SalvaVida sign

Soy El Hulk! Soy un hijo de Dios!

Here are a few observations that have been on my blog topic list for awhile but my brain has not yet formed into a full entry, kinda like a blog version of Radiolab‘s Shorts! episodes:

Dogs

Dogs roam about the town, pant on street corners, sleep in the road, fight with each other, and bark at all hours. Sizes range from tiny to medium. Their minimal flesh clings to ribs and tailbones, unpadded by fat, their testicles outsized in comparison to their bony frames. Many have open sores and limp.  Most are male, for reasons I don’t want to fathom, and the females, with their distended and swollen nipples, look overused.

Dogs crawl through the fence that borders the school to scavenge for scraps (or participate in Monday’s Acto Civico assembly) and are chased or harassed by the children, though I did see a boy give a dog his lunch. Yesterday I tried to give one the stray bits of popcorn he was sniffing for under the table, but my movements scared him and he fled. Well, he fled when he saw the guard running toward him. They’ve learned a raised arm releases rocks in their direction.

Still, dogs here are dogs everywhere. They make friends and play with each other; even the scrawniest look happy-goofy as their tongues loll out, panting in the heat, and once a dark brown longer-haired mutt, who appears better cared for, goosed me in a friendly sort of way.

Those dogs with homes are used primarily for protection though I have seen a few well groomed, anything-but-fierce pups on leashes held by children. Some of my students speak fondly of a dog they once had and played with, and I’ve met a few lapdogs of the Chihuahua and Min Pin variety.

Dogs are the preferred pet, with cats prized for their rodent catching abilities. The cats are rough and ragged and refuse to be pet. Our house feels no ethical qualms that Nova, the cat that adopted us, may have belonged to a family, because we intend to spoil him as only cat-spoilers can. It took him no time to accustom himself to the new lifestyle.

El Señor es Amor y Paz

People tend to be Catholic or Evangelical. Our teacher meetings start with a prayer, as do our Monday school assemblies. On Saturdays and Sundays, one of the houses across the road plays church services at top volume. When a minister leads a prayer, people also pray aloud, but some fervently, with their own words and at their own speeds. They close their eyes and raise their hands, sometimes pulsing their arms. This style contrasts with the listen in silence or repeat what the pastor said style I grew up with.

Traveling to La Ceiba, I passed many signs celebrating the love and peace of God, and all the hired vehicles dedicate themselves to Jesus and El Señor with worded inscriptions or paintings of Jesus in his crown of thorns or a cross. My favorite tuk-tuk is painted with a picture of the Incredible Hulk, who proclaims, “Soy El Hulk!” and a picture of a man, I assume the driver, who responds, “Soy un hijo de Dios!” the message, no doubt, that the man, backed by El Señor, can kick anyone’s ass. I call the chicken buses “Jesus buses” because when I first saw the inscriptions, I though they were used specifically for taking people to church. But, despite the odes to that higher power, no one finds it odd that the Jesus-blessed bus also shows hyper-sexual reggaeton videos.

I can’t deny that the religiosity bugs me. The poorer people are, the more religious they tend to be, and on its face, this doesn’t make sense. How can someone praise how they are blessed when there are bars on the windows and no food on the table? It reminds me of Freud’s observation that the pleasure we experience from relief of pain is a sick pleasure because to feel it, we first must feel agony (I wonder now if he was talking about S&M, in which case, I’m taking him out of context.). So people thank God for the food they have, overlooking or somehow justifying the days without it.

Vintage

On the main road is a stretch of wall covered with a peeling advertisement for the Honduran beer, SalvaVida. It took me some time but I finally figured out why I find it so pleasing. My aesthetics have been corrupted by the ‘vintage’ look. In the States a person can pay very high prices for furniture either made of weathered materials, like wood or rusted metal, or designed so that it looks like weathered wood or rusted metal. You can pay people to make your stuff look old and worn out. It’s a pretty interesting people-with-money idea, and I’m as guilty as the next corrupted person to find my favorite bakery in Portland, Back to Eden, adorable with its use of old (or old-looking) cabinets and “reclaimed” wood. Then there’s the ubiquitous pictures of European villages and streets with centuries old buildings that are disheveling in an oh-so-quaint way…. So that SalvaVida sign? It fires all those quaint and vintage aesthetic receptors in my brain. But the thing is that there’s nothing fashionable about the look of peeling paint and crumble here. It’s the look of someone who doesn’t have enough money to repaint, repair, or replace. It’s the look of poverty.

How did that worn out look become so popular? What makes it so special, and is the pleasure confined to white urban people with money? When I see a worn out cabinet being used to store flour I think of how well it was made so that it is still useful now. I admire the use of real materials rather than a bunch of woodchips slathered with glue to make a board, then screwed together into a shelf that will definitely not survive the zombie apocalypse. I think of farms and outdoors and simplicity, when men were men and all we had to do was live on the land, that sort of nonsense fed to me by Hollywood. I think of when people cared about quality.

In other news, today is March 1. The countdown to the end of the school year is going strong, too strong. But that relief is mixed with panic as I wonder what is next.

As ever,

theresa

Our cat, Nova

The me of me, or I don’t love *Serial*

In my former life, I loved This American Life. TAL, Radiolab, The Moth…. Give me a good story, sprinkle on some intelligence, and I’m yours. These podcasts accompanied my bike journeys between home and everywhere Portland. Engrossing enough to pass the time and learn me some new stuff, and light enough that half my brain could follow the narrative arc while the other half dodged cars, bikers, debris, humans.

I haven’t listened to any of them in six months. The moments with empty ear time, such as walking through town or taking a bus somewhere, aren’t moments I’m comfortable having technology exposed. Yesterday, however, I started a long-term project, making friendship bracelets for my 7th graders (desires of the heart don’t always make sense), and tuned in to the first episode of Serial, that much-hyped podcast from the TAL team. I liked the story well enough, but what grated was the nasally, detached, self-aware tone of the presenters and even the interviewees. I’d noticed this previously but my interest in the storytelling had been enough to override my distaste. Now, with clean ears, not so much. Couldn’t Sarah Koenig show a little bit of messy emotion as she analyzed the situation, in this case a man possibly wrongly convicted for murder? Rather than sounding impartial, Koenig seems superior to this messy gray-zone battle among truth, lies, and memory. The right words are there and passion is acknowledged, but it’s too pretty and detached to sound genuine. At least Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab get goofy and giggly sometimes and are genuinely excited about their topic whereas Ira Glass and family couldn’t be bothered.

After Serial I tuned in to The Moth and, again, was annoyed by yet another nasally, self-aware tone, now with a huge dose of self-aggrandizement, that of Dan Kennedy as he introduced a live show recorded in Portland, Maine. He opened with his appreciation of the city’s beauty while simultaneously making them aware of just how busy he was on his book tour—this was the most beautiful city he’d landed in after all his flights the past four days. He subsequently commented on everyone’s niceness by way of a New Yorker’s desire to protect the innocence of young stranger who greeted him warmly. Yes, Dan, we are aware that you live in New York City. The audience came to hear just how important you are.

Closer to (my temporary) home, my coworkers are women primarily in their late teens/early 20s. Every event is a story told in that stilted, somewhat valley-girl-but-not voice that is self-conscious, self-interested, detached. The storyteller laughs at herself—isn’t this ridiculous? Isn’t this all just so funny? Aren’t those other people idiots? Unintended but no less present is intolerance. Someone comments about an activity she’s done and another comments that he has never done that before…like never eating chicken noodle soup while sick. One of the girls then gets in that person’s face, OMG, really?! How could you have never done that?! Really?! as if we aren’t individuals with different backgrounds, with our own histories. As if this is something very important and the person is very wrong. This lack of compassion can apply toward the kids, in the teacher talk that happens after hours, laughter at the kids’ behavior in a way that isn’t loving and just…surprises me.

The detachment makes me think of reaction videos where someone puts an odd object somewhere or does something silly that startles a stranger. Then the video is put on the internet so we can all laugh at the stranger being surprised. What is this but manipulation for our own pleasure? The expression of some superior, heartless attitude toward others. Ha ha, I just scared someone with a stuffed animal; I just made someone react in a perfectly normal way; I engaged someone’s startle reflex.

I’m also reminded of backlash to the former chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch two years ago after a 2006 interview in which he commented that he didn’t want ugly people wearing his clothes resurfaced. To protest this sentiment a young man bought A&F brand clothes from thrift stores and handed them out to people experiencing homelessness. Now the dreaded ugly people were wearing the brand. What was this but manipulating people for his purpose? His own desire to make some point about a revolting man. By all means, share with those in need…because they need it. The people aren’t props for you to use for a political statement.

This lack of compassion, this self-consciousness and detachment connects with the You’re Doing It Wrong trend in the media the past several years. BuzzFeed, Slate, Alternet, Huffington Post, et al, regularly, perhaps daily, feature articles about everything we are doing wrong. We are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrong, we are putting on our shirts wrong, we are breathing wrong, and obviously we are having sex wrong. In fact, we’re just wrong all around. My way is not different—it’s wrong. It’s black and white, this world. We must follow The Way. Okay, the headlines are just click-bait (just like my adorable cat picture above), the messages are nothing new in the world of sales, the cosmetics industry is built on it, but with so many competing for advertising dollars the message has spread beyond product purchase to my innocuous daily choices. How can there be a wrong way to make PB&J? I like mine with banana. That’s probably wrong. Why not call it different? Why not let the me of me and the you of you be something interesting to learn about and adopt if desired? Why can’t we just exchange our points of view without there being a right point? This what the uber-religious and the Republican Party thrive on—who you love is wrong, what you want to learn is wrong, what you want is wrong. Perhaps this is just the (US) American way, a lingering Puritan value.

To succeed is to fail, fail, and fail, and in-between failures, stand back up, learn from the dust, rest, and try again. To be wrong a lot of the time so you can occasionally be right…. Wait, no, failure isn’t wrong. Wrong smacks too much of morality. Failure is a key to learning (Oops, I made my chocolate cake without chocolate. Next time I’ll use chocolate.), but if we’re constantly chastising, teaching people to not trust their efforts and points of view, how can we expect our kids to Just Do It if they’re bound to Do It Wrong? I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of messing up, and I grew up pre-internet, when messages had fewer means of reaching and corrupting my tiny mind. My kids are slightly less connected than those in the US but they are still terrified of failure, and why wouldn’t they be? When parents get angry over 90% grades, when kids laugh at peers that mess up, when The Church looms over most of their lives, that doesn’t create an environment where kids are ready to try new things. So they turn off their brains, wait to be given the answer, and pout, whine, and get angry when the answer isn’t clear.

And now to go full circle, how does this relate to my criticisms of Serial? Failure means putting yourself on the very edge. It means having all the feels—the sadness, the pain, the extreme joys, the laughing out loud when no one else is, the crying in the corner for no good reason at all and letting the snot run out of your nose. It’s not always pretty and cool. So the vocal detachment sometimes seems a barrier to the sharing of experience. I suppose the idea is to, in reporter fashion, remove the teller from the story, to not influence the listener’s perspective, to allow space for independent opinion, but I don’t hear that. I hear hiding and judgment. I hear apathy. Sometimes. They’re doing it wrong. Or they’re doing it differently, in a way I don’t understand.

But I’m probably wrong.

And that’s okay.

theresa

P.S. The above is our new cat Nova. He wandered into our house on Valentine’s Day and hasn’t yet left.

Table

Privilege and Poverty

I missed last week’s post and another in January because I tried writing about a topic that concerns me, but about which I’m completely unqualified to write. I try to, either directly or run into it unknowingly while beating away at another idea, and end up just digging a hole into my own ignorance and unearthing embarrassment. That topic is poverty, both here and in the US.

I see it daily. Across the road from the school is a settlement of homes made from scraps of wood and metal sheeting. A few of the nicer ones are made of dark wood 2 x 4s. Most, perhaps all, don’t have electricity. While I think there is a central faucet, there is no running water in the homes. Some of our students live here.

The story of its settlement once made me happy. A man owned this large piece of land. Then, for some reason, it was taken away from him, perhaps for not paying taxes. A year ago people started moving in with tents. Over the year, witnessed by last year’s teachers, these tents grew into more durable dwellings, the ones I see today. I imagine they would eventually grow into small cement block homes, the ubiquitous style down here, with pilas, electricity, and running water. Other areas have been settled in this way and are now flourishing colonias, areas, as best I can understand, that aren’t incorporated into a city. So while the settlement is at first glance the picture of extreme poverty, its history gave me hope for the people’s future. With a semi-secure living space, moving forward and creating a livable future is much easier. Why shouldn’t fallow land be occupied by people without homes? How could there be a loser in that situation? I thought it comparable to Dignity Village, a semi-permanent encampment in Portland created by a small group of people experiencing homelessness. It now, according to various articles I glanced through, is home for over 60 people. It has non-profit status, a CEO, and rules to ensure a secure community for its residents. While not ideal, it is a place to sleep at night, to find community, to work toward something better. It is hopeful. I realize this is a gross oversimplification of Dignity Village and that it is far from perfect, and it is something better than no cover in the rain and no community.

The settlement story changed this week. The land is still owned by the same man, he just didn’t have all his paperwork in order. Paperwork involves rolls of red tape, the knots in which I can guess by the length of time it’s taken for the school’s attorney to process our volunteer visa paperwork (BTW, that tape was too tough; it’s not going to happen.). The residents who thought they owned their little plots of land, in fact, were ripped off by land sharks who sold what wasn’t theirs to sell. The police are now involved and, if the rumors are correct, are removing the residents. I am reminded of The Grapes of Wrath and people moving West with deeds to non-existent property. Humanity will probably lose this time around.

Two weeks ago I was at the local coffee place with a former substitute math teacher from our school. She is a young woman, nascent 20s at most, studying at a university in San Pedro. She wants to improve her English, I my Spanish. Our goal is to meet weekly. She asked me about the States, as many Hondurans do. The States is often their mecca for finding work and material wealth, for escaping the violence and poverty. It is hope. She was surprised to learn that poverty and homelessness are a problem in my home country. That I would see people sleeping in parks, under bridges on my commute to work. I’m not sure why I brought that up, maybe because I was talking about the widening divide between rich and poor, North and South, liberal and conservative. Maybe because it is difficult for me to listen to people idolizing and idealizing a place that is not worth its reputation. But I’m sure their idealization is not unlike mine of Sweden and Denmark, those socialist leaning societies with healthcare, paid ma/paternity leave, higher education, unemployment compensation. What I experience as a morass of decay, sickness, and greed, Hondurans see as their country on a hill. Most I’ve talked to, anyway. I have spoken with a few returnees, those who worked up North for a period then returned, who prefer the laid back lifestyle and affordability here to the busyness and stress and pressure there. Those comments fill me with schadenfreude, delight in outsiders seeing through our facade of excellence. If outsiders wonder why many US citizens dislike their country so much, consider that we’re raised to think anything is possible, that we all can become President, that riches are around the corner for all who try. All we have to do is work hard and happiness is ours. It’s in our Declaration of Independence, after all. Of course, it isn’t true and the antithesis to the American Dream is shown to us everyday, by our own media, by the politicians in power who care about anything but the citizens.

But I rant. I dislike rants filled with blanket generalizations. Let me avoid making this post unreadable.

How do you talk about the poverty of a wealthy country to a resident of an impoverished one? Is it possible for her to truly believe that people in the golden country live in cars, on the streets, under tarps, that there are many who go hungry, that millions of children are without homes, that we can have clean streets and despair and anger and sadness? This is where I always lose myself in the maze of ignorance and embarrassment, as I did in our conversation. She was quite obviously skeptical and I too aware of how my world view is colored by my own privilege of comfort and education. How exactly is poverty different here than in the US? A few ideas, and please forgive the oversimplifications and be gentle with my ignorance:

  • Services: It is skimpy, holey, ridiculously difficult to qualify for, and underfunded, but a social support system does exist in the US. There is unemployment insurance, for a time. There is subsidized housing, food aid, health care, and, by law, you can’t be turned away from the emergency room (though you can be billed for it). While a person can still hit bottom, there’s a thin cushion. Honduras has none of these things. Now, I did ask my young friend if a person in trouble could expect support from his/her community in times of trouble. I’m unsure, but I think she affirmed this. I’m don’t know that the same can be said of the States. Community and US aren’t words that frequently appear together.
  • Education: Based upon my discussions with some of our teachers, most of whom also teach at public schools, those school are little more than holding pens. Class sizes are a minimum of 40 kids; chaos, beyond what I complain of, is the norm. CBS, where the largest class is in the mid-20s, is a heaven. Education beyond grade 6, approximately age 11, is optional. However, I see far too many children younger than this selling snacks on the highway. Public education in the States is wildly variable, with poorer districts having crowded classrooms and minimal resources, but free lunch is an option for those who qualify, books, while not guaranteed, might be provided, and those with special needs are more likely to get help. There are no definites, but there is hope.
  • Scope: The World Bank says that 64.5% of the Honduran population lives in poverty; the US Census Bureau says that 14.5% of the US population lives in poverty. It’s unclear how many impoverished US citizens are children; I’ve found estimates of 3% and 20%. The problem with this comparison is that the definitions of poverty are different, with the definition of poverty in the US being ridiculously low (~$23,000 for a family of 4). Also, $1.25 a day, the definition of poverty to The World Bank, can buy you monotonous if sufficient food for the day in Honduras, but not in the US. I’m sure I’m not understanding the calculations, but, numbers aside, the scope of poverty in Honduras, a country the size of Kansas, is much more pervasive by capita.
  • Bribes: Bribes happen in the US, but if you want anything significant done here, if you want the law to be enforced, bribes are a requirement, I’ve been told. Now, this can work in your favor. If you need to renew your visitor’s visa but don’t want to hop borders all the way to Belize, you can bribe an immigration official and receive a 90-day stamp. The bribe is far less costly than transportation and exit/entrance fees. When my bus was pulled over by police—not unusual—for a papers check, some slipped lempiras into their passports. They were allowed to reboard and continue their journeys. Perhaps they had questionable legal status or were perfectly legal residents but knew to suspect trouble.
  • Transportation: Transportation is cheap here and decently connected. A bus from here to San Pedro, approximately 45 minutes away, costs $0.50. My rapidito to La Ceiba, about 4 hours away, cost less than $10. While it would take some time, I could travel across the country quite affordably and easily. Tuk-tuk taxis wait at the major bus stops and if one weren’t available, hitchhiking is a norm. The same cannot be said of the US. Granted, the country is substantially larger, but good alternative transportation is the exception, not the norm. It’s infrequent, limited, or non-existent in non-major areas, which is most of the country. More often than not, you need a car.
  • Internet: Most, though not all, of the States is wired, and it is too expensive, yet, internet access is much more likely to be found than here. Internet is a requirement for social advancement.
  • Employment: Unemployment hovers around 6% in the US right now and in Honduras, around 4%, but it’s unclear how the numbers are gathered here. No doubt, as with the US number, it doesn’t take into account underemployment, ability to live on earned income (see: service industry), and those not counted because they’ve dropped out of the market or are working under the table.
  • Awareness: Wealth does exist here. Honduras is one of the most unequal countries in the world (not that the US is far behind in the rankings). The mall carries major designer brands; you can purchase an iPhone at full price; billboards show people enjoying life with perfect skin. Some people have servants, drivers, guards, pools, etc. Yet, none of this is constantly glaring at you outside of the major cities. I never see billboards, most of the clothing is resale, and until the arrival of Maxi-Despensa (a Walmart family owned chain), I’d never seen a store with shiny big screen televisions. All this to say that if you don’t have a television and have no reason to travel to the mall in San Pedro, you can believe that your way of life is the best it could be Perhaps this is better for the spirit.
  • Potential: Because of the above mentioned differences between Here and There, the likelihood of crawling out of poverty is probably greater in the US. I speak from complete ignorance, but I have to believe that the little layer of padding we do have toward social good does give more reason for hope. I haven’t even touched on comparative violence levels, efficacy of the justice system, sexual politics, or The Church’s influence.

Lately my posts have left me feeling especially vulnerable. This one especially so—I keep avoiding it—because I know so little about this country in which I live and the topic on which I’m writing. I’ve been too poor to afford healthcare, but I’ve always had a place to live and a family I know would help me if needed. I have few personal connections in this country. For my knowledge of Honduras I rely on overheard stories, images of semi-starved cows, overly thin children without lunch, laundry washed in the river, and a warning not to use my iPhone in town. For the US, I rely on myriad articles I’ve read, minor brushes with US social services and applications for medical assistance, personal anecdotes of poverty from previous jobs, and observations of the same people pushing shopping carts through Portland streets for years.

Going back to my problems with idealization of the US, it bothers me because I worry, as is my privilege, that it motivates people to leave their country rather than stay to help make it better. Their flight is based on a myth. But how can I blame them? I, too, often dream of leaving the US, because the problems seem too big to fix, especially in my lifetime. I suppose to fight that fight, ever the good one, is to look beyond myself more than I’m able, to future generations that will benefit as I won’t. It requires me to see the small progresses as steps toward a larger betterment. Yes, there is a problem with police violence toward minoritiesand the Supreme Court seems close to declaring marriage exclusion laws unconstitutional. Yes, states are making it increasingly difficult for women to take charge of their own vaginas, and Obamacare has enabled people like me to catch up on delayed healthcare. Yes, it is possible to work full-time at Walmart and still qualify for public benefits, and Seattle’s minimum wage is gradually increasing to $15 per hour. Pair the bad with good.

Deal with the reality and keep up hope, and build, always build and re-build.

Yours in contemplation,

theresa

P.S. Speaking of building, one of the teachers has constructed tables for the schoolyard, made from discarded materials.

P.P.S. I was unsure if I should publish this in two parts rather than one. Thoughts?

what colors are your markers?

Good Teacher

My days are so changeable; I’m so changeable. Earlier this week a housemate was turning off our water at nights due to a leak in the pipe through the kitchen wall. The controller for the water is located at the front of the house, outside the gate that is locked with a stiff, rusty lock one has to arm wrestle open. The way the gate is designed, you have to reach through the gate to unlock it if you’re in the house. I’m the first one up on school days. Tuesday morning, the lock key refused to turn the final millimeter. Now, it’s one thing to have some anonymous entity turn off the water; it’s another when the water could be on if only a stupid fucking lock would work properly—don’t ask me why we all refuse to buy a new one—and I had what could only be called a tantrum, at 515am. I rattled the gate violently, vowed to throw that lock into oblivion, slammed our front door, and knocked over some liquor bottles that are stacked immediately beside the door (no idea why). I was an absolutely furious baby dinosaur. Brushing my teeth, I waited for housemates to storm from their rooms and yell, What the hell is going on? and then upbraid me for being rude. No one did. No one even mentioned my baby fit, at least not to me.

Despite this disastrous beginning, it turned into a good day, because I got to be a Good Teacher. A Holy Grail of teaching seems to be a book called The First Days of School. When I was researching teaching how-tos, that book was frequently cited as a touchstone for setting up a classroom to avoid behavior problems. The small house has a copy and I flipped through its pages before the school year started. Many teachers share their personal stories and the one I remember is a man who said his style of teaching involved his students doing all the work. At the end of the day his fellow teachers would be exhausted, while he was refreshed and calm (I envision him skipping down the hall, La la la) because his students knew procedures, took charge of their activities like knowledge-nibbling beavers, and he merely guided them along this river of self-learning. Oh gawd. If I’m gone for a minute to retrieve forgotten supplies from the teachers’ room, the 7th and 8th graders immediately abandon all educational tasks for gossip, mirror worship, and wrestling. My science lessons too often consist of me lecturing for the period and attempting to generate some discussion, some Socratic back and forth. It’s like wrestling hogs on a slip-and-slide. Use your brains, dammit! After class I slink away to the next class. Sometimes, though, I’m a Good Teacher, and while I might not have a posh yacht upon which to steer my students, I make do with a leaky raft.

I have a science textbook for this term. Let me tell you that my lesson planning is hours shorter. My school nights sometimes end at 6pm rather than 9. The book has science application ideas, and I just love the whole darn thing. I can wax poetic about it….  Here, let me do just that:

Oh dearest text of mine
that maketh the science so clear
let me clutch you to my heart
you are to me so dear.
Let us never part
without you…I
I
I
I
would have a complete frikkin’ nervous breakdown I was so close to the edge I tell you and I do not deny my need for you and if you leave me ever I will find a bridge surely there are bridges here and throw myself from it.

And, no, that is not hyperbolic. I have never loved a book with such desperation.

Anyway, we’re studying light this term. The application idea was to envision what a red, green, and blue beach ball would look like through filters of those same colors. I had magenta and green filters. The students had markers. They drew their beach balls and passed around the filters. I took a break from talking for what I had anticipated would be ten minutes. My confidence quailed a bit when this turned into two classes—had I taught the concept so poorly? I self-consoled—whether my lectures were clear or not, application is always different from reception, from regurgitation of notes. None of them whined and gave up, and most of them, the ones that w/could, diligently tried and understood with a little individual attention. Then, Friday, we played with pigment, putting strips of paper marked with a black dot in a glass of water to see what colors of ink the marker companies used to make black (Crayola uses magenta and blue/cyan, FYI). More science in action. These classes were so relaxing, not because I was working less, but because this is what science is about, this playing with the world. I felt competent, like real learning might be happening. Like my students would do more than just memorize answers to the quiz questions. I was a Good Teacher.

The educational culture here, and to a lesser degree in the US, promotes regurgitation. Teachers lecture and students take notes, memorize, and recite on exam day. Students work for the grade, not understanding, which is completely normal and was a key factor in my educational drive when I was in school, although if I didn’t understand, I couldn’t memorize, which, BTW, some people find rather annoying. Over winter break I posed this question to /r/teachers (ever my resource), “How do I teach my students to think?” because once the students are done writing, they immediately turn off their brains. They can’t follow instructions or put 1 and 1 together to make 2. If it’s not already in the box, they won’t find it on their own. This drives me bonkers because science is boring without thinking and discussion. As is reading and speaking and anything, really. Learning English is more difficult and slower. One teacher suggested riddles, so that’s what the 7th graders do during double hour science on Tuesdays. They like it because it delays science, but I hope I’m sneaking in some critical thinking. As I write this, I don’t know why I don’t do this with the older grades. I will.

A common discussion among the volunteers is cultural differences in educational styles. The volunteers, most of us from the US and Europe, strive for dynamic classrooms with hands-on activities, peer interaction, discussion. My TEFL crash course was crammed with activity ideas. Note-taking and lecture is unavoidable, but it is never the primary approach. Depending on their grade level, the students receive this style of education about 2 or 3 classes per day. The remaining classes, lead by the Honduran teachers, are heavily lecture and notes, with the exceptions of P.E., home economics, and art. So our style is the anomaly of the day, and most of the students don’t quite understand how to manage their relative freedom when the activity is to discuss their winter breaks using the past tense, or piece together without significant assistance (spoon feeding) that if the apple reflects red light but the green filter transmits only green, that the red light will not go through the green filter, or that if Crayola keeps making more crayon colors, it probably means their brand is popular. But I try and I’ll keep trying because I see no point to teaching otherwise. I do wish, however, that the culture, and the US culture as well, was more open to inquiry, to playing around with ideas to find out how and why things work, and didn’t worry so much when the student’s grade falls below 100. Grades don’t equal learning, but that is a difficult idea to accept when grades also equal better schools, a road out of here, and parents feeling they’re getting what they pay for.

Science saved this week and while I won’t say 7th grade was a laugh, I will say it didn’t upset or depress me as much as it often does. I didn’t cry and beat the bathroom wall with my palms as I did last week. Also, our water was fixed.

But the gate lock is still pointless.

In color,

theresa

Owl a student made

New becoming

The older I get, the more meaningless my numbers become. There are fewer markers than in youth, when 5 = school, 13 = hormones, 16 = driving, and 18 = adulthood and voting for the civic-minded, and 21 = drinking. To somehow get a handle on how quickly time is passing and how slowly I am changing I calculate the distance since key events or non-events. I graduated from high school almost half my lifetime ago. I’ve known my best friend for 23 years. I met my partner in crime when I was 30. My mother gave birth to me when she was 30. Despite my age, I’ve never owned a house or car and don’t see either happening soon. I’ve never been pregnant. I’m older than many, if not most, my students’ parents. I don’t feel 35, whatever those numbers should feel like. The 3 has two little cubbies I could crawl into; the 5 has one. Neither is as pointy as the 4.

Still, if I think about my age, I piddle a little, that is to say my heart thumps, my throat squeezes tight, and then I shut down the emotional circuits, disconnect, and find a book to escape into. Despite the message of youth-obsessed culture, I know 35 is not old, and older age doesn’t have to be the sad, hopeless, decrepit, inflexible, ugly, and undesirable portrait culture paints. I haven’t reached the half-way mark of my 82 year expectancy, according to WHO. My wise mind understands that age is worthless and bears only the value I ascribe. But let me indulge and say I’m not where I’d hoped I’d be. Or, letting go of expectations, impossible predictions when I’m a small part among billions, foresight, shoulds, I’ll adjust that to I’m not where I want to be, because I don’t know where that is, and I feel the door to there shrinking. [Not to get all Dr. Seuss, but Where is There? It’s not Here. Is it Near? Should I fear the Here and There not Here?). I feel too old to be this lost and insecure, more lost than I was at 18 and without the hope I had then, that hope of Youth, and Potential, and Bright Future, to be fighting some of the same demons as at 13, like acne, and disordered eating, and depression, and self-contempt and -doubt, and loneliness, and conflict avoidance. I don’t want to be on the proverbial deathbed ruing the time I wasted disliking myself. It’s nonsense, really, more not important stuff, that time spent in dark places. I’m old enough to have the important stuff sorted by now…aren’t I?

Growing up I wasn’t told that dreams change. In school, by family, I was asked what I wanted to be, as if there were only one thing I would ever become, similar to the myth that there’s only one soulmate. There might be many, or none. Stories usually end when the protagonist has reached The Dream or found The One. Maybe it’s our desire for certainty. I want certainty. There is none. People hop from job to job, live with parents indefinitely, see retirement as a fantasy, cling to worthless college degrees for a guarantee, cling to anything for a guarantee. In The Dream, I wanted to be a Writer, but the vastness of the field—the people, their skills, their voices—and my inability to foresee my place…. Bah, that’s just a fancy way of disguising that I got scared. I wrote a problem I couldn’t solve—how to bring the garden of a story to life (figuratively)—and then lost my confidence to write my way into and out of other problems. And then the stacks of half sheets—the white space of full sheets being too intimidating—filled with snippets of plays that went nowhere got too tall and I stopped waking at 4am to write and just…stopped chasing that dream. I doubted too many of my lines. I tried replacing it with others in theatre, but that drama eventually broke my heart. It took me into its gapping maw, chewed up the juicy bits and spat out the rest. I want(ed) to be married and just a little bit famous. Now I’m in search of another dream, another becoming. Or becomings.

This new becoming is so much more difficult than the first. The first time around I had teachers encouraging me, the relative comfort of school and peers, the cradle of parental support, the promise of potential. That meaningless potential, a bottomless cup to be filled. I’ve let, my fear has let, all those people down, not that they remember. I always felt like a phony. This second time ’round I’m dream-shy, leery of the chinks in the armor, the blade of confidence duller. I’m conscious of the need for money and medical care, that I somehow must prepare for the day I won’t be able to work. I shamefully consider the income-earning potential of my dreams. I plunge my soul for new dreams and find vagueness. I explore ideas and run aground. I skim my resume for skills and come up empty. I pick up a book and hide.

I’ve never wanted to go back to my younger self. The current demons are generally kinder than the old. But I do envy my students. I envy our teenage volunteers. Unless I can carry my current knowledge, I don’t want to be that young again, but I do want what that youth represents. The clean future slate. Untarnished hopes and dreams. So much time to mess up and succeed. Ignorance of failure’s weight and how much nonsense can hide the The Path.

If age isn’t important, why am I worrying? Because one day I’ll look too old to start over at the beginning of a field. Because I’ve lived this long and tomorrow could die with nothing of note in my obituary but regrets. I censor my self-ageism. I publicly cry that you’re never too old to change. I tell myself that I will make something work one day, if I keep trying (how American of me). My public face is hopeful. It is this hope that keeps me going, despite knowing that I might not ever make anything work. It took me here. The hope and the reality play tug-of-war with miles of intestine.

My heroes are Stargirl, Ramona QuimbyYotsuba, and Black Widow of The Avengers movie. In my dreams, theresa is lithe and flits from person to person, place to place, the world a hopscotch board, making smiles. She wears sparkles. Roadblocks make her laugh. She never needs sleep. She’s probably a fairy.

ta ta,

theresa

P.S. The owl was sewn by one of my (male) students in Actividades Practicas, a.k.a. Home Ec. I liked it so much he gave it to me.

Cats!

Hagfish don’t speak Spanish

Last week’s post cancelled due to ignorance. It was something on the theme of the temporality of so much here and poverty, then I realized that nearly all I observed here could apply to poverty in the US, which lead me to wonder what, if anything, was different and what should my role be in that. I’m here trying to make a small change, why do I not do that in my home country? It all became too complicated for a weekend and I didn’t feel qualified on the topic. So the post remains in the draft box.

Today’s thoughts:

Five months in, how’s my Spanish coming along? I was so proud of my first efforts, my first fuck-ups. Full of hope and energy, I valiantly struggled to push aside the language barrier and exchange ideas with my newfound friends. No, not really. That’s how my ideal self envisioned the events, but there haven’t been many friends and the barrier falls over. My Spanish sputters along in the same old way. I teach English and live with English speakers. I use Spanish to communicate to the principal that I’m borrowing his calculator and ask if I’m really supposed to give the 9th graders extra points for the museum trip, offer one of the school cleaners a piece of cake, and request a pound of green beans at the market. I’ve learned the words for cash (effectivo), come in/move by (pase), and sloth (peresozo, the same as lazy). Flustered, I often mix up pensar (to think) and querer (to like), despite having known them for years. A month ago, when I was invited to one of my favorite homes with a fellow volunteer—a local favorite who became fluent in a year—I was reduced to observer, straining to understand their conversation for, no exaggeration, hours. Meanwhile, Vee travels in Guatemala for two weeks and returns confident and willing to barge in with broken Spanish at any opportunity.

Maybe language learning is for extroverts. More accurately, language learning is for people who are able to make small talk or say nothing, really, just for the sake of talking. It’s also for people who have confidence that others will want to talk to them. None of these are me. At a recent birthday party four of us attended, I was seated with two friends of the family, one of whom was the mother of a student. I would have enjoyed getting to know her, but it’s difficult enough to bridge that gap in English without self-awareness-reducing chemical aid like caffeine or alcohol, much less in a language I barely speak and when I’m unsure of culturally acceptable topics; and then my style of semi-intense probing might not be appropriate for a party. I’m more into the What makes you tick? conversation and less This music makes me want to dance, OMG this goofy thing happened to me yesterday you have to listen to it, Isn’t it funny how much the kids are obsessed with their phones? To each their own, I just can’t do it. If I were engaged by someone else, I would try, bravely, strongly, but it wouldn’t go very far because we’d reach the limits of my abilities or the topics I can ask questions for quickly. And generally the families assume we don’t speak Spanish, so they don’t try to engage.

When I chose to work with this school, I was afraid that this lack of learning would happen since I would be living with volunteers rather than a family, but I wanted the proximity and support of other teachers. The alternative was life with a family but possibly too rowdy for my sanity and with not as much support. There wasn’t an ideal situation, and I chose the one that would better promote teaching success rather than language learning success.

This is all a terrible way of looking at language learning and myself. I’m just disappointed that I’m this socially awkward hagfish that resists evolution, that I’m not someone else, someone who believes that she is worth talking to, even in another language, and disappointed that I can’t kick my ass hard enough to…to what? find little funny things to say? find anything to say? I’m rather negative about all of this, especially when I see how quickly my roommate is progressing, due to her newfound friends. Maybe I need longer calves.

Okay, I need to believe in the lights ahead. I do have a conversation partner at school I should utilize more. As far as topics of conversation go, I can always ask her how to navigate the cultural waters that divide us and appropriate party conversation. I could also accept my status as a perennially awkward seafloor-dwelling scavenger. We all have a part to play.

Yours in goof,

theresa

P.S. The cats at our school understand that it’s not what you say but how much sun and playtime you enjoy that really matters.

A variety of fine sign.

Ugly Girls

Because of the teaching time crunch, I usually create posts within in a short time span. I draft Saturday and refine and publish Sunday at 101pm CST. Now on holiday, I’ve been working on a post, but not this post, for a few days, looking for the in, to identify exactly what I want to share. All the bits of the theme are scattered about in different notes on Evernote. A hook is found and explored, then it meanders and I get lost…another hook is found and explored and….. It might be the lack of pressure—I don’t have to have it done today—and thus I question my words and intent more and nothing passes the sniff test. Or maybe I just have so much room to expand and think and play that my brain is giddy with freedom.

I often worry that my blog is too negative and that worry inspired a bathroom thought about audience. Way back in writing school and teachings thereafter I was advised to consider my audience. Who is my audience for this blog? Initially it was people who knew me IRL and the ephemeral cloudpeople out there who just might chance across my musings. After a few friends commented that they appreciated the blog’s honesty, a feature essential to good writing, I hoped it might be a light for readers who were, like me, tired of life-adventure blogs with an extroverted and self-assured tone, that gloss over the challenges and want to explain how things should be done and sell their point-of-view in some way. All I want to sell to the world that stumbles here is my honesty. That is my audience.

I used to believe that I could be a Writer (big “W”). I went to playwriting school and everything. When asked why I wrote, why I thought I should be known, I said it was because I had a point of view that I rarely saw outside of teen theatre. The point of view of an Ugly Girl. Now I believe this concept is popularized (no, this is not some claim to cool before it was cool), merchandized, and on its way to fetishization. But my version, the only known version in my world at that time, was created in front of the student mail boxes in the then-called Dramatic Writing Program of NYU with a girl named Miriam, shortly after my Introduction to Screenwriting class. I was one of two women in the class, the other being a very attractive and confident student who has since written her way to the Pulitzer Prize (confidence well placed!). I was speaking about something and my co-female leapt in with her own idea (rather rude of her to interrupt perhaps) and suddenly the class came alive, all the males crawled into her light, and I was blocked out. Ah, okay, this is how it works.

Ugly Girls aren’t ugly, per se, but they are on the get-to-know-them-to-see-their-beauty spectrum, or they just have a nonstandard form of beauty. They aren’t wearing the coolest clothes or make-up, their bodies aren’t up to the advertised standard, and they’re gawky or awkward or just a little off. Alienation might also be key. With few words Miriam instantly understood my troubles in class and in that conversation Ugly Girls were born. That in two words was why I was going to be a writer.

In retrospect, through the post-therapy, post-additional self-awareness, post-getting-out-of-my-head-more lens, I know my interpretation of the class dynamics may be inaccurate, but the phenomenon and what that moment fertilized, the Ugly Girls, is real.

Janeane Garofalo

Abby. The cat, however, is pure Hollywood starlet.

Miranda

Miranda. Cheeky.

Brienne kicking ass.

Brienne kicking ass.

Janeane Garofalo as Abby in The Truth About Cats and Dogs is a U.G. Miranda Hart as Miranda in Miranda (such fun), in all her 6+ foot glory, is a U.G. I’d put Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones there too. Being an Ugly Girl doesn’t bar you from personal success, but it comes with greater social challenges. (For the record, I find those three characters beautiful. I’d jump ’em in a heartbeat.)

I’ve never written about this before. I’m discovering questions. There are a lot of ugly women out there, but are they Ugly Girls? Sarah Palin is ugly inside and out, and it’s the inside that immediately disqualifies her, but were she beautiful on the inside? Maybe. Or, no, because she is attempting to be mainstream. Oh, this is a bad example. I think a key part of Ugly Girl-ness is an inability to conform to the mainstream, even if you want to, which is why Ally Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club doesn’t qualify. I’ve expressed on this blog my desire for pretty things, to be pretty and disheveled in just the right way. But I can’t. I’ve tried and can’t make it work out. I probably don’t want it enough. An Ugly Girl doesn’t have to reject the mainstream and wear that as a badge of honor; for her, it was never an option. Please believe I’m not trying to be elitist or hold up wounds as a perverse claim of superior personhood. I’m attempting to explain a way of interacting in this world.

Like I said, I used to believe in myself as a Writer, in part because of my desire to promote the Ugly Girl experience as one with equal validity. Today I’ll allow myself to say I am a writer (little “w”). My lack of confidence and skills as a writer that eventually quashed The Dream could and might one day be its own post(s). I also stopped believing in the necessity of my voice. The U.G. type is seen more in the media, though she’s impure—her status is only temporary, a, if not the, problem that needs a solution. The plots play the U.G. as a rebel against conformation for the sake of rebelling (I’m drawing a blank on examples. Anyone?) or she’s a Hollywood-beautiful actress we are supposed to believe is anything but (Minnie Driver, Circle of Friends) or all she needed was the right friends and make-up (Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club). In any event, the resolution often involves the character’s admittance into the mainstream. I no longer think the U.G. stories aren’t being written. I’m sure they are, but Hollywood and such doesn’t buy them, at least not in pure form, with a potential positive resolution being self-acceptance or something that doesn’t incorporate U. G.-ness as a problem, because those ideas aren’t what we supposedly want to buy. Or do we?

Neil LaBute is not my favorite playwright—he takes a hammer and hits you over the head with his points—but he has a play called reasons to be pretty. For about five minutes of my life I acted and there was a role in that play written for me. One woman is beautiful, the other is “ordinary.” The “ordinary” woman is an Ugly Girl. Her appearance is nothing fancy, she feels it from society, and she has a peace with it. Her story is one I longed for for years. (I’m sad to say that the Portland production was lacking.) The play was very popular and was nominated for several and won a few major awards. So there is an audience for this unsexy story, even in the US. There is an audience for the Ugly Girl.

I do regularly see U.G. stories and actresses in media outside the States. That’s nice.

In a writing class with Martin Epstein I wrote a piece about how much I hated my manipulative college roommate. A response to the piece was that it revealed more about the writer than the character. Of course, this blog is intended to reveal me, but I do attempt to control the message. I don’t want the message here to be one of self-loathing, because it isn’t, or self-pity. Of course it’s one of self-doubt, confusion, alienation, more square peg round hole stuff. But I want it simply to be neutral, without judgment.

This is one way of experiencing the world.

theresa

Junior the cat

Almost Christmas in La Ceiba, or I’m a terrible planner

22 December 2014: Maps

The deceptive map.

The map of deception.

Maps deceive me, at least the kind found in my travel books. The cities consist of small, four-sided outlines. The parks and rivers are shaded gray. Deemed notable restaurants and places to stay are marked with black squares and triangles. The streets and avenues are clearly labeled. It’s all so contained, neat, clean, conflict and stress free. Look! The ocean is only seven blocks away! That cafeteria that sounds so tasty is on the same street as where I’m staying!  So despite my guidebook and other sources saying that La Ceiba is the largest city on the North Coast, I’m, because of all those neat, clean lines, dismayed when the bus enters…what is obviously a big city, with its powerline bundles, streets crammed with vendors, and crowded roads without stop signs or lights. The lines in my guidebook have been colored in. Crap! What was I thinking? I’m in Central America: this is what a big city looks like. Baby pout, complete with thrashing fists: But I don’t wanna be in a big city on my vacation.

Now it’s time for damage control—I don’t have to stay here, we all make mistakes, the owner of the hostel is supposed to be helpful with things like setting up tours, just taking the buses here by myself was an accomplishment-–mentally talking myself out of purchasing a ticket for the Shame Spiral Express. I keep talking and talking, through the awkward exchange with the woman at the hostel who lets me in but doesn’t understand when I try to explain that I’ve already partially paid for a room (she straightens it out with the owner); through the wandering up and down of streets in search of a non-US fast food place to eat; through observation that there are very few street signs, rendering my guidebook and the internet nearly useless unless I want to count blocks;

[Shame break: After a bit of pacing back and forth on the street in search of the ingress point, I found my way to the pier, a rather new structure and wonderfully designed so I can either lean against the railings or walk a few steps down to a walkway surrounding the pier to sit or dive off into the water. I choose sitting and am joined by a local with decent English who when I passed a few minutes earlier was insistent on learning where I was from and my name. I told him he’d have to wonder, which prompted a response of “You are a wonder woman!” He’s older, dressed in paint splattered clothes, earnest and not creepy. He speaks mostly, about his country and how he wants it to get better. He has a strong belief in the current president, who doesn’t look the other way with the drug violence. He believes that the US can and is helping Honduras and also hates the Bush family. We chat; I watch the clouds pass over Pico Bonito, the boys diving into the water. The beach here is not nearly as ugly as I was lead to believe.]

through finding myself back at the hostel rather early, wondering if I’ll be able to set up any tours tomorrow, because dammit, I really shouldn’t have started planning my vacation only two weeks ago, and I should have called some tour companies because fuck doing it all DIY but I have this thing about using the phone, especially in Spanish, and I have a well-developed ability to avoid activities that cause me extreme anxiety, like planning adventures to unknown places; through watching a movie and feeling generally like a loser;

23 December 2014: Monkeys and mangroves

through waking up and wondering if the owner will prove helpful in setting up tours today; through laying in bed and feeling like such a wimp for all of this being so emotionally difficult.

11am. The owner, Peter, has arranged a kayak tour at the Refugio de Vida Silverstre Cuero y Salado, a mangrove covered wetland home to lovely animals like jaguars and howler monkeys and manatees and birds.  I am the first to request a kayak tour at the refuge…go me! [The tour actually takes place in Laguna de Cacao, which is pretty but not what I requested and paid for.]

I ate a delicious plato típico for breakfast (eggs, frijoles licuados, two kinds of cheese, tajadas, and ham slice), discovered corn flan on the menu and promised to return tomorrow, and then wandered to the beach alongside the rather stinky El Estero, observing how nice it is to walk freely because I’m ignorant of the dangerous parts of town, though I’m still in the central part of town with all the hotels. My lip was and still is twitching…from anxiety? As I was leaving the hostel, I passed a large group of travelers eating breakfast and looking generally as if they do this all the time, and I suspect that no matter how much I travel, I will never look that cool and casual because I’m just not that kind of person, though I want to be. They were also tall—is that the key to cool person travel? Should I invest in a stretching machine or heels? Anyway, anxiety because I don’t want to have traveled six hours just to read in my room and occasionally leave to eat decent food. Granted, it is quieter here than where I currently live. There are firecrackers but not right outside my window, and I do have a fan and private bath and it is overall rather pleasant except for having to be let in and out of the hostel, which is kept locked for security. I suppose what is really bothering me is possibly being judged, by the anonymous Them always lurking in the soft, insecure corners, or in the physical form of the Other Volunteers or People in My Life, as having failed at My Vacation; and I don’t want to waste these precious days in being unhappy.

Then I suppose I just shouldn’t. I am content right now writing in this. I’m a little tired so may take a nap, get lunch, and then get ready for my kayaking adventure.

3pm+. I am picked up in a white battered truck by a young man named Daniel, who also has some English (with all these English speakers I have few opportunities to practice Spanish). I am his third tour of the day. He’s been working nonstop since about 5am and has barely eaten. None of this is said in complaint—he loves his job and spends most of the hour-long ride pointing out edible plants and telling me about the 400 snakes in Honduras, only three of which are poisonous, and how he prefers living in the jungle to his apartment in La Ceiba. As we drive, swerving around the potholes that plague the roads in Honduras, I reflect that it feels rather odd to be alone on this tour, with an unknown man in a truck, when the reputation of Honduran men isn’t that positive. (Or is it odd that I am prompted to think this way?) I am self-conscious of my skin and gender when he idles at a stop light to purchase coconut water and when we pass slowly through a village, where the residents stare at the truck (as I’ve noticed people do to all cars passing through any neighborhood). I’m not concerned, but I can hear the voices of those who worry about these things questioning, Is This Wise? Still, I push those voices aside and reflect that right here, in this truck, on my adventure, I am happy.

Later: I see a howler monkey and her baby waaaayyy up there in the tree. Daniel hoots deeply. The monkeys respond. Another monkey sits in the crook of some branches. Another is hanging by her (I’m told) tail and poking through the leaves and eating. Yep. I am seeing monkeys. They’re too far away for my camera, so believe me. They have fat bellies and their tails are so strong as they do that dangling monkey thing!

The lagoon is surrounded by mangroves, their massive roots jutting out of the water. Daniel tells me the Garifuna use the water to make wine. I haven’t kayaked before. When he paddles too, we move rapidly; otherwise, the kayak barely moves and I splash a lot of water on my shorts. The only wildlife we see is a crab that bites Daniel’s hand. I’m mildly disappointed but not much. The lagoon is so quiet and calm and the mangroves impressive with their bunches of legs. In 8th grade I read an essay about floating mangrove islands, but I’m told these don’t move. Maybe their roots are too entangled. My camera runs out of memory after five pictures (and I later discover didn’t come with a cord to transfer pictures).

Cacao pod.

This could make chocolate.

On the drive to the lagoon, we also passed many cacao trees, but none with ripe pods. Daniel’s co-guide hands me a ripe pod, creamy yellow the length of a banana but thick like a mango. The seeds are surrounded by a sweet edible flesh. Nature!

On the ride back to La Ceiba, Daniel asks if I’d like to try mango wine, or garifuni, a type of alcohol made by the Garifuna. I’m not much of a drinker but when New Experience calls, always answer. He pulls into Sambo Creek, a Garifuna village, and inquires of passersby for garifuni. We pull in front of a house and he returns with manzanitas, a Honduran apple—red skin, soft, tart—and a small bottle, two shots worth. The alcohol is raw but reminiscent of mangoes. It warms my stomach and leaves Daniel invigorated. I really want to find more of those apples.

Back in La Ceiba, hungry, I end up at Pizza Hut. Meh. I read Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Should I stay here for Christmas Day? There are no buses that day and everything will be closed down. I could probably use the kitchen to cook food, but how awkward, maybe too awkward. I decide to go to Pico Bonito tomorrow and then leave that afternoon. While Christmas in my new home will be dull, at least I will be able to eat.

bridge to waterfalls

Bridge over Rio Cangrejal, to the forest.

24 December 2014: Waterfalls     

Breakfast is another plato típico. Afterwards, as I repack my backpack, I question my choice to leave after only two days. It’s not as if my small town has anything better to offer and here there are more places to walk around, and while the shower isn’t hot it is lukewarm, and that’s something. Plus it’s peaceful. But damn having to ring the bell to be let out of the building is awkward and then how am I going to eat if everything is closed? No, might as well go. Why pay to sit in a room in another city for a day if I’m planning to leave the next?

Daniel and I re-meet at 830am. Today he’s tired—he got too much sleep. The road to Pico Bonito is horrible. Really, nearly all of the roads here are horrible, even the paved ones. Most of our journey is over a road that is unpaved but covered with large, smooth rocks. I suppose it must help with drainage during heavy rains but it is bumpy as hell to drive over. Two women hop a ride early on and are carried most of the way into the park. A friend/co-worker of Daniel climbs onto the back of the truck and is carried to the visitor’s center. The truck rattles, groans, and shakes, but holds together, and I admire the river, rapids, and trees. Daniel picks a purple morning glory for me.

Waterfall

The first waterfall.

I’m not an experienced hiker. I enjoy it, but the paths I’ve been on would probably be categorized as easy. This is not easy. It is up and up and up, lifting myself over tree roots that ring hollow when tapped, ducking under branches, looking for solid footing amid the rocks, and even slipping and falling on a wet patch near a waterfall. I jog occasionally but this is the most strenuous exercise I’ve had in months. The breaks are worth it though, at a small waterfall, eating melon indio, soaking my feet in the pool. Then at the biggest waterfall, approached by descending extremely steep steps where I tell myself that as long as I am careful I will not slip and die. (I didn’t.) Initially I had planned to swim in the pool of this waterfall, one that hikers have apparently scaled, but upon sight of the rocks I would have to scramble over to reach the pool, after the scare of the descent, I content myself with sitting in the mist, drinking juice, eating pineapple, and watching Daniel scramble and hearing him hoot at the numbing temperature.

That brings me to another topic, which I should research at some point. In Honduras, people throw trash on the ground while walking, biking, driving; it all goes to the ground.  Other volunteers do this, albeit with only fruit. I’ve asked them about this and their response has been, “It’s natural.” Well, yes, but doesn’t it take a while to decompose? So I am surprised when Daniel says I should toss my melon rinds aside. I do, but I’m uncomfortable, but I know he and others hike here and I don’t see fruit rinds or food all over, so…the animals must be eating it? And while I see food wrappers all over the roads, I don’t see banana or orange or lychee peels all over the place. So…the animals? I am content to not throw my stuff out the window, but I wonder who is right in this case.

The big waterfall.

The last and biggest waterfall.

The return hike is a rush because I’m close to missing the bus. Now it’s down and down and down, its own challenge. At the visitors center I spend a few delightful moments with their black and white cat, Junior. Junior is the first affectionate cat I’ve met in Honduras. Most cats are feral and kept by families as mousers. While my own three cats may drive me crazy, I love having cat affairs.

My 230pm bus is cancelled and the next isn’t until 415pm. This means: time for flan! Alas, the cafe is closed early for the holiday. I have yet another plato típico, boring, but the licuado saves the day.

The bus to San Pedro is mostly empty and I have the two seats to myself. Am I making the right decision to return early? I should have gone somewhere else, probably, like a good, spontaneous little traveler, but I don’t have any regrets until I hear the first firework. Shit. Near San Pedro we pass about 20 or 30 firework stands…in a row. My little neighborhood loves fireworks. For the past few weeks I’ve been wearing earplugs constantly. How did I forget about this? I did hear them from my hostel room, but being on the second story, I was a little removed.

The taxi driver gives me a bit of a deal on the fare because “Tengo cuidar con los maestros” which I appreciate on the pitch black road, with its blind curves and potholes. I teach him how to say “Hi,” “Hello,” and “My name is Juan Angel.”

And then I’m back. The fireworks and music are going like mad, Maxi Despensa is closed so I grab what food I can from the secret pulperia. I talk to a housemate and eat rice. I watch a movie, mope over an annoying email, and try not to be upset with myself. There were no good solutions to the Where to Stay for Christmas problem and I just didn’t plan properly for this vacation. Next time I will. It’s all about learning, isn’t it? At least the roommate isn’t home.

25 December 2014: Sigh 

Feliz Navidad and be sure to hug a unicorn!

Without fail,

theresa

Pretty river.

Rio Cangrejal.

Kids and me dancing

Level up

I just don’t think quickly. My high school biology teacher said he liked to watch my face during class because he could see me putting the pieces together. Sometimes I do feel like my thoughts are a Tetris game, somewhere around level 4, when the pieces are falling a wee bit faster than the initial level. An idea drops down, I slide it into place, another idea drops, I flip-flip-flip it and slide it into place. Idea by idea, click by click, until things are lined up and…release: I understand.

Early this week a final piece fell into place, and I leveled up after verbally chastising a student again for an action that deserved at least a name on the board, lost my train of thought, as I do during these moments, and turned to wipe the whiteboard, while the gossip behind me quickly rose. I am a teacher, regardless of the green around my ears, and I deserve attention and respect. Why am I not demanding it from my students? Why am I not teaching them what I need and deserve? Why am I disrespecting myself? If I don’t demand it, if I don’t teach them how to practice it, if I don’t show it to myself, how can I expect my students, children who laugh when someone hurts him/herself, leave books on the floor, and have no trouble telling me their peers are stupid, to give me respect? I can’t. Having read my teaching posts, I would expect loyal readers, or actually anyone, to be thinking, Took you long enough. 

The parents I’ve interacted with give me respect without my having to ask for it or prove myself. I was invited to a birthday party for one of my 8th grade students. The mother seated me and my three fellow volunteers at the table on the best chairs. The mother, aware of my passion for fried sweet plantains, made a special plate of them for me (which I reluctantly shared). When we parted she told me, “Nuestra casa es su casa.” Other parents and two of our Honduran teachers have said the same, and while the phrase is almost cliché, part of the travel-outside-of-the-US-everyone-is-so-kind lore, the faces the words come from appear genuine (and, goodness, I sure would love to visit these houses more often if it weren’t so damn awkward for this monolingual wallflower). If these parents can give me, a neophyte teacher, such respect, even kindness, again, how can I not give it to myself? Level up.

‘Cuz this shit’s for real. I may be green but I am one of the many tools that will help mold these little human beings into adults, and I’m no less important than any other. Rationally, I know this is true, but within the emotionally charged spaces of my mind, in the gaps between my bones, I feel so small, like a wisp of a person who’s barely there at all, or bothersome, like that person who is blocking the [insert tasty food stuff here] you want, and my personhood, the fact of my existence, is much less important than yours. Reader, whomever you are, I will usually assume that despite my having grabbed the last jar of [insert tasty food stuff here] first, you deserve it, somehow, because your presence is much more solid than mine, your immediacy is felt, your wants are known. Much of the time, that is my reaction. Though not always. Sometimes I will take that damn [insert tasty food stuff here] because why the hell shouldn’t I? I need more of those days.

I ponder the origin of this conflict and some of it I know, some will remain a mystery, part of my chemistry reacting to the world, but ultimately the origin is unimportant. I am here and now.

Now, where does this all leave me? Still wiping the whiteboard, burdened with new understanding, uncertain of strategy. The blocks fall faster now and I’m not flip-flip-sliding fast enough. A fellow teacher said I must like the battleground that can be my class, otherwise, why wouldn’t I change it? Well, I’m only an inch tall today.

Back to class. Friday afternoon was playtime since it was the first event of the school Olympics*. The Olympics ended early, leaving me with 8th period to fill with practicing our song for the school Christmas celebration, and then the last 10 minutes free after the kids give me 3 past continuous sentences. I admit my attention is elsewhere, then I turn to see one of my girls climbing the forbidden stairs, forbidden because they lead to the roof and each step is just a metal frame, with no center. And what was it about that moment? Was it the uncertainty I was feeling over how to teach the student-chosen song and my kids’ growing frustration with it? Was it the post-performance crash after the rush of my Olympic team being the highlight of the presentations? The girl, and her cohort, managed to push the Activate Teacher Yelling Voice button, which did draw them back to the group but didn’t stop their giggling through incomplete apologies. Then I felt ashamed. Another teacher, who witnessed the event, felt my response was just right, but…I don’t know. This isn’t the way I want to do these things, but I have put the pieces in place that lead to that moment, despite my knowing I should do otherwise.

It’s two weeks until Christmas break and I doubt I’ll do much changing until then. For now I’m hanging on, trying to balance teaching with the fun of holiday classroom activities (Secret Friend, decorating, blah blah). But after Christmas break, a time I’ve read and heard that newbie teachers return to school invigorated and with new plans in place, I have to empower myself for change.

*So what are the school Olympics? The students are divided into houses (Yellow, with Vee) and the houses pick a country (Italy) and the first event is presentation of the country to the school. The event du jour was unanimously mine, a simplified Tarantella with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, a simply sweeter than sugar group of kids. Throughout the year are other events, such as the sports competitions this upcoming Friday. Kids can earn additional points for their team by being awesome in class (I am terrible at awarding these points.).

In other news, almost all of my students passed their recent Science quizzes—a first—and many of my 7th graders are now able to put together a past continuous sentence, but despite my best efforts and use of science, my more religious 9th graders refuse to believe that humans are animals.

And that’s that,

theresa

the road

The Roads

This town is designed for walking. Within the length of a city block from my house are four pulperias. They sell everything from toilet paper to packaged cookies to produce to used clothes. Within a one mile radius are scads more pulperias and hardware stores, used clothing stores, produce stands, bakeries, and stalls that sell tacos and baleadas, underwear, watches, and fans, pharmacies, restaurants, cafes, clinics, churches, and two supermarkets. New stands appear every day. The only parking lot is that of the new supermarket, and while the store is crowded inside, the lot is mostly empty.

Until I reach the commercial area with its two paved parallel streets, I can walk anywhere in the road with little fear of being squashed by cars. At times this is required because a portion of the dirt and rock road is filled with a large puddle or is too rocky or uneven. The road isn’t much wider than a car, so there really isn’t any side to keep to. The street can be noisy, but it’s usually the noise of conversation, music, kids yelling, and roosters proclaiming some edict or other. Nothing rushes by faster than I could run, except a mountain bike braving the downward rocky slope. Cars that do pass barely crawl above 5 mph because the road is so uneven.

Everything is snug and huddled close. The houses are within speaking distance. The tallest building has two stories.

For while I’ve been gnawing on why I don’t mind walking to the supermarket everyday but would groan at the thought of doing that back in Portland, where the distance between house and grocery is comparable. I live in a “walkable” neighborhood, which in the US means there are sidewalks on most of the streets and a grocery store within a mile of my house. But it’s noisy. I have to stand at stop signs to wait for car (and bike) traffic to pass. The road is much wider than speaking distance and the buildings tall. It’s neat, contained, and no doubt all regulated by some sort of rule. And while I could walk in the middle of many of the side streets, I haven’t the desire since it all is black asphalt, without the proximity of trees, houses, any sort of character. After all, they are often wide enough to fit two cars, with more cars parked along the side of the road. I’m a dwarfed speck amidst the hubbub of machines, the shadows of apartment buildings. People walk protected in a self-contained armor of haste, preoccupation, cell phone, and distance. Doors are very much closed and sit separate from the street. Walkability is relative.

Here, every window has bars and houses sit behind barriers of some sort, yet the door might be only a curtain, laundry hangs in the yard, people are in the doorway or at the gate or hanging that laundry. The doorway is open and someone is watching television. It’s open, and yes that can be annoying when that means having those eyes on me, but often if I look up the eyes won’t shy away. Maybe they’ll smile or not.

[I interrupted this entry to write: Am I really writing about walking? Maybe, again, I’m really writing about fitting in? I look at everything through the lens of my previous life; objectivity is non-existent, in the end.] 

I am also cloaked in a silence that comes with the language barrier. I don’t have to fear being spoken to by a familiar face, beyond a greeting, because s/he knows I won’t understand. Back home, I would cross the street, turn a corner to avoid an acquaintance if I wasn’t feeling capable of awkward small talk. Here, that acquaintance and I warmly—at least on my side—acknowledge each other’s existence and then move along, little risk of small talk.

I am in no way idealizing the roads, not that this is really a post about them, is it? The roads are covered in trash. During a heavy rain, the bottom of our road floods and unless I want to walk several additional blocks to circumvent the pond, the only passage is through and, depending on the length of the rain, the water and other muck may reach knee height. Navigating the holes and rocks makes for moderate ankle-twisting ambulation or head- and rib-knocking driving/riding. The roads have been “repaired” since I’ve been here, meaning that piles of dirt were spread to fill the holes. Gradually, the heavy rains are exposing the gaps and large rocks. On other roads, gravel is used to fill the same areas over and over. Some kids miss school on rainier days. Our class trip to San Pedro was cancelled due to mudslides. The highway, with its lack of lights and many holes, is teeth clenching at night as cars swerve across the obstacle course .

I assume that poverty prevents car ownership and that many people would prefer to have a car. Or would they? Moto-taxis go anywhere within town for ten lempiras (USD 0.50) and bus connections take a person just about anywhere in the country. I’ve seen women unloading tuk-tuks stuffed with plantain-laden branches and tuk-tuks transporting construction equipment, the length of the wood or metal bars three times that of the little three-wheeler. And there is nothing quite like riding in a shared vehicle. A van that claims to seat ten will easily fit twenty-five if you leave the sliding door open so that passengers can grip the roof and stand on the runners. One of my students balanced three other boys on his bike and rode them all to football practice. People make do quite well, as you do when you have to. When you don’t have to…everything and everyone separates, I imagine.

So what is this post really about? I’ve touched on cars, roads, walking, poverty, language barriers. Maybe it’s about the pleasures—to an introverted outsider—of a smaller (adjective chosen without the slightest condescension and with full awareness of how much could change with improved technology and infrastructure) world. Whenever I return to something that resembles my previous life, I have no doubt I will miss the community and quiet and coziness of a walk down the road.

Ta ta,

theresa

P.S. This may be the only time I say that the town is quiet. In most other ways, it is anything but.