Friday, November 30, 2012

Up against the culture

You haven't really tested your inner fortitude until you've done a few Honduran meetings. I mean, we're talking a serious endurance test.
Fresh from a three-day retreat for the non-profit I work for in Copan Ruinas, I'm newly reminded of the Honduran capacity to just hang in there at meetings and presentations that just go on and on.
I even think the people here like it that way. I can't tell you the number of meetings I've been to here at which the fourth or fifth straight hour rolls around and things seem to be finally wrapping up, and just as I presume every participant is as twitchy, inattentive and restless as me, they launch into an enthusiastic question-and-answer session that keeps the meeting going for another hour or more.
I found myself grousing quietly to one of my co-workers at the retreat that in Canada, our presenters believe that people need breaks every 90 minutes or their exhausted brains will go on presentation overload and they won't hear a thing. I suspect he thought I was whining. I guess I was.
But let's consider how those three days went:
Day 1: People arrive for the retreat in Siguatepeque from massive distances - drives of seven or more hours. As a result the devotional doesn't get underway until almost 4 p.m., and the presentation portion of the day doesn't start until after 5 p.m. The meeting goes on until 9:30 p.m.
Day 2: Devotional shortly after 8 a.m., day-long presentation starting around 9. One presenter, without so much as a PowerPoint or flip chart, will spend the next day and a half talking to the group. On this day, he goes into it hard and doesn't stop until we break for lunch at 12:30 p.m. Then he's back at it again at 2:30 for another hour and a half, after which we get a couple hours off to rest up for the evening of devotionals, presentations, videos of the past year's festivities, talent show and bible trivia game. That goes until after 11 p.m.
Day 3: Another 8 a.m. start, with a devotional first and then more presentations until noon, at which point we eat lunch and then pile into our prospective vehicles for the long drives back to our communities. I am by this point totally exhausted, and dreading the nausea-inducing five- or six-hour ride back to Copan stuffed into a van with eight workmates and no leg room. But everybody else looks positively energized.
The Monday morning staff meetings are similar tests of endurance that everybody but me seems capable of handling. The meetings start at 10 a.m. or so, after the weekly devotional, and can last until 3 p.m.  I appear to be the only one who finds that ridiculous.
 I'm positively jiggy by the end of those meetings, struggling to contain an urge to either run shrieking from the room to just say screw it and start checking emails. I doubt I'll ever get used to these meetings.
My dream meeting is one where everybody comes in focused on the task at hand, with a clear agenda and a chair who knows how to run that thing perfectly. The conversation is informed, inclusive and purposeful. We're done within two hours at the most; if it's a day-long event, there will be at least two coffee breaks, some entertaining "break-out groups" and strange but welcome stretching games, lunch and a 4:30 p.m. finish.  We leave with clearer knowledge of the tasks that lie ahead and a better understanding of what needs to be done.
Here, I just stagger out of the room, too tired to even appreciate that at least I've survived another meeting. If there's an agenda, I never see one, which is also true for any of the people in my line of vision. I  leave with no idea of what I should do next or whether we accomplished anything with our hours and hours of talk. Am I just a difficult gringa princess unable to shake loose of her own cultural practices, or is this a crazy way to do a meeting?
But so it goes. (Kurt Vonnegut, thank you for that useful phrase.) I've got two days before I have to be at the regular Monday meeting, and then one whole day in between before I make the five-hour trip  to a town in Lempira for two days of meetings.
That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Funny how often that saying comes to mind these days.