Thursday, October 20, 2005


i think this is the longest thing i´ve ever written that i wasn´t required to write. maybe not. in any event, be prepared because this entry is SUPER long!!!

so the area i was assigned to for immersion weekend was in the department of chalatenango, which is next to santa ana. (el salvador is broken up into departments, e.g. san salvador, san miguel, san vicente, santa ana, la libertad, chalatenango, etc.) anyway, chalatenango is in the northwest area of the country and blew me away with its vistas and gigantic trees. it is way less densely populated than san vicente and way more forested. the canton (town) i was assigned to was called portrero sula, and had never had a gringa/gringo stay there before. the family i stayed with spoke no english at all, and even though my family in molineros speaks no english, i felt like i was starting all over again with this new family.

the volunteer who met me in san salvador and took me to my site (and who i stayed with on saturday) was maria de la cruz. at first, i thought she didn’t like me because i didn’t speak spanish very well – and it’s her native language. also, she obviously fits in a lot better than i do – simply because she is hispanic. so when she met me in san salvador and we took the bus to nueva concepcion, and finally to potrero sula, i was drawing a lot more attention than she ever got because i’m a gringa, i’m tall, i have blond hair, blue eyes and i was carrying my huge red north face backpack. she dropped me off at my host family’s house and kind of left me in the dark about where i was supposed to go and what i was supposed to do the next day. i was actually kind of pissed off because of it.

my family in portero sula was super nice and i think they thought i was really goofy because my spanish wasn’t the greatest. i tend to laugh it off most of the time, and my family picked up on this quite quickly. the family consisted of: victoria and jose, the grandmother and grandfather who are 79 and 86, respectively; andrea, their daughter, 38; and dimaris and johanna, andrea’s daughters who are 21 (yes, 21) and 14, respectively. actually, andrea lives elsewhere in the canton (i’m not sure why) and dimaris and johanna live with the grandparents in the house where i stayed. lydia and jose (andrea’s brother) and their son ricardo came over the first night i was there – i think just to see “the gringa.” ricardo is 18 and is super fascinated with all things american – so he was drilling me most of the night about the united states. victoria was so kind and really affectionate – but my favorite member of the family was andrea. she was so helpful and just a really good person. there was a miscommunication between maria, victor (maria’s salvadoran counterpart who she works with in the area promoting ag-forestry concepts) and my family about my meeting victor on saturday to go to a charla (a talk) that maria and victor were giving about trash and recycling. their audience was going to be a group of parents who were attending a required school meeting in maria’s caseria (a town that is even smaller than a canton). i was supposed to meet victor at his house in portrero sula, but maria told my family that victor was coming to their house to meet me. after 1:00 p.m. passed (the time we thought he was coming), dimaris called maria and found out i was supposed to go to victor’s house. so andrea walked with me all the way to the caseria which ended up being a couple of miles. i felt really bad, but she kept saying she liked the walk because it was really pretty. she was right about that. the road leading to maria’s caseria is basically just a tree covered road, with protected forest on both sides. the rio lempa runs through portrero sula, and weaves itself through chalatanengo. the road follows the river, and it’s hard to believe that it’s probably 100% contaminated. anyway, when i got to maria’s caseria – andrea made sure i was in the right place, and then hitched a ride on a pickup back to portrero sula and never complained once.

anyway, my two second favorite people ended up being two farmers i ended up working with on friday morning. one was jose (andrea’s brother) and this other guy named felomon. we left early friday morning and hiked (and i mean hiked), all the way up to their manzanas so i could learn more about the types of crops grown here in el salvador. felemon was awesome and seemed really excited about the fact that i was interested in their cultivation calendar and planting styles. jose was more quiet, but was super energetic about showing me the crops he has. at one point we were climbing high up on one of the hills where jose has a manzana and i felt something sharp on my leg. i was talking to felomon at the time and so i kind of ignored it. then all of a sudden jose’s like “ormigas!” i looked down and i swear to god there were like 200 ants on my pant leg. they were each no bigger than a speck of dust, but were biting the hell out of both my ankle and foot. so felomon and jose were brushing them off and i’m dying of pain for a minute. apparently i stepped too close to this dead log and the ants went crazy. the ants here are probably the most annoying of all the bugs. they get into everything and are everywhere. it’s like they multiply by the thousands in mere minutes. it’s nuts. anyway, the pain didn’t last long, and after a minute or so, we were on our way again. i must have burned 10,000 calories that morning because we just kept climbing higher and higher, hopping over and under fences. the payoffs were the most awesome views i’ve seen so far here in el salvador. we finally got to another big crop and found this guy picking some of the beans in his field. it’s hysterical how these farmers just “find” each other. we’d be walking along the middle of a corn field and jose would yell out and i’m thinking “who the hell is he yelling at?” and the next thing i’d know some other farmer would pop his head up from the field and greet felomon and jose. so this last field we stopped in, we were talking to this other farmer and felomon starts yelling at yet another farmer who is across the field. he starts telling him how i’m learning about the agriculture in el salvador and what-not. so this guy starts walking towards us, and next thing i know he whips out a pistol and shoots two rounds into the air. i’m like “what the hell??” i’m up on this mountain, really, really, really far away from anywhere with these four farmers, one of whom has a gun AND a machete! it sounds crazy, but i wasn’t scared at all....but i was definitely taken aback. also, i had a machete that felomon let me borrow – so it wasn’t like i was totally defenseless if something would have happened. i ended up helping them pick some of the beans (they do all their harvesting by hand) and for the first time felt like i was actually doing some arduous work. so all four of the farmers gathered up big separate bundles of the beans (still on their vines) and each carried one all the way back down to the canton. felomon and i took two bundles back to my family’s house and we, along with the grandfather and some other woman, shelled the beans. the next day we ended up eating those very beans – so that was kind of cool.

i had quite an experience on friday night. i had just come back from going to the charla in maria’s caseria. i was dead tired so the family and i were just chilling on the porch/dining area and talking about what i did that day. all of a sudden we hear this super loud noise, like a motor, and the family’s two dogs go nuts and start barking like crazy. i didn’t really think anything of the dogs barking because my first night at my family’s home in molineros clued me into the fact that salvadoran dogs have split personalities: one being sweet and nice and the other being something similar to cujo. anyway – these two dogs run towards the front gate and go crazy. next thing i know, a pickup truck pulls up to the gate. three guys wearing bandanas hop out of the truck, carrying this machine that sounds like a chainsaw and looks like a friggin’ grenade launcher. half the family gets up and runs towards the street, knocking their chairs over. the other half runs into this other room in the house. i’m standing there like an idiot, thinking we’re on the brink of being kidnapped or something. i’m telling you i nearly passed out i was so scared. i had no idea what was going on and couldn’t hear a damn thing anyone was saying because this machine was drowning out everything else. so i go towards the room that half the family ran into. there, they are getting the grandfather up out of bed and at this point i still don’t know who the three men are and what the hell they’re doing there. i follow the three family members plus the grandfather out onto the street, where the rest of the family is and it’s there that i find out that the three men are fumigating the house for zancudas (mosquitos) because there was a case of dengue fever in portrero sula. i still don’t get why they were operating with the speed of a pit crew at a NASCAR race – but at least now i know that all men wearing bandanas over their faces aren’t members of the MS – one of the most feared gangs in el salvador. we spent nearly an hour on the street waiting for the house to clear out after the men left. let’s just say i was ready for bed the minute we were able to go back inside.

anyway – the next day (saturday) maria told me i was supposed to catch the bus at 2:30 p.m. and take it to her caseria. i was supposed to “tell the driver” to go to a desvio (an intersection...if you can even call it that. it’s basically just two dirt roads crossing each other....not an intersection like we would think of in the states) that she couldn’t even remember the name of. i’m thinking “how the hell am i supposed to ask him to drop me off somewhere when i can’t even tell him where.” she seemed to think that i knew everything she did about the town or something. if that wasn’t enough, after i got to the desvio, then i was supposed to walk up some road and look for one of two “newer” houses. at this point i was really pissed because seriously – i’ve been here in el salvador for four weeks. i’m the first gringa in this town – i’m thinking the least she could have suggested is that we meet somewhere in her caseria – somewhere on the street where the bus would drop people off. all morning all i could think about was what i was going to tell barbara at the peace corps office when she asked us individually how our immersion weekends went – how my family was great, but my volunteer sucked. so that morning, there seemed to be some discrepancy among my family about what time the bus was actually coming by the canton. i had to walk to the desvio outside the canton, and then wait for the bus at 1:30, or 2:00, or 1:00 – nobody seemed to know for sure. so at 1:00 i bid my family farewell, loaded up my backpack and set off. i got to the desvio and gaged my options. i could sit there and wait, or i could just start walking. i knew i just needed to stay on that road – as andrea and i had walked it the day before. the thought of carrying my backpack on the two-mile walk in the hot salvadoran sun was not appealing, but standing at that desvio waiting for a bus that might not come for another hour seemed daunting as well. so i just started walking. i’m not sure if that was something barbara or the peace corps office would have approved of. the road had very little traffic, if any, the day andrea and i walked it. that could have either been a good thing, or a bad one. lots of traffic would have meant lots of guys in pickups whistling and catcalling and what-not. no traffic meant someone lurking in the forest, or a lone passing truck with a bunch of asshole hombres could grab me or whatever and nobody would know. but standing at the desvio waiting for the bus presented the same risks. the walk was absolutely awesome, and i was pretty content. there was only one truckload of hombres that yelled some stuff, but i just ignored them and kept walking. i made it to the caseria with no problems, and as i was walking through the town, i hear someone yell my name and it’s maria eating lunch at somebody’s house. so i met her up there and we continued on to her house.

maria’s house is friggin’ huge. i don’t know how she scored this place, but it’s a palace compared to all the other houses i’ve seen since being here. she has this gigantic porch, three huge rooms, a really cool outside kitchen that actually is its own separate structure, and two....TWO bathrooms – with toilets that flush. one of the bathrooms – the outside one – actually has a shower with super nice tiles. she said she pays something like $20 a month for everything – including electric. she doesn’t even use the third room. she has an awesome back yard with a banana tree, as well as a cohote tree. her house rocks. anyway, after hanging out with her for a while, i wasn’t as pissed off as before. i think she’s just a really introverted person, but she chilled out a bit while i was there. we ended up getting along pretty well, and i even got to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that night for dinner. i did have to hold my bread over maria’s small gas stove in order to toast it, but it was all good.

on sunday we headed over to her friend’s house for lunch. the main dish was rabbit. maria and i were about halfway through eating when her friend told maria that we were eating the rabbit that maria was petting the day before. that kind of put things into perspective and i decided to eat more of the salad that maria brought. salvadorans don’t really eat raw vegetables. they think we’re crazy for having them as a snack, or in a salad or whatever. every once in a while a salvadoran will fix a salad that has lettuce, tomatoes and maybe cucumbers. but the idea of eating peppers raw is totally out of the question. so maria brought this salad to lunch, and her friend ate a few bites and kind of ignored it. and maria and i were talking about how it’s so funny that salvadorans think we’re so weird for eating raw vegetables because it’s not very healthy, yet they practically deep fry everything, and then continue to pile on the salt and sugar and whatever other fattening things they can utilize.

anyhow – i took the 2:00 bus out of maria’s caseria and had to ride an hour to nueva concepcion. i then had to take another 2 hour bus ride to san salvador, where i had to change buses at the eastern terminal – which is by far one of the scariest places i’ve had to visit in el salvador. when you hear the word “terminal” you’d probably think of something official – like grand central station or gare d’nord in paris, or something like that. well, at least that’s what i thought when we first went to san salvador way back whenever that was. not so. eastern terminal is basically a huge-ass dirt parking lot, with a zillion buses, in no particular order or place. there are tons of stands that are falling apart with sketchy vendors selling food that is totally not clean. to round out this fabulous area are greasy hombres with nothing to do with their time except hang out at the bus station, as well as taxi drivers that attack you before you’re even off the bus trying to get you to hire them. i was unsure about whether or not the bus i needed to get on would even be there because it was sunday night. i was already planning what i was going to do if the bus wasn’t there. but after uncomfortably searching the terminal i found my bus, hopped on and chilled until it left for molineros.

it was so nice to be “home.” it was dark and i knew my family would be worried because i was so late – it was already 6:30 - and of course, it was dark. ana greeted me on the street and gave me a hug and i felt like i hadn’t been there in forever. i was grilled on chalatenango for a good hour. but i was super glad to be back. ana kept telling me that anna and megan had come over like four times to see if i was back yet, but i didn’t feel like going over to their houses, so i basically just unpacked my shit and went to sleep.

the end.

oh – this weekend we get a travel weekend – which is really just a day and a half. some of us are going to suchitoto. we wanted to go to the beach, but we decided that we wanted more than just a day and a half there, so we decided on suchitoto. it’s supposed to have these amazing coffee places, as well as tons of artisan shops. it’s an old colonial town near the lake, so i’m sure it’ll be really cool. so next week i’ll have more travel stories to tell.

oh, one final thing....tomorrow i have to give a charla to a third grade class about trash and recycling. in spanish. yeah, i’m freaking out about it.