Monday, October 29, 2012

Dog days in Copan

I have a new appreciation for the politics of dogs since moving to Honduras. Our beloved dog Jack taught me a lot about the ways of dogs during 14 years of enjoying his company, but I'm seeing a whole new side to them now that I live in a place where they largely set their own rules.
The most obvious downside to life as a Copan dog is that virtually all of them look like they're starving to death. Whatever traces of wolf remain in the domesticated dog of today, the ability to hunt down food appears to have been reduced to a desperate rooting through garbage in search of  scant leftovers of tortillas and beans. Cats may  turn feral quite easily in the absence of people, but dogs just end up looking sad and hungry.
On the upside, a Copan dog does have its freedom. Street dogs and owned dogs alike wander wherever they like. They roam late into the night, barking and howling whenever the urge strikes them and clearly spending very little time worrying how their human neighbours feel about that.
 They can poo without shame on any surface that strikes their fancy. They can stretch out for a nap on a hot bit of sidewalk with no concern that passers-by will do anything more than perhaps give them a kick to move them out of the way. They can mate with abandon in town and country alike, and have as many litters of puppies as a short street-dog life allows (although all the skin-and-bone pregnant females around here does hint that this pleasure is most enjoyed by the town's abundant population of unneutered males).
Anyone who has a heart for animals will start feeding the dogs of Copan sooner or later. For me, it started with a handful of dog food and a few leftovers set out on the front stoop at night, and has grown to the point where we now go through five pounds of dog food every 10 days.
 One of the dogs actually scratches at the back door now if I don't get the morning rations out on time. Another, who we've affectionately dubbed Black Stink Dog, has the disconcerting habit of just staring pleadingly through the glass until I notice her.
It's through these daily feedings that I'm getting to know how it is for dogs when they make the rules.
 A newcomer to Copan might presume that if somebody is putting food out in a town where virtually every dog is chronically hungry, that would soon attract every dog from miles around. But no. There are dog rules that appear to limit which dogs are allowed to walk unharassed down a specific street, so the Jody Paterson-Paul Willcocks feeding station can be frequented only by those that the Dog Politic allows.
I wouldn't presume to know all the rules of those politics. Certainly the fact that a dog lives on your street appears to be a major factor in whether it can feel free to snack at your door. But I'm noticing that a dog in that position is also able to invite other dogs to participate in the banquet.
The first time I saw this was when the little brown dog we feed all the time brought down the bigger shepherd mix that lives in the same household about half a block away from our house.
One day the little dog had already been by to eat, but ducked through the gate a second time in order to scratch at the back door as notification that her buddy was patiently waiting on the front step. I would have dismissed this event as coincidence had it not started to happen every time Big Black Dog (oh, we're clever with the naming conventions in this household) showed up hungry.
More recently, we started feeding Black Stink Dog, who was ridiculously thin and appeared to be nursing puppies when she first showed up. She was so skittery that at first I could barely touch her ear through the gate without making her jump back, but she's quickly turned into an affectionate and cheerful dog able to make herself impossibly compact for the purposes of squeezing between the lattice of the gate to enjoy a meal in the safety of the enclosed patio.
She put on weight quickly with a regular daily meal. After three weeks of consistent morning meals and a little affection, she brought around a pathetic looking bag-of-bones dog the other day and let him have first crack at the bowl of food. When he was halfway through the bowl, she gave a growl and he skulked off, leaving her to eat the rest. She brought him around again today, but this time let him have as much as he wanted.
A couple of days later, Big Black Dog did the same thing. He showed up with a sorry-looking dog covered in sores and stepped back to let the sick dog eat first.
Just like humans, things go better for the free-range dogs of Copan that understand social interaction. The tourists who feed street dogs in the town park are naturally going to be drawn to the ones wagging their tails and fixing their big, hopeful eyes on the kebab the gringo just purchased at the food kiosk. The dogs too wary to interact comfortably with people - badly abused as puppies, perhaps? - are always the skinniest and most disease-ridden, which no doubt just makes it even less likely that people share food with them.
I could see that a person could get very angry with how it is for the dogs of Copan. The more I see of them, the more I'm convinced that the dream life for most dogs is to have a human who both feeds and loves them.
When it rains, I see the longing in the face of the little brown dog that is our most frequent visitor, who likes nothing better than to take shelter in our house during a downpour and stretch out for a sleep under the kitchen table. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
But then the sun comes out, and off she goes to chase down whatever interesting smell has caught her attention out there in the streets. For better or worse, she's free to go wherever her nose leads.
It's a dog's life. But I'm not so sure she'd want to give it up now. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

When the culture no longer serves you well, change it

One of the workshops at the Conference on Honduras last week was on cultural differences, a subject I have much interest in now that I live here. It gave me lots to think about, including if there are times when a country really ought to consider whether certain aspects of its culture are hindering progress.
That probably sounds like a very colonial thing to say. History is littered with countries scarred by invasive cultures that arrived uninvited and proceeded to try to change everything.
I´m not endorsing that practice. But surely there´s no harm in a population checking in with its culture from time to time to see if it´s still serving the country well.
Understanding the less obvious aspects of Honduras culture is still a work in progress for me. I´ve found the country to be surprisingly welcoming and warm to a foreigner who´s only now getting a grip on the language. But I can´t say as I´ve warmed to everything about life in Honduras.
What I heard at the workshop reinforced some of my personal experiences: That the culture hates conflict to the point that lies are acceptable if they´re done to avoid an unpleasant situation; that nothing is a sure thing even if you´ve got a signed document saying that it is (the woman doing the workshop called that a “high context” versus a “high contract” culture); that hierarchies are to be respected even when the actions of the higher-ups in fact ought to land them a smack upside the head.
Experiencing a different culture is one of the things I like most about travel, especially the .  unspoken aspects that aren´t written down anywhere but nonetheless govern the way people in the country live their lives. Travel is an excellent reminder  that there are many ways to live a life.
And if people are for the most part healthy, happy, hopeful and productive in a particular country, then clearly the culture is working. There´s no “right” culture in a world where everybody does things a little differently.
But there´s the rub for Honduras. Almost 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and nobody´s happy about that. The rich are stinking rich and reluctant to share. The public school system is plagued by teacher strikes, poorly equipped, and inadequate for preparing young Hondurans for these global times.  The public health-care system is a mess, on every front from the quality of medical care to the timely distribution of medicines.
The roads are disastrous. The murder rate is among the highest in the world. The justice system is almost non-existent. The spectre of widespread hunger and death is never far from view, especially now that climate change is threatening the corn and bean crops that sustain so many rural families. The population is deeply unhappy, their discouragement revealed in national polls that routinely find the vast majority have given up on hoping for a better day.
With the exception of Haiti, Honduras is virtually alone in Latin America in its decline on virtually every front that citizens of the world use to gauge a happy, healthy life – income level, employment, overall health, infant mortality, education, stable and democratic governance. So you´d have to say that things aren´t exactly going well here.
Culture can´t be blamed for all of that, of course. But neither can it be dismissed entirely when thinking about how to improve things in Honduras. You could blame all the country´s problems on the government, or drug trafficking, or the CIA. But you still find yourself back at the same root problem  - that if there are ever going to be improvements, the people who live here are simply going to have to get past some of their cultural tendencies and do things differently.
If you don’t challenge the hierarchy even when it´s doing stupid stuff, for instance, it continues to do stupid stuff. Simmering resentment of poor decisions from on high also breeds  passive-aggressive behavior, in which people agree on the surface but meanwhile register their unhappiness by withdrawing co-operation.
 I see that frequently in my workplace. It´s a huge hindrance to productivity, and shuts out the people whose input could have made all the difference in resolving a problem or building a better widget.  In the big picture, that cultural quirk also means government institutions aren´t held accountable, even while public disillusion grows.
If contracts are viewed as things to be honoured only when you personally know the people involved (that´s what “high context” means), that´s a significant hindrance to doing business with anyone from outside your personal network. Perhaps there was a time when Hondurans could afford to do business only with the people in their personal network, but it´s long passed at this point.
As for the culture of saying whatever comes to mind in the moment to avoid conflict – well, that has to be revealed as the recipe for conflict that it really is. When I had a conflict with a Copan bank a few months back, my happiness with the cheery bank personnel who assured me that I need only  come back tomorrow to have all my problems solved wore thin pretty quickly when I returned the next day to discover that it wasn´t true. I can´t imagine how frustrating that cultural practice must be to people caught up in much grander problems.
There´s much to love about the many cultures of the world. There´s much to love about Honduras, as I´m reminded in this very moment as I hear my neighbours gathering outside for the easy conversations that go on night after night on the street where we live.
But when a country´s culture is hurting its citizens more than it helps, something´s got to give. Sure, the gringos have to adapt, but a country losing ground on all the measures that count needs to consider its own role in perpetuating problems. Some things we call culture are really just bad habits.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

So many big hearts, so many starfish

I've spent most of the last three days at the Conference On Honduras, an annual event that has grown into something of a Copan institution after relocating here from Washington, DC a decade ago. It was a heartening reminder of what people can accomplish when they care.
The conferences are  put together by a volunteer board headed up by Marco Caceres, editor of the on-line English-language newspaper Honduras Weekly. The yearly event started out as a way to showcase the many groups and individuals working at the grassroots level to tackle the complex problems of the country, but it works equally well as a forum for sharing stories, miseries and miracles from the front lines.
What brings people to a developing country to try to make a difference? Every person working abroad would have a story for how that came about in their own life,. But I'd guess from the stories I heard at the conference that a striking number involve people who come to Honduras not expecting to stay and then see something that they just can't walk away from.
It was one of those conferences that really summons the starfish story, which is perhaps why a video of that fable opened the event. You know the one, about the child who comes upon the terrible scene of beached and dying starfish stretching far into the distance and sets about throwing one starfish after another back into the sea.
Not everybody has a taste for starfish rescue as a metaphor for social change. Let's face it, we'll be gently returning starfish to the sea forever unless we also put time into figuring out what the heck is depositing them onto the sand.
But that's not to take away anything from the many good projects that smart people with big hearts are introducing to Honduras. Maybe it's only one starfish at a time, but the cumulative effect is impressive.
One of my favourite presentations was from a professor at William Jewell liberal arts college in Kansas, which is doing some amazing work to lift up a little village of 20 households in Honduras. Along the way, the project is also changing the lives of the university students who execute the practical, community-driven projects.
Then there's the engineering consultants with Emergent Engineers, which is working to improve the 50-per-cent failure rate of Honduras water projects through better planning. One project near Copan will now bring water to 900 people instead of 200, just because an engineer who knew about such things took a look at the plan and pointed out that moving the tank to a higher hill would make a huge difference.
And I've always admired Urban Promise, the Copan-based youth organization that is helping create a new generation of engaged Honduran community leaders. If you want to change the future of a country, empower its young people.
The founders of each of those organizations have stories of coming to Honduras for whatever short-term reason  - to help with Hurricane Mitch, to teach English for a year, to volunteer for the Peace Corps - and then seeing an opportunity to do even more.
As the conference highlighted, such people are unbelievably creative when they put their minds to figuring out how to respond to complex problems. They then set about raising an impressive amount of money and human capital to make things happen. This world owes much to people like that.
Of course, challenges persist. While many caring foreigners are working hard for the benefit of Honduras, most of them appear to be in agreement that much work lies ahead to ensure Hondurans eventually have the capacity to be lead that effort on their own behalf.
And as already noted, big-picture problems in Honduras continue to push more starfish onto the sand -  poor governance, a weak economy, climate change, widespread poverty, the pressures of the drug trade. Community initiatives are wonderful, but strong leadership at a national and global level are equally essential components of long-term change.
Until then, it's one starfish at a time. But it does lift me up is just to see how many hands keep reaching across that sand toward a better day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

There's a person in there

This one's for my mom, who at this moment is at home in Victoria crying after they delayed her hip-replacement surgery for two more months this morning because of her low iron count.
I'm sure it seemed like a perfectly logical decision in the mind of hematologist Dr. X, who has never met my mother. And it probably made sense to Dr. Y as well,  the orthopedic surgeon who has also never met my mother.
Unfortunately for her, the news was completely devastating. She was supposed to be having her surgery next week, and on Sunday we'd joked about how she only had 11 more sleeps.
I'm a guilt-ridden daughter at this distance when my 87-year-old  mother has a setback like this and the best I can do is buy more Claro minutes to make sure I can call her regularly. I have to take that into account when reflecting on how angry I am about how things are playing out for my mother, because it could just be that what's really troubling me is that I'm far away and can't really do a damn thing to help her.
Even allowing for that, however, I still think this turn of events highlights the huge divide that separates  people needing integrated medical care and the segmented, depersonalized system we've got that can't possibly provide it.
One of the doctors caring for my mother thinks it might be all the Advil she was taking for the pain that caused her iron to drop to a level that has now increased the risk of excessive bleeding during surgery.
Maybe. But they've known for the last 10 days that her iron levels were  low. Yet nobody did anything to change that, or counsel my mother as to why that might be so. This morning, the specialist's office phoned to cancel her surgery because of her low iron, but even now nobody is telling her anything about how she's supposed to correct that.
I'm a strong supporter of the Canadian public health care system. The fact that my old mom can have publicly funded hip-replacement surgery in her local hospital at her age is a testament to what is right about our system, even allowing for some long (and painful) waits for surgery.
But Mom's latest problem isn't about long wait lists. It's about the way we get divided into parts for the purposes of medical care, to the point that doctors start to forget there's a  human being tucked away in that medical file.
I'd like to meet the doctor who could have told my mom to her face that her surgery was being cancelled. She's been waiting and waiting, and has managed the intensifying pain these past few weeks only by focusing relentlessly on her coming surgery date.
No doctor could have looked into her pain-filled, hopeful eyes and told her sorry, she'd have to wait two more months because the pain-killers she'd been using to be able to hang in through the long wait for surgery had caused her iron levels to drop -  and that even though they'd known about that for 10 days, no one had taken the initiative to do something about that.
Alas, nobody had to look her in the eye and give her the bad news.. Nobody even had to meet her. She just got the news by phone, passed on by an empathetic but powerless woman who works for the surgeon. My mother is essentially a file number sent to various specialists with busy schedules, who have no clue of the impact of their decisions on the lives of those whose lives are hanging in the balance.
Mom told me she'd been crying all day when I called her tonight. But I know her well enough to expect that even by tomorrow, she'll have her chin up and be preparing to soldier through these next two months in whatever way she can. She's just that kind of person.
That doesn't make any of this right, though. Just because she can take it doesn't mean she should have to.
She's put in her time waiting. She did what good Canadians do: She looked after her health for many, many decades, and never complained when she learned she'd have to get in line for her hip surgery.
And this is where it gets her. In her time of greatest medical  need, my mother deserved better than to be shunted aside by strangers for whom she was no more than a set of  lab results.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hungry for attention

The tortilla masters: Carina and Sofia
Yesterday I climbed up to the smoky little half-kitchen that's tucked into an attic-size space at the Copan guardaria to help a couple of the girls make tortillas.
I'd had visions of everyone being fed and ready for a fast visit to the playground when I first arrived, seeing as I needed to get back to work. But it was soon obvious that wasn't going to happen.
I don't much like the tortilla room, as there's always smoke hanging heavy in the air from the little "eco-friendly" wood stove that I'm sure would be great if it only had a chimney. But it seemed anti-social to say no when invited along.
The girls whipped my butt with their tortilla skills. One, age 10, has been making tortillas for more than six years. She smacked the corn dough quickly between her palms and made perfect, smooth-sided circles every time.
The other, 15, is already assuming a motherly role at the children's home, as do all the older girls. She smiled at me indulgently as I handed over my scruffy looking tortillas for her to cook on the wood stove, lapsing into her teenage self only long enough to remind me that I'd promised to bring her a pair of earrings one day soon.
As we patted out the dough, more children made their way up the dark concrete stairs leading to the tortilla room. We got to talking and joking about this and that, and suddenly I realized that we were having a Kitchen Chat. I remember my own kids loving the relaxed conversations that can happen in kitchens when everybody's preparing food together, and it was revelatory to see this group of kids falling happily into the same kind of easy banter.
I've spent many months now thinking about how I might get more stuff for the 25 children who live at Angelitos Felices - toilets that flushed, showers that worked, diapers for the little ones so there wouldn't always be poo on the floor,  more food, better clothes, shoes that fit.
But the more I get to know the kids, the more I realize that what they want more than anything is my time. They don't pay much mind to their thread-bare clothes, lack of toys, ridiculously wrecked footware or painfully monotonous daily diets. But they sure do like having somebody who hangs out with them.
I've been going up there every Sunday to spend time with them, but I missed two weekends recently when my spouse and I took a small holiday to Guatemala. Man, the kids lambasted me for that when I showed up on Tuesday to say hello, which is how I ended up guilted into a lunch-time play date two days later.
It's hard for a North American parent to conceive of just how little adult attention these kids get. We typically start thinking about our children's well-being before they're even out of the womb, and for the most part will spend several hours a week for many, many years engaged in activities on behalf of our child.
These kids get the basics, but that's about it. They eat, they sleep, and some of them go to school. Sometimes they go outside to play, although not often. At least the water-system renos we did at the home last month has given them functioning bathrooms.
You can't fault the weary caregivers for not spending more time with the children. They're working for slave wages, if they even get paid at all. At any given time there's just one woman on duty in the home, and she doesn't have a moment for anything other than the endless chores that pile up like the mountains of dirty laundry generated by the kids.
Nor can you fault the woman who owns Angelitos (although much of the community would like to). She might not be running the kind of place that any of us would want to imagine a child growing up in, but at least she's putting a roof over these kids' heads in the absence of any consistent operating funds. People in Copan spend a lot of time gossiping about how somebody ought to do something about the home, but only the young American woman who recently opened an alternative day care appears to be actually doing anything significant.
So in the meantime, it's Angelitos or nothing. I have to believe that better days lie ahead for the abandoned and abused children of Honduras, but right now there are more than 20 children and young people living in Angelitos and they're not going anywhere. Whatever might happen in the long-term to improve things for kids like them, these kids are stuck in this moment.
I regularly hear from travellers asking me how they can help the children of Angelitos. People have big hearts and they really do want to make a difference.
There's no end of ways to do that for this gang, who have so little. But as long as you're coming this way, spare a thought for just making time to hang out with them. Somebody with the time to care is the real luxury item in these kids' lives. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

In the land of big cows and gleaming rest stops

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