Monthly Archives: June 2016



Peligroso is the Spanish word to say something is dangerous. It is usually followed by the word for caution, “cuidado”.

Here, the beach is peligroso. Having my iPhone out on the street is peligroso. The traffic is peligroso. Certain neighborhoods are peligroso. So is it dangerous here?

A few years ago, I attended a talk by a man who rode his motorcycle from his home in New Hampshire to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. The reality, he described, is that it’s not hugely dangerous, but you have to pay attention. He said he would be on a rural road and would see a series of rocks placed in the road. The first time it happened, he thought it was unusual and slowed down. That was smart because the side of the road up ahead was washed out. The rocks were the warning sign in a place that has no traffic cones. You can’t walk around with your head in the clouds.

Here, it is similar. You really do have to pay attention. There are routinely holes in the sidewalk that could take out your ankle. The traffic is way more dangerous than are the gangs. (Personally, I think the crosswalks are largely decorative). You have to be careful at the beach. Check out the link to the video below and note the size of the waves and that there are no lifeguards. I watched a couple of amateurs try to surf in shallow water and get pounded into the black sand on the bottom. As far as personal safety, much of it entails things my grandmother taught me about watching who is around you and not flashing wads of cash. The idea of not being able to have my iPhone out in public, restricting my camera use and not wearing my wedding band is less than desirable.

As I write this, I think to myself that these are all areas of concern back in the U.S. True, but back home people can manage to walk around with their earbuds and not have to worry as much about being struck by traffic they don’t hear coming. People in the U.S. will mostly stop for you when they are supposed to and not expect you to get out of the way. You seldom see people walking with earbuds here, unless they are in the park. At home, I have to be careful carrying my Canon dSLR, but can have it out of my pack all day. I did not even bring that camera with me on this trip, opting instead for a smaller Lumix camera that I am very careful as to when I remove it from my bag and for how long. Back home, the surf can be dangerous, but many (not all) areas have a good life guard service that will try to prevent you from swimming and attempt to save you if you don’t heed their warnings. Here, as I left the compound where we were having a gathering to walk along the beach, the overweight guard, who may or may not know how to swim, just pointed at the ocean and said “Peligroso, cuidado.”

People who spend time on the water or traveling off the grid a bit know what I mean. My wife and I have shared some amazing times cycle touring. We have sent multiple days in strange places riding from one inn or hotel to the next. But we have to be much more careful on those trips than in everyday life. The traffic patterns are strange and we don’t know the places through which we are traveling. We make a good team watching out for the risks. That is everyday life here.

Having strong connections through Teaching You, the program here, is what really made this trip possible. They set up housing in a good area and taught me what I need to know. I tend to only travel solo in my comfort zone and save trips out of area for times I am with others. Still, every time I step outside, I have to bring my brain with me.


Day at the Beach

I made the top image by shooting through my sunglasses using my iPhone.

La Palma – Part II

I’d not planned to tell the rest of the story here but after yesterday’s post many people wanted to hear about the rest of the day.

We pile into the van for the ride up the mountain. This is no bus or minibus. This thing was made to climb. Eddy makes fast and aggressive turns on the switchback road. We rise quickly and soon have a view of La Palma below. We can see some buses, cars, and other charters on the road above and below us. Joaquin keeps pointing to the highest point and telling me, “You see that; that is not even the summit yet.”

Finally, we pull not onto the summit but a town holding a festival. It is Rio Chiquito. We get out and the air is very different from Santa Tecla and the capitol. It is cool crisp mountain air. I still feel good in only a t-shirt and jeans, but Joaquin is now wearing a long sleeve top over his polo shirt. There are tall pine trees that look more at home in the White Mountain National Forest back home.

Joaquin and the driver resume speaking in rapid Spanish but this time I understand a bit of what is being said. The driver is leaving the mountain at 4:00. That is after the last bus back to San Salvador. I ask Joaquin what is going on. It turns out that we paid for the ride up. The other people in the van had paid to spend the day at the festival.

“Don’t worry; there is a bus that does back to La Palma.”

He then proceeds to ask around and we find that the next bus to La Palma is at 12:30. We quickly walk through the festival which consists of about twenty food and craft vendors in a small field and a stage with a band. They are playing an interesting mix of jazz and popular music if it was played well. Actually they do a nice cover of a Santana song but then counter it with a rather rough version of the Enrique Inglesias song Bailando. It takes us about 10 minutes to figure out that there is nothing at the festival that interests us. Joaquin tells me, “Let’s go to the top of the mountain, it is not far.”

We begin hiking up a steep dirt and gravel road to the top. We pass homes and people selling vegetables and canned fruits from their yards. Every turn brings amazing vistas. We started out at 10:45 and it was “not far”. If we make 11:30 our turn back time, we should be fine.

“Wait until you see the top. It is amazing. If we miss the bus, we can just start walking down and take the first ride we are offered.”

This makes me rather unsettled. I don’t really live this way, though many people do. Also, I am not prepared to
spend a night. But the truth is, Joaquin is great with this kind of thing. He’d talk his way into a ride back to Santa Tecla or room somehow or someplace. The man who sold us the ride up the mountain already said he can arrange transportation back to San Salvador. I encourage myself to chill out.

We start doing some rather steep climbing on the road and I need to rest. Honestly, when we started out, I had no idea that we would be approaching 9,000 feet. Joaquin also seems to be feeling the effects. He looks up and sees that clouds are building around the summit.

“Let’s stop here. I don’t want to get to the summit and find it is all cloudy”

There is no argument from me. We end our climb at a small campground with a rather spectacular view. I ask if he thinks I can enter. Sure he says. Off in the distance I see a lady and wave. She begins to approach.
Joaquin tells me, “You take photos, I’ll pretend like I am interested in getting a campsite another weekend to keep her busy.” The two chat while I make photos. We say goodbye and head back down the mountain. We wanted some canned fruit from one of the stands, but it makes more sense to buy it on the way down the mountain.

We stop at a stand that has two women working there. Also present are two boys and a girl ages about 10-14. The kids seem to be hanging out and helping when people stop. They seem interested in all of these strange people going past their home and up the mountain as part of the festival. They come running over as we ask about the contents of the jars. The women tell us they have peaches and strawberries for four and two dollars respectively. “Quisiera, un y un, por favor” I say pointing to the peaches and strawberries in turn and producing six dollars.
One of the children is trying to speak some English. Joaquin jokes with him. I make some photos of the children. My wife sent me some brightly decorated pencils that I’ve been handing out to children we meet in the countryside as a good will gift. I pull them from my pack and let each of the children select one. They are delighted and wave goodbye as we leave.

Back in Rio Chiquito, we take the bus back down to La Palma. This is a much slower affair. The driver uses primarily the brake rather than the engine. What took twenty minutes to climb in a van, takes forty minutes to descend in a bus. We also have to take on and let off passengers. This is not the express bus.

When we get to the city, we are mission oriented. I need gifts, so we head to the craft market. Many of the products are similar to things I can find elsewhere but a few things stand out. Many are painted in the unique style of La Palma. After visiting a few shops, we have the gifts I need. We find lunch a place for lunch and enjoy a meal of carne asada and chorizo for four dollars each.

Finally, we catch the bus for the long ride back. We begin waiting at 2:30. We arrive at 6:30. The ride was long. We got rather wet changing buses in the capital. It is dark. But, oh the memories.

La Palma

After nearly three and a half hours of travel, we reach La Palma in the mountains bordering Honduras. It is a pace known for colorful murals and numerous craft shops. Our plan is to do some gift shopping for some people back home, make photos of the murals and to enjoy life. We get off right next to Joaquin’s favorite restaurant and hotel.

As we enter the hotel, we can see the La Palma styled paintings on the walls of the buildings. They are bright and colorful with a Pablo Picasso like flair to them. Fernando Llort Choussy is credited with teaching the people of La Palma this style and also helping them to find a way of making a living through their art.

Walking into the restaurant, Joaquin asks for a table out on the porch. He’s told they are all full and the wait staff seats us inside. As we peruse our menus Joaquin has his eye to the porch. He’s notices a table opening up and quickly flags down the wait staff to have us reseated. I can see why. The porch made of post and beam style construction juts out into a jungle like area of bamboo and leafy plants. A painting of a church is hung from a beam by thin wires and almost looks to be suspended in mid-air. It is furnished with simple wooden chairs and tables covered in a multi-colored checks. Sunlight filters through the trees and the sound of the local birds fill the air. We sit and place our order; three pupusas and a Coke for Joaquin and pancakes and coffee for me.

“You know, tours here cost a lot of money from San Salvador. They can cost over $100 or $200 to come here and then go up the mountain.” Joaquin tells me. “I think once you need that much money, people think of other trips they could take for the same price.”

He has talked about the mountain a lot. It is 2,730 m (8,957 ft) tall, and is the highest point in Salvadoran territory. Looking on the map, it is right on the border with Honduras. I could throw a ball and have it land in a foreign country. Joaquin has already told me about a group of volunteers who neglected to get off the bus in La Palma and accidentally crossed into neighboring Honduras. For security reasons, we do not travel with our passports, only a copy of the photo page. They were stopped by police and detained overnight until Joaquin could get their passports to them the next day. Add spending a night in a jail in Honduras to the travel experience.

“If I were living here or owned this hotel, I would have a van and run tours to the top of the mountain.”, Joaquin tells me. He continues talking about developing tourism in this area. After such a long ride, I need to use the bathroom. There is a long line, so I decide to return to the table and wait a few minutes. When I return, there is a man seated at our table talking to Joaquin. He looks outdoorsy or like someone who wants to look outdoorsy. He is wearing a shirt with leather lacing and a ball cap with sunglasses up over the visor for safe keeping. They are chatting in rapid Spanish and I cannot understand what they are saying or even the context.

Joaquin turns to me and says “We are traveling with the stars my friend. There is a festival on the mountain and he will give us a ride up for only $5. He started the van company that I told you would be a good idea.”

I want photos of the town and to get souvenirs but this does seem to be a good opportunity. The last bus out of town is at 4:00, so it seems that we should have plenty of time. “Lets do it”

He has other clients, which means that we need to eat our breakfast rather quickly. I try the bathroom again and once again return to find another man at our table talking to Joaquin. He looks less outdoorsy, a bit heavy and is more dressed like the innkeeper. Their Spanish is fast and again I’m lost. I manage to introduce myself to him. His name is Eddy and we exchange “Mucho gustos.” As we get up to find the van, I say to Eddy in Spanish that is has been a pleasure.

“Oh”, says Joaquin, “He’s not going anywhere. He’s our driver.”

Of course.

Lessons Learned: Week 5

Morning Delivery
Don’t spend five minutes of class time handing out prizes to the winning team in a contest. Deputize one of the students to do this task. They take the authority very seriously and do a better job than you.

If someone asks for something special don’t give it during class. Everyone will want it. Tell them to see you after class. I doubt you’ll see them again

If the class won’t quiet down and focus, write the wrong date on the board. If you write “December 25, 1969” that gets them to focus really quickly.

I can now almost eat pupusa like a native. It sounds simple, but let’s see you eat two pupusas with veggies and salsa and only use one napkin.

When I am tired, I can barely speak English. Speaking Spanish is a real challenge.

Life is unpredictable enough. When you don’t speak the native language well, it is even more unpredictable. In any outing, I am always the last person to know what is going on.

You have to be who you are in this world. I’m amazed how much my life here mimics how I spend my time and, with the notable exception of my relationship with my wife, the relationships I have back in the USA.

Video Post: Verbs

Coming here I’d not taught English as a second language (ESL) to children before. Technically, I’d not even taught adults. I was a volunteer, helping teachers in a program in the U.S. So, I read a lot and asked questions before coming to El Salvador. Vanessa, who manages the program where I volunteer in the U.S., and Ariela, my tutor, gave me ideas.

A few ideas stuck. One line of thought suggested that often by the time an ESL class starts, the students have already been sitting for a long time in other classes. If they are given a chance to get some of the energy out at the beginning of class, they may pay better attention for the rest of the class. Another line of thought suggests that different people learn better through different methods. Some learn through hearing, others through reading or seeing, and others through movement.

I combined these ideas and made a set of laminated flashcards. Each card represents an action verb. On one side is an image associated with the action and on the other side is the English word for the verb. I started by showing the class the image, saying the word, acting out the verb and then showing the printed word. Their job was to act out and say the word with me.

Over the weeks, I’ve been getting them to do this with fewer cues from me. About the time this video was made, I stopped showing the image and started pausing a beat or two to see how many can say and act out the word on their own. (Typically once one student does it, the others catch on.) We continue to develop this. On Thursday, I had to prepare some materials for a new game and asked one of the students in 6A to lead the class. We were not sure if it would work, but it did.

We do this activity at the start of each class and then move on to the other material. If I leave here with them knowing thirty four verbs they did not know when I arrived, or even a fraction of them, I’d be happy.

It is not easy to hear what the spoken verbs. I made the cards and have trouble interpreting the video. They are roughly:
Stand on one foot

La Gente de Suchitoto

These are some of the people we encountered on our visit to Suchitoto who were kind enough to let me take their photo.

Windows and Doors of Suchitoto

One of the appealing characteristics of Suchitoto is that all of the homes seem to have different styles and colors of windows and doors. Here is a sampling. Tomorrow, we can add a few people to the mix.

Streets of Suchitoto

These are the cobblestone Streets of Suchitoto. The name means “bird flower”. There are people living here, but it is not congested and I could easily work around most people…or make them a part of my image. But that is for another day.


Suchitoto - Vista 1

I have three goals in coming to El Salvador

-Stay safe and healthy. I’ve been safe and mostly healthy
-Teach the girls at the school – My constant effort
-Learn about language and culture – Another effort; it’s busy down here

As far as learning about culture, I have three days off each week. One of those is usually dedicated to lesson planning. This has afforded me the chance to see some of the countryside, usually in one of the buses shown in a previous post. Joaquin Batres has been very generous with his time to show me things. It is interesting to get out of the city and see me of the historic and picturesque places.

Over the next few days, I want to show you the town of Suchitoto about an hour or so outside of San Salvador. Some buildings date back to the colonial period (pre-1820s) and many more to the mid-1800s. It has withstood earthquakes and during the civil war of the 1980s, they somehow managed to convince both sides not to damage the town with its cobblestone streets and antique buildings, though a few buildings are pockmarked by gunfire.

The town overlooks a lovely river valley pictured here. Tomorrow, we can explore Suchitoto.

Lesson Learned: Week 4

Christopher OKeefe and Class 5A

Kids here have their own text abbreviations For example Q stands for “que” (what).

They are not saying “gracias adios” which means “thank you, goodbye”. They are saying “Gracias a Dios” which means “Thank God”.
People here wear t-shirts from all parts of the world they have never been and sports teams they have never heard of. It seems like economically challenged places are where they send t-shirts they can’t sell back home.

No matter how old you are, there is nothing like a care package from home.

Never leave stickers or other prizes where the kids can see them unless you plan to part with them.

I loved the look on my students faces when instead of putting on the usual musical selection of Latin and rap, I put on U2. They didn’t dismiss it but sat there trying to wrap their minds around my favorite music.

The game of Uno transcends language barriers. Playing it with children is a great way to pick up on a language

This is me with Class 5A.