  I think this is where the name “Cat’s face” must come from because cats have those flat little noses, but that is supposition on my part.

Then this is where the recipes diverge.  See (1.) for the delicious tostones de Nicaragua  or  (2.) for Tostones Honduranian.

  1. The now flattened plantain pancakes go back into the hot oil for frying session number two.  Depending on how hot your oil is this can take varying amounts of time, but the point is to fry them homogeneously golden.  Then take them out and drain them on paper towel while you slice squares of cheese.  In Nicaragua we had the salty white cheese that is very close to feta, but I think these would be great with jack or cheddar as well.  Then spike a toothpick down through the cheese and into the fried plantain and you have Tostones!  This recipe is delicious because the cheese starts to melt a little and you have the contrast between the slightly melty cheese and the crunch giving way to softness in the center of the plantain.
  1. For option two you will need several cloves of garlic (or more if you really like garlic).  Mash the garlic and combine in a bowl with half a cup to a cup of water and some splashes of oil.  Maybe add a pinch of salt and pepper, and whatever other spices you desire.  I am going to try rosemary when I get home.  Then dunk the flattened plantains in the garlic water and make sure they are well coated in the mixture.  Then return the garlicky pancakes to the oil and fry until they are a nice golden color on both sides.  Remove from oil and pat dry with paper towels and serve!      These are delicious all by themselves, but could be dressed up a bit with a dollop of cream cheese or sour cream and some chives and served as an hors d’oeuvres.

Basically what I’m trying to tell you is that cooking bananas are delicious!

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How I look at me

Living in another culture can teach you many things.  Along with the obvious benefit of learning to see the world through different eyes, of widening ones worldview, comes the unexpected side effect of seeing self differently as well.

I am not married.  This is not something which I feel the need to change immediately (despite the constant harassment of well-meaning church ladies at home), although I would like to be married someday.  In my North American culture I am not so old.  Here, however, it is another matter altogether.  It is not so much the marriage issue, although they do throw me pitying glances when I say I am single, but oh the sorrow and worry for me when I say that I have no children.  Children are of tantamount importance.  Here children are having children.  I cannot count the teenage pregnancies I have seen, and mothers continue having children into the 30’s and past.  Even if they are not “church married” couples here start very young.  Children are the most important thing in the whole world, and you had better make sure you have some if you want to be cared for in your old age.  There is no social service, no welfare program in the country that will care for you.  Your only hope is to have many children as possible in the hopes that some will survive and care for you.  Families are a huge network of support here – and a drain.  I have seen the young teacher, or nurse, look at us despairingly when she hears that her mother needs an expensive medical treatment.  This young professional, perhaps the only one in the family with a good job, is supporting mother and father, younger siblings (now that father is too old to work), and perhaps a childless aunt or two.  You are nothing without family.  When the horror of hearing that I am almost 30 and childless has passed, they pat me on the hand sweetly and tell me they will find me a nice Miskito man, not to worry.

If I was inclined to marry and stay here forever the offers have certainly not been lacking.  One of the soccer boys, who is all of 18 or 19 years of age, has been quite persistent in his attention.  He is quite unflappable, and determined to at least get my phone number, despite my constant argument that I am more than a decade his senior.  When I asked him why on earth he even needed my phone number, since I am never far from the hospital, and always easy to find, he replied “sometimes I just want to hear your voice!”  If nothing else he always makes me laugh, and is not offended by constant rejection.  I plan on leaving my ipod with him en lieu of giving him a number or a date, and in gratitude for the frequent conversational Spanish and Miskito practice.

Body image is very different here as well.  I am decidedly more plump (a nice way of saying I have gained over ten pounds) since I arrived here last year.  When one of our nurses arrived home from Christmas vacation she greeted me saying, “oh wow you’re fat!”  I was a bit taken aback, but managed to smile and agree.  A month later, Dr. Ovelio too greeted me in report one morning saying, “Hannita, estas gordando!”  Hannah, you’re getting so fat!  I was momentarily offended, until I began to realize they were in fact complementing me!  This culture views weight as an asset.  One of our thin nurses was actually accosted by a large woman in the hospital hallway who told her if she didn’t gain some weight her husband was certain to leave her.  By the time the third person complemented me on “how nice and fat my face was getting” (in Spanish of course) I had to laugh.  It is a nice change to be seen as attractive with some extra baggage.  I have yet to view my little Buddha belly with anything but chagrin, but perhaps it would be a good body image adjustment if I could.  Of course all bodily images of beauty can be taken too far.  Just like the sickly thin models are sadly unhealthy in North American culture, so the obese women here, while achieving the image of beauty in their culture, can still suffer from the side affects of this body image.  Diabetes and high blood pressure are quite evident in this population (although there is a strange lack of heart disease – all the walking perhaps?), along with the multiple joint and gastrointestinal issues that come with obesity.  Moderation in everything, as the immoderate Greeks always said.

The last realization that has been slowly growing in me as I watch the world flowing around me, is that I need not always be so in control of everything.  Our nurses rarely arrive on time, and when I ask them if they know that their shift actually started at 7am, they smile and say “Yes!”  When there is a rough day, and I ask how they are holding up the response is usually a “siempre en la lucha” or “Estoy aqui!”  I am here indeed.  Even if we are always in the struggle it is an important thing to remember to live in the present.  So many times I am so stressed about planning out my future, and getting all the details filed in the right place, that I forget to live in the present.  To experience the day for the lessons it will bring.  To be thankful for the lessons on the hard days, and the joy on the beautiful days – when little children run up and hug you now healed from their femur fracture, when old ladies hobble over and hand you a bag of fresh coconuts and say thank you just for being here, when all the trees in the front yard are fulminant with vibrant orange and pink.  It is good to learn from the past, and have some plan for the future, but right now I Am Here.  Oh to stop trying to force my will on the day, and experience today!

The long road to Pupulaia

I have been very lazy these last two weeks, and missed out on daily running.    Finally, Saturday, I realized how long it had been, and girded my loins and set forth.    A two week break can put a good dent in cardiovascular stamina, but I managed to run out past the first mud pit.  As I ran I realized just how much of my musing, pondering, ruminating, and existential pensivity (is that a word?  I like it better than “pensiveness”) occurs while out in the savannah.  Whether running or walking, the wide open spaces and gorgeous vistas seem to inspire and transcend.

When my beloved visitors were here in January they too appreciated the simple beauty of the verdant fields.   Taly and I especially felt drawn to the meandering trail that leads out into the savannah.  Starting with the long straight stretch of the runway, the road widens out and passes by JUCUM (the YWAM base and one of the local primary schools), and then trickles down into a meandering cow path occasionally dented by deep mud pits.  If one were to walk out an hour or more, eventually the area called Pupulaia is reached, and then Ribra – a gorgeous swimming hole that has entertained us many a sweltering Sunday.  The road is nothing special on first glance, but I think it has a subtle inspiration within its snaking path.

I asked my visitors to consider writing some impressions of their time here.  Here are Taly’s words>

The long road to PupuLaia by Taly Shelby

By some Herculean soporific motivation, Hannah and I dragged ourselves out of bed before breakfast one morning (read: 5 o’clock- it only happened once despite brave proclamations to the contrary) to go for a stroll on the savannah. As at any other time of the day, it was gorgeous in a way that’s hard to capture with words or photographs; fog covered the savannah like marmalade on toast so that at best we could only see a few yards in front of us. It was a perfect (although cheesy) metaphor for the time that I’ve spent here; unsure of what each day would bring, but incredibly happy and surprised at what has emerged.

The clinic experience was both humbling (when weighing patients an older man obligingly tried to comply when I mixed up the verbs for sitting and standing when I asked him to get on the scale) as well as inspiring- the doctors running the clinic had seemingly boundless energy and breadth of knowledge. My time there included helping in the operating room, taking down contraction times and cleaning off a newborn at a birth, cleaning out the pharmacy, naming babies… the list goes on in a way that surprises me for how much time I actually spent there. Time not spent in the clinic was filled with a mud-soaked hike to the river with a troop of expats, playing soccer and other games with local kids and other volunteers, reading extensively, warding off the extreme lethargy and voracious bugs that seem to be the only downside of tropical living, and exploring the local villages. All this was of course heightened by the remarkable and ever-jovial company of my companions- figuratively beside me (and literally for that one morning) in the fog, they made every step exhilarating.