American odyssey: Starksboro couple driving to Brazil, raising money for Open Door Clinic
STARKSBORO — Christiane Kokubo has seen many Hispanic people, most of them migrant workers, visit the Open Door Clinic (ODC) in Middlebury to receive free health care services. Kokubo, a communications specialist with ODC, never ceases to be touched by the stories of perseverance and isolation that these migrant workers convey to her while receiving vital medical attention.
Kokubo is currently viewing the migrant workers’ story from a decidedly different angle.
She and her husband, Mount Abraham Union High School Spanish teacher Nathan Shepard, are in the midst of an international adventure during which they are meeting some of the Central American families of the ODC patients Kokubo has been helping.
“They have welcomed us like we were part of their family,” Kokubo said during a recent phone interview from a location near Mexico City.
The migrant worker family visits are but one facet of the couple’s broader trip, mostly by car, that began in Starksboro last Sept. 10 and will culminate in Sao Paolo, Brazil, with a reunion with Kokubo’s family. The 11-month odyssey will also yield a philanthropic payoff for the Open Door Clinic, as the couple is seeking to raise $1 for each kilometer they travel, with all funds going to the clinic.
The couple had been planning the trip since 2006. Kokubo, a native of Brazil, had been mesmerized by the notion of trekking from her adopted home in Vermont to her family roots in Sao Paolo.
“It was in my head for a decade before it became reality,” said Kokubo, who worked multiple jobs to help finance the lengthy sojourn.
Kokubo and Shepard were committed to eschewing airplanes in favor of a slow, methodical trip during which they would log a lot of sightseeing miles and memories through multiple Central American nations. They would earn their traveling stripes on their way to the paradise of sun, soccer, surf and samba. So their original plan was to drive from Starksboro to California, then sell their vehicle and continue on to Brazil by bicycle and public transportation.
The couple left Starksboro in their Suzuki SX4. Meandering slowly down the East Coast, they stayed with friends, family, in their tent, and occasionally at motels. The miles melted away in their rearview mirror as they made their way south with the snowbirds.
They are chronicling their adventures in words, photos and videos online at fromhomeparacasa.com. In a system that epitomizes the international nature of their travel and marriage, Shepard is blogging in English while Kokubo is writing in her native Portuguese, for the benefit of her folks and family.
Early blog entries include a story about watching Cherokee youths playing stickball on tribal land in North Carolina.
“Games are played between towns and are highly competitive — we saw punches being thrown from a rival team watching a game,” reads the entry, dated Oct. 9. “Each team has a medicine man that plays an important role. He performs purification like ‘going to water’ both before and after the game, and ‘scratching’ or marking the players before a match. He chooses who plays, throws up the first ball and uses his long stick to break up piles of players that stop play.”
From North Carolina they made their way to Florida, and then took a major detour — to Cuba, where they spent two weeks. One of Kokubo’s Cuban blog entries is about her success in convincing an off-duty hairdresser to cut her hair the day before her return to the U.S.
“I left the room singing the music of the radio, with a new hair style, renewed confidence and glad to have, for the first time in two weeks in Cuba, some Cuban pesos that would give me the illusion that, for my last 24 hours in the island, I could feel more Cuban than tourist,” she wrote.
They returned to Florida and drove their way west, through Alabama, Louisiana, Texas — where unfortunately someone stole their bikes — followed by New Mexico, and then into California. They advertised their vehicle on Craigslist, figuring they would use some of the proceeds to get new bikes to continue the next leg of their journey. But their vehicle found no takers, which made their decision to continue by car a lot easier. They crossed from into Mexico on Dec. 31.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER
New year, different country, more adventures on the horizon.
Mexico provided the couple with a cornucopia of experiences, both thrilling and cathartic.
Kokubo got a first-hand glimpse of the nation of origin of many of the migrant workers who are regular patients at the Open Door Clinic. She and Shepard stayed for a few days with the parents of an ODC patient, after having seen the sometimes deadly desert that many migrant workers cross to get into the U.S.
“It was very emotional and touching,” Kokubo said of her visit with ODC client families near Vera Cruz, Mexico. “They welcomed us as if we were part of their family.”
Meanwhile, Shepard has been accumulating photos, literature, props and other information to fortify his Spanish class upon his return to Mount Abe this August. His students will thus gain a better understanding of the different Spanish dialects, accents and customs in Central and South America.
“It’s a perfect thing for a Spanish teacher to do,” Shepard said of the cultural immersion he is experiencing.
Shepard will hear many different twists on the Spanish language as the balance of the trip unfolds. The couple late last week made their way to the Yucatan Peninsula. Then it was on to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. There, they will ship their car to Colombia, as there is a treacherous, 30-mile stretch of jungle road between Panama and Colombia they have been warned to avoid. They’ll fly out to Colombia, pick up their car, and proceed on the last leg of their trip to Kokubo’s family in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
With the exception of the theft of their bikes, the pair of travelers has had a great trip so far.
“The vast majority of people have been very open and happy we are there,” Shepard said. “We have had great experiences.”
Many folks they meet have expressed curiosity and concern about political changes in the U.S., and they invariably ask the couple about their thoughts on the new president and the wall he’s hoping to build across the U.S./Mexico border. The trip, though, has provided the pair with a welcome escape from geopolitics.
While she’s now thousands of miles from her job at the ODC, Kokubo thinks often about the clinic and its patients. With that in mind, the couple has launched an online effort to raise $1 for each kilometer they travel on their odyssey. To donate, go to www.fromhomeparacasa.com/challenge. A video at the website explains the challenge.
As of late last week, almost 2,000 people had seen the video, and $800 in contributions have come in thus far. The couple will have traveled around 50,000 miles (more than 80,000 km) by the time they get back to Starksboro, so Kokubo and Shepard are hoping their challenge gains some more momentum.
“It would be amazing if people from all around Addison County — and the rest of the world — got involved,” Kokubo said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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