A project of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ
August 2007 Mission Trip
August 13-24, 2007
In August 2007, NY/HELP Honduras sponsored a summer mission trip to the remote villages around La Laguna, in the mountains of Yoro in northern Honduras. We have been working with the people of this area since 1989, so to me it seems like "going home again," every time we go!
On this trip were five members of St Peter's UCC church in West Seneca, all making their initial trip: Pastor Hope Harle-Mould and his 15-year-old daughter Jessica, photographer Gerard Kawczynski and his 13-year-old son Daniel Cristler, and Lindsey Tredo, a SUNY Brockport Spanish major who just returned from a semester abroad in Costa Rica. Two college-age members of the Honeoye UCC came (both are bilingual!): David Makepeace hijo ("Davidcito"), making his third trip, and his older sister Emily Makepeace, coming for the first time. Arcade UCC sponsored college student Jeff Dorfman, who was back for a second trip, and family doctor Gordon Comstock, returning "home" for the 17th time. The presence of three fluent Spanish-speakers in this group really contributed to its success in working with the people of these mountain villages!
Much of the planning and organization for this mission trip was done by Spanish teacher David Makepeace padre, who wrote many e-mails to Yovany Munguía, Central American director for our sister organization, Sustainable Harvest International. Yovany has ably assisted us for several years as our in-country coordinator. Their preparations made our time in Honduras much more productive - and enabled more interaction with the people there as well! During the trip, Gerard worked hard as our treasurer, helping to keep track of our funds and budgeting expenses. Pastor Hope helped remind us of the spiritual basis for our work. Davidcito, with several trips under his belt, took on a leadership role for our group. Emily and Lindsey worked on school and roof projects and took turns helping translate for Gordon in the clinic. Our two youngest members, Jessica and Dan, helped with the work and were general good sports (although I think they were not too fond of our basic diet of beans and tortillas!).
Early Monday morning, August 13, six of us left from the Buffalo airport. Going via Atlanta this time, we arrived at San Pedro Sula (the "Buffalo"-like industrial center of Honduras) shortly after noon. After going through immigration with only a slight hitch (Jeff's passport expired in September; the rules say that the passport should be good for at least 3 months!), we were met by Yovany, who had arranged for us to rent a small bus to take us to Yoro that afternoon. Arriving at the Hotel Marquéz in Yoro at about 5, we went over to the "Boarding House" that NY/HELP had sponsored. This "boarding house" provides a supervised home-like facility where up to ten children from the mountains can stay while they go to secondary school or the CEVER vocational school in Yoro. The house-parents, Pastor José Feliciano and his wife Petronida, have been caring for the students since the house opened. Currently the house is being administered by Bill Briggs and the HONDURAS HOPE mission program. We were warmly received there, and had a great visit with the students. Jeff had brought a yo-yo, and taught some of the kids there how to use it. They loved this, and Jeff left it for them as a gift. We finished by singing hymns - one written by Pastor Hope and played by him on the house guitar, and several songs played by two of the students as well. The students have been behaving well, and Petronida assured me that they were keeping up in their studies. The students from our area - who are going to the CEVER vocational school - are Kelvin Ramon Andony, age 18, from La Laguna; and Henry Ricardo, age 16, and Eduardo Isaí, age 17, from El Calichal. Eva Lizeth Rosales, age 18 from Kiloma, is in the 11th grade at the secondary school; she lives with her relatives but gets financial assistance from NY/HELP. There is still a need for this house, although the new middle school we are helping build in Mataderos will soon serve more of the mountain's students.
The other three of our group - Lindsey, Emily, and Davidcito - left the Rochester airport that same morning, but due to different connections, they did not arrive in Honduras until late Monday evening. Yovany met them at the airport and brought them up to Yoro in his pickup. We all met back at the hotel, visited the Internet Café across the street, and then to bed.
Tuesday morning, August 14, six of us went back to the Sustainable Harvest office in La Habana on the rented bus, which then returned to San Pedro Sula. Unfortunately, we missed stopping at the CEVER vocational school along the way. Davidcito, Gerard, and Gordon went shopping at the supermarket for food supplies, and (with Gordon's encouragement) bought mostly Honduran supplies and limited our buying of "gringo food". [When we later got up to the village, I overheard the cooks grumbling about the lack of spaghetti, wheat flour and pancake mix - I think THEY like pancakes, too - and they got Yovany to bring up the "proper" supplies later that week.] While at the supermarket, we met Tim, a Peace Corps Volunteer who is working with bakery micro-enterprises in Yoro. The Peace Corps was absent from northern Honduras for years; I was pleased to see them back now.
Getting up the mountain to La Laguna required two pickup trucks to transport all of us and our supplies and medicines for the clinic. Stuck in this one-lane logging road - at the first hill - was a Municipality of Yoro dump truck, loaded with cement and pipes for the water project in La Fortuna. (A group from Engineers Without Borders, all students from LaFayette College in Pennsylvania, is working with that community to provide safe drinking water.) We eventually got past that obstacle, and later met the Engineers hiking down the hill with picks and shovels. They got the truck going, and later that day, I saw it pulling into Mataderos. After lunch at the clinic, we all went back to Mataderos to see the new colegio (middle school) that is being built there, and talked with the teachers Marissa and Fatima. Pastor Hope, Jessica, Jeff, and Lindsey stayed at the community center in Mataderos, where they will be working on the colegio buildings. Meanwhile, the rest of us returned to La Laguna, and were caught by a rain shower at Lauro Martinez's house at the entrance to town, giving us a chance to visit with him and his family. We spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking and sorting the $1300 worth of medicines that we brought for the clinic; it was fortunate we had brought medicines as the cupboards in the clinic were quite bare!
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were work days: Pastor Hope, Jessica, Jeff, and Lindsey stayed in Mataderos and worked on the new colegio middle school building. They got the 7th grade room all painted, and more layers of concrete blocks laid for the 8th grade room. (The 7th grade room should be ready for occupancy this fall!) The building looked really beautiful when they finished. They stayed at the Mataderos community center, which has a nice bunkhouse, and were feted royally by the women cooks. In the evening, they played with the kids, and taught them games such as "Crazy Eights". (One interesting aside: some of the cards were missing, and were found out on the road, torn into small pieces.) [Were we unwittingly breaking some taboo?]
Gerard, Dan, and Davidcito slept at the clinic, staying with Emily and Gordon in the newly-enclosed bunk area.. The corridor going past the bunk rooms has been closed off at the outer end, and a secure door placed at the patio end; this has made the area much more secure than in the past, when it was wide open. These three were involved in our Roof Project: placing corrugated aluminum laminas on three of the poorest houses. (Replacing thatch or wooden-shingle roofs with metal roofing not only makes the house much more secure and weatherproof, but also eliminates the major hiding place for the chiche bug, which transmits Chagas disease. There is no good medical treatment for Chagas disease, which causes heart failure; thus preventive measures are vital!) The houses which got the new roofs were chosen by the tribal council on the basis of need. Much of the preparatory work was done by the inhabitants of the house, who usually had the old roof off before our group arrived.
Dr Gordon worked in the clinic as usual, but this time had really excellent assistance from the girls, who helped tremendously with translations. We still had to have our clinic nurse Mirtila Garcia come and explain things from time to time, as she knows the local situations and slang better than anyone! Emily worked as a translator for several days, then Lindsey took over, and Emily went to Mataderos for a few days of work there. We saw 120 patients in the clinic during the five days it was open. Gordon did several minor surgeries such as sewing a laceration and lancing a boil, and provided treatment for a number of general ailments. There were a number of cases of hypertension treated in the clinic: much more than there were years ago. [I wonder if the diet is changed that much?] There also were asthma and allergy problems, often exacerbated by the open cooking fires many people still use (a problem which our stove project has tried to eliminate!). We also saw Rosa's two young grandchildren, who, like Rosa and her daughters Carmen and Bertila, have the genetically inherited disease of "cranial syndystrophy," where the bones of the skull fuse shortly after birth, while the brain and eyes still continue to grow, causing severe deformities of the head. There is a new, experimental surgery for this; we made efforts to get them referred to the neurosurgeons in San Pedro Sula for evaluation. The importance of birth control in preventing more cases of this genetically-dominant disease was also stressed - we will have to see how this comes out. We also provided money for one 4-year-old girl to go to Tegucigalpa for follow-up surgery for her cleft palate (I had first seen her when she was only 4 months old!). There were a couple of possible cases of Chagas disease as well; these were referred to the hospital in Yoro for a diagnostic blood test.
A lot of the problems we see in the clinic could be easily prevented, by better sanitation and water supply, by better housing, by providing stoves with chimneys to take the smoke out of the house. All of these are much more likely to happen when the family - especially the girls! - are better educated and learn how they can improve things for their families and themselves.
Saturday the group reassembled at the clinic for a painting project. With the enthusiastic assistance of a number of local people, they painted the window shutters and the doors a lighter green. Since there was sufficient paint, they also painted the concrete crossbars green, giving a new and quite impressive appearance to the clinic. (They got themselves painted a bit green as well - but that did wash off!)
Gordon had the treat of working that day with our old nurse, Maria Garcia (Mirtila's sister). Maria and her cousin Waldetrudis were our nurses from 1994 to 2000, following which they went for advanced training in El Paso, Texas. Now Maria works in the big city hospital in San Pedro Sula, while Walde is running a rural clinic in the mountain community of El Falón. Maria had come home for a visit on her vacation, and I got her to help us in the clinic on Saturday. It was just like old times!
Saturday also was the day we bought dolls from the sewing group in the village. Gerard (our treasurer), Emily, and Lindsey, along with Jeff and Pastor Hope, bought over 80 dolls, looking to purchase those that were well made or showed new ideas (such as a family or a man riding a burro!) The price has gone up to 40 Lempiras ($2.11) a doll, due to competition from Sustainable Harvest and the Engineers. I was pleased by this - it means that the market for these dolls is expanding, and thus will help develop a real industry for the women of the villages.
Sunday was the day of the big fútbal (soccer) tournament! We all assembled at Mataderos at 10 AM for the start. Three villages participated, with teams from El Paraíso, La Laguna, and Mataderos. The first game, between La Laguna and El Paraíso, was won 2-0 by La Laguna. Then El Paraíso lost another game to Mataderos 3-1. The final, strongly-fought game for the championship was won by La Laguna, whose team beat Mataderos 2-0. (?) The first prize was a trophy and the soccer ball; the second was a smaller trophy and 200 Lempiras (about $10); and third was just 200 Lempiras. The crowd started out small, but grew in size and enthusiasm as the day went on. Refereeing was ably done by Davidcito, along with two local arbitos. David was fair and widely respected on the field - a real credit to NY/HELP! Lunch was provided to us and the teams by women from Mataderos, who cooked up a real feast for us from foodstuffs provided by Yovany and NY/HELP.
Monday, August 20, was back to work, with finishing touches applied to the school building in Mataderos and the last roof put on a house in La Delicias, a poor suburb of La Laguna. A final group of patients were seen in the clinic. That night, we had a request from the women's group in La Laguna to give a "scholarship" to the family of Rufina Cárcamo, whose husband is 76 and disabled from severe arthritis. He has been unable to care for his family of 4 children, ages 2, 7, 10, and 12, and as a result the two older children were pulled out of school to work on the farm. The women of the community pledged to share in-kind food and assistance with this family, and we of NY/HELP matched that with a grant of 1000 Lempiras (about $50) to help buy supplies. This will help them through the fall. The agreement was that we would furnish more assistance this winter, providing the two older children returned to school then. [The February 2008 group will need to follow up on this!]
Monday evening, we all assembled again at the clinic in La Laguna, with our bags packed for travel the next morning. After supper, we talked, played cards, and met with the women mentioned above. During our stay at the clinic, we had Justino Montes from El Paraíso staying with us at night. Justino is treasurer of the tribal council, and, along with his very skinny dog, acted as our vigilante and guard for this trip. But, as has been the case for every visit since we were robbed by a marauding gang in 2001, no problems were encountered. (In Mataderos, the group slept in an enclosed compound at the community center, with a local watchman present as well.) On Monday night, our sleep in La Laguna was disturbed by the winds from the fringe of Hurricane Dean, which rattled the lamina on the roof, but caused no other damage. Our sympathy went out to the poor people in Mexico, where this category 5 hurricane blasted the Yucatán peninsula.
Tuesday, August 21, we were up and left before breakfast on a pickup truck arranged by Yovany. We needed to get down the hill by 7:30 AM, before the direct bus from Yoro to San Pedro Sula got to the bus stop at La Habana. So this trip, no one got to enjoy the walk down the hill. [This was a real pity: I think that this trek is one of the most fun things we ever do!] At La Habana, at the bottom of the hill, we met the directo, which was a fancy air-conditioned bus with a DVD movie. The curtains on the windows made it hard to see the countryside, however. This bus deposited us at its downtown terminus in San Pedro Sula, about 6 blocks from our hotel, the Hotel Terraza. After a lunch at the hotel, we caught a cab in the afternoon rain to the new bus terminal on the outskirts of S.P.S. (near the new soccer stadium), where we got another direct bus to Copán Ruínas. I got to talk with several seatmates; one was returning from work at a maquila [sweatshop], another was a young woman who had spent a year with her sister in New Jersey, where she went to 10th grade and learned excellent English; she is now a first-year engineering student at the university in Tegucigalpa..
Arriving in the town of Copán Ruínas at about 5 PM, we checked in at a hotel on the town square and promptly went out to visit the many souvenir shops. We stayed at the Hotel Yagarua, where we had sleeping rooms for $10 each. The accommodations were Spartan but clean, and they had hot showers, which for us was the stuff of pure luxury! The staff was exceedingly pleasant and helpful (even running to catch the bus when we left - I had left my credit card there!) They also had a tour center, where the manager arranged for a guide to the ruins. The next day, they provided a bus to take us out to the ruins, located about a kilometer outside of town. The Internet café next door was also patronized by our group, as we reconnected with our North American world!
Wednesday morning, August 22, we all went out to the famous Mayan ruins, which have been excavated extensively since I was first there in 1989. And some of the ideas about what had happened to the Mayans there have evolved as well. There is more evidence about what happened to cause the city to be abandoned about 822 AD, but still no definite answers. We had the privilege of having an excellent guide, Yobany Peraza, who gave us an very interesting tour. Afterwards, several of us went to the adjacent museum, where a number of well-preserved artifacts are displayed. Unfortunately, the museum doesn't give a good historical picture of the rise and fall of Copán, but the carvings and reconstructed temple are quite picturesque.
After the museum, we took 3-wheeled taxis back to the town just as the afternoon rain started, and joined the others who had walked back earlier. We went to a "hole-in-the-wall" Honduran restaurant for lunch, where we overtaxed the kitchen and almost didn't get back to catch the 2 PM direct bus to San Pedro Sula. Three of our college students (Lindsey, Emily, and Jeff) elected to stay another night in Copán, and took a horseback ride to a mountain community the next day.
The rest of us returned to San Pedro Sula and had dinner at a Pizza Hut (which was definitely "gringo heaven"!) We spent Thursday night at the Hotel Terraza, and in the morning went to the Internet café next door. The weather looked like rain, which we felt would put a damper on any trip to the beach. However, it eventually cleared a bit, and so we took the bus to Omoa, down on the Carribean shore. We had a time finding the right bus station; first we went to the new station out by the Olympic stadium, and then discovered the station for Puerto Cortés and Omoa was downtown, only 10 blocks from the Terraza! In Omoa, we walked to the old Spanish fort, and spent a couple of hours touring the fort and museum. This fort was built to protect the Carribean coast from pirates and the British - but instead was captured several times! The beach at Omoa was quite a disappointment this year - it had been badly battered and eroded, and was coated with flotsam and debris cast up by the waves from Hurricane Dean. Lunch at our favorite restaurant on the beach was quite pleasant, however. The trip to the beach ended with a "school bus race" between our bus and a competing bus to see who would beat the other to the next fare!
Meeting the rest of the group back at the Hotel Terraza, we heard about their adventures and shared ours. We had sent $1000 to Honduras in advance of our trip, but had spent that (mostly on supplies, projects and scholarships), so we had withdrawn another $300 out of the NY/HELP account there. At our final meeting with Yovany, we returned $263 (all we had left) - then discovered a few extra expenses (like the exit fee of $32.19 - payable at the airport in U.S. funds, prior to departure). So we took up a collection amongst ourselves, put a few expenses on a credit card, and made it out of the country safely!
After a thunderstorm-related delay for the Buffalo group at the Atlanta airport, we got back to Buffalo to meet our friends here, and home by 3 AM Saturday. The one bag with 82 dolls that we had purchased from the village bags came with us; the others arrived the next day, but all came through eventually.
This trip gave us all - those that went to Honduras and those that stayed home and supported us - a chance to show our faith by the work we do. We were able to provide assistance to the people of these communities - through school-building, roof projects, clinic work, financial support - but more importantly, I think we all got to understand and love the people there. They are unlike us in language and socio-economic development - but like us in their humanity and in God's love.
Paz y salud,
Gordon F. Comstock, MD
Medical Advisor, NY/HELP Honduras
Pictures updated October 5, 2007