Thursday, December 20, 2012

The end is in sight - at least for 2012

Parque Central decked out for Christmas and the
end of the Mayan calendar
Feliz Navidad a todos as the festive season closes in. And if the world must end, may it be as sunny and as pleasant as it is right now in Copan.
We'll be out at the Copan Ruinas archaeological site tomorrow night with the rest of the crowds just in case there's something to this end-of-the-world business. Might as well have ringside seats.
But I'm counting on the experts and the Mayan people to be right about the whole thing being a trumped-up myth. We're leaving on Saturday for two weeks of enjoying the Caribbean beaches of Honduras, so I'd hate to think the world might end before we fit that in.
I don't expect to be blogging much in the next while, what with all the travelling, snorkelling, lying around in the sun with a good book and other forms of merriment. My son and his family are here visiting until mid-January and  I want to free up as much time as possible to help them enjoy Honduras.
 But thanks for  reading my blog this past year and for sending comments my way once in a while - always great to hear from you. The Honduran adventure continues in 2013 and I'll back to documenting it sometime around the second week of January (barring something so fascinating happening that I just can't help but comment).
My plan is to see even more of the country in the coming year, as I'll be visiting the six other regions where my organization works.  Such an opportunity to get even further off the beaten path in this lovely, interesting country.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Oh, the weather outside's not frightful (and by the pool's delightful)

Copan Christmas elves
I was sitting by the pool today, sipping a cerveza and thinking about what a very different Christmas I’ll be having this year.
This is my first Christmas ever outside of Canada.  I’m not the type to make too big a deal out of Christmas, but I did have a few rituals around the season. The absence of those rituals this year is making me newly aware of the ones I’m missing and the ones I never did take much of a shine to.
Cold weather, for instance. Maybe I dreamed of a white Christmas a few times as a kid, but that desire pretty much went away once I started to drive a car and work for a living.
Yes, it’s a little harder to summon Christmas feelings while lying poolside, despite the colourful light display at one of the local drinking holes I walked past on the way home and the inflatable snowman on a neighbour’s roof.  But I will be perfectly happy Christmas morning to throw the doors open and breathe in warm, tropical air.
I also don’t miss Christmas carols in all the stores. Come to think of it, I don’t miss the stores, either.  
The variety stores in Copan do carry a few Christmas supplies: Lights; garlands; Christmas wrap; candles. There are poinsettias for Christmas – they grow here – and maybe a turkey in the yard whose end is coming soon. But there’s no crazy mall scene like I’ve been used to all those years, or hordes of people jammed into over-stocked stores with a look of panic in their eyes.
Santa did come to the town square to throw around a few candies. But while he’s known around these parts, my co-workers tell me that few Honduran kids ever get up Christmas morning expecting to find gifts from Santa. I won’t shed any tears for Santa’s absence, because it’s a strange myth when you get to reflecting on it.
However, I’m definitely missing the many seasonal rituals involving family. I would have made shortbread and homemade Bailey’s with at least one of my daughters by now, and would have dug out the giant bag of tree decorations that always triggers much reminiscing about when and how each ornament from the ragtag collection came to be special and loved.
My son and his family will be here with us over Christmas, so at least we’ll have a few family members around.  But that still leaves four children, three grandchildren, two brothers and two sets of parents who we won’t be spending Christmas with.  I’m really going to miss those guys.
Posadas are held nightly Dec. 1-24
 I’ll miss the scraggly potted pine tree that I dragged indoors to serve as our Christmas tree for the last six years. I’ll miss the various Christmas gatherings that are a staple of this time of year – the mulled wine, the fancy snacks, the excuse to put on nicer clothes. I’ll miss the sheer abundance and variety of food and booze that punctuates the season, although I won’t miss the two months of new-year dieting required to shake off the Christmas bulge.
Copan has its own Christmas traditions to connect to, of course. Posada is a particularly lovely one. People walk through the streets throughout December singing and carrying candles, each night visiting a different posada – somebody’s home designated as that evening’s resting place – where they’re welcomed inside. Anyone can just join the group and follow along.
There’s something happening every night in the square in the 10 days leading up to Christmas, from theatre to celebrations related to the end of the Mayan calendar Dec. 21. There are more tourists in town, more street vendors selling grilled meats, more park vendors selling bright-red Delicious apples imported for the season.  
There’s a nativity scene at the big Catholic church that we want to see. And there are fireworks, endless fireworks, which apparently will just intensify in the days to come. I’m not so enamored of that tradition, but I know my grandsons are going to love it.
Best of the season to you and yours, however you define your Christmas. I will think of you when I’m lying at the beach, and you can think of me when your family gathers around the turkey.  There’s something to be said for both of those. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The road to nowhere

A good read from the always engaging Richard Branson, this time on the senseless "war on drugs." Hope I live long enough to see us shake off that grand bit of foolishness, but I'm not counting on it.
I come from British Columbia, a land where the marijuana grows so abundantly and well that the veteran growers driving that $6-billion-industry would be winning agricultural awards and international acclaim for their products were it any other crop.  Now I live in Honduras, a country situated halfway between the world’s largest cocaine producer and the world’s largest market for cocaine.
Could there be two better examples of the utter failure of the war on drugs? We've been hard at it for more than 40 years now, and the result of all that effort is that more people than ever are using drugs, selling drugs, going to jail for drugs,  getting killed over drugs, and making a living from drugs.  Yeah, that’s a job well done.
Global leaders look at the world through an economic perspective all the time, which is why it baffles me that they can’t seem to get their head around the illegal-drug industry. It follows the same guiding principles that govern the free market: Find a niche, serve it well and stay ahead of the competition, and you just might make a lot of money.
It’s possible to shift people’s thinking, of course. Consider the dwindling number of cigarette smokers over the last four decades in countries that have relentlessly campaigned against smoking.
But that’s a different thing entirely than prohibition, which is how we've managed “bad” drugs like cocaine, heroin and marijuana all these years. History has proved prohibition a failure as a strategy, and now we've proven it again. Yet here we are, still treading water while a rising tide lifts an industry grown so large that I fear no government will ever actually control it now.
I went to one of the hotel pools a couple of months ago and found myself in the middle of a big wedding in the adjacent reception area. It was a different looking crowd than I've seen at most Copan events – better clothes, higher heels, little girls looking like cotton candy in their pink dresses, hair bows, teeny-tiny purses and matching dolls.
 I remarked to the manager the next week that a striking number of the male guests seemed to have very big guns in their belts. “That’s because they’re narco-traficantes,” he told me matter-of-factly. “But they’re nice ones. We don’t have the bad kind like they have in Mexico.”
I wouldn’t know about the Mexicans. But the point the fellow brings up about nice-guy narco-traficantes is a good one.
We’re still conjuring bogeymen when we think about drug trafficking. But in fact the industry is fully integrated with “regular” society. The children of people in the illegal-drug trade go to school with your children. They shop at the same stores you do, and in all likelihood worry about the same kinds of things that worry us all over the course of a lifetime.
 Whether it’s Honduras with its vast cocaine distribution network or B.C. with its marijuana cultivation, the truth is that people working in the illegal-drug industry look and act a lot like the rest of us. For the most part, they don’t stand out in a crowd. I suppose some of them could be pure evil, but I’d bet that a lot of them just drifted into their jobs the same way that many of us do.
I don’t know if there was ever a time when we could have regulated this industry; it’s hard to control a market for things that give pleasure. But we certainly can't get there by sticking with prohibition.
You could probably make an “if only...” argument as to what we could have done to reduce drug consumption if we’d had a workable plan around that goal. You can change people’s behaviours if you work at it long enough with just the right strategies.
But it’s way too late for that now.
There’s nothing “burgeoning” about the illegal-drug industry anymore. When we inevitably get around to regulating an industry that we’ve been trying to deny since the 1970s, the regulators will be up against well-developed markets, huge investments, major transportation infrastructure and products that are completely beyond their control.
People, there’s no war anymore. The “bad” guys won. We played this hand so poorly that all we can do at this point is to hang our heads for all the wasted years and then find ways to tax what we can, decrease the violence in the industry, and give the public (especially young people) enough honest information about drugs that they can make informed decisions.
A global illegal-drug industry is what happens when countries with lots of money and guilt over pleasurable activities encounter impoverished tropical countries full of poor people desperate to make a living. You have to know how a story like that is going to end.  Time to get real.

Friday, December 07, 2012

A campaign whose time hasn't come

Imagine the garbage ethos of 1950s-North America overlaid with the acute environmental sensitivity of the modern-day world, and you've got the Honduras dilemma.
People are still  dropping garbage on the streets here. They're chucking it out of the windows of their cars. Shredded plastic, rusted tin cans, chip bags and pop bottles are common sights along rivers and creeks, as are garbage-strewn spots along the road that residents without municipal garbage services have turned into dumps.
Yet the country also has educated, affluent citizens influenced by the Internet, television and all those other forms of media that carry word of global campaigns to reduce, reuse and recycle. Pushed by countries with 50 or more years of garbage awareness under their belts, the arrival of such campaigns in a pre-Litterbug country creates a confused response.
So it is that twice in the last week, I've found myself listening to presentations about reducing the use of plastic bags in Honduras.
This is a popular theme in countries like Canada, where some grocery stores now leave you with no option but to either get it together around reusable shopping bags or stagger out the door with your loose purchases balanced precariously in your arms.
I'm all for fewer plastic bags, of course. I've read the scary stories about the impact of plastic bags on our environment, and am diligent about bringing my reusable shopping bag whenever I go to the store.
But I do fear that we'll soon see anti-bag campaigns funded by developed-world dollars in a country that has yet to engage its citizens or local governments on much more basic messages around littering.
It's rare to see a public garbage bin here, and even rarer to see one get emptied before the garbage has spilled over the sides and been torn apart by all the wandering, starving dogs. Surely that's the first step -  make it easy for people to choose a different option for disposing of their garbage.
Then comes the campaign in the schools. It's accepted theory that to change culture you start with the children, who then badger their parents into changing their behaviour.
Meanwhile, somebody has to take a look at how the grown-ups are handling things. My town of Copan Ruinas does a heck of a job picking up residential garbage three times a week, but the trucks merely transport the garbage to the sewage settling ponds and dump it behind a retaining wall that runs right alongside the Copan River. You can't shift a cultural mindset without also holding local government's feet to the fire around waste management.
Then there's the virtual absence of municipal staff designated for street cleanup. Somebody from the municipality must empty the four garbage bins in Copan's main park, but it's pretty obvious that they don't do it often or feel any sense of urgency around returning the emptied bins. Everywhere else, garbage builds up on the street  until some frustrated resident  rakes it up and sets it on fire.
Maybe  it's the broken-windows theory at play, but I see garbage build up quickly anywhere there's an empty building or vacant lot. Residents appear to do a good job of picking up the litter that accumulates on the street outside their homes, but who takes responsibility for the rest?
It could be a service club, a school, a volunteer group or city hall. It could be neighbourhood associations or local businesses. (Some of the earliest North American anti-litter campaigns were launched by local business groups.) I'd love to get the owners of Copan's "cantina row" working on a cleanup of the street across from their bars, a  main entrance for tourists and one of the most litter-strewn streets in town.
But whoever ends up taking the lead, it won't just happen out of thin air. First comes the work to raise awareness that something needs to be done, then comes the work to designate just who that is. And in Honduras, you have the added challenge of figuring out who can even start the ball rolling, because community groups are scarce and all  levels of government shirk responsibility.
When you think about all the initiatives that wealthy countries have undertaken in the last 50 years to reduce garbage, you realize what it takes - and how difficult it will be for developing countries to catch up.
Fueled by our well-resourced tax base, we've got high-tech, no-smell landfills in places that no citizen ever has to lay eyes on. We've got expensive bottle-deposit programs, elaborate at-the-curb recycling services, and large municipal departments and government ministries dedicated solely to waste management.
We've got multi-level dumping fees that motivate us by way of our (ample) pocketbooks to reduce, reuse and recycle. We've got costly systems at our landfills that remove toxic methane gas from rotting garbage and convert it to electricity for our homes. We've got at least four generations of citizens with anti-littering messages burned into their brains, and more than enough highway police and vigilant citizens to keep watch for anyone brazen enough to throw garbage  from a car window.
Countries like Canada and the U.S. have great garbage habits not because there's something intrinsically tidy about us, but because we've spent a fantastic amount of time and money over five decades to make that so.
Lucky us that we've advanced to the point of now being able to consider the lowly plastic bag. But Honduras has miles to go before disposable shopping bags will ever be the answer to its problems. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Christmas wish for a better children's home

Celeste, a new arrival at Angelitos

I wanted to share the Christmas letter of the young Philadelphia woman who is trying to start a better  foster home/orphanage for the children in Copan. My heart is with the kids at the current children's home,  Angelitos Felices, but my dreams are pinned on Emily Monroe, as her project would definitely be the long-term solution to the endless problems at Angelitos.
Orphanages and foster homes are all run in different ways in Honduras - from essentially private operations like Angelitos, which scratches up centavos wherever it can to provide basic care, to well-supported facilities that see the kids through various life stages and even get them into vocational training. The Honduran government has its own orphanages as well, but the media reports on these homes make it clear that they have even more problems than Angelitos.
Emily is going about things in all the right ways. She started a day care for impoverished working mothers three months ago, and now she's up to her eyes in paperwork she needs to complete in order to get non-profit  status in the U.S. and legal standing in Honduras. None of it will be easy, cheap or quick (especially the Honduras part).
I'm quite an admirer of her tenacity, and try to do what I can to support her while continuing to support the 25 children at Angelitos. We're here through January 2014 and I think I can accomplish a lot at Angelitos, but it would make me so happy to see those kids transition to a new facility run by Emily's group before we pack up.
I'm deeply grateful for the tremendous help I've received from my friends to fund projects at Angelitos. But anyone looking for a long-term way to help vulnerable children in Honduras will also want to check out Emily's good work at Casita Copan. 

Dear supporters:
Santa has one more stop this year – the new children’s home Casita Copán in Copan Ruinas, Honduras! To make our very first Christmas memorable, we are reaching out to supporters like you to ask you to be a part of the celebration. As a growing, grassroots organization, Casita Copán is entirely funded by the generosity of people like you, people who believe that all children deserve to grow up in safe, healthy, and loving homes.

What started as a (slightly crazy) dream has turned into a reality. Three months ago, Casita Copán opened its doors to some of the most vulnerable children in our community. Now we are providing care 7 days a week, 11 hours a day to 19 children. Every day, our kids receive loving care, healthy food, access to medicine, educational tutoring and support, fun activities, and so much more. The change in them is visible.  Our future plans remain focused on opening our doors to even more children, including orphaned and abandoned children.

This holiday season, we are asking you to be a part of our efforts to make the future a little brighter for some special kids in Copán. We know that at this time of year, everyone is asking you to give something. The great thing about donating to Casita Copán is that your money goes far. We are still a small organization with very little overhead, and your donation can mean the difference between a child roaming the streets or spending his days with the Casita Copán family.

Ready to join us? You can help right away by making a donation to children of Casita Copán – just click here. Or if you are interested in a longer-term commitment, consider sponsoring one of our amazing kids. You can also help by forwarding this email to a friend or family member to help us spread the word. We are so thankful for the energy, commitment, and generosity of people like you who have brought this project to life.

Wishing you all the best this holiday season,

Emily Monroe
Casita Copán
Copán Ruinas, Honduras