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!