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It’s a Saturday night and I am sitting in my apartment, drinking beer, listening to Manu Chao and reminiscing about my time in the Peace Corps but more importantly my time in Honduras and I thought it was time to put pen to paper.  We, all the volunteers that were in Honduras prior to being yanked out due to escalating violence, have been home for about two months.  I can only speak for myself but the adjustment back to life here has been bittersweet.  My transition back into life here was pretty easy; thanks to some great friends but for every one thing that I love about being home I miss two about Honduras.

I vividly remember walking through the streets of Tegucigalpa with my friend Byron to return a razor because I forgot to remove a sticker and was under the false impression that it was broken – stupid gringo.  The trip was unmemorable but what I do remember was the energy pulsing through me and how alert and alive I felt because there – in Honduras – you never know what is going to happen.  I remember standing on the balcony of a home in Tegucigalpa and watching my best friend propose to his girlfriend.  I remember getting my coworker into a fight because we were throwing ice at the locals and I remember being scorned the next day by our boss for causing a scene.  I miss the salsa clubs in Tela, the overcrowded two-story Salva Vida tent in La Ceiba and the white sand beaches of Roatan.  But the most memorable thing I remember about Honduras was walking through the security check with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye because I was leaving a couple of people that did and do mean the world to me.

Everyday on my way to work I drive through a Mexican barrio and I can’t help but feel that somehow there is a small piece of me belongs there and I want to stop and talk about the weather over a piece of bread and a cup of coffee.  I hear conversations in Spanish and voyeuristically listen, not because I care what is being said but because I want to feel normal again and above all I miss my friends.  I truly feel that they are some of the best people I have ever met and I hate how distance changes things.  I miss picking mushrooms in the woods; I miss fishing for minnows with a broken fishing pole and I miss when perfect strangers ask you how you are doing.  For everything that we have, paved roads, a functioning government, etc. we lack in humanity.  I was shocked the other day when a stranger in the elevator asked me how my day was.  The first thing through my head was, “What does this guy want?” I had to stop and chastise myself for becoming so callous so quickly. I see myself starting to revert back to my former ways and it alarms me.  I hate how materialistic that I have become so quickly and I struggle daily to remind myself that one’s valor is not derived off of a paycheck or other material things. 

Life is short and I have had the incredible luck of living it twice.  People ask me how was the Peace Corps and would I recommend it for other people.  I hope that this blog answers that question.

I can’t wait for I my vacation in May and spending five hours on a (mostly) dirt highway in the back of a pickup truck (please have the mini cooler with beer ready) on my way to Gracias to watch my friends get married, I can’t wait to harass my friend Angela’s mother about taking her on a date and I can’t wait to see everyone. 

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Es el sábado por la noche y estoy sentado en mi casa, bebiendo cerveza, escuchando a Manu Chao y recordando mi tiempo en el Cuerpo de Paz, pero lo más importante de mi tiempo en Honduras y pensé que era el momento para poner la pluma al papel. Nosotros, todos los voluntarios que estaban en Honduras antes de ser arrancado, debido a la escalada de violencia, han sido el hogar de cerca de dos meses. Yo sólo puedo hablar por mí mismo, pero el ajuste a la vida aquí ha sido agridulce. Mi transición a la vida aquí era muy fácil, gracias a unos grandes amigos, pero por cada cosa que me gusta de estar en casa me olvido de dos de Honduras.

Recuerdo caminar por las calles de Tegucigalpa con mi amigo Byron volver una navaja porque se me olvidó quitar una pegatina y se encontraba bajo la falsa impresión de que estaba rota – estúpida gringa. El viaje fue poco memorable, pero lo que sí recuerdo es que la energía circula a través de mí y cómo alerta y vivo, porque no me sentía – en Honduras – nunca se sabe lo que va a suceder. Recuerdo estar parado en el balcón de una casa en Tegucigalpa, y viendo a mi mejor amigo de proponerle matrimonio a su novia.Recuerdo que mi compañero de trabajo en una pelea, porque estábamos tirando de hielo a los vecinos y yo recuerdo haber despreciado al día siguiente por nuestro jefe de causar una escena. Echo de menos los clubes de salsa en Tela, el hacinamiento de dos pisos, la tienda Salva Vida en La Ceiba y las playas de arena blanca de Roatán. Pero lo más memorable que recuerdo de Honduras fue caminando a través de la comprobación de seguridad con un nudo en la garganta y una lágrima en mis ojos, porque me iba un par de personas que recibieron y me refiero a todo el mundo para mí.

Todos los días en mi camino al trabajo me conduce por un barrio mexicano y no puedo dejar de sentir que de alguna manera hay un pequeño trozo de mí pertenece a ella y quiero parar y hablar del tiempo sobre un pedazo de pan y una taza de café. Escucho las conversaciones en español y el voyeurismo, escuchar, no porque me importa lo que se dice, sino porque quiero sentirme normal de nuevo y sobre todo me olvido de mis amigos. Creo de verdad que son algunas de las mejores personas que he conocido y no me gusta cómo la distancia cambia las cosas. Echo de menos buscar setas en el bosque, me olvido de la pesca de carpas con una caña de pescar rota y yo echo de menos cuando perfectos desconocidos le preguntará cómo le está yendo. Por todo lo que tenemos, caminos pavimentados, un gobierno en funciones, etc que nos falta en la humanidad. Me sorprendió el otro día cuando un desconocido en el ascensor me preguntó cómo era mi día. La primera cosa por la cabeza fue: “¿Qué quiere este hombre?” Tuve que parar y castigar a mí mismo por ser tan cruel con tanta rapidez. Me veo empezando a volver a mis antiguos caminos y me alarma. No me gusta lo materialista que he llegado a ser tan rápida y lucho todos los días para recordarme que un valor no se deriva fuera de un cheque de pago u otras cosas materiales.

La vida es corta y no he tenido la increíble suerte de vivir dos veces. La gente me pregunta cómo fue el Cuerpo de Paz y se lo recomendaría a otras personas. Espero que este blog las respuestas a esa pregunta.

No puedo esperar a que mis vacaciones en mayo y pasar cinco horas en una carretera de tierra (sobre todo) en la parte trasera de una camioneta (por favor tenga la mini refrigerador con cerveza preparada) en mi manera de Gracias para ver a mis amigos se casan , no puedo esperar para acosar a la madre de mi amiga Angela acerca de cómo tomar ella en una fecha y no puedo esperar para ver a todo el mundo.

“Hey man, do you want try this tequila my girlfriend brought me from Mexico?”  It turns out the correct answer to this is “no” but this is a lesson better learned the hard way, at least that is what I tell myself. The answer of “yes” initiated an almost unforgettable night, mostly because of my inability to remember any of it, and a hangover that I will never forget. Gracias has many hidden treasures, one of which is Café Kandil or just Kandil. The owner of Kandil, Byron Mejia, is an artist whose work has been featured in expositions around the globe and Kandil itself is a lounge, the likes of which would not be out of place in a bohemian New York neighborhood, that features his work and is generally a great place to throw a few back after a long week.

There was a time in my life that I thought artists were touchy feely types incapable of truly relaxing and letting go, always thinking about world issues and the importance of things most people find trivial. That was until one of them drank me so far under the table I was below the floorboards, which is pretty difficult to do when everything is concrete.  The night started off tame enough, a few beers with a new volunteer and some banter about work.  Due to a host-family imposed curfew the new volunteer escaped without a scratch at around 10.30. I was not so lucky.  The fatal misstep occurred when I decided to use the restroom before walking home, stupid in hindsight, since it is perfectly acceptable to pee on the streets here, instead of walking out at 10.30 with the other volunteer. As a saddled up to the bar, post pee, to settle my tab, the fatal phrase was uttered, “Hey man do you want try this tequila my girlfriend brought me from Mexico?” I haven’t learned much while I have been here but turning down generosity does seem to close doors and when you make $236.84 it’s really dumb to turn down free stuff, especially when it’s alcohol.

The first shot came out and went down without a hitch.  It was smooth, real smooth, and quite possibly one of the best tequila shots I have been lucky enough to drink. I was quickly offered a second but this time with a tomato juice chaser.  The catch was that the tomato juice came in an 8-ounce container.  Doing some quick calculations I realized that meant an additional 4 to 5 shots of tequila so I did my best to chug the whole bottle after the first shot but I was stopped and told that I needed to save the rest for the upcoming shots.  After a blizzard of shots, which most likely resembled the post robbery scene from Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, I was tipsy to say the least but a strange sense of calm over took me as I (falsely) realized that I wasn’t that drunk and the normally alarming sight of another bottle of tequila emerging didn’t scare me at all.  Byron and my other friend, Gustavo, insisted that we needed to try some of Honduras’ finest tequila just to compare.  This one was a little bit stronger, scratch that, way stronger but after the amount of hair that I had grown on my chest from the last eight shots I could have fought the entire male population of Gracias and won, so another bottle of tequila was just child’s play.

About an hour later I found myself navigating the dirt street that runs in front of my house, a task that was made that much more difficult by the torrential down pour taking place and the freshly dug trenches for a new and improved sewer system being installed.  After a poorly placed right foot my sandal decided to break, which sent me tumbling into a trench worthy of a World War I battle.  Covered in mud, reeking of Tequila, and with one less sandal I pulled myself out of the hole and stumbled the final 100 yards to my front door.  After successfully opening the front gate to my apartment I stumbled the final 100 feet to my porch where I decided to collapse and sleep, probably because the last ten feet seemed like a task akin to scaling Everest.  The only thing that woke me was the Ranchero music, that the maid likes to play while she cleans, reaching my eardrums like a swarm of angry hornets.  So at about 6am I sheepishly slinked inside, peeled off my muddy clothes, removed my contacts, and called it a night day.

While I felt like I had to share this story to let my friends know that I have not lost my lust for irresponsible and inappropriate child-like behavior, I have been searching for something of value to pull out of this story.  What I found after reflecting was not what happened during the blurry series of tequila shots but what happened before and after: the unyielding kindness and always-forgiving nature of the Honduran people around me despite being in the mist of an unprecedented security situation the likes that would have many people rattled to the core.  My friend Byron donated not one but two bottles of tequila just to make sure that we had a good time.  Doesn’t sound like much but considering that he could have made enough money off each bottle to buy a month’s worth of groceries, quite a big deal.  And hats off to my poor landlady who almost assuredly saw me in a crumpled muddy mess that morning but told my boss during a routine site visit a week later that I was always well mannered and rarely drank.

I have encountered some of the most genuine and kind people over the last year of my life and instead of being preoccupied with how I am going to get through another year I am worried that I don’t have enough time left.  So in closing I would like thank all the people who have made this last year unforgettable and I hope the Google Translate of this makes sense.

“No, I don’t think so: a pump would need gasoline, spare parts, regular maintenance.  Ultimately the contraption would fail them.  They were better off hauling water the ancient way, with donkeys, goatskin pails, and goatskin water containers that when filled looked like little fat goat corpses.”  Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari

Sitting at my desk unable to focus on anything work related I decided to try and finish another post before I leave for an upcoming trip to America’s Playground, a place better known as Las Vegas or if you happen to be in Latin America Las Begas. I can’t remember exactly what it was that compelled me to write down that quote but I think it was because rarely have I seen so much knowledge summed up so succinctly, especially from a qualified source – more frequently quotes about development and foreign aid come from academics deeply immersed in thoughts about how the world should work instead of how it does work.

We, in the Peace Corps community, are asked quite frequently what it is that we do, whether it be our friends, our family, host country nationals and/or quite recently our bosses from Peace Corps.  Tricky question to answer, a lot of other aid agencies have big shiny things to point to JICA (Japan) built a bridge over a river, GIZ (Germany) – endlessly funny although they don’t understand the significance of their own acronym when pronounced in English, which in itself is puzzling because quite a few of them speak English and can tell better dirty jokes than me – started a micro-finance cooperative, and USAID gave $80 odd million dollars for an irrigation project but what is my crowning achievement you ask, working with a fellow in the office to improve his Excel skills.

My opinion about a lot of things has changed over the last year, especially my opinions on development and foreign aid.  I have read a lot of articles written about the insignificant amount of money that we, the United States of America, spend on foreign aid and development and how we should spend more.  The amount is almost always contrasted with our ever-mushrooming defense budget, which is a completely unfair and unjust comparison.  Don’t get me wrong the amount of money spent on defense every year is out of control and a wider reflection of our non-sustainable imperial complex but that is a completely different article for a completely different blog.  It’s just that the amount of money spent on defense compared with any other budget line item looks horribly lopsided and allows you to draw a conclusion without thinking and in this case leads you to conclude that the amount of money designated for foreign aid and development should be increased.  My opinion is quite the opposite; the amount of money spent on foreign aid should be drastically reduced and the development budget should be left alone.

Before venturing any further, a distinction needs to be made as to the difference between foreign aid and development. Let us define foreign aid as any group that is primarily engaged in giving money away and let us define development as any group that is actively involved in the development of people on a person-to-person basis.

I along with any other Peace Corps volunteer that you run into that can tell you about the multitude of three quarter constructed decaying recreation centers or the fields full of high tech unused irrigation equipment, and in my case a house that I saw full of half the equipment that would be needed to build latrines, the other half was sold by a person within the community that decided the cash would be better.  These outcomes say nothing of the people I work with or the country that I live in because we are all human and we all respond to incentives in a similar manner.  Three quarter constructed recreation center, sounded better when the idea was proposed and we thought that it was going to have a television and you were going to build it. Fields full of irrigation equipment, gee I sure wish someone would have shown me how to use it better and left me a manual in my own language (true story). Supplies for latrines, I think I would rather feed my children and myself with the proceeds.  None of these outcomes make anyone a worse person but they should tell you something about foreign aid.

Most of the time foreign aid is a waste of money and even worse it promotes laziness and a sense of entitlement, which is becoming ever more prevalent not only in the developing world but also in the developed world. I work with an office full of motivated people who would like to do nothing more than change the lives of the people in the communities that they live in permanently.  Their approach is simple, they work with community leaders to coordinate and deliver educational talks on a variety of issues business, health, and education but I can only imagine that it is a little bit difficult to garner attention on the long-term when someone is giving away $80 million dollars next door.  The incentives have been skewed and the people that have done it are so caught up in the euphoria that comes along with giving that they forgot to consider the long-term effects of what they are doing.  Even worse is the cronyism, corruption, and political philandering that often accompanies these projects – something that definitely leaves a country worse off as a whole while enriching a few.  There is a stretch of road that I use on a monthly basis that has taken over 5 years and counting to pave; in the Unites States it would have been done within six months. Think there might be a problem?

Not to discredit Mr. Kennedy but there is no way that he could have known the genius of the program that he was designing.  The Peace Corps, in most corners of the world, functions on a very personal level and for next to nothing.  It has allowed a virtual army of Peace Corps volunteers to witness the things that I am talking about on a first hand and very personal basis and speak about them intelligently.  For the most part I dislike the music of U2, something that would greatly disappoint many of my Honduran coworkers, but I have nothing against Bono.  I just find it hard to believe that you can understand a culture, their needs, and the things that would benefit them most by (private) jetting in, parading around with a few highbrow politicians, and holding a few fly covered babies.  The Peace Corps, on the other hand, takes a very different approach, we live in the communities that we serve, we take time to get to know the people within them, and above all we do not come with a sack money to give away, we come only with the knowledge that we possess. So when asked what my greatest achievement is so far it is most definitely working with my buddy Onan on his Excel skills.  This is something he wants to learn, will increase his earning power, and didn’t cost anybody a dime.

Now, I am not against all giving but be absolutely sure that the community receiving the benefit actually wants it, has demonstrated buy-in and that there will be a person from your church, club, government, etc. on the ground making sure that things are going where they are supposed to go for the life of the project, day in and day out, and that people from the community will have the knowledge to utilize the equipment or things that have been donated after you leave.  If you can meet these criteria, then give away but I bet you can’t.

Sorry in advance to all of you looking for a more light hearted article and big ups to all my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers sleeping on tile floors because it’s to hot to sleep in your bed, eating cups of noodles for the fourth day in a row because you ran out of money, and any poor soul battling parasites.