Saturday, October 27, 2012

Let the Culture Shock Begin

It's official. I've entered into the "culture shock" phase of my experience here in La Ceiba. I'm able to recognize this change because I am aware of the 4 different stages of one's experience abroad in a culture  with which they are unfamiliar, including:

- the "honeymoon" stage: where everything is new, exciting and overall great
- the "culture shock" stage: where everything isn't as great as it first seemed, you start to notice little (or big) things that are not "normal" in your own culture, or that you're not used to having to deal with back home
- the "negotiation" stage: where you start to accept the differences in your new culture and try to embrace them as contributing to your unique experience, while starting to create a new niche for yourself
- the "mastery" stage: where you've finally gotten into your "groove," you feel like you know your new home quite well and are confident enough to get by without requiring other people to help you along the way

Going back to my current stage, the second week at work has been overwhelming. We had a group of more than 50 students come to CREDIA with a one-day advanced notice, for which the interns had to prepare a list of questions related to the "Story of Stuff" video (in Spanish) by Annie Leonard we had shown them. I wasn't expecting to have to be prepared to facilitate a discussion on consumerism and its environmental, social and economic impacts in a language I'm not fluent in but sometimes the best way to learn is to be thrown into something and figure out how to make it work, which it did in the end.

It's never a dull day at the office. Just when you think you have your work under control, some last-minute commitment is thrown your way and it is expected that you deal with the more pressing issue above all else. It can be frustrating because there is definitely a different sense of time here. Ahora means "at some point in the future," ahorita means "at some point in the near future" and ahora mismo means "right now," but that doesn't always tend to be the case. Our maid, Dona M, doesn't come when she says she will and shows up when we're not expecting her. She's a sweet lady but I haven't (yet) been able to embrace the casual attitude she and most other people have here towards time.

One of this week's highlights was going out with a couple of coworkers to eat baleadas, flour tortilla with refried beans with cheese, at a street stall parked on the old railway tracks that Standard fruit used to come in and out of the city. It was neat to sit at a picnic table in the middle of the street, surrounding my oncoming traffic in both directions, while the local woman who sat next to me asked if I could pass her the chile, as if we were all part of a big family.

After eating, we went to the Jaguar, a bar set right on the beach with a vew of the ocean.  Under this large beach hut there were hammocks and a main centre-piece of mosaic flooring which reminded me of the artwork in the ASOPROLA community in the Amistad National Park in Costa Rica. The owner, Roberto, served us Giffity, an herbal liquor traditionally brewed by the Garifuna people Cayos Cochinos Islands. Behind the bar were shelves stacked with jars each containing a special drink that had been concocted on-site. It looked like a series of science experiments. Out of one of these jars came a delicious juice made of roses, which I had never tried. From the long menu's selection, we could also choose: mango, passion fruit, starfruit, guanabana, and so many more.

Even though I was happy that we'd finally left the house the other night, which was exactly what I'd wanted, I still have this feeling that there's something missing, like I haven't quite figured out what it is that's so great about La Ceiba or Honduras for that matter. I didn't feel motivated or excited to do much of anything on this beautiful Saturday morning. After reading several chapters of Pablo Coelho's Once Minutos, or "Eleven Minutes," a story about Maria, the young adult who leaves her small hometown in search of a "better" life but soon realizes that it is much harder to be away from home than she expected, I was inspired by the author's message that life is what you make of it.

In order to get myself out of the house, I resolved to sign myself up at the Nautilus gym, where they offer dance, zumba and spinning lessons. Best of all, they have an outdoor pool! The feeling of my 15 minutes of freedom outside the house, and not in a cab or some other vehicle that was taking me "safely" to my next destination, was glorious. I really dislike the feeling of being locked-in and unable to walk around on my own. Even though the gym is only one manzana, or block (newly-learned word which does not mean apple in this context), away, it's nice to know I have somewhere to go to burn off some energy and/or tension. Baby steps...

P.S. For those who enjoy books like Coelho's that encourage self-reflection, I also recommend his novel Veronika Decides to Die. It's more uplifting than it is gloomy, I promise!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Adapting to the Honduran Culture

My first week  at CREDIA, el Centro Regional de DocumentaciĆ³n e InterpretaciĆ³n Ambiental, has been a very full one. So far, I've helped my boss JD with the revision of a chapter in the informe, or report, that will be sent to the EU to prove that their funds have, in fact, been used to develop beneficial environmental projects.
The office space that I share with my coworkers is gorgeous, surrounded by a lush garden with avocado, mango and mangosteen trees, along with many other tropical plants. We've already taken advantage of the papaya tree in our garden to make smoothies and juices. I love having such easy access to fresh fruit and knowing exactly where they came from. It reminds me of FBC's community shared agriculture (CSA) garden, where we could gather all the ingredients we needed for the meal we were about to prepare. It's too bad they don't have any kale here, as I was starting get used to the idea of having the leafy super-vegetable infiltrate every single dish I would eat.
My time here hasn't all been fun and games. For instance, I can't help feeling frustrated about not being able to wander the streets of La Ceiba (during the day of course) because it's too dangerous for a gringa to do so. Until a couple of days ago when I went to run some errands with coworkers, I had only seen my house, the route to the office which I walk with JD, I or A, and the mall, for which I was also accompanied. It's funny because a couple of years ago I would have been happy to be chaperoned everywhere I went since I didn't like being on my own. Ever since my trip to Europe, I have learned to appreciate traveling solo, along with all the opportunities that come with it. I am still trying to come to terms with my limitations as a white female in a less secure and more machista latino culture.
While I don't like to compare new experiences directly with older ones because it inevitably takes away from the excitement or novelty of the one you are currently living, it's almost impossible not to do so. I do think it's important to recognize it, though.
Until last night, I haven't had any success feeling rested by the time I wake up in the morning, whereas normally I sleep like a tank and you couldn't raise me from my slumber if you tried. I've been tired all week from a lack of restful sleep and it's starting to take a toll on me. I'm not sure if it's the heat, the noises, or a mix of both but I am definitely not used to either.
There are uncanny parallels between my home in San Jose, Costa Rica and my current home in La Ceiba, Honduras. While the chihuahas kept me up in the night in CR, chow chows are barking their heads off until the wee hours of the morning over here. It turns out that our neigbours next door run a kennel and just as they're getting rid of, or rather finding a home for, their last pup, a new litter is on its way. They also have a very whiny and unhappy baby in the mornings. At 7am the children from the local school are screeching with delight as their teacher encourages them to sing louder. The traffic here is constant and someone somewhere is always honking their horn. I know I seem bitter about all these things right now but I'm sure I'll become accustomed to the amplified sounds and appreciate their unique contribution to my experience soon enough.
Another similarity between both homes is the proximity to a gym. I loved having access to the Diamond Gym in San Jose, where I could participate in fun aerobic classes in which the larger lady next to me was doing pirouettes between moves (show-off) while I was stumbling over my feet. We'll see what this Nautilus gym has to offer.
This weekend was just as busy. We had a group of Scouts camp out in the botanical gardens at our work for the first time. While the whole event was a bit scattered and slightly unorganized, it was great to see how excited these kids were just to be there and to learn about nature. We did a night walk and listened to the owls perched high up on tree branches. The fireflies were out in full force, like a flickering constellation in the garden's ebony sky. At the end of our little hike we met a tarantula along the path...just what I needed before going to bed. Good thing I, JD and I live close enough to walk home and go to sleep in our "safe" beds, free of scorpions and other creepy crawlies, but not the mosquitoes or ants. Those nasty things will track me down wherever I go and leave my skin raw and red from feasting on my entire body.
Thankfully, after saying goodbye to the Scouts, we had time this afternoon to go to a beach called Sambo Creek. It was pleasantly quiet and secluded and, although it was overcast, we still enjoyed swimming in the Caribbean Sea. I even soaked up a bit of sun through the clouds.
I hope that, as I continue my stay here, I can be more comfortable getting around on my own while acknowledging which places are not safe to be in, especially as a gringa, or North American tourist. The difference here is that I'm not a tourist but rather a volunteer for a local organisation and, as such, there are certain expectations of me I may not always be so eager to meet. I guess that's just part of working abroad! I'm trying not to let the fact that I've already overheard casual conversations on two different occasions about someone or other being killed deter me from leaving my house. According to the locals there's a lot to discover in this city. I'm looking forward to the day I get to explore some more.
Bring it on, week #2!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

From Autumn to Summer

October is one of my favourite months of the year.
I love the cool air, the changing red, yellow, orange and green colours of the leaves and the pixelated blend they create in the distant landscape.
This year was special. Once again, I got to celebrate my dad and sister's birthdays at the same time. While last year we were in France having rabbit, foie gras, cheese and wine, this year's sushi and pizza in Montreal was just as memorable, if not more, because this time we were at "home," not on the go in a far away country. Apple-picking and baby goat-catching are also fond memories.
I loved wearing my fall jacket, newly-crochet'd hat and llama wool gloves, especially because I knew that I could trade them off for T-shirts, a fedora and sandals within the next 48 hours.
Now that I am in my new bungalow home in La Ceiba, I am wishing I could go back to a place where I didn't have to sit half-naked in my room with no fan while peeling my limbs from my bedsheets every once in a while. You always want what you can't have, right? I am definitely looking forward to a cold shower before going to bed, unlike at the REC centre where I could see my breath while doing my weekly bathing ritual.
This morning A, M and I woke up at 2:45am to get to the airport by 3:30am. There were 3 loud and obnoxious guys in line waiting to go through security who were trying to impress us with their drunkenness from the previous hours of partying. We were more entertained by the lumberjack: green knee-high socks, shorts, red plaid shirt and beard, picking at his wedgie. At our terminal, we got a wonderful surprise from my funny and quirky baby gurl E, who herself was off to Dominican Republic an hour after our flight left!
The flight to Miami departed at 6:15am and went by pretty quickly even though I didn't sleep. We had a 2 hour layover before our next flight to San Pedro Sula and I got a Honduras tour guide book and Paolo Coelho's "Once Minutos". People-watching is one of my greatest pastimes, especially in this airport. There is such an odd and mesmerizing mix of people from all walks of life and from all over the world that I can't help but stay entranced in the constant flow of ecclectic human traffic.
As we flew over the Miami coast, we got to see the beautiful turquoise waters of the Key Islands. We arrived in San Pedro Sula after 1pm, oversized luggage and all, not too late, to be greeted by JD and our kind chauffeur. On the way to La Ceiba, we stopped to have some fried chicken (I have a feeling it won't be the last time while I'm here) accompanied by platanos maduros and yucca frita. The milky-cinammon drink horchata that I'd had from Costa Rica wasn't as good as I'd remembered it.
The landscape here is impressive. Banana, pineapple and African palm plantations are endless and the lush hills and mountains provide a beautiful backdrop. I recognize the poverty I see along the road and wonder how much more (and worse?) will I see during my time here.
I'm going to take advantage of this opportunity to gain and share as much knowledge as possible, as well as to learn about myself and the country's culture and biodiversity. Overall, I want to grow as a person throughout my time here, no matter what obstacles I face, even the treacherous heat that is taking over my room. It's time to retreat to the back yard to share the darkness and embrace the summer's warmth with the lazy fireflies. Ahh, fleeting memories of FBC!