Friday, June 29, 2012

The real story in behind the pretty pictures

Basilica at Esquipulas as a storm brews
 Photos can be deceptive. They're like a little slice of the good life, with the unpleasant bits that surrounded the moment unrepresented. You take the shot of the beautiful basilica glowing white against a storm-darkened sky, for instance, not the one of you looking slightly green after being jammed into a truck for hours and hours questioning why you even came on this crazy outing. 
Earlier today I posted several cheery photos on Facebook of my day trip to Guatemala yesterday with my workmates. The photos elicited the usual "Wow!"s and "Lucky you!"s that travel photos inspire, and of course I do acknowledge that living and working somewhere that allows me to take a free day trip to Guatemala is pretty damn lucky. And that basilica did look amazing.
But now I want to give you the rest of the story - not to elicit sympathy, but just so you know how the day actually played out.
My workmates do something fun together every three months or so, and the plan this time was to go to Chiquimula - a Guatemalan city about two hours away from here that everyone in Copan frequents regularly. I went to bed Wednesday night with many misgivings about saying I'd go, as I'd had a lingering case of Honduran Belly for a couple of days and knew from past experience that any foray with my workmates always involves at least four hours in the car. But I really wanted to go to Guatemala, so I hauled myself out of bed the next morning, gulped down a Gastro-Lyte and an Advil, and headed to the town square for my 7 a.m. pickup.
Off we went, seven of us in a five-seater truck. I was in the back with two of my colleagues and the nine-year-old son of my boss, who sat between the legs of one of the guys. The border process went smoothly, and we arrived in the first town, Jocotan, just in time for breakfast. That put us in good shape to be arriving in Chiquimula by 10 a.m.
Traffic jam from the teachers' strike
Alas, there was a teachers' strike right at the point where the road turns toward Chiquimula. The teachers had put rocks and tree branches across the road and were having what we would have called a "sit-in" back in the day. Traffic was backed up for miles. Word was that nobody was going anywhere until later in the afternoon, if at all.
In a land like Canada, the intrepid travellers would have turned back in disappointment, perhaps cursing the teachers softly (but not too much, because they work for peanuts down here and often go months without pay) and arguing over where to go instead. Here, my workmates decided to take a back road to Esquipulas instead, and never mind that it meant two slow, twisting and turning hours along a dirt road through the mountains.
So that's what we did. I kept my eyes closed for much of it to keep down the waves of nausea  from the motion sickness, which I didn't know I was prone to until I started travelling in Honduras. We got into Esquipulas at noon, but my heart leaped as my workmates pointed out the glorious basilica outside the truck window and I thought about how I'd soon be wandering those pretty little streets.
Unfortunately, I had missed the part about how we were going to a water park. I didn't even have my bathing suit. We shot right past that basilica and headed straight for Chatun Water Park, which looks exactly like every water park you've ever been to. I staggered from the car and trailed the gang as they headed into the park and ordered up big, greasy lunches of deep-fried shrimp and chicken nuggets. Nothing for me, thanks, I said politely.
How can you resist these happy faces?
As out of sorts as I felt at that point, my workmates were so happy to be playing in the water that I couldn't help but cheer up. They got into this crazy pyramid/circus act kind of thing, standing on each other's shoulders and soliciting the help of other pool-goers to build the pyramid higher. I swam in my clothes and then climbed out to dry off and take photos, chatting with the curious Guatemalans who swam up wanting to know what was up with the gringa at the pool's edge. At any rate, I just can't stay unhappy when the sun's shining on me.
We stayed for four hours or so, then bundled back into the car for a quick pass through Esquipulas and maybe something to eat (they are BIG on eating here). We drove past the basilica and I whined to be let out to take a photo; we pulled over for five minutes and I got the shot. Then the storm that had been threatening for an hour or so unleashed with full fury - pounding rain, crazy winds, hail, and what must have been a 20-degree drop in the temperature. I was freezing in my damp clothes and had goosebumps for the first time since we got here in January.
Happily, the teachers' sit-in had ended and we were able to take the regular highway back toward the border. The road was almost invisible in the downpour, but at least the road was paved and relatively straight. The rain stopped and somebody up front finally killed the air conditioning, and I warmed up.
The border process didn't go quite as smoothly as it had on the way down. The customs guy was baffled by the script in my passport that says I've got a one-year residency permit and kept telling me that I could only stay in Honduras for 90 days. My workmates looked worried but helpless. You don't want to mess with anyone in authority in Honduras, because you just don't know where things might end up. I finally just agreed that I'd leave after 90 days and paid him the $3 he wanted me to pay.
Then we were back in Copan, 12 hours after we'd left. The power went out about 10 minutes after I got home, because that kind of thing happens all the time here in the rainy season, but then it came back on in time for me to have a hot shower (no hot water tank, so you're toast if the power's out). Another Gastro-Lyte, another Advil, and then to bed with the sounds of a storm much like the one in Esquipulas pounding down outside.
And now you know the rest of the story. Sure, a picture says a thousand words, but it leaves another thousand out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Learning to love in the absence of hope

 I've been hanging out pretty much one day a week for the last three months at Angelitos Felices, the big foster home here in Copan Ruinas that I've written about a few times. It has been one heck of an experience.
At first glance, the place is awful. It's dark and strangely damp, a big empty space stuffed with children and smelling like a mix of musty clothes, garbage and a whiff of excrement. I've started dabbing patchouli oil under my nose to help me hang in through a couple hours of being inside the place.
The room where the kids sleep would be ridiculously overcrowded even if the bunks were all functional and there were enough mattresses for every bed. But that's not the case, and I have to presume a lot of them sleep on the floor in the dank and empty space on the second floor adjacent to the bedroom.
I was there at lunch time on Sunday and it was an unbelievable scene. Every child set their butt down in short order on the little plastic chairs they all grabbed when they heard it was lunch time. The older kids hauled out three of the low, long tables that are kept in the back of the gloomy main room, and everybody tucked silently into their bowls of rice, spaghetti and tortillas that the older girls were distributing. No fussy eaters in that crowd.
Each got a glass of milk as well but there weren't enough glasses to go around, so they had to drink in shifts. Little ones barely a year old learn quickly at Angelitos that there's no point in throwing a big fit to get your glass of milk quicker, so they were soberly waiting their turn just like everyone else. The babies trail around without diapers, often falling asleep wherever they drop; one of the smaller ones fell asleep in a big pile of hair cuttings on a previous weekend when the barber was there, and this Sunday fell asleep on one of the filthy concrete stairs in the main room.
I'd have freaked out about such a place back in Canada. I'd have been turning it into a series, a major investigation, a humiliation for whatever branch of government was supposed to be overseeing the place - hell, maybe we'd even get a Royal Commission out of it.
But there's no place to exercise your freak-out rights in Honduras, and nobody to do anything different for these kids even if you could. Angelitos is a long, long way from perfect, but the woman who runs the place has essentially been left on her own to figure out how to care for 40 or so kids (some living there, others in day care). How good a job could any of us do in that situation?
Two staff work night and day at the home, in theory for $75 a month but often for no pay at all. I admire them immensely. As grim as the place is, the children look adequately fed and are consistently cheerful. We've taken some of them to the swimming pool and they're well-behaved, well-socialized children, albeit with the worst teeth you've ever seen and worn, dirty clothes that never quite fit right. Every now and then a little scrap breaks out between some of the younger children over some pathetic excuse for a toy that somebody isn't sharing (it was a broken part from a wind-up car the other day), but mostly the kids get along and are surprisingly patient with each other.  I have to conclude there's love in that place, as unlikely as that seems.
Figuring out my role there has been kind of like being back at PEERS, where I learned that sometimes all you can do is just be there for people. I show up at the foster home with the fixings for whatever the day's craft will be and aim to give the kids a nice couple of hours. It can be frustrating and depressing, and I really don't like being in that dank, smelly place. But what can you do?  Just don't ask me if the experience is "rewarding," because it's anything but.
And all if it has to be put in the context of the Honduran childhood experience overall. One day when a bunch of the coloured strips we were using to make paper chains fell off the upstairs balcony into the road, I watched children that were every bit as poor and hard-done-by as the Angelitos kids come running out of their one-room mud houses to gather up the strips for themselves. This is not a country full of sheltered, well-fed children enjoying their comfy private bedrooms stuffed with toys, that's for sure.
My partner and I are trying to get a routine going of taking the older kids to the pool, owned by one of the local hotels and open to anyone who can afford the $5 to get in. I worked a deal for the first kid swim - $25 for 10 of us - but I'm hoping to work an even better one so we can take a few kids every couple of weeks and still manage it on a volunteer stipend.
It was lovely to see them all acting like happy, regular kids for a few hours, jumping in and out of the water and smiling, smiling, smiling in all that sunshine. (OK, it's pretty unpleasant to have to see the other kids crying as you leave with the lucky few who get to go to the pool that day - I make the woman who owns the place do the selection -  but I tell myself that they're all going to get their turn.) A teacher from Stockton, California showed up in town last week and I learned that he also helps out at Angelitos during his annual visit to Copan, so he's going to be taking a bunch of the children to the pool this week as well.
It's not like you have to harden your heart to spend time at a place like Angelitos Felices. But you do have to manage your emotions and tap into the most practical, in-the-moment version of yourself. You have to convince yourself there's no such thing as wasted effort, and that there's truth to that old saying about "planting seeds."
As I've said before, I don't think too many happy endings will be coming out of there. Still, when the oh-so-damaged 12-year-old who I'm particularly fond of cracks up laughing as she clings to my neck for a swim into the deep end of the pool, or when I hear that one of the eight-year-olds has now memorized the words to The Hokey Pokey and is teaching the other kids - well, I tell myself that you just never know.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Spinning gold, or at least a few lempiras, from garbage

Workshop leader Sandra Sosa and avid students
Making art with garbage isn't a new thing, but I hadn't really grasped the potential of it for poor countries until I watched a roomful of young Hondurans last week transform aluminum cans into pretty little sepia-coloured etchings.
One of the things that really stands out here in Copan, and I suspect in Honduras overall, is the absence of local crafts. The goods available for tourists are the garden-variety woven bracelets and leather-thong necklaces found in tourist markets around the world, and few are made here.
At the workshop in La Cumbre last week, the 40 or so people who had crowded into the one-room school for the two-day event were carefully pressing designs into empty beer cans to make picture frames and folding little pieces of old chip bags into lovely earrings. I could really see that with a little marketing advice, these guys could get something going on. 
Chip bag earrings
There's a rather anemic tourist market in one of the streets downtown that desperately needs some local artisan work. I went looking for souvenirs to take back to Canada earlier this month and La Pintada's ubiquitous cornhusk dolls turned out to be the only option (I bought eight, which made two Maya-Chorti families quite ecstatic that day).
The workshop - put on by the organization I work for, Comision Accion de Social Menonita - was intended both as a way of teaching people how to create saleable products out of garbage, and getting them to rethink the way they throw their garbage everywhere. Having been personally shaped by the 1960s-era Litter Bug campaign in Canada, I'd say Hondurans are about 60 years behind developed countries in how they manage their garbage. 

But what's really great about making art from garbage in a country like Honduras is that the supplies are free. People are so poor in towns like La Cumbre that there's no way they could scratch together even $20 (about 400 lempiras) to get themselves started on a craft venture. But out there on the roadsides, in the rivers, piled up in some empty lot that everyone has designated the dump of the moment - art supplies are waiting.  
The teacher at the workshop, Sandra Sosa, had people working on four different crafts that day: aluminum cans toasted to a golden colour on a wood stove and then etched into pieces for picture frames or decorations; an  elaborate folding/weaving process that turns chip bags and old paper into earrings and other jewelry; key chains and jewelry made from the puckered bottoms of plastic pop bottles; and sparkly window hangings using the thick plastic that surrounds much of the world's goods these days. 
There's a shortage of fun activities for poor people in Honduras, who have neither leisure time nor money to pursue such things. They totally enjoyed the luxury of two days of doing nothing but concentrating on crafts, and were completely engrossed in the work on the day I was there. You could practically see the wheels turning in some of their heads at the possibility of having something to sell, money being a rare commodity in the subsistence communities where CASM works.
Beer-can art
Tourism has been a bit slack in Copan Ruinas lately, what with the coup in 2009 and the relentlessly negative media stories about Honduras that stream around the world. But it's still a major part of the local economy, and I'm quite sure that almost all of the 50,000 tourists who visit the city in any given year are prepared to drop a few bucks on a souvenir. I think there'd be a market for cleverly repurposed garbage art, especially if the local artists were on site demonstrating their work. Think of it: Buyers, sellers, money exchanging hands - it'd all be good.
But. (Hey, there's always a but.) The people we're talking about here are so poor that they're still going to need a little money from somewhere to get going, because they can't even afford the glitter, the earring backs and the tools to etch aluminum cans they need to get started.
Then they're going to need a way to get their goods to market in Copan, because La Cumbre is a hard hour away up a road that falls apart in the rainy season and almost nobody has a vehicle anyway. People living in the isolated little pueblos around Copan gets around by standing at the side of the road waiting for someone going by in a truck to let them jump in the back, making it pretty tough to keep predictable hours at your little craft table in town.
Honduras also has a lot to learn about marketing, and that's especially true at the subsistence end of things. Whether it's a thousand small banana-growers all coming to market at once and pushing down the price they'll get, or the beautiful table linens that no tourist would ever find in a million years unless they happened to ride a horse to La Pintada and were led there by the guide - the country just doesn't have it going on around marketing.
So that's another challenge. People making art from garbage not only need seed money, secure transportation and better roads, they need a basic understanding of how to develop a niche - as a group but also as individuals. As the workshop leader Sandra Sosa noted in La Cumbre, sales of cornhusk dolls would probably pick up if each doll didn't look quite so much like all the other ones.
Still, this is how things start. First, you open people to possibilities - especially the kids - and then you start picking off the hurdles one by one. And if all you've got at the start is one table staffed by a rotating group of budding artisans from La Cumbre who make it down to Copan whenever they can, that's an improvement. Inch by inch.
My time here has really got me reflecting on how I've spent my souvenir dollars during my many travels, and how I'll spend them from now on. That whole debate in wealthier countries about whether buying from children in the street "encourages" their families to exploit them - I'm throwing that one right out the window. The kids work because everybody in the family works, and if they didn't they'd starve to death.
If you're ever in Copan, please buy at least one cornhusk doll from some little girl in the square, because that's a buck that's going to go directly to a family that really, really needs it. And if you ever see a pair of chip-bag earrings or a clearly handmade sparkly seahorse light-catcher, buy them too.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Absence makes the eyes grow sharper

Eight fairly chaotic days on Vancouver Island, and now I'm back in Honduras reflecting on how it feels to be taking holidays in the opposite direction.
They say you can never go home again. I don't know who "they" are or what sparked them to say such things, but it does seem that the things you remember fondly about a place don't hold up well when you go back for a second look.
I did take much pleasure from seeing my family and a few close friends while on the Island. It's top of my list to figure out ways to see them more often, whether by luring them south or doing more of those meet-you-in-the-middle holidays that my cousin in Darwin is so good at making happen with her family. And of course, receiving an honourary doctorate of laws from the University of Victoria was an amazing experience.
But the food and the chocolate and the nature walks I'd been fantasizing about weren't nearly so enticing as I'd remembered. The meals were too rich for my system. The chocolate was tasty, but I really only needed a couple of bites to set things right. I felt like I spent way too much time in cars, houses and restaurants, and missed the hours of outdoor time that comes with the tropical (and carless) life.
The pace was brutal after five months of the mellow life here in Copan. The B.C. government is still doing stupid, stupid things that set my teeth on edge. Victoria is still a little too precious, and I hated being cold all the time. By the time we got on the plane early Monday, I was ready to go "home."
Getting away from the place where you come from is a clarifying experience. I've realized, for instance, that while I treasure time with my family, I've also inherited a healthy dose of my father's anti-social genes. I wondered if I'd be lonely with just my partner for a friend here in Honduras. I'm not.
Others look at Honduras from afar and presume visitors like me would feel a newly heightened sense of gratitude for what we have as Canadians. But what I really see now is how much we've got to lose. Honduras is poor and its systems are almost universally corrupt or broken, but there's a certain honesty here about such things that's missing in Canada, where we're still in denial.
I don't mean to trivialize the differences,  mind you. I doubt Victorians will ever have garbage strewn everywhere, giant holes in the road that never get fixed, and millions of one-room shacks made of mud and corrugated tin - common sights in Honduras. The B.C. education system is taxed but still functional, and nobody is selling teachers' licences or creating fictional jobs so they can get paid twice.
You can still go to a public hospital and get good medical care, and can safely presume that most of the drivers you encounter on your various travels are both licensed and insured. The average Canadian is not going to return home from a holiday - as we just did -  to discover that their phone and Internet provider has vanished and there's absolutely no one to take that problem up with.
But Victoria still has hundreds of people living in the streets, and millions of Canadians - more each year - are living in poverty. Our governments' tendency to sneak in higher wages and sweeter contracts for a favoured few while denying more and more services to people in real need  - well, what other word is there for that except corruption? Honduras does have an excessive number of laws and policies that sound good on paper but are ignored in real life, and  is a signatory on any number of international agreements that it makes little effort to live up to. But that's all true in Canada, too.
And while much is made about the staggeringly high rates of violent crime here in Honduras, the first crime we experienced this year was when we arrived back on the Island to find our storage locker in the "24/7 secure" facility in Saanich that we pay more than $100 a month for had been broken into. While we would have expected to be on our own in dealing with a problem like that in Honduras, it turned out we were on our own in Canada as well.
Lessons learned? The things you remember fondly are perhaps sweeter when kept as memories. The line between a developing country and a developed one is finer than you might think. Corruption comes in varying strengths, but it's still corruption. The risk of being a victim of crime is much higher in Honduras, but that's not to say it won't happen to you right there in your quaint little Canadian town.
I'll always have a heart for Canada. But we're not nearly as worlds apart from Honduras as we ought to be given the depth of our wealth, education and knowledge. Get out of town for a while and I think you'll see what I mean.
Postscript June 21: Woke up this morning and thought gee, I hope I don't sound ungrateful for all the things Canada has done for me. I owe my education, health, career and good salary to Canada, and I wouldn't even be here in Honduras were it not for a Canadian organization, Cuso International. If I didn't care about Canada, I wouldn't worry about it nearly so much.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Social justice doesn't need heroes

Early morning in good old YVR, where we arrived at 6 a.m. today to settle in for our five-hour wait until the next leg of the flight kicks in. Bad connection, but so it goes with points flights.
Had a wonderful but insanely busy eight days on the Island. Great to be back, but I'm still looking forward to the return to Honduras, and not just because it's about 15 degrees warmer than the Island right now. More on that later, but right now I'm posting (most) of the speech I gave at UVic on Friday as I accepted my honourary doctorate, which was a total thrill.

Speech at UVic, June 15:
They say that the thing that guides a life passion has its roots in your teen years, and certainly that was the case for me. While I wouldn’t have known to call it social justice at the time, I was 14 when a group of us at Lake Trail Junior High in Courtenay stood up for a young classmate – a girl we didn’t know at the time - who was being unfairly judged. I not only got a lifelong friendship out of that, I learned that even when you feel you’ve got zero  power to affect change in any grand kind of way, you always have power over your own actions and choices. The world will go the way the world goes, but you don’t have to go along.
All the twists and turns of a life are preparation for the person you end up being. But some things do shape your path more than others.
For me, one was becoming a mother while I was still a child myself, which means that at the relatively young age of 55 I’ve now had 38 years to experience all the amazing things that motherhood teaches you - to love unconditionally, to be fair, to be respectful without being a complete pushover, to stand up for those who have yet to grow into their power.
Another was becoming a journalist, a perfect prep course for anyone who might someday be given to social activism. You can’t help but know this world is an unfair place when your job is to listen to what’s going on for people, across every possible spectrum.
I feel very lucky to have stumbled onto a profession that not only gave me the privilege to ask anybody questions about anything – and for some reason they would feel beholden to answer - but helped me develop the practical skills I needed to help people fight back.
And for 14 years, through six corporate owners and five managing editors, the Times Colonist gave me the freedom to write a column about whatever the heck I wanted, including one year – 2008 – when every column I wrote profiled the people living homeless in Victoria. It’s popular to say mean things about mainstream media, but much of the work I’ve done as a social activist would not have been possible were it not for the wonderful pulpit the so-called corporate media allowed me for all those years.
It took me a while to accept that I was becoming a social activist. Journalists are supposed to be dispassionate observers of the world, after all. But life just kept on pushing me in that direction, until one day I realized that I didn’t just want to write about the things that were going wrong for people, I wanted to do something about them. The shift came in 1996, the year I met an intense young woman named Cherry Kingsley who made me realize I had much to learn about the maligned, mistreated and profoundly judged people who work in the sex trade.
A year later, I spent an amazing two weeks travelling down the Island with the Tribal Journeys/Vision Quest paddlers and experienced an emotional transformation in my view of aboriginal culture.
In 2001, a group of impoverished people with severe addictions who called the Holiday Court Motel home welcomed me into their lives, and suddenly I started seeing human beings instead of “junkies.” In 2002, a two-month strike at the Times Colonist pushed me as close as I’ve ever come to a nervous breakdown, but at the same time showed me that I could live very comfortably on much less money - something that would ultimately free me up to make some very different decisions in my life.
 In 2004, I came up to UVic on a whim to hear Stephen Lewis speak, and he asked the audience what WE were doing to make a difference. I thought, “What AM I doing?”
A few months later I quit my very comfortable, well-paid job as a full-time columnist and started work with PEERS Victoria, which led to three of the most powerful, enlightening, demanding, heartbreaking, character-building, hope-inducing, world-view-changing years of my life.
In 2007, I had the opportunity to work alongside people living on the edges of homelessness, and got to know some of the committed activists fighting to right one of the most shameful and unnecessary social wrongs in our country. This year, I finally made good on at least a decade of talking about cutting loose to wander the world, and moved to Honduras to experience a whole new set of profound social wrongs in need of righting. The gift of social justice work is that it opens your eyes, and once they’re open you’re going to experience life in any country in a very different way.
Every now and then people will kind of pat the back of my hand and say something along the lines of, “I could never do what you do.” They intend it as a compliment, but I have to tell you, I hear it as a copout. There’s nothing saintly or special about social justice – it’s just work. It’s just rolling up your sleeves and taking a little bit of the time you spend on your own pursuits to put toward the interests of somebody who needs an ally.
You don’t need any special training. So many of us underestimate the tremendous skill set we have just by way of growing up middle-class Canadians in loving families. You don’t need to be a miracle-worker. You just need to be the kind of person who shows up.
Social justice is the work of the collective – of hundreds, of thousands, of millions of people pushing a cause along in what might be heartbreakingly small increments over their lifetimes, recognizing that they could come to the end of their lives without ever knowing how the story ends. It’s not about heroes and saints, it’s about worker bees. 
 Change doesn’t come easily. Prejudice and judgment are quick to develop but incredibly difficult to eradicate. And nothing is harder than confronting your own stereotypes and prejudice, which is where it all begins.
Thank you to all the resisters out there who not only see a better way, but get that it’s up to us to help make it happen. Thank you so much for this tremendous honour. And now, back to work, because there’s still so much to do.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Fun to be home, but harried

I'm feeling like the blog's just a little too much "all about me" lately, but hey, it's a big week. The Times Colonist team I was part of won the Michener Award on Wednesday for its coverage over two years of the plight of families dealing with Community Living B.C., and today's my big day at the University of Victoria, when I receive an honourary doctorate of laws.
So allow me one more indulgence: A link to Jack Knox's very kind column on me in the TC this morning. Nice thing to wake up to in this rushed and harried week back home, and such things certainly do make my mother happy.
We'll be returning to Copan Ruinas bright and early Monday. I'm enjoying all the food and friends here in Victoria but I have to admit, it's a bit of a culture shock coming back and I'm looking forward to our rather quiet, simple life in Honduras. But first, a big party and lots of great, greasy snacks.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Safe in Honduras, victimized in Victoria

Back in Victoria for a week and here's an irony - we went to our storage locker yesterday only to discover that  things are missing and somebody had put a different lock on. So we come back to sleepy Victoria after six crime-free months in one of the most "dangerous" countries in the world to find ourselves victimized at a storage place we picked expressly because it was supposed to be safe.
We were dealing with an 18-year-old alarmed-looking clerk yesterday and had arrived 45 minutes before closing, so we still don't know anything about how this could have happened. She called the manager and he said he'd meet us there this morning, which is kind of alarming in itself when you think that he couldn't be bothered to deal with a troubling turn of events at that very moment.
At any rate, we're going back today at the moment the place opens, and I'll be in full-on indignation mode. Here's hoping that "24/7 video surveillance" they promise turns out to be true, although I fear that all we're going to see is somebody breaking into our locker. Video footage won't bring back our stuff.
Let me tell you, there's nothing more disorienting than opening a combination lock that you've never seen before (with the combination still handily taped on the back, just to make it easier) to find that indeed, that IS your stuff in there behind the door - and yes, some of it is missing. The most obvious is our bed mattress and two bags of all our favourite clothes, which is completely inexplicable and part of the reason why my partner Paul thinks there has to be a logical explanation. Here's hoping.
Double-checked the self-storage Web site this morning just to make sure that security was one of the things they promised, and found this promise on every page of the site: "Your valuables are safe with us!" Particularly galling is a rather smug line about how they look after your stuff as if it was their own, adding: "This isn't a friend's basement."
Alas, we would have been better off if it had been.
Who knows, maybe I'll be happily deleting this post a few hours from now because it turns out there was a good reason why somebody cut our lock off, took our mattress and God knows what else out of there, and put on a new combination lock that allowed anyone with the sense to flip the thing over to be able to break in again. (Does rather seem like the point, doesn't it?)
Like I say, here's hoping.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The storm before the calm

Storms come slowly here. This is my first rainy season in a tropical country, and it's taken me a while to understand that there's no need to hurry if you find yourself outside when the clouds start building over the mountains and the first ripples of thunder rumble overhead.
It's not like Kamloops or the Prairies, where storms roll in so fast you can barely get the picnic supplies packed up fast enough. Here, hours might pass in between the start of the thunder and the first drops of rain. It gives you plenty of time to admire the gorgeous clouds that develop as the heat of the day builds into the storms that come every night.
I'm liking this season, with the foliage vivid green from all the rain and the river - barely a trickle three weeks ago - now running fast and furious. This must be the time for lizards to breed, because I hear them skittering like crazy in the leaves at the side of the road as I walk along. Unfortunately, it's also a happy time of year for mosquitos, so I'm back to using bug repellent as my morning skin cream.
I've learned to get up early and get the wash out on the line before 8 a.m., to make sure it dries before the daily rains set in. I know to get my walks in before 3 or 4 p.m., because it's almost certainly going to start raining right around then.  I've never liked umbrellas, but I don't leave home without one anymore. One day when the rain was particularly fierce, we saw a young boy running past our house crying, and I could sympathize; it's the kind of rain that hurts.
Most nights, I awake to the sound of rain pounding down, lightning flashing bright in the night sky. Sometimes we went to bed having forgotten to close up a couple of the more vulnerable windows, which means I have to jump up to do that before the water starts pouring in through the screens and down the walls. When the rain's really heavy, the water comes in through the windows even if they're closed, and in one particularly big storm came in under the doors as well.
And then the morning comes and it's sunny and clear again, and the only hint of the storm that came and went in the night are bigger and bigger puddles for me to manouevre past on my walk to work.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Resistance is futile

A friend asked me recently if I ever felt “Third-Worlded out” living in Honduras.
Daily life in fact feels pretty First World here in Copan, what with cable TV in our comfy living room, hot showers every night and a good pizza place just down the road.
But the patterns of your life change even when you move across town, let alone to the second-poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.  The comment got me thinking about what I do differently now that I live someplace where even a $10,000 annual volunteer stipend puts you in the ranks of the well-off.
I do the laundry by hand. This is an amusing development, considering that in my former life I didn’t even hand-wash the things that you were supposed to hand-wash, let alone things like towels and sheets. But we don’t have a washer or a dryer anymore and there’s no laundromat in Copan. I could probably take it to somebody, but mostly it just seems easier to do it myself.
I don’t have a car. Gas is the same price here as it is in Canada. That’s pretty good motivation for going carless. Add in the horrendous condition of the roads and the crazy way Hondurans drive, and walking looks better and better.  We live about three blocks from the commercial centre and my workplace is a pleasant 15-minute stroll away, so it hasn’t been as big as an adjustment as I thought it would be. It does rule out fun little day trips into the surrounding countryside, however, unless you can find someone with a horse to rent.
I leave my iPod at home. I used to love long strolls with nothing but my Nano for company. But you just look too much like a rich gringo with your earbuds in and that distracted, I’m-in-my-own-head look that you get when you’re grooving to your own personal soundtrack. It’s not just about the risk of getting your  stuff stolen – it’s about the way it sets you apart from everyone else in the community, seeing as I’ve yet to see anyone here strolling around with a personal stereo.
I dress very plainly. Those who know me might say, “Yeah? So what’s new about that?” But I’m talking really plain – I’ve got maybe 3 skirts, all in drab colours, and three pair of hopelessly practical shoes to be able to manoeuvre around the obstacle course of crazily canted cobblestones, gaping holes, dog poo, ragged concrete and mud that you deal with any time you walk out the door here. I’m not sure if my plain dressing is a deliberate attempt to minimize my profile or just what happens when you live in a really hot country with a lot of dirt roads.
I coexist with bugs. I’d be freaking out back in our land at the giant cockroaches and ants that wander at will around the house. But here I’m trying to just let it go. Nothing’s built airtight in a tropical country, so there’s no way to win this one. However, every now and then I do make my partner sweep a particularly large cockroach out the door, and today we put a towel under the door near the kitchen to stop the stream of ants scouring the ceramic tile for bits of food.
My eating habits have changed.  I was a happy carnivore back in Canada, with a long list of “treat” foods that I indulged in whenever I needed a little pick-me-up. Alas, neither meat nor treats are common here. The best you can say about any baked good here is, “Well, it’s not that terrible.” The chocolate is scarce and mediocre to boot even when you do manage to find any. I have been reduced to buying bags of wrapped caramel candies called “Bianchis” – the only tolerable candy I’ve found in Copan – and eating two or three whenever I feel desperate.
I throw my toilet paper in a garbage can. I don’t know what it is about poor countries, but their bad plumbing seems to be universal. At any rate, you can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet here.  I’m not happy about it, but so it goes.
I pour dog food onto my front step every night. Virtually every dog here, owned or stray, is underfed.  I don’t know which dogs are coming by to eat the food I put out, but all of them can use it so it doesn’t matter.
I’ve adjusted my customer-service expectations down, down, down. Things go wrong in Honduras on a regular basis. Resistance is futile.  
Power goes out randomly, sometimes for hours. Bank machine says it gave you $200 when it didn’t, and you know you’ll never see it again.  You pay for two gigabytes on your Internet modem and it runs out in two days, which is not possible but it doesn’t matter. Giant manhole cover collapses in your street and leaves a gaping hole big enough for cars to fall into, and three weeks later the hole’s still there.
You buy the wrong cord for your computer and the store refuses to take it back, receipt or not. People you work for tell you to put together a one-hour PowerPoint presentation for a big meeting and then forget all about you.  Your cellphone stops working because the company wants you to text them your identity number, but you don’t have one because you’re not Honduran.
And yeah, at times it’s all just a little too much. But I can roll with it.

Friday, June 01, 2012

A fuel-efficient fogon rises from the mud

Adan Garcia and Don Antonio Garcia building a fogon
I feel a bit like the family dog at work sometimes, mystified much of the time as to why my workmates are bundling me into the truck to go somewhere but always happy to be taken along. One of my co-workers in particular likes that I take photos of his projects to post to the CASM Facebook site, so I'm getting to go on new adventures pretty much every week now.
Yesterday, we spent the day at a local Copaneco's house building an energy-efficient fogon - a new twist on the wood cooking stoves that are staples in most Honduran homes.
Electricity is scarce and gas is expensive for a population that in many cases gets by on not much more than a buck a day (you don't know "poor" until you see it up close in Honduras). So wood is still the fuel of choice  for poor people - bad news in a country in which more than 60 per cent of the population lives in poverty AND the trees are disappearing at an alarming rate. The other big problem with wood fires is that the poorest families don't even have proper stoves, just blazing-hot fires inside their little mud houses that result in burned children and much lung damage from smoke inhalation.
The small firebox creates lots of heat
while burning 45 per cent less wood.
The fogons that CASM has been helping to build for the last five years cost about $60 each in materials and labour. They are cleverly engineered so that a very small fire box creates a big area of heat for cooking, using 45 per cent less wood. They're hot on the inside and cool on the outside, with a chimney to vent the smoke outside.
I've seen various ones in my travels with CASM, but yesterday was the first time I got to see the construction process from the ground up. And it really is from the ground up, starting with a big mud cube that forms the base of the stove and making use of all kinds of odds and ends during the process that the average dead-broke Honduran might actually have access to.
CASM foots part of the bill, including labour costs, because $60 is way beyond the reach of the people the organization works with. But the person receiving the stove is expected to buy or scrounge up as much of the materials as possible and to participate in the construction.
So we arrived at the one-room adobe home of Adan Garcia to find a fully-formed mud cube behind the house, two buckets of wood ash for packing around the firebox as insulation, a half bucket of cement for the top of the stove, and the big steel plancha used for the cooking surface. The four-person family has a gas stove tucked into their rough little 8x10 house alongside their two beds, but the wife was clearly looking forward to having a cheaper and roomier option out back.
Wood ash is poured into the cavity around the firebox
to keep the stove cool to the touch on the outside.
Adan had been able to buy about a third of the 28 bricks needed for the fogon. We headed off to the construction yard to buy the remainder and then went down to the river to dig a bucket of sand for mixing in with the cement.
The river is the sand and gravel source for everyone in town judging by the amount of pickups, dump trucks and excavators I see down there every day, but it's trickier right now because the river's high in the rainy season. We almost got stuck. Back at Adan's house, Don Antonio Garcia was rolling up his sleeves. He's a whiz from La Cuchilla who has built a lot of fogones on behalf of CASM. He was adept at sticking bricks together with mud while keeping the whole thing level and square, and a master at cutting bricks to size with a machete.
Adan tears a board off his house
for the concrete form
It took about five hours to build the stove. The process attracted quite a crowd of curious men from the neighbourhood, who brought along their tape measures and observed the construction carefully. That's another benefit of such projects: Each one is like a mini-workshop. As he worked Don Antonio also amazed the group with tales of his biodigester back home - another CASM initiative - that transforms the manure from his cow into methane gas for cooking.
When it came time to pour the concrete, I was reminded again how close to the bone life is for so many Hondurans. Adan didn't have enough wood to make the form for the concrete, so he had to pull a couple boards off the structure of his house. The nails that were set into the mud to add strength to the concrete were a mish-mash of bent and crooked things in various shapes and sizes that he'd clearly scrounged. Nobody blinked at any of it; that's just how it is here.
Don Antonio fits the plancha - the cooking surface

It was a day that reminded me what I like best about CASM. They do practical things using whatever's at hand. They add in just enough of their resources and skills to make things possible.
They do projects that teach people new skills so that they in turn can help others build a fuel-efficient fogon in their own back yard, or turn cow manure into cooking fuel. Feet firmly on the ground, common-sense strategies that empower people and make a tough life just a little more bearable. That's how it's done.