Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Type A in a Type B Land

The view from my desk
This period in Honduras is a first in so many ways. First extended period outside of Canada. First time as an international volunteer. First time I've stayed put in my travels for more than a few days.
It's also the first time I've worked in another culture, let alone another language. Barely into my second week in my new job with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, I can see quite clearly that this aspect of life in Honduras might just be my biggest adjustment.
People back home have asked me to write more on what kind of work I'll be doing on behalf of Cuso International here in Honduras. I wish I could tell them more. But the truth is, the job description was vague - deliberately so, I suspect, as Cuso warned us all along that everything was likely to change once we actually started our placements. And the reality is in many ways even vaguer, and immensely complicated by a different language and culture.
The rough goal of my time here is to create some written history of CASM, and document the work the agency does in ways that will be useful for funding, Web site upgrades, or just general promotions the non-profit might need to do in other countries. Unlike Canada, non-profits are completely on their own in Honduras, without a scrap of government funding or the deep pockets of some benevolent foundation. Churches do most of the social work in Honduras, and rely on out-of-country funds from specific denominations or international aid organizations.
To achieve that goal, however, I can tell I'm going to have to be pushy. No problem normally, but tough when you don't yet speak the language competently. People in my workplace have no doubt concluded that I'm a quiet type who keeps to herself - far from the truth, but who can blame them when I spend so much of my time sitting mute, desperately trying to comprehend what's being said?
Pushy also isn't easy in a hierarchical work culture where perky suggestions from the floor aren't necessarily  welcomed. I'm a strategic type, and that part of me is going to be tested as never before if I hope to convince my bosses to clear a path for me to talk to the people I'll need to talk to in order to gather the stories of the organization. I know that's what they want me to do, but that doesn't mean it will be easy to make it happen.
Then there's the challenges of a very different work ethic. Hot countries are laid back. I'm no Torontonian, but I'm used to a fast-paced workplace and the pressure of endless deadlines. This land just doesn't do its work like that. This afternoon, my co-workers spent a good deal of time in the parking lot trying on jeans that somebody brought over, while I sat alone in the office looking like the workplace nerd.
I can't bear to take a two-hour lunch break and lose valuable work time, so I've had to make up an excuse that eating lunch makes me sleepy (it's true, mind you). I had to force myself into the coffee room today with everybody else for a long, chatty break over cake, just so I wouldn't come across as aloof.
But aside from looking like I'm not a team player, the other problem  is that I end up completing my work too fast.
Two days into the work week, I've already  finished a 5,000-word document for an upcoming workshop on women's and children's rights, despite all the Internet searches, translating back and forth and protracted periods of flipping through my Spanish-English dictionary required to make that happen.
 I reviewed the CASM Web site and sent a document to my boss suggesting changes I could work on. I took information on an upcoming Honduras-Canada student exchange and  rewrote it in English and Spanish. (Although there now appears to be no easy way of distributing the damn thing. Most of the people in my workplace don't even have email. How do they function??)
What I should have done was stretched that work out for at least a week, because tomorrow will be here soon and I don't have a clue what I'll do with my time.
Maybe I'll have to take a nice, long lunch break. Or maybe the jeans truck will be back.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

No way to hide it - I'm not from around here

I’m realizing that you never see your own culture and privilege more clearly than when it’s juxtaposed on another. Take running, for example.
I’ve never thought of running as a cultural thing. Back in Canada, I just slapped on my runners and headed out the door, figuring I looked no more or less out of place than anyone else out for a run that morning.
But in Honduras, going out for a run marks you instantly as a gringo - a person from “away,” and one with the leisure time and energy to need exercise. A hard-working Honduran never thinks about such things, because a typical day’s long labour is quite sufficient.
“Le gusta caminar?” asked a friendly young fellow as I slowed my pace at the end of my run this morning. Curious about the sweaty older woman making her way up one of the many steep hills in Copan, he asked me how much I walked in a day. Maybe an hour, I said, and then asked him the same. “All day - I have to for my work,” he answered. We left it at that.
The baseball hat I wear on my run is culturally distinctive. Women don’t wear hats here, and definitely not baseball hats. My size, my shape, my short hair - all culturally distinctive. I tan up easily and am already blending in quite nicely in terms of skin colour, but my height and habits will always distinguish me as a privileged foreigner.
Today I passed a foursome from the American bilingual school here in Copan, and they might as well have had signs taped on their backs declaring their heritage. They stood out with their Tilly hats, hiking boots and expensive day packs in a country where most people count themselves lucky to own one of those little packs made out of string and that weird grocery-bag material. I regularly see whole families of tiny people staggering down from the mountainsides with giant bundles of firewood digging into their skinny shoulders; I can’t imagine what they think of us big, fussy foreigners with our water bottles and light lunches carefully nestled in padded packs, heading out for an easy stroll.
I’m not suggesting there’s anything shameful in being a Westerner. I’ve got no urge to carry prickly, heavy bundles of firewood on my back, or work hard all day for almost no money. I wouldn’t change my lot for that of one of the tough, hungry-looking campesinos who I see in town every Sunday buying cheap pieces of foam to soften the hard dirt floor they’re sleeping on. 
But it’s just striking to see how very different we are, forever more. I can come to Honduras as a Cuso International volunteer and congratulate myself for being willing to live on a tenth of the income I could earn back home, but the truth is I’m still remarkably comfortable. I’ve got a hot shower whenever I want one and a fridge full of food, not to mention money in the bank, a partner with money in the bank, and many different options to fall back on in a pinch.
Even my Honduran home, at $325 a month, is twice as expensive as what a typical Honduran family can afford in Copan Ruinas -  and completely out of reach for those poor sods from the countryside who I see selling firewood door to door to all the people who cook their frijoles and tortillas on outdoor stoves. I have the healthy bones, the good clothes, the solid education and the nutritionally alert brain of someone who has spent their life benefiting from Western privilege.
I try to remember that when I’m out there running down a dirt road and wondering why the Chorti people aren’t returning my friendly Canadian smile as they pass by me with babies on their backs and a stack of tortillas they desperately need to sell. I’m playing at living like a poor person. For them,  it’s no game.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The slow awakening

Workshop participants discuss citizens' rights
I'm with a roomful of people at a conference centre atop one of the crazy, skinny mountain roads they have around Copan. They call this kind of meeting a taller here in Honduras - a workshop. But the term that comes to my mind is “consciousness-raising.”
The people in the room are all too familiar with the many problems facing Honduran families and communities. But they obviously don't get mad easily, and the facilitator is gently nudging them toward a little more indignation.
Honduras has a constitution, he reminds them. The country’s leaders have signed numerous international agreements recognizing human rights, gender equity, fair processes for its citizens.  But that's on paper, not in the way daily life unfolds for most Hondurans.
Today was my first full day on the job with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, and the first chance I’ve had to see my new boss, Merlin Fuentes, in action. It turns out he’s an excellent facilitator. And any Canadian old enough to remember the ‘60s - or the women’s rights movement - would have recognized what he was trying to do at the workshop. He was waking people up to their own power.
The problems in Honduras are much more extreme than in Canada, but not totally unfamiliar. People feel disconnected from their government and powerless to effect change. They see money flowing among those who have plenty, but almost none of it trickling down to those on the ground.  
Their children receive little or no education. Their unemployment rate is closing in on 40 per cent. Their murder rate is staggering - 54 times the Canadian rate, and No. 1 in the world right now. Their access to health care ranges from minimal to non-existent, and for the most part people rely on folk cures and luck.
Unbelievably terrible things happen every day in Honduras. In the last week alone, a devastating prison fire killed more than 350 people and an equally devastating fire in a market district near the country’s capital destroyed the workplaces and the inventory of more than 800 vendors. With not even a shred of a social net to break the fall, those affected will plunge to new lows of poverty that will virtually ensure their children and their children’s children remain in a lifelong state of deprivation.
The country’s media deliver a new outrage every day - 200 sick babies baking in an non-air-conditioned pediatric emergency ward in San Pedro Sula; a government worker shot to death while riding his motorcycle to work at 5 a.m.; yet another public school trying to get by with no desks, no school supplies and far too few teachers.
You’d think Hondurans would have no need for consciousness-raising at this point, or for anyone to awaken their sense of outrage. But when generation after generation grows up in poverty and deprivation, it can start to feel like the norm. It’s not that people have given up - it’s that they’ve lost sight of there even being an alternative.
What can be done? Aid, sure, and all those nice things that Western countries like to do. But real change always has to come from within. One taller at a time, more people will find their voice. For the sake of this lovely but bedeviled country and its people, I will hope for that.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Day 1: The initial panic recedes

Scene from my morning walk to work

Admittedly, I didn't understand much of the things said at this morning's devotional, a regular Monday-morning feature at my new workplace, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita. But I can't help but think that Truman Capote and Oscar Wilde would have been pleased to know that they were quoted at a gathering of devout Mennonites in Honduras.
Three groups work out of the CASM office, and each of the 15 employees in the building take a turn at preparing a theme for the Monday devotional. Today's theme was about work, with the group invited to reflect on how they define "work" and who they work for (and no, just saying that you worked for God was not sufficient).
I was a quiet observer this time out, but I liked the idea of a set time for employees to reflect on something bigger than just getting that day's job done. And I did manage to sing along with a few stanzas of a song that sounded very much like "Red River Valley." I got the gist of the session - I'm using that expression a lot these days - including the mentions of Capote and Wilde during a reading of various quotes about work.
The person who prepares the theme for the week is also responsible for bringing in food to share after the devotional. Today it was chepas (spelling, anyone?) - frijoles wrapped in a corn mash and steamed in corn husks. Now that I know there's food every Monday, I won't bother eating breakfast at home next time.
As for my actual work today - well, the boss wasn't in and the other staff members didn't know what to do with me.
But they were cheerful about it, and in the end invited me along to a meeting at Copan city hall of local Mayans, who are very upset that some of the artifacts at the famous Mayan ruins in Copan are about to be shipped off to the University of Pennsylvania. The plan is to replace the artifacts on site with reproductions. You can imagine that the idea of losing precious relics to a U.S. university might trouble the Mayan descendants who live here, a population that CASM works with extensively.
Alas, that meeting fell victim to one of the strange circumstances that just seem to happen in Honduras. It turns out that CASM and one of the other organizations it works with, the Organismo Cristiano de Desarrollo Integral de Honduras, had a falling out with someone at city hall last year over something that, when explained to me in rapid Spanish, was beyond my ability to understand. At any rate, both organizations have now been prohibited from entering city hall. I sense that democracy is a bit of a loose concept in Honduras, among all levels of government.
We sat outside city hall for more than an hour, waiting to talk to the Mayan contingent after the meeting. But we eventually gave up. I'm hoping I'll find out more tomorrow when I arrive for Day 2, and at least know now that it's a very pleasant 15-minute stroll to get to work.
The route along the Copan River took me past several flocks of oropendolas, a flashy crow-sized bird with a distinctive ululating song and an intriguing tendency to sing the song while falling forward on its perch. Throw in a few orioles, great-tailed grackles and flocks of little green parrots, and it's a perfect morning walk for a bird enthusiast like myself.
Better still, I heard today there's a women's-rights project at CASM due in June that sounds like a potential fit for my skill set. It may not go smoothly - that doesn't seem to be the way down here. But hey, no problema.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Here goes nothing

Tomorrow is the first day of my new job. I'm nervous, perhaps not surprising given that none of the people I'll be working with speak the same language as me and I don't really know what I'll be doing.
In theory, I'm here in Honduras to help the Comision de Accion Social Menonita get better at communicating. The non-profit is a Cuso International partner, and communications is what I do.
In reality, I suspect I'm in for one of the most challenging job experiences of my life. And that's saying a lot, what with me being the type to jump into the deep end fairly regularly when it comes to work. It's just sinking in tonight - with mere hours to go before I show up for the Monday-morning devotional tomorrow at 8 a.m. - that this is going to be one heck of a ride.
CASM has been doing good work with impoverished and vulnerable populations in Honduras for more than 40 years, first with El Salvadorean refugees flooding into Honduras during and more recently with indigenous \women and children. But non-governmental organizations - in Honduras and Canada alike - tend to put their heads down and work, without spending too much time documenting either the work or the results.
My role in the next year or two is to help CASM get better at that, using its small Copan Ruinas office as a pilot that could eventually be expanded to its six other office in Honduras.
How will that play out? I have no idea. The language challenges are the most immediate, but it's much bigger than that. I've been to the office twice now, and both times the staff was very welcoming but clearly puzzled at who I was and why I was there. That's a tough opening position.
I'm quite sure my new boss will have plenty of work for me once I settle in - there are only five employees, after all, and dozens of dead-poor Chorti villages in this region alone in need of help. And for at least a couple months, I'll need to follow behind the CASM staff and do what they do anyway, because there's no figuring out communications until you know exactly what it is that needs to be communicated.
But sooner or later things will have to get around to communications, because that's the whole point of the Cuso project. In an organization that has never had time for communications, however, that's a tall order. As I've already learned from various non-profit projects in Canada, it's not just about me coming in with my skill set and voila, we're all communicating. It's actually about going up against a culture of non-communication and trying to convince people that it's important.
And when it's a Spanish-speaking organization in a foreign country that values hierarchical structure and male leadership - well, you can imagine why I might be a tad nervous. I am, after all, an older Canadian woman with a pierced nose, a tattoo, a tentative grasp of Spanish and a lot of years of not having to prove myself to doubtful strangers.
But I will get up tomorrow and walk the half-hour to my new workplace in what will probably be sunshine, and I guess we'll just see. CASM starts every work week with an hour of prayer, and right now that sounds like exactly what I need to be doing. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

If Only Corn-Husk Dolls Were All It Took

We took a horseback ride yesterday up to a little Chorti village not far from Copan, La Pintada. Before any of us got a foot on the ground, children started running toward us from all directions, clutching the corn-husk dolls that are a common sight for any tourist visiting Copan. In seconds they had us surrounded.
Once upon a time, somebody with the best of intentions introduced to this tiny, impoverished community the concept of making and selling corn-husk dolls to tourists. I recall reading about the project somewhere in the various bits and pieces of literature I took in during the run-up to moving to Honduras. On paper, it sounded like a great idea for social enterprise.
But of course, reality is something different. The corn-husk dolls are charming enough - bright-coloured trinkets that I can imagine a few tourists might buy, albeit with some concern as to whether they will be able to clear customs without getting hassled about the dusty corn cob at the centre of each doll. Unfortunately, there aren’t a heck of a lot of tourists coming to Honduras these days, and the percentage who want a corn-husk doll is considerably smaller than the vast numbers of Chorti children really hoping someone will buy.
So the whole thing has taken on an air of desperation. Children as young as two or three now wander the streets of Copan trying to hawk corn-husk dolls. The older ones follow the gringos around with sad eyes and urgent pleas, as if their very lives depended on you buying a corn-husk doll. I fear that in some cases, that might even be true.
I’m presuming the project was intended as community development, something that tapped into a “traditional” skill to bring money to an impoverished village. But how many corn-husk dolls does it take to lift a struggling community out of poverty? If you saw the shoeless, hungry-looking kids who sell these things - the rough-looking houses that their families live in, without running water and for the most part without electricity -  it’s pretty obvious that all the tourists in Honduras couldn’t buy enough corn-husk dolls to turn these people’s lives around.
We took a short walk through the handful of dusty little trails that constitute streets in La Pintada and came across another good idea gone wrong. The women in the village do some beautiful weaving - placemats, table runners, scarves and the like, in dazzling colours. There’s a sign outside the tiny building where they’re sold that proudly points to the “micro enterprise” inside.
Alas, you have to come to La Pintada to buy the weaving, because it isn’t sold anywhere else. There are at least a half-dozen tourist-oriented stores in Copan Ruinas hawking goods from China, India and elsewhere, but you won’t find the local weaving anywhere other than at the top of a mountain that most tourists will never visit unless they happen to like riding horses. 
It smacks of one of those projects that kind-hearted people from elsewhere conceive of, but then leave to die on the vine in the hands of locals who have no idea how to market the goods or get them to town. Everybody presumes somebody else will take the project to the next level, but no one ever does.
We have to continue to work toward eradicating poverty.  I admire the Westerners who come with their big hearts and novel projects to underdeveloped countries and try to make a difference. But unless local people have the capacity, cultural understanding and means to sustain and nurture such projects, generations of Chorti children will have little but handfuls of corn-husk dolls and disappointment to show for their efforts.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Even shopping shakes your self-confidence

It has been a humbling experience to be a stranger in a strange land. As I posted earlier, the search for housing earlier this month reduced my partner and I to a pair of puzzled children following behind the various kind-hearted souls who were willing to help us. This week’s search for housewares to go in our new casa has been equally baffling.
We are veterans of the Canadian shopping experience - which is to say, we know how to go into some big mall or gigantic store-with-everything and load up our cart with the things we need. If I were looking to outfit a house in Victoria with cutlery, towels, pots and pans, a coffee maker and so on, I’d have my choice of many stores where I could get everything I needed in one swoop.
Not so in Copan Ruinas. For starters, there’s no mall here. There are no big stores, either, or even very many small ones.
Nor is there a single store that specializes in housewares - or anything else for that matter. For the most part, they all sell a little of this and a little of that. You really just have to poke your head in the door and see what’s on the shelves, which often turns out to be a random assortment of office supplies, brassieres, motorcycles, shoes, used clothing and kitchenware.
I did my first reconnaissance by myself on Thursday and concluded that much of what we needed wasn’t going to be available in Copan. But then our Spanish teachers kindly took Paul and I on a walkabout the next day and I realized that I simply hadn’t understood how to look for what we needed.
For instance, I’d walked right by Zapatos Faby the previous day, having presumed that a shoe store wouldn’t have housewares. But in fact, the store’s name turned out to be just a lingering remnant from a previous incarnation. It actually sold an eclectic mix of toaster ovens, dish sets, dressers, file cabinets and more. I’d also walked past the intimate-apparel store, Lovables, but a closer look in the company of our teachers revealed shower curtains, cutlery and coffee pots.
The main furniture store in town has a row of shiny new motorcycles out front that it also sells. I hear the store sells bicycles, too, something I’m considering for my daily commute to the Comision de Accion Social Menonita. We asked about buying cylinders for our gas stove and it turned out that every day on our way to Spanish school we’d walked blithely past the unassuming house where the canisters are sold (and fresh tortillas).
I bought a quilt for our bed through the woman who runs our homestay, who knew somebody who knew somebody who happened to have a very nice one. We’re shopping for a sofa using the same technique - word of mouth, which appears to be how virtually everything gets done in this little town.
We’d have never found the cable company office if our teachers hadn’t walked us down a skinny little dead-end street and a dusty construction site to find the entrance. Nor would we have known that the meter man would read our hydro meter a couple times a month, stick a bill on our door, and then we’d go pay it at the bank. The teachers also took us into the mercado and introduced us to their favourite vendor, a religious woman known for having quality fruits and vegetables at fair prices.
Our supply of purified water? We’ll buy it off trucks that drive around the neighbourhood every day. Our garbage pickup? We’ve been advised to ask our neighbours about when the garbage truck comes - not just the day but the exact hour, because garbage left at the curb for any length of time is quickly ripped apart by the hungry, sick dogs that are  everywhere in Copan.
Give us six months or so and we’ll be old hands at all of this (maybe). And if learning new things really is the ticket for preventing Alzheimer’s, we’re going to have brains of steel.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Just because they call it a homestay doesn't make it homey

The primary focus for much of the screening, assessments and training my partner and I went through during our Cuso International preparations was whether we were flexible and adaptable enough for this work.
I felt certain then and now that we would be well-suited to being thrust into unfamiliar settings and largely left to our own devices to figure things out. But this homestay business is definitely proving to be an early test of our abilities to go with the flow.
The warm and friendly sound of a homestay never did tempt me. I don’t like the idea of staying with a houseful of strangers in my own culture, let alone in a foreign country with a considerably lower standard of living. But a nice hotel with a pool wasn’t an option when Cuso booked us in for a month-long homestay in Copan Ruinas while we attend a Spanish-language school that’s preparing us for placements here in Honduras.
We’re now in Week 3, and eagerly - maybe even desperately - counting down the days until we move into our own place next week. I’ve never looked for housing with such fervor. My instinctive wariness of homestays has now been confirmed, and I plan to do anything in my power from this point on to avoid ever staying in one again.
I get the concept: That if you’re fully immersed into the culture, language and family life of your new country, you’ll have no choice but to adapt rapidly and start picking up the language. In a romantic (but misguided) moment, you might even picture how nice it’s going to be sitting down for traditional meals with a friendly family who will gently ask you about your day and encourage you to test your fragile language skills.
But I’m just too freakin’ old to get stuffed into a run-down little back bedroom in a house overrun by what seems to be a thousand small children and assorted passers-by. As for those family meals, they don’t seem to have such a thing in this house; dinner last night, for instance, consisted of the two of us gulping down our beans and tortillas at the plastic table while a baby bumped into our legs in his walker, the TV blared a bad action movie dubbed in Spanish, and a man we’d never seen before sat on the couch with another baby while his wife got her hair tinted next door.
There’s not a sound we could make in this 10x10-foot space that wouldn’t be completely audible to everyone just outside our (screen) door. And I can assure you that there isn’t a sound they make that isn’t completely audible to us. At least I’ve learned to fall asleep to the sound of water running, running, running into the seemingly bottomless stone pila just outside our (screen) window. The five-year-olds who chase each other around and around, the three-year-old diva who spends most of her days here, the dyspeptic baby and the endless teenage girls who lug him around - all of it was charming for a week or so, but how much flexibility can one person muster? One night of that is an amusing travel anecdote. Seventeen nights and counting is an endurance test.
Still, the days tick by. And there are warm and fuzzy moments when we find ourselves having fun with the family, like last week when I played accordion at 5 a.m. for the man of the house so he could mark his birthday in typical Honduran fashion with a firecracker-and-music wakeup call. The family is endearing in its own way and I expect we’ll stay connected during our time here. I just don’t want to live with them.
Of course, Cuso’s emphasis on flexibility and adaptability is actually about doing well in my placement with the Comision de Social Accion Menonita, which I don’t even start until Feb. 20. But I’ve got no worries about that. After this homestay, it’s going to be a piece of cake. Six more sleeps....

Monday, February 06, 2012

The view from here

Chorti woman in her very rough kitchen - no electricity

Three weeks into our new life in Honduras, I’d be a fool to declare myself an expert on the place. Still, I’ve learned some things. So I offer up a few observations from the field, in no particular order:

The headlines are scary, but out of context. Yes, the murder rate in Honduras is the highest in the world, and the incidents of violence are so common in the big cities that one of the country’s papers now features a map of assaults, robberies and shootings in San Pedro Sula, the craziest city of the lot. But everyday life for most Honduran people is full of the ordinary activities of life: Feed the family; raise the kids; get the laundry done; go to work. If you removed the violence of the drug trade from Honduran life - violence that is primarily directed at other people in the drug trade - the picture would change significantly.
That said, I have met an astounding number of “regular folks” who have had someone murdered in their family. Partly that’s because poverty breeds violent robberies here, and partly that’s because....

The drug trade is fully integrated into the Honduran economy. If you needed one more reason for why the “war on drugs” is pointless, harmful and doomed to fail, come to Honduras. As long as demand for cocaine continues in the wealthy countries of the world, there will be a major industry in Latin American countries affecting every public institution, every town on the route that cocaine travels, every brash young man and impoverished family tempted by all that money.
Here in tiny Copan Ruinas, you need only stand on a street corner counting late-model deluxe trucks with windows tinted black to realize that no town on a major transportation route is immune. It’s not something that people here talk about, but it’s certainly a reality they all live with.  

Stone pilas really get your clothes clean. My light-coloured clothing has never looked better now that my clothes are being washed on a big block of stone out back. Sure, an automatic washer is quick and easy, but it’s no match for a straight-up scrubbing by hand and a sunny afternoon of drying on the criss-cross of clothes lines up on the terrazza.
The woman who runs our homestay where we’re living right now does our washing as part of the deal, but I rolled up my sleeves today and did a few items myself, not wanting to look like some pampered gringa. We’ll be moving into our own place in mid-February and I’m looking forward to testing out my own pila.

You can live without a hot shower. I never would have thought this to be true back in Canada, where a long hot shower was one of the highlights of my day. But I’ve quickly become accustomed to a much shorter rinse in much cooler water that is all you get when using the funny little shower heads-cum-hot water heaters that are the mainstays in Honduran homes.

The dogs lead desperate lives. A dog’s life is rough in any poor country, but I’ve never seen so many sick, disease-ridden, crippled, neglected creatures as live here in Honduras. Unlike cats, dogs don’t seem to be able to undomesticated easily, so these poor things continue to breed but are left to scrounge for scraps - which aren’t easy to find in a poor country where most people subsist on a scant diet of beans and corn, with few leftovers. The dogs' sad, sad eyes break my heart. If ever there was a place that needed a good spay/neuter program and a rescue group, this is it.

Hondurans work hard, and the poorest ones work even harder. Walk through any of the little indigenous communities surrounding Copan Ruinas and you quickly see how hard it is to be poor in a country with zero social supports. We visited a Chorti household where the woman divides her day between making clay pots (no kiln, no pottery wheel, just her and her strong arms) for $2.50 a pop and grinding corn for the tortillas that feed her family. She’s got running water but no electricity; her kitchen was a pitch-black cave with a dirt floor, with nothing for light but the fire in the big clay stove where she cooked her tortillas.

Honduran popcorn balls are amazing. Corn and beans are the staples here, so no surprise that popcorn balls are sold on the street as a cheap treat. Who knew that scruffier, smaller corn kernels and lots of molasses would yield even tastier popcorn balls than the ones I remember from Halloweens past? (Ah, those were the days, when nobody freaked out if the neighbour handed out something homemade.)
 I try not to think too much about the provenance of my new favourite treats, mind you, Food Safe kitchens being something of a rarity here in Honduras. And I definitely don’t want to know what they use to get the pink versions quite so electric-pink. Some things are best left unexplored.

Friday, February 03, 2012

But what if I never understand this language??

La ViaVia, Copan Ruinas. Great place to drink!

I met my new boss on Wednesday. He doesn’t speak any English. Yikes.
I believe I have the heart for the work I’m about to do in Honduras, which involves helping a very good Mennonite organization do its very good work. But what I don’t have is the language skills.
That fact hit home with a whump Wednesday as I sat in my new workplace, straining to understand what the heck the kind-faced man who heads up Copan’s Comision de Social Accion Menonita was telling me.
My Spanish has improved significantly in the past four months, thanks to private lessons, many hours of devoted study, and more immediately a 20-hour-a-week immersion in Spanish at the Ixbalanque Language School here in Copan. But comprehending the spoken language - especially at the speed it’s spoken around these parts - remains a major challenge.
That’s natural, I’m told. But let me tell you, “natural” is of little comfort when you’ve got a scant two weeks before starting your new job in a workplace that’s all Spanish, all the time. More alarming still, the work of CASM involves the issues of human development, rights, gender equity, poverty - fascinating and important stuff, but not exactly easy subjects to talk about when your language skills are maybe (maybe) at a Grade 3 or 4 level.
Spanish is a beautiful language, and it’s a total thrill for me to find myself able now to have some conversations with people about their lives, their country, their culture. I’ve been able to conduct halting exchanges in markets, banks and the like for about 10 years now after much travel in Mexico and a year or so of lessons some time ago, but the inner journalist in me has longed to be able to engage in more meaningful conversation. It’s all well and good to be able to ask how much the avocados cost or whether there’s a bathroom nearby, but what I really want when travelling is to talk to people about what their lives are like, how their school and health-care systems work,  how their governments function and their countries survive.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to get to that point. Big Pharma has yet to come up with a language-acquisition pill (but damn it, sign me up when they do). Having accepted this Cuso International placement in Honduras, I want to be fluent in Spanish RIGHT NOW, but the truth is that all I can do is keep studying, keep talking, keep straining to understand those rapid-fire Spanish conversations all around me while the learning process inches along at a much too stately pace.
Me parece it will be a tough slog. But my boss gave me an encouraging smile after our talk, and told me that I seemed to comprehend quite a bit. If only he knew that we journalists are schooled at looking fully engaged even while our baffled brains are saying What? What? (or in this case, Que? Que?)
At least I won’t be like the California guy we met today, eight years in Honduras and not a word of Spanish to show for it. He’s still doing this crazy mime thing to try to communicate with people. Me, I want to use my words. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

In search of a place to call our own

We started looking for a place to rent in Copan Ruinas this week. Our homestay ends when we finish our language classes in mid-February, and we’ll need somewhere to live after that.
I’ve been a tenant for a long time, but finding rental housing in this little Honduran town is a whole new thing.  For starters, there’s no local newspaper, or any version of craigslist Copan. There isn’t even a local laundromat with one of those message boards covered in homemade ads with little tear-off phone numbers at the bottom.
So how does it work? Well, it’s basically a door-to-door kind of thing. We’ve mentioned our need for housing to the handful of people we’ve met in town so far, but their advice has essentially been to go into random corner stores - pulperias, as they’re known here - and start asking people whether they know of any place to rent.
That would be a daunting process in our native language, but you ought to try it in halting Spanish. But I guess it really must be the way it’s done, because the strangers we’ve approached so far have been surprisingly willing to put some thought into possible options.
We wandered into a high-end hotel and asked the clerk whether he knew of any rentals. He called out to his supervisor, who told us she’d ask her mother whether her house might be suitable. We went into a local restaurant/bar and asked the owner to keep us in mind should she hear of anything, then spent a good half an hour sitting with one of the patrons - who I’d briefly met when he dropped off his laundry with the woman who runs our homestay - mapping out possible leads.
One of the teachers from the language school was kind enough to meet us at our homestay yesterday afternoon and take us walking through some neighbourhoods where she’d seen “Se Renta” signs. We were very grateful, but it was a peculiar experience to be hanging behind her like hulking kids while she knocked boldly on doors and inquired on our behalf. One vacant house had a “Se Renta” sign but no contact information, so the teacher popped into the ubiquitous pulperia next door and arranged for the store owner to track down the house owner and give us a call later this week.
As for what we’ll actually end up living in, I guess we’ll see. A couple of the places we toured through yesterday were pretty dumpy - but then again, what can you expect for $150 a month? Some come furnished -  if you can count a plastic table and chairs and somebody else’s old bed as furnished - while others don’t even have a fridge or stove.
Some have water all the time. Most have it only every three days, but with a big stone pila out back that you fill up to get you through the no-water days. Electricity is extra, but they tell us the costs are minuscule. With no heating systems, clothes dryers, air conditioners or hot-water tanks to suck up the juice, you just don’t need that much power.
Tomorrow, we’re going to hit up the bilingual school that some of the kids in town go to, maybe a few more pulperias, and check back in with that hotel supervisor to see what her mother said. Home sweet home, here we come.