Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sentimental Hogwash


As we celebrate the last hours of 2011 and look forward to what awaits us in 2012, I’ve been reflecting about what leaving Honduras really means to me. The news about our eminent departure is finally sinking in and we’ve had time to get over the original emotional shock. We’ve spent the last two weeks dividing our household items into keep, donate and throw out piles, and at this point have emptied the place of pretty much everything except the bed, fridge and few cooking utensils. It’s more than a little sad to see the bare walls in our living room, and the echo of the emptiness is almost haunting. Plus, the donating and selling seems to have brought out the worst in our neighbors and friends who’s affection for us seems only directly correlated to how much of our valuable personal property we agree to give them. We also finally found out that our vacation to Nicaragua would be officially approved and we’ll be back just in time to have a few days before we have to head out to an exit conference and then back to the States. Several thoughts are constantly filling my head.

First, I can’t say that I disagree with the decision that Peace Corps made in this situation. After getting feedback from all the current volunteers, they discovered that while people felt very safe in their sites, travel presented more dangers and problems. Given the geographic spread of volunteers and the need to travel to places like San Pedro and Teguz for flights or medical appointments, it is hard to keep volunteers safe while travelling without a new set-up. Plus, PC can’t afford the bad publicity that might arise from more incidents occurring with volunteers that they knowingly keep in an unsafe country. They probably did make the right decision to evacuate us, it’s just that it all occurring over the holidays seems to have been an unlucky coincidence that is making the process more sensitive. That being said, we still do feel safe in our site and have never felt unsafe. All our Honduran counterparts and friends have expressed similar sentiments. They weren’t particularly distressed by recent bus assaults or murders any more than normal and also felt towns like ours were more than secure for volunteers. So in these last days, security is actually not high on my list of worries.

Unfortunately, the PC decision affects a lot of Hondurans that truly need our help. Pulling us out doesn’t really affect the staff here or in Washington, or the government of Honduras as a whole, or the U.S. government. Whom it directly affects are the people and communities that we have been working with on the ground that have no resources and to a certain extent rely on Peace Corps to stimulate meaningful change. A friend of ours said it perfectly “It is the poor people of Intibucá (our department) that are losing out from this decision.” Verdad. PC leaving also sets an example for other international aid workers and organizations here. We have already heard that Amigos de Las Americas (a mini PC summer program for high schoolers) will not be coming back this year due to security fears and several medical brigade members also expressed concerns. Who knows what other organizations might follow suit and pull out or reduce their presence, causing a further vacancy of international support? While I don’t know that my exact counterpart would be a good fit for another volunteer, I do know that there is still a great deal of work to be done in our department that PC could help with, and it’s a shame that the hard working people of our poor department have to be punished because of things they have no control over. But I guess that’s almost always the case…

We also feel lucky, almost guiltily so, that we are already at the near end of our service. To be honest, we have been filling out heads with tantalizing plans of post-PC life for a few months now, and were already beginning to mentally pull ourselves away from Honduras. We were wrapping up projects and not starting any new ones. For us, leaving early will be hard, but not impossible. We still feel like we had a full and rewarding experience, that we accomplished many things, that we built good relationship, and had the opportunity to get all the travelling in we wanted. We don’t have any regrets. This is not true for other volunteers who are just now completing either their 6th or 11th months here and may not feel like they want their experience to end. For them it will be a tough decision to re-enroll for another 27 months of service or end it here.

What I mostly feel is something akin to fear at returning to the U.S. It’s not that I don’t know what it’s like, or that I’m afraid I won’t understand the language (although my English has become pretty bad here). It’s more like I’ve become accustomed to the sort of exotic yet simple lifestyle that we live here, where when I walk the five blocks I might run into drunks stumbling toward me, dirty kids running around shoeless, a woman with a baby strapped to her back and a basket on her head, a river of rainwater blocking my passage or reggaeton blaring from the grocery store. Not that any of this is really exotic in any sense, especially to me now after living here for two years, but it’s certainly more entertaining than the mundane cul-de-sacs or suburban America, which is right where we are headed when we fly back. I don’t know if I’m prepared to re-enter the excessive and ridiculous culture of the U.S. quite yet, or ever…

The thought of sitting around at my in-laws house for an indeterminate amount of time, waiting in limbo before Nolan and I can start the next phase of life sounds particularly boring, and ironically exactly similar to the January before we left for Peace Corps, making me feel like I will be regressing in some sense. That I’ll go back to where I was and it will be as if nothing has changed, as if no time has passed; only I will feel so different inside that it will be almost unbearable to pretend like things are the same, or ever will be again.

I recently read two things about readjustment from Peace Corps that particularly echoed my sentiments. First, that although I call the U.S. home, it hasn’t really been my home in two years and so it’s practically as if I’m leaving home in Honduras and moving somewhere new, which is a challenging and emotionally strenuous life event. I feel exactly this, that my home-of-record to which I will arrive will be nothing more than a strangely familiar place that I’ve forgotten how to be a part of. Secondly, that returned volunteers (RPCV’s) feel sometimes like readjusting back into life in the U.S. means forgetting or diminishing the experience they have had abroad, something I very keenly feel. It’s as if by leaving Honduras, I relinquish it to just another sweet memory of my past that will be lost almost as quickly as my Spanish. Compounding this is how difficult it is to share the true meaning of this experience with family and friends who want the happy 5 minute summary.

So I’ve been dealing with all these thoughts and emotions the best way I know how, baking. As soon as I found out the news, I went to the market and bought a ton of zucchini, then proceeded to whip out 6 loaves of zucchini bread and some chocolate chip zucchini brownies. I followed up with peanut butter cookies, pumpkin rice krispie treats, devil’s food cupcakes, banana bread and tequila caramel corn. It was both an effort to use up the last of our valuable ingredients and to give our friends one last sweet treat to express our affection. I’ve also been trying to transfer as much knowledge to my work counterparts as time will permit. But it’s tempting to just retreat into the house to arrange and rearrange what trinkets we will take home.

Luckily, we will still have our time in Nicaragua to relax before heading back and our early end of service will now give us a few months to come back and travel through South America as we had originally wanted, the silver lining to this very dark cloud over Honduras.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Una Historia Navideña


I guess it’s because we are leaving soon, but we suddenly became very popular this holiday season. Last year, we didn’t get invited to a single family party or celebration from anyone, this year we had three invitations for Christmas Eve alone. I think it’s because we’re on our way out, but it was still nice to feel wanted. We decided to spend the eve, called Nochebuena (good night), with our host family next door, partly because they asked us first and partly because it’s close to home. It turned out to be an unforgettable time.

Host mom (center pink) with her two sons and some grandkids
They wanted us to accompany them to their church in the evening for some kind of Christmas program that the kids were putting on. While we generally try to avoid awkward religious events, we said yes, figuring it might be sort of like a pageant of the birth of Jesus or something. Well, not quite. The “church, “ if you could call it that, was just a bunch of plastic chairs set up in someone’s covered car port. While it hasn’t been particularly cold this year, that night was damp and windy with a threat of rain, and we, supposing the church would be inside, hadn’t really worn our warmest attire and were a bit uncomfortable. Added to that, we were the only gringos in sight at this small mass, so we stood out like giants.

We watched as the youngest kids sang a few short songs together led by the head sister of the church, including our little host sister. The teenagers, including our host brother then put on a little play of a parable from the bible. It was the one about the man with two sons, one who leaves home and wastes all his money then comes crawling back, while the other stays at home and works, and in the end the father loves them both equally. Not exactly the first noel, but the kids really hammed it up and it was entertaining. They sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing, in Spanish, so I just hummed along to the melody. Then there was a sermon/speech from some guy and that was it, pretty short and sweet. At one point, they made all the “visitors” stand up to acknowledge them, and our host mom gave us the evil eye, so we stood awkwardly as everyone stared at the gringos. Then they did a “introduce yourself to your neighbors” thing and it seemed like everyone came up to us specifically to shake our hands and say Feliz Navidad, it felt sort of like we were royalty or something, only embarrassingly so. The service ended with everyone receiving a nacatamal (a tamal with chicken, rice and vegetables inside) and some sugary coffee. I sort of think our host mom just wanted to drag out her gringos to show everyone, because she looked pretty proud of us, but it was still nice of them to invite us.

We headed back to our host family’s place at around 8:30 pm to eat the Nochebuena feast. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Christmas Eve is the bigger holiday here. People go to church, have a big dinner, exchange gifts and stay up until midnight to light off fireworks. Traditional fare is nacatamales, which I previously despised because they throw chunks of chicken in them, bone included, and I more than once nearly choked to death on them. But this year, I sort of savored them. The president of my women’s group brought us some for lunch, and she knew I didn’t like the bones, so hers were bone-free and quite delicious. But nacatamales aren’t the main meal, more like an appetizer I guess – everyone can eat tons of them. 

Nacatamal y una coca
Anyway, so we waited around forever at our family’s house for all the family members to arrive. Our host mom (who is more a grandma age) has 4 grown kids who live in the same housing complex plus all their kids. So despite dinner being done and ready, we had to wait for everyone to arrive to eat, which didn’t take place until close to 10. We spent the time in between playing with the adorable kids, the youngest of whom, Grecia, whom I liken to a Honduran Cindy Lou Who, took a liking to Nolan and was begging to be played with all evening. Adorable! Dinner was a mix of Honduran and American favorites, roasted chicken with stuffing, meatloaf, tacos, tortillas and some gross salad of broccoli, Kraft cheese, bacon and mayo – blegh! Plus orange soda – not to be forgotten. It was decent food, not what I would have cooked and probably not really “traditional” Honduran either.

Nicki and Grecia Lou Who
Nolan the tickle monster
 After dinner came the presents! I guess because they have a bigger family, they did a Secret Santa gift exchange thing, with the kids getting some extras. They even bought a few gifts for us, some t-shirts and some really nice embroidered napkins – which was nice, but we felt silly that we didn’t bring any gifts for anyone. The funniest was when one of the sons was giving his kid a gift and he said, “Choosing your gift was easy, I broke it in the store and had to buy it!” and gave his 5 year old son a broken picture frame. The kid looked like he would burst into tears, then his dad whipped out a new bike from the back room and the kid loved it! So sweet! We finished off the event with some rompopo – I guess it’s the same as eggnog - and photos with the family and kids.

Glad to get this instead of an old picture frame
The night wasn’t over, even though it was 11:30 pm. We were headed next door to our host mom’s brother’s house for more celebrating. We were stuffed, but felt obliged to come along. At the brother’s house we were served pepsi, some punch with fruit in it, some fizzy wine that was like a wine cooler, then another nacatamal. I thought I was going to explode and/or vomit. We finally were able to head home just before the fireworks started going off at midnight. We watched from our bedroom window for just a few minutes before dropping off to sleep. After all, where we come from, if you’re not asleep, Santa won’t visit your house. Maybe the Hondurans haven’t figured this out yet.

Host mom's daughter and more grandkids
Christmas day, we woke up late, and enjoyed mimosas while watching It’s a Wonderful Life, typically a Christmas Eve movie, but since we were otherwise occupied the night before, we had to squeeze it in that morning before watching A Christmas Story. Instead of our traditional eggs benedict, we had prepared a simple French toast with strawberry compote. We took our host family some banana bread as a thank you for inviting us to Nochebuena, and in return they gave us some Tres Leches cake. We had a relaxing afternoon and roasted a chicken for dinner, which we are still eating today. It was a nice combination of half-Honduran, half- our own Christmas, and a great way to start wrapping up our time here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Worst Christmas Present Ever


Everything had been building up to this, but we were still taken by surprise.

A few weeks ago, a friend of ours was shot in the leg during a bus robbery. Luckily, she is fine. She left to go to DC last week for the second round of surgery (the bullet broke her femur). That bus robbery had been preceded and was followed by other robberies on the same bus line (our bus line) in the surrounding days.

We had always known Honduras was dangerous. It does currently have the highest murder rate in the world after all (82.1 per 100,000 people). But we never felt unsafe in our site, or riding our bus.

But then yesterday, we received a text message from Peace Corps saying that there was an urgent email in our inboxes, one that we should check right away. The email basically said that Peace Corps is temporarily suspending operations in Honduras. We have 3 weeks to wrap everything up. Everyone has to fly home to our ‘homes of record’ in mid-January.

We never imagined we’d be leaving like this.

The email left open the possibility that Honduras will reopen in February, assuming that it is possible to address the security issues and keep volunteers safe. There are several ideas as to how that can be accomplished.

But for us, this is it. We are not ready to leave, but there is no good reason to come back. Our original end of service date is only a few months away anyway, and we are not in the middle of any major projects. Plus, if Peace Corps does comes back, they will want to shift other volunteers to our site since it is one of the safest in the country, so we would only be in the way.

We are lucky in that our preapproved vacation to Nicaragua in January has not been cancelled. We are still allowed to go, provided we don’t use local public transportation in Honduras, but we did have to shorten it.

So keep an eye out in the next month for a couple more blog entries about our trip to Nicaragua and our attempt to say goodbye to this country that we have called home for the past two years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Two Great Events to Start December


To kick of December, Nolan and I travelled to Teguz for what I’d like to call the piéce de résistance of my service, the artisan fair. This year, both Nolan and I brought artisans and I was the “coordinator,” in charge of getting things organized, sending out communication and answering questions. Luckily, I had a great team of BZ (business volunteers) folks to help me out with the catalog, charla, setup, greetings and tear down which made my job as coordinator sort of a piece of cake. Still, I like to think that I was a crucial part of making this big event happen which benefitted artisans from all over Honduras.

This year’s artisan fair was a success. Although we had four groups cancel in the last week, those who did show up were excited and enthusiastic and it was a beautiful day at the Embassy. It felt like there was less foot traffic this year from Embassy folks and there were also fewer PCV’s due to a recent security restriction on “large gatherings,” all of which meant fewer buyers for the products. We also had a different mix of artisans this year, fewer pottery items and a lot more paintings. It turned out the paintings were incredibly hard to sell, not a single of the three artisans sold anything, but it was a learning opportunity I suppose. Despite these setbacks, participants were positive, buyers were complimentary of the products and logistics went smoothly.

My own artisan didn’t do that well in sales, but she at least covered her costs of attending and got a chance to travel to Teguz and interact with some interesting clients. While I never think about the community where we live as having a distinct ethnic identity when we’re at home, when we travel, it becomes very clear that the people in our area are not quite like other Hondurans. The people here not only have a different appearance (shorter, darker, different facial features), they also have different personality/cultural characteristics. My artisan was the only woman wearing a long colored skirt, the vestige of traditional Lenca dress here. She was the only woman who wore her hair loosely tied back and slightly disheveled, probably more related to socio-economic status than ethnicity (although the two are linked). She was quiet, timid, and reserved, choosing to sit serenely at her table while others flitted about, chatting with others, yet another result of the cultural reality in my site where women have no voice. She looked so small and isolated among the artisans, I almost wondered if she regretted coming. But I feel like whether she said so or not, the trip was a good experience for her, to show her that she did deserve a table at the event because her art was just as important and beautiful as anyone else’s there.

After returning home from the fair, we attended what may have been one of the most interesting concerts of our lives. Our local bar/restaurant hosted a Beatles tribute band from San Pedro Sula called La Revolución. Apparently these guys are somewhat of a big deal (they are the only Beatles tribute band in Honduras so, you know…) because we had to put a deposit on a table in advance for L. 500 ($25) to get a seat. Plus we had to pay a L.100 ($5) cover, which is double what the normal cover is for musical acts at the bar. I’m not sure quite what we were expecting, Beatles look-alikes? Songs in Spanish? Whatever it was, the band was all that and more.


They band strolled in about an hour after the scheduled start time and we couldn’t really decide what to make of them. My personal feeling is that a Beatles tribute band should only have four members, naturally, but this one had five. I was okay with that. They were all wearing nice little matching black suits and vests, very reminiscent of the early Beatles wardrobe. Impressive. But one look at their faces and we were, well, intrigued. The rhythm guitarist/pianist/harmonica-ist looked Caucasian with a curly blondish little-too-long-to-be-a-mop-top hairdo and a nose that was almost Lennon-like. The bassist was clearly more Latino looking, but had decided to go for the Ringo-in-the-“Help!”-period look with a long cut dark bob and sunglasses that looked a little like Ozzy. The lead guitarist was slightly pudgy, almost American Indian looking, with long curly hair down to his chest parted straight down the middle. The lead singer/tambourine man also looked Caucasian (and with a name like Steve Atkinson, who could say otherwise) with a tightly pulled back ponytail and full beard. The drummer also had a wide face (maybe the brother of the lead guitarist?) and long hair. So much for look-alikes.

The bang began with a bang, or should I say a shout, Twist and Shout to be exact. They sounded about as good as you might expect a Honduran-born Beatles tribute band to sound, in other words, mediocre. The rhythm and sound was overall pretty good, but the Beatles simple chord structures made that part easy. The intonation was a little rocky, especially the harmonized parts where it sounded really off, and they even missed several key lyrics. But they made up for some of that by having creatively invented some Spanish verses for a few songs. The lead singer had a very strange voice, like Lennon in his later years, a little more high pitched and whiny, which didn’t really work well for the earlier tunes, but sounded perfect on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Strawberry Fields. The lead guitar wasn’t turned up loud enough so some of the key solos that give Beatles songs their uniqueness were drowned out. It was ironically obvious when they let him sing With a Little Help from my Friends, that his singing was way out of tune, but we didn’t walk out on him. I don’t think the bassist had anything lacking, but also didn’t really have much to offer. The drummer was quite convincing though and the rhythm guitar guy was probably the most talented of them all. He sang in an eerily-Paul-like voice with almost a hint of a British accent in there somewhere and killed on the piano ballads like Hey Jude and Let it Be. His guitar was consistent and at least one of his harmonica solos was pretty spot on (the other sounding like a cat in an accordion sort of).

Were they perfect? No. We’re they entertaining? Absolutely! They were quirky and fun in the same way the Beatles were, cracking jokes, dancing around and just being silly. They even did some great effects like in Yellow Submarine doing all the background voices and noises. The crowd really enjoyed themselves, singing along, doing call and response and dancing up a storm, including the old guy sitting in front of us who must have previously been a drummer because he was beating the table and stomping his foot like an old pro. The crowd was the crème de la crème of La Esperanza, the rich old men and some of their rich, college fraternity-like offspring. I think we were the only table that didn’t order a bottle or two of rum or vodka delivered with a bucket of ice and mixers. (I thought that was something that only wealthy rappers did at NYC clubs….) And with the high price tag of entrance, we were sure these people weren’t scraping by on subsistence farming. We ended the night dancing as the band finished their fifth encore, after busting out some Elvis and Stand By Me. This was probably the biggest group our bar has ever hosted, and it was by far our favorite. December couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Thanksgiving to Remember


Our Thanksgiving was somewhat non-traditional this year. A fellow PCV couple who lives a half hour from us decided they would try their hand at something amazing, a pig roast! So, the Saturday after Thanksgiving we gathered at their house to celebrate with two 50 lb pigs to cook. Instead of burying them in a hot pit, our friends craftily constructed a rectangular grill out of cinderblock that they filled with more than 18 bags of charcoal. They butterflied the pigs with machetes and tied them, one at a time, to a wire rack they also made from scratch. It was an impressive structure to be sure. After 8 hours on the barbie, frequently turned and basted in a vinegar-based BBQ sauce, the first pig was ready to devour. At this point it was 3 in the afternoon, and after smelling the delicious scent of roasted pork all day, we dove into the meat like hungry vultures, ripping strips of meat and skin and fat off with our hands. The pork was to die for, juicy, crispy, salty, and tender. We piled up sandwiches on some homemade bread that we had made for the occasion and feasted!



 

But perhaps the best part was what took place immediately before the feast. We had been bummed that because of the party, we were going to miss our now traditional Saturday afternoon internet radio dates with our beloved Michigan Wolverines for the biggest game in several years vs Ohio State. But our fellow PCV friend and Umich alum, Che, came through! He had internet access on his cell phone that was able to get a play-by-play feed of the game, so for the first three quarters he periodically updated us on the game happenings. When it got down to the wire, the last 3 minutes where Michigan couldn’t get a touchdown and settled for a field goal, up by 6, we started to get nervous. So we huddled around Che as OSU took over the ball, and he started reading the plays out loud as he refreshed his phone. Pass, incomplete! Yes, we hollered and everyone at the party turned to stare at us. First down OSU! Darnit, we screamed. Pass again, intercepted by Michigan! Michigan WINS! We started cheering, chanting “It’s great… to be… a Michigan Wolverine!” Everyone at the party thought we were crazy, but they obviously didn’t understand the significance of beating OSU for the first time in 7 years! The Che busted out the champagne! Yes, he had brought a bottle of champagne to celebrate our victory. As we popped the cork and sang another round of Hail! to the Victors, we were certainly thankful, for a Michigan win, for a great Thanksgiving, and for having great friends to share the special day with. This was a Thanksgiving we will never forget.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Learning to say no...

I said no to my first survey/design today. I may be a little late in the game for this. I expect most wat/san volunteers did this 6 months to a year ago, but I’ve been pretty lucky in that all my previous studies were at least physically possible. But I’m also maybe somewhat of a pushover when it comes to surveys. I’ve done surveys that are possible, the water will arrive at the houses, but that have little to no chance of funding because of the cost. But how can you say no to these people? They lead such a hard life, struggling in every manner to survive. How can you not do whatever is in your power, in my case a topographic survey and system design, to give them a better chance?


It’s hard.

Nicki and I live such a privileged life, Honduras, let alone the US. Everyone in the US claims to know how well they have it. But it takes living in a third world country to really know that. We have a wonderful site. We have everything we could ever need to live comfortably, plus a few extras that make life that much more comfortable. We’ve seen other volunteers who live much more sparsely than we do. And we’ve seen local people who live that much more sparsely than volunteers do. If we wanted to, Nicki and I could afford to have cable TV and internet. It would push at our budget, but we could afford it. We have a guaranteed monthly salary. Right now we’re saving to go on a trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica.


But we work with people from the aldeas, people who live a 3 hours bus ride from town over a dirt road often impassable if it rains. These people don’t have electricity, they don’t have running water. They carry water from the river to their houses, or catch rain water from their roofs. It is possible that some NGO worker one time visited them and taught them that they need to boil the water to make it safe to drink. If they are lucky, that person may have even taught them why that is necessary, why they get sick from drinking unclean water. They live a tough life, struggling to grow enough food to feed their family and themselves. When they get that food, it is often cooked on a wood burning stove lacking any type of ventilation, meaning that the women and children of the family who are sitting in the kitchen all day are constantly breathing in smoke.


They lead such a hard life, and yet they are so generous to you. They will gladly give me the best food for lunch. They will give me a place to sleep if I need to stay overnight. They will pay for my bus to get to the community, or gather enough money for gas for the one car in the community to drive me. I’m there to help them, and they are so gracious, they will do anything to help me. So how can I turn to them and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do a topo survey for you, I can’t give you a design”?

And yet I did. I feel horrible, but not because I’m not helping them. It’s because I can’t. In this case, there are several houses that are too high, higher than the water source, and so is the school. I can’t make water run uphill. I wish I could. And so I said no, I can’t help.


And the people are ok with it. They’ve had a tough life, they will survive. They understand, it’s not always possible.


I wish I could get the American nun who is supporting them to understand. I have no problem with your faith, but God cannot help. He is not going to make the water run uphill. Yeah, you could get a pump, but how will you power it? The municipality won’t electrify this community for years, if ever. A solar panel? Maybe, but that is several thousands of dollars more when there is not even enough money to build the system at this point.

I want to help, I really do, but at this point in time, there is nothing I can do. My time is better spent helping another community. It’s a sort of community/water triage system. And so I said no.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pomp and Strange Circumstances

This year, we were honored to be asked by my work counterpart and close friend to be the padrino and madrina (godparents/witnesses) for her son’s, Arturo’s, high school graduation. To be frank, we were a little shocked by this request since we had barely said two words to her son before, but we happily agreed. We realized it was a chance to take part in something that would teach us more about the culture of graduation.

The whole graduation process from start to finish was a hilarious adventure. The school didn’t confirm the actual dates until a week prior and then scheduled it on Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, which slightly interfered with some other plans we’d already made. But we adjusted our schedules as any Honduran would do at the last minute. I helped Arturo make some invitations for the post-graduation dinner party the family was having. The printer wouldn’t work correctly, the glue on the envelopes dried funny, and it probably cost more than it would have to just buy invites, but it was a bonding experience. Again, the invites were done on Tuesday and sent out Wednesday for a Friday night party and they insisted on giving us both separate invites even though 1) we were coming together and 2) I made the invites so I didn’t really need one.

The first part of the graduation on Thursday was something like an official swearing in. The students had their names called to sign the official book and as the witnesses, we attended to lend our signatures. I guess parents can’t be the witnesses so people pick aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and mentors, or token gringos, of which we were the only two. Arturo graduated in Information Technology, basically computers, with about 30 other students. An additional 30 or so were graduating in science and arts (general) and social promotion (still not sure exactly what that means, non-profit work?). The swearing in was short and sweet, no parents or family members present.

Signing the official book of some sort

Friday was the actual graduation ceremony held in the gym of a local teacher’s college. It was much like a typical U.S. graduation. The graduates wore robes (called togas) and tasseled caps, walked in with their parents to Pomp and Circumstance and Total Eclipse of the Heart (odd choice we thought…), and then sat through speech after speech before being called up to receive their diplomas. Some students received awards and honors for good grades. One local bank offered medals and a savings account to students at the top of each class, although it wasn’t entirely clear if they were going to actually put some money in the account or if the gift was just the account(?). The students thanked and presented gigantic gifts to their teachers and then read strange biographies of the teachers such as their children’s names and their work histories. At one point, in typical Honduran fashion, a family member in the crowd answered her phone and yelled over the presentation to talk as if she was the only one in the room. Surprisingly, instead of just acting like this was normal, some people tried to shush her, to no avail. As the padrinos, we were awkwardly tasked with walking Arturo up to the stage from his seat, arms linked, and then waiting for him to guide him back to his seat.

Freezing cold gimnasio

Leading Arturo back to his seat

The event “started” at 3 pm, but didn’t actually start until close to 4 pm. The gym we were in was open to the outside and all concrete, so as the sun went down, we started to slowly freeze to death. Of course we hadn’t thought to bring coats and scarves to what we thought would be a mostly indoor event so were left shivering in the cold, our hands and noses like ice cubes by the time we were done. When the ceremony was over, the kids threw their caps into the air and cheered, and so did we! We presented Arturo with gifts afterward. Luckily, because we had been to other graduation earlier in the week, we knew it was customary to bring two gifts (one from each of us) so we labored all week to pick out a nice boxed pen and some knock-off Ray Ban sunglasses for him. Useful and cool gifts. (We heard later the sunglasses were a huge hit). Plus, we threw in a batch of homemade peanut butter cookies just because.

Us with my counterpart and Arturo after the ceremony

After the ceremony we headed home quickly to change into warmer clothes for the graduation dinner. We arrived at the invitation time, 7 pm, and were surprisingly the second people there, not the first as usual. We sat for a good half hour with the other guest until more people began to arrive. Luckily we knew most people at the dinner, but no one was really doing any talking. The waiters brought out some of local apricot wine in little shot glasses as well as some anafres (bean dip with chips) and everyone sort of awkwardly stared at one another, sipped their wine and acted afraid to touch the anafres. Finally, after about 30 minutes of letting them sit on the table, someone decided to dig in and everyone else hungrily followed. By now it was almost 8:30 and we were still waiting for half of the guests to arrive. I’m not sure what my counterpart and Arturo were doing during this time, but they certainly weren’t mingling with the guests as one might expect.

Finally, everyone trickled in and dinner was served, sort of. It took an inordinately long time for the two servers to bring out all 25 or so plates of food. Being polite, everyone of course waited until all the plates were set. Then more people randomly arrived requiring a spontaneous rearrangement of seats and more waiting for additional plates. We had a prayer and a short statement from Arturo and then were finally able to eat the now frigid food. The food was good, but certainly not typical, chicken with mushroom sauce, potato corn salad, pickled carrots and green beans and a lettuce/beet/cucumber salad. It seems like at fancy events like this, people try to impress by picking the strangest meals to serve, when in reality, I’m sure everyone at the table would have been more satisfied with some beans, grilled beef, rice and tortillas. We expected to finish up dinner with some cake and coffee. Hondurans love their sweets after all. But despite the fact that the dinner was held in a BAKERY, there was no dessert to be had.

Non exactly plato tipico

Instead, everyone pushed their chairs to the outside walls of the room, ostensibly to make room for a dance floor, but seemed to forget that there was still a line of large tables in the center of the room which effectively prohibited dancing. Meanwhile, Arturo handed out recuerdos or souvenirs of the event, a plastic image of a Caucasian looking graduate stuck on a doily which we had to pin to our shirts to take a picture with him. As the padrinos, we received an extra gift each, little statues of a boy and girl in graduate attire. It was touching. Then everyone insisted that Nicki try to get Arturo to dance to start the party, which she did, to everyone’s cheers. But only a few people joined them, and when the song ended everyone just sat back down. At that point, people started to trickle out so we said our goodbyes and headed out. My counterpart thanked us repeatedly for attending and being padrinos, but the pleasure was ours. Although the experience was a little awkward at some points, it was a graduation we will never forget.

Tearing up the dance floor

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful

So, fijese que we were lied to, and as a result, lied to you all. We had been previously told that the pavement would stop a block from our house, but to our great surprise on Sunday they paved half way down the hill past our house! Yes, we now live on a paved street! No more dust, out with the mud, just pura concreta. We know some of you may be scoffing at home thinking, “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that no town our size should have been left unpaved and we are finally getting the development we deserve, and the property value probably just skyrocketed. Not to mention it feels surreal, like a different town. And the kids and pedestrians are having a heyday playing in the streets while the road is still blocked off to traffic. There couldn’t have been a better Thanksgiving treat for us.

Well, there actually was something better. This past Sunday the kids in our second year high school class graduated! The school year here is kind of opposite that in the US. They start in February and end in November. Last year, we hadn’t been here long enough to know or teach the kids who were graduating (plus it was on Ohio State Saturday….) so we didn’t attend the graduation. This year, we both had taught the kids at least one class and thus had known them since the beginning of the year, so we couldn’t miss their big day.

Graduation, especially from high school, is a big deal here with an official swearing over the flag of Honduras and all kinds of pomp. Not sure why this is, maybe because it’s rarer for someone to get to, let alone pass, high school. The kids (we say kids affectionately, but at least half of our students were older than us) were dressed to the nines in matching suit sets and everyone brought along their parents and their padrinos (literally godparents but more realistically just witnesses and co-signees for the ceremony). Nolan got a seat at the head table while Nicki was the official photographer. After a long-winded introduction (as usual), the students’ names were called and they came forward, shook hands, signed the official book, received their diploma and gifts from the godparents and snapped photos. One girl, worried that her padrinos would show up too late, asked Nicki to be her witness. Another guy who didn’t have a camera also asked to pay her to take photos of him getting the diploma. She was more than happy to oblige without payment.

After the ceremony, the graduates served everyone cake (yes, the graduates served everyone, good kids that they are) and we snapped more photos of them with beaming smiles and proud postures. We couldn’t be happier for these students that worked so hard to get to this milestone in their lives, many with what seemed like insurmountable barriers. As their profes, we were so proud to have helped them achieve their goal and we feel confident that these kids will go on to do great things for Honduras. This was a special Thanksgiving blessing.

Today, Thanksgiving, didn’t really feel like it usually does. It didn’t seem like a holiday since, well, it’s not a holiday here and everyone was working. Our big plans for a Peace Corps celebration are coming up this Saturday, so today we just stayed home and baked a lot of cookies for another graduation (more on that in a later post) and made a delicious chicken pot pie for dinner, just us. We carved a big squash that we’ve had on our porch for a month, only to find that it had the most amazing dark green fleshy interior. We made some toasted squash seed and even caught the Lions/Packers game on t.v. (although the reception was so bad we couldn’t tell a punt from a touchdown). It was a relaxing day, something we have a lot of here in Honduras, and something we are always thankful for.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Curiosities

As our time here wanes, I keep noticing peculiarities of living here that never cease to amaze me. So I thought I’d share some of the funny/interesting things.

First and foremost, they are paving more streets in our town! Our street in fact is being paved – although they stopped a measly 1 block before our house. But it feels like a new city already! A bustling metropolis as I like to call it. Additionally, our wonderful supermarket is just finishing a year-long expansion/renovation, which we thought would bring in a greater variety of food products, but might just be an addition of notebooks and other household items instead.

Paved Road!

La Esperanza Sky

We’ve begun watching the local news stations more which, as one might expect, are underfunded channels with cheesy graphics that look like they were done by a high school AV club. The funniest part is when the live broadcasters either answer their phone and begin chatting with someone in the middle of a story, leaving you to wait until they finish, or they start texting someone yet they continue to talk about the story, their words becoming more labored and sporadic as their attention diminishes. There are no cultural taboos on cell-phone use here yet.

My women’s group is full of amusing ideas. Their latest: send a solicitud, like a funding request, to the President of Honduras himself, to ask that he donate nearly 1 million Lempiras for them to buy land in the middle of nowhere to open a new store. The solicitud they sent was 2 pages. I’m not sure if this type of thing in Honduras is merely symbolic in a sense, or if they actually believe that Pepe would personally respond to their request, but it struck me as very different than the approach in the U.S. Even if one was to write a proposal for your governor or President in the U.S. (which first of all is far- fetched), you’d think that a proposal for such a project would have to include many more than 2 pages, perhaps more like 100’s of pages detailing the project.

Their other new idea is to try to incentivize their member women’s groups to contribute more in annual dues. Instead of paying out interest earned or dividends on profits (of which, to be honest, there aren’t many of) the governing board suggested another payout, tamales. Yes, instead of a few hundred Lempiras in dividends, please accept 3 tamales to show our appreciation for contributing to our group. Now I’m not saying that my women are incompetent or uneducated or ridiculous, it just strikes me as amusing the cultural differences especially in regard to running a business.

I go frequently into the mountain communities surrounding our town to give charlas and trainings and meet with different women’s groups. What has surprised me lately is how adamant city people seem to be about buying land in the country and starting a small farm or finca. In a way, it is the same bucolic dream that many Americans have, to leave the grit of the city for more pastoral living. However, rural living here is not nearly the same as rural living in the U.S. Rural living here means driving 1 to 2 hours on bumpy dirt roads that are frequently impassable only to arrive at a place with no water, electricity or services of any kind. Just to grow a few potatoes? Seems like people aren’t really thinking that through. Plus, they seem to think that rural produce and animals are superior (my counterpart frequently buys beans, squash, potatoes and chickens when we visit rural communities) even though living in the city here would afford you the same opportunities to raise and or buy the same products. It’s not like having chickens is banned in the zoning code; it’s not like there is even a zoning code to being with. They’ve barely started to urbanize here and already there is a back to the land movement.

Dogs here are noticeably malnourished and abused unfortunately, a truly sad sight. But that doesn’t mean they are any less intelligent. Most stores sell commodities (corn, beans, rice, etc) out of 100 lb bags that they just leave half open in the entrance to their store to scoop out the necessary quantity. Normally this includes dog food. The other day, while no one was looking, a particularly sad looking dog snuck over to the store and began chowing down on the food, right out of the bag! Why doesn’t every dog think of this? Because, as Nolan pointed out, they would probably get kicked if someone saw them. But it seems like it might be occasionally worth the risk in order to eat food instead of trash.

It is the season for Chinapopos, a beautifully speckled variety of heirloom runner bean that they grow here. They beans come in pink, purple, blue, brown, white and every speckled color in between. We decided after an extensive internet search that they were similar to, or possible the same as, Sadie’s Horse beans, an heirloom runner variety they sell in the U.S. We were fascinated by these beans color and ended up making a very delicious ham and bean soup out of them.



Chinapopos


Ham and Chinapopo Soup

Monday, October 24, 2011

Into the Great Wide Open

If it wasn’t shocking enough arriving back home to La Esperanza after 10 days in the States, we took a trip to a small community the week after we got back to do an initial evaluation for a water system which ended up being about as big of a contrast with the U.S. as one could find. We had planned the trip over a month ago at the request of a convent of nuns that is working to get funding for the system. They wanted an evaluation of the water source and for us to take some GPS points to make sure the water would reach all the houses and the school before Nolan would do the actual survey and design. Of course, they also told us that the whole thing needed to be completed (i.e. surveyed, designed and built) by March or the funders would back out, typical last minute Honduran planning. We’ve barely seen systems completed in a few years let alone a few months, but nuns are wishful thinkers I guess.

The bus schedule was such that we planned for a three day trip, one daily bus leaving La Esperanza to get there in the afternoon, a day with the community and the third day taking the one daily bus back. I decided to tag along really just for the “fun” of it and to see if while Nolan was doing the survey later I could do some charlas or trainings on basic health, HIV/AIDS or income generation.

We left Monday at 11 am on a lovely chicken bus in slightly drizzly weather for our 3 hour bus ride to the municipality of Monteverde. Long bus rides are not all that bad to us anymore, and neither are unpaved roads, but the combination of the two can be lethal. An hour in and our butts were aching from the poorly insulated seats and my shoulder was practically purple from knocking into the window every time we went over a bump (which were numerous). There was one point the bus could hardly make it up a slippery slope and we had to retry the ascent after the ayudante (bus assistant) threw some rocks on the roads for traction and we picked up speed from farther back. The scenery was the only redeeming aspect, mile after mile of lush forests interspersed with mud-brick houses and plots of farmland with beans, corn, potatoes and broccoli, followed by the expansive Valle de Azacualpita with grazing cattle, then the upper virgin pine forests with hardly a soul in sight. Then we were there. But where exactly…

The bus had dropped us off, not in the center of town as we requested but farther up so we had to hike back, downhill luckily, into the town. Town is hardly what you would call the center of Monteverde, a handful of buildings (school, pulperia and few houses) haphazardly scattered around a largely out-of-place church with an attached house for the nuns. This was it, we were in the middle of nowhere, where the road ends. To boot, Monteverde was not even the community we would be doing the water evaluation for, that community was a 2 hour walk uphill from Monteverde. More on that later.

We found our nun host and settled into the rather comfy dorm accommodations they had set up for visitors. Seeing as how there was nothing else to do and it was only 2 pm, we took two rocking chairs on our little patio and read and watched the local happenings, some kids playing soccer, other kids trying to climb trees, and a whole host of people just standing around. The nun’s house was pretty much the center of activity for the town and we overheard many interesting conversations.

Action in town

The first was the nun talking with a family of three that had come into town to “run errands.” Only this errand run, if you could call it that, had cost them an 8 hour walk from their home, one direction. They explained how they had left very early in the morning to get there, and now, each toting a box of goods, at 3 pm, they were going to begin their 8 hour journey back home. Hopefully the moon will be good, they said, since we will arrive late. I looked at their feet to find the mother and daughter in nothing more than a pair of Old Navy flip flops. These people’s lifestyle was by far the most rural and challenging that I had witnessed thus far in Honduras. How often did they make this trip? I wondered. How much did their feet hurt? How would the little girl ever go to school? And what was it really like to live 11 hours from the nearest “major” town like La Esperanza where you could buy non-powdered milk or a pair of pants?

Next was a woman who came for something of a confession I supposed, because the nun guided her into a private room, spoke with her for awhile, then she was gone. Two young girls then approached and asked a question, after which the nun returned with tubes of medicine of some sort and advised them how to use it for whatever ailment they had. Then a woman brought purses made out of recycled chip bags that she in turn sold to the nun who said she sold them in the U.S. Then some men brought firewood and squash. Finally a woman brought our dinner. This nun was running a church, pharmacy, artisan store, community center and hotel all in one! But considering as how none of these other things existed in the town, I guess it made a lot of sense. But the real fun had yet to begin…

After a quiet evening and early to bed, we woke up at 5 am to leave by 6 to head out to the community. Luckily, instead of having to walk the first 30 minutes, the nun gave us a ride. But it was all uphill from there, literally. We spent the next two hours hiking almost straight up a mountain, the Hondurans skipping along like mountain goats while I thought multiple times that I might pass out and then roll back down the mountain. I am all for hiking, but this was excessive. Luckily I had a very tolerant husband and group of Hondurans with me who didn’t seem to mind me stopping every 5 minutes for a breather. But at last, we arrived, somewhere. It was a house in the middle of the forest with a view out over layer upon layer of bluish green fog-tinged mountains, a view that someone would probably pay millions for if they knew it existed.

Kitchen of the house

We had a cup of coffee which revitalized me, then headed to the fuente or source of the water for the system. Nolan directed our newly acquired team of community members how to set up a pipe in the stream and measure the flow of the water, counting how long it took to fill a bucket. These people’s willingness to work was unmatched; guys using their hands to chip dirt and rocks from the banks to build a dam, young boys hacking away branches with machetes to make space for us to stand, the president of the water board up to his knees in the chilly water trying to place the pipe securely, and a random dog around for good measure, everyone covered up to their elbows in mud, but all with big smiling faces. It was inspiring.



From the fuente we followed the anticipated path of the water line, stopping at houses that would almost magically pop out of the underbrush to take points with our GPS to get an estimate of the distance and altitude. Unfortunately, we arrived at the school only to find that it was too high for the water to reach it. This provoked a discussion about their options which were basically to not have water reach the school or to find a new fuente that was at a higher altitude, a big decision either way. After visiting a good portion of the houses, we were served lunch, a delicious but over-salted meal of fried egg, rice and blue corn tortillas (my favorite!).

We then began the journey back “down” to Monteverde. Whilst I had thought our whole initial journey had been uphill, apparently a good portion had been downhill because as we began our hike back, we were suddenly faced with another huge mountain to climb. At this point, I had already been hiking for 4 hours and my rubber boots were beginning to create blisters and I had no tolerance for more uphill. But our charming guide, who had so kindly whittled us walking sticks in the morning, didn’t seem to mind my slowness and let me go at my own pace. We came to the top of the hill and looked out one direction over the community that we had just surveyed dispersed among the mountains, then over the other side looked out and could see the church of Monteverde in the distance, our starting and returning point. Both looked so far away, and it hit me what a great trek I had made that day, and I felt proud.


That white building is where we are headed

We arrived in Monteverde just as it started to sprinkle and discovered that the nun was headed down to La Esperanza and would give us a ride. We jumped at the chance since it meant us avoiding the 3 am bus ride back the next day. The ride back was quicker than the bus, but we were mostly too tired to speak or think. After the rural mountains of Monteverde, La Esperanza was practically New York, glistening in all its dusty, commercialized glory. We were happy to take a hot shower and relax with a movie, but the reality of Monteverde and the community had stuck with us. There’s is a place that only a handful of Americans may ever have a chance to visit, that few in the U.S. could even imagine, but nevertheless it is a lifestyle that thousands of people fight to live every day without so much as a complaint, in such extreme conditions that it puts all of our supposed discomforts to shame.

Friday, October 14, 2011

In a word...excessive

Having just returned from our first, last, and only trip back to the U.S. during our service, we realized that we could sum up the U.S. in one word, excessive. Excessive seems like it always has a negative connotation, but in this case, it was both positive and negative. Our life in Honduras is not exactly difficult, but in comparison to the U.S. it certainly is simple and austere in a sense, no frills, no pomp. It’s like the U.S. is an ornate Victorian house and Honduras is the split level home next door (you know, like in the game of LIFE). Both are livable, just one is more luxurious than the other, maybe somewhat unnecessarily so.

What hit us first, almost literally, as we stepped into airport after airport and airplane after airplane on our journey in, was the air conditioning. We brag that we are hardened to the cold in Honduras where in the winter we live in a 45 degree house with no heat or insulation, but even in jeans, jackets and fleeces, we were still freezing to death everywhere we went in the US. The A/C was on full blast, even in Detroit where the temperature outside was colder than the air conditioned interior. Even more shocking was that others didn’t even seem to notice. While we huddled together for warmth, people strolled about in cargo shorts, flip flops and tank tops, seemingly oblivious to the arctic temperatures. We can’t remember the last time something was really air conditioned in Honduras, but in the U.S. everything from the grocery store to the corner deli had A/C. It seemed, well, wasteful. What a huge expense to cool places that didn’t need cooling, just because you could.

The next thing that hit us was the transportation network. The Detroit metro area is not famous for public transit, so of course, someone picked us up at the airport in a luxuriously not-a-pickup car, then drove us to Nicki’s grandma’s house. The scale of the airport, the traffic lanes, the number of cars, was astonishing. Four lanes of highway in each direction, sometimes six, a median as big as four lanes of traffic! The biggest highway in Honduras is just NOW being expanded to two in each direction. Four lanes felt awkwardly large, six felt incomprehensible. What do people do with all this? Street lights were a wonder (every block!). There was just so much concrete and asphalt it was ridiculous. Of course, we have a more urban mindset and this was the suburbs, but it solidified our feeling that we might never be able to live somewhere with so much road and so little of anything else.

At Nicki’s Grandma’s house, another wonder was in store. Refrigerators. Not just refrigerators per se, but refrigerators taller and wider than the both of us, literally overflowing with every condiment known to man, leftovers for weeks, and enough extra food lying around to feed a Honduran family for possibly a month. Poor people in Honduras rarely have refrigerators and certainly do not have the double doored, ice-producing monstrosities we’ve always known in the U.S. Our fridge is only ever half full at best, as we fear a random power outage will destroy anything we buy. Why would anyone need to have so much food on hand? Why would you cook three times what you needed to eat? Just to stick some in the fridge? Mind-boggling. But at the same time refreshing to know that you could open up the fridge for lunch and know there were 10 delicious options awaiting you. For people like us that enjoy food so much, it was a welcome excess.

After being cooped up in cars, planes and houses for a few days, we knew we had to get out and get walking. It was like we were forgetting you could walk outside to go places. Nicki’s grandma lives in Dearborn, an inner ring suburb of Detroit where things in are far, but not that far. A trip to Nicki’s grandma’s favorite deli was only a 20 minute one-way walk, a common jaunt for us in Honduras. But what silently shocked us were the sidewalks. Luxuriously large at 3 feet wide, smooth and crack-less, and complete with handicap ramps, the sidewalks were fitted on every single street. Even the ridiculous eight lane boulevards had them! There was no worry of where the sidewalk might end, or tripping over a crumbling curb, or falling off into the muddy gutter, just pure sidewalk goodness. But guess what? NO ONE WAS USING THEM. We saw maybe two fellow walkers in our entire round trip (and they were walking dogs, another American oddity to us ‘Hondureños’), and the passersby in cars seemed to stare at us as if to ask why we would dream of walking. All this beautiful space and no one to use it, tragically excessive considering the fact that we would die to have these same sidewalks in Honduras to avoid the slip and slide of mud that is our entire city street system. Could we get some of those imported down here if you’re not using them?

Not only sidewalks shocked us, but the whole landscape in general. Magnificent trees lined every street. Houses were fronted by polished lawns and gardens overflowing with mums and gnomes. Even medians, the wasted space that they are, were trimmed and manicured. We also arrived at the perfect time of year when the air gets crisp and the leaves are beginning to change and fall, the landscape a blend of bright oranges, reds and yellows that is unmistakably Michigan-y. Apples were in season and pumpkins lined every store front. Halloween decorations were in full force (we almost forgot it existed). It was beautiful to be sure, a level of urban design that Honduras has clearly not arrived at. But again, it was a little excessive, but nicely so this time. We realized how much you miss the climate you call home, not just the house and people.

Water and water appliances were another big deal. We more than once pitched the t.p. into the trash instead of the toilet, whoops! Who knew pipes could handle it!? We always seemed to be second guessing ourselves when it came to filling up a glass of water from the tap, brushing our teeth, or using a newly cleaned cooking instrument without drying it first. It just felt wrong. And what a wonder is the washing machine that can cut our laundry time from 2 days to less than 2 hours. In a world of amazing appliances, we put aside for 10 days all the fear, questioning, and caution we’ve come to know in our daily life in Honduras. And it felt…. Relaxing. Almost too good. Almost like we shouldn’t be indulging in these excessive modernities while we knew that so many people go without them, more so than we do even in Honduras.

We indulged in so many things while there, huge sandwiches from Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, a Michigan football game rout over Minnesota, apple cider, caramel apples, pumpkin donuts, grilling, kettle chips, public art, wine, sushi, dining out, good beer, a swanky rental car, 24-hour cable t.v., superstores (that would literally take up ¼ of our town in area), drive thru banking, hot water (in the sink!), and most importantly our friends and family. It was hard to pull ourselves away, but we did so knowing that our life waiting for us back in Honduras would be one of simplicity and ease that we have also come to love.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Medical Brigade, Reconnect, and a Birthday Party

You may remember from last year an entry about a medical brigade in the town where Nicki had her training. This year, we both were able to participate for the week-long brigade. We were surprised at all the changes that had taken place in the tiny town since our last visit. The most noticeable was 25 new wind turbines that had been erected on the highway just outside of town, still only half of the 50 that will be put up by a German company to supply electricity to the capital. This is the first wind power project in the entire country, and the 50 turbines will produce over 1 MW of power. The new turbines had been erected in a span of just a few months, and while not yet fully operational, give a surreal feel to the atmosphere. We wondered for a brief second if we were still in Honduras, then we looked at the people around us on our chicken bus and snapped back into reality.

The town itself also had some improvements. They produce a great deal of painted pottery there and had in the last year constructed three separate clusters of artisan shops, which all sold exactly the same products - not sure if that was such a good business decision – but they looked nice. There were also a number of new restaurants, including a new pizza and pasta place which we didn’t have time to try. The health center had added an awning to protect waiting customers and we heard about a new sewer water system that had been put in. The nearby town had actually put in a median in the two lane highway with plants and streetlights! Unfortunately, violence must also have been escalating since there was a curfew of 9 pm in place and we had armed police at the brigade all week, which we certainly did not have last year. As usual, we were put up in the house of Don Ricardo, the Honduran ambassador to Belize who organizes the brigade, and who has a B&B type hacienda in which we received the ‘honeymoon suite.’ Beautiful to say the least.

The honeymoon suite

Most of the same doctors came back from last year as well as some new ones including a new cardiologist. Nicki ended up working with the gynecologist, while Nolan worked with a general practitioner who also coincidentally is an Elvis impersonator (no joke, he actually has a CD and gave us a greatest hits montage on the bus). While everyone else thought Nicki had drawn the short straw, she ended up mostly enjoying her work. Sexual health is one in a long list of health topics that is poorly discussed and taught here. There are no sex-ed classes and the rates of infidelity mean that STD’s are constantly passed around, and women have little to no say in their reproductive health. She saw teenage girls already with multiple children, a 40 year old woman who had just given birth to her 10th child in her home, many people with STD’s as well as several people who likely had either cervical or breast cancer – most of which have no financial means to have further testing or treatment. Nolan did the normal stuff. We seemed to be less busy than last year, but still ended up seeing over 1700 patients in 5 days. Next year they are talking about raising money to bring more equipment to do testing and possibly having funds to be able to pay for people to go to Teguz for important surgeries. We obviously think this would be a step in the right direction to get people more help rather than just doling out vitamins and ibuprofen.

Hanging out at lunchtime



Two adorable kids whose pregnant mother Nicki saw

We also made a visit to Nicki’s old host family who were more than welcoming. They couldn’t stop talking about how much they loved and missed her and how they had remembered her birthday and how wonderful she was. Her 17 year old host brother and his 16 year old girlfriend had just had a baby 5 months earlier (talk about lack of sex-ed….), and although the situation in the household was a little more difficult, the baby was as cute as could be and so happy - not a fuss out of him the whole time we were there. It is likely the last time we’ll see them before we leave so it was a little bittersweet, but we had a good time catching up.

Host family with the new baby

The week culminated with the doctors treating us to dinner at perhaps the fanciest restaurant in Teguz. It was called La Cumbre, a beautiful place at the top of the highest mountain overlooking all of Teguz. We sipped wine and Johnnie Walker while munching on beef carpaccio and toasted camembert and gazing out over the balcony at the sparkling lights of the city in the valley below – it almost could be mistaken for a safe and beautiful city from all the way up there. Dinner was a three course affair. Nicki had Greek salad and spicy shrimp linguini and Nolan had creamy potato soup and bourbon grilled steak, and we both finished off with chocolate cheesecake. The whole experience was surreal and we soaked in every minute and morsel. We calculated that it must have cost at least $50 per person with drinks and everything for 50 people, about L. 50,000 – a year’s salary at minimum wage or slightly less than a Peace Corps volunteer’s yearly salary. An amazing end to a busy but fun week.

Teguz at night

Not sure what's going on here....

We were barely home for 3 days before having to head out to Reconnect – our annual meeting of all volunteers in our respective projects. This year, three projects held Reconnect together, Health, Wat/San and Business, so not only did we get to see our own project team and meet the new groups, but we also reunited with many people from our training group, some of whom we hadn’t seen since swearing in last May. It was a quick and reckless two days, as one could imagine it would be with 100 young adult gringos in one place with plenty of beer and alcohol. We got some updates about changes going on in Peace Corps and security threats, as well as new Peace Corps initiatives and projects. While we felt a lot of it was either repetitive or irrelevant to our work, we did get some new ideas about work we could do in our last 8 months of service. We’re trying to think of a way to get a protected area or national park in our department, since we don’t have any yet. We’re also thinking about how to do a recycling project, especially with schools in town. Someone has also developed a simple mapping software that could be useful to create a tourist map of our department – also something to think about. Luckily, the workshop was only about 1.5 hours from our site so we were back in time on Saturday to listen to the amazingly ridiculous Michigan vs ND game on internet radio while grilling some sausages, almost as if we were back in the States.

On Sunday we visited a PCV couple about 30 minutes away for our friend Jacob’s birthday party. They invited us to their host family’s house where they were preparing food, games and a piñata for us and all the neighborhood kids. They served us entirely too much food, first enchiladas then candy, then baleadas, then more candy, then cake. We were stuffed. The games were the funniest thing ever. First was an old classic, musical chairs, but instead of having everyone play at once, they did 4 people at a time(?). The kids had no idea what the rules were so they would just sit down in the chairs whenever they wanted instead of waiting for the music to stop. And instead of removing the extra chair at the start someone’s job was to move it while the kids were running in a circle, which made for more than a few collisions. Next, some candy on a string game. This involved tying a candy in the middle of a piece of thread, then having two people, each with one end of the thread in their mouths, try to suck their way up the string to the candy in the middle. Think Lady and the Tramp, but impossible with sewing thread. Nolan won our match. Then the game where two people tie balloons to their feet and try to stomp on the other person’s to pop it. This ended up lasting two rounds since only 3 balloons were available. The prize for winning any game was a package of crispy cream filled wafers, a lot of incentive to win, haha. Then, the prized piñata came out. We remember this being a lot easier and more straightforward when we were kids. Here the point is to make it as impossible to hit as possible so someone is there to pull it up and down and swing it back and forth so you have no idea what you are doing. Jacob kept getting hit in the back of the head with Dora La Exploradora causing him to whirl around like a ninja to attack the air. When the little kids got a chance they would pull the piñata up so high none of the kids could come close to reaching it. What is the point then, really? The craziest thing was the kids who, when even one piece of candy would fall, would scramble to the center to grab it, many times just narrowly avoiding a stick to the head, shrieking like banshees. One woman commented it was like watching chickens run to eat up corn thrown at them (like in Cinderella) – so true! After Dora had been brutally attacked, the older kids continued to antagonize the others by climbing into a tree and throwing handfuls of candy from extra bags they had, just to watch them scramble and shriek we suppose. It was one of the few Honduran celebration we’ve been to, and we enjoyed ourselves, laughing heartily at the ridiculousness of it all.