Friday, February 03, 2012

House-hunting in Copan Ruinas

We’ve been house-hunting, an experience I never liked in Canada. In Copan Ruinas, it’s so baffling it transcends unpleasantness.
For starters, there’s no simple way to look for places here. There’s no local paper or bulletin boards with apartment-to-rent ads. A handful of places have “Apartmento se renta” signs tacked up on doors, but not many.
The standard method is to ask anyone you can think of if they know of a place to rent, generally in Spanish, adding a layer of complexity. We’ve asked at the language school, in hotels and restaurants, called the local bilingual school that hosts teachers from North America, and asked the women running pulperias - the ubiquitous corner stores - in areas that looked promising.That’s part of the challenge - figuring out which areas look promising.
The first criteria is security. Copan, I stress again, is safe. But people are poor and every house has bars of some kind - often decorative - on the windows to prevent break-ins. As gringos, we’ll be presumed (not inaccurately in this conext) to be rich, and sometimes we’ll be away from home for a few days. Our new home needs to have good locks, a decent neighbourhood and, ideally, neighbours who will keep an eye on the place when aren’t there.
Then there’s the giant difference in basic standards between Canada and Honduras. We don’t want to live as if we were in Canada, even if we could afford it on a Cuso budget. It seems rude to come here and live way better than the people Jody will be working with, and foolish to live in a bubble that prevents us from understanding the place and the people who live here.
But housing here tends to be really basic. Partly, that’s simply a matter of money. Most people don’t have much. But there are also different cultural values. Decoration - even family pictures - is sparse to non-existent. There’s a tolerance for a lack of privacy that we don’t have. And things that would bug us on a daily basis - a shower head supported by a piece of string tied to the ceiling, bare florescent ceiling bulbs powered by a tangled web of wires and electrical tape, grimy walls - don’t seem to register.
And then there are the surprising issues. The municipal water supply serves most homes three days a week; you need a big enough roof tank to get through the times no water is available.
We’ve looked at half a dozen places, one twice when two different people guided us there. Several have been small - one room, or a room with a bedroom. One was a largish house, but in rough shape. A couple have been furnished, if a set of plastic outdoor chairs and a plastic table count. (Buying furniture presents another set of problems. We’ve found two “furniture stores,” both tiny and with four or five dressers, a couple of beds and two or three sofa, loveseat chair sets.)
Apartments have been cheap. Typically $150 bare, $250 furnished. And there seems to be little between cheap and way basic, and too expensive for us.
We’ve found one promising place, and have a few more to look at. (We stopped in at a German restaurant yesterday and asked about rentals today. They steered us to a house we’re going to look at today.)
And we’ve had a lot of generous help from people.
It matters quite a bit. Copan is beautiful and the people friendly, but we’re strangers in a strange land. A home that’s comfortable and secure is going to be critical on the inevitable days when things seem just a little too crazy.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Meanwhile, back in B.C., on the Liberals' secretive, self-destructive ways

I’ve been trying to resist the urge to comment on B.C. politics and policy from Honduras, but habits die hard. I’m still checking the B.C. papers from time to time.
And I wonder what Liberal party members are thinking about their government’s self-destructive ways?
Jonathan Fowlie reported in the Sun on the government’s 19-month fight to keep the botched advertising flyer it created and printed to sell the HST secret.
The 10-page pamphlet went through multiple drafts and cost taxpayers a bundle to create.
The government paid $780,000 to print a copy for every household in the province. And then the Liberals changed their minds and ordered the flyers trucked to a shredder. It was a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.
Then the government compounded the bungle. The Sun applied for a copy of the flyer under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act in June 2010. Since then, the Liberal government has been stalling and fighting to keep the flyer - which it planned to mail to every household in the province - secret. It was “advice to cabinet,” and exempted from FOI laws, the Liberals said.
That’s stupid. Cabinet approved the flyer. It was printed. You don’t print 780,000 copies of a memo offering advice to cabinet.
The government stonewalled through mediation and coughed up the flyer on the eve of a formal hearing on the FOI request.
Leave aside the fact the Liberals, including current leader Christy Clark campaigned on a promise to be open and accountable, and consider the results of this dumb attempt at secrecy.
- The image of the government as secretive and unaccountable was reinforced.
- The government’s attempt to thwart FOI legislation suggested the Liberals consider themselves above the law.
- The attempted cover-up meant the issue, instead of being dealt with in 2010, made headlines this month. That reminded people once again of their anger over the dishonest attempts to sell the HST. It brought the issue to the forefront much closer to the coming election.
- And it meant that Christy Clark had to carry responsibility for the attempt to keep the flyer from the public, since she continued the fight to avoid accountability.
The Liberals’ political opponents welcome the self-inflicted wounds
But the party’s supporters should be having serious doubts about the competence - and integrity - of the people who are supposed to lead them into the next election.
Disappointed supporters don't contribute to the party, financially or as volunteers. Sometimes, they don't even vote. And when there is an alternative, like the provincial Conservatives, they have a ready way to show their chagrin with the bumbling and arrogance of the people they counted on for better government.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A weekend of walking in Copan: Politics, water and Maya ruins

It was a good weekend for walking in Copan, hot but not roasting, and we did.
On Saturday morning, we hooked up with three people from the Spanish school, and a friend of one of them who is recovering from a less-than-great experience in La Ceiba. She had hoped to learn Spanish and volunteer. Neither went well, but the last part of her trip is.
We all paid $25 for a guided hike with Gerardo, who owns a hippish bar-restaurant called ViaVia. Live music some nights, movies others. We’re going to George Clooney’s latest tomorrow night.
Gerardo is a slightly crazed, skinny Belgian guy, maybe late-30s, who has been in Copan for eight years, researching an unwritten novel exploring the philosophy of low-budget backpack travel and running the restaurant. We piled into the back of a pickup, with his three dogs, and headed about 10 kilometres out of town where we started walking.
But not far. Gerardo’s guiding style involved impressive rants combining information, opinion and expletives on no end of topics, which could only be effectively delivered when he was stationary. We hiked up to a buried Mayan ruin, with an intricately carved stella on top, apparently a boundary marker for the kingdom of Copan, and heard about the history of the Maya, and five centuries of exploitation. “Basically, since Columbus showed up these people have been fucked over,” was Geraldo’s summary. We covered the local subsistence agriculture - beans and corn, basically, with maybe a few chickens to provide eggs - and why, despite the desperate poverty, it made sense for the Chorti, the local indigenous population, to stick with what they knew.
We hiked up hills, and along a valley with a beautiful stream and a series of waterfalls while Gerardo recounted, colourfully, the failure of a series of three well-meaning attempts to deliver water to a Chorti village on the top of the hill, which mostly delivered cars and cash to people who found a way to profit from projects that never worked. The ultimate stop on that leg of the tour was a grand-looking water tank, adorned with the Rotary logo and a sign saying that the Rotarians of Gastonia, N.C., had contributed $45,000 to complete the project in 2006-7. Except while there were pipe leading from the tank, there was no pump to move the water. The contractor took the money for a pump, but never installed it. The picture is from the Rotarians' website - it's amazing how much the jungle has grown around the tank in five years.)
It was all a bit gloomy, but helped paint a picture of the challenges of doing good in a complicated world. (And, for balance, check out the view of the Gastionian Rotarians on their projects in the area. Maybe by the end of a year or two I’ll know where reality lies.)
The walk was beautiful, and some of the fields amazing. The villagers plant corn and beans together, and some fields were on rocky slopes that would be too steep to be an expert run in any ski hill. The idea of harvesting by hand, in crushing heat, was amazing.
We met villagers along, the way, always friendly, and Jody drew big laughs from girls washing clothes in the stream when she showed them their pictures on her camera.
Today, we set out to walk to the ruins, exploring the stores in a new part of town on the way. We got lost - not unusual - and ended up crossing a bridge and walking along a dirt lane on the far side of the river.
People were streaming into town, mostly on foot. Apparently Sunday is the day to dress up and visit Copan to buy supplies and have a day off. The walk along the river was lovely, with lush fields on the other side of the lane, some with cattle, others with rows of crops under five-foot high hoops covered with light cloth. After about two kilometres, the road started climbing, and after a steepish hike we came to Hacienda San Lucas, a 100-year-old hacienda converted into a lush resort, with about 10 cabins and a dining room that is supposed to be great. The grounds were beautiful - there was a wooden-floored room, with curtained walls, that was for meditation and yoga and looked out to the river and the ruins. A stay is $140 a night - an enormous sum here.
We walked a trail through the woods and past a banana plantation to Los Sapos, another Mayan site, with a carving of a toad in the rocks and other figures.
A nice walk back, fried chicken from a takeout place, eaten in the square, with the scraps going to an incredibly skinny terrier, and home to study Spanish.