Monday, October 11, 2010

Real life in El Salvador

It has been a while since I have written a blog, and with good reason. For some reason, I only like to write blogs if they are uplifting, amusing, etc, and I have had a really tough time focusing on such moods. So, I’ve decided to blog anyway, to update everyone on my life. For better or worse…

1) The weather has changed. After the entire country was inundated by the heavy TS Matthew rains, a wonderfully refreshing October wind blew the dreary grey away and brought with it very chilly nights. They say that the rain will return exactly on October 15, and quite honestly, instead of dreading the next storm, I am impressed that they have the ability to correctly predict the next rain with such accuracy from such a distance (they began the predictions on the 5th or so). Maybe they know something that we don’t?

2) I have been chosen as the next editor of the Rural Health and Sanitation section of our monthly publication, El Camino. I am a biologist, a jazz guitarist, a philosopher (sometimes), not an editor, but somewhere in my submission and application for the spot, they found a sliver of hope, a bit of creativity, perhaps just an enjoyable story. I am very excited to edit and format the section. I thoroughly enjoy writing and seeing a finished project, so maybe this will bring some worthy accomplishments my way.

3) We celebrated Independence Day on the 15th of September. I’ll just put a picture so you can see how they celebrated. The entire celebratioDSCN1135n was put on by the students at the local school.

4) We’re going to build a Casa de Salud in my community. After a long process of communal meetings, grant proposals, and back-and-forth emails, we have found an organization willing to fund a Casa de Salud. Essentially, it houses the office and supplies of the local health promoter. His job, in turn, is to use his knowledge, supplies, and Casa de Salud to improve (or maintain, depending on the situation) the health of the community through workshops, campaigns, house visits, etc. The Vibrant Village Foundation will provide the funding, and a local mason and I will construct the thing. I am thrilled! We will probably begin in January when I return from the states. I will obviously post pictures of its progress.

5) On a more serious note, and with regard to what has been brewing within me for weeks, I think I’d like to focus this post on the men of this country. I have had plenty of interactions with them, yet positive interactions are few and far between. There seems to be a string that connects many men here, and unfortunately, it is the heavy and uncontrollable consumption of alcohol. It is an incredibly destructive force that causes everything from broken bones to destroyed families, corrupted youth, and death. I have personally witnessed baseball bat fights on the streets, pistol fights on the soccer field, abandoned wild children, and thirteen year olds drinking/smoking along with their 35 year old peer. I have the temptation to conclude that these men are the root of all problems in this country, but I will stop short of such an assumption (they’re never fully true). Watching this just makes me feel hopeless, lost, and, quite honestly, deflated. Not only do they destroy plenty of things around them, they make me feel unwelcome in El Salvador.

Because of recent interactions I have had with a few of these men, I have forced conversations with friends in my community about the word Gringo only to realize that it’s not the word itself that I am trying to attack or undermine, rather the malevolent attitude with which some men approach me. After having fully explained the meaning and significance of the word (and having put it in context with Guanaco, a derogatory name for Salvadorans), my friends often say that there is little more I can do than adapt to the cultural use of the word.

I suppose the silver lining of these interactions, if there is one to be found, would be my newly found love for the innocence that the school children carry. It is an innocence that is quickly lost in the Salvadoran culture, but it is refreshing nonetheless. Even my worst days of teaching, in which absolutely no one pays attention, are better than some of my best experiences with the older men in the community, be it on the soccer field, in the town square, etc.

Also, I have been lucky enough to find a wonderfully nice friend by the name of Bartelvi. He’s a 21 year old with a tremendous story. He tried crossing illegally into the US when he was 18, only to be caught by a border guard. The guard threatened his life (‘either turn around or I’ll shoot you; no one will know you’re dead in this desert’) and took everything he had, so Bartelvi was trapped for two years in a small, northern Mexican town without a penny to his name or contact with his family. He literally disappeared for two years. Needless to say, he has a slightly different perspective than the normal 21 year old I meet down here.

I’m going to abruptly end here… Sorry. Just lost the steam needed to write in more detail about the above topics. I’ll write another soon, even if I can’t muster a blog about rainbows and butterflies. Take care!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Soccer Games

I live in El Salvador. We begin later than expected. We were scheduled to leave between 10 and 10:30; the truck didn’t leave until 11:25. We piled into the back of a fruit-truck – smoky diesel engine, shoulder-height side panels, open tail gate – and rambled westward to a town called Nueva Concepcion. By chance, we found the ‘supposed’ dirt road that lead to the ‘supposed’ soccer field, but, by lack of patience for a few sunning cows, the driver cautiously swerved off the road directly into a mud pothole, leaving the truck at a 45 degree angle and slightly swallowed by Mother Earth. With the wonderful and heroic power of another truck’s 4x4, we managed to dislodge the truck… and promptly turn around. We had taken a wrong turn. Lost, we meandered through Nueva Concepcion until we found another soccer field that may (or may not) have been our initial destination. Somehow, though, communication had broken down between our team and the other, for they had not yet arrived nor were they actually aware that a game had been scheduled between our two communities. After numerous telephone calls and 45 minutes of watching the local children fly their homemade kites, a handful of the players finally showed, but it was quickly decided that the field was unplayable due to the overwhelming depth of the mud and we would have to find another place to play. So, we ventured back down our pothole-ridden dirt road with the hopes of finding the ‘supposed’ soccer field unoccupied – wishful thinking when soccer is the official pastime on Sunday. As was expected, a game was underway, so, with a little planning and a ton of wishful thinking, we drove towards the town’s stadium (more like a high school football stadium, really). Sure enough, though, fate was on our side. The mayor reluctantly allowed us to play, but with truncated halves, for the stadium’s field was also in terrible shape from the previous night’s rain. We played and thoroughly tore it apart. I can only imagine how much the mayor now regrets that decision. He shouldn’t regret it too much though, for our karma quickly came full circle. It began to rain the instant we finished playing. So, what had been a pleasant, sunny, hour-long ride to the field became the coldest day in El Salvador… ever. We had finished later than usual (no wonder, considering we spent 2 hours thoroughly familiarizing ourselves with the entirety of Nueva Concepcion before beginning the game), so the sun set 15 minutes into our drive; the rain was torrential; and the driver had to maintain a fairly slow pace for fear of being swept away in the river-road (a new word, perfectly applicable to the hybrid between Salvadoran rain and roads). Those three factors led to numb hands, incessant shivering, and my first true craving for long sleeves. What should hypothetically require 3 hours in the United States occupies an entire day in El Salvador. Eight and a half hours for a soccer game. I am incredibly glad that I love soccer...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ashley visits...

It’s amazing how much the internalization of problems can be solved through the help of friends and loved ones. I had been in my new site for 10 days when Ashley arrived. By the time she left, I would have spent more time in my site with her here than not. I felt that I had settled in fairly well before her arrival and that my new site was steadily progressing in a desirable direction, but having her here helped me resolve issues I didn’t even know existed; I became more human than I had yet been in this Central American republic.

She was here for two and a half weeks, and roughly speaking, we spent each ‘work’ week in my site and each weekend in a different part of the country, exploring secluded mountain-top coffee villages and rustically-developed beach towns. The time we spent in my site was an absolutely fantastic opportunity for her to truly experience the things that I often have trouble explaining over the phone. Some things simply do not translate through conversation: soccer games played in hurricane-force winds and horizontal rain (which then turns streets into nameable rivers); the true isolation of some communities (like my first one); the loneliness that can swallow you whole; the incredible companionship that can be found in a giggly 7 year old; the art of eating Salvadoran pupusas (thick, corn tortillas the size of tea saucers filled with cheese, beans, sausage); the utter frustration of packed buses; the pure bliss of empty, early-morning buses; the simplicity of a hammock, coffee, and a book; Pollo Campero (the equivalent of Chick-fil-A maybe?); realizing that some things are universal, like little kids begging their mom with the word ‘but’, only in Spanish (pero, pero, pero, pero); the comfort of a mosquito net in the tropics; the refreshing first splash of a bucket bath (maybe I‘m exaggerating this one).

But I think I received the better part of the deal (sorry darling). At the most basic level, having a visitor forced me to push the boundaries of what I thought possible. Food, movies, and organization of the house, for example. All have been forever changed just by her visiting. I know now that, if I so choose, I can live comfortably and enjoyably in this country. In a more substantial manner, though, she also reminded me that I still am a human, I still am Erik Howard, and I can fully be that individual in a country with different mannerisms, expectations, and norms. Quite honestly, I think my community was more interested in her arrival than mine (it’s ok, no hard feelings haha), but I certainly know that her presence opened many doors and began PLENTY of relationships throughout the community. I simply became a regular human in the eyes of my community. My story became real and visible. I absolutely miss her presence here, as does the community. As the little girls have been asking since she left, ‘…y la Ashley?’ (…and Ashley? Where did she go?)