Monday, April 30, 2012

I'll fight, but will I win?

A long, long time ago, I thought of myself as shy. But I left that behind many years ago when I took a job that required asking bold questions of strangers, and it was onward into bigger and bolder from that point on.
Forthright and informed with a touch of indignation can be a very effective strategy for making things happen in Canada. Using the ability to find information that I’d picked up as a journalist and the copy-the-boss-and-the-boss’s-boss strategy that I’d honed in my work with non-profits, I became  quite adept at resolving problems in my work and in my personal life. I even got a cell phone company to back down on a $150 “early cancellation” fee, and I’m sure you can appreciate how challenging that was.
But I’ve met my match in Honduras.   In Canada, I know how to play the role of a polite but clearly unhappy customer prepared to take it up the chain until she gets satisfaction. But I’m lost here, where they just pat your hand and assure you they’re working on your problem even though they’re not.
You keep coming back at them, of course, because your complaint doesn’t get resolved. But the process just repeats – so sorry, we’re looking into that, try again next week, we’ll call you Thursday. And repeats.
Two recent examples, both having to do with Honduran banks.  In the first instance, I waited two long months for a debit card so I could access the stipend that Cuso International pays, as there’s no branch of that particular bank in Copan Ruinas.
If I didn’t want to take an eight-hour return bus ride to San Pedro Sula whenever I needed money, getting my hands on that debit card was essential. But all my Jody powers were useless in the face of a friendly, do-nothing string of nameless bank employees who said all the right soothing things in the moment and then just left me to do it all over again with whoever I ended up dealing with the next time.
I lost track of how many times I heard that my card was on its way – sometimes to Copan, (until the bank quit pretending that it had been mailed to Copan), sometimes to a mysterious shipping agent who took care of such things, sometimes to the bank branch in San Pedro Sula.  I ended up making two trips to San Pedro Sula before the problem was resolved, and a long series of calls and emails to various young dependientes and their bosses as I desperately tried to grasp how it could be this difficult just to get a lousy debit card.
I got it eventually, and for maybe a month all was well. But on Friday I used my card at the ATM I always go to and ran straight into a new banking nightmare.
I knew to be worried when the machine made more grinding noises than usual, and didn’t dish out my cash at the usual speed.  Then it spit out less money than what I’d requested – 3,000 lempiras instead of 4,000, a $50 difference. And no receipt.
Uh-oh, I thought. The bank hadn’t opened yet, so I trotted home to log into my account on-line to see what I could see. It was worse than I expected – the ATM had dinged me for 4,000 lemps that it never gave me, and then another 3,000. That’s a $200 hit, significant money on a volunteer stipend.
I returned to the bank the minute the doors opened, but I pretty much knew how things were going to go. The nice young man at the desk where they send unhappy customers told me that the machine always corrected itself at 3 p.m. every day, so I should just check my bank balance after 3 p.m. and probably everything would be fine. And if it wasn’t, I could come back.
It wasn’t. I came back. And this time I talked to the woman who looks after the ATM, who promptly went into some back room to check and emerged to tell me that everything seemed to be fine with the ATM. Did I have a receipt, she asked? No. Did I have any way of proving that I hadn’t just pocketed those other 4,000 lempiras? No.  With a pleasant smile, she advised me to check my account balance again in a couple days and maybe things would have straightened out– and if not, I could come on back to talk to her.
My partner says the way they do conflict in Honduras is kind of like Muhammad Ali in his prime, all rope-a-dope. You can throw all the punches you like, but the only one who’s going to be worn down by the end of the fight is you.
Today I’ll send an email to my bank in Tegucigalpa, and copy the other bank here in Copan that owns the ATM. I’ll ask to see some kind of documentation that shows the exact timing of those two transactions, in hopes of demonstrating  that it wouldn’t have been possible for me to withdraw two batches of money in what must have been a mere three or four seconds, let alone in a single transaction. The ATMs here only allow you to withdraw 4,000 lempiras at a time, so I plan to make the argument that I couldn’t have withdrawn 7,000 given that I inserted my card only once.
But I’m doing all that only because I can’t bear to give up a fight that easily. I’m betting I’ll never see that $200 again. It infuriates me, but I just know how this is going to go. I guess it’s better that I take the hit and not a hungry Honduran for whom $200 is serious money, although who knows how many of them have had this same frustrating experience?
Then again, even the master of rope-a-dope didn’t win every match.  I just have to learn to fight like Joe Frazier.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The ingredients of a home

I heard myself saying I was happy to be “home” on Tuesday when we dragged back from eight long days in Tegucigalpa.
Home.  I’ve always known I have quite a fluid definition of that word, having lived in some god-awful places that somehow grew to be “home” very quickly to me nonetheless.  But not every place will do.
It needs, for one thing, a good shower. I’ve been blessed to live for the last 20 years in a series of houses that had good showers – lots of pressure, plenty of hot water, no weird smell (I’m very fussy about smell). It needs to  be a place where I can open the door and walk outside, and not just to stick my head out and catch a breath but with room to pull up a chair and sit in the fresh air. The hotel-room experience in Tegucigalpa was a good reminder that I would almost certainly go mad if I had to live in an apartment with no immediate access to the outdoors, which is where I prefer to spend most of my time.
I don’t need a lot of comforts, but I do need a decent bed and a good pillow. I don’t know if it’s a worrying sign that I’ve started to pack my pillow in my suitcase when we travel, but so it goes. And an Internet connection now means “home” to me, especially when I’m so far away from my family and need the instant connections of Facebook and Skype to keep all my loved ones close.
My partner and I have been together for 15 years now, and he’s “home” to me, too. If he’s with me, I feel like I’m at home.There's an Edward Sharpe and theMagnetic Zeros song about that. I think this Cuso volunteering business could be very, very lonely if you came without a partner to help transform your various travails into a grand adventure. Things go wrong all the time down here, but having someone to laugh it off with changes everything. What great fortune to have stumbled into a relationship in which two people are both up for throwing it all in and moving to Honduras.
We spent six weeks travelling in Vietnam a couple years ago and I realized that “home” also meant being able to make music, because I pined for my accordion while we were away. So bringing it was a priority for me this time, and I’m home every time I strap that flashy red girl on and start playing some tunes. Paul had to leave his guitar behind – hard to pack it into the overhead bin – but today he finally bought a very nice replacement, and I know he’s going to feel a lot more at home now, too.
“Home” is also a place where I can get away from people. I admire the Cuso volunteers who are living in group housing in isolated villages somewhere in Africa, but I would have a very tough time with that. I like people well enough, but my dad’s loner spirit courses through me. I’m not an island, but I’m a very small archipelago.
Home doesn’t necessarily mean having a pet. But I have to admit that I worked very hard to lure a skinny stray dog back to our front stoop tonight. “Venga! Venga!” I kept encouraging him as he looked expectantly up the side streets where he was used to finding food. And it worked. He stayed for a couple of hours, ate a big bowl of dog food and gulped down a lot of water before heading off on whatever rounds the street dogs have here. I’m really hoping he comes back, because there’s just something about animals that tells me I’m home as well.
We have an RV back in Canada, and I am always home when I’m in it. I used to put myself to sleep as a kid imagining that I was in a magic space ship that supplied everything I needed and could travel on land, water or air at the push of a button. The RV comes closest to that fantasy of any “home” I’ve ever had, and one day when this international  travel has run its course I hope to get behind the wheel of the Fleetwood Jamboree and discover home in whatever spot we pull up to for the night.
“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself,” said Maya Angelou. I think I’m almost there.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Be careful what you wish for

You need lots of razor wire in a country without governance

We were commiserating over breakfast yesterday with the owner of the little hotel in Tegucigalpa where we stay when on Cuso International business. He described Honduras as a capitalist country without the balance of a social structure, which struck me as a near-perfect description of the place.
Honduras is the real-life embodiment of the kind of governance that conservative political forces in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain think they want for their own countries. It has a free-market economy with very little government interference, a political structure built around the needs of business and the upper-class, and a distinct absence of social supports.
Having lived under governments that could only dream about such things, I'm finding the real deal here in Honduras particularly enlightening. Here you really are free -  free to be as rich as you can possibly be with no worries that anyone will expect you to share even a little of your wealth with the less fortunate, equally free to pass your days in abject poverty with no hope of relief. 
Of course, Western governments shape the dream a little differently when they're trying to sell it to their citizens. British Prime Minister David Cameron came up with that whole "Big Society" business to dress up his government’s massive cuts to social spending.
The theory behind a Big Society – popular with the B.C. and Canadian governments as well – is that when governments withdraw social supports, communities step up to close the gap. Volunteerism increases. Citizens draw closer to their neighbours as each takes more responsibility for helping the other. Everybody lives happily ever after, and pays fewer taxes to boot.
So let’s consider the example of Honduras, then. It’s a Big Society if ever there was one, seeing as government does almost nothing and communities really are on their own. An outsider might presume a deeply ingrained culture of neighbourly support in a country like this.
But what the absence of social supports has actually created is a culture of survival. People are so used to living with the fear that the bottom could drop out of their lives at any moment -  because it so often does – that all their energies go to taking care of their own. From what I've seen, Honduran families watch out for their family members in all kinds of ways, but anything outside of the family is somebody else’s problem.
A story in Sunday’s La Tribuna made this point quite nicely. The rather tragic public school system is on the verge of collapse in Honduras for all kinds of reasons, but this story focused on youngsters at one particular school who have to sit on the floor for their six hours of class because they have no chairs.
It turns out that there are chairs at the school; the parents of the students who come in the morning (schools have two shifts of students a day) fundraised to buy them. But the chairs are locked up after the morning session. A parent spokesman for the morning group said that if the afternoon students wanted chairs, then it was up to their parents to do their own fundraising.
Ah, now there’s community spirit for you. And you can’t even blame the morning parents for having that attitude, because in a culture of scarcity they’re probably right to fear what might happen to those chairs if they start sharing them around.
But it gives the lie to the myth that conservative governments like to feed us, about how we’ll all get more caring and sharing once we’re not so reliant on government.
Another example: Garbage on the streets. Individual Hondurans appear to be tidy people at home, sweeping up their front stoops every day and picking up whatever trash careless passersby have thrown in front of their houses. But as soon as you get to an empty lot or a vacant house, the garbage accumulates at an alarming rate.
People take responsibility for their own tiny piece of the environment. But nobody takes responsibility for the whole. There are no community clean-up crews, nobody doing anything about the de facto dumps that develop along river banks or on quiet back roads.
The rivers and lakes are polluted, because whose job is it to do something about that? The trees fall in the forest – in the last 15 years, Honduras has lost 45 per cent of its trees to illegal logging and fires – but if it’s not your land, it’s not your problem. I suspect Westerners would be no different if there really was no government resources, no authority, no chain of responsibility.
How bad can it get in the land of the “free”? How’s this: A terrible highway collision (common here, because whose going to take responsibility for road improvements if not government?) takes the lives of eight people. Before the ambulances can even retrieve the bodies, passersby have stripped the dead of their wallets, jewelry and other valuables.
Heinous behaviour to cultures that haven’t had to experience life as a survivor. Here in the land of the free, it’s just another day.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Michener nomination for TC writers well-deserved

Very exciting news to discover that Paul and I, riding on the extensive coattails of Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines, have been nominated for a Michener Award along with TC columnist Les Leyne. But I wish the nomination also came with the power to roll back all the damage done to B.C. families whose devastating circumstances were the subject of that series of articles.
The Michener Award is given each year to a Canadian newspaper that can demonstrate that its coverage of an important issue in its community or province led to real change. Lindsay's dogged reporting last year on the closure of group homes for people with developmental disabilities did exactly that. By the time the dust settled this past January, the cabinet minister responsible for Community Living B.C. had resigned, the CEO of the agency had been fired, $40 million in new money had been found and the B.C. government had pledged to stop closing group homes.
Happy ending? More or less. But dozens of people lost their group homes before the government backed down, and they're not going to get their placements back. For better or worse, they're in private homes now. Some are no doubt very happy with that, because they didn't need the structure of a group home and will thrive in more of an independent setting. But others had been very happy where they were living, and it's damn cruel that they and their families had to endure the trauma of being wrenched away from familiar places and faces in homes that some of them had lived in for 20 years or more. Here's an archive of my blogs from 2010-2011 on this subject, and you can find Lindsay's stories and more here.
Still, let's celebrate the moment. Lindsay did a heck of a job by staying on this story for more than a year. The Times Colonist was the first B.C. newspaper to give significant publicity to the issue of group-home closures, and the only one that provided prolonged coverage. And the Michener judges noticed. Credit is also due to the plucky activist group MOMS, which worked hard to keep this issue alive and helped identify many families willing to talk to media.
Given the up-and-down history of community living supports in B.C. over the last five decades, I fear this won't be the last time a public campaign will need to be waged on behalf of families and advocates of people with developmental disabilities. But at least the good guys won this time. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Honduran upper class has a role to play

The more a government does, the less its citizens have to do. Garbage in the street, bruised child in the house next door, stray dog barking all night long - in a well-developed democracy like Canada, there's some government body or another to turn to for any of those problems, and an MLA or city councillor to yell at if nothing happens.
Honduras is the other side of the coin. It's a country where there's nobody but you to take responsibility for anything. If somebody's old wreck of a couch turns up outside your door, if the neighbour's child is clearly neglected and possibly abused, if a pack of starving dogs is howling and fighting every night around 2 a.m. just down the road, you've basically got two choices: Take things into your own hands or shut up and live with it.
I don't know what conditions have to be in place before communities unable to rely on government inrtervention come together to launch citizens' initiatives to deal with shared problems. What are the factors that give rise to service clubs, for instance, or Neighbourhood Watch programs? What prompts churches to lift their vision beyond the needs of their congregation and reach out to the broader community?
Those are questions that Honduras communities would do well to ponder. The 3.5 million Hondurans who live in extreme poverty can be excused for not being able to summon the resources for anything beyond keeping their family alive, but what's stopping the other four million from doing more? Why do they tolerate such massive problems in their communities, such ineffective governance?
If you're poor in Honduras, life can be pretty damn miserable. But it can be pretty damn miserable if you're rich, too. All the money in the world won't save you from the country's car-eating potholes, random violence, garbage-strewn and contaminated rivers, and starving feral dogs that bark all night long.
Even if they were acting solely out of self-interest, I'd have expected to see more community initiatives underway at the hands of middle-class and wealthy Hondurans, if only because they were good and fed up with having to build higher and higher walls around their houses and hire more and more security guards to accompany their families on virtually every outing. Wouldn't they, too, like a clean lake and a green park for their kids to play in? (A writer for Honduras Weekly also wonders why the rich aren't doing more.)
The general explanation given for why so little happens here is that narco-trafficantes control everything. But that explains nothing to me, because surely narco-trafficantes want better roads and more security in their daily lives as much as anybody. Why would working in an illegal industry automatically exclude you from wanting better for your country?
Honduras feels like a country that's waiting for change. Unfortunately, that comes from within. Some of the most important work I see my organization and other NGOs doing is educating young people on the rights and responsibilities of living in a democracy, and how change starts with one person choosing to do things differently.
But somebody's got to get some action going among the rich Hondurans, too. With significant homegrown wealth here, it's not right to leave the mess for coming generations and other countries to solve.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A fine line between cautious and boring

My partner and I have heard all the cautions about not taking buses like the one we took today, and we take them seriously. But if you’ve travelled much, you know how it can be sometimes. Just because you know you shouldn't doesn't mean you won't. 
Honduras has a reputation for bus robberies in areas close to the big cities. The bus stops, a bad man with a gun gets on, and suddenly everybody’s getting robbed. Or a gang sets up a roadblock and demands that everybody on the bus pay a “war tax” before the bus can pass through.
It was one such robbery that prompted the Peace Corps to pull all 158 of its volunteers out of the country late last year. One of their volunteers accidentally got shot in the leg when a passenger on the bus she was on started shooting it out with a robber who had boarded the bus.
Those kinds of stories have given rise to bus companies like Hedman Alas, which for $17 a person will take you from Copan Ruinas to San Pedro Sula in a big, comfy high-end bus with an armed guard on board and no stops anywhere along the route. Free pop and a bag of chips, too.
I like a safe, comfortable bus ride as much as the next person, so that was the bus we took today to San Pedro Sula. But we’d also planned to spend the weekend at  Lake Yojoa en route to Tegucigalpa, our ultimate destination. Lake Yojoa is about midway between the two cities, but Hedman Alas doesn’t stop. And that’s how we ended up on the El Mochito bus, two aging gringos looking hopelessly out of place, shoving big backpacks into overhead bins that weren’t built for backpacks and stretching our feet into the aisle to give aching knees a break from leg room suited to people at least six inches shorter.
We’ve ridden a lot of those kinds of buses in Mexico, and I’ve always liked them. The guy who drives the bus is usually the owner, so the dashboard and windshield is typically decorated with various figurines, stickers, prayers and memorabilia of significance to the driver. And there’s always some young kid standing in the door well, whose job it is to hustle up and down the aisle collecting fares and also to get you and your luggage on and off the bus as quickly as possible so the driver can cram more pickups into the day.
The windows have to be open because there’s no air-conditioning, which suits me just fine. And there’s always something going on to take your mind off the long trip: people getting on and off with bulky packages; children dripping their ice-cream cones on your foot; vendors riding for a stop or two in hopes of selling you whatever food or drink they’ve got going on. (Today it was horchatas – sweetened soy milk served in little bags with straws – and big cookies sprinkled with a burnt sugar-cinnamon topping.)
Another big upside to this kind of bus is that it’s really cheap. While the Hedman Alas ride cost us $17 each for a three-hour trip, we were on the El Mochito for almost as long and paid $2.
But of course, there are stops galore, each one an opportunity for armed robbery or some other malfeasance. On the outskirts of San Pedro in particular – it is, after all, the murder capital of the world – I felt a small clutch of anxiety whenever the bus was approaching a young man in the middle of the road waving his arms around, at least until we got close enough to see that it was just somebody selling slushy drinks, a bag of oranges, tortillas.
Happily, we arrived quite safely in Lake Yojoa. And I was reminded again of how very hard it is to find the balance between caution and denying yourself interesting experiences while travelling. Bad things can happen, but mostly they don’t.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Your tax dollars at work

Ah, Victoria - I'd almost forgotten what a crazy little city you are. But here's a story to remind me. The City of Victoria and an aboriginal woman who does housecleaning are headed for a court battle over the little posters she'd put up on a few telephone poles to advertise her services.
Slippery-slope arguments are big in Victoria, I do remember that. So I'm sure the City is worried that if you let one person looking for work tack up a little poster with some of those tear-off phone numbers at the bottom, pretty soon you'll have a thousand people looking for work doing the same thing. And you sure can't have that.
I don't know if the City has encountered Meaghan Walker before, but I hope they're ready for one heck of a fight. She's from the Cowichan Tribes and knows how to do battle.
 Her position is that she's an aboriginal and has the right to do what she wants on aboriginal land, which is a pretty big hammer to have to use when the issue is 8x11 pieces of paper stuck on telephone poles. But it's potentially effective, as the City already knows from having had to concede the rights of aboriginal craftspeople to sell their wares along the causeway without adhering to the rules that non-aboriginal sellers are bound by.
The City loves a legal fight, whatever the costs. I've always been puzzled by why city taxpayers tolerate the costly court cases, especially when the City loses so often. But I've never lived in Victoria proper and so was always just an amused observer of whatever war was being fought.
They seemed petty and poorly considered when I lived there, and from my viewpoint here in Honduras they now just seem so very small and sad.People, there are bigger things to worry about than posters on telephone poles. Meaghan - you go, girl. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Un dia, todo sera claro

Really, debería escribir esto en español. But then you’d have to use Google Translate to read it, and who knows how that would turn out?
It was a scarce five months ago that I got serious about learning Spanish. I’m not there yet, but just this week I’ve started to feel like I might actually be able to do this. It’s been a humbling and frustrating experience, but knowing that one day soon I might actually be conversant in this language that I’ve always loved completely thrills me.
When we first arrived in Honduras, one of the other Cuso International volunteers here told me there would be a moment when it would all become clear. I’m still waiting, but I did notice that this week at the Monday morning devotional at my workplace, I understood almost all of what was being said. I even felt sufficiently emboldened to pipe up with a sentence or two.
Sure, it’s the cumulative effect of Spanish classes and the Spanish novels and newspapers I’m making myself read, and the all-Spanish work environment that includes the rather terrifying challenge of writing funding proposals in Spanish. But I also think Spanish television has a lot to do with it, being as we just got a TV and cable a couple weeks ago. There’s nothing like struggling to understand what the heck they’re saying in the movie you’re trying to watch to really sharpen your listening skills.
Probably 10 years ago when I first tried to learn Spanish, I read an article in a Mexican magazine that talked about how anyone older than 14 or so had to learn a new language in a different part of the brain. When you’re a kid, you learn language just by hearing it spoken around you, without having to attach any logical explanation to any of it. But once you get past a certain age the learning moves to a part of your  brain that demands to know why you have to do things a certain way.
It was strangely comforting to discover that, because I’d already noticed by then that I was constantly looking for an understanding of why you used a certain tense, a certain structure, a certain turn of phrase. Unfortunately, what that other-part-of-the-brain business really means is that you have to understand Spanish grammar if you’re ever going to get the language down.
I grew up in B.C., which has been home to a lot of flaky learning strategies over the years (remember classrooms without walls?). My graduating class of 1974 had the distinction of being the cohort that never learned grammar. So there’s a certain irony in learning the rules of grammar for the first time some 40 years after finishing school. But what the heck.
The best thing I did was to pick teachers whose first language was Spanish (Jose Bermudez Cuadros in Victoria is great for one-on-one classes). There’s no way you’re going to grasp pronunciation if you’re learning from a non-native speaker with their own foreign accent, and the worst of it is you’ll never even know that their pronunciation is off.
And the other best thing I did was pick teachers who were fussy about grammar. It was boring sometimes and I hated having to internalize all the rules, but what it has meant is that I now know how to create a sentence even if I don’t always have all the necessary words at my command. Vocabulary comes with time, but you’re lost if you don’t know how to put the words together.
As I’ve learned the hard way, sentence structure is virtually as important as vocabulary for understanding (and being understood in) a new language. All those hours of drilling pronouns and verb tenses are starting to pay off. I still write Spanish like an English speaker, but at least I’m getting the hang of where to put all those se’s and lo’s that are thrown around like confetti in Spanish.
I used to wonder what it would be like to be a dog. I empathized with our late dog Jack as he got thrown into the car or the motor home with no idea of where he was going or when he’d be back. And now I know, having passed many puzzling work days with no real idea of what’s happening around me or why they’re telling me to get in the back of the truck.
But one bonus of not speaking the language is that you pay much more attention to non-verbal cues. I first noticed that phenomenon in my sister-in-law Grace, a relatively new transplant from China who I soon realized could “read” things in our family interactions that I had completely missed. I get that now, having seen how a lack of language skills prompts you to watch people much more acutely as you desperately try to get a read on a situation. It’s a good reminder to shut your ears off once in a while.
Ya bastante, as they say in Spanish – enough already. When I’m dreaming in Spanish, I’ll know I’ve arrived. 

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Tough to be a tourist town in Honduras

Good Friday procession
We've made it through our first Semana Santa in a Latin American country, an experience that we’ve been hearing out (and studiously avoiding) for years now. Indeed, things were the busiest we’ve seen them in Copan yesterday since we arrived here, but the hordes of travellers we’d been bracing for never did really materialize.
A few people told us when we got placed here by Cuso International that Copan was a “tourist town” where there was so much English spoken that we might have a hard time learning Spanish. I suspect it must have been quite some time ago when such people last visited Copan, because the reality these days is a very quiet town that I’m sure would love more tourists but in fact doesn't see that many. Copan certainly has a gentler feel, more gringos and nicer restaurants than other Honduran towns of its size, but the tourist business still seems very tough these days. 
There are a couple backpackers’ inns that are very popular with young travellers from Europe, the U.S. and Canada, but they pass through in a couple of days and for the most part don’t wander much farther than the bars closest to the inns. There are a couple of restaurants frequented by the gringos - a term in common use here - but the little street market where the locals try to flog made-in-China jewellery rarely has browsers, let alone buyers. There’s a ridiculously overpriced souvenir shop or two selling made-in-Honduras crafts at prices that I’m sure the artisans would be quite stunned by, but buyers appear scarce in those stores as well.
Horseback rides to La Pintada are popular with tourists
The horseback riding guides seem to do pretty well here. And I imagine everybody pays a visit to the ruins. A couple of the hotels benefit from the two-day excursions to Copan from Guatemala and San Pedro Sula, but for the most part the town looks like it’s in waiting. I’m told that June, July and August are the peak tourist months because Americans take their summer holidays then, smack-dab in the middle of the Honduras rainy season. But you have to hope it’s a real cracker-jack of a tourist season if businesses need to sustain themselves for a year on three months’ worth of tourist dollars.
The travellers here for Semana Santa are almost exclusively other Hondurans, looking much more monied and middle-class than the typical Copan resident. I’m guessing they’re on a break from the big cities, enjoying a small-town weekend and drawn by the Good Friday festivities, which include the creation of a beautiful alfombra – carpet – that volunteers create in the streets using coloured sawdust to depict biblical scenes.  The Catholic church also organizes a big procession that starts at the main church in the city centre and moves through 14 stages of the cross on its way to another church on the hill, returning in the night to walk on (and destroy) the alfombra.
The beautiful alfombra
The local restaurants were busy for the first time ever last night, at least the ones lucky enough to be situated in the two-block zone that tourists visit. A recurrent theme during the Catholic procession yesterday was that Hondurans need to remember that Semana Santa isn’t a “summer holiday,” it’s a time for religious observance. But I’m quite sure Copan merchants are very, very happy this weekend that Hondurans don’t appear to be paying a lot of attention to such admonitions.
Did this place ever bustle with tourists? Maybe, but a coup in 2009 and a constant diet of scary-Honduras stories in the world press have doubtlessly taken their toll. Copan also feels like a town that needs to wake itself up a little and figure out more options for keeping travellers in place for longer than a day or two. A town can only cruise on ancient Mayan ruins for so long.
But the stalled-out work on a city museum is underway again and a few new sculptures have appeared in the town park, which is otherwise just a stretch of concrete with a few food vendors and one of those pan-pipe guys selling CDs. The president was here late last year vowing that Honduras was going capitalize on all the 2012 end-of-the-world hype.
For the sake of all the Copan restaurants that will be sitting largely empty come Monday, I hope he meant it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Sometimes all you can do is do

My partner Paul, with Emily

So I did end up going to the Angelitos Felices foster home Monday, bearing a watermelon as planned. The director wasn’t in, but I went back the next morning – this time with a couple of bags of little plum-like fruit that’s in season right now. One of the women called the director at home and she came to meet me there.
We spent a couple of hours talking and wandering around the place, my Spanish having improved to the point that I can finally indulge my journalistic curiosities in the native language. And there’s nothing like a home for children without families in a developing country to get the curiosity going, especially one that so many people in Copan seem to have an opinion about.
I don’t know what to make of the place, which I guess is why I’m just going to start volunteering there. Time will tell whether it’s a good place or a bad one, but either way there are 38 kids living there who can use all the help they can get. I know I can make myself useful.
I’ve never been in an orphanage in Canada or anywhere else, so I have little to compare this one to. It’s dark, smelly, devoid of toys and with too few beds for too many children, but that could be said about much of the housing in the impoverished pueblos all around Copan. The food is mostly beans and tortillas, but that, too, is what poor families (and wealthy ones as well) eat in Honduras. 
There’s no outside space suitable for the children to play – not uncommon either in this town without a playground or a green space. But unlike other kids in Copan, these ones have too many developmental problems to just be left to run around in the streets.
The upstairs balcony where the children once got at least a little fresh air is currently off-limits because one of the iron safety bars is missing (I’ve made a note of that one for a quick fix, as soon as I find someone who can do a little welding). So for the most part the children pass the day entertaining themselves in the big, empty room on the main floor, where the gloom is barely broken by the light from a single window at the front of the building.
Any good-hearted Westerner wants to imagine abandoned children living in clean, jolly places full of toys, jungle gyms, gentle caregivers and loads of nutritional food. But that’s not how it is for the majority of children in Honduras even when they’ve got their own families, and I guess it’s not surprising that things would be just that much worse for children who the state has removed from their homes, which is how most of these kids came to be at Angelitos.
In a place like Honduras, where so many kids have it rough at the best of times, you don’t want to think about how dire a family situation would have to be before the Instituto Hondureno de La Ninez y La Familia would remove a child. And that’s all they do – there appears to be no funding or much follow-up after that.
It can’t be easy for a child to end up without family in Honduras. The norm here is sprawling extended families that all live near each other – there are whole pueblos where everybody is related. Any child that doesn’t get taken in by another family member when their own parents die or fall apart must be a very isolated child indeed, or one with more problems than struggling family members can handle. Several of the children at Angelitos appear to have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; others have physical disabilities.
I asked the woman at the home where the children would live if not there. They’d either be on the streets or dead, she told me. I’m sure those grim fates await many of them even so, seeing as they can only stay at the orphanage until they’re 14. She wants to do better, and talks of a separate facility for the older kids where they could learn a trade. But most of her energy goes to looking for the day-to-day money to keep the doors open at the site she’s got, a problem that anyone who has ever run a non-profit can relate to. Operating costs just aren’t sexy.
Others in Copan have dreams of a better orphanage, and I’ve connected with them to see where I can help. But in the meantime, I’ll just keep showing up at this place and do what’s within my reach. I’m a doer more than a dreamer, and I know that there’s always room in any project for two more hands and a heart. Tomorrow, we’ll start with finger-painting.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Knock on enough doors and one will open

I’m not one who handles inactivity well, and I find myself looking around for more projects in Copan.
My Cuso placement is a project, of course. But at the moment that one is still taking shape and I don’t yet have enough to do at work.
That will change over time, especially if the funding comes through next month for a public-awareness campaign for young people that the Comision de Accion Social Menonita hopes to do in the runup to the 2013 Honduran national elections.
But in this moment I have time on my hands, and am casting about for constructive ways to rectify that.  It’s much more of a challenge in a new community, especially one so tightly tied to church and family.
That last phrase sounds a bit ridiculous even as I write it, seeing as a community tightly tied to church and family should be exactly the kind of place suited to the work I most like to do. But I am the outsider in this instance – the foreigner without either church or family in Honduras, and with all the baggage that any do-gooder foreigner brings in a country that hasn’t exactly had a history of successful encounters with outside interests.
It’s certainly not a question of who needs help here. As far as I can tell, almost everybody does.  The dogs are starving. The kids don’t have playgrounds, let alone toys, books or anything resembling a “green space” where they might go to blow off a little steam or release the darker energies that can develop in adolescents with absolutely nothing to do. Fun for teenagers in Copan is the local billiard hall.
Their parents need work. The streets need cleaned. Even the local businesses could use help, most having a rather limited sense of how to market themselves or the specialties of Honduras to the busloads of tourists who blast into town for a day or two. (The classic example of that is the Chorti women who make quite beautiful table linens that they sell in a virtually invisible location in the impoverished pueblo of La Pintada, where the only buyers are occasional groups of dusty tourists led up there on horseback.)
Every afternoon I walk past the string of rough little cantinas along my route to work and see the local sex workers dancing with the drunken men who frequent the tiny bars. Sex workers will always have my heart, but I sense it’s too soon for that one.  The intentions of the gringa would likely be  misunderstood at this point. For now I’ll just make a point of saying hello every time I pass by, and we’ll see where that leads.
I’d like to make music with local children, and have put that offer out there to a few Copanecans. We could start with clapping and singing and work up to the kazoos that one of my daughters has offered to ship down here. I sense the kids could use a little more joy in their lives, and making music is such a joyful act.
But people are busy with their own stuff, and I can’t fault the locals I’ve talked to for not getting back to me yet with suggestions on how I can make this happen. I’m generally a self-sufficient type happy to take responsibility for making my own projects happen, but that’s a tall order in a new country and culture with none of the organizational mechanisms I’m used to.
Even trying to organize the purchase of 70 big water bottles for a village that needs them to access treated water has turned out to be a frustrating exercise in waiting for others to open doors for me. It isn’t an option here to just phone up the water-bottle company and say, “Hey, how much?” because there are mysterious channels to go through first and no simple way for my partner and I – in our new carless state – to get the bottles from Point A to Point B even then.
I visited a foster home the other day, Angelitos Felices, and it was every bit the dark, sad place that you might expect of such a place in a developing country. I laid awake last night thinking: Could I start here? There are lots of rumours in town about the place but they don’t appear to have led to much change to this point. Meanwhile, more than 30 children are passing their young lives in conditions that can only be preparing them for a life of poverty and crime as adults.
Today I’m going to show up at the door with a watermelon and just see what happens. Maybe they’ll let me in.