Sunday, December 16, 2012

Graduation


**Warning, this post is a little old, but I feel the need to post about our Kindergarten graduation this year in response to the terrible events in Connecticut this week. I dedicate this post to the fallen and their families and cast it as a reminder to treasure our children for they are our future and we owe it to them to keep them safe. To the kids around the globe struggling to go to school- keep going, learning and growing, and keep making us proud. Hopefully, we will turn these events around and make you proud too. This is a call to action, adults, in the name of our kids so that they may graduate not only Kindergarten but high school, college, and go on to make this world a better place.

Here in El Salvador the school year ends in the middle of November culminating in the graduation ceremonies for kindergarten and ninth grade (as well as high school in the main towns). This was my first year being a part of the graduation ceremonies in Upire since last year I was in San Vicente going through my second round of training.

Graduation resembles a lot of the formal events here in El Salvador. A lot of people show up really dressed up in their Sunday best, there is a long, pretty boring program, and a big lunch to follow (for the important people, like me J). I had the pleasure of sitting at the “Mesa de Honor” or special people table for ninth grade and kindergarten graduation, so it did make it somewhat more special for me than the usual events.

The kindergarten graduation took place first on November 13th and I was asked to be the “Madrina,” which is basically just someone who is an “honorable” guest at the ceremony, sits at the honor table and hands out the diplomas, and typically buys each graduate a small gift. So instead of my usual Peace Corps wear, I put on my Sunday best (an amazing dress I had made by a seamstress (my host aunt)), straightened my hair, and sat at the special table. During the ceremony I gave a small speech about learning to read and write, then they presented the other Madrina and myself with a diploma of honor, we handed out diplomas as the kids graduated, and at the end I gave each kid a small gift (t-shirt). It was a small, entertaining ceremony, especially because the little ones are just so darling in over the top cute outfits and they also performed a few songs that were just too precious to describe adequately. Afterwards, I had lunch with the other special guests, the kids had cake provided by the other Madrina, and we were all home relaxing by 1:30 p.m.

Here is the ceremony in pictures: 

Handing out Diplomas 

Can you really expect them to spell Albrecht right? ;)

Dancing Ninos!!!

The following Monday was the ninth grade graduation ceremony, which was huge (more people at one event than I have ever seen in Upire, except for maybe the day the market opened) and a little bit longer (but not as long as I anticipated). For this event I was not anything special with a title, but I still had the pleasure of sitting at the honor table. I still had to put on a formal dress (another one made by my host aunt), straighten my hair, and put on make up (such a rarity J). But, I was Don Brian’s beautiful ;) escort. Brian was actually the “Nominada” of the ceremony, which is basically the honored guest who gives a longer speech and usually (but not required) gives each of the kids a gift. Brian gave a short, but sweet and funny speech and bought each of the kids a wonderful gift (a monogrammed towel and a picture frame with pictures of each kid).

The ceremony was simple. The school director spoke to the graduates, their professor, Brian gave his speech, a student gave a “thank you speech” on behalf of her class, and then the ninth graders performed a song as a way of saying goodbye. Afterwards, we had another big lunch with all of the guests of honor.

More pictures:




That wraps the end of the school year. I’ll admit I am ready for the tranquility of December. Everything is about to shut down and go into vacation mode, including myself ( I might actually already be there). Although, I am spending my birthday and this Christmas in my site in Upire, I am going to Nicaragua right after the holidays. I am definitely a little bit sad about missing Christmas at home with my family and friends (actually really sad, I LOVE XMAS TIME), but I know deep down I need to give Upire one Christmas.

P.S. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving! I sure did. I got to enjoy it from the comforts of a beautiful embassy home with a wonderful American Navy family. I enjoyed all the fixings of American Thanksgiving and left super, squeaky clean after a hot shower—it was glorious. Enjoy the holidays.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pa-ty, I think we are crazy

My good friend and fellow volunteer Tricia and I have been working on separate “healthy living” projects in our respective communities for the past few months. My project has been focused on an exercise club in my school – focused mainly on soccer, basketball, and baseball/softball for both boys and girls. Tricia has been teaching cooking class once a week for some of the older students in her school focused on healthy ingredients and techniques. Additionally, she has been working on improving the nutrition of her community by trying to integrate more protein into their diets with the future building of tilapia pools. Both of our projects also included money to take the participating kids on an excursion where we would try to tackle some sort of athletic achievement. In our minds we both wanted to take the kids to hike the San Miguel volcano (a potentially amazing achievement for them and relatively close to our sites) but quickly learned that it is a DIFFICULT hike and essentially impossible with 40 kids. When we both realized that our original idea was way too out there we both were caught scrambling for a replacement place of the same type of caliber to bring our students. You know they say, “Two minds are better than one,” so we decided to put our minds, money, and excursions together. 

Somehow we ended up with the idea to climb the tallest mountain in El Salvador-
Cerro El Pital. What sounds better than "I climbed the tallest mountain in my country?"We figured the kids would feel really motivated to go on the trip, which would help with keep attendance high for our lectures and classes. It sounded good on paper (not so much logistically speaking) to take 40 kids from the eastern most departments of El Salvador to the opposite side of the country to climb the country’s tallest mountain. The kids, teachers, and community members were understandably stoked with the idea, especially because this would probably be the only opportunity they would have to see such a noteworthy place. Unfortunately, we got a little ahead of ourselves and announced the location before having all the details worked out (plus even when we have details worked out ahead of time, something always happen). There were so many issues during the planning that Tricia and I both almost quit the project about 100 times each. I think it is only because we had each other to lean on when they other one was feeling hopeless that we were able to pull this off. Additionally, neither of us could bear to tell our communities that El Pital was impossible given our serious financial restraints and inability to coordinate everything given the circumstances, so we brainstormed for two painful weeks on all the ways we could make this dream come true. Even up until two days before the trip we were unsure if we could make it happen, especially when our contracted bus up the price from $600 to $1000. But our communities together really came through in the end. My host mom (school director) was able to contract a different bus for $800 and my community development organization paid the $200 difference. Tricia’s community came through big and provided endless amounts of energy food for all the kids—to keep the kids happy and occupied during the long, long bus ride. So, we decided to go for it, but felt SO crazy to be attempting to tackle such a long journey, overnight with 40 kids with just two Peace Corps Volunteers (plus Brian and our regional leader Jess who were nice enough to come and help us out). Crazy, but doable...

Eventually, the big day arrived and given the challenges of planning the trip everything seemed to go pretty smoothly (well for El Salvador). We had a few problems here and there throughout the day. My community arrived 2 hours ahead of Tricia’s at the meeting place (no one’s fault, just unfortunate planning), my host mom freaked out about the bus climbing half way up the mountain and the ability of the bus driver to drive appropriately, then we all freaked out about getting down the mountain in time and catching the last bus back to meet with our bus, there were definite struggles for some students and teachers trying to climb up the mountain as well (many did not finish), and of course the long journey proved to be a little challenging for the students and teachers, especially when we arrived at our lodging place at 9:30 p.m. after getting up at 1:00 a.m. Needless to say, it was a long day. 

But the trip was worth it in so many ways. 

The journey up the mountain was a beautiful one--giving the kids a view like none other before in addition to experiencing the bitter, bitter cold for the first time too. Most of the students and teachers were able to get up the 5 KM to the top and say they conquered the tallest mountain in their country, which is something I believe they will never forget. We came down from the hike, played some ice breakers, danced a little bit, laughed, and reached the lodging area with kids still anxious to play all together on the soccer field. We stayed the night in Alegria which is another beautiful town in the southern part of the country giving the students and teachers a chance to see another incredible place in their country. The next day we had a nice tour of Alegria and finished up the camp with a small ceremony complete with paper ribbons and diplomas for each participant. My favorite part of this trip, however, is that it gave our two schools an opportunity to meet and talk with other teachers and students--a rare exchange and a unique experience for both of our communities. They are already talking about the next thing we are going to do together!

Here is a glimpse of the trip:



Group of students, profe, and I at the top!

Karen and I (she is my favorite girl-7th grader)

Look out point! 

Playing dinamicas (ice breakers) while waiting for the bus
Kids playing soccer at 10 p.m. after our long day! What energy!

Next morning playing in the park at 7 am--more energy!

All in all a successful trip, but I am so relieved and happy it is over. I am not sure how we managed to pull off such a lavish trip on so little funds just her and I, but we did.  I think Patty and I are just crazy, especially because we may have already started discussing the next project together. ;)

*Special hugs and love to Tricia, her teachers, and her students. It was such a pleasure to share this experience with all of them. I could not imagine a better partner in crime to tackle the crazy. Love ya girl. 

The new, old Gringo


November has been a special month. Not only was Barack Obama reelected at the beginning of the month (which I luckily got to watch with other Americans and got to toast to when they called OHIO!!! J), but I also got to re-welcome a new friend to El Salvador. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Brian:


A little introduction…Brian is the volunteer that was in Upire before me (if you are a loyal fan of this blog, you may remember his name from earlier posts). He returned at the beginning of this month to visit El Salvador and Upire as well as be around for the 9th grade graduation (which is a big deal here—especially for him to see these kids whom he taught math to during his service).

I’ll admit I spent the greater half of October stressing about his impending arrival worrying about what it would be like to share Upire (and my host family) for almost a month. Most of us self-conscious volunteers who follow another struggle a little bit with the constant reminders of the that one preceded them. People always say “Brian did this…Brian did that…Why don’t you do this?…Why don’t you do that?” It can be draining, annoying, and even rude at times. COME ON…I am here now! Why must I always be compared to the perfect volunteer that came before me? It only makes me feel inadequate and second best, especially on days when I feel I have accomplished absolutely nothing. Salt in a wound. But I digress…

Surprisingly, sharing Upire with Brian has not been at all like I had imagined. To his credit, he is humble, generous, and an absolutely wonderful supporter of others (even his previously unknown successor). He has spent his time here these past three weeks building me up, complimenting my work, and making me realize that Upire is mine (and his). I have come to realize that this is not a competition (like I had made it out to be in my head). Brian and I are partners, teammates, and friends both dedicated to seeing Upire flourish. We tell everyone that we are “hermanos en paz” or brothers in peace looking to do all we can to lend a helping hand to the community we both have grown to love so much. So once again, Upire more than anything has given me another brother and a best friend for life.

So what have Brian and I been up to this month? Well, I (somewhat ashamedly) put Brian to work right away helping with a variety of activities in the school. The first one: TYE DYE!!!! As a graduation gift to my ninth graders this year I decided I would treat them to a tye dye workshop giving them an opportunity to paint their own shirt and have it as a memory forever. The kids loved painting but more so loved the unveiling of their shirts when we finished and washed them the next day. My favorite part of the whole activity though is now seeing the 30 or so kids running around rural El Salvador with tye dye on! That is what I call bringing US culture to El Salvador and accomplishing Peace Corps goal number 3. Mission accomplished.



Brian and I also decided to do a globo workshop (his specialty not mine). Globos are basically hot air balloons out of tissue paper and a candle underneath that can fly on a basically windless day. They are part of the Salvadoran culture that was lost during the war, so it has become a tradition of Peace Corps (the more crafty, smart volunteers aka Brian) to teach kids about it, so they can remember the history, the process, and build them on their own and hopefully pass it on to future generations. We decided to teach the eight graders so that they could launch them after the ninth grade graduation as well as teach the eighth graders next year, so that it would be a little more sustainable. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to launch the globos yet due to an obscene amount of wind, but I am hoping right before Brian leaves next Monday we can launch them.

Finally, I also forced Brian to put on the volunteer suit again and accompany Tricia and I on a camp that we planned for both of our schools. This is getting a whole other post, so be on the look out for an epic story. ;)

Needless to say, November has been busy, unique, and special. I am so grateful to have met Brian and shared this month and its variety of activities with him. It has been a fun month of my service. He always says since he arrived a few weeks, “I am so happy you don’t suck.” Right back at you Brian. Otherwise, this past month would have been rough. Instead, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I love my job, especially when I am Queen


One of my favorite (sometimes not so favorite when I am feeling particularly Type A) things about being a Peace Corps Volunteer is that my job description changes daily or sometimes hourly. There are days when I am "teacher." There are days when I am "coach." There are days when I am a facilitator of a group or activity. And there are days where I sit in someone's hammock watching telenovelas talking about the rain. I try to explain exactly what I do to Salvadorans and Americans and I don’t think I ever do it justice or define it adequately. No one really understands how all of the above translates into a job, especially the latter part of sitting in someone's hammock. To be quite frank, most of my job boils down to doing things that most people would not really see as “work,” but in the Peace Corps world we call it building confianza (trust) with our community members. Like today for example, my job title: Queen. And not to brag or anything, but today I did my job pretty well. I think I was made to be Queen. Well, maybe just this kind of Queen. 

So we all know that Mr. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas on October 12, 1492 and here in El Salvador we celebrate it as Dia de la Hispanidad or formerly “Dia de la Raza.” The festival is supposed to honor the discovery of this region of the world and commemorate the mixing of Europeans and Native peoples, which forms today’s culture of diversity in both humans and things. You know the Europeans brought their race of people, cows, and smallpox to mix with the indigenous population who  could share the glories of chocolate, syphilis, and the turkey. 

Enough with the (short) history lesson and back to me being Queen. I was asked over a month ago to run for Queen of this ceremony as a funny (what is more funny than making the gringa run for Queen with a bunch of 9 year olds?) way of collaborating in this festival and to help them raise some funds by paying to participate and donating my dress to the school in the end. Of course, I said “yes.” First, what “little” girl does not dream of being Queen for a day? Two, as I mentioned above, this is my job—to make an absolute fool out of myself in the name of building confianza.

So I started my campaign as Queen India Bonita. I tried to will myself to ask people to buy votes from me, but I failed miserably. I was VERY embarrassed to be asking people for money, but luckily most people were really into buying votes from me despite me NOT asking them (token white girl thing maybe), so I guess I can call my campaign a big success. You know you run a good campaign when you don't do anything and people vote for you. Maybe I should go into politics...(wooops way off topic)Anyways...

The program started around 10 a.m. and included a small history lesson, a few artistic points by various students, and the reading of the rules of the contest of crowning the queen of the “Indias Bonitas.” Of course, I won (not to sound cocky). I had to since everyone wanted to buy votes from me. Plus, I am the Gringa therefore I must win out of pure default or I might cry or something. I felt kind of bad beating out the 3 younger girls and stealing the saber and the kingdom from them, but I knew they have rigged it no matter what I did, so I just had to go with it. Plus, all of us got crowns and ribbons, so I guess that is all that matters in the end, right?  And I was just doing my job as a PCV—doing what my community asks me to do no matter how much it embarrasses me. ;)

 For your viewing pleasure here are pictures of my day as Queen:






Yeah so my duties were pretty limited to taking photos, giving out hugs, and marching in the parade waving at everyone. I did my duties well (say the peeps) so until next time kids, the Queen is out. Peace.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reflections on Year Uno


A year ago this month I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and came out to Upire for the first time. I remember it like it was yesterday—seeing Upire for the first time and my new home, crying myself to sleep that first night wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into, and spending the first month of service in utter confusion not only because of the language barrier but because of the drastic change in lifestyle in addition to schlepping to every house, every event, anything I could just to try and “get in” with the community. It seemed like those days would just never end, that I would never get used to life here, and I would never quite be “in” with my community. But then out of nowhere, in a blink of an eye, I find myself half way done with my service, and moving into year dos. And boy have things changed since the beginning. 

My mom asked me numerous times before I left for Peace Corps, “Do you think you will come back a different person?” I always replied, “Probably, but who knows?” I think I always assumed I would change. Probably from those hundreds of blogs I read with posts similar to this one documenting how much the person had grown and learned in two years in the Peace Corps. Sorry to be lame and copy their idea, but it makes sense to reflect especially at the half way point. Besides, we all use Peace Corps for a little self-discovery and self-reflection. 

So, am I different? I still don’t know if I am different in the way my Mom meant. I don’t think I have had some strange personality shift or dramatic change in behavior since coming here over a year ago. I am pretty sure she’ll recognize me just fine when I get home. Well, I might bring back some weird habits, different food obsessions, and random and ridiculous stories to share with everyone back home (I am sorry in advance for talking only about El Salvador for probably a year after I return). But I am sure those things will begin to change and disappear after while back in the states. There is something more permanent, however, that is very different since coming here a year ago. It’s my relationships and my relationship to relationships.

One thing I have learned since coming to El Salvador is that one of the most important things in life is our connection to others. I think it is one of those cliche lines that we think is obvious, but don't really understand. Although, now I think I understand. They told us in training we would do nothing until year dos because we had to spend the first one building trust and relationships. I doubted it during training, but has proven to be quite true. Not only that is our human relationships that define us and make life worth living. When I first got here to Upire I did not know a single soul. Not only that, but I was “The Gringa.” I was new, different, and an outsider.  But over the past year I have spent hours dedicated to changing this relationship with my community members not only to be able to work with them on projects but also for myself. I did not just want to be here surviving, I wanted to enjoy it, and feel truly happy living here.  Finally after a year, I can say that Upire is home now. I feel it when I get off the bus and return here after being away even for a day. The fresh, cool climate, the friendly faces in the street that always greet me, and knowing that my people have missed me is what makes life here special. I feel comfortable, safe, loved, and a part of the community. And that is the feeling I have been waiting for since the beginning: to feel like I belong here. Without the people and the relationships I have made in a year I am not quite sure I would ever feel like I belong here in the slightest. I know because I often dream about going home to the states and I truly cant wait to return to the land of comfort, freedom, and familiarity, but it is the people who keep me here enjoying this experience and worried about the day I have to leave them. It has been said that home is not some place, it is someone. I agree. Home is about the people. What good is a place if you don't have friendship, family, or love?

It is strange to write about the necessity of others. I often believed that I was an independent, free, powerful woman and that I did not really need anyone else in my life. Furthermore, even if I realized I need others, I would never admit it out loud because I treasured my “take no prisoners, bad ass mentality, where I didn't need anyone.” But part of growing up is losing things like losing your pride, admitting when you are wrong and have some growing up to do, and facing your weaknesses. And part of Peace Corps is truly learning how hard life is when you are alone.  So, I am not scared anymore and I will admit it openly to everyone…

I can’t do it on my own. No matter how strong we are, no matter how brave, and no matter how wise, we all need the help of others, even yours truly. Whether it is a few hundred people in a rural community in El Salvador, a group of close volunteer friends (more like family), friends and family in the states, or a dog, our lives are made by the connections we make. Right now for me Peace Corps life, living abroad doing aid work, and “making a difference” is not just about me. It is about me being here with others and what we do together. 

So, I feel that is how I can sum up year one. It has been a year dedicated to building new imperative relationships, strengthening, maintaining, and challenging old ones, and opening my mind towards them and their power. Anthony Robbins once said, “The quality of your life depends on the quality of your relationships” and I completely agree. Devote your energy to the people around you and in your life. And you will be rewarded. 

Here is to year dos and all the people I love around the globe.

mi familia salvadorena

amigas

My group celebrating our year in at Parque Imposible. I love these guys!!!!Brothers and sisters I never had.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Blue and White


September has been a month long dedicated to celebrating Independence Day (the 15th). The preparations for this day often begin up to 4 months ahead of time as the band begins to practice for the parade, the teachers prepare the students to put on different shows, and the school gets ready to host the entire community. To be perfectly honest my work in the school this month has been diminished to nothing but acting as number one cheerleader for everyone else’s preparations. But I think that is justified as this is not my area of expertise. This is their holiday, their traditions, and their celebration. My job is to be there, enjoy it, and support them. I did do a little decorating here and there ;)

I think this experience is best described in photographs, so here you go:

Parade!
Band playing! Benjamin up front from my youth group ;)
5th grade punto artistico!
7th grade punto artistico!



 After the presentations in the school, the eight grade hosted a Carrera de Cintas, which is a belt race. Basically there is a large rope tied between two trees and there are small belt loops attached to the rope handing down. The object is to capture the belt by putting a peg, pen, or stick through the loop of the belt. Each time you capture a belt a small flag is placed on your back, so that in the end the person with the most flags wins. This was probably my favorite part of the day. I had never seen a Carrera de Cintas before and it really made me want to learn to ride a horse and participate in the next one! The kid below in the blue shirt actually won the race and offered to teach me, so I should probably learn from him, considering he is the best!







We also celebrated the 15th of September during Dia de Comercio. We played the national anthem at 8 a.m., filled the day with Salvadoran music, asked everyone to dress in blue and white (see below), and raffled a live hen (my idea of a funny joke). 
Linda (raffled hen) and I

Equipo all dressed up in blue and white!!
 The market day was a huge success on the 15th! Everyone got a kick out of raffling a hen and I think everyone enjoyed being together on the 15th in a party like setting (especially when we woke them up at 5 am with fireworks.) Even better yet, the team and I celebrated afterwards with a large lunch that we cooked together and a cake with the Salvadoran flag on it. It was the best way I can think of to celebrate Independence Day. Feliz dia de Independencia El Sal!!!


Saturday, September 8, 2012

A typical Salvadoran Day

The day that I about to describe is actually not all that typical. It is not everyday that I find myself in a bus packed with 40 students under the age of 12, 30 parents, and 5 teachers from my school heading to the capital. What I mean by typical is that this day represented perfectly just how unstable and unpredictable life is here in El Salvador. Days here are often filled with the both the best of times and the worst of times, so I find myself describing life here as “disastrously okay.” What do I mean by that? Generally, no matter what I do, how hard I try, no matter whom I am with, how much I plan, life and its events always seem to end up with or in some sort of disaster. However, even though there is always some kind of disaster, it always ends up turning out okay. And for that part I am grateful. At least it always turns out okay.

Back to the bus trip I mentioned above…

A few months ago my host mom/school director suggested doing an excursion from my site to the capital to visit the Zoo and a very popular, amazing children’s museum with the younger students. The inner nerd in me agreed completely. I love museums (especially this one in the capital) and educational field trips. The only problem was funds. How were we going to raise over $500 to do such an extravagant trip? Very few parents would be willing to put forth enough money to make the trip possible. So, I looked into potential Peace Corps resources and applied for a grant (SPA), which focuses on variety of different needs areas including biodiversity and environmental education. For my grant application, I decided to develop a 1, 2, and 3rd grade environmental unit (which features a trip to the museum and zoo) based on a book designed for Environmental Education volunteers that includes various lessons on different topics including: animals, trees, insects, worms, recycling, water, forests, etc. The book is more suitable for older kids, so I was forced to make a lot of my lessons and change different parts of others. Despite my lack of knowledge in the teaching and lesson planning department, the class turned out very well including lessons on the following topics: conservation, ecosystems, the circle of life/food chain, animals, insects, trees, soil, recycling, water, and a few more. I tried my best to make the lessons fun, interactive, unique, and special each week. For example, I taught The Giving Tree when I gave the lesson on trees. The week on water we watched Planet Earth that documented the importance of water and its power.

The kids seemed to really enjoy the class. It even helped raise attendance records in the afternoons (when I gave the class to 2 and 3rd grade). The teachers made several comments that the students also seemed much more motivated during class time. The promise of a trip to the zoo will sure do that to a kid! We offered the trip to the zoo to the kids who came to the classes the most often and their parents. The trip would be free for all except that each parent paid $3 for the insurance of their child. With the grant application I explained that a trip to the zoo and this children’s museum as the final class would provide a real life example of conservation (zoo), a special opportunity that these kids would otherwise never have, and be a real educational but fun experience.  Based on that we were able to receive adequate funds to finance the trip completely (with the parents paying insurance for community contribution).

After all the classes the day to take the big trip to the zoo arrived. And it arrived early. We had to leave Upire at 2:30 a.m. to arrive in San Salvador at 9:30 a.m. to begin our tour at the museum. Just getting there involved some hiccups... 
  • Disaster #1: Purely getting up at 2:30 and making sure 70 people fit into a bus together. Trust me, it is not fun.
  • Disaster #2: Bus breaks down. (It turned out Okay: we got in running again. Eventually).
  • Disaster #3: 70 people who have to go the bathroom. No public bathrooms. Use your imagination.

We finally arrive at Tin Marin around 9:30 a.m., which is a children’s museum in San Salvador that is absolutely stunning. It is filled with all kinds of hands on learning and experiential activities for children (and adults!) of all ages. This part of the day was my favorite—just seeing a number of children from my community who never have had the opportunity to come to the capital let alone experience this grand museum and all it has to offer was truly special. The museum has a life size plane, train, model lunar vehicle, a planetarium, a model volcano, a play supermarket, a Theatre, a bubbles area, a painting area, among other amazing exhibits, which for kids in rural El Salvador to see all of these things is a rare and memorable event. Of course, this part did not go as well as it sounds. 
  • Disaster (not necessarily a disaster, but certainly buts a damper on the day) #1: For every ounce of happiness the children had, the parents were filled to the brim with negativity. All the things I thought kids would complain about-being hungry, tired, cold, bored, etc all came from the parents.  When are we going home? We have to keep walking? Where is the food? It is so cold here. I am tired. I don’t wanna…Grr. Soon, I was a human disaster filled with anger and resentment listening to these complaints, rather than hearing just ONE thank you. Not a single Thank you came my way.
**Here I try to remember that most of these parents are not used to such long days. They are not used to excursions, walking all day, and being in an unfamiliar place. So, I should be more understanding of their feelings and frustrations.
  • Disaster#2: Stemming from the issue above leads to an argument over whether or not we should continue with the plan and go to the zoo too. The plan was to leave the museum at 12:30 and be at the zoo until 2:30-3. We did not leave the museum until 1:30, so most of the parents wanted to bag the zoo plan. My host mother stepped in lamenting the fact that we would never get the opportunity to go the zoo with these kids again (for free!). So we went. This leads to more of Disaster #1. Cue more angry, tired, annoyed parents. Great.
  • Disaster #3: We get to the zoo. Most of the parents don’t want to pay to go in ($1—which was agreed upon before the trip that the parents would pay this one fee) so that turns into another semi argument. Arguments are not fun when: 1. you have 70 tired people 2. you have 70 tired people yelling at 1 Gringa whose Spanish is mas o menos (so-so) 3. when said Gringa wins argument and the resulting backlash…
But eventually we all go in the zoo and are there for a couple of hours (1:30-3:30). The kids and even parents seemed to really enjoy seeing the animals. The snakes, zebras, and rare birds were probably the biggest hits. The kids just would not stop talking about the snakes though. All in all once we were in I think everyone really was thankful that we decided to go there as well. By 3:30 everyone was pretty much done for the day, which was fine by me (I had been up since 1 a.m.). We were leaving the parking lot of the zoo around 4 on our long journey home (the bus smelling like weird fried foods that everyone bought at the zoo).

The trip home was long. And eventful. 
  • Disaster #1: A bathroom emergency of unknown proportions (guilty, yours truly). When we finally stopped I had almost peed my pants.
  • Disaster #2: We get about 1 hour from home and we come to a complete stop. What do you know? A tree had fallen in the street prohibiting us from passing. We call 911 and the police and the Mayor – of course none of them come. We resolve to spending the night, but then the police come an hour later.  YAY! However, they end up just watching and staring as my two neighbors (one being the driver) and my host brother tie a long metal chain to the tree and to the bus and then proceed to drag the tree out of the way. Problem solved! Although we did manage to ruin someone’s entire front yard in the process…oops. I guess the police can handle that…eventually.
  • Disaster #3: We get home at midnight. I walk into my room and it is covered in water. Yep, my room had flooded with that night’s storm. I spent the next hour cleaning my room, the next hour eating ( I got home absolutely starving), and finally fell into bed at 2:30 a.m. – a full 24 hours later. 
  • Disaster#4: Waking up at 5 a.m for Dia de Comercio. Talk about a walking zombie. And because of a meeting in my community I was at the school all evening after market day until about 7 p.m. Body shut down. 
The final disaster was the following Sunday. I probably looked like I had been hit by a train. But I digress...

Needless to say, a lot went wrong. Sorry this post is just a bunch of complaints (which maybe on paper don’t look that bad, but trust me in the moment were pretty awful). Ironically, I still see the day as a huge success. And I wouldn’t take it back for the world. Despite the complaining parents, rowdy children, a 24 hour experience of epic tiredness, the long journey in a crowded bus, bathroom issues (some of the worst issues you can have on a 6 hour bus ride), food issues (lack of snacks), and the worst of all not receiving one thank you from anyone on the excursion, I (in the cheesiest of ways) still am so glad I did this project. I got to see some my community’s poorest children have a moment they will hopefully never forget. I know I won’t ever forget their faces that day as they strolled the museum and the zoo asking questions, participating in the activities, talking about animals and they things they had seen, and sharing what they learned throughout the day. 

So all in all through every disappointment and challenge of this long long day, everything turned out okay. And after having been here a year and getting used to these disasters that are just so typical, “okay” has become downright awesome. 


kiddos and I

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

You WILL love it!


I am an East Coast gal. Born and raised. I got a weird Philly-Jersey-Delaware accent. You know…I sometimes say water or bagel weird (all about the context). I got that “don’t talk to strangers in the street” attitude (keep your eyes straight, don’t stare at others). You know walking fast always in a hurry.  Usually to WAWA to drink my coffee like I am on some kind high intense mission. Although, some of these generalizations might not be true (might just be crazy ol’ me), I think a lot of people from the east coast would agree with them.

I like the east coast and all of our wacky quirks (whatever they may be in reality). It is home and will always be home. But I have say, something has always drawn me to the west coast. Maybe it is the travel junkie in me wanting to see somewhere new and live somewhere different, maybe it is the hiking and green spaces and active people, or maybe I am just following my inner yuppie, hippie, or whatever you call it—all “I like almond milk in my special coffee. And could you pass the organic jam and fresh ground peanut butter.” Whatever called me to the west coast brought me there FINALLY for an epic, glorious vacation. And yes, I LOVED IT.

You might be wondering why a Peace Corps Volunteer would travel all the way back home to states, but not visit her family on the east coast? I have this friend- best friend actually who I met in here in Peace Corps. She is another volunteer in my group, Tricia, and has become my rock during my service here in El Salvador. When things are good, bad, in between, weird, crazy, frustrating, or I just want to shoot the shit with someone, I call her. She is an incredible friend, ally, resource, support system, sister, companera, listener, advice giver,  etc. One of her many amazing qualities (yes, I am gushy with the cheese right now almost as if she is my boyfriend ;)!) is that she is incredibly generous and invited me on her vacation home to the states. She headed home in the beginning of August for 3 weeks and invited me to join her during the last ten days. So I went! I mean I had always wanted to see Seattle, the west coast, and imagining 3 weeks without Tricia here was pretty rough. I know what you are thinking: what did your crazy, hovering, mother with only one child in the whole world (me) say to this? Um well I can’t say she was thrilled at first. But then in the end she actually paid for half of my ticket. Yes, I am aware that I have the best mother ever. She is just a little too obsessed with making yours truly happy, which has meant sending me to far away lands far away from her. I am so grateful that she has allowed me to grow on my own, constantly dream big, and travel far even though it means she sees me less.  Thanks mom for letting me go and supporting my wacky decisions!!! Also, thanks to my family for not hating me, too much! ;)

All of that said, vacation was amazing. I think I knew it would be when I got on my plane and every time someone said Seattle a Frat like boy in the seat behind me would say “Ohhhhhhhhh yeahhhhhhh Seattle. YOU WILL LOVE IT.” Here is why (in no particular order):
  1. The west coast is beautiful, green, and the temperature was in the 70’s in August. Glorious weather!
  2. Froyo and coffee (courtesy of either the amazing Keurig (sp?) machine in Tricia’s house . Or the coffee shops on every corner.) Food in general.
  3. Hiking Mount Townsend.
  4. Spending time with Tricia and her family at their amazing, stunning house. (They are incredible people. Thanks familia Serg!!!!!!)
  5. The gloriousness of Target and stocking up on the USA goodies I missed. (plus getting some amazing and very necessary clothing aka underwear).
  6. Comfortable, stress free, without a care in the world waking up at 10 a.m. and spending the day lounging on the couch watching cable and eating good food.
  7. Having no responsibilities, commitments, things I had to do, people I had to see (no offense), work, etc. Just time to be.
  8. Seeing the city of Seattle! I cannot wait to go back.
  9. Being able to leave the house in whatever I wanted at whatever time I wanted to do whatever I wanted. Complete freedom! No rules (well kind of, you know).  I was thankful for the rules of the road, but that’s a whole different conversation.
  10. Batman. Yes, it was that good. And getting froyo afterwards.
  11. One more for good luck…getting my MAC fixed. Thank you Bryan!!!!!!

I don’t think I need to say it anymore. The states was good, too good. It was the perfect vacation and I am so grateful to Tricia and her family for letting me crash their time together. The only thing that sucks about vacation is that it ends. And you come back to a frightening reality that is life as a PCV in El Salvador. I don’t want to sugar coat it. Coming back sucks. And it sucks for a week or more. Now that does not mean that I don’t like it here, that I don’t want to be here, and I want to give up life as a volunteer. I just mean that it is a challenging readjustment period. And although you are excited to come back, see your Salvadoran friends and family as well as other volunteers, have more adventures (in comparison to the potential job you would probably have (if your lucky to have a job in the states), and do your work here, that excitement wears off quickly when you realize the comforts you left behind in comparison to the lack of comforts here. It takes about a week or two to forget those comforts and get back into the volunteer “I can deal with it” mode. But as soon as you forget and let it go, things look a lot better. I am getting there. I am lucky that the transition has been made easier by not only being welcomed by my loving family, tremendous youth group, and friends but also jumping right into work again, which I will document in the next post! Until then, enjoy some froyo for me!

Pictures from vacay:

On top of the Seattle Space Needle!

Gum Wall!!!!

Hiking Mount Townsend!

Paz en the wildflowers!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dia de Comercio Upire

August 11, 2012 was a big moment in my Peace Corps service. On that day we inaugurated "Dia de Comercio Upire," which is a project that I have been working on for a few months now. It was a big moment for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it is, I believe, a truly sustainable project that I was apart of--something that I helped do in this community. I have spent the first year of my service constantly wondering if I would do something meaningful in Upire, wondering if I was wasting my community's time or my own, and wondering if I could make any sort of difference here in two years. Of course, uncertainty always lingers, things always go disastrously wrong here, and at the end of the day I am not quite sure what will become of this project, but at least for one day, one BIG day I felt like my service is important. 

First, some answers to the big questions...

1.What is Dia de Comercio? In El Salvador it is really common for larger towns (pueblos) to have a "market day" where tons of vendors line the streets selling all kinds of goods. It is a basically an open air market where you can find food items, fruits, vegetables, clothes, shoes, movies, plastic containers, machetes, etc. "Dia de Comercio" is my small caserio's version of that taking place every Saturday from 6 a.m. - 12 p.m. where our very own community members can open up their own small businesses and sell whatever they can. It looks a little something like this:
Nina Berta selling coffee and tamales!
2. Where did this idea come from? First, I have to put on the disclaimer that this was NOT my idea, not a Peace Corps idea, or something someone from outside the community told us to do. This idea comes from the minds of the ADESCO (community development organization) in Upire (but mostly the idea of my host mother Nina Mary). The ADESCO has been sitting on this idea for about 8 years now constantly thinking that their community definitely has the resources and the capability to put on a great market day every week. The only problem was getting it organized and making the idea a reality.

3. How did you guys do it? haha I am still trying to figure out the answer to this question, but I am going to give you the general breakdown of how we got to Inauguration day. I mentioned in a few posts back that the idea really sprang into life when I went to counterpart training and we were forced to plan a presentation based on one project idea. We left that training excited and motivated to make it ACTUALLY happen. We called a meeting with the ADESCO to make sure they were still on board. With their blessing we called a meeting with the entire community to see not only make sure that we had buyers and sellers, but also to interview each person about the logistics of the market, their products, their ideas, etc. From that meeting we also began to form our organizational team of youth who are basically in charge of making sure that the market not only functions but also continues to thrive and improve. At that point we started sending out the project to potential donors and interested parties who might be willing to donate a little bit to project. We did not (do not) need much for this project-- just things like a few tables, chairs, notebooks, papers, aprons (gift to vendors), shirts for the team,etc. At this point we had a meeting with our local mayor who helped us with trash cleanup, buying us shirts, a huge banner, and by bringing entertainment the first day! After that the youth team in charge began meeting a lot putting logistics together. We organized a meeting with the vendors to go over details and provide a training session on how to have a successful business. Then we focused a lot on publicity, cleaning up the area where the market takes place, and just making sure everything was ready for the big day! (all of this was a lot harder to do than write)

The youth boys and I spent two full days in the heat cleaning
the area and marking the vendor zones. ROCK STARS!
4. Why is this project important? COME ON..is that really a question?! ;) This project provides a variety of benefits to Upire. My small little rural community is located an hour on the bus from the nearest town. This means that one must travel all day just to go to a market and buy their necessities. They also lose their entire day as well as pay around 4$ round trip. This seems absurd in a lot of cases especially given the number of people in my community that sell a variety of products--a lot of times travel is not really necessary, plus plenty of people have their own vehicle to bring goods for others. This market will provide members of my community the opportunity to start their own small businesses, make money, and increase their aptitude in math, business, marketing, organization, etc. Additionally, the market provides an environment of fun and enjoyment for families to spend time together with their friends. Finally, the youth who make up the organizational team are being given an opportunity to really make a huge difference in the development of Upire.

So with those questions out of the way, I am sure you are DYING to know how the big day went...? Right?On the edge of your seat...? ;)

The big day went surprisingly AMAZING. The night before was an absolute disaster which had me on the verge of tears, quitting Peace Corps, and moving home, but I guess that should have been expected given it being our first time and everything. But everything ended up working out and all the disasters resolved just in time to wake up at 4 a.m to the sound of fireworks (put up by my youth boys)! That is when I knew it was going to be a special day. (fireworks are very common in El Sal mostly around the fair times, but because my community does not have fairs or parties really because of the religious aspect, hearing fireworks was truly special and unique!)

Fireworks!
The team was incredibly busy the entire day first welcoming all the vendors to the first ever "Dia de Comercio," then preparing the food for the band, the lunch that we sold to raise funds for the market/team, taking care of music and announcements, welcoming honored guests, and handling the program.

Preparing food for the band!
Band from our pueblo!

  

Ribbon cutting ceremony
Needless to say it was a busy, stressful, and nerve racking day mostly because I led the program and had to give a large speech regarding the project. Hands down one of the scarier moments of my life and my Spanish pretty much died through it, but I survived. The ceremony was wonderful. Everyone kept thanking me and Peace Corps, which felt really nice to hear. The day ended shortly thereafter for the vendors most of which left content and happy that they SOLD everything (we had over 25 vendors). We even had a number of people reserve spots to sell the next Saturday! To me that is a very successful first day and I am just hoping that every Saturday continues to get better and better.

Of course, my youth group had to stay afterwards to clean up everything. I was so impressed with them that they stayed 3 hours after the end of the market to clean all the trash! They are incredible! I am just so so proud of them for taking hold of this project and really making a difference in Upire.

Jovenes Caminando Juntos!


Sharing a moment after the first day!

With this team, I am so confident that this market will continue for years. Primero a Dios! Thanks for reading this monster of a post. Until next time...jmE

next day relaxing in the milpa!