Friday, January 30, 2009

Trip to Tegucigalpa with the potters!

Seeing us off for our adventure to Tegucigalpa!

In November, a bunch of volunteers near Tegucigalpa had been working to organize an artisan fair in the US Embassy and invited all volunteers who have some type of artisan group in their sites to bring people from their group and sell inside the Embassy in December. What a great opportunity for the potters! The fair was set for the beginning of December and since July, Ellen and I had been working hard to prepare everything for the trip. There were business workshops we had to cover (which Ellen and I luckily had already covered earlier) and we needed to accessorize our pottery with labels, business cards and catalogs. I also opened an e-mail account for the group and Ellen, who teaches computer classes, taught a group of potters how to use the computer and check the internet in case more orders came from contacts we would make in Teguz. Thanks to CooperaciĆ³n Espanola, the classes were paid for and the women, who originally could not afford the classes, can now use a mouse, use basic programs, and check e-mail!

Some of the beautiful pottery and clay artwork from La Campa

Because of budget cuts, there were no funds in Peace Corps to be able to cover any costs for this fair. And unfortunately, getting to Tegucigalpa is a long and rather expensive trip. But even still, two women (Herminia and Ursula . . . two of my best friends and supporters here), agreed that this was an opportunity we could not let pass us by and decided to go.

Ursula is a very active community leader and is involved in almost every project in some way. She also has been a confidant to me and supported me in more ways than I imagined or expected from anyone. If it weren´t for Ursula, I wouldn´t have been able to accomplish as much as I have and certainly my experience would have been a lot more difficult. Herminia is very intelligent and her husband, who is the main potter, does beautiful work. However, Herminia is less experienced with taking a leadership role and is even less experienced with traveling out of the community. So, I was most excited for this opportunity for her. This trip was her first time to Siguatepeque and to Tegucigalpa. It was also the longest time she had been away from her husband since they got married when she was 17 years old.

It´s time for the ladies to leave the village! Woohoo!! Herminia on the left and Ursula on the right.

So December 2nd came and we were ready to go! The fair was December 3rd but of course we had to leave a day early. I was excited to see how motivated Herminia and Ursula were for this trip and also excited to hang out with them outside of Nueva Esperanza. It would be an experience that none of us would forget. Herminia and Ursula wrote a letter to World Vision asking them to help us out with transportation and they said they would be happy to take us. So we filled the car with 11 boxes of pottery (each piece with a label tied on with a piece of corn husk), a stack of catalogs and business cards, and a huge sign that said ¨Alfareria de La Campa¨ which Ellen and I spent painstaking hours making and laminating by hand with contact paper. The head of World Vision in Gracias, Guillermo, took us straight to Tegucigalpa with one stop in Siguatepeque. The craziest thing happened when we were in Siguatepeque. I ran into my friend, Andrea, who I hadn’t seen since graduating from high school!! Herminia, Ursula, and I were in a small market looking at aisles of food when she came and stood in front of me. It was such a surreal moment and I was in disbelief. Andrea was on vacation with her family and boyfriend on the North Coast and were headed to Tegucigalpa when they decided to stop in the same rest stop in Siguatepeque as us. Small world, huh?

The artisan fair in the US Embassy

Herminia and Ursula selling to a customer

Some of what the potters make

In Tegucigalpa, I got to show Ursula and Herminia the Peace Corps office and introduced them to my project managers. Again, Herminia was making me laugh because every time we had to cross the road, she would run up and grab onto my arm. All the cars going in every direction was very overwhelming to her and she had no idea how I knew how to get across the street. Even Ursula, who has been to Tegucigalpa, commented that sometimes there’s just too much to look out for in the cities. It definitely is a shock going from the small towns to the big cities.

Herminia, Ursula, and I at our booth

During the fair, there were several other volunteers selling all kinds of artisan stuff. Getting into the Embassy was a little complicated. We sold a good amount and ended up taking the extra to a touristy town outside of Tegucigalpa called Valle de Angeles. There, we left four boxes in a store in consignment. So now La Campa pottery is finally out of La Campa!! Woohoo!!

Our newly labelled pottery and business cards

M.O.D.A. de La Campa

So before Ellen finished her service, I asked her to help me give a business workshop to the potters. So in September, we gave a 4 hour business workshop on the basics such as the definitions of marketing and a product, the importance of product quality and promotion, and how to calculate the costs of a product to set a good price. The women here have never learned how to calculate the value of their labor and don’t realize how much more they SHOULD be selling their work for. Some women sold pairs of earrings for 10 Lempiras ($0.50) and didn’t even calculate that the metal she bought to make the earrings cost that much. When we told her she could be selling those earrings at 60 Lempiras ($3), she was shocked and said it was too much.

Me talking during our Business Management and Marketing workshop
about accounting and marketing skills (looks like my 4 years with CUTCO actually did pay off!)

For us, raising the prices of the pottery was such an obvious task that needed to be undertaken and I was super-excited thinking how much more money these women are going to earn for their beautiful work. However, a lot of challenges have arisen in trying to raise the prices. For one, everyone who knows what is La Campa pottery is used to the super low prices. In fact, there are some businesses that have found success by just coming to La Campa, buying the pottery, and then raising the price sometimes 600%. These businesses refuse to buy the pottery if it costs any more than the 50 cents a plate or $3 a large pot; and since income for the potters is a matter of having enough to buy food or not buy food, they are not willing to take the risk. Even if they were willing to take the risk, I would then have a lot of businesses and individuals very unhappy with what I am trying to do.

Ellen gathering info to change the prices of the pottery

So, Ellen and I have tried another angle. We have decided to look for the market outside of La Campa and Gracias where we can sell at prices that the women actually deserve. We invited the potters to a meeting and formed a directive that has representatives from all the different pottery groups that are organized in the municipality of La Campa. The name of the group is M.O.D.A. (Mujeres Organizadas de Alfareria) de La Campa. (The style of La Campa) . . . pretty creative, no?? M.O.D.A. will be in charge of taking orders that come from other parts of Honduras and eventually/hopefully orders that come from the states (but that’s not for way, way in the future). From those that decided to join, they elected three coordinators who will be in charge of receiving orders, dividing them equally among the different pottery groups, and then getting them shipped off on time. So far, we’ve got the basic organization but not necessarily the motivation to keep having meetings when there are no orders coming. And, truthfully, business has never been my specialty. But little by little we are taking the little steps necessary to get our name out there (we have an email address and are working on a website) and opening ourselves up to the possibility of success. It’s just a matter of if this will work or not. But hopefully it does mainly for the wellbeing of the potters and so they can finally start getting what they deserve for their pottery, but also because I´m proud of the group name and really want it to stick!

The potters

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Photos to enjoy

So my friends who are volunteers on the other side of Celaque hiked from their side to my side to visit me! I´m sad that I couldn´t make the hike with them but my ankle is still sore. And of course I had to be on the other side to receive them. But we hung out in my house and had a good time!

Becky and Ellen making dinner in my house

Left to right: Kristyn, Michael, Ellen and Rachel

Rachel and Kristyn in my hammock

So every Sunday there are football games all over the mountain. Even though the communities here are really small, each aldea seems to have their own football team. Right now we are in a tournament to see who is the best team in the municipality of La Campa. The winners get new jerseys!

La Campa football stadium

My neighbor, Maximo (Mataras, the white team) and Ellen´s boyfriend (La Campa 2 team) fighting for the ball

Football ´´campeonato´´ game in the stadium in La Campa

In case and disputes break out during the game (not really, they´re there making sure no one is illegally cutting down trees on the mountain, but they did have to intervene when a fight did start)

I don´t get bored here too often which is surprising, but whenever I don´t have anything to do, I can always go and visit my neighbors.

Me making tortillas with my neighbor, Magdalena

Black corn is in harvest!

Magadalena´s son, Carlos, showing off the corn

My neighbors Juana and Lencho with their children

Milton, Angela´s son, eating a plato tipico on the bus back up the mountain

Random photos

Me and a baby horse

The graduated 6th grade class, graduation was in November

Agapito coming back from working his harvest and Anael

A pretty flower

And finally, here are some photos of friends I have in the community that I would like to share with you all. I hope these photos help you get an idea of what its like here and who I randomly encounter on almost a daily basis. One difference here than in the states is that most of my friends here that I hang out with are men. This is because there are not many women in the community that are my age and because they are too busy attending to their house. I only know of one woman who is my age (she is married with four children!) and one other woman who is a year older (who recently got married). No one else comes close.

Gerson and me

My friend (and guitar teacher) Agapito and me

Roman at the Independence Day Celebration, his name was john when he was in my English class

September 15 - Honduras Independence Day

So September 15th is Independence Day and everyone celebrates from early in the morning to the end of the day when the flag is taken down and the whole community goes on a march. I was in training last year so this was my first Independence Day celebration in Nueva Esperanza. The kids in the schools started practicing marching a month before and in La Campa and Gracias you can hear all the bands practicing the drums for the marching.

"Tiros" or slingshot competition keeps the men entertained until the end of the day

The target for the slingshot competition

Traditional Lencan dances are some of the entertainment

In the morning, there is a program with dancing and performances by whoever wants to participate. In the afternoon women come to sell food or drinks they have prepared and there are games. Finally, there is a dance (although this upset some Evangelicals) to keep the kids entertained until around 5 pm when the flag comes down, firecrackers are set off and everyone marches.

There's always a "carrera de cinta"

At the end of the day everyone lines up outside to prepare for taking the flag down

Ready with the flag to begin the march

The school leads the community in a march after taking the flag down

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Biggest Challenge(s)

One motto for Peace Corps is “The hardest job you’ll ever love”. From mental stress (organizing and running meetings in Spanish) to emotional stress (being yelled at, facing lack of cooperation) to physical stress (moving 1,200 bricks), this improved stoves project has been the ultimate test of patience and the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Since Day 1, I was unsure how this project would all work out and I wrote earlier that I knew no matter what I did, I was going to run into challenges that I would have to take as they came up. But if I had known how much stress and worry would come from this project, I don’t know if I would have had enough guts to continue with it. If I were to start this project again (which actually may happen), I would do a lot different. But naturally we all learn from our mistakes and what I knew when I started this project (two months in-site) is a lot different than what I know now. So I want this blog entry to keep my family and friends posted but also hope that other Peace Corps volunteers or development workers interested in starting their own project can learn from what worked and did not work for me and hopefully can run their project a little bit smoother than I did.

The kinds of stoves we are replacing

Challenge #1: Culture Differences and Unawareness of How to Run Community Projects
The first mistake I made was to assume that the people who came to the first interest meeting for the stove project had a need for an improved stove. I figured that those who attended the meeting had a need and their signing of the contract meant they were aware of the requirements and were motivated and willing to work hard for this project. But really some of the women that came already had a stove and were just trying to take advantage of whatever I brought while others that couldn’t attend and had nothing were left out. (When I start this project again (I have extra funding to make a few more stoves), I am going to start out by getting names of those who are interested and then doing a diagnostic in their home to see the actual need.) We formed a board of directors which was a lot harder than I anticipated as no one wanted to take a leadership position. But even still, because I called the first meeting and knew the design of the stove, everyone still saw me as the leader. Also, this was the first woman’s group project to be formed in Nueva Esperanza and for some of the members of the group this was their first meeting they had ever attended. So to ask them to take a leadership role in a group of 37 was a little overwhelming.

From there, we waited almost a year to get funding. The women and I wrote and submitted a grant proposal to an NGO that claimed they were more than eager to support us even before we had the proposal done. But 7 months later, we were still waiting for their reply. I started having people ask me when the stoves were coming and soon after I started dealing with people who thought I was lying and that this project wasn’t actually going to happen. It was frustrating dealing with people who were basically asking me, “So when are we gonna get that free stuff you promised us? We don’t think you’re actually going to give it to us.” However, I can’t blame them because I am the first Peace Corps volunteer here and thus the people didn’t know what to expect. Plus, this wouldn’t be the first time that some organization has come in and not followed through with a promise. So if this was the attitude after the first month, imagine month 7!

Mistake #2 was believing that whatever anyone told me to be true was true. In the states, if we don’t know an answer, we are okay with saying we don’t know. But here, some people just tell you what you want to hear. The NGO we were waiting on told me they had submitted our proposal to their office in Tegucigalpa and were just waiting for confirmation. But the truth was that after seven months, our proposal didn’t move from a stack of hundreds of other proposals from their desk in Gracias! It basically had sat in this pile for over half a year! Well, time to start over. . . that was fun to report at our next meeting. (There’s also no such thing here as “Don’t kill the messenger”).

Challenge #3: Transportation and Distribution of Materials . . . With What Car?
We found funding through a Peace Corps SPA grant which came within 3 weeks of submission. Getting funding was supposed to be the easy part! Now we had to worry about buying the materials in Gracias and figuring out how to get them transported up the mountain to the community. We had huge sheets of metal and rebar that we needed to buy and get cut. And the 37 chimneys alone took up the whole back of a pick-up. Luckily, my counterpart from the NGO, a woman named Mideibis Lopez, still wanted to continue helping me out and so together we walked all over Gracias buying what we needed, sending purchased materials to places where they could get cut, and storing materials for until we could get a car. I guess one benefit to waiting for seven months is that I knew people in my community a lot better and had the trust and friendship with them to have those with a car be willing to help me move the materials. It took three different trips with three different cars. Mideibis and I bought, transported, and distributed 30 bricks, 7 pieces of rebar, 4 tiles, a 20’’x 20’’ sheet of metal and a chimney to each of the 37 women in the project. If I worked for an NGO, this might not have seemed like such an impossible task because NGO’s usually have engineers, connections in the metal workshops or warehouses to get good deals, multiple people working on the same projects, and transportation. But in this project, there was just my counterpart and I with no car, recently received money, no experience whatsoever of buying the type of materials required, and for me, under a year of living in the area.

36 chimneys bought in Gracias ready to be taken up the mountain

What 1,200 bricks looks like. All moved by hand.

Women at my house picking up their 30 bricks

Packed and ready to go

How it's done without a horse
Challenge #4: Dealing With the Changed Times
Finally, we got all the materials turned in including what the mayor said he would contribute. Although that is a different story in itself (see ¨Finding Friends¨ entry). But since so much time passed since the first meeting I had with the women, a lot had changed which meant I had a few more problems. In the seven months that we waited, another NGO came through with a housing mission. Basically, 13 families in my community were given a new house that . . . you guessed it . . . came with a new stove. And of course four of the women that were in my group were the beneficiaries of the housing mission. There were others who thought the stoves project wasn’t coming and had gone ahead and built their own stove which I congratulated them on for taking control and making a new stove without outside help. But they saw it as missing out and the lesson they learned was that they were better off waiting and not building their own stove because now they were out of that money while others were going to benefit from a free stove. So even though this was going to be their second new stove, I let them stay in the project because they did attend the meetings and I didn’t want them to feel that it’s not worth it to take matters into their own hands. Others just stopped bothering to show up to our new meetings and when we started turning in materials, they wanted back in. I had one lady who had only gone to one meeting out of the 6 come to my house when I wasn’t home and told my neighbor that she wanted a plancha (the most expensive part, a thick sheet of metal that is used to cook on, what the mayor provided for the project) from me or she wanted to be paid for the time lost for going to ALL of the meetings. Poverty isn’t in the wallet, it’s in the mind. And it’s attitudes like what this lady had that keeps Honduras from developing the way that it can.

Challenge #5: Dealing With Gender Issues
In the first couple of months when this project was initializing, a lot of the women who were interested in the project were reluctant to tell me if they were for sure in or out because they had to ask their husbands what they thought since construction was “man’s work”. It was also hard to get through to the women that THEY were going to build the stoves and they couldn’t send a man to represent them during construction.

Women doing "man's work"

The most trouble, however, came from one man who always seems to bring trouble to projects in Nueva Esperanza. His mom’s stove was the very first one we were going to construct and he showed up representing his wife to build the stove. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to build that day for a number of reasons (again, see ¨Finding Friends¨ entry). When I told him we weren’t going to build, he told me that I should just show him how to do it because he’s a bricklayer and could build it alone in two hours. I told him that this wasn’t the point of the project and that his wife needed to be present to build because this was a woman’s project. When I told him that he couldn’t come representing his wife, he stormed out and hasn’t spoken to me since. When we finally made the stove at his mom’s house, he was present but didn’t talk to any of us at all. The final step was to put the chimney through the roof and for this we needed someone with lots of upper body strength because our ladder broke and so whoever went up had to pull themselves up. When this guys’ mom asked him to go up he said, “This is a woman’s project and so you women have to do it yourselves.”

And that wasn’t the end! Now, his wife has helped build 5 stoves, two more than the required three and so all we have to do is build hers and her group will be done. But I have heard through the grapevine that he is not going to let her build the stove and is not going to give the materials back to me. I have yet to go over to talk to the two of them but it’s a conversation I’m not looking forward to. Truthfully, it’s his wife’s stove and she has the right to make it if she wants or not. Yeah, if only it could be that easy.

Summing up
I felt like this project formed as a shot in the dark and after starting the project, I could only keep moving forward even though every step I took was a proclamation of my faith in an intangible idea that I just hoped would work out in the end. Basically, I felt that I was either going to somehow come out with a successful project or I was going to mess something up and let down a whole community. This project took so long to get up off the ground that I even forgot how to make the stoves! I bought the materials according to the measurements written on a handout we got during training and nothing ever really became completely clear to me until the first stove was built. But now I’m happy to say that things did work out and even though the challenges were/are many, we now have 29 out of 37 stoves built. In October, I had one or two stoves a day to make. But after more and more of the women were trained and had practice making the stoves, a lot of the stoves were built without me being there or without me even knowing! I went on vacation for two weeks to Guatemala and when I got back in mid-October, five stoves had been made! The record number in one day is three and our first stove took four hours to make but the fastest one that was made was in one hour. And even more good news, there’s extra funds left over and so using what I learned from my mistakes, I’m going to open the project again for those who were left out and maybe even those in neighboring communities. After all, there’s 37 qualified women who know how to make the stoves, so to start over again should be a breeze. Truthfully, I feel like anything I do after this ever again will be a breeze.

September 27, 2008 - one year in country

I apologize that it has been so long since I have gotten these entries out. I had about seven pages of blog typed and ready to be published and then my USB cleared everything on it. So even though the following entries are organized under January, they are accounts of everything that has happened since September . . . which is a lot!

Well, the end of September marked one year here in Nueva Esperanza. This time next year I will be packing everything up and headed home. There are days when I feel like I have finally figured out the Honduran culture, and then I get thrown a curve ball and remember that even though I have been here for almost a year and a half, there is still so much that I have to learn about the people and the dynamics of village life. As far as work, I am keeping busy with my three main projects of the improved stoves, working with the Lencan potters, and developing eco-tourism in the next town over, La Campa. After a year, it’s nice to finally have steady work that constantly is keeping me busy instead of fighting to find something to do. Now that I have hit a year, everything is starting over again. Celaque is hidden behind the rain clouds, the cold season is about to hit, the kids are getting ready to finish school, and coffee cutting will begin on the mountain. I feel nostalgic thinking about this last year and am aware of the fact that from now on everything will be the last time for me in Nueva Esperanza.

The one year mark also means that each project group gets together in Tegucigalpa for mid-term meds. Basically just going to the doctor to make sure we are all still healthy after a year in Honduras. I genuinely hate the long trip to Teguz but the fact that I will get to have my teeth cleaned and polished makes it worth it! I don’t think I have ever been so excited to go to the dentist. Also, my ankle is still hurting from when I sprained it so I want to get that checked out. All of us that were in El Suyate for Field-Based Training decided to take advantage of the reunion and go visit our host families. It’s not everyday that we all are able to meet up in the same place. In fact, the last time that all of us were together was last January! It was really nice seeing everyones’ families again and they were so excited to see us as well. Around 7 pm, we lost power and so my mom and I just talked by candlelight in our room and caught up on the last 8 months since we last saw each other. It turns out that the soccer team us girls played on in El Suyate is no longer existent because their team captain got pregnant. I updated my mom on my projects and told her she was always invited to come out and visit me to which she replied with a gasp that there was no way she could leave here. I wonder when the last time it was that she has left the community or if she has ever even been to western Honduras?

The next day, we had to get up early because Claudia, our project manager, planned a trip for us to go hiking in the protected area La Tigra for some in-service training. So at 5 am, Bryce, Liz, and I walked the same path we walked every day of training to the main road to wait for the bus. We ended up catching a ride with an NGO to Tegucigalpa. So just like that, our quick visit was over and we were off again. Even though I don’t get much of a chance to visit this part of Honduras, I know I will always have a family in this tiny town waiting for me whenever I want to return.

Area Protegida La Tigra

PAMers in La Tigra

A blue mushroon!

Bryce got stuck on a log on the marshy trails

Mary and Alice sharing an umbrella