Thursday, January 31, 2013

What to make of David Suzuki?

I don’t like David Suzuki. That’s been the case for many years now, ever since I showed up at a book-signing in Victoria to interview him and discovered that the man I had thought of as a kind, wise environmentalist was in fact an obnoxious, rude guy who made no attempt to hide his contempt of the fans gazing at him all fawn-eyed and adoring.
I’ve generally kept my opinion of him to myself, however, for fear of seeming un-Canadian. I don’t know what the process is for becoming a beloved Canadian icon, but have long recognized that once someone achieves that status, any Canadian who dares to say otherwise is really in for it.
But a story this week from the Sun Media chain was just too good for me to pass up. The story featured a series of emails from John Abbott College in Quebec about Suzuki receiving more than $40,000 in fees and expenses for a speaking engagement at the college in October. 
Better still, the emails - obtained through a Freedom of Information request - featured a juicy little bit about Suzuki requesting that the college also provide attractively dressed female college students to walk alongside him and ward off the advances of all those adoring fans he can’t stand. (The college now says Suzuki made no such request, although the email exchange seems pretty clear. But here's the viewpoint of Halifax Chronicle Herald journalist Paul McLeod, who thinks SunMedia went too far with its allegations. )
I posted the story on Facebook and mentioned the long-ago book signing as my reason for being a bit gleeful at seeing Suzuki in the muck.  Within minutes, dozens of people had posted comments. Within an hour, there were almost 50 comments and 20 “shares” of my link to the story. By this morning, the comments were up to 62 and there’d been 26 shares.
And the people writing the comments were MAD: Mad at Suzuki for being rude and horrible to them at some point as well; mad at me; mad at Sun Media; mad at the Conservatives (not sure how they got dragged into the debate); mad at anyone saying mean things about a man who’d done such great things for environmental awareness.
“WOW! You hit a hotspot here!” noted one Facebook friend.  Clearly.  There was a lot of passion in people’s comments, whether out of love for Suzuki and the work he has done or because others also had lingering feelings of bitter betrayal after being treated roughly and rudely by him.
Ultimately, the heated exchange brings to mind that old saw about whether you can hate the sin but love the sinner. Can we admire Suzuki’s work while also acknowledging that at times he's an arrogant, unpleasant jerk?
I’d guess that all of us have done things in our lives that we’re not proud of. So I’m always pretty careful to avoid assessing the total sum of a person based on the dumb decisions or big mistakes they’ve made.
I think it’s possible to make good presidential decisions while also being a pathetic womanizer, or to be an amazing athlete even while lying blatantly over a very long time about your use of performance-enhancing drugs. You can’t take the measure of a person’s contribution to this world solely by looking at their worst errors in judgment.
That said, there are obviously some acts that tend to knock you right out of everybody’s good books forever – pedophilia, violence against your spouse or children, planning someone’s murder, ripping off vulnerable people or charities, racism. Personally, I find hypocrisy very difficult to forgive as well, which is why I now count as unredeemable fallen stars like Elliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and a long list of two-faced pseudo-Christians in the U.S. who foment hatred and judgment while behaving loathsomely in private.
With David Suzuki, that’s a harder call to make. The stories of his rough treatment of people are numerous enough that we can conclude he’s got a real capacity to be a rude, arrogant bastard. But hey, the world is full of guys like that, and mostly I don’t waste a thought on them.
So why does Suzuki’s bad behaviour evoke such passion – in me and all the people on that Facebook thread?
One problem is that he just SEEMS so amiable and kind when we see him on TV that we come to believe that it’s true - that we “know” the man. Then we meet him in person, witness him treating us or his fans rudely, and feel an astonished sense of betrayal that he isn’t who we thought he was.
For others – people who haven’t met him yet, I suspect - Suzuki’s personal “brand” is so synonymous with being a responsible, caring and aware citizen of the natural world that any attack on the man is seen as an attack on environmentalism.  
In this particular case, there was also the fact that Suzuki’s college-girl demands and enormous speaking fees were played up heavily by a controversial media network that’s more or less the Fox News of Canada. It’s a muck-raking, biased network that responsible, caring and aware citizens of the natural world love to hate.
At the end of the day, the story has confirmed rather than changed my opinion of Suzuki.  That he might want pretty young women to walk alongside him to hold all those annoying fans at bay is not much of a surprise to me, because I witnessed his arrogance in Tanner’s Books many years ago and know that arrogant men see themselves as outside the rules that govern the rest of us.
I do feel for the people who are having their rose-coloured glasses torn away for the first time, though.  I remember how that felt.
As for the enormous speaking fees and the fact that Suzuki did indeed get that phalanx of girl bodyguards he requested, that reflects most poorly on the Quebec public college that agreed to those demands. What were they thinking? What truly good works at the college might that $40,000 fee have funded?
That college administrators didn’t hesitate in providing Suzuki with attractively dressed female students also gives the lie to decades of big talk about not objectifying women. Our academic institutions have often led that conversation, and it’s very disappointing to see that the commitment to respectful treatment of women lasts only until a coveted speaker makes a sexist demand.
However, I can separate the personal from the professional. I still love the environment and those who have dedicated their lives to the struggle. I’m thankful for the work of the David Suzuki Foundation and Suzuki himself. I will not let my personal feelings for Suzuki detract from my appreciation of his work.
But I’ll also give my instincts a quiet little high-five for being right all those years ago, when I first caught a glimpse of a very different man underneath that genial smile. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

The happy faces around me

It's not always fun hanging out with the kids at Angelitos children's home. Sometimes it's just a lot of work, and sometimes it's really discouraging. Sometimes they just get on your nerves, the way any kid does.
But yesterday was one of the good days. Not sure if that was due to the sun shining for the first time in a couple of weeks, or if the kids were just ready for a free-for-all at el campo, the empty dirt field above the foster home where they can burn off a little energy from time to time.
It was a good day for getting some new photos of the kids, and I wanted to share them here. They are a remarkable, resilient and ultimately joyful group of children.
Heidi, who is more or less the adopted daughter
of the woman who owns/operates Angelitos.  She mostly lives
in Dona Daisy's house, as do 3-4 of the kids at any given time,
but she comes on all our outings.
The kids cut loose in the sunshine at the dirt field above Angelitos.
Don't know who owns the field, but nobody bothers us.
The kids are all exceptionally good at climbing
trees, Here's Adolfo and Naun. At one point on
our adventure there were six kids up this tree.
The very sweet Jose Manuel, showing off his new shoes. This little guy
has a lot of trouble walking, and is thrilled by these shoes, which were part
of the new outfits everybody got before Christmas thanks to people like you.
The three children who I suspect have some of the most significant
needs in Angelitos - Chola on the left, Fernando, and Elsy, Chola's sister.
The beautiful Carina, 15, who has two sisters
living at the home and has quickly revealed
herself to be an Alpha Female. 
Rosario and Estrella enjoy the colouring books and pencil crayons
that donations from home continue to buy.
The (very) young mom who lives across the street from Angelitos, and
her new as-yet-unnamed daughter. Two sisters share a two-room cement-block
house with a tin roof - it was so hot inside yesterday. Whenever I think
that the kids at Angelitos have it rough, I just walk around that neighbourhood
with my eyes open and see all the other people living in equally
challenged circumstances. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Measuring progress one pair of shoes at a time

It will soon be a year since I began doing projects at the Angelitos Felices children's home here in Copan. The needs are so vast for children in Honduras that at times it's difficult to gauge whether anything you do is having any impact, but at least I can take in the completed capital projects at Angelitos on days like that and think, yeah, that's a little better.
This photo from one of my first visits to Angelitos
serves to remind me that the walls are now repainted,
the filthy concrete floor is now nice, bright ceramic,
and little Jesus has new clothes and shoes that fit
The kids have hot showers, the place no longer smells like sewage, the water (mostly) flows. The toilets flush, the new ceramic floors at least have the potential of looking clean. OK, the interior walls already look almost as bad as they did before we painted the place just two short months ago, but you can't win 'em all. 
While I was away over Christmas, a U.S. traveller had ceiling fans installed, and that has really improved the air quality in that stale place. 
Other than the twice-monthly swims at the pool with the kids, which I really like, one of the projects I had the most fun with was buying everybody new head-to-toe outfits last month. I swear, some of those kids had never before had a pair of shoes that fit. 
The four-year-old boy who struggles to walk, Jose Manuel, proudly shows me his new shoes every time I go up to Angelitos now. There'd been a time before he got them that he was barely allowed to go outside, let alone on outings, due to not having shoes. 
And the kids' excitement over a new pair of underwear or jeans that don't have to be tied at the waist with string to hold them up was both heart warming and  heartbreaking. The whole thing cost about $600 to outfit 24 children, such a bargain that I think we'll do it all over again in June. Next week, I'm taking the 16 school-age kids downtown to get outfitted for school uniforms before they return to class in February. 
I've been doing fundraising for various causes for almost 10 years and know that people will be generous if a project moves them. But I've still been happily surprised at the amazing support I've had from friends, family and acquaintances back home in B.C. for the projects at Angelitos.
My position with Cuso International has been key to me being able to do this work as well, as the stipend I get for working in communications full-time for the Comision de Accion Social Menonita pays for my new life in Honduras. That means that every cent of the donations for Angelitos can go directly to the work. 
All in, we've raised $16,000 in less than a year and spent about $11,000 of it. That leaves $5,000 for this coming year. And while I'd initially contemplated using it to build an indoor jungle gym at Angelitos, I'm now thinking every kid in Copan would benefit a lot more if I put some of it toward a public playground, something that Copan is decidedly short on. 
There's a scruffy metal playground up at a school on the hill that's locked up tight on weekends and another at the private bilingual school. I know at least a couple other people here in Copan who'd like to be part of a playground project, and hopefully my CASM buddies can give me some ideas around municipal contacts who might have some land to donate. 
There's a lot to be said for the chance to lounge pool-side
when you're living the tough life of an orphan
Travellers continue to visit Angelitos bearing gifts, as the place was renowned as a worrisome, poorly funded, rundown and controversial children's home long before I first laid eyes on it last April. 
The best of those gifts have been things that improve the structure of the place - the ceiling fans, the bed repairs done by a Christian mission out of Illinois in November - or that put better clothes on the backs of those poor, shabbily dressed kids. Gifts of basic medicines are also really helpful.
People have an understandable instinct to want to bring toys for the children. But I've never seen a toy last more than a day or two without somebody either breaking it, hiding it away, or sneaking it out of Angelitos to give to some other child. You can get mad about that latter practice, but the truth is that there are so many Copan children whose lives are no better than the kids at Angelitos. Can you blame somebody for wanting to give them toys too?
I can't even get mad when I hear that some of the older Angelitos girls have taken donated clothing down to the centre to sell. Everybody up there is in survival mode. It's not about being ungrateful, it's about getting by.
I continue to pin a lot of hope on Emily Monroe, the young American woman whose dream to open a better orphanage continues to move forward. Her Casita Copan project has reached a new and exciting stage now that she has taken over a former hostel, fully furnished. 
That gives Emily the ability to expand her daycare into a residence for abandoned or abused children once she jumps through all the legal hoops (and she will). She's determined to start a better children's home, and I continue to be impressed at her commitment and dogged success.
It could be too big a dream to hope that the Angelitos kids will one day be able to move into the series of small family-style group homes that Emily envisages. But at any rate, I believe she's going to pull off her project, and that many other vulnerable Honduran children will benefit from that regardless.
So I'm also looking for ways this year to support her work, while still finding ways to make life a little better for the Angelitos kids. For the moment they don't have the option of relocating to a better children's home. We'll just have to see what we can do to brighten their lives in the meantime. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Every dry, hot day brings the crisis closer

A major funder was in town this week for its annual perforance evaluation of the Honduran non-profit that I work for. So off we all went to the little town of La Cumbre, where 30 or so people from a dozen neighbouring villages had gathered to share their stories.
As always, I was struck by how little margin for error there is in the lives of these people. One misstep, one bad harvest, one unexpected turn of events can sink a family. Rural Hondurans are exceptionally resilient, but I do have to wonder how they're going to manage with climate change.
In Canada and the U.S., climate change tends to be one of those off-in-the-distance kind of things - something you know you'll have to worry about one day but that right now just means you think more about turning off your idling car or buying reusable shopping bags.
That's not the case in Honduras. In a country full of subsistence farmers who rely on seasonal rains to water their food crops, the impact of climate change is as real as the May rains that start  a little later and end a little earlier each year. Simple agricultural strategies that rural Hondurans have practiced for generations can no longer be counted on to produce enough corn and beans for the family.
In Canada, a dryer growing season forces farmers to rely more on irrigation, which increases costs. It brings new plagues and insects that require more labour-intensive strategies to combat. It reduces yields, which in turn reduces a farmer's already tight profit margin. Climate change complicates the life of a farmer anywhere in the world.
But in Honduras, a bad harvest isn't just a blow to a farmer's profit margin. It's the herald of a famine.
There are no irrigation systems to turn to for backup when the days run long and hot. There are no other sources of income to turn to for buying food. There isn't so much as an extra centavo in most rural Hondurans' households for new treatments that might ward off opportunistic bugs and fungi being unleashed by climate change.
Everybody sees what's coming for Honduras, and they're urging economic diversification before it's too late. There's some real doomsday stuff out there on the impact of climate change on corn, bean and coffee crops in Honduras over the next five years. Nobody's taking those reports lightly.
But few Hondurans have the savings, education or time to explore new ways of keeping their families fed. Nor is there a culture around market development, or any meaningful plans in the country to do something about the hopelessly poor infrastructure that prevents goods from getting to market regardless. There aren't even jobs in the big cities to fall back on; Monday's paper brought news of almost two million Hondurans looking for work, a quarter of the country.
Coffee has been relied upon to put badly needed money into Hondurans' pockets for many years now. But this year, a coffee-leaf fungus known as la roya is causing unprecedented damage, fuelled by hot, dry conditions resulting from climate change.
This year's harvest will be down by as much as 50 per cent as a result. The declines are anticipated to be even more calamitous in the next three years. The older plantations that marginal producers tend to have (coffee plants are ideally replaced every eight years, but poor people can't afford to do that) will likely have to be destroyed. Where will the money come from for new plants, or to get growers through the three long years before a young coffee plant starts producing?
Honduras is no stranger to disaster. But the aftermath of a hurricane is so much easier for the world to get its head around than the slow-motion crisis that's unfolding in the country right now. Whatever has to happen, it needs to happen soon. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The good, the bad and the uncertain

Somebody posted the following comment under my recent blog about job insecurity in Honduras. I wanted to repost it here because the writer does make the very valid point that there's much about Honduran employment practices that I don't know.
"While your comments about CASM having one year contracts are technically true, the fact is they still do pay out the benefits at the end of every year. Many employees actually prefer that, so that they get their retirement money at the end of each year and can do with it as they like rather than wait until they finish employment at an organization to get it. Most people would rather control their own retirement money than have an NGO or company have it, and if the NGO flops then they are out their money. There are also annual certified audits and turn in financial & activity reports to the government which would catch if any of the benefits are not being paid. You might want to ask your CASM co-workers more about this, you might not have the full story here. I'm not saying it is a great practice but it actually might be better than you lay it out in your article."
I've since talked to my CASM co-workers more on this subject, as suggested in the comment. They get paid a half a month's additional salary in June and the other half in December, as required under Honduran law. They also receive a little more money for one month of the year in lieu of prestaciones, the health, disability and social benefits that Honduras employers are also required to pay for full-time employees.
So nobody's breaking the law around benefits. And it could be that people do indeed appreciate having the money paid out every year rather than gambling that their employer - and their benefits - will be there when they need them. But that still doesn't address job security.
At any rate, I hadn't intended to disparage CASM's employment practices in my post - I just wanted to make the point out that even when you land a pretty good job here, you still have no job security. I do know that my co-workers don't like going into every single December wondering whether they'll have a job to return to in January.
But I appreciate this comment and all others -  I like feedback, and the chance to pick up new information from those who know more than I do.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pulperia dreamin'

Somebody told me a few months after we moved here that Honduran women often long to have their own corner store.
I thought it a strange thing to say at the time. But it makes more sense now that I see how impermanent the work culture is here. I’m betting that it’s not racks of little chip bags or a cooler full of giant bottles of Coke that gets a Honduran woman hankering to open her own pulperia. It’s economic stability.
The days of 35 years and a gold watch have been over for a while now in virtually every country, what with free trade having unleashed a new kind of work culture that just moves around the globe to whatever country has the hungriest workers willing to work for the cheapest wages. No job is a sure thing anymore, wherever you live.
But the sheer uncertainty of any job in Honduras - well, that would set me to dreaming of economic stability as well were I a Honduran woman trying to keep my bills paid and my kids fed, clothed and educated over the long term. Even the “good” jobs here are often year-to-year at best, and there’s a lot of work that’s literally one day at a time.
An example: The situation for my Honduran co-workers at the non-profit where I volunteer. Their jobs are the envy of many, seeing as they earn the equivalent of $500-700 a month and enjoy comfortable working conditions. But they’re still working year to year under contracts that never go past Dec. 31.
I didn’t know that until last month, when I went to the annual spiritual retreat for the organization and watched everybody getting handed the standard form letter that all employees get in December. It’s more or less a “Dear John” letter: Thanks for your service, your contract’s done.  Apparently it’s common practice among many Honduran non-profits, many of which opt to meet the letter of the law by giving people an additional month's pay every year without having to keep them on longer-term contracts.
The lucky ones end up getting their contracts renewed. But there are no guarantees.  A person could work for the same organization for 10 years and still be gone just like that in Year 11.
Nor are you treated gently when the end comes. One woman who works out of the same office as me got a terse email at 5 p.m. on the final day before the Christmas holiday informing her that she was done after three years on the job. Her project continues for another year or two, but she’s no longer the one leading it.
And those are the good jobs. Two million Hondurans count on seasonal income from the coffee harvest, but that work is brief, frequently involves travelling long distances, and pits you against the nimble fingers of legions of children whose parents send them into the coffee fields every year in hopes of boosting the paltry family income.
Move to the city and you might land a job in one of the maquilas – the international factories that have benefited the most from free trade. But those employers get a special exemption so they don't have to pay the minimum wage (which is damn minimal in Honduras, as little as $1 an hour). Maybe you can find a service job, but prepare for long hours, low pay, and more of that chronic insecurity. The young man who manages the pool where I like to swim works at least nine hours a day, seven days a week. Christmas came and went for him without so much as an afternoon off.
Back in Canada, we tend to think of “good” jobs as being the due of those who are focused, flexible and attentive to their studies. Here, you can be all those things and still get nowhere. 
One young friend who works in administration has spent every weekend for the last four years going to college in a town that’s a slow two-hour bus ride away. She figures she needs at least two more years of study before she has enough qualifications to land a better job. And it could very likely be a year-to-year job even then. 
One of these days, she might just wake up to find herself ready to give it all up and open a pulperia. Who’d blame her?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hard times coming as coffee production falls by half

Sesemil producers pack coffee beans for sale in Copan
There’s no avoiding the earthy, acrid smell of wet coffee cherries these days if you’re walking any of the dirt roads winding through the hills of Copan.  It’s the smell of money for Hondurans, who count on the annual coffee harvest from their small plots of land to provide their families with enough money to get them through the year.   
That’s a risky dependency any time you’ve got a commodity whose prices bob up and down as much as coffee. But climate change is adding a whole new layer of risk, bringing plagues and uncertain growing conditions to torment small coffee producers with little ability to ride out rough times.
Producers knew going into the current harvest season that they were up against a persistent fungus that has been spreading with abandon through a widely grown strain of coffee plant, says the administrator of an agricultural co-operative of organic coffee growers based in Copan Ruinas, Wilson Colindres. Work is already underway to develop and plant more resistant strains to slow the spread of la roya.
 But the impact is turning out to be much worse than anyone expected, Colindres said when I talked to him last week at the co-operative's offices in Sesesmil, Copan.  He fears the 2012-13 harvest season will be the worst in the co-operative’s history, with production down by half for the 39 Copan and Comayagua growers who belong to the 12-year-old co-op.
Coffee has been a very good fit for the country up until now.  Honduras’s legions of small producers operate with little margin for error, but coffee thrives on Honduras’s forested slopes without the need for costly irrigation systems or major interventions as long as a grower pays attention to soil quality and plant regeneration. The clockwork nature of Honduras’s rainy season was also good for coffee-growing, as it always started in early May and continued with heavy daily afternoon rains right through June. Coffee plants set a lot of fruit when they’re getting both heat and plenty of rain.
The healthy plant on the left looks strikingly different than
the defoliated plants all around it
But all that’s changing, says Colindres. Now, the country’s rainy season starts later and ends earlier every year. What used to be a daily rain has now diminished to rain every third or fourth day.  With the soil now drying out in between rains, conditions are ideal for the spread of la roya spores.  The fungus kills off the leaves of coffee plants, which stunts growth and decreases yields.
This year’s yields have been dramatically affected, says Colindres. But it’s a problem for coming years as well, as the sick, spindly plants don’t recover quickly.
And while growers are already planting more fungus-resistant varieties to try to reduce their losses, Colindres says the flavour of the beans isn’t as good from those strains. The world’s coffee drinkers are a notoriously finicky lot when it comes to the taste of their favourite brew, so that’s worrying producers as well.
What can be done? COAPROCL has just started into a new project with my organization, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, to improve soil quality at organic fincas and increase plant health. Healthy plants are better able to resist la roya. Other projects  are striving to increase the amount and quality of ground water in the region through better watershed management.
Some growers are planting resistant strains and hoping that flavour concerns will take care of themselves.  Coffee plants produce in their third year and are ideally replaced every eight or so years for maximum productivity (although that's often not the case among Honduras's small producers), so many growers are accustomed to adding new plants every season anyway.
 I walked the Sesemil finca of Alfredo Morales, president of the co-operative, and noted a few “survivor” plants thriving amid their defoliated brethren, despite being from the same vulnerable strain. No doubt scientists are studying such examples of natural resistance as well.
Coffee beans drying at the coffee cooperative
in Sesemil, Copan
Natural fungicides exist for organic producers, but Colindres notes that plants are already showing resistance. Growers often have to resort to three applications of three different fungicides now – an added cost for a marginal producer.
In the short term, the next couple of months are still a happy time for Hondurans. Some two million men, women and children participate in the annual coffee harvest, counting on it to provide money for all the things they aren’t able to afford at any other time of year. 
This is a time of buying new clothes for the kids; finishing off the community water tank; paying off the loans and store credits that got the family through the last half of the year; adding another room on the house.
But in the longer term, Honduras is up against a global change in weather that is expected to wreak havoc within as little as five years with many of the crops grown in the country, including essential food crops such as beans and corn. The emergence of a devastating coffee fungus is not just a stroke of bad luck for a country that has certainly known no shortage of it, but a mere sample of what’s to come if the country can’t adapt to a rapidly changing environment.
Dryer, hotter weather is not just the problem of the moment. It’s a permanent change that puts the country at grave risk of slipping even further in world rankings for malnutrition, poverty, maternal/child health and more.  Efforts to help Honduran producers adapt, mitigate and diversify can’t come soon enough. 

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Reflections on a life-changing year

This time last year, I was in one of the most stressful periods of my life as we stripped away all that was familiar and beloved to prepare for our move to Honduras.
I was stepping into a new job in a strange land where I'd have to work in a language I barely knew, leaving behind friends, family and the security of a comfortable and fulfilling 30-year career. I was unsettled by the constant reports of violence and murder coming out of Honduras, and wondering just what my spouse and I had gotten ourselves into with our decision to volunteer for Cuso International.
But it felt like the right thing to do even so. And with a challenging, exhilarating year now under our belts, I'm happy to report that it was.
We had no idea what  to expect when we boarded the plane for San Pedro Sula on a cold, damp January day. More than 50 years of middle-class accumulation had been reduced to a small storage locker of largely worthless personal possessions and 40 kilos of baggage we were taking with us. Except for short bursts of travel, I'd never been farther than a few hours away from my family.
And you can't help but be a little edgy when everyone keeps reminding you you're headed for the murder capital of the world. A newcomer reading the relentlessly grim news coming out of Honduras is bound to feel at least a little apprehensive about spending time here, and the scary in-country briefing we got upon our arrival in Tegucigalpa certainly didn't help with that.
But the reality has turned out to be so very different. Virtually every Honduran I've met this past year has wanted only that I like their country. People are friendly and helpful, and despairing over the daily deluge of bad-news media stories that are scaring travellers and aid missions away. Sometimes I'll be walking through an area that I walked ever so tentatively in those first few weeks in Honduras and flash back to how nervous I felt back then, and how sharply that contrasts with the way I feel now on those same streets.
My first couple of months on the job were admittedly really difficult, what with understanding so little of what my workmates were saying. I fear my inadequate Spanish skills left me devoid of any outward signs of personality or humour. My head ached at the end of every day from the effort of trying to communicate.
But little by little I learned. At the six-month mark, something kicked in and I began to understand much more of what I heard. The writing and reading came along even quicker. A year on, I can hold my own in any conversation without having to rehearse every sentence in my head before daring to open my mouth, and now use Google Translate solely to confirm what I've already written rather than as a crutch to get me through another baffling day.
My co-workers gradually started inviting me out into the field with them, where at least I could take photos and see for myself the work of the organization. I tried to be helpful in any way I could. I had to let go of the "Canadian way" and adjust to a laid-back work culture that feels none of that sense of urgency to complete tasks on time or on plan.
It was hard to be reduced to a virtual novice on the work front after many comfortable years of recognition back home, but it has also been exciting to be proving myself all over again. My role here is to help my co-workers get better at telling the stories of the great work they do, and I'm finally starting to think that just might be possible.
Perhaps the best part - as strange as this might sound -  has been to experience a country with problems that are not only much more profound than anything my home country faces, but far more complex. To see such problems up close has not only given me a new appreciation for good governance - something that is almost completely absent in Honduras - but challenged me as never before to take more personal responsibility for affecting change. More and more I see what can be accomplished simply by one person doing what they can.
I've learned that while Skype and Facebook are not substitutes for time spent with family and friends, they're pretty good ways to stay in touch. I've learned that you can pack a lot into a short visit home, and hope to one day be as good as my well-travelled cousin at finding cheap flights and arranging meet-you-in-Las-Vegas kinds of holidays for quick catch-ups.
I have another year here to build on what I've learned so far. I'll need it, and am grateful that we had the good fortune of being accepted for two-year positions. It feels like the adventure is just getting started.