Monday, June 16, 2008

something about honduras

I really, really, really must write something about Honduras. I have been procrastinating in a lot of areas, such as making corrections to a journal article, stopping to take time for myself, and getting sleep...and writing about Honduras. May as well at least do one of those finally!

One of the many lessons I learned while in Honduras was about poverty. One of the many lessons I learned when I returned back from Honduras is how people think they understand poverty. I don't think anyone truly understands it. If they did, I don't think it would exist because people would work hard to prevent it, stop it, and reverse it. Here's my experience with it:

My team and I traveled to La Acequia, Honduras, which is about an hour and a half bus ride from San Pedro Sula. It is in the middle of a flat, dry valley of fields and is surrounded by some of the most gorgeous mountains I have ever seen - very lush and perhaps even more beautiful than those in Whistler or Banff or even Austria. La Acequia itself is pretty flat and dry, too. As we drove from San Pedro out to La Acequia, I saw loads of homes shoved into any available space by the road. Homes, I should mention, consisted usually of about a 10 or 12 foot square edifice, usually with a little bit of a covered porch area, all roofed with tin. Some of the homes had poured concrete walls. Many had walls made of additional pieces of tin tied together, or whatever other materials had been fortunately gathered. Most homes had a curtain for a door. A few homes had a window or maybe two.

La Acequia itself is filled with these homes, probably about 300 of them. Within this community there is a range of wealth, which is an incredibly strange thing. It is strange because even the "rich" people...are not at all rich. Even the rich families pretty much have just enough to get by when they're lucky. The longer I stayed there, the easier it was for me to adapt to this jaded view of wealth. It seemed like there were some pretty well-to-do families there. They could usually buy bottled water, they had food, they had few leaks in their roofs, their clothes had few holes or stains. And somehow this became the picture of "wealth." ...What then, of people who could afford to ride on airplanes and had clean clothing every day and brought along digital cameras and had air conditioning and wore shoes? Extravagance.

Two interesting things happened one day that snapped me back to the reality of the situation. I had spent the week in La Acequia and had not experienced any other areas of Honduras. On Saturday we took a day trip to San Pedro Sula to buy some additional supplies and check email. On the bus ride back (P.S. the "bus ride" means sitting and/or standing on an old school bus that drives along unpaved roads) we rode through Naco. La Acequia is kind of a suburb of Naco, Naco being probably about five times its size. Naco had many markets and other symbols of slightly more wealth. However, as I gazed out the window, I realized that people here still wore entirely donated clothing. You can tell because there are all sorts t-shirts that say something about so-and-so's high school spring dance or the 8th annual Bingo tournament...all in English and with American cities. Even with this "wealth"...the people could not afford their own clothing. The second interesting thing that really stabbed me in the heart was that as we paused in Naco to pick up some more passengers, Phil Collins' voice came out of the speakers of the radio, "Oh, think twice. It's just another day for you and me in paradise."

I just about bawled.

I realized that the poverty I saw was not just in La Acequia. It wasn't that we had stumbled upon a tiny, secluded, poor rural village. We were in the middle of an ENTIRE COUNTRY that was poor. It was kind of strange to think that I could travel for days and not get to ANYWHERE that was even near rich.

It's a bleak picture, poverty. And yet there is a lot of good, even in desperate situations. People enjoy their families. People enjoy each other. People laugh. Children play. There are celebrations. Life is more basic, which in my opinion can be good - although quite admittedly a lot more work. For example, every day our hosts would bake tortillas. First they needed to find firewood and then build up the fire. Then make the tortilla dough, and finally form the tortillas and bake each one on the stovetop. And every day they made probably 100 tortillas for the household to eat. I learned how to make them, and I made about 5. One I dropped in the dirt when I tried to form it. In all, making 5 took me about 15 minutes. I was told that one tortilla could be sold for 1 lempira, and 19 lempira are one US dollar. I would not be making very good money if I were selling tortillas in Honduras... The point, however, is that there is a lot of work needed to meet the basic needs of everyday life. It's a lot more eco-friendly that way, as far as energy use goes.

What has bothered me the most now that I am back in the States is what I hear so many people saying when I tell them about the poverty. Time after time after time I hear them say - no, rather ASK, as if they're seeking a confirmation from me, seeking someone to reassure them in their apathy - "They're poor, but they are still happy even though they don't have much, right?" I think what they mean is that the poor people are not entirely hopeless, that people still tell jokes and have fun. Well, sure. And in a lot of way I think they are more content than all of us complainy rich people who always need more more more, newer newer newer, faster faster faster. These US folks nod in a satisfied manner when I admit it, and then they go on their merry lives feeling good about themselves and not having to worry about the poor people because poor people still can be happy. So the US folks will just continue being content sending a few dollars here and there to poor people (and at the same time donating thousands to research aimed at stopping diseases that kill only a small fraction of the people who are dying in the world...) and thinking they're really doing their part by providing so much.

But that's not really what makes someone...filled. Smiling now and then, having money...neither of these can make anyone joyful. That's exactly what the US folks are pointing out with their rude question: even though the poor folks don't have money, they're still finding some happiness. But what they fail to also recognize is that, just like money, felicity does not complete a person. A person can laugh and joke and party as much as they'd like, but that is not what fulfills them.

One lesson I learned about the complex problem of poverty while I was in Honduras is that true poverty is when people have no purpose or ability. The friends I made in La Acequia...they have dreams. They want to do something. They are intelligent, they desire to learn, they want to fix some of the problems with the natural resources in their town, they want to impact their community and maybe even world. But the tragedy is that they CAN NOT. The resources are not there, the ability to carry out their purpose is not available. This is a separate tragedy than a similar phenomenon observed in wealthy nations -- where people who can do whatever they want to simply DO NOT. This is, in my opinion, self-inflicted poverty. There's not a whole lot I can do to help that. But there is a LOT I can do to help people who have the desire but not the resources. In that way, I - and everyone - can make a difference in the problem of poverty. It won't solve the problem, but it will make a difference.

Monday, June 09, 2008

hot...but not stupid!

It's REALLY hot.

It's 7:50p.m., and it's 86 degrees F outside. The high today was 90.

Technically, this is cooler than it was in Honduras. However, it certainly feels hotter. Partly because of the humidity - Honduras was much more dry heat and sometimes reminded me of a sauna; here it feels like any moment it could downpour, and I really wish it would. I think it also feels hotter than Honduras because this is PENNSYLVANIA and not Honduras and what is the weather doing being so incredibly hot in Pennsylvania?

The shops downtown (downtown being the two streets directly across from the University) are having lots of fun sales. The optical store is having two sales: the "It's so freaking HOT" sunglasses sale and "I'm squinting at the optical store sign" sunglasses sale. I don't quite get it either, that's just what the signs said. I also walked by the Corner Room restaurant which had a large sign telling passers-by that it's too hot to cook at home, come in and eat in their air conditioning.

And speaking of air conditioning...

That is what is lacking in my apartment at the moment. I'm thinking that it hasn't worked at all since I moved in, but I tend to not run the A/C unless I have to, so I hadn't really used it until it got unbearable with the 90+ days this past weekend. The beauty of living in an apartment is that when something doesn't work, you just call and tell someone and they fix it. So I called about the A/C problem today.

In the lab where I did my graduate work, there was a saying amongst my coworkers that once one gets his or her PhD, he or she tends to lose all common sense and can't think intelligently like most people. I promised them that I would try my darndest to not do that. I don't claim to always know everything, but I try to at least not disregard lab safety, University rules, and federal laws as some people I know seem to think they can do just because they have a PhD. I think that my coworkers' insights are an exception to the more commonly held view that PhD's are exceptionally bright. I'm not saying that either of those opinions are entirely accurate. However, sometimes I wonder if the random people who communicate with me would treat me differently if they knew I had a PhD. They might think that I know kind of what I'm talking about, give me a little credit. Maybe they wouldn't tell me ridiculous things like the person who came to check on my air conditioner today.

I got home from work after my stroll through HOT downtown and HOT residential neighborhood and HOT shopping area and was happy to find that there was a note under my door indicating that someone had indeed responded to my service request. That was quick! Good! The poor Angora rabbit with way more hair than any innocent animal should be expected to have when it's 90 degrees outside (Joelle) really deserves the decency of a semi-controlled climate even if her owner can get by in the heat by just closing the shades and taking off her clothes. But as I read through the note on the service report, I realized that it was going to be yet another long, sweltering night for both of us.
poor, hot jo

"I checked AC. It was off at the thermostat. I turned it on and AC was working OK. I left it set to 75 degrees."

Said individual was even so kind as to write on my wall above the thermostat in red pencil where the different settings for my heating and cooling controls are. In case you need more than a PhD to figure that out.
There was, indeed, a fan thing making noise throughout my apartment, which might in fact indicate that the central air was working.

However, if you look at the picture above, you will notice that it was STILL 80 DEGREES. After the thermostat had been set to 75. And the "air conditioning" had been running all afternoon.

Maybe I am at fault for not going into detail with my complaint to the apartment folks. I had just told them that the AC wasn't working. I didn't tell them that what wasn't working was that it wouldn't go below 80, and that this indicated to me that the cooling part of the AC coolant system was not working although the fan obviously was. I also did not explain that the fan mysteriously turns on every now and then even when the AC is set to off. I also did not say that since it was probably just running up my electric bill to keep the fan part running and wasn't even doing anything useful, I had turned the thermostat to OFF and realized that this would certainly mean that no cold air would come out of the vents. I guess I had figured that someone who knows about fixing air conditioners would be as capable as I, who knows next to nothing about air conditioners, to notice that when the AC was on and the fans were going, the air that was coming out of the vents wasn't cold.

But apparently the obvious problem was that the resident was far too much of a nincompoop to realize that the air conditioning in fact needed to be turned on.


I don't know; it's probably just me, but if I were the one checking into the complaint, I would assume that they person had already tried to turn the thermostat to COOL. Since it had been a bazillion thousand degrees all weekend. And that's how you get the air conditioner to work. It would seem like most people would know that the air conditioning does not magically turn on all by itself and that you need to actually turn it on.

I assume too much, I guess.

So...we'll see what happens tomorrow. I left a message in the office again - they are of course closed by the time I return home from work - with a bit more detail about what is going on. I really, really, really, really hope that 80 degrees is not the absolute limit of the central air conditioning system.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

real friends

The funny thing about going on a trip and then coming back is that one has to get back to normal life, and normal life has a way of overtaking things and making what happened on the trip and what was learned on the trip get shoved to the back of one's mind as new challenges arise. After returning from Honduras a week ago (Thursday night) and jumping right back into work Friday morning and social life Friday night, I am more convinced than ever that when I go on a vacation or trip, I need an additional two or so days just to process everything before proceeding with normal life. Unfortunately, I realized this TODAY, not last Thursday. Retrospect is 20/20.

What I'm trying to say is, "Sorry I am super-duper procrastinating on this writing about Honduras thing. I have sooooo much to say, but I want to share it all to the best of my ability, and that will require putting in a bunch of time and thought, and I don't seem to have either of those to spare at the moment. And since life continues to go on and I have other stuff to write about, here's the other stuff. Honduras will have to wait, even though I wish it didn't have to."

Thus, here is other stuff:

One of the things I find most most intriguing about life is that you really never know what will happen. I like to live a relatively controlled life. I like to have a schedule, I like to know where people are going to be and what I will be doing and what time everything starts. It takes me a lot of effort to deal well with people who do a lot of random stuff or invite me to come over in two hours (...I'd prefer a two day notice). I like to think that I'm slowly but surely learning how to be more flexible. In that sense I really don't like the fact that what will happen in life is totally unknown. But at the same time, I DO like that anything can happen! There is a world of opportunity for good news or good events or good people to cross my path at any moment. I never know when something crazy like giving a talk will lead to being asked out on a date or when unwillingly and hopelessly checking a website will show me a job opening that I get hired for pretty much on the spot or when a someone I knew vaguely a long time back will re-enter my life and we'll become good friends (all of which may or may not have ever actually occurred in my life...hee hee.)

Still, there's always the danger that life will throw a curve that is not nice. I realize that if I'm going to welcome the good randomness I can't abhor the bad randomness; I can't be choosy about randomness!! And when bad randomness brings about sad news or confusing things to think about or validation of answers I had hoped would not be true...that is when I realize who I really value as my real friends. Who do I immediately think about to call when ungood things arrive?

I was somewhat surprised by my answer to this question today when something unanticipated happened. I've been building friendships intentionally with a couple people here in State College, and I've felt pretty close to some of them. At the same time, I've felt a bit distant from many friends who don't live near me - time and distance can really do a number on relationships and openness and understanding. So, I'm kind of stuck in a bad spot here with only heart-close friends who live far away and distance-close friends who don't have that special connection yet. Which to choose?

It wasn't really a choice...the heart won out after only about 2.5 milliseconds of hemming and hawing. I find it interesting that even though it's faster to get support from people who live nearby -- immediate gratification/comfort -- I feel more comforted just knowing that someone who truly cares about me knows that I'm facing something difficult and feels for me even if he/she can't rush to my side and give me a hug to make it feel better.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Now that I am (in theory) fully rested (or at least cannot use "I got back from Honduras on Friday so I'm tired" as an excuse because there's been sufficient time since Friday for me to catch up on sleep), I am back in the swing of things at work. Which is kind of going pukey-ly today. I had made a nice plan last Friday to start off my return to work with a bang and start some bacteria growing over the weekend so that today I could try out some new stuff. However, after making the plan I learned that we were missing a key component of what I wanted to do and nobody knew why we hadn't received it since it had been ordered at the beginning of May. So there went that idea. Back to getting NOTHING done.

When I get nothing done, I feel very inept. What I really need to do is to sit myself in the library for a couple days and immerse myself in a bath of literature about iron reduction and soil bacteria and chemical engineering and gene expression microarrays and the TCA cycle and anaerobic growth techniques. In a few days I'd feel not so inept. But I feel like I'm not getting anything done when I'm just reading. So I feel highly unmotivated to proceed as such.

And then I go try to be proactive and meet with one of our collaborators to talk about their part of the project, and the little sophomore undergrad turns out to be way smarter than me and asks all these detailed questions about my PhD thesis project. For a moment he even got me to thinking that he knew all about vaccine development and I really felt inept. But then he gave himself away with a comment about adenovirus and rhinovirus vectors, so I felt a little better. Nevertheless, he's a major smartie. Bugger.

Work is called work for a reason, I know. But there are plenty of times that I wish all I had to do in life was serve people like I did in Honduras, teach knitting, and spend time with people.