Thursday, March 29, 2007

La Paz

Originally uploaded by StormyPetrel.
Howdy folks, sorry for the long delay in updating. A week and a half ago, we (the Health Project trainees) bussed to La Paz, La Paz to begin Field-Based Training. The other to projects are in other sites for their FBT, so it's a smaller and cozier group. La Paz, on the other hand, is far from smaller and cozier.

A city of about 30,000, La Paz has two supermercados (a supermercado is about the size of a large 7-11, but they really manage to cram a lot of stuff in there!), 2 discos, and of course countless comedors and pulperias. There is also a hospital here in the city, as well as a number of clinics.

FBT has been intense. We are in class from 7:30 to 5, with a break around midday for lunch. Studying, practicing spanish with my host family, and working on projects takes up most of the rest of my time. The flipside is that the work we are doing is MUCH more interesting.

The two highlights from last week was a talk we got from an organization that works with commercial sex workers in Comayagua, and a two-day men's health seminar and practicum. The Men's Health initiative that peace corps is pushing is really interesting, pretty new, and there's a lot of energy behind it. It's main component is a 4-hour intervention on HIV/AIDS prevention that is delivered in a series of modular activities that are informative, but also really fun. The initiative works to deliver the intervention, but also to train regional, national (and now possibly international) organizations to adopt the intervention and use it in their areas.

After getting an abbreviated training on Thursday, we formed into groups of 5 and delivered the intervention to cadets at the Police Academy here in La Paz. It was a great experience, and now I know that there is work within the health project that really interests me.

My living situation here is also pretty spectacular. I live in a huge house with an herb & flower garden, fruit trees, and indoor patio. My host mother is an excellent cook, and I have four host brothers between the ages of 16 and 24 who are really fun to hang out with (which has helped my spanish!). My house is also centrally located so other trainees will often stop by to visit, which is nice as well.

Not much else to report. I haven't taken any pictures of La Paz yet, but will try to soon. Tomorrow we go to a nearby aldea to weigh babies as part of a anti-malnutrition project. Fun fun fun!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Parque Nacional Cerro Azul

Originally uploaded by StormyPetrel.
Last week, all the aspirantes (trainees) traveled to other parts of the country to do a volunteer visit. it's a 3-4 day visit with another volunteer, to give us an inkling of what we're getting in to. I was assigned to visit Jeremy, a PAM (protected areas management) volunteer in Cerro Azul, Comayagua.

Cerro Azul is a small down of 500 people in the Parque Nacional Cerro Azul. The houses run along a river as it winds its way down from the tallest mountain in the area (also called Cerro Azul). Since I was visiting a PAMer, I expected a scuzzy hippie living in a mud hut somewhere. I don't think I could have been more wrong.

My volunteer, Jeremy, is a hardworking, relatively clean-cut guy from Iowa. And his house is far from a mud hut. It was a fixer-upper when he got it, but his stress relief activity has been working on the house and his yard. It´s on the bank of the river (and he had his own little swimming hole). It has a back porch with a hammock. The yard was filled with flowers. The house itself was simple, but had plenty of space, plus electricity, running water, even a heated shower! I did not expect my first warm shower in Honduras to come in a small town in the middle of a National PArk.

As impressive as the house was, the landscape was even more so. Mountains covered with ferns and trees (some trees at least...there's a bit of a problem with people practicing slash-and-burn agriculture there). Birds everywhere (as well as chickens and donkeys). Lot's of water.

As we walked through the town, it struck me that Jeremy knew everyone. And not just their names, but what they did, who their family was, and so on. He stopped and had a conversation with everyone. At home, he said that when he arrived he made a point of introducing himself to every family in town. One of his more time-consuming projects is coaching a youth baseball team. MLBPA gave a grant to the Peace Corps to start up rural baseball teams, and Jeremy's is one of the more successful (at least in terms of attendance). He tells me how hard it can be to motivate kids to play baseball when it's so much slower than futbol and he's the only adult encouraging them to come out. But at baseball practice, nearly 20 kids show up! I umpired a 3-inning scrimmage game, and it brought back a lot of memories of playing little league back in SF. Daydreaming in the field, taking bad angles to fly balls, the satisfaction of driving a ball into the outfield. The kids had fun playing, but by the end of three innings it was clear that their attention was waning. So we packed up the baseball gear and brought out the futbol. Here, just as in Spain, 10-12 year old kids are my match.

Saturday, after batting practice, we took off for Lago de Yojoa. We met up with other volunteers and headed to a nearby waterfall, catarata de Pulapanzak. It's a 20-meter waterfall that you can walk down to the base of and actually stand in a cave behind the roaring water. From there, we headed to a hotel, Agua Azul, on the shores of Lago de Yojoa.

The hotel was really gorgeous, and with all of us cramming 4 and 5 into a room, very cheap as well. We relaxed there, and it was really nice to take a night to just unwind, forget about the challenges of integrating into Honduran culture, forget about the long training hours, and just converse, hang out, and enjoy.

It´s interesting, the challenges I thought I would face here aren't the ones that I expected when I committed to go. While the country is less developed, daily life really isn't that hard. As a health volunteer, my site will likely have all the amenities: water, electricity, probably an internet cafe. But what will be hard is integrating into a culture that is even more different than I expected, where many of my american hobbies and behaviors are viewed at best as eccentric and at worst as iniquitous. Compounding that is the fact that my peers are generally married with kids. We had a presentation on the adjustments that volunteers go through during service, and the presenters said that their best friends were 13 and 64 years old. That seems pretty common for volunteers here.

But even knowing this hasn't fazed me much. I'm still excited to get to my site in 2 months and make the best of it. There's been a lot of talk among the trainees about where in the country they would like to go, north coast, mountains, the west, etc. I thought for a while that I really wanted to go to the North Coast, but the more I think about it the more I don't really care where I end up. Any site I go to will have it's advantages and disadvantages (we're there because of the disadvantages, right?) so I figure I'll just do my best to make it work and figure out how to be productive and enjoy my two years there.

Monday, March 5, 2007

It’s late at night, and pouring rain outside. To save money, I’m writing my blog updates from my room, then saving them to disk and copying them over at the internet café. Had a good weekend. Saturday a group of us went for a hike to the top of a nearby mountain with a great view of Tegucigalpa. My flickr feed has a composite panorama photo that I shot from up there. Sunday morning I spent at home alone while the family was at church, studying and reading. Sunday evening I watched futbol and played with my three youngest host siblings.

As the newness of everything wears off, the reality of having to actually make a life here is slowly settling in. There are very real and significant challenges to forging a happy existence. Language, for one. Even though I already have a decent handle on Spanish, I still can’t converse the way I would like to and would have to in order to forge deep friendships. I’m also worried about finding (Honduran) friends I can relate to. Most people my age are married with kids. No one seems particularly interested in socializing at bars or cafes (only gringos and well-off Hondurans frequent those spots here in Santa Lucía). Of course, it’s only been two weeks and I’m probably just over-thinking the whole thing.

Tonight one of the other aspirantes hosted a birthday party at her host family’s house. We had chips and soda and cake, and played UNO. The host mother has been hosting aspirantes for 10 years or more, and regaled us with many stories of gringos and gringas who had lived with her in the past. She said they all got frustrated with the language, and worried that they couldn’t adjust, and in the end they all made out just fine.

Sunday, March 4, 2007


Where do I start? The scrubs, I guess. Pale green, the top was sleeveless and the bottoms tapered and were a few inches too short. A classy look, for sure.

The morning field trip was to Hospital San Felipe in Teguz. The scrubs were loaners from the Peace Corps so that I could witness a live birth in the maternity ward. There was only space for 10 people to go (in two groups of 5) and I wasn’t going to let the scrubs stop me.

We drove down in our Peace Corps-mobiles (white Toyota land cruisers that ferry people and supplies between PCHQ in Teguz and the training center in Santa Lucía). Rush hour here is not a good time to be on the road. At one point we spend half an hour choking on exhaust fumes without advancing even half a mile.

Finally we arrive, driving in through the back entrance to the hospital. We walk through the hospital, and I'm struck by how old it looks. There are gurneys and beds in the hall that must be twice my age. I ask and am told that the hospital was built in 1926, making it the oldest hospital in the city and probably the oldest in the country.

First we get a presentation from the subdirectora of the hospital. She presented at length the organizational structure of the Secretaría de Salud, and of the hospital. We asked questions about how the hospital deals with HIV/AIDS patients. The hospital offers testing but has no AIDS ward. HIV+ and AIDS patients are referred to two other hospitals in the city.

After the presentation, we get a very lengthy tour of the hospital. We are handed off to an obstetrician at the maternity ward. He gives us a lengthy talk about the maternity ward, which is a relatively recent addition (8 years old). They're one of the most popular birthing centers in the capital. They have the capacity to facilitate up to 60 births in 24 hours, but on average operate at about 30-35 births per 24 hours. Most of their patients are between 15 and 30 years old. It's uncommon, he tells us, to have girls 11 and 12 years old giving birth, but not unheard of. 13-year-olds don't even surprise the doctors.

We tour the puerperios (post-partum rooms), where women stay with their babies after given birth. They're required to stay at least 12 hours, but not allowed to stay more than 24 unless there were complications. The doctor tells us that most women leave as soon as possible since they usually have more kids waiting at home. The puerperios are long halls, with single beds sticking out perpendicular from the walls every 8 feet or so. Many of the beds are filled with mothers nursing their newborns.

Those of us wearing scrubs are broken into two groups. I'm in the first. We follow the doctor into the labor room, which is filled with at least a dozen beds. It's silent, and at first we think the room is empty. But the silence is promptly broken by one of the two women in the far corner, crying out with their labor pains.

We watch the two women, alone on their hospital beds, IV pumps beeping occasionally at their sides. Nurses stop by from time to time to listen to their bellies with a stethoscope. Neither of the women are about to give birth, so the doctor takes us the see the birthing rooms, which are adjacent.

One of the two rooms is occupied by a woman and a doctor. The woman has already given birth, and now is getting stitches. The five of us watch. My colleagues (all female) swear they'll never have children.

We return to the labor room to wait. If either of the women in this room becomes dilated enough, we can watch them give birth. But it doesn't look like that will be the case. The doctor talks with the nurses about the politics of purchasing additional IV pumps. I ask him if the women are allowed to walk around. He says they are, until their water breaks. Then he gives us a demonstration, using his curled index finger to represent a cervix, of how to measure dilation.

It's been over half an hour, and we need to get going. Before we go, the doctor goes and checks the dilation on one of the women. "Parto," he says calmly. Birth. We're going to get to see one after all. The woman is wheeled to a birthing room and put into stirrups. The nurses begin to wash her. The doctor is talking to us nonchalantly. The woman is crying with her contractions.

Suddenly the thought -and with the thought, a cascade of images- enters my mind. I think the woman might tear when the baby comes out. And then I think of my own flesh tearing, from the inside out. Maybe they'll cut her to avoid it. And I think of being cut myself, of skin being separated by stainless steel. I'm hot. Dots swim in my vision. I ask to use the bathroom.

The doctor escorts me out by the arm. "Esta mareado?" Are you dizzy? "Si." Yes. "Acuestase aqui." Lie down here. I lie down on a gurney outside. I am hot and cold and sweating profusely.

I feel better within seconds. Perhaps I can go back in and watch. But already I can hear the sounds of a baby. The birth must have taken a minute or less. Shortly, a nurse walks by with a little pinkish baby wrapped in a blanket. My colleagues and the doctor emerge, asking how I am. "Es muy pálido." You're very pale. Perhaps, but I'm fine now. Just disappointed and embarrassed. And relieved to have control over my senses once again.

The whole school knows my story within hours of our return. It's to be expected, and I can laugh about it. Perhaps in the next two years, another opportunity will arise. Practice makes perfect.