Graveyard in Salzburg

A couple pics of a graveyard in Salzburg, Austra that I took in Mar 2008 and never found time to post. I was staying with an intriguing couchsurfer who was academic by day and death metal goth by night. He influenced my dark, graveyard pics. Click here to see more in my Flickr album.

In Too Deep… Deep Love, Deep Diving!

Too much time has passed and too much has happened over my blogging absence to give the typical, LMAC “novel” account of everything. So, in attempt to give everyone a glimpse of what I’ve experienced so far, I’m just going to bullet list them and follow the list with applicable pics and vids.

  • * Carlos Roman, Ashley Fletcher and Jason Walsh give me a warm welcome back to Honduras. Carlos is co-owner of the only bar of its kind in San Pedro Sula, Klein Bohemia. Ashley is his girlfriend. Jason is one cool cat who works with Ashley at a bilingual school for Hondurans.
  • * Second night out I meet Michael at Klein Bohemia and thus marks the beginning of a rapid and intense love affair. Jason wows the small crowd with his impromptu rap skills. Carlos masterfully bangs away at the bongos. Later, Michael lights up the keyboard. Eventually I get on stage and sing only that which I know, refrains and Disney songs… Michael my only accompaniment. I left the bar with compliments on my vocals but pleas for me to learn more than just refrains and Disney songs! Hahaha.
  • * Michael and I go Copan together for the weekend to find Billy and deliver the donation. We didn’t find Billy because he was in the U.S. but we did find an incredibly intimate setting that jump started our small romance.
  • * I take off on my own to go back to Jungle River Lodge(some pics on the website are mine! – I really need to quit handing out freebies) for some more white water rafting, cliff jumping and bouldering!
  • * Michael calls the Lodge and convinces me to head back to San Pedro earlier than planned.
  • * I meet Michael’s family and they greet me with warm and open arms. Both to my and Michael’s surprise, a one-night stay turns into me moving in.
  • * Michael’s uncle is killed by four men with machine guns outside a local bar in San Pedro Sula. Welcome to the real world folks. Apparently, the crime was committed over a racing dispute with a Columbian.
  • * A few weeks of small, fun adventures with Michael trying to find local national parks, canopy tours, waterfalls, going out with friends, going to concerts of Michael’s band, changing plans and making plans, midnight serenades, romantic dinners, cozy cuddles and movies on rainy evenings and simply being silly in love.
  • * I begin Spanish lessons (a long-time must-do) and start taking Yoga classes (another long-time must-do). Also dabble with basketball practice.
  • * Michael gets too swamped with work and school. I freak out with the lack of attention and the new, not-always-on-the-go-go-go lifestyle. A week of fighting leads to the demise of the quick, wonderful love affair. Though, there was a little oasis of bliss in the middle fighting with a wonderful getaway to Lago de Yojoa and a fun cooking night with Michael and friends.
  • * I mourn and wallow in self-pity for one emotional, tumultuous week. Michael’s family welcomes me to stay despite the terminated relationship. I try to stay but, obviously, that works out disastrously. Friends in San Pedro Sula and friends and family in the U.S. rally around me and offer amazing support. Without them, I would have been in absolute pieces. Thanks guys. You know who you are. Particularly Carlos, Richard, Scott and Kathy. And Walter who took me and the Swedish girl all around San Pedro for a day.
  • * Montuca Sound System (Michael and Carlos’ band) plays at a benefit concert for the poor who’ve lost what little they had to the devastating flooding earlier in October.
  • * I run off with the Swedish couchsurfer girl to the Carribbean island of Utila off the northern coast of Honduras where I become a certified advanced SCUBA diver – complete with deep dives, night dives, drift dives, wreck dives and small cave dives. I saw sea turtles, huge snapper fish, wrecks, eels, tons of reef fish, tons of coral reef, remora sucker fish, huge crabs, small crabs, lobster, shrimp, frog fish and more. Dove to depths of more than 30 meters. Me, Dean (aka young, blonde Tom Cruise) and Elina on the dive boat before our first dive!(Hmmm… normal person gets a broken heart and has to keep living the daily grind. I get a broken heart but then I get to run off to a Caribbean island with a dive instructor that looks like the spitting image of a young, blonde-haired Tom Cruise. I know. It’s not fair. You all hate me. All I can do is shrug and say somebody UPSTAIRS really seems to like me. And trust me, folks, I’m grateful. Really freaking grateful!) Oh, btw, pirate language still exists. Utilans speak exactly like pirate English! Exactly!! And, I got to explore a cave full of bats. I freaked for a second while they whizzed past my head. Luckily I didn’t get bitten! There were at least 50 of the dark, winged rats!
  • * Even though I had moments where I could have appreciated my surroundings A LOT more… by the end of the trip, I just can’t feel sorry for myself anymore. Last time I went through a big break-up, I got to trek through a tropical jungle. This time, I got to dive the world’s second largest coral reef off of a tropical island. I’m seeing a pattern here… and, to be honest… it’s not a bad deal! No, I’m blessed. Really really blessed. I got back to San Pedro Sula last night and friends welcomed me eagerly, telling me they missed me. Life is good. So one detail didn’t work out the way I wanted it to… but, I have NO room to complain. Thanks everyone who helped. And a big whopping thanks to the Big Guy upstairs. Life is unfair… in MY favor. I’m humbled.

Even my bullet lists are novels… haha.

Now enjoy pics and vids!!

Ferry ride from mainland to Utila:

Getting ready to dive:

Up close and personal with the Remora sucker fish:

Treetanic Bar on Utila:

Murky Mangroves

The last post from my previous Honduras trip was a video of some of my adventure at Jungle River Lodge. I have much more to elaborate from my stay there: spending 2 awesome nights there before heading out on a little excursion with fellow couchsurfer Kat, then returning for a few more nights. For now though, I launch into my excursion with Kat…

Kat and I had plans to explore an ecosystem I had yet to encounter despite my worldly wanderings: swampy mangroves! Honduras has quite a few protected areas and the Refujio de Cuero y Salado is one that boasts rare, indigenous and endangered species such as the leopard, howler monkeys and a plethora of birds I’ve never heard of, butterflies too. And iguanas. And crocodiles. The refuge is stunning in its beauty. Well worth an off the beat excursion… especially when that excursion is such an adventure!

Kat and I left the Rio Cangrejal‘s Jungle River Lodge, located ion the fringe of Pico Bonito National Park, with a taxi who dropped us at one of La Ceiba’s bus terminals. From there, we tried to find a bus to an obscure little village called La Union. After questioning some locals with poor Spanish, we had a vague idea to wait in a vague area of the empty, dusty bus terminal for the bus to La Union. Our instructions came from an gentle little boy with big, beautiful, soft eyes. We were rather unsure if we had understood his instructions correctly though. Then, a young man came just as a random bus showed up in a different area. The young man insisted that bus was the one we needed to be on to get to La Union. So we hurriedly hopped on in confusion.

On the bus, I interragated locals with my poor and broken Spanish to see if we really were on the right bus or not. It turns out, we needed to get off the bus a specific point. But, since Honduras often neglects to have street signs, it was really difficult for the locals to convey to us where. Finally, when we crossed a small bridge, we were urged off the bus and told to wait on the side of the road… in the middle of who knows where. Our doubts were calmed though when another bus pulled up before ours had even left. And, it was the bus to La Union! BUT, it was going back to La Ceiba. Sigh… instead of waiting on the side of the dusty road for the bus to come back, we opted to get on board and go back to where we came from, just to turn around again. This bus came back to the bus terminal and parked in the exact position the adorable little boy had said it would. Lesson learned! From here on out, I’m trusting adorable little boys! ; )

Finally, three bus trips and three bus fares later… we arrived in La Union! And we arrived just in time too. From La Union, we needed to take a little, toy-looking train for the remainder of our trek to Cuero y Salado. The train is a remnant of the Banana Republic days and was used to haul loads of bananas across the massive banana plantations of the early 1900s. I was in a state of utter bliss as we cruised in the old train from generations past along a beautiful, sunlit countryside filled with palms. A fresh breeze whirred across our faces. Locals strolled and biked along the tracks. Horses dodged our string of cars.

Then, as the sun was beginning its daily dipping ritual into the horizon, the Salado river appeared on our left reflecting the “magic hour” glow of the late afternoon. Locals were lined up at the little stop ahead, ready to board the train and head back after a day out at the refuge. Kat and I were planning to stay on the refuge, knowing it was possible theoretically, but not knowing if there would be open rooms or if it mattered that we were arriving on a Sunday in a country that typically closes down on Sundays.

We didn’t even get one foot off the train though before we were cheerfully greeted in English. “Are you girls staying here on the refuge? Do you need a room?” Why yes! In moments we secured two beds in a rustic little wooden lodge, made plans for a 5:00 am guided canoe tour of the swampy mangrove refuge and made our appointment for dinner that night. We were now the only visitors on the vast refuge.

Kat and I decided to spend the rest of the evening at the beach, which was just a short hike away from the mangroves. Along the short walk to the beach we passed a small, bamboo and straw hut with a small garden. The small hut housed several generations… all sharing one room. They were some of the poorest I’ve witnessed yet… but they were eager to welcome us into their dusty yard, encouraging us with brown, decayed smiles. We shared warm greetings with them and continued our on way to the beach. It was hot and we wanted to feel refreshed! When we arrived at the beach, not a soul was around except three young boys splashing in the water. They were curiously intrigued by the sudden appearance of truly, blindingly white gringas in bathing suits and continually stared at us. I initiated conversation with the kids and that quickly turned into a fun seaweed fight that lasted over an hour. Quite a few sand dollars were launched as friendly grenades too. The sand dollars were abundant. Just duck under the water, pick up a handful of sand and you would invariably come up with the treasure.

On our walk back, the family that warmly greeted us before welcomed us into their yard and home to take pictures at our pleasure. The grandfather was so proud of his young banana trees. A young bride already feeding a young one of her own showed off the family pig. At the beach, we found some of the men in a rustic canoe carved from a tree fishing among the rolling waves. They proudly showed off their big catch of the day: a small shark. I didn’t think about it until just now, but I don’t think they wandered too far from shore to catch that shark…

By the time we left, the sun was kissing the horizon. The Rio Salado had transformed from a silky blue into a fiery orange. Kat and I cleaned up, had a nice simple dinner and called it an early night.

I think we were up even before the crows were the next morning. Kat and I felt our way through the dark to the small dock on the Rio Salado. The river was now dark shadows… deep blues, navys and black etched a twilight river scene framed by mountains in the distance. Our guide, Rolando, slipped our canoe into the cool blue water and the three of us began slinking our way along the shadowy riverbank.

At first, everything was so quiet and still. Then, a low grunting sound started to reverberate through the trees, getting louder and louder. The howler monkeys were greeting the day with their deep, throaty trumpets. Only once, was I able to actually capture a glimpse of the rare monkeys. Their voices are deceiving, and they’re much smaller than they sound. As light began to creep into the shadows great herons and other strange birds that looked like creatures out of Pan’s Labyrinth stretched their wings in morning flight, skipping from one bank of the river to another. The refuge was coming alive with the orchestra of the swampy jungle. As we slunk further into the swamps in our canoe, the roots of the mangroves tangled into tighter and tighter clusters of gnarled nests. Our guide spotted hidden creatures that were right under our nose: bats hanging just a foot overhead, a camouflaged iguana perched a few yards off. A black bird that shimmered with rusty red in the sunlight dipped his bright yellow beak into the river for a drink. A cousin of his ran across floating foliage with young chicks in close pursuit. We were floating in a strange and wild world. It was beautiful.

Before we left the refuge, Kat and I had one last dip at the beach, accompanied this time by Rolando and a young Honduran soldier and his AK-47. A fort on the refuge houses soldiers who are there to protect the grounds from poachers.

By late morning Kat and I were back on the banana train, waving goodbye to the quiet wildness of the refuge.

Check out this video of the experience!

Fishing for a Better Standard of Living

Here’s a novel idea when running a business that manages more than a thousand employees:

“We try to do basically everything to make them feel they are like partners not workers. Everybody is on bonus system, everyone can basically gain more from the company’s success, so everybody feels like it’s their project. That’s the kind of environment we like to maintain here with our people.”

Those partners Yedod Snir is referring to are the 1,350 locals that make up the direct workforce of Aquafinca St. Peter Fish, a Tilapia producer based out of El Borboton, San Francisco de Yojoa, Honduras. Yedod is Aquafinca’s production manager.

Central America is a hotspot for cheap labor and, sadly, greedy businesses that cruelly exploit their workers. But, on a trip hosted by FIDE, the Honduras Foundation for Investment and Export Development, I, along with a small group of other ag journalists got to tour and learn about businesses based in Honduras who lead with impressive example. Among those model operations we toured, Aquafinca St. Peter Fish stood out from the rest as a world-class facility. In fact, one well-seasoned ag reporter with our group, who wished to remain unnamed, confidently asserted that Aquafinca would put similar production and packaging facilities in America to shame. Certain exemplary standards at Aquafinca, he said, are simply unheard of in the U.S.

“I’d put this facility in the top one or two percent in the world,” the reporter said during the tour. “In the U.S., big boxes [of raw goods] would be sitting for 10 to 15 minutes before they were moved. Here everything is moving through steadily. Nothing is sitting.”

The plant is cutting, gutting, flaying and filleting raw fish, yet, as workers bustled around us constantly sweeping up fish scraps from the floor, the reporter said it’s the cleanest food plant he’s ever toured.

In order to tour the plant, where 700 workers were handling raw fish, we had to cover ourselves from head to foot with special gear: hair caps, special jackets, special pants, face masks and big rubber boots. Before entering a room, we had to thoroughly wash and sanitize our hands twice as well as dunk our boots in troughs of sanitizing liquid. When we left a room, we were instructed to repeat the hand-boot procedure.

Outside the plant, Aquafinca uses its Tilapia farms, a natural lake – Lago de Yojoa – and a manmade lake – Embalse el Cajon – to ultimately produce 90 tons of fresh fish each day. That’s 32,850 tons, or 65.7 million pounds, each year. Yedod says Aquafinca ships 1.4 millions tons to the U.S. each month under the name Regal Springs. He says Aquafinca is the largest exporter of Tilapia in the world.

The operation Aquafinca runs is tight one, a clean one, and a hugely successful one. But, even though Yedod estimates that the company earns between $35 million and $40 million in gross revenue each year, he says Aquafinca’s priority is not fish:

“We have a saying: It’s not about the fish. It’s about the people,” Yedod said.

Yedod says Aquafinca values its workers as the most important component of its business. If a company wants to produce an excellent product, he says, it should treat its workers with excellence. It’s safe to say, even the most scrutinizing critic would applaud the vast array of programs and benefits Aquafinca says it offers natives. Yedod says the company offers the highest salaries in the area and subsidizes 55 to 100 percent of food for its workers and their families. Aquafinca offers education through its own school. With a psychologist and two doctors on staff, four health clinics offer workers and their families free medical attention, medicine and social aid. The company has its own bank where it gives employees higher interest rates on savings accounts and lower interest rates on loans as compared to other banks in Honduras.

Locals who want to start their own Tilapia farms are not only encouraged, but offered free assistance and expertise. Aquafinca will also help finance feed for their fish. Yedod says raising Tilapia is good for small, rural areas and is an industry that has great potential to help Honduras move away from poverty. Aquafinca, he says, helps interested locals get what they need, helps them grow their fish and offers locals technical assistance. The company will then buy their produce and process it.

Yedod says its people aren’t the only thing of capital importance to the company though. He says Aquafinca takes special care to protect the environment and lead a sustainable operation. The company says it funds various educational and sustainable projects around the two large lakes it operates on – Lago de Yojoa and Embalse el Cajon. Yedod says Aquafinca leaves a zero impact on both lakes. He adds that it’s important to teach locals in the area to have the same care for their natural resources in order to maintain the quality of their produce. Aquafinca also uses leftover scraps and skins to produce fish feed, fish oil and biodiesel. The company uses the biodiesel it produces to fuel its operation and is 100 percent self-energy sufficient.

I spoke with Yedod about Aquafinca’s operation and its various programs. You can listen to the interview here: Interview with Yedod Snir

Billy’s Story

Billy’s story really isn’t about Billy at all. Rather, it’s about the people he’s been working with nearly everyday for the past five years. Billy’s story is the story of the Chortí Maya, the direct descendants of the ancient Mayans. Billy describes them as Honduras’ “conquered people.”

“They used to own all of this land and it’s just like we did in North America,” Billy said. “In every country there’s a conquered people.”

Billy says since they became the “conquered people,” the Chortí Maya existence has been a harsh one – one of exploitation from land owners and a day-to-day struggle for survival.

“Before 1997, 50 percent of the Chortí children died before the age of five,” Billy said.

But, that was more then ten years ago. Now, the reality for these people is changing, and Billy and his work are a huge catalyst for much of that change. On the hour and a half truck ride – bumping through rough, dirt roads that could be washed away with the next rain and fording through swift streams – I listened to Billy talk about everything he was doing for these people… and by the end of the ride, there was still more to know.

I met Billy at the small, local pharmacy in Copán Ruinas. I was looking for face wash, but even the word “soap” in Spanish was escaping me. Obviously, I wasn’t getting very far. But then I heard a someone call out, “Jabón. Necessita jabón.” It was Spanish, but it was laden with a thick southern accent from the U.S. When I turned to see where the strange Spanish was coming from, I found Billy. Billy was there with a handsome, yet scruffy local, looking for some first-aid. The man had cut his finger and it didn’t look pretty. The cut wasn’t quite grotesque, but it was definitely a cut that needed some attention.

It wasn’t long before Billy filled me in on how he had moved from Arkansas eight years ago to live in Copán: to aid the people here who have need.

The next day, I found myself bumping over the dirt ruts the locals called a road in Billy’s truck. But, the bumping and bouncing was a rare, luxurious break for the handfuls of locals that hitched a ride with us between Copán and the La Pintada. Nearly everyone we passed on the hour and half ride knew Billy and sent a greeting, a wave and a bright smile in our direction when they saw him. Those that still had quite a hike to go, were urged into the truck with Billy’s friendly, thickly-accented Spanish. Most of the girls giggled at Billy’s Spanish. It seemed as if most of the guys – both with sparkling, white smiles and dark, toothless ones – gave Billy a sly wink. The compassion Billy showed the Chortí people was evident in their eyes. It was evident after he made a mental note to ask for a wheelchair for the man who scooted around on cobbled, gravel and dirt streets – molded rubber from old car tires the only cushion from the hard ground for his underdeveloped shins and feet. And it was evident, later, in the village where new huts were being built – huts that were cement instead of mud.

“They’re counting some of these folks as employed out here when they’re just living from day to day… poor folks have a hard time,” said Billy.

In reality, most of the Chortí Maya live off of $300 a year, less than a dollar a day. Few others are lucky to make more.

“I know a man right now that’s starting at a place; he’s working 12 hours a night for 40 Lempiras a night,” Billy said. “That’s a little over 2 dollars. And he’s glad to get it cause it’s the only job he’s got.”

A tough wage for feeding and supporting a typical family of eight to ten.

“We just want them to have enough food on the table that they can feed their family and someday have enough that they can save and sell,” said Billy. “And we want every kid to have clean water.”

Billy says the Chortí Maya people go hungry two months out of the year. Most of the villages don’t have clean water. But, the projects Billy, Mary and others are involved in are transforming these harsh realities of the Chortí people.

Billy and Mary have helped the locals develop the Chortí Maya Agricultural Training Center. The center is used to train locals in SALT, or Sloping Agricultural Land Technology. The program teaches villagers specialized farming techniques so they can grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year. Local villagers stay at the center for three days of training in SALT techniques. Billy says, that’s all the time it takes to start drastically changing the lives of the Chortí people. The training program also teaches the Chortí how farm in a sustainable way, one that combats the devastating soil erosion common in mountainous farming terrain. Through the agricultural training center, local farmers can also become involved in programs that offer instruction with seeds and planting, goats and even honeybees. The program has also introduced a self-propagating plant for firewood to encourage the Chortí people from harmful deforestation. Billy says the project is currently working with 100 Chortí families.

Fresh, clean water is another major goal for aid workers like Billy and Mary.

“My wife’s been instrumental through the Rotary clubs in the Unites States and through the Rotary Club in Santa Rosa de Copán and the Rotary Club in Copán Ruinas,” Billy said. “She’s got water to 13 villages.”

Don Warren, a retired executive from the textile industry, is another major player in getting fresh water to the Chortí villages. Billy says Don “has made it his mission in life, before he dies, to put clean water in every Chortí village.” That’s no small task. There are over 50 Chortí villages in Honduras. But, Billy says Don and his wife have help. Two peace corps workers have already mapped out a plan that promises to provide every Chorti village in the region with clean water.

Billy’s wife Mary does more than help create needed infrastructure for fresh water though. Billy says she’s also teaching the Chortí people about proper health techniques. What she’s teaching the Chortí might seem obvious to Westerners, but many of the Chortí have never been educated in what much of the Western world considers basic health knowledge.

“My wife Mary does health talks,” Billy said. “She takes people into villages and almost 100 percent of the Chorti women have never spent one day in a classroom. They’re very smart. They’re oral learners. So my wife goes in with different groups and she just teaches re-hydration. Water, clean water. A little salt and a little sugar. A little lemon juice. And when someone has diahhrea they can give them this and it re-hydrates them. She tries to teach them to take all these clothes and blankets and caps off these babies when they have a fever because they don’t know any different. She just tries to teach them cleanliness. Eighty-five percent of the problems with these rural people, medically, and this is what the doctor in town says, is cleanliness and poor water.”

Health isn’t the only education the Chortí are getting thanks to Billy and Mary.

“There are kids that are 16 and 17 years old in the first grade because a lot of villages are just now having their first school,” Billy said. “So the things are changing for ’em… What we do is we go in, and if they have teachers, I’ll build whatever they need. I just built a kindergarten in Roatona. Most places I build three classrooms. I’m fixing to build three classrooms in San Jironomo, Santa Rita. I talked to the mayor this morning. He’ll transport all of my materials in there, which will save me over $2,000 dollars.”

So far, Billy has built six schools. The government is also building schools for the Chortí people, but Billy says he can build two schools for the same cost the government builds one. Plus, he says the government doesn’t understand what the villagers need. While the government will install glass windows, Billy knows a stray soccer ball will bust out a the glass, and the window will never be repaired. That’s why Billy says he installs wire screens. Billy points out that it’s the little things that make all the difference. It was common before, he added, for schools to amount to nothing more than mud building with no windows at all.

Right now, he says the less than two percent of rural Honduran children finish the sixth grade. A majority of the kids go to first, second and third grade, he says. But, most of the boys will not go past the third grade. He says very few kids attend the fifth and sixth grades because they need to work. About eighty-five percent of rural children, he says, do not read or right. One-hundred percent of Chortí women do not read or write. But, Billy says he’s already seeing that reality change as more villages establish their own schools through the necessary help of aid.

Billy also helps out with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity whenever he’s given the chance. The day I rode with Billy, he was making the trip out to the villages, just to give the local Habitat for Humanity representative who was stranded in town a ride out to do his job. Aber is working with Don Warren in the local Habitat for Humanity project.

“The other project Don Warren wants to see is that every Chortí sleeps in a house and has a concrete floor and that’s his goal,” Billy said.

That’s an important goal. Not only one that aims to put a solid, metal roof over each family, it also protects the Chortí from a critical threat – a threat that burrows deep into the the more traditional straw and mud huts of the Chortí people.

“In Honduras there’s a bug,” Billy said. “It kind of looks, to me, like a cross between a cockroach and bowweavea? If this bug, [the] Chi-Chi bug, bites you, you will have heart trouble [Chagas]. And La Leguna is a little village just out of Copan Riunas. Over 80 percent of the kids [there] have already tested positive for Chagas. The bug lives in adobe [mud huts] and in straw roofs. So the government and other organizations and Habitat are trying to put everyone at least in a house that has [cement]. If they have an adobe house, they’re putting cement over the adobe, which is fine. It seals [the mud] and they’re giving them a metal roof and a concrete floor and that will give the people better health.”

So far, Habitat for Humanity has funded a metal roof and cement plaster for 14 houses in various Chortí villages. The organization has also built four additional new houses. Billy and the others aren’t stopping at concrete walls and a metal roof though:

“We also have a improved stove project that I’m working on,” Billy said. “We’ve got a guy out of Mississippi, Pierce Smith… We’re trying to put an improved stove in each home. A wood burning stove with a chimney. Because so many of these kids, there’s no chimney in the home, so the smoke is in the home and it’s like [the kids] have a two or three pack a day cigarette habit. They have lung problems, eye problems and skin problems.”

Billy and Mary are working to provide the Chortí with food, water, schools, houses, basic health education… and still… somehow… more.

“Four Chortí children have had heart surgery here in country,” Billy said. “A little boy, right now, will have surgery in November or January in Somesa hospital in San Pedro.”

Another, he says, will receive an artificial limb. Still others are getting cataract surgery. A six-month old and 19-year-old will receive surgery for cleft palates. He’ll be able to get injections for 20 this year, who are suffering from open, festering wounds that aren’t leprosy, nor are they symptoms of diabetes. All this through a network of people who have come to know Billy, come to know his work, and have felt compelled to contribute, in their own ways.

“In the last ten years, health has improved, which is good,” Billy said. “But the other thing is, they’re still having seven and eight kids, so they’re going to run out of land. So it’s good that the kids are living longer, but if they don’t cut down on the number of kids they have, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Right now, the only land the Chortí own is the half acre of land the government gives to each family. That’s not much land for seven or eight children to split as inheritance.

So, why do they do it? Why do Billy and Mary and others give up the comforts of Western living to pour so much heart and soul into helping the Chortí people? They’re answer is simply, they felt called by God. But, Billy explains, the last thing he wants, is to force his religion upon those he’s serving.

“When I build a school I ask them, if I build you a school can I have a Bible school,” Billy said. “You are not required to attend, I don’t care if anyone in the village doesn’t attend. Let me use it while they’re not in school… I’m paid by the International Mission Board, which is in Richmond, Virginia. It is Southern Baptist, but we do not put any requirements on the people. We do not require them to attend a Bible study. We don’t require anything of them, except that they have to do the manual labor. I don’t care what church they belong to, or if they don’t go to church, or if they don’t believe in God. That’s up to them. We work with them because we believe that Jesus helped everyone.”

Billy estimates that 90 percent of the people he’s helping today are Catholic. But, he says, the details don’t matter. What matters to him, is to teach through example. He wants to reveal God through actions. And, no matter what you believe or what the Chortí believe, it’s safe to say that those who meet Billy recognize a certain “holy” quality about him. Call it God. Call it special. Call it what you want. Whatever you call it, you can’t deny: Billy is quite the inspiration.

You can find videos of the Chortí Maya by clicking here.

Dreamin’ in the Moonlight

I slept just above these moonlit rushing rapids for a few blissful hours nearly every night during my stay at Jungle River Lodge. The Lodge is located about 25 km outside of La Ceiba, Honduras on the Rio Cangrejal. I’ll write more later when I get a chance. Right now, I’m working at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa. Moonlit river to dusty Midwest… what a transition!

For now, enjoy this pic…

Ex-convicts, Livng Angels, Former Cult Members, Young Activists, Guapo Locals

The adventure began not two hours after I arrived in Copan Ruinas. I had already checked in at the hostel where I would be staying, Iguana Azul. I choose to bunk in a room with 5 beds because it was cheapest and I figured it would open up the opportunity to meet fellow travelers. As it turned out, I was too busy to ever know who was in my room! Before I get to that though, I just want to comment on how clean and inviting Iguana Azul was. It had community bathrooms and showers but they were always spic and span. The décor and furnishings were styled in fresh, local color with bright tiles and natural stones. It was just extremely cozy and welcoming and my shared quarters, with my own bed, cost me just over $5 a night! The best part was, the hostel was located on the fringe of the little town instead of right in the center like most others. I LOVED making the daily walks through the cobbled streets to get to the center of town… those walks never took more than ten minutes but I got to see so much of the local culture that way! Plus, the sweet night chirps of the geckos and crows of the roosters are back! I missed those sounds so much when I left SE Asia. I don’t know why Americans insist on being closed up in their houses all the time. Nature’s night sounds drifting on a cool breeze through your open window is the perfect lullaby.

Back to the adventure… I was wandering around those cobbled streets looking for a place to buy face wash when I met Billy. I had wandered into a pharmacy (more like a miniature local style Walgreens) and was trying to ask for face wash, but what little Spanish I knew was escaping me and I couldn’t remember the word for soap or face. That’s when Billy jumped in to help. It wasn’t until I saw he had a young local in tow with a cut finger that I started asking him questions. ‘A traveler who interacted with locals,’ I thought, That’s great!’ Hardly. Billy’s not a traveler, he’s a humanitarian! The next thing I knew, I had plans to join Billy the next day on his trip out to visit the nearby indigenous villages. I would be going out to witness and learn about some of the harshest realities that exist for people in impoverished countries and cultures. But, I would also be going out to witness just what WONDERS a bit of time and compassion can do to turn the lives of these impoverished people completely around.

Billy’s story is a great one. I’ve already devoted one post solely to his work and more are to come. So for now, I will skip ahead. My adventures with the Chorti Maya deserve their own stories.

The next day in Copan, while I was diligently working on figuring out SOME way to convey everything I experienced with Billy, I met another quite interesting character. Out of privacy, his name will remain anonymous. But, he’s an ex-convict who spent 13 of his 40-year prison sentence actually in federal prison. He got out early on parole. Why doing so much time you ask? He was a “Davidian.” Do you remember that story? When the Feds raided a “cult” in Waco, Texas? I’ve included some links, but I’ll leave the exploration of the raid and what and who the Davidians are to your own research, for now. I don’t really know much about it myself. So anyway, the guy – we’ll call him Joe – was a participant and follower of the religious sect when the Feds invaded. There was a shootout. Joe said he wasn’t involved in that. But, he served time for aiding and abetting intent for homicide. Yeah, wow. That’s what I said. Ex-con, ex-cult member. Wow. “Joe” was quite the soft-spoken, unobtrusive, easy-going, laid-back guy though. You would never guess he was an ex-con. He certainly didn’t look or act the part. Very friendly and unthreatening. Turns out he has some remnants of “different ideas” on spirituality though. I couldn’t help but getting into it with him… already, I find that discussion come up with nearly everyone I meet. Here was someone who definitely had some ideas. Some strange ideas I will say. I mean, I’ve got some ideas that people might not quite get, but “Joe” certainly has ideas that I don’t get and definitely don’t agree with. Nonetheless, I was willing to hear him out. His ideas and thoughts are very interesting to say the least. I really don’t feel it’s my place to repeat them though because I don’t want my own aversion to what he said, confuse what he said or mis-communicate it. I will put this in writing though. “Joe” says some big miracles are going to start happening in October. He will be involved in the miracles and that’s when he will start proclaiming his message. He says it will be all over the news. Hmmmmm… I mean, I wasn’t sold. Not, in the least bit. But we don’t have to wait long to find out do we? ; )

So yeah, that whole encounter was… interesting.

I also met a young Kiwi (you know, New Zealander). This is his second time in Honduras. Robert first came and spent about I six months here, I think it was, learning Spanish. While here though, he got involved with a local orphanage. And, that’s why he’s back now. He came back to offer more help. Unfortunately, he conveyed that there are some disappointing realities about the particular orphanage he volunteers at. He didn’t want to share too much, so I won’t either. Let’s just say there’s abuse of donations and kids going on. Not good. The good news is though, since Robert has been involved with the orphanage, more local groups have gotten involved with helping including a school and a church. What a great impact Robert is having!

My final night in Copan I spent at a bar with the quite interesting “Joe.” The best part was we were the only gringos there. It was a local joint… just how I like it! Apparently the local joint for the wealthy, educated Hondurans though. They all spoke English. One spoke five languages. Most of the night they left us alone other than the frequent wink in my direction…haha. But, when music got going I couldn’t help but get up and dance. The guy that spoke five languages took that op to dance with me. Fun! Then I sat back down with the locals and chatted with them. “Joe” lost interest at that point and suddenly decided to leave and just took off. Not quite the miracle worker eh? ; ) So, there I was… a young woman… alone with a handful of locals… late at night. I will admit. That’s something that’s cautioned against here. But, these were educated locals. That’s not to say they didn’t try to get me to go with them in their cars. Pa! My hostel was a short walk away and I declined with a hearty ‘muchas gracias pero no gracias.” That didn’t deter their invites too much though. The young bartender actually came to my aid. He had been flirting with me all night and he called me over to him. So I went over to stick by him… and THAT literally pissed off one of the guys and he asked me, “You like that dark-skin bleep more than me? I have light skin. He’s dark!” That line was the whole point of telling this story. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I can now that I think about it. But, I just didn’t know they had such a prejudice here for all of that too. The one guy was olive-skinned like all are here, but he was much paler than the bartender. The bartender did have beautiful, dark skin. I told the other guy as much and heartily professed my taste for dark brown skin. Ha! Guapo dark-skinned boy gets the girl! Not the jack ass “educated” lighter-skinned guy. Well, the bartender didn’t really get the girl in this case. The others finally left because the bar was closing. I looked at the bartender bewildered and the bartender told me not to worry, they are his friends. Hmph. Some friends. Then he kindly bid me goodnight and I was on my way… I made it back to my hostel, safe, sound and alone! ; )

The next day was the day for me to finally pull myself away from Copán’s sweet charm. I bought a bus ticket to depart for La Ceiba, a city on the north coast, that afternoon. The plan was to go visit the Copán ruins and then head out of town. For some reason, though, I was not meant to visit the ruins. I walked the kilometer out of town to the ruins, bought my ticket, and walked on to the gate only to find I had lost my ticket. It was only $15 bucks so it wouldn’t have been a problem to just buy another one, but by then I didn’t have enough time. It takes at least two hours to explore the ruins. I had spent to much time bewildered and wandering around looking for my ticket by the time I decided to buy a new one. But, there was a nature trail on-site that wound through the surrounding jungle. I opted to just take that. It would have been a treat I would have had to skip (due to time) had I visited the ruins… so it all worked out. A sign at the start of trail told ventures to explore with an open mind, urging us to see the wild jungle the way the Mayans saw it 1,500 years ago. I liked that challenge. The jungle was alive with sounds never found in North America. I could hear the calls of dozens of exotic birds, some crying in the distance, others squawking directly overhead. Wild parrots of brilliant colors flew and roosted in the canopy above, cracking open seeds of some sort and sending shells tumbling and crashing through branches below. Tapirs darted in out of my path. Butterflies with stunning artistry and colors flitted all around. When Mayans died, it was believed their spirits lived on as butterflies. And I did feel like the Mayan spirit was all around me. In one of the books I’ve been reading lately, I can’t remember which, it commented on how modern culture constantly urges us to fear nature, the woods, the jungle, the wild. But, it says when you actually venture out into the complete wildness of nature, you find you aren’t so afraid… you feel more at home than in any modern house. That’s exactly how I felt. I was on the fringe of the wild and a deep sense of peace grew stronger and stronger with every step I ventured further into the jungle.

Just as I was feeling the bliss of being alone in the wild bubbling over though, three young men in fatigues appeared on the trail before me. It’s common to spot young, armed soldiers in Honduras. In fact, I recognized one of them. I had taken his picture while he was patrolling the government office in town. A greeting of recognition as I passed was enough to prompt him to leave the two others and turn around to walk with me. Alone time was over, but, it was nice to have the company. He spoke no English so we had to rely on what very little Spanish I knew. That’s so fun though! I love trying to communicate in a language I don’t know to well. It’s fun to learn. It’s like a puzzle. And the patience both must possess develops an easy comradeship. In fact, my little soldier friend soon felt comfortable enough to throw his arm around my shoulders and hold me with the other as we walked. A couple times he even busted out his phone to play American songs… ‘Turn around, bright eyes…’ I couldn’t help but start laughing. Along the way there were even some Mayan ruins. So, I did get to see some ruins after all! It wasn’t too long before we reached the end of the trail. I had to head to the bus station for my bus to La Ceiba. Soldier boy had to go meet back up with his comrades. He gave me the typical, sweet Hondureña ‘goodbye,’ a small kiss on the cheek. His random, unobtrusive company left a reassuring smile on my lips. So many are convinced that the world is so big and bad, but it’s just not so. A woman really can walk with an armed soldier, a complete stranger, alone in the woods without fear. Yes, I know trouble exists. But it really is the exception, not the rule. My multitude of experiences urge me to believe that people from all cultures and societies are inherently good. Trouble is the rare exception. And I just don’t seem to find it.

I’m sure many of you will be convinced that I’m just naive. But, I’ve been all around this world. Naivety comes from a lack of experience and I certainly don’t have that. Don’t be reckless, be aware, but, be open to the fact that good people can cross your path at every turn… instead of insisting upon the opposite. What you focus on in life is what you invite into your life. So I challenge you to focus on the good… and see what happens!

A little audio of the jungle sounds and meeting the Hondureño soldier:
junglesoundscopan1

Ag Steward of the Chortí Maya

Okay. This is a story I’ve published on AgWired. There’s MUCH more to the story, which I plan on publishing here, but it’s been quite a challenge with the intermittent internet. So, I’m just publishing what I have now and will publish more later…

There is a group of indigenous people in Honduras that live off an average of $300 a year… less than one dollar a day. At least two months out of every year they starve. That’s the reality as Billy Collins sees it. Billy has been working with the Chortí Maya, the direct descendants of the Mayan Indians, for five years.

I met Billy in Copán Ruinas, a charming town in Western Honduras not far from the Guatemalan border. The small, cobblestoned town is “base camp” so-to-speak for visiting Honduras’ famous ancient Mayan ruins. That’s why I am here: to see the ruins. But, it’s been three days and I have yet to explore them. Instead, I’ve been exploring the harsh realities of the Chortí Maya, realties that Billy, his wife Mary and a handful of others are committed to change. And, they’re making those changes largely through agriculture. I spent an entire day with Billy touring villages of adobe huts with straw roofs, bumping and bouncing along dirt roads consistently washed out by the wet season’s frequent rains to get to them.

While Billy and his wife are involved in more than a handful of projects with the Chortí, their SALT project, or Sloping Agricultural Land Technology, is among one of the biggest. It’s a project that’s aimed at training the indigenous people how to cultivate their rolling, mountainous lands more efficiently and successfully. Through a double hedgerow terracing technique, Billy says the Chortí Maya can double, even triple their current crop yields.

“We give them enough to plant like a half acre, enough seeds,” Billy said. “I’m talking about seeds for their terracing. We use leguminous seeds to terrace. We use the A-frame to mark out how terraces should go and then they plant it… We want to stop water long enough to let it drop the soil, let plants get taller, this soil will get higher and they’ll have good soil. In three to four years, if they do this right they can double their harvest.”

The key, Billy is quick to point out, is the villagers’ hands-on role in the training.

“We go out in the village and we ask for [local] volunteers who want to enter the program,” Billy said. “We teach them how to use the A-frame. We teach them how to space out their seeds. Then, they have to go home and prepare their own land, about a half acre. Then, we will come and look at it and if it’s done then we will give them the seeds to plant… They just take a stick and they just punch a hole in the ground. They drop one seed of corn in there, cover it. And then they know how far to step. And then they put another hole in the ground. They put in two kernels of corn. Cover it. And then all this was planted by hand like that. Then they go back beside it on the uphill side, about four inches from it, when it’s time to fertilize, and they’ll punch a hole and they’ll put three fingers worth of fertilizer in the hole. But all of it’s done by hand. Every bit of it.”

Most of the seeds the Chortí are planting are corn and beans.

“Right now the Chorti live on tortillas and beans and that’s basically it,” Billy said. “And a few fruits. We’re basically trying to expand their diet… We give them ten fruit trees of their choice, like different type of orange trees, lemons whatever they want. Then, if they do well with this program and keep their hedgerows up, in between the hedge rows they plant beans, corn, and a permanent crop like coffee. Then there will be another double hedgerow on up to the top of the hill. On the top of the hill we try to get them to plant the trees.”

Billy stresses that his project is not a welfare program.

“We know that welfare does not work in the United States,” Billy said. “There is no end to trying to feed people. Here in Honduras, with a little education, they can feed themselves.”

Bottom line: Billy says his program will not plant crops for the people, but instead will train them how to plant it themselves. An aid policy that Billy says is more sustainable and more valuable for these people in need.

The training begins at a six-acre farm (3.5 manzanas) developed by Billy, his wife, other project leaders and the locals. The land was originally communal property that belonged to the Chortí Council. The council gave the project permission to use the land for five years. However, in order to avoid trouble in the future should the leadership of the Chortí Council change hands and the land agreement expires, the Chortí people have decided to legally designate the land as an agricultural training center. The center is where the local villagers come for about three full days of training in SALT techniques. Billy says, that’s all the time it takes to start drastically changing the lives of the Chortí people. Billy says the project is currently working with 100 Chortí families.

Without the training though, Billy says the villagers’ situation is desperate. Traditional farming practices of the more than 50 Chortí Maya villages are leading to rampant deforestation.

“All their soil just washes away and in a few years and they make very little corn and they have very little to eat,” Billy says. “So they’ve got to learn to save and protect what they have because they’re not going to get anymore. The government’s not going to buy anymore land for them.”

Right now, the government gives each family just under an acre of land to farm, and that’s about all most will ever get. The land, relatively near the ancient Mayan ruins in a stunning terrain of peaks and valleys that are canvassed in mountainous jungle, is valued at up to $1200 per acre. That’s a price that’s ridiculously unafordable for a people whose income averages less than a dollar a day. But, Billy’s project is tackling the deforestation issue in more ways than one. Aside from training the villagers in SALT and teaching them how to sustain terraced, nitrogen-rich soil, the project also offers them the chance to cultivate self-propagating indigo trees from Indonesia as a renewable source for firewood. Billy says the goal is to give each family 365 indigo trees.

“This tree is self-propagating so after a year, the wife could go out and cut the tree down, have a days worth of firewood and that tree would start growing [again],” Billy said. “She would just continually have a supply of firewood around the house and they wouldn’t have to go around and cut all the forest down because 95 percent of the people in Honduras burn firewood to cook with.”

Crops and firewood isn’t the only agricultural help the project offers the Chortí. Billy says they also help the villagers develop proper pens for housing goats.

“We’ll give them a goat, three goats,” Billy said. “Three female goats pregnant at different times… I will give them the roof, the metal for the roof [of the goat house] and I will loan them enough money to build a house. The goat house is 8 feet by ten feet, and it’s built up off the ground. It has a half inch space. The floor’s done in slats or strips and there’s a half inch space between each strip and that way the manure falls through. Every three days, they rake this up because it’s built up off the ground. They can use that for fertilizer. The goats never touch the ground.”

Though Billy does offer some free aid and materials initially, he says program is designed to teach the villagers to pay back part of their aid.

“We give them enough seeds that they’ll plant a forage area. And they carry water and they’ll feed em twice a day. And when they have a baby, the first weaned female comes back to me so I can give it to another family,” Billy said. “Remember I gave them three goats. Then, the others, I will give them 400 Lempiras which is a little over $20 dollars for each good female and that way they can pay back for their goat house. We want all males castrated within 30 days and then they can fatten that up to eat it or they can sell it to make.”

The goats, Billy says, also help offer young Chortí children another milk source for vital nutrients.

“The children here, after they reach the age of two, they do not receive anymore milk because the mother weans them at the age of two and then she’s going to have another kid,” Billy said.

Billy says the project also offers similar programs with cattle, bees and honey, and vegetables if the villagers show they’re making progress and are paying off their debts. All the loans that Billy offers are free of interest.

For Billy and Mary, it’s all about education.

“There’s no reason they should go hungry,” Billy says. “No reason… They really need to be taught.
And they’re willing to learn. There are more that want to learn than don’t.”

The agricultural project is a big one, but it’s just one of many. Some other projects the couple is involved with include housing, clean water and health education and aid for the Chortí people. Billy says many of the projects they’re involved in are funded and supplemented by help and donations from various aid organizations, such as religious groups, non-governmental organizaitons and medical groups as well as private donations. One of the greatest needs that Billy describes right now is more aid in reforestation expertise.

You can contact Billy and Mary directly at billyccollins@gmail.com.

Now, check out these videos of the Chortí Maya Agricultural Center and a tour through a typical Chortí hut.

Dazed in Denver

Red Rock Mountain Park in ColoradoI’m not going to lie. When I arrived in Denver I felt like hadn’t just hit the wall, but had smashed into it withs such a force that I resembled a flattened cartoon character, a mess slithering down the red bricks into crumpled defeat.

In just one month I had visited seven different cities. Make that twelve if you count flight connections. Yeah, it was all catching up to me. But, I had to press on!

I had a work gig scheduled in Denver, but I arrived several days early so I could log some family time. I have some fam that lives in the area and, as luck would have it, more fam was out visiting too. So it worked out quite well! It was great to see aunts, uncles and cousins that I hadn’t seen in more than a year. We certainly kept ourselves busy: delicious cajun-style breakfast near downtown Denver at Lucile’s Creole Cafe, a tour of the Coors Brewery in Golden, CO, Lyle Lovett spotting at Red Rocks Mountain Park, pottery painting and Mexicano dinner. I have to elaborate on Lucile’s really quick. The creole joint is excellent. It served beignets, or hot, homemade New Orleans style donuts. A first for me. The homemade butter milk biscuits were heaven. Especially when paired with one of the restaurant’s delicious homemade jams: strawberry, rhubarb, orange marmalade, pepper and apple butter. Pepper was my favorite. The blueberry pancakes were the best I’ve ever tasted. A sentiment I echoed from others in the family. Oh man, now my stomach’s growling… Continue reading “Dazed in Denver”