Thursday, March 29, 2007


I have a blog entry all written up and ready to copy/paste, but it got usurped this morning by something else that happened on the way to the bus stop.

On the route down to the main road that I walk pretty much every day to get to Agua Fría or grab the bus, there is a high pass where I almost always stop and rest for a little while. The wind likes to blow through there even on the stillest days, cooling you off after the climb, and it's also a point where there is cell phone signal so I can check my messages. I stopped there this morning for about five minutes (you have to wait awhile for the company's system to detect your phone and send messages sometimes), then I realized that I was in danger of missing the bus and started off again. Just a few steps beyond the high point where I was sitting, I heard some leaves rustling in the forest up to my left and I looked just in time to see a medium-sized spotted animal with huge eyes. It was an ocelot! I think it heard my footsteps in exactly the same moment I heard its, because I only got an instant's good view of its startled, wild face before it turned tail and disappeared.

I had heard from various people that there was a tigre around (jaguar), which I didn't believe because that mountain doesn't have nearly enough wild range or food for a cat that size. Other people said there was a tigrillo ("little tiger", or ocelot), and I sort of believed it but had been REALLY hoping to see the animal, although I didn't really expect to. Where I saw it was exactly the same spot where other people told me they'd seen it. If I had sat there with my cellphone a few seconds longer, I might have actually seen it cross the road in front of me.

I was walking on clouds all the way to Agua Fría, punching the air and whisper-yelling words of triumph. Just as nothing upsets you quite as much as unexpected catastrophes, nothing makes you feel quite as happy as the unexpected or unplanned good things that can happen in life. It's important to recognize those moments and I feel like I had one this morning. Just last week, too, a hawk landed in the trees right next to my house and I got to take a really good look at it. This may not seem like a big deal but hawks are extremely rare around here, because people shoot them every chance they get (they commit the unpardonable crime of eating baby chickens). Maybe I'm just in a lucky streak.

Alright, back to your regularly scheduled programming:

It’s been awhile since I’ve said much about what I’ve been working on, and I guess now I finally have some activities worth talking about. The Maestro en Casa classes are in full swing; fun times with negative numbers and graphing linear equations. We’ve already had three tests, and, as I should be used to expecting by now, about half the students are passing and most of them are copying. A few of them have already gotten zeroes for copying and I hope the idea finally gets into their heads that I don’t tolerate that kind of thing (they have had VERY ample warning). The problem is that the other teachers always have tolerated it, because otherwise some of them won’t pass, and that means (gasp) more work for everybody. Hence, I’m getting tests back with answers like: 9 - 6 = 15. I’m not making this up. SEVERAL students missed this problem on the negative numbers section of the test, and we’re talking about ninth graders here. A second test on basic arithmetic with negative numbers hasn’t improved the situation much, if it all. Luckily we have a pretty decent amount of time for math (until May) and the book isn’t too extremely long. But still, damn.

Lately I’ve been working with Isaí on some more proposals for financed projects, which is almost like a bad joke for me at this point, but circumstantial evidence indicates that there’s a lot better chance they will pass while I’m still here in Honduras so I can at least help the cooperative get them off the ground. Also, there will probably be another volunteer here in Agua Fría after me (there SHOULD be one, anyways) so even though I might not see all the work being done on these projects, my efforts will have resulted useful for something at least.

The proposals, specifically, are two – one to the Fondo Cafetero Nacional (National Coffe Fund) and another to this NGO I talked a little about earlier, FORCUENCAS. The Fondo Cafetero project is relatively small; producing a bunch of grafted fruit trees in one nursery to give to the cooperative’s members (a very good family income-related project around here because this area is excellent for fruit). There are tons of mangos and avocadoes but they’re almost all wild and aren’t hardly worth anything in the market.

The other project, which we hope that FORCUENCAS will fund, is a whole lot larger. It’s also oriented specifically towards the cooperative and its members (rather than various different communities in a large geographical area, like the interminable Banco Centroamericano tree nursery proposal). We’ve talked to FORCUENCAS a few times about what we’re doing and they seem to be all for the idea, but on the other hand we handed them a piece of paper with all the activities we’d like to do over three weeks ago now asking them if they’d just take a look at it and tell us which they can fund and which not…. and they still haven’t managed to do it, despite the fact that it can’t possible be more than an hour’s worth of work. AND we keep calling and pestering them. So, who knows. I’m not even going to talk about what the project is right now because I’ve learned my lesson about that kind of thing, but maybe in a month there will be good news.

Sometimes I feel a little bit annoyed by the route things have taken during my course of work here, and from day to day it often seems like I’m not really doing anything. However, looking back at the state of things around here (especially with the cooperative) before/after I started working, things have actually changed. This place where I work in Agua Fría was four cement walls and a roof; now it’s a fully-equipped meeting room and office with a small library of technical materials. The cooperative had sold one year’s harvest of certified organic coffee, but it ended up going to the internal market as conventional coffee along with all the other crap. Now, they’ve sold two harvests of coffee to a German importer, getting more than 10% cost premium on average for quality and the organic certification.

It’s not like those results can be attributed solely to my presence (95% at the very least corresponds to the Hondurans), but I unquestionably was closely involved with things. The certification was especially difficult - although they managed to get that before I came here, it was managed by an agency in Honduras of the international company Biolatina that was almost comically inept and lax. When they were folded into the Nicaraguan branch last year and THOSE guys started doing the certification, it was a sudden and major increase in the amount of paperwork and the adherence to the rules. I may have even managed to enforce Isaí’s knowledge, despite how good he is at acting like he knows everything. :P

We’ve also gotten a computer and been working professionally. We have done a crapload of proposal-type stuff, which mostly hasn’t shown any results yet but I’m starting to understand how badly I underestimated the time needed to go through this process, and none of it had been started when I arrived. The Maestro en Casa program, too, as I’ve gradually learned was about ready to go tits-up in 2005 when I got here with incompetent teachers mainly doing it as a for-profit activity and lots of friction between the people running the program. Some of that friction still exists, but between myself and the two new teachers who signed on in 2006 we’ve turned it into something that actually resembles an institution of learning and we are applying academic standards, something you don’t see in almost any of the public schools.

The main thing, I guess, if I want these advances to feel like an actual success of some kind is to look to how I can shore up what I’ve done so far to ensure its sustainability (now there’s the hottest buzzword in international development these days) rather than trying out a bunch of new stuff that I no longer have the time to start. The organic certification, for one, is a continuous process that I’m going to keep helping out with on the level of the producers, trying to work on how to manage registries and the other kinds of basic paperwork they need to fill out. I need to keep working on computer classes as much as I can possibly get people to come to them, because, even though there’s no guarantee that anybody I teach is actually going to stick around here and work in the area, it’s the best I can hope for and SOMETHING needs to be done.

We’re also going to submit a proposal (I know, ANOTHER proposal) to the educational system for a “centro básico” (grades 1-9 school) here in Agua Fría, to take the next logical step from the Maestro en Casa program since there’s obviously so much demand for it – this year there’s over 80 students in our 7-9th grade program, practically twice as much as you see in a lot of the rural primary schools. That same project has been submitted for a nearby community but they haven’t actually gotten off their keisters and done much to make it happen, so people in Agua Fría are starting to talk about building it here. Maybe in a couple years there will be 7-9th grade classes five days a week in this town, with paid teachers and everything.

Working with the Hondurans to make sure they are building the skills necessary to continue on their own after I leave is the most important thing to focus on, I guess, but I’d also really like to make sure this community gets another Peace Corps volunteer after me. Not only that, I’d feel a lot better if they could be given some support during the first period here, because the 3 months of training don’t really adequately prepare you for the specific work you find in your site. The volunteer who was in La Palma was supposed to be the backup plan for that, but now I’m considering applying to extend my service for a couple months so I can work with the theoretical new guy for a bit. I need to talk to some people in the main office and see what they think.

Several days ago I got visited by another volunteer who lives a long ways away and she helped me get a slightly better perspective on my situation. She also taught me a whole bunch about the birds around my place, so it was time very well spent. This week has been the first one in ages, maybe since I finished training, where I actually have a pretty good idea what I’m going to be doing for the next while and a sense of purpose about it, which is not a bad feeling at all. Those two new proposals are practically done so my next mission is to enjoy the crap out of Semana Santa. I think I can handle it.


Thursday, March 15, 2007


Continuing with my latest theme, which is a complete dearth of news-related topics, here's some of my thoughts that I've written down lately.

I was just now looking back through some photos of Washington that I have stored on this computer and marveling at how strong the memories are that they evoke. Just a few small images of mossy logs, some trunks shrouded in fog, a path carpeted with leaves are enough to transport me back to my western Washington. I can smell the mist, see the damp streets, feel the slick asphalt under the knobby tires of my bicycle. Hear the crunch of wet snow under my feet and above all, the sound of nothing. You might think that the middle of nowhere in Central America would be a pretty quiet place, but it’s at least as noisy as any city I have lived in, though that’s not saying much. Not a moment passes when there isn’t some dog barking, rooster crowing, bird singing, or little kid shrieking somewhere. And the locusts! They last for six months and you wouldn’t BELIEVE how loud they are. I’m not complaining, you know, that’s just how it is. The coniferous forests of my homeland are like a different planet, almost.

I remember when I actually lived in Washington, like way back in the day, I used to sometimes feel a tangible connection to the land, a sense of place or something like that. I have no idea how to describe it. I think the best way would be to say that being able to experience the environment there was a vital commodity for me. Anytime I felt crappy, I just went for a walk in the woods and my internal tranquility reserve filled up again. I never understood why the western Washington ambience depressed people. I loved the cool grey days, the subdued watercolor shades of everything, the light rain and soft sun, and most especially the mist-wreathed greenery. I carry that world around inside me all the time, still as alive as if I had left it yesterday. I’m like an inverted greenhouse; outside me it’s Honduras, but inside, it’s still Washington.

As great as my experience in here in Honduras has been, I’ve never gotten that umbilical feeling of connection to the land, for some reason, and I will say that I think it took me less time than two years living in western Washington to start feeling that way. Perhaps the heat here has something to do with it, the fact that I can’t walk anywhere at any time of the year without sweating through my shirt. In a more general sense, the ambience in Honduras doesn’t inspire that same sense of peacefulness. There’s always something crawling, eating, flying, rotting, procreating, making noise, excreting, or growing. The light is outrageous and exaggerated. The air seems to hum with vitality. If there isn’t a torrential thunderstorm falling, there’s the merciless tropical sun beating down. If my clothes aren’t covered in dust, there’s probably mold growing on them. I dig it for being so MUCH everything, like I appreciate anything that is new or unique, but for some reason it still doesn’t feel like my own. Maybe I passed the stage of life of “taking to” a place. Or maybe it’s just because it’s SO different here.

Here there be some favorites of mine so far during service:

Best Books
First of all, let me clarify that these aren’t necessarily the “best” books that I’ve read, the ones you’re most likely to see in a university text or Oprah’s book list or any of that junk. They’re simply the ones I got the most enjoyment out of reading. I read 100 Years of Solitude twice, certainly a masterpiece of literature, and neither time was it as fun as La Sombra del Viento.

Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
This guy is Mark Twain’s rightful spiritual heir. Those that know me pretty well will understand the class of compliment that this is from me. This is earthy philosophy, eminently readable and so American it hurts.

The True Story of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Fascinating, awesome writing.

Nostromo - Joseph Conrad
Conrad is one of my three or four favorite authors of all time and this is the best book of his that I’ve read, with the possible exception of Heart of Darkness.

Cosmic Banditos - A. C. Weisbecker
Hilarious; Weisbecker has a wonderful style and spontaneous wit. Cosmic Banditos is a ridiculous book with no point that goes nowhere, and wallows in mindless self-indulgence along the way.

All the William Faulkner that I’ve read here
Faulkner’s style is overblown and gets on my nerves like nothing else, and he unnecessarily overcomplicates the structure of his stories, and despite those problems I still can’t stop reading his books. And I’ve just scratched the surface. I still don’t know what to think about some of his stuff, which is always a sign of true greatness. Like As I Lay Dying. What in the hell was that?

Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
I can’t believe it took me so long to discover this author. Fantastic. Going to read more!

La Sombra del Viento – Carlos Ruiz Zafón
This is probably about the closest thing to a romance novel that I’ve read, apart from that Isabel Allende book mom sent me (I think anything written in the Spanish language turns into a romance something or other, somehow). The author takes some extreme narrative liberties, but the underlying plot and the character development are so damn good you have to forgive him. I’ve never gotten so emotionally attached to characters before. Zafón uses every cliché you can think of and bends them to his evil purposes, and even conscious of the crap he’s pulling, you can’t help falling for it. The English version is titled The Shadow of the Wind, but I read a few pages and it didn’t feel the same. :P

A Stillness at Appomattox – Bruce Catton
Entertaining, dramatic, and beautiful, it feels more like a novel than a history book about the American civil war. I especially love the way he weaves in the touching bits of humanity that were passed between the two sides even during the most brutal fighting ever seen on the continent.

Anthills of the Savannah – Chinua Achebe
Achebe is a master storyteller with a razor sharp sense of irony. The book has a strong moral wisdom to it, but besides that it’s also an engaging story that feels absolutely real, from the characters to the events that take place.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Amy Tan
I didn’t have too much interest in Amy Tan before picking up this book on a whim, and I’m sure glad I did. She is an absolute master. Subtly and unpretentiously, she weaves the lives of the characters around you until you suddenly find yourself experiencing life through their eyes, navigating a mysterious story more vivid than reality.

I guess this is kind of a lot of favorites, but lest you think I’m indiscriminately throwing everything I’ve read on here, keep in mind that according to the list I’ve kept I’m almost up to 90 books so far since leaving the states. I’ve read a lot of mediocre books too and a few that just plain stunk.

Best Music
Louden Wainwright III – So Damn Happy

Salif Keita – Mansa of Mali
I think this guy has jumped to the front of my favorite dudes from Africa that Dad has introduced me to. Hell, it’s a tough call.

My World Music mix CD
There’s this one song at the very end of it that I never noticed much back in the states and I can’t remember who it’s by, but it beats the everloving crap out of everything else on the CD, and that’s saying something. Help, Maya?

Neville Bros – Brother’s Keeper (before it got ruined by the humidity)
One of those CDs you listen to a lot, and then don’t hear for years and years, and when you hear it again it sounds even better than all that time ago.

Green Day – American Idiot (before it got ruined by the humidity)
Glad to see that my once-favorite band has redeemed themselves for Warning. I guess my taste in middle school wasn’t so bad after all. :)

Old Crow Medicine Show – OCMS
I thought these guys were from like the 60s and then found out they’re a new group. Excellent! I just have a soft spot for fiddle music, I guess.

Dad’s Labor Day program CD (really!)
I gave Dad a hard time about his locution when he was here, but I’d only listened to the CD a couple of times and he was right, he just sounds scared more than anything else. I hope my words didn’t discourage him from ever trying a similar project, because after all told I love these two CDs. There are many, many awesome songs on them.

Out of all these, I’d say So Damn Happy has probably gotten the most play. That guy is one hell of a songwriter.

Worst Books
Well, for every best there has to be a worst, right?

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon might be a genius, but who cares. I’m still trying to figure out how I managed to finish reading this interminable piece of crap. Thank God recent authors have gotten out of the habit of trying to one-up each other with the longest run-on sentence possible.

Valhalla Rising – Clive Cussler
The only proper response is to laugh. Although even that is getting difficult since I realized that it probably sold five times as many copies as Jayber Crow. I’m not sure I could summon a more depressing thought if I tried.

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
O V E R R A T E D. Brown has a numerologist’s knack for making everything sound like some kind of conspiracy, but underneath the hype and transparent suspense-novel trick of making every chapter three pages long is some really mediocre prose.

Worst Music
Ok, so I don’t actually own all of this.

This genre of music, born in Puerto Rico, takes American rap vocal techniques (more or less) and “cash & b****es”-type lyrics, puts it against the exact same backbeat in every single song, and trades out the black or white bimbos for latina ones. ‘Nuff said.

Candy Shop – Ludacris or something like that (appropriate name)
That toothless, devout, sombrero’d sixty year old farmer on the bus doesn’t know what he’s actually humming along to, but dang, it’s catchy.

Ashley MacIsaac – A newer CD (didn’t see the name)
Sorry Sam, hahaha. Maya says you like this CD. The music is good and all but the lyrics are pure comedy; I don’t think I’ve heard any this ridiculous since Gravity Kills. He should probably stick to the fiddle.

Later guys. :)