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There was some confusion getting out of Ceiba on Wednesday morning. My nursing students got up at 4am to take turns in the bathroom and leave at 5, while the med students in their house across town were preparing for a later departure. So we had more time to drink our coffee. We all left a little after 7 planning to be in Tocoa for breakfast by 9—the students in the UNAH bus and me, Luther's brother who generously dropped all his previous obligations to help us on the journey, Dr. Valcárcel, Dr. Marilyn and Carolina (the sibling team responsible for all the photographs here) in the car. But after the rains the night before, the zone was in red alert, and it quickly became clear that there was good reason for that. Trees were downed what seemed like every few dozen meters, although local people were collecting them almost as fast as they had been felled for firewood. It's a very efficient highway maintenance system.
Mudslides were also frequent, as were absences of big chunks (often more than half the width of the road) of pavement, washed away during the storm.
People were gathered at nearly every bridge to watch the rushing high rivers and the destruction they'd caused.
We'd heard the bridge in Planes, before Tocoa, had been washed out, but we had thought it might be possible to find a way to cross. But when we approached, there was a long, long line of trucks backed up.
Once we reached a place where we could neither drive forward nor back, we got out of the car to investigate. These two pictures were taken simultaneously by our intrepid photographers:
Several journalist teams were also there. I realized that this was probably a bigger bridge than I'd imagined, as we walked closer, approaching the large crowd.
A big machine was moving dirt around in the river. I failed to understand how it was addressing the problem at hand...
...which indeed was more serious than we'd optimistically told ourselves:
Nonetheless, it was impressive to see just how much life managed to go on, and how creative and even enterprising people were facing the destruction. Folks had already set up a system to cross on foot, and had secured very long ladders to our side.
Vendors were selling burritas to the crowd that had gathered,
as well as sodas.
The camera men were taking their job seriously.
Our favorite river crosser, however, was the piggy-back clown (click to see longer photo-essay)
The traffic (at least the smaller vehicles on the left) finally got moving, and we got in the car and wound around the parked tractor-trailers, a gas station, and a washed out curb back onto the road and took the detour toward Trujillo. (click image to see longer photo-essay)
We were entering the Margen Izquierda of the Bajo Aguán, one of the most militarized regions of the country, where Miguel Facussé and other large African Palm-growing landowners are waging a campaign of terror against organized campesinos defending their lands.
The merchandise displayed was a direct reflection of the needs of the moment.
As we approached this group from afar, we'd thought we'd come upon a highway blockade protesting something, but it turned out to be a different kind of toma de carretera
At this point, I'd called Odil at the restaurant in Tocoa, who was preparing our 30 meals, four times. First to tell him we were leaving early, then to tell him we were leaving late, then to tell him we would be arriving later, then to tell him we had to cancel because of the bridge at Planes. But every time, he said "No problem, don't be embarrassed! What matters most to me is that you and your students make it to Ciriboya. What you're doing is for the community, and we're grateful for that" (every time I called more embarrassed than the last, and those were pretty much exactly his words). When we heard there was a detour we could take that would lead us back to Tocoa, I called him back to say we were on again, and he said he was happy to start cooking again. But then we got to the turn-off
...and were met by a group of soldiers, who told us there was no way to get through. We had to keep going toward Trujillo. Despite how relentlessly forgiving Odil had been with every change in plans, I was mortified.
I made Dr. Marilyn call him for me. He said the same to her. We continued on, past more churning rivers (this one with a washed-out hanging walking bridge alongside it)
The roads were pure mud, but the scenery was beautiful.
I want to live in this house.
Military posts litter the landscape. This soldier took his lunch with a small herd of buffalo and a bunch of goats.
Apparently there are gangs out that way too, or someone else who marks territory with sneakers.
Riverbank trees were completely inundated
...as were entire plantations of African Palm:
We stopped in Corocito so everyone could buy rubber boots:
The road crossing was flooded.
The students wanted to eat lunch (they hadn't even had breakfast), but we were already so late and with the threat of rain and the worst of the roads to come, they had to go hungry. I bought ten bags of tamales, fritas, and corn on the cob from trip funds and passed them around, and they piled back in the bus. I did stop though to buy a big sack full of frozen chickens, like 20 of them. Maybe more. It seemed like a ridiculous amount of chickens, but we're eating our way through them.
We passed a man with inexplicably fabulous purple hair.
Past Bonito Oriental where the dirt road begins, with the sun finally out, it was beautiful.
Dr. Valcárcel wanted to stop at Piedra Blanca to pose. It came out a little fuzzy, but his good spirits are still visible.
We passed this house with a green roof (what is it that the hipsters call it?)
...and the real mud began.
We saw some plantains at the pulpería right where the soldiers have their roadblock. I was delighted, because I'd bought all the food supplies for the trip except for fruits and vegetables, and was stressed out about it. We bought the whole bunch for more than they were worth (l.100) but didn't try to bargain, and the nice old man hacked them into sections with his machete so we could fit them in around our luggage. As he was doing that I looked over to the truck going the other direction, which the soldiers had stopped. They were interrogating the driver, MUCA leader Juan Chinchilla, heading back from Farallones. I had gotten into an argument with the same soldiers 5 days earlier when I had passed through on my way back from the Moskitia to Tegucigalpa because they told me I was travelling illegally (I only had a photocopy of my passport on me). I tried to imagine not having the protections and privilege I have, being in clear and open opposition to the Honduran soldiers enforcing the will of landlords and constantly threatening and harassing campesinos, and having to deal with them every time I left or entered my community. Eventually they let him drive off, and we drove off too, in the opposite direction.
The trucks headed to the Moskitia are easy to spot. They are piled up to the hilt with goods to be unpacked after numerous ferry trips over rivers and driving over beach sand at Palacios, where they are loaded into pipantes to be carried to all points down the river. This one was getting out quite late (it was already after 2pm) because of the detours and road conditions.
Most bridges on the road to Ciriboya look like this. They're bridges that the water flows over.
After Icotea, a couple weeks ago there had been one of the other kind of bridge, the kind where the water flows underneath. But it turned out it wasn't there anymore.
I told my traveling companions that I had been taken on a detour through Facussé's plantation to our left the previous week, which must have been in order to avoid the washed-out bridge. We posed for a picture while waiting for the bus to show up.
It wasn't long before things got muddier. Our rental car made it through a mud lake on the road fine, but we stopped afterwards, sure the bus would get stuck. Merry mixups ensued. Click on the photo to watch the whole saga unfold:
I won't lie here. There were more than a few students with tears of frustration in their eyes at this point, even though they were doing a fantastic job of keeping their spirits up as a group. I asked them to think about what hunger and such difficult access—which we were dealing with on a one-time basis and without real danger—meant for people from the region when they have to travel to Tocoa for an emergency operation or some other treatment not available at the Ciriboya Hospital. They took the suggestion seriously, and went and got their hands dirty with their complete strength and enthusiasm.
Once we got the bus out of the mud, a pickup full of fruits and vegetables miraculously appeared. I bought 500 lempiras worth as fast as I could, with Dr. Valcárcel shouting in the background that we had to get going, it was getting late and it could rain or get dark. He was absolutely right, of course, but we also needed vegetables.
I handed the two large sacks to the students to hold on their laps in the bus (we didn't have an extra inch) and we started driving again, only to immediately encounter this Tocoa-Iriona bus getting pulled out of the mud by one of Facussé's tractors. The road, apart from being blocked by the bus, was impassable ahead.
The guys with the tractor, employees of the plantation, told us we had to go back out to the main road, and enter the plantation one road earlier. In our conversation in the car we focused for a moment not on the stolen land and lives it represents, but on its actual physical presence. The plantation itself struck me as some kind of evil enchanted forest. The tall trees, their broad palm leaves covering the sun are of more or less equal height and width, equidistant from each other and arranged in seemingly eternal diagonal rows. The roads are a labyrinth; I am quite sure that on my own I would never find my way back to wherever I'd entered. And then the mud sucks you in.
Piles of huge palm fruits lay more-or-less stacked on the roads, collected using long poles with sickles on the end. The same guys who gave us directions were there, collecting them one by one and hurling them into the tractor with long spears. I had a bad feeling that we had made a wrong turn and ended up where we started.
But it turned out we were going the right way. The enchanted evil forest road was lower than the main road at their intersection, which meant a nail-biting turn. Even more so for the UNAH bus behind us.
Back on the road, a jeep was parked right on a water-over-the-bridge for a free car wash. The driver was using a plastic broom to scrub down his vehicle. We waved as we passed by.
Another water-over-the-bridge had lost quite a bit of concrete, which we luckily noticed before trying to drive over it. The bus driver, Marcos, and I stomped around it with our rubber boots to check the depth of the underwater potholes.
We determined it to be safe enough.
The last big hurdle was Mudslide Hill (as I call it) just before Garifuna territory really begins—a thrilling and terrifying ride each of the 3 times I'd had to go up or down it in the previous month. The little UNAH bus that could slid down it like a champ
We got to Ciriboya about 10 minutes before the bus. Drs. Melvin and Bayson met us there.
The arrival itself was lovely. The students were too excited to wait for the bus doors to open
and streamed out. There was lots of hand shaking, and—in true Honduran fashion—impromptu speech-making. I even said a few words myself.
The students had a quick look at the hospital, and then were taken to the different homes of community members who are generously housing them. After that, they all came to Mirna's house for a fabulous dinner. I don't have a picture of Mirna's kitchen right now, but will put one up later. It is a wonder to behold. In two hours she managed to transform the ingredients I'd brought her into a delicious feast for 40. We then went over the the Cuban solidarity house across the street to meet the Cuban doctor, dentist, nurse, and lab tech currently on rotation. They are a wonderful group of woman, with their fervent spirit of solidarity and uniquely Cuban humor (which seems quite compatible with Garifuna humor). We went around the room and did introductions, and the Cubans asked why all the nurses were women and most of the doctors were men. "Where are the male nurses?" they asked (the lone male nurse raised his hand). In Cuba, they told us, it was half and half.
Then Drs. Bayson, Beatriz and Valcárcel spoke to the group. Dr. Bayson spoke of the importance in this hospital of providing a different treatment that what they're accustomed to. Here, he explained, putting his hand on my shoulder as an example, you have to touch the patient. Sometimes that's enough for them to begin to feel well, he told us. Because that is the image that people here have of doctors from the city; that they never touch them. The city doctor only comes in, prescribes them drugs, and leaves.
Dr. Beatriz added to Dr. Bayson's argument. In order to really treat the patient, she told us, you have to touch them. You have to smell them. You have to show them you are not grossed out by them or above them. Only that way will they have faith in the process, and if they don't have faith, they won't heal. She added a quote from Che, something about love being the most important thing of all. She said that she would give blood for her own patients to save their life. You have to show your patients love.
Dr. Valcárcel, for his part, gave an impressive off-the-cuff history lesson dealing with the intertwined Honduran and Cuban histories and the importance of solidarity between the two nations. He is clearly used to making inspirational speeches. A few quotes:
"I don't like to talk about socialism and capitalism, although socialism is better than capitalism."
"We have to ask the right questions. Questions like 'Why is infant mortality in Cuba so low,' and 'Why do 22 people a day get killed in Honduras?'"
"You Hondurans dirty up your streets with pictures of old men [political candidates] who dye their mustaches because they're embarrassed to show their white hairs."
One student led a call-and-response chant that went:
If we fight in the present (Si el presente es lucha)
The future will be ours (La futura será nuestra)!
Everyone shouted along with feeling. Then another student with an absolutely beautiful voice led the group a capella in singing El Necio. Dr. Valcárcel told them they were making history as young people, and as the first non-Garífuna Honduran brigade to the Hospital. He told them they would be the future healthcare leaders in the country, and had important work ahead of them. Despite an exhausting and at times a little frightening two days of travel, the students told me that at the end of their first night in Ciriboya, they were full of excitement and hope.