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As our bus clanked up an old dirt road through the mountains of Honduras, Steve and I had no idea what to expect. We were crowded so tightly into this big yellow school bus (Many of the public buses in Honduras are old school buses from the States.) that we could scarcely shift our feet. Nonetheless, we were anxious to arrive at our destination, which was a ranch in a small village called Junquillo. This ranch was owned by an American friend of Steve’s who was actually back in the States. We were to be greeted by his ranch manager Juan Lili. When we got off the bus, we were met by an eager gentleman in a baseball cap–it was Juan. Throughout the week, we would be our guide, confidently strutting around in similar attire with a handgun in his jeans and a slingshot in his pocket. As Juan brought us through the gate, we were further greeted by six guard dogs, a yard full of chickens, and some pigs. I anxiously passed through this entourage and we arrived at the primary living quarters of the ranch, a small concrete house. This would be our new home for the next few days; our nights were to be filled with squealing, barking, and clucking. It wasn’t exactly the Ponderosa, but it was all we needed.
Over the next few days our goal was to investigate the needs of the community in hopes of finding future projects for mission teams. As it turned out there was no lack of needs. Initially, Juan discussed some community projects. The people of Junquillo and the nearby community of Ocotal are very religious, but there are not adequate meeting places for churches. One local evangelical church does not even have pews, and a whole side of the building consists of nothing but a blue tarp. The efforts to construct a new building have not been able to reach beyond a pile of stones. There is also a need for a kindergarten. The education of the children is very important to the community, but thus far they have not even been able to start this project. The resources for these projects simply are not available.
The gravest concern for the people of Junquillo is personal poverty–food and water are their top concerns. In Ocotal, they lack an adequate water supply. There is drinking water, but because there is no water system people are forced to walk a long way to draw water. Further, they are faced with the reality that the cost of living often exceeds their income. The average person will only make 100 lempira a day, which to put in perspective converts to approximately $5.25 in the US. It takes an entire day’s wages for a Honduran family to purchase 5 lbs. of beans. With these wages, it is a real struggle for the people of Junquillo to keep themselves fed. When you barely have enough money to buy food, you will be hard-pressed to find money for other important needs such as clothing or housing–forget about trying to save for the future. In Junquillo, there is little room for any ambition that extends beyond your next meal.
I compare this to my life in the States and I cannot help but be thankful. There are so many opportunities here. Not only do I have a job that provides ample financial stability, but I have the luxury of choosing between multiple career opportunities. In the US, we often take these privileges for granted. I have the ability to shape my future because I know that I will be rewarded for hard work. In Junquillo, a hard day’s work may not be enough.
As the days progressed, we found that everyone was both friendly and hospitable. Juan and his wife faithfully provided meals and plenty of coffee for us. The food was delicious, and they gave us generous portions. They told us that gringos (as white people are called) were always welcome in Junquillo. Because I don’t speak Spanish, there was a limit to how well I could get to know the Lili’s, but nonetheless I was treated as an honored guest.
The climax of our stay was a community meeting with representatives from Junquillo and Ocotal. A group of community members gathered into a concrete building that serves as a community center. Steve and I grabbed a couple of nearby chairs, which turned out to be children’s size and opened the floor for anyone to ask questions and make requests. We found that the construction of local churches and a kindergarten were very important to people; however, the clear consensus was that the most urgent needs were running water and food. One lady summed it up, by posing the question, “What good is a church if we’re starving to death, and we can’t walk there!” We were then informed that there are actually homeless families living out in the woods. Obviously, all of the projects are important, but we want to be sensitive to the immediate need to improve quality of life.
As we said our goodbyes and headed out to catch the bus from Junquillo, I was utterly convinced that we need to do what we can to help revitalize the community. The people are honest, hard-working folks, but they’ve been weighed down by poor economic conditions and low wages. They need a boost. It is my hope that we can provide the resources to make a new water system a reality. Further, we want to think of creative ways to help the food situation. Perhaps, as we accomplish these goals, the community will be energized so that we can partner with them with renewed strength. Most of all, I hope that through this process God’s love will be evident in our interaction and that he will work in people’s hearts and lives.
- Josh Gray
There are many short term mission trips with Experience Mission (www.experiencemission.org ) Go to our website and select from one of our Honduras mission trips for this upcoming year.
Our boat sped out across the Caribbean away from Honduras, bouncing on the the low rolling waves and occasionally spraying the warm sea water across those of us seated in the back. Only after the land was out of view did I really start to think about how easy it was for us to leave.
At $50 each, our boat tickets to Belize were well out of reach of the average Honduran. Most earn only $100 a month, and they have little hope of saving anything. Almost all of their income must go toward food and rent; for even skilled workers it costs more than half a day’s wages to buy enough beans for a few meals. You don’t have to spend much time in the country before you start to see those who have a roof over their heads and meals of any kind on the table as fortunate.
Honduras consistently ranks as one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and evidence of that fact is seen even in the richest areas of the country. The capital city, Tegucigalpa, consists primarily of sprawling tin-and-wood shantytowns that cover the steep mountain slopes around the downtown area. They are the sort of impromptu developments that famously collapse en masse during major earthquakes or hurricanse, causing thousands of deaths.
There are high-rise buildings, a few upscale businesses catering to travelers and a smattering of people walking around in business suits. If you confined yourself to a few city blocks, it would seem possible to sheild yourself from the most glaring signs of poverty.
But even in those guarded, well-developed areas of the city, they are there. Behind a newly built city park with stucco walls we saw a vacant lot filled with trash. This is a common sight throughout Latin America. In this lot, however, five enormous pigs nearly blackened with filth grazed through the refuse, oblivious to the half-dozen constantly barking dogs or the 20 or so vultures moving through the trash with an ugly waddle. The animals were near downtown Tegucigalpa and there were no homes nearby. The pigs appeared to have no owners.
A day later I was walking through downtown when it began to rain. I saw an old woman sprawled on the sidewalk shift herself under an awning as she spread soaked newspapers across her lap. As I got closer I saw that her legs had been ravaged by elephantiasis. Both were grotesquely swollen and deformed and covered with patches of dried, dead skin.
Those wretched sights aren’t endemic in Junquillo, where we hope to work next year, but seeing them is a reminder that in Honduras, even the most ambitious and gifted residents have little hope of escaping the crushing poverty there. As one Costa Rican friend of mine puts it, Honduras is the place “where dead dreams go to die another day.”
The internationally publicized phenomenon of the crumbling U.S. dollar and the fragile state of our economy would make it ignorant, arrogant and absurd for me to start talking about how rich we are in America and how we so often take it for granted and all that jazz. Just the same, when you see people suffering like that it’s tough not to feel guilty about the undue privilege we were born into; our economic worst-case scenarios would still leave us richer than almost all Hondurans. Running water, seeds for family gardens or a kindergarten–things mission teams could help provide–are well out of the reach of Junquillo residents. They would come at little cost to a team from the U.S. and would drastically improve the residents’ quality of life, and when you realize that, you want to get started right away.
Looking at the few Hondurans on the boat with us, I felt as though they had dodged a bullet. They were packed not for a visit, but for a move to a better life in Belize.
By comparison, Belize seems utterly rich. But it’s not. Countless Belizeans live in a sort of poverty not normally seen in the U.S. and there is plenty of work to do there. As we’re seeking it out, though, it’ll be hard to shake the thoughts of the suffering in Honduras.
Josh and I spent a day in Danlí working out all the logistical details we could, including lodging, food and transportation options, and then headed back up to Junquillo to finalize things there. We met with three different bus drivers, all of whom own smaller buses and their own 40-person school buses–the public transportation vehicle of choice (or perhaps necessity) down here.
Tuesday morning we met with Billy Peters, a missionary from South Carolina who’s been here on and off for about 15 years. It was a great conversation about potential work projects and general community needs he’s noticed since moving here–we’ll definitely be keeping in touch with him. We also met a nice gringo named Roland down here who runs a cigar shop/laundromat, which of course is a perfectly logical combination of services. We’re going to stop in and say hi to him today before heading to Tegucigalpa.
There we plan to look at bus options from some larger companies. There are plenty of reasons for this, one being that one of the three drivers we talked to had his bus break down just hours after our conversation–it’s always good to have a backup.
We’re in Danli for most of the rest of today, and one thing we’ll be doing is checking out seed prices. Junquillo residents, who earn less than $5 a day, can’t afford them, but they could be an excellent way to help combat hunger here. Food and water are by far the two primary needs here, as we learned during a community meeting Tuesday night. Right now, residents of the village of Ocotal, which sits near Junquillo, have to pack water to their homes, and nearly all their money goes toward food.
On Saturday we’re going to head up to a place called Guimaca to visit a church connection Josh has–a guy named Jorge who used to live with family friends of his.
Josh and I arrived in Honduras after a pretty uneventful overnight flight–and by uneventful, I mean one that omitted all events aside from flying, including the event known as “sleep.”
No matter, though. We turned to the gift God has given us all to get through such times, and that gift is coffee. Best place we could find to drink it in Tegucigalpa was a Dunkin’ Donuts, which didn’t seem too cultural, but whatever. We found a bus headed to Danlí, which sits just past our destination–a town called Junquillo. Neither of us could really stay awake, but since they sat me in the middle front seat next to the driver (yes, such seats exist in Honduras) I sort of had to stay up to avoid falling into the gear shift.
We got off at a police checkpoint and waited for another bus, which was supposed to arrive at noon, then at 1 p.m., then at 1:30. It arrived at about 1:45, and every seat was full and the aisle was crammed. Josh and I ended up hanging out by the doorway, and the bottom line is that we made it OK.
A guy named Juan was waiting for us at a small ranch here owned by a friend of mine, and he brought us in and gave us a brief tour of the neighborhood. It’s a small, mountainous town that sits just high enough that it’s comfortably cool compared to the rest of the places we had been. We ate and then slept for about 12.5 hours, which was great.
Yesterday we went on another tour of the area to check out service projects and grab some photos. We met a 92-year-old man named Lucio who, as Juan put it, has to live “by the hand of God.” He can’t work, he doesn’t have family to support him, and with food prices rising rapidly–a few pounds of black beans now costs almost a day’s wages–he’s starting to suffer. Nonetheless, he appeared to keep a sense of humor about everything and told me that at 92, you have to be thankful for every day you have, since by rights you should have died long ago.
He had a homemade violin that he played fiddle style, from the hip, and it sounded quite good.
Everyone here struggles with food, but the main projects they keep pointing us toward are a kindergarten and a church that the community would love to see built. Water is also an issue–due to a lack of infrastructure, many people have to hike miles for their water during the dry season.
We’re in Danlí today–a city of about 250,000 people–to check hardware and food prices and to check for lodging and phone options.