Ministries' service plans deal with past failures by moving the goalposts

The Liberal government�s ministry service plans are supposed to provide accountable. They set out key goals, plans to reach them and - importantly - ways to measure or success of failure.

But since 2001, the measurements have been getting fewer. And when the government fails, it simply changes the targets.

Take the education ministry service plan, released along with the budget.

The performance measurements include the percentage of aboriginal students graduating from high school within six years of starting Grade 8.

Back in the 2008 plan, the ministry claimed it had measures and budgets in place to make real progress on the dismal educational success rate of First Nations students. The rate was 53 per cent in the previous year, the ministry said. But rise each year, to 63 per cent by 2010/11.

This year�s plan says the rate was 53.7 per cent in 2011/12. The goal now is 58 per cent by 2014/15.

That�s pretty disastrous failure to achieve the goals set out in the ministry�s own plan.

Or consider another important measure, the percentage of students starting kindergarten �developmentally ready� to learn. That�s a measure of their health and social, mental and emtotional development - a litmus test, if you like, of our success as a society in raising kids.

In the 2008 plan, the ministry reported 70.4 per cent of children entering kindergarten were ready to learn (down from 72.1 per cent in 2004). The plan, citing StrongStart centres and other measures, said that would improve to 75 per cent by 2010/11.

But the current plan reveals that only 69.1 per cent of students entering kindergarten were ready to learn last year - things actually worsened instead of improving. The plan still projects an improvement to 75 per cent. But now it will take until 2014.

Over in the children and families ministry, the service plan includes a performance measurement based on the percentage of children in the government�s continuing care who are at the right grade level for their age.

The percentage was 78.8 per cent last year; the plan calls for it to increase to 80.5 per cent by 2014/15.

But the 2009 plan set the level the previous year at 78.7 per cent. By 2011 it was to rise to 83 per cent.

So the plan failed. There was no measurable progress. And the goals have been cut back, rather than delivering on the commitment to make the lives of kids in care better.

It�s to be expected, and even welcomed, that ministries miss some goals. If they didn�t, that would be a sign that they weren�t setting challenging targets.

But it shouldn�t be acceptable just to move the goalposts any time there is a failure in achieving targets that the government itself identified as critical.

And all the service plans deserve a lot more scrutiny from public and media.

Learning Spanish, and about Honduras, through the daily news

UPDATE: Canada made La Prensa today, with a story that we're offering 200 two-year jobs in the meat-packing industry to Hondurans, who can apply over the next week. They pay $1,912 a month, and if Honduran employees' conduct is good, they can apply to have their families join you after a year.
That's a lot of money by Honduran standards, and with an ultrafrugal lifestyle in Canada would allow regular cheques to be sent back home.
Which is hugely important. In 2010, 19 per cent of Honduras' GDP was based on money sent back from people working, legally or illegally, in other countries.
It could also be argued that the Canadian companies are using the program to avoid paying fair wages to Canadian workers, but that's another debate.

I�ve been reading the newspapers here to improve my Spanish, and learn something about the country.
It�s slow work, but getting easier. I can appreciate the burden of illiteracy, as I consult the Spanish-English dictionary to pry open the sense of some new word, most of which have a confusing welter of possible meanings.

The task is made harder by the maddeningly complex writing style. One sports story had an 83-word lead, a tumble of subordinate clauses and asides ultimately wandering to some conclusion I never quite got.

As for understanding the country, I�m not sure how that�s coming. Today�s El Tiempo - one of three dailies available in Copan Ruinas, if you count El Diez, an all-sports newspaper - featured the usual crime stories. Two young men, 17 and 20, found in a construction site in San Pedro Sula, hands tied behind their back and shot in the head. Two other unidentified young men found apparently strangled and wrapped in sheets and dumped on another road in that city. There�s been a lot of that going around, the story noted, recounting five other bodies found dumped in various wrappings.

It was a typical day. San Pedro Sula has a dismal record for crime, with some 1,143 murders last year, about three a day. It has 1.2 million people, so if Vancouver had the same murder rate there would be about six new dead bodies every day. In Victoria, a daily murder.

La Prensa, the other paper we get, regularly runs a helpful two-page infographic map of San Pedro Sula, with little pictographic symbols showing where different crimes were committed in the previous few days. A kind of chalk outline drawing for murders, a handgun for armed robberies, a sedan for carjackings and so on. I�ll write about the theories of why the country San Pedro Sula has become so violent in a future post.

The big news was a cabinet shuffle. The president, Porfiro Lobo, fired the education minister, the religion and culture minister, the vice-minister of agriculture and the head of the state energy agency. The finance minister and a couple of others were fired or quit in the last couple of weeks.

It�s all a bit familiar. The education minister got the chop because he hasn�t been able to get a handle on the job. El Tiempo noted that after two years he still couldn�t say how many teachers were actually employed by the government. More significantly, the teachers� union and government have been bickering for years, and parents are sick and tired of it. Last year, there were supposed to be 200 educational days, but there were actually about 80 due to protests and job action and study days and the like.

The energy corporation head was fired because he signed a long-term deal to buy electricity from an American company that looks suspicious. (Kind of a southern version of BC Rail.) Similarly, the agriculture guy was whacked because he signed a deal letting a couple of big shipments of rice into the country without the normal duty, irking the industry which relies on the tariff protection. Rice imports are a longstanding issue here, and critical in a country where cheap beans, corn and rice are all that keep many people from starvation.

And the religion minister was fired because he wasn�t considered sufficiently loyal to the president, as he failed to fight back when the Supreme Court ruled a recent law giving status, sort of, to evangelical churches was unconstitutional. The status only applied to churches recognized by a council, violating constitutional rights to religious freedom.

It�s puzzling. It seems power is centered with the president, but the firings suggest ministers have a lot of autonomy. Honduras has a republican system, with powers carved up between congress and the president. Practically, it�s a two-party state without much to chose between the Liberal and National parties.

Meanwhile, Lobo gave a speech and argued the Supreme Court has too much power and there should be a remedy when they get it wrong on the law, which sounds ominous to an outsider.

The best quote in the paper today came from the German ambassador, speaking at conference at the end of a visit by German justice officials.

It�s wrong to call the country a failed state, he said.

�I don�t believe Honduras is a failed state,� he said. �It�s a state that functions perfectly, in serving the interests of some.�

Footnotes: At one time, I might have felt a little smug about some of the governance issues here. But since the governing party in Canada was apparently helped to victory by systemic electoral fraud, subverting democracy, it�s hard to claim we have anything to teach others.

And the New York Times looked at crime in Honduras on Saturday. The piece is here.

The inside scoop on home design trends

From the cutting edge of home decor....

We're settling in, happily, to the new digs in Copan Ruinas. On Tuesday, two guys with a truck showed up to add the kitchen storage unit pictured above.
I like it. And while I can't be certain, I'm predicting that by fall all the hot home decor magazines in North America and the TV show design gurus are going to be talking about the whimsical yet practical concept of combining storage with a subtle tribute to the Dadaists.
Remember, you saw it here first.

Footnote: Our other kitchen improvement this week was to add a red curtain underneath the sink, hiding the propane tank from view. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.

The Falcon budget, or have the Liberals conceded defeat?

I can't resist a few comments on the B.C. budget from some 4,700 kms away
First, I wonder if the budget is the last for Premier Christy Clark. It shows no connection with what she claimed as her priorities as premier. The Families First agenda and B.C. Jobs Plan seem to have been forgotten much more quickly than Gordon Campbell's Five Great Goals and other enthusiasms. This appears to be very much a Kevin Falcon budget, and absent any other apparent direction from the premier's office, a Falcon government. Which raises the question of whether Clark will continue as leader into the next election.
Second, I wonder if the Liberals are already planning for defeat in the next election. Selling off the Liquor Distribution Branch is the action of a government that doesn't expect to be around for long. The Liberals looked at the idea in their first term, and despite legitimate questions about the whether government needs to be in the alcohol business, concluded the long-term benefits in terms of revenue from the Liquor Distribution Branch were too great to give up. Pragmatism trumped principle. Seeking a one-time benefit from the sale - and getting the deed done while they can - suggests the Liberals aren't that worried about the long term. (It also indicates a lack of true prudence. Using asset sales to cover operating costs simply means tougher adjustments lie ahead.)
More significantly, this isn't a credible budget past the date of the next election. The multi-year freeze on spending in almost all ministries might be manageable, at some cost to already inadequate services. But the budget calls for a three-per-cent increase in health spending, despite a growing population and rising care costs. That can't be done without major reforms and innovation, and the government has plans for neither. SImilarly, the budget projects a 15-per-cent cut in government employees from 2010 levels by 2014 - about 5,000 fewer jobs, with no apparent plan to achieve the goals without harming critical areas like public safety. (One of the Liberals' backward steps on transparency and sound management in the last few budgets has been to quit providing staffing levels by ministry, and offer only a global number, making it impossible to know where cuts are coming.)

Footnote: The Falcon budget made me think of his comment last month on the government's 19-month fight to keep the shredded HST sales pamphlet secret. �My direction to staff was really clear: just release the damn thing,� he said. Some took that as an attempt to rewrite history - if the minister really gave the order, they reasoned, why wasn't it done. But equally, Falcon could have bee stating that he did give the order, and was overruled by the premier's office, a quiet bit of insurrection.

Looking at the Honduran prison fire from Copan

I�ve been parsing my way through the papers, diccionario in hand, reading about the Honduran prison fire that killed 359 people on Valentine�s Day.
If you�re the praying kind, offer a quick prayer that smoke and fumes killed those poor bastards trapped in their overcrowded cells. The alternative, based on the grisly pictures, is too horrible to contemplate.
And if you�re the thoughtful kind, turn your mind to the lessons from this fire for those living in Canada and B.C.
Honduran prisons are, of course, far worse than the grimmest Canadian jail. They were built to house large numbers of people in small quarters, and then crammed with even more prisoners.
The Granja Penal de Comayagua, which burned last week, was built to hold about 400 prisoners. It held 852 when the fire broke out around 10:30 p.m., with six guards on duty who apparently couldn�t or wouldn�t find the keys to open cells.
Photos from other prisons show eight prisoners laying on three single beds pushed together in a cell, and others on towels on the concrete floor, all in heat that routinely is in the high 30s.
Based on the multiple theories on the cause of the fire, it�s unlikely that it could happen in Canada. (They are wide-ranging. An electrical fire was blamed, but the power authority claimed that was impossible. There were reports an inmate set his mattress on fire, shouting �Tonight we all die.� Some surviving prisoners say the fire was part of a plan to let 85 prisoners escape that went wrong, and that the prison authorities had been paid to look the other way. There are similar rumours, according to the papers, that the fire was part of a plan to kill an inmate that spun out of control.)
This was not new for Honduras. A fire in 2003 killed 107 inmates; another one in 2004 killed 66. (In the 2003 fire, many were actually shot by guards as they tried to escape the flames.) Neither, according to one columnist, has been properly explained.
But some aspects of the whole disaster would be familiar to Canadians.
The jails are overcrowded, in part, because of anti-gang legislation that aimed to put more people behind bars. (Maras, the gangs are called, and they are a huge urban problem.)
That�s made the jails more crowded, but it has done nothing to make life safer.
Which is just as true in Canada, where the government is determined to lock more people up, for longer periods, without taking any steps to fund the prisons or ensure they come out less likely to commit crimes.
B.C. jails are routinely housing double the number of inmates they were designed for. That doesn�t mean they are as horrific as Honduran jails. It does mean they are dangerous, for inmates - many of whom have not been convicted of any offence - and staff.
And it means they are warehouses where rehabilitation isn�t a priority. Inmates have little access to education or counselling or such basic courses as anger management or dealing with drugs and alcohol, and are released with no provision for housing and few other supports. Mental illnesses - hugely common among the inmate population - are untreated. (A 2007-8 study found 30.1 per cent of female inmates in federal penitentiaries and 14.5% of male offenders had previously been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. You have to be very sick to be hospitalized for a mental illness in our health care system. In B.C. prisons, a study found 56 per cent of inmates had been medically diagnosed with a substance use disorder or a mental illness or both. This didn�t include alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome or developmental disabilities.)
The lack of supports and help, you could argue, is fine for the irredeemable offenders. But it�s stupid for the inmates who could have a reduced chance of re-offending with some skills, addiction services and support in avoiding the things that landed them in prison in the first place. The result is a vicious cycle of more and more prisoners, more and more jails, and more and more crime.
And in both countries, anyone in prison, for whatever reason, is seen by many as less than human. That's certainly the language of many politicians. And where language goes, action - or inaction - follows, whether in the form of overcrowding and no pretence of rehabilitation, or disastrous fires.
Canadians and Americans also play a big role in keeping Honduran prisons full. They buy the drugs - cocaine and crack - that are flooding through this country on their way to markets in the north.
There are vast amounts of money to be made in a dirt-poor country. It�s hardly surprising that drug transportation to meet the demand in North America is a large, violent and corrupting business. Cut the demand, or legalize and regulate more drugs along the alcohol model, and the crime problems and prison populations of Honduras plummet. (Though the economic impact would be damaging.)
All of which isn�t of much interest to the families of those men - and one woman, there for an illegal tryst with her boyfriend - who died in their cells on Valentine�s Day.

Footnotes: The B.C. auditor general just found two-thirds of offenders serving their sentences in the community may be failing to complete rehabilitation programs that have been assigned by probation officers. There aren�t enough staff to monitor compliance, so programs that might keep people from re-offending - and make the community safer - simply don�t happen, the Vancouver Sun reported. The number of offenders supervised by each probation officer has increased 28 per cent since 2005.
Mark Ungar offered a more informed commentary on the Honduran prison disaster in the New York Times.
The Honduran government has sportily agreed to help with funeral costs; the government of Taiwan has promised $100,000 to help the victims' families - about $390 each.
And the photo with this post, of a woman waiting for news of the fate of a family member in the Comayuga fire, is by Orlando Sierra of Agence France-presse.

Full circle to our new place in Copan Ruinas

Sitting in our new place in Copan Ruinas, I�m struck by how far I�ve travelled to get back to where I started.
Our apartment has a table, two plastic chairs, a bed and one end table, plus a fridge and a stove that doesn�t yet work because the gas line can�t reach the propane tank. Jorge the landlord has to chip a hole through the brick work that supports the sink for the rubber line from the secondhand stove.
Today I bought some $33 speakers from Jeox computers, so we have music. They sound pretty good. (In an interesting twist, the Pine Family�s Horse Girl just came on as my iPod shuffled through songs; a fine piece from one of the best bands you probably haven�t heard.)
We�ll scratch up more furniture.
But in the meantime, the lineup matches, eerily, the sparse furnishings of my apartment when I arrived in Red Deer some 40 years ago. (All right, in 1976.)
I had one wooden kitchen chair, a table, a foam mattress on the bedroom floor, a steamer trunk that served as a coffee table, and a turntable and amplifier. No speakers; I listened to albums on headphones. The lack of mobility, and the need to change album sides every 20 minutes, were useful in making me treat music as something to pay attention to, rather than as a background soundtrack. (Though that is a fine and rich role.)
I ended up in Red Deer by chance. I�d driven west from Montreal, with a plan to spend three or four months hiking in the Rockies before heading back east, applying for newspaper work along the way and stopping in the first town where a newspaper would hire me. (My career planning has always lacked a coherent strategy.)
The drive west was bizarre. I�d bought a secondhand Toyota Corolla with a 1200 cc engine and an automatic transmission, an unfortunate combination.
It was my second car. My first was a 1961 Fairlane my grandfather, my mum�s father, gave me after he had an accident somewhere near his home at Lansdowne and St. Clair in Toronto, and decided he didn�t want to drive anymore.
It was a fine car, heavy and light brown, with a straight six, and could pass anything as long as there was a clear three-mile stretch to get up to speed. In its last year or two, rust had eaten a a hole in the floor in front of the back seat. In Montreal winters, water splashed in during warm spells and froze into tiny ice rinks when the temperature plunged. That would have been unpleasant for passengers, except the rear passenger door latch had ceased to function, so I tied a rope from the driver-side door to keep it from flying open when we went around corners. Sitting in the back seat was only an option if I untied the rope and had passengers willing to hold the door shut.
The Corolla, palely insipid, had less charm and even less power. I spent days driving across Canada - Sudbury and the northern shield stick in my mind - without passing a single slower vehicle, except for the occasional farm tractor lumbering along the shoulder.
Long days. I was camping. I had nowhere to be. But I was seized by a strange compulsion to keep driving. At 5 p.m., the sun sending long shadows across the road, I would vow to myself to stop at the next campground. But when the sign loomed, I found physically unable to touch the brake or turn the wheel. I still regret driving past a sign, somewhere north of Superior, that pointed to some petroglyphs. I am unlikely to pass that way again.
Back to the Red Deer apartment and its sparse furnishings. I hiked, by myself and with my brother John and my future and former brother-in-law Murray, in Banff and then bought a bad tie and set out to look for newspaper work. The Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald both, foolishly, said no, but both also suggested the Red Deer Advocate. Those were days in which newspapers were thriving and journalists could leap from job to job. Sending people to the Advocate let the city papers keep an eye on them, and hire them away as needed. It was a good system.
So I rewrote a press release on an Underwood 5 typewriter, which had a sticker identifying it as the former property of the Edmonton school district, was interviewed and hired as night desker. (That deserves a separate post.) After six weeks in the Buffalo Hotel (another time worthy of a separate post), I found myself, most happily, in my apartment with almost no furniture, a few pictures cut from books - I remember a great shot of Bert Lahr playing Estragon in Waiting for Godot - and the Corolla in the parking lot out back.
I accumulated more stuff - concrete blocks and a couple of sheets of plywood to raise the foam mattress off the floor, a used couch, a house, another house, two more houses, and many things to fill them all.
And now I�m back where I started. Happily.

Postscript: Jorge chipped a hole for the gas line, and we bought two more plastic chairs and a dresser, dishes, and a watermelon, pineapple and bananas (and an $8 bottle of Honduran rum). Now if we can just find a sofa.
Lest things seem too grand, note that only the ground floor of the house is ours.

Visiting the ruins, and Mayan street hockey with real flames

I have come to Honduras and seen the future of hockey - or street hockey, at least.
An innovation borrowed from the Maya could add life to the game, and bring its long awaited breakthrough in the southern U.S.
We spent Saturday catching up on the Mayan presence in Copan Ruinas. It�s spectacular. The town�s name comes from the remains of the Mayan city and settlement about a kilometre outside town, a UNESCO world heritage site.
The principal site has pyramids, sprawling plazas, the residences of the elite and surreal carvings in much better shape than more northern sites. That�s because, according to Saul, our guide (and part-time rock musician), the rock here is less prone to damage than the limestone used in Guatemala and Mexico. Whatever the reason, the carvings - stellae and sculptures and features on the buildings - are fascinating in themselves, and have that powerful effect of taking you back to the reality that people were living here in these buildings, and producing this art, in a complex (and doomed) society 1,100 years ago. It provides, for me, anyway, a useful perspective of the significance of our own brief lives. (For a similar sensation, make the drive out to Carmanah and stand among those giant trees as the rain filters softly through their branches.)
The excavations continue (our new landlord is an archaeologist at the site), and some 5,000 ruins have been identified in the Copan valley.
The buildings aren�t as huge as some of the pyramids at Teohuitican and Chichen Itza, though still amazing, and the site has a spectacular setting, with the Copan River running a few hundred metres away and green hills rising all around, a mix of fields and semi-tropical forest.
We�ll be back to the ruins. We only saw a small portion, and I�m looking forward to visits in different seasons and times of day.
In the evening, there was a Mayan theatrical presentation in the square. It was supposed to start at 6, according to the poster I saw, but by 7 things were still being set up, meaning we had time to grab street food - grilled chicken for Jody, beef for me, served with refried beans, local cheese, a big pile of pickled vegetables and tortillas. Delicious, abundant and $4.50 each, with enough left to feed a couple of the skinnier dogs in the square (which is very skinny indeed).
The presentation started with drumming, a sounding conch shell and flute, as people in loin cloths and startling white face paint came into the square. There were ceremonies and a wordy - and for me largely incomprehensible - narration as the music went on.
Then six young guys in loin clothes and sandals, wielding branches shaped like hockey sticks, entered a rectangular space marked by an 18-inch-high fence of widely spaced branches. The crowd pressed around, as a priest, I assume, staged a small ceremony and then rolled a six-inch, flaming ball into the centre of the two teams. The object was to whack the ball into the other team�s end boards.
The moves were entirely like hockey, if hockey also involved avoiding burns, or setting your hanging loincloth on fire when the puck came your way. The ball was soaked in diesel or lamp oil, and lasted for five minutes before disintegrating, when it was replaced. Occasionally, it bounced out of the playing area and we leaped back, parents hauling small kids away from the flames. Sensible people would have choreographed the play. (Well, really, sensible people would probably question the idea of fiery hockey game in the midst of a crowd.) But these were teens with sticks, and they just wanted to win. It was better than most NHL games.
A few fireworks at the end of the show, and up the hill. I like this place.

Note: Peloto photo by Jody Paterson

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Drowning in Spanish total immersion

There�s a certain amount of self-discovery tied into my current effort to learn Spanish, and reminders of past failings.
I�ve hurled myself into the enterprise. We�re doing four weeks at the Ixbalanque Spanish School here, which means four hours a day of one-on-one instruction, and a home stay to immerse us in the language. Total immersion brings, as you would expect, frequent feelings of drowning.
My Spanish is close to non-existent - enough to get by in frequent travels to Mexico, buttressed with some continuing ed classes half-heartedly attended a decade ago.
But now I am battling with conjugations and objectivos indirectos and an astonishing number of verbos irregulares. While, at the same time, trying to build a large enough vocabulary to be able to actually say what I�m thinking. And I�m trying to comprehend what now sounds mostly like a stream of syllables when people speak to me.
It�s humbling to trundle in each morning with my homework, and to stare uncomprehendingly as mi maestra explains fine points of grammar in Spanish. (The teachers mostly speak little English, and in any case won�t, as that�s part of the school�s approach.)
And it�s painful to be reminded so belatedly of my undistinguished early school career. I was always been astoundingly poor at memory work, as we used to call it. Partly, I didn�t care enough to bother. Partly, I am genuinely bad at it.
I am self-diagnosed with prosopagnosia - the inability to remember faces. I spent four hours a day for a week with my first Spanish teacher here, than failed to recognize her on the street 10 days later. When I was leaving a newspaper after three years for another job, I went through the building bidding farewell to my coworkers, although I had no idea who most of them were. That was established clearly when I thanked a guy in the mailroom for the pleasure of working with him over the last three years and he said he was just there for the morning to fix a machine. I think it might have undermined my effort for the people who actually worked there and witnessed the encounter. (My form, if it�s real and not just an excuse for a lack of interest in others, is mild. Oliver Sacks wrote in the New Yorker of walking past the psychiatrist he had been visiting three times a week for years, in the doctor�s office building, without recognizing him.)
Memorization isn�t a personal impossibility. Miss Mewha, my Grade 4 teacher at Willow Glen Public School, demanded my parents torture me for months with flash cards of the times tables. I�ve been eternally grateful. With a command of the multiplication tables and recognition that an approximate answer is good enough, you are more numerate than the vast majority of people.
And it is easy for me to retain facts that have a context. As a a manager, I could readily recall facts and figures about business performance, and I can do the same as a journalist when I�m immersed in a topic.
But learning Spanish means rote memorization. There�s no other way. I am plunged into a world in which my greatest weakness is a necessary competency.
The experience is also a reminder of another quality that bedeviled my early school career - a casual, unintended sloppiness. When Fernanda, this week�s teacher, goes through my homework, she finds errors in things that I know cold. I leave letters out of words as I race to complete the assignment, or use the wrong verb form even when I know the right answer. Fortunately, in this school, they don�t do report cards with comments like �Paul is not working up to his potential,� a frequent theme in the old days.
I persevere, even though some days the task seems impossible. These people have 14 different verb tenses. They have two very different verbs for to slap someone in the face, my partner noted the other day, apparently with slightly different meanings. We�re for a year or two and, I hope, will be in Spanish-speaking countries after that. I want to be able to talk with people about what�s going on in their lives, read the papers and do some reporting. (Carefully, as that can be risky here.)
And I�m liking the experience of being so far out off my depth. Like most people of a certain age, I haven�t faced a whole lot of totally new challenges in a long time. I�ve changed jobs and moved to new cities and travelled and raised kids.
But while those things were challenging, they mostly called for skills I had, or could acquire. I knew I could do them reasonably well. (Or I though I could, which is the same thing.
That�s true for most people. There are always new things to learn, but we tend to have the background and skill set to be pretty sure we can figure them out or fake them.
Learning Spanish isn�t like that. I�m struggling to get better, fighting my weaknesses, and, often, coming out on the losing side.
And it�s actually pretty good to find myself in the deep end, without knowing if I can swim. If nothing else, it�s an experience that focuses the mind in a most energizing way.

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Happy birthday, Ismael

There�s a lot that can be said about the downside of the home-stay experience. But I won�t say it; after all, nine-year-old Carlos is learning English and is Jody�s Facebook friend. (Though I did write about the noise here.)
But the upsides can be good too.
Ismael, Esmeralda�s husband and the patriarch of our three-family cluster, came home Thursday for his birthday weekend. He�s a big, burly cheerful guy with a greyish crew cut and a big smile revealing widely spaced teeth. Ismael fixes heavy equipment on road projects, and goes where the work is. Right now, he�s in La Florida, a town near here, and comes back every few weeks.
His birthday was Friday. The custom here is that you kick off the day with a noisy celebration to awake the birthday person. That meant fireworks in the street at 5 a.m., a blaring boom box and some accordion music from Jody for an appreciative Ismael, who seems a music buff. The neighbours seemed fine with it; people get up early here for work. (The morning celebrations can get even more elaborate; my Spanish teacher said here husband got the village futbol team to sing outside her window one year.)
The big birthday fiesta was yesterday. �Carne,� said Carlos happily.
We walked through the woods outside the ruins in the morning, went to the Tigo store and were told for the sixth time that USB Internet sticks would be in manana, sat in the square and then made our way up the hill home. It�s an impressive cobbled hill; people in the Barrio Buena Vista either shop in the neighbourhood or develop strong legs.
We went up on the roof, me to read on my Kobo, Jody to play accordion.
Marlene, a 10-year-old cousin who lives in Santa Rita, about five kilometres away, was here for the fiesta and came up on the roof, plunked herself in a little chair and listened intently to the music. After a while, she switched her attention to me and I had my longest sustained conversation in Spanish, on the price of my sandals, the Kobo, her school, my kids and a bunch of other topics.
It turned out Marlene is the sister of Deanna, the 15-year-old who lives with us and helps out around the house. Her father is dead, Marlene told me. He drank some beer, dove into a river and hit his head. (Jody heard the same story, without the beer reference.)
By then, preparations were in full swing. There was a giant piece of beef - probably three feet long and eight inches in diameter - that was being trimmed and cut into strips, and beans were cooking over the outdoor wood stove. A table and chairs were set up in the courtyard between two houses, where a car is usually parked.
I sat down outside the kitchen with Ismael, Carlos (the 10-year-old) and Jorge, his uncle, and listened, largely uncomprehending, to a serious discussion of the failings of Barcelona in its match that afternoon. Ismael offered me glass of Johnny Walker Black - he had what I took to be a birthday bottle, still in its cardboard box, beside him. Those are tough decisions for a stranger in a new land. Is it bad form to take the birthday�s special treat, especially when it�s a giant expense for people of modest means? Or it insulting to say no?
I balanced the cultural concerns with my fondness for scotch and said yes. But just one glass.
Meanwhile, Jorge had dragged out a homemade steel barbecue and started scrubbing the round grill with water from the pila. (Have I mentioned pilas? They�re big concrete water outdoor tanks, with an open top and a tap. On one side, there�s a ridged flat surface - like a washboard - for scrubbing clothes or washing dishes. The function is partly to store water for household chores for when the supply runs out.)
He dumped a bag of charcoal - real charcoal, not little briquettes, into the grill on top of a garbage bag, doused it in diesel and set it on fire. A styrofoam tub and another garbage bag were placed on top, plastic apparently being an approved accelerant.
A light was strung from the neighbour�s house - and then the power went out.
So candles and flashlights and an almost full moon provided light as guests began to arrive, too rapidly for me to figure out who was who, except for a couple of Ismael�s brothers. But I sat at the table, tried halting phrases, and smiled agreeably. The power came back on.
After a head-spinning visit, I checked out the barbecue, now laden with strips of marinated meat tended by Jorge. The meal - beans, beef, cheese, grilled green onions, salsa, crema and tortillas - was amazing.
The food and the guests kept coming, and Jody played accordion to an enthusiastic audience. By 10, we were fading and headed to our room. As we settled in, the Honduran music started up again on the portable stereo.
Except the trumpet rang through too clearly, too brightly, for a recording.
Luis, the newest son-in-law (he married Carena, whose husband had been murdered in San Pedro Sula) had gone done to the square and hired the mariachis who play on Saturday night to come up to the house. Trumpet, accordion, two guitars and one of those big-bellied accoustic six-string basses that anchor mariachi bands. The singers were good and the songs passionate, and they played for more than an hour.
By the end of the night, the Johnny Walker Black bottle was empty and Ismael happy.

House-hunting in Copan Ruinas

We�ve been house-hunting, an experience I never liked in Canada. In Copan Ruinas, it�s so baffling it transcends unpleasantness.
For starters, there�s no simple way to look for places here. There�s no local paper or bulletin boards with apartment-to-rent ads. A handful of places have �Apartmento se renta� signs tacked up on doors, but not many.
The standard method is to ask anyone you can think of if they know of a place to rent, generally in Spanish, adding a layer of complexity. We�ve asked at the language school, in hotels and restaurants, called the local bilingual school that hosts teachers from North America, and asked the women running pulperias - the ubiquitous corner stores - in areas that looked promising.That�s part of the challenge - figuring out which areas look promising.
The first criteria is security. Copan, I stress again, is safe. But people are poor and every house has bars of some kind - often decorative - on the windows to prevent break-ins. As gringos, we�ll be presumed (not inaccurately in this conext) to be rich, and sometimes we�ll be away from home for a few days. Our new home needs to have good locks, a decent neighbourhood and, ideally, neighbours who will keep an eye on the place when aren�t there.
Then there�s the giant difference in basic standards between Canada and Honduras. We don�t want to live as if we were in Canada, even if we could afford it on a Cuso budget. It seems rude to come here and live way better than the people Jody will be working with, and foolish to live in a bubble that prevents us from understanding the place and the people who live here.
But housing here tends to be really basic. Partly, that�s simply a matter of money. Most people don�t have much. But there are also different cultural values. Decoration - even family pictures - is sparse to non-existent. There�s a tolerance for a lack of privacy that we don�t have. And things that would bug us on a daily basis - a shower head supported by a piece of string tied to the ceiling, bare florescent ceiling bulbs powered by a tangled web of wires and electrical tape, grimy walls - don�t seem to register.
And then there are the surprising issues. The municipal water supply serves most homes three days a week; you need a big enough roof tank to get through the times no water is available.
We�ve looked at half a dozen places, one twice when two different people guided us there. Several have been small - one room, or a room with a bedroom. One was a largish house, but in rough shape. A couple have been furnished, if a set of plastic outdoor chairs and a plastic table count. (Buying furniture presents another set of problems. We�ve found two �furniture stores,� both tiny and with four or five dressers, a couple of beds and two or three sofa, loveseat chair sets.)
Apartments have been cheap. Typically $150 bare, $250 furnished. And there seems to be little between cheap and way basic, and too expensive for us.
We�ve found one promising place, and have a few more to look at. (We stopped in at a German restaurant yesterday and asked about rentals today. They steered us to a house we�re going to look at today.)
And we�ve had a lot of generous help from people.
It matters quite a bit. Copan is beautiful and the people friendly, but we�re strangers in a strange land. A home that�s comfortable and secure is going to be critical on the inevitable days when things seem just a little too crazy.

Meanwhile, back in B.C., on the Liberals' secretive, self-destructive ways

I�ve been trying to resist the urge to comment on B.C. politics and policy from Honduras, but habits die hard. I�m still checking the B.C. papers from time to time.
And I wonder what Liberal party members are thinking about their government�s self-destructive ways?
Jonathan Fowlie reported in the Sun on the government�s 19-month fight to keep the botched advertising flyer it created and printed to sell the HST secret.
The 10-page pamphlet went through multiple drafts and cost taxpayers a bundle to create.
The government paid $780,000 to print a copy for every household in the province. And then the Liberals changed their minds and ordered the flyers trucked to a shredder. It was a colossal waste of taxpayers� money.
Then the government compounded the bungle. The Sun applied for a copy of the flyer under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act in June 2010. Since then, the Liberal government has been stalling and fighting to keep the flyer - which it planned to mail to every household in the province - secret. It was �advice to cabinet,� and exempted from FOI laws, the Liberals said.
That�s stupid. Cabinet approved the flyer. It was printed. You don�t print 780,000 copies of a memo offering advice to cabinet.
The government stonewalled through mediation and coughed up the flyer on the eve of a formal hearing on the FOI request.
Leave aside the fact the Liberals, including current leader Christy Clark campaigned on a promise to be open and accountable, and consider the results of this dumb attempt at secrecy.
- The image of the government as secretive and unaccountable was reinforced.
- The government�s attempt to thwart FOI legislation suggested the Liberals consider themselves above the law.
- The attempted cover-up meant the issue, instead of being dealt with in 2010, made headlines this month. That reminded people once again of their anger over the dishonest attempts to sell the HST. It brought the issue to the forefront much closer to the coming election.
- And it meant that Christy Clark had to carry responsibility for the attempt to keep the flyer from the public, since she continued the fight to avoid accountability.
The Liberals� political opponents welcome the self-inflicted wounds
But the party�s supporters should be having serious doubts about the competence - and integrity - of the people who are supposed to lead them into the next election.
Disappointed supporters don't contribute to the party, financially or as volunteers. Sometimes, they don't even vote. And when there is an alternative, like the provincial Conservatives, they have a ready way to show their chagrin with the bumbling and arrogance of the people they counted on for better government.

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