First Few Months as a Voluntere

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Winter is Here

Among all that is going on here - everyday seems to be something new; a problem, an incident, something with my house - one thing that makes me extremely happy is that we seem to have entered the winter season!  Now here the seasons are the dry season and rainy season, but we have just entered that portion of the rainy season where precipitation kicks it up and temperatures drop even more and as a cold and snow loving northerner, I am loving it.

The earlier parts of the rainy season saw your predictable afternoon downpours which normally only last a half hour or so as well as some evening sporadic rains in addition to the slightly lower temperatures.  But now, past the August-September slight break, we are into the latter portion of the rainy season, also coinciding with hurricane season, where rains are picking up in and not just in the late afternoon but around the clock.  Here in Yuscarán at 850-900 meters above sea level and even more so at my house more specifically at 950-1000 meters up, day after day I find myself walking in the clouds.  During the day you can maybe see the imprints of the closest street, buildings, mountain ridge and during the night other than what is directly in front of you, all that is visible are the lights piercing the clouds and fog.  As for the temperatures, I couldn't put a number on it but they are drastically lower and I find myself comfortable at times with a second layer, a fleece or rain jacket, and even in my house (under my metal roof which insulates heat underneath and normally is bothersome) I feel oddly cool.

For me, there are moments when the grey skies, rains, and cooler temperatures feel like up north.  And not just that of the Mid-Atlantic like Philly or DC, but rather of the North Atlantic or Pacific Northwest or even Scandinavia.  It is awesome.  Yet on the other hand, the local Hondurans are into full winter mode, wearing heavy coats and jackets,  ski hats, and other things that in the states we consider winter weather (when winter involves below freezing temperatures and snow, not cool rains).  All in all, the weather is becoming one of the things that does in fact make me happy or excited for what the day should present when I walk out my front door in the morning.

Unfortunately, with the rural/non-3G internet in my small rural town, uploading photos is extremely difficult.  But, I hope to upload a bunch of photos one day when I am in the city.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Recycling Course

(Written September 28th)

As I have mentioned, one area of work I am involved in (and have high hopes for) is recycling.  Here in Yuscarán, the benefits to be reaped from recycling span from improving the environment (oh so important as we are on the mountainside of the water source and a national protected area), having numerous social and communal impacts from cleaning the streets to creating a sense of responsibility for locals, and income generation from selling collected materials to the intermediaries who work with the two large manufacturing plants in Honduras that recycle as well as creating different artisan goods and homemade crafts for sale from recycled materials.  Well, finally we are making a big first step in doing something here about recycling.

The community partner I am doing this through is the high school.  This is good as the two natural science teachers as well as the school director have already done small recycling projects and have shown interest in recycling so the motivation is coming from Hondurans and not just some gringo (me).  Also, working with youth means that if you can inspire behavior change with them, they could possibly continue to exert the behavior change for the rest of their life and further inspire their kids and maybe even their parents above them (although probably not this last part).  Plus, youth generally just have more energy and are more engaged and curious.

What is this first step?  After gathering materials from some previous volunteers who have worked on different types of recycling-related projects, I combined some things to create a quick, basic, two-day recycling course to give at the high school.  The first day is the information day that includes short lectures or “charlas” on benefits of recycling, biodegration, basic info/facts, etc.  The first day also includes a few short activities or “dinamicas” including a reenactment, matching game, a creativity brainstorming session.  Then the second day is a practicum where we learn how to make crafts from empty chip bags, which are one of the most popular forms of trash here, as an example of a way to recycle and to further inspire the students to think in new ways about recycling.  In total, the course is about 2.5 or 3 hours.

This first course I did with one of the – equivalent to – 8th grade classes.  I had about 20 students and the teacher participated as well (an absolute must for any gringo entering a Honduran classroom!).  The first day, which involved a lot of me explaining concepts and citing examples off the top of my head, reminded me once again how far my Spanish has to go still.  I think it still went well and the points got across but hearing the teacher summarize points in a much more fluent, brief manner and be quite effective after I was done simply shows how much better I could be at it.  One of my biggest observations from the first day was that the students really enjoyed the matching game and took home the message there.  With this activity, on the board I put a timeline with different periods from 2 days to 4000 years and the students then had to match different everyday products to the different periods based on how long it takes for those materials to decompose.  This way there was a visual associated with both the students’ preconceived thoughts and the correct answers shared afterwards.  If anything, every one of those students walked out knowing that it takes plastic bags and bottles 100-200 years to decompose.

As for the second day, I had actually already attempted to teach this in the public library (the kids there were just too young but of the women who participated, three have really caught on and may legitimately be able to start up something eventually) so I already had a few lessons learned from my first attempt at it on how to better communicate the instructions of making chip bag bracelets, in this case.  While some parts of it were a struggle, more or less the majority of the students successfully got through the whole process (if they had more time, probably 15 of 20 got a hold of it) and several were taking home with them instructions and materials to continue doing so in their free time.  Additionally, whenever I do this activity I like to count the amount of bags that were collected and used in the room (in this case about 250) and remind the participants they have already done something good in that now 250 less bags will be burned or thrown in the streets.

So overall, I am very pleased and the course was a success.  Now, the teacher I have been working with is allowing me to do the course with another one of her classes and the other natural science teacher is giving me the go-ahead as well.  There are 6 sections of (equivalent to) 7th and 8th graders and by goal is to do the course will all of them before the school year ends in early November.  That way, when these students all return in February for the next school year, we can utilize their knowledge and awareness to take another step forward.  Possible activities could be to do a large exposition or competition where classes have to make things using only recycled materials (similar activities had been done where students created entire houses or dresses) or to establish a formal recycling collection program or to have the students, now capacitated, go out into the community and give the charlas to their families, friends, and neighbors as a way of furthering the recycling conscious in the community.  Or perhaps, over the next year and a half we will do all of these things?

All in all, I am very happy about this and despite the myriad of stupid things that have made a seemingly easy and minor thing to do incredibly difficult, perhaps something may actually change from all of this!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First Major Travels Brought Home

So clearly I have not been the best about updating this thing.  But as bad as that is, it is also a good thing for I am keeping myself fairly occupied.  So, here is my attempt to summarize things here recently via telling of my first major travels in Honduras and how it affected my sentiments for my own site, Yuscarán.

In the end, I spent about 10 days out of site; all of which were centered around our annual “Reconnect” conference that took place in Siguatepeque, Comayagua.  The (self-extended) weekend before, I made my way down south.  A bunch of volunteers were staying in Monjarás outside of Choluteca near Playa Cedeño in the Gulf of Fonseca/Pacific Coast.  For me, the bus ride down to Choluteca from Comayaguela (Tegus’ twin city where virtually all bus stations are except mine) was pretty awesome as it was my long awaiting venture into new territory.  The road takes you up the mountains to the south of the city, past that wind farm I could always see in the distance near Ojojona, down the mountains past Sabanagrande, along the coasts of the Rio Grande de Choluteca (I think we passed a small hydropower station), through the town of Pespire where a good friend of mine is working (if a town is called “Perspire” you know its hot), and by that point you are pretty much down at seas level.  From there, it is still a ways to go through the tip of Valle at San Lorenzo and the back through to the city of Choluteca.  When I did get out of the bus to transfer to the bus to Cedeño, while I had just enjoyed a majestic, scenic drive, the instant heat wave that hit me like an 18 wheeler was an instant reminder of why I never wanted to be place in the south.  It is hot!  By the time I got down to the beach – which unfortunately it was hit by a small tsunami just a few days before and most structures were destroyed – I had managed to meet up with a bunch of volunteers.  To me, as someone who is not a beach connoisseur and hasn’t seen the Pacific since 2005, I was pleased with the beach.  It was long and wide with the remaining hut restaurants and hammock stations standing atop the beach and the view out into the water includes El Salvador to the NW, Honduras and Amapala to the N, and Nicaragua to the S.   The water itself was probably a bit polluted as just walking the beach you see the occasional dead catfish with its digestive system being regurgitated but the water was also fun.  Only seconds in, I realized “we aren’t in Jersey anymore” as the water is warm, the tide is strong, and the waves are big.  The details of the next two days at the beach with a dozen other volunteers aren’t terribly relevant but my thoughts go to both ends: 1) it was nice to have a beach day for a change; and 2) I could never live there or spend a long period there as it is so unbelievably hot and buggy (lots of mosquitoes).

The conference didn’t start until Tuesday so Monday I spent up in La Paz, La Paz.  After a morning bus into the city of Choluteca (on which I unfortunately met some American missionaries who were utter racists – after some small talk and telling them I was from Philly, all they had to say about Philly was that “there are a lot of Muslims killing Christians there”, yep that is exactly the type of person who is going to get you into heaven), I caught the bus back to Tegus and repeated my earlier trip in reverse.  After getting some lunch in the city, I ventured north of Tegus for the first time ever and got a bus going to La Paz.  The road north from Tegus up to San Pedro Sula is currently in the middle of a huge redevelopment process making it a full-fledged highway which certainly will be a huge benefit for Honduras but unfortunately, it means travelling along it now still is a bit of a hassle.  As for La Paz, it is a fairly large town of about 18,000 people situated just at the base of the mountains that continue through the western region of the country.  Therefore, not too far from Siguat (just southwest of Comayagua) a few of us volunteers got together the night before to chill, catch up, enjoy a nice relaxing night, and stay at the local volunteer’s AWESOME house.  Soon enough, the next morning we headed out towards Siguat passing through Comayagua, Comayagua.

Once in Siguat, it would be four nights and three days of reuniting with the volunteers of my training class, the class from the year before, sharing stories in site, networking, and hearing from guest speakers of nonprofit organizations doing relevant work.  As for the content of the technical training, some of it was pretty relevant to me and my site while others weren’t.  In typical Honduran fashion, I found out about a big project my counterpart is doing from a national representative of an international NGO on the other side of the country rather than from the people I actually directly work with in my site.  But we will see if I actually get involved with these projects – something about municipal water systems and financing them and the guaro factory?  Anyways, the best thing about the conference was delving into work-related issues with other volunteers who understand what you are going through more than anyone else.  (And surely cutting loose with your friends in the evenings…)  I will save the details of these frustrations for another time but I do want to quote a fellow volunteer who I thought had the quote of the conference:

“We may not love Honduras, but we love our communities.”

And you know what?  That is spot on when it comes to my frustrations about working here.  Most of the time, its national systems, lack of public services, cultural remnants of colonialism, individuals who we don’t ever come across with, or problems that don’t originate from my site that are the sources of my problems.  And surely, my relationships both personal and professional do hit their hardships as well but normally it is something greater that is the source.

My final stop of my travels was the weekend after where a group of us gathered in Yamaranguilla, Intibucá just a bit outside of La Esperanza.  I will admit that this is the one site (from my project training group) which I openly am a bit jealous of: it’s a small little town of less than 1500 situated up in the mountains out west and most importantly, it is perhaps the coldest place in all of Honduras.  Now, we gathered for a fellow volunteer’s 30th birthday and so I didn’t spend my time necessarily getting to know the area but simply not sweating at high noon and sleeping comfortably fully-clothed was enough to confirm my initial suspicions of a hint of jealousy.  I do look forward to going back there eventually and getting a better feel for this part of Honduras.

While I was ecstatic to finally leave my region of Honduras, in the end I came back thinking just one thing.  I LOVE MY SITE.  I am happier than ever before that I am in my site and I am head over heels in love with Yuscarán, El Paraíso.  I love that it is still fairly cool; I love that it’s an old Colonial mining town and national monument; I love the local culture; I love being at the foot of a national protected area; I love the size; I love the working possibilities; I love the home I have made for myself; I love the community.   Getting out made more appreciative of what is in.  I stayed in four other volunteer sites and saw many more along the way and realized without a doubt that overall none suit me better than Yuscarán.  Overall, Yuscarán has the amount of character I always imagined a Peace Corps site would have when I was applying from DC and even though that character might not have been the snow-covered village or whatever I initially imagined, there is no denying that Yuscarán still has that kind of character of its own.  Yuscarán is my HOME.

One last time, I deeply apologize for not keeping up with this blog as much as I should but I have so much more to share and hope I will do so soon!

First Major Travels Brought Home

So clearly I have not been the best about updating this thing.  But as bad as that is, it is also a good thing for I am keeping myself fairly occupied.  So, here is my attempt to summarize things here recently via telling of my first major travels in Honduras and how it affected my sentiments for my own site, Yuscarán.

In the end, I spent about 10 days out of site; all of which were centered around our annual “Reconnect” conference that took place in Siguatepeque, Comayagua.  The (self-extended) weekend before, I made my way down south.  A bunch of volunteers were staying in Monjarás outside of Choluteca near Playa Cedeño in the Gulf of Fonseca/Pacific Coast.  For me, the bus ride down to Choluteca from Comayaguela (Tegus’ twin city where virtually all bus stations are except mine) was pretty awesome as it was my long awaiting venture into new territory.  The road takes you up the mountains to the south of the city, past that wind farm I could always see in the distance near Ojojona, down the mountains past Sabanagrande, along the coasts of the Rio Grande de Choluteca (I think we passed a small hydropower station), through the town of Pespire where a good friend of mine is working (if a town is called “Perspire” you know its hot), and by that point you are pretty much down at seas level.  From there, it is still a ways to go through the tip of Valle at San Lorenzo and the back through to the city of Choluteca.  When I did get out of the bus to transfer to the bus to Cedeño, while I had just enjoyed a majestic, scenic drive, the instant heat wave that hit me like an 18 wheeler was an instant reminder of why I never wanted to be place in the south.  It is hot!  By the time I got down to the beach – which unfortunately it was hit by a small tsunami just a few days before and most structures were destroyed – I had managed to meet up with a bunch of volunteers.  To me, as someone who is not a beach connoisseur and hasn’t seen the Pacific since 2005, I was pleased with the beach.  It was long and wide with the remaining hut restaurants and hammock stations standing atop the beach and the view out into the water includes El Salvador to the NW, Honduras and Amapala to the N, and Nicaragua to the S.   The water itself was probably a bit polluted as just walking the beach you see the occasional dead catfish with its digestive system being regurgitated but the water was also fun.  Only seconds in, I realized “we aren’t in Jersey anymore” as the water is warm, the tide is strong, and the waves are big.  The details of the next two days at the beach with a dozen other volunteers aren’t terribly relevant but my thoughts go to both ends: 1) it was nice to have a beach day for a change; and 2) I could never live there or spend a long period there as it is so unbelievably hot and buggy (lots of mosquitoes).

The conference didn’t start until Tuesday so Monday I spent up in La Paz, La Paz.  After a morning bus into the city of Choluteca (on which I unfortunately met some American missionaries who were utter racists – after some small talk and telling them I was from Philly, all they had to say about Philly was that “there are a lot of Muslims killing Christians there”, yep that is exactly the type of person who is going to get you into heaven), I caught the bus back to Tegus and repeated my earlier trip in reverse.  After getting some lunch in the city, I ventured north of Tegus for the first time ever and got a bus going to La Paz.  The road north from Tegus up to San Pedro Sula is currently in the middle of a huge redevelopment process making it a full-fledged highway which certainly will be a huge benefit for Honduras but unfortunately, it means travelling along it now still is a bit of a hassle.  As for La Paz, it is a fairly large town of about 18,000 people situated just at the base of the mountains that continue through the western region of the country.  Therefore, not too far from Siguat (just southwest of Comayagua) a few of us volunteers got together the night before to chill, catch up, enjoy a nice relaxing night, and stay at the local volunteer’s AWESOME house.  Soon enough, the next morning we headed out towards Siguat passing through Comayagua, Comayagua.

Once in Siguat, it would be four nights and three days of reuniting with the volunteers of my training class, the class from the year before, sharing stories in site, networking, and hearing from guest speakers of nonprofit organizations doing relevant work.  As for the content of the technical training, some of it was pretty relevant to me and my site while others weren’t.  In typical Honduran fashion, I found out about a big project my counterpart is doing from a national representative of an international NGO on the other side of the country rather than from the people I actually directly work with in my site.  But we will see if I actually get involved with these projects – something about municipal water systems and financing them and the guaro factory?  Anyways, the best thing about the conference was delving into work-related issues with other volunteers who understand what you are going through more than anyone else.  (And surely cutting loose with your friends in the evenings…)  I will save the details of these frustrations for another time but I do want to quote a fellow volunteer who I thought had the quote of the conference:

“We may not love Honduras, but we love our communities.”

And you know what?  That is spot on when it comes to my frustrations about working here.  Most of the time, its national systems, lack of public services, cultural remnants of colonialism, individuals who we don’t ever come across with, or problems that don’t originate from my site that are the sources of my problems.  And surely, my relationships both personal and professional do hit their hardships as well but normally it is something greater that is the source.

My final stop of my travels was the weekend after where a group of us gathered in Yamaranguilla, Intibucá just a bit outside of La Esperanza.  I will admit that this is the one site (from my project training group) which I openly am a bit jealous of: it’s a small little town of less than 1500 situated up in the mountains out west and most importantly, it is perhaps the coldest place in all of Honduras.  Now, we gathered for a fellow volunteer’s 30th birthday and so I didn’t spend my time necessarily getting to know the area but simply not sweating at high noon and sleeping comfortably fully-clothed was enough to confirm my initial suspicions of a hint of jealousy.  I do look forward to going back there eventually and getting a better feel for this part of Honduras.

While I was ecstatic to finally leave my region of Honduras, in the end I came back thinking just one thing.  I LOVE MY SITE.  I am happier than ever before that I am in my site and I am head over heels in love with Yuscarán, El Paraíso.  I love that it is still fairly cool; I love that it’s an old Colonial mining town and national monument; I love the local culture; I love being at the foot of a national protected area; I love the size; I love the working possibilities; I love the home I have made for myself; I love the community.   Getting out made more appreciative of what is in.  I stayed in four other volunteer sites and saw many more along the way and realized without a doubt that overall none suit me better than Yuscarán.  Overall, Yuscarán has the amount of character I always imagined a Peace Corps site would have when I was applying from DC and even though that character might not have been the snow-covered village or whatever I initially imagined, there is no denying that Yuscarán still has that kind of character of its own.  Yuscarán is my HOME.

One last time, I deeply apologize for not keeping up with this blog as much as I should but I have so much more to share and hope I will do so soon!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Long Overdue Updates About Work

The good news is that things have been picking up like crazy!  My original counterparts are feeling more comfortable to actually call upon me or solicit my help, I have begun working with another organization – the public library – and they have been really receptive and proactive, and even individual community members are approaching me more than ever.  My planner has actually gone from being practically empty to normally having one or two things on there every work day or two.  Now of course I am happy to have something to do, but also I am trying to use these opportunities as ways to gage the community’s interest.  After all, if your counterpart isn’t actually interested in what you are doing it will ultimately fail no later than the day you leave.

So with the Fundación, for instance, I am putting the tourism initiatives we had in mind down on a second tier to focus a bit more on the management of the biological reserve.  In a previous post I mentioned participating in a workshop for members of the newly formed “La Unión” which is the collaboration between the three municipalities surrounding the reserve (Yuscarán, Oropolí, and Güinope) and they have been continuing their efforts.  We had another workshop just a few weeks later where each municipality identified local problems endangering the long-term environmental and biological well-being of the reserve.  All three municipalities identified forest fires as their primary problem, for us in Yuscarán we also had illegal logging and waste management.  The thing about this workshop though was that I saw my counterparts from the Fundación more passionate than ever and so I knew that here was where together we could most likely be successful.

I was particularly excited about this because there are possibilities for me as a business advisor to help out with the issues of forest fires and waste management.  Already, I have mentioned my intent on starting up recycling initiatives in the town center – which is where the waste management problem is worst – and as for forest fires, from here I began pushing to do more aldea visits where there are several microbusinesses that associate with Fundación.  This is perfect as my counterpart has always wanted me to develop relationships with them and help them with commercialization and business planning but also, simultaneously we can work with these rural groups who are most effected by the forest fires to hopefully inspire better, more sustainable resource use, in this case: land.  As for a starting point, my counterparts seem to be taking a very indirect and, in my opinion, hardly effective manner of trying to reduce forest fires.  So for instance, during the workshop I kept trying to instill the idea that we need to attack the problem directly and if the problem is rural farmers using slash and burn agriculture, we need to find out why they do it and find an alternative.  Now I am no agronomist or agricultural expert, so I really don’t have the answers to this, but as a volunteer I still hope to at least reroute their thinking towards something like this with time to steer them in a better direction.  I do have to say, they have some pretty good tools and knowledge about things, but I just want to see them use it more effectively.

However, for me, I am going to be working more with the microbusinesses and groups in some of these rural areas of the reserve.  In addition to my first rural visits to Cidra and Tablones, I now have also been to Pericon where I went camping for a night with a class of university biology students who were doing a study of flora and fauna, Cordoncillo where I joined the Fundación at a meeting regarding a latrine construction project so I could speak with the president of the women’s group and microbusiness of artisans, as well as Ocotal where I was going to attend a meeting of their women’s group which has two microbusinesses of organic soaps and disinfectants.  Now if there is one thing I have gotten from these visits, it is a reminder that this is Honduras!  Sure a meeting is scheduled and you have a verbal confirmation an hour before, but it doesn’t mean anyone is going to show up; and sure someone is supposedly around the corner waiting for you but it doesn’t mean that they won’t find a reason to have to bail out on you; and sure you have arranged a ride back into town but it doesn’t mean when you call them to check on where they are at that they remembered about promising to pick you up.  So while, thanks to the help of my counterparts, I am getting more active with my aldeas, it doesn’t mean I have made too much progress.  The good news is that relationships and partnerships and avenues for work are being formed.

As for my recycling initiatives, my work at the high school has been on hold for almost a month as I waited for some materials from other recycling projects.  It turns out that there were some tech and computer problems in the processing of sending them, go figure, so it took much longer than necessary but as of the other day, I finally do have them!  So I am looking forward to picking things up at the high school and sharing the materials as a template to help figure out and design something for here in Yuscarán. 

However, as I mentioned before, I have started working with the public library as well and they have shared interest in certain recycling topics as well!  When I learned that the library was very accustomed to doing secondary projects with previous volunteers, I decided to introduce myself and they welcomed me with open arms.  After hearing from them about certain things they were interested in, and even attending a meeting about a library initiative that took place in another municipality (which was a great ice breaker for me with the “board of directors” of the library), we started planning for some activities of our own.  It turns out, between the library members, six graders who regularly go to the library, and other community members, there is a collective interest in learning about carterras de bolsas de churro, or bags/purses made out of chip and snack bags.  So, I am taking this as an opportunity to not only gather people to make crafts from waste and recycled materials, but also to educate about the importance of recycling and good trash management.  I am going to facilitate a meeting next week about the topic and I am really excited to use this as another outlet for the greater recycling projects that through the high school and perhaps eventually the entire community we can do.  But then again, it is still before the meeting so I don’t want to get too excited yet.

As for some of the cultural and tourism related topics that I originally came in looking to push forward, right now I am simply addressing them as they come up and to the extent that counterparts show genuine interest like they have for some of these other things.  Every now and then, the website (for example) will come up and their understanding of it hasn’t been quite right.  I did eventually show my main counterpart a template I made for a more exhaustive site that would include all cultural and tourism related information about Yuscarán and he gave me the go ahead – but I do want to see them take more interest in it other than “we need to write something about the festival coming up” or “write something about this article on the biological reserve.”  Rather, we need an exhaustive set of information that will showcase Yuscarán in a way that will make outsiders want to come and will provide them with the information they need to do so.

Otherwise, I was approached by the Town Councilman and President of the Culture House and Cultural Advisory Board which I have already worked with frequently about writing up a report about the first Festival del Baile de Los Gigantes as well as about executing some of the councilman’s plans – they actually relate strongly to the Fundación and probably the municipal government too, so I am slightly confused on where this all fits in other than sitting around and brainstorming – but they have not followed up with me at all.  I do believe they wrote something about the festival without me (which is good) but as for the other stuff, last time I heard from them was when they didn’t show up for a meeting that they scheduled.  Finally, just the other day I was approached by the guy who coordinates donkey polo as he also is responsible for the gigantes who tour around Honduras.  First, he is inviting me to go with them to some festivals that they will be performing at and second, he wants me to help them get an internet presence through social media.  This is something I hope really works out as it would be fun to travel around on work, great culturally to learn more about local folklore and tradition, plus very beneficial for them and definitely within my capabilities to teach them about getting online.

So more or less, that has been work recently.  Much busier and slowly progressing; so overall, I would say work is good.  The next few weeks should be exciting to see how some of these things pan out.  Will I finally have a successful meeting with a microbusiness in an aldea?  Will we use the materials to design a recycling education, campaign, or program here in Yuscarán?  Will the community members at the library actually want to pursue making crafts and goods from waste?  Will I get to travel around with the gigantes and will we get online?  Hopefully I will have some positive answers to these questions in a few weeks or months.  Meanwhile, I know there is still a lot I need to post on here that I hope to do soon.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Two Months In and Mobile

Just before I hit the two month point, I remember one night when there was no power just sitting outside, passing the time, with nothing to do but think in the darkness.  My train of thought started with the recollection of some of my favorite memories from times when it was dark  I thought about my first night in Nova Scotia watching the sun set over Three Churches in Mahone Bay and then walking the coast back to my hostel towards Lunenburg,  the many nights I spent throughout the UK on trains when I was living in Scotland, first landing at the airport in Iceland and first soaking in the magical aurora of the Reykjanes Peninsula and Reykjavik in darkness as the sun didn’t come up until after 10am, of sailing Arctic Norway under strands of the aurora borealis, or even just midnight monumenting in DC and late night/early morning walks I’d use to take between Foggy Bottom and either Union Station or Regan National Airport.  But other than darkness, I recalled something else than was extremely consistent between all of these good sentiments; an element of mobility.  Walking, sailing, train riding, flying, driving, venturing between places, experiencing something in constant motion, having a place attachment to an airport or train station, all of these memories are reliant on the ability to move and transport oneself from one place to the next.  While this may seem insignificant or not worthy of mentioning as motion is a common element of life, this made me realize how the scope of mobility for the average Honduran –and thus us PCVs here –is almost discernable next to what I, and most first world natives, are accustomed too.

For example, for many people here in Yuscarán, their biggest motion is the two hour bus ride to either Danlí or Tegus maybe a few dozen miles away where they either go to work or university.  Otherwise, virtually their whole life is located and spent locally with only few exceptions.  Of course, for them, this is completely normal and fine.  But I have to admit, it’s a bit troublesome for me as I could not imagine only being able to experience a small, fairly homogenous, portion of the world as I come from the developed US and personally take interest in mobility or experiencing a variety and diversity of places.  It is for this reason that I think perhaps one of the hardest and most depressing things about these first five months in Honduras is that not only was I living in a non-mobile world (which will continue for the rest of my time here), but also as a new volunteer my ability and freedom to be truly mobile and travel outside my region was cut off.  The latter, thankfully, is no more as now that I have completed two months of service, I have regained my ability to act upon my desire to be mobile.  Not only can I (and am I) living alone in my own house, but I can also travel freely outside of the department of El Paraíso, Honduras!

Ever since first landing in Honduras, my entire Peace Corps experience has been spent within just the small area of Honduras between the departments of Francisco Morazán and El Paraíso.  I cannot believe that in five months I haven’t left perhaps a strip of only 50 miles or so.  Therefore, I am more than relieved and excited to resume a mobile lifestyle.  No formal plans yet, but it certainly won’t be long until I make sure to see a new part of this country and vary my place and surroundings.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Months In and Living Solo

This past week marked two months as a volunteer and two very exciting policies: 1. I can move out of host family accommodation and live alone; 2. I can travel overnight outside of my region of Honduras (El Paraíso).  Very exciting changes indeed, this post will be about the first policy and the process/my reflection upon moving out into my own Honduran casita.

In an earlier post, I mentioned beginning to look at houses to rent.  Starting the process was fairly easy for me as there are a ton of houses/apartments to rent in Yuscarán and the community here is very accustomed to PCVs so many people knew I would be looking to find a place to move after my first two months as a volunteer.  (Actually, I think many here are so accustomed that they know the price previous volunteers have paid and know exactly how much Peace Corps is willing to pay as almost every place I heard of had a price tag conveniently equal to my rent limit.)  To further recap, I ended up choosing a full house that is just a short walk up the mountain side from the center of town which boasts awesome views and although it is still close to everything, it’s a bit more tranquil.  Not to mention what walking up and down a mountain several times a day is going to do for my legs and fitness.

But a bit more about the house: it’s a one story (ranch-like) home that from one side to the other has a bedroom, living space, kitchen, and bathroom/washing area.  There isn’t a front yard but rather a very thin porch that runs across the house adjacent to the path that continues through the neighborhood and in back there is a slightly larger, but still thin space going along the house.  Actually on one side of the house there is a second story with an apartment and its own entrance and bathroom/washing area but its vacant and probably will remain that way.  The entire property has been vacant for the past two years.  The floors are made of a type of tile that is very common in Honduras although not particularly smooth and excellent at collecting dust, the walls are concrete covered brick with the exception of part of the washing area which is just brick, I have secure metal doors all with locks, and the ceiling is corrugated metal so it is extremely loud when it rains but I do find the sound a bit therapeutic.  With the exception of a dusty, ancient rolling TV stand and a surprisingly nice set of cabinets in the kitchen, the house was left completely empty for me to furnish (Now accepting old furniture!).  I am on the electric grid and hopefully I will be under 100 watts of usage each month so that the national subsidy will cover me and the electric will be free; and I have cold water from 6am to 6pm every day which is covered by my landlord.  The good news is that as part of the preparations for my tenancy, my landlord installed an electroducha, or electric shower head, so that I do not have to take cold bucket baths (pending both the water and the electricity are working simultaneously of course) as the shower can slightly heat the water to a very tolerable and even enjoyable cool temperature.  I also had my landlord upgrade the windows and window screens plus he made sure to do some repainting and did a pretty thorough cleaning of the house.

So in the weeks leading up to the big move, I was beginning to collect items and buy stuff for the house.  (Peace Corps provides a small readjustment allowance for moving from host family to independent housing but it is only enough to perhaps buy a small fridge or a bed and some sheets.)  In my last post, I wrote about going with some of my host family members and their truck to a nearby site to pick up a bed and stove that was no longer needed by another volunteer and purchasing a refrigerator and water dispenser while I had the truck access.  Also, last week I accompanied my host mother on her weekly Sunday afternoon run to Danlí where she drops off my host brother since he goes to school out there during the week so that I could go to the supermarket and buy some household items, mainly kitchenware, cleaning supplies, and some cheaper/larger quantities of basic condiments and spices.

Also, the approaching weeks were marked by the strain of breaking apart from my host family.  First of all, I think it is very important to recall that I had a slightly different host family experience as rather than start anew with your in-site host family where you can immediately frame a more professional relationship as a volunteer, I chose to remain with my previous host family since my site was also my field-based training site.  I decided to stay with my previous host family as they were more than accommodating and very active which has been extremely helpful for my language and cultural learning.  But something I didn’t foresee was the lack of being able to redefine my role in the house/family as a volunteer rather than a trainee.  Sure I initially tried to be upfront and explain things but with time, my family still saw me equally (which I do not blame them for in the least) as when I was in training, where the lifestyle was more of a kid in middle school than a working adult.  So with time, I definitely became very stressed out with my host family accommodation as I didn’t feel quite able to exercise the extent of autonomy and independence that I was allowed to by Peace Corps.  Perhaps this may foreshadow how, particularly my host-mother, wasn’t particularly encouraging about my move.  At this point, I had long been her son, a full member of the family, where in Honduran culture family matters come before everything including professional obligations – but I am not talking about only big/emergency situations like in American culture.  (Example: my nephew skipped two days of school just to visit his grandmother or my mother, a school director, often doesn’t go to her school just so she can stay at home and cook lunch for her family)  Anyways, although always knowing I would likely move out after two months and saying that she understood that as a US citizen living alone means something completely different and that I am a working professional who should exert my own independence, she was always finding a negative viewpoint towards my move.  First, I should wait for her to finish renovating part of her house which could eventually become a (semi) independent apartment.  Then, it was about how my landlord’s brother’s wife is supposedly a witch and the house therefore is the space of the devil himself.  Plus, even when she tolerated the idea of me moving into my own house she still insisted that I let her hire me a Honduran maid who can cook for me and clean for me (to an extent that I, even as a man, found degrading towards women).   I have mentioned a lot of this already in my previous post, as well as how others were very understanding, so I don’t want to dwell on it rather I think that this is necessary to better frame the situation all at once in her fairness.  (Also, my family had not previously hosted a volunteer.)

What is new and worth mentioning is that this weekend, the move out weekend, she ultimately was very warm and helpful, turning her concept of me as her son in a more favorable way.  Regarding this witch claims, she decided that thanks to the blood of Jesus, I should be fine, and she trusts that I am not going to further summon the devil to my house.  As for overall independence, while I am unsure whether she understands independence in an American way, she has stopped rebutting my ideas and rather instead is continually offering more constructive help such as teaching me to cook, taking me around to stores where I can buy some needed items, getting me in touch with movers, and she even has finally visited the house saying the house itself is very nice and most recently she even came over at the last minute to help me with a loose pipe that was flooding the house.  And most enjoyable, even when I just now went by the house to check-in and ask a quick question, she insisted that I have a small item or two of hers stating “we are family and family help each other out.”  It was at this point that for the first time in a while, rather than being angry and not wanting to cut slack on my end when it came to cultural tolerance, that I had to admit well this is something pretty beautiful about Honduran culture and even if it makes me a little uncomfortable because of my American culture (extreme gifting that is), it was very much my turn to cut some slack. 

Plus, the helpfulness and welcoming of others extended even outside of my family to my neighbors; here neighbors aren’t just the adjacent houses but rather everyone in your neighborhood.  I had been visiting my house and neighborhood several times before either just to prepare or to see my landlord when he was in town making some arrangements, so between that and the gossipy nature of Honduran culture, I had met many people in the neighborhood, already new a few, and many more probably were aware I was going to be moving in.  So not only was my landlord, his family, and his friends (many of which are from the neighborhood) helpful, so was nearly everyone who crossed my path.  Everyone in passing seemed to make sure to say hi and talk a little, I particularly enjoyed when a teacher I have worked with in my neighborhood told me “Welcome to Neighborhood Tranquil” as if that was how the locals knew it, and my favorite was when a bunch of the school kids in my neighborhood not only made sure to talk and get further acquainted but also offered to help me set some stuff up and clean up.  I had made another Danlí run in the morning to go to the supermarket as well as the Honduran version of Marshall’s where I brought back some more stuff and these kids, my new neighbors, all within seconds were practically setting up the house for me.  Between the group of them, within minutes the floors for swept and mopped, my clothes hangers were set up with the bard properly mounted in the wall, my fridge temporarily moved to where the outlet is for now, and the sheet I brought was cut up and placed to make curtain-doors for the bedroom and bathroom.  (I meanwhile set up the shower curtain I bought which worked out perfectly.)  The idea of an open-door policy and welcoming, good neighbors is more than applicable here.  Certainly I have already observed that, but it was another refreshing moment and glimpse into some of the great things about Honduran culture to finally experience it for myself.

So this brings me to live as of now in my house.   One of the big things for me right now is figuring out how to keep clean and keeping out our little crawling friends.  I will sweep the floors or wash the kitchen counters and just five minutes later dirt and evidence of wildlife seems to recollect and I feel like I need to clean.  Something about running water being cloudy just doesn’t make me feel terribly clean even though I am supposed to be using that to wash dishes and clothes.  And while from the outside the walls and the ceiling look flush, still the insects always find a way to break and enter.  The only thing that really is worrisome is that I have an ant infestation.  They never come out until after sunset so that must be why I was a bit shocked at first.  That first night, I put a jihad on those little buggers and thanks to a bottle of Raid I had bought, between that and sheer force, I conjured a pile of dead ant pieces.  Really it’s not so bad as other than a few Gryffindor types (in celebration of the Harry Potter 7 – Part 2 release) who go exploring in the house, they all stick to the region of their home.  And finally, I located the opening to their residence – some cracking in the roof of the door between the bathroom and kitchen.  Unfortunately, my Raid bottle was long gone by the time I located this so I will have to wait until I get another (I also am feeling tempted to just tape the opening shut and see if that helps at all).  Clearly, I am no extermination or carpentry expert but I am hoping that killing off a couple hundred ants might consider them to relocate.  You know, think of the safety of your children. 

Other than that, I have had several types of spiders (one is literally called the “hairy spider” and it actually looks more like a flatter scorpion to me), a grasshopper, a couple of worms (when it rains), moths, a few types of tiny flying bugs which I am trying not to admit to myself are probably mosquitoes and will be the buggers responsible for giving me dengue eventually, and one gecko (they don’t bother me and they eat bugs, but I don’t like that something that big got in).  Insects are the one thing I do not like about the open-door policy here as my front door is currently screenless (something I hope to change) and the window in the living room is not adequately screened.  Hopefully I can get some help from the PC office, or get crafty on this one.  But all around, I feel better here as when I am in bed I do not feel like I being attacked my bugs all the time and don’t find myself killing dozens of insects on my computer screen where the light attracts them.  On the immediate agenda, however, is to exterminate that ant home and find a way to hand my mosquito net just to be safe.  The one long term thing will be that I am certainly going to have to clean a lot and take a lot of measures in order to ensure that I feel and act in a sanitary and hygienic way.

Of course, another big change is beginning to cook for myself.  In my most recent supermarket run, I did buy some food to get me started.  It is the same here as it was in DC, go to the supermarket and buy things in bulk and you will save a ton!  Since I am still without a functioning oven, I didn’t want to buy anything too fancy and kept it to the basics and stuff that won’t go bad.  I am proud to admit that I bought some real deli meats including, perhaps one of the foods I have been without and missed the most since getting here, American cheese.  But I must say, I plan on expanding my cooking abilities from sandwiches and microwavable foods to include actual meat and pasta dishes etc.  Let it be known now, I will learn to cook.  Plus, while I can still enjoy some of by basic eats that got me through college, and sort of microwavable food here is extremely expensive. 

As for the sentiment of living here in this house, immediately I am slightly thwarted and perhaps slightly depressed by the emptiness of the house.  But of course, this is something that will be going away day by day as I fill the house.  For now, my bedroom is simply my bed, the left behind TV stand which is keeping my stuff off the floor, and my make-shift hanger rack; the living room is completely bare except for my water dispenser and fridge (for now) until I get the proper outlet installed in the kitchen; the kitchen isn’t so empty between the built in counters and sink (still need to get it properly connected), the left behind cabinet which are holding virtually all of my stuff, and my oven which is also dormant until I get the proper connection installed; and then the washroom is a separate little room for the toilet (which the piping seems loose and has exploded twice already), the space for the pila which is a giant water tank with washboards to do laundry and dishes etc., and the separate little shower room.  The only other thing that will require a bit of adjustment will be getting used to the pure solitude at night.  Already I understand why PCVs read and watch movies all the time.  But between all the books I am securing, the movies and TV shows that go around the volunteer community, and even trying to wiggle my way into some online classes, I am trying to find ways to keep myself busy for those nights when I will be stuck alone in the house with barely functioning internet and can’t go outside because it is raining (for example).

More importantly, there are a TON of GREAT sentiments right now regarding this change in lifestyle.  First of all, all of the things that were stressing me out from living with my host family are now null and void or within my control to limit.  Feeling like I was being Evangelized all day, not having control over the quality and quantity of food I eat no matter what I say, being treated as though I am not an adult, not having a true space of my own, and having to adhere to a few household norms that personally I find erroneous and immoral; all of these are things of the past.  I can now go a day without being preached to my Evangelical TV or radio; when I say I am not hungry, no more please, or no I would not like ketchup on my pasta I can now not eat, not put an extra plate in front of me, and not echa la salsa over my food.  When I have to go to Danlí or make a Tegus run, I won’t get chastised because I didn’t get permission first; I will not be woken up in the morning by my nephew barging into my room and asking to borrow my stuff which he doesn’t ever return; and in my house we will not observe the norm of when you want to listen to something in the same room as someone else just do it louder than everyone else that is already going about their business.  Certainly, there were benefits to living with a host family but I don’t see those ending completely just because I am living a five minute walk away.  After all, as they tell me “we are family.”  I absolutely plan on making regular visits and perhaps having the occasional meal at their house.  And I can still ride with them to Morocelí and Danlí for example and join them occasionally for events.  But now it is all in moderation and in my control.  There is no need to burn that bridge and now I can maintain it on my own terms.

I will end this here for now by saying that this Monday morning, my first work day living in my house, I finally christened my adulthood by waking up in my own place, getting ready, and walking to work on a cool early morning.  All of this, too, was extremely enjoyable as it was relaxed and completely independent.  Surely this seems insignificant but this is the first time since graduating that I am working as both an adult professional and resident.  Now to enjoy adulthood (more or less) for the rest of life…that is, until I go back to school and live fake life again.  Territoriality is already making this experience immensely better and the benefits are only going to increase with time.  Recall that I also regain mobility benefits as well and I will update about those soon.

For now, cheque pues!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Past Two Weeks

So the week after Donkey Polo, progressed pretty smoothly.  As predicted, I immediately noticed even more school kids and community members shouting my name at me (a typical Honduran greeting) thanks to the public-face time of the game.  I just wish I knew their names too.  But also, that Wednesday through Friday I participated in a taller, or workshop, that my nonprofit was hosting here at the Culture House.  The taller was being run by GIZ, the German version of USAID, and was being put on for community leaders across "La Union", which is the three adjacent municipalities of Yuscarán, Oropolí, and Güinope that have land within the greater protected area of Biologica Reserva Monserrat.  The theme of the taller was Ecosystemic Services which refer to the services that people use that come from local physical and environmental resources (i.e. water, meals, medicine, ecotourism, etc.).

First there was a brief introduction on climate change and although it was very brief and not particularly informative I enjoyed how it framed the concept of climate change into mitigating it now, by altering our present day-to-day actions, and adapting to the effects that our prior actions have caused.  From there it dove deep into the different types of ecosystemic services, as they called them.  Not too much info on each, but rather the majority of time was spent with the members of each municipality working together as a group and doing exercises in order to identify those services which are most important to the local population and are in need of action.  In my opinion, very little actions will actually arise after this (unfortunately) and something I noticed during many of our conversations that I have noticed before is an emphasis and deep concern for plans and forgetfulness about the important, following actions.  When talking about any sustainability initiative, everyone here starts talking about “el plan de manejo” or the management plan and yet, it seems as though they get so engrained in paper and documents that the actions and necessities for the future that such a management plan lays out are forgotten.  At the end of the day, the thing that is not going to bring about a sustainable difference is actual actions taken, not drawing up a management plan; while yes, a management plan is a great tool to have to help outline those actions, it is not an ending point but rather a starting point and unfortunately, it seems as though many work towards a goal and endpoint of having a management plan rather than executing it.

After all of the conversations and presentations in the Culture House, we went on some excursions for a bit of field-based learning.  First, we did a trip to an aldea (the outlying tiny villages of municipal centers which are known for the harder living conditions, poor accessibility, poverty, lack of education, and normally consist of extremely small populations of campecinos or rural agricultural workers).  The aldea we visited was Tablones and this was the second aldea of Yuscarán I have been to.  Now we may have been going out there to visit a cooperative, but what I took most from the visit was an even newer sense of appreciation for the beauty of the geography and topography of Yuscarán.  However, I am going to save these details for later when I can also post some pictures.  Second, we took the trip up to the peak of Cerro Monserrat, the mountain in the protected area that overshadows the center of Yuscarán, and this was my second time up there.  If you recall my thoughts from the first time around, the abysmal condition of the road as it climbs the near 1000 meters up the mountainside combined with a Honduran truck and Honduran driver make for a very scary experience.  It was a bit less scary this time as the truck and driver seemed much more trustworthy but the weather conditions made it a bit interesting.  I hadn’t even thought about it looking up at the mountain before we started the journey, but the clouds that covered the top portion of the mountain were pouring down rain and when we entered the cloud level on the road rain was pelting the car, visibility was nearly nothing, and to no surprise the car didn’t have functioning fog lights or A/C to defog the windshield.  All the meanwhile, as I panic silently in my seat one of my Honduran counterparts was playing Bob Marley “Everything is gonna be alright…” which did add a little bit of humor to the situation.  Needless to say, I am still alive.  Again, this experience brought addition appreciation for the beauty of this place but again I will also wait until I have the pictures to post to say more.

The following week, however, ended up being bit less, well, pleasant.  (I apologize in advance for any reference to bowel movements but here in Honduras they are commonly and appropriately a part of everyday conversation)  On and off I had been having some digestive issues and let’s just say when they reached an all-time low I ended up going into Tegus to see the Peace Corps Medical Officers (or PCMOs).  I got in Tuesday afternoon, did some tests and spent the night in Tegus to await the lab results and take action in the morning.  While being sick isn’t necessarily fun, it was fun to spend the night in Tegus.  Everyday volunteers are passing in and out of the Peace Corps office and having spent a large portion of two days there, I got to see a lot of other volunteers including a few old friends from training which was nice.  For those volunteers who happened  to be staying that night in Tegus, we met up and went out for some real food and I gladly ate an appetizer sampler at TGI Fridays even though it was way out of my budget and I couldn’t eat the whole thing being sick.  The next day, I got my lab results and it was confirmed I had a bacterial infection – probably from something I ate, perhaps accidental consumption of the public water in something – and it would be three days of rest, meds, rehydration salts, and a restricted diet.  The last thing I did in Tegus was before hoping on the bus back to Yuscarán, there is a mega-supermarket across the street so I bought some bottled water and (needing something like crackers to snack-on according to my restricted diet) a bag of cheese and garlic flavored croutons.  Yes, I admit it, and I ate the whole bag straight and it was absolutely amazing.  Perhaps when I do occasional grocery runs later I should just go to Tegus instead of Danlí; it is a little further, but the bus only costs a nickel more roundtrip and there are more buses plus the supermarket right there at the bus station has much more options than Danlí and I could even run to the PC Office if I wanted to.  Anyways, three days later and I was feeling perfectly fine.  I took back some books with me to read in my rest and I took a break from my normal nonfiction/historical/textbook reading and started, yes, the Harry Potter series again!  Now, less than a week later I am already well into the fourth book.  I don’t care if I am a college graduate and I have read them before, the Harry Potter books are still awesome and make for a fun, relaxing, easy read.

Come Saturday I was up and active again.  I have received approval from my project manager to move into the mountain home I wanted (YES!) and all is confirmed with my landlord to move Saturday, July 16th.  We do receive a small stipend to help us with the moving and settling-in costs but basically its only enough to buy either a bed or a small-fridge.  So having to furnish the home, I am joining in on the PCV tradition of taking furniture from prior volunteers.  There is a volunteer in my region who actually is moving out of her apartment and therefore, she offered some of her things for another volunteer to take and I was luckily enough to get her bed and oven.  So I arranged with one of my host brothers who owns a truck to take me out there to pick up the stuff and Saturday he, another one of my brothers, one of my nephews, and I made the journey.  To my surprise, it was a full-sized truck and not just a pickup like I presumed it would have been so I had my first experience in a truck.  The site we were visiting was actually a bit larger and had some good retail opportunities so already having the truck to use, I made sure to do some shopping and bought a refrigerator and a water dispenser as those are also must haves.  I need to thank my grandfather and parents though as they made some generous donations to help me afford furnishing the house – as you can imagine a fridge is not cheap.  But other than that, all this and I only had to pay for gas (which still was very expensive) and a fried chicken lunch I treated us to as a thank you to my family who helped me out all day.  All in all, things are progressing very well towards moving in.

*I was worried that my host mother was going to take the news pretty harshly but it was ok.  Although she is still offering her house to me all the time and telling me I can live in a space of the house that is currently being renovated.  Plus, while I don’t understand it completely there is some nonsense about my house being formally occupied by witches and not safe/needing of leaning with the blood of Christ.  I finally got her to realize that she was thinking of another house as my house has been unoccupied for the past two years and the name of my landlord who owns the house is not the name of the owner of the witch house.  Although now she is saying that my landlord is the brother of the witch house owner (even though she earlier admitted she doesn’t know him) and the house still isn’t clean.  The important part is she is telling me she understands that moving out is my decision, that for me (as a Estadounidense) it means something different to live alone, and if I ever need I can always come back.

Then Sunday was pretty eventful too.  Earlier in the week, before I had to go to Tegus, I had visited the family of my mother’s church’s pastor as I have been well introduced to them and get along with them very well.  After a bunch of us were talking, we made arrangements to have a lunch date and treat ourselves to sopa de mariscos, or shellfish soup, and Sunday was the day.  It was the first time I had shrimp and crab in Honduras and although it certainly wasn’t as good and had less meat, it was still much appreciated.  Afterwards, I played a bit with Pastor’s three kids whom are the best kids I have met in Honduras by far and finally, walked the youngest back to their house.  On my way back, I ran into some of the other younger guys from my family’s church and the invited me out to play futbolito with them.  Gladly I went and it was the first time I had played since training.  When we got to the court in the municipality office, some of the guys who we used to play with were finishing their game.  But just as we started our game the clouds swept right through the town and it started to rain.  Having finally gotten the court, we didn’t care and kept playing.  Eventually, we were all drenched and were sliding all over the place and having trouble kicking the ball through the forming puddles.  So the game turned a bit more informal and the whole thing just turned into a giant laughing fest and was a whole lot of fun.  Luckily (and surprisingly), no one got hurt but nevertheless, the whole thing was a great experience.

Now, I am getting back to work.  I am sure it is even apparent on this blog but the thing that has been progressing slowest has certainly been “work” and the actual development part.  It is totally normal for all volunteers but I really just want to get some actual projects off the ground already.  You know, have more purpose in my 9-5 portion of the day (or well, the Honduran version of 9-5).  Things seem to be slowest with the nonprofit as it’s a lot of sitting and filling space.  While I came in with the website project to pick-up, I haven’t been receiving much interest or understanding on the other side of things.  However, just this morning my counterpart there finally mentioned to me about doing a business plan for the organization.  I had told him when he wanted to work on it to let me know as we would do it together (not just me doing it and handing a document over to him as that won’t do anything) and so it seems as there is a sign of activity to come.  Personally, business plans aren’t my favorite idea of work but I like it because it will help outline the smaller things, actions, projects, etc. to do over the next years.  And as I mentioned before, having a management plan is not the end point but just the starting point and hopefully by us developing a plan we can then finally progress into doing something of substantive developmental value.  Then, as I mentioned in another post, a need and genuine interest in recycling has been identified at the high school which shows a lot of potential for future success.  It has been slow, but networking with other volunteers who have done similar projects I have identified the materials I need to get started and so now it is just a matter of getting a hold of things.  Still not sure when and how I will do this, but I know what I need to do and where to find it.  All in all, work is still progressing slowly but it is progressing at that is the important part.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Awesomely Eventful One Month Anniversary

This past weekend marks the one month mark of being a PCV and there were many things that happened to make it a memorable one.  Particularly, it was the Primer Festival del Baile de Los Gigantes, which more or less was my first (hardly) major project here on site.  This particular festival is a tribute to one of Yuscarán’s many traditions, the “gigantes” or “gigantones” or “mohigangas,” which are giant man made figurines that parade around and dance (via people under them) at festivities.  The tradition started in the 1980s and since it has evolved into an appearance by the gigantes at every town festivity as well as that the gigantes tour all over Honduras for other municipalities’ festivals and they have become a bit of an icon here.  So finally, Yuscarán has added a festival to commemorate the gigantes themselves and the first annual festival was the weekend.  Now of course this was something in the works by the municipality long since I have been here, but as a member of the Consejo Local de la Cultura, or the local culture advisory board/committee, and having been working with the local culture house, I actually got to play a role in the event.


The dancing "gigantes"


Now this being my first time being an active part of a town festivity, it was also a learning experience for me to understand concepts of timeliness, responsibility, directness, and event planning in Honduran culture.  For example, Friday afternoon the day before the festival began I discovered that we didn’t have some of the materials we needed for one of the main events and that we were overpaying for another necessity and therefore, couldn’t buy the materials and by the way, the overpaid for materials aren’t even as much as we wanted so we will only be able to accommodate fewer people at a time.  With this particular event being my responsibility, I immediately get really anxious and nervous and am thinking the worst.  Meanwhile, my Honduran counterpart seems care-free, in no hurry, and isn’t even bothering to look for a solution.  All I can think is ‘what are you doing’ and similar things, although probably with a less appropriate vocabulary.  The details of the problem resolution process aren’t to particularly exciting, but yes somehow we made things work and what I learned from the experience is:

1.       It is not about the now and it is not about procrastination but rather, all that matters is that come time for the event all is well.  It is perfectly fine to resolve a problem with only seconds to spare as well as with a few hours to spare.

2.       It is fun to laugh at stressed out people.  When the Gringo is red in the face from stress, let’s question him and laugh about the fact that he is worried about the current state of things.

3.       Others don’t particularly care when somebody is irresponsible in the sense we know as professionals in the states.  They just keep progressing as they can.

4.       Being flexible is fine and there is nothing wrong with changing things at the last second if it means making something work differently than you may have expected.

While this experience was very frustrating, I will admit this last point was something that I was very pleased to discover and something I personally can strive to do better myself.  Flexibility is always key!  And you know what?  What we changed actually, I think, worked better than what we initially planned.  By this point, you must be dying to know what this event is that I am talking about.  Well, it’s…

DONKEY POLO
(POLO EN BURRO)

Now what is Donkey Polo?  Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like!  A game of polo – but on donkeys!  Back in the 90s PCVs at the time and my site started a tradition of their very own, that would be a collaboration between Peace Corps and my very site, where head to head PCVs would play against local Hondurans in a game of donkey polo.  It has been such a success, that the event has grown in popularity and has now been happening for 16 years.  The game is played on donkeys, bareback, with man-made clubs made out of tree branches and worn broom handles, in the municipality futbolito court (a basketball court with two small goals on either end for street soccer) which has two floors of overlooking balconies and stands for people to watch from, with a futbolito ball (a miniature soccer ball).  So all together, you really get a sense of that third-world, Honduran character.  In years past, the game has been played during town festivals, has brought in all types of media and attention, and had united PCVs from across Honduras.

Therefore, my main project these past few weeks has been recruiting PCVs to play and I was very pleased and extremely relieved to have over 20 volunteers come out for the game.  While I was distracted from some of the general activities of the festival to help host my PCV companions and to enjoy their company – spending just a little time with other PCVs can never be overrated as they are the only people who can truly understand what you are going through, thank you guys for coming out again – come time for the game, it was go time.  Some of the group members were trying to strategize a bit, my favorite idea of which was to use a carrot on a string in front of your donkey to get it to move but that idea actually ended up backfiring at bit.  But all in all, the PCV team was full of donkey-riding novices of all different ages, sizes, and genders.  On the other hand, the Honduran team must have been full of expert campecino donkey herders, all of which were young, fit men.  So you can already start to predict the outcome.

The game itself was an absolute riot!  Imagine trying to balance yourself on a donkey, trying to get it to move in the direction you want (let alone getting it to move at all), while you are simultaneously are playing polo.  Either the donkey doesn’t move at all, or it is out of control, or it is only interested in the genitalia of its donkey friend, or it is going to the bathroom normally.  The gringos, we were all hysterical out there trying to play the game while the Hondurans were putting us to shame.  We started picking up on their signals for getting the donkeys to do what they wanted but even those somehow didn’t work to well for us.  Then, the Hondurans also were very violent with the donkeys having no shame to smack them as hard as possible with their sticks – they would even hit our donkeys on the opposing team!  So within seconds the Hondurans were dominating while the gringos were fumbling around trying to figure out how to get their donkeys to work.  There were four quarters to the game in which we switched out volunteers each quarter.  The entire first half of the game I spent laughing hysterically at the site.  During, halftime there was a performance by the “gigantes” and then the third quarter I played.  And just like everyone else before me, I struggled immensely.  I think I was lucky in that my donkey would move pretty easily but what I wasn’t expected was for my butt to hurt so much!  After my brief 15 minutes on the donkey, it felt like I could barely walk!

But aside from the butt pain, it was at this point I realized how awesome of an experience this is.  Between doing something as ridiculous as playing polo on donkeys, the hundreds of screaming spectators, the gigantes, the live traditional music that was being played by some local Hondurans, having the company of other like-minded PCVs, and the rest of the ambiance of the event, this may have been an all-time high for me so far in my Peace Corps experience.  Sure I didn’t necessarily develop anything, but being a part of something so culturally rich that signifies a two-way commitment between my Honduran community and Peace Corps is still something to be proud of and it is these types of experiences that make all of the hardships of being a PCV worth it.


(Above) Third quarter of the game.  Surprisingly, you see the ball (mid-left against the fence) and me as the player closest to it.   However, you can also see the Honduran player who is slowly but surely about to pass me on the right for the ball.

(Below) The PCVs of Team USA/Gringo! Thank you guys for coming!





As for the rest of the festival, there were several parades and dances by the gigantes, several music groups came in including a famous Honduran marimba band, a Saturday night dance, and there was a pretty decent soccer game in the town stadium.  The game was between Yuscarán, as the current champion of El Paraíso, against Alianza, the champion of Olancho.  Unfortunately, Yuscarán lost and therefore will not continue in the post-season of the league.  But on top of this, I very much enjoyed the company of over 20 fellow PCVs throughout the weekend as it was only the second time I really got the chance to see other volunteers over the past month.  However, as an incentive to recruit volunteers, I took a group of the others to get a tour of the guaro factory.  Again, guaro - which is short for aguardiente - is the national (alcoholic) drink, of Honduras - and the most famous/popular producer is Yuscarán, which is a brand and factory of guaro here on site.  Not so much in my site (thankfully) but in other parts of Honduras, particularly the "Lencan Trail" region, alcoholism is a huge problem with many men.  Thus, just everywhere you go you can find at least one or two town drunks, or "bolos".  So between the combination of adoration for Yuscarán guaro and the abundance of bolos and boloism you encounter in Honduras, its almost as though you could consider it the mecca of Honduran culture (?) to see the factory and the cause of this Honduran phenomenon.  Now this was my second time in the factory and I must admit I was much more impressed.  As always, I tried the samples of the different types of guaro from your amaretto, honey infused brand to the strongest line that is 45% and even the second time, they were still all disgusting.  Going through the loading dock of the factory,  I was taken aback by just how much guaro there was there and thinking about just how quickly it will go - and they don't even export guaro because the national demand is enough to sell the factory's production capacity!  But at the end of the day, the factory is just another little piece of Yuscarán-ian culture that makes this such a unique place.    


Its a shame I'm not a bolo, but if I were, this is what I would look like!
Drink Guaro? It's disgusting and only found in Honduras...


But in addition to all of the festivities, this past weekend was also productive for me in two ways.  One, simply doing something/being named responsible for something and seeing it to fruition in the public eye will hopefully be a good step for me professionally.  This should help me further integrate, receive more confianza from community members, and make me more known publicly in general.  Second, this weekend I mad the necessary arrangements to begin the moving out process from host family to single living arrangements!  Sunday I met with a landlord from Tegus who has a property to rent here in Yuscarán.  He and his family drove in to meet me and show me around the house.  The house itself is located a bit up the mountainside, maybe a 10 minute walk from the park going up/5 minutes down,  just a bit above the roads via a cobblestone path.  The part I want to rent is a single story home (ranch-style like) that contains a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and the equivalent of a bathroom going from one side to the other.  There is a small outdoor area behind the house to hang laundry and a thin porch going along the front of the house.  The best part, being up the mountainside the entire front of the house just looks out into the horizon with awesome views of the valley and mountains to the south.  With the landlord and his family – whom by the way were all very friendly and receptive to me – I set up preliminary arrangements for them to begin to clean out the house and prep it for me to move-in in four weeks when I will be eligible to move out of my host family’s house.  The house has actually been unoccupied for the past two years, so it was certainly dirty in there, which is best captured by the dead tarantula that was in the sink.  I should also say that the landlord is making sure there is a functioning shower in the house, but simultaneously there is only cold water available for select hours in the morning and evening.  This is pretty standard for Honduras.



Zoomed-in on just a part of the vista from the front of my potential house!



So at this point, I have sent in the required forms to get approval to move out and hopefully, it will be approved as is.  At first, I never thought I would be so anxious to move out of my host family’s house, after all I did choose to stay with them for the second time after swearing-in, but now as a volunteer that I have control over my own schedule again, living with a host family really gets in the way of independence.  Plus at the end of the day, I admit sometimes I just want to have my own space and quiet and that just doesn’t happen with my host family.  But most of all, I realize a lot of the petty stressors I have right now are actually associated with being in my host family’s house.  The constant 24/7 pressure to eat more, get a girlfriend, and all around live a lifestyle that is more in harmony with their religious beliefs, it is starting to add up to be a substantial nuisance.  That on top of some Honduran traditions in the home that don’t line up with those I am accustomed to – for example, eating everything in the fridge even if someone else bought it and putting on the radio or TV over someone else’s music while in the same room – not to say it is wrong, it is just different. 

To conclude, it was indeed a very productive and eventful weekend and first month anniversary of service.  Reflecting, I certainly feel day-to-day like I am doing nothing at all, but looking at the whole month a lot did actually occur.  As for the next month, I just want to try and be more proactive and hopefully contribute more in general.  But as they always say here in Honduras, vamos a ver! (We will see!) After all, if you include my period here during training, I've already been here two and half months and not just one.