Monday, June 10, 2013
Dangerous and underpaid: Working in the Moskitia
I’m sitting at this moment in a Moskitia hotel frequented almost exclusively by scary, armed men in the cocaine-distribution business, in a town that even the more adventurous guide books tell you to avoid. The bar downstairs is blasting narco-ballads, the deceptively cheery music that relates hair-raising stories of life in the illegal-drug trade.
The presence of scary, armed men is great fodder for blog posts for travelers who live elsewhere, but it’s fairly unsettling for the 67,000 people who live and work in Gracias a Dios, the watery, wondrous Honduras state that borders Nicaragua. And the cocaine traffickers are by no means the only difficulty here.
There’s no electricity anywhere in the Moskitia, so keeping the generator running (or accessing medical care, going to the bank, buying clothes or any other creature comfort) means a boat ride of anywhere from 25 minutes to five hours, depending how deep into the region’s many lagoons you happen to be, and an eight-hour round trip on a rough and dangerous road that’s in constant risk of washing out in the heavy rains.
There’s food, but you’d better like fish, chicken, yucca and coconut. There are amazing birds, but an equally impressive number of mosquitos and other biting bugs, especially in the June-July rainy season. (Damn.)
In short, the Moskitia is a beautiful, complicated, challenging place, with an air of menace overlying everything now that the narco-traficantes have claimed the region as their own.
One of the towns where my organization works has recently fallen under the control of a Nicaraguan heavyweight, who apparently has ordered the village to observe a 6 p.m. curfew and surrounded the town with armed men. People learn quickly around these parts not to ask questions about who owns the beautiful new mansion on the lagoon, or the boat with two gigantic outboard motors. Best not to know.
This is my second time here, and once again I’m feeling a mix of exhilaration at the natural beauty and a sense of constant alertness lest I get on the wrong side of the wrong person, or inadvertently turn my birding binoculars or camera in a direction I shouldn’t be looking.
And I’m just passing through. My co-workers live and work here, in circumstances that are way less comfortable than anything I’ll experience during my nine-day visit. I’ve got a king-size bed in a roomy if somewhat unnerving hotel; they’ve got a foam mattress on the floor of their tiny office, where four of them live communally for at least three weeks of every month. I don’t mind working through the occasional weekend, but they do it all the time, saving up days off so they’ve got enough time to make the long journey out to visit their families.
I’ve got considerably more appreciation for Canadian work practices and labour law since coming to Honduras. Low pay, exploitive practices, no job security, armed people who just might shoot you, a constant risk of not getting paid – these are regular experiences for the majority of workers. The situation in the Moskitia does kick things up a notch, mind you.
The work that my Honduran compañeros are doing in this wild and woolly region would likely come with big pay and great benefits back in my homeland, what with all the risks it entails. One woman working with a government forestry organization here recently had the trauma of a drunk narco-traficante putting a gun to her head, and then the additional trauma of watching the two military guards she travels with kill the guy.
But despite considerable dangers and deprivations, my co-workers make $1,000 or so a month. They’re also on the hook for the considerable transport costs to get in and out of the Moskitia, which are at least $50 every time.
As for benefits, I’m sure it would be like telling a fairy tale if I ever described a typical Canadian benefits package to any Honduran. I remember griping when I was back in my journalism days at the shrinking amount available for massages. Man, that seems petty now. The fellow who runs the swimming pool in Copan Ruinas where Paul and I go for a leisurely day sometimes hasn’t had a day off – not one – in the last two years. He’d like to quit, but is scared he’ll end up with no job at all.
So the lesson is: Thank your lucky stars that for whatever reason, you’re living and working in a wealthy country where you might feel hard done by from time to time, but you’re not. Hug your boss and your union leader, and think good thoughts about whoever it was who lobbied for employment standards. Reflect on your grandparents and great-grandparents, and all the sacrifices they made to ensure future generations of Canadian workers could feel miffed when their company-funded massages cost more than they’d expected.
Turn your lights on and off and marvel at how easy it is. Sit in your big, comfy car and feel that smooth asphalt below your tires. Celebrate that the gun culture has never really caught on in Canada.
And if you’re using cocaine, why not switch to something homegrown and save some lives? You’re making things crazy down here.