Sunday, February 10, 2008

The great Ian robbery

Before you ask: I'm fine. A little shaken and down one camera but fine.

I was walking from the Hotel Guadalupe II in Tegucigalpa to the Peace Corps office and I had my fairly new digital camera in my hand. I was crossing the street behind the Peace Corps office in front of the Apostolic Nunciature (Vatican Embassy) and this guy came up to me from my left. I thought he was going to ask me a question, but pulled a handgun out of his shirt and moved to my right to grab the camera out of my right hand. He kept moving and hopped on the back of a motorcycle driven by and accomplice and sped away. It was over before it even started.

So that put a damper on my day, and it was a further pain to find a police station to file a report, and I then had a 7.5 hour bus ride to look forward to. But I wasn't hurt and didn't lose any of the many items in my great big backpack, and I was still covered for most of the value of the camera under American Express' Purchase Protection Plan.


So that was a bummer but I do hope it's the worst that ever befalls me. After 20 months, I would say I've had a great run of luck and this was not a case of it running out, but just running thin.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Super week

Today was Super Bowl Sunday (or just Super Sunday) and Tuesday is Super Duper Tuesday so this is shaping up to be a Super Week. It was a nail-biting game and it will be an exciting election night, which I will watch with the Municipal Development project's Reconnect conference at Gloriales in Tegucigalpa. And Super Duper Tuesday is also Fat/Shrove Tuesday, aka Mardi Gras. (It makes more sense now that I'm kind of learning French through my podcasts.) So it should be fun!

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Taking the plunge

To date I've taken the coward's way out and not committed to support a nominee in the Democratic nomination contest, but as of Thursday night I am declaring myself for Hillary Clinton. I feel that Hillary is more realistic about what she can do once elected and while I like Barack Obama I still have lingering feelings that he's not quite ready for prime time.

That I've waited this long ought to make it evident that it wasn't an easy decision to make, and that I make it with only rational exuberance. As I've told several people, I would have liked to see a Dodd or especially a Biden candidacy, but they polled too low for them to remain viable candidates.

Anyway, I saw the one-on-one debate Thursday night at Jack's and that clinched it for Clinton with me. What they say about Obama is that his speeches are great, but in other formats he is less impressive, and it's true, as far as I'm concerned. I saw a Hillary Clinton speech a few years back and she's pretty good at that, so that, the debate and the New York Times' endorsement put her over the top.

I am deeply concerned about the polls that indicate that some 40-45 percent of Americans would not vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstances, but I have to hope that in the next eight months, assuming she is the Democratic nominee, whatever irrational dislike people might have for her will dissipate, or at least be replaced by rational dislike of her. I also remember Dr. Earl Black's assessment of the American political landscape in the mid-2000s that said that it's only really the middle 15-20 percent of the electorate that is decisive, meaning that perhaps a quarter of the middle is squarely against her, but the other three quarters, and the majority of voters at large, would consider voting for her. To turn the question around, as to whether I would consider voting for any Republican for president (or any office) under any circumstances, I might, but short of an alien invasion and the dissolution of the Democratic Party, I can't easily imagine them.

At the debate I saw on Thursday, there were few substantive differences between the two candidates. I feel that Hillary has a better grasp of the healthcare issue and based on what I heard, I marginally prefer her plan. I saw her other proposals as more realistic and detailed than his, and her encyclopedic knowledge of most themes was evident that night as well.

Obama's recurring charge about "judgment"--a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to Hillary's vote in the fall of 2002 on using force in Iraq--connects with me, but only slightly. That vote has turned out to be a mistake, and I wish she would just say as much. She comes close when she says that if she knew then what she knows now, she would not have voted that way, but it is unsatisfying to see her holding her ground on this issue, which is a loser for her in this nomination contest.

But as Obama says, he wants to look to the future and not back at the past, and there is not a lot of daylight between them on their plans for going forward Iraq. And even though Clinton says this was the single most important vote of her career, this was just one vote, and what about the hundreds of votes where her judgment was unequivocally the correct one?

About the time I post this I'll go to hillaryclinton.com and make a donation, probably $10. The contest will probably be settled on Super Duper Tuesday and I want to go on record, win, lose or draw before then. And rest assured, I'll support the Democratic nominees up and down the ticket on November 4 with my vote, and I'll work for them and donate more between now and then.

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Whatever you do, do NOT pack any heat

As I understand it, there is a new group of Peace Corps trainees coming in sometime in February, and the packing list for them is probably about the same as it was for us a year and a half ago. So, for the benefit of these (and all future) Peace Corps Honduras trainees (and perhaps to some extent to PCTs in other Central/Latin American countries, or worldwide for that matter), and for the record, here are my additions and subtractions for what to bring.

  • Clothes: In most sites that I've seen, blue jeans are about as dressy as you will ever need to get. (This is true for men; I don't want to hazard any guesses about women's attire.) The list I got suggested we bring five pairs of nice pants/jeans (two weeks' worth). In my experience, you should balance that more towards jeans and less towards "nice pants." T-shirts are fine for most days in site and a polo shirt or short-sleeve dress shirt is about the upper limit on what will ever be expected of male volunteers. Do definitely bring a sweatshirt and/or sweater; a lot of time in Tegucigalpa and its environs as well as other parts of Honduras (the west in particular), it can get into the 50s Fahrenheit, and most houses have minimal insulation and no heating. One bathing suit will probably be more than enough. Gentlemen, definitely bring a nice shirt, slacks, tie and maybe a blazer for swearing-in; ladies, something comparable. You may wear it again (if the president or U.S. ambassador comes to your town) but can pretty safely send it back with visiting family or friends, or take it back on your first vacation home.
  • Shoes: My list says that shower flip-flops can be bought once you get here but anything bigger than a men's size 8 might be hard to come across, so plan accordingly if you've got big feet. With respect to shoes/boots/sneakers, I wear hiking boots in my town since the roads are in bad condition with a lot of rocks and I appreciate the reinforced sole, but anytime I go out of site I wear sneakers because they're lighter which is good especially if I'm carrying a lot of luggage. I brought some "nice" shoes and am glad to have them with me for any fancier occaions but have not worn them except now and then in nineteen months. Incoming PCTs may want to consider bringing two years' worth of shoes since (a) quality shoes will probably be cheaper in the U.S. and (b) they are only sold in places that might be a ways away if you're in a remote site.
  • Backpack: I initially brought a school-sized backpack which was on the small side, so for any expedition over one night, I had to get a clunky duffel bag which was less than ideal for bus and foot travel. If you've got the space to pack, bring both a large-ish backpack (maybe not super-huge) and a smaller one for day trips or overnights.
  • Pocket knife/Leatherman: Motion seconded. Remember to toss it in your backpack when you hit the road in case you need it while away from home.
  • Flashlight: I worked with a basic AA flashlight for my first eight months in Honduras and bought a LED headlamp on my first trip home, and highly recommend that new PCTs bring a headlamp, with perhaps a regular flashlight as well. In power outages at night, candles and matches are the default option for the locals, and they're fine in many cases but for cooking or reading are not so great.
  • Camera: Again, I second the motion that new PCTs bring a digital camera. If you already have one, don't necessarily buy a new one to bring since there is a good chance that it may die on you and warranty service is hard to come by.
  • Rechargeable batteries and charger: Definitely. If you're in a site without electricity, you'll save yourself a small fortune with your headlamp and you'll also be able to use it with whatever else you bring. Rechargeable is the way to go.
  • Durable water bottle: Definitely bring a Nalgene or equivalent water bottle. Reusing other plastic bottles is not an attractive option for me because (a) you have to buy and replace them every so often and (b) recycling is essentially, if not actually, nonexistent and every bottle you throw out will end up in some landfill.
  • Sunglasses: Bring some medium-range sunglasses (in the neighborhood of $10-15). The selection available here bifurcates between $100 brand names in the big cities and $2 pieces of junk everywhere else.
  • Personal hygiene items: The only toothbrushes I have seen in most places are the extra hard bristles not recommended by the ADA so one or two with soft bristles would be a good thing to bring. I like to have one that I have for travel and one for home so if I forget I'm not stuck out on the road with nothing. Perhaps also look for a travel-sized (4-6 ounce) bottle for shampoo for travel (to be refilled after every trip) so you're not packing a regular bottle of shampoo in your toiletry kit every time.
  • CD player etc.: In my non-scientific survey of PCVs in Honduras circa 2007, I'd say about 70 -80 percent have an iPod or comparable MP3 device. (If yours isn't an iPod, the rechargeable batteries will again be useful with this. I knew one guy who had a solar recharger for his iPod for his no-electricity site but don't know how well it actually worked.) Others have CD players or listen to music (and podcasts) from their computer (of which more later). Not many people seem to listen to shortwave radio: probably about half of sites have some kind of cable if you wind up buying TV and with the other technology people bring, shortwave isn't as vital a link to the outside world as it probably once was for PCVs. I have a regular Walkman radio/tape player combination I used to listen to NPR on the way to staging but haven't used it much since; IMHO the (regular terrestrial) radio stations play such hideously bad music here that I never listen to them.
  • USB memory drive: A USB drive, aka thumb drive or jump drive, is just about the most useful single item of technology you can bring, certainly as relates to work. Probably 256 MB and up will be sufficient. A 1 GB drive is available here for about $15 but for the same price in the U.S. you may be able to get a better quality item.
  • Surge protector: Many houses (including mine and probably yours) will have power sockets that are not properly grounded. Bring a lightweight surge protector from the U.S. I'm not sure how well this would actually protect anything in the event of a power surge, but it does give me some peace of mind. A battery-heavy uninterruptable power supply will probably be more trouble than it's worth and you will have hauled its ten pounds all for nothing if you're placed in a site with no electricity.
  • Laptop computer: Nobody I've met who has brought one has regretted it, and several people who have left theirs behind have subsequently wished they had it and/or had family send it to them once they're here (at a cost of around $100). The usual rules apply, as with all expensive toys, but if you are careful and have a little bit of luck, it will probably get neither broken or stolen. To the uses listed on my packing list (facilitate work, pre-write emails, download digital photos, watch DVDs, listen to music) I would add that you can download podcasts when you're online (expect no more than an hour a day if you're in a bigger site to 4-5 hours every other week if you're in a more remote place) to which you can listen back at home. This is my number one way I keep up with the world. My favorite podcast providers include NPR and Slate.com, and others have found worthwhile downloads from the BBC, PBS, hometown radio stations, various universities and The Economist.
  • Resealable plastic bags: Bring a handful to get you started, but in most medium-sized towns you can find basic resealable bags, and usually even Zip-loc brand, if not necessarily the fanciest versions with the sliding seal or all sizes available in the U.S.
  • Warm cap/scarf: I thought I was absolutely crazy or just stupid bringing a sweater and warm knit cap to Central America (latitude: 15 degrees North) but I underestimated the cooling effect of being in the mountains and there have been occasions on which I have needed them. It may be necessary only a few days out of your two years, but it's small enough to be worthwhile.
  • A few good books: Do bring a few and expect to leave some/most behind. There is an active trading network among PCVs and the other gringos/English-speakers here (mostly teachers at bilingual schools and retirees) and, as the list indicates, the library at the Peace Corps office in Tegucigalpa is fairly extensive. I imagine it grows a decent amount every time a group finishes up and people donate their personal libraries to the common cause. You will probably also inherit books from nearby PCVs who don't want to haul their library to the capital as they leave. If friends and family want to send you books here, it will cost around $6-10 for a moderate-sized paperback and up to $25-30 for a large hardcover.
  • DVDs: Traded among the same network as books, DVDs of movies (and TV shows, etc.) circulate among the PCV and gringo community. If you're going to bring a lot, it's best to invest in a CD/DVD wallet and leave the clunky cases at home. Leave some slots open for things people wind up loaning you.
  • Medical supplies: The packing guide says not to bring anything, but it may be wise to bring just a handful of minor pain relievers (Tylenol, ibuprofen) and antihistamines for the first few days until the Medical Unit can get you what you need.
  • Spanish language materials: The list I got says not to bring anything. I got a Spanish-English dictionary and two grammar books on either day two or three but I've heard complaints from the last few training groups that they either didn't receive dictionaries or had to wait (an uncomfortable situation if you've been ranked as a Novice-Low), so maybe a pocket dictionary would be good just to help you interact with your host family. If you're bringing a laptop, a digital dictionary CD may be worthwhile. Good ones--I have one from Microsoft Encarta--will have more esoteric definitions than all but the most unwieldy print volumes.
  • Cell phone: I found it useful to bring my U.S. cell phone with me to staging so I could make say any necessary last-minute goodbyes and make other final pre-departure arrangements. You could set your contract to expire the day after you leave or, if you have a benefactor who will pay a few bucks each month to keep you on a family plan (thanks, Dad!) you can maintain the account and then use it the moment you step off the plane as you return on vacation and at the end of your Peace Corps term. If your phone is compatible and has international roaming enabled, you can also use it to send text messages and make (expensive) calls in an emergency. For instance, my first night in Honduras, I couldn't make a collect call to tell my family I had arrived safely and everything but I did send a text to that effect which got the message across. The cheapest phones here retail for no more than $40, and some vendors have promotions where the phone is free if you buy $25 or $30 worth of minutes.
I basically agree with everything else on the list, so do read that, but I thought it might be useful for incoming PCTs to get an annotated packing list with field experience from the field.

And, before I forget and you get all busy packing, welcome to Peace Corps!

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