The Value of Fiction

Over dinner in California last summer, a friend of a friend said to me (somewhat condescendingly), “I don’t read fiction. It’s a waste of time.” At the time, I refrained from getting into an argument, mostly because arguing over Peking Duck is a very sad thing.

However, I couldn’t disagree more. Especially when working abroad, works of fiction are directly applicable to my life.

Some of it is directly applicable to understanding development scholarship. While I am in Honduras, I am reading a number of books on development theory, including the very prominent (and excellent) The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly. Easterly opens each chapter with a quote from Great Theorists of the past, including this one, from chapter 2:

“It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true” – Bertrand Russell

Of course, he could have just as easily inserted this one:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”

That’s Sherlock Holmes, from A Study in Scarlet (Part 1, chapter 3).

Another book on development theory is Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which discusses the widening global income gap and the necessity or targeting development interventions to the billion people in the world who he describes as being “below the income ladder,” in countries that have not yet mobilized their economies by taking advantage of globalized trade. A prime example of this is failed states (think Somalia) and states that have been devastated by civil wars. Nations torn apart by civil war usually lose decades worth of infrastructure improvement, which cripples economic development, As Collier says,

“Civil war is development in reverse.”

But he could have taken this line from “La Vie Bohème,” from the Tony- and Pulitzer-Award-winning musical Rent:

“The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation.”

Fiction can do so much more than relate to theories. Fiction broadens our horizons and allows us to experience the world as others do. When Wilson drifts away from Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away, we relate to his desolation and loss. When Marius sings about the “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables / where my friends will sit no more” in the Broadway adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, we feel the pain of losing friends to war.

For me, though, the most powerful moment are the small ones, in which authors somehow reveal something about their readers. In a favorite book of mine, I was devastated when a character who had been keeping a diary in miniscule, cramped handwriting (so as to maximize the pages of his single notebook) finds one morning that he has run out of ink. In another novel, a young woman tells the main character, “I’m not all that afraid of becoming someone else. What scares me if the thought of never being able to return to the person I am now – and even forgetting who that person is.” These moments unlock small, evocative terrors and teach us about ourselves.

I can’t think of something that feels less like a waste of time.

Election Maelstroms

While things are just about to come to a head for the election in the States, we’re reaching a fever pitch in Honduras, too – for the primaries.

I’m no stranger to the fever pitch that precedes elections. I’m from Ohio. I’m used to the constant barrage of political ads, the annoying phone calls, the spam email from the President, the actual physical spam mail… as one commenter said in Slate last week, “I’m an undecided, under-25, female voter in one of Ohio’s biggest swing counties. If any other man vied so hard for my affections as these two candidates, I’d have filed a criminal harassment report by August.”

I’m not undecided, but the sentiment still rings true, and in the past I’ve jumped in with both feet. In 2008, I canvassed in Florida to Get Out the Vote. I harangued my fellow students to register and exercise their civil liberties. This year, I went to extraordinary lengths to cast my extraordinarily important Ohio absentee ballot (there’s a 50% chance that Ohio will decide the election). I applied for my ballot in July; my parents drove it to Shoulder to Shoulder offices in Cincinnati; a brigade member carried it to me; I filled it out, signed, and sealed it; my roommate carried it back to the States and dropped it in the mail in Florida. (There’s no mail in Concepción). I’ll proudly wear my “I Voted!” sticker on Tuesday like everyone else.

Truth be told, I’m glad I’m not in Ohio for this year’s election. It’s crazy. My parents didn’t pick up the phone when I called the house on Saturday because they’d received so many political phone calls that they stopped answering it entirely.

In Intibucá, the election rallies take on a different flavor; like rooting for Barcelona or Real Madrid (a national sport), the parties in Honduras command fierce, demonstrable loyalty. There are five political parties: two main ones (Nacional and Liberal), one semi-popular one (Libre), and two I can’t name. There are tons of candidates – at least 9 for president just from Partido Liberal. Each party has a flag, each candidate has a song (usually with the voices of children singing), and each commercial ends with a picture of the ballot: a picture of the candidate, smiling, under which a voter marks a large “X”.

Maybe it’s the distance I have from Ohio this year, but people in Intibucá seem to be particularly enthusiastic. Most of the population (at least, the vocal majority) is for the Libre party, also known as the Resistance (Resistencia). There is a giant Libre flag hanging over the television station. There are Libre flags on bamboo poles outside homes. There are Libre flags on car antennas. There are Libre bumper stickers, bandanas, vuvuzelas.

Most importantly, there are Libre supporters. They are loud, proud, and numerous. They pile into trucks and play Xiomara’s (the candidate’s) campaign song at full volume while they drive slowly up and down all three streets in Concepción. They brandish machetes (sheathed, usually) in the air to show their support for The Resistance.  They light off fireworks – but to be fair, everyone kind of lights off fireworks all the time, so I’m not sure if that’s connected to the campaign. That might just be boys liking fireworks. They are everywhere, washing around the region like red-and-black tide.

In previous elections in Ohio, I felt energized by the campaigns. To be surrounded by politicking in Honduras while pundits fan the flames of the election of my own nation elsewhere is strangely off-putting. I read the news daily, but I’ve evaded most direct entreaties from people passionate about the US election. Only one person has tried to explain to me the greatness of Ron Paul this year.

As for Honduras, I’m not plugged into Honduran campaign media – I don’t have a radio or television at the clinic,  I usually skim over the campaign news in the Honduran paper I read – but political passion is breaking all sides around me, leaving me weirdly untouched. And it should be that way; as a non-Honduran, I can observe these machinations, but I should and will be silent.

But how strange it is, to go from the fiercest part of the storm to the relative calm of the eye.

Ruining Emma

One thing that no one ever tells you about working in the developing world is that it ruins your appreciation for historical literature. Not the quality of the literature itself, that is, but rather for the settings.

Take, for example, Jane Austin’s Emma. I was never a particular fan of Emma; she’s kind of shallow and nosey. All the characters are bored and obsessed with gossip. Emma tackles her own boredom by arranging other people’s lives to fit her own ideals. I remember the first time I tried to immerse myself in this period literature – what is wrong with these people, I thought. They never have anything to do. I chalked it up, like many readers to, to a strange sort of fictionalized reality that I couldn’t really imagine. A fictionalized reality that never involved AP physics homework. It didn’t seem so bad.

Now that I can relate, the prospect is a lot less appealing.

It’s amazing how much time you can have on your hands in the developing world. If you don’t have to tend crops (or if there are no crops to tend), there’s a whole lot of nothing to do on your to-do list. Most people can’t read. If the electricity is out, there’s no television. There’s church, but not all day. And when there’s nothing to do, people turn to their most immediate source of entertainment: gossip and matchmaking.

This is a warning that everyone hears about when they prepare to leave the States. It’s jokingly called the “coconut wireless,” as news flies through the air. It isn’t that good news travels fast; it’s how scandalous the news is that travels quickly – and changes just as fast. Hold hands with someone some night, and chances are the world thinks you’re engaged by morning. Heaven forbid a girl walk into a pool hall. (After all, everyone knows trouble starts with t, which rhymes with p…).

Furthermore, just like high school, the stories are likely to change with opinions and reinterpretations. It’s Emma. It’s real. But it’s everyone you are surrounded with, all the time! I may not have been a fan of Emma before, but I didn’t have the vehement distaste of her that I have now.

Luckily, there’s another side to this coin: the works of literature that get better. Marquez, Borges, Orhan Pahmuk’s Snow; these writers feel more relevant and real to me now. For Marquez and Borges, part of it is a cultural appreciation, relating the writing to my own literal surroundings. But for Snow, which is set in Turkey, it’s a description of humanity that I feel that I can relate to. His town of Kars is blanketed in snow for the duration of his story, but sometimes it feels that we, too, are trapped in our own small world, and there’s nothing to do but talk about each other.

Luckily, I have books.

Halloween in Honduras

One of my favorite parts of travelling is meeting new people. While it’s difficult to be away from your country’s holiday traditions, sometimes it’s more fun to celebrate them anew.

This weekend, Laura and I went to D&D Brewery at Lago de Yojoa, which is probably one of the most beautiful places in the world. In my opinion, the Brewery itself should be considered one of the Wonders of the World; run by an American named Bobby who came down as a volunteer three years ago and never left, the operation brews nine craft beers on site to compliment the clean rooms and a fabulous restaurant. It’s one of the most popular spots in Honduras, drawing scores of both tourists and locals.

I had completely forgotten about Halloween, being here in Honduras. We don’t have a fall here – it’s just the rainy season, so it feels a little chillier, but not actually cold. In the States, too, I don’t particularly care about Halloween – I just think of it as Almost-Time-for-Thanksgiving, which is the holiday I really care about. When Bobby pointed out that it was Halloween, I checked my phone to be sure of the date.

He was prepared, though. To celebrate the holiday, he had purchased three small pumpkins from a nearby town and gave them to the Dutch couple that manages the brewery to carve – their first-ever pumpkins. (Evidently, carving pumpkins is an American tradition). They went into it with gusto, drawing expressive eyes and big toothy mouths with whiteboard markers.

I like carving pumpkins, but I don’t love it. I always try something unnecessarily ambitious and fail in the attempt, but I did manage to offer up some practical tips; including a little notch on the lid so you know which way it goes on, cutting the lid at an angle so that the top won’t fall in. My favorite part of carving pumpkins is the expression on a first-time pumpkin-carver’s face when he reaches in to pull out the pumpkin guts for the first time.

The Dutch man’s expression was priceless and classic; kind of a fascinated horror. I always hate and love the feeling of gutting a pumpkin – the slime that coats your hand, the strings that wrap around your fingers like wet hair, the seeds that escape from your fingers when you try to pull it out, the goop that gets trapped under your fingernails and you really can’t wait to wash it out. It’s deliciously gross. He and his wife approached the task with gusto.

We saved the pumpkin innards; the Brewery is going to put the meat into a pumpkin stew and roast the seeds. Meanwhile, Bobby and Laura and I discussed the merits of different methods of making pumpkin pie (stewing pumpkin v. using the can) and the trials of making pecan pie (relating to the difficulty of baking the center without burning the crust). We sipped our pints of Porter and Amber Ale and the Dutch couple dripped candle wax into ashtrays, fed them to the pumpkins, and then illuminated their toothy grins.

They’re beautiful.

The Trouble with Consonants

One of my favorite parts about learning another language – which so often seems Sisyphean – is that my counterparts have their own difficulties learning English. In particular, there are plenty of stumbling blocks for native Spanish speakers when it comes to pronunciation.

Pronunciation in Spanish is very straightforward. Other than regional dialectic variations (in particular, variations on the letters LL or Y pronounced like an English J), written Spanish can be very easily read aloud – one of the easiest text-to-speech languages, behind Korean and Cherokee. As anyone reading this blog in English will already know, that is clearly not the case in my native tongue.

In most cases, these lexical stumbling blocks incite serious irritation with what seems like poor English spelling choices. I had a long discussion on why anyone would ever decide that “Wednesday” needed an “s” or why “February” needed the first “r.” (Unsurprisingly, no conclusions were reached).

But better by far is the fact that many native Spanish speakers have difficulty differentiating between voiced and unvoiced consonants. In linguistics, voiced and unvoiced consonants are the two different sounds that humans can make while keeping their tongue and mouth in the same position – like “s” and “z.” Also difficult for Spanish speakers is the differentiation between “b” and “v,” called “bay-corta” (b) and “bay-larga” (v), which are pronounced the same in Spanish. While normally these small issues don’t impede communication, sometimes they do – as one of the translators told me, “it is a very different thing to say you love TB when you mean to say you love tv.”

Better yet was the conversation that I had on the way to Santa Lucia the other day.

Driving to Santa Lucia takes an hour and a half over terrible dirt roads. “Dirt roads” is really a misnomer; so is it’s official name – the “carretera,” or highway. It was prepared in 1970 with crushed rock and usually serves as a serviceable road, but the rainy season literally erodes that transient state of being as water sluices through the easiest available drainage routes, carrying half the paving material with it. It’s a long and bumpy ride.

A week or so ago, I went to Santa in a packed car and I was staring out the window. The guy sitting next to me started a completely unexpected conversation out of the blue:

Him: “You know what we call people who never smile?”

Me: (startled) “No…”

Him: “We say they have a whore’s face!”

Me: “WHAT?”

Him: “Yes! Cara de caballo. Have you ever seen a horse smile?”

Me: “OH. That… no. No I have not. That is not what I… never mind.”

Capitalism Works Fine Here

An American who has been living for several months in the Frontera remarked to me over breakfast one morning, with evident dismay, “It’s just so sad that capitalism doesn’t work in this country.”

To which I replied, with less politeness than is usually warranted in the presence of eggs and pancakes, “WHAT are you talking about.”

I still stand behind both the content and form of my response for two reasons: first, he was wrong, and second, I hadn’t had any coffee yet.

His lament is a common theme in some development circles. Why, the theoreticians wonder, don’t these people understand how wonderful capitalism is? Some decide that it’s not in the country’s “culture.” (Others repeat that in traditional media and are lambasted for it). Others proclaim valiantly  recognize there are profits to be made in the developing world for capitalism to utilize but fail spectacularly to recognize the kind of changes necessary.

To which I reply, with perhaps less politeness than is usually warranted concerning people who have published Very Important Books about Poor People, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I currently live in the second-poorest department in the third-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and trust me, capitalism works just fine. (For that matter, Mohammad Yunus proved it too, and won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for doing so through his work on microcredit in Bangladesh).

Here in Concepción, almost everyone has a cell phone, and many professionals have Blackberries. I can buy Oreos and Snickers in town, and I can buy Sherwin Williams paint in Esperanza. One of the cooks here has an Avon catalog, and when you order makeup from the catalog, it actually comes.

Branding is powerful here, too. The repair shop has a painting of Mater, the tow truck from Pixar’s movie Cars, painted above the garage. Most people will only buy Toyota trucks, because they last longest on the harsh frontera roads.  The war between Coke and Pepsi wages bitterly.

Capitalism works just fine in this country.

But what really frustrates me about the Eminent Theoreticians who make broad proclamations about “poor people” and “their culture” is the implications of that attitude – that capitalism “doesn’t work” because of the people on the ground. This is poorly thought out, and, really, offensive. If a Theoretician’s particular working model of capitalism isn’t working properly, then their working model of capitalism should change.

Take for example the cell phones. True, cell phones as we use them in America would not translate well to the Frontera. No one has access to credit, so contracting plans would be very difficult. There’s only a limited cash economy, so you can’t play a plan that way either.

But cell phones are everywhere – because the capitalist system found a new way to work. Cell phones exploded in use in low-income countries when they started running on widely-distributed pre-paid minutes (called saldo in Honduras). You buy a card of saldo at the nearest pulperia with a few Lempira and enter the code on the back of the card into your phone to redeem your minutes. No contract. No credit history. No problem.

Furthermore, the cell phone revolution is causing other revolutions, too. Cell phone – based businesses are pulling families out of poverty. Systems for mobile banking in underdeveloped regions now use basic cell phone technologies to wire money by text. Other platforms have been developed to use phones to send the results of medical tests to remote villages. (Want more background? Here’s a TechCrunch article from UNICEF and another from the Discovery Channel).

And it works – because capitalism changed.

But that doesn’t mean that capitalism, as currently practiced, doesn’t need to change some more. To illustrate, here is a quote from Mohammad Yunus’s excellent second book, “Creating a World without Poverty” (emphasis mine):

“What is wrong? In a word where the ideology of free enterprise has no real challenger, why have free markets failed so many people? […] The reason is simple. Unfettered markets in their current form are not meant to solve social problems and instead may actually exacerbate poverty, disease, pollution, corruption, crime, and inequality.”

Therein lays our great challenge. But if capitalism can be altered to accommodate those great markets of people who were “too poor” only a few years ago, I hold out hope that it can be altered to accommodate other impossible goals, too.

Globalization and Groceries

There are many things that I miss about the States when I leave the country – I’ve already written about how I miss the roads. Another one that never gets much attention is grocery stores.

Grocery stores are a triumph of globalization. For the vast majority of Americans, if you want to buy a common ingredient, you have a really good chance of being able to buy it at least within a half-hour distance from your home. If you want something less common, I’ll give you three hours to get to Hong Kong Market or Little India. Still no? Order it from Amazon and wait two days. If you want ingredients in America, you can make it happen.

I am particularly spoiled in this regard. My family lives less than five minutes from the world’s largest Kroger and within 20 minutes of two separate Dorothy Lane Markets.  For all my durian needs, Jungle Jim’s is an hour away. If I want to buy any sort of ingredient, I can. The question is not whether I can purchase dill pickle spears, but which brand out of a dozen I will choose.

This is not true in the Frontera.

In Concepción, I can purchase a variety of Honduran staples: rice, beans, frozen chickens, and (sometimes) bread. There is usually a decent selection of vegetables, too: onions, carrots, potatoes, and yucca hold up very well, though the green peppers, avocados, and tomatoes start looking sad very quickly after market day. Plantains and bananas vanish quickly before the bugs can get them. Furthermore, all the produce is generally much smaller than you can find in the States: the large tomatoes are imported from elsewhere; the large bananas are shipped out of the country (following the money; Honduras is the original “banana republic”), so you can only buy tiny ones in stores. There are precisely three spice mixes.

My nearest “grocery store” is three hours away by a particularly miserable bus, and the selection is still limited.  But miraculously, globalization still moves food all the way to Esperanza. At the fruit market on most days, I can buy green apples from Chile! Peaches from Georgia! Pears from California! Ramen noodles from a mysterious factory that I want to know nothing about! And I know that the produce is imported, because even though I buy the fruit in the open market, it comes with a little barcode and four-digit number to scan.

That is what globalization means. It means that because I am willing to pay 10 Lempira, someone will ship a plum to rural Honduras to make a profit. This is the best demonstration I’ve found of capitalism in action. (It’s also, as a side note, the one of the best demonstrations I’ve found to demonstrate how capitalism leads to environmental destruction. Imagine the carbon costs of shipping that plum across the world.)

But instead of imagining my fruit market, imagine this. You’re thinking of making dinner but you’re missing an ingredient. Frustrated and short on time, you climb into your car and drive five minutes to the grocery store. You enter. The whole building is full of things to eat that you can buy, from all over the world, precisely because you are willing to buy them.

That’s a triumph of globalization. It makes America great.

Such abundance can be overwhelming, though, for the return traveler. When I came back from Africa in 2009 and went to my old Kroger, I walked through the aisles for half an hour, unable to make a purchase. I eventually bought a jar of dill pickle spears and ate half of them while sitting at my kitchen table that afternoon. It was the first sour food (apart from truly strange, gritty fermented yogurt) that I had tasted in two months.

I don’t know what my reaction will be when I go home this time. I hope it will be less severe – Honduras is less food-insecure than The Gambia. I’m not counting on it, though. I had a dream about going to Kroger last week.

(In my dream, I made bruschetta).