Friday, March 19, 2010

Volunteer Visit

*Names of current volunteers have been changes to protect their identities.
This past week we went on our 'Volunteer Visit,' a trip during which we travel on our own to visit a currently serving volunteer at their site. The goal is to get a better sense of the work volunteers do and their lifestyles on site. Luckily for us, we were able to go together along with our new best friend T.J. (known as Te Jota). Our trip was to Catacamas, Olancho. Olancho is the largest departamento (state) in Honduras, it spans nearly a 1/4 of the country but is sparsely populated. Most of the residents are ganaderos (ranchers), granjeros (farmers) and vaqueros (cowboys). It's like the Wild West, but actually it's the Wild East. Catacamas is a pretty large city, about 50,000 residents, and it's located at the far east end of Olancho. What this meant for us was about a 5 hour journey from our house via chicken bus (used U.S. yellow school bus that's too worn out to let our kids ride in it), taxi and bus directo (like a chartered bus, but more worn out). The transit went relatively smoothly. They've been trying to seriously scare us with tales of robberies and assaults, but if you're smart and take the better buses, you are pretty safe. Plus, I forgot to mention the PC completely funds this four day trip, so there is no excuse not to take the nicest bus available.
Catacamas is extremely hot and very humid. Temperatures were in the high 80's, but felt much worse due to the humidity. It was about as bad as DC in mid-summer. The city itself is in a large valley, so it's well laid out in a nice grid pattern (which cannot be said of most places in this country) so it was a nice change from our windy mountain roads. We met our host volunteers, a business volunteer (Liza) for TJ and Nicki and a wat/san volunteer (Juancito) for Nolan. We got perhaps the sweetest deal regarding our living situation, the married couple we were supposed to stay with ended up having to make an emergency trip to the U.S. and left us three to stay alone in their fabulous house. They quite possibly have the nicest house, three bedrooms, living room, dining room, huge kitchen, yard with hammocks and a lemon tree and a garden. They also have a T.V., cable, and an electroducha (a device that warms the water as it comes out of the showerhead - a highly prized item). Most houses are not like this, mostly because the allowance they give us for housing rarely allows for houses this big. It would be our dream house if it wasn't so darn hot. We are able to put in our preferences for our future site, size of town, type of work etc (whether or not they listen is another issue) and we definitely learned this week that requesting somewhere that is not unbearably hot is our top priority. It is very hard to function in this environment because the heat just takes away all your energy and enthusiasm.
Anyway, the first night, we headed to the grocery store and bought fixins for our specialty, homemade spaghetti! While it wasn't the best stuff we've made, it was pretty good for Honduras and it was an instant hit with Liza and Juancito. We relished every bite of non-tortilla-y goodness. It's hard to describe how nice it is to finally be able to cook for ourselves, if only once, and to eat something we love.
Monday we took a crazy bus ride across town and up into the mountains. By crazy we mean an hour and a half of riding on dusty, bumpy dirt roads in a broken down chicken bus packed full of kids, adults, old cowboys, groceries, furniture, a fence, and vendors selling fried chips and bags of water (yes, bags) - just your normal everyday bus here - that literally stopped every 100 feet to individually drop off each passenger at his/her house. Oh, what an experience. We were headed up to Las Cuevas de Talgua (the caves), a popular tourist site up in the mountains. At the base of the hike, we met a PAM volunteer, Josue, (Protected Areas Management) and since we said we were going up to his house in the park, we didn't have to pay the entrance fee. We also met the Volunteer's host dad, an amazing mountain guide named Calixto who took us up his house and offered us some very sugary cafe (coffee) and a break from the sweltering heat. If you look at any travel book about Honduras, Calixto is THE guy to contact to guide you to the caves, and he is fantastic. We didn't even have to pay him - a perk of being in the PC I suppose. We hiked to the lower cave only to find that it was locked and that the staff didn't really feel like going down to get the keys for us. So we hiked further up to a second cave. Liza got to ride Josue's horse up halfway - which we were all slightly jealous about. The upper cave was quite spectacular. This is not your average U.S. cave that has lights and platforms, this is down-home independent spelunking. The guys grabbed flashlights and followed Calixto and his son into the depths of the cave where a few times, they could barely fit through the crevices. The girls hung back and chatted. The caves were lovely and much cooler than outside. The hike back down was more of the same, sweating more than we've ever sweat in our lives perhaps. We were exhausted and dirty by the time we arrived back in Catacamas. We ate dinner at a nice cafe, known as the Ass Cafe, for the size of the owners rear end, which had amazing limonada. We crashed into bed and barely noticed the stifling heat.
Tuesday, Nolan was invited to go on a water system survey with Juancito and Josue, so he had to leave at 5 am. Juancito's counterpart drove them an hour away into the mountains to a small town where they had breakfast and met some locals who were going to act as the guides and machete-wielders. Since the survey was mostly finished, all they had to do was survey a few hundred meters up from the beginning of the system to locate the water source higher in the mountains. Basically it's a topographic study to get a sense of the angles and elevations of the land to plan the easiest way for a water pipe to fit on the mountain. The locals led the way, whacking the dense bushes aside with powerful machetes. The engineers have the priviledged job of doing the surveying rather than the machete-ing and also get free food from the locals who are so thankful for water, they will give up room and board to the surveyors. It was a long and tiring day for Nolan. On a side note, on the way back from the trip, Josue bought a puppy for about USD$8! We had a blast playing with the adorable little guy all night (and picking ticks from his poor little ears).
Nicki and T.J. basically sat around all day, watched Top Model, ate pancakes, did laundry etc - this is actually what most PC volunteers do on a daily basis. The best part of the day was their opportunity to teach english to some local teachers. The topics were simple, colors, emotions, and body parts, but they were still nervous. It turned out to be an awesome experience and Nicki actually really enjoyed teaching, and felt a little more comfortable with her spanish at the end of the day. The funniest part was the kids at the school who followed them around without saying a word, just staring intently. It doesn't help that TJ is 6'4" and just about the most american looking guy you can meet (no offense TJota). It was an interesting day to say the least.
We all finished off our day with a trip to the local pizzeria - which, if you know us, you already know it was not up to our high high standards. But hey, it was pizza in Honduras and it was edible. The whole weekend was a refreshing break from Honduran food which, although good, can get a little boring. But maybe they think the same thing about our food too, you know?
The trip back was uneventful except for the taxi ride to the mall in a car that we swear was about to fall apart faster than the Bluesmobile. We also had Wendy's at the mall, which was really expensive for us. It was 50 Lempiras for a medium drink, medium fries and chicken nuggets. 20L is about 1 USD. So that's only about USD$2.50, which is cheap, but when we are earning 58 Lemps a day during training, it's a day's wages! So we predict our Wendy's trips will be few and far between. It's still a little hard to get a sense of cost here, we are constantly trying to translate back to USD which is dangerous because we're not earning USD. For example, a 1/2 litre bag of water costs 2L and a bottle of about the same amount costs 10L. One mango - 2L. Pound of potatoes - 8L. A 4 pack of cheap toilet paper - 14L. One pound of ground beef - 35L. A bottle of body wash 70-100L. A 3.5 hr direct bus - 105L. Typical meal - 60-120L. A cell phone - 500L. A minute on a phone - 1L. The good news is that if you want to come visit, it's dirt cheap. For us, we're living the local life, so we have to be conscious of what we're spending.
Sunday we are finally headed to the second part of our traning, FBT or field based training. We'll be separate for 7 weeks, but the PC is nice enough to provide us with funds to travel to see each other for a whole three nights during this time. Other trainees can't even leave their towns, so we're pretty lucky. We'll be about 3 hours apart by bus. Nolan is headed to the departamento of El ParaĆ­so, just south and east of Teguz, which is hot. Nicki is headed just south of Teguz to a small mountain town. We hope to keep you updated regularly, but we're supposed to be even busier during this second part - which is hard to believe! We will try to write again soon. Miss you all!
P.S. Aunt Mary and Uncle Tony, thank you for sending the big box of books! We just got it today! It is so nice to receive mail - it was a pleasant surprise! Thank you, thank you!

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