Mike Talks About... Banking

The U.S. is in the midst of a major banking crisis. But on Roatan, the banks are doing quite well.

Their success is based on various policy decisions.

For instance,

*It takes one-to-two hours standing in line to deposit a check or withdraw cash. This policy prevents any run on the banks.

*The interest rates on mortgages range from 12-17%. This results in very little demand for loans.

*Checks written in blue ink are rejected, usually two or three weeks after they have been deposited. This saves on any interest they may have had to pay, and usually results in a fee that YOU have to pay.

*Before you can enter the bank, you have to show the two guards standing at the door with machine guns that you are turning off your cell phone. This prevents any unnecessary distractions inside the bank.

*Except on customer appreciation day. Recently the French Harbor branch of our bank hung a large flat screen TV from the ceiling, and played Rambo dubbed in Spanish. A healthy two-hour dose of Sylvester Stallone in the jungle encourages any violent thoughts that customers may have while waiting in line, and justifies the jobs of the armed guards.

*There are now several "ATMs" on the island. None have ever worked in the year we have been here. One ATM is a drive-through, and is used to allow you to park your car in the shade.

*Tellers take a break whenever a street vendor comes in with merchandise (pirated DVDs, CDs, probably-stolen watches, etc.). This lengthens the wait from one hour to two for sure.

*Gringos can't open checking accounts until they become residents. You can't become a resident without showing proof of $2,500 a month in income from the U.S. Given the stock market collapse, no gringo has $2,500 a month coming in, so all transactions are cash. This reduces the number of employees the bank needs to have on hand.

*Complaining to the bank manager gets you nowhere. When one of your deposited checks sits on the airport tarmac in the rain en route to headquarters in Tegucigalpa, and the ink washes away, you lose the money. Nada. No bueno. No dinero. Your Spanish isn't good enough to argue, and his English isn't working that day.

And don't forget the stamps. Tellers are surrounded in their stations by stamp pads, ink refills, and carbon paper. Yes, carbon paper! Every step of the transaction requires a different stamp (with a bang and a flourish) and a new piece of carbon paper. Bank books are manually numbered and recorded by hand in a ledger when they are distributed. And don't forget the stamp.

These policies have kept the Honduran banks financially sound and us, slightly crazed.
Contributed with love and frustration by Mike, the Twins on an Island's Dad



Today I drove home in a deep funk from Discovery Bay's Thanksgiving celebration, where I had been one of two Mommies responsible for the "Party." I'm just not cut out for this, I thought. I can direct a board meeting for dozens of high-ranking corporate types; I can balance an out-of-whack budget and explain it; I can ask the super wealthy to make just one more gift. But I can't figure out how to be a Room Mother. My Corn Bread Madeleines were too crumbly (and made a mess) and my Ginger Spice Cookies with hand-grated nutmeg were simply not chocolate chip.

I bumped along the Dump Road feeling sorry for myself and homesick, and sorry for my kids that they didn't have my Mother for their Mother, and lugging a large tupperware of corn bread and spice cookie leftovers.

And then I saw her. The pregnant mother of so many children that I recently wrote about, whose family has just moved to a larger home they built by hand on the side of the road.

I stiffled my tears and stopped the car, leaving Delaney and Hayden sleeping inside. I grabbed the tupperware of goodies and walked across the road, looking squarely into the astonished faces of this woman and her brood. "I'm Alecia," I said, and held out my hand. "Maria," she said in response with a toothless smile.

I tried to say that maya ninos (gemelos, dos anos) vamos a escuela each day, and hoy a celebration, so por favor, cookies y pan de maiz para usted.

She seemed to understand, and eagerly grabbed a ginger cookie. I held the tray out to each child surrounding her, and each little hand eagerly grabbed one and gobbled it up. They looked at me with huge curiosity written all over dirt-smudged faces.

Though it's kind of a blur, I'm guessing there were three girls, about three, five and seven, and two boys, maybe two and four. I think there was an older child too, maybe ten. "Muchos ninos," I said with a laugh. Maria laughed too, and said "Diaz Ninos, y un otro," pointing to her belly. I thrust the entire pan into her hands and said I'd pick it up another time.

Gracias, adios, etc. we said and I scooted back to the idling car.

And now I know. Her name is Maria, and she likes cookies.

Anything else we can give her and her kids will be icing on the cake.

Happy Thanksgiving, from Roatan.


Bulldozers, Band-Aids and Bundt Cakes in the Sand

Ever since Mike was bitten by a neighbor's dog a month ago, Delaney and Hayden have been obsessed with boo-boos. We have a drawer in the master bathroom, filled with band-aids and cotton balls, which they are allowed to open. Each day they check inventory, empty the boxes, move the contents from room to room. Then they "pick" which of the millions of band-aids is right for their imaginary boo-boo. For a while they also checked on Daddy's boo-boo, but by now they've forgotten about it.

Instead of routinely picking up 100 Balls before bedtime, which we did for several months, we now pick up 1,000 Band-Aids. Mike pointed out today that it was convenient to have band-aids in every corner of the house, for those odd moments when you actually need one. And you thought I didn't have a method to this madness.

Recently Nelson, our house builder, came to try to identify a persistent leak in the roof and ended up cutting a giant hole in the drywall. This has become the new, major Boo-Boo. Yesterday Delaney held an entire conversation with the Boo-Boo Hole in the Wall, and ended by selecting a band-aid from the drawer and sticking it on the plaster, about five feet below the actual hole, but where she could reach. Fortunately she didn't tell me to kiss it and make it better.

Besides band-aids, Hayden is also obsessed with bull dozers, which he calls by his one truly distinct word, "T-RUH" (truck). Presently we have a bull dozer on the premises here at Palmetto for a big water/electric project, which Mike is responsible for. This is a story for another blog.

Suffice it to say that Alberto, the bull dozer operator, gets a kick out of the daily visits from the "Ninos." "Hola Nino, Hola Nina," he says from his high perch. He even let Mike and the Ninos climb aboard. Like the band-aids, this has proven to be cheap entertainment.

I admit I'm feeling a certain ambivalence this week about Thanksgiving. Undoubtedly Nelson will pick Thursday to show up with a crew of workers to repair the Hole in the Wall, making a mess and destroying all sense of holiday. Alberto and the Bulldozer will still be zooming around, reminding us that most people are working. I miss knowing that I'll be cooking a big turkey for family or baking two or three pies to take to friends.

Like we did last year, we will probably be going to the Palmetto restaurant for a buffet dinner. I really don't have the time or energy to do more than that. Still, I wish it were easier to host our own party. So instead of a cherry pie, the babies and I made dozens of bundt-cakes in the sand. And I bought a frozen turkey, just in case I change my mind.


New Construction

Driving down Mud Hole Road to school, the babies and I passed half a dozen cars and trucks as well as the usual assortment of cows, sheep, horses and chickens. "Wow, the island's hopping," I thought to myself. "It's going to be a busy day."

We passed the snack shack in Man O' War Cay. A truck was stopped outside and several kids were picking up breakfast before heading heading off to the yellow schoolhouse next door.

It's not Starbuck's, but it's the morning routine.

New construction is all around us, as well.

I've been fascinated by an elegant new wood-pole structure going up just beyond the village of Hottest Sparrow.

I'm particularly curious because it sits in front of one of the most unusual buildings near us, a house plucked from another century. It's a very primitive construction with steep thatched roof and sides, and a family that cooks in the outdoors with the sea as their front yard and the hillside grazing grounds as their backyard.

My mom, Carol, was the first to notice this house hidden in the trees when she and my Dad spent a month here last spring. She liked to think it was an indigenous family of Garifuna, descendents of ship-wrecked slaves who found their way to Honduras, Guatamala, Nicaragua and Belize. But I have since determind that the occupants are Spanish Hondurans, not Garifuna.
Though I don't know for sure, I've imagined that the small, shoeless boy (maybe five years old?) who herds the cows and sheep from pastures on opposite sides of the road is part of this particular family. I wave to this little guy each day (and yearn to buy him some shoes). The babies say "Moo" to him as we go by.

Over the last few weeks, the wood-pole frame has been filled in with pieces of scrap metal and plywood. It suddenly looks like all the other aluminum homes across the island. The family has clearly moved from the back house to this new house, because there are pots and pans piled outside the front door, a long clothesline, and a handful of children running in and out. There is also a very pregnant woman who sits outside and watches the road.

A Palmetto security guard hitched a ride with us a few days ago. I asked him for details. In Spanish he told me that the family has many children (muchos ninos), the mother is pregnant again (otro nino) and they needed a bigger house (mas grande casa).

Joline, a former babysitter who lives in Hottest Sparrow, bummed a ride this morning. I continued my questions in English.

Joline told me that the original thatched house had been there for nine or ten years, since before the road was cut. It was very old and about to fall down. Sure enough, sometime in the last week or so, it did. The old roof remains, sitting like a hairy hat on the hill.

Joline also told me that the family has 11 children. Three are grown, but the rest are still at home. Muchos ninos, for sure.

I asked her if they would appreciate it if I stopped by with some clothes and shoes. Joline, whose own family barely has clothes and shoes, said simply, "Of course."

I will do that. I humbly look back on the two-year construction of our concrete and wood dreamhouse involving dozens of workers. I have zillions of photos, but they seem both trivial and gargantuan against the simplicity and hope embedded in this new structure. We spent a lot of money to have exactly the same view, plus some ceramic tile and a stainless steel fridge. Different economies, different scales.
Isn't it interesting that at this moment, though, we share the same road.


Parrothead or Little Lady?

You know those stacking toys that have different sized colored rings? You put the biggest ring on the bottom, and stack them up?

Well, Delaney's neck has become a stacking pin. She has begun stacking any and all clothes that she can thread over her head: shirts, shorts, bathing suits, hooded towels, pajamas; you name it, she puts it on. This morning she wore a diaper on the bottom and ten different shirts around her neck, none of them with her arms pulled through.

She has also suddenly discovered Daddy's bead collection. (Mommy's jewelry collection is far less interesting than -- or as large as -- the many years of accumulated Buffett Party Beads buried in the closet.)

When she doesn't have ten shirts on, or even when she does, Delaney will add a string of beads and parade around the house. I can't decide if she's pure Little Girl, or Parrothead-in-training.

Speaking of dressing up, I neglected to post Halloween pictures. Even our international preschool encouraged the holiday, with creative costumes ranging from pirates (of course) to princesses (of course) to cute cousins dressed as Batman and Robin. Delaney was one of two Minnie Mouse's who showed up, but even Disneyland has more than one Minnie, right?
Here is their teacher, Miss Deana, with the two Minnies. Delaney on the left, Nicola on the right. Nicola had the ears, but Delaney had the bloomers. None of them look happy, do they? It was fun, really it was. Really. It was.

And here is the school director, Miss Lily (and teacher of the older group), as a butterfly. She is greeting Dr. Zeekinstein, a relative of Dr. Frank's.

Hayden was a Hawaiian Tourist. He got to wear the beads that day.

And here's my favorite photo of all. Trick or treat from our little goblins.


Hayden at the Airport

Well who knew. I carry around this camera all the time (a gift from the Greater Hartford Arts Council) and never realized it took videos. All the times that I've said, "Mike, we should have had the video camera" (which I don't know how to work, either), and I could've been shooting the moment myself.

So this accidental video shows us at the end of our trip to Tegus, returning to the Roatan airport. Remember, I didn't know I was filming. But I'm so excited by my new skill that I just have to share it. Hopefully all you have to do is press "play." If it doesn't work, write a comment below and let me know.
And just wait: now that I see what's possible, you might be in for "Twins on an Island--The Movie"!
Posted by Picasa


Getting to Tegus

The week before we left for Hartford, we received a summons to appear at the Department of Immigration in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa (Teh-GOOSE-eh-GAL-pa), within 30 days. Our long-sought residency status had been approved, and we were instructed to go get fingerprinted and photographed. All of us, babies included.

Tegus, as it is commonly called, is two flights away from the island of Roatan. First we must fly twenty minutes to La Ceiba, then on to the capital. This flight is about an hour; both flights are on a tiny 15-seater prop plane. An associate of our lawyer's would meet us there. If all went smoothly, we could return to Roatan the same afternoon.

We made our first attempt to get to Tegus on Monday. We awoke at 4:30am, packed food and toys for a day plus an emergency overnight bag, and made it to the airport by 6:30. Unfortunately, the stormy weather grounded all flights and we ended up going back home.

Since Tuesday was election day in the U.S., we didn't attempt it. Too much good stuff on MSNBC.

On Wednesday, unexpected protests over the rate increase for electricity resumed. The airport was shut down, primarily because employees could not get to work. Roads were blocked by crowds, by large objects and by large men with machetes. No one could get anywhere. School was cancelled, the Municipal issued a warning to "stay home," and so we did.

By mid-day the power went off and our generator went on. This is a good thing, except that during rainy season it becomes hard for the Tropigas tanker to come over our mountain to refill our butane tanks. So this must be rationed as well.

We learned last night that the Cobras had arrived -- the Honduran elite army. This was partly in response to the departure of the cruise ships, which were seen hovering on the horizon but then not pulling in to port because of the threat of civil unrest. If this continues, it will mean huge economic devestation for our island. Ironic that at precisely the same time, we are becoming its "official" residents.

We got up at 4:30am again today with the hope that the plane would arrive, employees would show up, the weather would hold, and that we would be able to get to Tegus and back without difficulty. At 6am we drove by the Cobra forces, dressed in riot gear with bullet-proof shields, lining the sidewalks of the Coxen Hole triangle like storm troopers. We later learned that the protests were better contained to the area farther east around the electric company, but electricity was not restored until about 6pm, more than 24 hours since going out.

Our day, however, was a success. We navigated two flights up and two flights back, endured two hours at Immigration, and enjoyed lunch at the Tegus airport McDonalds. What can be better? Almost exactly one year since moving here, we have received the right to come and go in increments other than 90 days, to live, and to work (note that the right to buy property and spend money was ours all along, however).

As ironic as it is that we have become residents during a week of extreme instability in our chosen place, it's equally interesting that it is happening during the week that the next American president was elected. All day long we saw people reading Honduran newspapers, in the airport, on the planes, and in the Immigration office, with the cover pages overwhelmed by Obama's photo. The Hispanic businessman, the black father, the pilot, the Honduran grandmother. All were reading about, and absorbed in, the U.S. election.

Maybe all except the pilot of our third flight. He took his colorful center spread of the electoral map and created an impromptu window shade -- once we were already in flight. He flipped open the window in the cockpit and tucked the corners in, then closed the window to keep it in place. AFTER we had taken off and were well above the clouds. Both Mike and I chuckled as our ears popped. Yet despite this creative use of our homeland, the sun still streamed in. And when we arrived back on Roatan, it was still shining.


Caribbean Amphibian

Attention all Parrothead friends:

There is a little-known Buffett song hiding on Elmopalooza, a Sesame Street CD that I picked up in Hartford. "Caribbean Amphibian" is such a relief after months of playing "Wee Sing Mother Goose" as we bounce along the Mud Road. (Sorry, Mom. I can only do so many repeats of Hickory Dickory Dock.)

I actually bought two kids' CDs at Borders last week, this one and Dan Zanes "Catch That Train." Dan is one of my heroes; he was a performance artist often featured at Dance Theater Workshop in New York when I was development director there in the 1990s. Now he's featured on the likes of the Disney Channel, among other places, and his videos are awesome. At least they are to me. Like with Caribbean Amphibian, I think I'm getting more enjoyment out of them than their target audience, Delaney and Hayden.

I'm so enamored with my new song that I'm going to share it with you. Note that Kermit the Frog does vocals with Jimmy, backed by the All-Amphibian Band:

I know a tropical island
Where the mango moon
and banana sun shine
And on this tropical island,
there lives a Cousin of mine

Sometimes he lives in the water
Sometimes he lives on the land
Sometimes he likes to go sun himself
on soft, Caribbean sand

Sometimes he hops to Jamaica
Sometimes to Haiti, he hops
Sometimes a warm Puerto Rican beach
is where he finally stops

Sometimes he lives in the water
Sometimes he lives on the land
Sometimes he likes to play music
in an all-amphibian band!

He's a Caribbean Amphibian,
he likes to hop in the tropical sea
Caribbean Amphibian,
A frog in a coconut tree...
A frog in a coconut tree!

I've decided that this little guy is Mike's alter-ego. Island hopping, mango and banana hunting, sea dipping: these are the fantasies that have compelled my hubby for years. So now whenever I see (or hear) a frog, I'm going to think of Mike, in (or under) a coconut tree, happy as can be. And whenever he hears this song, which will undoubtedly be often, I hope Mike will remember what's important, and why he's brought us here.