Posted on June 3, 2012

Honduras Day 4: From The Breast To The Coca-Cola Bottle

The tone of the countryside is noticeably less steely than the city. Although you still wouldn’t want to wander too far away from home turf with a flashy camera, you feel relatively accepted by the locals. The eyes that follow you from the shadow of the doorways are watching more out of curiosity than anything. Our hotel is in the village (here, a closer cluster of shacks equals a village) of Nacaome. It’s like Las Vegas rising from nowhere out of miles of desert–in the midst of this grouping of lean-tos and cinderblock walls with stick roofs is a hotel with a glass-doored lobby, shiny brown marble tile flooring, a banquet hall, bar-restaurant, and large swimming pool fully surrounded by a patio full of lounge chairs and palm trees.

I have no idea who has the money to stay in this little oasis (besides visiting American surgeons for two weeks out of the year), or why anyone would make a hotel stop in Nacaome, which is two hours from Tegucigalpa and still a long drive away from the container shipping ports of the Pacific.

We are quick to discover small reminders that the luxurious hotel in the middle of nowhere is pretty close to being a mirage. When we get up close, the beautiful turquoise water in the swimming pool is so cloudy that the underwater lights along the edges barely produce a dim glow. None of us are going in that. In our spacious rooms with clean bedding and modern furniture, large red ants often drop from the ceiling into our hair or onto our pillows. Geckos dart along the walls of the hallway too quickly for you to get your camera out. The bathrooms are large and beautiful, but the hotel does not provide hot water. In the morning during my cold shower, the water leaves behind a gritty sediment on the floor of the clean white tub, and with dread I suddenly remember that out of habit I have brushed my teeth with the tap water.

We are veiled by appearance only from the dust and grime, the acrid smoke of burning rubbish, all around us.

Pulling up to the medical clinic is the scene all of us first-timers had envisioned when we signed up to come: A crowd of people standing outside the door, leaning against the wall, sitting in the shade of small trees, waiting for medical attention. Elderly men, babies, entire families. They watch the van the whole time, watch us getting out, watch us hauling supplies inside. But they don’t obstruct us. After we have everything set up, a group at the door starts to vie for first-in-line-to-be-seen position, but when they’re instructed to please be patient and keep the entrance clear, they immediately make space and wait quietly. While the medical team sorts out logistics, Adam and I set up the cameras in a shady area outside and prep for interviews. We say “hola” to the people watching us, and the hard stares melt into friendly smiles. In fact, their reactions to everything we did are not at all what I had mentally braced myself for. When I pulled out my camera and asked if it was OK to take their pictures, they were neither offended to be the subject of my interest nor jumping at the chance to be in a picture. They just quietly let me snap my shots, saying “buenas dias” as I passed by. When we broke for lunch, I spoke with first-time medical mission volunteer Jaqueline Diehl, the surgical tech accompanying Dr. Carlos Martinez from Los Angeles, and she’d had the same experience. “I’ve never seen patients just lay on the operating table without complaining once. You could tell that they were feeling pain while we were working on them [without any anesthesia], but they wouldn’t let on that it hurts. If you asked them to do something, they did it. They’re grateful, constantly thanking us. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The hospital Director gives us a tour of the buildings and explains to us all that has been done with the money they’ve been given. The theme of the entire public clinic can be summed up in two words: Zero Waste. If the hospital is given supplies for one person, they stretch it and make it serve five people. There is also zero surplus– handsoap is reserved for the medical staff. The bathrooms are clean, but there is no toilet paper provided. Pens and pencils are a rationed luxury. The Minister of Health visits southern Honduras about twice a year, and always stops at the Hospital San Lorenzo. When asked why the government doesn’t place more of an emphasis on public healthcare, the Director explains that it isn’t that the government isn’t interested… it just doesn’t have the budget.

The distribution of wealth in Honduras looks like this: Five percent are comfortable. Ninety-Five percent are poor. And of those ninety-five percent, eighty percent are below the poverty line. I know that back home in Maine, you can technically be considered below the poverty line and still live a relatively comfortable life. You can have your own car, have money to buy food with, and have a very nice roof over your head. Here in Honduras, the above-poverty line criteria includes: Access to drinkable water, Access to electricity, and Access to emergency medical care. Eighty percent of Hondurans don’t even have the basics, and as a result, almost all children have parasites. Chronic amoebic dyssentary (from drinking polluted water out of dirty cisterns) shortens lifespans by about ten years.

So how do they survive at all, then?

Most are subsistence farmers. Those tiny cornfields we passed along the way here are what sustain the people watching from their lean-tos and cinderblock shacks. The fields produce just enough corn to make tortillas for the one family tending to it. Families typically have as many children as possible to help with this subsistence-farming lifestyle. Men work in the fields until about age 50, then the younger boys fill in where the elders drop out. Because of this harsh life working dry fields in the sun, most men develop cataracts and pterygium (a type of callous that grows over the eyes due to UV rays) by their 30’s. Blindness eventually sets in at a fairly early age, and the person who is no longer able to see requires about three family members to care for him back at the house. This pulls able-bodied workers from the family field. Thus, subsistence farmers remain just that… barely subsisting. Despite this subsistence lifestyle, there are a surprising number of overweight people in Honduras. The Director explained that Coca-Cola is actually cheaper for a family to supply as caloric nourishment than anything else available. Thus, babies go directly from breastfeeding to the Coca-Cola bottle, and combined with a steady diet of nothing but corn tortillas, the result is malnourishment and diabetes on top of everything else.

Is there hope here for the future? If given assistance to get back up again, would Honduras be capable of standing on its own?