Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's all about the little things. Or so I tell myself

  “Turn a bit more this way,” my co-worker advised Friday as he arranged a couple of us for a photo while we gathered for a goodbye cappuccino. “I want to make sure the light is behind me.”
    Music to my ears, my Copan friend. As I bid farewell to Honduras after more than two years of trying to help my workmates get the hang of good communications, I don’t want to just hear that they’ll miss me. I want to hear that they won’t forget all the things we’ve been working on this whole time.
    Better photos was a biggie. All the funders want their projects well-documented through photos, but my workmates are renowned for taking atrociously bad photos. So hearing Edy talking about repositioning himself to get a better photo – well, I feel really good about that, what with all the talks and training around photos during which I was never sure whether any of them were very into it.
    We did a lot of work around Facebook, too.  I think it could be an incredible tool for small development organizations in terms of sharing knowledge and information about their projects, and Facebook’s extroverted nature is a good match for Hondurans, most of whom who are exceedingly extroverted.
    I guess we’ll have to see whether any of that training sticks, though. While I’ve tried to keep the regions’ Facebook pages lively, there’s not much evidence to this point that anyone is going to pick such things up after I’m gone. But hey, hope springs eternal.
    Looking back on things, I really had no idea when we started in February 2012 what I and the Comision de Accion Social Menonita might accomplish by the end of our time together. There were times in the first year when I thought it was all going to be hopeless. But something started to click around the nine-month mark. I began letting go of my expectations, and they began thinking that maybe I could actually be helpful.     And away we went.
    The goal of Cuso International’s work is largely around building capacity – in other words, help people develop some new ways of doing things that they can continue doing after the volunteer goes home. Sounds good, but what I’ve found when it comes to communications – in Honduras and in Canada – is that it’s not just a task of teaching eager people how to tell their stories better, it’s about convincing them that they should even be interested in that.
    So any capacity-building work thus involves a good deal of salesmanship in the early stages, at least when the subject is communications. In fact I’ve had to remain a salesperson right through these two years, grabbing every chance to jump into a conversation with some cheery advice about turning a particular moment or bit of news into a communications opportunity. But in the end we got a lot done, from videos and web sites to easy-to-use guides on growing better cocoa, not to mention about a million photos.
    As I’ve discovered about development work, there comes a time when you look at the little thing you’re trying to do in the midst of profound, complex problems like widespread poverty, staggering levels of violence and murder, a completely inadequate education system and babies dying for want of basic, cheap medical care, and you think, Really? Getting these guys to post photos on Facebook more often is going to change the future for this beleaguered country?
    But on my better days I see that you can’t change the big stuff without changing the small stuff first. If CASM can talk more effectively about the work it does, it can attract more funding, which in turn creates projects but also jobs, something that Honduras needs most to start to turn things around. If CASM can document its work in videos, it can demonstrate conditions in its communities – the impossible roads, the lack of infrastructure, the challenges in getting goods to market - that might lead to more realistic interventions by funders rather than quite so much pie-in-the-sky projects that don’t take into account the reality of life here.
    If NGOs were to share the findings of their projects more widely, other NGOs could replicate the successes and avoid the failures, and together they could strengthen the social fabric and build economic networks rather than just do the same survival-based projects over and over again in isolation. (As one funder acquaintance noted, “We can’t just keep on doing beans and corn.”)
    But while I’d be happy to claim a tiny speck of credit for perhaps improving organizational communications in Honduras, one thing I became more convinced of the longer I was here was that it will take a lot more than cheery development work to turn things around here. This place needs an uprising. Were it up to me, I’d be fomenting revolution.
    There’s a lot of money at the top in Honduras, but most of it never makes it down to where it counts. It’s nice that the international community is here with all our dreams of helping Hondurans be less poor, but at what point do wealthy Hondurans and the government start assuming more responsibility for that? And what’s it going to take to get all the mistreated and neglected people down below to start making more noise about all of that?
    When the revolution does come, it’s nice to think that at least a few more of them now know to turn their backs to the sun when documenting it all in photos. When they’re ready to foment, I hope they call me – I've got all kinds of communications tips on that front.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bringing a dog home from Honduras: Hard lessons learned

  Maybe one day you’re going to find yourself somewhere in Honduras thinking, hey, here I am in a country with way too many sick, underfed dogs, and I’d like to find at least one of them a great new home in Canada.
    And with that one little thought, the grand and costly adventure will have begun.
    I must admit, bringing White Dog home seemed destined. We've been feeding a variety of dogs during our two-plus years in Copan Ruinas, but White Dog appeared out of nowhere for the first time a couple of days before one of my daughters and her husband arrived for a visit in January, and the three of them instantly hit it off. Unlike a lot of the other street dogs here, who really love their wandering lives, White Dog seemed done with the entire business and eager to shift into a more domesticated life. Why not, we all said.
   So I went on-line and started looking for information on airline web sites. United is the airline we’ve used the most for flights back and forth to Canada since we came here, and information on the United site about the company’s PetSafe program seemed pretty thorough. It looked like the rate for a dog of White Dog’s size in the (giant) kennel required by the airline would be around $289 – pricey, I thought, but not impossible. United also got back to my email requests for more information, unlike Delta and American Airlines.
   United’s initial information was wrong, mind you, and I would eventually come to see that what was on their site wasn't even remotely thorough and in fact was downright misleading. But in those halcyon days of January when I did not yet know just how little I knew, choosing United seemed logical.
   I quickly learned that while there was quite a bit of information about PetSafe on the site, getting particulars for booking a specific dog on a specific plane was like pulling teeth. I didn’t really get why it was going so badly until I got in touch with a Facebook acquaintance who’d been through the experience of shipping a dog from Honduras to Canada, who told me Honduras requires the use of animal brokers. He sent me a contact for Rex Internacional, which United uses.
   In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the teeny notice on the United PetSafe rate page that says “Note: Additional fees may apply in countries that require the use of animal brokers.” But isn’t that just always the way with hindsight? At any rate, never in my wildest imaginings would a passing aside about “additional fees” lead me to think that it would increase the rate quoted on the United site by 140%.
   But I’m getting ahead of myself. While waiting for more information on how to ship White Dog, I got started on the veterinary processes. We live in Copan Ruinas, which has no veterinarian, so the first step was an eight-hour return bus ride for me and White Dog to San Pedro Sula to visit a vet who knew all the steps to meet airline requirements. Canada’s requirements turned out to be surprisingly simple - a current rabies vaccination – but the airline needed things like a health certificate dated within 10 days of your flight and an export permit (really?) from the Honduran government.
   Price for vet services, export permit, and one month of antibiotic treatment for a tick disease we discovered White Dog had: $250. Add another $28 for the round trip bus ride to and from San Pedro, as I had to buy White Dog her own bus ticket. But hey, I was still thinking that the airfare was $289, so I remained calm.
   Now, the kennel. The airline wants the dog to be comfortable, so you need to pick a kennel according to a set of measurements based on the dog’s size. I thought we could save $200 for a new kennel by having my youngest daughter bring a used kennel with her when she came to visit us this month, not fully understanding just how big and awkward a Kennel 500 can be. We could have gotten away with the smaller Kennel 400, as it turned out, but at least White Dog now has a doggie condo to relax in for her flight.
   As things went, that too was a much more hassle-filled endeavor than I had anticipated, and Houston airport actually threatened my daughter with having to pay $200 to ship the kennel here because it was oversize (a kinder agent stepped in and resolved the crisis). I make a point of not saying “You would think” anymore, because that’s a very clear sign that a person is not adjusting to Honduran culture, but really, wouldn’t you think United might consider renting the damn kennels?
   Anyway. So early March comes and I'd now been in email correspondence for six weeks with the Rex Internacional and United folk, and had had the dog vaccinated, treated for her tick disease, organized the kennel journey and booked our own flights back to Canada. I send another email to Rex Internacional confirming that all is a go, and they finally tell me the total price: $805. It is not overly dramatic to say that I thought I was going to throw up. I mean, not only is that way, way higher than my daughter or I were planning for, it is a truly embarrassing amount for two volunteers to pay to bring a dog home from an impoverished country where $805 is many people’s annual income. It is almost $200 more than our own tickets cost us.
   Not only that, but they would only fly her to Vancouver, not Victoria. So we would now be arriving at midnight in Vancouver with a dog, unable to use our tickets to Victoria and with no transport to get the three of us to Victoria. 
   But by this time, almost 2 months had passed since White Dog started hanging around. We had moved into full-on domestication. This dog was a pet, pure and simple. I couldn't have lived with myself if we’d just abandoned her to her Copan fate at that point. We were totally over a barrel.
   I did my best, sending Rex Internacional a note that made it very clear that we were devastated and angry. I CC’d high-ups in United. It helped a little: Rex acknowledged they’d made an error of $110 by charging us for 2 dogs in the kennel (even though I’d filled out a form stating there was only one). But United didn’t budge. I sulked for a few days, but then confirmed with my daughter that we were all still committed, and booked the flight for $695. Which is still more than our own tickets.
   Add it all up and we’re basically at $1,000. The kennel ended up costing $40 for my daughter to bring as a second piece of baggage. Plus it got cracked somewhere along the way, so add in maybe another $30 to fix it. And then there will be the cost of private transport for getting the dog and her condo-kennel to San Pedro, as not even the most tender-hearted bus driver is going to let us lug that huge thing onto a crowded local bus. I’m not even sure it would fit through the door.
   Call me suspicious, but I have a strong feeling that the costs aren't fully tallied yet. I've been joking with my daughter that we should rename the new family member Golden Dog. Thanks to Facebook, though, we do now have transport to Victoria after a kind-hearted person who I don't even know that well said she was going to be in Vancouver on April 2 and would come pick us up. 
    But it’s all just money, isn’t it? White Dog only has to make that little extended-paw gesture of hers that always makes me smile, and all is forgiven. As for Rex Internacional and United Airlines – well, that might take a little longer.  

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The wheels on the bus go round and round: Tips for a better Honduran bus experience

Spend enough hours on a Honduran long-distance bus and you will end up boarding them with the seasoned eye of a veteran seat-assessor, able to take in the available options at a glance and make the best choice with barely a moment of additional anxiety to the passengers jamming in behind you. Having been up, down and around this country on all manner of public transportation, here are my recommendations for how it's done:

1. Do I have control of the window? Unless you're on a first-class, air-conditioned bus - in which case none of this matters, because you'll have an assigned seat - this is perhaps the most important issue for your comfort. Without control of the window, you forfeit your right to get a little cool air in your face during a hot time of year or stop the passing storm from pouring in on you in more inclement times of year. Plus you're not going to be able to buy snacks and drinks from the vendors who come rushing up whenever the bus stops if you're not near a window that opens.

2. Is this seat back in good shape? There are a lot of busted seat backs in the lower classes of Honduran buses, and if you don't check this out you could find yourself slowly sinking into a reclining position no matter how many times you try to get the damn seat to stay straight up and down.

3. Did I just pick a seat over the wheel well? Classic error - you see the empty seat at the back, you rush to grab it, only to discover that the wheel well is right below your feet and you will now have to sit with your knees at your chin for several hours.

4. Did somebody spill something on this part of the floor? Unless you want your shoes lightly stuck to the floor and making that strange ripping noise every time you adjust them, stay away from any seat that appears to have borne the consequences of a sugary drink having been spilled two seats further up and then spread through a thousand or so stops and starts of the bus.

5. Am I sitting near anyone who gets motion sick? I don't know about you, but being too close to someone who is barfing makes me want to barf, too. Sniff the air. Look for evidence of someone clutching a small plastic bag and looking embarrassed. Pay attention to who takes up the bus guy's offer of plastic bags and move seats accordingly.

6. Is my seatmate a Honduran male? It could be that any male seatmate is a problem on this front. Men sit like it's their right to take up as much space as their body feels it needs, and never mind that you are crouching on the edge of your seat trying to avoid having your legs touch as the guy inevitably lets his knees swing open as wide as he likes and claims not just the arm rest but three more inches beyond it. Women, on the other hand, seem much more aware of sharing the common space fairly.

7. Does this mom with her baby in fact have 3 more children in a seat behind her? Children have zero rights on a Honduran bus, which means that if Mom has planted her kids in another seat and the time comes that the seat is needed for another adult passenger, those kids will now have no option but to stand in the tiny slip of space between the mom and the next seat. If you happen to be sitting next to her, count on having a child standing in front of you, too.

8. Am I better off with the seat big enough for 2.5 people that will end up holding 3, or the one big enough for 1.5 people that will end up holding 2? You're on your own for this one. I ask myself the same question every time I get on the refitted school buses that have this seat arrangement, and I've yet to figure out the right answer. I suspect there isn't one. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Crack down on crime where it counts

  This morning's paper brought news of a tiny baby found abandoned at the foot of a tree in a village not far from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.  Next to him was a bag full of baby products - a bottle of milk, diapers, talcum powder, a bib - and a note asking whoever found the baby to look after him well. A neighbour saw the news about the foundling and called in to report the young mother who had abandoned the baby, and now she's going to prison.
    Oh, come on. In the same paper, there were stories about 14 people who had been fatally shot in Honduras the day before, including two in wheelchairs. Another story listed details of four massacres that had happened since November in which 17 people had been killed.
    With the exception of one of the massacres, there are no suspects in any of the murders. And if things go the way they usually seem to go here, there never will be.
     Elsewhere in the morning paper, the Ministry of Social Security reported a theft of 23 million lempiras (about $1.2 million) resulting from "ghost" companies billing for non-existent services. Meanwhile, an editorial noted that the number of women murdered in Honduras - which has the highest homicide rate in the world - has increased by more than 18 per cent in the last two years.
   And the new president's "firm hand" is coming down on desperate, impoverished moms who don't have the resources to look after one more child?
    I don't want to knock President Juan Orlando Hernandez for trying to get a handle on crime in the country. But what I've seen so far is a lot of busy-work at police road stops - cars pulled over, buses stopped and passengers ordered to disembark for inspections - while the fundamental problems continue unchecked.
    Honduras doesn't just have a lot of murders, it has an unbelievable number of assassinations - murders for pay. It's not just random violence happening here, it's executions. While the Direccion de Estadistica Policia Nacional has no data available for 55 per cent of the 7,500 or so murders committed in the country in a typical year (quite an appalling problem all on its own), at least 30 per cent of those that have been classified are listed as "retribution killings by hit men." ( 
    One of the most horrendous of the massacres on that list in today's paper was one such killing, and it happened just five kilometres away from our town of Copan Ruinas two weeks ago. Two young men chopped up five members of a family with machetes, reportedly in retribution for a murder a year ago. Two of those killed were children, one age six and the other a mere 11 months old. 
    What did Juan Orlando have to say about that? Nothing. He did give a speech yesterday in which he mentioned that the level of insecurity in the country is intolerable, but neither he nor any other political leader - or police chief, or church leader, or anyone beyond some poor, sobbing relative - ever comments on specific murders, or proposes something more substantial than an increase in police roadside checks and a few more heavily armed military guys standing around here and there.
    It's not just the murders that are weighing this country down. I chatted with my taxi driver in San Pedro Sula this morning about "war taxes," the money the gangs extort from small businesses in exchange for not killing them. The gangs operate at every spot where the taxis queue up for passengers - outside the malls, at the bus terminal, at designated areas in the city centre. A typical San Pedro taxi pays the equivalent of $90 a month in war tax, my driver told me.
    A bus driver on one of the long-distance routes told me his company pays $50 a week for every bus in its fleet, all of it due and payable every Monday at the San Pedro main terminal. All in, some $27 million a year is extorted solely from the transportation sector. The driver says all the stores working out of the bus terminal also have to pay the gangs. The gangs are a bitter fact of life for tens of thousands of hard-working, honest people trying to scratch out a living. 
    So yes, Mr. President, spread a little of that firm hand around. Your citizenry urgently needs the help. But get real. Get focused. And as for mothers too poor to raise their own children, how about you give those ones a hand up?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The end

The pool swim with the Angelitos kids this past weekend had a certain poignancy about it. I expect there will be one more and then we'll be gone, back to Canada to start whatever the next adventure will be.
    We always knew there would be an end to our time with the orphans. I imagine it kept the relationship at something of an arm's length from the beginning, knowing that there was no future together that we were building toward. A little detachment has proven to be a good thing already, what with six of the kids having vanished from our lives during these two years, whisked off to what we will have to hope are better lives with no hint to us (or them, I suspect) that the next time we came to the hogar, they would be gone.
     Still, it's a strange thing to walk away from children after all this time. Just because I say I have guarded my heart doesn't mean I actually have. It's not love that we have between us - really, it would be irresponsible and unethical to seek love from children when you know from the start that there's a time limit. But they have come to count on us, and we have come to feel responsible for them. And that's its own kind of love.
    I think we may have changed each other's lives through all of this. By my rough calculations we have spent 300 hours together, mostly at the pool but also shopping for clothes, kicking the ball around in that empty dirt lot above Angelitos, buying sno-cones in the park. We spent one memorable afternoon at a little carnival last year, sweltering in the heat and surrounded by crowds of other children from poor families who saw the gringos buying kids fair rides and drew close in hopes that some tickets might come their way, too.
    They have learned to swim. I have learned to child-wrangle in two languages. In the early weeks, I cried for them, but time passed and I saw that they didn't see themselves as deprived. They are, of course: stunted from inadequate nutrition; behind in school; virtually no medical care; no champions in their lives to step in when things get rough. But that describes so many of the impoverished children in Honduras that I guess the Angelitos kids just feel like everybody else.
    I have seen no obvious signs of abuse at the orphanage, although I suspect that some of the impatient, frazzled staff - most of them broken single moms with no place else to go and slim hopes of getting paid for their work - do hit the kids sometimes. Certainly one broken mom is not sufficient for 14 robust children, especially the crazy little boys who find all kinds of trouble to get up to in their boredom. Dona Daisy, the woman who owns the orphanage, always talks about the need to find "Christian people" who will take that round-the-clock job out of the goodness of their hearts, but I stand inside that dark place with all its bad smells and endless heaps of dirty laundry and think, Who could ever be good enough to stay here for any longer than they had to?
     We've tried to make the children's home better in our time here. There's a water system now, a better floor, a wood stove that doesn't poison the air with its smoke, beds and mattresses and sheets for all. But with its hopeless and haphazard management and the complete lack of transparency in how donor dollars are used, Angelitos will always be something of a disaster. My long-term hopes are all pinned on Emily, the young American whose Casita Copan will one day be a replacement for Angelitos. Her dream is big enough for the 14 Angelitos kids, too, although she'd be in for the fight of her life.
     I don't expect the younger children to remember me for long. I've seen for myself how quickly they forget others who were once in their lives, the price of having grown up with a string of well-meaning but ultimately transient foreigners passing through your doors with their gifts and their cuddles and their tearful goodbyes. They hug easily, these children, but I fear it's because they know to get it while the getting's good, and that nothing lasts.
     The older ones, though - they'll remember. I've already talked to Rosario, the 9-year-old who I feel the most attachment to, about the little box that I'm going to buy her, and how I'll put my email inside it for the day when she wants to find me again. Hide it under your mattress, I told her, knowing how rapidly treasured things go missing in that place. When you're ready to come looking, I'll be there.
     If she could be tucked inside a kennel and whisked off to Canada as easily as the street dog we're bringing home for one of my daughters, I think I would be tempted. But of course, adopting from Honduras is nothing so easy as that, and in fact I'm already seven years past the age cutoff in the country anyway. She's the most independent minded (and stylish) of the Angelitos gang, and I am choosing to take that as a sign that she will be OK.
     "But who will take us to the pool when you're gone?" asked one of the girls, long gone now, when I first mentioned last year that our positions in Honduras weren't permanent. I think that will be the question on most of their minds when we do our final outing at the end of this month.
      I don't know, kids. Let's hope for other travellers with $30 jangling around in their pockets who want to make some children very, very happy. Let's hope that some of the wealthier Copan families wake up to the fact of all these poor kids right in their own community, and make a decision to bring some along next time they head to the pool.
    Let's just hope for the best. For all my little friends at Angelitos Felices, that's all I can do.