Sunday, March 11, 2012

Honduras Report and Photos, NYC Library Talk April 4, Miami Visit, Cuba, Haiti and Sudan, 74th Birthday (Yikes!)

Hello folks, back from Honduras now with photos and a report. But first an explanation of the photos posted right above this text, showing a repeat of our family’s successful New Year’s Eve bid on a hotel room, $50, which, right after my return, allowed my daughter Melanie and me to enjoy a pool and hot tub in the company of her daughter and her daughter’s son—my great-grandson—near their home rather than driving back and forth to my place in DC. Besides, they all like to watch TV and I don’t have a set. Since a hotel doesn’t want to leave empty rooms, it’s a win-win situation all around. However, it’s a last-minute deal and you don’t find out the name of the specific hotel until after your bid has actually been accepted.

If you will be in New York City on April 4, I will be speaking about Peace Corps, Honduras, and my book at 6:30 pm at the Mid-Manhattan Public Library, 6th floor, 40th St. & 5th Ave., (212) 340-0837.

I stopped for a few days in Miami on my return from Honduras. I had wanted to post an image of the Honduran currency, the lempira, and a photo of a male Anhinga, a water bird native to south Florida and other tropical climes. But they both are pdf files and my blog would not accept them. Will try to convert them and post next time. The bird was recently spotted by my friend Carlos, a Bolivian architect, not far from his home in Coral Gables, where I visited him and his wife, but did not see the bird myself. At a dinner party hosted by Carlos and his wife, my old friend Jorge Valls, a 20-year Cuban political prisoner, philosopher, and poet, was among the guests.

Another photo is of Andres Solares and his wife in their Miami home. He is a former Cuban political prisoner adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International back in the 1980s, released after 6 ½ years, and now a successful engineer, builder, and entrepreneur, one of few such prisoners to succeed financially, most being too traumatized by their experience to be able to adapt well to life in a new country. I first met Andres in 1988, when I invited him to speak at an Amnesty annual conference soon after his release. During his captivity, he had retained the English he had once learned at a university in Wales.
Finally, I believe I have posted a photo taken of deportees coming into Teguc from the US in an unmarked plane, which I saw while waiting for my departure flight at the airport. (If I did not actually post it this time, will try to remember next time.)

While visiting a Cuban-Nicaraguan couple in Miami, one of their teenage daughters offered to give me some green cosmetic color contacts too pale to show up well over her brown eyes. Since my eyes already are green, I politely declined the offer.

In Miami, I spoke about Peace Corps, Honduras, and Cuba at a two-hour Spanish conversation class at Miami-Dade College and went to lunch afterward at a Cuban restaurant with several students where we continued to speak Spanish.

Since it’s been some time since I’ve posted here, not having had much internet access in Honduras, I’ll mention a few things that have occurred meanwhile before launching into my trip narrative, which will let photos tell most of the story. I must admit at the outset that it’s always a challenge deciding how to show the photos, since a blog displays the first photo posted in a series last and the latest one first, throwing off the viewer’s usual trajectory. In 2011, I posted the photos in sequence as they had occurred, which required the reader to go back to find the first one and press “next” to move forward, because the first one shown at the end of the text was actually the last and required pressing “older posts” to move along in time until the first one chronologically was finally reached. Is that clear? The year before, in 2010, I deliberately posted them in reverse chronological order so that the first one shown right after the text actually was the first and pressing “older posts” moved the viewer along in time. What would be best would be a slideshow and I do have one on my front page, but have never been able to duplicate it.

This year, I tried something different. You will see after this blog, by going to “older posts” for this same date, that the trip photos have been divided into six sections, each with its own headline and short explanatory narrative. #1, about Southern Honduras, was posted first and was the first portion of my trip, though the reader will have to go back to first posting on this date to find it. #2 is La Esperanza, my second Peace Corps site and the next stop on this trip. #3 is the Hotel Honduras Maya and friend Sandy’s club membership there. #4 shows the medical brigade. #5 is San Felipe Hospital. And #6 is the residential school for the blind, my last stop. However, if seen out of chronological order, that would not be too confusing, as each photo section is pretty self-contained.

But back briefly to other items of concern. Sad to say, though it’s not prominent in US media, that despite Sudan’s north-south peace treaty, there are continuing attacks by Khartoum occurring along the border, mainly in the Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile regions, among areas I visited in 2005, with refugees fleeing and seeking safe havens.

As mentioned before, I’m volunteer coordinator for human rights’ concerns in the Caribbean (and Canada) for Amnesty International USA. Yoani Sanchez, the well-known Cuban blogger, was issued a visa by the Brazilian government to attend the debut of a film in which she appears. However, Yoani’s exit visa (a Cuban government requirement) was denied. Amnesty International asked Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, while she visiting a Cubain late January, to ask the Castro brothers to allow Yoani’s attendance at the festival where the film was scheduled to be shown. Dilma has not said whether she broached the subject with Raul Castro; in any case, permission has not been granted. However, the filmmakers have announced postponement of the festival, awaiting Yoani’s appearance.

The family of former USAID contractor Alan Gross, now in his 3rd year of a 15-year sentence in Cuba, has asked Pope Benedict to intercede with the Castro government on his behalf.

Apparently, the Haitian government is not going to look into Baby Doc Duvalier’s human rights record, only possible corruption charges, although judging by his friendship with the current Haitian administration, nothing will come of that either. See the article at the following link:

Good news: Peace Corps Response is expanding its program to allow other Americans, who have at least 10 years of professional experience and the required language and technical skills, to apply for volunteer positions overseas. PCR volunteers serve three to 12 months. While, historically, the program was only available to returned Peace Corps Volunteers, this expansion will help better meet the needs of host country partners and offer more Americans the opportunity to serve.

I am now reading and reviewing a book for the Peace Corps Writers’ website, mainly aimed at young readers, about a Peace Corps family of six (parents and four kids) sent to the Philippines in the 1970s as part of an short-lived experiment in sending whole families overseas, with obvious potential for complications. The book, Through the Eyes of My Children, is written by Frances Stone in her children’s voices and helps document the history of a brief and little-known aspect of PC service, though I met two other families, each with two children, posted in Costa Rica at that time.

Obama has made missteps and has had to learn on the job, but the Republican candidates are so extreme, weird, and blatantly incompetent, in my humble estimation, that the prospect of any of them becoming president seems absurd and very scary. It’s really rather sickening to return to this country and hear the Republican candidates pontificating in full campaign mode. I was happily free of that in Honduras.

Some prominent hi-tech entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs’ widow, are quietly giving scholarships to needy, high performing tech-savvy undocumented college students, a sound investment. The program is called E4FC (Educators for Fair Consideration).

The end of March marks my 74th birthday (time keeps going by faster and faster!) and I'm also expecting 2 fellows taking an auditing course for gov't employees from developing countries, given to 20 of them for 4 months of every year. This year, my visitors are coming from Georgia (the country) and Kenya.

Finally, Vice President Biden stopped in Honduras recently on his Latin America tour, a region of the world neglected by both current and previous administrations.

Honduras Trip Report, February 2012

On my annual trip to Honduras, I went straight from the Tegucigalpa airport to a bus terminal for travel to Choluteca that same day. I was handicapped this year because my old standby, Rev. Daniel, had gone back to Guatemala early, taking his son with him, as the son is 18 and ready for college and his ex-wife could not handle him. I was also slowed down by a small hernia that I had just discovered and had to avoid lifting of the big suitcases I bring full every year and leave there with all their contents. This time, American Airlines had charged me for the second bag, not the case in previous years. Honduran buses, this time, as before, are often recycled yellow American school buses carrying child food sellers, itinerant preachers, and occasional beggars, keeping passengers entertained.

In Choluteca, I arrived as usual at the Castro home, where I was welcomed without prior notice. A sister of Dr. Lesly Castro (called Loni in my book) was about to give birth (she soon had a baby girl) and was living with the family with no sign or mention of the child’s father. I had some difficulties making my rounds in the south without Daniel, but was helped out by a driver for Gustavo, a Choluteca judge mentioned in my book. Gustavo, it turns out, had been the judge in the trial of three of four defendants convicted of raping a PC volunteer in January 2011. He said that the volunteer and a young Honduran admirer had been sitting during the day along a riverbank in a town whose name I won’t reveal. Four young men wielding machetes demanded money, but when the pair didn’t have any, they tied up the man and began raping the woman despite her resistance.

The volunteer was traumatized and went back to the US after giving videotaped testimony. Her companion identified and testified in court against the men, who were each sentenced to 15 years, except for one under 18 who was given 8 years. Then the witness wisely left town to join the military.

Gustavo’s driver helped me make purchases of walkers to take to the rehab center (no wheelchairs or crutches for sale this time) where I visited with patients and then to see my paraplegic friend Bessy in Guasaule, where she finally had a new wheelchair and was out begging at the border in the company of her mother, who was recovering from a stroke herself. Bessy told me that her son, now 20, had disappeared, that he “is lost.” I gave her some money and clothes and my driver also gave her a little money. I then found Marciel, my unsuccessful facial burns patient, making tortillas for sale at her mother’s border place and gave her a crème for her scars and some cash, as she was pregnant with her first child.

I also took supplies and medications to Dra. Jeanette director of the Triunfo health center. Then the driver left me in El Triunfo at the home of Pedro Joaquin, the would-be librarian (also in my book), who found me a driver to take me to visit Blanca and Lea, my former village volunteer helpers. The driver also took along other passengers who crowded into the back of his pick-up with their bundles, but I was the main financier of that trip. Later I visited Reina and Solei, with Solei having almost completed the course of study to become an elementary school teacher, then attended a little of an evening festival. Everywhere in El Triunfo, I was recognized and welcomed while in Washington, DC, where I’ve lived for more than more 40 years, only a few people give me a second glance.

I also stopped to see the mother and give a little cash to the mother of a child with spinal bifida whom I had helped and who had died. Later I visited elderly sisters Mariana and Mercedes who were having feud and had to be coaxed to sit together for a photo, then quickly moved apart. My friend Jose Luis, who had vowed never to marry again after his wife left him for another man, was now married to his girl friend, who had given birth to twin girls. He was living with her, the twin babies, her two other daughters, and his teenage son from his first marriage, claiming that the twins and running a couple of businesses with his second wife were wearing him out. I stayed overnight in El Triunfo with his mother as there was hardly room at his place. A young grandson slept in the mother’s room, as she said she does not like sleeping alone. Others confided that Jose Luis had been discharged from his previous job at La Cosecha, an evangelical school and health center, because his girl friend had become pregnant before their marriage. Unfortunately, Neris, a young mother and would-be nursing student, had not done her homework investigating the two-year course in Choluteca that she had wanted to take and so it was too late for her to enroll this year. We will try again next year, but much earlier! I had been in e-mail contact with her, but she just had not followed through.

Taking a rapido van back to Choluteca packed with passengers sitting with knees interlocked, I was surprised when a woman greeted me as “Doctora Barbara.” She expressed gratitude to me for taking her son to a lip/palate surgical brigade back in 2001 when I was in the Peace Corps, telling me that he was now an accomplished high school student able to speak and eat normally, a gratifying report.

Alas, it seems that Jorge (in my book, boy with the missing fingers), one of my scholarship students, had dropped his cell phone, so he never answered my calls. Finally, I prevailed on Belsa, a school teacher and single mother of two, to go out on my last night in Choluteca to search for him in her car in a dangerous part of town. Miraculously, I recognized his house. The family waited in the car with the motor running while I went inside. Jorge was there with his step-mother and younger siblings, but their father was out. Although I much prefer to pay school fees directly, it was too late for that. We added up what he would need and I handed over the cash. “What about the other kids?” the mother asked, “My husband is out of work.” I said I could not support the whole family, only Jorge, but, of course, I wondered if the money I had given them would be used only for Jorge’s schooling. Mindful of Belsa and her children waiting in the dark outside, I dared not linger, telling Jorge to keep in touch with me by e-mail, for which, of course, he will have to pay something. Just as I was leaving, he said, “My stomach hurts…I think my H. Pylori is coming back.” I didn’t know what to do about that at that moment, asking Belsa and Gustavo to follow up and if he needs medicine, I will Western Union the money. After our late night trip, I invited Belsa and her kids for ice cream at a parlor with an armed security guard on duty,

Dona Irma, director of the Pilar Salinas residential school for the blind in Tegucigalpa, told me that one of her sons, filling up his newly purchased car at a gas station, had been kidnapped days before at gunpoint. He had escaped when he told the men he had to go into a bank to get the ransom money they demanded.

I stayed a few days at the school, interacting with students and staff. I have been trying to get materials from the US sent to the school, since they used to able to be mailed free as matter for the blind, but apparently that provision was ended last January in the Post Office’s cost-cutting efforts. Blind school students in 5th and 6th grades now go out to regular classes and I accompanied some of them on their first day there. Kids who knew me already were anxious to hang out with me, sitting close and feeling my hair, fanny pack, and pockets. One fresh boy asked me to “lend” him 25 lempiras, about $1.50.

Some children played guitars and recorders for entertainment. Lacking Braille paper, they folded over regular typing paper to make it thicker for writing with a slate and stylus, although it was not as sturdy as actual Braille paper. Every afternoon, the students had a school-wide singing lesson with a blind instructor who accompanied them on the piano. One of their songs was a Spanish language version of “A Doe, A Deer” from Sound of Music. They also sang at a special Ash Wed. Mass celebrated in the school chapel which I attended. Many school alumni also came. The Spanish priest reminded me of my childhood, warning students to avoid lying, cheating in school, impure thoughts, and bad words, and to love their neighbors.

I made my rounds at the nearby San Felipe Hospital, including to the occupational therapy department, which was still using my past equipment donations, though I brought none this time. Also visited with a double clubfoot patient suffering from an infection in one foot and noticed the sign for Operation Smile which, unfortunately, was starting this year on the day after my departure. I happily ran into Rosa at the hospital, a 4th-year medical student, whom I had met years ago when I was in the PC in La Esperanza—Honduras is a small world!

I also met with former Peace Corps volunteer Sandy (also in my book) who still oversees an annual clubfoot brigade and spends several months each year in Honduras. She has noticed a decrease in the need for clubfoot surgeries, perhaps in part to better nutrition and consumption of folic acid by expectant mothers, also because of early intervention at birth to straighten feet without surgery. Sandy invited me to join her poolside and in a hot tub at a club she belongs to at the Honduras Maya Hotel.

Although all Peace Corps volunteers had left in January, many reportedly under protest, I found the Teguc Peace Corps office still open, though eerily empty, awaiting final word from Washington on shutting down completely. I had fully expected the office to be vacant until, on my flight to Honduras, I had run into a Honduran former PC security agent now working for the UN in Afghanistan, coming home on leave. He assured me that the director and staff were still there. And, he was right, although they had little to do, mostly idle and in a state of suspense. The director assured me that she herself had not made the decision to pull out and had, in fact, been making plans for a 50th anniversary celebration of Peace Corps’ entry into Honduras in 1962, a celebration now cancelled. She indicated that Washington had made the departure decision based largely on two events occurring in 2011, one the rape of a volunteer already mentioned, and another incident that occurred in December. That one involved a volunteer who had been traveling by bus during the day time passing through San Pedro Sula, a northwestern industrial city near the Caribbean coast, the second largest city in Honduras and considered its most dangerous. Two armed men got on the bus at San Pedro and robbed all the passengers, the volunteer included, who didn’t resist turning over their valuables. The unfortunate incident might have ended there except that an armed passenger started shooting. A gun battle ensued in which the armed passenger was killed and the volunteer was hit in the leg with a stray bullet. That was the final straw for Peace Corps headquarters.

Similar incidents of volunteers being raped and even shot have occurred before. However, now with Peace Corps’ budget reductions, the organization is probably looking at ways to cut its losses, not only to protect volunteers, but to protect the agency’s reputation and avoid costly rehabilitation and medical expenses.

With PC staff and later with my former colleague Luis Knight in the regional office in La Esperanza, we discussed the possibility of having a small number of PC Response volunteers assigned to Honduras, Such volunteers are usually experienced former volunteers who serve again for three to 12 months. Maybe there could be some 15 or so to start, working out of an office in La Esperanza and serving in the relatively safe western region. I recommended that plan to my contacts at PC headquarters, citing my own past experience of driving a PC Land Rover out alone to meet with volunteers in that region. During my time, volunteers would come into La Esperanza regional office to use two computers and get medical supplies, also for medical appointments that we arranged with private doctors in town. However, as far as I know, no decision one way or the other has yet been made on this plan.

Going from Choluteca to La Esperanza, I experienced a 55 degree F temperature change, though Choluetca was not as hot as last year nor was La Esperanza quite as cold.

Our International Health Service of Minnesota ( medical brigade, a totally volunteer organization working exclusively in Honduras with which I participate annually, was scheduled to go to three villages around La Esperanza. Other brigade volunteers have posted a couple of group photos on my Facebook page and I have also posted photos on this blog. We worked again with the indispensible help of Esperanza Red Cross volunteers, including Luis, my former colleague from the Peace Corps regional office, now laid-off by the Peace Corps. The other IHS volunteers had met in the north-coast city of La Ceiba, where one of the nurses, on her first visit to Honduras, had had her purse strap cut, thus losing both her Canadian passport and US green card, causing her to have to visit both embassies in the capital for replacements. Although Honduran cities are dangerous, small towns are quite safe and very welcoming and, of course, grateful for our medical services and visitors are often entertained by evening music and dance programs and protected at night by local patrols. In the village of La Sorto, in coffee growing country, we were invited to pick coffee and see it processed. Petty theft may still occur there, but not violent crime.

Brigade participants sleep in tents, use outdoor latrines and solar showers, and work in school rooms vacated for our use. On cold nights, I was glad to have two warm wraps donated to me by my friend Brenda and left behind after my use. One of the most memorable events of the brigade was meeting again with a lip-palate patient I had taken to a surgical brigade years before.

In Honduras this time, I made the acquaintance of Sebastian, age 15 months, whose leg had had to be amputated due to a gross medical mistake, for which the responsible physician has suffered no penalty and offered no help to family. I am trying to find resources for this family and have a few leads, but nothing definite so far. I think the mother has sent photos to my Facebook page, so look there.

In La Esperanza, I missed seeing Sandra, my two-time leg tumor surgery patient, because her family had changed their cell phone number and when they finally called back, I had already left.

Luis’s children watched in fascination as their mother, a nurse at the local hospital, dropped a mouse caught in a homemade trap, trap and all, to drown it in a bucket of water.

My faithful walking companion around La Esperanza was Luis’s 8-year-old daughter Alexandra, who is attending a so-called English-language school that seems to have taught her little English. I found my old landlady Norma, a special education teacher pioneer, campaigning to be a mayoral candidate in the National Party primary. My old friend Chunga was still paying off her fire debt from Christmas Day 2004, when the whole Esperanza market burned down. While I was in the market labyrinth with Alexandra, she disappeared and I was petrified that she had been kidnapped, but, after searching frantically, I found her and kept her close by my side. Chunga invited me to eat supper at her home, where she showed me a photo of herself and her husband when they first married (after the meal, I began feeling ill and had to leave). Her husband was killed years ago, leaving her with 13 children. One of her sons, married to a US citizen, had been deported recently, required him to stay in Honduras for at least two years as punishment for illegal entry, now awaiting a visit from his wife and daughter. He had been unable to find work in La Esperanza, lamenting that he had left a good-paying job when he was deported six months earlier.

Although La Esperanza is not considered a high-crime city, Chunga told me that she had had three cell phones stolen in the last year and Luis’s son Elian had his bike stolen from a high walled patio despite a dog on guard there. Incidentally, Hondurans told me cell phone calls to the US from Honduras are much cheaper than vice versa.

I admit that on this visit, I found it rather tiresome to that so many cars, appliances, computers, and other devices were all not working. Why have stuff around if it never works? But TV sets always work, with mostly non-stop junk programming airing, and everyone seems to have a cell phone, even if many are stolen. Home construction is often home-made and slap-dash, with uneven steps and floors, sinks placed on top of toilets, light switches in odd places, rooms without windows (cheaper and safer, I suppose), and other anomalies. People also consume lots of unhealthy chips and sodas, something also done by Americans.

I was in Honduras during the Valentine’s Day prison fire that claimed 369 lives, among them that of a 20-year-old man, Nelson Avila Lopez, wrongfully deported after mis-communication of a judge’s stay. A woman visiting her husband on Valentine’s Day was also killed, leaving four daughter orphaned. On a bus, I passed by the prison days later and saw family members gathered outside the gate of the ruined building, waiting under the shade of umbrellas to be let in to find out if their loved ones were dead or alive. A Honduran Red Cross volunteer in the prison town of Comayagua told us that her younger brother, accused of gang ties, was among the victims.

Arriving at the bus terminal in Comayaguela, Teguc’s sister city, we saw streets blocked off after a massive fire that had burned down five contiguous markets, but with no reported loss of life. Later, waiting at the Teguc airport, I saw passengers coming off an unmarked plane bearing a little American flag on the tail. Some airport employees told me, "The deportees." They said they arrive several times a week. On the flight back to Miami, the film shown, rather appropriately, was “A Better Life,” about an undocumented Mexican immigrant who gets deported, leaving his teenage son behind, crossing back over the border four months later.

The current Honduran president, Porfirio Lobo, was given credit by most people I met for trying to promote national reconciliation, though none seemed overly fond of him, as the economy has not improved, in fact, has declined precipitously since the oil shock of Chavez’s cutting off of cheap oil after Zelaya’s ouster. Nor did I find much support for Manuel Zelaya either, who returned to Honduras some time ago and who has been widely accused of corruption. His wife is running for president on a third-party ticket, though most people I talked with gave her little chance of being elected.

My American friend who brings a clubfoot brigade to Honduras every year sent me an article later from the English-language weekly Honduras Times written by an American working in Honduras who claims that Washington, DC, where I live, has 30 times as many murders as Honduras, That must be a figure he pulled out of a hat, because, on a per capita basis, Honduras has about five times as many as DC, even assuming that all Honduran murders are actually reported. In clever twist, what he actually said is that 30 times as many Americans are murdered in Washington as in Honduras, implying that Honduras is actually safer, since all or nearly all the murders in DC have been of Americans! Even then he was off, because eight Americans were murdered in Honduras in 2011, and 109 were murdered in DC, which is about 12 times more Americans murdered in DC, not 30 times, and presumably all those were actually living in DC, whereas most Americans murdered in Honduras probably were not living there full time and there were a lot fewer total Americans in Honduras in 2011 than in DC. And just as he had argued for Honduras, many of the DC murders were targeted or gang killings, not affecting the general public. In another apples-and-oranges comparison, he also cited all US traffic accident deaths showing the dangers of driving in this country—but, again, per mile driven, Honduras’s rate is much higher. According to the latest official yearly figures, Honduras has 86 reported murders per 100,000 population, the US 4.8, and, by comparison, Canada has 1.6. As for 100,000 miles driven, the Honduras rate is 139 deaths, US is 15, and Canada is 13. So Honduras is not a safe country. But with some cruise ships now avoiding Honduras, I'm sure the tourist industry there welcomes any optimistic statements, even if misleading. But reading such stuff may give American visitors a false sense of security. I just heard on BBC that the Honduran murder rate has now risen to 19 per day. That’s over 7,000 per year.

Some observers have blamed Zelaya’s ouster for the high crime rate in Honduras. Certainly a general atmosphere of impunity, exemplified by both Zelaya himself and his opponents, hasn’t helped, but the main culprits, in my opinion, are the worldwide economic recession, Americans’ voracious illegal drug consumption, the deportation of gang members from the US, and Honduras’s long history of weak and inconsistent law enforcement.

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