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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Up against the culture

You haven't really tested your inner fortitude until you've done a few Honduran meetings. I mean, we're talking a serious endurance test.
Fresh from a three-day retreat for the non-profit I work for in Copan Ruinas, I'm newly reminded of the Honduran capacity to just hang in there at meetings and presentations that just go on and on.
I even think the people here like it that way. I can't tell you the number of meetings I've been to here at which the fourth or fifth straight hour rolls around and things seem to be finally wrapping up, and just as I presume every participant is as twitchy, inattentive and restless as me, they launch into an enthusiastic question-and-answer session that keeps the meeting going for another hour or more.
I found myself grousing quietly to one of my co-workers at the retreat that in Canada, our presenters believe that people need breaks every 90 minutes or their exhausted brains will go on presentation overload and they won't hear a thing. I suspect he thought I was whining. I guess I was.
But let's consider how those three days went:
Day 1: People arrive for the retreat in Siguatepeque from massive distances - drives of seven or more hours. As a result the devotional doesn't get underway until almost 4 p.m., and the presentation portion of the day doesn't start until after 5 p.m. The meeting goes on until 9:30 p.m.
Day 2: Devotional shortly after 8 a.m., day-long presentation starting around 9. One presenter, without so much as a PowerPoint or flip chart, will spend the next day and a half talking to the group. On this day, he goes into it hard and doesn't stop until we break for lunch at 12:30 p.m. Then he's back at it again at 2:30 for another hour and a half, after which we get a couple hours off to rest up for the evening of devotionals, presentations, videos of the past year's festivities, talent show and bible trivia game. That goes until after 11 p.m.
Day 3: Another 8 a.m. start, with a devotional first and then more presentations until noon, at which point we eat lunch and then pile into our prospective vehicles for the long drives back to our communities. I am by this point totally exhausted, and dreading the nausea-inducing five- or six-hour ride back to Copan stuffed into a van with eight workmates and no leg room. But everybody else looks positively energized.
The Monday morning staff meetings are similar tests of endurance that everybody but me seems capable of handling. The meetings start at 10 a.m. or so, after the weekly devotional, and can last until 3 p.m.  I appear to be the only one who finds that ridiculous.
 I'm positively jiggy by the end of those meetings, struggling to contain an urge to either run shrieking from the room to just say screw it and start checking emails. I doubt I'll ever get used to these meetings.
My dream meeting is one where everybody comes in focused on the task at hand, with a clear agenda and a chair who knows how to run that thing perfectly. The conversation is informed, inclusive and purposeful. We're done within two hours at the most; if it's a day-long event, there will be at least two coffee breaks, some entertaining "break-out groups" and strange but welcome stretching games, lunch and a 4:30 p.m. finish.  We leave with clearer knowledge of the tasks that lie ahead and a better understanding of what needs to be done.
Here, I just stagger out of the room, too tired to even appreciate that at least I've survived another meeting. If there's an agenda, I never see one, which is also true for any of the people in my line of vision. I  leave with no idea of what I should do next or whether we accomplished anything with our hours and hours of talk. Am I just a difficult gringa princess unable to shake loose of her own cultural practices, or is this a crazy way to do a meeting?
But so it goes. (Kurt Vonnegut, thank you for that useful phrase.) I've got two days before I have to be at the regular Monday meeting, and then one whole day in between before I make the five-hour trip  to a town in Lempira for two days of meetings.
That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Funny how often that saying comes to mind these days.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A country without care jumps at the chance to see the doctor

The doctor is in at Angelitos Felices

I’ve known for a while now that accessing medical care was a challenge for the majority of Hondurans who have to rely on the public system. But it wasn’t until I put in a couple of days as an ad-hoc translator for a U.S. doctor in the villages this week that I fully understood that medical care is as good as non-existent for a whole lot of people.
The doctor was part of a faith-based group out of Illinois and Tennessee who were here to build fuel-efficient stoves in three villages around Copan. She hadn’t planned on seeing patients, but word got out fast that there was a doctor among the group and she graciously agreed to see a few people.
And they jumped at the chance. On Monday and Tuesday we were in Guarumal, Cabanas, a village of 15 families, and at least nine of those families were in the lineup within 10 minutes of the doctor pulling up a chair on the patio outside a resident’s house. I suspect the other six families would have been there, too, if they’d heard the news that an impromptu clinic was on.
They arrived with all the problems that any family bumps into in the course of a life: fevered little children sick with a seasonal virus; bad coughs; yeast infections; stomach pain; acid reflux; foot fungus; bad teeth; lumps and bumps and itchy rashes that they’d had for years in some cases.
But unlike a typical North American family, these ones rarely got care for their illnesses and injuries. Even if they were able to find the $5 fee to see the doctor at the public clinic, the nearest clinic was a long, hard 10 or 15 miles away and many of them didn’t have transport. Nor did they have money for any necessary lab tests to confirm what ailed them, or for medications. Not that they could count on the scarce public health clinics in this area to even be open when they showed up, or have the medications they needed.
The pharmacies in Honduras are loaded with all the modern medications, and virtually all are available without a prescription. But until a doctor gives you a diagnosis and the name of a drug that might help, none of that means a thing. I wouldn’t like to think how many people end up using the wrong medication for an ailment, simply because they don’t know which one to ask for.
High-sugar diets, poor oral hygiene and no dental care
is a recipe for pain and problems for impoverished
Honduran children.
So while the people in Guarumal were grateful that the visiting doctor sometimes pulled a free bottle of painkillers or antibiotics out of her magic bag, they were equally appreciative just to have her write down the name of the medication they needed.  Money is one hurdle, but knowing what drug to buy is an additional barrier.
The good doctor let me lure her to the Angelitos Felices foster home as well, where 25 or so kids pass their days in unsanitary, damp conditions in which they share towels, clothes, bedding, shoes and therefore all the diseases and infections that spread that way. I’d cautioned her that the kids might be shy about being examined, but in fact most of them really seemed to like the personal attention, not to mention the chance to get a band-aid (or two or three) on their many cuts and scrapes.
I came home with a list of suggested medications for all the kids with ailments, with an asterisk by the ones who need treatment most urgently. That included a two-year-old and a four-year-old who both have severe staph infections on their scalps, a nine-year-old suffering from a monstrous tooth ache from the worst of his many cavities, and a 14-year-old with a urinary tract infection. (Wish I could have done something for the asthmatic little boy we met in Guarumal, who was so obviously struggling for every breath.)
The doctor says just about every child in Angelitos has a chronic fungal infection on their feet, and some have it on their faces and scalps. So I bought a big tube of anti-fungal cream at the pharmacy this morning and am going back for two more when the next shipment arrives from San Pedro next week. Clearing the fungus out of that place sounds like an impossible task, but even a month or two without cracked, achy feet should be a relief for those kids.
Spare a thought for them next time you’re grumbling about the wait at the walk-in clinic or the lineup at the pharmacy. The people here would be ecstatic if that was as big as the problems got. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

On a mission to help a mission

My boss Merlin Fuentes demonstrates a  miniature
version of a fuel-efficient fogon at the Feria Ambiental
Oh, what a week it has been - freshly back from a fast holiday in Las Vegas with a couple  of my daughters, now plunged into a week of acting as a kind of tour co-ordinator to a group of 15 Americans who have come to Copan on a mission to help my organization build fuel-efficient  stoves.
And just to add to the over-stimulation, it's election day in Honduras today. People have already started streaming into local schools and other polling stations to participate in what is essentially the primaries for the 2013 election.
Rumour has it that things get interesting on days like today, when political opinions tend to heat up. Cuso Honduras actually told us volunteers to stay indoors today and stock up on emergency rations, advice that the locals got quite a kick out of when I told them. At any rate, my American friends are counting on me to lead them on a tour of the Mayan ruins and later the foster home where I help out, so shutting myself in the house isn't an option.
It's pretty amusing to be called into service as a Copan tour guide and a translator, neither of which I'm remotely qualified for. Happily, a genuine tour guide who's quite fluent in English has already attached himself to the group, wisely seeing an opportunity to be of service in all kinds of ways. But I suspect the group and I will still have a lot of hanging-out time  in the  week to come, and now the bonding experience of going through our first Honduran elections together.
Hosting missions from the U.S. and elsewhere is one of the goals of the Honduran non-profit I work for, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita (CASM). Faith-based groups from various denominations do a significant amount of project work in the country, coming down for a week or so to build schools, take on a water project, construct chicken coops or tackle whatever else needs doing.
This particular group is more eclectic than most, coming from four states and having family ties, old friendships and a parish preacher in common. So there's a mom-and-daughter pair, three siblings from another family, two parents with their two kids, a couple cousins. Some have done several missions before while others are trying it for the first time; one fellow is on his first-ever trip outside the U.S.
Starting at 8 a.m. tomorrow, they'll be spending five days in the countryside around Copan building about 40 wood cooking stoves in the homes of subsistence farmers. The group raised $2,000 to cover the costs of the stoves - fogones, as they're known here - and soon they'll be mixing cement and stacking bricks in homes in Guaramal, Mirasol and Libertad, three of the many, many struggling little villages around this region.
My organization has built about 350 stoves like these ones over the last three years. Everybody loves them. They burn 45 per cent less firewood, have chimneys to vent smoke out of the house, are insulated with ash so nobody gets burned, and have big cooking surfaces that can easily accommodate all those tortillas that are a constant of the Honduran diet.
But while the stoves cost a  scant $40-$60 each to build, that's still a lot of money here. The only way farmers get the stoves is if CASM has development money from somewhere to do a project. Or if a good-hearted mission group from outside of the country raises money among their friends and heads on down to Honduras for a working holiday.
Pictures to follow.  And now I'm off to the ruins, on a beautiful day in the midst of the drizzly season that I think must be some kind of karmic reward for good people who come all this way to make life a little easier for a few Honduran families.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Give this poor country a break

This is the first time I've lived anywhere other than Canada, let alone in a country with such a ferocious reputation for violence that my friends and family are regularly checking in with concerned voices as to whether everything’s fine down here. 
Nothing to worry about, I tell them. And I mean that. Despite the endlessly bleak news about Honduras and a truly formidable murder rate, this country has in fact been a very pleasant place to live these past 10 months. The place needs work, absolutely, but this seemingly global need to portray the country as a random killing zone is both cruelly inaccurate and damaging to the people who live here. 
A worried friend back home recently asked me about this comment from the latest newsletter of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. In Honduras, “violence is the main strategy for solving any problem, whether it’s related to drugs or not,” said MSF spokesman Javier Rio Navarro.
I don't know about you, but that kind of statement conjures in my mind visions of dangerous men everywhere, daggers clenched between their teeth and assault rifles at the ready should there be a need to gun down random strangers. It conjures up a country that is inherently violent, where the norms of civilized society have broken down and no one is safe anymore.
I have tried to square that image of Honduras with my daily experiences here, in which I walk back and forth to work and meet nothing but friendly people also walking to wherever their day-to-day routine is taking them in the moment: To the market to sell tortillas; to their child's school; to the field where they're moving the cows; to their construction job. It doesn't square.
I've even walked the wild streets of Tegucigalpa. And while the city has yet to win me over, nobody my partner and I have come across in our visits there has been looking to do two gringos harm.
Nor were they shooting at each other, having fights, robbing passing strangers, or otherwise wreaking havoc on the social order. They were going about their business. That’s what human beings tend to do most wherever they are in the world, even in the middle of a full-on war.
I've yet to see a problem solved with hand-wringing. But that and a challenging reform of the Honduras police force – badly needed, but not a solution  all on its own -   are pretty much all that’s going on. As far as I can tell, no work is underway to get underneath the scary statistics and figure out who is really at risk and what can be done about it. Simply piling on more headlines to scare off even more of the tourists certainly isn’t any help. 
Here’s my take on who’s really at risk here, based on my reading of the news and the many stories I’ve heard from Hondurans:
  • Anyone associated with the illegal drug industry, where assassination is used to kill off the competition, wreak vengeance, and “send a message” through the murder of family members, loved ones and acquaintances of a narco-traficante on the wrong side of somebody’s list.
  • Poor people who live in the poorest barrios and ride the cheapest buses, which are regularly held up by robbers and gang members who either want to steal what they can in the moment or extort the driver and passengers with a “war tax.”
  • Poor business owners who are extorted by gangs just for trying to make a living in the roughest areas of the big cities where law and order simply don’t exist.
  • Campesinos fighting in the heated Bajo Aguan land dispute.
  • Hondurans engaged in Hatfield-and-McCoy style vendettas over real and perceived wrongs of the past, in which one violent act begets another and another for potentially years.
  • People who get fingered by acquaintances as a known killer, robber or otherwise bad person, and thus become candidates for the kind of street justice that can happen in a country with a troubled police history and a largely ineffective justice system.
  • The unfortunate innocents who occasionally find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when one of the above-mentioned groups engages in violence and kills them by accident.
That’s a lot of people, for sure. But except for the last category, it’s not a random collection. It still means Honduras has some big problems to get a handle on, but it doesn’t mean that the whole country is a dangerous wasteland that only dare devils and the uninformed would ever spend time in.
That image does such a disservice to the vast majority of pleasant, peaceful, deeply religious Hondurans. It does the country genuine harm by scaring off the aid programs, investors and travellers that are so vital to a brighter future for Honduras.
Don’t believe everything you read. Good people live here, and they need more from the world than condemnation and fear-mongering.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The more things change...

Cuso International brought me to Honduras to do communications work for a Honduran non-profit organization, a job that is both strikingly similar and completely different to communications work in Victoria.
On the one hand, communications is ultimately about finding effective ways to talk to the people you need to talk to, whether you’re in Honduras, Canada, East Timor or Uzbekistan.  But in Canada that largely means focusing your efforts on those with money or influence, whereas in Honduras the whole game changes because the country doesn’t have a responsive government or much of a culture of philanthropy.
One thing that is identical, however, is proposal-writing. That might not be in the job description when you take a communications position, but trust me, you’ll end up doing it sooner or later if you’re working with non-profits. I’m well familiar with that soul-destroying process after seven years of working with Canadian non-profits, and now have enough proposals under my belt here in Honduras to report with confidence that it’s an equally miserable task here.
Non-profit organizations have to submit proposals constantly to try to sustain their funding. They’re essentially sales pitches shaped around some undertaking that a particular funder has in mind. At its essence the practice is like bidding for a building contract, except that non-profits are mostly working on less tangible things, like better societies.
 If you’re smart, you spend a lot of time reading what the funder says in the proposal call before you begin writing, so you can better match your pitch to the things they’re identifying as important.
They all have their areas of interests – youth, women, animals, disease reduction, a thousand themes. But there’s also a kind of flavour-of-the-month practice that’s very common. Whatever subject is globally “in” - human trafficking, literacy, protecting kids from gangs, crystal meth – tends to be a  theme across many different funders, at least until the next new thing comes along.
In Honduras, the big themes right now are around reducing the risks that communities face due to climate change, helping people to be better farmers and stewards of the environment, and developing more active, engaged citizens aware of their rights. My organization is working on all those fronts, as are many of the other non-profits here in the country dependent on international funding.
All noble pursuits, of course.  But none are short-term undertakings. Adapting to climate change in some cases in Honduras will mean convincing people who have farmed the land for centuries to look for new kinds of work. You can’t stop Honduras’s rather horrifying rate of deforestation until you do something about the almost five million people living in poverty who cut down trees because they need the wood to cook with and the space to grow corn. You can’t exercise your rights in a country where government just does what it wants.
Change takes time, yet the bulk of project funding is for a year or two. And while the current themes are important areas to focus on, many other equally important needs are neglected due to the big funders all shopping for the same kinds of projects.
You get tangled in all of that pretty quickly when you’re writing a proposal, in Honduras or anywhere. You know what the real needs are, but you face either having to find a way to squeeze them into the shape of the funding or give up on trying to address them. You know that a project will in fact take a generation to be fully realized, yet you’re writing like you’re going to make it happen in a year.
And the corker: You do all that work – and believe me, every proposal is a lot of work – with no certainty that anything will come of it. You twist yourself into knots trying to come up with something creative that the funder will like, you draw tables and create spreadsheets and fill in the squares of yet another week-by-week work plan, and more often than not you don’t get the money anyway. (Or worse, the funder collects all the submissions and then decides not to go through with the project.)
One particularly rude practice of a few international funders here in Honduras is to issue calls for proposals with a deadline that’s less than a week away.  What do they think, that a scratchy little Honduran non-profit has people just sitting around waiting for a proposal call to fill their day? No, they’re out busting their butts trying to achieve all those other unrealistic goals they had to promise in the last proposal.
Anyway.  Perhaps the whole thing’s just a bit fresh in my mind right now, having just gone through an intense period of proposal madness this very week that involved dreaming up a year’s worth of activities on a ridiculously tight deadline with the knowledge that in all likelihood, the project will do little to solve what ails Honduras . I guess I should just treat it as a valuable cultural learning experience: In any language, in any country, proposal-writing is a total drag.
And while any money is better than nothing to a non-profit, you just can’t solve a complicated country’s problems this way.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Remembering the dead

It’s not often you’d describe a graveyard as a beehive of activity, but the cemetery here in Copan has been these past couple of days as the locals mark Dia de Los Difuntos.
Every Latin American country celebrates the Day of the Dead – or Day of the Deceased, as it’s known here – in their own way.  In Honduras it’s a time for heading down to the cemetery to do a big cleanup of your loved one’s grave. There can’t be much budget in a poor country for maintenance staff at cemeteries, so it’s a chance for family members to spruce things up while honouring the memory of the mothers, fathers, grandparents and children buried there.
The Copan cemetery is a five-minute walk from where I live, and I headed over early yesterday morning to check out the activities. Some 15 families were already hard at work. Many more would come over the course of the next two days.
Some families just needed to freshen up the flowers a little or clear out a few weeds. But others were in the midst of full-on construction projects – putting a new roof on a tomb, repainting, finishing off a monument’s ceramic trim that they hadn’t been able to afford up until now.
I was a bit apprehensive about showing up with my camera like a big, gawky tourist. I contemplated trying to sneak in a few shots, but thought that would be just plain disrespectful. So I asked people if it would be all right if I took a photo of them working. Everybody was completely fine with that – happy, even. 
 I wandered around the small cemetery for longer than I intended, feeling moved by the love and family connections that had brought everybody there.  Whether they were tending to beautifully kept mausoleums or teeny crosses hand-painted with a family member’s name, all of them were there to remember somebody who’d meant a great deal to them. Every culture does that in their own way, but something about seeing a man on his hands and knees pulling long grass away from his wife’s grave really adds to the poignancy of the act.
We tend toward a more sanitized version of remembering in Canada. My father’s ashes are in a beautifully kept cemetery in Victoria marked with a perfectly lettered memorial plaque. I know my mother was hurt that I never wanted to go to the memorial park to “visit” him when we lived in Victoria, but it never felt like he was really there.
But walking past the Copan grave of Fanny Carolina Leonor Garin, dead at the tender age of 28, watching the husband she’d left behind lovingly restoring her grave to a vivid shade of turquoise– well, I felt her there. I could feel Juan Antonio Lopez Jacinto in the scrawl of his name painted on one end of his tomb. The dead were alive again in the faces of their cheerful family members, who were busily scrubbing and sanding and reminiscing about the people buried beneath their feet.
A Canadian memorial park is much, much tidier and greener than the overgrown, dusty plot of land where Copanecos bury their dead. Our dead in Canada exist amid a kind of hushed tranquility that I associate with funeral homes and carefully managed sorrow.
But something about the sheer disorder of the Copan cemetery feels so genuine. Death is messy and sad. All the well-trimmed and verdant landscaping of a typical North American cemetery can’t change that.
It was practically like hearing people’s thoughts as I wandered through the graves in Copan.
My neighbour was there, mopping the floor of the mausoleum where the family had buried their young son after his murder. Two children sat atop their grandfather’s tomb nearby, sorting through the plastic flowers they’d brought to fancy things up. An elderly man bent near his wife’s grave, silently sharpening his machete to take another crack at the saplings pushing through the soil. Their labours seemed like such a wonderful expression of love.
May eternity find me in a similar place one day, asleep among the wild things until the people who love me return to make me real again.

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.