From Peace Corps Wiki
If we rented it together and split the rent, he explained, it would only cost about one third of our living allowance. Well, one bedroom had a door for privacy and the other didn’t so we flipped. Afterwards Jeff asked, “Two out of three?” We flipped again with the same result. So, we shook hands and moved into a totally bare flat, I in the bedroom with the door. Unlike some Peace Corps horror stories, we had electricity, an indoor functional toilet and running water.
We worked too. Jeff was an industrial arts teacher at a local high school. The school had ordered a complete industrial arts set-up but once it arrived in crates, the administrators ran around like cats chasing their tails. Jeff was the last remaining volunteer out of four recruited. The Honduran government had used international loans to build a number of middle and high schools across the nation with industrial arts shops. Equipment had also been purchased and shipped there in giant crates. The problem was that there were no industrial arts teachers. The Peace Corps had recruited four. Two never left the United States. A third reported to training in Honduras and quit while still in training (according to training lectures, in 1975 sixty percent of volunteers worldwide did not finish their two years, forty percent in Honduras). When Jeff arrived, there was a large classroom with no cabinets, no tool peg boards, no safety rules or lines painted on the floor and worse yet, all the equipment was still in huge crates. My situation was not much different. The city had never had a city planner before. They had a city engineer, a survey crew and one Peace Corps Volunteer civil engineer named Walter Mikitowicz, all seated in one tiny space with barely room to even walk. Walter’s Spanish was very good. He spoke to the mayor, the amiable owner of the Hotel de Lujo, who had been selected by the military to run this town (Honduras was a military dictatorship without elections). When we explained the space problem he smiled and said, “Por supuesto” (but of course). Within days, he explained that he had rented a new space down by the harbor. Walter and I were disappointed to find a two room office space with hurricane water marks halfway up to the ceiling and eighteen inches of garbage on the floors. There were no windows, no electricity. It had never been repaired after the hurricane. We measured the room and reported back to the mayor that we needed electricity, a telephone, window shutters, the rooms cleaned out and painted and a carpenter. Walter handed him a to-scale drawing of the furniture we had designed. “Por supuesto.” In the meantime, I walked the city street by street, marking land uses and estimating residential densities. The temperatures were lower than Arizona but this was no desert. Both Jeff and I took to changing clothes at lunchtime when they were already soaked wet with perspiration. The entire north coast has a tropical climate which means it is hot and humid or hot and raining all the time. By a happy accident, February, March, April and most of May are the driest months of the year.
Back at our empty flat, Jeff and I decided on drastic measures. He built himself a bed. I bought an army cot, talked the city engineer into scrounging me up some concrete blocks and bought some lengths of wood for the classic hippie-dippie bookshelf made of blocks and wood planks. We bought two unfinished wooden tables (one to eat on and one for a stove) and three chairs. We also bought a tiny camping-type propane stove. Our biggest problem was a refrigerator. Even a tiny one cost an incredible sum in Honduras since it was imported and subject to luxury tax. We bickered about the cost of a refrigerator and what to do with the empty living room. Four inches taller than me with dark wavy hair and a dark beard, Jeff couldn‘t be confused with my brother Joe because Jeff and I side by side looked more like Mutt and Jeff in the funny papers. We bickered about everything, like old maids. The hours at work took some getting used to. City Hall was open at eight in the morning. All employees worked until one in the afternoon and then the entire city shut down for three hours. Both Jeff and I headed home for a nap, a shower, change of clothes and a meal. City Hall opened back up at four in the afternoon and stayed open until seven at night. So, it was an eight hour day but getting home at seven thirty at night was different. We still had no refrigerator and had to buy food each day at the market. Vegetables had to be soaked in a water and chlorine solution to kill bacteria. Without refrigeration and with temperatures of ninety degrees with eighty percent humidity, lettuce wilted before sunrise the very next day. I sent a postcard home, asking my mother for some help for the very first time in my adult life.
Because of my daily wandering like a cow across pasture, taking notes on maps brought from the capital, I found all kinds of places. Since there was no zoning law, there were strip clubs and bars in the middle of residential areas. There were also workshops and small industries. Only three blocks from our new place (that still looked like a bunkhouse) nestled under a ceiba tree, I found an unpainted, windowless shack. Through the wall cracks and open door, I could hear a saw, so I wandered in. There were cane tables and chairs stacked to the ceiling. Sawdust filled the air as a hand saw zipped through wood. At lunch Jeff and I returned to dicker price with the maestro. Course, we had no wheels other than Jeff’s three speed bicycle he rode each day two miles out to Manuel Bonilla high school, near the Cangrejal River. Within a week, we returned in a wooden cart on rubber wheels pulled by a donkey which we had rented in the market, complete with driver. We piled our cane furniture high and climbed aboard.
Days later, I came home for lunch to find an antique wooden soda pop ice cooler in our kitchen. It was the type used in the United States prior to the Second World War in country gasoline stations. It was a large wooden box on legs with a hinged top. The inside was covered with sheet metal, nailed directly to the wood and the outside was painted a bright red with a popular soft drink name. Someone Jeff had met, hearing of our refrigeration problem, gave it to him. Just outside of town there was an ice factory. Each three days we took a taxi and bought one fifty pound block of ice. Placed inside the icebox, it kept food cool. Even fish lasted two days.
The Standard Brand Fruit Company was not as cooperative as I had imagined. Although La Ceiba was founded in the late nineteenth century, it was the introduction of fruit cultivation that was responsible for La Ceiba’s growth. The company owned most of the valley as well as huge sections of the city. The two newest and best residential subdivisions in town had been designed and constructed by the fruit company. Almost the entire infrastructure (water, sewer, storm drainage, electric power, roads) had been designed and originally constructed by the company and then turned over to the Honduran government, with the exception of their compound. It covered the entire western portion of the city and was completely surrounded by an eight foot high masonry wall topped with barbed wire. The main entrance downtown was an open gate manned by armed guards. A year or two prior to our arrival, U.S. Congressional hearings revealed that the two fruit companies operating in Honduras paid substantial bribes directly to the President of the republic. He was overthrown in a military coup shortly thereafter. Hurricane Fifi also affected the fruit companies, destroying seventy percent of their trees. The competing fruit company west of us in Tela shut down entirely. Standard Brands in La Ceiba was negotiating a more gradual withdrawal. In fancy-pants bankers’ terms they were “divesting.” That means they were having themselves a yard sale and moving to another country. You couldn’t even enter the compound without an invite, which meant the use of the telephone. Telephones were scarce. In City Hall there was one telephone on the mayor’s desk and it was locked. Only the city secretary had the key. So, it took several days to place a call to the company manager, whose building was three blocks away. He was cordial and curt. Silence can be a speech. He did give me the name of their head engineer and arranged a meeting. The next time the armed guard stopped me at the gate, I mentioned the engineer’s name. The guard had his own telephone in his guard house! After a brief exchange, he set his rifle down, returned and gave me directions. I entered a time machine. The grounds were set up exactly like officers quarters at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where I had basic combat training years before. The paved streets were all narrow and straight. The buildings were all constructed of interlocking wooden planks painted white with dark green trim with pitched roofs covered with oil based shingles. Each building was surrounded by manicured lawns, flower beds and trees. There were neat overhead electric and telephone lines, metal fifty-five gallon garbage cans and not one piece of refuse anywhere, just like an army post.
The head engineer was a smiling Honduran dressed in khaki slacks and a guayabera (Mexican wedding shirt). He pumped my hand enthusiastically and led me inside for a cup of coffee. I expected him to show me maps like the Mexicans and the Argentines. His smile disappeared and his jaw muscles tightened. He reminded me that all maps were company property, not public information. I pleaded with him. After all, I said, the company had installed the infrastructure. He stood, offered his hand in parting and told me to check back with him in a few days. Young, I did not understand the intricacies of a good brush off.
About this time, the mayor sent a messenger to search me out. I was to report to City Hall immediately. Camél, the City Secretary, took a deep drag on his cigarette. “Armando Votto Paz, your boss in the capital, has been calling you on the telephone,” he explained. All long distance calls were routed to a local telephone exchange with real operators and the calls themselves routed along overland lines. The system was overloaded and ancient. Often it took hours to place a long distance call, as it did that day. Just as Jeff and I had no air conditioning in our flat, City Hall had none. Made of concrete it was a bit like a hot box and waiting on a wooden bench for hours, mopping my forehead with a bandana, I worried.
Armando’s voice was chipper. We spoke in Spanish for a few minutes and he complimented me on improving, then switched to English. He explained that he would be visiting volunteers on the north coast the following week and would stop by to see me. He also mentioned that there was some kind of a problem. “When is the last time you called your mother?” he asked which made me stammer because I hadn’t since leaving Arizona bound for Mexico months before. “She started by calling Senator Barry Goldwater and has been calling everyone, asking why you are starving. For God’s sake, call her.” It was the dang letter about the refrigerator. That same Saturday I spent four hours in the telephone exchange to place a call to my mother who could not understand why Jeff and I couldn’t pick up a used refrigerator for a few bucks like at home. I explained that refrigerators were all imported and heavily taxed and was just about to mention the icebox when she told me that a check was in the mail. I calmed her down and thanked her for the check (which would come in handy when Margarita and her mother arrived) and lied. I told her that we would buy a refrigerator pronto. I took a photo of a neighbor’s refrigerator, had it developed and sent it to my mom. Then I went to Confession, most naturally.
I also returned to the company compound where the rifle carrying guard stopped me since I had no appointment. He agreed to pass a note to the engineer. Then a messenger hunted me down again in the field. I was now mapping all electrical poles by hand, wandering the city like a lost pup. Armando looked different. In the capital he was forced to wear a Mormon missionary type of uniform but here in La Ceiba he wore a guayabera and light colored slacks, tennis shoes and sun glasses. He gave me an abrazo and started a whirlwind tour first of our tiny City Hall enclave where Walter drew plans for a local school and I had no desk, then to the garbage strewn office by the dock. Walter and I explained how we had designed two simple wooden drawing tables that could be slid together to form a conference table when the Argentines showed up from Tegucigalpa in April for their first meeting. There was no place to meet in City Hall and they would show up with a team. Armando nodded very seriously.
“I will talk to the mayor.”
Walter retreated to his drawing table and Armando insisted that I accompany him. We boarded his American jeep and drove around town while I pointed to the areas that I had been studying and unrolled some of the maps. As we drove past the company compound entrance, he explained that it might be best to ignore the fruit folks. Just north of the compound, we drove around the poorest neighborhood in town, Barrio Ingles, adjacent to the docks. Most of the residents in this area were black and worked loading and unloading ships. The men were huge and built like National Football League linebackers. The only difference was that they all died very young. During my stay in Honduras the average life expectancy was forty-six years. The black dock workers seemed to die younger still. Armando stopped his jeep in front of a one-story wooden building closed up tight. The sign read “Ginette’s Hall.” Armando turned the jeep’s engine off.
“Don’t go in that dance hall. It’s dangerous.”
That night, he took us all out to one of the best restaurants in town where we had a three course meal. Later, we took him out for a beer. He retreated to his hotel early and was gone the next morning but his trip had an effect. That same day men with shovels and wheel barrows cleaned out the office. By the following week, men rolled paint on walls while carpenters repaired shutters and Walter and I met with the head carpenter. He pulled Walter’s to-scale drawing from his hip pocket and we discussed materials and tweaks to the design. Next we talked about the number of chairs and stools required. Not only that but another messenger hunted me down and handed me a to-scale map of the city sent by that fruity engineer dude. It had no real data on it, but it was certainly a good base map since it showed every street. Things were popping but I still had nowhere to sit down. Holy Week was approaching. Jeff invited me to make a trip south to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I explained to him that my Mexican flame and her mother were coming to visit.