Saturday, April 27, 2013

Back in the land o' plenty

We've been back in B.C. for just over a week now, jamming in a quick visit with everyone before we fly back to Honduras on Monday. A few things that have struck me about my home province as I return with fresh eyes:

Clean, green and tidy. Wow, British Columbians keep the place neat. No garbage anywhere and a whole lot of green space. Even people's lawns provide green space, seeing as nobody has 10-feet-high fences blocking the view into their pretty gardens.

Too many controlled intersections. It's been a while since I've been behind the wheel of a car, but I've jumped straight back into frustrated-driver mode with all the damn stoplights. Guess I've gotten used to that easy cruisin' style in Honduras - slow over the speed bumps and the incredibly wrecked roads, sure, but not nearly so much stop-and-start.

So much choice. I feel like a tourist walking through the gigantic grocery stores, ogling hemp hearts, 15 kinds of sprouts and mountains of the world's produce like I'm walking through the streets of Europe. It was all so normal to me not so long ago, but it feels a bit excessive to me now.

Cold. But fresh. It hasn't been easy to go from the hottest time of year in Copan to a brisk spring in coastal B.C. But the air is lovely, and I am seeing the beautiful Pacific Ocean with new eyes.

Too much flavour. OK, I've been craving the diverse food scene of Canada, but I can see all too clearly now why I had a few pounds to lose back when we were living here. The cheeses! The baked goods! The smoked fish! Plus I've whined on Facebook several times about the lack of good chocolate in Honduras, which has prompted many of my female friends to stock me up with high-end chocolate. It's all quite a treat, but my body will be glad to get back to simpler fare.

Smooth roads. Yes, you do stop and start a lot more in this land, but I haven't had my teeth snapped together by a pothole or whacked my head into the dashboard in several days now. And it's nice to have a seat to myself in every vehicle I go in, Canadians not being in the habit of jamming in as many people as can possibly fit.

Still and all, great to be back, but also great to be thinking about the return to our new "home" next week. Now if only I could get all my family to move to Honduras.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hard road to travel

It's difficult to know where to start in a country with a lot of problems. Give the kids a better education? Prepare subsistence farmers for tough days to come? Do something about all the murders? Advocate for better wages? Look for economic opportunities to address chronic unemployment?
Nor is it easy to priorize when a country has strong distinctions between its classes, with all its problems at the bottom of the economic scale and all the wealthy, influential people at the top.
Honduras is made up of a thin crust of rich, powerful people, a small and struggling middle class, millions of people living in poverty, and an emerging class of “nouveau riche” who work in the cocaine import/export business. Tough to find consensus among groups as disparate as that.
But if I could be so bold as to suggest a starting point – a start-small kind of project that will benefit every Honduran across all social classes – how about this: Fix the damn roads.
I just spent five brutal hours today bouncing home from La Campa, Lempira, a 128-kilometre trip that requires a traveller to pass along three of what have to be among the worst sections of paved road in the country: Gracias, Lempira, to Santa Rosa de Copan; Santa Rosa to La Entrada; and La Entrada to Copan Ruinas. I'm also barely a month home from our epic bus journey to the Moskitia, which took me to new depths of understanding as to what it means to travel a “bad road” in Honduras.
So yes, the country's ridiculous roads are weighing on my mind right now. But really, just think about it for a minute: Couldn't you take a big step toward improving almost every problem in Honduras just by giving people better roads?
Take poverty, for instance. Bad roads aren't the cause of poverty, but they surely add to it.
Honduras has probably been the site of thousands of noble economic-development projects over the years in impoverished, out-of-the-way villages, but few appear to have taken into account that unless people can get their goods to market, nothing will change.
I'm always running into charming little micro empresas in the middle of nowhere that have been started by some well-intentioned foreign entity wanting to give villagers a new, marketable skill that would lift the town out of poverty. The villages always seem to be located many hours away from the nearest commercial centre of any size, up dirt “roads” so terrible that only an earnest NGO type or a missionary would ever travel on them willingly.
Yet there they are, all these tiny businesses at the end of the road, producing pretty pottery or plant-based paper products with not a chance of getting any of it to market. I visited one yesterday up in the mountains above La Campa.
For the last seven years, the five women who run the micro empresa have been boiling up leaves of local plants to make really great-looking paper, cards and fancy little gift boxes. But other than a small shipment of goods that goes to market in Gracias a couple of times a year, the only sales the group has are when people like me stumble upon them on the way to somewhere else and drop $5 for a few things.
I've met other groups of women producing everything from bread, woven goods, jewelry from recycled materials, ceramics or honey who all face the same problem. Their operations are a long way from a commercial centre, they're too poor to have their own vehicles, and the roads are much too rough for buses to set up a service. Others are helped to set up vegetable gardens, small coffee plantations and tilapia ponds as a means of lifting them out of poverty. But they, too, can't get around the transportation problems.
As for the rich and powerful – well, they have to want better roads, too. Roads that are almost universally rutted, pot-holed, nausea-inducing and frequently accessible only by 4x4 add significantly to the risk of an accident and the time it takes to get anywhere. Unless you're wealthy enough to own a helicopter, rich and poor alike spend an inordinate amount of time in Honduras jouncing along truly horrible roads. Whatever business they're in, the condition of the roads likely affects their bottom line as well.
Then there's the middle-class – the ones making maybe $10,000 a year, which is just about enough to be able to start dreaming about the possibilities of a better future for your kids. Some live hours away from their families because there's no work nearby, and can't possibly consider a commute on abysmal roads that take three or four times as long to drive as you'd expect based solely on the distance.
They know that a decent education is the best hope their children have. But it can be a tremendous struggle just to work out the transportation issues around getting them to school. It's generally pretty easy to find nearby schools up to Grade 6, but colegios are scarce and often many hard miles away from the family home. Decent roads and a daily bus service could have a dramatic impact on education levels in the country.
Those in the country's bustling cocaine import/export business have to want better roads, too. Planes and boats bring the cocaine from Colombia into the country, but much of it travels on roads after that as it moves toward markets in the U.S. and Canada.
Having been to the Moskitia and travelled the only road out of there – which gives “beach-front drive” new meaning – I'm sure transport is quite an issue for those guys as well. I'm not suggesting that better roads for narco-traficantes should be a goal, just noting that even they should be on-side with priorizing road repair.
Come on, people. Just do it. There's a whole lot more to tackle after that, but the wheels of progress can't possibly get a grip on roads as bad as these.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Hope you'll help us win the Cuso contest

If you're on Facebook, my spouse and I hope you'll take a moment to visit this link and help us win the Cuso International video contest! We've got one week to get as many "likes" as we can for our video and for the Cuso page.

So here's the rules: Click on the link to the Cuso International page and check out our video, which at the moment is the only entry on the page. If you enjoy the little song and photo show we've put together, we need you to "like" the Cuso page overall and then also click the "like" under our video. All the photos have been taken by Paul and I through our work this past year here in Honduras with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita and the Organismo Cristiano de Desarrollo Integral de Honduras.

 Fame and fortune will follow - or at least, the possibility of an iTunes music card and perhaps a future for Paul and I performing in a small, rundown bar somewhere. Thanks for your support!

And just in case you'd like to sing along with the video, here are the words to the song. The tune is courtesy of John Denver, "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

All our bags are packed, we're standing here
About to be a volunteer
In a country Peace Corps left just weeks ago
Will we get gunned down? Or take up coke?
Will our workmates think we're quite the joke?
With our grade-school Spanish messing up the show?

But we're flexible Cuso stock
We'll survive this culture shock
If capacity needs building, count us in
We're working in a new land
Don't know when we'll be back again
Our world won't be the same

We've met campesinos by the score,
We've learned most folks here are really poor
We know more about la roya than we should
We've been bounced down dirt roads, left to wait
Learned that 6 o'clock is more like 8
And that sunshine in December sure feels good

We're flexible Cuso stock
We'll survive the culture shock
If capacity needs building, we're your team
The power failures don't get us down
We've landed in a real nice town
And the guns aren't aimed at us, just worn with jeans

Are we changing culture? It's hard to tell
Communications is a real tough sell
In a country that has faith and not much more
But they love the photos, think the Web site's cool
The Facebook friends and the PowerPoints too
But will they keep it up when we walk out the door?

We're flexible Cuso stock
We've survived this culture shock
We're thriving in a most appealing way
Thank you for this chance to shine
In a land that has no sense of time
O Cuso...can we stay?

Friday, April 05, 2013

Excellent primer on sex work as the big court date approaches

A great read from Canadian advocate and activist Joyce Arthur, who interviewed sex workers about what they think will happen if the Supreme Court of Canada decides to decriminalize the adult, consensual sex industry when the matter goes to court June 12.
 I have a good feeling that this just might be the case that gets our country past the poorly considered laws that cause so much harm to sex workers. Whatever your opinion of sex work, surely nobody wants laws that harm more than help the tens of thousands of Canadians who work in the industry. Yet that`s exactly what happens as a result of our outdated, illogical and hypocritical laws that force workers into the shadows so that the rest of us can pretend that sex work doesn`t exist.
Joyce`s piece has links to all the standard arguments for and against decriminalization, plus links to all kinds of reports on the subject. If you`re not familiar with this issue, hope you`ll take the time to explore the stories behind the story.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

On the road....again??

Food vendors selling to a second-class bus in La Ceiba
I've been on a heck of a lot of buses lately. With a new commitment to visit the more distant regions of my organization this year, I'm fast becoming an expert on the good, the bad and the ugly of Honduran bus travel. So here's a little primer that might serve you well should you ever be down this way, or in any of the other developing countries that I've been to with remarkably similar transportation options.

First-class bus: If money's no object and you can fit your travel to the bus company's schedule, this is certainly the most comfortable way to go. In Honduras, the main first-class service is run by Hedman Alas. You get clean, comfy seats, air conditioning, non-stop travel, movies, and even a little snack. Your bags are tagged and stored in orderly fashion below, and they even do security checks before you get on so that nobody gets on with a gun (in theory, anyway). But the tickets are at least twice as expensive as other forms of travel, and trips are only at set times to specific destinations. For a lot of the travel I'm doing for my work, Hedman Alas isn't an option because the buses go only to the big tourist destinations, with no stops in between.

Second-class bus: You still get fairly comfy seats, but the air conditioning is more likely to be via an open window and there will probably be people standing in the aisles for at least part of the trip, as these buses do pickups at all towns along their route. This is called "direct service," but don't confuse that with "non-stop." No snacks, but vendors get on the bus at every stop and offer you everything from fried chicken to bags of cut-up fruit, pop, baked goods, watches and deodorant. Depending on the bus line and whether there's a designated terminal for that company in the town you're in, you may have to walk up to the nearest main road and flag the bus down as it passes. Pee breaks aren't guaranteed, so think about that before guzzling down a big bottle of water.

Third-class bus: Very cheap - maybe a third of the cost of the first-class buses. But you get what you pay for, so be prepared for constant stops, much longer travel times, and buses crammed with as many passengers as the driver can pack in. A lot of these buses are retired school buses from the U.S., so for maximum comfort try to check the functionality of your window, the amount of leg room (it varies), and the springs in your seat before sitting down. Your bags will likely be carried on top of the bus, and may or may not be tarped in the event of rain. Still, I'm very fond of these kinds of buses. They take forever to get where they're going, but the trip is never dull. There are also enough of them that you'll have a lot of flexibility around travel times, presuming you can find someone who can give you an honest answer as to where and when they leave.

Shuttles: From outward appearances, these vans look like palatable options for doing long trips, as the price is right and the vans are generally well-maintained and air-conditioned. Many a Copan Ruinas tourist jumps into a $20 shuttle for what is ostensibly a seven-hour trip to El Salvador or Guatemala City. But be warned that just because you have your own seat when you first board does NOT mean that two more people won't be squeezed into the same row a little later in the trip. The leg room is brutal for anyone over 5'6". The air conditioning is usually insufficient for the size of the vehicle, but the windows are jammed shut so you have no option. The trips always take longer than what you've been told, and the motion of the vehicles on Honduras's bad roads will induce car sickness even in the most durable traveller. I steer clear of shuttles.

Rapiditos: If I never had to ride in a rapidito again, I would be a happy person. Unfortunately, there's often no choice. These are vans, too, but generally in a state of serious disrepair and with far too many seats jammed into a tattered, filthy interior space. I use the term "seat" loosely, because mostly you'll just be perched in a space that's way too small for your butt, often with strangers virtually sitting on your lap and others looming over you in a half-stooped position as they struggle to balance themselves in a standing position as the van clunks along, usually making worrying noises down below that will have you thinking a great deal about what would happen if, say, the axle broke or the rear tires fell off. In theory, rapiditos are supposed to carry no more than 16-18 travellers, but I've frequently been in vans with 23 people. Horrible, horrible way to travel, even for short distances.
The kind of vehicle you'll be in should you need road
transportation into the Moskita

Private vehicle: Another option that sounds better than it usually is. Perhaps you're picturing a ride in a private vehicle as being more or less like it would be in Canada or the U.S., where a five-passenger car has five passengers, five working seatbelts, and a roomy trunk for all the luggage. Ah, but in Honduras, anyone lucky enough to have their own vehicle is going to pack that thing with as many people and as much stuff as possible in order to justify the gas costs of any major trip. I've had my boss come pick me up for a five-hour trip only to discover that there are eight passengers for five seats, which means three people have to ride in the back of the truck. Even if it's not you who gets stuck back there, you can't help but feel guilty. My spouse and I recently paid $25 apiece - a small fortune - for a four-hour ride in a private vehicle into the Moskitia, and in both directions one of us was left to jounce along the terrible dirt roads in the back of the truck along with six or seven other travellers and a vast array of cargo, including several propane tanks. And that was almost preferable to being stuffed into the unbearably claustrophobic interior of the truck.

So there you have it - travel Honduras-style. I found the road travel here quite unbearable initially, but I've gotten used to it over this past year. Now I catch glimpses of myself reflected in a bus window and see that same stoic, flat look that I've come to think of as the trademark of a Honduran traveller. It's that or stay home.