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Volunteering With Cape Cares Medical Brigade In Honduras & Questioning Everything

by on November 5, 2011

in Happy Nomad Tour, Honduras, Volunteering

I met Valerie in Copan Ruinas. She was learning Spanish and I was volunteering with El Camino a la Superacion. She was awesome and there existed the possibility that she’d be in Tegucigalpa this past weekend volunteering with a medical brigade. In the end, she was much closer to where I am staying in El Salvador so I jumped across the border to help out for two days.

El Salvador To Honduras

Getting to Nacaome, Honduras should have been quite simple as it is only 95km/60mi away from Yoloaiquin. I left the house in Yoloaiquin at 7am, but inevitably found myself in the crazy rush hour traffic that plagues Yoloaiquin every morning.

Rush Hour In Yoloaiquin

Rush Hour In Yoloaiquin

The Real Use For Cow's Milk

The Real Use For Cow’s Milk

After this extended delay, I also got to see a baby cow drinking milk from its mother. I don’t know why this was so amazing for me as I have seen several mammals being nursed since I started this trip (especially humans since it’s normal to breastfeed in public in Central America), but I think this was the first time I saw cow’s milk being used for its intended purpose.

After climbing down the mountain to reach the street, I caught a bus at about 7:45am. I took this bus to El Rosario, El Salvador where I then caught a bus to Santa Rosa de Lima, and then another bus to the border with Honduras.

The Honduras/El Salvador border crossing is beautiful. There is a blue gate that welcomes you to Honduras, which is nice after the grilling the Salvadoran immigration police always­ inflicts on travelers.

There is a long bridge that crosses a river, which serves as the border between El Salvador and Honduras. From the bridge I could see people bathing and washing their clothes. I fast forwarded a bit and imagined I’ll see exactly the same thing in the Ganges when I get to India.

Honduras Border

Honduras Border

Bridge Between El Salvador And Honduras Facing Honduras

Bridge Between El Salvador And Honduras Facing Honduras

Bathing And Washing Clothes In The River

Bathing And Washing Clothes In The River

River Separating Honduras (right) and El Salvador (left)

River Separating Honduras (right) and El Salvador (left)

Finally, I caught a bus to Nacaome. This was simultaneously the slowest chicken bus I’ve ever taken, yet the most high tech. There was a built-in TV that was playing music videos. The windows have to be down since it’s so hot here, so they just blast the music on top of the wind noise and it makes for a very noisy environment. All four buses I took blasted their music.

This video shows what it’s like, with a Black Eyed Peas video playing on the TV.

I arrived in Nacaome at noon, five hours after I left the house in Yoloaiquin. Pretty long journey to cover 95km/60mi.

Leopoldo was in town and he picked me up to take me to the site where the doctors were working. Along the way we stopped for lunch. It was a small restaurant just off the highway.

My dad has a rule of thumb when going to a restaurant. If the bathroom looks good and clean, the food is probably good and clean. Well, this place had a truly nasty bathroom that I think would fail his test with flying colors. After years of traveling and working in the desert/offshore, by no means am I a picky bathroom user. But still…

Luckily, I only needed to do #1, but I wasn’t happy to discover no running water from the sink. After four chicken buses and this bathroom, I was ready to wash my hands. Luckily I ordered food that needed to be eaten with a fork – chicharron with yuca (a starchy vegetable).

Not The Cleanest Bathroom In The World

Not The Cleanest Bathroom In The World

Yuca With Chicharron

Yuca With Chicharron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 1 With Cape Cares

The clinic was about 30 minutes away on paved roads with a further 30 minute drive up a dirt/stone road into the mountains. Very scenic for sure, but it was a bumpy off-road adventure in getting there. It’s a volcanic area, so the dried lava at times looks like the moon. A part of the journey is called “climbing over the moon.” It seems like you’re going up a lunar mountain and you can’t see what’s on the other side or where the road goes!

Wonderful Scenery

Wonderful Scenery

Wonderful Scenery

Wonderful Scenery

I arrived at the rural clinic and things were more or less running smoothly. I helped with some translation, fetching water, helping people find glasses that work with their eyes (total trial and error as it was just a bag full of glasses of random unknown prescriptions) or reading glasses, and other miscellaneous tasks.

Front Of The Temporary Clinic

Front Of The Temporary Clinic

Back Of The Temporary Clinic

Back Of The Temporary Clinic

That night we ate dinner and I was shocked that the hotel they stayed at didn’t really have Honduran food on the menu! How sad since Honduran food is so good! But they cater to foreigners, so I guess it’s not too surprising.

That night I heard a speech being given by an American missionary group that was there. I don’t know what they were doing in Honduras, but some appeared to be medical professionals. It was a big group of about 30 people. The leader of the group welcomed everyone by saying “Welcome To The Jungle.”

I was disgusted.

After traveling enough, I’ve personally come to the conclusion that no place in the world is uncivilized. Each place in the world has its own laws, customs, norms, etc. Based on where you were raised, you may not agree with another place’s way of life (or your own even), but no one civilization, in my opinion, can claim superiority over another. All are valuable contributions to humanity.

This place is poorer than the U.S. economically, but far richer in other ways. Each place in the world has its competitive advantage that has allowed for humans to live and flourish. To come here and simultaneously represent “god’s work” while disparaging the way of life that has developed here is just plain wrong in my book. And what a loss that he couldn’t see how much there is to learn from the people here.

I think for many aid groups, such trips are like a trip to the zoo. They can come, observe the animals, maybe throw food to them, and leave feeling like they made things better via paying for their entrance ticket.

Day 2 With Cape Cares

Day two started off crazily. When we arrived at the base of the mountain, there were tons and tons of people already there waiting for us to take them up in the beds of the pickup trucks.

Loading Up For The 30 Minute Drive Up The Mountain

Loading Up For The 30 Minute Drive Up The Mountain

Loading Up For The 30 Minute Drive Up The Mountain

Loading Up For The 30 Minute Drive Up The Mountain

Once we climbed the hill, there were even more people. Someone said it’s the most people they’ve ever seen waiting for a brigade clinic. The mob of people followed us wherever we went and when the registration table opened I tried to organize lines. I explained that we’d be treating people based on their condition, not first-come-first-served, but it didn’t matter. So I left. The people doing the registration were native Spanish speakers so the villagers were in good hands.

Morning Chaos

Morning Chaos

Morning Chaos - Registration Table

Morning Chaos – Registration Table

Dental Area

Dental Area

I walked over to the dentist area, which I hadn’t observed at all the day before. I asked the dental assistant if she needed help translating and I ended up spending the whole day with her.

I took patient histories, got their age, what their problem is, when they feel pain, etc. She looked things over and anesthetized patients before they’d head over to the dentist. I was shocked they were functioning the day before without a translator since some my input swayed treatment decisions!

But here, the typical solution for dental problems is pulling a tooth. Most people had missing teeth or gold/silver replacements.

It was hard to see so many people who had horrible black holes in their teeth or a variety of other problems that has left them in pain for months.

I had a lot of time to think about what we were doing there. Even now, I still don’t know how I feel about the whole thing.

Rural Medicine In Action

Rural Medicine In Action

WITHOUT QUESTION, I fully respect the volunteers from Cape Cares and what they do. Their hearts are in the right place and they genuinely care about improving the health of the people in these villages. The whole goal, in fact, is to have these clinics, record patient history, and then convince the Honduran government to set up a medical clinic to take care of their own people. They’ll have a head start with all the patient histories they’ve already recorded.

Drawings Made By Kids

Drawings Made By Kids

But yes, I reflected a lot. As I saw person after person, young and old, come in with horrible dental problems, I was happy to be offering them relief from the pain they were suffering from. But I question whether such medical brigades are what’s needed.

Many people exaggerated their symptoms so they’d receive medicine in the doctor’s area, for example. Many of the villagers are uneducated and they often think our Western medicine offers the cure for all of life’s ailments.

What is ironic is that these people, in some way, trace their roots to the Mayans who had their own natural medicines. I think most of that is lost now due to contamination from abroad (Spain at first, the U.S. now, etc.). For example, I asked many women if their kids drank milk. It was part of determining if the kids got enough calcium since many had delayed dental development.

Coke Advertising At Base Of Village

Coke Advertising At Base Of Village

Most women said that after breastfeeding they hadn’t fed their kids milk. Many drank juice or Coke. Coke. Yes, Coke. Many believed that Coke was good for them as a result of all the advertising, the sweet taste, the refreshing carbonation in this harsh heat, and its Americanness of course.

Instead, kid after kid came in with horrible teeth. It’s not all because of Coke. There are also little bags filled with frozen flavored ice that help decay their teeth. And presumably bad oral hygiene in general.

But the fact that milk is cheaper than Coke yet so many of these “poor” people still opt for Coke says something.

Zoo - Taking Tons Of Pictures

Zoo – Taking Tons Of Pictures

Then there were the Americans. Again, they were awesome. But I felt at times like they saw themselves in the zoo as well. They’d take pictures like crazy, almost like they were collecting their trophies of poor people helped so they could show everyone at home how wonderful they are. I know that sounds horrible. But it’s just what it seemed like to me. Maybe I’m wrong.

But given how they travel and how these clinics are set up, they’ll leave not really knowing at all how Hondurans live, what they eat, what their traditions are, what their culture is like, and so on. And that’s 100% fine. One need not learn everything in every country one visits.

But I think it’s quite representative of the “help” from these organizations. People come from abroad for a week or two, fix things or shower charity on the people, and then leave feeling like they’ve done something wonderful. I’d say in many cases this “hit and run” charity probably hurts more than it helps. It creates a dependency instead of empowering the people themselves. Again, this doesn’t necessarily apply to Cape Cares as their goal, which has been realized in other parts of Honduras, is to turn over the treatment of the patients to the government and their communities.

But I think these people often didn’t “need” anything with their traditional lifestyle and instead they’ve become dependent on help from outside due to all the contamination they’ve endured throughout the centuries.

It’s a complicated train of thought and I probably haven’t explained it well. But I think it can be represented well via this picture. It’s the bridge that separates El Salvador from Honduras. I feel like the help from the outside is at one side of the bridge and the locals are on the other side.

Bridge Between El Salvador And Honduras

Bridge Between El Salvador And Honduras

Instead of meeting in the middle and sharing/exchanging ideas to mutually benefit, one side dominates. And, again, showers charity on the other side or tries to change their way of life to be more like the rich or culturally-dominant side.

In this way, I have respect for the Peace Corps. The volunteers are in these communities for two years at a time and live among those they are helping. They can really get to understand the local way of life, culture, norms, etc. But again, is teaching kids English in rural Laos really helping them?

I don’t know. I just ask the questions and I think it’s healthy to question the status quo. And maybe this is the part of the trip where I start questioning everything trying to get to the root of what volunteering really is and what helping people really is. I hope I’ll find an answer since maybe I’m part of the problem sometimes!

Back To El Salvador

Leopoldo, Valerie, And I

Leopoldo, Valerie, And I

I said goodbye to Valerie and Leopoldo in the morning and left Nacaome around 11am on November 1st, but not before heading to the nearby cemetery to see what was happening. It was the first day of the Dia del Muerto holiday, so many people were decorating the graves of deceased relatives in preparation for the big celebration on November 2nd.

I’ll post a Dia del Muerto post later as I took part in some of the festivities here in El Salvador too.

I took a chicken bus to the border and had two baleadas before crossing back into El Salvador. They weren’t as good as Dorris’s, but I knew finding one better than hers would be impossible.. :)

Honduras Border With El Salvador In The Background

Honduras Border With El Salvador In The Background

Bridge To El Salvador

Bridge To El Salvador

 

Baleada

Baleada

Welcome To El Salvador

Welcome To El Salvador

At El Salvador’s immigration it took a while because the guy couldn’t find the entrance stamp for Guatemala on the day I excited Mexico. But he found it in the end, my story checked out, and the problem was solved.

Then a few hours in three more chicken buses plus a 30 minute uphill hike and I was back at home in Yoloaiquin.

About Adam Pervez

In mid-2011 I left my cushy corporate job and took the plunge into a life incorporating my passions of traveling, writing, volunteering, learning, educating, and telling stories. I study what happiness means to others, offer what I can from my engineering/MBA background as a volunteer, and try to leave each place better than how I found it. Read more.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil Paoletta November 5, 2011 at 9:30 am

Adam, I think you did a great job explaining yourself. Your post addresses similar concerns to my most recent one and on the scale of short-term volunteering, it’s even more relevant. Some people assume that if they are giving money or volunteering it’s an automatic good, but as you point out here, there is a lot more at play. Great post. 

Reply

Adam Pervez November 5, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Thanks, Phil. It was hard to express what I felt since everyone’s heart is in the right place and I think everyone, on both sides, is trying to improve lives. But, in the end, there exists that bridge…

Reply

Andrew September 24, 2013 at 2:42 am

Did i miss something? Arent you doing hit and run volunteering yourself?

Reply

Adam Pervez September 24, 2013 at 8:06 am

Yes, you could say that.

Reply

kat April 12, 2014 at 4:21 pm

I understand where you are coming from, and can see your point of view, but atleast the volunteers are trying to help. Some can’t take 2 years and set everything else aside in their lives to join the peace corps, so if 2 weeks or money is all they can give then how is that a bad thing? Your whole idea of pictures and taking them to show to others back home to demonstrate how “wonderful” they are, atleast for me, is not true. I don’t take a whole lot of pictures but the pictures I do take are for keep sake purposes and I don’t show them to people back home unless they ask. This whole post started out interesting, then just turned very negative. Volunteers, such as the ones mentioned here, are simply doing the best that they can with what they have to give. Do you have any BETTER ideas of how its “supposed” to be done?

Reply

Adam Pervez April 13, 2014 at 9:56 am

I agree that the volunteers are doing the best they can. I just think that instead of doing triage care, perhaps more education should be done to PREVENT many of the problems they have encountered. How to brush your teeth so that the kids don’t ruin their teeth, proper hygiene, how to take care of a wound so infection can be prevented, etc. These would all educate and empower the people there and prevent some of the long-term issues they deal with.

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