Published: November 13th 2007November 13th 2007
Puerto Lempira, Honduras, Central America
Set on the southeastern edge of the biggest of the coastal lagoons, Laguna de Caratasca. Puerto Lempira is the largest town in Moskitia. The name comes from the Miskito natives, not the mosquitos, although there are lots of those too.
I spent one night at the orphanage but just couldn't do it long term. No toilet or shower doors made my mind up quickly despite not having budgeted for alternate accommodation. I stayed at the hotel in town that the Lonely Planet Guide claimed was the best...and it was terrible. Electricity is a huge problem in Puerto Lempira. There are two electricity sources - public and private. When the electricity was off in the town, it was on at the hotel and vice versa. On my second night there was no electricity at the hotel and they gave me one candle with nothing to hold it in. From then on every night was without electricity from 9pm to 11am. As can be expected, the shower was a metal hose sticking out of the wall with cold water.
The hotel is right on Laguna de Caratasca. I can see the rainforest on the other side but you need to take a water taxi to get there. The lagoon is wide but only 3m at its deepest.
A weekend of torrential rain saw my hotel room roof leak. I woke up to find the end of my bed wet from a roof leak above my feet and the floor covered in enough water to cover my toes. I changed rooms without asking and found my new room to have the smell of rising damp, the bed linen felt damp and huge cockroaches.
Basically one main street with shops selling basic necessities like bottled water, juice, detergent, fruit and other shops selling plastic household items like rubbish bins, brooms, laundry baskets. There were a few clothing shops and some shops sold bakery items that were rarely fresh. After the food at the orphanage didn't agree with me -- I think my body rejected the thought of any more rice, beans and chicken -- I survived on bread rolls and peanut butter for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There is one internet shop whose electricity didn't go on until 11am and despite saying they close at 9pm, would close anywhere between 6pm and 9pm.
The streets are covered in rubbish because there are no garbage bins. But several locals I spoke to said that even if there were garbage bins provided, the locals wouldn't use them; this is all they know so they don't think litter in the gutters is a problem. Desipte this I still couldn't throw my rubbish on the ground; instead I put it in a plastic bag and dipsosed of it at the end of each day in my hotel bin.
One night there was a total electricity blackout of the town. I walked the ten minutes and several cross streets from the main street to my hotel in pitch blackness. It's only that I knew the route so well that I avoided the many holes and puddles in the road.
Mama Tara Miskito Orphanage houses orphaned and abandoned children. It came about when locals began dropping off their kids after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 at the house of Dona Florinda Flores. An American missionary saw what she was doing and through fundraising and community work set up the orphanage where it is now. Dona Florinda is now known by the kids and around town as "Mama Tara" meaning "Big Mother" in Miskito. Mama Tara is in her late 70s, has ten biological children and has been governor of Puerto Lempira twice. Mama Tara is helped by a mute woman whose two kids live at the orphanage, she does the washing and helps clean. Another woman of Mama Tara's age also helps with the cleaning and food preparation. Mama Tara's son-in-law helps out around the property and there is also a nightwatchman who stays the night in the kitchen.
A concrete brick building with a girls room + bathroom, a boys room + bathroom, a kitchen and dining room and a partially finished building at the other end which will eventually house the girls room. The girls and boys room have bunk beds and the adjoining bathrooms house two toilets and three shower blocks. The ceilings aren't finished and you look straight up to the corrugated iron roof. There are too many spiders and spider webs to count. At night the spiders make so many webs so that when you wake up you walk through them on the way to the toilet.
Despite there being no doors on the girls and boys rooms, Mama Tara is strict on privacy. The boys and girls have to ask permission before entering each others' rooms and even then there has to be a very good reason to do so.
There are no doors on the toilets, bathrooms or bedrooms. There is no running water so the toilet is bucket flush. There are three large tubs full of water next to the toilet to be used to flush the toilet. These large water tubs are also used for sponge baths.
The kitchen and dining room is one huge room. The kitchen is a wood fire on the ground and a bench. The dining area has a long table and bench seats. The smoke from the wood fire is so overpowering, it's difficult to eat in the dining room without suffering smoke inhalation and stinging eyes.
The back yard has a verandah Mama Tara sits on in her rocking chair. The back of the house faces the school and route to town so she can see the kids come and go and any visitors. There is a locked storage shed in the back for cleaning supplies, food and other valuables. There is a storage shed for wood and a small shed with another wood fire which is used for cooking when it's not raining.
I was told there was no electricity except for four hours at night but electricity wasn't a problem. They have a solar powered battery for lighting and it worked without a hitch. Until the last week when several consecutive days of cloud and rain saw the battery die and our nights were spent in pitch darkness except for a torch.
There are twenty two kids at the orphanage. Some kids have no family, others have parents who are too poor or unable to look after them. Some had been abandoned in the jungle, their parents hoping they'd be eaten by tigers. Some were physically abused by their parents. Some live with their families but have their meals at the orphanage. Some spend the week at the orphanage but spend weekends with their families. They range in age from 5 to 15 years of age.
All of the kids are extremely affectionate. Every morning I arrive to squeels of "Natalia! Natalia!" and when the taxi comes at 8pm I hear "Adios Natalia! Hasta manana!" as I drive off.
Seventeen of the kids go to school from 8am to 12pm and the remaining five go to school from 12pm to 4pm. Between 1pm and 4pm a church-funded teacher tutors the kids who go to school in the morning. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are cooked by two of the older girls on a rotating schedule. The washing up isn't done unless they're told to do it. At around 5pm every evening the kids take a short walk from the house to the water well and carry enough buckets of water to fill the necessary water tubs (ie. sevearl kitchen, bathroom and laundry tubs). All the kids could carry full water buckets on their heads - the 5 yo to the 15 yo. I never mastered it. I deeply reget not taking photos of the kids carrying well water in buckets balanced on their heads. The well water exercise drenched the kids which wasn't a big deal when it was hot but in the cold rainy days it was terrible. I'd tell the kids to towel off and change into dry clothes but they wouldn't do it straight away or sometimes they didn't have dry clothes if their washing hadn't dried yet. I'm surprised more of them didn't catch colds.
During the week and on Sunday's the pastor teaches bible studies.
Breakfast consists of rice, beans and a piece of locally made cheese that tasted like feta. Lunch is rice, beans and chicken cooked in either coconut milk or a packet tomato sauce with tortillas. Dinner is rice, beans, chicken, cheese and fresh 'tortilla' (made with flour, baking soda, salt, water and lard). Everthing is cooked in lard, the bread and tortillas were rubbed with lard and then baked or fried. Sometimes we have pancakes made with flour, sugar, baking soda, vanilla, nutmeg and water. After three days of these meals I didn't feel 100% so I stuck to bread and peanut butter for the rest of my stay. Although I did enjoy sneaking tortillas out of the pan once they were cooked.
Things I noticed:
Being a clean freak the first thing that struck me was the standard of hygiene. I'd arrive each day to find the toilet not flushed from the night before and the toilet seat dirty. As there were no toilet doors, if the toilet was not flushed the smell would linger in the girl's bedroom. Before their stay at Mama Tara's the kids would've been used to a squat toilet which wasn't flushed so they didn't feel it was necessary to flush this toilet. When I told the kids this was not good because of sickness and smell they'd use every excuse possible, including the claim that there wasn't enough water in the large water tubs next to the toilet. Another was that the 5 yos were responsible for not flushing but they were too small to bucket flush the toilet, despite the fact they were capable of carrying well water in buckets on their heads! So I made posters in Spanish and stuck them above the toilet with new toilet rules about flushing the toilet after each use and refilling the water tubs if they ran low during the day. By the end of my stay the toilets were being flushed much more than when I first arrived.
There are five water buckets in the kitchen, mostly for washing dishes and one huge tub for drinking water. After every meal, instead of washing the dishes straight away, the kids would drop their dirty dishes in one bucket (sometimes all of the buckets so there wasn't a clean one to wash in). Often I saw kids rinsing their plates in the huge water tub meant for drinking water.
After feeding 27 people, the dishes stack up. Their routine is three buckets of water, the first one is not to rinse but to actually wash -- in cold water with little or no soap and no sponge -- then dishes are rinsed in the other buckets. By the second dish, the first bucket has an oily layer on the top of the water and the end result isn't much better.
With the money raised at work I bought cleaning products and first aid supplies. The cleaning products were for the kitchen (sponges, washing up detergent) and bathroom (bleach, disinfectant, rubber gloves, toilet brush). I explained to the kids and Mama Tara repeated, that the bleach and rubber gloves were to be used by the older kids to clean the toilet and the chemicals were dangerous so the rubber gloves had to be used. One morning I arrived to find one of the younger kids playing dress ups with the gloves. Another morning I arrived to find some of the kids, including a few older ones, with the band aids I'd bought plastered all over their bodies and faces for fun.
With my own money I bought lots of arts & craft supplies. There were three colouring-in books for all the kids and one box of dried up textas without lids. So I photocopied the books several times and bought half a dozen boxes of crayons. By the third day three boxes of crayons were gone; either missing, broken or in the front yard. I tried to explain to the kids that once they lose or break something, then it's gone forever and they'll have nothing to do with their spare time. Mama Tara said she gets frustrated because she tells the kids to look after their belongings but they don't listen. She said it's upsetting when people who sponsor or donate to the kids visit and find toothbrushes, clothes and toys they've bought the kids thrown across the front yard or broken. The lack of care for such items surprises me, I thought that receiving gifts when you have nothing would make them take more care of their things. But when I was at the House of Hope, I was told the same thing happens with the kids there despite being told to take care with their toys and gifts. I also bought them a football because they said they didn't have one. Days later some of the kids were playing with another football they already had.
The kids are constantly getting injuries to their toes, feet and hands. I saw many deep cuts I thought would need stitches but were left unattended. I took a few to the doctor at the local pharmacy and was given anticeptic cream and band aids for some seriously deep cuts. The problem is that the kids play without shoes when there is broken glass on the ground. Telling them to play with shoes on gets no reponse.
There is no garbage collecting service or recycling. There is one bin at the front and one in the back. I arrived each day to find the contents stewn across the yard. Each week the front and back yards are raked so the rubbish is in piles and then set alight along with the contents of the toilet paper bin.
The kids need constant supervision. They're often doing risky things like sucking on screws or nails. One of the younger kids was sucking on a battery, so I put it in the bin. The next day the younger boys were throwing the same battery on the ground, I put it back in the bin. Forgetting about the weekly rubbish burnoff, I was waiting to hear it explode in the fire but it didn't so I assume the kids took the battery out of the bin when I wasn't around.
I tried to make a few rules. Besides the toilet rule posters, I made up posters in Spanish telling them that there would be no arts & crafts or football until all chores were done. They often told me they'd done their chores so we could play football, then we'd return and Mama Tara would be upset that their chores hadn't been done.
Did I make a difference:
God only knows. Many times I felt defeated, like when I asked them to wash the dishes and was ignored. Or when I asked if they'd done their chores before we'd play football and they'd lie so they could play. Or when I'd check the toilet and find it hadn't been flushed for several hours or the toilet seat had been left dirty.
But I did find towards the end of my visit they were flushing the toilet more. They washed their hands when I asked them to instead of sulking or putting on the water works. They'd stop playing in the rain and get dressed in dry clothes when I asked. They took up my routine of washing with three buckets - one to soak, one to wash (with soap and sponge!!) and one to rinse with one child in charge of one bucket. They would repeat my saying that "Teamwork was important!" I think they only did it like I asked so we would get to play football quicker but at least it got the job done.
- Teaching the kids how to do butterfly kisses (beso de mariposa) like mum taught us.
- Teaching the kids 'Australian'. Now, instead of saying 'no problem', they say 'no worries, mate'.
- Teaching the kids how to arm wrestle and our arm wrestling competitions.
- My chats with Mama Tara about her life and experiences. She's led such an extraordinary life. I told her she should write a book but she said it would take too long to write it down. So I suggested she get the volunteer co-ordinator in the US to send her a dictaphone so she can record her story on to tapes and send them back to be typed up.
- Doing the girl's nails.
- Dancing with the kids to Madonna and the Hairspray soundtrack.
- Listening to reggaeton with the kids and having them show me their reggaeton dance moves (Lord knows where they picked them up from considering they don't have TV). I can't listen to Gasolina anymore!
- The kids' love of Country & Western music
- Making posters in Spanish, English and Miskito
- The endless squeals of "Natalia! Natalia! Asi!" and showing me their latest handstand trick.
- Having the three younger boys who had the same haircut as mine regularly rub their hands over my head and giggle.
- The kids spotting my tongue and septum rings on the second day and their constant requests to see them followed by giggles.
- Taking two kids at a time into town and buying them their requested drink. When I'd tell them to keep it a secret, they'd smile and nod happily (although I did this with all the kids).
- Going to the first birthday party of the kids' tutor. I met lots of people at the party who I'd later bump into at the bank or in town and they'd talk to me in Spanish. I had no idea what they were saying most of the time but I'd smile and nod at their kindness and friendliness.
- Never remembering to pray before I ate. The kids would say 'grace' before each meal, meanwhile I'd hoe straight in. The strange looks the kids would give me and their reminders to say 'grace' always made me smile.
- While waiting at the pharmacy, seeing the little monkey climb from the tree down to the parrot enclosure, stick his hand through the hole to get to the bird food, punching the parrot and then hopping off.
- Not that I had 'favourites' but I enjoyed my time spent with Charley, Yonli, Lida, Darla, Max and Jeremias. I would've adopted Charley in a heartbeat if I could. But his parents are still alive and live in town (they actually live right next door to my hotel) and being Moskito it wouldn't be fair to take him away from his culture or his family.
- Volunteering was a huge challenge and I'm glad I didn't take the easy road by going to a country where I spoke the language or was familiar with its customs. It was a life changing experience and the most difficult thing I've ever done.
I visited the House of Hope while I was there. It's a dorm-like building that houses partially disabled kids and medical patients, similar to a Ronald McDonald House. There are 32 kids living there, some are orphans (although this is not what House of Hope is for but they turn away abandoned kids) and others are disabled. A few of the kids are HIV+, some have club-feet, cleft palates, severe burns, spina bifida and some are in need of prosthetic limbs. I met some of the children with severe burns, such horrific injuries and shy little kids. The babies with malnourishment broke my heart. They looked like fragile little dolls. House of Hope is doing such a wonderful job and is in great need for volunteers.
I intend to go back to Puerto Lempira in October 2008 to see the kids at Mama Tara's and to volunteer at House of Hope.