Last fall, I asked for help for Rosita, a girl in the school where I volunteered in El Salvador who was in danger of going blind due to degenerative myopia. We actually exceeded our fundraising goal. But that was okay because Rosita has a sister who also has degenerative myopia. The additional funds that people pledged were used to help buy her sister the glasses needed as a first step in treating this condition. Meanwhile, Rosita continues to do well. She is still wearing her glasses. Other treatments, including surgery, are in her future, but her condition is stable now. Thank you again for everyone who lent support.
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.
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.
I made this video of my time here as a gift to the teachers and students of Centro Escolar Margarita Duran, as well as the other friends and people I’ve met. Later, I’ll share a second video I made of events at the school over this time.
This past week while there have been no classes, I have been helping out at the Posada Santa Maria, a program to provide meals to people who don’t have the resources to feed themselves here in Santa Tecla. The program and the dynamics are really quite amazing. Rather than trying to feed everyone all at once with a huge room full of tables, they dedicated about a third of the dining area to being an open air courtyard containing a tropical garden that some of the volunteers help to maintain. It is by far the nicest “soup kitchen” I’ve ever seen. Typically, there are two to three seatings over the course of ninety minutes to make sure that everyone is fed.
They’ve chosen not to serve the food cafeteria style; each volunteer is assigned to be the “servidor” for a single table of six. Once people are seated, the servidor goes up and gets the food from the kitchen where other volunteers put it on plates. The servidor serves it, says grace for the table, gets the drinks for the table (often a choice of coffee, water or fresh juice) and then takes care of cleaning the table.
I thought the hard part would be figuring out how to say grace in Spanish, but I don’t think God needs a lot of fancy words, just thanks. Getting the drink orders right has been more challenging. Serving people there has certainly improved my Spanish and some of them like to practice what English they know.
The really nice aspect is that by staying with the table, I get to know some of the people. Some regularly make a point of greeting me. Prior to starting here, I’d heard stories that some of our students eat there and wondered if it would be awkward. It is one of those things that if you don’t treat it as awkward, it is not awkward. The past couple of days, students have come over to say “hola” and chat. They still call me “teacher” and “profe” there, which makes some of the others wonder.
I was really concerned when I learnt that there would be no classes this week, but this has worked out quite well.
The images here are from my iPhone. They show me in my “servidor” vest and some photos of the room. Some of the people we serve are a bit shy and I chose not to make images of them.
This week’s lesson is that anything can happen. On a typical Wednesday, the news came down that the Ministry of Education had decided that the public school teachers of Santa Tecla could benefit from additional training. They cancelled classes for this week and are providing said training to the teachers of the city.
Friends in the US are likely asking how that can happen. Child care needs to be arranged. Three days is not enough time. Yes, I know. I’m sure parents here a bit perturbed also. But it can happen, just the way shops can close for lunch hour and there can be one day strikes that disrupt our lives when we travel abroad. I’m sure we do things that make people in other parts of the world wonder and scratch their heads also.
For many volunteers, this would be exciting. They would go to the beach for the week or take off to Guatemala. But, I am not much of a “playa” guy and came here to work in the community. I asked Joaquin about options. He’s been very generous with his time with me. Even though, it’s not really his job to keep me occupied, he helped me with a few ideas and making connections. We are told when we sign up to expect the unexpected.
Through a connection that Joaquin has, it sounds like I’ll spend some half days helping out at a program for people with special needs. The lady with whom I am staying belongs to a parish that has a big program to help feed the poor and homeless. She is going to bring me down tomorrow morning to help out. A friend and his cousin want to improve their English. The cousin wants a job at a call center. We are going to work an hour or two a day on their English speaking skills. They are hungry for knowledge and ask challenging questions that send me to the internet looking for answers.
Something that rocked my world for a few hours is all working out. I also am preparing slide shows to present to the school. When I return to classes on July 11th, that is my last week here.
When you first walk through the markets here in El Salvador, it looks like people are just sitting or standing around and not doing much. If that’s your impression, look closer.
First consider the dynamics of whether you sell food or other goods. Those selling food have the advantage that people need to eat every day. Unfortunately, food has a definite shelf life, especially sitting out in the market. If you don’t sell before the food spoils, you lose. Meat and fish lose their value the quickest. People selling other goods, such as belts, watches, electronics, and a countless other things, have the advantage that their goods last a long time. Unfortunately, these are not everyday purchases. Some augment the goods they sell by also selling a service. The man selling watches, can also make basic repairs on watches, replace the battery, or fix your watch band using the supplies in his fanny-pack.
No matter whether people have food or goods, they need to work on selling. People selling food are often stationary. They might be sitting there but they are looking for people to sell to. Some are calling out to people all of the time. They are using their energy the least efficiently. Most are watching you carefully. If you even let your eyes briefly rest on their wares, they will begin talking to you trying to sell to you. Some people selling goods wander are more mobile. They may sit down at times that tend to be slow for sales. Then during times at which they are more likely to make a sale, lunch hour for instance, they are up and trying to find customers.
Then there is the maintenance and marketing of their goods. People selling fresh fruits and vegetables want their food to look the freshest. They sprinkle their goods with water or rotate better looking items to be more towards the front of their display. While waiting for the bus in La Palma, I stood next to a woman selling tamales and other cooked foods. It looked like she was just sitting there and occasionally calling out that she had food to sell. But, every ten seconds she waved a cloth over her food to chase away flies. People here do not like flies and other insects. People also have to be prepared for inclement weather and often have to bring their young children to the market because there is nobody else to care for them.
Selling is challenging, make no mistake. It may look like they are not doing much, but looks can be deceiving.
Generally speaking, I’ve found the people of this country to be friendly and so very generous.
It is common courtesy when making eye contact on the street or entering a shop to exchange greetings. When a person or group begins to eat, someone will invariably say “buen provecho” which is the Spanish version of bon appetit.
People have welcomed me into their groups and homes. I’ve been invited for meals and family gatherings. Groups with whom I have no affiliation have offered to have me accompany them on day trips.
So many times, people have offered me food and drink. When I showed up at an outing and did not have food with me, they did not let me go hungry. Teachers at the school routinely share fruit and parts of their meals with me. And they also share with one another. I’ve also seen people take notice of homeless individuals near restaurants and buy them food or even a meal.
So why choose photos from a beach trip for this post? I made these a few weeks back, when a group of teachers treated me to a trip to a private beach club. It was a wonderful thing to do for a visitor from afar.
Thank you to the people of El Salvador
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.
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.”