Thursday, June 23, 2011

Just As the rainy season gets going, so does our work...

We did our first HIV-AIDS charla of our service last week in a nearby town with two other volunteers. The prevention of HIV-AIDS is a worldwide Peace Corps initiative, and as such, everyone, regardless of project, gets trained in how to give a fun but basic charla to adolescents about contraction, prevention, abstinence, condom usage etc. No one, except maybe the health PCV’s, was too enthralled with the idea during training when we had one day to prepare and give the charla in our broken Spanish to unruly and awkward 6th graders. We weren’t really planning on doing any more after that, but a few months ago I attended a workshop about gender equity issues, a component of which was educating women about reproductive rights/health and HIV-AIDS prevention. I figured that this was something that we as PCV’s could actually do something about (as opposed to say wage equity) and set out to implement the charla.

Luckily for us, we have the wonderful school where we teach that will pretty much let us do anything we propose. They happily agreed to let us do 5 charlas with all their 7th and 8th grade classes. So we put together the materials and did the first one. All things considered it went pretty well. We do dinamicas and games to teach vocabulary, methods of transmission, how the diseases work, and methods of prevention. The kids laugh a lot, which makes it less awkward. Some of the kids seemed like they had heard the information before, one guy even offered to sing us a song he had learned on the topic – truly heartwarming. The best (?) part is always the condom on banana demonstration where the kids complain about how gross it is etc, although some kids seemed like old-pros (good and bad simultaneously). We left the four hour charla sweaty and exhausted, but satisfied after we saw our pre and post test results that showed some significant improvements in knowledge. The other 4 are coming up in July.

We’re still going strong on the World Map as the kids draw more and more of the countries. We were a little skeptical at first that they were really getting the hang of the grid by grid transfer system, but after we told them to take their time, the kids are putting in a lot of effort to make everything detailed and it’s coming out great. We still have Asia and Europe left – saved the most difficult for last of course – then on to the painting! This ends up taking up most of our Thursdays and Saturdays by the time we go there, draw, fix some of their more egregious mistakes, then walk back after a stop at our favorite baleada place. I’m trying to figure out if a geography bee would be a worthwhile activity when we finish or a catastrophe….thoughts?

We have also had an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) group here since last Sunday working with a small shantytown-like community of 75 families on the edge of the city. The community does not have electricity or a plumbing/sewer system, and many of the houses are simply wood boards. The EWB previously helped install a potable water system and made a commitment to serving 5 years with the community, so came this year to investigate how the current system was working and what other projects they could start. Nolan and a fellow PCV are helping with this, translating, setting them up with organizations and people here in town, acting as a liaison, etc. The group, which is three people, is only here for a week though so in order to get all the surveys and work done that they want, they’ve been going out to the community (on foot, half an hour) at 5:30 am and coming back at 6:30 at night. Needless to say Nolan is thoroughly exhausted, but the results they are seeing in the community are uplifting. The water board (which is in charge of water management) is running smoothly and efficiently, charging water tariffs and even imposing fines on families not abiding by the water usage rules (which is very uncommon here). The president of the board is a smart woman and a good leader. EWB is looking at putting in a rainwater/grey water runoff system as their next project.

I meanwhile was out of town Monday to Wednesday in Siguatepeque where I gave a two day workshop on how to start and run a business to 13 women and 1 man who are involved with the Oficinas de La Mujer (women’s offices) in their municipalities. My wat/san friend from Siguat had called asking me to help since she knew nothing about the topic, and the organizing group agreed to pay all my expenses so it seemed like a great opportunity. I condensed a 24 week course my fellow BZ friend had designed into an 8 hour, 2 day workshop, covering everything from brainstorming to find an initial idea, to how to elaborate a full business plan and go through the legal steps to get started. I also offered some resources and tips based on my experiences with my current women’s group. The goal was to transfer the knowledge to the women so they could transfer it to individual women and women’s groups in their respective communities.

I wasn’t really used to presenting to the kind of women that were at this workshop. I normally give presentations in rural communities on big pieces of paper in people’s houses that have no light to women who are so shy and timid, they barely spit out three words the whole time (which I do love). This time I had a data show (projector) and laptop in a private conference room with middle to upper class, nicely dressed, outgoing women. Some of them even seemed to know more about the topics that I did, which was great and intimidating at the same time. All in all, it was a great workshop that I felt really proud of finishing, but I left Siguat feeling drained.

I of course had to rush back in time for this week’s world map session and another presentation for Amigos de Las Americas. Amigos is a program that sends high school students for 7 weeks to countries all over the Americas to help with short term community development projects. It just so happens that our department is one of their favorite places to send people, so we were called by the coordinator to see if we had time to speak to the newly arrived kids about our experiences, thoughts and advice. We thought it was a great opportunity and wanted to meet the kids so we happily agreed. We chatted with them for about an hour about local customs, history, culture and the Peace Corps – they all looked so young!

Now we’re back at home and the power is out for the second time this week (which means bucket baths) and the last thunder bolt we heard shook the whole house. Time for bed!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Yes Sir Señor Presidente Sir

I was teaching my math class last week when phone rang. It was my boss at Peace Corps, but as usual while I’m in class, I simply put my phone on silent and continued teaching. I figured he’d call back later in the day. He didn’t. But an hour later, this time in the middle of supervising the students drawing the world map, my phone rang again. This time is was Emily, our country director. Nicki was also helping with the map, so I was able to answer it this time. I picked up and was told that there was a special event going on in an aldea of Yamaranguila (a nearby town) the next day. USAID had recently completed installing solar panels on 53 houses and building a water system for the community, and there was going to be an inauguration for the projects. Nicki and I, as well as the new couple in Yamaranguila, had been invited to attend, as usual at the last minute. Under normal circumstances, this would be exciting enough. Even though we had nothing to do with the project, it always fun to attend inaugurations, you get a free lunch at the very least.

But these weren’t normal circumstances. This was a project that USAID was proud of and wanted to show off, and because of that, the US Ambassador, Hugo Llorens, was going to be there. And he wasn’t the only big name attending. El Señor Presidente, Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo (President of Honduras) was going to be there! Needless to say, we were pretty excited and quickly arranged to cancel all our plans for the following day so that we could attend. We confirmed with Emily and USAID and were given instructions about when and where to meet in the morning.

After a restless night worrying about what to wear and what to say to the most important figure in Honduras, we woke up extra early. Nicki’s project director had coincidentally planned a site visit for the same day so we met with him for breakfast and interviews with our host family and her counterparts. He decided to join us for the event and so we contacted USAID and met up with them at the entrance to town to wait for the Ambassador and Honduran Director of USAID who were about to arrive. We waited and waited, then got a call from the USAID coordinator, ’10 minutes until arrival’ she told us and hung up. A few minutes later she called again, “3 minutes.” Our anticipation brewing like in a secret agent movie, we soon saw a police truck speeding up the road toward us, two black suburbans following closely. The USAID people pulled out quickly behind them and we followed in the Peace Corps car, completing the 5 car motorcade. With lights flashing, our caravan sped through town so quick we almost lost them. My project director made a quick one block jaunt and we were back in the motorcade. Cops held up traffic at the corners and the police truck in front motioned for cars to move so we could press on through town and out into the aldeas of Yamaranguila.

The road from La Esperanza to Yamaranguila is infamously horrible, especially this time of year, but that didn’t seem to stop us from speeding 60 mph down the rock strewn and washed out highway, dodging potholes with a jerk of the wheel like in a video game. Bystanders on the side of the road gave us strange looks as our motorcade passed, whipping up dust for miles. In no time we arrived at the highest point of a mountain in the heart of the community of El Pelon. We were ushered to meet the USAID director (a former PCV himself) and the Ambassador, both very friendly, then to a small house where Pepe Lobo was meeting a family. Packed into the tiny dwelling, we could hardly see the president, a rather short and squat man, amidst throngs of reporters. He spoke to the family about their first lights and access outside their door to potable water. “How many years have you lived in darkness?” someone asked, sounding more like a preacher than a reporter. “All my life,” the homeowner replied.

President (center) with Ambassador (cap) and USAID Director (white hair) posing for a shot in front of a solar panel-laden home

The crowds cleared and the president approached us, this was our moment. We shook hands, introduced ourselves, said where we lived and what we did. He smiled, shook back and thanked us. In was all very quick. We were struck by two things, his clothing and lack of security. Whereas we had brought out our Sunday best, tie included, here the President stood before us in jeans, boots and button up plaid shirt, looking somewhat cowboy-like in his stance and demeanor. The president did have what looked like two soldiers following him around, but for the most part they kept a reasonable distance, and people were free to come up to him and speak or hand in the occasional proposal for funding for a new project.

Crowd awaiting the speeches

Solar powered street lamp for this town of 50 houses

We spent the next hour following the president from house to house to view the new solar panels. In between houses, he spent his time on age-old political activities such as patting dirty kids on the head, picking up tiny babies, shaking hands with aging campesinos, and posing for the press in various combinations of these. The event did eventually start, and we were treated to 5 or 6 speeches, all going over time. The best part of the actual inauguration was the community participation. A group of high schools kids performed a folk dance, complete with traditional Lenca clothing. A community group also put on a hilarious skit of how their lives have changed with the advent of solar panels and water system.

Pepe cuddling with babies...

...and shaking hands with the kids

The mesa principal and hours of speeches

Lenca folk dancing

The ambassador had our backs, and after the event he brought the president over to take a picture with us. Unfortunately, the guy taking the picture cut Nicki out of it. We are currently waiting to hear from the USAID director, who was also taking pictures, to see if he has another shot with Nicki. We will post that for all to see when we get it, though we assure you all that Nicki was indeed there.

Not long after the president and ambassador took off in their private helicopter, the rain clouds closed in and we sped away in a Suburban along quickly deteriorating dirt roads pondering the next time we might be able to meet a head of state.

Photo with the president and ambassador sans Nicki (she was to the ambassador's left)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Random and Interesting Tales from La Esperanza

World Map - Nolan and I started our World Map project finally last week. The World Map is a Peace Corps wide initiative where PCV’s help a community group, i.e. a library, school, whatever, draw and paint a huge world map (usually about 7 by 14 feet) on an available wall or floor. In addition to being a great project to get students engaged and active in artistic endeavors, it also helps teach geography and world awareness and is luckily pretty permanent. I’m a huge geography fan so I’ve been dying to do this project since I heard about it. We were able to get some money donated from a class of students at Nolan’s mom’s school (Thanks Pam!) to buy the materials which finally arrived after two months thanks to either the Honduran mail service or the Peace Corps mail sorters. It turns out $50 is all it takes to create the map from start to finish. So we started last Saturday with the base coat of blue for the oceans and I was a little skeptical that the 8th grade classes we’re working with at Maestro en Casa (same place we teach chemistry and math) would know what they were doing. I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

The “kids” the first day ended up being two guys in their early 20’s and a woman who was at least 30, possibly older (it’s really hard to tell here). They jumped right in and looked like pro painters with excellent technique, except one thing. We’re using oil-based paint because we’re painting outside which you often thin with mineral spirits a little (usually to make it go into a spray painter easier), but people here seem to think it’s best to use equal parts paint and thinner! We made the mistake of letting the kids mix the paint themselves and we ended up with a water-like liquid that was dripping down the wall faster than they could roll it. We thought this was a problem, but no one else really did. Not to mention it was windy that day so the wind was blowing specs of the water-paint all over the ground, wall, door and kids! We got the first coat on okay, but decided we’re taking over the mixing for the next coat. (The second coat with much less thinner went on much better) Whether it’s for cost-effectiveness or just lack of understanding of paint viscosity, we realized that this technique of over-thinning is ubiquitous here, such as in our own house where the paint washes off with a wet rag! They probably were able to use just one gallon of paint to do our whole house!

Day 1: Rolling the first coat

Day 1: You can see the paint getting all over the ground

Our makeshift rain cover

Day 2: Second coat, we devised a better floor covering

Piropos – Piropos are a pretty common thing here, guys yelling “I love you, baby” and the like. I mostly find it pretty hilarious and try not to laugh outright in people’s faces when they say things to me. But I’ve had some really funny not-quite-piropo occurrences too. A few months ago, Nolan and I were walking in the market and some guy yelled at us “What’s up with Wikileaks?!” This was funny for two reasons 1) Does this guy really know anything about Wikileaks? and 2) Why would you yell that at someone randomly? A conversation starter? I also get a lot of people yelling at me random English – not even inappropriate things, just a ‘how are you?” or “where are you going?” but always from men, as if they think it’s a piropo or something. But a few weeks ago I actually had a woman in the market yell at me “HOW ARE YOU!?” which in their accent is like “howr jew?” I was shocked that a woman had done it for one, secondly, do people really think that is an appropriate way to communicate? Sometimes I just don’t get it.

Cookies - I enjoy cooking and often bake things for the women at work. I made some peanut butter cookies a few weeks ago and took them in. I asked my counterpart the next day what she thought. They were so good, she said, it was like they were made in a factory! Quite a compliment, tastes just like they were churned out by underpaid impoverished maquiladora workers using nothing but processed ingredients and preservatives, yum! I guess that’s a compliment here since things made in people’s home ovens are pretty sub-par. My cookies were so amazing that one member women’s group of our organization has now requested that I teach them new recipes for their bakery so this coming Tuesday I’m doing a half day cooking demonstration of peanut butter cookies, zucchini bread and Devil’s food cake. I guess their rock hard corn based coffee dunkers are just not drawing too many new customers these days.

Religion - The women’s cooperative I primarily work with UMMIL (now on Facebook, check it out!) has monthly meetings, a general assembly they call it, to talk about important issues etc. It’s become a trend in the past few months that our president invites a few women from this religious sisterhood to come share testimonies of their discovery of Jesus in their lives as the opening to our meeting. Now, proselytizing is a pretty common act here. Aside from random people who strike up a conversation then try to convert you (this happened to me once, a guy sitting next to me on the bus conveniently), we also have people who come aboard our cross country buses to speak the word to you when you have no place to hide, bus preachers. It’s like your Sunday gospel brought straight to you. I guess you could say you get used to being bombarded with this stuff. I don’t object to faith or religion or people sharing their beliefs. I actually think it’s pretty great that people can use it to turn their life around. The woman this week at our women’s group meeting shared how she had been a drug dealer and gone to prison for 8 years before she found Jesus – more power to her for having the strength to clean her life up and share her story. The part of the whole thing that made me a little uncomfortable was when she invited everyone else to pray with her then proceed to come around and touch everyone (including me), not inappropriately, just on the shoulder and head. I have no problem listening, but please don’t touch me.

Nighttime Noises – So in addition to the cats and birds we have chasing each other on our tin roof making all kinds of scratching sounds, we have three other famous nighttime serenades. The first is what I like to call our barking chain, you know like from 101 Dalmations where Pongo puts out the message about his missing puppies. First one dog starts, then all the others in a 10 block radius chime in, howling, yelping and barking for up to 10 minutes at least once nightly. Our neighbors two houses down have geese who join in with some squawking and we get an occasional cat meow that sounds to me like a dying child. It’s like living in a zoo sometimes. Then we have the trucks and motos. Our street is something of a major thoroughfare here in town (hah!) so we get all kinds of rackety delivery trucks, pickups and buses at all hours of the night traversing past our bedroom window. We have some motorcyclists who like to speed around risking their lives on these potholed roads who I swear have never heard of a muffler. Then recently we started getting someone (I’m pretty sure it’s the same person every day) who needs to run their truck down a hill to get it to start and what do we have but a perfect hill. So it’s a squeaking truck that we hear coming down the hill like a bicycle that all the sudden throws itself into gear and slams on the gas to speed away – astonishingly noisy. And last but not least our newest visitor, a bolo (drunk) who has taken to sleeping under our balcony on the sidewalk and last night was snoring so loudly that first I thought it was Nolan next to me, which I quickly discovered it wasn’t. I was appalled at this bolo’s decibel level and couldn’t get to sleep for the life of me. Such is our nighttime serenade.