Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thats all folks

Stenciling 159 country names is not recommended.
It is all over tomorrow. I am closing my service and going from volunteer to just some random dude. After writing reports, saying good-byes, and working like a man possessed to finished the world map, I am now wrapping things up at the Peace Corps office.
The map. I meant to do it long ago, I had been waiting for the school director to put down the base layer of cement. When he finally did, I only had about 10 days to do it, so that meant 8 hour workdays. All in all in turned out really well. There are lots of imperfections, but they aren't noticable from afar. I think the community really likes it, it is in the middle of town and is now like the town centerpiece. I overheard it sparking lots of Geography discussions; it will really help people learn where they are in the world. (Many can't even find El Salvador on a map.)
I said my good-byes on Monday. It didn't really make me sad, mostly because I have been ready to leave for some time. I will miss my host family, as I have gotten to know them very well (maybe too well) and they almost feel like real family.
Tuesday it is off to Mexico to start TEFL training. I may start I new blog to document my travels, stay tuned for the third blog of the trilogy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Here it is, the long awaited update! I hope not everyone has stopped checking this blog, and so here is a new post for you, loyal follower.

The last few months have been a flurry of activity here. I have had three visitors: a roommate from college, my mom, and my sister. Each visit was a blast, maybe my favorite part of my job is watching fresh off the plane gringos interact with rural Salvadorans. The language and cultural barriers supply endless entertainment for me, the only one who understands both sides. It is great to see the enthusiasm and excitement of people interacting with people vastly different from themselves.

In case you don’t know, Peace Corps El Salvador is undergoing radical changes. It started in late December, rumor has it that it began with an incident in Honduras. (I won’t say what it was here, for fear of being censored. Peace Corps monitors these blogs and has been known to demand posts be taken down) All of the volunteers in Honduras were sent home, and the El Salvador and Guatemala programs developed plans to drastically reduce the number of volunteers from about 130 to 30. Peace Corps began offering people the option to leave early (think “honorable discharge”), a few have taken that option. Volunteers are now banned from the capitol city of San Salvador, and our ability to travel has been severely restricted. These new rules have definitely made the job less desirable, making the option to leave early more appealing. I was seriously considering leaving myself when it was announced that my group was being made to leave early, in April instead of the original date in September, effectively cutting our service by 5 months. Peace Corps service is usually two years in site, plus two or three months of training, making a total of about 26 months. It looks like I will only do 21 months. I welcomed the news of early departure, as a felt like I had done my work and am ready to be done. Many of my friends, however, are involved in large projects that cannot be finished by April, forcing them to either rush to get them done or tell their communities that they must cancel them. Peace Corps is considering giving extensions to those who need them. I has been a turbulent time for everyone.

Faced with only three more months of service, I realized I had better figure out what to do afterward. I seem to go through phases of either loving being in another country and traveling or being hopelessly homesick for America and all it contains. Last week I took a quick trip back to Arkansas for my Grandma’s funeral, and in doing so got a healthy dose of America (biscuits and gravy, beer, BBQ, friends, family, cold weather, cars, Wal-mart) and now I have decided not to go home when I finish. I am still looking to go to grad school in the future, and I will probably start a career right after. That means that I should do whatever I want to do now, I know America will always be there when I need her.

While traveling in Costa Rica with mom (great trip) I met an American guy who had been teaching English in Japan for a few years, and had later moved on to teach science in Korea. As he told me about his life in Japan and his work, my eyes grew to the size of saucers and I knew he had planted an Inception-esque idea in my head that could not be erased. Japan had taken root. A few key aspects made it seem feasible:

1. He had gotten a job there speaking no Japanese and having no experience other than a certification course and a college degree.

2. English teachers in Japan make a decent salary, which I need since those pesky student loans will no longer be on hold after Peace Corps.

3. I love a good adventure.

So that is my goal as of now. In the beginning of April I plan to get certified to Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in Guadalajara, Mexico. It is a 30-day course through an organization called ITTO. A friend of mine did the program and said she had a great time, so I signed up. Now I am deciding if I should take a fly to Guadalajara or take the overland route.

I found out about a exchange-type program for teaching English in Japan called JET that seems to be just what I am looking for. The program assigns people to schools in Japan to be assistant English teachers for one year, with the possibility of extending for more time. They take care of most of the logistics, cover the flight, and pay a good salary. No Japanese experience is required, and they say you can just learn as you go once you get there. (Wish me luck with that one. I thought Spanish was hard) If I do that program, I would apply later this year and not leave until summer 2013. So I would have a year to kill. The TEFL program guarantees a job in Mexico for you after the course, so I will see if that looks appealing. Alternately, a Peace Corps friend of mine and I had talked about going to Columbia to live for a while, where it seems like I could find a job teaching English. Either place could be fun to live in until an opportunity in Japan arises. Then, go to grad school after 2-5 years. There it is, my plan tentative plan as of now. What do you think? Comments? Suggestions?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In case of flood, do not use stairs.


The storm has passed and the sun has returned. From around the tenth to the twentieth we weathered a couple of major storms, with rain lasting the whole ten days and not a ray of sunshine. The news said it was the worst storm in about 50 years, killing more than thirty people here in El Salvador and leaving many more homeless. The main dangers were houses built near rivers and landslide areas. Luckily where I live has not been too deforested, so there is not much landslide danger. The Peace Corps put us on house arrest to minimize travel and dangerous situations, so that meant ten days of not going outside or really doing anything. I am taking the GRE (standardized test for admission to grad schools) next month so the rain did give me a good chance to study. Everyone was definitely going stir crazy by the end though. I have never been more delighted to wake up to sunshine finally streaming back into my life.

In other news, I received a kindle from Mom for my birthday, which I had been wanting but could not rationalized buying for myself. This little gadget can surf the internet using cell phone signal for FREE even here, and Amazon foots the bill. Being able to check email, facebook, news, and blogs from my village has been a revelation; it makes such a big difference in staying connected and not feeling like I live on a different planet than everyone else. Thanks Mom!

School was closed for the duration of the storm, and will be open only for another 2-3 weeks before the 2.5 month break. This also coincides with the coffee picking season, which means no work for me to do until February. If you remember last year, I have retired from coffee picking, luckily I don’t have to work all day in the fields to make $5. In February I plan to do a world map mural on the side of the school, give the teachers more classes on how to use our new laptop and projector set up, and make sure we get this reading pavilion thing built at the school (basically a roof and tile floor making an area for quiet reading time and outdoor classes)

Other than that, I am looking forward to a string of visitors here soon, I can’t wait to spend time showing family and friends around crazy world I find myself in. Everyone is still invited, if you don’t have plans to visit yet (I’m not sure who still reads this) you could come in early March, or anytime in May or June. Think about it. If you are coming, nice work taking the initiative, I promise it will be the experience of a lifetime!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Well, this last Wednesday the 17th marks one year since I arrived here in my site in Laguna Verde. While I have been in the country for 14 months, the first two were spent in training in San Vicente, a city on the other side of the country. However, my real work and home is here, so the anniversary presents an opportunity to reflect on the last year. To briefly summarize my experience thus far, I think I can confidently say that it has been satisfying in the personal aspect while less than satisfying professionally.
The personal side of the experience, things such as living in a foreign country, learning a new language, making new friends (both American and Salvadoran), and living with a host family have been very fun and rewarding. Getting to know different places in El Salvador has truly been awe-inspiring, and I feel that I have a solid understanding and appreciation the physical and cultural landscape. Learning Spanish feels very rewarding now, after the initial pain of being reduced to one word sentences and utter confusion. I still don’t understand everything said to me and still have to put thought into every sentence, but for the most part I really enjoy communicating with people here not just in Spanish put in their local dialect, complete with idioms and slang. One the most rewarding parts of my time here has been living with my host family. Living in a house of eleven people nearly everyday for a year has given me a constant source of interaction and opportunities to learn and bond with them. Although I may never be a “member of the family”, I do have a meaningful relationship with them, which keeps getting better as we share experiences and gain further insight into one another’s lives. I consider my relationship with them my most important achievement here on a personal level.
In contrast with the personal aspect, the professional aspect of my first year has not been as satisfying. I consider the girl’s camp and the stove project to be my two successful and worthwhile projects, but I was hoping for more rewarding work. My official job is Environmental Educator, but I have found that the community does not have much interest or need for such a person. Instead, I help out in the school with whatever I can (mainly applying for grant money thorough organizations that give money to Peace Corps volunteers for projects). This leaves me an abundance of free time and a lack of job satisfaction. This seems so be a common problems for volunteers, and we are told to not worry too much about it and that the cultural exchange aspect of our job is just as important. I sometimes feel like I am wasting my time, but these feelings are brief and outweighed by the personal satisfaction I experience.

So, with all that said, here is the best and worst of my first year in El Salvador:

The Best:
1. I speak Spanish now. Awesome.
2. A remote village in an obscure country now feels like home.
3. Once you figure out their language and culture, Salvadorans are very friendly and never fail to make me laugh (in a good way).
4. I have all my food cooked for me.
5. I know years from now the good things will far outweigh the bad in my memory
6. My job is to help people in whatever way I can.
7. I pretty much do whatever I want, whenever I want, and get paid for it (barely), with no virtually no oversight from a boss.
8. My fellow volunteers are some of the most motivated, good-natured, educated, and positive people I have ever worked with and befriended.
9. I can eat out, stay at hotels, and travel for dirt cheap.
10. If nothing else, Peace Corps is full of challenges, so I am constantly learning and evolving.
11. I have a new appreciation for English, good food, friends, family, the opportunities bestowed on me, American culture, and all the little luxuries we all take for granted.

The Bad.
1. Face-numbing, catatonic-state-inducing homesickness/loneliness.
2. Beans and tortillas are really getting old.
3. The environment is not a priority here.
4. Seeing people who want more out of their life unable to follow their dreams
5. The gang and crime problem
6. How American culture has replaced much of El Salvador’s and left in its wake Rambo, 50 Cent, and junk food.
7. Losing contact with most of my friends.
8. That nagging feeling that I should be doing more.
9. Always being the center of attention just because I have white skin. I miss blending in.
10. If you have to dry clothes outside and it rains everyday, you run into some problems.

Monday, September 5, 2011

My three girls and I

All the girls with thier diplomas and t-shirts

I am happy to report that our girls empowerment camp was a tremendous success. 19 young women ages 12-18 participated in a three-day two-night camp in one of the cultural hubs of El Salvador, Suchitoto. We stayed at the Centro del Arte para la Paz (Art Center for Peace), which is an old church renovated to host guests, youth groups and tours of the on-site museum. Over the course of three days, seven Peace Corps Volunteers (including myself) led a series of activities aimed to be both fun and educational. Topics covered included: self-defense, body image and self esteem, relationships, leadership, career planning, STD and contraception education, and yoga. The girls also participated in a tour around the city, movie night, manicures, a bonfire, a question and answer session with successful Salvadoran women, and a tour of the museum. At the end of the camp, each girls received a diploma and a t-shirt.
The whole weekend ended up being really fun and overall it was probably the most rewarding experience of my work here. At the end a few of the girls made short speeches saying how much they learned and enjoyed the camp and thanked us for putting it on. I feel like we really changed these girls’ lives for the better, at least in a small way. After seeing women being treated like second-class citizens here for so long, it felt really good to do some work to change things. Although equality here is far behind what we have achieved in the U.S., things are changing. Progress is being made, and we tried to impress upon the girls the idea that they can be the leaders in this movement, that they can spread the message of equality and empowerment of women to their peers and hopefully achieve some degree of progress. I am really proud of our work, I want to thank the other volunteers involved and especially our donors, whose generosity enabled all of this to happen. I wish everyone could have been there. Hopefully these pictures can convey some of the excitement.

Friday, August 19, 2011

El Salvador Birthday Round Two
I just had my 23rd birthday on the 17th, and this one was definitely better than the last. My 22nd was during Peace Corps training, and I had to spend it sitting through lectures. However, it was made better by a birthday card signed by 30 of my fellow trainees and a surprise birthday cake from my original host family.
This time, my friend Sarah and I decide to try to climb the tallest volcano in western El Salvador, Santa Ana. It is a moderate hike with police escort to the top, where I have heard there is still a gurgling pit in the crater, along with incredible views in all directions. It is made even more exciting by the fact that it erupted only six years ago, killing two people.
However, when we arrived we were told we needed a bigger group to go, but we could join the group of 60 high schoolers who were there on a field trip that day, who planned to hike the adjacent peak, Volcán Izalco. This volcano is not as tall and has not erupted lately, but has the traditional volcano shape of a steep cone with a crater on top, while Santa Ana is more of a ridge. I have read that Izalco is the youngest (most recently formed) volcano in the Americas. It has a very dramatic appearance since it has almost no vegetation on the sides, just loose rock.
Both hikes leave from Cerro Verde, an older volcano between the other two. To summit Izalco one must walk down Cerro Verde and then up Izalco, then come back the same way, making for a very strenuous hike. Going up Izalco is a very steep grade on loose rock and sand, plus at over a mile high I definitely noticed the air being thinner. Sarah flew up the slope while I slowly huffed and puffed my way up, pausing every few minutes to catch my breath. My struggle was downgraded by having 15 year old girls passing my on the way up. It was just more proof that Salvadorans have more strength and endurance that I ever will.
The top was worth all the effort though. Steam billowed out of vents, and the views were incredible. We saw the dried lava rocks at the bottom, where the last eruption had eaten into the vegetation. We walked around the rim of the crater and then headed down, which involved sliding down loose rock and sand.
We got to the bottom already exhausted but still had to climb back up Cerro Verde. This involved some 1400 stairs winding up the mountain, which nearly destroyed me. We soon deteriorated to climbing about 100 stairs and then resting for a few minutes. When we finally got back, I promptly downed two Gatorades and passed out.
We finished off the day with steak for dinner, a swim in the lake and some wine drinking. It turned out to be really nice birthday, but the next day turned out to be a challenge.
The next day we headed back to our nearby city, Sonsonate, to try to receive the money donated to girls camp and put it into a bank account. This turned into a multi-hour ordeal of visiting western union offices and banks with red tape blockades at every turn. After that, I headed home, picking up a cake I planned to share with my host family to celebrate my birthday. The bus drops me off about an hour walk from my house, which is a solid uphill climb. Usually I don’t mind it too much, but this time I had a heavy backpack, a cake, and legs that felt like jelly from the day before. To make things worse, the sky opened up and poured nearly the whole way. All I could do was try to cover my cake, phone and wallet in plastic and trudge on. I finally got home soaked and exhausted.
I was soon informed that my host dad’s father had just died, and that I should come to the vela. When someone dies in this culture, the whole community gathers with their surviving family and stays late into the night, praying, singing, eating and drinking coffee. This is supposed to show support and keep the family too busy to be sad. Grieving is very communal here, which I think is a good way of dealing with death. I have been to these gatherings (velas) before, and should have known better, but I went anyway. We left around 7pm, and I was told we would be back around 10. We ended up getting back around 1AM, making about 5 hours of sitting around doing nothing trying not to pass out. I was stuck for a good portion of that time with the an old man explaining bible verses to me on my right while simultaneously a gay teenager hit on me from the left. Not my idea of a good time. I was definitely happy to leave, and that was the last vela I will attend for a long time. I am used to these kinds of things happening though, and I can now take everything in stride. Its just another day in E Salvador.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Families, real and host

First papusas

At the ruins

6/28/11 Visitors!
I had my first visitors from the states last week, my dad and his girlfriend stayed with me for ten days and had just about the most ideal vacation possible in El Salvador. Here is the breakdown of what we did.
Monday, June 13- arrived at airport. They met some trouble as they had no destination address to tell the immigration desk. Apparently “some village somewhere” is not good enough, but rather than have two angry Americans on their hands, the officials had to let them through. Then we ran into some difficulty renting the car, as they tried to charge us more than we had reserved it for. After some good old American ranting and raving we got a good price and a larger car. Luckily we had air-conditioning since the airport is in one of the hottest areas I have ever been in. After stopping at a roadside coconut stand and then making a few wrong turns, we headed for the beach. We arrived at playa El Tunco (pig beach), the touristy surf-bum beach town. We checked into the hotel and immediately downed some beers and got a chance to relax and catch up. Later I introduced my dad to some local flavor in a hot sauce I call “green napalm”. I think he’s off hot sauce for a while.
Tuesday June 14- Left the beach after an uncomfortable night with no A/C. Spotted what we decided was a ring-tailed lemur (maybe) darting across the road. Went grocery shopping at the mall in the city of Sonsonate. Finally got up in the mountains and out of the heat to my town of Apaneca, where we bought some local gourmet coffee and headed to my village, Laguna Verde. Got them moved into the local guesthouse. (I am really lucky to have this place nearby. It is a full house with 4 bedrooms and a kitchen and everything you need. It is well landscaped with flowers and such, and sits on the lip of a huge crater with awesome views overlooking Ahuachapan city and into Guatemala. It is ridiculously cheap for what it is, only $10 per person.)
Wednesday June 15- Decided to lay low for the day, played some cards in the gorgeous setting of the guesthouse. Walked down to the Laguna, checked out the coffee fields and local flowers. Did a general community tour and introduced them to my host family.
Thursday June 16- I had read about a mega-resort on the beach about two hours away, so we decided to spend a night in luxury. (All you can eat and drink. Case closed.) We headed down there and decide to kill some time exploring a small fishing village that was nearby. It turned out to be a Salvadoran tourist beach with restaurants right on the age of the surf zone. We drank some beers and were serenaded by a mariachi band, which pleased my dad to no end. Then we headed to the resort. This place was ridiculous. It had an endless amount of pools, a saltwater pool that stuck out into the ocean and was covered during high tide, beach chairs everywhere and all the beer and mixed drinks you could handle. Paradise. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly that night, and headed back to the guesthouse the next day.
Friday June 17- We got back from the resort late in the afternoon… I can’t really remember what we did…
Saturday June 18- We started off with a tour of a local coffee processing plant, where they wash, shell, ferment, dry, de-husk, sort, roast and grind coffee that is picked in nearby fields. I think my guests really enjoyed it, and I liked the opportunity to show off my Spanish skills translating what the tour guide said. They picked up some local gourmet and a burlap coffee sack to hang on the wall. We then explored the town of Ataco, an artsy tourist area for picking up souvenirs and seeing art. Next we went to Juyjua (Why-you-uh), where they have a food festival every weekend. We ate some incredible pork ribs, saw some antiques, bought some Mayan artifacts (legal??? Maybe.) and visited a reptile zoo.
Sunday June 19- I wanted to exposed m visitors more to my host family, since they are who I am closest to here in my village. This was tough to do since they had about 5 common words in which to communicate. So we extended an invitation to join us in exploring some local Native American ruins. The two girlfriends of two of the brothers decided to go with us, Soyla age 14 and Rosa, age 22. It is hard to explain how great having a car here is, as a daylong bus adventure turns into a climate controlled joy-ride that takes a third of the time and stress. So we arrived at the ruins and got to check out the large structure that has been excavated. (Search for Tazumal ruins, el Salvador if you are curious) We also checked out some sort of native ceremony that was going on, but we soon left since it felt inappropriate to gawk. They was also a museum to explore, with some amazing pottery and sculptures that had been excavated from the site.
Monday June 20- We had a relaxing day, spent mostly around the guesthouse. We also visited the local hot springs, which a located near the country’s geothermal power plant. After having to walk the last bit because the road deteriorated, we enjoyed a nice soak in the hot pool.
Tuesday June 21-Headed to the big city, San Salvador. First we stopped off for lunch at a restaurant overlooking Lago Coatepeque, a large crater lake that is amazingly beautiful. There we ate the national dish, papusas, which are beans, cheese and meat or vegetables inside a fried tortilla shell. The city proved quite a driving challenge for my dad, but he did a great job. (I had to explain the two main rules of Salvadoran driving: DON’T PANIC and the signs and rules arenot laws, only suggestions.) We parked the car at the hotel and took a cab to the modern art museum, which proved interesting but a bit abstract for the likes of my dad I.
Wednesday June 22- Drove up to the San Salvador volcano, which tours above the city. It has a huge crater from when it last erupted in 1912 or so. At the bottom of the crater is a perfectly formed dirt mini-crater, it is really an amazing sight. We also saw some excellent views of the sprawling city. On our way to the into the city we hit an open manhole in the middle of an intersection, which miraculously did not break any part of the car. This confirmed that driving in San Salvador is at best extremely stressful and at worst borderline-suicidal. Next we went to the national archeology museum, which had exhibits of the history of the country, with exhibits of the all the major crops that have been farmed here of particular interest. Next we went to a tourist market to get some souvenirs, including a hammock, shirts, and aprons.
Thursday June 23- Time to say goodbye. Back to the airport and back to normal life for me.
It was great to finally share this place and my life here with loved ones, it makes me feel less alone since someone knows what I am doing and where I am. I had fun traveling around and being an interpreter and translator too. I don’t feel sad since they left, since they had a great time and the whole trip seemed just about perfect.
I hope this story serves as bait to get some more people to come down here and visit me. There is a lot of fun stuff to do, it is fairly cheap, and you will have your own personal tour guide and translator, not to mention a connection to a beautiful rural community. This is a rare travel opportunity for everyone, so think about buying that ticket; I promise we’ll have a blast.
P.S. I am still looking for donations for the girls camp, if you’ve been financially blessed lately share the love and change the lives of some young girls. Shoot me an email if you are interested.