The Journey 2nd to 5th of August
After leaving home, seeing family in Bristol and London and getting to Heathrow nice and early on the 4th, I thought that things were going pretty smoothly. That’s when we learnt about the power cut in Heathrow Terminal 5. We checked in and were informed that ‘British Airways cannot guarantee that your bags will be on the flight’. Due to the power cut, they couldn’t use the conveyor belts to move bags, so Heathrow staff were just throwing the bags on the floor. Eventually we threw our bags down somewhere, ran through security, with only a 40 minute wait while they looked for a liquid in my bag which wasn’t there, and made the plane to Miami by a second. We arrived late in Miami and in order to make our connection we needed to get our fingerprints scanned three times and pass through two separate security checks. We also had to sprint to make this plane and just about made it. When we got to San Pedro Sula, shattered and relieved, we learnt that our bags were, of course, in Heathrow.
All public busses are repurposed american school busses.
From there we stayed in a very nice hostel in San Pedro Sula and were told to get a bus to La Ceiba, a coastal city, and a ferry from there to Roatan. The bus went smoothly, the ferry did not. At about 8 o’clock, when we had mostly got over seasickness we got our first taste of Mary Lou’s delicious cooking: Coconut Bread, Beans and Eggs. We had our first ‘shower’ using a bucket and half a water bottle and slept very well.
First Day – 6th of August
Waking up to a strange cheeping noise, disorientated and sweaty I looked around and remembered where I was. Assuming that I’d slept for ages I got up and checked out the house. I discovered that the cheeping noise was neither a bird nor an insect as I would’ve guessed, but rather a tiny lizard whose whole body convulsed when it made the noise. When I looked at the clock I realised it was 6:30 in the morning and we didn’t have to be anywhere till lunch at 12. After sleeping for another 5 minutes I got woken up by screaming children all around the house; early for school.
Our house. The school is about 10m to the left.
Venturing out of the house we were immediately surrounded by kids and adults eager to see the new teachers; chants of ‘TEACHER, TEACHER, TEACHER’ greeted us wherever we went and still do three weeks later. We walked down to the end of the road, talked with half of the population of Punta Gorda, bought some coconut bread and cheese and retreated back to the house. Considering the ridiculous setting, it felt stupid not to go swimming. We went in our boxers since our bags were, at this point, still in Heathrow and quickly learned about the spiky, stinging plants which cover a lot of the sea bed. The swimming was still amazing despite the stings all over our arms and legs and it is still hard to believe this crazy Caribbean paradise is where I live. That night, just as we were finishing dinner, Jandra (A women I had met for 10 seconds earlier in the day) poked her head round the door and muttered something about dancing. We followed her, were crammed into a minivan which had about twice as many people as seats, and were driven to a strange hotel. Here Sam and I sat amongst the tourists and watched a Garifuna dance show. The drumming, Punta dancing and dresses were amazing and seemed straight out of Africa. In some ways this showed me how strong Garifuna culture still is. However, the setting and commercialisation of the dance made us both a bit uneasy. Every Sunday they have Punta dancing and drumming at a local bar and that’s when we really see people enjoying the dance. Unfortunately I have no video of the crazier dancing, since it seems to get wilder as it gets darker. We got back home late and confused, caught a frog and went to bed.
Church – 9th of August
Sam and I put on our Sunday best and walked cautiously down to the Church, unsure if we were dressed appropriately or welcome in the Church. A few heads turn as we enter but it seems we’ve got the clothing about right. The church is in the shape of a cross and the people in the left branch of the cross are chanting prayers whilst the pews fill up. Eventually two women get microphones and say prayers which the whole congregation repeats parts of. Since we don’t understand a thing, Sam and I look ahead and throw our arms in the air when everyone else does. Many of the women wear traditional Garifuna dresses and the church is extremely colourful. Suddenly everyone stands up so we do the same. The entire church breaks into song led by a group of women playing tambourines and maracas and a man playing the drum. In between songs the priest says his sermons in Spanish, they are repeated in Garifuna and then we stand up for another song. Just as we think we’re getting the hang of it, a procession of people dance down the aisle with palm leaves, bibles and goblets. The priest, looking rather bored, gave another prayer from underneath the palm leaves whilst I decided to accept confusion as part of my life. For the next song, everyone held hands and swayed from side to side in unison. Then we walked around the church shaking hands with everyone in what I assumed must be the final part of the church service. Of course it wasn’t the end because the priest still needed to give out crackers and wine. After one final prayer, we did a strange arm gesture (think 1940’s german salute followed by black power fist clench) which I have yet to discover the meaning of, and stumbled out of the church. It had been nearly two hours.
First Week – 10th to 17th of August
On Monday we had our first full day of school. We sat in on Profa Joyce’s English lessons in the morning and got an idea of what teaching would be like. Half of the lesson was spent trying to get the kids to stop doing handstands and forward rolls. Everyone kept telling me that the older kids, who I would be teaching, are much more difficult so I was terrified. After lunch we went down to the school office and met Profa Ligia, the principle. We had a long talk with her, in Spanish, about what we would be doing all year and how the school actually functions. This was great because up till that point we had been completely aimless and clueless about the whole place. The school day ends at 5:30, by which time I was exhausted from speaking so much Spanish. An embarrassing misunderstanding was when I thought that two of the teachers said they normally come to our house after school.
Tuesday was my first day of teaching. My first lesson went quite well and I came out of it wondering what all the fuss had been about. After another three lessons I realised. Each class has about 5 people who want to learn, another 10 who sit there in silence and sometimes write stuff and another 15 who run around fighting, shouting and talking. Since then I think I have improved at controlling the class but it is still crazy at times. The next day there was a fight in a 4th grade class which ended in one kid spitting blood, and the only teacher on the scene shrugging her shoulders saying ‘they’re bad people teacher’; the school will take some getting used to.
On Thursday there was school inspectors. Fortunately it seemed that the inspectors were just women from the village who knew all the teachers and half the students. Mostly they just sat at the back of the classes talking. In the afternoon we found out about a school trip to the zoo and the beach which would be happening on Friday. ‘You coming teacher?’.
On Friday we tagged along on a school trip to a crazy zoo called Little French Key. The zoo is on a tiny island, a 30 seconds ferry trip from Roatan. Despite the fact that the zoo was about half the size of a football pitch, it had: a lion, a jaguar, exotic birds, geese (apparently very exotic) and monkeys. The zoo was practically empty but the few people we did sea weren’t looking at animals, but rather sitting on chairs in the ocean, drinking cocktails. It was a bizarre place to be and just as Sam and I were debating going swimming, we got whisked back to the bus. Another 40 minutes in a bus filled with very loud children and we arrived at West Bay, the tourist centre of Roatan. Weirdly, August is low season for tourists so the beach was quite empty. Instead of jumping straight in the sea as we were expecting, all the kids ran around collecting plum-like fruit from the floor. They are absolutely mad for these plums and collected hundreds in plastic bottles which they spent the rest of the day eating. Since it seemed like teachers didn’t actually have to do anything of the school trip, Sam and I went swimming for about 2 hours and tried to come to grips with the crazy school, crazy people and crazy view.
The view from west bay. Amazingly a lot of the kids can’t swim despite living by this.
On Saturday I handwashed my clothes for the first time and then we went to Coxen hole, the major town on the island Originally we were planning to post some letters but of course, the post office has a half day on Saturday so we just went to explore. After dinner that night, Mary Lou’s husband Rolando got out a guitar since he heard I could play. This turned into a fun session with Sam and Mary Lou singing. The only song all three of us knew was ‘Hit the Road Jack’, but we soon had Mary Lou wailing to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. During our regular games session that night we were rudely interrupted by abouts 10,000 ants crawling into our house. After an ant massacre, a midnight swim in the sea and three bottles of insect repellent we went to sleep.
On Sunday we went to church again and then to Perlas to see the dancing. The dancing was much wilder this time and made me want to learn Punta dance as soon as possible, we have yet to find a teacher.
First month – 17th to 31st of August
The next week of school was when we learnt how seriously they take the timetable here, not seriously at all. After one ‘ normal day’ where the only noteworthy event was 9th grade tricking me into writing puberty on the board, we spent the rest of the week finishing early for various reasons. One day we missed lessons because we were being measured for Garifuna shirts which we need to wear on Independence day. Another day we finished at 2:30, before my afternoon classes start, due to a moto-festival passing through the village. We went down to check it out and saw more Harley Davidsons than you can imagine with army and police escorts. It was also one kids birthday whose mum brought in cake for the whole class, including us, delicious. Sunday was a ‘first world’ day. We went to Coxen Hole, ate at Bojangles (Roatan’s version of KFC) and connected to the free wifi provided by the Honduran government in a square provided, for no apparent reason, by the Taiwanese government.
Church this week had a visiting priest from La Ceiba, who sang some of his sermons, joked with the locals and even said ‘Buiti Binafi’ (good morning in Garifuna). After that we walked to Oak Ridge, our nearest town, where most of the houses are on stilts over the water. We cant tell why this is the case only in this one town but it looks amazing. This was when I discovered that my camera was broken. Hopefully I will be able to get it fixed before Independence Day on the 15th. We also had our first conversation with other volunteers which was great; especially relieving to hear they too were suffering from lack of school structure. On Wednesday we went in to the school after lunch and I was given a guitar by Profa Ligia. It belongs to the school but they don’t seem to use it so I can have it for the year. The next day they found another one for Sam so he can have lessons. On my way to classes I noticed some kind of riot going on in the playground. Coconuts were falling from the sky and kids were fighting for them, trying to smash them open and drink the water. I looked up to see an 8th grader at the top of the tree, roughly 3 stories high, jumping on the coconuts until they dropped. Since this seemed ridiculously dangerous I ran to Florence, the cleaner and in many areas the boss of the school, to see what I should do. ‘I always send that boy up teacher, he good at climbing trees’. Then Florence jumped into the crowd with her machete and, channelling her tribal warrior ancestors, fought off the kids until she had a bin bag full of coconuts. Florence is good person to know and she gave us one of her hard one coconuts.
On Friday we had the spelling bee, which we had been tutoring 3 kids for since we arrived. Profa Joyce told us we needed to be ready at the school at 7am. At 8am Joyce arrived at school, very relaxed despite the fact that we had no transportation to the spelling bee. When we eventually got there it was an interesting experience. Firstly, everyone sang the national anthem in English and Spanish. Now me and Sam had assumed that the English translation of the national anthem which was up in Profa Joyce’s had been translated by her personally. As it turns out the whole of the bay islands, and possibly Honduras, has learnt the same terrible translation.
‘As your standard, as your standard
Serves a strip of cloudless azure
Wich in twain is cut, wich in twain is cut
By a band that snow be sprinkle’
At the final line I couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the song. The spelling bee after that was full of drama, with Sam and I almost arguing with one man over the rules and then later siding with the same man against the rest of the audience. Michelle, my student, came third place in her age group. The other two didn’t do so well which was expected and still not bad considering most of Roatan speaks English fluently, except for our village Punta Gorda.
On Sunday, we cleaned the house before Church. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Everywhere we go in the village now, Sam and I are surrounded by screaming children. Once I had made the mistake of picking up one and swinging him around, we have to pick up about 10 kids whenever we go anywhere.
The 1st of September was ‘Dia de la bandera’ (day of the flag). This had quite a build up so we were happy to get down to school for 6am to see the procession. We should’ve learnt from the spelling be because nobody turned up until 7am. At which time someone ran past with an Olympic style torch which goes around the whole island, we ran after him with probably 50 children running after us. In the afternoon I did tests with all my classes which went surprisingly well, considering how difficult it is normally to get them into the classroom.
This was the first day of a month which is famously busy in Honduras. We’ve already got: two staff socials with the school, one staff social with ‘Vegas Electric’ (the company of our Project Trust contact here), a trip to the beach with the children and most importantly the Independence Day celebrations. Knowing our routine here so far, we will learn about another 10 events on the day that they happen. We also have a trip to Belize on the 7th of October to renew our visas. I have plenty to look forward to and judging from the length of this post, plenty to look back on. Internet is either difficult or expensive to get here so my blog posts may be rare and long like this one. Unfortunately my camera is broken at the moment, I hope to get it fixed before Independence Day because I need some film of that.
This is the view from down the road, every night. I cant put up many photos because they use up internet.
I realise I haven’t talked much about the food so I will write a bit about the dishes we have eaten here with Mary Lou.
Pan de Coco – Bread made with ground coconut and sugar. My favourite. Mary Lou gives us a few rolls when she makes a batch.
Janicake (no idea how to spell it) – Another type of bread, very different to Pan de Coco, made with baking powder instead of yeast.
Fried fish – There are a few types of fish, one with a bright red mouth and a huge tongue which Mary Lou happily ate for us. All of the fish is deep fried.
Breadfruit – Extrememly strange fruit that looks like a melon form the outside. The inside is white and when fried it looks and tastes (to me, not to Sam) like chips.
Fried plantain/banana – we have this pretty much everyday, sometime with another smaller fruit which is very similar.
Frigoles y aroz – red beans and rice. Daily staple which I absolutely love. Yesterday it was cooked in coconut milk, making it even nicer.
Baleadas – Tortillas with beans and cheese. Also available from the school shop for 8 lemps (30p).
Maize tortillas – Very distinctive taste which I wasn’t sure of at first but now really like.
Pastelitos – Maize pouches filled with rice, meat and tomato. Also available as a kind of fast food in Coxen Hole.
Tapado – A full Garifuna dish. Coconut dumplings, rice, and any combination of plantain, sweet potato, beans. I think the coconut dumplings are the vital ingredient.
Yucca – Cassava, we only had this once and it was quite bitter but I quite liked it.
Machuka – The typical Garifuna dish, which they are clearly proud of. Mary Lou has a special drum-shaped mortar and huge carved pestle which takes both hands and a lot of muscle to lift. Sam and I both helped mash the plantain in this drum but only Roland, Mary Lou’s husband, could do it properly. Then you dunk the mashed plantain into a very flavoursome fish soup. I really enjoyed this and its clearly quite a special meal for the Garifuna people. They have a few other dishes which we haven’t yet tried like Conch Soup, Cassava Cake and Pumpkin Cake.
Guava jelly – Mary Lou has a Guvava tree behind her house and a few nights ago made some jam out of it. She cooks the guava for a while with plenty of sugar, cinnamon and a bit of water. The result is probably the nicest jam I’ve ever had and luckily she gave us some to have on our coconut toast in the morning.
P.S. Credit for the title goes to Sam