Tuesday, February 12, 2013

When nothing goes right

I´m having one of those days that Cuso International warns its volunteers about - one where the frustrations of life in a new country and culture build up to the point that you´re at risk of snapping rudely to just about anyone, "Come on, you people, get your freakin´act together!"
Admittedly, some of the frustration is petty. Everything seems to break here, including the kitchen clock we bought after we arrived  that has now developed the habit of stopping every time the hour hand passes "1." The electrical current is so irregular that I´ve burned through an expensive electric toothbrush, a Kobo reader, and no less than three power cords for my laptop.
One of those cords was dead within an hour of me buying it despite being plugged into the pricey new voltage regulator that the store vowed would solve all my problems. Maybe I had broken the regulator, the clerk suggested helpfully.
Which leads to another point of frustration: poor-quality goods and services. I had to be persistent for an entire week to get that store to replace the power cord, and it was touch and go to the end. Our bedside lamps fell apart within a couple hours of use after the glue used to make the shades sizzled under the heat of the 40-watt bulbs. My spouse bought the wrong kind of extension cord one time and could only get 50 per cent of his money back despite returning it in the original packaging, with the receipt, within minutes of buying it.
In November I bought a new $500 washing machine with a one-year guarantee for the Angelitos children´s home, but we couldn't get it to work. The store took three months to send around a repair man, informed me that the problem was that the digital display drew more power than the neighbourhood had available, then charged me an additional $100 to swap in a non-digital machine because the other one was now "used."
 I took my laptop in to be cleaned a couple days ago and it came back with the keyboard broken. Having lived here a year, I  know there's nothing to be done about that other than to have a good old rant in the kitchen and write a crabby blog post. I bought an external keyboard, but today that´s not working either.
The stuff all comes from the same Chinese factories where Canadians get their goods, and the prices are the same if not higher. There´s no obvious explanation for the inferior quality. But I´m starting to suspect there's a seconds bin in those factories with a big sign saying, "For sale in the developing world only." And like I say, it's not like there are any avenues for complaint in Honduras.
Putting my small gripes aside for a moment, the country´s truly serious problems are handled in similarly cavelier fashion.
I just spent two days walking around coffee plantations in Copan, where farmers are being devastated by an unprecedented attack of coffee fungus that's wiping out as much as 70 per cent of this year's coffee harvest in parts of the country. The news is even bleaker for the coming two years, because those plants will have to be cut back so hard that they won't be producing again until 2016.
Multiply that by the millions of Hondurans who make something of a living from coffee, and you've got a national emergency. From the producers to the truckers to the export companies to the two million hungry people who depend on the four-month harvest season for work, this will be unbelievably bad.
And yet there's the Honduran agriculture minister in the morning paper, assuring everyone that Honduras has the situation under control and the impact will be minimal. That's a lie.
The country - and several other Latin American coffee-growing countries grappling with the same fungus  - is heading into a natural disaster of epic proportions due to the fungus. What the government ought to be doing is jumping into this with a detailed plan of action and enough international support to help everyone in the industry weather this crisis. What it's actually doing is nothing.
Nor is it doing anything effective to curb the staggering amount of criminal activity in the country. People throw around the word "impunity" a lot in Honduras, but impunity is just what happens when you've got a compromised and inadequate police force, an absent court system, vast numbers of unemployed and poorly paid people and a disengaged government.
Those same coffee producers I met with this week told me of their little co-op being robbed of more than $60,000 last year by an unscrupulous Honduran coffee buyer. But there's nothing they can do about that, any more than they can stop the organized criminals who steal into the fields late at night and make off with their coffee crops.
How do you "fix" a country that lives so doggedly in denial of its own role in solving some of its problems? Bad clocks, power surges and lousy customer service are ultimately just irritants that get on a volunteer's nerves, but they symbolize an absence of care and attention that goes right up to the highest levels. 

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