Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Five minute friends

The last blog entry about traveling got me going on a track towards another theme I've been thinking about expounding upon, the conversations you have with random friends you meet traveling in Honduras.

First let's define ¨traveling¨ as going anywhere beyond the 2-km or so zone where absolutely everybody knows you. Now, as soon as you get outside that radius, you're eligible for Random Conversations. Some of these are random not because of their content, but because of the people or places involved. For example, when I take the bus to Tegucigalpa I can more or less expect to discuss the following things at least once, and more likely several times:

Where I'm going (the opener that never, ever fails)
The weather
Someone's relative in the states
The ten words of English that my conversational cohort knows
Whether or not I like Honduras
The corrupt government and how it's to blame for absolutely everything
Hurricane Mitch and how it's to blame for absolutely everything

The reason I refer to this kind of small talk as five-minute-friends is because people are so darn friendly. I talked with dad about this a little when he was here and came to a funny conclusion - that I actually like having these conversations, and that they almost never get old. Thinking about it I realized that what bothers me about the triteness of most small talk that I'd participated in before wasn't the lack of content, it was the lack of feeling. If I meet someone who's genuinely enthusiastic to talk to me, it doesn't really matter much if the topic is stale. People here, especially in the really local areas, are more skilled in talking about stuff than Americans. That's what you do when you get bored in the evening and there's no TV, no computer, no car to take you to the movies and no way to work once it gets dark.

I suppose I probably have a certain advantage as well for being an american, an outsider. But then, it's refreshing to be in a place where outsiders are actually treated with friendliness and respect. Some people go out of their way so much to be friendly and get a conversation going, they'll bring up some pretty goofy things.

A few weeks ago I was in Choluteca, and a fat middle-aged guy approached me who I'm pretty had had a few, but then it's hard to tell sometimes because you run into a lot of super-friendly people who say things that don't make a lot of sense. He held out his hand for me to shake, and asked me something about what I was doing there. So we got into the explanation about the peace corps, he gave me some fruit he was selling from Nicaragua, etc. Finally I had to go and, wanting to part as friends, he said:

¨If you're ever in Nicaragua, just ask for Mario!¨

Just like that. I loved it. It was almost the title for this blog entry. After a question or two I managed to get the name of the city he lived in (I forget its name now). Apparently if I ask anyone there for Mario, they'll know who I'm talking about.

Just this week, I was walking from El Corpus back to my house and passing through one of the aldeas on the way, I crossed paths with an older guy I'm fairly sure I'd met before. He said:
¨Hey, it's going to rain.¨
me: ¨Nah, I have time to get home.¨
him: ¨So, when are we going to go to Choluteca to eat some POPSICLES?
me: uh....
him: ¨Hey, do you read the Bible?¨
me: ¨Well actually...¨
him: ¨That's great! God knows everything! Well, see you later!¨

I also like the questions people ask about the United States, which are sometimes either inane conversations starters to kill a dead space in the talking or demonstrate a surprising amount of ignorance about the outside world. But then, a lot of these people have never been farther than Choluteca.

¨So, do they have rubber boots in the states?¨
¨Do people work where you live in the states?¨
¨Are there animals in the states?¨
etc. I like telling stories about snow (that's a sure way to get everyone's attention riveted).

In the news, I've been a little unoccupied lately. Awhile ago I started to pursue some extensionist-type contacts with a few of the cooperative's members, going to their fincas and checking out all their crops and making maps and talking to them about their concerns and stuff. It didn't really work out as well as I thought, perhaps because there seems to be a general assumption that there's nothing they could possibly do to improve their fincas besides waiting for God or an NGO to intervene. I try to start talking to people about what they could do to make more money, for example, and apparently they fail to see the connection between the idea that getting more income out of their finca is theoretically possible, and the reality of them trying new stuff. Gah. Next week, hopefully, we will do some grafting of avocadoes and mango trees, so I guess that's a step in the right direction.

With the tree nursery project, we had a meeting last week and finally got the assurance that our project has passed by the Costa Rican agency charged with revising the proposals once and for all with their seal of approval, and is now getting a final inspection from the bank. They said we might know this week what's up, and supposedly they're trying to get the projects rolling by October 15. I think November is a little more realistic, but this looks like we might make a real breakthrough pretty soon and actually *gasp* start working. Woohoo!

I haven't been playing soccer lately because the team is sort of disorganized right now, and although I could probably step in and get them rounded up, I don't want that to become my job, especially because i don't have the time for it. SUPPOSEDLY there is a game scheduled for next Sunday, but that's what they said last week and then there was no game. I should talk to the captain at least, see if he wants me to go take a note to another team's captain (I am the secretary, heh).

This Saturday there is a party of sorts in Choluteca to welcome a new group of volunteers that showed up, and say goodbye to another that is leaving by November. This time, there are PAM volunteers (my project) both coming and going, so it has a special importance for me. I will be saying goodbye to all the Chuck and Vince from San Marcos de Colon, and welcoming a new companion in the community of La Palma named Patrick, just down the hill from me. He came to my site to say hi on Saturday and seems like a pretty promising volunteer. He's good with Spanish and patient with a lot of the adjustments he's had to make. There's also a female PAM volunteer going to San Marcos de Colon who I haven't met yet, and probably a couple people from other projects coming to southern Honduras. The people around Choluteca are the ones I see the most, since it's pretty hard for me to travel outside that area.

Enough blogging for today. I hope this entry finds you all well, especially grandpa.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006


I've been contemplating a blog entry about my adventures with the Honduran transportation system for awhile now (almost a year actually) but wanted to save up a lot of interesting experiences first. I might as well just write it though, because I'm starting to forget some of the earlier ones. The Honduran Transportation System, while not an official organization by any means, functions in a very organic and integrated way, all developed around the necessity of getting a large population that's too poor to own a car where they're going, in the absolute cheapest way possible. If there's no bus to a certain town and it's too far to walk, somebody in the town will start up a small business taking passengers and produce in their beat-up pickup truck. If nobody in the town has a truck, somebody from nearby will discover the opening and fill the niche. Any town with more than a couple thousand inhabitants will have a bus to it, most likely several. There are forty buses that run daily through El Corpus, the pop. 1700 head of my municipality, most of which continue out to more villages beyond or to the slightly larger town of Concepción de María. They run in all daylight hours and you're always guaranteed a spot... though not necessarily a SEAT. If you're ok with that spot being the produce rack on top, then the bus being full is certainly not a worry.

Customer service, to an HTS bus driver, has absolutely nothing to do with getting their customers anyplace on time, but rather consists in making sure everybody and their chickens get on the bus, loading/unloading up to several hundred pounds of produce or supplies for them, and stopping to let someone off or on wherever the hell the urge strikes them. Oh, and don't ever ask somebody when the bus is going to come. ¨Ya va a venir¨ is always the response (which can mean it's coming in 10 minutes or in 3 hours), so why waste your time? I am mentally designing a T-shirt for the HTS with the slogan: ¨What are you, in some kind of hurry?¨

Then there's the taxis. Towns as small as 5,000 inhabitants will have taxis, and larger towns have amazing numbers of them.... the general rule being quantity over quality. Choluteca, a city of some 100,000 people, has almost 600 taxis and they are all, without exception, complete pieces of shit… Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras with a population of about a million, has almost nine THOUSAND taxis, a few of which are not complete pieces of shit. However, the drivers can get you where you're going if you don't know the town, and they're cheap. There's no limit on ride distances either; I can go almost to my house in a taxi, as long as I can find a driver who'll do it and who has a taxi that can handle the road, and I'm willing to pay 400 lempiras (about $20). This may not seem too expensive, but when you consider that my living allowance is about $200 a month, and a normal ride in Choluteca costs 65 cents…. yeah.

The new innovation is ¨moto-taxis¨, tiny 3-wheeled vehicles with the motor in the back that look kind of like an overgrown version of those baby carriages you can tow behind bicycles. They're even cheaper than regular taxis, and probably cost almost nothing to buy, maintain, and refuel, which would explain their growing popularity. Their only weakness is the 10¨ wheels, which might theoretically be a problem sometimes with the roads here.

95% of the roads in Honduras are dirt and get destroyed every year during the rainy season (even some surprisingly major routes), but if the government doesn't come and fix it, the local Patronato will put together a work group and they'll get 'er done manually. There’s even unofficial freelance roadwork in the form of kids that throw a few shovelfuls of dirt in the potholes and stand around all day by the side of the road, waiting for people who pass by in buses to drop them token amounts of money. It’s a bit like the urban ¨squeegie guys¨ in the United States, something that’s not begging but comes fairly close. Well, any way it gets done, the roads mostly stay passable because they have to. I'm not saying this is necessarily a good thing (i.e. the government should theoretically be doing a lot more), but that's how it works. People make things happen when they're forced to.

This principle not only applies to road maintenance, but to the entire range of travel-related issues. When you set out to travel in Honduras, you'll definitely get where you're going - it's only a matter of how much time! Really, you never know what might happen when starting a trip. The situations that can arise are endless. People do protests constantly and block the roads. Cows block the roads. Flat tires aren't a matter of if, but when (since, why change a reasonably functional tire before it flats?) The gas stations have a funny habit of running out of gas. Landslides are extremely common (in september and october, the height of the rainy season, one will occur somewhere around my area practically on a daily basis). Traveling sometime other than during daylight hours simply isn't an option unless you're going between Tegucigalpa and one of the other most major cities: Comayagua, San Pedro Sula, or La Ceiba. And in those places, traveling at night is a great way to get held up at gunpoint around one of the bus terminals.

In spite of these problems, since the whole system is designed to fly by the seat of its pants and everyone is used to it, you can almost always find a way to get where you're going. When I went to the beach in El Salvador for Semana Santa, I didn't do any route-planning at all beforehand. I knew that the name of the town I wanted to go to was La Libertad, but I hadn't even looked for it on a map yet when I got on a bus in Choluteca heading towards El Salvador and basically started striking up conversations with fellow passengers to glean more information. (¨So, where are you going? San Salvador? Ah, I see. Me? I'm going to La Libertad. Yeah, I want to hang out on the beach for Semana Santa. Say, do you have any idea where that place is, or how to get there? Oh, I have to pass through San Salvador?¨ At this point the guy in an adjoining seat, who lives in San Salvador, will pick up on the conversation and offer to give you some pointers for getting around the city.) Keep in mind that I relate this as an example of what you CAN do, but certainly not what you SHOULD do. Planning always helps. You just have to be ready to discard or modify said plans when the unforeseen contingencies start to arise.

Speaking of random-stranger-assistance, there is a general rule I have learned with central americans. If someone here doesn't want to rob you or otherwise take advantage of you for economic gain, they will invariably help you out, or try to anyhow. I guess maybe it's the social system that develops in a difficult livelihood where people are forced by necessity to band together and rely on each other's help… plus I suspect that most Hondurans feel honored to lend a hand to el estimado señor gringo.

On a related note, one interesting theory I am developing about safety and trusting people is that you can feel a lot more secure in asking a certain person for help if you are the one who initiates the conversation. When you’re feeling lost, if you go out and ask a random person who looks trustworthy, your odds will be the best. Don’t just sit around there looking stupid and waiting for someone to offer assistance, because people who want something out of you are going to approach you to try and get it and you’re giving them lots of time and a wide opening to do this.

Getting back to the logistical problems of traveling in Honduras, I’d like to relate an anecdotal tale about something that happened to me last wet season. It’s one of those things I was waiting to include in my blog and haven’t until now, but I can still remember it pretty well. This happened sometime in October, at the height of the rainiest part of the rainy season, which, considering this place is called a ¨dry forest¨, was pretty friggin’ rainy.

I was coming back to my house from the city of Choluteca in the early afternoon with some foodstuffs and a spare foam mattress I had just bought. The afternoon rain hadn’t begun yet, but it had rained tons the night before and had been raining hard every day that week, so the countryside was pretty soggy despite the hot sun. The bus turned off the main road which runs between Choluteca and El Corpus and started up the long, steep climb on the narrower, more crappily-maintained road that goes to Agua Fría and many surrounding villages. In a flat part just above the turnoff, the bus suddenly slowed and stopped momentarily – there had been a small mudslide across the right side of the road up ahead during the day (the bank had given out), and about 2/3 of the road was covered. Luckily, or so the bus driver must have thought at the time, it was at a part with a fairly wide shoulder on the left side, and there was plenty of room for the bus to pass.

What Mr. Bus Driver failed to notice, however, was the small stream of water trickling alongside the bank, which had been rerouted by the slide and now crossed the road, running out along the seldom-driven left shoulder we were about to traverse. About halfway past the slide, the bus lurched heavily sideways as its left tires sunk axle-deep into the soupy muck that innocent little diverted stream had created, and stopped. All the women passengers freaked out for a few momoments (¨Nobody move, it’s gonna tip over!¨ ¨Get to the right side of the bus!¨ ¨Oh my god, we’re going to go right over that cliff!¨) but within a couple disaster-free minutes, we evacuated the bus. Upon getting outside, we could see that, despite being tilted at a worrisome angle towards a pretty long and steep drop-off, the bus was firmly stuck and not going anywhere... not over the bank, and certainly not forwards or backwards.

Some of the passengers pitched in and we worked on throwing some gravel in the ruts for traction, digging out around the tires as best we could, and engineering a new channel for that stream so it flowed off the road farther back. However, after a few attempts with no progress whatsoever, it became clear that we weren’t going anywhere without some more heavy-duty help. Both of the bus’s left wheels were sunk so deep into the mud that the frame was even digging in all along that side, and spinning the wheels was mostly making matters worse. It started to rain, softly at first, but then much harder, the clouds seeming to materialize and darken right overhead. I threw my crap inside the bus and put my poncho on, but took it off pretty quickly when I got too warm and was soon totally soaked, standing around outside with everyone else waiting for a care to come.

A pickup truck showed up eventually, and we hitched it to the front of the bus to pull it out, but that sucker didn’t even budge. When people realized what was going on, there was a stampede for space in the bed, but 40 people don’t fit in one pickup and most of us just hung out, waiting for another chance. It was at this point I think that the bus driver sent his helper down the hill on a bike to get a tractor from the big melon farms, probably 10 kilometers or so away.

Very soon another small truck came, and got loaded up also, but my mattress didn’t fit in there with the people packed crotch-to-butt and frankly, I’m not pushy enough to compete with Honduran women when it comes to getting a seat. At this point it was just myself and a few other people left, working a little more on digging the bus out but mostly waiting for the tractor. The rain had barely let up since it started, and after a couple more hours of waiting with no sign of any help, I figured it was time to bail out. We’d probably gotten stuck around 2 pm, and it was now getting past 5 o’clock – that tractor clearly wouldn’t be coming until tomorrow, and I didn’t want to get stuck 9 kilometers from my house in the dark and rain. So I threw the poncho over my backpack as best I could, shouldered that mattress (it was wrapped in plastic, thank god) and got to hiking. It took me a little less than two hours to get to Agua Fría, and the rain didn’t stop or even lessen much during the entire hike…. it continued to pour down relentlessly, which I guess was kind of nice for the long uphill hike, keeping me cooled off and grimly determined to get home.

I pulled into town at about 7 and stopped briefly at the general store to rest and relate my adventure, and was given some nice hot coffee and a wonderful plate of tortillas, beans, rice, and chicken. It was completely dark at that point and I wasn’t really in a hurry anymore, so I sat in the roofed patio and bullshitted with my local friends for awhile, watching the rain continue to hammer down. At around 8 pm, we heard the sound of a vehicle through the dull roar of the rain, and somebody sitting there said, ¨hey, there’s the bus.¨

¨That can’t be the bus,¨ I said. I knew it was impossible, because I’d just hiked up that entire road and, besides the fact that the bus was irremediably stuck, and that it was dark and pouring rain, the road was in some of the worst shape I’d ever seen it. At that point in the year, almost every ride involved getting out and helping to throw gravel under the tires to get it up the steep parts and even pulling the stupid thing with ropes, so how could the driver manage that road alone under such conditions? The sound of the vehicle continued getting closer, and presently a big metal apparition materialized out of the storm, headlights shining a dull yellow through the fog.

It was the goddamn bus. Apparently the tractor HAD finally come and pulled it out, and the driver had then somehow made it up that road without incident. You could tell he was pretty psyched, walking around the general store’s patio with a huge grin on his face and talking about the fact that going to such extremes to get the bus to its destination was just part of his job, because after all, the people needed their supplies from Choluteca, and if the bus didn’t run, who would bring these things to them? I reckon he earned the right to strut.

On the news front, I have been working lately on what I hope to God is a final revision of my proposal to the Central American Bank of Economic Integration for my vivero project which I have thought at various times I would start 6 months ago, then 4 months ago, then this month, and now it looks like maybe next month or November. In the last revision they added a bunch of new required fields and graphs and stuff that weren't there before, and introduced this complex convoluted website that we're going to use to submit reports and generally let the bank know what's going on with our objectives and how we're spending their money. Too bad we don't have internet in Agua Fría, ha ha. Sigh.

I'm currently doing what I've mostly been doing since March or so with regards to this project, sitting around on my ass waiting for them to respond. If I hadn't thought for most of that time that we could start working fairly soon and that I would be very busy with said project, I probably would have started something else by now, but I didn't think I was going to have the time. It's getting pretty frustrating never knowing when we might start, not to mention the fact that every time we wait for a long time and then have to submit the proposal again, we have to re-plan all our activities to reflect the change in seasons with the project's starting date, and I have to completely redo all the money-related analisis stuff because it needs to be represented by phases (they will only give out a maximum of 35% of the total funds per phase, 3 months minimum each phase) and also map out how much money is going to be spent in each activity and on what. It's over two days of tedious, difficult number-crunching each time. Bastards!

I finally got some volunteer visitors at my house a couple days ago, when three guys from my training group came up and spent the night (two from the Business project, one Protected Areas Management guy). They liked the place and we had a great time drinking rum with pure fresh-squeezed orange juice (the ONLY way to make that stuff taste good, in my humble opinion), and playing a very fun card game called 500 that Jeremy, the PAM volunteer, taught us. From what I gather, it's similar to bridge but maybe less difficult.

Today, I'm on my way out to Tegucigalpa to turn in my bi-annual project report to Luis Estrada and go to a meeting tomorrow about the Fair Trade market, which my coffee cooperative hopes to involve itself in, because they could get substantially more money for their coffee with that certification. Should be interesting.

Love you all,