Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Rainy Season

The toothless man approached us in the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, at the foot of the road that would take us the 9 miles from Zambrano to campus. He was grinning, and he offered to drive us up the mountain, for a price: 350 Lempira.

All the walking is worth it, when El Caribé features in your weekend!
If you choose to do the conversion, this comes out to about $18: nothing to split between three people. But we were stubborn and determined not to spend another penny on our trip to La Ceiba. The weekend had been filled with completely adequate and well-located hotel rooms, direct travel charter busses, spontaneous and constant consumption of street food, a bit of rum, and other tidbits of cash that dropped here and there (like on three separate ice creams.) Pay for a ride? No way. We would hitchhike.

It was already sprinkling, and after no more than three minutes, the sky opened up and wizzed all over our arrogance. Drew, Mike and I giggled with frustration as the rain soaked us. I had chosen to wear my Birkenstocks. Walking on unpaved road in hippy sandals is only slightly daunting.

We saw a truck: We are saved! It’s going the wrong direction. We see another truck: For the love of a warm fire, please going up the mountain! It turns out he is! And he speaks English! But he’s only going about five minutes up the road. We squat in the bed of the truck dripping warm water down our noses, disappointed but appreciative. The truck stops, and we are invited inside until the rain stops. A ride would have been nice, but at least there’s that.

This is a warehouse that we always pass without recognition, and we run up the long gravel path to the door. It’s a bit confusing. A young girl opens the door, and it isn’t a house: It’s a start-up business that is going to begin pumping, distilling and distributing water within a month. Dad and Grandpa and Great Grandma and the whole roost is hanging out for family work day. Mike is drooling because, as our resident fix-it genius, he is impressed by the newness and “excellent craftsmanship” of the system.

Grandpa practices his English and teaches us how to clean water, the large systems way. Grandma gives us soup in mugs. Then the driver, Dad, gives us each a Tecate beer to take on the road and his daughter takes a photo of us with her iPad. She also shows us a dead tarantula. When the rain slows, we take off again, bewildered at our luck: the family said they would help us involve our students in their business development.

Jazz hands at Carnival with my brood, who got rides up the mountain, GAH!
But on the dusty road, which was not so dusty because it was in fact soggy, we didn’t catch a break for a while. An hour, maybe more, passes and then the rain starts again. A bus! We see a school bus slowly creaking around the frightening bends. They open the door to invite us in, and it is a political rally bus for the Honduran National Party. Old women reach out to touch me head and hands and bless me. The bus takes us through San Francisco, leaving us with about an hour and a half more.

We entertain ourselves with conversations about linguistics and economics and pinecones and what happened the night before: Mike watched the sun rise from the roof, Drew had one too many cervezas and couldn’t remember past the several hours of street dancing, and me? I recounted tales of running through the surf during dinner and doing bachata to the live band in the park and ducking through enormous crowds of colorful families and eating fried fish and singing Daddy Yankee’s “Limbo” at the top of my lungs. There is regaeton in my soul.

The rain started again just as we reached the gate to school: it is the rainy season, after all.

At this point it didn’t matter if a bucket of spite water has fallen on us: we were already as wet as could be and slowly trudging forward, 7 or 8 miles uphill behind us. It was the most I have walked so far without a ride. It also felt like coming home.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Chopped Contestants Would Lose Their S@*&.

On Wednesday I gave a lesson on “Adverbs of Frequency,” or to the intuitive English speaker, words like always, sometimes, and never. To describe these things using visual aid, I made pictures of the things we eat here on campus.

Choppin' with the super dented chicken killin' knife.
Never: Pizza, hamburgers, ice cream.
Sometimes: Baleadas, pastelitos, watermelon.
Always: Beans, eggs, tortillas. (and coffee)

Beans, eggs, tortillas, beans, eggs, tortillas, refried beans, whole beans, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, boiled eggs, corn tortillas, flour tortillas. B.E.T. You can bet on it. 

It’s no secret that my life’s joy derives from food. I love to have my hands in it, chop it, wizz it, bake it, fry it, simmer it, pickle it, freeze it: and then, eat it. I thought living in Taiwan with one gas burner, a magazine sized counter space and no oven was “roughing it.” But those were “Developing World” issues. What we’re dealing with here are stagnant, rural, necessity driven Third World issues.

In the kitchen there is a large concrete sink. The water is not safe to drink. Next to the sink is the drinking water bucket (purified on campus using a UV filtration system), which is quite the advanced amenity. To the other side, there is an “oven,” but it’s only been used once since I’ve been here.

The main attraction is the stove, a giant metal flat top over a wood burning fire hole. This thing is no joke: I’d measure it at about 30 tortillas large, if you had them end to end. From 6AM to 7PM, the fire is going, and something is cooking. It’s probably beans.

Hacemos pankekes! (My co-teacher and I.)
The students rotate cooking duties weekly. It’s easy to tell which students are having a good week, and which are not, by the creativity put into the meals. One guarantee, though, is that the CD player is always blasting, and everyone is always singing. The CD player generally produces disgustingly static undertones, but the enthusiastic voices compensate.

There is a curious “Feast or Famine” culture toward food here. When we get supplies, there is a frenzy to consume. Last week there was a giant bag of mangos that disappeared within days; girls were walking around with hands full of them from breakfast to dinner (and us too.) The green vegetables always go first. We had cabbage for a few days, and broccoli. We’re scraping the bottom of the pile today, with onions, potatoes, and some green peppers. Oh yes, and carrots, but we ate those for breakfast.

I have lost weight. I eat everyone’s leftover beans and put margarine on my tortillas, but it’s never exactly enough. Whenever someone goes down the mountain, they bring back sweet bread and cookies. This disappears ridiculously fast.

And it has become obvious: even in the most obscure, rural, poor places, where hoarding is common (and yet body image issues for women still run rampant) – food is still a cultural focus, it is still the center of the community, and it is still beloved. There has not been a day yet I’ve been upset to see any combination of the beans/eggs/tortillas on a plate, because this food was treated with as much love and importance as would be in a recently stocked Berkeley Bowl kitchen.

I would love to see an episode of Chopped in our kitchen. They have no idea.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Save Everything But The Toilet Paper

There’s an unspoken rule about the clothesline next to the pila. Sometimes shirts and socks will hang for a week, two weeks, get wet in the rain and dry again, and once they reach a hang time of a month, it is free to be gathered.

Have I mentioned how the laundry works? There is an area in the middle of campus that looks curiously like a medieval town fountain, with four concrete washboard/sinks and two very large pools of water. The soap comes in 

I have turned into a clothesline refurbisher! A wholesome hole patcher! One that hems, designs, and constant knotter. I guess a lack of yarn and crochet hooks have left me seeking a new hand distraction.
And....the bedroom.

One: Adorn a camouflage Camel Pack with bright square patches (because it kept being too camoflagued, and lost.)

Two: Patch a yucky sweater for a roommate notorious for…holey clothing.

Three: Take a pair leftover of jeans, cut and disfigured, and make adorable shorts.

Four: Reclaim a T-shirt and cover enormous holes with patch hearts. Also adorable.

Five: Sound of Music style, make a headband out of used curtain.

Up next: beautifying a 25 cent sunflower dress, far too long.

And every time I string up a needle and thread, I see my Grandpa nodding his head in approval. Nothing gets thrown away.

*In fact, everything gets burned. This morning I took a giant box of garbage and used toilet paper (no flushing allowed!) to the “garbage burn” area and spent five minutes trying to get it to light. There’s nothing more exasperating than failing to spark a toilet paper bonfire.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Lost Long Time, and Logs.

It’s fortunate that all the teachers watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on Wednesday night. Watching everyone run tirelessly over the mountains, sweating, groaning, joking, every now and then suffering some wounds. I think it prepared me for our hike to Comayagua.

Thursday there was an epic thunder and lightening storm. The rain on the tin roof was borderline gunfire instead of soothing, and the rivers rose high. On Friday, as three of us tried to cross to the other side, all ways were flooded, until finally we found a ridiculously high fallen log. Shimmy, shimmy, THERE ARE GIANT ANTS ON HERE!, shimmy shimmy, and we crossed (splintered).
The start. Not the end. Trust my words, as my camera was not invited on this adventure.

We were lost from the very beginning. Douglass, the toothless “sheriff” of our backcountry district, had drawn us a penciled map on a piece of lined paper: the bad roads marked “NO” and the ones we wanted marked with landmarks. It was not to scale. It was not totally accurate. And it had no starting reference.

So Friday afternoon we spent all our time climbing the wrong trails and backtracking. Frustrated, we eventually camped right across the river from school, though with an incredible star view. The boys set up the hammocks and rain flies, and I am the fire maker.

Saturday the trail unfolds as I decide to follow horse tracks and poo. We find a wide road with car tracks: We’re golden. So we walk, and walk, and walk, and make a wrong turn because the map was a little sketchy. We run into a little boy on a horse who tells us in really difficult Spanish that we are going the wrong way. We go back, uphill, a mistake we don’t make again: If you’re going to attempt a direction you aren’t sure of, make sure it’s uphill to begin, so when you’re disappointed, at least you can just roll on down.

We get lost again. Everyone tells us to look for a sign and there is NO SIGN. We run into a pueblo, and they tell us someone will guide us to the trail. Out comes a 4’10” very tanned gentleman with only one hand and a giant machete. It turns out he is like the worst of the high school football movie coaches. Silent. Swift. Doesn’t stop. Doesn’t feel pain. He insists on carrying one of the boys’ backpacks in a hilariously demeaning way. I get to keep mine, and my pride, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.

He’s taking us because it’s the same path he’s taking home. You think your hour on the freeway is bad? How about two hours each way up and down two small mountains? This is the most ridiculous commute I have ever seen. We used “shortcut” trails that increased the difficulty and steepness of the walk, through a forest that I’m sure Jurassic Park would envy. Thus begins the cycle we would learn quickly: steep down the mountain bottom, steep up the other side to the top, do it again. It wouldn’t have been quite as bad except instead of putting us back on the right path, he led us off our map to his home – a beautiful farm and house with nine children where he gave us chairs (no water…) and let us rest a few.

It wasn’t over, because he decided to not show us the road, but rather take us diagonally away from the road over a self constructed path up the steepest, most ridiculously high mountain side ever. It’s at this point I think, I have never, ever, been so tired, or challenged, or hopeful to stop moving in my life. It kept going, almost an hour passes, and finally we make it to a big village. We thank him, but insist he is not needed anymore.

We ask people in their gardens if there is food in town: there is! A terrific woman with a lovely family makes us lunch with fresh real corn tortillas and all the drinking water we want and bananas from their farm. En serio, I won’t ever be able to eat a banana outside this country again. They ask if we will consider staying over night, but we can’t: we have no idea how much farther it is to Comayagua.

We have no idea because the map has no distances and everyone we ask gives us about a two-hour range of time to our next destinations. “Oh yes! It’s only 30 minutes!” “Oh no! It’s about two hours!” “10 kilometers!” “5 kilometers!” It’s always a long way, because the trend is still UP DOWN UP DOWN the mountain faces, of which I counted seven in total, I think. We run out of daylight while trying to get to the next *village on our map.

We somehow find a semi flat spot down a hill off the trail to hang our beds, and pass out promptly after eating cookies and sardines, dinner of the tired yet hopeful.

Sunday: We wake, put on our still drenched-with-sweat clothing, and walk. And walk, and walk, a little more quietly. We ask families for water, we stop asking them how far things are. And about thirty minutes after we hit the final downhill, the descent into the Comayagua valley, we get picked up by a truck full of twenty-something brothers with a corn grinding machine. They could have had a bag a pig heads in the truck bed and I still would have gotten in. They drove us the final leg, shaving maybe two-three hours off our walk, into the heart of the city.

We didn’t have a city plan. It was simply to reach it. We bought giant baleadas and ate them on the sidewalk, went to the grocery store but didn’t really buy anything. We tried to find coamas ­– big bottles of beer – but it seemed the like whole country was out for the day. So, dog in tow – he followed us the entire way – we hitched a few rides across the valley, only to end up stranded in ranchero land: hot, dusty, and not a lot of generous truck drivers willing to take three dirty gringos and a dog.

The story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the bar. There was music coming out of a wood/bamboo shack across the road, so we went to investigate. A “biker” bar. With big bottles of beer. So we sat for a cold one, which tasted more or less like water at this point, before setting back to the road. I am glad I travelled with two men and the dog: I was the only female those men had ever seen drink, I think.

Eventually we had to catch a bus, even Flacco the dog, who had to ride in the luggage compartment. When we arrived in Zambrano (the city at the bottom of our mountain,) we struck gold by getting rides equal to 3 ½ hours walk up the mountain, leaving a final 30 to shake it all off. The rivers were still high, and there was yet another log to cross, this time standing. The sun was setting and it was my favorite time of day. We estimate we walked 50km. 

*Village not meaning cutesie houses with a town square and a school and a little shop. Village meaning a handful of houses spread across a mile or so…and that’s it.