June 7, 2008

Telecom and snail mail in La Esperanza, Honduras

The following is a guest blog from Leslie who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras during 2000-2002. Besides volunteering in Honduras, Leslie has also worked in Angola and is currently working in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Her blog is Back in One Piece.

La Esperanza, Intibuca, Honduras

The day our Peace Corps training group got their assignments was the most anticipated day of the training cycle. Our fate for the next two years would be decided − would we be sent high up the mountains in Gracias or down in the valley of Jesús de Otoro? Would we have to take one day worth of bumpy school bus rides to get to the air conditioned movie theater in Tegus (capital city Tegucigalpa) for an escape or would it be two days?

Map La Esperanza, Intibucá, HondurasI was considered one of the luckiest in the group − I was sent to La Esperanza, Intibucá to work as a small business volunteer. In addition to the great weather and beautiful location, La Esperanza was considered to be a good site for Peace Corps because it was a lujo (luxury) site − a quick trip to Tegus, electricity and the Supermercado La Canasta with its random selection of peanut butter and macaroni and cheese for when we could not stomach another plato típico.

Like a lot of other smaller Honduran cities in 2000, La Esperanza did not have an effective telephone system. My first week in my new apartment I naively asked my landlady how I could get a phone line installed in my new place. She laughed and told me to get in line for a phone that wouldn’t work. The phone system in place in La Esperanza was so old that they could not create any new numbers − in order to get a line, one would have to wait for Hondutel to finally shut off service for someone who refused to pay their bill. Once this happened, the first person in line had to pay the balance on the bill and then the number would be theirs.

But having a phone line wasn’t as glamorous as it sounded. The lines were in such bad shape that you could only make outgoing calls within the city of La Esperanza − on a good day you could call Siguatepeque and if you were really lucky you could call Tegus or San Pedro Sula on the first try. I got used to it − I enjoyed writing letters to friends back home telling them how I used telegrams as my primary means of communication outside town.

Suddenly, in 2001 Hondutel announced that it was finally finished with the new mythical planta that would totally revamp La Esperanza’s phone system. Sure enough, dozens of families and businesses were the proud owners of new, debt-free phone numbers. Even more important, the internet age came to La Esperanza. Instead of asking me to give basic accounting lessons, teachers started asking if I could design an e-mail class for their business students. The thieving ladies at the post office asked me to order them some contact lenses on-line because they heard that you could get them cheaper through the internet. (More about this in a separate article.)

There were three ladies working at the La Esperanza post office. I had an apartado postal (post office box) there that I shared with another volunteer. I never got too many packages (sniff, sniff) but the other volunteers in the area were constantly complaining about items being "liberated" from the packages. It was difficult to say at what point of the chain the thefts would occur, but we always suspected the Post Office Ladies. When ever the women got a sack full of mail, they would take their sweet time in distributing it − pure torture for us volunteers who looked forward to the weekly delivery to hear news from friends and family. We would stop around to see if any mail would arrive − and SEE the sack full of mail sitting on the sorting table − and they would look us in the eyes and say, "No, no mail. Won't come for a while."

The most flagrant violation was when a fellow volunteer had to cut her volunteer service short for health reasons. She had been expecting a care package from her family with some sentimental items, so she asked me to pick it up for her and resend it to her. I told the Post Office Ladies this and kept asking for it. Weeks and eventually months passed and I gave it up for lost.

About a year later, a volunteer friend and I went to pick up our mail. For some reason the three Ladies were gone and had left the custodian in charge. He was a nice guy and said, "Well, I don't know how to read so come back here and see if you can find your mail." We RAN in there and found a stack of mail that had been undelivered for several weeks. Worst of all, I saw the package my friend had asked me to pick up over a year ago − opened and completely ransacked, complete with empty chocolate wrappers left inside. We would have said something and called them on it, but didn't want to press our luck. I just took the package with me and hoped they would notice and get the message.

As fate would have it, September 11th and the US postal anthrax scare happened shortly thereafter. We were very confused to see the Post Office Ladies wearing latex gloves and masks one day. I asked why they were wearing them expecting to hear about some flu going around, but they said that they were scared of all the mail coming from the US and terrorism. (Because surely the terrorists were going to strike sleepy La Esperanza next!) My quick-thinking friend said, "Oh yes! You should be VERY careful! Don't open anything or you could get deathly sick! And we wouldn't want that to happen..."

I finished Peace Corps in 2002 and returned for a short visit in 2004. Imagine my surprise when, on a day hike to Cerro Los Hoyos up the mountain that was completely free of electricity in 2000, a local Lenca farmer whipped out his cell phone and made a call.

Thanks, Leslie, for being a guest blogger here at the Blogicito. Let's give her a round of applause for the great article!

If you would like to submit a guest blog article, it will be greatly appreciated by me and my two bum fingers. Send it to me at my email address in the "About me" section at the top of the page. Photos are welcomed, too.

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