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.