Thoughts From One Year in Country
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!