Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Storms [ Continued ]

Storms, Part I
Dennis stood at the edge of our circles, watching.  He wore the same yellow green shirt and dark blue shorts he did yesterday or the day before, his face covered in patches of dirt and streaks of sweat stains.

Could you share your thoughts?  Lori paused in her stories to asked the children, eying Dennis deliberately.  No.  He shook his head gentle and stepped just outside of our circle in silence that spoke volumes.

I waited and watched until circle time was over.  How old are you? I chatted as if I didn't care about his answers at all.  He fixed his eyes on me, giving short but straight answers.  He was ten though he looked so much smaller. 

"Did you like the stories?"  I pursued with some interest.  He shrugged, if only a little bit.  Then he looked at me with those dark and sparkly eyes, and retold the story word by word.

"Can you read another one for me? I can't understand all the words in Spanish".  I handed him a book with a pleading look.  He stood up straight as he read, so slowly and clearly that even I caught every word.  We chatted about school, about whether he wanted to attend regularly.  He shook his head, and pointed to the direction of a nearby construction site.  He was there to be with his father only. 

The staff told me to leave him alone.  His father worked at a nearby construction site, so he hang around but he didn't "belonged".  The word stung and hit a nerve with me, as I couldn't tell what they meant by it or how it was defined.  Perhaps they simply wanted to say Dennis wasn't part of the program.  But I was glad to see him around, absorbing what he could.  He gladly joined a game or two of soccer later.   His dark skin stood out against a cloud of white uniforms, all of them quick as wind.  Dennis was faster and quieter.  He flashed across that white clouds of thunderous defense against him like a sudden bolt of lightening.  Then they roared in unison, such music to our ears, thunders and joy.  Some of looked up momentarily, half expecting chorus of real thunders to complete our happiness with relief from heat.

Don and Lori, our mission leaders told me later that Dennis wasn't yet sponsored to come to the school.  The sponsorship paid for their meals at school, uniforms, books, the staff's salary and more.  "Is Ruth sponsored?"  I asked immediately.
"I don't think so.  Let me check...  Oh, she lives with her step father and mother and four siblings... Would you like to sponsor her?"
"OK.  I will check on that and let you know as soon as I can."

*   *   *

Ashley and I sat at the edge of the door steps, chatting about nothing while we helped Cara making "the big fish".  As soon as we were done, she got up to climb into my lap.

"Is this your last day here?"  she turned to me and asked, dark eyes flashing.
"When are you coming back?"
"Well, hmm, good question.  At the very least, next year."
"Next year, next year this same time.  I think"
"That is a long time, isn't it?"
"Um, yes.  I will miss you, but I will be in school and try to learn a lot.   You will be in school too won't you?"
"Um, yes, I don't know."

This had never occurred to me.   I had imagined that the children's life would be no different after we left, but Dennis and Ashley had made me realize there was more to the story.  And Ruth still hadn't returned, for what seemed like forever.   A group of kids interrupted my thoughts as they swept over us with parched lips and too much excitement accumulated at the soccer camp.  I scrambled to feed them tamarind juice, refilling each cup three or four times before their calls to me subsided.  Ashley had gone home with Cara by the time I sat down again. 

I talked to Don and Lori the next chance I got, about their year long stay in Honduras before starting this mission team.   They had a connection and understanding with the locals beyond what I could grasp.   What happened to the children before we came?  I finally asked Don.  He turned to me, every white blond hair stood on its end and a face so serious it startled me.   He waited until we were alone on the bus before he began.

"I got called into a police station by the staff here one time.  That's when I found out some of the children had gotten arrested."
"For what?"
"They were begging in the streets.   See,  many of the homes on the Bordo have at least five or six children each.  The father would start the day in a hammock, and send his kids out, asking them not to come home until they had 100-200 Lempiras."
I felt numb in my limbs, blood was rushing in my ears while my brain ground to a halt.  
"But they weren't arrested for begging were they?"  Lori added.
"No, they weren't.  Don't ask me what were they arrested for..."   Don replied darkly.

The sound of blood draining from my face was making me deaf and dizzy.

Don continued after a while.  "That is why we sponsor the children.  It gets them off the streets."

Ruth!  Where could she be?  I was afraid to ask then.  Lori had been checking on her yet nothing concrete had turned up.

*    *    *

Our projects stood complete as we stood exhausted and ready for home.  As we piled onto the bus one final time the children came after us, running on the sides waving and shouting our names.  I saw a flash of red - it was Cara running with Ashley.  Dennis stood in a corner of the street, hands on his waist, eyes sparkling but motionless otherwise.  He smiled when he saw me, lighting up that dark corner of his street and my memories.

As we turned onto the main road something caught my eye, a child running by herself.  Others noticed it too, some standing to get a better look.  Somehow we made the driver stop to let us off.  I stepped down first and immediately saw Ruth and heard thunders exploding on the bus.   The young missionaries had roared at the sight of her, jumping off to pat her head and give her hugs.   Suddenly everyone was in tears, fat drops falling heavily like rain unleashed from the prison of stuffy clouds.  There was nothing to do to stop it, like the summer storms, these tears came and went as they pleased.  So we let it, drinking in the scent and tastes of salty sweat stains, of tamarind juices,  of sun baked sweat marks and of joy, friendship, laughter and memories. 

*   *   *

Ruth was sponsored by another church, we found out eventually. Her program allowed her certain days of the week in school only.   There are many more (2000) families like hers live on the Bordo of Rio Blanco with no choices but sending their children to the streets to beg.   They dance between the edge of starvation and risks of being arrested.   The sponsorship program allow these children to attend school and receive meals regularly for their families.

Storms, Part I 

Friday, August 24, 2012


San Petro Sula sits in the valley of Sula, surrounded by blue green tropical mountains.  The mid August sun brings air to a boil, while clouds steep lower and lower.  We sighed when the locals told us that there is normally no rain in the summer.  I had hoped to see some amazing thunder storms.

Our mission was to connect with the children of Cristo Centro via lessons, sports camps, a building project, and medical assistance.  But as the hot breath of the valley sank deeper into our eyes, our hair, and our shirts, we couldn't help but wishing we were inside and sheltered by air conditions.

*  *  *

The storm brewed all day and raged all night, lulling us into deep slumbers.  I woke occasionally to hear the rain fall heavily on our roofs and windows, only to realize that sleep was falling more heavily onto me.  So I only dreamed of watching fat drops of rain cooling down the oppressive summer air.  I had caught a taste of the storm earlier, while dinner was being served. From the corner of our eyes, we caught visions of lightening bolts flashing across the clear blue sky.  By the time we cleared the dishes, the air had dampened and developed into a gentle breeze, delivering promises of rain by lifting strands of hair off of our faces.

Nate had nonchalantly shaken out some laundry on the clothes line earlier, nodding when I praised "your mom would be so proud".  Chase followed him with a few pieces of his own, covering and weighing the line down to nearly half of its original height.  For a moment or two, I watched the fabric taking shape and catching light in the early evening breeze, as if sails ready for the open sea.  The boys stood over six feet tall next to their clean laundry, joking and horse playing like the kids they still were, voices heavy and low like the adult they would soon become, eager and ready to navigate the ocean of life themselves.

The storm must have ravaged those beautiful laundry, it occurred to me in my half sleep.  Not exactly a world class problem or mine for that matter, but I couldn't help wishing they stayed dry somehow. Clean (or just dry) clothes were a precious cargo then, as the days carried so much physical labor under the blaring sun, let alone the fact we would shower in sweat minutes after walking out into the day.

We would later learn that the summer storms in Honduras simply came and went as fast as they pleased (arguably a temperament resembling that of an American teenager), so there was no rescuing  anything once the rain was set to arrive.  So we stayed inside, listened, read and inhaled the scent of rain-soaked-air sipping through windows and door jams.

*  *  *  

She ran up to me as fast as a streak of lightening, knocking me off my feet with the speed of her embrace.  Ruth was six and all dimples and long lashes plus a head of blond bob.  Within minutes of meeting us, she became fast friends with everyone.  We learned immediately that photos, songs, missionaries and a game of chocolate (pronounce each syllables as in Spanish) are her favorite things.  She despised having to wait for anything.  She adored both taking and posing for photos.  Although gentle and docile looking, she had a fierceness that came across the lens and punched through the frames.  She went around and engaged all of us in photos and laughter, games and activities in no time at all, leaving us wondering who was in charge after all.  But her charm won us over in the end and no one minded being bossed around by Ruth even a little bit.

She called me "Chinita".  She would come around and circle her arms around my neck to get her daily does of hugs and kisses.  She whispered questions in my ears at first but once she got going she stared at me intently.

"Are you a missionary?"  she asked in her sing song Spanish.
"Oh I love you, I love missionaries!" 

She would then pull out her hands to cup them around my sunburned face, cooling them for a minute and breathe a sigh of relief.  Before I could blink, she'd be off to join another circle of game again, leaving behind a trail of giggles.  One day I asked (for no reason that I could fathom then or remember now):

"Ruth, where do you live?"
"On the Bordo."   she was suddenly serious, if only for half a second, before smiling again.  I would have missed it if I'd blinked.

"Where are your parents?  Is mama working? "
"She is at home with my brothers and sisters."
"And your dad?"
"he is dead."

She was suddenly quiet but without sadness, carrying a calmness unusual for a girl her age.  I noticed she went back to whispering again for that last sentence, so no one could hear it but me.  I felt her lashes flutter but no tears rolled down either of our cheeks.  She hugged me like that for a few seconds, then she leaned back to make sure I understood.  I must have looked dumbfounded or just dumb,  standing wordless while my thoughts scaped at the edge of my Spanish.

By the time I lunged to hug her, to say "I'm sorry", she was gone.  She ran to tell the others something important sounding in rapid Spanish.  Then she was back to more games, leaving a trail of giggles behind.
Ruth playing "cho-co-la-te" with another missionary

*    *    *

The Bordo sat on the steep right bank of Rio Blanco.  The only other "right bank" I had experience with would be the one in Paris, you know, the one sprinkled with the Louvre, the Concord and the expensive designer stores.   Rio Blanco was quite a different river with quite a different bank.

I hadn't seen Ruth for days.  We all missed her but no one thought of asking.  We dashed from projects to projects, always surrounded by heat, children and their boundless energy.  Some had started to feel tired, home sick and heat exhausted.  Yet there was no shelter from the heat no matter where we went, and nothing stopped the team in their tracks of completing yet more projects.

But I had hoped to find her in the rows of shacks on the Bordo, made hastily from spare sheets of tin and plywood scraps.  Colorful washings hung in the front like flags, declaring a heritage of self sufficiency from harsh circumstances.  An old man stood watching us, his skin as brown and shiny as sun dried coca beans.  I watched his tobacco smoke rise,  exuding an air of lazy contentment and quiet confidence.  He returned my waves by puffing out more grayish smoke rings, holding his gaze steady, reshaping his mouth for a sharp whistle.  My group urged me to move on and I complied grudgingly.   My heart sank at the sight of each home and each tired and weathered face blinking from misshapen doorways and windows.

I walked down the slippery slopes to the river,  keeping pace with the thin snake line of the group formed both before and after me.  I heard a voice calling my name off and on, from a distance so far it couldn't be real.  But as I followed "the snake" in its twits and turns the voice persisted, high and immature, the voice of a little girl.

I turned around to see a child waving and jumping, her red skirt flying up like flames of a small fire. I couldn't see much else except that her hair was dark and curly, her face shone under the hot sun and her smile was as bright as the white light beating down on her.  I did not remember her name then,  but my heart leaped at the sight of someone I possibly knew; or rather, someone who knew me in this jungle of gravel, sand, plywood and tin. 

Cara caught up with me, both that day and in the days after, as my student, my shadow and my protector.  As many four year olds at the school, she leaped into my lap whenever possible, and came after me to make crafts with her.  I still missed Ruth, but Cara and the others she brought around kept me busy.

*   *    *

The storm, a hurricane this time, raged all night again, harder and longer than ever before, leaving our laundry soaked and our spirits lower than the cloth line.  Besides the washings, we were skimming over water and food, not for lack of supply, but for lack of a will to eat.   The next morning no children came to school though we rose early to meet them.  No Ruth, No Cara, Max, Orlando, Ashly or Clarissa.  We stood with tired blank expressions towards each other, staring at a suddenly too white, too empty and too quiet world.

The staff explained that since all the children lived on the Bordo, their homes became flooded when it rained as hard as last night.  In fact last night two people had gone missing from the heavy rain as the roads were also flooded.  So they anticipated the children would have a hard time getting to school this morning.    We listened, not processing this information completely while quietly finishing our building projects,  breaking early from the day to allow the team to recuperate.

I stopped on my way out and asked could I visit the Bordo again? No, they said, it would be too dangerous to go alone, and that was that.   I rested without sleep, picturing kids in pristine white and gray uniforms treading knee deep mud in their homes (with dirt floor), their playgrounds (the high dirt bank outside the shacks), and the roads to school.

The edge of the "Bordo" before the flood

Storms, Part II


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