Tuesday, January 31, 2012
ESTA ES SU CASA--FEBRUARY 2012
ESTA ES SU CASA--FEBRUARY 2012
Donna Korando of The Beacon has beautifully condensed my recent massive “Letter”:
The buses were still crowded even a week after New Year’s, so the seven hours to Tegucigalpa on Sunday, January 8, stretched into eight, assuming anyone had room to stretch! We were crammed in there like a week-old gym bag. Chemo, 17, Marcos, 15 (Chemo’s “little” brother, still a head taller), Dionis, 14 (their cousin), and I had at least one deadline, to renew my Honduran Residency Visa by January 9, when it would expire. But I knew fun and clothes and food, food, food, were the boys’ real priorities, so once we checked into the hotel, we headed off to the Nova Centro Mall, the site of the “carros chocantes,” the dodge ’em cars. They were running a special, 600 Lempiras worth of rides for 300 Lempiras. I thought, We’ll be here all night! But the boys racked up about ten sessions of bumps and grinds in about an hour and a half. “One more! One more!” they kept crying, but I thought we’d all have concussions if they indulged any further. So, as per our agreement, it was off to 6:00 p.m. Mass at one of Tegucigalpa’s prettiest churches, the Milagrosa, just across the street. It was the feast of the Epiphany, and they had a sort of “native” band for the music with lots of drums and spicy rhythms. I loved it, Chemo liked it, Marcos didn’t really notice, and Dionis hated it. That was more or less the breakdown for the next three days.
After Mass, also as per our custom, we crossed back to the mall to eat at Chile’s. (Our schedule is stricter than the Constitution!) Chemo got his pasta, only available off the Kids Menu; the rest of us got fat, juicy hamburgers. Dionis put his aside after a few bites, so Marcos, the bottomless pit, helped him out. I thought about ordering something else this time, but, like Lennie in “Of Mice and Men,” I like my food “with ketchup,” and lots of it, and the hamburger comes with fries.
The bill was not too, too much, so I thought maybe this trip could be kept within reason, but even as I signed the Visa charge, I knew what awaited us at the hotel. “We’re hungry!” Now, remember we had had a big lunch on the trip when the bus stopped in San Ignacio; we’d just eaten at Chile’s, but, as tight as any conspiracy theory, Dionis’ lack of interest in his hamburger provided the excuse for everyone to eat again, this time plates of fried chicken (with fries!) and at least two sodas apiece. I did not order again, but picked off the boys’ plates, especially Dionis, who abandoned his meal half eaten.
I splurged that night because I was going to leave the boys holed up in the hotel all morning the next day while I renewed my residency. I left them money so they could get breakfast at the mercado nearby, with Angelica, the best “baby-sitter” in the world, riding herd. She sells gum and candy and cigarets and such in front of the hotel and has been my guardian angel for at least 15 years.
My first stop Monday morning, the bank, to request a “constancia,” or statement, that I have exchanged at least one thousand dollars for Lempiras every month. Yearly though it is, the folks at Banhcafe remember me and process the thing in minutes. Then, off to Migración, now a very expensive cab ride away at the far end of the city, by the airport, where the biggest mall in Central America is going up. I had heard about City Mall, but until I saw the acres and acres of raw concrete pillars and floors and towers, still in skeletal form, I could not have imagined it. It’s bigger than our whole town of Las Vegas! Is this a sign of prosperity? Honduras rising? The swelling tide that lifts all boats? No, it’s a giant money laundering of drug profits. Well, that’s just a guess. Next year, we’ll probably be eating at the Food Court, but it’s more depressing than exciting to contemplate how much misery and mayhem have sponsored this monstrosity.
Renewing your visa is a hurry-up-and-wait exercise, in at least four slow lines. But I am careful to thank everyone along the way, for allowing me to stay in their country. And I mean it! I don’t want to take it for granted. I finally got back to the hotel about noon, and the boys were eager for their turn. Off to the Mall Multi-Plaza, the very first mall opened in Honduras back in 1998, remodeled any number of times, but familiar and comfortable as an old shoe. Also the site for the past several years of the most elaborate “nacimiento” or Christmas crib scene, in Tegucigalpa, designed by architect Alejandro Martinez, who’s been doing them since his dear mother died in 1950. In those days, he built them inside his house, visitors following a path from room to room.
Baby Jesus is nice and all, but the boys wanted clothes, shoes, and of course, lunch! Dionis led the way, since he never gets in on these outings, with Marcos right behind, who would be returning to dirt poor subsistence in Tocoa, and that made Chemo an inevitability, and he knew it, playing the game to perfection. But I had an ulterior purpose myself. I told the boys they needed new digs for tomorrow night, Mema’s 63rd birthday party.
Tuesday night we took the longest, most expensive cab ride yet, to a remote gated community called Los Hidalgos, where Elio and Mema sought refuge three years ago after they were chased out of their house and business--a grocery store--by a gang demanding exorbitant “protection” fees and threatening to kill their grandchildren if they did not comply. Since they both thrive on hard work, they have been literally sick without anything productive to occupy their time.
But this night would be different. With contributions from their (grown) children, food was abundant, including four different kinds of meat. I joked that I’ve read Genesis but I didn’t even know there were four kinds of meat! And three birthday cakes. It was so wonderful to see Mema enjoying the gathering, though of course what made her happiest was making sure everyone else was well served. I have not seen the family so happy in years. The boys were pressing for an early exit, so we could get to the dodge ‘em cars one more time, but even they succumbed to the good times, as Mema and Elio and practically everyone else fussed over them and gave them little jobs to do like passing out the cake. At the end, Elio drove us home, while Mema stayed behind with the last guests; with traffic so light and a direct route, we arrived in minutes, but I know Elio was wishing Mema could have gone along.
We got up before dawn to dispatch Marcos to Tocoa on the Mirna Bus, while Chemo, Dionis, and I got the Reyes Bus back to Victoria/Las Vegas. Long trips, both, but we got home about 2 hours before Marcos did. We kept in touch the whole way by cell phone, and finally, after dark, Marcos could report he had crossed the log bridge over the creek by his house, his sister Rosa waiting for him with supper, “and it was still hot,” to quote my favorite line in literature at the end of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
When we got back, the annual festival had already begun in Victoria, dedicated to the Black Christ, a devotion inspired by a shrine in Esquipulas, Guatemala, that has attracted pilgrims for a century, ever since the “miraculous” crucifix in the church mysteriously turned black. You may remember I talked about the festival observance last August when a big crowd of us at a “cabildo,” or open meeting in Victoria voted to ban the very popular “beer-booths” this year. Guess what? It didn’t take. There were still at least 10 beer vendors, their rusty refrigerators stocked full. Well, our pastor Padre Jaime wasted no time drafting a letter to the mayor reminding him of the commitment to clean up the disorder. Jaime even hinted at “consequences” of breaking the “law,” which we were all told in August was the force of the democratic decision taken at the officially sanctioned “cabildo.” But, you know, when you have to pass a law in a supposedly Christian community to suppress public drunkenness during a week-long celebration of God’s mercy in Christ--I mean, haven’t you lost already?
On the other hand, Las Vegas’ contribution to the vigil on Saturday night--the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross--was so well done and so moving that I guess I really believed Jesus: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” The drunks are really just a distraction from the sinfulness we all indulge in and choose to excuse or ignore. Each “word” included a short introduction read by Carmen Hernandez, a “dramatization” by the Youth Group, a brief commentary by a delegado, a penitential song from the choir, and it drove home the reality of what Fr. John Kavanaugh of St. Louis University calls the “radical contingency” of our common humanity. Ultimately, we prayed, “O Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13).
The next week, another excursion. Checking last year’s calendar confirmed that Chemo and I had gone on “vacation” with Fermin and Maria’s family in Morazan at this time. We sort of hated to pack up and go again, but we knew it would be worth it. Chemo loves to play with José Miguel, and this is our only chance all year to spend more than just a day or two with them. It’s also a great excuse for everyone to enjoy time together. So one day we went to Los Murillos, driving through at least six branches of the same river, where Fermin and María grew up and fell in love as teenagers back in the 80s. María’s mother and father still live there, and they just built a big new house, financed in large part by six of their children living and working in Charlotte, North Carolina. (María is the only sibling still in Honduras!) Another day we spent at another river, but not just any river; this was in the shadow of Pijol, the biggest mountain in Honduras. It won’t surprise you I’m sure if I say the highlight of every day was the abundant, delicious food! Please don’t call me a sexist if I say María really loves making great meals, which I facilitated in my humble way with the cash I gave her as soon as we arrived. “In case you need to get anything....”
Back home in Las Vegas, it had been so long since anyone showed up with a bloody cut that I had stopped stocking iodine, gauze, Neobol spray, and tape. Suddenly, an epidemic. First, my neighbor, sweet old Mina, 84, had a dizzy spell and fell and split her forehead open on the corner of a table; she was tended to by Dr. Meme at her own house, but you should have seen how fast the news spread and everyone came running to see how they could help. I did not have the Neobol, but I had some “cicartrizante” cream that was near expiration, which Meme was happy to apply. Eight stitches.
Next was Rene, 17, who I saw limping along about 3:00 in the afternoon a couple days later. “I cut myself clearing weeds.” Up in the mountains, in the early morning, with his machete. He had it all bound up with--get this--some leaves and a necktie. His mother is in San Pedro, awaiting an operation for cervical cancer. So I hustled him into my house, and, thinking we’d just sort of clean it up and put some band-aids on, I had him sit in the bathroom with Chemo, gently washing the wound just below his right knee. By the time they were finished, the bathroom floor was awash with blood. I swallowed hard and put the band-aids away. I called Doctor Rebeca, who said she’d be glad to help, but she was in La Ceiba! So I sent some other kids to find Dr. Meme, who sent word back to meet him in his private office at his mother’s house, just a block away. Rene said, “Miguel, is this gonna hurt?” In my calmest voice, I lied, “Not at all.” As I watched him grit his teeth and twist his arm around his head in pain, I felt pretty bad for deceiving him, but when he was all finished, he thanked me. Six stitches.
The very next day, Nahum brings me a little piece of paper with a prescription on it--for Neobol. “What’s this?” It was for his nine-year-old nephew Jonatan. He’d already been stitched up by Meme at the clinic, so I missed that drama, but I went over to the house, because it sounded pretty horrible. The poor kid was running to meet the bus that he thought his mother was coming on (she works in San Pedro and he only sees her once a month), and he ran right into some barbed-wire. It ripped a jag across his brow, somehow just missing his eyes. Thirteen stitches. His mother wasn’t even on that bus. She came later, and she had to treasure her child’s devotion.
Just as was toting up the score, here comes Alec, 13, very reluctantly, who has cut his foot on a piece of broken glass down at the swimming hole. Once he unwrapped his “bandages,” including the ever-present leaves, I could see, amidst all the crusted blood, that it was a straight cut, on the very sole of his left foot. I didn’t even think you could sew that up; kids that almost never wear shoes have soles as tough as any leather. But by the next day, I changed my mind. Alec, who’d obviously learned from Rene’s experience that it WOULD hurt, kept saying, “Miguel, don’t spend your money.” But I called Rebeca, who was back in town. “Bring him over, Don Miguel. We’ll take a look.” He went without too much resistance, hobbling on one foot. At first, Rebeca thought Meme should handle this. Why? “It’s been over twelve hours.” Uh-oh. Whose fault was that! But when I said I’d sprayed it with Neobol (a sort of medicinal super-glue, which I had by then re-stocked), she felt more confident, and started assembling her gear. Poor Alec lay face down across the chairs on the porch, and I did my best to calm him and hold him steady as Rebeca injected his foot over and over again with anesthetic. It was waterboarding without the water. Small and wiry, Alec likes to sort of peacock around like a tough guy, but now he was reduced to sobbing and sniffling like a baby. I think that hurt him more than the syringe. Three stitches. Just three, but it was slow going. No thank-you’s from Alec, but by the afternoon, he was his old self, sassing and shorting all comers.
I just got a batch of Christmas cards! Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! Wonderful to hear from you! Some folks frown on “Christmas letters,” you know, with all the family doings from the past year. I read them like Scripture, I’m so eager for news. I had just checked a week before with Mercedes, the very nice woman who handles the mail in Victoria, whether I had any “correspondencia.” Nothing right now, she told me. Then, this sudden drop. She actually came to Las Vegas to deliver the cards personally. So I guess somewhere in the system they had held up the mail for the holidays. That’s fine, I love getting Christmas cards in the “summer”! They can double as Valentines.
It was the Grinch who just visited my neighbor Juana’s house next door. Juana, along with sons Donaldo, 18, Carlitos, 13, and daughter Isabel, 10, and Juana’s dad were all visiting family up in the mountains for a few days. Some kid broke into the house (it’s not hard here, most “locks” yield to a kick), and carted off all of the boys’ clothes, her dad’s shoes, a pair of shoes of dear old Julia who died last May that Juana had been saving as a memento, some nice curtains they were hopefully storing for a new house, a couple bottles of “lotion,” or cologne that serves as deodorant down here. The jerk even took the home phone! How he got all of this stuff out without being noticed--he must have had at least two big bags--no one knows. It was the middle of the day! Actually, I saw him myself. A teen from Guachipilin, 16, some say 18. The kids around here had warned me before that he was a thief; of course, they told me that after I’d already let him in the house a couple times to watch TV with them. The day of the robbery, he was sitting outside my house. I assumed he was waiting for me, but I was on my way out to someplace, so I think I maybe slipped him 20 Lempiras. I guess I just whet his appetite! He is distinguished by a scar on his upper lip. I always thought it was probably from a cleft palate; now I’m thinking it’s more likely from a fight!
Juana was brave enough--or desperate enough, she just looked so hurt and stressed out, on the verge of tears--to go to Victoria to the police. Well, I’ve already told you about our police in Honduras (see http://www.stltoday.com/news/national/police-switch-sides-as-crime-booms/article_bdfdb1e7-3a2a-574c-a248-8b51f13f1afa.html), so you know what help they were. Right now, he’s still at large, and has no doubt disposed of his haul. And he’s family! the son of Juana’s sister-in-law. Chemo gave Carlitos a pair of shorts and he gave his Cardinals shirt to Donaldo. That’s the shirt my sister Barb got for Chemo when I was in St. Louis. Chemo asked my “permission,” and, if you know my sister, you know she wouldn’t object; she’s the most compassionate person on the planet; she’ll “clothe the naked” all day long! I sort of waited for that “Wonderful Life” moment, you know, when the whole town rallies to reverse George Bailey’s misfortune; failing that, I made my own contribution to the family, at least enough for a couple “mudadas” (change-of-clothes).
Meanwhile, also pulling at the heartstrings and the pursestrings was Chemo’s sister Aureliana, actually half-sister, same father, but by his first wife, who died when Aureliana was only 4 (she’s 38 now). Plagued by stomach problems, she came to stay a few days with Natalia, hoping for some relief. So again we enlisted Dr. Rebeca, who loaded her up with Mylanta, among other things, and performed a bunch of tests, first of all for pregnancy! That was negative, “Thank God!” said Aureliana. Even her two-year-old Armando (who the kids call “Gringo” because he’s practically albino) says “NO!” to another brother or sister. Chemo just loves these little tykes like Armando and Rosa’s Tonito in Tocoa. They drive most people crazy, they’re like perpetual-motion machines, but for Chemo they are his own “Lost Boys.”
Next month, school starts and I’ll also report on my trip to Mexico for the wedding of former Parkway North student, Christy Tharenos. Can’t wait!
Thank you for remembering us down here; I might echo the great Etta James, who just passed. “At last, my love has come along.” First, last, and always, that’s you.