Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Product Liability Tort Clearly Not Big In Honduras

Remember when your mom warned you about never getting a hair dryer near the bathtub? I know mine did a good scare job on this one. In fact, even today I rarely see a hair dryer that my mind doesn’t conjure up a horrifying vision of an untimely bath-time demise. So the first time I showered under an in-line hot water heater in Honduras was rather like facing a childhood fear. You can see from the picture that these devices display a prima facie case of reckless product design. Just look at it. The outlet is actually in the shower. And for you electricians and handymen out there, I assure you that this is not a GFCI receptacle.

Notice the liberal use of electrical tape. Sometimes I wonder if electrical wire in Honduras only comes in 8-10 inch sections, because you almost never see an exposed wire that it isn’t spliced together from several smaller sections. But you can see that this hotel has a high regard for safety as they have covered the top part of the receptacle with tape. Man, I’m glad they did that. Somebody might have decided to plug his or her hair dryer in there.

Aside from the apparent risk of electrocution, the other issue with these water heaters is around efficacy. The key to having a warm shower is to keep the water pressure low. If you turn the knob all the way up, the flow of water through the showerhead exceeds the heater’s ability to keep up, and you get a cold shower. So the trick is to reduce the water pressure to the point that the heater can keep up with the demand. The only problem with this is that the heating element in the device is controlled by a pressure-switch. That means that too little pressure will cause the device to shut off all together. Each time the heater switches on, you can see a green light flash inside the device. This of course reminds you of the fact that you are basically playing with a hair dryer in the bathtub. If you ever use a shower with this type of heater, I’ll give you a piece of advice. If you are having trouble achieving the desired result, and then you finally get the water temperature at a reasonable (by that I mean not ice-cold) level, do not touch the knob again. Just finish your shower as quickly as you can and be thankful that you’ve survived the ordeal. If you hit the sweet spot and get a hot shower, consider yourself blessed.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Graduacion 2006

We had a good trip to Trujillo this past weekend. It was a much different experience than my previous two trips, because this time I wasn’t with a large group. This was good because I had more opportunity to work on my Spanish. Here’s a breakdown of our adventures.

Wednesday – We flew directly from Atlanta to San Pedro Sula, the 2nd largest city in Honduras, and rented a car from Alamo. The lady working at Alamo only spoke a few English words, but we made it through. The best part of the rental experience was when we went out to do a walk-around of the vehicle. We rented a Mitsubishi SUV of some sort. It wasn’t a model that is sold in the US. The vehicle had about 60k miles on it. A car takes a lot of abuse in Honduras in 60k miles. During the inspection, we marked every panel on the vehicle as having some sort of dent, ding, or scratch. The exercise was as futile as doing a safety inspection on the Titanic post-impact.

After we rented the car, we were off to Tela, which was to be our overnight waypoint en route to Trujillo. As we came into town, I coasted through an intersection while a guy coming the other direction honked his horn at me. I didn’t see a stop sign, so I assumed it was hidden or removed but that all the locals still respected it as a 4-way stop. Oh well. As we started to cruise through town, I found that every car passing me honked as well. It’s difficult to interpret the meaning of a honk in Honduras, because they are so frequent. In that respect, it’s much like driving in Miami. Soon, the oncoming drivers started waving frantically at me, and they increased the frequency and duration of their horn blowing. Children started to stare and laugh at us. So our first lesson regarding Tela was this – they have many one-way streets. Stupid gringos. It took us a while to find our hotel, the Maya Vista, but it was pretty nice. The only exception was the shower. I’ll write a piece on in-line water heaters later.

Thursday – Thursday we drove the rest of the way to Trujillo. We were blessed with a mostly rain-free drive, which was very welcome. When we got to Trujillo, the power was out. Some guy had run his truck into a power pole on his way into town, so the city had been dark all day. In Trujillo, people love to talk, so I’m sure this poor guy is known all over town as the imbecile who took out the power grid last Friday. His buddies will undoubtedly never let him live it down. We were starved by the time we got to town, so after exchanging our money into Lempira at the bank, we headed down to the beach for our Thanksgiving meal. I had fried chicken, since turkey wasn’t on the menu. The chicken was good, but I wish I’d had the fish. For about $4 you can have a whole, fried redfish with potatoes or plantains and a salad. Good stuff. Thursday night, we had an enjoyable dinner with Emilson (the school administrator) and his family.

Friday – The morning was spent going over budgets and other school business. For lunch, we took Nadine (a North American working for a social work agency in Trujillo) to a new restaurant in town called Mambo’s. I had fried conch and my two co-travelers had the red fish again. We spent what was left of the afternoon touring the facilities where Nadine works. Friday evening was the big event for the kindergartners. It was a big production. The school had rented a big sound system and had thoroughly decorated the school’s multi-purpose room. As the godfather, I sat in the middle seat at the table in front of the room. I gave a short speech and received a certificate. Of course, there were a number of speeches, as Hondurans love to talk. By far, the best one was from a little girl in the kindergarten class. She was absolutely fearless and clearly had practiced many hours. It was definitely one of those times that made me proud to be associated with the school. As each child came to receive their diploma, their parents would meet them at the front of the room to have a picture taken together. The parents then signed some sort of a record book, which had a picture of their son or daughter. It was also common for the parents to hand the child a gift at this time. It was great to see all of the proud parents and family members celebrating their child’s graduation.

Saturday – We again spent the morning taking care of school business, and then had a little time in the afternoon. We went to see two lots that the school owns on the other side of town. We need to decide what to do with this property. There are a few options, including starting another school or maybe selling the property. The problem with selling it is that it will be hard to find a buyer. Both lots are pretty big, about an acre each. The lots are adjacent and separated by what is described as a road, but in reality it’s so overgrown, you can’t see a road at all. One lot is higher than the other and has a fantastic view of the ocean. Saturday night, we had a banquet at our hotel for all of the school staff. We told them that it was a night for “no business talk,” and we all had a great time.

Sunday – Our greatest mishap was Sunday morning. On a few occasions on the trip, our rental car had failed to start, so we had to roll it and pop the clutch to fire off the engine. Saturday night, I forgot and parked where we had only a small amount of room to roll the car downhill. I only had one chance to try to start it, and it failed. So we had the vehicle stuck at the bottom of a grassy hill with no way to get it back up. The hill was too steep to push it back up, and since it was raining, we couldn’t risk pulling a 2-wheel drive vehicle down to try to jump the battery. Finally, we borrowed a battery from a guy’s van, put it in our Mistubishi, and were able to crank it. Bottom line is that we were an hour late to worship, and I was the visiting preacher. The church graciously waited for us, and we had a good worship service before heading back toward Tela, where we again stayed the night.

Monday – Our trip home was uneventful. We had a good trip, but it was certainly good to get home to my wife and kids. I look forward to when we can all go together.