Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Autumn in La Esperanza…almost

El frio, it’s what everyone has been talking about. It’s been cloudy for nearly 6 days straight with on and off misty rain, turning the streets into puro lodo and temperatures have dropped. And I might be the only one that’s happy about it.

I was feeling depressed a few weeks ago. Work has been steady but uninspiring, fun activities at a minimum. Then, after listening to Michigan football games via internet radio every weekend, I was beginning to get homesick for the crisp, cool air, changing colors and warm apple cider that accompany every autumn, my favorite time of the year. Nothing here looked like fall, the pine trees still bright and vivid, the weather still moderately warm, no apples or pumpkins at the market. I had relinquished myself to making autumn leaves from construction paper to decorate our apartment when it happened.

The sky clouded over, and temperatures, although still in the 60’s, felt noticeably cooler. While in the US, this weather would still warrant shorts and flip flops no doubt, here, people have brought out oversized fluffy winter parkas, beanies, fleeces and scarves to keep out the chill. I awoke one morning to a slight mist which, when matched with a wintry smell in the air, almost fooled me into thinking snow was eminent. I commented to Nolan that, “It feels like the middle of winter here!” to which he smugly replied, “It is the middle of winter here.” Winter is over in December after all. On a trip to a community high in the surrounding mountains, I happened upon a wonderful sight, a solitary maple tree shedding it’s orangy-golden leaves in the midst of a pine forest. I was amazed. I followed this up with a trip to the grocery store where they were already stocking Christmas ribbons, nativity scenes and poinsettias, earlier than in the U.S. if you could believe it. (They don’t have Halloween and Thanksgiving to get in the way I guess).

It finally feels and looks (mas o menos) like it ought to in late September and the cold air has refreshed my spirits.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Emancipacion de la Patria

On September 15, 1821, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica declared their independence from Spain and joined the Mexican Empire. Just 2 years later the countries separated from Mexico to form a Republic of Central America, and when this didn’t work out, it wasn’t until November 15, 1838 that Honduras was finally and truly independent of all others. I guess Hondurans believed the break from Spain was the most important emancipation and thus, Sept 15th is the only “Independence” Day they celebrate.

And so it was a bright sunny Wednesday that my counterpart and I headed over to the central park for the festivities at 8 am. The park was jam packed with nearly the whole town, plus food vendors selling fries (with mayo, ketchup and queso seco – could there be a worse combination?), cotton candy, tacos, tajadas, ice cream (they don’t have another word for ice cream here, they just call it ihce crim), etc. Little kids were running and screaming all over the place, their hands sticky with sugar and sauce. You could barely find a hole in the crowd to get to the street. People were elbowing and shoving (something Hondurans are very adept at) to get through to the front, only to have the police come and push them back. Some people flat out ignored the police. Finally, at one point, two policemen grabbed a rope, tied it to a tree and then pulled it around the people to another pole, pulling tighter and tighter to force people to back up, like strangling them. You may think this inhumane, but it was necessary. People just didn’t get it! All the while they are dragging their kids along and have one arm holding a huge golf-like umbrella for shade. Of course the umbrellas mostly serve to block the view of everyone behind you and jab every other person in the head. Now, you may be thinking, oh sure, that happens in the U.S. too, nope, not like this. There were so many people in the street at one point that the parade couldn’t even pass through!

So, the main, and really the only, “festivity” was a parade of what seemed like every colegio (high school)student in town, dressed to the nines in freshly pressed uniforms and fancy shoes. The kids have a funny way of marching, a slow cantor with a foot shuffling motion, looking absolutely miserable, especially the girls in ridiculously high heels. It seemed to me like a graduation procession since the announcers were stating what path the students had studied, and the school year comes to an end in a few months so the timing makes sense.

Students marching

My favorite part though was the marching bands, well actually more like percussion ensembles. I only saw one group that had things like clarinets, trumpets and tubas, most had snare drums, bass drums, bongos, xylophones and those cans that you rub with metal to make a scratchy noise. Now let me first share with you that I can hear the bands practicing almost every night from my house and it doesn’t exactly please me. It’s rather annoying actually, one because there aren’t really songs with instruments so it sounds repetitive and two it’s loud and obnoxious. However, at a live performance, the marching bands are really something. A few of them were dressed in real marching band uniforms, the kind you might see at a college football game, so that was impressive. One band had some baton twirlers, including an adorable 4 year old little girl dressed in a blue corset and tutu ensemble, shaking her hips like Shakira. It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

The kids were all so focused and serious looking. They had these crazy and cool hand and body movements that they did. It wasn’t just marching down the street in a line, playing a song; it was as if each instrument group has its own moves and motions to accompany the songs. These kids were jumping around with arms flying everywhere in those big costumes, the poor things were practically dying from dehydration I imagine, the sweat soaking through every layer of their uniform. And yet every sequence or song they played seemed to last for 10 minutes! Then they’d start on another. The parading lasted for at least 3 hours! Now I can’t say that their sound quality or repertoire was magnificent, but their spirit, stamina and style could sure give the Michigan Marching Band a run for their money. Check out the video!

Feliz Dia de Independencia Honduras!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Anatomy 101

Michelle, Carrie, Sherria, and me

Having spent the last week translating 8 hours a day for a medical brigade, I feel all the sudden like I have a new command of the Spanish language and an ability to identify common Honduran ailments. This entry takes us back to the quaint town of Ojojona which, for those of you who remember, was the site of my 7 week business training. During training, our group befriended a local philanthropist of sorts, Don Ricardo, who, in addition to running an Italian restaurant, setting up a B&B, and having some sort of high position with the Belizean consulate, is also the founder and director of Amigos of Ojojona, a foundation dedicated to improving the pueblito. It was also he who 5 years ago randomly met a group of doctors from Pittsburgh and created with them a yearly medical brigade in Ojojona where people from all over the municipality could come and receive free medical consultations and medications. Don Ricardo had contacted our training group this year to come and translate for the doctors who spoke no Spanish, so 6 of us arrived to help out. Don Ricardo graciously provided all our food and lodging in his serene Ojojonan villa.

Medical brigades are very common here in Honduras, but the scale and organization of this brigade, or brigada, was larger than I imagined. Don Ricardo had hired 13 army officers to stand guard as well as drive three big army trucks to surrounding aldeas to pick up patients daily at 4 am. They set up big tents in front of the centro de salud (health center) where med students from Teguz did initial processing and vitals before patients were admitted to see one of 9 doctors (actually one was a nurse, the one I worked with). Included among them were a pediatrician, gynecologist and ophthalmologist. We also had a group of dental students one day who pulled teeth all day (literally, I’m not sure they did anything else). In addition to the doctors and us translating, there was an entire staff of Hondurans in charge of setting up the center, feeding us, managing the lines, helping with tricky cases and in general keeping order, although the extent to which they completed these tasks was only mildly satisfactory. All of the people who came from outside Ojojona were housed and fed, although the doctors stayed in a posh hotel in Teguz. The doctors also brought with them cases and boxes of medications to hand out, the value of which I heard was somewhere near $15,000.

Sunday began with a getting-to-know-everyone BBQ where I bumped elbows with the ambassadors to Spain and Panama as well as foreign service workers from the U.S. embassy and the recently arrived doctors from Pittsburgh. It was a little bit of culture shock to be talking with people from the U.S. who had little experience with or time in Honduras. While some of the doctors had been to Ojojona with the brigade before, some hadn’t. It was interesting to try to explain to them all the funny, interesting and ridiculous things about Honduras that we have come to know and tolerate in the last 6 months.

Monday through Friday we worked feverishly 8 hours a day to see close to 1000 patients. The little old men and women were cute, the little kids even cuter, and the sicknesses, problems, and issues we encountered and shared were sometimes disgusting, but always interesting. By the end of the week you could identify one of three types of patients. The first someone aptly named “trick-or-treaters,” the people who come complaining of every ailment known to man just to get as much free medication as they can. Most of the time they just had a cold/flu or head/back pain (and who wouldn’t here if you worked in the campo or made tortillas for a living). I never could quite figure out if they really didn’t know that something like Tylenol or Ibuprofen that they can easily buy at the pulperia would cure their average daily symptoms, or if they already knew this and still just wanted to get the free stuff. People are surprisingly enamored with a 30-supply of vitamins as it turns out.

People waiting in line

The second type I would call the “treatables.” These were people with mild to moderate health issues, yet still things that could be treatable with what meds we had. Things like ear/chest/sinus/urinary tract/yeast infections; skin issues such as fungus, rashes, scabies, lice; internal parasites/worms, acid reflux, high blood pressure etc. A part of this treatment, which I believe could have been emphasized more, was prevention and home management advice. If you keep your feet dry, you won’t get fungus. If you boil your water, you won’t get parasites. If you don’t eat spicy food, you won’t get heartburn etc etc. These were probably the people we helped the most, although getting them to change their habits to stay healthy in the future is questionable. I had to patiently explain to a 19 year old guy, and then subsequently to him and his 19 year old wife that they both had an STI that would just keep passing between them unless they both stopped having sex and took their antibiotics for awhile.

The third type of patient was something like “severe/terminal” and this was the saddest group of all. Kids with heart problems, asthma, malnutrition; women with severe depression or cancer; men with lung and respiratory problems and even schizophrenia. Most of these people had come to the centro de salud because they had already been to a hospital in Teguz and couldn’t afford the medicine and tests that the doctors had ordered. They came looking for things we couldn’t give them, xrays, echocardiograms, MRIs, specific medications. We could do so little for them, except refer them to specialists in Teguz where the cycle would just continue. It was heartbreaking.

We sped through all our Ibuprofen, Tylenol and heartburn meds in two days then had to buy more. After then we started only giving out 10-12 pills of pain killers per person, probably less that 1 week’s worth for them. I started to wonder if it was even worth it. We also took on the hilarious job of taking packages of prenatal vitamins and blacking-out the word ‘prenatal’ so non-pregnant women and men would agree to take them. My ‘exam room’ was one of three set up in a small room using wood frames and bed sheets to separate the spaces. This actually made it easier to yell across the room to another volunteer to get help with translating words you didn’t know. I learned how to take blood pressure (although I’m horrible at it) and checked many a person’s blood sugar levels. I had the chance to visit my host family a few times. They were so surprised and happy to see me. They repeatedly told me how much everyone had missed me, how everyone was always asking about me, and how I was the best host daughter they’d had (the only one they’d had to be exact). Many of the patients I saw were people who had hosted trainees or were neighbors of someone who did and so it was fun to chat with them and fill them in on what I’ve been up to. It felt good to come back to Ojojona, a place that I knew, to serve the community and get a new perspective.

Scratching 'Pre-natal' off of the vitamins

My exam room

I met so many fantastic people, exchanging emails and facebook info with a med student, our only Honduran translator, and our line manager. The doctors were great, including the head doctora at the Centro de Salud. We enjoyed a farewell dinner Friday night at an Argentine steakhouse in Teguz and were all I think a little sad to say goodbye. One of the doctors even delighted us with his Elvis impersonation (see below). We’re already making plans to reunite next year.

*Pictures courtesy of Carrie Perdue, Brett Johnson, and Sherria Snyder

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Art of Cigar Smoking

Last weekend, we made a trip over to Santa Rosa de Copan, about 4 hours away, for their annual feria. The town of Santa Rosa was a bit of a culture shock. All of the roads are paved, there is a movie theater, and they had ton of real clothing shops (not just ropa americana shops with giant piles of second hand clothes from the US). After checking into our hotel (and having Nicki argue for 30 minutes with the staff about the room price), we went out to explore the city. We found out that Santa Rosa actually does employ urban planning in the form of historic preservation. The center of the city is the casco historico, and has rules about the colors you can paint the buildings, the types of windows you can have, and the form of your rotulo (sign). Many cities in the US have similar types of historic ordinances, but it was surprising to find a city in Honduras with these rules, and even more so that the people follow the rules.

Santa Rosa is the center of the Honduran cigar industry, and so Friday morning, we headed down the Flor de Copan cigar factory for a factory tour to learn a little more before our evening smoking event. The tobacco leaves are first brought in (mostly from Honduras but also imported from other countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic) and allowed to ferment in big piles for at least 8 months. The fumes were so strong in the fermenting room it made our eyes water and we had to wear face masks. After that, the vein is pulled out by hand, and the leaves are sorted by size and placed in an oven to dry. Once dried, the leaves are aged from 6 months to several years to give them varying flavors. When rolling the cigars, they combine tobacco that has been aged for different lengths of time to create the correct flavor that is desired for that particular brand. The rollers roll the filler tobacco and place it in a press for 30 minutes to make the shape stick. After that, another person takes it and rolls it in the wrapper tobacco. The wrapper tobacco is often a different type of tobacco, is sometimes dyed to change its color, and is always a nicer leaf without defects. The wrapper leaves are deveined with a machine to be more precise and to keep them intact. The wrapper is also not dried, so it will stretch around the cigar without ripping. The workers add just a little bit of a gummy glue to secure the wrapper, but not much is holding it together. Once the wrapper is on, the cigars are banded and boxed. The Flor de Copan factory can make 50,000 cigars daily!

Seeing hundreds of people hand rolling cigars really gives you the feeling of being in Central American country. It is really amazing how fast they can roll the tobacco and form it into a cigar. The factory looks like a Cuban cigar factory in any movie you’ve ever seen, rows and rows of women and men in aprons doing repetitive manual labor. The good part is that people make minimum wage and the rollers get paid by the cigar so they earn a decent living. And it wasn’t really hot in there either. Flor de Copan is the leading cigar manufacturer in Honduras and makes 30-40 different brands. The Honduran cigar industry got a boost when the US imposed sanctions against Cuba, and is now considered to produce some of the best cigars in the world. Flor de Copan’s top product, Romeo y Julieta, is a cigar that is only produced there, in Cuba and the Republica Dominicana. Of course, those cigars are not sold in Honduras because they cost too much, all the stock is exported to the US.

For lunch, we went to one of the feria grounds. There were a few fair type booths with candy and games and Ferris wheels, including a hand-cranked one for little kids, but most of it was Honduran food booths. This means that there was actually some good food, not your typical fair food. We had pupusas and tajadas con carne (fried slices of platano with chicken and beef). Both were very good. We spent a bit of time there with our friend playing Scrabble Slam before we had to go back to the hotel to get ready for the main event.

While there were more things going on the following days, the premier event of Santa Rosa’s feria is the Noche de Fumadores (Night of Smokers). It is a more formal event to celebrate the cigar industry in Santa Rosa. It is also a relatively costly event, 600 lempira per couple. Despite this, there were 75 Peace Corps volunteers there, out of 360 people total. Included in your entrance cost were appetizers and unlimited drinks, as well as pretty much all the cigars you wanted. Each person was given a gift bag when entering that contained coffee and five puro cigars from Flor de Copan in a fancy box worth at least the entrance cost. Those five cigars were intended more as take home cigars. To smoke, there was a woman rolling fresh cigars, as well as a table with piles of different type of cigars from the factory for you to try. Being that there were so many volunteers there, it felt almost like a Peace Corps event. We had fun hanging out with our friends, seeing people we hadn’t seen for months, drinking some 23 year old aged rum, and trying to learn the art of smoking cigars. One of our good friends is a cigar aficionado and he patiently schooled us in cutting, lighting and ash dropping and tried to teach us how to make smoke rings, which we never quite could do. Of course, because we aren’t smokers, we were feeling a little sick at the end of the night after spending hours in a room full of smoke. After one cigar each, we were done. We were ready to leave around midnight, so we got a jalon to our hotel with another of our friends. Just as we were leaving though, they started the raffle, and I won a box of chocolate lollipops, which was a nice end to the night.

Nolan and Jose

Nicki and Harrison

Nicki and Carrie

The next day, Nicki got up early to leave for Ojojona, where she was going to help translate for a medical brigade. There will be another blog entry about that soon. I had a more relaxed morning, eating breakfast with some friends before heading home to prepare for my Peace Corps Reconnect, also another blog entry for another day.