Archive for June, 2006

Our site mates from San Rafael de Cedros whom we have Spanish class with in our community: (from left to right) Will, Adrianna, Barbara, Samuel

Our room for the next 8 weeks in San Rafael at our host family’s house. The mosquito net protects us from the flesh eating mosquitos and the giant roaches, as well as the family pets.

The Courtyard Garden at our host family’s house in San Rafael Cedros

The countryside of San Fransisco, a canton (rural town/village) where we visited an agroforestry volunteer at during a guided PCV Site Visit. The purpose of such visits is to see how other volunteers live their daily lives.

For more photos on our experience in El Salvador thus far, go to:


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Yesterday we were whisked off to a canton (tiny country-side town/village) blessed with the same San Francisco to visit an agroforestry volunteer and to get a feel for daily life out there. The day started out with hunger pangs and a dusty ride out to the canton full of lush, rollling green hills. We were greeted by a volunteer named Melissa (I think) coming down a dirt path. We followed here down the path she had come and down a little slope which took us to a little housing compound. Our first activity of the day was to make bread in a clay oven – a product of the previous volunteer. We got our hands dirty making Budín de Guineo, which is essentially a very, very rich banana bread. The ingredients included heaps of sugar, heaps of butter and lard amongst others. As we cracked the eggs that were to be added to the batter, which was mixed by hand rustic style, we chucked the egg shells over the fence and into the grassy area Salvadoran style. It’s very normal to chuck your rubbish anywhere you wish in this culture. When the batter was ready it was poured into latas or baking trays and pushed into the clay dome. The finished product was the most delicious banana bread I’ve ever tasted for two reasons: I was ravenously hungry due to only eating a piece of bread at 7am and it had generous amounts of butter, sugar and bananas. The rest of the day was downhill because I ate so much banana bread I couldn’t think properly. Photos coming soon!

Today I visited my first orphanage. I’ll admit it. I’m not a big fan of kids. That might seem contradictory seeing that I’m a youth development volunteer. However, these kids were great! I’ve never twisted so many pony tails, had so many kids who wanted me to hold their hands and braid their hair in my life! “Why is your hair different?” “What is America like? Can you take me?”. We played Duck, Duck, Goose and Simon Says. By the end of the 2 hours I had girls sitting on my lap and holding my hands. One girl had grown quite attached to me and when it was time for us to depart, she walked me over to our van and didn’t want to let go of my hand. She began to cry and it just broke my heart. I told her not to be sad because I’d be back next week with candies and we could play more games. She agreed to the plan and moped away. Poor thing!

I’ve never been surrounded with so many kids without parents. The NGO we visited, ALDEA SOS, is a great alternative to your average orphanage. The kids seemed happy, the orphange was lovely and they all seemed healthy.

The image of that little girl holding my hand not wanting to let go of my hand will be etched in my mind forever.

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Up until now I haven’t really reflected on what exactly we do here to fill our days. I’ll start with this: our days are chock-full of stuff.

I never thought that I’d be one of those “early to bed, early to rise” type of people, but apparently that’s who I’ve become in these last two weeks. Our day usually starts around 5:45am-6:00am. We take our pila baths and are at the breakfast table at about 7am each morning. Then we either have Spanish class in our community or we travel to San Vicente for technical training at the training centre. Each community has about 3-4 volunteers, ours has four, and one of the houses is designated at the place where Spanish class will be held -which is our house. Advanced Spanish speakers don’t participate in the classes, but instead are urged to go out into the community to get a taste of what being a volunteer is actually like. That entails making contacts in the community by visiting certain institutions and getting to know more about their inner workings. I’d just like to mention that being a native speaker doesn’t any more easy to march into an institution and ask to speak to the person in charge or chat to strangers on the street.

Technical training consists of charlas or presentations given either by Peace Corps staff or current volunteers on certain topics ranging from Salvadoran history to how to put together a lesson plan for teaching life skills. Having current volunteers come in and talk about their experience and their projects puts everything into perspective and takes the fear out of you a bit – well for me anyways.

We usually have an hour or so for lunch, during which we all line up for the microwave to heat up whatever lunches our host families have prepared for us and then comparing notes, and sometimes sharing or trading.

We’ve also been getting vaccinations to protect us from all of the life-threatning diseases we can get here such as, but not limited to: hepatitis A, Typhoid, Rabies, Tetanus and Diptheria. Once a week we also take malaria medication. They say you have really vivid dreams and everyone was really worried about the side effects – I’ll be honest, the dreams are cool.

We end Spanish class or technical training between 4:30pm and 5:00pm then find our community buddies and bus it back to our pueblos American school bus style.

Dinner is at 6:30. We chat for half hour or so. We’re in bed by 7:45pm – 8:00pm. Sleep and repeat.

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I used to be a big fan of all things Nike, but then I found myself unable to afford such products and didn’t care for providing free advertising by having the logo plastered on everything I owned. Nike’s promo tag, “Just Do It”, on the other hand has proved useful for adjusting to life here in El Salvador.

1. Cold pila baths are rough in the morning and I usually try to acclimate my body little by little to the cold water I’m pouring over myself by doing one leg, then the other and then one arm and then the second one. The “Just Do It” approach involves holding my breath, squating and pouring one guacal (little bucket or tub) or freezing cold water over my back. Holding my breath keeps me from feeling like I’m about to have a heart attack.

2. Being somewhat of a spend-2-hours-in-the-kitchen-and-create-something-new-and-tasty afficionado, the lack of variety in the Salvadoran diet is something that is stretching my last nerve. My new approach: pupusas again for the third meal in a row? Just eat ’em. Beans and rice for the 3 day in a row? Suck it up and eat ’em. I’m getting accustomed to having the fun sucked out of things that I once enjoyed.

3. There are heaps of bugs here in El Salvador and I think about 78% of the country’s population of flies lives in our host family’s kitchen. Flies on your bread? Flies on your head? Just swat ’em. Just do it (lest you want to acquire som sort of fly-bourne stomach illness).

4. The pets here are apparently not house-trained. The pee and poo wherever they please. Sometimes they pee on our bedroom door. Sometimes they poo on the path that takes you to the toilet area. Just cover the pee with newspaper and jump over the poo.

5. The flesh-eating mosquitos are sometimes difficult to put up with, even with repellent, even with long sleeves on. Just slop on the repellent and slop on the anti-itch cream. Just slop it.

Just eat it. Just swat it. Just do it.

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San Savlador, the capital of El Salvador, wasn’t as hectic as we had imagined. I had imagined feeling as overwhelmed as we did each time we had to spend time in Bangkok. The city experience was actually one that was welcomed! We were not permitted to travel to the capital before our guided tour, which included going to Metrocentro (one of San Salvador’s most popular malls) and the Peace Corps office where we are to go in case of illness, administrative needs, workshops, etc. We were shown which buses to take to get to certain places and where the ritziest place in town was. Forget about travelling in airconditioned luxury in comfortable seats while you gaze out the window at the poor people who have to walk out in the heat. Travelling in buses here in El Salvador is a process that requires you to be alert about the whereabouts of your belongings, when your stop is and if you have to stand (which is 90% of the time), being alert so you don’t fall down. It’s almost like an amusement park when the attraction is trying to stay alive while speeding around an old American-style school bus. No airconditionin, comfortable seat, no organized way of collecting bus fare and definately not the safest way to travel.

When we were at the Peace Corps office I loaded up on the free Newsweeks that Peace Corps volunteers get for free, reading books and an appetite for something other than the tamales I’d been eating for the past three meals. I’ve never enjoyed eating out or going to a shopping centre as much as I did today. Even though I didn’t get to go shopping per sae we did pick up some essetials: a mirror (because there isn’t a single one in the entire compound) and a surge protector (because Salvadoran electricity will fry your appliances without warning).

The bus terminals in San Salvador have to be one of the shadiest places on the planet. Complete caos. Complete shadiness.

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We’ve been in El Salvador for 1 week exactly. Why does it feel like we’ve been here for ages when we only left our life in Australia 2 weeks ago? I’m closer to my family than I’ve been in years, but somehow I feel the furthest away from them than I ever have. I must be going through City Life Withdrawal Syndrome. I must admit the pueblo life seems quaint for the time being. To get your bread you go to the panaderia or bakery. However, if you should need to find napkins, bath soap or milk you don’t head over to the supermarket because there isn’t one. Many families here in San Rafael have little tiendas or shops that are part of their houses. Some own chemists where you can get your prescription filled, some own librerías where they sell school supplies and others own food shops where you can get packaged bread, biscuits, toilet paper and other items. The trick to pueblo living is knowing where to go to get what you need because they don’t have signs that say the name of the tienda. You can, however, guess where one might be by the collage of posters advertising a better life if you eat a certain brand of yogur or a speedy recovery from your gripe and it’s cold symptoms if you purchase some effervescent tables. I haven’t visited any of the tiendas in my town but I have gone to one of the panaderias to purchase a biscuit for .15 centavos.

The pueblo where the Peace Corps training centre is located, San Vicente, on the other hand is blessed with a supermarket called Supermercado de Todo where you begin to melt as soon as you step inside. It’s quite difficult to get excited over finding canned garbanzos to make hummus when kidney beans seem to be the only beans they eat in this country or finding powdered soymilk in various flavours when you thought you’d never see it again while you feel like a piece of bread in a toaster!

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I must admit that our arrival in El Salvador was quite anticlimatic – for some while I had forgotten that I was only moving to Central America and not Sub-Saharan Africa. On the surface, El Salvador is much like the other Latin American countries I’ve lived in. Beneath the surface, however, is where the difference lies.

Will and I are currently living with a host family in a pueblo (small town) called San Rafael de Cedros in the department of Cuscatlán (kind of like a state in Australia or America). Our surrogate family for the next 10 weeks consists of three generations of family members: the parents, the children and the grandchildren. Plus an extra person here and there, and two cats and 4 dogs. It’s much like a hostel without the goings and comings of travellers. The town is quaint, everything you would imgaine a small town in a developing country to be. We have running water some days, constant electricity (the power did go out once though), plenty of fruits and vegetables and plenty of mosquitos carrying malaria and dengue. They actually have cantinas here (small hole-in-the-wall “drinking establishments”) where the bolos and huele pegas (town drunks and glue sniffers) hang out. There is a market where one can buy pirated CDs, local fruits and vegetables and sandals amongst other things. One can also find a post office, the mayor’s office, many food stands, plenty of churches (El Salvador is very, very religious) and half-paved, half-cobble stoned roads. And of course, plenty of rubbish strewn all over, as the concept of the “proper” disposal of rubbish has yet to catch on here. Will and I went to a community softball game yesterday to watch our host aunt play. Well, Will played and I sat in the rain under my lime green umbrella attempting to write in my journal until the rain drops began washing my thoughts away. I’ve also gone to a reza (prayer group), thinking it was a social call. Religion is a big part of the culture here and unfortunately if I choose not to participate in such activities, Salvadoran life would just pass me by. “You’re Catholic, right?” is a question that came up almost immediately after being introduced to my host family. If you’re not Catholic or Protestant then you might as well get struck my lightening and get in over with.

The actual house we live in is large, yet basic. I guess my host family is more modern than others as she has a washing machine, internet and cable – none of which I have used. The house is fashioned around a central courtyard filled with an abundance of plants and such, plus two turtles and heaps and zancudos (mosquitos). At night I wash my face and brush my teeth over a little bucket of water. In the morning I take my pila bath (a bucket bath of sorts) in a little concrete room. I think the cold bucket baths will take the most getting used to, as the water basin where the water is taken from is, um, infested with little squiggly things, which I learnt today were mosquito larvae. Not so tasty. Yes, dengue and malaria are real threats here along with rabies, Thyphoid, Heptatitis and other exiting things. And no, we cannot drink the water unless we want to die in our sleep. We started taking our malaria medicine (called Aralen) last week. So fun! We sleep under a mosquito net and dream Aralen dreams.

The more I speak to Salvadorans the more I realise how LUCKY I am to have been born me. The reality of life here is tough. Many people can’t even comprehend how I could even think of leaving my comfortable life and trade it for the life that the “other half” of the world lives. If I don’t change any lives, if I don’t save the world, at least I’ll have more compassion for the rest of the global community. El Salvador isn’t Africa, but it certainly isn’t Melbourne or Los Angleles.

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So…staging is finally over. I won’t say that it was entirely interesting, but come on. How interesting can is it ever when one is getting briefed about the policies and regulations of one’s new employer? Hardly ever. The staging coordinators were quite helpful and good presenters. It took a particular fancy towards the APCD for Municipal Development – he was a brilliant speaker and I reckon he did a really good job of getting everyone motivated to take this next big step into the unknown. It’s not Burkino Faso, but it’s a different world enough because I nor Will have never been there.

Travelling to a developing country and spending 2 months in the second largest urban area is one thing, but living in the middle of “all the drama” is another thing. I hoping that my travels around southeast Asia really DID help prepare me for living in El Salvador. I’d never been to Asia before and even though I was going with Will I was freaking out once we had gotten off the plane and were being transported to the terminal on the shuttle. I’ve been to Latin America heaps of times. I’ve even lived there – for 7 years to be exact. But I lived either on a military base on in the posh expat neighbourhoods.

Today we were told that San Vicente, the town where the training centre is located, will either be a punch in the face or we’ll ease into it. Apparently for someone coming from the Western developed world, the training town is dirty, stinky and ugly. And strewn with rubbish. Phnom Penh wasn’t exactly smelling like flowers, beautiful and spotless. The poverty was really apparent there and there was rubbish strewn all over the country side. But, like I said, I spent a week in Cambodia. Not 27 months.

A punch in the face or easing into it. What’ll it be? Either way, I welcome the challenge with a $20 bill the elastic of my skirt.

Our “last meal”? We went to a Siamese restaurant called Busara, I got a heaping plate of vegetables and tofu and Will got pad thai. Yum.

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Well, the flight from Providence to Washington DC is hardly anything to talk about, as it was a mere 1.5 hours. I didn’t expect to be able to update the blog so soon, but I’m sitting at the writting desk barely able to keep my eyes open after the longish meal at some Indian restaurant with out training group and using free internet at my laptop.

Staging officially began at 2pm and ran until 7pm. I won’t bore myself with the details, but I will say that everyone I talked to seems really fascinating and friendly. The very first thing we did was play this “scavenger hunt” type game where we had to find a volunteer that fit the description on our sheet of “accomplishments” (ex: She has worked with at-risk children in Sri Lanka for 6 months). It was a good way to get talking to complete strangers!

Our training group is composed of both Youth Development and Municipal Development, 2 married couples, heaps more girls than guys and heaps more Muni volunteers than YD volunteers. Our luggage consists of: two hiking packs, two small rolling suitcases, two messenger bags and two hand-carrying bags (both which are full of food stuffs). There is one girl who lives in Sydney, Australia, but is originally from Colorado.

I met one vegetarian and two others who had given up vegetarianism to join Peace Corps.

It’s going to be really interesting to be able to look back on first impressions and see how we’ve all evolved as people by the end of two years. I wonder how all of this that we are about to experience will change us as individuals and us as a couple.

I must admit I’m not nervous or anxious at all. My biggest source of anxiety was coming from wondering what everyone would be like. Everyone seems lovely. Australia suddenly seems worlds away. Upon hearing that we’ve been living in Australia everyone asks how we found ourselves there. All I could muster up was a “fabulous”.

I might not be nervous or anxious now, but I wonder what I will be thinking once we actually land in San Salvador and are piled on to a bus headed for 27 months of L.I.F.E. in a developing country where malaria medication will be taken with my breakfast, people believe in their religion and gender roles like it’s their job and I won’t be able to count on the “multiculturality” of the general population to blend in.

Hmmm. We’ll see what I have to say when I take my first bucket bath.

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Will’s stuff – neatly packed
My stuff – well, the suitcase won’t be bursting once I pack it properly

Tomorrow at 9am we head off to Washington DC meet the rest of our group and begin the adventure (or job) that is Peace Corps. Woo hoo! It’s about time!

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