Friday, August 31, 2012

The guns are scary, but it's the roads that'll kill you

The road that convinced me to get out and walk

Before we left Canada in January, Cuso International asked us to watch a 90-minute video presentation on health concerns put together by Dr. Mark Wise, Cuso's doctor in residence.
He listed what seemed like a hundred different health problems to watch out for in our international placements, from malaria and dengue fever to chagas and rabid dogs.
He ended it with a humorous little lecture noting that even if we couldn't be bothered to wear mosquito repellent - even if we insisted on patting stray dogs -  at the very least we should always use a seatbelt when riding in a vehicle, because car accidents are by far the most common bad things to happen to Cuso volunteers.
I think back on his advice with a rueful smile whenever I'm jouncing along any of the truly terrible roads in Honduras. If only it were that easy, Dr. Wise.
Sure, I do up my seatbelt if I happen to be sitting in the front seat of somebody's vehicle. But I don't think I've been in a back seat yet that had a functioning seatbelt. Nor are there seatbelts in the back of a pickup truck, which is where I've ended up sitting a striking number of times when heading off on some adventure with my co-workers at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita.
And a few days ago as we crept over an alarmingly fragile sliver of road, undercut to the point of imminent collapse by the vast quantities of rainwater that had been eating away at it for what must have been a dozen rainy seasons, I wondered whether a seatbelt would actually be a help or a hindrance were the road to give way right at that moment and send us tumbling into the ravine below.
Seatbelts are a good thing in a Canada/U.S. kind of  country, where the most likely thing to happen to you on the road is that you smash into another car.
Ah, but there are many more things besides collisions to worry about on a Honduras road - from car-eating potholes flipping you sideways to giant sinkholes opening under your wheels. There are skinny mountain roads so steep that even a 4x4's tires spin helplessly in the mud when the rains come, and roads that are really just river beds that surge to life in a single downpour.
The dirt roads of Honduras aren't just rutted, they're gouged, two feet deep in places and impossible to negotiate. And it's not like you can just make a point of avoiding the dirt roads: 80 per cent of the country's 13,600 kilometres of roads are unpaved, and for the most part profoundly neglected.
The municipalities have responsibility for maintaining the roads near their towns, but they don't have any money. The national government has responsible for the main roads, but nobody seems to hold them to that.
A rear tire from the CASM truck
We caught a bus to Santa Rosa de Copan recently and came across people who make a living filling in the giant potholes along that route. They come dashing out in between traffic surges and scoop gravel into the holes, then collect lempiras that grateful drivers throw out the window. My co-workers tell  me they remove the gravel every night so they can do it all again the next day.
And then there are the vehicles. People don't have a lot of money here, so vehicle maintenance isn't exactly a priority. If you're a non-profit like CASM, you'll have a heck of a time convincing any of your funders to include vehicle maintenance in your contract, even though virtually all development work is done in isolated villages that are impossible to reach without a vehicle.
Because of that little problem, it's common practice to take a pair of tires down to the steel belts before anyone even thinks about replacing them. I had that unfortunate realization one day a couple of months ago after we'd made our halting way down a typically horrifying mountain road and  then stopped the truck to see what was up with the rear tires. Not only were they completely bald, they were bristling with shredded wire.
I don't like to come across as a chicken, but last week when we had to drive back across that eroded, undercut little strip of road not far from La Cumbre, I lied so that I could get out of the truck. I asked to be let out so I could take a photo of the truck inching its way across. In reality, I just felt a lot safer walking.
So yes, Dr. Wise, I wear my seatbelt when I can. The rest of the time, I pray.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's a nice girl like me doing pricing out urinals?

My new best friends: Nelson Rodriguez, right, the man doing
the work at Angelitos; and Ovidio Mayorga of Casa
Constructor, where I just bought $2500 worth of materials
Sometimes you just have to sit back and wonder how the heck you got yourself into something. I had one such moment at about 8 p.m. last night, shortly after a halting phone conversation in Spanish with a plumbing contractor trying to sort out how and when I would be paying for the materials he needed to build new bathrooms and replace the water system at a rundown children's home here in Copan.
I've lived a fine, long life without ever feeling the need to do home renovations. I know nothing about plumbing, water systems, urinal sturdiness or bombas, the mysterious and apparently pricey pumps that shoot water from cistern to holding tank to bathroom in countries like this one.
I've never considered what kind of ceramic tile I like in a bathroom, or whether the grout should be white or black. Up until four hours ago, I hadn't thought about the benefits of a press-button tap over a faucet-style one, or whether a two-foot-long trough urinal was sufficiently long enough for three small boys to use at the same time.
So how has it come to be that  I'm overseeing a fairly complex renovation project in a foreign land, in a language that I've been speaking for all of seven months? I don't shy away from taking on the "guy" role when it suits me (as my partner regularly points out), but I'm sure the men I'm working with must also find it at least a little strange that the jefa for the project is an older woman from Canada with inadequate Spanish and no clue about construction.
I blame Emily Monroe, the young American who introduced me to Angelitos Felices children's home in the first place.
First she made me see what a hovel the place was, then she pointed out the disastrous bathrooms. Up until then I'd just been contemplating stuffing new foam mattresses into plastic for the 30 or so children who live there, maybe doing a few crafts with them once in a while. But once I walked into those bathrooms and took a good look, there was no turning back.
So here we go. It's both thrilling and terrifying to be here, knowing how much of an improvement the project will make to the daily comfort of the children, yet at the same time having heard way too many nightmare-renovation stories to believe that we're just going to get this started and roll on smoothly all the way to the end. I'm still getting over the jitters from a couple weeks ago after one of the local fellows who has been very, very helpful with this project raised the spectre of the 2,500-litre water tank we're putting in crashing through the floor and killing the children as they lay sleeping in their beds below. (Hopefully we've got that one under control now with a new plan to reinforce the floor.)
As for Emily, I guess I'll forgive her for sucking me into all this, seeing as her own big dreams started moving forward this week when she received permission from Copan city hall to open a new daycare centre for impoverished working mothers.
That's probably going to move several children right out of Angelitos, where they won't  need to be once there's a better daycare option. While most of the Angelitos kids are wards of the state and have no other place they can go, a few are dropped off for the day by their moms simply because 100 lempiras ($5) a month is all the family can afford to pay for daycare. Everyone associated with the place wants a better environment for the children of Angelitos, including new bathrooms, but not having to be there in the first place would be the best solution of all for those kids.
Emily and her friend Charrissa Taylor - a special-ed teacher from New Zealand - are doing some excellent work with the kids at Angelitos already. It's very good news that they'll soon be providing a healthier, better-supported option for families in Copan. Check out the details of Emily's project here.
In the meantime, bathrooms ho.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Girl, you won't be forgotten

I'm saying goodbye to a dear old friend tonight, who died in the early hours of the morning in Victoria.  I went looking just now for some photos of Dyhan from the summer of 2007, the year a group of us had a magical four-day camping trip at Cowichan Lake, and was instantly reminded of why I liked her so much.
We met in the mid-2000s, when I first started to get to know some of the people living in the margins in Victoria. We stayed in touch right up until I left for Honduras in January - not in any kind of organized fashion, but bumping into each other at least three or four times a year for long enough to do a quick catch-up and share some  laughs. 
Dyhan was what you'd call "larger than life." The photos from Cowichan Lake show her lounging by the campfire in an evening gown, a scene I remember from that summer with much fondness. Such style -  perched on a log in her gown and her heels, flicking her boa at the smoke. Man, that was a good camping trip.
I know some things about Dyhan, but she's still very much a mystery to me overall. She was a great story-teller, and at times it might have been that the line between truth and fiction got blurred in the telling. One thing you always knew when you talked to Dyhan was that you weren't going to be bored, but it did make it hard to know for sure who she was.
She had one of those bodies that could really make you feel hugged when she greeted you. She was voluptuous, not a word I use often but a perfect fit for Dyhan. She talked fast, laughed a lot, and could almost knock you over with her wildly gesticulating hands when she got into a particularly enthusiastic story-telling. 
Everyone's got their own definition of what constitutes a "good" person, but Dyhan fit mine. She had a kind heart. She loved her children. She looked out for herself. She wanted to do right. I don't know if everybody saw that in her right away, but sooner or later Dyhan would prevail. I saw her win a lot of skeptics over. You just had to like the woman. 
And every time she came into a room it was like watching Mae West arrive. Oh, those boas weren't just for camping. The makeup, the hair, the drama - Dyhan knew how to put it all together.
Dyhan's life had its challenges. She'd been sick many times with various health problems, and money was always an issue in the years when I knew her. But she had a remarkable ability to bounce back. She seemed like one of those people who would always be around. 
Whatever took her in the end, I just hope she got to die peacefully, and that she was wearing a pair of leopard-skin silk pyjamas or a really exotic negligee that I feel certain she would have had in her collection. I know she would have wanted to look good right to the end. 
Rest in peace, dear Dyhan. I'm imagining you right now in whatever world you've moved onto, twirling that boa and telling a funny story about times gone by. Wish we could have had one last hug. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

No answers without questions

A Tegucigalpa activist at a protest against the rising number
of murders of Honduran women. Photo: Reuters

Almost 2,300 women have been murdered in Honduras in the last eight years, a fairly clear signal that the country has a problem. But the statistics from the last four years are the most alarming.
Murders of women skyrocketed in 2008, from 176 the year before to 569. Up until that point, roughly 200 Honduran women were murdered every year. But ever since that jump four years ago, the annual rates have doubled to around 400.
What’s going on? As with so many other things in Honduras, it’s impossible to tell. Murder is disturbingly common in the country – just to put the femicide rate into perspective, the murder rates for men in Honduras are more than 18 times higher. But with 90 per cent of the murders are unsolved, so there’s no way to draw any conclusion other than that the country really needs to get a grip.
Nor is there sufficient public information to help a worried population understand the risks. It’s obvious from the statistics that San Pedro Sula deserves its infamy as the murder capital of the world, and that Tegucigalpa is a close second (of the 222 Honduran women murdered so far this year, 183 were committed in those two cities).
But were the victims working in the drug trade? In the sex trade? Living in particularly violent neighbourhoods? Randomly chosen? Out late getting drunk? Victims of jealous spouses, or murdered in the course of robberies? Killed by police? Such details are rarely reported, and it’s not like there are any criminal trials the public can follow for greater insight.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that any behaviour justifies murder. But there’s no way to make sense of any of this insanity without more information. Without that, there’s no way to spot patterns that could be useful for strategizing how to reduce the murder rate, or targeting scarce police resources at problem areas. Hondurans are reduced to helpless acceptance of horrifying statistics.
While the victims of murders in Honduras are overwhelmingly Honduran, I know from my own family’s worried reaction to the headlines coming out of this country that such details make little difference when travellers are considering whether to visit. If you decided to holiday in a Central American country, would you pick Honduras with a murder rate of 88 per 100,000 people, or Costa Rica with a rate of 11.3? (And just to put some added perspective to those figures, Canada’s rate is 1.6, the U.S. is 4.2, and Afghanistan is 2.4.)
I regularly walk the country roads all around Copan and in seven months have encountered only friendly, curious people happy to exchange a few words with a passing stranger. But what I hear from the few travellers I’ve encountered here is much concern about whether it’s safe to walk anywhere. No small wonder that even the popular tourist haunts in Copan are reporting a drop of 15 per cent or more in business this summer.
One young fellow from the U.S. asked my spouse and I whether he could safely walk to the Mayan ruins, a very pleasant two-kilometre stroll from the town centre along the main road into town. It’s the kind of question you might expect from a Tilley-hatted senior on a carefully arranged private tour of the tourist highlights. The fact that we regularly hear such questions from seasoned backpackers who aren’t easily intimidated demonstrates the extent of the damage being done to Honduras’ tourism economy by the relentlessly grim news of a country wracked by murder and drug trafficking.
There’s so much more to Honduras than that.  I keep saying that, but who can blame my acquaintances from drawing their own conclusions?
I always presumed that were I ever to be living in a tropical country, I could expect a flood of eager friends from the cold North happy for a cheap holiday in the sun. I can’t say that the visitors have been knocking down our door so far, though. With all the countries of the world on offer, a place largely noted internationally for its staggering murder rates just isn’t that appealing.
Could there be a clearer sign of a country in real trouble than one where citizens are murdering citizens at ever-accelerating rates? But you can’t solve a problem without understanding it. Sadly, so little goes into investigation, prosecution, crime analysis and prevention in Honduras that people can only give that little hopeless shrug I’ve seen so often since coming here and hope that God protects them.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Turn around and there's another worthy project

Classroom windows at Copan's largest school
Want a project? I've got a thousand of them. Something about being a gringa in a country for whom gringo-ness summons images of money just seems to bring people running with ideas for how you can help.
And they're great ideas. I visited Escuela Juan Ramon Cueva in Copan Ruinas the other day and had to agree with the teacher that the place really could use a little gringo attention. A thousand students attend the school every day, and all that wear and tear is taking its toll. The roof is falling in on a couple of classrooms, and the big tin techo that shelters the courtyard where the kids play is riddled with holes and broken bits.
It would cost about $1,500 to put a new roof over the courtyard. That's nothing for a visiting group of Americans or Canadians looking to do a good deed, which is how much of the school got built in the first place. (A Rotary Club plaque hangs outside the bathrooms.)
Not long before this classroom ceiling collapses
But for the school, $1,500 is completely out of reach. There's just no place to get that money in Honduras - no government grants, no foundations, no culture of hitting up the wealthy for a big donation. I guess that's why a gringa can't go anywhere without someone hauling her off to see something in a terrible state of disrepair and then mentioning hey, if she knows anybody who might like to help....
After visiting the school I had this brilliant idea about a matchmaking service that connected volunteers from developed countries to small projects in places like Honduras. But then I went on Google and discovered that there are already several dozen such services, pitching equally worthy projects in all the hungry countries of the world.
Still, there's clearly more matchmaking to be done. If the biggest school in this region is reduced to pitching a passing stranger who's just there to admire the concrete work in the bathrooms, there still must be a lot of gaps in the process of connecting willing volunteers from developed countries with worthy projects in distant lands.
A striking number of  volunteer missions come to Honduras from the U.S. and Canada. The "Missions Calendar" featured by Honduras Weekly lists 26 groups from the U.S. alone that are coming to the country to do various good deeds between now and the end of the year. Some will provide medical and dental care; others will build things or share the word of God.
And those are just the missions that got it together to submit their listings to the on-line newspaper. The little non-profit I work for has already had two teams of U.S. volunteers come down for projects since I arrived in January, and another one is coming in November.
The first mission kicked off a major water project in La Cumbre. The second provided desperately needed veterinarian services for the livestock of subsistence farmers. The third will build 50 fuel-efficient wood cooking stoves for some of the poorest families in the country.
Great projects. But could there ever be enough international missions for all the things that need done? My sense is that there's a whole lot of untapped individual goodness in wealthy countries that could be directed toward small projects in the developing world with just a little more coordination. A little bit of time and money from comparatively affluent volunteers  goes a long, long way in poor countries.
And variety? I suspect that whatever strikes your fancy, there's a project that fits.
I've had people pitch me on reroofing a school; sponsoring their child to attend private school;  finding desks; installing bathrooms; redoing a classroom floor; organizing a water project for families in an isolated Copan barrio; building a new house for a hard-scrabble family of five; and buying $5 water jugs so villagers had something to fetch clean water in.
The woman next door is counting on me to buy  more of her handmade jewelry so her family can replace the house that the bank took. Another acquaintance just cut to the chase and asked if I'd give her family $60 every month so life wouldn't be so hard.
As the new gringa in town, all I can do is hear people out and pick the projects most likely to have impact while also being manageable for me and my supporters back home. But I still feel bad every time I see the guy who pitched me on the water project for his barrio. And I would love to be able to hook up the director of Escuela Juan Ramon Cueva with someone who could get her roof project done.
Maybe you? Call me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Yo entiendo! Yo entiendo!

A Czech proverb: You live a new life for every new language you speak. Now that I'm finally getting a handle on this business of learning Spanish, I couldn't agree more.
Cuso International really took a chance on me when they brought me to Honduras with what can only be described as seriously rudimentary Spanish skills. And for that I will always be in their debt. Of all the things I appreciate about this interesting new life, what I love the most is the worlds that are opening up to me because I'm learning another language.
It hasn't been easy. Despite being immersed in an all-Spanish environment for the last six months, I still need a Spanish-English dictionary close at hand at all times. I have to spend at least 10 minutes a day reading out loud from the San Pedro newspaper or a Spanish novel to sharpen my ear and my pronunciation. 
I still flip through the absolutely essential Barron's 501 Spanish Verbs daily, checking up on some of the trickier conjugations and sorting out the more idiosyncratic rules. I still make mistakes all the time when I speak. I don't understand everything that's being said to me, and group conversations continue to give me headaches.
But it's coming. I've learned a lot of new things in my lifetime and have always noticed that things start falling into place at the six-month mark. And I'm greatly relieved to discover that's true in language acquisition as well. 
Yesterday I managed a long conversation with a man I'd never met before (new people are always the biggest challenge, because everybody has their own way of speaking) that covered topics ranging from the kinds of vegetables they grow in Guatemala, why the water tastes funny there, the murder of some of his family members last year at the hands of a jealous ex, and the dangers of a prickly looking green caterpillar that fell from a tree overhead as we stood talking. 
Just to be chatting like that, with a guy who I would have struggled to exchange simple pleasantries with just a few months ago - that's a wonderful thing. I've been able to manage basic tourist-level queries in Spanish for a while now because of our travels in Mexico, but to be able to share the stories of people's daily lives changes everything about the travel experience.
The compulsory French I took in school probably helped to prepare my brain for learning a new language, and I know that my many years of studying music was good for that as well. I don't think I have a natural aptitude for new languages, however, and am pretty old to be trying to learn one. So consider me heartening proof that it can be done at any age.
I put in some serious study time in the three months before we left Canada and then a month in language school once we arrived. Still, I struggled to understand most of what my co-workers said to me for the first couple of months of my placement. 
I suspect I came across as a pleasant but possibly stupid new volunteer. I never knew what the heck was going on in the staff meetings, and routinely misunderstood what my co-workers at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita were trying to say to me. And how kind of them to keep straight faces when they learned I was there to help with communications. 
But now I've got a Spanish Facebook page going on for CASM. I can go out on field trips and talk to the people we work with. I can even talk to children, whose squeaky little voices and rapid cadence were like Martian-speak to me in the early weeks. I'm able to show my personality more, and no longer feel like the smiling, silent cypher sidelined from the office banter.
I still use Google Translate frequently, but now it's for checking my Spanish rather than translating my English. I still find myself going blank in the middle of a conversation as I grasp for a word that I just haven't learned yet, but am much better at quickly finding an alternate way to say the same thing. 
I would never suggest that I'm fluent yet, of course. But at least I now believe that day will come.

Monday, August 13, 2012

When it's all up to you

One of the things I don’t expect to get used to about life in a poor country is witnessing suffering without being able to do much about it.
No country is free of suffering, of course. Abuse, isolation, cruelty, hunger – there’s nowhere in the world that gets a free pass on such things.
But at least in countries like Canada and the U.S., there’s some organization or government body that you can protest to, some cage to rattle on behalf of whatever suffering person or animal has got your attention. Not here.
Yesterday morning, for instance, I came across a bony, sick horse while on one of my bird rambles in the hills. She had several festering sores on her back that were covered in flies, which she couldn’t even brush away because her tail was snarled around a big thorny stick she’d picked up while wandering through the bushes.
Back in the city where I came from, I can think of five or six different groups I could phone to do something about a sick, abandoned horse. Victoria responds to suffering animals with significantly more compassion than it does to suffering people, so with only a couple of phone calls I could probably get a poor old horse like that a front-page media story, immediate veterinary care and a happy new home before day’s end.
Here, the best I could do was approach the wary horse gently from behind and pull the thorn stick out of her tail. Even if I’d had a halter at the ready and a place to lead her, chances are she has an owner – a lot of the pathetic, starved looking livestock and pets around Copan have owners, many of them rather pathetic and starved-looking themselves – who wouldn’t take kindly to me leading his horse away. And it’s not like there’s an SPCA to lodge a complaint with or to step up with a home for an underfed horse.
I saw a skinny pig a couple weeks ago on one of the subsistence farms I visited through my work, drained by the eight piglets it was nursing. Trust me, you never want to see a skinny pig. Any creature that has just given birth around here – pig, dog, cow or impoverished villager – tends to look pretty skeletal. Virtually every day I see hungry-looking people and animals that could really use a good meal, a hot bath and a few kind words.
But there’s nobody to come to their rescue. There’s me and whatever resources I might be able to bring to a situation in the moment, and any other passing strangers who react in similar ways. I’m certainly not alone in trying to step up to alleviate some of the unnecessary suffering that goes on here, but it still comes down to one person and whatever they're able to do.
There’s no organized animal rescue. No real children’s welfare organization. No shelters or food programs, no rights organizations battling on behalf of neglected horses, exploited women, hungry children, desperate families. In truth, there’s no one to go to battle with anyway, because the Honduras government really doesn’t have much interest in any of this stuff and can handle public shaming with barely a blink.
 My socially minded acquaintances would probably tell me that all anyone can do in this world is “plant seeds” and do the best they can. I’m there philosophically, but such sentiments aren’t much comfort in the moment, when you’re looking at a horse facing death from starvation and infection and all you can do is pull a stick out of its tail. Or press 20 lempiras into the hand of the old, old woman with the arthritic knees. Or take young orphans to a swimming pool every couple of weeks, as if that alone could ever change the course of their sad, challenged lives.
A person has to try, of course. It’s you or nothing, after all. You quickly feel the weight of personal responsibility here in Honduras.
On the upside, it’s always good to know what you’re capable of. In my old life, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have stood within easy kicking distance of a strange horse and pulled on its tail. I doubt I would have pulled five ticks off a neighbourhood dog that paused on our patio for food. I certainly wouldn’t have spent hours in a pool entertaining young children I’m not related to.
Last summer, I came across a wounded seagull lying on a lawn near my house in Victoria. I carried him home in complete confidence that I would find some animal-welfare organization to collect the gull and look after it until it healed, because that’s how it is in the land where I come from. And of course, that’s exactly what happened (thank you, Wild ARC).
I bet the hungry families and neglected animals of Honduras would get quite a rueful laugh out of that story. Pick-up vet service for a dime-a-dozen gull, and they can’t even count on their next meal. I’m grateful for how much we care for our own in Canada, but sometimes it just makes you more aware of how little there is for the rest of the world. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Finally made the acquaintance of an albanil

It's a happy, happy day - not only did I just meet with a real live albanil just now, but we went up to the Angelitos Felices children's home and actually did a tour of the disastrous bathrooms I'm hoping to fix up.
I was griping rather heavily in my last post about the impossibility of finding an albanil - a mason, the trade that does bathroom work here in Honduras because everything's made out of concrete. But a North Carolina fellow who is with Paramedics for Children and his Copan-connected employee Marco Tulios came through today, introducing me to Nelson Rodriguez.
The four of us went up to Angelitos to take a look at what's needed, which turns out to be total renos in the two bathrooms and a big new water tank on the roof so that the home has an adequate supply. Nelson supervised the bathroom renos at one of the big schools in Copan with 1,000 students, and vows he knows how to build a bathroom that's built to last. And that's exactly what Angelitos needs, what with 30 or 40 kids (some living there permanently, others attending day care) giving those two shabby, inadequate bathrooms a workout every single day.
I'm bracing for the estimate, but am really looking forward to seeing that project underway. Trust me, it only takes one peek into the filthy, broken, waterless "bathroom" that the children use the most to keep a person motivated, whatever the price. At least I'm able to put off my original mattress project for a bit seeing as somebody else stepped up on that front and put in some skinny, plastic-wrapped colchones that will do for now.
Life does indeed take a person in unexpected directions. Here I am, getting ready to supervise bathroom renovations at a foster home in Honduras. Who'd have thought?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

And to think I thought it was about the money

Everyone who has lived in a foreign country warns you of the challenges of adjusting to a different culture. I'm living that right now, stuck in the incomprehensible process of looking for someone to do repairs at the children's home I'm involved with.
I know things get done here in Honduras, because I see them happening. But how you make them happen - ah, now there's the question.
At least a dozen men have been occupied for weeks building a massive and intricate rock wall around a house near my workplace. They look like they know what they're doing. Every day I see a constant flurry of construction activity in the centre of Copan Ruinas - buildings coming down, new ones going up, renovations all over the place. And virtually any male Copaneco I've met in my six months here knows how to do basic home repairs or even fix his own vehicle.
So yes, this place has skilled workers. But can I get any of them to call me? Can I get anyone even just to tell me the name of someone who knows how to renovate a bathroom or hang a new door? Nope.
Silly me, I thought the challenge was going to be finding the money for a few badly needed fixups at the Angelitos Felices guardaria . That turned out to be the easy part. What's much, much harder is identifying who will do the work.
Back in Canada, I'd be flipping through the Yellow Pages or talking to friends who'd had work done. Make a couple phone calls, agree on a price, off we'd go. But there's no handy listing of qualified contractors anywhere here in Copan, and nobody in my small circle of acquaintances who appears to be in any hurry to share the secrets of securing a contractor.
Sure, they all tell me they know somebody. But that's part of the culture, too - say what you need to say in the moment to get the person asking you questions to go away. I've learned that in Honduras, just because a person tells you they know somebody who can help doesn't mean they actually do, and it definitely doesn't mean they're going to get that person to call you anytime soon.
So far I've tried my boss, a co-worker, my otherwise-helpful neighbour, my landlord, a Texan who has lived here for 15 years, and a local who the Texan recommended as a trustworthy, get-'er-done kind of guy. Every one of them said they knew somebody, and that they'd get the person to call me.
But the days and weeks pass, and nobody ever calls.
Today, I went to the hardware store and in desperation asked the woman who owns the place - another neighbour of mine - if she knew of anyone who does plumbing work or can hang a door. No, she said. Nothing more than that, just "no." I heard the clerk beside her whisper something into her ear about somebody named Eddie being a possibility, but my neighbour just turned away to serve another customer.
I mean, every day they must have tradespeople coming into that store for supplies. Why can't I have one? How can it be this hard, in a poor country with scary unemployment rates, to find somebody who wants a job?
I remember visiting the zocalo in Mexico City years ago and spotting a huge line of  day labourers along one of the fences, each with a big sign saying what type of work they were good at. I have a new appreciation for such a system. I fear I'm heading for a repeat of how it went when we needed a place to live in Copan, a process that turned out to involve wandering through small convenience stores asking random strangers if they knew of any houses for rent.
And this is just to get somebody to go to the children's home and give me a quote for the work. I shudder to think what challenges might await once the work is actually underway. Another Texan who has been in Copan for 15 years (there appears to be a few of those here) cautioned me to not only get everything in writing but to make the contractor repeat aloud, at least twice, all my instructions for the project. And not to pay for anything in advance.
But I've always said I like a challenge, so best to quit whinging and just get on with it. Flow like water, I keep telling myself: Hit a barrier, flow around it. Maybe I'll stop by the rock-wall project tomorrow and see if anyone knows a plumber. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

Young people step up for Honduran children

Lunch at the pool yesterday, courtesy of Charrissa
I've always known there were exceptional young people doing volunteer work in the challenged countries of the world, but it's been heartening to see so many of them in action here in Copan Ruinas.
Like me, a lot of them have ended up helping out at the children's guardaria here in Copan, where about 40 children are cared for in rough conditions (some live there, others are in day care).
I recently met three young Americans who stumbled upon Angelitos Felices last year when they were on holiday here and then came back this summer for several weeks specifically to volunteer their time at the home every day. Another fellow from Stockton, Calif. was here in early June doing the same thing, overseeing a small construction project at Angelitos in an attempt to rectify at least some of the many structural problems the place has.
The young woman who introduced me to Angelitos four months ago, Emily Monroe, is a particular force for good at Angelitos. She's a go-getter from Pittsburgh who has been in Copan almost two years teaching English at the American-run Mayatan Bilingual School.
She has finished that work but is staying on in the community for another year or so to realize a really big dream of hers: To build a bigger, better home in Copan for children like the kids at Angelitos, one that not only provides food and shelter but more support in all the areas children need help with to grow into healthy, happy and productive adults. (Read more about her project and how you can support her here.)
Emily has played a major role in introducing other travellers to Angelitos and helping them find ways to use their skills to support the children. I've started to think of her as the "hub" for all of us - the one who knows everything that's going on at the place and puts in time to help us connect our collective efforts for maximum impact.
A young woman from New Zealand, Charrissa Taylor, arrived in town recently to spend five months volunteering four days a week at Angelitos, doing child-development activities with the children under five. There'd be no such thing at the home if it weren't for her.
She and Emily are regulars at the every-other-Sunday swims that Paul and I are doing with the kids. And they often bring along other young travellers who don't hesitate to jump into the pool to lead a game of Simon Says with the children, or to swim back and forth with various young ones hanging from their necks (a favourite activity).
Today Emily shared the blog of Kristen Pierce, a young woman from South Carolina who has returned home after a month at Angelitos and is now doing her best to get back here as soon as she can to do more with the children.
 "If an animal craves attention, how much more so a human being?" writes Kristen. "This is what I find to be the most necessary element missing from the children’s lives: love. Everything is a competition, everything a struggle, because there are not enough people to go around to love them all. Each is precious, special, individual, but who is there to find out about it, to really see them?"
It's an honour to meet these young people. They're down here spending their money and their time on challenges that I imagine are far-removed from their own childhood experiences. Some come because their personal faith compels them, but many come simply because they see the vast needs of these children and just can't turn away.
Nobody arranges to bring these young volunteers here. Nobody gives them a handbook on what to do once they arrive. They just listen to their hearts, and lovely things happen.

(Find Emily on Facebook here. And as long as you're there, why not "like" her Casitas Copan page?)

Friday, August 03, 2012

The hard work of being poor

The young woman walks this dirt road twice a day, 90 minutes each way. She carries her nine-month-old baby in her arms while her two other children - seven and four - follow behind. Seven days a week, they walk from their mud house in La Pintada to the park in Copan Ruinas, where they sell corn husk dolls to tourists  for a dollar apiece.
It's a tough way to make a living. On a really good day, the family might sell 10 dolls. But the woman says there are many days when she doesn't sell any. She not only has to contend with the struggling tourist economy in Copan, but compete with all the other women and children from her village who walk to the park every day as well to sell their own corn husk dolls.
Life is hard for the poor in any developing country. But in the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere, it's brutal. People work long hours for little money, and in many cases start and end each day with walks of two hours or more just to get to their work site.
I regularly run into Rumilda on my bird walks in the hills, a Maya-Chorti woman in her 70s whose daily round-trip journey to sell tortillas or corn in the Copan public market takes her five or six hours. It didn't used to take that long, but her knees are bad now and she has to take a lot of rests along the way.
She's got family in the aldea where she lives, but they're no better off than she is. Everybody has to work, and every precious lempira gets spent. Some development agencies working in Honduras like to talk about the need to encourage a "saving culture" in the country, but I wouldn't count on that idea taking hold anytime soon. People don't have enough money for today, let alone tomorrow.
The per-capita gross domestic product in Honduras is $3,448. Mexicans look rich by comparison at $12,429, and wealthy countries like the U.S. and Canada have rates that are more than 10 times higher than Honduras.
But that $3,400 figure is just what comes out when you add everything up and divide by eight million people. There are many, many Hondurans who earn much less than $3,400 a year. That's particularly true in rural areas, where three-quarters of the country's poorest citizens live. One in four households in Honduras has to get by on the equivalent of $1.25 US a day - less than $500 a year.
I suspect the corn husk doll vendors of La Pintada are in that category. Could there ever be enough tourists to buy all those corn husk dolls clutched in the hands of sad-eyed children dogging the heels of every gringo who passes through the park?
I'm pretty sure the elderly Nueva Esperanza man who walks countless kilometres every day to find firewood to sell is also in that category. His poor old neck is so bent from his heavy load that he can't even look straight ahead anymore - just down to those dirt roads beneath his feet. It's not uncommon to see whole families emerging from narrow trails through the forest with big bundles of wood on their shoulders, scavenged from the increasingly bare-looking hillsides around here to be sold in the street.
A half a block away from our house in Copan, I'm getting to know Doris, the cheerful native of San Pedro Sula who makes the best baleadas in town. She has been in Copan for a year now, and does well enough in her little restaurant to afford the $100 rent for the commercial space and another $100 for her home. But that's only because she works seven days a week, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. She's been doing that for 30 years.
Stories of deprivation from poor countries are nothing new, of course. But here's what's unsettling about the situation in Honduras: Poverty is worsening. In the last 20 years, the country has seen a 15 per cent increase in the number of people living below the national poverty line. More than two-thirds of Hondurans are now below that line.
That news probably wouldn't come as much of a surprise to the people who live here. They're well aware of how poor they are. But where exactly is this struggling country going? While other Latin American slowly make progress, Honduras is losing ground.

Sources for the statistics in this post: International Human Development Index; U.S.Congressional Research Service; World Vision; International Fund forAgricultural Development; Index Mundi (various sources)