Lemons, Bananas and Coffee

Zacapa, Honduras - November 2003

The catholic church flanked by Centro Cultural Zacapa (Lemon's workplace) in the Parque Central.

Where are we?

For the record we had no say in where we ended up living for the next two years. We're in Zacapa sort of in the mid-west of the country. It means "water over the grass' in Mayan language. There's another Zacapa in Guatemala but were in the one in Honduras. It's pretty small (the word we prefer is 'sleepy') but adorably pretty. It boasts a colorfully twee colonial center set amid palm trees and green mountains and it sits at the fork of a river. It’s also between the big lake in the west of the country and the large National Park with the second highest mountain and it’s close to the industrial capital of San Pedro Sula and the Caribbean North Coast. There’s a strange mix of ‘educated’ academics (three big schools in town) and 'illiterate' farmers who ride around on horses and carry guns and machetes (Honduras is heavily armed). But it’s far from dangerous here and there is one policeman for 4000 people. Basically it's your standard one-bit two horse Latin American pueblo.

What are we doing here?

A valid question and one we ask ourselves on a regular basis. Officially Lemon is part of the Information Technology Project because of his "extensive background in computers" but naturally he is more interested in cultural matters such as art, literature and music. Thus he has been cheerfully assigned to work in the Cultural Center where they have a ‘library’ and (amazingly) a high-speed Internet center with 23 computers (in a town with one telephone). This is all part of a new government plan to bring technology to the poorest areas of the country. Zacapa was actually picked as the flagship community for this program and lots of high officials seem to come to visit on a regular basis. Lemon is also hoping to work with some of the indigenous community in their quest for success in "artisania" a.k.a. tourist "schlock" and also working on the Zacapa web site www.zacapa.hn . Julia meanwhile is developing youth in the nearby educational institutions and also in the field of health where she is roaming the countryside spreading the good word about contraception.

An unnamed ex-volunteer
and Julia (still smiling five months after our wedding)

What's it like?

Basically Honduras (so far) is rewarding and fun. Not the blisteringly hot savannah and impoverished dusty dirt jungle outposts you might imagine. Many parts of Honduras are beautifully unspoiled and free of tourists. It gets easier every day as mistakes become less frequent and life becomes more ‘normal’. We have made lots of Honduran friends but none who can play chess. The countryside is undeniably beautiful though… huge mountains and volcanoes, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, islands and green valleys. Honduras also has spectacular Caribbean beaches and some of the best preserved pre-Colombian and Mayan ruins in Latin America not to mention the Mosquito Coast. We know this because it says it in the guide book.

Is it true you have a lot of spare time?

Not as much as we hoped. Even though there's less TV watching and actual work hours there's a lot more hanging out on the streets or in people's houses, playing with kids, chatting or sitting in cafes reading the newspaper. There's also a lot of waiting. If you like to wait then Honduras is surely the place for you. We've also found ourselves being very motivated to help. However there are the odd several hundred hours to write letters create self-indulgent web sites, paint, write songs and obsessively clean your house before the ants return.

"Honduran Gothic" (a tiny range of cheap acrylics on very thin absorbent newsprint) 2003

Lemon shows sixth graders the subtle art of political caricature (Bottom left - Ricardo Maduro—president of Honduras & Top Right - that's supposed to be George Bush)

I heard Lemon has been teaching cartoon workshops?

Yes. This is true. It is also true that in Latin America, Lemons are actually green. What's amazing in Honduras is that if you mention you have a skill you suddenly find yourself teaching a class like you are some kind of expert. That never happened before. Anyway, Lemon's art classes have become legendary for being—well—use your imaginations. Needless to say all the kids leave with a signed Lemon original and the promise that one day it will be worth a lot of money either as a collectors item or as blackmail material. Honduran kids love to draw but do have the ugly habit of littering their art with icons of American imperialism such as Nike swooshes and Pepsi logos. Maybe it's all some kind of ironic post modern expressionism.

One thing that everyone wants when they hear there's a cartoonist in town is a caricature of themselves. I've even had one of my cartoons made into a large ceramic tile as a gift!

Is Lemon just as annoying in Spanish?

Everyone enjoys a good laugh at Lemon's expense when he messes up in Spanish. However he is the tallest person in the town where we live. This gives him a great advantage in crowds and reaching objects on a high shelf without using a stick or a telescopic ladder. Hondurans are generally quite short but we have a lot of indigenous Lenca communities around us and they are tiny. If you thought the California budget last year was short then you should see the Lenca.

Lemon and the former Honduran Decathlon champion enjoying an alcoholic beverage.

Isn't it a trifle hot down there?

Well no. Topographically speaking they have a lot of mountainous terrain in these parts (but no active volcanoes). Get an Atlas and look for yourself. Thankfully the Hondurans sensibly chose for the most part to live up high in the clouds. Sadly the founders of Zacapa were apparently too lazy to trek very far up the slopes for our taste but it's no living inferno of hellish sweat and sleepless nights with crazed malaria dreams. As one clearly insane visiting evangelist told me 'It may be hot here but nowhere near as hot as it will be if these people end up in hell'

What do you do when you're not working?

There's a lot to do even within walking distance and our unplanned local excursions have so far led to unexpectedly thrilling adventures. The biggest challenge when setting out for a hike is trying to fend off every passing vehicle that stops to give you a ride. It's almost unknown to simply walk for pleasure. The countryside is undeniably beautiful … huge mountains and volcanoes, rivers, lakes, beaches, islands and green valleys. Not the blisteringly hot savannah and dusty dirt jungle outposts you might imagine.

All the Central American countries are just a bus ride away but for now we're busy integrating into our new community like good little squeaky clean volunteers. As for the future, Lemon is planning to go to the Mosquito Coast and build an ice-making machine and Julia wants to see a monkey.

Julia attempts to cross the "Bridge of Death"

Lemon and his "charangolele".

There must be quite a cultural revolution going on in Honduras.... Is that true?

Never a less true statement has been uttered.

Honduras definitely lacks the cultural and intellectual stimulus you find in some other Latin American countries which is hard for us. There are no famous Honduran authors, poets or painters for example. The lack of creativity is evident even on a basic level. At least Che Guevara is more popular than ever.

However I had the local guitar maker construct me my own custom instrument—a cross between a Peruvian charango and a ukulele—and I've slowly been introducing Hondurans to my own brand of comic tunes. In Peru they make charangos out of armadillo shells. You have to send your armadillo to a music conservatory for five years in order for it to learn how to be a charango. Mine is made of wood.

Are you surrounded with spectacular flora & fauna?

Honduras is a sunburst of nature, much of which is untouched and inaccessible but it's very lush and clean for the most part. We have two geckos living in our house which keeps the number of insects low but it’s weird having reptiles loose on your walls but it’s better than having a Nazi loose as the governor of your state (our sympathies by the way to our friends and family in California– we didn’t absentee vote for him).

Lemon surrounded by spectacular flora and fauna .... to be precise Guatemalan Macaws and banana trees at the Copán Ruínas


Do you miss the USA?

Well we do have a nice house to live in. It's on top of a hill with a fabulous view and we have a non-working air conditioning, a washing machine (unheard of in Honduras as most people have their clothes washed on rocks on in the river), free satellite TV access (but no TV) and a little balcony with a view through the valley. This almost makes up for having no telephone and no kitchen. Our apartment used to be the doctor’s surgery so we occasionally get people knocking on the door in the middle of the night with their legs hanging off or their whimpering kids wrapped in manky blankets. We even sprang the extra 250 Lempiras ($15) and get an electro-duche (electric shower) fitted so we have hot water but the water/110 volt bare wires combination is not a reassuring one. However, that said we’re supposed to be living on the same level of living as the rest of the community and the house next to us is made of mud and sticks. But on the whole Honduras is great and has already carved a little niche in our hearts. The children are adorable, the adults super friendly and the dogs haven't yet sunk their teeth into my shins.


What's it like being "little ambassadors" of the US Government

We missed that last part of our training due to the unfortunate death of Lemon's last remaining parent so regrettably we missed our opportunity to mingle with the Honduran president and had a private swearing in ceremony at the US ambassador’s office at the embassy. The Bush apointed ambassador is 6' 5" tall with a gray afro and a somewhat ill-fitting suit. Nothing controversial happened and thus we got sworn in (it’s the same oath that the President takes) and we are now officially "volunteers". This is a great opportunity for us to do good work and we will have a great team of people to work with and an excellent support system.

Well that's all for now. Keep in touch!

Julia, Larry Palmer (US Ambassador to Honduras) and Lemon after their private swearing-in ceremony.

Next dispatch

J. Lemon / Lemonworld 2005. All rights reserved. This web site is not an official publication of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government. The contents of this Web site reflect the personal opinions and observations of the individual(s) contributor(s) and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.