International travel provides valuable cross-cultural experiences that remind us of our common humanity. Not that I need this personally, mind you, since Id rather stay home in my pajamas and watch Seinfeld reruns. But this changed when I recently accompanied family members to Honduras, a country that is nowhere near my house.
Our youngest daughter has been busy qualifying for sainthood the past two years by working with HIV-positive orphans outside San Pedro Sula (Spanish for "Hot, like Hell, but more humid") and has long wanted her parents to join her for a weeks visit. Not much of a traveler myself, I was persuaded to make the trip only after being lured out to the front porch to see a pretty butterfly, at which point I was forcibly hooded and thrown into the trunk of a car. (Okay, I made up the part about the hood.)
Anyway, Honduras is a lovely country, if you can get past the fact that few, if any, of its residents can speak intelligibly. At least to me. English is my first language, my native tongue, and by coincidence, also my back-up language. Both have served me well in the times when multilingualism is important, such as when ordering a cheeseburger in Washington, D.C. But things are different in Honduras, a nation whose citizens stubbornly refused to comprehend me, even when I talked louder.
My feeble attempts at Spanish were complicated by the idiomatic peculiarities of the language. For example, "I love you" and "Ill call you" are phonetically similar, so much so that when I innocently asked the hotel clerk about using the telephone, I noticed that he blushed, winked, and sighed deeply with anticipation.
Fortunately, my daughter is fluent and better able to participate in what appears to be the delightful Honduran sense of humor, given that most of the conversations ended with everyone in the room turning toward me and laughing, presumably in a sign of deep cross-cultural respect.
HONDURAS is a nation rich in Mayan history, which apparently includes Cinnabon, the pastry franchise on almost every block. This may explain why ancient temple doorways, though short, were extra wide.
In our daily commute, we traveled mainly by taxi, without seatbelts and, in some cases, floors. But to their credit, the drivers minimized our exposure to danger by driving REALLY FAST. This also improved my prayer life considerably.
Most of our time was spent at the Casa Corazón, the orphanage where I expected to find a ward of weakened toddlers in their sick beds. This notion dissolved quickly when, upon arrival, I was set upon by two dozen giggling children who seemed to have made a wager beforehand about how many of themselves they could stack on Señor New Guy. (Answer: The knees started to buckle at about 12.) The children are small, because the HIV has slowed their growth, but other than twice-daily medications (the toddlers sat in a line against the wall - so cute!), they are typical children. Meaning, they derived the same perverse satisfaction from seeing grown-ups squirm. Turns out, these kids werent hungry for attention, they wanted entertainment, and fortunately I was prepared to comply on the highest order. In all modesty, never has the detachable thumb trick been so well received, nor the vanishing cracker - which reappears magically in the ear of a nearby child - so loudly applauded. American audiences might have scoffed at the tightly honed marvels of "Edwardo the Magnifico," but not these children, who knew real talent when it babbled at them unintelligibly.
SPEAKING SERIOUSLY, I had never seen desperate poverty before I visited Casa Corazóns village - nor have I seen so much hope. Nor, for that matter, have I seen so many chickens on the back of bicycles. But thats beside the point, which is as follows: Spending a week with laughing and loving children who may never reach adulthood didnt evoke the pity I expected to feel. Instead it filled me with an intense appreciation for the now, and a stubborn hope for tomorrow. I was in awe of these children who poke and hug and live with voraciousness, and of the staff who work tirelessly in 100-degree heat. I fell in love with all of them.
(But dont tell a certain hotel clerk. It would break his heart.)
Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners. For more information, visit www.happychildhoods.org and click on "Casa Corazón de la Misericordia."