Life in the clouds

Beauty and tragedy live side-by-side in these Honduran highlands.

Story and photos by Jack Brockley

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The clouds have lifted high above the peaks and valleys of Honduras’ Central American Cordillera, revealing a paradise of tropical flowers, palm trees, pastures and cool, boulder-strewn streams. Evelyn Castellar steers her white Nissan truck through the curves of Highway 13. She glances toward the mountains, beyond the highway-hugging homes with tiled roofs and car ports, up to where clouds often cloak the beauty of nature and the ugliness of extreme poverty.

“It’s the most gorgeous place in the world, but it’s so full of sadness. People are dying up there.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” she tells me, as I watch six children and three cows walk single-file along the highway’s shoulder. The boys, wearing uniforms and carrying books, are headed to school. I don’t know where the cows are going. “It’s the most gorgeous place in the world, but it’s so full of sadness,” she continues. “People are dying up there.”

Castellar slows and turns inland, toward the mountains, and soon we’re passing homes made of mud with thatch roofs. The road narrows, and the Nissan goes to work, climbing up the muddy path through Las Vegas and Berlin. Despite their metropolitan names, these are not towns or villages, but small collections of huts with—perhaps—a nearby school and/or church.

We arrive in Olvidado. The name, she says, means “forgotten.” It’s our first stop of the day. Three steps below road level, we meet an elderly woman and two children sitting on the threshold of a mud hut. Spanish greetings are exchanged, and we’re invited inside. The rectangle of light from the front door aims directly at a girl sitting in a plastic white chair, her thin legs pulled tight into her tiny body. Her eyes seem huge, wide open with fear of these strange visitors.

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“She’s starving,” Castellar says. “Her name is Marisol. She’s three years old, and she’s starving.”

The father, she explains, left to seek work in the United States. His wife, unable to care for the children alone, left her daughter and infant son with the paternal grandmother.

“She’s elderly, and as you can see, she has nothing,” Castellar adds.

Castellar is not a doctor. She’s a former emergency medical technician. She and her husband, José, purchased a farm in Jutiapa, Honduras, in 2001, because she believed the tropical life might extend her life. Ironically, in her search for healing, she became a healer.

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Even more—with support from the Kiwanis International Foundation and her Federal Way Kiwanis Club—José and Evelyn are building a spirit of community in and around Jutiapa. They drained a swamp, created a soccer field and now invite other communities to send teams for friendly competitions. They also established Projecto Honduras International, from which they operate a medical clinic near the highway that runs alongside their property.

On my last day in Jutiapa, Evelyn and I went down to the clinic at 6:30 a.m. A woman and a teenage girl were sitting outside, waiting for the door to open at 7 a.m.

“Look at her eyes,” Castellar says about the child’s eyes, which are dull with a yellow cast. “I’d bet it’s malaria.” (Tests later confirmed her opinion.)

“Where are they from?” I ask.

“Berlin. A four-hour walk, one-way.”

This sick girl has been up since about 2 a.m., and she’s wearing a school uniform. Her day, I realize, is just beginning.

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“They wanted to be sure they were first in line so she’d be back in time for school,” Castellar explains.

Malaria is a common ailment in the cloud forest, but Castellar focuses on another sinister threat to the children of these northern Honduran mountains: intestinal parasites. The children get so little to eat; even so, most of the nutrition they do get is consumed by the worms.

A sure sign, Castellar explains, is a bloated belly.

At another Olvidado hut, we visit parents who have two children. A toddler waddles barefoot through the dirt. The baby lays naked in the dirt.

“That’s the problem,” Castellar points out. “The children don’t wear diapers or pants. They pee and poop anywhere; then, the parents lay their babies in the dirt. We try to teach parents about hygiene. They seem receptive, but then when we return, we find their babies naked on the ground.”

So, Castellar and her Projecto Honduras team of young, local volunteers regularly pile into the four-wheeler for a thrilling climb to the mountain schools.

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The end of the road leads to Escuela Rural Mixta School. Actually, any trace of the road disappeared several hundred feet below. So the Nissan followed a narrow strip of grass that curved to a stop beside a jungle-embraced river. There, on a rise beside the water, is the school’s wire-fenced compound. Faces peer through iron-barred windows. It’s worm medicine day.

Teachers line up the students. One by one they step forward and the volunteers hand them packets of vitamins and anti-parasite medicines. At the final station, Evelyn’s lead assistant, Cindy, siphons a thick, milk-like liquid into a large syringe—think kitchen baster—and squirts a dose of worm medicine into each mouth.

Arranging the visit at the school allows Castellar to evaluate the health of the entire community. Through the school, families are invited to bring pre-school-age children for de-worming and to discuss other health problems. While examining a baby, Castellar noticed a fungus on the mother’s arm and packaged a cream for its treatment. Another woman propped her chunky son on her hip for inspection of a large, round lump above his left eye—a little larger than a table tennis ball.

“What a handsome boy,” she said calmly to the mother in Spanish. But to me, in English, she whispered, “This is serious. This is really serious. And it’s spreading. With the infection this close to the eye, he could lose sight in that eye.” Bare, circular spots on the back of his scalp indicated other outbreaks. She directed her team to put together a packet of Amoxicillin, children’s Tylenol and an antibiotic cream, while she instructed the mother on their use.

With a line of families waiting, a woman steps quietly behind Castellar, tugs at her elbow and presents two cucumbers as a gift of appreciation. At another location, a woman tucked a live chicken under one arm and cradled a half dozen eggs in her hands.

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“It breaks my heart,” Castellar says. “They have so little, but they’re so generous and appreciative.” (She convinced the woman with the chicken to keep it for her.)

A couple weeks after my visit, she calls me. She’s back in Federal Way for three months. She’s had good news. The mayor of a neighboring community wants her to set up a clinic in his town.

In Olivado, the father is home again, living with his wife and daughter. Marisol is doing better. Her infant brother continues to live under his grandmother’s care, in a dark, smoky hut up in the Honduran cloud forest where the land is so beautiful and life is so hard.

This story originally appeared in the January/February issue of Kiwanis magazine.


Video: To watch, click on the photo below.

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Photos:

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