Friday, January 13, 2012

Safety and Security Part 2

El Salvador and all of its volunteers and staff members continue to be under an enormous amount of stress, confusion, and wonder regarding the status of our beloved country. There have been a few developments since my first post entitled "Safety and Security" and I am going to do my best to outline them here so that everyone back home can understand what is really going on here.

After a few meetings in the beginning of this month with Peace Corps Washington, staff members here, and volunteers a rather large email went out to all the volunteers from our country director. And here is our current situation:

New Rules/Plans:
1. Travel restriction: we have to get approval from our program manager to go anywhere out of our community. This includes going to our pueblo (closest town) just to buy groceries, print documents, etc.
2. We can no longer go to San Salvador unless for official business or medical reasons.
3. We have a mandatory All Volunteer Safety and Security conference at the end of this month to discuss future options.
4. Everyone in the country has been offered Interrupted Service. This means you can end your service at any time you want and it does not count as "early termination." We are still waiting until the conference to find out the details of this process and what it would mean in terms of going to another country, volunteer benefits, etc.

Clearly these are some big updates. I am not really bothered by any of the travel changes though. I don't particularly like the capital and I do not really care about talking with my boss when I need to leave. I do not leave often enough for it to be a nuisance. I also like the idea of having the conference this month. There are still so many questions regarding the future of Peace Corps El Salvador and a conference is the perfect way to address that with every volunteer in person. Plus I would not mind seeing all my friends!

The only part of this so far that has me worried/anxious/wondering is the Interrupted Service idea. What happens if a lot of people start taking it? What if my closest friends leave? What will volunteer life be like with so few volunteers? Do they actually want us just to take it and leave so there are fewer volunteers to worry about? Would I be safer/happier/better off somewhere else? Doesn't a whole new country sound fun and different? It could be a whole new adventure! But what about my community? Can I really leave them? And what happens if I move countries and hate it? What if I have to start all over and wait in the placement process for months, get a new country, go through training again, etc? Is that worth it? But what if El Salvador just ends up closing in a few months? Then will I regret not switching?

AHHHHH! My brain hurts. This is where I am at. Confused. Super confused. And drained from thinking about it too much. There is just so much to weigh. All of us volunteers have this wonderful phone plan that keeps us connected but it also keeps us talking about this. In some ways I love it that I have people to process with, but it other ways it just keeps my mind going about what other people are thinking, doing, etc. I just need to let it go until the conference when we get more details. At least Peace Corps really is doing its job and teaching me patience.

All of this having been said, morale here is pretty low at times. People taking the I.S. option, talking more about it, talking about the country closing, etc. During the day though I try not to think about it. It is almost as if I put this stuff in the English section of my life and when I am out in my site speaking Spanish I just ignore it as something that I am internally dealing with or dealing with in English with volunteers and staff members. Because I cannot really talk about it with Salvadorans. They are used to the dangerous country they live. That is the way it is. So, I just walk around in site like nothing is going on, while working on everything I can, with no thought of leaving earlier than in 1.5 years. And that is the way it should be. We will be here for our full 2 years. End of story......right......primero a dios (as my host mother would say)....

*In the midst of this chaos I would like to take this opportunity to be grateful for the fact that I have so many options. While it may be bothersome at times, I am lucky to have my freedom and choice in this matter. As my boss Claudia pointed out, Salvadorans don't have the luxury of walking away from the violence and their rough life here. Just kind of makes me feel guilty at the very thought of walking away...but also incredibly appreciative of the support we have back home and of Peace Corps staff here in country who are looking out for us. We have a great safety and security net to fall back on (no pun intended).

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Happy New Year...(what's been happenin'?)

Happy New little bit late. I hope all of you have had a wonderful start to 2012. I came back to El Salvador right before the start of the new year and things have been going swimmingly. Well, as I mentioned in my post from the airplane, it was VERY hard at first. But ever since arriving in my community, things have been very Peace Corps like. What I mean by that is that I have had some very high highs and some very low lows. Let me start at the beginning...

I got back into Upire around 5 p.m. on the 31st nervous, anxious, and not quite ready to be back in the campo. But as soon as I found myself in the arms of my host family, I knew things were going to be okay. I walk into my room and there is this cute little bear in a box with a sign that says "Merry Christmas Jamie. We miss you. Love your Salvadoran family." Just what I needed! Then I gave them all their gifts from the states, which they all loved. I was elated. Even more so when I received fresh cheese, tortillas, and beans just the way I like em. Then around 9 p.m. we went to a family party to ring in the new year. We set off personal fireworks, ate a big dinner, chatted amongst friends and family, and then roasted marshmallows. It ended with a nice Happy New Year to all and a bed time of about 12:03. Haha. Real crazy, huh? But I was super satisfied. I love how it was so simple and how I could just spend time talking with people I had missed for over a week while in the states.

After that I spent most of my time catching up with all the people in the community making my presence known again or having people over to celebrate the new year. In addition, I have spent a considerable amount of time swimming in the river, hanging out with my favorite kiddos (teaching them mancala, jumping rope, and friendship bracelets), and being involved in some projects which I will outline below. But first I want to include some river pictures! (I love my new camera, thanks Mommom! :))

Aside from swimming in the river I spent my first week back also planning the recently graduated ninth grade's excursion. This is going to be a long story because it is my first big utter failure:

Brian, the volunteer before me, sent some money to spent on a trip for the graduating ninth graders. While I was in training part two (when the money was sent to my host mother/director of the school), there were a bunch of problems between all the students, teachers, and parents regarding this money. Because of this fighting the kids just wanted to split the money between all of them so they could each walk away with 12$ to buy chips and saldo (cell phone money). I could not let this happen because it was not Brian's wish for the money to be spent this way. So in December I had another meeting to decide where to go on a excursion. I basically told the kids if they don't go on a trip, the money goes to the school in their honor. They decided on a water park called Atlantis. The problem being that this park is super far away (and they refused any other water parks closer) meaning that we did not have enough money based on what Brian sent to go to this place. The students came up with the idea to sell tickets to other people in order to have enough people to fill a bus and pay for it. So that's what we did. The problem being the kids did not sell enough tickets and did not bring me the money beforehand like they promised. This made me so angry and I almost canceled the trip because I did not want to show up that morning without enough money to pay the driver and the entrance fee to the park. Bottom line is I didnt cancel because my host mom convinced me that it would be injustice towards those who paid and are planning on being on the bus at 3 am. The morning comes early (2am where my family gets up to make sandwiches to sell on the bus- anything to make some money right?) and I know we have too little people and too little money to pay for everything. Of course, we go anyway...because the trip is in my name and I'll get stuck with the clean up process.

We get the park (where my host mom tries to talk them into more and more discounts so we can afford this trip knowing we are short on cash) and by this point I just have to pay it (we can't just go back 7 hours). I pay and realize we are going to be $100 short to pay the bus driver. I gather the kids of ninth grade and explain to them how angry I am with them because they told me all week long there would be enough people, they would show up and pay, and that this would not happen. I have them sitting around a table and we are thinking of ways to deal with this serious lack of funds. They rally for a bit and get the damage down to $70ish. More and more time passes and I realize that we are wasting the short hours they have to actually enjoy this trip. I would agree in some ways they do not deserve it, but at the same time after all this trouble and money, they better get to enjoy their time in the park. So finally I said I would loan them the money and pay the rest in exchange for community service hours and an essay about what they learned from this situation. They agreed, enjoyed their day, and the rest of the trip went pretty smoothly (except for the annoying random guy one of them invited who kept cursing at me in English, but eventually the police escorted him out of the park for disturbing the peace). The rest of the trip went smoothly...well except the kids decided to drink and smoke in the back of the bus...but...yeah...let's just say it was a tough day...

Lessons learned:
1. My gift to ninth grade next year will not be an excursion
2. Avoid being in charge of excursions like this
3. Plan to collect all the money and numbers of people a week before (no exceptions).
5. Have more back up plans.

*Special thanks to my neighbor Drew for accompanying me this day. It was so nice to have him there just keeping me calm and supporting me throughout the entire process. Great vecino!

Follow up: The kids this week brought me their essays and are completing their service hours. I know it was ridiculous of me to pay the money for the rest of the trip, but I really had no option and no other ideas (hopefully I will get more creative with ways to get money as time goes on). I had to make sure the bus driver got paid...he drove more than 10 hours in his brand new bus. No one else had the money..well...I don't know what they would have done if I was not there...someone would have had to do something. I could have come up with another idea but we were losing daylight and time at the park and no one was saying anything for like 45 minutes, so I did the best I could. I just hope they do their hours and at least learn something from this situation.

Luckily following that day was the awesome hike with my friends that I just blogged about, which really helped me forget about the challenges of the day before. I just feel so lucky to have volunteers near me who support me and help me when times get tough. I think I would be more and more upset about the excursion and the way it went if I spent the following days dwelling about it and mulling over what I could have done better. But now I just look at it as something that happened and I tried my best throughout the entire thing. Sometimes did not go well, but such is life.

In other FANTASTIC news my community is getting potable water (and some latrines!!). We had a meeting last week to talk about that and it looks like my community is going for it! Yay! We have a lot of prerequisites to fill with FOMILENIO but hopefully we will follow them all have water by May. Today I went around with the arqitect and the team to visit every house asking them to sign a sheet saying yes or no. Later this month we have more meetings about the program and to tell the community about the rest of the process, but so far so good. This is going to be so wonderful in terms of health here, so I am pumped. It also gives me a lot of stuff to do, which I really like.

That pretty much gets you all caught up with my life here. Well leaving out the updates on our current security situation, but I will post about that later. That is a whole different beast...

Until then, be safe you guys ;)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Great Hike

This is going to be a picture driven post for once! I finally got a camera here, which means I can make up for the fact that you probably are wondering what the hell El Salvador looks like from my eyes. This may get the party started! Here's the background to my 15 round trip hour hike:

A few weeks ago Jesse (close volunteer to me in Las Marias) had his parents visit El Salvador. I even blogged about this trip that I took with them to visit Corinto. Well, after that we decided that we would complete the trip to Corinto again but this time on foot. The best part about it was that there are two volunteers (Tricia and Courtney) outside of Corinto that also decided to join us. I never expected it to come through to fruition but I guess we just had a lot of ganas to do this hike! So, it started with Jesse and I waking up at 5:45 on Sunday and we walked to to their sites, then stayed the night (I with Tricia in La Alto and Jesse in Courtney's site), and then the next day the four of us walked back through my Caserio (stopped for a refregerio) to Jesse's site and then stayed the night there. Then the following day Tricia and Courtney walked back to Corinto and I walked back to Upire.

The trip was a blast! It was beautiful ( I would try to explain the wild life, nature, and terrain, but I cannot do it justice-look below for pictures), filled with great conversation, funny moments, and some awesome exercise. Plus, a way to see my bffl Tricia from training who is far away by bus (5 hours). :) Shout out to the three of them though for the great time: Jesse and his hospitality (pancakes, oatmeal, and other American goodies) and fun times during our 7 hour hike alone, Tricia for her hospitality at her site and host families house and for constantly listening to me ( I am on the phone with her everyday no joke), and Courtney who I really just met, but I loved hanging out with and getting to know too! Great group. One of the best parts of Peace Corps is definitely time with other volunteers! :)

It was definitely hard though ( Did I really use to run marathons?). 7 hours there, big inclines, lots of falling, hot sun, little chances to buy water, sun burn, blisters, soreness, 8 hours back, and much much more.

I am going to stop talking and post pictures...

I love my life. I literally walked to a friend who lived 5 hours a way by bus and in another department of the country. How cool is that? Plus, just look at where I live!!!!

Life is so beautiful sometimes. I am so lucky.