Wednesday, June 16, 2010

From the mountains to the sick bed

My work in La Esperanza started slow, but that was expected. Like most volunteers, I spent the first couple weeks going into my office and basically following around the Engineer, and sometimes the woman from the Environmental Office, as they went about their daily work. I didn’t work much, usually 9-12 in the morning. A lot of the time was spent waiting for them to finish something so we could leave, but I did learn some things. I was able to go out to several of the aldeas (small towns, usually just a collection of houses near each other) of the municipality and see the landscape and meet the people.

I went out with the engineer to inspect work being done to build a water system. I helped him measure and map a road that severely needs to be repaved.

I also learned the laws about cutting down trees in the country. Basically, you can go into the municipalidad and ask for permission to cut down three trees. Now these are not trees on public land, these are trees on your own private property, and you can only cut three. Not only that, but the wood has to be used within the municipalidad, usually to construct a house. Pretty strict, huh? And you have to plant 3 trees for every one you cut. It’s pretty easy to get the permission (although you do have to jump through a lot of hoops getting signatures of several people) but the municipalidad has a limited number they can give out, and once those are gone, you have to appeal higher to get permission. My job in all of this was teaching the woman from the UMA (Environmental) Office how to use their 10 year old GPS so that she could mark the trees and confirm that the people actually cut down what they said they were going to cut down.

That was basically the extent of my work until last week, when I started to actually do the work I was trained for. Two weeks ago, I went out to the aldea of Llano Grande with the engineer to inspect the fuente de agua for a water system that the mayor was going to help fund. We found out that their survey of the system had been done several years ago and lacked some vital information about accessories. Thus, they needed a new survey, which I started last Tuesday. Now, surveying is a pretty basic exercise, although it can be grueling work. Basically, I go up the mountain with about 4 guys from the community to help me and I survey the topography from the fuente to the tanque (what it sounds like, the water tank) and finally to all the houses. This means hiking up and down mountains all day long for several days. Luckily, the guys helping me do most of the heavy work. They chop at the plants with machetes to clear the path and they carry most of the equipment. But they are all glad to do it because I’m doing the survey for free (saving the community thousands of lempiras) and helping to bring ‘clean, potable’ drinking water to their houses. The guys who help out rotate each day, meaning I have to train new people every day to do what I need them to do, which can be challenging at times. The best part for me is that the community also provides me with lunch while I’m out working, which most of the time comes down the hill randomly at around 11 in the hands of someone from the community. I have no idea how they know where we will be at lunch time, since cell phone coverage is spotty that far out, but somehow it always makes it. In addition to lunch, sometimes I’m offered a cup of coffee at someone’s house at the end of the day before I get driven back to the city.
I was thoroughly worn out by time we got to the tank site on the third day, but I was anxious to finish as soon as possible so I agreed to work Saturday so that I could try to be done before Wednesday when Honduras plays its first World Cup game at 5 am. I had to take a break Sunday, and then Monday my ride out to the community never showed up. That meant I had a nice relaxing day showing a friend of ours around the town, but it meant that I would have to work after the game on Wednesday….

Disaster struck early Tuesday morning. I woke at around midnight with diarrhea. Nothing to worry about, as it’s relatively common in a volunteer’s life. I went back to bed, and woke maybe an hour later with more diarrhea. I was starting to get worried, but surely it would pass by morning as it always had before. Finally I knew it was serious when I threw up all my food around 2. Nicki was worried and called the Peace Corps doctor. There wasn’t much they could do at 2 in the morning (there aren’t 24 hour emergency rooms on every street corner in Honduras), but she said to try to stay hydrated, take some Pepto Bismol and call again if there was more vomit. I followed the instructions, but the diarrhea continued every half hour or so. And at around 5:30, the vomiting returned. We called the PCMO again, and were able to get a hold of the Peace Corps approved clinic in town that theoretically is open 24 hours. The guy on the phone said he would call the doctor and have him come in by the time we got there.

This being Honduras, we didn’t quite believe that line, but got there anyway by 6 am. It took the doctor another half hour or so to show up. He performed the usual checkup: weight, blood pressure, listening to my heart, etc. He said I seemed to be reasonably hydrated, but wanted to give me an IV anyway. The next 7 hours or so were spent lying in a bed with IV slowly chilling my arm. After a brief panic about basically being trapped there by the IV, I was able to calm down and doze a little. Nicki sat dutifully by my side the whole time. She had brought me a book, so when I woke up, I had some entertainment. She, however, had none. There was a TV in the waiting room with the World Cup on. There wasn’t one in my room. We could hear goals being scored, but had no idea who was playing.

Once the first IV bag was gone, the nurse came in to take a blood sample, and gave me two film canisters for urine and stool samples, plus a wooden tongue depressor. Now it’s possible some of you have given stool samples before, but I doubt you’ve ever done it with a film canister, and diarrhea. I’m still not entirely sure how I managed it, but with the help of the tongue depressor and a lot of luck I managed to do it. Then it was back to bed for another 4 hours.

When the IV liquid finally ran out, the nurse took it out, but said the doctor was at lunch so I would have to wait until he got back for my prescriptions and to have the needle removed from my hand. I don’t know why she couldn’t take out the needle, but it was 1 o’clock, so I said ok, and proceeded to wait….and wait. At 2, the doctor returned. After 3 or 4 times of asking me if I was ready to leave and doing nothing, he then went to take care of a more pressing problem, a patient with some sort of foot wound. Another hour went by, and finally, I was called into his office. I was given the test results. I had a pretty bad intestinal, bacterial infection. He gave me 4 prescriptions, told me to come back at 9 the next day…and then had a nurse remove the needle!

Needless to say, my topographic study was put on hold for the week, although I was just as exhausted from sitting at the clinic all day long. Now I’m home, both excited and dreading waking up at 5 to watch the soccer game before trudging back up to the clinic at 9. But hey, we’re lucky, at least we have a clinic in our town. We don’t have to take a 3 hour bus ride to see a doctor like some of our friends :-/

**These observations and events are in no way a reflection of poor health care provision on the part of the Peace Corps.

PS Honduras perdió a Chile 0-1 en el partido

Teaching Contabilidad

So a few weeks ago I attended a capacitacion de contabilidad (training on accounting) that was put on by one of the groups I’m working with. What could be more fun than 2 full days of lectures on balance sheets and income statements in Spanish, right? Anyway, I had some insights from the capacitacion that I am just now getting around to sharing.

People come 1, 2, 3, or 4 hours by bus, in torrential rain, in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, wearing cowboy hats and boots, dirty from working. The lencan women wear bright pañuelos, they sit scooted all the way back into their chairs and their feet can’t touch the ground because they are so short. A few bring their small children along because they can’t leave them at home. This particular taller (workshop) is two days so the people will stay overnight in La Esperanza, I expect with family or friends, but I’m not entirely sure.

The group I’m working with provides all the materials and three meals a day for the people. They hand out these ridiculous little notebooks that have cartoon cats and superheroes and butterflies on them. The best thing is watching 40 year old male farmers taking copious notes in their Rosita Fresita (Strawberry Shortcake here) notebooks. It’s just how they do it here. Business professionals of all shapes and sizes use these funny notebooks.

Something about the culture of school or education in general here leads people to take notes as if they were always writing down something very important like a last will and testament. They will copy down EVERY word that is posted on a powerpoint slide, EVERY formula written on the white board. Each time we do an activity and create presentation/charla papers, they have to copy down everything they just wrote on the papers. They won’t stop until they have rewritten every word in their Superman notebooks. The important point about all this is that in the future, I know how to create better powerpoints. People won’t listen to you or start activities until they’re done writing, so it’s best to keep the powerpoints simple. Other volunteers take note!

Another good thing is that the people at this training can write. Illiteracy is so common in the aldeas here, so these people already have a leg up. The bad thing is that I’m still not entirely sure they understand what they are writing so much as just copying it down because they have been indoctrinated into thinking this was the only way to learn. Still, you can see the focus in their eyes as they try to absorb this new information which must be so abstract to them. I have to admit that before coming to Honduras, I had only one brief course that touched upon accounting in grad school, community development finance. Even this wasn’t straight up accounting and it was one of my most challenging classes. I still don’t really get accounting and now in the Peace Corps they are expecting me to teach it. But that’s another story. Can you imagine how these people, who maybe only have a 6th grade education, are feeling when being presented with balance sheets? For them, basic math is challenging. Concepts like depreciation, liquidity, capital assets must be mind boggling. I admire them simply for taking the time to try to learn this stuff.

We got no breaks from the 8 hour lecture except for lunch, at which point I was wondering how I had gotten sucked into being there for two straight days. I was also a little skeptical about the group. At least one woman had been asleep for half of the lecture. Half of the group had not said a single word since coming in. Why come to this workshop for two days if you really didn’t want to be there? It was free, but the time and transportation were so rough it hardly seemed worth it. But the more I helped these people and the more I watched them, the more I felt like I was part of something really amazing that was going on.

First, you can really tell who’s getting it and who’s not. There were a few people who were answering questions and making good comments, and looked so enthusiastic you could just tell it was clicking for them. It’s unbelievably encouraging to have people who understand. I wasn’t even the teacher and I felt such pride, relief and joy for these people. It’s amazing to see people in the actual process of learning, it’s so rewarding. I can see now why teachers can enjoy their jobs. Just having a few students in your class who really comprehend the lesson and are so happy to be learning can make all the difference.

Second, even the people who maybe aren’t fully getting it are still picking up something. At the end of the workshop, everyone had nothing but positive comments that the sessions were interesting and that they were happy to have participated. Even the woman who was asleep for half of it was so grateful. I think this too is encouraging. The fact that even if they didn’t really get it, that they thought it was good information and would maybe pass some of it on or recommend the training to others, or just make one small change in their business - that is a victory too.

As Americans I think we are spoiled with information in so many ways (at least in most places, I do recognize that there are still severely underserved parts of the US). We have good schools, ready access to libraries and the internet. We are flooded at our jobs, churches, town halls and community groups with meetings, events, seminars, lectures, flyers, books, you name it. What’s worse, we take it for granted. We don’t realize how unique it is to have everything at our fingertips. Maybe every one of us doesn’t understand accounting, but we could drop down to Borders and pick up Accounting for Dummies in a flash for a few bucks. Here, there is a considerably greater amount of labor necessary to obtain the same information, a four hour bus ride each way, a loss of 2 days of work on your farm, overcoming poor literacy. Yet the 15 people who attended the capacitacion made the commitment to come to get the information, and this I think says more than I ever could about their determination, strength, and desire to learn.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Siempre estamos luchando

After leaving 1.5 hours later than planned, we are finally headed out of town going west in the rickety blue pickup truck. Today, I’m visiting Las Hortensias, a small community about 45 minutes outside of La Esperanza, or rather a few houses grouped together where they grow hortensias, hydrangeas in english. It’s me and Angela, my counterpart, perched precariously in the paila of the pickup, clutching our purses and sun hats against the wind and sun. Doña Maria (the president of our group), her friend, the friend’s daughter and our driver are squished in the cab. All pickup trucks here are at least 15 years old, tinkered with enough to keep running day in and day out. I sometimes feel like as soon as I step out of one, it may fall into pieces like the Bluesmobile.

We pass slowly through the neighborhoods surrounding La Esperanza. The roads are bad, the bumping is already making me sore. The houses are normal and most have regular water access. The roads get increasingly better as we leave town, fewer ruts and potholes. It’s probably because fewer vehicles travel on them and the rain washes off to the sides rather than down the middle. The whole day we only see 5 trucks, including ours, on the road to Las Hortensias. Not even the minibuses run to this area, it’s probably not populated enough, although this leaves the people who do live there rather stranded. The few pickups that we pass have whole beds full of people, up to 15 or 20, plus sacks of potatoes, corn, beans and other staples, so heavy that the bed is starting to sag and looks like it could break off.

We start ascending into the montañas. First is the pine forest. Nothing but big full pine trees in all directions, a forest that surrounds the road. We head up, up, up. Past dirt canchas and a few random houses barely perceptible through the forest. We suddenly hit an elevation where we break out of the pine forest and into something else entirely. Huge, lush, rolling mountains unfold in front of us covered in a patchwork of terraced farm plots of papas, maiz, broccoli and cabbage interlaced with a jungle-like vegetation of vines, ferns, mora bushes, and leafy trees. The montañas are dotted with bursts of color: cream, white and tan brick and adobe houses; black, white and brown cows; pink, green and yellow pañuelos on the heads of the Lenca people working their fields. Thousands upon thousands of acres of pristine land spill out from the road in all directions, as far as you can see. The scale is more massive than I could explain. It reminds me of so many different places I’ve seen in my life, but to compare this to those places would diminish its uniqueness, this is simply Intibucá, Honduras.

We pass plenty of people on the side of the road, running barefoot, driving a yoke of oxen, pushing wheelbarrows, riding horses, walking with machete in hand, and every one of them gives us a good long stare, curious about the gringita in the paila no doubt. A few of the kids wave happily, then smile even bigger when I wave back. We wind our way higher and higher past dozens of small farmsteads, people living in modest homes with no electricity or water.

We know we’ve hit Las Hortensias when we see the calle lined with huge blossoming hortensia bushes bearing blue, white and yellow flowers. They pop out of their green hilly background and tower up to 10 or 15 feet tall in some spots. Hortensias grow naturally in this area, but the Lenca women here have also started to cultivate them, planting them in rows along the property lines and the road. The group we are meeting with sells the flowers for a living, bringing them into La Esperanza a few times a week. The group is having problems though with its members and wants to separate into two groups. That is what we are here to discuss. We spend the whole morning just chatting with the women, walking around their property, drinking coffee, eating tortillas and cuajada (fresh cheese). The view from one woman’s house is so stunning and surreal that I feel like I’m in a screensaver.

The motto of this and every women’s group that I’ve heard from here is always “Siempre estamos trabajando, siempre estamos luchando” (We are always working, always fighting). It sounds so simple, so obvious, I didn’t really read much into it until my visit to Las Hortensias. These women take care of their households 24/7, which here is more than just fixing dinner and doing laundry. It’s growing food, raising animals, grinding corn, making tortillas, taking a day trip to town to buy TP and soap, sweeping constantly, tending to children, sometimes those of relatives, making clothes, gathering fire wood and so much more. Many of them are sick or are taking care of family members who are sick. Kidney disease and diabetes are common. Their husbands or significant others are often not there, some have left for the U.S., some work in town, others are bolos. Yet despite all this, the women want to earn money to have a reasonable standard of living so they cultivate flowers or vegetables or make woven items to sell. They form caja rurales or cooperatives and work together to support each other. These women are strong in a way that is impossible to understand unless you are living their lifestyle, which even we as Peace Corps volunteers are far from experiencing.

Suffice it to say that after a long day up in the montañas we finally headed back into town, loaded up with some hortensia clippings and a bag of freshly picked broccoli as a gift.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Weather woes and new photos

For those of you who have been keeping close track of Central American or Honduran national news (which I know is all of you….) you may have heard that the first tropical storm of the season, Agatha, was causing some serious problems here over the last week. Rain hit hard on the southern coast and extended into central Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. What this meant for us was that it rained pretty much non-stop from last Tuesday through last Sunday. We want to assure you all that we are still very safe and sound.

Guatemala was unfortunately a little harder hit. They got a good deal of the same rain that hit us. Then Saturday, a major volcano outside Guatemala City erupted, shrouding the city in ash. The next day, there was some kind of land slide, if you could call it that, were a circular chunk of a city block, 20 meters in diameter simply collapsed into a 30 meter deep hole. Look up the pictures on google, it was crazy!

For a country like Honduras that gets pelted by rain for close to 8 months out of the year, you’d think they’d have built an infrastructure to withstand some rain and storms, yet that is unfortunately not the case.

The rain falls so fast that the roads literally turn into quebradas (streams). We walked home last night amidst a downpour and were in water up to our mid calves on nearly every street. Let’s not forget that the roads were first covered in trash and all manner of disgusting objects which we were then practically bathing in. It was humorous actually, the sight of two gringos huddled under one umbrella, pants soaked up to the thighs, marching through the streets. Nicki almost peed her pants laughing so hard.

So the water flows down makeshift dirt gutters into the real quebradas and rios until it overflows. In Tegus, the river that divides the city between Tegus and Comayaguela rose to the height of the bridges, 10, 20, 30 feet, and even washed away one bridge. It becomes impossible to drive on the unpaved roads, which are plentiful, because they turn into pure mud. There was even a huge landslide in our department that temporarily shut down a road. Some parts of the other departments were evacuated due to serious flooding. In all, 18 people died.

But life here is intriguing. On one hand, you have to just go on with your daily life. People strap on their rubber boots, grab their umbrella, hop on the bus, and bring their produce into town to sell. What else are they going to do? They have to make money. At the same time, it’s practically a national crisis with evacuations and travel advisories and refugee shelters being set up.

During these times there is little you can really do. You can try to go out in the temporary breaks in the storm. We mostly stay at home, reading. The drumming of the rain on our corrugated zinc roof is so deafening that we can’t even talk to each other. Laundry, which we tend to do almost daily, is tough. Our clothes hanging outside on the line stay out there and get continually soaked for 3, 4, 5 days until it’s finally sunny enough for a few hours to dry them out. We fear to open the doors, lest a deluge of muddy water come streaming in. It’s a sight to behold really. And this is only June, the real rainy season begins in September.

Outside of our apartment


Backyard patio/laundry room

Living room