Peace Corps Diary #3

March 21, 2009

Hello folks!

First, a restatement of one of my core philosophical beliefs in the form of a guiding principle for humanity:

Life Begets Death Begets Life Anew, For All Eternity.

This is true at all levels. From the lowest quarks, whose infinite probabilities are destroyed forever by the simple act of observation, then recreated when no one is influencing them, to the life and death of organisms, planets, galaxies, and the universe(s?) all things live, die, and are reborn in other forms. Death is simply part of life, which is part of death all the same. What we call “a life” is simply one section of the greater universal lifeforce, separated out from the whole so that we may tell stories about it individually. It is not ours to worry about death or life beyond it, only to make that portion of life which we call our own better in some small way. If we can do that, then we are improving life for all. As a self-aware, sentient, and learning species, it is our duty to improve on life, to guide it, and to spread it to all places where it may flourish. That, rather then simple species reproduction, ought to be our guiding purpose in all actions.

Or put more simply, make your life into the best story that you can possibly tell, and strive always to better the world around you.

Life is Most Authentic on the Frontiers

On the frontiers of the world, one sees the essential characteristics as if magnified – good, bad, greed, lust, envy, honesty, trust, charity, love – all played out in sharp relief against a background of hardship and unforgiving life. When the margins of error are smaller, when mistakes are more costly and failure as well, the true natures of people are revealed. It is as if necessity has stripped bare the very souls of all those it touches; obfuscation an unaffordable luxury. Honduras is one of those frontiers, and looking into the bared souls of the people here is proving to be one of my greatest learning experiences.

Buses

The buses here are a whole other experience. I have a theory about Honduran bus drivers, namely that they are chosen from the “best” of Honduras’ drivers, which means that anywhere else they would be called the worst drivers in the world. Chad, I’m sorry, you’ve got nothing on these men, who careen up and down mountains in the wrong lane, around corners, between pedestrians and traffic, barely slowing, and stopping only if the riders are unwilling to jump off as the bus drives by their stop all while driving 50 year old American school buses. They’re all nuts, but somehow they keep on the roads, get passengers where they need to be, and run with a very impressive degree of good timing and a solid schedule.

Inside is mayhem. Usually there are more people then seats, passengers balancing in the aisles, women with babies, kids sleeping in the seats, bags and boxes and piles of possessions. No animals yet, but I’m sure I’ll see some soon. The whole group moves as a mass, bouncing and swaying and supporting themselves as the bus driver tries to throw them all down a ravine. And into the middle of this all steps me, the token gringo.

It’s great because I don’t just draw stares, I actually get double-takes. Little kids are especially funny, because they’ll just stare unabashedly, while their mothers and fathers and older siblings look away politely. The young ones, the under-5 crowd, will just gape at this strange man with the funny hat and white face. I smile and make faces at them, and just try to enjoy the attention. A bus ride down here is at once a day’s entertainment, a great way to improve your relationship with your higher power of choice, a strong statement about the state of US public transit (honestly; it’s better here) and it only costs 6 Lempira. (about 30 cents) A bargain if you ask me!

Dogs in Honduras

One thing that really gets me here is the dogs. They really have a raw deal, and that’s here in a country where I feel that pretty much everyone gets the short end of the stick. Everywhere I go, I see stray dogs, ribs sticking straight through the skin, tails tucked between their legs, rooting through garbage trying to survive. At the same time, they’re being kicked, sworn at, spit at, and generally treated like scum by the people here, which, to be fair, they kind of are.

There are hundreds of strays just in this small town, and more every day, since nobody spays or neuters their pets, and they all just roam wild anyway. Still, every day I see another little stray puppy, battered and skinny, flea-bitten and weak, and I just want to take it home and nurse it back to health. And yet every day I keep walking, keep staring ahead, hoping that I’ll be lucky and won’t see its maggot-eaten body in a ditch later that week while I’m out running. I’ve been unlucky twice now.

A new stray appeared at school today, a little black puppy with white belly and nose, too-big paws and a loving demeanor. She’s already too small for her age, but still cute enough to garner a few scraps from the students. S (another student) and I played her a while, petting her, making her kick, and of course she had fleas, ticks, burrs, the works. We talked about starting a shelter for stray animals, but I have no idea where we would get the money or volunteers. Still, as a side project I’d love to try it.

The dogs people own are just that: possessions. They sleep outside, eat scraps, get kicked and sworn at, and guard the house. They’re never bathed, pet, or loved like dogs here – they’re work animals, and this land is too harsh to waste time babying tools. People here are always interested in how much I care for animals, petting the strays, playing with Panchito and Glifford (the house guard dogs) and generally paying attention to something that people really don’t even think about during their day. I guess the best analogy here would be someone who plays with the Roomba, but to be fair, I did that too in the house. (“Hello Robot!”)

Anyway, I will adopt a dog at some point, be it a stray or an unwanted puppy, and I’ll have a partner soon enough. For now, I guess I just have to keep being “that guy” and showing way too much love to the public nuisances. I can’t help myself! They (the dogs) are an analogy for the people of Honduras and other parts of the world – abandoned by the owners of the world, left to their own devices, hungry and hurt, fighting for their very survival. I feel for them both, the dogs and the people, and I hope I can do something to help them all before I’m through here.

An All-Starch Diet

Ok, so it’s not ALL starch, but it’s close enough. White rice, black and refried beans, corn tortillas, it’s pretty much all staples with some vegetables or occasionally meat thrown into the mix. It’s good, but you start to feel… heavy. Plus, it comes out with a vengeance, or not at all. Part of that might be my body not being sure how to adjust to this new food, but honestly you’re going to have some wicked shits now and again. (Sorry, brief aside: part of not being able to speak English much is that when you do get to speak it, you have a filthy mouth. We’ve all turned into sailors; it think it comes from an inability to express strong feelings in Spanish the same way we can in English – when we get to speak our native tongue, we overcompensate like a motherfucker.)

Anyway, the food makes you poop a lot, or if you don’t drink enough water, not at all. A few volunteers have had to be given pills already, and the results are hilarious to the observer – lots of running frantically to the bathroom as they get the bodily equivalent of a wide-open tap. So yeah, lots of poop jokes, lots of bland food, but at least we’re eating well. One of the reasons I’ve stepped up my running to 3 days a week, yoga 2/week, and exercises and calisthenics daily is that I feel like I’ve been eating bricks. The girls especially have to watch out here; it sneaks up on you and suddenly you’re all fatties. And we all know nobody likes a fatty! (sarcasm, some people are way into that sorta gig.) I need to switch subjects before this gets more incriminating or vile.

I get a lot of food cravings here. Mostly, they’re fleeting desires for something I know I can’t have – blueberry pancakes or a gala apple, (update, found the apples, they’re delicious) but some of them are ruthless and stick with you for the long haul. I’ve had vivid dreams about sourdough bread grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken soup, and every morning I crave loose-leaf green tea with honey and have to settle for Honduran coffee. (still great, but it’s like trying to satisfy an itchy nose by putting in eyedrops – close, but it’s treating the wrong problem.)

Really though, food is becoming more and more of a non-issue for me. Given no variety, I stop thinking about it, stop looking forward to meals, and just eat to stay fed. It’s boring, but it’s probably a healthier way to go about things. Not that there isn’t excellent Honduran food – enchiladas (really, more like tostadas for you in the states – in particular are amazing, but you just don’t have the luxury of eating variety most days, and so the palate falls asleep and you mow your way through rice and beans, beans and rice, with some delicious avocados (good lord, I almost forgot how to spell that!) mangoes and pineapple on occasion.

Security Concerns

One thing that I find myself thinking about more and more here is security, both mine and that of my possessions. From our almost-daily safety and security lectures, the idea is pounded into our heads that we WILL have security incidents, we will probably be mugged, or robbed, or burglarized, or have our pockets picked, and if we’re lucky, that’s all that will happen. We’re also taught that we shouldn’t fight back, that we need to accept the dangers, and that we can minimize the effects of these incidents by staying calm, cooperating, and just giving people what they want. (Usually your cell phone and money) I find myself very much not ok with this.

Perhaps I’m being stubborn, but the idea of giving up, giving in, and resigning myself to losing my things bugs me. Plus, on the off chance that my assailant(s) isn’t after just my phone, I want to be able to react, not just roll over and die.  In conjunction with the Peace Corps policies, I’ve been developing my own safety and security routine: the hope is that I’ll be able to better recognize the dangers around me, minimize my losses in case an incident does occur, and most importantly, be able to scale my actions in response to varied threats to my health and safety. Considering that the Peace Corps doesn’t teach action, only reaction, this ought to give me a leg up on any of my classmates.

First, preparation: all valuables get to stay home or hidden. I’d love to take pictures of everything, but wandering around with a camera is like wearing a 10 foot high neon “I’m a big idiot; please rob and kill me!” sign. Thus most of my pictures are going to be in my head, or in areas where I’m safe/at home. My money goes in 4 different pockets, and the big bills (its all relative) go into my shoe. The phone gets wrapped in a bandana and tied around my ankle. The dummy wallet with nothing much in it; 30-40 lempira, (about 2 bucks ) maybe an ID card, goes into my jacket pocket, and the $21 Honduran cell phone (more on this later) goes in my left front. My good glasses stay home; I wear the pair covered in spray paint and held together by superglue. In every way I dress down, trying to be just another face in the crowd. It’s not easy, since I’m lily white and the world is brown, but I manage pretty well for a gringo.

In my front right pocket I have my pocket knife, easily accessible and always sharp. This is perhaps my biggest liability and best preparation combined, and I have to be very careful about when/if I use it. Around here, having a knife means you’re a criminal or a gang member, which is really stupid considering A) all the real gang members have guns, and B) all the REAL gang members have AK-47s. My piddly 4” blade isn’t going to do anything about that, but at the same time, I’m unwilling to let myself go out completely unarmed into a dangerous world – I didn’t do it in the US, why would I do so in a part of the world in which I have a real chance of being a victim? Sure, I’m not going to knife a guy who is pointing a gun at my face, but if he’s pointing the gun off to the side while he’s going through my wallet and he’s within arm’s distance… I like to feel that I could at least make an effort at self-defense if I felt my life was in danger. At the least it’s better then the official “kiss your ass goodbye” policy that the Peace Corps teaches.

Similarly, I’ve started taking self-defense seriously again. Nothing fancy; just the meanest and most foolproof hits, hip-throws, elbows, shoulder-charges, and aggressive techniques I’ve learned. I don’t expect to use them, but if the situation presents itself, I want to be able to react quickly and correctly, and part of that is just keeping security at the forefront of your mind at all times.

From all we’ve learned, it’s the unprepared, the careless, the reckless who suffer the most unwanted attention and incidents, and so I’ll be none of those, keep myself invisible in crowds, and come out of this all ok. And in the off chance that I’m a target, I’ll be ready.

Dancing! One of the luckiest parts of my situation down here is that I’ve been accidentally paired up with X, a world-tripping, yoga-enthusiastic, street-smart, down-to-earth lefty type who just happens to be in my same program. Oh and she’s inappropriate and shameless for good measure. As it turned out, we live less then 100 feet away from each other, and I’m actually typing this while sitting on her bed. (Another Peace Corps rule violation, but not one I’m too worried about.) We’ve become amazing friends for having met a scant 2 weeks ago, and we spend almost all of our time together.

We run, do yoga, meditate, talk, swap stories, do homework together, place bets upon what ills will befall which of our classmates, and generally act like we’re joined at the hip. We’re very similar personality types, and so we get along like best friends after no time at all. Having her around has made this transition a whole lot easier. As luck would have it, she’s also a fantastic dancer, especially at salsa. A couple times now, we’ve just started dancing, either in the home or at a restaurant with a live band. She’s better then I am, but it’s great because as any dancer will tell you, having a great partner really makes you step up your game and improve. We’re still learning how the other reacts, but in just a few hours we’ve gotten a whole lot better, and we have room to improve for sure.

Last Sunday we headed down to El Paso, this strange little restaurant between Sarabanda (where we live) and Santa Lucia. (the nearest big town) X and myself, along with her host mother, walked down the road a mile or so to El Paso, this funky little “Mexican”-themed restaurant with live bands, rickety metal slides, and really disgustingly greasy food. Really though, we’d just gone there to dance, so I couldn’t care less. X, her host mom, and I danced a lot, even though the beat was so metronomic (bump bump, bump bump, bump bump, bump bump…) that I really don’t want to call it music. We did a lot of salsa, west coast swing, learned the punta mas o menos, (it’s all in shaking your butt) and tried to remember rumba and instead tripped a lot and laughed. We’re not allowed to drink beers during training, so we drank cokes out of straws (they reuse the bottles here, so don’t drink off the rim if you enjoy pooping solids and not having weird bacterial infections) and had a grand old time. I hope to keep dancing here – seems like a great way to meet people – and who knows, maybe I’ll even get good at it.

Nobody Cleans Up The Roads Here – Watch Your Step!

It’s almost a game here – dodging the animal excrement, garbage, tar, noxious-looking spills, oil, and god-only-knows-what-else that blanket the roads here. There isn’t any government here, not in the US sense at least, and nobody has figured out a way to make money off of keeping the place clean. As a result, the country, especially near the roads, is filthy. It’s heartbreaking really – our training area is in the middle of a national forest, and there is garbage, plastic bottles and bags, trash, food, broken furniture, and more choking the roadsides, ditches, and forests of Honduras.

What’s more, it’s an unofficial policy here to just throw everything you don’t want out the windows of your car, or just onto the ground if you’re walking. I’ve seen teenage mothers teach their babies to throw trash out the window, then applaud and kiss them as if they’re not destroying the world around them! It’s maddening, because this country is so beautiful if not for the piles of trash EVERYWHERE. One of my projects here really needs to be finding a way to pick up trash, but I just can’t figure out how. A lot of volunteers have tried and failed, so please try to think of some ways for me to get people interested in cleaning up garbage and shoot them my way!

Machismo is For Girly Men

Here in Honduras, like anywhere in the world, there’s a prevailing method of action, a cultural “normal” way to behave and act. For the men here, that norm is machismo, a very masculine, show-offy, dominant way of acting, particularly around women. Think chivalry mixed with being a sleazeball, but strong like drug-resistant tuberculosis or superAIDS. Machismo is what makes men here honk at any women they drive past, throw catcalls like construction workers, and offer to help with everything they catch a girl doing for herself.

It’s not their fault – anyone who doesn’t act like they’re God’s gift to women really takes a hard time from their friends, getting their sexuality questioned, taking all sorts of mockery for their inability to be loud, abusive, and vulgar – but it’s really heavy and it makes me feel bad for the women sometimes. The female role in a machismo society is very submissive, and I know that it must be like sandpaper on the female volunteers here especially. Worse, it’s pretty strictly forbidden, and potentially dangerous, to react to these jerks, so I can already see some of the girls pulling a teakettle and just steaming up and up and up. I wonder who’ll burst first.

Here’s a good example of machismo in action: me and the girls are coming back from running in the mountains, and we’re in running attire – shorts and tight shirts, with some leg showing, especially my hairy beauties. In a conservative country like this, anything that shows leg is scandalous, and so the little running shorts the girls wear throws the local boys into a tizzie – scarcely a car passes that doesn’t honk, with the guys riding in back shouting “I’ll see you later” and “Hey baby” to show off their English. It’s mostly because of this that we stay off the main roads in the first place, but seriously, a bunch of sweaty tired people should never attract this much attention. If the girls react to this treatment in any way, even if simply to look at them, it’s like they’ve given the guys a big flashing “please come mess with me!” card with gold lettering and a star sticker.

Thus it falls to me to play the stupid gringo, wave, shout muchas gracias, and maybe blow them a kiss if I’m feeling sassy. This is like kryptonite to these guys – being thought of as gay, or as being sexual toward another man is one of the worst things one can do – and so it really just deflates their egos and they leave us be. I tend to save this for the ones who aren’t right by us though, since I always wonder when/if I’ll push it to far, and have to deal with a very angry, pride-stung Honduran. I don’t know how far to push things, so for now, we just keep our heads down, take the catcalls and gringo-baiting, and comfort ourselves with the fact that the vast majority of Hondurans aren’t 16 year old overcompensating idiots with dirty mouths. Still, the machismo culture is one of the things I like least about the people down here, and I have no idea why the women put up with it. Fear? A cultural sense of inferiority? Probably a little of both, but that’s just depressing.

Staying Healthy, Honduras Style

Staying healthy here is really a case-study in risk management. Every day you get confronted with choices as to which risks you want to take with your health, and so most of staying healthy consists of making good decisions about what to put your body through. “Should I eat this street vendor sandwich?” Probably not, if you enjoy pooping solids. (there’s a theme here!) “Will popping my disgustingly large blisters open me up to infections, or will letting them tear make things worse?” I’ll let you know – I drained them yesterday, and so far so good. Running in my boots was a mistake I won’t be repeating soon, and continuing to run, hike, and play futbol on my poor blistered feet just compounded that. Chalk that one up in the “poor decisions” category.

Still, in every instance you have to make a choice, yay or nay, as to whether you’re going to put your health at risk. Because of this, your health starts to become an ever-present concern. I catch myself wondering whether that scab on my finger isn’t healing because it’s infected (it isn’t) or because it’s been a day and half since I cut it open. I rub hand sanitizer on myself, my phone, everything. I worry about whether the water that gets in my mouth and eyes during my bucket shower contains the sneaky microorganisms that will give me a tapeworm, or leave me praying to the porcelain gods for mercy. I guess I shouldn’t use the word “worry” because it isn’t so much that as it is a wariness, a nagging thought to be careful, to weigh my options before jumping into any action.

In that sense at least, being healthy here in all about being proactive. You need to get that cut checked out, and to tell the PCMO (medical officer) about your diarrhea. Don’t let that rash “get better on it’s own” because it might be something serious or a harbinger of things to come. Really, being healthy here means being just paranoid enough; too much and you’re going to be unfunctional, too little and you’re going to get some sort of cool flesh/brain/heart-eating virus that kills you. Finding that happy medium is a daily test.

That said, there’s a lot you have to resign yourself to. Your food isn’t as sanitary as it would be in the US. It happens. Get over it and eat dinner. Your host mom probably didn’t wash her hands after she did laundry and shooed the dog who never gets bathed out of the kitchen either. You can try to change her habits if you really want to; good luck with that. Likewise, you’re taking showers out of a bucket, living in a world where the streets are never cleaned, the dust is pervasive, the cars which aren’t smogged are driven by drivers who might not be licensed or just drunk, and the water comes in rusty pipes double their expected life. You’re taking a lot of health risks just living here, and if you can’t reconcile your need for caution with the reality of life here, perhaps Honduras just isn’t your bag baby.

As I write this, an ant has just crawled into my beer, which I will continue drinking because beer is a scarce commodity here – it’s the first I’ve had since leaving DC, and I’m certainly not going to toss it out because one little ant wanted to get her fill. Likewise, I have zero problem eating food with bugs in it, or things that have fallen on a reasonably clean floor.

Case in point: the other night I was hanging out with X, and she offered me a “minimo” a tiny, 3” banana that grows wild out here. I peeled it to find a family of ants had been gnawing at one end, and after a few fruitless efforts at getting them to leave, I just mowed down the whole thing. Extra protein. Again, calculated risk. A few ants aren’t going to kill me, and it was the only ridiculously adorable tiny banana I was liable to get that day. Why should I worry about something that I can’t change? And that, my friends, is the secret of being healthy in Honduras: consider the costs and benefits of every action, and don’t sweat that which is beyond your control.

My “New” Phone

Last email I wrote about getting a phone here in Honduras. I also told you all to call me if you got bored, which nobody did, which leads me to conclude that you all hate me. Seriously though, it’s 011 504 9576 2348 if you’d like to call me – it costs me nothing to receive calls, and though I have no idea what it costs to call from the states, it’s only 4 lempira (about 20 cents) a minute to call you all from here, and I can’t imagine it’s that much worse in reverse. Otherwise, skype call me! I’d love to hear from any of you, especially if you’re drunk at 4 am. I’ll be getting up for school anyhow.

Switching gears; my phone is pretty neat. In a lot of ways, Honduras is easily a half-century or more behind the US in terms of technology. They kinda-sorta have landlines, but they’re unreliable, expensive, and never really reached market saturation. Cable TV exists, but only if you’re rich and in the right parts of town. Cars are at least 30 years behind, except for a few luxury models that the rich folk drive around. (another theme developing here!) The roads are narrow and occasionally lit, and there’s next to nothing in terms of traffic lights or stop signs, even in very well-traveled areas. Outside of Teguz, the capital, I have yet to see a working stop light. They use traffic cops here by the hundreds, organizing and controlling the flow of vehicles, ala USA circa 1920 or so. My house gets water 2 time a week from an outside tap, the toilet flushes with a bucket, and the power drops out at regular intervals. Honduras has a definite infrastructure problem.

However, their cell networks and phones are very similar to ours – in some ways better. My $21 pay-as-you-go Nokia is virtually identical to my first indestructible phone back in high school, and it’s fast, intuitive, and the battery lasts days. It’s been 4 days since I changed it, and it’s at 80% battery. It turns on or off in a few seconds, does everything I ask of it, and if experience serves me well, I should probably be able to play hacky-sack with it for a few months with nary a concern. I’ve yet to go below 3 of 5 bars or drop a call, despite living in a country that is almost entirely mountains. The cell service here is solid, and you can find almost any phone you could imagine, if you’re willing to haggle with the right street vendor. It’s no iphone, and I’m certainly not going to trade internet access, music, games, a full calendar, contacts, and a million other features for this little brick with a flashlight built in, but as a phone and a distraction to thieves, this Nokia takes the cake. Talking on my phone, I forget the broken infrastructure and marvel at how quickly this technology is transforming the way Hondurans live and do business.

Simply put, Honduras is a prime example of a free market at work. There are few laws governing what can or cannot be done, and even less effective regulation. One upshot to this system is that the technologies that flourish are strictly those that have proven their worth to the populace – the cheapest, easiest, most useful things are the only ones that people here are going to save their meager earnings to buy. Thus cell phones have exploded, reaching all corners of the country, companies fighting each other for customers, with towers in every neighborhood. (if cell towers cause cancer, these people will find out really soon – there are towers in schools, on houses, in playgrounds; everywhere there is space and an open range, someone has a cell repeater up.) It’s all because of how useful cell phones are, and how much having one (or not) can impact your life.

Thus, without mandates, government money, or regulation, a very tight network of cell towers have blanketed the nation, and cells are cheaper then most else out here. This isn’t to say that free markets are all good – certainly Honduras has ample evidence and then some of the failings of a society run by capital – but in this instance, I feel like the executives of AT&T, Verizon, and all the rest of the US cell carriers ought to be dragged down here to see how real competition works.

Going to the Market

Last Wednesday part of our training class, myself included, headed into Teguz to practice negotiating and navigating our way through the capital city. It was a bit scary, since we’re none-too-sure of our Spanish skills, and frankly, because the Peace Corps wanted it to be scary. They gave us a destination, a bit of cash, and basically said “meet you there.” This was our first real test of our seriousness and ability to survive on our own.

Early in the am, I caught the bus in front of my house with about 17-20 other volunteers, which was in itself pretty hilarious. Bunch of gringos swarming the daily bus to Tegucigalpa definitely raised some eyebrows, but it also kept us safe. Who wants to rob someone who obviously brought a swarm of friends? More to the point, the Peace Corps didn’t want to lose anyone, so we were all assigned groups – to ride together for one, and to keep an eye on each other for two. My group of 3 did just fine, caught a cab, negotiated a fare, and took the 16 block ride to the market Zonal Belin for just over 4 bucks. That’s total, not individual fare! (anyone who’s been ripped off by a cabbie stateside, I’m sorry, but nyah nyah!)

After a harrowing ride of prayer and blind merging, we disembarked into a scene right out of Indiana Jones. Narrow, dirty streets, open air stands, vendors carrying goods from all over and yelling out prices, people pushing, and everywhere the smells and sights and sounds of a bustling marketplace. Like any good Americans, we strode into the supermarket.

To be fair, we were supposed to meet Victor, our facilitator, there, but it makes the image better. The “supermecado” here is just like the ones there, except it blasts old American tunes (they really love Air Supply, Bob Marley, and Hotel California by the Eagles) and there is a LOT smaller selection. For most items, you get the dominant brand (Coke, Crest, Betty Crocker) and one, maybe two generic alternatives. There’s not fruit or vegetables that aren’t tropical, and nothing that isn’t in season. Makes you a bit wistful for the USA, especially if you’re craving blueberries.

The pricing is kinda weird – some items, like soap, clipboards, toothpaste, are cheap as dirt, a buck or so if you’re buying generic – but some others, like American candy, are overpriced compared to back home. Gum is well over a buck a pack, same for skittles, M&Ms, and the like. It’s weird to pay the same amount for an 8-pack of batteries and a pack of trident.

After price matching at the supermercado, we run across traffic to the open-air market. Here the fun part begins – bartering, shouting, playing with the produce, jumping puddles, dodging cars and carts and donkeys, watching for pickpockets, getting lost in dead ends, choking on diesel, haggling with street vendors, buying pineapple out of the bed of a truck, and sticks of cinnamon from an old woman with a snaggletooth. If you ignore the little displays of cell phones and turn a blind eye to the radios and remote controls, it could be 100 years ago in America, or any dirty marketplace in the world today.

I’m in love with the place, and I spend 37 lempira (2 bucks) on 4 apples, 6 oranges, 6 bananas and another 6 on the day’s paper. It’s fantastic, and I’m pretty good at bargaining with the locals. It goes a bit like this – you find an item you want, wander up to the merchant, and ask the price. When they tell you, you grimace, bite your lip, and tell them it’s a bit more then you wanted to pay. Then you name your price, preferably something about 70% of what they told you originally. They’ll refuse, and you’ll tell them that you only want to pay the 70% price again, this time loud enough for the vendor in the next stall over to hear. If the first vendor is smart, he or she will offer you a price somewhere in the range of 80% of the original price. If he isn’t; the second vendor probably will, and presto, you’ve got your item at a great price. Buy it, and feel smug.

If neither is willing to meet the price you name, just thank them and walk – there’s someone in the market with a better price if you just keep looking, and chances are they’re near the middle. Look for vendors in bad locations – dead ends, corners, places that don’t get a lot of foot traffic. They’ll happily barter down, and you can find all sorts of cool stuff for next to nothing.

I could have spent all day there, but around 11:30 we left to visit the market, fought with another taxi driver (they add a gringo tax to all fares here – general rule, take 20 Lempira off and see if they’ll still take you) and rode to the Peace Corps home office. We got a quick tour of what might as well have been an embassy in a warzone, all barbed wire and barred windows, with a 10 foot wall around.

After the look-around, we boarded Peace Corps vehicles and rode to Burger King. It was really funny actually – the BK here was pretty much identical to the others I’ve been to – nicer actually then some I’ve seen. The food was identical, the prices too! It actually cost more for a greasy hamburger then it did for my cabfare and busfare for the day. Still, it was a taste of home, and a nice change from the plato tipico – beans, rice, and tortillas – that make up the day-to-day eating around here.  After lunch, all that remained was a short jaunt back to town, and we slipped right back into the daily routine as if we’d never left.

Getting Ruined at Futbol

On Saturday, classes get out around noon, and we had the bright idea of heading down to the local futbol field (that’s soccer for you yanks) to see if we could play with the locals, or just start a pickup game of our own. As it turned out, the regulars all wanted to play with us silly Americans, and so by the time we’d ridden the bus down to Los Canyadas to save ourselves a few miles walking, we were greeted by about 12 of teenage and early-20s guys and a few local girls.

We decided to play EEUU versus Honduras, and so the we all knew we were in for an uphill struggle – these guys pretty much play from 3-4 pm until dark every day – but at the same time it wasn’t malicious. We all just wanted to have a good time, and the game seemed a good way for everyone to meet up and have some fun. We started out really disorganized, playing what my dad, my old coach, used to call “cluster ball.” That means that the USA guys and girls buzzed around the ball like a bunch of bees, pulling out of positions, falling over each other, and generally playing a lot of bad soccer.

We got down in the scoreboards really fast, giving up 5 goals to none in the first half. Honestly, it was pretty pathetic, but we also had a goalie who didn’t block a single shot. What blocked shots we did manage came from some of the defenders, like myself, who put our bodies between the ball and the goal. At the half, a few of the guys were really demoralized and took off to visit the internet cafes and get food, so that left 10 of us American and one Honduran versus the other 11 Hondurans. Our subs had really been our saving grace the first half, and so before we got back on the pitch we set firm positions, and I took command of the defense.

Three girls, Shannon, Kathrine, Lindsey, and myself played a diamond D, with the girls playing man-defense and myself roaming the backfield to pick up runners, throw a few tackles, and double team their stars. It actually worked great, and our offense organized themselves as well – 2 guys running the sidelines and dropping balls to Randy, Bert, and our Honduran player. We got two goals to their none, and the second half ran about 15 minutes longer then the first. Eventually, as it was pushing on toward dusk Danny, one of the Honduran guys, blasted a fantastic shot into the upper corner of our net, and we called the game at that. 6-2 Honduras over EEUU, but nothing but smiles, high-fives, and laughter all around. They say one of the most important goals of the Peace Corps is culture sharing, and I think we accomplished this admirably. If everything else we do goes half this well, we’ll do fantastically out here.

Road Tripping Honduran Style

So that brings me to Sunday. Our second assignment has been to go and visit volunteers at their sites across Honduras, to get a feel for how people work, and to meet our future coworkers. Plus, it goes kinda unsaid that we all need a change of scene and a break. I was assigned to a guy named Jon, an engineer out in Choluteca, the 4th-largest city in Honduras, located 130 km south of the capital. It’s a big site for the Peace Corps, and so I’m in good company – 6 other volunteers are taking the same or similar routes to their volunteers.

After packing my bag with a change of clothes, plenty of socks and underwear, my laptop, and a few toiletries, I arranged with Shannon, Reggie, and Kathrine to ride together to Teguz. We hit the terminal around 9:45am, and from there S, R, and I took a taxi (another wild ride) to the Mi Esperanza bus terminal on the south side of the city. Pretty uneventful overall, until we hit the terminal and bus atendantes (fare collectors, helpers, busboys, kinda all-around labor types) swarmed us, grabbed at our bags, and all but kidnapped us into the various terminals of each bus company. It was pretty wild. Luckily for us, we managed to regroup and push our way into the nearest doorway. As it turned out, it was one of the terminals, and so we just bought tickets there on an 11:15 bus to Choluteca. A whopping 82 Lempira (4 bucks 25 cents or so) and we had our tickets.

I slipped across the street, leaving my bag with the girls, and went into a pulperia to buy a few drinks and some gum for the trip. As it turned out, I found a little shopkeeper who spoke passable English, not that he let me in on that until after I’d stumbled through the entire exchange in Spanish. Still, scared the crap out of me when he came up behind me as I was leaving to say “have a nice trip.” It was just weird to hear a voice in English, especially there. We talked a bit – he’d lived in the states for a while before returning, which may or may not have meant that he had been there illegally, which isn’t exactly uncommon here. Either way, it was a weird little exchange.

Loaded up with Fresca, Aguazul water, and chicle (27 L for the lot, for you keeping track at home) I got back to the terminal and swapped stories with Shannon and Reggie until the bus got there. Reggie has a great life story, but that’s not for here. Anyhow, we boarded the bus, took seats near the middle (statistically, it’s the safest spot) and read books or napped or looked out the windows as our long, hot, journey began. Met a doctor seated across from me; he was studying abdominal/intestinal medicine, and we talked about parasites and explosive diarrhea in Spanish. Chalk him up to the growing group of people who laugh and tell me how sick I’m going to get.

After a bit he passed out, the girls were in their books, and I couldn’t stop staring out the windows. It’s like another world, different even from the Honduras I’m just getting used to. It’s almost like Southern California in the south, all chapparel, stunted trees, and dry brush as the hills roll away from the 2-lane highway. What makes it different and unusual is that the familiar scene is interspersed with slash-and-burn farms, piles of garbage, starving dogs, broken down cars, tiny pueblos with rocky fields, and poor kids, adults, men, women, and children scraping a living out of the unforgiving land.  At every stop I bought something – a mango, a sandwich, a bag of water. I had to: it’s nothing to me, but to these people it’s the difference between living and dying, eating and going to bed empty.

I couldn’t help myself from asking “is this it? Is this life? Is this all there is? A fight for survival, a daily struggle to eat, to live to do it again tomorrow? Have I been stupid, or just naïve, to deny this fundamental truth?” Life is so simple when you have nothing at all. You eat, or you don’t. You drink, or you go thirsty. You fall in love, have kids, and die, and you fight every day to stay alive for the next. One day you don’t, and that’s it. Everything else is just gravy, the condiments of life. We delude ourselves into thinking we need this, or we can’t live without that, but these people put the lie to all that. We’re really just animals who think, and sometimes I question whether the whole thinking thing was such a great idea. I alternated reading Kerouac and gawking at the world flashing by as our driver swerved lanes, passing cars, trucks, buses, honked and cut the wheel, missed oncoming traffic by mere feet, and caused a ruckus.

I sweat a lot – it’s easily 95, and there’s no shade. The air coming in the windows is a furnace, and the smells of the world; shit, food, smoke, cigarettes, coffee, diesel, all flood in. I’m in love. I’m giddy. I’m tingling with the sheer pressure of life pushing against me; I can feel it all the way down into my soul, into every fiber of my being, into my very essence. This is how I was supposed to live – traveling, looking for truth, experiencing that which I’ve never before.

We hit Choluteca a bit after 3, hopped out, grabbed our bags, and were left coughing fumes in the furnace of the afternoon. A few people waiting for the bus looked at us, a few taxis honked and waved. Otherwise, we were just a few travelers in a city that didn’t care. Again, the tingling feeling, the rush. I found a shady tree to sit under and called Jon. He said that he and the other volunteers were waiting for us at Wendy’s down the road, and with him walking one way, and us the other, we met up rather quickly. Walking together now, we did the whole pleasantries thing, and made it to Wendy’s in a few minutes.

I kept marveling at how run-down yet familiar the town looks – like a dystopian Fresno, or perhaps Bakersfield. There’s a lot of one-story buildings, roads with potholes, tired-looking trees, rough, dirty, broken everything. At the same time, it’s easily recognizable as a town, though it looks deceivingly small, you’ve got all the normal parts of town that we do in the states; strip mall, fast food joints, a little legal district, a cathedral, a police station. It’s definitely a place I feel confidently at home in – much more then in Teguz, where it’s all overwhelming, or in Santa Lucia, where there’s nothing remotely like home.

A note on Wendy’s: there’s a lot of reasons not to buy fast food. It’s greasy, none-too-tasty, and more expensive then a lot of things here. Normally, there’s no good reason to buy it, which is why I shied away from it whenever possible back home. However here in Honduras (and really, to travelers everywhere) it has a few distinct advantages, namely that it’s (relatively) clean, unlikely to give you nasty parasites or germies, and you can rely on it to taste about the same wherever you go. Plus, here they actually try – since American fast food joints are more expensive then pretty much any lunch or dinner place, they’re actually really clean, well-staffed, and fast. It’s kinda funny to me that the Wendy’s we visited here is cleaner and the food better then any I’ve ever visited in my life. Just another Honduras mystery, I guess.

Not much left to tell here, at least not in this story. We hit our destination, met our volunteers, made new friends, talked, ate, and joked, and then went our separate ways. In my next message (hopefully sometime next week) I’ll write about the rest of this trip, since it’s turning out great. For the time being, this was my story, and I’m sticking to it. Feel free to call me whenever, write me letters, send me sacks of bricks or candy. I miss all your smiling faces, but this was and is the best thing I’ve ever done.

K over and out.

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