Sunday, December 23, 2007

Beyond Numbers

It is the end of the year and this is the perfect opportunity to reflect on a year gone by. I will start by listing down some important numbers indicating the number of people I’ve directly worked with on different projects over the course of the year and the amount of funding for a project I got.

• Domestic Violence Workshop (1 session) - 22 women
• Project Citizen (14 sessions) – 28 high school students
• Cultural Diversity Activities (1 session with 3 different schools) 53 high school students
• Gender Equity Workshops (1 session with about 21 different classes in 3 schools) – 619 high school students
• Ballet and Modern Dance Classes - 46 grade school and high school students
• Micro-Enterprise Workshop (6 sessions) – 12 women
• $10,000 – amount of funding acquired for the Cultural Center project
• Execution of Cultural Center Project – approximately 50 youth and adults (contracted and volunteers)

Why do I have these numbers? Because I had to track them down. In my project area, we volunteers have to turn in biannual reports reflecting the work we’ve done in our respective communities. The first time I had to do mine I was really intimidated (and depressed) because the report format was very numbers-oriented, where we had to list down the number of people that we’ve trained in the different targeted areas by municipal development. Needless to say, I didn’t have much to write on my first report, at least not in terms of numbers. All the work I did on my first six months all seem to have fallen under the “other” category.

On my second report, however, I felt more like that as a volunteer, I had met the minimum basic requirement, by being able to come up with the digits aforementioned. This has led me to reflect a lot, because even though that I knew I was working all the time in my community, somehow I felt that the only way for me to justify that to Peace Corps administration was by coming up with the numbers. Sure, there was plenty of room at the “others” column, but then again, all my work couldn’t be under that one category.

So how does one should really go about measuring the success of one’s work?

I don't have a definitive answer, but an insight I can offer based on experience is this: the numbers don’t always speak the entire truth. For example, in the countless classrooms I’ve been in preaching about gender equality, I remember often wishing to myself that even if just a few of the students got it, then my time spent there would have been worth it. But I’ll never know for sure, really. I have given this workshop to 600+ students and yet, I feel more confident that I got my message across better with the 12 women I worked with on the micro-enterprise workshop. Most people are receptive and thankful in the end, but I can't help but wonder, "What did they really learn from me and will it stick?"

Usually the things that have been more obvious and in my face have been the challenges that came with this role, such as chronic apathy and indolence that are endemic in the culture. The experience of this whole year has been sobering for me in the sense that being a volunteer has stretched me so much further than I would’ve thought. I was pretty confident that I was already a patient, strong and resilient person before coming to Honduras. I was ready for the rough patches and the challenges; but I never expected being “hard-pressed… perplexed… persecuted… and struck-down...” by them the way that I was. For a while, there seemed to be something on every corner waiting to pounce on me and run me out of this country whether they were work-related or “cultural” things that I just have had to accept.

But true to 2Corinthians, despite all the frustrations, I didn’t let myself get “crushed… be in despair… feel abandoned… or get destroyed.” When I didn’t know what to do anymore, I let my faith take control. I’m not the type who quits so the only other alternative left for me was to humble myself and trust that the circumstances I was facing all have their purpose. I’ve also had to a have little more faith in myself and believe that all my good intentions and my labor have amounted to something positive; how much exactly, I will not worry about. If we really have to do the Math, I can offer this figure: for this holiday I’m giving out at least 110 greeting cards to good friends and colleagues in Olanchito alone…the majority of these cards are addressed to families, so let’s say if an average family has at least three members (this is Honduras, after all), that means that I have made a positive connection with at least 330 people. This doesn’t include the participants whom I’ve trained or taught in my various endeavors. Hence, I’d like to think that, sure, I’m making a positive impact on people or at least planting some seeds in their minds, whether through my work or by example. I figure that, if I leave a positive impression whether as an American, a woman, or a volunteer, then that’s something to feel accomplished about.

So how does one should really go about measuring the success of one’s work? It depends on who’s measuring, but for me, when I get to make people smile, get invited to their homes and family gatherings, or get a "Thank you" then it’s a sign that I must have done something right, whether that registers some numbers or not.

For more details on the projects aforementioned, see previous blog entry: Confessions of a Workaholic

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dancing My Heart Out

It took me a long time to admit it but I can finally say that dancing is my first and true love. I realize that part of the difficulty in admitting this is my deep-set insecurity about not being as good as I’d like to be, hence, I can’t make any claims to being a real dancer.

But I’m over that because I figured out that there’s no sense of my being continually frustrated over not having the regular and formal training I could have used to develop, it doesn’t really matter because I never dreamt of being a professional dancer anyway, I just always wanted to be, well, good. And just to keep dancing. It’s interesting that while growing up, despite not having the encouragement from home for me to pursue a hobby, nor the money to pay for non-school related endeavors, I always managed to find an outlet for dance that didn’t cost a dime, save for costumes for performances. Thank goodness for the student-organized cheer dance team in high school and the dance company in college. Then after graduation, when I eventually got this thing called a “job,” I could finally pay for dance classes to my heart’s content. I had a better idea of how I loved to dance when I was still living in Fairfield and used to drive 50 miles all the way to San Francisco on weekends just to receive a couple of classes. I was also fortunate to have found opportunities to perform and even for a short while, be part of a real dance company.

Looking back now, I’m more impressed with myself than sorry for having accomplished a lot in dance despite the little professional training or experience I have. In high school, I was surprised to have been able to learn some new skills despite being, as a dancer, being in the ripe age of 16 years old. In college, I was in the dance company for four whole years and in the last two, was in charge of the dance productions that were staged. These entailed more than just dancing. Then a couple of years ago, I organized a performance hip-hop key group in the church I was attending whose aim was to do fellowship through the common interest of the members. We had a pretty cool performance one New Year’s Eve that not only involved choreography, but a spoken word piece as an introduction and a multi-media presentation that was played during the dance. More than the coolness factor, the whole experience was special to and a breakthrough for me because it was when I realized that God really wants to use my dancing as a way to reach people. “Little ol’ me?” I wondered. “Yes, little ol’ you,” seemed to be God’s response.

Coming to Honduras, I always knew that I was going to keep dancing somehow. However, not in a million years would I have thought that I’d be giving ballet lessons…especially since it’s not my forte, having only received a few years’ worth of instruction and well, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Nonetheless, I’ve maintained my high regard and respect for it being the necessary foundation any real dancer must have. I always consider knowing ballet as being literate in dancing. To cut the long story short, for art´s sake, I eventually succumbed to giving classes back in February, not having a clue what I was getting myself into.

Lo and behold, November 3rd was the first ever performance and recital for Olanchito Ballet, the name which we would eventually call the group I’ve formed. Seven little ballerinas who’ve remained steadfast and committed to learning ballet, the art form that is as esoteric as the concept of punctuality in this country. In the recital, the girls performed ten (count ‘em) short dance pieces, to a combination of classical and Latin folk and Honduran folk songs. This is mind blowing to me because personally, I hate doing choreography with a passion. Let alone, choreograph to classical music, which I have never done, nor would have wanted to do. I always just wanted to be the one learning and dancing. But what was I to do? I found myself in a situation where the only way I could keep on dancing is to be able to be the one to teach it. So I went for the compromise.

I thought I already knew how much I love to dance, but I didn’t know to what extent. Being a teacher truly stretched my limits and brought about another experience I didn’t expect to have: being a parent. Thinking of my students as my own children was the only way for me to survive the classes without any bloodshed (spoken like a true non-mom) or losing my sanity. Sure, it was fun, but it was also like being a full time nanny.

Was it all worth it? Of course, everything looks better in retrospect, having survived the tempest. But I remember the evening of the performance where a good number of people braved the rains to witness what was to be the first ever full-length ballet performance in Olanchito. Days in advance, I tried my best to let go of all control and let the kids come around on their own and be there for them as moral support more than anything. I won’t deny that I felt like a true stage mom the whole time, proud of how all the girls (and two “special participants”) held their own even if it was the first ever performance for the majority of them. Also, I’d have to say that I was proud of myself for having accomplished something like that and overcoming everything that got in my way- my own issues included.

Dancing has also been my refuge as a volunteer. For someone who can barely stop working to rest, dance has been my playtime as much as it has been work. It didn´t matter how frustrated I got, because at the end of the day, I was still dancing. It also has given me my chance to get to know more youth in the community. Twice I was asked by a couple of high school groups to help them out with their cheering competition- and the sucker that I was, I readily agreed not aware of the headaches these two ventures entailed. In the end, I was only able to help them out partially, either they didn’t give me enough time to work with or only half the group was attending and I had to cut my “services” short. In the end, however, Honduran-style, both groups pulled things together last minute and managed to walk away with second place in their respective competitions. Pretty cool.

From all these experiences, I’ve gathered that my most effective and gratifying community work is going to come from doing something I love the most- dancing. My project at the cultural center is on the last stretch and when that is done, I will take advantage of the kids being on vacation and will be giving dance workshops (ballet and hip-hop) to all those willing. I will also be involved in preparing for various art, literary and theater workshops, all part of the project for the center. Art is life indeed.

I haven’t built any wells or roads, but I am helping build a children’s library with a mural and the works; I haven´t saved lives, but I have danced into the lives of people, in one way or another; I once thought that ballet was a part of my past and yet I have started a school here in Olanchito. I´m still a long way from the kind of dancer I´d like to be, but I know that if I can keep doing it, I can only get better. I think I should have faith in my talent the way it has been faithful to me, always giving me opportunities to keep dancing. I guess this little ol’ dancer has nothing to complain about.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Confessions of a Workaholic

I would like to begin by saying that my English is falling apart (Feel free to think, “We’ve noticed, Leah.”). I recently wrote an article that I submitted for a volunteer publication and I must say it was quite a challenge getting through writing it and finding the correct English words, instead of using some Spanish words that seem easier to come by these days. Nothing to be alarmed about, this is a normal occurrence among volunteers- thinking and speaking in Spanglish…it just seems more pronounced once one tries to write on paper in one language. I don’t feel too bad because I’m not the only one; the only thing is that I hope Peace Corps would start an “English Rehabilitation” program before sending all volunteers back to the U.S. Or the rest of America can catch up on their Spanglish too; that way returned Spanish-speaking volunteers can just blend right back in!

On another note, one of my dearest friends in the world, Connie, told me not too long ago: “You haven’t changed, Leah. Your life is still the same. The only thing that has changed is your location.” She was referring to how I live my life non-stop regardless if I’m doing something for a living or voluntarily. Some people know me too well. It may seem that I have fallen into the black hole these days, as I have been quiet on my blog and on emails. I have to confess, I’ve backslid once more into overdrive mode. This is the last time I’ll let it happen again, I swear! Yeah, right. I must sound like a recovering addict trying to say over and over that I’ll slow down…so and so…and at the same time committing to another project or engagement. On the bright side, I can’t really complain this one time because, finally, I’m beginning to see the fruits of my labor as a volunteer.

To begin with, the project I got approved for the Casa de la Cultura is finally being executed. I had this bright idea of including a million components in my project, hence, there have been a lot of things to be done. But in essence, this project (that is being funded by a grant from USAID and the Municipality of Olanchito) aims to recover the identity of the community as the country’s capital of civic and culture through the construction of a Children’s Library, various installations in the building (bars and mirrors for dance classes), purchase of equipment (sound system, lights, costumes for performing groups) and different cultural activities. It’s not true that the only measure of development is through infrastructures being built, because development is not only about the tangibles. But in terms of instant gratification, it sure is nice to be able to see things being built right before my eyes and know that I helped make that happen.

Case in point: the ballet class I am teaching now is official. The kids and I used to dance bare feet and in plain clothes, while using backs of chairs as barres. Now, thanks to the group’s fundraising efforts and the grant I got, all the seven girls have complete ballet uniforms and real barres to use. And drum roll please...full-length mirrors to top it all off! Despite the fact that we are not in a ballet academy, the teacher is nowhere near a prima ballerina and that there are no wooden floors, nor a real studio…we are still doing ballet! And isn’t it all about working with what you have? And on that note, the class is busy preparing for its debut performance on November 3rd. I am staging a dance recital just for them that includes dance pieces using various music including classical and Honduran folk. It has been a lot of work and I am exhausted, but I’m really excited about it. The girls aren’t quite ready for Swan Lake, but they’re precious regardless.

Continuing with the list of things keeping me on my toes, I recently concluded a 6-part workshop on basic business administration with a group of women who have their micro-enterprise. What do I know about business? Up until recently, nothing, really. I fully understood through this experience the expression that says something about teachers being only a page ahead of their students. That’s where the beauty of Peace Corps and manuals steps in. As a volunteer, we have a plethora of resources about any conceivable topic related to development work and a lot of them are manuals that enable any of us to teach the most fundamental concepts of any subject to locals. It is wonderful because I’m personally learning a lot as well. This particular endeavor seriously kicked my butt because I had a ton of material to cover and prepare (sans Power Point, i.e. all of my visual aids were done with good ol’ fashioned markers and paper). But in the end it was all worth it because the women I worked with (aged between 20-something to 70-something) were very grateful for the new things they learned. Furthermore, it was a great experience for me going into a rural community to work (literally “home schooling” the women right out of their houses) and spend a few nights there to see the women in their element. Needless to say, I was lulled to sleep by nature’s choir- roosters, pigs, mosquitoes. Life in a farm, indeed!

And then there’s my public policy project with some high school kids that was on hiatus for six weeks due to a combination of reasons why there were no classes or students were too busy, namely: preparations for Civic Week (where ALL schools participate in parades for an entire week), a break from Civic Week, a marching band competition, and finally, a teachers’ strike that lasted two weeks. It’s the same group that I couldn’t meet with the entire month of July due to another set of reasons just as fascinating. The good news is, this week we got the ball rolling again and there is actually hope of finishing the project before they go into their exams in a couple of weeks. Vamos a ver.

Did I mention that in between all this I was helping out a high school group to prepare for a cheering competition? Um…yeah. Well, until I had to pull myself out of it because by our fourth rehearsal day, out of a group of 30 that was supposed to be practicing, only nine people showed up. Yet another classic scenario of my life here- people commit to something and in the end they don’t want to do any work. It’s all across the board, whether it’s with kids or adults, whether it’s about doing a project or doing something fun like preparing (which is work) for a dance performance. It’s frustrating to the teeth, but ultimately, it’s just sad. But, what else can I do?

It all worked out in the end, though. I took that incident as a sign that God wants me to REST. I realize that staying committed has been one of my greatest skills, but that I shouldn’t overdo making commitments right and left. These days when delays or cancellations happen, instead of getting upset, I just take it as an opportunity to have more down time. I promised myself to just focus on what I have on my plate now and not to even dare think of ordering “seconds.” No more stress, no more burning-out. No more being behind on my own life whether it’s doing the laundry (by hand, let’s not forget) or finishing the books I’ve been trying to read forever. At least, this is the plan.

It’s not going to be easy…but once my family and friends start hearing more and sooner from me, then it means I’m being good on my promise. Of course, they can feel free to cheer me on at any time.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Running for Cover

It’s a wonderful thing to know that one’s safety is looked after and prioritized. Not long after news broke out about Hurricane Felix reaching category 5 off the Caribbean, Peace Corps immediately sent out an order having all volunteers close and not so-close to the north coast to consolidate in an area more to the center of the country.

After about a 10- hour sojourn in three different bus rides yesterday, here I am safe and sound, far from my site and far from the work I have to be doing. About 20 or so volunteers are in my company and we are just on standby on when we could go back to our sites if nothing catastrophic happens. The downpour has started in various parts of Honduras but it seems that the hurricane’s impact is not going to be as strong as originally forecasted…or feared.

I can’t complain about being safe, warm and well-fed where I am now and in good company and well-equipped with all my gadgets…however, it sure was a sucky feeling having to leave my site and being one of the first ones to skip town and run to safety. I know Peace Corps isn’t the Red Cross, the U.N., nor any search and rescue group. We’re not here to help out when the circumstances become a threat to our own safety, because that’s not what we signed up for. I just have to accept that and not beat myself up for having the privilege of having the option of having a safer place to go to when the going gets rough, unlike the majority of the population here.

I guess this has been another reality check where in I am reminded that no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable my predicament sometimes may be, it will never be the plight of someone being at a perpetual disadvantage. I will always have choices at my fingertips to improve my conditions and have someone watching my back…and paying the bills. Hopefully when the tempestuous weather subsides and I am back at my site, I can resume trying to do meaningful work. Work that is significant enough that no one will have to remember me as the Peace Corps Volunteer who “peaced out” when the rain started pouring.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Blues in all the Hues

Nobody’s volunteer service is supposed to be perfect and I was prepared for the rough patches heading into Honduras. Or so I thought.

It was a few weeks before I completed my first year in country (June 21) that I began to realize what I was NOT prepared for. So many subtleties in the different aspects of my daily life here have accumulated and have struck me quite hard out of nowhere. Eventually, it registered to me- or perhaps, I finally admitted that…”Geez, I’m in a funk!”

As a result of a series of deep reflection, I identified the following as factors to the quite extensive valley I have found myself in –

• Getting piropos (cat calls, kissy sounds, being called “Hola, mi amor!”¬) on a daily basis for pretty much an entire year has worn me down, along with, not so pleasant incidents where, trapped amidst a crowd in a big event, certain men took the liberty of grabbing what they thought they could get away with. Ever since, I try my best not to be a walking man-hating, angry women’s rights defender, but needless to say, I have graduated from simply ignoring all forms of harassment at all times and try to defend myself in various ways I have come up with.

• Realizing that the majority of my frustrations with work are rooted the apathy and complacency endemic in the culture. When nobody really wants to do any work or change anything, where do I go from there?

• Having my work with two different high schools be paralyzed by endless “days off” for every reason conceivable to mankind i.e. “Students’ Week,” review week before exams, exam week, rest day after exams, “Student’s Day”- which isn’t included “Students’ Week!” I mean, c’mon!

• Wrestling with existential issues such as the uncertainties with the future upon realizing more that anything and anyone can change at any given time, including myself. Also, the fear of being forgotten by or growing apart from my nephews and nieces who are all growing so FAST.

• Going through a “I’m still not good enough to be a Christian” phase even though I know for a fact that I’m quite an excellent human being.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the perennial issue that most volunteers mull over- that Eureka! moment of, “I am really not needed here.” Or- “Even if I were needed, nobody is willing to change anything anyway.” Worse, when there is interest from locals in any form of development or improving anything, having to work for it would be a major drawback. The vast majority in this country are so used to hand-outs (whether from foreign institutions in the country doing “development” work by just giving away anything to their discretion and from families abroad that send remittances sufficient to live off of) that lifting a finger for something would be a complete hassle or a foreign concept.

But am I complaining? Not really. If there’s a valuable lesson somewhere in this entire avalanche, it is that I am getting to know myself more. I thought I knew myself enough- but, surprise, surprise. I’ve been thrown into a fire I’ve never known before and that has forced me to dig even deeper into my being and find whatever fiber that will get me through this and help me look harder for the valuable things that are in the garbage heap that I am waist-deep in.

Ultimately, the gratification really lies in the relationships I have formed. Although at times I find myself counting the months and days until I finish my service (a little over a year and two months), as soon as I remember the loved ones here that I’m going to have to say goodbye to, I can’t even bear the thought of leaving them. Life is full of ironies indeed.

Another irony is that somewhere in my moments of blues, I find shades of warm orange that allow me to enjoy the difficulties and challenges because I feel more human than ever, and also, I can literally sense the growth happening inside of me. Let’s hope it is a butterfly that I transform into in the end, or at least a much better and stronger person.

So instead of fighting the pain (annoyances, really)- I just let myself feel it and go through the process and find breaks of white light in between. The perennial optimist that I am, I always know to just go back to counting my blessings when the going gets tough- naturally, I will end by listing the things that have kept me going…

• Getting my project proposal for the culture center approved. It means a lot of work before me and it’s really not official until the money comes, but at the least, it seems as if months of hard work and waiting seem to be bearing fruit.

• My most devoted ballet students are still coming to class. Also, although we are yet to present a dance piece we have been working on, it is finished and has come together nicely and is liked by the girls very much.

• Seeing a spark of interest even in just a portion of the different high school kids I’ve been working with in issues such as public policy, gender equity and cultural diversity.

• I’ve become an adopted member of many families that I have friendships with. I am invited to every occasion just like any next of kin and these relationships have just become my pillars of support and source of true joy.

• Learning a lot of skills both in the professional and domestic realm- from becoming familiar with issues well enough to impart them to students to making my own pupusas and encortido so that I don’t ever have to buy them outside.

• Enjoying the pleasures of living in solitude and finding solace in it- especially in moments spent writing, listening to music, cooking, reading.

• The hope that all my experiences here, good and bad, will someday serve me well.

I know that all the sucky things, too, shall pass so I have not made any drastic decisions such as packing my bags and going back to the U.S. mojada, as far away as I could from at times this seemingly God-forsaken country. In the end, I know that I am still where I should be because I sense that there’s so much more growing up in store for me here. Ojala que al fin, valdrá la pena. So I brace myself for all the cocoon moments that are still before me and I just close my eyes and picture la mariposa que voy a llegar a ser.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Teaching Adventures, Pointed Toes and Time Flying

Who would’ve ever thought that Peace Corps life would be so hectic? Where are the lazy days on a hammock, the periods of sheer boredom? But then again, I also initially thought that I was going to be living in a hut by candlelight. My life is quite the contrary, as I enjoy electricity and running water 24/7 and live in a city with at least 4 Internet cafes. However, there remains a Peace Corps-esque element: I still wash all of my clothes by hand. I iron them too.

I figured it’s not Peace Corps but a Leah thing- I have a gift, to somehow, some way get so busy with responsibilities that I end up not being able to catch up with my own life. I have a ton of books that I have yet to read, e-mails from months ago to respond to and pending “personal time” to indulge myself in. For a while this really got me down, how my Honduras life ironically mirrored my über-hectic, fast-paced former U.S. life. But I am on the road to recovery, pausing every so often to reflect on my priorities more and escape from a neurotic life that has been my own doing. However, I would say this in my defense, despite reverting back into overdrive, there is one important difference between my life then and now: at least now I’m doing things that I really want to do.

Charla Marathon. March 8 was International Women’s Day and in order to continue the momentum from the National Women’s Day celebration, I honored the day, however, taking a different route. I wanted to give charlas (remember, a mini-lecture or workshop) to high school students about the history of the occasion and possibly about sex and gender concepts. My “great” idea was to go to two different public high schools and perhaps, give two charlas in the morning in one school, and then two more in the afternoon at another (note: high school classes here are only HALF a day long). But as I explained this to the school facilitators, they basically responded quizzically asking me why I would want to give two sessions when there are seven sections each for the morning and afternoon sessions? Okaay. I don’t know what possessed me to agree to the arrangements, but at the least I was able to bargain myself a lunch break and schedule TEN charlas instead of fourteen.

On the day itself, heaven favored me considerably such that some classes were combined; hence I only ended up giving seven forty-minute charlas instead of the original 10. Mind you, I never really had any formal teaching experience nor have no idea why I signed up with the toughest crowd there is (i.e., adolescents). But 357 students later (yes, I counted, I had a sign-up sheet) – I survived my own brilliant plan and surprisingly, ended up feeling very gratified. I was terrified more than I cared to show prior to my sessions, but everything worked out in the end. It went almost too well, but naturally, there always is that ONE class, specifically, ONE student that kept things very, very real. Up until that one student, I actually thought to myself for the first time ever that perhaps, I have what it takes to be a teacher. Um, I will not be quitting my day job any time soon.

Seriously, though, the experience was very sobering, because it gave me a taste of what Honduran teachers have to go through everyday. Obnoxious student behavior aside, the very dismal conditions of the classrooms and lack of many basics (e.g. in one high school, the students had to go around carrying their own chairs to their different classes because there weren’t sufficient seats in all of the rooms) just explains the poor quality of education in the country (a student is at a disadvantage from the beginning, with the classrooms falling apart) and why teachers are notorious for going on strike for higher wages all the time – must be all the stress they deal with on a daily basis! But to end on a high note, although I only I was able to only touch the tip of an iceberg through my sessions, I am pleased to claim that at the least I may have planted some seeds here and there and expanded their vision on society even just a tad wider and encouraged questioning, for example, why there are no women in their history books or why inequality exists between genders and how this is reflected in their own lives.

To end this subject, I would like to say, kudos to all the real teachers out there! Hats off, thumbs up, high five and all that good stuff to y’all brave and steadfast souls.

I’m a Gringa too, I swear! On a different occasion, a group of Peace Corps volunteers and myself gave a charla (yes, another one) on ethnic diversity to a group of students in a town called Siguatepeque to raise awareness and dispel existing stereotypes on the subject and discuss the origin of the term gringo. We had an activity where all the volunteers (of diverse backgrounds) were lined up and the students were to pick which ones were North Americans (here we can’t just say “Americans” because it’s offensive to Latin Americans to refer exclusively to U.S. citizens as the only Americans) and sure enough, the results of the activity and discussions reinforced what we already knew that the majority of Hondurans think that white, tall, with blue eyes define what it is to be estadounidense. It was great however, that out of the 21 students, 2 or 3 of them knew otherwise; so there is hope for the future! The funny thing was, after we, the volunteers, divulged that we are all “North Americans” despite having different roots, in the end of all the discussions on history, etc., the students still seemed incredulous that not all gringos are the typical white, tall with blue eyes. This was akin to telling a kid that Santa does not exist. But it was a lot of fun, and surely a lot less stressful than my previous marathon charlas.

Ballet Basics. When I was in San Francisco, I was taking an average of three classes per week, whether it was jazz, ballet, hip-hop or capoeira. Needless to say, it was only a matter of time where I would reach the point where due to the inexistence of dance classes for me to take in my town, I would go ahead and give them instead. Hence, I am now an official unofficial ballet teacher for Olanchito with kids ranging from 6-14 years old. Couldn’t stay away…couldn’t resist. I’m no prima ballerina, but I’m as good as it gets where I am and I am confident in being able to teach at least the basics to a group of first-timers. By the way, have I mentioned that I have never taught kids and especially not dance classes to people with no prior experience? Oh, and that I’m not exactly a big kid-person either? Hmm…notice the pattern I am developing here?

Ha! But so far so good…I started with a “trial period” of four weeks to test the waters and in the end all the kids and parents want to continue. I had a survey and all the good stuff to ensure a proper evaluation of my class- one of the comments I received that they like how I stress discipline (especially punctuality- a rare trait among Hondurans!) in my classes. This goes to show my plan is working…ballet was the last thing I wanted to teach but I want to transfer the greatest values that I personally learned from it as a kid, the discipline and a sense of a responsibility that I was later on able to and still continue to apply to all other aspects of my life. Through this process, I have been learning myself, to basically, uh…learn to deal with kids, improve my “instructional Spanish” and have a creative outlet that hopefully bears good fruit in the future.

Special mention to my dear friend, Ericka, who, provided me a cd of ballet class music and a ballet book to serve as my reference for my classes. Gracias! All other contributions accepted from anybody, anytime. ☺

A Moment to Pause. I never thought I would say that time here in Honduras flies, but it does. I have been here over nine months now and although there are plenty of petty things that I can legitimately complain about, I won’t, at least not now. To this point I remain thankful for having the chance to live a dream and I will continue to do so the best way that I can, even if it means getting over my hang-ups with politicians, kids and apathy in general. I am simultaneously excited and panicked – excited to complete my service and find out how “it all turns out” and panicked that I may not accomplish the things that I would like to by the time I finish next year. But is this my overdrive persona thinking? Either way, I will keep trying to achieve a good balance in all that I do, so I end with one of my favorite sayings- work hard, chill hard.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

My Hands are Finally Dirty

After months of wandering and wondering, wandering and wondering…looking for “real, tangible” work and pondering on where I fit exactly in the world of community development, doors and windows are finally opening upon my return from the holiday break.

A Different Kind of Writing. I promised myself that I’d pick up on my writing while here in Honduras and I’ve been true to my word- my blog, journal and letter writing have kept me busy. Now it seems that I am about to embark a new kind of writing that I’ve never done before- project proposals. For the municipality. After meeting with the powers that be in my town and various institutions, I have been assigned to be one of the people responsible for writing the proposals to acquire funding for projects that have been defined in the town’s municipal development strategic plan. It’s not going to be rocket science, but I still find it rather intimidating, especially since I’ll have to be familiar with subject matter that I’ve never worked in before, such as water systems, infrastructure, agriculture production.

I’m getting a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. Oh, and did I mention that the concept of organizing or managing information does not exist where I am? But I wanted to be challenged, and I guess here it is, staring at me right in the face.

El Dia Nacional de la Mujer. January 25 is National Women’s Day in Honduras; 1955 was the year when women earned their right to suffrage. Upon finding this out about a month ago, I consulted some of the women I knew from various sectors about the possibility of celebrating the event. A committee was formed made up of representatives that included the Women’s Municipal Office, Red Cross, Media, Fundación Pico Bonito, a network of women’s groups and of course…Peace Corps (i.e., I!).

What started as an idea turned into something larger than life. Prior to the day, some of the organizers appeared on television and radio spots to promote the event and discuss various themes concerning women. Yours truly, who has successfully dodged the media since September, eventually succumbed to the pressure and made my first radio stint and gave my first tv interview not long after. I suspended all my camera shyness and insecurities with my Spanish in the name of promoting the event and giving my own 2-cents on some gender issues. Happy to say, people told me I did a good job, and this was a huge relief.

The celebration itself ended up being a whole day event starting with a marcha pacífica (peaceful march) in the morning followed by an informal conference where various speakers were invited to discuss various themes (historical significance of the event, gender equity, sexual health education, to name a few), combined with a small food sale of some of the products made by the small women’s micro-businesses. The celebration was concluded in the evening with a cultural night, where different performers were invited, and homage to various senior women (midwives, clothes washer, cooks, etc.) who have dedicated their entire lives to their labor but have gone unrecognized. Each of the day’s activities was successful and by the night time, the venue was packed and a lot of women came in their best outfits, it seemed. The showcase of talents (poetry, song, dance) was impressive and very well-received (not to mention a certain volunteer named, Leah, performed a jazz piece to bachata music, the beloved sound of Honduras, among ranchera and reggaeton).

It was a historic day indeed, not only in terms of success, but due to the fact that it was the first ever celebration held in Olanchito for National Women’s Day. And even days after, people kept telling me that the whole pueblo (town) was still buzzing about everything and one of the positive, tangible outcomes of it was that some women found out that day that the Women’s Municipal Office exists and were able to go there for assistance afterwards.

What made all this possible in the first place was the “WE” in team factor- when our committee presented the ideas for the celebration before the municipal council (90% male) they were approved for the way we presented our cause and ourselves. We weren’t a group of women who wanted some cute little party to celebrate, but we showed that we were serious, had something to say, and had something to show. This is particularly significant for me because when I first got here, the mayor wouldn’t give me the time of day when I told him I was interested in working on strengthening the Women’s Municipal Office, because he had age-old, political issues with a colleague. But persistence has paid off, especially efforts to team up with more women, and now we don’t feel so invisible anymore.

For this one time, I would like to toot my own horn, for a lot of the work happened after the approval and I ended up doing a whole lot of the organizing and execution and every dirty chore in between. I was blessed to work with people who did their part (and cursed by those who were just there for show) and those who came out of the woodworks to give their support. There were a lot of frustrating and stressful moments that could’ve been easily avoided, but since we weren’t in the same cultural page on a lot of things, especially on the concepts of accountability and responsibility, I had to respect that and learn to also gracefully concede without sacrificing the quality (well, not too much) of work. I really can’t complain with the outcome, for everything was truly worth it plus I sure learned a lot from the experience. Furthermore, we were able to promote issues at the heart of our committee- women’s rights and gender equity, and bottom line, that’s what really matters.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Crossing the Border

The magic of airplanes. One minute I’m dragging my worn-out suitcase through unpaved roads, the next minute I’m unpacking the same suitcase in another world, where the streets are paved and lined with gold, yet nobody really notices.

My immediate thoughts, within the first few days: Yes, I missed the streets of San Francisco, but not the walls of corporate America. Yes, I missed nice things, actually, having things, but not being broke because of them. Yes, I missed the speedy and efficient service for everything, but not the lightning-speed pace of life.

I definitely do NOT miss “work” as being the reason why the majority of people don’t ever have time for themselves and loved-ones or for things they really would rather be doing.

Eventually, the inevitable came. The departure date. I spent my entire life bouncing between two countries, and now comes a third, so one would think goodbyes become easy at some point. The truth: the “Hellos” never lose their thrill, but, neither does “Goodbye” fail to pierce through the heart each and every time. Even if it’s with the same people again and again.

So why do I keep saying goodbye, especially to those I hold closest to my heart? I don’t think I ever told anyone goodbye. It has always been a “See you later.” Out of the desire to find myself. Out of the need to chase my dreams before regrets start chasing me.

How bittersweet was the minute I realized that I yearned to go back to Honduras because there my dream awaited to be completed. Now, as I patiently head that direction one day at a time, what keeps me going is the promise of the next round of hellos. And the thought that perhaps, on top of “Hello,” one day I will get to say, “Guess what, I’m here to stay.”