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.



  1. Hi Cara, I read the whole post! I feel fine, though, but thanks for caring.:) That was a lot of traveling you did. Do you have hiking boots? Are you restriced by Honduran customs as to what clothing you can and cannot wear? Are you in a place with electricity? If not, how far do you have to go to find some?

    Take care Cara and be safe and stay hydrated.

    Love ya,

  2. Great posts, Cara! When you get back, you and I and Tom can have a sweating contest!

    Your Favorite Uncle Mike

  3. Kirsten, good to hear from you, and thanks for persevering! I'm glad to finally have settled down. Living out of a suitcase for months on end got a bit tedious. I do have hiking boots, but they seem to have worse traction than the flipflops commonly worn by Hondurans. I'm not very restricted with my clothing. I have to wear long pants instead of shorts, but that's ok cause there are ticks all over the place. I do and don't have electricity. My house has solar, but it only powers lights, so I can't charge anything. Electricity is only about a fifteen minute drive away, and supposedly there's a project in the works for my town. We'll see...

    For a second, I was like, which Uncle Mike is my favorite, but then I thought over your challenge, and I figured it out. I actually think of you frequently when I'm sweating my way across the Honduran countryside, because I have great memories of you playing basketball. I look about like that. You're on! Thanks for dropping me a line!


  4. Hi Big Sis,
    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! (a week late) I'm glad to hear that you survived and will not be dying in 30 years! I miss you! Are you doing anything fun for thanksgiving? I wish you could come home. Mom and I were already talking about how weird it is that you aren't here. did you get to dance with the birthday dad last weekend? I thought of you while eating indiana food : )!

    Just wanted to say HI

    love you!