Thursday, February 16, 2012

(Away From) Home For The Holidays

Where Do We Go From Here?

So yeah, it’s been a while. A lot has happened, and a lot is going through my mind, but we’ll get to that. I want to finish what I started, and though it seems out of place to talk about some of these things after so much time, I want to do it justice.

Here we go…

Getting Ready For Christmas Day

Here's something to listen to while reading. Don't worry, it's not really a Christmas song (so it's OK to listen to it in February). And besides, who doesn't love Paul Simon?

My original plan for Christmas was to travel back to Las Cañadas to visit Gloria and the rest of my old host family. However, with the news that we were being put on administrative hold came the news that all volunteers had to adhere to ‘Standfast’ policies. This meant that we were not allowed to leave our towns, whether it be overnight, or even simply a day trip. This lasted for my last three weeks in my site. I thrived on traveling, which made the ensuing countdown especially tedious.

Gloria’s family had become a home away from home, and a safe haven in a foreign land. Traveling to visit them was a bit of an escape, as they had become as close as I could get to having an actual family in Honduras. Knowing I would not be with my family back in the USA for Christmas for the first time ever, I was looking forward to spending the time with them. However, being in Standfast meant that I would not be able to see them. I started to worry that I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to them in person, but that’s another story for later.

Thankfully I had also recently started getting close to another family in my actual site. Since about two weeks before the news of leaving the country, I had been spending a lot of time with my best friend Kerin Rodriguez and her family. Kerin lives with her mother and younger sisters, and is also often joined by her boyfriend/father of her twins (still in utero, and due some time in May). Their lodgings are more humble than where my official host family was, and I would have tried to move in with them if there was enough space/if their house was safe enough (they didn’t really have locks on their doors).

The Rodriguez family became my ‘adopted’ host family. In my last few weeks I would spend most of my day hanging out with them, and having all of the lovely ladies of the household wait on me hand and foot. Here is a photo of the family (including some extended members):

And here are Kerin and I:

As for the actual Christmas celebration is a bit different from what we do in the states. First of all, Christmas Eve is the big day, and not much happens on the 25th. Also, not surprisingly, gift-giving is not the emphasis of the holiday. Despite the endless commercials showing rich people giving gifts, the focus for us humble folks was definitely on simply getting together with family. I bought a cake for everyone to share, and Kerin’s mother, Rosa, made a delicious meal of chicken and rice. At the end of the night there was a big dance party at the town ‘discoteca’, but I decided not to go since no one from Kerin’s family wanted to go. I probably should have gone anyway with some other people in town, but oh well.

El Año Nuevo

The days dragged a bit after Christmas, as I spent my time venting and gossiping over the phone with some of my Peace Corps friends. With no work to keep me busy (remember, the schools that I worked in were on their summer vacation until February), I continued my routine of spending the day at the Rodriguez household. One day we went to swim in the river for a couple hours, but other than that I didn’t do a whole lot besides chit-chat and watch soccer games at the local field. Originally my plan was to be visiting a nice beach on a trip with some of my other volunteer friends from training, but (as was the case for my Christmas plans) I was stuck in town due to the Standfast policy.

Again, I celebrated the holiday with the Rodriguez family. It wasn’t too different from Christmas, in that the focus was on food, drink, and family. One cool tradition they had was that in the middle of the street, about one for each block, sat pair of scarecrow dolls called the ‘viejos’. They were stuffed with firecrackers, doused in gasoline, and then lit on fire at the stroke of midnight. The scarecrows were meant to symbolize the old year, with their demise allowing the New Year to start off with a bang. Hondurans are definitely pyromaniacs at heart, which always makes everything more fun.

More to come…

I have a lot left to write about, and I’m thinking I’ll just spread it out over a few posts. Hopefully I’ll have the motivation to do them soon, while the experience is still relatively fresh in my mind.

Here is a preview of coming topics:

-          A long-expected party: My birthday celebration
-          Gringo invasion! In which: former volunteers visited me
-          Livin’ it up in the Hotel Maya
-          Did I ever get a chance to say goodbye to Gloria and her family???
-          Being back in the USA
-          Closing thoughts, and planning the rest of my life…

Friday, December 30, 2011


I remember back in training, where one of our fellow volunteers mentioned that her mother is a professional psychic. Not only did her mother predict accurately that her daughter would be coming to Honduras, but she also had another bold, disturbing prediction: that we would all be leaving here after six months. I initially decided to ignore the prediction. I’ve always been a little bit of the cynical “believe-it-when-I-see-it” type, so I went ahead and assumed that it wouldn’t come true.

But here we are, exactly six months later, and we’re getting ready to leave. But what of it? I’m glad I didn’t believe the prediction at first. I would have lived the past six months very differently had I truly thought I was going to leave. The thing is, I wouldn’t change how I did things. I worked hard to pave the way for work that was to come. I built relationships with the hope that they would continue throughout life, past my two-year stay. Each day had new excitement that brought optimism for what was yet to come. I can easily say that it has been one of the most fun and fulfilling times of my life.

So why do I bring this up? Simple. I have two weeks left, and I want to enjoy them, and I choose not to sit and ruminate if this is really the end, or what might have been. I’d rather think about how great things have been, and how new adventures are still to come in the future. In the spirit of that optimism, I have a post that I wrote on the morning of the day I found out that we were leaving, the day that all hell broke loose. After coming to terms with things, I’ve decided I still want to share the details of a fun experience I had recently.

Field Trip!

Two weeks ago I spent some time helping out with a university-level class for teachers in my site. One of my counterparts was teaching the class, and he invited me to help out and present something to the young group. He didn’t really give me any direction about what to share. At first he said I should talk about Erikson, Piaget, or Vygotsky, which not only was vague but also sounded a little boring. He then suggested that I do a presentation on the differences between Honduras and the United States in the public school system. This ended up being pretty fun, and after spending a morning preparing a PowerPoint I came into class for a quick 30-minute presentation. It sparked some good discussions, and I ended up doing a Q&A session for another half hour or so.

After my presentation, I was invited to accompany the entire group of 30 teachers on a trip to Teguz later in the week. I wasn’t really sure what the trip was about, but it sounded like fun. We were going to a place called ‘Chiminike’, and they simply explained it as a place where they teach kids. I have a tendency to not ask too many questions and just trust people when I’m invited to go somewhere, as I don’t want to be the annoying Gringo that needs everything explained a thousand times. I started imagining some sort of private new-age school, where they as new teachers could go and observe lessons and activities. I later found out that this wasn’t exactly the case.

Our group got on the bus bright and early at 6:30 in the morning and we headed out. We arrived at Chiminike at about 9:00, and filed our way in. It was definitely a very well-funded complex, as both the interior and exterior were very modern. After buying our tickets, the tour guides made all of us do some silly chants and dances before entering. I was a little too tired for this, so I pretended like I didn’t understand what was going on and just took pictures of everyone acting strangely.

As they marched us to the first exhibit, I quickly realized what kind of place Chiminike was. It was a children’s museum, almost exactly like some that I have been to in the United States. The target age group would range from about 4-9 years. We came with a group of 35 adults (most of them about 18 or 19 years old) and maybe five children that fit into the proper age range.

Essentially we went from exhibit to exhibit, with all of the teachers not being afraid to act a lot younger than they actually are. Hondurans in general never seem to want to miss out on being somewhat uninhibited and having a good time, and they did not hesitate to do so today. Acting like a kid developed as being a theme for the day.

While I was definitely having fun, I couldn’t help but wonder why the heck we were here. I guess as a professional I just wanted to know what the goals and objectives were. When I asked my counterpart (who planned the trip), he simply said that we were there to ‘conocerlo’, or familiarize ourselves with the place. He said that teachers have taken groups of kids there in the past during the school year, though it wasn’t something that was done frequently. Overall I think it was mostly a trip for fun to celebrate the end of their course, but even so I thought we could have gone somewhere more adult-oriented. Again, I didn’t try to question too much and just tried to enjoy myself, which wasn’t hard to do with that group. Later on, I continued my questioning with some of the other teachers. They admitted that they didn’t really understand why we were their either, and that the trip was mostly my counterpart’s idea. When we saw groups of pre-schoolers on a field trip walk by us, we would jokingly point out how they were in fact the kind of group the place was meant for.

Either way, it was fun and I took some good pictures. At the end we got lunch at a comedor across the street, which I can assure you was not designed to serve a group of 35 people all at one time. We essentially mobbed the ordering counter, shouting out what we wanted to eat without any sort of line or sense of order. I am not proud to admit that I may have rushed to get food before some of the pregnant ladies in our group, but in my defense I didn’t really see them as they were lost in the madness. I guess that’s not really a great excuse, but we all survived and got fed (eventually). No harm, no foul, right?


After lunch we got back on the bus and headed out. Being the uninformed Gringo, I assumed we were heading home already. I soon realized we were definitely not heading towards the highway, so I asked what was up. Apparently we were going to one more stop, a local park, Picacho, located on the top of a mountain that overlooks the entire city of Tegucigalpa. When we first arrived we originally planned to go visit a zoo that is in the park, only to find out that it was closed to the public (though I can’t remember why).

Luckily, however, the entire place is had cool gardens and walkways with lots of great photo opportunities. The big draw is the statue of Christ that overlooks the entire city. I had of course seen it before from the downtown area in the valley of Teguz, so it felt pretty cool to be able to explore it up close. Also, right next to the statue are some cliffs from which you can see the entire sprawl of the city. It was awesome to just take a minute with everyone and enjoy the view.

We spent most of the time meandering, chatting, and taking photos, and then we stopped by a small playground to take a break for a little while. The theme of the day continued, and none of us missed out on the opportunity to act like a child. Monkey bars, slides, see-saws; you name it, we were playing on it. It reminded me of a time a few months ago during training where my fellow volunteers and I took a similar opportunity to enjoy ourselves at a children’s playground. I may have silently gotten a little nostalgic about those earlier times for a moment, but the feeling passed. I may never get to spend as much time with our entire group of 15 volunteers from training again, but of course there are many other great experiences with other amazing people to look forward to.

Friday, December 23, 2011

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy...

Las Noticias

I got a text message around noon on Tuesday while I was waiting lunch. It was from Peace Corps, and it said that an important email had just been sent out to all volunteers. I wouldn’t be able to access a computer until I got home, thus I waited in agonizing curiosity for about a half hour. As I ate, my mind raced with the possibilities of what the message could contain. I tried my best to tell myself that it was nothing, but my gut was telling me that the news was big. As soon as I finished the meal I walked straight home and checked my email.

Only there was nothing. I found out later that through an error in the email system, my cohort of volunteers didn’t receive the message. Through the use of Facebook, thankfully, I was able to get someone to forward it to me.

I read through it quickly. There was so much information to take in. First, I found out that a ‘Standfast’ had been activated. This means that we are not allowed to leave our sites. I wouldn’t be able to celebrate Christmas in Valle de Angeles with my old host family, which I had been planning and looking forward to for months. I’m not even allowed to visit Danlí, which is only about a little over an hour away. This news wasn’t as bad as it could have been, as now I get to spend Christmas with other families in town that have been inviting me to celebrate with them.

But this wasn’t the biggest news. I had to read the following section over a few times in order to make sure I understood it completely:

Administrative Hold
After the January conference, all Honduras Volunteers will be placed on Administrative Hold for a period of at least thirty days and will return to their Home of Record in the United States while Peace Corps assesses the future direction of the program. We are currently working on the details of this process and will provide you with additional information at the Volunteer Conference. Administrative Hold means that you will remain a Volunteer, but will be away from your country of service for the convenience of the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps will, among other things, continue to be responsible for your medical care. While you are on Administrative Hold, our staff will analyze our options and decide whether we can implement the steps that are necessary to ensure your safety and security.

The Impact

Once I made sense of it, my immediate reaction was one of excitement. I get to go home and see my family. Not only that, but the trip would be on Peace Corps’ dime.

I immediately called my parents to let them know what was happening. I then spent much of the rest of my day talking with other volunteers on the phone and through Facebook. Many of us were extremely upset, though I did my best to be positive. The problem is that there is a lot of uncertainty to the situation. The rest of the message includes a suggestion of the possibility of PC Honduras shutting down, perhaps with the opportunity to continue service in another country.

In my heart I know I want to stay here in Honduras, and in Teupasenti. In the past six months I have begun some great relationships that I had been extremely excited about developing over the next 21 months. My Spanish has a long way to go before I am an expert speaker, but it’s definitely developed enough to make friends and get a real sense of who people are. My optimism for the future is heavily based on how I have found people in this country who have come to feel as close as family. That’s a beautiful thing when the only world you’ve ever known is 2,000 miles away. On top of the social aspect, I also feel like I’m in a great position work-wise. In my first month and a half in site I was only able to get a few small projects done, but I also came a long way in bonding with my counterparts and getting to know the community. I feel really well-integrated, and I was excited about my position to help move towards meaningful changes in the school systems and community in the coming year.

Now, all of those relationships and work opportunities are at risk.

I can’t say for sure that I won’t be coming back here, but I can say that my gut is telling me it is extremely unlikely. I have so many questions that I simply must wait to get answers for. I know that Peace Corps is doing their best to let us know all that they can as soon as they can tell us, but it’s hard not to worry that the bureaucratic aliens in Washington that we’ve never met might not leave us with a favorable decision. Though nothing is certain, from what I’ve been told that if we end up going to a different country, the process of doing so would not be an easy one. It might require an entirely new application process, as well as starting the entire 27 months over fresh, training and all. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I’m trying my best not to worry about things until they happen.

But the worrying comes, despite how hard I try not to. In some ways this experience feels like a break-up. My mind has been racing with worried possibilities and uncertainty about what is to come. The first two nights I basically didn’t sleep, and my appetite wasn’t quite what it usually is. Just a week ago I had the next two years of my life completely figured out. The next two years were supposed to be a time of challenge and personal growth, to find out what I’m really made of and emerge as something entirely new. Though I’ve learned and grown so much in the past six months, I’m nowhere near where I want to be. So far I’ve barely gotten my feet wet, and it might be over already.

I’ve realized that much of what happens next is out of my hands, and in a strange way that gives me peace. As many of my friends in town have been reminding me, “it’s in God’s hands now.” Whatever happens, I know that life will go on. I recently watched the movie “Cast Away”, one of the first movies I sat through after getting my hands on a giant collection of movie files from the hard drive of another volunteer. There was one line in the movie that struck a chord with me, so much so that I felt compelled to watch the same scene over again the following day. Tom Hanks is venting to an old friend after being rescued from being alone on a desert island for four years, only to find that his wife has moved on and started a family with another man. He has every reason to hate the world after finding this cruel irony, yet he’s reminded of the time on after several years on the island where a plastic sheet washed on shore out of the blue. This same plastic sheet was what he used to make a sail for a raft to escape from the island. After this scene where he is talking to his friend, he decides to move on and deliver the one package he brought with him from the island, the package that gave him hope. Upon its delivery, it is implied that the woman that receives it is to be the next love of his life. Instead of giving up, he takes his own advice, and something beautiful happens that he never would have imagined beforehand. His advice, his philosophy (which I purposely omitted earlier in this paragraph), is the simple and hopeful statement that “you never know what the tide will bring.”

Where do we go from here?

I’ll be home in mid-January, roughly the 16th or 17th. I can’t wait to see all of my friends and family, and I already have a list of things I’m looking forward to doing after being away from the country for six months. I’ll probably look for work (ECDC? Marriott? Both?) and then wait to hear my fate. Until then, I’m going to just enjoy myself. It’s as if I’ve been given three weeks to live, so I want to do it right. I’m going to spend my time doing the things I love the most, with the people I love the most. I don’t want to waste a single minute.

It’s almost as if there’s a life-lesson in all of this.