Editor’s note: In the last Oro Loma Nomad, the writer, a native of Oro Loma and graduate of Dos Palos High School, told of her graduation from UC Santa Barbara and her decision to join the Peace Corps.
The plane carrying the new Peace Corp Volunteers landed in Honduras in the summer of 1968. It was the rainy season. Every afternoon the skies would thunder, and the clouds would let loose a deluge of water.
The people on the streets were thin; some were barefoot; most wore simple, worn-out clothes. The children were thin and wore hand-me-down dirty clothes.
Women washed clothes in the river that separated the city of Tegucigalpa from its sister city of Comayaguela. Often the women would be mostly naked as they stood in the water, since they were washing their only change of clothes. They carried their bundles on their heads.
I had been in Mexico and had seen poverty there. I had also seen poverty in the San Joaquin Valley. But nothing came close to the poverty that I saw in Tegucigalpa.
The streets were narrow and dusty or muddy, congested with small, cheap, and noisy cars. Street vendors and beggars abounded. The markets smelled sweetly if one was in the flowers section, but the odors in the meat and fish areas were foul.
My husband, Bastiaan Schouten, who had never been in a Spanish-speaking country, was astonished by the sights, smells and sounds of Tegucigalpa. Unlike me, who was shocked by it all, he was intrigued.
Bastiaan and I had met each other at UC Santa Barbara, where I was an undergraduate student, and he was in his last year of the Ph.D. program in economics. He and I had been dating for a year, but we had never talked about a future together.
When he finished all his written and oral exams, I asked him, “So, Bastiaan, what are your plans now?”
“I’m thinking of applying for a job as an economist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
“How boring!” I replied.
“How boring?” He was stunned. He paused, then asked, “Well, smarty pants, what would you do?”
“I would do something more interesting, like going in the Peace Corps.”
“The Peace Corps?”
“Yes,” I said, “In fact, I’ve already been accepted.” Bastiaan was speechless. I could see he was thinking fast and furious of what this all meant. Finally, he said, “I’ll go with you.”
“OK,” I answered. This was the moment his journey into the world began.
He called the Peace Corps recruiter and was told he would be accepted, but that there was no guarantee that he would be sent to the same country to which I would be assigned, unless we were married to each other.
We were married during spring break at the San Francisco City Hall by a judge named Elton C. Lawless. Every time we saw his nameplate we giggled, until the judge sternly rebuked Bastiaan, “Young man, this is a very serious matter!”
We laughed about Judge Lawless for years afterward. Oh, and our witnesses arrived late. And they were stoned.
When we came out of the city hall, married, we were exhilarated. This was the moment we went out into the world together.
The next day, we drove to Portland. I was nervous. I had never met his parents, but they welcomed me warmly. They were glad I, too, came from an immigrant family and that I was a Catholic.
They would have preferred my being a Protestant, but at least I was not a quasi-atheist like their son. They were happy for us.
When Bastiaan was eight years old, his parents left The Netherlands, which was still struggling with the devastation of World War II, and immigrated to the U.S.
As an immigrant child, Bastiaan had to learn to navigate his way in a new country where he did not speak the language and where his school classmates made fun of his Dutch clothes.
He learned the language and how things “worked” in America. This experience gave him an adaptability when confronting the strange country of Honduras, which to him was an economic development challenge.
I had an advantage in knowing the Spanish language better than Bastiaan and I was familiar with many Hispanic cultural aspects. Together, Bastiaan and I explored Tegucigalpa and began to like the people we met and worked with.
In a brief period we were immersed in that culture, and, while the poverty was still astounding, we knew we could live in Honduras. We were hopeful we could contribute to improving people’s lives.
Bastiaan was assigned to work as an economist in the Honduran Government’s Economic Planning Council, and I was to work with the Government’s Ministry of Public Health. My assignment would be to start up a nutrition center for children.
Both jobs were challenging. But we were young and optimistic, and we were open to the possibility that Honduras would teach us much. And that it did, in spades!
Tune in to my next column in the Westside Express, and I will tell you about some of our amazing experiences in Honduras, whose name means “the Depths” in Spanish.