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.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The soundtrack to our lives in Copan Ruinas

So far, one of the most striking things about our home stay in Copan Ruinas is the soundtrack accompanying life in our little family compound.
Right now, the family next door - two adult daughters of Esmeralda, our host, with children of their own - are listening to some techno-goth dance tracks, with the usual repetitive synth riffs, drum track and occasional lyrics contributed by a distorted voice urging us to “dance with the devil.
I’m in the main room in the house, at the dining table with my laptop. The light is a little harsh - two bare energy-saving bulbs in an overhead fixture. The front door is open, and, for no obvious reason, a neighbour’s dog offers enthusiastic barks as trucks grumbling up the cobblestone street contributing bass, while kids call out to each other. Behind me, in the kitchen, Esmeralda is talking to Rosita, whose 21st birthday fiesta we attended, and a young guy who might or not be her boyfriend, while a three-year-old girl, with shoes that flash light when she walks, asks questions. I have yet to figure out how she is connected to anyone here. Aaron, the baby next door, is crying.
There are crickets, or some sort of insect, adding a steady treble. The gate to the compound swings open, with a rusty screech, and voices murmur outside, snatches of conversation I can’t comprehend. From farther away, kids’ shouts carry to the house.
It’s nice now, homey. It’s seven in the evening, and we had a couple of beers after class in ViaVia, joined by Percy from Cranbrook who is also in the Isbalanque Spanish School and came with us on a tour to a coffee finca this morning. So did Peggy Victoria. What are the odds that four people from B.C. would meet in a language school in Copan Ruinas.
The finca visit was interesting - a tour of the drying area, usually on a concrete pad in the sun, or in a giant wood and coffee-husk fired dryer if it’s cloudy. It’s a co-op, in the hills above town, and not your usual tour. We walked across a stream on a squared-off tree trunk and slide through barbed wire fences to see the coffee plants and the fields. A family was chopping weeds in one field, a woman, two children about seven and nine, and a weathered man who, when we drew closer, had only one hand but wielded his hoe deftly.
But back to the sounds. They are not always so benign.
Last night, Jody was fighting a cold and I was tired from the heat and the realization, after a four-hour lesson, that learning Spanish was going to be a big job. (Yes, I should have realized that earlier.) We trudged up the hill to the house, and crashed for a while, then ate huevos rancheros. They were really good - a poached egg with salsa, beans, local cheese with crema, which is a staple, and tortillas.
Then I just wanted somewhere to read, or do homework, or sit. There isn’t really anywhere like that.
So I collapsed on the bed in our little room. And all around, there were sounds. Outside our window - right outside our window - is an outdoor sink. It’s abut four feet by five feet, cement, and three feet deep. At one end, there’s a shallow concrete part, with ridges, that seems to be used for scrubbing clothes and washing dishes and multiple other purposes.
And for some two hours, the water was running into the tank, a steady waterfall about two feet from our open window.
That was the base for the soundtrack. On the street in front, a futbol game - or war, I couldn’t tell - kept a gang of boys shouting and hooting. Unmuffled motorcycles roared past, and trucks and the three-wheeled taxis that serve this hilly town. Dogs barked and, more pleasantly, so did geckos. Our other window is two feet from the house on the other side, where another daughter lives, and a lively, loud conversation continued there. In the kitchen - right outside our bedroom door - Esmeralda and a stream of visitors talked loudly, occasionally dropping their voices as someone thought about us, but only for a moment.
Once we turned out the lights, the water stopped running and the voices fell. But the motorcycles still roared by occasionally, and a grouchy dog barked at phantoms.
None of this is, I hope, complaining. But we lived in Victoria as two people in small space set back from the road, with three adjacent houses where people lived quiet lives. Most of the year, our windows were closed.
Now we’re in a three-house compound where people of all ages come and go, the doors and windows are all open and the street is part of the living space. Lives are lived loudly and publicly. There seems to be little sense of the need for silence - if the techno is too loud from the neighbouring house, or the children too noisy in the street, the solution is to turn up the cartoons the tired three-year-old is watching on the television.
Conclusions? We aren’t in Victoria anymore, and don’t over-romanticize the joys of communal living in a hot climate.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Our first fiesta

We’ve been here less than 48 hours, and attended our first fiesta.
Esmeralda, our home stay host, told us there was a party tonight. I think there were two birthdays, but I’m not really sure. My Spanish skills mean I am generally only half-certain about anything that’s going on, often much less. And I’m probably regularly wrong about the things that I think I understand. (Which might have been true even when I understood the language people were speaking.)
Breakfast yesterday was tamales purchased the night before from a neighbour cooking them in her backyard in a big tub over a wood fire. I’ve never been fond of tamales in Mexico - too mushy, like a pudding with chunks of boney chicken. But these were good - chicken, potato and rice in a thinner corn mush casing.
We wandered through the town, scoping it out, had a coffee near the square and I did homework on the roof of the house, while Jody played accordion, then another four hours of Spanish class. The extent of the task ahead grows increasingly claro. I can understand many things, thanks to a good ability to grasp parts of conversation and fill in the blanks. But I have the vocabulary of a two-year-old raised by neglectful parents and can only speak, haltingly, in the present tense. We switch teachers each week; I suspect that’s a good thing for the sanity of la maestra working with me.
We bought a cake for the fiesta - a pastel - and came home. Preparations were under way. We went with Esmeralda to a house around the corner, to get tortillas. Through a house to a backyard, where an older, dark-brown-skinned woman was taking clumps of dough from a large metal bowl, patting them into circles and cooking them on a big pan over a blazing wood fire. We joined several women waiting and left with an aluminum roasting pan full of hot tortilla.
Eventually we made our way to the adjoining house, occupied by a daughter of Esmeralda (another two daughters live in the house on the other side). It gradually filled with cousins and aunts and brothers and sisters and more cousins, sitting mostly in plastic chairs around the edge of the room, with a passel of children in and out of the house and music playing through very bad speakers in way that took me back to the days of Candle transistor radios. We were seated in the place of honour, a satiny sofa. I was introduced to many people, introducing myself as Pablo, offering my mucho gustos and nodded agreeably while smiling wildly as conversations swirled around me.
We ate - delicious chicken stewed in a mild red sauce, rice and vegetables and the tortilla - as people kept arriving. Jody played the accordion for an appreciative audience, we ate the cake and I identified at least one of the birthday people, Rosita, a beautiful young woman turning 21 in a sparkly brown shirt who did all the serving (and looked 15). The serving might be a convention. I don’t know. People kept showing up throughout the evening, and plates of food kept appearing for them.
One guest spoke English, a young Copan guy who spent six years in California studying archeology and then came back to do research at the ruins. He’s working on a site about two kilometres from the main archeological site; there are unexcavated sites all around this region.
We left about 9:45, when some others had gone and it seemed reasonable, but I can hear the party continuing as I write this - especially the loud voices of the young kids.
No big sociological conclusions from one fiesta, but it was a pretty big family gathering for a birthday, though it also reminded me of some WIllcocks gatherings in Toronto when I was a kid. (Except there was no alcohol at the fiesta, which was probably for the best - I was addled enough.)
I didn’t know what to expect about moving to Honduras. But I didn’t imagine myself plunged into someone else’s family life, buying tortillas from a neighbour woman, and sharing a fiesta with a bunch of people who didn’t even seem particularly puzzled to find a gringo sitting on the sofa eating birthday cake while Jody perched on a plastic stool and played Latin American songs on her accordion.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Settling into our new hometown

So I started to write about how strange this all is, and a tiny moth, brown and with perfect spread wings, landed on my computer screen, attracted by the light.
I’m sitting on the back patio of our home stay, with kids bicycles and mechanics equipment scattered around, boys playing futbol around the corner, Isabel, our host, singing as she cooks in the kitchen, which is behind my back. The boys have gathered around to say hello, improve my Spanish and test their English already.
There’s a wooden ladder propped against a fence, and the neighbour’s house is about five metres in front of me. An outdoor concrete sink is to my right, with the water running. I don’t know why. Laundry is hung on two lines, and the fence.
We’re in Copan Ruinas, arriving from Santa Rosa de Copan today and plunging into our home stay and four hours of Spanish. It’s dizzying.
We live here now. Not in the home stay, though Esmeralda would like that, but in the town.
Beautiful setting. Green hills rising all around, old, narrow cobbled streets and buildings that seem mostly at least 200 years old. About 8,000 people, although it feels much smaller.
I don’t know enough to write much about it. The Mayan ruins, about a kilometre outside town, give the place its name and at least some tourists, although the 2009 coup and crime issues in Honduras have made people reluctant to visit the whole country.
We travelled from Teguicigalpa with some Cuso people heading for a meeting in Santa Rosa de Copan, and ate dinner with them and three other Cuso vols, as they are called, from Calgary and Quebec. Spanish was the common language, which meant I was able to listen, but contribute little.
We caught a ride here this morning, visited the language school and got directions to our home stay. It’s up a cobblestone hill, a kitchen, living room, and three bedrooms, a small one with tiny bathroom for us. It’s rough by Canadian standards - small. rickety shelves, concrete walls partly painted, corrugated tin roof. But we aren’t in Canada - that’s the point.
The Ixbalanque Spanish school is in an old building in town, about a 15-minute walk, depending on how often we get lost. We plunged in, with the first of daily four-hour lessons, one on one. My instructor, a Honduran woman - la maestra is the title - seemed little daunted by my lame skills, and the 24-hour immersion should bring progress. Jody gets a month of lessons courtesy of Cuso as preparation for her placement, and I’m paying for mine. It is a bargain - about $225 a week for 20 hours of lessons, accommodations and three home-cooked meals a day. Lunch was chicken and rice in a mild chile sauce. Based on the smells from behind me, supper will be spectacular.
We stopped for a drink in a second-floor bar/restaurant on the way home. Pina coladas and caprihinas, $2 each. Watched the hills grow dark and the stars come out. It gets dark early in these parts, by 5:30 or 6.
Another person has shown up on the back patio, which seems to be shared by several families, to wash her dishes in an outdoor sink, offering a cheery hola.
We’re not in Victoria anymore.