Tuesday, January 31, 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.
Sunday, January 1, 2012
ESTA ES SU CASA--JANUARY 2012
The Beacon just published my “Christmas Letter”:
By my calculations, this is the 100th edition of ESTA ES SU CASA, dating back to June of 2003. If you have been along for the long strange trip, like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ bus “Further,” I just have one question: who’s driving?
As December began, I felt like the opening line of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “The Grandmother did not want to go to Florida.” Every step we took could have been our last, or at least I began to hope so. Would we go to Tocoa at the eastern extreme of Honduras, to visit Chemo’s sister Rosa, 24, and brother Marcos, 15? Or would we go to Tras-Cerros at the western extreme to visit Chemo’s mother Rufina? Or, God forbid, both? If it were a big circle, it would at least feel like progress, but it’s a slingshot--a very long and slow slingshot--no where there.
I was pushing for a compromise, with Marcos meeting us at the halfway point, in El Progreso, to go to Rufina, because Marcos would be spending Christmas with us in Las Vegas, so he was the key, as far as I was concerned. But Chemo was making Tonito, Rosa’s little four-year-old terror, the top priority. Chemo loves that kid! So I saw the writing on the wall, and it was all dollar signs.
Now, I ask you, if a mother wants to see her children, wouldn’t she live a little closer to them? But there’s enough poverty in this family, including all its broken history, that I feel it my duty to keep connecting Chemo--and Marcos--with their mother, at whatever cost. Chemo was ambivalent. “I just saw her in July,” when we went for her birthday. Maybe it is harder for him to see her than not, if he has to start from scratch, emotionally speaking, every time. So maybe we’d cut off that whole leg of the trip. “It’s too much money for you to spend,” he said. Was I turning him into a cheapskate like myself, pricing his own mother out of his circle of concern? Or, more likely, was he gauging how he’d spend whatever we saved on more soccer shoes, clothes, CDs, and other stuff? Either way, I was determined not to surrender to cynicism.
But I did drag my feet some, hoping for more clarity. First, we needed to wait for Mariana Teresa’s second birthday December 2, which I described in the November CASA. And then, when Santos--Chemo’s half-brother--and Alba’s daughter Cecilia (“Chila”) would be turning 15 on December 6, we couldn’t miss that, because the “Quinceanera” marks the traditional turn from a girl to a young lady. Ordinarily we would miss it, because the family would have already long since headed for the mountains of El Transito to pick coffee for three or four months. But, what with the new baby, whose name they modified to Alba Suyapa, instead of the homage to Alba’s mother Natalia that I was pushing for, they postponed their departure. In fact, I was sure that the new-born was really too little to be carting her off to the cold and lonely hills. But here babies don’t get babied.
Chila really is already a young lady. During the difficult days of Alba’s pregnancy, she managed the house, including making our supper every night, all the while working her way successfully through third grade at school. But they made a lovely little birthday party for Chila. For the cake, Profe Flor made a masterpiece, a blend of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla, decorated like a French palace, complete with a little figurine “15” on top.
But then, we had to get going. We could not even wait for the big exodus to El Transito, because who knew how long our pilgrimage was all going to take, with possible stops in El Progreso and Morazan as well. And I thought we might be having visitors for Christmas, so we better be home when they arrived!
We were pretty lucky the first day. Leaving at 5:00 a.m., five hours to El Progreso, where we jumped on a bus to Tocoa just waiting for us, it seemed. At first I thought, oh no, we can’t take this bus, it’s old and crowded. We’d always taken these big, sort of Megabuses before to Tocoa. But I quickly came to my senses, as Chemo was pulling me along. “Let’s get on! Let’s get on!” He was right, of course, because it’s not the bus, it’s the road. And this road was paved. But it was crowded, enough that when we stopped for a quick lunch break at a big cafeteria, Chemo started sharing his food with a woebegone little boy whose mother couldn’t afford the touristy prices; I followed his lead and gave the child the rest of my soda.
Five more hours to Tocoa, the village of Juan Antonio, to be exact, where Marcos met us at the highway and we started the hike up the road. He and Chemo picked up right where they left off a year ago, teasing and poking, and Chemo grabbing Marcos’ cell phone, which Marcos had bought with money he earned milking cows.
But the river, would the river be a problem? I’m such a baby, I treat it like the Red Sea, when it’s no more than a creek, but I just imagine slipping off the stepping stones and wetting myself (you should excuse the expression) with no chance of drying off in the rainy, cloudy climate. “There’s a bridge now!” Marcos assures us. Well, then, I’m saved. We round a bend in the road and I see, or strain to see, the “bridge.” “That’s not a bridge, that’s a branch!” A tree trunk stripped of its bark, with a kink in it like the old Chain of Rocks Bridge that gave me nightmares my entire childhood, thrown across the gorge. With one deaf ear, I have little sense of balance, so I was ready to give up. A little closer, I could see a cable stretched above it, for a handrail, of sorts. OK, maybe.
I gave Marcos my backpack, and he scurried across like a squirrel, while I placed one foot in front of another in a very poor imitation of Philippe Petit crossing between the Twin Towers. Good night nurse, it’s only like forty seconds from one end to the other and I’m praying (cursing?) like a madman. But, I made it, the cable imprinted in my desperate hand. Chemo didn’t even attempt it; he skipped across the stepping stones we crossed last year, but even he misstepped, plunged one leg up to his knee in the water, as Marcos’ cell phone popped out of his pocket right into the river.
We regrouped at the house a few minutes later, where Rosa, Tonio, and of course Tonito welcomed us. Chemo had retrieved the cell phone, and I grabbed it from him. “Where’s the rice?” I had just seen a piece on Yahoo News, What to Do If You Drop Your Cell Phone in a River, or something like that. Remove the battery, and bury the phone in (uncooked!) rice overnight, to dry it out. This is Honduras, so there’s no shortage of rice in a kitchen; Rosa had a big plastic jar full of it right on the counter. Of course, she had to dig around the phone when it came time to fix supper, but by golly, next morning it worked! One tiny grain lodged inside.
You know what? Rosa is actually...a little plump. That’s a good thing, since she was literally on the verge of death a couple years ago when we took her to the same brigada of heart surgeons that had saved Chemo’s life in 2008. They opted for medication rather than surgery, and she’s been backing off the brink ever since. Tonio, too, has been easier on her, since she walked out on him and holed up with Tonito at our place in Las Vegas a couple months last year. Taming Tonito is like a box of spiders, but he’s talking a little better, so at least you know what you’re saying “No” to. First thing he says to me, “Miguel, I’m not saying ‘puta’ anymore.” The equivalent of the F-word. He’s not saying it any less, either! We quickly lost count. It’s not an easy habit to break when your mom and dad still punctuate with it, too. Kindergarten’s gonna be a blast.
My big plan was a Day at the Mall, or a couple hours anyway. So on Saturday, everyone dressed up and we rode the bus into town. (After I swung like a drunken trapezer hanging onto that cable across the log-bridge.) Now, you have to sort of suspend disbelief here. I mean, this is a mall whose “anchor” store is a Wendy’s. Everyone wanted fried chicken, except me (a “Cheddar Lover’s” burger). Afterwards, Marcos, Chemo, and Tonito played for at least an hour in the Playground. Then a shopping spree at the super market, where Rosa loaded up the cart. And I threw in some chocolate, a Hershey bar or two. There was a big soccer game on a big screen in the “atrium,” with rows and rows of chairs set up, but I was looking for Santa Claus, for Tonito, you know. Only later did I express my frustration: “We never saw Santa!” Chemo says, “Oh, he was there, he was watching the game!”
Chemo’s used to the big city experience, Tonio’s a bull, and I’m a gringo--but that night everyone else got sick. Whether it was all that food, or just the chocolate, or the combination of the two, I felt bad that I’d made an affliction out of an invitation. Still, I’d rather die eating chocolate than live a thousand years on humus.
“Let’s go!” Chemo wanted to get going--but where? Marcos, who had not seen Rufina in a year, wanted to see their mother. Chemo still toyed with skipping that part. Marcos, it must be said, is hardly demonstrative. You have to be very patient to “read” his feelings; he might agree with you just to accommodate you. But even Chemo seemed to get the message. When he told me to call Rufina and tell her we weren’t coming, I handed him the phone when she answered. “You tell her,” I said. He did not hesitate. “Mommy, we’re coming, we’re coming tomorrow.” Sweet!
That night before we left was the national championship game between Chemo’s favorite team Olimpia and Real España. It’s the first time in a while that I sat and watched a whole soccer game, but we were at Rosa’s neighbor Consuelo’s house, the only place around with a TV, so I thought I better be polite. It was actually fun! Virtually the entire game was played at Real España’s end of the field (or “pitch,” for you purists), but even firing shot after shot, Olimpia could not score, till the last 4 minutes of the game, a weird ball that snuck in right between the Real España goalie’s crouching legs. Chemo went crazy! The recap was funny; the commentator says, “Well, it’s difficult to evaluate Olimpia’s goalie performance, since Real España NEVER GOT OFF A SHOT!”
Early Monday morning, we crossed the stick-bridge before dawn; the log was wet and slippery, and I moved slower than ever. Meanwhile, a couple of pick-ups drove right through the river, carrying workers to their daily tasks. “I should have waited for a ride,” I kept repeating like a mantra till I finally landed on the other side, an emotional wreck, scared to death of a river 30 feet across and a foot deep....
We hiked to the main road, and just as we got there, a bus to Tocoa rumbles past; I waved and yelled, but it did not stop. “Why didn’t it stop?” I kept repeating, as if I could reverse reality. But a couple minutes later, I got my answer. A great big blue bus approached and...stopped! An express to San Pedro Sula! We quickly squeezed Rosa and Tonito goodbye and clambered aboard and snuggled into the big comfortable seats. Thank God we “missed” the other bus! We’d be there in no time, that is, about 6 hours.
We had two delays. First, a horrible accident with the vehicles still steaming and folks climbing and falling out of a bus as big as ours and a pickup and another car, a mass of twisted metal and debris. A couple minutes earlier, it could have been us. The only dead thing I saw was a dog on the side of the road, maybe the cause of the whole thing, if someone swerved to avoid it.
Then, near Progreso, teachers had blocked the road at a bridge, demanding pay for their comrades who had worked a whole year without it. We were so far back in the stalled traffic that I did not see how they were finally dispersed, but as we got closer, at least I did not detect any tear gas.
In San Pedro Sula, we had time to get lunch at the huge bus terminal before catching the next bus to the Guatemalan border. We ate everything in sight! And washed it down with a gallon of cold Fresca. We got it to go, so we wouldn’t miss the bus, and sat on the ramp, spreading ourselves out like a picnic. People stared, sympathetically, like we were refugees or something.
It’s a “quick” trip to Tras-Cerros, just over two hours. As we stepped off the bus, Fidel, Rufina’s beloved companion, was waiting. He’s as delicate as a dancer, but strong as a bull. Rosa had packed up three enormous bags of stuff (plates and dishes, pots and pans, and clothes and shoes) that Rufina had left behind when she and Fidel and Don Cruz fled Tocoa after being assaulted almost a year ago. Tras-Cerros is Fidel’s home town, and Don Cruz’, too. Fidel carried everything, stopping only once to shift weight.
At the house, the boys immediately fell into into mommy mode, and Rufina answered in kind. I pulled up a chair to talk with Don Cruz, now 92. “Estoy terminando, Miguel.” “I’m done.” He said it so finally, so matter-of-factly, I thought he meant he was literally about to die. But he clarified, “I can’t work anymore, legs won’t take me.” So Old School, so noble, salt of the earth. If you can’t work, you’re done. “Retirement” is surrender. Becoming a burden for someone else, a humiliation. Of course, Rufina and Fidel never mention such things; he is and always will be their “patron,” the man in charge. And I wouldn’t let it pass, either; I started with questions only he could answer, history, customs, politics, frontiers, and the Bible, which he still reads daily, and without glasses! I’ve had “cheaters” since I was 12, and ol’ Don Cruz can still read the Fine Print in his 90s. No, he ain’t done yet!
I question my own capacity among such poor folks, such poor food, such poor accommodations, all offered with such readiness. I could really do with a little humiliation myself. Three meager beds: I slept with Chemo, Marcos slept with his mom, Fidel slept with Don Cruz. Bedtime: 6:30 p.m. I was so tired from our travels that I thought I would make it through the night with no problem, till I woke at midnight, ready to rise. I listened to podcasts till dawn, dozing fitfully.
Chemo wanted to leave after one day, I was thinking three. Marcos, as usual, was noncommittal. We settled on two. And what would be the next step? To Progreso and Morazan, or straight back to Las Vegas? We owed another visit to Santa and the family in Progreso, and to Fermin and Maria in Morazan, but it seemed like a slog up Everest to stay on tour. I had not changed my clothes or bathed in a week. So a night at a hotel in Progreso was enticing, where we could clean up and eat at Pizza Hut, and the Internet would finally work. Chemo saw it as a chance for a shopping spree at the mall. This is so lame, don’t you think? The poor do not live in intervals, where a few jump-cuts of joy sustain them for the long haul. But I know my limits, or I say I do, to excuse myself.
The boys thought they would go to pick coffee with Fidel, but bouts of rain kept us cooped up all morning. A break in the weather let us walk into town for groceries, as well as some hardware to install another couple of lights in the house. The neighborly electrician patched things together in no time.
Rufina, in her very quiet way, clearly longed for more time, even as we rose early on Wednesday to make the bus to San Pedro Sula. “Don’t go today, look, it’s raining.” I gave her some cash that could get her to Tocoa, to visit Rosa, Tonio, and Tonito--and Marcos once he gets back home. Was I paying her off? I don’t know.
We slogged through the mud to get to the bus, but once aboard, the most amazing thing happened. The driver turns on a flat TV screen mounted in the front, and up comes the original “Home Alone”! It kept the boys--and me--entertained all the way to San Pedro. And I was crying! I mean, the kid wished his family away, but he missed them so much, he got them back. Meanwhile, I quizzed Chemo and Marcos both: Progreso? Morazan? Home alone? Chemo was inclining now to a return to Las Vegas, but he sure would love that mall-stop.
Even in San Pedro, we were undecided. I headed us toward a cab to take us to a bus to Progreso--I’d already called Dora in Las Vegas, telling her not to expect us till, maybe, Friday or even Saturday--when Chemo said, “I’m hungry now; let’s eat here.” So we repeated virtually the same lunch we ate three days before. A do-over. Then the cab, and you know, sometimes you have to think outside the box, and sometimes you have to think outside the Big Box. As we passed a mall just a couple blocks from the terminal, I suddenly thought, “What are we doing! If we’re going to Progreso to go to a mall, here’s a mall right here!” I stopped the cab in mid-career, and set the picture for the boys. “If we get our stuff here--fast--we can still catch the bus to Las Vegas. All in favor...”
There are actually two malls, side by side, in San Pedro, one fancy, one fancier. I was just confused enough that we ended up at the fancier one. I’ve never spent so much on so little in my life! It’s a week before Christmas, right? Sales galore. The sports store said Up to 70% Off. Except anything we wanted. Soccer shoes, socks, shorts, jerseys, and a ball, 300 dollars. Merry Christmas! I had to tell myself, it’s worth it; this is professional-grade equipment; it won’t fall into rags so quickly. And look at all the money we were saving by not going to Progreso, etc., easily 300 bucks. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Anyway, we scampered back to the terminal, where Porfirio’s bus soon appeared, and we settled in for the long ride home. Like old Don Cruz, we were “done.”
The Posadas were set to begin the next night, a wandering chain of visits in imitation of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem, with Christmas carols, bible readings, and a dash of preaching. Last year about 12 or 15 folks would show up; this year participation exploded, 60 and 70 each night. The kids would cart my chairs house to house in the afternoon, but I’ve only got about 40, so plenty of folks still had to stand. No one complained.
The string of visits was interrupted Dec. 23 by a Mass and wedding. Nahum and Erika were the lovely couple, and it was so simple, rustic, you might say, but so nice. Chemo says, “How are they getting married? They’ve already got two kids!” Yes, well, this is special. And it was special; they held their reception at their house, a sprawling ranch, a legacy over a hundred years old, passed down generation to generation in Nahum’s family. And what with holiday cantinas springing up on every street, Nahum and Erika welcomed their guests to an alcohol-free celebration. The true Spirit of the Season.
Speaking of relationships, the U.S. government just announced the end of the Peace Corps in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, citing the lethal level of violence in those countries. Everybody leaves in January. I’ve met Peace Corps volunteers ever since I started coming to Honduras, and no one has been a victim of violence, thank God, and I’m sure the volunteers willingly accept the risks. I just hope “Big Sis” Napolitano doesn’t try to chase me out, too.
But who needs “foreigners” anyway? The original Youth Group begun back in the 1980s by Cristina (“Titina”) Castro took advantage of the Season to stage a party in her honor. They’re old enough now to have teens themselves in the current Youth Group, but that first group was special. It was my own introduction to Las Vegas, and, as led by Cristina, they marveled that no one has abandoned their Christian faith. In fact, the only reason Cristina agreed to the fete, I’m sure, is that she saw another chance to share the message she has shared her whole life. You know, sometimes the topic of “women priests” is controversial; for Cristina, ordination would be a step down. She’s in a category by herself, a prophet! Over the years, battling Parkinson’s and other debilities, her voice has softened some, but her Spirit is just as strong as ever. She preached and then, “I’m going to sing now.” Everyone joined in, we were kids again.
I wish Chemo had a Titina. I watch closely for every sign of grace. While he’s on break from school, I have him read the Gospel every day. I try to get Marcos interested, too, but his reading level is so low, we have to go letter by letter. He’s a candidate for Special Education, clearly, but where’s the Special Educator? They do fill my heart when they get up early to go with Dionis, Natalia’s 14-year-old, to climb into the rough hills to collect firewood, and return hours later loaded down and exhausted. The firewood, of course, is for cooking our supper, which, in Alba’s absence, Natalia, Alba’s mother, so kindly prepares. The food is great, her smile even better.
Angelita prepared a birthday party for her brother Ery, who turned 24 on December 30. Think of it. Down Syndrome has tried to claim his life any number of times over the years, but real regard for him has been even more elusive; he’s sort of a toy in the community. Angelita is unembarrassed by the affection she showers on him.
The Merry Pranksters never reached their destination. They never went further enough.
Even they “did not want to go to Florida.” Flannery O’Connor’s story is comic, tragic, above all revelatory.
On December 22, Alice, Teresa Jorgen’s eldest sister, succumbed to Alzheimer’s at age 64. When I visited her with Teresa, she was fading, but serene and pure. There was such peace and love at her passing that you could almost hear the little bells tinkling when Alice got her wings. A grandmother herself, she really went all the way, all the way to “Florida,” that destiny that binds us all together.
Even Christopher Hitchens got on the bus. He was my favorite atheist; he wouldn’t bow to any god, including the idol of self-importance. He was so witty, so contentious, and so drunk a lot of the time that his “greatest hits” are making the rounds of the Internet. But I think, ultimately, he will be remembered for the column he wrote about the death of Lt. Mark Daily, whose service in Iraq Hitchens’ writings had inspired. Hitchens’ struggle with his responsibility is a lesson in morality just as strict as the Sermon on the Mount.
God-denier though he was, Hitchens here seems bathed in the faith of those the great theologian Karl Rahner called “anonymous Christians.”
The poor are mostly anonymous all the time. As I start another hundred of these newsletters--and I promise they won’t all be this long!--all I want to do, God willing, is tell their stories, just a nudge, if you will, to go a little further.
We burned the “Old Man,” 2011, on New Year’s Eve, glad to be rid of his death-grip on our dreams. Stuffed with firecrackers, he met a fitting end. Now for 2012, our last chance, if the Mayans are to be believed....