Driving through the hills of rural Honduras, I experienced my first wave of fearing for my life. I was crammed in the back of a van, driving in the rain along dirt roads that looked over the edge of cliffs. But when the van first dropped us off in the rural community of Las Joyas, my emotions instantly changed and the surroundings took my breath away.
Set high in the mountains on an agricultural reserve, Las Joyas is surrounded by picturesque views of pure greenery unpolluted by modern day life. Standing in stark contrast to the beautiful scenery is the rural, impoverished community, consisting of shacks assembled with corrugated tin, brick and mud and lacking the basic elements of electricity and running water which I take for granted.
I found myself in Honduras as part of Global Brigades, a student-led international service organization designed to improve quality of life in developing countries through various sustainable development projects.
My team, composed of 16 students from the University of Southern California, came as part of Public Health Brigades, which focused on redesigning community infrastructure to decrease the prevalence of easily treatable diseases, like diarrhea. In addition, we also engaged with the families in public health education and conducted lessons for the community children every morning.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the Public Health Brigade was getting to the root of medical problems and creating sustainable solutions that would last many years and make a significant impact in the lives of the families we worked with.
To that end, our main goal was engaging in four construction projects: latrines (a type of outhouse connected to a large septic tank), cement floors, clean-burning stoves, and pilas (large water storage tanks). Prior to building the latrine, the families would use the surrounding woods as their restroom, which in turn, contaminated the drinking water and facilitate the spread of parasites. The latrine thus effectively eliminated this issue by creating a system of septic waste storage that would not affect other natural resources.
Similarly, the families often slept on dirt floors, which resulted in many cases of Chaga’s disease; an inflammatory, infectious condition caused by a parasite found in the feces of the reduviid bug. The cement floors that we built were easier to clean, creating a more hygienic environment.
The clean-burning stoves were designed to prevent respiratory diseases in women and children, who spent much of their day cooking tortillas over the stovetop and inhaling its toxic fumes. Lastly, the pilas were designed to consolidate the water storage system, which was particularly helpful during droughts or dry spells. The pilas also provided a more efficient system of bathing, washing dishes, and doing laundry, thus increasing the overall hygiene of the family.
I never envisaged myself doing construction work, yet I can confidently say that this was the most incredible trip of my life, manual labor included. In my opinion, the best part was working directly alongside local families to complete these projects.
Whether we were mixing cement, laying bricks, or huddling together under tarp to keep away from the rain, there was a strong sense of unity—as if class, language, and cultural divides were negligible, and instead of a group of USC college students mixing with local Hondurans, we were just a unique conglomeration of friends.
Not only was this my first trip to Latin America, it was also my first direct experience with medical tourism. Being able to work on these public health projects and make a sustainable impact in the lives of these community members, particularly when it comes to dramatically reducing their risk of infection of easily preventable diseases, was incredible and gave me firsthand understanding of the problems which many developing countries face and how medical tourism can aid them.
I genuinely believe that it is the smaller projects of students and volunteers from all over the world that make a sustainable difference in the lives of people like those I met in Las Joyas. Being able to work in this community put a human face to all the problems I had previously read about, and it was this humanizing of the issues that had such a big effect on me.
Instead of being statistics, the community members were real people. I definitely plan to return and engage in more service trips, and I know without a doubt that my peers feel the same. Visiting Honduras was a life-changing experience, and the best part is that I know my life was not the only one that was changed.
About the Author
Ayushi is a sophomore at the University of Southern California where she is studying Neuroscience, International Relations, and Business Administration. She hopes to enter the medical field in the health policy sector and one day work for the World Health Organization on International Health Issues. In her free time, she enjoys dancing, spending time with friends and family, and exploring Los Angeles.