Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Picking Corn, Speaking English, and Drinking Tap Water, or What I am Doing in Indiana

Dear Family, Friends, and Strangers,
Sorry it’s taken so long for me to break this news, but it turns out that I was sent home (Medically Separated in official terminology) in early August because of my unresolved issues with equilibrium. I don’t have too much to say about it. I think Peace Corps made the right decision, as I was and am sick, but my abrupt departure from my community was pretty jarring on everyone involved.

Thanks to all of you who kept tabs on me through this blog. It was always nice to get comments and know that people were interested in what I was doing. As for what I’m doing now, that’s a good question that I’m still trying to figure out.

Peace Out,

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rain, Bandidos, Dizziness, and The Law

When it Rains, it Pours
Winter arrived near the end of April, bringing afternoon rains that turned all the plants green in a matter of days. Now both creeks and pilas are full and the roads no longer dusty. To me, the water came as an unexpected relief. The replacement of the hot, hair-dryer wind with a hazy humidity has restored a sense of normalcy to the atmosphere, even though it immediately passed the stage of bearable and has become oppressive. It has also solved the town’s water problem for the time being. I can now wash my hands, shower, and flush the toilet whenever I want! It’s not all bucket baths and puddle jumping though. Turns out the rain brings its share of complications as well. There has been a marked increase in the amount of mosquitoes and other biting things hovering around. More frustrating is the condition of the dirt road between my village and the larger town of San Marcos. Combined with the condition of the bus, there isn’t a lot of traveling to and fro.

We are now into our fifth day of nearly constant rain. All of this is great news if you need water to wash your laundry, but a rather unfortunate complication if the next step of the plan was to dry it ever. Thanks to the scabies epidemic, a nearby volunteer owns a first rate iron, but even after three days of hanging and a thorough going over with said iron set to its hottest level, my clothes retain a lingering dampness and an odor best described as a mix of popcorn, cat urine, and barf. On the plus side, I look really snappy now in my wrinkle-free pajamas.

My First Security Incident
I suppose I should let you know that I had a bit of trouble on the road a couple weeks ago. I went with another volunteer to a village on the other side of the protected area that I live in to visit his counterparts. The day started out well enough. It was sunny and beautiful, and we arrived early for our scheduled meeting with the town council, with whom we were planning to fill out a request to place a volunteer in the community. Before we went to the church where the meeting was to take place, we went and visited with the counterparts. One is the leader of a women’s group that makes pine-needle baskets, and I brought some earrings I made out of bottlecaps to show her. After the demo and some coffee and rosquillas, the other volunteer and I went to the meeting place, where absolutely no one was. We sat outside the padlocked church for an hour and a half, and then, as the only people around were a group of young men who had gathered on a nearby porch to stare at us, decided that the town council was not showing up and walked back to the counterpart’s house. She served us an amazing lunch, and just after noon, we headed out on foot up the road to San Marcos, hoping to be picked up by a passerby with a car. The first 20 minutes of the hike went well enough, until we came to a hill with a series of switchbacks, which is ominously called “Mal Paso,” which translates as “Bad Pass.” As we puffed our way up it, a young man with a lime-green hoodie came into view ahead of us. He seemed to be having a much easier time with the hill and soon disappeared around one of the turns. But unfortunately, he reappeared about a minute later with a gun in his hand. He was joined by an accomplice who came up the hill behind us, and the two proceeded to steal our wallets, the other volunteer’s watch, and my cell phone. Then we went our separate directions, us up, them down, and about 5 minutes later, we were passed by a pickup truck which carried us into town where we called Peace Corps and then went to the police station.

Laying down the Law
When we arrived at the station, I still held a faint hope of catching the guys or at least finding our wallets in the ditch so we could get our documents back. The first officer we talked to looked like he was about 17. We said we had been robbed and tried to describe where (this was before I learned the bit about the area having a name), and then he called the chief who rolled up a couple minutes later in an oversized pickup filled with five other officers. They piled out and the chief asked us if we thought we could recognize the thieves. We decided we might be able to, and so me, the other volunteer, and the five cops piled back into the truck and headed out to serve justice. The immediate action took us by surprise as we roared through the streets of San Marcos, but then nearly immediately, we started going the wrong direction. As the other volunteer and I muttered about whether or not we should tell the driver, we suddenly pulled into the town’s gas station where it became apparent that we were not lost, just in need of a fill-up. And a mango, as it turned out. A few minutes later, tank full and mango being consumed by the officer beside me, we tore off again, this time the right way. The thrill of the chase returned, only to be replaced by impatience as the pavement ended and we slowed to a sustained crawl at 15 miles per hour. Perhaps justice would not be as swift as it at first had seemed. The small hope I held of finding the thieves dwindled even more as the police chief blasted music out of her cell phone and the cop beside me finished her mango and began shouting into her own phone at some relative on the other end of the line. Then the hope disappeared altogether when we arrived at the scene of the crime and, instead of investigating or being sneaky or anything like that, we pulled over the first vehicle to pass us in an hour, a truck hauling two cows, and the three cops in the back of our pickup jumped out to demand that the driver show some sort of cattle-hauling paperwork. If the thieves had stuck around, they certainly had plenty of time to clear out, as we had parked in direct view of their hideout. Finally, the other truck was allowed to leave, and we slowly rolled down the hill, where, shockingly, we found no one. Then we continued into the community that we had been visiting. We came upon a woman and two girls who appeared to be walking in the direction of the crime, but when the police rolled down their windows, it was only to ask where one of town leaders lived, and no mention was made of the fact that the road wasn’t particularly safe at the moment. Then we rolled slowly past the town outside of which we had been robbed, stopping only to ask whose bicycle was parked outside a corner store, and continued on to the next village. Our purpose became increasingly muddled as we cruised through that town, arrived at a gate and through it left the road, picked up some hitchhikers, and bounced down a faint trail only to arrive at a lonely health center where we parked. The hitchhikers and all the police officers got out, leaving the other volunteer and myself to bemoan the loss of our afternoon and the absolute pointlessness of the entire endeavor. After a few minutes, the police returned and we were off again, back in the direction we had come from. When we got back to the first town, we asked the same shopkeeper where “Tonio” was and then left the main road again. At the first intersection, we stopped and one of the officers in the back of the truck yelled down a hill for Tonio. A man who appeared to be in his 60s said that he was Tonio, and the cops waved him over, so he hobbled up the hill and stopped at the driver’s side window. This was the following conversation:
Him: “How are you?”
Chief: “We’re here...Patrolling.”
Long pause.
Chief: “What do you do?”
Him: “I’m a farmer.”
Chief: “Is that your store?”
Him: “Yes.”
Him: “Well, if there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.”
Him: “Yeah, so just let me know.”
Chief: “Alright.”
Again, note the non-mention of the robbery. As he walked slowly back down his hill, we turned the truck around and headed back to San Marcos, stopping only once to harass a young man with a car battery who was standing by the road even though the other volunteer and I had explained to the driver that he was not the guy.

When we finished patrolling, we were dropped off at the station of a different branch of the Honduran police, where we were to fill out reports on what had happened. The other volunteer and I were separated and gave our individual statements. One of the investigators also typed up an official incident report for both of us to take with us in case we needed to explain why we had no identification. This one began with the line, “Resulta que, soy norteamericano...,” meaning, “Turns out, I’m from North America...,” which apparently was enough to explain why we were robbed.

The next day, the volunteer and I were leaving the San Marcos Park where we had been manning a very unpopular Environment table at a women’s fair, when the truck pulled in front of us in the street. The driver whisper asked us if we could go to the station, which was just around the corner, and we said yes as he drove away. When we arrived, two young men were being unhandcuffed from the back of the truck bed. The driver motioned us into his office and said they had caught the thieves and we were there to identify them. It should be noted that the handcuffed youths certainly must have known what we were there to do, because the news that two gringos had been robbed outside their town the day before had by then undoubtedly spread throughout the whole community. This managed to contribute to the awkwardness when they were casually led past the office door, and we said, “No, that’s not them,” because it wasn’t. We left the station, and immediately, the other volunteer received a phone call from the chief asking us to come to the station because they had caught the guys. He explained that we had just come from there and that it wasn’t them, and she asked if we were sure, because they matched our description—they both were wearing hats. He said we were sure. As they talked on the phone, we had walked back to the station, where we saw the two non-criminals unload their bikes from the truck and prepare for what would probably be their hour or so ride home.

The Dizzies and Other Diseases
Alright, that’s enough about crime. Let’s talk about my health. In my last post, I alluded to a problem I’ve been having with dizziness. After many days in the capital city getting tests, it has been determined that a virus somehow attacked my inner left ear and caused the auditory nerve to get all inflamed and slow, and because of this, I now have daily bouts of vertigo and unsteadiness. The good news is that it’s getting better. Unfortunately, progress is slow and the weather isn’t really helping. Still, I’m finally starting to feel better. I have also managed to cultivate a rash around my mouth and nose that makes it look like I have constant razor burn, which would be somewhat acceptable if I were a man, but I am not. Every day I shellac make-up over it, but it has proven stubborn, and even after two months of medicated cream, I continue to look increasingly gross.

Travel Plans, or All Those Packages You Were Going to Send
Wait—Don’t do it! I’m coming home in July, from the 1st to the 11th, so save your postage and just get them to my parents’ house. If you live in the area or are planning to be around, get ready, cause my visit is going to be great.