Day of the Dead

I am numb when I arrive in Tegucigalpa, traumatized after three weeks trapped in Olancho with no way of knowing if I would ever get out alive.

The city is surreal. We pass soldiers searching for bodies in the rubble. Cars perch high in the boughs of trees, stuck where the floodwaters left them. In front of Hotel Maya, a gaggle of beauty pageant contestants, dressed in elegant gowns and wearing tiaras, pose for a photograph in front of the ancient statue of a Mayan god that guards the door to the casino.

Jorge drops me off in front of the hotel and tells me I will be safe there. I wander inside and try to book a room. There are none left. Too many volunteers have flown in from the states, most of them unskilled and getting in the way. Shell shocked, I have nothing to do but wait for my flight home. I stay at Jorge's house in Los Robles. I pick mangoes in the back yard. I buy fresh tamales wrapped in corn husks from a street vendor and sit alone on a park bench, waiting. It is not until I am sitting in the plane, looking out the window high over the mountains of Comayagua, that I finally burst into tears, and fall into a restless sleep.

I and a woman from Costa Rica named Gabi are giving a course on organic certification. Only twenty-five farmers sit in the back of the room at school desks, killing time talking among themselves, and it's getting late. We had expected 150. Rain pelts the metal roof above us. It has been raining for three solid days.

Almost an hour has passed when a government vehicle pulls up outside. A man in uniform comes into the classroom and announces that everyone should go home. The road to Campamento has been cut off by a landslide. The Pan American Highway is blocked by fallen boulders and trees. We had all best go make sure our families are safe, he says. He gives Gabi and I a ride back to Juticalpa.

At the hotel, Gabi clicks on the television to see if there is any news. A terrible storm is brewing in the Caribbean, hovering over the island of Guanaja. All flights going north to the states have been cancelled. Gabi quietly turns off the television. Her hands are shaking.

"We have to get out of here," she says. "We have to go."

Gabi knows what a hurricane is like. I don't. "I think I'd better stay here in Juticalpa, and wait out the storm," I say. "My flight is in a few days. I have to get home."

"You're very brave," Gabi says. But it isn't courage. It's naivety.

In the morning, Gabi leaves for Tegucigalpa. I pass the time taking pictures out the hotel window, of children playing in mud puddles in the rain, and young girls carrying bundles balanced on top of their heads, moving slowly down the street below me. The television no longer works. so I go to the bodega next door to get news. People trying to leave Olancho are being robbed at the banks of the Guayape River, they say. The bridge has collapsed, and they have to be ferried across. Mudslides are swallowing whole villages up on the steep slopes of the Sierra de Agalta. Survivors are stumbling out of the forest, clutching their children, walking into town with nothing and no where else to go. An entire harvest season of crops has been destroyed.

The hotel is a virtual fortress of concrete blocks. The rain is percussive and the wind howls all night. I drift in and out of sleep, repeating in my mind like a mantra, I am safe. I am safe. I am safe. I don't believe it, but I keep repeating it silently.

In the morning when I wake, the sun is shining and the sky is crystal clear. I walk to the center of town, where a crowd is forming, and the Mayor is organizing anyone who will help into teams. It is November 1st, el Dia de los Muertos: the Day of the Dead. Matronly women in their pressed Sunday suits carry covered dishes to the church in the town square. No one sheds a tear. No one in Olancho will let you see them cry.

I ask the Mayor if there is anything I can do. He sends me to the edge of town in a pick-up truck with one of the teams, to be the "coordinator" at the local veterinary clinic, converted temporarily into an emergency shelter. They drop me off and leave me with 67 people who have lost their homes and have nowhere else to go. I have no idea what I am supposed to do. The people there have staked claim to various rooms and hallways, huddled together and attending to their own families.

One young mother has allowed her two-year old's diaper to overflow, and the child is running through the hallways, leaving a trail behind her. The mother is fifteen years old. I try to explain to the girl that she has to clean up the mess, or someone will get sick. She is sitting on the front stoop of the clinic in a tight ball, her arms wrapped around her legs, resting her chin on her knees, staring vacantly at the ground., rocking back and forth Without looking up, she promises in a hollow voice that she will clean it up, knowing I will do it for her. She and her daughter are the only two survivors from her village.

News from the outside is starting to trickle in to Juticalpa. All the bridges in every corner of Honduras have collapsed. No one can go anywhere. The storm, "El Mitch," a Class 5 hurricane, ground its way through the heart of the nation and dropped like an atom bomb on the town of Choluteca. In the capital city, the river rose more than twenty-five feet in eight hours. Bodies are being piled like cordwood in Teguciglapa's Parque Central, for lack of anywhere else to put them. Thousands of newly homeless people are packed into the Estadium National, living like animals. A man has shot an eight-year-old girl point blank in the head in Comayaguela, to take her bucket of water. Cholera is on its way.

The days pass uncounted, seeming like a lifetime and like a single day all at once. One afternoon, an entire battalion of Spanish soldiers come marching through and stop at the clinic for water on their way down the road. They have come to help rebuild bridges. Several of the men have never met an American before, and gather around me, eagerly asking if I've been up in the rainforest, have I seen parrots and toucans, and little white-faced spider monkeys, and are there real jaguars in the forest? I am exhausted, and can barely understand their smooth vowels and refined consonants. It is as though the olanchanos speak an entirely different language.

On a Sunday I hitch a ride into town, to pick up more supplies for the clinic. The church in the town square is being used as a warehouse for food and blankets and clothing for the indigent. Almost nothing is left. I return to the clinic with four candles and a single pair of shoes. They are simple, flip-flop style sandals. A teenage girl runs up to me and asks if she can please try on the shoes. They fit her perfectly. She is delighted. She takes them off and kisses them, then runs to show them to her mother. The families at the clinic are beginning to pack up and return to their aldeas. I see the girl climb into the back of a shiny black pick-up truck, still clutching the flip-flops proudly. On her feet she is wearing a pair of tennis shoes. They look brand new. Angrily, I run up to the truck and demand she give back the flip-flops.

"Por que?" she asks, alarmed and confused. I grab at them, and she tries to pull them away from me. We struggle over them for a few seconds, until finally she lets go, in disbelief. The truck pulls out and heads down the road. I have never been able to forgive myself for it.

I open my eyes and look out the window again as the plane moves over the coast and heads out over the sea. From the sky, the land looks beautiful, and peaceful, as though it will always be the same, as though nothing has happened.

The people of Honduras have survived this type of catastrophe before, and will again. It comes with the territory. When I arrive home, my friends all say they can't believe how brave I am. But I'm not brave. I would have done anything to get to safety. If I could have, I would have walked.