My blog post Living in the Most Dangerous Country in theWorld has been reposted by several people and has gone pretty viral lately. I’m happy to see so many positive reactions and of course I still stand by my words: Come to Copán Ruinas, it’s a beautiful and quiet place!
But I must admit that lately I’ve seen another side of Honduras. I just spent twelve days in El Progreso, Yoro, where I painted murals at foster homes for children that have been removed from their families because of a variety of problems or picked off the street, run by two different organizations. The murals came along fine, the people I worked with were great, and even the places I painted the murals at were quiet and peaceful, the homes being located on the outskirts of town, not that different from the rural schools in the mountains surrounding Copán. That was a surprise for me, because somehow I had expected to have to paint on a crowded and noisy street in the middle of the city.
The one big difference with Copán was safety concerns. San Pedro Sula has the doubtful reputation of having the highest murder rate in the world (at least until recently, as far as I know), but I wonder if El Progreso isn’t worse. Maybe I’ve been too focused on this place, but reading the newspaper, El Progreso surely jumps out and stories from people that live there only confirm it. Of course it also had to do with the places I spent most of my time there. My hotel was right in the centre of town (traditionally not the safest of places in any city) and I was working in two suburbs both notorious for their delinquency. Travelling there was a logistic pain in the butt: Taking the bus to the one place and walking the last bit was out of the question without the escort of four of five guys. Getting to the other place was only permitted in certain taxis, others would surely get robbed, as I was told. Of course I wondered if all those horror stories weren’t a bit exaggerated, but then I would hear or read yet another one that would make me stick to the precautions I was asked to take.
The first mural project was done in collaboration with twelve kids, ten boys and two girls, that live at the foster home. They themselves were to pick the theme which was chosen through an exercise in which each participant wrote (anonymously) a list of things or situations that bothered them; the change they’d like to see; and what their own personal contribution could be to make that change happen. We wrote all answers on big sheets of paper and it was no surprise that the violent situation in their community came out as the big winner. We then brainstormed about a storyline and what the kids came up with was a plot about a kid getting robbed of his cell phone, only to meet his attacker a few days later being the victim of an mugging himself. The kid at first feels that justice has been done, but then realizes that by thinking like that, he’s not much better than the villain himself. So instead he decides to give him a helping hand and in the end they become best friends, dedicating their free time to coaching soccer in their neighbourhood.
I was pretty impressed with the positive message of this, but even more impressed by the behaviour of these kids. It took us almost six days to paint the mural and before that we had already spent a day and a half together in Copán, but during all this time not one incident happened. I’m not sure what I had expected, but definitely not this, considering that all of these kids carry some heavy-duty baggage. They all have histories of serious abuse, living on the streets, drugs and alcohol addictions and of course “common” delinquency and violence. So yes, I think I expected at least some foul language, a tantrum here or there, losing some supplies or being yelled at. But none of that happened.
Painting a mural is hard work, especially if you’re not used to it, but despite being exhausted by the end of the week and -to be honest- sick of paint, the kids kept on going without getting difficult or being obnoxious. Of course there was a bit of shoving and pushing here and there, boys will be boys, and yes, they were loud, but overall, I’ve never worked with kids so considerate and helpful, not only towards me, but towards each other too. They would wait their turns, help each other out or hold the ladder whenever someone was balancing on the top step. They did their regular chores without complaint and when it started to rain, one or two would run off to bring in the laundry. Not just their own, but everybody’s.
During one of our painting days, Juan Orlando Hernandez (one of the candidates for presidency in the upcoming elections) had a big rally nearby and even up on our remote mountain side we could not escape listening to his promises and chanting (“Blue! Blue! Blue!”). I’m not a big fan of politicians in general and couldn’t help being irritated about the unrealistic promises I heard on fixing the county in its entirety. Honduras is a country with such deeply rooted and widespread problems, they are not going to be fixed by just one politician and definitely not overnight.
But being with those kids for over a week made me see Honduras’ future in another light. Despite the threatening society they live in, their violent past and the fact that they live without their families, these kids are not resentful, asocial or criminal. They are fantastic young people that despite the throwbacks in life are making the very best of it. So if they can do it, why not everybody else too? Being with them certainly put my own life in perspective…