Monday, August 31, 2015

From the Safe Side of the Window

The three of us landed in the tiny San Pedro Sula airport and were greeted with hugs and bananas by the local MCC staff. We took our bags out to the MCC car and were hit immediately with a wall of heat and humidity. This wasn’t the U.S. Midwest anymore: palm trees jutted up in every direction; within seconds our arms and faces shined with sweat.

We looked out of the windows of the car as we approached the city, staring at the unpredictable clusters of Pizza Huts and pulperías, traditional homes and towering malls. Mountains loomed over us, and on the nearest one in letters big like the Hollywood sign, I could just make out – Coca Cola. I was back in Honduras.

Ben, a social work grad from Kansas, will stay on in San Pedro Sula to work in the bordos, neighborhoods perched on riversides that are particularly prone to instability and violence. Jesse, from Indiana, will go to La Ceiba on the north coast to work teaching peace and conflict resolution in schools. And soon I will head south to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to work with AJS. But this week, we’re in training together, exploring San Pedro Sula.

It’s hard to know how to talk about this city. If you type it into Google, you’ll see article after article condemning it as the “most dangerous city in the world,” with more murders per capita than any other city, in the country with more murders per capita than any other country in the world.

These numbers aren’t false, but the story they tell isn’t entirely true either. As we’ve walked the city this week, reacquainting ourselves with public transportation, delicious street food, and colorful markets, we’ve been cautious, but we’ve been safe. The violence in the city comes primarily from the gangs, who do not target foreigners.

In all frankness, San Pedro Sula is a dangerous city. But it is not so dangerous for me. The truth is, as a white U.S. citizen hosted by an organization that knows the context and area well, as someone with access to a safe house, a car, and money enough to meet any of my needs – I’m not facing any big risk to be here.

Of course we take different cautions here. When the sun sets around 6pm, we don’t walk outside. We’re learning to be watchful and not to carry anything we’re afraid to lose. But on the other hand, despite the precautions we take, we’re looking out at this city from the safe side of the window, an option that many of our neighbors don’t have.

The city we look out at is a beautiful city, busy with a different sort of busyness than I am used to. In the markets, you can hear five different songs playing at once, the bass beat thumping as vendors shout out their wares. You can smell a dozen things at once, from chicken grilling to ripened fruit. You can see children running after each other in the street, bright fabrics, shiny packages of chips.

As we’ve gone through safety manuals and conduct codes, had passports stamped and plans arranged, we’ve had time to live in the busyness and color of the city. We’re all crowded into the house of the country representatives Ilona and Matthieu, a lovely couple from Switzerland whose conversations drift effortlessly between German and English and Spanish. The two, along with Emily, our coordinator, have taken us to church and traditional restaurants, on mountain hikes and even to a perfect production of Arsenic and Old Lace by San Pedro Sula’s own theater company.

Through all this it’s clear, even as I accustom myself to locked gates and barred windows, that the statistics about San Pedro Sula aren’t about me. They’re about the people living in the bordos who have no choice but to live in the middle of violence, about the homeless who have nowhere to go but the streets at night, about children who have turned to gangs as the only family they have ever known.

Of course safety is a high priority and I’ll continue to be careful. But I want to do this remembering the people on the outside of the window, people for whom statistics are faces, not numbers. These are the people AJS fights to protect and defend; they are the reason I’m here.

Ben and Jesse and I are off to our Spanish courses tomorrow, and tonight will be my last night in San Pedro Sula for a long time. I’m thrilled and giddy to be back, but also sobered at the realization that my reality is still so different from those around me.

Here’s to a future in Honduras where security is not determined by wealth or means, and where safety is an assumption, not a luxury.

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