January 9th, 2012. Reagan National Airport, Washington DC. I was waiting to board the plane. It was 4am but I wasn’t tired or sleepy. On the contrary, I was wide-awake, anxious and worried even. I tried to calm down by envisioning myself working hard and accomplishing my goals for the week. As if for a movie reel titled “Santi goes to Honduras,” I came up with an absurd scenario where in a single day I would teach a class, my students would leave happy and smarter- more knowledgeable- and finished the day by scoring lots of goals in the afternoon soccer game. It didn’t seem to help. I reviewed the itinerary in my head and thought about my tasks and responsibilities. In the boarding area where we were waiting, there was an eerie and awkward silence. I wanted to get on the ground already!
The night sky was transitioning into dawn. It reminded me of the many all-nighters I had pulled to finish progress reports and class plans in preparation for this trip. There was nothing left to do except brace myself for the ride and hope that all the work I had done during the semester would pay-off.
Every year in January or December, Dr. Humphrey and a group of students take a trip to El Progreso, Honduras. We are the La Ceiba microfinance group from the University of Mary Washington. In 2012 a team of eight students and Dr. H embarked on their trip to Honduras. This group had redesigned and would oversee a series of organization programs ranging from financial literacy classes to two loan programs.
This was my first year working with La Ceiba and my first visit to Honduras. I had heard stories from past trips- about the tough conditions, the visible poverty, the crime and violence- but none of this worried me. Having visited countries that were considered dangerous and underdeveloped, I considered myself a world traveler. I relied on those experiences to quell the doubts that emerged on the trip. I thought I could assimilate myself into Honduras smoothly, without missing a beat. And for much of the first day on the ground, it worked.
El Progreso isn’t particularly pleasing to the eye. Buildings are made out of concrete and built at right angles, reflecting a simple and frugal preference. Roads are unmarked, filled with potholes and doused with trash. Cars are ragged and rusted. They look as though they could break down at any moment. Looking out from the bus, I didn’t feel flustered or worried. It wasn’t until I got off the bus that I lost my cool.
I was tasked with teaching a financial literacy class during the course of the week. So that clients would attend, we had to promote the class by knocking on doors and handing out fliers. I approached it as a small task, an inconvenience before the big event. I had worked on the class for months. I had done endless research and looked through reports from prestigious microfinance institutions. By the time we were there, I was looking forward to teaching and didn’t want to waste time knocking on doors.
We split up in the community of Monte de los Olivos to get the task done more quickly. I was on my own, expected to knock on 14 doors and tell whoever would listen about the class. As I walked up the street of the community, I felt a knot in my stomach. Suddenly, knocking on doors seemed difficult. I was uncomfortable. Everyone spoke a Spanish that I was unfamiliar with. I thought, perhaps I wasn’t welcome to their community. Why didn’t I prepare a script or a speech? The reports I read didn’t say anything about this! What if they kick me off their property? What if they don’t understand me? I was feeling insecure. Fear was sinking in.
As I hovered at the entrance of one persons home, debating if I should even be there, I heard a voice. “Santi, take the initiative.” Dr. H was standing beside me. He had a serious look on his face. I hoped he was talking to someone behind me but he was looking at me right in the eyes. There was a long pause. I stood silently, hoping for further direction or explanation from Dr. H… anything that would pass the time. But, he didn’t say anything else. He stood patiently and expectantly.
I turned slowly and walked towards the door. I knocked timidly… no answer. I turned around and saw Dr. H standing in the same spot, no change in his facial expression. I gave him a look of “are you sure about this?” He didn’t react. I knocked again, louder this time. No answer. With every passing second, I felt more and more insecure. Maybe I could go back to the hotel, tell everyone that I felt sick. No, the hotel was 15 miles away and no one would believe me. I tried to devise another escape plan.
The door opened and a woman appeared. She was small and skinny. A child, eight or nine years old, stood behind her. The woman had a confused look on her face. I tried to compose myself. “Err… si… hola.” I stumbled through the introduction but soon found the words and sentences I was looking for. Hastily, I told her about the class and handed her a flier. The woman smiled and thanked me. The conversation lasted only 30 seconds. She was calm, non-threatening, and I could understand her Spanish! Ok, that wasn’t that bad.I turned and looked for Dr. H but he was gone, checking in on the other students.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that such a mundane task required so much mental effort and caused such a reaction within me. Today, I interact with the woman on a frequent basis. We talk to each other normally, sometimes we joke with each other and she even introduced me to her daughters and husband. I’m not sure if she considers me a friend but at least now we work well together and our interactions seem natural and genuine. It’s difficult to understand how or why I reached such a place of comfort with her.
In part, the work I do is about process. Little things can add up to create a larger more significant body of work in contrast to the big impact event I envisioned before. I believed that my great big project, the financial literacy classes I prepared with so much effort, would be the only means for change. But, its about what happens before and after as well. Those seemingly insignificant, 30-second interactions are just as important as the two-hour class.
In subsequent interactions, I no longer feel so uncomfortable so as to spew a few lines and run off to another task. Now I feel comfortable enough to talk and listen and learn about her and her family, her history and her life. When we stop and listen, we learn about each other. But, I didn’t want to interact with her in a way where I was overreaching or misinterpreting my presence in her community. After all, that is her community not mine. And so goes the lesson of that first interaction.
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(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on August 26th, 2013)