August 28, 2000
Volume 53, No. 1
Honduras: The quest to 'rebuild'
David Bray is a senior majoring in computer science and biology. He took his trip to Honduras in May 1999.
Arrival in Honduras had all the familiar sensations of a mission trip. Our immigration began with glimpses of a wonderful stretch of azure ocean embracing a lush jungle coastline, which revealed mountainous peaks and folds within the heartland. There were signs of developing industrialization (and its consequences), revealed by polka-dotted plumes of smoke and a growing haze of soot as we neared the capital of Tegucigalpa.
Suddenly the sea of green beneath our plane surrendered, relinquishing its color to millions of gray and tan tiles: rooftops. As if we had passed through some silent boundary, nowhere for miles was a free plot of land or available piece of real estate. Sandwiched together inches apart were hundreds of thousands of human abodes. Like icing covering a funnel cake, the homes held fast to the 60-degree-grades around the city.
Dusting the edge of Tegucigalpa's mountainous perimeter, our small plane began a beeline to the hole of the funnel cake. It was a rapid and somewhat shaky descent onto an abruptly beginning runway; I was wondering if we weren't going to land on a home or two. Off the plane, toward the pulled-up stairs, through customs with nothing to declare and the exodus from Americana was complete-or so I thought.
Smiles in foreign countries often seem more genuine than those exchanged here in the United States. I discovered this after being fortunate enough to travel to several countries in my early life on expeditions and mission trips. A relentless pursuit of those smiles has brought me back on further projects, and it is why I believe it's more fun to lose one's identity in a foreign country than to find it amongst pressures here at home.
Thus, it was with some disappointment that-after the pattern of greetings, orienteering and loading of the van to head to the worksite-I was greeted by a series of all-too-recognizable images: corporate logos. Minutes from the rustic yet charming airport were signs screaming for Domino's Pizza, Wendy's and Burger King.
Images of the Americana I thought I had fled were here in Honduras. They had invaded a land devastated by Hurricane Mitch; a country in which more than half of its people were unemployed because of damaged agricultural lands and whose economy had been set back an estimated 20 to 30 years. There, reflected in a mud puddle, were the monolithic arches of a McDonald's and an ad in Spanish for "Biggie fries" to the tune of 30 pesos-about half the weekly salary of an average Honduran. I mentally shrieked in protest.
We were a small group of about a dozen from Emory, traveling on a "Journey of Reconciliation" to Tegucigalpa where we hoped to work side by side with the Honduran people in rebuilding their infrastructure following the recent destruction. Ours was a conscious effort not to fall into the typically industrialized mentality of paternalism toward a developing nation. Rather the goal was to empower local citizens to tell us what they needed and how we could best help. We would be serving where they called us to assist.
During our time in Honduras, we formed a cohesive group, bonding not only with each other but also with the locals who instructed and helped us construct a stone foundation for a new church. Stone itself proved to be rather cumbersome to work with in Tegucigalpa, a city where the incline is never less than 25 degrees. Surrounded by mountains as if it were in the center of a great mixing bowl, it is this physical geometry that magnified the damage Hurricane Mitch did to the city.
On the night of Oct. 31, 1998, floodwaters from both the torrents of more than five days' rain and the released city dam washed away thousands of homes in a matter of seconds. It was all families could do to escape with their lives, let alone salvage any personal belongings, as all they owned was lost in landslides.
Our team was in Tegucigalpa roughly six months after the disaster. International attention and concern had long since disappeared, but the severity of the national crisis was just as prevalent. Coordinated by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the division of volunteer labor included three or four people to hand-mix cement at the base of the cliff, two to choose and split rocks into "smaller" (still requiring a wheelbarrow to move) pieces, another couple to wheel cement and rocks up the cliff, and three more to lay the rocks and cement to build the foundation.
At the worksite, we were working near the main sewage ravine, in which most Hondurans dumped their trash and raw sewage. Running water had yet to be restored to more than 80 percent of the capital's 2 million residents. Frequently a herd of livestock-horses, pigs, cows-would interrupt our work, and we would have to wait for the supply chain of rocks and cement to clear before resuming.
Oddly enough, electricity was up and running. Odder still, the family in a house adjacent to the worksite, a house which barely had a roof over its two rooms and lacked a toilet or sink, had a Sony stereo. Tunes, some of them recognizable, penetrated the heat of the days as we worked. I could only wonder about the mixed-up priorities of "luxury" and "essential" items.
In a way, our work with the Journey of Reconciliation was at best symbolic. To make any real impact in Honduras, we would have to have stayed at least six months or a year and would have needed several hundred more volunteers. Yet perhaps, in some small way, we were trying to build not just a physical foundation but also a symbolic one with the Hondurans, one of a common humanity.
Several times I mentally photographed those genuine smiles that came at moments when we recognized our similarities, our shared strengths and weaknesses. For a moment in time, we were people, without boundaries or nations, with a shared mission to help each other.
In retrospect, however, with more than a year since my journey to Honduras, I have been unable to shake those initial images of a different foundation being laid in that nation. Though our team has left, next to the airport logos of McDonald's and Domino's Pizza remain, and
I cannot help but wonder if this-not volunteering or assistance-is what
will remain as the United States' representative.