Thursday, December 14, 2006

Happy Birthday to Me!

My birthday has always been one of my favorite times of the year simply because I always get an overwhelming outpouring of love and thoughtfulness each and every year for as long as I can remember. What´s interesting is not the same people remember every year, nor do they all remember at the same time, but nevertheless, I there are well-wishers, here there and all over. It never fails that each year, I receive a couple of random greetings from people out of the woodworks, so it has been fun finding out every year who they are going to be.

This year is no different in its level of awesomeness. Just when I thought being in Honduras would pose as a challenge, somehow I knew deep down that my day would find its way to prove to be special. My first birthday song (en español!) came in at 12 a.m., December 9th, from a friend in town, followed by a long distance call from the Philippines at 12:02 a.m. that came with a song number as well. Did I ever get to say that I LOVE IT when people sing Happy Birthday to me over the phone? I think it´s the most hilarious and fun thing.

My plans for the day were to attend a Christmas party at a nearby mini-resort for the network of women´s group that I am working with- only they turned the party into one birthday fiesta for me as well! When I arrived, birthday music in Spanish was blasting from the speakers and everyone surprised me by jumping from behind the bushes. My “party” was made up of almost 25 awesome women all in all!! Most of these are people I´ve only seen about a few times since I started working in Honduras, and yet they drowned me with kind words and some presents and as the picture shows- in icing. Yes, I got my cake and ate it too! Not to mention a piñata and merengue time with the ladies!

In the evening, I got to attend my first ever Honduran wedding to accompany my host mom, so that was cool. I felt like I had another big party with a ton of people, at no cost to me! Haha. Capped the evening by going dancing with some friends and then the following day, I went to celebrate again out of town with another volunteer who had the same birthday as I do- so we had some adventures in La Ceiba. Everything was chill and good.

Messages and phonecalls continued to pour in throughout the weekend and through the mail- both snail and electronic. Some people form here called me too and I never even told them when my birthday was! As always, I can´t really complain about anything, if at all, I feel so blessed to have so many amazing people in my life who continue to prove that distance doesn´t matter- and neither does being “recently acquainted” because in my three months here in Olanchito, a lot of people have come to embrace me as their own.

I´m 29 years old and it´s amazing how I don´t feel a year older. If anything, I know I´ve definitely matured more in my thinking but my heart is definitely getting younger and younger. Unlike the majority of people who freak out every time they turn a year older, I am the exact opposite, feeling more brave to embrace life as the years pass. I don´t think I ever have to worry about getting old- especially here in Honduras – I´ve had countless arguments with people who tell me I´m lying when I give them my real age, but when I tell them I´m 22, the argument comes to a halt. Case closed, indeed.

So this is a special shout out to each and everyone in my life who ever remembered when I had a birthday and made an effort to make me feel special. Every message, every phone call, every gesture- they all have stayed in my mind and heart and continue to make me feel mmm…good…deep inside.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Excerpts from November

Nov. 2nd Apartment Blues
Moved into an apartment and I was back on my own. Sort of. Still had the previous occupant’s things and it took two weeks to get rid every last one of his things. Now I´m enjoying all my loaner items- bed, desk, drawer, stove, some kitchen items. My bed sheets are brand new, however, and a refrigerator may actually be within reach. But for now I will continue to enjoy my consumption of room temperature agua, since I made it to a month without the luxury of the ice box. It´s not so bad once you get used to it.

Nov. 4th and 29th ¡Viva Cuba!
Attended a ceremony on the 4th to honor the presence of the Cuban Ambassador to Honduras in our town. Our Mayor spoke endlessly on the glory of Cuba and how wonderful anything and everything that is Cuban. Heard the Cuban National Anthem for the first time, which lasted about 30 seconds as opposed to the Honduran anthem of 3+ some minutes. Saw members of the Medical Brigade from Cuba as well and they lived up to their reputation that I have heard about beforehand- creidos, i.e. snobs. But, the Ambassador was very nice to me when I introduced myself and he actually shook my hand.

On the 29th was a day to commemorate the Cuba – Honduras friendship. When it was time for the guest of honor from Cuba to give her speech, instead of the usual flowery declamation, she suddenly went into political discourse lambasting U.S. policy and the Bush administration and the evils of North Americans and how mighty Fidel is for making it to his 80th birthday. Hmm. Being the lone estadounidense in the crowd, I could only imagine what could have happened if the fired up speaker suddenly realized that there was an enemy amongst the audience. For once I found it convenient that no one in Honduras ever initially perceives me as from the U.S., only from China or Japan - the only two countries in Asia, according to the knowledge of the majority here. But I digress, needless to say, it wasn´t a very comfortable situation.

Mental note: I should avoid future events of this nature so that I will not have to be obliged to join the crowd when they burst into their chanting of ¡Viva Cuba! and ¡Viva Fidel!

Nov. 5th – 23rd. Speak Spanish to My Ears
I attended series of workshops with varying themes such as Human Rights of People Living with HIV/AIDS, Water Sanitation Laws, Emotional Intelligence, Conducting Feasibility Studies for Development Projects, Functions of the Powers of State and the Transparency and Audit Committees. Oh yes, all of these were in español.

Although I have been told by a lot of people that my spoken Spanish is perfecto or excelente, I still have my doubts. However, I do know that my comprehension has definitely improved, I would say up to 97% after surviving all these workshops, sans a dictionary, and even understanding technical terms. Kudos to my dedication and endurance! Sitting through classes of legalese in English wasn´t the most exciting nor easiest thing for me, what more, in Spanish. But “I´m doin´it…and doin´ it well," to quote an LL Cool J song, I think.

Nov. 13 If You Look Foreign, You Must Have Dough!
One of the men I have seen frequent the municipality on behalf of his group suddenly called me on my cell phone (a colleague just conveniently gave it to him) to ask to meet with me because his group needs help acquiring land and no one else in the municipality has been able to do it. Uh, sure thing. That was my cue to recite my spiel of "Peace Corps does not provide financial resource, but human resource” and went on to offer him instead to connect him with an existing organization that works on his issue. Just another day in Municipal Development work, I guess.

Nov. 14 Definitely in the Boondocks
I visited a 20-year old community of about 25 houses in one of the neighboring mountain villages of the city. When I arrived, I asked where the bathroom was and I was advised to go behind the church. Was the bathroom behind the church? No, the river lay behind the church. I was told to go there because no one would see me there as I took care of my business (just #1, for the record). So, as I was doing my first ever squat-to-pee in Honduras, it dawned on me that there was no bathroom anywhere there because there was no water system, hence no latrines, and of course, no electricity either. I had my first hand experience of the reality of the majority of the people who are living in the rural areas, outside the comforts of the city. It was sobering for me and a good reminder of what I´m supposed to be doing in this country. So no more whining ever about my apartment blues, where, although I had a leaky faucet at first, at least I have running water. And a toilet.

Nov. 23 and 24 Turkey Day
I had turkey! I had turkey on Thanksgiving Day in Honduras! Thanks to a volunteer friend’s mother (fabulous Ms. Viviana from San Diego) who came to visit the country for her daughter’s birthday and invite her friends. The lucky souls were treated to two nights in Hilton where they served a traditional (well, close enough- the turkey was real, though!) Thanksgiving Meal. Woohoo! The following night we enjoyed some wine, various cheeses (none of which was quesillo!), fruits and cold cuts. We had a lot to be thankful for indeed!

Nov. 26 Good Morning, Politics
Shortly after getting out of bed I headed out for the grocery and passed by a nearby store where I started chatting with the owner. When he found out that I´m from the U.S., he immediately went on about the injustice of how immigrants are treated there and his sentiments against the construction of the wall and then reminded me of the disasters that resulted in every Central American nation’s relation with the U.S. from the Reagan era. I have to admit I was blown away by the depth and breadth of his knowledge of history and politics – this was definitely not a typical chitchat with a Honduran. However, this was also at around 8 a.m., the morning after traveling on a bus for eight hours. I let him finish what he had to say and then politely told him that not all North Americans ( I learned that it is more p.c. to be specific and not just say “Americans” because Latin Americans are also Americans, not just the gringos.) share the same opinion with the current U.S. administration and then I excused myself. On a different day or time, it would have been interesting to pursue the political discourse, but that early morn, I just wanted to buy some groceries.

Nov. 29 Meeting with the Big Cheeses
My Peace Corps supervisor came to visit me at my site and meet with myself and my counterpart, the Mayor. It was all procedural, in order to check how things have been with work, health, life in general and discuss any issues. Over lunch, a graceful dance of politics and diplomacy between my jefa and the alcalde ensued and I would have to say it was productive and very helpful for me. At the least I would say that the past couple of months have been a frustrating uphill battle trying to find my purpose and way in and through a political world. Although I know that it will not be smooth sailing from here, hopefully having found some common ground from the discussion will result in progress.

Nov. 30 Beauty amidst Sorrow
Maritza is one of the best girlfriends of my host mother, Rosa. This week, her family suffered a tragic loss when her younger brother, a lawyer, was murdered in the capital. I wasn´t able to make the trip for the burial, however, when the family returned, I accompanied Rosa to visit their home since Maritza has become a friend of mine as well. It was an honor for me to be welcomed into the home and be allowed to witness incredibly intimate moments. I am familiar with the process of mourning when a loved-one passes away, but I have never been in a situation wherein a loved-one´s life was stolen. It was painful seeing the mother and the siblings of the deceased grieve. However, I found beauty in all of this - the maturity and strength of Maritza´s eleven-year old daughter consoling and embracing her mother as she cried and cried, people from the community visiting the home to be empathize with the family, intimate friends running the household and entertaining guests so that the family can mourn in peace. And in the middle of all of this, Maritza´s brother, Anoel, whom I met for the first time that evening, took the time to sit with me and get to know me, setting aside his own need for space in order that I could feel more comfortable in the home and with the situation.

This brings me to the realization that all this month I have been frustrated and stressed over not being able to do any tangible work even though I have been here, there, and everywhere trying to get to know communities, people and organizations. Someone once pointed out to me that building relationships is work. Whenever I go out I carry around a little notebook, writing names of every person I meet. Every so often I review these names and even though I don´t always remember everyone, everytime, most often I do and the effort has always been vale la pena (worth the trouble) when the eyes of someone whose name I remember light up. Last time I counted the names was over two weeks ago and I was at over three hundred people. This doesn´t even include the people I met before September 9, when I moved to this town. I guess 300 new acquaintances, several already dear friends, in about two months time is not bad work at all.

I guess what I am trying to say is that reaching a level of confianza (trust) the way I have with Maritza´s family, where I was able to go in her room, despite being the extranjera (foreigner) that I am while other visitors could not, is an amazing thing for me. And thanks to Rosa and other colleagues who have introduced me to various circles, I have reached this level of intimacy with other families as well. The concept of volunteer work being that of building relationships more than anything is starting to make more sense. So, no, I have not saved Honduras and I don´t think I´m going to- more than anything I think it is saving me from myself and any risk of having lofty aspirations. However, I will continue on with the kind of work I have been doing putting people first and I know somewhere out of all of this, a project of some sort will come up where it will be my turn to make a positive difference in somebody´s life.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bitter Becomes Sweet

I am suddenly living solo. After a year of living with family then two years with a roommate in the U.S., and four months later with four families in Honduras, I am back with me, myself, and I. Four days and counting.

The past month of living with my host mother, Rosa, has been so abundant with wonderful experiences and learning that to my surprise, I found myself not wanting to leave and just stay with her for the rest of my volunteer service. For a change, I didn’t have to worry about being lonesome or having a real home, as I had it all in the company of this lovely woman and in the cozy abode that she has. I met so many people and learned a lot about the community through her and discovered as well the extent of compassion a human heart can have.

However, I had to take a refresher course on humility and acceptance when the honeymoon had to end. Rosa’s heart was willing to take me in longer, but her commitment to keep her space open for a greater cause called for letting me go. As painful and sad it was for me at first, I immediately turned to counting the blessings I received through her and became grateful for the experience.

Apartment Blues. No transition is ever easy, especially not when it involves a business-like transaction in Honduras. Immediately after I signed a lease contract with my landlord for an apartment beginning November 1st, she told me that I couldn´t move in until the 2nd because the current tenant (i.e., her brother-in-law) had not vacated. Okaaay. So I returned the following day to pick up the keys only to have her tell me that the apartment wouldn´t be ready until the 4th. She told me my host mother wouldn’t mind my extending my stay with her because she is a kind, calm person. Yes, this is considered a professional excuse in this country. No more nice Leah at that point. So I put my foot down and told her I had to move into the apartment by hook or by crook, since Rosa was expecting family members to arrive and occupy my room, hence I had to pack up and leave, hasta pronto.

Somehow I was able to move into the apartment, but the place still had all of the previous occupant’s things- furniture, clothes, and appliances. Not to mention it was filthy. Instead of trying to take advantage of the Cornflakes-laced bed that was still there to sleep in for the night, I opted for the wickerwork-type of couch. Needless to say, with all the additional emotional and physical transitions I suddenly had to go through, that night was a definite low point. To sympathize with my pain, it maybe helpful to mention that in the last six years, I lived in six different places in the U.S., but if this seems rather crazy, it´s nothing, really, considering I just outdid myself because in my four months in Honduras, I had just moved for the fifth time.

Feel me?

After a good cry, I collected myself and reflected on what had just happened with my life. I knew my patience and faith are being stretched even further for my own good, hence, at that time, I didn’t have the need to get hysterical nor have a nervous breakdown. Besides, that would be very un-Leah. If anything, I have been my usual stoic self in the face of uh…crisis? Killing the landlord and her brother-in-law with kindness even when they tried to scr*w me over eventually worked to my advantage because the apartment ended up being emptied out a day earlier and I got a bed frame and a drawer loaned out to me. I didn’t have to sleep on the floor, after all, like I thought I would and I was able to empty out my suitcase. Sweet!

Back to Basics. Last night was the first time that the apartment, even in its vast emptiness, started to feel, not quite like home yet, but at the least, like my own place. It finally got cleaned, Honduran style (i.e. hose everything down with water) and I felt like I could finally breathe and in my solitude, find some inner peace. I felt that it was the real official start of my volunteer service.

I am now the proud owner of a twin-size colchon (a pseudo-mattress made of foam), bed sheets, and a pillow. I have a loaner fridge and two chairs for another week and a stove is about to be donated to me. So far, so good. For a while I was a bit stressed out how to fit the $200 allowance the volunteers got to furnish our respective places, but I refuse to sweat the small stuff much longer. I decided to trust that everything I need will find its way to me when I need them, not sure exactly how, but it will happen.

I am bringing to new heights learning to make do with what I have and extinguish any desires of acquiring so much stuff. This is what I wanted to leave in the U.S. so bad, and unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy as I hoped because a lot of people in this country, despite their poverty, are unsurprisingly materialistic. I swear, it is the power of cable television. The clothes, shoes and fancy cell phones of some people here definitely do not reflect their actual economic status. Dirt roads are not a deterrent to women painting the town red in their shiny stilettos. As for me, I refuse to fall back into a consumerist lifestyle and instead would like to savor the minimalist wayI find myself living in.

Alone, but Not Lonely. As much as I have enjoyed being out and about meeting the whole town (literally) in the past couple of months and always being in good company, finding myself solo in my empty apartment one last Friday night was a breath of fresh air. I found refuge in the company of a new shipment of books from my dear friend, Ericka, and a pile of books in Spanish begging to be read. For a change, I heard myself think and felt myself really feel for an extended period of time. I remembered the projects I originally wanted to do on my quiet time and got excited all over again.

Sure, it seems like I have been on an endless roller coaster ride, even before I left San Francisco. True. But with each dip I discover something new as I rise back up, equipping me better for the next dip that I’m about to encounter. It´s not a secret that life is full of ups and downs, so I´m not sure why people keep trying to run away from or deny the ”downs” that inevitably occur. There are a few rules in life that I swear by and one of them is to live it with the utmost grace, even in the face of adversities. I knew all along what I was up for when I chose to become a volunteer and having the right frame of mind makes such a big difference. It probably doesn’t hurt either that I´m ridiculously patient and optimistic no matter how hard the hits I take.

I am pretty fortunate that even if I choose to become a hermit here in my town, it will be impossible to do so given that I already know a ton of people and any given day that I would like company, all I would have to do is step out of my door. I already know my neighbors prior to moving into my apartment and with invitations to eat out or hang out coming in abundance, truly there is no excuse to feel alone. If anything, all the attention and company can be overwhelming, but , this a subject matter for another time. For now I will just enjoy finally having the balance of alone time when I´m in my place and having the company of the whole of Olanchito when I´m out.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

God´s Love in the Time of Addiction

Coming across a church in Honduras that is called Fire of God, I am reminded why those who are not accustomed to the Christian life and all its attributes, would deem ¨those evangelicals¨ as crazy fanatics and why they would immediately run the opposite way within sight of anyone carrying a ¨Jesus Saves¨ sign. I grew up Catholic and am very well acquainted with Mr. JC Himself, but I used to think ¨those crazy evangelicals¨ to myself too. Well, I still think that way about some of them, but over the past couple of years, I have been educated about a thing or two and am now more careful to judge.

It was bound to happen that I wanted more than just the routine of going to mass, 50 minutes of which were devoted to sheer ritual, reciting memorized prayers, and performing gestures in between, and the rest was 10 minutes of homily either by an inaudible octogenarian or a foreign priest with an accent so thick that he might as well have spoken in tongues since nobody understood him anyway. In other words, like my Theology Professor in College declared, I was guilty of being a nominal Catholic like the rest of the class. It´s embarrassing but I never really read much from the Bible until the required exegesis in freshman year, and only heard the same Scripture passages during mass year after year.

The Leap. Then one day I attended service at a non-denominational church. In all honesty, as much as I wanted a profound experience, I actually felt like I crossed into the Twilight Zone. People were all over me as I walked through the door, greeting and blessing me, and the congregation was bouncing off the walls dancing and praising to LOUD music. And everyone knew everyone and most of all, everyone seemed just TOO HAPPY. Scared little Catholic girl, I was indeed. Nevertheless, I kept going back and started to learn more, such as the Christian speak, i.e. commonly used words in the sermons and conversations that I have never used before in everyday language such as testimony, ministry, His stripes, miracles, restoration, and a lot more. I just kept thinking to myself, ¨Change is good. Change is good.¨

It was good indeed for as different (and weird) everything seemed at first, I found exactly what I was looking for so long, church hopping and all, for quite some time- a real message. For the Word of God to make sense in real life and not just be some be some strange text full of Ye´s and Thou´s. Passages I´ve heard all my life suddenly started to make sense, not just in meaning, but in application as well. It took a lot of work and utmost open-mindedness on my part to start reaping the benefits of really seeking and learning. A lot of heartaches too. For at times, nothing just made sense- different parts of the Bible seemed to contradict each other- one part says Thou Shalt Not Kill and then in another, God commands to annihilate clans and clans of people. Hmm. And then there is just that persistent insecurity- it is just too darn hard to be good or understand things- at least in the way that those happy people are. There was actually a period that out of frustration, I consciously stopped praying and tried to not believe in a God, or the God, or whatever it is supposed to be.

It was the emptiest feeling I have ever experienced in my life.

Living Presence. I don´t know if I ever will be eloquent enough to be able to explain why I believe in God, especially to a non-believer. All I know is that all my life there has been this presence in my life guiding me every step of the way, even when I didn´t pay much attention to it. I don´t even dwell too much on issues of historicity or factual basis of the Second Coming like all the intellectuals like to debate about. I have just come to accept His reality in my life and now I am just focused on patiently growing day by day and embracing the truth the love of God can bring. And dare I say it- the miracles.

A Miracle Called Morris. Last Sunday I went for the first time to a Christian church here in town and it just so happened to be the night where the congregation was welcoming the return of a group of young men from a spiritual retreat. Needless to say, there was the hour and a half long intro of singing, praise, and invocations, but finally the participants were called in to the sanctuary. They then ran into the building and started dancing for joy in front of the church like I´ve never seen youth dance before. For a second I could´ve thought I was in a rave party, seeing the frenzy that they were in. And then each of the participants were called to step forward one by one and share their testimony. One of them was Morris, the ultra friendly and convivial server /bartender in one of the town´s best restaurants, who is also usually seen in the social scene (not that there´s much) when not at work, always with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette on the other. He is a very pleasant person, but the few times I had the chance to spend time with him, I saw all the signs. Needless to say, this 21-year old was all about work, booze, smoking, getting stoned and getting…some.

So there was Morris, in front of the congregation, proclaiming his love for God and that the old Morris is gone and has been interred. He then asked forgiveness from his family and wept uncontrollably as he did so, as his family (and myself, along with my host mother) went into his embrace. It was the same thing for the rest of the participants- one by one, proclaiming their salvation, claiming they are free, and falling into the arms of almost always, their mothers. What struck me the most was that some of them looked as young as ELEVEN YEARS OLD, weeping with such remorse, as if they were already carrying the sin of the world at such a young age. Eventually, I found out that they were indeed. This group of about twenty young men was the rock bottom of this town, the product of broken families – living with the addiction of alcohol, cocaine, you name it. So imagine the look on their mothers´faces as their Prodigal Sons have come home.

Learning from a Former Non-Believer. A couple of nights later, Morris, being a long time family friend of my host mother, visited us in our home to thank us personally for our presence at church that night. He was his usual self- jovial, happy, but the only difference was, he was sober. And the delight that emanated from him was incredible. He wreaked with joy such that I recognized it as to be the same kind of happiness that I saw in real Christians, you know, the kind that I found TOO happy it was odd. Glass after glass he drank with us- all of them water. He shared that since the retreat, he had no desire or craving at all for his vices, even after years of addiction. I then found out the extent of his dark past and I was amazed by his honesty and the ease with which he opened up and just how his world went downside up overnight. This is coming from someone who, too, used to think, ¨those crazy evangelicals.¨

I am still not over by what I witnessed that night. I keep thinking to myself, here I am, having believed in God and always faithful to His ways all my life, and yet, I don´t ever remember a time where I think I have danced and praised God, in the way those boys, now men, did. Such reckless abandon in their worship and joy in their faces – the very kind I would like to be able to have one day, and the reason behind I keep finding myself in the company of Christians.

And then there was Morris at our dinner table, asking to lead the prayer before our meal. If I didn´t know better, I would´ve thought to myself, ¨Oh, he´s one of those Christians who are too happy.¨ If I needed any more convincing about what the love of God can do, witnessing the change in Morris and those boys would have clinched it. But the thing is, I don´t need any more convincing, I just need to shed all my still existing inhibitions and hang-ups and completely open my heart such that one day, I, too, may experience fully the joy the love of God brings.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Two Birthdays and a Funeral

There`s nothing more intimate than being invited into family occasions to celebrate with them and also, share their moments of mourning. It didn`t come as a surprise that my moving in to live with a woman in her 50´s who is well-known and well-loved by the entire community has given me instant access to the world I am living in now. Integrating has become effortless. A week after the move, I am still blown away by the depth and breadth of this free-spirit I have come to get to know and how she is received, along with myself, in every single home or corner store we pass by. I feel immensely blessed by this opportunity and it is only the beginning.

In the past week alone, I attended an 18th and an 80+th birthday party and a burial. In all three occasions I found myself surrounded by strong family ties and life-long friendships fueled by an insurmountable amount of love for each other, whether in a time of joy or sorrow. Imagine the octogenarian celebrant, surrounded by her 9+ children, multiplied exponentially with her grandchildren, all taking the time to slowdance with her. And then there was the late night gathering of a throng outside a funeral home, where friends and family awaited the arrival of the deceased; when the hearst arrived, there was silence and when the tears started pouring, shoulders to cry on abounded.

The past month has been a blur, being pulled right and left in getting to know the community, and up and down, emotionally. Supposedly the first few months of service are going to be slow and I would have to agree- that is, when it comes to business being done. Deadlines don't exist here and when it comes to keeping appointments, well, I learned all too well that they do take place- eventually. Pretty big adjustment for someone who used to swear by an Outlook Calendar, but in a way, I think I`m learning to enjoy just going with the tranquila pace of life here, and the attitudes. On the other hand, my social life has skyrocketed into the atmosphere- that is, of course, if you count visiting community or family members and chatting over Coke or tortilla y quesillo and going to local grocery stores to stop and chat as social events.

I have also been able to go out dancing in more consecutive weeks (even days) than I can remember, even compared to back in the U.S. And I don`t necessarily mean going clubbing. Over here, there is room for dancing for any occasion, any place, and I love it. I couldn´t remember ever dancing with a group of vibrant and humorous 50+ year old women (and an 80+ year old, let´s not forget!), shaking it to merengue music til we dropped. And last weekend I was on a field trip with a network of women's groups trying to form an alliance in the region and when we were having lunch at a poolside of a resort, reggaeton played and I on instinct just bobbed my head to the music. When all of a sudden, the hot mamalicious of the group just grabbed me and next thing I knew, we were putting on a show for the rest of the ladies...showing them how it's done and how music and dance truly defy all age and cultural barriers. It was hilarious...and amazing. As much as I would hate to admit it, I realized that the 40/50+ year old women I have been hanging around with have so much more energy than I do and could definitely outlast me whether in dancing or socializing. I have some serious training to do, I say.

On the work front, I cannot say that things have been too peachy. I guess I can`t have everything I want in one sitting. These days I have been developing my virtue of patience more than ever, figuring out how I can be really useful to this community. I have decided that on top of being involved with the arts center, I would like to focus on working on women's issues, collaborating with the Municipality Office for the Women. But before I get to do that, I have to get through an ocean of political drama and bureaucratic hoopla. Although it`s supposed to be a "municipal" office, it is not really the case as it hasn`t really been getting any form of support for some time from the local government. To say the least, I discovered how challenging it is to get the time of day from the seat of power when it comes to women´s issues, being in a machista town where more roads are of utmost importance. I have been frustrated for a while, but I guess this is where my creativity and wits are supposed to step in, and fortunately, I have been finding encouragement here and there simply by having the right frame of mind and patience, of course. Right now I have no idea on where to find the solutions, but I guess my real work has begun. And like everything else in Honduras, I know everything will fall into place, eventually.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

I´m Legit

It`s official. I am a volunteer. I made it through eleven weeks of training and so did the rest of the 50 out of the 52 that came to Honduras. The past couple of weeks have been a blur with so much happening. Field-based training in La Esperanza wrapped up successfully and rather quickly. Then it was back to Sta. Lucia for a week and the following weekend was our site visit- the time when we were finally told the location of our sites and actually got to visit them for four days to see the place and get to know the community.

Sweet Discovery. I lucked out by having my site situated in the highly-coveted area of the North, where all the beaches are found. I´m not quite that lucky by being right on the coast, or even being really, really close to it…but two hours away isn´t bad at all. My site is the principal city in the department of Yoro, known as civic city of Honduras. My real fortune lies in the kind of work that I´ll be doing- mainly with the municipality and the casa de cultura, which is what a city´s cultural center is called. My counterparts are the mayor and the director of the casa. It´s still pretty surreal how I was sad to leave my dancing and all the arts in San Francisco but managed to end up in a city best known for the writers and artists that have emerged from it. The casa was pretty defunct until the new director took over and now it offers music and drawing lessons, ballet (well, sort of) classes and is actively looking to do more (perhaps I didn´t have to say goodbye to dancing or design work afterall?). I arrived at a perfect time- Civic Month where two weeks of activities celebrating culture and civic pride have been scheduled. My work in the municipality is yet to be determined but I´m supposed to over all strengthen it…rather vague and ambitious, I know. Hopefully my subsequent meetings with the mayor will clarify things and focus on at least step one.

Burnt, but Content. I can´t really expound right now, exhausted from the week´s series of activities and emotional roller coaster ride. I was on the bus for at least a total of 30 hours the last two consecutive weekends. My site is ten hours away from Sta. Lucia and last week´s visit plus last night´s return have taken their toll on me. Not to mention that I´ve packed and hauled all my things three times the past three weeks- from La Esperanza to Sta. Lucia and now to Olanchito. For the first time in eleven weeks, I am feeling a bit spent. Fine, sort of sick. But I just wanted to share my thoughts while fresh, especially about last Thursday´s swearing in of volunteers. The country director for Peace Corps Honduras was there, along with, the U.S. Ambassador. The ceremony was short and sweet and afterwards we had some fun in the Ambassador´s Residence where as a bonus, we got a sighting of the Honduras President who happened to be there. The night was concluded with dancing at a club with the entire group and afterwards a hot shower and a plush bed at the Marriott where we were actually allowed to spend the night on a volunteer rate. I guess I can´t really complain about the ten hour bus ride that followed the next day.

So this is it for now, folks. More details to come as I get to know my new home for the next couple o´years and start settling in to the Volunteer life. I plan to take everything slowly, but surely, just as I always have. I´m just happy to finally be able to say- I`m really doing it! Wish me luck!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Two Months Down

Almost Volunteers. This past week has been a turning point as all the trainees had the chance to start executing self-directed projects and had a better idea of what volunteer work is going to be like. The mantra of the Municipal Development group is, “It happens” because in Honduras, and in community work, especially, things do happen and that’s just the way it is. For example- meetings starting late, only half the people expected showing up, being asked to rescheduled an already confirmed workshop on the day and time it was about to take place,

Last Tuesday, I gave my first ever charla (workshop/lecture) in Spanish to a group of high school students. My subject was self-esteem. A school director had requested this on top of the original plan for a leadership workshop because she believed some kids she had in mind could use a lecture on self-esteem, so I accepted the challenge. It was nerve-wracking enough having to come up with the material on my own and having to facilitate the entire thing in Spanish before the “special “students. For a while I felt like the whole thing was a scene right out of Dangerous Minds as I went into a run down classroom, with some seats turned over and the students were eyeing me, bored out of their wits, wondering what in the world I was about to do with them. But I believe I pulled it off and that experience represented what my Peace Corps experience is going to be like. I didn’t let the circumstances intimidate me, sucked up my courage from somewhere, stuck to my plan and at some point, I became comfortable in my skin. I managed to engage the group until the end and even though I didn’t get a standing ovation in the end, I knew I did my job.

I actually felt better in the end that I didn’t get the “perfect, enthusiastic” crowd for because it made my experience more real. Volunteer life will never be a walk down a path laced with rose petals nor will everyone come out of every activity I lead a changed person. Somewhere along my workshop, I let go of my script and just spoke extemporaneously (still in Spanish) on what I thought those kids needed to hear. I made them repeat one by one before the class their life goals that we had discussed earlier. I told them that all of their dreams were possible, but they will not come for free. That success took hard work, but with more successes in life, come a greater sense of pride. That I was once a student like them, bored out of my mind at times with school and lectures like the one I was giving, but I wanted to make something of myself so I took life seriously. I told them that my greatest dream for the longest time was to be a Peace Corps Volunteer and that I am about to live that dream because I worked hard for it. Most of the 18 kids I had in the group still looked at me with glassy eyes after this speech, but there were a handful who kept their ears peeled until the end and clearly got the point. They are the fertile ground where my first seeds got planted. I figure if I keep this going, after the two years, I would have covered a vast area of real estate.

HIV Reality. In addition to addressing self-esteem, today the trainees gave a workshop to high school kids on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. Yes, my second charla in a week; I’m definitely on a roll. Yesterday we had a “training of trainers” where we received the same workshop we replicated today. It was a great experience to receive a formal training and then immediately be able to put it into practice. The method was very effective and participative and definitely paid off with engaging the kids. They sure enjoyed those bananas.

This is as close I have ever been to the graveness and urgency of the issue of the epidemic, with Honduras being the hotbed of AIDS for Central America. This is also the first time I’ve actively done something about it…well, a step further from my AIDS Walk and Marathon participation. It was pretty surreal talking to thirteen year olds about the ABCs (abstinence, be faithful, condoms) but it really is the age in this country (well, the rest of the world, really) that things begin. So I guess it is better to favor the side of caution than ignorance, or even denial. Which is the state of what most people are here- the “deed” is never talked about within the family; parents don’t educate the kids out of being “conservative” or just plain ignorant because the majority of adults themselves are unaware of the reality of AIDS and how it is transmitted. Infidelity is the norm and it is very common that a man would infect his wife without either one of them ever finding out or until it’s too late. Or at times the man would know he is infected but would continue with his reckless promiscuity regardless. The kind of myths that people have about HIV/AIDS here also demonstrate how misunderstood the disease is- one kid from today’s charla shared that he heard that if a woman is to bear a child every year, it would reduce or eliminate her chances of contracting the disease. Another one is some men have taken their wives’ birth control pills or have taken the injection for themselves thinking that would prevent their infection. Umm…Houston, we definitely have a problem.

I am grateful for having learned and experienced a lot this past week. I also appreciate that we, as future volunteers, are encouraged to give these charlas every chance we can in our respective communities. Having shed my apprehensions and with my Spanish bound to get better, giving these workshops should become easier and useful. Now only if I knew what community I’ll be in.

Veil of Mystery. We are three weeks away from being real volunteers and yet we still don’t know where our sites are going to be. Our Project Manager knows, but she is holding out for two more weeks, supposedly to sustain our interest and attention for training. Allegedly, volunteers in the past just slacked through the remainder of training soon after they found out their sites. So we are being punished for the sins of our ancestors. Argh. We are all restless, impatient…and helpless.

However, I did find out a little more information from my recent interview about my future site- that I will be placed in one of the larger cities and will be working directly with the municipality. Doing exactly what, I’m not sure- but something along the lines of organizing the different agencies and getting the municipality in shape. If it will be anything like the municipalities I’ve seen so far, then I definitely have a few ideas in mind. The highlight of my interview, however, was finding out that my Project Manager actually heeded my request to find a way for me to have a secondary project that will enable me to do something related to visual and performing arts. Hence, I will also be working with the casa de cultura of the same municipality, which is basically the cultural center of that town in charge of all arts related activity. Golden!! If this cultural arm turns out as active and progressive like my manager described it, then I’ll definitely be floating in air. I just want to be able to do the things that I enjoy and use my talents in every way I can.

Speaking of which, to add on to my line of charlas under my belt, I’m actually preparing to give another one for our group next week on web design concepts and how websites can be useful for the municipality and organizations. Well, who would’ve thought- rusty on web skills and having thought I had to give up my design life for two years and plagued with a fried laptop and yet, here I am preparing for a session on web design and technology. With initiative and a kind friend loaning her computer to me, ¡si se puede! (It's possible!) I’m very thankful that I’m beginning to realize that my two biggest love, dancing and design, are slowly showing their faces again and are promising a future of keeping me busy and happy.

Raining Manna. So I’m pretty much a destitute, officially, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. Actually, I’ve been feeling pretty wealthy lately, at least in all the other aspects. One reason is that I’m just really excited to finally become a volunteer and start working. Everything I’ve experienced in the past two weeks and what I have to look forward to for work have all been encouraging and exciting. I’m really fortunate to have been assigned to a program that really suits my interests and even squeeze in my other extraneous passions, i.e., the arts.

Then, there is the loving I’ve been getting through phone calls, snail mail and e-mails. I can’t express enough how comforting it is to have dearly beloveds stay in touch. The past few days, it hit me how much of them are going through major, exciting changes. All by choice. Big and bold steps being taken left and right; my heart is leaping and singing right now. Four life-long friends have been engaged to their respective beloveds, another one will be packing up some suitcases to give the fashion world a run for its money. A sister just crossed the finish line with all her might, got a gold medal and discovered the extent of her inner strength, while another one crossed the finish line of the corporate world and is about to become her own boss, the same goes for a cousin in the orient. Then there are those loved-ones, waiting in the backstage for their turn to chase their dreams- a ball of fire contemplating serving the world, my mamacita about to spread her wings, a newly found long-lost friend inching her way to the doors of all the nations, the love of my life finally taking the slow lane to smell the roses…and hopefully, listen to the music.

I’m so happy about these things that my lonesomeness has diminished. Even though I’m by myself here, I feel as if I have the company of everyone above in the journey I am taking- of self-discovery and doing more meaningful things, of bravery and making the ultimate commitment to self, love, and spirit.

Getting There. The day I become an official volunteer in September is not only the day a long-time dream comes true, but also the day I get to start chasing my other dreams. I am grateful for the peace I hold in my heart now, but more than anything for the love. This love of mine and faithfulness to whatever I can imagine have led me this far and it brings me great joy that the important people in my life are starting to be as true to their hearts. I remember before when they were just hearing the whisperings of their desires. I don’t see the big picture completely, nor can I fathom what it could be like, and yet, I already sense its greatness. Not just for me, but for everyone else who learn to believe, dream, want and work like I have discovered- with reckless abandon. After all, happiness is happiest when shared, so as early as now, I’m already in solidarity with the excitement of the first steps being taken by my loved-ones, along with the trials that will come, and ultimately, the sweetness of perseverance realized. How beautiful and kind life is indeed, for those who look at it the right way, and want it as such, no matter what.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Warm Cornflakes for the Soul

I previously only heard about it from other trainees, but last Monday, for the first time, I was served the infamous cornflakes with warm milk and sugar. It has actually grown on me…well, at least the warm milk part. As for the sugar, that’s another story. It comes with everything in liquid form. Zuko (equivalent to Tang) is automatically served with lunch and coffee with dinner (not breakfast, I don’t know why) and both come with sugar already- seemingly with 50% content. Almost a week into being with a new family, I’ve declared to them that diabetes is hereditary in my real family and I’m a potential candidate and that I often suffer from dehydration, hence, water is best for me. I thought I made it clear that I prefer my cereal without sugar, but it still seems sweet to me, but as for the rest of the meals, I have managed to dodge everything and stick to H2O.

Just small adjustments to this new life in a new city with a new family for field-based training. Everything is different here in La Esperanza I can’t say things are better or worse in comparison to Santa Lucia, as both places have their plus and minuses, they’re just different. The change has been well-received, however. It is nice to lead a life beyond the confines of the training center, away from an elementary schedule and lifestyle.

New family. Apart from the sugar situation, everything has been great with my new host family. I have a teacher mom, an accountant dad, who works 7 days a week, and three siblings aged between 16 and 20. They have a seemingly different lifestyle from my last family- humble, but not exactly primitive. They have an electric stove but only use it rarely and cook most meals using the fogon, or wooden oven. As in with firewood and a furnace and all that good stuff. Nobody has a cellphone, but they do have two TVs. Also, for a few days I didn’t think they had a refrigerator since I didn’t see one in the kitchen- until I walked into the living room and found a massive one there. Pretty interesting. But the best perks would have to be that their tortillas are homemade (I am currently in training) and I have my own hot shower!! Woohoo! A nice break from the ice cold mornings I’ve gotten used to.

More importantly, however, is that my family is great to talk to. Especially the mom and one of my sisters. I spend a lot of my time conversing with them- the most memorable one being one evening when electricity was out for a long time and yet, time flew by. My sister is everything opposite the typical Hondureñan youth- hates reggaton but is passionate about rock music, loves black clothing and wants to pursue a career in Military Psychology (or along the lines of) which will take about 12 years of study. She can also crank out about a million tortillas a minute. I am in perfectly good hands.

A Preview of Municipal Development. The nice thing about training here is that Spanish classes are done in different homes and luckily, I reached a level where I only have to go to class three out of five days a week. Which means, I have more time for the community project. The main goal of being in this town is to get hands on experience working with a municipality, a community-based organization and a student government. There are three groups working in three different municipalities and the other day we were able to meet different mayors (and vice-mayors) and start making contact with the people in the municipalities. How do I describe the experience? For now, let me just say this, DMV would be a perfect institution compared to what is here. It merits its own entry and I will paint a better picture once I have spent more time in and have a much closer look.

But for now, I am grateful be a step to closer into figuring out what being a community developer really is and finding a way to be useful where help is really needed.

Of Basuras and Bolos. La Esperanza is in the department (equivalent to a U.S. state) of Intibucá and is one of the poorest parts of the country. It is here that I may have seen a better representation of the country’s situation. Honduras is infamous for its bolos or borrachos, i.e. drunks. It’s not uncommon to find one, or several of them, passed out on the side of a street or some random doorstep. A slightly comical sight the first couple of times, but seriously a tragic reality. Supposedly, drinking here starts on Fridays and go on until Monday, so the most common day for bolo sightings is Sunday. Most of these people are vendors from out of town whose earnings never make it back to their families because they spend it all on guaro (bolo’s drink of choice- cheap, potent, pretty much like gasoline as one local described it to me; often laced with lead, as in, lead the mineral).

A slightly more popular sight than a bolo would be basura. Trash, trash everywhere. Even on top of the mountain, when I went hiking last month, I saw food wrappers. People walking down the street would nonchalantly toss their garbage on the ground, or out of a moving vehicle. And I mean soda bottles or food scraps- nothing discreet at all. The sad thing is, the people can’t be completely blamed for their bad habits. Waste collection service is non-existent in a lot of places, so people are left to find creative ways of "managing" their trash. If only the people were educated better, waste management shouldn’t have gotten out of hand, which brings me to…

Education. In a word, this is both the biggest problem of the country and what anyone wanting to help out should set as a priority. This is a heated issue right now with all the teachers nationwide on strike, protesting the president’s reneged promises. I have heard both sides and am sympathetic to certain points of both parties, but bottom line, there is a huge problem that needs to be fixed. ASAP. Here is a snapshot: out of 200 class days last year, only 92 days were completed due to the never ending strikes, and generally, only a small percentage of students get through high school. It is not uncommon at all to find cities with mayors having only an elementary education. I have only been here over a month and most week days, I found kids being out in the street instead of in school. Also, does child labor ring a bell, anyone?

Having seen this, I realize that any development work to be done here by anyone will essentially be on education. There are so many issues to choose from. Let’s not forget that Honduras also has the highest HIV rate in Central America. If I may surmise, the same should go for teen pregnancy. Thirteen, fourteen year olds having babies everywhere. There are families with up to fifteen kids. Out of the ordinary? Sadly, no.

This is not only a poorly educated population, but an impoverished one. To add insult to injury, an everyday sight would be a local walking some distance on muddy, unpaved streets, carrying a heavy load, while SUVs drive past with music blasting, carrying the beautiful, rich people. In a way, this has been my reality too- carless and living on a stipend, I have begun to be in solidarity with some of the people’s plight. But not exactly, for my situation is temporary and by choice. I can go back to my cushy life in the States now if I wanted to. Choice. I have one, the rest of them don’t.

Argh. Where does one begin? With one person, realistically. In training, we are constantly reminded that we are not here to change the world or save a community. We are not even to see the fruits of our labor within our two year tenure. But we are here to plant seeds, to open eyes, to show alternatives. To empower and instill pride. Be it with a child or a small group of women.

My conversation with my sister over candle light was a dose of hope. The most poignant insight she shared with me was that she doesn’t care too much for going to the U.S., like the rest of her countrymen. She said she believes it will be best for her and her country to stay here and do good things here. She even taught me words to poke at those impregnated early, making it clear that she isn’t about to be a statistic. Sure she loves Blink 182 and loves her black skirt with black knee-high boots- but she is a catracha (native) through and through. And whenever I see her rhythmically churn out the tortillas as she bobs her head to a reggaton (which she puts up with for her sister’s sake) song, I don’t think she is about to forget who she is anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

One Month Down

A little over a month into training and time has finally started going a little faster. This weekend my training group is moving to La Esperanza for field based training where we actually get to leave the classroom life and get to know the community and do something similar to our future work. The change of environment will be greatly welcomed and perhaps then, things will start to feel a little more like what I signed up for.

Not quite 22. A big reason I´m pretty anxious for change is that I discovered recently that out of a group of 51, the majority of the other trainees are between 22-24 years old. Fresh out of school. So it´s no surprise that I often feel like I´m in spring break or in one big soiree. I´m the second oldest in the group, with the eldest one being over 50 years old. I´m not quite in the level of the fresh grads, but not quite where 50 is, either, so finding someone I can relate to has ben tricky. But thankfully there are some people close to 28 or at least act more mature than most in the group. Nevertheless, it is a surreal feeling being back in an environment where we are treated like kids precisely because some people are acting as such. Restless for partying, pissing away money as if we´re still earning dollars, complaining about cultural differences. Last time I checked, it was the Peace Corps I signed up for, not summer camp, right? I know I´m a kid myself and will stay young forever deep down, but c´mon, there´s a big difference between being child-like and child-ish! But being the more mature person I am, I see and understand where the young-uns coming from so I just try my best not to get distracted by all the juvenile behavior.

Quiet time. As homesick I have been lately, well, people-sick, really, I am thankful for the amount of quiet time I get to have now. Even when I start to get lonely, especially at night, under my mosquito net, I feel good knowing that I didn´t spend my day being stressed over things that used to get to me. Sure the amount of homework and just adjusting in general are exhausting, but bottom line, I go back to the fact that if I wasn´t here, I would just feel lost. It has also been wonderful reconnecting with friends and catching up with life. Even though I don´t get to respond to e-mails right away, I read what I can and go home reflecting on everyone´s letters and get I get to give some more thought on my own answers. I knew life was getting bad in the U.S. when I had all the technology at my fingertips to connect with people in an instant, and yet, I couldn´t keep in touch. It is great hearing from people from all over and feeling closer to them than ever, even when I am here by myself in a different corner of the world.

Seeing more. I´ve said this a lot of times already, but I will keep saying it- this place reminds me of the Philippines so much. Furthermore, I practically feel like I am back in the Philippines. This time, however, living from the perspective of a low-income lifestyle. I have had a chance to see a few more places here and the more I see of people´s lives and learn of the country´s politics and culture, the more it rings of home.

I evaded politics for a good period of time simply out of distaste. Growing up in Manila and seeing what I have, there wasn´t much motivation to have faith in any form of government and realistically expect progress and equality for all. But I always secretly hoped for it. In the U.S., I tried to be a good citizen, at a minimum, by voting and knowing some figures in office (not all Americans can claim these two things!) but politics still wasn´t my cup of latte.

How ironic that I now find myself at the lion´s mouth of government work. Maybe I never did give up hope. I find the opportunity to work in municipal development my chance to get a first hand look on how the wheels of politics run and finally understand it, but more importantly, to get my hand in it. I never found myself eloquent in matters of political discourse at a theoretical level- all that I could really talk about were the realities of poverty, pain and suffering I have seen. I was fortunate to have lived comfortably amidst an impoverished nation and later on experience everything great about America. Nevertheless, I couldn´t escape the reality of the rest of the world and how it made me feel, even as I sipped my four dollar coffee. So here I am .

I have been questioned, even rhetorically, why I´m serving in Honduras instead of the Philippines, where my help is just as badly needed. I don´t have the perfect answer right now, but I do know that everything I do right now is all eventually going to go back to where my heart truly belongs. I figure, with all the similarities between Honduras and Philippines, my time here will be well spent learning and understanding something that was once just confusing and tragic to me.

At a minimum, I am representing well of who a Filipino is and what the Philippines is like- without sugar-coating. I can´t begin to express right now the extent of my love and devotion to my mother land. It may not be evident in my looks, the music I listen to, how well I speak English or what part of the world I am now, but I am as brown as brown can get deep inside. It´s also interesting how I´ve lost the cultural identity issues I used to have when it comes to being simultaneously being Filipino and American. Being here has given me a greater appreciation of what it is to be an American and a better understanding of who one really is. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and an immigrant I am indeed- like the rest of the country, at one point in time. Being in Honduras, I am representing the U.S. as an American, and as an American, I am representing Filipinos. There is no conflict. I love every opportunity I´ve gotten to demonstrate that and it has been pretty darn cool.

So I end this by saying, I can´t wait to get past the theory part and start taking my small steps to at least trying to go towards creating progress and development for all. Maybe if I keep reminding myself this, all the raucous of 22-somethings acting like kids during lunch time wouldn´t bother me as much anymore.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

My Life, Thus Far

My everyday routine. Been getting up early and take my time on the stroll up the five semi-hills up to the training center, which is pretty muc like school. It definitely feels like it with a 730-430 schedule and a ton of homework afterwards. At the end of the day I try my luck at the internet café and do what I can with usually a half hour slot and head home, if the connectionis running at all. Then I help out with preparing dinner which has become my bonding time with my host mom and a good way to learn how to make the local eats. I linger a bit after dinner to watch some telenovela with the like La Fea Mas Bella or Pasion es Prohibida or some American film dubbed in Spanish. Quality programming, I know. Ideally, I should´ve done my homework at this point, since I do not have a desk in my room and have to do all my studying in their patio-like area which either gets really cold or too bug/mosquito infested after 8 p.m. Any work or reading I do in my room immediately leads to passing out.

My Mosquito Net. All the trainees were required to use mosquito nets which I really appreciated as soon as I started identifying at least three different species of bugs in my room. Whenever I see them crawling on the walls, I feel protected within the safety of my mosquitera- and layers of insect repellant which we are also required to apply on a daily basis.
Weekends. This is when I usually have been doing my laundry (i.e. by hand) and ironing and sometimes meet with trainees for a school project. I have also gone to the campo, which is the gorgeous football field they have situated hillside and having a picturesque view of the surrounding mountains. I only go to watch games and hang out, I haven´t quite desired to turn into Pele or Ronaldinho, not especially after Brazil lost in the World Cup. Painful, painful.

Last weekend I went on a hike with a couple of other people to a national park called La Tigra. I think it was my first time to hike an entire mountain- I wasn´t quite expecting to do that when I was told there was a nice “trail” we could hike on. Seven hours later, drenched from the forest rain, we emerged victorious. I was ecstatic to have survived and would know better next time when somebody invites me for a stroll through the mountains. It was gorgeous, though. As rough the terrain was on the down hill with the rain pouring, at some point it just became peaceful and my mind just wandered in the clouds- which was where we practically were.

Social Life. Surprisingly, I have been able to go out dancing the past three weekends I´ve been here. The first Saturday, the host families put together a welcome party for us held in the school and even had a DJ – complete with strobes and all that good stuff. For some of us, as long as there was music, that was all we needed. Once in a while there is a party held at one of the social centers they have here and of course all the trainees are all over that. There was a smoke machine when we went....ooh. Aside from that, there´s this local dive that all the trainees go to regularly for their cervezas and it occasionally plays music in a back room which we will invade. Apart from that, it was either seeing the football games together (over by now) or just getting together for cafe con leche. We are in a rural area afterall, and until the ban is lifted on going to the capital, it usually is an early night for most of us.

It´s all about the Benjamins. Uh, what Benjamins? Cash here is actually in Lempiras, or limps, as we refer to it. It´s tragic that everything here is pretty dirt cheap ($1=Lps. 18), but then again I don´t have the U.S. dollars to roll with…especially not with the Lps. 50/day we get for our walk around allowance. $2.50. Pitiful, I know. But for now it´s actually sufficient since all my meals are covered by my family anyway. All my extra money goes to this internet place, which thankfully is pretty cheap. Way cheaper than sending snail mail- which will cost Lps. 40 PER letter. Crazy! So my peeps will definitely hear from me the cyber way more than ever, as much as I love writing snail mail. Gotta keep up with the Math whether I like it or not.
It´s not so bad, though, as we´re bound to get more moolah (I hope!) when we get to our actual sites in September. But this early though, I will begin the fundraising for “Buy Leah a Refrigerator Fund” as our move-in allowance definitely will not cover that. It´s usually a luxury that volunteers acquire. But I have a few more months before I worry about that.

Looking Ahead. This weekend we will be doing our Volunteer Visits where each of us are paired with an existing volunteer in the country to see what their life and work are like and gain exposure. Which also means we get to travel! Hooray! My first real trip beyond the confines of training. I was actually paired with another trainee to visit a married couple in Choluteca- which is down south, close to Nicaragua. It should be fun- and educational of course. Then in two weeks, we are to pack up and sort of start over again for our Field Based Training, which will be in La Esperanza. We will be there for a month to put our theory training into practice, basically. I will be staying with another host family but eventually go back to Santa Lucia for a few more weeks before we get sworn in. September 8 is the big date, baby. When it all becomes official.

For now I´m just taking things one day at a time, living off on mail and phonecalls to stay connected to home and taking in the new things that everyday brings. Nothing too exciting, I know, but so far, so good.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Giving Thanks

People I know have always had an impression of me as being very independent and brave and all that good stuff. I wouldn´t argue with that but now that I have more time on my hands to reflect on things both trivial (Should I put the layer of insect repellant first or the sunblock?) and profound (Will I really make a positive effect?), I have come to realize that the road to where I am was an independent decision but getting here was made possible by an entire village.

I find it interesting and admirable that more than half the people whom I have told that I was going to join the Peace Corps responded with something like, “I, too, want/ed to do something like that.” I, too, was one of the people who used to say that to others, and now I feel privileged to have crossed the line and to be finally doing something I always wanted to do.

I have been especially overwhelmed over the past few weeks with all the help I have received to get me to where I am. People often tell me they admire me for being able to do whatever I want and having the courage, when they don´t have any idea that I never really do things on my own. It is the people I have been surrounded with who have planted seed after seed and nurtured them, and I, more than anything, just followed through. We, as people, really have the ability to be affected by other people´s slightest acts and fewest words – and it is in our power as well to decide whether to be affected by the negative or the positive ones. Guess which road I have chosen.

This is to acknowledge all the people who have shaped me – ranging from those I have known all my life to acquaintances who touched or inspired me anyway by sharing a good word or pointing me to the right direction.

The past few months, up to the day of my departure, exemplifies how there was always someone helping me with each step to get to the next. Starting with those who supported my decision to apply for the Peace Corps from the beginning and didn´t have to ask why; those who didn´t understand why, but supported me anyway; those who always knew I´d make it when I wasn´t so sure myself. Then there are those who helped me financially without even being asked- people coming out of the woodworks left and right pledging and blessing me with what they have such that I don´t have to worry about the school loan I continually have to pay the next two years even without an income. I can´t get over the fact how ultimately I didn´t have to borrow another loan to pay for a different one, and the amount I ended up getting was just enough to cover the school payments for the next couple of years. Am I blessed or what? And then there are those who took me under their wings whether as a visitor in their homes or as a nomad and shared their time and their warmth whether for a couple of hours or a few weeks. Those who wrote me kind words and gave me things to bring with me so I would always have a piece of home and my life with me. Those who constantly prayed for and still are praying for me. Those who didn´t say much but made me feel their love and support regardless.

And throughout my life, I acknowledge the people who molded me slowly be giving me a piece of themselves and their time- those who trusted me with their thoughts, shared their art, writings and music. Those who encouraged every pursuit I had from going for everything I can ever have to suddenly giving them all up. Those who drew me closer to God, through their words and by their example; for further opening my eyes and reassuring me that the road to faith isn´t an easy one, but a path where I can be myself the most and find the most peace. Those who accepted me for who I was and allowed me to keep on growing to find my true self. Those who have moved on to another life but whose memories of their love and generosity live on in my heart and soul. Those who treated me like a sister and daughter regardless of our ties and just gave and gave of themselves. Those who held my hand and my heart when there was nothing else that could be done.

Those who saw further into my future and more in me than I ever could.

For some, saying thank you has become a lost art or a lost cause altogether, but not for me. I can never repay all the kindness I received my entire life but I will remain grateful each and every day and try my best to show to others the same kindness and generosity I received.

Be still, my heart, how fortunate and loved I am. I thank the heavens for all the special people in my life, may they know what a blessing they have been to me and may they always feel the love and gratefulness I have for them.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Hola from Honduras

One week and two days in Hondu. Made it through the official “first week” of training, since last week was “zero week” according to the powers that be. Where do I begin.

Well for one, I am glad to have made it this far. When I thought of training back then, I didn´t really expect to feel like I will be back in school, which is pretty much what the next three months will be. First day of orientation was exactly like the first day of school, with then 53 trainees walking around like lost souls with name tags introducing ourselves and finishing paper work.

Hours of security, medical and cultural sessions, with twice as many language hours later…and down to 51 trainees. We are not quite legit volunteers yet until we are sworn in September 8, that is assuming we all make it that far. But I am quite an optimist.

Isn´t it all so exciting and great and all that good stuff? Yes, it is all of the above, but I am at a point where it all just sinking in and my mood is more subdued than euphoric. The past couple of days I have come to terms with the what, why and how of what I am doing. Not that I ever thought I was off to an exotic vacation and will be staying at the Ritz Carlton in the first place, but in order to deal with the simultaneous emotional roller coaster, physical and psychological adjustments and information overload, I seriously needed to sit myself down and remind myself that I just got myself a new job- at a drastically different scale. Well, okay- so I just got myself a new life.

A familiarly strange world. Our training site is in Santa Lucia situated in the mountains and very much reminds me of Baguio in the Philippines. Seriously- everything just looks like it, including the plants and even a lot of the fruits. It has been a while since I´ve been in tropical fruit heaven. Sometimes I wonder if I´m back in the Philippines, but when I hear ¨Cheque Leque” and see the beans and tortilla for dinner, then I remember that no, not quite.

As for the weather, I didn´t quite expect it to be this cold. Uh, cold enough that I wish I had brought my heavy, fleece blanket ndensum. I have mastered the art of taking 5-minute ice-cold showers at 6 a.m, baby. There are creative ways around this, I know, but I am just the type that needs to take a shower everyday when I wake up, so it´s one of the items on the long list of small things to get used to. I seriously miss my hair dryer, though.

But notice I said shower, por eso, I have running water! Yey! I have my own bathroom in my bedroom too which is more of like a storage area turned into a room but I have all that I need in my new minimalist life. And so far I am good in my supplies of toiletries. Whew!

New family members and a new lifestyle. Funny thing is, I had the feeling that my host family, the Figueroas, will be living more comfortably than one would expect. Sure enough, mom, dad and older brother all have cell phones and well, they have a pretty slammin´ washing machine…to which I don´t have any access, of course. Part of our training is to know how to wash clothes by hand, because once we are assigned our sites, we won´t be having this gadget. Not that I don´t already know how to wash by hand…growing up in Manila trained me well. But, it is pretty ironic for me to be scrubbing away with my clothes on the pila (where all the laundry is done) while the washing machine hums away not very far from where I am.

My host family (anfitriona) is pretty great. A set of parents and two brothers, one is 16, the other 10 years old. Carmen, the mom works at the Peace Corps training center´s cafeteria as the resident cook so yessss….I definitely have a sweet deal. The dad, Francis, is very father-like and seemingly serious and strict, but I know he has a fun side and has been really nice to me.

Oh, did I mention their house is on a mountain, but…we live in barrio abajo. Which means town at the bottom. Serious uphill climb everyday for me and whenever I´d want to go anywhere. Uh, yeah. But I guess that balances the beans-tortilla-rice-avocado everyday diet. But this whole place is breathtakingly gorgeous, it´s surreal being in it on a daily basis. Well, at least for the next three months.

Counting my blessings. If there is a lesson I learned or reinternalized in the past week or so, it is this- nothing worth it in life every comes for free.

This is my first ever post on a blog and I´ve just been rambling about stuff and I can go on and on about sites and turn this into a cool travelogue piece and disguise the fact that I´m also going through a serious life change and adjustment period. I know I´m a pretty tough gal and had a rough idea what I was getting into…the cold water, new food and all that can all be manageable, but ultimately, there´s just no going around the missing people you love part, ya know? And honestly, that is where I am right now…but when I´m at the brink of questioning what it is exactly I´m doing and why, I suddenly remember that…I AM IN HONDURAS TRAINING FOR THE PEACE CORPS.

To all those who´ve known how bad I´ve wanted this for the longest time, then I don´t have to explain further how pretty damn cool it is to be almost quite there, man. And the humbling thing about being on the brink of a dream coming true and making the definitive step of shaping my future is that it is so, so, not easy. I am yet to begin the hard work. I´m used to hard work, but this time it is work that I chose for myself. I wanted meaning, depth, and challenges so bad for so long and here I go.

This blog is for me to remind me one day where I came from and the journey I made and for all those who care to share the journey with me one way or another.