Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Saying Goodbye

It’s my last night. The kids are all in my room, climbing over my bed and the mountain of clothes I still have to squeeze into a suitcase. Ally pulls a sweater off the pile and insists in putting it on. It hangs down almost to her ankles, and she runs around the room swinging the extra-long sleeves. Paolo is glued to Plants vs. Zombies on my phone. David is playing with the stuffed cat I had found hidden in my dresser in case I ever needed a last-minute gift. Tonight is my last minute.

“Hey kids, come see this” Hector, their dad, calls from the next room. Since the boys who used to rent the room moved out, it’s been the banana room, where my host family stores the hundred-pound bunches of fresh-cut bananas to sell in the downtown market. I run over behind the kids and see a mouse frozen on the window screen.

“They come down from the mountains in the bananas”, he says, “David, bring me a stick”.
The mouse is a chubby, soft thing with a fluffy tail like a gerbil. It darts down the wall and into a bunch of bananas, burrowing close to the stem. It has hidden in the bunch ever since it was cut from the stalk, holding on as it was hoisted into the back of a pick-up truck and driven two hours into the city, clinging tight even as Hector hoisted the bunches one by one onto his back and up the three flights of stairs.

“Ugly things,” Hector frowns, “They eat my bananas,” and points with his toe towards a mouse-sized bite.

David brings a broom handle and Hector rolls the bunch over until the mouse runs out, scurrying around the room. The kids cling to me and squeal as their dad chases it.

He catches it in a corner, not with one clean blow, but with a few sharp taps. It twitches for a second, then is still.  Hector picks it up by its tail with a piece of toilet paper and carries it down three flights of stairs to throw it out in the street.

“It was not so ugly,” David says, staring at the tiny spot of blood on the ground. “Not so very ugly.”

We go back to my room. The boys hug me – tackle me, so as to disguise the sentimentality. I promise to visit when I return to the country, promise to take them out to the movies.

“Or Aqua Splash?” Paolo asks hopefully. It’s the waterpark just outside of town and they pass it every time they drive to their cousin’s house.

“And Aqua Splash,” I say, already thinking ahead to the crowds and the sun and the cracked plastic slides. I kiss the boys on the tops of their heads and push them out of my room. It’s late. Ally’s already gone downstairs. She doesn’t know I’m leaving tomorrow.  

The next morning I squeeze the rest of my clothes into the suitcase.  I hear the clatter and murmur of the boys downstairs getting ready for school. I think about going down for one last hug, some meaningful words, but nothing I say would capture this last year, our games and heart-to-hearts, their jokes, that mouse on the window screen. I hear them leave.

It’s only Martha in the house when I come downstairs. I sit and wait for my ride. She smiles at me though her eyes are watery. “Allisson’s still asleep,” she says. “She won’t know why you’re gone.”

I know Ally will ask for me, like she would do when I left for a weekend or even a walk down the street. She would wait for me, face pressed to the window, until I walked down the steps, and squeal “Kat-ah!” grabbing my knees and pulling me to the dining room. “Num num num?” she would mime, with her hand at her mouth, asking me if I want to eat.

I know she’ll wait by the window for days before she realizes I’m not coming back.

But I will come back. On weekends – when I can. Ally will grab my knees and the boys will show off their new high score on Angry Birds. Martha will bring me a bowl of soup and Hector will offer me bananas,

It will never be quite the same. I won’t fit any more in the house or the family. I’ll check the time on my phone, say it’s time for me to be back.

Maybe I’ll ask to see my old room before I leave. I know already, it will be filled with bananas. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Impossible Invisibility of the Poor

The poor are many: that is why it is impossible to forget them,” wrote Roberto Sosa, a Honduran poet. Yet somehow, daily, we manage to do the impossible.

I am living in one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere where, according to the World Bank, 1/3rd of the people live in extreme poverty, 1/3rd in relative poverty, and only the final 1/3rd are not poor (a cut off made at only $15 per day).

Despite 2/3rds of Hondurans living in poverty, it is fully possible to spend a week or a month here without interacting with them. The city where I live parts neatly into “two Tegucigalpas” – in which 2/3rds of its residents ride public buses, buy their food in open markets, and buy their clothes used in the less-safe corners of the capital. The upper third, meanwhile, drive SUVs or sedans, buy their food in air conditioned supermarkets, and go shopping for clothes and household goods in enormous, brightly-lit malls.

In the evenings when 2/3rds of the country has returned home, the upper third goes to theaters, museums, and galleries where they only see each other. The poor do not live in their neighborhoods. They do not go to their churches. They do not work in their offices except perhaps as a sanitation worker or a security guard.

This is, of course, not a uniquely Honduran problem. Earlier this year, a resident of San Francisco (dubbed a “tech bro”) wrote an open letter to the mayor in which he wrote that he resented the way the worlds of the rich and the poor too often touched. He “shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day,” he wrote.

Though most are less publicly callous, few in the middle and upper classes in the States commonly share spaces with people who are poor. We live in an age of fast highways, comfortable vehicles, and air conditioned malls where it is entirely possible to screen ourselves from any vision of destitution. In this splitting world, those who can avoid the ugly side of poverty generally like to do so. A world without the marginalized feels more clean and comfortable, less complicated, less guilty.

Poverty is uncomfortable. It is often ugly. It smells bad. It is unglamorous and desperate and challenging. I could list dozens of examples. The bus is crowded and takes twice as long as a car. The open-air markets are chaotic, and they don’t sell peanut butter or oregano or the other familiar tastes. The man without shoes who badgers me on my way to church each Sunday holds his hand out and shouts, “Money!”, which does not endear him to me.

I live in a community in Honduras where the 1/3rd who are “not poor” would rarely find reason to enter. Water runs only twice per month. Sewers drain into the street and most people won’t walk outside after dark. This has allowed me to live alongside people in the middle third, those living in “relative poverty” – those who are getting by, but always on the edge. I live alongside these people, but not truly with them. On weekends, I go to parks or coffee shops, to the same museums and galleries of the rich. I am able to experience relative poverty only to the extent that I want to – after that, I buy the food I want to eat and go on my small vacations.

On the other hand, those living in extreme poverty, the 2.5+ million of them here, are invisible to me. They are the ones whose land is likely unregistered, whose identities even may be unregistered. They live tucked away in the hillsides eking out a living from cornfields and beans. They are sleeping on the streets in the city because there are no services for the homeless or mentally ill. They are children selling peanuts to cars at intersections or juggling wads of cloth lit on fire. Occasionally when I venture downtown I will notice their hands held out, but other times they blend into the background and I don’t see even that.

This is the real impossibility, not that it is impossible to forget the poor, but that it is all too easy to do so. The poor on this earth are many yet they are constantly forgotten, even though we live side by side.

This results in a city that doesn’t consider the needs of the poorest, even when they are “many,” when they outnumber those with means. Though there are always exceptions, most of the 2/3rds don’t vote. They don’t write petitions. They don’t run for office or go on the news. Those in power must go out of their way to incorporate them, which will always be a concession of some power, of some sense of decorum, of some desire for the easy, neat, and tidy.

But the alternative to this is a willful forgetfulness – privileging the comfort of the few over the rights of the many to be seen, to be engaged, to be acknowledged as neighbors. This is what we must call impossible. This is what we must not forget.

The Poor (translated)
by Roberto Sosa

The poor are many: that is why it is impossible to forget them

Without a doubt, in the dawn they glimpse building after building
Where they would like to make a home with their children

Their shoulders can bear the coffin of a star.
They can destroy the air like furious birds,
Covering the sun.

But not knowing these gifts, they enter and exit through mirrors of blood.
They walk slowly and are slow to die.
That is why it is impossible to forget them. 

Spending Money on Shoes

Almost daily, I feel the guilt of having resources in a place where so many do not. By some standards, I am living very simply, but I have enough money left over at the end of my necessities to buy myself name brand shampoo, coffee and treats, and trips to the beach.

When I make these purchases, my conscience tugs at me. The other day, I bought a pair of shoes for about $15, and immediately felt a wave of guilt. I had just read that 2/3rds of Hondurans live in poverty –  making less than $15 per day. I had one day’s wages in my hand and I chose to spend it, not on improving the lives of the poor, but on shoes, which I didn’t really need.

In the mall, I asked myself, Would this $15 I spent on a luxury have been better spent on the hungry? while also being very aware that I did not know where the hungry were or how best to feed them, when I knew very well where the mall was and how to buy shoes.

The uncomfortable reality is that for most of us, the poor and the marginalized are abstract concepts. We give to them through the filters of organizations, if at all. We talk about “the poor” without knowing who we are talking about, without knowing their names or their needs or their unique gifts. It feels impersonal to give to them, if vaguely altruistic. Faced with that or new shoes, it is much more satisfying to go with the shoes.

We may have grown up hearing the goading of, “Clean your plate, there are starving children in Africa,” while suspecting that whether we finished our peas or not had no causal connection to the empty stomachs of hungry children. Instead, statements like this planted in us a sort of useless guilt, I had better enjoy what I have, we tell ourselves, because other people aren’t so lucky. It is guilt without impulse, gratitude without responsibility. People return from missions trips overseas with these trite statements: “They had so little but were so happy – they made me realize how lucky I really am.”

The causality between our own actions and the lives of others is distorted and confused. I spend $1 on coffee, and I drink it immediately. I put $1 in the offering basket at church, and its influence is diluted throught the gifts of others, its evidence not immediately clear.

As much as I’ve spent my life in nonprofits, I’m still clumsy and uncertain about donating. It often feels abstract, my $20 only a drop in the pool. I may be passionate about the work done by organizations with million dollar budgets, but I can’t see the results of my donation in the same way I see shoes on my feet, an ice cream cone, or a plane flight home.

My guilt battles something more basic – a desire for psychological satisfaction. I want that thrill or warmth of buying a gift for a loved one who will appreciate it, for people grateful to me, for visible change. I want that rush of emotions that tell me, this good thing was caused by me. This selfishness or self-absorption battles with my better instincts, my memory of someone who once commanded “Sell all you have and give to the poor.” Not to the grateful. Not to the worthy. The impoverished – the poor. 

But I have student loans, Jesus. And my old work shoes were scuffed. I need this meal out with my friends for my own emotional well-being. And don’t direct hand-outs really just foster dependency? 

I want to give, is what I’m saying, Jesus. I just think maybe you’re asking too much. I already work for a nonprofit. I moved across the world. I buy dinner for my host family. I teach kids for free. Isn’t that enough, Jesus? Isn’t that enough?

I want to say we must make giving easier, more transparent, we must be able to see directly the results our money earns. Let’s make a website for it, let’s make an app. But perhaps that’s only falling to an impulse that wants to make helping others about our own satisfaction with ourselves.

Maybe instead the answer comes closer to knowing who the poor are, and understanding their needs. Joining with organizations that you trust, and giving in the faith that your outcome may take years. 

If I am in communities of need as often as I am in malls, I trust that the opportunities will present themselves. I hope that when they do, my wallet will open as impulsively, as readily, as it did for that pair of shoes.

Life as a Privileged Immigrant

I used to work with immigrants. Now I am one. The difference between our experience illustrates how much my privilege matters.

I am one of millions of people who crossed a border this year, only I had a choice. While life in this small Central American country has certainly not always been easy – I’ve been forced to adapt to a different language and culture, adapted to a different environment, and stood out as a visible minority – I count myself among the most privileged immigrants in the world.


To start with, I crossed my border effortlessly. I simply bought a plane ticket and filled out a tourist visa on the plane. In-country, before the visa expired, I applied for residency. It took a lawyer’s help, a few trips to immigration, and a little bit of money, but within four months I was a card-carrying legal resident. I had no interview, no review of my assets, no language or culture test. I simply signed a few forms, showed proof of sponsorship, and paid the accompanying fees. I have never lost sleep over my visa. I know they’ll renew my residency if I file the right paperwork. Though I’m visibly not from here, no one has ever questioned my legal status.

With my US passport, my freedom to travel is almost unbounded. In contrast, Hondurans who want to travel to the United States – even to visit family for a few days – must go through an onerous application and interview process where if they don’t have a job, own properties, or have a significant bank account, they’re likely to be denied. They lose the expensive application fee even if they’re denied. My friend said the line is tragic, full of people weeping, crushed by their refusal. I go into the embassy through a different door. People speak my language there, shake my hand firmly.


I am also privileged in how I am perceived. The foreignness of my accent is perceived not as a failure to speak good Spanish as much as proof that I speak English, and the suggestion that I am educated, well-connected, and wealthy. People automatically consider that I am here to teach or do some sort of humanitarian work – that my presence here is voluntary. It’s even in the language we use – I’m “visiting” Honduras, or “working” here, I didn’t immigrate. I am an “ex-pat”, not an immigrant.

When people see me, many greet me warmly. They are familiar with my country and curious about it. Some want to practice English with me. Some tell me my blonde hair and blue eyes are beautiful. Others tell me that I should be careful. People want to protect me.


My language also gives me enormous privilege. Despite Spanish being the first language of the majority of Hondurans, I can step into most rooms and expect that someone speaks my language. English has become the language of the educated, the international, the elite. Despite rampant unemployment, I would not lack for a job, even if my only skill were knowing nothing more than the language I was born with.

I speak only passable Spanish, and people are impressed with just that. Aside from a few rude people when I stumbled over the phone, most people are complementary and encouraging about my Spanish, thrilled that I speak any at all. No one has ever told me, “You’re in Honduras, speak Spanish.”

In my Spanish-speaking office, the office printer is nonetheless in my language. My laptop settings are in my language. Hollywood movies play in English, with subtitles. My shampoo bottle and spaghetti sauce can have English labels. If translations are added, they’re an afterthought.


I am privileged by the outsize influence of the country where I come from. The people in advertisements look like me. Even if I have to look a little harder for it, I can find familiar food in any major city, in any supermarket. I can open any newspaper and read detailed news about my country –  I can name cities, artists, or politicians and people will know what I am talking about (“Feeling the Bern?” a Honduran colleague asked me).

My embassy is enormously powerful here. One newspaper named the US ambassador one of the top 10 “people of the year”. He’s a household name, at least in political circles. Meanwhile I cannot name a single ambassador to the United States.


I will repeat that it is not easy for me to be here. It is hard to adjust to the rhythms of a new place. It is so hard to communicate in your second language. It is impossibly hard to be away from your family and loved ones.

And yet my experience is nothing like immigrants from other countries around the world. I think of undocumented immigrants who crossed borders out of desperation because they never would have been allowed across legally. I think of refugees who are chased across borders with little choice.

I think of the people whose accents earn them mockery, derision, and even violence. Of the classmate who was told her mother tongue, a tribal language, “didn’t count” as a real language because it didn’t show up on Google Translate. I think of people trapped in places where they are not understood, who are expected to communicate perfectly the moment they arrive.

I think of the way other immigrants are perceived – as interlopers, as criminals, as strangers, as outsiders. I think of the enormous courage it takes to bring your family to safety in a place where you are not necessarily even welcome.

The most valuable and powerful thing I own is this tiny blue booklet called a US passport, something I did not earn, but was given through the accident of birth. I don’t “deserve” to be perceived well and welcomed here, just as much as immigrants to the states do not deserve the anger and out-lash they too often confront.

I am speaking, even here, from a place of privilege. I see it as my responsibility to use this privilege to ensure that others have the same opportunities that I do.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Dark?

I stayed too late at the track and the sun turned off like it does here, all at once – at 6:30 it simply topples off the side of the earth. I started to walk home, long strides with my head down as if I could walk through the dark, as if I could outrun it.

I wasn’t afraid of the dark as a child. I never slept with a nightlight. Even now it’s not the twilight that I fear, but what is in it – just as I’m not afraid of high places, but of the thought of tumbling off of them.

That sickening kissing sound men make at me during the day hardly bothers me anymore, but at night it makes my heart pound. The sound of footsteps makes me hold my breath. I look for other people and for light. I don’t stay out late. I sleep behind a locked door until the dawn begins to trickle in.

Tegucigalpa can be a safe enough city if you know it well, if you stay in its bright, public places, and if you have a car to get around. I’ve been here eight months and have never been robbed or threatened. But I am always taking precautions. I hide money in my clothes, come home before dark, walk quickly and don’t meet strangers’ eyes.

Something happens when the sun sets. The streets become quiet. People return to their homes. The military police come out and stand watch under the flickering stoplights, young, bored-looking men with guns slung over their narrow shoulders. That little pinch of fear in your stomach. That tightness.

This was a fear I didn’t understand at first here. Nothing bad had ever happened to me, not really. The dark was just another shade of day.

I had to learn to fear; I had to be taught. Not the silly, fluttery fear of imaginations but the sturdier one of possibilities. Of Where are you going and when will you be home. Of Let’s cross the street here, right now. My adventurousness had to bend to reality.

The dark is something unignorable, more even for my neighbors than myself. They feel it breathing down their necks as they rush home from work. They go to bed early; it hovers over them.

What you can’t see could be anything. That’s who’s afraid of the dark – the people who don’t know what it’s hiding. The people with thinner walls or no walls, who can’t afford cars and alarm systems and private guards. The dark weighs down on them like eiderdown in summer. It feels hot and sour, like fear, like the memory of what happened to their neighbor, their daughter, themselves.

I feel something most acutely in this darkness – that violence is not an equal opportunity offender. It usually strikes the weakest, the closest to tumbling over the edge. It often strikes in the dark. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Six Months In

It’s been six whole months here, and you have yet to start your own nonprofit, write a prize-winning documentary, or pen an incisive think piece that makes it into the newsfeeds of all your Facebook friends.

Your victories are smaller. You know the names of the people in your office. You’ve (almost) mastered public transportation. You start to dream in your second language.

Absolutely nothing worthy of a bestselling memoir.

When they told you that international work is difficult, that it can years of work to see change, you wrote it down neatly in your notes, but it didn’t stick. You felt called to make a difference and sure that you could do it.

Now you’re here, in the type of job you always dreamed about. You feel lucky, you feel blessed, and sometimes you feel sick with guilt that you aren’t enjoying this more.

You didn’t really think it would be so hard.

Sure there are the moments you share with your friends and family over Skype: victories and friendships and glimpses of the divine in late-night prayer services, mountains, the kitchen when your host mom makes tortillas.

But after six months, the novelty of hand-washing clothes and bucket showers becomes tedious. You miss your family, macaroni and cheese, clean city parks and libraries, and knowing where to go to buy socks or hair conditioner.

Community doesn’t come ready-made, you’re learning, cross-cultural friendships can develop, but that they’re not always easy. You often find yourself feeling lonely.

You realize that relating to the poor and marginalized in another country is just as difficult as relating to the poor and marginalized in your home country – and you didn’t always do a very good job at that.

You’re still coming to terms with your comparative wealth and privilege, the language that you speak and the connections that you have, your education: weighing all of these against poverty that you see daily but feel helpless to change.

What you do seems like less than a drop in the bucket.

You trade messages with people working elsewhere, and they all seem to have it figured out. Their lives seem more glamorous and exciting than yours, they seem to have deeper and more meaningful connections with their communities, while you still don’t know the name of the woman sells gum and cigarettes on your street corner.

It’s been six months.

This sometimes seems like an eternity, but it’s barely any time at all. You are still stretching and adjusting to this new place.

You may have no publishable victories after just six months. The documentary will have to wait. The nonprofit start-up may need to go back to the drawing board. Because if a problem could be fixed in six months, it wouldn’t be worth you working on it.

You’re not here to save the world, you tell yourself. You’re not here because you’re a good person, though maybe you’re here because you’re a faithful person. Maybe you’re just here because you are a person, and you understand that this humanness owes attention to other humans’ needs.

And that’s what this six months has been about.

Before you can solve poverty, you have to understand poverty. Before you can love people transformationally, you have to know who they really are. After six months, you don’t quite understand. You don’t quite know. But you are closer. You listen better. Your humility has grown.

As you struggle with your identity when your humor and intelligence are dampened by a foreign language, you know you will never again judge anyone for an accent.

As you learn from brave and brilliant people who are transforming their own countries, you know you will never again think of a country’s people as helpless.

As you ask questions and make mistakes over and over again, you are gifted with forgiveness just as many times. And you begin to see God’s heart.

In these six months, you’ve been broken into pieces – from fear, loneliness, helplessness, shame – you are stronger now, and braver, and humbler by far, even if you haven’t really felt a change.

You’ve listened for six months, unable to speak.

You’ve followed for six months, not ready to lead.

You’ve set aside your own agenda – your insightful writing or heart-tugging documentary or award-winning nonprofit – and become a small part of what was already been happening before you came and what will continue to happen after you leave.

And this is where your work begins.

Playing Cards

We were playing cards and Paolo was winning when suddenly he looked up: “Hey, Katy, I owe you money,” he said.

“No you don’t,” I said, in Spanish, slapping a double seven and raking in the stack of cards. “What are you talking about?”

“Mom told me that the United States lent Honduras a whole lot of money and we never paid it back. So now every kid that’s born owes you lots and lots of money,” He laid another card. “Your turn!”

I couldn’t figure out how I wanted to respond. “You don’t have to worry about that,” I stammered, “You don’t owe me anything.”

I tried again, “A lot of that debt was cancelled and really a lot of the reason why Honduras is poor is the United States’ fault, so…” My Spanish isn’t good enough for complexities and nuances. Also I was forgetting that he was ten years old.

“I’ve only got eight pesos, though,” Paolo said chipperly, “So it will take a long time.” 

Ese Blanco Milionario

¿Ese blanco milionario, vas a votar por él? You going to vote for that white millionare?

My taxi driver can’t believe he’s for real: “He’s the one who hates Latinos, right?” he asked me, “But the States has a lot of Latinos, right?”

Yeah, I can’t figure it out either.

He showed up on TV here, dubbed in Spanish, saying something more inflammatory than newsworthy. (In Spanish his name sounds like troomp, such a strange and foreign collection of sounds).

I had just been talking with my 10-year-old host brother about his biology assignment, studying the inside of cells. We marveled at how, inside, we all have the same nuclei and Golgi apparati and all the other things I’ve forgotten the names of. We talked about the little quirk, melanin, that makes my skin so pale while his is canelito, as he describes it – cinnamon-colored.

He held his skinny, brown arm next to mine. “I don’t understand why people are racists,” he said. “We’re different colors and we get along just fine.”

I want him to keep thinking this – for racism to stick in his head as something incomprehensible. I don’t want him to hear that people a few countries north are afraid of children just like him and men like the man he’ll grow up to be.

And that guy, Trump?” people ask me. Try explaining the concept of a giant, unnecessary wall to the people who would be on the other side of it. “He’s the one who hates Latinos, right?” Remember that the influence of a political decision reaches beyond borders.

This election is about more than governance. We have to ask ourselves, whose voice do we want to represent ours? More than that, as a people, how do we want to be known?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning from the Little Ones

A few weeks before I arrived in Honduras, someone called me to tell me about the host family I would be staying with. They had three children, they told me, Paolo is 10, Hector is 7, and Allisson, who has Down’s syndrome, is 4.

That’s how they said it: “Allisson, she has Down’s syndrome, is 4.”

In-country, others told me about my family too, and the medical condition always hung there in a footnote: “and the little girl has Down’s syndrome.” I didn’t know much about the condition, and wondered what it would be like to live with her. I didn’t know what to expect.

What I found was that it didn’t take long to look past the footnote that always followed her name – to fall in love not with Allisson-who-has-Down’s-syndrome but with Allisson, who, when I come home, drops her toys and shouts my name, “Ka-TAH!” running towards me for a hug,

Allisson, the copy-cat, the queen of the house, who doesn’t say many words but understands almost everything, who struts and preens and throws tantrums, who cuddles and kisses and dances with her face lifted to the sky in pure joy,

Allisson, who walks through the living room with an empty pringles can on top of her head, like the ladies at the market who balance baskets full of vegetables, “Papa papa papa,” she babbles, “potatoes potatoes potatoes,” and we give her imaginary money and she puts it into her pockets,

Allisson, sassy and persistent, who digs her fingers in my purse when I leave it out, looking for the 2-lempira bills that are enough to buy a packet of her favorite chips, who will grab the bills and show them to me, then point to herself, cocking her head in a question – Can I have it?

Allisson, who can sometimes be maddening, who gets frustrated that we don’t understand her, or that we won’t let her do what her brothers do, who screams loud enough to shake the house and can’t be trusted with a crayon without eating it,

Allisson, whose tantrums fade away as quickly as they start, and who snuggles beside me to stroke my hair, trying her best to smooth it into a ponytail and humming the low, tuneless melody that means she’s completely satisfied.

Allisson the princess in pink plastic glasses, the glue of the family, who can read anger or sadness with remarkable astuteness and knows just what to do to fix it.

One day Hector was misbehaving and his grandmother reached for the ruler. She was shouting and he was crying and Allisson left her toys to squeeze herself between her brother and her grandmother. She held Hector’s face between her little hands. “Shh,” she told him, then looked back at her grandmother, “Da da da,” she said in a scolding tone, shaking her finger, and kept stroking her brother’s face as he quieted down. “No ‘buela,” she said, “No, grandma.” Her grandmother’s voice softened. She spoke sternly, but gently to Hector, and the ruler fell to the side of the couch, forgotten.

She keeps me company in my room sometimes, coloring with a pencil that won’t break if she bites it, and I talk to her. I think I need to sweep in here, I tell her, and she slides off the bed, goes downstairs, and comes back three minutes later dragging the broom and dustpan. She loves to help, and beams when you thank her. Sometimes she cries when I carry my own plate to the sink.

There are things that Allisson will never be able to do. Allisson-with-Down-Syndrome may never bring home the good grades that her brothers earn, learn English like her cousins, or run a business like her mother and father. But Allisson, just Allisson, can still do so much. She amazes me with her gentleness and her silliness and her sassiness and imagination. She makes us laugh and she keeps us from crying. She can already do more than some people said she’d ever do, and she’s learning more every day.

How much do we miss when we see people like Allisson for who they’re not and not for who they are? Does the world really need more brilliant minds, or does it need more kind ones? Does it need more expertise, or does it need more faithfulness? There’s a lot that I’m learning, for example, that only this four-year-old could teach me. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Do We Mean, “Normal”?

Tegucigalpa, Honduras 
A few weeks ago a volunteer from the United States was telling me how much Tegucigalpa had challenged her expectations.

“I expected there to be poverty and all the bad things you hear about,” she said, “But there's malls here and TGI Friday’s – it’s actually pretty normal!”

“Normal”, of course, was a short-hand for “familiar." But I knew, and sympathized with what she was trying to say. Realizing that Hondurans eat at TGI Friday’s, that they take their kids to karate class, watch Netflix, and snap Instagram shots of their latte art, makes Honduras feel a lot less foreign.

A few weekends ago, I went to a friend’s house and we cooked pasta with pesto and an apple pie. I went and saw a Hollywood movie (in English, with Spanish subtitles) in this mall, then I went out with friends to a tea shop and sipped lemongrass tea while we talked about books we’d recently read.

To me this felt normal, by which I mean familiar. Not all my weekends are like this, but the familiarity was comfortable and rejuvenating. And I realized this – I can create a life for myself here in Honduras that feels familiar. But there was nothing about that weekend that was normal.

I live in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where half of all residents are still rural farmers, and where the GDP per capita is about $6/day. Over 60% of Hondurans live in poverty, and 60% of these poorest Hondurans will have dropped out of school by age 12.  

This isn’t just Honduras. Something like 80% of the world lives on less than $10/day. Poverty is normal. The threat of diseases like malaria, dengue, HIV-AIDS is still normal. Gender inequality, racial discrimination, violent armed conflict – these things are still all too normal.

TGI Fridays is not normal.

It’s only natural to feel more comfortable in places that look familiar, or to connect more with people who share your background, your interests, and your outlook on life. But to see these things as the norm is dangerous. When we have the idea that “normal” means “like us”, that means that those who are different are somehow “abnormal”, and, thus, that they should change.

This is sneaky rhetoric. It happens in the United States when the goal for immigrants or ethnic minorities is “assimilation,” which often secretly means, “act, talk, and think ‘normal’,” which often means, “act, talk, and think like the white, male people in power.”

Acting “normal” becomes the test for which the reward is professional advancement, integration into social groups, and the constant murmur of, “why can’t the rest of them be like you.”

But a world in which all think, speak, and act alike is no world I want to live in.

It’s easy to come to Honduras and connect with people who are like me, friends who grew up on the same U.S. media, graduated college, and enjoy travel and hiking and coffee shops. It’s harder to connect with the girl in my neighborhood who dropped out of school at 15 to have her first child, who makes what living she can selling gum and newspapers by the bus station, and who’s too tired to have many hobbies.

It’s harder, but there’s more to learn in that friendship than in people who reinforce what I already think and know. We have a problem in our world where powerful people know and interact only with other powerful people, and view those with less education, fewer connections, less experience as less interesting, less worthy of attention, less normal.

Until we know and care for people who aren’t like us, we can’t be their advocates and they can’t be ours. We can’t start the work of reconciliation across culture or class or position. We’ll keep thinking “their” underprivileged position is because they aren’t enough like “us.”

It’s not that I shouldn’t enjoy lemongrass tea with friends when I am in a position to do so. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with karate or Netflix or Instagram. But it’s important to recognize how rare and unusual these privileges are where I am – and how rich lives can be even when they don’t contain them.

This is a challenge to myself to redefine normal and stretch my boundaries of the familiar, to appreciate the wealth of differences this world hosts, and accept humbly that I’m not normal, not remotely, and that that’s okay.  

Take Care

I fell down. It doesn’t matter how, but I ended up with two skinned knees and a patch scraped off my forearm. Embarrassing. Grimacing and feeling the tingly sting I hadn’t felt since I was young enough to run on gravel.

Even cool, clean water stung at first. The angry red patches clung tightly to the bits of dirt and I had to pour and pour until the wound dripped clean. I had a raisin-purple bruise beneath.

They gave me the day off on Monday. Rest! Get better! I stared at my joints so swollen they looked like foreign things. They were like children, crying out to be bathed and cared for. When I tried to run, I shuffled. Stubborn, the knees wouldn’t bend.

They are tiny little scrapes, really, the kind children are distracted from by popsicles. But they demand my attention, my care, and I realize how unaccustomed I am to caring for myself. Someone else always had to tell me to go home when I was sniffling. I don’t like to stop.

I get pitying glances, on the bus and in line to buy band-aids. There were gasps and hands clasped against chests. Everyone told me to buy a different cream that they swore by. They were just little scratches, a moment of clumsiness, I was embarrassed by the attention. It’s nothing, I kept saying, It’s no problem, though it stung to stand.

Cuídete! They tell me here when I leave in the morning, Take care of yourself. I think of myself, as any selfish human, but that doesn’t become care, the gentle attuned-ness to needs and inclinations.

My knees woke me up in the morning, the drying scabs pricking. How disgusting. I scooped a pailful of water from the cistern and bathed them. The red was hardening and turning a brown-maroon. I sat in bed and cleaned my knees and forearm, watched the puckered pink skin begin to emerge. I’m not used to this conversation, this asking and answering with my body: What do you need? What will make you feel better? It was a moment that surprised me – the peacefulness of self-care.

What a silly and sheepish emotion, to suddenly love my knees and care very much about what happens to them. What if this love extended to the rest of me, the parts that cry out for sleep or for vegetables, for slowing down sometimes? From my knees to the rest of me, I want to take care. 

Encounters with Geckos

It is the hour of the morning where everyone starts to stir. I hear pots clattering, the hiss of oil in a hot pan, water splashing, and the girls downstairs singing along with Christian radio. I am in the shower, splashing water on my face, and before I’ve quite woken up I turn for shampoo and grab at a gecko, nearly transluscent, skittering down the shower door.

Blinking from the water and steam, it pauses, in the wrong place, waiting for me to act. I don’t scream, but my heart beats, remembering suddenly its stiff, tailless brother that I found beneath the hummus in the gas station.

I screamed then. It had been late, and unexpected, its flattened body pressed against the refrigerated shelf. The security guard had ambled over, pistol on his hip. He picked it up. He shook it a little in my face laughing at me, with me, whose heart still pounded, before he went to toss it in the bushes outside.

“Was it a cricket?” the cashier asked me – un grillo. I was buying chips and chocolates. It had been a long night.

“No,” I said, though they make similar hiccuping sounds. At night I hear the geckos clicking, and sometimes see them skittering across my ceiling, swift and fluorescent, but I couldn’t remember the word for “lizard” so I said it was a ranita con una cola, a “little frog with a tail”,  before I remembered the dark scab where its tail had been.

Geco, she said, unsurprised, “Yes, they’re always getting in where they don’t belong.”

I opened the shower door a crack and waited. It fled to the cool air outside, leaving me looking at its tiny prints on the door.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Biking Coast to Coast for Education

Orar. Soñar. Trabajar. Pray. Dream. Work.
– motto of Transformemos Honduras

Photos courtesy Transformemos Honduras and Costa a Costa:
“Six years ago, we had a crazy idea,” says Kurt Ver Beek, vice president of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ, by its Spanish initials). It’s true, the goal of a cross-country bike race to raise awareness about corruption in public education was ambitious, even a little crazy, but no less so than the idea to reform the education system in the first place. Crazy ideas – converted into system-changing realities – are the cornerstone of ASJ’s work.

ASJ, through the coalition “Transformemos Honduras” (Let’s Transform Honduras), began working in the public health sector and the public education sector in 2009. When Transformemos Honduras started working with education, there were fewer than 120 days of class per year (students met just 88 days in 2009), teachers showed up to class sporadically, or not at all, and Honduras’ test scores ranked dead last in Latin America, a place they had kept since 2000.

Transformemos Honduras got to work recording days in class and teachers in classrooms, bringing their shocking findings before the government, the media, and the Honduran public. Parents and community members became active volunteers, the Minister of Education was fired, and education in Honduras began to change. After just five years, days in class had jumped from an average of 120 to 200, teachers skipping class dropped from 26% to 1%, and test scores jumped from last place in Latin America to 10th out of 15th.

The other crazy idea, the cross-country bike ride called “Coast to Coast”, continued to grow as well. The logistics of the race are daunting: 437 kilometers, eight cities in seven days, over 150 cyclists, and 35 volunteers including police escorts, bus drivers, and coordinators of everything from lodging to snacks. But that hasn’t kept it from becoming an important advocacy tool and a beloved tradition, drawing attendees from all regions in Honduras and from countries around the world.

At each of the eight cities they pass through, the cyclists stop for an event in the city center to honor five public school students for academic excellence. The children smile shyly as mayors place medals over their heads, and even wider as prizes of bicycles and tablets are revealed. Transformemos Honduras leaders like Carlos Hernandez, ASJ’s president, speak about taking action against corruption in the education system. Parents cry; teachers and principles beam. Public officials speak about hope.

“There’s a lot more to be done,” says Carlos Hernandez, “But we also need to recognize how far we have come.”

Carlos Hernandez, president of ASJ, stands with Oscar Chicas, 
World Vision’s national director for Honduras.

Coast to Coast is a perfect demonstration of ASJ’s ability to bring people together. Private business donate money and prizes, city governments offer spaces– bikers are students and mechanics and doctors, nonprofit workers and international visitors.

In a country where bad news is the norm, the week-long race speaks to hope for a better future. Bikers cross landscapes of incredible beauty, almost as beautiful as children with big dreams and the parents, teachers, and public administrators whose passions for education are making those dreams possible. Cyclists push themselves to their limits and past them. Friendships develop across cultures as all push together towards the same goal – better education for Honduran children

From the tropical beaches of Tela to the bustling urban center of San Pedro Sula, from the breathtaking Lago Yojoa to the capital city of Tegucigalpa, cyclists celebrate the good work of Transformemos Honduras and challenge people across Honduras to join in continuing it. By the time they reached the port city of San Lorenzo in the south, where the air smells like fish and sea salt and the sun burns hot enough to leave tan lines around hats and sunglasses, everyone is exhausted, but inspired – ready to get to work.

“Sometimes as Christians, all we do is pray that things will change,” Carlos Hernandez told the audience in Siguatepeque as skinny boys leaned against BMX bikes waiting for their turn to show off their tricks. “We have to do more than that. We have to dream that things can actually be better. And then we have to work.”

And people listened, from newspaper reporters to city commissioners, from the fastest biker to the tiny second-grader who is one of the best students in her city.

“Education is not just the work of these students here, and not just of their teachers, their principals, or even their parents,” Hernandez continued. “Education is the work of every one of us here, because that is how we are going to transform Honduras.”

Award-winning students pose with the winners of that 
day's bicycle race from Tela to El Progreso, Honduras

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Good Morning, Teacher

I constantly have moments here where I step back and think, How did I get here?

I had one of those a few weekends ago, leading 18 children off a public bus and into a movie theater, remembering acutely the aphorism about herding cats.

The U.S. Embassy had rented out a theater playing Star Wars in 3D, and our English classroom from Nueva Suyapa had ended up on the list of invites. The Embassy is always throwing cultural events, but for my 18 kids, it was their first time in a theater, and they were going wild.

Maybe I need to back up and explain how these children became mine in the first place.

ASJ holds Youth Impact clubs in communities where children are at the highest risk of joining gangs. One of those communities is my own, and the club is just a block from my house. I stopped in one day and mentioned casually I’d love to volunteer teaching English or whatever they needed.

“Can you start Saturday?,” they asked.

They needed an English teacher for their Saturday morning classes, 8am to noon. Just a dozen or so kids (there were 25). Ages 10-15 (youngest was 8, oldest, 19). Intermediate level (mostly beginners). Of course we have curriculum (not for beginners).

I said yes.

I love teaching, though I’ve never really learned how to do it correctly. I get excited about the things I know and I want others to know them to. I taught English through college, though never to children, but I wondered how different it could be.

It’s pretty different.

“Good morning teacher,” my students chirped at me on the first day. It’s the first thing they learn in school, this little song to the tune of Frere Jacque: Good morning, Teacher, Good morning, Teacher, How are you? How are you?.

It seemed like the line of students just kept coming. They filled all the desks in the classroom until newcomers had to sit on plastic stools with their notebooks in their laps. The students ranged from sweet, dimpled Esteban who has only just turned 9 to shy, self-conscious Ingrid at 19. They range from chatty 15-year-old Edgardo who writes stories about karate masters, to 12-year-old Yosmeli who smiles through the class without understanding much of anything. Teaching them is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I sped through my carefully-arranged lesson plan in half the time the first Saturday morning, the last few minutes pulling desperately from whatever songs and games I could think of. It was too early to conjugate verbs, so we played “Simon Says” and “Fruit Basket,” sang “Father Abraham,” “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” We learned lists of animals and wrote little stories and the clock ran slowly until finally it was noon.

I took the volunteer job on a whim, but for the children, English is much more important. Honduras’ economy is so tied into that of the United States that English is almost required of many higher-level jobs. English opens up jobs in tourism, the possibility of studying abroad – worlds that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

I know how much hope these childrens’ parents have for them, how proud they are of the few sentences their children are already able to pronounce. Good morning, teacher. How are you?

I try to make English fun and practical and relevant to their lives. I try to recall the few Paolo Freire articles I read, that one class I took on Teaching Grammar to Speakers of English as a Second Language, and it’s not enough, I feel like I’m talking to the wall, to myself, as the children shift in their seats, confused and bored, until suddenly I stumble into the right thing to say and they laugh.

At the movie theater, they slipped the glasses over their eyes and wriggled in their seats as the opening sequence of Star Wars rolled. Whoever in the embassy thought it was a good idea to give everyone a free, large, sugarry pop was clearly not thinking of the chaperones.

They gasped as the story began, reached their hands out and try to touch the ships that seemed to jut out of the screen. I watched their wonder and it was wonderful.

Thank you, teacher, they said as we left, one by one, and I melted a little bit. "Teacher" is a role I didn’t expect and a role I’m still learning to fill. But this group of kids makes me want to try harder to earn it.

Confessions of an Ungenerous Person

Christ of Picacho, visible from Tegucigalpa's Central Park
Tegucigalpa’s center is muted; it shines beneath a layer of dust and candy wrappers. Walking entrepreneurs shout their wares and it’s a haze of sound, of movement, of dust and the exhaust of cars and buses.

It was too early for church that Sunday, so I bought coffee and bread spread with refried beans and sat in the park to eat it. Even on Sunday morning, Tegucigalpa’s city center bustles with people. Families dressed in their best trickle in and out of the great cathedral, women assemble tables of bracelets or hair bands to sell, groups of children wander around the ancient trees that guard the center’s corners, pointing to the great bronze statue of Francisco Morazán.

I got up again and pushed through the crowd to the quieter street that leads to my little church, unmarked and tucked behind a wall whose graffiti tells the president to “get out”. I know the way by now, past the second-hand store and the history museum. I stepped off the curb to avoid the man passed out on the sidewalk, and walked quickly past the men without legs and women without teeth who held their hands out.

Two lempiras!” one woman shouted at me as I passed her, and I shook my head as I clutched the breakfast that had cost me fifty. I always shake my head at beggars, but this time was different. I kept walking, but I felt suddenly as if I was carrying a great weight. I slunk into church like a sinner and sat in the back pew. All I could see was her hand reaching out, again and again. I had not even looked at her face.

This is my confession: I am stingy with money. Tight-fisted. Un-generous. And until I passed Christ on the street without looking at her face, until I realized how much more I spend on coffee than on others, I did not see it as a particularly troublesome thing.

In Honduran Spanish, to show that someone is tacaño, you tap your palm against your elbow. You’re stingy, it means, selfish with your money. Because of this, you can call somebody codo, or “elbow”, to the same effect. It's an insult, whereas I'm used to thinking of this stinginess as "smart."

Even churches teach this: be wise with your money. We hear this as “stocks”, the wisdom of the world. We praise thriftiness, even while we admire extravagance. Though we use our money foolishly, we don't trust others to use it any better than ourselves. In our thrift or our codo, that becomes an excuse not to give -- They would only waste it. 

Giving well is difficult. I studied nonprofits in college, and quickly learned that none are perfect. There seemed always to be a better, more effective, more efficient option. I heard speeches, I wrote papers, I volunteered time, but my money stayed in my pockets and my bank accounts for my own needs and the things I convinced myself I needed.

In 2013, I visited Compassion and World Vision child-sponsorship projects. Linking donors with a sponsored child is a massively expensive endeavor, and I left the project thinking that though the work was worthwhile, I wouldn’t personally sponsor a child. Better to give to the programs directly, of course, but I never did, and the children’s sponsors checks continued to come.

(Is it better to give wastefully than not at all?)

Giving is complicated. I say no when children ask for money because as long as they are profitable they will be kept in the streets, out of school. I say no when adults ask for money, I don’t know why – maybe I decided it was too hard to decide case by case, it was easier to say no always. I didn’t want to give badly, I told myself, but no, the truth was that I didn’t want to give – even two lempiras, which is less than ten cents and buys nothing more here than a one-liter bag of clean water.

I made myself believe that not giving wastefully somehow made up for the fact that I was barely giving at all. I knew too much about dependency, had heard too much about abuse. It was too hard to decide so I decided to do nothing, until the day I had enough for a coffee and not enough for the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked I had passed every day without looking at them.

Here is what my eyes are opening to: giving is not as much about money as it is about recognizing someone else's need. Giving two lempiras can become as much pressing your hand against an "untouchable" hand as it is about what the lempiras will buy. Giving is a human response to human need, and in stinginess I deny not only others' humanity, but my own.  

Generosity is a muscle, and this year I want to exercise it. I work at an organization that is able to run because of people who give. I am able to do this work because people gave to me. It is time to let myself make mistakes in giving, to have people waste my money and yet to give again. 

I want, of course, to give wisely. I want to give in ways that help, not hurt. But I am done being paralyzed by too many imperfect decisions, letting complications make the non-decision that my selfish self already wanted to make.

It is time to walk to church in Tegucigalpa as Jesus would walk to church. Generously. At the very least, looking into the eyes of the people who ask.