Peter Hoover: Nueva Palestina

"Eterna Primavera" (eternal springtime) near Nueva Palestina in the remote eastern hills of Honduras. Is living here as idyllic and peaceful as it looks?

During the 1960s, while I was going to school in southern Ontario, Canada, an Amish group, living just south of us along Lake Erie, moved to Honduras in Central America. Peter and Anna (Wagler) Stoll, with a number of their children (some married, a few still at home) settled there, east of Tegucigalpa, not far from the small town of Guaimaca.

Joseph and Laura (Gascho) Stoll -- one of the younger couples from Aylmer, Ontario -- moved to Honduras in 1969 and with a growing family discovered first-hand how to deal with a host of new challenges, heart-rending decisions, conflict, spiritual confusion and -- sadly -- the demise of Amish culture in Central America. Peter Stoll died in Honduras. Many Amish families returned to Canada and the United States. But before this happened, Joseph and his younger brother Mark, visited a new community in eastern Honduras. Nueva Palestina (New Palestine), people called it. And this, thanks to Joseph's diary, is the story:

The Rio Patuca in eastern Honduras. One of the largest and longest rivers in Central America flowed through dense rainforest and the largely unoccupied south-eastern part of Honduras, in the 1970s. To this day, many who live there, come to frontier settlements by dugout canoe.

April 3, 1976 (Saturday) What would it be like to be twentieth-century pioneers and live like our forefathers did on the frontier? Several years ago a young man by the name of José stayed at Mom Stoll’s for a week, working with the boys and learning how to care for farm animals.

The stories he told could have come right out of a history book of colonial times. This young man, José, lived on a government resettlement project way back in the boondocks of Olancho. The original plans were to transplant a thousand farm families from the dry worn-out soil of Choluteca to a virgin uncleared valley about fifty miles from Catacamas. According to José, the project is well underway and it is being directed by two Catholic priests from Canada.

But the most amazing part of the story is that the eighty families living there do so communally, each one working for the common good of all similar to a Hutterite colony.

For more than two years, we have talked of going to visit this fascinating place. For nine months of the year, the settlement cannot be reached by motor vehicles, there being no bridge across the major river. But during the dry season, trucks can ford the river.

Brother Mark and I have plans to set out for Nueva Palestina on Monday morning to see if the stories of José were really true. We are driven partly by curiosity, but there is a more serious object for this trip, too, though we are not discussing it openly. In the event that we should decide to relocate in Honduras, it might be worth our time to do some preliminary scouting.

1. The Amish Settlement at Guaimaca, between the Honduran cities of Tegucigalpa and Juticalpa. The dotted line shows where Joseph and Mark Stoll found their way in 1976.

2. Terrero Blanco, where the Rio Guayambre flows into the Rio Patuca.

3. Nueva Palestina, in the southern wilderness of the Honduran department of Olancho.

The national border on the south shows Nicaragua, and a tiny yellow piece on the left is El Salvador. During the Nicaraguan collapse in the 1970s and 80s, including a savage civil war and years of anarchy, many thousands of refugees fled north into Honduras and south into Costa Rica. Other refugees came streaming in from El Salvador, also having a civil war. "The ham in the sandwich" of Central America, some called Honduras at that time. But Honduras did not escape all political turmoil. Just recently they had another revolution, and some day I may tell you how it went with Susan and me, with our children, when we got caught in the middle of a riot between the Honduran towns of Santa Rosa de Copán and Comayagua. Those eleven hours were some of the most uncomfortable and disturbing of our twenty year stretch as missionaries in Latin America.

The dotted line in this map shows the Rio Patuca. Notice the remarkable name of the far eastern department of Honduras -- "Gracias a Dios" (Thanks to God!). When Christopher Columbus landed here, after a dreadful tropical storm in 1502, he shouted: "Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras! (Thanks to God we have escaped these treacherous depths!)." Many Miskito families, converted by Moravian missionaries, live here since the recent wars.

April 5, 1976 (Monday) This has been a day to remember. Mark came by soon after dawn, and we walked down to the road to catch a ride going east to Juticalpa. No buses came along, but about 6:30 a jeep slid to a stop and we got into the back seats. This was a fast and dustless ride all the way to Juticalpa, and the fellows refused to accept any money.

The next leg of the journey was to Azacualpa, across the mountain range in the next valleys south and east. To our dismay, we were told there would be no bus today, and we would have to wait for tomorrow. Everyone told us there was not much chance for a ride by truck, but we decided to try. At last a fellow took us up the road a few kilometres, and then a farmer with a pickup full of empty milk cans took us a little further. The prospect looked very bleak until a truck piled high with spare tyres and greasy machinery came to a halt and offered us a ride. So across the valley we sped, then onto a small logging road and over the mountains, a three hour ride. Upon arrival, we walked on down to a nearby stream, washed our faces, and ate our lunch.

Our next ride was with a truck carrying one huge mahogany log six feet in diameter, headed for the plywood factory in Danli. The truck stopped at the roadside restaurant at Terrero Blanco, where we got off. This is where the road branches out into the Patuca region, and where civilisation ends. Two little boys kicking their bare toes in the ankles-deep white dust came up to us and asked, “Where are you going?”

“Back to the Patuca,” Mark replied.

They at once pointed to a truck parked beside the restaurant and told us the driver would be leaving in a few minutes. In fact, he was going right on in to Nueva Palestina after a load of corn. “You are fortunate,” they told us. “That is probably the only vehicle going in today.”

It was almost too good to be true. The truck was partly loaded with salt and dulce (unrefined sugar loaves), and the driver drove like mad. The road was very narrow and there were many overhanging limbs, so our ride on back was somewhat hazardous. The driver told Mark this was his first trip in, so it’s hard to imagine how he would have driven if the road had been familiar. Once he slammed past a tree, peeling off the bark in long white strips. I was glad I had removed my finger shortly before that!

We crossed the Guayambre soon after leaving Terrero Blanco. Then a half hour later we reached the Patuca River and drove alongside it for thirty minutes. Mark was all eyes recognizing the rapids they had traversed on their raft trip in June. Then we left the river and struck off inland on a road that constantly got narrower and less marked. About five o’clock we reached Nueva Palestina. The people flocked by from all directions and gathered at the bodega (storage shed) where the corn was neatly stacked outside in bags, waiting for the first truck load going to market.

We inquired a little timidly for José, but everybody’s faces registered blank. Apparently he was no longer at the settlement. Someone pointed out the priest to us, a short bullnecked man who was actively moving around and stood out as being different from the others. He was introduced to us a Juan Luíz, a French Canadian who spoke Spanish with such a thick accent he was hard to understand. But if we were to communicate, it has to be in Spanish for he spoke no English.

The priest took us in tow and at once made arrangement for our supper and the night’s lodging. Then he promised to set up interviews with several of the key men of the colony. At that moment our friend was called away to an urgent meeting. He waved to us and said he would soon be back.

We began asking questions of everyone who would listen. It did not take long for us to form an overview of the amazing experiment. The whole thing was incredible. For more than three years now this community has survived against fearful odds, and the morale of the people remains optimistic. At present there are 130 families, all of whom were penniless when they came to this place.

I was of the opinion that there are only two ways of communal society can succeed – either from deep religious conviction (as among the Hutterites) or by authoritarian force (such as in Communist nations). Yet Nueva Palestrina can lay no claim to either.

It is only fair to note that the people are more devout than most Honduranians, and the priest does have a lot of influence. Yet, there is hardly the material here that the Hutterites would use to form a colony. It was almost more than we could believe that these people had worked together for the common good for three years, and were still carrying on.

But that was before we met Lucas Aguilar. He came to talk to us after supper. It took only a few minutes until we realised that here was the man who even more than the priest deserved the credit for Nueva Palestina. Lucas is the moving spirit behind it all, the visionary who has studied the New Testament and has dared to lift the ideas from the book of Acts and apply them to what would seem an impossible situation.

Lucas told us how he and the priest had tramped the bush lands as far as the border of Nicaragua looking for a suitable location. They settled on the present site because it was more easily accessible, a logging road having been built in the area a few years earlier, thought only passable during the dry season. The government then granted them the huge plot of unoccupied land, 4,000 acres in all.

Just three years ago, in April of 1973, the first group of settlers arrived – a total of 82 people, 69 men and 13 women to do the cooking. They pitched their tents and began to swing their machetes to clear the land for corn and beans. They built houses of split bamboo, tied together without nails and roofed over with thatch. Six months later, a community-type house completed and a little stockpile of rations on hand, they set out for Choluteca to bring back their wives and children. In September they crossed the swollen Guayambre River in dugout canoes and thus arrived back in Nueva Palestina.

There was a hint of a smile on the face of Lucas Aguilar as he confided to us, “The Bible says the early Christians had everything in common, but it doesn’t tell us how many problems they had. We had to learn that the hard way.” But then he added “Of course, the Apostles were working with conscientious men and women. We weren’t so fortunate!”

They definitely have had many difficulties. Some of the original settlers are no longer here, having given up and returned to the comforts of civilisation. “They were too lazy!” we were told. It was interesting to hear what discipline is used if someone refuses to cooperate or doesn’t do his share of the work. They simply cut off his provisions.

Although it is a common practice to Olancho to carry a pistol for protection, this is not allowed in Nueva Palestina. The only arms are a few rifles for hunting. Otherwise, firearms are forbidden.

We are to sleep tonight on a pair of rustic cots up in the loft of the bamboo hut. First thing in the morning someone is to conduct us on a tour of the dairy operation.

A Childrens' class at Nueva Palestina today. The man in the middle is handicapped, not able to walk. But he, Freddy Alvarez, has found the Lord. He preaches and sings wonderfully, and he has led many of the families into small evangelical groups.

April 6, 1976 (Tuesday) We had not slept long last night before I awoke, shivering violently form the cold, though we had gone to bed fully-clothed due to there being no blankets. I pulled on a second pair of pants and tried it again. About three in the morning, Mark and I both woke up again, shivering worse than before. I pulled on another shirt, a T-shirt over that, and then my lined coat – in fact everything that was in my bag. There were a few empty feed bags in the loft, and I added them to the top of the pile.

Meanwhile, some early risers had called on the family downstairs and were telling crude jokes in a loud voice. Roosters in every direction were trying to out-crow each other. In spite of everything, I fell asleep again. I don’t know about Mark.

As dawn broke, we were up but there were no milk boys in sight. We waited awhile, and when they finally came they assured us someone else had been appointed to be our guides, and they left mounted on mules. We waited some more, and then went for breakfast – heavily-salted pork chops and two eggs each, plus tortillas. The salt made us thirsty.

At last a man came by and said he would be ready in a half hour. We took that interval to walk down to the creek flats where they grow vegetables. The seedbeds were just emerging – including red beets and carrots.

Then we stopped for a few minutes to visit the school which was already in session for the day. There was only one teacher, his two colleagues having quit on the job leaving him alone with 82 pupils, all in grades one and two! The man was young, likely in this early 20s, and clearly devoted to his task. He was working with the barest of facilities. The children were seated on benches, mere planks nailed to round chunks of wood. Each child has a notebook but no other textbooks. A makeshift “blackboard” was being used by the teacher to write down the lessons of the day.

The school in Nueva Palestina, Honduras, in 1976 -- a sketch from the diary of Joseph Stoll. The children all rose to their feet when we entered, a time-honoured custom and sat down again only when Mark gave them permission to do so. In a moment the children were all reciting aloud to themselves. What a school! Straight out of the eighteenth century.

At last we were on our way to see the dairy barn, a 45 minute walk across the clearing to where a corral had been constructed. As we walked through the tangle of half-charred logs and burnt-out trees stumps, it seemed like stepping back into a page of history when our own forefathers chopped down the forest of North America. We arrived at the corral and the morning milking was still in progress. They use the Central American method – penning the calves separately during the night, and then letting them in to prime the cows one by one to get the milk flow started.

The sun by this time was generating a great deal of warmth and we longed for a drink of water. We started back to headquarters, and there drank all the water we could contain. We bade our hosts adios all around, and set out walking down the lane toward the outside world.

Out at the road, we ordered dinner at a private home and each drank a bottle of Pepsi. The chances for a ride looked very bleak. At last we said good-by to this household and walked on a ways, and laid down under a shade tree to rest. The sun was very hot and the locusts were singing with a mighty din that hurt the eardrums. It seemed we were perpetually thirsty.

Behold, about mid-afternoon a truck came along and we clambered aboard. Shortly before dark we reached the Patuca. The driver stopped and we walked down to look at the huge “pipante” – a dory that had been hand-hewn from a solid mahogany log, perhaps twenty-five feet long. At one end a corn grinder (for making tortillas) had been mounted. This dory had just returned from a month’s excursion downriver on a gold mining trip.

This information came from a young lad who joined us in the back of the truck, a bag of dried fish slung over his shoulder and a huge snapping turtle fastened to a string. He was a twentieth-century Huckleberry Finn, and he and Mark kept it rolling for the next hour, swapping stories about the Patuca. This lad was a walking encyclopaedia of wood and animal lore.

Darkness had fallen by the time we arrived at Terrero Blanco where Huck had his home between the twice-annual trips downriver – gold mining, tiger trapping, and fishing. He got off, but we decided to stick with the truck which was headed on farther.

The rustic hotel at Nueva Palestina today. Over the years total "Hutterite style" community has moved into a co-operative society. But numerous communal features remain. In spite of all the early challenges, many families remain and have flourished, both materially and spiritually. I admire their courage and persistence over the years.

Communal offices at Nueva Palestina -- still rustic but functional. And if you look carefully, even an electric light hangs above the door! Will this result in the community's long-term good? Or will it quickly bring in the bane of international television and the Media?

One of the Evangelical groups at Nueva Palestina today. Many have gotten converted and they really enjoy lively worship meetings, some groups meeting every evening -- somewhat like the Hutterite "Gebetsstunde". It is always nice to end the day together.

Neat houses surrounded by tropical flowers and fruit trees, Nueva Palestina grows rapidly today. Most maps do not yet recognise this place, but if you want to find it through Google Earth, look for Puerto Delón, Honduras. From here go 4.3 km (2.7 miles) straight west and you will see it.

Thankfully, no matter where we live or with whom, our Father in Heaven sees just what happens, and he cares for us -- whether we grew up Amish or Catholic or Hutterite. Spanish or German or English. With too much money, or not enough. Above all, let us work honestly and in a humble way. Then he will bless us and bring us home.

Thank you, Joe (now living in Canada again), for your contribution!

Peter Hoover

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