Tuesday, October 08, 2013

If you can't bend, you'll snap

“Flexible and adaptable” is more or less the mantra for a Cuso International volunteer. My experiences yesterday brought that home to me yet again, for about the 254th time.
    For reasons that I think have to do with building relationship, it has taken a very long time for the other regions of the organization I’m working for – the Comision de Accion Social Menonita (CASM) - to call on me for help with various communications issues. It seems that because the practice here is to hire people who you already know, or who someone else in the organization knows, it takes a long time for people to warm up to some random stranger who drops into the country with big ideas about how communications can be improved.
    At any rate, the regions didn't really start seeking me out until I’d been here for more than a year, and even then only when I showed up at some big CASM event and they could talk to me face to face. (That’s another thing I've learned: There’s a strong cultural preference for face-to-face communications regardless of how much access a person might have to technologies like Facebook and email – or even phone calls.) Paul and I have also been putting up our own money to be able to travel to the different regions and do work for other CASM offices, and at this point I've done five such visits.
    So by the time of the annual CASM retreat late last month, I was fairly well-known among the regions and newly popular because I’d made a 10-minute video for the Copan office. All 7 regions are hot for a video, which meant I’d soon gathered quite a crowd of CASM staffers around me asking when I could come to their region to do the same.
    The most urgent request was from CASM Colon, which works in the magnificent, isolated and challenging Moskitia region on the Caribbean coast. That team has some major communication needs coming up before the end of the year, and they urged me to come as soon as I could. I’m very fond of the region and the team, all of whom are the kind of passionate, enthusiastic, slightly crazy people you might expect to work in a difficult area like the Moskitia.
    I arranged to come for a week. I had other projects going on in Copan and one coming up in San Pedro Sula, so I had to do a fair bit of organization to get everything in line. I left Copan this past Sunday for the 9-hour bus ride to Tocoa, and lugged my backpack into the Colon office bright and early yesterday presuming that we’d be leaving first thing for the Moskitia, as it takes another 4 or 5 hours to get there.
    I knew it was going to be one of those “flexible and adaptable” days when I discovered upon arriving at the office that the co-worker who was to take me into the Moskitia was, in fact, still in the Moskitia. Nobody knew when he was returning. Nobody knew the plan, or even if there was one. I tried to phone him but couldn't get through, so eventually I just settled into other work and waited to see what would happen next.
    Mario arrived around 11 a.m. and said we’d be leaving for the Moskitia the next day. We agreed to meet at 1 p.m. to talk about the plan. I carried on with my work – the good thing about communications is that all the tools and work are right there inside your laptop – and practised my newly honed skills in patience and managing expectations.
     Of course, the meeting didn’t happen at 1 p.m., but sometime around 3 p.m. Mario and I got together and I learned that the expectation wasn’t that I’d stay for a one week, but two. Two and a half, really, by the time I got back to Tocoa and eventually, Copan.
    I hadn't packed or prepared for that much time away, or organized my life back home for a long absence. But what can you do? I learned some time ago that throwing tempestuous little fits about not being informed about anything gets you absolutely nowhere here. I could have stomped out and caught the first bus back to Copan, but that would have meant leaving the CASM team in the lurch when they really needed me – and after months and months of effort to convince them that they needed me.
    And in truth, Mario wasn't treating me any differently than any other member of the team by springing that surprise news on me. The crazy lack of planning, organization and keeping people in the loop is just how they do things here. “Flexible and adaptable,” I muttered to myself, then smiled at Mario and said, “Sure!”
    So here I go, off to the Moskitia. We’re actually leaving tomorrow now, the date having been rejigged to accommodate other work the office needed from me before I leave. Part of me is still a little ruffled about the whole thing, but another part is excited to have such a grand opportunity to explore a part of the country that even most Hondurans never get to see. This will be my third trip into the Moskitia this year, and the most extensive one in terms of the travel – all by boat – we’ll be doing while there.
    If you’re someone who likes to know the plan ahead of time, forget this work. I've always thought of myself as someone who goes with the flow, but my Honduran experiences have tested me time and again. and revealed to me just how much I appreciate an organized, thoughtful and well-planned approach to work projects.
     But I figure that years from now, what I’ll remember from this time will be the adventures in the Moskitia, not how Mario just presumed I could adjust my schedule on a dime to adapt to his plans. Onward into the endlessly surprising future, flexible and adaptable all the way. 


Anonymous said...

Jody, thanks for writing this piece. I am such a "J" (planning type) and find it really hard to roll with others when I perceive them being thoughtless and not valuing my time. Its helpful to keep in mind as I plan to offer myself as a volunteer to a project in the next year or so in Nepal. I'm sure the challenges will be similar.

Ian Lidster said...

My dear, I wish I had a 10th your energy and patience. To think I was bitching about the relatively easy flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Vancouver. Some really interesting insights from you -- well, what else? You do those so well -- and I was struck by your comment on the need from the locals to interface. We have lost so much of that. Have I told you how much I admire you? Well, I know I have, but I'm saying it again.

Unknown said...

Before making people act rationally, they must learn to think in a rational way: logic, planning ahead, pondering the future, setting priorities, awareness of cognitive biases, analyzing outcomes, googling their problems, and some other.

Hondurans are too concerned of never making mistakes and pretending to know it all. These preconceptions force workers to either avoiding responsibility or defeating themselves and not caring about the outcome.

So my fellow country-people should be educated to understand that learning is a lifetime process and failing inevitable.

Otherwise, you will get a lot of inspiration to write your complaints, everywhere you go, and nothing will improve.