Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hasta Luego El Salvador!


It is a good word, rolling off the tongue
no matter what language you are born with.
Use it. Learn where it begins,
the small alphabet of departure . . .

--Naomi Shihab Nye

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Peace Corps Projects in El Salvador

So what does a Peace Corps volunteer do?

These are just a few photos of some of Suzanne's projects, which include stove building, teaching, composting, writing grants (for computers in the school. Also, five kids went to the university from her village! Okay, that isn't in the photos), a recycling project . . . And more.

Also not pictured is her work of translating for doctors: volunteer doctors who don't speak Spanish, who come from the U.S. to her village, expecting perhaps a nice little doc-in-the-box kind of facility. What they find is a room with no running water, no AC (of course-but the rooms get hotter and hotter as the day goes on) and a long line of women who haven't seen a doctor for ages (some never) . . . Of course the person who gets an earful of the doctors' anger and frustration is the translator . . .

People always ask about the Peace Corps. I don't like to answer.

But there are a lot of jokes about the Peace Corps for sure. And stories. Like the one about the electrician who was sent to a village with no electricity. (He played Frisbee for 2 years. Had a great time.) The one about the woman who asked that she NOT be asked to work with children. Yeah, she taught kids. Or the woman who was sent to Benin and arrived at her site, only to find out no one knew she was coming. They all gathered around her, wondering what this strange white woman was doing in their midst.

Speaking about El Salvador

On our last day in El Salvador, we stayed in the Sheraton in San Salvador. (The Sheraton, according to our research, is in the safest part of El Salvador. And it's upscale. It has everything you could ask for--even a workout room -- I was in bliss!) Working out in the morning, I sweated away next to a man who is a human rights activist and works for an NGO (the name I can't recall), who told me how he suspects the ARENA party (the right wing party) might rig the next election, that he suspects them of all kinds of corruption and worse, that he wonders what will happen next, now that the FLMN (the left wing party) has a viable candidate . . . He went on to tell me how many people in El Salvador have no hope, no jobs, no way out of poverty . . . How when the economy is bad in the U.S., it's many many times worse in El Salvador. He kept talking and talking.

He asked me about the Peace Corps, and when I said that the Peace Corps doesn't allow the volunteers to be involved in the politics of El Salvador, he made a few jokes about the P.C..

Listening to him talk, I suddenly noticed I wasn't feeling well at all. I spent the rest of my day making trips to the bathroom, feeling eternally grateful I wasn't in one of the latrines at my daughter's Peace Corps village. I wasn't sure whether it was the overwhelm of worry I felt when I listened to this man talk-or if I had somehow managed to drink some of the water. (Politics, I do think, is sickening-here, there, everywhere.)

After a day or so, I realized it was the latter. Thank goodness for Cipro.

Men with Guns

On my first trip to visit my daughter in El Salvador, I was terrified of the men with guns. Like the nun in the post below, I saw them everywhere. I didn't want to look at them for fear . . .

On my second trip to El Salvador, I didn't notice them so much. Patrona, my daughter's friend, explained that joining the police force is one good way to get a job. And it's an ideal job at that. She talked of one of Suzanne's "brothers" (one of the sons of the family she was then living with) who got a visa to the U.S. easily after being on the police force.

On my third trip to El Salvador, I would see men with guns and think--Oh, maybe that's the driveway for the hotel. Or- a Walmart (they aren't called Walmarts in El Salvador). Or the place that Patrona stops and buys food for her pigs . . .

(But no, in answer to questions I've received, I don't expect I'll ever get used to seeing so many men with guns.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Speaking about El Salvador

I was speaking with a nun the other day about El Salvador. She told me how she had been there a few years ago to commemorate the three nuns and the missionary who were raped and murdered by soldiers in 1980. She commented on the military presence in the country. You get off the plane, she said, and there are men with guns everywhere.

I thought about it. These cases which remain in the minds of Americans, which everyone remembers whenever I say the name, El Salvador. People think of Oscar Romero who was shot while serving mass, and of the bomb explosion and mass panic of mourners at his funeral. It doesn't seem long ago that I was listening to NPR talk of how there are still questions in these cases.

I began to wonder, as well, whether Romero is a saint yet. I think he is still being beatified. He is considered one of the few martyrs of the 20th century.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Spanish Language and a Note on Translation

I love the sound of the language . . . It's so much more musical, dreamy, like waves washing over me. It doesn't have the urgency of English--the staccato, the sense of --I have to say it fast and now. I have to rush, or I might miss my life, which is a feeling I carry with me most of my days . . .

It's that feeling Ann Sexton described as having a rat inside her.

I am reminded of the translations of Whitman I once read --into Spanish--
How the word, urge, lost all its intensity, its passion, when written as urgencio or impulso.

"Urge and urge and urge,
always the procreant urge of the world,"

Neruda translated this as:

"Impulso, impulso, impulso,
siempre el procreador impulso del mundo."

Reading that, I can't help laughing. Impulso del mundo. It sounds like some cumbersome sea creature, washing ashore, slowly but surely.


I love odes. Today I am thinking of Neruda's wonderful "Ode to Laziness"

Yesterday I felt this ode
would not get off the floor.
It was time, I ought
at least
show a green leaf . . .
on the pine peaks,
appeared in the nude,
she led me dazzled
and sleepy,
she showed me upon the sand
small broken bits
of ocean substance,
wood, algae, pebbles,
feathers of sea birds. (translated by William Carlos Williams)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Things That surprise me about El Salvador

If I had to choose between the beach in El Salvador and Mexico, I'd choose the former. But I hate the built-up tourist-beach scenes. I don't know what we're doing in this picture. We seem to be standing next to a house that has been damaged by a hurricane, holding up coconut shells as if to offer a toast, grinning like idiots. Hmm. I suppose this is one for the--can you think of a caption for this-- contest.

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

10. One day Don Daniel couldn't find his phone, so he had his son call it. This loud ringing came from the top of a coconut tree. So Don Daniel just walked up the tree (basically-- and retrieved his phone). He's over 60. His friend laughed and said to me--all Salvadorian men and boys can climb coconut trees. Yeah, I asked him. All of them? Can you? Claro.

Things That surprise me about El Salvador

9. The first time I went to El Salvador, I sat next to a businessman who was completely terrified. He'd never been there before. He said his company (a computer co.) had warned him--not to look flashy, not to go out after dark, not to rent a car (the car thieves wait outside the airport --along the road--and then stop you and steal your car, he said), not to hike, not to act like a tourist, not to go anywhere alone, not to look lost, not to dress in a suit (he was wearing a white polo shirt and khakis), not to . . . He had read and reread and even printed out the U.S. State Dept. warnings to travelers (you probably don't want to read these on the flight in) -and was full of info on gangs, car jacking, thieves, etc.. He said at least he knew some Spanish, and he was reviewing his verb tenses. Oh, those Spanish verbs!

The second time I went to El Salvador, I sat next to a businessman (who was dressed in a very nice suit) who goes to San Salvador every week, flying in on Monday and leaving on Friday. He seemed to know everyone on the plane. San Sal? He said, as if talking about a girlfriend. It's no worse than Miami. In both cities, you have to know your way. But me? I wouldn't mind retiring in El Salvador. I can afford whatever I can dream there. El Salvador has everything: beaches, mountains, rivers, city life . . . But I do need to learn Spanish.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

8. The Pineapples! I thought I knew what a pineapple tasted like, but whatever those things are they sell in Giant Eagle are but a distant relative of these . . .

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

7. The children. They are beautiful. And sweet. I know that's a gross generalization. So forgive me for it. But I did have the luxury of teaching a poetry writing class one day last November (with Suzanne translating), and I was so impressed. I won't bore you with my gushing. But I will post again a poem written by a 10 year old girl. (First in Spanish, then in English.)

El sol y la luna y los girasoles
by Kendy de Lourdes Cerón, 10 años

Todas las noches
los girasoles despiertan…

Para aprender lo que
La luna en lo alto de las nubes enseñaba
Pero la luna solo les enseñaba la vocal "o".

Los girasoles ya estaban
Aburridos de la vocal
Un día aunque no había luna
Apareció el sol que les dijo
Yo les enseñare y les enseño
Todas las vocales.
Un girasol le pregunto
¿De que palabra viene la
Letra "e"? y respondió la letra
Viene de la palabra tierra.

The sun and the moon and the sunflowers

Every night
The sunflowers awoke…

In order to learn what the moon
In the height of the clouds would teach them
But the moon only taught them the vowel "o"
The sunflowers grew bored
Of the letter.

One day although there was no moon
The sun appeared and told them
I will teach you and then taught them
All of the vowels.
One of the sunflowers asked:
What word does the letter "e" come from?
And the sun answered: The letter "e"
Comes from the word earth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

6. I don't like to think about the darker side. The things that make me worry. But, as the mother of a hiker well . . . I don't like this fact (which comes up when I read about the country on U.S.sites about El Salvador):
Mine-removal efforts have ceased, but land mines and unexploded ordnance in backcountry regions still pose a threat to off-road tourists, backpackers and campers.

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

5. The school teachers work double shifts. 8-12. 1-5. No, they don't get paid much, and there's a lot of rote learning. The classrooms are hot. And there are so many kids!!! Here they are doing a little environmental play-in connection with Suzanne's work on environmental education. Save the trees!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

4. People will pay over $100 bucks just to try to get a visa to the U.S.. They will take the bus to San Salvador, wait in long line for hours, then turn their application in, only to be turned down immediately. The reason? They might want to stay in the U.S.. This photo is of Don Daniel who has tried several times to get a visa to see his grandchildren.

(Okay, I had that figure wrong. I just looked it up on the U.S. Embassy site, and below is posted what one must have to get a visa. What's so odd to me is that you have to pay the money, even if it's denied. ?? It's confusing.)

Immigrant Visa Fees

At the time of the interview, each immigrant visa applicant must pay a $400 visa processing fee, effective January 1, 2008 . For applicants whose files have all of the required documents during the interview and who have a qualifying sponsor in the U.S., an immigrant visa will be issued.

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

3. They say adios instead of hello when they don't have time to chat. I wish we had a way of doing that in this country.

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

2. Women don't wear shorts. Or swim suits. (Though they do wear shorts to swim in.) At least the don't wear them in S's site. And they don't run. Suzanne and I went running together, and I wore these giant shorts-
I mean huge. Everyone was staring, but not because of my shorts (I mean, I don't think so anyhow). They were all saying,
Suzanne's mother is here.

Things that surprise me about El Salvador

1. How our government deports people there.

This is a recent case. I think it shows the extremes of the sentiment: send them back to where they came from. Suzanne met a guy who experienced similar treatment.

Burglary conviction leads to deportation

By Leslie Berestein
July 20, 2008
A man adopted by a U.S. couple when he was 6 months old has been deported to El Salvador after spending five years in immigration detention in Otay Mesa while he appealed his case.

(You can click on the link above to read the whole story.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

In the Hills of El Salvador

Getting from the beach to Suzanne's Peace Corps site in the hills of El Salvador (the closest town is Santa Maria Ostuma, which you can see on the next hill over in this pic) is quite a trek. It's probably not that far, but the narrow dirt roads are so washed out from the heavy rains, it's a long, slow drive. We hired a taxi-driver who seemed happy for the work. I was worried he'd complain when we hit the rutted roads (I was afraid that they'd take the shocks right out of the car), but he seemed right at home, bouncing along with us. When we asked if he'd mind stopping at the Supermarket, he said he wasn't in a rush. (He didn't charge extra for the stop. The entire trip, which was maybe 1 and 1/2 hours was $50 plus a tip) No one was in much of a rush.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Earthquake in El Salvador

The entire village where my daughter now lives was destroyed by an earthquake in January, 2001. A few structures, like this one, still remain.

Just as happened in our last visits, many conversations turn to the subject of the earthquake. Everyone has a story. A common question between villagers:
Where were you when the earthquake hit.

The earth moved like water beneath our feet, a mother says. The people were running one moment, and they were gone the next. One of her 9 daughters was killed when trying to save a child. Just as she handed the child to another woman, the dirt swallowed her.

Do the folks in the USA know about our earthquake, a man asks?

Yes, I assure him. People know about the earthquake in El Salvador. (I don't have the heart to say otherwise.)

The Beach in El Salvador

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Working at the Ice Cream Shop or a tiny story about life in El Salvador

I asked Suzanne’s friend, Patrona, about this five dollar an hour wage. She didn't answer my question, but she and Suzanne started talking in Spanish about F. who got a job working at an ice cream shop in San Salvador. ( I think I understood the most of this story, though my Spanish isn't even close to up to snuff.) Her mom was really excited because it's hard to get a job in an ice cream shop in San Salvador if you are from a tiny village in the hills. Everyone wants a job like that, but no one can afford a place in San Salvador. So the woman who owned the shop let F. stay in her home. What could be more perfect?

Plus F. was starting to see a guy who was 25 and in the police academy too, a guy who was going to be able to make a good living some day. She invited him to a big fiesta she was planning for her 18th birthday, and the plan was that he would ask her father then if he could have permission to date F. (Already her father approved.) This is a big event, the asking to date the daughter event, and usually the young suitor is terrified. Everyone was talking and giggling and asking in suspense.

But then she learned the boyfriend was seeing a 14 year old girl, too. And the woman who owned the ice cream shop stopped paying F.. She kept saying she would, but that times were hard. She had F. working full time and was asking her to do other things, like clean her house. One day F. ran away. (She had to run away? I asked, wondering if she couldn't just have said, I'm not doing this. They nodded and looked at me, as if to say, don't you get it?)

Shortly after her return, C., an old man in the village died, so her eighteenth birthday party (that she'd been planning for weeks with Suzanne ordering the cake, and her mother worrying about the dress . . . and we were all planning to attend) was canceled because you can't have a party when someone in the village has just died. Instead there were seven days of funeral rites with everyone singing and praying into the nights.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Advice from a Tourist Guide to El Salvador

On our first days there, we chose to stay at a Salvadorian hotel on the beach because of the nice write-up in our tourist guide, a book which is completely outdated because, well, maybe no one wants to be a tourist in El Salvador. I imagine Peace Corps parents are the only folks who buy this book. Then I start wondering, are there tourist guides for every country? Your Vacation Guide to Chechnya? Or Benin? Or Libya? Or Papau, New Guinea?
Not to compare El Salvador with those places . . .

To be fair, last time we stayed at a budget hotel, El Salvadorian style, and it was the best. Just not the one the guide book bragged about.

$5 a Day?

Do they really pay $5/day to factory workers in El Salvador? Which U.S. companies?

I think the first guy who told me about the $5/day wage (though he wasn't the only one)
was from Reebok/Adidas. Reebok, btw, doesn't like to disclose its factory locations. Like Nike, it doesn't have the best human rights record.

Lacoste has its major U.S. operation in El Salvador. I spent a long time talking to a businessman who works for Lacoste, but he talked mostly about the beautiful women in El Salvador (verdad!). Esp. his girlfriend who has a home in the mountains, a home on the beach, a home in San Salvador with many servants and . . .

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Why is there a bathing cubicle in the kitchen-dining area in your daughter's house in El Salvador? a friend asks.

Because that's where the water is--the water for cooking, drinking, cleaning, and bathing.
There is no indoor plumbing in the houses in her village.
Water is turned on every other day by whomever it is that owns the water, and it runs for an hour into the hoses that fill the troughs. (The hoses are always turned on.)
People who can't afford water walk down a very steep hill to the river, then bathe, wash their clothes, chat with the other women who are bathing and doing laundry, and then carry their drinking water in pitchers--on their heads--back to their homes. The river is thick with mud at this time of year because it's the rainy season, and the hills are so steep, the rainwater washes the dirt away, dirt which is heavily fertilized by the farmers . . .

Is the water that runs into the houses treated?

I don't know. It's clear. But it's not safe for me to drink. The last time I was there, mosquitoes had laid their eggs in the trough. There were little red worms in the water. The women tossed in some white powder to kill the worms.

Do people get sick a lot?

Yes. Some Peace Corps volunteers get sick. Others, like my daughter, don't get sick any more than folks do in this country . . .

Americans Bathe Too Much?

Maybe it depends on what country you're comparing us too.

There's no hot water in the home where Suzanne lives, but everyone takes bucket baths at least once a day. Often twice. They ar every clean.

The women do laugh at how Suzanne takes bucket baths every day after running. Did you know you can get arthritis from taking cold baths when you're still sweating? You are supposed to wait until you've cooled down (which is something that rarely happens in my case).

A bucket bath, btw, is when you take what looks like a dog bowl, dip it in the water (which is kept in what looks like a big trough) and then throw it over yourself. This is the standard bathing method. And there isn't a lot of privacy. In her current house, the bathing unit is a little cubicle in the kitchen, which isn't exactly a kitchen. It's sort of like an open-air room or porch where the people, dogs, and chickens eat.

The Terrible French -and other national stereotypes

On the way back from El Salvador, I asked the flight attendant --a guy who said he flies all over the world:

So what is it about the French?

He answered that every nationality has its reputation. Or stereotype. And he laughed, adding, they live up to them. Really they do.

The Russians, he said, drink too much and never smile.

The Chinese complain about the food, esp. pasta. Orientals dislike pasta and ice. So the flight always runs out of juice, pop, and water. (And it's true. You really should NOT have ice in your drinks on airplanes.)

The Americans have huge suitcases and bathe too much.

The Japanese are the ones who will sometimes wear face masks for fear of diseases. And they don't want to be touched by accident.

The French? Oh, the terrible French. It's so true. You never want to try to serve a Frenchman.

What Is It about the French?

Do people speak English to you in El Salvador?

No, at least not in the places I was.

Although they did at the Sheraton in San Salvador.

And sometimes, when they did speak English to me, I would have a moment of panic, trying to figure it out. The first question I have to answer is:

Was that Spanish? Or English?

Do they speak other languages?

English is the language most people want to learn. Many might want to come to the U.S.. But there was one man at the Sheraton in San Salvador who spoke French as well as English, and he told me how he hated the French. Shoot, even the school director in Suzanne's tiny village hates the French. When I asked him why, he answered that he had been to Spain. As if that answered it.

What is it about the French?

Monday, July 14, 2008

A link to a list of literary reviews

Let's Go to the Beach in El Salvador

So what was the beach like?

Costa del Sol is about an hour from the airport in San Salvador. A hot, hot drive. No one (not even the taxis) uses A.C.. (Gas is about $5 bucks a gallon.) And it's 90 plus humid degrees. As my daughter puts it, just be happy you aren't on one of the buses. Yeah, most people get around in buses--or they pack into the backs of trucks.

But about the beach.

It's beautiful. White sand, aqua skies, surf. Except for the lack of people (I think we saw 4 people on the beach), the packs of wild dogs that napped in the sand, growled and barked, and sometimes dove into the waves to cool off, and the herd of cattle strolling on the sand, the beach could have been just about anywhere . . .

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

from Notes on Writing

Sometimes when I write a poem on my computer, I think,
Okay. That sounds decent.

When I print it out, I find all kinds problems.

It's as if somehow the computer screen shows me only the dream of the poem.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth of July!

Things I am happy about:

1. I am home from El Salvador! ( Yes, I love this country. I do. And I will love it more when Obama is president.)
2. Indoor plumbing
3. Refrigeration
4. Hot showers
5. Water that is safe drink
6. Food I can digest. (I can't wait to feel well again! I always get sick in El Salvador. )

7. My daughter will be home in 5 months!
8. Her idealism, her spirit, her desire to help others . . . ( and The Peace Corps, which I think should be better run, but the idea of it, the wish behind it, and of those who join it, I admire so . . .)

9. And this ( which has nothing to do with the fourth). A little animation my son did at CMU with some other students.
It's really, really short. It's fantastic. (Okay, I know I shouldn't brag so about my kids. Sorry.) It will make you smile.