Tuesday, February 27, 2007


The fact that a Honduran read and commented on my blog entry from a couple weeks ago was extremely beneficial for me. First of all, it kind of surprised me (I had gotten lazy and started letting myself forget that what I post here is not a private message to my family, but completely in the public domain) and it reminded me to think carefully about what I write. That, in turn, got me thinking a lot about what I posted last week, how accurate it might actually be and whether or not it was fair to both sides of the issue.

I get the sense that I can be pretty negative here sometimes, which could give someone the misconception that I look down upon Honduras or Hondurans. This is definitely not true, and the interesting thing is that in real life (IRL) I’m an extremely optimistic person. It’s just like the newspapers, I guess…. what is news always about? War, tragedy, economic problems, and occasionally sports. The good news, often the very best news, gets neglected because it’s not as interesting. Really, the absence of bad news is about the best you can hope for most of the time.

I realized one important flaw about what I wrote last time, which was essentially how it sounds like I’m blaming the school system for everything. This was actually more of a problem with my way of thinking before and not just a thoughtless exclusion, but I got to thinking more about it, and the truth is that what I see as the situation in the schools is more like a reflection of the same issues that permeate the society as a whole. It’s all part of the same system. To wit: the aspect which I perceive as problematic is the tendency towards paternalistic treatment of the “lower” classes. This presents itself a lot in the classroom because the teachers are generally from a different class than the students.

A funny thing about Honduras, in fact, is the existence of classes because most people aren’t even aware of them or haven’t thought much about it. When I sometimes ask pointed questions to try and get people’s opinions, I’m often met with simple incomprehension, like, “What do you mean everyone on Honduran TV has really white skin? Isn’t that normal? Aren’t light-skinned people just more attractive?” etc. It’s more subtle than the outright racism in some other countries; more insidious, and so ingrained that it’s just taken for granted. I’m absolutely sure you could trace this back to precedents set a long time ago, foundations in the country’s social history that have probably had lots written about them by people who are more expert about this kind of thing than myself.

Like I say, it’s not that there’s no good news about Honduras. It’s a free society that has a long history of relative political peacefulness. A lot of the corruption has been getting rooted out lately and exposed in their admirably free press, which may not be perfect but is probably better than our own at this point. The fact that it’s taking the country a long time to catch up with the rest of the world, so to speak, is often seen as an inexplicable problem that must be due to some grievous errors on the part of the people “in charge”. The fact of the matter is that we’re not just talking about economic changes that are taking place, or physical changes. These are cultural changes, and that takes a hell of a long time.

Going through these changes is a slow process because people are like that. The laws of physics say that the tendency of an object is to remain in its current state – if it’s in motion, to remain moving, if it’s at rest, to remain at rest. We call it inertia. People have inertia too, and lots more than any normal physical object. People resist change in their lives, and large groups of people display cultural inertia as well, resisting change even more effectively than one person by his or herself. Why do people still employ slash-and-burn migratory agriculture, despite how many times they’re told that it’s bad and unsustainable? Because that’s the way they’ve always done it, since like FOREVER, before the Europeans even got here! That kind of inertia needs patience and time to overcome.

Some people might be tempted to cite those poor countries in Asia that are developing at the speed of light. The thing is, from what I understand they were culturally ready to do this before the technology made it possible. In fact, all the countries that were culturally ready by the beginning of the 19th century have pretty much joined the race at this point, whereas those that weren’t, mostly haven’t. No amount of technology is going to do much about this. It reminds me of the computer center some people have talked about building here in Agua Fría, where I have 9th grade students that can’t write a complete sentence to save their lives! To me, the investment in a computer center seems frankly obscene when there’s a halfway functional school system to fix first, that could really use that money. Am I the only one who feels this way? We need to think a little harder about priorities.

On some days I think the best thing we could do for these countries is to meddle with them as little as possible. If I may arrogate myself to claim this, the main problem Honduras has, “el problema” as it were, is America. Why? Because they’d probably be a lot happier just doing their own thing here if they didn’t have to worry so hard about keeping up with the rest of the world. I appreciate the fact that social justice as well as basic sanitary conditions of living need to be assured, but the truth is that isn’t what seems to be bothering people the most here.

No, what most Hondurans really need these days is more money. More cars, more cellphones, more stereos, etc. I personally know people whose income would probably classify them as some of the poorest people in the world, who have spent two months’ worth of salary to buy better cellphones than mine (granted, I have the cheapest one you can possibly buy). Again, priorities. Congratulations, America. Why is it that our cultural values that I hate the most are the ones we’re the most adamant about spreading around? Einstein proved that position and movement are totally relative. He should’ve expanded that theory and just said that EVERYTHING is relative. Hondurans might not feel so shitty about themselves if they didn’t have our shiny happy people with their expensive clothes and toys on all their televisions, and our products on all their billboards, and our crap in all their stores. But the fact is that their biggest point of reference to compare their own country to is the US, and we’ve somehow tricked them into using our standards to prove that relatively, they don’t measure up.

Am I the only one with the creeping suspicion that this is bullshit?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


My mom pointed out a huge, disgusting glaring error in that last post. The Circus McGurkus is so-named because the kid's name is Morris McGurk; the old guy's name is Sneelock! Dammit! Too late to change it all now. You'd think I could remember a little thing like that, especially since I loved that book so much.

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!

Thursday, February 01, 2007


These last couple months I've been through a pretty rough week on two different occasions when I thoughtlessly walked through a cow pasture somewhere and then forgot to check myself for ticks afterwards. The first was when mom and Maya were here (luckily, they escaped my itchy fate) and the second was at the beginning of this week. Sometimes people complain about their cows or dogs or whatever being really plagoso, or ¨plaguey¨, i.e. covered with pest insects like ticks or sandflies, and that's me right now. I've got approximately fifty different bites (yes, I counted) on my knees, upper legs, and around my groinal area. The good news is that they don't carry any diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Lyme Disease, but the bad news is that they're exponentially more numerous than ticks in the States. Also, I don't know if these little bastards give you itchier bites or what, but I sure as heck notice them more (maybe it's the sheer quantity). I've definitely had some of my more miserable moments so far in Honduras lying awake at night in hot sheets, tossing and turning for hours and trying futilely to stop thinking about itching.

From what I remember, last year had much less problems with ticks and more problems with sandflies, I think because it was cooler and wetter. It was reasonably cool through the first part of January, and rained as recently as December (last year it stopped raining right at the end of October) but lately it has been getting pretty darn hot, noticeably hotter than I remember it being before, especially in Agua Fría. Choluteca is in a league of its own for uncomfortable temperatures, just like always.

Last week, I spent three days in Siguatepeque at a gathering of PAM students called Project Workshop (we did it last year too in December). It was a good opportunity to meet all of the people from the new group of PAM volunteers that came in september and discuss opportunities for project collaboration with them. I helped out by working together with two other people to give a presentation on coffee production and commercialization to the newbies, because they apparently didn't get sufficient information about it in training and many of them live in coffee-centric communities. That was really a pleasure because I got to be the expert and present some information that my audience was extremely interested in. You could probably say I enjoyed it so much because, with respect to other peoples' perception of me, I'm kind of insecure about being seen as a knowledgeable guy. I wouldn't necessarily argue that point. Well anyway, I had to enjoy that while it lasted, because it may be the last time anyone gives a crap about most of the things I learned in the peace corps, haha.

After four of the guys in their group got expelled for idiotic reasons (see one of my december entries for details), they are down to ten girls and four guys, but they still seem to have some spunk and I think they're doing pretty well in their communities. There is one volunteer from Wyoming who is not only a geologist, but also knows a crapload about using GIS, which I have wanted to try and work with because it would undoubtedly come in handy. I don't know if I'll have the opportunity to learn some stuff from her, but I intend to try.

Now I'm back in ¨the zone¨ again, as they say, and getting ready for the coming school year as well as helping the cooperative wrap up some coffee sale-related things. I have also giving computer classes to a local girl named Ingrid who is helping the cooperative with some of the secretarial work that was piling up faster than they could take care of it. She is one hell of a smart cookie (I could swear she picks up on computers faster than I did when I was learning) and I hope she sticks around the area, because she would be an invaluable help for the cooperative after I go back to the states. It's a big relief to finally be teaching SOMEONE else to use that machine, dangit.

I had to go back to the community of La Palma a couple times to follow up on some of the work that Patrick was doing there, including getting them a cellphone antenna and putting together a proposal for a small tree project to an NGO that just arrived in the area called FORCUENCAS. They want to plant some trees around the community's water source, which is always a good idea. FORCUENCAS (the acronym stands for some name that's so long and ridiculous that I can never remember it all) seems pretty straightforward and disposed to get projects moving, which is a good thing to see, and they have offered to help us out with certain aspects of our own tree nursery project. I have my reservations because I've definitely heard THAT before (*cough*USAID*cough*), however they do seem to have a different attitude and more focus on building physical projects. Their name just keeps turning up in communities all over the area, and I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot of those guys.

The yearly Feria, or town festival for El Corpus, started like yesterday or Tuesday and will be going on until its culmination on Saturday. That's the day I plan on going, along with Osmaris and a few of his friends. Some people around here talk shit about the El Corpus Feria and say it's no good because there's nobody getting gored to death in the bullring or anything of that nature, but I really liked it last year.... it's a small, beautiful colonial town with stone streets that gets packed with people and good food and drunks and lots of fireworks. How can you go wrong?

As always, I love you guys and miss y'all (Glad we got to talk, sibs! Even if it was briefly). Love and prayers to Grandpa, of course. I do miss bread and beer, you know.