Outside the airport after landing, a school bus appears as young boys happily pick luggage from our backs and arms. I climb onto the cushioned seats and watch the scenery change as we pull away. The surroundings flash past, revealing a mixture of jungle, mountains, and new department stores that starkly contrast dilapidated homes of concrete and stone. My heartbeat quickens as we cross a river. An old bridge parallel to ours lies in pieces after a recent earthquake, and I notice a threatening crack directly beneath our wheels. We pull into our hotel; feathers, leaves, and chickens decorate the grass, and a brick wall surrounds our compound. The modest wall is framed by the dark greens and blues of a tropical forest, lush on the mountains. These natural walls make the manmade brick seem futile. The smoke from burning garbage and low-lying clouds mingle and hug the palm covered countryside, and a chicken squawks beside me as my hammock sways with the breeze of a threatening storm. Though the storm appears menacing, its cool kisses are a sweet break from the heat and humidity. I begin to imagine what the villages and clinics nestled in this exotic terrain will offer.
Siete de Abril
We pull up to the village as a school bus leaks dozens of children dressed in uniforms. They notice us, the wide-eyed “gringas,” and begin to chase our car. The most fortunate residents have houses made of cinder block while other homes are dilapidated structures of wood and tin surrounded by makeshift fences. Secret gardens hug provisional houses, and dogs cower beneath old wooden tables and benches, peering from behind legs of all lengths. Wherever we walk, little niños become our shadows, trying on our glasses and taking pictures with our cameras. Curious parents, although hesitant to approach, offer welcoming smiles. So many children! Beautiful girls and boys of all ages are biking, hiding, seeking, playing, washing, and carrying more children. The smiles of children, babies and laughing elderly reflect a life lived in the present – a stark contrast to my daily life of future planning in America. All agree to attend the clinic and, true to their word, a line of villagers form willing to wait hours for care. Our clinic slowly takes shape and order and efficiency grow. Much needed medications are dispensed and refilled for many returning patients from the previous Podemos visit.
As I approach Monte, cardboard and discarded banners become homes. I recognize a Bacardi banner from a campus bar at home and suddenly realize that anything these villagers find is incorporated into their walls. They call themselves “the forgotten.” Cows move to drink, while children splash with the crocodiles next to a sewage-filled stagnant lake. I sense that healthcare is greatly needed here. The streets, run-down and inefficient, only serve to highlight the natural beauty of surrounding mountains that watch the tiny village with patient indifference. I begin to photograph the landscape, an attempt to translate its majesty into megapixels, and a curious boy approaches, trying to determine what strange thing I’m hoping to immortalize. We set up clinic and again long lines materialize. Attempting to see everyone, we work through the day. However, a rainstorm threatens to disband our project as great pools of water surround our makeshift pharmacy and our admissions tent collapses beneath the weight of the water. In a matter of seconds, I see the depth of the villagers’ gratitude. One man begins to dig trenches around the pharmacy to deter the oncoming flood, while others help to move our equipment and medication to shelter. Still, others help to sweep away the water, and I am welcomed under a nearby roof by a waiting family. We quickly realize that in order to see everyone we must work individually to help as many as possible. An elderly lady waves and points to a young boy by her side. She approaches me and through the language barrier I try to discern his symptoms. She appears very worried and describes a horrible cough that wakes the boy at night and has persisted for months. I do a focused exam and quickly note bilateral wheezes. As we explain asthma and how to use an inhaler I am shocked and proud that as a third year student I am able to make and treat a diagnosis that, without our clinic, would have remained undiscovered. I watch my colleagues successfully treat patients and realize with gratitude the examination and communication skills we are gaining from this amazing experience. Miraculously, we are able to see all waiting patients. The barefoot children wave and chase our car as we pull away and the sun sets.
Our trip culminates with a fleeting escape to paradise. The island of Utila is surrounded with clear and calm water, beach hammocks, and friendly islanders. Snorkelers and scuba divers punctuate the crystalline shores, observing ocean inhabitants like sharks, turpins, trumpet fish, eagle rays, and sea turtles. I dive into the exotic waters and drift above huge beautiful fish and giant pilot whales. They turn to stare up at me, the strange vulnerable creature hovering above them, and for a brief moment we lock eyes, creating yet another unique memory among so many from Honduras.