17 February 2012


As of yesterday, February 16, 2012, we are officially Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.  No one is ever a "former" PCV, just returned.  This is because your Peace Corps experience never leaves you, and even on the strongest of us has left an indelible mark on the way you interact with the world. 

It has been a hard two months for us.  When we left Honduras, we had every intention of returning to our home, our friends, and our family there.  Now we are still struggling to re-integrate to society here.  The cost is mindblowing.  What we can spend in a single night just socializing is incredible.  Looking for a place to live--not knowing if we really want to find one--those things keep me awake at night.  I was extremely lucky to be able to go back to my old job at fibre space.  Danielle seems prone to taking in wayward strays, such as I.  And people there have given me time and space to deal with separation from Honduras.  They have even offered me their cats to cuddle :).

We were very excited to be visited in Washington DC by a number of other volunteers from Honduras.  Since we were rather outspoken about pushing for the S&S review of the country, I was rather concerned that other vols wouldn't speak to us--though we've been hanging out with the other Honduras Med-Evacs since they got here.  Unfortunately, it wasn't the reunion I hoped it would be (Peace Corps style party in someone's house), because everyone else had just gotten back and wanted to blow a bunch of money on US luxury.  We, having been here for a month and a half already, could not really do that on our budget.  Still, it was nice to spend time around some people who really understood kind what we were going through.  More volunteers will be here soon, too, for a big jobs conference that happens at the end of the month.

We are still waiting for our things to come home.  Apparently Peace Corps went to our house and packed up, but has not yet (two weeks later) sent us the inventory, which means that they have not shipped our things.  Anyone who tells you its "only a month" is probably fooling themselves.  We expected this, however, it is making things difficult.  We have been living on only a backpack worth of clothes for two months now and I need more for work (and more that don't look like Peace Corps clothes).  Our country staff is also pushing us really hard to finish our DOS (Descriptions of Service), but I've told them quite clearly that I need my records and notebooks to finish the document.  DOS is what you get at the end of your service that lays out your accomplishments, your work, language level, and qualifications for non-competitive-eligibility.  This is also a hang-up on the job applications, because I need it to apply for federal jobs.  I don't care all that much about my "stuff", but I do want my record of Peace Corps to be as complete as possible, since I intend to pursue a public sector career. 

So, those are some of the challenges of being back.  Uncertainty being chiefest among them.


13 January 2012

Dear Honduras, You will always have a piece of my heart. Un pedazote. Love, Your adopted daughter, Sam

When you join/apply for Peace Corps, you expect your life to be unpredictable in very predictable ways:

You expect to have your sense of culturally appropriate behaviour challenged.
You expect your American-ness to color your interactions with everyone you work with
You expect that you will be in limbo for an unlimited amount of time until you get your invitation (PC never tells you that while you make a 27 month commitment to them, they do not reciprocate that.  We have 30 days to start a new life, and that is considered generous).
You expect to eat weird shit and get really sick.
You expect to get your hands dirty in unpredictable ways.
You expect that your work will fall through due to developing world problems.

You never expect that Peace Corps will evacuate you, tell you that you can’t go back to your home, send you to your “home of record” which isn’t really a home, and give 30 days of not-even-minimum-wage-pay to find a job again in the worst job market this country has seen in more than 50 years.

What you may or may not have known from our last post is that we are already in the United States of America.  For ongoing medical problems, Jeff was medevac-ed in mid-December.  What he told Peace Corps was: If you medevac me, you have to bring my wife.  Otherwise I will worry too much about her safety to be able to recover.  So here I am as well.  We were here a week before we got the official news about Honduras, the security review, the Standfast—though we knew something was coming. 

We had been working with the doctors and country staff to make sure that we would be able to come back to Honduras, to pack up our things, and hopefully our cat too.  Everyone had been supportive of that idea.  We were finally at a point where we were discussing dates, because the conference date was known. 

I emailed my country director on a Thursday for more information on how to bring our cat back, and guess what?  She was informed by Peace Corps Washington that we were not coming back to Honduras.  Well, that was news to us.  It was a weird thing to find out third-hand, since apparently that decision was made on Tuesday.  I immediately called Jeff so he could ask some questions at Headquarters--trying to figure out who made the decisions (Medical, since that’s why we’re here, or Region) was difficult, since they were all finger pointing like a bunch of Hondurans echaring la culpa. 

Leaving a country comes with a complete roller coaster of emotions.  We are being removed due to the safety and security situation in the country, which is remarkably disturbing.  A murder rate of 86 per 100,000 is absolutely a reason for our removal.  We’ve been wondering for a while if Honduras, the whole country, isn’t the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, it leads to a lot of feelings from the volunteers.

Jeff and I encouraged other volunteers to report all safety and security incidents, since we were aware of a large number of unreported cases.  Jeff having a BA in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, was very concerned that Peace Corps would not be able to adequately support us if the volunteer withheld S&S incidents.  We definitely agree that this was the right decision on the part of Peace Corps.  However, the decision that was made with regard to us was absolutely ridiculous. 

After two days of speaking with various people in Peace Corps, we were told that medical had absolutely no reason not to send us back to Honduras, and frankly thought it might be a good thing to do to give us some closure.  They have a policy of generally not sending people back to post if they are within 30 days of their COS date, but that doesn’t exactly apply in this situation.  We took it up with our regional staff.   After a long process, it was admitted to us by the person who made the call that this was a decision of convenience.  He decided not to send any of the medevacs to Honduras for the conference (all 3 of them who could go, and me), because it would put a logistical burden on in-country staff to deal with our transportation, etc.  Mind you, Jeff and I would have had the same transportation, so we are talking about a maximum of 3 different transports (IF the other two folks had decided they wanted to come back).  It was even more outrageous when people in Honduras got approved for vacations to Nicaragua, leaving the country and coming back, AFTER we were told we couldn’t return.

It is difficult to process the abrupt end to the life we’ve built ourselves in Honduras and the feelings of happiness, financial and medical security that Peace Corps provided.  It is even more difficult to have the rug pulled out from completely underneath you and not get really say goodbye.  When we left we had every expectation of returning.  I’m a very conflicting ball of emotions still, three weeks after this decision.  I apologize to the family and friends I have ignored over the past few weeks.  Jumping back into the life we had before we left is not possible, and trying to do so feels too much like saying it never happened.  I didn’t want to write about it before because I was too angry, though anger is no longer my predominating emotion.

Relief is one of those emotions: we are relieved to be out of the dangerous country that is Honduras: headed toward a murder rate concurrent with the death rate of US troops in Iraq/Afghanistan.  But on the same part, guilt.  Guilt that we have a right to expect safety and security in our lives when others do not. 

Not one of our counterparts is surprised that we are leaving Honduras because of S&S.  They do not expect security, they expect insecurity, but they think that we deserve something safer.  But they don’t believe that about themselves.  Having dinner with my counterpart and her husband the night before we left Honduras, I just wanted to scream, “Instead of taking vacation to the US, why don’t you use that money to apply for a Visa!???”  Her husband is US educated (legally), and she is super bright.  They only have 2 kids.  Please, please come with us, don’t stay in this dangerous country, I don’t want you to die. 

Yet I feel that way about so many people in my town/community.  Our host mom/brothers/aunt.  Our neighbors.  Our neighbor’s brother was just killed in a bus assault, and he has several family members living in the US.  Please, just go.  I want your children to grow up.  How do you leave people you love who may as well be family (they certainly treat us as such) in a country where you know they will grow up being victims of drug crime and suffer for it?

Now that we can’t even go back to say goodbye it has all become real way too quickly.  I think I was convincing myself that this would all be easier if I could go home, talk to people, make sure they understood we weren’t abandoning them by choice, and pack up our cat.  I thought to myself that everything would be ok if I could just save the cat.  Just that one thing from Honduras.  But now that has all changed, and they’ve decided that we can’t go back.  And Peace Corps regulations forbid PC staff from dealing with animals.  She’ll have a good life by Honduran cat standards—we were teaching the neighborhood kids how to handle her, pet her, cuddle her, but still none of them believes that they can touch her without getting bitten.  She will never again be cuddled or slept with or held in the way she was used to.  And really that’s nothing compared to the way Honduran people will be treated under the drug lords and organized crime, but it hits me in a different way.  She was part of our family and now I have to abandon her, courtesy of the US government.

I never expected Peace Corps to be so unfeeling in this way.  I know it’s not the individuals (well, actually there were some individual calls there), but as an agency it really upsets me.

To any Honduras staff who may read this: Thank you for being amazing.  I sincerely hope that the violence calms down and volunteers will return.  In particular, Luis, Javier, and Jorge—I hope we can all stay in touch.  I completely bawled on the phone with Jorge as he asked what he could do to make this easier for us (Who does that as they are losing their own job?).  Being here with other medevacs and hearing horror stories from other countries makes me appreciate the staff from Honduras even more.  Thank you all for your service to our country and yours.

My apologies for the longest post ever--it was more for me than for you.  Hope it was ok anyway.


22 December 2011

What now for Honduras?

As I write this, I am sitting on a train traveling between DC and Baltimore.  It is very different from travel in Honduras.  Foremost in my mind right now is my ability to pull out my laptop in public and not be afraid of being robbed in the next 5 minutes.  It’s also very quiet, the only noise being soft muted conversation and the occasional click-clack of the rails.  No blaring reggeton, and I kind of miss it.   The reggeton makes the trip go by faster.  Also, no one wants to sit next to a stranger.  There are rows of three seats, only two people are sitting in them, and no one is standing.  No chickens, no ayudante, no dust, and it is winter outside the window.

We will be in the States until early January, then we will be back in Honduras for about a week before we leave, possibly for good.  There has been a lot of turmoil in Honduras recently, and Peace Corps is taking strong action.  The crime rate has been steadily rising for years now, with the murder rate currently at 86 per 100,000.  For comparison, the United States is around 5 per 100,000.  This rise in the murder rate has been fueled mostly by drug traffickers.  I’ve seen estimates that upwards of $80 billion in cocaine pass through Honduras every year.  In a country with a GDP of about $15 billion, that is a HUGE amount.   In June, Peace Corps Honduras moved 7 volunteers out of eastern Olancho, the department we live in, due to sky rocking violence and the potential for a Volunteer to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.   There was an almost incident where a PCV was inside a pulperia when some guys standing outside got shot up in a drive by.  A few weeks after that incident, they were all moved to sites in safer parts of the country.

But the violence has continued.  In September, an American tourist was gang raped in a ‘safe’ part of the country.  Peace Corps notified us about it and reminded us to follow all security recommendations to reduce our risk exposure.  I feel that Peace Corps Honduras staff has done a tremendous job in a dangerous country to let us know what the risks are and how we can best avoid them, from pickpockets to armed bus robberies, and how to best respond if we find ourselves involved in a situation.  Unfortunately, the wrong place at the wrong time has become more often in more of the country.   A few weeks ago a volunteer was shot.  She was riding what had been a safe, direct bus line, and was traveling for PC training.  During the ride, a few guys stood up, pulled out guns, and demanded phones.  Halfway though, a passenger pulled out his own gun, said no, killed one of the robbers and injured another before they killed him.  In the gunfight, a few other passengers were caught in the crossfire, including the PCV.  Her leg was broken, but she is safely in DC and recovering well.  You can read a Honduran newspaper article about the attack in Spanish here: http://laprensa.hn/Secciones-Principales/Sucesos/Un-muerto-en-atraco-a-bus-de-SPS-La-Esperanza  Or, in Google translated English, click here.
This was another case of wrong place wrong time, but it got a lot of Volunteers wondering if all of Honduras is the wrong place wrong time right now.  It generated a huge amount of chatter among the volunteer networks.   PC was going to make changes in the wake of this accident, and many Volunteers took the time to talk with PC about their concerns and to provide suggestions.  Peace Corps has decided to slow down and do an intensive examination of security risk in Honduras, and Central America.  They canceled the next incoming training groups for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador so that staff in country could spend time not on training but reviewing the security situation and policies to ensure Volunteer safety.   Honduras is going a step further as the security situation is a bit worse.  PC Honduras has put all Volunteers on standfast for the next month, which means you are not allowed to leave your site.  The majority of Volunteers feel safe in their site where they know their community and are well integrated.  Then, sometime in January, PC Honduras is going to have an all Volunteer meeting where we will learn more about what has been decided, after which we all be sent to the US for 30 days on an administrative hold.  PC/H staff will be using that time without volunteers to conduct intensive site visits and determine what sites are still safe and who will be allowed back.  It seems likely that PC Honduras will be a much smaller post after this.  We are at 158 Volunteers now, and the best guess amongst Volunteers is that there will be less than 50 to return, if any return at all.  You can read the official Peace Corps announcement here: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.media.press.view&news_id=1932

So where does that leave us?  We don’t know anything yet, so we can only speculate.   We expect that our site will be deemed too dangerous and closed.  After that, we don’t really know.  We might be able to get a different site in Honduras.  We might be able to transfer to a different country.  We might just be done with Peace Corps and looking for work elsewhere.  We just don’t know yet.

Vamos a ver.

01 December 2011

Business taller 2011

In November, all volunteers from H-18 business were invited to bring their counterparts to Valle de Angeles for a taller (workshop) on planning and administration of projects. Because my official counterpart isn't who I actually work with, I invited our vice-mayor to come with me. She is awesome and works really hard, but doesn't have a university education (though her husband went to comm college in Massachusetts). I was surprised when she readily said yes, even before I told her PC was paying for it. Unfortunate, she has a 10-month-old who is still breast feeding, and needed to bring her too, but volunteered to pay for he mom to come to take care of the baby! How awesome is that? Obviously, she cared a lot about coming with me, and that really meant a lot to me.

We met eachother at the hotel in Valle de Angeles, and attended the two-day taller together. We we super productive because, for all the examples, we used the water-system-improvement project we are working on. At the end of the taller we pretty much had a skeleton project proposal to take home to COSAUN (comite social ambiental de la Unión).

Some interesting things that happened: we did an activity where the PCVs and Honduran counterparts form separate groups and talk about the difficulties of working with one another. One thing we wrote is the prominence of "fijese que" excuses and constantly changing dates/times. "Fijese que" or "fijate que" (in the informal form) is what people say before making an excuse, and it pretty much means the other person can't complain or call them out on a bullshit excuse. However, it is also used to make polite excuses and is socially required when refusing things. For example, the counterparts wrote that PCVs are often rude in situations when they refuse food or drink, because we tend to say "No, gracias" or "A mi no me gusta" (no thank you, or I don't like it). In fact, culturally speaking we should be making up some excuse/lie for why we can't/don't want to eat/drink said item. Like, I'd really like that cup of (over sugared and gross) coffee, but it gives me a stomach ache. "Me gustaría, pero me hace daño". This is something that many of us have issues with since it's pretty much lying, and we feel like no thank you should be good enough. We aren't used to coming up with reasons not to eat things we don't like. However, I'm trying harder to be observant of how what I'm saying appears to people here and mitigate my "rudeness".

Here's some photos from the taller: we went to lunch at a place with a "zoo". There were lots of unsheared sheep, birds, a hedgehog, and the national animal of Honduras, the Cola Blanca. Extra points if you can guess what that is. We also gave presentations of some of the goals and objectives we created for our various projects. Also included: a photo of the other two Olanchanos! Viva Olancho!

07 November 2011

Gardening in Yamaranguila

Last week went took a trip out west. We spent a day in Jesus de Otoro visiting with a bunch of other volunteers for the feria there. We had planned to do hand washing education as part of the feria, but fiesje que, it didn't happen. So we had a relaxing day eating meat-on-a-stick and hanging out with a bunch of friends.
After that, we got on a bus to heard another hour west to Yamaranguila. Lauren and Jacob live there, and are working with biointensive gardening at a daycare. Since we like to garden, Sam wrote her master's thesis on biointensive gardening and poverty alleviation, and Lauren and Jacob are great people, we jumped at the chance to visit and work with them.

Lauren wrote a great blog post about the day gardening, and I'll just link to that here: http://robertsx2.blogspot.com/2011/11/transplanting-day-at-daycare.html

24 October 2011

Busy with Trips

Things have been pretty busy down here these last couple of weeks. As Jeff already wrote, we went around town to the various schools for World Handwashing Day, and even though most of the plan fell through, we capacitar-ed a couple hundred kids in how to wash their hands! We've also been traveling a little bit for fun (mostly), and are about to be traveling a bit for work. A few weeks ago we headed down to Salamá and Campamento for the Olancho Pueblo Crawl, one of the first officially approved gatherings of more than 10 volunteers. We want to give a shout out to our country director Emily for letting that continue. Those of us still here in Olancho after the removal of volunteers from the Catacamas area wanted to put Olancho back on the map, and show everyone that we can be visited (safely, and within the rules), and nothing bad will happen to them. And guess what? Nothing bad DID happen, people were responsible, and we had a ton of fun!

Last Thursday one of the Honduran league teams, Motagua, played against the LA Galaxy (you know, that team David Beckham and Landon Donovan are on?) in Teguz. Jeff and I decided that attending would be great fun, since one of Jeff's favourite pasttimes is belligerently yelling obnoxious things at fútbolistas. One of our almost-neighbors, Emily from Guaimaca, coordinated an official trip, complete with a busito to transport us and Juan Carlos, our S&S coordinator to escort us. A great time was had by all. Unfortunately, Jeff got robbed.


Well, technically, I didn't get robbed, but I did have an official security incident. More on that later. We had an uneventful trip to Teguz, and got some business done at the office, then met up with the 30ish other Volunteers going to the game and took a busito there. We had nice seats, but I never used one, of course. Tickets here are for a section, not for a seat, and our section was behind the benches. I spent the game hanging out with some new Honduran friends on the fence 10 meters from the Galaxy bench. I wore my DC United shirt and got some double takes from the Galaxy players when they looked over at my English, and then snapping their head back at the United jersey and additional provocative English. The game was a fun one to watch, even with only one goal, but it was a delightful strike from distance. I enjoyed yelling at Bruce Arena a lot, and I know he heard me.

Found a ESPN article about the Honduran love of Beckham and coverage of the game. While not identified by name, it quotes me without quoting. My 15 seconds of fame are most of the way through the article. Read the article here: http://espn.go.com/blog/los-angeles/soccer/post/_/id/11698/galaxy-adoring-hondurans-stun-l-a
*** ***

After the game, the bus dropped a few people off at the hotel and picked up a few more and headed to a club for dancing. It was awesome to be able to dance. Unfortunately, I ran into a pickpocket there. She danced with me a bit, then when she left I noticed that my front pockets were empty! Good thing I'm a compulsive pocket checker. My phone, my cash, and my ID and bank card were gone. I quickly snagged her, as she wasn't far away, and asked her where my phone was. She said she didn't have it. I didn't believe, grabbed her pockets and took my cash out of one of them. She went into the bathroom, and I asked two Honduran guys waiting to not let her leave because she robbed me. I went and got a PCV that is a native Spanish speaker to help, and then a bouncer. She came out, the bouncer took her outside, and other staff found my cards in the trash can, but no phone. She continued to deny having my phone, so the police were called. They sat her in the back of their pickup truck and questioned her, she denied everything. They told me they couldn't search her because they were all male, and there wasn't much they could do. At this point, half of my phone was found between the cab and the bed of the truck. I had a slider phone, and the screen half magically showed up! Still didn't find the other half, but after that the police took her and put her in jail for 24 hours. Juan Carlos talked with the police in the morning after and they found the other half in the truck after searching in daylight, so I'll get that back, with my memory card and game photos, eventually. So all in all, not a terrible encounter with a pickpocket.

I feel that this could have happened to me anywhere, not just here in Honduras, and the outcome was good because I wasn't fall down drunk and have good awareness habits. I didn't have more than I needed which reduced the amount of stuff I could have lost, even though everything was recovered, albeit in more pieces than it was taken, and that was only because she was angry and spiteful. Technically, I was only the victim of theft, as a robbery is taking with the use or threat of force while theft covers pickpocketing and taking laptops left on tables.

In a bit, I have another trip to Teguz for a medical appointment and then I'm headed further west from there to do a bit of work and visiting with friends. In between, I've got classes to give at the high school and elementary school to keep me busy.

After a month of not much, the past three weeks have been chock-a-block with stuff, and it's been awesome!

14 October 2011

Lavarse Las Manos!

The 15th of October is World Handwashing Day.  Since we received a dozen emails about it from Peace Corps, we decided to do something for it.  Sam did some thinking and drew up the basic plan: we would give charlas to the schools on Friday the 14th and have a contest where the kids would present skits or songs in groups on Saturday the 15th.  There was a stage set up in the central park for our town feria, which just ended, and we were going to use that.  We also put a song, called appropriately enough, Lavarse Las Manos, on the radio for the week.  It was recorded by a PCV a few years ago and is ridiculously catchy.  Doctor Octavio loves it.

We whipped this plan up in two weeks, presented it to the centro de salud, made a few changes, then wrote a solicitud for funding from the municipality.  We had a health promoter to go around presenting with us, and I had found a truck to borrow to get us everywhere in time. We talked with several of the schools and everyone involved was excited and things looked awesome.  Then as this week went on, almost the entire plan fell apart.

Wednesday we found out that the health promoter had a meeting on Friday, so he couldn't go, and without him we couldn't use the truck.  There is a lot of paperwork involved for a PCV to get permission to drive, and it wasn't happening in two days.  That was a loss, but after our 6th grade sex ed class we talked with the sub director (vice principal) at the big elementary school and confirmed our plans for Friday.  He even promised to have the night watchman turn the water on to fill the pilla Thursday night.  However, between him and the Directora at the highschool, we decided to cut the Saturday contest because they had run out of time to create skits.  Thursday, we found out that the municipality wasn't able to fund the things we asked for, which wasn't much.  Soap and bowls and a few prizes for the competition, which was fine because it wasn't happening anymore.  I also went to the smaller elementary school and talked to the teacher there about presenting on Friday, but they were not going to have class, it was going to be a four day holiday weekend!  So I made plans to go present the charlita at 0800 Tuesday morning.  We also make our charla papers to be ready.

Friday rolls around, and unsure if the night watchman actually turned the water on, Sam rode over to the school at 0730 to check if we would need to haul the water we need for handwashing demonstrations.  There was water, the pilla was full!  Awesome!  However, there were suspiciously few kids around, and no teachers.  Sam talked to them and found out there was no class today!  They were having a four day weekend too!  We were very surprised, sometimes things change but to have confirmed on Wednesday for a presentation TWO days later on a Friday, and to show up to find there was a holiday was a bit much, even for Honduras.

All was not lost, however.  We confirmed with the high school that they did indeed have classes, and we were still on track for our original 1330 time.  We went over, and gave 3 short presentations to a total of 78 high school kids about the importance of handwashing, shared the song with them, and then we all washed our hands properly.  Success! AND we have plans for Tuesday.  Not all that we had originally planned for, but with only two weeks notice and Honduras, I think we did pretty well for World Handwashing Day.

And because I was asked, here is the song we taught them.

¡Lavarse las manos!    
*Lavarse, lavarse las manos
 C       C      F     C
Lavarse, lavarse para su salud
 C       C      F     G
Antes de comer y después del baño
 C       C      F        C
Combatimos los microbios
 C    F    G    C
Combatimos los microbios
C    F    G    C

Los microbios no se miran (pero)
     C            F
Hay muchos en el cuerpo
     C            F
Si no se mantiene limpio
     C            F
Tendrá muchos microbios (¡Qué feo!)
     G            C

* Repetir

Wash, wash your hands
Wash, wash for your health.
Before you eat and after the bathroom
Combating microbes
Combating microbes

You can't see microbes (but)
You have lots on your body
If you don't keep it clean
You will have lots of microbes.  (How ugly!)