About a year ago while planning our trip through Honduras, Michael heard about a bicycle ride that spanned the length of Honduras from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The ride was organized by an organization called Transformemos Honduras that works to improve the education and healthcare systems in the country. Transformemos Honduras has bravely exposed government corruption in those areas. They’ve looked at cases where pharmaceutical companies have distributed medicine that is little more than chalk, especially in big government orders to poorer areas of the country. Another big issue the organization has tackled is keeping teacher payrolls transparent: they found thousands of “ghost positions” where the government was paying teachers who simply didn’t exist or taught classes to imaginary students while somebody else pocketed the cash, sometimes for political favors. With the help of Transformemos Honduras, school payrolls and student attendance is made public online. They have also worked hard to increase the number of public school days from what once was an average of around 150 days per year to more than 200 days across the country. Before, nobody could put numbers on student improvement in Honduras, but Transformemos Honduras worked to introduce standardized testing to look for areas for improvement and hold teachers and administrations accountable. With a number of other nonprofits, Transformemos Honduras puts on an annual coast-to-coast bike ride to raise awareness.
Even though the trip was from La Ceiba on the north coast to San Lorenzo on the south wasn’t the direction we were going to take, we loved the idea of biking with Hondurans and thought it was worth going out of our way a bit.
We loved it. What made the trip so special for us was meeting so many different cyclists from Honduras and other parts of the world. To give you an idea of our experience of that week, we’ll sketch out a few of the groups that came with us.
- The Honduran racers: The trip had a competitive racing component and some Hondurans came trained and ready to roll. Melvin, now competing at an international level, started cycling by grabbing a heavy, old bike and joining in a race that passed through his hometown. When other racers saw that he could keep up, they encouraged him to train and join a team. Daniel, or “Chacalín,” lost his bike and house in Hurricane Mitch and had to escape through his roof from the rising water and swim to safety. He was an endless jokester and a living jukebox of classic Latino love songs. Douglas always grabbed the microphone at events that the trip put on and got everyone dancing. One evening at a small camp on Lake Yojoa, he started an impromptu talent show and hustled us on stage to sing, “As I Went Down to the River to Pray” in three parts. We enjoyed bridging the language gap between this group of dedicated cyclists and the English-speaking groups that came down.
- The Calvin College group: Similar to Goshen College’s three-week intensive May Term, Calvin offers January courses both on- and off-campus. This course in Honduras started with this trans-national bike trip and continued with two weeks of study afterward. Some students were the “racer type” and even won a few awards in the daily competitions, while others were in it for the ride. Either way, we enjoyed the company of college types our own age. One day during the competitive racing, a dog ran out in front of the high-speed peloton, causing bikers to swerve and brake. Calvin student Joseph clipped the wheel of the rider in front of him and fell skidding across the road. Levi was right behind Joseph, but somehow managed to ramp off of Joseph’s bike and keep his balance.
- Siguatepeque mountain biker boys: These were young Honduran mountain bikers excited to be pushing the pace of a road race on their fat tire bikes.
- The Urban Promise group: Urban Promise Ministries is an organization based out of Camden, New Jersey, that provides afterschool programs throughout the United States and internationally. Kris, the group representative in Honduras, also works with Urban Trekkers to get kids outdoors on wilderness exploration trips and bike rides. The group that came down from the States brought energy and excitement, and could connect with people despite language barriers. They were an inspiration for us to keep volunteering to help others when we get back.
- Mennonite bikers from Canada: Led by MCC worker Megan Turley, this group came down from the sub-freezing lands of British Colombia and other parts of Canada to see the work of Megan in San Pedro Sula and support Transformemos Honduras. The majority of the group was a generation older than us and brought a “parental flavor” with probing questions about our trip and youthful spirits.
- Cheles: These “white-skinned foreigners” came from different parts of the globe. Adam was a USAID development worker in Honduras with stories of hitchhiking across the States. Bram, a Dutchman volunteering in Honduras with Association for a Just Society, had a low-cadence style of riding, quirky sense of humor, and touring experience in the world’s most bicycle-friendly country of Holland. Josh, a young US college student with a streak of juventud, came down to learn more about the fair-trade coffee of the organization Growers First and ended up biking with a few of its members. Susan was a missionary with lots of experience on bike tours in the US and the dream to do a bike tour in every single state.
- The bilingual group: Natalie Acosta, Jorge, Manuel and Peter all grew up in Honduran bilingual schools. We shared bilingual jokes and talked about grammar, culture and history.
- Others: José Luis was a talented guitarist who wrote and shared protest songs, especially critiquing the recent presidential election process in Honduras. Juan Miguel biked all the way from his hometown to meet us and once worked making gas canister deliveries by bike.
Each day started with a group saunter to the start line where different biker classifications would leave at a shotgun start. The three of us entered with the Elites, 20-30 year olds in it to win it on carbon fiber road bikes. Though we couldn’t stay in the lead group after 15 km or so, it was fun to test our touring legs and ride in a racing peloton. We would arrive at our destinations by lunchtime and in the afternoon have an event honoring some of the best students in that city with scholarships and new bikes. One of the sponsors of the trip was Acti-Malta, a malt drink that provided a incessant supply of the beverage to us at race finish lines and these downtown events. Hondurans were a tad more eager than the gringos for its bubbly, wheaty flavor.
Passing through Tegucigalpa at different times we enjoyed staying with Michael’s high school choir teacher, Kendra Wohlert, and catching up with Goshen College friends Hans and Melina. Kendra, her husband Eric, and Hans and Melina work at different international schools, and though they have had good experiences at their workplaces, struggle with Tegucigalpa’s overbearing security and lack of public green space. Honduras is a country tackling big issues of gang violence and government corruption, but meeting such positive cyclists determined to create change gives us hope. Juntos, sí se puede transformar Honduras.