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When I came to Honduras in January, my intention was not to stay here. I was supposed to leave in March after studying Spanish for a month in Copán Ruinas and working in Catacamus with a Healing the Children orthopedic surgery medical brigade . I almost did not come at all. The truth is I was so terrified to travel to this small Central American country because of all the negative articles people sent me about it being “the murder capital of the world” that the day I was supposed to leave I was pale, shaking, and near vomiting. People had convinced me that going to Honduras would be my death sentence. It was the first time after going all over the world that I was nervous to travel somewhere. I was near panic attack, especially by the time I was on my second flight, which they almost kicked me off of because I was so ill upon boarding. All of this seems humorous now that I am living here.

At the beginning of this year, I found a journal in Powell’s Books in Portland, OR called The Happiness Project: One Sentence Journal-A Five-Year Record. Although a simple idea, the concept is a beautiful: To every day think of something, sum it up in a sentence (or in my case two or three), and write it down. Looking back at what I wrote before, during, and after my journey to Honduras, I remember the importance of me writing those words down. They gave me the conviction to do what I set out to do without fear and to come to this special place that I now call home.

1/24/2013: “I want to get at the root of human suffering, not to ‘heal’ or stop it, but to change our perspective of it so that we can understand and learn from it.”

1/25/2013: “‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself.’ There is no better time for me to go than now. If not now, when? I must go where the universe leads me so I can learn what it has to teach me.”

1/26/2013: “Follow through with what you set out to do; if you face your fears, you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.”

1/27/2013: “Today, I woke up to the music of tropical birds singing from the mountain forest tops lit up with the fiery pink sun rising.”

In Honduras, I have learned to appreciate what I have so much more. Even the simple life I am living here is really not all that simple in comparison to most people. My old life in the United States just seems extravagant, unnecessary, and completely disconnected from the rest of the world now. Of course, at times, I miss going to plays and musicals, dancing like crazy throughout the whole week, eating out at the latest foodie find, and going second hand shopping, not because I need something, but because I want something new and hip. Looking back on this lifestyle, I feel like all this was the static in my life. The noise. The desire to keep busy busy because sitting still was so completely undesirable. I was always moving on to the next thing, one after the other. Really, it was exhausting…wonderfully fun and crazy exhilarating, but exhausting, and I always felt so restless. I would not trade any of those days in the states; they were a blast, but I enjoy the contentment I find here. I could live a similar life here as a tourist if I wanted to, but the truth is I feel a greater sense of self embracing the locals and their slow pace.

I am no longer part of the money making bureaucracy that is the medical system in America which morally and ethically was killing my soul and spirit. My paid work now consists of writing, a dream I have had for years. I volunteer as a nurse with some of the spunkiest and inspiring bad ass nurses I have ever met and take care of patients who treat me with respect and appreciate my services. Their problems are not primarily caused by self induced obesity, but instead a lack of nutrition and resources they desperately need. I see how important it is for people to share and to let people help you, not because you need help but because people feel good when they can help someone, when they have something worthwhile to offer as well. It is funny I have learned this lesson in a place where it seems my help is so necessary, but in the end I find people are really helping me, helping me to see what is most important in life, and perhaps, I am the most needy of all. People who have hardly anything give me more than I have ever been willing to give to others even when I was at my richest financially. They will give you their best food and drink even if that means they have none. They may not be able to afford a gift, but whatever form of work they have they will offer to do for free as thank you. At first, Hondurans saw me as a tourist with money, but now they see me as a friend and their neighbor, and that is where the roots of a good relationship lie.

I found my home here, not in the house I am living in, but in a little house for children. Casita Copán is what has given me roots for the first time. There is something about this place that helps me see the world more clearly. The children are constant reminders of what it means to live in the present. Their smiling faces that light up when they see me make my heart glow. Their little arms surrounding me with endless supply of love and devotion is more than I could ever think to ask for in this life. My day is instantly brightened when I see them outside of their day care in the street walking with their mothers. The first sign they are near is a loud cry of “Betty!” and then the pitter-patter of little feet on pavement running towards me ready to jump into my arms. I love these children as my own. They plug a hole in my heart and then fill me up until I am bursting with an energy for life I did not previously have. Every day is one spent thinking of what I can do for them because they give me so much, and not just the children, but the wonderful women who work with them as well. They remind me of a feminine power and strength I often forget within myself.

The In Her Shoes Challenge is coming up on October 6th which is to help support this loving home for children, and I would love your support in fundraising for Casita Copán. If you want to know a little more about them, here is a brief snapshot of the wonderful things they do. Casita Copán is an organization in Copán Ruinas, Honduras that provides day car services for single mothers who are living in poverty and are working usually 6 days out of the week only to make about $21 for that week to support their whole family. In Honduras, which is already one of the poorest countries, this is a below poverty wage, meaning without the help of Casita, these children most likely would not be attending school and would have very unbalanced diets leading to malnourishment and poor development. I will be eating with only $21 for one week to join in solidarity with others to raise funds for the families of Casita Copán. Casita Copán makes sure the children receive meals, follow good hygiene, have clothes/shoes/school supplies and get to school, finish their homework, and have a loving and caring environment to be at while their mothers are working. Instructors provide extra classes for children to advance literacy and also do various excursions/activities with the children. Also, mothers of the children, most of whom cannot read or write, are receiving free literacy classes. Casita also pays for medical needs of the mothers and children. The In Her Shoes Challenge donations which can be made online here are to help fund all these services. Casita Copán is a non-profit and relies on continuous donations and grants to function. Future programs that these funds will help with are domestic violence support groups, business skills classes, cooking classes, and health education classes for the mothers. Casita’s main goal is to keep children with their mothers while providing them with the support they need so that they can be healthy loving families and have positive futures.

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You are an Electrical Engineer: You now know how to strip the protective sheath around wires if they don’t have plugs and create your own plug, and you no longer get electrocuted when you stick it in the wall!

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You are a Doctor: As a nurse, you used to get frustrated with those doctors that just wouldn’t let their patients go when it was time to go. Well, now you understand. A dead fan can always be fixed if you have medical tape.

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You are a Procrastinator: Laundry or hammocks? Laundry or hammocks? It really is a very easy decision.

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You are a Gardner: You have successfully bought, planted (let’s be honest here. Someone helped you…a lot), and are tending things that are growing and edible. Now, if only you could remember which plants are weeds and which ones are food. Lessons learned: Next time use plant markers, and seeds need to be more spread out if you expect anything to grow underneath (Although, the greenery on top looks nice right?)

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You are a Contemporary Artist: You almost broke your leg trying to move the old giant washboard for the pila someone decided to dump in your yard, but then realized because of the experience of being pinned to the ground by this massive slab of cement, that it was really an artistic representation of power and strength and would be a great modern art piece in your garden. If you had not almost had your leg broken by this amazing piece of art, you would have never realized its true potential to inspire the soul.

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You are a Foster Parent: You always have dog food and water available for dogs who need a home. They are just so cute and cuddly. How could you resist?

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You are a Garbage Collector: You now finally realize what your neighbors have been trying to tell you all along; your true potential lies in garbage collecting. If only you had caught on sooner, you wouldn’t have gotten so grumpy every time your neighbors put their trash in your yard and you went around picking it up. Who knew that you were learning to embrace your life’s calling?

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You are a Productivity Manager: You now know that having two bottles for water exchanges, you can wait until both are empty before exchanging for new bottles of water. This gives you more time and energy to complete other tasks. Also, someone usually offers to carry one or both of the bottles more often than they did with one. One less trip each week and a lot less unnecessary weight lifting. Awesome!

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You are an Environmentally Friendly Security Specialist: You know that keeping your home free from burglars can be done cheaply and sustainably. Because of your innovative thinking, you now realize you can turn trash into highly effective weapons to improve the safety and security of your home.

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You are a Survivor: Although the “widow-maker” has tried to kill you many times, you are resilient, and the times you have been electrocuted have only made you stronger.

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You are a Mighty Warrior: You have battled the ice monster and won. You keep the stick around just to remind it who’s boss and keep it in line. For those fighting their own battles against these formidable beasts, wood has been found to be more efficient than knives. In fact, I STRONGLY ADVISE not using knives to avoid unnecessary losses. Wooden sticks. That’s where it’s at. Trust me.

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You are an Undercover Investigator: You are investigating “Peeping Tom” occurrences in Honduras. You came upon an interesting finding when you had the fence repaired in your back yard thinking it would be a kindness to your neighbor for who the fence belonged. But only a couple days later the board and its nails were again ripped away which seemed very unlikely done by accident. This is a major finding in the investigation as the open slot provides a convenient passage of entry for someone who might want to look into your window. Now you can narrow down the suspects to the neighbors next door.

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You are a Tourist Advisor for Honduras: Two most important do nots are DO NOT drink the water and DO NOT put toilet paper in the toilet! It goes in the garbage can! Please and thank you.

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You are a Water Conservationist: After living two weeks without water readily available, you are now determined to save every single drop. Next professional goal: Become a Plumber so you can fix the leaky faucet.

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Well I am back in Honduras and adjusting to life in my home again. I was so thrilled to see the little garden we planted before I left is already taking off. I ate some delicious cilantro from it today with my tamale. Can’t wait until all the other vegetables are ready. I have started eating daily flax seed in an attempt to make my hair grow. More than a half a year after chopping it all off, it seems to have only grown an inch at most. One of these days I will have long luscious locks again. We have adopted another dog, but ours is a unique relationship. Eduardo Piñera is a street dog like Diego, and is well known in Copán because of his sweet nature. For some reason, he has especially taken a liking to Kristen and I, and he sometimes will follow us back home to grab a bite to eat and lounge around or cuddle with us. He is truly a sweetheart, and one of the most loving dogs I have met. That said, he has been in the streets for some time, and his preference is to come and go walking with us in the streets when we leave and often times getting distracted by the lovely lady dogs. He is not permanently with us, but he is a new addition to our little family.

It always takes me about a week to settle back into my somewhat routine. I say somewhat because I don’t really have anyone holding me accountable to a routine. That said, I feel like I am going crazy without making one for myself as I end up feeling rather unproductive. I realize being productive has a lot to do with happiness. Feeling a sense of purpose and accomplishment helps push people to the next life lesson, and I need to be always learning and changing to feel truly satisfied in my own life.

I am not sure what the upcoming year will hold for me. This past one has been such an adventure and growing process. So many people have passed into and out of my life, some have stuck around and all have taught me things. I feel a confidence and pride in who I am and what I do, and I think when it all comes down to it, that is really what I was looking for. So what do I do next? I suppose the primary thing I have learned is that what brings me more happiness than anything is feeling free and that freedom is where my willow tree roots lie. For the longest time, I thought I had to lay down roots in the ground, I had to be still and stay in one spot to truly find happiness. But that has not been the case, and I think I will always be a wanderer, and that is okay although it doesn’t fit the social norm. It may feel lonely occasionally without those roots, but the truth is birds of a feather flock together. And while we may not have roots, I think that those of us who wander are never alone because we find each other. Thanks to technology, I can also keep in touch with those I love and take them wherever I go.

Being here in Honduras, I have given myself more titles than just nurse. So often people get stuck in their job roles, and I really don’t think it is healthy, at least not for me. I enjoy doing different types of work, paid or unpaid, and in the end, using all my talents creatively makes me a better nurse. I find it funny that I went to school to be a nurse, a job that makes quadruple what I make as a writer per hour, but I find more satisfaction volunteering as a nurse and getting paid hardly anything to write. To some it may sound bizarre, but for me, happiness trumps any pay check I made working as a nurse in an American health-care system. A beautiful gift is realizing that I don’t have to give up nursing to be a writer or vice-versa, and actually that the two seem to go quite nicely hand in hand. The truth is life is going very well, and while I have many ideas and goals for the future, I am pretty sure when the time comes to make any kind of decision it will all be rather clear so why not just enjoy the ride?

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During Easter week an evening was dedicated to making las alfombras, which are made of colored sawdust. The streets are cleared and these sawdust mosaic carpets of religious and Mayan symbols are created only to disappear the next day under the feet of Catholic pilgrims who walk from one Catholic church to the other in a grand procession on Good Friday.

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For about two weeks there was a severe shortage of running water in Copan and many houses were without water for bathing, washing, flushing, etc. Purified water for drinking was available to buy, but realizing just how important running water is and how much I need in a day to do basic tasks was a good lesson in conserving resources. Water is so abundant in Oregon, hot or cold, and I forget how precious and essential it is to our existence.

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I have moved again and am now living with a friend and adopted street dog. I met my friend through Casita Copan, a non-profit day care and single-mother support center we both volunteer at. In my new home, clothes are washed in an outside tub called a pilla. Washing clothes at the pilla while listening to blues and enjoying a light breeze blowing through the backyard has become a source of peace, self-reflection, and meditation for me. The yard is filled with mango trees and behind it are mountains in the distance. Yesterday, I hung up two hammocks and am looking forward to spending afternoons reading and writing in one. The dog adds spice to our lives with his boundless energy and playful nature. There are times I consider killing him because he drives me nuts, but then I look at his floppy ears and hopeful smile, and I fall in love with this little rascal all over again. Yesterday, I made my first batch of green mango juice which is the equivalent of fresh lemonade on a hot day, but better. It is nice to have a bigger but cheaper place now. I love to have guests, and here I could have a whole party.
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I have been working at the local clinic and recently going door to door with doctors and nurses to give vaccinations. It has been interesting and fun to see how various people live here and in what conditions. When I asked the nurse how she knew which houses to go to when all she had was names, she told me Copan is small, and after twenty years working here, she knows everyone. I am finding I too am getting to know everyone and they me each day. I am starting to be less looked at as a tourist and more as a local which is a satisfying change. I started teaching English for income and have found these classes to be the biggest surprise to me. Because of them I am meeting wonderful people and forming new friendships while gaining a certain amount of respect from locals, especially men, that wasn’t there before. I am enjoying seeing my students learn and am amazed at how fast they do with so little time to study. They are extremely dedicated and eager, and seeing them smile when they speak in English is one of the best rewards.

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This past week I visited a clinic under construction in San Jose, an isolated, impoverished community in Guatemala 30 minutes from Copan Ruinas via unpaved roads. A few years ago, the people there didn’t have running water, kids were crammed into a dirty, dark building to attend school, and to go to a doctor could be an hour or more drive. Project School Supplies of Copan Ruinas is working with the Guatemalan government to build this clinic and staff it with permanent doctors and nurses. Project School Supplies also assisted in the construction of a water system, new school, and a bakery that will help create a more sustainable area for these people to thrive in who rely on farming for sustenance. The most beautiful thing about this project is that it is building a sense of community amongst those in San Jose. Although these people are being provided the resources to complete these projects, they are responsible for the actual development of the new village. Men from San Jose work on the construction every day in addition to their normal work. One can see a sense of pride in their faces as their own hands make their dreams realities. These people do not need hand-outs, but the tools to do what they are capable of. Everyone in the world has the power to create something beautiful, but sometimes it seems impossible to do so without the proper resources. To create something from nothing is overwhelming to even contemplate. What amazes me every day about life in Honduras is just how little people really need here to create something beautiful. In America, people have so much. They take for granted their ability to make their every dream a reality, but for those here, just a little can motivate people to build a whole new village.

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My trepidations about deciding to stay here are quickly being replaced with excitement of the daily adventures that come with living in a new country. I am finding that friends come easily. For example, I had two new ones the first week in my apartment, Harry the Spider and Mr. Cucaracha. That said, I eventually decided they were best left as outdoor friends, and they have since then departed. New friendly faces have filled the void of those that left and I am especially happy to have found another running buddy. I woke up at 4 am a few days ago to what sounded like gun shots and spent the morning plastered to my bed eyes-wide-open only to realize later when I asked about the event that it was the morning wake up call from the Copan Ruinas fair with fireworks. This is the big event right now which is akin to those at home with rodeos, games, rides, greasy food, princesses, and the like. It has been fun to explore throughout the week. I saw the little girl crowned princess who was maybe six and her dress was so puffy she had to be carried down the steps so she wouldn’t trip. One night, I danced for six hours to Latin rhythms and arrived at my home when the fireworks began. I danced that night from one fiesta to the other with a family of cowboys in the street to mariache music. The next day I ran in Copan Ruinas’ very first 5K run after two hours of sleep. People here work so hard when there is work and party so hard when there isn’t; I am not sure how they have the energy. I spent Sunday sleeping all day and feeling the previous night must have been a dream. I met with wonderful women this week to discuss potential work opportunities, and I am excited about what people are doing here in the community and the possibilities to creatively use my nursing skills in more preventative and educational ways. The only problem is deciding what project I want to commit to. There are so many things people need here, and there aren’t really rules about what you can or can’t do because there is so little governmental control and so much corruption. The freedom is a bit overwhelming. I feel like there is always work to be done, but no guarenteed outcomes or pay. It’s a bit like looking over a cliff and trying to decide if you could jump far enough to reach the other side. In the end, I think I just need to pick one passion and focus my all on that, and it will come to be. I am a strong believer in the power of positive thinking, and it has gotten me this far.
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I relished the last moments with my dear friend before she left to return to the states. I had the best night of salsa dancing in Antigua, moving my body to the rhythm until parched of all fluids, collapsing exhausted on the floor after endless spinning, being flung from one side of the dance floor to another. The music down here speaks to my soul, and I want to die dancing…what ecstasy it would be.

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I did yoga under the night sky, candle lights flickering in the breeze, ancient ruins and mountains before me. It felt good to return to my heart center and listen.

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I spent a day with a friend doing nothing in particular, enjoying simply being part of this world as butterflies floated through the sky and birds came and went, restless as I so often have been. I watched and savored my life, music playing in the background, songs of our hearts. I sat on the grassy overgrowth of a broke-down church that is home to a saint and was content.

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Playing Con Quién with two wanderers, I felt a tinge of doubt about deciding to stay in Copan. Why did I choose this place of all those in the world to live? Would it be the same when my alma gemela left, when I returned to an empty apartment? Would the people I let into my heart in this little town love me or disappoint me, protect me or hurt me? It is too early to tell. I jumped into this world without thinking. In a day, I made my decision to stay final. No time was spent thinking of the pros or cons. I suppose this is what living in the now means, moving day to day, letting the world catch you as you fall backwards. As I think about Katie leaving, the shear terror of it all hits me.

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Back home in Copan for a few days, I moved everything I owned into a little apartment overlooking a butterfly farm surrounded by trees and tropical plants. It felt cozy in this small space I could now call my own. Never has a move been so easy, no paperwork or boxes involved. I was not there long enough to absorb everything, only long enough to make it my own and leave for Catacamus, the reason why I came to Honduras.

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Seeing the members of Healing the Children, doing the work we did in the hospital, made me more certain of my decision to stay in this country. I realized that the core of me staying here is something deep in my soul that I have never tapped into before now. It’s an inner peace that no matter what goes wrong in my personal life, the work I am doing here is something special that feeds and nourishes my heart as nothing else ever has. Giving these children the opportunity to walk, to work, and to play is right. Forming relationships with these families, showing them that someone cares and seeing them glow just by being acknowledged, I see that the human spirit is burning bright here. They are helping me see what is important, they are reminding me why I am alive, to love with a heart wide open and receive love as well. People never are evil; they simply do the best with what they have; they make the best decisions they can based on the information they have been given. A wise person taught me that on this trip. The team was a breath of fresh air for me. For so long, I have been out of the USA. I forgot the beauty in freedom. I change in each country, adapting to be culturally sensitive, sometimes forgetting who I am. It felt good this past week to come out of my shell, to joke freely, to feel like a human being instead of a sex object, as I am so often seen in this country. To dance and drink, work and explore, to feel equal and respected, to laugh and to talk without inhibition, to feel like I don’t have to hide aspects of myself and that I will be accepted and valued for all the talents I have to offer. Saying good-bye was harder than these beautiful and inspirational people will ever know. But when I feel lonely or begin to forget who I am here, I will remember dancing the conga with friends in a restaurant in Tegucigalpa and I will know who I am in my heart.

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Today, I panicked on the bus ride back to Copan. Nervousness turned to nausea. Returning a week early from my work in the hospital and saying good-bye to my last American friends in Honduras, I found myself shaking as it soaked in that I was returning to a city that all of my English speaking friends have left, and in which, I have chosen to live alone with minimal Spanish. I wanted to cry, but realized I had no one to cry with as I stepped off the bus. My only thought was to get to my apartment as soon as possible and let it all out there. I looked for a moto-taxi driver and in my desperation to escape claustrophobia, I almost didn’t recognize the man, who was the first I met when I came here. When we first met, he greeted me with a smile, and helped reassure me when I had similar feelings to today…complete terror. He knew English and wanted to practice but let me painfully try to use my Spanish that first day and promised that when next we saw each other in Copan, we would talk in Spanish only. So today, we met again, and in Spanish, I told him I was sad and scared, alone and crazy, and I cried. And I remembered that when you let yourself be vulnerable, life has a way of holding you up and showing it cares. Yes, I have made a crazy decision to stay here, but no, I am not alone. There will be other friends, other people to help me grow. There is always someone who will help me smile when I am sad, even if it is a stranger.

My Heart Will Be Full Again

My heart is open
And it bleeds
A smile on my face
I grow pale
A body so dry
Tears are needed
To maintain pressure.

You cannot see them.

I smile to show I trust
Even when that trust is broken
I trust because it is only in trusting strangers
That they have an opportunity to be trustworthy
I trust and wait for the silver lining amongst all the pain
I never stop believing people can be more than this
But learn to accept us as we are
I smile because I know the pain is part of the joy
Every day is an opportunity for the world to change
I smile because my heart will keep beating
If I trust others to give me enough in return to survive
Some days my heart is more empty than others
But it still beats
I still can love
The hardest part is letting others love me
Because that involves trust
And it can be broken
But if I smile despite the pain
I will find love seeping back in
And my heart will be full again.

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