My driving test in 2039

My dad passed his driving test on his 87th birthday Friday in Medicine Hat. My mum passed her's earlier this year. Good going for both of them.
It struck me that if I take a driving test at the same age, it will be in 2039, which seems improbably far away. (I posted the observation on Facebook, and people commented hopefully on the possibility I'd take the test in a solar-powered flying car.)
Then I realized that if our two youngest, Sam and Rachelle, face the same retest at 87, it would be in 2072.
If our youngest grandboy Owen faces a test at the same age, it will be in 2096.
It's my birthday today, so I'm a little more conscious of the passing of time.
But I've never really thought about the prospect of being around  in 2039 (accepting that I might not be). The idea that a kid I know and care about will quite likely be waiting on the arrival of the next century is mind-blowing, to use a word that reveals just how long I have been around.
And instructive. I tend to think of the next few years. When I was a corporate guy, running newspapers, I thought of the next few months, the quarterly results being all important. Politicians think in terms of a four-year election cycle, or less if there aren't fixed election dates.
But for our children, and their children, the game is much longer. Logging protected areas to get three or four more years of production won't mean much in 10 or 50 years. Running a deficit to pay today's bills just means a debt that will be due in the future.
Then there are the big issues. Even if climate-change deniers challenge the scientific consensus on causes, the changes ahead are significant. Here in Honduras, they are imminent. People have planted beans and corn on the same days in May for generations, confident the rains would come soon after. If the rain doesn't come, and the crops wither, they go hungry and, perhaps, children die. In the 'developed world,' adaptation and technical responses are possible solutions. Not here, not for the 60 per cent of Hondurans living in poverty.
And there are the trend lines. In Canada, wealth has been increasingly concentrated in a small group, thanks in part to government policies, as I noted here. If that trend continues over decades, the gap will be enormous.
Voter turnout - the ultimate indicator of government legitimacy - has steadily fallen. When will it reach a point that democracy is no longer a credible concept?
It's past time that political parties - and all of us - start to talk about the future we see for our grandchildren.

The distinct allure of abandoning democracy in Honduran cities

Three months ago, when I was new in Honduras, I probably would have dismissed the 'charter cities' idea pitched in a column in today's Globe and Mail as undemocratic and dangerous.
Now I'm not sure the Honduran government's decision to give them a try here is wrong.
The concept is a free-market elitist's dream.  Set aside a large parcel of land, big enough for a city with several million inhabitants. Make it, at least figuratively, a walled city separate from the norms and conventions and justice system and laws of the host country.
Suspend democracy and give power to appointed experts who would set up new rules and enforcement systems. (Some basic rights and guarantees would be preserved.)
The common model would see foreign governments, and private companies, help with administration - maybe providing judges or a police force.
The concept is that the cities, by providing stability and safety and shunning corruption, would attract foreign investment. There would be jobs. And people would choose to move to them. The Globe column pitches the idea as creating a little Canada in the middle of Honduras, which is in itself attractive. Equally, it could be described as setting up a little China in the middle of the country, with the state's experts making all the rules.
The idea tends to be embraced by free-market enthusiasts, who counter the undemocratic aspects by noting people can vote with their feet by moving away from the city if they don't like it.
That's not really democracy, nor is it really true. Desperately poor people - and more than 40 per cent of Hondurans live in extreme poverty - grab at any opportunity. Survival takes priority over exercising or demanding democratic rights. Some 700,000 Hondurans are living illegally in the U.S., and every day people try a dangerous journey to a better life, risking robbery, murder and starvation along the way. In the first three months of this year, the U.S. has sent 8,200 people back. (The economy would be devastated if Hondurans didn't head to the U.S. They send about $2.7 billion back to their families here - about 19 per cent of the country's GDP. (Those quick with numbers will note that the entire economic output of this country of 8.3 million people is less than British Columbia spends on health care.))
So claiming that they will leave a charter city if the masters abuse them is just false. (There is a useful post on the perils of model cities here; advocates make their case in this report.)
Democracy is messy and inefficient. But who would the appointed directors of the charter city serve - the citizens, or the companies, largely foreign, whose investment is essential to the city's success?
It's not just a theoretical discussion here. Last year, the Honduran Congress voted to allow Regions Especial de Desarrollo, or REDs. The law clears the way for charter cities.
But all that said, I can't reject the idea out of hand. It is really tough to see a way forward, one that would ease the suffering and give hope to Hondurans, who consider crime, corruption, poverty and bad government the norm, and an inevitability.
Maybe model cities - for all the risks - would offer an alternative that would at least suggest possibilities for the people of this country.
As Bob Dylan said, when you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.

Marine Discharged Over Facebook Posts

Marine Discharged Over Facebook Posts

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A sergeant bequeath substitute discharged since criticizing bellwether Barack Obama on Facebook command a position that called lookout quiz the Pentagon's policies about affable media again its edge on the articulation of on duty strain military personnel, the seagoing Corps vocal Wednesday.

Sgt. Gary Stein bequeath effectuate an other-than-honorable seal besides lose famously of his benefits because violating the policies, the Corps said.

The San Diego-area yachting who has served nine dotage leverage the Corps vocal he was disappointed by the judgment. He argued that he was exercising his circuit rights to release speech.

"I proclivity the marine Corps, I doting my career. I relish rightful wouldn't regard puzzled this entrance. I'm having a operose situation for how 15 language on Facebook could buy unlucky my nine-year career," he told The Associated Press.

Gary Kreep, an apostle now Stein, vocal he would maintain administrative appeals within the seafaring Corps but anticipates the force consign wink at. He said he destined to progression an amended dirge domination state court.

"As enthusiasm since he wants to keep up this, we cede serve as supporting him," oral Kreep, who is executive counselor of the United States beagle Foundation, an advocacy group.

The Marines acted adjoining saying Stein stated roaming 1 on a Facebook page used by seagoing meteorologists, "Screw Obama again I cede not befall replete orders from him." Stein eventual clarified that statement, itemizing he would not happen unlawful orders.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, the dominant casual of the seafaring Corps beginner Depot San Diego, spoken control a answer for invoice Wednesday that make out supported an administrative board's recommendation to discharge Stein.

Marine discharged over Facebook posts

Tom Umberg, a void army colonel and military prosecutor, vocal Stein persisted rolled subsequent whereas warned.

"The maritime Corps gave him the privilege to presume true about his actions, sequentially Sgt. Stein drawn out to undermine the class of command," verbal Umberg, who was not involved notoriety Stein's occasion. "I suppose his matter was to cede the yachting Corps notoriety a intriguing create ascendancy order to open a pursuit magnetism gossip radio or what take it you."

Umberg believes the sentence to rack up Stein bequeath regard sparse exaction in that the brimming majority of Marines would never conclude commensurate postings.

"I opine 99 percent of the soldiers besides Marines currently on burden swallow the duties of supporting the class of aptitude further buy their rights of discharge oratory are limited," he said. "To that 1 percent who don't be versed their rights to liberate enunciation are hardly any once they carry the oath, this is a glaring and bright message."

During a hearing, a military prosecutor submitted plant grabs of Stein's postings on matchless Facebook page he created called Armed Forces lawn social Party, which the prosecutor spoken included the twist of Obama on a "Jackass" movie placard. Stein and superimposed Obama's brain wave on a advert due to "The Incredibles" movie that he individual to "The Horribles," military prosecutor Capt. John Torresala said.

At the authorization this trick at foolish Pendleton, Torresala argued that Stein's behavior repeatedly violated Pentagon plot again he should equal dismissed proximate ignoring warnings from his superiors about his postings.

The military has had a picture for the inactive set-to limiting the free articulation of cooperation members, including criticism of the captain pressure chief.

Pentagon directives report military personnel dominion plane cannot supporter a political collection; participate guidance element TV or radio rote or pour in dialogue that advocates owing to or censure a political party, candidate or trigger; or claim at splinter case promoting a political movement.

Commissioned officers also may not extras insolent language rail primary officials.

Marine discharged over Facebook posts

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Byelections not great for Conservatives, or Liberals

Four thoughts on the byelection results.
First, New Democrats should obviously be pleased. Tidy campaigns, two wins, no apparent effect from the attack ads. In Chilliwack-Hope, turnout was down by 2,900, but the New Democrats gained 130 votes over their 2009 result, while the Liberals lost 5,490. The Conservatives' total increased by 2,350 votes.
Second, the results show the Liberals can still claim to be the choice of those prepared to vote strategically to block the NDP. That's important for Christy Clark. If the Conservatives had placed second in either riding, John Cummins would have at least a theoretical claim to the support of strategic anti-NDP voters.
Third, the results confirm the Liberals' problems are much deeper than a split in the non-NDP vote. Look at those numbers in the first paragraph above. Liberals support dropped by 5,490 votes; Conservative support only increased by 2,350 votes. Some people who voted Liberal in 2009 voted NDP; many more just stayed home. One of the fallacies in the argument that making the Conservatives go away would solve the Liberals' problems is that Conservative support would all migrate to the Liberals. Many Conservative voters would not vote at all, based on these results.
Fourth, Cummins did well enough in both ridings to keep Conservatives enthused, despite the third-place showing. The party attracted 15 per cent of the vote in Port Moody-Coquitlam; weak, but not bad considering there wasn't even a candidate in the 2009 election, and 25 per cent in Chilliwack-Hope.
That's bad news for the Liberals too. There's much talk of uniting-the-right to save the Liberals - or whatever a new party might end up being named. But that faces big hurdles. The Conservatives are surging because many voters can't stand the NDP or the Liberals. They won't be easily wooed. And other Conservatives are hardcore social conservatives who believe they have finally found a party that speaks for them. They too will be difficult to convert to Liberals.
And Cummins is not a man given to political compromise.
All of which creates a problem for Clark and the Liberals. A bid to relaunch the party - or a new party - looks desperate and might not work. Arguing that people have to vote for the Liberals even if they think they're doing a lousy job would alienate some voters and is hardly inspiring.
Attack ads to scare voters into voting Liberal are an option, but it's hard to see how they would be enough.
Hard days ahead for the Liberal party.

And another thing....
Clark continued to make the argument Friday that the Liberals are the only alternative to the New Democrats, and that she is the ordained leader of the anti-NDP forces.
That was reinforced by calls Clark chief of staff Ken Boessenkool made to Conservative organizers, according to some fascinating reports from Rob Shaw of the Times Colonist. Boessenkool is apparently pitching a merger - but Clark's leadership of the merged party is not open to debate.
But a look at the combined Liberal-Conservative vote in the byelections shows the problem with that position. The fact is that 41 per cent of anti-NDP voters rejected Clark and the Liberals. If there is to be a new coalition party, it's hard to see how it can be led by a person who has - at best - the support of 59 per cent of its base.

PIne beetle jobs disaster and government inaction (and secrecy)

Independent MLA Bob Simpson yesterday raised questions about a government document forecasting half the forest jobs in the Interior would disappear in the next few years. The rush to harvest the pine beetle wood will be over. The damaged forests will be decades away from harvest size. No wood, no mills, no jobs. The document proposes a few short-term measures, like logging in protected areas. (The government was quickly removed from the government website once Simpson asked about it in the legislature.)
The economic crisis reflects a massive government failure to respond to an inevitable and obvious crisis. In a 2004 column, I wrote about the job losses when the pine beetle wood was harvested.
The crisis would challenge any government. There are no easy routes to economic diversification to replace a core industry, or retraining for its workers.
But the federal government's response has been anemic, given the scale of the disaster. The province's Pine Beetle Action Plan has been hopelessly inadequate, especially in terms of economic development. The provincial government has failed to warn workers that their jobs will end, and missed opportunities to take bold action.
All despite the fact that this disaster has been unfolding in slow motion, in plan sight.

Update: Simpson has the document, now declared secret by the government, at his website here.

The strange world of Honduran teachers

There's no end of baffling stories in Honduran newspapers. Today, I read about a three-toed sloth - endangered here - rescued from a San Pedro Sula home where it was being kept, badly, as a pet. It's doing OK. The story was unclear why the people thought a sloth would be a good substitute for a dog.
But the reports on the education system - especially teachers and their unions - are the most baffling.
First, the news was that teachers were striking because they hadn't been paid. Cheques were weeks or months late. Some stories said the government didn't have the money on hand. Others said the payroll systems were simply a mess. Either way, it's bizarre that the state can't get its act together to pay employees.
Then the education minister - a federal post - was whacked. In part, El Tiempo noted, it was because he couldn't get a grip on the job. After two years, he still hadn't been able to establish how many teachers were actually employed.
That suggests one reason people weren't being paid. But the converse was apparently true; a 2011 audit found 3,448 'ghost' teachers were getting paycheques, but couldn't be found in any school.
Then both papers reported widespread corruption in hiring and promotion policies. Education officials were demanding, and getting, $3,000 to $4,000 for teaching places. The right cash payment - or political connections - could jump a candidate ahead of more competent, better qualified applicants, or buy a bump in salary level or better school. Some 18,000 unemployed teachers are looking for work. If you can get a job, the pay is good. Bribery would be appealing, and worth millions to the recipients.
That story is still unfolding.
And of course, it's all against a backdrop of overcrowded, poorly equipped classrooms, some with 90-plus kids from several grades.
I usually try to bring these posts back to B.C. This one is a little harder.
But there is one thing in common. Despite the problems like not being paid regularly, people are lining up to be teachers in Honduras and paying kickbacks to get jobs.
In B.C., about 1,800 people a year graduate with teaching degrees. Another 800 show up from other provinces hoping for work. But there are only about 1,000 vacancies a year. Despite the long odds, people are trying for teaching jobs and spending years on sub lists. (And if bribery were possible, I expect jobs would go for a tidy sum)
Which is bad news for the BCTF. It's hard to argue wages are uncompetitive when there are almost three applicants for every job, with the number increasing every year. Many, of course, just love the idea of teaching. Many like the pay - $40,000 to start, $80,000 at the top end - and the long holidays.
But unless the union wants to argue the profession is attracting second-rate candidates, it's hard to see a case for big wage increases when prospective employees are delighted with the current conditions.

The politics of buying dead white men's clothes in Honduras

I bought a T-shirt yesterday, my first clothing purchase in Honduras. It was overdue. We packed the night before we left, weighed our bags and found we had to shed about 20 pounds worth of stuff to make the 50-pound per-person limit. The skimpy wardrobe got skimpier still.
In Honduras, as in Canada, I shop used. It's cheaper, I can afford better stuff and the clothes are softer and less scratchy. (I have an obsession with avoiding scratchy.)
Fortunately, there are lots of little stores offering 'Ropa Americana,' the stylish term for used clothes. Some are on racks, some in big heaps, and prices are reasonable - maybe $3 or $4 for a short-sleeved shirt.
They aren't really 'Ropa Americana.' Most are made in China or India or even Honduras. The maquiladoras here - special zones with no taxes, low minimum wages and few rules - have spawned a textile and clothing industry. It's odd to think of a shirt making its way from here to Vancouver and back again, like some migrating bird.
Still, it's a nice term, and better than some. When I was considering a Cuso International placement in Ghana, I read that second-hand clothes were called 'obroni wewu' - loosely translated as dead white man's clothes. (Literally, �a white man has died.�)
I had wondered how the clothes got from North America to here, especially the t-shirts for universities, sports teams and fun runs that are so commonly worn. (Often incongruously, like the aged, sun-wrinkled woman wearing a red t-shirt that said "I'm a little princess.")
And, hours after I bought my shirt, I went on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, apparently using a new algorithm that actually reads minds, arranged for a sponsored link on my page to Ropa al Mayreo. They have a giant warehouse in Miami and will ship 100-pound bales of used clothes - no rips or holes - to your door. They're vague on prices, but $1 to $1.50 a pound seems in the range. That's about $1 per item, but there are shipping costs too.
There's a continuing debate on the used clothing business, particularly in Africa. Some fear the loss of culture, as people dump traditional clothes for Abercombie and Fitch knockoffs. Ghana has promoted traditional dress on Fridays, kind of the opposite of our dress-down day.
And local clothing producers complain they can't compete and want the imports banned. (The issue is summarized nicely here.)
But really, governments better be handling the rest of their responsibilities well before they start dictating what people can wear.
And arguing that poor people - 67 per cent of Hondurans live in poverty, 43 per cent in extreme poverty - should pay more for clothes to prop up a domestic clothing industry is just cruel.
My new t-shirt is on the clothesline now, and I just went and checked. It's Fruit of the Loom brand. And it was made in Honduras.

Semana Santa in Honduras

We've made it through our first Semana Santa - Easter Week - in Copan Ruinas.

It's a fascinating phenomenon.

For starters, it's the year's big holiday, and much of the country is on the move. The public sector, and some businesses, shut down for the week; most operations just knock off early on Wednesday and don't re-open until Monday.

The tradition is that people travel for a brief break - to the beaches, or back home if they have moved away, or just somewhere different. The main bus terminal in San Pedro Sula handled some 1.3 million people in the week, mostly in the last five days. The roads are jammed, buses packed, prices rise and people crowd into the tourist spots. (That's not just true in Honduras; we avoided Semana Santa travel in Mexico after seeing pictures of beaches we knew as uncrowded staked out with tents from the high-tide line on back.)

And, of course, there is Easter. On Palm Sunday - the week before Easter, for those out of touch - there was a procession to the Catholic church on the square, with everyone carrying big palm branches. (Much more dramatic than the little folded palm crosses I remember from my Anglican youth.)

On Thursday, the night before Good Friday, they decorated two blocks with alfombras - literally carpets, but in this case elaborate scenes created on the street with coloured sawdust. Volunteers started work that night, laying down a base and using stencils to add colours from big bags of dyed sawdust. By about 2 a.m. they had created one block of scenes from the life of Jesus, and another of Mayan symbols. (The alfombras in the big cities are hugely elaborate.)

On Good Friday, there were morning and evening processions. We followed the morning group, which sets out from the church, people in robes carrying draped tables with large sculptures of Christ and the disciples, several hundred others following along. At each of the stations of the cross - 14 here - the procession stops and there is a Bible reading and brief sermon. The stations, on the cobbled streets, were decorated with draperies and a carpet of the long green pine needles that grow on the trees in the hills.

The sun beat down and it was roasting, in the low 30s, and the route led up steep, cobbled hills. It was impressive, especially when a group of women - mothers, obviously - came down from the Barrio Buena Vista carrying a platform with a haunted looking Mary, meeting with the main procession at Station 4, where Jesus meets his mother on the way to Calvary.

The spoken messages at each stop were interesting. The theme seemed to be how messed up Honduras has become - crime, corruption, drugs, alcohol - and that it was time to do something about it. (Though what was less than clear.)

When I watched celebrations from other cities on TV, the Catholic priests were talking about the same things. It appeared to be an orchestrated message, though less than half of Hondurans now identify as Catholic; evangelical churches have made great strides.

The evening procession was smaller, and the last few hundred yards were over the alfombras, scuffling them into obscurity. It was a mix of highly traditional rituals and low-budget technology. For music, a kid was carrying a $50 battery-power boom box, a guy walked in front of him holding a microphone, and a third person - who must have been deaf by the end of the day - walked in front with a giant white megaphone on his shoulder.

There was a fair amount of partying going on during Semana Santa as well. One of the messages in the procession was that people should be spending more time reflecting on Easter's meaning, and less on plans to hit the beach.

The president - Porfiro Lobo - made the same point in a statement as the week began. He urged all Hondurans to use Semana Santa as a time to reflect, and think about what they should and should not do. He suggested strongly he was spending the week at the family ranch doing just that.

But La Prensa found his photo on David Copperfield�s website, posing with the magician after catching his show in Las Vegas. It's a sore point, as many politicians apparently head to Miami and other U.S. destinations for the week, while most people pile into a bus and head to a crowded beach.

By Sunday morning, the sawdust was swept up. By the afternoon, things were back to normal.

But there was a cost to all that rushing around. The accidental death toll from the holiday included 29 people killed on the roads and 18 drownings. About 30 people drown in B.C. in a year. Honduras has twice the population, but 18 in a week shows a certain casualness about life and death that seems a problem down here.

'When the premier speaks, we would rather her comments not be reported'

North Shore News reporter Benjamin Alldritt has a great column on getting kicked out of a Christy Clark rally here.
Allldrit got a personal invitation from the local Liberal riding association. So did hundreds of other people. So he went to the meeting in a hotel, was admitted, got his name tag and was then booted out by Gabe Garfinkel, executive assistant to the premier. (Garfinkel was an aide to federal Liberal MP Joyce Murray who came over to the provincial payroll when Clark won the leadership.)
You have to leave, he said. It's not a media event. You shouldn't have been invited.
"When the premier speaks, we would rather her comments not be reported," Garfinkle said. "I'm sure you can understand that we don't want comments made in front of a private audience made public."
Let us count the gigantic failures here.
First, and most important, in promoting the notion that Clark wants to say one thing to several hundred Liberal supporters, but that it must be kept secret from the public. Fine, a strategy session with key people might need to be secret. But a speech to a throng of invited supporters hardly justifies secrecy, and creates the sense the premier has something to hide. (When in fact, as Alldritt notes, the speech was almost certainly the usual platitudes.)
Second, the hamhanded and dumb way Alldritt got the boot (although it did provide grist for a very nice column).
And third, the incompetence shown by the supposedly organized Liberals. If you do want to keep things secret as some sort of political strategy, or just to make supporters feel special, then you also need to manage the guest list so you don't invite journalists.
The result is that an innocuous event has become a political liability on several level.

But read the whole column here - it's worth your time.

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The great problem of Clark's missed opportunity to lead

Charlie Smith identifies one of Christy Clark's big problems in a Georgia Straight piece today.

"With most politicians," Smith writes, "you can figure out what they really believe in. There are certain issues that you know they are passionate about, even if you don't agree with them."

Smith cites examples. Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants a big military and more people in jails. Gordon Campbell - leaving aside his many fleeting enthusiasms- believed that taxpayer support for the corporate sector would strengthen the province.

But after watching Clark as premier for a year - and listening to her as talk-show host for several - Smith writes that he's still not clear what she really cares about, or why she wants to be premier. She's talked about families and jobs, but what politician is against families and jobs?

Leaders, in any context, need to be able to set out a vision. People in the organization - or party - won't all agree, but they'll know the goals and be able to articulate them. And, on some level, help to achieve them. Leaders can hang on without them, of course. They have the power to enforce discipline. But entropy sets in.

And while political parties have an overriding goal - getting elected - that doesn't rally the uncommitted voters essential to success.

Clark's fallback position seems to be to campaign on the argument that people who don't actually like the Liberals or their current direction must vote for them anyway to keep the NDP out of power.

The argument is sound. Votes for the Conservatives, in most ridings, increase the chances of an NDP victory. (Thought the latest poll showing the Liberals and Conservatives tied undermines Clark's claim to automatic support.)

But it smacks of arrogance and is incredibly uninspiring. "Vote for us - even if you think we're doing a lousy job. You have no choice." (I recall Glen Clark making similar arguments as the NDP sank in the polls in the late 1990s. When the election was closer, he said, people would realize that even if they didn't like the New Democrats, the Liberals would be worse. They didn't.)

Some former Liberals will ignore Clark's pitch and vote Conservative or New Democrat. Others will just stay home.

The problem is greater for Clark because she failed to seize the narrow window - a matter of months - that new leaders in any organization have to set the new direction and articulate it. If they miss the opportunity, the status quo, or a vacuum, becomes the norm, and change is much harder. Any new direction now is likely to be seen by many voters as empty, pre-election posturing.

Death in the river, or how we came to have a Honduran cleaner

So, we have a woman who comes once a week to clean and do our laundry in the pila on the terrace. Pilas are a Honduran staple - a large concrete water tank with a corrugated shelf for scrubbing clothes and washing dishes. Ours isn�t filled. The upstairs tenants are worried, I expect rightly, about mosquitos.

I have never been comfortable with someone doing household chores. (Nor have I been great at doing them myself.) When I was a teen, a woman came to our house in suburban Toronto once a week to clean, except we were all required to make sure the house was spotless before she arrived. I played lacrosse against her large, not particularly skillful, son George. My strategy in stopping him was to allow myself to be trampled to the ground, and then try to tangle his legs as he ran over top of me. It was moderately effective.

In Gordon Head, Jody and I had a cleaner who suffered from light mental illness, which was unfortunate given the challenges placed in her way at our house.

She resigned one week when we were away after showing up and taking one look at the chaos. Jody�s son, housesitting for us, thought the place actually looked pretty good when she arrived.

Another time, she left a note that said only �Gone home. Scary ants.�

Which was quite true. For a year or two, large, horrible brown-winged ants would occasionally appear out of the walls and ceiling. One time we were having a family party and I watched in horrified fascination, willing the woman to move, as ants dropped from the ceiling onto the back of her dress. When the landlord finally had a new roof put on, the contractors swore they had never seen such a horrific infestation.

We don�t really need a cleaner here. Our place is small and we have little furniture and almost no clothes.

But we met Cecelia during our four-week home stay with Julia, part of our Spanish school. Or first we met Christina, her 15-year-old daughter. (I�ve changed all the names. The odds are remote that worlds will overlap, but it�s the information age and everyone deserves privacy.)

Christina lived in the home as a kind of house chica, cleaning and looking after the somewhat crabby 15-month-old son of Deanna, one of Julia�s daughters, who lived in the adjacent house. Christina had her own room, and seemed content enough. It wasn�t some Dickens thing.

Then we met Cecelia, her quiet mum, who also showed up sometimes to cook or clean, and Yeny, her dead charming nine-year-old daughter, brown-skin, dark hair, dark eyes, always smiling in a wise kind of way, happy to sit in a little chair and listen to Jody play accordion.

One day I was working on my Spanish on the slab roof, under the drying laundry, as Yeny sat on her little chair and grilled me. What did my shoes cost? How about my computer? How many children did I have? What did I think of Copan?

She said her father was dead. He drank beer, she said pointing to my Port Royal, and dove into the river and hit his head on a rock and died. (All later confirmed in other conversations, without the beer part.)

Which explained why Christina was at our place. Cecilia had three kids and almost no money, and little way of earning anything, so finding a way to have one less mouth to feed was pragmatic.

Yeny is charming, and direct. A week or so later, she and I had a conversation in the living room and she told me about a kid in her class who was getting hassled by the teacher because he didn�t have the required black shoes. They wear blue pants or skirts and white shirts and black shoes in the public schools. He�s too poor to buy shoes, she said.

That�s just wrong, I said. The teacher is out of line. Who cares what shoes he wears? Does that affect his school work?

We discussed the issue for a while, in my broken Spanish, as she patiently corrected me.

Then we drifted up to the roof, where Jody was playing accordion. Get this, I said, the teacher is grinding a kid in Yeny�s class because he�s poor and doesn�t have the right shoes. Outrageous.

But it turned out that my Spanish hadn�t been up to the conversation, and it was Yeny who didn�t have the shoes because she was poor. So she and Jody headed down the hill to the zapateria and bought shoes and a couple of pairs of tall white socks.

And once we were out of the home stay, we ended up with a cleaner, about $6 for two hours or so a week. Yeny comes sometimes. She brought me a fridge magnet, a little pink foam Volkswagen, her class made as a project for Father's Day. It says 'Dios te bendiga papa.'

Footnote: Minimum wage for rural workers in Honduras is about 95 cents an hour. For a mid-size enterprise, a mine or business or a hospital, it�s about $1.80. (The system is complex.) There are special lower rates for companies operating under the �Free Zones Act,� legislation which aimed - successfully - to attract foreign companies to set up maufacturing operations with no taxes, few regulations and low-cost labour.

But the minimum wage laws are not enforced and even getting paid is a challenge, the Honduras Weekly noted here.

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