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


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:

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!