Living in Central America (in my case Honduras and Guatemala) is sometimes hard, mostly fun but never boring. Here some of my musings on life in this colourful part of the world where you can always expect the unexpected. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Things I love in Honduras: Doña Berta’s Pulpería

Pulperías come in every size. It’s interesting to think of when exactly a neighbourhood store becomes a pulpería: if a housewife sells batteries, chips, consommé and matches form her living room, is that a real pulpería or not? Or does it need to provide toilet paper, lard, eggs and 2 litre Coke bottles too?
And where does it end? Is my favourite store, Doña Berta´s, a pulpería or a small supermarket?
The store is actually called “Comercial Cruz Bueso”, but everybody (except for the tourists) refers to it as “Doña Berta’s. Doña Berta sells everything. And if she doesn’t, you bet you won’t be able to find it elsewhere in town. She sells, of course, the basics such as rice, sugar, lard, milk products, cereals, cookies, chips and soft drinks. But also pills and syrups in every possible colour and flavour; fabrics, sombreros, diapers, cowboy boots, underwear, sowing supplies and rat poison. Doña Berta offers mattresses, lamps, chips, school supplies and bullets. Food colouring, beer, picture frames and rubber flip -flops. Gift bags, envelops, deodorants, soap, lice combs, coffee makers, pots, pans, knives, make-up, cat food, snow cones and fire water. And wait for the seasonal ofertas: artificial Christmas trees in every imaginable size and shape from October on. Fireworks for New Year’s Eve and other occasions. And for Easter weekend: an enormous assortment of inflatable devices, displayed on the sidewalk, ceiling and any other spot where something else can be crammed in.
Every once in a while I permit myself the time to get lost at Doña Berta´s, savouring the smell of the rubber work boots in the far end corner, or the cinnamon bought in bulk from a campesino. I can spend hours at the store and always find something I’d never noticed before.
I love how the neighbours come by early in the morning in their pyjamas. How the women from the villages up north dress up to come down town to go shopping at Doña Berta’s. How in the afternoons people gather around the cash register to exchange the latest gossip. Doña Berta’s pulpería is the centre of the world. It’s one of my favourite places in Copán.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Things I hate in Honduras: Milk in a bag

It might not seem to be a big grievance, but since it’s a frequently reoccurring one, it actually is.
Milk in a bag.
Why, oh why?
It’s impossible to keep it in the fridge without spilling. It’s not easy to pour from a full bag of milk either. And there is no way you can drink straight out of the bag. Not to mention that they often leak, all the way from the store to your fridge.

I hate milk in a bag.

Not long after I came to live in Honduras, about fifteen years ago, I visited a friend in Tegucigalpa. She had a special milk container. It was just an oval sized pitcher, slightly bigger than a bag of milk, with a handle on one side. So you put the bag in the pitcher, cut off a corner and pour. Perfect! Since then, I’ve never stopped looking for a similar “milk pitcher”. To no avail. Although the country is inundated by all kinds of plastic pots, tubs, buckets and other brightly coloured vessels from China, the milk container seems to be extinct. So my milk bags keep slouching over in the door of my fridge, leaking its contents over jars of olives and pearl onions onto the floor. My dog doesn’t mind, but I do. And there’re not a lot of fun crafts to do either, with an empty milk bag…

And another nuisance, related to the topic: the Christmas packaging. Every year, the two big milk companies, Sula and Leyde, come out with a Christmas edition of their milk bag, usually with a red coated reindeer, some bells and snowflakes. But they always print way too many of those bags, so we drink “Christmas Milk” way into February, when summer has already started. Great publicity.

I’d never thought that a simple milk carton could be a subject of nostalgia…

Monday, February 20, 2012

In the beginning there was fire

 I love it when a solution presents itself in my dreams…

In 2006 I made this painting /collage for an exhibition we had in our gallery at the time, in Copán Ruinas. The canvas measures 135 x 135cm and consists of a thick layer of Honduran and Guatemalan newspaper, paint, photos and writing. The texts are from the Popol Vuh (the creation of the world) and several other Latin American novels and poems (by Gabriel García Márquez, Eduardo Galeano, Rubén Darío and others), all having to do with the creation of the world or the power of fire as an element of development as well as a destructive power. The work is a collaboration between Ronald Reinds, Lise Winters and me. Lise provided the photos of a bonfire in an indigenous community in Guatemala. Just below the middle of the right half, I left open a white rectangle on which Ronald projected his short 8mm film of himself reading a newspaper that burst into flames. We presented the work as an installation during the inauguration, with a mural of flames painted on the wall behind it and embers, ashes and burned paper underneath it.

When the exhibition made room for a new one, the painting ended up in my office. I never even tried to sell it because it is awkwardly big and heavy and besides, without Ronald’s projection, there was this graceless white rectangle on the right. For years I planned to “finish” the work, but never came up with the right solution. Once I thought of filling the space up with an assemblage of burned embers and cinders. I went out of the way to find pieces of the right size of burnt wood, but for some reason never got around to glue them on. 

A few days ago, the work appeared in my dream among many other completely inexplicable images. In my dream it was completely finished... The white of the rectangle was now black, and on it was a Maya glyph representing fire painted in bright yellow, orange and reds.


So, six years after creating this work, I finally finished it. It turned out exactly the way it looked like in my dream…

Ronald Reinds: 
Lise Winters

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Another ghastly record for Honduras

 Honduras made the international news for yet another horrific record: the world's deadliest prison fire in a century. On the night of February 14th, Valentine’s Day, a fire broke out in a prison in the city of Comayagua. The inmates were trapped and 358 were burned to death.
I find this news incredibly disturbing for various reasons. First of all because I can’t think of anything worse than being trapped in a burning building. Secondly, because this should have been prevented. A fire in a prison is nothing new in Honduras. In 2004, more than a hundred inmates died during a fire in the penitentiary in San Pedro Sula. The taxi driver who broke the news to me shrugged his shoulders and said: “Oh, this happens every year….” It does. The prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. The situation is medieval and far from corrective. This is no news at all. With a 250% occupancy of most prisons, it is no surprise that this has happened, whether it was caused by a short circuit or by an inmate setting fire to his mattress. But the fact that it is no surprise doesn’t make it less of a tragedy.
What I find most disturbing of all is the reaction of the people. The press is all over the case, of course, and newspapers brought out extra editions covering the fire with horrendous pictures of carbonized bodies. People all over the country were shocked. But another reaction also surfaces: “Good riddance”. If you read La Prensa or any other Honduran newspaper on-line, you’ll find some severe reactions from the public: “I wish this would happen in every prison”, or “They deserved it…”, and: “A good way to get rid of delinquency…”
A few people express their condolences to the family members of the perished inmates, others blame it on bad politics, but most people seem to think these prisoners had it coming.
That doesn’t surprise me, but it does shock me. I can understand the feeling of satisfaction for another man’s tragedy, especially living in a country where there is so much violence, deliquency and so little justice. But thinking “good riddance” also shows a lack of respect and humanity that so typically characterizes many of the delinquents themselves.
About half of the perished prisoners never had been charged, let alone convicted. For certain, not a single prisoner was sentenced to death, since capital punishment does not exist in Honduras. Not to mention burning to death…
Thinking that this tragedy is a solution is just as much of a tragedy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Diseases in Honduras

You can find some interesting diseases and illnesses in Honduras, some real, some infectious, some imaginary, some serious, some not. 

My thirteen year old sweep-help told me this:
“When my mom was pregnant with me, she was really sick. She had cancer. Stomach cancer. Sometimes it was so bad, she could feel the cancer moving around through her body. She could feel it move in her chest and in her shoulders. Sometimes, the cancer even made her feet wiggle. But fortunately the neighbours came by every day and prayed for her. That cured her. Now she’s fine.”

Also very intriguing, told by yet another one of my little helpers, Saudi, age 13:
“Women with babies have to be really careful not to breastfeed in bed. Because there’s a snake that tries to drink all the milk. I know of a woman it happened to. Her baby son was really skinny and eventually died. What happened was that the snake lived under the bed and at night it would suck the milk from the nipple while it put its tail in the child‘s mouth, so it wouldn’t cry. The baby couldn’t drink any milk and died. The mom got a fever and died too.
This happens a lot.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some thoughts on sweeping

Since last week I pay one of the neighbourhood kids to sweep the street in front of my house every Saturday morning, because if there’s one thing I absolutely hate it’s sweeping the street. It’s not so much the sweeping nor is it the public humiliation of standing in plain view in the dust. I do sweep tons (I’m one of the rare foreigners in Honduras without domestic help) and I don’t care what people think of me, so that’s not it.  I just don’t like it and for that reason never do it, which makes me feel guilty towards the neighbour on the right who sweeps the sidewalk every, if not twice a day. She also devoutly sprinkles the street with water so the dust settles down. The neighbours on the left are way worse than I am, so at least that’s a comfort.
Sweeping is such a part of daily life here. Every morning around seven, when the kids are off to school and men off to work, the housewives of Copán swarm out of their houses armed with brooms and often still in their night attire. And then they sweep. Of course it’s a social event too, in which the latest news and gossip is being exchanged. Not long after, the municipal ladies come by and sweep the street yet again.
Does that mean that Copán is the tidiest place on earth?
Unfortunately not.
It’s true that a lot of the dust on the streets is just sand or whatever dust is made of. And that the street dogs open trash bags and drag garbage all over. But a lot of it is trash is deposited by people of every age and gender, shamelessly dropped wherever it drops, 24 hours a day. So my reasonably logic mind thinks: if mothers teach their children not to throw garbage on the street (and keep their dogs at home), there will be much less to sweep up. The women will save up dozens of hours a year and can dedicate that time to do something else.
But when I proposed this to a few women, they looked at me as if I were crazy. So I gave in and now pay Chepito 20 Lempiras ( more than a dollar, but less than a euro) to sweep “my” part of the street. Not every day, but still.
The neighbour on the right should be happy. Or happier.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What's in a name... Part IV

Honduras is, for the time being, mostly catholic, and the following names are very common:

Santos (Saints)
Concepción (Conception)
Encarnación (Incarnation)
Asunción (Ascension)
Cruz (Cross)
Martiro (Martyr)
Jesús (Jesus)
Santa (Saint fem.)

Interestingly, the name “Jesús” is, as far as I know, not used as a common name in any other language. Years ago I worked at a bilingual school in Copán that was involved in a pen pal project with children from a school in the US. One of them got to write to our student Jesús. It was quite obvious that the American kid was not writing to his nine year old Honduran pen pal! The letter was so heartbreaking and disturbing that we decided not to let "our" Jesús read it…

Also quite common here but strange to me, is the custom to name people after places. Except for Paris Hilton; I can’t think of any, not counting names as Virginia or Georgia that are places named after people. Here some people’s place names…


Then there are colours….


And to wrap up the whole name issue, here some “big” names from world history that you can find in even the smallest villages in Honduras…

Julio Cesar

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What's in a name... Part III

Below some names I’ve come across that are a little strange although some of them quite traditional. Not that people here are ever called by their real name anyway: Hondurans are masters in coming up with nicknames. Nicknames based on people’s physical appearances are quite normal and not offensive at all. Not even if you’re called Negrita (“Blackie”) or Gordito (“Fatso”).  And then there are, of course, the very common abbreviations of names such as Tito, Chito, Pepe, Chepe, Lita, Chus, Chave, Maruca and Pancho. The list is endless.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What's in a name ... Part II

Of course every language has its funny and interesting names. Here are a few very common ones used widely in Spanish speaking countries that are not all that strange until you take a moment to think about what they mean in translation:

Dolores (Pains)
Bárbara (Cruel female person)
Cielo (Heaven)
Aguas (Waters, ponds)
Inocencia (Innocence)
Julio (July, Julius)
Domingo (Sunday)
Purifcación (Purification)
Alba (Dawn)
Clara Luz (Clear Light)
Aura (Aura)
Sol (Sun)
Solangel (Sun Angel)
Ángel (Angel)
Marisol (Sea and Sun)
Refugio (Refuge)
Concepción (Conception)
Esperanza (Hope)
Milagros (Miracles)
Ángeles (Angles)
Salvador (Saviour)
Santos (Saints)
Encarnación (Incarnation)
Asunción (Ascension)
Cruz (Cross)
Mártir (Martyr)
Jesús (Jesus)
Remedios (Remedies)
Mercedes (Mercies, not a car. The car was actually named after the girl!)

Monday, February 6, 2012

What’s in a name... Part I

I was fourteen when I read García Márquez’ One Hundred years of Solitude for the first time. I think it was my first Latin American novel ever and for some reason I felt right at home, as if that strange magic-realistic world has been mine all along, as opposed to the much more sterile and tidy world of the Netherlands I actually grew up in. So much so, that I felt a bit of a panic when I finished the very last page. What to do now? The answer was very simple. I started on page 1 again. It was the first of many re-readings.
I could go on and on about this book that has played such an important role in my life (and which seems to be a complete different novel every time I pick it up, depending on which stage of my life I’m at), but let’s stick to one of the very few things that struck me as odd. That is, odd to me then, a fourteen year old Dutch girl who’d never been any further south than the North of France, reading a book set in the bizarre inlands of Columbia. What I found odd - not the “burning” block of ice, the flying carpet of Melquíades, or the baby being devoured by an army of ants- was the fact that Aureliano’s offspring of 18 sons were all called Aureliano too. They were all born to different women, but still. You just don’t do that. Or so I thought.

After living in Honduras for almost fifteen years, I am of course well aware that naming children here is a completely different process than in Holland. Back there, parents just pick one or two names they like. Occasionally a child is named after their grandparents (like me, Catharina Elisabeth, which were the full names of both grandmothers who were actually called Trijntje and Willie. So “Carin” could have been much worse…). Catholics tend to use “Maria” as a second name (both for girls and boys), but that’s about it, as far as rules are concerned. But it is definitely a big deal and taken very seriously.

In Honduras however, a child often doesn’t have a name until it’s about a year old. I was flabbergasted when I first found out about this (after all, you have nine months to think about it?!), but one sad reason is that many children don’t reach the age of one in Honduras. Burying a child with a name somehow seems more painful than having to say farewell to a nameless baby.

So it is completely acceptable for parents to shrug apologetically when you ask the name of their newborn. You can also safely bet on what the baby’s name will be when you ask a few months later: if it’s a girl, she will more than likely have one of her mother’s names. A boy will be proudly named after his father. And I mean not just the first born, but every child! It’s completely normal to have within one family a bunch of boys called Juan Antonio, Antonio José and Pablo Antonio. I even know of a case of twin brothers called Rafael Antonio and Antonio Rafael!

The repetition of names isn’t as confusing as it sounds. Most people are called by their second Christian name, so if in one family all sons are called Antonio with something else, nobody will yell out “Antonio”. However, I also know of a family where the mother and two of the daughters were called Zoila. To me it seems complicated, but as the daughters explained to me, they somehow always know who is being addressed.

In the town where I live, Copán, names are pretty traditional, although foreign names are becoming more popular every year. They’re usually not written the way they were originally supposed to be written, but phonetically. Here are a few examples:

Deysi (Daisy)
Wilians or Guiliam (William)
Jeampiere (Jean-Pierre)
Dessiré (Desirée)
Bairon (Byron)
Brayan (Brian)
Estiben (Stephen)
Eylin (Eileen)
Leydi (Lady)
Yojana (Johanna)
Yoni (Johnny)
Yobani (Giovanni)

My favourite one is “Vritany” (Brittany) which I saw in big letters on the front of a moto-taxi (Tuk-Tuk), with the “N” spelled backwards. Beautiful!

Interestingly enough, at less than a two hours distance from Copán, still within the municipal limits, people are much more creative in naming their children. I applied fluoride at a school in the tiny village of Nueva Armenia a few times and hence got my hands on a list with the following beauties. And this all from a list of no more than 48 children!

Lurvin, Mayreni, Melitina, Meylin, Yolibeth, Suleny, Erickson, Indalesio, Rodvin, Rosbin, Selvin, Yesli, Jelin, Kerim, Yarleni, Yuri, Natanael, Edman, Efer, Elmer, Garvin, Getser, Hexer, Kenner, Ramiro, Yeiser, Yulian, Rodiney, Estely, Misraín, Avudan, Ovidio, Weslin.

Well. What’s in a name?