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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Two different worlds, and something to be said for both of them

Thetis Lake
  I've found myself using the phrase, “And the infrastructure here!” a lot since arriving back on the Island from Honduras, so I guess that must be one of the things that has struck me most now that I am back to the life of a Canadian.
    But in truth, there are so many points of comparison, good and bad. I do like sewage pipes big enough to embrace toilet paper, and water that comes straight out of the tap ready to drink. And the green spaces – well, I’m ecstatic about the green spaces. Honduras has the right climate for amazing public boulevards but at the moment there are hardly any, so just walking along the Gorge appreciating Saanich’s free flower and plant display is a rush for me these days.
    On the downside, people are much less friendly here as they pass each other on the street. I’m really struck by how many people go out of their way to not make eye contact with the passing stranger, or even drop their gaze just at the point where a person might otherwise say, “Hello!” Walking in Honduras was a festival of “Holas!” and “Buenas Tardes!” because everybody greets everybody there. I’m missing that.
    As for that infrastructure, there’s just no comparison. Canadians have some amazing infrastructure. The roads! The signal lights! The beautiful public washrooms! Every day since we arrived last Wednesday, I’ve found myself appreciating some aspect of good old Canadian infrastructure while reflecting on the lack of it in the country I just came from. Not only are the sidewalks wide enough to accommodate walking abreast or even the occasional errant cyclist, they’re even level and well-maintained, and none of them ends in a leg-busting dropoff.
Riverside in a San Pedro slum
     On the downside, I wonder increasingly whether having everything just so nice makes us a bit  tense and cranky as a society. There is a certain tendency here to look for reasons to get angry at people for breaking the rules, and I don’t just mean the tenant in my mom’s apartment building who is currently harassing Mom’s 83-year-old sister and her husband for making too much noise.
    The noise went on and on in Honduras, and I do admit that sometimes I was not happy at all to hear it. There were times where Paul and I couldn’t hear each other inside the house mere metres apart, because there was some car blasting up the street right outside the front of our house.
    But you know, life’s too short for feeling mad at people. Something’s gained and something’s lost when we create a society as controlled as Canada’s. I've learned in this time away that there’s a strange freedom to just giving into the noises of the world around you and letting go of that strange bitterness that can manifest in developed cultures when other people won’t do what we say. At any rate, isn't that why they invented ear plugs?
     My friends and co-workers from Honduras would be awed by this place. Three of them went to Wisconsin for a week during my time there, and they came raving about the highway rest stops and the autumn leaves. Imagine if they saw B.C. I feel like being away for more than two years is letting me see this place of ours through Honduran eyes, and it is a knockout.
    As much as we like to gripe about our governments and our taxes here in Canada, we have been blessed with decades and decades of governments and citizens who have given us the gifts of unbelievable infrastructure, parkland, well-educated children, Medicare, well-paid jobs, old-age security, social support. I have never appreciated Canadian-style government more than during these two years of living in a country that virtually didn’t have a government in any kind of meaningful way. Thank your lucky stars, people.
    We are much older here. I see that in all the faces that look like mine, whereas half of Honduras’s population is under 25. I was always so much older than anyone else in the room when I was meeting with my co-workers or doing just about anything in a group in Honduras; all my co-workers, even my boss in Copan, were young enough to be my kids. Here, people in their 50s and up are the majority. It’s neither good nor bad, just different. Definitely a different energy.
     We have much more money, of course. And much, much more stuff. But I wouldn’t level that as a criticism against Canadians, because I think everyone in Honduras would love to have a life like so many of ours, full of things to buy and money to buy them. (I’m convinced Honduras is ripe for a chain of good second-hand furniture stores with really fair prices, because you would not believe how fast our furniture sold in the days before we left Copan Ruinas last week. I even sold my potted plants.)
    I miss the heat of Honduras. But I love the long days of Victoria. I miss all the dogs that used to ramble around the streets. But it’s nice now to see nothing but fat and happy dogs with healthy fur.
    I don't think I ever would have considered that having dogs rambling around free was fun. But in fact, the practice let me get to know some really special dogs, including the one we brought home with us. Sure, sure, I dream of a world where every dog is a wanted dog. But that’s not to say there isn't a lot of pleasure in just developing relationships with strays and hungry canine neighbours who show up at your door for food and affection.
    People have told me that some of my posts remind them of all the things we have to be grateful of as Canadians. That is so true. Anyone who thinks that less government would be good for the country really ought to get on down to Honduras and just take a look at how that’s going for them. I know more than ever now that good governance and responsible, organized use of public money are absolutely critical to everything. 
    But at the same time, I’d caution against believing that everything is better in Canada.
    Ultimately, Canada is probably the country I would wish for on behalf of my friends in Honduras, because they would love to live like this. They want jobs that pay what they’re worth, health benefits, good schools and opportunities for their kids. They would like to have a 65-kilometre drive on a great road that takes 40 minutes, rather than a bumpy, dangerous and slow weaving trip that takes an hour and three quarters. Just like us, they want their kids to be well-schooled and well set up for a good life. They would go crazy for potable water and incredible internet speeds.
    But now I feel a new connection to another kind of life, too. It’s messy and uncertain, but also compelling and warm, in every sense. It’s a life that reminds you of the sheer persistence of the human race, in the face of all kinds of weirdness and unfortunate developments. There are Hondurans who are actually 100% self-sustaining, and with none of the hullabaloo and fanfare that greet such rare practices in our over-served land.
    On the one hand, I am glad to be from a country that doesn’t let strangers just wander on up to an orphanage and start hanging out with the kids, even taking them to the pool unescorted. On the other, that aspect of our lives in Copan Ruinas, hanging out with the Angelitos Felices children, was an amazing part of our two years there.
    In Honduras, there is no real option except to trust that someone means you no harm, because no one's going to do anything about it anyway. There might be laws or a regulation, but no one is enforcing them. Here, we leave nothing to chance. Those have been two interesting extremes to contemplate.
    So. Get on out there and enjoy a green space you especially like, and think about all those generations before you who did their part to leave you that gift. Take along a water bottle filled straight out of the tap. If you’re a cyclist, look down at that bike lane you’re riding in and think about how something like that didn't just happen. 
    Then put your head up and say hi to whoever passes. We've got a lot of things to be happy for in this country. Smile.

Friday, April 04, 2014

White Dog: The rest of the story

White Dog in my stepson's Vancouver apartment
I've been posting a lot of White Dog updates on Facebook but realized that not everyone who saw my first blog post on her is my Facebook friend and might be wondering how the story ended.
    It ended well. White Dog is now settled in her new home in Cumberland, and judging by the little video I saw yesterday of her bouncing around with my daughter and her family on a Comox Valley beach, settling in quite nicely. And just like childbirth, all the hassle has been forgotten just seeing how happy she is to be here and how happy my family is to have her as their newest addition.
    But that's not to say that anything about the process was easy or cheap. When last I posted, White Dog's tab was at around $1000, which included vet bills to get her ready to come, shipping and pet brokerage fees (expensive!). We got hit with an additional $90 after we arrived in Canada - $30 to the Canada Border Agency and $60 to the company that handles cargo at the Vancouver Airport.
WD in her kennel at the San Pedro cargo area
    We would have incurred even more costs for transport were it not for having good friends with big vehicles. A Kennel 500 is one honking piece of furniture, and we had four seriously big suitcases and an accordion to transport as well because we were leaving the country and packing up what little household goods we had. There were four legs of land transport that would have been difficult and costly had friends not stepped forward to help us out.
     My Honduran boss Merlin Fuentes transported all of us and our luggage to San Pedro Sula from Copan Ruinas, saving us money but more importantly, an unbelievably difficult four-hour bus ride. Another co-worker in San Pedro took us to the airport on the morning of our flight, and patiently drove us around the airport as we looked for the cargo place where we could drop off the dog (which nobody informed us of until the night before).
    While we'd initially thought White Dog would be flown into Victoria along with us, her flight in fact ended in Vancouver, which is apparently as far as the company will take the dog. So then we needed my partner's son Sam to step up and come and get us at the Vancouver Airport at midnight. We didn't get out of there until after 2 a.m. due to an enormous final hassle they saddle you with in which you have to drive back and forth between the cargo area and the airport to get papers stamped by customs and fees paid.
First daffodil experience during a morning walk in Vancouver
    Then we were in Vancouver with no way to get to Victoria. Happily, another friend who happened to be returning to Victoria from the mainland on Wednesday and had a big vehicle stuffed the dog and I in and we came on the ferry. Paul had taken a couple of the bigger bags earlier that morning and made use of one of those two flights we'd paid for to Victoria; we had no choice but to forfeit the other one.  But then my daughter met us at my mom's place in Victoria and White Dog stepped out into her new life, and all was well.  
    She seems invigorated by the cooler temperatures, and I'm sure will be forever grateful that the ticks aren't nearly so relentless in Canada and the municipality doesn't poison dogs on a regular basis. She has a new pal, Angus - my daughter's other dog - and a family with a nice yard and a lot of chicken gizzards to share.
     And it's great to have her here. She's the ultimate Honduran souvenir. I still blush when I think of just how much money we ended up spending to bring her, but let's just consider that water under the bridge. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Sometimes a girl just needs to shop

 I went shopping today, and it made me really happy. Is that wrong? I wouldn't care anyway, that was how good it felt.
   As much as I tried to pretend it wasn't so, Honduras was not a shopping mecca. I struggled with both the styles and the fabrics, and the shape of the clothes just isn't cut for broad-backed, big-shouldered Canadian girls. So when I pulled my bike up to Value Village this afternoon and walked through those familiar glass doors with money in my pocket, I felt something close to euphoria.
   It was one of those days where I had the used-clothing-store golden touch. I even found jeans and shorts. I got 13 stamps on my Value Village card, a promotion I hadn't known existed but was happy to take advantage of. I am no longer feeling completely discouraged by my clothing, and finally threw out the strange red hoodie shirt that always makes me feel depressed when I wear it.
    I rediscovered my silver shoes in the storage locker today, too. I loved digging some of my favourite clothes out of the storage tote, their warm fabrics and funky styles once again important to me in these chillier surroundings. During my Honduras time I was pretty much always overheated and sweaty, so "funky style" hasn't been something I've paid much attention to these past two years. It's good to be considering it again.
    The moral? Don't take easy shopping for granted. There are countries in the world where the fabrics are scratchy, the colours are all wrong, and you forever feel like the friendly giant shopping at the petite store. Today was the best $56 I've spent in a while.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's all about the little things. Or so I tell myself

  “Turn a bit more this way,” my co-worker advised Friday as he arranged a couple of us for a photo while we gathered for a goodbye cappuccino. “I want to make sure the light is behind me.”
    Music to my ears, my Copan friend. As I bid farewell to Honduras after more than two years of trying to help my workmates get the hang of good communications, I don’t want to just hear that they’ll miss me. I want to hear that they won’t forget all the things we’ve been working on this whole time.
    Better photos was a biggie. All the funders want their projects well-documented through photos, but my workmates are renowned for taking atrociously bad photos. So hearing Edy talking about repositioning himself to get a better photo – well, I feel really good about that, what with all the talks and training around photos during which I was never sure whether any of them were very into it.
    We did a lot of work around Facebook, too.  I think it could be an incredible tool for small development organizations in terms of sharing knowledge and information about their projects, and Facebook’s extroverted nature is a good match for Hondurans, most of whom who are exceedingly extroverted.
    I guess we’ll have to see whether any of that training sticks, though. While I’ve tried to keep the regions’ Facebook pages lively, there’s not much evidence to this point that anyone is going to pick such things up after I’m gone. But hey, hope springs eternal.
    Looking back on things, I really had no idea when we started in February 2012 what I and the Comision de Accion Social Menonita might accomplish by the end of our time together. There were times in the first year when I thought it was all going to be hopeless. But something started to click around the nine-month mark. I began letting go of my expectations, and they began thinking that maybe I could actually be helpful.     And away we went.
    The goal of Cuso International’s work is largely around building capacity – in other words, help people develop some new ways of doing things that they can continue doing after the volunteer goes home. Sounds good, but what I’ve found when it comes to communications – in Honduras and in Canada – is that it’s not just a task of teaching eager people how to tell their stories better, it’s about convincing them that they should even be interested in that.
    So any capacity-building work thus involves a good deal of salesmanship in the early stages, at least when the subject is communications. In fact I’ve had to remain a salesperson right through these two years, grabbing every chance to jump into a conversation with some cheery advice about turning a particular moment or bit of news into a communications opportunity. But in the end we got a lot done, from videos and web sites to easy-to-use guides on growing better cocoa, not to mention about a million photos.
    As I’ve discovered about development work, there comes a time when you look at the little thing you’re trying to do in the midst of profound, complex problems like widespread poverty, staggering levels of violence and murder, a completely inadequate education system and babies dying for want of basic, cheap medical care, and you think, Really? Getting these guys to post photos on Facebook more often is going to change the future for this beleaguered country?
    But on my better days I see that you can’t change the big stuff without changing the small stuff first. If CASM can talk more effectively about the work it does, it can attract more funding, which in turn creates projects but also jobs, something that Honduras needs most to start to turn things around. If CASM can document its work in videos, it can demonstrate conditions in its communities – the impossible roads, the lack of infrastructure, the challenges in getting goods to market - that might lead to more realistic interventions by funders rather than quite so much pie-in-the-sky projects that don’t take into account the reality of life here.
    If NGOs were to share the findings of their projects more widely, other NGOs could replicate the successes and avoid the failures, and together they could strengthen the social fabric and build economic networks rather than just do the same survival-based projects over and over again in isolation. (As one funder acquaintance noted, “We can’t just keep on doing beans and corn.”)
    But while I’d be happy to claim a tiny speck of credit for perhaps improving organizational communications in Honduras, one thing I became more convinced of the longer I was here was that it will take a lot more than cheery development work to turn things around here. This place needs an uprising. Were it up to me, I’d be fomenting revolution.
    There’s a lot of money at the top in Honduras, but most of it never makes it down to where it counts. It’s nice that the international community is here with all our dreams of helping Hondurans be less poor, but at what point do wealthy Hondurans and the government start assuming more responsibility for that? And what’s it going to take to get all the mistreated and neglected people down below to start making more noise about all of that?
    When the revolution does come, it’s nice to think that at least a few more of them now know to turn their backs to the sun when documenting it all in photos. When they’re ready to foment, I hope they call me – I've got all kinds of communications tips on that front.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bringing a dog home from Honduras: Hard lessons learned

  Maybe one day you’re going to find yourself somewhere in Honduras thinking, hey, here I am in a country with way too many sick, underfed dogs, and I’d like to find at least one of them a great new home in Canada.
    And with that one little thought, the grand and costly adventure will have begun.
    I must admit, bringing White Dog home seemed destined. We've been feeding a variety of dogs during our two-plus years in Copan Ruinas, but White Dog appeared out of nowhere for the first time a couple of days before one of my daughters and her husband arrived for a visit in January, and the three of them instantly hit it off. Unlike a lot of the other street dogs here, who really love their wandering lives, White Dog seemed done with the entire business and eager to shift into a more domesticated life. Why not, we all said.
   So I went on-line and started looking for information on airline web sites. United is the airline we’ve used the most for flights back and forth to Canada since we came here, and information on the United site about the company’s PetSafe program seemed pretty thorough. It looked like the rate for a dog of White Dog’s size in the (giant) kennel required by the airline would be around $289 – pricey, I thought, but not impossible. United also got back to my email requests for more information, unlike Delta and American Airlines.
   United’s initial information was wrong, mind you, and I would eventually come to see that what was on their site wasn't even remotely thorough and in fact was downright misleading. But in those halcyon days of January when I did not yet know just how little I knew, choosing United seemed logical.
   I quickly learned that while there was quite a bit of information about PetSafe on the site, getting particulars for booking a specific dog on a specific plane was like pulling teeth. I didn’t really get why it was going so badly until I got in touch with a Facebook acquaintance who’d been through the experience of shipping a dog from Honduras to Canada, who told me Honduras requires the use of animal brokers. He sent me a contact for Rex Internacional, which United uses.
   In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the teeny notice on the United PetSafe rate page that says “Note: Additional fees may apply in countries that require the use of animal brokers.” But isn’t that just always the way with hindsight? At any rate, never in my wildest imaginings would a passing aside about “additional fees” lead me to think that it would increase the rate quoted on the United site by 140%.
   But I’m getting ahead of myself. While waiting for more information on how to ship White Dog, I got started on the veterinary processes. We live in Copan Ruinas, which has no veterinarian, so the first step was an eight-hour return bus ride for me and White Dog to San Pedro Sula to visit a vet who knew all the steps to meet airline requirements. Canada’s requirements turned out to be surprisingly simple - a current rabies vaccination – but the airline needed things like a health certificate dated within 10 days of your flight and an export permit (really?) from the Honduran government.
   Price for vet services, export permit, and one month of antibiotic treatment for a tick disease we discovered White Dog had: $250. Add another $28 for the round trip bus ride to and from San Pedro, as I had to buy White Dog her own bus ticket. But hey, I was still thinking that the airfare was $289, so I remained calm.
   Now, the kennel. The airline wants the dog to be comfortable, so you need to pick a kennel according to a set of measurements based on the dog’s size. I thought we could save $200 for a new kennel by having my youngest daughter bring a used kennel with her when she came to visit us this month, not fully understanding just how big and awkward a Kennel 500 can be. We could have gotten away with the smaller Kennel 400, as it turned out, but at least White Dog now has a doggie condo to relax in for her flight.
   As things went, that too was a much more hassle-filled endeavor than I had anticipated, and Houston airport actually threatened my daughter with having to pay $200 to ship the kennel here because it was oversize (a kinder agent stepped in and resolved the crisis). I make a point of not saying “You would think” anymore, because that’s a very clear sign that a person is not adjusting to Honduran culture, but really, wouldn’t you think United might consider renting the damn kennels?
   Anyway. So early March comes and I'd now been in email correspondence for six weeks with the Rex Internacional and United folk, and had had the dog vaccinated, treated for her tick disease, organized the kennel journey and booked our own flights back to Canada. I send another email to Rex Internacional confirming that all is a go, and they finally tell me the total price: $805. It is not overly dramatic to say that I thought I was going to throw up. I mean, not only is that way, way higher than my daughter or I were planning for, it is a truly embarrassing amount for two volunteers to pay to bring a dog home from an impoverished country where $805 is many people’s annual income. It is almost $200 more than our own tickets cost us.
   Not only that, but they would only fly her to Vancouver, not Victoria. So we would now be arriving at midnight in Vancouver with a dog, unable to use our tickets to Victoria and with no transport to get the three of us to Victoria. 
   But by this time, almost 2 months had passed since White Dog started hanging around. We had moved into full-on domestication. This dog was a pet, pure and simple. I couldn't have lived with myself if we’d just abandoned her to her Copan fate at that point. We were totally over a barrel.
   I did my best, sending Rex Internacional a note that made it very clear that we were devastated and angry. I CC’d high-ups in United. It helped a little: Rex acknowledged they’d made an error of $110 by charging us for 2 dogs in the kennel (even though I’d filled out a form stating there was only one). But United didn’t budge. I sulked for a few days, but then confirmed with my daughter that we were all still committed, and booked the flight for $695. Which is still more than our own tickets.
   Add it all up and we’re basically at $1,000. The kennel ended up costing $40 for my daughter to bring as a second piece of baggage. Plus it got cracked somewhere along the way, so add in maybe another $30 to fix it. And then there will be the cost of private transport for getting the dog and her condo-kennel to San Pedro, as not even the most tender-hearted bus driver is going to let us lug that huge thing onto a crowded local bus. I’m not even sure it would fit through the door.
   Call me suspicious, but I have a strong feeling that the costs aren't fully tallied yet. I've been joking with my daughter that we should rename the new family member Golden Dog. Thanks to Facebook, though, we do now have transport to Victoria after a kind-hearted person who I don't even know that well said she was going to be in Vancouver on April 2 and would come pick us up. 
    But it’s all just money, isn’t it? White Dog only has to make that little extended-paw gesture of hers that always makes me smile, and all is forgiven. As for Rex Internacional and United Airlines – well, that might take a little longer.