Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Apologies, apologies...I know I have written in a very long time. However, I am now....so let's talk about the important things.

This last month has been filled with ups and downs, but mostly downs...and well, confusion...Truth is, I've seen a lot of new things that I've never experienced before and I'm still not exactly sure how to articulate the realities of things I've seen. Before I get existential, here's are some realities:

The 1st of December was marked by World AIDS Day, and so I traveled to San Pedro Sula for the city march of organizations and persons in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It was a very eye-opening experience with a slew of people dressed up in giant condom costumes and other men dressed up in drag. It was quite interesting because our organization, though faith-based and affiliated with the Episcopal Church, has one of the few outreach programs to sex workers, often male transvestites. Although I'm not involved with that project, it was really incredible to see the relationships between my co-workers and our patients who were or still are part of that line of work, shall I say. Maybe it's just part ignorance, part religious background, but I've never really been exposed to that and so it was a really interesting experience for me.

Another, and probably more intense experience this last month, has been dealing with the sickness of a former worker and co-worker of mine. Alba* the clinic's cook and cleaning lady and part-time jewelry-maker, fell very ill with a skin rash and had been in and out of the hospital for the last couple months. Well, in the last two weeks, she decided to just go home because she was tired of being in the hospital and no one being able to diagnose what she had or how to treat it. Because HIV attacks the immune system, any other illness--skin disease, cancer, tuberculosis, the flu!--can cause them to get really really sick and potentially die.

While at home these last 2 weeks, Alba has only been getting worse. One day I took my workers to go see her and spend some time with her. Now that I look back, that may not have been a good decision. When we arrived at her house, she was lying in her bed, not really able to talk. She understood what was going on, but was not able to respond. Her dark skin was very flaky and white-ish, with blood and raw flesh exposed at the joints. Her hair had started to fall out of her scalp. Lying there, she came in and out of consciousness, eyes rolling back at times, but then other times, completely alert. It was one of the most emotionally stinging experiences of my life. Seeing someone you know so well, in a healthy state, fall so ill and not even resemble herself. I hate to use the word horrifying, but it was that way for me. It was horrifying for me to watch someone suffering so much. What was happening to her skin on the outside was happening to the tissues inside her body, and that kind of pain I just couldn't fathom even though I was watching it. Many of my workers couldn't stop crying...after all, seeing a friend like that not only makes them sad, but is another reminder of their own situations and vulnerability as persons living with HIV as well. It was a very difficult moment for everyone, but out of the few words Alba could mutter, she told us not to cry...but that just made some cry even more. And can you imagine how Alba must feel? Watching person after person see her suffering so much and crying for her...I can't imagine the depression and emotional pain that must bring her in addition to the physical.

I went back a few times after that day, but after 2-3 times of watching her be responsive for a few minutes and then gasping for breath others, I just couldn't anymore. The visuals I carried in my mind were too much to handle at night alone in my apartment. And the last time I visited, she was crying out for her family and there I was, standing in the corner of the room as she yelled for her family...she couldn't make out sentences but she was communicating with them. Elizabeth, the nurse, who is like a daughter to Alba called me over to the family and told Alba, "Johanna is here, too." Alba called my name, but looked at me and said, with love I think, "No es mi hija, no es mi familia" (You're not my daughter, you're not my family). While I could have taken that badly, I was so thankful to her. I had felt quite uncomfortable in the corner of the room, although I wanted to be there to show I cared and support them, I knew I didn't belong, I was not family. While I care for her, I just couldn't go back before I left for the States. Maybe it's a selfish reason because of the emotional trauma I'm feeling through seeing her in pain, but now is most importantly a time for her to be with her family and loved ones...I, an American volunteer she's known for all of 6 months is not someone she needs to see during this painful time. It's her children, and parents, and husband, and other relatives that she needs to be with most.

An unexpected event with Alba also made me feel uncomfortable there, and it's opened up my eyes to the reality of the situation. Alba is a Christian and as she has been in this state of sickness, many people have ministered to her and she has told us that she has asked God for forgiveness and given herself to God and committed herself to his will for her, life or death. We have all prayed for her and with her and although some people's prayers have been to give her strength to fight, my thoughts watching her suffer so much, were mostly filled with, whatever You will Lord, give her peace so she doesn't have to suffer like this. The next day, she was still alive and the nurse told me that the previous night after I left, a witchdoctor came and said that there is someone putting a curse on Alba and that's why she's suffering so much. If they paid 7,000 lempira (~US$350) she would have the curse taken off and Alba would get better within 3 days. While this might seem like non-sense or radical, witchcraft is very present among the culture in Central America...mostly in Mexico and Guatemala, but migrant witchdoctors have brought the traditions to Honduras. So while I sit there hearing this and just thinking, how ridiculous this is, Alba's family (and Alba) have declared that they are going to pay and take her to the witchdoctor. This has brought a whole new world of unknown to my life. Never have I seen what I guess you could call "spiritual warfare" going on, but this was definitely part of it. And for someone like me, who feels responsible to respect the beliefs of all others, I felt, strangely, hurt. After all the medications and hospitalizations and spiritual support our organization had provided her, after the prayers people had laid upon her, after declaring that she had "entregado su vida a Dios" (turned in her life to God), she and her family were in such desperate conditions that they would do anything to have her not suffer any longer...even if it means turning against her God at the last moment of her life. And the fact that someone would take advantage of her and her family in a situation as difficult and delicate as this...it's all pretty powerful and it surprised and hurt and saddened all of us.

I'm not sure how I've conveyed this experience via webblog, but it has been something I've been struggling with and facing recently, and it's affecting me on so many levels. Maybe it's because it's the first time I'm watching someone die of AIDS. Someone I know. Someone I love. Maybe it's because I'm seeing and learning more and more about the relationship between illness and spirituality. Or maybe it's because I've just never experienced realities such as these...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Live happy :)

For those of you yearning to hear from me again…things have been, once again, hectic. Currently I’m sitting in the La Ceiba Airport listening to Nickel Creek and…well…reflecting. These last days have been filled with a lot of highs, the highest of which was my parents visiting. I missed them very much and it’s always amazing to be able to show them my life in every place I live…temporarily. I started thinking about the various places in which they have visited me, in a place that was really all my own: Baltimore, Dominican Republic, now Honduras…where will they go next? Who knows, but I’ve realized how truly blessed I am to have parents who visit me, who don’t expect to do the touristy thing, who are there to see me in my new element, to see my daily routine and how my life has changed on daily basis.

It was great to be able to show them my new job, have them meet my co-workers and friends, bring them to the Lenca pottery workshop in southern Honduras. But they definitely made me realize that this experience is going to fly by so fast that if I don’t take time for myself, time to decompress, reflect, STOP working a little, then it’s going to be over before I know it and I’m going to feel a little bit of regret that I was always working and not enjoying so much. I spend so much time traveling to purchase materials, in the workshop organizing the daily production, and then traveling again to sell, that I’m just always working. And I’ve come to a place where I’m sad and tired and jaded…which is good for no one. I want to work hard and it’s just what I asked for. But having the balance where I also take care of myself is something that I never really mastered before, especially not in school at Hopkins…I’d have rather study an extra half-hour the morning before an exam instead of take a shower, for example (and I know you other Hopkins students do exactly the same thing). But maybe that relaxing shower would have helped me even more than a half-hour more of studying. My mom always said I was addicted to stress…and in a country and culture so much more laid back, I’ve found any way possible to create an environment of stress around me. Always here or there, moving, traveling. But I’m starting to realize that it’s okay to sit, you know. It’s okay to take a deep breath. It’s okay to stop for a while, shave your legs and paint your toenails.

Since this week has been full of stress: we lost some very expensive materials in the workshop, one woman’s child is sick with pneumonia and hasn’t been HIV tested yet and it could become a bad situation, and then some more latin male issues; I’ve decided to take some time for fun for once. For those of those who might be feeling lonely too, I encourage you to just call someone to hang out…make the first step and who knows. One text to an American English teacher and now tonight I’m going camping with a group of American English teachers and peace corps workers and some Hondurans. Next week, I’m taking off work to go to the Honduran-Mexican World Cup selection game. FUUUUN!!! I will always be someone who works hard and strives for perfection in what I do…but if I’ve learned one thing recently from Honduran culture: Life is short, so don’t always live to work, instead work to live. And then live happy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ay, La Mochilera Que Soy (Ah, the Backpacker I am)

So...it's been about a month since my last post...I apologize. BUT this month has been FILLED with various travels and so I haven't had the time to sit down and write. In fact, I am currently in Costa Rica sitting in the host house of my friend Brian Orr from Hopkins...small world eh?

I think I'll just update you on my travels and that will bring some good Jo stories. First, about 2 weeks ago I flew to Roatan, the island, to review the work of the 8 women who I had trained in jewelry making last August. Seeing them again was refreshing because we grew very close in those 2 weeks. I got to spend sometime with one of the ladies who turned in her supplies because she wasn't going to continue on with the project. Why you ask? Well, she was pregnant and about to have her C-section the next day. Nothing personal, she said. I was really excited for her though and we spent some time discussing how she was feeling. She was nervous...a 19-year-old who would longer have the independence she once did. Nervous that the baby might be born with HIV. Nervous that the surgery would hurt. All normal fears for a woman living with HIV. I can remember her in the workshop in August, very pregnant, moody, and with an attitude of a teenager--swearing and throwing garbage in any direction. And looking at her now, I could tell she had matured in the last few weeks, with the recognition of her new role as mother. She still has a lot of maturing to do...but a part of me is looking forward to learning how someone grows with a life-change like that, watching the good it might bring, the difficulties it might bring, the frustrations and the blessings.

After that trip I returned to Siguatepeque for a few days, and then I was off to Copan Ruinas. This quaint little city is the home to the Mayan ruins in Honduras and famous cobblestone streets with some crazy-looking red taxi "cabs." I was able to stay with a friend of a Hopkins friend (thank you Jessie McKenzie) who is now living in Copan to carry out her Fulbright Fellowship (I know!) It was such a blessing to meet Therese and her boyfriend Graham and learn about her work here in Honduras. For those of you who know I applied for a Fulbright to the DR (and was rejected), it was really good for me to hear her process and experiences and ideas. It was definitely helpful...especially when she told me the Fulbright winners for the Dominican Republic were all masters students (which obvi made me feel better at least, hehe).

The majority of my time in Copan, however, was spent at the annual Project Honduras Conference, where organization that work between the US and Honduras come to share their experiences, and of course, NETWORK. I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to give a presentation during the NGO panel. I was definitely nervous...I think I was one, if not the, youngest person to present, but I think it went pretty well. I spoke about the organization, our variety of projects, clinical services, and then more specifically our microenterprises and my work in Siguatepeque and Roatan. I was the only speaker about HIV/AIDS in Honduras so a lot of people had questions for me and it opened up some good conversations and networking.

Apart from presenting and that going well, I have to say that there were a lot of things that bothered me about the conference as well. The theme of the conference was "Millenium Development Goal 8: Buiding Global Partnerships"...a good theme for an international US-Honduran conference. One presentation on this topic was really helpful in discussing cross-cultural communication, which is something really difficult for Americans and Hondurans a lot of times, including myself (see last posting, haha). But, the ironic--and disappointing--part of the conference, was that we were in Copan Ruinas, Honduras (an Americanized tourist town), primarily conducted in English (headphones with translator for Spanish-speakers), and the majority were Americans talking about their work in Honduras instead of a discussion between Hondurans and Americans about their mutual work together in the country. And why is that? Well, first, Project Honduras is an internet-based initiative...connecting people far away via new technology that is isn't easily available to all Hondurans, and therefore they haven't heard of it. Second, it costs $135 simply to attend the conference, not including cost of hotels, transportation, and extra food. While that is not the fault of the initiative...after all, conferences do COST money to put on and it IS a great opportunity to learn about the different projects going on in Honduras and work together to accomplish certain goals. However it just seemed a bit frustrating to me that Hondurans can't afford to attend a conference about work in their own country, and if they can, those who don't speak English are at a disadvantage and may not be able to understand the majority of presentations and workshops. Global Partnerships means the cooperation of two-sides. The listening to local needs and the response of available resources of both Hondurans and Americans to address those needs. I know I'm an American talking, but I've come to really be proud of the fact that I'm part of an organization that is almost completely Honduran staffed and grew out of a local need that was listened to and addressed by Hondurans and Americans together.

After my Copan trip, I was almost straight off to Costa Rica to renew my visa. Yes, I, an American, had 2 days before I became an illegal in Honduras. Ironic, right? But, it's true, and my two options were go to Belize for 2-3 days alone, or go to Costa Rica for a few days to visit Julie and Brian, my Hopkins friends...despite the 17-hour bus ride, I chose Costa Rica. So here I am and it's been wonderful. Costa Rica is significantly more develop than Honduras, more lush and green, and the neighborhoods kind of remind of the LOVELY Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic that I have missed so much. It's been fantastic seeing Julie and Brian...sharing in our new lives and experiences. Yesterday I went to the Abraham Project with them and did some work as they gave their math tutoring lessons. It was almost surreal, watching them in this new, different environment outside of Hopkins. They are the first familiar faces I have seen in 4 months, yet I'm seeing them so out of the element that we are used to. We have changed but I feel I may have changed the most. I think about my life in Honduras and tell them about my work and realize that I've grown up a lot, have an altered outlook on life-planning. They've been a reminder of my structured, academic Hopkins life, which is actually refreshing after such a lack in intellectual stimulation over the last couple months. Julie mentioned today on the bus into San Jose that so many of our friends are in grad school stressing over tests and the beginning of med school. I thought about that for a moment and realize how removed my life is from academics these days. Academics was MY life. And it will be again at some point soon. But right now, it's as if my life has dramatically shifted from the academic "tunnel vision" to the practical realities of a non-linear life plan. Things happen in life. And sometimes those things--jobs, babies, sicknesses--make turns in the road. Now before I scare my parents, I do plan on going to grad school, pursuing an MPH and maybe an MSW and I'm sure by that time I'll be craving the intellectual academic stimulation and craving a "real job" (although I feel like my current job is more in touch with "reality" than many others). But maybe that won't be next year. And that's okay...because, as my mother said to me before I graduated, life is no longer linear.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cultural Change

So I'd like to propose the following question:

Is a cultural practice always "right" if it is an integral part of one's culture and acting otherwise is outside of one's cultural norms?

If that was a little too confusing or vague, let me develop this question...What I mean to say, is that if there is Cultural Behavior A and this behavior or practice is widely used and common practice, does that make it a "right and justified" behavior? If acting otherwise, outside of that cultural practice, would not even be considered because that cultural perspective has been so ingrained into one's way of thinking, and hence behavior, does that make that behavior "correct" if it has negative consequences? Does not "knowing otherwise" or "knowing better" (dare I say) because of a lack of formal education and unchallenged acceptance of one's cultural norms justify the practice of those cultural norms even when they can cause harm to a person, group, organization, or society?....or is this attempt to mathematical deduce a problem with cultural overtones actually a futile endeavor because mathematical reason just doesn't apply to complicated cultural issues. But alas, trying to reason is part of my cultural mentality.

Before I completely lose you, I'll get more specific. Today I was speaking with a worker of mine whose 18-year-old daughter was in town this weekend visiting. Through a little bit of discussion, I find out that this weekend she had been using words that her father didn't like, and while they weren't "bad words," he didn't approve of her using them. At one point, she said the word to provoke him, and he hit her in the face. Hard. She left the house and didn't come back for the rest of the weekend..this morning she left for Tegucigalpa where she goes to university. He hasn't heard from her since and feels bad about what he did, but she was the one to provoke him and he had to show her that she has to respect him as her father, he says.

A little taken aback by the whole situation, I gave myself a few minutes to think and then gave my two-cents. I said, "Hmm. Well, I think that while words can provoke, they never justify hitting or being violent." Wanting to keep the conversation calm, I went on to say, "I know that might be part of my culture speaking, but I think getting violent crosses a line that only words do not." He responded by telling me, "Yeah well that is your culture. It's not our culture. I felt bad about what happened, but it's part of how I respond and to others, it's justified, it's okay." I gave a small pause and said, "Well just because it's okay because of the culture and because others approve, does that make it correct? Just because it's something cultural, does that make it okay?" He didn't respond for a while, but then chimed in saying, "Honduras is different...and you know what, sometimes words hurt more than getting hit." As others' ears started to perk up to our conversation, I decided it might be best to cut the discussion at that. It's true, words can truly hurt and verbal violence is real...and getting into a discussion about violence with a group of 9 women who I'm sure at one point have all been victims of some form of violence was something I was not mentally prepared to embark on yet.

But it made me think, and it made them think. Is something like violence, which is so common and accepted, particularly against women in Honduran society, correct simply because it is part of the typical cultural response? Is not having a formal education, where one learns that violence is not (legally) acceptable, justify this type of behavior or "acts of ignorance" as some would say? Does education even have anything to do with it?

One (adapted) quote I remember from a video on Female Genital Mutilation was from a religious leader in Liberia, who said, "Just because Female Genital Mutilation is practiced and is part of our culture, that does not make it right." But it's so easy to catagorize violence, female genital mutilation, racism as bad, not just, and not acceptable. What about other more subtle cultural behaviors like, for example, gossip?

Here in Honduras, gossip is a huge part of a Honduran non-confrontational culture. When there is a problem, instead of confronting the issue or person, it is customary to talk to someone else about the person causing the problem. There is a fear of confrontation, and so what results is a cycle of gossip that hinders direct communication and hides true emotions. It seems harmless enough, but when emotions and little problems stay inside, they sit and fester...and at some point...it erupts causing much more pain and hurt and drama that would have ensued from a small confrontation at the very beginning. Perhaps this seems like a harmless "cultural norm," but when it involves the communication between patients and medical staff, between co-workers in a health setting where a continuity of care is the goal, it can have definite implications on both the patient and the medical provider, physically and psychologically.

So...is this behavior acceptable? Should it be changed? Do I, as an outsider living in this society, have the right or capacity to try to change that behavior among the people I know? At one point do we respect cultural behaviors and practices and adapt to them because they are part of the "culture," even when it's negatively going to affect the well-being or the healthy communication between individuals, an organization, or a society? Input welcome :)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sobrevivir por Ilusiones (Surviving by Illusiones)

The other Friday evening I was invited by one of my co-workers to her nephew's birthday party. She lives pretty far away, so we took the bus she takes home from work and then stopped at all of her cousins' homes in the community. Finally we made it back to her home. What a little little home. It was so empty, no furniture, only 2 beds and a closet full of clothes from her cousin who is currently "hanging out in the US." As we were chatting, Lesly* my co-worker handed me a little booklet. It was a photo album.

I don't know if any of you know, but I'm a secret photo album lover. Love looking at pictures, love making photo albums (in all my free time which I never have, ha), I just love it. Because it teaches me so much about people, lets me enter their lives, see a part of their life that may have been so wonderful or so painful. And showing your pictures can be something so vulnerable. Sometimes there's a picture that you don't want anyone to see. Sometimes there's someone in a picture you may want to forget...or someone you'll never forget. But sharing photographs is allowing someone to know your past and how that's led you to who you are today.

Anyhow, Lesly handed my this small photo album and I began to look at her life, her primos, her first boyfriend, her son. Page by page, I learned something new about her...the father of her son was in the army, a young strong gentleman who she fell in love with. He died of AIDS 5 years ago. Currently, she lives alone with her 16-year-old son in the small house, surviving, she says. The next picture was of a nice-looking Honduran man, her current love, who calls her and tells her the most beautiful things, so she told me with a blushing squint of her eyes and beaming smile. In the midst of everything, Johanna, she confessed, it's nice to hear those things. It's nice to have someone like that in your life even if you will never actually be with them...even if it's just an illusion. Some of us women here in my situation, well, it's how we survive...it's how we keep moving one day to the next. Sobrevivir por ilusiones.

Sobrevivir por ilusiones. That has now become our new favorite phrase...and it's made me really think about the situation of the HIV-infected single woman. It's hard enough to find a good-standing Honduran man, and when you do and you fall in love, are you able to disclose your infection without sending him running? How do you tell him? DO you tell him? Or...do you just try to keep your distance from him....try to keep you and him from getting hurt? Does that mean you love him from a distance, longing for him? Live as if you were together and everything was perfect? Live, survive, through those dreams, illusiones? Perhaps. Maybe it's those illusions that we can't quite grab hold of that are the dreams that keep us living for the next day hoping that those illusions will one day become realities and that we might just obtain that happiness we long for...

Thinking and analyzing and putting myself in their place, I came to realize that, yes, being in their situation is more difficult and there are definite barriers to relationships for the HIV-positive single woman....but you know what, we have a lot of similarities. I have a lot of similiarities. Sometimes I live and survive for those illusiones to get us through to the next day. Perhaps I and you, too, sobrevivimos por ilusiones. And maybe that's not so bad...helps to liven things up a bit in the middle of the melancholy or simply the middle of the mundane.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Last Days of Roatan

So my experience here in Roatan has been up and down. Most of the ups are the times I'm spending with the women in the workshop, teaching them jewelry techniques and them teaching me about their lives. Most of the downs have been with the sometimes demanding requests of my American week-long volunteers clashing with passive Honduran behavior. Yes, I used to be a week-long mission tripper myself but I see a different perspective now and am grateful for how I spent those trips sleeping on the church floor instead of at a beach resort. Nevertheless, I was able to get through some of the hard, soul-challenging dilemmas that arose, and found my refuge in the moments of conversation between the women at the jewelry table. I can sometimes remember looking around the table and realizing I was the only person besides the women themselves--the only "outsider"--that could understand what they were saying and that could fully take part in the sharing of life stories. That was pretty amazing.

So, from here on out, I'm just going to share tidbits from some of their more fascinating conversations:

One late morning, the issue of HIV and condom usage came up (a lot of hondurans i know love making sexual references whether appropriate or not and therefore the conversation im sure went from some random funny innuendo to a more intense, serious matter). We began to hit on key topics that I've heard and studied before like accessibility and costs of condoms, their acceptability among the community, etc, and then the conversation headed towards just what fascinates me the most: gender roles. A couple workers began to discuss how the "sistema ha fallado las mujeres" (system has failed women) because condoms always fall under the responsibility of the man...to buy, to bring, to bear. Before I could ask my questions (can women take the responsibility to bring condoms...are females condoms available here...are they used?), the conversation took an even more interesting turn: hombres que andan en la calle (men sleeping with other women).

One of my favorite women in the workshop, and certainly the most outspoken, put down her macrame board, gave a little attitude-im-about-to-say-something-so-listen-up wave of her hand, and said (in spanish), No, no, no...you see, it's the married women that' has the risk nowadays. How HIV goes around this place, if you're single, you'd be crazy to not put on a condom. But the married women...well what's she gonna do when her husband sleeps around and then comes home for his wife. She's not going to make him wear a condom, and she's not going to say no to sex because she's got her needs too. And passive women have it worst because they wont communicate with their husbands and they wont fight for themselves. But at the same time, they dont satisfy their husbands. So you know, it doesnt just fall on the husbands either. It falls on the communication between them both. A woman has to be willing to learn how to satisfy a man, be a little risky and explore. And the man has got to be faithful. Both have to trust too.

Yep, I wish I had a tape recorder. It was as if all the stories and explanations I've heard about in class regarding gender roles and HIV/AIDS was coming out of this woman's mouth. How responsibility falls on both sides and how communication between the two is the most important and crucial answer. Yet it seems pride and fear stand in the way.

As I looked around the group, I noticed some of the other women staying quite but nodding at times. I asked the group if this was the case, how do we change that. Their responses were few, saying that there was no way to really change it. I later asked how many had been infected by their husbands who had been previously unfaithful. Almost every head raised and gave me a nod. I couldn't believe it...and yet I also couldn't believe how upset and angered I was by it while they were so melancholy about it. As I was reflecting, one women interrumpted my thoughts to help me better understand their perspectives. She told me, Look, whats done is done. You can't go back. I've forgiven him. We have 2 kids and I love him. And so we've moved forward. We're both patients here at the clinic and we're doing well.

Here I was shocked and angered by the fact that each of these women, each of these women who I've been working with and have come to love, had been the exact examples of HIV transmission and gender imbalances/power relations. And yet they've forgiven, they have shown compassion, and they have moved on with their lives.

Sometimes I think because I come from the States and have heard about the "ravage" of HIV among the developing world, I have this acquired sense of intensity or obvious gravity of the situation. Sure, HIV is serious issue. And when you see patients who have progressed so far they have to be carried into the clinic, the intensity and gravity of the situation are given a face. But I feel like, in my experience, the focus is so much how horrible of a disease it is, that we don't focus so much on the hope and the compassion that people living with HIV carry with them daily.

I'll leave you with experience that really touched me. At the support group on Saturday, Dona Nilva* (a HIV veteran at the clinic and one of the workers I trained these last couple weeks) and I had a quiet moment when she was able to share some of her incredible testimony with me. At one point, she looked at me and said, Look, Johanna. Depression is serious. Some days, I wake up and I look at my pills and I think, My God, I have to live the rest of my life waking up to these pills. That's a depressing thought. But then, I try to think about thanking God for these pills. He's given me these pills so that I can live day after day. So that's what I think about and that's how I move forward.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

First Sales

Alright well after reading my last entry and remembering how critical and a little bitter I was feeling at the time I was writing it...I´ve decided to put in another entry, and only 3 days later hehe. Also influenced by the encouragement of my friend Jon Gilbert (yeah shout-out) who told me I should share the news.

Well, I´ve never been good at business. Even from those Central Elementary School days when we had to sell Peanut M&Ms as a fundraiser, I did not do well. I always felt bad or guilty, like I was cheating someone. I´m sure my parents remember my valiant efforts as I sat out in the pouring rain one Sunday afternoon in my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and raincoat with all the M&M bags neatly packaged in plastic baggies to protect them from the rain. I think I sold one bag that day to my neighbor who felt deep pity for the poor girl sitting in the rain all day. I guess I have had a way of pulling on heart strings at least.

Which is maybe why I did so well at selling this time around despite my lack of business sense. I mean, Fair Trade necklaces made by HIV patients in Honduras has got a pull-on-the-heart-strings kind of quality to it. Anyhow, whatever it was, God included, I had some real success on my first sales trip this week! I only went to 2 high-class tourist shops here on the island (Roatan) which have bought from us before and were interested in seeing more of our new line. Well, I went and they bought more than they had before! That means improvement and I really like improvement. The total sales for the day came out to $1250...isn´t that great??!! I can sell!

And you know what...I didn´t feel guilty like I had before because I know where the money goes, tu sabes? I have the privilege of working in the clinic itself, visiting the Lenca women and the coco women, communicating with the designer, interacting with the clients/vendors. All aspects of the program I have the opportunity to work with and so I know every aspect to which the funds will contribute. The workers don´t get to see where the materials come from. The designer doesn´t always get to see the places where their products are sold. A buyer doesn´t always get to see the hands who make the bracelet. But from design, to purchase of materials, to production, to distribution, I get to be a part of it all. That´s incredible. There are definitely times when I don´t enjoy my job and the responsibility that comes with being a part of all those different processes. But it is something I´ve come to realize is a real privilege...and it´s something that I´ve come to love.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Hey...long time no talk. I know you´re all anxious to hear what I´ve been up to and why I haven´t written in 2 weeks. Well, things have been crazy busy here as deadlines began to approach. For the last 2 weeks I´ve been working at work and then working at home, trying to get all of our jewelry inventory at the the clinic workshop together and ready for my trip to Roatan (the island) where we sell to high end tourist shops and then I´ll be shipping what we don´t sell here off to the Americas of course. Well, north-Americas I suppose. In preparation for this trip I´ve been traveling all across Honduras gathering last minute materials and that, while enjoyable, has been very stressful. And I´ll tell you why...

I know I´m an American. And I know what people think of most Americans outside of America. Even in that last sentence I´ve shown it. United States-ans (estadounidenses) often don´t recognize Latin Americans as "American." After all, the phase ¨Proud to Be an American¨certainly doesn´t refer to all "Americans"...if if it did, maybe the people who so often sing that song or say that phrase wouldn´t be the same people passing judgement or putting up a wall to keep those other Americans on their respective side of the border. Now, I don´t mean to be oh-so-politically correct...but I had a recent experience that made me realize how much of an "norteamericana" I am, despite my efforts to look beyond the comfort of my life in the States and assimilate, even blend in, with the people and culture here.

Last week, I had to travel to a place called La Arada where a co-op of Lenca women live and make traditional Lenca (Honduran ethnic group) pottery. We order necklace pendants from them that are really nice pottery with different shapes and designs and then we use them in our jewelry line on macrame cords that the patients make at the clinic. Well I went there to pick up the pendants, but since we just started ordering from them and the last order they made was not well done, I had to spend 4 hours at their workshop evaluating each piece for correct shape, size, hole size and shape, design detail, correct burn of the clay, etc. In a nut shell, I was basically this middle-women, in some sort of in-between space, where I had to be firm on what I know of US standards and marketplace and yet respect the work of these women as an art form. Not every design is going to turn out the same. The process to make these clay pendants takes 3 weeks and there are going to be some that stay in the kiln longer and others that dry faster or are closer to the coils. Yet the US marketplace looks for perfection and inventory. Mass production if you will. Not one of a kind, never-gonna-happen again pieces. I felt like my "American" ways were creeping back into me, translating into my work and experience with these women who, let´s face it, need the money. I had to leave 200 pieces behind because they didn´t meet our standards. That´s 2000 lempiras. $100 US dollars. Imagine how many rice and beans that could buy.

Needless to say, I was in a state of emotional angst, mental frustration. On one hand I had to uphold the expectations laid upon me from the business aspect (after all the humanitarian mission that founds the organization and microenterprise can´t survive if we buy things we can´t sell)...and yet on the other hand I knew what I was withholding from those women. As I got back in the car trying to cope with my internal conflict, the reverend asks me what´s wrong. I told him that, well, I just felt very American and didn´t know how to accept or deal with that at the moment. He looked at me and made sure I knew that I was norteamericana...that all those in the Americas are Americans. And how I was feeling wasn´t just reflective of US perspectives or expectations, but that anyone running a business has to have his or her best interest in mind, whether Honduran or United States-an. He´s right I suppose. But I still find myself in this limbo-place...working for people in the States but working with native Hondurans every day...high Type A expectations meeting a passive Type B kind of reality...and a norteamericana no longer in Norteamerica.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

just some Johanna storytelling

Hello again everyone! I could just about write a post for everyday this past week because many many different things have happened. But let me just tell some stories…

Story #1: This past Monday we had the Siempre Unidos bi-annual conference where all the staff from Siguatepeque, San Pedro Sula, and Roatan came for training on the current trends in HIV research, the psychosocial aspect of treating HIV patients, and a workshop in “Calidad en el Servicio del Cliente” (Quality in Client Services). The first lecture on current trends in HIV research was I’m pretty sure straight out of my classes at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In fact, I think they stole some slides from an online lecture at Hopkins because a few slides were in English and resembled very closely the PowerPoint presentations of some of my previous professors…haha. It was great though because I felt really knowledgeable for my first time here, as if my school work now meant something. Having a public health degree hasn’t prepared me to take blood pressure or give injections like the nurses, it hasn’t prepared me to know the exact dosages or regimens of antiretrovirals that our doctors prescribe, but finally, I knew and could contribute when the conversation turned to research on the biology of the virus, issues of drug adherence and treatment failure, best practices on preventing mother-to-child transmission, and all that stuff…you know…(right Mom?) Many of the staff aren’t specialized in HIV (many have bachelor’s degrees in Administration or Business), so it was nice to be able to really see the avenues in which I could use my knowledge and background to help educate staff and patients, who for the last 3 weeks have been my educators.

The only difficulty was that everything was in Spanish so while it was very beneficial to learn the Spanish vocabulary of HIV research, I still ended up sounding like a 12 year old when I tried to communicate information I knew. Well…I’m still working on it.

Story #2: The other day one of my workers called practically in hysterics and was describing the bruises she had on her face and legs. She had called to say she didn’t think she’d be able to walk to work tomorrow and I could have sworn she said “me golpeó” which means “hit me.” This woman has had a lot of problems in the past regarding family and men and so I was inclined to think that someone had physically abused her. Well I immediately called the nurse and she said we would go to visit her tomorrow. Well as the day passed and the nurse had other patients to see, I still wanted to go make the effort to see my worker and bring her ibuprofen or something to help with the swelling or any pain she might have. So I made my first solo home visit. Well, not exactly solo because another woman who “knew the way” came with me, but she has a mental disability and forgot the way so I ended up having to navigate…but it was certainly a fun adventure with her :) Once we arrived to my worker’s home which was significantly far away, I gave her a big hug and we went inside to chat. I come to find out it was the floor that “me golpeó” and not a person, because she fell really hard while she was cooking and bruised herself up pretty badly.

I felt kind of pointless at first that I had made the long trip thinking that this women had been a victim of violence, when in reality she had just fallen down. But little by little I could see that my short-lived presence in her home meant a lot to her. She mentioned that the previous volunteer had visited everyone but her and how that had made her sad. She also was thrilled I could see her new home…she had just moved in 8 days ago and it is the first time she’s lived in a home with cement floors and light. Yep. Yet as I sat in this little home, filled with flies and dirty water tanks, surrounded by other little shacks and muddy dirt roads, I could still take one look out the kitchen window and the most beautiful mountain valley was right there staring back at me. A diamond in the rough. It was absolutely gorgeous and visiting her in her home has really helped me to better understand her on many different levels. I hope I get the opportunity to visit all the workers at their homes because it really is something special. I don't know, there's just something about being in someone's home, their place, that connects you more fully with their life and their dreams.

Story #3: I finally found friends to play soccer with!!!! I met this Honduran guy at the gym who told me I could play with him and his friends on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so they picked me up and we went! It was sort of like indoor soccer but on really terrible “turf” and the guys were really macho-like players. One guy who must have been 30 years older than me kept on making comments to get in my head and mess with me. Boo…I shoved him later don’t worry. But the group of guys (and 1 other girl, yay!) I played with are super nice (and attractive, haha). They are also the first Hondurans I’ve met who know how to salsa dance, so I’m excited to go out dancing with them at some point in the future :)

Okay, well as my Mom would say, “That’s enough storytelling from Jo today.” So I’ll let you all go. But it’s been a pleasure sharing with you and I hope you didn’t get too bored. Miss you all!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Feliz Cumpleanos a mi!

Well yesterday was my birthday (22, ayyy que vieja soy) and it was definitely a good relaxing time! Though I did get asked questions like "Why are you not married yet?", I fortunately spent most of the day with my Siempre Unidos friends who are in their late twenties and not married which made me feel better about those inquiries. Also, THANKS SO MUCH to all of you who sent along birthday wishes...it was sooooo wonderful to hear from you all and it definitely made my day...I miss you all so much!

Well, before I get to discussing my birthday celebrations, I spent this last weekend in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras where the Siempre Unidos headquarters are and I was able to go out with some of my friends from work, go to "la feria" which is an annual carnival on June 29 in San Pedro, and just relax. The feria/carnival was exactly likely the States it almost scared me. I mean, I wasn't sure what to expect. Carnival in the DR is very different from "carnivals" in the States. But here, their carnival was just the same...tons of little shops selling all kinds of knock off purses and clothes and random items, 5 huge rows of stalls for horses and cows and little chicks that you could pet and feed, a rodeo, games for kids and rides like the feris wheel. The only difference was that bachata and reggaeton were playing in the background as opposed to country music. But it was nice to just walk around...I went with my friend Geraldina and her family. She has 2 kids Carlitos and Andrea who are just darling and I got to play with them and take them around the carnival so that was fun.

For my birthday on Monday, el reverendo (and Siempre Unidos director) took me out to a typical Honduran breakfast (eggs, sausage, beans, tortillas, platanos) and we were able to discuss "business" as well which was actually very helpful. Then, he and the other staff surprised me later in the day with a "Feliz Cumpleanos" balloon and lunch at Pizza Hut (haha, I was actually quite okay with this...I had had enough frijoles and tortillas). A lot of the staff came and I had to dance merengue with the waiter in front of everyone as they sang me the feliz cumpleanos song...great, right? haha, well fortunately I am one americana that knows her merengue moves. They were all pretty surprised and totally loved it. They all agreed we were most definitely going merengue dancing next time I'm in town. No complaints here. Later that evening I had the fortune of finding an open computer with free internet at the place I was staying, so I pretty much spent the night on the internet and reading Paulo Coehlo, which seems like a LAME birthday evening but you have no idea how wonderful it was. I haven't had the opportunity to be online for more than a half hour/hour at a time, so to have a computer at my disposal with free internet for as long as I wanted was a fabulous birthday gift let me tell you. Plus it gave me a chance to see all your wonderful birthday wishes on my actual birthday! :)

Alright, well in other news, this week we have vacation from work, so I'm spending it getting better acquainted with the city, purchasing a mirror (haven't looked in one since I arrived...yikes), and joining the gym nearby because let's face it, tortillas/rice each day for lunch at the clinic does not serve my body type well. I'm just itching to get on a treadmill.

Thanks again to everyone for the birthday wishes and I hope all is going fabulously for you!!! Hasta luego!!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

so it's been a whole week in my new "hometown"...for real?

Wow...so I can't believe a week has passed so fast. I arrived here in Siguatepeque, my new "hometown," and have since been...working. haha. How exciting. But it's what I asked for and soooo much more.

My first day at work was, well, rough. I obviously didn't know the workers too well yet and I had so many new material that they just wanted to get started on them before listening to what the new designs were like and practicing them. I guess I would be anxious too if I was working on macrame cords for the last 3 weeks. Despite some stress and confusion, I was able to get to know them better, how each individual works, how I could best delegate, etc. Within the last week, we've improved a lot and have made great progress on some of the new jewelry designs. Honduran spanish and slang was hard to pick up at first, and I still most definitely have my difficulties, but it's getting better and better. Now, I can finally understand a lot of the workers jokes and make jokes right along with them. That's how you know you're finally immersing into another language: 1) when you can understand and make jokes, and 2) when you understand everything they say on the radio.

I did have the fortune however to speak english yesterday, for the first time since I arrived. I met up with a few young women who are American and teach at a couple of the local bilingual schools. It was a nice reprieve--to not have to think so much when talking...and they had tons of great advice for me. One has a map of Siguat to copy for me, another introduced me to some new Honduran "cuisine" (aka another version of rice, beans, and cheese), and the other had loads to divulge about how she got "played" by several Honduran men who had several other girlfriends. Well, it is pretty machista here...even more so than in the DR which I didn't think was possible...but it's been the topic of conversation with many of my co-workers which has lead to some interesting insights about gender and empowerment. Naturally my conversations would lead to that, right?

For example, the staff and I were joking about something I had done and somehow the conversation got to how women are "punished" if they do something bad/wrong in the house. Henry, the farmacist, told me that women have kneal on top of a pile of sand or some other form of sand-like material and stay knealing until the man says she can get up. Evidently it's a Honduran "custom." Henry said women sometimes went weeks on their knees...upon telling me that, I immediately jumped up from my seat and said, "ay yo no...yo puedo correr rapido" (Ay not me! I can run fast.) I think my independent aura and refusal to accept subordinance has surprised people quite a bit...it all started when I asked if I could play soccer with the guys and they looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I am...but at the same time, I'm totally serious about it...haha. In the meantime, I'll be going to watch the guys game tomorrow and maybe I'll find a girls team or work my way into playing with them some time in the near future :)

Alright, well there's so much I could say in terms of experiences and stories I could tell, but at least this was a little update on my life here. My apartment is beautiful but sometimes lonely, the sound on my computer isn't working so that makes things even more quite. Until, of course, the gallinas (chicken/rooster) in the trees (seriously, they nest in the trees in my backyard!) starting crowing on the hour from 10pm to 9am...yeah that's not fun. Gilman, my lizard housemate, keeps me company though...and with time, I hope my apartment will be a great hang out place. It's right in the middle of town and across the street from this lovely bakery with wireless internet. Pretty nice :) Okay, well that is all for now. After the support group at the clinic on Saturday, I'll be headed to San Pedro Sula for the annual feria and then I'll be there for my birthday on Monday :) So, in the meantime, just looking forward to all that is to come! Hasta entonces, cuidense mucho!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I'm here...por fin!

Hello all!

Well, I've made it to Honduras after one intense week of jewelry-making training. Now I have all kinds of jewelry skills you wouldn't imagine...and my perfectionistic tendencies are serving well for quality control...haha. Anyhow, I've arrived in San Pedro Sula and have spent the last 2 days meeting the patients and staff and learning all about the different programs at Siempre Unidos. They have several prevention programs that I'm really interested in and hope to be a part of in my "free time." Tomorrow though I head to Siguatepeque where I will live and work at the clinic and jewelry workshop that employs several of the HIV patients. Though I haven't yet made it to Siguat, I've already had some crazy and emotional experiences.

Personally, I've had a roller coaster of emotions, of the stress from the last month graduating and preparing for my new life in Honduras and then along with the disappointment I felt when I arrived here and in all honesty, didn't really like it (the environment, the accent, the food). But I realized I've been comparing it a lot to the DR and though I didn't fall in love with the country right away like I did the DR, I still need to give it time. Also, I'm not here to fall in love with a country, I'm here to work, to learn about the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS, and the lives of those health workers trying so hard to help and minister and treat their patients. I'm here for work, for experience, for the daily grind (thanks to all those who have helped me better understand that). And today, I had an interesting and intensely real experience that helped me accept that even more...

Though I met several people and patients yesterday, today I had the opportunity to sit in with the nurse and be a part of the medical outreach. Since I worked in a prenatal HIV clinic in the DR, I thought it would be relatively similar, just reviewing their status and giving information and such. Well, it was a lot more intense than that. With all due respect to this man and his family, I have to say that for the first time in my life I watched a man almost die of AIDS today. The young man was brought in by his daughter and sister, after he collapsed on the floor. He was diagnosed with HIV several years ago but hadn't followed his treatment regimen and had fallen seriously ill about 2 weeks ago, but didn't want to see a physician. When they brought him in, he was so weak and frail. He could hardly walk or talk or even respond, his eyes were somewhat glazed over, he was sweating from fever and wheezing as we moved him into the clinic bed. The Siempre Unidos clinic is really an ambulatory service and so he had to leave immediately for the hospital, but as his family went to call a friend to pick them up and the nurse left to prepare an injection, I was left alone with him in the clinic room. I wasn't sure how to react, what to say. I'd never sat beside a man literally about to die of AIDS. What was he thinking at that moment? What should I be thinking or doing at that moment?

And then, he began to reach into his pants. I started freaking out; I didn't know what was about to happen until he began to pee all over the hospital floor. Ah, okay, ya entiendo. Yet still, there I was, alone with this suffering man as he peed. Not gonna lie, a little awkward on my second day, but then again if you gotta pee, you gotta pee, even if you are practically incapacitated. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how the man is doing now. A staff member carried him into a taxi to go directly to the hospital. We gave the family a packet of Pampers for while they'd be waiting there, just in case. He didn't look good, and who knows how long it was/will be before the doctors actually saw/see him at the emergency room. Perhaps I'll never know...but, for now, I'm saying a prayer.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Preparing the Way

Hey everyone!

I just wanted to get something posted on my blog, to at least get it started. I'm in the middle of finals right now; I'll graduate in 2 weeks, and then I'm off to the real world! Well...sorta. I'm on to Honduras, but I consider that even MORE of an "into the real world" experience. Well, I'll get more to you later when I have more interesting things to discuss and share.

In the meantime, Jane asked me what my fears about going to Honduras are...
...my answer: being lonely and not having boneless skinless chicken.