Friday, January 28, 2005

My Birthday (or The Egging)

Thanks to many of your kind wishes and the enthusiasm of my sister and my co-voluntarios I had a wonderful, memorable 25th birthday on Rancho Santa Fe.

The day (this past Sunday, the 23rd) started in the Ranch computer lab where I was surprised by Elizabeth who came bearing a card and a piece of cake. No ordinary cake, mind you. This was from the best cake shop in Teguc. The top and bottom were dense, moist chocolate cake and the middle were 2 thick layers of chocolate and vanilla mousse. I took one bite and decided to save the rest for later so as to fully enjoy the luxurious chocolate treat. (I did save it for later, in case you are wondering. I ate it about 10 minutes later, sharing a few bites with my friends.)

Then, accompanied by my sister and some fellow volunteers, we headed into Teguc. We had the best pizza at this great local place, Pizza Hut. Yum. Greasier than in the states, but a luxury none the less. We even had free refills of Pepsi and ice in our glasses. Danijel alerted the staff to the fact it was my birthday and I received a TGI Friday-style serenade at our table and a balloon animal.

We then hit up one of the American Clothing stores. These shops dot the city center and the precise equivalent to a US thrift shop. (Exept without all the junk and grumbly, disheveled clerks.) These shops sell only used clothing and linens and are staffed by salegirls who take the clothes you want to try on and reserve a dressing room for you as if you were Renee Zellweger shopping for Chanel. Almost everything at these stores is some sort of brand name, the condition is usually good, and the prices are affordable. After a search of nearly 5 years, I actually found jeans that fit. 2 pairs! And a pair of black capris for school and a retro tennis zip-up sweater (thanks, Hannah!). Now, with bluejeans, I finally feel I am back in the fashion of the rest of the world. Funny that I searched all over the US for jeans and found them in Honduras. What other questions will be answered here?

We shopped and did other errands (internet\phone\groceries) for the rest of the afternoon and returned to the Ranch late in the day.

Upon our arrival, we discovered that the electricity had gone out (a fairly regular occurrence, so I´ve been told). With only a few more hours of daylight, we scurried to make our preparations for the evening´s fiesta. (Did you really think I could let my birthday pass without a party?) Hannah and Danjiel worked on the Sangria; I chopped veggies for the salsa. We hauled wood from the kitchen to Casa Personal for the bonfire. I was banished to the terrace so some surprise preparations could be made. (Balloons, party hats, and a birthday banner! Thanks everyone.)

The generators came on sometime after dark, so Duffy and Margot were able to make me some wonderful from-scratch brownies (with eggs begged from the kitchen) and we had a couple hours of power to finish our work for the party.

Sometime around 8:30, with Elizabeth´s expertise, we started the fire. People began to join us with an odd collection of mugs and cups full of Sangria (I was using a one of the pitchers coffee shops use to steam milk). The fire was wonderful, the Sangria was amazing (full of wine and rum and watermelon, apples, oranges, pineapple, and other lucious fruits), and before long we were singing and generally making merry.

Around 11, a few of the "older" volunteers appeared with candles and sang me the birthday song that is traditionally sung here. It is complicated and long, but very nice, of course. I was enjoying the music and the candles and musing on the fact that since we were short on eggs I had managed to escape the Honduran tradition of smashing raw eggs on one´s head on his/her birthday. Just as the song ended and I was about to thank everyone for their efforts and alert my comrades to my happiness regarding the egg shortage . . .

3 eggs came smashing down on my head, whites and yolks dripped down my face, egg shells imbedded themselves in my hair. After I recovered from the shock, I immediately thanked the benefactors of this gift with big, eggy hugs.

Then I took a (cold) shower.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Happiness and Hogares

This weekend marks some important milestones for me--important in big and small ways.

Friday will mark 2 weeks for me in Honduras, Saturday completes my first week at Rancho Santa Fe, and Sunday is my 25th birthday.

I can´t believe I have only been here for 2 weeks. It could easily be 2 months. My life in the states seems so faraway it is almost as if it never existed at all. The transition (was there really a transistion or did I just wake up here one day?) has been surprisingly easy for me--I think this is because (for once) I am doing the right thing at the right time. I have no doubts that this is where I am supposed to be right now. An amazing thing.

Every day brings new levels of emotions. Happiness exists in plenty here, which makes no sense (which, in turn, makes it all the more beautiful). The children who live here have been through all imaginable horrors (death of their parents, abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, any other horrible thing you can imagine) yet they run up to me and want to be held and cuddled, they tell me my hair is pretty, that I am nice, that I speak Spanish well. They are safe here and they are free to love their caretakers, teachers, and volunteers.

There are 600 children who live on the ranch ranging in age from newborn to "kids" even older than I (University students, usually). They live in hogares (loose translation: homes) which are segregated by gender (except for the babies) and age (roughly). There are 20-25 kids in each hogar. Their caretakers are called Tíos and Tías (Uncles and Aunts). Each night, we volunteers spend 2 hours in a hogar. We eat dinner with the kids, help with homework, talk and play. This allows us to develop personal relationships with the kids.

Right now, we are in orientation and have been going to a different hogar every night. It is definitely very stressful and draining to be meeting so many new kids every night and trying to put forth 2 hours of good Spanish and trying to remember their names and so forth. The kids can be trying. They like to play a game I call "¿Como me llamo? (What is my name?) where they come up to you and ask the aforementioned question even though they know full well you don´t know (or remember) their name. They think it is funny. And it is--especially when I ask them the same question back and they can´t remember my name! Sweet revenge.

Despite the stress involved in visiting these hogares, it is AWESOME. It gives me a chance to hang out one on one with the kids, talk to them, play with them, try to begin to understand their lives. They can be quite complicated, but most of them are so ready to put their head on my shoulder, read a book with me, or talk about their lives (and ask about mine). I have met some great kids. I love them all incredibly. I don´t know how to describe it. It is unlike anything I have ever experienced--probably as close as I can get to knowing the love parents have for their kids without actually being a parent. It is amazing.

After we have visited all hogares, we will make our top choices known and then be assigned to a single hogar for the rest of the year. We will spend 2 hours there every night.

To my friends and family who read this blog, please know that I am safe and happy. I am the safest and happiest I have ever been. I love it here and invite all of you to come and visit. I want the world to know about these wonderful children. I want you to be able to hold them like I can.

I miss and love you all.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Aqui estoy en el Rancho!

A spanish rap song is blaring in my head. It is called "Gasolina." You don´t want to know the words. You really don´t. Estan muy sucias.

It is my head because I spent the last 2 hours with 20 + chicas (in their early teens) here on The Ranch. They were doing some serious dancing and, of course, persuaded me to get in on the action.

Yes, El Rancho Santa Fe is truly a special place. It is about 22 miles outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Teguc is a big city (1 million people, I think) full of big city things like noise and dirt and crime--the ranch is the complete opposite. It is a spacious home in the countryside, surrounded by mountains. It is an immense place safe from the perils of the big city.

We are pleasantly isolated. It is about a 15 minute walk from Casa Personal (where I live with the other volunteers) to the front gate of The Ranch. From the front gate, it is a 45 minute bus ride to Cerro Grande (outside of Teguc´s downtown) and from there, a 15 minute ride in a "colectivo" (kind of a taxi) to the city center. The bus ride can certainly be rough. The buses are retired school buses from the United States, often in bad condition, and run on erratic schedules. The drivers assistant´s job is to pack the people on, so often, we end up standing pressed up against strange men and women in a rickety school bus racing on crumbling roads. It is bearable, but not fun. In theory, the second half of the bus ride from Teguc to the Ranch is quite beautiful: green fields, mountains, small shops and homes along the way.

The first half is the most difficult. The bus passes by the dump (el crematorio) which smells so terrible I have to breathe through my mouth. The dump nearly overfills its lot, spilling garbage down the hills onto the road. The most sickening thing is that lives are lived out in the crematorio--men and women and children work there every day, digging through the garbage, looking for things to recycle and sell. It is horrific beyond words.

The Ranch could not be more starkly different than Teguc and the outerlying areas. It is filled with pine trees, banana trees, and all sorts of green. Paved paths run from building to building. The buildings are often built around a central courtyard and are tidy (mostly) and homey. The Ranch exists on a plot of 2000 acres. Yep, it is a HUGE place. I had no idea.

Hannah and I are currently living in Casa Personal where many of the volunteers live. The volunteers who have been here longer (some will be leaving in February) share double rooms complete with a private bathroom (nice!). The new volunteers (us) are in dorms. We have 8 girls in one room. Si, es la verdad! Can you believe it? What a challenge.

We share a bathroom with several sinks, toilets, and showers. There is no hot water. It is icy cold. This doesn´t seem so bad seeing as Honduras is a hot place, right? Well, es una mentira (it´s a lie). It has been COLD. Probably in the 50s! Very cold for the skirts, t-shirts, and flip flops I brought with me. Very cold for COLD showers. The plumbing is altogether interesting. The dirty water from the sinks drains into the toilets and, in order, to flush you must do a pretty complicated operation involving sticking your hand in the tank and pulling the lever up.

I could go on and on about everything and I want to. But today was a long day. Our first day of orientation. I am completely exhausted. I will write more later and respond to my accumulating collection of emails. Until then . . . buenas noches.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Finding the Masochist in Me

"Scratch a traveler and you´ll find a masochist underneathe." --B. Severgnini, Ciao America!

Well, I think this quote is a fair one to share, although, fortunately, my travels have been fairly painless so far. (Gracias a Dios!)

My sister and I arrived in Copán Ruinas, Honduras last Saturday.

The 2 1/2 hour bus ride from San Pedro Sula was rollercoastery enough to warrant Dramamine. Needless to say, I didn´t have any. So I suffered. (The masochist in me indeed brought out by my travels.) I also have to admit: I survived.

The bus ride was bumpy, but beautiful. The mountains here are a green that glows, a color that does not belong to us or our world. To someone still in shock from arriving in a new country and (somewhat) speaking a new language, I remember them now as if they are magazine photos beneath a layer of glue on a elementary school project. They aren´t quite mine and a little fuzzy.

Copán is a small town in which all needs can be fulfilled by a short walk a few blocks this way or that. The streets are a chaotic mix of cobblestones with sidewalks that drop off unexpectedly and at irregular intervals. Collarless (mostly) dogs run the streets, occasionally casting a threatening glance in the direction of a gringo (me). The streets are always filled with people--locals and travellers. There is, as you would guess, no question who is who.

The taxis here appear to have been stolen from a graveyard of amusement park bumper cars. They are tiny red things with a name (the owner´s?) painted on the window and a white, plastic roof which pops up or down depending on the weather. They seat two (comfortably) or three (uncomfortably) in the back. The drivers beep constantly and constantly bombard gringos and locals with offers of service.

I have to note here, before I say adios, an apology for my English. Those of you who have studied another language must understand that in order for one to learn a new tongue, one must surrender everything. This includes my English grammar of which I have been so proud.

My time on the computer is running out. More when I have time!

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