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.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

El Chelito del Mar

Semana Santa is done and it's back to work. Too soon I say, I can really never get enough vacation time in. But, I guess I will just have to suffer through til I go to Costa Rica in April to renew my visa. :)

My buddy Max came up from Costa Rica to hang. He got here about 1 am Tue morning, just in time to commemorate St. Patty's day at the local Irish Pub. No Guinness or green beer, but there was Jameson whiskey. Tuesday we did the market tour. We started out in the center, checking out the venders and street market. It's a great introduction to the contrast that is El Salvador. The center; dirty, gritty, vibrant, loud. The unofficial economy of El Salvador. Tons and tons of people selling pretty much anything imaginable from make-shift kiosks of ply-wood and black plastic tarps. Then we go to La Gran Via, the other extreme. Dozens of people wandering around an air conditioned multi-complex flashing name brands like LaCost, Tommy Hilfiger, Ferrari, Nine West, (Yep.... I said "Ferrari," there is actually a Ferrari dealership.) Who buys these name brands you might ask? Well, the answer is simple, very, very few people. The word on the street is that the interest is not necessarily in selling goods, but in the appearance of selling goods. You know wink, wink, nudge, nudge, get your money "cleaned" here. Anyway, it is a great place to sit and sip a $5 coffee while gazing out of the shiny mall at the tin shacks and naked, hungry children living in the median of the highway. That’s El Salvador.

Max being the most chelito, machito, whitey, white, white kid was, let’s say, “noticed.” I don’t by any means blend. I am what I like to call a “Ten paces Gringa,” meaning that to anyone within ten paces of me, it’s pretty obvious that I am a gringa. Max, well, I think Max can be tagged from space. There was some staring. We were on the bus headed to the beach and the kid sitting next to Max had the following conversation with his dad:

“Dad, what is that?”
“He’s a North American. He’s going to the beach”
“Can it swim.”
“Yes, he can swim.”
“Does it come from the sea?”
“No, he comes from a far away country.”
“But, Dad… what is it?”

On Friday, Good Friday that is, we went to the center to see the alfombras. Alfombras are the Holy Week tradition wherein people make amazing, elaborate drawings in salt in the streets. Then later, a procession comes through and blesses each of the alfombras and the drawings become trampled. They are a very beautiful, but a very temporary art. We walked around, checked stuff out, went into a super cool cathedral. It looks like a run down, abandoned bus station from the outside, but the inside is an amazing stained glass kaleidoscope. Then we grabbed Churros, a cup of coffee, sat on the Metropolitan Cathedral steps and people watched. This experience will from here on out be referred to as “best cafecito ever.” So yes, it was a good Friday.

So Max caught the bus back to Ticolandia this morning at 3 am. Overall, it was a very good, very chill week. I feel rejuvenated and I think I can make it through the next two weeks of work.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tico Justice

I just got an update on the guy that mugged me over a year ago in Costa Rica.

Unfortunately, the update is NOT that my case will finally be heard in court. The update is the the same crackhead piece of s*#@ that mugged me, just mugged the volunteer that took my place.


Yet another event that reminds me that I am a woman of peace by choice and not by nature.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rutilio Grande

Wednesday March 12 marked 31 years since the assassination of Father Rutilio Grande by the Salvadoran National Guard. Grande served in the parish of Los Aguilares, a town about 40 minutes Northwest of San Salvador. His interpretation of Liberation Theology inspired him to work toward creating Christian Communities that organize themselves to address their basic needs. His work, as well as his tendency to speak out against the injustices being committed by the government and social elite led to his death. On March 12, 1977, he was traveling with other Salvadorans in his car when they were gunned down by the Salvadoran National Guard. Rutilio, and two of his companions, Manual Solorzano, 72, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, 16 were killed. Two other children traveling with the group were able to escape. (His assassination is depicted in the movie Romero with Raul Julia)
Rutilio Grande is significant in the story of El Salvador not only for preaching liberation theology and speaking out against the injustices being committed by the Salvadoran Government, but because he was the first (not the last) church official to be assassinated by that same government. His death has also gained the most notoriety as the act which “converted” Archbishop Oscar Romero to the side of the poor and liberation theology. Upon Rutilio’s death, Romero decreed that he would not perform a state function until the deaths were investigated. They never were and he never did. Three years later, Archbishop Romero would also be assassinated.

I went to the festivities with two of my co-workers, Erin and Danny. I found out on the way there that we would be participating in a pilgrimage between Aguilares and El Paisnal (where he is burried). Luckily, I had on decent walking shoes; unluckily, I did not have sunscreen and ended up a little pink. The total distance was only about 4k, I didn’t get to walk all of it because we had the SHARE vehicle and had to get it to El Paisnal so that we could get home later in the day.

The walk was actually quite pleasant. I always get excited at any opportunity to get out of the city and breathe air that is not filtered through exhaust fumes. Although much of the land is looking to be subdivided and developed, it is still primarily farm and ranch country complete with cows and chickens. I would guess that most of the participants were connected to one social organization or another. There was also a significant presence of gringo delegations. As is true with absolutely everything in El Salvador, there were political overtones made most notable by one man who walked through the march in the opposite direction holding an ARENA (far right party) card against his chest and a severe look upon his face. Most people just chuckled at him as he passed.

Anyway, about half way, I switched with Erin so that she could participate in the walk. We went to the mass and then hung out in the afternoon. We were leaving just as they were setting up for the Mario Funes speech. Mario Funes is the presidential candidate for the FMLN (left political party). I have a total political crush on him. He is a journalist. He is intelligent and critical and most importantly a step toward the middle. He is a sign of great hope for this bitterly divided country. He is stirring things up, to say the least. Things need to be stirred up, but the powers that be are not ones to step down without a fight. One of the fun tactics being used is that any time any foreigners attend a campaign speech, they end up with their faces across the far right leaning media outlets as proof that the FMLN is being run by foreign interests. Hence, Mario Funes coming, us leaving. This is about the third time that I have been SO close to getting to hear him speak but having to leave. I hope someone somewhere is appreciating the sacrifice.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No Rest for the Wicked

Street vendors in Santa Ana.

I survived the delegations.

I sent the Weston Jesuit students back to Boston early Saturday morning. It was actually a really great delegation, but I am utterly, completely, soul tired. I took Monday off (sort of) but it doesn’t seem to be enough.

I have to say, though, that I am more than happy with how the delegation turned out. We were able to facilitate some really interesting conversations between the delegation students and Salvadoran students and seminarians. It was really cool and very interesting how much they had in common. It was also great to watch both sets of students reflect and learn about their own culture as they explained it to one another. The experience was pretty diverse as we attended Catholic, Baptist and Lutheran sites. The Sunday they were here, we attended a Baptist service in the morning and a Catholic mass in the afternoon. To say the least, that is a lot more church time than I have put in since…. well, ever. There was no bursting into flames, so I guess I am doing better than I thought I was. :)

Marta and me

We also visited a community of sisters that are kinda like nuns except that they function outside of the church. They were all ready to take their vows, but at the time the only jobs available for women inside the church were a) nursing, which didn’t spark their interest, and b) teaching (specifically to the children of the aristocracy). They chose c) none of the above and began working with the people in the poorest communities. Rebel nuns… they are SO cool.

We were also able to meet with the Lutheran Bishop, Medardo Gomez. He is absolutely one of my favorite people on the planet. I put him right up there with Thich Nhat Hahn in that merely looking at him feels like a hug. I know him outside of the delegations through attending meetings he has been hosting for social organizations to organize themselves in response to the current political environment and discussion. He is the absolute embodiment of peace and inclusion. He seemed to communicate with his presence what so many others waste thousands of words trying to say.

The group with Medardo Gomez, Lutheran Bishop of El Salvador and pervader of peace and wellbeing

The group was also amazingly gracious in being patient with me as I stumbled through my first delegation and translation. Luckily, I got some help when my church vocab waned. (Primarily due to the fact that there are a lot of churchy words I don’t know in any language.) I met my soul-sister, or as I like to refer to him, “what I would be like if I were a gay man.” I also got to hang out with a ranch kid from Montana who reminded me of home like I haven’t known since I left Carbdondale. Anyway, it was a neat trip and has left me lots of thoughts to ponder.

Woman and her Child in La Joya, Atikizayah

So now, I am looking forward to finishing up this week and heading into Semana Santa (Holy Week) next week and getting a little rest. My buddy Max, a PCV from Costa Rica will be coming up to hang. Carlos, Gloria and la mara are already planning a fishing trip and concert series. It should be fun. I just don’t know when that whole resting thing will happen.