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!

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