White Coat Underground

Notes from Honduras IV

In 1999, during my intern year, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America. As stated below, I wanted to become involved. The program director of my residency was kind enough to view this as a worthwhile educational experience. This is my diary from the trip. Part III is here.

After Hours

We returned each night over the route we came, waving to our patients along the way, occasionally stopping to say hello or take a picture of the cloud-shrouded mountains. Our first stop was always the bodega, to drop off our gear and resupply for the next day’s work. Afterward, we retreated behind the gate of the Obispado. First usually came a vigorous shower. There was no water at the clinic, so hand washing consisted of rubbing alcohol over our hands after each patient. It was always satisfying to watch the dirt fall to the shower floor and swirl into the drain (probably to return soon from the spigot). The water was always refreshingly cold. After changing, we usually gathered in the lounge to have a beer, compare notes, read up on diseases that we had never heard of but had likely seen, and await dinner. After dinner we would often gather on the balcony over the town square and watch the festivities. The week was both the local regional fair, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. All night long, city sounds and roosters assured us a certain level of sleep deprivation.

The first night I spent in Honduras was typical of those to follow. I fell asleep quite deeply. At about two a.m. I was awakened by a rude clanking, presumably someone moving tin trash cans on the street below. It soon became apparent that these harsh tones broke into my room every fifteen minutes, mas o menos. My somnolent mind finally decided that this must be the sound of the bells in the clock tower of the church. When I politely inquired about this the next morning I was told that local legend proclaims the bell to be none other than that of Christopher Columbus, who visited the shores of Honduras after his first trip to this hemisphere. A more cynical doctor informed me that the bell sounds just like every other bell in Central America. Columbus had apparently brought many such heavy bells inland across the great isthmus.

After adjusting to the sound of the bells (mostly by the insertion of foam plugs in my ears) I began to sleep soundly again. Suddenly an explosion woke me, my heart pounding. It was quickly followed by several more. My first thought was that the men we saw all over towns with guns in their belts were firing into the air. A glance out the window revealed it to be fireworks launched from the hands of young men in the square. As they died down and I began to drift back to sleep, a trumpet’s call pierced the air, followed by the brass chorus of the mariachi. I gave up my sleep and sat on the balcony to watch, ducking from the occasional errant rocket. I later read in a national newspaper that fireworks injuries were a major cause of traumatic amputation in the capital.

A Side Trip

On one particularly efficient day, we ended our work a bit early and made a trip to the city of Catacamas. We had been wanting to go, but it is important not to travel after dark, as driving in Honduras is in the best of circumstances a lesson in fear. Our destination was the Escuela Los Sembradores, a religious community founded by a couple from Iowa and known for its mahogany carvings. On the way we of course had to cross a river. To our left as we approached the river were sheer mountains through which the river had cut a narrow canyon; to our right, the path of destruction the river left when the rain flowed off the mountains. Standing in the wreckage were campesinos with their machetes and axes harvesting firewood from the massive uprooted trees. After a few minutes of driving through the flood-path, we arrived at the bridge. This one had collapsed into the middle of the river, and the local people in their usual resourceful way used the initial collapsed segment as a ramp onto the new gravel-fill span. We waited for a few brightly colored trucks to pass, then crossed, rejoining the main highway.

After passing through town we turned onto a dirt road, unremarkable except for its bone-jarring ruggedness. Up ahead we saw a crowd of birds, some on fence posts, some fighting, and as we approached it was clear from their greasy-black wings and bald heads that they were vultures. As we approached, some of the more timid birds drew back, revealing the corpse of a chestnut brown horse. A thin dog rooted through the open belly of the animal, tearing at entrails. The birds concentrated their efforts on the head. They looked up at us irreverently as we passed and went back to their meal. We passed three similar scenes before the turnoff. Turning in, the road smoothed and the fields became well-tended. Up ahead we could see a close-cropped soccer field, a small Spanish colonial style church, and some buildings with very well kept lawns. We were met, most improbably by an elderly woman who spoke in flat, Midwestern vowels, and offered to open the showroom so that we could purchase our souvenirs. This we did, and at criminally low Honduran prices.

On the trip back, we stopped at a roadside stand run by some friends of Flavio, our driver and guide. We were convinced that Flavio was acquainted with everyone in Olancho, as we rarely drove more than a mile before he slowed to exchange a greeting with passers-by. At the roadside stand, a family crushed sugar cane and served the juice, kept cold by a cooler set in ice. The liquid was murky green, eerily reminiscent of the wheat grass juice sold in American health food stores. They handed us plastic bags full of the fluid, and a straw. To drink it was pure heaven after a hot day of work and travel.

Next: Leaving

Comments

  1. #1 Alan Justice
    February 11, 2009

    In 3 days, I’ll be leaving for my fifth trip to Honduras. Unlike you, our group goes to the coast, where even now you can still see evidence of Mitch’s visit – it’s a washed out bridge outside of San Pedro Sula, on the road to La Ceiba. What you’ve written reminded me a lot about the country–the cane juice, the mountains, the avoidance of travel after dark, the criminally low prices, the parasites. In La Ceiba, you can’t swing a cat without it hitting an American franchise (Pizza Hut, Quiznos, Popeye’s, etc). Our group operates in a church clinic in a squatter’s community in Ceiba.

    Once, we came around a curve on the road to La Ceiba and our driver neatly swerved around a house-sized boulder on which someone had written in orange spray paint “Peligro”. Just in case we didn’t know.

  2. #2 khan
    February 11, 2009

    Could you put a side link to the Honduras stories on your blog?

    I would like to send a link to people.

  3. #3 PalMD
    February 11, 2009

    Sure. Once the final one posts, i’ll create some sort of uber-link or something.

  4. #4 Angelo
    February 15, 2009

    Your stories reminded me of my uncle who told similar stories to me. He was a priest in Hondurar for many years. Thanks for sharing about your experiences and thanks for your time and compassion you showed.

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