Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Out of (My) Wilderness

The air has been heavy with smoke but the sounds remain the same: cicadas, blue jays, the crunching of pine needles under my feet, the occasional light blow of wind through my ears and across my face. There is nothing else.

Every day for the past three months I’ve exploited the trails of our beautiful mountain.

The main road can go left or right. Left goes toward the lemon orchard, the long and vertical horse trail to Las Botijas, to one of my favorite meditation spots, and of course toward Zambrano (ten miles to the nearest city.) Right goes to the waterfall lookout, to Los Moros (tiny village) to MatacaƱas (an even tinier village) or to another favorite valley view. This doesn’t include the countless combinations of big and small paths on the other side of the river, which requires hip-hopping across the water and scrambling up a cactus-ed hill, every time.

For those readers that love hiking, this is a special place. There’s no backcountry permits, though we are certainly back country. There is a stunning, enormous waterfall with no entrance fee. There are horses and cows grazing unattended at any turn and the only other people you will see are the inhabitants of the teeny towns scattered miles between miles in the peaks and valleys.

An hour in any direction stops in a place unique to the road not taken. Some locations are fern-covered and shady. Some are stark and stoney. Some have gorgeous sights of mountain tops and some are secluded and silent. Sometimes there are snakes, sometimes there are men leading oxen and wagons along the road, sometimes there are vibrantly colored birds, but always there is yourself: alone, invigorated, walking not in a park but simply in a mountain, in a forgotten place on this earth that cannot be Google Mapped and cannot be replicated.

Some days I turn around without thinking, my feet knowing exactly which rock to step on and which slippery pine needles to avoid. Some days I throw out my arms and thank the sun for shining light on this place. Some days I fall in the river and get my feet wet, laughing bitterly. Some days I am able to quiet my mind and simple see green and burnt orange all around. I always hear my feet and my heart, and I am proud to say, I didn’t take this for granted.

Reflecting on the trail. Can you even see the trail?
Today was my final hike in Honduras and it wasn’t novel. I knew exactly where I was going: up the hill, past the horses, around the bend with the mossy rocks, past the open field and up to the gate of MatacaƱas. There’s a typical rural Honduran house – aluminum roof, concrete pila, chickens clucking and laundry flapping, surrounded by a sloping pasture, surrounded yet again from rolling hills of pine. I love this sight. I drank it in. I said goodbye.

With a final flip of my ponytail, I paddled down the road, ready to say goodbye to my home here, ready to give it back to nature, ready to take away all the things I’ve learned in the silence.

I take with me only me, and these forgotten Honduran mountains will sit in a small corner of my heart.  

Friday, April 4, 2014

Even You Can Prevent Forest Fires! Or Garbage Fires!

There was a cry from across campus.

Ladies! There’s a fire, grab buckets!

We were in the middle of discussing the results of final exams and the girls were wearing their nice classroom clothes. Nevertheless, we were flying out the door and toward the billowing smoke, which we had already begun to smell but hadn’t started to think about. The smoke was coming from upriver, on our side of the road – quite obviously from the property of our nearest neighbor and campus foreman, Elias. It smelled nasty.
Almost smells like barbeque, but is it?

We trudged in non-work shoes through the scrubby brush and into a smokey, muddy scene. The water piping had been disconnected to help put out the flames but it was too bulky and inflexible to really do much good. Girls tried filling buckets and carrying it to smoldering areas but it was a lot like The Little Rascals, when all the kiddos make a line and pass the water, and by the time it reaches the fire so much has been spilt that there’s only a tiny splash left. Pish, says the water, as it barely kisses the smoke.

Luckily two of our present volunteers are some spunky, knowledgeable women with forestry and backcountry training. Michelle jumped to the helm of the extinguishing effort and calmed the beast. (Jessica has asthma and regrettably couldn’t help too much.) She later reported the source of the disgusting smoke was an intentional garbage fire, much like any garbage fire a Honduran makes any day of the week. The difference here was, it was unattended, it was over 90 degrees, and it was incredibly windy.
World-class Third-World firefighting.

The fire was finally out. Or was it?

A few hours later, I went for a hike to make a final river-log crossing before I shove off next week. Nothing like tightroping across a log on a lovely Honduran day! But as I rounded the corner past Fancho’s tomato fields, there was the smoke. It was worse than before. It was blacker, and bigger, and this time there were big visible flames on both sides of the road I needed to pass. I tiptoed from rock to rock across the river, the backroad to home. As I jogged haphazardly along the river line, knocking into spider webs like I just didn’t care (except I did, because they give me the creeps) I could see the fire blowing near our coffee-drying greenhouses.

If we have to evacuate, do I have all my stuff together? I wondered. Am I going to have to reschedule my flight home and pay United Airlines an extra $300 to do it?

When I finally made it back, puffing from the added speed, I reported the situation to Michelle, who immediately ran over. She gathered our Honduran workers and again, several hours later, had put down the fire. This time it had taken out about half a football field, mostly of dry grass, but incredibly close to Elias’ house and the coffee. And, as the smoke would remind us, it was trying to blow toward campus.

And then the fire was out. Or was it?

Wendi and I went for a walk the next morning to, of course, enjoy nature, but also to survey the damage. Much to our surprise, it was still burning, and there was Michelle, with her pesticide-spray backpack filled with water, telling the smallish flames who was boss (humans, of course, who were also the ones who started it). One of the workers fiddled with a hose behind her while smoking a cigarette. Old habits burn a long time.

And then, of course, the fire was out. It really was.
The coffee is safe! But for gosh's sake, don't burn your garbage and then walk away!

Except that last night, less than 48 hours after our neighborhood trash disaster, another fire had started across the river. I returned from teaching exercise class to hear “the mountain was up in flames” down river near the waterfall drop. I didn’t go look. It was after dark and I could hear helicopters in the distance. Rumor was the military had been called. Honestly, I’ve been a bit sickened by the prevalence of avoidable burns.

This afternoon I wandered along the main path across the river and didn’t go more than twenty minutes before I came to the blackened forest. The thick blanket of pine needles had been completely charred but the beautiful pines are nearly untouched. It’s pretty darn creepy walking into a smoky forest with the ground still hot and the air still a complete ashtray. I opted to turn around quickly for vanity’s sake: I had washed my hair this morning. I have no intention of wasting my twice-a-week wash on the smoke of yet another fire.

Will there be more? I hope not. Could there be more? Probably. Americans are used to having hot showers. Rural Hondurans are used to smokin’ a ciggie while burning their paper and plastic. Am I afraid? No. We’re educating the girls now about the dangers of burning garbage and changing our entire fire routine. It was the push we needed to motivate a culture of risky cultural practices to do something different.

So kind of like the phoenix, something better rises from the ashes. And then, we will use the ashes to turn our compost toilet waste into fertilizer.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Coop-to-Table, A Chicken Adventure

Yolany had to climb inside the chicken coop because by the time we had killed with first two, the other chickens wised up and scurried away from the open door. She banged on the mesh wall with her hand to scare them toward me, and I reached unsuccessfully, reached again, tried to coax the fat chickens with kind, complementary words, and then finally got one.

He hardly struggled as I carried him around the side where we had been completing the circle of life with a basic kitchen knife. The trick is the wings, always hold tightly under or over the wings. And between Yolany, Gipsy and me (knife, wings and legs, respectively) the third chicken was dispatched from his happy, healthy chicken life.

Yolany looking a bit murderous and me looking a bit too muscley (it's the shadows.)
This wasn't the first "farm-to-table" activity I had participated it but it was certainly the first I had a hand in. It's been my belief for a while that if we're going to eat meat, we'd better be comfortable with where that meat comes from and how it came to be on your plate. This is how I ended up spending all day with the chickens, from coop to butchering to fryer - and what a glorious day it was!

I mean, this food had a fabulous life. They lived in a nice, airy coop with lots of space and lots of food, with a beautiful meadow view of both sunrise and sunset. Three of them feed over 30 people, a great spread of nourishment and deliciousness.

Preparing them takes a lot of time and so you finally realize how much effort it takes to get those little cluckers plastic wrapped and on sale of 2.99 a pound. Boiling water helps take off the feathers but it's still an arduous process, trying to get every little hollow feather stalk out of the pimpled skin. All the guts are still there, not just the ones in the complementary plastic bag. I kept marveling to my accomplices, Do you realize that this is someone's job? Some one does this all day!

The girls were patient with me as I hacked away at the feet and neck (no fancy tools, just a fairly blunt knife) and I asked a lot of questions. Mostly I waned about the poultry industry in America and how we always have to worry about diseases when we cook them. Can you imagine, plucking, gutting and slicing a chicken with little to no fear of illness? Sign me up for this way of living!

And so these chickens came to contribute to my fabulous life, marinaded in puree of onion and pepper, with mustard and cumin, then lightly battered in flour and fried over the fire by sweaty me, dripping and happy. Call me crazy, but not even the Farmer's Market can beat this connection to nature, food, and graciousness for life.

Friday, March 21, 2014

There's Underwear On Your Head...

There’s been some kind of creative awakening here on campus. Everywhere you look, someone is staring intently at a needle and thread, or stringing tiny beads into earrings, or pulling colored string tight into bracelets. The sewing machine is whirring and the hot glue gun is gluing – and out come pillowcases and bookbags and barrettes. It’s a regular sweatshop up here, but only because it’s now officially “Summer” and not because of unfavorable work conditions.

Fellow volunteer teacher Wendi and I model our wares,
Much of this Renaissance is owed to a visit from some generous campus donors, who spent two wonderfully helpful weeks on campus helping the girls with business plans, teaching skills, contributing to the talent show, and creating generous merriment. The woman of the group brought giant magical bags full of craft supplies, and half of the dining room has since been converted into a workshop. Now, there are grand plans to make bags for elementary school students in the nearest village, to weave bracelets for a global non-profit distributor, and for individuals with the drive they’re pumping out art as fast as they can to sell during Semana Santa, on break.

And as a selfish benefit, I get to learn too! A particularly delightful class, taught by 2nd-Year Student Betis, showed us how to turn unwanted t-shirt fabric into headbands. “Bring An Old Shirt!” the sign said, advertising the time and place. I went to my room and looked at my shirts. They’re in pretty good condition, and I plan on leaving nearly everything (I need enough clothing to legally board a plane, of course), to the girls. But I wanted to make a headband so badly…

From the fanny to my fair locks! It's recycling!
…Underwear! There’s nothing that wears out faster when scrubbing your clothing on a rough rock surface than undies. I rifled through my box of unmentionables (which I’m mentioning now, of course) and pulled out a newly-unwearable pair: holes through and through from the Honduran laundry experience. Proudly toting my craft material, the girls laughed at my holey calsones.

But after some snipping, stretching and weaving, my result was the same as everyone else's, and it goes to show that there's almost nothing we can't reuse. 

Now, my grandfather was a Class-A Packrat, so I'm careful what I preserve for crafts and what I get rid of, but at TLC the opportunity to recycle instead of trash is not only abundant, it's necessary. We have no landfill, we have no sanitation service. If it isn't reused in some way, it gets burned...and it smells bad. Every time I have to throw plastic onto a bonfire, it feels so disgusting, and don't even get me started on the aerosol: we can't do anything with aerosol. 

So aside from underwear headbands, this week we are also smashing bag after bag of glass, smooshing bag after bag of plastic, to go under a new concrete floor that will be poured soon. Our own type of "landfill." We are collecting anything clean and countable for the nearest kindergarten. If one of our volunteers gets his project organized, then all plastic bottles will become colorful bricks. 

Necessity is the mother of innovation, and here in Honduras, there are over thirty of us "mothers" inventing the heck out of garbage. It's something I want you to know, because even though it's easier to put your underwear in a garbage can, isn't it much more heart-filling and time-worthy to do something with it? And doesn't it look so darn trendy? 

Some girls are going to sell them, I'm going to continue to make them, and hopefully, it can be one mighty colorful conversation starter about being resourceful, being grateful, and being adorably adorned with underwear.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What I'm Up To: Creating Vision, Of Course

One of the challenging joys about daily life at The Leadership Center is that we are new. Practically blank slate, wide open grassy spaces and mountain top skies – the limit is endless for the development and future of this school. But where to begin, to make new into a sustainable, living system?

Looking around the campus, it has already begun. The entrance to campus is freshly lined with painted white stones that proudly accentuate the sixty or so new fruit trees that students and volunteers planted several weeks ago: in a year or so, these will leave a legacy of both nutrition and pride. The second student dorm is nearly completed, the concrete floors to be poured immediately, and this will house our newest group of students – twelve or so fresh, eager women with brilliant potential and open horizons.

There are smaller yet equally as important changes everywhere you look: all the toilets are being converted to compost toilets, benches and tables and play equipment spring up every corner you turn, the worker’s bodega is being organized, library is filling with resources, garden beds are overflowing with help from the compost that students and volunteers make. Every morning one can wake up and give a gasp. Yet another thing is being born!

And so it was to keep with the rising tide of excitement and improvement that President Joseph asked long-term teachers and volunteers to gather once a week to help him plan for even longer and inevitable changes that would shape the future of TLC in perhaps less tangible, but equally as important ways. Each Tuesday at four o’clock, eight of us meet in our makeshift conference room of the dining hall to systematically discuss the following things:

1.     How can we improve expectations and experience for students?
2.     How can we improve expectations and experience for teachers and volunteers?
3.     How can we keep connections of volunteers, students and staff throughout the years?
4.     How can the school leadership be its most effective self?

When was the last time you had the opportunity to contribute to something so fresh (with baby fruit trees slowly growing outside), where you intimately knew each individual person these changes would effect? I gaze out the screen window and see two of my students reading a novel on a bench, and my imagination applies our discussion directly to them: will our decision help them read more books? Will it take away the bench? Will it mandate the reading? And how will this make them more effective, compassionate and intelligent leaders?

Each brilliant suggestion blooms like the hibiscus near the window. For example, creating Student Management Teams to put the day-to-day functions of the school into the hands of our more-than-capable ladies has sparked a thousand smaller ideas, most of which have now been incorporated into “The Plan.” And my imagination sings as from my meeting chair, I watch students flounce into the kitchen and I know that one day soon, they will control inventory, they will direct volunteers, they will oversee gardens and animal growth, and they will know what growing a community feels like.

I now know what growing a community feels like. I’ve just entered my sixth month as a teacher at The Leadership Center and the potential in each day rises with the orange sun. While I haven’t penned my name into the wood of my bunk bed, or left handprints in concrete (well, maybe my initials are scribbled in the foundation of the compost toilet!), or named a hiking trail after myself, joining our TLC Vision Group has been remarkably fulfilling. When I return home to California in April, I know that behind me our decisions will be carried out and up into the stratosphere. Because that’s the kind of place TLC is: when you have an idea, it gets done. When it gets done, it thrives, evolves, and becomes a better way of life.

Also, we were promised a pizza party for joining this group and boy, do I love pizza! (Just joshin’, Joseph.)

Envisioning the future for these stupendous women (only part of our community seen here, but these are the women I started teaching in April 2013 who have so far only started to shake the foundation of the world.)