find a little good, learn

The day in the ditch

There are some memories that inexplicably ingrain themselves in my mind, and I devote sporadic daydreaming to understanding their significance. They’ve become a catalogue of timeless back-pocket stories for timely reminiscence. I have one for what should have been my most embarrassing moment, but was just my most public stupidity, another for what’s remained the best day I’ve had in years, several for why I’m decidedly single, dozens for why I love travel, and one really unique, distinctly personal moment that I’d categorize as bliss. I vividly remember this particular moment as nearly unbearable, but the sheer reality that I endured my circumstances, much less survived, is as meaningful as it was miserable.

The details within the story are intermittently hazy, but when I close my eyes I can feel this day. Just like distinct smells or sounds, even songs, can instantly take us back to powerful moments, small mishaps and catastrophic disappointments habitually trace me back to the day in the ditch. I shared that day with one of my best friends in the whole world, and if nothing else tied us together this memory undoubtedly would.

In high school I spent two weeks of every summer in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on a mission trip with my youth group. We lived in a “bodega,” which is like a storage room with three-level bunks spaced about two feet apart and used restrooms and showers steps from where we slept. The living conditions, food, and manual labor made for an extremely uncomfortable and tiring experience, but the relationships, life changes, and spiritual results were always well worth the trouble. We built houses, visited hospitals and churches, and distributed food and medicine in several villages. Each day you could choose, or be chosen for, one of these activities so everyone could experience them all and eventually work where they fit best.

I always chose building. I’m small and weak, but I wanted to see results and I’ve never been good with the kind of emotions visiting the hospitals evoked. I could still play with children in the mountains where we built and contributed when my skills were needed, like for climbing on the roof. Building teams spent at least half the day hauling wood, which was scarce in Honduras. We understood the negotiating and bribing that went into acquiring lumber, so we were happy to transport it to the remote spots we could fit the small homes. We were always under time constraints though, and had so many houses to build, so we rushed. We stacked as many slats as two people could carry on top of each other and carried them up and down muddy hills in the summer heat. Then we’d run back to the drop-off spot to bring another stack until we’d moved a truck-full.

I have so many moving and heart wrenching stories from my building days, but this story’s about the day I took a break. This day began around 8 a.m. when we split into teams after a devotional. I was utterly exhausted. I had worked on three or four houses the day before and was sunburnt and weak. As people found their groups I hesitated to choose. My friend Michael and I were inseparable on this trip. He waited for me to drag myself to the bus where I would likely sleep on his shoulder until we arrived at our site. As always, an announcement was made that no one was staying at Baxter, where we lived. Each day four or five people were supposed to stay on campus to organize the clothes and toys that were donated and assemble food bags for distribution. There was nothing appealing about staying behind and hearing everyone’s stories that night. I had never stayed behind. When they pulled the “we can’t leave ‘til four people volunteer” card, my guilt festered. I looked at Michael who probably said, “No way dude,” and I tried to suppress my conscience…but no one was getting up. I gave in. “We’ll stay,” I yelled, and peer pressured two other friends to join us.

The four of us were admittedly relieved to give our bodies a break, but we expected to finally do laundry and leisurely sort donations. With my luck, I should’ve known better. That day would inevitably be the one exception. We gathered with the four suckers from the other bus around a man with boxes of trash bags and latex gloves. He casually explained that we’d be cleaning up the campus in return for Baxter’s hospitality and handed everyone several boxes. When a girl asked why we’d need so many he said, “You can come back for more when they’re full.” In utter confusion we all looked around the tidy campus grounds when he mentioned what he should’ve started with: we’d be cleaning the ditch. Of course, he strategically called it a river, but this was a ditch. This ditch was far down a steep hill covered by trees and a bridge; no one ever went down there. You couldn’t even see it; only the constant sound of running water confirmed its presence. He flippantly mentioned that litter had built up by draining or falling down the hill over the years and said to be sure we got all of it before he jumped on the bus and abandoned us.

We were not happy. Everyone was begrudgingly annoyed, but no one will ever admit to negativity on a mission trip. We scoped out the safest trail for descending into the depths and stumbled downward. All the girls fell and slid to the bottom including myself. Michael was unaffected by the situation and safely landed, chipper as ever. I was covered in dirt and already grumpy, which invited his familiar antagonism. Michael’s my most frustrating friend, because his refusal to take things as seriously as I do can get me visibly worked up, but he makes me laugh so much that I can’t retaliate. And he knows it. (i.e. I was so embarrassed about my acne in middle school I would literally cover my face with my hands and he would cover his too to mock me. We had full conversations with both of our hands covering our faces.)

If I remember correctly, there’s a river in Honduras actually called “The Dirty River” or some variation of that in Spanish, but this ditch had it beat. The ditch was litter; it was covered in filth. We each filled a handful of trash bags in minutes. The big stuff was easy, mostly two-liter bottles, but the real trash was hard to stomach. In 15-year-old oblivion we were mortified when we found condoms (times have changed, I know) and needles. There were footballs and frisbees too, which were most likely from our group. The chore was dirty though; it was increasingly disgusting. Volunteers were dropping like flies. Every few minutes a girl would scream and run up the hill when they’d had it. We were getting cuts and scrapes from weaving through the plants, and there were bugs and mosquitos, and probably snakes. I was too stubborn to give in; I was determined to get everything so the job would be done, and Michael wasn’t even upset. We stayed, alone, and I could finally complain about the itching and pain and disgust. I was miserable, and he was laughing.

Michael volunteered to collect the garbage while I held the bag. I was slowing us down by hesitating before touching anything gross, and this way we could walk together and talk. For a little bit we forgot where we were. We talked about things unrelated to the misery and laughed, a lot. He wanted to instigate my dramatic reactions though, so we started taking turns holding the bag and picking up the trash, and eventually started daring each other to make the situation more risky. We’d jump on rocks across the water and try not to fall, and we climbed up under the bridge and found a whole slew of garbage. This trash-picking was worse–far scarier. You had to reach your gloved hand under the rocks and grab what you couldn’t see. I couldn’t take the anxiety, but I kept trying because there was some thrill to it.

We were engrossed in trying to see everything in this cave-like darkness under the bridge when a giant bug shimmied up my leg. I screamed and convulsed my entire body to rid myself of this roach or beetle, or whatever it was. Michael shouted out of confusion then lost himself in laughter. When moments of dancing and jumping and probably vulgarity finally shook the critter off I punched him in the arm. He didn’t care. He couldn’t stop laughing. I whined and complained and repeated that a roach had walked on me. I kept saying, “There was a roach on my body!” Michael found the happening hilarious; he was amused and unrelenting. I brought up points like the fact that no one even heard me scream or was worried about us while we were covered in mud and sweat in mounds of garbage. He kept chuckling and shaking his head until I calmed down enough to help.

When it was my turn to reach my arm into the dark I felt around for trash and tried to pull it out. As I gripped the mystery litter and attempted to pull it out, a tarantula-sized spider emerged from the black, slowly walking up my arm. If what I let out before was a scream, this was a shrill shriek followed by shameless bawling. I yanked my arm back, violently shook nothing off as the spider was long gone, and cried in defeat. When I looked up at Michael, mortified, we died laughing. He saw that I hit my breaking point, and I saw that he couldn’t believe I was crying. I couldn’t believe I was crying. We took our busywork assignment as an outright duty to uphold when we could’ve climbed out hours before. I had never felt so trapped and miserable, but I needed to know that I made a difference that day. We probably didn’t. I can’t imagine anyone ever having traversed into those treacherous depths since, but I’ll never forget that we went together.

We’ve had plenty of more exciting experiences as friends, but none so meaningful as that day when we were completely alone, working together, and laughing at our plight. I often think of how truly happy I was when I felt miserably uncomfortable, and I know good will come from bad days, poor weeks, and hopeless months of trying to find answers. I would’ve never thought I could go down that hill, get completely filthy, and survive direct critter contact, but I never thought I could laugh that hard at such a scene either.

Once you go on a mission trip you find it’s heart-wrenching to leave, but takes determination to return. We let work and responsibilities and to do lists excuse us from helping, much less meeting, humanity outside our borders, but there are innumerable opportunities to learn and grow and dare I say change by flying outside of your comfort zone and giving back for all you’ve been undeservingly given. I can’t take a trip so I’m running, and when I can’t run I donate, and when I can’t find the kind of job I know I’m capable of I serve pancakes for a while and keep looking. I miss my friends and family, but we’re bound by memories like Honduran litter collection days until we meet again. And when I don’t realize I can just climb out of the ditch, at least there is someone to make me laugh.

  • a little good here: Honduras is an amazing place for a mission trip whether you can help build houses, serve medical needs, hand food out all over mountains, or play with kids. Like most underdeveloped countries, there’s so much potential here with a little help.
  • a long way: Jovenes en Camino is housing and loving abandoned children whose parents gave them up or couldn’t afford to care for them. You can sponsor a child here or donate to school supplies and uniforms, clothing or facility repairs.
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