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!