December 24, 2008

Feliz Navidad by video from Santa's elves

Send your own ElfYourself eCards

Feliz Navidad
from La Gringa and El Jefe!

I hope this gives everyone a laugh!

(I hope this video works. It is hilarious! If you don't see the video, try this link. It will only be available until January 15th. Yes, that is exactly what we look like! Heheheh)

December 15, 2008

Culture or customs? gives a long page of definitions of culture. Here are some excerpts:
culture: The sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted, through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.
cul⋅ture 1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc. 3. a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture. 5. the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture. 6. Anthropology. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.
I often hear or read about people saying that they love the Honduran culture. I wonder which parts of the culture they are referring to. If someone is picking and choosing what they like by referring to the art, language, food, or personalities of some of the people that they have met, maybe that is a fair statement. In most cases, if they are referring to "the sum total of ways of living", then I have to believe that they are not very well informed about Honduran culture today.

Honduras has one of the highest crime rates in the world, the highest rate of violence against women in Latin America (translated version), one of the highest poverty rates in the western hemisphere, and one of the highest rates of mistrust among the people. Rates of alcoholism, child abuse, teenage and other out-of-wedlock childbirth, and incest are off the charts. Honduras corruption is renowned and not just within the government but within all layers of society.

If such actions and traits are so widespread, aren't they a part of the culture, too? When is 'culture' just a custom or even just a bad habit?

And when should culture change?

It's funny and maybe backwards thinking, but to me, those who patronize and blame some serious, harmful flaws on the 'culture' are stereotyping. I think it reflects the typical U.S. superior attitude that "these people" are different and just can't learn and need to be coddled and taken care of like children. You could say that many of those customs are part of the culture or you could say that they are merely a lack of education or awareness of what it takes to get by in the world today.

No. I don't agree that people can't change or learn or that any culture should be revered in its totality, including and maybe especially USA culture. I imagine that there are good and bad things about every culture. There are some people in every country who will be losers no matter where they live or what opportunities they are given. Most people, however, are capable of learning, whether it is learning a job and doing it responsibly or taking care of their children properly. It's just a matter of whether they a) have the opportunity, and b) are motivated to do so or not.

An estimated 1.2 million Hondurans (of an estimated population of 7.6 million), have left Honduras and presumably the majority have adapted and succeeded in varying levels in their new countries. I hear from a lot of expatriate Hondurans who revere the old culture and lament the culture (or customs) of Honduras today. I also hear and read a lot of comments from Hondurans living in Honduras today who lament the changes in the country.

Some say that they love the Honduran culture of "family". I wonder if they have any idea how many children are born each year who will never know a father, how many fathers who have children by multiple women with no thought to ever providing support or taking responsibility for their children, or how many teenage girls pop out a baby by a different guy every year until they finally find one who will stick around. These behaviors were not part of the culture 30 or 40 years ago, so that shows that cultures do change and not always for the better.

Other people come to Honduras believing that they will be the saviors. They seem to think that all they have to do is to teach someone how to do a job or start a business or about the importance of hygiene, health, good eating habits, clean water, saving the environment, and on and on up to the subject of God, and all will be right with the world.

Nope. If only it were that simple, Honduras would have changed a long time ago.
The culture gets in the way. Whether it is a result of generations of ignorance and poverty or apathy instilled from birth, that desire for change is often severely lacking in the people who need it most. More often those visitors go home saying that their lives were changed, not the Hondurans with whom they dealt.

Some other examples of customs or culture have to do with health. A simple thing like leaving food sitting out in homes and restaurants, for example, is a custom that probably results in a lot of food poisoning and diarrhea problems. The Honduran media does a really good job of informing the public about the causes diarrhea, dengue, AIDS, and other diseases and the Honduran customs that need to change to prevent them. Parents are told the importance of vaccinating their children (which is free) and eating healthy foods. Thousands of missionaries and international aid organizations do the same every single year.

Are these people trying to change the culture, which we are always told is a politically incorrect no-no? Or are they just trying to educate the population to some of the beneficial things that we've learned in the modern world?

Children playing with fire crackers is definitely part of the culture
, for example, being shot off at children's birthday parties and holidays. But hundreds of kids get their fingers blown off every year so some local governments have started outlawing it. They are trying to change the culture (or custom) for the safety of the children.

Dental hygiene is not part of many poor Hondurans' culture. Should it be? Are dental and medical missions who pass out toothbrushes and try to teach the importance of brushing teeth trying to change the culture or just trying to improve the lives of those children? Is it okay for parents to say "si Díos quiere" and hope their kids' teeth won't rot out from eating candy and drinking Cokes all day? Or should parents have some responsibility to start changing some of the customs for the sake of their children?

Some of these customs may be part of the culture or maybe they are merely a result of a lack of education. I happen to believe that the lack of work ethic among many Hondurans is primarily a lack of education as are a lot of the unhealthy habits.

Honduras has wholeheartedly embraced change with the advent of the cellphone. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't have one, even if it means that their children don't eat properly or can't go to school. Television, especially cable TV, is important to those who can afford it and have electricity. But in many, many other ways, there just is no desire for change, not if it means making an effort to learn something new or changing one's ways merely because it will benefit the children, the family, or the country rather than the individual.

Often, sadly, people are not motivated. "Cuesta!" is something I have heard frequently. "Cuesta!" means "It costs!" and in the context I'm referring to, it doesn't have to do with money, it has to do with putting forth an effort, taking those extra steps to do a good job, or striving for success. Pride in workmanship is so very lacking.

Once upon a time, none of us knew all the things we now know about health and foods and chemicals and the environment and a million other things. The world changes, don't people have to change, too? Is it okay to keep harming your children and your environment just because you always have − it's in your culture?

Now if there were some idyllic, untouched paradise where the "old ways" were still providing health and happiness to its population (by its own standards), I would say "Fine! Leave it the way it is." But with 60% of its population living in extreme poverty, many in poor health, many just plain hungry, and most in ignorance which severely affects their quality of life and ability to find or hold a job,
Honduras clearly does not fall into that category.

In many ways, it is hard to even find a Honduran culture, so much of it has been replaced with the US culture. The sad part is that Honduras seems to have picked up the materialistic, unimportant, and even harmful parts of the US culture without picking up the good parts that could help to pull it out of the third world category.

The following is a quote from an old article in Honduras This Week (link no longer available), the English-language newspaper of Honduras:
Culture, therefore, should be a life-enhancing process, not some semantic refuge in which boors, barbarians and miscreants can hide. Moreover, history strongly suggests that "cultures" that do not adapt to external models and influences stagnate, atrophy and die. The inclination to absorb and be stimulated by such influences is encoded in cultures that survive and thrive. It's their nature to accept change and evolve. It's the key to their very survival.
This paragraph really struck me and I saved it knowing that sooner or later, I'd write an article where these ideas would fit. Lorenzo D. Belveal had these thoughts about patronizing Central America:

Our (US) national policy toward this region is largely unchanged from the approach that Franklin Roosevelt fashioned under the canopy of his "Good Neighbor Policy."

This unfortunate notion essentially called for patronizing Central America as one might indulge small, somewhat mentally deprived children. As long as they were "nice," the goodies kept coming in the form of non-repayable loans, grants, technological missions, and a variety of other direct and indirect "payoffs" for good behavior.
An even tougher question is "How can destructive aspects of a culture be changed?" I have no answers to that one.

December 13, 2008

La Gringa finally gets her rain gauge

La Gringa's tropical-sized rain gauge, La Ceiba, HondurasLa Gringa's tropical-sized rain gauge

I can't help myself, I like facts and figures. It annoys me that there is no official recording of rainfall amounts for Honduras. Why? Panama has measurements! Of course, it varies a lot by area, so even if there were "official" measurements at the La Ceiba airport, I would want to do my own. It often rains in town when it doesn't here and vice versa.

rain gaugeI searched the internet for ages looking for a tropical-sized rain gauge with no luck. Some gauges are very large but still only measure 5-6 inches (13-15 cm.) of rain. I fell in love with this copper design in August 2006 but it was too small. When you are in the midst of a tropical storm, you don't exactly feel like going out in the rain to empty the gauge two or three times a day.

Then in March 2007 I joked about my 55-gallon drum rain gauge. While functional, I was looking for something just a bit more attractive than that. I was going use a 12-inch straight-sided vase that I had and have a base made similar to the copper one. Anxious to get started with my gringa-obsession of measuring, one day I stuck the vase out in garden, partially obscured and protected from dogs, I thought. But nothing escapes Chloe in her domain. Need I say more?

One day we saw these huge 24 inch (61 cm.) straight-sided vases at a hardware store and bought two of them − one will get broken, right? So, half the problem was solved. I was still talking about "my" rain gauge in March 2008. Who says I don't have patience? It only took us 28 months to get this rain gauge made.

El Jefe talked to several iron workers about making it. Some didn't have the right equipment to do the curves, some didn't want to bother with a small job, and two took our drawing and measurements and just never bothered to make it and lost the drawing. (When will we learn to keep a copy?)

La Gringa's tropical-sized rain gauge, La Ceiba, HondurasWe finally found someone willing to do it. Of course, he completely ignored our drawing and measurements but it turned out nice just the same. The base is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) so that it goes into the ground very deeply and is secure even when the ground is saturated.

El Jefe painted it for me and he was so eager to put it out that I didn't get a chance to mark the inches on it. I'll do that when this rain stops (check back with me in 6 months or so) and in the meantime, I'm carrying a ruler out there to measure.

I like it. I'm happy.

By the way, from sometime early Thursday morning until Friday morning, we had a whopping 16 inches of rain (41 cm.)! And that is a fact, not a guess.

December 12, 2008

Rain, a new river, and missing videos

Rain, La Ceiba, HondurasWhite water in the street

Apparently I have a setting wrong somewhere as I saw that my storm videos from yesterday were not included in the Feedburner email sent out to subscribers. Darn! Please go to the blogicito to see the videos − or at least watch Part III. The flooding was really incredible.

40 days and 40 nights

Or you can go to YouTube and see any of my prior videos that you might have missed:

LaGringa's YouTube Videos

Go ahead and click one of those links. It won't bite, spam you, or steal your identity. I promise!

I reviewed my settings on Blogger and Feedburner and changed the only one which seemed remotely related to videos. Let's see if this one works. Here is a short video of the rain yesterday morning at our house.

Rain at La Gringa's house, 11 December 2008:

If you don't see it in the email, you can click the article title in the email and it will take you here to the Blogicito where you can watch it. If this change doesn't work, I'm at a loss as to what else to do. Does anyone have any suggestions?


By the way, you, too, can sign up to receive Blogicito updates by email so that you don't have to remember to come back to check for new articles, or be disappointed that you came and there was nothing new, as has been the case often lately, I'm afraid.

Just enter your email in the box under the yellow sticky note in the upper right-hand sidebar. Don't forget to respond to the verification email from Feedburner or the subscription won't start − as is the case with about 20 potential subscribers sitting in limbo right now. ;-/

December 11, 2008

40 days and 40 nights

Flooded street, La Ceiba, HondurasWhite caps in the street
La Ceiba, Honduras

Flooded street, La Ceiba, HondurasIt feels like it has rained for 40 days and 40 nights, even though we did get a break this week and had nice warm, sunny weather. (This street corner photo and the one at top are from last month, by El Jefe.)

That was a nice change from this incredible rainy season we have had this year − worse than any in the seven years that I've been here. I felt like spring had arrived. I was thinking about starting some vegetable seeds.

Flooded street, La Ceiba, HondurasToday, however, was the worst day ever. We have received 12 inches (30.5 cm) of rain since early this morning! And it is still raining.

Don't worry about us. Our house is elevated and sitting at the top of a hill with a creek way below us in back and streets sloping away from our house on two sides so no problems for us except the leaking windows, wet drapes and carpets. We haven't even had any trees fall down which often happens when we have heavy rain.

Trash endangering bridge, La Ceiba, HondurasBUT, the flooding has been devastating in some areas around La Ceiba. I've been watching the news all day and many, many people have been flooded out of their homes, many homes have been destroyed, and though not an official report, citizens have reported several drownings to the television stations.

Boy saving his dog,  La Ceiba, HondurasYou have to see the flooding to believe it so I did the hokey, low-tech way of videoing the news. I had a couple of hours which I edited down to three 6-minute videos. Still too long, but if you are interested in La Ceiba, you might watch them all. Part III is probably the best one if you only have time for one.

You had better hurry, though, because YouTube frowns on videoing TV programs and might remove them. I don't know if that applies to Honduran news or not so we will see. I hope I don't get into trouble! I'm only trying to provide a service to those who can't receive Honduran television − at least that is what I'll tell the judge. ;-)

La Ceiba, Honduras, Tropical Storm, Part I:

La Ceiba, Honduras, Tropical Storm, Part II:

La Ceiba, Honduras, Tropical Storm, Part III:

December 5, 2008

Toucans in the back yard

Toucan, La Ceiba, HondurasToucan, La Ceiba, Honduras

Toucan, La Ceiba, HondurasOh, how I love to see toucans! I've been hearing them a lot lately. They have a very distinctive call. But usually they are obscured by tree foliage so I can't get any kind of decent photo.

This one posed for us for several minutes. He very kindly waited while I ran downstairs to get my camera. I took several shots and then he waited again for me to go get the extra batteries after mine went dead. Nice guy, this toucan.

Toucan, La Ceiba, Honduras

While we were watching the toucan, a couple of trees over something furry went running up the trunk. El Jefe said it was a squirrel. I've never seen a squirrel in our garden before and I don't want to either. That was just as my batteries went dead so no photos of him.

These photos aren't great, but I was happy to get them considering how far away the bird was. He was in the fourth tree from the right.

December 4, 2008

Democracy, Honduran style

The Honduran Presidential raceElvin Santos, left; Roberto Micheletti, 3rd from left; Pepe Lobo, 4th from left.
The rest don't matter any more.
Caricature by: Dario Benegas, La Prensa, Honduras

Probably the most interesting and Honduranesque outcome of the Honduran presidential primary elections is that the winner of the Liberal party, current vice president Elvin Santos, is a man who was not even on the ballot!

Since Santos was disqualified from running due to a constitutional technicality, a "placeholder" is running instead. Supposedly, if and when the difficulty is worked out, the placeholder will step aside and name Elvin as the replacement presidential candidate, as is allowed by Honduran law. The constitution has already been modified at least twice to allow disqualified candidates to run, including for the past president Ricardo Maduro whose Honduran citizenship was questioned.

Porfirio (Pepe) Lobo, the winning candidate of the Nacionalista party with a landslide 76% of the vote, is likely to be the next president of Honduras, since it will be the "blues" turn at bat. He was so popular that in at least one aldea (village), he received more votes than there are people. Pepe was the former president of the congress in the previous Nacionalista administration.

I will never forget the first time that I read about Pepe Lobo back in 2002. I read that the congress had voted to "indemnify" certain farmers and ranchers whose farms had been damaged from Hurricane Mitch in 1997 with cash payments of a hundred million or so lempiras.

On the face that sounded good. After all, isn't disaster recovery, albeit 5 years late, a good use of aid money? However, I then looked at the list of the top 10 or so names of recipients. There was Pepe Lobo, president of the congress, at the very top of the list with the largest payment of somewhere around ten million lempiras if I remember correctly. I wasn't familiar enough at the time to recognize the other names, but very likely they all were from the rich ruling class. I was so shocked that, unfortunately, every time I see his face, I still think about that and wonder what other deals he has been involved in that we will never know about.

The previous seemingly favorite of the Liberal party, Roberto Micheletti who is the current president of the congress, received surprisingly few votes. In the past he fought against several measures proposed by unpopular Liberal president Mel Zelaya and insults flew in both directions.

I want to think that the population was wise enough to see that Micheletti shot himself in the foot by apparently making "a deal with the devil" by selling out to Zelaya and Hugo Chávez's ALBA (literally and figuratively) in exchange for political support.

Right after ALBA passed, we were flooded with print and TV campaign ads showing new pals Zelaya and Micheletti with their arms around each other − Not a wise move when much of the population believes that Zelaya is the worst and most corrupt president the country has had in its short history of democratic elections.

I watched election reports all day on Sunday and all night until the stations quit reporting in the early morning hours. My favorite political analyst is Juan Ramón Martínez. By all reports, the Elvinistas had won the Liberal contest with (roughly) 57% of the Liberal vote against Micheletti's 24%, Maldonado's 17%, and a couple of other candidates with about 1% each. Those percentages varied somewhat by area, but were pretty consistent across the board and in total, with approximately 30% of the votes reported.

Surprisingly, the following morning, Channel 10 was reporting Elvin had won, but only with about 52% of the Liberal vote against Micheletti's 43%! Don't you think it is a little suspicious for a count to change by 19 percentage points overnight? I did, but if there was any funny business going on, it was too little and too late. Perhaps it was just a typographical or math error on the part of the TV station, because current results show Micheletti's percentage of the Liberal votes is back down to 27%.

Someone asked for a synopsis of all the candidates and what they stand for. It's really very simple and can be explained by using only a few key words. All candidates are FOR: Change, transparency, jobs, security (against crime), and AGAINST: Corruption. Even the candidates who have become millionaires in office and are currently under investigation for dozens of denuncias (complaints) of corruption against them run on a platform of fighting corruption! Yeah, right!, say the people.

The head of the OAS (Organization of American States) election monitoring team, interviewed before the election, stated that 70 volunteers would be traveling around to some of the 5,306 polling places to determine whether the elections are fair and free. If by "fair and free", they mean that they verify that the polls are open and that there are a supply of ballots, yes, they will see those things. They won't see any voters with a gun to their head or squads of armed military personnel preventing voters from entering the polls. They won't see poll workers filling out ballots, though it reportedly happened when the observers weren't around. But do those short visits to some of the polls assure the world that the elections are fair, free, and democratic or is that just a public relations "show"?

The day after the primary elections, the television news was fantastically self-congratulating about how honest and transparent the elections were and even went so far as to state that official observers made glowing reports about how the Honduras elections should be a model to all of Latin America. Needless to say, I was shocked at that statement. I almost became a believer (I always have that little ray of Pollyanna hope in me) − for a few minutes anyway (but the realist in me usually wins out). Then the head of the OAS election observation team was interviewed.

I'll paraphrase since it was in Spanish and I didn't write it down, but here is the basic flavor. The reporter excitedly asked "Is this the most transparent and democratic election that Honduras has ever held?!" The head of the observation team replied, "Well, what we saw was adequate." I could see that the reporter was taken aback, no doubt from believing his own TV station's propaganda. So then he said, "But it's true that Honduras' election procedures should be used as a shining example to the whole world of how to run an honest and organized election, right?" The interviewee flatly stated, "No. We can say that the election procedures were adequate." Who knows what the final report will actually say after it is tweaked by all the parties involved, but the word 'adequate' is a direct translation.

As the days pass, more complaints of election fraud and irregularities have been filed and/or made to the media. Some citizens were prevented from voting. Some poll directors didn't show up or left early. Citizens were prevented from viewing the ballot counts at some polling places. Some polls opened late or closed early. The polling time was extended until 6:00 p.m., but the first official results were reported at 4:57 p.m.

According to this article by Scuba Geek, the current mayor who is a mayoral candidate on the island of Roatán was jailed for blocking the airport with his bulldozer to prevent an airplane full of paid voters from landing. You might applaud this "stand against corruption" until you learn that the mayor's own planeload of imported non-Roatán resident Honduran voters had already landed earlier in the day.

One candidate for mayor on the island of Roatán filed a complaint of election fraud because his photo was not included on the ballot, even though he says that the photo was submitted in time and met the requirements. A suspicious shadowy head on the ballot instead of a smiling photo is a definite disadvantage in a country where a large percentage of the population is illiterate.

La Prensa (December 4) is full of various complaints and charges of irregularities. Oh, I won't list all the election problems, because it really isn't important. The big fraud goes on behind the scenes before and after the voters get involved. The voters are just window dressing so that the oligarchy can proclaim democracy and transparency to the world and continue to rake in the international aid.

It just isn't true that Honduran voters can change their government. Not the way the system works now. The system is so corrupt to the core that many Hondurans just don't even bother to vote. Two fascinating older articles are a must read for anyone wanting to get an understanding of some of what goes on behind the political scenes. Bonus: both are in English.

Lorenzo Belveal's article "Democracy" Honduras style is 11 years old, but except for a change in the impunity law, not much has changed. Politicians are no longer granted immunity from all crimes − and I do mean ALL. The previous law protected politicians from prosecution, no matter how blatent the crime, up to and including murder, and yes, that is not a hypothetical. Murdering politicians were not prosecuted. On the books, that is no longer the case. In practice, it still goes on. If you want to learn about the real Honduras, prepare to spend hours reading his website. He is a fascinating guy.

The Formal/Real Government Contradiction is discussed by Ismael Moreno, a Honduran writer who is currently involved with Movimiento Amplia para la Dignidad y la Justicia (Dignity and Justice Movement), an organization that I would really like to see succeed. Moreno has several in-depth articles about Honduras on the Envio site which are well worth reading including Pact of Impunity Around the (2005) Elections.

The Honduran Director of Human Rights went on the record a few days before the election saying that any international or national observers who say that the elections are a fraud are being disrespectful to Honduras. How's that for intimidation?

Election reforms were passed in 2007 and were revised again in February 2008. To be honest, I didn't even look up the law as I normally do, because I know that anything the lawmakers could possibly come up with, can and will be circumvented by the clever corruptos.

One control, for example, as fellow Honduran blogger AJ mentioned, is that the pinkie finger is inked after voting so that duplicate votes cannot be made − my sources tell me that a manner of eliminating the ink was found long before election day. I hate having this fatalistic attitude, but until honor is valued more by Honduran society than "beating the system", that is the way it is going to be.

The population of Honduras is somewhere around 7.5 million. Approximately 4.5 million citizens are eligible to vote, of which current estimates are that approximately 1.2 million live outside the country and are not allowed to vote absentee. Currently, though still classified as preliminary, results show that 965,000 citizens voted, or at least their ID cards did. Not a bad turnout for a primary election. Results won't be official for up to two weeks.

Related article: How much is your vote worth?

November 28, 2008

How much is your vote worth?

Distributing ballots in the Honduras primariesDistribution of ballots
Photo: Hondublogs, La Prensa, Honduras

Here in La Ceiba, Honduras, the widely known going rate for a vote in the internal party elections (primaries) this coming Sunday is L.1,000 (US $53). Inflation has struck. The rate was L.500 during the last elections four years ago, though in some parts of the country L.500 will still buy a vote today.

Citizens who protest the corruption by staying at home on election day accomplish nothing. It doesn't even matter if your vote is sold or not, since the parties may steal your ID number and make your vote for you anyway. "Might as well get something out of it" is the usual sentiment.

Accusations also abound that the ID cards are sold by government officials directly to the political parties, effectively cutting out the middle man − the voter! Lower level employees are stuck with the odd bribe, disguised as an "expediting fee", knowing that the voter can still make a profit if he receives his card in time.

What if you vote your conscience and vote for one of the smaller political parties? That is meaningless, too, as deals have already been struck between the election workers of the various political parties. The small parties will "share" their votes among the large Nacionalista and Liberal parties, for a price, of course. I'm not sure of the logistics of this but we aren't talking about a general throwing of political support of behind another party, we are talking about actually using the ID numbers for replacement votes somehow.

If you are really a party man, you can vote early and vote often. Honduras has a manual voting system so it is a simple matter to travel around to every polling place within a reasonable distance and vote over and over again. It's hard to depend upon loyal party voters to do this, though, so virtually every bus and truck in the country has been rented by the political parties to transport voters to one or more polling places on Sunday. Some drivers are paid by the head that they deliver. In some poor areas only a tamale is required to buy the vote. "I'll give you more tamales when I am diputado," says the candidate.

And if all of this fails, the ballots or even the urns can just disappear on their way to the polls or on their way to be counted!

Why would most Hondurans go along with this? Probably not from a belief that their party will change the country, but rather from a belief that as a loyal party member, they themselves will benefit from the corruption, whether it is a car, a job, a contract, a cash payment, a telephone line, or even just a chicken dinner. Most everyone feels entitled to a piece of the corruption pie. And they are considered foolish by their compatriots if they don't take it.

How can Honduras ever become less corrupt if the main requirement, if not only requirement, to win an election is to be more corrupt than the other candidates? Current President Mel Zelaya even had the gumption to admit to the media that his election was a fraud but justified it by saying that all the elections have always been frauds.

I can't wait to read the reports of the international observers who will state that the elections were fair and honest. Twenty-five of them are coming in tomorrow so that should give them plenty of time to figure out Honduras democracy in action. Hah! Idiots.

November 25, 2008

La Gringa's recycled plastic market bag

La Gringa's recycled plastic bag market bag, La Ceiba, HondurasLa Gringa's Recycled Plastic Market Bag

Did I overwhelm you with tips and instructions? I hope not! Recycling your plastic bags by crocheting a market bag is not complicated at all. This pattern uses only the single crochet and chain stitches and one slip stitch. Can't get much easier than that, can it?

Here is a basic pattern which you can make your own by varying the colors, size, and thickness of your plarn (plastic yarn). I used the familiar heavyweight orange and white striped Honduran grocery bags cut in 1 inch loops using the square-knot method. BUT, that is not what I want you to do since I wouldn't wish the torture bag on anyone. Please do read the tips linked below before you start. I want you to have a good experience.

The flimsy, handled grocery bags are much easier to crochet. If you are going to use these bags, I suggest using using 1-2" loops with the square knot method, or 1 1/2 to 2" strips using the single strip methods #2 or #3. An N hook (9 mm.) works well with the square knot double loops. A smaller hook, maybe H or I, will work better with the single strips. A very rough estimate is that you will need 50-60 handled grocery bags.

If you are going to use a heavyweight bag like a department store bag, cut your loops only 1/2" wide for the square knot method or 1/2 to 1" for the other two single strip methods. This market bag used 25 18x24" bags (46x61 cm.), but by using thinner strips, you may need only 15-20 heavyweight bags.

plastic bag crocheted swatchesExperiment with a swatch so you'll have an idea of how your particular bags and choices will vary in size and thickness. The pattern is easy to adjust even for a beginner, since it is based on inches rather than number of stitches.

The swatches in this photo will give you an idea of the effect of different bags and different size plarn and hooks. Click to enlarge any of the photos in your browser.

La Gringa's Basic Market Bag pattern

Make square bottom base: Chain loosely 30 times (approximately 14 inches). This is where you'll adjust to the width of your bag. Add or reduce chains to get the width of the bag that you want −12-16" is good (30-40 cm.)

square base of the plarn bag*Ch 1, turn, sc in each stitch across. Repeat from *, until the bottom base of the bag is 3-4 inches wide (8-10 cm.), or the depth that you want. You'll be crocheting with the right side facing you at all times.

First round of bag sides: Crochet 1 more sc in the corner stitch, sc in each stitch across the short end, *2 sc in the corner stitch, sc in each stitch across. Repeat from * until you have reached the beginning of the first round. No need to slip stitch into the previous row.

Forming the sides of the crocheted plastic bagSubsequent rounds: Sc in each sc around. Repeat until the sides measure about 11 inches tall (28 cm.), or about an inch (2.5 cm.) less than the final height that you want. End at the middle of one of the short sides.

Planning the handles: Lay the bag flat and count the number of stitches showing on one side of the top row. Divide that number by 3 to determine how many stitches in one-third of the top edge (12 stitches in my case).

handle opening: Sc in each stitch across the first one-third, loosely chain 15 skipping the next one-third of the stitches. You'll want the chain to be an inch or two (2.5-5 cm.) longer than the area that you skip. Adjust the length of your chain so that
the size of the handle opening is pleasing to you. Sc in each sc in the final third on that side and first third on the other side. Ch 15 (or the number that you have selected), skipping the next third of top of bag, sc in each sc to beginning of round.

Crocheted plastic bag without edgingForm handle: Sc in each sc and each chain around.

Final 2-3 rounds: Sc in each sc around until the handle is the thickness that you want. On final round, join to beginning sc with a slip stitch. Pull the end through the loop to finish off. On the inside of the bag, neatly weave in 2-3 inches of the plarn tail using a smaller hook. Cut excess.

You are done! Or maybe not....

To edge or not to edge

You can quit here, or if desired, make an edging around the top edge and the handle opening using a complimentary or contrasting color. I found that the top edge gaped open a little more than I liked. To "tighten it up" and to give the bag a more finished look by eliminating the chains showing around the top edge, I used a smaller hook (H in this case) and a single 1" wide piece of plarn cut from only the orange stripes of my bag to crochet a reverse single crochet stitch all around the edges.

Crocheted plastic bag with edgingOriginally, I tried some other edging stitches but none looked right. They all seemed too heavy and bulky for the plastic that I was using. The reverse single crochet in a thinner plarn seemed to cover the edge best on this bag, though I did have to do two stitches in a few spots to get good coverage.

Reverse single crochet is also sometimes called rope edging, crab stitch, or backwards single crochet. It is made by doing a normal single crochet stitch from the front side of your work, but doing it from left to right. It can be a little tricky and if you don't hold your hook right, you'll end up with another row of chains showing at top. Here are two good videos which demonstrate the stitch and show how it should look when completed. Note how loose they hold the loops on the hook.

Reverse single crochet

Crab stitch edging

Crocheted plastic flowerYou can also decorate the bag with something cute or kitschy, like a crocheted flower, star, snowflake, silk flowers, decorative buttons, or whatever strikes your fancy. Use a large blunt needle with upholstery thread or fishing line to attach it to the bag.

Enjoy! And if you have any questions, leave a comment and I'll try to answer right away. I'd love to see your finished bags so if you can send me a photo, that would be great.

By special request, in a later article, I'll post the basic instructions in Spanish, too.

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November 24, 2008

3 methods of cutting plastic yarn

Plarn, plastic yarn
Balls of plarn (plastic yarn)

Plarn is a clever name for plastic yarn. Plastic isn't really anything like yarn, but the name incorporates the idea that you will be using it for needlework, as strange as that sounds. Before you start cutting, be sure to read the tips in "Tips for avoiding the plastic torture bag." Most importantly, before cutting up all of your plastic bags, cut just a few first and make a small swatch to see how comfortable it is to work with and whether you are getting the size and thickness that you want for your project.

Plastic bag stashSo how do you get from this (your stash of plastic bags) to the plarn shown above? Gather up your bags, a pair of scissors, and a ruler or yardstick. Here are step-by-step instructions to cut plarn in three different ways. Click on any of the photos to show them larger in your browser window.

Method #1 - Loops with square knot

The first method results in a double thickness of plastic so keep that in mind when determining the width to cut the plastic. I don't recommend this method for heavyweight bags. This method is a little faster to cut and after knotting about 10 bags, you'll become a knotting machine and have them connected in no time.

Cut off ends of bagLay down one bag, smooth out the wrinkles and squeeze out the air by running your hand over it from the bottom seam to the top. Fold neatly into thirds.

Cut off the bottom seam and the handles, if any. Fold in half or thirds again so that you have a thickness that will be easy to cut.

Cut off ends of bagLay the folded bag against a yardstick and with scissors make snips to mark your desired cutting lines, for example, every inch or two inches (2.5 or 5 cm.). Even quicker is to snip only every other cut. Pick up the folded bag and hold it carefully to finish cutting the strips apart, eyeballing where to make the center cut if you only marked every other cut. The plastic will slide around a little but don't worry if your strips are not all the exact size.

Pile of plastic loopsYou'll end up with a pile of loops like this. If your plastic bags vary slightly in color or opacity, connect them together randomly so that the difference won't be noticeable. If they are significantly different, you could ball them separately for a striped project.

The loops are connected by making a square knot. No tails to deal with later! Shake out the loops.

square knot step 1Place the end of loop #1 on top of loop #2. In this photo, I'm calling loop #1 (white and blue) the long piece and loop #2 (yellow) the short or new piece. If you've already joined several pieces or have starting making your ball, this will be loop #1 and it will be your stationary side.

square knot step 2Pull the end of loop #2 up and over loop #1 back toward itself.

square knot step 3Feed the other end of loop #2 through the loop you've just made. Now you see why the "long" piece is stationary. It is much quicker to pull one length through to make the knot than to have to pull a long length of plastic.

square knot step 4 Pull gently and evenly to make the knot. Tip: I found that by keeping my thumb in the loop as I pulled helped to make a neater knot. Pull out your thumb just before you finish the knot.

square knot step 5Leave the knot slightly loose as it may need adjustment later as you crochet. Tighten it just before you crochet that section. It may be hard to believe, but the knots are really not noticeable in the end product.

Don't worry. After you do a few of these, it goes really fast.

Method #2 - Long Single Strip

The second method cleverly results in one long piece without knots or joining but requires a little bit more careful cutting. This method is especially good for heavier weight plastic, like department store bags. You could also crochet together two or even three thin strips of different colors for a tweedy or variegated look, but that would probably only work for the thinner plastic and you might want to cut only 1/2" (1.25 cm) strips.

long single strip of plarnStart preparing the bag in the same manner as above (smoothing and folding) but leave about an inch (2.5 cm.) unfolded at the top. Mark and make your cuts but do not cut into the one-inch area at the top of the folded bag.

When you have made all the cuts, shake out the plastic, leaving the cut loops dangling and spread the uncut area over your left hand.

Angle cut for long stripMake an angled cut from the left cut edge of loop #1 at the bottom of your hand to the right edge of loop #1 at the top of your hand.

Make the next cut from the left cut edge of loop #2 at the bottom of your hand to the left cut edge of loop #1 at the top of your hand. Continue in this manner until you have one long strip. It's hard to describe but easy to decipher if you look at this photo.

Method #3 - Joined Single Strips

The third method can be really tedious but I liked it when cutting thinner pieces for the trim work as the knots were virtually indiscernible. This method worked well for all weights of plastic and for odd parts of the bag and flat pieces of plastic that wouldn't work using method 1 or 2.

cut notchPrepare and cut the plastic as in method #1 above, cutting to the desired width and the longest lengths that you can. Fold over about a half-inch (1.25 cm) of the end of one strip and make a short snip in the center of the fold, being careful not to cut through to the end of the plastic. Do this at each end of each piece.

eye of the needleFold one end of the short strip in half lengthwise and poke it through the snipped hole on the long strip (step #1 in the photo) − like you are threading a needle. Pull it through a couple of inches and then fold the other end of the short strip lengthwise and thread it through the hole at the opposite end of the same strip (step #2 in the photo). Pull the short strip completely through the eye. Carefully push the "knot" down and tighten it only enough so that it won't be bulky (step #3).

eye of the needleHere is a closeup in case you are having trouble following my instructions. The long strip is on the left and the short is on the right.

This method makes an almost invisible knot which is good for trim areas or decorations where square knot might be
too bulky and a knot with tails would be more noticeable.

It can also be used for joining pieces made using method #2 above, but remember that you will have to pull the entire length through the "eye".

After you have a long length of plarn, or as you are connecting the pieces, roll it up into a ball. I like to roll mine in balls of 10 bags so that I have an idea of how many I've used and how many more bags I'll need. This also helps to estimate your bag needs on a future project. The yellow ball in the photo at top was 10 bags and the orange ball was only 5. That should have tipped me off that I was getting into the torture bag.

All of these methods can also be used for rag crocheting as well. From the information I've been getting from my readers lately, plastic bags may be becoming extinct in some areas! That's great for the environment and I'm very happy to hear it. I imagine that it will be 50 years before that happens in Honduras, but I'll happily switch to rag crocheting if it does occur in my lifetime.

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Tips for avoiding the plastic torture bag

Honduran plastic bags bagThe Torture bag,

I call this my torture bag as it was pure torture making it. I swear that I'm not exaggerating. If I wasn't so stubborn, I would have never finished this bag. After crocheting for about an hour, my hands and fingers would ache so badly. I measured the height about every inch asking myself, is it done yet?

This plastic is heavy and even though I cut it half the width (1" [2.5 cm.]) of the flimsier bags, it was still too thick. Since I had already cut all the plastic in advance (not following my tip below), I was stuck completing the bag with this same size plarn. Thankfully, El Jefe gave me some fabulous hand and finger massages to try to ease the pain.

Originally I thought that the yellow and white flimsy grocery bags were a little painful to crochet. After doing the orange bag, I realized that those flimsy bags were much easier.

I'll give you my patterns in future article. In the meantime, I thought I would pass on some tips so you won't jump into the project and make the same mistakes that I did.
Here are some tips that I can recommend to you after doing this:

General plastic tips

When using two types of bags that are almost the same color, but not quite, I'd suggest alternating the strips in a random manner as you make the balls of plarn. Making several rows of one shade and then several rows of another slightly different shade or opacity will be noticeable − unless that is the look you are going for. Even white is not always the same white as shown in the photo below.

Different plastic bagsStick to one thickness of plastic if you can. The size and thickness of the stitch will vary with the weight of the plastic, even if the strips are cut to the same size. You might be able to adjust for a heavier plastic by cutting it slightly narrower. Or try mixing the two weights of plastic together randomly as mentioned above.

The unused parts of the plastic bags can be used to stuff toys or outdoor cushions. If the pieces are stuffed into a plastic bag before stuffing the object, it will be semi-waterproof.

Preparing and cutting the plarn

If the bags are really dirty (like fast food ooze or a fried chicken smell), wash them first and hang to dry. Once the strips are crocheted, any gunk in the bag will be sealed up inside the stitch − not nice. Otherwise, I didn't bother to wash them.

Cutting the plarnWhen preparing to cut, lay the bag flat, smooth it from the bottom seam up to squeeze out the air, and fold it neatly. This is just to make your cutting easier and more accurate. Any wrinkles in the bag will not be noticeable in the finished project.

plastic yarn stripsThere are three basic ways to cut and join the plarn (plastic yarn). They each have their advantages and all can be tedious. (Cuesta!) I have so many step by step photos of the plarn preparation that I will include them in a separate article tomorrow.

One good idea is to prepare part of the plarn, work on your project until your hands get sore, then give them a break while you prepare more plarn.

Cut the strips according to the thickness of the plastic and the size of your hook. For example, using an N hook (9 mm.), I cut the normal flimsy, handled grocery bags to about 2" wide (5 cm.). The heavier orange and white standard Honduran bags and heavy department store bags were cut about 1" wide (2.5 cm.). You may cut thinner strips if you will be using a smaller hook. I've started another one using the heavyweight bags and I'm using single 1/2" (1.25 cm.) strips, not doubled − MUCH easier to crochet and the bags go much further! The end product is much more flexible as well. I'm going to experiment with that because I used a ton of bags!

Snip to mark cutsThe measurements of the strips don't have to be exact. I put a ruler, or even better, a yardstick, on top of the folded bag and snipped a short cut to mark the spots. I then picked up the folded bag to cut the folded strips apart. When cutting 1" pieces, I made a snip every two inches and eyeballed the middle of the snips for the 1" cut. I did the same thing for 1/2" pieces.

When using the square knot method of making the plarn, keep the knot loose. You may find that the two sides of the loop don't line up after you crochet it. Loosen the knot, adjust the two sides and pull the knot firmly in the center of the two sides just before you crochet it.

If you have to tie a knot with tails (least desirable method), leave about 1-2" on both ends to be crocheted in. Shorter ends seem to pop loose and stick out.

Crocheting the plastic

Crocheting with plastic takes a lot more effort than with more smooth and flexible yarn. After an hour or two at a time, my hands were tired and achy! Make an effort to relax your hands and try to keep an even, but loose tension in your stitches. Don't make your stitches too tight. When picking up the project after a break, make sure that your tension is the same as the last time or you'll end up with a different size.

Scrub your hook with a plastic scrubby and wash your hands every hour or so if you find that the paint or dye is rubbing off. The paint on some bags rubs off and your hook won't glide easily after awhile. Washing the hook will make a huge difference in the ease with which you can crochet. (Paiz bags were the worst.)

Many patterns call for using a half-double crochet stitch. I found it difficult and tedious to pull three loops through so I used a single crochet stitch. That may be because I generally crochet tight stitches. Half-double crochet stitches seemed an extra effort and extra use of material without much difference in the look or size of the project. Experiment with a small swatch of both stitches to see which is easier for you.

If you have to pull out some stitches, do it slowly, helping each stitch come loose with both hands. If you pull too hard, you may weaken or even tear the plastic strips. Once it is crocheted, though, it is very tough.

Tips for the really anal like me:

Plastic bag stashTo save storage space and organize your stash, lay 10 similar colored bags together and smooth them out into a neat stack. Fold the stack lengthwise in thirds, snip off the handles, if any, and smooth them again from the bottom up to squeeze out the air. Fold in half and stack the various colored bundles vertically in a shopping bag. You'll be amazed at how much less space they take up. It also saves a lot of time when looking for a certain color or "taking inventory" of how much of each color you have.

I roll the plarn into balls of 10 bags so that I have a better idea of how many bags that I will need for future reference on future projects.

Making plarn from plastic bagsKeep in mind that the color will be intensified when the plastic is scrunched up in the stitches. You can see the effect in this photo by comparing the color of the bag with the color of the crocheted project.

Most important of all to avoid the torture bag, before you cut up all of your bags, do a practice swatch of at least 4" square (5 cm.) with the size hook, width of plarn, and stitch pattern that you plan to use. You may find that you want to adjust to a different size hook or thinner plarn. It's tough to change the plarn if you've already cut it. I really regret not doing this on my "torture bag."

3 methods of cutting the plastic yarn

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