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Life in Honduras - Part Two

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the July, 1994 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association.


About a year ago I had an article here in the NASWA Journal reminiscing of my life in Santa Barbara, Honduras with the Peace Corps in the early 1980s. I've received a lot of nice comments on that article, so have decided to follow up with a second look behind the scenes at what life is really like in Central America.


Life in a place like Honduras can be very different in even the simplest of things. Take water for instance. In North America we have hot water heaters in our homes. We wash dishes in hot water and take hot showers. If you take a cold shower up here, you must have a good reason. In Honduras, only the well-off have hot water in their homes, and that never included me. In most Honduran homes, water comes in one temperture: cold. Just how cold it is depends on elevation: The higher the town, the higher in the mountains the water source is, and the colder the water. Santa Barbara is in a valley, so the water there wasn't very cold. On a really hot day, it could even feel good. Tegucigalpa, at 3,000 feet elevation, is another matter. In Tegucigalpa, I always took very quick showers.

Then there's Guatemala. I've been to places in Guatemala that are 5,000 feet or more above sea level. In places like that you don't take a cold shower unless you have a friend waiting nearby to revive you. Not fond of cold showers, I rarely took a shower while at home in Honduras. Instead, I kept a large bucket of water in my shower stall and each evening added a gallon of boiling water, warming the bucket to the comfort zone for a plastic dipper bath.

There was a relatively cheap local way to get a hot shower. In Central America for about a hundred dollars you can buy small electric water heaters to hook up to your showerhead. When the water is turned on, the heater comes on automatically and hot wires heat the water up as it passes by. The heating power is rather limited, and if the water is turned on full pressure it will hardly be heated at all. A truly hot shower is only possible if the water is kept at a trickle. The main reason that I never invested in one is that the thought of my shower water traveling through electricity a split second before hitting me made me more than a little nervous. Despite fears of electrocution, I did use these mini-instant water heaters several times while staying in cheap hotels. Better hotels, at eight or ten dollars a night, had real hot water from real hot water heaters. But Peace Corps volunteers don't get paid a lot and I was cheap. Flea-bag hotels with life- threatening showers were the norm when on the road.

Showers weren't the only problem concerning water. Keeping a supply of drinking water on hand was a daily chore. Since one never knew what nasty microscopic things were floating around in it, water for drinking had to be boiled for twenty minutes and then strained to remove the mineral precipitates. Any wonder that I drank so many soft drinks in Honduras that I hardly touch the stuff anymore?

Actually, the water was often safe to drink without boiling. But "often" is not the same as 100%. Drinking unboiled water can be like playing Russian roulette. I played the game way too often and got two cases of amoebic dysentary to prove it. Amoebic dysentary is much more serious than the usual "turista" that Americans sometimes get when traveling in Mexico. "La turista" is simply the digestive system trying to adjust to new and unusual tropical bacteria naturally found in the water. Given a few days, the body will work itself out. Some Peace Corps volunteers, including me, even got this after returning to the United States as our systems got reacquainted with North America's tiny fauna. While amoebic dysentary is not usually fatal, a person suffering from it might well wish it were quickly fatal.

I hope that no one finds this discussion of bodily functions distasteful. In Honduras, these were facts of life, and when Peace Corps volunteers got together, you could bet that one's recent feces consistency would be a topic of discussion. I even remember discussing bowel movements on dates. Actually, though, it was only Peace Corps volunteers and other foreigners who spent lots of time thinking about and discussing intestinal problems. For most Hondurans, these diseases were simply a fact of life. Hondurans rarely boiled their water or took any other precautions. Mostly they didn't know what to do or didn't understand the connection between contaminated water or food and disease.

And teaching people about boiling water wasn't as easy as it appears. Outsiders can't just go into villages and tell people to begin doing something differently than they have been doing for centuries and not expect a certain amount of resistance. One Peace Corps Volunteer I knew once planned a health workshop to try to teach poor women in her village to boil water, but when the village alcalde (mayor) heard about this he prohibited it on the grounds that it was "puro comunismo". Now it may seem pretty far-fetched to say that boiling drinking water is a form of Communism, but the alcalde was a lot smarter than it would appear. He belonged to the wealthier minority that ran the regional economy and he knew that if the peasants realized that they had the power to make improvements in their own lives through small things like boiling water, they might begin to question other factors in the status quo as well. Change starts small, and sometimes petty local officials could be the worst impediments to change because in the long run they had the most to lose. In Honduras, any change could be tarred with the tag of Communism, the all-purpose bogeyman.

Getting back to the topic of water, despite the problems I was glad to at least have running water. Many villages do not have water systems and most of the rest of the country has inadequate service. Even in the large cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, different sections of the city would have their water cut off for hours at a time because the system couldn't supply everywhere at once. For my first eight months in Santa Barbara I lived in the town itself, which had a very good system, by Honduran standards. About once a month the water would go off for maintainance, but otherwise we had running water 24 hours a day.

But for my last sixteen months I lived in the village of Galeras, where the school I worked in was located, about a mile outside town. The water system in Galeras couldn't handle the demand, so we only had running water for about nine or ten hours a day. Every morning the water system would be turned on about 7 or 8 a.m. We had water all day until about 4 or 5 p.m. when the reservoir was empty, and then it would be shut off to allow the reservoir to fill up overnight for the next day's use. In order to have water at night, people kept buckets and other containers filled up. This was especially important during the dry season when we might only have water service every other day.

The need for storing water brings us to the next topic - pilas. An English-Spaish dictionary will tell you that "pila" means battery, and indeed it does. But in Central America it also refers to the large rectangular concrete basins for storing water found outside many Honduran houses. Sizes varied, but usually they were about 3 feet high, 4-5 feet long, and 3-4 feet wide. Half of the top was always covered with a solid concrete washboard, which is where the laundry was done - by hand, of course. The other half of the top was uncovered. The washing process was simple. Lay the item to be washed on the washboard and dump a plastic container or two of water on it to get it wet. Then rub with a bar of laundry soap to get it soaped up (the soap was harsh stuff and really dried out the hands) and rub the clothing against the ribs of the washboard to scrub it. Finally dump a few more containers of water on to rinse away the soap. The washboard section had its own drain so that the soap never contaminated the water in the pila itself. Washing clothes in a pila may not be as convenient as a washing machine, but it's much better than washing clothes in a river, as people too poor to have a pila do.


Well, in discussing amoebic dysentary and bowel movements, as I did a couple paragraphs above, this article has probably sunk to a record low for NASWA. Might as well continue on the low road with a look at, ummmmm, toilet paper. Honduras has its own specific customs regarding toilet paper, and they are very different from those in North America. Of course, poor people, being poor, use old newspapers or whatever instead of buying toilet paper. But then, poor people normally have latrines or a clump of bushes instead of a flush toilet. So, bear in mind that this is just about the middle and upper classes.

First, nobody in Honduras flushes used toilet paper down the toilet. Instead, it is thrown in a wastecan beside the toilet. This may seem unsanitary, but it is necessary. In most places the plumbing is very bad and can't handle the paper. So, rather than chance clogging up the toilet, people throw the used paper in the trash.

Another important fact about toilet paper is that in Honduras you generally don't find a roll of it in the bathroom. In Honduras, having the whole family use from the same roll of toilet paper is regarded sort of like having the whole family use the same toothbrush would be in North America. Actually, it's not that bad, but you get the idea. Furthermore, having a roll of toilet paper placed in a public restroom in a restaurant or store is unheard of. Instead, everyone has to carry their own, which people do. Women carry a partial roll in their purses and men carry some folded up in their pockets. Wherever you are, when the time comes you had better be carrying some toilet paper with you, or you're in big trouble. It sort of gives a special meaning to the phrase, "Don't leave home without it!" In fact, after returning to the U.S. it was several months before I was comfortable leaving home without it!


In the first "Life in Honduras" article, I pointed out that due to pigs eating manure in the streets, there weren't many flying insects. The non-flying variety more than made up for their absence, however. Ants were everywhere. In the corner of the backyard of one house I lived in for a few months there was a nest of fire ants - a wide but low mound of loose dirt hidden by grass and weeds. Because the backyard was small - about 20 x 25 feet - it was hard to miss the ants when hanging clothes out to dry and many were the times that I or other Peace Corp Volunteers living or visiting there stepped in the ants. In just a few seconds there would be dozens covering and biting the victim's leg; it didn't take long to figure out where the 'fire' came from in their name. The remedy was close and simple, however. Run to the "pila" and jump in feet first, with a few choice words along the way. The cool water made the wounds feel better and drowned the ants.

Fire ants weren't very common - or at least I never encountered them anywhere except that one house, but there were many other less hazardous varieties. Long columns of single-file ants were part of every day life in Honduras. Tiny, almost microscopic ones were good at invading the kitchen. Everything had to be kept in tight containers and dishes washed immediately, or these guys would find their way in from outside under the door or through the window screen.

The real threat to food wasn't from tiny ants, but from cockroaches. Honduras' tropical climate is cockroach heaven and the most common species grow to two or three inches in length. I would find them behind containers or on the underside of my table all the time. When I swatted them, I just let them lie on the floor and within 15-20 minutes a long line of ants would appear from under the door to cut the coakroach up and haul it away. Oddly, these ants were not the tiny ones that went after stuff on my kitchen table, but another slightly larger variety that only appeared when there were cockroaches on the floor. I don't know how they knew. Sometimes I wonder if they had some sort of group ESP. But, they carried the cockroaches away, and that was all that mattered. At one house I lived in for a couple of months, there were a couple of scorpions that lived in cracks in the wall of the shower. We could have gotten rid of them, but they ate the cockroaches that crawled up the drain from the sewer, so we left them alone. Except for cockroaches, the general rule with insects was live and let live, mostly because we were so greatly outnumbered by the insects.

Things like this can make life in a place like Honduras look hard, and indeed it is, especially for the poor majority. But boiling water for drinking or bathing is a lot less stressful than being caught in a traffic jam and I would rather put up with ants and cockroaches any day instead of telemarketers. In the end, which place is better is just a matter of give and take.


This article is copyright 1994 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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