Some people like to take their time and seriously think things through before making big decisions. Sometimes, I follow that philosophy.
I’ve even taken my time on some no brainer decisions. Deciding to propose to my wife after 8 years of dating. Choosing to accept an offer to go to UNC after months of anticipation. Easy. Other times, when an opportunity presents itself, I commit without even considering the alternatives or repurcussions: “Unpaid internship in Bangkok? Free flight you say? Sure!” / “It’s my first trip to Vegas, why would I not play in the World Series of Poker?” / “Of course I’ll try deep fried pizza!” It was this impulsive side of my brain that said yes when my dad asked if I felt hopping on a flight in a few days to go to a remote area of Honduras to do some volunteer work with the Wilderness Team. After the scariest plane landing I can imagine (see below) and an 8-hour bus ride over dirt roads with crater-esque potholes (sans shock absorbers), I began to question my decision-making philosophy. However, after seeing some of the living conditions in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s most “cosmopolitan” city, I knew whatever minor inconveniences I experienced over the next week would pale in comparison to the feeling of helping those in need.
We were being escorted through a third-world country with machine-gun wielding private security, I was going to miss a week of NCAA March Madness, and the previous day’s 8 hour bus ride was just the first leg of our journey to the ranch we would be staying on. Now I’ve traveled by myself through South East Asia and some seedy Eastern European regions, but even with a group of uni-lingual gringo Americans I started to stress out a bit. After meeting our team and having a few Honduran brewed cervezas at our hotel in Juticalpa, I decided the best course of action was to just set my phone’s alarm clock and get some sleep while I had the chance. We had to be up and out by 9AM, so I decided to give myself some Murphy’s Law cushion and set my alarm at 7AM.
5AM the following morning: my alarm goes off. I get up, take a shower with the only available water temperature, 55 degrees fahrenheit, put on some clothes, and walk outside to sleeping roosters. Damn! International time-zone changes, coupled with the fact that Honduras doesn’t observe daylight savings, put me two hours ahead of schedule. Well, the freezing shower had me up, so I just spent the next couple of hours trying to connect to an elusive third-world wifi signal. A few rounds of off-line Angry Birds later, I was introduced to the Honduran breakfast we would be eating all week: beans, some type of mystery sausage, tortilla, a mixture of fruit (some familiar, others not so much), and coffee that was stronger than any illegal substances exported from Honduras’ neighbors to the south. After a quick walking tour of Juticalpa, we all loaded back onto the bus for another half day of extreme bus riding. Needless to say, we were all relieved when we arrived at Honduras Outreach’s Rancho el Paraiso, our homebase for the week.
Education, something that every American takes for granted sometimes, is a scarce resource in Honduras. Prior to Honduras Outreach and HAVE (Honduras Agalta Valley Education Foundation) establishing a presence in the Agalta Valley, children were not learning how to read and write, farmers were using inefficient cultivation methods, malaria was rampant, and nobody understood the dangers of open fire cooking without proper ventilation in their primitive dwellings. It was amazing to walk around the valley and see the effects that a few impassioned people had on such an economically depressed area. I was a bit reserved my first day there because I thought perhaps these simple rural people didn’t appreciate comparatively wealthy Americans coming in and telling them how to educate their children or how to farm their land. The schoolchildren’s welcome reception for us on the first day assured me otherwise: they lined the school road waving and holding “Welcome” signs and sang us songs. They were so grateful to have the opportunity to go to school everyday, and were even more grateful when the gringoes passed out western candies amongst the elementary students.
The prior year, the Wilderness Team had built a library that was now filled with books and colorful, uplifting murals. Our mission for the week was a bit more modest: to build a few sidewalks and repaint the school. The first day, I spent a bit of time wanting to work but not having a paintbrush or shovel to help out. You see, when you are in the Agalta Valley, you can’t simply go to Home Depot to pick up supplies.
By the second day, my sister Sally and I were jonesin’ to get our hands dirty. We therefore volunteered to tag along with the Floridians that were residing at the ranch. Instead of working with local schools, the Florida church-folk were focusing their efforts on a single impoverished village. Sally and I spent the day with Walter, an incredibly jovial Honduran who assisted us in building clay doughnut chimneys. The two chimneys we completed would ventilate primitive mud huts of toxic smoke resulting from indoor cooking fires. There wasn’t a single bit of linguistic communication possible between the homeowners and us Schroders, but they expressed their gratitude through body language and smiles.
The rest of the week was spent back at the schools, interacting with amazing children, painting both schools, and building sidewalks. The Hondurans had their own style of cement mixing, and subsequently, the work of one Honduran rivaled that of four Americans. Still, despite the language differences, they understood that we came to help as much as our bodies and manual-labor skills allowed and did their best to work alongside us.
Two things about the trip truly amazed me though. First was the idea that “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” It doesn’t exactly work that way in Honduras. A history of political turmoil and a lack of proper infrastructure has made rural Hondurans realize that when life gives you lemons, you turn those lemons into whatever the hell will raise your quality of life. Years ago, when the Wilderness Team helped build a kiln in one of the local villages, the expectation was that they would create authentic pottery that could be sold to both locals and infrequent tourists. Fast forward a few years, and now that kiln employees half a dozen people that pump out those very clay doughnuts that Sally and I were stacking to make chimneys. At one $USD a piece, those doughnuts are now saving peoples lives as well as creating an economy previously unknown in the remote Agalta Valley.
The other thing that amazed me was how quickly I could befriend a group of strangers. Seven or so team members were under 40 and had never been on the trip before. Our first two nights into our excursion, nights were spent lounging in hammocks, reading or messing around on ipads, laptops, and smartphones in airplane mode. Technology allows us to detach ourselves from unfamiliar situations. I’m sure everybody has experienced getting on an elevator with a stranger. Instead of striking up a friendly conversation, 90% of us would instead pull our phone out of our pockets pretending that we need to send out an important text or check out some vital Twitter updates. That’s why I found it so funny that technology, albeit a AA-battery operated game of Catch Phrase, is what brought together the under-40 Wilderness Team members on our third night on the ranch. After one late night of shouting erratic clues to a group of strangers, we were suddenly great friends. We bonded with eachother, and then we bonded with the older members of the team. We were sad to leave the Agalta Valley at the end of the week, but a night filled with cervezas at Tegucigalpa’s Hotel Maya was a grand send-off.
My trip to Honduras made me appreciate the simple things I take for granted in America. Comparing what you have to what others have is a treacherous practice. Humans have risen to the dominant species that we are because of our spirit. No matter what situation we are in, we can make the best of it, and no matter what, maintaining a smile on your face is a way to welcome amazing strangers into your life.