Monday, July 13, 2009

Tough times

I've said this to some of you privately in emails or phone calls, but I'll reiterate it here: the first few months of being in site are really really difficult. It's hard to describe if you're not living it, but work is a totally different animal here, community integration is hard, and it's easy to feel alone.

I came to the Peace Corps ready to be all alone for 2 years. I didn't come ready to spend three months with some fantastic people, form some phenomenal relationships and friendships, and THEN get to site and be all alone. I miss my Peace Corps friends, and I can't wait till I can leave my site (this weekend) to see them.

I turn 26 on sunday. I feel old



Monday, July 6, 2009

More blogging!

So I've been told that huge blog updates once a month do not make for pleasurable reading from the masses, so I'm going to make a concerted effort to make more blog posts, just making them shorter.

Things are getting pretty tense regarding last weekend's coup d'etat. A week ago today everyone was telling me everything is calm and we'll be back to normal in a couple days. Now everyone is tense and wondering how this will end. Stay tuned...

We have some vacations that are being planned for as we speak! October may feature a nice little scuba diving trip to the bay islands, and there may be a 9-day jungle trip to La Mosquitia at the beginning of 2010. Very exciting

High school friend Mickey Passman got engaged over the weekend to his longtime girlfriend. Congratulations to Mickey and his family!


Monday, June 29, 2009

Coup d'etat, everything's fine

Friends and family,

By now I assume most of you have heard about the coup d'etat which took place yesterday (sunday) in Honduras. Just wanted to make sure you all know I'm doing just fine, things are tense here and there were protests in my city last night, but all is relatively calm.

I don't expect anything to escalate so unless you hear otherwise in the news assume all is well here.



Monday, June 1, 2009

Checking in from site (Comayagua!)

Hey everyone,

Sorry for so much time in between blog posts, but it’s been a busy last month or so. We finally finished our Field Based Training in Ojojona in the first week of May, when we headed back to Zarabanda (where we spent our first 3.5 weeks in Honduras) for a week to finish up training.

We swore in at the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa on May 15th, a day we had been waiting for with much anticipation. It was a day of mixed emotions; in the morning there was a ton of excitement as we took the bus into the capital. The ceremony itself was short and sweet (side note: I gave the final speech of the day as the representative of our Peace Corps training class, it was kind of exciting… pictures to come later) and in the end we were thrilled to be volunteers and not just trainees (or aspirantes). We spent the rest of the day with our counterparts, which was a little bit overwhelming since these are the people we’ll be working with for the next two years. We got to know more about our projects and exactly how we could help the organizations and communities we would be integrating into. Finally came the goodbyes as everyone went their separate ways.

As a training group we’re spread out to all corners of Honduras, from Ocotepeque (in the far west bordering Guatemala and El Salvador, 12 hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa) to Olancho (far east, 8+ hour bus ride) to the North Coast (Trujillo and Tela, 10 hour bus ride from Tegus) and Amapala (small island off the south coast of Honduras, 5 or so hour bus ride from Tegus). We’re not allowed to leave our sites for the first 2 months we’re there unless its work related or we have to run errands (some people live in towns of about 1,000 people and have to visit larger cities to do groceries), and I think we all understood that there are a lot of volunteers we won’t be seeing again. It was hard to say goodbye to so many people, but it hasn’t been too hard to keep in touch so far, though cell phone plans are pretty expensive. Friday night some of us went to a local pupuseria (typical Honduran / El Salvadorian dish) before finishing our packing to relax and say goodbye. The general consensus was that we had come to the Peace Corps ready to be completely alone in a strange country for two years, but we didn’t come ready to meet all these awesome people and from some pretty strong friendships in our first 11 weeks, and THEN be all alone in our sites…

Speaking of sites, I was sent to a large city with a population somewhere between 60,000 and 110,000 (large for Honduras standards) in the middle of the country called Comayagua link: . It’s a really nice Colonial city, and I’m working for an organization called The Foundation for a Colonial Comayagua (FCC) and specifically with a trade school (Escuela Taller) working on developing a Business Incubator (Vivero de Empresas). The FCC is made up of the Chamber of Commerce, the Trade School, and a local university (with a lot of support from a Spanish Government support agency called AECI, which is somewhere in between Peace Corps and USAID). The focus is to restore and expand the colonial architecture of the city using resources from the Trade School and the University.

The trade school looks for children from at-risk situations in some of the marginalized neighborhoods in and around Comayagua. For the most part, these are kids whose formal education stopped at a very early age for a variety of reasons, all of them linked in some way to economic hardship for their families. The school trains them in some kind of trade, ranging from electricians, metalworkers, brick workers, artisanship, wood carvers, and a few others trades which are offered at random times depending on demand. In addition to learning their trade, the kids also get taught some business classes (which is where I come in) such as basic accounting, marketing, operations, sales, determining prices and quotes to help them start their own business once they graduate from the school. The school also offers the option of joining the Business Incubator upon graduation.

The incubator program is relatively young and is where most of my focus lies right now; it allows students from the trade school to form their own micro-enterprises with resources of the foundation. Those businesses would be run out of the school for a year using equipment and materials (not to mention support and more classes) offered by the foundation. As time goes on, the foundation becomes more and more hands off from the business, leading to the point where the business leaves the foundation and goes off on their own. At this point we hope that the business has saved up some kind of seed capital to allow them to pay for rent and the purchase of tools and equipment. I’m really excited to get involved with this effort, though the first couple of weeks have been quite overwhelming as I’ve had to learn how everything works and read through everything the previous volunteers had done (I’m replacing a super-volunteer couple named Javier and Sara Prada).

Comayagua has a lot of great things about it for a volunteer. First off is the size; at 80,000 or so people it’s the largest site any volunteer was sent to from H-14 (our training class). I have three super markets and a 4th one coming in soon, which means I have plenty of access to a lot of high quality foods and most of the home goods I could ever need (though an electric razor has escaped my shopping efforts). I also have electricity all the time, as well as… running water! No more bucket baths for me, which is amazing. I do still have to wash my clothes by hand, but I can handle that in return for running water.

Additionally, the location of Comayagua is great. With its central location, I can get just about anywhere in a relatively short amount of time. It’s about a two hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa and the Peace Corps headquarters, as well as the Tegus airport (for when you all come to visit!). It’s about a 5 or 6 hour bus ride to Copan (western Honduras), which has Santa Rosa de Copan (apparently a gorgeous city with a great night life) and Copan Ruinas (where most of the Mayan ruins are, also the site of our Halloween party). The south coast has Amapala, a small authentic island which used to be the major shipping location in Southern Honduras. A city called San Lorenzo began to take a lot of Amapala’s shipping away from them, and Amapala started to shift its attention towards tourism. Amapala feels like a very authentic fishing / shipping village, and offers a stark contrast to the North Coast (which is more touristic). A volunteer friend was placed out there, and it’s about a 5 hour bus ride or so to get there.

Olancho is in the east; it’s the largest department by area in Honduras (departments are kind of like states, but in effect they don’t have nearly as much power as states in the US do). Olancho is famous for being very Wild-West like, with lots of horses, cowboys, and people sporting guns. It’s also close to la Mosquitia, which is a very very rustic destination; it’s the most “Peace Corps” like vacation destination, with lots and lots of hiking and canoeing through long rivers and river-forests (manglar forests? That sounds right).

Last but certainly not least is the North Coast, which has gorgeous beaches and resort areas. The most popular destination is in the Bay Islands in a place called Roatan, which has your typical Club Med kind of feel to it. Utila is an island to the west of Roatan, which still has the beautiful beaches and some hotels, but definitely more “undiscovered” and “rustic” than Roatan. Utila tends to be the place where Peace Corps Volunteers go, as it’s much more reasonably priced and still beautiful. Utila also happens to be one of the only places in the world where you can go swimming with Whale Sharks! Don’t be afraid of the word shark in there, they’re apparently harmless to humans (tiny little mouths).

Unfortunately for us, no volunteers are placed in any of the Bay Islands. We do have some volunteers along the North Coast though (where you go to get to the Bay Islands), specifically in Tela (5 or 6 hour bus ride from Comayagua) and Trujillo (about 10 hours by bus). The north coast has a huge Garifuna population, an ethnic group of African heritage famous for the “punta” dance, fishing, hammocks, and generally being fun loving people. I’m not sure about the state of beaches along the North Coast, but I’m sure they’re not in short supply.

So, that’s Comayagua and the places in the area. For anyone considering coming to visit (most of you I hope) Honduras doesn’t really have a touristic identity, meaning people don’t say “I’m coming to Honduras for ____”. What it really means is Honduras is undiscovered by tourists, but it has a ton to offer, especially if you’re looking for more than one experience. The Mayan ruins in the west are famous and easy to access. Close to the ruins are dense forests to explore and go hiking in. The north coast offers some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world (2nd largest reef in the world only after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) as well as access to indigenous populations. The east has some really rustic areas great for back packers, kayakers, and anyone into white water rafting. In other words, there’s a ton to do and I hope a lot of you are able to come and enjoy some of them with me.

That’s it for me for now; this is way too long for a blog post. Hope everyone is doing well, and I miss you all

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Post #2, checking in from Field Based Training

Hello everyone,
So I guess a blog post every month is not really what I had planned for, but its surprisingly hard to sit down and crank these guys out, not to mention our (very) limited internet access so far.
When last I wrote we were training in a small mountainside town called Zarabanda; we’ve now split up into our separate project groups in three different towns or cities and won’t be reuniting with our Health or Water/Sanitation friends until the beginning of May. Luckily the Wat/Saners are only about an hour and a half away from us, and we were able to have lunch with some of them this past Saturday, which was really great. It had only been two weeks since the last time we saw them but it felt like a reunion with old friends. (As a side note, we’ve only been here six or seven weeks but the depth of some of the relationships we’ve made don’t reflect the time we’ve been here)
The business group is training in a town of about four or five thousand people called Ojojona; it’s about an hour and a half South-East of Tegucigalpa and is well known for its artisans and clay working. They’ve recently been putting a big emphasis on tourism, including a new central park/plaza which was finished about two months ago. Sundays tend to bring a lot of people from the big cities that’re looking to get some fresh air and relax in a nice small town.
This week was Semana Santa (holy week) which means that all of the schools were on vacation and no one worked after Tuesday; friends in Tegucigalpa said it was a ghost town as most of the city was in beaches at the North Coast. There were a lot of religious ceremonies this week, including a procession of “alfombras” which translates to ‘rugs’. Townspeople wake up extremely early in the morning and make large religious images on the streets in front of their houses out of colored mulch and sand. The alfombras lead from one church up the hill to another church in the center of town, and the priest leads a procession on Sunday morning through the alfombras. It’s pretty neat looking; hopefully I’ll be able to show some of the pictures on here.
The trainees had classes on Monday and Tuesday, then a cultural day on Wednesday with our host families, and we’ve been off ever since. We’ve been playing a lot of soccer, volleyball, and cribbage on the weekends or even after class during the week.
Training is going well in general, but I think we’re all starting to get antsy about getting to our sites and getting some work going; we came to work, not sit in classes all day! Next week we do our sessions on tourism, including a trip to an island off the south coast of Honduras called Amapala. On Monday night we’ll be setting up a bonfire on the beach, cooking s’mores and hot dogs and sleeping on the beach before visiting some businesses on the island on Tuesday.
We had our second technical interviews with Jorge and Jesus (the business group bosses) last week. During the technical interviews the trainee and Jorge and Jesus talk about potential site placements and projects the trainee would like to work on after swearing-in. Some of the sites are tiny (a thousand people in town) and some of them get quite a bit larger (100,000 plus). The projects that we’re aware of include tourism, working with Cajas Rurales (essentially micro-financing projects), working with women’s groups, IT projects, a media marketing project (we have one member of the group who has a film and production background, so the assumption is that this project is his), teaching youth, and Business Incubator projects. We have one more technical interview before site assignments, which are given on Monday the 4th of May. We’re getting pretty close to finding out our assignments, which everyone is pretty anxious about. I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going based on what Jesus and Jorge have told me, but I’ll wait until something is official before spilling the beans (I will say that I’m going to a large and apparently very cool city).
Some side notes that I don’t feel like writing paragraphs about:
• I wish I had brought my DVD’s; there’s not a lot to do here in the evenings
• I wish I had brought a computer game or something similar (for the same reason)
• I think the thing I miss most from the US so far (other than all of you of course) is washing machines. Washing clothes by hand is time consuming and miserable. Let’s get some kind of award to the man who invented washing machines.
• Sticking with the clothes-washing theme, I don’t think any of my clothes are going to survive these two years. One of my grey workout shirts (which I’ve worn only twice) is already about 30% larger than it was when I got here. Tech wick shirts were definitely the way to go; they breathe great, don’t expand, and feel nice. I’ll definitely be picking some more of those up the next time I’m in the US.
• We lost our first two trainees last week, a married couple named Ross and Susan. Everyone is pretty down, and we all wish the best for them. Here's hoping casualties are limited in the future

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First post from Honduras!

Dear friends and family,

Greetings from Honduras! It hasn’t even been two weeks since I left but I already miss you all very much.

My first couple of weeks in Honduras has been a whirlwind of emotions, new people, new cultures, and learning to live with less; we’ve hardly had time to breathe and take it all in.

There are a total of 49 Peace Corps Trainees currently in Zarabanda from three projects: Water and Sanitation, Health, and Business (that’s me!). I don’t think I could have asked for a better group of people to start this adventure with. Everyone is highly intelligent, educated, and (most importantly) motivated and anxious to start working in our communities.

There is a wide range of backgrounds present among all of the different projects. Most of the volunteers are 25 or so, with a handful of recent college graduates and another larger group around 29 or so. Additionally, we’re lucky to have two more seasoned members with us; a gentleman from the California and Seattle area who has spent his career in nursing (spending a lot of time with Hispanic immigrants) who will be a part of the health team, and a woman from Colorado who has run her own local business for a number of years in the Vale area. They’re both very experienced and knowledgeable, and the rest of the group is looking forward to learning from them.

My first 3.5 weeks in Honduras are being spent in a small town about 30 Kilometers out of Tegucigalpa called Zarabanda, a small mountainside community of a couple thousand people. These first few weeks are spent living with a host family and are strictly for training, language classes, and cultural acclimation. At the end of those 3.5 weeks the projects will divide up for FBT (Field Based Training) which is where we’ll start getting our hands dirty and working on some projects. It’s still considered training, but we’ll be able to visit some current volunteers and see the projects they’re involved in (including some sites that are currently looking for volunteers from our group). FBT lasts for about 7 weeks, at the end of which we’ll get our site assignments / projects, which we’re all very anxious about. Following FBT we come back to Zarabanda for a week to take care of final preparations before swearing in as official Peace Corps Volunteers at the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa on Friday, May 15th. We’ll leave shortly thereafter for our sites.

It seems as though most of the volunteers are having very positive experiences with their host families so far, and I’m definitely very lucky to have been paired up with Don Cristobal and Doña Norma. Cristobal and Norma have 10 children (all are grown up), seven live in Zarabanda close to us, one lives in Tegucigalpa, and the other two are living in the United States. Even though the house is just Don Cristobal, Doña Norma, and I, they have many grandchildren in the area so we’re guaranteed to hear the pitter patter of small feet outside our doors or in the kitchen. Norma is a great cook and has unfortunately spoiled me, since I won’t be able to create anything close to what she’s been cooking me when I go out on my own. She recently made me some pan de naranja (orange bread) to bring to the other trainees for a snack. The scene reminded me of those discovery channel movies where some meat is dropped into the Amazon and you watch as piranhas devour it in a matter of seconds. That’s what happens whenever I bring Doña Norma’s cooking to the training site.

We live in a very humble house (pictured) with no running water and unreliable electricity, but I have plenty of space for my bed and belongings and have no complaints about the living situation (though bucket showers could get old pretty quickly)

This past Saturday all of the families hosting Peace Corps Trainees in Zarabanda (trainees are placed in 4 local towns) threw us a surprise party at the town community center where they played some music, brought some local food… and PIZZA! It was a very nice event and a great opportunity to meet other members of the local community. Host families had a chance to speak about their experiences with Peace Corps volunteers and we were all touched by their positive words. Many of them had formed lasting friendships with volunteers who they had hosted, and others had reaped the benefits of projects we’ve conducted in local area.

It’s been extremely encouraging to see how we’ve been greeted so far and what a positive image the Peace Corps has in Honduras. At times our potential projects and our desired impact have been distant and abstract ideas, and the training period can be trying as we try to imagine what kind of impact our two year commitment will really have. I’ve had more than one conversation with fellow trainees about our concerns and doubts about our service. But then we meet local businesses who’ve worked with volunteers, or we see videos about Business Incubation projects that make a huge impact in their communities and are awarded large grants to continue their work, and that trepidation becomes excitement, the doubt turns into certainty and potential to change communities. The feeling is empowering, and I know it’s not naiveté or wasted energy because the results of previous groups’ work are right in front of our faces and on the lips of the Honduran people. In short, bring on the work!

Finally, the Peace Corps training staff in Honduras is simply amazing. They’ve done a remarkable job of bringing in 49 strangers and making us into a team, while simultaneously teaching us Spanish, teaching us about Honduran culture, safety, preventing diseases and illnesses, and giving us technical training for our specific projects. In addition to being good trainers they’re also great people and we’re lucky to have had them here waiting for us in Honduras

Well, this has been a long first (real) blog post and there’s more to be done and delicious food to be had (did I mention the food here is delicious?). I’ll try to keep this updated every 2 or 3 weeks if I’m able to. There are apparently some decent G3 modems that can be purchased locally that will provide internet access for our laptops, so I may be in communication more frequently depending on whether I’m in a decent G3 area or not (not that I know what that means…)



P.S. I don’t think I had a cup of coffee in my life before coming to Honduras. Now I have 3 or 4 per day. And… I kind of like it. The world is ending…