Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Year Completed and a Week to Go

Yesterday marked a year to the day since I arrived in El Salvador.  I'll avoid typical comments like, "I can't believe how quickly it went", but I will say, this is without doubt, the year of my life where I have learned the most -- about me, El Salvador,  and the world.  I feel like I have been changed and I will never again see the world in the same way that I did a year ago.  I will be able to find joy in places I never looked before and I now know a new level of challenge in the lives of many people.

What a week this has been.  One of the things that seems to happen here is that foreigners feel more emotionally vulnerable.   For me it has to do with living in a culture and life where I only ever "sort of" know what is going on around me.  I have learned to live with the ambiguity but the stress of coping just seems to make my emotions closer to the surface.  Sure enough at a meeting this week I had to leave because I was going to cry.  I was just feeling overwhelmed with everything.  There is a lot of work to do with the elections.  Some of it is easy for me and some of it needs a level of Spanish that is really beyond me.  Being me, I feel frustrated because I can't get it done to the level that I want.  My teammates rallied and we have developed some new strategies and there are some new elections people arriving this week that we can put to work too!

That day, I decided to go for a "North American" lunch at Tony Roma's and bumped into another volunteer from the United States who "just needed a burger and fries" too and off we went.  I ended up talking to her a lot about my experiences at ADES and the people I have gotten to know, the impact the war had on them and why the elections are so important.  At times we were both in tears, but the discussion certainly reminded me why this work is important.  It helped to refocus my angst.  That was all on Thursday.

Friday was my regular day to go to ADES.  Lately, Fridays have been the highlight of my week.  There is a feeling of coming home.  Everyone is happy to see me, is interested in what I am doing and really makes me feel welcome.  They understand my Spanish (mostly) and are very eager to help me with the elections work in whatever way they can.   I bought a cake  (the cake is so amazing here, they put sweetened condense milk in the batter and so it is very, very moist) and we shared it as a way to say thanks for an wonderful year.

Yesterday a group of us went to a beautiful town in the mountains called "La Palma".  There is a famous artist named Fernando Llort (pronounced Jort).  His art style is very popular and is on almost all of the handicrafts made here.  5 women ranging in ages from me at 43-81 made the trip, with my favourite new tour guides.  Before I wax on about the tour guides, let me tell you about these women.  They are all Spanish students or volunteers at CIS.  Marilyn, the 81 year old is from Lakefield, outside Peterborough.  She spent last year travelling around India solo.  I have to say this group is an inspiration for me on how to age well and live a socially aware life!
L-R: Antonio, Lis, Andres, Marilyn (81), Ann (71), Jill (63) Linda (66)

A Door in La Palma, in the Llort style.

The breathtaking scenery of the mountains of El Salvador.

Of course, I need to tell you a bit more  Andres, Antonio and Lis, the tour guides.  They so continue to impress me with their professionalism, attention to detail and the quality of their service, not to mention they are cute and a lot of fun.  These young entrepreneurs are so much more than "transportation".  Andres spent time on the internet finding other places we could go in addition to La Palma, to make it a true day trip.  They are so attentive to the needs of the group.  Lis, sat in the back of the van with us and recorded all of the details of the trip - the time it took to get to each place, how long we spent, what we that they can review and revise.  As the tourism business isn't yet generating enough income they also have developed a food business and sell little shishkabobs, muffins and brownies to students at a local University.  I have a huge respect for the ambition and determination of these young people.

My friend Lenora arrives on Wednesday from Edmonton, Anneliese from Waterloo on Saturday and Lynn from Waterloo next Monday.  The Observer program officially  starts a week Monday on March 5th.  We have one more week to get it done and then after that, it just won't matter very much!  I am going to try and keep up with my blogs but don't worry if I miss one or two.  The next two weeks are just going to fly by!  Abrazos (hugs) to everyone.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I climbed a volcano because it was there and I could!!!!

So yesterday my friends Jill, Ann and I climbed the Santa Ana volcano.  I have to admit, I wasn't all that keen on the idea, but my friend Jill really, really wanted to do this.  I thought, well it will likely be a good experience.  I was not feeling quite so happy when we arrived at the volcano and it was foggy and cold.  It was hard to believe I could be cold, as the the day before was one the hottest days I have ever experienced in El Salvador.  In the end we all agreed that we were glad it wasn't sunny as the climb would have been that much harder.

As often happens here, someone knew someone, who knew someone who is trying to launch a tourism business here.  Antonio and Andres generally take people on camping, kayaking, rock climbing type of excursions, but yesterday they drove us and accompanied us up the volcano.  Jill is in her 60's and Ann is in her 70's.  We were all very grateful to have Antonio and Andres with us because we could not keep up the pace with the younger climbers.  We felt safe with "our guys" and we climbed up and down at our pace.  We were also accompanied by a police officer.  Neither Antonio, Andres or the Police Officer broke a sweat, while the three of us worked hard to get up to the top of the volcano.  I'm not sure what I expected, but I was surprised at how barren it is at the top.  There is also a sulfur lake in the crater.   When my family was here and my young cousins would ask the driver how much further, the answer was always about 20 minutes.  I developed the same system with Andres.  When I asked how much further, he always said 10 minutes.

As I was sweating and huffing up the volcano I thought about the idea that sometimes we know too much.  When Andres told me it was 10 more minutes, I knew at times it wasn't true, but somehow 10 minutes seemed manageable.   I certainly have learned over the past year that smaller goals are much more manageable, particularly when the situation seems completely overwhelming.  When I first arrived in El Salvador, 16 months here seemed like an eternity.  Next Saturday will mark my year anniversary.  I think it would have been easier if I had thought about it in 3 month increments, rather than as a whole.
Me, Jill and Ann - We made it to the top!
The crater with the sulfur lake

At the bottom with the volcano in the background

In other news this week...On Tuesday it was friendship day here - not really Valentines Day.  I have to say, I like this idea a lot.  So I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to all of my friends and family who read my blog.  You matter to me and you are important to me.  I am so thankful for each of you.  Please give yourself a huge hug from me and know that in a few months, I'll be giving you a huge hug in person!

As I am writing my blog, my sister is moving into her new house.  Many of you know that the past few years have been particularly challenging for her.  Moving into the new house is a great way for her and Rachel to be future focused.  She is very excited about "nesting" after feeling like she was "in transit" for the past few years.  I am thrilled that she is moving on to this new step in her life.  While I am sad that I am not there to help, I am glad that so many family and friends have supported her in so many ways through this process.  The move into a smaller home has also necessitated a significant thinning of the "Macaulay collection" all of the left over stuff from my parents and grandmothers house.  While this has been at times emotionally challenging for both of us, lessening the load from the past seems to be very important for all us to move on to create the futures that we want.  I am thrilled and delighted for Karen and Rachel and wish them many years of happiness in their new home.  

Finally, the Elections work is busy and challenging in many ways, but I am loving it.  This week I have started having discussions about what I will do after the elections.   Both ADES and CIS have ideas and so I am trying to sort that out.  For the first time since being here, I have too many options and so I need to think about what I want to do for my final time here.  Imagine!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Little Bits

So there are a bunch of little things I wanted to share with you.  Firstly, I felt my first tremor two weeks ago!  I forgot to tell you about it last week.  They happen in El Salvador all the time and mostly the foreigners don't feel them.  They are slight and quick and by the time someone tells you we are having a tremor, it is done.  The one a few weeks ago,  was just after I had settled down in my bed and the whole house moved twice, very quickly and then it was done.   Foreigners often call this action an "earthquake" and Salvadorians laugh.  It would be about the same as someone calling a few snowflakes a blizzard!  An interesting experience nonetheless!

Secondly, two weeks ago I also received a reply from the Canadian Government responding to my inquiry in October as to a a Canadian Government response to the floods here.  I didn't know this, but the Canadian Government send 2 million dollars to Central America , of which $700,000 went to El Salvador.  They distributed through International Humanitarian Organizations like the Red Cross.   This was new information for me and I was pleased to hear it.

Elizabeth in a hammock at Lucy's house

Elizabeth, Dennis and Lucy
This week I had the pleasure of sharing a bit of my life here with Dennis and Elizabeth Huss.  They are retired friends of mine from Westminster United Church in Waterloo.  They have a goal to visit 100 countries in the world and to date have been in about 75.   This year they took on Central American and added in a bit of time to visit with me in El Salvador.    We toured a little San Salvador on the day they arrived and the next day we went to Guacotecti and visited ADES and Sensuntepeque.  They were great sports and spent 3 hours on two buses each way.  One of the highlights for everyone was when my friend Lucy from ADES invited us to her house for lunch.  She served us a great bean soup, tortillas and fresh cheese and tomatoes.  Elizabeth liked the "hammock lifestyle" so much that she and Dennis bought one to take home.  I have to say, I am seriously considering adding a hammock to my living room when I get home.  This way I can use it all year round!

There is so much about life in El Salvador that is difficult.  People here have to endure so much more than most Canadians.  There are few systems that work particularly well.  This week, I had three separate conversations that inspired me.  The first two were about the elections.  One of my English students, Edwin, has been selected to work for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on the day of the election.  His job will be to take the official piece of paper that has the vote totals and send it into the head office.  He will also have to make copies of the vote totals for each poll at his voting centre.  He talked to me a lot this week about his responsibility to care for the votes.  Although he got this job through a particular political party, it is clear that his first allegiance is to the law and the voting process, not his party.  I have always have taken this for granted, but it is not always the case here.  I was deeply impressed with his desire to be a part of an election that happens according to the rules.

I also had the opportunity to talk with a lawyer from the United States.  He is someone who has had a deep interest in El Salvador for many years.  He has visited the country and has many Salvadorian clients.  He is coming to be an Observer, in part because he is so impressed with what the Salvadorian people have managed to do...unite rebel/guerilla forces under one banner, become a legitimate political party and have a President from that party.  He is of course correct.  This has been a huge achievement of the Salvadorian people.  Sometimes in the midst of all of the difficulties of the day to day, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and the bigger struggle.  I was glad to be reminded of this.

This week I was introduced to the young doctor in charge of the Health Centre in Victoria.  Salvador is from Santa Marta and he was able to receive his education because of  a scholarship program from ADES (funded by contributions from out of the country).  Antonio, ADES Executive Director explained to Dennis and Elizabeth that ADES works a lot in the area of education believing that this is the way that people will be able to develop their own communities.  While this takes a lot of time, people like Salvador, who is now a Doctor in a community very near to where he grew up, are evidence of what a little bit of North American/European aid can mean for a poor community.  Educating Salvadorians is a much better option than parachuting in foreigners to meet needs.   Positive change is here.  But is is small and slow and you need to watch for it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Great Day and a Great Birthday

So today was one of those unexpected, out of the blue great days.  It started out like most Fridays, excepted I got to sleep in until 6am.  Then I was on the buses and off to Guacotecti.  As I am spending so much time on the Elections Program, I am really out of sync with what is happening at ADES.  I arrived this morning to find out that it was the closing/graduation ceremony for two groups of mostly young people who have received several weeks of training to become reporters at Radio Victoria.  As you may recall, Radio Victoria is a community radio station that is mostly staffed by youth and young adults.  Over the years the staff at Radio Victoria have received several death threats because of their anti-mining position.  A few weeks ago, they received a new round of death threats in response to a story they covered about the illegal posting of election material.  There does not seem to be any shortage of young people willing to take on this task.

Before Christmas I spent a few Saturdays in a little place called Cinquera, where one of the two training groups was held.  I liked the youth in this group.  I found them intelligent, giggly and self-conscious...just what many youth are like.  Today some of them came up to me and started talking.  I explained that I could not stay for the whole event because I needed to teach an English class.  After the event and after my English class one of the youth cornered me to find out how they could get an English course in Cinquera.  Eduardo is involved with the Radio Victoria project and he is also involved with CIS in the election community training program.  He said that he wanted my contact information but that he was going to talk to Leslie at CIS and Tita the Chair of the Board at ADES because he and his colleagues need English classes.   This not a project that is on anyone radar at the moment, but somehow I wouldn't be surprised if I or one my colleagues ends up teaching English in Cinquera after the elections.  Although he is young, Eduardo is not one to give up.

As part of the ceremony today, all of the graduates were "sworn in" as reporters.  They had to promise to search for the truth and to work toward the development of their communities.

Out for dinner to celebrate my birthday.

Sharing icing with Jenny and Nora.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Busy Week!

So the beginning of this week brought good news...I was parasite free.  I had decided a few weeks ago that I really, really needed more raw vegetables in my life.  I think this is likely the first time that I have ever, really, really missed a good salad!  I carefully brought produce, washed it as I had been instructed and devoured blissfully.  However, it is likely this that introduced parasites into my system.  After a quick visit to a lab and a meeting with a very nice doctor - who prescribed an anti-parasitic medication and told me I needed to buy disinfectant for my veggies, I am back on track.   With the help of other foreigners at CIS, I tracked down the disinfectant - soaked my veggies this week and so far all is good gastro-intestinally speaking!  Salvadorians don't generally use this product because the don't eat raw vegetables.  Jonathan, my 23 year old housemate sat me down this week and explained me to how this wasn't Canada and I really shouldn't eat raw food.  I explained to him, that I really needed to.  Now every time he sees me eating something raw he asks if it has been disinfected!

This has been a busy week for the Elections Team.  We had two special meetings.  The first was with the Sub-Comandante of Public Security at the PNC (El Salvador's National and only Police Force).  The meeting was in the administrative headquarters - a breathtakingly beautiful building known as "el castillo" (the castle).  From the outside that is what it looks like.  Inside the tile work and ceilings were exquisite.  Unfortunately I forgot my camera that day, so there are no pictures!  It is like no other building I have ever seen in El Salvador.

The Sub-Comandante talked a lot about the role of the police during the election campaign and on election day.  Protecting International Observers is one of their 5 main roles!  He also talked about how residential voting is a huge logistical challenge for their department.  Significantly increasing the number of voting sites means that the force will be more divided up on election day.  In another blog I talked about the problems of caring for the "Election Boxes" that contain all the materials for the polling stations (including ballots, voters lists etc.).  Apparently, the Police are not allowed to actually touch the boxes, rather they can only provide security.  The boxes cannot travel in Police vehicles, rather they are escorted.  I have to tell you, I am constantly reminded of how little I know about the logistical details of our elections!  It was an interesting meeting and I am thrilled because I am actually understand a lot of what is being said.

An interesting note, the PNC reclaimed "el castillo" when the National Guard was disbanded after the Civil War.  This building served as the headquarters of the National Guard and was the site of many brutal interrogations that included torture and often resulted in death.  It is said that this building is very haunted at night and that it is possible to hear screams of people suffering and mothers weeping looking for their sons.  There is almost nothing that I have experienced in this country that is not somehow linked to the war.

Later this week, we also met with a staff member of the government agency that protects humans rights.  This too was created as part of the peace accords.   This agency will have volunteer observers, who like our team of observers, will watch and note but will not have the power to intervene.  They will also have staff teams who will be able to intervene if human rights violations occur on voting day.  The most common type of violation is refusing to allow someone to vote.  This happens most frequently in smaller places where everyone knows the party affiliation of everyone else.

We also took a field trip and visited the three municipios where I will be co-ordinating teams - San Isidro, Guacotecti and Sensuntepeque.  We visited the police stations and with members of the local election boards and with the provincial election board.  No matter where we went this week, everyone was glad to hear that there would be observers and offered help in whatever way we needed.  In fact, generally everyone we met with asked if could also cover additional areas.  Sadly because of the number of volunteers this likely won't be possible.

In fact that has been one of the  most moving parts of this week for me -  how welcoming everyone is of observers.   Interestingly, my sister's Christmas package arrived this week after 2 months in the mail.  The woman at the post office is never happy to see me.  She cannot figure out why a "tourist" would be receiving packages.  While she begrudging accepts my Canadian Passport as ID she is not happy about it.  Last time she made me go down the street and have my whole passport photocopied so that she could attach it to her official "post office book".  This time, I happened to be wearing my "official Observer ID badge".  It is made on a computer at CIS.  We will get one from the Government but that will be much closer to the actual  election.  This time, she asked to see my badge, said "oh" and then filled out the paperwork and gave me my package with no questions.  Apparently being an "observer" has its privileges!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Busy Week

It has been a busy week.  Like a lot of weeks here, I have learned a lot about a lot of different things.

On Friday last week, I returned to ADES for the first time in a month.  People were glad to see me and I was happy to reconnect with them.  People are interested in what I am doing and learning.  I got caught up on the work, but I also got caught up on the "people news".  One woman is pregnant and another is really in love for the first time.  One person asked for my help with homework from his English course.  Some other people asked me to have lunch with them.  I met with Jimmy and Edwin, my English students and they had a lot of questions for me about the differences between words, pronunciation and expressions.  It really did feel like returning to my community.  What a great feeling after all of months of struggling with being here.

As you may recall, I am attending an English language, inter-denominational church here in San Salvador.  The theology of the Church is much more traditional than I prefer.   While there are parts of the service that feel familiar, there is also much that feels very uncomfortable.  However, it is the only English language church and so on that basis it feels more comfortable than the Spanish alternatives.  I have to confess this week I realized that attending this Church was teaching me a lot about accompanying.  A big part of what I think it means to accompany is to listen.  This week I was embarrassed to realize how easily I would have in Canada discounted the theology of this Church.  In among the parts that are out of my comfort zone have been some moments of great clarity and learning for me.  Some of what I have gotten out of the services have been pivotal points in redesigning my life here in El Salvador.  Accompanying is a bit about listening and learning even when at first glance it appears that this place will have nothing to offer.   I have thought about how at home I quickly make judgments and if something doesn't "fit" well very quickly, I move on.  In Canada, I would never have attended this Church more than once.  While many of the members of Union Church of San Salvador and I will disagree on many things, I have learned we have a lot more in common than I would have initially thought.

Sadly, there have been challenges on the election front.  One of the issues involves the people of Santa Marta and the young staff at Radio Victoria.  To summarize a complex issue, basically a large flag from a right wing party was put on private property in Santa Marta, (a very left-wing community), without the permission of the land owner.  This is not permitted under Salvadorian law.  The people were angry and annoyed as there is a very long history of animosity between the village of Santa Marta and the right wing Mayor of Victoria (the city that is the catchment for Santa Marta).  Some people decided to return the flag to the office of the Mayor.  This event was covered live by Radio Victoria a community radio station staffed mostly by youth and young adults.  As a result of their coverage of this event, 6 staff of Radio Victoria received death threats.
Next week there will be a meeting between the people of Santa Marta and the JED - Provincial Electoral Committee.  They have asked for International Observers for this meeting.  I will be going in that role as will other members of the team.   I am very pleased to be able to support my community by observing and reporting what is going on.

This is a volatile time in many places in El Salvador.  We in the International Community are not at risk.  In fact we are not permitted to be involved in political events.  We can be deported immediately.  We have all be advised to stay away from the large political events.  However, it is difficult time in this troubled country.  This week also marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the brutal 12 year civil war.  In an unprecedented move President Funes visited El Mazote, the site of the worst massacre of the war and acknowledged publicly what happened there.  He acknowledged that it was not a legitimate act of war but rather was a violation of International Law.   This is clearly still a country divided and the election campaign only serves to highlight the divisions.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Seeing Canada Through Fresh Eyes

Okay, so it is true, I have been enjoying the feeling of being competent this week.  I am one of the people that the "newbies", the new volunteers seek out for information about a variety of issues related to living and working in El Salvador.  I have taken to leading groups to different  places for lunch.  For those of you who remember how directionally challenged I am will know what a feat this is in a place where there are rarely street signs and everything is sorted out by landmarks.

I have also been reminded of how much I have changed this year.  I look at the fresh faces of the new volunteers at CIS who want to "do things" and to "be competent".  They haven't yet figured out that we are going to look foolish a thousand times here -- in what we say, don't say, do and don't do.  They also haven't figured out that people here don't have the same expectation of perfection as we do at home.  They truly do appreciate effort and kindness.  They are also struggling with being in a new place, with new people and trying to do a new job that they only "kind of" understand.  I find myself saying some of the very annoying but true things that people said to me.  "Don't worry, you haven't been here that long" - "It will all work out" - "Your Spanish will get better."  I see my culture in these folks and I am reminded of home.  I wonder when I come home if I will turn back into one these people or if I will be somewhere between the laid back, relaxed Lynn I am here and the person with an enormous "to do" list I typically am  in Canada.

In order to be Election Observer Co-ordinator I am learning a lot about the government and electoral system.  Like everything here it is complicated.  People have a much higher loyalty to their political party than the system of laws.  All of the people working on the elections are from a party.  Since in general people from the left wing party and the right wing parties don't agree on anything, it takes a long time to get things done and things get very complicated.  For example, 3 days before the election,  the electoral committees in each city/region will receive "boxes" with all of the stuff that each table (polling station) needs.  For 3 days people from each party and Police Officers stay awake and "care" for the boxes, no one trusting the other not to open the boxes and steal ballots.  People do not trust each other or the Police to act with integrity.  Everything needs to be checked and double checked by people from all the parties.  While there are 4 main parties, there are in fact 9 parties participating in these elections.  For every committee each party has a representative and a "vigilante", someone who watches to make sure that everything is done properly.

I have no idea who looks after the election boxes in Canada, but I can bet that there is not a group of people staying awake for 3 days.  If it is the role of the Police, we'd basically trust them to look after the boxes.  Not here.  The more I understand about the history of El Salvador, the more I understand this behaviour.

Our program coordinator Vicenta (a very politically involved Salvadorian), finds it hard to believe that none of us really know how voter fraud is prevented in our countries (Canada, US and England).  We just basically say, that we don't really think it happens very much.  There is not a huge group of people who want to vote twice.  The political parties in Canada aren't out rounding up Americans to cross the boarder with fake ID's to   have them vote for them on election day.  Every day I become and more and more thankful for our politicians and our political system.  While not perfect, I appreciate its benefits a lot more.

Finally, an update about the girls.  Nigeli the older girl has experienced a significant improvement in her eye function as a result of the surgery she has this summer.  It was a long road and she had eye and ear infections as complications from the surgery, but all is well.  Unfortunately, her younger sister Katherine continues to battle lung issues.  Despite a wide range of medications, made possible by the generosity of Canadians, there has not been a significant improvement.  As a result, she has not been able to have eye surgery.   Everyone continues to be hopeful.

I have also learned this week, that 5 friends from Canada will join the Election Observer Team here in El Salvador in March.  I am very excited about this development and look forward to welcoming people here to do this important work.  Thank you, all of you who read my blog and who support my journey in so many ways.