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Life in Honduras - Part One

By Don Moore

This article was originally published in the July, 1993 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association.


In January, 1982 I left home behind and flew to Honduras to begin a stint with the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps advertises itself as "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love," and indeed my three years in Honduras were the toughest and most frustrating of my life. And I would do it again in a minute if it weren't for the realities of raising a family. Since 1992 I've found myself frequently thinking back to those days and reminiscing about what I was doing that month ten years ago and what my life was like.

After three months of training in Tegucigalpa, in April, 1982 I was assigned to work as a teacher-trainer in the town of Santa Barbara, which would be my home for the next 25 months. In those two years I got to know Santa Barbara as well as my old hometown of Milesburg, Pennsylvania. There's nothing really special about Santa Barbara, but then there isn't anything special about most towns. It's just a good example of Anytown, Latin America - the kind of places we hear on the radio. Let's take a detailed look at life in Santa Barbara.

Geographically, Santa Barbara is in west-central Honduras about 65 miles south of San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second largest city. Sixty- five miles may not sound like much, but I when I got there only the first twenty miles of the road was paved. After that it was a narrow dirt lane that wound its way around mountains, over rivers, and through streams (if it's only a foot or so deep, who needs a bridge?). The trip took four hours in bus or 2 1/2 hours in a car (two if the driver was suicidal, some said). During the dry season even the smallest vehicle would raise great clouds of dust; by the end of trip I could literally shake the dust out of my clothes and hair - even my eyebrows!

In early 1983, the European Community gave Honduras a loan to pave the road and put in bridges, and in May a Mexican company was hired to do the job. A year later when I moved away, most of the new roadbed was finished, but only a mile or two had been paved. However six months later when I went back for a visit it was about half done and the bus trip only took 2 1/2 hours! In town I met two greenhorn volunteers who had just arrived two days earlier. All they could talk about was the horribly long 2 1/2 hour bus ride. Me, I just smiled.


Santa Barbara isn't that big of a town - about ten to fifteen thousand when I was there, probably a bit more now. But, in Latin America, families are bigger, and houses are smaller and closer together. In area, Santa Barbara was about as big as a town of 2,000 in the U.S. To serve those 10,000 or so people, there were two drug stores, two radio stations, and two gas stations. There are probably a lot of towns of 10,000 in the US with less than two radio stations, but I doubt there are many with only two drug stores and two gas stations. The gas stations were Texaco and Esso, which of course was the old name for Exxon. The sign just never got changed, and I doubt it has yet.

There were also two hardware/lumber stores, several small clothing stores, and seven or eight restaurants, which combined might rate one star. The most common stores in town were pulperias - little mom and pop stores that people operated out of the front room of their houses. These sold soft drinks, cigarettes, and basic supplies like flour, sugar, and shortening. When trying to picture businesses of any type in Santa Barbara, don't think of the bright mall stores we're accustomed to shopping in. Although some of the merchandise may be modern in appearance, most of Santa Barbara's businesses would have fit in quite well with small town USA around the turn of the century.

Santa Barbara is a departmental (state) capital, or cabecera, so it had a lot of national government offices; most government ministries had regional offices in town. However, the departmental (state) capital building was a large one room adobe building with plywood partitions dividing it into three rooms. It didn't look very important, and it wasn't. Political power in Honduras rests in the hands of the national government and its ministries and in local town governments. In the middle, departmental governorships are appointed ceremonial positions, and there are no departmental legislatures. The entire departmental government consisted of the governor, a secretary, and a party-hack assistant padding the payroll.

The post office had three employees and 32 apartados (boxes). Most mail came correo general, or general post. People found out through word of mouth if they had a letter. Mail was only delivered to a few government offices, so letters had to be picked up in person. The mail truck came from San Pedro Sula on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to drop off incoming mail and pick up outgoing mail. Mail for the entire department came to Santa Barbara, so the three employees not only had to sort for the town, but also sort letters going to other towns. Mail was shipped to outlying towns the following days by local buses.

Actually there wasn't all that much mail. Honduras, like Heaven, has no junk mail. There were few magazines to be delivered -Honduran & Central American magazines were purchased off the counter and few people could afford to subscribe to foreign magazines via mail order. That left only letters, and in a country where most of the population is barely literate, if at all, there weren't too many of those. Sometimes it seemed as if the Peace Corps Volunteers in Santa Barbara were what kept the post office busy.

Next to the post office was the HONDUTEL office. In some places in Honduras, the TEL stood for telephone, but Santa Barbara had not been hooked up to the national grid and there was not a single telephone in town. HONDUTEL operated a wire-based telegraph service that was somewhat reliable and an unreliable UHF radiotelephone link over the mountain to San Pedro Sula. All in all, the best way to get a message to the outside world was to hop a bus for San Pedro and call from there. (I've heard that Santa Barbara got telephone service in the late 1980s.)

We did have the other standard utilities of running water, sewer, and electricity. Water always had to be boiled for drinking, of course, but once one got used to that it wasn't that big a deal. Just had to plan ahead. In fact, when I got tired of cold showers I started boiling water for bathing, too. Santa Barbara had a good source of water that rarely went off, but for my last year there I lived in the neighboring village of Galeras which had a less adequate system. The water would come on about 7 A.M. and stay on until the reservoir emptied, around 4 p.m. Then the system would be shut off to allow the water to fill up again. Like most people, I kept several buckets and jugs on hand and filled them up each morning to be sure I had water that night.

Electricity was more regular, but the lines came in over the mountains and occasionally one would go down and we would be without power for a day or two until it was fixed. I kept a supply of batteries and candles on hand and, unlike most people, prayed the power would go off more often. When it happened, there would be no electricity within a twenty mile radius and it was sooooo quiet for DXing!


A block from the central plaza, just behind the Catholic church, was the fruit and vegetable market. This was a squarish, tin-roofed cement block building with wooden stalls inside and more stalls surrounding it outside. About three dozen vendors sold produce from these stalls. The vendors did not raise their goods. They bought some foods from local farmers and others were brought in the backs of wooden freight trucks from other areas of the country. Occasionally a farmer or farmwife would bring in a few baskets of something to sell directly.

Contrary to the image we have of shopping in the Third World, in the produce market there was no bickering over prices. The market vendors cooperated in fixing prices at a fair level. No vendor would undersell his neighbor, nor did they overcharge customers. Prices were never posted, but every vendor knew them by heart, even when they seasonally changed. Once when another PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) was visiting me, he went to the market to buy some food for our supper. He commented to a vendor that he really didn't know how much things should cost here, and that she could have charged him fifty cents a pound for tomatoes instead of twenty-five cents and he wouldn't have known the difference. She crossed herself, pointed upwards and said, "Yes, but he would know."

Meat was relatively expensive in Honduras, so it was usually served in smaller portions or in soup. The beef was always fresh, though. Santa Barbara had several butcher shops, and they got carcasses daily from a small slaughterhouse along the road on the north edge of town. Several cows were killed every morning before dawn. Whenever I took the five a.m. bus to San Pedro Sula, I would hear the cows bellowing as we passed by. The butchers didn't make much distinction between cuts of meat. There was ground beef, liver, ribs, and beef. Asking for a pound of beef would get a chunk of about that size cut off the carcass right in front of you. Range fed, the beef was tough, but charcoal roasted it was tastier than any I've ever had in the U.S. (Inferior to Argentine and Uruguayan, however.)

Many people raised their own chickens, even in the town. Some of my neighbors had chickens in their backyards, and it took me a while to get used to the crowing at three in the morning. Occasionally, some would get into my yard. Forget that old tale about roosters crowing at dawn. In Honduras they start three hours early. Few people in Santa Barbara raised enough chickens to sell, so the butcher shops bought frozen chickens from big poultry farms in the Comayagua valley. Chickens were not sold in parts; they came frozen whole in plastic bags. I usually bought a half. The butcher would lay the frozen chicken on the counter and with one swift swoop of the cleaver cut it cleanly in half, neck to bottom. With luck, I got the half with the giblets.

We didn't get fish very often in Santa Barbara. We were too far from both the sea and Lake Yojoa, where commercial fishing is done. Actually, not so far from Lake Yojoa, but there was a huge mountain in between and no good roads around it. Pork was easily available, but there was a big problem with sanitation and trichinosis in the rural areas, so I never bought any. Peace Corps Volunteers working in rural development would tell stories of going into villages to promote the building of outhouses and being asked by the inhabitants, "But if we build latrines, what will our pigs eat?"

No one kept pigs in pens; they were free to roam the streets and as such were Santa Barbara's main street-cleaners. Any scrap of food or garbage would be scarfed up within half-an-hour. Each day dozens of campesinos would come in from the mountains with mules or horses laden with produce, and once or twice a week cattlemen would drive small herds of one or two dozen steers through the streets right by my front door on the way to the slaughterhouse. Each horse, mule, and cow left reminders of its passing in the streets, but the streets were never the quagmire one would expect as the pigs took care of the problem. Furthermore, for a town with thousands of domestic animals living in close confines, Santa Barbara was remarkably free of house flies.


Economically, Santa Barbara is dependent on coffee; the nearby mountainsides are well suited for coffee and Santa Barbara department produces a third of Honduras' coffee crop. Because coffee is a good source of export cash, Santa Barbara is relatively prosperous, compared to the rest of Honduras. Most better-off families in town owned small coffee fincas in the mountains and would move to the mountains each December and January to pick coffee. When they came back there would be coffee beans drying everywhere. First the beans would be spread on the few sidewalks. Then one lane in most sidestreets would be barricaded off and covered with cheap muslin or canvas which the beans were placed on. School playgrounds and the public plazas would be used to. No one questioned it - coffee was king.

Santa Barbara's only other product of note is junco, a type of straw used to weave baskets and very fine men's hats. The junco hats of Santa Barbara are famous throughout Central America, but the weaving is done by poor peasant women and the prices are low, so it doesn't have the economic impact of coffee. (Santa Barbara junco hats are among the many items available from the non-profit group Pueblo to People; 2105 Silber Road, Suite 101-51; Houston, TX, 77055. $1 for a catalog.)


Someplace here I've got to work in radio, and this seems to be the place because one of Santa Barbara's radio stations is named after junco - La Voz del Junco. It was located across from the main plaza in what from the outside appeared to be a somewhat rundown old adobe building. Inside, most of the building was even more rundown, but the studio was a work of art. Owner/manager Antonio Hasbun had built the studio himself, lining the wall with different shades of local hardwoods. Antonio was quite a handyman - he also built the MW and SW transmitters himself. The transmitters were on the outskirts of town about a mile or so away. They were connected to the studio by cable. One of my more interesting memories of La Voz del Junco is the time Antonio closed the station down for a week to honor his just deceased sister. I logged all kinds of new MW stations on and around 1010 kHz that week!

Fortunately for me, La Voz del Junco was inactive on SW 6075 for most of my time in Santa Barbara. A few months before I left Antonio fixed up the SW transmitter and started using it occasionally. At that time I was living less than a half-mile from the antenna and those few hundred watts pegged the S-meter in my FRG-7 everytime. It was so strong at night that the only other station in 49 meters that could make it through was the Voice of America on 6130. Despite my super reception, La Voz del Junco was quite a catch anywhere else. But, a few reports did trickle in and Antonio had appointed me volunteer QSL secretary. I eventually issued about eighteen QSLs, mainly to U.S. DXers.

Antonio, by the way, also owned the town's only movie theater, so to speak. It was a large room in the building next door to the station with about 300 folding wooden chairs crowded in. The sight would have given any U.S. fire inspector an immediate heart attack. In fact, the building had been a school but had been closed because it was considered unsafe due to earthquake damage. Most of the films shown were Kung-Fu flicks, cheap Mexican westerns, or softcore porn, although occasionally Antonio would succeed in bringing in some high culture such as Walt Disney's Blackbeard's Ghost or Ringo Starr in Caveman.

The other station in town was Ondas del Ulua, named after the Ulua river about two miles outside town. Ondas del Ulua used 1140 kHz, later changed to 1150. When I arrived the station was eleven years old, but had never been listed in the World Radio TV Handbook, which shows how hard it can be to get good information out of remote areas. Besides the MW, they sometimes also announced FM and SW 4770 kHz, although they didn't so much as have a transmitter or an antenna for either one. But, they did have licenses. Maybe one of these years Ondas del Ulua will get a SW transmitter. It would be fun to hear them again.

Radio was important in Santa Barbara. Besides our local radio stations, people listened to San Pedro Sula stations. And, some people listened to SW, especially to the Voice of America Spanish service. While walking through the streets at 6 p.m. (0000 UTC), I could count on hearing VOA Spanish news coming through about one window per block, on average. Radio Sandino on MW was also popular, but more with young people. A number of students at my school listened to it. I also remember bus drivers playing it on several occasions, though I suspect the bus drivers were more into the excellent folk music than the revolutionary news. Although a few wealthier families in Santa Barbara had TVs, reception from San Pedro Sula on the other side of the mountains was very poor, so it didn't have much impact.


Santa Barbara had one big Catholic Church facing the plaza, just like all picturesque Latin American towns should. The rectory was next door and I believe we were assigned two priests, but not being Catholic I only attended a few services and can't say for sure. There were also several small Protestant churches. In Central America, there just aren't many of what we would think of as mainstream Protestant churches such as Methodist, Baptist, or Lutheran. Instead there are numerous small evangelical sects. Most are just conservative, but a few are outright flaky and downright pushy. One, a few blocks from the plaza, had gotten together enough money to buy a PA system. During their services, which were two hours long and EVERY evening, they would blast out over their loudspeakers so everyone within six blocks could hear. So much for "Love thy neighbor." They were one of the prime reasons I moved out of town to Galeras.

There was also a small 30-40 member Mormon Church in town, always guided by a pair of clean-cut young American Mormon missionaries. I admire the Mormon Church for encouraging students to take a year off college to do this. Seeing the Third World first hand is a real eye- opener and I'm sure each missionary goes back a changed and better person because of it. However, the missionary system as it was set up did not do much to promote the growth of Mormonism. The missionaries went everywhere and did everything together in pairs - either two guys in white shirts, solid-color neckties, and dark pants, or two girls in neat below-the-knee dresses, and always with little black name tags. They could be spotted blocks away and people made jokes about it. Each missionary was moved to a different town three or four times during their one year of service. It was a good way to see the country, but hardly a good way to gain the familiarity with a community necessary to begin converting souls. In Peace Corps, we assumed the pairwork and frequent moves were to keep the missionaries from getting romantically involved with a local citizen. We heard tales of local teenage girls who would reconvert each time another pair of handsome young American hunks came to town.


Santa Barbara had several public primary schools with way too few resources and way too many students. Typical class size would be around 50 students. There were no textbooks; students bought cheap spiral notebooks and wrote down information the teacher wrote on the blackboard. As at any Honduran school, enrollment got progressively smaller as one went up the grade scale until sixth grade might have as little as a third as many students as first grade did. At any age poor families might pull boys out of school to help in the fields or girls out to help mom take care of new babies.

Santa Barbara also had a small private primary school run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, although there was no Adventist Church in town. Admirably, in Central America the Adventists often run schools or hospitals with no visible missionary strings attached. Some families who had the money for tuition, such as coffee farmers and shopkeepers, sent their kids to the Adventist school, although most who could have afforded it were suspicious of the Adventists' motives. (My experiences with Central American Adventist missions was always very positive.)

Just outside town, in the village of Galeras, was the Santa Barbara high school, built in the 1970s with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Although they still look like schools, tropical schools are very different from ones up here. For one thing, there are no hallways. Instead rooms open up to roofed over porch-like passageways which are open on the other side. Another difference is that there are no glass windows, only screens. When US AID built this building they equipped it with all the audiovisual equipment a good school should have, like overhead, opaque, and movie projectors. When I arrived in Santa Barbara several years later, all the light bulbs in all the equipment had burned out and there was no way to get replacements in Honduras.

Next to the high school was the Normal School, where I worked. A Normal School is essentially a specialized senior high school (10th- 12th grade) which trains its students to be primary school teachers. That's all that's necessary to teach primary school in Honduras - a specialized high school degree. Of course years ago we used to have that system in the U.S., too. Actually in Honduras there are quite a few primary school teachers who haven't even graduated a Normal School. Most Normal School graduates are women and only teach a few years after graduation before marriage so there's always a shortage of qualified teachers.

Only a small percentage of Honduras children go to high school or specialized schools like Normal Schools or business high schools. As noted above many drop out throughout grade school. Many who do make it through grade school, however, can't afford to go to public high school because of minor fees for things like registration and taking tests. Yes, students pay a fee which covers the paper and printing costs for midterm and semester final exams. If they didn't, schools couldn't afford to test them. The national government pays all salaries, but puts very little money in the hands of individual schools for supplies and other expenses.


Santa Barbara had several doctors, all Honduran educated. As we used to joke in Peace Corps, a Honduran medical degree was sort of like going to junior college to be a doctor. In more important towns there were better doctors who had gone to school in Guatemala or Costa Rica, and in the cities ones who had attended medical school in places like Mexico, Venezuela, or Argentina, or even the US (although American- educated doctors only served the very rich). In Peace Corps we utilized the services of an Argentine-educated doctor in San Pedro Sula and a U.S-educated one in Tegucigalpa. Roughly speaking, how good a doctor was and how well-off his clients were could be determined by where he got his degree. If it was Honduras, you knew he was at the bottom of the rung.

I don't want to be too rough on Honduran doctors, however, as in some ways they are superior to any American one. I've heard tales of returned Peace Corps volunteers and missionaries who have gone through months of tests and consultations with specialists only to find out that they have some common tropical malady than even the worst Honduran doctor could have identified in a minute. Sometimes it's not so important how much you know as what you know.

Getting back to Santa Barbara, we did have a regional hospital, a simple one story building across the road from the slaughterhouse. The facilities were very simple - it was more for taking care of common tropical diseases and accidents. They had no way of dealing with problems like cancer or heart disease. Children are especially susceptible to local parasites and diseases, and there was a separate childrens' ward. Save the Children funded a meal program in the ward and there was a Peace Corps volunteer dietician who coordinated diets for the children based on their needs.


At the end of April, 1984, I finished my Peace Corps service and left Santa Barbara. Several months before I had started seeing Theresa, who was working in a village in central Honduras. She had come to Honduras after I had and still had several months of service left, so I found a job as an English teacher at the Honduran Air Force Academy by Comayagua, about an hour's busride away from her. I worked there for six months until coming home just before Thanksgiving, 1984. Theresa followed a few days later.

Honduras remains a very important part of me, and if I seemed a little flippant at times, it's not disrespect, but the good-natured ribbing of a close friend who knows your secrets. Honduras is my second home. Long as this article is, it barely scratches the surface of the tales that I could tell about Honduras . . .


This article is copyright 1993 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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