I am a Peace Corps Volunteer living and working as a Business Advisor in Campamento, Honduras.
This blog chronicles my life and times over the next 27 months.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Campamento, Olancho: Home, Sweet Home

This may come across as a tourism ad for my new home town and there are a couple reasons behind that.  Firstly, I am working on an initiative to greatly increase tourism to Campamento.  Secondly, a friend recently asked for a description of town so that he could build out a travel guide for Olancho on CouchSurfing.com, and this is a lot of what I wrote up for him...

Campamento is known as the door or face of Olancho, as it's the first town you reach in the department when you travel east from Tegucigalpa.  It falls exactly 100km from the capital city, meaning a trip to the PC office will generally take 2-3 hours, depending on how much Red Bull the bus driver has had for breakfast.  With over 10,000 people in the town proper and 20,000 total counting the outlying villages, Campamento is more than your average small Honduran town, it's a bit of an oasis.  One of the first things I noticed as we drove through town on my first day was that it was very clean.  Missing was the accumulation of trash on the sides of the roads and in peoples' yards that I'd become accustomed to.  Also, the main thoroughfare through town is paved, a bit of a rare luxury.  A number of other things stood out, including La Picona (a hill with a cross on it overlooking town), the beautifully manicured central park, and the imposing stone Catholic Church.

Panoramic view of town
(Click to view larger version)

The town lies in and amongst large hills of pine forest, which make for and provide stunning views.  They also provide the bulk of the townsfolk's income, as people are heavily reliant on the wood.  Campamento has more carpenters (upwards of 100 different woodworking shops) than any other town in the country, with their main products being doors and furniture.  Coffee is the other major industry, as the rolling hills outside of town, reaching upwards of 1,500m in altitude, are perfect for growing coffee beans.

View of town from La Picona

I have been trying to take advantage of the aforementioned La Picona as a means to start my day with some exercise, and to avoid the sapping heat of midday.  A friend and I have recently been climbing the stairs on a fairly frequent basis around 6:30am.  I also like to head up there to make phone calls home, as cell service is best up there and I enjoy walking amongst the pine forest that looms over town.

The Municipality building in blue,
elementary school in pink
The last window on the right side of the Muni looks into my office

Campamento's central park is by far the most impressive I've seen yet in Honduras.  My host Mom, Mirna, takes on a lot of the landscaping duties, constantly adding new flowers and plants.  The park is a good place to experience local culture, especially around nightfall as people gather to eat up the tasty baleadas, hot dogs, and french fries being hawked by vendors in food trucks.  It's refreshing to see people really take advantage of the park as it's meant to be used, a gathering place for friends and family to spend time together.

The Muni on the left,
Central Park on the right

Central Park on the left,
la Iglesia Santa Ana on the right

The Catholic Church, shadowed by La Picona

There are several food options in town, and all quite good.  Spend between $2.50-4.00 for plato tipico, the standard meal of meat, refried beans, eggs, tortillas, avocado.  The highest touted restaurant is El Sitio Real, which boasts an expansive menu of local delights, including turtle eggs.  There are a handful of well-run comedors that offer ambience like you can't experience anywhere else, mainly because the dining area is in someone's house.  Six kilometers outside of town (to the meter, I know because I rode the whole way back home on my bike in a torrential downpour this past Saturday), there is Guayapito, a restaurant where you can catch your own lunch.  Simply rent a fishing pole, catch some tilapia, and the cooks will fry it up for you.

We even have a Chinese restaurant!
Though the food is about as close to being actual
Chinese food as American Chinese food is...

As for nighttime entertainment, you can always walk into one of the many billares, or billiard halls, for a quick game of pool and a beer.  The Peace Corps does frown on spending any time in those, however, as they are generally quite shady.  If that's not your cup of tea, it's best to wait for the weekend as that's when both Bambu and the Coctel Club are open.  Bambu, the local discoteca, brings in bands from all over Honduras and has a large dance floor for gringos to embarrass themselves on.  Coctel Club is more of a lounge in the American sense, though it too has a dance floor for the occasional live band.

One of ten billares

The ultra modern Coctel Club!

Being in what is considered a large-sized Peace Corps site, I am lucky because I have access to pretty much anything I would need shopping-wise, albeit at higher prices than Tegucigalpa or Juticalpa, the two nearest cities.  There are a couple bodegas, or grocery stores, which have the staple food.  I stock up on fruit, vegetables, and tilapia every Saturday at the local farmer's market.  I've made friends with a butcher and get beef and chicken from him.  So, I've got access to food and will soon be able to cook it to taste as I've signed up for a free 20 hour class to learn how to cook Honduran food properly!

One of three mototaxis that will take
you anywhere in town for roughly 25c

I find it very easy to get in, around, and out of Campamento.  It's located off the highway, with buses running to and from Tegucigalpa hourly, if not more frequently.  Seeing as it's a small town, walking is the best way to take everything in; however, you can also take a mototaxi anywhere in town for L.5 if you're feeling especially sapped by the heat.  On which note, from what I've been told and experienced so far, Campamento has one of the nicer climates in all of Honduras.  Typically, the weather is sunny and warm, around 85 degrees, though there is a massive obvious difference when you're in the shade.  You're guaranteed a shower every day during the rainy season (May-November).  Recently it has rained between 4-6pm every day, with occasional downpours falling outside that time frame.  I quite enjoy finding a good, dry perch to sit and watch storms roll in over the hills and provide a refreshing reprieve from the low-hanging Honduran sun.
Always making improvements; I helped my host Mom
plant trees along the newly-paved 'boulevard'
while my nephew Jorge hung out in the background

Inspired to visit??  I've got a colchon (4" thick sleeping pad) with your name on it!  If you want to read more about Campamento, you can find frequent updates on the Municipality's website

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Guess Hoo's a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Any sort of graduation ceremony is special, for the shared reasons of accomplishment, achievement, and the newly-presented opportunity to put into practice what one spent so much time learning.  I've had the good fortune of attending a number of such ceremonies throughout my many years of schooling.  All were special in their own way (anyone who attended UVA can attest to the feeling one gets walking down the Lawn...) but this graduation meant more than all of those before it.  I had just wrapped up 11 weeks of near-total discomfort.  From having to live with two different host families for the duration (both of whose hospitality I am truly grateful for) to being herded around like cats to trying to learn Spanish in classes where only Spanish was spoken (try making sense of a language when you can't understand what's being discussed in the first place...), I had done it.  Nope, we all had done it.

All 53 of us that started back in late February had endured.  I don't mean to embellish too much, clearly there were a lot of good times had as well (read previous so many blog posts), but I'm not lying when I say it was a struggle at times.  Frustrations mounted (why does it feel like my Spanish is getting worse, not better?), doubts crept in (did I really give up my cushy life and job for this?), and it seemed like days here lasted 72 hours, not 24.  Time dragged on.  But every bit of the effort put forth and awkwardness endured was worth it when we were all standing as a group on the lawn of the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, right hands raised, reciting our oath to uphold the good faith that the US and Honduras governments had placed in us.  It was a proud moment for me to look around and see the faces that I'd gotten to know and appreciate had all made it as well.  While our next two years of experiences will likely be considerably different, I'm glad that we could share the previous three months.

A massive thank you to all of the Peace Corps staff that were involved in our day to day activities during training.  From the country director, Emily, who was experiencing these things for the first time just like us, to Brian, who was keeping our brains active by making us really think about why we are here, to Luis, who ran the whole operation flawlessy, to Juan Carlos, who had the thankless job of shedding light on the safety and security situation in the country, thank you all for the thought and effort you put into getting the most out of all of us.  And to the entire business crew, Jorge for all your work in site development, Jesus for staying positive and upbeat while teaching 18 people an array of subjects, to the Spanish instructors, primarily Felissa and Angelica, for doing the seemingly impossible in a graceful and positive manner.  All of you are true professionals and I thank you for everything you did for me.

Here is a link to an article in one of the dailies regarding our swearing-in ceremony and detailing the PC presence in Honduras to date.  Also, below are a few photos of the ceremony as well as some from our celebrations after; a group of us went to the Intercontinental and dined on steaks and sushi, one last delicacy before slipping off into our respective parts of the land of seemingly never-ending beans, rice, and tortillas.

Me with US Ambassador Llorens
Clearly one of us is excited about the bigote,
the other is a little unsure how to feel...

With my two amazing Spanish teachers,
Felissa and Angelica

H-18 Negocios and staff looking good!
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

Let the celebrations begin!
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

Site Announcement

The big day had arrived.  The day that we thought would never arrive.  The day that felt like it had taken 12 months to arrive, not 3, was finally upon us.  That's right, it was time to learn where we would be living and working for the next two years of our lives.  During the previous three months, we had heard about various cities and regions in Honduras.  Most of the stories came from current volunteers who had been in their sites for nearly a year already.  Random tidbits would stick with you: "Try to avoid the South, it's excruciatingly hot there," "If you can miracle a site in the North, do it," "Olancho is known as the Wild, Wild East," "The West is best."

Truth be told, we didn't have a whole lot of say as to where we wanted to be placed.  Over the course of three separate interviews with the two business directors, we could express our preferences of hot vs not as hot climate, city vs village, luxuries vs roughing it, etc.  And while I am sure these were taken into consideration, the directors' main job was to link us up with the appropriate work environment in which they believed we could thrive the most due to our work interests, our expressed need for structure vs freedom for creativity, and our ability to network and build opportunity.

While I must admit that I got slightly caught up in the drama and uneasiness of the week between final interviews and site assignments, in the back of my mind I did always have faith in our two directors that they would get it right, not just for me but for everybody.  That said, the butterflies were still dancing as I stared down at the taped-off flag of Honduras, waiting for my name and my new city's name to be called.

That's right, the business directors made their announcement with style and flair.  They placed 17 a-frame name tags (16 singles, 1 married couple) labeled with the names of each of our new cities in their appropriate spots on the map of the country, reading off the work opportunities they had identified in each site.  Then, one by one, they paired a city up with a gringo.  To this point, I genuinely had no clue where in the country I would be heading and didn't really mind.

Masking tape map of Honduras
Nice job, Ryan!
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

17 sites littering the Honduran countryside
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

Kelvin, myself, Jacob, and Che
nervously awaiting our destiny
(Photo credit to Andrea Sorce)

The town of Campamento, the spot further east than any of the others (on an actual map), was called, followed by "Brett Beckner."  Home, sweet home.  In all honesty, it was rather anti-climatic as all I knew at that point was the name of my town and where I was in relation to my friends.  I knew nothing about this place called Campamento, except that it's in the department of Olancho, which has quite a special reputation.  But the journey was starting to unfold and it would just be a few days until I would begin learning about Campamento in person, alone.

All of us standing in our new sites,
I am way in the back/east
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

'A' marks the spot

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

PC Training

Throughout our 11 weeks of training, the primary focus was to improve our individual levels of Spanish-speaking ability so that we would be as prepared as possible once we were dropped off at our final sites.  There were two big real-life tests that swept us out of our comfort zones and made us put into practice what we'd been studying, and both involved working with youth.  First up was the four hour charla on HIV/AIDS given to local colegio children.  A couple of volunteers prepped us the day before by going over what needed to be covered and how it ought to be delivered, in theory (good luck when actually standing in front of 25 twelve year olds...).  We were each given comprehensive manuals covering the charla, so in reality, it wasn't all that difficult from a content point of view.  After several hours of preparing our materials and divvying up the sections, my group of Samantha, Jacob, Cruz, and I were ready for the challenge.

Getting the kids involved in the awkwardness

Put yourselves in the shoes of a 7th grader from Yuscaran for a second.  A group of gringos has strolled into your room to test out their newly-formed Spanish-speaking ability by presenting a taboo subject dealing with sex, condoms, and HIV to you.  And these gringos start out by trying to break the ice by getting you to share as many street words as you can come up with for different parts of the male and female bodies...  You know you're in for a good/uncomfortable/comical day, right?

Hard to say who was more bashful, the volunteers?

Or the kids?

Using a mixture of lectures, quizzes, dinamicas (games to break up the monotony and burn some of their constantly building energy), and even a 10 step demonstration on how to put a condom on (a banana) done by your's truly and Jacob, we walked out of there with a mixture of senses of relief that it was over and satisfaction that we'd presented ideas to them that were brand new and incredibly important.  It's been my experience so far to see an alarmingly high number of girls in Honduras between the estimated ages of 12-15, toting around their own babies.  Coming from discussions with people like our Honduran trainers and members of my different host families, it is almost expected that relationships between men and women aren't mutually exclusive.  Kids generally don't learn about concepts like fidelity, abstinence, proper use of condoms, etc. in school or at home.  So, if we were able to change just one of these children's perspectives on any of these topics, I'd consider it a morning well spent for all involved.

Jacob, making things less or more awkward?

After several more weeks of Spanish class, we had finally arrived at our ultimate challenge: the five day business simulation.  We 18 volunteers were broken up into groups of 4 or 5, making sure there was as close to an average level of speaking ability spread throughout.  Each group was assigned a class of 6th graders to be our guinea pigs.  The object of the assignment was to teach basic business topics (business plans, marketing, production, organization, finance) through a series of lectures, come up with a business idea that would incorporate what was taught and hopefully learned, and compete against the other classes in an attempt to raise money for the school.

Seeing as Mother's Day was the week after the simulation, my group steered our brainstorming towards coming up with something specific for the holiday.  On their own, the kids identified that one girl in the class had a particular penchant towards arts and crafts, so, led by her designs and ability, we settled on making our own Mother's Day cards.  The other groups decided on making pens with fake flowers attached to them, decorated barrettes, and bracelets.  After a day and a half of lectures, we broke our class up into teams, to stress the efficiency that could be created by multi-tasking.  The majority of the kids chipped in on the production side.  A group of rambunctious boys was selected as the marketing/sales team.  A couple of girls slowly raised their hands to work on accounting.  So, with the L.350 loan provided by the Peace Corps in hand, we set out to buy the necessary materials so that we could start up production.

We volunteers had quietly established a goal of breaking the L.1,400 mark set by a group the year before.  With our wild card, Slater (a very successful entrepreneur before PC), we definitely had the cunning and drive (to not be defeated by any other group at least).  After some modest first day sales (we undershot the amount of time we thought it would take to make these intricate cards by hand), Slater strategically asked the kids if they wanted to put in work on creating and selling the cards over the weekend.  As the money had started to trickle in on Friday, we think that the kids were bit by the profit bug and they overwhelmingly agreed that that would be a good idea (they actually wanted to do what amounted to schoolwork over the entire weekend!).  So what do I see but a group of 12 kids at my house at 8am on Saturday morning, chomping at the bit to continue.  After two and a half more days of production and sales, our group ended up victorious with L.1,155 in profits!  We didn't hit our goal of L.1,400 but we were quite amazed at the number of cards they had been able to produce and sell in such a short period of time...  The next closest group brought in L.715 off the sales of the floral pens.  As a whole, the simulation brought in over L.2,000 for the school, with each group being profitable. 

In my dining room at 8am Saturday morning

The kids, hard at work on the cards

Slater and Roman, hard at work chasing chickens around my back patio

The more expensive of the two designs,
commanding L.30 each

We were all really impressed by the majority of the students in our class, with a handful of them really standing out.  They had dived into the project from the get go and were the driving forces behind keeping the other kids interested and participating.  Once sales started coming in, there was no stopping them.  Some of the boys were keen salesmen, developing their own carefully worded pitch, tugging on heart strings if needed.  The majority of the kids showed dedication to the cause by spending hours designing and creating the cards.  And one girl in particular shone above all the rest.  Belinda singlehandedly took control of the accounting, sending kids back to the store if they forgot to ask for a receipt, collecting all of the money from sales, and keeping an accurate record of costs and profits.  It really is fun to look back and think that we may have played a small part in inspiring her (or any of the others) to start her own business some day; she clearly has the organization and drive to be successful. 

Ninos Emprendedores with their final wad of cash

Hard to say who was more proud, the kids?

Or the volunteers?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sawdust Carpets

Semana Santa, aka Holy Week, aka the week leading up to Easter, is quite the occasion here in Honduras.  Kids have the whole week off of school, a lot of businesses close, and families take advantage of the free time to travel throughout the country.  It is a time to celebrate Jesus' last days on Earth and the Hondurans sure know how to do that.  In Yuscaran, there were processions seemingly every day and night, ranging from parades with prayers and loud horns to an eerily silent parade.  The culmination seemed to be the big parade on Good Friday.  A handful of us eager to get involved in the cultural aspect of the week were lucky to play a small part in the preparations.

One of the many processions during the week
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

We had heard about Semana Santa and the famous alfombras when we first arrived in Honduras.  They really seemed to be a national point of pride and our host families were all eager for us to experience firsthand what they were talking about.  The word alfombra translates to carpet and the alfombras of Semana Santa are intricately designed 'carpets' of multi-colored sawdust laid out in the streets that generally have an image of Christ and/or other religious symbols in them.  In fact, Comayagua, one of the bigger cities that I have yet to visit, is world-famous for their vast array of alfombras, with Catholics from all over making a pilgrimage there every year.  Many other cities and villages throughout the country make their own alfombras in tribute, but none have reached the scale and detail that the artists in Comayagua have attained.

One of the many alfombras in Comayagua this year
Photo Credit to (Muni Comayagua website)

A dedicated youth group in Yuscaran has been dabbling in alfombra-making over the past few years and, as mentioned before, we were fortunate enough to be invited by one of the members of this group, Adam's host brother, to help out where possible with the creation of the alfombra for this year's Semana Santa.  After a day of soccer and lounging in a pool, I took a two hour post-dinner nap to prepare for the all-nighter; reason being, we had to wait for the Silent Procession to pass through the street we were to use as our canvas, and this wouldn't happen until around midnight.

This is dedication - walking through the streets
for close to 2 hours in silence and darkness...
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

So, the group of 15-20 of us got to work, first marking out the area with 2X4s - roughly 40ftX15ft.  We laid down an initial several layers of rougher, thicker sawdust to fill in the cracks of the cobblestone street and to serve as our canvas.  Being a bit timid and unsure exactly as to what was going on, we volunteers primarily helped out with this part of the design, as it was pretty hard to mess up.  We sprinkled the sawdust with water so that we could pack it in tight using heavy, large metal poles.  It was a tedious process, tamping 6000 sq ft with the end of a 12lb metal pole that had a surface area of maybe 1 sq ft.

Spraying and tamping, spraying and tamping
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

Once the base was set, the real artists went to work.  They started by building out the border with fine red and pink sawdust, then filled in the majority with a bright yellow.  Next, they broke into teams, some working on the floral designs in the border and one team working on the large, intricate designs in the center.  They laid down cardboard stencils that they had cut out earlier in the day, and filled them in with pink, red, black, brown, green, and blue sawdust.  To our untrained eyes, with the stencils still in place, we weren't very impressed and sort of scratched our heads as to the extent of time and effort put into making something that appeared to be quite amateurish.  But that was likely the drowsiness kicking in...  Around 4am, with no clear end in sight, the majority of us PC volunteers decided we had done our part and were of no use any more, so we called it a night, leaving the dedicated crew of 12-15 Hondurans hard at work.

I woke up around 7:30am like a kid on Christmas morning.  I was excited to see the final product!  I raced out of my house with my camera where I ran into a couple of the other volunteers who had been helping just hours earlier.  And there she was, in all her glory: Yuscaran's 2011 commemoration to Jesus during Semana Santa.  I'll let photos below tell the rest of the story.

Our alfombra, with some of the work crew staring on admiringly
(Photo credit to Ryan Gever)

Sawdust Jesus, pretty impressive!

One of the floral designs decorating the border

The moment we'd worked towards

A collage of photos of the building process
Click to enlarge, your reward for having made it this far...
(Collage credit to Adam Dittemore)

Talk about a unique way to celebrate the first hours of my 29th birthday!  The remainder of my birthday celebrations was also memorable, but in a considerably different way...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beisbol, the Yuscaran Way

In case you were doubting the authenticity of the bigote (I can't blame you, sometimes I didn't think it was real...), below is a video of me/the bigote taking a swing at a lime with a machete (safe!).  Clearly, a fake mustache would have fallen off, no?

Meeting, nay exceeding, Peace Corps goal number two:
"Helping promote a better understanding of 
Americans on the part of the peoples served."
You're welcome, America.
(Video credit to Adam Dittemore)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bigote Time Part Deux

Blog karma strikes again!  Took this picture this morning, roughly 12 hours after publishing the previous post.  Maybe it's telling me something?  I'd certainly fit in well here in Olancho with a mustache.  Vamos a ver.

Never had to use the excuse 'too scared to shave' before...