Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Christmas in El Salvador

Feliz Navidad mis amigos/amigas!  This week I celebrated my first Christmas in El Salvador.  It was a much more low key affair than in Canada, but it certainly had some very special highlights.  On the Friday Dec 16th,  I suggested that my two English students (Edwin and Jimmy)  and I follow a Canadian tradition and have a special lunch before Christmas.  They came to the ADES and collected me and we went in the bus to Sensuntepeque (a city about 5 minutes away).  There we went to Pollo Campero (the Salvadorian equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken - only better).  Then they took me Parque Cabanas, a very pretty park that I had never been to before.  I gave Edwin and Jimmy a "Niagara Falls" t-shirt each, that my family had brought with them when they visited.  Both were slightly embarrassed, Jimmy more so.  He then explained to me that he had never received a Christmas present as an adult.  Wow...   Jimmy and Edwin gave me a beautiful Christmas card with a lovely note from both of them.

The next day I left for Belize (see last week's blog) and I returned to El Salvador on the 23rd.  When I got back to the house, there were notices from the post office that I had two packages waiting for me.  Under the Salvadorian postal system, packages can go anywhere in the city of San Salvador.  They most often end up a post office fairly near to my house, but not always.  In this case they were in a part of San Salvador that I had never been in.  I spent a long time in a cab but we eventually found the place and I was able to retrieve the parcels.  Turns out one was for Christmas and one was an early birthday present!  The package that made it for Christmas contained some of my favorite Christmas CD's that I asked a friend to send to me in El Salvador.  Needless to say Christmas music started in earnest.  Jonathan has decided that he really doesn't like English Christmas music, but Jenny has fallen in love with Josh Groban!

On the 24th, I went to deliver a little present to my friends Lissette and Ignacio.  Lissette cried because she too had never received a Christmas present as an adult.  She took off one of her bracelets and gave it to me, saying that she wanted me to have something to remember her by when I returned to Canada.  After this emotional gift delivery, I came back to Jenny's house to wait for people to start arriving and I waited and I waited.  I thought that people would come in the early afternoon, but it was about 7 pm when people started coming...members of Jenny's extended family.  We enjoyed drinks and conversation and the remnants of  the crackers and cheese that I had brought back from Belize.

Jenny cooked a started out in a fairly traditional way, minus stuffing.  After it was mostly cooked she put into a tomato sauce and boiled it for a while.  When it was done, they took it out of the sauce, cut it up and then poured the sauce and green olives over it.  It is possible to get green olives in El Salvador, but they are fairly rare...except at Christmas when they are everywhere!
Jenny prepares the turkey with her special rub.

Jonathan cuts up the turkey!

Jenny adds the sauce to the turkey!
Later that evening we exchanged gifts.  Jonathan got me an exquisite El Salvadorian nativity scene.  I had mentioned at one point that I had a collection but hadn't  found one from this country that I like.  Interestingly, the one that Jonathan got for me is one I would have bought had I seen it.  Jenny gave me a very special t-shirt with butterflies on it.  She said that butterflies symbolize transformation, like me this year!  Yah, I started crying at that one!

A long standing Salvadorian tradition is that on Christmas Eve children light firecrackers.  There are a few that  have bright coloured lights, but they are expensive, so mostly the firecrackers are just loud.  This goes on all evening and creates a crescendo at midnight.  The fireworks continue long into the night.  I think that I made to bed around 2pm!  Most of the "extraneros" (foreigners) agree that the fireworks are not our favourite part of Salvadorian culture, but the kids love it.  Talking to Salvadorian adults, they often have very special memories of lighting firecrackers on Christmas Eve.  It was great to be able to experience it.

On the 25th, I set off to Church while Jonathan and Jenny relaxed.  Jenny had been sick throughout the holiday, took a day to just sleep and watch movies.  On the 25th, I called to the extended family Christmas at my Aunt  Betty's in Niagara Falls.  I missed everyone this year, but I am deeply fortunate to be able to be in this here, at this time to learn much about Salvadorian culture and what it is like to celebrate a much simpler holiday.  As is the case with so many times here, I  feel incredibly blessed to be a part of this place with these people.  I miss you and look forward to seeing you in 2012, but it has been a very memorable Christmas.

Merry Christmas my friends and family!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent 4 - Love

I don't know what it is about Christmas and Chez Whiz...I don't have any need for the plastic cheese spread at other times of the year.  If  you look way back in my blogs you'll notice I blogged about Chez Whiz last Christmas and sure enough last week I went searching for the this product in the Salvadorian supermarkets.  Both Jonathan and I have enjoyed it.

One of the last things that I did before I started my Christmas vacation (everyone is off for 2 weeks) was to accompany Oscar (the driver) and Edith (my colleague) to a small out of the way community.  It was another community that was really off the beaten track.  We took some toys (balls, colouring books, crayons), a pinata and some cookies.  This very poor community had asked ADES for help in creating a Christmas party.  There is not sufficient money for basics, so there is not money for anything special at Christmas.  What we delivered will be the special "Christmas" things for this community. So we set off to deliver a bit of Christmas joy. We were met, literally at the end of the road, by a couple adults and a few kids who picked up the stuff and hiked it into their community.     This was so different than the Christmas deliveries I have done in Canada.  There was, by comparison, just so little.

Today I am writing to you from Belize.  It is a small country in Central America that is on the Atlantic Ocean side.  I am a little vague on the details, although I know that the Spanish were here, at one point they got kicked out by the British and the natives and British kept the Spanish from coming back.  As a result, Belize was a colony for many years and now is a Constitutional Monarchy like Canada.

I knew Belize was for me, when at the tiny airport there were lovely Christmas decorations and small reggae group playing Christmas music!  Christmas is "bigger" here in Belize than El Salvador although significantly "smaller" than in Canada.  All this week, I have enjoyed hearing Christmas tunes as I wonder the streets and shops of Belize City.

Belizians speak English, sort of.   Walking down the street I understand less of the conversations going on around me than I do in El Salvador!  The British brought in slaves from the Islands and the mixture of Caribbean cultures, with the Spanish, British and various indigenous groups has resulted in a "Creole" language that sounds little like the English I know!  Most Belizians speak "proper" English, creole and many speak Spanish and tribal languages too.

Culturally Belize is more similar to Canada than El Salvador.  I notice small there are street signs (which there aren't in most of San Salvador) and the money is in different colours with pictures of the Queen!  While there is crime and violence in Belize, it is not as significant as in El Salvador.  I have been able to walk a lot during the days, which has been great for me.  I feel like I have really had a vacation and a "break" from my regular life in El Salvador.

One of the highlights of my trip to Belize was the opportunity to worship at a Methodist Church.  It is a large Church with an amazing organ.  I was able to attend a festival of lessons and carols, where we sang a lot of familiar tunes...including an incredible candlelit version of Joy to the World!  At one point I had another experience of awe and wonder where I looked around and thought who ever could have imagined that this white chick from Waterloo, ON would be at Christmas service in Wesley Methodist Church in Belize City, Belize.  Wow, the experiences I've had on my adventure!

This year, I have chosen to be away from the people I love during the holiday.  I wanted to have this experience once in my life...of being away, of being with others and of learning of Christmas celebrations in a different place.  The Christmas story reminds us that although life does not always turn out the way we had hoped, (Mary likely never envisioned her life as being unwed and pregnant), amazing things can result from the unexpected.  While I am not with you in person, know that my prayer (or hope if you prefer) for each of you is that you experience renewal during this Holy Season.  Feliz Navidad - Merry Christmas my friends and family.  Thank you for your support, caring and love this year.

Wesley Methodist Church, Belize City

A Tapir - the National Animal of Belize

Spider Monkey

Bel-Can bridge in Belize City...A gift from the people of Canada!

View looking out to the Atlantic Ocean from Belize City

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent 3 - Joy

This weekend I CIS arranged a trip for students/volunteers.  5 of us, plus Ulyses (a Spanish instructor at CIS and our guide for the weekend) and Jose (our driver, who I called Luis all weekend until he finally told me his name with Jose!  Oops!) went to the eastern part of El  Salvador to visit a number of sites. The trip was a lot of fun and I enjoyed hanging out and being able to speak to people easily in English.  Generally Ulyses refrained from correcting our Spanish except when we asked.  However at one point he very calmly (and without laughing-- at least on the outside) let me know that the word I needed was "punto" (point) not "puto" (male prostitute).  Recently, although I know the difference between these two words, apparently my pronunciation was not as crisp as it needed to be and my word "pena" (sorrow, trouble, problem) sounded more like "pene" (penis).  I am being very careful to clearly pronounce the word "year" which if not pronounced correctly sounds like I am wishing people a "Happy New Anus"! I was relating these stories to friends at CIS and a woman who speaks very good English but for whom Spanish is her first language told me that she never uses the word "beach" in English because she cannot hear the difference in pronunciation between it and "bitch".

Much of the content of the trip was difficult.  We visited El Mazote which is a small village in the mountains.  In December, 2011 a unit of the Salvadorian army perpetrated what is known as the "worst massacre" during the war.   Around a 1000 people including nearly 150 children were tortured and murdered.  The details are beyond horrifying.  This weekend there was an event commemorating the 30th anniversary.  We also visited a museum which commemorates the lives and deaths of many of the guerrillas during the war as well as a re-creation of a guerrilla camp in the mountains.    Life was very difficult for these folks and many of the people were very young.

At one point I lamented that today's blog topic was joy.  Ironically, this is a topic about which I usually have a lot to say.  I had nothing.  At one point, I said a quick prayer that God if you want to write about "Joy" you are going to need to help me here.  My heart is very heavy with all the tragedy and death I am learning about.

Later in the day on Sunday we climbed a mountain.  We passed enormous craters where bombs were dropped  during the war.  We also passes a helicopter landing site that the army used during the war.  The misery that was unleashed on the peasant population from these places was palpable.

We then reached the top of the mountain.  The view of neighbouring Honduras was spectacular.  It was a sunny, warm day and the mountain top was pristine.  There were a few trees so there was the option of shade or sun.  At one point during our time here I realized that I had found my joy.  The simple joy of simply being alive.  The man who was our guide at the museum had lived in a rebel camp for many years.  He talked about how they prayed twice a day...once in the morning to thank God for seeing them through the night and again the evening to thank God for whatever blessings they had received during the day.  It is hard to imagine they received much, including food, during the day, but they remained thankful.  I was deeply reminded of the blessing of life and the joy that comes with simply being alive.  The people that I know that survived the horrors of this war have the gift of life.

As I quietly walked down the mountain, back to "real" life and the challenges of life in El Salvador, my spirit somehow felt lighter for having found a way to rejoice in the midst of such darkness.

And so my friends, I would invite you to take a moment, be still, breathe deeply and feel deep within you the joy of being alive.

Me on the mountain.

Ulyses and the 5 "chicas".

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent 2 - Peace

So of all of The Advent themes, I have always had the least connection to "peace".  Hope, joy and love just seem to have a lot more relevance in my life.  I live in a relatively peaceful country and wars happen in other places.  Then I came to El Salvador.  This weekend I am going on a trip to the 30th anniversary of the worst massacre that occurred in during the war, in a place called El Mazote.  Everywhere,  there are reminders of the brutal civil war that happened here for 12 years.  Although the war ended in 1992,  there are many facets of El Salvadorian life that are still impacted by what happened.  In the tiny village of Cinquera, unexploded bombs are cemented in front of  the church and in the park there is part of a downed aircraft and old guns are attached to the fence.

Park in Cinquera

The Church in Cinquera with the bombs out front.   Note the painting of  Oscar Romero on the  left.

The legacies of the war impact much of El Salvadorian life.  Gangs and narco-trafficing are big business here that grew exponentially after the war.  Why this is, is another long story, which I'll save for another day.  Parts of this country are very, very violent.  Life is organized to protect people from this violence.  As a result, I am rarely out on the street after dark (occasionally on a bus or in a vehicle, but never just wondering around).  There are armed security guards everywhere and there are a lot of police, who travel in groups of 3 or 4.  While I have never been threatened or robbed here, everyday everyone structures their day to minimize this risk.  The risk is almost always present.  Every once and a while you get a bit of a break from this reality and it feeling very safe feels very odd.  Yesterday was one of those of days.

 I had the opportunity to accompany a group of youth and their leads to a water park for the day.  One of my colleages Edith, works at ADES and is studying social work.  She has had her placement working at a youth centre in Zacamil.  This is a very poor, very rough section of San Salvador.  The family situations of these youth are general really bad.  Among other things, there is not enough food for any of these kids.  I was shocked when one "little guy" told me he as 12.  I thought he was about 6 or 7 based on his size.  The future for these kids is not at all certain.  In addition to all their family issues, the area where they live in is controlled by gangs.  There will be a lot of pressure to join and the risk of death if they don't.  Yesterday was not about their reality, it was about having a day away.

So the "chicos" and their adult leaders and I piled into a mini-van and headed for the water park.  It was nothing like what a Canadian water park would be like, but there was 3 different pools complete with water slides and a splash pad area.  None of the water was very deep, so it was very safe.   There was also a park like area that surrounded the pools.  The boys could run and play and they did.  There were bbq areas and so the adults cooked up chicken. and the other leaders had brought rice, salad, tortillas, pop and cookies.  The kids had a huge feed.  I didn't initially understand what was happening when they started coming to ask for plastic bags, I thought they were bagging the garbage.  Then I realized what they were doing was taking food from their plates home.  The leftovers got bagged and the kids took them too.

Once again I was reminded of the lesson that I learn again and again here.  When the big picture is just too overwhelming and too sad, look around.  I was amazed at how kind the "big" kids were to the "little" kids.  This group has become its own "alternative" family.  Maybe this connection the boys will be able insulate each other a little bit from the all of the challenges in their young lives.  At the very least, they had a day away, where they could be kids and where the adults around them were kind and nurturing.  Maybe, this will help these kids to continue to be the peaceful kids they are.  By showing them a different path perhaps they will be able to chose peace rather than the life of violence that surrounds them.

Once again, I feel deeply honoured to have been able to share this "happy" day with the "chicos from Zacamil".

The "chicos" and their leaders

At the pool

Having lunch

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent 1 - Hope

Okay, so my last week's blog wasn't one of my best.  There were a number of reasons - I was tired, I was rushed and I had been feeling a bit hopeless.  The problems in El Salvador are so entrenched and complicated and serious.  There are so many injustices that people live with every day.  It just felt overwhelming and I wasn't ready to share it yet.  I needed some time to process some specific situations and the impact that general life here was having on my soul.  So I cranked the required blog but it didn't gel as well as some others.

Last week there was a conference here of people working with grass roots communities in Central and South America, Mexico and Cuba.  Quite frankly, I was very irritable and found much of it tedious.  I had a huge problem with a number of the accents and found the sessions very hard to follow.  On Friday my boss Gilma  asked if I would support another staff person at an event in the afternoon.  I suspect she sensed my restlessness.   I readily agreed.  When it was time to go, there were some problems with my transportation.  The person I was supposed to go with left without me.  Eventually there was some conversations and they figured out how to get me to the event.  I thought I was going to an event to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against women in Santa Marta, but I ended up at the closing of the Literacy Circles in Sensuntepeque.  I arrived, grumbling to myself, that this was just another example of how little I understand in this culture and I was in a generally foul mood.

I was asked to take pictures.  There were a lot of children present and so I started taking pictures of groups of kids.  I've never done this before and in generally avoid the kids because they don't get my Spanish at all.  However, this was a good day and they laughed at my Spanish and I generally got better, happier pictures.  I would take a picture of a group of kids and show them the picture and then generally there was another looking like they wanted their picture taken.  There was some connection and I realized after a while that I was feeling better.

Then the event started.  It was MC'd by a young man named Denis.  He is quite remarkable to me.  He is 18 and a dedicated, charismatic and passionate community leader and eloquent speaker.  He is a facilitator of a literacy circle in his home community.  He always has a smile and a "hello" for me.  His English does not expand much beyond that, but he really tries to communicate with me, speaking Spanish slowly and clearly.  It is easier now, but he tried really hard when it was really tough to have a conversation with me.  For that reason he will always be very special to me.

Then Juan, the leader of the team that organizes the literacy program, spoke.  He is a teacher and former principal.  He spoke about the importance of being about to read and the worlds that having this skill opens up.  I started to cry.  After feeling hopeless for a while, I had found a little bit of hope.   I thought, no matter what life throws at these people, they now have basic literacy and numeracy skills.  No one can take that away from them.

In the end 140 certificates were presented to people in literacy programs in a number of very small, rural, and poor areas around the ADES office.  There were a lot of older people (50+) who got certificates.   Many of these folks just smiled from ear to ear when their name was called.  They all had children and grandchildren there with them.  I was near the front because I was taking pictures and I was wearing an ADES t-shirt.  I got a number of hugs and thanks you from the participants too.  I hugged back and said "felicitaciones" (congratulations).  There was also some younger people and people in between.  One of the most moving presentations was to a group of people with disabilities.  There are very few services (medical or social) for people with disabilities.  What an accomplishment for the people in this group.  Everyone in the Literacy Program has a story and Carmen the co-ordinator would whisper different things to me as people got their certificates.  So much adversity.  It just makes the successes that much sweeter.

So on  a Friday afternoon, in a well worn, jammed packed meeting room in El Salvador, I found hope.   People and situations can change.  Things can move in a positive direction.  The facilitators come from the same communities as the learners.  Salvadorians are helping Salvadorians, in this small but effective program in rural Northern El Salvadorian.  While ADES receives some money from organizations in Spain to help coordinate the program, this is not a foreign aid program.

Once again I have been reminded that when it all seems hopeless, I need to look around me.  I need to see the people in and around my life.  They truly are amazing and little by little they are making this world a little bit better, a little more just and little fairer for themselves, their children and their communities.  For this opportunity to accompany people in El Salvador, I am deeply blessed.

May you each find hope this week.

Children waiting for the program to begin
Literacy Group Facilitators - Denis is in front with the white shirt

One of the Literacy Circles 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Updates and Musings

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Next week I will begin a 4 week blog series on Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.  This week I just have a bunch of unrelated stuff I wanted to tell you about.

Last week, they (I need to use this term because the public transportation system in El Salvador is operated by a number of companies and I have no idea how it is all organized, so I will use the generic "they") decided to run a direct bus from San Salvador to Sensuntepeque - one in the morning and one in after work.  For the same cost, I can take a bus that takes an hour or less (rather than the usual 1.5 -1.75 hours) because it only makes 5 stops instead of 25 or 30.  Because there is a "regular" bus at the same time, and the number of customers are split, so there are always seats.  Since it is so quick, generally there are 8-10 ADES staffers on it.  It is quicker, more comfortable, there are lots of people I know  and there is usually great music.  I love the DIRECTO as it is called!

Also for reasons I don't understand, there has been a lot fewer people on my San Salvador bus coming home at night.  This means that I have gotten seat on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the past two weeks.  It still takes about 2 hours.  It does eventually get very, very full.  However, it is nice to be able to sit and to be able to put my back pack on the floor.  Don't know if this will continue, but it is lovely.

There are so many things that are so interesting to me about Christmas in El Salvador.  Here Poinsettias are called Pascuas (Easter).  I find this amusing because it is a Christmas plant.  Last week at the the Mall, there was Santa.  He has a Santa station much like you would see in any Mall in Canada.  I find it amusing that here in this warm country, the Santa House is all decked out with fake snow.  The first time I saw the skinny, Latino Santa speaking Spanish to the kids, I found it kind of odd.  Somehow I hadn't made the leap to a multilingual Santa.  An English speaking Santa would not be useful here!

ADES is hosting a Conference of people who work in agencies working with poor people.   Delegates are arriving today from Mexico, Central and South America.  The Conference will last for 3 days with everyone going home on Sunday.

In general planning is done with a lot less lead time here.  It would be relatively easy to get 4 people together for a meeting early next week here, unlike in Canada where everyone's schedules are likely booked.  I haven't yet seen anyone with a 2012 daytimer, whereas in my office in Canada people have likely been booking 2012 meetings since October.  I became aware of this conference about a month ago.  In my mind, not a lot of time for an International Conference.  The program looks great and I am looking forward to attending a lot of the sessions.

The Conference is being held a former grand hacienda in Guacotecti.  It went from being a private house, to a seminary and now it is being converted into a small rural campus of the Lutheran University of El Salvador.  A group of staff visited the site on Monday.  On Tuesday staff were going to clean and move in furniture.  It is an empty building.  Mattresses, chairs, tables and dining tables are being moved from ADES to the Conference Centre.  Staff also came to assess the stability of the water supply and the adequacy of the plumbing.  In the end, repair work was not required, but we had a plumber on standby.  Also on Tuesday plans were made to spray for mosquitoes as there is a bunch of overgrown vegetation nearby.  I have organized meetings and conferences, but the most set up I have ever done is moving around tables and chairs!
I was at CIS for the "set-up" on Tuesday, but I'll be around and will help with the "clean-up" all day Monday, as will all of the staff who are not otherwise occupied.  Managers, the Executive Director and front line staff will all roll up there sleeves.  A very different experience!

So this has been an interesting couple of weeks.  On November 6th, I participated in a service at Westminster United Church via SKYPE.  It was great to be able to share with people more about what I am doing and thinking about here and to be able to be part of the service at Westminster.  It has been awesome to share this service with my friends Ignatio and Lissette here.  When I showed Lissette the article I had written about the service and I showed her the parts that I had written about her, she cried.  She said that she had never been important enough to be written about before.  The people at ADES want to see the article in Spanish.  My good friend and loyal Spanish/English expert Andrew is working on a translation for me.  I have attached a copy of the newsletter if you want to check it out.    They are pleased that people in Canada want to know about them.  Also, in this month's United Church Observer is an article that I wrote about the mining issue.  I didn't make the on-line version and I forgot to get it scanned.  I will and I will attach that link next week.  I will also work on figuring out how attach the newsletter.  Techie stuff is still not my strength!

Finally, some good news about the "girls".  Katherine, the youngest, is finally on a medication that seems to be clearing up her lung problems.  In fact the improvement is so significant that there is talk that she will have her eye surgery soon.  This is awesome.  She has been so sick for so long that it is great news that finally there has been a correct diagnosis and medication to correct the problems.  Her sister Negeli had a number of complications after her eye surgery including ear and eye infections, but these are clearing up too.  Thank you for all of your prayers and concern for these two children.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Caught by Surprise

Today, I thought I would share with you a number of things that have surprised me recently.

  • The first being, this is my 50th blog post!!!  Who ever would have thought that I would be able to write that many and that you would continue reading them.  Many thanks to my friend Cheryl and her husband who patiently helped me to set it up, when I could barely turn on my new computer!  In terms of my techie accomplishments, I have started texting using my cell phone. Yesterday I learned how to make capital letters!
  • This past week, I was pleased to be able to host my family here in El Salvador.  I was amazed at how open everyone was to trying new things and foods.  In particular I was amazed by the kids and their willingness to explore a new culture.  My family decided that they really liked liche fruit and queso duro (hard cheese that is a very popular food here.  
Lichi fruit.  Peel off the shell and grape like fruit with a pit awaits the eater!
  • What a nervous wreck I was before the outings with my family.  I have not "arranged" things for a while and I found this stressful.   I always very nervous when I know that I am going to have to rely on my level of Spanish.  Everything went really well and we had lovely van drivers.  Javier coped with my Spanish and Jimmy spoke a lot of English and this helped a lot!  Collectively we visited downtown San Salvador (the Cathedral and the crypt of Oscar Romero), Cuscatlan Park - where the kids all bought a plastic bird thing that were huge hits, Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) and their fair trade gift shop (where I happy to report that my family did its share to support artisans in El Salvador!) and had a lunch on the San Salvador volcano.  We did another trip to ADES and a trip to Joya de Ceran (an archeological site where a volcano eruption covered up a village around 500 AD).
My family on the porch of my house in Guactecti.
(L-R) Karen, Rachel, Aunt Betty, Marty, Cindy, Marty, Aunt Susan and Uncle Bruce  

  • The warm welcome that the staff at ADES made for my family.  I wasn't surprised by the warmth of the welcome, but rather by the form.  The Executive Director, Antonio Pacheco made a speech welcoming my family and the ADES staff sang a traditional El Salvadorian song.  Staff from ADES including Jenny and Jonathan made a traditional meal that included chicken, carrots, broccoli, a zucchini like vegetable and yucca, casamiento (beans and rice), queso duro and of course tortillas.  My family all agreed that the lunch at ADES was a highlight of the trip.  
Lunch at ADES

  • At how little common language kids need in order to play together.  Rachel (4) seemed to make friends wherever she went.  She and little girls who only spoke Spanish would smile, hold hands and run together.
Rachel and Alyssa (the daughter of an ADES colleague)

  • By the surprise that ADES staff have at the generosity of my friends and family.  Collectively we have raised $2000 for flood relief.  This is a long way from the $25 000 they estimated that they need for emergency food relief, but it is a good start.  Thanks to everyone who contributed.
A wash out road bridge due to the floods. 

  • How sharing a simple lunch with friends after the skyped church service was the perfect ending to a moving and emotional experience.  On November 6th, with the techie help of Steve Lichti in Canada and Lissette and Ignatio here in El Salvador, I was able to participate via Skype in the service at my home church in Waterloo.  I skyped from the Internet Cafe where Lissette works.  After the service, Ignatio's Mom arrived with lunch and I was invited to partake.  It was so great to end my time with my Westminister folks by doing here what I do there, enjoy lunch and conversation with friends.  
  • My joy at finding an American volunteer who is as outraged as I am about all of things that happen in El Salvador and the complicity of our countries in allowing and assisting it all to happen.  Generally the response of foreigners seems to fall into 2 categories, one of a vague disconnection to it all or the other, an acceptance of the fact that this is the way it is.  Carl and I are both still naive enough to believe that our countries can do better and so we are angered by the stupid, ridiculous and myopic decisions of our governments.  Our latest issue has to do with the American government's refusal to work with the Minister of Security.  It is rumoured that this contributed to him submitting his resignation this week.  The Minister was part of the rebel group during the war and is named as one of the participants in the killing of 4 American Marines at a sidewalk cafe in San Salvador during the Civil War.  I am not condoning this action in any way.  However, let us consider that the United States spent over a million a day arming and training the Army and National Guard during the brutal 12 year civil war.  The Salvadorians have forgiven a lot, perhaps it is time for the American Government to do so too.  

Rachel, Karen and I

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Living the Contradictions

On Monday, 8 members of my immediate and extended family landed in El Salvador.  My sister Karen, niece Rachel (4), Aunt Betty, Uncle Bruce, Aunt Susan and her grandson Bailey (10) and my cousin Cindy and her son Marty (10) all came to visit me.  Some are really wanting to explore the "real" El Salvador and some want more of a beach vacation.  Everybody is getting a mix of both...including me.  I am writing this to you from my beautiful, air conditioned room that has hot water!  On Tuesday all of us set out on an adventure to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.   We visited the Cathedral and Archbishop Romero's crypt, Cuscatlan Park, CIS (the agency where I go to Spanish school and do the Election Observer work) and had lunch at a beautiful restaurant on the San Salvador volcano.  Tomorrow (Friday), we will set out for an adventure that will take us to Cabanas to meet the folks at ADES.

I am enjoying having my family here.  I am loving the "break" of being at the Decameron Resort.  In January, 2009 I came to this resort in El Salvador with a small of group of friends including my sister Karen.  I returned to Canada thinking that I knew something of El Salvador -- which I did, but the story was very incomplete.  This time, I know different things.  The Resort is beautiful.  The grounds are lush and tropical.  There are two lagoons and 5 swimming pools.  There is no indication here that this is a country in a water crisis.  Even the hotdogs are north american.  Here I can only buy chicken/turkey wieners, which are not really to my taste.  At the Decameron the hotdogs taste like home, so they have to be a mix of pork and beef.

My Salvadorian friends would all love to come to the Decameron, but they can't afford it.  By Canadian standards it is a real "deal" at this time of year -- $700 for the flight and the week at a 4 star all inclusive resort.  Nolitours runs charters from Toronto, so it is cheap and easy.  In fact when I can home in August, my flight alone cost more than this.  Given the mixture in ages and health issues, my family group really did need a place that would offer a lot of the comforts of home.  I am very glad my family is here.  I am very glad that they are in a place that is meeting their needs.  I am also aware that there is almost nothing at the Decameron that is the same as the El Salvador that I know.  I am sad that my Salvdorian friends don't get to experience the beauty and awe that is this resort.  I don't know how to do it any differently.  Like many other things here, I live with the contradiction.

Some of you know that a few weeks ago, I had a bit of medical problem.  I developed a painful and gross abscess that needed to be drained.  Long story about how this came to be, but I ended up being treated by a wonderfully kind, English speaking, well trained and well equipped dermatologist.  He is a "private" doctor, which means I paid his receptionist in cash after each visit.  I ended up spending about $200 in medical services and probably close to that on medications and supplies.  Most of this will be reimbursed through my out of country health insurance paid for by the United Church.  I got great care.  However, this cost about the equivalent of  1.5  months of salary for many Salvadorians.  Most people, including the majority of the people I know here, will never be able to pay for this level of care.  As a result, the health care they received through the systems here in general is far from adequate.  Me not getting good health care would not have done anything useful here, but it is another of the contradictions that I live with every day.

I am feeling a bit badly about being at the Decameron, but I am also thankful for the opportunity to share more about what life is like in El Salvador.  Marty (10) is thinking about water and what happens when the water in your house makes you sick if you drink it.  He is asking me lots of questions about that.  It is not surprising that when we were out on our day trip, we stopped to buy cold beverages at one point.  In the fluster of it all, I lost track of how many bottles of water were buying and in the end we were a few short. Before I'd even realized this, Marty offered his water up to Javier our driver and guide for the day.  When we stopped for lunch, I invited Javier to have lunch with us and told him we would pay for his lunch (as is the norm here).  Javier initially sat by himself at a table.  I was just going to go over and invite him to join us when Bailey (10) wanted to know why he was sitting by himself and not with us.  When we stopped places Javier stayed with the vehicle.  Bailey asked me if I thought Javier was bored.  Clearly neither Marty nor Bailey have a sense of "entitlement".  They don't seem to see the world as us and them.  I marvel at this and hope that as they grow they will be able to keep the kindness and compassion that they have as 10 year olds.

My Family in El Salvador

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What Motivates You???

So what motivates you??? This is a question that I have been pondering this week.   Every Monday morning our agency training contains a portion that is technical, focusing on whatever the theme of the week is.  The other portion is designed to motivate us.  This section I have found a bit odd.  Generally it involves singing ballads of the history of El Salvador and chanting slogans.   This week’s training was about how to design and craft this portion of a meeting.  Finally I understood that this section of the meeting is focused on motivation (which I previously didn’t know) and that it likely doesn’t resonate with me (aside from the language issues) because this not my history or my culture.  What does motivate me to do work in social services or to be in El Salvador.  In generally I realized that I like to feel that I am a part of something bigger than me that is working to help the Earth be a better place.

We then had to break into our small groups and talk about ways in which ADES can do this portion better.   Basically our group decided that the staff at ADES need more commitment to the bigger fight for social justice, more respect for each other and more discipline.  It was interesting for me because I think this group of people is incredibly committed and works very, very hard and long hours.   Asking them to do more was not the approach I considered.  Interestingly when most of the other groups presented, their answers were somewhat similar – that staff needed to do more. 
At one point, I offered my idea.  That for me it is important to know about the impact of my actions and work.  The focus here is so communal that there is no individual staff development.   There are no supervision meetings or annual performance appraisals.   My idea of a supervisor having a conversation with their staff individually to talk about why their work is important was a completely new idea.  Jenny really liked it and thinks that she is going to start having these discussions with her staff in the admin department, where the link to the bigger goal of social justice can be a bit harder to see initially than in some other front line service.    I have come to think that in my “regular” life perhaps people are too individually focused, but here I tend to think that people sometimes don’t focus enough on “individuals”. 

For me this was a “motivational experiencing” feeling like I had offered a new idea that people liked and that I was able to explain sufficiently in Spanish.   I have come to realize that a lot of my legacy in El Salvador will not be about great huge acts, but rather asking questions and offering smalls suggestions. 

 Today I had another “motivational” experience.   I again was asked to accompany staff to a court hearing with the justice of the peace as an International Observer.   I was told that the hearing was for some youth from Santa Marta (a nearby rural community).   Staff from Santa Marta came along and I initially thought it was to offer support to the families of the youth from their communities.  Soon I learned that of the 5 youth arrested, one was the son of a colleague and one was the brother of a colleague.  The 5 youth, one aged 16 and the rest 18, were fishing on the weekend.  They were near the Honduran Border and were approached by someone and asked to bring 5 bags back to El Salvador.  In return they would receive $10.  The bags contained Chinese cigarettes.  The youth were arrested and charged with smuggling.    Apparently this is a serious problem here and the police are trying to crack down.  The maximum penalty is 6-8 years in jail.  There is a lot of fear that the Attorney General will try to make an example of this youth and young adults. 
As a result, ADES pulled all the stops.  A lawyer was hired, I was sent as an International Observer and the Human Rights Office in El Salvador was contacted and they send staff to the procedure as well.  The lawyer arrived at the hearing with a package of letters attesting to the good character of the young men.  There were letters from the head of the local “futbol” club, the priest and various community organizations.  It is clear to me, that these are good young men who made a stupid decision and weren’t good at committing a crime and got caught.  El Salvador jail is going to do nothing helpful for these youth. 

They had been at the police station since Saturday and today is Thursday.  While the families have to wait out on the street I spent much of the time in the Justice of the Peace building.  The 4 young men over 18 arrived with a 3 person police escort.  They were handcuffed in pairs and the cuffs were not overly tight.   They were clean, had gel in their hair and had clean and pressed “dressy” clothes.  Obviously they had been allowed to bathe and their families had brought them clothes for today.   In the end,   these 4 young men were released pending further proceedings.    There are some technical problems with the case and it is unclear if it will proceed.  For the moment, the young men are free.  I wanted to get a picture for you, but as soon as they emerged from the building they were mobbed by their families and their Moms were all hugging them and crying.  Taking a picture seemed really intrusive.   Tomorrow the youth under 18 will have his hearing in “minor court” and likely the same thing will happen. 

It is hard for me to believe that I could be part of a good outcome by showing up and saying nothing.  There is much that I am learning about the idea of being quiet.   Sometimes here saying less really is more - a very hard lesson for me.

This Sunday I will be skyping to my home congregation of Westminster.  I am very excited to be a part of the service.  Then on Monday 8 members of my family arrive in El Salvador for a week.   But before all that, there are agency futbol games tonight.  Life is good here!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

After the El Salvador Floods

So the sun the shining, the sky is back to the beautiful blue it usually is and the temperature is warm without being oppressive.  The place feels like paradise again --except, that the country of El Salvador needs 1.5 billion dollars to reconstruct from the damage caused by Tropical Depression 12E.

A while ago, my friend Hector (the incredibly wise human rights lawyer) and I had a conversation about  straight lines and waves.    As you may recall amongst Hector’s various skills,  he is a very knowledgeable anti-mining activist.   One of his volunteer projects is organizing and agricultural co-op in San Isidro in order to give local residents an economic alternative to the Pacific Rim gold mine.  Hector has worked hard to raise money for the production and people have invested huge amounts of time and energy.  You might remember when I wrote about that 2 people have to sleep on a hill overlooking the field every night in order to “care” for the field.  This means protecting it from animals, robbers and vandals.   With the rains, the corn, beans, cucumbers and zucchinis have all been destroyed.  Only a group of immature fruit trees survived.

In all our culture we work on the straight line theory…onward and upward.  Next year is supposed to be better than this year.  Our goals and targets for projects need to be higher and loftier than the year before.  Staying the same or moving backward is deemed a deep failure.   Such failure is generally a surprise and time for deep reflection on the causes and nature of our failure.

Here (and I am learning in some socialist theory), the metaphor for development is not a straight line but rather a wave.  It moves in and there is forward momentum and it moves back, sometimes farther back than where it started.   Eventually, it will move forward again.

I have to admit, I feel a bit depressed by all the destruction of the storm.  The statistics are overwhelming in terms of contaminated wells, destroyed and damaged roads, bridges, houses, health centres,  schools and destroyed crops.   I think people here feel that too.  However, they have a lot more experience than I do when it comes to riding the wave backwards.  As the sun comes out, the clean up and the reconstruction begins.  Hector told me that it is easier to be a leader when there is forward momentum.  The really great leaders are the ones who walk with the people when all the progress is backward. 

No one here is “happy” with what happened.  However, neither are they particularly surprised.  Life is life.  I have been told that “happiness” is a privilege that very few get to ponder and  fewer experience.  In general, the Salvadorians I have met don’t believe they have a “right” to be happy.  They would like to think that they have a “right” to life.  

I had a fascinating discussion with Vicenta, my Spanish instructor about suicide yesterday.  Suicide is very rare in El Salvador.  It happens, but not frequently.  I wonder how much the suicide rate and incidence of suicidal thoughts would drop in Canada if we did not have an expectation of our right to be happy.   She explained that one of the few times that there was a higher suicide rate was during the war.  If guerrillas thought they were going to be captured by the CIA, they often killed themselves first.  The thought was that the CIA used such effective torture techniques that if captured it would be almost impossible not to give up information.  As a result, it was better for everyone if you killed yourself rather than be taken alive.   This was really a response to keeping your community safe rather than an aversion to personal suffering. 

In my true Canadian form, because my basic needs continue to be well met, I am pondering the injustice of the nature disaster here.   The rains have been steadily increasing in strength since the 1960’s, mostly due to global warming.  El Salvador contributes negligibly to the greenhouse gases, but is highly vulnerable to their impact.  They have a very poor level of infrastructure and this is significantly impacted by the neo-liberal global capitalist system that needs to keep poor countries poor.   The World Bank whose policies significantly contribute to all of this, gave the country a reconstruction loan that must be repaid.   The President really had no other option.  He had to take it, on the World Bank’s terms.  All of this makes me feel overwhelmed and helpless.

So I take a page from the notebook of my Salvadorian friends.  I am doing what I can.  That’s means telling you about what is happening and continuing to ask for your financial assistance to provide immediate food relief for this area of El Salvador.  All the details on this are on my previous blog, or feel free to e-mail with any questions.  Thanks for those who have already contributed.  I am also off to meet with an amazing group of rural woman.  Another day I will share more with you about this group.  Suffice it to say that I really enjoy being able to participate in their group.  I haven’t seen them for 3 weeks, as the group has been cancelled for 2 weeks because of the floods and the week before that for another reason.   Instead of being “happy” in my life,  I will celebrate and enjoy the time I get to spend with this amazing group of women. 

My friends, enjoy the brief moments of happiness than may come your way today and in the week ahead.  For they truly are blessings that sometimes I have missed because I looking for the "happy life".

Friday, October 21, 2011

El Salvador Flood Update

Wednesday it poured rain all day.  While I remain dry and safe my colleagues and I all looked at the rain and felt the misery that this precipitation is adding to people’s lives.  In the past nine days, over  1.4 metres or 4 feet of rain has fallen.  Thursday when the sun rose around 5 am, we could all see it.  There was blue sky and it was clear that people’s mood was better.   

Thursday I was lucky enough to get a ride in a pick-up truck (avoiding the bus) with other ADES staff from San Salvador to Guacotecti  (where the ADES office is located.)   For part of the trip we use the Pan-American Highway.  It is 4 lane paved road with a wide median with a normal speed of around 60-80km/hour.  Speeds are generally lower as there are always lots of people along the side of the road.  In our part of El Salvador, this highway is doing well.  In other areas main highway is closed because it is flooded.   When we turned onto the two lane paved road that takes us to Guacotecti, the storm damage was clearer.  The road has been damaged by the water.  There were a lot more huge holes in it.  Trees were down along the side of the road and there was clear evidence of small mudslides.   It was good that there was not a lot of traffic as Alex skilfully weaved all over the road avoiding the biggest holes. 

 Now, around 4pm the clouds have moved back in and people are bracing for more rain.  This week I bought a t-shirt that has a great big sun on it.  I am wearing it around the office and telling people that it is like the “Bat Signal”.  I am calling to the sun.  There is so little that I can do in a practical way to help with the crisis here that I wanted to do something to help to rally the spirits of my colleagues.    Many people have commented on the t-shirt.  We shared a laugh – the office is strangely serious today.  Everyone feels the weight of this disaster. 

Much of the news is very grim.  As is always the case, the people with the most precarious housing and very little resources are the most affected.  Their lives are incredibly difficult on a daily basis and now they have even less.   Tropical Storm 12 E has covered 10% of the national territory in water, done damage to 20,000 homes, over 50,000 people have been evacuated, 585 emergency shelters have been activated, it destroyed 75% of the annual bean crop and 35% of the annual corn crop.  Beans and corn are the basic staples for the Salvadoran diet, and the subsistence diet for approximately 40% of the country.  Many of that same 40% live hand to mouth, earning just enough to survive on informal employment.  They have not been able to work for the past 2 weeks. 

One of the things that has impacted me greatly is the way in which people are helping one another.   I am told that Santa Marta organized a pick-up load of food for a nearby community in need.  Santa Marta is a very poor community, but they recognize that others have needs that are greater than their own.  There are many examples of this.  A small community of people who live in essentially  “shacks” located near my Church delivered over 100 bags of clothing to an affected area.  The people who we would say have “nothing” are giving very generously to those who have even less. 

There is really not an expectation that the “government” will sort out things.  There are certainly structures in place in terms of Emergency Management.  I am told that there is a lot more cooperation and coordination than has happened during other disasters. This has been an area where much work has been done since Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Hugo in 2000.  This disaster has surprised the damage and severity of Mitch and Hugo.  Every corner of this country (and in fact, Central America) have experienced wide-spread damage, although the LA Times reports that El Salvador is has been the hardest hit.    Every social agency is working to coordinate aid in the area where they are located.  Those with international contacts are all reaching out to the larger world for support and supplies.    ADES,  the main agency I am with,  has created a detailed budget for the communities that they work with.  They  estimate that they need $25 000 for immediate food aid to help the affected communities near to this office.  This is only the budget for immediate food aid.  All of the other longer term needs have yet to be calculated.   This is an area of El Salvador that in the scope of this disaster is not “particularly badly hit”.  This area is very rural and there are many very small communities that have experienced extensive water and landslide damage. 

At this moment, I am asking you, my friends and family to get out your cheque books and give what you can to support the relief efforts campaign.    The needs are overwhelming, urgent and immediate.  There are just so few economic resources here.  There are a few ways you can donate. 

1.       If you want to help in general with this disaster you can donate through the United Church of Canada.    Money they raise will be shared with partners in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.  For more information visit their  website  Please note the information on this webpage is out of date as things change quickly.  However, the payment information is correct.  If you donate this way, you will receive a tax receipt.

2.       If you want to make sure that the donation comes to the part of El Salvador where I am working then you need to make an informal donation that will not generate a tax receipt. You can do this in two ways.  My friend Susan Routliffe has agreed to collect money at Westminster United Church.  You can give her cash or a cheque.  Cheques need to be in my name – Lynn Macaulay.     She will deposit it in my bank account and I will be able to withdraw it and pass it on ADES to help with immediate food needs.  You can also mail a cheque to Westminster United Church, who will forward them on to Susan:
543 Beechwood Drive
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
N2T 2S8
Cheques need to be in my name – Lynn Macaulay.  Do not write cheques to the Church or to Susan.   On the memo line please write El Salvador Relief.

Please share this with others who you think might be able to help. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Flooding in El Salvador

So the big news here is Tropical Depression 12-E.   It is bringing killer rains to just about all of Central America.  What it means where I am is that it has poured rain for 2 days and we are into day 3.   Before I continue, let me assure you that I and the people in my life here are safe…although a bit damp.   What is happening here reminds me of what my sister went through almost annually living in rural Nova Scotia.  This is the end of rainy season so creeks, rivers and drainage ditches are already full.  This additional rain is over- taxing an already stressed system.  The worst flooding is in areas where rivers have overflowed and at the moment nearly 1800 people have been evacuated.  What is new to me is the imminent risk of landslides.  A 19 year old girl was killed when a landslide caused the wall of her house to collapse on her while she was sleeping.  This occurred in an urban area of San Salvador!  There have been 7 or 8 other flood related deaths in El Salvador.  There have been more in Guatemala and Nicaragua.  A few weeks ago I shared with you in my blog about a large tree at ADES (my agency) that had fallen over because so much of the dirt holding its roots had been washed away with the rain.  This is happening all over the country.  Also the rain has saturated many of the dirt cliffs and at some points the land just gives way.  I have seen the results of small landslides here as they are frequent during the rainy season.   A staggering amount of this country erodes every year. I am sorry that I don’t have the exact figure.  I didn’t write fast enough at a workshop a few months ago, but trust me, it is huge!

There is an emergency preparedness system with 4 levels – green, yellow, orange and red.  Yesterday the people who decide these things placed the entire country on alert level “orange”.  Yesterday when we went to "orange" schools in 8 of the 14 departments (Provinces) closed.   This was my first school closing for rain! There is one area in a part of the country, far from me, that are “red”.  In general travel is more treacherous with the rain, particularly in rural areas.  Unless you are staying on main roads, authorities are suggesting that you stay home.  As a result, Jenny and I came from San Salvador to Guacotecti on the bus this morning.  There were empty seats for most of the ride – which just never occurs.  In addition to the areas that are flooded and the localized flooding in people’s homes (I am sure that there are houses in both San Salvador and Guaco that have a lot of water in them)…there is a huge economic impact because of this weather system.  For example, a number of people can’t work today because of the rain.  This means that they won’t be generating any income for their families.  It means that people like the bus operators will make a lot less money today as people are staying put. . Also, crops are being destroyed by both the levels of water and landslides.   One of the main entry points to Guatemala is closed as it requires crossing a bridge that is now closed due the incredibly high water level.   The economic spin-offs continue to multiply.

El Salvador is the country in the world deemed most vulnerable to climate change.  This seems incredible to me, but even if they aren’t number 1, it is still a huge problem here.  Clearly there are huge issues managing rainwater.  In general there is not a sufficient infrastructure to move large quantities of water (sewers, drainage ditches etc) , buildings are not constructed to be waterproof and often they don’t direct the rain away from the building.  One of the biggest problems is that in the early 1900’s the large landholders in El Salvador cut down all the jungle in order to increase the cultivation of coffee.  As a result there is a significantly reduced ability of the land to absorb rain.  I am still shocked that 2 days of steady but not torrential rain can cause the kind of problems that are happening here. 

Tropical depression 12 E is expected to continue bringing rain today and then hopefully will move off tomorrow.  As far as I can tell, there is almost no English language coverage of this situation.  I found a small article by the BBC.  However, it is already out-dated, so I didn’t attach it.  Interestingly, I have also received my first e-mail from the Canadian Government.   It is good to know that I am indeed on their list of Canadians in El Salvador!  Our government is advising me to stay out of the alert level “red” area.  At this point, no further action is being recommended.  To my friends who asked, no it does not seem like I will be being evacuated to Canada any time soon!

Friday, October 7, 2011

So What do you do for all that Time?

I have learned a lot during my time in El Salvador.  I have appreciated the friendship and kindness of the people in my life here.  But at the same time, I have really struggled in many, many ways.  Not being able to communicate as well as I would like in Spanish has been tough.  I have also struggled with not having a specific focus or job.   My two days a week at CIS has helped enormously with both of these issues.   I am thrilled and delighted to be a part of the International Election Observer team.  I am learning a lot about El Salvador, its political system and its electoral system.  My Spanish teachers are doing a great job of cleaning up my language and helping it to grow.  In addition there are people (generally young adults who have finished school and are taking some time before entering the work force or Graduate School) from all over the world volunteering and working at this agency.   

This week I had an opportunity to talk with Carmelo.  His parents are from El Salvador and immigrated to Australia during the war.  He is very Australian but looks Salvadoreno.  As a result, his experience here is very interesting because he looks the same, speaks good Spanish, but culturally is very different.  We were chatting and I shared a story about when I was learning to take the intercity buses.  I flagged down a bus to stop and then realized it was the wrong bus.  It was going in my direction but not far enough – think you are in Cambridge and are going to Waterloo, but the bus only goes to Kitchener.  I was the only one who needed this bus.   By the time it came to a stop on the highway, I knew it was the wrong bus but I felt obligated to get on.  I did, paid and then got off at another stop to wait for the correct bus.  Carmelo commented “oh that is so Canadian!”   It has been really fun to learn about the experiences of other foreigners in El Salvador. 

The one down side of the new schedule is that most days I spend 4-5 hours on buses.  I was speaking to one friend who said, what do you do for all that time?  It was an interesting question.  I have meant to talk about buses for a while, so it inspired me to share with you about buses here.  There are certainly cars and trucks here, but the proportion is very different.  There are a lot more buses here and they are used a lot more than in Canada.  On the days that I am in San Salvador, I leave the house around 7am and walk less a block to the bus stop.  This is the first stop on the route and so I always get a seat.  I generally choose a seat about half-way back with a window that opens.  I love fresh air.  By the time we are about 10 minutes from the start, all the seats are taken and people are starting to stand.  For parts of the route the bus will be packed, but people will get off at various points.  By the time we hit downtown San Salvador, there will be a lot of traffic (morning rush hour).  I get to my stop (a huge mall called Metro-Centro) usually around 8:30.  I typically go into the grocery store, buy a cold drink and then walk about 5 minutes to another bus stop and get on the bus to go to CIS.  This takes about 10 minutes.  I get there about 9am.  Each bus costs 20 cents.  There are no transfers. 

At 5pm it is the same, only in reverse.  There are two important differences.  Firstly all the seats are usually taken before I get on.  However, there won’t be many people standing.  I will be able to pick out a good spot to stand.  The bus will continually pick-up people.  We will be standing three deep.   Generally women and children get to stand beside the seats so that we can hold on to the back of a seat.  It is usually (although not always) men who stand in the third row in the middle of those standing  and hold on to a pole that runs along the ceiling of the bus.  The second difference is that basically everyone is getting off in my subdivision, so the bus will be incredibly full for an hour or so.  It is hot, sweaty and crowded, but we all in it together.  Generally someone who is seated will offer to hold my backpack because there is just not enough room for it anywhere else.  Typically women carrying children will get offered a seat, but children as young as 3 or 4 will be expected to stand. 

On Mondays and Thursdays, when I go to Guacotecti, I take two short bus rides (20 cents each) and one long one ($1.05).  All told this takes between 2-2.5 hours each way.  Again the bus for the long ride is usually full and has people standing before it gets to me.  These buses (generally old school buses) have racks above the seats so I can store my backpack.  My stop is near the end but not right at the end.  So I have to move through all the people standing to get to a door.  This can be a challenge but generally people try to be as accommodating as possible. I have given up trying to figure out how it works because when I look there is not space to move through.  Somehow I always make it to the door!  Sometimes there is music playing and it is often 80s music in English, which of course, I enjoy immensely.   I used to dread this bus trip but actually I am getting used to spending a lot of time on the bus and at least between cities the bus can go for some distances.  In downtown San Salvador the bus seems to move inches at a time!

What is interesting is that I am so much calmer than I was in Canada.  Sometimes I think about stuff but generally I just hang out being present.  Every 15 minutes of so I’ll check my watch and realize that another chunk of the journey has gone by.  While parts of the trip particularly returning from Downtown San Salvador can be unpleasant, I am not frustrated by it all, because it is not like I have anywhere else to be or anything else to do.  I really don't mind it, which tells me how much I have changed here.  I would have found this intolerable when I first arrived.  Now, it is just part of my day.   The time on the bus is a very small price to pay for the opportunity to be at the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad. 

I am ashamed to admit that I used the K-W buses for the first time since I was a University Student, when I was home in August.  This amount of time daily on the bus is very normal for many, many Salvadorenos.  As I explain to my colleagues, I am learning what it is really like to live here!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Half way Point

Wow, there is sooooo much to tell you about.  In fact I might have to save some of it for another blog.  So it is Monday, October 3rd – Happy Birthday to my favourite Uncle- Bruce!  There is no internet as I am writing this, so I am not sure when I’ll be able to post this!  Can you believe that I have completed 9 months of my 18 month journey?  

My life here has taken a major change and the next months are going to look very different than my first.  Last week I began spending 2 days (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) at an agency called Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), which is located in San Salvador.  I am spending the mornings in private Spanish lessons and the afternoons working on the International Observer Election program. 

CIS is a much smaller agency than ADES and is really bilingual.  The staff is a combination of Salvadorians and Americans.  They have volunteers from all over the world.  On my elections team are a Frikard from Denmark and a Ida from Sweden.  On Wednesday I was looking for a place to do a bit of work.  There is a large table in the area where we eat lunch.  There was another person at the table who looked Salvadorian.  In Spanish I asked if I could work at the other end of the table.  He responded, “of course” in Spanish.  A little while later we were joined by Frikard and Ida and the “Salvadorian” guy started speaking English with a very distinctive Australian accent!  

8 months ago at the end of January I began at my Spanish School in Mexico.  Although at times I despair about my level of Spanish it has been really helpful to think about where I am now compared with where I was when I started in Cuernavaca.  In Mexico my pronunciation was so bad that no one could  understand most of what I was trying to say.  Now it is just the odd word that I don’t say clearly.  My class is entirely in Spanish and that is not a stretch at all for me, in Mexico it was about half and half.   In general about half of the 3 hour class is spent in conversation and the other half is spent on grammar.  I had such cool conversations with my instructor - Uleyses.  His opinions on his culture and life in El Salvador are fascinating to me.  He was able to succinctly identify things that I have noticed here but would not have been able to explain as concisely.   For example, in 2009 El Salvador elected its first President from the left.  In general Salvadorians are highly critical of Mauricio Funes.  Many feel very betrayed by him believing that he was elected on a platform of “change” and in fact it is him who changed and became like those in the “right”.  I (and many other foreigners) tend to cut him a bit more slack, recognizing that the global capitalist forces such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund make it very difficult for countries like El Salvador to significantly change their economic and social policy.  Uleyses explained that while he recognizes that President Funes has a very little square in which he can work, that there are things he could do in that square that he has not.  He went on to explain an example that illustrated this point. 

In the afternoon I am part of a small team of Frikard, Ida and Vicenta (our Salvadorian co-ordinator) who are working on the International Election Observer program.  There are national and municipal elections in March, 2012.  This year there are a number of reforms that are being implemented and the election process is going to be a bit more complex.  Observers are more important than ever.  Several different organizations will have observers but our “mision” will be one of the largest and is one of the most respected.  At the moment, Vicenta is organizing an intensive training program for us.  Last week I learned about the program and the history of El Salvador.  This week we are focusing on the development of the electoral system and political parties.  While I know that for some of you, this would be about as interesting as watching paint dry, I am completely in my element.  The training is all in Spanish as Vicenta is working on English.  However, she speaks clearly and simply and I understand almost everything she says – which also feels like a huge accomplishment! 

My time at ADES is getting busy too.  Monday mornings is reserved for agency wide training.  On Thursdays I spend most of the day with two other staff who organize and lead a group for rural women.   I have participated for two weeks in this group.  At the moment we are talking about sexual and reproductive human rights.  While the idea that I as woman have a choice to say no to sexual advances from my partner or spouse is not new to me, it is very new for many of these women.  I am thrilled that they are welcoming me into their group.  I look forward to seeing them each week.

Friday mornings I have an English class with people who have an intermediate level of English.  They all want to get better jobs and speaking English is one way to do that.  The people in my class are thrilled that they get the opportunity to practice English with a native speaker.  In the rural area where I am there are very few of us and the fact that they can practice with me and for free makes our time together very valuable. 
There is internet for a few minutes, so I am going to stop typing so that I can send this.  It isn’t clear how long we will have the net today so I need to get this done.  Thanks for sharing my journey with me!