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 Hondure├▒an 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 Intibuc├í 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.