Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Obama in El Salvador!

This morning (Tuesday) as I sit an write this blog, much of the country is preparing for the arrival of US President Obama.  It is very big news in this very tiny country in Central America.  There are serious and important issues for President Obama and Salvadorian President Maurico Funes to talk about.  For example, El Salvador has a population of about 7 million people, and additional 2 million Salvadorians live in the US.  I have not been able to find a figure about how many Salvadorians there are in Canada.  The largest component of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in El Salvador, and estimated to total about 3.65 billion dollars annually, is the money sent to family members from family members in other countries.  Considering that 35% of Salvadorians live below the poverty line set in this country, it is fair to say that this money keeps people alive here!  However, it is estimated that at least 10% of the Salvadorians in the US are illegal immigrants.  From 1991-2012 the Temporary Protected Status agreement allows Salvadorians in the US illegally to stay.  The current agreement expires in March, 2012 and it is important to the Salvadorian economy that these people stay in the US and continue to work and send back money.  Obama is expected asked President Fuenes to do more to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to the US and President Funes is expected to reiterate his position that the most effective way to do this is to create a thriving economy in El Salvador.

Also, likely on the list of conversation topics between the Presidents is the flow of illegal drugs into the United States from Central American countries including El Salvador.  Much of this business is organized by cartels and gangs in El Salvador, called "maras". It is interesting to note that the "maras" weren't an issue here until the brutal civil war from 1980-1992. At this time, almost the entire Salvadorian economy was owned and controlled by 14 families.  Peasant farmers tired to working land and having nothing to show for it, challenged the government and formed a armed resistance.  The United States backed the right-wing government that used Death Squads and perpetrated horrific Human Rights abuses.  In the late 1970's and 1980's the Americans were so concerned about the development of another communist state (like Cuba) in their backyard that supporting a government like this in El Salvador seemed like the better option.  At the height of the war, 1987, America spent over $1.5 million dollars per day on this war.  During the war, many Salvadorians fled to the United States and in particular Los Angeles, where many were recruited by the gangs.  After the war, they returned to El Salvador and reorganized the drug trade with the United States.  Another interesting facet of all of this, is that the US deports about 21 000 Salvadorians annually, many because they have committed criminal offenses.  Of course, it is likely that many of these people, once repatriated to El Salvador continue working in the "maras" but from the other side!

Also on the agenda is expected to be the  Central American Security Initiative that will enhance law enforcement agencies  ability track money and drugs through various countries.  It is hoped that this will be largely funded by the United States.  There are some interesting initiatives happening in this area.  For example the Government of El Salvador has been working with Columbia to implement a technology that blocks electronic signals around prisons.  This has led to a 9% decrease in the murder rate here.  Apparently a lot of organized crime was happening from jail!

During his visit here, President Obama will visit the grave of Archbishop Oscar Romero.  This Thursday marks the 31st anniversary of his assignation .  His death on March 24, 1980 plunged the country into  Civil War.  Some people view this visit as an atrocity, since it has been documented that the Archbishop was assignated by Salvadorian soldiers who trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.   Archbishop Romero, seen as one of the leaders in Liberation Theology, spoke about the importance of solidarity with the poor.  His work and legacy are worthy of several blogs on their own, so I won't write a lot about him at the moment, but if you are not familiar with his writings it is well worth your time to spend some time on the internet reading his work.  In the late 1970's Romero wrote a letter to then President Jimmy Carter asking him to stop the US aid to the Government of El Salvador.  Obviously, that didn't happen.

Many expectations and much anticipation...we'll have to see what if anything comes from this visit!

On a lighter note, a few of you have asked me to post a picture with me here you go.  This was taken in Santa Marta two weeks ago.   Also, one of my colleagues, here, a young man named Alonzo really wanted to be in my blog.  So here is Alonzo with Helen, one of the 23 children of the woman who runs the restaurant we all go to for lunch! Finally, one day we came back from lunch and found a goat tied to a tree beside the staircase we use to the get the 2nd floor of the building in which I work.  Turns out the goat was more afraid of us than we were of it!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Buildings Part II

Wow, what a week this has been.  I have been to a local school as part of a group presenting on the importance of International Women's Day.  I went to a youth festival where youth who are part of a program that provides training in theatre, dance and juggling performed and I went to a women's festival to celebrate International Women'd Day.  I also had my first bout of gastro-intestinal issues and spent one day in bed and one day recouperating.

There is so much that I am learning about and thinking about every day it is very hard to narrow down my thoughts for the blog this week.  In general, as I am in my third week, life is settling down into a bit of a routine and I am learning to do more and more basic tasks.  This week, when I was sick, it was  bit of issue that I didn't have a working cell phone and it caused some additional stress for those who are helping me.  In order to prevent this from happening again,  on the weekend Jenny, Jonathan and I went to a mall and I bought a cell phone...which interestingly I couldn't have done without Jenny or Jonathan.  Everyone in El Salvador has ID called a DUI which is needed for a number of financial transactions of which buying a cell phone is one.  Jonathan programmed in all the cell numbers for the people who are important parts of my Salvadorian life and in the list put in "mi numero" (my number) so that I would always be able to find it!  Of course, he laughed through the whole process, but nonetheless everyone is happy to know that I am know reachable...sort of because I don't think I'd recognize my ring at the moment!

This week, I have also been to Santa Marta, the most rural part of the area that ADES serves and is the primary focus of the work of ADES.  Santa Marta is also the poorest area that I have seen.  I will write a lot more about Santa Marta in the upcoming weeks because it is a very interesting place.  About half of my work team lives there.  There is a lot that has been done right there in terms of development and it is a community where everyone seems to be engaged in the process.  But there are a number of serious challenges including water, nutrition and violence against women.  Certainly by comparison, my life in Guacotecti (Guaco) is luxurious.

Life in Guaco...
Guaco is a small village of about 1000 people that contains a few very, very small stores a couple of restaurants and a Catholic Church.  Our house is on the edge and so while we are in a "neighbourhood" sort of, it is all undeveloped land behind us.  As I mentioned there are 4 of us who share the house, although there are 6 bedrooms.  One bedroom appears to be a storage area of sorts and the extra bedroom is occasionally used by people who are working very late and can't get back to their homes in other cities or towns.

The front of the house, reminds me of a cottage.  It is one big room with a cooking area with a fridge and stove, a sitting area and a large kitchen table.  There is also an attached garage which is used occasionally when one of the roommates brings home a car from the office.  (ADES has a fleet of vehicles as no one has a personal car and there are always groups of people and equipment that need to be transported).  From this area you go through another door and you are in the back part of the house.  One one side is 4 bedrooms (mine is the 3rd one down) and on the other side is a bedroom, the wet area and another bedroom. In the photo, taken facing the kitchen area, my door and window (which are both metal and close securely) is the one at the front of the photo.  As you will notice, the house is nicely painted and tiled.   The middle is open to the sky.  In the picture of the wet area, you will notice two is a regular toilet (for which I am very grateful) and the other is a shower stall.  Although there is a shower head, it doesn't work.  Adjacent to the shower staff is a cement holding tank.  There is a tap that fills this with non-potable water.  The water looks very clean and is cool but not cold.  The shower stall is open to the holding tank and so when I shower, I dip a plastic basin into the water in the holding area and shower that way.  I like to shower in the evening as I am often a bit dusty and sweaty and I find the water cool and refreshing.   My housemates all shower in the morning, but I find the water a bit cold at that time of day, so I just wet my hair! Since I have not yet mastered cooking, I wash a lot of the dishes.  This is done by putting water the in the red and blue buckets on the ground.  One is for washing and one is for rinsing.  There is a dish rack on the far left of the picture.  The washing water is emptied down the storm drain in the area between the bedrooms and wet area.  Handwashing is done by dipping the basin into the holding tank, washing your hands and then emptying the basin down the drain in the shower.  I brush my teeth by spitting into the toilet, but my roommates generally prefer using the storm drain.  The fact that there is a sewer system makes this house very high end for this area!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Buildings in My Life - Part I

Happy International Women's Day - Tuesday March 8th!  I am part of a team that works with groups of women in order to improve their lives and promote their rights.  So as you can imagine, this is a really big day here.  All morning staff are coming in to our office to offer congratulations and their are lots of hugs!  I may need to import this custom for National Housing Day!  There is a week of events.  I'll write more about all of this next week.

So I have been in El Salvador for slightly more than a week and things are poco a poco (little by little) becoming clearer to me. Every day brings new experiences and new knowledge.  It is all very, very good and as I keep saying everyone is very kind and very nice.  I believe that there is yoga at lunch today.  I'll let you know more about that next week as well!

On Thursday and Friday of  last week we had an all ADES staff event called campamento.  In Spanish this means "camp".  As some of you know, I am not really an outdoorsy kind of gal and I was a bit concerned about these two days.  However, it turned out to be a wonderfully fun and enjoyable event.  When we arrived at the Boy Scout camp, in the mountains of El Salvador, we were divided into teams.  Each team then had to pitch tents.  It appeared that even with detailed instructions of one of the Scout Leaders, my team had significant difficulties in pitching our tents.  As I watched this unfold, I settled down and knew that I was on exactly the right team!  Interestingly, I was likely the only person out of the nearly 60 people there that did not have a cell phone.  I think this will soon be rectified as Jenny does not want me to be out and about by myself without one!  Even in the mountains of El Salvador everyone was texting and calling...incredible to me!

During one of the activities we were blindfolded.  In the beginning we did activities in a line with our hands on the shoulders of the person ahead of us.  Then we were separated and I began to feel a bit anxious because I didn't understand the instructions in Spanish and I couldn't watch and follow my teammates.  Then someone came to me and whispered in broken English what I was to do.  That is actually about how things are going here...when I start to feel really anxious someone speaks to me or something changes and it is all okay.

At a couple of points during the campamento I stopped and looked at the mountains, trees,  and the sun and thought, wow,  I am really in El Salvador, doing team building exercises with a really fun, kind and passionate group of people.  How cool is that!  At night I looked up at the stars and as one of my friends reminded me this week, I thought about all of you looking at the same stars from Canada!

I have been reminded that as part of my "privilege" of travelling with a Canadian passport, I can travel.  When I arrived in El Salvador, I was vague on the details of who I was going to be staying with and why.  The man at Immigration just stamped my passport and said okay.  There are a number of people at ADES who have tried to visit Canada, but the Canadian government won't issue them a Visa and apparently it is an expensive process.  I need to learn more about this and I'm sure that I'll write more about in future blogs.

So I thought that I'd share with you a little bit about my surroundings.  During the weekends I stay in a small townhouse in a gated complex in San Martin, one of 9 municipios that comprise the city of San Salvador.  In many ways the townhouse and the complex looks similar to those in Canada, except their are a few difference.  For example, the windows have louvered glass with pretty iron work grills, but no screens.  So far that has not been an issue as there are relatively few bugs.  Also the house is made of concrete blocks and so it is hard to put things on the walls.  There are no closets in the bedrooms, or cupboards under the sink in the bathroom or in the kitchen.  This leads to very creative storage solutions.  Jenny has a washing machine (a big luxury) that is located on the small patio in the backyard.  Clothes are hung on a line to dry.  I think some of you likely knew this but I had a revelation...I suddenly understood the ironing...when clothes are hung on line and then folded the wrinkles don't hang out!  Today for the first time in 20 years I ironed my t-shirt before going to work!

Attached are three of the exterior of the townhouse, one of my bedroom and one of my "Salvadorian Family" - Nelson (Jenny's Boyfriend), Jenny and Jonathan (Jenny's son).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Biendvenidos a El Salvador

What a week this has been!  Everything is good, but I have to say I have run the gamet of emotions -- sad to be leaving my new friends in Mexico, excited and worried about El Salvador -- then arriving in El Salvador and starting "work" -- which have both been great and overwhelming all at the same time.  The bottom line is I am good.  My accommodations are clean and bug free.  I have been well fed and the people are very, very nice.  However, everything is very, very different.  I do think that the baby analogy is a good one, that you think you know what is coming, but one day the baby is born and your life changes in ways you couldn't begin to understand.  That is kind of what this week has been like for me.  But let me start at the beginning.  

I had a really nice last week at CETLALIC, my language school.  I continued to have private classes, but there were a total of 4 students, so I had some people to hang out with on breaks.  Also one of the new students spoke almost no Spanish, so I helped him a little bit with understanding Cuernavaca and the general process of things.  It was so nice to feel helpful!  On Friday, they had a little going away party for me and they gave me a diploma.  It is really cute!  

Saying goodbye to my host family was hard.  They have been so good to me and I think I "clicked" with them.  I made a prayer shawl for Angeles my host mother as a thank you present for all of the time and care she gave me during my five weeks with them.  Mary, my minister joined (via SKYPE) with  Agustina a teacher at my school and I for a very brief, international bilingual prayer shawl blessing ceremony.  It was really cool!  With the help of one of my maestras, I wrote a thank you note to Angeles to express my thanks for all of the kindness and care she showed me over the past 5 weeks.   I also received some very special gifts.   Veronica (Angeles and Fernando's daughter) made me a special kind of salsa that I fell in love with in Mexico, to take with me to El Salvador.  Angeles gave me a little coin purse that was made by the inmates at the Penal.  Finally, Bryan (the 18 year old grandson who lived at the house) gave me a "nino de Shrek" (baby Shrek). Bryan is a very nice guy, but reserved and quiet. Angeles explained how pleasantly shocked she was that Bryan wanted to get me a present.  I only had a Canadian pencil for him because I didn't expect that we would exchanging gifts!   Before I was picked up and taken to the airport, I went for a short walk to the store with Obed, a very wise and mature 8 year old.  He just looked at me and said, quiere respirar el calle -  I turned and looked at him and he said in perfect English, you want to breathe in the street for one last time!  I swear this kid has the soul of an 80 year old! 

The directors of my language school and their 10 year old son drove me to the airport in Mexico City.  They very kindly came in to the airport and made sure that I was in the right line and knew where to go before they took off.  I really appreciated the extra care as the whole airport in Spanish experience felt a bit confusing.  All was fine! Then it was off to El Salvador.

Jenny, my host for the next year and a half, and Daisy and Lionel met me at the airport.  It was almost a two hour drive to Jenny's house in a suburb of San Salvador.  Along the way we stopped for pupusas--the national food of El Salvador.  Everyone was between 35-40 and I have to admit it was lovely to be around people my age for a while.  I will stay with Jenny and her 21 year son Jonathon at their house in San Salvador on weekends.  The house is very nice and luxurious compared to the casa in Mexico.  There is even a washing machine!  The three bedroom townhouse is small, very modern, but in many ways still very, very modest.   It actually reminds of a small subsidized housing townhouse.  It is in a gated community and so is quite safe.   There are some real safety issues in San Salvador.  I know only a bit about this and will probably blog more about this later.  Jenny speaks some English so we make a sort of Spanglish in order to communicate.   

During the week, I'll share a house with Jenny, Alex and Soto -- Alex and Soto are men.  The house is in Guacotecti, a very small village about a 15 minute walk from the office.  My room here is much larger than in San Salvador and has more furnishings.  My room has the first three pronged outlets I have seen in either El Salvador or Mexico.  However, it other ways it is very different from home.  I'm going to keep you in suspense because I can't quickly describe the ways in which it is different.  You really to see pictures and I'm not organized to that this week, so soon you will hear more about the house in Guancotecti.  However, I do really need to say that Jenny, Alex and Soto have all be awesome and welcoming.  There are a number of people who work at ADES and spend the week near the office and then commute home on the weekends.  It seems to be a way of life.  Of course because everyone has family elsewhere they try to live cheaply during the week, so that they can bring more money home to their families.  Soto gets the groceries every Monday.  I will need to contribute $5-8 dollars weekly for my meals here.  Breakfast and dinner at this house have been quite similar, scrambled eggs with vegetables, beans, tortillas and cheese.  Jenny, Alex and Soto have each a made meal.  I don't feel quite up for that yet, but I have mastered dish washing here...which is quite different than at home!

Work...well after two days I can say that I know that ADES does a lot of really great stuff, but I am still quite vague on a lot of it!  I am assigned to the "Area de Organizacion" which works with groups of women and groups of youth doing different things.  The fact that my Spanish is very basic has bothered me a lot this week, but not anyone much here.  They are all very kind are very pleased that I am going to be with them for a year+.  They keep telling me that my Spanish will come.  Many people have kindly told me that Heather (the last person from the United Church to be assigned to ADES) spoke little Spanish when she came and she made a very significant contribution to the agency later in her placement.  Her legacy is thought of very highly here.  I hope that eventually I will be able to be useful!

In the "it's a small world category" there is an older man in the office next to my team.  He lived on Regina Street in Waterloo for a number of years before he and his wife split and he returned to El Salvador!  Also, btw, Justin Beber is huge here and the fact that I lived about 30 minutes from his city makes me almost famous here!  

One of the expressions that they use here a lot is "poco a poco"  -- little by little.  I think that is good advice!  Today I knew more than I knew yesterday.  For example, I'm not just sure how the agency supply of toilet paper works.  There was toilet paper in the washroom on Monday and by the end of the day it was all used.  It seems that all of my team mates have a "stash" in their desk.  I know now where my team supply is located!
Basically I just sit in places and people come and get me and tell me it is time to go somewhere.  Yesterday, I thought I was going for lunch, (there is a woman who sells lunches for a very modest price at our office).   I didn't find her, but instead got told I was going with one of my teammates to a meeting in the community and so off I went.  We did stop for lunch along the way.  Coming back my colleague did not want to come back to ADES because she lives really near to where we were.  However, getting back meant two buses and no one was sure that I would handle the transfer correctly.  So the next thing I know a pick up truck pulled up in front of the building where we were and I was to get in.  I don't know who Jose is or why he came to collect me, but he delivered me safe and sound.  He seems to be a friend of ADES as people said, how did you get back and I said Jose, and they all said, oh Jose like they know him!  Apparently Jose has both a pick-up truck and a motorcycle so I am very grateful that he came in the truck!

There is so much more to tell, but I have time.  I hope the snow is melting and thanks everyone for your support.