Hilcheys in Honduras

Matthew Hilchey

Island Living

Well, it looks like I’ve been taking my time on updating this blog! And so much has happened since I last wrote, I don’t even know where to begin really, so what better to tell than just the latest news.

Being from an island (“The" island, as I’m sure every islander calls their home), I’ve always had an affinity for living close to the sea. The last 4 years, Shelagh and I have spent the better part living as far away from the ocean as one can in Central America. We were roughly smack-dab (I think that’s the scientific term…smackius-dabbius, perhaps?) between the Atlantic and Pacific, nestled in the mountainous part of Honduras. Well, all that has changed.

Last September (as in 2017) we were asked if we’d consider moving to one of 2 places to help the sign language groups there. The first option was hot, sweaty Cofradia near the big city San Pedro Sula, or the hot and sweaty tropical paradise island of Roatan. I’m sure you can guess what we chose. Haha! Actually, Roatan has been long in need of help for their sign language group. Not that no one here cares, in fact, they support the deaf a lot here in the English congregation, but they themselves have A LOT of work to do themselves, so us coming wholly dedicated to doing sign language will be a relief to them as much as an aid to the deaf.

Something interesting about living on an island again, albeit a different one, is that they aren’t so different after all! We hadn’t been here three weeks and I have already seen a ridiculous amount of similarities to my own island! “What??" You say, with obvious disbelief. “How could an isle in the Caribbean be anything like one just off the Canadian coast in the Pacific??"

Lots. Economic dependence on tourism. Just to name one. “Yeah, well on V.I. we got cruise ships coming and going, what does Roatan got??" Same. Two ports for them actually. “Ok, well, what about an overpriced ferry service prone to cancellations?" Oh yeah, we got that covered. “Drivers inexplicably devoted to driving no more than 40 km/h on major roads?" Check. “A strange mentality that a 20 minute drive is too far so you couldn’t possibly go that far to hang out with people who live anywhere that requires travel on a ‘highway’??" Yup, got that one too. “Pedestrians who think they own the roads?" Affirmative.

I think you get the point. Maybe it’s just the things that annoy me that are the same, ha! But other, more serious things, like higher cost of living and rent, those are also similar. At the moment we rent a 2-bedroom place so we can have guests. Currently a single mom in the congregation and her son live with us, so that’s been fun! We live on the second floor where the tropical breezes compete with the sun on the roof for who gets the right to heat or cool our place. We also have a deaf/blind friend staying with us before she returns to the United States. So it’s been a busy place, my online English students have the privilege to a menagerie of background noises as I shush everyone around. There’s also a menagerie of animals in our yard: we have tons of geckos around the house, iguanas in the nearby trees, other lizards climbing the fences, hummingbirds sipping hibiscus (and occasionally buzzing in my ear), giant tailless squirrel-rats eating the fallen avocados, armies of ants, and a lone Siamese cat keeping everyone in check.

Hopefully I will post pictures and videos soon. But, this being an island, and me being an islander, it’ll probably get done on island time. Don’t hold your breath!

Coffee Purchasing

A little over an hour's drive down from Santa Rosa, on a nice new highway, you arrive at San Juan, Intibuca. An exit to the right heads back up into the hills towards Erandique, famous not just for its opals, but also for its coffee. It's a dusty drive, reminiscent of the logging roads I remember back home, the brush along the sides of the road blanketed in greyish-brown. I wonder to myself as a lady hangs laundry to dry....it'll dry, but it won't be clean anymore, I think. Erandique seems to have a disproportionate number of Catholic Churches considering its small size; the odd paved road; and one block of a boulevard complete with trees in the middle. This is the area where the legend of Lempira, the native who led a rebellion against the conquistadores, etenerally etched himself onto Honduran currency. I take a picture in front of a monument to him, horribly undignified compared to his legacy as a hero in this country, but proof enough I've been here. Of course, it wasn't my goal just to see this town and the famous local immortalized in the park: I'm here to buy coffee.

Let's face it, obviously I'm not buying coffee, I'm along for the ride. Since Shelagh and I are working in a coffee processing plant teaching English to the employees, I'm getting a bit of an education on how this business runs. Not just for my benefit, but it helps the employees too if I can understand the kind of jargon they will need to know. Not that there are many anglophone farmers out this way, but it helps them overall if they can explain their job in what has been described as the language of coffee, English.

Before, I talked about the important role of the cupper in the coffee process and the nuances of the job I did not expect. This time around, I'll talk about whom I'll call "the purchaser" and some of the oddities that go with this part of the job that I likewise did not expect.

Here's the basic process: the purchaser visits the producers, collects samples, the cupper tests the samples, the purchaser reports back to the producer either buying or rejecting their coffee. The second time around the purchaser comes with a driver and loaders and send the coffee back to the processing plant.

The first producer we met had a bad batch. We took two of his lots, but the bad one we left behind to his obvious dismay. Nevertheless, Esau, the purchaser, assured me that other exporters don't care about the quality, they'll buy it, sometimes for a better price even! Some places are skilled at hiding the damaged coffee in amongst good ones so that it's hardly noticed, he explained. These producers are truly family farms: the sacks of coffee are sometimes sitting in their front porch, so we can easily meet the family while we're there. Sometimes they even offer us coffee to drink....fitting.

The second place we visited was less fortunate with its coffee. Esau found something he wasn't willing to risk buying, so we just took an extra sample to assess the risk with the cuppers before proceeding. Unfortunately for us, the good sacks were way in the back, so there was some maze-like navigation to get them out. (Suddenly I realize "corn maze" is a bit of a pun....🤔)
Now as you can imagine, family farms here don't typically have pallet jacks, let alone forklifts. The trucks are unfortunately not equipped with lift gates. There are no dollies, moving ramps....but there are strong backs, and whatever boards of wood that can be found. And these sacks aren't the kind of sacks of coffee I'm used to picking up...I max out at 1 kilogram...these sacks are over a hundred pounds in weight and roughly the size of the average Honduran! But the way these little guys flip them up and onto their shoulders is pretty impressive! Actually, if there's one thing that Hondurans do really well, and there's not JUST one, they lift well. They carry heavy loads in all kinds of weather, on all kinds of surfaces, with nary a complaint. And they all wear the belts that help your back. However, seat belts.... anyways, the point is, it's arduous work to load a truck here, but they do it surprisingly quickly.
After Erandique, we trek higher into the sky via a highway smoother than the one to the big city, yet of dirt. It's amazing how up here the dirt changes colour so drastically in places. Everyone we pass it seems is headed in the opposite direction, and in large groups. Often standing room only in the backs of pickup trucks. And the temperature is dropping. Now people have on tuques, scarves, sweatshirts. I'm told we're nearly 2 kilometres in the sky, so I don't blame them. In fact, by nightfall we'll drop to nearly 10 degrees Celsius! I admit, to my Canadian readers that's like a rich man crying to a beggar that he lost his wallet, but when your ill-prepared for cold, it's that much colder.
I use the bathroom where we first pick up sacks of coffee. I'm impressed how unclean a place can be surrounded by crisp, serene beauty, but that's the unfortunate truth about us humans. There's discussion which way the truck will have to exit, but turns out to be the least of the driver's concerns because we end up on a road (maybe it was a driveway) much narrower and trickier to navigate. It's the house of one of the producers, and it's at the top of a hill, so the wind is bitterly cold! Esau keeps with him a funny instrument, resembling a large, hollow tent peg. It's jabbed into the sacks of coffee to pull out a sample from each one. That sample in turn represents the batch. It's kinda funny to watch him jab each one, grab a handful of beans then toss them into a little bucket.
In reality, the coffee business this side of processing, and this side of the border, is a lot less pretty than we expect when we walk into a Starbucks, or better yet, a smaller shop that caters to specialty coffees. We like to think we're a cut above when we order our lattes wearing our fanciest pants, but the humble and unpretentious origins of these little beans put us to shame. I often laugh to myself as I drive along the highway in Santa Rosa, coffee beans spread out in the sun to dry, inches from where my tires pass, breathing the same air my Diesel engine is polluting, and I think to myself, "There's your organic coffee, Mateo!"
(Pictures above: drying coffee on a roof, the other place has its own large dryer.)

As evening turns to night, our day has yet to finish. Thankfully someone picks up my Open English shift I've dropped as it's becoming clearer I won't be home in time. There's still coffee to pick up, and treacherous drives to lead the 5-ton. These workers are good sports though. The farmers are kind too, warming us up with coffee. At the moment though, I'm in the truck, waiting, writing, warming up. After all, I'm Mr Fancy-Pants here and I'm still waiting for my latte.

Coffee Cupping

Catador. Awkwardly bearing more resemblance to the English word “catheter" than any other, yet fortunately having no resemblance to its meaning. Providing a uselessly convenient rhyme with “matador", the word perhaps calls to mind “catastrophe", “cataracts", and “catalyst" as being related, but actually have nothing to do with it. Those three (obviously) finding ultimate derivation from Greek words relating to “downward" things, as the prefix “kata-“ denotes. “Catador" however, finds a more fitting mate with the words “capturer" and “captivater" as it is derived from Latin’s “capere" which basically means “to take".

A “catador" is a coffee cupper, or as we would be more likely to call one, a “coffee taster". Needless to say, the word took me on a wild etymological goose chase as I tried to “capture" its meaning…pun intended, bonus points if you caught it. The Latin-derived word here, catador, implies “capturing" something, or, to make it more clear, we could use the related word: “perceive". In this case, as you have no doubt figured out already, to perceive the flavours present in a particular coffee.

A little while back I had the pleasure of participating (from capere) in a tasting. It’s not at all like the preconceived (also from capere) ideas I had in mind. There is no glass swishing, no sipping, and definitely no cross-contamination! They follow a rather simple recipe (another capere derivative), tasting the coffee from rather small receptacles (yet again, deriving from capere), then recording (no relation) their thoughts on paper.

The coffee usually comes in as “pergamino" which means it still has a casing that needs to come off before it’s ready for roasting. After that is removed by a small mill, it is at the “green gold" stage, ready to be roasted. Very frustratingly the Spanish word for “roast" is “tostar", otherwise a perfect cognate for “toast"! And while coffee is definitely honoured here, it is more often drunk than drunk TO as a “toast" might imply, and it most definitely does not find itself in the same controlled inferno bread does, though many people here do drink coffee “with bread", but that’s because the Spanish word for “bread" (pan) is a much broader term that can encompass pastries, cookies, biscuits, cake, etc.
Pergamino above on the left, and green gold on the right.

Since this coffee production plant only de-shells, dries, and ships green coffee, there is no large roaster on premises. But, for the tasters, there’s a “toaster", albeit a very small one. They always do a medium roast as this allows the most flavours to be emancipated (yes, from capere) from the beans. The beans must first be sorted, with any defective ones separated and counted to give an approximation for how much of the whole crop might be damaged. The basic business is to buy large amounts of in-demand coffee that in turn can be re-sold to brokers who then provide it to local roasters in their countries. The biggest recipients (yup, also capere) of coffee are usually from the USA, Germany, and Japan. In fact, they do supply coffee to Starbucks, but bemoan the fact that they in turn burn it during the roasting process to achieve a consistent flavour. Hence, the work of the cuppers is quite important as they have a direct bearing on which coffees are purchased, and if they don’t catch a bad crop, it could get bought and damage the whole company’s reputation. Also, it serves to help the farmer who has brought the sample because he may be unaware of the defects that ultimately could hurt his livelihood.

The mill for the pergamino on the top left and the small roaster on the top right.
Sorting the beans.

Once roasted, the coffee is kept separate in little dishes (since they do about 10 coffees at a time) with a piece of paper saying where it’s from. They don’t look at that paper until they’re finished to prevent any kind of bias. Five samples of the coffee are ground into little glass bowls, and put onto the long tables in order to get ready for cupping. Almost boiling water, about 90 degrees Celsius, is then poured up to the brim of each one. The ratio is about 5.5 grams per 100 mLs of water. The tasters go over each cup individually and have a whiff. The next go over, they “break" the coffee with a spoon and take another sniff. Finally, they clear off the foam and get ready to taste. You probably already have an idea of how the next part goes, but you might be completely wrong. I was. They then take a to-go mug and a soup spoon and start tasting. I’m sure you’ve seen, or more pertinent to our conversation, “heard" certain cultures of people slurping their soup. It’s noisy and kind of annoys me, not gonna lie. Now imagine a vacuum cleaner having soup. Yes, imagine it. Because these cuppers take that spoon and inhale the coffee so fast so that it fills the whole nasal cavity and spit it out again so quickly, that if you blink you practically miss the process! The idea is to quickly taste the coffee and aftertaste to the maximum degree by inhaling it so quickly, preferably while it’s still hot. They’re looking for its sweetness, its body, and also the acidity. As it cools, the flavours change, so they might go over some a few times. The idea with having five samples each is to get a better cross section in case they have difficulty determining a flavour or whether it is damaged or not. Between each cup they dip the spoons into hot water so an to not contaminate the next coffee. What’s left appears to be beer, but is just very diluted coffee.

Now what flavours are they looking for? Well, as one cupper so nicely put it, ‘anything but coffee’. That’s right, they want it to NOT taste like coffee. They’re looking for fruity flavours, chocolate hues, smatterings of citrus, etc. In fact, a really good coffee actually should taste more like a tea! For me, it was difficult to sense all the different flavours. I want to try and get a taste for them, but it will take some practice. I think I noticed some of what they discussed about a few of the coffees.

But now don’t get in a panic, you can still invite me for coffee when I come to visit, I won’t be criticizing anyone’s brew. I’m still a fan of having a darker roast with some milk and chocolate. I’d still go for some Starbucks, even though some might think of them as coffee killers. That’s no problem, I’m not a catador, and that’s no…baloney...

A short video at:

Up In Smoke

Honduras being a predominantly Catholic country and all, you definitely see less focus on Santa Claus and way more where it belongs: on fireworks.
Yes, that’s right, Christmas cheer is spread here by means of miniature bombs tossed from the porches and hands of 5-year-old kids. And then the bigger kids get down to business around midnight on Christmas Eve to say, “Jesus, thank you." KA-BOOM!!
But really, Christmastime here is quite interesting. I gotta say, I don’t miss for a minute the repetitive Christmas songs of back home. I mean, how many times can Jingle Bells really be covered before it becomes redundant? Just sayin’. If you love those Christmas songs, I’m sorry…for your bad taste. Haha! Ok, I guess it helps I’ve never celebrated Christmas, so for others I suppose they could have special meaning, but really, is that all they must play in December? Ok ok, I’ll stop being offensive and return to the topic at hand! Christmas in Honduras. Quite different actually. They do do their best to mimic North American Christmases, and yes I just wrote “do do" in a sentence completely unrelated to dog poop! You’ll see Christmas trees (which are very popular in this part of the country), snowmen built from plastic cups, images of Santa, and a very popular mini nativity scene in the park. Unlike back home however, not everything is shut down by Christmas eve. It’s just as busy downtown (well, in a relative sense) here as it is back home, but the evening gets busy in the neighbourghodds as the faithful do their darndest to blow Santa outta the sky! I don’t know if the goal is to knock a present or two out of that giant bag he carries or what, but I suppose since there are very few chimneys on the houses here, Santa would be quite confused as to what to do in such a situation without his magical entranceway to stalk every family on the planet! It also makes you wonder if the Hondurans have it right, and some rogue copyist had decided to change the Bible account of angels heralding the birth of Jesus by lighting “crazy amounts" of fireworks to something a little more tame like shocking a few shepherds with an impromptu song, as we read in the Bible today.

New Years’ Eve is another popular time to keep the neighbourhood awake by living out pyrotechnic fantasies. The Hondurans don’t disappoint. I wonder if gangsters use these evenings as convenient times to shoot up their opponents, or if they’re likewise busy blowing more trivial things up. In any case, if you were to want revenge on someone here, and wanted to make it an early Christmas gift to yourself, well, now you know when to do it. But then, that seems to betray the “Christmas spirit"…hmmm…insert “Thinking Face" emoji here…

Well, now that the dust has settled, the smoke has cleared, the gunpowder smell lingers. As do incredible amounts of littered smithereens of newspaper that were used in the homemade (quite literally) fireworks. We have now moved into our new Kingdom Hall we had been building in the lower part of the city. If I haven’t already explained, Santa Rosa is situated on a group of mountains. The historical centre is on one, and we live on that level. Much of the newer city is located about 50 metres lower. Needless to say, GOING to our semiweekly meetings is hardly a chore: gravity is quite useful. However, it’s coming home that’s a challenge, gravity becomes the enemy. Up till now it hasn’t been too bad, it’s been “winter" in the most un-Canadian sense of the word. Nevertheless, for here it’s winter, and so the cooler air makes the hike more bearable. But as we move towards summer (March-April), the heat makes it more of an exercise.

Speaking of explosives, I may as well recount a somewhat embarrassing story. You know how sometimes you hear a sound outside, and when you go to investigate, you are most certain you see a bullet hole? No? Never had that? Oh…well anyways, it’s a little disconcerting. Especially when, if the “bullet" had been a little higher, it could have come in a window and right at you. Now, there’s nothing like crying wolf when you really think there’s a wolf. And I admit, I did. I was onstage at the Kingdom Hall when I heard a sound of something hitting the wall (I thought it hit the door, but the metal door should have sounded off like a drum). When I could, I went to investigate outside, leading me to what I thought looked awfully like a bullet hole. After the meeting ended, some of the others took a look and agreed, though we couldn't find any other evidence and few had heard the sound. Still, we alerted others, and action was swift as some from the maintenance committee of the Kingdom Hall talked about calling the police. But first it was decided to call the Central American Branch Office in Mexico. Now, the one thing we should have checked that night was where the emergency exit door, which is in that wall, touches the wall. Because if we had, we might have noticed something rather coincidental about the location of the “bullet" hole and where a doorstopper is supposed to meet the door. You see where this is going. Yes, rather than some menacing hooligans trying to do away with yours truly, some mischievous hooligancitos must have been playing out there the night before, and perhaps because of embarrassment, neglected to inform anyone of the doorstopper they broke off the wall, leaving a hole in the concrete where a plastic insert would have been cozying up to the screwed-in doorstop. [Insert “Rolling Eyes" emoji here.] Anyways, the next day I went again, and there was the doorstop sitting on the windowsill above the hole, where the night before I had risked my life to talk about King Hezekiah. Ha! Since the night before we were scouring the ground for evidence of a bullet, no one obviously thought to check the windowsill for anything! So what had made us a little worried, ended up being something to chuckle about in the end: I’m fine, the Hall is fine, but I tell ya, if ever I get my hands on the hooligancito that did it, I’ll tell him about Jesus the way a Honduran knows best: KA-BOOM!! (Just kidding, of course!😜)

Oh Bureaucracy!

Recently in one of my Open English classes, the topic was about visas and passports. In one of the slides, they talked about bureaucracy. Of course, we all know that the meaning of this word is a lot less amusing than its spelling and pronunciation. In any case, what a delight it was for me to have a Honduran student in my class that day! Honduras definitely puts the “crazy" in “bureaucracy"! Oh wait, there’s no Z…hmm...

In any case, I was blissfully reminded in July of how painless things can sometimes be in Canada. That being said, painkillers aren’t free, and that’s no exception with Canadian bureaucracy. It’s still a pain! Anyways, ICBC (Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, for you non-BCers) surprisingly was very helpful to me granting me a temporary licence over the phone so that I’d be able to drive the moment I arrived on Canadian soil. That was cool, if not flabbergasting.

However, in Honduras it’s a little trickier. To be fair, the Canadian (and BC) government knows who I am etc, whereas the Honduran one can only be wondering why this guy has entered and exited almost 20 times in the last 10 years. Fair question. Now if it isn’t frustrating enough that the Honduran Embassy to Canada with its official website tells you one thing, whereas the lawyer messages you over WhatsApp another thing, it’s the surprises that were more frustrating. Right when you think you’ve got it all, the lawyer is like: "Oh and I need this, and it costs…" Of course it does, it always does. And everything is set in US funds. (I remember my brief trip to Russia with my sister, EVERYTHING, literally everything, was in US dollars but you paid with Russian rubles…they would calculate it by the exchange rate in the moment…and this was BEFORE smartphones. Thank goodness for caps lock since then.

Anyways, it’s funny when in the immigration office they tell you to go up to the third floor to get photocopies. You don’t have a copier? At least it’s not as bad as Belize. One time I arrived there with some friends and the border lady said I had to call my friends to find out their address before we could be let in. “Can I borrow your phone, please?" I said motioning to the one right beside her. “No." So I had to first ILLEGALLY (there’s those caps again) enter the country to find a phone, which was its own debacle, before I could LEGALLY enter. Uh yeah, there’s a case study for the CBSA trainees...

Last week I went with two other sisters to immigration again. On the trip we represented the three North American countries and I began to feel like a dignitary… It helps too that in the immigration office, the nice little spot for foreigners is quicker than the lines for the locals…so it seems. But then those delusions of grandeur come crashing down when you have to go to the bank to pay ANOTHER fee. You ‘sign in’ and get your ticket. The Mexican made the mistake of commenting how long it was taking to the gentleman next to her who got worked into quite a tizzy about it! Haha! I guess he didn’t realize that different letters with the numbers represent different kinds of transactions and that perhaps fewer are qualified to handle his than the others.

Anyways, no matter what country you’re in, there’s pros and cons, ups and downs.

So in the congregation recently we’ve been trying to get our territories in order. We are trying to do more “census" or “search" work. We know many of the deaf already here, but when we can go house to house to find them, the results are better. So lately we’ve also been trying to get to some of the outlying areas. We did one such trip last Thursday which was also the national holiday, their independence day, which I think it is for a few latin countries. We found 3 deaf, and so now here’s hoping we have time to go back and help them learn from the Bible! Probably won’t be me and Shelagh, but some others from the congregation who actually met them.

Ok, I better get going. I work tonight, and since it’s the rainy season, sometimes it rains hard in the afternoons and I get bogged down in that liquid…bureaucracy.

Travel Time Again

Well, we’ve made it back to Honduras, regrettably uneventfully… An uneventful travel is only regrettable when one wishes to write a blog about it! Otherwise, uneventful = great! It was a long journey, but a remarkably smooth one. After a good month in Canada, visiting family and friends, working, and attending a wedding, we were ready to come back to Honduras. Truth be told, in some ways it’ll never be “easy". Victoria is a beautiful place, especially in summer, and there’s never enough time to do what you want to do. I could spend a lifetime on my dear island and never get to do it all! Much less a measly month in a busy summer. Nevertheless, I’ll take what I can get.

Last Tuesday morning began with a tearful farewell at the Black Ball Ferry building in downtown Victoria with my parents and sister. Alanna did all the crying. Haha, just kidding! Paid our fare, cleared customs, and left our thousand bags on the courtesy cart so we could board and spend the next while waving to my parents and sister waiting by the inner harbour. The voyage out of the inner harbour is quite a nice one, trying to imagine how the early settlers must have seen those rocky outcroppings full of trees and much fewer buildings. Not to mention how the native peoples must have been impressed by the beauty before any settlers came. We chased a seaplane out as we went, no doubt as many canoes had done hundreds of years before, and everyone oohed and awed as that bucket of bolts somehow managed to leave the water and enter the air. I still think it’s one of man’s greatest achievements: getting a heavy piece of machinery aloft.

It was smooth sailing across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which I found out is roughly the same distance as the length (north to south) of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, which helps put some Bible stories into better perspective. I even got to practice a little German on board as I tried to converse with an older German woman briefly as I bought a coffee. Of course that mostly consists of me saying my grandmother is German and that my father was born there. Simply captivating storytelling! Anyways, then I tried to help her understand the amount she had to pay at the cashier.

It’s funny how the United States is the only country you enter twice. We passed customs in Victoria, then again in Port Angeles on the other side. I find thought that crossing by boat is still the easiest and most pain-free. We stumbled the short few blocks to the bus stop from the ferry to board the bus to the airport. It’s actually a fairly easy way to get there. Whereas the Clipper costs over $100 USD per person just to get to downtown Seattle, the Coho and bus (called the Dungeness line…so from salmon to crab…) altogether for the 2 of us was $135 USD. However, being accustomed to Honduran buses, I found this one quite uncomfortable! Yes, you read that right: I am used to Honduran buses, and this one in the USA I thought was uncomfortable. First, you have to wear a seatbelt, and you’re on a seat designed for a city bus. So I had one butt cheek on the seatbelt…not comfortable. How much less so for those wider than me! Then, since it was a bus that could accommodate wheelchairs, my foot space was impeded by the anchors for a wheelchair. Nevertheless, it was a scenic ride including a half hour ferry ride, and unlike in Honduras, no one threw their garbage out the window! On ferries, I definitely prefer Washington State ferries over BC Ferries any day. For one, it’s not a wannabe cruise ship. Secondly, you can walk around anywhere on the decks! BC Ferries confines you so you stay inside and buy things. Nein, danke. Yet their still very clean and functional.

The bus drops you off right at departures at SeaTac airport, but we had six hours before our flight, so our friend Steve came and met us. We decided to go out for dinner. There’s many options at SeaTac, an airport I really like, but we went to the nearby Southcenter Mall for a bite at Bahama Breeze, for one last plate of delicious onion rings! Back at the airport we had to readjust our bags so they were at or below the 50-pound maximum. Three bags were bang on 50! The other was less because it was a smaller one, but we still had to gift a bottle of cider so we could fit it all. Our first flight was a red-eye to Houston, where we had a good amount of time to get to our next gate. A rather uneventful flight brought us here to Honduras. There was threat of turbulence along the Mexican coast, but wasn’t too bad. Entering the country was fun, because this time we got to go in the Residents/Citizens line! Got some funny looks for people, but it was a quicker line than for the foreigners.

Back in Honduras we took a taxi from the airport the short 15 minutes to the bus depot. The bus is about half the price of the taxi ride and yet about 12 times the distance! Kinda crazy really. One of the bus guys was a bit whiny about how many bags we had, but I didn’t feel too bad. We were among the few who had luggage, so too bad for him. I kinda got the feeling he was maybe one of the few people trying to take advantage of us being gringos. I find that quite rare here, but it can happen. Anyways, I gave him a few bucks, but I’m not sure he was too happy still. Welcome to life, my friend. Usually the bus guys are super helpful and accommodating, so I’m not sure why this guy had a bee in his bonnet. It threatened rain much of the drive, but happily our bags stayed dry! Back in Santa Rosa we needed another taxi. Much cheaper fare than San Pedro. The guy had our stuff precariously packed into his trunk and I tried to ignore the fact it could fall out at any moment!

We got home and said our hellos, and managed to get ourselves decent enough to go to the meeting that night at the Kingdom Hall! We were late nevertheless…we arrived to our house only an hour before it was to start, so I guess it’s understandable. What I love about Honduras is the welcome you get. All in the congregation are so welcoming and warm, it’s very encouraging! But there’s also the welcome the country itself gives you. For example I had a class to teach online the next morning. Alright! So I log in, meet my student, and just as I’m about to start, the power goes out. GRRRRR!!! Thanks, Honduras. Haha! I guess that has more to do with tech than a country, but it’s still frustrating. I had bought a battery backup, but it’s the worst design ever! If there’s not enough connected to it, it shuts down automatically after five minutes. Are you kidding me? I have it to EXTEND my time, not lessen it cluttering it with more electronics connected to drain it faster! Oh, and it beeps like every minute…Gooooood mooooorning, Shelagh!! I have an internet stick for backup, a USB modem. Of course that wouldn’t work for me either. So that was terrific. Since then, the power had gone out several times, but I managed. It had been going out much more regularly than I remember from before. Seems to have stabilized a little now...

So we’ve gotten right back to things, keeping busy in the congregation. We don’t start work at the school again until tomorrow afternoon. This week we have the visit of the circuit overseer and his wife, so it will be an encouraging week for us, and we hope for them too! We brought back some Chocolate Chili Chai tea from David’s Tea for them, so we hope they like it. People back home have been so generous with us, we are trying to copy that fine example! We have brought many things down here over the years, some of which we haven’t used to the extent we thought, so we are trying to find people who can benefit from those things. So far we’ve had some success, and it feels good to downsize some more. It’s full-fledged hurricane/rainy season here, so weather has been all over the place. A little sun, a little rain, a little thunder and lightning. No official hurricanes nearby, but that could change. Hopefully things remain fairly uneventful…in a good way, nonetheless I will try to keep this blog updated more frequently. Thanks for reading! Auf wiedersehen!

Home, Sweaty Home

Sorry, this one is being posted late:

Well, here we are again. On the airplane. Sir Snort-a-Lot behind me keeping his mucous at bay, while Mr Eye-Bulge turns around every couple minutes to either creep me out or check on the bathroom situation. Not sure which is his goal, but the former is working effectively. And someone (we’ll blame Sir Snort, today's obvious villain) has contributed to the mixture of gases in the cabin, providing what can only be so unforgivably called a "greenhouse gas". I love close quarters on planes....or is it "closed quarters"? Kinda doubting myself now...

Fortunately for her, Shelagh is not party to this bodily-function filled flight. She is still resting in Atlanta. I however, came up to Houston and am now on my merry way to Seattle. I can just imagine the puzzled looks I am getting so let me explain:

Back in April when I returned home solo, I flew on the original ticket we had purchased. Shelagh opted to change hers so as to be able to stay in Central America. That in itself cost a pretty penny, but to get onto the same flights woulda cost a pretty dime, so we opted for the cheaper alternative. It has proven interesting because before we left Honduras we made contact with friends of friends in Atlanta so Shelagh would have a place to sleep. Not being able to make plans myself with anyone in Houston, I resigned myself to an airport snooze. Unbelievably, Shelagh texts me to let me know that her hosts have friends in Houston! Sure enough, within the hour, a couple Hondurans pull up, take me for yogurt, and give me a place to shower and sleep! So it was interesting how we still came together in that way, and now we have friends in both cities we routinely connect in en route to and from Honduras! And both families are Honduran... So anyways by tonight I'll be in Victoria and Shelagh in Vancouver. She'll catch the boat to Nanaimo either tonight or in the morning, and I will see her up there Sunday afternoon or evening.

This time we had quite the short goodbye and rather unemotional one...only because she literally had to run to her gate for the plane! You see, the San Pedro airport was absolutely packed with people! That's not unusual, if your 3rd cousin twice removed flies out, the whole family seems to show up to see them off, making lineups look much larger than they actually are. But yesterday was an exception: they actually were that long! And it seems the airlines had taken a page out of the TSA's playbook because they only had like 2 agents each checking people in!! Immigration meanwhile was well stocked, but their job takes a few minutes anyways. Nevertheless, in true Honduran fashion, we budged the line. Which actually isn't that offensive here! Shelagh had made friends with a gentleman who lives in the States with his wife, and it turns out his uncle and several relatives were flying out that day too, so we skipped the line by quite a bit! Normally I'd feel bad about that...and so I actually did! Haha! But here it's not as taboo, and well, when in Rome...

The airport time would have been less stressful had we gotten there earlier. However, we made a perhaps somewhat unnecessary stop on the way. It's hard to know whether it was necessary or not, but it should help us when we return. Our resident cards finally came in at immigration there, so we detoured into downtown San Pedro Sula to pick them up! They're quite snazzy actually, despite the poor laminating job...and the fact I definitely look like a criminal in mine... I could barely remember where the immigration office was, but we found it, and thanks to more line-budging, we got the photocopies they required (but of course never bothered to do themselves) and got our cards. Which came in handy too, because at the airport they told Shelagh she had been in the country too long and would face a fine, but she showed the card and got out of that! So despite an incredibly stressful day that it was yesterday, the final result was surprisingly good!

Now the day before that was likewise stressful, but lacking some of the good results. We are coming home because a friend of Shelagh's is getting married. Obviously we will take advantage to work and visit family and friends, but the main goal is the wedding. So Shelagh had shopped around in Honduras to see what she could help provide. She found some material to make some flowers for the dresses, and some lace for decorations. Now, a lesson in Honduras is: If you want something done quickly, get it started EARLY; and if you see something you like, buy it. Sure enough it took until the last day to get the flowers and Shelagh's dress done, and the fabric and lace she had wanted to buy more of: sold out. And things are necessarily kept in stock in Honduras... Thus, rather than having a chilled packing day, we were packing Into the wee hours...

On a side note, it's funny how airplanes and airports change our reformed ways of thinking and speaking into some Shaespearean past. Why, for example, do bathrooms (or restrooms or washrooms) suddenly become "lavatories" on planes? What is more, they don't have "sinks", but "wash basins"! And suddenly class distinctions and segregation are ok. Money buys happiness on a plane, on the side of which they salute army veterans, while at the same time taking away our freedom and dignity those soldiers supposedly fought for! You know what I mean if ever you've gone through airport security in the US... The idea some stores have of having all checkout lanes open during peak times is something airports have spurned! Sure, all their agents are technically open, but 3 serving 4 lines hardly makes sense!

Anyways, we are pretty excited to be heading home. Actually, to arrive home at some point this weekend. The actual travel, or "heading" part is quite tiring and aggravating. Young Sir Kick-a-Lot sat behind me yesterday, preventing my seat from ever being still, and Sir Snort is making me miss roosters. At least Mr Eye-Bulge has been keeping to himself. My flying mate has finally opened the window shutter so I can see we are in fact still on course. So off to Seattle I go, a few hours to visit there before the short hop home. And that'll be nice, cuz I gotta visit the greenhouse soon...

Fight or Flight

We all know flying is the most unsafe form of transportation. At any given moment, a fine flying aircraft could find itself plummeting to its fiery destruction just because of the slightest turbulence. At least that's what my body is ready for. Despite flight's safe track record, my "fight or flight" instinct keeps me ready for the improbable aforementioned situation. As if my body somehow figures it can do something if ever we were to actually plummet! What am I to do? Run into the cockpit and do what the pilots clearly can't by pulling up on the wheel? I don't even know if they call it a steering wheel, much less how to operate it! Or will I stick my hand out the window, vigorously waving my arm to keep my side of the plane aloft? I imagine incontinence will be my only true reaction. That's why I try to use the bathroom frequently. That's something else my "fight or flight" instinct helpfully does for me in nervous situations: give me the constant feeling of needing the washroom! When's that gonna come in handy? "Matthew, run! The tiger is after us!" Me: "Wait! I know! I'll distract it by peeing on this tree then it'll want to re-mark its territory whilst we escape!" If I'm gonna be the dumbest cat victim, I may as well use some fancy words...

I do try to do what I can to relieve my anxiety about flight. I take the largest B vitamins known to man. The hope is I'll choke on it, pass out due to blocked air passage, and wake up being well taken care of in a state-of-the-art hospital. And the airline foots the bill. The scare of a US hospital bill isn't much more preferable to turbulence. But really, the B's are supposed to help with stress. They do seem to help, but sometimes the body doesn't get the memo. In my mind I feel less stressed, but I still feel it a bit in my body.

So far I can't complain about my experience. I am traveling with Delta, and I gotta say, much to my friend's chagrin, they do provide a pretty good service! Every time we've flown with them, something has been positive. In this case, somehow I got upgraded to "Sky Priority" so I got to board first, with all the people who made more money this month than I've made all year! I played it up a little and started saying things like "shan't". Apparently it doesn't translate well into Spanish... Anyways, I'm one row behind first class which gives me more legroom, and the chance to exit the plane quick. That will help my quest to clear customs quickly and get to my next flight. However, it does mean I have longer to walk to the back of the plane to the restrooms.

"Wait!" You say, ambiguously using the second person pronoun that could be singular or plural, "You're speaking in the first-person singular!" Correct. Me. I. This trip Shelagh is still in Honduras. Certainly not our preferred way to travel, but since I will be gone only a short 2 weeks, she is staying. Travelling is still not her favourite, the stress takes a lot out of her. So we changed her ticket, and I kept mine to go home, work a week, and pick up some forgotten items. You see, to enter Honduras, you're supposed to have proof of exit, ie a return ticket. Thus we had to buy a round trip to enter. But since we are working on our residency, we don't HAVE to leave. However, changing a ticket is incredibly difficult for an airline (I think it took Shelagh almost an hour, something about having to move heaven and earth, I think...), they charge you an undervalued $200 to do you the huge favour. So, instead of changing both and then getting things shipped to us, it seemed practical to us for me to use the ticket, pick up the stuff, and get a week of work.

While I miss having Shelagh with me, it does take stress off of me to travel alone, Shelagh will be the first to tell you I'm not the funnest travelling partner...Alanna will second that. I spent last night at my friend Celeo's place in Puerto Cortes. I went there first, because it's closer to the airport than Santa Rosa. If there were an accident on the highway in the early morning, I could have easily gotten stuck. Also I had the chance to see my poor Land Cruiser in desperate need of TLC! Another goal of mine in this trip is to get a part for her that a fellow Canuck is giving me an incredible deal on, practically pays for the trip! So anyways, I got into Cortes last night just before a meeting started at one of the Kingdom Halls there, so I just barely made it on time! It was going to be my only opportunity to catch the midweek meeting, so I had to go for it, and trust that somehow I would get to Celeo's after. There are no buses running by that time, but he arranged for the mother of his nephew to pick me up. My bus rides from Santa Rosa to San Pedro and then to Cortes were thankfully uneventful.

(Puerto Cortes from the air.)

This a first for me, leaving while Shelagh stays. I'm pretty good at keeping my emotions in check though, of course, so I only balled while we said good bye at the house. And tears only well up in my eyes when I think about missing her, which is no big deal y'know. Hold on, gotta wipe my eyes...I'm fine, really, someone in first class is chopping onions. Having a pig roast on this flight. Two weeks, keep telling myself, two weeks. Thank goodness for aviator shades! Missing someone is beautiful really, reminds you how much you care. This crazy world seems to make us lose appreciation for the things and people we should most have it for. A reminder of that only hurts the emotions. I'm already decided I don't really wanna do it again, the strange looks from the guy whose hand I tried to hold during take off assured me of that! Ok not really, I didn't try, but that's my takeoff routine: holding her hand. She helps calm me. And knowing I'll be back soon will keep me calm this time. Heaven knows I need to keep calm, I'm high above the Caribbean Sea whilst I write, and when this plane plummets, I may find myself face-to-face with pirates. And in that case, flight having failed, I'll need to fight. But first, Captain Sparrow, where's the men's room?

Selfie Central

Kinda an odd thing when a word like "selfie" is no longer autocorrected...Apple has approved it as a word. Funny too how "selfish" is the next suggestion the iPad gives me... Anyways, we are in Guatemala, at a wedding, and this is, yes, Selfie Central. Actually I don't reserve my judginess (NOT an Apple-approved word) to just Guatemalans, I'm sure other Latino countries meet the criteria. To be truly fair, since the advent of the selfie (sounds like some narcissistic church...) I've mostly lived in Latin America, and it thriveth here! As with most churches, the strongest adherents of the Selfie Church are the ladies. It's astonishing really how many selfies they can take! Then they have their disciples take further pictures of themselves! Then again, who really appreciates a picture of yourself like you do! Why, even Jesus....no wait, let's not go that route.

"Guatemala? I thought you were in Honduras?" Well, since our Honduran friend is marrying a Guatemalan boy, how could we not but come! (I love the awkwardness of that sentence, yet the strange sense that it makes…) So we crossed the border (after a reminder about our tourist visa expiry), and less than a half hour away we reached Esquipulas, famous for, you guessed it, Black Christ. Yes, in an unusually large basilica, annually thousands of pilgrims (I assume from information I've gleaned) come to pay respects to a black statue of Jesus, and they wait hours to get in and see it! Just to be clear, the image is not in the main part of the church, but in an adjoining building. The hotel we are staying at features plenty of photos and paintings depicting the basilica in various vacation hot spots around the world. There is also a notice about the types of services this 'huge church' offers. One of them being blessings for vehicles...at least that's how I understand it. If only I coulda dragged that hunk of scrap metal I call "My Truck". At this point, anything could help!

The wedding went very well! The bride was an integral part of our small sign language congregation in Santa Rosa for several years, so without a doubt we wanted to be with her on this big day! Her new husband she met while the two were in this Guatemalan city on a preaching trip. The ceremony was realized at the local Kingdom Hall, a simple, yet dignified location for worship. The reception was at a local hotel, and was quite nice! Exceeded my Canadian standards even! We had a delicious meal (chicken cordon bleu?) and lots of association and dancing. They really kept the dance floor full and the DJ kept our ears ringing. Only drawback? No ice. Well, it came out late at least, and it is a hot city! And it was strange that we had 2 kinds of wine glasses on the tables, but no wine… There was cake, so what do I have to complain about? We travelled to and from with friends of ours here in a Toyota Hi-Ace van that seats about 15…cramped, but we made it!

Curiosities of weddings here (some of these may be exceptions to the norm):
The legal part precedes the religious ceremony.
The notary who conducted the legal part also gave a talk.
Only the bride and groom stand for the “I do".
The witnesses who sign for them aren’t necessarily in the wedding party.
In fact, the wedding party seemed to have little to no role whatsoever, mostly there just to match with each other!
In the religious ceremony the vows were exchanged, but said from memory, not repeated.
No kissing of the bride!
No receiving line.
At the reception, the first dance happened immediately when the new couple arrived.
No dancing followed until first we ate!
All dancing was to upbeat music, some of which featured a nonstop beat for about 30 minutes even though the “song" “changed".
(What’s interesting about the preference for upbeat music is that when they sing karaoke, it’s all sappy, slow songs! Whereas I think when we do karaoke, it’s upbeat songs, but we like some slow songs to dance to too…)

Curiosities of the basilica:
It’s not nearly as ornate inside as I expected, having seen huge cathedrals in Europe. Very nice architecture nonetheless.
I’m pretty sure we were the only gringos on the huge property!
People line the walkways looking for charity: mostly people with physical deformities, or family members of them.
In this age of selfies, hard to imagine the camera-wielding men get much business anymore.
Everyone is brightly-clad, and some are getting free showers outside by robe bedecked men. Ok, pardon my humour, I suppose they are receiving blessings, but it seems a little silly to me, a gringo. That being said, I’m sure to some I look silly going door-to-door with a tie on…
Some opportunistic people never got the memo that Jesus threw out from the temple the money changers and those selling animals…you can buy a t-shirt there, among other things.

All in all, it was an interesting experience, I hardly could have imagined how many people flocked to this place, pretty much in the middle of nowhere…in terms of beaches, anyways. Nevertheless, I came what I was looking for: selfies.

Special Events

A few short weeks ago we were inviting people in our community to commemorate the anniversary of Jesus’ death with us. It makes a person reflect on the use of apostrophes, and how our linguistic forefathers had the sense to not bother repeating the S when a name already ended with one. Something similar happened in Spanish with the double-N: it became the Ñ (pronounced EN-yay). But really, in all seriousness now, the Memorial of Jesus’ death is an event we take seriously, because it is definitely something Jesus commanded us to commemorate, in contrast with other holidays. And while some of the customs here at this time of year might be a bit strange to us (carrying around an effigy of Jesus in a kind of parade, for example), I must express my relief at not seeing a single bunny or decorated egg! Not that I’m a rabbit-hater, or dislike egg art; it’s more like I can’t help but wonder what they have to do with Jesus… I don’t recall the last supper involving chocolate bunnies and the apostles painting eggs…(“Hey! Judas broke my eggs again!" “Calm down Peter. Have another piece of chocolate…") In fact the very name Easter has little to do with Christianity and more to do with paganism! At least the Spanish call it “Pascua" which literally means “Passover", the Jewish festival that the Memorial of Christ’s Death replaces. During the week in which Easter falls here, they have Semana Santa (literally “Holy Week" but more comparable to Spring Break). It’s a week many have time off, if not the whole week, at least Thursday and Friday. We were surprised how little traffic zipped past our house those 2 days! It was brilliant! During this week the devout Catholics are trying to relive Jesus’ last week alive, the Evangelicals are scoffing at their rituals, and everyone else is headed to the beach! Really, the beaches are packed for that week!

Anyways, the week is no less special to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it’s perhaps more simple. We continue in our regular ministry, but endeavouring to invite people to the special meeting we hold that week. It’s a simple meeting really. A talk about the significance of Jesus’ death and what hope it holds out to us. Then we do what Jesus and his apostles did: pass the bread and wine. However, unlike other churches, not everyone partakes of them; most are there just to observe. It’s much like a wedding: only 2 get married, but many come to observe. Likewise, the emblems of the wine and bread represent a covenant Jesus made with certain ones of his followers. Not all partake, but it doesn’t prevent us from observing the occasion!

Our sign language is relatively small. We usually have around 20 at our meetings, but had more than double that at our Memorial observance, some of whom came to the Kingdom Hall for the first time!

Another recent special event was a visit from the World Headquarters or Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Central American Branch in Mexico. Formerly called a “Zone Visit", a special meeting is always organized to encourage the local Witnesses. Before, they used to be attended by only a relative few, but now with technology, all Witnesses within a branch’s territory can attend. Obviously, not all of Central America could go to Mexico for the visit, so by means of the internet, the meeting was broadcast to all the congregations in the area. The program is presented in Spanish, but this year one of the talks had to be translated from English. In our case, sign language, all the talks had to be translated! In the case of the English talk, we could at least hear the phrase first in English, gather our thoughts, and while it was being repeated in Spanish, we could nicely interpret it into sign language as well! Made interpreting it a little easier… Part of the program included experiences from Mexico of some surprising opposition. We think of Mexico as being a preacher’s paradise, but in some areas they aren’t so kind. One community tried to prevent the building of a Kingdom Hall. Their efforts eventually backfired, as the calm response the Witnesses gave caused some of their former opposers to take their side and defend them to see how the reacted to the threats! In another community, an aboriginal one, the few Witnesses were literally rounded up and driven out of town! The kind of thing we think only happens in countries with dictatorships!

So as you can tell, it's been busy, and it's only gotten busier. But that will have to wait for another week's blog. [Insert witty comment here]