Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Year Completed and a Week to Go

Yesterday marked a year to the day since I arrived in El Salvador.  I'll avoid typical comments like, "I can't believe how quickly it went", but I will say, this is without doubt, the year of my life where I have learned the most -- about me, El Salvador,  and the world.  I feel like I have been changed and I will never again see the world in the same way that I did a year ago.  I will be able to find joy in places I never looked before and I now know a new level of challenge in the lives of many people.

What a week this has been.  One of the things that seems to happen here is that foreigners feel more emotionally vulnerable.   For me it has to do with living in a culture and life where I only ever "sort of" know what is going on around me.  I have learned to live with the ambiguity but the stress of coping just seems to make my emotions closer to the surface.  Sure enough at a meeting this week I had to leave because I was going to cry.  I was just feeling overwhelmed with everything.  There is a lot of work to do with the elections.  Some of it is easy for me and some of it needs a level of Spanish that is really beyond me.  Being me, I feel frustrated because I can't get it done to the level that I want.  My teammates rallied and we have developed some new strategies and there are some new elections people arriving this week that we can put to work too!

That day, I decided to go for a "North American" lunch at Tony Roma's and bumped into another volunteer from the United States who "just needed a burger and fries" too and off we went.  I ended up talking to her a lot about my experiences at ADES and the people I have gotten to know, the impact the war had on them and why the elections are so important.  At times we were both in tears, but the discussion certainly reminded me why this work is important.  It helped to refocus my angst.  That was all on Thursday.

Friday was my regular day to go to ADES.  Lately, Fridays have been the highlight of my week.  There is a feeling of coming home.  Everyone is happy to see me, is interested in what I am doing and really makes me feel welcome.  They understand my Spanish (mostly) and are very eager to help me with the elections work in whatever way they can.   I bought a cake  (the cake is so amazing here, they put sweetened condense milk in the batter and so it is very, very moist) and we shared it as a way to say thanks for an wonderful year.

Yesterday a group of us went to a beautiful town in the mountains called "La Palma".  There is a famous artist named Fernando Llort (pronounced Jort).  His art style is very popular and is on almost all of the handicrafts made here.  5 women ranging in ages from me at 43-81 made the trip, with my favourite new tour guides.  Before I wax on about the tour guides, let me tell you about these women.  They are all Spanish students or volunteers at CIS.  Marilyn, the 81 year old is from Lakefield, outside Peterborough.  She spent last year travelling around India solo.  I have to say this group is an inspiration for me on how to age well and live a socially aware life!
L-R: Antonio, Lis, Andres, Marilyn (81), Ann (71), Jill (63) Linda (66)

A Door in La Palma, in the Llort style.

The breathtaking scenery of the mountains of El Salvador.

Of course, I need to tell you a bit more  Andres, Antonio and Lis, the tour guides.  They so continue to impress me with their professionalism, attention to detail and the quality of their service, not to mention they are cute and a lot of fun.  These young entrepreneurs are so much more than "transportation".  Andres spent time on the internet finding other places we could go in addition to La Palma, to make it a true day trip.  They are so attentive to the needs of the group.  Lis, sat in the back of the van with us and recorded all of the details of the trip - the time it took to get to each place, how long we spent, what we that they can review and revise.  As the tourism business isn't yet generating enough income they also have developed a food business and sell little shishkabobs, muffins and brownies to students at a local University.  I have a huge respect for the ambition and determination of these young people.

My friend Lenora arrives on Wednesday from Edmonton, Anneliese from Waterloo on Saturday and Lynn from Waterloo next Monday.  The Observer program officially  starts a week Monday on March 5th.  We have one more week to get it done and then after that, it just won't matter very much!  I am going to try and keep up with my blogs but don't worry if I miss one or two.  The next two weeks are just going to fly by!  Abrazos (hugs) to everyone.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I climbed a volcano because it was there and I could!!!!

So yesterday my friends Jill, Ann and I climbed the Santa Ana volcano.  I have to admit, I wasn't all that keen on the idea, but my friend Jill really, really wanted to do this.  I thought, well it will likely be a good experience.  I was not feeling quite so happy when we arrived at the volcano and it was foggy and cold.  It was hard to believe I could be cold, as the the day before was one the hottest days I have ever experienced in El Salvador.  In the end we all agreed that we were glad it wasn't sunny as the climb would have been that much harder.

As often happens here, someone knew someone, who knew someone who is trying to launch a tourism business here.  Antonio and Andres generally take people on camping, kayaking, rock climbing type of excursions, but yesterday they drove us and accompanied us up the volcano.  Jill is in her 60's and Ann is in her 70's.  We were all very grateful to have Antonio and Andres with us because we could not keep up the pace with the younger climbers.  We felt safe with "our guys" and we climbed up and down at our pace.  We were also accompanied by a police officer.  Neither Antonio, Andres or the Police Officer broke a sweat, while the three of us worked hard to get up to the top of the volcano.  I'm not sure what I expected, but I was surprised at how barren it is at the top.  There is also a sulfur lake in the crater.   When my family was here and my young cousins would ask the driver how much further, the answer was always about 20 minutes.  I developed the same system with Andres.  When I asked how much further, he always said 10 minutes.

As I was sweating and huffing up the volcano I thought about the idea that sometimes we know too much.  When Andres told me it was 10 more minutes, I knew at times it wasn't true, but somehow 10 minutes seemed manageable.   I certainly have learned over the past year that smaller goals are much more manageable, particularly when the situation seems completely overwhelming.  When I first arrived in El Salvador, 16 months here seemed like an eternity.  Next Saturday will mark my year anniversary.  I think it would have been easier if I had thought about it in 3 month increments, rather than as a whole.
Me, Jill and Ann - We made it to the top!
The crater with the sulfur lake

At the bottom with the volcano in the background

In other news this week...On Tuesday it was friendship day here - not really Valentines Day.  I have to say, I like this idea a lot.  So I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to all of my friends and family who read my blog.  You matter to me and you are important to me.  I am so thankful for each of you.  Please give yourself a huge hug from me and know that in a few months, I'll be giving you a huge hug in person!

As I am writing my blog, my sister is moving into her new house.  Many of you know that the past few years have been particularly challenging for her.  Moving into the new house is a great way for her and Rachel to be future focused.  She is very excited about "nesting" after feeling like she was "in transit" for the past few years.  I am thrilled that she is moving on to this new step in her life.  While I am sad that I am not there to help, I am glad that so many family and friends have supported her in so many ways through this process.  The move into a smaller home has also necessitated a significant thinning of the "Macaulay collection" all of the left over stuff from my parents and grandmothers house.  While this has been at times emotionally challenging for both of us, lessening the load from the past seems to be very important for all us to move on to create the futures that we want.  I am thrilled and delighted for Karen and Rachel and wish them many years of happiness in their new home.  

Finally, the Elections work is busy and challenging in many ways, but I am loving it.  This week I have started having discussions about what I will do after the elections.   Both ADES and CIS have ideas and so I am trying to sort that out.  For the first time since being here, I have too many options and so I need to think about what I want to do for my final time here.  Imagine!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Little Bits

So there are a bunch of little things I wanted to share with you.  Firstly, I felt my first tremor two weeks ago!  I forgot to tell you about it last week.  They happen in El Salvador all the time and mostly the foreigners don't feel them.  They are slight and quick and by the time someone tells you we are having a tremor, it is done.  The one a few weeks ago,  was just after I had settled down in my bed and the whole house moved twice, very quickly and then it was done.   Foreigners often call this action an "earthquake" and Salvadorians laugh.  It would be about the same as someone calling a few snowflakes a blizzard!  An interesting experience nonetheless!

Secondly, two weeks ago I also received a reply from the Canadian Government responding to my inquiry in October as to a a Canadian Government response to the floods here.  I didn't know this, but the Canadian Government send 2 million dollars to Central America , of which $700,000 went to El Salvador.  They distributed through International Humanitarian Organizations like the Red Cross.   This was new information for me and I was pleased to hear it.

Elizabeth in a hammock at Lucy's house

Elizabeth, Dennis and Lucy
This week I had the pleasure of sharing a bit of my life here with Dennis and Elizabeth Huss.  They are retired friends of mine from Westminster United Church in Waterloo.  They have a goal to visit 100 countries in the world and to date have been in about 75.   This year they took on Central American and added in a bit of time to visit with me in El Salvador.    We toured a little San Salvador on the day they arrived and the next day we went to Guacotecti and visited ADES and Sensuntepeque.  They were great sports and spent 3 hours on two buses each way.  One of the highlights for everyone was when my friend Lucy from ADES invited us to her house for lunch.  She served us a great bean soup, tortillas and fresh cheese and tomatoes.  Elizabeth liked the "hammock lifestyle" so much that she and Dennis bought one to take home.  I have to say, I am seriously considering adding a hammock to my living room when I get home.  This way I can use it all year round!

There is so much about life in El Salvador that is difficult.  People here have to endure so much more than most Canadians.  There are few systems that work particularly well.  This week, I had three separate conversations that inspired me.  The first two were about the elections.  One of my English students, Edwin, has been selected to work for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on the day of the election.  His job will be to take the official piece of paper that has the vote totals and send it into the head office.  He will also have to make copies of the vote totals for each poll at his voting centre.  He talked to me a lot this week about his responsibility to care for the votes.  Although he got this job through a particular political party, it is clear that his first allegiance is to the law and the voting process, not his party.  I have always have taken this for granted, but it is not always the case here.  I was deeply impressed with his desire to be a part of an election that happens according to the rules.

I also had the opportunity to talk with a lawyer from the United States.  He is someone who has had a deep interest in El Salvador for many years.  He has visited the country and has many Salvadorian clients.  He is coming to be an Observer, in part because he is so impressed with what the Salvadorian people have managed to do...unite rebel/guerilla forces under one banner, become a legitimate political party and have a President from that party.  He is of course correct.  This has been a huge achievement of the Salvadorian people.  Sometimes in the midst of all of the difficulties of the day to day, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and the bigger struggle.  I was glad to be reminded of this.

This week I was introduced to the young doctor in charge of the Health Centre in Victoria.  Salvador is from Santa Marta and he was able to receive his education because of  a scholarship program from ADES (funded by contributions from out of the country).  Antonio, ADES Executive Director explained to Dennis and Elizabeth that ADES works a lot in the area of education believing that this is the way that people will be able to develop their own communities.  While this takes a lot of time, people like Salvador, who is now a Doctor in a community very near to where he grew up, are evidence of what a little bit of North American/European aid can mean for a poor community.  Educating Salvadorians is a much better option than parachuting in foreigners to meet needs.   Positive change is here.  But is is small and slow and you need to watch for it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Great Day and a Great Birthday

So today was one of those unexpected, out of the blue great days.  It started out like most Fridays, excepted I got to sleep in until 6am.  Then I was on the buses and off to Guacotecti.  As I am spending so much time on the Elections Program, I am really out of sync with what is happening at ADES.  I arrived this morning to find out that it was the closing/graduation ceremony for two groups of mostly young people who have received several weeks of training to become reporters at Radio Victoria.  As you may recall, Radio Victoria is a community radio station that is mostly staffed by youth and young adults.  Over the years the staff at Radio Victoria have received several death threats because of their anti-mining position.  A few weeks ago, they received a new round of death threats in response to a story they covered about the illegal posting of election material.  There does not seem to be any shortage of young people willing to take on this task.

Before Christmas I spent a few Saturdays in a little place called Cinquera, where one of the two training groups was held.  I liked the youth in this group.  I found them intelligent, giggly and self-conscious...just what many youth are like.  Today some of them came up to me and started talking.  I explained that I could not stay for the whole event because I needed to teach an English class.  After the event and after my English class one of the youth cornered me to find out how they could get an English course in Cinquera.  Eduardo is involved with the Radio Victoria project and he is also involved with CIS in the election community training program.  He said that he wanted my contact information but that he was going to talk to Leslie at CIS and Tita the Chair of the Board at ADES because he and his colleagues need English classes.   This not a project that is on anyone radar at the moment, but somehow I wouldn't be surprised if I or one my colleagues ends up teaching English in Cinquera after the elections.  Although he is young, Eduardo is not one to give up.

As part of the ceremony today, all of the graduates were "sworn in" as reporters.  They had to promise to search for the truth and to work toward the development of their communities.

Out for dinner to celebrate my birthday.

Sharing icing with Jenny and Nora.