Sunday, August 31, 2008

Now hear this

I had a series of very interesting observations I was going to put here but they escape me at the moment. This is why people write things down, I suppose. Maybe they'll come back to me later.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Another one rides the bus, or not

Well, today I did something I haven't done since I've been in Honduras: I missed the bus. Actually, I guess you could say I missed it coming back from site visit in September 2006 (it left 5 minutes before the scheduled time) and I missed the bus to Yorito in December 2006 on the way to Tom's (I thought there would a bus leaving later than 1 p.m., which, there were not). But I really missed it today, because (to be mature and blame myself) I spent too long at the Internet café and then went to get lunch and stop at the pharmacy when I didn't really have time to do it, or because lunch took way too long (I waited about 10 minutes to get a lunch that usually takes 2 to prepare) and the phamacy didn't have my order ready that I had emailed about yesterday, to be an unsympathetic character and blame external factors.

The mayor of San Manuel is in town, though, and he's going back up later today and will take me, so that kind of works out. Another upshot is that I get another hour online, of which I am happy to take advantage. But I had a backpack and some shopping bags on the bus which I am now not riding, as well as a big water bottle, so I have been kind of scrambling to get people there in San Manuel to take care of it for me, which, amazingly, seems poised to work out. I guess I have the right people's numbers programmed into my phone.

I do a lot of things here that could turn out badly (any bus ride carries the potential of a crash, as does every time you get in a car anywhere in the world, for that matter) and have gotten very lucky to date. Today, I threw snake eyes when I needed a seven, but it was a small stakes game. Yes, I am the archduke of metaphors.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Counting down

I've been counting down for longer than I'd care to admit, but as of when I write this (July 24), I have five weeks in site and just over six until I leave Honduras. I've been "in country" for more than two years now, and in the final stretch, a period of limbo between my second anniversary and when I actually leave, having completed my ostensible two year commitment. That training period messes all those calculations up.

Now, nearing the end, I have to change my mindset and behaviors. Whereas before, I bought food and other supplies for the long haul, I've now got to balance buying enough versus too much for the short time I have left. For a long while, I've been out of book-acquisition mode, focusing on reading what I have--I'm never going to make it through it all--and getting books out of my house, to pass on to someone who will enjoy them. A few weeks ago, I delivered a large, heavy backpack's worth of New Yorkers, Atlantics and Economists as well as a handful of assorted book sto Santa Rosa where at least they will be glanced through. (My goal in all of this isn't that this all be saved, necessarily, but that I not be the one to throw it away.)

I'll also be getting rid of other items, and while some are take-it-or-leave-it (who wants my two broken plastic deck chairs?) many items are in demand, chiefly among them my refrigerator (Jack has dibs) and my electric stove, even if it kind of melts the insulation on the wire when the left burner heats up for too long. Other things (empty glass jars I was saving for some unknown purpose, the tortilla maker I inherited from Leo) I've given away already, but most of the rest I'm hanging onto until the the last possible moment. My water pump, for instance, I plan on using until the bitter end here. Also, it's some sentiment that makes me not want to think I'm really done here, or even winding down, though I certainly am.

It's certainly ambivalent for me here in the final stretch. On the one hand, I feel as if I still have more work to do here. On the other hand, so many things are just so difficult here--shopping, communications, travel, even bathing requires 20 minutes' lead time to heat the water--that I'm ready to go. Lately I've been telling myself, "I don't have to live like this--and in two months, I won't."

My plan for now is to leave San Manuel for good on August 28 and make it to Santa Rosa de Copán, erstwhile home of the Peace Corps House, and see Barack Obama give his acceptance speech from the Convention in Denver. Either that same night or the next, there will be the Noche de Fumadores (Smokers' Night), the annual party sponsored by the local cigar factory. I will, of course, not be smoking, but it's evidently a fun event and something I'd might as well hit on my grand tour on the way out. So between August 29 and September 1, I make my way to Tegucigalpa, where I have COS processing, including a battery of medical tests (we need to produce three stool samples, and something approaching half a gallon of blood, I'm told), canceling my Honduran residency, closing my bank accounts here, taking a final Spanish-proficiency exam, filling out various forms documenting my time here and describing my site. That runs September 2-5, and then on September 6, I will be catching a plane back to the U.S.A. Best guess, "Welcome Home" committees should be at baggage claim at RDU around 4:30 p.m.

UPDATE: The countdown is now three weeks until leaving San Manuel and just over four to arrival in the U.S.

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This Hard Land mourns Tim Russert

As mentioned previously, I have the best parents ever, in that they devote inordinate amounts of time and energy to burning me DVDs on their DVR of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Dad does the recording and burning while mom makes sure they get to me, is generally the division of labor, as they tell me, and furthermore, once I'm back in the U.S., neither of them is sure what my dad's going to do with the time he doesn't have to devote to editing out the commercials and burning the episodes to DVD. And at some point, noticing that most Mondays' shows included a reference to an interview done on NBC's Meet The Press, they started recording that as well and including it on my packages. So between these and my Newsweeks (referenced here), I am generally up to date about six to eight weeks after the fact. My various podcasts keep me in the loop on a more realtime basis, and it's sometimes confusing to be mentally occupying two different points on the calendar.

So on July 22, when I popped "IBE Pkg 81" into my laptop, which includes programs from June 10-16, 2008, I had known of Tim Russert's death for over a month, and I knew that the program for Sunday, June 15, would be a tribute to him, hosted by Tom Brokaw. Seeing Brokaw on the verge of tears up was telling about what Russert must have meant in the NBC family, and I was happy they were able to give Russert such a fitting tribute.

I was also happy to see clips from episodes that I could remember seeing when they aired, and when I saw telling interviews from the 1990s and early 2000s, I kicked myself for not having watched it before late 2006. Some of the things they told about him I had known about and seen online closer to the time of his death, but I was somewhat stunned to learn that while a student at Cleveland's John Carroll University, Russert was a concert promoter and had brought a then-unknown singer named Bruce Springsteen to campus. On tour in Europe, The Boss dedicated a song to Russert's memory on that Saturday night, and NBC closed the hour playing a montage of photos of Russert and his family to the sound of Thunder Road.

Springsteen's music is often of a fairly depressing character, writing, as he does, in large part about tough times in the Rust Belt. (Listen to Youngstown, My Hometown, and basically the whole album "The Ghost of Tom Joad" for a pretty good sample.) And even a Meet The Press "New Timer" such as myself knows that Russert was a diehard Buffalo fan; I don't think it would be unfair to characterize him, in the words of Howard Fineman (speaking of himself), as being "absurdly proud of [his] hometown." (In fact, Fineman and Russert, both big-time Washington media guys coming out of Rust Belt cities, seem to have had similar life trajectories. I wonder if they themselves ever meditated on that fact.)

All this combined for me, a sometime member of the Rust Belt Pride fraternity (you may be eligible if you're from Joel Garreau's Foundry) no matter where I might currently be registered to vote, to feel more personal than it should have. So I had a very depressing evening a few days ago, I'll miss Tim Russert on NBC's election coverage this year and probably won't be able to hear Thunder Road again without thinking of him.

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Mississippi medicine and meals

There was a medical brigade in San Manuel a few weeks back. Medical brigades, as they are known, are groups of doctors, other medical professionals and other volunteers who come to various places in Honduras and set up shop somewhere for a couple days and try to attend to the medical needs of the local people. They seem to be mostly from the U.S., at least the ones that come to Honduras, and since they don't necessarily speak Spanish, Peace Corps Volunteers often have the chance to help out as translators, or in other roles. So when I heard that a brigade was in town, I walked up to the school where they were operating and offered my services. They were closing up shop for the day, I was told, but the guy told me I could come back the next morning and see what there was to be done.

So I came back the next day and they put me to work guiding people through the school compound on a semi-labyrinthine route, which was more daunting of a task than one might think. They had a ton of orange string strung up to create "lanes" that people would in theory travel down from one station to another, but people often needed guidance, specifically in the form of telling them "No, please don't cross the line. Yes, back under the string, and down to the end. That's it, but no, no, no, don't cross the line. Yes, thank you." This is partially attributable to the design of the route, but probably moreso to the custom of people in this part of rural Honduras to squeeze under, over or between lines of barbed wire which are set up to impede the passage of cattle but not of people, so it comes very easily to them to crouch down under one single, non-barbed string.

I was also called upon, from time to time, to serve as a general-purpose translator since they had brought about 10-15 mostly high-school aged bilingual Hondurans to do that, so I was only occasionally asked to tell somebody something or another, such as that they are out of the backpacks that they were giving away yesterday, due in part to some people taking two, three or four per person, leaving none for people coming today. Sometimes the clients were very persistent about trying to get a backpack or some of the other items that had allegedly been given away earlier, but I was able to convince most of them that we were indeed out, and only once or twice had to go get the boss of the operation to have him tell her himself. I was also able to tell them a little more about the area, answering their questions about the area. Somebody along the line, perhaps a Baptist minister they'd talked to in San Pedro Sula, had told them that in San Manuel and its environs there was a lot of idolatry and idol worship, and I was glad to have the chance to express to them my skepticism of that, as well.

The Medical-Dental Mission saw about 3,000 people over the course of three days--or rather, processed about 3,000 cards; there were a number of people who came through more than once. The two dentists saw about 200 patients and pulled around 250 teeth between them, which, unfortunately, was the only dental service they were offering. Everyone went through a triage session and was diagnosed with something or another even if it was just an occasional headache, then was seen by a dentist if he or she had a bad tooth, maybe received eyeglasses and finally went to the pharmacy station to pick up vitamins, ibuprofen and whatever else he or she needed. Every client or family group also received a "family pack" with goodies such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap and often tennis balls and candy. The candy, of course, was a big hit, and most of it seemed to be consumed on the premises, leaving the wrappers and other trash right on the ground.

The group was from Mississippi, through the Baptist Medical-Dental Mission and they brought, in addition to a decent M*A*S*H-esque operation including pharmaceutical supplies and a truckload of Bibles, their own kitchen staff, kitchen appliances and down-home Dixie cookin', to which they graciously invited me. So for the first time in my life I had tomato gravy (not, as I had idly speculated, a tomato-based dish but rather, as I was informed, one based on grease and flour), and for the first time in a long while, I had grits and biscuits, and for the first time in San Manuel I had other such American classics as baked beans, chicken salad, coleslaw, real hamburgers with real French fries and real Heinz ketchup. After explaining it to my dad, he captured the essence of my job: guide people down the lines, smell the food as it cooks and then line up to chow down when it was meal time.

So that was a very rewarding experience for me. It was a welcome change from my generally very slow days in San Manuel--I was fairly exhausted after working two full days from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.--and I got to see a lot of people I knew. Sometimes it seems that I don't know many people, and indeed, I don't know that many people all that well. But over the course of those two days, face after face seemed familiar and I knew many of them, if not by name than as "the guy who has the little store at the end of the street and who always is wearing that old cowboy hat." As far as I was concerned, it was a wonderful chance to see the entire town and belly up to some good cooking. And if somebody got a medical condition taken care of, it was a nice lagniappe.

Additions ex post facto:

One of the Honduran translators had a Steelers shirt on. Made me feel right at home. He's in the middle, I'm on the left and one of the Mississippian volunteers is on the right.

There were crowds of hangers-on, interested in taking home even the scrap boxes in which they had brought the supplies. The brigade staff and volunteers went "downtown" to see San Manuel's historic church.
I also hitched a ride all the way to Santa Rosa on their bus!

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Nota bene

One of my joys of being in the Peace Corps is the ample time afforded me to read. I only sometimes take advantage of this opportunity, especially if I have a new set of DVDs to work through. Anyway, the Peace Corps administration has procured for all Volunteers--worldwide, as I understand it--subscriptions to Newsweek magazine. Newsweek sometimes is a bit conservative, always comes at least a month late, and the Good Life section without fail highlights some of the most disgustingly opulent items avaiable in the Western world. (Though I do see how, in the days before the Internet, CNN en Español (or Inglés, for that matter) or cell phone towers, this subscription could be a vital link for PCVs to the outside world. I once commented, before San Manuel got a cell-phone tower, that North Korea could have detonated a nuclear weapon in Manhattan and I wouldn't hear about it until I went to Gracias.)

But I also, from time to time, have gotten my hands on other publications. Sent from home, brought back from vacations or given away by other Volunteers (who no doubt had them sent or brought them back), I've seen a fair number of The New Yorkers, The Atlantic Monthlys and occasional copies of The Economist, Harper's, Time and Foreign Affairs.

While reading a "recent*" issue a few months back, I was surprised to see the author of a movie review was David Denby. David Denby? He's an actor in The Office, right? You're telling me that Roy Anderson from the warehouse is moonlighting with The New Yorker?

Ah, but reviewing The Office's credits recently, I realize that the actor is David Denman, not David Denby. So that's probably a totally different person.

* Recent here probably means it was from mid-2006 to late 2007. While I know it's not true and doesn't hold across the board, in some major sense time has stood still for me since June 2006, when I came to Honduras.

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