Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's a Long Road

I left early Saturday morning for Tegucigalpa to stay at my usual hotel, Guadalupe Dos, which is common for Peace Corps volunteers and English teachers on a budget.  They have hot water and internet, which is quite luxurious at this point.  The reason I had to go on this trip was because my visa was set to expire on the 1st of September.  We used to need to go to either Belize or Costa Rica to renew our passports, but the rule changed so that any country outside of Honduras would do.  I heard that the border crossing at Copan was easy so I decided to go for it.  It's a long road to Copan.

The trip to Copan was way easier this time around, compared to the cramped ride in the back of Ricardo's pick-up truck for 12 hours.  We went from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula and on to Copan from there.  I think I have finally gotten over my travel anxiety.  I used to get anxious on public transportation, especially in Third World countries, but now I am cool as a cucumber.  The bus driver from San Pedro Sula to Copan was absolutely on fire.  I came to the conclusion that he must have thought he was playing a video game or something.  He was weaving in and out of traffic on blind corners with little regard for anyone else on the road.  Normally, I would have been white knuckled and sweating, but I was just reading a book and listening to music with a smile on my face.  If nothing else, this trip has taught be patience and the ability to let go of things I can't control.  One of the hardest things I have had to do is to accept that my fate is uncertain, that I can't control everything--nor should I.  It is much easier to calm down and enjoy the ride.

Copan turned out to be a bitch.  I went to the border and told the Honduran immigration officer my situation.  I told him I am an English teacher and I need to get my passport stamped one more time for 90 days to last until I leave.  He agreed to stamp my passport, but when I gave him my passport to be stamped I didn't have a yellow customs sheet that had been stamped into my passport.  Unfortunately, without the yellow sheet I had to pay a fine of around 150 dollars.  Basically he told me to pay it now or pay when I leave in November.  I did everything I could to convince him to let me off the hook, but he didn't really have a choice.  I paid the fine and left, just glad that I got my 90 days and was on to better things.

Our original plan was to go back to Olancho after we got our 90 days, given that school is still in session.  Ricardo gave us a week break and no one wanted to go back to Olancho at that point.  I was feeling the effects from the fine and thought a day or two on the beach would be just what I need.  We decided to head to the bay islands, and specifically Utila, which is the backpacker's version of Roatan.

Another grueling day of traveling brought us to La Ceiba where our old friend Oscar met us at the bus terminal.  Oscar left the school after his brother died and we have all missed his humor since he's been gone.  It was great to have a nice dinner with him before we continued.  This morning we took the one hour ferry from La Ceiba to Utila.  We decided to stay at a more expensive hotel that has far better accommodations than we are used to.  After 7 months living in Arizona circa 1870 we decided we deserve something better, if only for 2 days.  The hotel juts out into the bay on stilts. The view is incredible and all we can hear is the ocean. So that's where I am at this point.

I added pictures from a recent walk with Leche and a few pictures of the ocean.  Definitely more ocean pictures to come.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Always a Trip

Even if it is only for a few hours, Juticalpa is always a trip.  We decided to go at eight this morning to use the faster internet and eat some gas station pizza.  Now, in the United States I would absolutely never eat at a gas station.  I have problems eating at a Subway connected to a gas station.  I think it has something to do with the fact that the bathrooms are so disgusting and they are then handling your cold cuts.  Doesn't make much sense, but these guys actually make a decent slice and the bathrooms are immaculate.

So we ate a slice or two and went to the other gas station that has free high speed internet.  The plan was to take the 12 o'clock bus back to San Fran, but when the time came we weren't ready so we decided to take one at 2.  The bus schedule on Sunday is difficult and no matter how many times we ask, we never seem to figure it out.  Last time we messed up we ended up on the little bus that could--it actually didn't make it up a hill.  We had to roll down backwards and try it again.  So we thought there was a bus at 2 and it turned out that we were wrong again.  The bus didn't leave until 4.  We could either sit out in the heat, go back and sit on the internet, or hitchhike.  We decided to hitchhike.  Sometimes when we hitchhike someone we know will see us and give us a ride.

A nice truck came by and I stuck my thumb out.  A friendly looking gentleman asked where we were going and I told him San Francisco.  He was going to Gualaco so it was on his way.  He agreed to take us.  The guy was strikingly normal.  We had a nice conversation about each of our countries and he had been to the United States for an agricultural conference many times and was visiting Italy in a couple months.  Who is this guy?  Had we encountered the richest, most normal man in Honduras?  He has a lot of property in the Gualaco area, including a mine that he is looking to sell to the Italians.  We stopped halfway to San Francisco at a gas station and before the guy got out he asked if we wanted a soda.  We respectfully declined and he entered the store.  We turned to each other and said, "Wow, this guy is great.  We are so lucky."

He came out of the gas station with a six pack of Miller High Life bottles, which wasn't weird at all.  What we did find weird was when he pulled out of the gas station and twisted one open casually as if it were a normal Sunday drive for him.  On the second half of the trip he really turned on the creepy.  The conversation continued, but he would turn around and look at us while he was talking, completely ignoring the fact that he was driving.  He was absolutely all over the road.  The most normal man in Honduras turned out not to be so normal after all.  He ended up blatantly hitting on Marie and inviting us to shoot guns on Friday.  I said, "Yeah, maybe", but didn't give him my phone number.  At one point he started talking about the violence in Honduras and how you can't trust the police, army, or any government branch to take care of it.  He said that it is basically every man for himself in Honduras and God is the only one looking out for you.  I'm sure the drinking and driving on Sundays isn't helping his case.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Walking the Dog

I took a huge nap today, which I normally don't like to do.  I have been having at least an hour of band practice everyday to get ready for the Independence Day celebration on September 15th and it has really worn me out.  The band has proven to be more of a challenge than I initially thought.  It takes so much energy to just get the kids together, get them quiet, and have them listen.  If you put 15 drums in a class of 6th graders it is going to be chaos.  However, each time we get together we are getting better.  The band is highly regarded in the celebration and I have felt the pressure from the administration and parents about having a good band.  I am just hoping we will be ready.

After my nap, Leche was waiting outside my door so I took him out for a walk.  Leche has had a rough couple days.  He was out running with Rob and got attacked by another dog.  The dog bit the top of his head and gave him three really deep puncture wounds.  The good thing about Honduras and Olancho specifically is that veterinarians are highly regarded due to their essential role in the cattle based economy.  The majority of the population has access to veterinary services.  It is kind of an unwritten law that everyone gets their dog vaccinated for rabies.  In order to get into the United States, Leche would have had to get rabies vaccine anyways, so we took him to the vet just to make sure he didn't contract rabies.  He was getting special treatment all day yesterday because of his wounds.  We think he gets attacked because all the street dogs are jealous.  Leche is very well kept and educated.  He speaks three languages: English, Spanish, and French.  He has recovered well from his wounds and is more or less back to normal.  It was quite the scare...


Monday, August 15, 2011

Science Fair

It is starting to seem like the school year is winding down.  Central America's independence day is coming up September 15th and the school has been in preparation mode for about a month now.  Our classes are only 35 minutes and we are going to have shortened class periods from now until the 15th.  We protested this a little bit, but I think it is a matter of priorities and tradition.  Ultimately, it isn't our job to tell them that they need to be in class.  Our school functions like the television show "The Office".  Almost every week we either have a party or a national event that we are preparing for.  I guess you could say Ricardo is Michael Scott.

I am in charge of the school marching band and we haven't made any progress yet.  We don't have equipment  or time to practice at this point because everyone seems to have scheduling conflicts.  I told the school today that I am going to use my sixth grade class for the band since they are incredibly smart and mostly do what they are told.  I will just teach them in music and art class.  As for the equipment, I guess I will just have to improvise.

Science fair was today and we had some awesome projects presented.  The winning group made toothpaste from scratch, which was cool in itself.  The kicker was that Honduras has some of the worst dental health I have ever seen, so it works on multiple levels.  Another project was a model city that they connected to a battery so it had street lights and a moving windmill.  My project was a lesson in viscosity.  I made quicksand goo out of corn starch and water.  I brought food coloring in so the kids could make their own bowl with their favorite color.  If you apply force to the liquid it acts as a solid, so the kids were punching the liquid and then sinking their hands in it slowing to feel the suction.  I think my project was a favorite among the students.  I had everyone coming up to my table trying to feel the goo.

One of the teachers was actually scared of the goo I made. I told him to touch it and he said it was dangerous and walked away.  He must have thought I was a warlock.  If anything bad happens to him he always gets out a bottle of liquid that is blessed by a witch and washes his hands with it.  Needless to say, he isn't one of the more normal teachers.

Robs project was an erupting volcano.  He used the vinegar and baking soda reaction with red food coloring. To top it all off, he put a bunch of gasoline in it and lit it on fire so when the baking soda and vinegar came foaming out it was on fire.  I thought it was awesome, although it got 10th place.  I beat Rob and got 9th place, but it was nowhere near what I thought we were going to get.  Another group made tiger balm, which I thought was really clever.  It was a really easy day today since they took the entire day for science fair.  I don't expect that we will be having many more full days of school the way things are starting to go.

There is a picture of one of the preschoolers crying.  One of the projects was like an inflatable person that ended up looking like a ghost.  He started to cry thinking that the ghost would come after him.  I definitely thought this was picture worthy. 

In 2 weeks I will be taking another visa renewal trip.  My plan is to cross into Guatemala real quick and see if I can convince the border patrol to give me a 90 visa.    

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

St. Basil Medical Mission

Today, I went with a medical group from St. Basil's Catholic Church to a small village about 20 minutes north of San Francisco.  St. Basil's is located in between Cleveland and Akron.  The group of about 8 of them are going to be here all week seeing patients and doing what they can to improve the public health of the surrounding area. Today we had a dentist, an MD, two nurses, an Ohio State student, and two high school students helping out.

This is an annual outing for the group funded by their mega-church that has bout 3500 families and a multi-million dollar budget.  They had a process and knew exactly what they were doing and I fell in line beautifully.  The dental equipment is compact--about the size of a small carry-on, but it packs a lot of utility.  It has multiple suctions and a rinse and spit function.  The town doesn't have electricity, so they had a small Honda generator that could really pack a punch.  I couldn't believe that the whole operation rested on the shoulders of a generator the size of a large lunchbox.

The small village is called Quebrada Dantos and is gorgeously tucked into a lush, green valley surrounded by mountains that are somehow being farmed, despite the daunting incline.  I secretly timed the group as we were setting up and it literally took about 15 minutes.  On the 15th minute, The first patient had a needle in her gum getting anesthetic.  Some of the dental cases were absolutely disgusting.  A couple of times I actually got nauseous, and when it comes to blood I am not queasy.  For some reason, coming from the mouth really bothered me.  A lot of the patients had to walk or travel far to visit our camp.  We wondered how so many people found out about it just by word of mouth.  The whole operation was incredible on both sides of the table.

I bounced around where they needed me to translate, but I mostly found a home in the pharmacy counting pills and telling patients when to take certain medicines.  The Spanish skills in the group were limited so they really used me as a resource.  A lot of what the medical team did was to hand out simple over the counter pain medication and multi-vitamins.  There were also quite a bit of sick children getting penicillin.  One of the sad things we saw was that if there was a female patient between the age of 17-35 there was a good chance she was pregnant.  We also handed out a lot of prenatal vitamins.

One particular case was especially disgusting.  An old woman came in limping on a bandaged leg and asked to see the dentist.  The doctor told her to show us the leg first and then she could see the dentist.  Her leg was eaten almost to the bone with some sort of skin sore.  She had put some sort of talc powder on it that I am sure was only making it worse.  She has diabetes and the wound would likely not heal.  At this point the only thing to do would be to skin graph it or cut off her leg.  In this area, I would put money on the latter.

We had a couple of people at the pharmacy trying their hardest to get any sort of extra medicine or toothbrushes, so fortunate for us we had something to give them.  The church has a rosary making club that gave like 200 rosaries to give out.  They were really pretty and I pocketed one immediately, because I knew they would be gone in a matter of minutes.

I didn't get any sleep last night and I haven't figured out why.  I woke up in a cold sweat around 1:45 and couldn't find any sleep until 4.  I woke up extremely tired, hopped in the shower and the truck was outside to pick me up.  As soon as we started to see the first patients it shot some adrenaline into us and time starting flying.  Before we knew it, it was 3 and time to leave.  Just as efficiently as the set-up, we tore down the place and got out of there.  We filled countless prescriptions and the dentist pulled around sixty teeth.  Some of the patients said, "Yeah, I just want them all out."  Alllllrighty-then...

I left feeling like that is something I would definitely want to do again at some point.  I have always thought about setting up pop-up clinics and pop-up classrooms in post-disaster or post-conflict situations.  Today this team really showed me how it is done.  Sometimes my only connection to home is through reading articles on the internet, mostly from the news.  It isn't often that I can find an article that gives me optimism about our current situation, what with the 2 wars, a financial crisis and the other list of problems that never seem to go away.  This group of seemingly average Ohioans, three of which were still in school, really reminded me that good Midwestern Americans are intelligent, kind, and have a clear vision of what their part is in the scheme of things.  It was so nice to just sit down and have a conversation in English with like-minded people.  Definitely a pick-me-up!  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Birthday Party

Today is my birthday as well as my roommate Robert's birthday.  It also happens to be Barack Obama's birthday, so the kids were asking us if every gringo is born on August 4th.  The kids were saying happy birthday to me in English all day and giving me hugs.  Ricardo organized a surprise party for us in the afternoon.  The students left an hour early and we had a nice little celebration with a pinata, cake, and chicken and rice.  Rob and I were both saying that it was one of the best birthdays we have had in a while.

They got us a Spiderman pinata, which was perfect.  The ceilings are so high at the school and whenever we have a fiesta it is a logistical nightmare to thread the rope through to hang it.  As you can see Rob tried to climb a pole and thread it through and almost got a birthday broken leg.  It turns out another of our teachers was born August 4th so he was included in the celebration.  Three out of like 14 teachers have the same birthday.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wednesday Afternoon Kidnapping

I was just finishing up dinner when Rob barged through the door sweating, just getting back from a run.  "Dude, you gotta see this", he said.  "There are about 40 guys down the street with automatic weapons.  Grab your camera, let's go."  Just as I was walking out the door, Ricardo called me and said, "Hey, where are you.  Are you in the house?  Are the others in the house?  It is better that you don't leave tonight.  Just stay in the house."  Ok Ricardo, will do...

The small corner shop where we buy groceries was apparently the meeting place for the Wednesday night task force.  It wasn't an exaggeration, there were around 40 guys with an assortment of automatic machine guns.  One guy was wearing police issued body armor and carrying a grenade launcher.  We went inside the store where we usually buy vegetables and timidly tried to take a couple snap shots.  One of our students from high school was in the store and we asked him what was going on.  He refused to tell us probably fearing repercussions from the armed mob outside.  After buying a couple things we walked outside and decided to walk through the gauntlet of armed men and try to take some photos.

Just as we got to the end of the gauntlet a guy tried to say something in English but we didn't catch it.  He said, "You guys speak-a da Spanish, right?"
"Sure we do"
"It's not every day you see this on the streets in the United States."
Yeah, well as a matter of fact, we've never seen anything like this anywhere."

We got to talking with our new Mexican looking friend and he said that he lived in New York for a while.  I knew one of the armed guys standing not too far away and I yelled for him.  His name is Machuka.  He lives not too far away from our house and is pretty much a contract worker for one of the "groups" in town.  He was holding an AK-47.  I grabbed it out of his hands and struck a pose for Rob's camera.  Our new friend took out his 9mm pistol, grabbed me by the front of my pants and shoved it snug against my package.  Now the picture was complete.  9mm pistol sticking out of my pants and an AK-47.

At that point everyone started laughing and it lightened the mood a bit.  Rob and I started taking pictures freely and walked back to the house.  The reason there were so many guns on the street is that someone got kidnapped in town and they are going to try and get them back.The longer I am here the more ridiculous things get.    

Rob's turn to pose