Archive for August, 2010

One afternoon I asked the Swiss owner of our hostel how long he’d been in Honduras.  “Too long,” was his response.  He wants to sell his little establishment and move on but he can’t.  Nobody is interested.  His hostel is very nice; the beach for which his hostel grants access, on the other hand, is very sad.  There are several reasons for the poor condition of the beach in the Bay of Omoa, all related to irresponsible human activities.

According to locals, during the rainy season, the trash laden waters of the Guatemalan river, Motagua, feed into the Bay of Omoa lining the beaches with debris and trash.  Daily, the hotels and restaurants that line the beach make an effort to clean the beaches but it is a very steep, uphill battle.  Everyday the junk floats in, and without stopping the source (an impossible task) it will always be this way.

It is a more than frequent occurrence in this part of the world to discard trash wherever the urge strikes: out of the bus window, into the canal, in the gutter, and so on.  It is beyond my comprehension how the obvious cause-and-effect nature of litter isn’t enough to discourage this habit.  The same people that suffer as a result of the polluted waters in the Bay of Omoa are just as likely as the next guy to toss their empty Coke bottle off the pier.  It is almost like they have become blind to the rubbish in their streets, yards, rivers, and oceans.  I too have notice a dulled awareness of the trash, but when I have to wade through several feet of it just to put my kayak in the water, it’s impossible to ignore.

In addition to the pollution, the beaches of Omoa have been devastated by erosion.  The hostel owner, who has lived in Omoa about 14 years, says that when he arrived there, there was anywhere from 60 to 80 meters of sandy beaches between the businesses lining the bay and the ocean water.  Today, as noted in the photos we took, there is essentially nothing left of these beaches.  The reason for this rapid erosion is a combination of natural and human actions.  Hurricane Mitch, in 1998 contributed mightily to this problem, but the other, controllable force driving the erosion is human mismanagement of the beaches, most notably by Gas del Caribe.

This Mexican-owned company has operated in Omoa since the late eighties.  The Gas del Caribe plant in Omoa is a storage facility consisting of more than thirty above ground tanks including four, 1.5 million gallon monsters.  The erosion that is a result of this installation is due to the jetties constructed by the oil company to protect its shores.  Whenever beach protection is enacted in one area, another area will always suffer.  To combat this erosion other jetties have been installed by other parties to try and slow the erosion, only to find that they are worsening the situation.  The result is no beach and a serious decline in popularity among tourists (tourism being the second major industry of Omoa, behind fishing).

Balls of Doom

Effects of beach erosion

Note: Gas del Caribe, part of the Mexican TOMZA group of the powerful Zaragoza family, is also suspected of tax evasion in Honduras as well as serious safety violations at this storage facility posing the risk of deadly gas leaks and even explosions in Omoa.

While I would still recommend Omoa to the budget traveler (see Kristi’s last blog), it is a shame to know what potential has been squandered there that will likely never be recovered.

Used to be sand...

Still pretty beautiful


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Omoa I – The Good

This weekend we went on our first little vacation out of site to the little fishing town of Omoa.  We were joined on the other trip by four other couples for the twice yearly MARV (Married Volunteers) support group meeting.  Who knew married people needed a support group?!   But seriously, Peace Corps presents unique challenges to a marriage and therefore a group was formed for couples to get together in a fun place and offer moral support.  The group also discusses any issues (i.e. Peace Corps policy) and communicates any concerns directly to the Country Director.

MARV couples

Back to the trip.  We are lucky to live only a little over an hour from San Pedro Sula, which is the transportation hub for the northern half of the country (Tegucigalpa being the other hub for the central/south).  This makes transportation much easier as we can catch the hourly bus to SPS which then drops off at the huge bus terminal where buses are headed to all directions within Honduras and Central America.

Three buses and 3 ½ hours later and we were pulling up to the beach!  Coming from the sweltering, still-air heat of Trinidad it was wonderful to step off the bus and feel a nice ocean breeze!  We checked into our hostel, Roli’s Place, where David and I chose to upgrade to the room with a double bed, cable TV, and a private bathroom with hot water.  For about $4 more per night it was a no brainer!  In addition to the hostel Roli also runs “Clinica Chap Chap” – a lawnmower repair shop (we really loved that name).

Roli´s Place

After lunch we headed to the beach for an afternoon swim.  We were pretty surprised to see there was literally no beach…only about 2-3 feet of sand at the most.  (That didn’t stop us from going for a dip!)  A second post this week will discuss the environmental conditions of Omoa but for now back to the activities.

Downtown Omoa

Outdoor dining at a local restaurant

Besides the fried seafood and cold beers, the highlight of the trip was the 18th century Spanish fort, San Fernando de Omoa.  The fort now appears to be pretty far inland but apparently the ocean has receded considerably since its construction.  Designed to protect Spanish interests against pirate attacks, construction began in 1759 and carried on slowly over the next 20 years until completion in 1773.  Stifling heat, disease, lack of materials and able bodied workers, plus several changes in engineers contributed to the delays.  After a history of defeats, the Honduran government eventually converted the fort into a prison – various dates are cited for this conversion, but the most credible seems to be 1898 when the fort was officially classified as a prison by the Honduran National Congress.  The prison was finally closed in 1959 and six weeks later the site was named a National Monument.

Unlike many US attractions, we were two of five people touring the fort at the time.  We spent most of our time on the upper level of the forts walls enjoying the amazing views.  An afternoon rain shower blew in over the bright green mountains while the stone turrets and brick walls remained flooded in sunshine.  After an hour or so we decided we had plenty of pictures and enough sun for one day and headed back to the hostel for an ice cream (in a bag) and a rock in the hammocks.

Current tenants of the fort

The weekend concluded with an uneventful (thankfully) bus trip back to our hot little pueblo in the mountains.  Well, David did sort of get barfed on but that’s a story for another time.

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This isn’t funny at all.  I tried, but I could not spice up this subject one bit.

In many cases, topographic surveying is an important function of the Wat/San volunteer.  Volunteers come to Honduras with varying degrees of experience with respect to topographic survey but, ironically, the majority comes with no experience.  Be that as it may, each volunteer is highly likely to complete, or at least participate, in this exercise at some point or another.

In order to design and construct just about any public work (road, water line, sewer line, rec. center, park, etc.), topographic data is needed about the land where this proposed work will be located (of course these things are often designed and constructed without any survey data at all, but this is not preferred).  Because it can be difficult and/or expensive to find qualified surveyors or the necessary equipment, a PCV with the ability to complete topographic surveys can be a valuable commodity.  There are plusses and minuses to this: (+) it can be a great way to contribute to community development and keep the volunteer busy, (-) the volunteer can be pigeonholed, for all intents and purposes, into being a surveyor for two years.  Obviously, balancing the need for survey work with other important community needs, especially as they relate to water and sanitation, is the correct strategy, but will require the PCV to “just say no” sometimes.

That being said, I’d like to introduce the surveying team in Trinidad, Honduras…

The Equipment (Theodolite)

Bossman (David)

Second-in-Command, while surveying (Kristi)

Other times I work with locals, but when we can, Kristi and I take advantage of the opportunity to work together as this is not so easy in the US.

So far the topographic work that we have done either has nothing to do with water or sanitation or is a bit beyond the PC wat/san scope.

We have done a topographic study at the existing plaza which currently includes a canchita (concrete soccer court) and a stage for local theater.  The town would like to add another canchita with artificial turf for younger footballers as well as an administrative building and playgrounds.  We have applied for a grant from the Spanish government to fund this project in conjunction with a police post and a women’s center through a program that promotes security within communities.

I am also helping a group of local engineers rectify an extreme erosion issue related to mismanaged stormwater that is creating landslide conditions that would threaten several homes.  This project is being designed and constructed on the fly due to its urgency.  I will devote another blog to this project in the future as I continue to document our progress.

Also, we are doing a topo study of the narrow, unpaved road that leads to the town cemetery (link) in order to do future improvements that will eliminate a few safety risks to drivers and pedestrians.

As you can see I’m not currently doing much surveying as it relates to the water and sanitation goals of the Peace Corps, but there are definitely some water distribution and sanitation projects forthcoming that will require my services.  I figure, until then, best keep my surveying skills sharp and find ways to help out.

In a related effort, I’m starting to reach out to my university’s civil engineering program, and probably others’, to try to get a few more theodolites for my town and other surrounding municipalities.  These days the theodolite is no longer taught in the US as it has been rendered obsolete by the total station.  As a result, theodolites are displayed, like artifacts, as office décor for some of the professors or just stowed away in a forgotten closet to collect dust.  If I’m able to get some of this equipment, I could then teach locals how to do their own topographic surveys for future projects.  This would be a great fit with my experience surveying in the US as well as teaching introductory surveying to civil engineering students while I was in grad. school; an experience I enjoyed very much and would love to try again (in Spanish).

Ok, if you’re still awake after reading this, you’re a dork and/or the work stacked on your desk is more boring than this (you know who you are).

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Here’s a story of how I made some friends in town and also learned something new…

One of the first few days in Trinidad I noticed a woman sitting in front of a store embroidering fruits and flowers on a small cloth.  I was admittedly fascinated by this because before coming to Honduras I thought of embroidery as what happened when you took a handkerchief or a towel to Things Remembered in the mall and a few days later your initials were perfectly sewn on (by a laser guided machine).  But apparently there are still people in the world who do embroidery by hand, who knew?

At this point, being that we had been in Trinidad for like a week and knew no one, David and I were walking into random stores and introducing ourselves.  We were also not above walking up to perfect strangers on the street and striking up conversation.  Might sound a little awkward but that is definitely not the most awkward thing that I’ve done in Honduras.   So anyways, I decided I would walk into the store, mentally catalog the offerings for future reference, introduce myself, and then ask them to teach me how to make crafts.  And that’s how I met my best friends in Trinidad!

The family consists of two adult sisters and their three daughters, their mother, and her mother – a house full of women!  Besides embroidery they also are masters of crochet and make many things to sell in their store.  I mentioned in passing that I would like to learn crochet one day and next thing I know they had found me a crochet needle and graciously provided me with the yarn to practice.

Here’s a picture of my first completed project.  In the spirit of full disclosure I did not actually make the flower centerpiece but the rest is all me.  (I am about to graduate to flowers this week).

Doily, anyone?

Learning crochet gave me a reason to stop in the store every couple days to visit with my new friends which over time has led us to become pretty close.   So close, in fact, that when we moved to our new place and had zero furniture they hauled out a wooden bookshelf for us to use!   Then they found out we didn’t yet have a table or chairs so they hand delivered a set they no longer used!  We are also gifted small food items every couple of days – homemade tamales, limes, squash, bananas, plantains, etc.

Starting a new project

So far in return I have made them banana nut muffins and taught their 13 year old daughter how to make friendship bracelets – maybe in 2 years I will think of enough ways to repay their kindness!

On a related tangent, two of the three Peace Corps goals are centered on cultural exchange – part of our job here is to share our American culture with Honduras and in turn share what we learn about Honduran culture with you all back home, which is one of the reasons we have this blog.  The overall idea is that with volunteers all over the world working on this cultural exchange one day we might have a friendlier world to live in.   I’m not saying a world without conflict but we might be a little more open-minded and understanding of others, because in reality we are all from different cultures whether we look or talk alike or not.

With that in mind, here is a thought:

In America if I had walked into a store, introduced myself, and then requested to be taught something for free I would’ve been called a lunatic (unless it was a free craft class at Michael’s but let’s pretend those don’t exist).  We come from the land where we like to say that nothing is free, sometimes not even kindness.  But here in Honduras we have been recipients to extreme amounts of kindness and generosity with no strings attached.

That’s not to say that Americans aren’t extremely generous – examples of that are seen every day in Honduras and around the world in the work done by (US funded) NGO’s, doctors, engineers, and other professionals who donate their services, church groups, etc.  But we also have this tendency to view foreigners in the US as intruders and we assume that their lack of perfect English is (clearly) indicative of their lack of intelligence.

I don’t want to get all preachy and I certainly don’t want to open any political discussions, but I do want to share with you all that even though we are foreigners here and speak less than perfect Spanish (sometimes completely making up words) we are way more often than not treated with respect, kindness, and plenty of patience.   Just something to keep in mind….

Lastly, here is my current crochet project.  Any guesses on what it might be?  Hint: you may have to think back to your mother’s (or grandmother’s) house to figure it out.

No I did not just finish exercising. It's really hot in our house.

What could it be?

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A month or so ago David and I were approached by one of his coworkers to do a charla series on basic health and water/sanitation topics for elementary school kids.  The original proposal was a 3 hour charla given to kids ages 9-11 in 18 surrounding communities.   The series would be part of a project within CRA (David’s counterpart agency) that’s purpose is to prevent violence and is funded by an organization from Spain.  We weren’t really sure how learning about the water cycle and hygiene would prevent violence (violence against stinky people?) but we agreed to take on the project.

We were given no guidelines or parameters (not surprising) so it was completely up to us to decide the content and activities and to create all of the materials.   We literally spent the next month creating posters, matching games, and a very in depth look at the water cycle.

Perhaps you’re wondering why it took so long to make some posters.  Well, for one thing we had to completely come up with the content.  Although we were given Peace Corps manuals on a range of topics (created by volunteers in country), we did not have materials on hand for these specific charlas.  So we did some researching and compiling of information to finally settle on the main topics and content for our charlas.

After deciding on the general content, we then had to translate the information to grammatically correct Spanish, which takes a little more effort than just using the dictionary.  Once all of that was taken care of we had to think of creative and visually appealing ways to present this information to elementary students.   Next was the actual drawing and writing on posters phase.  We attacked this with a team approach – David outlined many of the headlines in block letters and drew all of the pictures, I did all of the cutting, coloring, gluing and laminating of the pictures and the rest of my poster content.  Keeping in mind that these materials would be used 18 times we wanted to make them really good which meant spending a little extra time on the details.

Sweet charla papers

After all of that, we ended up with some really great looking posters!  Then word came down from Spain (aka the money folks) that they would only fund the charla in six communities (one community per municipio).   Peace Corps prohibits us from traveling to two of the six municipios within CRA, so that left us with four charlas.

*Side note: CRA is the office of the “mancomunidad” which consists of six “municipios”.  David works most closely with the other civil engineer in the office but CRA also has the violence prevention project and a visiting consultant from Costa Rica working on a separate project.  A master’s student from Spain also just arrived to complete an internship.  In essence, CRA is sort of like the organizer among the six municipios: developing projects to benefit all six muncipios, requesting funding from outside agencies, etc.  So although CRA is physically located in Trinidad it is intended for the benefit of the entire mancomunidad.

Back to the charlas – we had now been cut from 18 to 4, but nevertheless we were ready to go.  On the eve of the first charla the infamous “fijese que” was enacted and for unclear reasons the charla was canceled.  So we looked ahead to the next charla a week or so later.  Again on the eve of the charla questions arose about transportation and if we would have a vehicle available to use.  We showed up the next morning to more uncertainty.  The organizer of the entire thing was unable to come at the last minute (and had failed to meet with us in the month prior to share any of the organization details) and the teachers also happened to be on strike; however, we headed off to the community, not knowing if we would be giving a charla or not.

A few somewhat scary truck rides and a couple hours later we arrived in Zapote #1 (not to be confused with neighboring Zapote #2).   We arrived at the school to find 70 kids running around in their uniforms and the ONE teacher in charge of them all.  The teacher was a man probably in his early to mid-40s who had been working at this school for 10 years and for the past year or so had been the only staff member.  I couldn’t help but think how ridiculous it was that all the rest of the teachers in the country were on strike, for the umpteenth time this year and for who knows what reason this time, and here was this man showing up to work every day.   At that moment I felt really glad that we could take a little bit off his plate even if just for one day.

So we did our charlas – mine was on basic hygiene including a look at germs & bacteria, the proper hand washing technique, and other tips for good hygiene (bathe daily, brush your teeth, wear clean clothes).  David tackled the science stuff with two activities – one to define the stages of the water cycle, and the other to identify the threats to the watershed and the corresponding protection strategies.  We ended the charlas with a teeth brushing demonstration and each student was given a brand new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.  Next the kids headed out with one of the health promoters on a litter collection campaign and also helped inspect each family’s pila and drop off the mosquito larvae killing solution called Abate.

While the kids ran around picking up spent water and chip bags (yes, water comes in a bag), David and I had a chat with the president of the water board (governing organization in charge of water and sanitation) to discuss some problems within the water system.  Well, David chatted and I swatted mosquitoes, but I was there.  The result of the chat was some potential upcoming projects for David which he’ll tell you about in another post.

In general, it was a little random to go 2 hours into the middle of nowhere and give 30 kids a onetime charla on hand washing and protecting the watershed.  The time spent preparing significantly outweighed the time spent on the actual activity but maybe a couple of those kids took away something other than just a toothbrush.   And if nothing else, if they all went home and used that toothbrush and thought twice about throwing their chip bags on the ground then it was definitely worth it.

And we had a good time.

And we saw this adorable kitten.

La Profesora

El profesor dispensing tape for his activity

Cleaning the grill

Off to save the world from trash and mosquitoes

Telling it how it is

Bad ride

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After only a few short days, it appears that Honduras will not be respecting Kristi’s plea for mercy.  Still reeling from our tarantula encounter, we have been vigilant about checking our sheets, towels, shoes, backpacks, etc. to ensure they are clear of large arthropods and arachnids.  On this particular morning, after a few days of relative freedom from gnarly bugs, I was getting dressed.  I shuffled through a stack of pants in order to find something clean for a day of office work.  About three pairs down I found what I was looking for and extracted said pants.  Right leg in (yes, even I am a one leg at a time type of guy).  Left leg almost in… WTF is that on my pocket?  At first it looked like a small “cat-pile”, I started to get pissed, but then I realized that it wasn’t not poo… Left leg out!  Right leg out, it’s stuck, out, out!  I threw the pants to the floor.  I’m just glad this guy wasn’t on the inside of my pants, especially in the crotch area.


This latest encounter has us thinking… which is worse, tarantulas or scorpions?  They both are pretty large, they both pack a painful bite/sting.  Tarantulas are more mobile, squirrely even.  Scorpions hide in your clothes and wait patiently for their victims.  It’s a question of preference perhaps, attacked in the shower or ambushed in your pants?  We’d like to have those of you with an opinion weigh in…

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Thanks to my Grandma and my little cousins for an awesome package of goodies…

Leona likes our presents too

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