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


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


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.


Ham and Chinapopo Soup