Neighbors - 5 Years (Section 3)

What were initially nothing more than pairs of shy eyes peeking out from behind the inadequate trunk of the orange tree slowly grew into the faces of beloved children. When we built our home, we had to chop off the thick branch of a pito tree that occupied the airspace needed by our future house. The limb was insignificant except for the fact that from it hung a tattered feed sack, barely-supported by two old knotted, frayed ropes – a swing. We promised the 7 year-old twins that we would make another one as soon as the house was done. We made good on that promise and promptly hung it on our front porch. Five years and three demolished editions later, kids still saddle up daily for a go on the swing – until everyone gets too wild and a Big Kid throws it up on the roof for an hour or so for everything to calm down again. Countless games of Uno, Zingo, tops, and dominos have been played in the shadow of the swing on the smooth concrete, while the marble-players seek a more suitable dirt surface to ply their trade. As I periodically hoe through the garden beds in front of the porch, I always inevitably dig up a marble and playing card or two.
Those twin girls have since become sisters to our daughters. They are an omnipresent source of smiles and wonderment in our home. As I turn the truck into the muddy incline to reach our house after a long day of work, I see little girls race across the front porch, through the carport and to the gate to swing it open for me to pull straight in. It is a simple act for which I am especially grateful when it’s raining. Breathless, they update me on the goings-ons while I was out: who fell down – and what they fell into, how many eggs the chickens laid, which flowers the goat ate when she got out, who fell in love with who, and what Stacey is cooking for dinner. They wash dishes, they play with our daughter, they become our family for the evening. They, joined by their two little nieces and Alida, laugh, sing, and play in our dimly-lit sala. Their teenage brothers join me on occasional birding excursions high up into the ancient forests of surrounding mountains to search out Garnet-throated Hummingbirds, Resplendant Quetzals, and Emerald Toucanets, whispering as we stalk their calls through miles of dense brush. Simultaneously we hold our breath when the near-mythical creature suddenly bursts into view. They have also been left breathless in quite a different way as we sweat through postholes, footers, trenches and garden beds.

Their father and I grunt through conversations about the terrible price that coffee is bringing this year, who lost the card game last night, who I can’t trust, what is wrong with the **** politicians, how the goats are doing, and the ailment of the week. He’s a cynic among cynics – Pessimist First Class, but has done well for himself. For years, he has kept his prized 1980-something Toyota pickup consistently running loads of plantains and coffee off of the mountain – himself always mounted stoically, but proudly in the passenger seat. He has no interest in learning to read or drive, but he and his (license-bearing) sons often work the smoke-spewing, blue truck well into the evenings. One night not long ago, the truck decided it was done with all the foolishness a couple miles from home base. A couple of us drove down into the pine grove in our vehicle to pull it the rest of the way up the hill. It was soon back in service – coasting down the hill with hundreds of pounds of coffee in the bed, captain contentedly seated at the helm next to the pilot.

His wife, Argelia, has become our Honduran mother, adding the three of us to the twelve that she herself bore – one in a coffee field and the pair of twins by herself at home. The woman that initially greeted us with a kind, shy smile has supported us with a mother-like tenacity since our first step into her community. As we built our house, we struggled to find enough water to mix concrete in the waterless town. She gave us rainwater from her big blue barrels without hesitation, and then loaned us the precious barrels to take in the bed of our truck for a refill by bucket down at a local spring. Three to four times a week – until this day – we get a knock at our front door. One of the twins or Argelia stands there smiling with a covered plate. Inside is the delicacy of the day, often a steaming stack of ten fresh tortillas. Other days see fried tilapia or chicken, macheteadas, pastelitos, or our family’s favorite – tamales. If we accidentally leave laundry soaking in a tub outside and then leave for the day, we often return home to find it scrubbed clean and hanging dry on the line by the time we return home. Alida's daily plea is to go next door to see her Mama Gelia and play with her children. Now with Argelia as both earthly mother and sister in Christ, we not only share an earthly bond, but an eternal one as well. 

When we are gone, sometimes for months at a time, they milk our goats, feed our chickens, and care for our dog and home. When gunshots and screams ring out in the night, we whisper through the window or meet at the gate that joins our yards and our lives. When one of us are sick and sweaty in the hammock, she brings us fresh juice and food. When one of them lops off the end of a finger or comes down with a fever, we respond in kind with our own foreign remedies.

With this beloved family, we have slowly understood a deeper sense of community. It has taken years for us to lower our private tendencies and mental fences to a point that we can truly share life with our Honduran neighbors. We had to smash our idol of privacy and begin to hear the daily scrubbing begin at 4 a.m. and the click of the gate as a child rushed through - to smell the breakfast cooking fire drift through the window, hold the sick child, share the tortillas, and laugh with them in their language. We had to know them and to be with them - to make them family. Family that is willing to love through any infraction of sensibility or comfort.

So much of knowing them has required us to not only inhabit the same geographic space, but as much as possible, the same mental space. We had to learn what it means to stand in line at a Honduran BMV (believe me, as bad as it seems here, we have it good), deal with the consequences of a corrupt politician’s lies and the unpleasant effects of parasites, sweat in your own home with no A/C or electricity, replace suspension parts on a bi-annual basis, and taste the differences between bananas. A culture is not just a set of recognizable and identifiable characteristics – it is a remarkably-subtle and inter-related set of implications, thoughts, perceptions, pronunciations, inflections, perspectives, and surroundings.

Although in five years, we have not fully-integrated into the culture, we have become acutely aware of its distinctive presence. Our cross-cultural experience has not been so much one of learning as it has been an exercise in patience. The subtle differences in personalities that plague average workplaces and social connections are amplified by the dissonance that can exist between cultures. The temptation is often to try and ferret out or uproot the perceived issue in order to take a good look at the thing and “fix it”, but that often turns out to be a destructive process. Seldom does such an activity lead to mutual growth and understanding. Patience is key to fully-knowing our brothers and sisters of different cultures. The longer we give them the benefit of the doubt and continue to listen, the more they seem to look, talk, act, and feel like ourselves. Subjected to the deluge of time, love, and patience, the, thick, black line demarcating “us” and “them” dissolves into a dashed and faded stroke, scarcely-notable on the surface of the relationship.

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