Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Reflections on a life-changing year

This time last year, I was in one of the most stressful periods of my life as we stripped away all that was familiar and beloved to prepare for our move to Honduras.
I was stepping into a new job in a strange land where I'd have to work in a language I barely knew, leaving behind friends, family and the security of a comfortable and fulfilling 30-year career. I was unsettled by the constant reports of violence and murder coming out of Honduras, and wondering just what my spouse and I had gotten ourselves into with our decision to volunteer for Cuso International.
But it felt like the right thing to do even so. And with a challenging, exhilarating year now under our belts, I'm happy to report that it was.
We had no idea what  to expect when we boarded the plane for San Pedro Sula on a cold, damp January day. More than 50 years of middle-class accumulation had been reduced to a small storage locker of largely worthless personal possessions and 40 kilos of baggage we were taking with us. Except for short bursts of travel, I'd never been farther than a few hours away from my family.
And you can't help but be a little edgy when everyone keeps reminding you you're headed for the murder capital of the world. A newcomer reading the relentlessly grim news coming out of Honduras is bound to feel at least a little apprehensive about spending time here, and the scary in-country briefing we got upon our arrival in Tegucigalpa certainly didn't help with that.
But the reality has turned out to be so very different. Virtually every Honduran I've met this past year has wanted only that I like their country. People are friendly and helpful, and despairing over the daily deluge of bad-news media stories that are scaring travellers and aid missions away. Sometimes I'll be walking through an area that I walked ever so tentatively in those first few weeks in Honduras and flash back to how nervous I felt back then, and how sharply that contrasts with the way I feel now on those same streets.
My first couple of months on the job were admittedly really difficult, what with understanding so little of what my workmates were saying. I fear my inadequate Spanish skills left me devoid of any outward signs of personality or humour. My head ached at the end of every day from the effort of trying to communicate.
But little by little I learned. At the six-month mark, something kicked in and I began to understand much more of what I heard. The writing and reading came along even quicker. A year on, I can hold my own in any conversation without having to rehearse every sentence in my head before daring to open my mouth, and now use Google Translate solely to confirm what I've already written rather than as a crutch to get me through another baffling day.
My co-workers gradually started inviting me out into the field with them, where at least I could take photos and see for myself the work of the organization. I tried to be helpful in any way I could. I had to let go of the "Canadian way" and adjust to a laid-back work culture that feels none of that sense of urgency to complete tasks on time or on plan.
It was hard to be reduced to a virtual novice on the work front after many comfortable years of recognition back home, but it has also been exciting to be proving myself all over again. My role here is to help my co-workers get better at telling the stories of the great work they do, and I'm finally starting to think that just might be possible.
Perhaps the best part - as strange as this might sound -  has been to experience a country with problems that are not only much more profound than anything my home country faces, but far more complex. To see such problems up close has not only given me a new appreciation for good governance - something that is almost completely absent in Honduras - but challenged me as never before to take more personal responsibility for affecting change. More and more I see what can be accomplished simply by one person doing what they can.
I've learned that while Skype and Facebook are not substitutes for time spent with family and friends, they're pretty good ways to stay in touch. I've learned that you can pack a lot into a short visit home, and hope to one day be as good as my well-travelled cousin at finding cheap flights and arranging meet-you-in-Las-Vegas kinds of holidays for quick catch-ups.
I have another year here to build on what I've learned so far. I'll need it, and am grateful that we had the good fortune of being accepted for two-year positions. It feels like the adventure is just getting started.

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