Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

26 June 2007

Progress In Paradise

Everyone's definition of the word "paradise" is different, it stands to reason. However, Guanaja certainly would qualify as such in almost any book. Tropical and unspoiled, it offers a nice getaway...a nearly-perfect remedy from our modern, overdeveloped "civilization." Many gringos have adopted Guanaja as their new home. And when you find something so ideal, it is only natural that you want it to stay that way forever.

If only...

The trouble is, nothing stays the same. Everything changes. Sometimes change is good; sometimes it's bad. We have a certain amount of control over it, but not much. Life, as they say, goes on. With or without us.

I was at Hansito's Manati bar recently, talking with two local idiots. Well, not really "local" idiots: gringos who live in Guanaja permanently now. And maybe they're not really idiots. Alcohol just brings out the worst in people (and I should know!). But you know how it is when guys get to drinking - we think we can solve the world's problems. Oh, we're so smart when we're drunk!

Anyway, Guanaja is a pretty poor place overall. I mentioned my distress at the number of unemployed, idle men we see lounging around every day. Don't they have jobs? Why don't they have jobs! One of the guys I was with asked me if I knew what the Number Two source of income for Hondurans that live in Guanaja was? (The number one being fishing, I suppose.) I said I did not know.

"It's family members who move away and send money back," he said.
I had no way of verifying this information, so I shrugged said something insightful like, "Uhh, okay, that's pretty pathetic if it's true."

Then recently, on his "littlewoodenman" blog ("the ¡vaya pues! edition" - I love that), Canadian Matthew mentions that 1,050,000 Hondurans...14% of the country have left (fled?) to pursue careers in the Estados Unidos (United States). He takes this number from an article in a Spanish-language newspaper which in turn got it from a study by the Honduras National Commission for Human Rights. Read the story here. Do these Honduran ex-pats send money back to their families here? Indoobitably!

Now, the people of Guanaja do not need much money. They have no cars, no car payments, no car insurance. Many of them do not even own boats, so there is no gasoline bill. Housing is cheap, although food and electricity are expensive. (And of course there is the cell phone bill.) Even so, it does not take a whole lot of money to support a family in Guanaja. Our workers make the paltry equivalent of US$75.00 per week and seem to be doing okay, even those with families (which is, like, all of them).

So maybe it is possible that a family could exist in Guanaja solely on what is sent back by a relative living/working in the United States. But I digress. Back to that evening at Manati.

The conversation sort of lagged, and I concentrated on seeing how many glasses of Rum and Coke I could empty, as is my usual drill. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, the second idiot asked me if I liked Guanaja when I moved here?

"Of course!" said I, enthusiastically.
"Well then why do you want to change it?" he asked pointedly.

He was referring to the project we are doing: Brick Point. This is a 500+ acre, 200-homesite development with a huge marina and large commercial area. It is about as un-Guanaja as you can get - right now. Many gringos and ex-patriots do not like this development, as you might imagine. They see it as us spoiling their island. The trouble is, Guanaja isn't "their" island. And up and down the society food chain, the locals support what we're doing, even the mayor, who is a pretty intelligent, visionary kind of guy. And the locals are the ones who count, not rich gringos who vacation down here sporadically and think they control things because they have money.

Although my boss has been a homebuilder for most of his adult life, he does not want to build houses on Guanaja. He'd rather sell the homesites and then let a local company build the houses. He will help our current workers start such companies, then give them the recommendation when someone buys a homesite from us and needs a house built on it. Win/win.

What many gringos do not know is that my boss is building a trade school primarily at his expense. See, skilled workers are now and always will be in demand...workers who can read a blueprint and then build something to that specification. And build it with quality and accuracy and some sort of speediness. These skills are sorely lacking in Guanaja at the present.

So we'll build a school...which will train locals in all of the various construction techniques...give them a marketable skill...let them start their own companies, own their own businesses, hire their own employees...in other words, raise up the whole island. Sure, my boss could sell the homesites and build all the houses and walk away with nearly all of the money. It would be easy. But he is not like that. He genuinely loves Guanaja and wants to see it rise up and prosper and improve - not stagnate in its current state of depression and ennui. The trouble is, too many others want to see it be held down - do not want to see the island change at all. They like it just the way it is.

I got defensive with the two idiots. I said that I thought that what we were doing was a good thing for the island and the people who live here. And I said I didn't think it was acceptable that so many local families had to rely for their subsistence on members who move away and send money back. In fact, I thought that was pretty damn sad and that any civic-minded person with a conscience would try to do something about it. (Okay, I was up on my high horse a little. I get that way.)

The guys did not agree. They seemed to think that the status quo in Guanaja was just fine. Sheesh. At that point I knew I was fighting a battle of wits with two unarmed enemies.

Yes, our project is big. Yes, it will mean that Guanaja is going to change. Indeed, Brick Point may one day become the new "town center" of Guanaja the way Las Vegas developed the new casino area away from the original downtown. The Cay (Bonacca Town) may very well become a mere curiosity, an overcrowded, smelly place for tourists to avoid. Especially if they can do all of their shopping/eating/whatever at Brick Point and the surrounding areas.

Some gringos have come to Guanaja long ago and formed a mental snapshot of it. This snapshot is their permanent image of the place, and they do not want it to ever change. I completely understand that. And I completely understand that it is an impossibility. Guanaja will change. For better or for worse, it will. That's a hard thing for some to accept, those who would prefer to see it stay just the way it is forever. But wouldn't that be a sad thing?

I think the far better idea would be to get involved...work to ensure that the coming changes are done with foresight and intelligence and commons sense, qualities that are generally in short supply in places like Guanaja. And since you can't stop it, and development is going to happen anyway, it might as well be done smartly. To do that, you just can't leave it up to someone else.

There are good and bad developers. But I'll say one thing: the people of Guanaja better thank the Lord for a developer like my boss. If ever there was a person committed to "doing it right," it's him.


La Gringa said...

Good article, Bob. As a gringo (or gringa) talking about change, you are always subject to criticism: "Are you trying to Americanize? Are you trying to change the culture? Shouldn't you just accept the way things are?"

Like you, when some people say they don't want Honduras to change, I think that it must be for selfish reasons.

When 60% of the country lives below the poverty level, 40% don't go beyond the 6th grade, and there is 30% unemployment (with 40% of the population not even eligible to work yet! -- under 15), how can any intelligent person not want to see change?

I hope the people of Guanaja take advantage of the trade school and develop good skills to sustain their families.

The remesas that are sent from family members (US $2.4 billion and approximately 30% of the gross national product last year), only serve to develop a sort of welfare population who don't work and don't have any desire to plan for the future. If an emergency comes up, the relative will just send more money.

Sorry for all the statistics but they just are so shocking that I think it helps prove your point that change is needed.

Matthew said...

Hey, Bob! Thanks for the linkage. Not to throw more numbers at you, but I wrote a post a way back about remittances making up at least 15% of the country's GDP. I've heard figures tossed around that are as high as 20%.

Obviously it is not sound economic strategy to depend so heavily on the economy (and ever-tightening immigration policies) of fellow countries. There also needs to be more study into how these remittances are used/invested. Are people starting their own businesses or buying a big screen TVs?

Kudos to you and your boss for trying to improve the island at a deeper level than just the houses. You guys sounds like cool folks to hang out with.


Bob Barbanes said...

Gringa, the only way we're trying to "Americanize" Guanaja is to help make it self-sufficient and less dependant on charity. If that's perceived as wrong...

I totally agree with you that the situation I described perpetuates this "welfare population" you mentioned in which the members have no motivation to go out and work! Why should they? There's always been a handout of sorts. Thus, we have workers...grown men who cannot sign their name for their pay, who have only the most basic grade school education who can just barely support themselves and their families. It's really sad.

Matthew, one of the problems in Guanaja is that when I talk to the guys about owning their own businesses, it is an idea of which they cannot even concieve! Most (North) Americans see owning your own business as the only way to real wealth, but these guys can't understand it, can't even conceive of it.

As for what the "remittances" are used for, I can guarantee that the locals aren't buying big-screen t.v.'s or SUVs. I would guess that the majority of the money goes to buy drugs. Whatever is left over goes for groceries and rent.

It is a sad situation here, one with no easy or simple solutions. But until Honduras develops a real middle-class in which the population can support themselves without "help" from relatives in foreign countries, nothing is ever going to change.

Thank you both for your input!

Anonymous said...

Good article Bob. I live on the island and could not agree with you more. To hear people say they don't want change is indeed selfish. They are only thinking of themselves and not the welfare of the island on the whole. "They" would love to see planes stop coming to the island so less people could get out here which only means that the people here are stuck in the rung of society they are in with no chance to improving short of leaving the island. And if they all leave what will be left behind? The people who don't want change would see very quickly that what they now appreciate as "comforts" would be lost if the islanders left.
Another way to fight drugs, I feel, is to have educated people, with jobs who want more out of their lives and don't need drugs as a crutch to enjoy what is here. I love the island but expect change.....and, yes, it should be well thought out, logical and something that will last and improve the lifestyle of the islanders. The "gringos" already have a good lifestyle.

Bob Barbanes said...

Anon, obviously it is complicated, but I think that the biggest part of the problem in Guanaja is exactly that: The people are not educated and have basically nothing to do but work (for those who can get it). There are no movie theatres, no golf courses, no entertainment of any kind...no distractions or activities for people to engage in (other than soccer). Ergo, they turn to alcohol and drugs to counter the feelings of hopelessness and boredom.

We have GOT to offer the next generation an alternative. And that alternative is the very real possibility of a better life..."the dream," if you will. Right now, they just go through the motions, living day by day and (let's face it) waiting to die. The people of Guanaja need, as the French would call it, joie de vivre, which is currently in short supply. Ironically and sadly, many of the gringos like it that way.