Monday, January 30, 2012

Life in the loud zone

Once upon a time - was it really just two weeks ago? - my partner and I were private people who lived a contained and quiet existence in a little house tucked into a quiet little corner of Esquimalt. We weren’t exactly trapped in our routines, but we certainly had plenty of them, and several centred around plenty of quiet hours to pursue our various quiet interests.
No more. On this particular night, which is not so different from any other night since we arrived in our Honduran homestay a week ago, I’m sitting on the couch under the glare of those nasty (but efficient) twisty light bulbs that are so common in Latin American countries, struggling to write a blog entry amid the many high-speed Spanish conversations going on all around me.
Where once we had a whole house to ourselves, now we have a spare bedroom in Esmeralda’s house. She tells us she lives alone - her husband works out of town and is here only intermittently - but in fact there’s an ever-changing cast of characters who are in and out of this place from morning to night.
Two of Esmeralda’s daughters live with their own families on either side, and for all intents and purposes this is their house, too. Right now, one of the daughters and her husband are sitting on the porch talking, the other daughter is in the kitchen, three small boys are running in and out while throwing balls at each other, and the neighbour just wandered in. Aaron, Esmeralda’s youngest grandson, is six months old and spends more time here than in his mother’s house, and has taken a particular shine to my partner.
There’s also a niece - I think she’s related to the husband of Esmeralda’s oldest daughters and two other girls of about 15, who appear to share the bedroom across the hall from us. Esmeralda’s youngest daughter lives about a block away and is a regular at the house as well, along with her husband and a sweet three-year-old girl named Nimsi.
Every night around 7 p.m., a young man arrives to eat at the kitchen counter. I wondered if he was a relative, or maybe a boyfriend of one of the teenage girls. But no, he rents a room in one of the houses and likes Esmeralda’s cooking. Minutes ago, another couple who I’ve never seen before passed through the house with a small child; earlier today, a different couple was sitting on the couch when we came back from a walk.
Like I said, we’ve got our own bedroom, and it’s got a locking door. But a small bedroom in an uninsulated house, with slat windows that are virtually always open, is not exactly what you’d call private. Like it or not, we wake up whenever the first member of this three-house complex wakes up, and many nights drift to sleep to the sounds of one woman or another scrubbing clothes or washing dishes just outside our window at the stone pila that’s a fixture of every Honduran household. And did I mention the many, many barking dogs that wander the streets at night? I can't even be angry at them, poor sick, skinny, pathetic things that they are.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not complaining. We were due for a change, and damn it, we got one. I can’t think of a better way to get the hang of Honduran culture than to be thrown into it like startled babies into the deep end of the swimming pool.
The kids on the street are already calling out our names as we pass now. Our Spanish is improving by leaps and bounds, as you’d expect when fragments of it are being called out from one end of the house to the other on a more or less constant basis. By the time we move into our own place in three or four weeks, we’re going to have this thing down.
No, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. But what the heck.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

This is why people pray

I went to church last night - not my usual Friday night activity by a long shot. But when in Honduras, why not do as the Hondurans do? Besides, it just didn’t seem right to turn down the invitation of Esmeralda, the bon vivant who owns the house where we’re staying.
Honduras is predominantly Catholic, but evangelical faiths are on the rise. Charismatic churches like the one we attended - the tin-roofed Renovacion Cristiana, filled on this night with a congregation so young as to be the envy of any traditional church in Canada - are catching on with a population that has clearly taken to the warmth of the evangelical movement.
My fragile grasp of Spanish was no match for the fire-and-brimstone style of the pastor. The overheads featuring biblical quotes in Spanish taxed my reading skills to the max. I was baptised in the United Church but never did see much church-going in my childhood and beyond, so no surprise that a high-speed Spanish sermon from the Book of Apocalypse (I don’t think I even knew there WAS a Book of Apocalypse) turned out to be virtually incomprehensible to me.
But I had no problem feeling the mood in the room. It was church Honduran-style - babies wriggling in their mothers’ arms, children wandering about, a rapturous woman up front dancing in that limby, freestyle way that I’ve come to associate with music festivals.
Young women knelt with their foreheads on the floor, eyes clenched shut in surrender to whatever private pain gripped them. Muscled young men raised their hands in the air in supplication. The songs were melodic and joyous, with none of that Gregorian chant feel of the standard hymn.  When the time came for the collection, people with nothing to give dug lempiras out of their pockets all the same.
Life and death is anything but theoretical in Honduras. Poverty, sorrow and loss are regular visitors at most Honduran homes, a reality that has shaped the culture into one that lives for the moment.
 It would be naive of me to romanticize this life, or say something trite about how Hondurans being poor but happy. Basics like public education, public health care and even consistently clean and available water are certainties only for Hondurans with money, of which there are precious few.
Civic infrastructure is hodge-podge and in many cases absent. Car-eating potholes are common on even the largest of freeways. Books for children are a rare treat, and routine dental care is still a dream. Distributing cocaine coming in from South America is a major economic driver, and the violence the industry brings with it has left Hondurans with few certainties around personal security. 
Yet there’s something vibrant here. This is a country where people grab life by both hands and hold on tight, because there’s just no saying how long any of it is going to last.
They praise the Lord because He’s all they’ve got, and it moves me.

Friday, January 27, 2012

No easy education for Honduran children

No school for these Copan Ruinas kids

Wouldn’t you know it, a cold followed me down to Honduras. Or was it that sniffly little five-year-old who spends most of his days here at our homestay with his abuela - his grandma? So it goes. It’s always the kids that get you.
Speaking of which, I now see an area where we might be able to do something significant in Honduras. The public education system here is ludicrous; my teacher at the Spanish school, whose husband teaches in the public system, tells me he has 90 students in his class (whoa, how would the BC Teachers Federation react to THAT??), ranging in age from 5 to 11. No wonder the country has got serious problems.
There are private schools here, but it costs $100 to $150 a month to send your child to one. If you’re a minimum-wage-earner ($200 a month), obviously that’s not even in the zone. But what if I could help connect a few decently heeled British Columbians to families in Honduras with school-age children? For less than what it costs to pay for cable and Internet for a month in our land, they could support a Honduran child to get a decent education.
I’ll be working with Cuso International and the Comision deAccion Social Menonita here in Copan Ruinas. Educating youngsters isn’t part of the plan for my placement - my work with that organization will be around communications, as they’re a 30-year-old agency with a ton of good work under their belt but little written history to show for it.
But as long as I’m here, I sense an opportunity to get involved in  other interesting projects. And what could be better than trying to help educate the next generation of Hondurans? Educated people earn more, demand more from their governments, and are better able to prepare their own children for more of the same. If my partner and I can play any role in that, I’d count this year or two in Honduras as a major success.
My partner and I had already been talking about what we might do on that front when we met a young Honduran at the fiesta the other night who has the same idea. He’s an archaeologist with six years of study in the U.S. under his belt, and a native of Copan Ruinas who really wants to help the children of his home town get a better education. With his knowledge of the families in this small town and our connection to people in B.C. who might love the chance to contribute to good works in a very direct way, what’s to lose?
At the homestay where we’re camped out in a spare bedroom for the next month, the nine-year-old grandson of the owner is already speaking pretty good English as a result of being sponsored to attend the Mayatan private school, which we passed yesterday morning on our visit to one of the fincas - coffee plantations - that dot the mountainsides around here. His family could never have afforded that school if it weren’t for a wealthier family that stepped up to help young Carlos, whose father was killed in San Pedro Sula two years ago.
But that school is populated by Canadian and American teachers. The archaeologist we spoke with sees an opportunity to create similar sponsorship programs at some of the other private schools, creating more stable employment for Honduran teachers as well as better education for the students.
We’re going to talk with him more about that in the weeks to come, so stay tuned. Maybe you, too, will see a role for yourself in this project.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

At the Fiesta

Esmeralda, our host

I had a moment last night. A young woman who is part of this big Honduran family we now find ourselves enfolded in was having her birthday, and I was asked to play my accordion as part of the celebration.
Truth be known, people don’t ask me to play my accordion too often. But the 20 or so family members stuffed into the little place next door turned out to be absolutely delighted to hear me play, especially the six or seven children who gathered close to stare at the accordion like a creature from space.
Having read nothing but scary stories about crime and violence in Honduras in the weeks before our departure, I’d picked up several music books of Latin-American popular music for the accordion, telling myself that surely even a tough-guy narco-traficante wouldn’t want to kill a nice Canadian girl playing Sin Ti or some other tune that his old mama knew.
So there I was last night, surrounded by happy Latin Americans and my music stand groaning under a load of Latin American tunes that they actually knew. I played for at least an hour, before and after the cake festivities, before and after the beautiful birthday girl got her face gently stuffed into the middle of the cake as she blew out the candles and an endless stream of cousins, amigos, grandchildren, aunts and uncles arrived to join in the festivities. Man, it was magic.
Through all those terrifying Honduran headlines leading up to our departure, I tried to hang onto what I feel certain to be true: That people are just people, all over the world. Cultures vary, but we have so much in common. We love our children, seek meaning and purpose, treasure our families, share meals, invent wacky but endearing customs that bond us to each other. Honduras seemed like a dark, murderous place based on the news stories that made it up to Canada, but I clung to the belief that what we’d mostly find when we got here was people going about their lives.
And now that we have arrived, I’m so happy to see that it’s true. You can’t soft-pedal the problems of a country that has one of the highest homicide rates in the world outside of war-torn countries, but Honduras also has strong, vibrant families who want better for their children. I hope I can play a part in that, doing more than just playing the accordion (not that music doesn’t have its own power to transform, of course).
Just before the party last night, I read a chapter of El Leon, La Bruja y El Ropero to five-year-old Carlos Alberto. He was transfixed, and never mind my halting Spanish. Later today we’re going to the Copan library to get him some books. One boy, one book, one small act that could someday link to other people’s small acts, in ways that change everything.
And until then, there’s always the accordion.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Jan 24 - First day at Spanish school

For my pal Mr. Pacific Gazetteer! Not quite a video, but soon.
OK, it’s real now. That theoretical day when we would live in Honduras has arrived - we’re here in Copan Ruinas, settling into the home stay that we’ll be living in for the next month while we immerse ourselves in Spanish at the Ixbalanque Language School.
It’s all one gigantic new experience, from this tiny town of cobblestone streets to this rooming at a sprawling Honduran family’s home. The matriarch is Esmeralda, a friendly and outgoing woman who has put us up in a bedroom in the big house where she lives with her husband (when he’s not out of town working) and what seems like a couple dozen grandchildren, nieces and various other family members who live in the houses adjacent to this one.
Language school promises to be intense: Four hours a day of one-to-one immersion, and then home to a household that speaks only Spanish. It really sunk in for the first time today, as we sat drinking two-for-one pina coladas at Twisted Tanya’s, the bar on our route home: We live here now. How the heck did that happen??
The town itself is the smallest I’ve ever lived in, some 7,000 residents in all. There are world-class Mayan ruins about a kilometre down the road, and steep hillsides all round. On our way into town yesterday, we passed house after house with blankets of coffee beans drying in the sun in the front yard, but tourism is also a big economic driver, and treasured in a country that has very little.
I expect this year or two in Honduras to be very surprising. Without exception, the people we have met so far have been warm and welcoming. But we saw a dead body at the side of the road yesterday just outside of Santa Rosa de Copan, presumably a victim of some narco-traficante mayhem. I’ve lived a lifetime in Canada with barely a thought for murder, but in this country it’s an all too real risk for the young men and women looking for a quick way out of poverty.
I couldn’t understand everything said by the man who drove us from Santa Rosa to Copan Ruinas yesterday - he speaks only Spanish, and at this stage I’m perhaps grasping maybe two-thirds of what people say. But I did understand his point about the irony of the drug trade: That Honduras has few users - they’re too poor to buy the cocaine coming up from South America to markets in the U.S. and Canada - but nonetheless bears the brunt of the hazards resulting from the distribution end of the business.
Que lastima, as the Hondurans would say. And indeed, it is a shame, and a great sorrow for the Honduran people. 
But I smell something delicious frying in Esmeralda’s cocina, and it’s bringing me back to the now - the place where Hondurans live almost exclusively. Tomorrow is another day. 

Jan 23 - The big adventure begins

We’re on the move again, headed toward the town where we’ll be living during our time in Honduras, Copan Ruinas. Alas, it looks like Internet access could be more challenging from this point on - we’re at a hotel in Santa Rosa de Copan that in theory has wifi, but it’s not working out that way so far.
Beautiful drive yesterday, up into mountains that looked like they were lifted straight out of one of those Juan Valdez coffee ads from way back when. I’m well-familiar with that term about “shade-grown coffee” from all the politically correct bags of fair-trade coffee beans I’ve bought over the years, but the reality was still surprising. The small coffee plants are dark, dark green and buried deep in the shade of the forests. There are probably giant plantations somewhere with row upon row of plants growing, but the ones along our route grew in small patches that looked like backyard gardens.
The towns are small and scattered now that we’re outside of the city. But the difficulties of the 21st century in Honduras still find them. We passed through a charming little town, La Entrada, that I’m told is full of crime due to its key placement on one of the routes that the narco-traficantes use for smuggling cocaine and other drugs north from South America.
I’d heard that the food was bland in Honduras, but obviously those people don’t like the same kind of food that I do. I’ve enjoyed everything so far - the feta-like cheese, the dark frijoles, the crispy plantain that seems to be more of a staple here than tortillas. And the meat! I’ve never understood why meat in poorer countries is always so much tastier than the meat we get in Canada, but it is. I had a little barbecued chicken last night that was amazing.
Today we make our way to Copan Ruinas, a couple hours’ drive from here. My partner and I will be in a language school there for the next month, getting our Spanish skills down and using that time in a home stay to look for a more permanent place to live in the little town. Cuso International covers the cost of housing for its volunteers, up to $400 Cdn a month.
That’s a generous allowance in a country where minimum-wage earners make just half of that in a month, and where most people live on less than $1.50 a day. So while we’re looking forward to living more simply in our new land, we’re well aware that we remain in a position of significant privilege.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Worn out from all the learning

A corner store in Tegucigalpa, where robberies are just how it is
They say that babies need to sleep a lot because their poor little brains are overwhelmed by their new world. I know the feeling.
We've just finished four days of orientation with the Cuso International team in Honduras, and have found ourselves staggering back to our little hotel each day worn out from paying attention to all the new things we need to know. New culture, new reality, new language, new way of operating - much, much slower than we're used to, but that can be surprisingly exhausting in these early days.
I catch myself trying to will people to hurry up. I'm not particularly punctual, but I'm positively on time by the standards of our new land. Can't imagine how I will get used to Canadian culture again once I finally succumb to the laid-back pace of Latin America.
Emergency preparedness takes on much more immediacy in a country that really does have emergencies. Cuso program director Cecilia Sanchez noted that during the military coup in Honduras in 2009, people were ordered to remain in their houses for two days, and water and power were cut in some areas. When the devastating Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998, more than 10,000 people died and almost 80 per cent of Honduras' infrastructure was wiped out, setting the country back 50 years in the opinion of the leaders of the day.
So while I never quite got around to taking emergency preparedness seriously in Victoria, where the threat of the Big Earthquake always seemed theoretical, I feel quite sure I'll be stashing canned goods and water for just such emergencies once we settle into our new home in Copan Ruinas in another month or so.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Different country, same stores - well, almost

Went to the mall in Tegucigalpa today. And wouldn't you know, it looked just like every mall in every place  I've ever been to, right down to the Dunkin' Donuts kiosk just inside the entrance and all the pretty young girls in tight pants and high-heeled shoes browsing the stores. We had crepes for lunch.
Went to the bank, too, and that was a whole other story. I had to open a Honduran account to be able to access the stipend that Cuso International pays its volunteers, a long and complicated process for which I was very, very glad to have a Spanish-speaking Cuso staffer sitting beside me. The bank asks way more personal questions than any Canadian bank could get away with - like the names of your children, your marital status and your personal health.
Next stop, the local cellphone store for a $30 cellphone and 165 lempiras' worth of free calls. The good news: There's no long-distance charges for calling anywhere within Honduras. The bad news: I don't know anyone here to call and the bonus is only good for a week.
Head hurts from another day of straining to understand what people are saying. Somebody should invent a new-language-acquisition pill.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hard times for Honduran capital

National Theatre, Tegucigalpa
Our Cuso International training continues, launched on this particular day with a heavy morning session with Honduran journalist Iris Mencia.
You have to be brave to be a boat-rocking journalist in Honduras, and she fit the bill. She gave us a frank and eye-opening introduction to the rough and tumble history of her country, especially since the 2009 coup that ousted former president Manuel Zelaya.
 But Iris also turned out to be lots of fun and a local celebrity to boot, bundling us into a taxi in the afternoon for a walking tour of downtown Tegucigalpa in which she seemed to know virtually everyone we passed. She even convinced the security guard at the 1912 National Theatre to let us wander around the place even though it was closed.
And she plays the melodica. How can you not take a shine to anyone who plays the melodica?
My partner and I have travelled a  lot in Mexico and had wondered whether Honduras would feel similar. But Tegucigalpa reminds me most of Havana, where I visited in the mid-1990s. Cuba was in a bleak period back then, having lost the vital support of the Soviet Union as that Communist stronghold fell apart. Havana was essentially a beautiful slum when I was there, its colonial architecture crumbling and impoverished Cubans squatting everywhere.
The Honduran capital isn't quite so desperate-looking as that. But the slow deterioration of everything that was once beautiful is certainly evident. One of the women we were with lives in Tegucigalpa but hadn't been to the centre of the city for years, and she seemed stunned by what had been lost.
We visited the Museum of National Identity and were the only people there for much of the time, although the streets bustled with people with no jobs to go to. The unemployment rate in Honduras is 28 per cent; apparently anyone over the age of 35 can pretty much forget ever finding another job. That's grim news in a country with no social supports.
The heartening thing about people is that they just keep on keeping on. When we walked past a group of fellows who appeared to be in the midst of a hard life, one of them overheard us speaking English and gave us a big smile, calling out "Welcome to Honduras!" as we passed. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

There's no preparing for a scary security briefing

We started our in-country training today at the Cuso International office here in Tegucigalpa. Other volunteers had warned me that what we would learn in the "security issues" portion of the day would be scary, and it was. Then again, I've been reading Honduran newspapers on-line for months now to get ready for coming here, and it had dawned on me quite some time ago that things would be a little different in my new land compared to good ol' Victoria.
As it turns out, the people who bear the brunt of the violence in Honduras are generally either participants of the drug trade or regular Hondurans trying to go about their daily lives. Attacks on foreigners like us are rare. Sadly, the reason for that is because it's known that foreigners might actually have connections somewhere who could help them or cause trouble for the perpetrators, while the Hondurans really don't have anybody.
In practice, what this means is that in the big cities at least, people who can afford it take taxis virtually everywhere (and even then, they first try to establish a relationship with a taxi driver they can trust). They avoid the yellow school-bus-style public transport, because that's courting trouble. They get very familiar with what parts of town you should just stay the heck out of.
When out walking, we were advised not to wear clothes or jewelry that draw attention, and to understand that carrying anything - a purse, a camera, a wallet, a laptop - potentially makes you a target. From this point on, we'll carry a small amount of Honduran currency - 10 or 20 lempiras, about a buck - in a front pocket to give to robbers. And you don't even think about resisting, because guns are commonplace.
It's not that violence happens all the time to everyone, of course. But it was quite clear from the presentation we had that it CAN happen to anyone at any time, and you just have to be prepared for that. Fortunately, I'm a plain dresser with not a whit of jewelry worth anything. But I do hope I never have to test whether I can stay calm during a robbery, and I certainly will take Cuso's advice about not making jokes at times like that.
There's nothing inherently violent about the Honduran people that has created this situation. So far, the ones we've met -  the ones we've passed on the streets and seen in the shops - have been universally friendly and welcoming. No, the problem is all about poverty, and a subsequent breakdown in civil society. (Well, that and a thriving cocaine trade originating in South America for markets in the U.S. and Canada.)
Almost half of Honduras's eight million residents live on less than $1.50 a day. Minimum wage is equivalent to $200 a month. Crimes of opportunity happen because people get hungry and desperate. Gangs - Honduras has the Mara - take hold.
The security situation in Honduras is a stark reminder that as the gap grows between a country's richest and poorest citizens, the impact is felt by everyone, regardless of economic status. The richer you are in Honduras, the bigger the razor-wire-topped wall you need around your home, and the higher the risk for your family every time you leave your fortress.
Remember that, Canada. OK, we're no Honduras, but the trends are all in the wrong direction when it comes to that gap.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Let the Honduran blogging begin!

Victoria to San Francisco, San Francisco to Houston, Houston to Tegucigalpa. It took a couple days to get here, but we have arrived in the capital of Honduras, to begin what will ultimately be at least a year and more likely two of living and working here.
We arrived a mere four hours ago, but already I feel huge relief just to see the place. Few things are worse than reading all the crazy news stories from afar about events in Honduras - it started to feel like we were on a suicide mission. Instead, we arrived at a perfectly nice airport in what appears to be a perfectly nice city, albeit one that even the locals warn us not to go wandering around at night.
But we did brave a short walk to the Mas Por Menos supermercado near our little Hotel Alsacia, a charming blink-and-you-miss-it guest house that Cuso International has put us up at while we take the "in-country" training to get ready for the work I'll be doing with the Comision de Social Accion de Menonita in Copan Ruinas.
We even went to a bank machine and nothing happened. People smiled, we all said friendly holas to each other, and I survived several tentative communications in Spanish, including asking the clerk at the Mas Por Menos whether we could buy a smaller piece of cheese.
We've already sampled the local beer (Barena, pretty good) and marvelled at the prices of packaged goods at the grocery store, many of which were comparable to home. Can't be too many Hondurans shopping at those prices - the minimum wage here is equivalent to $200 a month. There's certainly no escaping North American-style fast food just because you're deep in Central America - we walked past a Wendy's and a McDonald's on our way to the store. Is there no city those guys haven't colonized?
Later I pulled out the accordion - which has spent much of the last two days stuffed  into the carry-on bins of our various planes - and played a few tunes later this afternoon in the garden at the hotel. It made me feel like I'd arrived. But it gets dark here early, this close to the equator, so it looks like 6 p.m. will have to be my outdoor-accordion wrapup time in this new homeland.
Paul has found a Spanish version of "Bonanza" on TV. It gives Lorne Green more of an edge.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Three days from Honduras, neck-deep in stuff

Loads of fun at last night's farewell party, but the cold light of day brings a disastrous looking house and just three brief days to get things under control.
We have grown ruthless in our sorting. I took sleeping bags and blankets to Our Place today, and dropped off old bits and pieces of audio equipment and a dead Mac to the computer recycling place. I've lost track of how many bags of stuff I've hauled out of here, yet more just keep piling up. The ridiculous amount of coat hangers we bagged up this afternoon highlight just how ridiculous an amount of clothes hung in our closets.
A young fellow at the bottle depot when I dropped off the electronics rushed over to my little pile like I'd brought gold, and took virtually everything. These seem like hungry times - put anything at the curb, like my partner's mildering and badly neglected golf clubs in their spider-filled bag that's been outside in the shed for the last six years, and they're gone in an instant. Offer anything for free in the craigslist ads and expect at least a couple dozen responses, from people who seem genuinely delighted even if all you're giving away is a tippy little African-elephant floor lamp.
The next step in our preparation will require ruthlessness with the things we had planned to bring to Honduras, because it's becoming pretty clear that all of what we want will not fit into two 23-kilo allotments. I'm regretting the three bottles of mosquito repellent. In fact, I can't even remember why I was worried about mosquitoes; there seems like far bigger things to worry about now.
TV went today.  No lamps left, which has made the house incredibly dim. The better to hide the mess.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The downside of disappearing

Should you ever decide to pack it all in and move to a distant land, let me tell you, the final week of preparation is hell.
My partner and I are both tense and strained-looking. We're still talking, but in short, monosyllabic sentences that seem as stripped down as our house, which is somehow devoid of stuff yet more cluttered than it has ever been. All routines have been turned on their end,  and every day is full of a long list of tasks that never seems finished. ("Pots to Rachelle's house"; "Costco run"; "Notify bank so Mom can deposit my paycheque"; "Photos to SD card"; "Clean oven"; "Pick up malaria drugs" - you get the picture.)
Of course, my deadline personality hasn't helped. Why, for instance, did we wait until a few weeks before leaving for Honduras to decide to get our wills done? Why did I wait until Jan. 4 to make a video with a friend recovering from cancer, when we could have done it two or three months ago? Why am I only now lugging my sheet music into Staples to get it coiled? And why, why, did I think it would be a good idea to hold a Cuso/PEERS fundraiser as our farewell party just days before we leave?
I'm self-employed, so am also having to attend to things like paying my 2011 taxes and HST. The Canadian government doesn't care if you're off to live in a foreign land for a year or two and really, really busy - they want their money. And on top of everything, we are caught in a social whirl, as happens when all your friends and family want one last meal, glass of wine or coffee with you before you leave.
But so it goes. (I can see why Kurt Vonnegut liked that phrase so much - it works.) The one sure thing about a deadline as absolute as this one is that we're going to have to hit it. People are always asking me these days if I'm excited about what lies ahead, but all I can see at the moment is that day's to-do list.
Still, some prickles of excitement break through. Yesterday I pulled out my big ring of keys and thought: Five days from now, I won't need any of these.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Come say goodbye!

Thanks for some very nice comments, blog readers! It was great to hear from people. I hope you hang in with me as my writing shifts to a more Honduran flavour.
Somebody asked about getting in touch with me by email: Please use, as the Shaw address will be gone by the end of next week. Comments on this blog are now coming through that email, so that works too.
Farewell party/fundraiser coming up next Wednesday, Jan. 11 - drop by if you can, 6-10 p.m. at the Garry Oak Room (1335 Thurlow Rd) of Fairfield Community Centre. A very talented, engaging trio of musicians - my daughter Rachelle Reath, her partner Aaron Watson and fabulous trumpet player Alfons Fear - will be providing the music at what I'm figuring will be a great big cocktail party full of people I know. How nice is that? My cousin and her husband Toni and Lee Burton will be tending bar.
We opted to raise a little money on our way out the door for PEERS Victoria and Cuso International (my past and my future!), so it's admission by donation and we're hoping people will throw $10-$15 in the pot if they can afford it. And if you can't, no problem - come on down! 

Friday, January 06, 2012

Readers have made all the difference

My final TC column! Weird. Come to our farewell party/fundraiser next week to say goodbye - Jan. 11, 6-10 p.m. at the Garry Oak Room of Fairfield Community Centre, 1335 Thurlow. 

Folks, it has been an amazing ride.
But 14 years have passed since I was first given the privilege of writing a regular column for the Times Colonist. I’ve written 1,800 or so columns, and logged 1.4 million words on a vast number of subjects.
And it’s time to go.
I bless my lucky stars for a series of bosses who let me write whatever the heck I wanted all these years. I’m grateful for the sheer luck of living in a time and place where our governments know they have to tolerate people like me nipping at them in the name of free speech.
But mostly I’m thankful to you, dear reader. Your willingness to share your opinions, criticisms, encouragement and life stories with me has made all the difference.
 Back when I was writing four times a week, readers’ tips accounted for at least half of my column topics. On my own, I couldn’t possibly have found even a fraction of the crazy, funny, tragic, inspiring and touching stories that my readers brought me over the years. I’m the medium - the story-teller - but they’re the real deal.
The great joy of journalism is that it bestows on curious people like me the right to ask nosy questions of virtually anyone. There’s nothing saying that people will answer your questions, but it’s striking how often they do.
And as they talked, I learned.
About the cruelties of the human condition. The limitations of our systems. The breaking points and vulnerabilities. The impact of unintended consequence.
But I also came to see that most people are good, and that virtually everyone can be brilliant if given the chance to shine. What a wonderful gift that has been, to know that.
From talking to so many disparate personalities in so many states of wealth, health, freedom, rage, humour, vulnerability and frustrated powerlessness, I came to be comfortable with anyone, and happy to hang out in all kinds of scenes. That’s been a whole other blessing.
And now my partner Paul Willcocks and I are off to Honduras, and to new stories yet to be told.
I know I’ll keep writing. Journalism soaks into your bones, and observing the world is now a passion of mine regardless of whether I’m getting paid for it. It won’t be easy to walk away from work I’ve been doing since I was 25. But truth be told, I’m ready.
I’ve been in the business long enough to have seen the way news cycles. A critical issue rises up in the public consciousness, lingers in limbo for a very long time while people argue about what to do about it, and with luck ends up “fixed” after much effort on the part of all concerned.  
But then budget cuts, public apathy and a heartbreaking lack of institutional memory eventually eat away at the gains. A decade or so later, the original problem re-emerges, and the cycle begins again.
It’s just not possible to muster the same energy for a fight when you know how the story ends. I find myself growing cynical and discouraged. But I’ll still miss my front-row seat on all the action, and the doors I’ve been able to nudge open in the name of people’s right to know.
I’ve loved being a journalist in a free country under six companies that all valued a free press.  It’s become fashionable to make a fuss about corporate media controlling the news, but that has not been my experience.
Even journalists sometimes forget the significance of that. Such freedoms are far from a guarantee in this world, including in the country where I’m headed. I feel our own governments’ growing reticence to stay open to scrutiny, but I trust Canadians will keep their feet to the fire on this one.
Regrets? I’ve had a few. Sometimes I’ve been too pushy and strident, other times naive. I thought my writing could play a role in changing things, but came to see that the readers you most need to attract when striving for change are the ones least likely to read you in the first place.
Nor do I get much feedback from readers anymore, perhaps a signal that I’ve overstayed my welcome. It has felt lonely tilting at windmills on my own.
But all in, it’s been a blast. Thank you for being the best part of that. Stay in touch.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Soaring CEO salaries are big trouble

Here I am, posting a Margaret Wente column. Her sheer contrariness, not to mention her privileged viewpoint that she rarely acknowledges, generally rub me the wrong way. But today she wrote on an issue that we obviously share indignation over: The soaring pay of Canada's CEOs.
As she notes in the column, a private company has the right to pay its boss whatever it wants. But tying salaries to stock options has screwed things up. It motivates CEOs to do things for all the wrong reasons. And with governments now tying their own managerial salaries to private-sector salaries, things are getting way out of hand.
And here's the TC's editorial from yesterday on the same subject: Both the editorial and Wente's column are based on a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

Rising inequality demands debate


How much is too much? It's time to ask that question about income inequality in our society.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives cleverly frames the issue with an annual New Year's look at the compensation for 100 corporate CEOs compared with the average Canadian.
The CEOs, the centre reported, had earned as much as the average Canadian makes in a year by noon on Tuesday, the second working day of the year.
Their average compensation jumped 27 per cent in 2010, to $8.4 million. The average income for Canadians increased 1.1 per cent, to $44,366.
The increase might reflect improving corporate performance. But the gap has been growing steadily in recent decades. In 1995, for example, the average compensation for the 50 highest-paid Canadian CEOs was $2.66 million, 85 times the pay of the average worker.
By 2010, the average for the 50 was $11.3 million, 255 times the pay of the average worker.
Put another way, the average Canadian salary grew by about 2.4 per cent a year. The average for the 50 CEOs, through good times and bad, was 10.5 per cent a year.
Two arguments have been used to justify the increasing share of corporate revenues claimed by those at the top. The compensation reflects market forces, defenders argue. Just as Robert Luongo can command $6.7 million from the Canucks because he offers scarce and valuable skills, so can top executives demand big pay.
The second claim is that only shareholders should care care about executive compensation, as it's their money.
It's not that simple. Luongo's pay is determined by the market, but free agency rules, team salary caps and other factors all provide checks and balances. The process is, at least, transparent.
Compensation for top executives is supposedly set by market forces. But the market appears rigged. Those who determine pay - boards of directors - tend to benefit themselves as executives' pay increases, because corporations develop pay plans by surveying compensation at other companies. Many directors are in similar positions with other corporations, or directors on several boards. Rising compensation means increases for them as well.
And shareholders are rarely given the chance to protect their interests when it comes to compensation.
Of course, answering the first question - how much is too much - raises a second one. What is to be done if we decide this trend is damaging our society?
There are policy responses which would introduce market discipline without interfering with corporations' ability to set compensation levels. Shareholder rights, both to detailed information on compensation plans and to a direct say, could be strengthened. Shareholders, for example, could be required to approve any compensation plan that provides increases greater than a set percentage. Greater independence for directors could be mandated.
Alternatively, government could use its redistributive powers to level the playing field. The centre notes, for example, that CEOs increasingly take their payment in stock options, taxed at half the rate of income.
The growing inequality demands, at least, a public debate. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported last month that income inequality continues to increase in Canada and around the world. Government policies have ensured that those with high incomes claim a larger share of the country's wealth, while reducing the share earned by the rest of Canadians.
The trickle-down approach hasn't worked, said OECD secretary-general Angel GurrĂ­a. "Without a comprehensive strategy for inclusive growth, inequality will continue to rise."
And without such a strategy, the OECD warned, "the social contract is starting to unravel in many countries."
Our ability to function as a society is based on that social contract, which assumes the game is not rigged to favour a fortunate few. When it starts to break down, serious trouble lies ahead.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

New hospital policy not much of a fix

Well, this story from today's Victoria Times Colonist certainly does raise more questions than it answers. 

I can't decide which is my favourite outrageous fact - that VIHA thinks things will be fixed now just because its new policy establishes there will be at least two women in any mixed-gender hospital room (how does adding an extra woman prevent a patient from being assaulted by one of the two men who might also be in the same room?), or the revelation that the OLD policy had no provisions for ensuring "patients with known violent behaviour, mental health issues or known tendencies to inappropriate sexual behaviour" weren't being placed in mixed-gender rooms. 

Come to think of it, that last point is much bigger than gender. Is the hospital telling us they don't even consider big stuff like that before packing patients into a four-bed ward with strangers? 
I get that the mixed-gender wards are a more effective use of hospital space, and that there's no guarantee of safety anyway just because you're in a room where everyone is the same gender. But people are really vulnerable when they're sick enough to be in the hospital. They need to know that those in charge have thoughtful and realistic policies and practices for keeping them safe. 

Assault of 83-year-old woman in Island hospital prompts policy change

Mixed-gender rooms to be limited after elderly woman attacked in bed

Vancouver Island Health Authority has said it will limit mixed-gender rooms after an 83-year-old woman with dementia was sexually assaulted by another patient at Cowichan District Hospital.
The woman, who was taken to hospital Dec. 19 after a fall, was in a fourbed room with two men when she was assaulted.
"I can't say enough about how truly horrified we are that this happened," said VIHA spokeswoman Moira McLean.
"VIHA is doing a full review of the incident. We have no tolerance for any sort of violence and we are absolutely horrified this would happen in one of our facilities."
Staff at Cowichan District Hospital were alerted to the assault after a medication alarm was activated.
The RCMP special victims unit was called by staff and a 48-year-old man was placed under guard in another room. The suspect was released from hospital into police custody.
North Cowichan-Duncan RCMP could not be contacted Monday and it is not yet known if the man has been charged.
As a result of the incident, policies and procedures on mixed-gender rooms are now being formalized, McLean said.
The new rules will require patients in semiprivate rooms with two beds to be the same gender.
Every effort will be made to separate men and women in three-and fourbed rooms, but when mixed-gender rooms are necessary, there will be a minimum of two women per room, said the health authority.
"It will also be required that patients in mixed-gender rooms are alert, oriented, mentally competent and have the ability to appropriately vocalize concerns," McLean said.
Patients with known violent behaviour, mental health issues or known tendencies to inappropriate sexual behaviour will not be placed in mixed-gender rooms under the new policies.
The new rules would have prevented the woman who was assaulted from being placed in a mixed-gender room.
Even though the policies are not yet formalized, efforts are always made to place patients in genderappropriate rooms, McLean said. "But at times, if there is high volume, people are put in mixed-gender rooms. It's not uncommon and it happens in hospitals across the country," she said.
At the new Patient Care Centre at the Royal Jubilee Hospital, 85 per cent of beds are in single rooms and the remainder are twobed rooms.
"As we move to replace facilities, that's what's coming down the road, but when you have older facilities like Cowichan District Hospital, Nanaimo and Victoria General Hospital, some are three-and fourbed rooms and sometimes it's unavoidable to have mixed genders," McLean said.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Pack rats and ditchers: In search of common ground

A blog reader asked me if I had any advice for finding common ground between pack rat and ditcher, given that is exactly what is being attempted in our house at this moment as we fold the place up.
I'm the ditcher, the one who has no problem getting rid of things. Keep that in mind when reading this, because I fully acknowledge it's from a ditcher's perspective.
And let's presume I'm giving this advice for a pack rat-ditcher couple in which the pack rat does want the end result, even though it's going to be painful getting there.
I've got nothing against pack rats as as general rule, but if you want to fold up your house in order to be able to travel the world freely, then it's pretty clear that a ditcher ethos simply has to prevail. So a motivated pack rat is essential. I have no idea how you'd convince a pack rat to part with their stuff if they'd yet to buy into the concept.
OK, advice.
First, the ditcher has to recognize that it's going to be a struggle all the way, and that they need to prepare themselves mentally for the challenge ahead. If Paul and I had been a new couple going through this process of giving stuff up, I think we might have broken up by now.
But I've known Paul for long enough that I was really aware of how tough this was going to be for him. I knew I'd have to be very, very mellow and non-pushy - not my natural state - through this process.
Step two: Recognize that the ditcher does most of the work of the downsizing.  Maybe that's unfair, but it's just the way it is. If you want something more than the other person, you will have to be the one who makes the most effort.
Step three: Give your pack rat some options. There are a lot of different choices available when you're getting rid of stuff, and pack rats seem to feel better about giving away their things if they're not just going to get dumped, but are going on to new lives with family, acquaintances or people in need.
And finally, check your own expectations. Sometimes I catch myself getting heated up over an item too inconsequential to make a whit of difference in terms of the storage space it'll take up. Ditcher, don't sweat the small stuff.
Good luck. With two weeks to go in our household, we are on track to fit the stuff of our lives into a 6x8 storage locker. But I'd be lying if I said it has been easy.