One cup of coffee at a time, ArtCorps Artists Caterina Almirall and Pau Urgell build community in the Bosques Pico Bonito national forest in northern Honduras. Their successful cultural adaption process holds many lessons for community development workers around the globe.
We came to San Marcos without knowing where we were headed. When we arrived we were perfect strangers who knew nothing about anything. We were surprised by a rural community without electricity or telephones. But we were surprised more by the green beauty of the landscape as we moved up the dirt road that brought us to the last village, where we would live for one year.
It’s hard for me to remember now how we decided to come here; I suppose we were hoping to get out for a year and help, working with art, in the mountains. We looked and found a project that seemed ideal for both of us. Perhaps at that moment as the car was going up the road through the mud I thought of that decision, but most likely I was just confused, tired and with great expectations. I’m sure I was also scared.
To be brief and to put it kindly, the situation in Honduras over this year has been difficult. On top of problems already entrenched in the country for years such as corruption and drug trafficking, the Coup in June of last year brought an added political crisis to the ongoing national and world economic problems. The company that we had to collaborate with has been deeply affected by the situation, and in turn collaboration has been reduced.
We arrived in the community, leaving our packages in the house where we were supposed to live. Nobody received us or introduced us to anyone, nobody told us anything. The beginning was hard. We didn’t even dare swim in the river, so silly now, but we were scared, and I assure you that it wasn’t because there was no electricity or telephone. During the first weeks we lived with a family, who turned out to be moving, and weren’t planning on bringing us along. We went to eat at Chepita and Alejandro’s house – “walk to the green house (though there are many green houses here and, of course, we went to the wrong ones plenty of times) and ask for Josefa, Alejandro’s wife” – they told us on our first day. At first, our lives were based on walking three times a day down the only road across the village, and greeting anyone in our path with nice big smiles. I even began to feel a little ridiculous with so much “Goood morning”, “Helloooo” and “Goood afternoon,” but I guess we were just trying to be nice. Chepita set aside a table for us, and served us humble food with a friendly smile but a cold distance, and we paid her for her services religiously each week. We began to talk a little with her son and daughter-in-law, and the little ones around the house watched us with great curiosity.
One day we went to introduce ourselves at the school, we met the principal and she invited us to the Parents Meeting so we could meet the mothers and invite them to send their children to the workshops that were going to start in a few days.
We began to walk by the riverbanks, swimming in the river, visiting a nearby community. That’s how by chance we met our main collaborator, Faustino Reyes. He put us in contact with a youth group, and we also invited them to organize some workshops where they could paint and draw… the attendance was overwhelming for those first sessions. We played many games, and tried to guess what the children and youth would be interested in. There were over fifty people in each group, and there were three groups. Everyone was curious to see the foreigners. But evidently, little by little, they started to drop out. When we found a good worksite, we left the soccer field full of mud and ticks and rented the workshop space in our own house, with more manageable 20 person groups.
After struggling for a week with the wood stove, we found a gas stove and began to cook at home. The family had left and now we lived with the teachers from a nearby community. But people we didn’t know would often stop by, just to meet us. We invited some in for coffee and a chat. But in general people would just stand and watch us until they got bored and left; we didn’t quite know what to say, either. Some dared to ask us who we were and what we were doing, but it all got very confusing when we tried to explain the art and volunteer work with them. At the same time, the company was falling apart and it didn’t work in the area anymore, and it was hard for people to understand that we were coming on their behalf.
Many people mentioned a Japanese man who lived for a time in the village; everyone remembered him. He was probably the only foreigner who had lived with them for a relatively long stay. Now we were here, like two tall, white and skinny Martians, walking around town with paintings and children.
They began to tell us the typical anecdotes of deaths, disasters, hurricanes and some local legends. Some afternoons we would go drink coffee with Chepita, and little by little she told us her story and about her life. Over the coming months we earned her trust and intimacy. We learned to communicate with each other drinking coffee together on the small porch of her house. Just like any other relationship anywhere in the world, relationships in San Marcos are also based on trust.
When we walked through the village, someone would always stop us, maybe thinking that we were lost, and take us home, telling his wife to make us coffee while asking us about our country and our family, and we would do the same. We tried to decipher the language, the jokes and laughter, the gestures… these days we talk a lot about the earth, about forests and harvests, about making tortillas and gossip and rumors, cooking, and which animals are good to eat.
I began to write this when they asked us to talk about how we were integrating ourselves into the community. I think that, really, the community has integrated us, or maybe it depends on what we mean by “integrate”. Everyone knows us, but we only know some. If we live here for a long time, we will always be “the Spaniards.” Even if we lived here in the village for one hundred years, we would still be “the Spaniards.” But soon we will go, and surely they will talk about those Spaniards for a long time, until, improbably, some other “gringo” shows up to live there.
Many don’t know where Spain is… “The Motherland” (ugh, what horror). “Did you come by car or by plane?” “No, you can’t come from Spain by car….”
But look, if I have to tell you what the most helpful thing was to integrate us into the community; of course, it was having those conversations in the afternoons. But if you want to know the real truth, the most helpful thing was the World Cup. We don’t like soccer, but I will always thank Pau that he made an effort to study the sports pages, and he learned the line-ups, the players’ names and the scores of the games, and he made friends with many of the men in the village that way, earning their trust and their humor.
Time goes by, the hours go by, and we spend the hours with them, with the children and their paintings and songs, with the adults drinking coffee, with the youth swimming in the river, living with them, drinking river water, getting wet from the rain, and walking walking; almost a year has gone by. I went from the perplexed observation of the first days and weeks to slowly beginning to assimilate things, to understanding and living with a greater awareness of what the women and men were telling us. I listened to their stories. There are good things and bad things that come from living amongst each other. From learning, too, and we are able to choose. I know that there are things that I don’t like and will never get used to, and I am sure that they likewise won’t understand many things about me. The situation is unfair in that way. But when you are here you get immersed, in the rain, in the river and in community life.
* We drank the first cup of coffee alone after eating, with the second cup we sat on the porch with Alejandro, Chepita stayed for the third cup, with the children, and for the fourth cup she welcomed us with a big smile when we arrived. With the fifth cup they told us their stories, with the sixth they shared their pain and joy, and with the seventh we finally lost count. Later we met the rest of the family and gave each other gifts, helped each other, and they asked where we had been all these days, if we had forgotten them, they told us that they missed us. And one day out of the blue Alejandro told us that at the beginning they didn’t trust us, but that they had learned that we were good people and now they appreciated us so much….
The title is in honor of the book about the enormous work of Greg Mortenson “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time)” which we have read avidly and admired over this year.