Coyote Quixote

Contents are personal opinions, not official Peace Corps policy.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Golpe de Estado en Honduras

On Sunday morning I woke up to a text message informing me that a coup-de-etat (golpe de estado) had occured in Honduras. Naturally, I immediately went to make coffee and watch the news... but no electricity for either. So I called up fellow Peace Corps Volunteers elsewhere in the country to get what news I could. I soon found out that power had been cut throughout the country, that generator-run televisions and radios were not recieving news broadcasts. The president was rumored to be in Costa Rica, or an airbase. In the street (there is only one) of Camasca (my town), it was more of the same. Most of my neighbors are of the Nationalist party, and opposed President Zelaya and his "Cuarto Urno" referendum. Some were talking about the coup, but mly the more partisan few were voicing their opinions. On the surface, it was an ordinary day but in the corner stores people were buying gas, food and batteries in quantity.
Power, internet and Mexican satellite-TV news came and went and over the next day and a half the we caught up on the story. Armed troops had stormed the presidential residence in the early morning on sunday, grapped a groggy Mel Zelaya at gunpoint and put him on a plane to Costa Rica in his Pajamas. They also occupied major government buildings throughout the capital. At some point, prominent supporters of the president (including several journalists and the mayor of San Pedro Sula), were also arrested without charge. The Supreme Court and Congress came out in support of the coup/ouster, a likely-falsified letter of resignation was procured, and the leader of the national congress was made interim president (elections, scheduled long before & independant of the coup, will be held this November).
This mess is the result of a fairly complicated political problem. A moustached, cigar-chomping timber & cattle magnate (with family in the narcotrafficking - excuse me, "ganancia," business), he would appear more at home on the Bush ranch in Texas than bear-hugging Hugo Chavez. Yet this same president who signed Honduras on to CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) has realigned (somewhat) towards the leftist camp by signing on to ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia et. al.). In practice, Honduras participates in both blocs: it retains lowered trade barriers, etc. to attract US investment while accepting Cuban doctors & teachers, and cheaper Venezuelan gas. Yet in the context of this foreign policy shift, President-In-Exile Zelaya (henceforth PIEZ) had been pushing to change the Honduran constitution to remove term limits and allow re-election. Many across the political spectrum fear that he will follow the personalist-populist path of Chavez and Morales, to the detriment of the democratic process. At the same time, his supporters see him as rebel against the very tightly-knit political elite (consisting of a few families that extend across the major party lines). He is popular amongst many rural laborers and urban unions, though not all (in my area, for example, the rural population is quite pro-nationalist).
The problem is, much of the constitution is not amendable. The Honduran Supreme Court (unfortunately not known as a bastion of impartial judgement, regardless of this) had declared the Cuarto Urno (the proposed referendum) unconstitutional. Both major political parties staunchly opposed it, although certain leaders from both supported PIEZ. PIEZ had scheduled the now-moot sunday poll to gague pulic support for the C.U. and possibly crate a mandate for it. He ordered the military to assist in the polling, and fired the army Chief Of Staff (second in command, after the president) when he refused to cooperate. The heads of all branches of the military resigned in protest. Then, coup. It is unclear whether the Supreme Court and Congress had officially communicated their support of the coup before it took place, but given the small & interconnected political elite this collusion is not unexpected.
One wonders if all this could have been avoided if Honduras had a legal process for amending its constitution. Written in 1982, it is a product of it's time: in that year Honduras transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, but with a military awash in US military assistance assuring the military a quiet supremacy behind the scenes (political disappearances and police intimidation actually increased after the transition). It was designed to trump exactly this kind of populism. However, there are no explicit provisions in the constitution for coup either. It is hard to justify overthrowing a democratically elected president in the name of democracy. Impeachment, or any equivalent legal measures, was not attempted: political posturing led directly to force. The constant on both sides of this crisis is wholesale trampling of the rule of law. This is a fundamental trend in Honduras that cannot be fixed by constitutional amendment; nevertheless an amendable constitution and a legal impeachment process should both be put on the table when a settlement is eventually negotiated.
World public opinion has roundly condemned the coup: at the moment, I cannot think of a single state that has recognized the interim government or its president, Roberto Michelletti. This is the first and only instance I remember in which the US and Venezuelan governments seem to be in accord over anything. PIEZ attended a much-publicized ALBA meeting in

Nicaragua immediately following the coup, with Castro, Ortega and Chavez present. Chavez swore to reinstate PIEZ, militarily if necessary. Castro expressed support for PIEZ, but was silent on the possibility of intervention: invasions in the name of democracy are not in the Cuban interest. To the North, both Obama and Clinton came out against the coup. This is a nice change: Bush implicitly approved of the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. This wait-and-see approach is a really solid approach for the United States, which has too sketchy a history intervening in Central American domestic politics to be bringing in a heavy hand. Better to deal with it multilaterally, through the emergency OAS meeting this Friday. Let Chavez play the villain, threatening to invade (this is really freaking people out), and see how his 'anti-Americanism as anti-imperialism' rhetoric holds up later.
Domestic resistance, as in demonstrations and civil disobedience, has been slow due to a lack of information or electricity. Government workers in the two major cities were already mobilized for the referendum, and were the first in the streets. Other civic organizations, including some organized labor, have added to the protests. Some pro-interim rallies have been staged too, although I imagine they have been smaller. Protesters attempted to flip the interim president's car, and a few were injured in the scuffle. One was killed when run over by a military vehicle; I don't know if that was the same incident. There has only been one shooting death, possibly (unconfirmed) by the military (they have most of the visible guns on the street). Use of rubber bullets has been confirmed by the press. On the peaceful organizing front, which seems to be the majority, camps have formed for and against the interim government. The "Union Civica por la Democracia," in support of the government, set up camp in the central park/city center (by the court and congress buildings), with the anti-government "Frente de Resistencia Popular" focusing its activity on the military-occupied presidential residence. It seems that the FRP has had trouble organizing due to military interference and the arrest of would-be leaders early in the coup. There have been no major confrontations between the two.
It is hard to tell what is going on outside the capital because domestic news has been stifled and the foreign press focuses on the biggest story. I hear that there are roadblocks throughout the country (there are only six major paved highways, all two-lane I believe). I have also been told of some unrest in San Pedro, and that automatic gunfire was heard in PIEZ hometown in Olancho (where his family is said to be in hiding). There are plenty of unconfirmed rumors going around. Most people are anxious over the threat of Venezuelan intervention. Given PIEZ use of state-owned media to cheerlead for his cause, and then the blocking of domestic news, most people are not sure what to believe regarding foreign intervention. What I do know is the following: Honduras neighbors (Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador) are to block trade at some point, and Venezuela is to stop exporting oil. PIEZ has stated his intention to return to Honduras this Friday, where interim president Michelletti has vowed to arrest and try him. We are all waiting to see what happens on Friday.
I think that economic sanctions will be sufficient to force some sort of conciliation. The business elite depend on US investment; the US and Honduras' neighbors are the account for the majority of its trade (as I recall... I haven't seen reliable financial statistics for Honduras in over a year). Armed resistance of any kind or even well organized civil resistance beyond the capital are unlikely. Both major parties support the interim government, and PIEZ never built himself a power base independent of his party. A "general strike," most likely in the sectors with unions that supported the Cuarta Urna, might happen. It is unlikely though.
The world seems to be using Honduras' crisis as a soapbox against military intervention in politics. This is legitimate, but it missed the point. The real struggle is not between the military and democracy, but between an ambitious populist and a web entrenched business elites. It reveals where power really lay in this small, impoverished, highly inegalitarian country with its export- and remittance-dependent economy and it's huge crime problem. Some academic analyses of Honduran politics like to imagine that there is no native elite comparable to the 14 Families of El Salvador or the Guatemalan oligarchy, and look to the role of US companies business (especially when Banana companies were ascendant). Those theories may be wrong in today's Honduras.
Who remains president, be it Michelleti or Zelaya, is probably irrelevant in the long term. What is important is forcing both sides to play by the rules and respect the law. The first steps would be undoing the coup, creating legal means for impeachment & for constitutional change. Reforming the judiciary is probably necessary as well. Elitist politics isn't going away in Honduras, so it is critical that any intervention focus on strengthening institutions and upholding the law. The rich and powerful (or the violent and powerful as it may be) have too much leeway running roughshod over the poor as it is.
As for myself, I am safe and healthy in Camasca. At the risk of sounding like a tourist guidebook: Hondurans tend to be patient and forgiving.* Most people I talk to (including coup-supporters and staunchly pro-Zelaya activists) have resigned themselves to wait and see what happens. I have little fear of any kind of unrest in my remote, one-road mountain town. We were ordered to stay in our communities for the last few days; tomorrow we are permitted work-related local travel (roadblocks and weather permitting). I mostly had design-work this week, so I wasn't really affected. I spent much of time talking with my neighbors and work counterparts, trying to get whatever news I could. I worry that, if the interim government refuses to allow Zelaya back, the EU will make good on its threat to withdraw its aid. We are just starting a long-term, multi-community project to be funded by COSUDE (the Swiss equivalent of USAID). So losing those funds would, among other things, shoot the knees out from under my long-term work plans here. Other than that, like the rest of Camasca I keep on truckin’ along. I had perversely fantasized about living through some kind of exciting crisis. After mudslides, earthquakes, a plague** and now a coup, I get why the ancient Chinese made "May you live in interesting times" a curse.

Much love to everyone who called, texted, emailed, or otherwise showed your support. You rock.

*There is another relevant saying though: 'beware the fury of the patient man.'
**One day the headlines blared "1000 new cases of swine flu in San Pedro." Already raised to official 'alert' mode by Peace Corps on that issue, the headlined raised some eyebrows. It was a hollow apocalypse though: they had just received diagnostic equipment from the CDC in Atlanta, and estimated that 1000 people might have been exposed. Emergency Tamaflu (Tamiflu?) shot went back in the medikit.

Monday, June 30, 2008

What I do...

It´s night in Santa Ana, an aldea of Colomoncagua, Intibucá, Honduras, and I´m sitting exhausted on a two-inch foam mattress in a door-less bedroom. There is a fan behind me blowing air at the clothing I wore surveying today. It took an hour to scrub all of the mud out of them alongside a neighbor´s pila (water-basin), but now I am dry and finally starting the blog update I´ve put off for a month and a half. It won´t get posted until I get back after three or four days of surveying. Telecommunications, like practically all other infrastructure & public services, are spotty and unreliable in remote areas like this. My cell phone thinks that I am in El Salvador. That´s because the frontier is about an hour´s walk over and around a mountain; probably not more than a mile of airspace away.

"When they start out strong, they end fast," the president of the Junta de Agua (water board) told me. We were talking about rainstorms, as people are often inclined to do when they find themselves sitting on a hillside in the middle of one. The hills we had been measuring were beautiful, but the water running down my glasses made it hard to see much more than the waterfall, about three inches from my eyes, pouring down from the transom of my white Honduran cowboy hat. We were drenched. My hat provides me with about a cubic foot of dry space in such situations, and precedence was given to my technicolor campo-bag containing a zip-locked notebook and my Abney level. The soaking was, in retrospect, probably a good thing because at least some of the mud that had caked onto my pants and boots must have eroded.

I´ve understood for a long time that, when one or two people in a group complain enough about something, their perspective and attitude wear off on those around them. As I found out in the rain today, the opposite can be true as well. When nobody complains about something uncomfortable or annoying, like being outdoors in the rain, it becomes bearable; accepted for what it is. As we sat, waiting silently, I remember noticing the color of the wet trees and moss, the swiftly-moving cloud formations overhead, and the gleam fresh steel on the edges of machetes tarnished black. It was... wait... are those raindrops falling through the ceiling on my new computer?


Yes, I went and bought a new laptop. My previous "new laptop" was not especially new and never really that reliable. It needed special tricks to keep it charging, until the charging mechanism in the computer (not the battery) burned out. Twice. I wasn´t terribly disappointed at the loss of the machine, since I had acquired it by trading a pair of skis that weren´t going to be used during my Peace Corps years. Central America is not known for its ski resorts, although the runs here are notorious... The loss of my music and files was a more painful blow. So I treated my sorrows with a trip to Tegucigalpa, complete with good burgers and drinking and dancing and Indiana Jones. Between debaucheries, I swung by Office Depot and bought a cheap but practical Toshiba. Friends quickly donated MP3´s, and within a week I had a respectable library to listen to.

Harrison Ford is still a badass, what with surviving a nuclear blast and not even breaking a hip. I share his fear and loathing of army ants. Although there are no Siafu in Latin America, the local ant militias are not to be f***ed with. There are nice, civic-minded and industrious communities (exemplifying Peace Corps´ vision for developing countries) of the leafcutter ants that nature shows in the states seem to love. A column of them take leaf bits from the mango tree in my host family`s back yard, looking like a fleet of tiny green-sailed ships navigating across a concrete sea. They are nothing like the roving hordes of big black army ants, which may or may not be the “bullet ants” that are said to haunt these hills and which supposedly have the most painful bite or sting of any insect. When I ran into a swarm of the inch-long fiends the last time I surveyed here, I wasn´t keen on testing this theory. Unfortunately, we came across the two and a half foot wide river of ants streaming around and over the freshwater spring that was the first point in our survey line. And after a long, hot walk we were thirsty. So I hung from a stout branch with one hand and leaned over the marching horde to fill my bottle with the other. Then we tossed a tape measure across their line and began our work. Later though, as I was jumping a barbed wire fence (which one generally does every hundred or so yards in Honduras), I put my hand on a tree covered with them. I felt them scamp immediately and swept them off almost as soon as I hit the ground, and somehow managed to avoid being bitten.

Second day of surveying finished. It rained again. These are strong thunderstorms. They form over the Pacific and run up the hot lowlands and foothills of El Salvador until the hit the mountains and cross into Honduras. In the afternoon you can hear them coming for an hour, deep rolling thunder that sounds like it´s coming right out of the ground. But then, if you happen to be up really high like I was today, you see the bright blue sky giving way to big grey-black dreadnoughts steaming inexorably towards you. As they approach, it gets cooler and the wind picks up. It drizzles a few minutes before dumping the ocean. From our high vantage point we could see that this was not a storm to wait out for half an hour, but we were far from shelter. Still, we took off down the mountainside. I picked my way between the rocks and high ground until I sunk to my knee in a cow field. We had to ford a waist-deep stream to get back into town. I went back to the house I´m staying at, intending to wash and dry, but there were no lights again. There still aren´t now, in the evening; I´m typing on battery power. I wrung brown water from my socks and sat and watched the rain. Then I made my way down to the corner-store where a family gives me hot meals. I drank a few cups of coffee in the dusty back room and chatted with their son -in English- for an hour or so before heading back.

The third day is done, and it´ll be the last for now. I´ve measured routes between three springs to the site where a concrete box will built to combine their three flows into one conduction line leading to a reservoir tank just above the town. The town doesn´t have the money to do all this in one shot, but planning the current two-source system to be expanded will make their lives easier three to five years down the road when they do. The next leg of the conduction line between the box and tank will have to happen in two weekends. The distribution lines throughout town at I can do at the end f the month. This is how water systems are overhauled.

Or at least, that is how they should be done. The previous four studies were much shorter. I was rushed through them at an unnecessarily breakneck pace (three in four days) without feasibility studies, without being informed of the type of system (or anything else besides the town I´d be going to), and without spending much time in the communities or with their water boards. I rushed into then thinking that it would be desirable to produce something as soon as possible to prove my worth to my host organization. With some time to talk to people, and seeing that they were maintaining their current system fairly well and understood what the project would entail, I could make useful recommendations and I could do it with confidence. On the previous three, I have topographic studies for systems that I am not certain should be built. Two involve pumping water out of rivers, which I am not sure is safe (given lax maintenance and minimal treatment) or affordable, much less sustainable, for the communities in question. I´m not sure how to approach those, but I have to do something about them soon. The third is short gravity diversion to a clinic and a municipal building. Easiest of all is the fourth.

There´s not enough water. Game over.

As much as I like to go on about the sloppier aspects of surveying, it is the easiest part of my job. I get to tramp around in remote, beautiful areas. I get to work directly with the people living in the rural communities. I know what I´m doing, and people respect my professional opinion… and that I´m working with them for free. It´s an adventure with a goal, and I can accomplish it. Once the study is completed, though, the hard part begins. What I really want to do is transfer these skills, both the surveying that I have down and the designing that I am still shaky on, to people in my organization. There are plenty of highly qualified engineers in this country, but they all seem to live in the two biggest cities (San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa) and aren´t necessarily interested in bussing, then trekking out to water sources. Here in Intibucá, there are plenty of well-funded NGO´s that employ a number of skilled local people, but often it is someone from outside who does the initial study. There seems to be enough demand for these skills for a few trained locals to make a living off of them, and reduce dependence on foreigners and urbanite engineers. In a week, I will start teaching surveying to four people.

With four people doing surveys for me, I´ll REALLY have to get to designing.

On my way home from Santa Ana, I stopped off in Colomoncagua to catch the bus back to Camasca. The bus driver informed me that he would be leaving at 10:30 and that he would save me a seat. With several hours to kill, I had breakfast in a small comedor (hole-in-the-wall family eatery) and a few cups of coffee. I got back to the bus, which was really a van-minibus, twenty minutes early. With its door open and people hanging off, it was literally full to the brim. So much for the saved seat. Luckily, people in Honduras are very obliging, and safety regulations are rarely (if ever) enforced … assuming one passes a policeman, which is very unlikely out here. Eyeing a spare tire strapped to the top of the bus, I politely asked the yeing a spare tire strapped to the top of the bus, I politely asked the ayudante (money-collector) if that seat – the tire – was taken. While not perfectly safe, these buses rarely top twenty miles per hour on these dirt roads. He smiled and told me to climb aboard. It was a lovely sunny morning; the air was cool and clear, and from my landlubber crows-nest I could see for miles over the mountainsides.

It´s the small adventures, be they surveying in the rain or riding atop a bus, that keep me on my toe and make my life here awesome.

Oh, and I killed a tarantula on my bedroom floor. With a machete.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Work & Play

I was being antisocial, but chipper, and probably an annoyance to the other clientele.

“Hi mom. You’ll never guess where I am.”

I was a TGI Fridays in a mall in Tegucigalpa, and I was drinking my second gin and tonic. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon. There were five empty glasses in front of me, and a sixth half full of lime slices. Drinks in Honduras are often served with ‘some assembly required,’ especially in establishments frequented by gringos wary of ice and un-bottled water. Thus a G&T comes as a glass of ice, a glass of ice, a glass of tonic, and a glass of lime slices. Half the customers were gringos. MLS soccer was playing on the TV; Columbus versus Kansas City (I think). Nobody seemed particularly interested in it, as most Americans could care less about soccer and Hondurans would rather watch good soccer (Honduras recently beat the US… and a number of the US players were from south of the border). I was waiting to see Ironman, which turned out to be excellent. As I left the theatre, I felt as though I should be thinking about where I parked my car, and whether I wanted to go to Dairy Queen or Mighty Taco afterwards.

I was felt like I was on shore leave… in the US.

The day before I had sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer. We all put on our nicest clothes, which for Water & Sanitation volunteers means whatever one didn’t wear to dig and haul in the Honduran sun and underbrush. We pulled into the American Embassy in Tegucigalpa, and although neither the American Ambassador nor the Peace Corps Country Director was present, after several nice speeches and the singing of both countries’ national anthems, I put my hand over my heart and recited the following:

I, [CQ], do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, domestic and foreign, that I take this obligation freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps by working with the people of [Honduras] as partners in friendship and in peace.

All of you communists, malcontents and miscreants take note. I’m duty-bound to bring you down! But I’ll probably be too busy designing water systems in a places you’ve never heard of.

After a weekend of celebration, I packed my bags for the third time in as many weeks and shipped off to Camasca, Intibucá. It’s a six hour drive, but it took two days due to infrequent and maligned bus schedules. The drive is long, and for the most part beautiful. There are no suburbs to be found here. Beyond its business district, residential neighborhoods, factories and many and poor barrios Tegucigalpa ends. One crosses the mountains and rather quickly leaves the buildings behind. There are small towns connected to the highway, and long stretches of fields and forest (often de-forested) in between. After three and a half hours, past Comayagua and Siguatapeque, one reaches La Esperanza. It is the highest and coldest city in Honduras. In the winter I am told that people occasionally wake to find a thin layer of ice on their pilas. Its mostly unpaved roads are dusty when dry and sometimes impassable when wet. Some people wear the bright multicolored clothing traditional in Lenca culture (indigenous to this region); others wear jeans, collared shirts and badass white cowboy hats. La Esperanza is an ‘out-of-the-way’ place in the gringo guidebooks; a place to take in the mountains and indigenous culture before moving on to the old colonial capital at Comayagua or the Mayan ruins at Copán.

From there, I head south for almost three hours. I leave the guide books’ sphere of influence, go well beyond paved roads, and almost run out of Honduras. The stone-gravel mountain roads are steep, winding, and sometimes terrifying. There is one stretch called mala pasa or ‘bad pass’ where both sides of the road are cliff faces dropping off for hundreds of feet. Some of these roads have only recently been repaired from the bombardment they took in the war with El Salvador.

That was almost 40 years ago

Camasca is a small town at the center of a small municipality in one of the poorest and most remote parts of Honduras. From now until April 30, 2010 it is the center of my world. They’ve sent me out here with an Abney level, a compass, a thirty meter measuring tape, and a head reeling from a three month training blitzkrieg ranging from hydraulic systems theory to use of the subjunctive tense in Spanish. I’ve also got a somewhat reliable laptop, a sharp machete, a medical kit, rain gear for the wet season, a keffiyeh for the dusty dry season, some notebooks, a Spanish translation of Dune, and a pink and turquoise scientific calculator I borrowed from my younger sister Speedo probably five or six years ago. I’m to integrate into the community (showing that Americans aren’t as bad as we appear on TV and in the history of this region) and design sustainable water systems (to lower infant mortality and incidence of water-borne disease). When I got here, I was delighted to find an unlimited supply of coffee and an office waiting for me with… an internet connection!

I really didn’t know what to expect coming out here. I read a book about the campesino (landless farm worker) struggle for land rights in the 1970s & 1980s, and was informed that “The real Honduras is hidden.” My host family in Santa Lucia seemed to echo this sentiment: “There ain’t nothing in the countryside. Nothing. Only tortillas and beans.” Now I’ve come out as far as I can, and I see people in nice clothes (many American brands), with cable TV, and I have internet. I imagine that this is a very different experience than Peace Corps volunteers had 40 years ago. Time, democratization, and economic liberalization have left their mark on this place.

Nevertheless, I have had glimpses of how ‘the real Honduras,’ or at least the reality of rural poverty, is indeed hidden. All of the town and cities I have visited have been accessible by road. However, on my last bus ride, a little girl and her work-worn and weather-beaten father were let off at least an hour from the nearest town. They walked off, headed up the mountain on an unmarked trail. There are small settlements that are almost inaccessible, that may not appear on a census, and that are beyond the scant resources of the Honduran state and are often overlooked by development agencies. It’s these communities, as well as some of the larger ones along the roads, that I can help the most. There’s a lot of work to do.

I'm going to need a lot more gin.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Field Based Training

Yesterday was the Ides of April. It was also my 23rd birthday, a cumpleaños I share with Guy Fawkes, Thomas Jefferson, Butch Cassidy, Thomas Darcy McGee and Samuel Beckett. Good company, I think. My Water & Sanitation crew got me a delicious cake; special thanks to La Doppia for pulling that together. I even danced, which was a bit of a feat because I broke my toe.

On Friday I became the first casualty of my wave of Peace Corps. Having worked hard & late the last three days in a row, we took most of the day off and went to a newrby swimming hole. It was a lovely Honduran afternoon; breezy and sunny and warm. There was a some deep water and high rocks (can you see where this story is headed?) so I scouted the water and decided to jump. It would have been perfectly safe... except I jumped a bit farther than I intended. A submerged rock gave me a kiss on the foot. When I emerged from the water, I had a purple pinkie toe cocked at an interesting angle. The Gecko lent me some alcohol and medical tape to clean myself up. That evening a doctor in Tegucigalpa confirmed the fracture, and told me to keep taping it for the next three weeks.

The moral of that story: ... Ok, to be honest, it´s really fun to jump off rocks into water. If I were to do it over again, I would (just a few feet in the other direction). I can get around fine, albeit with a zombie´s gait. The only real loss is that I couldn´t play soccer yesterday, although I still made it out to watch my team. I have been playing on my host brother´s local team. They compete on a dusty field about half an hour outside of town. Like so many Honduran fields it is alongside a hill (for a decent spectator´s view) with a gorgeous mountain vista in every direction; just over the barbed wire & bushes, that is. There is one league for all ages. Younger and older players are disperesed thoughout the teams. They play rough, fast and skillful soccer. It is a really effective way to meet people in the community and I enjoy it immensely.

I spent the last week working out in the sun. We learned how to pour concrete and do some basic masonry, and then set to work building pour-flush latrines and pilas, which are storage basins for potable water. I used the trailer hitch on a Land Cruiser to bend rebar into horseshoe anchors for the chicken-wire lining of the latrine’s stone foundation. Then I jumped in the pit to hammer them into the hard clay, with scenes of “There Will Be Blood” dancing through my head.

When I left home I never imagined that I’d be missing construction equipment. A concrete mixer would have made our lives much easier, and out work more efficient. I spent much of my time mixing the concrete with a shovel, transporting it by shovel, applying it by shovel, and tamping it with the same. It makes a gas-powered automatic tamper seem as luxurious as a Bentley.

“I feel so primitive,” El Barbaro said to me. He looked the part too, as he pounded pitch (horse crap) with a wooden post. This was a week ago. We were mixing mortar for a brick, mud and steel oven we were helping a local bakery build. It came out quite well. Building things for people, by hand, is immensely satisfying (although not especially sustainable in the long run). And as annoying as the lack of certain tools (such as a level) can be, there’s a romanticism to it that’s not lost to me. I’ve cleared beds for seedlings at a tree nursery with an adze. Last Thursday, I was laying bricks for a pila with Juandrea and Cyber Alex. There were only two trowels, so I was laying mortar with a machete. We were working quickly, because there was a brisk wind bringing dark clouds flashing with electricity towards us across the mountains. Then, as the last bricks were being laid, the rain hit. It felt fantastic. We covered everything with corrugated aluminum and piled sweaty, stinking and satisfied into the back of the Land Cruiser headed back towards Sabanagrande, cold beer and dry clothes.

We get more equipment in water & sanitation than volunteers in other sectors do. We have Abney levels, teodolitos, GPS and total stations for doing topographical studies. Then we plug our topo data into a slick Excel spreadsheet to figure out if a gravity water system is feasible given the volume of water, a reasonable growth rate over a 20 year life span, friction losses in the tubes, and a host of other factors. We also have GIS software, AutoCAD, and EPANET at our disposal to design & present water systems. A reliable laptop is a necessity. In the field, I usually carry a pocket multi-tool, a sharp navaja, and a permenant marker on me; they get used practically every day. I need to buy a decent machete. A donkey too.

Our work naturally overlaps with the other Peace Corps project areas, specifically Health, Youth Development, Municipial Development, and Environment. To practice these competencies, as well as our Spanish, we´ve been working on Charlas. They are participatory presentations, sort of like live infomercials on various topics. Last week I taught a group of school children about sanitation, hygine, excreta-related disease and how latrines protect watersheds and the people who live in them. The previous week, I helped lead a 4 hour workshop on AIDS and sexual health with older students in a tech school. I get nervous in front of people when I have to talk in Spanish, because it´s hard to improvise; it seems I can only work the grammatical part of my brain or the imaginative part, but not both simultaneously. It´s coming along with practice though, and the student participants have been really enthusiastic.

In a week I should know the site where I´ll be assigned for my two year service.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Immigration Party.

It´s easy to find a person or a group entertaining at certain bright points. You know, the highlights people like to talk about in their week: parties, going out for the weekend, possibly holidays. Thus, to really measure of how fun and interesting a person or group may be it´s best to observe them in a drier, humorless setting; someplace impersonal, soul-less.

An immigration office at 7 a.m. on a Saturday should suffice.

It was a blast. We water & sanitation volunteers had not seen the Health volunteers in three weeks, and the Business crew only briefly two weeks before. People were animated, boisterous even, hugging and slapping hands and telling all kinds of stories. One volunteer´s family takes him to the cockfights every Sunday. Another enumerated the finer points of teaching condom use to highschool students. Many had gone to the beaches in the south. Others have been dealing with chisme, the wildfire gossip that can get truly epic in and between the small towns.

For example, one volunteer had to change host families because the father was getting deported from the US back to Honduras. I know this because a volunteer in my Spanish class was told it BY A COMPLETE STRANGER parked by the highway. These towns are two to three hours apart on the highway, and the fellow in question had no affiliation to the Peace Corps. Talk about being in the public eye.

Hence, I shall reiterate, everything here is my personal & recreational opinion and NOTHING MAY BE TAKEN TO REPRESENT PEACE CORPS POLICY. Also, I am not from New York City, I am not a spy, and I cannot get you a visa.

I think that the reason we were so chipper so early, besides the mid-FBT (Field Based Training) reunion, is most definately the fact that we had all arrived by bus. The typical Honduran bus is tricked out like a upper-middle class suburban wankster´s Honda Civic. All the drivers personalize their buses with flame decals, Jesuchristo Vive in barbed-wire font, and the logos of either the Transformers (Decpticons or Autobots) or the Thundercats (Thundercats HO!) They usually have all the windows blacked out, with shiny chrome hubcaps (I´ve even seen cheap spinners) and surprisingly nice sound systems that blast spanish reggaeton and/or disco. This morning we got The Night Belongs to Us (approximately 6:40 a.m.) It´s Raining Men, and as we rolled up Superfreak.

Welcome to a typical commute into Tegucigalpa.

The other common mode of transportation is the venerable jálon, which starts with a whistle and a wave and ends with the traveller jumping out of the back of a pickup truck, graciously thanking the driver, and apprecaiting how friendly and laid-back most people are here. Barreling down a dirt road piled in the bed of a rusty Datsun pickup with a few of my Peace Corps compañeros, with the warm sun on my face and the wind whipping through my hair, I remember thinking I love this country.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I have a guardian angel in my bedroom. He´s got leathery-beige lizard skin and the wicked grin of the Guy Fawkes masks in V for Vendetta. More importantly, he keeps the mosquitos and roaches (the bane of my existence in Santa Lucia) at bay. This is a good thing, as one of my Spanish class companeros was laid out for five days last week with the dreaded Dengue. I would trade that for a dapper gecko buddy and day of the week, especially since he chirps like a little bird.

Last week was Holy Week, or Semana Santa, and so we got five days off to celebrate with our host families. This consisted of much hanging out, eating and walking around Sabanagrande. One night I did Tequila shots with my host brother and his friends... at the mayor´s house. This was quite an occasion, as I generally would not allow myself to be seen drinking more than two or three beers in public; ¨moderation¨and ¨drinking¨ are unrelated concepts here. Other days I went out for walks and coffee with Peace Corps people. There was a live reenactment of crucifixion (no lambs of god were harmed in the production) and a procession over a portrait of Jesus made of painted sawdust. It struck me as being similar to Tibetan Buddhist mandalas, not only in the materials and methods but also in the creation-destruction-rebirth meaning. Then we went to the beach in Choluteca, which is two hours south of Sabanagrande on the Pacific coast. The black sand was excruciatingly hot (Choluteca beaches are not as nice as those in neighboring Valle or on the North coast), but the plump Tilapia I washed down with a few cold beers was fantastic. Fish is generally served as a whole fish here -head to tail- which makes for a much more visceral dining experience.

Last week I implored people to send there love, but neglected to provide an address. So without further delay, here ´tis:

Voluntario del Cuerpo de Paz
Andrew Savoy-Burke
Apartado Postal 3158
Tegucigalpa, D.C. 11102
Honduras, Central America

Central America. Ain´t that just nifty?

Friday, March 14, 2008

So it begins...

It's not even six in the morning, and I'm awake, dressed and now undressed again. There's chilly air sweeping down the Honduran mountainside and in under the bathroom door, making me a bit friskier than I should be at that hour. I'm looking apprehensively at a little pink bowl floating in a big plastic bucket sitting on tile beneath a shower than may never have worked. The air reminds me why humanity invented pants, and I think “Is this for real?” I dawdled for about half a minute, then dumped a pink-bowl of water over my head. It was as deliciously warm, like a fresh bath. It was like that because my host mother was up an hour before me, heating my bathwater.

That was a month ago. I've been in Honduras for a whole month. Three weeks in Santa Lucia, almost a week now in Sabanagrande, plus visits to Tegucigalpa and Choluteca. From what I´ve seen and heard thus far, this is a land of glaring contradictions. I have encountered nothing but generosity, helpful strangers, and extreme kindness... and everyone tells me to watch my back at all times. People are surprisingly open and very friendly, yet very socially conservative. Yet that´s a big generalization for a county that, although small, is incredibly diverse.

It's deceptively beautiful here. In Santa Lucia there's a little coffee shop where you can sit in the evenings looking out at the golden sunlight reflected off the thousands of corrugated-steel roofs on the mountainsides of Tegucigalpa, and watch distant ridges disappear in the fading light. There's a football field we played on twice a week with postcard vistas in three directions. Sabanagrande has a lovely park in front of a gracefully worn colonial church. Old guys in white cowboy hats pass on horseback at all hours of the day.

However, the difference between postcard scenes and the real life they conceal is readily apparent. Most of the horses and dogs -that freely roam the strets- are showing a lot of ribs. Corrugated steel roofing is widespread, but not because it's an ideal material for this sun-baked climate. Most people stay off the streets at night, i.e. later than 9 p.m., for security. Also, I'm getting sick of fishing soccer balls out of rusty barbed- and razor-wire. Fresh razor-wire is the white picket fence of Honduras; then barbed wire, then broken glass set atop stone & mortar walls. Between the fences, the machetes and the policia toting armas automaticas, this country's well prepared for the Zombie apocalypse. George Romero take note.

Speaking of apocalyptic waves of filthy vermin, I had a three-week dirty war against the cucarachas of Santa Lucia. The first one I saw was on my floor, next to my shoe. I tried to stomp him, but he scurried away behind my shelving unit. That night, I woke up to a fluttering object RIGHT IN MY FACE! I swatted it across the room, heard it smack against the wall... then an ominous scuttering sound, a low pitched buzzing, impact with the closed window above my head, and then the bastard was on my pillow. I sprang up, flipped on the light, and killed the interloper with a well-aimed shoe as he fled across my wall.

It was on.

If you've never seen a roach, imagine a two-or-three inch long shiny brown matchbox car that has six prickly legs and a long pair of antennae. They're devilishly quick, and have mastered every way in which life on earth has learned to defy gravity. They're faster than my wrath, but only sometimes. I've killed six so far. Once, I came home and saw two antennae sticking out of my water pitcher and thought good god, is it cute? No; there's no humanizing a faceless insect enemy. So I pitched it outside and killed it. Why not show some mercy? A few days before, I woke up and put my bare right foot into a boot so I could go out for my drying laundry... spastic madness ensued, and my hefty Spanish dictionary will never be the same.

One of the few creatures that you're likely to encounter that's scrappier than a cockroach is the seasoned Peace Corps volunteer. To the lowly trainee they're confident, competent, weather-beaten and wise. They've also got a species of feisty-quirkiness that comes from giving all their personal oddities time to ferment. To begin our metamorphosis, we spent three weeks hiking up steep cobbled streets at sunrise to the mist-shrouded training center, a veritable Kung Fu temple specializing in community development and assorted vaccinations. Granted, the way of the Peace Corps is a path of avoidance: avoid dogs, hitchhiking, muggings, highway robbery, burglary, piracy, dengue, malaria, scurvy, and excessive drunkenness. Lots of useful information, but only so much of which is usable in a sleepy commuter & tourist town like Santa Lucia. And so, after three weeks, we packed up and headed off to Field Based Training in Sabanagrande, which is where I’m at right now.

I have a lot going through my head these days. There are the siren songs of certain interests & interesting ideas from university –as well as from afterwards– that want more of my time. Also, there is the whole idea of : what it really means; is it a legitimate field of study, and possibly vocation? To what extent are its ideals substantial, or are they marketing for a (fun & profitable) racket? These are things I would like to be thinking about, but right now life revolves around improving my Spanish and learning how to build water systems. As I get a firmer grasp of both, I hope to meander further down these roads less traveled. The personal essays and anecdotes of others have been profoundly helpful to me in the last three years, and in intend to return the favor. That´s not the real reason I´m finally getting this blog-party started though. My real motivation’s more personal.

I miss you. You know who you are. Any love you send is much appreciated. I will return the favor with interesting & entertaining anecdotes.

[Big Stupid Grin]