Saturday, March 31, 2012

My debut in Tyler, Texas

This is going to be a year of firsts for me - like this one, getting my first story published in a Texas newspaper.  While my role with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita is primarily to help them with communications here in Honduras, I figure it can't hurt to put those English-language skills of mine to work sometimes to spread the word about CASM a little farther afield.
I'm posting the story below, just in case you don't like links. It's one more piece in the puzzle of what I actually do down here in Honduras, which I admit I'm still working on understanding myself. I do like the chance to jump into plain old reporting once in a while.

Copan Ruinas, Honduras-The big hole in the ground was two feet deep and nothing but dirt when the volunteers from First Christian Church in Tyler got their first look at it March 10.
By the time they headed home to Texas on March 18, it was three feet deeper and ready for concrete to be poured. And the 900 people living in the isolated mountain pueblo of La Cumbre were significantly closer to having the badly needed new reservoir that would ensure every household in the village had water. 
“Every year I ask the Lord to give me a vision, a purpose for the trip, and this year I asked to be blessed with a feeling of Christianity coming back to me from Honduras,” volunteer Joe Gonzalez said Saturday at his hotel as his team prepared for the trip home. “Up on that mountain, every time I pushed the wheelbarrow with another load of dirt and saw that view all around us, I felt like that was happening.”
First Christian congregation member Larry Gilliam has been organizing the annual week-long volunteer missions for 12 years now, and most of the group of 14 volunteers on the Honduras missions are veterans of many such trips. “I hear that once you go on one of these, you get hooked,” said first-timer Larry Davis, who was on the trip with his wife Linda.
This year’s team was a mix of people from Tyler, Houston and Austin that included several married couples and a mother and daughter – Leslie and Kelsey Neal, from Flint. The volunteer team works with Church World Service to identify projects and host organizations in Mexico and Central America, and for this trip partnered with the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita, a Christian organization that works in seven regions of Honduras to improve conditions in impoverished communities.
“We don’t go anywhere without a good host group, and we couldn’t have asked for a better one,” said Gilliam, noting that CASM co-ordinator Merlin Fuentes went out of his way to ensure a good experience for the volunteers. “I’ve worked with dozens of host organizations over the years, and this one was as good as any we’ve had.”
Half of the volunteer group worked on the water reservoir in La Cumbre, while the other half worked alongside Honduran doctors and nurses at a health clinic in Santa Rita, about six kilometres outside Copan Ruinas.  The volunteers had raised $2,000 for medications to be distributed during their time at the clinic, a draw that attracted poor families from throughout the region.
A frightening incident in the early days of the clinic ended up creating an enduring bond between the Tyler team and the Honduran medical team, recalled Ruth Gonzalez, one of three Texas nurses who volunteered at the clinic. A patient had a near-fatal allergic reaction to a medication “and we thought we’d lost her,” said Gonzalez. Fortunately, quick intervention by the clinic’s doctor saved the day.
“You never know what’s going to pull you through, teach you,” she added. “What happened that day really brought to light why you’re doing something.”
Each of the volunteer trips costs about $30,000, with money coming from fundraising events in Tyler, First Christian Church and individual volunteers.  This year’s group ended up with $2,000 in surplus funds, which they left behind in Copan Ruinas to help finish off the water reservoir.  After hearing about an orphanage in desperate straits in the community, the team also bought $300 worth of food and dropped it off.
“Most every trip we’ve been on, we look for a little something extra that could use some money,” said Roger Spain of Lufkin, who was on his ninth trip.
Gilliam conceived of the annual forays after several years of leading youth groups on missions around the world. “I grew up in a family that believed in outreach. It just came natural,” he added.
Over the years, projects have run the gamut: Building greenhouses; digging wells; constructing rabbit hutches. Spain says the spur-of-the-moment side projects can be as rewarding as the main projects, recalling a trip to Nicaragua in 2005 in which the group bought and delivered the materials for a half-built community medical clinic that had stalled out seven years earlier.
This past weekend was R&R time for the team before the volunteers returned home. But while Gilliam had sailed through seven consecutive days of two-hour truck rides along a skinny mountain road and more than 40 hours of shovelling dirt, he was shaken by what lay ahead on Saturday.
“The biggest issue for me is I have to ride a horse this morning, and that’s not my deal,” said a nervous Gilliam.  “I don’t do horses.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Everything strange is a little more familiar

A street market at its most basic - one guy and a few vegetables
Perhaps it's the human condition to seek routine. I've spent much of my life on the run from routines I felt stuck in, yet at the same time I settle quickly and comfortably into new ones.
We've been in Copan for 10 weeks now, not nearly long enough to know much about this complex country. But certain things are at least a little familiar now, and I'm welcoming the small routines that allow the days to pass in slightly more predictable ways rather than as relentless blasts of new and baffling developments.
I have two regular lunch-time "bird walks" now, for instance, and know that one leads to the trio of magnificent crested jays near the Hacienda San Lucas while the other takes me to the arid fields and grosbeaks around the water reservoir for La Laguna. When a shadow passes over me as I walk, I know that it's almost certainly a vulture - possibly a turkey vulture, more likely a black.
Having been here for a change in season, I know that the mosquitoes that plagued me when we first arrived are blessedly scarce now that the days are hotter, and that the lovely din of cicadas in the trees right now is the annual harbinger of Semana Santa. I know which shoes to wear when it pours rain and the cobblestones are as slippery as black ice, and which "summer" clothes from Canada to pack away for later in the season because they're much too hot for a March day in Honduras.
I know which brand of platano chips I prefer, and that local watermelons are best eaten in a single sitting. I know which chicken stand has the best fried chicken and which stores have the cheapest, coldest beer.
We know where to get a good plate of "tipico" Honduran fare, and we even know what "tipico" fare is. We know not to eat the cabbage, something that virtually every Honduran has cautioned us about as a sure ticket to stomach upset (all those tight leaves trap bacteria). We know that tacos are served crispy and rolled in Honduras, and that empanadas and pupusas are the same thing.
But we also know where to get the best pizza, the best hamburger, and even a half-decent piece of German chocolate cake if we're desperate for  a good bakery treat - something which this country is lamentably short of. We know to stock up on yogurt when it shows up in the grocery store, because you just never know when the next delivery will be.
I sense that we're still unusual sights on our street, my gringo partner and I, but our neighbours now greet us with familiarity, and the armed security guards outside the bank know we're there for the ATM and not to cash travellers' cheques. When I go to the hardware store, the woman behind the counter tells other customers that I play the accordion, because she lives across the street and has heard me.
I know how to turn the shower tap just so to make the water hotter or cooler, that having been a mystery to me initially when faced with a single tap for controlling the tiny little hot-water heater built directly into the shower head. (I try not to dwell on the fact that directly above my head, water and electricity are making contact with each other.)
I know that the water is cooler on days when the tank on the roof is full and the pressure is higher, and almost too hot to bear on days when the city water isn't running. I know to scrub my lower legs extra-hard when showering to remove the significant layer of dust that builds up after a day of walking on dirt roads, and that it's possible to wash a greasy pan in cold water if you use the strange paste detergent that they sell down here.
I've got a preferred route for getting to work, one that takes me past cows and farm fields instead of through the centre of town. I no longer feel any trace of alarm when passing by men carrying gigantic machetes - which is to say, almost every man I pass on my walk to and from work. I have a pharmacy I like and a store where I buy my weekly cellphone minutes, and I can find my way with my eyes closed to the little place that sells frozen bananas dipped in chocolate.
I will soon have first-hand knowledge of Semana Santa in a Latin American country, an experience that up until now I've always taken care to avoid. Who knows, maybe I'll discover that it's fun to have thousands of Hondurans flock to town for a crazy, chaotic week-long party, and at the very least I think I'll enjoy the renderings of Jesus that will be created in the streets using coloured sawdust.
In another couple of months, I'll know what a "rainy season" feels like, and whether the brand-new rain coat I brought from Canada is useful or woefully inadequate. I might just have a new routine of indulging in a moto-taxi ride to work on days when it's pouring, or perhaps I'll just have new knowledge of the right times of day to be walking to avoid short but intense periods of rain.
And one day, it could be that these little routines I'm enjoying might be so familiar that they start to feel like ruts, and I'll be bridling at having to eat fresh vegetables every night for dinner and see the same old tropical birds in the trees every day. But that's one day.

Monday, March 26, 2012

An historic judgment moves sex workers' rights forward

The issues of Canada have drifted from my mind strikingly fast now that I'm in Honduras, but it all came rushing back to me this morning when I read the judgment handed down by the Court of Appeal in Ontario on Canada's sex work laws.
Here's the link to the decision if you want to read it in full, but I've put the meat of the ruling down below for those who prefer a summary. You can't go around declaring victory too quickly when it comes to court rulings, because this judgment is certainly going to end up in front of the Supreme Court of Canada given the federal government's position on this issue to date. Still, each new court ruling adds weight to the argument for decriminalization, and reminds Canadians again and again that it is against our own Constitution to treat sex workers so disgracefully.
That communication for the purposes of prostitution remains illegal is unfortunate, as that means that it's still illegal for sex workers to advertise their services. But the precedent has been set in Canada to restrict the advertising of other products - tobacco, alcohol, prescription drugs - so I guess the court felt it was reasonable to uphold that law.
What's most unfortunate about that is the communication law is used almost exclusively in Canada to harass and control street sex workers. People don't like it when a stroll develops in their neighbourhood, and criminal sanctions against communicating are a tool for moving sex workers along when the business settles in a particular place. But the big downside of the tense relationship between police and outdoor sex workers that develops as a result means some of the most vulnerable women in the country choose not to seek protection from police.
For those who are opposed to the existence of sex work, the judgment need not be taken as an endorsement of the industry. As this excerpt makes clear, at issue is whether Canada's laws around prostitution are increasing the danger to sex workers. And they are:
"In holding that the negative impact of the legislation on prostitutes is obvious, we do not mean to understate the complexities and difficulties of the social problems associated with prostitution. However, those complexities and the many possible legislative responses to them are not germane to the question at hand. Like the application judge, we are satisfied that the current legal regime, and specifically the challenged Criminal Code provisions, interferes with prostitutes security of the person."
The executive summary of the 148-page decision:

[1] For decades, and even for centuries, governments around the world have
grappled with prostitution and its associated problems. Some have opted for an
outright ban. Others have chosen to decriminalize and regulate certain aspects of
prostitution. Still others have criminalized the purchase, but not the sale, of sex.
[2] In Canada, prostitution itself is legal. There is no law that prohibits a
person from selling sex, and no law that prohibits another from buying it.
Parliament has, however, enacted laws that indirectly restrict the practice of
prostitution by criminalizing various related activities.
[3] At issue in this case is the constitutionality of three provisions of the
Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, which form the core of Parliament‟s
response to prostitution:
1. Section 210, which prohibits the operation of common bawdyhouses.
This prevents prostitutes from offering their services out of fixed
indoor locations such as brothels, or even their own homes;
2. Section 212(1)(j), which prohibits living on the avails of prostitution.
This prevents anyone, including but not limited to pimps, from profiting
from another‟s prostitution; and
3. Section 213(1)(c), which prohibits communicating for the purpose of
prostitution in public. This prevents prostitutes from offering their services
in public, and particularly on the streets.
[4] In the court below, the application judge held that these provisions are
unconstitutional and must be struck down because they do not accord with the
Page: 7
principles of fundamental justice enshrined in s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of
Rights and Freedoms. She reasoned that the challenged laws exacerbate the
harm that prostitutes already face by preventing them from taking steps that
could enhance their safety. Those steps include: working indoors, alone or with
other prostitutes (prohibited by s. 210); paying security staff (prohibited by
s. 212(1)(j)); and screening customers encountered on the street to assess the
risk of violence (prohibited by s. 213(1)(c)).
[5] As we will explain, we agree with the application judge that the prohibition
on common bawdy-houses for the purpose of prostitution is unconstitutional and
must be struck down. However, we suspend the declaration of invalidity for 12
months to give Parliament an opportunity to redraft a Charter-compliant
[6] We also hold that the prohibition on living on the avails of prostitution
infringes s. 7 of the Charter to the extent that it criminalizes non-exploitative
commercial relationships between prostitutes and other people. However, we do
not strike down that prohibition, but rather read in words of limitation so that the
prohibition applies only to those who live on the avails of prostitution in
circumstances of exploitation. This cures the constitutional defect and aligns the
text of the provision with the vital legislative objective that animates it.
Page: 8
[7] We do not agree with the application judge‟s conclusion that the ban on
communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution is unconstitutional, and we
allow the appeal on that issue.
[8] The application judge‟s decision has been subject to a stay pending further
order of this court. As we will explain, we extend the stay for 30 days from the
date of the release of these reasons so that all parties can consider their
positions. The practical effect is:
The declaration of invalidity in respect of the bawdy-house provisions is
suspended for one year from the date of the release of these reasons.
The amended living on the avails provision takes effect 30 days from the
date of the release of these reasons.
The communicating provision remains in full force.
[9] One important point before we begin. Prostitution is a controversial topic,
one that provokes heated and heartfelt debate about morality, equality, personal
autonomy and public safety. It is not the court‟s role to engage in that debate.
Our role is to decide whether or not the challenged laws accord with the
Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. While we have concluded
that some aspects of the current legislative scheme governing prostitution are
unconstitutional, it remains open to Parliament to respond with new legislation
that complies with the requirements of the Charter.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A load of manure and we're off to San Geronimo

As I've griped probably one too many times (in Spanish, the verb is quejarse), learning about your workplace when nobody speaks the same language as you is really difficult. That's why I like field trips so much - hopping into a vehicle with one of my co-workers with nary a clue as to where we're going or what we'll do when we get there. I just say yes to every opportunity and figure it will all add up to knowledge.
Yesterday, the task was to deliver 25 giant sacks of chicken manure to campesinos in a little pueblo called San Geronimo. There are several dozen little pueblos in the hills around Copan Ruinas, often along roads that you or I would likely consider  rough hiking trails through the bush were we to encounter one in Canada. The road to San Geronimo was definitely in that category, requiring us to drive through a river, negotiate narrow little climbs that almost stalled out a 4x4, and steer around obstacles that included tire-eating ruts, scary dropoffs and herds of cattle.
But first we got to go to the egg farm to get the manure. I'd been curious about the place since I first passed by it a few weeks ago while out for a walk, because the little bit I could see from the road gave the impression that it was a much kinder, gentler type of egg farm than you use in developed countries. but it doesn't welcome visitors. And it was - still a prison of sorts for the chickens, but at least one with fresh air, natural light, lots of room to move and dirt to scratch.
The manure costs 25 lempiras a sack, about $1.25. We loaded 25 bags into the truck - OK, I just stood around like a girl and let the two guys do it, I admit - and off we went to deliver the stuff. My organization works with the poorest of the poor around Copan, almost none of whom have trucks for picking up their own sacks of manure.
One of the big tasks for my organization, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, is to help local farmers get better yields. Growing beans, corn and coffee on tiny little plots of land is a tough way to make a living, but the use of natural fertilizers and different planting processes helps. So CASM first leads a workshop to demonstrate and encourage better strategies, and then follows up with the farmers who want to give something a try. The farmers can't afford to pay for fertilizers, but they either barter goods in exchange for the manure or volunteer their time and labour for a future project.
The farms of Honduras look nothing like the farms back home. In some cases, the campesinos don't even own the land where they live and work. The production area is typically very small, often on an extreme slope, and either irrigated using rough-hewn systems that channel river water or completely reliant on the rainy season from May to September.
But the people in San Geronimo have a slightly better setup - still crazy slopes and really basic living arrangements, but at least they've got title to their land. And they've got Honduran sunshine, which at this time of year produces a bounty of coffee, tomatoes and watermelon. The next round of crops will be beans and corn, which need the rains to flourish.
Someone from wealthy country like Canada wants to be careful throwing around terms like "poor but happy," but there is a certain ever-present cheerfulness among the people I've met in these little communities. The children work as hard as the adults, and every day must be a slog. But for them it's just the way it is.
I don't doubt they'd give it up in a heartbeat for a hot shower and running water, steady electricity, a flat-screen TV and a vehicle to drive up and down those steep roads they spend so much time walking along. But they don't have much time for pining about what they haven't got.
Truck emptied, we bounced back to town. It was a good day.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Surely God wouldn't want it this way

I don't think I can call this a crisis of faith that I'm having today, because I've never really been one for faith. Maybe there are religious journalists out there somewhere, but for me years of learning about the bad things that happen to good people (and vice versa) shook the faith right out of me.
Still, I have a great appreciation for the good work done by people of faith, and up until today have not felt the urge to cry out, "Oh, come ON!" at the Monday-morning devotionals at my new workplace. In a country this religious, I feel  like I'm participating in the culture by attending the devotionals, and I usually find them quite sweet sessions that bond my co-workers in a much more meaningful way than a garden-variety staff meeting ever could.
But today, something got to me. The topic was harmless enough - a reflection on God as artist - but I found myself squirming at the heartfelt statements of my co-workers as they talked about their faith. Perhaps it's because my cousin died yesterday, too young and too soon. More likely it's because I'm living in a country that has such deep faith in the face of intense problems that are very much man-made.
Moments before the devotional started, I was talking to my boss about a doctor in Santa Rita - a few kilometres down the road from Copan - who was kidnapped last week and hasn't been seen since. Rumour has it that one of his young kidnappers was killed shortly after, as can happen when stupid young boys keep the company of some of the very dangerous men who do dark business in Honduras.
Nobody at my workplace was particularly surprised by either crime. Murder and mayhem is something that touches virtually every Honduran family sooner or later. There's an astounding 19 murders a day here, in a country with a quarter of the population of Canada. And that's not even counting all the robberies, assaults, kidnappings and freaky accidents that routinely happen to Hondurans - from the old guy killed when a load of plastic pipe fell off a truck and knocked him to the ground, to the toddler that drowned in the pila where her mother does the laundry
And yet they have faith. They go to church three or four times a week. They thank God at every opportunity for whatever small thing is going right in their lives. They shrug off the sheer madness of this place as being "God's will," and carry on.
But if this is God's will, how do you explain a place like Canada? I come from a country where churches are closing for lack of a congregation and the number of secular citizens easily outnumbers the religious ones, and yet things are going pretty good there. What kind of God would give a good life to those who don't believe in Him, while endlessly punishing those whose devotion is absolute?
Violent crimes have been decreasing for years in Canada. Murder is a rarity. No Canadian hotel clerk ever has to fear that she will go to a guest's room to shush a noisy party and find so many armed men in the room that all she can do is back out quickly and forget the whole thing, which happened this very weekend here in Copan. (And let me assure you, calling the police is not really an option here.)
I get that faith brings comfort to people living in difficult times. Hondurans need God because life here on Earth is cruel and harsh for so many of them, and if you couldn't believe that things were going to improve in the afterlife you'd probably go crazy.
But maybe a little more crazy is in order right about now. All of this violence isn't God's will, it's just what happens when the rule of law  is completely negated, the tentacles of the massive cocaine industry seep into all facets of life, and a government is too weak and compromised to act. Violence has been normalized in Honduras, and it seems to me that accepting that as God's will is virtually a guarantee that nothing will improve for people here. 
Matthew 18:21-22: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."
Even Jesus had a line in the sand. For the sake of this country, I pray for a little fury amid all that faith.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

When drive-by sales are all you've got

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.
So goes the adage. Spend any time with producers in Honduras, however, and you soon see that if the lesson doesn’t also include helping the guy get his fish to market, he’s still got a big problem.  
Honduras is an agricultural economy. Like farmers everywhere, the average Honduran trying to scratch a living from the earth is beset by all the usual trials and tribulations of farm life:  Not enough rain; too much of it; a hot year; a cold year; insects; tired soil.
 But listening to the 20 or so producers at the two-day workshop we went to this week in Siguatepeque, it became pretty clear that Hondurans also face tremendous problems getting their goods to market. Not only are they unable to afford the costs of moving their goods, there often isn’t a distribution network anyway, let alone a co-ordinated plan for finding markets.
In my past days as a traveller on a two-week vacation, I would have looked out the bus window at all the roadside stands of bananas we saw on the long drive to Siguatepeque and found them charming. I probably would have found it quaint that women and children stand by the highway here waving bags of onions, tortillas, oranges or whatever they’ve got at passing vehicles.
But in fact, that’s the only option most small producers have to market their products. Farm-gate sales for many Honduran growers come down to long, hot days at the side of the highway hoping that some of the vehicles whizzing by at 100 kilometres an hour need a fruit-and-veggie break.
The fish analogy came to mind when we passed the beautiful Lake Yojoa, about an hour outside of San Pedro Sula. All along the highway, local fishermen had their day’s catch hanging on racks at the roadside. They obviously knew how to fish, but what they could have used was some help selling what they caught.
At the workshop – organized by fellow Cuso International volunteers working in Honduras – the plight of the honey producers was particularly enlightening.
Trying to make a living from honey is a challenging undertaking at the best of times. As one of the producers noted ruefully, honey lasts a long time and nobody needs much of it. But the producers in Honduras face the added problem of being unable to afford containers for their honey or transportation to get it to market.
One of the first sights I saw when we came to Copan a couple months ago was a man going door-to-door with wine bottles full of honey.  I took to be an endearing local custom. Nope, just a desperate measure.
Fortunately, the workshop was also heartening affirmation that Hondurans are like that Tubthumper song I like so much: They get knocked down, but they get up again. Far from being discouraged at their lot in life, the producers spent long hours talking about how to improve their sectors.  
The cocoa producers set a date for launching a processing centre where they could all bring dry their beans to dry. The rambutan growers set targets for increasing their yield and expanding into wines and jams. The coffee growers discussed ways to connect directly to markets in the United States and Canada. The honey producers vowed to source out more containers, and more uses for honey.
Teach a man to raise bees and he’ll have honey for a lifetime. But give him a market and he’ll be a whole lot happier. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

This place needs help - but how?

This family relies on pre-schoolers to flog corn-husk dolls to tourists
How do you help a country that has so many problems?
Big, big question. I suspect I'll spend much of my two years here trying to figure that one out. My particular project with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita will probably click along quite nicely, but you can't live in a place with so much poverty and trouble without wishing you could do a whole lot more than that. (Today's headline: Half of the 90 murders a month in San Pedro Sula are committed by kids under 18.)
When I first arrived, I was very enthusiastic about figuring out ways to connect people I know in Canada with Honduran kids who could be sponsored to attend private schools. The public school system is atrocious - giant classes, no supplies, and militant teachers who walk off the job so much (for good reason - some of them haven't been paid in months) that students typically get just 50 days of school in a year. For maybe $100 or $150 a month, it's possible to buy a Honduran youngster a seat in a much better school.
But I'm daunted by the prospect of trying to pick which youngsters would get such a favour, when there's actually millions of them who need the help.
Then there's the added complication of a school system that for most children ends at Grade 6 no matter what, not to mention the pressures that impoverished families put on their kids to quit school and get a job. And as somebody at Cuso International pointed out when I asked about taking on personal projects, what happens to the families when a volunteer inevitably returns home?
In the short term, I'm thinking that the better thing to do might be to focus on a one-off project that helps as many people as possible. For instance, while we were out in the mountain-top pueblo of La Cumbre this weekend helping a group of Texans from First Christian Church dig a new water reservoir for the villagers, I learned that residents actually have a water-treatment plant - a rare thing - but lack the resources to buy the big plastic bottles so that every household can access the treated water.
So for the lack of $5 per household, they don't have clean water. The pueblo is about 70 bottles short - $350 all in. I mean, that's what we'd call a "no-brainer" in Canada. I can make that happen.
My boss tells me there are all kinds of little water projects in the various pueblos that could be done for a few hundred dollars. Access to water is the bane of these villagers' existence - not only do they live largely without vehicles many kilometres away from commercial centres that sell bottled water, they can't afford to buy it anyway.
So maybe I can play a role in matching up a few bucks from my friends and family in Canada with small water projects that will benefit countless Honduran families for years to come. I'd consider that a good use of my time here.
Ultimately, what Honduras could really use is vast international support and pressure on its government from all the "developed" countries and private interests that do business here.
Canada and the U.S. are major trading partners with Honduras. Mining companies from my homeland have shown much enthusiasm for Honduran minerals. If you're taking from a country, don't you have a responsibility to give back?
On paper, Honduras looks like a democratic republic with all kinds of processes, programs and laws in place for the benefit of its citizens. It's a signatory on all the right international agreements guaranteeing equality and happy days for all.
But that's on paper. The reality isn't even close. Why even have all these global conventions and declarations around human rights, universal education, the rights of children and all the other grand-sounding pipe dreams when the international community clearly takes zero responsibility for holding signatories accountable?
I used to find it appalling that the United States was one of the few democracies in the world that refused to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but now I'm  starting to appreciate the honesty. The kids aren't all right in Honduras, Canada, or probably most of the countries that have inked that agreement.
But for now, I guess we'll take things one water bottle at a time.

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.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Cocaine: Running all round my brain

You find yourself thinking about cocaine a lot in a place like this. Blame it on the daily murder reports in the Honduran papers, not to mention the abundance of high-end, shiny new four-by-fours in little towns with no obvious avenues of work that would provide for such vehicular splendor.
While searching for greater understanding about the business end of things I came across a 2009 report from the UN with some excellent information about how the cocaine industry works. (And wouldn't you know it, the farmers get stiffed in this business too!)
U.S. vice-president Joe Biden has been splashing around Honduras in the last few days, and the newspapers have been full of his comments urging Honduras not to listen to Guatemala's talk about decriminalizing illicit drugs like cocaine. Rather than have a real plan for easing the tremendous violence going on in the countries that supply the vast cocaine markets in the U.S. and Europe, Biden is promising to fix things by reducing reduce the demand for cocaine in the U.S.
Sure, Joe. Except that Western countries have been trying to do that for, oh, 30 years now, and it hasn't shown much promise as an intervention. Meanwhile, the cocaine industry in Honduras claims the life of an average 13 people a day, murdered in a business that is vicious, unregulated and beyond anyone's ability to control.
Too often, people think that if you support decriminalization, you must be in favour of  illicit drug use. We've got to get past that. You can hate drug use yet still recognize the complete folly of trying to stop a massive industry just by lecturing our youngsters to just say no.
I think it's unethical for countries whose citizens are responsible for the demand to be leaving the countries that do the work to shoot it out in the streets for a bigger share of this lucrative industry. Illicit cocaine use can be lethal, but what's so evident when you spend time south of the border is that the work of producing and distributing the drug is the real killer. 

Monday, March 05, 2012

If only Copan had a Foo franchise....

Downtown Copan Ruinas, blessedly siren-free
I’ve now been away from B.C. for longer than any period of my life. OK, it’s only been eight weeks, but surely that’s enough time to muse on what I miss and don’t miss about the place.
The last time I was away for (almost) this long – two years ago when we travelled to Vietnam and Thailand for six weeks - the thing I missed the most was not having access to a musical instrument. Fortunately, I brought my accordion with me for this journey, so no worries there.  Overall, I think I’m adjusting nicely to life in a tropical country, something I suspect I’ve been hankering for since I was six and first discovered the glorious feeling of hot sun on my skin while on a family vacation in Penticton.
I do miss some things. But not everything. Let’s start with what I miss:
My family. I’ve never lived further than a few hours from all my immediate family members, and even though I grumbled now and again that I wished it was otherwise, the truth is that I liked it that way.  I think I’ve only missed one Chow family reunion – they’re held every two or three years - since I was 14. But I’ll be missing one this summer, which will also be the first summer in seven years that my partner and I haven’t taken a two-week vacation somewhere in the motor home with our big pack of grandsons. I also miss making music with my youngest daughter Rachelle; I really loved our little gigs at old folks’ homes around Victoria. I hope my kids mean it about coming to visit us in Honduras.
Takeout from Foo Asian Street Food. Man, I love the food at that place. The pad thai, the caramel chicken, the papaya salad. We’re coming home for a week in June, and Foo takeout is definitely on my list of must-haves. So is a big, barely cooked T-bone steak. We’re practically vegetarians in Honduras what with the scarcity of meats in the market.
Sewage pipes capable of handling toilet paper. Down here, you have to put your toilet paper into a garbage bin to avoid plugging the pipes. Yuck. Still, at least they’ve got Western-style toilets that flush and no squats, which I became intimately (and unhappily) familiar with when my mom and I travelled in China last fall.
Healthy, happy dogs.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sight of the sick, sad creatures that pass as “pets” here in Copan. The cats do OK with neglect – you know how cats are – but the dogs just wander around looking like they’re desperate for a good meal and a hearth to curl up on. Please, somebody, come down here and launch a dog-rescue project.
My bird walks through Panama Flats. There are lots of rural roads around here, but there’s no walk that lets you escape the trucks and noisy moto-taxis that tear past on any skinny, potholed dirt road you’ve managed to find. Plus anyone staring intently into the bushes with gigantic binoculars around her neck looks just plain weird down here.
And what I don’t miss:
The constant whine of sirens. I swear, you can’t go 30 minutes without hearing a siren in Victoria. I have a theory – baseless, I admit – that being exposed to so many sirens leaves a person in a chronic state of alarm. Sure, the odds are 54 times higher that you’ll get murdered in Honduras than in Canada, and nobody in their right mind would want to know how the odds of getting assaulted or robbed down here compare. But at least there are no sirens.
Conversations about new furniture and kitchen renovations. One time in Victoria, we had dinner with two other couples and for an hour and a half, they talked about their new mattresses – how thick they were, how much they cost, the pros and cons of a pillow-top. That painful dinner party was a life-changer. Now I live in a house without a sofa (confession: I’d actually like a sofa) in a country where a good mattress for a lot of people is anything that eases the discomfort of sleeping on the dirt floor of their tin-roof shack in the hills.
B.C. politics.  I wouldn’t want to suggest governance is better in Honduras, but at least it’s more honest about its obsessive self-interest and complete disregard for people who are struggling. It was killing me to live in a province and country with so much potential, so much wealth, yet so complacent that one destructive government after another has felt free to come in and loot the place.
Cold, dreary weather. Many people have told me over the years that I’d miss the change of seasons if I lived in a hot country. I always thought they were dead wrong about that. Maybe I’ll miss the long days of spring/summer in Canada – here, it gets dark shortly after 6 p.m. year-round due to the proximity of the Equator – but I do not miss the greyness, the drizzle, the chill in the air or the thought of “hot” summer days that top out at 22 degrees. I love walking out the door every morning knowing I won’t even need a sweater, let alone a warm jacket and a scarf.
So there you go. Some good, some bad, just as you might expect.  But hey, I’m loving the adventure.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Hungry kids today, leaders tomorrow

Children head home after a day harvesting coffee

Whether you’re a kid in Canada or Honduras, your school is going to try to convince you to eat better. I attended a workshop for teachers this week here in Copan Ruinas that was introducing a seven-series program for primary kids that was all about food.
But that’s where the similarities end. While the Canadian efforts are aimed at stopping our kids from getting any fatter, the Honduran course is trying to stave off malnutrition. Listening to the Honduran group outlining the themes of the nutrition course was yet another reminder of just how tough things are in this struggling country.
Like so many other countries, Honduras is a signatory on at least a dozen big international agreements guaranteeing this or that right for the children of the country. But it’s all just words on paper. In the second-poorest country in the Americas, bad things happen to kids every day, and going hungry isn’t even the worst of it.
Honduras has laws prohibiting children from working until they’re 14. But in reality, kids from poor families typically start harvesting coffee when they’re seven.  Every day on my way home from work, a giant truck absolutely jammed with 50 or 60 indigenous kids from the poor communities around Copan trundles by, taking the children home after a day cutting coffee. You just need a glimpse of those tiny little faces peering out from what looks like a cattle carrier to have a new understanding of child slavery.
But what’s to be done about that? Some 65 per cent of Hondurans live in extreme or relative poverty – and relative poverty in Honduras is damn poor, that’s for sure. Families send their kids off to the coffee fields because they’re desperate for the money and the seasonal work pays comparatively well. 
If the country ever did get its act together enough to enforce its own laws around child labour, it would be devastating to families. We in the western world could launch a boycott of coffee harvested by children, but it would be like signing those kids’ death sentence in a country without a shred of social support to break a family’s fall.  One recent international study identified 123,000 Honduran children ages 5 to 14 who were working, including in the deadly lobster-diving industry that claims hundreds of lives a year in this country.   
The school nutrition course delves into subjects that Canadian kids never have to think about. Why your mom and dad feed you only beans and corn. Why a body needs more than that to live on. Where to find wild plants and fruits to bulk up your subsistence diet. Why a household needs money as well as land, because it’s just not possible to grow everything you need (especially on the sides of mountains with 50-70 per cent slopes, which is where the poorest families in Copan live). No surprise that almost a third of children under age five in Honduras suffer stunted growth from poor nutrition.
What’s to be done about all of this? I wish I knew. I’m learning a little more every day about a new, complicated reality, and every day I’m a little less sure what the answer is. I’ve heard that old adage about “planting seeds” a thousand times, and yes, I get it. But when you watch those big trucks rolling by with their cargo of children - or hear about teachers trying to manage classes of 50 or 60 children without desks, school supplies or bathrooms - it’s pretty hard to feel good about planting seeds.
Still, I watch the organization I’m volunteering with working hard with children and young people to create a new generation of leaders in Honduras. I take great heart from the young faces - some no more than nine or 10 years old – sitting at the various planning tables of CASM as genuine participants. Real leaders grow out of a process like that, and this country desperately needs them.