Thursday, January 21, 2010

Christmas Past

Thank You!
Thanks to everyone who sent me Christmas presents! I’m overwhelmed by the amount of packages and drawings and letters and peanut butter that I’ve received. I feel very special to have so many people sending me things, so thanks a lot, and I should add that I’m good on peanut butter for at least the next few months.

Christmas Time Was Here
Let me start by saying Merry Christmas to all! I know it’s come and gone, but I hope it was great. As you can imagine, Christmas here is much different than it is in the US. It kind of snuck up on me in the middle of an abnormally hot December, and passed both quickly and slowly. In the nine afternoons leading up to the 25th, the Catholic church held a series of ceremonies called Posadas, which means “Inns.” Each celebration was held in a different house and began with a few people standing inside and the rest standing outside the closed front door. Someone on the outside would knock, and the inhabitants would answer in a song that went back and forth between the parties and explained the search of Mary and Joseph for a place to stay. The song ends with the couple’s acceptance into the house and was followed each afternoon by a short homily and prayers. Then coffee and bread were handed out and we all returned home. The final Posada was held on December 24th in the church. It began later than the others, at 6:30, and was conducted by candlelight, less for the ambiance and more for the lack of electricity. Another Christmas tradition is setting off fireworks, so the ceremony was punctuated by flashes and cracks and the air smelled of gunpowder. I learned the day before Christmas Eve that the big day for celebrations is the 24th. This proved to be true. Most households celebrate on the 24th by cooking a traditional food called “nacatamales.” These are made from a batter of ground corn, spices, and margarine, which is then spread on a steamed banana leaf, layered with rice, potatoes, chicken, and other variables, folded up into a rough cylinder, and boiled until solid. However, this year, my host family decided to switch it up and cook arroz con pollo, so I wandered over to a neighbor’s house to watch her make the nacatamales and feel more traditional. It was a good choice because, while nacatamale quality can be a bit of a mixed bag, hers were delicious.
On the 25th, I ate a nacatamale for breakfast and then found myself without further plans. I spent most of the day hanging around my house while my host family listened to Christmas carols. The majority of these were American songs translated into Spanish, but with a much higher occurrence of the word “Navidad” and fewer references to snow.

Although my Christmas was rather anticlimactic, I rang in the New Year with a bang by meeting up with a group of other volunteers in the western part of Honduras, where we camped out for two nights and climbed the country’s highest mountain. After a harrowing multi-day journey from my town to Gracias, Lempira, I set out on the morning of the 30th with a group of 11 volunteers. We climbed switchbacks for about 5 hours before arriving at a brand new campsite complete with a shelter and latrine. The group got to work setting up tents and starting cooking fires, and before it was dark, we all had dinner and beds.

The next day, we intended to get up really early and hike to the summit, a trip that was estimated to take about 5 hours and involve some rigorous climbing. However, we didn’t really get on our way until about 10, and the hike took about 8 hours, was a long day. The hike itself was rough but worth it. After practically crawling up a few hours’ worth of switchbacks so steep that hands were required, we reached a relatively flatter but still not very flat section of mountain that after a few more hours led us to the peak. We ate lunch in a cloud which lifted a bit right as we left to reveal mountains below us, and then walked back down the trail through trees covered in years of moss and bromeliads. The hike back was faster, largely because it involved a lot of sliding down the crazy slope we had just climbed. That night after dinner, we made plans to try to stay up until midnight, but then someone looked at their watch in the dark and found that it was 6:45. However, five of us stuck it out and celebrated the change of years by throwing pine needles on the fire and watching it blaze up for a few seconds. Then in the morning, we packed up our camp and flew down the mountain in a couple of hours.

Honduran Things I’ve been Doing
It seems that now is the season to paint/whiten houses in Honduras. For most families, this involves gathering a specific variety of rock, which must invariably be hauled from “way up there,” crushing it to powder with a wooden post, sifting it until it is nothing but dust, adding a little bit of water, and slapping in onto the adobe walls. The day before Christmas Eve, I invited myself over to a friend’s house to try my hand at it. She let me be involved in every part of the process, and I learned surprising things such as the fact that the stones are lavender, the mud is mauve, and the finished walls appear white once they dry. I also found that rubbing mud on walls is a great way to exfoliate your hands, if you’re into that. Just don’t do it for too long.

A couple of days after Christmas, I was invited by a friend to visit her coffee field and help with the harvest. I went to her house in the late morning and then we waited a while for her nephew to pick us up. The nephew arrived in an oversized red pickup truck that was made to seem even larger by the fact that he was 13 years old and could barely reach the pedals. However, he said he’d been driving since he was 11 and knew how to manage the manual transmission, which is more than I can say. Also, the road is so rutted that it’s impossible to go more than like 5 miles per hour, so I got in the truck and we bounced down the hill to the slope where the coffee was. Picking coffee is reminiscent of picking blueberries, except that the plants are taller and branches have to be eased down so that the berries at the top can be harvested. Also, you’re not as tempted to eat everything you’re picking, although coffee berries do have a sweet layer between the skin and the bean which is called the miel or honey which is sort of good eating if you don’t mind sacrificing the harvest. We wandered up the slope picking coffee that had been left behind to mature and then we reached a jungle area where other neighbors were working. By the time we arrived, it was pretty much time for everyone else to leave, so I ended up only picking about an eighth of a dollar’s worth, but it was a good experience.

Brave Dogs and Tremendous Children
First, I would like to explain that there is a word here “bravo” but it does not mean the thing you say after an especially stirring performance of something. My Spanish-English dictionary defines it as “brave or fierce” but in the vernacular, it means “something that will attack you.” It is most frequently used when describing dogs that bite people, in contrast to “no es bravo,” which means they will only bark and charge.

Another false cognate is “tremenda,” which can be translated as either “tremendous” or as “terrible child who cries all the time.” The latter definition makes it a synonym to “necia” (literally “foolish”) and “malcriado” (literally “poorly raised”), and is frequently used by community members to describe the children at my house. In this post, however, I will use the word in the English-sounding sense.

In my quest to survey the majority of the households in my town, I have regularly been accompanied by small children, generally girls between the ages of 5 and 9. They are usually conscripted by their parents in a conversation that goes something like, “There are fierce dogs at the next house. Borrow my young child to keep you safe.” Despite the fact that numerous children have shown me their dog-bite scars, I have yet to cultivate what is probably a healthy fear of local dogs. In my defense, at this point, I’ve visited about 80 houses in my community and have yet to be bitten, although one dog did kind of ram me with its head and then run away. Therefore, what usually happens upon my arriving at a house is that the little girl gets very nervous, and the dogs bark and circle, and then the home owner comes out and calls the dogs off. Then the child gets to sit through my awkward interview and, if they’re really lucky, continue with me to the next house to repeat the process.

The somewhat undefined commitment of this accompanying has led to some confusion on the part of the borrowed children. Once, I went on a hike to visit a string of houses on a road going vaguely in the direction of Nicaragua. On the way, I collected a neighbor boy who has frequently gone on house calls with me and his unfortunate city cousin. We walked down a long hill and I visited 6 houses, but then, right when I was about to go to the last house, my neighbor informed me that his cousin was crying. I looked around a fence and found that this indeed was true, so I asked why, and was told that the cousin had decided that I was kidnapping him and taking him to Nicaragua. Considering that it had been a couple hours and we had been walking in the direction of the border, I suppose that this was a reasonable guess, but, after assuring my neighbor that I wouldn’t get attacked by dogs and I knew my way back, I released them both from my service.

Other packs of tremendous children have led me up and down hillsides, over creeks, through fields brimming with ticks, and into caves. Thankfully, there has been no more crying. I now enjoy the distinction of having my name shouted across valleys and lakes by children whose names I do not know who see me from afar and want to know where I am going and if I want accompaniment because there are brave dogs, you know.

I wrote that last section a long time ago. I have since finished my latrine survey and submitted a grant proposal. Now I am in the process of notifying community members about who is and who is not in the project.

A new crisis has arisen because this year was abnormally dry and the water source that feeds the town is not sufficient. This means a lot of dredging cloudy water from stagnant streams and hauling it to houses. There is a large ranch nearby that has a good water source, and now I’m working with the local water board to try to get permission to use it.


  1. Great to hear from you Cara!!


  2. JoAnna (Hand) WilliamsJanuary 21, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    As always I really enjoy reading your blogs! I have decided you should write a book!! Your blogs are so interesting and very well written! I had a great laugh about the brave dogs and the tremendous kids:). Glad you are doing well Carina!



  3. I agree! You should write a book!


  4. Good to see your back in action Carina. Remember, to us you don't really exist unless we see your words.

    Hope all is well in the south. In the other south things are going well as I prepare for Colombia. Only a week left! Take care of yourself. I'll always remember that weird conversation we had. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.