It’s certainly different. I’m guessing there are few jobs in which you get to sit down with the Minister of Education in one moment, and the manager of a casino in the next. We discuss remedies for a country with an average time spent in school of five years per person and a union of teachers that aren’t sufficiently incentivized to comply with their 200 days a year in the classroom. Payment is a problem of course. The “change in government” or “military coup” (depending on your viewpoint), left the country bankrupt and you can certainly see where the priorities truly lie.
Our interview with Education takes place in a temporary office by a shopping mall, as the last tropical storm that passed through the region, Hurricane Agatha, a few weeks back, tore down the top two floors of the offices of the Ministry of Education, located in the poorest district of town. Some ministers have it easier than others.
With our suitcases in the left luggage room of our hotel, we just had time for perhaps the worst meal I’ve ever eaten (and that is saying quite a lot) in TGI Fridays in a nearby shopping mall. The over-zealous North American franchise just doesn’t quite work here, as the numerous servers with ridiculous uniforms of stockings, over-sized hats, badges and stripy shirts wonder around, attentive to just about everything except the 3 tables between them. I flashback to when “Euro Disney” hit Paris with it’s peppy, snappy, all day smile culture and fast food outlets; the concept of which was totally lost upon the sullen French.
From there we make our way to the Majestic Casino. Having just spent ten minutes in the back of the stiflingly hot car, I feel like my face is literally melting, as we negotiate our way inside. Entering this establishment is quite a feat, and we have to pass through the security guards with AK47s and knock surreptitiously on the bolted doors to pass. The interview is conducted in a haze of smoke.
It’s a mixture of sensations frankly and I haven’t had enough time to adapt. Sometimes I just feel overwhelmingly guilty. As I look around the grotesquely over-furnished offices and listen submissively to the same vapid rhetoric from insipid politicians about eradicating poverty and sharing the wealth.
I spent such a frustrating morning today trying to schedule interviews with largely corrupt or targeted businessmen that frankly prefer to keep a low profile. Out of more than 100 phone calls I successfully confirmed 2 appointments. “Fijase que sigue almorzando” (he’s still at lunch); coo the receptionists with a rhythmical Latin lilt that makes it impossible to stay angry at them.
Still, lunches that last three hours, phone calls that are directly cut off, being passed to the wrong person, or worse, given the wrong address, gets a little tiring after a while. It’s also a curious thing in Honduras that no one has a proper address. Not once have I been given a name, number and street. It’s always “3 blocks west of the white river, between the blue house and the petrol station” or “next to the shopping mall above the Central bank”. I don’t think anyone uses the actual mail here. You would have to obtain a very big envelope, with the description “left at the brick building and before the police station, after the banana seller, Tegucigalpa, Honduras”.
The truth is it’s a hard slog if you try to go it alone here. In countries like these you are nothing without who you know and if there is no one to open the door for you then it will be slammed in your face. In their tightly knit communities everything moves by contacts and there is nothing like a nod of the head from the appropriate minister to let you in.
The escalating drug problem north of the border in Mexico is only exacerbating the outlook for the future here. Moving the filth from one region to another, re-routing the drug runs through Central America. How else can you explain the announcement of the closure of the international airport of Tegucigalpa for one week? (In fact it was only 24 hours in the end). Apparent holes in the runway sounded about as plausible as British Rail’s “leaves on the line” and I think that few people were fooled. The enormous jets that landed in the middle of the night loaded with cash told a different story.
You certainly get to mix with some of the most disgustingly privileged people on earth, as they slump back in their leather sofas, stacked high with plush silk cushions, bleating on about all the triumphs realized under their leadership. Feather-filled pillows, an old-style library, various elaborate artefacts, a Honduran flag and a panoramic view of Tegucigalpa.
Apparently there’s a popular saying that Columbus said to the people of Honduras “no hagan nada hasta que vuelva” (don’t do anything until I get back) and that’s exactly what they’ve done. But with over 65% below the poverty line, natural disasters, out-of-control epidemics of diseases and a wealthy class of European descent that isn’t willing to share the power, it’s so hard to see a resolution to this problem.
I admit I wrestle with my own prejudices. I am automatically opposed to the people we see, without hearing what they have to say and it makes it hard to find a thread of common ground between this largely nepotistic, right-wing, undeservedly advantaged society.
Still, it’s a constant learning curve, as stressful as it can be. We sat down with one of the most influential businessman in Honduras, who inclined towards us and explained the truth (or at least his version of it) behind Zelaya’s abrupt removal from power in the middle of the night at gun point almost exactly a year ago.
It’s depressing, but you find out quickly that there is very little difference between the right and the left. Whichever party allows the business men to exploit the people, pay the least taxes possible and attract foreign investment without internal political PR disasters; the better. If you know whose pocket to grease, then it really is fairly indifferent which undeserving puppet is put in power.
The best part of my day is kicking off my heels, letting down my hair, talking to the people in the street and walking to the supermarket. A man with no shirt and a carton a strawberries balanced above his head asks me if I want to buy. I smile and say not this time but ask him if he knows of a pharmacy nearby. Not only does he explain, but he leaves his cargo and walks me to the end of the street, making sure I don’t get lost. His life has been so different from mine, but in this brief exchange I feel a common bond. Because at the end of the day, as ugly as it can get, people are people wherever you go.