Erin's Adventures in El Salvador
This is a blog of my experiences as an agroforestry and environmental education Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 9/06 until 12/08. The contents of this website are solely mine and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.
Monday, August 06, 2007
Thursday, January 11, 2007
A weekend of firsts
So I experienced many firsts this past weekend….a Salvadoran birthday party, a quinciñera, a culto, and killing a live turkey with my bare hands. I’ll start with the turkey. Since I have come to accept that I will be eating chicken and/or turkey over the next 2 years, I told the family I eat with that I would like to see how they kill the animals and then prepare them for cooking. The way I look at it is, if I’m going to eat it, I want to see what the animal has to go through. I really didn’t mean that I wanted to do the killing, but that’s what ended up happening. In preparation for a birthday party on Saturday, the family told me they were going to kill 2 of their turkeys, as well as several chickens. They told me to show-up at 4 on Friday and they would teach me how to prepare a turkey. As soon as I arrived, the mother took out a large knife and started sharpening it, while her husband went in search of the camera. After tying the 2 live turkeys to a tree, she handed me the knife as though I knew what I was supposed to do. I was really nervous and everyone was laughing at me, and taking pictures…I felt like the afternoon entertainment. I ended-up grabbing the turkey by the head, slicing its neck with the knife, and then watching it go crazy as blood splattered all over the place. This may not be a big deal to most people, but it certainly was for me. I will NEVER kill another animal again. I felt horrible afterwards, and I felt even worse while de-feathering it…the worst part, however, was when I was given a bowl of turkey soup for dinner!!
Saturday was a busy day for me. It started by going to a birthday lunch for a 1 year old, at which I experienced many awkward moments. After the lunch I was sitting outside with about 5 women who were chatting. At one point one woman started asking another woman questions about me, rather than just asking me…maybe she thought I couldn’t speak Spanish. So, I just looked at her and answered the questions, which really seemed to take her by surprise. Being in social situations here can be fun, but they are also exhausting and frustrating at times. I feel as though I really have to be “on”, which requires me to think and speak in Spanish the entire time. I try to do that anyway, but sometimes it just gives me a big headache. I’m really getting tired of not always being able to clearly express myself during conversations, or simply just not knowing what to say…I have experienced a lot of what I consider to be awkward silences. I just keep telling myself that it can only get better with time!
So, after lunch I had about a ½ hour to go back to my room and relax before my counterpart picked me up to go to the quinciñera. A quinciñera is a big day for a muchacha here, as it is in most of Latin America…it is the day a girl turns 15 and usually there is a big party. I went to the quinciñera of the granddaughter of one of the park guards that I have become friendly with. The party consisted of all the guests lining up outside of the house to watch the girl, wearing a big pink dress (it was actually very pretty), slowly walk up the street accompanied by her grandfather. Once she entered the house, we all crammed into a very small room to watch her dance to the first song. Then we all had to walk up to her one by one, give her a hug and say congratulations, and then give her the gift we brought. It was a little strange because I had never met the girl before, or anyone else in her family besides her grandfather, but it was a lot of fun. We then all went into another room and took shifts eating dinner because there wasn’t enough room for everyone. The meal consisted of salad, tortillas, and some part of a cow. I was really surprised when someone came up to me and told me that they knew I couldn’t eat red meat, so they were going to give me chicken. Now I have never met any of these people before, but somehow they all know the eating preferences of the gringa in town. I can only imagine the kinds of things people are saying about me when I’m not around!!
I had to leave the quinciñera early because I had to make it back to the house where the birthday party was earlier in the day…I was going to experience my first culto. A culto is an Evangelical prayer session of some sort, and they actually take place every day of the week here in my pueblo. This was a special one in honor of the little boy’s birthday, and I would say about 200 people came. It lasted about 2 hours, and it consisted of a preacher screaming into the microphone yelling alleluia, praise Jesus, and a lot of other things. I completely respect their religion, but I felt very uncomfortable during the whole thing, and I was happy when I had to leave early to meet my counterpart.
The most exciting part of the week so far has been the 10.5 hour hike I did on Tuesday that has left me unable to completely bend my leg…my knee is so swollen. I went with 2 park guards and 2 park guides on a hike that was supposed to take us to 2 different caves in the park. We ended up getting kind of lost, so we only made it to one of the caves…La Cueva de Cal (lime). The cave was really pretty, and there were ferns hanging down all around the entrance to the cave….we could also see all the way to the ocean. I brought some snacks along for lunch, but I didn’t need them because, to my surprise, one of the park guides pulled chicken out of her backpack and proceeded to cook chicken on a stick and tortillas for all of us over a fire. Forget fruit, gorp, and water, down here people bring along whole chickens and a ton of soda!! The day was a lot of fun, and I think I climbed up and down at least 3 mountains, and most of the time there weren’t any trails. I felt kind of like a monkey because I was hanging on to trees for dear life at many points because the slope was so steep.
That’s enough of an update for now. I’m going to head over to the school to try and introduce myself to the Director and some of the teachers…the new school year starts on Monday. Oh, I almost forgot. I met a guy today who is from Sweden and is traveling the world by himself with only a backpack. He has been gone for 15 months and plans on traveling for another 1 1/2 years. He has mostly been traveling by bus and train, and he could hardly speak any Spanish...I gave him a small Latin American phrase book that I haven't really been using. Anyway, hopefully I will some day be able to do the same thing....I guess I'll have to come up with some money first!
Hope all is well, and thanks for all the packages and letters!!
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Happy New Year
I don’t have a lot to say right now, as things have been rather slow here at my site. I’m really glad that XMAS is finally over because it was definitely very hard for me to be away from my family. Salvadorans celebrate XMAS on the 24th, and the 25th is a day of relaxation. The family I eat lunch and dinner with invited me to go with them to another family member’s house for dinner on the 24th. There were probably 40 people there, and we all took shifts eating because there wasn’t enough space for everyone. My dinner consisted of a turkey leg, rice, tortillas, and a coleslaw-like salad. After the dinner they brought out a piñata because it happened to be someone’s birthday as well. They were really surprised when I told them I’d never hit a piñata before, so they decided to blindfold and videotape me trying to break the piñata. I think they really got a kick out of watching the gringa acting like a fool.
I spent the 25th hanging-out with the same people at a poza (swimming hole) in the park. After the chicken was killed and de-feathered in the morning, we all set-off on the 30 minute hike into the park to the poza. There were way too many people at the poza, but nobody seemed to mind. Once I saw people washing their hair and their recently killed chicken in the poza, I decided to go up river a little bit to swim in a smaller poza by myself. You should see all the stuff people bring with them when they spend a day at the river…big pots and pans to cook with, hammocks, TONS of soda (I think my teeth are going to rot out of my head while I’m here), all the stuff that is needed to make a big pot of soup, and then some. I ate my first chicken foot, which was still attached to the leg, and I’d have to say that I really didn’t like it.
I spent New Year's Eve with the kids next door and it was a ton of fun. I ate dinner with them, and then I watched them set-off fireworks all night long. They aren't the pretty ones like we have in the states...these ones just make a lot of noise with no colors. A lot of the teenage guys here have firecracker wars which seems wicked dangerous. They don't pay attention to where they throw them, and they just chuck them at each other in the middle of the street.
Last week one of the park guards drove me to a nearby market area so I could buy a few things. I came home with a small 2 burner tabletop stove (it’s kind of like a camping stove), a gas tank, a wood table to put my stove on, 2 plastic stools, and this 4 shelf thing to put my food and dishes on. I don’t really like the fact that I have a propane tank like 5 feet from my bed, but I don’t have any other options. I really wanted to buy a tabletop sized refrigerator, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. Now that I can boil water I've been eating a lot of oatmeal and coffee for breakfast...we'll see how long that's going to last!
One thing I really like about my pueblo is that I don’t always have to leave in order to buy things that I need. People walk through the pueblo every day selling all kinds of stuff. For instance, the other day I bought a big piece of watermelon and a piece of cantaloupe for 50 cents from a woman who was selling fruits and vegetables out of a basket on her head. This morning I knew the bread man was nearby because I heard the bike horn that he always toots. So, I opened my door and waited for him to walk by…I bought 10 pieces of French bread (kind of like a sub roll here) for 50 cents. I also bought a mirror and a mop from 2 other people who were traveling through. These people spend their days walking from one place to the next selling stuff in order to make money. One of the best parts of the day is when the ice cream man rides through town on his bike….12 cents for an ice cream cone!
So the other day I found a very large scorpion in my house…it was chillin’ on my mop. I don’t know how it ended up there, but it definitely freaked me out. It was the first one I’ve seen at my site, and it was the biggest one I’ve seen in El Sal. I’ve decided that they scare me, and they are really ugly…I killed it with my sneaker. A few of the kids who live next door were over at the time and they even freaked out and climbed on top of my plastic chairs. They told me to be very careful because those things can kill you…I was like “thanks.”
That’s about all for now. I need to go wash a lot of dirty laundry….by hand. Oh, btw, I just typed posted this blog in the mayor's office...I'm now hooked-up to their wireless internet...crazy!
Take care and Happy New Year!
Friday, December 15, 2006
Update from El Imposible
This is a picture of all the recently sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteers and the training staff at the Embassy in San Salvador.
Swearing-in was short and sweet, but very nice. There was a party after the ceremony that was planned by a bunch of current volunteers, and I won a free roundtrip Delta ticket to the U.S!! Some volunteers had a raffle to benefit scholarships in
I’ve been at my site now for 12 days, but it seems like a lot longer. Sometimes it seems like time goes by at a snail’s pace. Things are going well. I’m renting two rooms in a house that is located in the pueblo about a block from the park entrance. I have my own separate entrance, and nobody else lives in the rest of the house, so it is kind of like my own little apartment. I really wanted to live with a family in the park, but there was just nowhere for me to live. The families that live in the park are extremely poor, and their “houses” are maxed out. It feels good to finally have a space of my own, but it definitely gets very lonely at times….something I have to get used to. Fortunately a bunch of kids live next to me so I spend a lot of time in the evenings playing cards with them and chatting. Since I’m not living with a family, I eat my lunch and dinner with the head park guard’s family at the entrance to the park. I pay them weekly for my meals, and at least it gets me interacting with people.
These are a few of my neighbors hanging-out outside of my door.
I have 2 counterparts here….one is the head of El Imposible, and the other one is a community member. My counterpart who lives in the park has been great, and she is really on top of things. She has taken me around to just about every home in the park to meet the families and get familiar with things. She has repeatedly told me that she wants to make sure I feel comfortable here, and that I feel like a part of everyone’s family. I feel most comfortable with her than with anyone else, and I definitely feel lucky to have been set-up with such a great counterpart. She also happens to be VERY Catholic, and invites me to church and other prayer meetings. I’m not really interested in going, but I’ve gone a few times just to show interest in what is going on in the community. My community is primarily Evangelical and Catholic, and I don’t want people to get the impression that I am all about Catholicism. I want to be able to work with community members regardless of their religious background, so I think it is important for me to not really share any of my religious beliefs. On that note, my counterpart took me to a Posada the other night. Since XMAS is right around the corner, a large group of people get together every night until the 24th and they carry religious statues down the middle of the road while singing. The group eventually ends up at someone’s house, at which point everyone enters the house and prays the rosary. It was all very interesting, but I felt especially awkward when they gave me the seat next to the statues and then handed me the rosary beads to start the praying. I may have gone to CCD growing up and to a Catholic college, but I have no idea how to say the rosary even in English, let alone Spanish. So, I just said “no entiendo,” or I don’t know, to get myself off the hook.
The great thing about living next to a National Park is that I have been doing a lot of hiking. The Park is divided up into 4 sectors, and I’ve gone hiking several times with park guards in our sector, which is San Francisco Menendez, in order to familiarize myself with the area. I’ve hiked to a waterfall, the oldest tree in the park (500 yrs), an archeological site, the highest point in the area (about 2000 meters), and to the sight of an old coffee finca which is now used as a park guard station. It feels great to finally be getting some exercise because I felt incredibly lazy during training.
These are a couple of pictures I took while hiking in the park recently.
It seems like practically everyone I meet wants to learn English, so I think having informal English classes may be one of the first things I start to do here. I may be able to speak English, but I have no idea as to how I should go about teaching it. If anyone has any experience or some good suggestions, feel free to let me know. I have also been asked to help create an Ecology Club at one of the schools nearby, and to also give charlas (talks) on the environment and the park. I’m also going to be working with the community within the park to maintain their composteras (compost piles). Solid waste is definitely an issue within the park, so SalvaNatura gave a training to the community members on the importance and benefits of composting back in August. Many people have their composteras built, but aren’t really doing anything with them. So, that is apparently where I come in. I’m not entirely sure what I will be doing, but I will most likely be working with each of the families and will help monitor the progress. I also met the guy who is going to be the beekeeper once the project gets up and running. He is really cool and enthusiastic, and he has a couple of horses. He told me that he’ll take me horseback riding in the park one of these days. Speaking of horses, a lot of people have them here, and I frequently see them hanging-out outside the little tiendas (stores) in the pueblo, and I’m awoken almost every morning to the sound of horses galloping down the street.
That’s it for about now. I may be able to start posting more frequently now because the mayor’s office in my pueblo has wireless internet…I just need to figure out what is wrong with the wireless card in my computer. I find it very interesting that there is wireless internet when just 15 minutes up the road people are living without electricity or running water. I was also surprised yesterday when I walked by a rather dilapidated looking house with dirt floors and saw a bunch of people inside watching tv on a big television set. Oh yeah, and my neighbor has a Direct TV satellite dish on her roof. I’m not sure really what I should think about all that, but it s quite interesting to say the least.
Hope you are all doing well and are enjoying the holiday season. Take care and keep in touch!!
Thursday, November 23, 2006
My new home
This is a picture of me pointing to my new home...I'm practically as far west as you can go. So, I only have to survive a few more days of training before I am officially sworn-in as a Peace Corps volunteer on November 30th. The past ten weeks have flown by, and it is definitely going to feel strange to leave Los Palacios for El Imposible. I feel fortunate to have been placed with such a great host family whom I have grown very close to, and I will really miss them….I definitely feel very much “at home” with them.
It looks like I will be living without electricity for awhile, and I will be bathing and washing my laundry in the river. It may seem strange to be polluting the water in a National Park, but it is really the only option for the community. There are no projects in the works for bringing electricity or water to the community because the ultimate goal of SalvaNatura (the NGO which oversees the park) is to have the entire community (about 27 houses) relocated to another area outside the park in a year or so. My new living situation is quite interesting, to say the least, and I think I will try to scope-out some other options once I arrive at my site. For now I am all set to live with a middle-aged, single Salvadoran man who lives in El Imposible...not the best situation. I really want to live in the community in which I will be working rather than in the pueblo, and for right now this is the only option. I’m going to have one of two rooms in an adobe house, but I don’t think I will be spending too much time in there. It is pitch dark and roasting hot in the room during the day because the only window, which isn’t even a foot wide, is filled in with wood for some reason.
While I was on my site visit I stayed with one of the park guards and his family. He has worked there for 25 years, and his house is right at the entrance to the park. While I was staying with them I noticed a nice looking toolshed that I think has the potential of being a perfect casita for me. It is close enough to the park guard’s house that I bet I could string some electricity over, and it is just the right size….there is even a perfect place for me to hang my hammock. The main problem is that there is nowhere else to store all the tools. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I’m definitely going to look into this more once I get there in December. I certainly never thought there would be a time when I would get excited at the potential of moving into a toolshed….keep your fingers crossed for me.
Overall I would say that my site visit went really well, and I’m excited about living there. The park is beautiful, and the people I had the chance to meet were very friendly and welcoming. While I was there I also had a chance to serve as a translator for three Scottish gals who have been traveling Central America for the past 4 weeks. In order to hike in the park you need to have a local guide, none of whom speak any English. Many of the guides are interested in learning English so that they can better communicate with tourists, so teaching English will probably be one of my secondary projects. So, since the girls spoke very little Spanish I went along on the 4 hour hike to try to translate when it was needed. It was a lot of fun, and it gave me the chance to learn a bit more about where I am going to be living. There are over 400 species of trees in the park, and there are 25 species of snake, including the boa constrictor and 5 poisonous ones…I hope I never see them. There are also a ton of medicinal plants, butterflies, beautiful birds, and cool animals like ant eaters.
Oh, so it looks as though I will be referred to as Kelly for the next 2 years because no one, including myself, can correctly pronounce my name in Spanish…fortunately my last name can also serve as a first. I'm not sure what my new address will be just yet, but I'll probably send an email out once I know it. Also, if anyone has any connections and can find some kids books in Spanish (used or new), please let me know. Books are always a great resource to have, and I would like to have some on hand at my site for the kids to read.
That's about it for now. I'm going to be spending the rest of the day hanging-out with my training group for Thanksgiving. Each of us prepared some type of food (I made about 8 pounds of mashed potatoes), and we are going to have a big dinner this afternoon. Happy Thanksgiving!!
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Site Assignement - Hot Damn!!
I finally know where I will be living for the next two years….in the Parque Nacional El Imposible. Here is what my information packet says about my site and what I will be doing: “You’re so lucky! You’ll have the chance to work in the Parque Nacional El Imposible. Your counterpart agency is trying to help the 27 families that live in the park. They have formed several groups to work on ecotourism (viveros, honey production, trail riding, crafts, food, and tourist guides). You’ll be working with these groups teaching environmental education to take care of the protected area.”
My site assignment almost seems too good to be true. I have actually already been to the park and have seen the community in which I will be living….I went there on my immersion days about a month ago. It’s a beautiful place, and I am really excited about the type of work I will be doing with the community. I have been told that I can choose to live within the park (without electricity), or I can live in the pueblo which is located just outside the park (with electricity). I will know more next week after my 3 day site visit.
El Imposible is located in the country’s western-most department, Ahuachapán, and I will be living less than an hour away from the frontera (border) with Guatemala. The park is one of two national parks in El Salvador, and I have been told that it is home to more biodiversity than anywhere else in El Salvador. I really wanted to be able to work with an NGO during my service, so I was really excited to learn that my counterpart agency is an environmental NGO called SalvaNatura.
I’m going to be sworn in as a volunteer on November 30th, and then I move to my new site on December 1st. This means I will soon have a new mailing address…yet again. I should probably know my new address after my site visit. For all of you wonderful people who have been sending me mail, please keep it coming. Just keep in mind that my address will be changing, so you may want to hold off on mailing anything after next week….it’s been taking close to three weeks for me to receive my mail.
Hope all is well wherever you may be. I’ll post another update, hopefully accompanied by pictures, after I check-out my new home for the next two years!!