Friday, May 28, 2010

Living La Vida Catracha

When I was a little kid, I loved to go camping with my family. Our routine was to sit down about a week before we were leaving and make a schedule of all the meals we would be eating, and then make another list of all the food, kitchen tools and condiments that we’d need to prepare them. (Nerdy, I know). We had to come up with simple meals that we liked because we had limited space in our cooler and car. It was always a fun challenge for me, to see what we could make using only the most essential items, after all, you can’t bring your whole kitchen with you.

Once we got to the campsite, it was another challenge to keep everything organized and clean without drawers and cabinets and refrigerators. We filled up big jugs of water to take with us, so we had to conserve what we used. No running water of course, so if you wanted anything hot you’d heat it up on the fire. We were always repurposing things, a cup became a ladle, a fork a pot handle, a lid a frying pan. There was never enough space on the picnic table to do prep work, and rinsing things off quickly meant a 5 minute process of getting the water jug, filling a bucket, rinsing and drying that object while trying not to drop it in the mud. It was a fun time to be sure, but certainly not convenient. That’s what makes camping enjoyable I think, the challenge of living without luxuries.

I feel now like my entire life is a big camping trip.

That is not in any way a criticism of Honduras, or necessarily a problem, it’s just how it is.

Our host mom is out of town, she’s in Houston in fact, so we’ve been cooking for ourselves now for about a week. She prestar-ed us an old stove, a pitcher, two plates, 2 forks, 2 glasses, a knife, a spatula and a mini frying pan. So the week began with us trying to figure out what we can concoct with those tools. We decided we needed to buy at least one pot and two bowls, and some Tupperware. Then the list began, we can make: grilled cheese, peanut butter and jelly, cereal, macaroni and cheese, pasta and guacamole, some of our favorites. To begin, our fridge is in another house, so each morning to retrieve milk, we walk out our front door, along the sidewalk, two houses down, through their ‘garage’ gate, through their backyard, through another gate, through our host family’s backyard and into another unoccupied house the family owns, where our fridge is. Times 2 because we have to take the milk back. Plus it’s raining a lot lately.

Water from the tap, which is only cold, can’t be used directly for anything but washing, and everything that’s washed has to fully dry before using. That means you can’t really just rinse things off when they need it, or wash dishes in hot water. Water has to be boiled for 3 minutes to kill any bacteria, but then its fine for anything. We bought a big 5 gallon botella de agua for drinking and brushing teeth that just sits on our counter until we have to open it and carefully pour it into a pitcher or nalgene bottle. We have a table, about 2 by 3 feet, that is used to store all our food and do any prep work as well. Our spatula became a big spoon, one plate is a cutting board, and our pitcher is used to clean veggies in chlorine. I hope you see the similarities as much as I do to my childhood camping experiences.

I think I’ve said this before, but it surprises me still how fast we’ve adjusted to living here. I don’t think about all the adjustments I’ve made on a daily basis, but sometimes it just hits me that this is quite an experience. Like when I realized the first thing we bought for our apartment when we got here was a big bucket….. to wash clothes. Or when I realize I’m miffed that I just paid 16 lemps (~75 cents) for my liter of milk in a bag, when it should have only cost me 15. Or that we have to sweep our apartment twice a day to get all the dirt out because there are no rugs sold here (that may be an exaggeration, we just haven’t found rugs yet, but we’ve been told they are few and far between). Or that we have to periodically fetch water from our pila bucket brigade style to fill up our toilet tank that would otherwise take ½ hour to fill up on its own. Or having to pause our movies every 15 minutes because there is either a large truck or bus coming down the street or a chorus of wailing dogs, cats, chickens and insects that sounds like the dead rising from the grave occurring at regular intervals which is deafening.

I think you get the point, it’s different, but in a lively, endearing and eye-opening way.

Saturday, May 22, 2010













Thursday, May 20, 2010

The real Honduran experience

So we’re riding home from the training center on the bus the other day and we begin to hear a sort of rumbling, like the engine of the bus is overheating or making a lot of noise. The bus driver is fidgeting with something next to his foot every couple of seconds to get the noise to stop; we all of course start to wonder what it is. A few minutes later we realize it’s the gas pedal that is sticking to the floor and every few seconds the driver has to lean over and literally lift it up to get the bus to stop accelerating. Did I mention the road is a windy, mountain two-lane with a sheer cliff face dropping off on one side? The guy proceeds to drive along and fix the pedal as needed, while we proceed to question his having been hired in the first place as our conductor. He makes a quick stop finally and does something with a rag to the pedal, wiping it off?? No, he’s tying a rag to the pedal so instead of bending over to lift it up, he can just tug on the rag to lift it, por supuesto! We made it home alive, luckily the breaks were still functioning….

Other funny Hondureñismos:

People point with their lips, not their finger, hand, or arm. It’s a subtle mouth motion and maybe a little head jerk in there to say, “That guy” or “Drop it there” or “He lives up the hill” You almost have to see it to understand. They also have this amazing snap or rather it’s like whipping your wrist so fast that your fingers hit each other and make a clicking noise. It has a lot of meanings, like ‘ohhh man or ohh wow’ or ‘que barbaridad’ or just whenever you feel like it. The kids here learn to do it in school, and we gringos have been trying to pick it up, few have succeeded.

It’s also very impolite to throw things to people, even candy in a game. They will think you are implying they are a dog. You might also be implying a child is a dog if while showing how tall he is you use a horizontal hand rather than a vertical hand.

Another lovely thing is that donkeys roam free here, usually trotting along the side of the road for no reason in particular, munching away at the grass. They also might stop in the road, just for fun, or at a pulperia (like a corner store). Horses are sometimes in the same situation, but mostly it’s the donkeys.

People also tend to throw their trash off the sides of mountain roads into the ravines, a lot.

The lights sometimes go out, especially when it’s rainy, and at the moment the lights go out, it becomes pitch black and everyone simultaneously chimes in with “Se fue la luz” (there went the light basically). It would be funny if it was a rare saying, but EVERYONE says it EVERYTIME the lights go out, even if they go out five times in one night, you’ll get it five times, this makes it somewhat hilarious and mildly obnoxious.

People also overuse the word ‘bien,’ especially in front of other adjectives to add emphasis. “Ella es bien bonita” (literally she is good pretty, more like, she’s really pretty). However, the best part is, when people use it with negative descriptions “Estoy bien enferma” (literally I’m good sick, or like I’m really pretty darn sick” or my favorite, “bien feo” which is more like an oxymoron than anything I’ve ever heard.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tu bandera, tu bandera, es un lampo de cielo….

So we’ve arrived at our new home in La Esperanza! But let me go back a little first. Friday (the 14th) we had our jurimentacion (swearing in) ceremony at the embajada (embassy). We met our counterparts in the morning for the first time and had a working session and catered lunch. It was a little awkward at first, as it always is meeting new people in a new language, but both of us have friendly and nice counterparts. They then accompanied us down to the embassy. At the embassy we were told that we couldn’t bring in cameras, so most of us put them back on the bus. Then Trudy arrived later and told us if we had checked our cameras with security we could go get them. “But we left them on the bus!” we protested. There was nothing more we could do. Hence we have no photos of this event and we hope someone else will give us theirs. Overall it was a standard ceremony, we sang both the Honduran and US national anthems. Yes, we sang the Honduran one too – which has 7 verses and a chorus. The kids here have to learn to recite it, sing it and analyze it to graduate from primary school, high school and college. We luckily only had to learn the chorus and one verse, which we did in two days. It reminds us slightly of the Canadian national anthem, although they are nothing alike.

We got back to our house late and had to finish packing and go to bed early. Saturday we woke up at 3 am and that’s when the real fun began. You see, we had the luck to live in the house farthest away from all the others. It was about a 20 minute walk to the bus stop in the morning, which involved climbing down a steep hill, crossing a creek and then climbing up another steep hill. Taking the actual road which led from our house (we were at the end of the road) to the nearest other bus stop would be about a 40 minute walk at least, all uphill also. When we arrived, it was no big deal because PC dropped off our stuff at our houses. However, leaving, we were responsible for getting all our stuff to the bus stop by 4:45 am. Unfortunately as well, we have acquired un monton de cosas since coming, including manuals, binders and books that weigh a lot. Our host mom basically was like, I don’t know how you guys will be able to do it because I helped my volunteer last year and I’m not doing it again! Hmmmm….

So we had tried to procure a ride, but with no luck. Our counterparts both had taken the bus (others were lucky enough to have their counterparts drive). What’s more, there was only one PC arranged bus, leaving very early in the morning to take us to Tegus because some people needed to go 12-14 hours and needed to be there very early, so we all had to go then. So, our host mom was finally able to call a cousin or uncle or someone to come get us around 4:15 am. We got all our stuff into 5 bags, the two largest probably weighed 75 pounds each. At 4:15 our Mom says, the guy can’t make it down to our house in his truck because the gate is locked and I don’t have the key. So, we began dragging our suitcases up the hill. It took me and my host mom pulling together to drag one of our big rolling suitcases! My suitcase meanwhile was getting torn in half on the rocky road. Then, because the gate wasn’t open, we had to squish ourselves through a hole in the side of the gate, shove the suitcases through, which barely fit in their enlarged state, and then continue walking up the hill to the truck. Luckily it was a real truck and not a mototaxi. The uncle with the truck was very helpful and ran back down with Nolan to get the other bags. Then, this guy literally hoisted a 75 lb suitcase up onto his shoulders and scaled the hill like a mountain goat! It was a sight to behold. He was probably 60 years old.

So we made it to the bus stop, got all our crap on the bus and were in Tegus on a bus to La Esperanza by 6 am with our counterparts, who were extremely helpful in carrying our stuff and getting us taxis and just everything. We really lucked out in some sense. The bus was direct, about 4 hours, and we mostly slept and bought some papitas, which are kind of like baked lays but puffed. When we got to La Esperanza, our host mom came in a car of a random guy to pick us up. So we really didn’t have to take our suitcases far, but we were still exhausted.

So Sabado and Domingo we didn’t do much, walked around town a little bit to explore, met our host family, met the other volunteers in town, slept a lot, started to arrange our new apartment for at least the next two months. The apartment is more separate than we expected, but it doesn’t have its own kitchen. It has a spot for a kitchen, and has a sink, but no stove or fridge. We do have a living room with table and chairs, a bedroom with beds, a small bathroom and electroducha (yea!) and a little patio with our pila to wash clothes. It’s bigger than where we lived in Alexandria, smaller than Baltimore, but a good size. We wish it had more of a yard, but if we can’t find anything else and our host family is willing, we could make do here. It would be ideal simply because it’s already partly furnished and we don’t get a lot of money to buy stuff.

Monday we met our counterparts in the morning at our “offices.” Nicki’s work is only two blocks up the street. It’s a store where the organization sells all kinds of products made by Lenca women in the surrounding communities. She spent the morning there, chatting with the president and her counterpart (a manager basically) and the women who came in. Nolan’s work is not much farther, a few blocks more down the street at the municipal offices of Intibucá. He met with his real counterpart, an engineer, for a bit in the morning, and then went back in the afternoon to meet with some people from the environmental office. We did mostly nothing after lunch because it was a downpour, took a nap, read a bit. After Nolan was done in the afternoon, we went over to the supermarket to get some Gatorade (Nolan wasn’t feeling good, perhaps it was the disgusting spaghetti we had for lunch….). We ran into Mark, one of the other volunteers who lives here, and he invited us back to his place. We had some tea and chatted and he gave us a bunch of stuff he is trying to get rid of because he and his wife are leaving in September.

This story is going somewhere. We walked back home, stopped to get some papel higienica (TP) and when we got back around 5:30 we couldn’t get our front door to open. The dead bolt wasn’t opening and then the key got stuck in the lock. So we got our host mom, she tried, no luck. She got a guy off the street, he tried, no luck. Tried the back patio door as well, but we had locked it from the inside to be safe, so that didn’t work. An hour later, holding about 5 bags of stuff still, we decided to have dinner and our mom would call someone. The first guy who came couldn’t do anything, no one really knew what was wrong still. So she called another guy, a locksmith perhaps who came with his nephew. We played UNO for awhile with our host sister Laura, she was not paying attention at all and as a result perhaps, one single game lasted probably 45 minutes. Meanwhile we were worried about our door. Finally, ay 8 pm, they got it open. They had the little nephew climb on the roof and come in through the kitchen window (which involves taking out about 12 glass blinds and a screen) to unlock it from the inside. We still don’t know what went wrong because everything was working fine until that moment, but the locksmith is coming back Tuesday to put in a whole new lock for the front. It was an interesting couple of days to say the least.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Vamos a La Esperanza!

That’s right, our new site for the next two years will be the town of La Esperanza, which means ‘hope’ (how poetic, right?) I’m sure you all know exactly where that is….just kidding! It’s about 4 hours outside of Teguz to the west by bus in the department of Intibucá. We’ll try to post a new map, or you can just Google it probably. Being a married couple, as we’ve mentioned before, requires a little more coordination on the part of our project directors because they have to find work for both of us in the same site. The good part about this for us is that they often find our sites sooner because there are fewer options, and if you’re lucky, they start giving you subtle hints in your site interviews. We pretty much knew from midway through FBT that it would likely be a choice between Siguatepeque and La Esperanza based on the type of site we had requested. While Nicki was really hoping for Sigua because it’s much larger (80,000) and near an amazing lake, we discovered about a week before that it was almost 99% certain we would be in La Esperanza. Although a little disappointed at first, the more we read about La Esperanza, the more we think we will love it.

Here’s what we know so far. First, it’s a little smaller than what we wanted, about 20,000 people, but still a good size for Honduras and large enough to have all everything we need (about as large as El Paraíso was). It is the COLDEST city in Honduras!! This was perhaps the biggest issue, especially for Nicki who, as we all know has issues with the heat. We made it clear that the weather was very important to us and luckily our project directors listened! It can get down to freezing in December and the average temp from Oct to Dec is 50 degrees! It actually has a semblance of different seasons. Could you even imagine that places like that exist in Honduras? Well they do! It’s up in the mountains, the highest city in Honduras, which is why it can get so cold. The only potential issue is that people don’t have heat here so we may have to invest in a space heater. The secondary benefit of this weather is the food. The area around La Esperanza can grow more northern-type crops such as strawberries (fresa), apples (manzana), pears (pera), and potatoes. In addition, it’s a regional hub and thoroughfare for the transportation of food from the west to east, so a lot of fresh food passes through there. La Esperanza is also supposed to have the best fresh produce market in all of Honduras! It has a potato festival and a wine and mushroom festival. They make a special type of potato wine apparently. There are three supermarkets which will probably have all the necessities we need and we are only about an hour from Siguatepeque after all if we need anything else. Sigua supposedly has a store that sells cheddar cheese. Overall, we’ve heard it’s somewhat of a foodie paradise, which is more than perfect for us! We can’t wait to try growing things ourselves and cooking a lot! La Esperanza is also in the area of the country that has a large Lenca population (known as the Lenca Trail), one of the indigenous groups here, so it will be great to experience some of their more native culture as well. They make some really superb and unique pottery. Sadly, Intibucá is one of the poorest departments in Honduras. But that also means there will be a lot of work for us.
In terms of our work, we also know a lot more. Nicki will be primarily working with two caja rurales, which are like small savings and loan institutions that do microfinance work in order to help women start and develop small businesses. She’ll be helping with everything from organizational structure and management to teaching accounting and business planning. It will probably involve some regular travel into the more rural areas, which is where caja rurales normally operate. She also has another project which is helping a cooperative of potato farmers investigate options for processing their lower quality potatoes into potato products to sell. Additionally, La Esperanza used to have a land management/planning office that is set to reopen in the next 6 to 8 months, and if and when it does open, there may be opportunities for her to give technical assistance in GIS. Urban planning doesn’t really exist here in the same way that it does in the U.S. so that will be interesting.

Nolan will be working with the municipalidad (local govt/municipality) of Intibucá, which is the other half of La Esperanza basically. (Think St. Paul/Minneapolis). Intibucá is the poorer, less developed half of the city. They are just starting their own engineering office, and since they are poorer, need more help getting water projects going in the aldeas (surrounding small communities that are part of the municipalidad). He will be going out and doing surveys of the topography (maybe once a month or so) and then designing systems in Excel to be constructed. He also has some secondary projects too, a lot of education on water issues related to health and recycling etc. His job is still a lot more concrete and certain. These are basically our primary jobs, and we are encouraged to do all kinds of other work, teaching English, computers, recycling, working with schools, coaching sports etc, so we will hopefully be busy.

We have a much more ideal set up for our new living arrangements for the next two months. We are living with a host family again, but we have to pay them ‘rent’ from the housing allowance we are given. We also then have access to their kitchen so we have the option of cooking for ourselves or paying them from our living allowance to cook for us. We imagine it will be a mix of both. We actually have somewhat of a separate apartment connected to the main house by a yard/patio, so we have our own room, living room, bathroom, and small kitchen, which will be amazing. We’re still planning on looking for our own place after our two mandatory months with the host family are up.

The rainy season officially started here May 1 and goes until December. It’s cooled down a little and is supposed to rain every day, although it hasn’t seemed that rainy to us. Nicki was sick with a bacterial infection last weekend that sent her to the hospital, but those things are common for newcomers whose estomagos aren’t adjusted to Honduran bacteria. She’s recovered though. Nolan is healthy as a horse, as usual.

So FBT is officially over and we’re back in our original site, Zarabanda, for a week with our original host family. We have a week of language interviews and meetings to get all the admin stuff done before swearing in on Friday the 15th. It’s bittersweet. We were so ready to be done with FBT and cannot wait to be in our new site in just one week! At the same time, we had to say goodbye to our host families that we’ve gotten quite attached to and everyone else is splitting up and a lot of our good friends that we’ve made ended up on the complete opposite side of the country in the department of Olancho. It was crazy yesterday to meet back up with everyone from the other projects that we haven’t seen in months. It was a little awkward because you feel like you have less in common, but otherwise it was just nice to chat with other people and hear about their experiences. We are mostly so happy to be back together again, although in reality, the last 7 weeks went by extremely fast. We’ve been here for nearly 3 months, in some ways it seems like forever, in some ways it seems like it’s been a week. Oh, also, we did superlatives in each of our groups this past week. Nicki won ‘Most Likely to Get Pregnant’ (espero que no) and ‘Most Likely to Catch Dengue.’ Nolan won ‘Most Creamy’ (which means upper class or someone who likes comforts/luxury like AC).

Due to problems with the post office in La Esperanza, our address will be the same. The only difference will be that we will be PCV instead of PCT. Just let us know when you send something as we will have to make a trip to Tegus to pick it up.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Perceptions of Mexico

I’ve never been to Mexico, so I have no idea what it actually is like, in the tourist areas or in the real parts.

I do, however, get a very different perception of Mexico from Honduras than I ever got from the US. In the US, I feel like Mexico is always portrayed as a third world country, very similar to Central America. Everyone is poor and everyone just wants to sneak across the border into the US. There are beaches and resorts, but those are just filled with Americans and the cities are dirty and dangerous and you’re likely to be kidnapped.

From Honduras, the view is completely different. Mexico is a modern, western country, very similar to the US. All the streets are paved. The people are stylish and live in big suburban houses, or chic urban lofts. And despite the veneration of the US as the ‘land of opportunity’, a lot of people would rather go to Mexico.

Mexico obviously has a thriving film/TV industry, as a good portion of the TV channels and programs are based in Mexico (Venezuela and Argentina making up the other non-US foreign contributors). It even dates back pretty far, there is a Mexican TCM type channel with black and white Mexican movies that look like vintage Hollywood films.

I definitely understand why Mexico is seen in a better light here. Mexico is a more accessible country. Everyone speaks Spanish, making it easier to get around. The government isn’t immediately suspicious of you, assuming you’re an illegal immigrant just because you have darker skin. There even seem to be jobs.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s just an observation I’ve had. I welcome anyone’s comments about their own perceptions of the Mexico, from the US or abroad.