Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On the road again: Scenes from a car window

I've been searching for a way to describe the swervy, teeth-rattling experience of travelling on a typical rural road in Honduras, but it's one of those things that you really have to feel for yourself.
    But yesterday on the drive back from Las Flores, where my co-workers did a workshop on making organic fertilizer, it dawned on me that if I just stuck the video camera out the window, I might be able to convey at least some of the experience. The jouncing, the sharp turns, the speed bumps as we pass through little towns - a hand-held video shot catches all of that.
     So click here for a five-minute video snapshot of that 45-minute ride back toward Copan Ruinas, starting with the crazy drive right through the flood plain of the Rio Negro - which, of course, is impassable anytime the rains are heavy.
    As I watched the video, I also saw that it serves the purpose of getting past the pretty pictures I've been posting and showing a little grittier, realistic view of this country where we've been living for the past year and a half. Hope you like it. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

We can sing a rainbow


 I'm in that giddy state that comes after something you've been dreading is over, and it turned out not nearly as bad as you'd thought. In this case the anxiety-inducing event was a devotional I did this morning for my co-workers on gay tolerance - a subject that is rarely talked about here, and most definitely not in the context of the weekly prayer meeting at our office.
   But for a while now I've been thinking that my co-workers are splendid, loving people, and that perhaps they really just needed a gentle push to reconsider some of the kneejerk prejudices against homosexuality that exist in Honduras. I knew I couldn't go at them with a forceful presentation on how wrong it is to deny people the basic right of loving who they choose, but I figured I might be able to just plant a seed or two that might start them thinking differently.
   As it turned out, several of them had already been thinking differently. And while I noticed some people shifting uncomfortably in their seats once they heard what the subject of the devotional was, the lively conversation that grew out of the little PowerPoint I did went on for almost two hours and had everybody talking and sharing their thoughts. There was a lot of laughter, too, a great relief for a presenter bracing herself for stony faces and silence.
   Honduras is heavily religious - still predominantly Catholic, but increasingly evangelical. My co-workers tend to interpret the Bible very conservatively, and there are at least a couple passages in the Bible that are pretty ferocious when it comes to condemning same-sex relations.
   So while the Pope's recent comments about accepting homosexuals has given Honduras something to think about, it's not like people who have spent a lifetime believing that homosexuality is an abomination can just switch off their feelings and move on. I tried to make my points gently, and stressed from the start that I wasn't there to argue with them about their own beliefs (although by gully, that turned out to be quite a challenge at times).
   The best discussion came when I broke them into pairs and gave them five "moral dilemmas" to ponder:

  • Your son/daughter or other close family member acknowledges being gay; 
  • You discover your child's favourite teacher is a lesbian; 
  • You become aware that children are bullying a boy because they think he's gay; 
  • Your organization finds out that two people in a community are being blocked from participating in a project because neighbours think they are homosexual; 
  • It's election day and you have the choice of voting for an honest candidate who's gay or a corrupt politician who's heterosexual. (That last one got quite a laugh, seeing as it's basically a real-life example from the coming Honduran election.)

    Those around the table who struggle the most with accepting homosexuality had the same kind of responses you can still hear in Canada and the U.S.: The Bible says it's a sin and that's that; the homosexuals want to influence my child's sexual orientation; we ought to have the right to our own beliefs even if thinking is changing elsewhere in the world. It's OK to be gay, just don't act on it.
    But even the diehards admitted they'd never push a loved one away, never stand by and watch intolerance or violence happen to someone. One fellow, given the "what if it was someone in your family" dilemma, said he realized he wasn't at all prepared for such a development, and saw that he needed to reflect on that more.
   Others were downright supportive. One young woman said she'd met a rural family with three gay children, and realized in that instant that it had to be in the biology of people. Several talked about the woman who dresses as a man in one of the villages up the road from our office (and believe me, you have to be some brave in Honduras to do that) who has a female partner and has been completely accepted by the other villagers. One said she'd learned a lot from witnessing that acceptance.
   And I think we almost had a consensus that if the better political candidate was gay or lesbian, he or she would get their vote.
    I'm well aware of how ugly the talk can get when the subject is tolerance of homosexuality; my years as an adult have pretty much paralleled the decades of heated debates over gay rights. But ultimately, I trust good-hearted people to see that it's just love we're talking about here. My Honduran co-workers are nothing if not loving, and I am honoured that they gave me the opportunity to say things they didn't want to hear. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Come walk with me

The ever-changing field near the river.

 I have a 15-minute walk to work every morning. Today's was particularly interesting, what with me stepping out the door and immediately getting into a discussion with a neighbour about the swollen vulva of the wandering young dog sleeping on our patio, which he told me meant she was in heat and thus in need of one of the mystery injections they give dogs down here to stop pregnancy. But every day's walk is interesting in its own way.
    I make a point to say good morning to everyone I pass, having come to see that gringos are in general not nearly friendly enough for this extroverted and amiable culture. Shop owners getting ready for the day, women out sweeping the street outside their houses, cantina workers, street drunks - all of us exchange greetings, and at times get into spirited conversations about one thing or another.
    I walk the dirt road below our house, a favourite haunt of the handful of local men who drink themselves into oblivion at least a couple times a week. They're always in one of two states: Cheerily intoxicated or stone-cold passed out on the ground, looking for all the world like they're dead. One time I stood over a fellow for a long time trying to verify that he was breathing, but he was.
    The dirt road gives way to Cantina Row at the edge of town, where the sex workers pass their time in teeny-tiny bars dancing and flirting with drunk men. There appears to be some irregularly enforced rule about the cantinas not being allowed to open until 4 p.m., and today I noticed that one of the women has opened a small pulperia - a corner store - in her little house next to the bar where she works, perhaps to generate some daytime revenue.
Egel, the dog that walks to work with me a lot
    The highway between Copan Ruinas and the Guatemala border takes a strange swing right through this area, so there's one part of my walk where I'm often fighting for road space with semi-trucks trying to make a near-impossible 90-degree turn. If I'm walking with the neighbour dog that often accompanies me, I know he'll inevitably detour into one of the tire shops along that part of the road, where he will perform a ritual with the big husky-cross tied up there that involves the two of them standing side-by-side and looking like they're going to fight, although they never do. Giant semi trucks carrying vast flats of  Coca-Cola products are always unloading at a warehouse in this area; whoever else might be struggling in Honduras, Coca-Cola is not one of them.
    Then it's on to another dirt road, this one past the Hedman Alas bus station and the newly opened hotel that never looks very busy. The previous owner was murdered and the place was closed down when we arrived, but it's back in business under new ownership and trying its best in difficult times. Just past the hotel there's a field that has an ever-changing array of vegetables growing in it - beans for a couple months, then chili peppers, then corn. Today the workers were assembling little tents over the newly tilled field that producers use here to keep away bugs, so I'm guessing that tomatoes will be the next crop.
    The people I run into the most in this stretch of the walk are Maya Chorti, who are distinct among Hondurans for their brightly coloured homemade clothes, their slim builds, and their reserve. Sometimes I really have to work at it to catch somebody's eye for a greeting. I sense they don't have much time for gringos, especially those who aren't buying their corn-husk dolls. Some will have walked for two hours or more by the time we pass on the bridge across the Copan River, as they're all making their way on foot from some hillside village to town to sell their various wares: chickens; eggs; tortillas; local fruits.
    Every day I pass at least one stooped old man with a load of firewood on his back. It looks like the hardest work imaginable, and it always seems to be the oldest, most infirm looking men who end up doing it. I guess there's no other work for them, and certainly no comfortable retirement pensions.
Oh, the things you see when you look
   The final hill to my office takes me past some of the richer homes of the area, including one surrounded by a rock wall so high and huge that last year a team of 20 men worked on it every day for almost 10 months. We grew familiar with each other after 10 months of daily "Buenas dias," and now we say hello when I see them at other work sites around town.
  And then I arrive, to my desk in what was probably a garage at some point, where the big door is wide open and it's practically like I'm working outside. Today I hear the sound of saws; one of the wealthy people down below must be getting a new or improved house. Later this afternoon, I expect I'll hear the music and drums of a school band practising in some distant field, as Independence Day is coming up in less than a month and there will be many, many marching bands in the streets.
    Come Monday, I'll do it all over again, and it will be the same but different. If life is in the details, I am living.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Back home to the happy faces and sad stories

   My heart is breaking for neighbours of ours here in Copan Ruinas, whose teenage son was kidnapped 21 days ago while Paul and I were holidaying in Canada and the U.S. The family has yet to receive any ransom demand, one of those things that likely signal the worst for the poor boy.
   Coincidentally, he drove me to work one morning a few days before we left on vacation. He was a brand-new mototaxi driver and I was his first paying customer. He seemed like a friendly and social guy ready to begin a new life as an adult.
    Now I fear he's just another of the thousands of young Honduran men who are gone from this world for reasons that are never talked about, at the hands of criminals who are rarely prosecuted. All his family knows is that people saw him get into a non-descript grey car without licence plates on the dirt road that I walk to work on every morning, and he hasn't been seen since. It is not an unusual scenario here.
   Having just heard the story of his disappearance, I arrived at work this morning to learn that the brother of the woman who cleans our offices was also one of the 800 sad souls who were ripped off in a fraud in July perpetrated against Hondurans with dreams of finding work in Canada.
   With visions of making decent money picking fruit in Canada for a few months, the impoverished Hondurans had scrounged up $500 each to be able to meet the requirements. That's a small fortune for most Hondurans, and some of them had to sell their houses just to be able to raise the money. Alas, the whole thing was a carefully orchestrated sham, and they have all lost their money.
    It's hard to imagine how devastating a loss like that is on the life of a rural Honduran, but the cleaning woman helped me get some perspective on it. In her tiny village of San Rafael, just a few kilometres outside of Copan Ruinas, more than 70 people lost virtually everything they had.
     They sold their bean and corn crops that would have fed their families through the non-harvest months coming up. They sold their tools. They took out loans, in some cases from the kind of people you do NOT want to be indebted to, in other cases from family members who have now been plunged into a desperate financial situation as well.
    Five of the villagers from San Rafael have already left their families behind to look for work in other parts of Honduras. This woman's brother, a single dad of two young children, expects he'll have to leave his village too. That same scenario is doubtlessly playing out in every village where impoverished farmers were tricked by clever predators who felt no shame at robbing from the poorest of the poor.
    In light of all this, in light of all the things that go wrong every day for Hondurans, what always astounds me about coming back to Copan after time away is how friendly the people are here. I'm quite sure I've exchanged more friendly greetings with Hondurans since arriving bleary-eyed and exhausted yesterday afternoon than I did in all of my two weeks of travelling in Canada and the U.S. I don't know how people maintain their optimism and cheer in this struggling country, but the difference between here and there is striking.
   I reject that "poor but happy" business, having talked to far too many Hondurans who have the same dreams as anyone for a better life for their children. Hondurans are definitely not happy about being poor, nor are they happy with the crime they experience as a regular part of life, with the absence of justice, with their indifferent and selfish government leaders.
    But they sure know how to keep a smile on their face while they wait and hope for better days. I've really missed that easy friendliness you see here: the genuine curiosity about passersby; the eye contact; the willingness to stop and chat to anyone who's smiling back. A stranger arrived at the office looking for someone who wasn't in, and greeted me with a hug just for telling her that. Even when the stories are sad, the sheer eagerness to engage is uplifting.
    Back in Canada, people barely look at each other anymore as they pass on the street, and sometimes the vibe is just this side of hostile. How can it be that people with so little can always make time for human kindness, and people with everything can't be bothered?