Olaf Zerbock

Peace Corps - Honduras.


Olaf is both a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student in the Loret Miller Ruppe Peace Corps Masters International Program at Michigan Tech. Find out more about this program at http://peacecorps.mtu.edu/ .


9 August 2003 (About two weeks after arriving in Honduras.)

I finally made it to some sort of internet connection, just wanted to say
howdy and that life is good in Honduras. My Spanish is sufficient to order
the right kind of beer and ask for more toilet paper, so I´ve got the
basics covered. At least I´m above total beginner, so maybe I will
actually be able to converse con mi familia by the time training is over.


14 September 2003

Technical training has been excellent so far. The PAM (Protected Areas Management) group was split in two sides, one termed 'Biodiversity' and the other 'Agroforestry'.


The first week was rather introductory in nature, including the state of protected areas in Honduras. As expected, the term 'protected area' is used loosely, and almost all the parks are paper parks with little if any on-the-ground enforcement. Although there are quite a few parks and otherwise protected lands in the country very few have any visitor or interpretation facilities, rangers, or up-to-date management plans. The whole concept of a protected area is different here; during my volunteer visit I visited Montana La Bojita, a proposed multiple use area in the department of Choluteca where fully 80% of the land within the boundary is privately owned. At least private lands within the jurisdiction of COHDEFOR (the equivalent of a national natural resources agency) must apply for and have approved a management plan before they can be logged, mined, or otherwise altered, but from what I could see that didn't mean you couldn't get just about anything approved.

Santa Lucia, the PC training site.


Much of the rest of training in Santa Lucia has been dedicated to learning the basics of agriculture. Topics so far have included semilleros (seedbeds), live barriers, planting techniques to reduce erosion (cover crops, planting on the countour using A-frames, etc). Another big topic was the importance of organic matter in the soil, and we made a type of Boccashi (fermented fertilizer). The farm at the training center in Santa Lucia is pretty amazing; somehow they have managed to incorporate 37 different crops and trees in less than 2 acres. All the crops are planted on contour lines, with various live barriers in between. Also in use are three species of cover crops including Maccuna spp. and pidgeon pea. Other highlights include bananas, coffee, and Leucaena. Did I mention corn and beans?


Field-based training (FBT) is currently taking place in Siguatepeque in the department of Comayagua. The city is a rather large and seems an unlikely place for natural resources training, but there are several integrated farms and protected areas nearby. Also it is the home of ESNACIFOR, the national forestry school and training center. At the moment we are having several sessions at CEASO, a privately owned model integrated farm outside of town which grows household vegetables and corn, as well as a good amount of coffee, citrus fruits and some livestock to sell for capital. The farm is owned and run by one family, which hosts workshops and educational tours for farmers, students, etc. interested in learning about sustainable/organic agriculture techniques.

Living with a couple of different host families (one in Santa Lucia, one at FBT) has been a pretty good introduction to Honduran life. In my case, it is a pretty good study in contrasts. Whereas my first family was rather poor and cooked all its meals on a wood-burning stove and couldn't really afford to maintain their house (which meant many nights hoping the mosquitos would just get tired of chasing you under the covers and go bother the dog instead), the other one has 50 channels of cable TV and 100 of the newest games for PCs and Playstation. Its easy to forget you're in Peace Corps when you're eating a plate of barbeque ribs while watching Monday Night Football, but these are the sacrifices we must make. Anyway it's nice to relax after 8 hours of nodding politely while entire conversations in Spanish escape your grasp, so I'm all for it. At least my host family knows I only get about half of anything they say. The best advice I heard so far with respect to language is that you just need to be able to deal with ambiguity, or else you will be frustrated to no end.


19 October 2003

Life is good, just one more week of training and then its finally done! It was long, but somehow its seems like yesterday that I showed up here. Already I feel like I've had enough experiences to fill up a year's worth of time, and it hasn't even been 3 months. I'm sure the pace will slow down dramatically once I'm off on my own, but its been pretty amazing so far. I can even communicate quite well in Spanish, much to my surprise.

Last week I visited my site, its in the department of Choluteca, the southernmost part of the country. The name of the town is El Corpus, a municipal capital south of the city of Choluteca. The town itself has about 1500-2000 residents, with about 20,000 in the municipality (including the surrounding aldeas and campo). The town is beautiful, with a colonial style church and park in the center and cobblestone streets weaving up and down and around. Pretty clean, too. I think I'm pretty lucky to be living in a town like this; it seems really organized and well run by Honduran standards. Its about 20 kilometers or so from Cerro Guanacuare, a 'multiple use' area which is the main watershed for Choluteca, the fourth largest city in Honduras. For this reason, the area has received a lot of attention from regional and multinational NGOs working to protect and reforest areas of the watershed. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to get up there during my site visit, so that will probably be one of my first priorities once I get out there. Right now I have been assigned two counterparts. The first is the guy in charge of the environmental component of the municipality, who coordinates environmental activities for the area. I didn't get a chance to meet him, since he is off visiting family in North Carolina until about the end of November. My second counterpart is a woman who has started and runs the tourism office in town. I'm not sure how much tourism there is at present, but she seems really organized and enthusiastic about her plans.

Choluteca, Olaf's Peace Corps site.

Choluteca in general is pretty hot and dry, although right now we're in the end of the rainy season and there's plenty of rain everyday. Since El Corpus is several hundred meters above the valley floor, it might be a few degrees cooler on average, although that still means it'll be in the 90s every afternoon. Not ideal, but I guess that just means I'll have to get any outdoor field trips taken care of in the early hours to maximize hammock time in the afternoon. My house should be pretty nice; it's a new construction which will hopefully be done by the time I move out there in a couple of weeks. Should be pretty comfortable, with a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. The back of the house, where the kitchen and bathroom are, is actually one long room with basically one giant window running the length of the house. Its all pretty open and airy, with mosquito screens over all the openings. Plus I'll have electricity and running water, so I won't be roughing it too much. Oh yeah, the brand new computer center with satellite internet (when it works) and multimedia presentation room will be right across the street. Pretty tough, this Peace Corps thing. The only thing not working is the phone in town, which has been out for about 1 month or so and might be working again "as early as February".

La Botija Multiple Use Area.

Slash and burn agriculture within La Botija Multiple Use Area.


SWEARING-IN, HONDURAN PRESIDENT MADURO IN CENTER.


4 November 2003 - The Medivac.

Peace Corps is great! I live in a hotel, I order pizza for dinner every night, everyone speaks English, I have a nice view of the Washington Monument...

Anyway, just an update for all you MTU types...I was medevac'd last week for a torn ACL ligament in my knee, just had surgery on Saturday and am now living large (and gimpy) here in our fair capital city. Everyone swears up and down that it is possible to be medically cleared following ACL reconstruction within 45 days (the limit before medical seperation, something I hope to avoid at all costs), so I am cautiously optimistic that I'll be able to get back to get back to Honduras. Of course everything depends on how well rehab goes.


15 December 2003 - Excerpts from the December Quarterly Report (Back in Honduras after 45 days of ACL surgery and medical rehab in Washington D.C.).

Training

The second half of training included sector Field-Based Training (FBT) which occurred in the city of Siguatepeque, somewhat north and east of the main training site in Santa Lucia. Many of the concepts introduced during the first part of PST were seen in practice during FBT. Training during FBT involved many sessions at CEASO, a privately owned model integrated farm outside of town which grows household vegetables and corn, as well as a good amount of coffee, citrus fruits and some livestock to sell for capital. The farm is owned and run by one family, which hosts workshops and educational tours for farmers, students, etc. interested in learning about sustainable/organic agriculture techniques.
Sessions there covered many topics. Several sessions involved the use of cover crops/green manure species, notably several types of beans (Macuna spp.). The beans serve several purposes, notably nitrogen fixation, soil stabilization, and weed control. Timing the planting seems crucial, since on a well-integrated field the beans can be planted once the main crop (corn in this case) has grown to a certain height without significantly affecting the corn yield. The beans then continue to grow following the corn harvest, providing shade to crowd out weeds and fixing nitrogen, which is subsequently released to the soil once the mature bean plants are plowed back into the soil and allowed to decompose. Another topic covered was the use of pest management techniques, both chemical and natural. Classroom sessions discussed the various commercial pesticides currently in use in Honduras and the developing world as well as possible natural home-made alternatives. Unfortunately many commercially available products are often misused, presenting a variety of human and environmental health risks as well as a lowered cost-effectiveness associated with the expense of the product. Also at CEASO and other nearby farms, we gained hands-on experience in the some of the more everyday aspects of Honduran smallholder farming, including the planting of corn and beans, fruit trees, etc. We also gained more practice with the planting of live barriers, including grass and tree species.
A second component of FBT involved gaining practice at giving presentations to various groups, including school children and adults. Each of us had to give 2 classroom 'charlas', basically mini-lectures, on an environmental issue. We had to plan and deliver the charlas alone, somewhat intimidating given various levels of comfort with Spanish and the general unpredictability of the average Honduran classroom. I spoke about the effects of deforestation on soil erosion, a topic of serious concern in many areas of Honduras. Most of the kids already had some idea of what I was talking about (I talked to 5th and 7th graders), which is pretty encouraging. There is certainly a level of environmental awareness, however most of what the kids know is limited to catch-phrases ('Cuidemos los bosques' - we care for the forest- is on the auto license plate). I've never had much of an urge to do classroom teaching, but still it was fun to just walk into your own classroom for 30-45 minutes and try to figure out what the hell you're doing. As a larger group we also facilitated various sessions with young adults and farmers; in one session we discussed the concept of 'planes de inversion', a way of budgeting labor and materials for a smallholder farming system, and in another session we facilitated a community needs analysis for a the community of El Socorro. Although nothing ever worked exactly as planned, both sessions were educational for us (and we hope for them as well).
Other experiences included a field trip to the national agricultural research stations in Comayagua and La Esperanza, where studies investigate new crop varieties and planting and greenhouse techniques. Most of these are oriented to large-scale production, and therefore may be of little value to the average smallholder farming system, but these could be a resource for if I become involved with other aspects of agriculture.

Site

My site is going to be in the town of El Corpus, which is the seat of the municipality of the same name. It is located in the southern part of the country in the department of Choluteca ('Cholu-texas' - it's hot, dry, and unless you're from there you think it's probably a not-so-nice place to live, just like its US namesake). My town is in the hills just up from the city of Choluteca, the fourth-largest city in the country. Having only spent a few days there, the details of my work remain a mystery to me at this point. I'll be working mostly within the 'protected area' of Cerro Guanacuare, which serves as a main watershed area supplying water to the city and surrounding communities. The area has been severely impacted by agriculture and deforestation over the years, and has recently been the focus of attention by several national and international NGOs. A major new initiative sponsored in part by USAID will be working within El Corpus and surrounding municipalities, and I believe some of my work will be related to that. I have two host-country counterpart agencies; one is the environmental office of the municipal government and the other is the local tourism office. Although I have some reservations about tourism projects, my counterpart seems to be a very organized and enthusiastic woman who has already been working on these ideas for some time.

Etc

Pre-service training (PST) concluded on October 24 with the swear-in ceremony being conducted at the home of US Ambassador Larry Palmer in the Tegucigalpa. The ambassador was kind enough to allow us the use of the recreational facilities at his residence, which included a swimming pool and basketball, tennis and sand volleyball courts. Not a bad way to relax after 13 weeks of training (they claim its only 12, but somehow they try to sneak in a 'week 0' at the start).


Visiting Parque Nacional Cerro Azul.



6 January 2004

I have to say it was all quite an experience here. If I go through the rest of my life without hearing another firecracker exploding outside my window at 5:45 in the morning, I will die a happy man.

The town of El Corpus.


March 2004.

Community integration obviously takes a priority in the first few months of Peace Corps service. Here in town, 'gringos' are really nothing new. There have been many generations of Peace Corps volunteers, in all the various projects over the years. Various medical brigades come with regularity to the area, and the currently operating and expanding gold mine has brought a handful of Canadians and Germans here as well. So the image of the entire town coming out of their homes to stare at the white person doesn't quite hold true here, and for that I have to say I am quite thankful. However, that leaves me to explain who I am and what I'm doing here quite a bit, which has been a good way to start conversations with plenty of folks. Also, with the town being as large as it is (about 2000-2500), I won't ever get to know all of them, although by now they have gotten used to seeing me around.

Here in town my closest friends are the extended family of my counterpart, and through them I have come to know a good variety of people living in El Corpus. Two of my counterpart's daughters are professoras in the high school here in town, and as in most smaller towns in Honduras, teachers make up the bulk of the influential and respected people in El Corpus. One of his sons is a teacher in the community of Los Cocos, which is one of the smaller communities directly in the Cerro Guanacaure area. Their family has made sure that I am invited to whatever functions, parties, etc are going on here in town and elsewhere.

Siesta.

As far as work goes, in my situation it has been a little different than with many agriculture or natural resources volunteers who live and work in smaller communities. Although my focus is theoretically to work with the Cerro Guanacaure multi-use area, I actually live 2-3 hours walk away from it, in the municipal capital. Although I have been getting to know the people, important and otherwise, in my town, I have spent significantly less time in the smaller communities where ideally I would be focusing my work. The advantage to living in El Corpus however is the fact than anyone from the smaller communities who has business with the Alcaldia (the mayor's office) comes here to discuss it; any environmental training or planning meeting takes place here in town and my counterpart (usually) makes sure I know about it. In this way I have been able to meet many of the influential leaders from the smaller communities, such as members of the Patronatos (village councils) and the environmental committee members.


My first three months have been more or less what I expected. After returning from a month and a half in the states, recovering my ability to speak Spanish was a bit of a challenge, and of course I hope it continues to improve. Some days I can have an hour long discussion about the world economic policy and other days I can't remember the words for basic vegetables. The biggest challenge comes when heading out into the country, where often people speak only in the present tense, drop every other letter of a word, or use four different words for the same thing in 5 minutes.

One of my biggest challenges at the moment is dealing with the heat. While other members of my training group who live high up in the mountains in the western part of the country talk about having to wear long underwear and wool hats to bed at night, I am thankful if I can sleep through the whole night without waking up soaked in sweat. If I have anywhere to go, I try to leave the house at 6 am when the temperature is reasonable; I still end up walking back in bright sunshine at noon counting the minutes to my (slightly cooler) barrel of water to wash off with. The fact that my house has a metal roof only adds to the problem, baking me in my hammock all afternoon. With the end of the dry season in about two months or so, things should cool off somewhat. However if it ends up just being humid in addition to the heat, I may go insane.



Christmas

Christmas in Honduras is pretty similar to elsewhere. The most important thing to everyone is family, and brothers, aunts, children and grandparents spend the time together and simply enjoy each others company. Often, they live together or close by anyway, so maybe it's not quite as unique to have the family around, but certainly familial ties are highly valued. But Christmas here in El Corpus (and maybe the rest of Honduras) took on almost more of a carnival atmosphere than the quiet, solemn celebration of the birth of Christ I had expected from a devout religious following. I was somewhat surprised; maybe I shouldn't have been. It seems everything in Honduras is celebrated the same way: lots of food, lots of alcohol (at least by those who drink) and lots of noise. I first suspected things might be this way several days before La Navidad when the occasional explosion was heard in the distance every now and again. I first suspected gunshots, of course, since you can't walk down the street in a Honduran town without seeing either a pistol tucked into someone's belt or a simple restaurant guarded by a man with an assault rifle. But I soon found out it was indeed fireworks. And the kids here are as crazy about them as they are in the US; but here, of course, they're legal. And cheap. I think on the 23rd it started the earliest. That day, the next-door neighbor's 8 year-old decided to throw one onto the patio in front of my bedroom. My house being concrete, with tile floors and a metal roof, amplified and echoed the sounds made by a simple inch long firecracker into a sound something like a howitzer. It was 6:12 am.

The firecrackers only got worse, with more and more little kids lighting them individually or in strings of 50 or more. All day. Christmas Eve, it was as though there was another war spilling over from Nicaragua, with explosions in town, up in the hills, down in the valleys, wherever. I was invited to go to church that evening, and although I usually abstain from most organized religion, I thought I'd go just for the experience. On the way into the center of town, the two or three bars were roaring, with more loud music and laughing drunks than during the last soccer game on TV. In front of one bar, I wished I had brought my camera. There, an older gentleman wearing cowboy boots and hat had obviously enjoyed a few more Imperial cervezas than he should have. His horse was used to the drill and stood steadfast and unbothered in the cobblestone street while the man leaned almost all his weight against him as he stood there fast asleep. People walked into and out of the bar, and no one paid any attention. Sometime during the two hours we were gone his beast must have eased him down gently, for when we were on the way home he was at least sitting down, surprisingly upright, on the ground. The horse hadn't moved an inch.

Back to the fireworks. The Catholic church is, of course, in the middle of town, with the surrounding plaza being the general focal point of leisurely gathering and general milling about. Once the service started, the doors (two on the sides, on in the back) remained open. Outside, the kids, and evidently their parents as well, did not seem to mind that there was some sort of religious experience in progress just steps away from where they were detonating their little sticks of dynamite. At first I felt sorry for the preacher, but he seemed rather unfazed. Even when a string of about 100 of the things went off probably not more than 5 feet from the door of the church, he didn't miss a word of the Lord's Prayer, or whatever he was working on at that point.

My comprehension of what was going on, already low due to my meager understanding of both the Spanish language and the nuances of Catholicism, was shot, so to speak. The fact that the children's' choir was singing Jingle Bells in Spanish every time there was a lull in the proceedings didn't help. I could only stare at the blinking multicolored Christmas lights in the Nativity scene on the alter (one strand of which, being of the technologically advanced musical kind, beeped out its own interpretation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the background non-stop throughout the service except when the power went out) and wonder how much longer I would have to endure before we could go home and eat.

But it was interesting just the same. Maybe the Christmas Day mass was more solemn and spiritual than the one the evening before, but I wasn't up for it. Since the after-church dinner feast lasted until after midnight, I wasn't about to get up at 8 and go back to church. I stayed in bed until 10, it being a holiday and all. But I'll be damned if that little shit from next door didn't find one more unexploded piece of ordinance in his house and throw it on my patio at 6:15.


24 June 2004 - Excerpts from quarterly report.

The local farming system as it is practiced by area residents varies, and is changing over time. For example, burning crop residues or to clear new land was once employed by almost every campesino. Today, burning is widely understood to have detrimental effects on long-term soil viability and erosion. It is banned by law; enforcement is of course another matter. Some more progressive farmers have begun using alternatives to burning such as planting frijol abono (Macuna spp.) during and after corn cultivation as a means of returning nutrients to the soil while providing farmers with additional forage for their animals. This relatively simply technology has been promoted over the years in southern Honduras, however its rate of adoption seems to be rather slow. Simply allowing the crop residues to decompose is also an effective method to limit nutrient loss.

I have witnessed however that many local farmers refuse to abandon cut-and-burn practices. From my informal conversations with farmers and townspeople, it isn't always an ardent belief that burning crop residues return nutrients that drives people to burn. Although it does make some nutrients available to new crops, many farmers are aware of the threats posed by soil erosion to their crop yields; most campesinos even have an acute awareness that the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was in large part a result of deforestation and a reduction in the ability of land to hold water and retain soil. The major problem, as is often the case is simply poverty. If an campesino is trying to support a family, he needs to farm as much land as possible. The effort required to ready a plot of hillside land for planting can be substantial. Burning is simply a more efficient means of ridding the land of vegetation or last-years crop residues and weeds, especially on a steep hillside where fire carries quite well during the dry period. Labor may only cost the equivalent of $3 per day, however even this amount can prevent a farmer from hiring someone to clear their land for them.

Even more common is the use of fire to maintain and area as pasture for cattle. Cattle raising is an important economic activity in Southern Honduras, and the conversion and subsequent maintenance of land to pasture is an important factor in the prevalence of burning in the area. Originally, only subsistence agriculture occurred in the highlands while export-dominated industries like cotton, sugarcane and cattle dominated the valley below. Today, however, cattle are increasingly common in the higher terrain; small scale fields of sugar cane (processed locally in the highlands to make dulce, blocks of raw sugar) are common as well since the end product is easily transportable and the by-product (leaves of the cane plant) can be used to feed livestock.


I continue to struggle with the climate here, currently humidity is replacing heat as my main bone of contention. The end of the dry season however has brought (slightly) cooler temperatures and an amazing new greenness to the landscape - all the deforestation doesn't seem nearly so bad when one sees green grass or crops growing on the hillsides. There was a period of burning however, where weeds and crops residues were cut and burned to prepare for this season's planting. Many days the mountains were shrouded in smoke; one day several hectares directly outside of town were burned, giving everyone something to talk about as their eyes watered. Predictably, although burning is illegal, no one bothered to file a denuncia against any guilty parties, even though everyone knew who was involved.

The last three months felt like they went by rather quickly for me. For one thing, I was traveling a lot more than I did in the first three months. During Semana Santa (Easter Week) I went to Nicaragua. The first stop on our tour was the city of Granada, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua about an hour or so from Managua. Granada is beautiful, and truly well done and restored to make it a prime tourist destination. All the colonial architecture is well maintained, with all the houses painted in beautiful colors, little or no trash on the street, a clean and beautiful central park in the middle of town, etc. When we first got there every just asked the same question, "Where is this in Honduras?" Seems the Nicaraguans got it right, why can't there be places like this in Honduras? Of course they exist somewhere in Honduras, but just not very many. Anyway, Granada was a great place to relax, eat some good food, and wander around at the lakefront. After Granada we went to the Isla de Ometepe, an beautiful island in the middle of the Lake with two volcanoes on it. A bit of trivia: it's the largest island on a freshwater lake in the world (and Lake Nicaragua is the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world as well as being the only freshwater lake to contain a species of shark). [Editors note: Ometepe is 276 km2 and Isle Royale is 541 km2.]

Ometepe, Nicaragua.

So there we climbed the smaller of volcanoes, which is extinct but contains a small lake down in the crater at the top. The hike up the hill was quite a trek; it took about 3½ hours, and was mostly pure mud the whole way up and down. It starts off quite hot down at Lake level, but pretty soon we were up in the cloud forest where it was cool and moist and very rain-forest like. We saw and heard Howler monkeys most of the way up; there are two other species of monkeys on the island as well but we never saw those. Climbing down from the highest point on the trail down into the crater was kind of hairball at times, since at one point you had to descend a 35 foot rock wall holding onto a rope while placing your feet on various small ledges covered in slippery mud. But in the end it was worth it, swimming in the lake while all the way around you thick green rain forest rises up the walls of the volcanic crater. Too bad you have to climb back down afterwards.

After Easter week, Cass Ballenger, a long-time republican Congressman from North Carolina came through Honduras; at his invitation a handful of us officially North Carolinian volunteers went to have lunch with him and the Ambassador. Since his subcommittee in the House controls foreign aid disbursements to the western hemisphere, he was touring Central America to visit AID projects and see how our money is spent. Just a couple hours, but it was nice to see him showing interest in what Peace Corps is doing here. More recently I went to Trujillo, on the northern Caribbean coast, for a week. Not a bad way to relax, cold beer and palm trees and all that.


Early September photos.

On a field trip.

Looking south from Cerro Guanacaure into Nicaragua at dawn.

Waterfallin'


18 September 2004 - Excerpts from a quarterly report.

Educational activities

I continue to teach the 8th grade distance-learning class 4-5 days a week. Whereas at first I was going just a couple nights a week, I'm now pretty much committed to going almost every day. The class is workbook and audio-cassette based; in the current two-month cycle the audio cassettes for the English portion failed to materialize, meaning that the students aren't able to complete the requirements if I don't show up, so now I'm more or less responsible for half of their learning experience on a daily basis (it's a scary world indeed).

Olaf Teaching Environmental Education.


I have also started a series of environmental education classes for about 6 schools in the Guanacaure area that should take place between now and the end of November. This is part of the COHDEFOR project and has so far only taken place two days in one community. Basically, we go over the basics of the hydrologic cycle, talk about the various tree and animal species in the area, talk about the whole don't-cut-down-the-forest thing, etc. Pretty basic, all in all, but the second day we took the kids on a field trip to the town's water system and talked about the threats to the water supply, and how things could be improved or managed.

AIDS education

I attended a three day PC workshop on AIDS education techniques. For a while now I had been asked by several people in town about whether I was going to do anything with AIDS education, since many teenagers seem to have limited access to information about HIV prevention. So I took a community counterpart with me to this event in order to learn about effective education techniques and methods. Recently a friend of mine, who attends school down in the 'big city' of Choluteca, has formed a group of about 20 students who are in the public health track in high school who want to start giving AIDS charlas to other schools. I recently met with them and will help to teach them the various teaching methods we learned and organize and support their efforts.

General

Another day, another lempira. The rainy season is at its peak, with rain falling daily and everything a lush tropical green. The recent passage of Hurricane Ivan managed to spin off a rain band or two that passed through Honduras, causing flooding on the north coast. Here too we had some effects, with one stretch of about 10-12 hours of constant rain. This caused some minor landslides and deposited the occasional car-sized boulder on the road. Downhill from El Corpus, in the valley of Yusguare, the massive rainfall caused a small water-holding irrigation pond to burst. This managed to cause sufficient flooding in the town of Yusguare to knock out one of the two bridges. When I walked by to check out the damage, I was approached by some residents who thought I was a member of the press coming to document the damage. Even after I assured them I had little to do with publicizing their situation, they spent about ten minutes telling me how bad the melon farms were, and that the same thing happened after Hurricane Mitch.


4 January 2005, from December quarterly report.

At the beginning of December I moved into a new house here in town. The new place is somewhat bigger and a bit nicer; certainly the 12-15ft ceilings made of tile are much cooler than the corrugated metal-sheet roofing which baked the old place. During the sunnier days (i.e. probably 350+ days per year), temperatures used to be in the mid-90's inside the old house, but in the new place its much less. Also enjoyable is the new garden, which boasts a ton of edibles: grapefruit, 2 types of orange, limón, papaya, starfruit, mango, banana, plantain, and a couple things I've never seen before; also ginger and cilantro. About the only things I miss are the "teletubbies", my neighborhood grab-bag assortment of little kids aged 5-9 (plus the occasional always-naked baby) that used to shout out my name 20 times a day as they ran by. Also they were convenient for quick trips to the pulperia to pick me up some eggs or jalapeno-flavored Rancheros.

I took a couple of vacations this quarter as well. In October I went home for a couple weeks, which was just what I needed to forget the little frustrations and relax in a different (and cooler) environment. Also, I spent a week on the island of Utila, in the Caribbean off the Honduran north coast, where I did some SCUBA diving. It is pretty well renowned as one of the cheapest places in the world to go diving, since there are something like 12 dive shops operating in what is really a rather small place. Pretty interesting place all in all; at first take it seems nothing at all like Honduras, with all the locals speaking a strongly accented English and very few people looking like the rest of the Honduran population. But the best part of Utila as a tourist destination is there are very few people visiting from the US. It seems most of the gringos go to the island of Roatan, which is bigger and nicer (and more expensive), leaving Utila to a young, mostly European and Canadian crowd which makes for more interesting happy-hour conversations.


Photos sent mid-January 2005.

Olaf's alarm clock.

 

The harbor at Utila Island

Paddling a door at Utila Harbor

Olaf and Jason eating sloppy joe's, one way to relive Fall Camp.

The town of Duyure

Rio Calderas.

Honduras PCVs at Thanksgiving dinner.


27 April 2005

I worked with the same medical brigade that came here to El Corpus last January. This time I spent the week in one of the smaller villages, helping with translation and logistics. Medical brigades continue to be one of the more fun things I do. In the past 5 months, I've been in the operating room with plastic surgeons, looking over their shoulders and watching surgery first-hand. Plus I've gotten to pull teeth and even fill cavities. Just the kind of thing that would scream 'lawsuit' in the US, to have an untrained random doing these things, but here it's just another day at the office.

The environmental education project planned for this quarter is still on the table, but, as usual, things have run into a small problem. We had planned to re-design an interpretive trail through a 112 ha. property which hosts environmental ed. field trips from local schools, develop some new interpretive materials, etc. However, the property was recently "invaded" by campesinos clearing land to plant on when the rains come. It seems this happens every couple of years or so, even though the NGO has a clear and legal title to the property. The farmers claim the land is theirs, and just come over and start clearing and planting. So we'll see if they can get the farmers off the land and we can start working again, otherwise we'll chalk up another one in the "Loss" column.

On the other hand, I have also been working with the IT guy for the NGO in developing a website for the organization. Asociación San Jose Obrero has been around for 30 years, with various micro-businesses, training centers, an environmental arm (with whom I was planning the project above) and even a medical clinic. They are one of the best examples of local NGOs doing great things for development in southern Honduras. Anyway, they are always trying to attract grants for their various projects, and have been in need of some internet presence to help promote their organization, both to potential donors and to Hondurans who want to learn more about them. So, I offered to help them out with their webpage since the other project we had planned is on hold. This will be only the second web page I've worked on after the one I made for Blair's Trees in Ag. Systems class, so I can thank him for making me learn a new and random skill.

In January a project came to fruition, the building of a water system for 20 households in a small village outside of El Corpus, with whom my former sitemate and I had been working. This system was financed by the Rotary Club chapter in Tennessee that had originally been interested in building the community health center in another village I had been trying to find funding for most of last year. Well, the health center didn't get built, owing to the difficult access to the site, but at least the funding and manpower went towards another project. The system was built, including distribution and conduction lines and 10,000 liters of storage capacity. What's missing? The cover for the well and the electric pump, promised by the mayor as his contribution towards the project. Well, of course the Mayor's interest was linked to his desire to be re-elected; the communities in the area generally vote with the other party. Primary elections were held Feb. 20, and the Mayor lost the primaries for his own party, so he won't stand for re-election in November. So with that of course his enthusiasm for the water project waned somewhat. He claims he will still come through with his end of the deal, but we'll see. The Rotary Club has said they will send the funds to pay for the pump if the Mayor gives up on his promise, but I'm holding on to the belief that just once, someone will keep their word around here. Just once.

Another quarter gone by. Although the individual days drag on at times, in general my time here seems to be flying by. Hard to believe this may all be over soon. As far as that goes I have mixed feelings. Certainly I won't miss the heat, which these days is comfortably in the 90s everyday here in the south. This year my opinion of the dry season suffers from its lack of novelty.

I took a few fun trips this quarter. Okay only one really. Jason Anderson and I climbed to the top of La Picucha, the highest mountain in Parque Nacional Sierra de Agalta, where Jason's site is. The trip was spectacular, passing through pine forest, humid forest, cloud forest and dwarf/moss forest ecosystems on its ways to the peak at about 2350 meters. We took three days to head up and down, with the trip serving as a guide training event for the newly re-formed Guide Association for the park. Sierra de Agalta is one of the spectacular natural treasures of Honduras, definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in natural beauty and abundant wildlife.

Stunted pine with epiphytes.

 

Olaf and Jason tower over the dwarf forest.

 

Jason Anderson and a giant fern.

 

Everybody on top of La Picucha in Parque Nacional Sierra de Agalta.


Olaf also helped develop the web page for Asociacion San Jose Obrero in Choluteca.


24 June 2004. Excerpts from Quarterly Report.

Well, life is good. The rainy season has arrived, temperatures have dropped, and everything is lush and green. Although the arrival of the rain means more mosquitoes, which in turn means outbreaks of wonderful diseases such as malaria and Dengue fever. But in general everyone is relieved to be out of the worst of the heat; the corn has been planted and everyone is hopeful for a more productive growing season than last year.

Trip to Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve

In April I went with a group of volunteers to the Moskitia, the region of eastern Honduras named for the indigenous Moskito people. A trip to the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve was absolutely the highlight of my travel experiences here in Honduras. The Reserve, designated a United Nations World Heritage site, is an area located in eastern Honduras and comprises the largest protected area in Central America. It is formed around the Rio Plátano, running through primary rainforest from the mountains of Olancho to the Caribbean. The birds and animals are spectacular, the river cool and clear, and people rare for most of its length.

The trip takes off from Bonanza, a tiny community at the end of the line in the far eastern portion of the department of Olancho. Just getting there from Catacamas, the nearest larger city in the area, required a full day of busses and a few kilometers of hiking. From there, where we spent a night in preparation, the trail to the headwaters of the Rio Plátano begins. The trail begins as a navigable two-track through alternating patches of standing forest and recently cleared agricultural and pasture land, but quickly becomes a narrow and muddy trail through primary rainforest. After approximately 18km of hiking, the trail arrives at the first campsite along the river's edge. Lucky for us there was a mule train carrying our personal gear, as well as tents, mattresses, food and rafts. Without them, we would still be carrying our gear there today.

The first parts of the river were rather rocky, with low water levels dictating a lot of getting out and pushing and pulling to get moving. Although some stretches were floatable, the day consisted mostly of physical labor. During the rainy season this may be reduced quite a bit, but as it was the river was rather low at this point and unforgiving to the size of the rafts. Its hard to decide which was more work, hiking the 18km on Day 1 or moving the rafts on Day 2, but somehow we made it along.

The rest of the going was much easier, and the scenery absolutely spectacular. Throughout the 6 days or so it took to reach Las Marias, the Moskito and Pech settlement about a days trip from the coast, we saw only three other people, indigenous fisherman stalking their prey with spearguns. The wildlife, especially avifauna was everything a rainforest excursion should be. We (with the help of our guides) identified more than 50 species of birds, including famous species such as green and scarlet macaws, toucans, several other parrot species as well as species lesser-known in Honduras such as tiger-herons, several types of tanagers, hawk-eagles and green ibis. Also seen or heard were several species of monkeys, tapir tracks, and 2-3 meter long boa constrictor. Many of these were only seen on the upper portion of the river, the portion above where most tourists visit.

Each night campsites were found on the river banks, where we slept in tents that were thankfully bug proof, although for the most part the trip presented fewer biting insects than live in my house. Food was prepared with the help of the guides, and generally the trip was everything a trip like that should be: adventurous and exciting, remote and beautiful, and special in the sense that our group may have represented a third or a quarter of all the tourists that will make the same journey in a year. It was definitely the natural highlight of my time in Honduras, a trip that lived up to every expectation.

 

Accommodations at Las Marias.

Dawn on the River.

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Local Transportation.

Rapids on the Rio Platano.

Miskito children.

The Journey Out.


The role of appropriate technology - cattle pulling a dead vehicle.


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