Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Water, Electricity, Traffic, Health and El Salvador

Today I want to share with you a little bit about a few things...water, electricity, traffic, public health, and an update on El Salvador.  Yep, this is going to be a bit of a heavy blog, but I will add some funny and interesting stories as we go along.  As you can imagine, water is an important resource here is Mexico.  There certainly is not as much of it running from taps and into appliance such as washing machines and dishwashers as I am used to at home.   As the sanitation system is fragile, nothing additional is put down the toilet.  All toilet paper goes in the garbage can.  I found this a hard habit to get used in the beginning and toilet paper was dropped in the bowl before I remembered that it doesn't belong there!    There is potable (safe for drinking) water in Cuernavaca, but most people prefer to use bottled water.  There is bottled water for drinking at both my home and my school.   There is running water in the bathroom, but no running water in the kitchen.  Dishes here are washed with lots of soap in cold water.   While this is very different and not up to Canadian Public Health standards, I have had no gastro-intestinal distress, so the soap must kill the bacteria.   Dishes are washed in what I would call a "laundry sink" on the back patio using water from a rain barrel.  Most people do laundry by hand and everyone has several clothes lines upon which to hang clothes for drying.  For people like me there are "wash and folds" where I drop off my dirty clothes and they are washed and dried in machines and I pick them up folded.   Everything here is ironed.  I am sure that my housekeeping skills are considered lacking because I wear t-shirts with wrinkles and my jeans don't have have clear crease line down the front.   Oh, by the way, even in prison, almost everyone's pants were ironed as were their shirts!  Considering everyone looks after their own clothing, I find this remarkable.

This leads to the next topic, electricity.  The word that most of us ex-patriots use to describe the electricity system, is fragile.  3-pronged outlets are exceeding rare.  Most people use an adaptor, which converts a three-pronged plug into a two pronged plug.  This is how I recharge my computer at my host families house.  However, the electrical supply is not completely stable and the lights dim and strengthen every few minutes.  There have two brief power outages since I've been here.  Also, for computers, one really has to use a surge protector because you never can be sure of what is in the lines.  As most of the houses are built stone and concrete it is difficult (and likely expensive) to add outlets.  In my house, other than a ceiling light, many rooms don't have an outlet.  My bedroom has one - double outlet.  I have my electric alarm clock plugged in and a lamp.  I unplug the lamp when I am recharging my computer.  Power lines are routinely tapped into by squatters and others.   My house mother cooks on essentially a two burner gas hot plate.  There is no oven in my home.  Of course, there is no microwave.  But this is okay, because a lot of microwave food comes from the freezer and there is only a small freezer section inside the refrigerator (circa a 1950's type fridge).

Traffic in Cuernavaca is like nothing I have ever seen.  Many roads merge into to each other and there are few traffic lights.  There are a number of traffic police, who provide directional assistance at busy intersections during the rush hours.  Cars routinely come within, literally, an inch or two of each other.   However, it all moves in a fairly smooth way.  I have only seen a couple of very minor car accidents.   It is also very clear that cars rule and that pedestrians come second.  It is the pedestrian's job not to impede traffic.  I am getting a bit bolder when crossing the street, realizing  that cars really don't want to hit me.  However, I generally just step beside someone who looks Mexican and cross the street when they cross the street.  Also in order to prevent speeding there are speed bumps on most streets at frequent intervals.  I have learned that it is best to stand up to indicated that your bus stop is next until the bus crosses over the last speed bump before your stop!

This Saturday, I had the opportunity to again go with my hosts to the Mexican Prison.  This time I was more relaxed as I knew what to expect and I can speak a bit more Spanish.  The inmates really look forward to the meal, mass and fellowship of this time of the week.  I had conversations with several inmates.  A couple in particular sought me out when they learned that I spoke English.  One man had spent several years in the US and asked me not to speak Spanish with him, as he has so little opportunity to practice English.  Another man explained in very good English that his brother lives in Montreal and he would really like  to go to live with him.  Both men told me that they are innocent and should not be in prison.  The cynical part of me recalled that this is usually what people in Canadian jails say too.  However, in talking with several Mexicans, they believe that many people are innocent who are in jail.  Apparently it fairly common for people to be in jail for years without there being a conviction of guilt or a sentence.  My maestra (teacher) told me of a horrific situation where a person she knows spent 10 years in  jail without charges.  One day, guards came and got the person, took them to the front door of the jail and said, sorry we now know you are innocent.  Go and get on with your life.  Apparently under Mexican law, this person has no recourse for the 10 years spent in prison.  

The meal served at the prison is prepared off site by volunteers and brought to the jail, literally in garbage pails in the back of a cube van during the hottest time of the day.   All the food is room is not hot and cold is not cold.  Inmates form a line and volunteers put food on to or into whatever container, plastic bag, plate,or for those with nothing a tortilla.  The food is served by the volunteers after we have shaken everyone's hand.  There is no hand washing/sanitizing for either us or the inmates.  Some of the food is served with utensils, other times the volunteers just use their hands to scoop the food.  As part of the process, we volunteers quickly eat as well.  For me this week it was a tortilla that someone handed me and I chose to just have the carrot salad in it.  I was struck by how many Canadian health code violations there likely were in this situation.  However, even with my fragile Canadian digestive tract, I had no ill effects.   I like to hope that God blesses this work and somehow manages to keep the bacteria counts down.  Similarly, Cuernavacians really seem to like mayonnaise.  It is on all kinds things sold on the street such as hotdogs and corn on the cob.  People from Canada and the US cringe at the thought of putting mayonnaise that has been sitting out all day on food, but here it is common place.  I am told that most people here don't refrigerate mayonnaise after it is opened.    

An interesting fact --- Mexicans consider North America to be Canada, USA and Mexico and South America to be south of Panama.  Central America is considered essentially its own continent.  However, Latin America includes Mexico, Cuba, Central America and South America.  Although no one took offense, it was explained to me that calling Mexico, Central America is akin to calling a Canadian and American!

This week I have learned that I will be going to the small town of Santa Marta, El Salvador.  This is where a lot of the work of ADES (the Cooperative with whom I will be working) actually happens.  I will be renting a room in an apartment that is shared by other ADES staffers.  I think that this is a good arrangement and I am pleased to have a bit more information about the next stage of my journey.  It is amazing to me that in a little over a week (Feb 26th), I'll be flying to El Salvador.  I have enjoyed the Mexican part of my journey.  I am looking forward to settling into my final destination, and I am worried about what it will all be like and whether in fact I will be of any use to the Salvadorians.  I have learned a lot of Spanish, but I have a long way to go before I am fluent enough to really do any work like I used to doing.  However, I have found that even with my limited Spanish,  I am able to make people laugh occasionally, and I really enjoy this.  

I have attached a photo of Angeles, Bryan (18) and Fernando my Mexican host family, who have been so kind and helpful.


  1. Thank you so much Lynn for the update, I really enjoy reading about your jouney each week. Take care and be safe.

    PS I'm glad to hear you made them laugh. some times that is the best gift of all.

  2. what an interesting and insightful peek into your world! sometimes it is the little differences (like outlets) that throw you for a loop. i can't imagine that your great humour would be hampered by a wee little thing like a language barrier!

    can't wait for the next installment.

  3. Hey Lynn
    Glad things are going well.... looking forward to many more great stories and insights :)