Monday, July 30, 2012

A Question of Faith

"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."
So said Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century Catholic theologian.  The longer I spend in this very religious country, the more I realize I’m in the latter group, something that’s sinking in even while my respect deepens for the work that people of faith do in struggling countries like Honduras.
I think of myself as an agnostic on all fronts – religion, politics, economic theories, health trends, social practices, you name it. I’ve got beliefs, of course, but a surprising number have changed over my lifetime after I gained more insight into a particular issue and realized I’d been wrong. So I try to keep an open mind about everything now just in case a compelling new argument surfaces that requires me to rethink what I thought I knew.
Religion has been one of the more complicated subjects for me. I was baptised in the United Church as a baby but essentially grew up secular, saying the Lord’s Prayer every day with all the other kids in my class but never really taking much in. At age 14 I had a brief flirtation with a charismatic Four Square movement targeted at young teens, and diligently read my gold Gideon’s Bible cover to cover.  But I stalked out of my first Four Square service in a rage after taking offence when the minister invited us “non-Christians” to come forward to accept God.
I got married in the United Church, as did everybody in Courtenay, B.C. back in the 1970s. But faith never called to me.  Outside of weddings, funerals and my travels in Europe, it’s been a rare thing for me to spend any time in a church.
Still, I never quite closed the door. Some of the purest, best people I’ve ever met have had faith, and witnessing them putting their faith into action filled me with admiration. My years at PEERS Victoria, which at that time was intensely influenced by the philosophies of Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous, taught me that faith is sometimes all a person has to hang onto, and is a powerful force for good in terms of motivating others to go above and beyond their job description to help someone.
But always, I was an observer. I liked what I saw, but I didn’t feel personally touched by any of it. I internalized the values at the heart of most faiths, but I just couldn’t buy into the concept of a divine presence watching over us, let alone that crazy story about a virgin birth.
That said, I do think that the world would be a much better place if more of us asked “What would Jesus do?” and acted accordingly. And in the last few years, I’ve had some of my best work/volunteer experiences working alongside people of faith, to the point that I now prefer to work with faith-based organizations. The social sciences have gone a long way toward creating smarter interventions for people in need, but you can’t beat love.
Here in Honduras, religion is just part of life (except in government, where Honduras actually scores lower on the scale of religious influence than Canada). Every Honduran I’ve met attends church, and sprinkles even the most casual conversation with several  “Gracias a Dios” comments. Impoverished Hondurans struggling with unbelievable life challenges still thank God for keeping them alive to fight another day.
Faith also brings a striking number of young Americans to Hondurans, where they give up the comforts of home in the name of doing God’s work. I have to say, I haven’t run into a heck of a lot of committed atheists taking on similar commitments to make the world a better place.
So I’ve been trying to open myself up again, just in case I’ve been wrong about me and faith.  My workplace does an hour-long devotional every Monday morning, and I dutifully reflect on the thoughts about God that my colleagues present. I’ve even hosted a devotional – on faith in action, of course! – and spent much time thumbing through my Spanish-English bible to find the right verses for sharing.
But the more I participate, the more certain I become that I just don’t have the faith gene. Is it because I’m a relentlessly practical person who wastes not a moment dreaming about how things “should” be? Is it because my years in journalism just confirmed to me that there is no plan, simply a rather random series of blunders, brilliance, and plain dumb luck? Maybe all of the above.
Here in Honduras, I see people spending hours attending church every week while their country falls apart for lack of civic engagement and social care. And yet I've also met so many who truly live their faith. In getting to know the poorest people I've ever known, I've also come to understand that when everything about a life is sad, hard and desperate, all you've really got is faith that something better awaits after death. 
A lack of faith is often viewed as akin to losing hope. I disagree. I might not believe in divinity, but I’ve seen what hard work can accomplish. I’ll put my faith in the human spirit.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Where disaster is just a matter of time

Workshop in Guaramal II
The 14 students of Escuela Anardo Napoleon Mata listen attentively as the woman at the front of the one-room school quizzes them about how they'll respond in an emergency.
Will they jostle each other on the way out the door if an earthquake is shaking the mud walls of the school down? "No!" Will they exaggerate how badly injured somebody is should they need to go looking for help? "No!" Do they know who heads up the Comité Emergencia Escolar in their tiny village? "La maestra!"
We're in Guaramal II, one of 20 isolated villages around Copan Ruinas where my organization works. Emergency preparedness is a significant part of the work done by the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, and on this day CASM is here giving workshops to the 15 families who live in Guaramal II on managing risk during a natural disaster.
That there will be a natural disaster sooner or later is a given. This is the rainy season in Honduras, and rain can be torrential in the hills. Villagers are at constant risk of roads, houses, livestock and crops being washed away when the rains come pounding down on the steep slopes where they live, a problem they've inadvertently worsened by cutting down the forests on those slopes to make way for their subsistence corn crops.
Earthquake evacuation practice
And while North Americans can generally assume that somebody will come to save them in the event of a natural disaster, the villagers of Honduras know otherwise. The residents of Guaramal II and several other villages regularly lose contact with the rest of the world whenever the Rio Negro is running high and the makeshift road that cuts across the river bed is impassable. The village is only 25 kilometres away from touristy Copan Ruinas, but it's a long, hard hour to cover that distance, and it might as well be a thousand miles away given that few of the villagers have vehicles anyway.
There's electricity here, but the power failures are frequent in Honduras at the best of times and a certainty in periods of heavy rain. If you're lucky, you might get a weak cell phone signal in Guaramal. But don't count on it.
Through projects funded by Diakonia and Christian Aid - two of the European faith-based organizations that fund a significant amount of the development work in Honduras - CASM has been working to get communities better prepared for when disaster strikes. Hurricane Mitch killed almost 15,000 Hondurans in 1998, and nobody in the country will forget that anytime soon.
In the schools, the preparation takes the form of Comites Emergencias Escolares, headed by the teacher at each village school and focused on getting students to safety as quickly as possible. In the communities, CASM has developed Comites de Emergencia Local (CODEL). Hondurans like acronyms, and so the CODEL committee members focus on the details of EDAN - evaluating damages, analysing needs.
At the workshop this week, CASM employee Carmen Elisa Recarte encouraged people to think about how they'd priorize their response in the event of a disaster.
Would it be more urgent to replace the roof of the school or the roof of the community health centre, for instance? People in the room were slow to respond, but perhaps it was something of a theoretical question in a village that has neither of those things. The "school" is in fact just an out-building that a resident is allowing to be used for classes, and the nearest health centre is a 40-minute drive away.
The group gets the hang of things after a while, though. They agree they'd priorize rescue services for elderly residents and anyone who is incapacitated. They're not sure what they'd do about contaminated water; that's an ongoing problem in the village at the best of times. But they do know the name of the community leader charged with heading up evacuation and rescue, and they've got a plan for getting villagers to safety. That's more than they had before.
Like every village workshop I've been to in Honduras, this one is interrupted regularly by restless toddlers, crying babies and many chickens and dogs wandering through. But the audience seems to have better attention skills than I do, and by the end of the afternoon they are very clear on why they need a disaster-management plan: To save lives.
In a country where so many lives hang on the thinnest of threads, that's challenge enough.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It's Hokey Pokey Time

Fellow blogger, activist and musician Ross K - better known to his many blog fans as The Gazetteer - asked me to post a video of me and the kids from Angelitos Felices doing the Hokey Pokey.
Ross has been a great supporter of Paul and I on our adventures in Honduras, and just the fact that he puts my blog on his blog list brings a lot more readers to my site. I've been promising him a video of me playing the accordion here in Honduras that I've yet to make good on, so I felt a responsibility to get Hokey Pokeying without too much delay.
So here it is, Ross, from me to you: And thanks again for being such a good blog buddy. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Development aid for the wealthy

 Development dollars understandably target the poorest people in countries like Honduras. It's human instinct to want to provide help where the need is most intense.
But the more I get to know the scene here, the more I think the country needs a project that targets wealthy Hondurans. I just don't see how there will ever be enough development dollars to lift this country out of its problems unless the rich people and the government here shift their thinking.
What do rich Honduras...
What makes the rich people of the world assume some responsibility for helping the less fortunate? Some just have big hearts, sure. But mostly they pony up either because they're taxed as a condition of living and working in a particular country, or because they see a benefit from donating.
In Honduras, there's little evidence that eitherof those motivations exist. In a country that essentially operates as an aristocracy, rich Hondurans tend to be connected people who are much less likely to have to pay taxes than their impoverished counterparts. There's no system for charitable tax receipts; even the system for ascertaining charitable status for an organization seems a bit suspect.
...owe to the poor?
And if there's peer pressure among rich Hondurans to give to the less fortunate - or even fund community projects - it's low-profile to the point of invisibility. Every now and then you read of somebody forking over a donation to a hospital, but you don't see the big gifts of parkland, theatres, memorial classrooms or grand bequests like you do in the U.S. and Canada.
So what you end up with is the rich living up there in the creamy layer, with their mansions and their Hummers and their armed guards, while down below the big aid organizations from developed countries in lands far away dole out hundreds of millions of dollars a year so that the nearly 70 per cent of Hondurans living in poverty can eke out the most pathetic of livings.
Something's really wrong with that picture. Thank God for development dollars - in many cases literally, seeing as much of the development work in Honduras is done by faith-based non-profits operating on funds from Christian aid organizations in Europe. But surely foreign aid is meant to be an add-on to a country's own efforts to set itself right, not the sole source of development funds.
 How can more rich Hondurans be encouraged to engage in the work of bringing Honduras out of  chronic poverty? It's galling to see foreign countries doing all the heavy lifting with so little help from the people who have done very well in Honduras.
I think it's best if rich people talk to rich people about things like this, so in my dream project I'd gather the wealthy philanthropists from other countries to create a strategy for engaging the big earners in Honduras. Let's start with a committee made up of a few of the people that Barron's lists as the 25 most effective givers. They've clearly got it going on.
Of course, you can't just show up in a foreign country demanding that rich people give more money to charity. The plan will need to be highly strategic and long-term. But wealthy philanthropists are all about strategic and long-term. I'm sure they've all thought long and hard about their own motivations for giving, and could be invaluable in crafting messages and incentives that might pry some lempiras out of the hands of Honduras's millionaires.
Meanwhile, democratic governments in Canada,  the U.S. and Europe can do their part by applying a little friendly government-to-government pressure.
They do it all  the time when the mood suits them, sometimes by threatening to withhold aid money (not that I'm in favour of that, seeing as the only ones who get hurt are the poor sods at the bottom of the economy), sometimes by making noises about emerging markets and the need to have exemplary partners. What would be so wrong with using a little international bullying to get the Honduran government to tax its wealthy citizens as well as its poor ones, and to ease up on the free ride it gives to the country's most powerful corporations?
For one thing, it's only fair. No country should get away with heavy reliance on development dollars from other countries while its richest citizens are free to pocket enormous wealth without so much as a guilty second thought.
For another, a country trying to climb out of the hole solely based on project dollars from foreign donors is doomed to failure. Short of revolution - and we all know how touch-and-go that can be - how can a country ever stabilize its economy and build a better future without engaging the people with all the power and money?
A development project for the rich and powerful. Now there's an idea whose time has come.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On-line donations for Angelitos now possible - and thanks for asking!

Thank you to all the people who have been asking me how they could help with the work Paul and I are doing to try to support the 40 children being cared for at the Angelitos Felices foster home here in Copan Ruinas. I've now set up a page through that sets out our specific fundraising goals and allows people to donate on-line. Sorry I can't offer a tax receipt, though - that's solely an option for registered charities in Canada and the U.S. (and if you'd prefer that route, please check out our Cuso fundraising page).
The gofundme site takes an admin fee of about 8.5 per cent on donations - 5 per cent off the top, 3.5 per cent through PayPal for the service of being able to collect and withdraw on-line donations. If  you don't like the idea of that, you can always send a cheque to my mother's house and save the admin fee - just drop me a line at and I'll send you her address!
I'm new at this and very conscious that accountability is a big issue when I'm taking other people's money. You have my promise that every penny beyond the site admin fees will go to the children of Angelitos Felices. There's now a big button up there on the right-hand side of my blog that connects to the new site - I'll be posting lots of photos and updates to keep people informed and connected. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I can see (slightly) more clearly now

How can I help? Such a big question. Still puzzling over that one as we head into our seventh month in this challenged country, but today I finally felt like some of the pieces might be starting to come together. 
We came down here with Cuso International, which emphasizes "capacity-building" when placing volunteers. In other words, you're not here to do the day-to-day work of the organization you're placed with, but to put your skills to work helping them do their work more effectively. The goal is to leave the organization you work with in a stronger position than before you came. 
I think that same approach is going to stand me in good stead for my projects on the side in Copan. There are always going to be times when what's needed is simply an extra pair of hands, but if I can tackle some of the bigger stuff with an eye to the long-term benefits that will last after I'm gone, I think that would be the best use of my two years here. 
I've spent many hours puzzling over how I was going to do that for the foster home I was introduced to back in April, Angelitos Felices. I go there pretty much every Sunday and have some fun with the kids, and I recognize that counts for something. But when you're standing in the midst of children living in a place like that - no beds, rag-tag clothes that never fit, barely enough food - you can't help but want to do better than just popping around once a week to sing several rounds of the Hokey Pokey and hand out crayons. 
The bed thing really bothers me, and I had a big plan to find hospital mattresses that would be durable, easy to clean and a better alternative than the poor little guys sleeping on the dirty concrete floor like they do now.  That seemed like something I could do that would make a lasting difference in the lives of these kids.
But I haven't gotten anywhere on my inquiries. So I've now moved on to Plan B, which involves buying regular foam mattresses that are available here in Copan and wrapping them in this super-durable plastic they sell in San Pedro Sula for making biodigestors. I figure if there's a plastic that can withstand intense Honduran sunlight and the constant heat of fermenting cow manure - the sausage-shaped biodigestors are used on small farms here to transform manure into methane gas for cooking - it should be tough enough to handle 30 kids and all the urine, poo, vomit and fidgety hands they can muster for several years. 
On the up side, I can probably do the project for less than $1,000 if I do it this way, compared to $1,000 for each hospital mattress even if I did get so lucky as to get even one mattress company to reply to my inquiries. On the down side, I am imagining how it's going to go when the time comes for me and my partner to wrestle 30 foam mattresses into heavy-duty plastic (which handily comes in tube form) and seal the ends using a candle. Not pretty. 
I think I can also scrounge around for money for a ceramic-tile floor for the big, empty room where the kids spend 90 per cent of their time. Right now it's dirty, painted concrete - hard to clean, scabby-looking, and definitely worsening the general grimness of the place. It's not like a new floor will turn anybody's lives around, but a better living environment for kids that spend so many hours trapped inside seems like a good investment. 
Perhaps there's also an opportunity to do some relationship-building between Angelitos and the international medical community that runs clinics here, because there sure are a lot of  medical needs among the kids at the home. The public health care here is scant and somewhat sketchy, and chronic health conditions go untreated all the time because nobody has the money for medications.
And then there's short-term stuff I can help with: Swims at the pool every couple of weeks; crafts and songs; help with staples like eggs, cheese, laundry soap, disposable diapers. That's not really capacity-building, because the goods stop coming as soon as I'm no longer here. But I have a secret hope that I can rebuild some of the broken connections between the home and the Copan community along the way that will carry on once my Honduran adventure wraps up. When people see you doing good deeds, sometimes it puts them in more of a mood for such things as well. 
Then there's corporate sponsors. After my lack of progress on finding a mattress company that would even send me so much as a thanks-for-your-inquiry email - and all I wanted was a chance to buy their product -  - I'm keeping my expectations in check on this front. But still, you'd think that a company like Nestle's or Kimberley Clark (respective makers of Nido milk products and Huggies diapers, dominant brands here) might have a heart for kids with absolutely nothing. At any rate, it never hurts to ask. 
I'm looking into on-line fundraising options, like, in order to have a slightly more professional donating option for some of my friends who want to help. Right now all I can do is suggest they send a cheque made out to me to my mother's address in Victoria, which seems quite lame. It's nice people trust me to do the right thing, but I'd really like to be able to demonstrate more accountability and get more specific about the projects that are catching my eye. 
Thank you to the readers with experience in some of this work, who've been very generous with their advice.  Little by little, a plan is taking shape.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Seasons change but the warm days never end

There is something of an eternal summer feeling to life in Honduras, which suits me just fine. I spent much of my Canadian summers in a state of mild anxiety, trying to pack as much outdoor time as possible into the scant weekends when the days were warm enough for the beach. No more.
But while the warm days are virtually a constant here in Copan, the seasons do change. They bring different birds, different bugs, more or less leaves on the trees, a different feel to the day. 
Copanecos consider this time of year to be "winter," because it rains more. But whatever they want to call it, it's summer.  The flowering trees are in full bloom, the vegetation is lush and green. Young birds are everywhere, having hatched in the last couple of months and grown big enough to be testing out their wings and making those distinct and somewhat abrasive feed-me calls common to young birds the world over. 
The lizards clearly come into their own in the rainy season as well. The little barking geckos that hang around in the rafters of our house appear to be year-round residents, but since May I've seen and heard a lot more of the larger varieties skittering around in the gravel and dead leaves at the edges of the dirt roads I walk. But the dinosaur-like crested fellows that occasionally darted across the road on their hind legs have vanished, so I'll have to presume they prefer the dry months of February, March and April.
There is a particular type of cicada that sings in the trees in the runup to Semana Santa in March or April, and another kind that heralds the start of the rainy season in mid-May. Lately I've been hearing another kind with a higher pitch to its song, perhaps a variety that ushers in this pleasant period during July and August  that the Copanecos call "summer in the middle of winter." 
The days leading up to the rainy season also brought out an extraordinary number of small black and tan beetles, which I enjoyed until their numbers grew so large that I couldn't put a foot down near my desk at work without crushing one. They're gone now, as are the the leafcutter ants that a month ago were diligently carting bits of leaves past our front door every night. 
We arrived here in January, and I briefly thought Copan was going to be a place with cooler temperatures and more drizzle, because that was what that time of year tends to bring. But then the heat hit in mid-February and we went weeks without rain, and April brought a dry, intense heat that had us sweating through long, restless nights and rushing out to buy fans for our house and our overheated computers.
The rainy season arrived in mid-May and the brown hills were suddenly lush and green. I'd almost convinced myself that Copan was a place without many mosquitoes, but soon learned that's only true in the dry months. It has motivated me to keep taking those nasty, bitter malaria pills, and to hope that the locals are right in their assurances that dengue fever is a problem only on the coast.
If you're a birder like me, you also mark the changing seasons by what you see through your binoculars. The Montezuma oropendolas were splendid when we first got here, making their crazy yodelling calls and building magnificent dangling nests at the tops of the tallest trees. They've since moved on to wherever oropendolas go in July, but now the corn fields are full of white-collared seed eaters,  lesser goldfinches and grosbeaks, and the trees along the river are full of kiskadees and flycatchers.
May and June were fine months to see turquoise-browed motmots, exotic fellows with tails like cuckoo clocks. Copanecos know them as guardabarrancos for their habit of nesting in dirt cliffs. I spent several happy weeks seeing them on almost every bird walk. 
The sightings have become rarer in recent days, but in the last month I've seen collared aracaris twice. This place used to be thick with black vultures, but their ranks seem to have thinned lately. As for green herons, I need only walk a short distance to the sewage settling ponds, where they appear to be year-round residents.
Nobody seems to have a name for the season that starts around October, so I guess we'll see what that brings. People here in Copan consider that time of year to be frio, but that just means temperatures in the mid-20s. Hurricane season will be wrapping up right around then on the coast - could be the perfect time for that trip to Roatan we've been talking about. 
Fall will be settling in around Victoria about that time, and I will think fondly of that nice sharpness that the mornings get as a Canadian autumn takes hold.  But then I'll remember how Novembers tend to play out. I suspect a change of insects and another warm day will look pretty good at that point. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ignorance persists in absence of options

I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore when I read a story not too long ago in one of the Honduran papers in which the leading medical expert on mental illness in the country described bipolar disorder as a "split personality," with one personality prone to committing violent acts. 
Yesterday, there was a column in La Prensa defending the government's 2005 decision to prohibit gay people from adopting children. The writer noted it was a well-known fact that if gay people raise children, the children often turn gay themselves.
Uh-huh. Such blatant falsehoods have started me reflecting on how other countries managed to grow past similarly uninformed and harmful points of view. You need the will, of course, but you also need the mechanisms for combating ignorance. Honduras is really lacking on that front. 
In Canada, we like to gripe about our governments and their lack of attention to the things we care about. Admittedly, virtually any social progress requires much pressuring of the government of the day and a dogged determination to keep an eye on them forever lest they backtrack as soon as you're not looking. But at least it's possible in Canada. In Honduras, not so much. 
Take the examples of mental illness or gay rights, for instance. It wasn't so long ago in Canada that many people thought about those issues with the same level of ignorance that's common in Honduras. 
So how did that change? As representatives of those groups can attest, it's a long, slow process that is at constant risk of being subverted by even a single high-profile event that sidetracks a nervous public (the tragic beheading committed by a mentally ill man on a Greyhound bus a couple years ago comes to mind ). Eradicating stereotypes and prejudice even in progressive countries like Canada will always be something of a work in progress.
 But having governments that are at least a little susceptible to voter pressure and persuasion is critical to such efforts, as are public forums where you can safely raise a contrary opinion. Here in Honduras, you won't even find a letters-to-the-editor section in the newspapers, let alone anything resembling a responsive government. How do you get traction for social change in the absence of mechanisms for broadening the public conversation and ultimately turning up the heat on government?
I don't know where things like mental-health awareness and gay rights fall on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but almost 70 per cent of Hondurans exist at the bottom of that hierarchy. It could be that the struggle for survival simply doesn't leave enough time in the day for worrying about human rights and seriously flawed views on mental illness. And like I say, there's nobody to complain to anyway.
But if life is incredibly difficult for the average Honduran, I can't even imagine what it must be like for those living with mental illness. The death rates must be phenomenal. 
 I'm told there's a big asylum in San Pedro Sula where people are locked up for what is often probably a lifetime. What must conditions be like inside there? That comment about split personality made by the Honduran bipolar expert was in reference to a story about a mentally ill man who had killed his father and was about to be jailed for life in an iron cage so small he couldn't even stand up in it. 
As for being openly gay in Honduras, forget it. People live deep in the closet,  rightly fearing the violence and public vilification they'd endure otherwise. In 2005, Honduras even went so far as to amend its constitution to ban gay marriage and specifically prohibit gay people from adopting or having custody of a child. 
I wish I was naive enough to still believe that international sanctions on things like this would be enough to bring a country around. 
But such fights are never won from the top down. Canada recognizes gay rights because thousands of brave Canadians risked it all over many decades to speak out, and an independent judiciary and eventually a reluctant government pulled alongside. Canada has (mostly) humane and research-based strategies for the treatment of mental illness because millions of families endured and endured and endured, and courageously told their stories so that others would understand.
Maybe the day will come for Honduras, too. Until then, it's the dark ages. 

Sunday, July 08, 2012

All the news that's negative and scary

As part of my communications work for the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, I decided I'd do an English-language Facebook page for CASM. I figured I could highlight some of the work of the organization as well as share stories about Honduras that offered an alternative to the endless murder-and-mayhem headlines that come out of this country.
Alas, it is unbelievably hard to find stories about Honduras that are even neutral, let alone positive. I've never seen a country in more dire need of good PR than this place. I mean, there are definitely problems here, but the single story line coming out of Honduras really does a disservice to this poor country.
As if it wasn't bad enough to be branded the "murder capital of the world" due to all the violence in the drug trade here, it seems that barely a month can go by without some other totally weird tragedy putting Honduras into the world's headlines.
Since we arrived in January, there has been a massive prison fire that burned up 365 inmates, a massive fire that wiped out a huge public market in Tegucigalpa, at least two really ugly prison riots, and that nasty business with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in which four apparently innocent people were gunned down. And this past week brings news that 21 people in Siguatepeque have died from drinking tainted alcohol.
Horrible things do happen more often in poor countries, of course. But the problem for Honduras is that the only stories that make it into the media are the horrible ones. It gives such a distorted view of the country, not to mention scares the hell out of my family. It even scares away aid agencies - like the Peace Corps, which cited security concerns in its decision to withdraw more than 150 volunteers from Honduras a few weeks before we arrived.
And what must it do to the people of Honduras? As this study notes, 25 per cent of Hondurans surveyed about strategies that might bring about positive change in governance in their country believed that nothing could change the situation. Surely that's the gravest impact of all of relentlessly negative news: People lose hope that anything will ever improve.
The poor country has taken quite a hit in tourism ever since the 2009 coup (yeah, that didn't help the image either). Walk around Copan Ruinas and you can see that the town has all the infrastructure for a much bigger tourism economy than actually exists now. Ever since we got here we've been hearing from local merchants that things were slow but maybe that would change in June. But June came and went without much of a bump in tourism.
And who can blame the tourists if they do pick a different destination? If all you know about Honduras is what you hear in the news, Hawaii starts to look pretty good.
All I can tell you is that there's much more to the story of Honduras. It's not Canada, but it's not the Killing Fields either. I wouldn't be here if it was, wandering freely and comfortably hither and yon and even inviting my kids and grandkids down for a visit.
I'll keep looking for the stories that tell another side to this beleaguered country. In the meantime, keep an open mind.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

So you want to be an international volunteer...

Not surprisingly, the number of acquaintances commenting to me that they, too, have been thinking of international volunteering has been rising with each grey, cold summer day everybody seems to be experiencing back in B.C. right now. 
I highly recommend it, and not just because I'm sitting here right now with the warm Honduran breeze blowing in on me from the wide open door and my memories of being cold and bummed out by the Victoria weather fading fast. If you like to shake things up in your life, experience a whole new way of doing things and put your skills to work in places where they’re really, really needed, this is the ticket.
But before you send your application off to Cuso International or whatever organization has caught your eye, I’d recommend an honest self-assessment to make sure you really do have that “flexibility and adaptability” that any international volunteer agency worth its salt is looking for in its long-term volunteers. Be sure  you’re doing it for the right reasons, too -  I’ve been struck by how many volunteers and ex-pats (women especially) I’ve met here in Honduras who came here on the run from some disappointing aspect of their life back home only to discover that a challenging new culture and  language only deepens feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.
So my first tip: Think about international volunteering at a point in your life when you’re happy and fulfilled, not when you’re looking to fill a hole in your life. Life as an outsider can get pretty lonely, and that’s from the perspective of someone who’s a loner by nature and has her spouse along with her. If you’re unhappy at home, I suspect you’ll be even unhappier living in a challenging new culture where few people speak your language and the lifestyle bears little resemblance to the comfy, secure and dependable life of a middle-class Canadian.
Cuso really pressed the point about flexibility and adaptability in the various interviews and training we went through before coming here, and now that I’m here I think they probably could have pressed it even more. I mean, we’re talking flexible like a yoga master. We’re talking adaptable like those tough little creatures that first emerged from the muck and grew legs and lungs.
You want to be one of those people who can flow under, over and around barriers.  And if you don’t already know how to shrug your shoulders helplessly and let things go, you’ll want to learn. Once you're in your placement, you're going to want someone from your homeland you can have a good rant with as needed and will want to master this chant, spoken 10 times in a slow and steady voice: “Water off a duck’s back.” Relish the opportunity to solve your own problems, because you’re going to be doing a lot of that.
Can you live simply? Cuso pays a generous stipend by the standards of the countries where you’ll be working; here, it’s roughly equivalent to that of a mid-level manager at a Honduran non-profit. But that still means that a $20 dinner out is pretty splurgy and best viewed as a rare treat. And you’re definitely not going to be indulging in shopping therapy. I’d recommend you have at least $2,000 in savings earmarked for settling-in costs, and ideally a couple thousand more if you want to do some travelling while you’re away.
Presumably you’re the kind of person who enjoys travel if you’re even contemplating being an international volunteer, but it’s actually nothing like travelling. Living and working in one place is very, very different from skimming over the surface of a country in a holiday mood. No tourist hotels. No cheery bilingual clerk who helps you find a place to rent or make the bad bank give you your money back. No hopping on the bus for a new town if it turns out you don’t much like the one you’re in.
In fairness to everyone, it’s best you think hard about things like that before you make a commitment. And it is a commitment. Yes, a good placement will have an escape clause, but Cuso spent a lot of money on Paul and me before sending us here, and the organization I’m working with in Honduras is counting on me to complete my project. I like this gig, but even if I didn’t I’d stick it out.
If you hate being sweaty, are fussy about what you eat, like a quiet neighbourhood and get squeamish at the thought of bugs wandering freely around your house, perhaps volunteering closer to home is a better option. If you’re opposed to vaccinations and aren’t willing to swallow two bitter anti-malaria pills every week, at least make such decisions fully understanding the risks of refusing.  
One last tip: While your accomplishments in Canada will stand you in good stead in terms of preparing you for whatever work you’ll be doing, they won’t mean much to the people in your new community. Trot out your carefully translated resume if you like, but what you consider major achievements may mean nothing to your new workmates. (In Honduras, ambición is a bad word.) In a new land, people will know you only for who they perceive you to be in the moment they meet you – exciting for those of us who like the challenge of starting from scratch, soul-destroying for those who need more assurance of status.
But if you’re someone who embraces change, wants to draw on skills you don’t even know you have, fancies new experiences, is not prone to saying things like “Back home, we do it this way...”and bends like Gumby – well, pack up the house and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime.  You’re going to love life outside the comfort zone.