Dona Mercedes Matute and her husband Don Ramon–both in their mid-70s–live in a typical adobe house with whitewashed walls, dirt floor and red teja roof. Dona Mercedes cooks on an adobe stove, called a fogon, fueled by firewood when she can afford to buy it or when she musters the energy to go chop it. Together, they have few possessions. Yet, they are two of the wealthiest people I have known.
During the first eight months of my service, they were my neighbors. In the mornings, she would knock on my door, hand me a stack of warm, corn tortillas and ask how I slept. I’d hand her a few Lempiras for the tortillas and reply “pretty good.”
We’ve passed many an afternoon on their tiny, back porch talking about anything and everything from the kinds of fruits there are in the States to what it’s like to fly in a plane.
”I’m afraid,” she always says with a big laugh. “It’s better to stay on the ground.”
Then ten minutes later we’ll be talking about her going to “Penn-seel-vah-knee-uh.” To which I respond, “You’ll have to go in a plane.”
“Oh, I can’t pay for that,” she says, setting me up for the punch line we’ve run through many times before.
“Well, you’ll just have to go with me in a suitcase,” I tell her, she already laughing
“Oh Chago, I don’t think I’d fit in a maleta,” she blurts out, head falling to her knees.
Whenever I’m having a bad day I go to their house. I’m always guaranteed a warm welcome, an honest, bright smile, and a positive outlook on life. They radiate goodness, always offering a listening ear and a bit of sage advice. They notice the beauty of a bird’s song or the pleasantness of a cool breeze on a hot afternoon. They find happiness in the little things.
I remember a time we discussed the gift of friendship. I sat on a small, wooden chair with cowhide for a seat. They sat on the ledge, he leaning against his cane and she picking through a jicaro bowl of red beans.
“It’s nice to have friends,” she said matter-of-factly, not looking up from her bowl.
“Uh, huh,” I acknowledged with a tired sigh.
“Friends come and visit…and you sit down and talk. It’s nice to hear what they’re doing … how their families are doing. Talking-is beautiful.”
I smiled and nodded my head. I wished for her simplicity, realizing I’ll never have it, as it’s been attained and cultivated from a life here in Honduras.
“You’re right,” I say. “Friends are great…and making new friends is even better.”
“Like us Chago,” she says chuckling. “We met last year … now we’re old friends.”
If you ask anyone in Manto whether or not Dona Mercedes can cure a man bitten by a deadly snake, they’ll respond with deep-believing affirmation. A local historian, who is recording Dona Mercedes’ invaluable knowledge of natural, medicinal remedies, once recounted the story of a man she saved after he was bitten by a fer-de-lance. The story goes that she made some cuts, sucked at some venom, applied an herbal concoction to the wound and administered a tea brew. After a few days, he started to “come back.”
And so it is. Dona Mercedes is a healer, a medicine woman, a witch doctor, if you will. Don Ramon is a quiet man, only offering a few words here and there. They most likely will never fly in a plane or ever make it to Pennsylvania.
Not physically anyway. There’s no doubt, however, that they will be with me, my memories of them serving as a reminder to find the bee pollinating the flower, to listen to the water falling over rocks, to feel the earth beneath my feet. For, it is in their spirits, those inexplicable energies or feelings, that I know them. It is there that I know they are my friends.