Living life as a Peace Corps municipal development volunteer in El Salvador from 06.2006 to 08.2008. Please note that the contents of this website are solely my own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Friday, March 28, 2008

¡Ya terminamos el aula de computo!

Phone calls. Broken desks. Price quotes. Patience. Computer experts. Questionable computer experts. Time. Money. Blood, sweat and tears. And finally, an inauguration. Dios mio, we did it. And I say ¨we¨ because that includes the entire community of my rural village, the school population, a community action group in my town, Peace Corps staff and most importantly, you guys reading this from home. Those who contributed will be receiving letters soon but nonetheless, I´d like to throw a big Thank You out there as well. It´s done! On Thursday February 21st the community of Papalones planned an inauguration to open both the renovated computer classroom and a new science lab at the school. It was a great event, with students singing songs and performing folk dances, the official cutting of the tape over both classrooms, moving words from community members and a presentation of plaques to the contributors of the projects. It was an honor to be there that day watching the kids run the computers like experts showing off their windows Paint pictures and demonstrating their increasing typing abilities. The kids of grades 6-9 are receiving biweekly computer classes from a certified teacher and are quickly acquiring the skills to run Microsoft Office programs. I´m pleased as punch. I haven´t always felt like I´ve accomplished much out here, of perhaps better pub, much that is sustainable and will continue after I´m gone. I may be out in a few months, but I´m positive the students of this small school will still be utilizing these computers, learning about them and gaining valuable skills for the future, long after I leave. It feels fantastic to have been a part of this project coordinated by so many parties – the computers donated from businesses in the US, the materials to renovate the classroom donated from those at home, the labor to get it all done from community members, and now the classes provided by school teachers. This is really what Peace Corps work is supposed to be about – collaborating to initiate and accomplish some things and then empowering the people to continue the work and carry on the success.

The other big focus work-wise is my continued efforts to save the environment… or at least convince some kids to stop tossing their soda cans and snack bags out the windows of buses. The litter bugs have moved in and mutated into giant trash-loving aliens around here. Resistance if futile, but I´m trying anyway. Salvadorans do some things so much better than North Americans – the overwhelming majority of people utilize public transportation rather than personal cars, they eat eggs and meat without any added hormones or chemicals so that they aren´t growing breasts by age 7, and they greet each other with ¨good morning¨ on the streets instead of staring at their shoes, ignoring strangers. But one things they don´t do is toss their trash in trash cans rather than wherever they feel like it – aka, the street, the river, the park. Part of this is not normal Jose-blow´s fault – trash cans are not available in public places around this country, so in theory one would need to keep their garbage on them until they return home and throw it in their own can or pile to burn. This would be like asking a Salvadoran man to cook his own dinner – its ludicrous, absurd, completely against the natural order of things. I want my beans and rice for supper, I tell my woman; I want to get rid of this churro bag, I chuck it out the bus window. I´m not fighting against individuals here so much as against ingrained habits, an age-old system that from a short-term point of view has always functioned just fine. What people don´t realize is the long-term damage they are inflicting upon themselves by not properly disposing of their garbage. But when you tell 7th graders that plastic bottles remain on the planet for 500 years after you toss them on the ground, they look at you like you have absolutely no concept of what is important to them. 500 years? Their brains are 100% occupied with what they´re going to wear tomorrow. 500 years might as well be the end of time. So, this is not easy. Nor will a project to recycle plastic bottles generate a significant amount of money to show for the efforts. Each 100 pound bag of crushed plastic brings in a whopping $6.00… that´s enough to purchase some saldo and a dinner of pupusas with a soda thrown in. Big bucks we´re talking here. But until recycling takes on in this country as it has done in the States and there is a greater demand among companies for recycled products, prices will stay at the gastronomical level of $.06 a pound.

However, there is hope. We have five jumbo (joombo) bags to fill in Chapeltique at 100 lbs of plastic per bag in 6 months and we´re at least 40% there so far, thanks to the kids of my environment groups collecting bottles each day at school, individuals helping out at their homes and the guy who works at the soccer field collecting soda and Gatorade bottles after each game or practice. And, my co-collaborator on the project, Clivia, is motivated and supportive, which makes working in tandem a pleasure and a huge help. We´ve been collecting now for a few months and I see interest in the idea, a slight change of habit, and that is encouraging beyond belief. As volunteers we expect ourselves to drastically improve upon the quality of life for the people in our communities, with large, tangible results and noticeable differences… until we get here. Then, we recognize that the little things count, and count big. We´re getting there, one second thought of chucking crap on the ground at a time.

Besides work, I´ve been having a lot of fun around here. The week before Easter, my sister Sarah and three good friends from home Lisa, Kadee and Nicole came to visit for ten days. It was an absolute pleasure having them here – they really took the good experiences whole-heartedly and the not so pleasant experiences with a grain of salt. We started out in the capital the first night, staying at the hotel of choice for Peace Corps volunteers (read: for the price, not the ambiance) La Estancia, which was the one and only time everyone had their own bed for the trip. The next day we made it out west to a town called Juayua for some souvenir shopping and to enjoy the international food festival that occurs there every weekend. I have to congratulate the girls, especially Nicole, for taking the initiative to bargain with local shop owners for the things they wanted to buy; language barrier or no language barrier, it didn´t deter them from demanding $3 for a pair of earrings instead of $4! Which is exactly the way it´s done down here, nicely done girls. I managed to not kill anyone (though Sarah might tell you otherwise) in the pickup ride from Juayua to our next stop, Suchitoto, which is a small town famous for its clean, safe streets, extensive war history and breathtaking views over a huge man-made lake with the mountains of distant Honduras in the background. We stayed in a beautiful place overlooking the lake for two days, spending our time strolling around town, eating good food and taking a boat ride out on the lake with a friend. The girls found some more cheap earrings, we encountered some foreigners willing to take us out and test their luck at getting drunk with us (we said no, though Lisa was really pushing for it ;)) and we ate the best cream cheese in the world (again, that was Lisa…). Also, the girls tried their first ever pupusas, tortilla dough mixed with beans and cheese then fried on a grill to create a flat, cheesy masterpiece, a food original to El Salvador and at $.25 a pop, the pride of the land. I´m thrilled to say the pupusas did not disappoint and in that instant my friends went from estas gringas to pura salvadoreñas.

It was tough to leave, as it always is, Suchi, but we pushed away from the central part of the country to the very northeast tip and the town of Perquin for the third leg of the trip. Perquin is located in one of the areas most affected by the civil war in the 80´s in El Salvador; it was popular as a known guerrilla stronghold and therefore a constant hotspot for fighting. It also sits at a higher elevation along the border of Honduras and is characterized by pristine rivers, rugged mountains and pine trees to the likes you would see in any part of Connecticut. As interesting and beautiful a place as this is, I knew I had to take my friends. We stayed in a log cabin at the Perquin Lenka, a hotel reminiscent of a ski lodge owned by an American ex-pat. One of my best Peace Corps friends, Angie, lives in Perquin and we spent the next two days running around with her, visiting the war museum in town and, well, eating. On the second day we took a trip to visit the caserio of El Mozote, where all but 1 of the 1000 inhabitants were killed by soldiers in one day, and then spent the afternoon swimming in a river and sunning ourselves on the rocks. I think maybe we could have stayed in Perquin forever, except for the fact that our cabin sported a good number of large bugs which made everyone uncomfortable. Although I do have to say, between Sarah´s ability to smash the begeesus out of a cockroach and Kadee´s all out search for an enigmatic spider; I think the humans would take home the W with this bunch.

From there we travelled south to my friend Matt´s site, again due to my superb driving skills (ha, ha). Yamabal is about 10 kilometers from Chapeltique, my site, making Matt one of my closest volunteers both geographically and emotionally (although half of that emotional stuff is probably because we can complain to each other about how damn hot it is all the time). After a quick visit in Yamabal, we made it to Chapeltique. Of course the first thing to happen was we showed up at 2pm and wanted lunch, a latino fau paux, but the girls were great about accepting what food was still available. I took them to my house and to the Alcaldia, where everyone was excited to meet them (afterwards, I heard about how white Nicole was and how small Lisa was and how blond Kadee was and how contenta Sarah was… Salvadorans just love to comment on physical qualities, its part of their charm). After another meal of pupusas (deemed better than the ones at Suchitoto, yeah that´s right!) we spent some quality time with my 3 year old host sister, Yaneli, and the family parrot, Manolo. Everyone bonded instantly… Yaneli getting her picture taken and running around with her new mates, Manolo breaking out of his cage and barricading whatever white girl he could find in rooms by standing guard outside the doors and nipping at feet when someone dared to escape. We visited the school where I completed the computer classroom project and watched the kids make their Microsoft Paint houses, walked around the soccer field at dusk and hung out at my counterpart family´s house shooting the shit with Alexi who speaks English fairly well. It was hot, extremely hot, and at many points the toilet in my host family´s house didn´t flush, but everyone was in good spirits and the time in site went by fast. Everyone in Chapeltique is grieving the girls´ return to the States, as they made quite an impression upon the town.

And then it was Friday, and with two more days to go we headed southwest to the beach Playa El Tunco (meaning pig) in the department of La Libertad. This beach and the hotel we volunteers usually stay at, El Miramar, is one of my favorite places in the country. The water is warm and wavy, the atmosphere is one of complete tranquillity and the sunsets just can´t be beat. Ok, so everyone got sick from lunch and yeah, the water was turned off most of the time we were at the hotel (not a good combination), but even so I think we were able to enjoy the time in the sun with some of my other volunteer friends. Saturday night dinner was the best: it was just the five of us, and we joked around and talked about life and just caught up in a way I haven´t been able to do with friends from home since I arrived down here almost two years ago. Yeah, things have changed, and none of us is the same person anymore, but that doesn´t stop us from caring for one another and sharing histories and relating to one another in a way you can only do with old, good friends. Saying goodbye to these guys on Sunday wasn´t easy, and I´m so glad they could come down to visit and see what life is like in El Salvador. It means the world to me, and I´m sure it meant something good to them.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Tales of December

Beware the Mormons

I arrived home at 5pm, sweaty and tired from the gym. All was quiet at the house as the family wasn’t home yet, and I took advantage of the odd tranquility by sitting on the house’s front stoop to watch the sunset. I had been sendentary for about five minutes when the silence was broken – a woman had approached the gate and was hollering to me, ‘Erin! Erin, I need your help, please!’ Feeling a bit unsettled, I got up and walked to the end of the driveway, realizing that this woman was the sister of one of the secretaries in the Alcaldia. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I’m a teacher and I’m on vacation right now – do you think you could give me some english classes so I can eventually get a better job?’ Harboring a slight feeling of relief that I wasn’t being asked to go pull a child from a burning building or something like that, I told her sure and invited her in. We worked for twenty solid minutes, conjugating verbs and laughing over mispronunciations when suddently, my host family arrived.

My host family does not just consist of the typical nuclear entity. They are in fact an entourage, an envoy of blood relatives and third parties who are employed to make everyone’s life easier. Returning home this day was my host mother, her three children, a young cousin, her parents, her godmother, her personal assitant, and the children’s nanny. Music blaring and various childrens’ heads poking out of half-opened windows, they rolled in like the circus and subsequently set hell loose. People streamed out of the Ford Explorer like a reverse Chinese fire drill, running in all directions, clutching bags, shouting to each other and slamming doors. My three year old host sister ran right up to my english pupil, pulled down her pants and popped a squat to pee in the dirveway, grinning at us the whole white. The kids had all just grabbed various bicycles, scooters and trikes to chase each other around the driveway in a complete frenzy and it was getting dark, so I told my friend I would see her tomorrow and sent her home.

As I walked her to the front gate, we saw two young men approaching. They were wearing white button-down shirts and ties with nametags – they could only be one of two things, refridgerator salesmen or Mormons. Delix my english student recognized them immediately and shot me a pitying look as she bolted – yes, they were Mormons. And they had me cornered, at 6pm in my own house. I had no choice but to let them into the slightly chaotic scene.

We sat on the same stoop Delix and I had just occupied, and they started in on me. They were two twenty year olds from Panama and Arizona respectively, here in El Salvador on a mandatory two year missions trip. The information wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I expected it to be, but as you can imagine it was tough to concentrate. The kids kept running into us with their two-wheelers in the treacherous path they had made from the house to the driveway. My host brother called my cell phone twice from 15 ft away. At one point during a prayer my host mother’s hairdresser showed up and announced herself louder and louder as, with head bowed, I tried to focos on the words and mentally tell her to hold on a second. Just as Elder Recinos got to the most vital part, how Joseph Smith received a vision from God to create the Book of Mormons, an elderly couple pounded on the gate demanding the doctor (my host dad) because the husband was bleeding profusely from the head. ‘Do you think God is trying to tell us that now isn’t the right time for you to share your message?’ I tried to joke with the missionaries. They didn’t crack a smile. Instead, they asked me if I felt the sensation of conversion yet. This time, my one-liner ‘How about a little foreplay first?’ stayed in my head. I managed to keep a straight face as I exclaimed, while Arturo seized the Book from me and started running around shrieking and flapping it over his head, that perhaps I should read at a quieter time and get back to them should I feel any converting tendencies coming on. They were disappointed, but what could I do? It’s a miracle I even caught their names in the mayhem of screaming children and hairdressers and head trauma victims seeking out my host family. When they asked me for my cell phone number and I responded with ‘How about I call you if I want another appointment?’ I could tell it was on the tip of their tongues to chastize me for turning down a date with Jesus. Eventually however, even they had to admit it was getting late and made their farewells.

This happened December 4th – since then I have seen these two Mormons walking around Chapeltique seven times, and have successfully ducked into doorways and avoided them five of those times. Once they cornered me at work, and once they camped outside my house until I came home at 9pm. The first time I told them I hadn’t read yet, and the second time I was more to the point (it was 9pm for God sake, that’s bedtime for me) in saying I really meant what I had said that I’d call them if I was interested in learning more. ‘But we’re only trying to save you!’ one exclaimed with a look of utter anguish on his face. Hah! Little do these guys know I’ve already been through the whole experience of being told that as a Catholic heathen I’m doomed to an afterlife of fire and brimstone. I even used to live in front of a Jehovah Witness church, you can’t scare me that easily. For the third time I sent them on their way without the slam dunk of a successful conversion. This may be the beginning of a seven month battle for my soul in which case I’ll have to resort to drastic measures – I’ll ask my evangelical friends to drive them out of town. There’s only room for one fanatical religious group in these parts.

La Elección de la Reina de las Fiestas Patronales

Bueno. As in July, Chapeltique celebrates another round of patrone saint festivals just before Christmas. And again, every festival needs its polished representative queen to accompany it right? So once more I agreed (read; was coerced into) judging the contest to see which lucky girl would take home the crown this year. I received my formal invitation to be a ‘jurado calificador’ requesting my esteemed presence at 8pm on Friday the 14th in the Alcaldia, so I threw on a pair of jeans and kept my hair down to dress more ‘formally’ and showed up. The first thing that happened was all of the Alcaldia workers complimented me on how nice I looked, one man going so far as to say ‘Now THIS is how I like to see you,’ not finishing with ‘because every other day you look like a blind thrift store junkie’ like I knew he wanted to add. But I noticed that my attire had absolutely nothing on the reina contestants, also waiting in the Alcaldia for the competition to begin. Each of the eight 16 year olds was a vision of sparkles and shine, not one curl of the immaculately designed updo out of place or one chip in a polished nail. They reminded me of my junior prom and I had to resist the urge to point stupidly and gargle ‘Ohhh, pretty’ like a country bumpkin as they walked by. Each heavily-made up face was glamorous, and tormented. They could have been sitting a court appearance they looked so nervous. I coul see girls practicing their entrance stances, hands on hips and heads back like dowager duchesses, girls silently mouthing their planned speech to greet the crowd. The friend of one candidate found out I was one of the judges and approached me to ask what she could ‘do’ to help her situation... should she shmooze with me for a while? I told her to tell her friend to chill out and try to enjoy herself. Looking back, I probably should have seen if she could have done my laundry for a while.

Finally at 10pm we stepped outside to the street, where a stage and table of honor had been set up for the event. Before the candidates took the stage, a local cumbia band started things off. Of course, because we’re in El Salvador, there couldn’t just be one speaker to carry the music onto the street, there had to be ten. And naturally the table of honor was set up directly in front of the speakers. I coul literally feel my eardrums throbbing, and by the time the band finished, I’m sure in direct response to my desperate prayers to God, I was certifiably deaf. Just me though – I’m convinced Salvadorans are immune to all forms of noise. As the band exited the stage the MC took his place by the mic. Excitedly he announced that the competition would now begin and started by introducing each girl. Only the most vital information was passed onto the audience for the time being – the girls’ names, places of birth and their waist and bust measurements. After the cowd had oogled the cup size of the final girl the MC very seriously stated that ‘We do this competition to prove that women are important too.’ I could have fallen off of my chair in astonishment. And the most surprising part yet – no one else looked shocked at this insane proclamation. I’m deaf and even I caught it!

It would only get more incredible from there. Each judge was given a spreadsheet with six categories to qualify the candidates on. It wasn’t a shocker to see that the most important categories were considered to be greeting, poise, elegance, dress, physical beauty, and, oh wait, here’s one for the nerds, response to a question. It seemed that the MC neglected to finish his thought that women are indeed important... to look at. Well as you can probably guess, this is about the time I started tuning out. Judge or no judge, I refuse to objectify women by comparing their physical traits and raiting their worth based on how well they can imitate a Barbie doll. I could have saved myself the trouble of traveling to the Third World and just gone back to high school for that. This was, however, the moment everyone else was waiting for and the crowd grew still with anticipation.

As the heart-wrenching soundtrack of Titanic played in the background, the candidatas sashayed out to the stage. The crowd ate up every twist of the hips and coy smile, precisely rehearsed by each girl in her fervent desire to be the best. I gave each girl the maximum amount of points for each of the first five categories, then sat back to await the question section.

After much fawning and catcalling, the moment of truth arrived – each girl would have to actually say something. The first candidata stepped up to the mic and chose an envelope with a question. The MC asked, ‘How would you increase tourism in Chapeltique?’ With utter confidence, contestant number one answered ‘I would go around door to door telling each citizen of the town to tell visitors how pretty it is here, and to have big hearts to welcome newcomers in.’ End of story. I was flabbergasted. What about generating some micro business in the area so that there’s a reason beyond agriculture to come here? Creating clearly marked paths and road maps? Or hey, here’s a tough one, picking up the trash that gets tossed into the street each day so that the town doesn’t look like an oversized dump? Now granted, this girl was 16 years old, but still I was expecting a bit more than just create shiny happy people to tout Chapeltique’s cuteness. The third candidata fared far better in my book. She was asked, as queen what would be your first project in an effort to improve the town? She replied that she would create a campaign to visit the schools and teach the kids about self-esteem, respect and the importance of creating and aspiring to fulfill future goals. Yeah girl, the future starts with the kids, I couldn’t agree more. Candidata number four took an interesting approach – she began answering a question before choosing an envelope with a question in it. As inebriated as the crowd might have been, even they caught on to what was happening and laughed uproariously at the stage. The poor girl ‘chose’ her question and started her answer anew, but the damage was already done. Finally, the last candidate caught my interest as she was prompted to answer What are and were some of Chapeltique’s customs and traditions, and what do they teach us today? Her response was much longer than those of the other girls, she rattled off example after example and explained in detail the significance of each one. It was her shining moment, and I was proud of her for it.

Then, it was time to vote. As the judges tallied up their scores, the girls stood on the stage in a line, holding hands and appearing anxious and excited. The results were handed over and the MC, milking the moment for all it was worth, gabbed for a bit about the honor of being crowned queen. Just as he finally arrived at the cucial moment and proclaimed ‘and the winner is...’, there was a large creek, and the stage where the girls were standing groaned and dropped. All eight girls were comically and instantaneously lowered two feet as they shrieked in surprise. The timing couldn’t have been any better, it was as though someone had pulled a lever. The candidatas, flustered but laughing, recovered quickly and the winner was announced.

As the newly elected queen hugged her fellow candidates and cried joyously, the mayor stepped on stage to crown her. He was visibly swaying as he placed her sash on backwards and threw her crown over her eyes like a blindfold. Having finally managed to straighten out her accessories with the help of the others on stage, the bolo mayor turned to the audience, threw his arms up in triumph and bowed to the jubilous applause of the crowd. As Celine Dion belted out that her heart will go on, our queen thanked God, her family and waved happily to all her royal subjects.

As it turned out, the winner was the girl who answered her culture question so well. Yes she was pretty, but so were all the other candidates, and for that I have to believe the other judges took some value from the question category as well. I could have mimicked my wasted mayor and thrown up my arms in jubilation – triumph! Brains over boobs! Or at least, boobs AND brains! It’s a start.

Happy New Year!

I hope the holiday season was warm, heartfelt and fulfilling for all at home... I'm wishing you the very best start to the New Year from El Salvador! As my fellow volunteers, Salvadoran friends and I said goodbye to 2007 and welcomed in 2008 with fireworks, hugs and wellwishes I realized just how little time I have left here in this incredible place. 7 months is about the fly by and all I can think is, I want to make the very best of them that I can. It is a privilege to be here living through such unique and diverse experiences and meeting and getting to know the many individuals who have affected my life in myriad ways. At the same time, I am blessed to have such a wonderful support network of family and friends at home and it will be a pleasure to return to that come July of this year. That being said, my new year's resolution is to make the very best of both my life here and at home throughout 2008... to continue sharing my experiences in El Salvador with those at home via phone conversations and emails and to tell my Salvadoran friends all about what life is like in the "norte," to beat stressful feelings back home by recalling the peacefulness of an afternoon spent lounging on a hammock watching the leaves blow in the breeze in El Salvador, to practice Spanish as consistently in the second half of the year as I do now and to never lose touch, at any point throughout the year, with loved ones. My two "worlds" are both beautiful and enriching in and of themselves and have helped to shape the person I have become and am still becoming, and for that I cannot be more thankful. I wish you all the same... to appreciate the present, to focus on what life has given you rather than what is lacking and to be grateful for it, and to always maintain a sense of peace. This poem was sent to me from a fellow volunteer and so I share it with you... happy 2008.

New Year Wishes
May peace fill all the empty spaces around you
And in you, may contentment answer all your wishes.
May comfort be yours, warm and soft like a sigh.
And may the coming year show you that every day is really a first day,
a new year.
Let abundance be your constant companion,
so that you have much to share.
May mirth be near you always,
like a lamp shining brightly on the many paths you travel.
May you be true love. -- Author Unknown

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Got a Dollar...

Right before I left for my three week hiatus from El Pulgarcito, I had a conversation that went like so…

Barbara Ehlen, a fellow Muni 06 volunteer, text messaged me with ¨Hey, were you surprised that your Partnership Project was fully funded? Can you believe it?!¨ I read the text and, immediately assuming it as meant for someone else, responded ¨Oh Barbara, how funny! You must be mistaken, I have over $1,700 left to raise. You must have intended this message for (anyone else alive)¨ Five minutes later, she texted back saying ¨Oh man, I could have sworn it was you, I saw your name on the email I thought… I´m sorry if I was wrong!¨ I just sort of shook my head and wrote her back, ¨No problem, must be someone else who was almost finished raising their funds.¨

Ten minutes later Barbara calls me on the phone. ¨It IS you! I´m looking at the email right now. Someone donated to your project and it´s been fully funded.¨ I just about fell out of my hammock. I had been raising money slowly but surely for the past two months but still had almost 2 grand to go, which I assumed would take me until about Christmas to raise. Apparently, I was mistaken. Many of the donations we´ve received have been anonymous and this one was no exception. All I can say is, to everyone who suffered through my shameless pleas, who cares both for me and for the people I work with in El Salvador, and who took the time to hear us out, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support and generosity. This initiative truly would not have been made possible without you, and I can´t wait to share news and pictures of our progress in renovating the room and getting the computers up and running with all of you. Muchas gracias, todos y todas!

¨Walk slow, pack light¨

Morocco. The first thing I noticed was its size. In El Salvador you can certainly stare for miles but your view is inevitably interrupted by wayward homes, people meandering about, coconut stands and the color green. In Morocco there can be no such distractions: passing through the mountains or the desert alike, I noticed how much wide open, seemingly unfettered space there is. As one PCV there remarked, it appears to be a sea of endless caramel, waves of nothing but God´s own earth. It wasn´t until I saw the night sky that I truly felt tiny and insignificant in an infinite universe. You can see the stars from Salvadoran soil, and plenty of them. But something about the vast starkness of the land, the complete silence and the domelike expanse of stars so close they appeared more like vague clouds or apparitions, really got to me. The feeling of being just one tiny speck in such a huge world sort of stuck throughout my time there. It was not a negative sensation, merely daunting and quite grounding. In the United States and now in El Salvador I can work my way around fairly effortlessly, at least for the most part. I can successfully navigate public transportation, engage in trite and meaningful conversations alike, communicate gratitude and frustration, and act in culturally sensitive ways. I have a sense of what is going on around me, and feel somehow involved in those daily workings. In Morocco, I felt like a fish so far out of water I was practically a tuna salad sandwich. It goes beyond not merely being capable of speaking Berber or Arabic, or even French, although that of course is a formidable aspect of a debilitating sensation. I could not speak or read and was therefore completely dependent on others to do so for me, for the first time in my adult life. That alone is baffling enough. But I also did not know inherently the cultural norms, the obvious characteristics that make up Morocco and that are completely apparently to anyone who has taken the time to get to know the place. By growing up in America and fumbling my way through El Salvador over the past 17 months I have become a part of these two countries, learning without realizing it, calling these places home because I am comfortable there. Of course it would not be so in Morocco – a mere ten days there put me roughly back in my first week in El Salvador – wide eyed, mouth in an O shape, permanently confused and astonished at such a foreign place. And how foolish of me to assume that JUST because I am a Peace Corps volunteer, just because I understand (partially) what it is to live outside the US in one country I could successfully, instantly master the challenges and do so in another country, no matter the location. I am humbled, to say the least. Yet my infantile position was quite beneficial in myriad ways, just as it had been in the beginning of my own service in Central America. Being utterly incapacitated and unaware meant being utterly amenable, unable to express abhorrence to things I knew nothing about. I went from talker to listener, attempting to understand things out of sheer necessity and curiosity alike. And when I shut up and opened my eyes and ears, I learned.

Boy, did I learn. I learned a few essential words in Berber, like ¨salam u alaykum¨ (spelled incorrectly I´m sure, but that´s how it sounds in my head) and ¨shukran¨, but more importantly how the people of Aaron´s region speak Berber rather than Arabic, and how proud of Aaron they are that he communicates to them in that tongue. By travelling a bit I saw firsthand how rural and urban Moroccans live, and the stark differences that can exist between those two worlds. I saw the immense faith in Islam, heard the calls to prayer and watched the faithful solemnly sacrifice sustenance between sunrise and sunset to celebrate Ramadan. And I witnessed similarities between Moroccans and Salvadorans that I hadn´t expected – though worshipping different religions, both are a faith driven people, the mosques and churches both a central part of a community in both location and social life, a people of fatalistic beliefs and a deep recognition of God´s plans and the power of prayer. Just as in El Salvador, I experienced hospitality like no other. No matter the economic condition of the family in El Salvador, the doors are opened, coffee is served and inquiries about health and life in general are exchanged. It was the same in Morocco from what I experienced, except that the café was substituted for tea. As Aaron´s friend I was welcomed with open arms, just as my friends have been with my close Salvo families, despite the fact that I could not speak more than a few words. The same characteristics plague some aspects of development in both countries – poor wealth distribution, machismo attitudes, poor customer service. Children still smile curiously, yell out greetings and demand rewards from the foreigners. Basic survival takes precedence over luxuries such as owning and caring for pets, but owning satellite TV and a cell phone is still considered a symbol of high wealth status and therefore essential. In Morocco as in El Salvador, it can take a half hour to complete a five minute task and yet, no one is in a rush or panic over it. Not everything was different – some things shockingly familiar.

And as it turns out, PCVs are quite similar from country to country. The volunteers I met in Morocco are humorous, laid back, a close knit family offering sanity and support to one another. Just like us, they have completely independent site experiences from each other, complain about a lack of work, get together to keep from going mad and intermittedly throw Berber or Arabic words into their regular conversation (our version of Spanglish… Arabish? Or Berbish?) If I met any of them on the street someday back in the States I am confident we would feel a connection and familiarity as RPCVs, serving in different countries but sharing similar experiences in trying to discover what it means to live as an American for two years in such countries. And that´s what it really is all about – not becoming Salvadoran, or Moroccan, and completely integrating into our communities as members who simply appeared one day and became like everyone else. By the fact that we´re Americans, different, we are not allowed this unnatural luxury. What it´s all about is finding ways to successfully coexist as an American, maintain that identity, in a small community in the rural third world, the bled, the campo. To be unique and yet integrated. It´s a daunting task, but as I realized through my ten days in Moroco I am long past those early days of insecurity and discomfort in El Salvador. While my independence and confidence suffered a bit in Morocco, the trip taught me that I´m well past that point in my country of service and also, that I should not forget the process of what it took to get me to my fairly comfortable place. Looking about in bewilderment for ten straight days, I recalled how humbling it is to try and be a respectful foreigner in an entirely new place, to regard with reverence the power of diversity and the myriad experiences the world has to offer. El Salvador is great, but it’s just the first stepping stone to walking a path of real understanding of what it means to know different cultures, and not just blindly feeling ones way through them for a few days. And to remind me of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to even brush that surface of coming to experience different places. By travelling with another PCV, I was able to see rural and urban Morocco alike, to shake off the tarnish of ¨tourist¨ for a bit and see Morocco through the eyes of a dear friend who can call the country a second home. By sharing his world with me, I was invited into what it means to for Aaron to be an American integrated in a Moroccan community, and the experience was valuable beyond words. I am so honoured to have been his guest for a week. Due to my somewhat reticent attitude at being in such a different place, I´m not sure Morocco got to see the confident, independent person I am in El Salvador. But the important thing is that I got to experience a small part of what is the true Morocco.

…And Back in El Pulgarcito

Upon arriving back in El Salvador, one of the first thing that happened was that I was accosted by a bolo, or drunk, at the bus stop waiting to get to my site. Ah, El Salvador… welcome home to the lunacy. As I stood there looking more gringa than usual, with my two huge bags and clean clothes, I could make out few words, ¨gringa,¨ ¨su culpa,¨ and ¨los Estados Unidos¨ given his slurred speech and my efforts to turn away from the stench. Add this to my experience in the airport on the way to El Salvador: in Washington, I suddenly couldn´t use my ticket that my sister bought for me without having her credit card on me (despite having used that same ticket without problems three out of the four legs of the trip already), so I had to dish out an impromptu $572 one-way ticket from Dulles Airport to San Salvador, thirty minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. Ouch. Despite sitting in first class, the complementary warm towel and egg and spinach omelette could not make up for the gaping hole in my already deficient bank account. As I stood at the rainy bus stop keeping my face inches away from the crazy drunk, I can recall wondering why I paid an additional $572 to be a gringa again and have a drunken idiot spit all over my face.

Alas, I came home, unpacked my bags, chased some bugs out and arrived at the Alcaldia for the afternoon. Here, I was accosted as wlel, but on a different level – everyone wanted to know EVERYTHING about the trip. How was the wedding? How that you´ve seen your sister get married, when´s your wedding going to me? Am I invited? What´s the weather like in Morocco? Is the food good? Is it better than the food here? Did you ride a camel? Did you eat a camel? One conversation with Mercedes, one of the secretaries, went like this…
Mercedes: How do the women dress there?
Me: They wear long skirts, shirts and pants, oftentimes with their hair or faces covered.
Mercedes: Wow.
Me: Yeah, it´s conservative there compared to here.
Mercedes: (Looking down at her outfit of a tight blouse, short skirt and high heels). Huh. I´d better not go to Africa then, they´ll think I´m a whore.

I gave my counterpart a little wooden camel wrapped in Moroccan newspaper for safety, and he put both the camel and the newspaper clipping on his desk. ¨To look at the words,¨ he said. Mirna, another secretary, asked me how to greet someone in Morocco and now she´s running around the Alcadia pronouncing ¨salam u alaykum¨ and bowing to everyone. This is one of the great parts about coming back and sharing the stories – there´s now a tiny bit of understanding, of knowing what Moroccan culture consists of, amongst some Salvadorans in Central America. They´reall aware of where Morocco is geographically now, Carlos is enthralled with the Arabic symbols on the newspaper and Mirna is greeting people in Berber. I can´t help but think, how absolutely cool is this? Their genuine interest and wonder amazes and excites me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

El Salvador - USA - Morocco - USA - El Salvador

Check out the new pictures, a bit from home and all from Morocco... entry to come soon!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Varios Pensamientos

It's bee a busy past two months. I hosted four Municipal Development trainees in my site for four days in early July, as part of the PC training process. Trainees break up into groups of four or five and stay in volunteer communities for a few das to work with the volunteer and experience what life is like out on the field. I hosted a solid crew and with the help ofa lot of community members, planned a full four days for them. I'm still thanking my lucky stars for the success we had, in that the planned activities were realized, the people I planned with held through on their eds and nothing blew up in my face. I had the trainees help me teach my English class, which ended up being 2 hours of class and one hour of a round-table discussion comparing Salvadoran and American culture in everything from holidays to handshakes. They came out to a rural canton to see my HIV/AIDS charla, gave a charla of their own to 9th graders on gender equality and sterotypes, and helped the school kids decorate masks and make flowers in preparation of our environmental parade happening a week later. I think the trainees enjoyed themselves and I had a great time hosting them. I recall this experience last year as a pivotal moment, when I really saw for the first time how a volunteer lives in every sense in their community. Little did I know that a year later, on the other side of the trainee/volunteer spectrum, I'd realize it as a pivotal experience as well. To put it succinctly, the four days the new guys spent with me was my 'Holy crap, I have learned something this past year' realization. Through absolutely no fault of their own, the trainees were not as culturally or linguistically advanced as I am, just as last year my host was far more advanced than I. It makes complete logistical sense to recognize that one learns a damn lot in a year and subsequently improves n eveyr manner as an effective volunteer and culturally sensitive human being. Makes sense, but I didn't know that until about a month ago. When a community member spoke to the trainees and they looked at me for a translation, I realized with shock and awe that I could understand what Carlos or Clivia was saying. I could understand, even SPEAK Spanish. I know, this shouldn't be such a prodigious realization, but when you are constantly surrounded by native Spanish speakers who blend their vowels and speak half the time in regional lingo and throw out verb tenses that I've never even contemplated before you tend to come home each day thinking little more than 'linguistically, I am a retard.' It's ot so much that I'm down on myself than that in Chapeltique, it is 100% accurate to say that 100% of the time I am the worst Spanish speaker in town. But for these four days, I wasn't. I mentally noted when I heard a verb tense conjugated incorrectly, translated words without picking up a dictionary and finished sentences for the trainees. I spoke SPANISH. I'm a million conversations away from being fluent but I'm far better off now than I was a year ago. And I have to say, it feels good to recognize that. Through discussions and answering questions with the trainees, I realized that I actually know something about not just volunteer life but Salvadoran culture. I know meetin decorum, how to properly introduce someone, the words to the National Anthem, and the rules of the road. I've learned something. And I didn't even realize it. Instead of focusing on how far I still have to go, I was able to clearly see how far I've come. Those four days really bossted my optimism, self- confidence and hope that a year from now I'll be able to look back and think the same.

Since the visit from the trainees it's been nothing but fun and games around here. The parade we put on to honor the environment kicked off Chapeltique's first of two separate fiestas patronales, or week long celebrations to honor the town's patron saints. I had a great dal more fun this time around than I did at our fiestas last December, probably because I know more people now and I have less pena in general. I was asked to help judge the competition to determine the town's queen of the 'fiestas julias', which is rather ironic seeing as I, one of the judges, view the event as facetious at best, while the rest of the population here sees it roughly equivalent in importance to the general presidential election. The mayor actually pulled me aside beforehand to tell me which girl had to win. This I still have trouble believing. As it turned out, I voted for the most gregarious girl, the one who answered her 'what would you do for the youth of Chapeltique' question with the most thought. Sadly, everyoe else voted for the girl with the perkiest boobs, so my queen lost. My one small satisfaction from the night - at least the mayor's girl didn't win.

After our fiestas finished San Salvador's fiestas agostinas began a week later. School was let out for a week, public businesses closed down and the capital was filled with fair-esque events and heavy crowds. This coincided with my friend Biz's arrival to El Salvador. Biz can read this and perhaps testify otherwise, but I think after this trip he has quite a well-rounded view of the country. We started off by visiting a few of my good PC friends in Perquin, a touristy town i the north that also happened to be holding their fiesta del invierno, or annual winter festival. Fiestas in Perquin have a less manufactured feel to them - events held are politically inspired, and many of the main attractions are centered around historically significant events from the war. We mingled among countless Salvadoras and foreigners sporting Che Guevara tshirts and red star caps, watched traditional folk dances and experienced part of the mass march from Perquin to the small town of El Mozote, where the army massacred all but 2 of the 1,000 inhabitants in 1981. We also swam in one of Perquin's grand rivers, ate more tortas and tacos than I can count, and hiked up to a friend's site at the very tip of the country; going from Dave's cabin to his host family's house 200 m away is the difference from being in El Salvador and Honduras. We then spent four days in my site and finished his trip up at the beach and the capital.

I feel pretty safe saying that Biz got to see quite a bit of both the good and the not so good that characterizes this country in his ten days here. The typical food was great; the subsequent intestinal infection was not. His first dip in the Pacific Ocean could not be marred by our getting rained off the beach on our second day at the coast. Nothing could hide the unpleasantness of the feeling of unsafety in the capital, the relentless bugs or the tightly packed, lengthy and loud bus rides. At the same time, hopefully nothing could ruin the freeing sensation of traveling in the bed of a pick-up at full speed with the greatest possible view of the passing countryside, the peacefulness of hicking back and taking it easy in a hammock, or being tossed and turned in the waves in ocean water that is more tepid than bath water. I would be hardpressed to forget playing catch or eating pizza with some of my favorite community members, playing card games by candlelight in the cabin Dave built on the border of Honduras, or joking around at happy hour in the Intercontinental Hotel in San Salvador ($1.25 for two Pilseners and endless nachos Biz, don't forget it). It was a trip full of myriad emotions and experiences and I'm honored to have shared those ten days with my good friend. Thank you Biz - having you here was a pleasure and it meant the world to me.

One of the very last things I ever thought I'd encounter in El Salvador was downright war. Sure, I knew about the civil war of the 70's and 80's and the current gang warfare, but I didn't think those things would directly affect me, and they haven't thus far. Instead, I have inadvertantly foud myself a different type of armed conflict altogether. It involves me vs. My Host Family's Animals. They attack from all sides, furtively in the night and blatantly during the day. You've already read about the turkey - there's no strategy or stealth at play there, he just goes after anyone anywhere with any chance he gets. A few weeks ago he took a sneaker to the chest when I was on my way out for a run, and I suspect I may have pissed him off more than usual because he's rallied the other animals against me. The mosquitos are attacking in greater, stronger droves than usual. The geese have begun waiting for me to leave for the day, then sneaking up onto my patio and pooping huge, messy terds directly under my hammock. A scorpion bit me while I was sleeping either through or inside my mosquito net, and just a few nights ago a tarantula infiltrated my room and scurried under the fridge. I've sprayed Raid until I fear for my brain cell count but I still haven't found the thing. I'm losing sleep, subjecting myself to my own sort of Agent Orange through constant sprays of low dose posion in a small, confined space, walking to and from my house to my host family's house with a broom raised as a weapon to ward off the turkey, and I'm developing an eye twitch. I've also barricated the open entrance to my patio with lounge chairs and a marker board to stymie the efforts of the geese, so I literally look like a prisoner in my own home. Give me a helmet and some paper to write to my sweetheart and I coul be in a trench, fighting the good fight. Woman against beast, civilized vs. wild, clean patio vs. pooped on premisis. I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out, as I'm out of ideas and reinforcements and they seem to be actively recruiting. If that tarantula gets me I'm done for. My one and only wish is that if I'm going down, the turkey comes with me, he started this whole mess. Pray for me, pray for peace against perturbed foul and irascible insects. Perhaps more than anything, pray for my sanity.

Caught up in all the action here means I missed some critical things at home - Lisa turning 25 and Sarah's bridal shower. I wish I could have been there with you girls to proudly wear my fidora and pay hommage to the Godfather theme. I can't wait to be home for the wedding next month - mainly, of course, for the food and my right to make a speech of whatever content I deem appropriate as the maid of honor. Be seeing you all soon.... take care until then!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Thoughts From One Year in Country

One of my daily rituals the year between graduating from college and leaving for El Salvador was to sit down with my family and share the nuances of my day over dinner, everything that made me laugh, roll my eyes or tear my hair out on the drive to work, standing by the copy machine or running on the treadmill at the gym. My parents and sister would oftentimes join in, and we made caricatures out of nearly everyone we´d crossed paths with throughout the day. It sounds terriby rude but we never meant any harm - it was just something to make us laugh at the end of the day at the privacy of our own dinner table where we could be as sarcastic and weird as we wanted, and frankly, were inclined, to be. Now I´m one year in country and, being a volunteer in the municipal development program, I work at least a few hours each day in my city hall. I´ve had the honor and in some cases, misfortune, to get to know more intimately the intricacies of our city hall and more notably, the people who work there. And, in the spirit of my upbringing and natural tendency to notice the absurd, I´ve gotten quite familiar with the aspects of my ¨coworkers¨that make me laugh, roll my eyes and tear my hair out. I apologize for any blog reader who´s not, namely, my father for this one. To my parents, here´s one for the dinner table.

I have to start with Daniel, or as he´s called at the office by all the women, Don Dani. Mostly I hear his name being called out by Alcaldia secretaries whenever they want something - a coffee, more toilet paper - in high pitched whining tones. Don Dani eats this right up- his job, as far as I can tell, is to open the doors promptly at 8am, close them promptly at 4pm, and spend the remainder of the day policing his politburo of a supply closet and witting in the lobby alternating between watching soccer games and tracing drawings of Disney characters for schoolkids. He´s the nazi of timecards - every day without fail he switches the air conditioning off at 3:45, walks from desk to desk telling everyone to pack it up at 3:50, then ushers the whole office out by 4pm on the dot. One time I had the audacity to stay until 4:10 finishing up some work and I paid for it the next day when I asked for a roll of toilet paper and waited 4 hours for Daniel to produce one. It´s impossible to ignore this man - if he´s not in your face slapping your desk to remind you to get a move on, he´s running around the office singing ranchero songs at the top of his lungs. If you´ve ever been on the phone with me while I´m at work you know Don Dani - he´s the voice belting out Spanish song lyrics that is inevitably in the background. He´s a stickler for rules and he yells at me for filling up my Nalgene instead of a small paper cup with Alcaldia filtered water, but I can appreciate his penny pinching tendencies and acute sense of humor.

Then there´s Don Chepe, the mayor. I have little to no relationship with this man, mainly because when he does grace us with his presence at the office, once or twice a week for hour long increments, everyone acts as thought the King of the Universe has entered the building and we quickly transform into the faceless working mass, eyes down, voices lowered. I´ve shaken his hand a few times - it´s like grasping a dead fish. He´s a man of few words, impersonable at best, and the red carpet has been rolled so few times to my desk that I´m not even sure he knows my name. He´s the direct opposite of his brother, Don Vicente, the receptionist at city hall, who some may know is famous for giving me the piece of paper with the word ¨spanky¨written on it my first day in site. Vicente speaks English and is commonly leaning into my cubicle declaring his love for me in my native tongue, to which I respond, loudly, in his ¨Great Vicente, how´s your newborne baby doing? How´s your wife?¨ To be really honest, the only time I could ever really stand either of these men was when I saw them once get drunk at an inaguration for a new bridge in town and sing a duet with the hired mariachi band, and that was only because I had my camera.

Before the reader gets the wrong idea I want to assure you that I dont´t dislike everyone I work with. I happen to adore the female secretaries, all of them. Mercedes is my favorite; she´s tall, curly haired with a smile that lights up the room and a laugh that could rival Don Dani at a karaoke bar. We took to each other my first week in site and she´s been amazing since, telling me stories about her three daughters, her boyfriend in the States and joining me in teasing Mori, a young accountant, about how we´re going to audition 17 year old high school girls at their graduation to find him a girlfriend. Myrna, from accounting, is friendly and sweet and she has an adorable baby daughter. Often times when I´m talking to Myrna she´s sitting in the lobby breast feeding her daughter in front of every Jose, Jesus and Maria that walks in. Cecilia is short and squat and alternates between giving me religious paraphanalia of the likes of Virgin Mary day calendars and slyly leaving pictures of her 18 year old son, working at a restaurant in Houston, on my desk. She gave me a really horrible shirt that I wrote about once, and more than once has made me talk to her son living abroad on her cell phone while she looks on like some kind of clever fox. Haydee types up birth and death certificates all day and she won me over back in December at our fiestas when, as I told her she should have campaigned to be the town´s queen wearing a prom dress up on a float, she responded by laughing and claiming she wasn´t prone to giving small children nightmares. I love these women- they are intelligent, humorous and generous beyond belief.

Carlos Mendez, the architect, is my counterpart, which means he looks after me and has the best idea of what Peace Corps is and what the frig I´m actually supposed to do on behalf of it. He´s amazing as well - we discuss religion, politics, and gender equality issues in informal settings - all the things I´m not supposed to do with a Salvadoran man, but I have comlete confidence in him. He´s loyal to his family and friends, passionate about making El Salvador right, and friendly to everyone he encounters. I told him that if he´ll run for mayor for the next election in 2009 I´d stay in Chapeltique to be his campaign manager. I concluded long ago that he´s the only employee in city hall, including myself, who actually works steadily for 8 hours every day, and I can spend long intervals of time watching him bounce from his office to other parts of the building and back again like he´s his own personal tennis match. Everyday without fail, in one of his runs throughout the building, he´ll detour to my desk and ask me, ¨Todo bien?¨ While there are days when I want to look up and yell at him ¨No, todo is not bien, last night I caught a chicken shitting in my frying pan, killed a scorpion that was hanging out inside my mosquito net and this morning I had to change my skirt because on myw ay out the demented turkey that makes my life a living hell attacked me again and left footprints of splattered mud all over me,¨all of the time I really appreciate his asking me, just because he wants to know.

There´s the little girl who comes into city hall selling mangos who will spend 15 minute haggling with me everyday to buy a bag - I don´t even like mangoes, but she gets my quarter every time. There´s the driver of the municiple vehicle, a chain-smoking caballero named Luis who once accidentally shot his friend in the chest while trying to juggle two apples and his handgun. There are times when the office shuts down at noon because it´s the day BEFORE mother´s day. Really, you can´t make this stuff up. Ultimately though, I come home each day with fresh stories of incidents that make me laugh, roll my eyes and tear my hair out and it feels like normal. I only with I had my family and a dinner table waiting in my house to come back to.

On a different note...

Lately I have been something that in all honestly I can´t say I´ve been since over a year ago; busy. Thank goodness I didn´t quite forget how to multitask, because fr the past few months multitasking has actually involved more than just scrolling through the ipod and using one leg to rock myself on the hammock at the same time. Unplanned by me, four large projects began all at the same time. After I got over some initial panic by reminding myself that I used to multitask quite frequently in the States, I realized that I am in fact capable of getting stuff done and even that maybe this is why I´m here.... not to perfect that butt imprint I´ve got going on in my hammock, but to do some real, substantial work in my assigned community. So here I am, ¨working¨sans a paycheck and a designated work space.

The good news is that I´m really excited about all of these projects. The first involved writing a small grant to solicit people from home for money to realize a given project - called a Peace Corps Parternship Proposal. Although it has yet to be approved, I spent weeks in May creating a narrative, looking up stats and number crunching to create a budget, asking for 4 grand worth of help so that one of my rural communities can adequately prepare an old classroom to properly sustain ten donated computers set to arrive at the school in the fall. I´m hoping the good people in Washington will give me the Ok soon, so I can begin asking for the help we need to see this through... no worries, when it´s approved you´ll know by my ove the top pathetic pleading for help. Secondly, after waiting 2 months I received a check for 500 dollars through the Small Projects Assistance fund so that my health clinic director can give a series of HIV/AIDS prevention charlas in our cantons. I´m very excited about this project, first and foremost because HIV/AIDS is a bigger problem in El Salvador than some may think, and second because aside from seeking out the funds I have little to nothing to do with the actual implementation of this project. It truly is as sustainable as it gets, seeing as the director, health promoters, and their communities are organizing each charla, giving them and making it all happen. They have the know-how and leadership skills to successfully see this through, and indeed our first three charlas went extremely well. I´m there to buy and bring the refrigerio (in essence, a snack that Salvadorans deem vital to all events exceeding one hour in time), introduce the charla and take pictures. I love this project because I get to watch the director and promoters share their knowledge and pass on vital information to rural community members who can relate to them as fellow Salvadorans and are coming to understand information they may never have heard before. Thirdly, on a bit of a whim I visited the mayor San Miguel, our department, to ask for a donation of trees from his extensive greenhouse for our environmental group at school. I was lucky to be given 75 trees, and of course the random day we chose to pickt hem up happened to be National Environment Day or something ridiculously ironic like that, so upon arriving at the greenhouse we walked into a huge celebration (think Earth Day festivities), stayed 4 hours longer tahn we intended and adquired 25 trees more than we originally thought we´d receive. I just finished planting the trees in the school and town park with the group of 7-9 graders, who know more about planing than I do (thank God) and thus did a solid job despite my obvious lack of a green thumb. While there is worry that the town drunks and upcoming fiestas will slowly ruin the trees we planted in the park, so far so good.

Finally, the weekend of June 9-11 9 fellow volunteers and myself carried out a 3 day camp for Salvadoran youth living in 6 different Eastern communities. The cam was entitled Equidad es Empoderamiento, or Equality is Empowering, and central topics included everything from the difference between sex and gender, traditional roles of men and women in society, discrimination and stereotypes to human anatomy, myths and facts about STDs and protection for safe sex. We each invited 3-5 kids ages 15-18, all the while aware that these topics are delicate at best and many parents may not have allowed their kid to participate (Imagine, the healthen gringos teaching my evangelical daughter how to use a condom). Thankfully, more thanenough parents recognized the value of their son or daughter´s exposure to these issues,a nd we had a total of 24 kids. The cmap was held in Northeast El Salvador, where the weather is cooler and the mountain views breathtaking. For some of these kids it was their first time visiting this part of the country (for us, like living in Worchester and neer having been to Boston), for others indeed it was their first time leaving their village, so watching the kids adjust to such a completely new experience was both nerve-wracking and rewarding. My kids are what you might call city kids, so their biggest concern was the super cold water they would have to bath in and the fact that there were no nearby soda machines. They all did wonderfully though, and impressed the pants off of me. We ran into the usual problems - the tents we´d brought to sleep in were near impossible to assemble, electricity could not be brought via extension cords to the site - all the standard procedure issues for event planning in El Salvador. However, the charlas and activities planned for the kids were a success. With the help of a doctor from Medicos del Mundo, we covered all the topics and fielded more questions and discussions that I might have initially expected. We set up a secret question box for anonymous questions, played Capture the Flag and made friendship bracelets, broke kids up into groups and had each group explain an anti-contraceptive measure to the others, and put on mini sociodramas to demonstrate the consequences of unprotected sex and typcal stereotypes of men and women. One of my favorite parts was when we asked the kids to put on their own plays highlighting any story but reversing the roles of the men and women. It couldn`t have been any funnier watching the boys sashay around with balloon boobs and towels wrapped around as skirts and the girl strut around with baseball hats and taped on mustaches. They really seemd to embrace what we were trying to convey - for many of these kids, who are incredibly intelligent and capable, it doesn´t necessarily go without saying that sisters cna attend high shcool just as equally as brother and that machismo is potentially harmful. El Salvador isn´t exactly in the dark ages but it´s true that the more rural you go, in most cases, the less exposure there is to knowledge about gender equality and protection from STDs and AIDS. For a people as religious as the Salvadorans, sex before marriage is not spoke of, therefore neither is it talked about that kids are in fact having sex at young ages, consistently unaware of the safest ways to do so nor the potential consequences of their actions. If we helped these kids in any way to remember to use a condom, or to try treating their mothers as equally as their fathers, or to know that their futures can involve university eduactions and jobs rather than just having as many babies as Dios les da, then our camp was a success. I´m proud of the youth that participated for how much they already knew coming into the camp and especially for the new knowledge they successfully adquired by the end of the tree days, and also how much they came out of their shells to intereact with each other and participate in all the activites.

Alright it´s getting ridiculously hot in this cyber cafe so I´ll end the entry here. I just uploaded some new pictures so please check them out on the link of the blog... captions are to come soon but at least there´s something to look at! I hope all are well at home, I miss you and think of you all often. Take care and write soon!


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Ya viene la lluvia!

It's May, which means one very important thing... it's started raining again! This means leaky windows, crazy thunderstorms, no power and lots of scorpions seeking refuge in dry places, like my bed, but it also means a much appreciated break from the humidity that threatens to scorch my sanity day in and day out. Six months of rain also means this country goes from looking brown and brittle to lush and green again... for anyone who's thinking of visiting (hint, hint) between now and November is a GREAT time to head down here. Just, you know, if you were thinking about it.

Back in late March all the municipal development volunteers in country gathered for a 3-day in-service training. I found this to be incredibly interesting, as we were presented with some tough open-ended questions to ponder throughout our training time and spoken to by a myriad of foreign and local presenters. Our APCD (loosely, our "boss") Bryan started things off by asking us, "Does international development work? If the developed world should help the developing world, why? Defend that idea." I found myself really contemplating this stuff as we went through training. An economic officer of the US Embassy discussed macro-economic dynamics in El Salvador with us, sharing that while the poverty rate has fallen from 64% to 35% as of 2004, crime costs equate 11.5% of GDP and debt level is 40% of GDP. Salvadorans receive $3 billion in remesas, cash transfers from Salvadorans living outside the country to family members and friends in El Salvador, annually in a $17 billion economy, and yet each year $900 million in uncollected taxes is lost upon the country. Unlike in the US, people who refuse to pay taxes are not reprimanded in any way here. An American representing the US Millennium Challenge fund shared President Bush´s plan for El Salvador - a $461 million, five year endeavor to construct a northern transnational highway across the north of the country, which currently has no direct road. The MC´s mission - poverty reduction through economic growth. The rep shared with us that if the project can be completed with less than 5% of funds pilfered in corruption, they will consider it a great success at much less stolen than usual. That´s $23 million in the pockets of politicians, bureaucrats, and investors. The ambassador to El Salvador from the European Mission mentioned how Salvadoran ethanol (cultivated from sugarcane) entrees the US duty-free. Some are concerned that Salvadorans will plant sugarcane all over the country, thereby further deforesting an already overly exploited country, and send it all to the States for sale.

As I listened to these guys talk I thought about Bryan´s questions - does international development work? Should we help each other out? It can be said that in an increasingly-globalizing world all countries regardless of North/South status are more connected and drawing continually-closer relationships and dependencies. But what drives the willingness to make these necessary investments, and to whom are they most beneficial? Take the US and El Salvador for example. $3 billion in remesa money enters this country a year, and many of the sources are Salvadorans residing in the US. While improving the living conditions for those who receive them, remesas also discourage recipients from raising money through their own means, aka, pursuing jobs. They are often used for nonproductive investment and short-term consumption gains (approx. 80%). Only 1.9% are used for savings, 9.1% for education and 4.4% for healthcare. During initial training last summer, I once entered the house of a single woman with three kids that had a huge hole in the roof, covered only with tarp. The kitchen and garage were virtually the same room, with no wall between the dining room table and the parked truck. Nonetheless, in the family room the family had a brand new surround sound system and television, and the mother sported a Razor cell phone. Remesas had been good to them, she said. Now, the US is pumping millions of dollars into a two lane highway and accepting Salvadoran ethanol duty-free, but at what price? How many further areas will be deforested, homes lost, to create this road and plant thousands more kms of sugarcane? Who is benefiting - the guys who will pocket over $23 million in siphoned money? I´m not sure how much El Salvador as a whole is "benefiting" from any of this. I can think of a few reasons why the developed world does help the developing world - in our time, increased production, education and resources in one country is good for all. Economic dependencies run from north to south as much as from south to north, and natural and human resources know practically no geopolitical boundaries. The isolationalist approach is practically null and void, and in an uncertain future the best security defense is to make allies, rely on one another to improve our status. Now, we protect our own interests by protecting "theirs." But why should the haves contribute to the well being of the have nots? As a Peace Corps volunteer and recipient of a liberal arts education I guess I´m a little biased, but I would argue for the altruistic point of view. We should help one another because in this world basic fundamental human rights are unevenly distributed, denied to some, and everyone deserves such rights. If I have food, water, education, healthcare and security and you don´t, I have an obligation, a responsibility, to fight so that you have the same. I´m not talking about one´s right to a big screen TV, or even to a democratic government - I´m keeping it as basic as possible. I´m not sure if this is as much a socially-ingrained notion to "help the less fortunate" as much as it is an individually-based thought of the extreme value of equality - either way, I realize it´s a personal theory, subjective at best. But it is what I believe from experience, both pre and current Peace Corps.

On a different note, in early April I had the opportunity to travel to the western part of the country to Bosque Imposible, a natural forest of reserved land. Every month a few volunteers organize full moon hikes, where PCVs have the option to travel to another volunteer´s site or nearby to hike either during the day or at night during the full moon. The Bosque Imposible trip was a day-long guided tour, a hike in the forest following a river from start to finish. We were told it wasn´t for the feint of heart and also that everything we brought with us, including ourselves, would get soaking wet, so I was curious and opted to go. About 30 volunteers showed up and we started with an hour long pick up ride into the forest to the point where the hike officially starts. We walked downhill through coffee fincas for a while, then found ourselves at the start of what appeared to be not much more than a babbling brook. From that point on we followed the river as it grew wider and stronger. At times you could hop across from rock to rock, other times make your way across the bank or rock wall along the side. And then at other times, there was no choice but to jump into the water and wade or swim to the next point of land. At first the jumps were smaller - 2m, 3m - and the only real shock was jumping into icy water. The third jump was different - the guide broke ahead of us and perched waiting at what appeared to be a cliff ledge. To see it clearly, you had to scale down a slick rock wall until you were right at the point of jumping - no turning back. I was jumpy but decided to just go for it, so four or five volunteers in I followed suite and shimmied down to the ledge. I remember standing straight up and looking down at a 9m drop into a deep pool of dark water, rock walls shooting up on all sides save a bank where the river continued. The guide, who appeared to be cool as a cucumber, simply told me to make sure I jumped far enough out because too close there were rocks directly below. I must have looked at him in panic, because he put a hand on my shoulder and told me to just jump. So, I did. I remember in that split second I was airborne thinking, I didn´t jump out far enough, I´m about to die. But of course I didn´t - I landed in the water, swam to the bank and watched my fellow volunteers battle their inner voices of caution and eventually whoop as they dropped into the water. Some people were harnessed down, but everyone made it. When we reached the largest waterfall - some 85ft tall - we scaled down the side and eventually came to an optional 10m jump. Many of us did that one too - for some reason after that terrifying 9m drop, anything seemed do-able. We finished the hike with an hour inclined walk back to the trucks. We were wet, muddy from the hike, and eventually soaking through from a sudden downpour that wouldn´t let up, huffing and puffing and working already-sore muscles. The truck ride back in the bed was miserable - quite possibly one of the 3 times I´ve been really cold in this country, prickly goosebumps and all. But despite the physical discomfort it felt good - the bruises and sore muscles signifying a challenge I´d just overcome despite myself. We finished off that day heading to a location of naturally-heated thermal pools. Our hiking guide also happened to own a local bar, so he brought along coolers of beer and walked from pool to pool selling them to us. I´m trying to remember a time when I felt physically better in my life than that night – sore body submerged in hot water, an icy cold beer in my hand, toads croaking, music playing, good company all around.

Everything´s going well in site. I´m planting trees with my environmental group at school, translating awesome 80´s songs (which are incredibly popular here) such as Guns ´n Roses “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” with my English class, requesting money from USAID for our health promoters to give talks to our rural folk about how to prevent AIDS and working with my community to raise money for a new computer and science lab in a rural school. Many thanks to everyone for all the uplifting emails, phone calls and letters… as usual, they keep me going and mean more to me than I can express. Thanks to Mom for patiently reading off the lyrics of Bryan Adams´ ”Please Forgive Me” via the phone… my English class thanks you. Mother's Day is coming up... I'll call you someday from class and the kids can sing it to you. Congratulations to Carrie for finishing grad school/finding a job/getting an apartment with Andrew… I´m so proud of you and just so you know, use you as an example of how to get it together for one day when I´m done with the PC experience! Except for the moving in with Andrew part, I´ll leave that to you. Congrats to Nicole for getting into law school…you´re awesome chica! Here´s to Aaron coming home this month for the first time since March 2006… remember, toilet paper goes in the bowl, not the garbage, in the States. To everyone, be well, be safe and take good care…most of all, keep in touch!