Tuesday, March 29, 2005


"What always happens," she said. "You have a hard, terrible winter; then it ends."
by Frederick Busch

How is the weather where you are?

The past two weeks have been hot, the hottest since I arrived, with the thermostat reaching past 90. With this heat (though, perhaps, not because of it) a sense of anxiousness has arrived. No, not quite anxiousness, I am just not sure what it is.

Last night, sitting at a dinner table in my hogar, one of the Tías set down a plate of food in front of me and told me it was for another Tía. In other words, or really without words, that I was not welcome to sit there. Why? We don´t have assigned seats, no one had been sitting there before me, I had sat there on other nights. I didn´t ask. I have learned that the answers to these questions aren´t worth hearing.

It had been a long day at school, at hogar one of the kids had thrown my eyeglasses on the ground, and another had pinched me. I just couldn´t handle anything more. And so I left. I got up without saying a word, grabbed my lousy dinner (a spoonfull of greenish scrambled eggs, a dab of cold beans, and a cotton-ball-sized hunk of cheese) and went to my room, holding back tears all the way.

Besides being hot, this is how my past two weeks have been. Small things representing big problems, overwhelming problems, ones I cannot solve. I am realizing that the biggest lessons I will learn this year aren´t about speaking Spanish and working with kids. This year is about learning how to fail, how to be humble.

It sounds so romantic, "I am volunteering at an orphanage in Honduras, teaching struggling kids." All of us volunteers came with some kind of light in our eyes--be they stars or city lights or the glowing end of a cigarette. Whether we admit it or not, we were all hoping for a few Dead Poet´s Society moments. They´re not going to happen, these moments. I might make a difference here--I hope I do--but I will likely never know it. My life here is the opposite of romantic and, lately, not very rewarding.

If I were in Wisconsin, I would be waiting for the warmer air and icy daffodils of spring. Here, on the Ranch, we are waiting for the rain. We are waiting for relief. And I am waiting for my winter to end.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Jueves Santo

Holy Week on the Ranch is a week full of intense reflection. Shadows of suffering darken the nights and even the full, fuzzy moon seems to hang in waiting, waiting for the joy of Easter morning, the day that breaks our sadness. Easter seems a long way off, although it is only 2 days away.

Tonight, in a chapel lit only by candles, we knelt in silence and prayed for all the suffering in the world. I found myself crying for the never-ending sadness, the desperate people, the children without families. I cried for my own family, so far away, and for all the families separated by miles or by histories. I cried for the lives of the children here who I love so much more than I ever could have imagined, for their lives lived before coming here, for their challenges in the future. For the fact that in a year I will leave them. I cried for those who are alone, who have no hope, who are full of hate.

I cried too for my own moments of hate, the suffering I cause.

I have a picture of a heart on the inside of the door of my room. I put it there to remind myself--every time I leave my room--to love the people I don´t want to love. The awful thing is, I forget to look at that heart all the time. Sometimes I walk by people and look right past them because they might return my hello with a scowl or ignore me. I get irritated and unkind. I am revengeful or jealous or ungrateful. I give in to fear by not giving other people a chance, or a second chance, and forgetting why I am here. Love is a hard thing and I am not very good at it.

I am awaiting Easter like I never have before. This year, there will be no Easter eggs, but there will be light to end these dark days. Our celebration on Sunday begins at 4 a.m. with a bonfire and candlelit processional. Even in the darkness of early morning, there will be bright light. With this light will be hope and a new beginning for all of us.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Vamos A La Playa

Someone had taped aspirin to the belly-buttons of the kids of Casa Suyapa, supposedly so that they wouldn´t throw up on the 4 hour bus trip to Amapala, a beach town on the South coast of Honduras. Also, they were each issued a plastic bag before we left. I had no idea why, but I didn´t bother asking. I´ve learned not to ask about a lot of things here.

We were not out of Teguc when I found out. Conveniently, the first kid had to "hacer pi-pi" when our bus was stopped with a flat tire. Not less than 10 minutes later, back on the road, he had to go again. Out came the bag. When he was done, it was tied shut and thrown out the window to join the piles of garbage that fill the ditches along every highway. In theory, the bag idea works great. Unless they have holes in them. And there were holes. Oh yeah, and the aspirin-in-bellybutton idea . . . doesn´t work.

I should have taken the bags of pi-pi and vomit as some kind of omen. Get off the bus now, Amelia. But no, I didn´t listen. I was going to the beach. With more than 50 little kids. For 5 whole days.

About 4 hours and 8 bags of bodily fluids later, we arrived at the Southern shore of Honduras. From there, we took a military boat over to the island of El Tigre. We stayed outside of the sleepy fishing village of Amapala at the Naval Base. Yes, you heard me right, a Naval Base.

A volcanic mountain shadows the island and at night, turns into a threatening curve blacker than the sky and void of stars. Amapala was a 15 minute walk from the base, through brick streets filled with mango trees and barking dogs. The beaches were 15 minutes in the other direction. The volcanic sand was black and the water a greenish grey. Offshore there were mountainous islands and, at night, we could see the lights of El Salvador. The kids gorged themselves on the small green mangos and funny-looking marañones that grew on the base.

There weren´t many soldiers on the base. The few that were there eyed us four gringas with serious, ceaseless fascination and marched around in a mix of camo and cut-off blue jeans chanting semi-vulgar rhymes to keep their pace. It was a functioning base--guards and machine guns guarded the entrance casually--but the whole place had a thrown-together feel as if it was a newly-run or falling-apart operation. Is Honduras was really depending on this base to defend its shore?

All 70 of us slept in one big room with mattresses sprawled out like thick carpeting. We woke up with the kids around 6 every day. As soon as the kids saw that we were awake, they would run over and climb into bed with us. Even the older kids loved to snuggle with us as we were waking up. As hard as it was to wake up so early, to so many excited and crying kids, seeing the love (what else could it be?) in their eyes as they rushed to cuddle with me made it my favorite part of the day. I suppose it was the easiest part of the day, too. No one had hit anyone yet, no one had gotten mad because they didn´t want to brush their teeth, no one had jumped on my sunburned shoulders and ignored my cries of pain. We were all fresh and as ready as we would be for the day.

After brushing their teeth twice (once before and once after breakfast--what was the point?) and slathering sunscreen on the kids (not waterproof--what was the point?), we were off to the beach. We spent the morning swimming in the calm, still water and building dark "castillos de arena," sand castles, decorating them by dripping watery sand on them for a gothic look. After lunch, the water was rough with waves. All of the adults would line up parallel to shore, to keep the kids contained and visible, and we all would jump and play in the waves. The Tíos (the kids´caretakers) seemed to enjoy this as much as the kids. Miraculously, no one drowned.

We we returned to the base, it was time for showers. We had 2 showers for all the kids. The girls used one, the babies the other, and the boys showered outside at a spigot. After showers was dinner and after dinner--whew!--the kids went to bed. By 8 every day, they were sound asleep, dreaming of another day of eating mangoes and swimming in the salty, opaque water of La Tigre.

After 8, we would walk into the town of Amapala, through the humid air and night sounds of whispering people and clucking chickens. We would walk out onto the pier with its staircase that disappeared into the rough sea or go and have a beer on the porch of a restaurant there. Our last night on La Tigre, we were invited to the Club on the base by a soldier who had befriended us during our visit. He spoke English perfectly, having attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He treated us to Bahía, a light Corona-like beer, on the deck high above the wild sea and practiced his English.

Now--with the exception of the bags of pi-pi--it sounds like not a bad week, right? Well, I kind of left out the bad things. I don´t want to dwell on them, but still, you should know . . .

  • Mean Tíos (some of them HATE the volunteers--who knows why?)
  • 2 bathrooms for 70 people
  • Bathroom doors with no locks
  • Not one minute alone in 5 days
  • Blistering (literally) sunburn
  • All our stuff getting soaked on the boat
  • Scary soldier who was in love with Annie (volunteer)
  • Katerine (one of the kids) falling out of a tree and having to get stitches
  • Mind-blowing heat and humidity
  • Mean Tíos
  • Mean Tíos

Yep, the Tíos were really mean to us. I don´t know why and I probably never will. Not all of them, of course. But a few of them either ignore us, refusing to learn our names or even say hello, or are blatantly mean to us, making snide comments at every opportunity. I am not going to say more about this, but be assured, some of them can be quite terrible to us. This made the week even harder.

Overall it was an extremely stressful dotted with beautiful moments. All of us are peeling and tired, but recovering. And yesterday, I noticed nearly 10 little girls with their hair in two braids--exactly the way I had worn my hair all 5 days of our trip. Seeing those braids made the whole week worthwhile.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


As I am heading toward my 2 month mark here on Rancho Santa Fe and also entering into 2 weeks which are completely an exception to my daily routine (camping with my hogar this week, Holy Week, next week), I am thinking about my routine, the patterns of my life here.

My day begins at 6 am. I get up, dressed (no shower--too cold in the mornings), make coffee (instant), eat yogurt and granola, read a little, and by 7:10 begin my walk to the school.

It takes me 20 minutes to walk to school. It should only take 15 minutes or less, but all the kids are walking to school at the same time. They are in no hurry to start classes and walk really slow. If I happen to run into some of my little kids from Casa Suyapa it pretty much gaurantees me that I will be late as they all want to hold my hand, peek into my bag (hoping for storybooks), and walk with me. My walk takes me past the main kitchen, past Casa Suyapa, past Talleres (workshops), through an open savanna-type plain, and over a little bridge.

The school is a collection of open-air brick buildings. There is no glass or screens in the windows, only bars. I have one curtain in my classroom which I have tied to the bars, trying to keep the dusty wind out. Sometimes I could scream at the wind (sometimes I do scream) because it constantly is tearing things off the walls, dirtying my room, and making it hard to work. The comedor (cafeteria) is a wall-less pavilion in the middle of the buildings with some metal tables and chairs. Most of the school buildings are centered around a courtyard which has several brightly blooming trees and a flag-less flagpole.

The school day starts at 7:30. There are 8 periods, a recreo (recess) and time for aseo (chores). Classes end at 1:15. The class periods are usually 40 minutes and bells ring to announce the periods. However, some days there are randomly no bells and most days the bells ring 5 minutes early of 5 minutes late. I am always changing my watch, trying to align it with the bells, but to no avail. Therefore, I am always early or late for everything.

During the day, I meet with approximately 5 of my students individually. I set a schedule based on the students´s classes and pull them out of certain "less-important" subjects during the day. The hard part is finding the kids. I work with kids from 3 different classes with 3 different schedules. My schedule changes every week as well, so that the same kids don´t keep missing the same classes. I don´t have the schedules for the kids´ classes (it wouldn´t really help if I did since the schedules always change, too) and so I have to run around the school trying to look for my students.

There is no time in the school schedule between classes. For intstance, 1st period ends at 8:10 and 2nd period begins at 8:10 as well. Obviously, it takes a few minutes for the kids to pack up and walk to their next class, so classes always start late. By the time I find the kid, class has already started and I have to interrupt the teacher to ask permission to pull out my student. This is annoying to both me and the teacher. Annoying, but accepted and unavoidable.

The best thing about the school is the caseta. The caseta is a little snack bar. If I have an hour off, I sometimes go sit in the caseta and get a Pepsi and a baleada (flour tortilla with beans, cheese and cream) or whatever´s cooking. If I am lucky, my friend Jen, an English teacher, happens to have an hour off and joins me and we sit there listening to cheesy American music on the boombox. My belly usually starts to rumble mid-morning--we don´t get lunch until 1:30 and 7 hours without a snack is a long time!

On Monday and Tuesdays, I stay at school until 4:00 meeting with 2 students in the afternoon. After class, I walk my students back to their hogares and make it home by 4:30. I then have time to jump in the shower and change into kid-friendly clothes (jeans, t-shirt, no jewelry, hair in a ponytail).

From 5:30-7:30 every night I am in my hogar. Oftentimes, after hogar we have some sort of meeting. If there´s no meeting, sometimes I´ll walk down to Casa Personal and hang out with some of the other volunteers. If dinner was bad--sopa de menudo or boiled plátanos, for example--we might make some pasta. Socializing doesn´t last long. I am usually in bed by 10:30 aiming for my 8 hours.

Every other weekend is a work weekend. On a work weekend, I spend Friday night with my hogar, from dinner until bedtime (usually 9 or 9:30) and all day Saturday (9 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.). Saturday mornings, the kids do chores. Lunch is at 1. Mass is at 4. Dinner at 6 and then some kind of activity, watching a movie or having a bonfire in the night.

2 weekends a month, we have our salida. From 1 p.m. on Friday until Monday morning at 7:30, we are free to do whatever we like. My last salida, two weeks ago, I went to Tela, a beach town on the Carribean coast. This weekend, I hung out a bit in Teguc and now am back on the Ranch taking it easy.

Last night, some of the volunteers and I walked to La Venta. La Venta is a small town about a 30 minute walk through the woods from the ranch. There is a pulperia (little snack shop/bar) there and we sat around and had some beers, and enjoyed the breeze. The pulperia is a little shack of a place, with turquiose blue walls and plants growing out of old pots and coffee cans. There are a few benches and beer crates to sit on and a makeshift checkerboard and bottle caps if you feel like a game of checkers. Outside the yard is full of rusting car parts and tires. A huge coconut tree looms over the garden of junk. The beers are cheap--about 75 cents--and you take what you get. Different kinds of beer, cans, bottles, whatever they feel like serving. You keep all the cans and bottles on the table until the end of the night as a way of keeping track of what you owe.

Today, I am still enjoying the luxury of my salida, catching up with emails, packing to go camping, reading and relaxing. Tomorrow, I leave for a 5 day adventure to Amapala with my Hogar. Anapala is a town on a volcanic island on the South (Pacific) coast. I am not sure what to expect camping with 50 little kids for 5 days, but be sure I´ll let you all know how it goes. If you would like to see Amapala, click on the following link to see a photo of the beach there.


Happy Easter, everyone. Be sure to check back here in a week or two to learn about my adventure in Amapala and to hear about our Semana Santa on the Ranch.

Friday, March 04, 2005


Every day, I have a good laugh. Sometimes the laughter is joyful, other days I laugh out of desperation. Lately, I must admit, there has been some maniacal laughter coming from my room!

My life here is full of funny challenges. Take, for instance, my job. I am a teacher here on the Ranch. I work one on one with 4th and 6th graders who are having difficulties in school. Some of my kids probably have learning disabilities, others just need more time to grasp a concept, some have behavioral issues. I work with 10 students, meeting with them 3 times a week individually. The subjects I teach are Spanish (!) and Math. Those of you who know me, know how I am lacking in math skills, and all of you can figure out the hilarity (irony?) of me teaching Spanish in my own bad Spanish. I have no choice but to laugh. Most of the time, my kids are teaching me more about Math and Spanish than I am teaching them.

My days are long, my job is difficult. There are moments I want to give up and go home, moments I feel unappreciated, days I fail at everything. There are times when my kids are mean to me and each other, times with the kitchen is out of food and I am hungry, days when my Spanish just doesn´t seem to be working, days when there´s no electricity or water, moments in which I am invisible.

As I am ready to get out my luggage, something always stops me. A kid running up to me, grabbing my hand, and walking with me without caring where I am going. Or an impossibly faraway voice screaming, "¡Amelia! ¡Hola!". Or a letter in my mailbox from one of you. These things keep my clothes upacked and my heart laughing.

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