Friday, March 28, 2008

Dark Trade

I went to a professional boxing match the other week. It reminded me of the other side of the sport, the side I choose to ignore. Unlike Guatemala and Honduras, Costa Rica is the first country I've been to that allows professional ranks, and you can feel the difference. You can see how much of it is controlled by money and power, how the sport gets lost in the glamour and glitz. Just standing in line you can see the arrival of luxury car after luxury car, entourages of muscle-bound men chuckling at their lewd objectification of women, flocks of old rich foreigners interlocking fingers with young Costa Rican girls, basically everything gone wrong with the country come to fruition.

It is here I am reminded that most observers of the fistic trade are not watching for the sport, but because they placed a hefty wager on the betting line. It is here I realize that I've been babying the sport, believing that every aspect of it was somehow socially conscious, that is didn't bring something ugly out of us. Strangely enough, every fight ended in either a stoppage or disqualification. You should have seen the excitement in the crowd during the first knockout, hell even I felt my pulse rise at the sight of the blood on the canvas. We cheer for knockouts, we cheer for combat because it is a reflection of what we ourselves desire and our attraction to violence is manifested in that squared circle. Boxing is not violent, its the rest of us that are.

Somewhere along the line the sport loses something, turns hopes into work, dreamers into laborers, changes from a sport to a business and its not a business for the soft-hearted, not a place for people like me. A part of me died that night, a little of that naive enchantment that the sweet science was something pure, something that wasn't tainted in corruption, imbedded in sexism and virtually a trade of exploitation and violence. A little of the love wilted in the prescence of what the sport can change people into, what it can make us do, and at the realization that maybe the home I've always been able to find abroad was never really my home to begin with.

The rest of the night I kept shaking my head, telling myself that this wasn't the sport I fell in love with, that it was hiding somewhere underneath all the ugliness, but I can't believe my own lies. The sport is dirty and I can't deny that. I wanted to take a break from boxing after I went to that fight, but one of the only times I felt half-way decent was when I was working the heavy bag in Puerto Viejo. I am addicted to the sport. I need it. It is the only stable thing in my constantly shifting surroundings. There's no way I could go on without it, but coming back to it is strange, like returning to an unfaithful lover. Scents of betrayal still linger in the air; "its embrace weak with mistrust".

Monday, March 24, 2008


One week ago marked the longest I've been away home, alone or with somebody. Here on out, its new territory. I have no idea what is going to happen. I "celebrated" by going to the beach, well moreso I succumbed to the urge that I had to do something that everyone was doing being that it was Semana Santa and everyone headed towards the coasts. I had to go to a place where I thought I would fit in only to find out that I don't. The strange thing is that I've been surrounded by people that speak the two languages I'm capable of, yet the person I've talked to the most has been myself. Its funny that I've been tested of my solitude in a place FULL of people, and that so far the worst moments of this journey have been in the most scenically beautiful places, but whats traveling without a little irony?

For the first time I've felt really alone, in a place I'm not supposed to. Also for the first time I've realized there's nothing really wrong with the people I'm around, I'm probably just jealous that they have the capacity to enjoy themselves and I can't seem to find it. Maybe I've had it wrong all along.

However one of the few friends I made, Anita, said something interesting to me the other day. When I told her I've been traveling by myself for the past three months and plan to for many more, she said she looked up to me. Now I'm sure much of that was confused in English being her second language, the connotations differing between the two tongues, but I was taken aback nonetheless. I never considered myself someone anyone would want to emulate, and still don't. But she said she admired my endeavor because I would learn to be happy. She said if you can learn to be happy alone, you will find true happiness; that you can find it anywhere if you find it in yourself.

It reminded me of one of the questions the Bonderman panel asked during my interview. They asked when the last time I was happy. The question caught me off guard because it felt like something a psychiatrist would say to their patient, but after thinking about it, they had been able to see something in me that I couldn't. I could probably count on four hands the number of instances I've been "happy". I'm ultimately an unhappy person probably because I've been looking for it in all the wrong places, unsatisfied with the world and myself, acting in accordance of how I should act rather than how I want to.

But one of things I also said in the Bonderman application was that I believe you grow in struggle, that you learn from pain. After this last week, I hope what I said and still believe in is true. I've had a considerable run of bad luck here, from the Atlantic Ocean swallowing my sandals, leaving me stuck barefoot in the middle of a coral reef full of sea urchins (my feet still have not fully healed), to losing a hefty amount of cash from my moneybelt being flung out of my locker by some unfortunate occurrence of physics. Almost everything has gone wrong for me, up to the last moment of me foolishly locking my keys in my locker and the owner refusing to unlock the spare key because he was too busy chasing female visitors and "fucking sleeping".

Apart from just the shitty things I've had no control over, this place surfaced many of my physical insecurities, has me questioning my self-worth, and forced me to reanalyze my social acceptability. It's been mentally difficult, but in the end I think I've managed to accept my social awkwardness, realized that its okay to be alone, even if everyone else around you isn't.

Costa Rica has left me with a bittersweet taste. Part of the bitterness is due this country slowly being economically overrun by companies, which you can tell from the fact that the majority of the comments on my last post have been from hotel owners and businesses who shamelessly use the comment function as free advertising space. The other part is just the incredible run of bad luck I've been encountering. My only saving grace has been the people I've been running into, the friends I've been blessed enough to have back at home and abroad, and the reminder that people can change the most difficult moments into beautiful memories.

Akey told me that I may be by myself, but I am not alone. He told me that people are always with me whether I am physically with them or not. I still don't think he knows how much I needed that at the time. Despite all the crap that's been thrown at me, that comment allowed to me leave with a smile still on my face.

(Anita and Paulina, two cool ass people)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

La Pura Vida

("The Pure Life o La Pura Vida" by Joaquìn Rodrìguez del Paso)

When you ask about Costa Rica while traveling through Central America, you're likely to hear things like, "Hay mucho desarollo" (there is a lot of development) or, "Es el pais màs rico en Centro America" (it is the richest country in Central America). What they fail to tell you (or maybe they just don't know since it is both expensive and difficult to travel for most Central Americans) is that the "development" is in the form of luxury shops and hotels and most of the "wealth" is in the pockets of foreign business owners.

Coming on the bus from Nicaragua, I immediately noticed the change I was in for. People quite literally wear Hawaiian shirts, more travelers do not, and even refuse to speak Spanish, and you get the sense that people come with an entitlement, like they are the ones coming home, rather than visiting someone else's.

It is like a combination of Las Vegas and Hawaii here, although the type of shit that is legal would make Sin City look tame. I say like Hawaii because the country itself is a natural beauty, 5% of the world's biodiversity as I'm told, but that same beauty ironically attracts its own destruction as rain forest after rain forest is being illegally cut down to make room for condominiums. As the poet Black Ice says, "it's a beautiful world, but ugly souls push the buttons".

Also like Hawaii, its #1 industry is tourism, but you wonder how much gets reinvested into maintaining tourist services and how much actually goes to the people when you see a good amount of people still living under aluminum roofing.

For the first time on my trip I heard Costa Rica referred to as a "poor country", during my conversations with my couchsurfing host Gianna. I tell her that almost everyone around Central America considers it a rich country, that even people from the States consider it a rather pricey tourist destination. She says yes, put in the context of this region, but compared to the rest of the world, it is still a poor country. She asks me why I think that despite the high rises and multinational banks, there are still people begging and starving on the streets, why the government allows the abundance of foreign developers to rape the natural landscape, why the authorities turn a blind eye to child prostitution. I'm left speechless but I know. I know it is because people need money, which gives you an idea of how impoverished the other countries in the region are.

Interestingly enough, despite its rather heavy US influence, Costa Rica is the only country in Central America that hasn't signed onto the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). CAFTA is essentially a legislative attempt to open up the trade barriers between Central America and the United States, which means private and government entities will have access to compete for resources and land, which means the ones with power and money will win out, even more so than now. There is of course a strong movement against CAFTA, but Gianna admits she knows the consequences of not signing on. The many private companies that already have a strong foothold will begin to pressure local government, international aid will be cut off, and ultimately people's day-to-day lives will worsen. Sooner or later, the country will have to give in.

THIS is global bullying at work. THIS is neo-colonialism. It is very real. And for what? For the greedy to have a playground to indulge their selfish desires. For those who seem to never be satisfied in having more than enough to have even more. That is it. Nothing else.

Gianna tells me to go to the beach this week, to Puerto Viejo, while I still can. She tells me to go before it becomes another "backyard of the United States", like Jacó is, like what Manuel Antonio is turning into. She tells me to enjoy "La Pura Vida" (The Pure Life), while it can still legitimately be considered the national greeting. I think I will. I'll take a break from my normal cadence of traveling and get to know the country I originally planned to use only as a visa renewal. I might find some beautiful things.

But the fact remains that Costa Rica is a dying country, its natural beauty disappearing before your eyes, or as Gianna describes it, "Like sand running through your fingers". I imagine the hardest part is that you once felt it, you once held it, at one point it was real, but no matter how hard to try to hold on, eventually, it just slips away.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Unsteady Departure

For the past three and a half weeks I haven't spoken a word to another traveler. I've seen them, but never thought of starting a conversation seeing how most of them think Central American capital cities are crappy places to begin with and only use them as transfer points for a couple of days. Maybe they're not "primitive" enough to satisfy their skewed perception that the entirety of third world countries are supposed to be rural farmland or rustic villages. People somehow don't feel they are gaining an "authentic" experience if a place resembles their home too much, despite the fact that the capitals are usually the most populated parts of the country. It is as if people are not real (insert Nationality) or have not retained their culture if they are allowed access to the luxuries that we have.

Numerous locals have asked exactly what the hell I am doing here, why I'm not in the coastal cities like the other tourists, but I tell them I like it in Tegucigalpa. I take the same bus route to and from the gym everyday, pick up my bananas from the same fruit vendor, know where to go for anything from super glue to cheap blue jeans and have my daily conversation with my bread supplier, whether I buy a bag of baked goods or not. Random people on the street shake my hand and I'm finally getting the hang of reading and sending text messages in Spanish. I'm comfortable here.

But that comfort is different from any other feeling of stability I've ever had abroad. During my first experience in Spain, I had Akey, quite possibly the most intelligent human being I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. In Guatemala I had Sergio. Both I could relate experiences of life in the US, both I could converse quite easily with in English. But here I've had no one, I've virtually been alone. Here, apart from the phone and email conversations and the hour and a half of talking to myself in my room every night, all my exchanges have been in Spanish and quiet unexpectedly, Chinese. Also quite unexpectedly is that I've probably eaten more Chinese food than I will for the remainder of this trip. Here, everything has been rooted in unfamiliarity and loosely tied by uncommon bonds, yet I woke up the other day with a strange feeling. I woke up feeling like this is where I live, or at least where I was supposed live for the time being, and I was saddened by the thought of leaving, almost as if I was departing for a long trip from home.

I've grown quite enamored with the capital city, primarily because of the people, which reminds me that it is the people that make the place, not the other way around. That being said I'm actually quite satisfied with my isolation from the traveler's circuit and am now nervous of re-entering those areas heavily populated by tourists. I never made it to the Bay Islands or the Copan Ruins (although I did see a lovely virtual tour at the Museum of National Identity), but from the three hours I spent in the bus station just listening to the foreigners going there, I don't think I could have stuck to my resolution of renouncing bitterness and to stop being irritated by people.

The funny thing is that the Bonderman actually dissuades you from following those frequently traveled routes and instead encourage you to find a path of your own, but I find that I need to work in the opposite direction. I need to work towards tolerance of these people and well, going to those places was too soon for me. I just don't think I was ready for it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

What Are People in Honduras Like?

"Like people," I frequently answer whenever asked this question. With what I like to imagine as a confused look, people always ask me to elaborate. What I mean is that the variation of human behavior transcends geographical boundaries, meaning that in any country you will find a wide spectrum of personalities, meaning anywhere in the world, you will find, people. Granted, I've only been in the capital city, but from white Christian missionaries to the immigrant Chinese hotel owners, the plethora of perspectives have made the same place look different with every person I meet.

It occurred to me that my previous posts may have made it seem as if ALL Hondurans are living in poverty. That of course is not the case. Even the boxing gym is fairly diverse in its socio-economic makeup, primarily defined by what time one comes to the gym. The first batch mostly resides in San Miguel, the same neighborhood of whom most of these posts have been about. Feeling the cold grip of poverty, when asked if they would ever want to live somewhere else, most respond, "Let's go to tomorrow."

The other group comes later in the evening, usually after their work or courses of university study. Most of them live in scattered regions throughout the city, most can speak English, and most participate in the sport for hobby, as their attendance is sporadic at best. My sparring partner "Chino" is one of the only from this group that shows up everyday, but his reasons for staying in the fistic trade are more therapeutic than a means to escape poverty. He is well-off enough so he does not have to rely on his body capital to make a living. Studying for a PhD and working as a teacher, his experiences are drasitically different from Juan Carlos and his friends. Also, as the son of a politician, the constant accompaniment of body guards would make his life a bit different in both positive and negative respects. When I ask if he would ever want to live in another place, he simply shrugs and says, "Maybe. If there was some opportunity there."

While "Chino" is probably an extreme example, there are a good handful of boxers from upper-middle class families. Although an interesting mix was Leonela. A second year medical student who also works part time at the Museum of Natural History, I thought of her to be at least 25 but it turns out she just turned 18. She said working since you were 14 will make you seem older than you are. This is the only reason I assume she didn't grow up with wealth. I tell her I graduated with a sociology degree and she tells me, as if she is unfamiliar with the field, that she's only taken one sociology course, but she prefers Marx over Durkheim. She had already surpassed most UW Sociology undergrads by knowing those two names. I ask her if she ever thought about living elsewhere and with almost a look of confusion she says, "No, Honduras is my home. This is where my people are. This is where I want to help."

I usually end my training session with these two, as they are often the last two to leave, a stark contrast to how I begin my day. When I got back to the hotel, I am met with another, almost a different world altogether. The Yueng family, who recently have almost adopted me, have been feeding me complimentary meals and providing me with all the TV and Internet I could ever need, although I do earn my keep by doing weekly tutoring, teaching them how to use the internet, and even at times attending to other guests in the hotel. For them, life in Honduras is work, an opportunity to flee the over-populated job market in China. I ask their other son Yonni, who owns and runs his own "pulperia" (local corner store), if he ever wanted to leave and he said, "Si, pero no hay opiciones" (yes, but there are no options). The other two children, Arturo and Monica, do not consider themselves Chinese, but Hondurans since this is their birthplace.

However like most immigrants there is a considerable amount of xenophobia from the existing population as the mother describes how she feels as if locals are addressing a dog in the way they point and say "China". I can't say I haven't experienced that so far in my journey. There is definitely racial tensions between the two groups and I find myself awkwardly in the middle. There's even tension between other Chinese immigrants as another family down the street constantly gossip back and forth about the family I'm renting my room from now. Unlike the owners of Hotel Mariposa, all their children were born in China, and still live there today. Some of the bickering has to do with what part of China they come from, which may seem trivial, but it would be ignorant of you to think all Chinese people were the same given the size of the country.

Unfortunately the animosity from the local population is only reciprocated as I notice the belittling treatment of Hondurans by Chinese business owners. Like Laura, who I met and befriended at the Chinese restaurant of the latter family. Saving up for beauty school, she works 6, sometimes 7 days a week for 10 hours a day and makes in a month about how much I spend in 10 days living on a frugal budget. Soon she says she'll be working at the local Hiper Paiz, which for all you familiar with Central America, is owned by Wal-Mart. This will actually be a substantial improvement in wages and hours.

These are just a handful of people I've met here, yet they represent a kaleidoscope of perceptions, experiences and approaches to living life in the same city. Much of that is due to their social class, which moderately diverse, but the reality is that most people in Honduras are impoverished, 75% as I was told by Michael, after he asked me if there were poor people in the United States. At 12 years old I was impressed by the knowledge of his own country and insightful inquiry of another, or just embarrassed that I didn't think like that when I was his age. I told him yes there were, it's just that most people in the world don't hear about them. Hell, it's a common mistake for most US college students to homogenize their own population.

The point is that most people are led and driven by the same social forces, so that in the end, everybody has the capability to be like anyone else. We somehow forget how similar we are from others, how easily we could be in someone else's place if we had been born a different skin color, a different gender or in a different income bracket. It is really nothing special about us perse, just something we choose not to acknowledge that keeps us afloat.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Welcome to My House

(From Left to Right: Junior, Juan Carlos, Leandro and Paulo)

What began as a simple inquiry as to what some of the boxers do before training, quickly turned into a full fledged tour of their neighborhood and homes. It was nice to know these guys in an environment outside of the gym, but it was a reality check as to how good I've been living here, despite my room being increasingly infested with cockroaches and costing 140 Lempiras ($7.50 USD) a night. I used to tell them that my old hotel had no water and that I washed myself with a bucket, thinking they would be surprised that I chose to live that way, but after seeing some of their homes, it probably came off like I was boasting seeing how they would be fortunate to have the "tila" full of water that I had every night.

(Leandro Jr and Leandro Sr)

My first stop was to Leandro's house, where I met his father who named his son after himself. I didn't get to see much of the house, but the pictures on the wall told me that his mother had passed and that he has an older brother and pregnant sister living elsewhere in the same neighborhood. Leandro tells me he wants to continue onto the university because that's what his mother would have wanted if she was still here, but he can't afford it. His father works to pay the rent, sister works to feed the family. There is little left for luxuries like education. When I ask him what he wants to study, he says he doesn't know. He says it doesn't matter. Just as long as he's studying something.

(Juan Carlos showing me his latest piece of work)

Quite the contrary is Juan Carlos, whom you all are acquainted with from the previous post. For him, he says he only wants to work; anything that will bring in money but according to him, all the jobs run through the training session and he is still unwilling to give up boxing. In the mornings he helps his family to earn his breakfast. Lunch he hasn't known for years. The rest of the time he draws, quite skillfully too. I ask him if he ever considered applying to art school but he says that is even more expensive than the normal university. He'd like to though. Maybe he's more like Leandro than he thought.

(Paulo by the doorway and water supply)

Finally I was taken to the house of Paulo, whose living conditions surprised me the most since he always came to the gym so well-kept, but then it is foolish of me to think that one's physical appearance has to automatically correlate with their living situation. Walking up the unfinished wooden steps, the first thing I noticed was that both the floor and the majority of the walls were concrete. After he invited me to sit, immediately my elbows were dampened and felt that the table cloth was soaking wet. It was then I remembered it was raining that morning. I looked up to see that the roof consisted of various scrapmetal, hardly enough to endure even the infrequent rain during this time of year. It was difficult for me to imagine what it was like during the rainy season. With almost a shameful urgency, he quickly told me that soon they'd be installing more dividing walls so that the kitchen and his shared bedroom wouldn't be just an open space as it is now. He told me this with almost a hint of embarassment, as if he had to apologize for growing up in poverty.

After we finished I invited them out to eat something, anything for allowing my intrusion into their lives. They chose Chinese food, maybe for my sake, or maybe they just really like fried rice. Juan Carlos ate with such ferocity that it seemed like he hadn't eaten lunch in years, but then I remembered, he hadn't. The check came out to 146 Lempiras, about $8 USD to fill the four of us with leftovers to spare, which the guys decided to give to the coach. Perhaps it was my appeared ease in paying for what here is a considerably hefty bill, but Paulo later asked me if I could lend him money to buy school books because all his family's income went to food. After visiting his home and noticing how he always carries a satchel full of schoolwork, there was no way I couldn't believe him. I begrudgingly decided that I couldn't lend him the money, not because of the amount, but because it was ultimately unfair to the rest of the guys. I couldn't lend them all money. That I couldn't afford. But that doesn't mean I didn't want to.

I wanted to give Paulo a library where just alphabetizing the genres would get tiring, large enough you'd forget what you were researching because each book would spark a new thought. I wanted to provide Leandro the opportunity to have so many choices in what to study that he'd have the common symptons of a US college student stressing in "not knowing what to study" but ultimately end up being fine, so really, all those problems he frantically complained about paled in comparison to his reality before he went to school. He would always chuckle at how silly his worries once were. I wanted to buy Juan Carlos an infinite canvas and all the art supplies he would ever need to sketch away his hunger, paint over his pain, and create a work of art to remind the world that their lives are worth just as much as anyone else's; that whatever you're going through, someone else always has it harder so be grateful for what you have. I wanted to bear some of the struggle, help crack open the window of opportunity a little wider and let a little more hope shine through, but I couldn't. All I could do was buy them some damn Chinese food.