Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I'm getting ready for vacation, but...

So only two more sleeps until I am in Canada!  I am counting really only one more sleep because tomorrow I leave Guacotecti and the ADES office to go back to San Salvador.  In my mind that is when the trip home begins.  I'll spend the night with Jonathan in San Salvador house as Jenny will still be in Guacotecti.   Then Friday morning Oscar (from ADES) will pick me up to take me to the airport.  My thoughts are focused a lot on seeing friends and family, speaking English and eating familiar food.  I am looking forward to being in a place where I understand the culture and the language. I am excited...

But...interesting and disheartening situations keep coming into my life.

This morning I was at meeting where I learned that in the community where "the girls" live (the two cuties that my boss is working hard to get medical care arranged for them) has a big problem.   Not only is their not water in people's homes, there is not enough water with on the ground or underground for this community.  People from ADES are working to try and solve this problem.   The ultimate obstacle, is that all of the land that the village is on is privately owned.  While I did not understand the reason, it is clear that the land owner will not permit the installation of the equipment that would collection and distribute of water.  It is unbelievable to me that water can be denied to a village because the land owner refuses the installation of the equipment.  I don't even think she is being asked to pay anything!

This afternoon I am travelling to another very small village.  This too is all on privately owned land.  In this area the biggest problem is with the school.  Currently the Ministry of Education pays for the teacher and basic supplies, but there is not a proper building.  The school is in an old adobe house, which is very inadequate.  There are also 6 grades with the one teacher.  Apparently the way it works here is the Ministry of Education will pay for a building but will not buy land.   In this case the landowner is willing to sell land for the school for about $3000.  In this very poor community this is an unfathomable amount of money.  Soto (one of my housemates and the head of the water and anti-mining team) has agreed to write a letter to invite people from the Ministry of Education to meet with people from the community to discuss the situation.  Today the community will be reviewing and signing the letter.

Given these realities, it is not surprising that people here do not view Capitalism and the free market as the way to improve their lives.

Finally, I learned yesterday that the Government of Canada through the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has invited the Attorney General of El Salvador to participate in a Panel Discussion on Crime and Impunity in Central America.  This is the man who refuses to order an investigation into the threats and deaths of the anti-mining activists here.   As a result whoever is arranging and paying for these crimes has complete impunity from the law.  I understand that protests are being planned both here in El Salvador and in Canada.

So while I am getting excited to see you all, the situations here continue to weigh on my mind.

I will be taking a break from Blogging during my vacation, but will catch up with everyone when I return to El Salvador.  My next blog will be Wednesday August 24th.  Thanks everyone for your support and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Top 10 List

Okay, so it is true, my Spanish is improving bit by bit.  However, just as often as I feel “accomplished” I am reminded how much yet have to learn!  Last week I learned that I am the only person in my agency who didn’t know how much I was I was talking about sex!  The expression I have been using for “I am hot” (in terms of temperature) actually means “I am hot and ready for sex!”  Also, the expression I have been using for “I like that person” actually means “I like” that person (have a strong physical attraction).  Apparently I can use that expression for “Mark Harmon” (actor on NCIS) because my attraction really is physical.   Apparently everyone giggles after I leave the room about me saying “I like” my colleagues at the office, both male and female! 

I have shared a lot with you about a lot of the challenges here.  There are many serious issues that the SalvadoreƱos/as face.  There have been lots of adjustments for me and sometimes it has been difficult.  All of that is true, but today I thought I would share with you my top 10 list of things I really like about living in El Salvador.

10.  The scenery - It is incredibly beautiful here.   Just about everywhere you look there are lush green trees and tropical flowers.   There are green mountains and volcanoes everywhere.  So even in my house in San Salvador I can walk out the front door and be looking at a beautiful green mountain.  At the moment corn is growing just about everywhere including up the sides of the volcanoes.  I am enjoying that corn growing season is the same as at home!  I have shared pictures of the beaches.  They are pristine and gorgeous.  The landscapes are magnificent. 

 9.  Pop Culture – The Spanish salsa music is fun, upbeat and full of energy.  At the same time 80’s music in English is very popular here.  Rarely a day goes by without me hearing Bryan Adams singing the theme from Robin Hood.  Early Madonna and Cyndi Lauper are also very popular.  At first it struck me as very odd that the only English I heard was music.  Now it just makes me smile that knowing all the words to ‘80’s songs makes me cool here, while it makes me a geek at home!  I also have to mention Coldplay -- their music is very popular here. 

Wednesday night at 8pm is my favourite TV program “Quien Quiere Ser Millonario?”  Who Wants to be a Millionaire – El Salvador edition.  On a good night, there will be a bunch of my housemates around and we will discuss and fight over the right answers.  We actually make a good team as I am pretty good with world geography and North American/European culture and history.  My housemates know the Central and South American history and culture.  A few weeks ago one of the big money questions was “What is the nationality of Justin Bieber?”  My housemates all knew the answer!!!

8.  The sun, the sky, the moon and the stars -  I love the bright sunshine and brilliant blue skies.  I don’t mind the temperature (most of the time).  In fact I am thrilled that my toes are warm.  They were always cold in Canada.  At night when the sky is clear the moon and stars are magnificent.  In Guacotecti (where I live during the week) there is very little light pollution and so the skies are alive with sparkling jewels.  It is a very special experience to wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and to open my bedroom door and look up at the stars on the way to the toilet.

7.  Being more “green” – While I have never felt very “environmental,”  I have to say I enjoy the thought that when there is no electricity in the morning, the only way that impacts our lives is that we can’t iron.  There is no hot water, the stove is propane, it is bright so we don’t need light and so it is not a big deal.   We also make a lot less garbage.  6 of us usually make 2-3 grocery store bags of garbage per week.  This includes one bag of used toilet paper.  In general, I use a lot less water and a lot less electricity.  I walk or take a bus.  Occasionally I ride in a pick-up but there is almost always at least 4 or 5 of us in the vehicle.  However, I am not completely virtuous, my “pepsi light” cans and bottles are going to the dump in Guaco because there is not a recycling program.

6.  Teaching English – I have to say this is one of the things that I do every week that makes me happy.  I feel useful and I have good interaction with people.  For the past few weeks I have started teaching a small class for children in my local village.  Last week they taught me a song in English…how cool is that!!!

5.  The Simplicity – My life went from living at a breakneck speed, particularly in December when I was getting ready to leave, to living a much slower, simpler life.  In the morning I can chose from 2-3 pairs of clean pants and 2-3 clean tops.  On my way to the office my “to do” list usually has 2-3 items on it.  Not like the several dozen items I used to in Canada.  Sometimes during the week I get to go to “Super Selectos” the grocery store in Sensuntepeque (the closest city).  We shop for supplies once every 1-2 weeks.  It depends on how many people have actually stayed at the house and how long it takes to the eat food there.   Otherwise, my weekday after work errand is to buy a diet Pepsi and more time on my phone at a very small store in my village.  That is generally the sum of my after work activities plus my once a week English class with the children.   As a result, my head is much quieter. I can’t remember ever being this quiet in my head.  

4. Plantains – I am in love with plantains!   Raw, baked, fried, deep fried, turned into the empenadas…I love them any way they come.  They are my favourite food in El Salvador.  Does anyone know, can I buy plantains in Canada?  Do the Caribbean or Latin American stores sell them????

3.  Spanish – I live my life in Spanish…how cool is that!  Yes it is true, this fact also causes me frustration, but on a good day, I think this is really an accomplishment.  I am at a point of communicative competence – my grammar and sentence structure are still rough, but people get the basic ideas I am trying to convey and usually they can make me understand their point.  It is far from a “real conversation” but is a lot higher level than I had a few months ago. 

2.  The resistance to mining-  I am thrilled that people here are not letting Canadian Companies walk all over them.  The whole situation saddens me on many levels, but I am inspired by all that people are doing to protect their environment, their land, their health and their water.  They are saying that not everything in this world is for sale.   

1.  My community – I feel very fortunate to be able to spend a bit of life accompanying this amazing group of people.  My ADES family is very special.  They have been very kind to me, but also they have challenged me and inspired me in numerous ways.    Heather (who spent a year at ADES about 5 years ago) told me that the people from ADES continue to be very special to her.  I can understand how this time with these people is both unforgettable and life changing.

While all of this is true, I am still missing all of you (of course).  Only 9 more sleeps until my Canadian vacation! 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Insiders and Outsiders

So something really interesting just happened.  I was talking with some colleagues who were sitting at a table for four, eating lunch.  Two of the people have a reasonably high level of English, the other two people are in my introductory English class.  A small joke was made in English.  I laughed heartily as did the person who made the joke and the other person who understands English.  The other two people looked at each other and said in Spanish “did you understand?”  They both said no.  In Spanish I said, “welcome to my world”.  Everyone laughed. 

For a moment, I was an “insider”.  That is a status that I have not enjoyed in my everyday life for a while now.  I no longer expect to understand all of the conversation at the dinner table or on the bus or on the radio.  I don’t expect to be a leader or to make many decisions.  Sometimes I still need help to understand things and to do things correctly.  

In Canada I never questioned my status as an insider.  I understood the language and the culture and if someone spoke in another language I expected that it would be translated for me.  When I travelled I expected that there would be people who spoke not just “some” English, but fluent English.   
Despite being on the outside, I am still someone who has enjoyed much privilege in her life and in many ways still does.  

Yesterday I became aware that my teammates were collecting money for a colleague who was sick.  I didn’t completely understand the conversation around this action.  In my head I drew the conclusion that made sense to me…we were collecting money for a gift.  I wondered about this as the collection well beyond my team and to the whole office.  I later asked one of my housemates what was going on.  She explained to me that my colleague and her brother are both sick.  One needs to see a specialist and one needs a special x-ray.  In total they need about $100 to pay for both and the family doesn’t have the money.  Having grown up with universal health care it still shocks me that people can’t get health care because they can’t pay for it.  I assumed that we were collecting money for an “extra” not a necessity.  A point of privilege. 

This weekend I went on a lovely trip to another part of El Salvador with two busloads of youth and their families and a few other staff.  We went to see an archaeological site and then went to a “huge” pool.  The pool was a standard “municipal” pool in Canada, but for here it was enormous.  There were signs all over to warn people that the water in the deep end was in fact, really deep.  I quickly changed into my bathing suit, dropped my stuff off with a friend who was not going in the pool and then jumped into the deep end.  I then looked around.  There was hardly anyone in the deep end.  Almost no one was wearing a bathing suit.  People swim in street clothes.  Most Salvadorenos/as don’t know how to swim.  In fact on the bus people were commenting on what a shame it was that so much of the pool was wasted with deep water that so few could use.   Another point of privilege…even in Canada most of the poor kids go the pool and many have at least a few swimming lessons. 
The "huge" pool.  Notice the palm trees at the sides.   This is the deep end and there is no one in it!

After almost 5 months, all my housemates were home at a reasonable hour and I was able to convince them to pose for a “nice” picture.  Finally, here is the group of people who I live with during the week:

From Left to Right:
Alex: He is married and has a son.  He is the head of the "local economy" team.  He is outgoing, fun and talks fast.  The day I understand Alex completely in a regular conversation, I will know that I understand Spanish! Alex has discovered that he likes peanut butter, but doesn't think that peanut butter toast is a complete breakfast all by itself.   He is a good cook and makes fried plantains that are my favourite food here.  

Jenny:  Jenny is my "host".  I live with her in both of my houses.  She is the head of administration which means she is in charge of finance, HR, physical plant and cars.  Jenny is smart and personable.  She knows everything about everything and everyone.  One day I thought I knew something that she didn't and it turned out someone had lied to me!  Occasionally we have overnight guests at our house.  They are usually young women from the office who have come to seek Jenny's counsel on family or relationship issues.   

Vinicio: Venicio is the young hottie of the house but he doesn't act like he knows it.  He is 22 and in great shape.  He has been incredibly kind to me and he has a very special place in my life here.   He is doing a joint project between ADES and another agency REDES (they like acronyms here as much as we do) that has something do with optimizing corn production.   I'm not sure that I'd understand it in English!   For a while he too was a bit of an outsider, despite speaking the language and the culture.  We bonded while he is was in his first few difficult weeks here.  

Vicenta:   She works with the women in the Co-operative that run a restaurant and give out micro-credit loans to small home based businesses.  Vincenta is the "mischievious" one of the group.  She is a lot of fun and enjoys playing cards.  However, you have to watch her because she likes to "bend" the rules a lot!  She lived for a while in the US and then studied for 5 years in Cuba.   She makes most of the suppers at our house.  Her beans are the best I have had.  We believe it is the Cuban influence.  

Soto:  Soto's first name is Oswaldo, but everyone just uses his last name - Soto.  He reminds me a lot of my Uncle Bruce.  He is devoted to his family, likes to have fun and is very wise.  Soto is the head of the team that works on water and mining issues.  Soto and Alex generally cook breakfast.  Soto makes baked plantains - very yummy.  He also loves futbol (soccer), coffee and tortillas.  

Note:  Jenny wanted me to explain that I am a very lucky woman here.  It is very rare to find men in El Salvador who cook and I have three in my weekday house -  Alex, Soto and Vinicio and Jonathan on weekends.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Weekend at the Beach

As you have likely gathered, things have been intense here the past few weeks.  Thankfully things have settled down a bit although we are all still exercising more caution in terms of personal safety.  This weekend I had the opportunity to go the beach with people from work.  It was a lot of the same people who I went away with a few weekends ago and I had a great time. 

However, before I get to the beach, I want to share with you about a great thing that happened yesterday.  For a few weeks my boss Gilma has been insisting that I was going to do a presentation on  Stages of Change and Motivational Interviewing (two concepts that I use a lot in my work in Canada).  I have doubted my ability to communicate the concepts with enough depth and clarity to be helpful.  Every time I raised these concerns to Gilma she shrugged off my concerns. Despite my doubts, yesterday was the day for my presentation to my team and two members of another team.  There were a few times when I had to stop so that someone could translate “my Spanish” into actual “Spanish”, but in general people understood what I was trying to say.  They asked questions and seemed really interested in the ideas.  I’m actually feeling a bit proud of myself.

It is true that after five months here my Spanish is definitely better.  I have a higher level of communicative competence and more people are also getting used to the weird way I speak.  There is still a lot that I don't understand, but if it is important people can usually rephrase it in a way so that I can understand.  "My people" are figuring out my vocabulary and using it more often.  I have also come to accept that I am not going to be anywhere near to fluent anytime soon.  This has been a big adjustment in my head and it took some time.  Clearly my expectations were too high and I needed to let go of a goal that was not realistic.  Enough of this and back to the beach.

The Beach -- I was told that Vinicio (one of my weekday roommates) had arranged a "Ranchito" for us. A Ranchito is like a cottage at the beach, although they are really small (or sometimes huge) compounds.  Our Ranchito had a small building with two bedrooms (one for the guys, one for the gals) and bathroom in between.  There was another building with a kitchen, a large outdoor dining room, two pools (cement holding ponds with about 2-3 feet of water), three outdoor showers, 4 hammocks and a couple of other buildings we didn't use.  It was on the non-beach side of the road closest to the beach.
The Ranchito - The building on the back left is the bedrooms, the building in the middle is the kitchen and the dining room is on the right.  In front is one of the small pools.

We arrived a little after midnight on Friday night.  There had been several delays in getting there and it was several hours from Guacotecti where the office is.  Vinicio's Abuela (Grandmother) has the "Ranchito" next door so when we arrived we needed to go and meet her.  What an amazing women she is!  She came out wearing a nightgown and an apron.    At her Ranchito there are lots of palm trees and so there is always a supply of coconuts.  Vinicio picked up a machete and started hacking the top off of coconuts.  He handed a coconut to each person drank the "milk" from inside and then handed the coconut back to Vinicio, who very capably cut the coconuts in half so that we could eat the "meat" inside.  I was not very adept at scooping out the coconut and so Vinicio kindly came over and in about 10 seconds scooped it all out for me! It was after one before we went to sleep.

Morning came and everyone got up at 5am!!! I was bit shocked by this, but like I do here, I follow the crowd.  I was barely out of my sleeping bag when I realized that everyone was leaving for the beach.  I quickly put on a pair of shorts and grabbed my flip flops and was on my way too.  The beach at sunrise was worth getting up to see.  It was deserted and beautiful beyond words.  Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my camera. 

The day was full of activity...although I did manage to find a bit of time to have a quick siesta in a hammock.  While I truly thought I had not actually fallen asleep, the photos someone took with my camera would suggest otherwise!  We also went out and about and visited another beach.  As some of you know I always buy a "best beaches in the world" calendar for my office at work.  I like to look at the pictures during the blizzards of January.  I had to pinch myself because I was on a beach that easily could have been a part of one of my calendars.  This is not one of the most popular beaches and so there weren't very many people.  It was all such a wonderful experience.  

An incredible beach

The Group - Jaime, Digna, Nora, Vinicio, Jonathan and me.
Finally I have found a place where at 5'3" I am "average height"!

We then went to a lovely restaurant for lunch.  I found it interesting that many of the restaurants have swimming pools (much more like what I think of as a pool than the pools at the Ranchita).  At our restaurant, we opted to eat upstairs and have a fabulous view of the ocean, rather than poolside.  On my way out I noticed that it was mostly kids in the pool and parents sitting around eating and drinking beer.  Then it dawned on me, this is the ocean side version of McDonald's playland!!!

Lunch was a very relaxed and casual meal.  We ate, drank beer and chatted.  At one point people commented on what a perfect combination been and seafood soup is.  I commented that in Canada we generally think beer goes with pizza.  My friends here were horrified, they could not imagine anything so horrible!  I can’t comment on the pairing of beer with creamy seafood soup, complete with a whole lobster and huge shrimp, as beer does not do well in my stomach anytime.  However, the seafood soup was delicious. 

The day was packed with activities.  After much sun and surf people were tired and so the day ended a bit earlier than the day before.  I slept in the morning deciding to forgo a shower for a few more moments of sleep.  I was the last one out of my bed at 5:45am!  We packed up, said goodbye to “Abuela” and then were on our way.  The group decided to take the scenic route back to San Salvador.  We travelled along the coast through La Libertad.  This area is known for great beaches and surfing.  We stopped at a few lookouts and took pictures.  We ate breakfast at a beautiful beach, watching people surf.  The waves weren’t huge, but it was my first time to see surfing in person.  What a great weekend!

View from one of the lookouts.