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 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!)

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!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cheese Smugglin'

Quite frankly I have failed quite miserably in achieving a very important goal of Peace Corps with this blog. The goal is to share the culture of your host country with those living back in the states. True of the matter is that I have spent much of my precious blogging time writing about myself, my own projects, my reflections, and my ups and downs. ME ME ME!... and ZILCH really about Salvadorans and their culture. So, I am going to try to be better about that from now on. This post is not about me or what I do. This is about some (focused mainly on my family) Salvadorans in Caserio Upire and what they do. Just written by yours truly.
That brings me to cheese. Well all milk products, lacteos. In my area of El Salvador cattle ranching and cheese making are a way of life. Many families here have cows and produce a variety of products with the milk. But more than just a way of is a source of pride, joy, and a tremendous amount of work. And I hope to document just how much work it entails in this post. It all starts with a cow...

First, the men (typically) get up at 5 a.m. to milk said cows. Milking cows is hard hard work. It is not at all cool or glamorous. At around 7-8 a.m they usually bring in the milk and put it through a sieve and leave it to rest in this big bucket covered by two big wooden blocks. We sell milk 6 cups for 1$. It is a popular purchase, but we often don't sell it after 10 a.m. because it messes up the cream that they skim. After 10 a.m usually if you want the milk they have to blow the cream to the side and take the milk from below the cream, which they don't generally like to do.

The milk generally sits covered until about noon where then my host mom will skim the first layer of cream. Creama/mantequilla (cream or butter) as it is often known is probably one of or the most popular item we make. It costs 1$ per cup. My host mom will skim the cream again around 4 p.m., leaving essentially skimmed milk. Creama/matequilla changes over time and some people prefer it fresco (fresh day of style) or they like it as it gets older and harder (more like our typical butter).

After the cream has all been skimmed we move on to making cuajada, which is a soft spongy type cheese. It is made by placing a pill (cuajo/rennet) into the milk that is left. My host mother then places her hands into the milk to help the cheese form together with the heat of her hands.

When the cheese is completely formed together it is cut into cubes and then covered in salt. We sell cuajada for $1.75 a pound. This cheese also gets harder over time and some people prefer the harder stuff. I like it fresh and spongy. ;)

Following the cuajada it is time to make the requeson, which is my absolute favorite! You can see the liquid at the bottom of the cuajada above-- it is used for to make the requeson. All of that liquid is put over the fire and boiled. The requeson rises to the top and you remove it from the fire and put it in a cloth to strain, which looks like this: 

Requeson (1$ a pound) is not popular at all. Actually I am the only one that eats it really. I think this is because it is basically a soft, creamy, fat free ricotta cheese, so most people don't think it is that good. I think it is declicious and eat way more of it than I should. I eat so much of eat my family actually refuses to sell it to paying customers. Oh the shame! 

The last and final product that we make is hard cheese. Basically you take the cuajada (above) and crumble it into tiny pieces and then shove it in the weird wooden block thing pictured below where it typically sits for 3 or more days to harden. When it is done it looks like a giant block of hard cheese. It is REALLY popular and a token favorite and costs about $3 a pound! The longer it sits the harder it gets. Here it is often a harder, crumbly cheese. I like it, but I often find it very very salty (like everything in El Sal). 

There you have cheese production in Casa Sorto. All of the steps up to the requeson take place EVERY SINGLE DAY. The making of hard cheese happens once in awhile when they want to make hard cheese and not cuajada. It is a tedious process and requires a lot of energy and dedication. For that I deeply admire my host family for their lifestyle and their ability to make delicious lacteos!!!

*The title of this post comes from the fact that my site (and the surrounding area) because of their locations near the border have had cheese smuggling operations taking place between Honduras and El Salvador based on fluctuating prices.