Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Touch of Staying

So, I’m not sure how many of you have heard the news, but somewhat predictably, the progression of my training group has again been stymied by the volatile Honduran political situation. Just days away from our swearing-in date and the following dispersal into our sites, the original president, Zelaya, snuck himself back into the country and has since been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy. This has caused a lot of problems, which range from protests and looting to 24-hour curfews (called toques de queda in Spanish, which literally means "a touch of staying"), and even a short but still 1984-ish cessation of telephone service.

I generally feel quite distanced from the reality of the situation. I find myself relating to the curfews more as snow days than as the major life-disrupting disturbances that they have been for many Hondurans. Various host parents were stuck in Tegucigalpa and forced to walk for hours until they were able to get picked up by relatives who broke the curfew to drive out and get them. There have also been runs on gas stations, grocery stores, and banks, but most of these have been in the larger cities. Where I am, about half an hour from the capital, things have been peaceful to the point of boredom, which, considering the alternative, is great, even though I still find myself whining about it.

We heard the first rumors of Zelaya’s return on Monday morning while we were in class. Then our lunch period was extended, and the trainees with internet spread the news that he was back, was in the Brazilian Embassy, and that his supporters were surrounding the building. Our next session was cancelled, because our guest speaker was supposed to be the Peace Corps Country Director, but as the Peace Corps Office and the Brazilian Embassy are in the same neighborhood, she was unable to extricate herself to meet with us. As the afternoon progressed, we learned of a curfew that would begin at 4 pm. Our session ended early, and we waited for the bus driver to arrive. While we settled into the bus seats, a friend asked me to try calling the United States because her phone was giving her a strange message. I tried, and was notified that the number did not exist. Other people tried their phones, and we found that service both outside and within the country had been suspended. The feeling of being so suddenly cut off was disorienting.

When we arrived in our neighborhood, we tried to watch the news, but all the stations here are very politically affiliated, and it was hard to get much information. At around 5:30, a video montage of Honduran scenery accompanied by jolly marimba music cut across the stations and announced the beginning of a news conference to be given by the interim president Micheletti. The conference was mostly incomprehensible to me, but I did learn that the toque de queda had been extended until 7 the next morning. After the marimba music returned to accompany the segue back into regular programming, I went to a friend’s house to get a better translation of the news and speculate about its implications for our future. Then we went to another house in the neighborhood where other trainees were sitting in a carport celebrating one guy’s birthday. After darkness fell, the power was cut off, and we pulled our chairs into the yard to look at the stars. Before I went to bed, I learned that the curfew had been extended from 7 am to 6 pm. I turned off my alarm clock.

Tuesday was the first of two days without classes. Most of the training staff lives in Tegucigalpa, so even though things are peaceful here, it would have been extremely difficult for them to have made it to the center. I spent the two days doing mild but dismayingly exhausting hikes with a friend, and filling the time with visits to other trainees, dominoes, and attempts at cooking. I made some misshapen but edible tortillas, and then, filled with confidence, helped fry the platanos at my house for dinner. Without even knowing that I was responsible, my six year-old host sister refused to eat them, complaining that they were too hard, and asking who had cooked them. My host grandmother tried to make excuses for me, saying that they just weren’t ripe enough to begin with, but she wasn’t kidding anyone.

On Thursday, we had a shortened day of training, the entirety of which was concentrated on learning the Honduran National Anthem. We left the center at three, and a group of us went directly to Valle de Angeles, a nearby town, to eat pupusas and be away from our houses.

For those of you who are wondering, our swearing-in date has again been postponed. The new date is set for next Wednesday, with the goal of heading out to our sites the following morning. Don’t tell Honduras, though, cause it will probably do something to throw another wrench in our plans.

Tomorrow, classes resume at the normal time, which means that I have to get up at 5. It also means that I have a language placement interview at 7:30, which I’m pretty sure is the worst time ever to have an interview, especially in a different language, so wish me luck, and I’m off to bed.

P.S. I wrote all that on Thursday night, and have a few updates. First of all, I had my interview, and it was a bad time, but I still managed to advance to the level of Intermediate High on the Foreign Service Institute or something scale. Congratulations. Things seem to be settling down a little, or, perhaps more accurately, stewing. We´ll see what the next week brings. We had a 6 pm to 6 am curfew last night, but it was probably because it´s a weekend.

I wish you all well!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Site Announcement

Hi all,
Just wanted to drop a quick line about my site, where I will be moving next week. I learned more details on Thursday, and everything is official now. I´m going to be living in a tiny town near the Sierra de la Botija (Mountain of the Hidden Treasure...or something) Protected Area. It´s in the deep south right by the border with Nicaragua. It sounds like I´ll be pretty busy when I finally get settled in. My work areas include working with small scale farmers and a women´s group, promoting organic fertilizers and compost, some work with chickens and pigs, a latrine project, micro-watershed management which includes all kinds of things, and possibly working with a health center. All this is in the future though. First I have two months in my site where I´m supposed to run community diagnostics and get to know people.

I´m not going to have electricity, which doesn´t bode well for regular blog postings. If you don´t hear from me for a while, it´s not because I´ve forgotten you. It also doesn´t mean I don´t want to hear from you, even if you think things are really boring where you are. With twelve hours of darkness a day and without a lot of Spanish fluency, I´m sure to be quite acquainted with boredom. Write away, and when I do someday check my email, it will be like Christmas morning.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

FBT Wrap-Up

Well, I can’t believe it, but we’re about to finish Field Based Training. Our swearing-in date isn’t for a while yet, but we’ll be spending the last two weeks in our first training site closer to the capital. I started this entry a couple weeks ago, but due to an unexpected illness, I wasn’t able to access the internet last week, so this update’s going to cover a lot of territory, inefficiently as always. I guess I’ll just dive right in:

A few weeks ago, we were learning how to make insect collections, and I received a plastic purse to catch a bug in. I spent a few minutes unsuccessfully swiping at flying ants, and then a friend and I took a walk behind the house we’ve been having classes in. We found a log and decided to flip it over, and there we discovered two toads and a tarantula! So of course we had to catch the spider because we were making an insect collection after all, and after much jumping and some shrieking and a little prodding with a stick, I pushed it into the purse and triumphantly carried it back to class. The next step was to euthanize it with nail polish remover, which seemed kind of mean, and then we realized that tarantulas are kind of too juicy to pin, and later on I learned that technically, they aren’t even insects, they’re arthropods, which are apparently different, so after much discussion, we returned it to its stump and ended up not killing anything.

Speaking of arthropods, I went back to the cave with another group of trainees and a few host siblings including my host sister. I was almost in charge of finding the way, but we ended up finding the guide we had the time before, which was a good thing, because in the last two weeks, all the fields around the path had been burned and I would have been lost. The hike took a lot less time because the group was smaller and didn’t contain any four year-olds. As I slithered through the entrance, I realized that my headlamp batteries were dying and I could only see about two feet in front of me. Very unfortunate. Anyway, I was one of the first people in the cave, and as I waited for everyone to squeeze through the first few chambers, one of the Honduran girls screamed beside me that there was a snake. I looked at it with my dying light and at first I thought it was just a bat, but then it unwound a bit and did indeed become a long brown snake with a boa-like head. The biologist in our group made it into the chamber and deemed it not poisonous, although this didn’t really reassure any of the Hondurans. Then one of the guides came with a machete and we had to convince him not to kill it, which took some doing. We continued into the cave, walking more slowly this time and finding, along with the snake and hundreds of bats, some large crab-like arthropods, which were neither spiders, nor insects, just in case you wanted to know. We also learned that if you tap on stalactites, they resonate like bells. After spending about an hour in the caves, we were presented with two options for reaching the waterfall: easy or fun. We opted for the fun route, which lived up to the hype and entailed walking and climbing up the fern and moss covered stones and streambed below the falls until we reached the pool.

A few days before the cave and waterfall expedition, the whole PAM group went on a camping trip to a small village named Rio Negro, which is only about 40 minutes from our training site, but way up a mountain. We visited a Volunteer who is expanding the eco-tourism industry there. The first thing that I and five other trainees did was teach a class on biological classification to some tour guides in training. I was responsible for talking about the Plant Kingdom, which apparently is what it’s called, and which I stayed up quite late reading about the night before, because as it turns out, I know very little about biological classification, and even less about tropical cloud forest ecology. Luckily, I augmented my scanty knowledge with some colorful illustrations of epiphytes, and no one asked any questions. Then I shared my almost-insect pinning skills with everyone and called it a day. During the presentation, other trainees pitched our tents in the yard of one of the more experienced guides. Just when I went to bed, some other PAMers came by our tent and talked us into going on a night hike to look for jaguarondi, which they said were like jaguars, but smaller. After some confusion, I left my headlamp in the tent because the guide said something about how they weren’t allowed, but that turned out to be false. I wasn’t the only one who had been confused, however, so we staggered ourselves between those with lights and tried to keep up. The jaguarondi search also turned out to be a misunderstanding. What we actually did was walk a ways into the forest, and then leave someone, and walk a little further and leave someone else, until we were all spread out alone in the dark along the trail. This was fine. We got to see lightening bugs, but after half an hour, the charm wore very thin. Finally, the group returned and we picked up more people on the way back. The highlight of the hike came when someone in front of me took one step off the trail and fell wordlessly into a ravine so deep he had to jump up so we could reach his hands to pull him out. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt, which was especially fortunate because we started laughing about immediately after it happened. The hike continued until everyone was collected and we all went to bed. In the morning, we hiked with the new tour guides up into the Protected Area. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, the Honduran government instructed the people to cut down the forests in order to produce better coffee. There are now a handful of 400 year-old trees left, but the majority of the hike was through younger trees. Nevertheless, the walk was green and beautiful. The grand finale was a giant waterfall which provides the water for four towns further down the river. Its spray filled the air, and we played at its base for a long time.

The day after returning from Rio Negro was deemed “Cultural Day” on our schedules. Each Spanish class had to prepare a presentation about something cultural to give in front of what we thought would be our assembled host families, but what also turned out to be the students and teachers of the local elementary school. The four of us in my Spanish class toyed around with talking about Ultimate Frisbee or juggling, but while we were in Rio Negro, my three fellow classmates decided that our cultural contribution would be line dancing. The dance we were to perform was called “Slappin’ Leather” and involved a lot of counting and also a lot of coordinated movement, neither of which are my fortes. After demonstrating these deficiencies over and over, my classmates decided that if I couldn’t get it together, I could just explain the concept of line dancing and sit down. However, when I got back to my house that night, my host sister and I practiced for probably two hours until we could do the whole thing without messing up. In the morning, we had a quick rehearsal, and I shocked everyone with my immense improvement. Then the show got underway with a surprise performance by the fourth grade class. They filed onto the outdoor stage wearing matching white colonial dresses and suits decorated with green and red ribbons. The girls had wreaths of flowers in their hair, and the boys wore straw hats. Then some music started and they wove in perfect patterns like dolls. They performed three different dances, and the last one was the Punta, a traditional dance from the north coast of Honduras, which has a complicated rhythm and to the uncultured eye generally consists of shaking your butt a lot. I had the great fortune of being invited to dance by one of the boys, and since I could see no way of getting out of it, I followed him on stage and then just kind of stood there and asked a couple times for him to tell me what to do, without answer. So that was pretty mortifying. I did try a couple half-hearted hip twists, but I wasn’t fooling anyone, and when the dance ended, I went and sat with my host family in the back of the audience. A class of trainees demonstrated four-square, with limited success. I don’t see it catching on. Then another class showed some powerpoints on barn hexes and the temperate climate, but the outdoor lighting unfortunately wasn’t conducive to projection. When my class went, and I mostly kept it together, and after demonstrating the steps, we convinced maybe 40 onlookers to come onstage and participate. Together we danced to the entirety of the “Boot-Scoot Boogie,” and afterwards various Hondurans expressed an interest in learning more. Score 1 for line dancing. The morning was full of other presentations, and for lunch, each trainee and their host family was supposed to prepare a typical dish. My host mom, knowledgeable as she was about my cooking abilities, elected to cook our tamales (which, by the way do exist and are different from both tamalitos and the tamalitos + meat, or “mantuca,” that I wrote about in my last post) on the day that I was away in Rio Negro. Score 1 for edible food.

Other class/community activities of the last couple weeks have included returning to the fourth grade class where I am now a superstar and teaching a marginal class about forest appreciation, going to Tegucigalpa for a morning to officially receive Honduran residency, participating in a 4-hour HIV/AIDS prevention workshop with a class of high schoolers, and watching the disappointing Honduras vs. Mexico soccer game while eating a sickening combination of fried plantain chips with fresh salsa, mantuca, popcorn, and a strawberry birthday cake. I also spent the weekend, Monday, and part of Tuesday sequestered in my room with a probably viral infection-induced fever, headache, and dizziness that have yet to fully quit my system.

On the insect front, I just stepped on a giant cockroach that jumped out at me from my suitcase. While sitting here at my desk, I have also squished a spider, several speedy mites, a big red biting ant, and I batted away a giant black flying beetle. My recent aggression toward the insect realm comes on the heels of three bites on my hands that incited allergic reactions, a hidden spider in my shoe that I first thought was gravel but later found squished across my sock, a big hairy tarantula (or maybe banana spider) that my host mom swept off my wall a few nights ago, and a biting ant infestation last night during a prolonged electricity outage.

And speaking of electricity outages, today I received some concrete hints about the site where I will be living for two years. It’s kind of the last place I expected, and I’m having some trouble getting my head around it, but from what I and other trainees have pieced together, it sounds like I’m headed to the southernmost department of the country. Supposedly the climate is similar to that of Tegucigalpa, but all anyone ever says about the south is that it’s really hot…like desert-ishly hot, so I’ll believe it when I feel it. I will be the first volunteer in my town of 500 people sans electricity, and it sounds like I will be involved in sustainable agriculture, micro-watershed management, environmental education, building latrines, and doing some sort of work with a women’s group. So those are a lot of directions.

Anyway, it’s late and I’m tired, so best wishes to all!