Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cost Comparisons...

I had a slight Michael Moore moment the other day. Does anyone remember the movie Sicko (highly relevant in light of the US's current health care debaucle) when the 9/11 rescue workers go to Cuba to get affordable medical treatment? The one lady ends up crying (for joy? at the unfairness of it all?) because her $250 inhaler in the US costs like $3.50 in Cuba. Well, I walked into a pharmacy here in Honduras with a package of skin cream from the United States... (available by prescription only, trip to the dermatologist, $200...) that itself costs $200 without insurance for 2 oz. $200 for 2 OUNCES!!!! Well, not only did they provide me with said medication without a prescription, but it was a Honduran-manufactured product with the exact same active ingredient for a little less than $9. For the same amount of product!! All I'm saying is that I'm picking up like 6 tubes of that stuff before I come back to the states for good. I guess it makes me sick that US-based pharmaceutical companies, etc, think that it's ok to screw people over all the freaking time.

However, not everything here is cheap comparatively. Lots of things simply aren't manufactured locally. It's possible to get most food items that are made in Honduras or at least from Central America (usually Guatemala), but there are other products that don't seem to be produced in Central America at all. For example, I haven't been able to find cheap, locally made shampoo anywhere. Soap, sure, but shampoo and conditioner are almost exclusively imported from the states and usually cost $4-5 for a small bottle. There is also a distinct lack of hair mousse. Sad times.

Vitamins are another thing that are sort of elusive. I found one general multivitamin that's been doing the job, but for example, it only contains a mixture of 5 or 6 vitamins (mostly B vitamins and Zinc), whereas most normal multivitamins are a combination of some 30 different vitamins. It also costs about $12 for 24 pills.

On the bright side, many times when you see imported stuff from the US, you have a choice. Why do I need a $4 small box of US cereal (they, of course, only have the really sugary ones!) when I can get a $1.25 box of Honduran corn flakes? Think globally, buy locally :)

Toque de Queda/Toque de Guerra

I usually try to keep my blogs upbeat and positive, which is why I've been putting off this entry for a while... Most folks, I believe, are aware of recent political events in Honduras--my awareness was rather limited, but I've learned a lot in the last week or so just from watching the news/talking to people. Back at the end of June, there was a coup. Two weeks ago, Mel Zelaya, the former and some would claim rightful president of Honduras entered the country somewhat secretively and has been camping out at the Brazilian embassy ever since.

The de-facto leader, or as he refers to himself, the "constitutional" president, Micheletti, instantly declared that the nation be put on national curfew (toque de queda). As far as I can tell, this was done to squelch any organizing or protests amongst Zelaya supporters and it worked. When the curfew was briefly suspended on Wednesday to allow people to go out and buy food/supplies, the protests resumed and there were national fuel shortages due to the panic over how long this curfew could have lasted. When we went out even in Comayagua, the streets were gridlocked with people out buying staples in a frenzy (like Northern Virginia supermarkets before a predicted snowstorm).

In terms of how this affected me personally, we had two days off of school because of the curfew, and were somewhat afraid to walk down the street even to the pulpería (local convenience store) at first. Once things calmed down and we realized our neighborhood wasn't really a war zone, we just focused on watching the news pretty much 24/7. I must admit, as much as I really dislike that "I'm proud to be an American" patriotic song, the line about "at least I know I'm free" did strike a chord with me during the Honduran nationally imposed curfew. I have never really experienced what "not freedom" is in terms of political decrees, and while it wasn't awful, it really did feel limiting, uneasy, and arbitrary (dare I saw unjust?). This is why many people half-jokingly call toque de queda (curfew), "toque de guerra." (something like "state of war" or "a touch of war")

One comment made by one of my roommates was that Micheletti and his rich friends were essentially unaffected economically by the national curfew, but those who live on daily wages and who sell their wares in the street took a major hit. Some businesses have closed down or have limited their hours due to the political instability. As my roomie says, "Micheletti doesn't give a crap about the ladies selling tortillas in the streets."

I'm not going to offer much political commentary because I'm sure others do it a lot better than I do. Here are some articles regarding the current situation:

Especially alarming are the smear campaigns and the media censorship
(Thanks, Dad, for the NYT link. The smear ads were well-done and on the air constantly... kind of disturbing propaganda)

Two reporters from a Guatemalan TV station were beaten, bloodied, and thrown out of the country, and their reporting was taken off the air for several hours (replaced by oh-so-informative reggaeton music videos). It was also absolutely intriguing to watch pro-Micheletti Honduras news stations and then watching pro-Zelaya Venezuelan news essentially making fun of the de facto government, calling them pirates (one of the reporters even wore an eye patch!) and calling the whole situation pathetic. I then switched to the more balanced Al-Jazeera and felt a little better.

Here is a REALLY interesting public announcement from the US Embassy in Honduras regarding the constitutional rights Micheletti has suspended during this most recent political crisis...

Most notably, the following rights have been suspended:

Article 69: The right to personal freedom
Article 72: Freedom of Speech
Article 78: Freedom of Association
Article 81: Freedom of Movement
Article 84: The right to due process

Hope you didn't want to speak out against the government or anything... Here's Amnesty International's take on the issues:

Right now, we are no longer on toque de queda, although it was briefly imposed again last Saturday night, ruining my social life (haha). Basically, daily life continues as normal for now, but we are all waiting to see who will make the next move, and what national consequences it will have.

Baleadas and homage to Doña Iris

Baleadas. Addiction. These two words go hand-in-hand.

Baleadas, as you can see above, are essentially a wheat-flour tortilla folded over refried beans, shredded queso duro (a salty, hard cheese), with a smear of mantequilla (most Spanish speakers will think this is butter, but here in Honduras, it's more like Salvadoran crema). Sounds simple, right? Not too special, right?

Well, this lady, Doña Iris, is a freaking MAGICIAN, because she makes the best flour tortillas in town. They are thin and light and stretchy and you really have the right balance of tortilla to beans (not too bready, not too beany). Also, she works at lightning speed and is really a lot of fun to watch. Out of the picture to the left is her husband, who tag-teams with her, handing her things she needs, bagging up the baleadas "para llevar" (to-go), and collecting the money. Really, the tortilla is the best part of the baleada (which is why making them at home with store-bought flour tortillas truly pales in comparison) and it really makes it worth buying from those who do it right. And Doña Iris does it right.

Doña Iris apparently started selling her baleadas, like many women in Comayagua, on a streetcorner. According to my roomies who have been here a while, she did well enough to eventually be able to rent a storefront. Now, every few months, she adds something to it... another set of tables and chairs, a fan, and now, a TV! This is definitely a testament to her success, but even more impressive is that one baleada sencilla (just beans, mantequillla, and cheese) costs 5 lempiras. That's like 30 cents. Think about the volume you have to sell to turn that kind of profit. Also, baleadas are considered more of a breakfast food or mid-morning snack. That means Doña Iris closes for the day by around 10:30 or 11 am. Think about that sales volume in only about 4 hours. Damn, she's good.
Baleadas also come in many different varieties (especiales, as you can see on the sign). You can get them with scrambled egg in them, with chorizo (sausage) , chicken, and even slices of avocado. That means for a few extra lempiras, you can come up with something much like a pretty hefty breakfast burrito. Oh, did I mention there's usually hot sauce to shake on it if so desired?
Pretty much all of Honduras is addicted to baleadas. Here in Comayagua, there is even a business called HiperBaleada that makes their money on the true addicts who need home delivery of baleadas. Their baleadas (hyper-sized) are about the size of a dinner plate, or a small pizza folded over. The tortilla is thicker and sometimes feels a little like pizza dough, too. It's an interesting concept, but I'll take Doña Iris's any day.

Here's an English-language website that has a little more info on how to make baleadas, although it's pretty easy:

The site also includes other Honduran recipes for your perusing:
Happy noshing! More food updates to come :)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Costa Rica/Sustainability on the Brain

I just got an email today from the alumni network of the School for Field Studies, the organization through which I studied abroad in Costa Rica in the fall of 2002. The experience decidedly changed my life in terms of the way I think about the business of living, and was my first glimpse at a Latin American country.

The email was about a return-visiting Alumni program:
Sounds like a wonderful opportunity and a thought-provoking experience. I am definitely thinking about getting back to visit (and had been before I read about the program)--not only because of my amazing experience there at the center, but because Costa Rica certainly seems to be ahead of the game in terms of sustainability and solutions to common problems.

Indeed, I am constantly comparing my specifically Central American experience there to the one here in Honduras. There´s quite a big difference in the way trash is dealt with in Honduras, Costa Rica, and in the states. For example, while recycling facilities do exist in Honduras, there is no official pick up. In fact, garbage day might as well be called scavenging day. No one separates their trash into recyclables/non-recyclables so there are plenty of people roaming the streets on trash day going through people´s garbage to pull out the recyclables. This would not be so bad, except that people also throw away their toilet paper instead of flushing it, and I feel like that´s more of a public health/sanitary issue than trash in the US. Anyway, I personally have started separating my recyclables to at least save people a little dignity. Other folks who go scavenging are looking for something specific to salvage, such as the man asking if we had any used shoes.

By comparison, trash was separated into trash and recyclables in Costa Rica, with 2 pick-ups weekly... one for trash and one for recyclables in a town MUCH smaller than Comayagua. A local association of disabled citizens earned income by sorting and packaging the recycling and selling it to distributors. While the Center for Sustainable Develpoment Studies amounted to a small farm and was probably not the norm, I was impressed that we burned our toilet paper trash, composted our food scraps, separated non-compostibles for the hogs next door, and saved many of our recyclable materials for re-use (art projects and collage postcards). We even discussed making our snacks more sustainable by creating less packaging waste, and ended up doing a lot of baking instead of buying plastic-wrapped goodies from the pulpería (a kind of convenience store). I really felt as though I was living the ¨examined life¨ that Socrates was talking about.

Overall I think the fact that someone is willing to salvage other people´s trash is a good thing, and there really is a thriving market here for used goods, but I wish that it could be dealt with in a way that really does provide a more dignified income for people. Not sure how that would be... other than having separate bins for things, or modeling the system in Costa Rica. I think the fact that dumpster diving is illegal in the states is moderately ridiculous. The only reason I can see for the law is to protect people from identity theft, but I feel like if you are too lazy to take something to the thrift store and someone else knows how to fix it/use it, I see no reason to prohibit people from salvaging.

Another comparison between Costa Rica and Honduras is regarding it´s land use. While it is a point of pride and a somewhat well known fact that Costa Rica has approximately 25% of its land area as national parks or protected private preserves, what is not as commonly known is that Honduras has a higher percentage (around 32%) and an overall higher acreage of forest cover to its name. Granted, Honduras is a slightly larger country anyway, but... Unfortunately, while there are many national parks, much of this forest cover is preserved almost by accident, simply by not being developed, and has many current and future threats from squatters, logging, and ranchland (Costa Rica has many of the same problems, but designating the land as protected slows it down to some degree).

Anwyay, I am definitely comparing my experiences in the two countries in many other ways, but that´s all for now.

Día de los Niños/Día de los Maestros

Here in Honduras, we just celebrated el Día de los Niños on September 10th. Essentially, this days is a national holiday (not one where people get off work, but national all the same) honoring children. In some ways it seemed to be an excuse for a lot of shops to have sales on everything from piñatas to pizza, but there were radio ads from the government celebrating the youth of Honduras and it truly was a day for kids just to be kids.

Our school celebrated with an assembly/variety show put on by the teachers to entertain the kids, including funny skits, song, and dance numbers. I sang a song in Spanish :) It was so much fun and the kids really liked it because it was a purely non-educational assembly and the goal was for them to have fun and for the teachers to show them some love. After the assembly, the primary school grades stayed behind in their classrooms and had a party with games and piñatas. The older grades, however, did something a little different.

I was assigned to 8th grade for the day (who aren´t my students but who are a fun group just the same), and like all the other secondary grades, we were assigned a local public elementary school in the area. As one of the richest private schools in the city, this was considered a really fun way of giving back to the greater Comayagua community, and parents and students pooled resources and put on a party for the students of their adopted school, including games, lunch, cake and piñatas. For kids who probably don´t get too many parties, this was something really special.

The school we adopted, Escuela José Trinidad Cabañas, was essentially a one-room schoolhouse with a big porch on the outskirts of town. There were only two teachers assigned to some 100+ students, with one teacher taking on 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades, and the other with 2nd, 4th and 6th. Some classes were held on the porch, others inside, but all had to have rotating lesson stations to give each grade level appropriate material. WOW. I was at once impressed with and sympathetic towards those two teachers there! It was definitely in stark contrast to the facilities and the organizational structure at EBH (my school), and while I sometimes lament the lack of resources at my school, I have no idea how I would handle the situation if I were working at a similar public school in Honduras.

Realizing there would not be enough space at the school, we moved our festivities to a field owned by one of the locals. It was fun seeing the Honduran versions of simple childhood games (things like red light green light and simon says, only with different names and instructions). Once the too-cool-to-really-participate 8th graders ran out of game ideas and went to prepare lunch for the kids, I taught the kids sharks and minnows (my poor translation--tiburones y peces). Since it involved more running than the other games, I think they liked it the best.

It was interesting to compare the public/private systems and also get a glimpse at a more rural school. I think it´s a really good idea for the EBH kids to get out and see how the other half lives, especially since the teachers here are always complaining that the kids are spoiled. In fact, my 10th grade student´s younger brother (both from one of the richest families in town) was in the 8th grade group, along with the family bodyguards... which still really weirds me out. I hope activities like this inspire more service-oriented activities in students personal lives and future professional lives.

To keep things fair, September 17th is el Día de los Maestros, or Teachers´Day. To celebrate, my 11th grade students called in all their teachers to thank them and handed out very neatly presented goodie bags full of little candies and treats. Soooo cute! They´re my favorite class anyway, but this really sealed the deal. Apparently, it´s normal for teachers to get little presents from students on that day, but since the 17th is during our independence day vacation this year, I´m not sure if students will do anything big. Personally, I´m touched by the whole thing, and I like the fact that the two holidays are only a week apart so we can all reciprocate and feel the love. While there is a Teacher´s Day back home, I don´t think there is such a thing as an official children´s day in the United States (correct me if I´m wrong), but it seems like a really nice way to affirm the value of children and of having a good childhood.

el Mes de la Patria

We just finished out the month of September, which in Honduras is called ¨el Mes de la Patria,¨ or essentially the month in which most of the patriotic holidays fall. Shops and schools alike are decked out in the Honduran flag, and we´ve probably had 3 civic assemblies so far. Along with teachers´day and children´s day thrown in for fun (see previous post), September 1st was Flag Day, and September 15th is Honduras´s independence day. This is also why Hispanic Heritage Month in the US begins on September 15th--five Central American countries share the same Independence Day. There was even a holiday to celebrate when the independence day scrolls were first brought to the colonial capital, Comayagua!

I have to say that the social studies department at the school has had the students extremely busy lately preparing not only the civic assemblies but especially the independence day celebrations where students put on traditional dances as well as set up ornate displays for all of the Central American countries. Of course, it was also a fundraiser for the different classes and lots of regional treats were sold. I, personally, was thrilled to have another taste of the yummy empanadas de piña that I enjoyed wholeheartedly during my semester in Costa Rica. 10th grade was representing Honduras and sold baleadas from Doña Iris (see previous post about baleadas!) and also Catrachitas (literally, "little Honduran things") which are esentially a tostada with beans and that wonderful salty queso duro.
Unfortunately, I did NOT bring my camera on Independence Day and I didn't get pictures of the amazingly impressive displays (live animals for Costa Rica! A huge papier mache volcano for El Salvador!) but one of my fellow teachers did pass along her photos on a CD, so I'll be posting those soon.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pulhapanzak Falls

Before the soccer game yesterday, Elisa and I went trekking out of Comayagua for the first time and took a bus north towards el Lago de Yojoa. It was one of those days where we didn´t really have a plan, we just went out on a scouting mission to see what was there. It´s this beautiful lake in central-western Honduras that´s fed by waters from a nearby cloud forest. The bus passed by all these little restaurants with fresh fish from the lake that we have sworn to go to next time when hopefully we find a more flexible mode of transportation.

The waterfall, about 25 minutes north of the lake, was AMAZING!!! It had the same soaking mist as Niagara Falls so I´m surprised that any of my pictures came out with all the water droplets on my lens! I didn´t learn too much about the history of the area, but I did figure out that Pulhapanzak is a Mayan word (western Honduras is about the farthest extent of the range of the Maya). I was glad I had Elisa as my day trip buddy because she helped me notice a lot of amazing little creatures and details while we were walking around. We saw leaf-cutter ants (she told me that they harvest leaves not to eat themselves, but to feed the fungus that they cultivate to feed their entire colony--how cool is that?? Agricultural ants!), a whole bunch of amazing land snails that loved soaking up the moisture from the spray from the falls, and Elisa´s favorite, the fuzzy white caterpillar (barely visibe in the picture below). I enjoyed checking out all the crazy plants climbing up and hanging down off the trees.

Right when Elisa and I had finished checking out the falls and were wondering what else there was to do, one of the guides there convinced us to take the ¨cave tour.¨ This consisted of getting into our bathing suits, walking down under the waterfall under slippery rocks, getting a pounding from the water above, and tucking ourselves into a few little coves and a bigger cave behind the waterfall. The water was pounding down so hard that all I could see was white spray, sometimes my feet, and my sopping wet hair in my face. The guide would grab us by the hand and lead us one by one through the sections under the falls, showing us where to place my feet. because visibility was so short, I wonder how anyone was able to find the caves in the first place!! Essentially every time I would go ahead and wait for the guide and Elisa to come meet me, all I could see was white, thinking, are they coming? Are they ok? And then at the last second they would appear out of the mist right when they were upon me. It reminds me a lot of the scene from the last of the Mohicans when they do the same thing, only in our case it was a lot more waterfall and a lot less cave. It was so much fun and definitely an adrenaline rush. Here´s a gratuitous swimsuit photo with our guide, Luis.

I can´t wait to get back to el Lago de Yojoa to be able to explore more. There´s a microbrewery that was unfortunately not open for lunch when we got there, and I must get back there!! The beer here is not much to write home about, haha. There´s also several national parks and private ecological reserves in the area that are great for wildlife watching. Perhaps next time it will be a weekend trip instead of a day trip for scouting. Anyone who´s considering visiting... this could be a lot of fun!! :)

When in Rome, Cheer for the Home Team

Last night was my first experience with soccer in Honduras. Granted, while I was studying abroad in Costa Rica, I got to go to a live local league game (Liga Deportiva de Alajuela vs. Heredia) and was thoroughly impressed, but this was a national game and it was a BIG. DEAL. I was gone for most of the day visiting a waterfall (separate posts & pics to come) and as we were heading north on the highway towards San Pedro Sula (where the games are played) was a MESS! It probably took us half the time to get back down south in the afternoon.

The great thing was that as we passed all the little towns on the way, everybody was wearing their futbol jerseys... random people walking by the road, people in the towns hawking flags, stickers, etc. At one of the bus stops, this sort of spirit song was playing non stop REALLY LOUDLY at a nearby clothing store. It was punta music (kind of like really fast merengue with more African drum influence), saying ¨Vamos, vamos todos, a la selección!¨ Someone´s ringtone in this internet cafe was even that song!!

When we got back into Comayagua just after dark, this little field was set up with a huge screen like a drive-in movie with the pre-game show on, with cars all around and cheering people. As we made our way back to our house, there were chairs pulled around every pulpería and home to watch TV through the windows. While I was getting ready to go back out again, you could literally hear the cheers along with the game´s action in waves through the neighboring streets. Firecrackers were set off at the first goal. I missed the first part of the game getting ready and getting into town... by the way, catching a cab during game time is almost impossible because the streets are completely cleared of cars!!

Finally we got down to the bar (Sangrias) and watched the game with the rest of our friends. Luckily we got to see two more goals with the energy of the crowd there. It was definitely some good times. The only way I can think to describe the energy of the national games is like having SuperBowl Sunday every week only without the ridiculous amounts of food. In fact, for the game against Mexico this coming Wednesday, all the school children at EBH will be ditching their uniforms for futbol jerseys and jeans as a spirit day. Wooohooo!!

GOOOOOOL!!!! (Right after goal #3)

School Days, School Days

Escuela Bilingue Honduras, my new workplace, is reportedly one of the best schools in Comayagua. It´s a private school, and most of the students and their families aren´t hurting for money. One of my students, son of the owner of an oil trucking fleet, is dropped off at school with bodyguards as they are often targets for kidnapping. All that being said, it surprises me that the facilities and the organization of the school aren´t better. My ¨fully equipped¨ science lab only has 7 pairs of safety goggles, a smattering of glassware, and not enough stools for some of the bigger classes. No chemical hood, no eyewash, no fire extinguisher. Iiiinteresting. A couple of classes still don´t have teachers. Even though I came a week after school started, I found out that no one was covering my class. My students simply had ¨study hall¨ during science for the first week.

One of my new friends here, a former teacher at EBH and a current volunteer at the local orphanage, tells me that some days she has to come pick her kids up from the public school after only a few hours because the teachers haven´t shown up, or they´re on strike, or they simply don´t care (this is kind of hard for me to believe--I feel like I need to see it for myself). This year, due to government protests, all the public schools opened two weeks late. Essentially, if people can afford a ¨reliable¨ education in private schools, they´ll take it.

All that aside, I do really like our school building. the hallways and common spaces are all open air and it feels so nice to get fresh air pretty much all the time. Many of the classrooms have AC, for when it gets hotter later in the day. There are little atriums and green spaces tucked in the stairwell, and there´s a big coconut palm just outside the main window. YAY!

Each grade is composed of one class of students, usually between 18 and 25 people. Unlike larger high schools in the US, where students change classrooms for each class, here the teachers switch in and out and the students stay in the same room all day. It makes sense, since the school is somewhat small, but I feel kind of sorry for the kids cooped up in the same room all the time, without that break between classes to stretch their legs. Even their lockers are in the room with them!

It also seems that, since there´s not a lot of equipment or materials available, students are *hurting* for hands-on activities. They seem to have been taught nothing but theory and some of them tell me they have never done a lab or any kind of fun activity in class. They are practically begging me for it! So far, I´ve taken two classes into the lab to do a really basic paper chromatography experiment, and with my 11th grade biology students, I found a really great hands-on simulation activity of natural selection. The students were ¨predators¨ with different ¨feeding apparati¨ (knives, forks, spoons) and had to eat different colored pom poms in different environments. We then tracked multiple generations of predators and prey (who survived and got to reproduce) to see if natural selection was at work over two different simulated environments. They had so much fun and I laughed SO HARD I had to stop and get control over myself a few times. You can read more about the activity here:

Don´t worry, we graphed all the results and will be discussing our interpretations on monday :)

Anyway, sometimes the subjects I´m teaching are a little stilted and dry, and I realize that there are many days when I will have to just lecture. I am, however, committed to finding as many hands-on activities as possible, and I´ve already been supplementing my class with some science videos. I have been spending money on materials (and submitted receipts for--I hope--reimbursement) and I plan on putting together lesson kits with all the materials inside, lesson plans, etc, so that future teachers and classes can use them. I REALLY hope that they will be used again and again to keep the kids interested and engaged.

The 11th grade boys, ecstatic that they got to play with cups, spoons, and pom poms, hahaha.