Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Three Weeks In

While my last post was painfully long, it actually only covered the first two weeks of my time here. I’ll try to edit better on this next one.

I suppose I will begin by writing about the problem with a roof that looks like stars. As one might predict, the ability to see sunlight through one’s ceiling says a lot about said ceiling’s integrity. Sadly, I have found that when it rains hard outside, it also rains everywhere inside. Not hard, but noticeably and indiscriminately. It’s kind of refreshing, but only if you’re trying to be really optimistic. For the less upbeat, it is a source of perturbance, and for my host family, it is a source of stress, especially with the discovery of a major leak above my bed and another above my bookshelf. My host mother and sister have gone to great lengths to protect my belongings. First my books were moved and now reside under a towel, and then my bed was shifted to the other side of the room. A few days later, they replaced the problem tiles. Thankfully, my room is now as dry as everywhere else in the house when it rains, a thought that is especially nice right now as the sky is full of thunder and wind.

Roof deficiencies aside, I’m extremely glad to be living where I am. Now that we’re not such strangers, I am really thankful to be living with a small, quiet family. I like my host sister a lot, and as my Spanish comprehension (if not speaking) ability improves, we’ve been able to have some less superficial talks. In other domestic news, my cooking contributions remain limited to burning the plantains every week or so. I have also discovered that washing laundry on a rock is extremely cathartic, which is a good thing because we keep going on field trips and I keep getting covered in dirt. There is also a new addition to the household. A few days ago, my family adopted an abandoned kitten. It’s orange and white and really young. To feed it, we put milk in a plastic baggie with a hole in one corner, and mostly it just goes everywhere except the kitten’s mouth.

Every day here is packed, and it’s hard to narrow down highlights. For the rest of this post, I think I’ll just write about unconnected events. Sorry for the absence of segues.

On our first Saturday in town, the chief of police had organized a Trainees versus Townspeople soccer game in the afternoon. I showed up to find that not only did the other team have full uniforms, but they had brought uniforms for us. They also stacked our team a bit with players from a neighboring town, which was merciful because surprisingly few of us had played before, and only one trainee had cleats, which were especially necessary because it had just rained and the field was covered in mud. With the help of our Honduran goalie and offensive line, we managed to win the first half, but then our goalie had to go, and we ended up losing the game.

A common project for volunteers is to make more efficient and healthier stoves, or fogones, with the women in their communities. The most common fogones here are up on tables covered in adobe. Then bricks are stacked and cemented with more adobe to form a little box with one open side to put wood into. On top of the box is a plancha, or cooking surface, which is generally comprised of 1.5 foot-ish diameter metal circle. Even in houses that have electric stoves, fogones are used frequently because firewood is less expensive than electricity, and because people prefer the taste of food cooked on them. Unfortunately, they are often very inefficient, which encourages more deforestation, and many designs allow the smoke to escape into the house where it causes respiratory diseases in women and children. A couple of volunteers visited to show us the ropes of stove construction, and we split up into groups to build stoves in three different houses here. First we made adobe from clay and horse manure. Then we packed it around some bricks and stones on top of a base. The design we were using included an oven, and then on the second level was the space for wood, and on top of that was the plancha. Unfortunately, the woman who lived in the house had some strong ideas about how the construction should go, and we aren’t sure that it ended up being as efficient as it could have been, but we haven’t received any reports of it caving in or anything, so I guess we’ll count it as a success.

Other general class activities have included field trips to an integrated, organic farm, a coffee farm, and a volunteer’s site, teaching a class of fourth graders about the water cycle, and working with some high school students to make a simple instrument for measuring the slope of hills and practicing some techniques used for soil conservation. While we built a small terrace together, one of the students flipped over a rock to find the first scorpion I’ve ever seen. The scorpions here aren’t deadly, but they still pack quite a punch and are detested by the Hondurans. The student quickly dispatched it with a stone. We also spent a morning working with local farmers. My farmer’s area was an uncommonly flat field way, way up a mountain. I managed to sweat off all my sunscreen by the time we arrived, and then we spent the morning harvesting red beans and hanging them on a fence to dry. At noon, we walked down a different, steeper path with views of the whole valley and beautiful stone outcrops.

The most lamentable difference between Honduras and the Dominican Republic is the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables. My meals here generally consist of some combination of tortillas, beans, cheese, eggs, extremely tough meat or fried bologna, and the occasional burnt plantain. Sometimes I’ll get a slice of avocado or tomato, but fresh produce has by and large disappeared from my diet. One happy supplement has come in the form of chocobananas (frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and impaled on popsicle sticks). A woman sells them from her house, which is between my house and the training center. They cost 1 Lempira, or about 5 cents, and I’m up to about two a day.

Another local food is the tamalito. They are basically like tamales, but they aren’t stuffed with anything, and they’re kind of sweet because people add sugar to the mixture of milk, oil, tomato sauce, and corn. Then the batter is spooned into corn husks, folded, and placed in a vat of boiling water to cook until solid. Last weekend, I got to “help” assemble a batch at a neighbor’s house. I’ve been invited back this Sunday, when we will try to add some beans to the middles. When they’re made with a filling and without the sugar, they’re called something different. An interesting difference between stuffed tamalitos and tamales I’ve had in the US is that the chicken ones here still contain the bone, something that came as quite a surprise the first time I stuck my fork into one.

Last weekend was full of adventures. In addition to assembling tamalitos, I went spelunking and swam in a pool under a 30 foot waterfall. All of this came about because the family of another trainee offered to take her to some caves. Then she invited some more trainees, and her family invited some more family, and by the time we finally left, there were six trainees and nineteen Hondurans. Only one person had been to the caves before, and we didn’t really know what to expect. After a ten minute bus ride, we stopped on the side of the paved street and commenced walking down an eroded dirt road. I was expecting a short hike, because the trainee who had invited me had said that her family drives the ten minute walk to church, and she couldn’t imagine them hiking anywhere. However, the road took us first down a hill and then across a river, where a machete-wielding guide met us and led us up a couple more hills until the trail disappeared and he began hacking a path through the undergrowth. After two hours, we arrived at a copse of stones and the small mouth of the cave. Only about half of the group members had light sources. On my way out the door, my host sister had wisely suggested that I bring my headlamp, so I was set, but for those who didn’t have wise host sisters, some of the boys lit sticks and sap and carried them underground. The warm light contrasted anachronistically with the LED displays of cell phones, and the smoke smelled like myrrh. One by one, we crawled and slid through the cave mouth. I was one of the last to enter, and the whole thing was kind of a test for me, because as some of you may recall, I have become claustrophobic in my old age, and haven’t entered an enclosed space since I had a panic attack in the Pyramids. The cave started with a series of successively larger chambers. The first two had to be belly crawled through, and then there was a third that I could crouch through, and finally, once I ducked through a narrow passageway, the cave opened up into a cylindrical room that all twenty-five of us could fit in. The ceiling and floor were populated with stalactites and stalagmites, and over on the edges of the cave, they had fused together to create pillars. Once we had all reached this space, we continued walking in a single-file line over fallen stones and bat guano until, about half an hour and one precarious climb later, we reached a dead end. The torches had been put out because of the smoke, and we walked back with blue shadows and bats flying by our heads. Once we were out of the cave, we walked back to the river we had crossed earlier, and from there, we took a different route that led us to the waterfall. We arrived by a steep trail that ended at a pool edged by moss, stones, and various tropical plants. We went swimming in the cool water, ate packed lunches, and walked back to the paved road all wet.

Well, it seems that I failed to edit better. If anything, this post is longer than the last one. Oops. One final note--some of you may have noticed that I have posted my mailing address. I don’t know where my site will be or how long mail usually takes to get to Honduras, but whatever you send to the posted address should make it to me eventually, so write your little hearts out, or just send chocolate. As ever, comments on this blog are also deeply appreciated. I would also like to send a shout out to Mrs. Torrence’s third and fourth grade class. I heard you guys have been keeping tabs on me, so “Hola,” and I’ll try to cut down on the run-on sentences! If your class has any questions, feel free to ask away. The internet situation here is a bit sketchy, but I’ll try my best to answer in a timely manner.

Ok, Peace Out.


  1. Cara dear - I have finally accessed your blog and so glad I did. You are having quite a time of it, what with leaks, ponchos, amoebas, coffee farm, machetes and chocobananas! I'm so glad you are with a good host family and that you are overcoming that darned awkwardness! Your blog is most interesting and entertaining and it was great to hear of your experiences and adventures. Love you, Diane

  2. i´m not sure that overcoming is exactly the word for what i´m doing with awkwardness, but i´m glad you made it to my blog, and hope that all is well with you! Love, Cara