Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas and the New Year

Well, I experienced my first Honduran Christmas and while it didn´t feel like Christmas, it was still a great one. Everyone here celebrates Christmas on the 24th instead of the 25th. As far as decorations, some houses will put up some lights and my host family had a little plastic tree that they pull out every year. Other than that though, there isn´t much else.

Christmas tree at my host family´s house

Christmas seemed to come up so quickly and pass by just as fast and I think part of that was just because I was not surrounded by the constant Christmas advertisements and holiday sales. I know in the bigger cities there were Christmas sales in the large superstores. But even Gracias is small enough that these don´t really exist. Also, people do not buy gifts for one another here. The most common thing is that people will buy some new clothes to wear for Christmas, but that´s about it.

I actually spent the majority of Christmas Eve in Gracias. My host dad and I were going to go to Santa Rosa de Copan (a larger city 1 ½ hours from Gracias) so I could buy a mattress, toaster oven, stove, and other things I need for when I live alone. We were going to borrow a car from a guy who lives in Gracias and so I decided to go early on the bus, run some errands, and wait there for my host dad who had a few things to do in Nueva Esperanza and then was going to catch a ride in. However, when I got into Gracias around 8 am, I found out that the guy whose car we were going to use went to La Campa to do some work. I called my host dad who told me that he had just stopped by the house and told him that he needed the car until noon and then after that we could go. Finally, around 3:30 pm my host dad shows up in Gracias where most of the stores had closed for the holiday. I had already figured we weren´t going to make it to Santa Rosa so I had made a few purchases in Gracias like a bike and pillow, but nothing from my list of stuff that I really needed. By 3:30 though, I was ready to get home.

Fresh-made bread. The secret ingredient? FANTA!

At home, I celebrated the 24th with my host family with a dinner of pork tamales and sweet bread. We didn´t have a white Christmas but we almost had a black one, in that we lost power twice for about half an hour each time. Everyone here eats pig for Christmas and when I was on the bus earlier in the day headed to Gracias, there was a man next to the road shaving the hair off a recently killed one. At night, the tradition is to light off firecrackers in the streets. I thought I would join my host brother and sisters in the road to experience the tradition. Well, I experienced that tradition for about ten minutes and that is definitely enough to last this Christmas and the next. Pretty much there were about 9 kids in the streets all in their own little world lighting the firecrackers and bottle rockets. They would light them and then throw them away from themselves but without considering if it was going nearer someone else. Some of the kids would shout if they threw one near you on accident but it was pitch black and I was freaking out that I didn´t know where they were going to explode. I got hit first by mud and then a rock when I decided that I care too much about having vision in both eyes to be able to stay out any longer.

Idania making pork tamales, (pork tamales and bread are the traditional Christmas meal)


It´s tradition to stay up until midnight, too but that is threehours past my usual bed time! I also had an exhausting day in Gracias and so while I tried to make it to midnight, I think I only made it to about 10:30. LOL.

Christmas day, everyone sleeps in and lays low. I was invited to Doña Concha´s house for breakfast of pork tamales and sweet bread. She also gave me some grapes and when she handed them to me, I seriously felt like a queen. It has been so long since I have had grapes and while they have them in Gracias, they are very expensive, about 35 lempiras a pound which is the same as a pound of beef. (That´s only $1.50 but remember I only make $6 a day, so a pound of grapes is ¼ of my daily earnings). For lunch, I went over to Ellen´s apartment and she made us pasta and a green salad. I had made some bean bread earlier and so we toasted that with garlic salt and cheese. For dessert, she had made a chocolate chip pie which was AMAZING as chocolate chips are hard to come by. There are so many times that I think if I didn´t have Ellen near me, I don´t know what I would do. We both agreed that the fact that it was about 75 degrees, dry, and dusty really didn´t help it to feel like Christmas. But it´s not like we would have a nice warm fireplace to curl up next to if it were a white Christmas so I was happy that we were at least comfortable.

Don Simeon and his family on Christmas. I like to think of them as my second family because they all have been really supportive of me here.

For dinner #1, I was invited to the house of Don Simeon, Doña Berta, and their nine kids. This family has been like a second family to me and so I was really happy to be with them for the holidays. After a dinner of pork tamales and sweet bread here (as you probably have already noticed, that´s the traditional Christmas meal) I went back to Doña Concha´s for dinner #2 of baked pork, sweet bread, beans, tortillas, and extra bread to take home in addition to the loaf she gave me at breakfast.

At Dona Concha´s for Christmas breakfast. From left to right, my friend Cindy, me, Cindy´s mom Dona Concha, some family that came to visit, and Belkis

My Christmas dinner at Dona Concha´s house: baked pig, beans, and tortillas.

I thought this year I would feel how I did last Christmas in Chile when I felt alone and sad to be away for the holidays. While I missed my family and friends this year, I was definitely not lonely and really enjoyed being here with my new friends. I had a lot of fun learning about the Christmas traditions and I can say with assurance that this was a very special and unique Christmas that I will cherish for years.

One unfortunate thing has happened this month which I hope to get fixed very soon . . . my laptop broke. I was working on my laptop on my bed and when I got up to get a notebook that I needed, it slid off and hit the floor. It landed on the charger in the back which was jammed even further inside. So now the laptop will start but then turns off almost immediately. It did make it once to my desktop and everything was the same so I know the memory is ok. But other than that I can´t do anything. Claudia talked with the man in charge of tech support at the Peace Corps office about my situation and he recommended me to a guy that he knows in Tegucigalpa. So I plan on taking it in after the new year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

First Three Months

Well, I have finally gotten some time to write and give you guys an update of what´s up in my life. I have now completed the ¨community entry period¨ which was the first three months of service and was dedicated to getting oriented and familiar with Nueva Esperanza. My first report was due to Peace Corps this week and described the community in general, a needs assessment, gender analysis, challenges and expected support, identifcation of activities or large projects, and integration. Having put everything in writing, I realize I have done a lot more than I thought I had in these last three months. Maybe not so much as far as projects, but as far as becoming familiar with the way things work here and what I will be involved in, it definitely took three solid months.

As far as work goes, I think I have a pretty good idea of what I am going to be involving myself in for at least the next year. So far with the improved stoves, I have formed a preliminary list of 37 women interested in the project and at the end of this week I should have a final list of women who have signed the contract. The contract states that the women understand that they have to provide certain materials for the project as well as manual labor. The materials they have to provide are sand, mud, bricks, and adobe (cheaper bricks made out of mud). The rest of the materials will be provided by the project. They will then have to help with not only the construction of their own stove, but also two others. The women who have signed the contract then formed groups of four and they will work within this group to build the stoves. If the women do not get the materials that they need and break the contract, then they will lose the materials that were to be provided for them by the project. We have a final meeting this Saturday and then I am going to work on the grant proposal and submit it to the local NGO´s as soon as I can. Once I hear back from the NGO´s with support, we can get started on the training and actual construction of the stoves.

While we´re waiting to hear back from the NGO´s, I was hoping to start a family garden project. However, I really wanted to make my own garden first so I could gain some experience with what grows well here or not and what kinds of problems that may arise in the garden. But since I have yet to find a place where I can live permanently for two years, I have not had the chance to start a garden anywhere. We´ll see how everything goes. Once the garden project and stove project are underway, I would like to start some cooking classes to teach the families how to cook with their new stoves (and oven), with the new vegetables from their garden, and more healthily. Hondurans love fried food and cook with tons of lard and oil for every meal. Even before making steamed rice, they fry it for about 10 minutes and then steam it. Bologne sandwich? They fry the meat first. Even I have gotten into the habit of frying my food more often. Although I have had to stop because I went to the doctor about these hive-like marks I was getting on my back and stomach and she told me to stop eating anything with oil.

I think cooking classes may be a good idea because I have noticed that most women here do not experiment with different dishes and cook making slight variations of the same ingredients of beans, vegetables, chicken, other frozen meats, cheese, rice, and served with tortillas. Whenever I came back from shopping in Gracias, my host mom was always curious what I bought and always fascinated by the foods that I cooked. I would bring home things like parsley or even wheat bread and she would ask me, ¨You can get that in Gracias?¨. It´s amazing to me that she has lived here all her life and has never bought some of the foods I brought home from the mini supermarkets. Also, a lot of the meals that I make take about a quarter of the time it takes my host mom to cook. There are some days where she is too tired to cook, doesn´t want to make tortillas, or the kids complain that they are bored of the food. But the thought of making something that doesn´t need to be eaten with tortillas, is faster, and is different has never crossed her mind. So, I think the cooking classes can be something easy and fun.

As far as bigger projects in Nueva Esperanza, the community is about to finish a large irrigation project at the end of this month. Two years ago, construction started 12 km away from the water source on the mountain Camalote of laying tubes from Camalote to Nueva Esperanza. In the beginning, the men would start walking at 3 am or 4 am to get to Camalote around 7 am to start laying the tubes. Men and women worked six days a week for two years to bring water to the crops of Nueva Esperanza! This project will benefit 63 families. With this project, farmers are hoping to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and eventually sell them in the markets in the big cities. Most farmers only grow corn and beans in Nueva Esperanza and the majority of this is for personal consumption. Thus, this project could open up new means of income for the community as well as help to fight malnutrition because there will be such a wide variety of fruits and vegetables around. The construction is expected to be done in the end of January and the inaugural ceremony is set to be January 30, 2008.

My part in this project is that some of the farmers have expressed interest in learning more about production, use of chemicals, and how to get their product to a larger market. Other possibilities for projects that I learned about back in my tech traning may be organic compost, organic pesticides and insecticides, and more sustainable agricultural practices. MARENA, a local NGO, is currently working on ideas for projects to help protect the watershed for once the construction of the irrigation project is finished and farmers start to grow their vegetables. Some ideas of projects are the construction of latrines, trash management, construction of oxidation lagoons for ¨aguas mieles¨ (¨honey waters¨ or contaminated water which happens when people pick coffee and don´t dispose of the remains properly), and establishment of tree nurseries for reforestation. All of which I think is very important, coincides with the PAMer goals, and I learned a little bit about during training.

So, these are the ideas I have right now as far as work goes. I also would like to do some Environmental Education in the schools and maybe teach some English classes, but for right now I´m going to see how all this lays out before taking on too much.

As far as non-work stuff, something fun that I have been doing lately is a lot more horseback riding. I have gone a few times with my counterpart´s son, Herzan, all over the area. We have gone on trips just for fun, like to see the water tanks of Nueva Esperanza, and also trips for work, we went to Las Olominas (one of my communities) so that I could give out invitations to another meeting for the improved stoves.

My friend, Herzan and me on top of a watertank in Nueva Esperanza

At the watertank

The longest trip that I went on was when Ellen, her boyfriend, Irene (pronounced ¨Ee-reh-neh¨), and I went up to see where the irrigation project begins. I had gone up earlier with the men in my community for a meeting and brought back pictures of the beautiful waterfall where we get the water. Ellen saw the pictures and really wanted to see it and so we planned a day trip up. To get to the waterfall, it´s two hours on horseback. Then you have to cross through a coffee farm and then hike down to it.

Ellen and Irene heading up to the mountain Camapara, where Nueva Esperanza gets its water

Amazing, huh? Where we get our water for an irrigation project in Nueva Esperanza

The hidden waterfall

Oromilaca, another of my aldeas in my site, a view from the water tank

I went with Dona Alberta to learn how to milk a cow!

Coffee freshly picked, up close

Lots of coffee (it´s coffee season!)

Coffee on the plant ready to be picked

Ellen and her boyfriend, Irene

Hidden parrot that yelled ¨Buenas¨at me

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Although I don’t feel too different as a person, when I think about what I have learned thus far from the people I have gotten to know, I realize I have discovered more than just how Hondurans live their life; I have determined a lot more about how I want to live my own. I was talking with two volunteers that if we were to go back to the states tomorrow, would we be the same person? I know that if I went back now and turned into the person that I used to be, I would be disappointed with myself. From my other blog entries, you all know that every day here in Honduras I am reminded of how essential it is to maintain patience. But in order to be able to work patiently with others, it’s fundamental to first learn to accept every person for whom they are; and I think that is one aspect about me that, I am pleased to say, has changed the most. In the states, I remember getting frustrated when someone didn’t understand my point of view or why someone couldn’t do a task that I figured would be easy for anyone to complete. But sometimes what comes easily to me may be awkward and uncomfortable for someone else; and I know that sounds so basic, but I don’t think I ever really appreciated that until being here. We are all characterized by distinct interests, levels of education, habits, and manners in which we were brought up which define our personalities, our abilities, and our imperfections. But these differences are what make it possible for us to learn something new or be inspired by every individual we encounter. No one is better than another because there is no scale or classification system that can put us in order from top to bottom; we’re all different in too many ways. Sure, we have classified everything from individuals by their social class, race, or gender to whole communities as developed or undeveloped countries; but that’s because we like order in our lives and we have allowed this labeling to engrain stereotypes in our minds that tell us that a better person can easily be defined by A, B, and C.

At the second meeting I had with the women’s group interested in the improved stoves, I was put off that the women were so reluctant to form a board of directors. “How are we going to get anything done if no one wants to do anything?” I thought. But then, we did a self-esteem activity I read about where we stood in a circle and all the women said aloud one thing they were proud of. I was astounded to hear that for some of the women, this meeting was the first meeting they had ever attended in their life. The failure to form a board of directors was not because these women don’t want to help me; they’re just scared to stand out in any way because they’re accustomed to a life where leadership has never played a role. One woman was brave enough to declare that she would be president (so far she’s our board of directors), followed by the statement that, “But you all can’t laugh at me when I talk during the meetings”. In the states, there usually are various nominees for a president, vice-president and other group leaders. Here, just coming to a meeting is an accomplishment in itself. So instead of concluding that these women don’t want to do any work and giving up on them, what I need to do is effect a closer relationship with them to give and receive advice on how we can keep developing this project with expectations that are appropriate for everyone.

Likewise, this meeting introduced me to a personal weak spot that I have, but have not noticed in other community leaders that have led other meetings I have attended. For me, I´ve learned that I’m considerably inflexible in that I try hard to keep things going as planned but when I start to feel like I’m losing control, I become very anxious and tense. Don Virgilio is president of a large irrigation project that has been going on here for two years and benefits over 135 people. Although he only has a sixth grade education, he has a natural calmness and stress-free manner of handling large meetings that I hope I can develop over time. When everyone starts shouting in the middle of the meetings because it’s basically impossible to keep 135 people happy and under control, he still manages to get things settled without ever losing his temper . . . without even raising his voice really! Finally, I think I am better at accepting people for who they are because the attitude of the people here is that that’s what you do. I have become well integrated within my community because the people have accepted me for who I am, and thus my eyes have really been opened to the importance of practicing this basic principle.

So the next time you’re working with, for example, a co-worker and you’re feeling annoyed that they can’t comprehend what seems a basic concept to you, sacrifice a few minutes to catch them up and let them set the pace. Is it really worth it to complete a job alone while discouraging another, or would it be better to accept that person for their differences and you make a change that perhaps they can’t? Only when we can accept people for who they are can we work collectively and fruitfully. I think sometimes we get caught up in the movement forward that we forget about those that helped us get there. Maybe you couldn’t be as good of a person as you are today without the kind words from that least expected person.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Review of November: Life the Honduran Way

So, a little bit about the changes I have made to my daily routine now that I have been in my site for two months and in Honduras for 5 months. (Has it really been almost half a year?! WOW!) The next blog entry about my reflections of Honduras is a bit powerful and so I will keep this entry light and entertaining.

First off, the other day I experienced the most overwhelming decision I have had to make in five months . . . what kind of jelly to buy. I was in this new grocery store in Santa Rosa de Copán (a larger city than Gracias which is 2 ½ hours from my site by bus). Walking into the grocery store was like crossing the border and entering a miniature Safeway. I went in simply to get some peanut butter and jelly. I got the peanut butter easy enough, but when I got to the jelly aisle, I felt so helpless. There really were just too many flavors, brands, and prices to choose from. It took just ten minutes to decide on the flavor I wanted! There was blackberry (which would have been my first choice but it was very expensive for a small amount and didn’t come in a good re-usable jar), mango (which I just finished a jar of at home), orange, pineapple, apple, and light strawberry. All types of questions were running through my head: Which flavor would I like best? Of that flavor, which jar was going to get me the best deal? Why is a larger jar less expensive than a smaller jar of the same flavor? Which jelly can I use with more meals? Which brand is better? To add more pressure, there was an employee shelving something in the same aisle and in the time it took me to decide what flavor to get, she had restocked the shelf, left, and come back to find that I was still in the same spot. I even thought about walking around a little bit and coming back later, but that thought made me snap out of my ridiculous stupor and I finally was able to make a decision.

One pretty drastic difference from my life in the states compared to my life here is my morning routine. Even though I used to claim that I hate jogging and that no one would ever find me running out of my own will, I actually have started to get up at 5:45 am 4 or 5 days a week to run for half an hour. I have found that what I hate worse than jogging is not having any type of regular exercise. There are a few soccer teams here but they are all guys teams and I have thought about starting a girls’ team but have not gotten that idea up and rolling yet. So, Ellen, the business volunteer near me, runs past my house around 6 am and I join her and run with her to La Campa. It’s a great time for us to chat about how we have been lately and to catch up on any chisme (gossip). I must admit that another pretty big motivator to get up and break a sweat in the morning is that it gets pretty cold here and we only have a FREEZING cold water shower. I will admit that there have been days where I won’t have run in the morning and I will turn the shower on but not be able to get in. I know that’s kind of wimpy, but would you like to start everyday by jumping underneath a waterfall two minutes after waking up when it’s raining and windy outside? The water here comes straight from the mountains so that’s what it’s like.

I am still living with my host family and will be living with them until they build me an apartment behind their house since there are no other housing options in my community. Already, Francisco has started to measure out the dimensions of the room. My family tells me that the construction only takes two weeks and that at the latest they will be done constructing the apartment by the end of December. Although to me this seems a bit improbable, I have decided to remain optimistic and if I am moved in by late January, I will be very happy.

I have started to cook my own meals and my family has been fascinated by the lunches that I have created. I have introduced them to typical foods from India, Indonesia, the Caribbean, Italy, and other countries (thanks to a recipe book that some previous volunteers put together). Actually, their curiosity in the meals I make, which really are so simple, is what gave me the idea of starting a cooking class. Although I have been experimenting for lunch, my dinners I leave to be Honduran. I am addicted to tajaditos (fried plaintain chips) and have become pretty good at making tortillas that once my host mom mixed mine up with hers while they were cooking on the stove! WOOHOO!!

The graduating sixth grade class

The big event of November here is graduation. The “big-deal” graduation is from the sixth grade as most people will not continue their education. Only 5 of the 12 graduating sixth graders are going onto high school. My host sister, Janeysi, graduated from the sixth grade and seriously the graduation was SOOOO LOOOONNNNGGGGG as they first gave a diploma to every single student in the school that was advancing a grade (starting with the first graders). The most unique part of the graduation was when they had a performance in the middle of the celebration. What did they choose to be the entertainment? A dramatization of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Although it’s great that these kids have completed the school year, I wish people here realized that graduating from sixth grade is not that great of an accomplishment. The kids don’t actually really know how to read well until they are in the third grade.

But, it’s a big deal here, and I will remember for next year that I will not have to cook for myself for the whole week of graduations. I had so many feasts that included gallina india (wild chicken), rice, potatoes, soup, cake, sweet bread, and coca-cola that it was like a Honduran Thanksgiving . . . for 7 days.

Idania and Laura plucking the feathers off the chicken to prepare for the party the next day

Janeysi´s graduation lunch

My family, Ellen, and Janeysi´s ´´padrinos´´ (close friends or relatives you choose to go up with you during graduation to represent you and give you gifts)

Challenges and Adjustment

Well, I have officially been in my site for two months, and here in Honduras for five. WOW!! And to best describe how that period of time has most affected me, I would say that what I used to think of as quick errands or minor events in the states now define my most productive days and joyous memories. I think the hardest part of adjustment to Honduras has been modifying what I call a productive day. For the first couple of weeks in-site, I tried to get out as much as I could and went door-to-door introducing myself and getting to know the people. However, every night I came back, I felt disappointed with the day and felt I could have done better in some way. In the states, having free time was a luxury that I didn’t get too often, but also was something I didn’t want too much of because my mind was always set on moving forward and doing something that was constructive. Squeezing class, science lab, work, tennis practice, weekly meetings, meals, and homework into one day was normal. Here, I would consider buying groceries an adequate daily accomplishment. It has been nice to indulge in the free time I have now, (I have read 5 or 6 books in two months!) but I sometimes felt stressed and guilty, too, thinking that instead of reading there is something else that I could be doing.

Dona Honoria making fresh tortillas. First, you take corn kernels off the cob and soak them in water. Then, you grind them with a hand grinder and they have a powdery texture. Then, you add water and grind, or ´´repasar´´ the corn on a rock like this:

Once you have ground the corn twice, the texture is that of pizza dough and you can form the corn into little balls and make them into tortillas.

As far as the standards I have of what makes me happy, this has both good and bad angles. On one hand, I have learned how to live a life so simple that some of my happiest memories are as plain as eating oranges in the grass with my neighbors or receiving a gift of sweet bread because I stopped by to congratulate a mom’s daughter after graduating from kindergarten. On the negative side, however, sometimes having a day where I didn’t feel depressed, lonely, discouraged, or stressed, was considered a good day for me. These past two months have had its ups and downs and even though our project directors told us that the first three months are the toughest, I didn’t imagine any part of my Peace Corps experience would be as tough as it has been.

Every day has been a constant test of my self-motivation, self-confidence, and ability to be independent. As a training group, we always had other North Americans around to confide in and whatever anyone was feeling or struggling with, someone else was on the same page. Everyday, it seemed we were able to escape from Honduras just for a little bit in the time that we went out to dinner, played soccer, or even just hung out and spoke English. But in my site, there was no one to give me words of encouragement before going door to door to introduce myself to the families; or to let me know if I was integrating well or if I needed to meet more people or go to more meetings. I was so used to a life where I knew exactly how I was doing in everything. In tennis practice, my coach always told me what I needed to work on and what I was doing well with. At some jobs, I had weekly meetings with my bosses or managers to review the week; and in class, there were always pop quizzes or midterms to let you know exactly where you stood to 1/10 of a percent. So, it seemed that no matter how much I went out trying to integrate in my community, I always felt stressed that I might not be doing a good enough job because I didn’t have anything to compare my experience to, I just didn’t know how I was doing.

To make things tougher, I am the first Peace Corps volunteer in my site. My project director, Menelio, told me I would find more challenges because of this but I was truthfully excited to hear I was the first volunteer because it meant I could start with new projects that interested me rather than wrapping up unfinished projects that other volunteers had left behind. However, this also meant that very few people here knew what Peace Corps was. I was offended that after all that I have given up to be here and all that I have already gone through (loneliness, scabies, diarrhea, leaving my family and friends. . . ), people thought I must be here for my own selfish personal gain (getting college credit or getting lots of money)! And I was hurt that after trying so hard to be open and friendly with everyone, no one thought to ask me straight up. Also, since my community is Lenca, a native ethnicity of Honduras, they are used to getting screwed over by people that come promising change and then take advantage of them or don't do anything.

Another unusual and unfortunate detail about Nueva Esperanza is that most girls from the ages of 18-24 leave Nueva Esperanza to go work in the larger cities like San Pedro Sula. That means I am unable to befriend any girls around my age and since I am pretty much the only young woman in the whole community, you can imagine what kind of attention I get from every guy between the ages of 18-45. I had one guy ask me “how long the marriage contract was in the US”. When I told him I didn’t understand the question, he said “Well, for example, (yeah right for example –he probably thought about this the first second we started talking) if we were to get married and I went back with you to the United States, for how many years do people stay married before they can get divorced legally?” (But I guess I would have to be nuts to believe that it was possible for a 22 year old Asian-North American single girl to move into a community for two years and not be noticed.)

Celaque at sunset

Getting to Work: Fogones Mejorados (Improved Stoves)

I am finally ready to start my first project! Based on the needs assessment I did at the community meeting and what I have noticed from visiting families at their homes, I decided to form a women’s group to make improved stoves. Most families here cook on a metal plate that is held up by mud sides with a pile of wood directly underneath the plate. The smoke fills the whole house because they basically just have a campfire going in the middle of the kitchen. Emphesima is one of the main causes of death here in Nueva Esperanza and respiratory infections are the most prominent health problem. It’s such a serious problem that is so easy to fix! Also, these stoves are more efficient in that they use less firewood which reduces deforestation. Once this project is underway, I am hoping to start some cooking classes on how to cook different meals and more healthily. The design of these stoves includes an oven so I can teach them how to bake or how to make meals without so much frying. (Hondurans love fried food and cook everything with lots of lard, which is cheaper than oil, every day).

So, last week I held an interest meeting for women who wanted to form a group to start this project. I went to get the key to the school a few days before the meeting but Don Anastacio, who had the key, told me he was going to be in the school in another meeting when mine began so he would open a room for me when I arrived. However, 40 minutes before my meeting was going to start, my host mom told me that he had cancelled his meeting earlier that day. So here I was again without a key to the school with a meeting about to start. Anastacio lives about 20 minutes away and doesn’t have a phone, so I called his neighbor to see if he could go over to his house and tell Anastacio to bring me the key. The neighbor explained, “I am not at my house now but I am headed there now and so I will ask him.” (Oh that infamous word “now”). Just in case, I decided to start walking there anyway. When I passed the school, it was open because another meeting was going on. Doña Ursula, who usually has a key to the school, was there and I asked if she could open another room for my meeting.
“Yes,” she responded (to my relief), “I have the key to a Professor’s room”. But then after trying all the keys in the door, she replied, “No, I don’t have the key”. (It is rare to hear someone say “I don´t know”. Most people usually respond with “yes” and then correct themselves if that´s not true.)
“Well, I am going to call Anastacio’s neighbor then and see if he has talked with him yet”, I explained.
“Oh, well if you want to talk to his neighbor, he’s right over there,” Ursula pointed to about 100 meters away where he was busy digging a ditch and where he had been all day and was going to be for a few more hours by the looks of it.

Luckily, there were some men working in the kindergarten and they had a key to the rooms there. So, this meeting was in the exact same room as my community meeting. However, everything went smoothly. I made a list of 17 women who are interested in forming a women’s group to implement this project.

Truthfully, I feel a little worried about if this project will succeed. The women are very shy and most of them are not used to being part of an organized group or put in a situation where they can actually have a say in something. Also, I have to remember that their education level is much different than mine. This was definitely apparent when I showed them a picture of the stove. I had drawn a large color-coordinated picture of the stove and I slowly explained every part of it even though most of it was clearly labeled. I asked if there were any questions and after a long pause, one woman explained to me, “It’s just that right now, we’re taking this all in.” After waiting for a few more minutes to allow the women to talk amongst themselves and orient themselves, a few women had questions and I ended up repeating the description two more times a little bit slower than before.

I feel that there is a very fine line between what I should help with and what I should leave to the women to learn to do on their own. As I want this project to be sustainable and I want to give the women a chance to gain more self-esteem, leadership experience, and motivation to take a stand on making their own lives better, I don’t want to do all the work. But, I feel that if I leave everything for them to do, they will become overwhelmed, disheartened, and leave the group. I had made a list of all the materials that the stoves use and explained to the women that before we apply for a grant to do this project, we need to come up with the cost of everything and that I needed their help with investigating the prices. I knew it would be hard to get the women to volunteer to research the prices of some things, but they were hesitant to search for the prices of anything, even things they use in their everyday life! It was like they didn’t want to be labeled with a responsibility and didn’t want to stand out in any way. Already, I feel the women are very delicate and it was impossible for me to tell how these women felt about this project. Did they just come to the meeting out of respect because I invited them or are they excited to start this project? Were they motivated by my talk about the importance of this project or did they leave disappointed that I told them I would not be doing all the work? Are they going to come to next week’s meeting? I have no idea.

Women working on parts of the grant proposal

I’m hoping that once things get going and when the women gain more confidence in me and in themselves, they will be more willing to take charge. I also have to realize that there are differences in culture, lifestyles, education, and habits which play a significant role in starting any projects here. This was definitely clear when I showed the women the picture of the stove and it took them time just to comprehend it. Also, some of these women never leave the house or have had responsibility outside of cooking for their family and keeping the house clean. For some of them, their husbands, brothers, sons, or cousins go into town whenever they need something. So, to ask a woman who never leaves her house to go into town she may not have visited for months or years, ask strangers where to purchase an item they may have never seen before, enter a shop where it is bizarre to see women (any hardware store) and investigate the price of an item although they may not know how to write the info down, this does seem like an impossible task.

Lessons Learned From My First Community Meeting

One month into site, I decided to hold a Community Meeting to do an evaluation of the needs of the community and to talk a little bit more about my job as a Peace Corps volunteer. Many people in my community believed I was getting credit from a university or because I got paid a lot by the US government to be here for two years. So, I thought it would be a good idea to explain to everyone just what I am doing here.

Community meeting

All I can say is that the whole experience was definitely very “Honduran”. I intended on having two meetings, one with just the women and one with just the men. However, I ended up having to cancel the meeting with the women because of a very unfortunate circumstance. . . it was wet and cold. The man who had the key to the school never showed up and very few women came because of the early hour and the weather. After canceling the meeting with the women, I immediately walked to the house of the man who had the key and when I asked him if he had gone to the school today and maybe I had missed him, he told me, “No, it is too cold to do anything today”. After lunch was the meeting with the men. But I ended up canceling that meeting too because only about nine men showed up. My host mom said, “Well, at least nine came” but I hadn’t the heart to tell her that 4 or 5 of the men that were there were the ones that have asked me various times if I have a boyfriend, plan on having a boyfriend, or plan on getting married while I’m here. So, I changed the meeting to the next Saturday and spent every day up to then walking around putting signs in the pulperias, sending notices home with the schoolkids, and having people make announcements in the churches.

I had learned my lesson from before and gotten the key the night before. However, when I went into the school on Saturday to prepare for the meeting, the lights wouldn’t turn on! I had my laptop and rented a projector to highlight my talk, but now it looked like I wouldn’t be able to use them. Don Virgilio, a good friend and respected community leader, arrived early and suggested that we move the meeting into the kindergarten (across the soccer field from the school). As we were collecting everything I had set out, my portfolio paper, my projector, my laptop, my markers, and other materials, a dog got into the bag that had cookies I brought for the meeting and ran off with a pack! Luckily, Don Virgilio and some other men chased the dog down, got the cookies back, brushed off the saliva and dirt on the pack, and put them back in the bag. . . welcome to Honduras!

The man who had given me the keys to the school the day before showed up and when I told him we’re moving because there was no light, he told me, “Yeah there is a problem with the electrical system. There hasn’t been light for a few days in the school.” I decided to ignore the fact that I had seen him YESTERDAY and that it would have been nice if YESTERDAY he had let me know that BEFORE giving me the keys to the school that had no light.

Outside the kindergarten, I asked if anyone had the key to the gate and Don Virgilio said, “Ah, we’re going to get it now.” (One of the things I first learned here is that when people say “now” as in “there is a meeting now”, they mean at some point that day, maybe even in the evening if it is the morning). So, we waited outside for about ten minutes for someone to get the key. Inside, I set up all my stuff again and was almost ready to begin when my counterpart arrived and told me “We should move the meeting into the other room because there are more chairs”. So, again, I collected up all my stuff. Outside the other door, I asked if anyone had a key and someone replied “We’re going to get it now”. So there we waited again and at this point, many more people had arrived. One woman even showed up selling pastelitos (fried rice-stuffed tortillas) which I took as a good sign that lots of people were going to come. Finally, we began the meeting only 50 minutes after when it was supposed to begin (not bad considering I figured we wouldn’t be starting until an hour after the designated time.) I imagined there would be about 60 people at the most, but there was definitely 80 or more! Needless to say, I was pretty nervous talking in front of everyone . . . especially in Spanish!

One of the best lessons I learned from this meeting was: NEVER bring chocolate to give out to a group of people. I had brought cookies and coke for the adults and chocolate for the kids for when we were done. I asked my counterpart to help me with distributing the snack at the end of the meeting and he kind of paused in disbelief that I had brought something for so many people and then immediately designated some people close by to “help maintain control of the people” as we poured the drinks. Well, to give you an idea of what that experience was like, think of the little carnivore beetles from the movie “The Mummy”. I had set everything out and ten seconds later after everyone had surrounded the table, everything was gone. I’m talking about everything, even the empty coke bottles, the bags in which I brought the stuff, and every single plastic cup was never seen again by me! I was planning on keeping the cups to use at other meetings and the large bottles to hold potable water, but I seriously have no idea where they went. And that was just the adults! My friend Herzan was helping pass out the chocolates and when I looked back to see how he was doing, he had given up handing them out one by one because the kids had shoved him up in a corner, surrounded him and were pushing him and each other to get their hand in the jar. I hope he didn’t feel too battered and bruised the next day.

One group of men making a calendar of all the activities that they dedicate themselves to every year

The women who attended the meeting

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Traditional Lencan Practice – Firsthand!!

As I have mentioned earlier, the Lenca are famous for the ceramics they make. Not only do they make everything by hand without using any special equipment, but they also make it from the sand and mud collected from the river or the side of the road. The ceramics are coated in red with a paint that is also made from the earth. Many of the women in my community dedicate their lives to making and selling these ceramics either in small shops (alfarerías) in La Campa or on the streets in Gracias. My counterpart’s wife, Moncha, is one of these women and she invited me over one day when she was going to fire the pottery. Here are some photos of the process:

First, you let the ceramics sit in the sun for a few hours.

Next, using something to keep the ceramics from touching the coals beneath (in this case bricks and pieces of broken pots that have cracked in the sun), you stack the pottery upside down, placing the smaller pieces in the larger pots and making miniature “ovens”.

The pans and pitchers (or anything that has already been painted) must be inside the larger pots or the color will get ruined.

Once all the little pieces are hidden inside the miniature ovens, the rest of the larger pots are stacked upside down one on top of the other.

The most costly part of the whole process is the amount of wood it takes to fire the pots. Firewood (leña) can either be bought or people can go and collect it themselves. Wood is placed around and on top of the stack of pots until they are all completely hidden.

Then, small pieces of kindling (called ocote) are lit and spread around the whole heap until the fire burns evenly.

I honestly had never seen a fire that huge and intimidating! The flames got to be about 6 feet tall and even from ten feet away, my forearms were getting burned. It was a very windy day so we had to be careful because even from 15 feet back if the wind changed, you could feel the burn! (I like this photo because you can see the intensity of the fire and also Celaque is in the background).

Moncha let the fire go for about 30 to 45 minutes, or once the pots start to turn white. When they start to turn white, she uses a long stick to knock the wood away. But even from that distance she has to move in quickly, try to knock some wood down, and then turn back because the heat burns her face.

If the pottery is not fired for long enough, it will eventually crack. But if it is fired for too long, it will crack. So it’s a process that takes careful scrutiny. Once all the wood is removed, the pots are left to cool.

Then, all that is left is to paint the ones that have not already been painted and then sell them! Moncha’s mother taught her this whole process of making ceramics and it is a very traditional and famous Lencan practice that has been passed down through the years. And as Moncha learned from her mother, she has taught her daughter, Francis, to carry on this unique cultural tradition.

While Moncha tells me she sells a fair amount in Gracias, it’s hard to depend on this income as it varies according to how many tourists are around and how much they want to buy Lencan artwork. However, I think there is a lot of potential to expand and diversify this market and so hopefully I will be working more with these women concerning that or with ecotourism, trying to bring more tourists here.

Ceramics and pottery in a storehouse in La Campa ready to be sold in Gracias (these aren`t actually Moncha`s work)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Photos of Nueva Esperanza

Coffee from the coffee farm of my friend, Tino

Celaque, as I was walking to La Campa

I finally found a food that I cannot eat. . . chicken feet! Luckily, my family was not offended when I said I just can`t eat it.

A view of the Catholic church and La Campa

A ´´cangrejillo´´which actually was in my room in El Suyate during FBT. Luckily, I haven´t seen one of these yet. Instead, we have these:

A ´´gallo´´ which I am told if it bites you, you have to go to the hospital. I am also told it turns into a butterfly though so I am not sure what to believe besides my gut instinct to not get anywhere near them!

My host father, Francisco, turned 34 last week!