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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Goods and Services

Central America and Mexico, Honduras
Personal Essay


For a couple of weeks I was content to sit and wait patiently, watching the light bulb flicker on and off. At first it took 10 minutes, then 20, 30, 45, and finally it would be over an hour before the connection was made and the light stayed on in my room. When it reached one hour, I lost my patience and just didn't bother turning it on anymore.

I got by this way for several weeks, going to bed early or hanging out at the neighbors' instead of spending the evening in my unlighted house. Getting ready for bed took only a few minutes and it was easy to do by candlelight. I had lived that way for six months before the electricity came, so there was no reason why I shouldn't have been able to keep living that way.

Then something strange and unexpected happened. I began having a lot of work to do, more work than I could finish before the sun went down in the afternoon. Electric light became a necessary resource, so I had to track down an electrician.

The "electrician" turned out to be a young newlywed who lived just down the street. He showed up at my door late one afternoon with a screwdriver and a roll of electrical tape and started taking things apart. I'm sure he had no training or formal knowledge of electrical systems, so I held my breath, crossed my fingers, and tried to be of use, handing him parts when he needed them and otherwise staying out of his way.

That evening he could not find the flaw or fix it, but he came back early the next day. This time he took a few more things apart, found the problem, and fixed it. Once he had the light fixture put back together and I had tested it several times to make sure it worked, I smiled contentedly, following him to the door, and asked the standard question: "How much do I owe you?"

The reply I received was also standard. "Nothing. Just your thanks." No money. No goods in trade. Not even a beer or a soda. Just thanks. So I offered him my most grateful, enthusiastic "Thank you!" and then watched him disappear down the street.

This is something I've experienced many times now in Alubarén, and it always leaves me stumped. Doesn't he realize that what he just did for me is considered work? Doesn't he know that his time and effort have value? Doesn't he need every penny he can get to provide for his new wife and baby?

Obviously he's not aware that back at home in the United States I would have paid through the nose for the services of an electrician or for any other work I needed to have done. Is it possible that he doesn't recognize that I'm one of the highest paid people in this town that's overshadowed by poverty, and I would gladly hand over whatever amount he chose to request? Or does he realize all of this and it's me who's missing the point?

I think over some of the other times when I've experienced this phenomenon:

  • The bus driver who hauled my new furniture over from the next village when the Volunteer there left
  • The seamstress who took in the waists of my shorts when I lost too much weight and they were falling down
  • The carpenter who carried my new bookshelf down the mountainside on his back
  • The mayor's secretary, who typed up an official letter that I needed to send to the Ministry of Health
  • The teacher who took my packages to the post office on her weekend in the capital
  • The neighbor who lets me cook on her stove any time I want to, but won't ever let me buy her any more firewood

And there are more. What is it with all of these people who are so kind and do so much for me, but never accept any payment or ask for anything in return? Is it because I'm the gringa, an outsider, and they want to give a good impression of their people and their country? Do they intend to create that good impression by treating me extra special?

That's what I thought at first, but with time I realized that I'd been mistaken. It seems to have been another case of my seeing things through the filter of my North American values.

Now I've been in Alubaren long enough to gain a truer perspective on how things work here. The bus driver runs errands for people all the time and never charges a penny. A person who has coconuts or mangoes growing in her backyard will give them away to a neighbor who doesn't have them but needs them for a recipe, and not even expect a sample of the finished product. A seamstress will stay up all night long making school uniforms for the children of another mother who doesn't have a sewing machine. It's just the way they are.

I hope that this generosity, this sense of community, is something I'll be able to take back with me. I hope I can remember it and practice it, at least to some extent There's something very special about a place where the primary "value" placed on goods and services is the people's value for one another. 

About the Author

Larissa Zoot

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras from 1993-1995, Larissa Zoot served as a health specialist.

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