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Stepping Out of Our Geographical Comfort Zone to Find Friends, Fulfillment, and Community

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Stepping Out of Our Geographical Comfort Zone to Find Friends, Fulfillment, and Community

By Carissa Lim and Emily Siegel.

On May 16th, we stepped off the plane in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and were hit by a wall of intense humidity. Because of the U.S. Travel Warning, we were admittedly a bit nervous about our upcoming stay in the murder capital of the world. However, we were warmly greeted by Josue and Hugo, our coordinator and translator for the week. They led us to a blue and white van, which transported us two hours along the bumpy road to what would become our home for the next week.

Between the time of the group’s formation and taking off to Honduras, we had to navigate through multiple obstacles and moments of skepticism.

We were incredibly excited to have this chance to engage in international community service. All of the hard work we put into getting to Honduras made the trip that much more rewarding. As co-presidents of Global Architecture Brigades at Penn, we spent two years tirelessly building the foundation of the club under the auspices of Professor Richard Wesley, while simultaneously fundraising for the trip. In the span of seven months prior to the trip, Global Architecture Brigades grew from two to nine members, including students majoring in architecture and a handful in other majors. It took incredible effort on the part of the team to raise enough money to send all nine of us to Honduras.

The prospect of leading a group of students into a foreign country with high crime rates was very intimidating, but we felt the need to put on brave faces for the sake of the group. The remoteness of the village to which we were traveling made obtaining the information we needed to properly prepare for the trip more difficult than we had ever imagined. All we knew was that we would be spending our time in a town called El Tomatín (fondly known to us as “The Little Tomato”), where we would help lay the floors of their community bank.

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Initially, we were skeptical that a group of nine could make a significant impact in just one week. However, this skepticism soon turned to optimism. Specifically, our efforts were most effective because we responded directly to the Hondurans’ request for help.

We used local building techniques and materials in order to ensure that the townspeople could repair or add to the building in the future. This formed the foundation of a sustainable development program. The work that we did formed just a piece in a larger puzzle made up of other brigades in various disciplines. In the case of El Tomatín, a microfinance brigade first went to identify the need to jumpstart a micro-economy. They concluded that this could be accomplished with a community bank, and that was where we fit into the story.

Our days consisted of pickaxing, mixing concrete, and laying and leveling floors. The work was extremely physically taxing and completely foreign to us, but the townspeople were unbelievably understanding and supportive as we grew accustomed to their techniques. One of the most difficult jobs was mixing the concrete by hand, because we had only encountered machine-mixed cement before.

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While immersing ourselves in the local lifestyle, we experienced an intense exchange of language and culture. One of the townspeople, Roberto, was one of the only people in El Tomatín who could speak any English. Roberto was in the habit of bringing a notebook to the worksite whenever a brigade would come. In between shoveling and pickaxing, he would ask for another English word to add to his notebook. We had the privilege of being one of only a few brigades to add to Roberto’s dictionary.

After each long day, we would gather for coffee and cookies (lovingly prepared by Roberto’s wife, Miriam) and chat with the community members. From our conversations, we learned how much we have in common, despite the language barrier and long distance between our homes. These were the most enriching moments of our days.

We would then head back to our temporary home and share a delicious traditional Honduran meal of enchiladas. The meal usually consisted of a fried tortilla, shredded meat, black beans, and spicy pickled onions. It was always doused with the local hot sauce, which put our spice tolerances to the test. We ended every meal with fresh, luscious mangos picked right outside our rooms.

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After finishing our third helpings, we would stay at the table with Hugo and Josue, talking about anything and everything. Sometimes the conversation topics were as silly as how to twerk. Other times, they were more serious. We discussed the benefits of foregoing the opportunity to use a cement mixer; we discussed the fact that we benefited from our work just as much as the townspeople did; and we discussed how happiness can be found in many forms. We also realized that, with fewer material items available to them, the people of El Tomatín find true happiness in sitting around and drinking coffee together. To our surprise, we could, too.

We would like to extend our extreme gratitude to Wendy Evans Joseph in light of her generous donation to Global Architecture Brigades at Penn.

Carissa Lim and Emily Siegel are seniors studying architecture and co-presidents of Global Architecture Brigades. Outside of the architecture studio, Carissa is a varsity gymnast, and Emily is a cellist. Together, they have traveled the world, landing in Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, and Honduras.

Edited by Mariah Macias.