Four years ago & almost 2 years ago, I headed to Nueva Suyapa in Honduras. Last year, our final assignment in my creative non-fiction class was to write a narrative essay, and one topic choice was about a photo. Naturally, I chose to write about Honduras & this photo in particular. The following is that essay.
I promised myself I would eat all my vegetables and make my bed every day if I could stay in Honduras. In the space between “awake and I don’t want to leave my cozy bed yet” and “someone is coming to bring you to the airport in thirty minutes”, I sat on my laptop, flipping through photos of our eleven day trip, trying to devise a way I could stay here in this warm, safe space. All I could come up with was promising to eat my veggies and make my bed every day, two things I’m notoriously bad at.
I kept clicking through photo after photo, trying to prolong the inevitable last minute packing awaiting me. My fingers hovered over a picture of Nemesis and I blowing bubbles at each other; my eyes flicked over a photo of Daniella perched atop my shoulders; and I fully stopped everything when I came to the picture of our group in a small church.
I’m used to churches being grand, magnificent buildings. I’ve been to church in school auditoriums, in school cafeterias, in movie theatres, in cathedrals. I think this church still counts as my favourite. The photo depicts church at its best: church should never be about what room you’re gathering in, but it should always be about the people you’re with.
It’s small, one simple room with a few small landscape photos hung on the wall. The room is painted a mauve pink with mismatched blue plastic chairs, a wooden blue bench, and a wooden chair, almost tucked into the corner. The electrical wires in the ceiling were exposed, which could be viewed as attempting a hipster aesthetic in Toronto. In Honduras, it’s just the way things are.
But this was my clue that this building mattered and was held as a place of high regard in the area: it had a concrete floor, swept so clean, you couldn’t see a speck of the red dirt that was right outside.
* * *
When I travelled to Honduras over the 2011 Christmas break, I clung to the altruistic idea that I was going to put concrete floors in various homes in Honduras, and thought that was my movement towards changing the way the world works. No longer content to accept things the way they were, I thought was me changing the way things are.
Like many people who travel around the world on volunteer trips, I was naive about the impact of the projects at hand. I was naive about the culture in general. All I knew about Honduras before I went was that it had one of the highest murder rates around the world.
I had no idea that a dirt floor was a sign of poverty in Honduras. For the first week of the trip, I didn't understand why everyone was so excited about something that seemed as simple as a concrete floor or why they’d be taking so much pride in it.
In Toronto, I live in a concrete jungle where cement surrounds me. I lived in a building made out of cement blocks, using so much concrete, it almost resembled a prison. The floors I walk on aren't just cement, they're covered in hardwood or carpet most days, decorated with tile or laminate flooring. But this concrete floor, this offering brings about tears.
I can still hear the shovels digging into the sand and clinking against the rocks, the ripping of a new bag of concrete, the sound of agua splashing over the dry mixture before furiously moving it all together to create concrete. This mixture of stones and sand turning to concrete means little to concrete jungle Hannah. But in Honduras, it’s a new beginning, a fresh start, a great hope.
No more dirt. There’s a new feeling smoothing over the families, just as the masons smooth over the cement to create a beautiful new addition to their homes.
* * *
We were moving towards getting in group formation for the photo, adjusting the height layers of our group because even the shortest members of our team stood a head taller than the tallest Honduran woman in the room. As we shuffled around to find our respective spaces, I noticed a whiteboard perched on top of a chair. You could see the green whiteboard marker still scrawled behind all the photos tacked onto it, with fake flowers surrounding the frame. It showed pictures of Wilma, the sector's leader - she was in almost every photo, looking proud with her smirking smile. Then there were photos of teams who had visited the community, and pictures of their family. I grinned and quietly squealed when I caught a glimpse of my face from my 2011 trip. In 2014, I’m still there. All those photos displayed at the front of their church. In a place of honour.
Like they were proud to have us in their community.
Like they knew we’d all come back and we’d want to see our pictures here so it would feel like home.
* * *
One of the hardest moments the first time I went to Honduras was the families’ ease and ability to put pictures of my family and I in their family photo albums.
We were told to bring photos with us, because the families loved seeing where we were coming from and seeing what our hermanos and hermanas looked like. I brought stacks of family photos. The little girls and the little boys would take the photos carefully in their hands, asking, “Quien? Quien?” or whispering, “Bonita, bonita!” They would touch the faces in the photo, and then they would ask to keep the family photos.
When I would say sí, they would walk towards their houses, where one room would always be overrun with masons, and they would carefully put each photo in their family photo album or tack it up beside their bed. They didn’t even think about it: they automatically accepted me as their family.
I’ve cried over that realization more than a few times.
My tendency is to want to do everything by myself. I don’t know why: maybe it’s the “oldest child of a single mom” syndrome, maybe it’s come from studying how to not get hurt by people. I walk alone, hoping I can figure it all out by myself. Needing people just seems to get in the way.
But every time I'm in Honduras, I'm reminded I can't do everything alone. I can only mix the cement or hoist a child off my shoulders with some help from someone else. I have no idea where I’m going when I’m there, I don’t know the language. I totally lose my ability to act independently, no matter how much I want to.
They make community look beautiful in Honduras. I’ve walked into greenhouses, packed with women and men who are learning how to garden in order to provide food and income for their families. They link arms with each other and the women - specifically the leaders we were working with - laugh harder than I’ve ever seen women laugh before.
I think that’s why Honduras feels like home. Pieces of my heart are always longing for beautiful community, and I just haven’t found it yet quite like I have in Honduras.
* * *
The picture makes me laugh out loud as I scan over our faces. We aren't good at taking group pictures - it's hard to coordinate 20 people to all look at a camera, all smiling nicely, with everyone being happy about how the photo turned out. We’d been trying for the first few days of the trip unsuccessfully, and this photo didn’t turn out well either. Adam - with his orange shirt perfectly matching his orange hair - is looking off into the distance. Renee has something white on her face and is carrying a bouquet of fake pink flowers. Wilma and I are the front row, arms thrown around each other, crouching down. Most importantly, our mouths are open, probably yelling, “CHOCALA!”
I think that's why a piece of me likes it so much - it shows us in perhaps one of our happiest moments of the trip. Still learning, still laughing, with thoughts of home oh so far away.
* * *
I didn’t want to go home. I would’ve given up school to stay and learn Spanish and work on houses and hear people’s stories.
For a while, I thought that was what I’d do. I’d come to Honduras, have a translator, and I’d write all about Honduras. How it needs a better justice system. About how beautiful the people were. I thought I’d write all these stories and inspire people around the world to take action.
Instead, I came back from Honduras and I stopped wanting to write. I started wanting to roll up my sleeves and actually work with them. I wanted to know exactly what the community needed, and I wanted to help them. I had no idea what that looked like, but I wanted to do it.
To be honest, I still have no idea what that looks like. I am still fumbling together what it means to love your neighbour as yourself and how to bring the lessons of community love that I learned in Honduras to Toronto. I’m still meandering through, trying to learn exactly how to bring simple offerings to my friends when they already have concrete floors.
I think that’s why I stayed in my bed, refusing to move on that morning. Not having the answers scared me and I just wanted to be somewhere where it felt safe to figure it all out.
* * *
I took mental pictures throughout the trip. Any time I wanted a moment to linger just a little bit longer, I would pull my fingers up to my face in a square formation, and I’d press my right index finger down and close my eyes, while clicking my tongue.
Once, when we were riding on the back of a truck through the windy roads of a mountain, I took a mental picture because I wanted to remember how the wind was blowing in my hair. How it felt to stand up in the back of a flatbed truck while people were driving. How the sun was shining and the sky was clear of clouds. How it felt to feel warmth on my skin, instead of feeling like I had to hold myself a little tighter in order to keep warm. How it felt to be loved and know so intimately that you are loved.
The mental pictures are becoming more foggy these days. Time has been passing quickly, the way it does when you have a good night’s sleep or a wonderful nap. I’m still not eating vegetables regularly and my bed in still unmade. I have no plans to return to Honduras in the near to immediate future. I haven’t done half of the things I promised myself I would since leaving Honduras.
But I carry the lessons I learned there about community and concrete floors and change with me every single day.