Honduras…quite an experience.

8 06 2011

By Altelisha Taylor

I came to Honduras 4 days after taking my final exam at Duke, after being in the comfort of home in Florida and with my family for merely 3 days. Needless to say, I’m not quite sure I was mentally prepared for what I was about to undertake. I had never traveled out of the United States, let alone to a developing country. I knew I wouldn’t be able to use my cell phone, watch cable tv, have constant access to internet, or the cool feeling of air conditioning. But….I don’t think it hit me. I don’t think I realized just how different my life would be without them or maybe I just wasn’t aware how much my life depended on them. Either way, when I came here I quickly found out.

Day 1 and probably days 2, 3, and 4 were what I call “culture shock.” Many roads were unpaved with no traffic lights or speed limits. I was living in the town of El Porvenir where most of the houses were smaller than my bedroom in Florida. The house in which I was living lacked air conditioning and the three fans in the house were shared by the six ppl living there. We slept on bunk bed mattresses, took cold showers, and were frequently visited by nearly every type of God’s created species (especially the crawling ones). With the heat index rising into the upper 100’s during the day and the humidity at its peak, sweaty clothes became an unexpected fashion trend and dehydration a common occurrence. It definitely took some getting used to..

After about a week and a half..I started to find enjoyment here. I was the third of eight people from Project HEAL to arrive, so once the entire group got here things got better quickly. Activites were pretty organized and, considering the fact that I have been here about a month, I have gotten quite a lot done. Each morning we go to the local clinic to give a brief health lesson with the nurses to patients as they wait for the doctor to arrive. (Here in Honduras, the clinic is walk-in so patients arrive early in the morning in the hopes of being one of the first few to be seen by the doctor.) While they wait for her to arrive we educate them on various health topics. One morning we might talk about Tuberculosis and another morning we might talk about STDs, it varied. These morning “charlas” started off as a onetime only thing, but the nurses really liked the way we were helping them and kept asking us to come back each morning.

As a group we also conducted extensive women’s health discussions on a variety of topics about once a week. We held them at the local government building and invited the nurses and doctors from the clinic to help us teach the topics and answer questions. We used a variety of posters, pamphlets, and handouts to discuss cervical cancer, family planning, and HIV/AIDS. We also gave pre and post assessments to a few of the women at each discussion to track how much the women were learning and to answer our individual women’s health research questions.

For the first session I was extremely nervous, I had taken three semesters of Spanish at Duke but by no means was I fluent. Having been exposed to Spanish in academic settings only, I could read and write it quite well but speaking it was a little challenging at times and listening to native speakers talk was still a struggle for me. Nevertheless, the session went fine and with each day here my ability to converse in Spanish improved. As of now, I am still not fluent, but I can understand and speak a lot better. (It’s amazing how much I’ve picked up in four weeks).

By far one of the most rewarding things I’ve done here, one of the reasons I’ve really started to like it down here is the opportunity to work with the kids. Together we conducted health education camps for about three different groups of kids (two groups of preschoolers and an adolescent group). We taught the kids the importance of hand washing by helping them learn a song, we showed them how to use first aid kits through a skit, and taught them about nutrition by having them place various foods in the correct category on a giant food pyramid. We also taught them about dungae/malaria by acting out the symptoms, showed the importance of exercise by teaching them how to stretch and by playing various games like “red light/green light”, and we stressed dental health through various tooth brushing and flossing activities. Through these camps, we were able to leave a lasting impact.

Instead of just teaching them about hand washing or parasites we helped them learn a song so it would be engrained in their memory. Instead of just teaching them how to use a first aid kit we were able to receive enough grant money to provide a first aid kit to each kid along with enough extra supplies to stock the nearby clinics. Instead of just telling them which foods are in certain food groups, we had them draw the food they liked most from each food group and had them place those foods on the food pyramid (in order to show them how nutrition affected them directly). Instead of just showing them how to properly brush and floss their teeth, we were able to purchase enough toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, and packets of floss to provide dental kits to each student, which were filled with enough supplies for them and their families. Not to mention, we were also able to show the kids how to make their own toothpaste from baking soda and salt so that they could continue to take care of their teeth even if they couldn’t afford to buy more toothpaste.

The kids were so receptive to our camps and, according to the pre/post surveys we did on a few of the kids, they seemed to have learned quite a bit. We went back to each group a week after we finished the camps to reinforce the health topics and ensure they sure remembered what we had previously taught them. It went so well. Not to mention, we were able to teach the kids a little English by teaching them the numbers 1 through 10.

Along with working with smaller kids, I really enjoyed working with the colegio (high school) students. One of the older professors, who owned one of the neighborhood stores, knew about our project from previous years and had asked us to help out at the colegio. Along with attending classes, he also required his students to do community service. He had asked us to go with the students into the community to tell them about parasites, HIV/AIDS, and dungae/malaria, which were all frequent health problems in the area. For me, it was really rewarding to work with students that were around my age. (They were between the age of 17 and 22). They acted and dressed pretty American. It was nice to see how they conversed with each other in classroom settings and how dedicated and enthusiastic they were to do community service.

Besides working with students of various ages and leading women’s discussions, I was also able to use grant money provided by the Duke Global Health Institute to conduct research here. Our group [Project HEAL] focus is women’s health so each member, including myself, chose a specific research topic under the umbrella of maternal health. I chose to explore family planning and effective contraceptive usage. Through the women’s discussions I was able to delve into the thoughts of various women in the community. By visiting the nearby clinics I was able to get some opinions from nurses and doctors in the nearby town. Lastly, by going to a hospital in the nearby, more urban, city of LaCieba I will be able to compare the thoughts of ppl in the rural area of El Porvenir with those from a more urban city to see how much family planning and contraceptive usage vary in different environments. The hope is that by each member researching a different aspect of maternal health we as a group will be better able to improve and help others improve multiple aspects of women’s health in Honduras.

With research, health camps, and women’s discussions I have been doing quite a bit work during the weeks here. However, I have also tried to make it my mission to explore the country a little bit as well. Each weekend I try to travel to a different town and engage in some new activity. (Traveling is pretty cheap and the beaches are really nice.) The first weekend I went to a waterpark with some of the other international volunteers. The second weekend I went to La Cieba for their annual festival and went hiking up Pico Bonito (one of the Honduran mountains). The third weekend I went to CoPan with three other Project HEAL members to take a tour through the Mayan Ruins. This past weekend I went to Cayos Cohinos to take a ferry ride on the Atlantic Ocean, go snorkeling along the coral reefs, and relax on 13 of the most amazing islands. For my last weekend here we are planning a trip to Trujillo, an island town off of the coast, where we can enjoy the scenery, go kayaking, and sample a few of the restaurants.

Being here has changed me in so many ways. I have become more appreciative for some of the things I took for granted in the states. I thought hot showers, air conditioning bug free houses, running water, electricity, and good plumbing were necessities everyone had in their in home. I was wrong. The house I live in has no hot water or air conditioning. In all of Honduras the plumbing isn’t very good so people do not flush their toilet paper or anything else besides bodily waste down the toilet. Some of the poorer areas don’t even have electricity so their lights run solely off of batteries. Other homes didn’t even have running water and used river/sea water to flush the toilets and wash themselves. It was definitely an eye-opening experience.

Not to mention, after being here I wanted to become a better person in general. You would think that people in the poorer areas would be bitter or unhappy with their lives but they aren’t. Some may show their dissatisfaction but for the most part the people here are really happy and don’t complain. They make the best out of their situations and are some of the most generous people I have ever met. Our neighbors, who barely have enough money to pay their bills and can’t even afford to buy their children books for school, constantly offer us food whenever they cook and let us borrow any supplies we need, be it baking pans or cutting knives. Rosa, a lady over two of the kinders (school for low income adolescent and preschool kids)buys all the supplies needed with her own money and no help from the government. Although she can’t even afford sheets for the three mattresses in her home, she scrapped up enough money to purchase the supplies needed to cook for our entire group as a treat to us after one of our health camps.

About two weeks ago we all went down to the clinic to donate some much needed supplies to the nurses and doctors. Because our organization received the Projects for Peace grant, we were able to purchase lots of surgical supplies, ointments, bandages, a sterilizer for their tools, and a lamp for them to use in the operational rooms. The looks on the nurses’ faces, the happiness they showed, the feelings of gratitude they displayed, were priceless…It made me love what our group was able to do and made me want to create those same reactions from other people as well. Not because I loved being appreciated, but because I was beginning to really love making a difference in the lives of others, especially those less fortunate.

I am here for another week and I actually have mixed feelings about leaving. Although I miss my home and life in the states quite a bit, I have started to make a home down here. My body has adjusted to the heat, I have made the best of my living arrangements, and have even made some friends with the other volunteers and local Hondurans in the area. In the beginning it was hard not having constant access to internet, my cell phone, or cable tv but now I’ve learned how to live without it. The time I used to spend using/watching technology I now spend reading the C.S. Lewis classics or other national bestsellers. I have had plenty of time to self reflect and prioritize the things that are most important to me. Not to mention, I have learned how to relax and little more and have actually begun to like the slow pace of living down here.

All in all I have had some great experiences down here. There have been times when I’ve been extremely homesick and others times when I love that I am away. Times when I love cooking for myself and arranging my own schedule, yet there are others when I wish I could share dinner with my family or make plans to hang with friends. Some moments I feel like I am in paradise staying at some of the most amazing places on earth, but there are other moments when I feel like I am living in the slums and cannot wait to get back to the comforts of my American life. Nevertheless, it’s the good and the bad, the excitement and the reflection that has made being in Honduras a holistic experience for me and one that I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to enjoy.




One response

13 06 2011

Altelisha, great blog post! So happy to hear how your fieldwork in Honduras has impacted you and how you see the world. Will you be sharing your experiences during the last few days you are in Honduras?

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