Most houses in the city here in Central America have high walls around them, often topped with broken glass bottles cemented spikily in place, barbed wire, or electric fences. When I studied abroad in Costa Rica in 2002, this was one of the first things that really hit me as a big cultural difference--the place looked like a war zone. Once I got used to it and traveled to other Latin American countries, the omnipresent ¨security¨ feature faded to the back of my mind, and I began to appreciate the decorative ironwork that is often used to make those big walls look a little classier.
Honduras is no different. There are walls everywhere and the richer you are, the bigger and scarier your wall. You won´t see walls around most houses in poorer or rural areas, just fences. This past week, two tragic incidents have made me think a lot about walls...
A Honduran teacher I know from school got mugged and essentially sexually assaulted at the same time (as the mugger looked for cell phones and cash tucked in her underwear--¨You women keep things everywhere¨). It happened on a street that is narrow and lined with large houses with equally large walls. And it happened very quickly--between the time she got out of the taxi and the time the door of the house was opened for her. Basically, no one saw what was happening because everyone was walled in. So walls might make residents safer while they are actually in their houses, but it makes the street more dangerous. Besides the safety (or not) of people in the streets, walls with electrified fences as home security kill wildlife and even killed my husband´s aunt´s cat.
By contrast, my husband´s immediate family is from a poorer neighborhood where there are many un-walled houses. When I first moved there to a small aparment only a few blocks from the family´s house, I was taken aback by all the interaction in the streets. Kids were out playing with one another, neighbors stood or sat on corners chatting, etc. At my previous neighborhood (with big walls at the American teachers´housing) the streets were emptier and there was less activity. At least when there are more people out and about, there are more witnesses, and several Hondurans have given me the advice that it is always safer to walk down streets with more people on them.
My mother-in-law lives in an unfinished cinderblock house with a couple of dogs out front to help guard the property. No big walls. One of the dogs, Doby, is a great dog but is totally a mutt (the use of and attitudes toward animals in Honduras is another blog entry entirely). About a year ago, my husband made a trade for a purebred rotweiler named Max. He loved this dog and so did Anthony, his nephew. In the last few days, Max had been refusing to eat, and his face and neck had been swollen. We took him to a vet who said he just needed to be treated for parasites, so we got him all the shots and pills we thought he needed to recover. However, he continued to get worse and died this morning. Anthony said his eyes were completely green. We racked our brains trying to figure out what went wrong (why doesn´t Doby have parasites, too?) and we are now pretty sure someone on the street poisoned him. After all, there is no wall to keep someone from throwing him a piece of meat with poison pellets in it.
Why? Well, when I was in Costa Rica, someone poisoned the ¨guard dog¨ at one of the houses on our street, and then a few days later, their house was robbed. I mentioned my concern to my husband, and he was like, well, why didn´t they poison Doby, too? (We will keep watching out the next few days!!) He has seen other instances of people poisoning more purebred dogs simply for jealousy or revenge, so that´s more his theory. We had been talking recently about constructing a wall at his mom´s house for several reasons--the dirt road always kicks up dust that comes into the house, and la pobrecita has to spend half the day dusting and mopping, so a wall would at least block some of it. We were hoping to finish constructing the house and a wall would provide some security that the construction materials wouldn´t ¨wander off by themselves.¨ But, with Max´s death and the speculated cause, it looks like it´s definitely time...
I wonder how many other people have gone through similar debates with themselves. To wall or not to wall? Walls are expensive, so that means they are not an option for some. No walls means better community interactions and a more beautiful neighborhood (assuming people take care of their yards, but at least you can see the houses!), but anyone can wander in. Walls means screw everyone else, at least we are ¨safe.¨ There really is a strong sense of fear here in Honduras about so many things, and it is reflected in the physical construction of neighborhoods; the ¨war zone¨ I mentioned before. Maybe it´s just that many other people simply got hurt too many times and reached the same frustrating point where we are. We just want our dogs, our belongings, and especially our family to be safe. Or ¨safe.¨