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Three Planes to Rus Rus

The Missionary Air Group Cessna 206 at the San Pedro Sula airport before taking off for La Miskitia.

RUS RUS, La Miskitia, Honduras—On my first trip to Honduras, more than 12 years ago, we were on another plane full of missionaries and Hondurans returning home. As the jet banked to descend into San Pedro Sula there were thatched huts and fields of palms and a river dark with red silt curving over the flat plain. Some missionary kid a row or two behind me began whistling the theme to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and I thought, “This is how it ought to begin.”

Now, more than a decade after that moment, I found myself with the same view. In the intervening year I had returned to Central America many times, exploring Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Now I was returning again, this time with Missionary Air Group (MAG) and we would be flying from San Pedro, by Cessna, deep into the Miskitia, the jungle and forest region in the far wild East of Honduras in the sparsely habited Department of Gracias a Dios near the Nicaraguan border.

With me were Mike, Steve and Craig. Mike and Steve, both in their early 40s were construction experts from North Carolina, Craig a 25-year-old carpenter from New Hampshire. Steve had been on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic and Craig had spent six months working at orphanages in the Bolivian Andes but before this day Mike had never boarded a plane. The farthest he had been from his home near Burlington was a trip to South Carolina.

Not too long before, Mike’s minister had asked him if he wanted to go to Honduras to work on a building project. Mike had been hesitant at first but, as we were to come to see, he wasn’t the type to back down from a challenge or hard work, no matter what the environment.

We had all left our respective homes early that morning and rendezvoused at the Atlanta airport. The second plane took us to Honduras. We were all seated separately and each of us was next to some different missionary. I spoke with a nice older lady named Mary for a while until the previous weeks caught up with me and I fell deeply asleep. My companions later told me I had snored so loudly they not only felt sorry for my seatmates but were afraid I might crack the airframe.

Soon we were crossing over the coastline’s tidal flats and descending over the familiar lush fields towards San Pedro Sula. I had been back other times, many times, but this felt like a new beginning, almost as if I was seeing the sight with new eyes.

We stepped from the air-conditioned cabin out of canned Georgia air into the thick atmosphere of Honduras. We were sweating by the time we got up the jet-way and into the airport and I felt dizzy a moment with the weight of memory before shouldering my Domke bag and getting on with it.

When we cleared customs, we were met by missionary pilot Westly Wiles. He bought us lunch at the exotic Wendy’s and then we went back through security, emerged on the tarmac and immediately began loading the Cessna 206, the workhorse of Missionary Air Group.

If not actually rainy season, it is wet season and we had to get going. The day was clear so far but, as I remembered, the humidity and clouds would build and build as the afternoon progressed. At times there would be a dry day but usually the clouds would swiftly change from white to black and the humidity that had built all day would suddenly fall with a force and ferocity unknown up north. And so we found ourselves belted into seats little smaller than the torture devices found in coach, taxiing down the runway and aloft in a surprisingly short span. We climbed and climbed and below us was spread the patchwork of Honduras’ fields. The greens and browns glittered in the strange silvery light of the season. We found ourselves cruising at about 10,000 feet, passing over mountains and valleys and small towns, heading all the while nearly due East.

Most of my time in the past had been spent in Honduras’ Western Highlands over near the Guatemalan border in the Department of Copan. We were heading now to the far East, the Department of Gracias a Dios, near the Nicaraguan border.

Rus Rus is a village and airstrip near the Rus Rus River, which empties into the Rio Coco, the border with Nicaragua. Rus Rus is a word in Miskito, the language of the indigenous people group of the same name (which has nothing to do with the insect though, of course, there are many of those). No one, even the locals, seems to know what the word means. Like many things, many places down here, it just is. It just is and has been, as long as anyone can remember. The area between Rus Rus and Mabitah, the next village a 45-minute walk distant, has a population of around 45 families. This is the least populous area of the country and out here there are few services and little law.

The airstrip and the Rus Rus hospital were built in the 1980s during the wars that tore the region apart. The hospital facility was built by the organization Friends of the Americas with help from USAID and various NGOs. Then, when international focus shifted away to the next popular crisis zone, the hospital was essentially abandoned for ten years. Missionary Air Group began to rehabilitate the property about 2 ½ years ago and is working hard, with limited resources, to bring the place back better than before.

As we went farther east signs of habitation became fewer and fewer. There would be an occasional cluster of huts, a red dirt road carved from the wilderness and then nothing for miles. After an hour or more we dropped in altitude and followed the Rio Patuco as it wound through the mountains. The vertiginous cliffs were covered in thick jungle; tall trees suspended hundreds of feet off the forest floor, blackish green and dripping with vines.

This finally gave way to mile after mile of what the locals call Savannah de Pino, pine savannah. Tall, bare-trunked pine trees, widely spaced over glowing light green grassland as far as the eye could see. The shadow of our plane raced us across the ground.

And then we were descending in earnest, heading for a 1,700 foot grass strip cut out of the forest and then we were on the ground. It was that fast. There is no time for contemplation when putting a small plane down on a small strip cut from the forests of La Miskitia. We had arrived at Rus Rus.

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