For the past two years, I've traveled to Honduras in the spring and worked in an optometric clinic. My degree is not from Emory's medical school; no, I have one of those impractical Ph.D.s in English. On top of that, I don't even speak Spanish—I studied German and French in college and graduate school.
I didn't go to Honduras with the intention of working in an optometric clinic. Although the Chattanooga church group I joined for the trip included two optometrists, I didn't expect to be a part of the clinic they planned to operate. In fact, I didn't have a clear idea of what I might do there. Mainly, I felt a compulsion to witness whatever I was capable of observing of life at this place—that is, in the city of Catacamas, located at the end of the paved road in the state of Olancho.
Olancho takes up most of central Honduras—the state is even bigger than the neighboring country of El Salvador—yet tourist maps show no attractions there. It's a vast, rural place, with broad valleys and steep mountains; even in the cities (Catacamas is the second largest, with a population of about forty thousand), dogs and horses freely roam the dirt streets, and complete pig carcasses hang in the open windows of the markets in the mornings. It's also the home of the PrediSan mission, which for nearly twenty years has quietly been doing good in that corner of the earth through medical services, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, agricultural and vocational training, installation of water systems, and spiritual ministry. (The name “PrediSan” comes from two Spanish words: predicar—to preach—and sanar—to heal. See www.predisan.org.)
Many North American churches, including the one I traveled with and another in Atlanta I attended as an Emory student, support PrediSan through donations and visits by teams of doctors and other work groups. That's how finding glasses and fitting people with them became my job while I was on vacation from my “real” job.
In Catacamas, I've become intimately acquainted with +250 readers and +300/+250 bifocals. I've spent hours in a sweltering closet lined floor to ceiling—I'm 5' 9", and I can barely reach the top—with boxes of donated eyeglasses, some melting in the heat, some (strangely) infested with termites, while I searched for anything close to matching the six numbers required for an astigmatism correction. All this I learned on the fly from the two Chattanooga optometrists, who work on overdrive to churn out prescriptions, feeling the pressure of having people lined up in the hallways, waiting for their turn.
While this sweaty gringo work ethic grinds on, the Honduran patients wait, and wait, and amazingly, wait—without watching TV, without talking on cell phones, using Blackberries, or playing video games, without even reading. These people just wait, as long as it takes, to see the doctor and get glasses.
The glasses are a motley collection of fashion wear from the big-glasses era—clunky pink or brown plastic frames, owlishly round or squarish in shape (on the latter, often the earpiece starts at the bottom of the lens). Some frames sport a little decorative flourish—a star or a swirl. For the men, there are thick black plastic frames, reminiscent of the Army-issued style rumored to promote birth control.
But few people who come to the clinic complain about the selection, and looks are less of a problem than fit for Hondurans, who are small compared to North Americans.
After I find the (approximately) right bifocal prescription for a tiny old woman, I clean the glasses with a moistened towel, hoping the lenses are not too scratched, and balance them carefully on her face, tucking the earpieces behind her ears, around her grayed hair. I explain, in my pidgin Spanish, that these are bifocals, with glasses for seeing far on the top and for reading on the bottom. I press into her hard, brown hands a pamphlet to look at to test the bifocals. She peers up, and down, mumbling comments I don't understand.
“Claro?” I ask, anxiously. “Do you see blurry? Is it better with glasses or without glasses?”—other useful phrases I've learned in Spanish.
She smiles at me.
“Si, clarito!” she declares, the glasses perched precariously on her nose. It's hard for me to believe, but she blinks and beams. She pushes herself out of the chair, hugging her purse to her body. I give her the crummy old plastic bag ( un bolsito ) in which the glasses had been stored.
“Gracias, bendiciones,” she says, hugging me.
There are many women like her, in print dresses that button up the front, and many men, clutching their battered straw hats, bodies lean and a little crooked, faces creased with thousands of lines that catch and hold the dirt, clothes worn and soiled. There are also younger people, in school and struggling to read or to work, or with pterygium forming over their eyes like a brown stain because of the constant exposure to harsh sun and dust. They pay sixty lempiras, about $3.30, if they can afford it, to be admitted to this clinic. They walk away with someone's old glasses, or eyedrops, or an appointment to return when the next group of American doctors comes down to perform cataract surgeries. They leave an excess of thanks, handshakes, hugs, and blessings.
I've learned a lot from working in the optometric clinic for the past two years—what all those numbers mean on my eyeglass prescription, a good bit of Spanish vocabulary related to vision. Still, my original goal has remained the most important source of learning: just to be there, to witness life in this place, to accept that I can be humbled utterly—speechless, skill-less, and clueless—and yet help.
Lucky you, a skeptic may say: you get to feel like a hero for a week and then leave the gritty reality of Honduras behind. That's true. Yet in my best moments I know that I'll be even luckier if it does not leave me.
Laura Barlament 01PhD is editor of Sewanee magazine at the University of the South.