Friday, December 20, 2013

An historic day for sex workers, but a storm's building

   
   
And so it comes to this: Girding my loins for a battle to stop sex work from being declared illegal in Canada. Good grief, my idealistic 30-year-old self would have been gob-smacked to hear she'd grown into a person holding the completely opposite view on prostitution.
     It's a long story on how I got from there to here, and you can find more details here if you're curious. But the quick version is that for the last 17 years I've had the pleasure of getting to know many, many people who work in the business. Over time, I learned that my idealistic vision of a world where nobody would ever have to sell access to their bodies was in fact causing violence and suffering against the very people I wanted to help.
     For people who share my opinion that the only way to end the violence is to ditch the country's harmful laws around adult, consensual sex work, today is a joyous day. The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the laws around keeping a common bawdy-house, living off the avails of prostitution (pimping), and communicating in public with clients. (CBC news story here.) Those laws have created huge risks for sex workers because they prohibit indoor workplaces and deny workers the protection of the police or the courts.
     Whatever your views of sex work, know this: The laws we had weren't serving anyone. They increased the danger many times over for sex workers, but at the same time did nothing to prevent the visible problems of outdoor sex work that drive communities mad. Nor did they do anything to stop people from entering the sex trade, or curb the number of men buying it.
     And even in communities where nobody was doing anything to enforce the laws against prostitution, those laws were still causing harm. They stigmatize and shame sex workers. They criminalize a sex worker's earnings even though the work is actually legal (it's just the marketing, location and earnings that have been illegal to this point). They leave sex workers to live in deathly fear that someone will find out what they do for a living, or used to do, because the shame is that deep and they know all too well that they could lose their house, their job, their family or their spouse if outed.
     We're going to hear a lot over the next few days about why this court decision is the worst thing ever. For the sake of tens of thousands of consenting adult sex workers in Canada, please look for a wide variety of sources when informing yourself around this issue. Here's a great piece from April by Joyce Arthur to get you started.
    The removal of these laws has not "ripped the lid" off prostitution or opened the way to the exploitation of children and vulnerable women. We will not see a huge increase in prostitution, because it already exists in every village, town and city in Canada and its growth is driven by market demand, not legality. Trafficking and child sexual exploitation rightly remain illegal. All that has happened is that we have thrown out three poorly considered and largely ignored laws that were inadvertently doing great harm to vulnerable women in particular.
    So for those who believe in a safer world for everyone, this is a momentous day. But as I mentioned earlier, it's also a day for loin-girding against the next imminent threat on the horizon, that being indications that the Conservative government wants to declare the sale of sex illegal. At the party convention in early November, the party supported a motion to criminalize the sale of sex - which would be a first in Canada - and declares "that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold."
     You can't argue with the passion of the motion. But the reality of it would be disastrous. No country in the history of the world has ever eradicated sex work through criminalization. For better or worse, the human drive for pleasure has created a vigorous market for sex work. All that legal sanctions do is force the industry into the shadows. And as we know so well in B.C., bad things happen in dark places.
    Were the government to declare the sale of sex illegal, there would be no legal ground to stand on when fighting for the right to safer working conditions. Such a change simply can't be allowed, or all the halting gains for sex workers will be lost in an instant and we'll be back to working conditions that practically invite predators to target vulnerable women right under our moral noses.
     So those of us who believe in safer work places for sex workers are now going to have to fight against the criminalization of sex work, which will almost certainly be the Conservative government's response to this court ruling. We are not done yet.
    Still, what a development! I fear the loss of support from those who are almost there on the issue of safer work places, but won't be able to stomach a fight to stop sex work from being declared criminal. Can we agree that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold, but that paid sex between consenting adults is something else entirely?
    This will certainly be a fight that will push everyone into their corners. Those of us who feel strongly about this issue will have to be the boldest, most confident versions of ourselves in the midst of what will undoubtedly be a no-holds-barred attack by some feminist movements and women's groups that will denounce us as apologists for the men who buy sex and victimizers of women.
    But surely we've got today to celebrate. Today is for the winners. Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, Valerie Scott - I am clapping loudly, and it's all for you, the advocacy groups and other sex workers who stood beside you, and the lawyers who helped make your compelling case. It's never easy to be brave, but your courage has changed history.
    

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When Facebook friends fall out

   
I just did my first "unfriend" on Facebook. I never would have thought that anybody could get my back up enough to want to unfriend them, because I'm one laid-back person when it comes to allowing people their say. But it turns out that even I have limits.
    In my six years on Facebook I've accepted almost anyone as a friend as long as they seemed like a real person. I spent so many years as a "public figure" writing for the Times Colonist that Facebook just seems like an extension of that part of me rather than a fenced-in place that only my genuine friends can access.
    I've been completely open to all the wacky ways that my 1,597 pals choose to express themselves on the social media site, and love the whole open-forum feel of the place. I love being connected to a wildly diverse group of people who together represent all points of every spectrum out there.
     But I guess that line in the sand was always there even if I didn't know it. And today somebody crossed it.
    I'd posted a comment that today was International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, suggesting everyone should head on down to the rally tonight in Victoria, BC, in support of sex workers. "Why are they called sex workers?" wrote the now-banished friend. "How about 'Stupid Cows'"?
    Anyone who has made my acquaintance in the past decade knows that I am hardcore in my support for adult sex workers. That doesn't mean I can't be Facebook friends with those who believe otherwise, however. I'm sure I have more than a few acquaintances who don't share my views, because sex work remains a divisive topic that is almost as predictable as abortion when it comes to sending people scrambling for their strongly held positions on the subject.
   But calling sex workers "stupid cows" - well, that's just not on. That's not intelligent debate, that's just offensive. It's like being racist, or homophobic. I've probably unknowingly got others like that among my Facebook friends, too, but from this point on I'll be watching more alertly for signs of them showing their true colours.
     Part of me wonders if there's something wrong with the "stupid cow" woman that she would even write such a thing. Or if somebody hateful snuck onto her computer while she wasn't looking and wrote that. Or maybe it's a Catfish thing and she isn't who she says she is at all; when I (belatedly) visited her site today to try to understand what kind of a person would say such a thing on my Facebook page, I did get to wondering if she was a real person or just a front for some mean-spirited and cowardly person to hide behind.
      At any rate, I do hope this unpleasant business won't sour me on being open to random connections on Facebook. I've had some really heartfelt conversations with people I barely knew until we "met" on Facebook. But every now and then an idiot's going to sneak in past the open gate. And I'll relish the chance to unfriend them.
    

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Don't blame poverty for thoughtless animal cruelty


 
Coquetta
   In the wake of the truly awful death of a little dog in our neighbourhood on Sunday, I've had a lot of conversations this week about animal cruelty in Honduras. The poor dog was scalded with boiling water by a restaurant worker trying to shoo her away, and died eight slow, suffering days later from her massive injuries.
    The news completely horrified me and virtually all of my Canadian friends, for whom that level of casual animal cruelty is incomprehensible. Were anyone to scald a dog to death in my hometown of Victoria, B.C., I am quite sure there would be something close to riots over the incident, and possibly the need for police protection for the perpetrator.
    My Honduran acquaintances, on the other hand, took the scalding as just one of those things that happens sometimes. They made it clear that while they don't endorse such things, they also don't feel moved to do anything about them. One told me his own dog had died two years ago in similar circumstances. Two other dogs on my street have also been scalded. I wouldn't suggest that Hondurans view dog-scalding as an acceptable practice, but nobody reacted with much surprise to the news of poor Coquetta's death.
    That Honduras has no animal-cruelty laws or SPCA-type body to take complaints is a problem for anyone who has a heart for animals. But I think the bigger barrier to preventing acts of unthinking cruelty is that many Hondurans don't even consider such things to be a problem. The most common reaction I got when I talked about the death of Coquetta was along the lines of, "Well, life is tough enough for the people here. How can they worry about the animals too?"
    But here's the thing: How can they not? Statistically, Honduras is one of the most violent countries on the planet. Hondurans talk all the time about the need to get a handle on their crazy murder rate, which tears apart the social order, sows terror and destroys the lives of an average 20 families a day in a country with a smaller population than New York City (which, for the record, had the same number of murders in all of 2013 that Honduras chalks up every 15 days).
    Sure, life is hard here for a lot of people. But hardship alone doesn't explain the extreme violence. No Latin American country has it harder than Haiti, for instance, yet that country has a murder rate 12 times lower than Honduras.
    If a society is serious about ending violence, it has to be tackled at every level in the culture. And at every level of Honduran culture, there are real problems.
    Whether it's executions ordered by the Honduras drug cartels, fights between rival gangs, domestic violence, ancient family feuds, child abuse or dog scalding, the common thread in my opinion is an acceptance of violence as a way to resolve life's problems.
    In terms of animal cruelty, the widespread poverty in Honduras does explain some of  the widespread neglect of animals. A family struggling to feed itself is also going to struggle to feed its livestock and pets.
    But deliberate cruelty is something else. Poverty doesn't explain why a person would scald a dog. Or swerve their car toward a skinny mutt in the street. Or break an animal's leg with a mighty kick. Or poison every dog in a small village with rat poison, because one of them ate your fish.
    I am routinely left gape-jawed by the small acts of animal cruelty habitually practiced here. Even the most social animals here will initially cringe when you reach out to pat them, having learned through hard experience that humans generally do harm.
   When they learned of the terrible death of Coquetta, my Canadian friends urged me to call the authorities, to organize other outraged Hondurans for a protest. They urged action against a perpetrator who they presumed to be sick and dangerous.
    Alas, there are no authorities to call, and no appetite among the people I know to do anything other than shrug the incident off. I wish I could believe that the people perpetuating cruel acts here really were demented and disturbed, but the ugly truth is that cruelty to animals is seen by many as a "normal" thing to do. The woman who allegedly scalded Coquetta to death goes to church every Sunday, and I wonder if she even thought more than a few seconds about her act even as she heard the screams of a little dog fatally scalded from nose to tail.
    I went to the restaurant Tuesday and talked to the staff about what I'd heard. The owner vehemently denied that anyone she employs would do such a thing, although she did note that dog owners should keep their pets closer to home. (She also said gossipers had best be careful in Honduras, because people get killed for that.) I also noticed one staffer who sat apart from us, listening but not participating. I can only hope that if one of them did commit this terrible act, at least they now know the impact of their casual cruelty.
    Of course, there are many Hondurans who love and care for their animals. At the risk of making a sweeping statement, however, I'd say there are more who don't. I don't know why. But until somebody other than the foreigners cares about that, nothing will change.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The gap that just keeps growing

video
 
     Something about being in the capital of Honduras in the runup to Christmas has really brought the income disparity issue home to me. I was in one of the big malls this week looking for books to take back to the Angelitos Felices kids as a gift, and seeing all those shiny $25 children's books that rich Hondurans are buying for their own kids just made me really sad.
   The gap between the rich and the poor exists everywhere, of course. In Canada, the average income for the top 20 per cent of the population is 5.5 times as much as the bottom 20 per cent. But in Honduras, the top fifth earn almost 30 times as much as the bottom fifth. (In the U.S. in 2012, incomes for the top 1 per cent grew by 20 per cent compared to a 1 per cent growth for everybody else, creating the biggest income gap since the 1920s.)
    Just how much wealth Honduras actually has is never clearer than when you're in Tegucigalpa, where the malls just keep getting bigger and the prices in the high-end designer stores are the same as what you'd find in the same store in New York City.
    The contrast is disconcerting. In the capital, you could be dining at a super-flash Thai restaurant in Tegucigalpa listening to a fine jazz trio (see my little video above) even while the 14 kids at Angelitos back in Copan Ruinas are scratching by on the simplest diet imaginable in a children's home that regularly has neither electricity nor water because the woman who runs it can't afford to pay the bills.
    I really hope the campesinos that my organization works with never have to see just how rich Tegus is, because the one saving grace about being poor in Honduras is knowing that so many others are poor too that it's almost a normal state. I fear it just might break their hearts to see for themselves how unbelievably wealthy some of their countrymen are, including their political leaders.
   Wealth distribution ought to be a subject that consumes all of us. The gap between the rich and poor is tied to every health indicator out there, and is a significant determinant of the future of a country. If Honduras just took two per cent of the earnings of the top fifth and redistributed that money to the poorest fifth - as education scholarships, for instance - it would effectively increase their income by 40 per cent.
    So much positive change at the bottom of the income scale, so little impact on those with the big money. But the rich and powerful in the country just keep on pocketing that wealth and leaving it to international development organizations to bail out Honduras' poor. Makes a person want to pack up the development tent and go home.
     

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Shades of grey

   
It’s complicated. I find myself using that phrase a lot these days, pretty much every time a friend from back home asks me my opinion on any of the big issues at play in Honduras.
    Were the elections clean? It’s complicated. Which party would best serve Honduras? Complicated. Is it true narco-traficantes are calling all the shots? Well, that’s…complicated. Is the country being ruined by drug trafficking? Sorry, that one’s complicated, too.
    You get the picture. I thought I saw the world in shades of grey already, but it took Honduras to introduce me to just how many shades there really are. Even things that I once thought I had nailed in terms of how I felt about them – poverty, child labour, murder, violence – I now find myself rethinking.
    A friend sent me an article this week that talked about the vast majority of Hondurans living in “abject poverty." It struck me that while it’s true that millions of people here lack worldly goods, secure incomes and money, it’s simplistic and even insulting to portray their lives as one of abject poverty.
     I don’t know how they manage with so few resources, but they do. There is much to be admired in people who can take a small plot of land and feed themselves and their families, and who keep moving forward despite being constantly beset by new problems. While I’ll certainly never use the phrase “poor but happy” again or romanticize a simple life off the grid, we’re not doing Hondurans any favours by painting everybody here as helpless victims living desperate lives.
    That’s not to suggest we should quit paying attention to poverty reduction, or that developed countries should get a free ride on policies and practices that create and support poverty in the countries where they have commercial interests. But slapping an “abject poverty” label on the country really does a disservice to the resilient, resourceful people who have figured out how to live on scant and irregular incomes of $150 or less a month.
    As for murder, that’s a black-and-white issue until you live in a country where there’s no functional justice system. Murder is never a good way to settle scores, of course, but it does become more understandable when you think about families and towns left on their own to manage the crimes committed against them.
    If somebody killed one of your loved ones, for instance, what would you do if there was almost no chance that the killer would ever be arrested, tried and jailed, even in cases where everyone in town knew who did it? What might a group of subsistence farmers be capable of one night when they finally caught the thief who had been ruining their lives by stealing their cows and commercial crops?
    In Canada, our police and courts take such awful decisions out of our hands and permit us to believe that “justice will prevail," with no need to take the law into our own hands. Sure, we complain about court decisions, but in general our justice system serves us quite well.
   Not in Honduras. The police don’t come when called, and in truth nobody really wants to call them anyway because they’re scary and unpredictable.  The “bad guys” don’t get arrested very often. The courts don’t work. The prisoners essentially run the prisons. (And even that starts to make sense when you understand that if it weren't for prisoners finding ways to generate money on the inside, there’d be nobody to feed and clothe them.)
    As for whether narco-traficantes are the bad guys here, I’d have to say… it’s complicated.
Yes, I suspect the cocaine distribution business (Honduras is essentially the FedEx of the industry) is responsible for much of the staggering murder rate in Honduras, although there are no official numbers. Yes, the business in all likelihood has tremendous influence in the country - as does any lucrative, job-creating industry anywhere in the world – and is well-integrated into every level of government and public service.
    But looking at the issue from a purely economic viewpoint, this country would be sunk without narcos. However you feel about the product they’re moving, they create a lot of jobs.
    They've got money - to eat at restaurants, stay at hotels, shop at the malls, buy medical services and new vehicles, build nice houses. They've got money for all the things that stimulate more economic activity, which is the only thing that ever truly pulls a country out of poverty.  
    They like real estate, and at least in Copan Ruinas are said to be responsible for much of the new construction in town. They apparently love owning dairy cattle and are among the few farmers who can actually afford good care for their cows, assuring a better supply of Honduran-produced milk and beef. They are clearly intelligent people who know how to run a business, because even while the country staggers from one crisis to the next, the cocaine keeps flowing north.
     Not enough narcos understand that they could really improve their image by funding more good works in their communities, but I've heard quite a few stories of generous narcos building a new school, paving a road, coming to the rescue of villagers in financial jams. Yes, they lack a sense of proportion in settling scores and really need to get a grip on the violence in their industry, but characterizing them as hateful villains to be eradicated is gross oversimplification.
    So. That’s my new world view – shades of grey as far as the eye can see. Sometimes I long for the days when I was more certain, and question whether I’ll be certain about anything at all by the time I die if this keeps up.
    But I guess that’s what happens when what you used to “know” collides with what you now know first-hand. It’s complicated. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The scene the day after: Copan Ruinas

     While we were theoretically confined to the house yesterday due to concerns our organization had about unrest after Sunday's election, we just had to venture out later in the afternoon to see what all the hub-bub was coming from the town square.
     Here's a two-minute video I made of what we saw there, which turned out to be a mix of Nacional supporters celebrating what appears to be a presidential win for the party, and young boys using that as an excuse to light off a whole lot of big firecrackers. Hondurans do love their firecrackers.
    The country looks to be a long way from having all the results in even two days after the election. Having seen some TV footage of how they have to do the count, I understand.
    Each ballot has to be held up for observers to see who the vote was for and that the back of the ballot has been stamped. And every political position in the country is up for grabs on election day here - the president, all the mayoral positions, 128 diputados who make up the national congress. It's a lot of counting by any standards, let alone when every ballot has to be carefully verified by hand in the presence of international observers.
     There's no evidence of unrest so far in the country, but I guess we'll see when the count's fully done. Hondurans haven't struck me so far as a people who launch into public protest easily, although a really tight finish between the Nacional and Libre parties could start things sparking in the cities.
    In the meantime, it's a great time for firecracker sales. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Honduras election: Hoping for miracles, bracing for more of the same

   
The scene in Tegucigalpa after the 2009 coup
Tomorrow is Election Day in Honduras. They have this odd system where every elected position in the entire country is up for grabs on the same day every four years, and I don’t think I’m just imagining that today feels kind of ramped-up and tense, even in quiet little Copan Ruinas.
    Politics are politics all over the world, and the strutting and throwing around of money in the runup to the election has been familiar. Canadian parties might not drive hooting and hollering supporters around in the backs of honking trucks playing the party song at top volume, but the pageantry is similar.
    But unlike Canada, Honduras has a recent history of playing a little rough in its elections. People have advised us to stay home Monday, the day after the election, just in case things get intense. Cuso International has in fact ordered all of us to stay home, and even the Honduran organization I work for is closing its doors for the day. Cuso has talked about flying us back to Canada out of Guatemala City if the post-election scene really gets wild.
    I’m having a hard time imagining my Copaneco neighbours getting wild, but I guess we’ll see. I found myself buying an extra jar of peanut butter at the grocery store today and stocking up on dog food just in case.
    Honduras is a democracy, but my sense of the place is they haven’t really got the hang of that system just yet. In 2009, the government of Mel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup, something fairly untypical for a democratic country. The current president was elected democratically the following year, but the wounds from the coup are still pretty raw.
    Zelaya’s wife is running in this election under the banner of a new party, Libre, which has added an interesting undercurrent. Certainly things are zizzy in quiet Copan at this very moment, with many trucks decorated in party colours making their way around town in a hunt for treats to transport to the villages tomorrow to lure voters. (One of my friends in the Moskitia says her Garifuna community loves election years, because the politicians are always coming around with free meat.)
    I wish I could feel excited about the changes a new government might bring. But I don’t see a lot of hope of that. The polls are calling 50-50 between the Nationals and Libre, and I don’t think either outcome would give Honduras the dynamic, committed government that it so desperately needs. There’s a former sports journalist who I’m rooting for, running on an anti-corruption platform, but the election will almost certainly go either to the conservatives or the slightly-less conservatives, as seems to be the way of the democratic world right now.
    At any rate, this is a country that is still very much governed by wealthy families with long histories here. My sense is that they will get what they want. I just wish they wanted competent government, because you sure don’t see nearly enough of that down here.
    One of the country’s crazier political policies is a prohibition preventing presidents from serving more than one four-year term. It’s intended to prevent the buildup of power that can lead to a dictatorship, but how it manifests is as a disruptive and destabilizing force that condemns the poor country to spin its wheels ever more.
    While most governments of the world are self-serving these days, the lack of voter accountability that results from a single four-year term has created a monster in Honduras. Government takes no responsibility for addressing the country’s staggering problems, none of which are going to go away in a four-year term. I see more hope at the municipal level, but politicians at that level have neither the power nor the money to do much.
    But hey, nothing would make me happier than to be wrong about all of this. Maybe the very nice people of Honduras are finally going to get a government that takes its responsibilities seriously. Maybe you really can work miracles in a mere four years. Maybe even hungry people get to thinking sooner or later that one day of free meat is a lousy trade for 1,459 days of neglectful, uninterested governance.
    Go, Honduras. You deserve so much better.






Monday, November 18, 2013

Call me when you're ready to rise up

 
  I was having one of those days today that I recognize as the start of my “What is wrong with you people?” stage that I reach sooner or later in every job.
    I’m not exactly sure what the triggers are, but I know that once it starts, I find it harder to be Nice Jody and get increasingly intense in all my workplace and social interactions. Paul calls it my “looming” stage, based on my habit of projecting my intensity onto whoever I might be talking with. Usually it makes them quite nervous.
    I think the mood starts to kick in when I've been long enough in a job that I can see where mistakes are being made while also recognizing my inability to do anything about that. Twenty years ago when I experienced my first intensity surge, it drove me into management in the belief that I could affect change by getting higher up the ladder. I quickly learned that things are even more intense in the higher ranks and you still don’t have the power to change anything, so now I usually just push hard from whatever position I occupy until I run screaming from the building (metaphorically speaking).
    The most memorable manifestation of it was when I was at PEERS Victoria. About two years in, I was so deeply frustrated with the lack of options for participants and the stupid, stupid things that were said about sex workers that I always seemed to be pinning somebody up against the wall while I sounded off about everything that was wrong with everything.
    I’m entering that same phase now in my Honduras work. I used to be content to slip in a well-planned word every now and then about the importance of good workplace practices in creating productive, effective employees who feel valued (a bug-bear of mine on behalf of my Honduran co-workers). But today I found myself going into a near-rant about it at the Monday morning devotional, triggered by a slightly smirky little U.S. video that one of the administrators showed about battling the “virus” of bad attitudes in the workplace.
    I guess a rant is a positive sign that I’m feeling more comfortable in Spanish, but I did see the vaguely alarmed looks on my co-workers’ faces that I recognize as the sign of Going Too Far. I saw the same look on the faces of hapless friends who had the misfortune to ask me how things were going at PEERS during my last few months.
    In the latter case, the source of my frustration was pretty much the whole wide world. In the case of Honduras, it’s the widespread disregard for basic workers’ rights. I’m not a big union advocate in general, but I feel as fired up as a Scottish trade unionist when I contemplate the work practices in Honduras, chief among them the complete lack of job security and the flat-line wages that doom even full-time workers to a life of scrambling. Going unpaid is also a strikingly common problem in the country, as is being ordered to work 7 days a week.
    So off I went about all of it this morning. I think it was pretty pointless. Nobody chimed in, even though they’re all just 3 weeks away from receiving the standard letter every one of them gets every December telling them that their contract is over. (Some will get a new contract. Some won’t.)
    The worst of this stage for me is that once you feel too intensely about something, you lose your ability to talk about it convincingly with people who just aren’t there yet. And on this particular subject, nobody’s there yet.
    Now what? Oh, the mood will come and go over these last 4 months at my job, and I’ll alternate between ranting and keeping to myself in order not to rant. And then I’ll leave, and later have only this blog to remind me of how crazy-making it is to want something more for people than they want for themselves.



Thursday, November 14, 2013

Apocalypse now? Rural Hondurans can handle it

   
New biodigester in Aceituno, Lempira
Should the apocalypse come one day, we'd all be well-advised to ride it out with a Honduran campesino.
    Picture a typical Canadian in the event of an apocalypse – electricity gone, supermarkets empty, no gas for the car, that sort of thing. We'd be hooped.
    Sure, some of us keep backyard gardens, maybe even a few chickens. But it’d be a rare Canadian who could feed themselves even through a short-lived apocalypse. Our country talks a good game about 100-mile diets, but almost a third of our food comes from outside the country and most of us would have a heck of a time accessing the other 70 per cent without transportation and refrigeration.
    Not so a rural Honduran. Their diet may not be the most exciting in the world, but virtually all of it is grown a few steps away from their home. And speaking of that home, they can build one out of dirt. Yesterday I visited a woman in her comfy and clean adobe house who was busy making all-purpose soap out of olive pits she'd boiled up, while taking care of two mentally handicapped adult children and grinding corn for the 35 or so tortillas her family eats every day. They are resourceful and resilient people.
    Yesterday’s lunch was a fine example of self-sustainability. We had eggs, tortillas, a type of fresh cheese they call cuajada, orange juice and fried squash, all of it from the family’s teeny little farm. People in the Honduran countryside are very poor, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that everyone’s diets meet Canada Food Guide standards.  But land ownership is still within reach for most Hondurans and they don’t waste it planting big lawns. When the apocalypse comes, at least they’ll still be eating.
    They can also take cow poo and create methane gas for cooking. This is high science in places like Canada, but in Honduras it’s accomplished with a minimum of fuss and almost no money using heavy black plastic and a lot of bits and pieces of scrounged-up stuff.
    Just today I watched the construction of a biodigestor, as they’re called. As they tied up parts of it with ripped-up bits of inner tube and fashioned seals out of the bottoms of plastic bottles, I imagined all the crazy lengths we’d be going to back home to have the exact right parts, the exact measurements for each step, probably even a gas fitter on hand and a biodigestor inspector waiting in the wings.
    In Honduras, they just dig a coffin-size hole in the ground, do a lot of accordion-style folds with a really giant black-plastic bag worked over and around old buckets with the bottoms cut out, and voila – they’ve got something that’s not only good for the environment because it’s taking cow-poo contamination out of the equation, but producing four hours of methane every day for cooking.

    And when the roads collapse and our cars are useless? Hondurans live with that problem every day. When the apocalypse comes, they’ll just throw a blanket and some firewood on the mule and start walking. 

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Lessons from the frontlines: If at first you don't succeed, reevaluate

   
With less than five months left in my Cuso posting, I'm reflecting more and more on how I'm doing. I have the rather challenging and nebulous task of building capacity in communications for the Honduran non-profit that I work for, and as the end draws nearer I am thinking a lot about how it's gone.
     In all honesty, I had only the vaguest idea of what I was supposed to be doing when we arrived in Honduras in January 2012. I had a great title - Communications and Knowledge Management Facilitator - and an idea that I would be doing work similar to what I'd been doing in B.C. for non-profit clients. But everyone with Cuso International had stressed to me that the job would really only become clear after I started working in the country and saw what was needed (and possible).
    That certainly turned out to be true, although what I didn't know at the time was that even the organization I would be working with in Honduras would have no real idea of what my job was, or how to put my skill set to work. Or even that I had a skill set.
    Nor did I know that they hadn't put much thought into whether they even wanted to be better at communications. That meant my job for the first few months was just convincing my new employer that being out there in the public eye would be good for the organization, for the funders, and for the people of Honduras, many of whom have no idea about the meaningful work going on here to create change in this troubled country.
    As for my poor Spanish skills in the first few months of my placement - well, let's just say that while I'm grateful to Cuso for giving me a chance despite my poor grasp of the language, it was extremely difficult and even laughable to be trying to do communications work when I could barely speak the language.
    Because I could understand written Spanish better than spoken, I'd hoped to be able to get my hands on written documents in those early months that would help me get a quick grasp on all things Honduran, including the specifics of the work done by my organization. But that turned out to be the first communications challenge in my shiny new communications job: To find anything that had actually been written down in this overwhelmingly oral culture.
     But time passed and I got the hang of things. I worked hard at my Spanish, and eventually drew the interest of my co-workers due to throwing myself cheerfully into their projects in any way I could. Sure, sometimes that involved essentially working as a typist - I suspect my rapid keyboarding is still the thing they admire the most about me - but they gradually came to see that maybe I could be useful.
     At first the work was just get-'er-done kinds of things: Making brochures; taking photos of projects to keep the funders happy; making a PowerPoint for somebody. Not having enough to do was a theme in those early days, and I was glad I at least had a blog and an orphanage volunteer project on the side  to occupy my time.
     I'd anticipated spending much of the initial months helping my organization  - the Comision de Accion Social Menonita - develop a communications plan that would define the who-what-why-when-how kinds of things that have to be talked about. After running headlong into complete indifference, however, I had to scrap that pretty quick.
     But I'm a pushy person. So I just kept pushing. I started making Facebook pages for the six regions, whether they asked for them or not. I started showing up at their doorsteps and asking to take photos of their projects and read their proposals so I could understand their work. Then I moved on to making web sites for each region, counting on being a quick enough study that I could get past the fact that I know nothing at all about how to do that.
     I made myself helpful to head office, burning the midnight oil along with the rest of them as we wrestled with translating some complex proposal into English so they could meet the (unreasonable) demand of a funder. The work had very little to do with building capacity in communications, but I found that if I helped them with what they needed, they were more receptive to my constant suggestions for improved communication.
    At this moment, everyone's mad for the little 10-minute videos I've started making for the regions, another example of something I know almost nothing about. I'm loving it, and wish I'd thought about video work from the beginning, because it's a great way to tell stories in an oral culture. I spent the first year scrabbling to find enough work to do, but I can tell by all the video requests flooding in that I'm going to be run off my feet for the final five months.
     Will I have created capacity at the end of the day? Ah, that's the question.
    The test will be if CASM has the knowledge, interest and tools to carry on with good communications after I'm gone. They will enthusiastically maintain their Facebook pages, update and improve their web sites, take better photos, share the work of their organizations, think a little more about design and readability when they're making their brochures, PowerPoints and how-to guides.
    But I'm still the only one who posts on the regions' Facebook sites. And I'm quite sure that administrators in at least three of the regions have yet to even glance at the web sites I made for them. Yes, CASM does have a national communications plan now, but I see no evidence that anyone is paying any attention to it. (It's kind of like all the nice laws in Honduras - pretty to look at, utterly ignored.)
     In some theoretical world, my workmates are newly motivated to take better photos, because the bosses really do love a decent set of photos of their projects to show the funders. But whether my co-workers know more about taking better photos doesn't matter much given their lack of access to decent cameras, computer programs for minor enhancements and cropping, or even a computer of their own where they can download photos.
     As for videos, even the most amateur undertakings require a better camera than any of them have as well as an editing program, a hard drive big and fast enough to handle those giant video files, and a strong enough internet connection to get the finished work on-line. It also requires an understanding of how to tell a story, a skill I've spent 30 years learning.
    And while I'd like to hound my pals to maintain their Facebook page and web site, I've also experienced for myself the hopeless internet services in some of the regions. I've seen the lone cellphone modem that my six co-workers in the Moskitia have to share. I know that "staying connected" in Honduras still mostly means chatting face to face with people, not posting something on-line.
    Lest this all sound like a lament, in truth I'm feeling all right about things. OK, the job has been nothing like what I'd expected, and I've had to modify my expectations many times over. But if nothing else, the work of CASM is a lot more visible. If nothing else, my relentless nagging about better communications will echo at least occasionally in the heads of my co-workers after I'm gone. If nothing else, they have seen that the stories of their work really are worth telling.
    The regions have their own web sites, and the power to post news of their projects without having to wait six or seven years (really) for head office to get funding together for a web site update. The bosses now know that better photos are possible, which I hope has set the bar higher for photo quality in the future.
     As for me, I'm practically bursting with new capacity. Wherever the future is taking me, I will arrive with new insights, skills, and real-life experiences that up until two short years ago I hadn't even contemplated needing or developing. I have felt the depths of frustration, and learned that I can crawl out of them still smiling  And I can speak Spanish to boot.
     Thank you, Cuso. Thank you, CASM. I hope it ends up being as good for you as it has been for me. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Dia de Los Difuntos: The Movie

Here's a little video of the scene in the Copan Ruinas cemetery yesterday, Dia de Los Difuntos. This is my favourite Honduran celebration, as it's wonderful to see the graves all painted and decorated, and everyone in such a festive mood as they remember their loved ones. Nothing sombre about Day of the Departed.

Friday, November 01, 2013

It's not the crack, it's the character flaws

 
  I for one will be very glad when this Rob Ford business is over. He has been an embarrassing and poorly considered choice for Toronto mayor on all kinds of fronts, and whether he did or didn't smoke crack on video is really just one small detail in the long Ford story.
    What to do with morally errant politicians? We're all over the map on that one, but for me it mostly comes down to putting the various specifics in context and deciding if the picture of the person who emerges is the kind of person you want running your town, province or country.
    For instance, politicians cheating on their spouses. All kinds of factors have to be considered before a voter can conclude there's cause for alarm.
    If it's a garden-variety cheat, I'm probably going to be OK with it. Sure, I dream of a world where garden-variety cheating is unnecessary because we're all so happy in our relationships, but for now, I don't think it indicates anything about whether a person is fit to govern, other than they're a lot like the rest of us. (They do lose a lot of credibility with me if they lie, though.)
     But now let's consider Elliot Spitzer, the New York governor who got caught out buying high-end services from sex workers. I felt very differently about that form of cheating  - not because it involved sex workers, but because Spitzer in his political life had played the morality card and led crack-downs on sex workers.
    So I would judge a guy like that to be a liar and a hypocrite, not to mention stupidly wasteful given how much he was paying for the sex. That is not a person I would deem fit to lead. The "crime" - cheating on your spouse - is the same, but the different contexts change everything.
     The problem from a voter's perspective ought not to be whether a politician's heart (and brain) goes wandering, but if it wanders in a way that reveals deeper character flaws indicating aspects of the person that go completely against the qualities of a leader.
    And in that context, consider Rob Ford.
    Again, I don't think things like illegal drug use, colourful friends or histories with addiction are absolute indicators as to whether a politician is fit for office. I don't know about you, but I could think of at least a dozen moments in my own life that I would not want caught on video. (Happily, smoking crack is not one of them.)
    I accept that people are complex. I remind myself regularly of my own glass house anytime I feel the urge to become high and mighty. We are the sum of all our parts, and in my experience people who have known darkness and trouble often make the very best leaders.
     In the context of the Ford story, however, the alleged act of smoking crack on video is just a sidebar. That was just the latest story line to be added to the heap of story lines that the Toronto mayor has generated since taking office. Truthfully, given all that has gone before about him, is it that big of a surprise to think that Rob Ford might have smoked crack?
    So in this particular instance, I was already convinced that Ford is not political leadership material. We don't want our communities and countries led by people who repeatedly make disastrous personal decisions and then lie to cover them up. It's not about whether there are skeletons in the closet, it's when they're still piling up like crazy, reinforcing the image of a dysfunctional, disorganized and chaotic person who doesn't learn from failure. Is that the person to lead your town?
    I think a person can have secrets and still be an excellent leader. An act has to be put into context, and measured against the actions the person subsequently took to resolve the problem. I once saw a provincial cabinet minister survive being outed as a former heroin addict, because the moment the news hit she responded with dignity and honesty about that period in her life. The way she handled the situation made me respect her even more as a leader.
     But that's not how the Ford story has played out. He went into the smoking-crack revelations already looking all wrong, and everything that has happened since has underlined my perception of the man as an unfit mayor.
   The thing that gets me the most is that Ford had to know the video was out there, and that one day people would see for themselves the truth about whether he did or didn't. But nope, he just kept denying it. The sheer stupidity of that is indicator enough of a man who isn't leadership material, which is why I lost respect for Bill Clinton after his "I never had sexual relations with that woman" speech. Past secrets don't define a leader, but really poor decision-making before and after certainly does.
    As does honesty, a quality that I think we've really let slide in our governments. What does it say about a country or community when people can't trust that their political leaders are being honest with them? I've got no problem with political leaders having skeletons, I just want to know they have the insight, courage and maturity to grow through their mistakes, not just stumble incoherently through one after another.
     So yes, the way a politician manages personal problems definitely counts for me. As does honesty. And competent at their jobs, because honesty and ethics are important but so is being able to do the work.
    It's rare that someone comes along who scores badly in every category. But those ones just have to go, and should be cause for serious reflection among the citizenry as to what they were thinking by electing such a person. The Rob Ford video might be the final nail, but he's been building that coffin of his for a very long time. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The dark side of fair trade

Copan kids heading into the coffee fields at harvest time

When I stand in my Canadian shoes, I am an ardent supporter of fair trade – comercio justo as it’s known here in Honduras. Count me in for any practices that try to help small producers in under-developed countries make a decent living from their coffee crops and such.
But when I look at fair trade from the perspective of Hondurans, things get a little muddy. That’s especially true around the question of prohibiting child labour.
Taking steps to stop children from being forced to work to produce goods for the developed world is, understandably, one of the most fundamental principles of fair trade. Back home in Canada, I took pride in paying more for fair-trade coffee, believing that the extra cost was worth it if it ensured that some struggling family somewhere in the world earned a bit more for their coffee crop and didn't have to send their children into the field like tiny slaves.
But like I say, it all just gets a little less clear once you look at it from the Honduran perspective.
Beans, corn and coffee are easily the three most important crops for poor rural families in this part of Honduras, the west. The first two keep a family fed. The third – coffee – generates pretty much the only cash many of the families will see over the course of a year. Rural Hondurans are quite good at living a very nearly cash-free existence, but coffee is a treasured “money crop” because it pays for all the things that even resourceful Hondurans couldn't otherwise access -  like schooling, health care, shoes, laundry soap, electricity, purified water, transportation, household emergencies, vet care and animal feed, to name but a few.
In other words, coffee really matters. And fair trade really matters, too, because as always the producers are the ones who make the least money by the time coffee beans go from their fields to your cup at a high-end specialty café. I once crunched the numbers to get a sense of the difference, and it turns out that a nice cup of coffee at your favourite café sells for roughly 100 times the price that the producer got for the beans that went into that cup.
So yes, an organization that certifies producers to ensure they make more money in exchange for adhering to better agricultural and hiring practices – what’s not to like? But there’s the theory of fair trade, and then there’s the reality.
For instance, child labour. Given that more than 80 per cent of coffee producers in Honduras are small one-family operations, everybody in the family has to work when the harvest is on. And for the really poor families who don’t even own land, it’s even more important to hire the kids out to producers looking for extra hands during the harvest from October to February.
The public primary schools shut down for a two-month vacation in December-January specifically so children can work in the fields. When the coffee season is on, giant truckloads of children being driven off into the hills around Copan Ruinas or even to nearby Guatemala is a routine daily sight.
It’s child labour, there’s no doubt about that. In an ideal world, these kids would be in school rather than working. But it’s also the only way that a lot of Honduran families can make it through the year. For mothers with small children, taking their kids along for a day of picking coffee is often the only option if they don’t have anyone to look after the child while they work.
For these families, the well-intentioned fair trade prohibition against child labour looks very much like a threat, a risk to their livelihoods. If all the growers in Honduras actually stopped using child labour, the result would be disastrous for so many people. From a Honduran perspective, prohibiting child labour actually increases the risks for children.
Nor is the certification process easy, or cheap. Some of the small co-operatives have figured things out, but it would be difficult if not impossible for a small independent producer to get certified.
And yes, fair-trade beans fetch a higher price on the market for producers. But meeting the requirements for fair-trade or organic designation also means higher costs. Last year, a local fair-trade-certified coffee co-operative here in Copan also learned the hard way that buyers sometimes just declare they've got enough fair-trade product for now, leaving producers to sell on the regular market regardless of the extra time, work and money they've put in as certified growers.
What’s an ethically aware coffee drinker to do? I’d suggest buying from a local coffee-roasting company that purchases directly from growers in under-developed countries. I went along on a coffee tour earlier this year with an Australian couple who own Jasper Coffee in Melbourne, and I was really impressed at how much support they give the Copan producers who they've been buying from, and how much interest they take in their lives. That’s the kind of coffee company I’d like to support. (In Victoria, Level Ground looks like it might have those kinds of relationships.)
And please, continue appreciating the principles of fair trade, and the good work that the movement has done in under-developed countries. It’s just that like everything else in this world, doing the right thing is more complicated than just buying into a brand. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Water's Edge: A short video of the beautiful Moskitia

    First morning back in Copan Ruinas after more than 2 weeks in the Moskitia. I'm happy to be home, but going through the 44 gigabytes of video footage I brought back from the region has certainly reminded me of how lucky I've been to be able to explore this gorgeous part of Honduras.
    I'll be making at least three short videos from the trip - one that highlights the projects in the region of my organization, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, a second that ties into another CASM project to try to attract tourists and investors to the area, and this 5-minute glimpse of the region that I made this morning to share with my readers and Facebook friends. Hope it whets your appetite for more, because underneath all that astounding beauty there are a lot of problems that the region needs help with.
 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A wondrous place, a fragile future

   
Sunrise at Palacios
This place, this place. With each passing day I am astonished by its beauty a little more, and a little more worried for its future. What will ever become of the fabulous and vulnerable Moskitia?
    In another life, the Moskitia would be a world-renowned destination sought out by adventure travellers who crave that thing that’s so hard to find in this modern world of ours: An authentic experience. Whether the travel fantasy is vast stretches of empty Caribbean beaches, thriving indigenous cultures, or a world of lagoons, rivers and wildlife to explore, the Moskitia delivers. Monkeys, toucans, orchids, herons, fish dinners straight from the sea – all here.
    But this is not another life. And the overwhelming presence of narco-trafico in the region – while not nearly the danger to tourists that it is to those working directly in the business – pretty much guarantees that the Moskitia isn’t going to be seeing a lot of new travellers any time soon.
    The people who live in the Moskitia would love to see more tourists passing through. Jobs are hard to come by in this isolated and neglected region, and tourists boost the local economy in all kinds of ways – from the tours they take to the food they eat, the gas that powers their boats, the hospedajes and lodges they stay at while here, and the places they pass through on their way into the Moskitia.
    But the tiny toehold that the industry was just starting to get eight or nine years ago has ground to a halt under the weight of the 2009 coup in Honduras, a struggling global economy, increasingly dire travel warnings from the U.S., and the growing presence of serious-looking armed men in the cocaine business who don’t take kindly to outsiders.
    The Moskitia has always been a place for pirates. The state of Gracias a Dios, which encompasses the Moskitia, was practically made for illegal activity with its 16,600 square kilometres of waterways, hidey-holes and deep jungle. But cocaine trafficking is not just a few bad guys in eye patches stashing plundered booty, it’s a multi-million-dollar international business that is deeply integrated into life, government and policing systems in Central America.
Gulls and terns gather at the sandbar near Brus Laguna
    I visited Brus Laguna yesterday with my work mates, taking photos and videos for what is intended to be a promotional video that will spur tourism and investment in the Moskitia. Unfortunately, almost everyone we talked to in the little town was glum and worried, brought down by two murders this week, the murder of a couple and their young child a couple of weeks ago, and a rather horrendous shoot-em-up between rival drug traffickers a month or so ago that left 13 dead.
    Nobody’s killing tourists, of course. But that’s of little comfort to tour operators who are understandably nervous about bringing people into a situation that is well beyond their control. (Truthfully, well beyond anyone’s control.) One woman who was organizing tours in the region as part of a small Miskito collective cited two incidents last year that convinced the 11 families who had formed the collective to just pack it in.
    In the first incident, one of the small planes that brings the cocaine into Honduras from Colombia landed very close to where a group of travellers was staying. Nothing happened, but several of the travellers were very curious about the late-night landing and the small specks of light that appeared in the area after the plane came in.
    In the second incident, a tour guide was leading travellers through the jungle when suddenly a group of heavily armed men passed by. Pressed to come up with a quick answer as to who the armed men were, the tour guide told the group the men were guardabosques – forest conservation officers.
    That got everybody through a difficult moment. But fearing for the safety of future tour participants and of those working with the tour group - who would ultimately be blamed by those AK-47-toting “conservation officers” for bringing outsiders into the territory - the collective shut the tours down this year.
Miskito fishermen salt the day's catch, Brus Laguna
    My own travels here have been unadventurous, but for the countless sightings of super-powered boats carrying armed men zipping through the waterways of the Moskitia. But I have the benefit of being with my co-workers - all Hondurans and known in the area as staff of the Comision de Accion Social Menonita.
    My co-workers tell me if and when it’s safe to take photos and videos when we’re out and about, and I do what they say. I don’t scare easily, but even I don’t think a fair-skinned stranger toting a camera and stumbling solo into a place like Brus Laguna would be a good idea right now.
     The locals have been living with narco-trafico for many years now in the Moskitia, and they’ve all learned how to pretend not to see it, how to adjust their daily routines to avoid the dangerous hours of commerce and the high-risk areas.
    But how can you tell a tourist not to take photos because they could be putting their own lives or those of others at risk? How do you ensure they don’t wander into a situation that they’d be well-advised not to wander into? How do you keep everybody calm when – unlike the locals - they’re not at all used to the sight of armed and largely unfriendly men, or even the balaclava-wearing military doing boat patrols? And how does one convey to the narco-traficantes that this is just a garden-variety traveller wandering by, not an undercover DEA agent looking for trouble?

    Well, you can’t. That’s the essence of the problem in the Moskitia. So much beauty, so much potential risk. Now the Honduran government has signed an agreement with a British company to allow massive oil exploration in the region - a cause for concern in any fragile environment, but especially worrying in an ungovernable area under the management of a government that doesn't care to manage anything at the best of times. 
    I hope a day is coming when the people of this amazing region can put all of their troubles behind them and welcome the world. But at the moment, that day seems a very long way off.   

Sunday, October 13, 2013

When cocaine is all there is


   Drugs are on my mind, as they often are these days. South American cocaine, to be more specific, 800 tons of which are reportedly moved north every year to eager markets in the U.S. and Canada. And the majority of it passes right through this region where I’m working at the moment - the Moskitia.
   Just before I left Copan Ruinas to come down here, I was telling an American friend about how I loved coming to this gorgeous place but at the same time always felt a bit on edge because of the enormous presence of The Business, as I've come to think of it. She was astounded that such a thing could be going on in plain sight without the military and Drug Enforcement Agency being all over it.
   But of course, that’s the thing about The Business in a country like Honduras (or anywhere, for that matter): It’s complicated.
   One of my co-workers here in the Moskitia was complaining this week about the tendency among people in the scattered, isolated villages around here to view the industry as an employer rather than a scourge.
   But in truth, it IS an employer, in a region that has damn few. It’s also a customer for the handful of hotel and restaurant services eaking out a meager existence, and probably even an emergency lender at the neighbourhood level for families in a jam.
   The Business owns real estate, legitimate businesses, tourist attractions, gas stations. When the notorious Los Cachiros cartel was busted last month, people in the cartel’s home town of Tocoa protested over the jobs that would be lost if authorities shut down the cartel’s many businesses, which include a very popular private zoo.
   Here in the Moskitia, who can blame anyone for getting in on some of the thriving business going on right in the ‘hood? The people are completely on their own here, ignored by their government and largely shunned by development organizations. They've got no electricity, no infrastructure, no money that would let them leave and no jobs that would help them stay. 
   If you were sitting in your crappy shack with your kids getting eaten alive by mosquitoes coming in through the holes where the windows would go if you had the money to buy any, what would you do? Those of us from drug-consuming countries like to frame the selling of drugs as a values issue, but it’s just another way to make a living in a place like this.
   A dangerous way to make a living, mind you: Narco-traficantes have a way of settling scores that leave women, children and countless young men dead, as two recent incidents in the Moskitia proved yet again. It’s a business with a terrible penchant for violence. The presence of the industry in Honduras is not benign, but I suspect it’s too well-integrated and perhaps even too essential to the country’s economy - and certainly to the economy of the Moskitia - for anyone to put a stop to it.
     Whatever the solution, it won’t involve sending armed troops into this fragile region to do battle with the “bad guys.” I don’t know if the lines were ever clear, but they certainly aren't anymore. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

If you can't bend, you'll snap

   
“Flexible and adaptable” is more or less the mantra for a Cuso International volunteer. My experiences yesterday brought that home to me yet again, for about the 254th time.
    For reasons that I think have to do with building relationship, it has taken a very long time for the other regions of the organization I’m working for – the Comision de Accion Social Menonita (CASM) - to call on me for help with various communications issues. It seems that because the practice here is to hire people who you already know, or who someone else in the organization knows, it takes a long time for people to warm up to some random stranger who drops into the country with big ideas about how communications can be improved.
    At any rate, the regions didn't really start seeking me out until I’d been here for more than a year, and even then only when I showed up at some big CASM event and they could talk to me face to face. (That’s another thing I've learned: There’s a strong cultural preference for face-to-face communications regardless of how much access a person might have to technologies like Facebook and email – or even phone calls.) Paul and I have also been putting up our own money to be able to travel to the different regions and do work for other CASM offices, and at this point I've done five such visits.
    So by the time of the annual CASM retreat late last month, I was fairly well-known among the regions and newly popular because I’d made a 10-minute video for the Copan office. All 7 regions are hot for a video, which meant I’d soon gathered quite a crowd of CASM staffers around me asking when I could come to their region to do the same.
    The most urgent request was from CASM Colon, which works in the magnificent, isolated and challenging Moskitia region on the Caribbean coast. That team has some major communication needs coming up before the end of the year, and they urged me to come as soon as I could. I’m very fond of the region and the team, all of whom are the kind of passionate, enthusiastic, slightly crazy people you might expect to work in a difficult area like the Moskitia.
    I arranged to come for a week. I had other projects going on in Copan and one coming up in San Pedro Sula, so I had to do a fair bit of organization to get everything in line. I left Copan this past Sunday for the 9-hour bus ride to Tocoa, and lugged my backpack into the Colon office bright and early yesterday presuming that we’d be leaving first thing for the Moskitia, as it takes another 4 or 5 hours to get there.
    I knew it was going to be one of those “flexible and adaptable” days when I discovered upon arriving at the office that the co-worker who was to take me into the Moskitia was, in fact, still in the Moskitia. Nobody knew when he was returning. Nobody knew the plan, or even if there was one. I tried to phone him but couldn't get through, so eventually I just settled into other work and waited to see what would happen next.
    Mario arrived around 11 a.m. and said we’d be leaving for the Moskitia the next day. We agreed to meet at 1 p.m. to talk about the plan. I carried on with my work – the good thing about communications is that all the tools and work are right there inside your laptop – and practised my newly honed skills in patience and managing expectations.
     Of course, the meeting didn’t happen at 1 p.m., but sometime around 3 p.m. Mario and I got together and I learned that the expectation wasn’t that I’d stay for a one week, but two. Two and a half, really, by the time I got back to Tocoa and eventually, Copan.
    I hadn't packed or prepared for that much time away, or organized my life back home for a long absence. But what can you do? I learned some time ago that throwing tempestuous little fits about not being informed about anything gets you absolutely nowhere here. I could have stomped out and caught the first bus back to Copan, but that would have meant leaving the CASM team in the lurch when they really needed me – and after months and months of effort to convince them that they needed me.
    And in truth, Mario wasn't treating me any differently than any other member of the team by springing that surprise news on me. The crazy lack of planning, organization and keeping people in the loop is just how they do things here. “Flexible and adaptable,” I muttered to myself, then smiled at Mario and said, “Sure!”
    So here I go, off to the Moskitia. We’re actually leaving tomorrow now, the date having been rejigged to accommodate other work the office needed from me before I leave. Part of me is still a little ruffled about the whole thing, but another part is excited to have such a grand opportunity to explore a part of the country that even most Hondurans never get to see. This will be my third trip into the Moskitia this year, and the most extensive one in terms of the travel – all by boat – we’ll be doing while there.
    If you’re someone who likes to know the plan ahead of time, forget this work. I've always thought of myself as someone who goes with the flow, but my Honduran experiences have tested me time and again. and revealed to me just how much I appreciate an organized, thoughtful and well-planned approach to work projects.
     But I figure that years from now, what I’ll remember from this time will be the adventures in the Moskitia, not how Mario just presumed I could adjust my schedule on a dime to adapt to his plans. Onward into the endlessly surprising future, flexible and adaptable all the way. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A dog's life in Copan: Would they have it any other way?

   
Beagley, probably my favourite (but don't tell the others)
I grow fonder of free-range dog culture with each passing day. Dogs are so much more civilized and resourceful than I would have expected when left to their own devices, and I love seeing how they organize their world when it's all up to them. 
    Whether stray or owned, the majority of Copan Ruinas dogs roam the streets as free agents. Unlike the highly regulated dog environment of Victoria, these dogs live largely without human interference. There is no dog catcher, no local SPCA, no enforcement of things like leash use, park access, poo pickup and random canine wandering. It's a dog's world down here.
    They organize their territories through rules I can't decipher, but which have the effect of keeping fights to a minimum. They are never aggressive to humans, even though some have every right to be given how they're treated. Some travel great distances in their daily rounds. Others stick quite close to home, whether that’s a real home or just the neighbourhood a particular dog frequents.
    Having served up a whole lot of dog food and ear scratches to a parade of canine passers-by since we arrived here, I've gotten to know something about them. It seems to me that the majority love their freedom. But they also crave affection from people, not to mention rely on them for food. Perhaps that’s why they’re the coolest dogs I've ever met – independent by necessity but at the same time sweet and friendly. Food brings them running in a heartbeat, but even the skinniest ones will pause in their eating to relish the feeling of someone reaching down to pet them. 
    I could tell you a couple of dozen sad stories by now of bad things that happen to dogs here,
Crazy Pup in her favourite hidey-hole under our bed
including the municipality’s quiet poisoning of dogs in the town centre. Last week I lifted a heavy chain from the neck of a sick, scabby little dog that had miraculously managed to escape imminent death tied up and forgotten somewhere without food or water, and thought again of how unbelievably cruel life can be for dogs here.
    But I suppose that’s the price of freedom. The dogs of Victoria lead such well-fed, comfortable lives by comparison. But they can’t wander downtown and scrounge chicken bones from a tourist. They can’t squeeze under a barbed-wire fence and chase cows. Having your own big bed and steady food source inside a nice Oak Bay house is one way to live, but Copan dogs know the pleasure of another way.
    As I write this, the neighbour’s small dog – pregnant with her second litter this year – is lying at one end of the kitchen table. At the other is a charming street dog we call Beagley. She has just arrived home with a big cut across her nose, perhaps from barbed wire. (A woman who I talk dogs with mentioned the other day how great it would be to mount a web cam on Copan dogs and unravel some of the mysteries of their adventurous lives.)
A stormy night brings 3 indoors.
    Beagley and the pregnant Coquetta are regulars, but at least another 3 or 4 dogs come by our place every day for food. Most have owners, but few seem to get enough to eat (or drink) regardless. We lost two regulars in the latest round of municipal poisonings, in which poisoned meat and milk are set out in the early-morning hours to claim the life of any dog that happens by.
   There’s something sad in how excited the local dogs get at the prospect of dog food and a bowl of water, but I love that they come around. My father always used to say that he’d never met a dog he didn't like, and I’m the same way. I found it odd during our holiday back to Canada last month when I could no longer pet passing dogs; their owners would inevitably yard them away from me with a firm pull on the leash. But there’s no denying that the dogs back home looked way healthier than any Honduran dog.
     Our visitors are going through about 25 pounds of dog food every month now, and some get flea treatments, worm medications, and even temporary birth control (an injection twice a year) if they've really worked their way into our lives. It’s not cheap on a volunteer stipend, but it’s worth it for all the lovely new friends.
    At times Paul and I talk about bringing one of the dogs back to Canada with us. I bet Beagley would love her own dog bed, not to mention biscuits and a greatly reduced chance of getting pregnant. But I've also seen her roaming happily around Copan’s downtown park, clawing bits of food waste out of garbage cans and hanging out with her many friends. I know how she loves her nights on the town, and visiting the houses of all the other gringas who she has charmed.
    Would Beagley willingly give up freedom for certainty? I just don’t know. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sometimes when they touch, it's all a bit too much

   
I would expect some pretty big fallout if someone in a Canadian workplace routinely called a co-worker “Fatty.” Or nicknamed them Chino because they had a bit of an Asian look to their features.
    But for the most part, such things don’t seem to rile the average Honduran. I mentioned to one of my co-workers this week that if she ever came to Canada, it was probably best not to call anybody “Fatty” – Gordito – as she had just done while summoning a chubby co-worker. She and the so-called Gordito both looked surprised to hear that such a nickname could be construed as offensive. Gordito himself noted that sure, a nickname like that might cause offence if said the wrong way. But if said in a friendly voice – hey, what was the big deal?
    It got me thinking yet again about cultural differences. A good part of what I see around me in the workplace would be interpreted as harassment in Canada, or at least as “unacceptable practices.” Yet if the other party not only tolerates it but appears to be perfectly relaxed and happy with whatever is being said or done, what then?
    The Hondurans I've met don’t seem to have the same sensitivity around body image that so many North Americans do, which perhaps explains why rather blunt comments related to their appearance don’t seem to rile them. I sense that they accept themselves as they are much more readily, and don't have the crazy thinking patterns so common in my land that if you could only change your physical appearance, everything about your life would be better. 
    So while I quietly wish they'd quit calling each other Fatty, Skinny, Liar and other impolite nicknames, who is it that actually has the problem if I’m the only one taking offence? I've drawn the line at using such nicknames myself, of course, but I'm also trying to stop taking offence on someone's behalf every time I hear such things, given that they show no signs of being offended themselves.
    Then there’s the kind of touching that goes on in the workplace, which is way beyond a modern-day Canadian’s tolerance level. I’ve seen my co-workers – single and married alike - give each other back rubs, lay a hand on each other’s thighs, even cuddle up beside each other on a bed.
    Sometimes we’ll be in the middle of a meeting and one person will come up behind a co-worker and wrap their arms snugly around the person’s waist. The two of them might stay that way for 10 or 15 minutes of the meeting. And we're not talking about a licentious group of people here; my co-workers are deeply religious.
    More than a year and a half on, I’m still quite freaked out by the intimate touching that goes on in broad daylight by people who work together. But I've come to see by the calm and welcoming expressions of the people being touched that in fact, the problem is mine. Nobody but me seems to be troubled by any of it (although I suspect spouses might object were they to show up at work unexpectedly and catch an on-the-job cuddle in progress). And no one is touching me, given that I'm much older than any of them and emitting a prickly don't-even-think-about-it energy.
    I don’t doubt that such touching begets sexual harassment, a concept that my Honduran co-workers are not yet familiar with. I’m sure there are Honduran bosses out there who are taking much advantage of the practice of intimate touch in the workplace, and unhappy employees whose faces are not showing the same calm acceptance that I see among my own cuddly co-workers.
    But perhaps that's a conversation for another day here in Honduras. My co-workers, male and female alike, look at me like I’m some old prude on the rare occasions when I mention that people sure do touch each other a lot more intimately in the workplace than we do back in my land, and call each other rather cruel names that could get you slapped with a harassment suit in a heartbeat in a lot of Canadian workplaces. The people I work with truly see nothing inappropriate in what they’re doing. 
    Chalk it up to cultural differences. I envy Hondurans for being comfortable enough in their own skins that being called Fatty doesn't rile them, but I do wonder where all that workplace touching will lead. Give me a clear no-touch policy any day.