Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Walking and Riding and Going to the Beach

I walked to Los Planes yesterday. I was supposed to leave at 8:30, but my counterpart predictably came two hours late, and we didn’t set out until 10:45. Her daughter walked with us, with her black umbrella for the sun. Mine is blue and broken, but I walked with it anyway. My youngest host sister came too, riding a horse with no name and a bad back. We started out on foot paths that eventually led to the road. My counterpart’s daughter flutters around her words so that they sound more like bird than Spanish, and for a long time, I felt like I couldn’t understand anyone. The sun was out, but I was the only one sweating. I had spent the morning drinking water in preparation, and I had a liter with me, but it wouldn’t be enough. Around every corner, we could see new views. La Botija was to our left and mostly hidden, but down on the planes through the dust and haze, we could see Choluteca and the other protected area of Guanacaure. I was glad I didn’t live there. We walked in the shadow of Pantaleon, a steep sided mesa that has always seemed very far when I’ve looked at it from my house. My counterpart planned a picnic on the top, and I thought about how I never wanted to walk this way again. I had no energy. The road swerved downhill steeply at a knee-grinding grade with loose rocks and gravel that I slid on several times. I think I will be remembered as the volunteer who almost fell down a lot. It is a defining feature. We turned onto a deep footpath that led even more dramatically down the side of the mountain. I was surprised when the horse followed us. The path had a width of maybe 8 inches and a depth of a couple feet, and I thought about why horses have such long legs. At around 1:00, we arrived at an integrated farm that I wasn’t expecting. A chasm ran by the house, and my counterpart told me that it was created by a landslide from Hurricane Mitch. The house was beautiful. Years ago, a son carved flowers and a house into the wooden windows and door, which are painted green. The woman who lived there wore an orange blouse that complemented the green, and the light that came in from high windows filled the room. She served homemade rosquillas, which are small, hard doughnut-like crackers that taste a little bit like Cheeze-its. They came on saucers with organic coffee from the farm, and were especially delicious because all I’d eaten so far that day was a bowl of cornflakes. While we snacked, I talked with the farmers, and afterwards, the husband took me on a tour. Where the landslide was, he has planted a variety of fast growing leguminous trees, the leaves and bark of which can be used as pesticides, fertilizer, and chicken feed. Once we were through the woods, we reached a section of coffee shaded by fruit trees and a yucca field with stone terraces to conserve the soil. Next came an organic corn field intercropped with beans and seemingly growing out of pure gravel. This field was terraced too, in a time consuming and painstaking manner that we had kind of learned about in training. We had also learned how hard they are to build, and how most people aren’t willing to do the work. It was extremely impressive. We followed a path down into a wooded lot full of spiny cedros. These trees are popular for furniture and construction. They are frequently harvested illegally, and are becoming rare in Honduras. 1,000 trees were planted 30 years ago as part of a reforestation project. Most of the trees have survived, and the air in the forest was cool and dark. It was hard to return to the sunny uphill path, but we soon ducked into another shaded coffee section and then arrived back at the house.

The rosquillas were good but not terribly filling, so when we were served lunch at about 2:00, I was thankful for about one minute before I realized that the two five-inch strips of reddish hairy thing were not fruit as I had been hoping, but were instead I guess pig skin, although all it consisted of was a thick, soggy layer of fat and bristles. They also came with a bowl of espaghetti, which is a distant and unpopular relative of spaghetti. In Honduras, the sauce is usually ketchup from a bag, mixed with MSG and either mayonnaise or mantequilla (a Honduran cross between sour cream and butter). Although not soggy pig skin, it’s still gross. I forced down the majority of the espaghetti, each bite followed by a rapid bite of tortilla to clear the palate, and after slicing one of the strips into pill-sized cubes of hairy fat with my spoon, I managed to swallow about a quarter of the total before running out of tortilla and telling my counterpart that I was really sorry, I just can’t eat so much when it’s so sunny out. She cleared my plate and I felt ungrateful.

After lunch, the wife took us through the orchard of mangoes and bananas. She pointed out strong smelling leaves and spices, and we found cilantro, ginger, and pimiento, which can be boiled to make tea. A little girl who lived in the house walked with us and fell in love with me. I gave her things to smell and once, when I took a step, I felt her fingers catch in my hair because she had climbed a rock to reach it.

At around four, we left the house, loaded down with probably twenty pounds of bananas, two large squash, a cactus fruit, and a purse full of pimiento leaves. We climbed the steep, torturous trail up to the road, and then continued climbing as the sun went down. We arrived home before it was too completely dark, and after eating the cactus fruit and dinner and drinking two glasses of tea, I went to bed.

My computer died before I finished writing all that, and now it’s been over a week. After that day, I had a day to recover, and then resentfully walked to another village in the same direction but further, although the hike was marginally less terrible. Once I arrived, I was handed a heavy cold tamale and a cup full of Pepsi, and told by the annoying guy who kept talking to me that I was “very sweaty,” to which I responded “yes, that’s clear” and possibly rolled my eyes. I learned upon arrival that the “community meeting” we were attending was actually a Catholic church service. This time we didn’t leave until after the sun had set. We walked back by the light of my counterpart’s cell phone, the stars, and lightening from a far away storm that didn’t reach us until I was at home in bed.

This happened on a Friday, and over the weekend, my host sister-in-law who is a teacher, invited me to a parent-teacher conference on the upcoming Monday. The only catch was that it was an hour-long horse-ride away, and we would be walking because, although I had been asked on a nearly daily basis if I could ride, I had yet to convince anyone that I actually could. I agreed to go, and then finally on Sunday night, I asked the whole family if I could please just ride to school. After much mumbled discussion and being asked twice more if I could really ride, they agreed. In the morning, my host brothers rounded up a horse and a mule, and once they were saddled, we set off. I had the mule, for reasons that I’ll explain later, and I had the interesting experience of remembering long forgotten riding techniques as I bounced down the road. We arrived in the schoolyard and tied the animals underneath some shade trees where they were soon joined by the horses of other attendees. Then the meeting began. It was in one of the two classrooms, and my attention came and went over the two hours that it lasted. I was introduced early on, and then the PTA introduced themselves to me. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the repercussions of the government’s decision to close schools a month early with no warning and a mandate to grade students on their punctuality, commitment to learning, and behavior, as there was no longer time for exams. At the end of the meeting, there was a round of applause for the two teachers. Then we applauded the members of the PTA, and finally, someone called out, “and for the Northamerican!” and I was applauded as well. It was uncomfortable.

Once the meeting broke up, we milled around for a while, and I thought about how I was hungry. I quickly learned my lesson, because it turned out that somehow, someone knew I was coming and had prepared a lunch for me. Unfortunately, the lunch consisted of heaps of rice, espaghetti, and five thick tortillas. This espaghetti was markedly greasier than the previous torturous farm lunch, and both it and the rice tasted somehow more like lighter fluid than anything else I can think of. With the knowledge of my recent pig skin failure fresh in my mind, however, I determined to eat all of it, even though it involved some gagging and much disgustedness. I found that the best method for forcing it down was by exhaling as I rapidly chewed and again followed each bite with a bite of tortilla. Thankfully, there is an interesting tradition in this region of Honduras, wherein the guest is generally seated alone in a separate room from the rest of the family, to eat unaccompanied. For this reason, I eat all my meals in the dining room while my family eats in the kitchen. In a school setting, I ate in one classroom while all the parents and teachers ate in the other one. I finished the whole plate and felt a tiny bit of satisfaction but mostly just sick. Then I hopped on my mule and rode back home. We trotted a lot more on the way back. At one point, the mule farted a lot, and my host sister-in-law said that it was because I weighed so much, but then she told me that it was true, I can ride. She apologized for giving me the mule, because they are less comfortable to ride, it’s just that horses are more nervous and run faster, and the family wanted to be sure I knew what I was doing. So hopefully that means that in the future, I get the horse.

The following day, I went to San Marcos to visit the organic coffee cooperative that sells to Allegro coffee. Oh, if anyone lives near a Whole Foods and reads this, they should go buy Allegro coffee from San Marcos because it’s really good, and the fact that the coffee is organic means that the source of the longest river in Central America has that many fewer chemicals in it. One of the coffee farmers drove me, and I rode with my nearest neighbor who I really like hanging out with. She is on the board of directors and took me on a very short tour of the Cooperative’s headquarters. Wonderfully, the tour included coffee and an interesting explanation of the process of grading the coffee beans. In the afternoon, I ran errands and ate a lot of junk food, and then I and the other volunteers in the area got together and played a very unsatisfying game of Monopoly in Spanish. We were all spending the night in town because we had a regional meeting the next day, and transportation to San Marcos from the surrounding villages is rather inconvenient and unpredictable. In the morning, we headed out for the island town of Amapala, by way of various other larger and hotter southern cities. Amapala is located on Isla de la Tigre, which is off the Pacific coast. It requires a short boat ride, and by the time we arrived, the mix of heat, motion sickness, and junk food made me too sick feeling to do much except sit in the hotel room and play Tetris on my phone. Very sad, I know. I stumbled outside to eat dinner, which, though tasty, did not make me feel any better, and then took my second shower since coming to Honduras and went to bed. The next day was spent in the Honduran equivalent of a conference room/banquet hall. A main focus of the get together was for the new volunteers to have a chance to meet and network with the other volunteers in the region. We also talked about security and health and ate ceviche and paella. It was nice. On the second morning, we headed home. However, the three of us who live in villages around San Marcos got back after the proper buses left, and spent the night in San Marcos again. We cooked dinner together and watched Arrested Development DVDs and played a drawing game.

After so many nights out of my site, I was a little bit worried that I would be restless upon my return. However, it turns out that I’m really happy to be back. The stars here are bright, and last night, even though the moon was only half full, my shadow was crisp against the ground as I stood on the hill behind the house to get phone reception. I think that I’ll soon be working on a survey for community members who are involved in a latrine project, which is great because it’s necessary and useful, and still gives me a good chance to get to know the community better. I also did a community mapping activity with about 35 people, mostly because it’s kind of Peace Corps homework, but it went better than I had anticipated, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. The only bummer is that the moth population in my room has increased exponentially and I’m not sure, but I think they might be eating my clothes.

And to those of you who stuck it out and read all the way to the end of this post, way to go! I imagine you feel a bit like I did after I finished the giant plate of lighter fluid-soaked starch. Sorry, and thanks all the same.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Quick Note About My Address:

I have one! It's over in the sidebar. I know it doesn't look real, but apparently it works. It takes letters take longer to arrive than packages, and packages take about two weeks, so send me those. Also, my birthday's kind of coming up. And I really like chocolate and peanut butter.

I Made it to My Site...Unbelievable.

Well, Readers, it appears that my training group beat all the odds and swore in as volunteers last week before heading to our respective homes for the next two years. The day of swearing in, I met my counterpart, an energetic and outspoken woman who somewhat intimidated me with her expectations of who I would be and what we would do together. In the afternoon, after hours of orientation information and speeches, we were bused to the American Embassy were we had a ceremony and cake. Afterwards, we went to Valle de Angeles to celebrate at a pupusa restaurant. Pupusas are kind of like quesadillas, except that the tortillas are much thicker and connected on all sides. To make them, you form something like a bird’s nest out of ground corn, and then in the middle, you put cheese, beans, meat, or whatever you want, I’s your pupusa. Once it’s filled, you smooth over the top with the corn meal and cook/fry it. Anyway, we ate those, and at the late hour of 9, we headed to our houses for a final night of packing and goodbyes, and if lucky, sleep.

I finished packing at 10:30 or so, which was fortunate because my neighborhood was the first bus stop, which meant that I had to get up at 3:30 or so, hug my host mom goodbye, and drag my ridiculous amount of luggage out into the road. The bus was late, so we didn’t load up until 4:30, but enough with these petty details. Eventually, we picked up everyone and trundled off to Tegucigalpa to meet with our counterparts and follow them home. After a few hours of waiting in a bus station, my counterpart and I headed off for my site. About five hours of mild motion sickness later, we arrived at the intersection of the main road and the dirt road that leads to my village. We waited another hour or so for a ride to bring us the rest of the way. While we mostly sat on stones by the side of the road, I was briefly evacuated while a herd of cattle, guided by a group of cowboys complete with hats, boots, and pistols rode past us. Eventually, my counterpart’s friend arrived with a truck, and we finished the journey to my new house at about 4 pm.

My family here consists of host parents, two sisters, one sister-in-law, two brothers, a 2 year-old granddaughter, and 3 year-old grandson. The house is comfortable, and I live in a brand new little room in the back with a view of a pasture in a valley. It’s a dairy farm, which is awesome cause I likes my milk and cheese. Also, I kind of have solar power. I have a light in my room, but unfortunately, I’m unable to charge any of my gadgets. So I’m still figuring that out, and in the meantime I’ve used 41% of my computer battery typing this post and downloading photos. Good one. Anyway, I have spent the majority of my time in the house being really awkward and eating, but I did have a good conversation with my family last night, so maybe we’re on the road to less awkwardness. My host mom has gotten over her conviction that I don’t speak Spanish or like Honduran food, so that’s progress. For the first couple of months in our communities, Volunteers are supposed to just get to know the community, do some information gathering, familiarize ourselves with local organizations, and not dive into projects. I’ve visited some neighbors, which has been nice because I feel like I’m doing something, but weird because we’ve mostly just sat on porches, consumed sugar, and not had a lot to say. My counterpart is less intimidating these days. She’s really motivated and I think she’ll be great to work with.

The village is beautiful. There is a ridge behind my house that you can climb to reach a view across the mountains and valleys of La Botija and into Nicaragua. The actual village is very spread out and doesn’t really have a center, so I have yet to get a full understanding of its boundaries. Houses are connected more often by foot paths than by the dirt road that winds through the town on its way to other places. This makes for scenic walks and difficult navigation. Yesterday, I climbed up to a place called Miravalle, or basically an overlook. On a sunny day, it’s apparently possible to see Nicaragua, the Pacific Ocean, and El Salvador, but unfortunately, a cloud was blowing in and the view filled with mist. We visited a friend who lives on another dairy farm at the top of the mountain and drank organic coffee and ate fresh oranges, bananas and fruit from a guanajiquil tree.
While I waited for the bus the other day, my host mother found a bunch of small holes in the ground. She said they were from an animal that comes out and bites the cattle, and I asked if it was like a rat, and she said yes. I decided the holes were probably made by a mole or similar class of rodent, but then my host brother put some pine needles down the hole and twirled them around. He got excited and said you could see its legs, so I crouched down and looked, and then a tarantula the size of my hand lunged out. Also, I’m pretty sure that the spiders in my room in Field-Based Training weren’t tarantulas, even though my family said they were. This one was browner and fatter, and more tarantula-like. We continued to wait for the bus, and my host relatives discovered several more holes and teased out three or four more before the bus arrived.

Yesterday, I climbed to the overlook behind my house again because the sky was clearer. I could see a whole new volcano behind the mountains I had seen before. I stayed for a long time taking photos and being pushed around by the wind, and as I walked home, the sun set behind me.