Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Mr McGurkus

One of the things about being from the United States around here is that you’re sometimes seen as some kind of demi-god, a human being trained and able to do pretty much absolutely anything. I don’t know if I mentioned this comparison in my blog sometime before, but it always reminds me of that Dr. Seuss book, The Circus McGurkus. For those of you who don’t remember the book, it’s about this kid who wants to build his own circus in an empty lot behind a mom and pop general store owned by an old man named Mr. McGurkus. He starts out mentally creating his area and entrance, where he realizes he’s going to need someone to sell lemonade…. Ok, that’s fine, Mr. McGurkus can do that. He surely won’t mind. As the imaginary circus grows ever more elaborate, the kid makes up for his real-world lack of human resources by assigning all the toughest and most important challenges to Old Man McGurkus, including such things as wrestling gigantic tigers and skiing down a narrow greased ramp filled with cacti hundreds of feet above the ground without a net. “I’m sure he won’t mind.”

As you may have already guessed, in this metaphor, Mr. McGurkus is…. me! I can understand how people end up with this conclusion, to a certain extent. I have a college education, for one thing (a REAL liberal arts one) so that means I can do almost anything of what amounts to professional work around here… make a technical drawing to scale, write reports or proposals, do basic math/accounting, manage computers and all kinds of electronic devices, and, for better or for worse, I can sit on my ass for hours and do office work without going nuts because I’m used to it. There are people here who are very good at any one of these things, because they specialized in one or two them, whereas in our educational system they’re all prerequisites to specialize in other things. This makes me (comparatively) kind of a new-age renaissance man.

Probably more important than that, though, isn’t the content of the education I’ve had, but the style. It’s hard to communicate in words how different things are for schoolkids here, especially in the earlier years. Instead of being taught to ask questions and participate, they are told to shut up and listen. Instead of being given activities to do and allowed to reach their own conclusions, they are carefully guided to learn exactly what the teachers want them to memorize. This makes for a lot of people who reach adulthood with stunted abilities in problem-solving, originality, and thinking for themselves. It shows. When you go to a meeting and ask people a question, especially in the poorest communities, they will usually (more often than not) sit there and wait for you to tell them the correct answer, rather than risk answering it and being “wrong”. Therefore, anyone unafraid of making decisions or voicing their opinion becomes a leader entirely by default, even if they lack people skills or don’t really know what the hell they’re doing. 90% of the time these types of people are the rich ones, because economic power necessarily involves a certain amount of managing human resources. To give one specific example, all the mayors (in my area at least) are rich and most of them don’t have a clue what they need to do to help out the people in their municipality, ESPECIALLY the poor. This paragraph could probably be taken as a pretty good example of my opinion as to why Honduras is the way it is, actually.

This comes back to me because any activity I involve myself in, I inevitably find myself in a leadership role by default. I’m from the United States, I’m a “professional” (ha ha) and I am used to contributing my opinions, be they right or wrong.
Do this enough in Honduras and eventually you start hearing the phrase "Yo no sé; usted..." Which means "I don't know, why don't you do my thinking for me!" Or something to that effect. It can be exasperating. I'm starting to just repeat that phrase back whenever I hear it.

Another aspect of the problem is, as I mentioned, the McGurkus effect. I get old guys who walk up to me in the street and ask for money so they can rebuild their houses, people who ask me to give them my clothes, or my watch, or whatever. The most common one is people who want to know if I can put in a good word with the embassy so they can get a passport (or just if I will "carry" them to the states with me when I go back). A filthy drunk followed me around all over San Lorenzo one time (the Pacific port town in Honduras) mumbling unintelligibly until someone finally explained to me that he wanted me to take him to the states. One dude was pestering me in Choluteca last year about getting him some equipment that could magically detect gold underground (this was during the brief and now-concluded El Corpus Gold Fever episode). It literally took an hour to convince him that a gravimeter costs more money than I will ever see in my life, and even if I did know more about it than that I'd never waste my time here looking for gold. I will NEVER repeat the error of letting a stranger know that I'm a geologist.

I basically have to keep two things in mind when these kinds of things happen. One is, why I'm here. And the other is that no matter how amazing people might think I am, I'm still just me and even though they might treat me a certain way, that's no reason to let myself assume that role. At least I have the good luck of being capable of doing breathtakingly stupid things from time to time, so that helps keep me grounded. I see the NGO coordinators that demand coffee wherever they go and immediately call everyone "vos" (the informal or less-respectful "you" verb tense) and promise myself I'm not going to do that. How can you get the campesinos to think themselves worthy of being heard if you keep reinforcing the stereotypes that they aren't?

At any rate, things are going well here. It just keeps getting hotter, but all the trees are blooming now and it's been really beautiful in Agua Fría. Since Pat got kicked out of La Palma, I've kept in contact with people from that community and I'm helping them do a small proposal to FORCUCENCAS to plant some trees around their community water source, cap it to prevent sedimentation, fix some latrines, and build "improved stoves" in all the houses that use less firewood to conserve forest resources. It sounds complicated but it's infinitely more simple than the tree nursery project that we're still waiting on (everything we hear indicates it's still in the works, but this has become like some kind of bad joke to me). I am just helping out the La Palma people with the proposal; when the project starts they are going to manage everything themselves with help from FORCUENCAS. Based on the meetings and work sessions we have had so far I think it will work out very well.

We kicked off the school year last Saturday with a meeting to plan some basics and put together a note to the school of Agua Fría soliciting the space for this year. Last year, the director Patrik kicked out one of the classes because they were abusing the school equipment (scratching desks, breaking chairs, etc) and nobody was sure he was going to agree to let us use the place again. My philosphy is that if somebody commits an offense of that type then they should be made to fix what they broke or buy it, but Patrik has made it abundantly clear that the solution he favors is to kick the person out (or their entire class by default if they can't be identified). I think this is bullshit, but he makes the rules and we DID explain to all the students last year how they needed to behave. Discipline isn't really my strong point and this year I have the rowdiest and largest class, and I'm really not looking forward to dealing with Patrik if we get kicked out. We're tossing around some ideas about student councils and self-monitoring and whatnot, but the fact is that I can't promise with 100% certainty that somebody isn't going to write on their desk. Once something happens, as it almost certainly will, then we'll see what kind of solution can be found. Today, the Maestro en Casa coordinator is picking up the schoolbooks and I copied Patrik's list of rules to give to each student and left a message to be sent by radio that classes officially start this Saturday at 8. Until then I still won't have a good idea where we stand.

The El Corpus Feria was good times. I went on Saturday the week before last after heading out to Cofradía, a small community near Juanita's farm that wants to get a Peace Corpus business volunteer to help them with their computer center. The town was pretty quiet when I arrived at 3 pm, just the hard-core drunks out and a few people eating lunch or buying candy. It was like that until 6, when the annual "coronation" of the local queen took place. Then hundreds of people magically showed up (there might have been up to a couple thousand), crammed into the central square in front of the church to see some poor scared 15 year old who was led up in front of everyone and be-crowned. It was without a doubt the most uninteresting event I've ever seen that many people make a big effort to come to. It gave me the impression that the reason everyone comes to the coronation, is because everyone comes to the coronation.

Afterwards, there was a dance in the high school. This I went to not expecting much (it sucked last year), but it turned out to be awesome! First of all, I actually knew several of women present this time so it was fairly easy to find someone to dance with. There were actually more girls at this dance than guys! That is an incredible rarity. The other thing was that a musical group from La Ceiba, which is almost away in Honduras as you can get from El Corpus, was playing live music almost the entire time. Not only was it good stuff (punta, salsa, merengue, etc) as opposed to the rap knock-off crapola known as reggaetón that's usually the standard fare, they were very good musicians and had a full set of horn players, a guitarist, a marimba, two male singers and one female. I would rate it as one of the better live performances I have seen, definitely not the type of thing I'd ever have expected in el Corpus. Plus I thought I was only paying $5 to come in and dance. A very nice surprise.

Well, this blog entry feels long enough. Cheers! I love you grandpa!


At 7:28 AM, Blogger Aaron Ortiz said...

Wow, it's takes a fresh perspective to find insight indeed. Now I know why I hated every class that was forced to me by the Honduran educational system, and comparatively enjoyed the ones taught in English.

I was educated at a bilingual school in La Ceiba, and earned a bachelor of science degree (in Computer Science) at a liberal arts University.

I despised brainless memorization which was the way we were forced to learn in classes taught in Spanish, the textbooks were in a typewriter font, with no illustrations, nor diagrams, and a few squiggly maps. The material was presented boringly and could only be effectively learned (for the test of course) by memorizing lists of useless facts, which were almost always forgotten very soon afterwards.

Thanks for pointing out the effect: "no se...usted" is such a common phrase here! It's kinda like the story of the Emperor With No Clothes, or Cervantes's Marvelous Playbill, everyone lied, afraid of being discovered as ignorant by giving a "wrong" answer.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous pineconeboy said...

Wow, somebody outside my family read the blog! awesome! :D Thanks for the comments, aaron. How did you find my site, out of curiosity?

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Aaron Ortiz said...

Hi Gabriel, I found your site because I have a Google alert on blogs related to Honduras, specifically, La Ceiba, which you mentioned in one of your posts. I'm glad I found it, it's refreshing to hear another point of view on life in Honduras.


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