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At Home in Honduras

Sometimes the best way to find yourself is through other people, and other places — like, say, Honduras. Home is where the heart is... so when you're building homes, you're building hearts, too... including your own.

Digging ditches — it's not everyone's dream vacation. Nor mine, actually — but when Luis said the worksite was bare earth, that we'd be working on a house from the ground up, I was thrilled. I hadn't worked on a foundation in years... and there's something special about getting in on the ground floor of a project... or in this case, below ground. Maybe it's the whole idea of "foundation" — knowing what you do affects everything else, that you need to be at the top of your game because the way you start dictates how you finish.

We're in Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras, and my co-leader Bill Kern and I are trying to show a team of 15 other Habitat for Humanity volunteers that backbreaking, challenging, hot-and-sweaty manual labor can be just about the most fun they've ever had. I can't claim we've succeeded, yet... but we're well on our way, because the team is starting to see that material success isn't the only form of success. At dinner on these trips we often have "hypes and gripes" sessions when people pick out their highs and lows... and one of the consistent "hypes," this trip, is that Hondurans always seems ready to smile, even though by U.S. standards, they're living far below the poverty line.

We're on Day Four of the build, and the foundation's done. No major injuries so far — knock wood — though a number of people have gotten tourista. But the weather's been good — not too hot, and mostly dry — and we've been constantly busy, which isn't always the case. When things are slow, on many trips (I've led or co-led a dozen, with Habitat or a similar non-profit working in the Dominican Republic, Cambiando Vidas) we play with the kids, but we haven't had time for that yet. Though we have visited a couple of orphanages after work, as chronicled in the accompanying photos.

The team's from all over the planet. Ivory's Korean, but considers New Zealand home; Gemma travels on a British passport, but has lived in Florida for decades; Thai's from Chicago but was born in a refugee camp in Thailand; Pascal lives in the Bahamas, but he's Swiss. We've got a lot of states represented, too: Michigan, Washington, Oklahoma, Kansas, even Rhode Island and Connecticut — Julia's practically a neighbor, living in Weston. It's a diverse team, which is good in and of itself... but once we start mixing with the locals, everyone sees we "trippers" come from a much narrower social stratum that we'd like to admit — privileged, educated, able to apply our talents. Sure, you can spend a week at a four-star resort in the Caribbean, or tour Europe visiting museums and churches, but you can spend less, and do more, traveling to developing countries and interacting with locals on their terms, in their way.

Dennis — I've forgotten his last name — is the new homeowner, and he's running the job, since he's an apprentice mason. He's great to work with, involving the volunteers with every bit of the process — digging trenches, cutting rebar, building the rebar framework, mixing batch after batch after batch of concrete or "mescla" (mortar). My job, much of the time, is to make sure everyone else is working productively, which means I end up, often, breaking big rocks into small rocks — a surprisingly gratifying job, because, like most of the work on site, it takes a lot of skill to do right. You find a rock with a seam where it's likely to break, place it over a void in the rock pile, and wail away with the sledgehammer, hoping to hear a lower tone from the hammer blow that signifies a split. If you're lucky, you'll get a couple big pieces of rock; if not, you'll get splinters, and will have to wail away some more.

I can't say, exactly, what I like so much about these build trips, except that they allow me — and everyone who travels with me — to re-discover some inner humanity. Why? Because we see so many smiles; because the people we build with are so grateful; because the children seem so unspoiled, open, interested. And because we, as a team, bring out the best in one another, most of the time, because we need to be a team to accomplish our goal — build a lot of relationships, as well as a house. No, we won't be able to finish the entire house this trip — enough rain, and tourista, to slow things down, and insufficient muscles and organization to be efficient, construction-wise — but we will have had a lot of fun, and learned a thing or two about ourselves.

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