Monday, August 6, 2007
Our first day at the remote Honduran village of Pueblo Nuevo is a day of greetings, relationship building, and river exploration. We say our goodbyes for the day and get into our four-wheel-drive SUV to return to the city. A vehicle like this is the only thing that can reach this mountain village other than a horse. Back in the city our hotel is waiting.
Keys in ignition, seat belt, clutch in, turn the key… nada. We realize the battery is dead and get the sense that God has a sense of humor. Cosmic smirk. But I am not laughing, yet. Half a dozen men and innumerable boys from the village try to push-start the engine, but after many unsuccessful attempts we give up. One fellow produces a car battery from his house, but has no jumper cables. Not to worry, he has a bit of what looks like speaker wire too. He strips the insulation back from the ends by pulling it with his teeth. It is not able to start our SUV. While I am grateful for his efforts, I am not surprised.
Here we are, an engineering team that has come to install a hydro-powered battery charger, and our car’s battery is dead. We have come as deliverers of technology, and our technology has abandoned us. We have come with compassion to help those who we consider poor, but tonight it is us who need their compassionate help.
Two men hike off to the next town where someone is known to have a pick-up truck. After an hour or so they return with it and we are excited. It is dark now and even if we get it started it is too late to go back to the city. Still, we could charge our battery back to health if we could only get the engine started. Since our speaker-wire jumper cables will not reach, they remove their own battery and install it into our vehicle. Good plan. Bad implementation. They connect the cables backwards, spark! a fuse blows. We give up for the night.
We will sleep at the church, a rectangular cinder block structure with a corrugated metal roof and concrete floor. Gratefully, we have inflatable mattresses and swimming pool “rafts” on which to sleep. These items had been our backup plan in case severe weather prevented us from leaving the village at night. We borrow a “candil”, a small kerosene-burning lantern used by the villagers and the exact technology we hope to displace with electric lights. John, forever faithful, also has a flashlight. We think about the 10 electric lanterns we brought from Texas but left back at the hotel and the irony deepens. We have protein bars, Slim Jims, and water for dinner.
Some of the electrical equipment we brought is laying around and becomes a table for our candil: old technology laughing at the new. The soft yellow light illuminates the church building like a beacon for adventure. A card game initiates. The sky is cloudless and moonless and the stars are spectacular. The glow of the Milky Way is bright (Juan’s first time to see it) and a huge meteor streaks across the sky lasting seconds (Juan’s first time again). Tonight the word “awe” is not exaggeration.
Heartfelt conversations occur spontaneously and a sense of love and acceptance is palpable. Community is happening. God’s presence is with us. We end our night with a lengthy time of reflection and group prayer. We reflect on God’s sovereign plan overriding the plans we make, and how his turn out to be better. He is cultivating a sense of compassion in us and giving us insight into how the villagers live, why they end their day early (because it’s so dark) and why they get up so early (which I will describe in a minute).
The weather is nice, it has cooled off and there is a gentle breeze. The hinged wooden window covers of the church are all open and cross ventilating well. I am apprehensive about one thing, however. I will not have may CPAP machine to help me with my sleep apnea and severe snoring. Since I don’t want the students to hate me, I decide to sleep outside on a concrete slab under the stars. By midnight it is cold and I sleep fully dressed, even wearing my hiking boots. Other than Teresa who has a tarp, there are no blankets or sheets for anyone. It is the worst night’s sleep I can remember.
Around 2:00, the moon rises and something happens that is at the same time delightful and annoying. Roosters from all the village homes begin to crow at the lunar dawn. A loud one nearby to my right is answered by another far away to my left. One up the mountain joins in and is answered by another at the river bottom. It is a cacophony of commotion. They are a wanna-be wolves howling at the moon. The are wild satyrs playing mythical flutes, no, make that trumpets. I have glimpsed, and lived to tell about, the secret side of chicken subculture.
My alarm clock, the sun, rises at 5:30 and I cannot find the snooze button. Santos comes and invites us to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, corn tortillas, and refried beans. I drink a cup of warm milk, perhaps fresh from the cow. Soon our host from the city, Humberto, arrives in a pick up to help us charge our SUV’s battery. After “reading” the owner’s manual in Spanish, we finally deduce the location of what must be the blown fuse. It is a monster 120 amp fuse, and we have blown it. That’s a lot. We exchange raised eyebrows and say “dude” several times. Then, for reasons that are too boring to write, we are unable to get the old fuse out of its socket, and even if we could, there is no replacement. The joke of “How many electrical engineers does it take to change a fuse?” is right on the tip of my tongue, but the tension of the moment tells me I should keep quiet.
My thoughts at this point are that this SUV will never leave the village because a tow truck will not be able to pull it up and down the rutted hills that approximate a road. Instead, it will rot here as a monument to failed engineering projects. My name will be attached on a placard as the guy who left the parking lights on. This is unacceptable.
Could the rental car company send a mechanic? I will surely be fired from BU if I let us ride back to the city in the bed of Humberto’s pickup. Even if we are able to rent another car, is this going to set us so far back in our schedule that we are unable to recover? It’s time to improvise. Humberto and perhaps a dozen village boys stand watching and Spanish chatting in the shade as we try various fuse replacement kluges. Eventually, we get the idea to stuff the fuse holder with a copper braided solder wick that John (of course) has in his tool bag. Will this really work? Will it be able to handle the current? If the contact is intermittent, will it cause the SUV computer to shut down the engine?
With a few more prayers we try to start it again. The engine turns and it comes to life! Cheers erupt from the crowd, followed by relieved laughter. God has told us a joke. It’s an interactive kind of joke with some profound lessons imbedded. Two hours later we are back at the hotel, ready for a shower and a nap. We return tomorrow.