When we heard that our friend Mary Gallinger was traveling as photographer for a medical relief team to Honduras, West By Northwest asked her to share the impressions of her trip with our community of readers from all over the world. Here is one woman's journey into a different culture so far and yet not so far away at all.
A Limón Journey -
Text and Photography by Mary Gallinger
by Mary Gallinger
To say the least, I was excited; the focus of this trip would be totally different from that of my past travels, which had taken me to Southeast Asia to photograph ancient monuments, art work and traditional textiles. I looked forward to becoming involved in a single community and to learning about their medical needs and current services. Now I faced an immediate challenge. My trip had to be self-financed.! This meant I would somehow have to cover the cost of round-trip airfare to La Ceiba, Honduras, as well as room and board for the time I would be spending at the clinic in Limon. I also needed money to cover the costs of film and film processing. Dr. Blodgett had her local sponsors in the Pacific Northwest, including the Rose City Park United Methodist Church; but I personally had to solicit funds from Seattle Film Works. Friends, family and additional fund raising further assisted me in putting together the $1,500 I needed.
I elected to fly down ahead of the rest of the group in order to photograph a Bread of Life event that is held at noon every Saturday in the Methodist church in La Ceiba. The Bread of Life program, sponsored by the local church and the Sellwood Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, provides food to the hungry. On January 5th I flew from Portland to San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras, and from there to La Ceiba on the Caribbean coast. Named for the tree, La Ceiba is the operational center of the Standard Fruit Company, famous for Dole pineapples and bananas. It was cool and rainy when I arrived that winter night. Luckily, I had no jet lag with which to contend, as I was still on Central time. On the way into town from the airport the taxi driver gave me a Spanish lesson -- the abbreviated version.
At the church the next day I introduced myself as part of Dr. Blodgett's team and began photographing the event. A group of women parishioners were cooking large pots of rice and preparing cole slaw. One of them was a Honduran woman who, with her husband, had lived in Florida for thirty years. Upon his retirement, she announced her intention of moving back to her homeland. Leaving behind their four grown children and families in the States, her spouse accompanied her. The woman told me that she came regularly to the church to cook and serve. People of the town's plentiful poor began to pour into the church hall, sitting at the tables and packing the place. They were every age; the majority were men. Some of the men were carrying babies in their arms. At noon the lay minister began his sermon; this was followed by prayer and then lunch. In addition to the rice and salad, hot dogs and beans were served, followed by cake. Dr. Blodgett and some of the rest of the team -- altogether, there would be fourteen of us -- arrived at three different times. We would all attend the church service that would begin, Pastor Juan told me, at nine o'clock the following morning.
In the meantime, I wandered around town and out to the beach. The
Sunday service lasted three hours. Unlike the previous day's, Sunday's weather was
tropical; as the service continued, the temperature rose and rose. After the
service, a member of our team presented Pastor Juan with three envelopes of donations
from her church, Sellwood United Methodist Church, in Portland. Each of the donations
held a different purpose: to restore the church; to help fund an outreach medical
clinic in Bonitillo; to purchase books for the
Increasingly, the road seemed to provide a metaphor for the world we had entered on our journey. It began paved, though with occasional deep potholes, but gradually deteriorated until it was nothing but gravel. With rains the road would become virtually impassable for anything but a four-wheel drive. I appreciated being insulated from what the local people had to endure in their daily lives. A privileged foreign visitor, I was traveling in an air-conditioned vehicle to a rural area from which I would eventually go home. I was protected by hepatitis shots, the preventive malaria medicine I was taking weekly, insect repellent. Dr. Blodgett had come equipped with all manner of antibiotics, parasite medicine and other medicines that I might need. And, should I succumb to something, my familiarity with medical professionals gave me confidence that their diagnosis would match the proper treatment to my ailment. During the month of my visit, as I photographed the people, mostly women and children, who came to the clinic in Limon, the distinction of this comfortable position of mine would impress itself on me more and more.
In Limon, I discovered, there were no telephones. If you wish to speak with someone, you walk to that person's house. If the person isn't home, you leave a message with someone who is. If you need someone, you send someone else to fetch the person you need. The work we were doing was similarly socially complicated. For example, one of us, Jane, a nurse practitioner who had worked for Planned Parenthood for 25 years, did not speak Spanish. Therefore, another volunteer, Dick, who did speak Spanish, acted as her translator. While Jane examined a female patient, Dick stood in the bathroom, out of sight, translating. Since, moreover, our lab was unable to perform the requisite tests, following protocol slides were sent to the local government's doctor, who in turn would send these along to Trujillo, the largest nearby city, where the slides could be properly analyzed. As a result, patients who had had a Pap smear would learn whether they had cervical cancer only several weeks later.
Added to the complex formula of local delivery of local health care was the complication of real distance weith no trains or freeways- -- a two-hour bus trip was necessary for some patients to be examined in the first place. The lab at hand certainly had its limits. It could do tests for malaria, parasites and certain sexually transmitted diseases, but it was unable to perform tests for AIDS, a handicap in a country inclined to AIDS owing to the fact that the local Garifuna culture doesn't include monogamy in marriage among its social rules and men at work away from the village participate in extramarital sex. There was only one private doctor in Limon, and she treated only those patients who could pay. This doctor has, however, received a grant to provide sex education classes to counter the prevalence of AIDS. There was also a public doctor: Dr. Douglas Banegas. While we were in town, because his government clinic was being remodeled, his temporary office had been set up in the town preschool.
Dr. Banegas lived with his wife and child five hours away in La
Ceiba. Besides having to cope with a perennial shortage of medicine, he was frustrated
at how slowly the construction work was proceeding and with good reason; in the four
weeks I was there I saw workmen at the site only the last couple of days. But Dr.
Banegas was expected to provide services for about 15,000 people. Besides AIDS, there
were high incidences of pediatric asthma which, curiously, no one could explain,
and malaria. Banegas and Blodgett were both concerned about the increase in malaria
cases and the appearance of a drug-resistant strain of malaria. One day at lunch
Marilyn, one of the lab technicians in our group, casually mentioned that there had
been nineteen positive diagnoses for malaria that very morning; indeed, about one-third
of all patients screened test positive for malaria. However, convincing the Honduran
government of the need to respond to this epidemic was no easy matter. Our Honduran
lab tech, Gloria, suggested that Banegas invite a government official to come to
LimÛn to examine the slides that she had prepared over the past four weeks.
This wouldn't guarantee, though, a positive outcome. Finding the malaria cell on
a slide can be a lengthy and tedious process; if impatience short-circuited the discovery,
the lab would toss out the slides and thus destroy the evidence.
On the way to the hospital the Josefa's baby died. After two days Josefa returned to her village. One week earlier, a team including Jane delivered medicine to the same hospital that admitted Josefa, where workers were on strike. This was the team's report: Dried mud on the hospital floor; cockroaches and flies everywhere; dried vomit in the hallways; no toilet seats, nor toilet paper, nor soap. The alternative? Private hospitals, which only the rich can afford. To be admitted to one of them, a patient must pay $1,500 up front. So even though this hospital, on this day, wouldn't meet our standards, people were eager to go, because it provided needed medical care and saved lives, including Josepha's. People made the best of a difficult situation where the local economy is disorted by the needs of Standard Fruit, not allocating monies for health care.
Limon, as I mentioned, is a very small town. Its people have enlarged the bad reputation of the capital city of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, by recommending that visitors to Tegucigalpa wear only their oldest clothes. The object is to divert the attention of thieves to more potentially lucrative victim-candidates. Crime and violence, no doubt, are rampant in the city; however, the local crime was also considerable, to me, shocking. Houses unoccupied for the day or the evening are routinely broken into and cleaned out, like a fish. Furniture, rugs, television sets, other electronic equipment, all these go. A guard dog does little good; the animal would likely be first off killed. The best solution is for someone or other, preferably more than one person, to be at home at any given time. I heard of this grotesque Friday night incident: a man attacked another man with a machete, cutting his arm and his head off, leaving him to die in the street. Families also feud, using rifles and machetes against one another and often escaping legal accountability by bribing the local judge.
Nothing is easy when you are poor, as so many are in Limon. This includes education. Pupils are required to supply their own school uniform and black shoes and writing materials; but poor families can't afford to purchase these. There may be relief, however, if students find a way of making it to high school, for at that level the brightest students receive grants. But problems for Honduras can
arise when students receive grants to go out of the country for an education because many do not return; they come to think that their education puts them into a higher class than those they left behind. Alienated from their roots, they thus choose often to remain in the U.S. , thereby denying Honduras of all but a very few professionals and technically trained citizens of all kinds. Competent electricians, for instance, are sufficiently scant that we could't find one to repair the connection we had lost to the city electrical system. (Limon has had electricity for only three years now.) Also, the city water system, which broke down three months prior to our medical relief group
arrival, has yet to be repaired.
In Honduras, the military makes its presence known. Groups, each consisting of three soldiers, walk daily through the streets with their hands on the trigger of an M-16. In La Ceiba, on a holiday commemorating the Virgin Mary, during a Roman Catholic parade we witnessed about thirty soldiers, in military fatigues and armed with rifles, jump off a truck and run over to a particular float, flanking both sides, in order "to protect" its principal component: a statue of the Virgin Mary. At that moment music began and a military honor guard walked past altar boys and girls, and several other groups, to a position right behind the fire engine at the front of the massive parade. Young people filed by in front of me, holding flickering red lanterns and singing. The Catholic Church in the region, I have been told, is reinvigorating its efforts to claim the hearts of the masses.
Text & Photos, © Copyright by Mary Gallinger 2001 -- Honduras
Dr. Blodgett, Honduran Medicine
Rose City Park United Methodist Church
5830 NE Alameda Portland,