I became a volunteer in Honduras entirely for myself. I was just thirty then, single, unhappy in my work life. I had applied to a creative writing MFA, but with an unpromising portfolio. I thought that if I could be useful in the area of development it would make me feel better about myself.
The impulse to go did not stem from hopes of writing about the experience. That would’ve been ambitious. This was more like an escape plan. And a realistic one: many NGOs reward bored, middle-class shirkers like me with “development vacations”—easy stints in poor countries. I was on that path, likely to return to Canada much as I left it, maybe destined to write a novel about fellow Canadian escapees.
Instead, the group I hooked up with troubled both my motives and my sense of feeling “better.” Rights Action is a small social justice organization intent on allowing partner groups in Central America to set local goals. They only bring a handful of people from Canada down to places like Honduras and El Salvador, and only with the understanding that you work under those groups.
So, early in 2002, I travelled to La Esperanza, a rundown but pretty hill town in Western Honduras, near the Salvadoran border. My first surprise was the weather: I had imagined a steamy, tropica …