Friday, November 28, 2008

Final Post

The time has come. Three years, four months and twelve days after my departure from the US, I have returned... for the immediate future at least.

I returned to El Salvador on Wednesday. The bus from Guatemala City was held up somewhere between Tapachula, Mexico and the capital so we were three hours late in leaving. I got back and went right to bed. I spent the next days trying to get things wrapped up, packed and sold.

Friday night at about 6p, my friends Carlos and Gloria made me a tia to a beautiful baby girl, Camila Rosivel Sanchez Casteneda. I was thrilled to be able to meet her before I left. I spent Sunday hanging out with them in El Espino, and then Monday, began the goodbyes for real.

Monday night, my friends John and Nadia were married. I also feel fortunate to have been able to attend their wedding. I also got the chance to meet the Boltz clan. Things were flying by pretty quick so I am hoping to be able to make it out to San Fran some time and hang with them for reals.

Tuesday morning I had my last Salvadoran pupusa with my friend Hugo who had just arrived back in El Sal from Sweeden. We got to hang out just long enough to hug and catch up before I left for the airport. Armando and Raul (El Mae'tro) drove me to the airport.

So I arrived in Denver late Tuesday night which officially ends this round of Latin American adventures. On to job searches, culture adjustments and, I predict, freezing to death. Thanks to everyone that has kept up on my blog and shenanegans, I hope you have enjoyed the ride, as much as I have.

La Gringa Perdida, signing off....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Last stop....

I'm in Antigua, Guatemala. I grabbed a shuttle her on Sunday. I even got to ride co-pilot.

My friend Aaron from Grand Junction is here volunteering and studying Spanish. We have gotten to hang out the last couple of nights and it has been really great to catch up. Kinda feels like a torch passing. He is just beginning his Latin American adventures and I am wrapping mine up... for now. I head back to CO a week from today. It is hard to believe that I am goign to be leaving without a foreseeable return date. Bittersweet.

I got up early Monday morning and climbed the Pacaya volcano. It is currently active and errupting and you can climb right up to the top of it and get as close to the lava as you dare. Definately a country without liability laws. There was a spectacular view at the top that you could enjoy as long as you braced yourself against the wind. The wind was amazing, it nearly blew me off the hillside a couple of times. There were also a TON of people. I think there were at least 40-50 people there and this is the off season!

So I am here again tonight and then head back to San Salvador tomorrow. My how time does fly....

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Copan, Honduras

I got up early Friday morning and caught the 7am ferry out of Roatan and am finally free of that obnoxious Alicia. She was such a pain, always holding my stuff while I was in the bathroom, keeping me company, splitting costs, laughing with me. Ugh! Good riddance!

I have also, sadly said goodbye to the ocean for the foreseeable future. Que horror. It's hard to believe that this Central American life I've had for over three years is coming to an end. It will take some getting used to.

I arrived in Copan, Honduras just before sundown, found my hotel and settled in. Copan is officially called Copan Ruinas because it is the site of some pretty impressive Mayan Ruins. I toured them yesterday with a group of Salvadorans. They were really pretty cool. I must say that the first half of the tour was more enjoyable than the second half because about halfway through I had to pee like a Russian Racehorse. My torture hit its peak when our guide showed us the Mayan bathroom but refused to let me use it.

I woke up this morning and then got a little bit of a panic. I was watching CNN and the ticker reported a 5.9 earthquake in El Salvador. I jumped up, got ready and headed to the internet cafe. I called Carlos and Gloria to make sure everything was okay. Carlos said they were fine, that it was "soft." He did tell me though that the senatorial candidate he has been working for was killed a couple of weeks ago. I didn't get much of the details because the connection was bad, but it was clear that he was killed violently. What a place.

I am taking a shuttle around noon to Antigua. My friend Aaron, from Grand Juction is there learning Spanish so I am going to hang with him for a bit before heading back to El Sal for the final, final goodbyes.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Calm, Cool and Collected

We spent two nights in and near Tegucigalpa. The first night in the city and then we met up with Rob (PCV from CR) at a Cathedral and then ate lunch with him in the cafeteria before heading to his site just outside of Danli, called Nueva Esperanza. Rob is working at an orphanage for HIV positive kids. It seems like a pretty neat place. We were only there for a few hours in the morning before we had to take the bus back to Tegucigalpa to catch another bus early the next morning. We had a lot of fun and a LOT of laughs. I met a girl that Rob works with that was at CSU the same time I was there. We even stayed in the same dorm! Small world.

We took the bus and then a really bumpy ferry ride (complete with staff members running around providing barf bags) to Roatan, one of Honduras' Bay Islands. It is really a gorgeous place. Most people come here to get diving certified, which is exactly what Alicia is doing, as it is one of the cheapest places in the world to do it. I opted not to as I am not sure that it is something I will do much of in the future. I am sure that will guarantee that at some point in the future I will have wished I had taken advantage while I am here.

We got in pretty late Sunday night and grabbed a hotel room in the middle of a blackout, which meant that there was no power or water. Not a big deal. The second day though we decided to switch hotels and are now staying in a magnificent place that has a hammock and a view of the ocean. So I am happy as a clam. I got a thai yoga massage this morning from a woman that lived in Carbondale for a while. Random! She had also lived in BC Canada, so there was lots of connections being made. Craziness.

So we will be here for a few more days. Then it looks like the UnMission will be split. Alicia is going to head to her beloved Belize and I am going to go to Copan, Honduras before meeting up with a friend in Antigua, Guatemala and then back to El Salvador. It will be a rough parting. We thought it would be easier... we thought after spending so much time together, our fair well would sounds something like "I hope you get bug bites..." but it looks like our friendship has survived and our reconciliation tour will be unnecessary and a reunion tour will suffice.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Still Ridin' the High


Amazing night. I've been looking at my country from afar for over three years now. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good. Tuesday night it was great. There are no words. It's difficult to explain to Americans what America looks like from the outside. It's difficult to explain to Americans why what we do, matters outside of America. There is nothing in the US to compare to the influence and presence that the US has in other countries. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good. We talk about justice and equality and freedom and opportunity and then every once in a while, we actually do it. It's just the beginning. Now the real work starts and it is going to require every single one of us standing up and taking responsibility to work toward being something great again. But now it seems, once again, anything is possible.

We hopped on a bus 3 am Wed morning and arrived in Managua at about 11am. We are hanging out with a couple of other VMM volunteers Christine and Laura. They have been working at the Batahola Community Center for the past year. The center seems pretty amazing. It's a quick visit, we head out again this morning at 11. But I am glad we got to stop in and put their work and stories in context.

Tonight we will be in Tegucigalps and hang with Rob Orton, fellow RPCV. We will go to his site tomorrow and then , the new, latest plan is to head on to the Bay Islands and hole up on the beach for a few days.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

In Chepe for Obama

I am back in San Jose at the Hotel Aranjuez, a personal favorite of mine. We spent two nights in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. Puerto Viejo is a nice place, the coast is beautiful, lots and lots of tourists though. We went ziplining on Sunday morning. It was a lot of fun. It was the most beautiful one yet. The jungle on the Caribbean coast is amazing. We were at least 100-150 ft above the ground on a couple of the runs. We saw a howler monkey and a toucan. It was my first time to see a toucan so I am glad I got to see it before I say goodbye to Costa Rica again.

Now we are back in San Jose. I have some errands to run today and am going to hook up with the few friends still in San Jose. Actually, I think we are going to go to a skeezy gringo bar tonight to eat good ol' American burgers and watch the election results with a bunch of current volunteers. It'll be interesting to see if I still know any of them.

I picked up Obama's book Dreams From My Father. It was really an amazing book. Honest, insightful, intelegent, compassionate, inspiring. It has actually helped motivate me to write my grad school essays. Made me remember that I used to have hopes for making the world a better place too. If he weren't running for president I would be wishing he was. Course, I'm not sure how I feel about having a literate president. Might take some getting used to. hehehehe....Anyway, get out and vote if you haven't yet. It's a big day for America!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

One down, six-ish to go

We followed up a very bad hotel experience with an amazingly good one. We stayed at the Bocas Inn in Bocas del Toro Panama. We had an INCREDIBLE view of the water right outside our window as well as two hammocks from which to gaze at it. We spent two days there, doing a whole lot of not much. It was wonderful.

We left Bocas on Thursday, took a wet water-taxi ride to the mainland and then two more buses to the border. The border between Panama and Costa Rica is a river which you are able to walk across over a rather dilapidated bridge complete with haphazardly placed wooden planks. So we officially mark one country off our list and have landed safely in Costa Rica. Two more buses and we arrived in Manzanillo, a very small Carri bean town at the end of a rough dirt road. Manzanillo had been on my list of places to see that I didn't get around to while I was living here. It is beautiful. I managed to get myself up and went for a run yesterday morning. We spent another two nights there, enjoying the jungle and beach. This morning we took the bus into Puerto Viejo and are going to spend two nights here. We are going to go zip-lining tomorrow, swinging through the trees like monkeys.

Things are good. AS a side note, while traipsing through Central America, I am also trying to get references and essays together to apply for grad school. This is a not an application tactic I would recommend to anyone else as it is hard to wax poetic about my future when all I am really interested in doing is staring at waves from a hammock. Hopefully though, I will be able to talk someone into letting me into their program.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Panama City

We arrived in Panama City after a surprisingly painless 7 hour bus ride from Boquete. I was very disapointed that I didn't get a window seat, but survived nontheless. Panama is really a beautiful country. I am wondering how it has taken me so long to get here. Panama City is also a fascinating place. We only spent two days there, but I would definately like to come back and spend some serious time.

We went to the Panama Canal early Sunday morning. It was actually quite impressive. We saw a couple of enormous barges go through, watched a video and checked out there museum. It was all very impressive and well run. But, I think the most impressive part was that on each of the floors of the building, they had these box shaped aparatus' that when you pushed a button, water flowed out of a spigot into an arch from which you could drink without worry of intestinal distress. Fascinating! We snapped some pictures of this modern engineering wonder.

We also visited Casco Viejo which is the oldest part of Panama City. It is part ruins, part ghetto and part gentrified tourist neighborhood on the bay. It was really beautiful.

Unfortunately, our hotel was really, really, REALLY bad. We decided to splurge and then immediately regretted it. We got a room that had no hot water, no cable and looked like it was rented by the hour. When I complained to the front desk clerk he was amazingly rude and insulting. It was an amazing display of disrespect that nearly bordered on verbal assault. I am working on a strongly-worded letter to the owners of the hotel (that outta show'em) and am telling anyone I can get in contact with that they should not, under any circumstances, stay at the Costa Inn Hotel in Panama City. There is my mouse's roar.

We landed in Bocas del Toro yesterday and after dodging and icky gringo that wanted to charge us $60 a night for a concret box with no windows, we found an AMAZING hotel right on the water that is slowly healing the damage done by the Costa Inn. There just may be hope for the world after all.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Travel Route

For those of you keeping track, here's our travel route so far. You'll need to zoom out to see it. I will keep it updated as internet cafe technology allows:

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Boquete, Panama

We are officially flying by the seat of our pants. We have essentially tossed our original itinerary and are going which ever way the wind blows us. We caught the 11 am bus South out of San Jose, Costa Rica and made it as far South as Paso Canoas and we decided to call it a night. We found a hotel that is located literally between the Costa Rican and Panamanian borders. We took advantage the next morning to do some duty-free shopping and then crossed the border on foot. We were navigated back and forth between the Latin American beurocratic stamp windows by a 12 year old. At one point, just after we both handed him our passports and five bucks, it dawned on me that we were putting quite a bit of trust into him. I mean, he didn't even have an official looking vest. All turned out well though. We grabbed a bus into David and had an hour and half of the most pleasureable ride so far on the trip. Even included air-con. The highways in Panama are amazingly nice. In David we grabbed a bus North to Boquete.
We arrived here at about 3:30 in the afternoon in a complete downpour. It became immediately apparent that my raincoat, which has been molting liner dandruff on me for the entire trip, is absolutely penetrable by rain. So, it is getting tossed. Which leaves me raincoatless in Central America in hurricane season. Not to fear though, I'm sure I'll be able to find something in Panama City on Saturday. Until then, I bought a crappy umbrella from a local store.
The most striking thing about Boquete, after the lush green mountains poking out from the mist, is that there are a boatload of gringos here. Apparently, the AARP ranked Panama amond the top five countries in the world in which to retire. So there has been a flood. I hate to generalize too much, but my experience with Ex-Pats in Latin America has been that they generally come lurred by lower living costs and then proceed to try to make their new home just like the one they left behind. They end up raising the cost of living for everyone, fine for them and their American pentions, but economic death for the locals. They end up pushing locals off properties they have lived on since the beginning of time, evidenced in Boquete by the fact that there are more real estate offices than there are hotels. Anyone that makes the argument against immigrants that "If we went to their country we would learn their language and respect their culture," has likely never been outside of the U.S.
It is beautiful. We went rafting this morning through some amazing Class IV rapids. It was a ton of fun. I am glad I got it in when I did. At one point we floated past one of the 17 damns they are constructing. Next year, that river won't be floatable. I don't know what we are heading towards, but I am pretty sure it's not progress.
Tomorrow I'm getting a massage.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Plan B: Make Plan B

Against all logic and odds, I managed to get myself up early enough yesterday to go for one last run in the Puerto. It's really the best time of day, between 5:45 and 6 am. The ocean is gorgeous and the sun is not yet baking your insides, but also rather easy to sleep through. Then I went to dance class with my little old ladies, they are still a kick.

We were set to leave Puntarenas at about 2 pm and go to Monteverde, when a vendor guy came up and told us that the road to Monteverde had washed out with the last rain storm. We just looked at him and thought, "Well, that's not right. We are trying to get there." His story was confirmed when the bus didn't show up. So we sat there looking lost for a good twenty minutes trying to figure out our options, and also commenting that maybe we should start coming up with Backup Plans. We finally decided to head to San Jose and substitue Boquete, Panama for Monteverde, Costa Rica. We stayed last night at my the Hotel Aranjuez, my favorite San Jose spot and ate an amazing dinner at Tin Jo. Still rocking my Peace Corps discount, YAHOO!

So we were going to head to the border this morning, but when we got there, the bus was full. So we are set to leave on the eleven o'clock bus. We'll see how far we get. With a little luck we can get all the way to Boquete tonight and sleep in tomorrow. We are looking forward to holing up in a hotel for a couple of days. Do some rafting and swing through the trees on a zipline.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Gira de Despedida

Alicia and I arrived in the Puerto last night around 10 pm. It was a pretty easy bus ride. I think it helped immensely that we went out with the mara the night before we left and went straight to the bus without even a nap. So we slept most of the trip. It's a long ride, but buses are a completely different story in Latin America and are much more comfortable than you would imagine. Course, my standards are also pretty low.

So we landed back in the Puerto. We are staying with doña Julia, a family I hung out with a lot when I was living here. This morning we went for a walk through the community and said Hi to lots of people. Lots of surprised faces. Almost everyone remembers me so I guess that is a good sign. Even Fat, Nasty Bar owner got throw out a catcall for old times sake.

Most everything is still pretty much the same. The kids are a little bigger. The bridge crossing over the estuary into Fray Casiano has finally become completely depleted. Only an iron skeleton remains. Even the concrete steps have been taken apart. I was sad to hear that don Luis, my initial host dad has been battling cancer. He looks good, but much thinner. They say that he should be coming out of it. Ojala.

The puerto is still amazingly hot and we have already sought refuge within the air conditioning of the internet cafe. This afternoon we are going to hang out on the Paseo de Turistas, and keep ourselves cool with chilled beverages and maybe come patacones. Tomorrow we are going to go to dance class with my little old ladies and then head out to Monteverde.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Things are coming to a close. I had my last day of work at SHARE on Wednesday. The last couple of weeks have been a flurry of running around, trying to wrap up lose ends. The reality of leaving is slowly starting to dawn on me. But not completely yet....

I was fortunate that I was able to see and personally say goodbye to some of the people I have been working with. It is a tough thing to do and carries with it an aura of abandonment, or so it feels to me. Salvadorans continue to be as I have always known them to be; gracious, resilient. It's been an honor to be here. I know it's time for me to go, but I don't have to look far ahead to foresee a visceral aching for this place. El Rinconcito. This heart-breakingly, beautiful place.

Fortunately, I have a month of beach/bar sitting with Alicia to buffer my angst.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Karmel Juyu and Antigua

We had our annual VMM retreat at Karmel Juyu which overlooks Lake Atitlan. It is simply a spectacular site. The pictures do not do it justice. It was great to be able to hang out with the other volunteers. Quite a few of us are getting ready to transition back to the US, and there were also a few new faces.

We spent the weekend at Karmel Juyu and then all piled into a mini-bus heading to the Moran's site. Most of us hopped out at Los Encuentros, Alicia, Laura, Christine and I were headed for Antigua and the Salvadoran volunteers were headed back to Salvador. It was raining pretty hard and we were thankful that a chicken bus was going by right as we pulled up. Apparently I dilly-dallied too long getting out my raincoat. Everyone piled onto the bus, and then it left without me. Ooops.

Not to worry. If there is any place in Guatemala that I feel confident I can get myself to, it is Antigua. I ended up catching another chicken bus about 3 minutes later. I was able to get a seat and I wondered if my traveling companions were so fortunate (they were not). As I mentioned, it was raining pretty hard which in Central America means that roads become rivers and often large parts of the mountains slide away. In dry weather, the chicken buses swerve around cars and corners at approximately mach 10. When it is raining, the chicken buses swerve around cars and corners at approximately mach 9.5. I long ago accepted that the act of traveling in Central America is an act in which I surrender any control over my safety or well-being. I think it is best to accept this and enjoy the ride. I was pondering this reality, and morbidly thinking of the role of chance in life. Thinking that missing that bus was really a minor event, but how often things like that can change your life. I was sitting in the front seat so I had a descent view out the front window (only one wiper on driver's side) and out the front door where the attendant stood calling out destinations and collecting fares. At one point, the door was open, and the attendant yelled excitedly to the driver "Dale! Dale!" which means "GO! GO!" I looked outside just in time to see a wall of water shoot off the mountain and clip the mid-section of the bus. It wasn't enough to knock us off course, but it was definately enough to get my heart beating and other anotomical regions puckering. Needless to say, I was content to meet the girls in Chimaltenango with nothing more than a good story.

We arrived in Antigua soon thereafter, found our hotel and then set out for dinner and internet. Kelly and Lisa, two Costa Rica PCVs traveling Northward by bus, were also in Antigua. They had passed through El Salvador, the week before. We had plans to meet up in Antigua for my second cameo on their "MesoAmerican Farewell to Freedom Tour." We didn't find each other than night, but I stumbled upon them the next morning in a cafe. So we spent the day checking out the sites of Antigua, a really cool city, except for the tourist inundation. It was a good time. We tortured the VMs with PCV talk. We split in the afternoon as Kelly and Lisa went to climb the volcano in the rain and Laura and Christine headed back to their site in Managua. Which left Alicia and I to pre-trip preparations for our own upcoming farewell tour. We did some shopping, ate dinner, drank a margarita and listened to an obnoxious, tortured ex-pat kiss wooden ducks in a Frida Khalo bar.

I made it back to El Salvador on Tuesday night and am trying to get things wrapped up here. I finish at work on the 15th and then we hit the road on the 18th.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Yo como Jimmy

I made it to Guatemala Wednesday. I stayed overnight at a house of nuns. It was very, VERY tranquila so I had time to do some more studying before the GRE on Thur. All I have to say about that is that it is LONG, looooooooooong. I think I did well enough that someone will take me, but don't think anyone is going to start throwing money at me. The best part is that I never have to take it again.

Thursday afternoon, I caught a bus to Alicia's site. I sat at a bus stop in Guatamala City for over an hour inhaling bus fumes. I made friends with a couple of the kids selling candies and other sweets when I asked them for the bus to Paoquil. They got quite a bit of amusement out of my pronunciation. After assuring them that I didn't want to go to Antigua, they made sure that the guys with the clipboards tracking the buses would tell me when the bus for Paoquil came by.

When the bus finally did arrive, it was a two hour ride to Santa Apolonia. It was a beautiful ride through the green, green Guatemalan countryside. I didn't even mind so much that I was squished in a bus seat. I arrived in Santa Apalonia and hung out with Alicia and the orphans. (Will post pics when I get back to Salvador) The kids are very cute and sweet and onery. They seemed to like it best when I would turn them upside down and shake them for change. The first kid I did it to was name Jimmy, so the rest of the kids would ask for a turn by saying "yo como Jimmy" or "me like Jimmy". They thought it was a game; I was looking for busfare.

This afternoon we are headed to Solola for a VMM retreat. The retreat site is suppose to be gorgeous.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Semillas de Esperanza/Seeds of Hope

The following is a piece I wrote for the SHARE eNewsletter.

“Work won’t kill you, but not eating will.” Maria Cecilia Salinas began working when she was thirteen years old. She says, “I worked in the fields. I went to the capital and worked there.” Now she is a forty-five year old, single mother of three boys. She is taller than most Salvadoran woman, her body stretched, thin and wiry as she pulls her dark hair back and fixes it behind her head. Maria Cecilia, along with others in the San Vicente Region, received a small loan through SHARE’s Semillas de Esperanza, or Seeds of Hope program. Seeds of Hope combines micro-credits with organic growing workshops to offer an alternative means of growing, if not survival, for Salvador’s poorest residents. The credits hover in the area of $200-300 and are used for buying seeds, renting machinery and, in some cases, covers rent on a plot of land. The workshops train the participants in the basics of organic growing.

Sixto Rene Diaz says he stopped using chemical fertilizers and insecticides five years ago when he began having liver problems attributed to his exposure to harmful chemicals. He said he tried growing the first year without anything and lost nearly his entire crop to worms. He started asking around and got some tips from different people on ways to grow naturally. He spent the previous day at a workshop on organic growing techniques. He says he’s excited about what he’s learned, but also feels encouraged that other people are out there doing the same thing. The group says that when they first started, people laughed at them. They didn’t believe you could grow crops without heavy-duty chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They said they knew the chemicals were not good for them, but they had always been told it was the only way. Blanca Estela Ramirez, admits that she wasn’t sure at first either, but that she had had success raising cattle with the ACAMG Cooperative, another SHARE partner, so was willing to give it a try. “I believe it now,” she says. Many in the group say that they joined the program out of desperation. Chemical growing is expensive and the genetically-modified seeds don't reproduce which means you have to buy new seeds every year. They were skeptical, but also out of options. Now, they say that sometimes it seems too good to be true, that they can grow their food without poisoning themselves; not in the growing, nor the eating.

Don Lucio Porfirio Hernandez walks with us through his cornfield in the community of El Arco. He has recently “folded” the tall corn plants over so that water will not collect in the ears mold the corn. He explains to me, that once the plant is mature, it will continue to grow doubled over. He points to bean plants growing between the rows of corn. He says corn and bean plants are good friends and that they will grow well together; the corn stalks providing structure for the climbing bean plants. “You can’t do this if you harvest with a machine,” he says. When the corn and beans are mature he and his son will harvest the crop by hand. They will keep part for their families and sell the rest.

Don Lucio and Esmerelda Villalta, the project coordinator from CRIPDES – San Vicente, discuss the bean and corn market. He calculates the figures in his head and most of them come out pretty low. When CAFTA dropped tariffs on agricultural imports, it put small Salvadoran growers in direct competition with US corporations. With the aid of government subsidies, the industrial growers in the US were able to sell larger, genetically-modified products for less than native products, even after adjusting for transportation costs. Naturally, Salvadoran growers stopped growing and began buying. Recently, the rise in fuel costs has sent food costs soaring. But now, when Salvador most needs local growers and local products, there are few to be found. Don Lucio tells me that a lot of people don’t think it’s worth it in the end; to work so hard for so little.
“But it has its advantages,” he says, “This way, my family eats.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I have been studying lately for the GRE so, as you can imagine, not a lot seems blog-worthy. I am headed to Guatemala next week to take the GRE and also to participate in the VMM Retreat. I am looking forward to it. One, to be done with the GRE. Two, to see more of Guatemala.

Next month, October 15th, will make one year in El Salvador and bring to a close this episode of my Central American work. My how time does fly. I am going to do one last bit of traveling around Central America with my friend and fellow VM Alicia, who is also finishing up her service in Guatemala. A “farewell” tour of sorts that promises to be, well, memorable.

I am posting a link to the website of a photographer in El Salvador that has taken some really amazing pictures. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Getting Settled...

I made the big move last weekend, so today officially, makes one week in the new house. So far so good. The only domestic hang-up being that my washer is on the fritz. I think the pump has gone out. I have a theory on how it went down, but theories don't fix washing machines. I was able to do one load of laundry this morning by filling the tank with buckets. Worked quite well I might add, but I would really prefer a fully functional washer.

Other than that, things are pretty tame. Worked all week. Work is work. I am scheduled to take the GRE on the 25th of this month. Which means that in leiu of studying I have, rearranged my underwear bucket, calculated my student loan interest, and watched both the democratic and republican conventions. Desperation.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Monday, August 25, 2008

Geographical Update

Now that I am delegation free for a while, there are some personal things that need to be taken care of. The big one, is that I will be moving to another house next weekend. As many of you know, I am NOT a fan of moving, in fact, I believe it is punishment for shoplifting in some countries. Also, I LOVE my house. I will miss it terribly, but alas, my budget and rent are no longer compatible. So it is time to move on. I will be moving in to a house with a Salvadoran woman I met through a mutual friend. The move will be short, just a few blocks, and is still near an important bus stop, and closer to work. So it should be good.

All that is left now... is to begin packing, which would imply not procrastinating via blog posting. :)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ita Maura and EMU

I spent the last week or so with a delegation from Eastern Michigan University. The group was a little different than what we are generally used to in that they were traveling as part of a university course studying Poverty, Health and Human Rights. The group was also distinct in that it hosted a more general sampling of the U.S. For a 'perfect storm' of logistical reasons, it was easily the most challenging delegation I have been a part of. They were a gritty-honest cross section of the U.S. Diverse, not only demographically, but also in perspective and life experience. They personified our vast capacity for understanding and compassion, as well as solipsistic disregard. They were nothing if not real. Thank you.

The group spent four days in the community of Ita Maura. Ita Maura is an organized community that relocated from a refugee camp in Mesa Grande, Honduras to Chalatenango during the war. The name of their community honors Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, two of the four US Churchwomen that were killed by Salvadoran death squads in the early years of the civil war. More recently, the community is recovering from the deaths of two community youth who were gunned down in April. Although violence is part of the Salvadoran national reality (average 10 murders per day), it is generally concentrated geographically. Lately, however, there has been a rise in violent crimes in previously untouched, rural areas. As these deaths are rarely investigated, there is growing sentiment, as well as evidence, that the violence is politically motivated and effectively the current manifestation of Salvador government's history of repression and indifference to human rights.

I have been blessed in the past four years to have experienced, on multiple occasions, the beauty and generosity of Salvadoran hospitality, but even my overdeveloped cynicism was overwhelmed by the gracious humility with which we were welcomed into their homes and their lives.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sweet Belize

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August 1-6 are the Salvadoran fiestas called Agostinas. Basically, it is national vacation week. There are carnivals here, or those that can and want to travel. I took advantage to go to Belize and renew my visa.

I left last Thursday, and took a four hour Ticabus from San Salvador to Guatamala City. I met Alicia in Guatamala City and we stayed the night with nuns, then got an early start Friday morning (6:30 am). We caught a "first class" bus from Guate to Puerto Barrios (5 hours), then a boat to Punta Gorda, Belize, two hours on a public bus to Independence, then finally a ten minute water taxi to Placencia, our final destination (6:30 pm). We then spent the next few days, moving as little as possible from the beach. Recent storms in Mexico had washed trash (both natural and man-made) into the ocean and then the tides carried the trash onto Belizian beaches. However, neither the trash nor the sand fleas dissuaded us from staying an extra day. I really believe that I am a much better person when I am in regular contact with the ocean.

We laid on the beach, we scavenged for food and pantyrippers. We found that straying from the beach or the Purple Space Monkey, caused the Gods to punish us with excruciatingly long waits and discomfort. So we learned quickly and stayed put. We hung out with Keith from Canada, who is traveling by land from Panama back to Ottawa. (Much luck on your journeys both geographical and otherwise) All was not shameless self-indulgence, we also helped local residents recruit American volunteers for beach cleanup and other acts of community service. There were significant bug bites, but the warm fuzzy feeling of altruistic sacrifice more than compensated.

We started our journey back on Wednesday morning. 6:30am found us with tearful (grumpy) goodbyes as we left Placencia in a water taxi just in time to wait two hours for the bus in Independence. Two hours then to Punta Gorda and an hour boat ride to Guatemala. To say the least, this trip was not nearly as smooth as the way in. (Another example of the Gods punishing us for straying from the Purple Space Monkey?) We got absolutely soaked! We could wring out our clothes when we landed.

We caught the koosh bus back to Guatemala City, and passed the five hour journey conversing with a pair Belizian travelers. Riveting conversations that will not soon be forgotten. We arrived in Guatamala City at 9pm, headed back to the nun house and then up again early to catch the 6am bus back to San Salvador. I was ready for a nap and a sweet shower by the time I got back.

Next week, we have a delegation arriving on Wednesday so the real work begins again... you know, figuring out how to keep my tan from fading. jejejejejejejeje.....

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Maiz and El Mozote

I believe I can now boast that I have survived July. July is not quite over, but I am finished with delegations for a while, well at least until August 13th.

The Youth delegation went very well. We welcomed 14 delegates from around the US. We split the delegation in half and each group spent two nights in two communities in Chalatenango, Teocinte and Ellacuria. I went with the group to Ellacuria. I was excited that the bulk of the delegation planning was conducted by the youth committee. I wanted the bulk of the exchange to be by for and about youth. It seemed to go well, and allowed me the chance to take a back seat. Grassroots Development 101: "If you are doing all the work, you're not doing your job." Granted, I'm not doing development work anymore, but I still jump at the chance to dabble in it.

While in Ellacuria, I stayed with an amazing family and was able to hone my tortilla making skills. The dad in the family, works each day in the cornfields on the surrounding hillsides. The corn that is produced is the main staple in the community's diet. The corn is cooked, then ground on a flat stone. The corn is then mixed with water to form a dough and then formed into tortillas and cooked on a flat clay griddle. In this case, the griddle is built into the top of an adobe oven and a fire is built inside it. (See pics) I have been "taught" various times to make tortillas. I am hesitant to use the word "taught" because there is not really a teaching process. Salvadoran women learn to make tortillas much the same way they learn to walk, they just get up and do it. To say the least, I started the process a little later in life. So my learning process has been trying to copy what I see the women doing and repeatedly asking them to slow down so I can figure out what it is that they are doing. I'm getting better though. Generally my tortilla making involves much laughing (with me as well as at me) and thick amoeba shaped disks of corn dough. I'm getting better though. My tortillas were all nearly round and I even think I got the "spinny" part of the process down, although the "clap and turn" technique continues to elude me. It was impossible not to notice and admire the fact that they participate in every part of the food cycle. They plant the corn, grow it, harvest it, grind it, then cook it. How many of us can say that? That we participate fully in our own nourishment? Unfortunately this way of life is being threatened by mining companies that are looking to put and open pit mine on the hillside from which the communities gets its corn as well as it's water. As a well organized and tight-knit community, they've managed to resist so far. Hopefully their luck will hold out. That evening, the daughters of the family sang songs while a neighbor played guitar. It was a moment of simple beauty and I felt honored to have been present.

I had two days off after the delegation went home which I spent staring at the wall and babbling incoherently. I got nothing done. House did not get cleaned, books not read, emails not responded to. When I described this to my coworkers they diagnosed the episode as a "delegation hang-over" makes sense to me.

I spent Thursday and Friday in the department of Morazan. We took a delegation to the war museum in Perquin and then to El Mozote. In early December, 1981 the citizens of El Mozote were gathered in the town square by US trained, government soldiers. The men and women were separated and then locked into separate buildings. The men, locked in the church, were tortured then killed. The women, as well as girls as young as twelve, were raped and then killed. Children and babies as young as two and three days old were also killed, tossed into the air and bayonetted. The justification was that the community, located in Eastern El Salvador, an area rife with insurgent activity, was composed of guerilla combatants and sympathizers. And the children? Well, they would just grow into communists so they too were killed. At the end of the day the entire population had been exterminated. Nearly 800 people were killed, their bodies buried or burned.

The entire population was killed, save for one woman. Rufina Amaya miraculously survived that day. Somehow, in the shuffle of mass executions, when Rufina was lined up alongside her friends and neighbors to be showered with machine-gun fire; somehow, they missed her. She managed to hide herself in the brush and then snuck past the armed soldiers amidst a group of escaping livestock. Her testimony of the events of that day were taken down soon after the event by Salvadoran journalists. The massacre was denied by Salvadoran and US authorities until archeological investigations, ordered by the United Nations Truth Commission, confirmed her account in 1992.

Rufina Amaya died in March 2007. Her daughter Fidelia guided our group through the town of El Mozote. The town's small public plaza holds a memorial to those that were killed. Beside the church, is a memorial garden for the hundreds of children that were systematically killed. Fidelia described her mother's escape to us, as we walked down the same narrow road her mother had followed. I wondered if there was a point; after she passed the last man dressed in green and guns; after crawling through muck and and thistle and thorns working into her hair and embedding themselves in her fleshy knees and arms; past the mounds of burning bodies, there had to have been a line between fleeing and escaped, and I wondered if she realized when she crossed it. And then I wondered if she ever felt safe again.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Star struck

I have been busy running around with delegations lately. We recently finished with two sister delegations and I am busy preparing for the youth delegation that will arrive on Wednesday. Thursday night, Danny, Danielle and I were lucky enough to have dinner with Tim and Linda Muth. That's right, THE Tim from Tim's El Salvador Blog. When he's not keeping the English Speaking world up-to-date on the happenings in El Salvador, Tim also sits on the VMM Board. It was great meeting them, wonderful conversation and, of course, any and all relationships built on a solid foundation of social justice and Khalua brownies are bound to endure. THANKS!

Dinner was followed immediately by an amazing thunder storm. The heavens opened and dumped a ton of rain. Unfortunately, the rain storm was linked to 37 deaths in the country including a bus wreck that killed 32. It is impossible to talk about El Salvador without talking about the vulnerability of its population. Living in poverty means that even the mildest natural occurrences can destroy you. It means you take nothing for granted.

I also wanted to send a shout out to my friend Andrew Kirshman. He is a Jesuit teacher at the UCA (University of Central America) and fellow sociology junkie. He is headed to Berkeley to teach Theology. I wish him the best of luck and look forward the next opportunity to drink a cup of coffee and talk shop. Happy travels!

Monday, June 23, 2008


This is quite possibly the coolest thing I have ever seen. I got goosebumps....

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Village Vibes

I wanted to post an email I got from Adam Johnson, he was a PCV I served with in Costa Rica that re-upped and is now working on health projects in Guinea, Africa:

Sidiki here in Kankan on a rainy Saturday morning. The streets have turned into streams and the market is full of avocados and mangos.
I am not aware of what the vibe is like in the United States, considering the nomination of Obama, but I wanted to let you know that here in the village of Missamana, and in Guinea in general, the people cannot stop talking about the issue and they are so interested and energetic as they discuss the possibility of him being the next US President. They are not fully aware of his issues, or any of the USs issues for that matter, but his energy and message of hope, in the US and for the rest of the world, has really given them a lot of motivation and positivity. Obamas running is symbolic, and what a great symbol for America, for Africa, and for the rest of the world, which, for the majority, is a mixture of ethnicities and those whom have neighbors from all different backgrounds; there are six major ethnic groups that blend together within the borders of Guinea. I truly want to share with you the magic that is felt here in the village when Obama news comes through the radio via the BBC. He is truly causing a movement here, a movement of positivity and hope in a place that is crippled by corruption, poverty, poor health and lack of resources. I wish I could take you all for a walk through the village, through Kankan, and through Conakry because shouts of Obama are ringing through the streets.

Thanks AJ!

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fresh Coconut

Here's some pics of Danielle and I enjoying fresh coconut in Las Pampas. Then a video demonstrating how to go about getting fresh coconut.

CDH Delegation

I spent the better part of the last week with the Cretin-Derham Hall (High School in St. Paul, MN) Delegation. I would have spent more time with them but Danny forgot me (last time I swear!). They were a really great group of kids and I had a lot of fun with them. We spent the weekend in Las Pampas, San Vicente.

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We all stayed with families in the community. On Sunday we went for a hike on the volcano. The kids got a kick out of the name of the volcano, Chichontepeque, which is a twin peaked and whose name translates as "Big Titty Mountain".

We came back to the city on Monday and were sad to leave our families but relieved to use indoor toilets and showers. Not to mention the chance to begin nursing heat rashes and other chaffing issues. On Tuesday the kids went to an urban parish while I checked in at the office. I met back up with them in the afternoon for soccer and then we met with Rick Jones (Bia*%), the Regional Director of Catholic Relief Services. Rick is amazingly knowledgeable about Salvadoran issues and reality and is always a big hit with delegations and delegation leaders. Tuesday night we wrapped up with a final reflection at the guest house and then wrapped things up with a Merengue dance Par-tay.

All in all it was a lot of fun. It was a joy to see the kids discover El Salvador and what makes this country amazing as well as heart-breaking. Danny was the official delegation coordinator, with Danielle in training. Danielle (new VM to replace Danny) has been in the country for just about two weeks now and is bringing new meaning to the phrase "trial by fire." The first, oh, month and a half of her move to El Salvador will be filled with three back to back delegations. I would not be surprised to see her rocking on a couch blowing spit bubbles by August. I'll keep you posted. So that left me in a support role which means that I took care of the fallen soldiers, held their hair while they yacked, walked em down the mountain, talked about the Tao, gave the smack down when necessary (tough love), but primarily threw in cynical, crass, sassy commentary when applicable. Which was often, and really, I think, my calling.

We have another delegation here this week. Poor Danielle is already hitting it again. I will be minimally involved in this one leaving me time to work out the final details on the Youth Delegation that will be arriving in the first part of July.

Click here for more pics from delegation

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Portland Bubble

I made it back from Portland last night. Great week, went way too quickly. As usual.

I stayed with Maria. She left Vesta in Costa Rica and headed to Portland. Safe, clean, reliable public transportation, yoga, organic vegetarian food, bikes, recycling, thrift stores, indie music…she couldn’t be happier, well, maybe just a tiny bit if the weather were sunnier. I also hung with Ian in his natural environment; dogs, bikes, breweries, gloom and dive bars. Yeah! We hung out just long enough for him to get all emotionally attached and then I cruelly left him at the airport... again, but not before partaking in sushi (Amazingly yummy sushi, I might add.) hehehehehe!

We made pupusas for some of Maria’s friends, Aaron (RPCV from Honduras), Lauren and Brian. Brian is in a band (mejor dicho: IS a band) that is pretty great and going on tour this summer. Check him out: American Nobody.

We reunited with don Clos. (Oh the memories.)

We went on a tour of the Rhodedendrum gardens with Aunt Kathy and Uncle Rod. The flowers were gorgeous and Kathy and Rod are always a blast to hang out with.
I hung out with Ian and Makai (dog) at the Lucky Lab a brewpub that allows the four-legged friends. (Only in Portland.) I checked out Portland State as a possible grad school in the future. It fared quite well. I took a tour of the campus and simultaneously broke in a new tour guide. The poor kid, I felt so bad for him. He was SO nervous. He kept saying things like “We are going to go somewhere else now, but I might not remember how to get there.” Then turned around and ran full on into a closed elevator door. We did our absolute best to not laugh out loud. We were moderately successful.

Katie Questions, Me, Maria, Jon "the Rock" and some street art.

We hung out with some Peace Corps People Thursday night and went to Last Thursday. Last Thursday is when artists and enterprising eclectics line a street (don’t remember which one) selling their wares. This happens on the (ready for it?) last Thursday of every month. We did some hoola-hooping and bought buttons:

I don’t know what it means but I think it is funny.

We rented zip car on Friday and were two big, giddy dorks. Zip cars are pretty friggin’ cool. It is basically a share care for those that do not want to own a car but need to use one every once in a while. The coolest thing about them is that you lock and unlock the doors by holding a card up to the windshield. We drove out to the coast (Goonies territory) and hiked out to this amazingly beautiful overlook in Oswald West State Park. We even saw “barking, sea creatures” which were later identified as sea lions. We also saw snails, slugs and snakes which were less fun for us to see, although probably quite amusing for anyone who happened to see us see them. We dipped our patas in the ocean, and promptly took them out again. Same ocean, big temperature difference.

And then it seemed, as quickly as it had begun, I was back on a plane to El Salvador. I was relieved to be able to land okay as there had been a tropical storm warning. The hurricane that hit Costa Rica and Nicaragua was “only” a tropical storm by the time it got here. So, the rain is officially here, kicking off another moldy-never-dry-clothing season.

Tomorrow... back to work. Ick.

Que Rico

I am home now and can add some pictures. Here are some from Wisconsin. I took shamefully few, but they make up in quality what they lack in quantity, and may also be quite revealing of my motivations. :)

This one's for Alicia. Spotted Cow Beer and a bath... does it get any better?

Here's one of me in front of the best bar ever. How do I know it's the best bar ever?.....

Cuz it says so!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Nun Camp

This week I have been at a retreat for VMM held at the Sienna Center in Racine Wisconsin. The Sienna Center is run by and serves as a retirement center Dominican nuns ("Dominican" referring to the order and not the republic). I arrived Saturday and spent hours trying to transfer my airline voucher (from Christmas) to Betsy, one of the VMM ladies. (From now on, I will be willing to pay double to avoid flying United. Their service, or lack there of, has left me emotionally scarred.) Sunday, Heather, a new friend and belly dance goddess, gave me a tour of the sites of Racine and took me to a great place for lunch including the requisite cheese curds, sand dollars, brat and Spotted Cow Beer. She was amazing kind and went way out of her way for someone who is essentially a complete stranger.
The retreat has been very nice. It is technically an orientation, but since I have been in Central America for nearly three year (whoa!) and in the VMM position for about 7, it has been for me more of a retreat, BUT a very nice one. The sessions have been quite good and renewing and it is nice to meet the new VMs that are headed to South. David and Nancy, a couple from Wisconsin, Jennifer from the Carolinas and Danielle from St.Luis/IA are all looking to head to El Salvador for service. Danielle will be working in the SHARE office with me, (apparently she beat orphans in a past life.)
I am here today to close up and then tomorrow I head to Portland to hang out with MARIA!!!!!
On a side note.... as I have, from time to time, used the blog to specifically condemn some company whose lack of customer service merited my ire (United, Victoria's Secret), I thought I would take the opportunity to heap praise upon the Chaco company. Chaco sandals are not only comfortable, practical and the standard uniform for Peace Corps Volunteers and social justice workers but are also an amazing Colorado company. I wear mine pretty much every day through sand, mud, rain and rainforest, scorching asphalt and buses. I have clocked, easily, hundreds of miles. I have had them for 4 years. I have replaced the sole once due to simple wear and had NO problems getting them exchanged even from Costa Rica. Recently, I noticed that the soles were cracking and I figured that they had finally reached the end of their days. Not bad for four years of daily abuse. I mentioned this to Chaco and Joe Kaputa in Paonia, Colorado told me that it was a warranty issue and had a new pair sent to meet up with me in Portland. So, I am as ever, a walking advertisement for Chaco shoes, sandals or whatever else they would decide to sell. :) Thanks Chaco!!!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tumbler in El Salvador

Last weekend I received a short visit from my friend Constance (aka Tumbler), a fellow PCV in Costa Rica, but who is now living the power-suit life in New York's financial district. She was only here for a few days but we made the most of it.

On Sunday, we went on a day trip "excursion." We hopped in a bussetta with other Salvadorans, guided by don Mario for a tour of the Ruta de las Flores (Route of Flowers). The Ruta de las Flores is a stretch of highway that runs between Sonsonate and Ahuachapan in the western department of Santa Ana. It is so named because of the flowering trees that line the highway. The trees weren't in bloom when we went, but it was still a beautiful drive. Living in the city, which one can accurately describe as a bubble of concrete and pollution, I miss terribly green and living things. So much so, that I didn't mind the rain at all. In fact, it made everything look greener.

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We had breakfast at a restaurant in Apaneca called Jardin de Celeste (Heaven's Garden) and then went for a short hike at to see the Cascadas de don Juan. We had lunch in a town called Concepcion de Ataco, that hosts a Feria Gastronomico (Food Fair) each weekend. They are also known for weaving tapestries, so we were able to see their looms. El Salvador makes beautiful textiles. It is one of my favorite things here. We had lunch, wondered around, checked out the galleries and artesian shops and took some pictures. We rounded out the afternoon with a quick stop in Salcoatitan, which hosts yet another Feria Gastronomico. Constance particularly liked the quesedillas. If you are from Colorado, or probably anywhere in the Southwestern US and ordered a quesedilla in El Salvador, you would probably do so expecting a flour tortilla folded over melted cheese. When you got your quesedilla you would be confused. In El Salvador, a quesedilla is a slightly sweet bread made with cheese. They are pretty good, but example of the phenomena that occurs when one is traveling in a foreign land and orders something that seems familiar but is in fact not familiar at all.

On Monday we headed to the campo in the Bajo Lempa a region Southeast of San Salvador. The area is literally called the "Lower Lempa" and is appropriately named as it is the area surrounding the lower end of the Lempa River. It is a striking contrast to previous day for many reasons. Geographically, Santa Ana is volcano and coffee country. The climate is cool and the terrain is lush and green. The Bajo Lempa is in a flood plain, and is sweat-from-the-exertion-of-blinking-hot, sugarcane is grown and cattle graze. Politically, Santa Ana is pretty conservative. There was an ill-fated indigenous uprising in 1932 that was met with brutal repression. The results have been that many indigenous identifications, such as dress, language, and religious ceremonies were dropped, and assimilation became, literally, a survival skill. The department is predominantly ARENA territory and is privy to national funding. So it has enjoyed infrastructure development that has not been extended to the Bajo Lempa region which hosts many resettlement communities,* is a stronghold for the FMLN, and is NOT privy to national funding or infrastructure development.

We met with La Coordinadora which is another grassroots community development group that works in the area. We also met with a group of Engineers Without Borders students from Clemson University (Shout out to Clemson!) that were visiting the area and working on water projects. As I have mentioned to the point of tedium, water is a HUGE deal in El Salvador. There are a lot of communities that do not have potable and still get their drinking, washing, etc. water from rivers, which are amazingly, fish-killing, grow-a-third-arm kind of polluted. But that's another entry.....

We stayed in a small community called La Isla Mendez, which is not an island at all but is surrounded on only three sides by water. As usual, the families we stayed with were incredibly hospitable and kind. The EWB students are working with La Coordinadora to bring potable water to La Isla. Tuesday a.m. we went to Nuevea Esperanza and Constance gave a short accounting charla to a women's cooperative that SHARE works with. We met up with Carmelina who is one of my coworkers and hands down, one of the coolest people I know. We headed back to San Salvador, and stopped for lunch at Pollo Campero (viva la resistancia), and then Constance left for Honduras on King Quality Wednesday morning. It was a packed couple of days but lots of fun.

*Resettlement communities are communities that are primarily composed of Salvadorans that fled their native communities in other parts of the country during the civil war and were not permitted to return to their original communities and, instead, were placed in the harsh environment of the Bajo Lempa region.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Milk, Meat and Bicycle Repair: Women's Development in Chalatenango

This is a piece that I originally wrote as a promotional piece for SHARE but is not going to work out in that capacity, but thought was worth publishing, even if it was only shamelss, self-publishing. :) Enjoy...

As we bump and jostle over under-maintained, over-traveled, rutted roads, it occurs to me that we were literally traveling to one of the far corners of El Salvador. El Rincón, or “the Corner,” is located in Northern El Salvador a stone’s throw from the Honduran Border, and named without a trace of irony. Upon arriving, we meet with a group of women that are being supported by Eva, the CCR’s* Woman’s Secretariat, a position funded by the SHARE Foundation, and Esperanza a local community supporter.

The women introduce themselves. They range in age from grandmothers to teenagers, all dressed in simple straight skirts reaching just past their knees. Rosaura, A timid, yet confident woman with long, graying hair is the president and the boldest of the group, yet she still seems timid. Four visitors is a lot for a town where only the CocaCola truck comes with any regularity. She explains to us that they began only seven months ago. They met twice a month and they would all bring one dollar. They would bring a dollar they had earned selling produce in town or along busier roads, or maybe it was a dollar they had managed to save by foregoing the few treats they’re afforded. They each brought a dollar and put them all together and saved them. That is how, she explains, they created their grupo de ahorros, their savings group.

We ask how much they had saved and the group looked at one another, each in turn meeting a gaze then straightening a skirt, or smoothing a dishtowel across a lap. “We held a raffle too,” someone adds. The savings groups are an Oxfam project and the idea behind them is that the members pool their contributions and then the group can offer small, low-interest loans to its members. Ideally the money is used for micro-business startups, something that will generate income for the borrower, allowing her to re-pay the loan but that will also sustain itself and provide income in a place where income is a rarity. One woman, in another community, borrowed five dollars to buy corn flour for tortillas to sell in the streets. The groups facilitate solutions for the community from the community. They generate women’s development at the most basic level of empowerment and self-sufficiency. “Including the raffle,” we ask, “how much have you saved.” The women look at each other again; hands reach up and stifle giggles before they begin. “Over four hundred dollars,” Rosaura reports. The women nodd their heads solemnly.

Four hundred dollars! Four hundred dollars is nothing to giggle at in a place where the basic food basket** for a rural family of four is estimated at $96 and most families somehow survive on less. Four hundred dollars; after eight months and a raffle! Their eyes widen as what they had reported begins to sink in; as they begin to understand what they are capable of. They haven’t begun to grant loans yet. They talk about starting a tiendita, a small store that would be managed by the group like a cooperative. They talk about raising chickens. As they discuss the pros and cons of each, as they discuss the risks, you can hear doubt hanging upon their words. Four hundred dollars is a lot of money, but it will go fast. Four hundred dollars is a lot of money to have had. When success comes faster than confidence it can paralyze.
In the coming months, Esperanza will continue to meet with them. She will sit with them sipping horchata, a rich rice drink, and discuss their projects. She will coordinate trainings and assistance as they are needed. She will tell them about the women that came before them, about their experiences, their successes as well as the lessons they learned. She will tell them about the women not so far away in Los Ranchos.

As newly repatriated war refugees, the women of Los Ranchos came together and began sewing undergarments. When they didn’t know, they organized trainings. They received help from international groups, like SHARE, and the UN Refugee Program and regional organizations such as the CCR. They learned to embroider and began selling artesian goods to visiting delegations. They built upon their new knowledge and learned that their success came from themselves, from their collective work and their collective will. They learned and they grew. What started with just a few women in a small sewing group is now a Women’s Collective of 18 members. They elect representatives to the community cooperative and manage their community’s needs. Currently, the women use micro-credits to buy more sewing machines, or start new ventures. Three women in the collective used a small loan to start a pupuseria. The words painted on the wall of a donated building holding a small store advertise “Milk, Meat and Bicycle Repair” proving that there are no boundaries to ingenuity. They learned, and continue to address the needs of their communities, together.

The most recent buzz word programs have been micro-loans, micro-lending, or micro-credits; small sums of money making big differences. They allow the worlds poorest citizens an opportunity to develop their own micro-enterprises within their immediate market economy. Poviding a funding source to those who would not otherwise have access to funds at reasonable rates. The exact opposite of paycheck loan programs that exploit the desperate and destitute, micro-credits are intended to foster self-suficiency for the borrower. At their inception, they were truly a revolutionary idea, infusing social consciousness into the market economy, or in the least, attempting to begin to level the playing field. These small enterprises will never compete with transnationals, but they can contribute to the social marketplace and provide for their immediate needs. The credits are absolutely a step in the right direction, but alone, they are not enough. They must be accompanied by the understanding that true sustainable development is accomplished through holistic projects. Micro-credits help women but micro-credits accompanied by community organization, cooperation, education, and mentoring empower women.

Back in El Rincon, we hide from the sun within cool adobe walls. The women discuss plans for the tiendita. They will need a roof, they say. We ask if they think that people will buy from them and they all nod their heads. “Ours would be the only one,” they giggle. And just then it becomes real to them. Just then, they realize that something has changed, that they have created something together. Suddenly potential doesn’t seem as frightening as it had before.

*CCR – Is the Associación de Communidades para el desarollo de Chalatenango (Association of Communities for the development of Chalatenango) is a community development group and counterpart of the SHARE Foundation that functions in Chalatenango, a department in North Central El Salvador.

**The Basic Food Basket is the estimated cost of the food items (bread, tortilla, rice, meat, oils/fats, eggs, milk, fruits/vegetables, and sugar) required for a family of four to meet their basic nutritional needs. The Basic Food Basket does not include other living expenses such as transportation, shelter, electricity, education, clothing, and health.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The earth is moving but the buses are not

As long as we are talking about buses… The big news in El Salvador this week is that the buses held a 24-hour protest strike Wednesday. Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

Gas is at an average of $4.15 a gallon here. The bus tariffs are regulated by the government and have held steady at $0.25. The bus companies have been paying more and more in gas, but unable to legally raise tariffs. The government is hesitant to allow the raise in tariffs because* if they were to do so it could be held up as another indicator that the cost of living is rising exponentially faster than wages. (To put things into perspective, the cost of the Basic Food Basket** in El Salvador is reported at $139.40/month. The average Maquila (Factory) worker makes $151.20/month.) If that conclusion were to be drawn, there are some that would suggest that the recent minimum wage increase of $5 per month was not sufficient. And if pay increases are brought up, there is sure to be reference made to the $1,800/month pay increase approved by the legislators for the legislators. It seems that the official plan of action was to close eyes, cover ears and sing “LaLaLaLaLa, I can’t hear you, LaLaLaLaLa.” So Wednesday, approximately 95% of the bus did not run in an effort to get some attention. (Here's a great picture for as long as the link works.)

Other events this week, Tuesday we experienced a minor earthquake. Coming from Colorado, I really have very little perspective about what exactly constitutes a “minor” earthquake. I haven’t seen any reports of magnitude so I will classify it like this; it lasted long enough that I thought “whoa, it’s still going” and strong enough that it made my doors rattle, but was not enough to knock things off of walls or for me to seek shelter. In conversing with Salvadorans it was officially classified as “kinda strong.” Just a quick reminder that, apart from all the social disorder that Salvador is privy to, it is also one of the most seismically vulnerable areas in the world.***

* the “because” part is an original Kelley Theory, part political, part psycho-social analysis conducted exclusively by your’s truly. May require grain of salt.

**The Basic Food Basket is the estimated cost of the food items (bread, tortilla, rice, meat, oils/fats, eggs, milk, fruits/vegetables, and sugar) required for a family of four to meet their basic nutritional needs. The Basic Food Basket does not include other living expenses such as transportation, shelter, electricity, education, clothing, and health. These items are included in the Market Basket and areestimated currently at $669.60/month.

***Source: Oscar Sorrenson, Husband of Heather and volcanologist.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Watch your step... Cow Parade coming through

I had to make a run for the border to renew my visa. I left Savador Thursday morning at 3 am and got into San Jose about midnight. The trip has kinda been a blur of seeing as many people as I can. I definately did not get to see everyone I wanted to, but had a great time with those that I did.
It is kinda strange to be back. There have actually been quite a few changes here in the last 6 months. There have been some major infrastructural developments in the center in that they have closed off more streets for pedestrian sidewalks, they are "cleaning" up the Central Market. It is definately becoming more and more of a tourist attraction. One one hand, it is nice, on the other hand it feels sterile and packaged. It may be that my perspective is changed from having been in Salvador for the past six months, but it is nearly impossible to believe that Costa Rica and El Salvador are lumped together in the same region, they don't seem to come from the same planet.
For example, there was a "Cow Parade" in the center, which basically consisted of lots of life-sized cow sculptures strewn about Avenida Central. They were cool looking. One group took advantage of the crowds and staged a "Don't eat meat" protest in front of McDonalds. It kinda made me chuckle.. in Salvador, when there are protests about food, it is because the people don't have to eat, not because they are not eating the right things. It is a good indicator of the difference in development.
Another HUGE adjustment is that the Bulevard is no more. At least not in the way that we PCVs came to know and love it. It changed ownership a couple of days before I left. It is closed right now for renovations. They are going to turn it into a casino. So, the days of PCV debauchery will be replaced with gringo gamblers and tica prostitutes. Ho hum...
I am back on King Quality tomorrow morning. Back in El Savador after just 20 some hours in a bus. ;)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Public Transport a la Guanaca

Empty bus (a rare sighting)...

I thought it was about time that I dedicated a posting to the buses in El Salvador. I will dedicate this post to Maxito because I think I drug him onto nearly every bus that Salvador offers. In order to keep things in perspective, I will mention this. Costa Rica, for all it's faults and frustrations, has an AMAZING bus system. Quirky at times, but overall you can get pretty much anywhere in the country in relative (relative) comfort. "Comfort" is not a word that is often used when describing buses in El Salvador.

There are three types of buses here. The bus (pronounced boos), which is generally a modified Bluebird School bus. "Modified" meaning that rails run down each side of the aisle so that passengers standing have something to hold onto. A turnstile was also installed in the front of the bus to count passengers for some sort of accounting purposes. The turnstile is pretty self-explanitory with two exceptions; peddler and panhandlers are allowed to crawl over the top of the turnstyle and are not charged the fare. The general rule for children is that if they can be carried or if they fit into the turnstile with their parent, they are not charged. I have seen many a child's eyes bulge as they are squished between mom and the turnstile. I have also noticed that the cutoff seems to have less to do with the child's age than mom's dimensions.

The normal carrying capacity on the average school bus is posted at 77. A Salvadoran will see your 77 and raise you infinity. I have never, ever seen anyone denied passage on a bus because it was too full. There is always room for three more. Surprisingly, there is always also just enough room for the fare collector to shimmy through the aisle collecting fares. If things get a little squishy, there is always the option of opening up the back door and hanging off the back bumper or luggage ladder to alleviate pressures inside. When Max and I rode to the beach we did not get on early enough to get a seat so we stood. Not wholly awful when the bus was moving, but it was Semana Santa and everyone was headed to the beach, so we ended up sitting, (er... "standing") in traffic for about an hour. Much like sardines in a tin can under a heat lamp. (I feel it is important to add here that school buses are generally designed for, well, school-aged children. This is not a problem for many, many Salvadorans, but for 5'9" gringas... well whether the bus is full or not, I generally look like Adam Sandler on the movie cover of Billy Madison. )
Nearly full bus...

The second type of public transportation is the busseta (boos-etta). Bussetas are the ones with fins. They are decked out to the nines in the personal style of the driver. They are often fitted with a sound system that will pump out reggae-ton at 8 decibels. There are racing stripes, airbrushed murals, even black lights. I thought of proposing to Mtv that they start a Latin American spin-off series called "Pimp My Bus." I think it would be a big hit. The main advantage of the busseta is that they go really really fast. They dart in and out of traffic. This is less fun if you are hanging out of the door (see Dec 10 entry) but I gotta say, I kinda dig it. It's just like a roller coaster, only without the killjoy safety standards.

Last, but not least, is the mini-bus (meeny-boos). This is a clear example of a situation in which if you didn't speak Spanish you would think that you know what is being talked about but still be wrong. Mini-van would be a more appropriate translation. Modified mini-van of course. In this case, there were modified by taking out the standard two rows of seating and putting in three facing forward and one half bench thing facing backward directly behind the driver and front seat leaving nearly 2inches of leg room between the bench and the first back seat. The mini-buses drive much like the bussettas, careening in and out of traffic, passing on double yellow lines on curving mountain roads, slowing to a near stop to let passengers on and off.

For example, I had to catch the bus from Planes de Renderos back to the city center. So, I see the mini-bus coming, I flag it down and as it nears I am asking "Al Centro?/To the Center?" (I can ask before they actually get to me one, because the fair collector is hanging out of the window and can hear me before he gets to me, and two, because they won't stop, they just slow so I gotta ask early.) So the mini-bus slows, I jump in and, too late, I realize that there is no room. Well, that's a lie, technically there was room. I was able to croutch on the floorboard just inside the van. There was no shutting the door, so I found myself clinging to a small girl in her school uniform as I fought centrifugal force* from tossing me onto the roadside. There is always, always room for one more. (I counted, there were 24 of us in that mini-van, not including small children sitting on laps.)

My last commentary on Salvadoran public transport will be to mention the sheer number of buses, bussetas and mini-buses that run these streets. Remember, this is the most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere, and as most of those people are very, very poor, only a very small percent of the population can afford a private car. Meaning that there are hundreds of buses that run in and out and around San Salvador. They are all numbered. For example, lines that run near my house are: buses 30, 30-B, 44, 9, 26, 46, 22; busettas 44, 9 and mini-bus 30-A. You may have noticed some repeats, that is a little something that keeps you on your toes, just because a bus and a busetta have the same route number, does not mean that they run the same route, they are sometimes/often/always drastically different.

Well, I guess that's enough of a rundown on Salvadoran transport. I will mention that although the system is much less comfortable than Costa Rica, I have heard that it is much better than other places like Guatamala. I will refer to Alicia on this one. From what I understand it is similar, only that the buses are ALWAYS squishy and involve significantly more livestock, you know, the quintessential chicken bus. It's all about perspective.

Centrifugal Force is a scientific term used to describe the phenomenon that hurls passengers out of buses, bussetas and mini-buses.)