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Letter from Honduras: Family in December

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 31, 2012 - We could not travel in December until we celebrated the 15th birthday of Cecilia (Chila), the daughter of Chemo's half brother Santos and Alba. We couldn't miss that, because the "Quinceanera" marks the traditional turn from a girl to a young lady.

Chila really is already a young lady. During the difficult days of Alba's pregnancy, she managed the house, including making our supper every night, all the while working her way successfully through third grade at school. But they made a lovely little birthday party for Chila. For the cake, Profe Flor made a masterpiece, a blend of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla, decorated like a French palace, complete with a little figurine "15" on top.

But then, we had to get going. Would we go to Tocoa at the eastern extreme of Honduras, to visit Chemo's sister Rosa, 24, and brother Marcos, 15? Or would we go to Tras-Cerros at the western extreme to visit Chemo's mother Rufina? Or, God forbid, both?

We would start with Rosa. We were pretty lucky the first day. Leaving at 5 a.m., five hours to El Progreso, where we jumped on a bus to Tocoa just waiting for us, it seemed.

Five more hours to Tocoa, the village of Juan Antonio, to be exact, where Marcos (at right in the picture) met us at the highway and we started the hike up the road. He and Chemo picked up right where they left off a year ago, teasing and poking, and Chemo grabbing Marcos' cell phone, which Marcos had bought with money he earned milking cows.

But the river, would the river be a problem? I'm such a baby, I treat it like the Red Sea, when it's no more than a creek, but I just imagine slipping off the stepping stones and wetting myself (you should excuse the expression) with no chance of drying off in the rainy, cloudy climate.

"There's a bridge now!" Marcos assures us. Well, then, I'm saved.

We round a bend in the road and I see, or strain to see, the "bridge."

"That's not a bridge, that's a branch!" A tree trunk stripped of its bark, with a kink in it like the old Chain of Rocks Bridge that gave me nightmares my entire childhood, thrown across the gorge. With one deaf ear, I have little sense of balance, so I was ready to give up. A little closer, I could see a cable stretched above it, for a handrail, of sorts. OK, maybe.

I gave Marcos my backpack, and he scurried across like a squirrel, while I placed one foot in front of another in a very poor imitation of Philippe Petit crossing between the Twin Towers. Good night nurse, it's only like 40 seconds from one end to the other and I'm praying (cursing?) like a madman. But I made it, the cable imprinted in my desperate hand.

You know what? Rosa is actually ... a little plump. That's a good thing, since she was literally on the verge of death a couple years ago when we took her to the same brigada of heart surgeons that had saved Chemo's life in 2008. They opted for medication rather than surgery, and she's been backing off the brink ever since.

My big plan was a Day at the Mall, or a couple hours anyway. So on Saturday, everyone dressed up and we rode the bus into town. (After I swung like a drunken trapezer hanging onto that cable across the log-bridge.)

Now, you have to sort of suspend disbelief here. I mean, this is a mall whose "anchor" store is a Wendy's. Everyone wanted fried chicken, except me (a "Cheddar Lover's" burger). Afterward, Marcos, Chemo, and Tonito played for at least an hour in the Playground. Then a shopping spree at the super market, where Rosa loaded up the cart. And I threw in some chocolate, a Hershey bar or two. 

Chemo's used to the big city experience, Tonio's a bull, and I'm a gringo -- but that night everyone else got sick. Whether it was all that food, or just the chocolate, or the combination of the two, I felt bad that I'd made an affliction out of an invitation. Still, I'd rather die eating chocolate than live a thousand years on humus.

"Let's go!" Chemo wanted to get going -- but where? Marcos, who had not seen Rufina in a year, wanted to see their mother.

Early Monday morning, we crossed the stick-bridge before dawn; the log was wet and slippery, and I moved slower than ever. We hiked to the main road, and just as we got there, a bus to Tocoa rumbles past; I waved and yelled, but it did not stop. "Why didn't it stop?" I kept repeating, as if I could reverse reality. But a couple minutes later, I got my answer. A great big blue bus approached and ... stopped! An express to San Pedro Sula! We quickly squeezed Rosa and Tonito goodbye and clambered aboard and snuggled into the big comfortable seats. Thank God we "missed" the other bus! We'd be there in no time, that is, about six hours.

In San Pedro Sula, we had time to get lunch at the huge bus terminal before catching the next bus to the Guatemalan border. It's a "quick" trip to Tras-Cerros, just over two hours. As we stepped off the bus, Fidel, Rufina's beloved companion, was waiting. He's as delicate as a dancer, but strong as a bull. Rosa had packed three enormous bags of stuff (plates and dishes, pots and pans, and clothes and shoes) that Rufina had left behind when she and Fidel and Don Cruz fled Tocoa after being assaulted almost a year ago. Tras-Cerros is Fidel's home town, and Don Cruz', too. Fidel carried everything, stopping only once to shift weight.

At the house, the boys immediately fell into into mommy mode, and Rufina answered in kind.

I pulled up a chair to talk with Don Cruz, now 92. "Estoy terminando, Miguel." "I'm done." He said it so finally, so matter-of-factly, I thought he meant he was literally about to die. But he clarified, "I can't work anymore, legs won't take me."

So Old School, so noble, salt of the earth. If you can't work, you're done. "Retirement" is surrender. Becoming a burden for someone else, a humiliation.

Of course, Rufina and Fidel never mention such things; he is and always will be their "patron," the man in charge. And I wouldn't let it pass, either; I started with questions only he could answer, history, customs, politics, frontiers and the Bible, which he still reads daily, and without glasses! I've had "cheaters" since I was 12, and ol' Don Cruz can still read the Fine Print in his 90s. No, he ain't done yet!

I question my own capacity among such poor folks, such poor food, such poor accommodations, all offered with such readiness. I could really do with a little humiliation myself. Three meager beds: I slept with Chemo, Marcos slept with his mom, Fidel slept with Don Cruz. Bedtime: 6:30 p.m.

Chemo wanted to leave after one day, I was thinking three. Marcos, as usual, was noncommittal. We settled on two. Rufina, in her very quiet way, clearly longed for more time, even as we rose early on Wednesday to make the bus to San Pedro Sula. "Don't go today, look, it's raining." I gave her some cash that could get her to visit Rosa, Tonio, and Tonito -- and Marcos once he gets back home. Was I paying her off? I don't know.

We slogged through the mud to get to the bus, but once aboard, the most amazing thing happened. The driver turns on a flat TV screen mounted in the front, and up comes the original "Home Alone"! It kept the boys -- and me -- entertained all the way to San Pedro. And I was crying! I mean, the kid wished his family away, but he missed them so much, he got them back. Meanwhile, I quizzed Chemo and Marcos both: Progreso? Morazan? Home alone? Chemo was inclining now to a return to Las Vegas, but he sure would love that mall-stop.

Even in San Pedro, we were undecided. I headed us toward a cab to take us to a bus to Progreso -- I'd already called Dora in Las Vegas, telling her not to expect us til, maybe, Friday or even Saturday. Then the cab passed a mall just a couple blocks from the terminal, I suddenly thought, "What are we doing! If we're going to Progreso to go to a mall, here's a mall right here!" I stopped the cab and set the picture for the boys: "If we get our stuff here -- fast -- we can still catch the bus to Las Vegas. All in favor..."

I've never spent so much on so little in my life! The sports store said "Up to 70% Off." Except anything we wanted. Soccer shoes, socks, shorts, jerseys, and a ball, 300 dollars. Merry Christmas! I had to tell myself, it's worth it; this is professional-grade equipment; it won't fall into rags so quickly. And look at all the money we were saving by not going to Progreso, etc., easily 300 bucks. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Anyway, we scampered back to the terminal, where Porfirio's bus soon appeared, and we settled in for the long ride home. Like old Don Cruz, we were "done."

The Posadas were set to begin the next night, a wandering chain of visits in imitation of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem, with Christmas carols, bible readings, and a dash of preaching.

The string of visits was interrupted Dec. 23 by a Mass and wedding. Nahum and Erika were the lovely couple, and it was so simple, rustic, you might say, but so nice. Chemo says, "How are they getting married? They've already got two kids!" Yes, well, this is special. And it was special; they held their reception at their house, a sprawling ranch, a legacy over a hundred years old, passed down generation to generation in Nahum's family. And what with holiday cantinas springing up on every street, Nahum and Erika welcomed their guests to an alcohol-free celebration. The true Spirit of the Season.

The original Youth Group begun back in the 1980s by Cristina ("Titina") Castro took advantage of the Season to stage a party in her honor. They're old enough now to have teens in the current Youth Group, but that first group was special. It was my own introduction to Las Vegas, and, as led by Cristina, they marveled that no one has abandoned their Christian faith. In fact, the only reason Cristina agreed to the fete, I'm sure, is that she saw another chance to share the message she has shared her whole life.

You know, sometimes the topic of "women priests" is controversial; for Cristina, ordination would be a step down. She's in a category by herself, a prophet! Over the years, battling Parkinson's and other debilities, her voice has softened some, but her Spirit is just as strong as ever. She preached and then, "I'm going to sing now." Everyone joined in, we were kids again.

We burned the "Old Man," 2011, on New Year's Eve, glad to be rid of his death-grip on our dreams. Stuffed with firecrackers, he met a fitting end. Now for 2012, our last chance, if the Mayans are to be believed.

Miguel Dulick has lived in Las Vegas, Honduras since 2003. There he has no projects, no plans, no investments -- only to share the life of the poor. For years he has been sending reports back to friends and family in St. Louis, and the Beacon is proud to become a part of his circle.

Miguel Dulick has lived in Las Vegas, Honduras, since 2003. There he has no projects, no plans, no investments -- only to share the life of the poor. For years he has been sending reports back to friends and family in his native St. Louis. In sharing these reports, we offer a glimpse of how life is so different, yet so much the same, in different places.