The sky was streaked with pink and a gentle breeze — causing the tall, golden sugar cane to sway lazily from side to side — had replaced the heavy, relentless heat of the day. I carefully shifted my position, trying to get comfortable without falling out of the bed of the blue, battered truck I was wedged in that was driving at breakneck speed down the potholed filled road.
There were 22 of us crammed into the back of the truck, covered in dust and tired from clearing land and digging the foundation for a community center in the small village of Ojo de Agua, Honduras. There was no electricity in the town to run power tools (not that we had any) so all of our work had to be done the old fashioned way. After a full day of chopping down thick weeds with a machete and swinging a pickaxe at the dry, hard earth, I could barely lift my arms. I was looking forward to crawling under the safety of my mosquito net and passing out.
The Honduran girls, clinging to the edge of the truck beside me, had broken out in song the moment we lost sight of the town, the bad voices and the good, blending together in a free and careless harmony of a well-known melody.
Though it was my first visit to a country where I did not speak the language, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t having too much trouble communicating. Because I didn’t know a word of Spanish, I was forced to really pay attention and silent interactions suddenly conveyed more meaning to me than spoken words ever had. I felt that I understood my new friends more deeply through watching their subtle movements and looking into their eyes than I ever could have through their spoken language.
After a few verses of the song had gone by, Yolani, a vibrant girl about my age, turned from the group, grabbed my hand, looked me square in the eye, slowly sang a few foreign words and motioned for me to repeat after her. Self-conscious, I half talked, half-whispered the unfamiliar words back to her while she patiently nodded along, smiling and squeezing my hand when I managed to pronounce one close to correctly. She started to sing louder and faster, so I followed suit until my voice was just as loud, and blending in with hers. The other girls smiled at me as the words tumbled out of my mouth and were carried away by the wind.
* * *
Three days earlier, stuck in layover limbo in Texas, my friends and I were passing the time by discussing our individual expectations and goals for our volunteer adventure. We called ourselves the ‘youth in action’ and were a group of eight young adults traveling to Honduras to bring supplies to those still affected by Hurricane Mitch, and to help rebuild a community center.
Prior to this trip I had never traveled outside of North America and the only image I had of the developing world was what I had seen in infomercials — sad, destitute children, their bellies swollen or ribs protruding, and eyes full of tears that stared vacantly at the camera while an emotional Sarah McLachlan song played softly in the background. The children always looked lost and alone, waiting for someone to swoop in and save them. These images had motivated me to spend most of my free time fundraising for the trip, and that night in Texas, all I could think of was the flocks of poor, unloved children in Honduras who would finally feel hope when I, a representative of the developed world, showed them that I cared.
When it was my turn to share my expectations of our adventure, thinking only of the infomercial children, I told my friends that if nothing else — my goal was to make at least one child smile.
I was such an idiot.
Roger, our contact in Honduras, met us at the airport in Tegucigalpa, which was packed with people holding signs and chanting “Hon-DUR-as!!” at the top of their lungs. It turned out that we were on the same flight as the country’s national soccer team returning home from an international tournament.
Despite the chaos and commotion we moved quickly through the airport and after collecting our bags Roger led us outside to a couple of rusted, beat-up Ford trucks. I hopped into the back of the blue Ford with its paint peeling off, fender bent and windows cracked. I was surprised to see a faded “I LOVE TEXAS” sticker stuck to the bumper. Roger explained that many of the vehicles in the country were cast-offs from the United States.
After a sweaty two hours of driving, we turned off the rough dirt road onto an even rougher dirt road that led into Correl Quemado, our home for the week. Small one room shacks with rusted, corrugated roofs lined the road, and half-naked children splashed each other in the brown river that’s water was used to wash, cook, and drink. We pulled up in front of the sturdiest looking building in sight and were told we had an hour to unpack and freshen up.
Too excited to stay inside, after throwing my bag on a bunk, I emerged from the dark stone building and almost ran directly into a small group of curious children that had gathered just outside the door.
I couldn’t believe that the infomercial children I had been picturing for years were finally in front of me!
Except... they didn’t look anything like the infomercial children.
The children in front of me were fully clothed, their stomachs were definitely not bloated from hunger and there were no flies circling overhead. In fact, they all had rosy cheeks and looked happy and healthy, not sad and hopeless. I was suddenly painfully conscious of my own appearance, realizing that after a full day of travel I was probably more disheveled than they were.
Looking into their curious faces, it hit me that I was not a ‘bearer of hope’ to these little people — I was simply a curiosity, a visitor, a potential new friend.
I had foolishly been equating poverty with a lack of self, power, humanity, and hope, and in my ignorance I had believed that my presence would somehow affect their very existence.
Feeling silly and a bit ashamed of the misconceptions I had been led to believe, I found myself unsure of how to interact. The kids and I stared at each other shyly for a few minutes until the smallest of the bunch, a little girl wearing a powder pink tank top, walked over to my side, looked up at me with big brown friendly eyes, slipped her hand into mine and smiled.
* * *
I tilted my head towards the growing darkness to take better advantage of the breeze, that was turning into a wind as our driver continued to gain speed. He must have been able to smell the dinner of grilled plantains and fresh tortillas waiting for us at the bunkhouse.
The wind felt amazing on my sun-scorched face and it sent my hair swirling around my head. But, I didn’t care how I looked and none of my new friends did either — we were too busy singing, laughing, and hanging on.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is the story of my first trip outside of North America, and the first time I went somewhere that completely shook up the way I viewed the world, my life, and myself. I went on this adventure in the winter of 2000, and can still feel how life changing it was for me. I hope you enjoyed the piece — thanks for reading!