Archive for January 2010
Pictured here are some young men from our neighborhood, including a brother-in-law in my family. I’ll call them the backstreet boys, though in rural El Salvador, they’re more back-road boys; but teenagers all the same, who share the same energy and sentiment as teens worldwide.
9 neighborhood boys are seen in this picture, taken a good five years ago. 4 out of 9 have migrated to the United States at one point; of those, 3 are there now.
Of the 6 currently here in El Salvador, 3 are working nearby (2 at a corral, 1 at a bank, with hopes of career ascent). 3 of the remaining 6 here in El Salvador are currently unemployed.
Migration patterns like this are prevalent in our neighborhood; every family has at least one family member in the United States, if not several. Almost everyone I talk with has someone in their direct family in America. Anyone who doesn’t comes from a very small family or is a single mother, whose abandoned child is likely – you know where – in the U.S.!
A Christmas Delantal
Christmas apron (delantal) Irene made herself
Today Irene finished sewing together something she started a few days back. Now that Christmas was over, she reviewed her now larger
inventory of napkins, tables cloths, and sundry Christmas-colored items in the broken down top-open freezer at the back patio, now utilized as a fantastically weather-proof storage closet. Irene made use of the extra Christmas fabric to make a half-apron with pockets, known as a delantal (see blog) in El Salvador.
She pieced together some other pieces of fabric, along with the main Xmas theme fabric, to creat ethe ruffles on the bottom, and waistline band with fabric long enough to tie it in the back. The other day Irene made use of discarded jean pant legs to create a satchel for use in hunting and fishing. The small sack can hold rocks used to fling at small birds and game in a slingshot, called an “hondilla” (pronounced ‘ohn-dee-ah’ here, or maybe several new (“tierno”) green mangoes, which are eaten with ground up squash seeds, called http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alguashte, a very popular snack in Central America. I can’t eat the mangos tiernos, as they are super sour, I think it’s a taste you grow up with.
The other day, I ran into a girl in the neighborhood playing barbies. I was surprised at how many she had – 4 in total, all with beautiful blond hair and pink rosy white skin, looking like a “Real American” as many Salvadoran’s here believe a real live American looks like. I commented on their “chic” outfits, and was amazed to learn she had “made” her barbie’s outfits out of cloth remnants, cut and ripped from dicarded clothing. One barbie had knee length tights with a skirt over them, then another shorter skirt on top. One of the skirts had a type of flower fashioned on it, with a tiny piece of fabric peeking out of a hole that was either already there or intentionally placed. I was fascinated at her abilitity for invention. She is about 12 years old. I told her keep desiging clothes, you have talent.
Little is wasted in rural El Salvador. Certainly foolish or frivolous purchases are made here, like anywhere else in the world; such as a penchant here for fancy cell phones, but when it comes to food and basic staples, the name of the game is “use only what you need.”
All food is eaten here, usually right when it’s cooked. Most meals are made for a large group of people. There is always enough for everyone, even if it means stretching the food out and sharing more, which is helped by filling up on tortillas – most men can eat four or five at a meal.
The meat is almost always chicken, usually free-range or “Gallina India” (Indian Hen) as it’s called here. The chicken is cooked in either a soup, a sauce (guisado), or occasionally, grilled. Soup or Guisado suits a larger group best, as the meat can be thinned out and mixed with vegetables like potatoes and guiskil (chayote).
Food is NEVER wasted here.
In El Salvador, you do not see plates with large amounts of uneaten food brought into a kitchen and dumped into a garbage can. NEVER. Waste from vegetables like skins and ends is thrown to the chickens; bones and scraps are fed to the dogs.
Irene asks the vendor for discarded cabbage leaves and other “monte” (leafy parts) that won’t be sold, and gives it to her chickens as feed.
Niña Irene* squirrels away ‘special’ food when it comes along, like chicken brought by someone from Pollo Campero, or fresh cheese, like cuajada. It’s perfectly normal, but gets interesting in her case, because she doesn’t have a refrigerator! And because there are 5 people living in her house on less than $300 a month, she is clever to hide things well to avoid disputes or thievery. They had a refrigerator years back which burnt out; Irene refuses a new one even as a gift, as it would send her light bill through the roof.
When helping Irene clean after major holidays you’ll suddenly happen upon food furrowed into nooks and crannies Irene designates for her treasures-to-eat-later: meat wrapped in a napkin or kitchen towel, a sweet and sticky something in a jar missing its cover and topped with something else, cheese in a plastic tub, etc. The leftover drumstick from yesterday and then some makes us nervous, but she’s made it this far, alive and well.
* Niña Irene is my mother in law
Niña and Don: In El Salvador, when a woman reaches an age of maturity, say after a few kids or well over the age of 40, people often refer to her as “Niña so-and-so”. Likewise, men are referred to as “Don + first name” but often get the title at a younger age.
We went to the clinic just out of the neighborhood and down the road in Obrajuelo to see about a back pain Irene has been having for several days, and Don Cleto for some minor issues. Both Irene and Don Cleto got all gussied up for our short journey. Irene wetted her hair down, combed it all out and twirled her loose pony tail into a coil; Cleto wore his pale colored straw hat and brown leather shoes for the occasion.
When we got to the clinic we were lucky, no one was there but the two women on staff; instant service.
The visit did not go without the requisite questions or comments that often come; the nurses asking how do I like it in El Salvador, surprised how well I speak Spanish, and gee what a big deal it is I would move all the way here, isn’t my husband lucky to have me. (Oh how I wished he were there to hear that!).
In the waiting room, I became engaged at a poster about breastfeeding; it was very educational, with photos, information and advice. Every poster in the clinic was about healthcare for children, breastfeeding, or family nutrition, and all of the posters had either the USAID symbol in the left corner or the UNICEF one on the right.
Conspiracy theories say USAID is a “front for the CIA”. Maybe so, but from what I observed today, they’re doing at least a bit of good in El Salvador.
It was a morning of indecision, centered around when to go to church, for which service and why. The neighbors and I agreed yesterday to go in the morning, but then we learned kids were getting confirmed in a special afternoon service. My niece Carmen had her heart set on the AM mass (methinks she made plans with the boyfriend to meet up there).
Our neighbor Laura came by and asked if I planned to go to the morning or afternoon service.
Carmen and I wanted to go in the morning. “OK, yeah, well, err..” says Laura (in Spanish words), “You see, Heidi (her sister) is busy right now, because…” After a few turns in the conversation, I learned my neighbors not so devout issue was: they didn’t want to go twice today.
If Heidi goes in the morning the priest will ask (really, remind her) if she plans to come to the “confirmation” service. She will be obliged to go because she has a special relationship with the church
So we all decided on the afternoon to see the neighborhood youth get confirmed, more special anyway.
Heidi’s relationship with the church is special and rather extraordinary. Heidi, now 20, is the only child in her family over the age of 13 still attending school. During the week she goes to a school in San Salvador that is run by the church and stays in quarters there. On weekends, she returns home to Jicaron to stay with her family. She is learning English there, along with other subjects, and practices with me when I visit their home.
(months pass after January 27th…)
All this time I thought my neighbor Heidi* was going to an “after” high school or finishing type school, but I learned differently. She explained to me frankly that she had dropped out of grade school when she was around 13 (and in 5th or 6th grade). She went back, thanks to the church, years later at 18.
She is attending a grade school sponsored by the church, to finish her schooling through the 9th grade. After that, she would like to complete her “Bachillerato,” or 10th-12th grade, equivalent to American “high school,” and from there, maybe University or a technical school. I applaud her efforts and think she will make it as she is a bright, attractive, and confident.
She told me that her father, who has been living in the United States for several years, does not think school is important. This is not uncommon in the country in El Salvador, I even see it in my husband’s family. The family’s mother and children Margie, Heidi, Geremy, Chris, and Laura all live in the family home, which fits everyone comfortably, though some sleep 2+ to a room. Margie (about the same age as Heidi) and Geremy (around 16) also dropped out of grade school some time ago. Geremy tells me the issue is money. My husband explains it may also be about shame; Geremy did not get further than “quinto” or fifth grade, and it’s very embarrassing to sit in a classroom of kids 3-5 years younger than you. OK, now get this: there was not enough money to pay for the textbooks and other expenses for Margie and Geremy to finish “grade” school, but…a new cinder block home was built next to their family home, with money from the father’s USA income, in which one of his sons, all of 22 years old, is now living with his wife. By Salvadoran standards, that’s living quite comfortably. Meanwhile, no one next door except for Heidi, who was miraculously saved by the church, is finishing even grade school. ???????
The church school is funded in large part by American “padrinos” who donate money. Thank God for padrinos, we need more of them. When I go back to the states and start working again, I’d like to become a padrino for kids in El Salvador, they need all the help they can get.
* to protect the identify of my neighbors, their names have been changed.
This is what a typical adobe brick home in El Salvador looks like
Today we visited a sick (and we think, dying) woman who lives just up the hill from us. Four of us walked up the patchy woods of the hill; my niece Carmen, myself, mother-in-law Irene, and nephew Alejandro, who helped Irene up the steeper slopes. We brought over some juice boxes, as someone suggested she liked them. (Actually, whenever someone is sick or ailing here, it seems people bring juice; after my father-in-law broke his leg nearly everyone who came by brought juice cans or boxes.) We were greeted at the woman’s home by her husband, who exited a hammock at our arrival. He showed us in, and retrieved seats from a stack for us, and explained how his wife is now “out of it,” talking at times, but only thoughts out loud, in a dreamlike state, never completely awake or asleep. While we were there, she would alternate between snoring and moaning, while lying in bed, eyes closed. Irene and her husband chatted together, whilst the rest of us sat by quietly.
The house is a humble country home, made of adobe. Inside the house the walls are stark, the raw brick never having been covered with a smooth mud or plaster finish, showing the sun-dried earth and organic materials they were made from. Our chairs sat on a dirt floor, pockmarked and lumpy, but carefully swept clean.
An adult son was living with them, sharing the large, one room home. It is still common to see full families with up to several people living in one large room, beds arranged smartly and according to the space, as this was how houses were built up until a few decades ago. Thanks to the warm weather, washing and cooking areas are set up outside, with or without a roof engineered over them. And the outhouse (“servicio”) is of course, also outside, so the one large room is used almost exclusively for sleeping.
Irene and the woman’s husband reminisced about old times in the neighborhood. Twenty minutes or so later, we said our goodbyes, wished them well, and walked back home down the hill.
a common sight in the country in El Salvador
I went out for a jaunt to Agua Caliente, or “El Pueblo” as they call it here. The trip is literally “a drive in the country”. There we pay our light bill, send items in the mail, and go to church.
I am reminded of an obstacle course, slowing down and diverting the car around giant potholes and ‘lumps’ in the road, caused by tropical rains and faulty roadwork. Some stretches remind me of skiing through moguls on the mountainside, but then I grin to myself, happily reminded that while I drive in 80 degree crossing through them, it is anywhere form 10-25 degrees Fahrenheit in Boston right now. I sure don’t miss it! While in the car, a group of cows stroll into the roadway (you’ll encounter this almost once a day while driving), and wont part, so I give a quick horn toot; the bus driver behind me is less sympathetic, he lays on his horn. They shuffle out of the way, and we continue on to El Pueblo, driving through pastoral farm scenes, with mountains up ahead as a backdrop.
I enter the village, driving under the archway welcoming all with “Bienvenido a Agua Caliente” and passing the school on the right, painted in blue and white as are all public schools in El Salvador. I also pass houses made of cinder block, and other older ones made of adobe brick, and a few tiny bodegas, which go by a different name in El Salvador, “chalet” (nothing to do with the French word I know, curious to find out where that naming derived from). Then I cross the one-car bridge with the tiny store where they sell fresh cream and various Salvadoran hard and dry cheeses, and turn at the corner where I always buy French Fries from the lady who sells them on Thursdays and Sundays. Then drive a half block down the street to park in front of the small town hall, and run my mail errand first.
The post office is a tiny hut the size of a closet in the front right corner of the town hall. To receive or pick up mail, you go to a window at chest level at the side of the building, just like you would order a cone at a small ice cream stand. Some time between 12 and 2pm the window is closed while the mail lady goes to lunch. When mail comes for us, she calls the phone number she has on file, to inform us a letter or package arrived. My letter cost $1.60 to mail to Boston. No need for a cashier with so little traffic, she opened a magazine where she had bills stored to give me change back from my ten. By the way, the currency here in El Salvador is the United States dollar. The conversion from the “colon” to the dollar took place in 2001. Many people here blame rising prices on the change, but I think its better than having some quack president print away on the presses and devalue the currency (stop giggling, I know some of you are thinking this IS happening in the U.S. right now).
After the mail was off, I crossed the town square to the bank on the opposite side to pay the light bill for our one bedroom apartment sized house. $33 and change this month, which by Salvadoran standards is high. Before leaving Boston I was paying $40 a month to run about the same number of lights and appliances as we do here in non-winter months. So electricity is not cheap in El Salvador, considering what most people make here for a living.
On the way out of town, on the corner opposite the French Fry lady, a small group of vendors sell vegetables on the sidewalk (and on market days, sugar cane juice). Behind them, on the cement wall a sign has been painted by citizens speaking out against El Salvador’sw hydro-electric company, CEL (Comisión Ejecutiva Hidroeléctrica del Río Lempa). It translates to English as: ‘Say no to CEL, protect our environment, lands, and say no to mining’. There is much controversy in the country regarding the creation of hydroelectric plants, and even more when it comes to mining.
Continuing out of town, I slowed down to let a man walking with two horses get them safely out of the way of traffic. Each horse was loaded up with maizillo, a grain used her to feed poultry. Not sure about cattle or other livestock. The maizillo plant looks like corn when it’s growing, but produces clusters of tiny grains that look like couscous, at the top of the stalk, instead of ears of corn. I stopped on the way home at “El Ranchon,” a restaurant not far from home for a couple of beers. It’s in the middle of the cow pastures and pastoral scenery, but a great ‘hot spot’ for teenagers because a soccer field (“cancha” in Spanish) sits on the property, and teen boys from neighborhoods all around play against each other in uniformed soccer teams. The other odd attraction here is the turkey. Every time I have come here, he’s walking around the open-air restaurant, strutting his stuff. He’s rather big, and almost intimidating, because he struts right up to you, real close, as if trying to flirt. I chatted for awhile with a girl who works there. She was around 16 years old, and her mother, who also works there, was full-throttle pregnant, about the drop the baby at any moment. I asked the girl if she was going to school, and she mentioned she had stopped, because the school in Agua Caliente was too far to walk from the neighborhood where they live, and bus fare runs expensive for her to go back and forth. There are no public school buses in El Salvador that I know of. But ironically, the “collective bus system” as it’s called, runs primarily on old American school buses, repainted and dolled up for service. The car drive to Agua Caliente from “El Ranchon” is about 15 minutes, so it would be a long walk, although stoic people in tough situations have been known to walk to school for over an hour, like an ex-boyfriend of mine from Argentina once had to do, but that’s not the way of the world here. I have witnessed school having a “lesser” priority by many people here, and wonder where that comes from. This family exemplifies two things that help perpetuate poverty in El Salvador, having many children, often more than one can afford (teenage daughter, and now…a baby?), and early school drop-out, often before the 9th grade, which is the typical grade level for graduation in El Salvador.
The Morning Music
It’s another typical morning in Jicaron City, El Salvador. At 25 minutes to 6am, I’ve begun to wake up, having fallen asleep early the night before. I slept well, so the thumping sound drumming out the neighbor’s stereo one house over and up the hill is fortunately, less troublesome than it would be.
At 5:45 another neighbor one house over in the other direction begins his morning chorus, having taken his queue from neighbor number one. We now have a partial orchestra, with a thempety thump on one side (is it a reggaeton or a modern latino techno?) and a cheery Ranchera ringing from the other – all we need now is a good salsa or cumbia and we’re complete!
Ahh..a hot shower
Today was a “water” day* which means the water valves coming from the street in our neighborhood are turned on for 1-2 hours while everyone fills up their pila (washing sink), barrels, and various jugs. For my husband and I, we simply turn the valve for our water tank on and let it fill; with a tank our sink and shower act like any other plumbing in the States.
I decided to jump on the opportunity to take a “hot” shower. Hot water heaters have little use here but for less than 2 months a year that its cooler, but for that 2 hour window when the street tap is turned on, we can take a “faux” hot shower, because the water has been “heated” naturally from the sun as the tank sits atop a hill and its sunny every day in Chalatenango. During a string of rainy days or during a cold wave, one must be brave getting into the shower. If it ever gets brrr cold here I’m heating up water on the stove, ‘nuf bravery for me.
* We share water with another neighborhood. On days we don’t get water, their taps are turned on.