Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Address

Send anything!!!!!!! No obligation, of course. But I love mail.

Current wish list if you are feeling awesome:

mixed cds, movies, books (I do have a kindle but still), gum (yes I still love gum), dried fruit, crystal light packets, magazines, anything that reminds me of you. Oh yeah and if you want to copy the new Glee and send it to me too. :) Make my dreams come true.

Jamie Albrecht

Voluntaria de Cuerpo de Paz

Centro Escolar Caserio Upire

Canton Monteca

Nueva Esparta

Departamento la Union

El Salvador, Centro America

Love to all!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Real Peace Corps Volunteer...week 1

I have been a real volunteer for over a week now. I like to say that this also means I have been a real person here in El Salvador for a week too. Training is just not real life with its intense schedules, serious English and gringo time, and hand holding, but that is old news now. I am now here in Northern La Union in Caserio Upire. I am going to do my best to try and describe my new home for the next two years and what I have learned about this place in about a week’s time.

I’ll start with my host family. I live with the school director and her husband and their son. There are two other sons in the states and one daughter and she lives in San Miguel (5 hours away) studying, but she comes home on some weekends. Met her daughter and love her! Missed her so much this past weekend. The school director is the most amazing woman (also my community guide) who practically runs this town. Her name is Nina Maria and she is just impeccable, full of ideas, full of energy, and full of love for her new daughter, yours truly. My host father is also an incredible farmer her in the town. But on top of that he destroys every negative stereotype I have ever had about Salvadoran men. He cooks, cleans, and is super interested in me and my work and he talks to me all the time (every other family I have encountered in homestays, the man never talks). He even refers to me as his daughter already too, which is amazing considering it has been awhile since I have had a father type figure in my life. My host brother is equally respectful and will unfortunately be leaving for university in San Salvador very soon. I will miss him because he likes to talk (and slowly) and play the guitar all the time.

The best part of this week with my family has been going to other places when they call me their daughter. But even better is the fact that my family has blue eyes and light skin (my community is one of the remaining strongholds of European – Salvadoran mixes) so I actually look like them. So all the new people we meet assume I am their other daughter. Awesome! Integration…yes. Even people in the office in San Salvador during counterpart day said, “Oh you guys look so much a like.”

Moving on, my house is almost as amazing as my family. I can’t believe I am going to say this but I have a regular toilet, a regular shower, and a WASHING MACHINE. I am not sure how this is possible and how I got so lucky, but yes I am incredibly lucky. Oh yeah, I also have a big screen television. Seriously?! Am I in El Salvador? Yes, thank you remesas. But on top of that my family as I said runs this town, so they have earned their amazing house in my opinion. And by the way they are treating me I believe they deserve everything in the world. I have never felt so loved and welcomed.

Luckily for me, my community is just as welcoming and loving. I love how I can literally walk up to a random house and they will inundate me with hugs, coffee, lots of food, and friendly conversation. I also have to comment here that my community also rocks because it is super cold (in El Salvador), they grow their coffee (no more café listo), and the tortillas are delectable. Furthermore, my host dad is an amazing farmer (runs in the family) meaning good, strange cheese, lots of corn on the cob (yummy!), and more corn (the real stuff).

I also have to mention another point about my community. My community is very religious and by religious I mean Evangelical. This means no dancing, no playing cards, and dressing super conservatively. But I think I was put here for a lot of reasons including the fact that I don’t drink, I am super oddly curious about religious, and open minded about going to church with them.

In terms of doing my actual job here, things are moving along smoothly so far. Surprisingly, I have been crazy busy thus far. Nina Maria has been keeping me busy with lots of meetings with the students, teachers, directors, doctors, community members, etc. Then other days I went to the Alcaldia (local government), policia, and took a trip with the other teachers and directors to see some indigenous pueblos. With all of this stuff to do I feel like I have been seriously slacking in meeting the people in their houses. The majority of our first two months are supposed to be spent visiting houses and collecting information about them and the status of their house and health. Yeah, I have not done much of that. I have been to quite a few houses, especially because the closest volunteer Anna came these past two days and brought me to her favorite places. She knows a lot about my site because her and the previous volunteer were great friends. I really appreciated getting to know her and her help with some house visits.

But now I am feeling intimidated by the health diagnostic and survey I have to do in every house. I honestly just want to go to houses and introduce myself and talk to people. I don’t really want to sit and ask them about their latest pap smear, but hopefully I can get some help from the local health promoter.

I will admit in addition to feeling intimidated by these house visits, I still feel so new in a way that really challenges my American notions of independence. I really can’t (as in not permitted) to do much on my own yet, so I feel like I really have not explored the community or done anything on my own. I really just want to go out and walk around, but I don’t want to just take off, especially when it feels like Nina Mary always has something to show me or planned. Hopefully with more time I will be able to really figure things out here, how they work, and where everything is.

But I will take this emotions because honestly I feel so well taken care of here. I cannot tell you more how lucky I am to be with this family. And the town too. They loved the old volunteer so much (which is sometimes overwhelming when I think about having such big shoes to fill) but it is also nice because it means they want to care for the new volunteer, me.

How can one possibly feel lonely? Impossible. Just lonely in my gringa-ness, but that’s what the other volunteer friends are for (and we got that cute family cell phone plan).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Saying Goodbye to San Esteban

It is funny how a place can quickly become so near and dear to your heart. I only lived in San Esteban Catarina for a short two months, but for my first two months in a new country I am so happy that I got to know this wonderful little pueblo.

It really hit me how much I loved my time there on the night before my early morning departure when I had to start to say goodbye to friends and family. I can only imagine what it is going to be like leaving after living somewhere for two years given the fact that just after two months my host family cried.

I am just so thankful that I had such a warm and welcome introduction to El Salvador. So thank you, San Esteban Catarina!

Some of my favorite things/moments:
Climbing the cerro (mountain) and overlooking San Vicente
The Neveria (ice cream shoppe)
My host family/friends/youth group/running women!
Our community projects
Playing in the park
The moment when I saw we reached San Esteban every afternoon after riding in a crowded pick up for 30 minutes
Proximity to San Vicente and superselectos (groceries)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Swearing In

I’ll admit I was not really that excited for swearing in. To be honest it felt really anti-climatic. I guess pre Peace Corps I had this notion that this would be the biggest moment of my life considering how long it took to apply, get here, and then finally survive training. Needless to say, I was not too pumped. I think it had to do with the impending stress of living for our sites, the medical session beforehand, some ridiculously placed PC enforced rules about our whereabouts after swearing in, etc. It was looking like swearing in was going to just plain suck… But then I saw our little group of trainees all dressed up. And then it all changed.

Everyone looked absolutely beautiful/handsome. It was amazing to see us all looking so nice for a change (no offense to anyone but we usually look like tired, semi-professional but sloppy, gringos. But this night we looked super sharp. I stop going on about how beautiful we are and move to the fact that the ceremony was also a very big success in my eyes. The ambassador came and not only delivered a nice speech, conducted our oath, but more importantly she stayed afterwards to take lots of pictures with us and talk with our host families. I mean seriously, what a freaking champion of a diplomat. I just cant believe how nice, humble, and down to earth she is. Note to self: when you become an ambassador, be like her. And to top it off, our star gringo Andrew, delivered an amazing speech in Spanish on behalf of all of us. I was just so proud of him and us as a group that I am not ashamed to admit I did that tearing up at a happy moment thing.

Following the ceremony we were locked down in the training center (to avoid the trainees going out and drinking). We had a good time anyway. It was really nice to just to spend the final night together and then hang out in the hotel all night. Because the next morning we headed off to meet our counter parts. But that is another post.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Site Assignment

I can think of nothing more torturous. Try putting 13 trainees in a room after they have just had their Spanish placement interviews (aka stressed out- but I passed with an Intermediate Mid yay) and ask them to wait a few seconds longer for the name of their new home for the next two years. It is downright awful. I think if you had asked us to wait even just an hour more we would have staged a revolt. But nonetheless Peace Corps finally revealed our new homes for the next two years:

That green star all the way up on the right is yours truly. I am heading to Caserio Upire, Canton Monteca, Municipio Nueva Esparta, in the department of La Union. What can I tell you about this little canton in the northeastern region of El Salvador. Well because I just got off the phone with a wonderful volunteer in the area (thanks Anna) I know a little bit more than the information Peace Corps gave me in the “Welcome to your New Home” packet. So I have some wonderful information that I could share about my site, but I feel as though I should get there first and make my own observations and then report back to you all.

But here is what I will tell you. If you cannot tell from the pictures of the maps my site is REALLY far away. And I am not sure that the map conveys adequately just how far I am. For some reference, I am 8 hours or more from the capital, 1.5 hours from the nearest market, 3 hours from the nearest supermarket and atm, and 5 hours from San Miguel (closest Peace Corps hospital). My site is cold (for El Salvador) and mountainous, which is music to my ears (hiking and the ability to sleep at night because I am not dying of sweat). I look forward to the moment here when I actually put a blanket over me because I feel cold. It relies heavily on cattle ranching (hello dairy), coffee plantations (thank goodness), agriculture, and remittances. Finally, I am going to live in a canton of about 300 families. It has a school to grade nine and the school principal is my host mom (who is apparently the most amazing woman in the world).

That is essentially the information that Peace Corps gave me. And that is what I will give you (for now). The next time I write about my community it will come from my own feelings, observations, and acquired knowledge. Get ready! I know I sure am.

I know I just wrote “I know I am ready” but in a lot of ways I am not. I don’t want to pretend like it is that simple. In reality I am terribly nervous and anxious. I am about to make a big change and this time it’s the big league. Of course, I want to start but those first tough months in site are coming up and knowing that now is making me even more apprehensive of leaving the comfort of training, San Esteban, and my gringo friends.

But that is what this adventure is all about. See ya later, comfort zone.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pictures of my Youth Group

There is a Carnival on my Front Porch

(written on Sunday- sorry it is now Thursday)
After enjoying a nice, relaxing weekend (read my last post please) we headed straight to another busy week of training. Monday was relatively uneventful with just a short session in San Vicente and then afternoon Spanish classes.

Tuesday was a typical day in San Vicente with medical information on nutrition (not going to happen here), a Civil War movie, a meeting on gangs, and then Trainee facilitated presentations (including mine this week). These sessions are supposed to help prepare us to give charlas (discussions) in our sites about various topics. Rachael and I presented on trash management and I think it went really well. We started off with a drawing of a house that was having serious issues with trash and then had the other trainees describe the problems in the photograph. Then I went into the discussion of potential sicknesses resulting from poor trash management. Then Rachael talked about the proper ways of disposing of trash. Then we had activity where the trainees had to place trash in the appropriate location. Pretty simple, but also in English, so I feel like this process will only be harder when I have to do this in Spanish. Oh well, one step at a time.

Tuesday was also my host mom’s birthday, so when I got home we had a big cake! It was a delicious dinner. I got her two small paintings in the market and pan dulce. She seemed to really love them both! J

Wednesday my group (Liz, Cory, and I) accompanied the La Cruz kids (the canton just down the road from us) on their caminata (which is like a hike that they took from La Cruz to San Esteban to climb our mountain in the community, which serves as their community project for training). Then once we got to the top of the mountain the trainees from La Cruz gave their discussions on self-esteem and goal setting. They did a really good job and it was nice to spend the morning not in Spanish class. Though in the afternoon we had to leave the caminata and head to lunch and then Spanish. This would have been a pretty normal day, but around 6 p.m. the town starts to freak out a little bit and my host mother informs me that some man was just shot near our community. Long story short this gang member on a motorcycle shot a driver of a pick up truck because he refused to pay him renta. It was all over town and caused a lot of upset because the driver had two young boys here in the local school. So everyone was really worried and upset over the entire thing. Furthermore, this caused all the transportation to shut down (except a few buses) causing even more problems for those needing to leave the community for the next few days. (Transportation was finally back and normal on Sunday).

Thursday we spent the morning shadowing a health promoter here in San Esteban. This is part of our “making community contacts” portion of training. First we met with the director of the Unidad de Salud, the health clinic in town. After our initial interview with her we scheduled this day to follow around this promoter. Our promoter’s duty for the day was to make house visits to women with very young children (4 days old) and see how they are doing. So, I spent the morning holding very little babies. I have never held something so young and fragile. It was so intimidating. I am not sure how you parents do it…

In the afternoon we ran into San Vicente (luckily finding a bus) to prepare for our caminata on Friday and buy prizes in the market for the winning team.

On Friday we had our caminata with our youth group! It started out a little rough because unexpectedly the kids all had to go to church in the morning to mourn the death of the pick u driver. So we got off to a late start, but no real harm done. I should also note that our original caminata was supposed to go to the place where the man was shot, so we had to change it last minute to the mountain and soccer field here close to the center of town. It was just decided that it was too dangerous to bring all the kids there. Totally understandable, but still kind of sad that we couldn’t take the kids somewhere a little bit different. Anyway, we started with a charla on trash management. It was a really simple discussion. But the best part is that we started it with a competition to see how much trash they could collect for the soccer field. Surprisingly, the kids loved this and gathered so much trash that we hardly knew what to do with it. It was such a wild success that we didn’t bring enough bags to deal with the amount that they collected. After that we started the field day like competitions between our two teams of 14 (tie dyed black and red versus green and yellow) including: tug of war, potato sack race, wheel barrow race, egg race, a balloon popping race, limbo, and then ended with a soccer game. The yellow and green team one getting a marvelous prize of a new water cup. We went with the recycling theme! Overall I will say that it was a great success and all the kids seemed to have a really good time. But I have to admit it was a really challenging event to actually see through and definitely frustrating at times. The biggest challenges were getting the kids to listen, dealing with cheating and arguing, and also dealing with their sometimes too competitive teachers. I definitely need to come up with more effective strategies for handling these issues. I don’t think I am quite firm enough yet with the kids, but I feel that is something that I can improve on with time and experience.

This weekend has been filled with our community festival/carnival. I was really excited the first day but then I quickly realized that the positives of the festival are minimal. Picture those rinky dink fairs near your house during the summer. They are kind of creepy looking with a shaking ferris wheel that you should never in your life go on because it might just fall apart. Yes, that is what has taken over my community complete with the token fair foods and random places to buy music, jewelry, and random junk. It has also brought an influx of random people, drunk men, stray dogs, fireworks (these are the worst), more noise than usual, and an end to my sleeping. I should mention that the festival is literally on my doorstep. Because my house faces the park there is literally no separation between my house and the fair. Yes, I am living in the middle of a fair right now. It is not all bad though. I got to go to the dance which after reminding me of a seventh grade dance where no one wants to make the first move, was actually a lot of fun. Did I mention that my group was the awesome magic to get the party started? We went right in and danced immediately: 4 gringos and our close friends in the community (most of which are friends of my host sister). It was a great night because I really enjoyed being out with my host sister. Plus, Salvadorans take their dancing so seriously that it is really fun to watch them. I just danced like a crazy white person and luckily they all would clap and scream. I’ll take it.

Wow, I need to stop this post. It is getting ridiculous. All I will say is that I am happy that this fair ends tomorrow and I can sleep again. I need my sleep this week because it is literally the second biggest week of training. Not only am I going to the capital to have tea with the ambassador, but Thursday is my Spanish interview (intermediate mid PLEASE!) and my site assignment day. If you can drop me a line of luck that day!

All my love to the states.