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On wanderlust.

Sitting here in my hotel room overlooking Mexico City, I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness at having the opportunity not only to be paid to do work I’m passionate about…but also to be able to travel in the process. As a Program Officer for an international NGO, I’ll be traveling throughout Latin America working on women’s health issues. Pinch me, please, somebody.

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I have updated my google travel map (see below) and will be keeping track of upcoming and recent trips on the Travel tab on my blog.

Somehow as I look at this map, all I can think of is…there is so much more of the world I’m dying to see.

As they say in Honduras…Andale, pues!

On orientation.

I grew up in the vast, open expanse that is the American West. In my childhood homes in Montana and Idaho, there was a lot of space, punctuated by craggy mountains or rolling hills that reached skyward from their firm grounding in the earth. These landmarks served as my compass – I could almost always see them, and could thereby discern where I was. In western Montana, the sun sank every evening behind the Bitterroots, and so I knew that if I placed the mountains to my left, I’d be facing north. The mountains were comforting, orienting, grounding.

I was 12 years old the first time I flew in a plane. It took me to Los Angeles, and never having left the Northwest, it was an exhilarating experience at first. The exotic places on the departures board had never before seemed real to me, and I found it amazing to be able to board a plane, watch the ground fall out beneath me, and to touch down just hours later in a a completely different place. I was instantly hooked.

However, shortly after our arrival, my excitement vanished. I felt swallowed up in the endless freeways, the tall buildings, and the sunless, smoggy sky. Though I’d always had an acute sense of direction, I looked every which way and could find no point of reference. I turned in desperate circles and couldn’t find north, and I suddenly felt very small.

In my quiet panic, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “If I was in Montana, where would the mountains be?” I took a few deep breaths and suddenly – there – I could feel them. I slowly turned so the imaginary mountains would be on my left. I felt my father’s hand on my back and heard his voice ask me, “Jenna, what is wrong?” I opened my eyes and asked, “Dad, is that north?” He nodded. It was. My panic vanished and I was okay. I was oriented. Grounded.

That was a long time ago. Years later, I’d board a second plane that would take me to college. I’d go on to live in the midwest, New England, the Caribbean, and Europe. I’d travel even further afield, developing a boundless wanderlust that has me constantly planning the next journey and adventure. When I travel, I still feel all the exhilaration with none of the panic. I think I can do this because I still carry those childhood landmarks in my back pocket.

I’m typing this post below the trees of Bryant Park and the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan. The city vibrates around me, and I’m feeling alive in a way I only do when I find myself in a different place than the one I woke up in. But on my way here, I did have a moment when I lost my bearing as I emerged from a subway station below the city.

I found myself closing my eyes and instinctively asking myself – “”Where would the mountains be?”

And as they always do in these moments, there they appeared. I could feel them – I could feel west, and I could find north. And even in New York City, because of my mountains, I’m oriented.

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On giving thanks – 11.14

On November 14, 2011, I am thankful for Latin America.

Admittedly, I’m not particularly well-traveled, but Latin America is the region of the world (besides the one that I am from) that I have spent the most time in and feel the most drawn to. It is diverse, rugged, beautiful, and alive. It is resilient, conscious of struggle, and somehow both humble and proud (…and yes, I realize I am anthropomorphizing and generalizing all over the place.)

I stumbled on this music video by my favorite reggaetonera from Puerto Rico, Calle 13. His songs – both lyrically and rhythmically, are interesting, political, and smart. Watching this today conjured for me a surge of affection for Latin America, and as such, that is what I’m thankful for today. Even if you don’t understand Calle’s Spanish (which, true to form, is thought-provoking) it is worth the watch, as the images are arresting, and capture so much of what I love about this region of the world and its people.

 

What are you thankful for?

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(See all posts on giving thanks here.)

On the ugly.

Here in Honduras, I’ve had the privilege to see some…ugly.

In my last post I wrote about the privilege of experiencing the beauty of this foreign place. It was a fun post to write. I love seeing beautiful things and take even greater joy in sharing them with those of you who aren’t here with me. But when I went to bed that night, it was the ugly that I have seen that was on my mind. And that made me realize some things.

I think I wrote the post about the beauty, in part, because I genuinely wanted to share it. But I think I also wrote it because thinking and writing about the beauty here helped me – rather, allowed me – to forget for a moment about the ugly.

But the ugly is here too, and it is just as real as the beauty. And part of my privilege in being here is to see both.

So in the interest of being honest…

I have seen some ugliness here.

The children with big eyes and copper toned hair that betrays malnourishment…their hunger is ugly.

The men who guard buildings – hotels and banks and wealthy people’s homes – with machine guns and a stern, vigilant gaze…the violence that makes them necessary, and the desperation that leads to violence is ugly.

The mine that has been carved out of the lush mountainside of El Corpus: the heavy machinery that frightens children on their way to the river, the contamination that prevents them from bathing in its cool, refreshing swimming holes and waterfalls, the acrid smell of chemicals that burn your nostrils, the flat muddy expanse that used to be a living green hill,  the the angry bark of the dogs who defend the gold…its greed, contamination, sounds, and smells are ugly.

The 12-year-old who came to our clinic who was sent away from her family at 10 and now lives with her “novio” of 17…her loss of innocence and her powerlessness are ugly.

The healthcare system, with its understaffed rural health posts, which are at times stocked with little more than ibuprofen and a malfunctioning blood pressure cuff, and overrun urban public hospitals that haven’t a prayer of caring for the poor, often illiterate, desperate patients who line up before dawn to be seen…its hopelessness is ugly.

The trash that litters the hillsides, that floats down the streets when the rain turns roads into rivers…it is ugly, too.

Poverty. Powerlessness. Sickness. Shame. Violence. Hunger. Hopelessness. Weariness. Depression. Isolation. Fear. These are among the ugly things that I have seen. But as unpleasant as it is to write about them, to deny them would be to deny the realities and idealize the difficulties faced by the people who live, love, struggle, and survive in the breathtakingly beautiful yet equally oppressive place.

I seek out the beauty. I believe in the beauty. But it doesn’t erase the ugly. And on the hard days, that is what is on my mind when I go to sleep at the end of another beautiful day in Honduras.

On the beauty.

Here in Honduras, I’ve had the privilege to experience beauty.

Some of it is crazy, knock your socks off, stunning beauty, while some of it is subtle, simple, quiet beauty that you have to pay close attention to notice. Some of it is visual, in the verdant green hillsides and the quaint landscape of rustic villages, while some of it is less tangible, and can only be sensed in the stillness of an evening or the kindness of a stranger. And some of it is something else…an example of which I will attempt to share here.

The first day of clinic, we were seeing women from Potreritos, the most far-flung community of the six that we serve. The women of this village have to wake before dawn and travel by foot for hours – through thick brush, steep mountainsides, and rocky, muddy footpaths, to arrive at the clinic site. With the heavy rains in the past week, however, the most dangerous aspect of the journey that day would be fording the engorged river, which holds local fame for drowning a woman who attempted to cross during rainy season last year.

That morning, I spent the hour-long ride in the back of Pedro’s rusty pickup truck soaking in the stunning views of the lush, beautiful countryside and feeling the cool early morning wind in my face…all the while recognizing that the ruggedness of the landscape was lovely from our perch, but that it could be the very thing that could prevent us from accomplishing our mission that day. We arrived to the clinic building and busied ourselves setting up the rooms, recognizing that if nobody arrived, it was all for naught. Given that women normally arrive hours early to claim their place in line, the quiet was foreboding.

And then, over the hill, they came. For me, it is always powerful to see these women all gathered together in one place in the name of their health, but this was different. It wasn’t just the women who came – it was as if the entire village of Potreritos descended upon our clinic. Women and their babies were on horses, led by men wearing jeans and worn cowboy hats. I went to greet them and learned that the river had been too high for the women to safely cross alone, and so the community had come together to make it possible for them to come. The older children stayed behind to watch their younger siblings. The men, most of whom are sustenance farmers, left their fields to lead their horses, which carried the women and their babies, across the river.

A woman I met, who had come to clinic every year for the 8 that HHA has been here, explained it to me like this: “I have 8 children. If I get sick, who will care for them? Who will make sure they grow strong and healthy? My family can only be healthy if I am healthy.” She went on to say, “The road here is long and hard. Many women say no, no I cannot go. I have to stay here to care for my children. I am afraid of the river. And I tell them, no. To care for your children, you must go. You must have this test, how else can you know if you are sick? The river is one thing, but the sickness, it is another. So I bring them with me. Some of the men know this too, that their woman must go, and so they helped us cross the river….because they know we need this and our lives depend on it.”

For me, that morning was beautiful for many reasons.

It was beautiful because of the way it demonstrated community.The women arrived together, and they left together. The younger women came because their older vecinas encouraged them to. On the way there, they spoke about their fears in anticipation of the exam, and on the long trip home I’m certain they compared notes and reassured one another that their results would come back normal. The communal nature of their health care experience this week sits in such stark contrast to my experiences back home – where I drive to my annual appointment alone (likely grumbling if traffic makes my commute take 20 minutes instead of 15), read a magazine in silence in the waiting room, and receive my results in the mail several days later – likely never speaking to anybody, even my closest friends, about my experience.

It was also beautiful because of the role that the men played. So often here, when we discuss the role of men in women’s health, the story I hear is the story of machismo. The story of a debilitating power differential between the men and their women. The story of husbands forbidding their wives from using family planning, forcing her to plan escondida, hiding her pills and taking them after he has gone to sleep…or forcing her tired body to bear 8, 9, sometimes over 10 children she doesn’t have the resources to feed. The story of women who are not allowed to come to the clinic because their husband’s don’t want anybody else – even a doctor – to see her parte. These stories are real and I hear them often – but that morning, it was beautiful to see the other side. It was beautiful and it was hopeful to see their support and participation in the process.

Here in Honduras, I’ve had the privilege to experience beauty. I have a camera full of pictures and a head full of stories to show for it – but sometimes, it is the slight adjustments in my perspective and my perceptions of what life, health, community, gender, power, and love really mean that are most beautiful.

The horses they arrived on, waiting patiently in the "parking lot."


On flexibility.

Ive been in Honduras for 4.5 days now, and have already learned a number of lessons about flexibility.

Rain (we are talking sheet and sheets, creating rivers between cobblestones and soaking those riding in the back of a pickup) happens.

Canceled flights (especially when they are flying into Tegucigalpa, one of the most dangerous international airports in the world) happen.

Turds in the latrine start to jump around and turn out to be toads…yes, that happens.

When cell service in far flung communities dies out, 430 am one way radio announcements for communication happen.

And as I have most recently found out, gastrointestinal distress, too, happens.

While most of the things that have arisen have been mildly humorous, the last one has come as a disappointment. Instead of making the long trek to deliver health education workshops and conduct interviews in Los Terreros, a far away village that requires multiple buses and long hikes, and sometimes donkeys to reach…I am here in El Corpus gulping gatorade and refraining from venturing farther than a few feet from the flush toilet. This is clearly not how I hoped to spend this time, and I have spent much of this morning feeling frustrated and disappointed, given the short time I have to be here. I do not want to waste it this way!

But I remind myself that this too is all part of it. Being flexible doesnt just mean adapting oneself when something inconvenient or funny or strange happens. It also means recognizing your limits. It means taking care of yourself when Honduras wears you down. It means finding a new way to accomplish the tasks you came for. And, hardest of all, it means letting someone else go instead. It means being content knowing that the poor will still receive the service our group came here for, and that matters so much more than the fact that I dont get to be the one to deliver it…at least not today.

On the bright side, Im sitting in an informal internet cafe with the soothing sounds of Lionel Richie singing “Say You, Say Me” ringing in my ears. The young man who works here is practicing his English by singing it at the top of his lungs and asking me questions about North Carolina. He was even nice enough to sell me the sim card right out of his phone to get mine up and running again. It could be worse. And tomorrow is another day.

On eating with our hands.

Our shadows.

When doing community work, I’m a firm believer in meeting people where they are as much as possible. Not only is it important to respect the culture you enter into because respect is important in and of itself, but it also makes your work much more effective by enabling you to get to know the community, understand their needs, and build trust. In Honduras, this can be as simple as dressing conservatively, attending church services with the community, eating (and complimenting!) their food, and engaging in conversation and asking questions. These simple gestures can go a long way in establishing relationships and demonstrating appropriate and necessary humility.

When I was in Honduras a few weeks ago, I had an experience that served to remind me how important it is to be conscientious of the ways that we, as outsiders, impact the communities that we enter into, despite our best efforts to be malleable and respectful.

On one of our last evenings in El Corpus, we sat down to dinner with Samantha and Andrea, the 7 and 16-year-old daughters of our hostess, Juana. The table had been meticulously set with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed juice and generous servings of Honduran enchiladas – fried tortillas topped with ground meat, chopped cabbage, avocados, tomato sauce, and boiled eggs. We dug in heartily, but I quickly noticed that Samantha was not being her exuberant, talkative self. She had an intense look of concentration, and even frustration, on her face as she wrestled with her fork and knife, succeeding only in spreading enchilada across her plate and onto the table. Finally giving up, she crossed her arms and glared at me across the table. When I asked her what was wrong, Andrea intervened, explaining that they didn’t usually use silverware, but that their mother gave strict instructions to do so whenever they hosted gringos – because that is how gringos expect to eat.

I was immediately taken aback. For all my care, conscientiousness, and attempts to adapt to this family and culture, I forgot the inevitability that my Honduran hosts, too, would adapt to me. I forgot that even if I did not overtly express expectations at how they should run their household while I was there, they assumed that I had expectations based on what they know about my culture from their own previous experiences. While I certainly don’t think that it did any harm to the family to eat differently while we were around, I couldn’t help but feel a little mortified that my apparent American desire for propriety at the dinner table had made a 7-year-old girl so uncomfortable. Though the repercussions of this are minimal, it left me feeling a bit unsettled, knowing that my presence may cause more serious discomfort that I’ll never know about. I am grateful to the honesty of Samantha and of children in general, as they can provide an excellent purview into the subtleties of cultural expectations that their painfully polite elders  often wouldn’t dare articulate, but the reality is that more often than not, I don’t have access to their “expertise” in the context of my work with HHA.

After we all shared a laugh about Samantha’s outburst, Andrea went on to explain further. “Aqui en Honduras, decimos que todo sabe mejor cuando coma con las manos.” (Here in Honduras, we say that everything tastes better when you eat it with your hands.) With that, we all sat down our silverware and dug into our enchiladas with gusto. With sauce dripping down our elbows, we licked our fingers with satisfaction, giggling and teasing Samantha at how quickly she scarfed up hear meal without having to deal with utensils. This story is clearly simple and silly, and it certainly isn’t an issue I haven’t grappled with before, but for some reason, it has stuck with me and been the cause of much reflection since I’ve gotten back.

I hate to bring up a challenge for which I have no proposed solution, but sometimes, there just isn’t an easy answer. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, things don’t go they way you think they will, and your presence certainly can do harm as well as good. I suppose all that is in my control if I continue to do this work is to a) be conscientious and diligent about entering their way of life as much as I can and b) to keep my own assumptions about their expectations of me in check as well. Oh – and c) next time, to eat with my hands. Samantha, Andrea, and Honduras are right – it does taste better that way.

On the photographic evidence.

Upon returning to the US, flight delays and an intense graduate program have quickly taken over. For now, while I search for time and words, I wanted to share some of my favorite images that I think sum up my time in Honduras better than anything else could: And although it was worlds away from […]

On first impressions.

I arrived in Honduras last Thursday with eyes wide open. Recognizing that first impressions are powerful, I jotted field notes in my worn Moleskine notebook whenever I had the chance – and I´m glad I did. Things that struck me then seem almost normal now, and I´m grateful for having preserved those first moments of transition from the comfortable and familiar to the strange, new, and different world I´ve found here in Central America.  The three things that struck me most in my first 24 hours here were :

  • The noise: Upon venturing from the Tegucigalpa airport, we careened through narrow streets in a small taxi, horns honking, people jumping in and out of moving school buses. Words emblazened on the side revealed that they once hailed from places like Chatanooga Tennessee, places far from this reality.  Arriving at the bus station, we were accosted greeted by representatives of various competing bus companies, yelling their fares in desperate attempts to outdo each other and win our business. A cacophany of sounds – clatter, fumes, the ever steady dembow of reggaeton, as we left Tegus to begin the steady climb into the mountains of Southern Honduras.
  • The Polvo (dust): It is dry season here. Hillsides that will be green in June are brown – both from the dryness and from the thick film of dust that covers every possible surface. As we bounce across the dirt roads in worn out yellow school buses, locals far more prepared than I endure the bumpy ride with towels or handkerchiefs covering their faces to protect their eyes from the sting. My hair is thick with it and my eyes run for it – the dust is almost as oppressive as the heat.
  • Warmth: In contrast to the oppressive heat of dry season, the people here exude a subtle warmth. At first I felt self’conscious, feeling eyes watching me when I wasn´t looking, here in this part of the country where few gringos venture. But I quickly learned that if I was able to capture eye contact long enough before they looked away, long enough to offer a smile, I was rewarded. A softening around the eyes, a parting of lips, their curiosity would melt into a soft, shy smile. My communication with those strangers, at least in the beginning, was limited to that smile, that warm, welcoming, and humble smile. But even without words, that warmth makes me feel comfortable and welcome – a curiosity still, but a welcome one.

On wendys.

For the first time since arriving in Honduras, my iPhone has detected a wireless signal. So here I sit, typing with my thumbs, in a Wendy’s (of all places.) I’m observing globalization at it’s finest- anime is playing on the corner TV, Will Smith is blasting on the overhead speakers (followed by Daddy Yankee, then Def Leppard.) We just got done meeting with a campesina who had traveled over three hours to meet us here in Choluteca, a small city sitting on an agricultural plain, to discuss the challenges she faces as the health promoter of her small mountain village. The clash of cultures and the contrast of urban and rural Honduras leave us all a little dazed, yet refreshed from our deliciously cold frostees (a welcome treat in the heat of dry season.) my own journey to Cholu from the village where I have been staying was a harrowing one in an old school bus over dusty roads, and a part of me wishes I was back in a hammock in El Corpus instead of on this vinyl bench.

I will process what I have seen and learned over the next couple of days as we relax in a small town outside Tegucigalpa. Before leaving the respite of Wendy’s air conditioning, I leave you with a photo of the Southern Honduras countryside. I took it many miles and tortillas ago, just after sunrise, with children, chickens, and a pig at my feet. I can’t wait to share the rest.