Peace Corps Diary #2

March 7, 2009

Hola a Todos!

As I begin this letter, it is Monday, March 2, my 5th day in Honduras. It’s really difficult for me to believe how far I’ve come these 5 days – everything has changed so rapidly, and I’ve done so much, that I’m already viewing my life as BPC and APC, that is; before and after Peace Corps.

Last I wrote, I was in my hotel room in Washington DC last Tuesday night. I had internet, the heater was on, I was watching some bad movie on TV, and I was lying on a bed of white linens and memory foam. I had a half dozen lights, room service at my beck and call, running hot and cold water only a tap away, a flush toilet, and a dozen other amenities.

Right now I’m writing this sitting in a room 10′ x 10′ which serves at kitchen, living room, dining room, and pantry for a family of 6. La Familia Cerrato, of which I am a temporary member, consists of Marguerita, her husband Elias, and their 4 children, Jeny, (17) Gaby, (15) Elias Jr, (12) and Marcela. (11) The 7 of us share a 3 room house with bare concrete floors, electricity but no running water, an outdoor toilet, bare plaster walls, a tin roof (part is shingled) and windows with wooden shutters and no glass.

Here is a typical morning. At 4:30am I am woken up by the rooster crowing, the dogs barking, the neighbor’s horses doing their horse thing, and Marguerita waking up to start stoking the outdoor wood-fired stove for our breakfasts. I’m lucky – as a man, and also as a guest, I don’t have as large a role in the morning routine, and so I get to sleep until 5:30am. When my pocket alarm clock (aka Cellphone) goes off, I roll out of my sleeping bag in the dim light coming from the 1″ gaps above and below my door, which leads into the front yard. I slip under the mosquito net (Malaria and Dengue Fever are both very real threats here) and slip into my sandals to avoid the floor, which is freezing.

If I’m lucky, today is one of the days we have electricity, and I turn on the bare bulb in the middle of the room. If not, my headlamp stays on the bedstand for just this reason. After pulling on a sweatshirt, I open the plywood door separating my room from the rest of the house, and greet my family, most of whom are in the main room. The rest are on the other side of a curtain separating the main bedroom from the rest of the house. Our usual conversation goes a bit like this:

Yo: “Buenas dias mi familia! Como estan ustedes?”

Todos: “Buenas dias Kevin! Que Duerme?”

Yo: “Duermo como los angelitos! Y ustedes igualmente?”

Marguerita: “Si, igualmente! Quieres duchar?”

And so in that vein.

In english: Me: “Good morning my family! How are you all?”

Everyone: (sometimes in unison) “Good morning Kevin! How did you sleep?”

Me: “Like the little angels! And you too?”

Marguerita: “Yes, the same! Would you like to shower?

The accents are missing from the Spanish part, but this is more or less our usual morning routine. The Hondurans are very passionate people, and so we all put a lot of emphasis and emotion into our words.

Our “shower” consists of a concrete shower stall, and to get to it I have to take my towel, razor, all my things, and a bucket of boiling water from the electric range out the kitchen door, turn left down a dirt path past the stove and the kitchen of Marguerita’s parents’ house, and duck into a small room that contains our toilet and shower. Dropping off my things, I bring the bucket of water back outside to our large open concrete storage tank containing about 150 gallons of reasonably clean, frigid water. Here, I mix the boiling water with about 2 gallons from the outside tank. This bucket is my shower, and I use it, a small dipping bucket, and my washcloth to keep myself clean every morning. Honestly, once you get used to the cold, it’s not bad.

After my shower, I run back inside wrapped in a towel to put on my Peace Corps clothes, which means collared shirt, jeans or slacks, and my boots. Honduras is a very conservative, very formal country as far as clothing goes, and anything less is considered rude and unprofessional. Men do not wear shorts, and T-shirts are only for hanging around the house. I also put on strong sunscreen and bug repellant, my wide-brimmed hat, and my leather jacket. After dressing, I walk back into the main room to eat breakfast with my family. The table is very tiny, with only 3 chairs, so people eat sitting on the couch or bed. As I am a honored guest, I always am given a chair at the table, and extra food. It does not matter how much I protest or ask them to treat me equally, it is simply a “costumbre” a custom.

Breakfast is some variation of eggs, tortillas, beans, cheese, and perhaps ham or avocado. We drink coffee or water, since there is very little fruit, juice, or milk in the Honduran diet. The coffee is fantastic here – it puts anything at Starbucks, Peets, or really anything in the US to shame. Thick, dark, rich, and incredibly caffeinated, the coffee is probably my favorite part about breakfast. After we eat, I’m not allowed to touch the dishes (again, because I am both a guest and a man) so I pack my bag for school, help the kids get ready for school, and perhaps take out the trash if Marguerita isn’t looking to stop me.

The oldest girls (Jeny and Gaby) are studying to be tour guides after they graduate from school, and so they talk to me in English and I respond in my rapidly-improving Spanish. Elias is a joker, and he loves to kid me about my hair, my looks, pretty much anything. I love him for it though, because it is from him that I learn most of the slang and local phrases. At 7, the oldest girls leave for school, and I walk the mile-or-so to school with X, another Peace Corps trainee, and one of my best friends here. X lives with Ana, who is 27 and Marguerita’s sister. Since we live in the same compound of houses, we’ve become fast friends. X is far more experienced then I at traveling and in the Spanish world, and so she has become my traveling companion and sometimes translator. In return, I help her to spurn the advances of the surprisingly aggressive Honduran men who love to harrass foreigners. We make a pretty good pair, if I do say so myself!

I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself here, so let me explain the housing situation: the family, or at least the majority of all 4 generations still alive, live in a cluster of houses near the major road into and out of the region. Don Daniel and Dona Eva, the matriarch, run a small general store out of their house, and rent parts of the land to other families. The result is about 20 permanent residents, along with a constant flow of visitors, customers, family, and friends. Honestly, I could not have asked for a better place to live – the opportunities to practice Spanish are endless, and I am getting the real Honduran experience of poverty, family togetherness, and resourceful living.

Getting back to my day, X and I walk down the road about a mile, past a few other houses, a few pulperias (small stores) and a lot of Honduran men who love to whistle or honk at X as we walk. After cutting through a pine forest (pine forests!? Honduras is full of surprises) we emerge into the Peace Corps training ground, a private school staffed by a fantastic bunch of volunteers, staff, and professional language instructors. Classes start at 7:30 sharp, but first X and I mingle with the other 49 trainees and our teachers, getting coffee or water, joking, speaking in Spanish and English, and bonding over tales of cultural misunderstandings and common confusion at this new world. Already we’ve become a cohesive unit, more then friends, bound together by our alien status.

Our first hour or so is always spent in administrative tasks; getting ID cards, filling out bank account applications, learning about immunizations required. (I’ve had 2 shots already, and need 5 more this week!) Afterwards, we split into smaller groups, going to language classes, medical interviews, technical classes, team-building games, oral presentations, and many other activities. It’s hard work, and by 11:30 we are all ready for our hour lunch break. We eat like the starved, each with his or her own box lunch packed lovingly by our new mothers. Usually this means tortilas again, some type of fruit or vegetable, rice, beans, and perhaps a bit of carne asada or chicken.

Lunch is one of the times you can tell the difference in income levels between the various host families. Some, like mine and X’s, pack small tupperware containers with the foods mentioned, while others send elaborate salads, local fruits, perhaps sandwiches. (tuna is big here) In general, we volunteers share amoung ourselves, partly out of guilt, partly out of the strong bonds we share. None dare complain – our families are all giving us more then they give themselves, and we are all grateful.

After eating, people split into groups to play soccer, toss a Frisbee someone brought, sit and talk briefly in English (los clases son solamente en espanol) or perhaps to sleep. D, one of my friends and the only smoker in the group, puffs off in one corner, and I usually keep him company simply because he’s shy and quiet. I do a lot of that here; somehow I’ve become the class clown, the guy everyone knows, the most popular kid in school, if you will. I spend a lot of time seeking out the people who are obviously having a hard time or a bad day, and try to get them to smile or laugh. Life here is the hardest any of us have ever experienced, and I’m fortunate enough to be well-liked. It would be much harder if I felt lonely or outcast, and so I think that bringing people back into the group is one of the best things I can do with my time.

If I don’t see anyone alone or down, I usually do aAnyway, I’m off to brush my teeth and wash the DEET off my face – tired of licking my lips and tasting it.  I miss you all terribly, but this was definitely the right decision for me.  I’ll try to send out weekly emails, but we shall see.  In the next site I’ll have constant internet access, so this will be a lot easier after late March.  For now, know that I’m well, at peace, (corps training) and having the time of my life.  If there’s anything particular you’d like to hear about my life down here, don’t hesitate to ask.cro-yoga with X, (2-person yoga, it’s fantastic) meditate, or do exercises in the yard.

After lunch, from 12:30 to 4:30 we have more classes. The school program is amazingly well structured, fun, informative, and constantly challenging. It is as if someone or someones set out of determine what exactly you needed to know in order to survive in Honduras, and then made a curriculum around that. Every day I learn a thousand new things, each lesson builds on the previous, and not a single moment is wasted. If college or high school was 1/10 this well done, we would be a nation of specialists, engineers, intellectuals, scholars, and artists. Because my program is in water and sanitation, a lot of my classes focus on engineering, topography, microbes, sanitation, (duh) and the water in Honduras. Here in the mountains near Santa Lucia the water is clear and clean, but in many parts of Honduras the water quality is terrible, and water-bourne diseases are a significant risk. In fact, there is a local joke that goes something like this: someone will explain something, then say “claro?” which means, “is it clear?” or “do you understand?” The response is “como el rio chocoteca” which is “like the Chocoteca river” which is flithy and brown in some parts. It loses a lot in translation, but trust me, that one gets them.

After 4:30, we all look like the survivors of some sort of accident. Dazed, tired, and antsy from being unable to move around for 9 hours, we all need some sort of release. Most of the trainees take busses back to their communities in surrounding towns, but those of us who live nearby have organized a running group, and most days you can find us running up into the local mountains along trails and dirt roads. I forgot to bring my soccer shorts, so I’m still running in jeans, but we manage good time anyway, usually doing 5 or more miles, with some pilates or exercises thrown in. The exertion is fantastic, and it’s the only part of the day when we’re able to wear casual clothes without issue. Really, I’ve so much healthier here then I ever was in the US; between walking and running everywhere, eating organic and local-grown foods, and having no access to sweets or sodas, I’m feeling amazing.

A bit after 6, we return to our various houses, taking care to stay in groups or pairs, and always getting home before dark. It’s not that this part of the country is unsafe,but Honduras as a whole has the highest murder rate in the Western hemisphere, and we’re still strangers here. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So far so good; I’ve never felt unsafe, but it can’t hurt to be too careful. At home, I shower (cold this time) or wash my face, and change for dinner. I hate that we have to wear shoes here all the time, or rather that I do, because I don’t have sandals aside from flip-flops, which are pretty much shower shoes. After the shower, I eat dinner, which is usually rice, beans, meat or a vegetable, and more coffee. I’m an addict already, and I don’t see any chance of stopping soon.

After these long days, I really just eat without tasting, but this food is really rich and probably the most unhealthy I’ve eaten except freshman year of college – all carbs, complex sugars, and too much caffeine. Still, its always delicious, and always appreciated after my long tiring days. Again I can’t help with anything, though lately I’ve managed to sneakily help Marguerita with little tasks, and to help clear the table and sweep up without being noticed. It’s that whole Peace Corps spirit rubbing off on me, I imagine. That and the guilt.

A brief aside here, because guilt is a big part of my life here, and it needs to be addressed. First, I’ve felt guilty from the moment I stepped off the plane in Tegucigalpa. This country is so poor monetarily that it staggers the imagination. Everywhere you look, there is something in disrepair, piles of garbage, plastic bags and manure, and buildings in such a state of neglect that the realization that people still inhabit them boggles the mind.

Meanwhile, I sit here with my laptop, on my sleeping bag, under my mosquito net, with my jeans and sweatshirt and headlamp and warm socks, not to mention my full stomach, well-groomed self, and bags of possessions. I may be poor by our US standards, but here, I live like a prince, and knowing how much poverty I am surrounded by eats at me. That said, the guilt is a great motivator – I will succeed, I will help people, I will make their lives just a small bit better in my time here. I must, if only to assuage my aching heart.

Getting back to my day – After dinner I do homework with the girls, they doing english lessons, I doing my spanish. Sometimes we practice talking back and forth, each in our foreign tongue. I watch telenovelas with the family, read a lot of books, listen to Honduran radio stations (they love American rap/hip-hop down here) and talk, talk, talk. The whole family tries to help me practice, and so I’m really improving – I have to, or I get made fun of!

I’ve been teaching Elias to use the iphone, and it really shows the ease of use that Apple has accomplished with this thing. When a 12 year-old who has never used a computer can navigate this thing in a foreign language, they’ve really made a great device. Anyway, around 9pm, everyone in the house goes to bed except me, and I retire to my room to exercise, stretch, read, write, and just rest.

Some nights X and I hang out (outside, this is a very conservative country, and opposite gender unmarried couples can’t be in private together) and talk politics, travels, love, and life. We’re fast becoming great friends, and I really hope we get to serve near eachother in the coming years. Between her, Randy, and I we’re an absolute terror, and some of the other volunteers have already joking started to call us “Esposos” (married couple) because we’re always seen together.

With the length of our days, we’re rarely awake long, and by 10:30 or so I’m fast asleep in my mummy bag under my mosquito net in my tiny room. It’s drafty, but I’m well protected, and aside from the dogs, trucks, roosters, and random other noises, I’m undisturbed until 5:30am when the whole thing starts over again. What a life!

***

Switching gears here: the following are short anecdotes and things I have learned from my brief time here in Honduras. There’s a lot of humorous yet horrible parts to life here, and you have to learn to laugh at it, or you’ll go nuts. Around these parts, everything is a joke, especially bodily functions. That said, here goes:

  • The food makes everyone gassy. No way around it, you’re going to fart on someone you barely know. Luckily for everyone, they’re probably going to return the favor sometime in the near future, and so you can just apologize and move on.
  • Everyone is going to get sick – this gets drilled into us day in and day out – we’re all going to get something awful that will probably make us poop blood or cause worms to live inside of us. Again, it happens to everyone, so there’s no alternative but to move on and joke about it.
  • Most of us are going to be robbed. Be it pickpockets, burglars, or straight-up armed robbers, we’re all going to lose our cell phones, cameras, money, and possessions unless we’re very careful, and very sneaky. I’m aiming to be part of the 1/3 of all volunteers who don’t have an incident during their stay, but we shall see. In the meanwhile, hide your valuables and carry only that which you truly need.
  • You’re not a Peace Corps volunteer until you poop your pants. This is actually an unwritten law – between intestinal parasites, stomach viruses, bacterial infections, and the like, you’re going to poop yourself at some point, and you’re going to laugh about it the rest of your life.
  • It’s really easy to accidentally say something offensive or unintentionally funny in another language. For example, the preterite form of the verb “Pedir” is “pido” but the natural inclination is to conjugate it to “pedo.” Unfortunately, “pedo” means “fart,” but the look you’ll get out of your Spanish teacher will be priceless.
  • Likewise, there’s a lot of slang and local color to the language – words that mean one thing in Spain mean entirely another here. Example: Coger, meaning “to grab” has a local meaning of “to f***.” Again, Spanish speakers will raise an eyebrow when you tell them that you need to f*** another sheet of paper because you made a mistake on yours. I also told the class I was going to f*** the bus on the way home from school and ride it into town.
  • The men here are really big on overtly public flirting and showing off for the ladies. In the past week, I can’t even count how many near-accidents I’ve seen walking with X, caused by men trying to honk at her and simultaneously lean out the window while driving one-handed. Likewise, they also enjoy really corny pickup lines. My favorite: “Que curvos, y yo sin frenas” which you say to a hot mamacita, and means “Such curves, and I’ve no brakes.” It’s hysterical, but mainly because I’m observing from afar. We’re taking bets on which girl decks a guy first for getting too personal.
  • Spiders, ants, insects in general have been drinking Miracle-gro. They’re all over the place too. 2 nights ago I woke up with a spider bigger than a 50 cent piece on my face. I’m ok, but I won’t be when the eggs hatch in my brain. Similarly, the other day during yoga a fly took up residence in my ear, and refused to come out. We had to flush him out with water before he decided to abandon his new home.
  • Honduran drivers – oh my lordy. They have their own rules of the road here. Rule 1 – the other side of the road, especially blind corners, is for passing. Rule 2 – honk at everything, and sometimes at nothing. Honk doubly hard at women, or men who look like women, or if you think a woman might be nearby. Rule 3 – no lights at night. If you use them, the other drivers might see you and have an unfair advantage. Rule 4 – There are no other rules, and if there are, break them with reckless abandon. I now understand the Peace Corps prohibition on volunteers driving – we’d all be dead within the week.
  • Buses – They’re your best friend to get around, but unfortunately, the drivers now have bigger weapons to throw around. Learn to surf, because there’s no room to sit. Also, all of the public buses are old US school buses from the 50s, so don’t be surprised if you see your grandad’s name carved into the back of one of the seats. The guy jumping up and down the aisles and yelling at everyone to move back while waving money around is the driver’s assistant: help him, and he’ll help you get off at the right stop, and get you one of those precious seats.
  • Everything is dirty. Everything. It rains all the time, but that doesn’t stop the dust and grit from caking everything you own. Combine this with the “everyone gets sick” rule, and the bucket showers, and it all starts to make a bit more sense. Everything you own is going to end up covered in dirt, so just try and enjoy yourself. Little kids do it, so you might as well.
  • Sopa Mondongo is cow stomach soup. It’s delicious, but prepared incorrectly its a fantastic way to get E. Coli and spend the day praying the porcelain god and joining the Peace Corps.
  • Electricity, water, and especially internet access are priceless. Take full advantage of them when you can, and don’t lose sleep over them when you can’t. Use your flashlight and read a book. Chances are you’ll learn how to relax again. I don’t even miss video games.
  • Toilets and sanitation in general is really low priority. Learn to balance, because you’re not going to be sitting down here. Plus, even when there is a proper toilet, you 1) can’t flush half the time, and 2) can’t flush TP or it will clog the pipes and cover the room in poo-water. The little basket is there for a reason.
  • The money (they use the lempira) is really deceiving. You can take a bus for 6 lempira and feel like that’s a lot, but when you do the math its about 30 cents. A 20oz soft drink runs you 13 lemps, and a half-hour at an internet cafe is 15. They have coins too, but everyone just rounds to the dollar, since the inflation makes coins not worth carrying around. I give any I find to little kids, and they usually buy little candies.
  • The Peace Corps training allowance of 57 lempira a day covers incidentals and that’s about it. 3 stamps cost me 45 lemps, 3 tiny padlocks 51. A good meal at a cheap restaurant will run you 120+. Unfortunately, it takes an act of congress to raise this allowance, so I think it’s pretty much set right now.
  • Rice and beans, beans and rice, cheese, tortillas, rice and beans, fried plantains, beans and rice, and a little meat and vegetables will make up the majority of your diet. You will quickly tire of it, but then you’ll work all day and get hungry again and scarf it down and it will be delicious, because it is all you have.
  • Other volunteers will be put with nicer families then you. They’ll have flush toilets, indoor ac, hot indoor showers, plasma TVs, wi-fi, all sorts of food, and purified ice water on tap. Don’t feel jealous, because after the first 3 weeks, we all move to another site, where everyone has to live like you do now, and while you’ll be used to it, they’re going to take the change like a cold bucket of shower water to the face. And that thought at least ought to keep you warm while you’re taking your own cold bucket shower.

I could keep going, but I really ought to end this at a length people actually might read. I know I’ve put a lot of sarcasm into this, but I really love it here, and I’m having the time of my life. Who knew abject poverty could be so much fun?

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