Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My first Christmas letter

(Author's note:  The other day I had to idea to write a Christmas letter and actually mail it out from here in Honduras.  However, I realized that A) it would never make it to the US until after the New Year and B) that would be a lot of money on postage.  So, I'm putting on my blog where no one will probably read it anyway!)

As I was cleaning up from a meeting this afternoon I had many a Christmas carol stuck in my head and was whistling oh so merrily.  It cheered me up and made me feel Christmas-y for the first time this year!  That being the case I thought to myself, if there were ever a year when a Christmas letter was in order, this is it.  The whole of 2010 was consumed by some part of my Peace Corps experience.  Beginning the New Year knowing I would be coming to Honduras, making last minute preparations, leaving home in February, getting to Honduras and meeting new friends – both American and Honduran, having three months of training and finally getting to my site – home for two years.

My work experiences have been varied.  Some were very fulfilling, while others (beyond my control) got deserted before we were even able to help.  Teaching marketing, production and how to write a business plan to high school kids has been my favorite experience thus far.  I’ve taught accounting basics to rural women who make art from pine needles.  Getting these products into the Capital and the US has been trying, but I’m still working on it.  We’ve started a weekly market in the central park where small businesses can have a chance to sell.  If anyone wants something designed in Microsoft Publisher, I’m called upon because they think I’m genius at it.  My works include business cards, brochures, flyers, programs and information sheets.  I was asked to be part of the local committee of Special Olympics, but declined offering to help whenever they have events.  (I can’t take the position that a Honduran should be filling.)  Our not so successful events included trying to get micro savings and loans started up in many rural communities who don’t have access to banks.  We tried too many, too fast.  It’s hard to get to these places without transportation and convincing the people their money is better off in savings than hidden in their home is very difficult.  I also worked on giving HIV/AIDS prevention presentations to kids from the age of 10 – 21 all throughout the month of October.  It’s a global Peace Corps initiative and I never imagined myself doing the whole condom on a banana bit since it’s nothing I ever had to do in school, but it’s so necessary here (teen pregnancy is out of control – and this is considered a Catholic country).  And as with any good professional, learning is always encouraged.  I’ve been to more workshops than I can count – Women’s Social and Reproductive Rights, Training Trainers, Effective Communication, Health Issues Concerning Women and Basic Business Skills.  Future work plans include writing a grant to fund part of a community day care center – either building materials and construction or furnishing, depending on what my community partners want.  I’m also trying to make the proper contacts to bring a Chamber of Commerce to my city.  My ideal to do list will also include my working with the high school a lot more (since I really like the youth so much!).  I want to start coaching volleyball, create a Camera Club (similar to what I was working with back home before coming down), and create a green house business where the high school students in Ecology and Commerce can each flex their skills.  Ideas are always changed when talking to community partners though, so we’ll see.

Nuances of daily living in Honduras include cold showers since water heaters don’t seem to exist in this country.  While welcoming in the hot summer months, my showers have gotten progressively harder to deal with since about mid September.  It’s not exactly cold here, but it’s not warm either.  I think today may have been in the mid 60s.  Now, take into account that where I live homes aren’t insulated, are made of cinder blocks and have tin roofs that don’t exactly meet the walls at all points – and add in a cold shower.  It’s pretty bad.  Yet, I do it – daily.  Due to the aforementioned building codes (or lack thereof) I’ve seen my share of geckos, cockroaches that could double as small rodents, actual small rodents and even a tarantula all in my living quarters at some point in time.  It’s definitely not a daily, nor even weekly basis and the fact that we’re in winter now helps, but I’ve certainly seen more of those things than I ever had in the US.  Variety of food is lacking and my favorite food is a baleada – doubled over flour tortilla filled with refried beans, a sour creamy/buttery/slightly salty dairy product and queso seco.  A good one will cost 8 Lempiras.  Oh, in case you’re wondering what I make here it’s this:        L. 5,953.60 per month.  Based on an exchange rate of roughly L. 19 to $1, I earn about $313.35 a month.  That is more than sufficient for a single person to live on in this country.  Well, here where I live – and that’s exactly what Peace Corps bases it off of.  There are pay grades based on which part of the country you live in.  Walking and public transportation are the only forms getting from point A to B.  It’s like living in a big city in the US, only here the people don’t have cars because they’re poor, not because it’s inconvenient.  Oh yes, my Spanish has gotten really good.  I suppose I could call myself bilingual, but I still feel that’s a stretch.  Some people still talk too fast and have horrible accents, which I doubt I’ll ever understand.  Hondurans also have way more slang than any other group of Latinos I’ve been around, which makes getting really good hard.  Yet, until I ever know how to say words like turkey baster, dip stick, coolant, nozzle, eyelash curler, or mesh in Spanish, I’m not going to proclaim myself bilingual.

I know I’ve already made some lasting relationships.  The first host family I lived with for the shortest time of just under a month was by far the best and I’ve been back to visit them many times.  A large family of both parents and four children: two sons 23 and 19 and two daughters 18 and 11 along with the oldest son’s wife and its one big happy family.  My closet friend here where I live is a 24 year-old, on again/off again single mother of an amazing little 2 year-old girl.  She’s an elementary teacher and used to drive a motorcycle.  The coolest of my Peace Corps friends is a Jewish girl from Oakland.  Due to our last names falling in line alphabetically, we were roommates our first few nights in Miami, lived near each other the first few weeks and have kept each other sane through many stressful moments living and working in a third world country with a different culture.

Sorry, I couldn’t sum up 12 months in a single page like some people do.  It’s quite obvious I’ve had some amazing experiences.  Of course, there have been some challenging and stressful ones too, but we don’t focus on that stuff at Christmas, right? :)  I’m so thankful for this experience, learning about myself, getting outside my comfort zone, meeting new people I wouldn’t have normally met, challenging myself in ways never imagined and living my dreams!  I wish you all the best this Christmas season and hope your years have been as rewarding as mine.  May God bless you now and always!

Merry Christmas!!!

Hasta la proxima vez...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

La Madrina

Similar to an American couple getting their marriage license signed on their big day, a Honduran student’s diploma will not be conferred upon without the signatures of two witnesses.  They use a much cooler term than witness here – padrinos.  Yes, the godparents. 

Madrina, the graduate and padrino - her older brother.
The past Friday I was the madrina for my 18-year-old host sister who was graduating with general studies and a degree in computation.  My duties officially began on Thursday when we had to go to the high school and wait in line to sign the two official documents as a hired photographer snapped memories of the momentous occasion.
The beautiful graduate!
 The grand ceremony was held Friday evening at the local community center.  (Gymnasiums or large auditoriums are not part of many, if any, Honduran schools – elementary or high school.)  Rather than neat rows of chairs there were tables set up throughout the whole room which had been decorated by each graduate for their family and friends.  The important people up on stage weren’t just teachers and the principal.  Oh no, also in attendance were the mayor, chief of police and fire chief.  Things are serious here! 

The ceremony began with a rendition of the Honduran national anthem.  Now, this is something that is part of the general curriculum in the Honduran education system.  Kids are tested on it at the end of 6th grade, high school AND college!  Knowing the national anthem generally holds more importance than other basic fundamentals such as spelling, basic math skills or writing a decent essay.  That being said I could not believe how quiet an auditorium full of Hondurans singing their national anthem was.  A conversation at normal decibels would have been louder than the singing coming from that room.  Later when one student performed a popular song karaoke style, her audience participation was greater than that of the anthem.

Certain members from the “We’re important people” table shared some words and encouragement for the graduates before they took their oath.  That’s right, an oath: right hand raised, repeating what the principal says and left hand on the Honduran flag.  Oh yes, if you screw up here, you’re failing your country.  No pressure, really.  

Getting ready to take the oath.
There was a special presentation in memory of a classmate who had recently been kidnapped, raped and murdered.  Yep, that’s the truth of it.  Just short of graduating this small class of 19 kids had to deal with that kind of loss.  I remember how tight knit my senior class of 28 was and couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like losing someone right before graduation.  It was quite sad.
The special presentation for the fallen classmate.

 Following the oath and special presentation came the handing out of diplomas.  Pretty similar to what you’d see in the US.  Names are called, hands are shaken, the awkward smile is forced for too long while the photog takes his pictures and everyone goes on their merry way.

To wind down the official ceremony all graduates were sent back to the tables with their family and friends for a champagne toast.  There were a few tense moments there as a roomful of people who usually never touch champagne set to the task of uncorking the bottles.  To my knowledge there were no cork related injuries that evening.  Crisis adverted.
An 18-year-old serving champagne!

See what I'm talking about?!

And of course, no Honduran event would be complete without dancing.  The night wound up with dancing to the DJ’s best reggeton compilations and plenty of awkward couple moments and aftermath of the girls who like to dance but are, more or less, prohibited by jealous boyfriends/husbands who don’t like to dance.
At least I had a good time dancing!

It was even fun to get 'little sister #2' out on the floor!
 It was a great time, a new cultural experience and I got to see my favorite host family for a few days in one of my favorite Honduran towns.  Hopefully I’ll be able to come back in another six years when my other “little sister” graduates!
Congratulations to the grad!

Hasta la proxima vez…