Living in 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…

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.