Tuesday, October 09, 2012

In the land of big cows and gleaming rest stops

Three of my work buddies from the Comision de Accion Social Menonita  just came back from the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin - their first trip to the United States.
As you might expect, the trip blew them away. Like all good travellers, they took a ton of photos, and it was great to share their experiences yesterday as they flipped through the large collection of classic tourist shots they took on their journey.
Several of them were of rest stops along the highway. I have to admit, it's been a long time since I've given much consideration to the glory of American rest stops, but the guys were captivated by them and I get that.
"Look at this! They have these all along the roads," exclaimed one of them as he pointed to a particularly clean and tidy example somewhere between Spooner and Madison. "Nobody works there, and anyone can just pull in and use them!"
They'd gone on the trip with the encouragement of a Spooner veterinarian, Dr. Allen Pederson, who comes to Copan Ruinas a couple times a year through the Seattle-based Christian Veterinary Mission. CASM does a lot of work with rural farmers that includes encouraging them to diversify their subsistence livelihoods with a dairy cow or two, and Allen figured the CASM gang would get a lot out of the grand spectacle that is the World Dairy Expo. (That and the fact that a purpose for travel appears to make it much easier for a Honduran trying for a coveted U.S. visitor's visa.)
Sure enough, those U.S. cows made a big impression on the guys, especially the $25,000 Holstein that's capable of producing an astounding 90 litres of milk a day. That's roughly 11 times more than a Honduran dairy cow produces. Even an average dairy cow in the U.S. produces40 litres or more a day.
But that's not really surprising given that a Honduran cow never sees the scientifically designed diet, careful breeding, hormones or vet care that's just part of life for a commercial dairy cow in the U.S. Here, the farmers with more resources might grow "super grass" that the international aid organizations have introduced to the country, but a lot of the tough little mixed-breed cows around Copan just get by on whatever they can scrounge up in the fields.
I asked the guys what they liked best about their visit. The October chill, said one, who admits to never having liked the heat of Honduras despite growing up here. The fall colours in the woods, said another. Trees do lose their leaves in Honduras, but they just kind of shrivel up and turn brown. This fellow was enchanted by the rich oranges, reds and yellows that anyone from a cold country recognizes as a familiar herald to winter.
Did they like the food? Not much. They were travelling on a budget that was well below shoestring, having forked over the equivalent of a month's salary for their $600 airfares that left them with barely any spending money for the actual trip. That meant eating as cheaply as they could - sandwiches at Subway, fast-food burgers.
"Everything was with bread," declared one fellow, who found the diet monotonous. I got a quiet laugh out of that - I guess my buddies are oblivious to the monotony of their own daily diets of beans, tortillas, and those  sweetened hot-dog-style buns that everyone dips in their morning and afternoon coffees.
The cultivated pine forests charmed one of the guys, who sees much potential for similar forests in Honduras. Pine grows well here and is ready for harvest in 10 years because of the warm climate, compared to 40 years in Wisconsin. But I come from a land that's in the process of losing most of its pine forests to the voracious pine beetle, and I suspect the damage being caused by a similar beetle right now in the forests of Honduras will ultimately bring about the same devastation here as climate change alters the environment.
It's too bad the boys had barely a week to enjoy the sights, because there's nothing more valuable than seeing another culture in action when it comes to clarifying what's good and bad about your own culture. Were I a person with the money to invest in a new future for Honduras, I would launch a massive exchange program that sent Hondurans to work and study in developed countries, where they could learn that ambicion isn't always a bad thing and better governance is possible.
But for now, at least the guys know that good roads and rest stops exist. That's a start.

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