ARRIVING IN HONDURAS AGED 18
I’ve never really told my Honduran story before. But it sure is an interesting and complex one. I was 18. I quit my job in September 2010 and told everyone I was leaving for Central America in 5 weeks time. I was lost and to be quite frank couldn’t be asked to go to university. I just wanted to roam free and let my free spirit take over.
I had been browsing online and stumbled across a link for teaching English up a mountain in a remote place.
I can’t even lie. I barely read the info. I called up the volunteer programme that day and booked. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even know where Honduras was. Lord only knows where I inherited this spontaneity from. Virtually nothing fazes me. The UN states that Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world. I didn’t think much into it. For me, it’s all or nothing. I like extreme experiences and half-hearted adventures leave me nothing but disappointed. I googled where I was heading. Copán Ruinas. Copán Ruinas is a municipality in the Honduran department of Copán. The town, located close to the Guatemalan border, is a major gateway for tourists traveling to the Pre-Columbian ruins of Copán. It looked beautiful. And most importantly peaceful. Maybe I would finally find some peace here.
I wasn’t fazed by this upcoming adventure but was perhaps very naive as to what I would actually encounter in this incredibly third world country. What I was to come up against was weeks of emotional turbulence and huge challenges. I never believed that such an experience would honestly change everything about me but It 100% did. I returned with an entirely different outlook on life and can honestly say was one of the hardest times of my entire life.
The day arrived. I have always been incredibly mature for my age, even at 18 I felt like I could take on the whole world and the challenge that I undertook was a mean feat for someone so young. Honestly most people my age or even now would have crumbled under that immense pressure.
First up I arrived in New York. It was late at night and it was an 9 hour wait until my next flight. I was due to wait in the airport but two hours after waiting the cleaners started arriving and I knew something was up.
They were shutting the terminal.
What the hell. I didn’t have a hotel or even a phone that worked. Next minute I know I was having a huge panic attack. I’d never had a panic attack before. I couldn’t breathe and I was screaming and crying and trying to suppress my tears in front of the cleaners. I was genuinely panicking so hard with what to do. I sat outside and snow started to fall. I bought a phone card and rang a nearby hotel.
My alarm rang. It was 4am and I’d paid $120 dollars for 5 hours in a hotel. GREAT.
Soon I was back at the airport, boarding my flight to Honduras. I was sat next to a tiny Honduran woman that kept giving me boiled sweets. I think she sensed my nervousness. As we landed into Honduras I leant over my flight partner to look out the window. It was the most green, plush place I had ever seen. SO SO BEAUTIFUL.
I was met at the airport and boarded a bus with my new project leader. It was a local bus. I sat on the bus for a total of 3 hours up a mountain next to a huge man with a large beard. Every time we turned a corner he fell closer to me and his beer spilt onto my plimsolls. The sides of the bus were open. I could smell the air. It smelt so fresh. The climate was muggy and uncomfortable. Children noticed me from the paths and screamed and shouted and even waved passing through each village. The scenery was incredible. Honduras is a mountainous country, with beautiful rolling hills covered in rainforests.
We arrived into Copán Ruinas late evening. The place was small and full of cobbled streets and Spanish style open buildings. I was walked up to my new home. I knocked on the door. My new Mum opened the door. A small smiling Hispanic woman opened the door and hugged me so hard. This was Tina. Conversation was limited. She only spoke Spanish and I, only English (minus the few phrases I’d learnt on the plane).
I entered my room. It was a simple room with an en suite and huge bed. I was told my host family was one of the richest in the entire town. Tomorrow I would be meeting for orientation and to enrol in Spanish school.
So here I was. Up a mountain in the middle of “The most dangerous country in the world” without a single word of their spoken language nor a mobile phone. I was petrified. I slept deeply and awoke with Tina knocking at my door asking me numerous questions I could not understand.
I enrolled at Spanish school. I automatically felt relieved. The school was outdoors and I could see vivid parrots flying overhead while I went through my lessons. Nelly was the most beautiful teacher and spent hours smiling at me from the other side of the desk and hugging me after each lesson. I had two days before I would start at La Escuela at San Rafael. It took me a couple of days before I built up the confidence to wonder about Copán Ruinas. It was single handily the most intimidating place I had ever been. As I wondered the streets I was petrified I’d get lost and not be able to ask for directions back. I soon found out I was pretty much one of about 5 people that could speak English in the whole town. Armed guards marched the streets and questioned locals. Anyone and everyone stared. I Wherever I wondered I would turn around and find a group of children following me. They would laugh and giggle and chase me down the street. I stopped and sat on the kerb while the girls played with my hair. They tried to speak to me but I found it so hard to communicate and became more and more frustrated. They opened a black bag. It was full of handmade corn dolls all different shapes, sizes and colours. I was immediately taken a back. They were beautiful.
I reached into my bag. Careful not show my money. I couldn’t help but purchase. The children couldn’t believe their eyes. They kissed me gave me the entire contents of their bags and ran all the way home shouting. I now was the proud owner of 26 corn dolls. Not bad for £20 I thought. I later found out this is more than most families earn in months. On my last weekend the street children came to find me to give me a homemade card and CD that they’d found to say Thank You. I was absolutely touched.
My alarm buzzed, it was 4am. This was life now. 4am everyday set for school. I ate my pancakes in Tina’s kitchen surrounded by chickens and children. In my whole time living with Tina I never understood how many children or grandchildren she actually had. I walked the three streets down the hill to the main square where the pickup truck arrived. We all scrambled in. This was the journey now to school, all piled in the back of the truck sitting on plastic bags up the mountain. The air was so heavy and the clouds hadn’t cleared. By the time I got to the top my hair was easily 6 times the size. We passed the rice plantations as workers waved at us every day and hundreds of men sleeping on the streets.
I was introduced to my class.It soon became apparent that i wasn’t in fact teaching English, but ALL classes in SPANISH. WOW. Just another challenge i knew I’d have to overcome. I was overwhelmed. My class was a group of 22 7-8 year olds and I was named Miss Flor. (short for flower). The children immediately welcomed me. I was jumped on a hugged as soon as a arrived. The children were so loving, they felt my face as if they couldn’t quite believe I was real. My first week consisted of assisting the only existing teacher at the school and attempting to communicate with the children. I felt pressured and had to learn quickly when it came to answering the children’s questions. They were understanding and so full of life. Within a week I was attempting to dictate to the children to read pages, answer questions and teaching maths and natural sciences in Spanish. I rewarded the children with sparkly London stickers and gel pens. I really didn’t think anyone loved sparkly stickers as much as me.
At 12 every day we would offer the children a meal. This was rice, beans and a flour tortilla. Each child brought a container with them to collect their food in. Some of the children didn’t even have a plate to eat from and I watched as they ate from their hands. I was heartbroken to watch the almost skeletal little ones fight in the queue for food and then eat two or three beans and put the rest under their desk to take home for their families. They were starving themselves and I later found out that nearly all children walked a total of 2 hours each day across the mountains to school on an empty stomach.
Each evening was spent at a roof top café lesson planning overlooking the entire town. I never anticipated how much work it would take. The project run was dedicated and clear about what they wanted the children to learn and how much work we were required to put in. There were two other volunteers. Both in their 30s and two project leaders in their late 20s. They constantly supported me and were astounded at how young I actually was. I will be forever thankful for them. Each night I spent doing Spanish homework and making worksheets. In between the tears and being terrified of my surroundings, I had never been happier.
On Tuesdays we volunteered at a local orphanage. We had been briefed before of the low standards and utter poverty that these children were living in. I prepared to have my heart broken. The orphanage was a short walk from the village. It was a small house run by “nannies” which I later found out they often abuse the children and steal all of the donation money. I arrived and was met with the most overwhelming love I have ever experienced in my entire life. The children (and roam dogs) jumped into my arms. They stunk of urine and were filthy and were unclothed but I didn’t care. I wanted to give them everything I had. We played games and activities and read stories. There were babies there too and the “nannies” allowed them to sit in soiled nappies and hit them when they cried. Each week when I left the same children held onto my legs and screamed when I left. They were so adorable. We were not allowed to take photos here but I can still remember their faces so vividly.
I spent the whole evening sitting in a bar desperate to think what I could do to help. I was at loose end because I knew I wasn’t allowed to involve myself in the project and damage the reputation of the project. If I was to enforce anything on the nannies then it could risk the project being involved at all at the orphanage and putting the children at an even higher risk. I couldn’t donate money either; it would go straight into the pockets of the wrong people. I was so frustrated I was unable to do ANYTHING. My friend Jesus who worked on the bar informed me of the reality of Honduras and how there was little anyone could really do. His country was corrupt and it upset him so. This really hit home. (I was a regular at the bar by now)
Virtually my entire time in Honduras was spent alone. This was one of the biggest mental challenges I had ever come across. It was a lonely time but was overshadowed by the vast amount I was achieving. I visited the famous 5th century ancient Mayan ruins alone and climbed to the top of the pyramids to take copious selfies. (pretty sure selfie didn’t exist in 2010, but yeah) This was incredible and just felt so alive.
Weekends following included a stay at a coffee plantation, wild horse rides to a ranch and bathing naked in the hot springs. (here I felt really alive as you can imagine). I met numerous Americans who helped me along the way and were untimely puzzled to come across an 18 year old traveling alone.
I spent weeks working at the school and building incredible relationships with the children. I was comfortable to have my own class by now without supervisation and we played outdoor games and i bought them craft resources they’d never even seen before. Each day was a mental and physical challenge and i was undergoing tests at Spanish school which I was struggling with. It was a constant battle but bought me nothing but rewards everyday. Each day I spent smiling and overwhelmed with love from all the children at that school I can still to this day remember all of their names and have photos and mementos from all of them.
The day I departed the school was single handedly the most overwhelming day of my entire life. Each child had drawn me cards and posters and made me feel so special. I later translated all their letters which were along the lines of “Please come back you have taught us so much and we love you”. I was so sad and disappointed I was leaving but i knew it was time for another challenge. The children screamed and hugged me as i left and some even cried. They begged me to come back “Te vamos a extrañar” and “cuando vas a volver” was ringing in my ears. As the truck drove off the children ran down the street screaming my name.
My journey home from Honduras was the most eventful I have ever embarked on. This was the amusing part of my entire adventure. The evening I left I headed to the bar to see my friend Jesus and two other volunteers. There were Americans and two hours later I’d had 5 tequilas and 3 wines and was running the streets of Copan. Alicia and I headed to an Honduran club. What an experience. I can barely remember this entire time but i certainly remember there was a live singer and no DJ and there was certainly sand between my toes. Very. Very confusing. I had been abandoned by new American friend and i was returned to my house. I had three hours to sleep this off and i was already throwing up all over the entire room. WHAT THE HELL I HADN’T EVEN PACKED.
I awoke to Tina knocking on my door. I was SO ill and I started throw the entire contents of my bag on the floor. Tina was so upset I was leaving. We had an emotional depart and i gave her everything. I just abandoned most of my stuff and legged it to the bus. I bought a beautiful handmade bag to which i spent the entire journey to the airport throwing up in. The whole bus had moved away from me and I continued to throw up on myself and the seats. It was horrendous. I have barely ever drunk tequila since. The memories haunt me. I left the bag on the bus and ran to the airport.
I checked in. My bag was mental overweight. I bought plates and everything and would have had to pay hundreds to get it home. I grabbed a load of clothes asked the security to watch my bag and legged it outside. Surrounding the airport was a ton of locals. I gave a lady a pile of clothes and food. They looked at me like i was crazy then grabbed my hand and kissed it.
I ran back inside. It was under an hour til my flight. I went through security and noticed a sign. “MUST PAY TAXES”. WHAT? WHAT TAXES? I ran to the cashpoint. The screen flashed BLOCKED. My card was blocked. I grabbed my phone. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. SHIT. I CAN’T LEAVE THE COUNTRY. I had no money and no phone credit. I had to board my flight in 20 minutes. I sat on the floor and cried. I couldn’t speak to anyone and i just felt pathetic.
10 minutes til my flight…
I WAS GONNA MISS IT. I felt a tap on my shoulder a small woman with glasses looked at me with glowing eyes. “Stop crying my darling what is wrong?” I told her my situation through floods of tears and she spoke to me in an American accent. She owned a bookshop in Rotorua. She placed 50 US Dollars into my hand and closed it. This angel gave me her business card and told me to run. So, just like Forrest i ran to the gate and paid my fines. I made it onto my flight just at the gate was closing. I let out the biggest sigh of relief, and that was that.
I MADE IT.