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…

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Leaving Honduras

This is quite a moment... I have known for months, almost years...
But now it is Facebook Official.

I'm leaving Honduras.

To read more about why, when, how, etc., see my new blog, Painting the way!

And oh, please order some art work, will ya?


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Murder by numbers

A couple of months ago, Honduras made the news with the disgraceful feat of having the highest murder rate in the world. It will probably scare off some tourists who were planning to vacation in Honduras, but if you live here, those numbers don’t mean an awful lot. Of course, everybody knows that the situation is bad and much worse than a few years ago. But still, the violence is very much restricted to certain neighbourhoods in the big cities. Copán Ruinas is still, at least relatively, a very peaceful town.

But those numbers actually do mean something.
I grew up in the centre of Amsterdam and for years I lived in a neighbourhood that was at the time considered to be the most problematic. I’ve seen my share of drug abuse and petty crime, but I can’t say that I know of anyone being murdered. Not a single person.  I don’t think I know any second-degree victims of violence either. But that’s not so strange. Amsterdam has almost a million inhabitants. In 2011, of that entire population, only 19 people died a violent death.

Copán Ruinas has about 10,000 inhabitants. And I personally know a lot of people who got killed. Seriously, since I started thinking about it, I’ve been making a mental list of victims, and the list is long. I don’t think anybody is counting, but for 2011, the list might easily be twice as long as the one for Amsterdam. Some of the people on my list were known to be mixed up in things they shouldn’t have been involved in, which explains their violent death, although it doesn’t justify it. But most of the victims were normal people, minding their business, trying to make the best out of life.

I think there are very few families in Honduras that haven‘t been somehow touched by violence. So many people have mourned the loss of a loved one and know the feeling of anger, frustration and sadness. What an impact that must have on family life, on children, on future generations! And that while the violence itself keeps on spreading like an infectious disease.

Maybe it is not so good to see violence as an entity. Because in the end, violence is not an uncontrollable alien factor, but us humans who are committing all that violence. And we are the only ones to stop it too.

Let’s please put an end to it…

This one’s to Abner, beloved son, cousin, brother, uncle and friend of so many

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rules of flirtation

To keep things uncomplicated, this post is about heterosexual man-to-woman flirting only.

In Honduras men ALWAYS flirt with ANY woman. Whether it is a serious attempt to get into her panties or a half-assed effort to get her attention, Man will hit on Woman, Always and Anywhere. It doesn’t matter how old or attractive the woman in question is, or whether she’s obviously already in the company of a male member of humankind. Man plus Woman equals: let’s give it a try.

I don’t know what kind of unwritten machismo rule states that this needs to be the case (I’ve even seen gay guys hitting on women, just for the heck of it), just that it can lead to very uncomfortable situations. For women, that is. In their defence, men in Honduras are not touchy-touchy, so usually a “No, gracias” is sufficient to keep men at bay.

What I don’t understand is why men flirt the way they do. I mean, I know the objective, but don’t they know there are better ways to get a woman into their bed? Do they really think we like to hear tsssschuh- tsssschuh- tsssschuh on the street, or being whistled at?
Do obese men think that leaning against a wall, one leg bent, T-shirt folded upward over the chest, one hand rubbing a fat belly while groping their balls with the other, IS A PRETTY SIGHT TO WOMEN?????
Do men really think it’s attractive when they noisily clear their throat of phlegm and then spit the slimy stuff out on the street right in front of you, before they address you with a sexy “Hi baby…”?
Isn’t the officer aware that when I go to the police station to report a robbery, I’m not quite in the mood for flirtation?
Why doesn’t the kid at the market understand I’m much more interested in him putting bananas in my bag, then the banana in his pants?
Why keep on hitting on me when I have just lied that I am married and have a ring to prove it? (Most alarming answer: “That’s okay… I can come by when your husband is at work!”)

Another thing that baffles me is that apparently flirting doesn’t have to be age appropriate. Me myself, I’m not that young anymore, but regularly get whistled at or commented upon by old guys, obviously, but also by young men that could be my kids, age-wise. My grandchildren, even, if we take in account the young age women here usually have their first child. I find that quite disconcerting, especially if it goes beyond flirting. Not once but twice in the last few years, love was declared to me by a fifteen-year old and that completely freaked me out. In both cases I did my very best to tell the guy off without hurting his feelings too much (it was a brave thing to confess after all, if not illegal!). “Oh, okay”, each one of them said and that was the end of it, for them. I guess they just had to try and to be rejected was no big deal. However, the whole thing left me deeply disturbed.

I also find it troubling to meet ex-students of mine in a bar who start to flirt with me. Ex students from when I was a kindergarten teacher!!! That was fifteen years ago, so those kids are about twenty know, at least legally adults, but since I’m also fifteen years older than I was then, I guess you can see why this is slightly upsetting. Especially if they come up to you with a seductive smile and call me “Miss”.

Yesterday I saw that old man again who once offered to visit me while my husband is at work. He’s been flirting with me forever (“to” would be a better preposition in this case than “with”), but you’ve got to give him credit: the guy is old (could be my great-grandfather!), toothless, unshaven and he stinks, but never gives up. But yesterday for once he actually didn’t flirt with me, but said:
“I see married life has been good to you!”
Puzzled, I asked him why.
“Because you look fat!”

I felt like killing him after all.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is machismo women’s business?

"But of course women can be blamed for machismo!" exclaims María Eugenia de la Vega. "Look how they treat their children: a crying girl is comforted, but a little boy who cries gets scolded because real men don't cry. A boy squatting down to pee is told that he shouldn’t, he’s not a girl! And you should see how sons are being served like princes at dinnertime, often by their own sisters!"

If there’s someone who knows about machismo, it is María Eugenia de la Vega, a woman from Chile with fifteen years of experience in the gender field, now working for the United Nations in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She is joined by her namesake, María Eugenia Dalorso, an equally strong woman who two years ago left her homeland Argentina because of the economic crisis. Destiny led her to Honduras, where both she and her husband could get a good job, he as a doctor, she as a company consultant.
"Even in Argentina, where the culture is not as
Latino as in Honduras, machismo reigns. At every level. My father was not exactly macho. On the contrary. He was director of a thriving company with quite some employees. I can not remember him ever insulting or humiliating anyone, as typical bosses often do. It was my mother who manipulated and threatened the workers that they better follow instructions, because if my father would hear, he would get mad and then…
For the world she painted my father off as a brute and a tyrant, while he was just a friendly chubby guy. But for some reason that image didn’t fit in the picture of how my mom thought things were supposed to be.”

As foreigners they agree that the situation for women in Honduras is many times worse than in their own countries of origin.
De la Vega explains: "There is a lot of abuse within the family here, both sexual and physical. It is so bad that many men are convinced that women actually like it to be beaten up, and women think it is normal."
"Another thing that strikes me," says Dalorso, "is that there is little solidarity among women. I see this a lot in my work among highly educated women. Once they figure you might form even the slightest threat, they turn into vicious monsters that’ll do anything to overturn you. I'd rather work with men. Although their comments drive me crazy: ‘But why do you work in the first place? Doesn’t your husband have a good job?’”

"And to continue about men," says de la Vega, "of course, the problem of machismo is the behaviour of the men themselves. But you can hardly blame them: they really don’t know any better! They get it spoon-fed since they’re little baby boys! But therein also lays the solution to the problem, although it is not short-term: education and information. I've conducted workshops where the men took over the role of women. They had to cook, clean, and take care of the children. After three days they were completely exhausted and forever cured of the idea that the women stay home all day to do less than nothing. That acknowledgment is very important to women. Since they don’t get paid, they often feel that domestic work has little value. That is one of the first things I try to teach them: the importance of the role they play in everyday life. It's hard enough as it is, in a country where water often doesn’t come from a faucet, but from a stream a mile away. Dinner doesn’t come from a package bought in the supermarket. There’ll only be tortillas on the table if the corn is sorted, dried and grounded. Not to mention the herd of small kids that follow their mother everywhere."

Rosalila Villela is a beautiful woman with a round face and an infectious laugh. She is 37 years old, married for 15 years and mother of two daughters of 13 and 5 years. Her family came to the town of Copán Ruinas two generations ago, looking for a better future than their small mountain village could offer. Rosalila now cooks and cleans at a restaurant. If you hear her talk to her colleagues, you’d think she is very progressive in her thinking. She addresses a male colleague with names that are not considered quite decent. And she doesn’t like machismo. Why?
"Because it’s so much work for us women: his laundry needs to be done, the food must be on the table on time. Yes, he is the absolute master of the house. Don’t get me wrong, I have a good guy. He doesn’t hit me and we share all costs in the household. If he has work, that is, because he has no permanent job. That is why I work too. And I can do so, because my oldest daughter takes care of her sister and makes food for my husband. That would have been different if I would have had sons instead. I wouldn’t be able work. What? My sons preparing lunch for my husband?" A heartily laugh. "Well, why not. But you would need to teach them from the very beginning, because once big, they’re hard to change. Machismo is so much part of our culture here. My husband never ever picks up a broom. ‘I'm not gay,’ he says.

I think the situation with other families is pretty similar. I actually don’t know. Outside my job I have few friends. I just don’t have the time for it. In the morning I clean peoples’ houses. At one o'clock my shift starts in the restaurant, until nine-thirty at night. But I have a lot of support from my family. We all live together in the same house and everyone watches each other’s children. If there is a problem, I discuss it with my mother, my sisters or sisters in law. It's better that way, because if you tell someone from outside the family, things often get blown up. At work it’s different. That’s a place where I joke and gossip.

I think machismo can be solved through education. Mothers should be more involved in their sons’ education. In general, boys have too much freedom. That’s why you see them hanging around, doing drugs and alcohol.

If we would have enough money, I'd rather stay home than work. To take care of my daughters, but also to keep an eye on my husband. Many men cheat on their wives. That's because the wives are at work, so the men just hang around. And one thing leads to the other. That’s why I don’t want my oldest daughter hanging around on the streets. I send her out to run errands sometimes, but I don’t want her to linger. For that reason I took her out of school, last year. The high school is located just out of town and I had no control over her. I heard she ran around with boys, and I didn’t like that. So I had her stay home. But I also wanted her to study and have a better future than I have. So now she’s back in school. My youngest daughter started kindergarten this year. Yes, I surely hope that there is little less machismo in their future. That’s why I always tell them: don’t let the boys get to you!"

Suyapa Mel
éndez was still very young when her father abandoned her family for another woman. Her mother stood all alone for the care of Suyapa and her younger brother and sister. When Suyapa finished elementary school, she started working to increase the meagre income that her mother was able to make by cooking for other people. Suyapa sold Maya figurines and cheap necklaces at the entrance of the archaeological park of Copán. Later she worked as a waitress in a restaurant and in her spare time she started a radio course to get her middle school diploma, which she obtained after six years. At age twenty-one, she started high school in order to get a diploma that would allow her to continue studying at university, with a specialty in business administration. There was now less financial pressure because her younger sister had begun to contribute to the family income too and her mother, Doña Alicia, had found a new love in her life, even though soon that love turned out to be more costly than beneficiary.  

Suyapa' greatest wish was to study at university; a dream that came true when, thanks to her own efforts and perseverance, she obtained a one-year scholarship for a private Catholic college in Santa Rosa de Copán. A new world opened for her.
"There’re more girls than guys studying here, and there is hardly any discrimination between the sexes, let alone machismo. Things are completely different at home. My mother barely has any freedom. She can never go out with us, because she always must be home in time to prepare dinner for her husband, or to iron his clothes or whatever. He does nothing all day. I mean, really nothing. If he needs something, he sends someone out on an errand. He only gets off the couch to go out drinking.  But most of the time, his friends come over to our place to drink. My mother just accepts it all. I told her a thousand times that she should go out with us every once in a while, that for once in his life he can serve his food himself. But my mom is so used to the system, too, she just can’t do it. In that respect, my sister and I are much freer. We help where needed, but otherwise we do what we want to and won’t let a man order us around. But at the same time, my mother is also quite emancipated. Although she herself finds it hard to say no, she raised all three of us the same way. My brother must pick up his own socks; just like me and my sister. I often tell him that he shouldn’t be like his father, that irresponsible asshole.

Although I had never planned to submit myself to any man in the first place, university has been a huge revelation. Even the priests are against machismo and say that the man might be the head of the family, but the woman is his compañera, and both have equal rights.
There are so many strong, professional female students here! There is considerable solidarity among the students and not as much rivalry and envy as I had expected. Women are more responsible and have a tremendous fighting spirit. I think that is why there are more women than men studying here. You can find prove of this theory at law school: it is the easiest department of the entire university and there you will find mostly men!
Personally I feel I have the same opportunities as a man and that’s how I live my live. There is much you can do about it, just don’t accept that macho nonsense. I wish more women would discover that secret!"

"Again, the answer is information, education and the way you raise your children." says María de la Vega. "Especially in rural areas where it is difficult to discuss gender issues. It makes no sense to drive a wedge between men and women. Women are women, men are men, and we simply can not live without each other. But it wouldn’t hurt is to have a little more respect for each other."

Carin Steen, August 2004
This article appeared in Dutch in La Chispa, Magazine on Latin America (Holland, Octobre, 2004)
Editing of Dutch version: Maja Haanskorf
For privacy reasons, the names of some people have been changed

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I am special!

Tigo thinks I’m special! And not every once in a while, but almost every day! And if Tigo doesn’t tell me I’m special, it notifies me that I’m very close to winning no less than three KIA cars!
Or have “limitless nights” for half price!  Or activate backtones and ringtones and keypad tones and whatever tones for whatever great price!  Triple saldo hoy, just because I’m special!!!

If being boring, mediocre and unremarkable would mean I wouldn’t receive anymore text messages from Tigo, I’d gladly be so. But I am special, says Tigo, and I have to suffer.

When I had just bought my phone, I received an evangelical message everyday, sometimes at very ungodly hours in the morning. I was able to block those, but my block list was quickly full. Fortunately, my phone, although purchased at an official Tigo store, was actually a Digicel phone that had been “upgraded” to Tigo. I don’t care much for one or the other, but the advantage was that I could at least block some of Tigo’s numbers they use to send out text messages, a feature that Tigo doesn’t allow on its own phones. So I’ve been able to block a whole bunch of annoying daily message, but unfortunately not all.

But things could be worse. A friend of mine receives a joke every day. Quite annoying, but the real problem is that she gets charged for it!!! She has been back to the store, called Customers Service many a time, but to no avail. She still receives a joke a day. And not good ones either.
Maybe she’s just not special enough.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I am Maya!

In case you missed it. "I am Maya!", the multi-lingual colouring book I wrote/illustrated last year for MACHI / InHerit, based on the colouring book we've been using to teach Honduran, Mexican, Guatemalan and Belizean children about Maya culture. By purchasing this book, you support MACHI's projects. Only $ 9, for sale at Amazon! See:  ¡Soy Maya!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Things I don’t understand in Honduras: Pajillas

If you order a fresco, you usually get it served with a pajilla or straw. Thing is, the straw is about an inch shorter than the bottle is tall. So when you stop drinking, the straw falls into the bottle and it’s hard to get it out again.

Straws are not expensive. They’re actually really cheap, every brand (all of them too short) I’ve ever seen. I have no idea how they are made, but I can’t imagine it’s a big deal, considering their low cost. So why can’t they make straws a little bit longer? Who decides on the length of a straw anyways? Are there any straw regulations?

I don’t like the hassle of pulling a straw out of a pop bottle with my pinkie. I guess that’s why I prefer beer…