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…

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Remembering Mitch

The road to Santa Rita

While the aftermath of super storm Sandy still rages over the northeast of the US, it is hard not to remember Hurricane Mitch that made landfall in Honduras, today fourteen years ago.

It had rained a lot that year, 1998, and I remember that the day dawned, much the same as today, gloomy and grey. It drizzled during the rest of that Friday, a day much like any others, me working as a kindergarten teacher at the local bilingual school. The only break in the routine that week was that we had been collecting clothes for victims at the already flooded north coast.
That night I walked down from my house on the hill and I noticed that for the first time, the water was flowing downhill in little streams, in stead of being absorbed by the mud on the pathway. But at the time I didn’t realise the importance of that small occurrence.

I went out for dinner with friends and ended up in a bar. It was then that the news broke, little by little. Excited passer-by’s would inform us about a flooded house here, a broken fence there, a collapsed road elsewhere. In the meantime, it started to rain harder, although we never had the winds I always associated with a hurricane.

As the water rose in the valley around Copán Ruinas, we made our way to the Central Park to see if we could help somehow. An emergency centre had been set up in the town hall where people who had lost their home could find shelter and a meal. I somehow ended up in the one and only Red Cross ambulance in town and we made several trips to the outskirts of town, picking up people from their already flooded homes.
There was one family I had befriended that I was particularly worried about, because they lived in small house on the edge of a normally tiny creek that had turn into a wild roaring river. So I made arrangements for me to stay in the centre of town with a friend while taking advantage of the ambulance to drop the family off at my place. But when we went by, the mother refused to go, because there was some recently harvested corn in the house that she wouldn’t leave behind. For all I argued, the woman refused to go. 

The house next to the mentioned family's home
Hours later I tried again. Still the same. It was already nearing midnight and the situation got worse and worse. All the family’s neighbours had already been evacuated and the ground was trembling. A big chunk of the road had been swallowed by the creek, and the creek was hungry for more. I was standing there, arguing with the mother who still didn’t want to go. That’s when I made one of the most difficult decisions in my life. I concluded that I was probably smarter than the woman and that I would not under any circumstance want to risk the lives of these kids, so in order to keep them safe, I would just have to take the kids whether the mom agreed or not. So that’s what I did. I loaded the kids into the ambulance, literally plucked the baby out of the mother’s arms and off we went to my place, leaving a baffled mother behind. At home, I had already prepared some makeshift beds and a big pot of soup. I left the kids in the care of their oldest sisters and continued roaming the streets in the ambulance to se if any help was needed.

It was way past midnight when we made it back to the Central Park after our last trip. When we parked the ambulance, the mother of the kids was there, waiting for me. I was exhausted after the eventful night and an emotional scolding was the last thing I needed, but what could I do… But the woman wasn’t there to yell at me. On the contrary, she said that her whole house was shaking now, that her husband was really sick, and could we please pick him up and drop them off at my place??? So that’s what we did, even though the father’s sickness was of the self-inflicted kind, with the help of a bottle of guarro.

The bridge over the Copán River

The days to come were surreal. Copán was completely isolated. The roads were collapsed in both directions, so there was no way in or out. We didn’t have any Honduran TV channels at the time, let alone (online) newspapers, so we were quite oblivious to the disaster that had befallen ons other parts of the country.

Tragedy unites people and Hurricane Mitch was no exception. Although we were lucky in Copán to have very little fatalities (only one that I know of), there was plenty of damage. The bridge that crosses the Copán River was fine by itself, but the shores had been washed away on both sides and huge trees were stuck under the bridge, blocking the still ferocious flow of water. The bigger part of the valley had been flooded. Not so much by the river, but by the creek that couldn’t flow into the river anymore. Houses that had been flooded were filled to the roof with a heavy and sticky mud. Copán was a mess.
But without a plan or a need to be asked, everybody helped out wherever help was needed. Men risked their lives cutting trees in pieces that blocked the river. Others filled hundreds of sacks with sand or encaged in emergency repairs. The women set up a community kitchen in the town hall and fed all the people who were at work.

My friends and I did what we could too. Being tough girls, we helped cleaning up debris and filled up sandbags, much to the hilarity of local men. I helped to put a group of Dutch tourists to work who had been stuck in Copán. After a few complaints about their ruined vacation, they actually had the time of their life and I stayed in touch with some of them for years to come.

At night there was curfew. Not that it was needed in Copán, but it was a national state of emergency and curfew was declared in order to prevent looting in the big cities. Unfortunately, the police stationed in Copán at the time did little else than arresting people who broke curfew (including yours truly- many times!). We spent our nights at one of the bigger hotels in town where a friend worked as manager. Although deprived of national or international news, here we would watch our own efforts on local TV (filmed by Carlitos Álvarez) and drink the wine that otherwise no one else would drink anyway. Then we would go home, dodging the police, with buckets filled with water from the pool, because we had no running water at home. Miraculously enough, the electricity never failed. Not once!

Anxious hours turned into action-packed days and then into interesting weeks as life turned slowly back to normal. Dry-law and curfew became our biggest problems, even weeks after the hurricane. Mitch was a humongous disaster and did enormous damage in Honduras where thousands of people lost their lives. So it is with mixed feelings that I admit that in Copán – we actually had the time of our lives!

Road Santa Rota to Copán, Hotel Posada Real /Clarion on the background

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The best kid in town

Hector & Josue

As a gringo or gringa living in Copán Ruinas you can’t avoid gathering around you a small but loyal crowd of kids, dogs and drunks. This crowd is not necessarily consistent throughout the years. Kids lose interest or grow up, dogs get run over and drunks get liver sclerosis. I’ve had plenty of sorts, but one kid stands out because he’s been hanging around since he was three years old, and today he turns thirteen. His name is Josue and he really is the best kid in town.

My friendship with Josuecito actually started because of his cousin Hector. Uncle, I should say, because although they’re about the same age, technically Hector is his uncle, him being the youngest of Josue’s father’s eleven brothers. (Seriously 12 sons, no daughters in that family!!!).
One day, during one of the Saturday art workshops I conducted for years, four year old Hector came up to me and asked if I could be his mom. I explained that that was a bit complicated, since he already had a mom, so we settled for me being his mom during the two hours of the weekly workshop, to both our satisfaction. Somehow that also meant that for the rest of his school career I provided him with school supplies, uniform and shoes.

I’m not sure when and where Josuecito actually came from, just that he started to come along with Hector, who was just a bit older, bigger, more assertive and streetwise. Josuecito mostly just followed Hector with a goofy smile on his face.
One day, Josue passed by my office on his way back from school, crying, while holding a piece of cloth against the back of his head. I called for him to come in and through the tears and sobs I found out he had fallen out of a tree, right on his head. The head injury was minor, just bloody, but one pupil seemed to be bigger than the other, and that was what worried me. A group of American nurses that happened to visit us at the time agreed and recommended to take the boy to a doctor. So I gave Josue some fresh gauze, took him by the hand and walked him home. I talked to his step mom and left some money to take him to the clinic. I didn’t realize I held Josue´s hand all the time until it was time to leave. We let go and he looked up to me with his gorgeous big eyes while flashing me the biggest smile ever, dimples deeply carved in his cheeks. It was then that I realized the kid was thrilled with all the fuzz. It probably was the most attention he ever got.

From that moment on Josue started to follow me around wherever I went. If I was working in my office, he would stand in a corner and just stare at me, that goofy smile on his face. I wasn’t sure what to do. Either the kid had suffered serious brain damage, or he was just a lovesick puppy.
It appeared to be the latter, because after a few weeks, it wore off and Josue started to talk and interact with the rest of my colleagues too. And for the years to come, he would come by my office almost daily for a quick hug. Quick enough not to be embarrassing, long enough to show we both care about each other. And of course I also provided him for years with school supplies, uniform and shoes.

Josue graduated from Grade 6 last year, but did not continue his studies. He says because he doesn’t want to (against fierce protest from my side), but I think it has to do with his dad, who is happy to have him as an assistant in his house painting job. And since I don’t conduct workshops anymore and Josue doesn’t need help with his homework, we needed a new excuse in order for us to stay in touch. So now Josue comes by once a week to sweep the street in front of my house (a chore I detest!) for which he receives 20 Lempiras (1dollar) a week, not bad for 15 minutes of work. So we’re both happy.

Sometimes Josue uses the money to buy food or snacks, but lately he kept it in a jar at my place so he could save up 100 Lempiras for a pair of badly needed shoes, even if 100 Lempiras doesn’t get you very far, shoe-wise. He was so happy two weeks ago when he finally reached his goal, but when I saw him last week, he was still walking around on his old and severely battered shoes. When I asked where the new ones were, he said he had to lend his dad the money. So far, he hasn’t been paid back yet.

Although turning thirteen today, Josue looks like he’s barely ten (that’s why I have him on vitamin pills now). But not only physically is he very young, I have rarely seen a kid so innocent and naïve in many ways. On the other hand, there’s no kid taking better care of his younger half brothers and sisters, or a boy who is so honest and kind. It hurts me to see how sick he often gets and the shitty home situation he has to live in, but Josue just smiles and carries on. And a smile from Josue will make your day!

So here’s to Josue, the best kid in town: happy birthday!
And now, let’s go shoe shopping!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Forever waiting in line

If you’re slightly suicidal and you happen to be in Holland, then you might like the following experiment: Go to any regular, well visited stored, let’s say a bakery, and instead of carefully checking out who is last in line, you walk up front and loudly ask for a half a whole-grain, sliced, please.

It’s likely you’ll get killed.

Although not as polite or obsessed with queuing as the English, for the Dutch it is an unwritten rule that you never EVER go before your turn. NEVER!

So, being born and bred in Holland, during my first few months in Honduras I spent quite a bit of time waiting for my turn, until it finally dawned on me that there is no turn.
In the big cities it’s probably a whole different story (there you have such things as supermarkets), but in Copán most shopping is still done in small neighbourhood pulperías. With their own set of rules…

I’d go into a store and politely wait behind two women until the store owner would be so kind to pay me any attention. It’s not that the women were actually buying anything. Or at least not a lot. But there is always a whole lot of chatting and laughing going on. This would go on and on until I would get so frustrated that irritation would override my genetic politeness and I would interrupt the conversation and ask for a pack of toilet paper. Nothing would happen. At least nothing what I expected, such as killer looks, flying daggers, or a condescending up- turning of noses. Instead, the lady behind the counter would grab a pack of toilet paper from a shelf behind her, tell me the price, accept my money, give me change and all of this without even the slightest pause in her conversation!

It took a while, but I finally learned that you don’t go shopping to buy stuff, (that’s sort of collateral damage), but to see what‘s going on in the world. You go to the store to discuss the weather or the price of eggs and of course to hear the very latest gossip. Shopping is a social event that should not be hurried or interrupted. It’s an almost sacred ceremonial exchange of information that is not disturbed by other customers, whining children or salesmen.
If you actually need to buy something, you send your kid to the store.

This way of shopping, as much as I’ve come to respect it, is really not my thing. But that’s fine, it’s just not for everybody. Now, years later, I have shopping in a hurry down to an art. I walk into a store, ignore everybody else, ask for what I want and am attended instantly, happily exiting the store seconds later with my purchase.
But every once in a while, while I’m being attended, someone else comes up from behind and will yell out whatever he or she wants, while it is still my turn!!! That’s when the Dutch part of me awakes like an angry orange lion. I’ll turn around and snarl and the intruder.

Hey you! Wait for your turn!

I can’t help it. Even though I know very well that the response will be a blank stare.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Everybody lies

Let me get this straight. I am from Holland. Worse even, I am from Amsterdam. That means that I’m stereotypically very direct, straight-forward, undiplomatic and sarcastic, the combination of it often confused with being brutally honest. It’s not that I never tell a lie (All the time! It’s just that I call it “art” of fiction”, hahaha!), but it is not in our nature to lie about just everything. Because it’s just not necessary and often not very effective, and if we dutchies are something else too, it’s effective.

But in Honduras, stereotypically of course, everybody lies. I guess Hondurans are eager to please and rather send you in the wrong direction than actually confessing they don’t know the place you’re asking about. When you ask when something will be fixed, you’ll often get the famous mañana (tomorrow) for an answer, which means anything between “tomorrow” (however unlikely) to “next week” (way more realistic). Vague promises, lame excuses, evading answers and downright lies are much more common than an honest “I don’t know”, or, God forbid, “no” for an answer. A friend once told me that the tour guides at the archaeological park were taught never to admit they didn’t know something, but rather make something up, as to look professional. At schools too, a wrong answer is better than an “I don’t know”.
In Honduras you just never say no.

I’ve been living here long enough to know that some things will never change, but the fact that they can’t even be slightly altered is sometimes particularly frustrating.
Last week I finally got a complete set of ink cartridges for my printer delivered, which took almost two weeks and a lot of phone calls and visits to the store. When I bought my printer a few months ago, I was assured that they would always have ink in stock, which was one of the main reasons to buy that particular printer. It was, of course, a lie. But no problem, the ink could be sent that same day from San Pedro Sula and would arrive in the afternoon. Right. Day after day went by, with all possible excuse, but no ink. I pleaded the girl to tell me the truth rather than give me yet another implausible explanation, so at least I could plan my work around the absence of ink, or find my own way to get the bloody cartridges into my possession, but she assured me on a daily basis that the cartridges were on their way. After two weeks of having my professional life on hold, for no reason but the lack of truth, I finally had the whole set complete.

But even this sort of lying, as annoying as it is, I can sort of understand. It’s about not wanting to disappoint a customer, even if that’s exactly what happens. But why lie for no reason whatsoever?  I asked someone about his family the other day, and this guy told me he only had three sisters. A little further on in the conversation, he mentioned his brother.
“I thought you said you only have sisters?” I asked, confused.
“No, I didn’t,” was his answer.
This sort of stuff happens all too often, and it’s not because of my Spanish!!!

So there’s lying in to hide a hurtful truth, lying to gain profit, lying to impress and lying to avoid responsibility. I understand all that. But the lying for the sake of lying, why????
But then again, lying your way around and getting away with it?
I’m learning and loving it!