Saturday, December 01, 2012

Heading to the hills and a model finca

Margarita and family drying coffee in the new secadora
We headed up into the hills this week, to beautiful, rainy forests and a family farm doing everything right. OCDIH, the organization I’m helping with communications, wanted a case study to present to funders.
So we went to meet Rosa Margarita Escalón España. (We, because I recruited Jody, knowing my Spanish would not allow a good interview.)
Which meant 90 minutes on a bus. Then 45 minutes in a truck with Alex and Alexis, the OCDIH ag tech guys who guiding us. After a stop for breakfast in a woman’s tidy kitchen, we pushed up muddy, slippery hills as far as we could and started walking through slippery, sucking mud. (Telephone Spanish is especially challenging; I had apparently missed Alex’s request that we bring boots. They scrounged some up.)
Papayas, with dark green coffee plants behind
Margarita’s place was on the side of a mountain about 45 minutes walk from the road. She had coffee plants, and sugar cane, and of course corn and beans. But she also had papayas and carrots and onions and was trying to grow a few apple trees ordered from the U.S. It’s an integrated ‘finca,’ a farm that combines coffee and a bunch of other crops in a small space.
The family had a sugar cane grinder, run by a horse hooked up to a long arm who walked around and around, grinding the tough cane. The boiled the juice down for sugar, and made caramelos to sell.
The first thing we saw when we arrived was a new secadora - a long structure with a clear plastic roof stretched over arched white PCV tubes. OCDIH promotes the project. Margarita’s family was just finishing the wooden drying tables, with screens across the bottom. The first plastic tub of coffee beans was dumped in the screen while we were there. (Coffee berries are red, like small cherries. You have to pick them, and strip the beans out. They’re kind of slimy, and need to be dried. Typically, they’re dumped on a concrete pad and turned with shovels. The secadora means faster, better drying and fewer broken and damaged beans.)
The house was totally basic - lean against the wall and you would be white with the lime used to paint the adobe bricks. But there was a solar panel, and lights in each room, and a Claro satellite dish.
Margarita and her family are a success story. Standing on the edge of a section of two-year-old coffee plants, with papayas ripening, onions and carrots sprouting and chickens running around the yard, I thought this family had it going on. The soil is good, and enriched with compost. The farm is organic. Margarita is a leader in almost a dozen community groups and women's networks, mostly promoted by OCDIH.
But it’s still a life far removed from what I think of as the modern world.
Jody and friend, in the door of Margarita's tidy kitchen
After we did the interviews and took a bunch of pictures, it was time to go. Two horses were saddled for us. Or one was saddled, for Jody. Mine had a rig made of four branches and a towel, with no stirrups. 
Everyone else walked - Margarita and two of her sons, including the youngest, a nine-year-old. I felt a bit odd, but it was another 45-minute walk, all uphill.
After about 35 minutes, we stopped to admire the Escuela de la Republica de Canada, a development project. It is a heck of walk to that school, but all Margarita’s kids have attended (or still are attending).
But the school goes to Grade 6, and that’s as far as any of the six kids are going to pursue their education. It’s a four-hour walk to the nearest colegio, or high school - less time if you can catch a ride in the back of a passing truck. That’s just too far. The nearest clinic is the same distance. (Though Margarita, as part of the income-producing activities promoted by OCDIH, has attended workshops on traditional medicines and grows plants to use and sell.) Getting products to market means a long slog with a couple of horses.
And I haven’t figured out how the six kids - without their own land - will make their way in the community.
No easy answers - but a heck of a finca.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The life and times of a reluctant volunteer, by the numbers

A day in the fast-paced life of an international development quasi-volunteer, by the numbers.
6:30 - The time in the morning I boarded the bus.
6:45 - The number of hours I spent travelling from Copan Ruinas to Santa Rosa de Copan and back for a two-hour meeting.
146 - The actual road distance travelled, in kilometres. (Which, yes, means an average speed of 22 km/h.) 
2: The number of dead cows I saw by the side of the road. One, coming home, was quite deflated. The morning dead cow was fresher - a dog was tugging at its stomach, and about 15 black vultures were waiting their turns.
30: The number of Powerpoint slides on writing effective case studies I used to compensate for my poor Spanish. (Sorry, Steve Jobs.)
9: The inches between rows of seats in the Cassasolo Express bus, and the exact size of the tiny stools they had crafted for people to sit in the aisle - a very nice touch.
1: The number of monkeys I saw tethered to a tree outside a house on the bus ride home.
35: The people squeezed into a bus with seats for 24.
11: The buses that can back into spaces at the Santa Rosa de Copan bus terminal, a dusty parking lot with the highway in front and market stalls behind. It’s a part of Honduras that feels truly Third World. Touts lie blatantly about travel options - that bus doesn’t run any more - and wrestle people toward buses. Vendors sell everything from food to medicines. If you go with it, there is a charming energy.
28: The number of fireworks stands, on one side of the road, on the way into La Entrada, the reputedly druggy town between Copan Ruinas and the rest of the country. The stands all look exactly the same. Only one actually had a name; the rest were generic. And the fireworks are made in households in the nearby villages, a fact that should raise alarms on so many levels.
1: The man heading into a car repair place to beg in La Entrada with two metal protheses for hands and forearms, slings to hold them in place and two feet that pointed directly toward each other. It is hard to see how an accident could have produced such a bad outcome.
3: The number of roadside stands selling tortoise eggs. Is that legal, I asked on an earlier trip? No, but they're very tasty, I was told.
31: The number of vendors, from 7 to 60, who descended on the bus in La Entrada, selling everything imaginable. Off-brand soda pop, belts, toothpaste, watches, krazy glue, mangoes, chips, potato and plaintain, anti-fungal medicines, a piece of chicken, tortillas and cabbage in plastic wrap, lychees, gum, popcorn balls, cucumber chunks. Tough to say no to the kids, or the wizened.
8: The number of 50-pound bags of coffee beans hoisted on to the roof of the bus in La Entrada. How the two guys would get them anywhere in Copan Ruinas is a mystery.
3: One seat in front of me on the bus ride back, there was a young, skinny guy with a white straw cowboy hat, a jean jacket with some fancy beading and a sketchy moustache. The young woman - girl - with him seemed fragile, a scarf with kid-like images over her hair, kind of hunched and clutching herself. When we stopped in the middle of nowhere and they got up to leave, I realized he was carrying their brand new baby, all swaddled in a hat and blankets and scarves. She was maybe out of hospital little too soon. But hey, a new life was starting.
 I remember that. It's different here, but some things - maybe the most important things - are the same.