"My experiences of the past few months will stick with me for many years to come. As for right now, it is difficult to organize all of my thoughts and reflections to gauge how much I have observed, learned, effected and been effected throughout this program. The past months have not only been educational in the context of development work and Honduras but also have provided me with first hand insight into INGO operations and the lifestyle this career would entail." - Arthur Shwab, Class of 2006
January 18: Tegucigalpa: Someone mentioned before I left for Honduras that landing in Tegucigalpa is an experience of its own; their warning did not do much for my preparation. The capital city is tightly encircled by large hills and the single runway of the international airport is one of the shortest in the world. Not only does the plane have to take a steep, fighter-jet-style dive after clearing the hills, it has to brake like one as well on the runway. People cheered in excitement for life as the plane finally came to a stop. Not to dwell on the airport, which happens to be half the size of the U.S. embassy, but I did spend my first four days in the country going back and forth looking for my bag. Right away I received a glimpse of how things are run here. Normally, I would appreciate the laid back, easy going attitudes in Central America. But, when the response from the Continental desk regarding my precious luggage was a nonchalant "try calling in a couple of days" and a phone number scribbled on a yellow sticky note, I was not feeling so cool. In no time, however, I came to realize that I might have even packed too much, considering I got along just fine for days without any of my things. Amidst the excitement of starting my new journey, I quickly rid myself of a worried state, opened my eyes wide, and began to explore.
The Cathedral and the surrounding Central Park of downtown Tegucigalpa was what I assumed to be the entire of this capital city. Bustling, narrow, cobblestone streets filled with simultaneous two way traffic, parking, vendors, and waves of pedestrians summarizes the appearance of the center. Concert size speakers attached to rooftops of rusty, wobbling cars blasting radio commercials, and even larger sound systems outside stores competing with the latest reggae-tone hits by Daddy Yankee, serve as the soundtrack for Tegus.
With rampant unemployment, hundreds of older men sit or wander around the center all day, while little street children run around selling gum or holding up their finger, "dame una Lempira" ("give me a lempira/money").
At the moment, I generalized this to be the case across the entire city if not the country. One would expect to be relieved to find out otherwise, but soon I witnessed that the Central American inequality we all read and spoke of is unsettling. Houses of extravagant size and luxury make the barely breathing shacks directly across the street look absolutely hopeless. And hope and smiles is all these families have. In Honduras, the wealthiest 10% of the population enjoys 44% of the total income while the poorest 10% subsists on only 0.4%. Such statistics are no longer difficult to imagine.
A month later, upon my return from travels in Nicaragua, I was ready to begin my work with CRS/Honduras. Possibly the best work environment I have ever had the privilege of entering. Of course it is too early to tell, not having completed even a full week of work, but I am very content with my initial sentiment of the staff, the purpose of the work, and the office atmosphere thus created. There are 23 people in total with CRS/HN, and a few staff of local partner NGOs coming in and out of the office. The Director/Country Representative, Jack Byrne, was recently reassigned to this region, and is held with utmost respect for the quality of his work. I will be working under Strategic Initiatives Manager, Betsy Wier, the second of two ex-pats here with CRS. From my previous internship experiences it is safe to say that I am very fortunate to have Betsy as my direct supervisor. There is a clear understanding of the purpose of my being here and the learning and practical experience I am to come out with. Her extensive accomplishments in Central American development and rapidly successful career are to be taken as an example. We are still figuring out the details of what I will be working on. In the mean-time I am editing and designing the layout for the Annual Public Summary of Activities FY05. Next week, I will accompany the CRS/Baltimore Auditors in visiting a few local partner NGOs through whom CRS implements the majority of their projects. After working on the annual report, it should be particularly interesting to personally witness the situations, living conditions, and the counter CRS programs of the rural departments of Honduras.
The political situation throughout Honduras' history seldom felt as unstable as in the neighboring countries. This continues to be the case today but should by no means be interpreted as a sound situation. Abuse of power in public offices has always been rampant in this country, and with the recent presidential election of Manuel "Mel" Zelaya of the Liberal Party, corruption is anticipated by many. The election endured difficulties from sore losers that extended for weeks in contention, somewhat reminiscent of the north. Voters found little substantial choice as both the National and Liberal Parties failed to present a sweeping candidate.
The living condition for which I mentally prepared myself ahead of time does not remotely compare to the comfort I have been granted. I am possibly living more luxuriously than I have ever before. Surprisingly, there was difficulty in finding a home-stay until a relative of a CRS staff offered their home: a very reasonable price and walking distance from the office. My host parents, brothers, sister, and housekeeper have been very welcoming; the loud family makes for fun evenings as we all tease each other and play games with the kids. I have not played Monopoly for years and surely not for 5 hours straight!
These neighborhoods are a different world from the Center I was acquainted with in the beginning. We are surrounded by foreign consulates, INGOs, and the U.S. Embassy two blocks away. Here, SUVs marked Honduran Government, UNDP, USAID, and "Mission International" license plates are as common as taxis and public chicken buses; all of which are old American yellow school buses with the school district still faintly marked. Though I entirely did not expect to reside with the comforts of that upper 10%, it has been interesting.
February 9: Tegucigalpa: The past three weeks have flown by even faster than the first two. It is difficult to believe that the 9 week long internship is already past the mid point. I have quickly come to realize that this is just not enough time to actually get into any sort of substantial work. It seems to take a month just to adapt and become acquainted with the system, organization, staff, and programs, while at the same time exploring a foreign culture and lifestyle. The projects themselves take months of preparation and the implementation takes years, moving quite slowly due to the given conditions. Therefore, my experience, up until now, has allowed for only a surface understanding, and participation in mere fractions of the overall projects. As Prof. Quillian made clear from the beginning, this is an experience of observation and understanding of the overall processes of development at the country level and a familiarity with the conditions in which the work is endured, not necessarily a hands on, service type work often associated with Peace Corps volunteers. At least such is the case for me.
I am, nonetheless, fascinated by what I have the opportunity to observe and take part in here with CRS. CRS plays an intricate roll as representative and organizer in the grand scheme of international development. CRS/Honduras, as does each country program, takes on the responsibility of gathering an understanding of the needs of Honduras and representing these needs to the international donors - in grant proposals. Once entrusted with the resources, CRS is responsible for fully organizing the projects down to the implementation level, where local NGOs and volunteer groups execute the physical changes intended. CRS/HN attempts to keep its full commitment to the beneficiaries at all stages of the development process. The vast majority of CRS work is done by nationals, and the projects are implemented by the beneficiaries themselves. The few expatriates serve as bridges between donors and recipients and as voices for international attention.
(January 23, 2006) Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to join the auditors on a site visit to Candelaria, Department of Lempira. The seven hour rock and dust truck path through the hills would have been better tolerated had I not come burning with a high fever, aching all over. To make the morning more interesting, it took us an extra couple of hours to get out of Tegucigalpa; all the exit roads were blocked by big yellow buses protesting newly passed transportation laws (ensuring safe driving) and ridiculous fines and gas prices. Results: the laws are far from being enforced and gas prices are still over $3 a gallon. With a $998 GDP per capita, ($2,656 Purchasing Power Parity method, www.aol.countrywatch.com) and the only viable form of transportation on these roads a gas-devouring pickup truck, no wonder people are protesting. Though it imperiled our work plans, I was pleased to see the Honduran people take advantage of their democracy in peaceful protest. Unfortunately, it is an extremely corrupt democracy and these repetitive strikes are entirely unsuccessful.
The Department of Lempira is naturally beautiful, large rolling hills, reasonably hot weather, with donkey and mule the most common form of transportation. Our local partner, COCEPRADIL, implements various projects in Lempira funded by USDA, EU, etc. through CRS. The organization was initiated years ago as a water development project and community organizer. Though today they implement practically every type of program, I got to see our current water project in the works. The sporadic villages and random houses sit in the inconveniently approachable hills of rural Honduras. Among the sore issues of education, health, and agriculture, the lack of water is by far the sorest. Due to the insufficiency and inconsistency of water from personal, hand-built wells and their extreme lack of sanitation, the project is running pipes from a major rain-catchment at the peak of the hills down to each home, a school and church. The amount of physical work endured by the men manually digging miles of piping trenches across the mountains was quite a discouraging site. What was encouraging, however, was that not only the work done by the beneficiary families themselves, it was partially funded and organized by the families as well. CRS initiated the project, provided specific materials, topographers, engineers, oversight, and empowerment of the community.
This was my first encounter with the remote rural life of Honduras. I thought myself to have been somewhat prepared to witness the living conditions in these areas. But, I was completely thrown off guard when one of the gentlemen working with COCEPRADIL mentioned that a teenage girl living next door suddenly passed away that morning. What happened? What was she sick with? "She was quite healthy" he said, "except for light stomach pains a few days before." And at that, the conversation turned to an entirely irrelevant topic as nonchalantly as it begun. These unsanitary conditions, lack of basic education, and scarce clinical aid allowed for an unexpected death of a "perfectly healthy" teenager to be of no surprise.
(January 27, 2006) The entire city of Tegucigalpa was packed in and around the football stadium for the inauguration of recently elected President Mel. The ones outside listened to the speech over portable radios, vendors gathered to take advantage of the crowds, and the entire place was fortified by fully geared army and police personnel.
My señora sat me down to convey to me her distress with the corruption of politicians in Honduras. She was particularly infuriated with the extremely exclusive elite social class of the politicians and the intermarriage arrangements between the opposing parties. That way, no matter Liberal or National Party's turn at government, all politicians and their surrounding elite still have secured power of police, media, and economic lavishness- spending the country's money on million dollar sweets, favors, and personal business. The discussion could have easily been mistaken for one regarding a monarchist system, the royalty of Honduras.
Though, evidently for Honduras there is little difference between the parties, pride seems to be expressed strictly for the winning party, not necessarily the country. Weeks later, the red and white Partido Liberal flags are still waving higher and larger than any seldom seen blue and white flag of Honduras.
(February 9, 2006) I have joined the health department of CRS/HN in the implementation of a new project entitled Food For Education Initiative (FFE). Communities in the Departments of Lempira and Intibuca will have their schools completely renovated, at which point food will be provided to all attending children, as well as particular nutrients to pregnant and lactating women and newborns of the communities. This project had three successful years in Lempira, and USAID was pleased to fund the project at a larger scope this year.
A team of five of us set out to Kamaska, Intibuca, the location of our local partner COCEPRADII (not to be confused with the unrelated COCEPRADIL- Lempira). Currently we are in the stages of organizing the FFE project, with hopes to begin actual implementation in March. We set out for another seven hour bumpy ride for a few days of interviewing and hiring for the new project. Thirty-some interviews in two, late-night days, and we have our on-sight team. The announcements went out loud and clear in the communities and surrounding municipalities of Intibuca, and dozens of applicants sat outside the COCEPRADII house, with CVs in their hands. CRS is very particular about transparency, and the interview process was precisely that. With exact criteria and grading system, a team of us scored the CVs and then with clear-cut, written out questions we offered the same interview to all applicants for a given position. It was difficult to find qualified people for certain positions requiring basic computer competence, leadership skills, and necessary certifications. It was especially difficult since it was previously decided that three of the four Promoter of Education and Health positions are to be filled by qualified novices, to provide new people with experience opportunities.
As in any hiring process there were uneasy choices to be made that jeopardized the stability of applicants who did not make the cuts. I had a chance to chat with one particular person in such a situation. A pleasant character, he has been working with CRS at various local NGOs for many consecutive years now, doing great work. The disappointing news left him drastically hopeless as he considered his unemployment and the dire financial conditions facing his family in this country. An appropriate song is often played here on the radio: by Ricardo Arjona, entitled El Mojado.
In a little village called Yoro, in the northern Department of Yoro, a strange phenomenon reoccurs almost annually, always taking place in the month of August. They call it Lluvia de Peces- Rain of Fish. A massive storm hits the surrounding countryside of the village with swirling winds and thick, pouring rain. Out of no where appear dozens of live fish right there on the fields, flapping in the rain water. The locals believe this to be a miracle from God, finding no explanation other than fish falling down from heaven. In the 1970's, National Geographic sent a few professionals to report on this world wonder. They discovered that all the fish were approximately the same size, around 6 inches, and completely blind. They identified the species but found no record of it in any surrounding bodies of water. Their theory was that these fish are from underground rivers, never exposed to light and thus blind. How they come to appear every August with a storm is still a mystery. A village in Japan seems to be the only other place in the world to have record of a similar occurrence. A friend of mine here at CRS actually witnessed the storm and caught a few fish from the field. With no scientific explanation yet available, Lluvia de Peces truly is a miracle.
February 24: Tegucigalpa: Another two weeks have flown by in front of my fascinated eyes here in Honduras. I have a feeling, however, that if it were not still new and foreign for me, these two weeks in normal living mode would seem like months. I was away from the office again this week and was again reminded of the "time difference" between the city and the campo.
Though the whole country is in one time zone and the sun rises and sets just the same from border to border, it seems like minutes, hours, mornings, and nights have a different meaning in the remote rural. Tegucigalpa is not exactly a fast paced, high strung environment if compared to other capital cities I know, but every single aspect of life in the campo is in extra slow motion. Unfortunately, this is no different for the development projects attempted in the area, change comes ridiculously slowly, if it ever comes.
While the annual report (APSA) I have been working on is in its final printing stages, I have been attached to the Health team of CRS Honduras. This is the biggest program sector here and its projects tend to cover everything from food to education to medical care to social structure, many of which overlap with other programs. The team is currently focused on Food For Education (FFE) project which is in its primal stages. FFE is a two year project to begin in March covering the departments of Lempira and Intibuca; technically this is a continuation of a similar older and smaller Global Food for Education Initiative that has been re-instated by the USDA with a few alterations. On my last trip to the Department of Intibuca we conducted final interviews and hiring of personnel for our local NGO partner to work on FFE. This week in the Department of Lempira we gathered with 45 new staff from both of the departments for a 3 day introduction seminar. We gave a thorough orientation on the involved organizations: USDA, CRS, and Cocepradil and Cocepradii (local partners involved). We then went through all aspects of the new program FFE, and finally worked on organization, team work, and planning of initial steps. Toward the end of each day's lectures and activities all the participants were asked to give a small anonymous evaluation of the seminar, a few comments and suggestions on the methodology of the presentation and the logistics of the accommodations. Among requests for simpler wording on the part of our key presenter Sandra, bigger portions of food, and keeping closer to the schedule, one person wrote "el gringo esta buenisssssimo!" That was by far the funniest moment of the week!
The last night in Lempira was a true Honduran fiesta! The jokes and laughter and singing are nonstop here, people here know how to have a good time on any financial level - a huge BBQ of a fresh cow cooked on a campfire served with corn tortillas, ranchera songs played on colorful, rusty, handmade instruments, everyone singing, and finally a few cups of guaro for a painful morning.
Speaking of morning, my prior ignorance led me to believe that roosters only sound with the sunrise. How wrong was I, these birds don't care if its morning or the middle of the night to scream their heads off! When I told my co-workers that I could not fall asleep because the crazy "gallo estuvo gritando" (rooster was screaming) they all laughed at me. Apparently, here they say "gallo canta" (sings) not "grita" (screams), unfortunately, I still have not found it to be music to my ears.
On the weekend I have been spending some time with the family. I am always invited to their extended family birthday BBQs and church goings. It has been very nice to get to know all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Each of them has been very hospitable to me in their homes; I have practically become a regular family member, a white member. The photo is of the kids in my host family: Derek, Jaemy and Michael fooling around on the hammock, bundled up in whatever we could find to resist the entirely unexpected nasty weather.
March 12: Tegucigalpa: My time here in Honduras is coming to a close in the next few days. I do not know when I will pass through this part of the world again, but my experiences of the past few months will stick with me for many years to come. As for right now, it is difficult to organize all of my thoughts and reflections to gauge how much I have observed, learned, effected and been effected throughout this program. The more I grasp the less I feel that I know regarding certain issues of this country and its people. The past months have not only been educational in the context of development work and Honduras but also have provided me with first hand insight into INGO operations and the lifestyle this career would entail.
My days here in Tegus have become standard. I wake up every morning to a cloudy day, thinking that a refreshing fog has set in the city. I prepare myself to take a luscious, deep breath, and realize once again I am standing in a cloud of car exhaust. At this point I usually have to jump out of the way of a crazy taxi driver and then cover from the smoke of a "yellow school bus" public bus raging by, doors flying open, people hanging on the sides or even sitting on the rooftops. My walk to work would be a good ten minutes shorter if I did not have to cross the impossible Blvd. Morazan and its crucial traffic light that is bi-weakly experiencing a power outage. I tune out the constantly honking dozens of taxis offering their services and I occasionally have to duck for electric/phone lines drooping half way down to the ground. There are always ice-cream carts to watch out for on the sidewalks, sometimes I treat myself to a Dulce De Leche bar. I pass the same faces on the street everyday, El Heraldo and La Tribuna newspaper stands, hot dog and tortilla venders, a pickup truck full of vegetables for sale, an open van filled to the ceiling with bread buns, little girls with aprons selling anything from chewing gum to full hot meals, the quiet elderly gentleman sitting under a tree selling Churros snacks and Belmont cigarettes, and Aguazul delivering blue canisters of drinking water door to door. Finally, I make it to the office, now fully awake and ready to work. I now have an 8 to 5 office job here, a new experience of its own that I naively hope I can avoid for a few more years.
The past week or so I have been assigned to a few small projects here at the office. I have been rewriting the short Honduras section of the CRS website. To take advantage of my English, I have been helping put together a grant proposal to a Seattle based donor, Water First International. The project is to channel mountain run-off water to 35 beneficiary homes and 2 communal centers in a small rural community in Lempira. The emphasis of the project will also be maintaining sanitation and installing latrines. Aside from that I have been asked to do a small presentation at the staff meeting on photography and success-story reporting of CRS projects. Lack of photos and quotes has been an issue with all of the program sectors here. The problem of insufficient quality, usable pictures came up while putting together the APSA, and continuously comes up in other reporting, proposals, presentations, and website. The stress is also on appropriating local media attention to our project and advocacy issues. Making the PowerPoint presentation on "good photo - bad photo" turned out to be really fun, a bit goofy, but appropriate of course.
Each one here at the office has been very hospitable and supportive towards me. This is the CRS/HN staff photo being printed in the APSA report. They insisted that I be present in the photo as well; I was quite touched.
Since I have been more in the office the last few weeks, I have gotten a chance to get to know some of the CRS staff better, especially Jack, the CR, and Betsy, Program Manager. I am lucky to have been placed in a country office with these two, we hit it off very well, and it is only a shame I am not a permanent colleague here at CRS/HN. Like always, the thing I will miss most is the relationships that I have built with people, oh and of course the warm, sunny weather. Yesterday was a perfect day for a hike, and only 20 minutes out of city is a well kept, beautiful national park, La Tigra. The peaceful silence and fresh air in these hills make for a perfect getaway from the congested raucous of Tegucigalpa. To finish off the afternoon, I was taken out to the finest restaurant I have seen here yet. La Cumbre restaurant sits on a cliff overlooking the entire city, keeping enough distance to still maintain the greenery, the quiet, and the breathable air. Here is a Christmas card photo of us at lunch, Betsy, her baby girl Paloma, Jack and I.
Last weekend I took a short trip to the Bay Islands on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. It is the tourist highlight of this country, and being world famous for its coral and beaches I could not pass up the opportunity. So, after a few buses and a ferry I was on Roatan Island. This was by far the most relaxing, beautiful three days I have had for a long time. It is quite true what they brag about - the gorgeous beaches with fine white sand, turquoise clear water, and palm shade from the hot sun. But, not everyone on Roatan was indulging in the paradise. On the east side of the island, where hardly any foreigner steps foot, reside local impoverished black communities of African, Caribbean and European heritages, and one Garifuna settlement. Their main source of income is lobster diving for export to American red lobster restaurants. The basic safety conditions at sea are so neglected by the fishing companies that work is a known death wish around here. I met an English marine biologist doing research on the Island who let me read some of her transcribed interviews of the families of the lobster divers. The dead bodies get tossed in the fish freezers until the boat is back at shore. The victim's family receives a measly $2,000 and the ways at sea continue without change. "Lobster of a dead man."
Well, that is about it for now. I notice that I am leaving CRS/HN at the most inconvenient time. A lot of exciting events and visitors are coming to the Honduras country program. The day I fly out the regional director and other CRS upper management are flying into Tegucigalpa. Hopefully, I will bump into them at the airport. There are a few last minute things I must take care of here and I will be back in Seattle in no time. I am sure that given a few weeks back in the States I will be longing to leave again. As for right now, I am ready to go home.