A Weekly Journal Chronicling My Life
As It Intersects With The Garbage Dump Community Near La Ceiba, Honduras

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Los Laureles Has a New Project!

LAURELES BUDS

Friends of Los Laureles,

My good friend Maureen Velasquez has just launched a new project in the community to reach out to young, at-risk girls. We're all of us very excited for her and the girls as they embark on this work together to transform the community of Los Laureles in Christ's name.

If you're interested take a moment to check out a video explaining the purpose of the project or head over to their Facebook page to see more about the girls and their lives in the community. If you're moved to help in any way, feel free to contact Maureen via Facebook or follow the instructions at the end of the video. Above all, do be in prayer for this project as it seeks to offer light and hope to these little girls that so often get overlooked in an already forgotten community.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Chihua

In my previous post I wrote at length about the difficulties the youth of Honduras face in their day-to-day and how the overwhelming realities of life drive many to migrate to the United States. I mentioned too that I know many youths that have made that journey since I first arrived here 6 years ago and that I know many that are planning to make that journey just as soon as they can. All in all August's posting came across as fairly dire and dark - and with good reason; in the grand scheme of things, life in Laureles is just that.

That being said, these past few weeks since having written that entry I've reflected a lot instead on the youth that, for whatever reason, have chosen to stay. I don't begrudge those that have left Los Laureles anything, in fact I really miss them; but I am continually impressed and humbled by the hardy, ingenious and fiercely loyal young men and women that have stayed behind. In my next few posts then I want to profile some of them; these hapless youth with so little opportunity or hope to cling to, these leaders and heroes of the garbage dump.

I want to begin with the young man that in many ways has become the person that I turn to the most for advice as it relates to activities in Los Laureles; the ineffable, indefatigable and ever-joyous Chihua.

I know I've written about him before, though don't ask me to pinpoint when: I'm forever amazed by his openness to others, his generosity with everyone he meets  and his ability to befriend and endear himself to every class of person. Chihua is universally loved and admired in the Laureles community and is a natural-born leader.

Aged 19 and the oldest of 7 siblings, he's the sole bread-winner in his family which he supports by running a barber shop out of his family's wooden shack of a home. His father left his family in Laureles when Chihua was about 5 and then would intermittently visit to impregnate his mother 6 more times over the next 10 years. From the time he was young then he felt the weight and responsibility of caring and providing for his family - he had to be the man of the house where his father had refused to do so. I think then that's how he learned to be so generous and self-sacrificial.
My father met him 4 years ago and was impressed by the simple scene of Chihua with a recently bought and rather tiny bag of chips. His siblings very near swarmed him when they saw him with the treat; hands out and begging to be fed. Perhaps what so impressed my father was that in a similar situation his own children would have stuffed as many chips in their mouths as humanly possible and then run off to take shelter under a bed and gorge themselves with what remained. Chihua though very calmly divided the contents of the bag in as evenly a manner as possible amongst his various siblings and then ate the meager remnants himself.

That one stuck with my father; he's recounted it to me several times over the years: "It was just one little bag of chips but he made sure that all of his brothers and sisters had an even share before he ate the rest." has always been his closing refrain.

For what its worth, Chihua refers to my father as his grandfather, says that he always remembers to pray for his abuelo, and likes to joke about going to live with his grandparents in Pennsylvania. Some of the more gullible youth in Laureles believe him.

He's got a charm and a easy-going wit that makes him instantly likable; more than that though people follow him. Men 5 and 6 years older than him will listen to his instruction and take his advice and not think twice about his being younger than they. In the past year he's formed a small band of older youth that basically hang on his every word; if he suggests picking mangoes, going fishing or hunting for iguanas that's what they all do that day. When I want to form a group to take swimming or hiking I call Chihua first and he essentially organizes the group and very often decides our destination. More recently he decided that anyone that wanted to go on outings with us would have to go to church with us as well. To him it only seemed fair.

This past summer I spent the last month of my vacation almost entirely in Los Laureles - day in and day out I was out in the community just visiting and passing the time with the youth there. Just like old times. One of my current students Jorge, for lack of anything better to do, began to accompany me, especially when we would go swimming or hiking. The first time he came along on one of our excursions he got a rather cold reception from most of the youth - from everyone in fact except Chihua. It was Chihua that began conversations with Jorge, showed him the best boulders to jump from and saved pizza for him to eat at lunchtime. Jorge and Chihua became fast friends - the two couldn't be more different; Jorge is bilingual, lives in a wealthy neighborhood and wants for nothing. Chihua...Chihua lives in Los Laureles. Their bond though has grown solid and they genuinely care about each other. The other youth too, seeing Chihua's acceptance of Jorge, very quickly dropped their pretensions and welcomed him in like one of their own.

On one particular sunny Saturday I called out to Chihua in the morning and told him to get a group together - I wanted to go swimming. He agreed and asked immediately if I would be amenable to including a boy named Tavito amongst our merry band of adventurers. I agreed but was a little surprised that Tavito would want to come with us - he's only 14 but works 7 days a week selling bananas in order to support his family. I've been inviting him along on our outings for years but he rarely if ever has accepted the offer and so I was pleasantly surprised to hear Chihua's news. Later that day while we were swimming I pulled Chihua aside and asked him how he'd managed to convince Tavito to come with us:

"It was easy" he replied "Tavito lives with me now."

I was a touch incredulous and ordered him to explain himself immediately, after all Tavito has a mother and two younger sisters that he essentially supports with his meager salary.

"Well the other day" he began " I was riding my bicycle along the highway and as I approached the community I happened to look to my right and there I saw Tavito sitting at one of the roadside cantinas drinking a beer. I couldn't believe what I was seeing so I swung my bike into the cantina to get a better look. Sure enough, there was Tavito with 3 empty beer bottles on the table in front of him and he was starting on his fourth...and he was drunk. I pulled him up by his ear, tossed him onto my bike and pedaled him back to my house. Once there I smacked him around a little until he sobered up and then told him that if I ever saw or heard of him drinking again that I'd beat the hell out of him. I then told him he could stay here with my family for as long as liked and since then he hasn't left my side except to go to work."

I was in shock; the other kids listening to this story laughed and joked about how Chihua was now rescuing street children and in part it was true. Tavito and Chihua had no real relationship before this particular episode, sure they knew each other and were friendly to each other but not much beyond that. Chihua though saw a kid from his community, a kid that clearly needed guidance and a strong male figure in his life and so did, what in his mind, was the only conceivable option.

My father said 4 years ago that Chihua would someday be that young leader from within the community that others would follow without hesitation and that would carry on the work that Konrad, Josue and I had started so long ago. My father was right and I think that day has come.

Among his many attributes is an innate urge to be the one kid to jump from the highest possible boulder or tree into the river.

Others may follow his lead...

but he's always the first.

So well loved is he that when I invite others to go out for their birthday dinners they almost invariably ask if Chihua can come along as well.

Flaco, Mateo, Chihua, Soplo

Chihua's Barbershop
Even gringos have started to frequent his establishment

Chihua with his mother Marta

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Slightly Honduran Perspective On The Immigration Crisis

I don't consider myself to be an expert on Honduras or even La Ceiba; it's a country of 8 million different lives jostling and colliding with one another in ways unimaginable to many Americans. To have an intimate knowledge of a people on that scale is impossible. Yet I know the milieu in which I live; I teach the super-rich, I surround myself with and live with the absolute destitute. I know Catholics, Evangelicals, and I worship with the Mennonites. I dance Merengue with old CeibeƱos that long for a La Ceiba of 40 years ago and I hang out with Expatriates from all around the world that are experiencing the stunning natural beauty of this place for the first time. I have a favorite barber, a loyal taxi-driver and an indefatigable homeless shoe-shiner. I know the context from which I am writing and after 6 years of living here, I know it well. I know then why children and adolescents, at least those from the La Ceiba area, are leaving for the United States either with "Coyotes" or entirely on their own. Over the past few years I've seen many, many children leave on their own volition and both the desire and migration rate have been growing tremendously this past year. I've striven with many young boys over the course of my time here to not leave, to not put themselves in such danger, to consider other options here at home; many to no avail. I get sick to my stomach every time someone leaves Los Laureles for the United States; both for the dangerous journey they're embarking on and for the hole they leave in the fabric of this closely-knit community. Duke and I just today took stock of how empty and boring the community feels sometimes now that so many people have left. Duke wants to head north too - he's been talking about it for a year.

I have a friend Gina; she's from New York, a lax-Catholic and a sometimes anarcho-feminist socialist. Sometimes I find it hard not to loathe her for those very reasons. She lives here in La Ceiba and has been working with women in a micro-finance NGO for the past 2 years. I love her though, even in spite of her many shortcomings; for her easy manner, her passable dancing abilities and her clear love of Honduras and its people. The other night she and I were talking about the immigration crisis in the U.S. from the perspective of being on this side of the border and we came to a few conclusions.

We've both been in the United States within the last 2 months and the theme that we consistently heard from both news outlets and the general public is that the children are literally fleeing for their lives because of all the violence here, as if we're in some sort of quasi-war zone here. My friend and itinerant visitor, Jojo Daniele and I just watched a recent episode of The Daily Show. The guest was author Sonia Nazario who wrote "Enrique's Journey" in 2006 about a young Honduran boy who set out on his own across Central America and Mexico en route to the United States in search of his mother who had left him when he was 5. According to Ms. Nazario and John Stewart, young Enrique's motive for fleeing Honduras, and children like him, was his desire to be reunited with his mother and issues of poverty whereas now children are fleeing Honduras because of extreme violence, gang warfare and narco-traffickers. She cited accounts of children being forced into gangs or drug rings at the point of a gun as the proof for violence as the primary motive for migration. To this assertion all three of us resoundingly cry "Not True!".

I'm not suggesting that there aren't awful levels of violence here in Honduras because there are and it's only gotten worse in the past few years. It also seems to affect the poor the most - while no one is truly insulated from the dangers here, the rich can at least send their children to gated and protected private schools in cars driven by armed chauffeurs. They utilize body guards and have high walls and electric fences around their mansions and private clubs. I don't begrudge them these things; they're necessary and even still gangs find ways to kidnap, hold for ransom and murder the upper-class. The poor though are truly at the mercy of the gangs and brutes and it's not uncommon to hear of gang members as young as 14 controlling an entire public school (teachers and security guards included), or for gang members to enter a classroom and execute a rival in front of the entire class. Their neighborhoods too are overrun by either gangs, narco-traffickers or petty thieves and so many, rightfully fear for their lives if they don't play by the rules the gangs set. Just so we're clear, the police here and government security more generally, is completely useless and inept and very often corrupt and in cahoots with the gangs and narcos. We don't live in a war-zone here though, and the day-to-day for many is pleasant, albeit impoverished in every sense of the word. The poor especially though do not see the world with any amount of optimism and so when violence, injustice and extortion do befall them, they take it in-stride as part of the inevitable curse of being poor in Honduras. My point though is this; murder, abuse and injustice in all their forms are part of everyday life in Honduras, at levels most Americans would not tolerate for a single day. It's awful but it's nothing new. Violence of this sort had been occurring long before I arrived here in 2008 and while it's not something that the general populace likes, they tolerate it and adapt to it for lack of any other options. I would suggest then that violence and gang activity alone are not the prime motives for children to leave Honduras.

On the street in La Ceiba if you talk to people about why they want to leave, the overwhelming response you hear is that they see no hope for a better future, no opportunity to improve their station in life, no means to support their family. Violence is always mentioned but always as a secondary factor. I just had dinner with two 13-year olds, when I asked them why they might like to leave here and head north they both replied that they have no hope for a better future here so why bother to stay. They're right, they don't - their families need them to work in order to survive so they'll never get an education and as a result, the only work they'll ever know is sorting and sifting through garbage or selling unripened bananas. Neither of them have ever experienced violence here; they've seen it to be sure, but never has it touched them personally, yet both have plans to leave for the United States this year. Duke spends his days hauling and laying cinder-block in order that his mother and three sisters can eat; he spends his weekends in high school in hopes of achieving something in this life beyond day-laboring. Yet at least once a week he reminds me of his desire to leave for the U.S. so that he can better support his family. I encourage him to stay, to finish out his studies, to put his faith in God that he might provide for them; but when he looks around Los Laureles and finds it devoid of half his childhood friends, all of whom are living and working and making good money in the U.S. he finds my advice hard to swallow. Duk has never been touched by violence.

Children are leaving La Ceiba in droves (and I do mean droves; the nearby town of Sambo Creek has lost about 200 children this year) because they see a future filled with poverty, back-breaking work that pays next to nothing and a corrupt government that actively steals from them and offers no security. Moreover, the children are leaving because they want to be with their parents. This explosion of child migrants was bound to come; for decades their parents have been migrating to the U.S. in order to be able to support them. Those children have been raised by relatives, sometimes by neighbors or sometimes by the street; they want to be with their parents, just like the protagonist Enrique in Susan Nozario's novel. Nearly every child I know that has left Los Laureles since I've been there has done so with the intention of reuniting with one or both parents in the United States. Sure they're fleeing violence and terrible poverty but above all else they love and desperately miss their parents; so much so that they're willing to risk dehydration, starvation, arrest and death just to be with them again. The children aren't stupid either, they know that upon arrival in the U.S. they'll need a better reason for the immigration courts than "I want to be with my mother" or "I want a shot a decent life", so they use all of the very real violence as an excuse. I want to be very clear here - Honduras is a very violent place and I'm not prepared to discount the stories the children are recounting because in many cases they're probably true or at least partly so; especially if they're from San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa. I can say though that the 200 children that left from Sambo Creek, a quiet and peaceful beach town, did so not with violence as their primary motive.

I'm not sure where this leaves us. I do consider the massive numbers of children arriving at the border to be a humanitarian crisis and one that the Church ought to take the lead in addressing. I don't think the children should be summarily deported or turned back because in many cases they have little or nothing to come back to. Neither though do I think they ought to be simply turned over to illegal relatives in the United States because we don't know who they are or if they have the child's best interest at heart. I'm not sure I have many answers as to what to do about the problem. I did think it pertinent though to address the true motives of this crisis as I see them from my perspective here in La Ceiba.

I do know that the U.S. ought to cut off all aid to Honduras tomorrow, as 2/3 of it ends up lining the pockets of corrupt politicians. If we want to know what causes the hopeless poverty, the unanswered and unmitigated violence, the general insecurity and overall distrust in public institutions which in turn leads to mass migration, we need look no further than the evil and corrupt politicians. With one hand they beg the world's rich to help their failing nation and with the other they pocket the money and then take spending junkets to Miami. The politicians of the past 30 years have single-handedly caused the deterioration of Honduran society and this present crisis and not one single U.S. dollar more ought to be sent as official aid to the Honduran government. That's all I have to say about that.

I leave you with this:

Memo, Duke & Pani

Pray for these boys and others like them.
All three were born into absolute poverty.
All three have avoided gangs, drugs, alcohol and premature fatherhood.
All are studying.
All want to migrate to the United States in order to better help their families here.
Pray that they stay, that God opens doors and creates opportunities here for them.
Pray that they not be touched by violence.
Pray that if they do migrate that they make it alive and that they be received kindly on U.S. soil.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ceiba Summer

So I'm back in La Ceiba for the rest of my quickly retreating summer vacation, after a very restful month with my family in the United States. William Nickols, my sincerest apologies. I know I promised to blog at least once before I left for the North but lack of ambition and inspiration being what they are these days, I wasn't once able to crank out a single post in all this time. Never fear though my fearless reader/student; Daddy's back in the saddle and he's got enough of both to fill a small corner of the internet.

I have a serious post to lay down here sometime in the next week but in the meantime I thought to show you a little bit of what I and the boys from Los Laureles have been up to these past 2 weeks. It's been like old times in Los Laureles; without that pesky job of mine to keep me distracted I've been able to spend nearly every waking hour out in the community with the kids. Though truth be told we've been out exploring the rivers and mountains of Greater La Ceiba as much as anything else. I've enjoyed it though; spending time with the boys, now young men, is why I'm truly here and it's been a blessing to be able to devote my nearly undivided attention to people of Los Laureles. I like teaching, I like my students, but nothing compares to spending time with the kids in Laureles. That's what gets me up in the morning.

The other week I took a group of boys swimming and when we arrived at the swimming hole we saw a band of men and boys throwing rocks at a harmless snake. Hondurans have an unnatural, and what I might consider an effeminate, fear of all things reptilian. In the presence of a serpent-creature they either shriek and wet themselves or they hack and pelt until dead.

I have little tolerance for either response.

Both are borne out of ignorance and superstition which I detest and consider weaknesses beyond forgiveness.

I immediately threatened the entire group with bodily harm if they continued to pelt the poor creature and then I ran to rescue it. Scooping it up I brought it to show the kids, to teach them that snakes are good, God's creatures and only slightly responsible for Eve's fall into sin. 

The boys though scattered, excepting Duke who seemed genuinely interested in the whole serpentine affair.

I handled it a bit before flinging it upon the heads of the men that had been trying to kill it.

They went all wobbly and fainted.

or I let it go...

So these next series of shots are just of kids running off rocks and falling into water.
It's nothing special I know, doesn't exactly make for great blogging, but it does look cool.

The first is Tolo with a student of mine, Jorge, that has become good friends with the boys of Laureles.

Jorge is a unique character in that he has taken to the guys from Laureles despite their very different backgrounds and stations in life. The guys for their part have accepted him as one of their own and now we can't go anywhere without checking to see if Jorge wants to come along. 




I forgot to include the splash.

Next up is Chihua, the daredevil and de facto leader of the group; even I take direction from him.
Wherever we go he finds the highest height to leap from.
Jorge offered to take him skydiving and Chihua said, and so long as he would be landing in water, that he would accept and also forgo the parachute. 

I kind of believe him.







Looking down on the river from on top a waterfall.

And now for Mardin to jump off that waterfall.





I promise he landed in water.

Mother says I'm Dr. Dolittle; I'm not, I just love animals.

and maybe wish they could talk to me.

or in Camilla's case come live with me forever.

Today we drove up into the mountains to visit our beloved family in Toncontin.
We spent much of the day visiting with people at Pancha's mother's house but in the afternoon we decided to hike out into the mountains. It was a beautiful climb and we managed to snap this photo just before the rains let down.

L-R: Courtney, Edgardo, Gina, Jojo, Bobby, Danila, Meli, Cesar, Memo, Pani & Abel
(not pictured: Me, Vicki and the rain)

Well that's all for now - I know it wasn't anything illuminating but jumping off of rocks, playing with wild creatures and hanging out with Laureles kids and Gringos has been about the extent of my life these past two weeks. Look for something new early this week.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Camilla Wants to Apologize

Williams Nickols my apologies for not posting sooner...it's mostly Camilla's fault; she's such a needy monkey.

She's such a good friend though; always so quick to check me for lice, eat my leftover fruit and show me her devotion by growling at me when I try to extract myself from her vice-like grip.

She's the best.

Camilla is also reminding me now that it's late and I don't have nearly enough time tonight to cover all the happenings in Laureles in any sort of proper way.

Hang on William, a new post is coming this week.

Camilla promises.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Los Laureles

It's no secret that I love Los Laureles. The people, the homes, the very contours of the community evoke my affection. In thinking about what to write on this month I found myself at a loss for good stories. There's a funny anecdote here and there but no grand meta-theme to tie it all together and Lord knows I like me a good meta-theme. What I did find though were about 356 photos that I've taken over the last few months. Taken as a whole these photos highlight what I love best about my people in Laureles; their joy, their resilience, their freedom and true community.

Oh and worry not, I didn't post all 356:

This is Noel a sweet kid and one of the few students that I'm helping this year with their studies.
He comes from a good solid family, is driven and generally avoids bad influences.
He's a joy to be around.
 

One of my all-time favorites, beloved Chucu.
I told him I needed his photo for a project and this is what he gave me.
He's another that I'm supporting in school; everyone that's ever met him agrees that there's something special about him. One lady said that just the way he carries himself is unique.
I have high hopes for this one.
 

Her not so much.
This is Chucu's Aunt Paola.
I've never heard her string a coherent sentence together; she's just a quirky gal that has eschewed nearly all social relationships, preferring the radio and the bottle to human interaction.
This day that I stopped by I found her sitting chest deep in the family's sole source of clean water, the outdoor sink.
She was drinking booze and eating Cheetos.
Admittedly it was an oppressively hot day and the water looked mildly inviting, the bloated and floating Cheetos notwithstanding.
 

Dear, sweet, selfless Heidi. Perhaps the kindest person I've ever met.
She's another that we're helping in her studies.
She's so quiet and timid though that she won't ask me directly when she needs something for school, rather she'll use Duke as a liaison.
Speaking of Duke and this girl.
There's nothing romantic going on between the two, though I wouldn't object to such an arrangement.
Heidi is so loved by this community that at the beginning of the school-year, when I had nothing extra with which to help her go to school; Duke took it upon himself to buy her school supplies and uniform.
He works Monday-Friday and studies on the weekends and the little extra that he had he used to help Heidi study.
That should give you an idea of how highly the people of Laureles hold Heidi in their estimation.
 

El Renco.
He's a crippled Cobbler.
Cobbled a number of my shoes for me, this one.
I overheard a conversation between two younger men in the community a month ago.
One suggested that the other, being a better cobbler ought to give up his back-breaking, day-laborer work and start cobbling shoes for a living.
The recipient of the suggestion, the aspiring young cobbler calmly quashed the idea.
His reasoning was that the community couldn't support two cobblers and that if he hung out his shingle, El Renco's business would quickly dry up and he'd be ruined.
"El Renco is old, this all he has left to support himself, it would be a sin to take that away from him."
That's Los Laureles, right there.
 

A pigeon with clipped wings.
Not sure what to say about this one other than it never ceases to amaze me what the children (and adults) find to keep as pets here.
I once saw a kid here walking a crab on a leash.
After some goading from his friends though he used that leash as a slingshot of sorts to fully pulverize that poor crab against a brick wall.
I wanted to slay that child.
Still do at times.
Never liked that child...or anyone in that family for that matter.
The whole lot seems rotten right down to the core.
Families like that, where the lot of them are just downright intolerable (and slay-worthy), are just so frustrating.
I'm recollecting an old Williamsport family from the swim team right now.
They were that way.
Still are I would imagine.
I'd bet the swim team family and the crab family would get along famously.
 

Not to be outdone, the sister had her own clipped-winged pigeon.
Misery loves company.
 

Sundays after church have become our sacred time in the river.
Johnny loans me his truck, I load up as many children as I can in the back and off we go to Las Mangas.
It's glorious.
 





Sometimes my Gringo-friends join.
Nodi doesn't seem terribly impressed with them though.
 


The lot of us that particular Sunday.
 

This past week I was at Marta's one evening and thick black smoke began billowing out of one of the abandoned buildings in front of her house.
Turns out a few kids decided to set a tire on fire inside of it.
There's not much to say here.
It made for a cool photo-op though.
 

Tolo and I share April 22nd as our birthday.
Every year we try and celebrate together in some way.
This year he opted to go out to dinner with me in the evening.
 

He brought Chihua along as well because...it's Chihua and who doesn't love him.
 
That's all I've got. That's my view of Los Laureles. It may be biased and partial at times but I'm ok with that.