Monday, January 31, 2011
ESTA ES SU CASA--FEBRUARY 2011
I’ve Seen the “Light”!
The Beacon, to be precise. “Letters from Honduras” is now a monthly feature in The Beacon (stlbeacon.org), a fresh and friendly alternative to the Post-Dispatch, staffed by some of the Post’s best writers, including Dale Singer, whose wife Merle has long encouraged me to get “published,” ever since we were colleagues at Parkway North High
Two articles have already appeared:
1) http://www.stlbeacon.org/voices/in-the-news/106723-miguel-dulick-talks-about-how-he- came-to-live-in-hondurs
The first is a sort of introduction to my life in Honduras; the second is excerpted from the January ESTA ES SU CASA. And now I know why writers thank their editors. Donna Korando has a real heart for Honduras, and I have to say I had tears in my eyes when I saw the latest “Letter,” even though I wrote it, so lovely was the presentation. And there’s another Parkway connection. Brian Marston (class of ‘91) recently joined The Beacon as “Web Developer,” so you know any technical issues are in good hands. And of course Brian came with me to Honduras the summer of ‘94.
If you do click on, go ahead and subscribe to The Beacon. It’s fast, and it’s free!
The Christmas holidays over, Chemo, his brother Marcos, and I headed for Tegucigalpa to renew my Honduran residency visa and to send Marcos back home to Tocoa. We knew the bus out of Victoria would be super crowded, so we got up real early and managed to catch a ride from Las Vegas on a pickup loaded with big coolers of fish caught in the lake up in the mountains of El Zapote. Judging by the smell, I’m not sure how fresh the fish actually were, but we loved the ride because we got to Victoria just as Reyes was pulling his big bus out of the yard. A group had already gathered. “Go ahead and get on, folks, no problem.” So we all got seats, but by the time the bus left 45 minutes later, there were people standing in the aisle. And we stuffed more riders in all along the route.
As crowded as the bus was, nevertheless I kept testing my little Internet modem on my MacBook squeezed on my lap, and it never worked. It had stopped working in Las Vegas, and I assumed the signal had weakened or something. But now I had to conclude, the signal can’t be bad over half the country, it’s gotta be the modem after all. But I had just bought this modem last May--and they’re not cheap!
In Tegucigalpa we had to make three trips to Migración to get my visa, and the office is a long, expensive cab ride away on the outskirts of town. First, it was still closed for the holidays, and then they sent me back twice to the bank to get just the right wording on the “Constancia” that declares I have faithfully “converted” (not “changed,” not “exchanged”) at least one thousand dollars every month into the “moneda nacional,” that is, Lempiras. Of course, I had it easy compared to the long lines of folks trying to get (Honduran) passports. The government had just announced that they were rationing appointments all the way till March or April because they’d run out of the little booklets. Except for “emergencies”--so EVERYBODY has an emergency.
Next was my driver’s license. Now, this is something I get only for use in St. Louis, when Teresa Jorgen lets me borrow her car. It says “International” right on it, but fortunately I’ve never had to actually show it to a cop, who would probably handcuff me on the spot. I mean, to the untrained eye, it doesn’t look “real,” you might say. It’s no fun taking Chemo and Marcos to the big city, only to stand in lines. But for the license, the best advice was, get there early (by 6:00 a.m.), because their materials are rationed, too. They only issue about 200 licenses a day. So I crept out of the hotel before dawn, leaving the boys fast asleep, and I asked Angelica, who was already setting up her candy and snack cart out front, to keep an eye out for them when they came down for breakfast.
First, you get an eye test. “Read the smallest line you can on the chart.” Without my glasses, “What chart?” Things moved pretty quickly after that, especially since I was the first in line! and so I was out of there and back to the hotel before Chemo and Marcos had even waked up.
We had a few other items on the agenda: the new modem, of course, but also to celebrate Mema’s birthday. So we invited her and Elio to lunch at their favorite restaurant, Mirawa. We even got her a little cake at the mall. Nobody said anything, but it was exactly two years ago that Mema celebrated her last really “happy” birthday, just before she and Elio had to abandon their house and livelihood (a little supermarket) to escape death threats from a mafia gang demanding extortion. This little party at Mirawa was one of the happiest times I have seen Mema since then. Most people like to relax after a life of hard work, but Elio and Mema loved keeping busy and have had nothing but health problems since their enforced “retirement.” And I appreciate their counseling Chemo and Marcos on the virtues of school, hard work, and sociability.
Speaking of social, I thought a look-see at a new mall would be just a courtesy call. “NovaCentro” is a weird thing, a mostly vertical mall hidden behind an office building; we didn’t even notice it till a cab took us down an alley for a shortcut back to our hotel. So we checked it out, riding the escalators up one level at a time. Just a thicket of boutiques, you know, those gaudy eyesores that cater to the hip and rich who, in a country as poor as Honduras, seem an absurdity, if not an outrage. Up and up we went, just marking time, I thought, till we could get out of there and go to Pizza Hut for supper with some kids from Las Vegas who work in Tegus. Suddenly, at the top, something was different. The escalator drew us into a cave-like darkness broken up by flashing lights, loud noises, carnival music. Oh no! We had reached The Game Level. I would have grabbed the boys and run, but the escalator would not stop; it delivered us right into the middle of it. And there, right there, a spacious rink of Dodge-‘em cars. Chemo and Marcos lit up like Roman candles. Nirvana! They could barely believe their eyes. They even got me in on one round, something I hadn’t done in 50 years. Oh, sure, it was fun and I didn’t begrudge them that, but how long would the money hold out? “Again!” “Another!” “One more time!”
If I spoil Chemo, it’s only because he’s alive! Chemo got his life-saving heart operation in September 2008. And now look at him--ramming dodge-’em cars without a care in the world! So, another “appointment” we had was to check in with Ron Roll and the latest “brigada” of doctors and nurses from the U.S. who had come to perform open-heart surgeries on about 22 little boys and girls. Sponsored by Helping Hands for Honduras (http://handsforhonduras.org/), they come four times a year. Ron moved the brigada this time to San Felipe Hospital, a quiet, park-like facility specializing in recuperation therapies, more serene than the busy, stressful hospital where Chemo was operated on. We wanted to see Dr. Christian Gilbert, too, who helped Chemo’s big sister Rosa last year (fortunately, she could be treated with medication rather than surgery), but he was just starting his fourth operation of the day. Incredible! Just waiting four hours when Chemo was in surgery drained me of every physical, psychological, and spiritual resource I had, unknowing whether he would emerge alive or dead, and here was this wonderful doctor, this Christian, four little lives passing through his skilled and caring hands, in one day! When we spotted a couple pacing and looking anxious in the waiting room, we asked if it was their little girl in there. “Oh, yes.” Chemo immediately whipped up his shirt to show them his scar. “Don’t you worry--she’s gonna be just fine!”
We kept returning to the Dodge-’em cars, and it didn’t help that Wednesday was “double day,” when you get two rides for the price of one. Believe me, I didn’t spend any less, they just “dodged-’em” more. But, you know, it’s probably the last time Chemo and Marcos will be together till next Christmas, so what the heck? Although, they did start complaining about headaches....
Nevertheless, early Thursday morning we dispatched Marcos to Tocoa on the Mirna Bus, a “direct” route, if you can call it that, winding its way through the middle of the country, up to San Pedro, then along the coast to the far north-east, a nine- or ten-hour trip, but all on pavement in a grand, Mercedes Benz-manufactured coach. Meanwhile, Chemo and I climbed aboard our rattletrap old yellow school bus for the trip back to Victoria/Las Vegas, sort of a moto-cross route through the backwoods and mountains, scenic enough but a real shake-down. We kept in constant contact with Marcos via cellphone, in case there would be any problems. Half the time he’d answer the phone with, “I was asleep.” Oops, just being cautious... We got home hours before he did, but Rosa greeted him with a hot meal, so we were all relieved.
It wasn’t till we got back that I finally realized what had really happened a few days before Christmas over in La Catorce, about a mile from Las Vegas. This is one of those rare times, I suppose, when my little horror story pales in comparison to your tragedy, the massacre in Tucson. That violence seemed to come from another world, as the news filtered down here, second-hand, unseen, untorniqueted, as it were, by a brush-fire of commentary fanned by un-facts. But our violence was confusing, too, as snippets about a shooting got pieced together. Two shot. Men? teens? boys?--attempting to rob a soda-delivery truck about 10:30 at night, December 20. Attempting to rob a truck...with machetes? is that possible? when the drivers have guns...? One dead, one badly injured, probably going to lose his arm. For some reason, I couldn’t get the names straight, till I finally heard “Olvin.” It was Beto, the blind boy from La Catorce, who was telling me some of this, and when I anxiously wondered if it was an Olvin I knew, Beto said there were two Olvins in La Catorce. And, being BLIND, he could not identify him from a picture I had in one of my photobooks. Finally, someone came by who could say, yes, that’s Olvin, in the photo, that’s him, the one who was wounded. And a “Marvin” Zelaya was the dead one--at least that’s what I thought I heard. Never heard of him.
Olvin and his best friend Selvin used to come to visit me on Sundays, along with Beto. But I hadn’t seen them recently; in fact, the last photo I had of Olvin was from 2005. But I printed it out, and went to La Catorce the next day. Despite the years, I recognized Olvin right away, but he did look somehow harder now than the little boy I first knew. His arm was bandaged like a mattress. He had almost lost it, his left; the bullet had shattered the bones, but they pieced things back together with a couple nails, or pins, at the Yoro Hospital and dozens of inner and outer stitches. The Hospital is expecting payment of 25,000 Lempiras, which is crazy, isn’t it? It’s a public hospital, half the stuff they see is gun shots. They charge for that?. Nothing was said about the robbery, or whether it was some kind of tragic mistake, wrong place, wrong time kind of thing. Making conversation, I ask, “How’s your pal Selvin?” Olvin looked at me as if I was holding the gun now. “He’s dead, he’s who was killed.” Shot three times in the back, while Olvin played dead. Oh, my God, no! How stupid, stupid am I? SELVIN Zelaya! Not “Marvin.” I instantly saw his broad, earthy face in my mind, because I had a picture of him, too. I turned to Beto, who was accompanying me, “We have to see his mother.”
But first I read Psalm 20, a prayer full of wishes, for Olvin from a prayerbook I had with me. I asked him what he did all day. Nothing. But you can read, right? So I promised I’d bring him a Bible, to pass the time.
I was surely nervous about visiting Selvin’s mom, Domatila, or Tila for short. What could I possibly say? Psalm 20 wasn’t gonna cut it. I sort of wondered if she blamed Olvin for her son’s death, or was maybe resentful that Olvin escaped and Selvin did not. But she was very gracious and fixed us coffee, though the loss is etched in her face. Hoping in the darkness, I feebly promised her a Bible, too.
Right now, no face is dearer than Petrona’s. Having already lost one leg to diabetes, she is waiting for what she calls her “journey.” It may not be long; she is in constant pain. Folks visit her a lot, first of all, because she has so much family, but even more because she is such a saintly presence. Her daughter Telma takes good care of her, but it’s hard. So we go and give what comfort we can to them both, and in turn draw deep from their wellspring of faith. She is Beto’s aunt, so we go each Sunday, just across the river in Paraíso. Last time, I had my camera. Stung by the “lost years” of any pictures of Selvin and Olvin, I thought, when the time comes, the family will want a remembrance. I aimed the camera right at her face, her eyes now blind. “Petrona, I’m taking your picture.” “Yes, I know.”
My best friend Fermin, who lives in Morazán, had told us, I hope we see you again before school starts. Chemo was all in favor of it, too. So we left one Monday morning, and Chemo was already telling everyone, “We’re not coming back till Saturday.” I was thinking maybe Wednesday, Thursday at the latest. But once we got to Morazán, we were on vacation. We had pizza, we had Chinese, we had loads of Maria’s fabulous foods, and every night Fermin would say, “Miguel, one more day, stay one more day, it’s vacation! Tomorrow we’ll....” ... go to visit his 22-year-old daughter Arlin and husband Freddy in nearby La Cruz, for a sweet evening that included the full moon. Or, we’ll go swimming at the hot springs park near Morazán. So we stayed, and stayed, and didn’t come back till Saturday, just like Chemo said.
Back from vacation, I did take the bibles to Olvin and Tila. Tila was nothing but thanks; she held it like a treasure. “This is good, this is so good.” And she made us sit and stay, she sent off her little girl to fetch some sweet rolls at the store while she made a fresh pot of coffee. Olvin read Psalm 20 for himself, rather haltingly; he quit school after sixth grade--I guess he’ll improve with practice.
May the Lord answer you in time of trial;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May the Lord send you help from the holy shrine
and give you support from Zion.
May the Lord remember all your offerings
and receive your sacrifice with favor.
May the Lord grant you your heart’s desire
and fulfill every one of your plans.
May we ring out our joy at your victory
and rejoice in the name of our God.
May the Lord grant all your prayers.
I am sure now, O Lord,
that you will give victory to your anointed one,
and will answer from your holy heaven
with a mighty victory of your arm.
Some trust in chariots or horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord.
Others will collapse and fall,
but we will hold and stand firm.
Give the victory to your servant, O Lord.
Answer us on the day we call!
A contemporary version of the same message can be found in a “speech” by Mark Tychonievich, longtime Latin teacher and coach at St. Louis U. High School. He recently died of the cancer he had been battling for years, but not before he recorded a thank-you to his students. My cousin Tim McKernan hosts a pretty crazy sports talk show on AM 590 in St. Louis, but he got serious one morning in tribute to “Coach T”:
You know, when I saw that gorgeous full moon in January, I realized what short shrift I had given the last one, in December, the one with the eclipse. I seemed to scorn it in my last CASA, forgetting, I guess, that the moon, since my very first night in Honduras in 1977, has always been the link between me and you, the celestial Internet, as it were. We see it rise and wax and wane and shine together, the same familiar face that beams our affection from here to there and back again. So pardon my ingratitude, and keep us in view. It was particularly appropriate to enjoy the full moon at Arlin’s house. Years ago, when she was about 5 or something, the moon rose high behind Fermin’s house one night while I was sitting out front on the curb. Fermin tells Arlin, “Go tell Miguel the moon is out.” She runs through the house and out the front door. “Miguel! Daddy says look at the--oh! but there’s one on this side, too!”
May the moon’s light be always at your back--and your front.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
ESTA ES SU CASA--JANUARY 2011
THERE AND BACK
Neysi graduated Saturday, December 4, and Chemo and I took off the next morning for the town at the end of the universe, never to return...? Well, maybe I’m exaggerating.
Neysi, just 16 (Chemo’s age), completed a two-year “Bachillerato,” the next step after high school, and I was the only non-family member invited to the ceremony and dinner , as her official “witness.” It was a rich and elaborate display, and I have to say Neysi’s unbeatable smile lit up the evening. There was a bottle of champagne on every table; at our table, most of us toasted with Pepsi, but Elvis, Neysi’s dad, carefully re-corked the bottle to take home, flat, I’m sure. Some of us packed up our dinner, too, since we were the very last table served, while the rest of the graduates were already taking down decorations and stripping table cloths and folding up chairs.
Bottom line, it was an early evening, so when I got home I alerted Chemo, “Get packed, we leave tomorrow!” Off to see his mom Rufina for the first time since last January. The trip took all day, six hours to San Pedro, where we changed buses, another five hours to Tocoa, where Chemo’s sister Rosa, her husband Tonio, and their terrible-two-year-old Tonito, and Marcos, Chemo’s “little” brother, all live in a little village outside of town. We actually arrived just after dark, and I must salute Miguel the cab driver, who took us from the bus station to the creek we would have to cross to get to the house. Marcos, Tonio, and Rosa were there waiting for us, but Miguel, without even being asked, swung his cab around to shine the headlights right at the river and the carefully positioned stepping stones. So, despite my certainty that I would fall in and ruin my laptop, digital camera, iPod, and cell phone, I hopped right across.
Rosa, by the way, is better than I’ve ever seen her. She does not tire from a short walk any more, or from a long walk, either! The heart medicine is finally taking hold, I guess. Of course, she told us about a collapse about a month ago that landed her in the hospital overnight, apparently from super-low blood pressure. But it’s the TREND we’re looking at, you know, like Global Warming amidst the coldest winters in a 1000 years....
My idea of a big treat was to take everyone to lunch at Pizza Hut at the mall downtown. Only problem was, the Pizza Hut I was sure I remembered seeing there was really in La Ceiba, two hours away. So we had to settle for Wendy’s. Everybody but me got chicken. I had the burger, or whatever it was. At least there was lots of free ketchup.
Fortunately, there was no sign of the growing conflict between fatcat landowners and land-squatting campesinos in the area, both groups armed to the teeth. That was farther up the road, as it turned out. We wouldn’t be going that far, but we did need to complete the next leg of our expedition, to Bonito Oriental, where Chemo’s (and Marcos’ and Rosa’s) mom Rufina lives, along with Fidel (Chemo’s real dad having been violently killed years ago, an event that traumatized and broke up the family, eventually dropping Chemo into my lap) and Don Cruz, their “patron,” now 91 years old and still reading his Bible every day without glasses. They don’t have electricity, so they turn in with the chickens. As the day dimmed, Fidel calls to me, still fiddling with my computer with a close eye on the battery power, “We’re going in.” He meant, to bed. So we get all ready, Rosa with Tonito, Chemo with Marcos, me solo. I look at my watch. “O my God, Chemo--it’s 5:30 p.m.!” trying to whisper so I don’t offend our hosts.... I listened to my iPod till the battery died, and I still wasn’t sleepy. But, as the saying goes (?), down with the chickens, up with the chickens. I jumped out of bed at the first sign of light. Rufina was already up, stoking the fire for coffee and “fritas,” sweet corn fritters.
I took our annual photo of Chemo and Marcos side by side, hoping always that Chemo will catch up to his little brother’s height (Marcos is two years younger than Chemo); but no such luck. Chemo has grown a foot since his operation, but, darn it! Marcos just keeps on growing, too.
Rufina, who turned 50 in July, surprised us with the news that she had just been confirmed, with a group of teens a fraction of her age. I was thrilled, especially since, in Las Vegas, our new pastor told our very disappointed Confirmation candidates they did not seem really prepared for the sacrament, so they’d have to wait. Rufina now reads her Bible too, but with a little cheap pair of reading glasses.
Rufina’s accomplishment only made me even more eager to meet (or re-meet) her pastor Fr. Jack Donald, a Jesuit I knew years ago when I first came to Honduras. The Casa Cural was just up the road from the house. When Don Cruz cried, “There he goes!” on his motorcycle, I jumped up and walked over to say hello. Jack invited me to stay for lunch, and the wonderful cook Maria Julia, was as gracious as she could be, and so was Father Gus Fernandez, who, like Jack, is originally from California. Gus did not remember meeting me all those years ago, but he treated me just like his best friend. Father Jack had written a little memoir that Rufina had (he gave a copy to each of the confirmands) and so I said please sell me a copy. “O Lord, sell? These are gifts!” And that’s exactly the way he describes his experiences as a missionary in Honduras for 40 years, as a gift. I told him, You’re my hero, because, of course, I heard about him many times over the years.
The next day, Rufina invited me to come along with her to the priest’s house to re-charge my cell phone and laptop. Father Jack wasn’t there, but it seems it’s a long-standing arrangement, because Maria Julia was expecting us and pointed me right to a strip of outlets. Gus peeked in, “Stay for lunch, there’s always plenty,” but we didn’t this time.
Jack, with lots of help from generous folks back in California, just finished a beautiful new church in Bonito Oriental. And reports are, it’s filled to overflowing at Sunday Mass, which is at 7:00 p.m. Rufina does not go, because, I mean, that’s way past their bedtime....
Then began the return trip, another excursion in itself. First, to El Progreso, where we threw an all-purpose birthday party--this time “catered” by Pizza Hut--for all the big days we had missed at Santa’s family since our last pass back in August. That included Santa’s mom Argentina (“Tina”), Santa’s daughter Yuly, and little Joel, Santa’s youngest, whose actual birthday it was, and we threw in cousin Catalina’s little Jorge, who had recently passed the one-year mark. Santa, you may remember, is my foul-mouthed “fiancee” who plans another feature of our wedding every time I see her, and swears like a sailor if I hesitate to agree. It’s become more of a joke than ever now, and the whole family roots us on like a RAW match.
I took advantage of the high-powered Wi-Fi at the Hotel Victoria in Progreso to download a free movie rental iTunes was offering; I chose “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Have you seen it? Knocked me out! I didn’t know they could still make movies like that. Don’t even tell me there’s any other competition for the Oscars. Of course, it’s the only new movie I’ve seen this year. Meanwhile, Chemo and Marcos enjoyed a late-might dip in the hotel pool.
Then, to Morazan, for a couple days with Fermin, Maria, and the family. They are always so happy to see us, and the feeling is mutual, making the long gaps between visits that much harder. The big national championship soccer game was up for Friday night TV, so I said, Let’s get pizza! The pizza at Mario’s in Morazan is even better than Pizza Hut. So Maria and I take her car downtown and--Mario’s is closed! I thought, this is crazy, it’s the biggest pizza night of the year! But, I’m afraid, it’s closed closed, as in, out of business. I guess my infrequent visits couldn’t keep them afloat. But, undaunted, we darted off to the Chinese place, another favorite treat, considering they give you portions the size of a Gulf oil spill for such a cheap price. Back home, the kids had to readjust their taste buds, but a lot harder to swallow was Olimpia’s defeat in the final minute of extra-time. I really didn’t care, but Olimpia is Chemo’s favorite team, and he lives and dies with their fortunes. I tried to console him by pointing out that the owner of the team was doing something even better than a measly soccer championship; he was running the annual “Teleton” that raises funds for the free rehabilitation centers around the country that he founded. He has to thank a lot of phonies for their publicity-enhancing contributions, but the hospitals do great work for thousands of kids.
I always stop in and visit with Fermin’s mother Dona Antonia, who lives just a couple houses down from Fermin. We’re chatting about all and sundry, including recipes for pig’s feet and chicken feet, and she says, “I’m going to make you a snack.” Usually I make a point of not reacting when something strange is put on my plate, but this time I almost jumped out of my chair, screaming, “O my God!” It looked like a plate of tarantulas--on “a bed of rice,” as the Chez Puque might say. I immediately apologized for my outburst, though it clearly delighted Antonia. I finally regained my composure. “Chicken feet, right?” She saw me looking around the yard for any feetless chickens. “Don’t worry--these are store bought.” Well, good for that, because I can’t imagine anything filthier than a “free-range” chicken’s feet, considering they spend most of their time strafing cow poop, horse poop, any poop poop. OK, the moment of truth--I had to imagine something else--I picked one up and so gingerly pecked at it I could have reversed course at any moment. But it was actually pretty good. Tastes like chicken, as they say. Chicken feet are mostly knuckles, of course, in a glove of skin and muscle that cooking renders quite...edible.
We got back home to Las Vegas on Sunday, December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The image of the Virgin Mary with native Mexican-Indian features that appeared by some miracle on the rough cloak of the peasant Juan Diego four centuries ago still guards the poor and alerts the rich that God is near. It’s the perfect pre-Christmas celebration, because, after all, the “lady” in the portrait is pregnant.
If I said someone stole Chemo’s “haypon,” what might you think was missing?
A) his MP3 player
B) his soccer ball
C) his winter coat
D) his harpoon
The correct answer is A). “Haypon” was Chepito’s spelling of “iPod” when he texted me that they had snuck up on Laito, always a prime suspect, and got the player back. He was listening to music in his house, with the earphones, so he didn’t hear them coming, the front door wide open. There may have been a little struggle--they’re not WikiLeaking every detail--but suffice it to say Laito got mad; he was going to sell it in Victoria. It’s not really an iPod; it’s a “Creative” Zen X-Fi 2 player, with a touch screen, no less, a gift from John Newsham, and I would have hated to lose it. Chemo had stashed it under his mattress, but Laito has a sixth sense for portable objects.
Speaking of WikiLeaks, a long report from 2008 about President Mel Zelaya by the outgoing ambassador Charles Ford to his successor Hugo Llorens showed up online. Charles Ford was the least diplomatic diplomat I’ve ever seen, and he was always getting under Mel’s skin. In this he calls Mel a spoiled brat who never grew up because he never had to, he was always successful just with a wink and a ten-gallon hat; a corrupt money hog dedicated to enriching his family, a drug trafficker, a drug USER, playing the poor like a guitar, Hugo Chavez’ ventriloquist dummy. Keep him on a very short leash, he warned Llorens. Mel, unfazed as always, said, from his luxury-in-exile in the Dominican Republic, “Well, if I was so bad, why didn’t the new guy say something? why was he such a suck-up?” He’s got a point. Llorens was shocked, shocked, when Mel was ousted in a coup in June 2009, a coup Mel has always blamed on the U.S. “imperio.” And Pepe Lobo, elected 6 months later in a process the U.S. endorsed, is calling Mel’s bluff about returning to Honduras by opening every avenue for his re-entry. Of the controversy, he just says, “I guess they do those things.”
I got everyone all excited about the lunar eclipse, coinciding with the winter solstice for the first time since Shakespeare or something. The newspaper said it would start about 11:30. “Should we just stay up?” the kids asked. No, I said, go to bed and I’ll wake you--like Peter Pan at Wendy’s window. I was dead tired myself, but I dare not go to bed or I’d never wake, even with an alarm, so I just kept busy, reading, watching TV, fooling around on my computer, writing as much of this newsletter as I could up to that point (Dec. 21, you recall)--which is why it’s so damn long! I had already scared Chemo and Marcos’ grandmother Natalia half to death talking about the eclipse when she gave us supper earlier that evening. A lunar eclipse--go ahead, try to explain it to someone--is perfectly harmless and, like the joke about the Honduran astronauts who were going to land on the Sun, it happens AT NIGHT. But Natalia thought maybe it was the end of the world. “Caramba!” she kept saying. She assured us she’d be in bed, with the covers pulled up over her head. (I didn’t tell her the end of the world is NEXT December, 2012.) Eleven-thirty came and went, and nothing. Midnight, nothing. The night was crystal clear, though, and the full moon was directly overhead. Beautiful, but blank as a stone. Finally, about 12:30, I could see a little dent. I can’t get the kids up for this, it’s so SLOW! I waited till almost 1:30 when the strange red shadow had eclipsed a little more than half. OK, kids, showtime! Besides Chemo and Marcos, two of Chemo’s little third-graders friends were sleeping over. I threw open the bedroom door, switched on the light, and immediately had second thoughts; the kids were piled like cordwood in the two beds they had pulled together, twisted into their blankets like pizza rolls. But this was historical! What the heck? Three of the four actually got up (little Joel was dead, man), and we rushed up to the roof. There it is, kids! Look at it! They were probably sleep-walking more than anything, shivering in the cold. A half-moon, big deal, who hasn’t seen that? Yeah, but, you know, a full moon and a half-moon the same night, you never see that, do you? That’s the Earth’s shadow doing that--think of it! In thirty seconds they were back in bed, cocooned in their covers, fast asleep. Well, I tried. Myself, I stuck it out till the whole moon was a reddish bruise, like a swollen eye, and I don’t regret it, but next time, I hope it’s cloudy. Just out of curiosity, I asked the kids the next day if they remembered seeing the “event.” They said yes.... But I don’t think any of them will be mentioning it on their Facebook page.
Good thing “The Silence of the Lambs” wasn’t a Christmas story, because here it’s pigs, and they are anything but silent when they are slaughtered. Our neighbor Juana killed her pig first, the pig that’s been serenading me all night for a year. I was not sorry to see it go, but it’s hellish screams as the hired butcher repeatedly plunged a rough knife into its neck would alarm anybody. Juana’s two dogs, Pinky and Rambo, were lovin’ it, blood spurting everywhere. Its windpipe severed, no more screaming, but it’s still alive. The rest of the process is pretty much like a TSA “patdown.” You pour pots of boiling water on its twitching legs and shave all the coarse hair with a machete. After some of this, it really is dead. So then you cut off the head, string the carcass from the notch of a tree, and start dividing the bacon from the ham. The most popular portion is the leg. And believe me, you smell that roasting, you forget all about how it got there. The next day, December 23, was our pig, and Elvis started at 5:30 in the morning. I had just gotten up and was in the shower when I heard this Armageddon right outside my bathroom window. I knew immediately what it was, or I probably would have had a heart attack. I got dried and dressed as quick as I could and went out to watch. It wasn’t even dawn yet! I didn’t stay for the whole thing, just till Dora had stoked a big fire to be ready to render some of the meat she would stuff the tamales with on Christmas Eve. Later, lunch was, as you might guess, the blue-plate (or should I say, blue-glove) special, pulled pork.
“Midnight mass” was at 6:00 p.m. Christmas Eve. We had spent 9 evenings previous in the sweetest novena of the year, the Posadas, singing Christmas carols through the streets, visiting shut-ins, asking, as Mary and Joseph did 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, for a lodging (“posada”) for baby Jesus. Padre Sebas said the Mass. Poor old guy, he’s a wonderful priest and all, but he shuffles like the odd little angel Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” bad feet, you know. His sermons are a monotone and almost inaudible. I wanted to shout, Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan! to get him going. He just invited me to join a group he’s getting together for the Long Retreat, done according to the 19th Annotation in St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises,” where, instead of 30 days straight, you meet once a week, for 6 months. Now, that’s a long retreat! But I’m really looking forward to it. It starts in February. Clarence or not, maybe I’ll get my wings!
We have a new Dago! Dago died 6 months ago, electrocuted installing electricity in his mom Natalia’s house. Just devastated the family. But his brother Marcos’ wife Dania was pregnant, and when everybody went off to pick coffee a month or so ago, we knew the baby would be born “in exile,” as it were. We were actually at Natalia’s house eating supper December 22 when the call came: baby born, healthy and happy, IT’S A BOY! “Then it’s Dago!” cried Natalia. Everybody had already agreed on the name months before. December 22 is also Alba’s birthday, sister of Dago and Marcos. So we called her right away. “Alba! Happy double birthday!” “What do you mean?” “Dania’s baby!” “Oh, yeah, it’s coming soon--” Little Dago was so new, even Alba hadn’t heard the news, and they’re all staying in the same house in El Transito! But the explanation was simple; Dania had given birth at a clinic in town and had not called yet. I was especially gratified, since I had been the one to break the news of Dago’s death to Alba, and now I could sing her this song of hope.
Dago would have been 20 on December 27, so Natalia asked if we could just say a rosary together on that day. A tiny group of us gathered before supper and prayed together, very simple, but I added one element. December 27 is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, whose letters are also in the New Testament. I read a little from the first one: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have touched with our hands, that is, the Word of Life, we proclaim to you, so that you may share this Life with us, that our joy may be complete.” It’s about Jesus, of course, but you gotta think of Dago, too.
Mariana Teresa’s first birthday was another step toward completing our joy. A celebration of Life, she renews the memory of my sister Mary Anne, who died while Maricela was pregnant, and makes a nice little substitute for Teresa Jorgen (till she can return in person). They call her Mari-Te for short, and that’s all Carolina could fit on the cake, but she’s taking her first steps and speaking her first words, so pretty soon she can decide for herself what she likes for her name.
Presents can make any day a Christmas. In St. Louis last September, little Sarah Baker gave me a doll she made herself. I knew it had to go to someone special. When little Sarai came by with her mother Maritza for the first time in months, I knew she was the one. She loved the doll, of course, but without a couple operations that she got from Operation Smile (and she probably needs one more), to correct her severely cleft palate, she couldn’t have even smiled to show her delight. Thank you, Sarah Claus!
Christmas--or any holy time for anyone who loves life--is not limited to Christians or even “believers.” Sometimes Life reaches out to us even from a transient town like El Transito, or Las Vegas, not any bigger than the little town of Bethlehem.
Besides the “haypon,” John Newsham gave me the most amazing book, “He Became Poor” by Christopher A. Franks, a study of Thomas Aquinas’ economic teachings, if you can even imagine the relevance of such a thing from a 13th-century monk. But imagine my surprise when I discovered how St. Thomas’ version of poverty, as explained by the author, mirrored what I had found in my own experience in Honduras. For example: “Poverty is an uncomfortable subject for us. It denotes lack and insufficiency, and it seems to us a kind of violence. Poverty does indeed involve lack and insufficiency, but one embraces it, not in order to go hungry, etc., but in order to receive what one needs from others.” Indeed, “Poverty is a sign of our neediness--that we are created for communion.” And, by embracing poverty, we renounce the security and self-sufficiency that seem the “natural order” to us, when in fact the natural order is really the “divine charity,” God’s self-emptying, specified in Christian faith by Jesus (the “He” of the title “He Became Poor”), but a reality that blesses us all.
May 2011 fill you with that giving and receiving.
Bonus: Chepito’s 2010 “Christmas card.”