Friday, March 09, 2012

Same life - but different

When I was first contemplating what life would be like as a Cuso International volunteer in Honduras, I really wanted to read a blog post from someone in the country who could explain the day-to-day stuff of the place - not so much the big cultural issues, because Cuso does a pretty good job of preparing you for that, but things like buying groceries, disposing of garbage, staying healthy. What would it feel like to live in this new place?
Unfortunately, that information has to be really specific, because it's different for every country, every region, every town. I did talk to a couple volunteers in Honduras who were very helpful in getting a broad sense of the place, but one lived in a big city and the other lives in a town three hours away in the mountains, which might as well be a foreign land when you're talking about the need for highly specific local intel.
So for all the future volunteers who might one day be contemplating a placement in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, here's the kind of post I was looking for last fall - a little practical information on daily life in a new land.
Clean water: That's a big one. We buy purified water sold in those big blue office-water-cooler size bottles, for a buck a bottle. We pick ours up at the store next door, but there's a constant stream of guys in pickup trucks driving around the neighbourhood selling the same bottles if there's no store nearby.
Fruits and veggies: Forget those well-stocked supermarkets you're accustomed to in Canada. You can find them in the big cities in Honduras, but here in Copan you'll probably want to buy in the public market. Don't expect the same variety - the market generally sells only the produce that grows nearby -  but you can count on it being much fresher and tastier than back home.
Garbage collection: Three times a week! How's that for service? If you're an enthusiastic recycler, it's going to be painful to adjust to throwing everything in the garbage again, because there's no "blue boxes" down here. But take comfort from knowing that some recycling does go on in Honduras, it's just done by people who work at the dump. And they need the job.
Paying bills: Well, here's the really good news - you won't have many. Household water tends to be included in the rent in Copan, so all you're looking at is electricity and maybe an $8-a-month cable bill if you want TV. The hydro-meter man comes by once a month and sticks a bill on your door, and you pay it at the bank. So far, it's looking like our electrical bill will be about $10 a month, which covers the costs of our lighting and a fridge. Our stove is gas, our clothes dryer is the great outdoors, and the temperatures are so pleasant here that you don't need heat or air-conditioning.
Laundry: You can get a washing machine if you really want one, but why not hire somebody who needs the work and get your clothes done by hand? We've hired a very nice single mom who does a couple hours of cleaning and laundry once a week for $6, a decent wage in a country where a lot of people are trying to get by on a buck a day.
Eating out: Copan sees about 120,000 visitors a year, so there are probably a dozen quite nice restaurants in town where you can get a  meal for under $10. But volunteers live on fairly tight budgets, so these kinds of places will probably be occasional treats. There are some comidas serving cheap lunches in the public market, and lots of smaller Honduran eateries where you can get traditional fare like pupusas, baleadas and tacos for $3 or less. And you can buy a great piece of fried chicken at Super Pollo Express for a buck.
Staying healthy: Drink purified water, of course. We're also following the advice of a Honduran doctor who Cuso introduced us to and are soaking most of our fruits and veggies (unless you can peel them) for 15 minutes in a litre of water with 10 drops of bleach, then in purified water. And even the locals have advised us to stay away from the cabbage - all those tight layers, trapping who knows what. So we do.
There's a general lack of snack foods here, so I'm probably eating healthier than I ever have. That and a lot of walking have trimmed me down since I arrived, and the quiet life of a small town is also conducive to getting more rest. It's all good.
Bugs: Get used to them. I actually entertained the notion before I got here that I could avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, but that was a pipe dream. Watkins insect repellent that I brought from home is now my daily skin cream, and we're taking chloroquine every week just in case any of those mosquitoes are packing malaria. As for the cockroaches, they don't bite and they keep a low profile. Wear good shoes if you go out hiking - I stepped in an ants' nest in my first few days here while hiking through a coffee field in thongs (!) and the stinging sensation was damn unpleasant.
Entertainment: Not much going on here. La ViaVia, a local bar/hotel run by an intense Belgian guy, shows movies for a buck every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night, and has a nightly happy hour from 5-7 p.m. If you like the nightclub scene, there's a disco that I'm told is fun for the young folks. There are two or three other bars where you'll mostly find tourists, including a German place that makes its own beer, and a few seedy cantinas where a handful of hard-drinking Honduran men hole up.
Recreation: Lots of dirt roads to wander along, but be prepared for hills in every direction. Horse-riding is cheap - hook up with the locals and $35 will get you and a friend three or four hours of trail riding. There's also a pool where you can pay $3.50 and spend the day lounging around like you're at a resort - very nice on a hot Saturday.
Transportation: We've gone carless, and it's great. There's a good bus service should you find yourself going stir-crazy in a small town, and a lot of tourist "shuttles" to various destinations. But the roads are universally in terrible condition with a million curves, so best to bring Gravol and a strong constitution if you're planning to spend a lot of time on the road. There's also an informal "car-share" system in Copan and you can often catch a ride with a local if you need to go to the city.
Banking: Good luck with this one. I had Cuso's help to set up an account at the bank they use, and it still took me almost two months to get a bank card - quite a problem when the bank doesn't have a branch anywhere near Copan. In theory, you should be able to open an account here with two letters of recommendation, but be prepared to be extremely patient through what will likely be a baffling and frustrating process, and to have an alternative source of funds to get you through. We were grateful for our Canadian accounts in the period when we had no money, but keep in mind that your bank back home charges $5 every time you do a withdrawal.
I think the most important advice for anybody contemplating international volunteer work is to find another volunteer still living in the same place they're headed -  ideally working with the same organization that's sending them, as that's a whole other set of surprises -  and then ask a thousand questions. Things are still going to catch you by surprise even then, but maybe there will be a few less bumps in the road.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a cool adventure! I'd love to hear more about your volunteer experience. Email me at katie at if you'd be interested in answering some questions for