Wednesday, July 07, 2010

What’s to love about Honduras

“Don’t disappoint Honduras!” quips Don Obidio whenever he pressures me to visit his integrated farm. As we wind our way down to his isolated farmhouse through his beans, corn, coffee, and fruit trees, he points out a flowering tree that has, he says, mysteriously fallen over several times and miraculously resurrected itself. He’s most proud of his bees, and teases me about being scared of getting stung. “Come over and we’ll get rid of your arthritis!” he chuckles, referring to the curative properties of the bee sting. He’s got 3 types of bee colonies, two of which are stingless, therefore he calls them “your friends”. The highest quality honey is a runny blond serum known for its medicinal properties, said to be good for internal bleeding and eye problems (when dropped directly into the eye). It sells for 6 times the price of regular honey. He tells us about the problem of bee diarrhea, which can shorten a bee’s brief 15-day lifespan significantly. He jokes about taking just enough honey from the bees' storehouse so they won’t get offended and move away. He wants to serve me a dish of pure honey, a delicacy for Hondurans. I just can’t do it, but the Honduran I’m with digs in. Then Don Obidio’s face lights up as he remembers that he was going to show me two certificates he has received from trainings in tourism and bee-keeping, which he has framed and hung on the wall. These dusty prizes are typically treasured here, and often a job applicant will simply take a folder-full of certificates to an interview. The latest of them was from 5 years ago, but his pride is as fresh as if it were yesterday. The light breeze, the warm summer day, and the simple, easy-going humor of this farmer and his family are exactly what I love about Honduras.

You know you’re starting to set down roots into Honduras when:

1. You wouldn’t dream of writing an agenda for a meeting that didn’t start with “open the meeting”, then “pray to god,” and end with “close meeting.”

2. You feel a weird emptiness when a bus isn’t decked out with at least three of the following: silhouettes of impossibly busty women, bitchy instructions to passengers (“ask for security not speed” and “if you miss the bus it’s not the driver’s fault”), stickers of sinister-looking punk kids or Calvin peeing on something, soccer paraphernalia, the Honduran and American flags, signs deferring blame for accidents to religious figures (“This bus is protected by the blood of Jesus”), stuffed animals, or, my favorite, a sign that says “don’t vomit on the floor.”

3. To avoid getting sick you refuse to bathe after exercising or eating.

4. You chalk all illnesses up to “changes in climate.”

5. A meal without tortillas is like jam without bread.

6. Your bottom lip has taken the place of your index finger as the body part of choice for indicating location.

7. If you’re female, you decide you must look awful today if you pass more than 5 men and don’t get a single catcall.

8. You understand the dirty doble entendres in many of Honduras’s most favorite songs, such as El Gusano (The worm) and Arriba y Abajo (Above and Below).

9. Within seconds, you can identify a song as merenge, salsa, bachata, cumbia, or punta and know how to dance it.

10. You refer to a person with a bachelor’s degree as “el licenciado” (the licensed one.)

11. You carry an umbrella in every season, using it as a parasol for shade on sunny days (I’m never giving this one up!).

12. Upon meeting older women you know, you put your hand on her upper arm and kind of pat her a little.

13. When your tummy aches or you twisted your ankle, you go to someone who can “sobar” you. It’s a special type of massage for the affected area that sometimes requires the use of lard.

14.You can distinguish between the “ch!” noise used to shoo away dogs and the “ch!” noise used to get a pretty girl’s attention and make her fall in love with you.

15. You say things in English like “We realized a capacitation on Friday and it passed tranquilly.”

16. The remedy for a bad smell is to spit on the ground.

17. You have learned to do the dead fish handshake, and no longer crush unsuspecting Honduran mens’ hands when you greet them.

Friday, February 05, 2010


Upon hearing my name, the new Peace Corps Volunteers gushed, “So you’re worm-girl!” They were referring to my recent worm-compost project. The nickname is unfortunate; I’m just glad I haven’t done a latrine project yet.

Our compost worms are happily procreating (assuming that’s an applicable term for hermaphrodites) in their new beds of manure and coffee pulp and tortilla crusts (you didn’t know tortillas had crusts, did you?). We are now embarking on phase 2 of the project: permaculture gardens.

The so-called Green Revolution sprouted in the US in the forties and fifties; newly-developed agrochemicals caused agricultural productivity to soar. One of the most famous of the pesticides from this era is DDT, which was used for malaria-control as well as crop pest-control. Of course, in the US, there has been a strong movement against the use of pesticides, and many of the systemic or “red-tag” pesticides have been banned (aldrin, dieldrin, endosulfan, several organochlorines). Environmentalists have raged against “persistant organic pollutants;” these are organic chemicals that persist in soils, and when ingested, in human fat tissue. The US still manufactures many of the banned pesticides, exports them to poorer countries where restrictions are fewer, and then often buys back the produce. In western highland Honduras, the vast cabbage fields are kept worm-free with frequent sprayings of Tamaron. When a field needs to be cleared in order to plant or if the schoolyard grass is getting too tall, the herbicide Gramoxone (Paraquat) is applied. In some countries, Gramoxone has been used as a chemical weapon, much like tear-gas. The WHO has recommended that Gramoxone be prohibited for its acute poisoning effects.

Now, forgive my tendency to compare everything in Honduras to Tanzania. But in Tanzania, people would boast when their cabbages were organic, and shyly tell you the only way they could get their tomatoes to grow in the wet season was by spraying, and did you still want to buy them? There was at least an awareness about the environmental and health effects of certain pesticides. And they were expensive! In Honduras, I feel that the environmental movement has been born, but is taking its sweet time with its first steps. Coffee is the only product that is widely grown organically.

It is extremely rare to see a farmer with adequate protection spraying his fields at a time when he has determined the weather and wind-direction are prime. More common is to send a teenager in a t-shirt and jeans to spray, and then hang the chemical backpack in the yard where the kids play, dump the chemical container by the river and have the boy's pregnant mother wash the contaminated clothes (soap helps many pesticides penetrate your skin). I’ve heard more than one horror-story of pesticide poisoning from drinking liquids stored in unmarked soda bottles. And who will ever know whether the seemingly high incidence of birth defects and cancer in the area or the fact that almost anyone you talk to is suffering from “bone aches” of some sort are related to long-term exposure to pesticides?

There is a cabbage field just above my town’s water-intake in the buffer zone of the Biological Reserve. I’m working with the water-board to buy land to protect the watershed, but buying up the land in question is a distant dream.

When I embarked on a permaculture garden project with the worm-composting group, I didn’t know what to expect. The group members all claim to know the benefits of an organic garden, and unanimously agreed to grow these family gardens without pesticides (we can’t say the gardens will be completely organic because it’s near impossible to find organic seeds around here). But whenever I’ve visited the plots where people hope to plant, they point out some caterpillars or ants and say, “I’m going to spray those.” Then, checking themselves, they say “Oh, but what can I use, because you said these are supposed to be organic, right?” I feel that they actually doubt it is possible to grow without chemicals, and ask them how their parents grew vegetables.

Organic vegetables aren’t sexy. They are often smaller, paler, spotted and pimply. Growing them isn’t very glamorous either; you may have to withstand more bug-bites, spend more time inspecting vegetables and making natural pesticides, and put up with small yields. Sadly, despite my best efforts to convince them, many members of the group may be growing organic just to humor me. On top of insisting on using several permaculture techniques, a leader of the group and I have lobbied to avoid using hybrid seeds. They have agreed, but grumble about the varieties of carrot, which will have a low germination rate, and won’t grow to be a pound each, like the monster carrots to which they are accustomed in this area.

I miss Tanzania, where the biggest challenge was water (scarcity in the dry season, its brute force in the wet season), men didn’t disdain my farming attempts because of my gender, and the default for growing was always organic.

Questions for 18 Rabbit

If I could meet some people from the past, one would have to be 18 Rabbit (695-738 A.D.). He was a Mayan king at the height of a thriving civilization, which was destined to peter out beginning in the 800’s. When the Spanish arrived, in the sixteenth century in Copan, where ruins from the once-great society are found, the indigenous people apparently could not (would not?) tell them anything about the buildings. So, my main question for him would be whether he saw the end coming. Were there signs? Did people think technology would come along to save the day before things got desperate? Did he think his was the most powerful nation in the world? Was anybody freaking out about rising temperatures?

I also like him because, according to our guide at Copan Ruinas, 18 Rabbit broke with the long-standing tradition of tearing everything down and rebuilding every 52 years. Some little voice inside of him might have whispered, “there’s got to be a more efficient way to do this.”

It is really amazing to walk around the ruins and see sculptures of the gods, temples, and nobles’ quarters and the statues of cross-eyed kings. (The kings were depicted as cross-eyed, as this was a major mark of beauty. Our guide said they even placed pendulums so they would touch babies’ heads and cause their pupils to cross.) A successor of 18 Rabbit, Smoke Shell, built a gigantic staircase/bible, which deteriorated enough that it hasn’t been deciphered. It’s still really impressive.

Apparently the Mayans invented a sacred ball game that was the precursor to soccer, but with a couple of twists. The main one is that the MVP was sacrificed to the gods (in your face Darwin! Looks like mortality of the fittest).

So what happened to the Mayans of Honduras? They didn’t just disappear completely. Their descendents are known as the Maya Chortí. Tourists visiting the ruins of Copan may not be aware of their presence in the region, but the reality is they are in a long, intense battle for land the government promised them in the 1990’s. Chortí groups do not receive any benefits from the profits made at the ruins of their ancestors; instead these funds are destined for support of other protected areas of Honduras. From my own experience, racism against the Chortí is rampant, and their attempts at taking over the Ruins in the past to demand the land they are owed has resulted in brutal police retaliation. A major Chortí leader, Cándido Amador, was murdered in 1997, allegedly by local land-owners (*Chandler & Prado, 2006). Several government employees, in charge of working with local groups, have told me of the existence of many groups registered as Chortí who are taking advantage of the label to tap government funds. Due to stigma, many who are probably of Chortí heritage do not openly identify with the tribe. It’s a complicated problem.

One thing that needs to change is the racism. One person at a time, I’m fighting the custom to use the word “indio” as an insult, which essentially equates “indigenous” to “uneducated” or “backward”. A lot more needs to be done; maybe if enough tourists realize the injustice of the system, something can be done.

*Chandler, Gary and Lisa Prado. Honduras & the Bay Islands. Lonely Planet. 2006

Saturday, November 21, 2009

August Medical Help

Here is the link to NY/Help's report from their Honduras trip in August.

Also see my post from August 10 - Earwax and Bear Hugs.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Ok, but what do you actually do?

On Monday I had a meeting for what my host mom calls “cooking with garbage.” Technically it’s called a biodigestor, a giant bladder filled with a slurry of organic waste, from which methane is harvested for cooking. I am waiting for funding to come through for the first biodigestor in the region.

On Sunday I met with a group interested in starting forage banks and stables for their cattle; many of the hillsides in the area resemble grassy bleachers as a result of compaction from the repeated passing of skeletal livestock in search of food. If the project works out, it will be the first project I’ve committed to in which none of the beneficiaries can read or write. The project aims to help the farmers raise healthier animals with less daily work, provide more vegetative cover in this important watershed, and make it easier to collect fertilizer.
That afternoon I met with my worm-composting/organic garden group to organize the building of compost receptacles. The compost is excellent, but even more lucrative is the business of selling worms; they go for a handsome $25 per kilo.

On Saturday I coordinated a day hike with 13 high-school students to the micro-watershed that supplies them with water and to do a mini-study on the trees in the area. 15-year-old girls amaze me the same way mountain goats impress me; they are sure-footed on even the most challenging of rocky or muddy mountainous slopes, despite insisting on wearing strappy fashion sandals. Their communications also amaze me in the same way the Khoisan languages impress me; instead of a dialect riddled with clicks, it’s punctuated with goose-bump-raising shrieks.

On Friday I helped lead a group of high school students to the Biological Reserve to teach them about map-reading, acquaint them with the reserve, immerse them in mud, and orient them for the model-biological-reserve competition coordinated by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. The kids were happy to be tuckered out at the end of the trip, but the next day one of the teachers wrote me a message saying “Girl! Everything hurts down to my fingernails!”

On Thursday I traipsed around a part of the reserve I hadn’t yet been to with the forest rangers, exploring options on where to put a trail in the reserve’s buffer zone. We were charged by some bulls, who had been happily grazing in the part of the reserve where all agriculture is prohibited. Luckily, one of the forest rangers is somewhat of a cow-whisperer, and knew they were bluffing. We passed through fields being burned in order to plant cabbage, and entered the forest, coming upon the delicate tracks of a young white-tailed deer (which is endangered in this part of the world).

On Wednesday I worked on an environmental education grant with a local teacher and got myself involved in a baseline study for a latrine project the municipality hopes to carry out (or to put it bluntly: I have to go around and ask everyone if they have toilets or if they poop on the ground). I am bewildered by the prevalence of this problem; as far as I know in Tanzania, even the poorest households would dig a hole and raise a wall of dry grass to deal with their necessities. Here, there are entire communities where latrine culture hasn’t caught on. I made the rounds to see the results of a latrine project carried out 3 months ago, and one woman was using hers for a doghouse. She kept referring to the latrine as “este animal,” or “this animal,” and saying how she just wasn’t used to it.

On Tuesday I taught an agroforestry workshop to women from a flower-growing micro-enterprise. The group is one of two flower-growing groups I work with; attempting to help their businesses become more sustainable by incorporating trees strategically into their fields, composting, and experimenting with integrated pest management techniques.

My work isn’t always this varied and exciting; I left out some days in which I get to do the mundane stuff (scaling cliffs to rescue endangered wildlife, saving babies from burning buildings and abandoned mine-shafts, high-speed car chases to escape corrupt police, etc.).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Earwax and Bear Hugs

When you’re covered in a tiny 83-year-old Honduran woman’s earwax, it can really make you think. The wax is probably older than you; the woman probably started to go deaf from the buildup before you were even born. You hope that just continuing to flush the ear with a giant syringe of warm water (which occasionally jettisons the waxy-water out onto your clothes) will excavate enough gunk to let her hear things that aren’t shouted in her face. And you marvel at how you ended up in such a random situation.

Medical brigades encompass all types of short-term medical relief, from high-tech lab-equipped groups of 10 or more doctors who rush through patients at high-speed, to simple primary care brigades of 1 or 2 doctors who take their time with each patient. I just returned from a week of translating for the latter type of brigade, which is how I met said sweet, deaf, 80-pound great-grandma. The doctor snapped a picture of us, and the woman may have been partially blind as well, as she asked which one of us was which.

The brigade was up in the pine-forested mountains where people make their livings from corn and bean-farming, lack electricity, cook on open fires in their mud-walled houses, and often haul their own water and lack latrines. The majority of older patients seen were illiterate, and some didn’t know how old they were. Many people walked for 3 or 4 hours to get to the brigade, in order to tell us that walking makes them feel weak and achy. It’s much closer to the way of life in my village in Tanzania than to what I’ve seen so far in Honduras.

The majority of patients complain of chronic headaches, backaches, and weakness, while making swirling gestures around their bodies. It is rarely simple to root out the problem, except when the answer to the question of how many cups of coffee one drinks per day is “about ten.” I also got to see a quick-fix of back problems from a misaligned spine; solved in 3 seconds by the doctor with a bear-hug. Other common diagnoses were urinary infections, high blood pressure, and arthritis.

The brigade I went to is run by an organization called New York Help, which comes down twice a year. Information on how to be a volunteer can be found at, and a report of this brigade will soon be posted there with pictures.

I’ve never officially done any translating before, and I was afraid it would be difficult. It turns out that it comes pretty naturally, the only problem being that at the end of the work day I have a hard time snapping out of it; when playing cards or chatting I still absent-mindedly parrot everyone in another language.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Current Events

I got back from a morning run to find my host family wide-eyed and listening to the car radio at full blast. The occasion? The power was out and the president had been whisked away from his mansion in his pajamas by the army. “There has been a coup,” my host mom said, smiling as she does whenever she delivers news, good or terrible.

Like many of you, I have never been in a small isolated community in a developing country when a military coup is taking place. There is a cloud of confusion, and an ever-increasing tangle of rumors.

Ever since the now-exiled president announced his plans for the “cuarta urna,” this confusion has predominated. The streets were abuzz with opinions, but few people here could actually explain what a “cuarta urna” was. Many thought it literally meant the extension of presidential term-limits, when in reality it referred to a proposed formation of a general assembly which would have the power to change the constitution and possibly increase presidential term-limits. It was the president's unpopular push for the "cuarta urna" that eventually led to his removal from the country. BBC news has a good explanation of these events if you're really interested.

Other than a lot of interesting conversation (among the supporters of the different sides) and a slight feel of anxiety, my little community remains unaffected by the current political situation. We are all simply hoping that in the coming days events occur peacefully.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Road Less Traveled

Giant oaks all dressed up in red and green epiphytes hover over a graveyard of their ancestors in various stages of decay. Everything in the cloud forest is green and slippery with different species of moss. Young vines stretch up out of the ground, seeking a host. Mushrooms poke their vulnerable heads out of a blanket of damp leaves. This is a comfortable forest; you could bed down on some sphagnum moss for a nap.

Never before have my arms ached after a hike. That’s what happens when you set off up a steep trail-less mountain led by a former soldier, and a handful of fit farmers and park rangers. We ventured into the Erapuca Wildlife Refuge, first winding through pastureland, then young regenerating forest, and dodging hidden holes and scaling steep mucky slopes in the older cloud forest. We wound through the “midget forest” where you have to crouch to get through the maze of lichen-draped trees, stopping a few times to motivate those in our party who didn’t want to go on. We finally emerged above the clouds to a view of the whole valley and a lunch of veggies and pasta that tasted like pure bliss in Tupperware. Then we monkeyed our way down, swinging on the reliable trunks and slipping on the misleading terrain back to the truck. I’m left with good memories, complaining muscles, a pound of forest mud in my clothes, a bottle-full of mountain spring water, an urge to sleep for three days, and a bottomless hunger. This is my first trip to this wildlife refuge, and many who are working to manage it have never entered. It is nice to know what we’re trying to protect.