Category Archives: el salvador

New England Art Reach

I’m pleased to announce that seven of the images I made while in El Salvador were selected by New England Art Reach to be part of an exhibition at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Nashua, NH from now through June. While I’ve taken part in some art shows that run one to three days, this is my first ever exhibition. I am one of five artists to have their work shown over the next six months. New England Art Reach arranges art for a number of hospitals in the area. Having gallery space in hospitals is a common practice in this area. It is typically displayed in atriums and central passageways.

Happy New Year

Christopher OKeefe and Class 5A

Oh, what a year 2016 was. From January to May, I overcame my fear and left my former career. Up to that point, I had so much doubt and anxiety; but once the decision was made, it all started to feel right. Ironically, the decision was made between Christmas and New Year’s last year. From January to May, I closed out my former job, trained my replacement and left in such a manner as to keep that door open should I need it. While doing that, I found a volunteer teaching placement in El Salvador, learnt a ton of Spanish and learned how to make some basic lesson plans. Mid-May to mid-July, I spent living and volunteer teaching in El Salvador. While I loved it and it was an incredible experience, it was never easy. But as I enter my new career, I know what it means to get off a plane in a very different culture where they speak a different language and try to make my way in the world. This was followed by a two-month rest, after which came the start of full-time graduate school to work on my Masters of Science in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

My plan is only mid-way through. Over the next eight months, I need to finish graduate school and then begin my new career in earnest. I think it will continue to be an interesting time in my life. In terms of my photography, I have been making so many images this holiday break and have a few surprises for you in the new year.

My thanks to my wife, my family and my friends both here on WordPress and in other realms of my life.

NOTE: This was by far my favorite image of 2016. While made with my camera, the photo credit goes to Joaquin Batres.

Looking Back


These are images from my last day at the school.

Now that I’ve been home for a few days, having been in El Salvador almost seems like a dream; a very pleasant dream. It is time to wrap up these posts about my eight weeks in El Salvador. To do so, let’s look at how I did on my three goals:

Maintaining Health and Safety: This was primary because without this the others could not happen. Other than the notable exception of my insistence on using my camera around the markets, I followed all of Joaquin’s other recommendations and had no issues with people bothering me or trying to take my belongings.

I was sick twice, first with a cold and then with a one day bout of GI distress, but expected these to likely occur and went to El Salvador with medications to deal with both. I actually returned leaner and stronger than when I left. Walking several miles a day with a day-pack will have that effect, I guess.

Teaching English in the Local Public School: This is more difficult to judge. My future graduate work will likely provide me with a better framework for evaluating this. Many students were exposed to and demonstrated some learning of new materials. Eight weeks is not a lot of time. All I did was to teach them the bit that I could in that period. Others will come and teach more. It may seem disjointed to have these students learn English from a bunch of volunteers who may or may not have experience in teaching, but there is no formal program teaching English in grades 1 -6. Without Teaching You, there would be nothing for them until Grade 7.

I was successful in engaging the students in learning and was told this repeatedly while I was in El Salvador. My Spanish tutor told me I had to make learning fun. These girls would not sit for lectures on grammar. We played games that I found or developed to teach the concepts I was asked address. The students learned the material in order to win the games. And we had a lot of fun.

Experiencing the Language, Community and Culture: I cannot claim to be fluent in Spanish at this point. I still struggle knowing exactly what is going on. But my skills are much better now than when I arrived. When I shared some food with the police officer on the hike up Volcan de Santa Ana, he was curious and asked me a lot of questions about myself and my thoughts on our two countries. I could manage that in Spanish with no problems. My Spanish is best when I don’t feel pressured or tired.

I tried just about every opportunity that was offered to me to experience the culture in El Salvador. Some things were things that I am not really drawn to in my life here at home, but were worth trying and seeing there. I am glad that I did, but as I said in an earlier post, you can go someplace else but are still the same person you are at home. Ultimately, I embraced more the things that were consistent with my life back here in the US.

Being a part of the community there was one of my favorite parts of my trip. In a small community in which people walk places, you are just always seeing people you know. Over the eight weeks, I developed more friendships and acquaintances than I ever expected. The open and generous nature of the Salvadoran people definitely contributed to this. Helping to serve at the program to feed those who are hungry was one of my favorite parts.

As you can imagine, I feel very positive about my time in El Salvador. I’m glad I went, and was able to experience these things and to help people there. This will be my last post in this series. Tomorrow, Milford Street will return to being a photo-blog. You may see some stray photos from El Salvador from time-to-time, but I’ve already started to make new images back here in the U.S.

My thanks to Joaquin, Marina, the faculty and staff of Centro Escolar Margarita Duran and all the others who made this trip such a positive experience. My thanks also to my wife and family for their support.

Outside the School

These images show the streets around the school where I was teaching. There was always an assortment of shops and sellers to check out. Some were there daily and others, like the people selling pots and other kitchen items, every few days. The people selling on the streets all took the same spots each day. I knew where to go if I needed a fan, or a child’s puzzle. Once, I bought a puzzle, for Marina’s nietos (grandchildren). It looked simple, but stymied Marina and I. I also bought a brand of batteries I’ve never heard of and Crest toothpaste on the street. There were other people, not shown here. Joseph sold used electronics and chargers. An old man in an odd hat fixed watches and eyeglasses.

The guy at the car really hustled. He sold wiper blades and car weather stripping. If you pulled into this very popular corner in the city, he would have a word with you about the condition of your wiper blades or how cracked the weather stripping on your car is. He was at it all day every day and seeing a discarded wiper blade or two in the street, let me know if he’d been successful of not.

Volcan Santa Ana

Last Sunday was my last dia libre (free day) in El Salvador. Joaquin and I decided to end it in style with a hike up Volcan de Santa Ana. In case you’re wondering if ‘volcan’ means ‘volcano’, the answer is ‘Si’.

It is not an easy hike and I was a bit nervous. It is the country’s tallest volcano at 7,812 ft or 2,381 m. The city in which I’d been living is very flat. But walking many kilometers each day around the city with a backpack was pretty good training.

Each day, a group gathers to go up together for safety reasons. They assemble about 11:00 to go up with a guide and a police officer. This day, there were about 150 of us. We ascended through jungle to a high desert climate with vegetation similar to what I saw when I hiked the Grand Canyon several years ago. Up to this point, it is straight forward climbing along switchbacks. As the trail transitions from desert like to lava rock, it gets a little tricky to tell the trail from drainage channels and the trail bed is really loose.

The reward is reaching the top. Looking behind you, you see the valley and Izalco volcano. Off to one side is a large lake, partially obscured by haze. In front of you is the crater. And this baby is not extinct; she is only resting. That is steam coming from the water below. As an added treat, there was a Mayan ceremony underway. We snapped some photos, ate our lunch, grabbed a lava rock or two as a souvenir, and treated the policeman to one of our extra sandwiches and Snickers bars. Pretty soon, the guides blew their whistle and it was time to head down.

Leaving

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One of the many gifts I received at my fairwell party today. I have about 500 photos to download edit. Some will make it into additional posts. I leave for home today and plan to take a few days off and then add some posts next week.

Cheers!

May I Take Your Order

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I’ve continued to help when I can this week at the Posada. After serving the food to a table is six, I’m expected to take the drink order. How challenging can it be to get a drink order right when the options are water or coffee? I mean even if Spanish is not my first language and I’ve never waited tables, is it all that hard?

Well, they can request a large coffee or water. Or they can request a small coffee or water. And they have a special word for the small that I’ve learned to say but can’t imagine how to spell. Some think the coffee is a bit too hot and want coffee with water.

Then there was the lady this morning who decided to have fun with her “Spanish as a second language” (SSL?) waiter and asked for “cafe con leche”. It took me a few seconds to realize she was asking for coffee with milk; something definitely not on the menu. We then both had a good laugh.

I’ve managed to get all of my drink orders correct, so far. But I tend to confuse the heck out of the kitchen staff (pictured above) while placing my order. Sorry!

My Last Week

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(The image above is of my final class with Grade 7B. As I went to leave, the girls all made hearts with their hands)

It is my final week here in El Salvador. It is time to wrap things up and say good bye. It is difficult. There are things that I wanted to work on and do that are not possible because there were no classes last week. My guess is that I would still feel that way even if there had been classes last week.

It’s difficult to say good bye to the students. Despite the fact that they have several volunteers each year coming to their school, they really seem to feel a loss with my departure. In a situation like this, you naturally feel closer to some students. Some, I doubt I’ll ever forget.

Many volunteers at the school are repeat visitors. Several times, I’ve been asked when I’ll return. The honest is answer is that I don’t know. My coming here was part of distinct plan at this point in my life. Currently, I’ve no plans to return. That makes it difficult for both them and me. While it has not always been easy these past seven weeks, there are things here that I will miss.

Of course, I’ll miss the school, and teachers and students. I’ll miss being called “Profe”. I’ll miss the fun you can have in teaching children English that you don’t have in teaching adults where I volunteer back home.

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There are other things that I’ll miss also. Sunday was my last festival evening on Paseo El Carmen. Exercising in the open air if El Cafetalon while looking at a volcano will never get old. The hill in the image above mesmerizes me with a beauty I cannot really capture here. It is the view above the courtyard of the school. The gently rolling profile and trees dotting the top are such a peaceful scene. It can quiet my thoughts on even a noisy late afternoon at the school. And there are the countless faces I’ve grown used to in the community.

Goodbyes are all a part of the process; a part of life. And I can continue to tell myself that, but it does not make it any easier.