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)

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