Sunday, June 30, 2013

O Canada, you'll always be my girl

Dear Canada:
It’s been a year and a half since we parted, and I know I said some mean things in those emotional days toward the end. But I’ve been thinking about you a lot today. I saw a photo of you on Facebook, with that bright blue sky and sharp sunlight that I remember so well from the days when everything was going right. And suddenly I was lost in a thousand memories of the good times we had together.
   Putting some distance between us has been good for me. There were times when I loved your temperate spirit and tidy habits, but I hated that 1000-yard stare you’d get in your eyes when the talk turned to politics. There’s so much about you that’s amazing and good, but sometimes I wonder if you even notice how time has changed you, hardened your heart.
    But today, I’m missing you. I am remembering you on the last July 1 we had together, when I sat on the shores of Esquimalt Lagoon in the familiar chilled sunshine of early summer on the West Coast looking out at all the red and white shirts, umbrellas, flags and beach paraphernalia that people had brought to celebrate your birthday. I couldn’t have loved you more that day. The truth is, I was already thinking about leaving you, but that was the day I knew there were parts of me that would always be yours.
   I’m living with someone else now, as you’ve probably heard. I couldn’t have picked someone less like you if I’d tried. There you are with your squeaky-clean parks, safe roads and campaigns to stop teens from using tanning beds, and he’s chucking his garbage out the window and running around with guns and drugs. You’re stressing out over the FSA scores of your well-educated young people in their fully equipped, competent schools, and my new guy is shoving 90 kids into a dishevelled classroom with an untrained teacher and counting it as a major win if they make it through Grade 6.
    I admit, I do like a bad boy. There’s something thrilling about being with someone who feels a bit dangerous, about finding yourself in situations that are right on the edge of uncomfortable yet at the same time, leave you feeling completely alive. Today, though, I’m missing your moderate ways, and how I always knew where I stood with you. Yes, your predictability and need to control drove me completely mad sometimes, but I knew you’d be there if I needed you.
    This new guy – not so much. I saw a bad bus accident last week and understood in a flash that if I were ever in an accident like that, he’d ditch me in a heartbeat. He’d wish me luck and then throw me bleeding into the back of a passing pickup truck headed toward the nearest broken-down, unfunded public hospital, and that would be the last time I’d cross his mind. It shames me to admit this, Canada, but I’d come limping home to you.
     It’s exhilarating to ride down scary roads in the dark in the back of a truck, with no idea what might happen next. But standing in your ample wilderness, unafraid that the guy coming toward me is eyeing up my camera or that I’m about to stumble upon an illegal dump or cocaine drop zone – well, that’s its own kind of exhilaration.
    Your political correctness got to me sometimes, it’s true. But your heart is just and good, and I love that you were out there with gay rights even while so much of the world continues to drag its feet on such a fundamental fairness. I’ve overheard my new man making homophobic comments, and I know I could never last with someone like that, even if he does embrace life with a vigour and sense of fun that I rarely saw in you.
    O Canada, I wish I could lie down in your cool, green lap right now, enjoying all the silence that coast-to-coast noise bylaws and dedicated parkland can buy. I wish I was sitting down to one of your multicultural buffets, loading my plate with sushi, salt and pepper squid, lasagne, baklava, pho, perogies, blintzes and French pastries.
     My bad boy eats beans and tortillas pretty much every day.  I admire his ability to get by on the things he can actually grow. But today I am dreaming of your wildly ethnic palate and generous food-import budget.
    I’m a wanderer, Canada. I think you always knew that. I don’t imagine you were that surprised when I left, what with the problems we’d been starting to have. There’s part of me that wishes I could tell you that I’m done with my dallying and ready to come home to you, but there’s another part of me that has never felt more alive since I put you behind me.
    But you are in my soul forever. I had to get away from you to appreciate your sheer functionality and all the green, clean spaces and mannered cities you have wrought with your ordered ways. When I think of “civil society,” I think of you. I love your banks, your hospitals, your 7-day return policies. Your internet speeds are amazing.
    Happy birthday, dear one. This new life is changing me, and I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to being a couple again the way we once were. But I’ll always sleep easiest in your arms.  

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How good deeds get done

The Louisiana gang, from left: Ronny Sanders, Carl Glover,
Gordon Holley, Jerry Houston, James Davis,
Jeff Hardel and Casey Fair.
The kids at Angelitos Felices children's home will be sleeping comfy tonight on the new beds and mattresses they've now got thanks to some amazing support from a group of Louisiana men.
     Connections are made in strange ways in Honduras, and the connection that brought these men to Angelitos and to me is no exception. The way it came together reminds me that even though I'm a skeptic about stars aligning and God having a plan, some things really do seem to be fated.
    The men belong to the Calvary Baptist Church in Ruston, Louisiana. One of them, Gordon Holley, has been doing projects in Honduras for many years as part of his university work. He came across my blog last year, saw a post I'd written about our work at Angelitos, and sent me an email asking if I'd take him and fellow congregation member James Davis to the home when they visited in December.
     It was James' first visit to Honduras. There's nothing quite like an orphanage in a developing country to open a person's eyes, and he was clearly moved by the rough conditions that the kids lived in. The men had arrived with suitcases full of clothes for the children, but James - a cabinet maker - said he'd be coming back soon to do more.
Jesus, Juan Carlos and Alex moving mattresses
    I figured he meant it at the time, but that wasn't to say he'd actually be back. But sure enough, he sent me an email a couple of months later with a blueprint for beautiful, sturdy bunk beds with cabinets, and asked me to put him in touch with a construction company in Copan so he could organize materials. A couple weeks ago, Gordon and James arrived with five other congregation members and set about building those beds.
     I was away in the Moskitia doing work when they came, so was no help at all for most of the project. But my spouse Paul stepped up to help out with a few roadblocks (like figuring out how to pay the electric bill at Angelitos so that power and water would be reinstated and the men would be
able to use their power tools). The group also drew on support from old friends at Macaw Mountain Bird Park here in Copan to help source and transport more materials after they bought out everything that Copan Ruinas had.
     I returned from my travels in time to meet them for a final breakfast before they headed home to Louisiana last weekend, and to assure them that when the mattresses arrived this week, I'd get them up to Angelitos and onto those beds. The 24 mattresses came in yesterday. My boss Merlin and I hustled them up to the hogar today using a truck from work.
At last - a bed of their own!
   Most of the bigger kids were away at school when we arrived, but three of the younger boys - ages 5, 6 and 8 - rushed out to help us. They diligently dragged one mattress after another upstairs to the sleeping area, and were waiting to help us again when we came back with the second load.
     The mattresses are beauties - six inches thick, covered in plastic to protect them from turning into stinking, filthy things like the bits of worn foam and weary military mattresses that the children have been sleeping on lately. I wouldn't have expected little kids to be quite so excited about a bed, but let me tell you, these guys are pumped. I wish you could see their beaming faces when I ask which bed is theirs and they proudly lead me to their bunk.
    They've never had that before at Angelitos - a bed of their own. A private place for their clothes and personal items, the few that they have. One spot in this impersonal world that is just for them. It's a huge step forward for child dignity.
     So that's how miracles work. It took flesh-and-blood humans to raise the money, build the beds and make this project happen, but there's still something of the divine about how it all came together. Whatever you want to call it, it feels like hope. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Black, white and the many shades in between

  At the risk of starting too many posts with "One thing I've learned from this Cuso volunteer experience...," I have something new to add to the growing list.
    The latest learning is that this work tests your core values, in ways that get right past the pretty words and down to what you can actually live with. What's right? What's wrong? For possibly the first time in my life, I feel like I'm really being tested on the fundamentals of my deep-down self.
   An easy example to start: Child labour. For all my life up until 18 months ago, I was opposed to child labour. I thought it was a good thing to buy more expensive coffee if it meant it had been picked by adults and not little children. 
    Deep down, I remain philosophically opposed to putting children to work. But now I see the issue from a whole other perspective, in which a family could very likely go hungry if their kids aren't allowed to pick coffee during the two-month harvest. What the "fair trade" practice of banning child labour looks like from the point of view of an impoverished coffee-producing country is a system of punishment stacked against the poorest producers, one that forces children to be left at home alone because their parents can no longer take them along when they go out picking coffee. 
   The issue of faith has been a whole other test for me. I've had a complicated relationship for decades with faith, but in Honduras it's something that's so present in my life that I now have no choice but to reflect on what it means to me. 
   The Monday-morning devotionals at my workplace have been a real challenge, early on because I barely understood a word of what was being said and now, because I do. I try to hold my tongue out of respect, but I just couldn't keep my silence when talk turned today to obeying God and ultimately leaving difficult things in His hands to sort out. 
     So what are we to believe, then, in a country where so many unbelievably bad things happen to people all the time - that God has made a decision to really slam it to Honduras? What this country needs is anger, not soothing words about accepting God's plans. I won't pretend to know the ways of God, but I'm pretty sure a person could wait a long time for change if everything was left up to faith.
    But on the same subject, I've also had my secular belief system challenged by seeing just how much good work gets done down here by people motivated by faith. Time and again, the faith community shows up to make things happen in Honduras: Bunk beds for orphans; digging holes and assembling bricks for new water systema; testing children's eyes; providing veterinary care; building schools. As a secular person I want to believe that "doing good" is a universal concept, but what I have seen demonstrated in Honduras is that when push comes to shove, it's mostly the faith community that gets things done.
    Murder. Now there's a topic that I wouldn't have thought I had wiggle room on. But when you live in a country that effectively has no meaningful police or justice system, everything just gets a little greyer. 
    Not that killing another person against their will can ever be justified. But spend time here and you start to see how things might go in a place where there's so little chance that the "bad guy" will ever be arrested, let alone convicted. On a fundamental level I still believe that people taking justice into their own hands is a recipe for disaster. But in the real world I now live in, I get how that could happen. 
    Then there's corruption, a word that you hear virtually every day in Honduras as a way of explaining everything that's wrong with the place. But how do you define "corruption" for the purposes of rooting it out? What are the logical explanations for why it exists, and the logical strategies for dealing with it? How do you get past using it as the catch-all explanation for far more complex problems - a catch-all excuse for why nothing ever changes for the better?
      I'm not even confident you can single out corruption as a bad behaviour in a country where it exists in so many shades of grey (my new colour). Hiring your unqualified cousin for a good job you're fairly certain he can't do, renting the wrong kind of office space for your organization as a favour to your sister's husband - really, doesn't the work have to start there? Or is that just me trying to impose my cultural standards on another country?
    Anyway. All I'm saying is that if you've ever wanted to really test your beliefs and feel out your limits, living and working in a new culture just might be the ticket. I thought I had all the big stuff sorted before I came to Honduras. The longer I stay, the less I'm sure of that. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Scary travel warnings are hurting Honduras

One of the papers ran a big feature this week on tourism in Copan Ruinas and what strategies might kickstart the flagging industry. Somebody mentioned that one problem might be that the marketing approach had become too boring.
   Maybe. But I have a feeling that the terrifying travel warnings about Honduras issued by virtually every developed country might be the bigger problem.
   The U.S. State Department issued its scariest warning yet yesterday, raising the spectre of kidnappings, carjackings, "disappearances," rape, and even the possibility that the Honduran police will kill you. The advisory listed 10 of the country's 18 departments as particularly homicide-prone (sorry, Copan, you made the list), but added that no place in the country can be considered safe. If I hadn't been living here long enough to know better, I'd have concluded from the warning that only a reckless, death-wish kind of traveller would ever consider a trip here.
   The advisory is admittedly more extreme than those from other countries, but not by much. Aided by Google Translate, I searched out travel warnings from governments in Germany, Holland, Canada, Britain and Spain, and found a similar alarmed tone running through all of them.
   The German government paints a picture of a country overrun by gangs, crazed drug-using criminals and feuding families, all with "low inhibitions in the use of firearms." Attacks on strangers have been especially notable on the route from San Pedro Sula to Copan Ruinas, notes the advisory, which also inexplicably cautions women travelling alone to be sure to have someone accompany them at security checkpoints.
   Holland concedes that it's still safe to travel to Honduras, but "not without being extra cautious." Tourists are targeted for theft and robbery because Hondurans "see foreigners as millionaires, who have too much money." The advisory lists the top tourist spots of Honduras - Tela, La Ceiba and Roatan - as dangerous for travellers.
   France cautions that bands of young, armed men target people, "even in groups," in low-traffic areas such as beaches. And watch out for the coast overall, where aggressive boaters, pirates and drug traffickers are waiting to get you.
   The Spanish government makes a rather sweeping statement about all public transportation in the cities being unsafe, and advises that it's best if either your family members or a hotel shuttle takes you to and from any airport. Man, that would break the hearts of the many decent, honest, hard-working taxi drivers I've ridden with in my time here.
    Spain recommends daylight road travel only and warns that organized gangs sometimes attack private vehicles. The government also gives some very specific warnings about certain city neighbourhoods and areas that are best to just skip entirely. Unfortunately for my acquaintances in the local tourism business, one of them is the Department of Copan.
   The Canadian government cautions travellers bound for any of the key tourism sites as well, and adds to the scare factor with a warning about people trying to drug your drinks or give you drug-tainted cigarettes or gum so they can rape you.
   "A large percentage of the population is armed," it adds. "Guns and weapons such as machetes are frequently used in robberies. Perpetrators often use violence if the person resists." (OK, you do want to pay attention to that last part  - you'd be crazy to resist if someone tries to rob you here.)
   Britain's advisory is the calmest of the bunch. Yes, Honduras has high levels of crime, it notes. However, "most serious crime doesn't affect tourists, but attacks on foreigners including armed robbery and sexual assaults do sometimes occur." Best to stay off the beaches at night. 
   I found Britain's comparatively mild-mannered warning the only one of the bunch that was fair to this maligned country that has been our home for the last year and a half. 
   Sure, there's probably at least one real-life story to back up each of the warnings in the other countries' travel advisories. Horrible things happen everywhere in the world. But putting together a string of one-offs in the absence of context is just plain irresponsible.
    I take particular exception to the U.S. State Department's declaration that "crimes are committed against expatriates at levels similar to those committed against locals." The statement is intended to convey that U.S. citizens aren't being targeted and that a traveller is at no more risk than the locals, but that is such a load of hooey. Honduras does indeed have a problem with violence, but overwhelmingly the victims are Honduran, at rates that can't even be compared to the occasional robbery or very rare murder of a foreigner. 
   What can I say? We live here. We work here. We travel around the country, and have even been known to hail cabs in the street. We exercise caution, but then again we always have - in our own country or any other. 
   Yes, there's crime in Honduras, and a murder rate that somebody had best get a handle on before the travel advisories get any more inflamed. But still and all, it's a lovely, gentle, beautiful country, full of good-hearted people who want nothing more than to hear that a visitor likes the place. 
   So take those warnings with a cup of salt and come on down. The country needs you. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Advice for the Moskitia: Be careful. Very, very careful

June 12, 2013

Sure, it's pretty here, but not yet ready for tourists
   Day 6 here in the Moskitia, and I’m bored dead. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, as good old Joni once sang, and what I miss the most right now is freedom.
   One of my co-workers describes Palacios as a “beautiful prison.” That sums up the place nicely. The little town is a short boat ride away from Batalla, the Garifuna community where road access ends. But the two villages feel completely different.
   There's a gorgeous lagoon just steps away from the main road through Palacios – which is to say, the dirt path that passes for a road because it's just large enough for the handful of locals who have motorcycles or quads – and all kinds of palm-tree wilderness and rivers to explore behind the town. Were this any other land, I’d be rustling up a kayak to explore the lagoon, or happily walking for hours to look for birds, butterflies, and maybe a monkey if I was lucky.
   But this is Honduras, and the Moskitia is where much of the cocaine from Colombia arrives to begin its journey north. I don’t know if I’d really be taking my life in my hands by going out for a ramble, but everybody who lives here seems to think I would be. I’m going to take their word for it.
   And so I stay put, doing the five-minute walk between the hotel and my organization’s little office twice a day and nothing more. Today I stood on the tiny office lawn and looked longingly out across the lagoon. Tonight I stood on the hotel balcony and did the same. That’s about as adventurous as it gets here.
   There’s much talk about reigniting tourism in the area, which apparently disappeared after the 2009 coup. It could be a beautiful thing for everyone, given that there’s so much nature to enjoy here and so many locals who need jobs.
   But somebody’s going to have to bring the region’s narco-traficantes to the table for a discussion before that could ever happen. It simply isn’t safe to invite tourists into this part of the country right now. In my opinion the security warnings for travel in Honduras are ridiculously overblown for much of the country, but even I think it would be a big mistake to have tourists rambling around at will in the Moskitia these days.
    One recent afternoon, my co-workers and I nervously boarded our little boat after a visit to one of the villages while scary men carrying giant guns unloaded boxes at the same tiny dock. I don't know what was in the boxes, but I could take a reasonable guess. As for police presence, there are 25,500 people living in the massive region that makes up the municipalities of Juan Francisco Bulnes and Brus Laguna, and just five police. 
   It’s not that the narco-traficantes are gunning for tourists, of course. They’ve got way bigger things on their mind. From what I know of them, which is not much, they keep very much to themselves and have no obvious desire to kill a passing stranger.
    But they don’t like surprises. I have a feeling that a bunch of happy gringos stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time would not end happily. All it would have taken in that situation at the dock would have been one crazy tourist to try to sneak in a photo, and you'd be reading in the papers the next day about the boatload of travellers gunned down in broad daylight. The men who work in the Moskitia have big, big guns, no fear of the police, and are no shrinking violets when it comes to resolving a problem through violence.
   Narco-traficantes have been active in this region for a long time, but the locals say they’ve really come to own the place in the last three or four years.  The dreamers among us might still think the day is coming when we’ll win the “war on drugs” and that will be that for the industry, but I’m of a more pragmatic nature and suspect that cocaine trafficking is not only here to stay, but in fact is creating a new social class in Honduras. All those glitzy, pricey malls in Tegucigalpa can’t just be for the old money in the country.
   That's not to say that tourism development in the Moskitia is out of the question. It just can’t be done without the cooperation of the narco-traficantes. If it’s possible to strike deals between rival Latin American gangs to reduce violence, as has happened in El Salvador, then it’s possible to imagine cartel leaders being invited to share their thoughts on how tourism and their own industry might co-exist in the Moskitia. The handful of hardy tour groups still operating down here would also have a lot of insight on a problem that has to be worrying for them, too. 
   It really is a wondrous region: three strong indigenous cultures; a biosphere reserve that’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list; birds and animals galore; miles and miles of sandy Caribbean beach without a soul in sight. I wouldn’t call it untouched – too much illegal tree-cutting, trafficking in wildlife, and garbage lying around to earn that description – but it certainly is authentic. And such potential.
   But first things first. Truce first, tourism to follow. Until then, be very, very careful about where you point that camera.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dangerous and underpaid: Working in the Moskitia

   I’m sitting at this moment in a Moskitia hotel frequented almost exclusively by scary, armed men in the cocaine-distribution business, in a town that even the more adventurous guide books tell you to avoid. The bar downstairs is blasting narco-ballads, the deceptively cheery music that relates hair-raising stories of life in the illegal-drug trade.
   The presence of scary, armed men is great fodder for blog posts for travelers who live elsewhere, but it’s fairly unsettling for the 67,000 people who live and work in Gracias a Dios, the watery, wondrous Honduras state that borders Nicaragua. And the cocaine traffickers are by no means the only difficulty here.
  There’s no electricity anywhere in the Moskitia, so keeping the generator running (or accessing medical care, going to the bank, buying clothes or any other creature comfort) means a boat ride of anywhere from 25 minutes to five hours, depending how deep into the region’s many lagoons you happen to be, and an eight-hour round trip on a rough and dangerous road that’s in constant risk of washing out in the heavy rains.
   There’s food, but you’d better like fish, chicken, yucca and coconut. There are amazing birds, but an equally impressive number of mosquitos and other biting bugs, especially in the June-July rainy season. (Damn.)
   In short, the Moskitia is a beautiful, complicated, challenging place, with an air of menace overlying everything now that the narco-traficantes have claimed the region as their own.
   One of the towns where my organization works has recently fallen under the control of a Nicaraguan heavyweight, who apparently has ordered the village to observe a 6 p.m. curfew and surrounded the town with armed men. People learn quickly around these parts not to ask questions about who owns the beautiful new mansion on the lagoon, or the boat with two gigantic outboard motors. Best not to know.
   This is my second time here, and once again I’m feeling a mix of exhilaration at the natural beauty and a sense of constant alertness lest I get on the wrong side of the wrong person, or inadvertently turn my birding binoculars or camera in a direction I shouldn’t be looking.
   And I’m just passing through. My co-workers live and work here, in circumstances that are way less comfortable than anything I’ll experience during my nine-day visit. I’ve got a king-size bed in a roomy if somewhat unnerving hotel; they’ve got a foam mattress on the floor of their tiny office, where four of them live communally for at least three weeks of every month. I don’t mind working through the occasional weekend, but they do it all the time, saving up days off so they’ve got enough time to make the long journey out to visit their families.
   I’ve got considerably more appreciation for Canadian work practices and labour law since coming to Honduras. Low pay, exploitive practices, no job security, armed people who just might shoot you, a constant risk of not getting paid – these are regular experiences for the majority of workers. The situation in the Moskitia does kick things up a notch, mind you.
   The work that my Honduran compaƱeros are doing in this wild and woolly region would likely come with big pay and great benefits back in my homeland, what with all the risks it entails. One woman working with a government forestry organization here recently had the trauma of a drunk narco-traficante putting a gun to her head, and then the additional trauma of watching the two military guards she travels with kill the guy.
    But despite considerable dangers and deprivations, my co-workers make $1,000 or so a month. They’re also on the hook for the considerable transport costs to get in and out of the Moskitia, which are at least $50 every time. 
   As for benefits, I’m sure it would be like telling a fairy tale if I ever described a typical Canadian benefits package to any Honduran. I remember griping when I was back in my journalism days at the shrinking amount available for massages. Man, that seems petty now. The fellow who runs the swimming pool in Copan Ruinas where Paul and I go for a leisurely day sometimes hasn’t had a day off – not one – in the last two years. He’d like to quit, but is scared he’ll end up with no job at all.
   So the lesson is: Thank your lucky stars that for whatever reason, you’re living and working in a wealthy country where you might feel hard done by from time to time, but you’re not. Hug your boss and your union leader, and think good thoughts about whoever it was who lobbied for employment standards. Reflect on your grandparents and great-grandparents, and all the sacrifices they made to ensure future generations of Canadian workers could feel miffed when their company-funded massages cost more than they’d expected.
    Turn your lights on and off and marvel at how easy it is. Sit in your big, comfy car and feel that smooth asphalt below your tires. Celebrate that the gun culture has never really caught on in Canada.
   And if you’re using cocaine, why not switch to something homegrown and save some lives? You’re making things crazy down here.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Satiric commentary on Honduras news

   Very amusing and pointed commentary here about how Honduras tends to get written about. I particularly like the suggested tags. I think I fall into some of this myself sometimes, although I'm really trying not to.
   The national press here in Honduras doesn't deliver much better than the international media - at least two pages at the back of virtually every print edition of La Prensa is devoted to the previous day's body count, all of it presented with zero context and no follow-up. And man, can somebody teach those people how to ask (and answer) the question, "Why?" in their coverage?