Saturday, January 28, 2012

Don't worry, Mum and Dad, it's safe here

I had an email from my father today expressing alarm about the risks in Honduras and urging caution, noting my mother’s concerns for our safety. It’s disconcerting to find out your parents, in their mid-80s, are actively worried about you.
I understand. It was a jarring discovery for me, when Jody and I began living together, that worrying about children was a lifelong thing. My duo, Rebecca and Sam, were in their early teens. Rachelle, Jody’s youngest was Sam’s age. I hadn’t given the topic serious thought, but just assumed that once they were adults you could quit worrying about children.
Jody’s two oldest were adults, capable and smart. But I soon learned the worries changed, but they didn’t stop. Hearts could still be be at risk of breaking, dreams thwarted, hoped-for achievements could prove empty - and parents have to anticipate all those things, and share in the sadness if they happen. Not to mention the normal risks of life - icy roads and night bicycle rides and travels in strange parts. (The saying that parents are only as happy as their saddest child is, for most of us, true, for better or worse.)
Which leads, in a roundabout way, to safety in Honduras, and my parents worries as they keep an eye on the news in Medicine Hat.
We’ve been here less than two weeks, have really only seen Tegucigalpa and Copan Ruinas, and my Spanish is still so patchy I am functionally illiterate.
But there’s no denying that parts of Honduras are far more dangerous than we’re used to in Canada. San Pedro Sula, according to the United Nations, surpassed Ciudad Juarez in its murder rate last year, making it the world’s deadliest city.
In Tegucigalpa, the capital, where we spent a week, robberies are common and people who have a choice don’t walk anywhere after dark, which comes around 5:30 p.m. this time of year. A trip to a restaurant, even a few blocks in a good neighbourhood, means calling a taxi, preferably with a driver you already know. Gas stations have attendants, and a guard with a shotgun. Banks have more than one armed guard, and customers get a quick scan with a metal detector before they are allowed in to make their deposits. The photo at the top of the blog, by Jody Paterson, is of a typical corner store - pulperia - in Tegucigalpa. You ask for your potato chips and pop through the little window. Our in-country training included advice on what to do if confronted by a robber (move slowly, avoid eye contact, keep physical distance and hand over whatever he asks for as quickly and unthreateningly as possible).
The idea of reporting crimes to police isn’t even considered, and whoever has the razor wire franchise is Tegus has done very well.
In the two big cities, and apparently some rural areas, things have broken down in a way that would seem inexplicable to most Canadians. It will be a while before I know enough to offer any views about why, or what could be done about it. A major problem is the booming cocaine business, with Honduras as the midpoint between producers in countries to the south and the eager North American consumers. Maras - serious gangs - control some neighbourhoods in San Pedro Sula, collecting ‘taxes’ in their barrios. The Peace Corps pulled its volunteers from Honduras this month, citing safety concerns. But there had been few incidents, and volunteers were mostly young and on minimal incomes, and thus more likely to be in higher risk situations. The U.S. is also looking to cut aid spending, and pressure Honduras for action on drug trafficking and corruption. The Peace Corps’ decision fit with both goals.
(The Miami Herald offered some reporting and an editorial last week, for those who are interested. It does not note the impact of the 40-year “war on drugs,” a self-destructive, ineffective, costly and stupid exercise that has made the drug trade so lucrative and corrupting.)
It’s a sad situation, especially for people without the money to insulate themselves from the crime,
And even in Tegucigalpa, people were living their lives. We walked to a store to buy a music stand - Jody’s wouldn’t fit in the suitcase. People shopped in malls, kids went to school, life rolled on.
We spent a pleasant day in Santa Lucia, a town about 15 kilometres away, where life seemed much more normal. Houses weren’t hidden behind walls, no one seemed particularly worried about crime.
Here in Copan Ruinas, the feeling is similar. It’s fine, everyone agrees, to wander the streets after dark, though perhaps not too late. There are no security guards hovering outside stores, kids play outside at night and houses don’t have walls or locked gates. We carry laptops to the Spanish school, something that would be foolish in the two big cities. People smile when we say hola, three-wheeled taxis bounce over the cobblestones, there’s a walking trail to the Mayan ruins along the road into town. The corner stores are in the front rooms of people’s houses, and wide open, with less security than a Canadian 7-11.
It feels, so far, as safe as Victoria, or Medicine Hat (maybe safer than downtown Victoria at closing time).
When I know more, I’ll write more.
Meanwhile, I’ll be prudent, listen to my Spidey sense, and stay in a safe hotel and use Edgar, the tireless taxi driver we know, when we go to Tegucigalpa to renew visas in a few months.
But really, mum and dad, don’t worry. It’s nine on Friday night, and people are sitting outside talking in the warm evening and strolling down to the corner store.
We’re safe, and we’ll stay that way.

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