July 26, 2006

Vegetable Gardening - Tropical Style

The vegetable garden is on a level about five feet below the main backyard level. We can just see the tops of the corn and the trellises from the house. I like this because vegetable gardens don't always look so nice. We built six 4x4 foot bottomless boxes out of large river rocks mortared in place, since that material is what is most readily available and most durable here in the tropics.

During the rainy season we can get 20 inches of rain in 3 or 4 days so a raised bed is really necessary for good drainage. Most vegetables couldn't take being saturated for days at a time. During the dry season, the soil in the boxes get a little hotter than I would like but I have a system of soaker hoses in them so that helps to compensate for the heat. I was lucky enough to find a piece of shade cloth that I use to cover lettuce and other things that just can't take the intense sun.

I grow my vegetables organically using the square foot method in these raised beds. I think the close planting helps to keep the soil cooler but I have to watch out for all kinds of mildew because of the frequent rain and high humidity. I've planted corn as close as four to the square foot, although a friend tells me that is much too dense. I don't know − I get corn! There are no organic products available here, so we make do with compost and manure and use soap or garlic sprays to try to control the insects.

Originally I filled the boxes almost completely with compost because the orange laterite soil is so poor, but the compost kept decomposing and before long the boxes were only half full. I bought some tierra negra (black soil, or top soil) to add to the beds and that has helped stabilize the soil level, although I don't think it was very good quality soil. I still have to add some compost and/or soil each time I rotate crops. I also add cow or sheep manure when I can get it. I've actually been thinking about getting some chickens (for the eggs and manure) or rabbits (for the manure). I'm basically a city girl, so that would be a big step for me. Also, with three dogs, I will have to figure out a way to protect the chickens from the dogs, and vice versa.

I like the boxes with a 4 foot width because that is as wide as I can reach into the center of the box without stepping into it and compacting the soil. One thing I will do differently on the next one we build is to make it longer. That will help keep the soil a little cooler because the corners are where the box becomes
the hottest. The wide stone rim is about a foot high and is nice for sitting on the side when I'm planting or pulling weeds.

On the lowest level we have our banana plantation. Our handyman/gardener Carlos really wanted to plant bananas down there and
since I'm still busy with the main parts of the garden, we got the plants for him. The area below is on the edge of a jungle-like creek area and had lots of very tall jungly trees. Several of them fell down during some heavy rainstorms last winter (that made me very sad) so now the area is a part-sun situation which bananas like here. (Okay, the "plantation" is about 10 banana and plantain plants.) ;-)

We also have vegetables and fruits growing in the front yard: Moon and Stars watermelon (the first one was 28 pounds!), jicama,
papayas, a vanilla vine, and some young trees: two avocados, a cinnamon, and a mangosteen. I have some herbs in the raised beds and some in a jardinera (window planter box). We have more papayas, a guayaba, and two types of coconuts in back and malanga (taro) everywhere. Lemon grass is planted in several areas − my dogs love to eat it. The low-growing cilantro which is used for much Honduran cooking is in the shade on the side of the house.

I've tried direct planting seeds in the garden, planting in cell packs, and presprouting seeds in paper towels. Direct seeding is tough in this climate: either a downpour comes and washes all the seeds into one corner of the bed, the hot tropical sun dries out the seeds before they emerge, or the thousands of giant millipedes devour the seeds or seedlings. Cellpacks are problematic in that potting soil is only rarely available and my compost seems to be too heavy and holds too much water. If the seedlings emerge, the cellpacks have to be moved out into the sun. No matter how many times I rush out into the rain to bring the trays in, there is always one time I forget and find half empty cells with the poor seedlings completely uprooted and broken by the heavy rain.

Now for most seeds, except beans, corn, and very small seeds like lettuce or herbs, I presprout the seeds in damp paper towels. First I write the variety names with a permanent marker on the paper towel, moisten it, and place the seeds below each name. Another damp paper towel is placed on top of the first and the whole thing is folded up and placed in a sealed plastic bag, which is then kept in a warm place. In my case it is on top of a small electric water pump in a closet. The bag needs to be opened and checked each day.

Generally by the second day something has started to sprout and others usually sprout each day until about the eighth or ninth day. My experience with vegetable seeds has been that if they haven't sprouted by the ninth day, they probably aren't going to. As soon as the tiny root begins to show, the seed should be planted in a small pot, cellpack, or in the ground, being sure to water thoroughly so that the root doesn't have a chance to dry out. I usually keep them in pots until the seedling looks strong enough to withstand the rainstorms.

I'm a CPA by profession and a listmaker by nature so in the beginning I kept meticulous records of every seed planted. How, where, when, how many days to germination, to harvest, diagrams of the planting beds, etc., etc. It was partly due to my nature and partly trying to learn more about vegetable gardening in the tropics. I cut back somewhat because it was a little depressing to later write,"one radish, one carrot, two tomatoes!"

My first efforts were pretty pathetic. I've since begun to use a gardening by the moon calendar and have seen remarkable improvements. I don't know if gardening by the moon works or not because there are so many factors that affect growth and germination, but I think I'll keep doing it. It can't hurt! I also like the calendar because it has suggested activities every few days which help to keep me organized.

While the lack of seasons is great for gardening year round, it is a little too easy to procrastinate when you don't have to worry about that frost deadline. There are no calculations of days to first or last frost here! I can grow pretty much any warm season vegetable year round. Lettuce and things that like cooler temperatures can grow during the rainy season (roughly September to March), or a little longer if I cover them with shade cloth. Another good thing is that compost takes no time at all to finish and there are tons of raw materials available since hardly anyone composts.

A bad thing about the lack of seasons is that there is no cold season to kill off or even slow down the bugs. We have cucumber and squash beetles year round. Our average temperature here in La Ceiba is about 86°F and the humidity averages about 86%, too. During the "winter," say December to February, the temperature usually drops a few degrees from that, but it's only gotten below 70°F a few times since I've been here. This is a hoot: Whenever the temperature falls below 80°F, the newspaper reports a frente frio (cold front). I call it a frente tibia. Once the temperature gets down to the low 70's, people will wear winter coats!

I'm feeling my way through all of this. Tropical gardening is so different in many ways, but dealing with the heat in Texas has helped prepare me a little. I have a bookcase full of gardening books but I am most guided by these books:

Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening by J. Howard Garrett
Gardening in the Tropics by Holttum and Enoch
Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
The New Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel

My moon phase calendar is from this site. It's a very informative site for getting a better understanding of moon planting.

Gardening by the Moon

I also belong to several internet gardening groups from which I've learned a lot, but it seems that there aren't many tropical gardeners on these groups. If anyone knows of any groups for tropical gardeners, I'd love to hear from you.

July 25, 2006

Around La Ceiba

You see lots of these horses and carts on the street. Usually they are selling bananas but they also hire out for moving or delivering things. Notice the driver has a cell phone. Wherever you go in La Ceiba, you will see mountains in the background.

I was too slow getting the camera, but there was a herd of cattle crossing the street in front of us. This is one of the main roads to town from our house. In smaller towns, you often see pigs and chickens in the street. El Jefe's brother hit and killed a cow while driving on the highway one night. The meat was greatly appreciated by the residents of the nearby colonia.

This was taken at a graduation party. I love this picture. It always makes me smile.

Today's Harvest, July 25

Home grown vegetables, La Ceiba, Honduras
Here is what I harvested today from my terribly neglected garden. Delicata squash, zucchini, Ping Tung eggplant, Goldbar summer squash, 8-Ball zucchini (excellent for stuffing), cucumber, Malabar spinach, corn, and lima beans. We put most of it in a fritatta for dinner tonight. Yummy!

Pingtung long eggplant, La Ceiba, HondurasThis is the Ping Tung Japanese Eggplant. It seems to be very prolific. The color is a beautiful lavendar which doesn't show well in this picture − too much sun − but in real life, it is almost too pretty to eat!

vegetable garden, La Ceiba, HondurasHere's a picture of the garden. Looks a little washed out because of the sun. You can't see any corn because the plants are another two feet taller than this photo shows. It's a local open pollinated variety from Carlos' mother.

garden, La Ceiba, HondurasAnd this one is a picture of one corner of the backyard. It is looking a little jungle-y. Who has time to garden when you are painting all day, every day?

July 21, 2006

Where in the world is Honduras?

In case you were wondering where Honduras is, here is a map of Central America. La Ceiba is on the Caribbean coast on the Gulf of Honduras. It is about 1,000 miles south of New Orleans and about 1,000 miles north of the equator. You can click on the picture to get a bigger view.

July 20, 2006

My tortillas are better than yours

Even though I love to cook, I didn't want to learn how to make tortillas. I don't know why. I make almost all of the bread we eat, so it's not like I don't know how to handle dough. I used to buy tortillas in Dallas, but the store-bought tortillas here are not that good. The women make tortillas by flapping or slapping the dough ball back and forth in their hands. I don't know how, but the result is a perfectly round 6" circle every time.

Once when visiting one of el Jefe's sisters in Kansas City, she tried to show me how. I made an attempt but my tortillas came out square or other odd shapes with holes in them and everyone laughed. They even took video of it so that they could laugh several times more, and to send to the other family members so they could laugh, too. Another time, a little girl about nine years old tried to teach me. She laughed at me, too.

I used to buy them and then make a great show of flapping the (already made) tortilla back and forth between my hands, trying to convince people that I was making them. It was a good joke, I thought.

Finally after a long dry spell with no housekeeper and no fresh tortillas, el Jefe was going into tortilla withdrawal. His mother had even stopped bringing freshly made ones to him. (Hint, hint − it's time for la gringa to make my boy his tortillas.) So I broke down and just figured it out.

I tried flapping. I tried rolling. I tried stretching. No matter what I would do, that little circle would just bounce back into a wad of dough. And then I finally put the dough ball between two pieces of plastic and just started pushing the dough outward with my fingers to make a smooth circle (well, pretty much a circle − I'm not anal). They weren't bad. Since then my technique has gotten better and better. I make thin flour tortillas more in the Mexican style, not the fat ones they usually make here. El Jefe likes them that way and he tells me that my flour tortillas are the best in Honduras. Of course, he doesn't tell his mother that.

July 18, 2006


I'm in my nightgown writing this by hand since el Jefe has control of the computer today. I'm sitting at a little table on the upstairs terraza (terrace) at 9 a.m. on a perfectly lovely morning. The weather is cloudy, 80°F (27°C);, almost balmy, and a little breezy. My two chihuahuas are at my feet, sometimes sticking their heads through the railings to see what is down below. Carlos didn't come to work today. With clouds (meaning rain soon) and no Carlos, not much point in trying to paint the house today. Besides, I have aheadache from staying up too late writing blogs.

Here's what I see when I look around. The first picture on the left is my nice neighbor's house to the east. Oh, by the way, the rope is for the hammock − I see that it looks a little odd dangling there.

The next picture is of the southeast with the mountain peeking over the trees.

The third picture is the southwest. It shows some of my unused birdhouses. It seems Honduran birds don't like houses.

The last is west and the main terraza below. That's Chloe, the Rottweiler/ Doberman mix, or Chloe, the Rotten, as I affectionately call her.

Yulissa (pronounced Jew-lee-sa) has brought me my coffee − a luxury I don't often indulge in. Not the coffee − I drink lots of coffee everyday − I was referring to being served the coffee. I haven't gotten used to being a dueña (mistress, boss lady). In fact, as good as Yulissa is, there are occasions where I find that I am working while she is taking her afternoon siesta (nap) or watching telenovelas (soap operas) on cable TV. I don't like to get dependent upon a housekeeper because most don't stay longer than three weeks and then I am back to cleaning toilets and washing dishes. It's like being rich. It's easy to go from being poor to rich; a lot harder to go from being rich to poor.

Everyone says Ceibeñas (women from La Ceiba) don't want to work. Everyone has trouble keeping a housekeeper, not just La Gringa. Instead of the weather (which is always the same), women of the middle class and above have small talk about housekeepers − "I need one. Do you know one? Do you know anyone who wants to work? Mine quit. No, no, not that one − I've had three more since her."

Everyone has a housekeeper, usually live-in, and some have two or three, one for cleaning, one for cooking, one to watch the children. Even the housekeepers have housekeepers sometimes. It's sort of a national duty − there is no welfare, social security, unemployment benefits − there's no telling how many families would go hungry if it weren't for these jobs. Some families send off their daughters to work when they are about 14.

People go to extremes to find a housekeeper, sometimes even stealing a good one away from a neighbor by offering a few Lempiras more. El Jefe and I once went housekeeper hunting out in the country. We drove for hours stopping at every small village to ask if anyone wanted to work. The answer was always no, with a sheepish smile.

We've had a series of housekeepers. We really only need someone to help a couple of days a week, but they always want full-time work. I can understand that − the poverty is so awful in this country − so we have hired several on a full-time but not live-in basis. The problem is that full-time means working 2 - 3 days a week and taking 2 or 3 holidays/sick days/emergency days. I did not know that.

When we say "nos vemos mañana" (we'll see you tomorrow) at the end of the day, they always respond with "si Dios quiere" (God willing). While it may be commendable to put your life in the hands of God, what they really mean is "if I feel like working tomorrow." Having the typical over-developed work ethic that North Americans often do, I have a hard time understanding this.

We absolutely did not want or need a live-in housekeeper, or a young one. I always joked that I wanted an old, ugly woman − you can never be too careful. Haha! So we got Yulissa. She's 16, very cute, and living with us. She's a good girl, very smart, and (mostly) pleasant to be around. The thing I like best about her that she's willing to learn. I can tell her she did something wrong and she doesn't start slamming my dishes around or quit. So far anyway.

Yulissa has been here 2 1/2 months and that's a record at La Gringa's house. She likes to cook and is enjoying eating and learning how to cook American and Mexican (really Tex-Mex) food, which is very different from Honduran food. She likes to be outside so she helps with little things in the garden. She likes to paint, too, and would always rather be outside painting with us instead of cleaning inside. We often say, just put a water hose or a paint brush in her hand and she's happy.

Here's Yulissa feeling very self-conscious about having her picture taken.

Yulissa wanted to work to save money so that she can go back to high school next year. Very commendable. Her father quit paying for her school and I guess is happy to have one less mouth to feed at home. To show the incredible difference between Honduran teens and American teens, who might be saving their money to buy a CD player or IPod, Yulissa is also saving her money to buy a bed for herself and her sister.

I guess she's gotten use to the good life here. She has her own room with a brand new bed, a little TV and radio, and private bathroom with hot water. She goes home on the weekends where they have a one room concrete block house with a curtain down the middle that divides the living area from the sleeping area. The kids all sleep on mats on the dirt floor.

So we are happy with Yulissa and she seems happy with us. I hope it stays that way for a long time.

Ah! The luxuries of life!

Ah! Such luxuries: Water, electricity, internet connections, toilets that flush! Living in a third world country − Honduras is the poorest country in Central America and probably the entire hemisphere − makes a spoiled American appreciate the simple things.

We have scheduled and unscheduled power outages all the time − sometimes three or four times a day. We keep candles in almost every room and have an emergency 2-burner stove that runs with a propane tank.

The unreliability of our electric current (power surges and brownouts) at best shortens the life of equipment and appliances and at worst completely ruins them. We've lost two computers, two printers, and on separate occasions have burned up the power switch, power supply and hard drive of our 'good' computer. Our stereo, CD player, blender, and mixer have all met untimely deaths. Our 10-year old TV has been resurrected from the dead three times by a clever repairman.

We had an inverter that ran the refrigerator and a few lights and outlets when the power went out. I think the electrician installed the wiring or batteries wrong − he had never seen one before − and the batteries started weakening way too soon. Now they are dead and I don't know if or where they sell that type here. I really need to find out. I'm sure they would be considered a luxury item and will cost three times what they cost in the U.S., which was a lot! Yes, that was a luxury to have lights when the power went out!

This colonia has its own water well about 300 feet underground. The water is pumped from the well to a big tank and then gravity supplies the water to us. A good point about this is that our water is not contaminated with bacteria and who-knows-what else like the water in town. A bad point is that when the electricity goes out (sometimes a daily thing) we won't have water after the tank empties.

The other bad point is that our tank is old and rusty with peeling paint. After it empties, the force of the new water dislodges all that crud and we spend hours cleaning black water and chunks of rust out of our household system, toilet tanks, and sinks. Most of my clothes have been ruined because at one time or another we didn't completely flush our system before using the washer. Am I exaggerating? You be
the judge:

That's not coke! That's our agua potable (potable water) right out of the faucet! I saved this sample just for evidence, should I ever need it. Thank God it doesn't always look like this.

We keep a 55-gallon rain barrel for emergencies and we only drink and cook with purified bottled water so we always have two to four 5-gallon bottles on hand. The rain barrel is a
haphazard thing − a rusty old barrel left over from construction, placed on the side of the house where a valley of the roof fills it up. We only use this water for flushing the toilets and rinsing the food from dishes so that they can be held for washing later without attracting a zillion crazy ants into the kitchen. When we're really desperate, we use the water for what I call "bucket showers." That is where you lather yourself all up and rinse off by pouring plastic bowlfuls of water from a 5-gallon bucket. Sometimes that water is really cold. Brrr!

Once last summer we spent eight days without water. El Jefe took me to the river for a real bath and shampoo a couple of times. Most of the neighbors have underground or above ground cisterns. We really need to build one. Many of the houses I've visited keep a 5-gallon bucket of water in the bathroom to flush the toilet and a pila (big concrete wash tub) full of water outside for washing dishes and clothes. We are much better off here than town where the water is frequently rationed. There's no honor system voluntary water restrictions here. They simply
shut it off completely for as long as they want, sometimes as long as a week. Oddly, though, I haven't heard of this happening in the wealthier neighborhoods, only the poorer ones.

In the little town where el Jefe's mother lives, they have water for
only about an hour a day and often go days without it at all. I think it's because Dole Pineapple diverts their water for the pineapple fields, because it is that way even during the rainy season when the river is full; that's only my theory, though. In many of the smaller villages there is no running water; young children often don't go to school because it is their job to haul water from the river every day for their family's needs.

We didn't have an internet connection for four years! We applied for a phone line in February 2002 but there is no sign of ever getting one. "No hay" (There aren't any) is all we hear. I refused to bribe the clerk back in 2002 so we are still paying the price. In retrospect it was a foolish thing − probably 100 Lempiras (about $6 U.S.) would have gotten us the line, but back then I was on my high horse − It was the principal of the thing! Stand up for what's right!

In 2004 we received a personal (ha!) letter from our then president Ricardo Maduro, telling us about his program "Telefonos para Todos" (Telephones for Everyone). The telephone company is run by the government so, of course, it is inefficient, corrupt, and insolvent. Of course it's broke! Having the usual American entrepreneurial spirit and having been an 'A'
student in Economics 101, I realize that to be successful company, you can't turn away 95% of your customers with "No hay."

El Jefe's mother waited more than 10 years for a telephone line and I'm pretty sure that she did bribe. After she got it, the line only worked for about a week. Then she had to make several trips into town and wait in line for hours to beg on her knees for them to come to fix it. You have to keep paying the bill every month even if they don't repair it for months or years. If you don't pay, they won't fix it. If you do pay, they might − or then again, they might not. Only about 40% of Honduran households have a land-line phone. The other 60% have cell phones or nothing. Why is it this way, you ask? This is Honduras.

There are internet cafes on every block in town, kind of like Starbucks in the U.S. but I mostly used them only for banking and email (of which I received none!). I often think that anyone who has more than one computer and a phone line opens an internet cafe. They have kind of forgotten about the 'cafe' part. Internet cafes are usually crowded little places where you sit elbow to elbow using an old, slow computer, paying by the 15 or 30 minutes.

A year or two ago, internet by cable became available. Having been used to
paying $20 per month for access in Dallas, I thought $60 was too high. But that does include basic cable TV (which is only $13 per month), so eventually we bit the bullet and now we are connected to the world again! I could never do without it again, especially now that I'm a blogger. ;-)

As I sit here typing this into the computer, I look out my office window and see this:

So, even though life is hard here, I sometimes just sit back and smile when I think, "I have electricity today. I have water. I have internet. Life is good."

July 17, 2006

Temperatures, don't trust them

I put a weather.com thingy on my blog, partly just to show off but mostly because I'm always complaining about the heat and especially the humidity. I thought my friends might be interested in what I suffer through.

The thing is: These weather.com numbers always sound kind of pleasant − well, maybe not 83% humidity − but they never sound as devastating as Dallas' 105°F (41°C), or in a really bad summer, 114°F (46°C). I've lived through those Dallas summers and I'm here to tell you that while 88°F (31°C) in Dallas is positively balmy, 88°F in La Ceiba is like stepping into hell. I have to peel my clothes off; they stick like glue. I can't get dry after a shower no matter how many towels I use. Sometimes when I wash my hair at night, it is still wet in the morning. If I wash it in the morning, it stays wet all day.

So, where do these numbers come from? Does weather.com have thermometers that they check electronically in every city in the world? Does the U.S. government or maybe CIA agents have secret satellite thermometers? Okay, from any of these organizations I would believe the temperatures but if these numbers are coming from the Honduran government − well, that would explain it. These numbers never agree with my thermometer or humidibobber. (I made up that word, too.) I think, just like the crime rate, the corruptos (no translation needed) are fudging their numbers to attract tourists.

July 16, 2006

Title dilemma

I haven't even had this blog for 24 hours and I have a huge problem. My blog title is no good. Argh! I showed the blog to el Jefe, a Honduran, who began reading it aloud. It seems that there is no way to pronounce Blogicito properly in Spanish. So I guess I have my answer about whether or not it is a word.

Bummer. It seemed like it would be a word. But in Spanish, you would have to say "Blow-hee-see-toe." If I change it to Bloguecito
so it can be properly pronounced in Spanish, the English speakers will pronounce it "Blah-gay-see-toe."

Darn, can we just call it Spanglish and leave it at that? Am I offending anyone? I hope not.

Just pronounce it "Blog-ee-see-toe," like I do.

Where to live?

Our intention when el Jefe (the boss) and I came to Honduras was to buy a small house with space for a garden. I had romantic visions of a little cottage with a beautiful tropical garden ... palm trees swaying, bougainvillea draped over the fence, me stepping outside to pick lemons from the tree for my tea. We looked at houses for two months. Nothing!

Home lots here in La Ceiba are generally very small. A small house means one of two things: 1) A house so small we wouldn't have had room even for the small amount of furniture that we brought with us and kitchens the size of my pantry in Dallas, or 2) a bit larger house with no garden space.

It is customary to cover every possible inch of space with concrete, and then for those who can afford it, cover the concrete with ceramic tiles. Ceramic − outside! The large homes, that are more like the size we are used to in the U.S., generally had no green areas larger than, say, 2 x 6 feet in the front and 4 x 8 feet in the back. Clearly not acceptable to someone who lives to garden.

We found a two story house in one of the nicer colonias (neighborhoods). It was rough but had potential as it had about double the standard garden space (but still very small). The woman who owned it refused to do even the most basic repairs, refused to adjust the price accordingly, and was very pushy. We were living with el Jefe's mother at the time − but that's a whole 'nother story.

We were anxious to get our own home but we began to get suspicious about her insistence so we told her that we wouldn't sign the deal until we had seen the house after a good rain. I forgot to mention that this was the beginning of the rainy season and we had looked at several vacant houses that had 2-4 inches of water on the floors inside!

Well, three or four days later we had rain ... and more rain ... and even more rain. We went to look at the house. We had to park two blocks away because the streets were flooded. I rolled up my pant legs and we began to walk. By the time we reached the house, the water was above my thighs and the current was so strong that we were holding on to each other to keep from being washed away.

Even though the house was built several feet above the level of the street, the water level had reached the front porch. Inside was just as bad. Every window leaked. There was water on the floors upstairs and downstairs. A stream of water was trickling down the staircase from the second floor into the living room below. We didn't buy. We told her we couldn't afford to buy the house and a boat! We found out later that this particular area of the neighborhood always floods.

We looked at more houses. Nothing worked. We became acquainted with a builder who builds fairly decent quality houses − without the typical Honduran goofs. If I sound snobbish, please consider this: What would you call a bathroom where the toilet is installed in the middle of the room right in front of the shower, with it's back to the shower door? Oops! The drain was in the wrong place ... Oh, well, you can always climb over the toilet to get into the shower. Or, what about a steep staircase that has eleven steps with a height of about 7 inches each and the twelfth is 3 inches tall? Oops! An accident waiting to happen. How about a room where there is a little ledge down the middle of the floor and half of the room is approximately 2 inches higher than the other half. Oops! Watch out for toe stubbings. These are only three examples of many, many that I could give you.

Anyway, we went to look at two houses this builder had built in a subdivision outside of town. They weren't bad, actually kind of cute. I could have lived there but the problem was that he built both houses on one lot and each had only a small area of about 3 x 3 feet in a front corner that wasn't covered with house or concrete.

Totally discouraged, we rented an apartment with a dark 2 x 6 foot concrete patio surrounded by a 10 foot concrete wall with razor wire on top. I wanted to paint grass and flowers and the sky and sun on that wall but I never got around to it. Later on the owner decided the wall wasn't high enough and added another 5 feet of concrete blocks to the top. This completely cut off all sun and breeze from our apartment. We moved.

Meanwhile, we decided to buy some property and build. More El Jefe's decision than mine. We began working with an architect to plan our home. Nine months later we started construction. Nine months, you ask? All I can say is that he's a busy architect with much grander clients than us, along with the usual answer to most 'why' questions here: "This is Honduras." Enough said. I never ever wanted to build. I knew it would be a nightmare and it was even more of a disaster than I thought it would be.

From the top of our roof, we can see the ocean. Not that we go to the top of the roof much. It's cooler out here because it's usually breezy, there are mountains and trees, and we aren't completed surrounded by blazing hot concrete like in town.

My nearest neighbors are a block away on each side, luckily, because we don't have any curtains yet. The neighbors are nice people.

This is how the construction started, by making a frame around the outside of where the house will be and measuring from that to determine where the walls will be. Is that how it is done in the U.S? I didn't know.

And then there were walls! Well, sort of. I usually only visited the construction about once a week. It seemed to go faster that way.

Construction took more than two years and even when we moved in, in September 2004, we had no windows and no doors. We thought that by putting pressure on the contractors, they would step up the pace a little. BIG MISTAKE!

Until you've lived through hurricane season in the tropics with plastic sheets covering the very large holes where your windows are supposed to be, you can't imagine how much rain we get. I used to wake up in the middle of the night to mop the floors -- sometimes 10 gallons at a time. And then I would wake up in the morning and start all over again. Or to be more precise, I would be awakened at the sound of workers trampling through my house.

It got so bad that I had to post a big cardboard sign on the front entrance (where the door should have been) saying something to the effect that "People live here! Don't come in without permission!!" Even though it was in Spanish, it was totally ignored. One time I came inside from out back to find two strange men in my kitchen admiring my cabinets. Another time a woman was wandering around my house looking at all the stacks of boxes.

This picture was taken probably about the time we moved in. We were idiots! I also call this my "before" picture of the front garden. Nice, huh? ;-)

Yet another time, after we had doors but before our muro (fence) was completed, I woke at 6:00 in the morning to find a man and a mentally disturbed woman in my back yard. She took a liking to my favorite tool, an ancient spading fork, and decided she would take it home with her. I tried to trade her some butternut squash (the only thing that came to mind in the heat of the moment) for my fork, but she wanted the fork. I screamed to wake up el Jefe, telling him that I can't live without my fork, so he pulled on his pants and rushed out and down the street to get it back for me. I was beginning to understand why everyone who can afford it lives behind 10 foot concrete walls with razor wire, guard dogs, and a vigilante (guard) with a shot gun.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

What do Hondurans do well? Not so well? And down right horribly?

The Good

Plastic Bags: They make the best plastic bags I've ever seen. They don't tear, they don't leak, and they will hold 50 pounds with no problems. A bag can be reused 20 times. An odd thing, though, is that they only come in broad orange and white stripes.

Soups: It is strange to me that in a country that is so darn hot and humid all the time that soup would be so popular. A lot of restaurants in the U.S. don't have soup on the menu at all. Those that do generally won't have more than one or two selections. Even small Honduran restaurants often have 4 or 5 soups on the menu. I've seen menus with 10 different kinds of soup. The sopa de caracol is to die for. And when they serve soup, they serve soup! There are none of those little teacups. If you order a small soup, expect it to come in a liter sized bowl. The large order is embarrassing − washtub sized.

Tajadas: It's the potato chip of Honduras (or tortilla chip, depending upon what part of the U.S. you are from). It is an unripe platano (plantain) sliced on the diagonal into about 1/8 to 1/4 inch pieces and deep fried. Yummy. Not greasy at all. It can be made with bananas instead, but no, plantains are the way to go.

Showers: For those who do have bathrooms, they usually have huge ceramic-lined showers − easily fitting 4 to 5 people. No bumping your elbows on the walls here.

The Bad

Food: All Honduran food is brown or white. No exceptions. Almost all of it is fried or boiled. Always overcooked. Whatever country in the world you are reading this from, I ask you: Have you ever seen a Honduran restaurant? I thought not. Point made.

Bathrooms: Just say no. Go back to your house or hotel. Or at least carry your own toilet paper with you. Enough said.

Warranties: What warranties? We ain't got no stinkin' warranties.

The Ugly

Consumer protection: A favorite task assigned to grocery store workers is scratching off all those pesky expiration dates from the food packages, especially dairy products. If the vegetables or seafood are packed in a foam tray covered with plastic, there's a reason. They are hiding something. Don't buy it.

Quality: Sandals that last 25 minutes. Clay pots that disintegrate after two months. Paint that peels off with the first rain. Tools that break after one use. Food that is already spoiled when you buy it. Etc., etc. etc.

Government services: Ha! I'll have to write a whole article about this one.

Mail Service: La Ceiba, with a population of about 150,000, has one mail deliverer. San Pedro Sula, population of about 1,500,000, has two.

Five things Hondurans can not say (or at least Ceibeños can't): I'm sorry. I don't know. I made a mistake. You are right. Thank you.

July 15, 2006

Starting the garden

We didn't actually start planting the garden until January 2005. Our very nice neighbor from a block away, who might have been tired of looking at our construction site for three years, or who maybe just felt sorry for me, came by one day and offered to take us to a friend's citrus grove to dig up some St. Augustine grass sprigs. We jumped at the chance!

Our property was steeply sloped and much of it was basically unusable. We tried to hire someone with a bobcat to terrace the slope, but it was hugely expensive. In this town, anyone who has a special tool or piece of equipment charges an arm and a leg just because he knows he can get whatever price he wants − he has no competition. I worried too that because those things are so noisy, the driver wouldn't hear me screaming, "No! No! Don't dig there! Don't knock down those trees, we want to keep them!" They always think that they know what is best and don't want to listen to a woman.

workers leveling the hill, La Ceiba, HondurasOur architect and our neighbor both recommended that we just hire some men to dig. I couldn't imagine what back-breaking labor that would be and how long it would take, but it actually turned out pretty well. I marked the first areas with lime powder and they would dig into the hill and shovel the dirt down to level the next area. Here's a picture of the workers. That's how we found Carlos. I'll be talking more about him later.

We started composting long before we moved in. Our carpenter was happy to bring us a truckload of wood chips/sawdust every week rather than paying to take it to the dump. A nearby farm brought us a truckload of cow manure about every other week. We also had plant trimmings from the 'wild' area and weeds from the rest of the yard. We had mountains of compost going. The problem is that in this climate, the compost just keeps decomposing until there is hardly anything left.

At one point we had a bumper crop of butternut squash growing in one pile − more than 50. We even had Carlos sell some at the market, just for fun, but please don't tell my neighbors! They would be appalled. Two other piles became the home to several papaya trees, some tomatoes and chiles.

Back to the grass. We hired five workers to dig compost into our orange laterite soil and plant little sprigs of St. Augustine into the areas that I had marked out. It took about a week and since it was the rainy season, about three weeks later we were mowing our full, lush, green lawn. Don't think that I'm obsessed with lawns, but nothing sets off the plants and trees like a healthy green lawn. The heavy rains compact the soil or completely washes it away so it is practical, too.

The beds were planned with big swooping curves, not straight lines as is the fashion here. All the beds are mulched with ascerí­n (wood chips). I did not have my garden design plan ready. I just had a general idea of where I wanted trees. Normally it's preferable to construct the hardscaping, then plant the trees, then shrubs, then smaller plants. I plant what I can find when I can find it. I don't like doing it this way because I'm sure I'm not leaving enough room for the trees and other large plants, but sometimes you just have to do what you can do.

We did do the hardscaping first which is the main reason that we didn't start on the garden sooner. Nothing like four or five guys moving wheelbarrows full of cement to destroy a garden. We have concrete sidewalks, a stairway, a driveway, and stepping stones made of pastel colored concrete with the impressions of leaves embedded in the top. This is a picture of one of the albañiles (bricklayers) fussily placing a leaf on the concrete. The leaves are removed after the concrete dries. I came up with this idea after trying to think of anything that would look better than plain concrete. Yeech!

People used to come from all around to watch us make it, but whenever they would ask for the details, I would say, "Well, I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." A joke that didn't quite translate. They also came to gawk at la gringa doing a man's work.

In other areas we have stepping stones and stairs made of small river rocks embedded in concrete and retaining walls made of larger river rocks. Concrete is the major construction material in this climate. All right, I understand that it is necessary − but can it at least look pretty? Luckily, el Jefe agrees with me.

This picture shows some of the beautiful stonework that el Jefe and Carlos did. Just the two of them.

What's a blog?

Well, here I am. Now what? And why is my title in Spanish?...not even proper Spanish. It should say "El blogicito (I made that up, don't know if it is a word) de la gringa." Blogicito, if it is a word, means little blog. La gringa, of course, means the foreign woman, especially of the American or English type. I think it's a little derogatory, but maybe not.

For five years, we've been without an internet connection, so I'm just catching up on what has changed in the world. I'm not really sure what a blog is supposed to be. My purpose in writing this blog is to tell and show my friends a little of my garden and life in La Ceiba. I'm not quite sure how to go about it in an organized manner so I'll just dig in. Hmm, that's kind of my philosophy of gardening as well.

The beginning

El Jefe (the boss) and I have been in Honduras for almost five years. It's hard to believe that it has been that long. Our house isn't even finished! Everything moves slower here. It's too hot to move fast. Only the hormigas locas (crazy ants) move fast.

When we first came here and people asked if I spoke Spanish, I would say poquito (a little). Now, five years later, I'm still saying poquito. What they sometimes don't know is that I understand it better than I speak it. Ha!

Hondurans have a dialect all their own. I've looked up so many words from the newspaper in the dictionary and they are not there. It is said that Hondurans speak faster than any other Spanish speaking people. They also drop their es's, as in bueno' dia' (good day) or no' vemo' (we'll see you). The people from the mountains speak a dialect that sounds an awful lot like Chinese to me.

It's been a real struggle but we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here's a picture of what we started with:

If it looks like the tops of the trees are on the ground, it's because the property drops off pretty steeply to a creek below. We call that our jungla (jungle). See the mountain in the background? Not mountains by Rockies standards but they will do. The mountains completely disappear in the clouds when there is a storm. Honduras has what are called cloud forests instead of rain forests.
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