Lauren's Peace Corps Experience in Honduras

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed and experiences described in this travelogue are mine personally. Nothing written here should be interpreted as official or unofficial Peace Corps literature or as sanctioned by the Peace Corps or the U.S. government. I have chosen to write about my experience online in order to update family and friends; I am earning no money whatsoever from this endeavor. Please do not copy or forward any of these contents without my permission.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Dad´s Visit to Honduras in March

Here is a blog entry written by my dad about his visit a couple weeks ago! Enjoy...

Honduras Travelogue, by Lauren's Dad

OK, no more procrastination!!! Here are the highlights of my 11-day visit to Dulce Nombre and elsewhere last month.
Unlike last year, the planes ran on time and I made it to San Pedro Sula without losing a day. And there to meet me was my lovely daughter. Who could ask for more?
Instead of a practical car for Honduras roads like an SUV, we rented a Chevrolet Corsa subcompact which hit bottom every time we went over a rock or hump. Miraculously, we didn't lose our muffler, but did need to have an auto body shop touch up some scratches before we could return the car.
Driving to Dulce Nombre, I found the countryside more beautiful than I had remembered it, especially the brilliantly green hills and mountains you see on finally entering the Lauren's town. It was supposed to be the warm season, but we were fortunate to have unseasonably comfortable weather the whole trip. That night and almost every other night we had a delicious Honduran dinner at Vita's house with corn tortillas, home made salsa, beans, chicken, plantains, coffee and some other foods I can't remember.
If Lauren was trying to impress me, it really worked because the next day had a packed schedule. We went to the temporary library to deliver the DVDs donated by girl scout troop 205, which were very much appreciated by the kids and librarian. Then we met Glen Evans, who had brought a cornucopia of treasures with him in his SUV. He had a sewing machine to be used to alter a bunch of donated clothes he had brought earlier, a computer, and some children's shoes (which are a mandatory for any child wishing to attend school). Next, we went with Glen to the Profe's house for coffee and to discuss Glen's different projects in Honduras. Glen is an inspiration, first devoting his life to helping immigrants in Northern Virginia, then later making regular trips to Honduras to help their families and other needy people in the country. His strategy for helping Hondurans consists of supporting local artists and small businesses with seed money and then finding a market for their goods in Honduras or the US. He had paid a Honduras shoemaker to produce the children's shoes he brought. After using the sewing machine to alter the clothes he brought, the clothes will be sold to fund other projects. We all had a great far-ranging discussing of how to tackle the peoples' most pressing problems.
The next day Lauren and I walked to Oromilaca to help build 2 stoves there and thereby to teach a new group of women how this is done. Oromilaca is 2 hours away by foot, with some steep climbs up and down. The walk took us past some beautiful mountain views and we crossed a pretty river on a footbridge. We went with Reina and Leti, 2 women whom Lauren had helped to build stoves previously in their own homes. I had thought that Dulce Nombre was small, with all dirt roads and only one cobblestone road. However, we walked through progressively smaller villages before reaching Oromilaca, which has only deeply rutted paths between a couple of dozen adobe brick huts. A few months ago, the hamlet was cut off, when the only road to the outside world was buried by a landslide. Now the only way in or out is by foot or on horseback.
Lauren supervised the stove building in one of the homes, while Reina and Leti supervised building the other stove. The husband in each home had already built platform of bricks sealed together with adobe. The husbands then kept preparing more adobe from mud in the yard to keep the women builders supplied while the women did the rest of the building. Lauren made sure that all the women she was working with dug in and got their hands dirty. After about 2 hours both stoves were finished and the new owners were extremely pleased. One of the women fixed us a nice lunch and loaned us the family's horse for Lauren and me to take turns riding home.
Before we left, Lauren asked if anyone wanted to see the doctor, and soon there was a small crowd. Fortunately, I had Lauren to translate. The main complaint of the children I saw was chronic chest congestion and cough, which turned out to be asthma in every instance. Many of these cases probably would never have developed, had the families had proper stoves to direct smoke outside of their homes. None of the children had ever been diagnosed correctly or given an inhaler. Several of the women had been prescribed medicines for various problems, whereas their real trouble was anxiety. After a few patients, Lauren knew the whole spiels about asthma and anxiety, so I could just tell her to give the spiel and she was off and running.
Later, I checked Leti's father who had been prescribed several breathing medicines for his shortness of breath. True, he always was getting short of breath after walking 50-100 meters uphill, but this was associated with chest pain, pain in both arms and profuse sweating. I prescribed some nitroglycerine pills to take for his angina pectoris before walking up the hill. Lauren is going to try to get him seen the next time a medical brigade from the US comes to the country.
I listened to the heart of Reina's daughter, because she was getting short of breath with only minor exertion. Unfortunately, she has atrial fibrillation and a heart murmur from congenital heart disease or rheumatic fever. Lauren is going to try to get the girl seen by a pediatric heart brigade to arrange for surgery at the proper time.
Vita's 84-year-old mother had to come and stay with her because she was tired and sleeping all the time. It turns out she was on excessive doses of anxiety medicines, which she probably didn't even need. She also had a letter from an eye doctor recommending a cornea transplant for bad vision that she has in one eye. She has a bad cornea due to previous botched cataract surgery. Cornea transplants are highly specialized procedures and would not normally be recommended for someone of such advanced age even in the US. Doing it in Honduras would have been extremely risky and would have used the family's life savings as well. Fortunately, the mother has good vision in the other eye and copes quite well. She was really relieved when I told her she didn't need the surgery.
The people in outlying villages have great difficulty getting access to medical care. In many cases, seeing a doctor requires a long walk and taking a bus for several hours into a larger town. Many of the people are unable to afford the bus ride. Then, if they do see a doctor, they are unable to afford their prescriptions. However, there is an ever bigger problem. Of all the people I examined on my trip, not a single one had been diagnosed correctly or given the right medicines. The patients and families do not receive even rudimentary education about their illnesses or the reasons for taking their medications. There is obviously a need for better medical training in Honduras.
After these two action-packed days everything really slowed down to a pace that is apparently more typical of peace corps life. We took several walks through the Dulce Nombre and Lauren introduced me to some of the other players in the town. One of these was Luis, a former alcoholic, who now runs the AA program on a volunteer basis. In addition to preaching sobriety, he is encouraging the men to be more responsible husbands. He also goes to the schools to talk to the kids about alcohol abuse. Luis's real job is repairing shoes. When the children's shoes that Glen brought need resoling, Luis will be available to do this. One day Lauren, Vita and I drove to a pretty village named La Campa where they have a nice museum devoted to Lenca pottery and several shops where we could buy some pottery for ourselves. One night Lauren, Lester, Jairo (Lester's brother), Vita and I drove to a nice park and soaked for a few hours in the hot springs there.
On day 5 of the trip, Lauren and I met her boy friend Lester and drove into Santa Rosa for the 2nd annual Peace Corps Volunteer Cantina Crawl. Lauren's friend, Lauren Dickson had arrived from Tegucigalpa earlier for the occasion. I enjoyed meeting some of the other volunteers and was impressed with all of them. I've never met a group of young people with such promising futures. Inside the Peace Corps House was a copy of Alli no mas, sort of a year book for all the PCVs in Honduras (note by Lauren: it´s a quarterly publication written by PCVs). It was a joy to read, especially a very funny article by Lauren Mohlie on the interpretation of dreams. Lauren also had a more serious article on how Honduran nationals can successfully get approved for visas to visit the US, based on her experiences helping Lester with his visa. Lauren was given her own copy of "Justin and Eric's Greatest Hits, the Collector's Edition," which had some great instrumentals, lousy singing by Justin and Eric, and two fabulous songs with Lauren as soloist.
The cantina crawl had 10 planned stops with points awarded for answering trivia questions and hard drinking. I'm embarrassed to say that I only made to 2 stops before I called it quits and walked back to our hotel for the night. The good news is that I was probably the only one without a hangover the next day.
The next day Lauren and I dropped Lauren Dickson off in San Pedro Sula to catch a bus back home to Tegucigalpa. Lauren and I then drove 4-5 hours further to a hotel in La Ceiba. This is Honduras's 3rd largest city and has lots of American retirees. We had a nice dinner surrounded by other Americans at place called Expatriates.
Next morning (day 7 of the trip), we drove about 1 hour and met Mark Merritt so he could drive us the rest of the way to his hospital in Balfate. He has an SUV, which crossed and couple of small streams on the way without problems. After heavy rains, the streams become rivers and no one is able to cross until the water goes down. After an hour, we came to the gates of the hospital, Loma de Luz.
The hospital is one of only 2 accredited hospitals in the country and provides the only medical care between Balfate and La Ceiba. The facilities are modern, with outpatient exam rooms, operating rooms and hospital beds. Besides Mark, there are 3 or 4 other physicians, including a cardiologist and a surgeon. Heidi, Mark's wife, is a trained xray tech and is responsible for running the xray department. Despite the excellent facilities and doctors, they have been having trouble finding quality nurses and staff. Also, the patients frequently cannot afford to buy the medicines they need. Heidi made us a delicious lunch and we got to see the nice house where the Merritts will soon move. Mark gave me some nitroglycerine pills for Leti's father and later I bought some inhalers in La Ceiba for the asthmatic kids we had seen.
The final 3 days of the trip seemed as if Lauren and I had magically been transported to another world. We stayed in the lap of luxury at the Pico Bonito Lodge in the rain forest of Pico Bonito National Park. Highlights included delicious food, white water rafting, hikes to swim in mountain waterfalls and pools and sightings of beautiful tropical birds, mixed in with and lots of relaxing. And, just like that, the trip was over and I was on the way home.
The best part of the whole trip was getting to spend so much time with Lauren. With her about to continue her education and then start her career, this may be most quality time we'll ever have together. No matter what the future holds, I'll always treasure this special time we had.