Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On the bus: A Honduran tale of courage and kindness

My new friend Jose
 He got on the bus not long after we left Copan Ruinas, and unlike most passengers opted to sit beside the gringa. I told him I liked having a seatmate because it lets me practice my Spanish. He told me he travels the same 10-hour bus route every three days, going between Guatemala City where he works and La Entrada, Honduras, where he lives.
    His name is Jose, 37 years old and still married to the same woman he met as a teenager, when she was 13 and he was 15. They've had their ups and downs but have stuck it out. They have three children, ages 20, 11 and 5. He pulled out his phone to show me photos of his youngest, who is currently feeling a bit mopey due to having some of his bottom teeth pulled out. "Are those your real teeth?" Jose asked me. "They're beautiful!" I didn't even know where to start to try to explain the many reasons why a Canadian's teeth might be better than a Honduran's.
     His kids are the reason he makes the long bus trip so often, racking up 100 hours in bus time every month. He and his wife are currently raising the two young children of their 20-year-old daughter as well, who decided in October to follow the well-worn path between Honduras and the United States and seek a better future for herself and her family by working illegally in the U.S.
    She left with 4,000 lempiras in her pocket - $200, not nearly enough for what is typically a $5,000 trip for those who aim to pay all the bribes along the way and hire a coyote to lead them on the dangerous journey. The family knew she'd have a tough time with so little money, as she'd have to avoid all the people who would be demanding money from her along the way and fight off the thieves who would try to steal what little she had. She would also be travelling alone, a vulnerable young woman on a journey that eats up even the toughest, best-prepared mojados. "But there's no other way to get ahead in Honduras," Jose said.
    The plan was for the girl to make her way to Pennsylvania, where she has an aunt living legally. The family said a tearful goodbye to her that morning in October, then cried for the next two months straight when they didn't hear anything from her. Sometimes they were sure she must have died; other times they just kept on believing that the phone was going to ring one day soon. And it did, on Christmas Day, when she called to say she had made it to Houston.
    The journey had been something that no parent would ever want for their child: Riding on the roof of the notorious train through Mexico known as La Bestia, eventually falling from that dangerous perch on the roof and into a field of desert cacti. The young woman was bruised, battered and covered in hundreds of cactus spines, embedded too deeply for her to pull out. But as it turned out, her fall was a blessing in disguise, because she later found out that immigration officials stopped the train not long after and arrested everyone on the roof.
    The girl became adept at hiding from the criminals who prey on the migrants, dodging the extortionists and the rapists and all the other predators who extract their pound of flesh from the desperate travellers trying to make their way north. Against all odds - Jose has heard that only one in 10 migrants who attempt the journey from Honduras actually make it - she got herself to the border, but was in such agony from the infection in her legs caused by the embedded cactus spines that she had to turn herself into authorities.
     The news stories about illegal migrants rarely mention kind-hearted immigration officials. But someone at the border took pity on Jose's daughter, and got her medical attention for her infected legs. They listened to her as she told them she was trying to make it to her aunt's house. In the end, they admitted her legally to the U.S for five years. Her aunt sent the money for her niece to fly to Pennsylvania, where the girl has now found a job cleaning houses.
    She makes $250 a week and is sending $100 of it back home for the day when she returns, says Jose. Like so many other Hondurans, the young woman doesn't want to stay in the U.S. She just wants the chance to put together a nest egg - for a better house, maybe to start her own business, to pay for a better school for her children. Savings just aren't possible on the low, low wages paid in Honduras; for the same work the girl is doing in Pennsylvania, she'd be lucky to earn $25 a week in her home country, and would very likely have to work six or seven days a week just to earn that.
    Jose's story-telling made the trip to La Entrada go much faster than usual. We said our goodbyes as the bus pulled up near his neighbourhood, exchanging phone numbers in case there came a time when we could be of help to each other, or perhaps so I could someday hear how the story of his courageous daughter ends. From his well-worn duffel bag he pulled out a batido, a big plate-sized fudge-like thing made from sugar-cane juice, and gave it to me as a parting gift. I shared it with my other seatmates all the way to Santa Barbara.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The soundtrack of our lives

   I think I'll have to make some sound files as keepsakes of our time here before we head back to Canada this spring.
    The blog posts, the photos, the videos – sure, they’ll all keep the memories alive. But an audio clip of all the noises that go on outside our door every day would probably be the thing that would instantly bring me back to this kitchen table, where the soundtrack of daily life is the rumble of cars a foot away from our front door, the BROO-broo-broo-broo-broo barking of the dog next door, the blaring television from the house across the street where we’re certain a deaf man must live.
    It’s the toddler two doors down having one of his usual tantrums, and the stressed mother down the way bellowing “Callete!” – “Shut up!” – at her worried looking little two-year-old. It’s the snatches of conversation of people passing by, mostly talking in animated Spanish but occasionally in that distinct way that, even when you can’t make the words out, makes both Paul and I look up and cry, “Gringos!”
    It’s an  injured-animal call that the kids do here for fun – the sound of a dog right after it’s been hit by a car or beaten, a cat trapped on a roof. The kids fake the animals’ desperate cries so perfectly that it never fails to shake me up. It’s a vibrating bass line thumping out of the disco two blocks away, and an enthusiastic evangelical church service that our neighbours sometimes organize in their garage, replete with much religious rapture. It’s the guy with the bad starter trying to get his car to turn over, and the neighbour with the makeshift tin door on his garage dragging it out of the way every morning as he leaves for work at 4:30 a.m.
    In this moment, I am hearing the dog Hegel tormenting the fuzzy dog behind the fence, a scene that plays out at least twice a day. Hegel is free and Fuzzy is stuck behind bars, and Hegel never tires of reminding the poor thing of that fact. In the distance I hear a moto-taxi labouring to climb the hill near here, and the little boy next door – a terrible brat a year ago, always howling indignantly – asking in the nicest possible way if his grandfather would like to play with him.
    I had to wear ear plugs every night in our first weeks here to try to tune out the endless din. (OK, not really endless – most nights, Copan Ruinas falls deathly still between 1-4 a.m.) And the roosters! Whoever fed us that story of roosters crowing at dawn has clearly never lived in a small Latin American town, where the birds crow with gusto at whatever hour they please. The strangled, discordant sound that emerges from their straining throats sounds nothing like “cock-a-doodle-doo,” and each one seems calculated to provoke a chorus of equally hoarse calls from every rooster within hearing range.
    I know I’ll miss the grackles – big, black shiny birds that emit the most amazing whistles, pops, and complicated lines of chatter every morning from our roof top, their beaks pointed straight up to the sky like sentinels. Were I at any risk of sleeping in – as if that would be possible, when the whole world begins its noisy day here well before 6 a.m., with mighty throat clearings and the honk of car horns to beckon someone from their house, the scrape of tin on asphalt as that damn makeshift garage door is dragged out of the way – the sound of grackles would be sure to rouse me.
    The firecrackers and gun shots – well, I hadn’t expected to get used to them, but I have. Sometimes I think I’m getting better at telling one from the other, but who knows? There are still mornings when I curse the Honduran birthday custom of letting off firecrackers at 4 or 5 a.m., I admit, but at least now I fall back to sleep quickly instead of lie there cursing the early wakeup. And on the rare occasion when a mariachi band shows up as well to fete the birthday person, I kind of like it.
    I still crave silence sometimes, the kind that only insulated windows, doors that go all the way to the floor and a 50-foot setback from the street will get you. But I’ll be back soon enough in the land of noise bylaws and closed windows. I expect I’ll miss the sound of life. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Nothing sudden about the death of newspapers

My journalist friends and I are doing a lot of hand-wringing these days over the death of the Kamloops Daily News, which has a history as a good, strong community newspaper.  The News is not the first nor the last newspaper to die in these difficult times, but that a paper should die that journalists themselves thought of as a good paper perhaps feels weightier to us.
    It’s all very sad, of course. A community is losing its long-time local voice. People are losing their jobs. Loyal readers are losing their beloved morning read. But on the other hand, nobody can possibly be surprised that the newspaper industry is finally in the death throes after more than 20 years of being terminally ill.
    However you might feel about capitalism, at its essence it’s about producing something that meets a demand and thus earns you a profit. When the profits start falling, that’s a rather clear signal that a company either has to do something to turn things around, or fold up the tent and go home. Doing nothing is not an option.
    Once upon a time a community newspaper made loads of money. But the signs were all there 20 years ago that the glory days were over. The fact that newspapers aren’t dead yet is an indicator of just how damn profitable they once were, that they’ve been able to hold on this long. And that so many readers clung on even as newspapers grew thinner and lost their community focus tells you just how much of a habit the daily newspaper once was, and that the industry managed to fritter that away too by ignoring all the alarm bells for an astounding two decades.
    Twenty years ago, the industry knew it had a problem with young readers, but thought that would resolve itself once they got older. It didn’t. It had a problem with working couples, who increasingly didn’t have time for a morning read and by nighttime, sought more up-to-date news from the local TV station. Nobody did anything about that, either.
     It had a problem with a growing generic look and feel that was developing among newspapers mandated to look like each other and share the same bland news in order to reduce newsroom costs, a change that really bothered readers who valued a real community paper. Today, with newsrooms skinnier than they’ve ever been and chain ownership a given, you can travel across the country without being able to distinguish one city newspaper from another.
    Long before I left journalism 10 years ago, the industry also had a big problem with advertising revenue, especially classifieds. The rise of on-line alternatives like craigslist, offering way more flexibility and coverage for a much lower price, indicated a sea change in how the game would be played from that point on.       Newspaper analysts duly noted the problem and the industry just kept on doing what it had always done.
    As readers started to drop away in earnest even while major newspapers clung to their stubbornly high advertising rates from the good old days, big advertisers (grocery ads used to be huge for newspapers) began looking for cheaper alternatives with more reach. Those lost revenues led to more cuts, which in turn resulted in even fewer readers and advertisers.
    The industry diligently documented each of these threats as they emerged, hiring costly consultants to identify the problems and come up with schemes to turn things around. But for whatever reason, nothing significant changed. Sure, there’d be a design remake here, a new weekly supplement there, an (unfulfilled) promise to focus on local news. But it was all a bit like showing up at a four-alarm fire with one bucket of water.
     Even when the industry finally tried new things – on-line classifieds, Web news – it always seemed to launch them at least 5 years behind the trend, and do clunky things like erecting pay walls even while dozens of other Web sites provided fairly similar news for free. The generic feel of the news grew ever more generic, despite constant reader feedback that generic was not what they wanted.
    For me, the newspaper industry’s response to changing times has been like someone on a beach who spots a tidal wave 25 years in the future and just stands there rooted to the same spot until the tsunami finally hits. As badly as I feel about the decline of the newspaper industry, I can’t have much sympathy for a business that has done so little to change course in the face of decades of obvious threats.
    As for my journalist friends, they are having a hard time accepting this, although the truth is that many of them haven’t changed their approach either as the numbers kept on falling. I was surprised during my years in management in the mid-1990s at how few of the reporters even read the paper they worked for, or any other. How can you expect people to love the newspaper you write for when even you can’t be bothered to read it?
    Journalism ought to be a passion, a burning curiosity for helping your readers understand their world. But too often, it’s just a job. It’s just what you do after you get a degree in journalism. (And have the journalism schools kept up with the changes?)
    There are some very fine writers out there who continue to write with insight and integrity, but there are also quite a few who have been standing paralyzed on the beach for the last quarter-century as well, watching that tsunami creep closer. They talk a lot about the problems in the industry, but don’t seem to understand that they’re part of it.
    Anyway. Today we mourn the passing of the Kamloops News. Soon enough, there will be more. The world changed and the industry didn’t. Nobody can say we didn't see it coming.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Nice face, shame about the rep

 We're newly back from two weeks of travelling on the Caribbean side of Guatemala and through Belize. It's easy travel in Belize, where English is the primary language, and the little country is clearly a popular choice for North American and European travellers. But while I totally get how nice it is to just breeze through a welcoming country with great tourism infrastructure, hopefully we convinced at least a few of the travellers we met to give Honduras a try, too.
    The travellers I've met who have been to Honduras always say how much they loved their time here. It's a gorgeous place, and a person can still have the highly prized "authentic" travel experience here. But the poor country's horrible and undeserved reputation as a murderous, thieving land is certainly scaring off travellers who don't yet know the place. Many people we met appeared to be avoiding Honduras entirely as they made their way through Central America.
    We did our best to present as Honduras ambassadors in our travels, chatting up the beautiful sights we've seen here while assuring our fellow travellers that despite the scary statistics, the country is a warm and friendly place. It's also much cheaper than Belize, and the snorkelling and diving in the Bay Islands is at least comparable if not better than around the cayes of Belize's Caribbean coast. Honduras has monkeys, birds, nurse sharks, even manatees, just like Belize. It's got miles and miles of untouched beaches.
    But Honduran towns dreaming of tourism dollars definitely need to take a leaf from the Belize tourism book in learning how to promote themselves better and package their offerings in new and appealing ways. (Why, for instance, do all the horse rides in Copan Ruinas only go to La Pintada, which is actually a pretty depressing little introduction to the culture?)
    Here in the Copan region, there are a lot of interesting things to do if you speak Spanish, know who to ask, and can make your way around by bus without being frightened off by aggressive bus touts who all seem to be shoving you onto a bus that you're not sure you want to be on. But in a Belize tourist town, all a person has to do is walk down any main street to find any info they need right there at handy-dandy kiosks smack-dab in the centre of town, all with beautiful promotional material and calm, English-speaking tour drivers.
    Speaking of English, Honduras needs more. I love the Spanish language and agree wholeheartedly with the principle that a country's citizens should have the right to speak whatever language they like in their own homeland. But it's just a reality that any country hoping to score tourists needs to have way more English. I know Honduras wants a more vibrant tourist economy, and doing more to help its citizens communicate in more than one language has to be part of that.
    And of course, the Honduran government needs to play a much more active role on all fronts. You're never going to convince travellers that Honduras is safe in the absence of a clear plan to reduce violence. It's true that virtually all the violence in the country is directed at Hondurans and not foreigners, but that's a fairly small point to be trying to make to a nervous traveller poised to fly into "the most dangerous city in the world" to begin their sun vacation.
    Without sufficient tourists, tourism-based business is scared to invest. Without tourism-based business, the tourists won't come. Fewer tourists mean fewer people saying good things about Honduras, and more people thinking the country is too dangerous to visit. Something's got to give.
     The government also has to be out there responding to the terrifying travel advisories. The alarming advisories definitely don't reflect the lived experience in Honduras, but how is anyone supposed to know that if the government never responds to any of the advisories and just leaves people to presume that all the horror stories must be true?
    So yeah, Belize is beautiful. So is Honduras. But until something meaningful happens to turn around the scare statistics, who's going to know that?