July 30, 2011 - 4:24 PM
I used to be terrified of bargaining, negotiating, or even talking about money. My first experiences in Central America in 2007 taught me that bargaining is part of life, and I learned a little about how to talk down a street vendor's price to purchase the perfect souvenir. But sometimes negotiations are more complicated than that. And that's how this trip has been different from others: now I have some actual negotiation skills.
The most important thing I learned in the 2010 fall term Michael Moffitt class was that negotiation is something that happens all the time, every day. We negotiate for seats in restaurants, for household chores, and even with ourselves as we schedule out our days. Negotiation is just a fact, and not something to be afraid of.
Which is why the class totally saved me yesterday.
I've been confronted several times this trip with some difficult situations, and with individuals trying to charge me more money as a kind of "gringo tax." It is unfortunate and sometimes feels deeply unfair, but it also makes sense: I have vastly more resources than the people here. That is a simple fact, so when people try to hustle me out of a few dollars, I generally bargain them down and then leave the situation feeling more or less OK about them and myself.
Yesterday was a different situation.
It began with a classic error in negotiation: we did not make an agreement before hand. I lived in Tegucigalpa with a host family arranged by my boss for two weeks before heading to El Progreso in Northern Honduras, and during those first two weeks we had not discussed how much I would pay the family for my stay. We started discussions several times, but our schedules didn't match up well, and I was assured that we would settle up later. I loved this family: they showed me around, talked with me about politics, current events and cooking, and the fourteen-year-old was thrilled I was going to be in town for her quinceañera, her fifteenth birthday, which is a huge deal in Latin America.
When I returned to Tegucigalpa, it was with the full knowledge that I would need to pay them for my stay. But when we sat down to talk, I discovered that they had decided that $35 a day was an appropriate amount, so by their math I owed them $1,085.
I remained calm.
I told them that this was much more than I expected, and asked them calmly (as I had been taught) "Where did that number come from?" They told me they had asked other foreigners what they paid for their hotel stays, and then had asked many people if $35 was fair. At this point, I had several thoughts:
1. I know they need money and this amount would probably make a huge difference to them.
2. They're trying to charge me for the two and a half weeks I wasn't living with them.
3. I can't even pay this if I want to because it's beyond my withdrawal limit.
4. I totally feel like I am being hustled.
If you've been reading my blog for a long time, you know that I'm a do-gooder and a sympathetic person. But these things only go so far, and this situation was business. So I bargained and negotiated and remained calm for half an hour of discussion. They seemed to think $500 was acceptable. I explained that more than $300 was impossible, and that more than $200 (the approximate rate I had paid for my home stay in Chile) was distasteful. I shared that my family in Guatemala had charged $30 per week, and that part of the point of a homestay was that it was a way to get to know the culture while paying dramatically less than a hotel. They explained that they weren't trying to take advantage of me, but that this was what they thought was fair and they wished they didn't have to charge me at all.
They told me that, even though $300 wasn't fair, they would accept that amount so I would feel comfortable. I was late to meet my friend and boss, Karen, so I decided to leave without pushing my point.
I engaged my BATNA.
A BATNA is a Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. In this case, it involved some really humiliating public crying (one can only remain calm for so long), and then a discussion with Karen about what a fair price really was. I withdrew the money, and then had her drive me back to the house.
I paid $150 for my home stay, and packed my bags. I essentially chose to sever ties, and to pay an amount which still seemed high, but which I felt was basically acceptable. I stayed the night with Karen, and have no intention of seeing that family again.
I'm not sure this is the most Conflict Resolution-esq solution to the situation. But it is what seemed fair and what I can live with. And the ability to negotiate this with poise is absolutely a credit to my training.
Today I'm heading south for a two-week Costa Rican vacation with my mother. I am so grateful for this timing: I desperately need a break from all these complications and the emotional strain of this summer's work. I'm disappointed that this time in Tegucigalpa ended with losing my joy in my homestay situation, but I am glad I held my own in the negotiation. I so need of this vacation.
So, my thanks to Michael Moffitt for saving the day! I'm thrilled to report that your class has been put to good use.
July 22, 2011 - 2:49 PM
On Saturday morning, I will be leaving for a week of activism on the Guatemala/Mexico border. I am going with a group of feisty Honduran activists (mostly women) to ask the Mexican government for changes in migration policy, to respect the rights and needs of Central American migrants. We will be taking a bus to Tecún Úman, on the Guatemalan side of the border, where we will be holding some kind of demonstration. Then, in Tapachula, Mexico, we will hold a press conference about issues regarding migration in Mexico.
I am thrilled to be a part of this caravan north. I feel really lucky to have been welcomed by these groups who are so dedicated to human rights and the overarching theme of migration. This trip will include several mothers who have lost contact with their children somewhere along the migrant path. One of our goals is to search for "desaparecidos," or migrants who have disappeared.
This is an aspect of immigration that most Americans probably never think about: that Central Americans must cross all of Mexico before ever arriving on our border. And although Mexico is a source of a huge number of immigrants living in the United States, it is not a friendly throughway for other migrants seeking the American border. In fact, in my interviews I have heard that Mexico is the worst part of the journey: worse than the border fence, worse than the desert, and worse than American detention centers.
Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans can move freely between their four countries, using their local national ID cards. But to enter Mexico legally requires a passport, which is expensive and takes a great deal of time. So if a Honduran plans to arrive in the United States, he or she rarely has the proper documents in Mexico. This leads to incredible problems, in both the official and extra-legal sense.
One powerful example is deportations. Between 2001 and 2007, the United States deported 472,956 migrants from these four countries. In that same time, the Mexican migra deported 1,128,256 from the same countries. While it is the right of the Mexican state to deport individuals who enter without the proper documents, there is a sense of mismatch between the massive numbers of Mexicans crossing the US border, and the efforts to expel Central Americans who are passing through.
In an extra-legal sense, the fear of all Central Americans has to do with organized crime in Mexico. Robberies and extortion are common on the trail, and many lose all their money and documents before arriving at any particular destination. But there is a constant fear of kidnapping by Mexican gangs, including and especially the Zetas, who were originally formed by ex-military Mexicans trained at the US School of the Americas. Hundreds of Central Americans are kidnapped off the trains each year, and their families are forced to send hundreds of dollars in ransom money. The news here is always full of kidnappings, deaths, and mass graves in Mexico.
And so we are going North to ask the Mexican government to better protect the migrants from Honduras and its neighboring countries. We are asking for the support of police to crack down on gangs, and on enforcement of humane treatment policies in Mexican detention centers. We are asking the Honduran consulates to step up in providing resources to migrants who are imprisoned or hospitalized, and that they aid in the search for missing migrants.
There is a depth to these issues that I never imagined and a complexity in every facet of the journey North. As discussed in one of my Conflict Resolution classes, sometimes you have to create more conflict to arrive at a system of justice. More and more, I see systems of injustice entrapping the people of Honduras, and the Hondurans who travel to the United States. This week I hope to stand in witness to these issues, and to do what I can to bring about a change.
July 20, 2011 - 8:13 PM
I've been thinking of writing a culture shock blog for some time now, basically since leaving the states. But the time has never felt completely right, and I've been embarrassed to admit I've been experiencing serious culture shock this trip. So I put off writing the blog, in the hope that ignoring the reality would make it go away.
But tonight, while "showering" in a bucket of cold water, a massive thunderstorm blew up and started to shake the tin walls of the bathroom, so I thought "fine. Things are different here, and I'm going to write about it."
Culture shock is different than homesickness. You can be homesick and never leave your hometown. Culture shock has everything to do with that sneaky feeling that everyone around you is doing it wrong. Whatever "it" is, there's just something about the expected norms that just don't match up with the way you understand the world.
It's not a good feeling, but it is a normal one. I keep thinking that I'll travel enough to stop getting that sense of otherness and (if we're honest) of knowing how to do things better. But culture shock keeps on arriving, because that's how we are as a human race: we are creatures of habit and familiarity. And when we're far from home, the strangeness surprises us at odd times.
For example, yesterday I saw someone reading on the bus for the first time. I have spent dozens of hours in buses in Honduras, and never once have I witnessed anyone reading, writing, listening to music, or talking on the phone. Folks hardly talk at all on the buses, to be honest. To the people here, that's just how things are. But if I'm honest with myself, to me this looks like a gigantic waste of time.
Another example has to do with trash. Probably most people who have traveled have witnessed the very different methods of waste disposal in other countries. While in the border checkpoint from Nicaragua, a tourist threw half a piece of chicken in the garbage, and watched in horror as a man fished it out and ate it. I have watched as people, then dogs, pigs, and chickens pick through the garbage that gets deposited on the sides of roads. A few days ago, I acted against all my upbringing and instincts and threw an empty juice bottle into the grass on the side of the road. I almost can't even write the words-I felt like the environment police were going to come and take me away, or that I'd die from the shame. But waste is not managed here, and searching for a trash can simply delays the inevitable roadside dump. But man is that little piece of culture stuck in my programming.
A bit of culture I don't much appreciate is getting kissed at in the street. I don't mind being talked to, and find the bits of English that get shouted my way to be pretty funny sometimes ("I luf you" and "hey meng" are very common) but I don't like being called "Mommy" and I don't like the kissy noises men make here. I understand that it's just the culture, and that it means less than being whistled at while passing a construction site in the US. It's a cultural thing. So I understand it, but I don't like it. That's culture shock.
Everyone here refers to me as "the gringa," which is fine. What is odd, to me, is the way adjectives become pronouns here, in a decidedly un-pc way. A Honduran with darker skin is referred to as "Black," as in "Hey, you Black." My host sister here is "the Fat One," and a friend is "Little Old Lady." It feels inappropriate to me, but no one asked my permission about it.
The final complaint has nothing to do with Honduras and everything to do with the shock of a city girl suddenly living in the country. It's the noise. Right now, everything is peaceful after the thunderstorm. There are bug noises and frog noises (both the "ribbit" kind, and the odd grinding noise some frogs make here), but mostly it's quiet. But come 4:00 in the morning, and there will be a million roosters proclaiming their rooster-ness to the world. I have to say, I am not a fan of living on the sleeping schedule of a bunch of dumb birds. I had my first dream in Spanish last night: I was complaining to my UO friends about the roosters, and explaining that they would have trouble sleeping. THAT'S how embedded the culture shock has gotten: until I was awakened by roosters, I was dreaming about them.
Lots of other cultural oddness has become part of my rhythm, and doesn't bother me. It's the adventure of traveling: dealing with the differences in time and scheduling, riding overcrowded busses, and eating strange food. I love some things here, including some small details that will certainly stick with me in the long run: every house has a hammock, all bus attendants shout dale dale dale! (pronounced da-lay) when arriving at an intersection (it basically means "hit it!) and most of the day there is no running water. I kind of like the pila system: having a sink with a large reservoir of water on one side, and washing hands and dishes in the other side.
Even the shower which inspired the experience isn't really so bad. The thing about culture shock is it's only uncomfortable for you in the moment. In the end, I'm still clean, whether by method of running water or bucket.
July 15, 2011 - 6:27 PM
Living in Honduras has been an intense and layered experience for me. On the one hand, I am researching and working and engaging with topics that are inspiring and heartbreaking, and leave me exhausted at the end of each day. On the other hand, I have encountered an outpouring of generosity and welcome in this country, and an abundance of gifts and food I had not imagined.
The balance is, of course, that I feel happy and cared for, and increasingly feel that I am in the right place for my research and my personal development.
So, what does it take to keep a gringa cared for in food and health?
For one, I keep receiving gifts while out on research. People will buy me fruit or soft drinks, or offering me the shady seat and insisting we move for maximum gringa comfort. Yesterday after an interview, I was accosted by the son of my interviewee, who had been observing my mosquito-bitten state and insisted on applying some kind of cream to the bites. Then he insisted I take the cream with me for future use. The people I am talking to here mostly can't afford medicines for themselves. But I was offered this gift as a guest, and I took it with many thanks (and it has worked better than any anti-itch cream I've ever used). Again and again, I have asked for directions and instead been walked to my destination, or have tried to give up my seat on the bus and instead been told to keep it.
I feel overwhelmingly welcome here.
Best of all is the care I have received from my host family, who worry themselves over my sunburns and mosquito bites (nothing I do seems to keep the bugs away from me), and over the blisters I developed from a new pair of sandals. They keep heaping advice and small helpful items on me, and I am left holding slippers and bottles of water, trying to keep all the different directions and instructions straight in my mind.
But better than this help is the food. I have had a wide range of food experiences here, but mostly for the best. In Tegucigalpa, I got very used to the traditional Honduran breakfast: tortillas, eggs, beans, cheese, and sometimes rice. It's probably the heaviest meal of the day, and I have quickly grown to crave it. Here in El Progreso the breakfasts have been slightly more modest, unless we're in town, in which case we buy balleadas: tortillas with beans and chicken. This has become my all-time favorite breakfast.
I have become adept at eating everything with tortillas. Tortillas here are made of corn, and are small and thicker than grocery store tortillas. About half of each meal is consumed with a fork, and the rest is eaten with a tortilla. Sometimes you pile the ingredients into the tortilla (mini-burrito style), but more often you tear off pieces of the tortilla and use these to pinch up bites of the other food. It doesn't matter what other food, either: beans and rice, fried chicken, seafood, vegetables... I had an interesting cuisine fusion moment yesterday while eating my chop suey with tortillas.
I have been surprised by several things here in Honduras that I haven't encountered elsewhere in my travels. One is a resounding lack of sweets. I don't buy desserts very often when at home, but I love chocolate chip cookies (chocolate in general, in fact) and occasionally enjoy a massive quantity of movie theater candy-the kind that is sweet and sour and sticks to your teeth. None of this appears to be particularly available here.
The other surprise this trip, in both Honduras and Nicaragua, has been the phenomenon of the "drink in a bag." Rather buying a bottle of water, I will often buy a bag of water: basically a vacuum sealed purified water. To drink, you bite the corner off the bag (wincing on my mother's behalf and thinking of all the money spent on orthodontia). On the street, you can buy plastic baggies half-full of fruit juices of all kinds: the vendors simply tie the opening shut, and you either drink through the straw they leave poking out, or you again, bite off a corner and drink that way. It's a very practical system in many ways, although it still strikes me as odd somehow. And today I had my first real dessert treat: my host mom paid $0.12 for the equivalent of a popsicle: frozen strawberry Tang in a bag. Delicious.
When traveling abroad, we all encounter food we simply cannot eat. I have eaten tongue, six-inch-long sardines (bones and tails included), fried beef (delicious), and many, many glasses of Pepsi (which I hate, but can't seem to convince anyone of this fact). But in the midst of all that is strange and new, today I found the one line I will not cross, no matter the cultural implications:
I absolutely and categorically refuse to eat French fries with tortillas. And that is all I have to say about that.
July 14, 2011 - 7:34 PM
Every day, dozens of Hondurans set out to migrate North. They often take buses through Guatemala, and when they cross the border into Mexico, they are already in danger of deportation for illegal entry. There used to be passenger trains running north through Mexico, but now the most common means of arriving at the border of the United States is by riding on cargo trains, jumping on and off in towns along the way.
In the past three days, I have interviewed four men who lost limbs to that train ride.
Many here call the Mexican cargo trains the "Tren de la muerte" or "Train of Death." This is not an exaggeration. Although many thousands ride these trains in relative safety, the migrant population is at risk for all kinds of physical dangers. In addition to the many accidents, there are also robberies, kidnappings, and murders along the rails. They are victim to extortion by authorities, and violence from the gangs and drug cartels. They are also victim to the elements-riding exposed to heat, cold, and hunger. Many hundreds do not make it. Here in El Progreso, twenty-six men are without their arms or legs.
Of the four I interviewed, two had lost a leg below the knee; one had lost both his legs above the knee, and the fourth had lost his left arm and left leg. I interviewed them about their accident, and about the larger context of their lives and their attempted migration: why they left in the first place, what they experienced on the trail, how the accident happened, and what their lives have been like since that moment.
Nothing prepared me for the range of emotion and experience I heard during my interviews. No research methods class can prepare you for that depth of feeling or that profound of a loss. Tonight, as I am reviewing my notes, I am speechless again by what I learned from these men.
All four left for financial reasons. They told me of the crushing poverty here, and the desire to help their children finish school, or their families afford houses and food. As all four pointed out in one way or another, they left to seek a better life, and instead nearly lost everything: and are left damaged with little hope for a stable future.
Two of my interviews were extremely bleak. My first, with Jose, took place in his home. An uncle was currently paying the rent, but he had to ask other relatives for clothes for himself, his wife, and his daughter. He had lost both legs, and was in a wheelchair. He told about his severe dehydration after fifteen days on the trail, and the moment of slipping under the wheels of the train. When I asked him if he had hope for the future, he told me "no."
Bernardo also felt an intense lack of hope. He had lost his left arm and leg, falling at almost the exact same time as his friend also fell. The friend died, and Bernardo spent months with a group of nuns in Mexico, recuperating physically while suffering a deep depression. He can't find work, and spoke of often waiting for hours for a bus that will stop to help him aboard. Although he spoke with great bitterness and resignation, he also spoke movingly of the kindnesses he had seen in Mexico, and his regret in never having the opportunity to thank the couple who picked him up off the tracks, and saved his life by taking him to the hospital. He said that the "normal folks" in Mexico are wonderful, and do a great deal to help migrants and people in need. But he had also witnessed gang robberies, and the dangers of the journey when a woman fell to her death. After hearing his story, I was honestly amazed he had pulled through his depression and was able to continue on.
My other two interviews contained similar elements of the pain and dangers of the trail, and the difficulties of life since their accidents. However, these two men also expressed a good deal of hope. My second interview, with Roberto, was actually quite uplifting: after reporting his whole painful story and sharing the details of his financial stress, he wanted me to take pictures of him riding his bike with a prosthetic leg. We laughed and joked, but he also spoke of his fear of becoming a burden to his family, and his sense that the political situation in this country will continue to mean that people make the dangerous decision to migrate, and others will be left injured.
My final interviewee today was Miguel. He had lived in the states for over five years, working in construction and sending money home to his mother and sister. After being deported, he spent five years in Honduras and started a family, until financial pressure drove him to migrate again. The group he was traveling with was robbed on the train, and when he tried to escape he was pushed, and his right leg was mangled. He spent weeks in the hospital while they tried to save his foot, but it was amputated. In this fourth interview, I finally saw a crack in the machismo that the men usually demonstrate. Miguel briefly broke down when I asked a question about his children, leading him to describe what it was like when his youngest daughter of five first saw his severed leg.
I don't have words to describe how it felt to receive these stories. I feel a kind of shock and paralysis tonight: an astounding awareness of my own healthy body, and the awareness that I have never risked life and limb for the vast privileges I enjoy. Nothing I have seen or studied prepared me for these interviews.
For now, I am trying to imagine that the sharing of their stories might have a meaning of its own. I like to think that, by showing my interest and sympathy, I am somehow lightening some burden of silence or isolation. All four thanked me for doing the interview. But I feel a deep responsibility to take their stories and create some chance, somewhere.
I feel very grateful for this opportunity, and very called to further action. I don't know what will result, and I don't even know where to start. Except that maybe this blog is a start. Maybe I've told a story you haven't heard before. Maybe this is an opportunity for better understanding and future social action. And by writing their narratives, I have reminded myself of the intensity of these interviews, and the profound impact this had on my soul.
Hopefully in future days, some course of action will become clear. For now, I leave you with the stories as I received them: a small example of the terrible costs suffered in pursuit of the American Dream.
(Names of interviewees have been changed to maintain confidentiality)