The life and times of a reluctant volunteer, by the numbers

A day in the fast-paced life of an international development quasi-volunteer, by the numbers.
6:30 - The time in the morning I boarded the bus.
6:45 - The number of hours I spent travelling from Copan Ruinas to Santa Rosa de Copan and back for a two-hour meeting.
146 - The actual road distance travelled, in kilometres. (Which, yes, means an average speed of 22 km/h.) 
2: The number of dead cows I saw by the side of the road. One, coming home, was quite deflated. The morning dead cow was fresher - a dog was tugging at its stomach, and about 15 black vultures were waiting their turns.
30: The number of Powerpoint slides on writing effective case studies I used to compensate for my poor Spanish. (Sorry, Steve Jobs.)
9: The inches between rows of seats in the Cassasolo Express bus, and the exact size of the tiny stools they had crafted for people to sit in the aisle - a very nice touch.
1: The number of monkeys I saw tethered to a tree outside a house on the bus ride home.
35: The people squeezed into a bus with seats for 24.
11: The buses that can back into spaces at the Santa Rosa de Copan bus terminal, a dusty parking lot with the highway in front and market stalls behind. It�s a part of Honduras that feels truly Third World. Touts lie blatantly about travel options - that bus doesn�t run any more - and wrestle people toward buses. Vendors sell everything from food to medicines. If you go with it, there is a charming energy.
28: The number of fireworks stands, on one side of the road, on the way into La Entrada, the reputedly druggy town between Copan Ruinas and the rest of the country. The stands all look exactly the same. Only one actually had a name; the rest were generic. And the fireworks are made in households in the nearby villages, a fact that should raise alarms on so many levels.
1: The man heading into a car repair place to beg in La Entrada with two metal protheses for hands and forearms, slings to hold them in place and two feet that pointed directly toward each other. It is hard to see how an accident could have produced such a bad outcome.
3: The number of roadside stands selling tortoise eggs. Is that legal, I asked on an earlier trip? No, but they're very tasty, I was told.
31: The number of vendors, from 7 to 60, who descended on the bus in La Entrada, selling everything imaginable. Off-brand soda pop, belts, toothpaste, watches, krazy glue, mangoes, chips, potato and plaintain, anti-fungal medicines, a piece of chicken, tortillas and cabbage in plastic wrap, lychees, gum, popcorn balls, cucumber chunks. Tough to say no to the kids, or the wizened.
8: The number of 50-pound bags of coffee beans hoisted on to the roof of the bus in La Entrada. How the two guys would get them anywhere in Copan Ruinas is a mystery.
3: One seat in front of me on the bus ride back, there was a young, skinny guy with a white straw cowboy hat, a jean jacket with some fancy beading and a sketchy moustache. The young woman - girl - with him seemed fragile, a scarf with kid-like images over her hair, kind of hunched and clutching herself. When we stopped in the middle of nowhere and they got up to leave, I realized he was carrying their brand new baby, all swaddled in a hat and blankets and scarves. She was maybe out of hospital little too soon. But hey, a new life was starting.
 I remember that. It's different here, but some things - maybe the most important things - are the same.

Cornhusk dolls and flawed development plans

Children of the cornhusk dolls on the march (Jody Paterson photo)
The cornhusk doll kids of La Pintada are part of life in Copan Ruinas.
La Pintada is about five kilometres away - an hour�s walk, one more poor village among many. A few years ago, a development project introduced a couple of microenterprises, women�s co-ops to produce �artesania� for the tourist market.
One group of women make cornhusk dolls. They�re cute, brightly coloured and obviously take some skill, but are a little boring.
And the marketing plan is deeply flawed. The children of La Pintada walk into town, with grubby plastic bags full of the dolls, and brandish them at gringos. They ask $1 for a doll. A few kids have laminated sheets, in English, that describe the co-op. They�re pretty persistent in thrusting a doll at you and, usually, looking solemn.
I haven�t seen the dolls in tourist stores, or being sold by any of the jewelry vendors on a street off the square. 
The women don�t set up a table in town and make dolls where people can see them doing the work, take pictures and perhaps buy more.
They do sell some dolls in La Pintada, which is a turnaround point for tourists who book horseback rides. But the marketing approach is the same, maybe slightly more alarming. A dozen or more kids, looking a little like the children of the corn, descend on visitors brandishing identical straw dolls.
It�s not far from institutionalized begging. I�ve seen tourists hand over money without taking a doll, which seems rude.
The other women�s co-op does weaving. Their work is good - we�ve got a couple of nice place mats on our table. But they only do place mats, table clothes and runners. And as far as I can tell, they only sell at the little co-op in the village of some 200 people.
The co-ops are a good idea. And the income is not to be scorned. The organization where my partner works is hosting a group from Tennessee helping to build ecostoves for families this week. (Less wood consumed, less smoke in the house - a very good thing, at about $60 a household.) About 15 of them rode up to La Pintada Saturday, and probably spent $20 on cornhusk dolls. That�s significant in a subsistence community, where many people have cash incomes of a few dollars a day.
But you have to wonder about the thinking behind the development project. It�s not enough to teach people how to make dolls, or help them buy a loom. You have to help them develop a plan to sell the goods.
The options seem obvious. The agency could have hunted out a storefront in Copan so some of the weaving could be done here, where tourists could see the work. 
It could have helped the weaving co-op come up with more products - bags, or shawls. It could do the same thing with the dolls, and figure out what sells - maybe a day of the dead collection, or Frida Kahlo cornhusk dolls, or Guadalupe, or Lady Gaga. Or creations based on the women�s lives.
Academic Lucy Ferguson looking at the gender implications of the projects in a 2007 paper
She identifies some of the problems. �The Women�s Council of CONIMCHH (Comite Nacional Indigena Maya Chort�) argue that in practice women�s groups are being held back, as they are only encouraged to produce artesan�a, and not how to market or develop their products,� Ferguson writes. �There is little encouragement for Chort� women to work on their creativity or own designs, with workshops clearly directed towards particular standardised products.�
I am not slagging the enterprises. I like the cornhusk doll kids. They�ve seen me often enough to accept my claim that we have too many of the dolls already. The Internet was out in our house last week so I was in a bar with Wifi, and a little guy and I looked at pictures on my computer, some of his village, until he gave me a fist bump and went back to selling.
But a fair chunk of money went into these projects. People - development types - were well-paid to plan execute them.
It wouldn�t have cost any more to do it right.

Bad teeth, bad diet and hunger in Honduras

Early on, I was struck by the number of little kids here with bad teeth, often with a strange pattern of decay around the edges of their baby teeth.
A story in the newspaper offered a possible clue. Funazucar, the umbrella association of sugar producers, proudly announced it's donating 40 tonnes of sugar to a school lunch program for poor kids and to help nursing mothers with nutrition. Some 21,000 people, about 16,000 of them children, will benefit.
That works out to about 1.9 kilos of sugar per person. It's not a lot. The average North American consumes about 60 kilos of sugar a year, thanks to a heavily sweetened diet of processed foods and soda pop.
But the Honduran donation will be mainly used to add sugar to children's milk in the school lunch program. That seems like a bad idea.
The standard Honduran diet is already high in carbohydrates. About 70 per cent of the calories consumed - higher in rural areas - is from corn, used for tortillas, and beans.
People like both - it's a rare meal, breakfast, lunch or supper, that doesn't include tortillas and beans. They're cheap. And subsistence farmers can grow their own corn and beans, even on the steep, generally poor-quality land they can access.
That dependence is a problem. Poor farmers don't have irrigation, of course. They plant, as people have for hundreds of years, when the rainy season is supposed to start. If it doesn't, or there isn't enough rain, the crops do badly, as they did in southern Honduras this year. And when the crops are poor, people go hungry until the next year.
(Which, given the coming impact of climate change on corn and bean production, is very bad news for Honduras, and much of Central America.)
In Canada, kids seem big for their age. Here, I found myself guessing children were two years younger than they really were. About 29 per cent of Honduran children under five are stunted - they�re significantly too short for their age - and eight per cent wasted - they weigh significantly too little for their height. (Even the terms convey a certain desperation.)
Partly, it�s a matter of limited diet - too few fruits and vegetables. People are reluctant to give up any of a tiny cornfield for unproven crops.
Partly, it�s a symptom of more complex problems. Water sources in rural communities - home to about half the population - are often unreliable and impure. Diarrhea and parasites take a toll on everyone, but especially on little children. Families cook over smoky wood fires, often inside buildings. Children suffer from respiratory illnesses as a result.
People are working on the problems. Mission groups are installing water systems - though many fail within five years - and helping families build latrines to protect water sources. Agencies, including the one my partner works with, are helping families build ecostoves that use less wood and don�t fill the house with smoke. But progress is slow.
And partly, people just don�t have enough to eat. So sugar, with its quick energy and big calories, is a welcome addition - to kids� milk, everyone�s coffee.
But sugar as a healthy additive to kids lunchtime milk?
I was already surprised, when I bought a bag of sugar at Bodega Gloria, to find the package proudly proclaimed �With added Vitamin A.� It seemed like trying to market soft drinks with added fibre. (Which Coke and Pepsi both already do in Japan.)
Back to bad teeth. That�s not just a question of diet. Toothbrushes and toothpaste are too expensive for poor families and dental care out of the question.
There are solutions. A U.S. university did a project where they taught kids in a poor rural community to clean their teeth with their fingers and salt and instructed teachers on twice-a-week fluoride rinses. A prominent community member was designated �Keeper of the Rinse� and distributed it to teachers. There were problems, of course.
The baseline study, done before the program, found 83 per cent of the six to eight year olds had cavities. Eighteen months later, it was down to 14 per cent. (The samples were small; you can read about the study here.)
When you don�t have enough to eat, you take calories in whatever form you can get them. But sugar-laden milk - even when the sugar has added Vitamin A - doesn�t seem like a great nutritional step forward.

Long bus rides, and the high cost of lousy infrastructure in Honduras

A new bridge installation didn't go so well in Olancho last month; communities will continue to be isolated in the rainy season
I�ve made the trip to Tegucigalpa, the capital, a couple of times in the last few weeks. 
It take about eight and a half hours from Copan Ruinas, with a stop in San Pedro Sula to change buses.
It�s comfortable. Cuso encourages people to use Hedman Alas, a high-end bus line that makes a big deal about security. Airport-style check-ins, with hand baggage checks, a metal detector and a digital snapshot of every passenger. (I�m not sure how that is supposed to increase security, but I smile for the camera.) No stops along the way. And the buses are new, with comfortable seats, and an odd selection of movies. (Coming home on the weekend, I had Furry Vengeance with Brendan Fraser, whose presence is a reliable indicator that a movie will be bad, and The Reunion, a WWE-produced action vehicle for wrestler John Cena.) For a few dollars more, you can even go Ejecutivo Plus - sort of a bus business class.
Eight hours is still a long time. The distance between the two cities, as the crow flies, is about 220 kilometres. But Honduras is mountainous, and the roads follow the valleys where possible. 
The total travel distance is actually 435 kms.
The mathematically astute will have realized that means the average speed for the journey, mostly on the country�s main highways, is about 55 km/h.
The long trip to Tegucigalpa is no big deal for me. But for businesses that need to get there or make deliveries, it adds cost and time. For small producers, it�s a big barrier to getting goods and crops to urban markets. 
The problem is even worse off the main roads. By official count, Honduras has 14,296 kms of roads. Less than a quarter of them are paved - about 3,200 kms. A Peruvian economist who spoke in Tegus last week, Enrique Cornejo Ram�rez, estimated that only 10 per cent of the road network is in fair condition.
The paved roads, with some exceptions, aren�t good: Potholes, washouts, never-ending construction.
Trucks ease by with two wheels on those logs
And the unpaved roads are much worse. They wind up steep hillsides and ford streams, and wash out in the rainy season and turn to dust in the dry. I was at a workshop on adding value for small farmers and co-ops. It was hard to talk about expanding markets or product differentiation when people�s first problem was that they couldn�t get their honey eight kms to the nearest town because the road was frequently impassable. When they can only sell locally, they face competition from all the other farmers growing the same things, and get lower prices.
Why are things such a mess? Hondurans point to Hurricane Mitch as a big factor, and it did result in massive damage to roads and wiped out bridges across the country in 1998.
Corruption is a problem. A newspaper story last month reported up to 25 per cent of government spending - including on infrastructure - is lost to various forms of corruption.(Before Canadians get too smug, remember the current Montreal construction corruption scandal.)
And Honduras just doesn�t have enough money. Work has halted on many of the current projects because the government hasn�t paid the companies in a couple of months. Tax loopholes and evasion reduce the money coming into government. (Teachers, for example, are exempted from income tax; companies show paper losses year after year and don�t pay tax.) Spending is routinely over budget. And IMF aid deals limit government borrowing. (Which, at interest rates around 11 per cent, is problematic anyway.)
It�s not just roads. The country�s main port is inefficient and outdated. There�s been talk of an airport for Copan Ruinas - which would make a huge tourism difference - for a decade, with no progress. 
And it�s not just transportation. The country�s phone company, Hondutel, is broke. Rural schools are substandard. In San Pedro Sula, with 1.9 million people, the Rotary Club is raising money to build the first public library. It�s been better lately, but for a couple of months power outages were routine in Copan, to the point that a group blockaded the road to Guatemala in protest. (Which seemed to help.)
And I�m writing this offline, because Internet service has been erratic for about 10 days.
This all goes far beyond inconvenience. Imagine trying to run a business, or any economic activity, when electricity is unreliable and transportation dodgy.
Once, it might not have mattered quite as much. Honduran businesses were local, shared the same handicaps and worked around them.
But Honduras, like so many countries has embraced freer trade as a route to more prosperity. Which means its businesses often face competitors operating in places with every infrastructure advantage.
Infrastructure tends to be a boring topic. Until it�s not there.

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