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My cab will be here in 4 hours and getting any sleep is starting to look unlikely. I’m staring at the ceiling, holding the woman who holds my heart, imagining the adventure in front of me. I’ve received numerous calls from my parents in the past few days telling me what they’ve seen on Google, that scary place where a fear can become a fact if you look long enough. I play it off- “bad things happen everywhere, ma”- but I’ve been to the same websites, seen the same glaring statistics of the highest homicide rate in the world, and part of me is questioning this move as well. My mom fears for me due to my genuine trust in people and social nature, and she’s right to be afraid. I’d end up putting myself in a few sketchy situations, but at least I left with the full experience.
I’m above the clouds on my way to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, in a plane that sounds like a lawn mower being pushed through tall grass. The old lady sitting next to me is quiet but I can tell she shares my dislike for turbulence. Something about being shaken around in a metal box, 3000 feet in the air, by Mother Nature herself is, well, unsettling. I close my eyes and talk to all the loved ones I’ve lost on Earth and found again in my heart. I hate when I catch myself praying for the first time in months and only doing so to ask for help.
I haven’t had a chance to eat and my stomach is singing a duet with the planes engine. The old lady holds out a bag of Cheetos and smiles. I refuse politely but she insists, reaching the bag out a little farther and opening her eyes a little wider. Her eyes are kind and her smile warm. Her daughter offers to trade seats with me so I can see the view as we land. They both seem to be amused by my lack of certainty, offering advice for places to visit and things to avoid. I miss the kindness you find in people while traveling to an unknown place they call home. They sense my vulnerability and see it as an opportunity, not to take advantage of me, but simply to help a stranger.
This word gets to the very core of the reason I’ve traveled to a country plagued by violence. The old lady offered me a snack because she had something to share and could sympathize with my discomfort. But what about the kid who was raised with next to nothing, never coached to strive for more than what his arms could reach, who lives either trapped in or surrounded by a life of gangs and violence? The kid whose hunger runs deeper than mine might see vulnerability as an opportunity as well, not to share, but to survive.
I am here to work with Proyecto METAS, a project that focuses on improving the lives of young people by creating new and strengthening existing opportunities for alternative education throughout the country. The METAS office is a place where people walk around to say hello in the morning and goodnight in the afternoon. Stop and think about that for a second and you’ll come to appreciate it like I did. Everyday your colleagues walk around to see how you are, shake your hand, and welcome you to the day. I really felt like I was part of a team, one made up of extremely talented and motivated players. In fact, many of the employees in the main office are young people who enrolled in a METAS sponsored program, worked harder than you could imagine, and ended up getting certified and employed. A handful of young men and women whose lives were dramatically changed by the project they are now contributing to. Their stories shake the walls of my reality, reducing my problems to a rubble that I walk upon with privileged feet and a heavy heart.
Tegucigalpa is a city where people take pride in their culture and the beauty of their surroundings. It’s a place where people acknowledge each other in passing, if only to say hello or excuse me (for a southern boy moving to DC, it’s been challenging getting used to people living in their personal bubbles all the time). The city sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, much like Medellin, with brightly colored houses running up the mountainside creating a mixture of colors like a painters pallet as he searches for the perfect shade. The mountaintops break through the lowest lying clouds, giving just enough room for a yellowish-white light to shine onto the lush green mountains; A spotlight showing me how far I’ve come. From one of these mountaintops you can watch the sun set behind the great city walls, slowly pulling a line of light across the city as houses turn into stars that flicker in the darkness beneath you. I’m sitting on one of these mountaintops imagining myself as a young boy, climbing above the clouds to get a glimpse of the heavens.
I’m staring out the window as we drive down the winding mountain roads on our way back to the city. The driver thinks I’m tired and turns the music down, but I’m really wide awake, attentive, taking in everything I can. This is one of my favorite things to do in a new place. It’s amazing how much I get out of seeing a few seconds of a strangers life. I see kids celebrating after a score; a mother getting off a bus, pulling her son by the hand and fighting her way through the exhaust; and a man trying to sell a few more flowers before it gets dark. They’ll probably forget the moments that I witness after a few hours, but the small window I get into their life builds memories that will connect me with them [and their country] forever.
The last drop of light vanishes with the setting sun but the mountains continue to cast a shadow of violence over the city and all it’s beauty. It would be unwise to see one and not the other. After all, I’ve come here to confront this violence not ignore it. An example of its effect on the community can be seen when you walk into the stadium that their local soccer team, Olympia, plays in. Two sections on opposite ends of the stadium are blocked off by walls with barbwire fences, separating the two local gangs from each other and the general crowd. The people who I worked with during my two week stay told me they’ve never been to a game because they don’t feel safe, just like they don’t ride public transportation or rarely do any outside activities for fun. This is a hard truth for me to swallow, as I imagine my own day-to-day life living behind the self-made and community-built walls meant to protect me from my own people.
The gift of perspective is what I love the most about traveling.
This was one of my first opportunities to design and produce an e-learning course/website outside of my masters program. The website that I built for Proyecto METAS is a community of practice site, where 11 local NGOs that each work with youth in a different way (sports, music, ect.) can communicate and strengthen their capacity through courses on topics such as M&E, Communications, and HR. It was also my first opportunity to conduct a user analysis in a professional setting. I’m blessed to have a job that allows me to practice the skills I’m studying, travel to new corners of the world, and most importantly, help improve the lives of others. I have always thought it wise to value the opportunity to gain experience over the income that I generate at this point in my life, and this trip only strengthened that belief.
Write the word “opportunity” on a sticky note and put it next to your computer. Anytime you feel down about where you are in life just look at that word and remember what it means, not just to you, but to all the other people in this world.