Because I haven’t had much time to write reflections – this past week was probably the busiest and craziest I’ve had yet down here – I thought I’d just share a handful of random stories . The following are just a couple glimpses into everyday life down here at the Finca.
The other night, two of our security guards – or watchis as they’re called – came by the missionary house at 10:30pm, as giddy as two very grown men could be. Asked what was up, one of them held up a possum by the tail high in the air and grinned like he had just gotten caught stealing a piece of cake before it was ready to be served. They both laughed again and walked off into the dark with a machete. That’s about as classic a Honduras moment as you can get right there.
The new school year began down here this week and I can say I am officially an English teacher for 3rd and 4th grade. They are a mix of kids from the Finca and from the neighboring villages. I’m sure I will have many stories from the classes to come, but for the moment, let me focus on the teacher in-service we had the week before. The second day, one of the teachers, a young Honduran guy quick to smile and make jokes came in with a brand new, black leather briefcase. Something like that, while as common as the white collar back in the States, sticks out rather strongly down here. Especially in our rural department of the country. While never thinking it actually important, I have to admit, a little part of me was impressed at the small symbol of professionalism amidst a normally very casual working environment here.
As he walked into the library for our meeting, he was holding the briefcase in his hands, so new the strap was still cinched up tight and the leather still supple. We began our morning discussions, he set it down next to his seat and took out a binder, a pencil, and a pen-knife to sharpen the pencil. I lost focus on him until about halfway through the morning when he took the shoulder strap, loosened it slightly, fastened it around his waist, and rested the briefcase itself on his lap. And then went right on taking notes and listening to our speaker. My first reaction, to be completely honest, was, what the hell is he doing?! When I realized he wasn’t doing it to be funny, that he never even looked around for a reaction from anyone, I was even more perplexed and maybe even a little bit frustrated. You can’t do that! It’s a briefcase. It goes over the shoulder not around the wast like a belt You’ll never be a real professional if you put it like that!
But really, why? I can’t tell you how strange it looked to see a grown man with a professional job do something that seemed so childish with such a symbol of adulthood. But… so? Who cares if he is different. Why should it bother me how he wears his briefcase, of all mundane things.
Because it did. I realized as I sat there that I was getting worked up over the nerve to tweak such a standard Western value. But it also dawned on me quickly how much I am still stuck in my presumptions and prejudices against the simplest of things that are merely different from what I’m used to. The small customs and ways of life down here that I find important or silly are still the ones that take the longest time for me to get over. I want very much to be able to look at the world and see what is different as beautiful and necessary. To let go of the way I want everyone else to act just to make me happy. To love who they are precisely for who they are. A briefcase is a strange place to start with that, but it’s as good a place as any.
The other day, another missionary named Tiffany and I were eating lunch at the house of our youngest child, Yadi, and her tia, Ercilia. At one point Yadi was at her little play stove and we asked her to make us a cafesito. She through her head back and laughed like she had never heard anything so funny. When I told her I wanted sugar but no milk in mine, she clapped her hands and stumbled around the room like she was drunk as though it were simply too much to take in. Her little three-year-old shoulders bounced up and down as she silently laughed, tears streaming down her face and gasping for her next breath. I was dying laughing at this point, watching her crack up like an old woman in such a child’s body. Finally she slapped her little plastic table and sighed, bring herself slowly back down to a responsible level.
After a while, I started to make a castle out of her Duplo Legos. It had bridges and towers and windows. She mainly watched me indifferently while she made her own row of blocks stacked one of top of another. When seven were stacked, she put them on my head and said it was a hat for me. “Thank you! Do I look handsome?” I asked. “No,” she said, matter-of-factly and waddled off. Eventually she came back and started playing with the castle I had built, adding a block or two and touching every crevice. When Ercilia saw, she kept on saying how beautiful it was, and winking at me, asked who made it.
“I did,” Yadi said, just as to the point as before.
“You did?” Ercilia exclaimed half puzzled and half laughing, looking at me. I just shrugged my shoulders.
“Yes,” Yadi said without looking up. “My fingers are inside the window. I made it.”
Now I’m not sure if she meant that as an if-then statement, but it seemed to me like pretty flawless three-year-old logic. Her fingers were indeed firmly jammed inside a tiny window for absolutely no reason and she had also added, by my count, two whole Duplo blocks to the medieval venture. I’m not saying I’m bitter about her taking all the credit, I’m just saying all three-year-olds are lying liars.
On Sunday after we got back from Mass in town, one of the other missionaries named Harrison got a call from a friend of the Finca’s in one of the neighboring villages that his grandmother had died. She was 86 and quite sick so it wasn’t an enormous surprise, but for the family and the tight knit community, it was of course a big deal. He called to ask if we could lend a couple cars to help carry everyone who had gathered, along with the body, to the cemetery. The town they lived in was up in the mountain that is the immediate and stunning backdrop to the Finca, and they were going to bury her down by the sea. Harrison asked if I could help drive and I immediately said yes.
When we arrived, several dozen people were standing around, some well into a bottle of clear liquor that was being passed around. We shook hands and did our best to try and figure out what is appropriate behavior for gringos at a funeral high up in a remote Honduran village. I had driven our Tundra pick-up truck and Harrison one of our boxy old Land Cruisers. The road up to the town is twisty and steep through absolutely lush jungle palms and vines. When they brought out the casket, it was a simple wooden box, painted a light blue but only able to afford one coat, just looked a pale grey. They put it in the back of the Tundra and it didn’t quite fit with the ability to close the tailgate but they assured me everything would be fine. They called out for family to hop in the back with the casket, put flowers all on top, and then yelled for the bottle of liquor to be passed up for the ride down. As I eased across a creek and up into the dirt road, I struggled nervously to find a balance between the truck sliding and the casket sliding. Harrison drove behind me, packed more full than you can imagine with family and friends. They had also convinced a local friend who was a police officer to make a very coincidental and providential trip in a municipal pick-up to that very spot. And, well, who could blame him if he gave a ride to fifteen more people on the ride down? Motorcycles of cousins and friends whizzed around me in exactly the same manner as a police cavalcade in a funeral procession in the States. At some point as I bounced down the mountain I laughed pretty hard to myself, realizing I had found myself not only very far from home, but driving a hearse.
When we arrived at the simply and overgrown cemetery on the beach, emotions began to flow in earnest. Tears poured and tempers flared. An extended – and hilarious in any other moment but the actual one – argument ensued over which direction to place the head of the body. I swear, they must have spun that poor old woman ten times around. When she was securely in her place, everyone crowded around to gather fistfuls of dirt and toss it down into the sandy grave. Little children flung little handfuls with an impressive earnestness. I noticed the woman’s daughter – an old woman herself, and regular worker in the Finca – was standing back several paces, firm and watching unblinkingly. When we had arrived only a few hours earlier to pick them up, she had grasped my hand in two of hears and cracked a wrinkled smile with a laugh and shrugged her shoulders, and if to say isn’t this just the way life goes?
Men took up shovels and began to finish the burial. One, a local man who had simply come to help – probably looking for a tip from the family – found a bulb in the dirt of his shovel and drunkenly said, “Hey look – yuca! That’ll go good in a soup,” and tossed it in the grave. Everyone chuckled and the pressure began to relieve. He found another and mumbled loudly to himself, “now that one would go good with some coconut.”
As I rumbled back up the mountain, people tapping the roof of the Tundra when they were ready to be let off, I was genuinely happy, loving every bit of this crazy, different, struggling, and strong country I find myself in.