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Thursday, August 25, 2005

From karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

The day finally came—the day I boarded my last bus out of Colo. On that 5am busito, before dawn had poked her head, I shed tears for the community that had opened itself up to me over the past two years. I didn’t cry because I wanted to stay longer or because Colo necessarily needed me. No, I wept for each of the Colomoncagüenses (inhabitants of Colomoncagua) who had shared with me their struggles, their trials and tribulations, their dreams, their humility and common humanity.

When they sent me off with heartfelt goodbyes, kind words and generous gifts, it occurred to me that the magic of Colomoncagua is, of course, the people, but in particular, the fact that they are stripped of many of the material comforts and adornments that we so take for granted in the U.S. In this way, they seem rawer----more real. Even though my American upbringing and acculturation has taught me different values and priorities than theirs, our common humanity binds us. Their spirits will forever reside with me.

Now that I am looking back on the entire experience, I realize that more than anything I have done or contributed, the Peace Corps for me has been a journey into understanding myself and where I came from. It sounds strange to say that because my ancestors are not Latino. But at times, living here has felt like a journey back in history to the lifestyle my grandmother must have experienced in her village of Münnerstadt, Germany during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. It too was a rural, agrarian village ravaged by economic depression and limited educational opportunities. Like in Colo, she lived in a place where gender roles were strictly defined. She served my grandfather every single day of their life together just as so many women here serve their families and that defines who they are. Like many of the young women from villages in Honduras, my grandmother completed her formal education in the seventh grade and began working as a house servant at age 14.

In addition to gaining a window into the world of my family’s past, I now have a broader understanding of the immigration picture. Just as my grandparents and father fled 1950s Germany in search of improved economic opportunities, Hondurans and Salvadorans are leaving here in pursuit of dreams of material wealth and greater opportunities for their families. Having witnessed first hand the sacrifices these families have made to emigrate affords me a keener understanding of what it must have been like for my own family. Yet, my father and grandparents had the advantage of legal immigration to the United States. Most Central Americans spend their time in the States running scared of the INS, which prevents them from truly integrating into our society.

But perhaps in my case, joining the Peace Corps was a foregone conclusion. My parents were Peace Corps volunteers in Brazil in the 1960s. As a kid, I grew up hearing Peace Corps stories that inspired me to seek my own adventures in life. That yearning to travel and desire to challenge myself ultimately would lead me here. Through this experience, like my fellow 2nd generation PC volunteers, we have gained insight into what our parents must have seen when they were younger, idealistic vagabonds. In many ways, my own experience resembles much of my parents experience in Brazil forty years ago. It seems sad to say, doesn’t it? It forces us to ask ourselves what difference our work really makes.

I would argue that the difference lies in each of us who have opted to do this thing and who have put ourselves in a completely different reality than that to which we are accustomed. We all seem to agree that we will forever be marked by the experience. Our world view has changed. We will now view things through a different set of lenses than we did when we arrived here.

And so it is that I leave Honduras. Tomorrow, I will board another one of those ridiculously early chicken buses to make my way South to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The wanderlust hasn’t yet left me, so I have to take advantage of the fact that I am already in Central America and discover those places that to me are little more than fuzzy outlines on a map.

After my travels, I will return to the US—Brooklyn to be exact. I don’t know what it is I will be doing there yet. So I am giving myself time to figure it out. Because if I have learned anything from the Peace Corps, it’s that “hay más tiempo que vida”---“there’s more time than life”.

Thank you all for being such devoted supporters and interested listeners over the past two years. Your emails and notes of encouragement have touched me deeply. I hope to see you all soon.

Love,
karen
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Friday, July 29, 2005

Honduras Month 24

From karenscheuerer@gmail.com

Dear family and friends,

First of all, a quick update about our scholarship program. Visit: http://colo.lemonworld.com/ to check out the progress of the program and read profiles of participants and instructors along with photos of Colomoncagua.

Well, it here it is…month 24. My Peace Corps adventure in Honduras all started two years ago down to the very day. Sometimes I cannot believe that I have spent the last two years of my life in a little village at the edge of a country that few could identify on a map. Yet, as I await the closure of this experience, I am filled with a mix of emotions. Throughout the past two years, I have felt a combination of satisfaction, joy, pride, excitement and confidence. At other times, frustration, ambivalence, restlessness and anxiety consume me. Now that I am leaving, those emotions are blended with that bitter sweetness that emerges as the end of any rich experience that’s time is limited.

Overall, I suspect I will forever cherish this opportunity to give freely of myself---to exist exclusively as a resource, an aid, an instructor, a friend, a cultural ambassador. Because here in Colomoncagua, I don’t have to worry about how I will pay the bills, climb some organizational ladder or adhere to restrictive social status norms. Here, I am free to give of myself. It’s indulgent, liberating and tremendously gratifying all at once.

My Peace Corps experience has made me a big advocate for the U.S. Peace Corps. It’s progressive, enlightened, challenging and a good bang for the taxpayer buck, especially in contrast to other U.S. foreign aid programs. However, although I am intensely grateful for the chance I have had to do this; my appreciation doesn’t come without its conflicts.

Despite how proud and fortunate I feel to be an American because of the multiple privileges and perspectives it affords me in the world, I am ashamed of the crimes our government has committed time and time again throughout the world on behalf of many but in the interests of a few, particularly in the poorest parts of the world, like where I live now.

I don’t have to look very far in space or time to view the evidence of awful U.S. foreign policy. It exists merely five kilometers away from here in El Salvador where a bloody war ravaged the country for nearly 12 years---a war that was stirred and sustained by the U.S. government. The lost limbs, disappeared persons, and psychological devastation perpetuated by the war remain. The ghosts of war also haunt Colomoncagua which took in more than 8,000 war refugees during the course of eight years less than 20 years ago. People here still recount the fear and intimidation they felt in the face of Honduran military that guarded the border and repressed dissent. Those border guards were funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars. As a government, how can the U.S. claim to practice democracy, value freedom and uphold human rights at home when we have denied them to those abroad over and over again?

Perhaps, we all struggle with the same question: How do we reconcile the conflict between bad American policies and good Americans? It’s the tension between ugly American attitudes or practices and conscious, compassionate citizens. How do I balance what I like about the U.S. (our diversity, immigration, idealism, independence, ambition, generosity and our challenge to authority) with what I hate (our ethnocentrism, extreme privilege, abuse of power, arrogance, and excessive wealth)?

I guess in the end, I can say that I appreciate the chance I have had to gain a better understanding of the complexities and contradictions of these problems thanks to the perspective shared with me by the people of Colomoncagua. From now on I will always look at issues of globalization and U.S. foreign policy not only from my perspective but also through the eyes of Rosario, my friend---a single-mom and educator who strives to evoke interest and convey the importance of literature, the arts and music in her high school students who have no books; whose extent of musical knowledge comes from watching imported music videos; and who have never been within 100 miles of a museum in their lives.

I will also think of the trip I made with Elsa, a fourth-grader from the village of Las Marias who generously guided me through her community along strenuous rugged mountain trails in her flip-flops in search of families in need of better water filtration systems. I will remember the conditions of the houses we visited---nothing but wooden boards for tables and chairs and a few hammocks slung from walls made of bamboo---and I will be reminded of the limited chances afforded to kids like Elsa.

I hope to also look onto the world’s dilemmas and conflicts through the eyes of my many students of the past two years---and see things from the perspective of those eager to understand the world and achieve something in it. This view is perhaps best embodied by my 15-year old friend and former student Javier, whose intelligence, ambition, eagerness and curiosity are unbounded and who’s potential to achieve limitless were we to disassemble all the barriers imposed on him for coming from a remote little village in an impoverished country.

So, now that I am both better informed and disturbed by what I have gained from this experience, I am also more determined to fight harder to resolve the injustices and struggle more deliberately to dismantle the inequalities when I do return to the United States for I remain an optimist because as Howard Zinn, in his book Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train, says:

An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

So then, until next month and the final chapter of my Chronicles from Colomoncagua.

Take care.
Karen


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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Honduras Month 22
From karenscheuerer@gmail.com

Dear family and friends,

Multiple factors motivated me to join the Peace Corps—among them: the challenge, the cross-cultural exchange, Spanish acquisition and the learning experience. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that an insatiable wanderlust were not a major factor too. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I have stayed true to my vagabond tendencies as I have had plenty of opportunity to wander. In the past six months alone, thanks to visits from friends, I have been to Nicaragua, Belize and the Bay Islands of Honduras. Although, while somewhat off the beaten path, each of these destinations possesses plenty of tourist infrastructure—decent accommodation, food choices and transportation options.

Recently, however, I headed to a destination all but devoid of infrastructure and communication devices---a place where there is no trodden path because there are literally no roads. Last week I returned from a 10-day rafting and camping trip in the jungles of La Mosquitia (the Mosquito Coast in English), which posses the largest virgin tropical rainforest in the North American hemisphere.

La Mosquitia lies in the northeast corner of Honduras and Nicaragua. In this region, rivers are the main thoroughfares and infrequent planes deliver necessary supplies. Its extreme remoteness and absence of infrastructure has kept loggers and cattle-ranchers away. UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site as well as an international protected biosphere. Unlike the rest of Honduras, which is being slashed and burned at a disillusionally rapid pace, La Mosquitia is well-preserved and distinctly different than the other regions of the country.

The Mosquito Coast was once a haven to British pirates for its hidden cays and complex lagoons, and the region was all but ignored by the Spanish colonizers. In fact, in the 1700s the British set up trading posts along the coast to export mahogany, bananas, and sugarcane. The British influence is evidenced by place-names and frequent use of English words in Miskito language---the dialect of the largest indigenous population of the region. Eventually the Spanish won control of the region and it became incorporated into modern-day Honduras. However, the region continues to be more or less overlooked by the Honduran government and was therefore used as a launching pad for CIA-backed contra activity during the Nicaraguan revolution and has now become a haven for narco-trafficking.

Accompanied by eight other Peace Corps volunteers and three Miskito guides, we steered clear of the seedier sides of la Mosquitia and basically just rafted through the jungle for days on end without encountering any other sign of human life. It took us two days of bus travel from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras followed by a two hour hike to arrive at the village that was to be the meeting point with our guides (and I thought Colo was remote!). From there, we loaded up ten mules to carry our supplies, food, rafts and packs while we hiked through the rainforest for 8 hours until reaching the Rio Platano, where we began six days of river rafting through rapids, portaging over rocks, floating down river, swimming with iguanas, observing monkey behaviour, watching herons, eagles, toucans, macaws and kingfishers soar above us and listening for the sound of jaguars (which we never ended up seeing).

For me the rafting was fun and the jungle landscape, flora and fauna were stunning, but the real intrigue resided in the cultural life of La Mosquitia. La Mosquitia is the least populated area in all of Central America and when coming upon a Moskito community, it feels as though it has been lost in time. Almost the entire community lives along the river banks in small thatch palm leave stilted huts with wooden slats for walls. They bathe and wash their clothes in the river water below and travel by ‘pipante’ or long narrow canoes (no wider than three feet) carved by hand from mahogany wood. They survive on rice, corn, yucca and the fish they catch from the river.

Although we only spent one night in a Miskito village, we got some exposure to Miskito culture through our three guides. Mino, the lead guide is the quintessential jungle-man. He literally dove for iguanas, hunted jaguars, stirred black widow spider nests and tried to catch fish with his bare hands. Mino’s machismo got a little tiresome at times, especially for some of the women when he lacked confidence in our physical abilities, but nevertheless, he was extremely knowledgeable about the flora, fauna and culture of la Mosquitia and he served as our main interpreter to the region. He and his brother Jorge are also making an impressive mark on the responsible tourism industry in Honduras by trying to invest in and educate locals while trying to preserve the country’s natural beauty.

Rosendo, on the other hand, was the opposite of aggressive. A 52 year old toothless Miskito man made of 100% muscle, he had the disposition of a Zen master and the aura of a sage. He spent most of his time observing us or laughing at our kooky gringo behaviour. Aside from occasional conversations with him about why I should marry an old Miskito man, he spent most of the week making animal noises to try to draw the animals out of the jungle or he sang Miskito songs.

Umberto, the rookie of the group, and the 23 year old son-in-law to Rosendo, was still clearly in training. In addition to an insatiable appetite for food, he had a genuinely amiable personality and open curiosity for gringos. He told us the story of his family, who are Pech (another minority indigenous population of Honduras) that had been pushed off their land by aggressive cattle ranchers in the neighboring state of Olancho. About 12 years ago, his parents along with 60 other extended family members migrated into La Mosquitia in search of territory and better cultivation prospects. The migration of Pech to la Mosquitia has served to diversify the population and mobilize greater production of food, and arts and crafts to the region. When Rosendo and Umberto are not helping with rafting trips, they cultivate beans, corn, yucca, fruit trees and cocoa on the fertile river land.

On day eight of our trip, we literally floated into the tiny Moskito village of Las Marias and the home to Rosendo and Umberto. As we were floating down the river, Rosendo’s daughter (Umberto’s wife) came to meet us along with her three year old son. She was steering upstream in a pipante, one of the narrow mahogany canoes using only a tall tree branch to oar. When we arrived at Rosendo’s house, at least a dozen family members arrived to greet him. Upon our arrival, two sons brought us fresh coconuts to suck out the coconut water. Rosendo’s wife offered us a sweet made from yucca. Meanwhile Umberto’s sisters, one of whom was recovering from an almost deadly snake bite introduced us to the practice of making cocoa from cocoa beans that are grown in the region.

In chatting with one of Rosendo’s extended family members, I discovered that we were the same age and she already had a sixteen-old daughter (married to one of Rosendo’s sons) and was a grandmother to boot. I had a momentary freak-out.

Most Miskitos are bilingual. They speak Miskito at home and learn Spanish in school. Fortunately, there is a strong movement to preserve the Miskito language and teach it alongside Spanish in schools.

With heartfelt hugs and goodbyes, we parted from Umberto and Rosendo to continue our trip downriver to the Caribbean coast with Mino. We finally put down our oars and switched from the air-inflated plastic river rafts we had been using for the past week to board motor-driven pipantes. Within a few hours of Las Marias, we reached the sandy white coastline of the Caribbean and navigated through Mangrove swamps. We even saw a crocodile.

Our last night in La Mosquitia, we stayed in a village called Palacios, which represented the surly underbelly of this forgotten region. Within an hour of our arrival, at least three planes flew overhead suggesting frequent trafficking of something—most likely cocaine from Colombia. We also encountered our share of drunks and downtrodden Miskitos—the sadder side of white-man’s influence. The local bar reminded me of liquor stores in South-Central LA where you have to ask someone behind a closed window for your bottle of choice. Unfortunately none of us were able to sleep that last night because one of our oarsmen of the previous day got drunk and spent the entire night crying for his lost mother—chanting in Miskito outside our windows.

Then at 4 am, we boarded a rusted old pick-up truck which transported us across sandy beaches, through rocky rivers and palm plantations (still no roads yet) until we entered the other part of Honduras five hours later, where to our jungle eyes, infrastructure seemed to abound.

Until next month....

Take care.

karen
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Friday, April 29, 2005

Honduras Month 21

Dear family and friends,

I hope this email finds you well. Thank you for continuing to read these dispatches month after month. You have been a steadfast audience.

There are only a few more months left of my time in Colo, yet it occurred to me that I have neglected to answer a significant question in these emails about why I am here.

Why do I bother to teach the inhabitants of Colomoncagua how to use a computer or the Internet when some days they have nothing more than tortillas and salt to eat, they are dressed in rags and soggy flip flops and live in a one room shack with eight or nine others that has no running water? Instead of instructing them in borgeois pastimes such as email and web surfing, shouldn’t I be striving to help them put food in their stomachs, access better health care or improve their basic living conditions?

Believe it or not, this is not a question I struggle with too much. No, I don’t stay awake at night wide-eyed and sleepless debating the virtues of teaching the Internet verses installing a water system (There’s no contest: potable water is essential. The Internet is not). So why devote two years of my life to a project that is not addressing basic living conditions in one of the poorest countries in the world (besides the fact that I don’t know how to build a water system)?

Although the internet might not be essential to survival, to me, education is just as critical to decent living as a non-leaking roof, an extra change of clothes or a varied diet (yes, I say this because I have never really been without those things. No doubt it’s a reflection of my class and cultural privelege). When I say education, I don’t just mean learning to read and write, but learning to express oneself, solve real problems, expand one’s consciousness and change one’s thinking. Accessing diverse and democratic information is an extension of this and possibly even a catalyst to personal empowerment. The internet offers a multitude of information, some of which may actually be helpful to people whose main source of news has been limited to gossip exchanged at the weekly market.

Like poverty in so many places, the poverty here is systematic and repeats itself generation after generation. Most people are farmers and that is what they know how to do, but when families continue to have ten, twelve, or fourteen children with each generation and know nothing but farming, they will eventually exhaust the land resources available to them and the little food that has kept each generation surviving. That has already happened. Subsistance farmers will always struggle to feed their families if their children are barred from a decent education and other opportunities. The reality is that many parents here pull their children out of school in the elementary grades to work the land, thus permanently perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

The major change in recent years that has alleviated some of the pressure on the land is emigration to the United States---and most of you can probably imagine what a glamorous life the average illegal alien leads---daily exploitation, low-low wages, overcrowded quarters and 12-16 hour workdays. Yet it is the dream to which so many aspire.

Why? The best answer that I can come up with is a lack of imagination, limited critical thinking and problem solving skills (a.k.a.: poor education) and a dearth of local economic opportunities (further perpetuated by poor education). In many cases, their creative capacities are stunted; their problem-solving skills reflect an education system based on repetition of facts and memorization rather than analytical thinking. Often their imaginations don’t extend beyond the boundaries of Colomoncagua. I understand that the Internet is not going to solve problems in their education system or teach them to be critical thinkers, but access to alternative information resources may help some individuals solve every day problems or expand their horizons.

Recently, I have been inspired by a group of high school teachers that are taking a class at the center thanks to the scholarships funded through your donations. These teachers have been thrilled to discover the gold mine of information that exists on the web. Two weeks ago, not one of them had seen a web site let alone attempted to look for resources that may help them in their work or life. Now they are pulling together reports on topics as wide ranging as complex numbers (the math teacher), Islamic fundamentalism, Honduran folklore, astronomy, the Central American free trade agreement, psychological problems among adolescents and the practical applications of biotechnology. How in the world would they have found information on all those topics in Colomoncagua otherwise? As much as I would like to see one, a library doesn’t exist anywhere within 150 miles of this town. And the few sprinkled around the country leave a lot to be desired.

The teachers arrive to class and immediately turn to the daily newspaper online; a luxury they would otherwise not have. Newspapers don’t make it to Colomoncagua. The entire process of learning to use this new tool—the computer and engaging with new information sources has been empowering for them. Sure sometimes they get frustrated with technical mishaps. But for the most part, they have learned to master a new tool in a very short period of time…and literally a whole new world has opened for them. So for me, the gratification is frequent and the potential is vast. I may not be preventing people from starving or from dying from some miserable disease, but more democratic access to information is available on the web if only individuals know how to use it.

In fact, one of those bright moments when the light-bulb went off occurred last week when I was first explaining how information transfer worked and that yes, someone in the United States could read the Honduran newspaper online just as I can read the New York Times online in Colo when one of the teachers stood up and announced to his colleagues—‘Well, compañeros, we actually do live in a democracy’. What he meant was that information flow was relatively unrestricted via the Web whereas previously he assumed news must have been censored. Yes, he’s a critical thinker and that makes a big difference when trying to explain to people where the information is coming from and how to evaluate it.

The truth is that I don’t work with the poorest of the poor or try to teach the illiterate and starving of Colomoncagua how to use a computer. It isn’t relevant for them at this point. No, I work with the educated elite, which in this community means anyone with an education advanced beyond the 5th grade. I work with people who have made it through high school or who are currently in school. These are people who have enough money to pay for school uniforms, buy school supplies and cover the matriculation fees in addition to their basic necessities. They are also people who value an education and have persevered through it despite the temptations to withdrawal from school to work. They are people who recognize the value of the investment and what to garner all they can from it. In a place like Colo, where resources are so limited, it would be a travesty to let a computer center with Internet access stand idle when there are so many eager potential users. Yet, when I arrived to Colo over a year and a half ago, it wasn’t being used to its potential. No one knew what to do with the Internet. Many viewed it more as a threat than a resource. It has taken time to break down those barriers, but it’s happening step by step.

And I will leave you now with a quote by J.F.K., the inaugurator of the Peace Corps: ‘Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.’

Take care.

karen
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Thursday, March 31, 2005

From Karen at karenscheuerer@gmail.com

Dear family and friends,

Although the majority of my work in Colo has been education-related, occasionally I get the chance to do something different. Recently, I was asked to help out with a medical brigade from Alabama that came to Colo to provide basic treatment and medications to poor campesinos. This particular brigade was organized through the local ‘church of holiness’, apparently a denomination associated with the Methodists. At the moment, there is another brigade here from Baylor Medical School in Texas.

The volunteers who participate in the brigades are all wonderfully generous, well-intentioned, kind people who spend a week of their precious vacation time and their own money to finance a ‘working vacation’ to the forgotten frontier of Honduras. Often the groups are short on translators, so they ask us volunteers to assist with translation for the doctors. Overall, the experiences are rewarding and have given me a chance to witness some of the more acute problems of the impoverished countryside. For example, we saw a terribly infected case of a gangrene foot, a women dying of ovarian cancer with a mass the size of a grapefruit (all we could do was give her Advil), several people with tuberculosis and pneumonia. There was also a tragic case of a nine-year old girl with a cleft pallet who had had her upper lip sown to her gums by some horribly incapable local doctor leaving her mute and the object of ridicule by her peers.

However the majority of the hundreds of cases that pass before the doctors eyes are complaints of backaches, headaches and stomach pain (parasites!). The local public health centers lack adequate facilities to treat patients and the patients lack the money to buy the medications required to treat their ailments, so people stand in line for hours to be seen by the gringo doctors who roll into town every six months or so doling out medications and advice in broken Spanish. For the most part, the ailments are pretty average and given the level of poverty most campesinos are very fit. They get plenty of exercise and their diets of corn, beans, eggs and cheese (if available) and seasonal fruit isn’t bad. They rarely die of heart disease like many Americans. They die of old age with bodies worn-out by a lifetime of hard labor and in the case of women, tons of pregnancies.

Medical brigades appear to offer a win-win situation for both parties involved. Hondurans get a consultation with a doctor and a few months supply of painkillers while the Americans get to feel better that we are doing a little something to help out those in the developing world. Most importantly, the experience opens our American eyes to the extreme poverty and basic living standards that exist here. Is it solving systematic problems? No. Should it be? Maybe. Maybe Not.

One of the challenges that can result from brigades, missions, donations and charity is that Hondurans (or anyone really) can come to begin to expect the aid. They start to feel entitled to the gifts. Instead of building a house for their family, they manage with inadequate shelter until someone does it for them. Instead of working more hours in the day so that they can purchase clothes needed for their family, they wait for someone to give them hand-me-downs. Instead of building a water system or a library for their community, they wait for an international agency to do it for them and so on. It sort of contradicts that whole ‘pull oneself up by the bootstraps mentality’ that exists in the U.S. (which personally I think is mostly a myth anyway).

Maybe we should be giving them our stuff—our leftover clothes, medicines, surplus corn, rice, powdered milk, etc. Perhaps, that’s the least we can offer them after decades of intervening in their internal political affairs to boost American corporate profits. Or is dumping off our leftovers or doling out our crumbs not just prolonging an already sickly paternalistic relationship? It’s a pretty ugly power dynamic that every Latin American nation (except Cuba!) engages in with the U.S. But multiple military and CIA interventions in this part of the world have proven over and over again that the only way to deal with Uncle Sam is to accept his gifts and embrace his capitalism. And so they accept the crumbs graciously.

And now you know the internal debate that runs through my head most days while I serve as a volunteer in a country that has undergone centuries of exploitation by other white people--many with whom I share citizenship. Should we remove ourselves altogether and let them pursue their own process of ‘development’ and stop intervening in their affairs? Or do we have an obligation to do something to assist indigent nations? I am still here. So my answer is obvious. More than anything I consider myself and all the other well-intentioned Americans that come here ‘cultural ambassadors’ eager to present a different face to the U.S. than that of the mighty, capitalistic, militaristic superpower that our government puts forth. Ultimately, I believe that all the medical brigades, construction projects, solidarity missions, tourists and peace corps volunteers that make their way here to bear witness to the poverty and to make new friends causes us to become more aware Americans and more conscious world citizens.

Speaking of globe-trotters, today, Brendan, my fellow volunteer completed his two years of service to Colomoncagua. He boarded a bus at 5am this morning with backpack and duffle bag in tow and is now off to even more transient adventures through Central America. He and two friends bought and fixed up a 1980s Land Cruiser with plans to drive it down to Panama and then back up to the U.S.

Brendan’s departure was bitter sweet. There comes a time when we all must go and that’s a good thing, but his departure leaves me as the lone gringo in Colo. I will miss him sincerely. Brendan’s support, friendship, affirmations and sense of humor throughout the past year and a half have been invaluable to my sanity. Working with another volunteer in the same community has helped ground me. After all, getting thrown into a remote little village can be somewhat disorienting—especially when the culture is foreign, the language is confusing and our purpose for being here is bizarre if not a little suspect to most locals. Why would a ‘rich’ American who couldn’t speak the language choose to live in a place like Colo especially when hundreds of people are risking their lives everyday to cross the border to the States? So, it has been a bonus to have been able to share the majority of my Peace Corps experience with another American who gets where I am coming from and who encountered many of the same frustrations, obstacles and joys that I have here.

¡Hasta la próxima!

karen
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Friday, February 25, 2005

From Karen Scheuerer at karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

February has been a busy month here in Colomoncagua. Colo celebrates its annual patron saint’s day or village fair on the 14th of February each year. Just like every little pueblo in Honduras, Colo honors a patron saint. In Colo’s case it is Jesus de Rescate (they’ve never heard of St. Valentine). For months in advance of the date, the town gets amped in anticipation of the fair, which involves a week long schedule of events including lots of fireworks (some beginning at 4 AM), soccer competitions, children’s games, mechanical rides, a rodeo, music everywhere including the town’s own marching band and mariachis, and the coronation of the fair queen. All events culminate with a fiesta or dance on the final night of the fair.

Inevitably it’s also an opportunity for people to get drunk and let loose. Some even go a little crazy. Apparently, more than a few drunken fair attendees tried to chop up their fellow drunks with machetes this year. Fortunately, the police and members of the military armed with automatic weapons were on hand to intervene. I doubt the intervention required too much effort considering drunks generally drink so much guaro (locally produced liquor) that they can be pushed over with a pinky finger. Most bolos (drunks) ended up passed out on the streets until the burning sun of the following day roused them from their stoops.

Up until the fair started, Brendan and I looked forward to the event and a change from the tranquility of Colo. Besides everyone in town boasts that Colo’s fair is the best of the entire border region. However, this year’s fair tuned out to be a bit of a disappointment for most Colomoncaguans including us. The rodeo was cancelled. The mechanical rides never appeared and the town disputed over the controversial selection of the fair queen.

Despite my better feminist objections to beauty pageants, I anted up the 5 Lempiras (30 cents) to attend the competition and coronation of the fair queen. Indeed, the event opened a window into the public’s perception of beauty and gender that disturbed me. Five young finalists appeared at the event. Most were directly out of elementary school and could not have been more than 14 years old. Believe it or not, being a virgin is an expectation and therefore, I guess you gotta get ‘em when they’re young. The girls were each required to model (yes, there was even a runway) three distinct outfits---casual-wear, sportswear, and formalwear. Points were derived based on each girls’ modeling ability (25%), intellectual ability (25%) ---but this one I never saw demonstrated, wardrobe selection (20%), response to a question (20%) and finally 10% for audience participation. Four judges were selected to preside over the event. Each is respected member of the community, including the Cuban doctor, a school director, a teacher and a military officer. Brendan was also approached to serve as a judge, but he humbly declined after having been warned by other volunteers about the intense emotions tied to such competitions and their consequent backlashes. He was glad he didn’t get ensnared in the controversy that ensued.

First, let me set the scene. The event took place in the cultural center of Colo. It sounds fancy, but it’s really just a large, drab concrete hall with a tin roof. A small ad-hoc stage had been set up with some long beams and a runway was formed by roping off the central area of the hall. Then a fascinating phenomenon took place. All the women and children occupied one side of the hall while the men and male teens gravitated to the opposite side of the hall. Although, I have asked several people why this occurred, no one has been able to give me a good answer. I suspect it so that the men felt more at liberty to catcall, whistle and cheer at the contestants without their wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers and aunts in immediate proximity.

I have to be honest; the whole scene grossed me out. Imagine young girls dressing up, getting their faces painted and clumsily stepping into high heels so that they can awkwardly walk back and forth in a dank hall in front of drooling, spewing drunk obnoxious men who are undressing them with their eyes.

But things got worse. There was one contestant, Demaris, who contrary to protocol was a little older than the rest of the girls. She’s 17. She demonstrated more self-assurance and presence than the rest of the girls both due to her age and having grown up in a city. Her family had moved back to Colomoncagua from the city a few months prior to the competition to escape an alcoholic, abusive father. Demaris aced the judge’s question. The judges unanimously selected her as the fair queen much to the dismay of the rest of the community. The men whistled, which is not an affirmation in this culture, but an insult and everyone cried injustice. Apparently, the majority of town’s people had favored the 13 year old white-skinned girl with blond hair and green eyes. They were annoyed that the more mature, self-confident, less innocent outsider won.

Although the controversy over fair queen eventually settled, the excitement of the fair didn’t end with the coronation of the fair queen. A fiesta proceeded the following evening. Brendan and I broke our vow to avoid town dances and headed off to the event. After all, we had to see what all the fuss was about. We found more spewing drunks, lots of loud bumpin music, tons of sweaty bodies crammed into a small space and too many possessive men. Brendan served as my protector all evening and I am glad he did because it felt like the gringa’s debut and everyone wanted to dance with the gringa. Well, in particular, the drunk, sweaty, spewing, possessive men wanted to dance with me. Thanks to Brendan’s body-quarding me all evening, I was able to avoid the majority of the lot and fend off any future Colo boyfriends.

A few days later, Brendan and I chaperoned eight of my students on an educational excursion to the nation’s capital. Five months of instructor training with the teens concluded in a three day trip to Tegucigalpa. So last Thursday, we rose at 4am to jump on the last bus out of town making the eight hour journey to the capital. The students got noticeably quieter and more anxious as we approached the city and as they left their comfort zone and entered the unknown. Only two of the eight had been to Tegucigalpa before. Although curious and excited by the trip, they were also clearly freaked out. The traffic, the crowds, the smog, the buildings, the blaring music, the screaming vendors, the street kids, and the aggressive taxi drivers stirred in them a kind of over-stimulation that is completely foreign to Colo.

The trip consisted of three main activities. We visited the central offices for all the community technology centers in Honduras like the center where I work. The students were wooed by the state-of-the-art video conferencing equipment and satellites there. Later we visited a secondary school that offers a special certification training program in computer software. And, we also went to the mall. Maybe it sounds terrible because yes it is like almost any other mall in the suburbs. But, here, the mall is one of the safest places to take kids. Besides, we made it an event by asking them to complete a scavenger hunt for new/unknown technologies. However, the kids spent most of the time riding up and down on the elevators and escalators though.

Although, I think the students were duly impressed by what they saw everywhere we went, I suspect the things that they will record in their minds most of all were the tangible aspects of the experience---real mattresses on the beds, hot water showers, the elevators, the escalators, taxi rides, seeing Honduran’s main soccer stadium, people everywhere and the constant noise. Going to the movies was another highlight for the students. None of them had been to a cinema before. They were captivated by the story (Nation’s Treasure with Nicolas Cage) and the overall experience. Although, it was clear that they were blown away by the experience of the city, they are not the most expressive lot of youth. It wasn’t until the very end of the trip when I asked them how it went that they told me. I got 5 ‘excelentes’ and 3 ‘muy bonitos’. I’ll take that as a positive sign.

That’s enough for now. Until next month...

Hoping all is well.

karen
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Sunday, January 23, 2005

Honduras Month 18
From: Karen at karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

First of all, I have great news! The scholarship fund goal of raising $2,585 has been met. In less than three weeks thanks to all of your generous donations, we reached our goal. The community will then match this amount with contributions equivalent to $1,080 donated in volunteer time, use of equipment and local fundraising efforts. Your outpouring of support for the program has made it possible to offer more than one hundred children, youth and adult community leaders basic computer literacy training. Thank you. Please be assured that each dollar you donated will go directly to the community—to this education program. We hope to have the program up and running in a few months at which time I plan to post a website with biographies of the scholarship recipients.

In other news, they’ve done it! Soledad, Ovidio, Crisanto, Loly, Olga, Edwin, German and Beda—my eight teen students have all completed the five month train-the-trainer program. I wouldn’t say I have molded them into a brazen cadre of tech experts quite yet, but they are on their way and these kids now know more than practically anybody else in the community about computers and the Internet. Three of the students will become the trainers for the scholarship program.

It’s very cool for me to now watch these students discover new sites, surf the web and communicate with people from all over the world via the Internet. They also have a great handle on the Microsoft suite of programs. Even if some of them never go on to become computer instructors, they each will leave the classroom with more knowledge, more confidence and more awareness about information and technology than when they started. Most importantly, they are more informed about where to find information when they need it. In addition, they are aware that another world is out there beyond the boundaries of Colomoncagua.

Each of the eight students had to teach a lesson as one of the final requirements of the course. For a day, they became the instructors. I got to watch with delight the cleverness, eagerness and confidence with which each student taught his/her peers new skills. Again, it was really cool to see them show pride in their work and demonstrate their knowledge to the others.

Except for a week missed by Crisanto who had to go to El Salvador to cut sugar cane, the students never missed a class during these past five months. They have been a captive audience because they are genuinely engaged and eager to learn more. Although this group is special because they were selected because of their demonstrated interest and expressed desire to continue learning, almost all the classes I have taught here have met with a similar level of engagement and perseverance. For me, it has been a thrill to teach them and a source of much gratification.

This month also marks the completion of our seventh grade adult education class. Five students will graduate from our class having made significant sacrifices to study.

Isabel is 40 and a single-mom with five kids who earns $35 a month cleaning the computer center and making snacks for students at the high school (I have no idea how she survives on that). She never misses a class. Isabel excels at English and helps the others when they stumble when reading out loud. Of all the students in this class, she is the only one who feels comfortable enough correcting my Spanish and for which I am very grateful to her.

Concepción—the only male still left in the class (the other three dropped out somewhere along the way) has stuck with the course even though it means he literally has to run from the fields to class each afternoon. Concepción is earnest and tries hard, but he unfortunately is the product of a really poor education system that has neglected him and too many other Hondurans. Concepción’s weak comprehension and analytical skills are a testament to the inadequate education he received in elementary school. However, he has succeeded in overcoming a lot of obstacles this year and pride beams on his face in knowing that he has ascended one more rung on the scholastic ladder.

Then there are the three sisters or I call them las tres Marias because they are all named Maria. There’s Maria Cruz, Maria Esperanza, and Maria Tomaza. They are three young sisters (all in their early twenties) struggling to improve their lives. To me, they serve as an inspiration because they truly believe that education is the key to their future prosperity. They are sweet, thoughtful, hard-working, and attentive.

I have really loved teaching this group and will honestly grieve a little when the school year is over—mostly because I enjoy engaging with them. I have loved hearing them share their ideas and opinions on topics as wide ranging as migration patterns to AIDs to deforestation to sex education to national heritage. I will even miss teaching math—although it has been the bane of the classes for them, I now understand why math is so important. It really does exercise the brain and sharpen thinking skills. During the course of this past year, they have expanded their vocabulary, augmented comprehension and developed their thinking and analytical skills. The most gratifying thing of all, however, has been witnessing them gain confidence and knowledge. It’s been an amazing privilege to witness that transformation.

That’s all for now from Colomoncagua.

Take care. Please write when you can.

karen

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Monday, November 22, 2004

Honduras Month 16

From: karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

The rains have finally subsided. Thank god! It was getting to be a muddy, mildewy inferno in our house; there are leaks everywhere. Just like the seasons mark the passage of time elsewhere in the world, the conclusion of the rainy season here means to me that I have lived in Colomoncagua for over a year now.

As I enter my second year, I have become more attuned to the rhythms of village life; it’s virtually a repeat of last year. When the rains ended, summer officially began. School is out. Students finished last week and now have three months of summer vacation. Coffee picking and sugar cane harvesting season commences, which means that masses of laborers disappear into the mountains to live and work picking coffee all day every day for the next several months. They will earn $2-3 a day for their back-breaking labor. Construction projects too will also take advantage of the dry season. Soon the houses will be freshly painted and a few will even have new additions on them. And you can imagine that as soon as the rain began to recede, dust inaugurated the season by laying her blankets of powder everywhere.

Ever since my one year anniversary in Colo passed almost a month ago, I have been asking myself what exactly have I learned from this experience. Of course, it’s never anything concrete or tangible (with the exception of my Spanish, which has improved immensely—my students no longer look at me like I am retarded—although I still have my down moments). If I were to compile a list of everything I’ve learned over the past year, it would surely consume pages—I’ll spare you that because most the lessons are so subtle or nuanced that I don’t know that I could even put to words what I have come to comprehend through this context—things like patience, humility, gratitude or learning when it’s appropriate to speak or knowing when it’s best not to act. But of those things that I have learned, I will write a little about the things that have made the greatest impression on me:

Generosity despite Poverty: In spite of all the hardships, tragedy and suffering that many Hondurans have endured (often at the hands of American corporate or military interests), the average Honduran is still incredibly gracious, generous and warm to the individual gringo. I cannot count how many tamales, soft drinks, pieces of fruit or cups of coffee I have been ‘regalod’—spanglish meaning gifted—by Hondurans who simply wouldn’t consider not sharing what little they have with a stranger. Perhaps the best illustration of Honduran generosity is the ‘jalón’—literally a pick-up or ride. Generally, jalóns come in the form of rides in the back of pick-up truck for as far as the driver can take you where you need to go. Especially for us gringos, the easiest way to travel is by standing on the side of the road until a pick-up truck comes along and stops long enough for us to jump in the back to take us farther up the road. Jalóns can range from a ten minute lift to a five hour ride, often at no cost to the rider. In many parts of Honduras, this is the only way to get around potentially offering drivers a monopoly industry if they only chose to collect on it. Yet, many drivers provide the service free of charge. It’s refreshing to live in a part of the world where not everything yields a price tag.

Human Resiliency: My mother used to say to us all the time that ‘humans can withstand almost anything’ because of what she had witnessed as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Brazil forty years ago. Being here, living in this world, I am reminded daily of those words when I look at the conditions in which people live—10 family members pressed into a one room, smoked-filled, mud shack with no actual doors or windows built on a dirt floor with pigs, chickens, diseased dogs and god knows what other creatures scurrying in and out and without any source of potable water nearby, requiring them to schlep water in plastic buckets on their heads back and forth from wells at distances sometimes hours away by foot. Indeed, the human condition is incredibly adaptable and requires so little to sustain itself. The question then becomes is this really living or merely surviving? Many here know no other way of life.

The Slowness of Change: I walked out of the fast-paced, inevitably-evolving, dog-eat-dog world of New York City and entered a time warp—a place where time seems to stand still. Here the men still travel by horse, use oxen to plow their fields and power their wooden carts laden with their harvest to market. Here men wield machetes for almost every purpose from cutting the grass to chopping down fruit from the trees to constructing their homesteads. Here the women cook over firewood stoves, prepare all their dishes from scratch and wash their clothes by rubbing them against rocks. They sweep their dirt floors using brooms made out of banana leaves and hang their few possessions on makeshift bamboo rods that hang from the ceiling. And believe me; women’s work is done by women. And, men’s work is reserved for men. Never have I seen a Honduran women carry a machete nor a Honduran man clear the dinner table. There is no sense of urgency here and evolution is positively slow. It all prompts me to wonder: ‘do they want to change?’, ‘do they know it could be better, different, or otherwise?’ and, if they don’t want to change should they change?

And then there are some things that I have seen here, but that I refuse to accept or comprehend about the culture even though they stare me in the face everyday. I know this tension exists because of who I am as a person, an American and a woman, but nevertheless:
* I refuse to accept that women are not equal and therefore not entitled to the same rights and opportunities as men;
* I contend that passivity won’t move you one inch forward and is more likely to set you back standing in the dust;
* Furthermore, I insist that education is the key to changing people’s lives for the better.

The truth is I need to be obstinate in the face of things that disturb me or provoke me such as the maltreatment of women, inaction or ignorance. I want to represent difference or an alternative to the lives that they lead here. For example, it’s important for me to demonstrate that it’s possible for a single woman without babies at age 31 to be independent and still be happy. I like being something that people can’t exactly fit into their paradigm. In the beginning, I was just a gringa—and therefore by definition different. Now, I’m Karen to many—no longer just the alien but a real person that still doesn’t fit into their paradigm. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t dyed my hair pink, donned rubber bras and spiked wrist bands to assert my difference. I’m just myself, but that alone is so radically different for many people in Colo that it upsets their configuration of the world and hopefully provokes them to contemplate many of the same questions that they have prompted me to consider while living here this past year.

I hope all is well with each of you. Take care.

Warmest wishes,

karen


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Thursday, September 23, 2004

Honduras Month 14
From: karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

As always, I hope this finds you well and enjoying colorful fall days.

I at first eased myself slowly back into Colomoncagua living after a month’s absence (to read what I did in August, visit my blog at www.colo.blogspot.com and click August, 2004), but now I feel engrossed in village life once again. A new project has thrust me back into the swing of things. Last week I started teaching a train-the-trainer computer course for Colo youth. Eight teens (ages 15-18) are participating in the five month course which will cover some of the more basic computer topics hopefully in enough depth so that at least a few of them can pass on their knowledge to others. Fellow Peace Corps volunteers and local teachers will help by guest lecturing on topics of their expertise (hardware maintenance, accounting programs, web design, effective teaching strategies, etc).

All the students are motivated, intelligent and engaged---a teacher’s dream. Six of the eight youth live in smaller outlying communities of Colomoncagua that average about a two hours walk away from Colomoncagua. The other two live here in the booming municipal center. I visited two of the students’ homes out in the campo (countryside) before the course began to both meet the parents and inform the youth that they had received scholarships to participate. U.S. A.I.D. (the U.S. government’s international development program) provided $970 to help fund the purchase of instructional materials and manuals for the course and cover the costs of a field trip. Meanwhile, the community is making up the difference of course costs by providing use of the equipment and staff time at no cost.

Visiting the homes of these students in both cases was an eye-opening adventure into the worlds of the youth. I’ll start by describing the journey to Soledad’s house. Soldedad is a bright, eager, somewhat impatient 15-year old who demonstrated facility with a computer in a class she took with me almost a year ago. She has visited the center regularly each month for the past six months to inquire when I would offer another class. Both her motivation and persistence impressed me. I went to visit her house a few months ago so I could familiarize myself with her community and encourage her parents to allow her to continue studying at the center. Soledad is one of seven children—the only one who has continued studying beyond the sixth grade. The day I visited her house, Soledad wasn’t at home, but her mother was. Her mom came to the fence to meet me donning a black wool cap, florescent pink dress, green flip-flops and no teeth. Meanwhile, I was soaked in sweat and dust after having just made the two hour trek through mountains on a rocky, poor dirt path to get to her house in the burning mid-day sun. The house—a two room mud and adobe structure—housing seven children and two adults---was immaculate, despite its primitive design (dirt floors, benches made of tree stumps and straw mats lain on the ground serving as beds). The dirt had been meticulously swept and the few family possessions were perfectly organized. No garbage in sight.

Soledad’s mother invited me to have a seat on one of the tree stumps and offered me fresh mangos from a bowl made out of a coconut shell (talk about back to the earth! this family would be the envy of all those back to the land hippies). Although, I had a little trouble understanding the mom because of the absent teeth, which is unfortunately too common among campesinos due to poor dental hygiene, lack of fluoride and too much sugar, I picked up enough to understand that she was telling me about the family and what they cultivate (corn, beans, seasonal fruits along with a wide away of starchy vegetables) and the animals they breed (chicken, pigs, cows and a horse). All of whom were wondering around the property as we talked.
She also talked to me about the poor plight of campesina women. The day I visited was a Sunday, which is notoriously the day to get drunk. Many of the farmers come into town to sell their produce at the market and end up drinking their profits in the local fire water or aquadente—leaving little or nothing left with which to feed the family. Sadly, many farmers return home drunk and with few other known outlets for their frustrations or anger, they end up beating their wives, screaming at their kids, kicking their dogs or even machete-ing their fellow drunks. Soldead’s mother told me horror stories about one man who had cut off his wife’s arm with a machete and another who had permanently bruised his wife on the face from all the beating.

Feeling sufficiently disturbed and saddened by her stories, I changed the subject to her daughter. ‘Soledad is really smart’, I said. ‘Yes. She is,’ replied the mom, ‘And she’s hard-working too.’ And then she told me that Soldedad rises at 3am each morning, does household chores for two hours before the sun rises (there’s no electricity anywhere near this house), then walks to school at 5am in order to get there in time for classes to begin just after 7am. She’s in school from 7am until 1pm. Now she has computer class from 1pm to 4pm, giving her just enough time to make the return 2 hour journey home before sunset. Can you imagine? If given the choice between that and swinging in a hammock most of the day but forgoing one’s education, the hammock starts to look a lot more appealing, doesn’t it?

My next adventure took me to the house of Ovidio, an 18-year-old that terminated his formal education at the sixth-grade. Ovidio is my gamble. I say that because the truth his literacy skills are so poor he has trouble identifying some of the most basic computer commands because he cannot read well and I am not sure how effective Ovidio would be as an instructor if he has trouble reading. However, what he lacks in education, he makes up for in eagerness to learn. Ovidio, too, received the same course as Soledad almost a year ago. And since that time, he has been asking if there is any possible way he can continue taking classes at the center. He has no money, so paying for courses is out of the question. Hi enthusiasm to learn and his persistence in checking to see if any opportunities had opened up impressed me.

Because Ovidio doesn’t attend the local high-school, I had to go find him in his community to let him know he had been selected for the course (the administrator of the center and I selected these eight youth from about 25 applications). Ovidio’s house is a two and a half hour hike through a different set of mountains to the El Salvadoran border. The family’s one room shack (made of sticks and mud) is nestled in a valley near the river which divides the two countries. Ovidio shares the one-room abode with his two younger siblings and his single mother. Ovidio wasn’t home when I arrived, but his mother beamed when I told her the news that he had received one of the scholarships as she told me how excited he was to continue learning about computers. His grandmother came down from her neighboring shack within minutes of our arrival along with about 10 random children to receive the news and stare at the gringos (Brendan came with me), making for a memorable diversion for all.

Visiting these little communities in the remotest parts of this country both gives me a greater appreciation for Colomoncagua as well as a better understanding what these kids have to endure to get a basic education. Sometimes, I wonder how people ended up out there in those little hamlets. Or how long have they been living there. Okay, truth be told, I also wonder why on earth they live there. There’s one community that is part of the township of Colomoncagua that is a four hour hike from Colo---and it’s a hike. No cars or trucks can reach it. The best you can do is travel there by horse. Can you imagine walking eight hours roundtrip every time you needed to pick something up at the store? Our lives in the States feel so steeped in convenience in comparison. No, here in the borderlands of Honduras these are some salt-of-the-earth living-off-the-earth kind of people, for sure. That’s all for now.

Take care.

Karen

To read letters from the past year, visit the archives of my letters home at my blog: www.colo.blogspot.com

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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Honduras Month 13
From: karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

August came and went in a flash—and it’s only now---weeks after it passed that I am sitting down to reflect on the month. Perhaps the reason it’s been more difficult to collect my thoughts about August is because I spent the majority of the month visiting family in the States. Going home passed with ease and few complications. In fact, it was amazing how smoothly and quickly I transitioned from one world (poverty-stricken Honduras) to the other (powerful, wealthy, convenience and commercial-driven United States) as though gliding from one room into the next. The flight from San Pedro Sula, Honduras´ commercial center to Miami took less than 2 hours. After a year of living in a remote Honduran village, to my own surprise, I didn’t freak out every time I walked into the grocery store or drove on a crowded highway. It all felt familiar.

Days spent with family and friends blended together in an atmosphere of warmth, story-telling and creature comforts. The time at home nourished my spirit and fed my soul. Although, the trip home was undoubtedly wonderful and part of me didn't want to leave, the comforts of home reminded me of the routine of American life that I had elected to leave behind in exchange for two years of discovery in a different world. Contrary to the average vacationer; my vacation reflected the familiar and routine, whereas my Peace Corps everyday life is the adventure.

As always, coming back to Colo wasn’t easy. But, each day got a little easier as I placed myself both physically and emotionally back in ‘la lucha’, the struggle or fight, as they say here. The expression luchando-struggling or the even more common response to the question how are you?: Siempre estoy en la lucha-I am always here fighting, reflects the local perception that a. people either see themselves as part of a larger, global revolution, or b. everyday is a struggle to survive. And, it’s in my own realization of both parts of this struggle (an idealistic desire to rectify inequalities and injustice as well as daily encounters with cold bucket baths, electrical outages, creepy, crawly bugs, water shortages juxtaposed with a flooded house, language barriers, beans, beans and more beans) that I am reminded how alive the peace corps experience makes me feel.

I will be the first to admit that I jumped right back on the consumer bandwagon when I was in the States (buying up books, watching videos, going to see live music, indulging in my favorite chocolate treats), and these things put a smile on my face the same way eating a fresh mango here does. However, it’s not buying stuff that makes me feel vital. It’s trying to make sense of the impoverished but fascinating environment around me which really makes me feel alive, challenged, and stimulated.

It’s seems odd to say that I feel alive in a place like Colomoncagua—as fond as I am becoming of it---because I wouldn’t exactly describe it as dynamic. For example, upon my return to Colomoncagua after a month’s absence, I asked everyone I saw: ‘so, what’s new?’ or ‘what happened since I left?’ Almost everyone said nothing has changed or nothing is new. The best response I got was that the corn is higher. That’s it! It’s as though this little town stood still all that time. Of course, it didn’t. The thrill, if I dare call it that, in living in a place like Colomoncagua comes in overcoming the cultural barriers and uncovering the layers of personalities, lifestyles, ideas, values and devotions. But, perhaps most interesting of all is watching myself interact in this foreign world. Each passing day confirms for me that this experience is all about me understanding me. By throwing myself into this absurdly distinctive culture, if but for nothing else, makes for an interesting adventure in self-discovery that we rarely have the luxury to realize during our hectic day-to-day lives in the States. Its times like these that make being a Peace Corps volunteer feel absolutely self-indulgent.

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Saturday, July 31, 2004

Honduras Month 12

From: karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

Small victories and precious rewards framed this month. It has been a good month. Suddenly, I am starting to see changes occur and progress unfold in Colomoncagua. Or, maybe, I just adjusted my scope of vision. Admittedly, some of these changes suit me because they make my life easier or more comfortable, but I sense they do the same for other community members as well. Here are some of the notable differences I witnessed this month:

Out of the blue, one of our neighbors started up a new 5am bus service. Now, I don’t need to wake up at 2am to get out of Colo. And, those few extra hours make all the difference;

A fruit and vegetable stand opened shop recently as well. I can now buy produce throughout the week, rather than only being able to purchase it on Sunday mornings at the weekly market. Not only does the shop stock fresh produce, but the owner also takes suggestions of what kind of other products to sell. I have convinced him to import granola, oatmeal and brown sugar so far. And, guess what? He sold out of it all within a week;

I saw a woman – a Honduran woman running the other day! Aside from Brendan and me and the soldiers who guard the border who run as part of their daily calisthenics, I have never seen a women so much as advance beyond a casual stroll in Colomoncagua. I would like to think that there’s a trend emerging;

I convinced Rosario, my adorable Spanish teacher and best friend in Colomoncagua to stop calling her 15-year-old daughter ‘fatso’. With respect to body type, size, physical characteristics and skin color, Hondurans call it like it is with little consideration to one’s sensitivities. In fact, they are almost desensitized to these painfully honest descriptions. If someone has dark-skin, he’s called dark; if he’s overweight, he’s called fat; if he’s skinny, he’s called skinny; blond called blond; American called gringo; tall called tall (well, in Brendan’s case he’s called the giant). And, so it is in Honduras. Hondurans bare no bones about calling you whatever you look like to them. In my case, I am ‘la gringa’ to many. Why bother with names?

And so Rosario calls her younger daughter ‘la gorda’, or fatso. Milagro (or Miracle in English), Rosario’s daughter studies in La Esperanza, the state capital and so Rosario doesn’t get to see her very often. The last time I asked about Milagro, Rosario simply replied “she’s fat”. While I have tried to respect this idiosyncrasy of Honduran culture, I just couldn’t hold my breath any longer. Besides, Rosario and I have ‘confianza’ or trust. So, I asked Rosario how Milagro felt when her mother called her a fatso. She said: “Well, here fat is ugly. So it would be like calling her ugly.” The light bulb went off and as she instantly realized the damage she may have been causing to her 15-year-old’s self-esteem by calling fatso. Fortunately, Milagro is a self-composed, intelligent young women, who’s self-esteem doesn’t seem to have been too shattered.

Perhaps one of the most personally gratifying things that happened recently occurred a few weeks ago when our seventh grade class received their first tests on the material we've been studying for the past several months--there was a general exam, an English exam and then their participation grades. The students all did very well. They were beaming. Really proud of themselves. And, if that wasn't enough reward for us, we got more. After discussing their grades and levels of participation with each student, we asked the group to give us feedback, suggestions, and recommendations about how to improve our facilitation. We assigned it as homework. The following class session Brendan wasn't there, so we waited a couple more days until they could share their homework, but it was clear they were eager to do so and that each had done his/her assignment. I was nervous because they all obviously had something to say and I was a little afraid to hear the criticism, but understand that it is the key to improving.

Finally, the day came when they the feedback could be postponed no longer. Each read from his/her notebook the "feedback". Every single one of them said the class is an important part of their life and the key to their future. They also complimented Brendan and I by calling us devoted facilitators who approach the class with love, compassion and patience. Imagine that, me learning patience? I wanted to hug each one of them. They also complimented us on our Spanish, telling us in turn that in the beginning they assumed they wouldn't be able to understand a thing because we are gringos, of course. They appreciate that we take the time to explain the things they don't understand until they get it (with seven students you can do that). The whole session was a big, warm fuzzy. Working with this group will be one of my most memorable peace corps projects. It's incredibly satisfying to witness each student's progress and in the case of this group their motivation to achieve and continue learning.

To top it off, the computer center is booming. I now walk in there in the evenings to find every computer being used. Kids playing games, teens doing homework assignments, adults chatting, professionals searching for information and almost everyone using email. By U.S. standards, it doesn’t seem so impressive, but to think that a year ago, few people in town had even the foggiest idea of what the Internet was or how a computer could be used. And, now that same devise is an important link for them to a world beyond Colo that they can use to search for information or communicate with strangers or friends.

This possibility that the Internet presents to make a wider world available to the folks of Colomoncagua is what so excites me about the Internet. Last Saturday, I walked out of the house to find a nine-year named Tito waiting for me. I don’t know how long he had been waiting outside the door for me to emerge, but as soon as I did, Tito beckoned me over to him and told me to help him find information about the aloe plant. Up until that day, I had never talked toTito before. I had seem him around town a lot, but we had never spoken. He’s hard to miss because he only has one functioning eye. The other’s eyelid is closed in over his left eye. Apparently, his father died a few years ago and now another family looks after Tito.

Anyway, last Saturday, Tito was on a mission. He wanted to learn about the aloe plant and somehow he knew the computers and I (by proxy) were the key to getting his question answered. All embarrassment or anxiety about talking with the gringa dissolved in his desire to get this information. So, we walked to the center together and within two minutes we found several pages of information with color photos about the aloe plant and all its beneficial qualities. Tito got the pages printed and he went on his way. At the time, I remember thinking the whole thing was really random until I mentioned it to Brendan a few hours later, who told me that Tito had approached him too after the Internet search episode to proudly show off his printed pages about the aloe plant. I can only assume that to Tito a world had opened up. He suddenly has access to a resource that can answer his questions, satiate his curiosity and feed his hunger for knowledge. Now he just has to keep thinking up more questions to ask.

Last week, we had a new arrival in Colo. Doug Cost, an old friend of mine drove his 1986 VW cabriolet all the way down to Colomoncagua. Yes---nearly 4,000 miles---destination Colomoncagua! He even traversed the miserable last 12 mile stretch from the El Salvadoran border to Colo. A car, let alone a convertible with California license plates was a new experience for the people of Colomoncagua. We only have pick-up trucks in town. So within hours, everyone knew about the new visitor who had driven down from Los Angeles.

Doug left his hectic life and demanding teaching job in LA to spend his summer vacation exploring Central America by auto. After staying in Colo for a week, I think he has discovered that Colo presents a radical change from LA. It’s been wonderful to hear about his teaching experiences in Latino-dominated LA (LA unified school district is now 80% Latino) while sharing impressions of the rural homeland that most of his students fled to get to the States. It also feels good to laugh about the absurdity of it all and the ridiculousness of our presence in this environment. I will leave you with a poem that Doug wrote the other day called the Sounds of Colomoncagua:

Sounds of Colomoncagua 2 or 3 am industrial bus horns announcing departures for La Esperanza sing-song Spanish voices curling around the metal front door that slams and creaks shut like a prison door with its weight cacophonous chatter of roosters back and forth echoing and responding through the mountains and forest fierce competition of a futbol game in the street rocks marking goal posts, screams of "pelota" and "pasela" the click-clack cicada-like of the newest toy to Colo two plastic balls on a stick rotate around make noise thunder marking the onset of afternoon bringing showers over the crest of mountains guarding Colo waterfall serenity as the pila is filled twice daily coconut palms brushing tin roof tickling wind winding its way through valleys and trees softly multitude of bird clicks, whistles, and shrills and in the interim when sound space is to be filled Nothing...silence apart from thoughts bouncing, refracting, and reflecting

Take care.

karen

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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Honduras Month 11
karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

I hope this finds each of you well and enjoying the summer.

Here in Colo, I’ve definitely experienced my ups and downs. Some days, I curse the isolation, deprivation, simpleness, and limitations of this place; I begrudge the seemingly endless 3 a.m. bus rides; and I yearn for a community that offers greater access to the rest of the world, more intellectual stimulation and a choice when it comes to consumer goods. Then, for some reason this past month, instead of fighting it, I changed my tune. I am not sure what provoked the change, but, I adopted a new motto. I came to realize: “It is what it is. Just accept it.” Real obvious, right?

But, the problem is I am an idealist (otherwise, I wouldn’t have opted to live in a remote Honduran village with erratic electricity, non-potable water and killer ants) in search of change. I still dream of a better, more just world and strive to realize fairness and equality for all. In fact, I have spent the better part of my thirty years resisting the inclination to just accept conditions as they are. I have challenged authority by battling teachers and school administrators when I thought we-students were wronged. I have quit numerous jobs because office politics or organizational practices conflicted with my idealistic principles of justice. And, I have drifted from one experience to the next in search of that one that would offer me satisfaction, engagement and stimulation, while not clashing too severely with those ideals. Ironically, this search has led me to Honduras—one of the most impoverished, corrupt and unequal societies on the planet.

Adding further to the irony is the thing that has drawn me to every one of my international experiences is the feeling that I have no role in shaping this world. Because it is not my country, it’s an alternate reality to which I don’t really belong. Therefore, I have little control here and almost no responsibility. It’s liberating and an obvious escape. So along with any expectations and illusions about activating change that I had to abandon when coming here, I also see now that I have to accept what is for what it is. Somehow, it took me eight months of living in Colomoncagua to finally do so.

Nevertheless, the reality of this place still shocks me. And, it seems sad to acknowledge powerlessness. I have written several times about the poverty of Colomoncagua in efforts to describe its severity. And, although it really does look like one of those ‘sponsor a child’ advertisements, the indigence transcends the physical signs of the children’s distended bellies, absent clothing, dirty faces, and runny noses. The most devastating aspect of the poverty I see here is the lack of dreams, absence of aspirations and dearth of hope for broader horizons.

In our seventh grade adult education class, the curriculum calls for us to discuss population issues such as social problems, questions of migration and economic challenges to the community. While the students are adept at identifying all the problems that exist here, such as poor health services (53% malnutrition), inadequate education (35% illiteracy) and all but absent employment opportunities, they are challenged to come up with viable solutions to the various problems.

When asked to define solutions, students either call on the government, which in Honduras’s case is completely broke and indebted to international lending agencies, and therefore essentially ineffective. Secondly, they suggest that international aid agencies come to the rescue. Although, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for international aid money, I seriously question what good we are all doing here. Honduras receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid and there are literally hundreds of organizations which have been working here for years, yet it remains the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (only after Haiti and Nicaragua, both of which have suffered devastating wars in recent years). Thirdly, they see maquillas (sweatshops) as the solution to their economic woes. No kidding. Sweatshops are the solution, they say. What’s more depressingly than the fact that their hopes of economic independence are tied to dreams of attracting a sweatshop is that the idea is completely unrealistic for Colomoncagua. Colo is so remote; the roads are so inadequate; the infrastructure non-existent and the population so improperly trained that no sweatshop would choose to set up shop here. To put it bluntly, Colomoncagua is not even good enough for a sweatshop. And, I throw up my hands. The depths of the problems seem too overwhelming.

Recently the electricity has been going out a lot, sometimes for days at a time. During these electrical outages, there’s almost nothing to do, but sit and stare or think about this all. In the U.S., sitting around and thinking seems like a luxury. Here, sitting by oneself in solitude (and there’s a lot of that for a Peace Corps volunteer) can go one of two ways–it can be either maddening or Zen. I find myself either dwelling on every last inadequacy, inconsistency and mistake ever made or I simply sit and think of absolutely nothing—try to rejoice in the warm sun, lush landscape, neighbor’s Latin music beats, and flavor of strong coffee. During those long stretches of time when there has been nothing to do, somehow I have made the transition from seeing Colo as a place that lacks a lot to a village that is complete with kind, simple people living off the land and trying to make sense of the world that is.

Take care.

karen
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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Honduras Month Ten

From: karenscheuerer@hotmail.com

Dear family and friends,

It's a cliché, but everyone I know who’s been a Peace Corps volunteer describes their experience as a roller coaster ride. The cliché was confirmed for me this month.

I started out on a high—busily working 12 hour days, translating for an American medical brigade by day and teaching classes by night—feeling useful. Things got even better when a friend from the States, Vishant came to visit. We had fun exploring Honduras’ national parks, swimming in caves, jumping off cliffs and white water rafting with volunteer friends. Then, things took a turn for the worse when I found out I got malaria. Talk about cliché! I spent the week holed up in bed in a hotel room, feeling feverish, achy, and depressed. This week, I am back in Colo, where we have been inundated with rainstorms each day—sometimes five to six heavy rainfalls a day. The electricity just returned after 20 hours of outage. My clothes are dirty due to lack of sun to dry them. The kitchen is flooded. We wade through 2” of water to get to the toilet and our bath water is brown. To top it off, even the mangos are rotten. Today, I ask myself: “What the hell was I thinking when I signed up for this gig?”

And then there are most days, not particularly high or low, just kind of surreal. These are days in which I feel as though I walked into a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel in all its magic surrealism. Or maybe I just never woke up from one of my malaria induced dreams. Colomoncagua could be one of the Latin American villages Garcia Marquez so vividly describes in his novels. For example, last month when the rains came, they came in force after six months without a drop. It literally poured for 17 hours straight. The clouds appeared to have finally taken a deep exhale after months and months of holding their breath. The humidity and moisture left behind stunning views of purple mountains, lush green landscapes and hazy blue skies. And, then suddenly within a few short hours of the rains stopping, millions of moth-like black butterflies called palomias emerged from the drenched earth, fluttering everywhere, dropping their wings, leaving a trail of discarded limbs behind.

Along with the millions of moths came the mud. During the dry season, dust coated everything to the point where I had begun to identify the layers: (1) thin, fine dust easily brushed away; (2) tougher, thicker, heartier dust that required a couple of strong sweeps to remove; (3)and, the irritating, but inevitable film that covers everything and just becomes an accepted part of existence. Now, it’s mud that has seeped into our lives through every possible crack in the roof, hole in the wall, window and doorway.

In addition to the familiar descriptions of nature in his books, some of the town characters also feel like protagonists from Garcia Marquez’s novels. There’s more than the Umpa Lumpa lady and the Doña Gloria’s dynasty, which I have described in past emails. Multiple community characters keep us grinning. For example, there is a man in town who is essentially the male-equivalent of a bag lady. He wanders the countryside wearing 17 layers of clothing (notable given the average eighty degree temperatures), carrying plastic bags and a walking stick. When he comes to Colo, he ambles around town, bumming cigarettes off anybody and everybody willing to concede. He is the type of wandering, solitary figure you might encounter in any urban street in the States until you ask people what’s the matter with him. “Why does he wear so many clothes?” “Why doesn’t he accept offers of food or water in his singular search for a cigarette?” The answer, they say, is because he ate two bags of salt one day years ago and he has never been the same since. Around here, salt is sold in one pound bags. And, although I consider myself a salt-lover, it seems humanly impossible to eat two pounds of salt. It also begs the question: “Would eating that much salt really have that effect?” People here seem to think so.

Interactions with our students continue to provide a source of humor and delight to Brendan and me. The other day in our adult education class, we were having a class discussion about emigration from Colomoncagua to large cities or the U.S. and its causes. When I asked if there has been any immigration to Colomoncagua, Don Beto, an elfish like man in his mid forties with a wonderful grin and playful eyes, spoke up. Before he spoke, however, you could tell that he was going through a registry in his mind of all the new faces he had seen in town over the years. Finally, he concluded, in all seriousness: “There have only been a few immigrants to Colomoncagua. And, they have all been Peace Corps volunteers.” Although, sad to consider that Colo is a place people want to escape from, rather than a destination people would want to inhabit, I had to laugh at the thought of myself as an immigrant to Colomoncagua. It doesn’t exactly conjure up images of Ellis Island or the American dream. But, then again, this all feels like some wacky, ceaseless dream—in which I am uncertain about the next turn in the road, lift in the ride or drop of the roller coaster.

I hope all is well with each of you.

Take care.

karen

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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Honduras Month Nine

From karen scheuerer (karenscheuerer@hotmail.com)

Just when I was starting to get comfortable with my simple campo reality, I went to Cuba and all semblance of any equanimity I might once have had here felt ripped away. In Cuba, my brain was so stimulated it felt as though my head was spinning on end for ten days straight.

At the beginning of April, I flew with a grad school class-mate, Steve Herrick to Havana to attend an International Information Technology conference. We were lucky because the conference committee sent us official invitations and the University of Michigan paid for our travel expenses. Therefore we weren’t exactly breaking the U.S.´ idiotic embargo law (good thing because the fines range from $5,000 to $50,000).

Like a good, little Peace Corps volunteer, before leaving I got permission from the Peace Corps and found my way to the Cuban consulate to announce my visit to their country and ask if there was anything official I had to do. There must not have been a lot going on at the Cuban consulate that day because the consul met with me personally to discuss my trip. He offered me coffee and we chatted for a half an hour about my reasons for going to Cuba (officially: to attend the conference; unofficially: to get a glimpse of the fascinating country behind the blockade) and my work with the Peace Corps in Honduras. He was extremely friendly, gracious and helpful. He even invited me back to the Consulate after my return from Cuba to share my impressions of his homeland. During the ‘interview’, he asked to be sent a copy of the conference invitation just to make sure I was legit, and so we maintained email contact leading up to my departure. I didn’t know this at the time, but, none of this was really necessary. Basically, anyone can visit Cuba as long as they are willing to purchase a $15 tourist card as far as the Cuban government is concerned. The problem lies with U.S. law.

Nor did I realize at the time that my conversation with the consul wasn’t to be the end of my exchanges with the Cuban equivalent of their State department. The day of my departure for Cuba I got an email from the consul saying that by chance he had a friend who would be participating in the very same conference. The consul wrote that his friend’s name was Julio Cesar and that he would be available to help me out with whatever I needed. I remember thinking---‘Wow. These Cubans are so nice. I’ll keep an eye out for the guy with the memorable name and maybe we would get a coffee together during the conference’. Again, I had no idea what lied ahead. It wouldn’t be me who sought out Julio Cesar (from here on referred to as J.C.), he would find me. Sure enough, he found me within a day of my arrival in Cuba and three days before the conference officially began. Apparently, he had a ‘friend’ at airport immigration that helped him track down the private home where we were staying.

Upon us meeting, J.C. declared he had cleared his schedule for the succeeding eight days in order to be completely at our disposal. He offered to show us anything we wanted to see or tell us anything we wanted to know about his country, culture and city. J.C. works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He says he’s an analyst and his focus area is Latin America, and therefore he’s naturally interested in Steve's and my work in Central America. Steve has been working in Managua, Nicaragua for the past two and a half years as the editor of the CEPAD report: http://www.cepad.info/report/, a solidarity publication sponsored by the Presbyterian Church.

Julio Cesar is a propaganda machine for the Cuban government. A written description of his physical character wouldn´t do him justice. His exaggerated personality reminds me of a cartoon character. He dons a bushy black mustache. He has intense black eyes, a balding scalp and a mouth that runs non-stop. He is a ball of energy and his dynamism seems to know no ends. He is also literally exhausting to be around. J.C. went on for hours talking at one of us without even seeming to take a breath. Steve and I ended up taking turns baby-sitting Julio. One of us would half-engage in his banter while the other would slip away to explore the city or visit rooms of a museum that the J.C. tour had skipped over. If we had let him, J.C. would have stuck to us like glue during our entire visit to Cuba. There were times when I had to tell him to basically back-off. And, he did. Nevertheless, he had an uncanny ability to find us, whether at the conference or on the back streets of Havana. He would just appear out of the blue like a dog tracking a scent.

Of course, Steve and I spent the whole week speculating about J.C.’s real motive, and we still don’t know for sure. I’ve decided that it probably falls somewhere between Cubans suspicions of the Peace Corps because it is a U.S. government sponsored program (i.e.: we might be spies) and genuine hospitality. Although, J.C. got to be annoying more than once, he was extremely hospitable, at times even educational and always the source of a good laugh.

I suspect that before our arrival, J.C. had no idea what the Peace Corps was, but by the end of the first day together he realized that I’m not a spy (hopefully, the CIA would choose people with better language skills than mine) and my politics are too leftist to be any threat to Cuba. So, I think some genuine cross-cultural exchange may have occurred during our time with J.C. While he was educating us on the achievements of the revolution, we were able to demonstrate that not every single U.S. sponsored initiative is mal-intentioned and that it is possible to be an American and a humanitarian. Just as most Americans have been misinformed about Cuba, Cubans have been the recipients of considerable Anti-American propaganda—and this seems particularly true for those that work for the Ministry of the Exterior such as our friend Julio Cesar.

Outside of the realm of time spent with Julio Cesar, or maybe even because of it, Cuba has to be the most fascinating country I have ever visited. It wasn’t easy or relaxing like one might imagine of a Caribbean island vacation; but I found it invigorating, challenging and extremely exciting. I loved the atmosphere, the openness of Cubans (hustlers exempted), the rich art, music and cultural scene, and the architectural beauty of the city. It was refreshing to be in a major city that hasn’t been inundated with signs of American enterprise (no McDonalds, Starbucks, T.G.I. Fridays, Coca Cola, etc.).

Cuba’s revolutionary past and socialist system has made an imprint on almost every facet of life. Yet, it is a culturally rich, socially vibrant place. I found most Cubans with whom I spoke to be very proud of their culture and their nation’s advancements in healthcare, education, technology and agricultural self-sufficiency. The overall awareness of world affairs and higher level of education of the Cubans I met also impressed me, particularly in contrast to Honduras.

Contrary to most American perceptions of life in a dictatorial regime, the Cubans I encountered are getting enough to eat and living pretty healthy lives—especially compared to campesinos here. Yet, there is an acknowledgement that Cuba is not free. There isn’t freedom of the press or political expression as we know it in the U.S. Some Cubans insist that there are channels to express discontent within the system. You can officially file a complaint with the government. Opposition is repressed however. And, few Cubans have access to the World Wide Web, presumably because the access to information would pose a threat to their political system.

An extreme irony of the ´revolutionary system´ is that the system survives because Cubans receive remittances from family members in the States. Although the U.S. government is trying to strangle Cuba’s economic viability, it is Americans (Cuban-Americans) who are largely responsible for maintaining the status-quo by relieving pressure on the average Cuban’s economic resources by augmenting their income.

Cuba has two economies—the peso system and the dollar economy. More than ninety percent of employees work for the State. The average Cuban receives between $10 -13 dollars worth of pesos per month. Their salaries seem shockingly low by even Honduran standards, but the amount is misleading because Cubans pay next to nothing for housing, education, public transportation (if you are willing to wait for hours) and healthcare. Each family receives a food ration card, which covers subsistence needs. Their meager income is used to buy additional food and necessary items such as toilet paper, soap, or a bottle of rum for which they don’t receive a ration.

However, most Cubans are in search of dollars to augment their standard of living. If they don’t receive dollars from family members abroad, then they engage in the tourist (dollar) economy. Some means are more legitimate than others. For example, if a Cuban is lucky enough to have a large house or a car, they can rent a room or provide transportation for dollars. Wait staff at dollar restaurants receive tips in dollars. There’s also a very active black-market offering everything from cigars to prostitutes to contraband artwork.

And, then there are hustlers who can be harmless or downright threatening. Hustlers befriend tourists to try to extract anything from a mojito at a fancy bar to all the cash the tourist brought with them. Nevertheless, the dual-economy stands as a huge contradiction and appears to be laying the ground work for class divisions—an aspect of society that was supposed to be have been eliminated by the revolution. Steve said it best: ‘if ever there were a country of contradictions, it would be Cuba’. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to uncover some of the less obvious layers of Cuban life. Government laws permitting, I would love to return to travel to other parts of the country and see how Cuban campesinos live.

Cuba--or Havana is a crazy contrast to Honduras--especially Colomoncagua. Perhaps, it would be easier if I didn’t try to contrast the two, but I can’t help wonder what Honduras or any other Central American country would look like today if the U.S. hadn’t so intensely involved in its affairs (economic interests) or if the Central American countries leftist movements had won their revolutions. I feel proud of Cuba for standing up to the giant to the north. At the same time, I recognize that it struggles with significant contradictions, challenges and emerging class differences.

The hardest part about leaving Colo is coming back. Re-entry weighs on me like a heavy weight those first few days back in-site. Although, Colomoncagua is a beautiful little town, it seems so deprived, distant, remote and isolated from the rest of the world. One of the days shortly after my return, feelings of isolation got to me so much that I felt as though I was going to burst into tears every five minutes. And, I would have done so if it hadn’t been for the sweet taste of the ripe, succulent mangos (finally mango season is here!), and if hadn’t been for song sung to Brendan and I by the mentally-disabled woman in town at her realizing our return.

Her name is Maria, but Brendan calls her the Umpa-Lumpa lady because she reminds him of the Umpa-Lumpas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Maria carries a tambourine with her wherever she goes. She wears bright florescent prom dress outfits and lots of costume jewelry and we generally run into outside of the mayor’s office where she sits contently needle-pointing. She’s short. Her head reaches my chest. And, when she sees us, she invariably hugs and kisses us. Her kisses usually fall around my breasts. That particularly day, her greeting us with smiles and a song made me somehow feel like it all couldn’t be that bad.

That’s all for now. I hope all is well with each of you.

Take care.

karen


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