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…

Monday, December 30, 2013

Labyrinth Homes

When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude at age fourteen I wasn’t at all put off by García Marquez’ magic realism. Quite the contrary, I found it oddly familiar. I completely went for the flying carpet and the baby being born with a pig’s tail. The only thing I found completely unrealistic were the repeated names within the same family and the homes decaying into inaccessible labyrinths.
That is, until I came to live in Central America.
I’ve already written plenty about name antics in Latin America, so now a bit about family homes going wild.
I happen to live in one of those houses that started out, if not as a mansion, at least as an estate, right behind the Catholic Church on the central park. The original property occupies about a quarter of a city block. I guess in the old times land was cheap and available, money was plenty, so people built huge houses, often in the Spanish colonial style with rooms constructed around a big centre courtyard. The property where I now live has been divided between three brothers. One of them built a hotel, the next a house for his family and a corner store where he set up is agricultural business. Brother number three has over the years divided his share, just around the corner, into a number of small venues facing the street for business while he and his family live in a house on the back patio. I rent the house owned by the brother who still runs the agricultural business on the corner.
When he started to build his house he had only just finished his studies and had come back to town with his new bride, soon to be followed by two babies. Money was tight, as for any beginning entrepreneur, so there was only money to build two rooms and a bathroom around an open patio. In the front, they built a wooden storage room from where the family ran their business.
When money started coming in the family built a real store on the corner and the storage room became living room, kitchen and a garage attached to it. When the kids grew older, they built two more rooms on the second floor facing the street with a huge cement water tank on top. By then business was apparently flourishing, because the family built themselves a real nice house on a huge property on the edge of town. They started renting out their starters’ home and that’s how I came to rent it as an office for the cultural organization I was director of. The patio was divided in two by a wooden partition. The garage was turned into an art gallery; the living room became our office while the two original rooms were converted in art studio and video editing room. We rented the rooms upstairs out to friends to help cover the rent.

But my landlord wasn’t finished building. He added an apartment on top of the two original rooms (that was actually my idea) and then started building four more rooms on his side of the patio, on top of his store, a place that until that time served as a hangout for his goat (talk about magic realism!) and later his two vicious Rottweilers. A huge black plastic tank was built on top of the older one to provide water for the new rooms. Unfortunately renting out the rooms was not too successful because his tenants tended to be people very good at tearing the place down, but not at paying rent.

In the meantime I had given up my organization but kept the house on (because I liked it) and I moved into the apartment upstairs while renting out the other rooms to help pay the rent. A few months ago I decided to reopen the art gallery, combined with a store and a little café. I told the landlord about my plans and asked him if he could replace the wooden partition in the patio that by now was in such a bad state that even my cats stopped crossing it for fear of it falling apart under their feet. My landlord‘s reaction was:  why not tear the whole thing down? And thus was decided that I would fix up the whole courtyard, the rooms and help renting those out. We closed off one wall, opened another, changed the entry to the courtyard and did a whole lot of much needed fixing up. The result is colourful and cute, but it feels like the whole place is hanging on my rubber bands and masking tape. But then again, I love the serendipity of the place, even though it makes no sense whatsoever and gives me a headache when trying to maintain it, all these odd corners, useless niches, tiny balconies but corridors.  On “my” side of the building there are seven rooms on no less than six different levels! The steps of the three stairways are all different in height and oh! The water pipes! Since the house was built in different stages, some faucets are provided by one pipe, the faucet next to it by another while the drainage goes in opposite directions too. And let’s not get started about the electricity!!! Burned out equipment and showerheads are too regularly an unpleasant event to even mention it.

When I read One Hundred Years of Solitude  that time long ago, I had a hard time picturing how a house could fall apart, be put back together and be divided into a million rooms, some long forgotten and rotten away. But now I have seen first hand how buildings change, how family homes become beehives of small rooms, every time a son or daughter is born or getting married. This doesn’t require major remodeling guided by an architect or engineer. Hell no, everybody can tear a wall down, add another, put some zinc laminas on top. It’s no big deal.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why Hondurans Are the Way they Are

 A couple of days ago I wrote a post on how the tropical weather might be the cause of the Latin-American "mañana mañana culture", the tendency to take things easy and not doing anything today that can be done tomorrow. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it goes much deeper than that… Although I’m not an anthropologist, much less a genealogist, just a curious artist, here some of my thoughts…

Hondurans are renowned to be lazy and easy going. If you hire a Honduran to get something done, you better pay when the job is done and not per day or week, because the laborer in question probably won’t show up again once he has some money in his pocket.

I’ve lived long enough in Honduras to see through these stereotypes, but still, I think that in general a lack of longterm vision can be seen as one of its people’s characteristics and also one of the country’s biggest problems. It‘s not easy to get things done in a culture of unpunctuality and wit a lack of involvement that leads in its turn to a lack of initiative, responsibility and creativity.  Problems on every level are resolved with a quick fix that isn’t a solution on the long run. New projects are set up with as little investment as possible and without taking the consequences in account. That’s why potholes in the road are being fixed with a bit of cement instead of being properly repaired. Houses are built with the cheapest materials that won’t last or withstand the heavy threats of a tropical climate and no politician looks beyond the four years of his public service.

I live in an apartment that is only five years old but already falling apart. Since I moved in three years ago I’ve already replaced faucets, showerheads, locks, window screens and power outlets, and not because I’m such a rough tenant. The roof leaks, the ceiling is being eaten away by termites, the woodwork in the corridor is rotting away, water leaks through the wall, the PVC system that fills my water tank is going to give in one of these days and paint keeps flaking off the walls, no matter how well I treat them, and I know about those things because I’m a painter.  If I complain to my landlord, he thanks me for letting him know and if he makes repairs at all, it is always with the same cheap materials that yet again won’t last long. 

How different it is in my home country Holland. During every visit I’m always surprised about how everything or at least most of the things are in such good state, although Holland has a very damaging climate too.
My parents live in an old Amsterdam neighbourhood in a house that was built in 1904. And it is in a perfect state. No leaks, no flaking paint, no rotting woodwork. (Now that I think of it, in Holland I have never lived in a house with a leaking roof, whereas in Copán the opposite is the case.) I remember looking out the kitchen window at the backs of the houses from the neighbouring street, and was amazed how even the backsides of the houses were in such perfect condition. Only the house straight across from my parents showed a few cracks in the paint and for some strange reason, that imperfection moved me. But not for long. The next morning a team of professionals in white outfits set up scaffolding and repainted the house.

If you think of where these differences come from, the climate might again be the deciding factor. It was not too long ago that In Holland (and most parts of Europe) the common people had to do a whole lot of thinking ahead. Way before the time of supermarkets and imported goods, people in cold countries had to plan six months ahead. During the summer they would work there butts off cultivating and harvesting, all to survive six months of harsh winter. Not only did they have to make sure to have enough food for themselves for a period of six unproductive months, but also for their live stock. They needed enough firewood, the houses needed to be in good shape for the winter, warm clothes needed to be knit. Weeks of potting, drying and storing were needed before they were ready for wintertime. Now, that requires a whole lot of thinking and planning.

In Honduras on the other hand, the climate is much gentler. Harvests go year-round and if it’s not mango season, then there’re avocados, bananas and other fruits and vegetables. The weather is not so harsh that special clothing or housing is required. I’m sure working the land in Latin America isn’t any easier than it used to be in Europe, but well, why worry now when tomorrow there’s another day. That has probably always been the case and still is to this day.

I think you can even say that our physical appearances go back to those climatic factors too. The Dutch for example are tall and lean (me being the exception to the rule, of course). In the old days they would work hard during the summer to have a relatively sedative life during winter. But that didn’t result in obesity. (Also because food was probably pretty scarce by the end of the winter). In other words, I think the Dutch have a genetic history that keeps them  pretty much in the same shape no matter what, which keeps up to these days (not that obesity recently has become a problem, but that’s for different reasons). In Honduras however, farmers are used to walk up and down the hills year-round and do hard physical labour . Besides working the land, water needs to be hauled, kids to be carried… In the villages you still see no fat people at all. But the ones that move to town and have taken on an office job and take mototaxis to that job turn fat almost instantly.
Of course social factors such as oppression, education (or lack thereof), hierarchies and religions also have a huge influence on people as a whole, but still they’re more recent than the thousands of years of genetics  focused on how to survive that we carry in our bodies. In this time an age people from different countries (especially in the cities) live lives that are more similar than ever, but before those genetics that make us who we are will change, that might take another thousand years or so.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Copán Christmas Story

He liked her, even if he didn’t know her name. 

And although he didn’t know it himself yet, his heart already knew the boy was lost to this nameless girl with the pretty smile right after that first encounter. 

Sebastian was his name and he worked as an assistant bricklayer at the construction of a new hotel. It was, at sixteen, his first real job, thanks to his father’s connections and although he was neither particularly thrilled about the job nor opposed to it ‐he just did what he was told to do‐ the best moment of each day was when he was sent to the market to pick up the lunches for some of the workmen.
Because it was there at the entrance where he first saw her. The third girl on the left. Standing there behind a shelf that held their baskets filled with tortillas wrapped in embroidered cloth. As soon as anybody entered the market place, the girls cried out:”Tortillas! Tortillas! How many do you want?”
They repeated the same line over and over, hundreds of times a day, until it had long ceased to be a question, but an impersonal mantra, a sound and nothing more.
But not her. The girl was quiet, didn’t even lift her chin up in the defiant way the others did. Rather, she lowered her chin slightly to her chest. Then, all of a sudden, they made eye contact in a flicker of a second and a smile appeared on her face. A smile that locked their eyes. A lightning struck his heart.

Sebastian stopped in his tracks, felt even like his heart stopped beating, and smiled back. Well, it was more of a smirk, he thought later, when he had already practiced the perfect smile for her dozens of times in front of the mirror.
From that moment on he eagerly went to the market every day to have a glimpse at the girl. He hated the fact that the lunches he was to pick up already included tortillas, so no excuse for him to address the girl. But then again, he barely needed nor dared to speak to her. Just looking at her, two glimpses a day, on the way in and out, were enough. 

Every day he discovered something new about her. The way she moved the hair out of her face with a subtle flick of her right index finger. The tiny mole just below the left corner of her bottom lip. Her hair that on sunny days seem to glow almost reddish. The way she flashed her eyelashes twice every time she looked up. And how somehow that shy smile reflected in the light of her eyes… 

Sebastian couldn’t think of little else but this mystery girl. She appeared at night in his dreams and during the day in his fantasies when he was mindlessly laying brick. He asked around, but couldn’t find out anything about her. Nobody knew where she was from, nobody seemed to know her family.
The anonymity started to bother him. This girl felt so familiar after a few weeks, so much a part of his life after months, that he decided to giver her a name. Carmen. Yes, Carmen suited her. He didn’t know why, he didn’t know any Carmen, but Carmen it was.

Months went by and with time, the construction of the hotel came steadily along. The goal was to finish before Christmas, and it seemed that that deadline was actually going to be made. But then the woodwork for windows and doors arrived later than planned, the swimming pool didn’t quite turn out as planned, so extra man-hours were needed and the workers were asked, or rather told, that they had to work extra long shifts all the way up to Christmas. Not only made the men extra hours, they also worked harder than ever before. At least if felt that way to Sebastian. Maybe it was just months of hard work that accumulated in even harder work, but at night his mind and body were so exhausted that there was no place for Carmen to enter his dreams.

It was December the twenty-fourth and the job was basically done. One more shift, eight more hours and that would be it. Sebastian was sent, as usual, to the market to pick up food and all of a sudden realized this would be the very last time. Sebastian panicked. What if he wouldn’t see Carmen again? What if a new job would take him elsewhere and he wouldn’t have to go to the market again? He needed to do something and he needed to do it now.
But while he was dragging his feet to the market, he couldn’t come up with anything. He didn’t dare to walk up to her and say… Say what? But then he saw a pickup truck on the corner of Central Park selling rambutans or lichas and on a hunch he decided to buy a bag.

With the bag in his hand he walked into the market. There she was, yet again, the third girl on the left. For a moment Sebastian just stood there, not knowing what to do. But then he gathered all his courage, walked up to the girl and handed her the bag of lichas.
“Here. Those are for you. Because it’s Christmas. And by the way, my name is Sebastian.”
The girl took the bag but didn’t look Sebastian in the eyes.
“Thank you”, she said, while blush crept over her pretty cheeks. Sebastian was thrilled. It was the first time he ever heard her voice and for some reason it sounded exactly the way he had always expected. But when the girl didn’t say anything else, nor looked up again, Sebastian felt conscious about how stupid he felt and quickly moved on to the comedor where the lunches where waiting. Totally embarrassed with a nasty red blush covering his own cheeks he quickly picked up the bags with food and hurried out of the market. He didn’t linger to catch a glimpse of the girl as he had done for so many months, just stared as his feet as he tried to make his way out as quickly as possible.

But just when he passed her, he heard “pssssttt…” and he knew it was her.
“Here,” she said, looking him directly in the eyes with that same shy  but warm smile playing around her lips. It was a bag holding a few still warm tortillas.
“Because it’s Christmas”, she said. “And by the way, my name is Carmen. “

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Jolly Season in Copán

 Christmas in the tropics always seems a bit out of place to me. Tradition and Americanization go hand in hand in Honduras. Families gather to eat tamales with rompopo while Santa joins baby Jesus under the artificial Christmas tree. I‘ve never been able to get really in the Christmas mood in here.  I associate the holiday with cold weather and long dark nights. Santa on his sleigh with snow covered reindeer under the blazing sun? I still find it a little odd.
However, for Hondurans, Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year. Many poor children who never celebrate their birthdays get new clothes on Christmas Eve and proudly show them off during the next few days. In December people get paid an extra salary and all kinds of businesses eagerly try to have people spend their money. Now is the time for great offers on plasma TVs, refrigerators or DVD players. That is, if you don’t mind standing in line.
But this year is a little different, at least in Copán Ruinas. Whereas Honduras is not alone in its economic crisis, I think that Copán has been hit specifically hard.  Tourism is at an all-time low at a moment that things didn’t go that well in the first place.  It’s been a while since the crisis just affected the pockets of hotel and restaurant owners or others directly depending on tourism. Taxi drivers complain, vendors at the market have less to offer than usual and stores are noticeably emptier than before. Most businesses in town can’t afford to pay minimum wages and few people will receive their additional month of salary this year. Not that that isn’t their constitutional right, but if there’s simply no money…? I know for a fact that many kids in town won’t have new clothes this year and Christmas dinner will be a meager one.
The crisis has led to a whole new sort of unofficial economy. For a while now more and more women have been selling meals from their home or they send their kids out on the streets to sell. The number of street vendors has tripled, at least. Another new development is people selling secondhand clothes from their homes. A new Ropa Americana pops up at least every week. And especially in the weekends there are pickup trucks on every corner selling all kids of things, from melons to jeans and women’s underwear.
People are desperate to sell and if that means to put the whole merchandise on the sidewalk, then they do so. Just around the corner here is a little store that sells a bit of everything cheap (clothes, pots, pans, toys, backpacks, flower pots, firecrackers etc.). The store opened only a few weeks ago, and apparently selling from inside the store was not working, so the girl started to put a few things out on the narrow sidewalk. Then a few more things. And more.  Recently, she started occupying the parking spot in front of her business. Then the neighbours started to do the same and within no time the whole narrow and heavily trafficked street turned into an outdoor market. This new strategy has been spreading around town like the plague and now you have people occupying the sidewalks with tables, counters and complete awnings everywhere. All this of course combined with the Christmas tradition of putting huge speakers outside the store to attract customers, usually at the highest distorted volume, and you can imagine the scene. Walking through the streets of Copán has become sort of an obstacle course these days.  It’s not a particular pretty sight and probably illegal as well. But it is also understandable that everybody tries to make a living in those hard times.

 Well, let’s hope that everybody is making a bit of money this holiday season. And if the merchandise can go back indoors in January, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either. For now, we just have to hopscotch around Copán to avoid dangling bras, stacks of buckets and flying firecrackers. Because despite of the crisis, there’s always money for firecrackers. Lots of them. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Under the Weather

I’m feeling miserable. There’re momentarily plenty of reasons to be miserable for, but for sure the weather is the most oppressive one.

For days on end now it has been miserably grey with a precipitation that can’t decide between drizzle and rainfall. The clouds hang low over the mountains without the slightest clearing that will let a ray of sun come through. I feel almost claustrophobic. Depressed and frustrated. I don’t want to get up in the morning for my regular hike. I can barely bring up the energy to make myself a cup of coffee. And then back to bed.

This kind of weather is the main reason I don’t want to live in Holland anymore. I can barely deal with a few days of greyness, let alone surviving six months of grey drab. I don’t mind the cold so much. What’s nicer than a snow covered landscape with a blue sky and feeble sun? Unfortunately, there’re few of those days in my home country. Autumn can be nice, with the changing colours of trees and the first chilly breeze among the lingering summer heath. But soon all colours fade and everything turns dreary. The sky is grey, the houses are grey, even people’s skin turns grey. And not a dramatic, threatening grey such as the colour that darkens the sky moments before a storm hits, or even a light, slightly civilized grey that tones down emotions and frivolities in our complicated society. Most of the time it’s just a nothingness sort of grey, that intermedium between two non-existing colours that does nothing to lift your spirit.

I remember cycling through Amsterdam, years ago during a winter visit. I felt just as miserable as I do now and wondered why people would wear “winter colours” in the winter, decent shades of black, brown, dark blue, and yes, grey. Doesn’t the overwhelming greyness cry out for lime green, electric blue, corn yellow and fuchsia pink??? I’d think so… But then I realized that I too was wearing dark jeans with a black bomber jacket, as camouflaged in the winter décor as everyone else. So right there and then, I got off my bike, turned my black bomber jacket inside out and put it back on, the neon orange lining flashing in the grey, slow flow of traffic. I remember how good that felt, a tiny rebellious act against the surrounding non-coulerness.

As long as I can remember I’ve been deeply influenced by the weather. Even as a child, as soon as the morning dawn promised a splendid day, I’d be up and around, not to miss a single minute of it. But oh, those cold and dark mornings when I would drag my feet to school…
So yes, I do much better in the tropics. In a way I miss the seasons, mostly because they’re an indicator of time. I tend to forget birthdays (or at least did so before Facebook), because I associate them with a certain season and if the sun always shines, then it’s not easy to remember a December birthday linked to an early dusk and Christmas decorations combined with birthday cake. 
But living without seasons does give a certain peace of mind. Here in Honduras you hardly ever have to think about the weather. It’s either dry or raining, there’re a few months that are a bit cooler, but generally the weather is just plain nice. That’s very different in Holland, and it shows in its people. In Holland you can never make plans to go to the beach somewhere next week in June, because even in high summer you might expect anything from tropical heat waves to cold fronts that include hailstorms. That’s why the Dutch, as soon as one ray of sunshine shines through, we massively attack the beaches, parks and terraces. Especially after a long winter, enjoying the first real day of spring is a true event that marvels many foreigners. Even at 14°C (57°F) people walk around in short sleeves while brand new summer dresses fondle milk white winter legs. (With those rare same temperatures here in Honduras we all feel we’re freezing to death!).
So, yes, I do think the weather shapes people. That’s why we Dutch are so astute and direct. We have to act now as if there’s no tomorrow. Whereas in Honduras, the weather and even the hour of nightfall is always pretty much the same. So why do something today if it can wait till tomorrow? Maybe the whole “mañana-mañana” culture is not a genetic characteristic, but influenced by the climatologic factors? Just a thought.

Anyway, I hope that mañana the sun shines again…

Saturday, November 23, 2013

May the Best Win

Honduran politics never cease to baffle me. I’m not much into politics, never was, but in Honduras there’s no escape from it. The elections tomorrow hold the whole country in its grip and the tension is rising.

I admit that when I lived in my home country Holland I voted only a few times, because of my lack of interest and confidence in politicians in general. Only when a super right wing party could possibly become a threat would I vote, no so much for any party, but against that particular one. I can’t recall any heated discussions about politics with friends; much less would I jump in the back up of a pick-up truck to wave a political flag or chant, as if that would ever happen in Holland. I don’t know the political preference of many of my friends in Holland and it simply doesn’t matter. Your vote is private business and doesn’t define who you are or what job you have. Even the way we speak about politics is different. Instead of saying: “I’m a liberal” or “I’m a nationalist”, we say: “I’m going to vote for such party”. That’s of course because in Holland there’re many more parties than just the two that have traditionally governed Honduras, but also because a lot of people swing from one party to another each election, depending more on the representatives and political issues of the moment than loyalty to a certain party. Of course there’re political diehards with bumper stickers who’ll vote for one party their whole live, but nothing compared to how things are in Honduras.

For the longest time, upcoming elections meant little less than civil war. Friends tell me that in the early days it was custom to paint light posts and bridges in town either red or blue. The ones who got up early would have first choice, until the whole town had been converted into a red and blue circus. There’s still a bridge in the centre of town called El Puente Azul, although even the faintest traces of blue paint have long since faded. Those were the times when landowners obliged their patrons whom to vote for and even the church would meddle into politics, the priest being an ardent liberal. Discussions about politics often ended in physical fights or wild chases on horses, the nationalists pursuing the liberals or vice versa.

Those days are long gone, but politics still deeply divide a small town as Copán Ruinas. However, things are changing…

One of the biggest differences I see is that people for the first time are not automatically going to vote for the party they’ve always voted for. I remember interviewing people in 2005 for an article about the elections and people would without hesitance tell me who they’d vote for. Actually, most didn’t, they’d just say: “I’m a liberal” or “I’m a nationalist”. If I asked them why they would vote for certain candidate, they just gave me a puzzled look. They’d vote liberal because they are liberal. And they’re liberal because their parents are. And their parents’ parents… Duh! 
I remember going to the offices of both the liberals and nationalists to ask for their party’s policies and vision, but couldn’t get any real information. When I asked why people should vote for their candidate, the answer was: because he’s the best. I got that same answer in both offices, of course. 
But today things are a bit different… People are thinking, watching debates on TV, reading newspapers, weighing different options, discussing, posting on Facebook… I’ve heard some surprising opinions from people I thought were eternally red or blue, others who haven’t made up their mind yet, even with elections only a day away. One of the reasons for this new development is that there are two new parties (Libre and PAC) that have stirred up the traditional balance between red and blue quite a bit. But it’s not only that. There seems to be a new sort of political consciousness, a pride of being able to participate in a democratic process that people are not taking for granted. Let’s hope that that consciousness benefits the democratic process indeed.

On the other hand, while asking around for political opinions, preferences are eerily personal, especially on a local level. More than once I heard: I’m going to vote for such and so for mayor, because the other one has never ever done anything for me. It’s logical that politics in such a small town are a personal affair, but there’s a danger in it too. People tend to think about their own benefit only, not what a certain candidate has done for the community as a whole and what the effect is in the long run. But as a campaign tool, those small personal favors are definitely working.

Well, let’s see what happens tomorrow. At least with two new parties thrown in the game, politics have become a lot more interesting!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Five Stomach-based Reasons Why Copán Ruinas Totally Rocks

1. Coffee!
Central America is worldwide renowned for its coffee production, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can get a decent cup for breakfast. The Honduran style of drinking coffee, at least in the mountain villages around Copán, is to boil a pot full of water and adding a little coffee and tons of sugar that is then strained to a cheesecloth filter. It’s sweet and weak and doesn’t do a thing to get me going in the morning. Guatemala is even worse: coffee = Nescafé. Only in places frequented by tourists can you get a real espresso, cappuccino or just a regular that actually tastes like coffee. And luckily enough there are plenty of these places in Copán! You can get delicious locally grown and freshly ground coffee at La Casa de Todo, Café San Rafael, Café Ixchel, Macaw Mountain and Café Welchez. Don’t forget to bring a few pounds of coffee home with you!

2. Cheese!
My life took a humungous turn for the better when Carlos René Guerra started making cheese a couple of years ago at Café San Rafael. Not even in Antigua Guatemala will you find such an incredible and delicious variety of cheeses, from spiced cream cheese to mozzarella, edam, brie, camembert, pepper jack and a whole bunch of other cheeses that Carlos invented himself. All cheeses are made of milk coming from the family farm. You should not visit Copán without dropping by at Café San Rafael. If you’re not into cheese, then at least try their coffee (also from their own family run farm) or any item on the menu of their lovely open-door café. Oh, did I mention the yoghurt? The fresh milk? Their homemade chili sauce? Total delight!

3. Bread!
The time that you could only get Bimbo bread in Copán is long gone and that’s a good thing. Bimbo bread -what else could you expect with such a name- is soggy, tasteless and gross. It actually does live up to one half of its publicity slogan (Siempre rico, siempre fresco –Always delicious, always fresh) because it never gets hard or green or moldy. Thanks to huge amount of ingredients that have nothing to do with bread.
But you can now forget about Bimbo and go to La Casa de Todo for freshly baked garlic bread or baguettes. The Via Via sells a great whole wheat bread as well as regular loaves. And if you like really dark bread, contact Muriel through La Casa del Café. Healthy and delicious!

4. Booze!
When I first came to Copán there were only three kinds of nationally brewed beers and that was about it. We would get overexcited if one of the stores would accidentally have a bottle of wine in stock, usually overpriced and pure vinegar, but nonetheless wine. At least according to the label. Now there’s plenty of variety of wine in the liquor stores for reasonable prices. Café Via Via sells Belgium beers that are actually cheaper than in a bar in Belgium, as well as local beers and a Happy Hour for rum drinks (2 for 1 for $1,50!!). Beer lovers must visit Sol de Copán, a small German owned beer brewery. Great drafts!

5. Local veggies you’ve never seen in your life before!
The market in the centre of town sells a great variety of the regular fruit and vegetables, but when in Copán, and in the right season, make sure you don’t miss out on lorroco, a small green/white flower with a delicious nutty taste; or chufles, something best described as a crossover between asparagus and artichoke. Ayote (squash) flowers are delicious as well as very decorative as you will experience if you book a romantic dinner at Hacienda San Lucas. Flor de izote has a somewhat bitter taste and surprising texture. Berro can be compared to watercress and in order to be big and strong when I grow up, I eat tons of mostaza or mustard leaf, something I had never tasted before coming to Copán. Raw or cooked, it tastes amazing and is full of the good stuff.

And those are just five reasons why to come and stay in Copán Ruinas. There are plenty more!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why I still believe in Honduras

 My blog post Living in the Most Dangerous Country in theWorld has been reposted by several people and has gone pretty viral lately. I’m happy to see so many positive reactions and of course I still stand by my words: Come to Copán Ruinas, it’s a beautiful and quiet place!

But I must admit that lately I’ve seen another side of Honduras. I just spent twelve days in El Progreso, Yoro, where I painted murals at foster homes for children that have been removed from their families because of a variety of problems or picked off the street, run by two different organizations. The murals came along fine, the people I worked with were great, and even the places I painted the murals at were quiet and peaceful, the homes being located on the outskirts of town, not that different from the rural schools in the mountains surrounding Copán. That was a surprise for me, because somehow I had expected to have to paint on a crowded and noisy street in the middle of the city.

The one big difference with Copán was safety concerns. San Pedro Sula has the doubtful reputation of having the highest murder rate in the world (at least until recently, as far as I know), but I wonder if El Progreso isn’t worse. Maybe I’ve been too focused on this place, but reading the newspaper, El Progreso surely jumps out and stories from people that live there only confirm it. Of course it also had to do with the places I spent most of my time there. My hotel was right in the centre of town (traditionally not the safest of places in any city) and I was working in two suburbs both notorious for their delinquency. Travelling there was a logistic pain in the butt: Taking the bus to the one place and walking the last bit was out of the question without the escort of four of five guys. Getting to the other place was only permitted in certain taxis, others would surely get robbed, as I was told. Of course I wondered if all those horror stories weren’t a bit exaggerated, but then I would hear or read yet another one that would make me stick to the precautions I was asked to take.

The first mural project was done in collaboration with twelve kids, ten boys and two girls, that live at the foster home. They themselves were to pick the theme which was chosen through an exercise in which each participant wrote (anonymously) a list of things or situations that bothered them; the change they’d like to see; and what their own personal contribution could be to make that change happen. We wrote all answers on big sheets of paper and it was no surprise that the violent situation in their community came out as the big winner. We then brainstormed about a storyline and what the kids came up with was a plot about a kid getting robbed of his cell phone, only to meet his attacker a few days later being the victim of an mugging himself. The kid at first feels that justice has been done, but then realizes that by thinking like that, he’s not much better than the villain himself. So instead he decides to give him a helping hand and in the end they become best friends, dedicating their free time to coaching soccer in their neighbourhood.

I was pretty impressed with the positive message of this, but even more impressed by the behaviour of these kids. It took us almost six days to paint the mural and before that we had already spent a day and a half together in Copán, but during all this time not one incident happened. I’m not sure what I had expected, but definitely not this, considering that all of these kids carry some heavy-duty baggage. They all have histories of serious abuse, living on the streets, drugs and alcohol addictions and of course “common” delinquency and violence. So yes, I think I expected at least some foul language, a tantrum here or there, losing some supplies or being yelled at. But none of that happened.

Painting a mural is hard work, especially if you’re not used to it, but despite being exhausted by the end of the week and -to be honest- sick of paint, the kids kept on going without getting difficult or being obnoxious. Of course there was a bit of shoving and pushing here and there, boys will be boys, and yes, they were loud, but overall, I’ve never worked with kids so considerate and helpful, not only towards me, but towards each other too. They would wait their turns, help each other out or hold the ladder whenever someone was balancing on the top step. They did their regular chores without complaint and when it started to rain, one or two would run off to bring in the laundry. Not just their own, but everybody’s.

During one of our painting days, Juan Orlando Hernandez (one of the candidates for presidency in the upcoming elections) had a big rally nearby and even up on our remote mountain side we could not escape listening to his promises and chanting (“Blue! Blue! Blue!”). I’m not a big fan of politicians in general and couldn’t help being irritated about the unrealistic promises I heard on fixing the county in its entirety. Honduras is a country with such deeply rooted and widespread problems, they are not going to be fixed by just one politician and definitely not overnight.

But being with those kids for over a week made me see Honduras’ future in another light. Despite the threatening society they live in, their violent past and the fact that they live without their families, these kids are not resentful, asocial or criminal. They are fantastic young people that despite the throwbacks in life are making the very best of it. So if they can do it, why not everybody else too? Being with them certainly put my own life in perspective…

So, whoever is going to win the lections on the 24th, I doubt that a lot is going to change. But if I look at those kids, soon to be adults, yes, then I definitely see hope for the future. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Football Identity

So Honduras has qualified for the 2014 Brazil World Cup and the football craziness has been replaced by just as noisy political campaigns for the upcoming elections. But let’s not talk about politics and return to football instead…

There’s no denying that football unites people. After the recent qualifications even political differences were temporarily put aside and everybody joined in the celebrations. Being Dutch, that’s no news for me. An orange wave spills over my home land as soon as the national team is up for an important game. I can’t help but get excited here in Honduras when I hear the (mispronounced) names of the Dutch players announced, or the first notes of our national anthem. I don’t feel particularly Dutch, am not necessarily proud of serendipitously being born as a citizen of the Netherlands and couldn’t care less if you insult my country or fellow Netherlanders. I’ve been living more than half of my adult life in Honduras and even know the entire national anthem by heart, whereas I can only mumble the first two phrases of the Dutch one. However, as soon as La Naranja Mecánica is about to kick off, my heart starts racing and I’m a hundred percent Dutch again! So why is it that I don’t identify with blond, blue-eyed girls dancing on wooden shoes, Edam cheese and not even the Great Masters of the Dutch Renaissance, but I do with eleven guys dressed in orange, running after a ball?

A couple of years ago there was an interesting discussion going on in IS, a magazine published by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about cultural identity. The question was in how far people adapt to their adoptive country and how much they identify with it. One of the readers sent in a letter in which he summed it up nicely, saying he had been living in China for 25 years, had a Chinese wife, Chinese kids and a Chinese job. He eats Chinese, thinks, talks and dreams in Mandarin, but oooohhh when there’s Dutch football on TV: Hollaaaaaaaaaand!!!

I really have no idea where this collective craziness comes from that turns even the most intellectual academics in silly morons with orange hats and face paint, but it exceeds borders and even continents (except for the US of course, where strangely enough our football has never been a big thing. But they have their own football. And baseball of course). But as intense as it is, it’s also not very long lasting. Especially when our national team loses, we tend to quickly forget about the whole thing, or turn all together against a collective enemy. (Usually the Germans for the Dutch and Mexico for all other Central American countries.) That way the bond of being “one” lingers a little longer, but eventually it dissolves in thin air. Until it is ignited again by the next World Cup or Champions League.

Honduras is unfortunately a country with few heroes or role models, in neither past nor present. Whereas Nicaragua has its share of revolutionary heroes; Guatemala a Nobel prize winner in Rogobert Manchú; Venezuela an (in)famous reappearing dead president; Argentina the Pope and Messi; and Colombia has Shakira, Honduran citizens never made it to the realms of fame and eternal illustriousness. Maybe that’s why Honduras goes so crazy when the national team is doing well for a change. Every Honduran, men, women, children, rich and poor, including a bunch of ex-pats, get over-excited and proudly discuss the game as if it were they themselves running into a sweat for an hour and a half. It makes people proud to be Honduran. And whether that’s a good or bad thing, well, that’s a whole different discussion…

Bottom-line is, I’m very excited that both Honduras and Holland are qualified for the World Cup and can’t wait for it to start. But what if Honduras will have to face Holland??? I can’t tell you now which team I’d support… I mean.. I wish…. No, I can’t decide! I guess it will be the moment my true identity will be revealed…

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A National Holiday to Fight Off the Hangover

Yesterday it was eerily quiet in Honduras… Public offices were closed and students found the doors of their schools shut.
Honduras’ national football team had qualified for the World Cup the night before. So president Pepe Lobo declared October 16th a holiday in order to celebrate the victory.

I myself am a great football fan and have, of course, watched all the classification games and yes, I‘ve joined in the celebrations too. However, those celebrations usually last for a just few hours after the game, not all the way through the next day. I mean, one can only drink so much. Not that a day off to nurture the hangover isn’t welcome, but is it really necessary?
As happy as I am that Honduras will go to Brazil next year, I think it’s a bit over the top to declare the day after a victory a national holiday (it wasn’t even a real victory, the game ended in a tie). Would the president have done that in my home country Holland, he’d probably get his butt sued. Imagine: parents, whether working in the public sector or not, all of a sudden have to stay home with their kids because the schools are closed. Scheduled meetings, carefully planned events and long awaited appointments all postponed. And what about the personnel at public hospitals? Fire fighters? The police force?  Public transportation? All off celebrating? Or if at work, will they receive double pay for working on a holiday?

An unexpected holiday in Holland would probably paralyze the economy completely and but a handful of die hard hooligans would appreciate the gesture. But in Honduras it was already half-heartily expected (because the president has done so before), so people almost see it as a right. And as for the impact?  Well, the country seems to be running as normal, without all too much ado, just hop scotching along as it always does. 

I love football, especially the frenzy around important games between national teams. I think that football could actually play a huge role in the development of a country (more about that tomorrow). But I don’t see how a last-minute declaration of a national holiday attributes to much. Except for the actual players, of course, who really deserve their day off.

So the morning of the Day After, I left at 7.30am to teach an art class. And oh, was I happy to see all my students show up, holiday or not!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Children’s Day in Honduras

Yesterday morning I woke up with the feeling that I forgot something really important. Right! Children’s Day!

For years, when I was still director of art NGO for children, it was one of the most important days of the year. Preparations started weeks before because we always organized a major event for the kids of Copán. Not in the traditional way with piñatas and lots of candy, because we figured the kids would be sugared-up more than enough and the piñata thing, as beautiful as they look and as much as I’m in favour of keeping cultural traditions, they’re also quite scary. Seriously, having a blindfolded overactive zealous kid swinging a bat around??? I’m always amazed the newspapers don’t report a few smashed-in little children’s brain the next day.

So what we usually did was rounding up a bunch of volunteers and organize game stations: tug-of-war, carrying a tray with cups of water over a balancing beam, sack-race, (Velcro) darts, bowling and of course some art activities such as face painting or mask making. Each child would receive a “passport” and had to pass through all the activities spread over our colourfully decorated playground before receiving, at the end of the event, juice, some cookies (whole wheat of course) and a little gift bag, generally containing some crayons and a notebook. The kids were always super happy and not once did we get a complaint about the lack of candy and piñatas.
Afterwards, the adults were always completely drained. While the kids would run out the gate, gift bag ain their hands and looking for maybe another Children’s’ Day celebration elsewhere in town, our team would barely have the energy to take down the decorations and pick up the trash before surrendering to some much deserved cold beers.

Lots of work for just a few hours of fun, but time well spent. Children’s Day is for most kids more important than their birthdays which are only celebrated by the (upper) middle class. Christmas is important too, although the majority of the children is lucky enough to receive new clothes to wear on Christmas Eve. Children’s Day, however, is just about fun. And getting your hands on as many sweets as possible, of course.

In my home country Holland we don’t celebrate Children’s Day. We have Animal Day though, on October 4th, when children are allowed to take our pets to school (which can actually lead to situations as dangerous as bursting a piñata.) You can’t miss something you’ve never known, but now that I do, I think it’s a great idea to celebrate Children’s Day, even it would be nice to focus a bit more on the reason for celebrating: It was recommended in 1954 by the United Nations that each country should pick one day a year to promote children’s welfare and their universal rights.

Children’s Day in Honduras has little to do with Human Rights, or children’s welfare for that matter. It has turned into a commercial and even political circus, especially now that the elections are coming up. Yesterday the kids of Copán had a field day, running from one piñata to the other, offered by the municipality and some of the new chain companies in town. I doubt their strategy will be successful. Counting conquered candy is much more important than the person who actually bought the stuff.

So yesterday afternoon, while I was quietly and happily finishing up a sign on a local café, teachers and volunteers of the local day care centre started arriving with that exhausted look I know all too well. I couldn’t suppress a satisfied smile. As much as I have enjoyed celebrating Children’s Day over the last sixteen years, it is absolute great for once not to have anything to do with it.

But nonetheless, happy Children’s Day!