Friday, August 24, 2012

Stranger in a strange land

They do look like TV people

I was good at understanding how things worked in Canada, or thought I was.
In Honduras, I often feel like a visitor from another planet. I do a blog for volunteers in Honduras, and for anyone interested in development issues, mostly aggregating content. That involves scanning the news sources and blogs and websites.
Today, Front Line Defenders, a credible Irish human rights group, had a post about Donny Reyes, an activist for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) rights in Honduras. That's dangerous. At least 60 people in the community have been murdered in the last two years. Reyes has already suffered some brutal repercussions for his efforts.
Last month Reyes was tracked from his Tegicugalpa home by a man on a motorcycle, who he says was trying to kill him. He went to a rights organization, and they made an official complaint to the police so he could be escorted to a safe place. (He's already been granted protection, but it hasn't resulted in action.) The rights organization arranged a meeting the next day with police and a lawyer in the National State Security Agency. But 30 minutes before the meeting, the Human Rights Unit of the state security agency called and said they couldn't send anyone, because there was no gas for their official cars.
The rights organization offered to buy gas, but the unit said that would be unethical.
Five days later, Front Line Defenders reports, the Under Secretary of State wrote saying she was unhappy with the events.
"Firstly I want to tell how how sorry I am for this impasse which developed and which absolutely should never be allowed to happen again. I was out of the country at the time and was not notified of the problem which was caused by the fact that the garage which supplies petrol to the National Security Agency refused to give any more petrol because they had not been paid, a problem which is being resolved at this moment. However I acknowledge that this is not a valid reason for failing to deal with such a serious issue.
"I believe that your case was not adequately dealt with by the staff in my office and I have in the past left instructions that in these situations they can use the car which has been assigned for my personal use. We are taking all necessary steps to remedy this situation and I urge you to contact this office to reschedule the meeting as soon as possible."
It's fair to be skeptical about the explanation. But, based on seven months here, it's also possible that there was no gas. (OK, probably not.)
 The private contractor that provides dialysis turned away patients this week, because the government hasn't paid its bills. Roadwork halted across the country last week, because contractors hadn't seen government cheques in five months. (In neighbouring El Salvador, the government has announced it doesn't have the cash to issue tax refund cheques, hardly an incentive to pay taxes.)
It's a land of weird stories. 
Today, Nicaraguan police reported finding $7 million in smuggled cash hidden in six vans that were supposed to be carrying a Mexican TV crew with varying explanations of what they were to report on. They had cameras and satellite dishes and some of the vans had TV station logos. But come on. What TV stations sends six vans and 18 people 1,600 kilometres to cover a story? 
The vans and the money had passed through Honduras. Nobody in this country, or on the border, apparently considered the convoy of TV trucks suspicious.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Scanners come to Bodega Gloria

I had to walk home in the rain last week, because technology’s tentacles had reached Copan Ruinas.
I buy fruit and vegetables in the town market, a two-storey structure open to the sky, or sometimes from the people who park trucks full of fruit or other goods outside. (Though not from the guy with the live chickens in the back of his pickup, with a chicken wire lid to block escapes.) 
And Bodega Gloria is my main store for staples. It’s as close as we come to a supermarket. 
There’s no real rival. Commercial Cruz Bueso is almost as large, but sells clothes and cowboy hats and foam mattresses along with food staples.
Commercial Victoria was a contender, but it’s gone in a new direction, with stock that seem bought off late-night infomercials. There is actually an inflatable sled for sale, and hand warmers, those little chemical packets that generate heat while you wait to kill ducks. The temperature has never dipped below 20 degrees since we’ve been here.
Bodega Gloria is not big. Three aisles. One with cleaning stuff. One mostly cookies and candies, and pasta. The middle aisle has chips and such, non-refrigerated milk, oil and capers and other essentials and a spotty alcohol section. (The boast “Mexico’s best selling box wine” does not guarantee drinkability, even at $4 a litre.) In the back, there’s a big floor freezer full of unwrapped chicken parts and wall coolers with packaged meats and cheese and, sometimes, yoghurt. Gloria, if there is such a person, has added a meat counter in the last month. The chorizo is great.
Until last week, the process was simple. You picked your stuff, and one of the keen young staff tallied it up on a cheap calculator. You handed the money over, and the clerk took it to the woman who ruled the cash. She looked up from her newspaper or cellphone, made the correct change and it was counted, then passed to you. On good days, she smiled at you, in a Mona Lisa kind of way.
It wasn’t brilliantly efficient. Sometimes, a small woman from a pueblo in the hills would be buying vast amounts of staples, and need a hand-written receipt - factura - either because she was buying for the community, or her own pulperia. 
But it worked, sort of. There was a problem with inventory management. Any time yoghurt is in the coolers, I buy three containers, because it can mysteriously disappear for weeks. The pop cooler can be full of Diet Cokes one day, and sit empty and rusting for two weeks. I’m used to hoarding.
The registers
A couple of months ago, Gloria installed a couple of counters with cash registers and barcode scanners, but no one has used them until now. But one day last week, the bodega was closed for inventory. The next day, hesitant cashiers were scanning my half-dozen purchases, most of which weren’t in the system. It took so long I ended up walking home in the afternoon rain, which arrives about 2:30 these days.
It’s been almost a week, and I’m not sure how the experiment is going. When the two cashiers are busy - fairly often give the campesino bulk buying - you dump your stuff on a vacant counter, the calculator comes out and you hand over the cash. That seems to undermine inventory control.
Retailing, like everything else, is different in Honduras. When I lived in Montreal, I was amazed that every block in the older neighbourhoods had one or two depanneurs - marginal, small grocery-variety stores that served maybe 40 families in the adjacent three-story walk-up apartments with their outside iron stairways.
But pulperias, the Honduran equivalent, are way more common. Sometimes three in a block, set up in what would have been the front room of the house. A somewhat cynical long-term expat said that ,if nothing else, the pulperias let families get goods at wholesale price for their relatives. And if there is no other work, making a few dollars a day selling chips and coffee and plantains to the people on the block is worthwhile, especially as people with little money tend to buy just enough for the next meal. (The same is true for restaurants. In the next block, there were four places selling balleadas and chicken and basic meals. Another one opened this week.)
All things considered, I prefer Honduras shopping to a North American mall full of stuff I don’t want, in stores that look the same. (Though the big cities here have quite lavish malls, with the same overpriced brands.)
Not always, of course, Our electric toothbrush conked out, probably the victim of the erratic power supply here. Finding a replacement anywhere within three hours is unlikely. And I’m still baffled that in our hunt for small household appliances we walked past the tiny sign for Zapateria’s Faby - Faby’s Shoestore - a dozen times before someone told us the store had actually moved into selling household goods, motorcycles and more several years ago, but never changed the name or the sign.
I don’t know how the new registers are going to work out at Bodega Gloria. But if it means they’ll run out of yoghurt less often, I’m rooting for them.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Filling garbage bags with gasoline - what could go wrong?

Canadian cross-border shopper filling garbage bags with gas.
I worry sometimes that my blog posts are too critical of Honduras, especially given how meagre my understanding of what's going on, and why.
But things do leap out at you. Last month, we were at a great wedding in a nearby town. As we came back to our hotel after a wander through the relative urbanity of Santa Rosa de Copan, we smelled gas. The gas station across the street was getting a shipment for its underground tanks. The gasoline came in a couple of plastic totes in the back of a pickup truck. An open trough - it looked like a section of eavestroughing - was carrying a little river of gas from the truck to the pipe leading to the tank.
Service station gas delivery, Honduran-style
What could possibly go wrong? Sure, a half-ton carrying enough gas to generate a massive fireball in the event of a fender bender is worrying. And an open stream of gas in a busy parking lot might seem risky. But they had signs. (The same parking lot, I note, where a driver cut the corner and ran over the side of my foot with no apparent concern.)
So I was pleased to see this story on the Times Colonist website, about a British Columbia driver spotted saving money on gas in Bellingham. His strategy included filling garbage bags with gas for the trip home. (I would pay money to watch someone try and fill a car gas tank using a garbage bag.)
I liked the quote from Sgt. Mark Dennis of the Washington State Patrol: "In a bag like that, it's probably not a safe idea."
But mostly I liked the reminder that Honduras has no monopoly on odd behaviour.