Friday, August 26, 2005

Gettin' settled

Hey everyone,

As mom noted, the spambots have found my page. This probably means I will have to shut off anonymous comments eventually, but I'll give it a few weeks and see if things get worse. In the meantime, those of you (like parents) who really wish to keep posting comments will just have to find a way to login. I'm sure it's possible. Mom, if you want I can send you an invite to my email service (gmail) which I'm sure would work for you. It's also a really nice thing to have a good web-based email service.

So what have I been up to lately? Surprisingly, quite a bit. We finally got my house nice and fixed up/secure so I could move into it, and I've been running around trying to get furniture and whatnot since it was totally empty to start with. I began a compost pile and tilled part of what will my garden with a pick and hoe, and today I'm going to start trying to get seeds. I promised the "maestro en casa" program in Agua Fria that I'd teach English, so today I have to plan that all out for tomorrow. Speaking of which, mom, I've been trying to find a way to contact you by phone from Agua Fria and I'm just not sure if it's possible. Some way or another I would really like to talk to you, so could you try calling me on the community telephone in Agua Fria? The number is 999-8666 (yes, that's really the number, unless I managed to forget it). I'll be waiting there Monday at say.... 5 pm (4 pm your time).

So anyways I have to plan this thing for Maestro en Casa. It's a government program to get people who don't have time to go to school a decent education with only classes on Saturday by giving them books on a variety of subjects and having them do the majority of studying independently during the week. The teachers are regular elementary school teachers that do it as volunteer work for the community. I don't know how well this is gonna work for language acquisition, so I've already asked for a little more time than just one hour on Saturdays. We'll see if we can squeeze it in. I'm also going to spend an extra hour with the teachers so I can get some more help with this, because I really need the support.... the program has 60 students and we might try to implement something in the elementary school also..... ideally the existing teachers would do that.

Also, USAID (a large US government organization for various types of foreign aid, from food to development projects) is starting a very large watershed project in Honduras with something like 25 million bucks to be invested eventually. Among other large watersheds, they want to work with the Choluteca watershed, which pertains to the largest river in the area here, and also the Rio Negro watershed which is a smaller river between me and Nicaragua. But first they're doing a pilot project in the San Juan micro-watershed, which is right in my backyard! So yesterday I went to a preliminary meeting with a couple USAID representatives and a lot of community members to check it out. They want to take a more community based approach than in past attempts, which is really good. There have been an awful lot of development projects in the past here, both in my area up in the mountains and down in the valley also, since Choluteca is one of the places in Honduras with the worst poverty and environmental degradation. There have even been one or two government projects specifically in the San Juan micro-watershed, which, from what the community members at the meeting seemed to think, accomplished absolutely nothing. Hence trying to switch up the strategy and get the community more involved this time.

One of their goals is to improve production and access to better markets for the producers in the area. My official local counterpart organization, the organic coffee cooperative COCAGUAL (Cooperativa Cafetelera Guanacaure Limitida) is VERY interested in this. They have thirty producers that have certified organic coffee and are selling it at normal coffee prices in Choluteca. The project also wants to improve general agriculture practices et cetera in the micro-watershed. I still don't really know how exactly I can get myself involved in this project, but both myself and COCAGUAL are very interested in finding out how we can work with USAID here. Sunday there's a meeting with the cooperative and I have a feeling we're going to be discussing this a lot. Also I'm gonna try and get in on a soccer game on Sunday. It's funny how I assumed my first couple months would be spent mainly fixing up my house, tending my garden and meeting people..... that was the plan anyways. I am, however, very happy to be getting involved in stuff right away.

A word about development projects, since I touched on it a little above. We've been thoroughly trained by the peace corps to take a certain approach to development, which tries to evict as much as possible the mistakes that have been made in the past. When I came here, I really had no idea exactly how much time and money have been spent already in aid projects and development projects here (central america is definitely a hotspot) but probably in the rest of the world also. The simple fact of the matter is, investing money in the development of other countries, a lot of the time, doesn't do anything and in fact is often more harmful than good. Why?

Because most development organizations make two mistakes:

1. They run their projects from the top down

This means that some organization, which wants to donate money for a development project, says to another organization which is going to carry out the project: "give me your plan so we can see exactly what our money is going to be invested in." So the other organization develops a plan completely outside the community they're going to apply it in. They then go into said community with a fixed amount of money which may or may not be enough (it usually is plenty, but in countries with weak and corrupt governmental systems like, for example, Honduras, they money present often does not get used correctly). Then there's some executive guy from outside the community where the project is going making top-down decisions. He may not know the social or political climate present and sometimes has a very limited idea of the local factors to take into consideration.

2. They assume the society present is ready for these changes

It may sound fairly arrogant and patronizing to assume that poor communities throughout the world are not socially ready to be helped by new technologies and systems and whatnot that we bring them, but the fact is that if there are not members of the community present with the knowledge, skills, and motivation to run these projects after the development organization leaves, then they WILL fail. We take this kind of thing for granted because in the United States the government does a lot of the infrastructure stuff for us. Here it becomes more obvious how incredibly difficult it is to support a large, complicated project like (for example) a water system. Just getting the resources is the easy part here. It also takes a group of people with lots of leadership and organizational skills, it takes technical knowledge, and it takes the participation of the community members who not only know enough about what's going on to trust the new ideas and participate, they also have to get involved to the extent that someone's watching to make sure the leaders aren't screwing things up. The third world is filled with rusting introduced technology that broke down and nobody knew how to fix it, top quality seed grain that somebody ate because they didn't know what to do with it or didn't trust the innovation to work, et cetera.

As a peace corps volunteer, we can forget about introducing big projects or resources because we don't have that stuff. All we have is knowledge and two years to build trust and friendship within the community, and if we're lucky SPA grants from USAID (Small Project Assistance, usually somewhere between $US 1k and 5k). There are definitely good development organizations out there, and the peace corps is actually a very small one compared to some. Whether or not we are effective depends largely on the individual volunteer.

One thing I would like to say here, since I have this medium to publicize my thoughts about this stuff, is that if any of you 5 or so readers are thinking about donating money to a world charity organization, think again. Research who you're giving it to and where it's going and what it will be used for. Projects that give away stuff, except probably in cases of immediate disaster relief, are definitely doing more harm than good. Paternalism fosters dependency and a feeling of inadequacy which I can sense every day here. People who are so used to being given stuff or helped with stuff eventually start to rely on that stuff, and worst of all, believe that they can't advance on their own. Religious charity organizations are some of the worst with the way they hand out clothes and food, but there's plenty of others.

It's kind of funny, because since I've been living amongst central americans and their perception of the United States my perspective is changing and I've started to involuntarily see the US the way they see it... a perfect land of opportunity where there aren't social and environmental problems the way there is here. Nobody here has any idea of the kinds of problems the USA actually has. Now sometimes I have to remind myself that the USA has crime, poverty, drug addiction (lots of that in fact) and plenty of environmental degradation as well. It's not that central america is so much worse, they just see themselves that way. It's sort of hilarious and sad at the same time.

So to wrap up all this rambling, what then, exactly, am I here for? I strongly believe that things here aren't going to change by the hand of outsiders. Any real, meaningful, lasting change has to come from within because it has to start with social change. I reckon the answer to that question, then, is that I'm here to work with the people on projects they're already interested in, lend technical support and knowledge, and most of all serve as an example to hopefully help motivate those who are interested in and hope for change. Crap.... that's a lot of responsibility still. Well hopefully I'll be able to avoid taking myself too seriously, but I think I'm already screwing that up.

I miss you all very much, especially Sam and Maya. Hope things are well on the homefront, and it's always nice to get your emails.

Oh, I can't remember if I mentioned this or not? But Dad and Anna, both your packages came. Thanks guys! Anna, the host family in Siguat was thrilled.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Little House in the Tropics

Sup everyone,

I´ve gotten all my crapola safely transferred to my house, with the exception of my big black duffel bag with wheels that is so filled with papers and books I couldn´t haul it up the cuesta to my place. (Cuesta means hill, but I love this word because it refers more to a grand effort required to climb the hill).

I´ve been staying once again at Isaí´s house, where I expect I´ll have to be for a few more days at least while we repair some termite-bitten windows and one door; also I need to buy things such as cookware, food, toilet paper, shampoo, a bed, chairs, and most importantly, a sombrero. It´s really not been as hot as I expected in Central America, but man is the sun ever strong. It burnsss ussss! :) I´m anxious to get moved into my own house, but for now staying with his family has been fun and very helpful. Their two little girls make me think so much of the children from the Little House on the Prairie series; it´s surreal. (hence the title of this entry) They bounce around the house helping out and doing chores with these big thick braids and cotton dresses, and they even call their mom and dad ¨ma¨ and ¨pa¨ occasionally. Crazy! There is definitely a lost-in-time feel out there in the forested valley of Despoblado. But you only have to walk 2o minutes into Agua Fría and things start feeling much more modern.

I still don´t have a telephone, and I gotta tell you guys (mom and dad), don´t expect to be able to just call me. If you want to arrange a time to talk on the phone, leave me a message here or via email and I will try to be at the local phone at that time, or I´ll just call you... in which case you also have to tell me a time when you´re going to be home. The good news is, I just purchased a post office box so you can send mail directly to me in Choluteca now and I´ll pick it up when I go to the city, which should be every week or two. The address is:

Gabriel Hensold
Apartado Postal 42
Choluteca, Honduras
America Central

Put a number sign in front of that 42 also. I just can´t figure out how to do it on this keyboard. I gotta get moving so I have time to meet with my ¨emergency zone coordinator¨ (another volunteer that I have to contact anytime I leave my site so the peace corps can keep track of where I am). The last bus up to my aldea leaves at like 1:00 pm so I when I come to choluteca I only have, at the very most, 4.5 hours to do stuff.

Hope you are all well!

Friday, August 12, 2005


I am officially a peace corps volunteer. I raised my right hand and swore to defend the united states from all enemies, foreign and domestic (how this applies to the peace corps exactly, I don't know) plus some other stuff this morning. We've been back and forth between the peace corps main office, our hotel, and the embassy several times between yesterday and today, attending a few more talks and going to various activities. The personnel here at the peace corps office is really stellar, and it makes me feel good knowing these guys are backing us up.

The swearing-in thing happened this morning at like 9 am. It was kind of understated, which is fine by me. Several people gave speeches of course, including myself - Feeling very nervous and slightly hung over, I got up behind a podium with my khakis and hideous tie and spoke on behalf of the PAM section of trainees that were getting sworn in. I thought it went pretty well and I can post the transcript here if yall want, although it is like 75% spanish.

Afterwards we took a ridiculous amount of pictures. I didn't bring my camera, but most of the ones that other people had were digital and I'm going to try and track some pictures down to post here. Myself and all the other men trainees have been growing mustaches for the past 3 weeks just for this event and we look pretty hilarious. Unfortunately that amount of time was enough for me to get about a quarter inch of fuzz on the upper lip so I had to leave some "Hulk Hogan" fumanchu straps so you can actually see the damn thing. Should've colored it with mascara but we thought about that too late. Ooooh, also I think somebody might have a picture of me behind that wooden thing with a microphone and the Hondura, US, and Peace Corps flags in the background. I'd like to get my hands on that.

I'm going out to Choluteca via bus this afternoon with my enormous load of crapola and I'm gonna stay in a hotel tonight because the last bus up to the aldea leaves at 4 pm. Probably won't have any more communication for the next while, like maybe a week, but I will check back in when I am able to. *hugz*


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

News Brief

Ok, as the title says... short and dry for this one.

We wrapped up the last of our training today with a ¨cocina verde¨ session on making healthy food with readily available ingredients (especially weeds). We made some awesome fried egg and greens pancake things, green juice, soy milk, and soy chorizo. I also spent 3+ hours in the hospital earlier because I have had a cold and it led to a throat infection (most of the time spent waiting was for the doctor to tell me what I already knew) then they stuck a needle full of penicillin in my ass, gave me some ibuprofen, and sent me on my way. This is unfortunately going to impede my ability to party with everyone in the capital of Tegucigalpa tomorrow.

Speaking of which, upcoming news.... we are traveling to Tegucigalpa tomorrow very early for some ceremonial stuff and a reception at the embassy. The Honduran president Maduro was invited but nobody seems to think he´s really going to show. Thursday night we´re going to get to hang out one last time around Tegucigalpa, stay in a hotel there, and Friday morning we get sworn in officially as peace corps volunteers. I already have my certificate saying I satisfactorily completed tech and language training (finishing with a level of Advanced Low in Spanish). I´m also supposed to write a speech to deliver on behalf of the PAM training group in Spanish, since I´m a decent hand with words and I have the second best spanish level in the PAM group. I´m not sure if that´s tomorrow or Friday.... I´ll just write it on the bus to Tegucigalpa tomorrow. :P

I have to pack up all my junk tonight, because after swearing in I´m going to continue south at 10:30 am or so and head directly to the city of Choluteca, and start working on getting my mountain of crapola up a mountain of dirt and rocks, the last 2 km being a hike unless I can find someone with a truck. At this point I can easily see myself going 3+ weeks without a day off by the time I get myself settled-ish, all told.

So that´s what´s on the plate; this means I will not be back in Siguat on Friday for anyone that might have been planning to call me (it just makes sense since Tegucigalpa is on the way to my site). I do not have a mailing address nor phone number yet, but I will get those things as soon as I can. The phone is probably going to be a pulpería or the house of somebody I trust in Agua Fría, and the mailing address will be the post office in Choluteca so I´ll just have to go pick it up on my weekly trip to town or whatever. I will continue to be very busy for awhile after I arrive because I have to completely furnish that house and fix some stuff, but I will try to keep in touch.

Love to all,


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Site Visit

I don´t have too much time at this internet café (only the one in the mall has power today and it´s really expensive) so this will be kind of brief.

My site, Agua Fría, is almost at the top of the Cerro Guanacaure (the aldea itself is probably well into the ¨nuclear zone¨ of the park, ha ha). The place I will probably live, appropriately named Despoblado, is higher yet and I believe the house I plan on living in is at about 800m (the peak, as I mentioned, is 1000). My host country counterpart, Isaí, owns the house and will rent it to me. His house is right nearby so that´s cool, it will be nice to have a resource right nearby.

The forest around the area is just beautiful. They call it a ¨tropical dry forest¨ but since this is the wet season it´s really not too terribly dry, and not hot at all right now, even down the mountain a ways. There´s lots of deciduous trees and really no pines (oddly enough, the pines in this country like the wetter parts... go figure). Almost the entire mountain is farmed, really 99% of it has some kind of cultivation going on but higher up it´s almost all coffee that they´re growing underneath the existing forest or a variety of planted shade trees and banana palms. In various places you can find mahogany, ¨cedro espino¨ which I don´t know the english name of but is apparently also a very valuable tree, and the two biggest and most awesome trees in Honduras: Ceiba and Guanacaste. There´s a huge Ceiba right next to my house, woo! Also there´s this GIGANTIC type of bamboo scattered around the forest that they tell me is native; I already have plans to make some watering devices and wind chimes with it. =)

I bussed down to Choluteca on Thursday but we left too late to catch the last bus up to Agua Fría so we spent the night in a hotel in Choluteca and grabbed a bus the next morning. Friday I mainly hung out and visited with Isaí. He showed me around his place, we hiked up to a exposed ridge (due to a small cattle ranch) that I think he currently owns? so I could get a good view of the surrounding countryside and we talked about politics, the process of development, the Honduran and US governments, and various other things. I was somewhat worried I would have a hard time finding someone to talk intellectual type junk with so having him to visit with is great. He´s kind of a big canacker but if you wait long enough you can get a word in. The Honduran way of having a discussion often seems to involve the more dominant personality talking for five minutes at a time, then the other guy offering a few sentences of counterpoint, et cetera.

Saturday we pasear´d a lot (walked around visiting) and I got formally introduced to a lot of the members of the organic cooperative that he´s part of. They have something like 30 certified organic producers in the area which is really crazy. I´d met one person who was in the PROCESS of getting certified organic in my travels around the country for training. Most of them grow coffee. Isaí seems to think I´m going to spend most of my time working with the cooperative but I´m already plotting to subvert those plans. Those guys don´t need any help from me; my job as an extensionist is to start working with the people whose methods could use improvement and begin the process of getting them interested in other stuff. I also could conceivably spend a fair amount of time doing youth development (cuz boy do they need it) and watershed management.

That´s all for now. If/when you guys come to visit me, you are going to be blown away by this spot my house is in. It is just beautiful.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Site Assignment!

This is it, the big news I´ve been waiting for over the past few weeks. Last night Luis Estrada, our project manager, took us all out to dinner at a nice buffet and handed us each a packet of information containing our site location, a brief description, the other volunteers in the area, the people and agencies in the area we will probably be working with, and a list of possible projects that the community has suggested or asked for, or simply might be applicable in the area.

The large majority of my group is going to the mountainous areas in the western part of the counry. This is the greenest, coolest part of Honduras and has the most cloud forests and wildlife and things of that nature. It also has the greatest potential for ecotourism projects. One person is going to Olancho, the huge department in western Honduras with a lot of warmer, drier, less mountainous wilderness and very few people. A couple more people are going to a national park right near Tegucigalpa, but well away from the crowds.

I´m not going to any of those places. I´m going to Choluteca, the department in the very south corner of Honduras against the Gulf of Fonseca; the hottest, driest place in the country. I was reading about the region in a travel guide which actually mentions my aldea, Agua Fría, and it specifically mentions how unusually lush and oasis-like it is compared to the surrounding area. Also, because it´s up in the mountains it should be relatively cooler than the lowlands nearby. Still it´s only at 600m elevation (compared to most PAM sites which are usually more like 1200; the highest peak in the protected area is only 1000) and will probably be pretty friggin hot.

The good part is that it sounds like I will have an interesting community with lots to do. There will also be another volunteer from my group, Tim, stationed in an aldea only 2 km away, which is nice because otherwise I would be literally halfway across the country from the next closest volunteer in my training group.

The truth is, I actually wanted to go to Choluteca (that or Olancho) and I don´t give a damn how hot it is. And my suggested projects sound really interesting. Here are some highlights from the assignment description package:


¨Agua Fría is a small village of approximately 1000 people within the municipality of El Corpus, Choluteca. The inhabitants of Agua Fría are primarily poor subsistance farmers working with corn, beans, and coffee.

The landscape around Agua Fría is extremely mountainous, with forested areas surrounding the community. Located at the foothills of Cerro Guanacaure, Agua Fría is a verdant community where everyone makes a living out of growing basic grains, vegetables, and coffee. Cerro de Guanacaure is a protected area that produces most of the water consumed by Choluteca inhabitants as well as for many of the surrounding villages. Some of the threats for the park are the shifting agriculture and cattle raising in the foothills. The weather in Agua Fría is hot and dry. The rainy season is very uncertain, but people expect it around May each year.¨

Nature of your Project

¨......below are some needs that have been identified as possible collaborations in Agua Fría.

-> Determine what kinds of activities you can support in the local elementary
-> Identify opportunities to delimit and fence off the major microwatersheds within Guanacaure Protected Area, developing agreements with the landowners within Guanacaure that specify proper land use practices.
·Develop a micro-watershed management plan for the community´s water source through a participatory strategic plan to implement sustainable micro-watershed management practices.
· Based on identified community interests and watershed restoration needs, support the establishment of tree nurseries for production of trees for community arborization, firewood, fruit trees, upper/recharge zone watershed reforestation, and other agro-forestry purposes.
· Train individuals and interest groups in proper micro-watershed delimitation or boundary setting and land use.
· Design and promote an educational program for the community that addresses the micro-watershed´s role in daily life, the importance of delimiting and protecting it, as well as proper land use.
· Plan and conduct educational field trips for interested individuals to share learning experiences related to micro-watershed management.
->Promote the ideal of integrated farming as a mean to reduce the family´s vulnerability to losses due to low production in a given crop or to the lack of markets. Integrating production also means that the family will be able to eat better by diversifying its diet.
· Promote ideals that integrated production begins with the family where each member should have equal opportunity to participate in the decision-making and production processes.
-> Develop and support crop diversification and alternative production activities for the community.
-> The Maestro en Casa program has requested your support to impart some English and sciences classes. Please talk to them and find out what exactly they need and see what you can do to support them.¨

Some of these things are stock PAM stuff and are probably in everybody´s site description package (I even left out a fair amount of the suggested activities because they were repetetive or banal, like ¨assess site security¨) but some of them are pretty specific to me and my site. For example, all the stuff about their watershed and the Maestro en Casa program. I´ve definitely been telling them how interested I am in both watersheds and education.

There are a couple other news items that bear mentioning. First, we had our final Spanish interviews on Monday. This isn´t the kind of thing that usually happens to me, but I got unbelievably nervous and locked up and basically botched the interview beyond belief. Regardless, they moved my final level up to Advanced Low, which I´m convinced is partly the result of talking with my Spanish teachers as well for their opinion. Based solely on the interview, I could probably be moved back down to Intermediate Medium and medically diagnosed with mental retardation.

The other piece of news is that I will be gone from Thursday through Sunday on Site Visit, wherein we´re all going to our newly learned sites to learn what we can and possibly use that info to get advice from Louis Estrada and our trainers during the last week of training. So that should be awesome. Our ¨site counterparts¨ (the people who will be my our main contacts in the community at first, and possibly later as well) is coming up this afternoon and we´re going to have dinner with all of them.

That´s about all I have for now in this regard. We´ve all been really excited about this and talking about it a lot amongst ourselves and with the business group. Dad, I know you wanted to get Vilma´s number again but I´m doing this in the computer lab at the training center during because I´ve had zero other time, and I´m not going to have time to fetch it right now. I will try to get it to you on Monday..... sorry. :/