Archive for June 2011

Lessons in Patience   Leave a comment

On Monday afternoon I decided to cook a nice, fresh “Sopa de Chipilin” – soup of Chipliin, which is a leafy vegetable here in El Salvador.  The vendor lady came by in the morning, and the bunch (manojo) of chipilin was so inviting, I couldn’t resist.

We begin with the individual chipilin...

I’ve never cooked Chipilin soup before, but had a good idea how to make it:  flavor it with chicken bullion, and add chopped onion and tomato.   I was cruising along with the tomato and onion, and decided to sautee the onions translucent first when it occurred to me – oh!  Must de-leaf the stems completely and clean the Chipilin first BEFORE going any further.   Can’t just chop it up and throw it in like Cilantro.  Arg!

So we begin with this exercise in patience.

a bunch of chipilin

The chipilin plant has plentiful, and small – flat oval shaped leaves, about the size of your thumb.

Stems are not pleasant in the soup, so all leaves must be removed from the stem and cleaned.  I prefer to de-stem before rinsing as the water makes the leaves limp and more difficult to remove.

and end up with all these individual leaves

It wasn’t too time-consuming, but lengthy enough that in thinking of my fellow Americans back home, say coming back from work, rushed and blood rushing from fighting traffic, I thought “Nah….most Americans would neither have the time nor patience to deal with this Chiplin cleaning activity.”  The soup is better left for a Sunday  off.

Throughout all of this, I am reminded of many lessons in patience one learns while living in El Salvador, lessons that are aggravating at first, but become old hat and quite normal over time.

Waiting in line at the bank to pay bills, make deposits, anything.   Waiting for people to get a task done – say a construction job or other service.  A construction task on American time will take 3-4 times the length and many interesting meanderings along the way – “ohhh we ran out of saaaand.  Ohhhh they didn’t have sand at the Ferreteria so we had to go to the other/will have to wait till tomorrow….Oh….well we had a problem with… (pick a flavor).”  Fortunately, we have done all our own construction tasks ourselves, but we witnessed with much humor the dynamic duo who worked on the house we rent.   Well, if anything, it gave 2 men a job for almost 3 months.   Getting a document notarized.  Going to the attorney’s office and working with his assistant.  ‘The lawyer is not in and he’s the notary, but I have papers with his notary seals here – only thing is we must print out your document on one of these papers with the seal, because I’m not authorized to notarize anything myself’…. Trying to figure out which DAY the garbagemen come.  Oh, that’s right, they don’t have a particular day.   You listen carefully for the sound of the garbage truck and run like HELL with your garbage bags when you hear them coming.    Getting almost anything done with a bank teller or cashier.   The amount of time they spend in paper shuffling, checking/re-checking something, making small talk with another employee in the middle of your transaction while you sit there, waiting.   Confusion about which procedure to follow, announcing “permiso” and checking with the manager for several minutes before returning to finish.   And the STAMP.  That ridiculous STAMP.  In almost every money-exchange transaction beyond a grocery receipt, the notorious STAMP has to come out, and often several pieces of paper must receive its inked impression.  Cashiers in El Salvador are so deft with the stamp, and it appears they take pride in how fast they can stamp several receipts between merchant and customer before happily handing you yours.  OK…………

Generally, waiting is a common activity here, but now that I’m part of the “we” here, I can say – we all take it in stride.

I am reminded of a funny moment I had nearly 20 years ago in Charleston, South Carolina.  My good friend Kristy had flown to meet me in Charleston and accompany me on my U-Haul trip up from SC to Boston.  Before we left, I told her “I have to pick up my shoes at the cobbler on the way – almost forgot”.  It was autumn of 1992.   My friend was absolutely RAVING about how gorgeous and wonderful Charleston was.   Would love to live here, she said.  I had been living there for over 5 years, so was accustomed to everything Charleston offered, including its Southern ways.   We walked into the shoe shop, and I asked for my loafers, which had needed re-soling.   The thin, beyond middle-aged black man I always worked with there walked up to the counter.  “Let me see if I can find them,” he says.   “Sure”, I said, taking a seat in the waiting area.  Kristy and I were the only customers in the shop, and there may have been 1-2 other people behind the counter besides the gentleman working with us.  We sat.  And waited.  And waited.   I think the shoes weren’t “quite done” when I arrived, though I’d dropped them off at least a week earlier.  In fact, perhaps they re-soled them entirely while we waited.  I didn’t know and didn’t care.  I sat waiting patiently, no worries, while my friend, with every moment that passed, began to get more, and more, and more IRRITATED.

After leaving the shop, my friend announced “That’s it.  I could NEVER live here.”

The Lean Mean Salvadoran Cooking Machine (my mother-in-law)   Leave a comment

It was a regular day in our neighborhood and house today.  After morning coffee I charged full speed ahead on a two hour cleaning whirlwind.  After sweeping every floor in the house, ‘our’ side and the in-laws side, I mopped our front ceramic patio, then dug out some items for the laundry, when I was firmly interrupted by my mother in law.  She reminded me to “eat now,” the work will be there later, and directed me to the table for a welcoming bowl of fresh chicken soup.

Irene making Tamales, 2010

After cohabitating for 6 months, I’ve settled into my role of mega-cleaner, as Irene is most definitely the house cook, and not a big fan of house cleaning.  She won’t let me get away with skipping meals, and I take her generosity with a pang of guilt, eating from a poor woman’s table, but I make it up to her as often as I can.

Irene feeds everyone and everything in her midst.  Starting with the chickens first thing in the morning to the mid-morning second breakfast of ‘beans with tortillas” (and cheese if there is some).  Breakfast number one is coffee and a sweet bread sold by one of the major snack vendors in El Salvador.  Midday a warm almuerzo (lunch) is usually made – or at least every other day, often a soup or “Guisado”,which is a saucy chicken or meat dish.

As afternoon progresses, it’s time for cooking maize and pupusa preparation.  The maize is cooked daily, whether or not pupusas are made, as it’s also used to make tortillas, which accompany every meal.  The maize is boiled in a big pot over firewood, then washed thoroughly and ground up in a molina – a large electric grinder.  There is always at least one person in a neighborhood with a “molina” and they charge 25cents or more to grind a small batch of maize into corn meal.

The pupusa preparation consists of heating the tomatoes for the sauce, and cutting cabbage and carrots for the curtido (marinated cabbage eaten with the pupusas), which is done every 2 days.   My mother in law prepares the pupusa filling once a week, sometimes twice, by grinding up cooked red beans and fatty pork meat (chicharron) with tomatoes, onions and spices.

Finally, sometime around 5:30pm, this 69 year old veteran makes her daily trip across the street to cook the pupusas on a hot griddle for two to three hours, feeding a clientele ranging from teenage neighborhood boys, many of her regulars, to various women from the caserio (hamlet) who aren’t cooking that day or, blessed with American remittances, have the luxury of eating take-out often.   Just before closing, Irene makes the biggest pupusa of all, a small pizza sized one made especially for our family dog, Oso (which means bear in English).

Parakeet gets lucky, Irene gives him Mamay fruit (1/2009)

Throughout the day the parakeet is treated with various fruity delights and crackers, Irene often cutting mangos for herself and handing pieces to him.  Children of all ages eat fruits and sweets at various hours, and last but not least are the cockroaches and flies whose very existence at our house might not happen if it werent for the constant cooking, wafting of food aromas, and scraps forgotten on tabletops or dropped on the floor.   Our uninvited insect friends take advantage of Irene’s ‘hide it for later’ technique of squirreling food for future use and often find it before she does – a pot on a shelf with melted panela to sweeten something later, or the coveted piece of cheese meant for an afternoon treat wrapped in newspaper (Irene has spent most of her life without a refrigerator so hasn’t gotten the hang of when to use it yet).

There is not a creature within a ten minute walk of our house who hasn’t received a meal by my mother-in-law.  She is the lean, mean, Salvadoran cooking machine.

Taken from Diary entry, April 6, 2010

A Typical Day in Chalatenango, El Salvador   Leave a comment

This was a diary entry from March 30, 2010 when I was living out in the country with my husband and the in-laws.   Much has changed since then, as we now live 20 minutes to the south of San Salvador on our own, in what I would practically call the Enchanted Forest.  I thought I would share a typical day living in the country, as average Salvadorans in the country do.


AM – dishes, dishes, breakfast sandwiches for Jesus, Plantains for  me.

Garbage cleanup, raked garbage further down the ‘cerca’ (yard) to get it out of eyesight.

Chickens and water.  Gave pollos (chickens) fresher cleaner water and refilled the tub outside their cage for the wanderers.  More water for the pollitos (chickadees) above, and done.

AM, later – cleaned the last cloth chair.  The cloth dining room style chairs that sit outside on the patio where the family eats, get filled with dust and other gunk over time.  I am unsure if they’ve ever gotten the ‘deep cleaning’ they deserve.  So today I cleaned the fourth and final of these chairs.  Resting it tilted down, I poured water over it, and squeegeed it out with my hand, over and over again until the mud-colored water was almost clear.  Washed the flower pattern seat-cover fashioned by Jesus’ mother and put it back on 3 hours later when the seat cushion was dry [the sun is really hot here].

PM – washed 22 pairs of underwear, a T-shirt, and a pair of jeans by hand.  Hung to dry.

Swept inside the house

Now that I bought my jazzy new Ginas (name here for flip-flop type shoes), I prefer to use the older ones for chicken duty.  So I sewed the one failing flip flop together with needle and thread [yeah, that crazy, but the store’s far away] to save the jazzies from chicken crud.

By 3:30 or so, I was finally “done” with all my chores.  amazing how the day fills with just cleaning and washing!

Price of Maize Doubles in 6 months, Triples in one year in El Salvador. Yeah, we got Inflation   2 comments

A few weeks ago, a friend who sells tortillas for a living complained that a quintal (100 lb bag) of maize went from $16 in January to now $36 .   The maize and propane gas to cook it with are her main material costs.   She buys 1-2 bags a week.

June 2011 newspapers report a quintal costs up to $40 , due to last year’s bad harvest and growing season starting late this year.   Maize had already doubled from the April 2010 price of $13.50 to $26 in April 2011.

So, maize has TRIPLED in price in one year and 3 months.  It’s a basic staple people need to eat every day.  It’s like bread tripling in the United States.

Excessive rain last year contributes to the problem, but massive speculation in commodities worldwide, and very likely, local speculation are major factors in this increase.

So far no reports of speculation or price manipulation of maize have come out that I know of, BUT the price of BEANS was manipulated by at least one importer of beans.

Fidel Ángel Cruz, the second largest importer of beans in El Salvador, will pay a fine of $77,990 for manipulating the price.   They omitted to report importing 4,000 quintal bags (100 pounds each) of red beans.   They were found guilty of stockpiling (acaparamiento) red beans in 2010.

According to the, the Department of Consumer defense in El Salvador is also investigating three other companies on complaints of price manipulation:   Agroindustrias Gumarsal (the main importer of beans in El Salvador), Agencia Mira, and Comercial Santiaguito.  All three had enough inventory of beans to meet the demand without increasing the price during August and September of last year [2010].

One Nation, Two Economies – El Salvador’s Informal and Formal economies   Leave a comment

“One Nation, Two Economies” is a phrase that’s been tossed about prior to and during the recession (still going ON by the way, don’t let anyone fool you), and recently in a February 2011 article by Rainer Rupp on how the ‘recovery’ merely funneled up to gamblers on Wall Street.

While Americans enjoyed at least three decades of solid middle class prosperity during what many economists refer to as the Golden Age of Capitalism, and are getting accustomed to what may be a ‘new normal’, down here it has long been –

One Nation, Two Economies
Poverty in El Salvador has fortunately been declining; according to the U.S. department of State, ‘The economy has been growing at a steady and moderate pace since the signing of peace accords in 1992, and poverty was cut from 66% in 1991 to 37.8% in 2009.’   Improving, but still a ways from a thriving middle class.  If you live in El Salvador and pay any attention, you can see clear distinctions between the classes, and easily observe those who participate in the Informal sector.

What are the “Formal” versus “Informal” economies in El Salvador?
Formal economy/sector:  jobs which are part of the ‘system’ where tax collection takes place, public or private health insurance comes with it, and maybe other benefits like holiday or vacation pay.  For instance, a person who works in an office, large restaurant or hotel, hospital, factory, school, clinic, government agency, etc.   And the owners of such businesses.

Benefits of working in the formal economy include being part of the ISSS health insurance system (or private, if you’re lucky enough to be middle class or higher), and building up years of work experience in ‘the system’. If you look through employment ads in the major newspapers, many employers require would-be employees to have things like a social health insurance card or other requirements one won’t have if they haven’t built up time in the official system.  Paying into the ISSS health system means you have access to clinics and hospitals that service this population.  I thought everyone could go to ISSS facilities, but I learned differently.  Apparently, there is a “lowest rung of the health system” set of clinics and hospitals for the poor.  If you don’t have a health card, you will be turned away from the ISSS hospital, and sent to the hospital for the ‘poorest of the poor’.  That’s where most of my in-laws go.

Courtesy of - click for link and story

The Informal Economy:   A LOT OF PEOPLE.  According to the International Labor Organization, nearly a million Salvadorans in 2009 were employed in the informal sector, totally over 53% of non-agricultural employment.  Most of these people make their “own” economy using the resources at their disposal.   It consists of all types of vendors and small businesses, from people with roadside fruit and veggie stands, vendors at the markets, selling door to door or at traffic intersections, and owners of small restaurants and hot foot stands.  The boy who sells peanuts and cashews at the gas station, or the hammock and blanket vendors.   Maria’s Pupusas.  Joes Juice and Liquados. The  ‘muchacha’ who tends to house and children for the more well off.

Why?  If they work in a Maquila (textile mill), or retail position at the mall, they are likely to come home with a little over $5 in their pocket after working 10-12 hours and paying bus fare.   A girl I met at the mall in 2010 made $6 to work an 11 hour day.  My husband worked as a baker for over 10 years when he was a young man.   In the late 90s and early millennium, he made $15 a day working 12+ hours in a bakery.  He interviewed at a bakery in San Salvador last year.  If he took the  job, it would be Monday-Saturday 9+ hours (however many to bake 7 sacs – a lot – of flour), and ‘a few hours on Sunday’.  Based on his monthly salary, we calculated it at $8 a day.

People in the Informal economy are their own boss, they set their own hours, fulfill their own inventories, and often come home with better than the average laborer’s 6 to 8 bucks a day.  Fed up with serf wages, people have taken to the streets, and vendors abound in El Salvador; they are anywhere and everywhere.   As I stroll along the main street in Los Planes de Renderos, several women sell fruits and vegetables, while others sell pupusas.   Cross the street from WalMart in Soyapango to the Plaza Mundo mall in Soyapango, and you ‘walk the vendor gauntlet’, ambushed by dozens of people selling clothing, small electric items, batteries, toothbrushes, you name it.

Mercado Central:  Shopping mall for the poor.  One of the best examples of the Informal economy in El Salvador.  Located in downtown San Salvador, the main, or “central market” is literally a grocery store and shopping mall for the poorest people in this region.   It’s a sea of people taking up several city blocks; at the height of the day, literally hundreds, if not a few thousand customers and marketeers flow in waves, buying and selling to one other.  There is at least one official building set up for market vendors, but the majority of vendors are spread out in various ways throughout these blocks.   Sometimes as small shops in buildings, but more often stands set up along the streets on top of sidewalks, or vendors who sell produce from wheelbarrows to those who carry items strapped to their waistline, hanging from their shoulders, or propped on their head.

It’s a fantastic solution to resist the symptoms of poverty, because they CUT OUT the middle man.  On the seller’s end, there is no boss or distributor taking the large cut and paying them a salary or commission; as direct sellers of their products they are able to offer a good discount and thus, sell a lot.   From the buyer’s perspective, a person of poor means is delighted to buy a product with a better price tag than the mall or local super can offer.   Fruits and vegetables in the cheapest grocery chain, Super Selectos, can be double what they cost at the market.  One can outfit their home with most produce and food goods, home products, grooming items, clothes, shoes, and electronics.  I’ve even encountered a  “hair salon alley” – hair salons along both sides of the first floor of two buildings along an alley connecting two main streets of the market.


Downsides to the Informal Economy:

a) Streets are chaotic and disorderly.   People are so accustomed to vendors selling on the sidewalk that most pedestrians don’t bother using sidewalks the way we do back home.   Main streets in large towns and cities are nuts to drive through, and one feels as if they are driving through a human anthill recently crushed by a giant foot.  Two-lane streets are reduced to 1.5 lanes, or sometimes 1, as pedestrians and cars share the road in transit.

Both the federal government and the municipality of San Salvador have taken their own (separate) measures to ‘re-order’ the city and historic districts.  Resulting in continued protests (manifestaciones) by the vendors.

>> An entire blog post is needed to discuss the ongoing eviction of street vendors throughout the downtown area of San Salvador, and in particular from Calle Arce (Arce Street) and Calle Ruben Dario. <<

b) Taxes?  Who needs ’em?   A fair source of tax revenue must be lost by those who employ themselves in the informal economy.   The improved income they experience is not translated into tax dollars.  Three of my close family members have been selling pupusas and tortillas for years.  They can make up to ten bucks on a good day, and have never paid taxes in their life.  The government is not going to ‘hunt them down’ for that income.  But it might be a case of 6 of one, 1/2 dozen of the other.  The money which informal economy participants pocket tax free is used to buy goods and services in both formal and informal sectors.   If they were making 20-25% less at a job in the formal sector, and paying taxes from those lesser wages, that sharp loss of income would see them buying less things; meanwhile the maquila owner looks for every way possible to dodge tax payments.  So instead of the ‘government’ getting that money as taxes and spending it however un/wisely they wish, it goes back into the economy directly.

Carlos Slim /

Can El Salvador integrate informal vendors into the “Formal” economy?   Obviously, not without participation of serious capital investment, along with a willingness to pay a wage that encourages people to cross over from informal to formal.   One of the biggest complaints heard on the group talk-news programs is the ‘abandonment’ of capital investment in El Salvador.  That people with large sums of capital take their money and run, preferring foreign investments instead.    Hmmmm, sounds FAMILIAR.

There is hope, however.   Carlos Slim (gotta love that name), a gentleman from Mexico and as of 2011 the richest man on earth, is planning on investing over $300 million over the next three years in Telecommunications here in El Salvador.   Now that’s a start.

El Salvador up in Arms over Decree 743 requiring unanimous votes by Supreme Constitutional Court   2 comments

I’m not going to repeat the entire story, others have done a fine job explaining the situation, and reasons postulated for why Mauricio Funes appears to have LOST HIS MIND regarding his behavior in signing Decree 743 into law a little over a week ago.

Two articles present good background and detail:

Luterano blogspot: broad-opposition-to-decree-743.html

Voiceselsalvador: salvadorans-protest-the-governments-actions-against-constitutional-court

Mauricio Funes approved a bill which was crafted by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly, primarily by the Arena party and its allies, which requires a “unanimous vote” by the Supreme Constitutional Court  to make decisions about the constitutionality of laws.

The entire county is in an uproar and people were even protesting in the streets last week.

So after all the public reaction, the Arena party is now BACKPEDALLING, weasels that they are.  And Funes, now that he’s completley pissed off the Left and insists upon making jabs at the Right, is making himself an enemy of everyone.

Funes placed a a full-page ad in the papers justifying why he signed Decree 743 into law.  Here is one excerpt, in Spanish (see full article here at La Pagina)

Por su parte, constituye una injerencia inaceptable en la acción del Organo Judicial la confesión pública realizada por el partido ARENA, que ahora solicita la derogación del Decreto 743 y para ellos se fundamenta en lo que parece un acuerdo alcanzado con la Sala de lo Constitucional y, según el cual, ARENA expresa contar con “evidentes demostraciones” de que la Sala no declarara inconstitucional la Ley de Amnistiá.  En efecto, según el comunicado hecho publico este juees por las mas altas autoridades del partido ARENA, miembros de esa Sala se habrían comprometido no solo a no declarar inconstitucional dicha laye, sino también “a defenderla”.

My best translation is as follows (apologies for the super long run-on sentence, blame Funes for that):

“ARENA has created an unacceptable interference in the actions of the Judicial Organ with the public confession it made, and who now solicit the repeal of Decree 743 and for them it’s based on what appears to be an agreement achieved with the Constitutional Court, which according to the announcement, ARENA is counting on ‘evident demonstrations’ that the court will not declare the Amnesty Law unconstitutional.  In effect, according to the communication made public this Thursday by the highest authorities of ARENA, members of the Court have committed not only to not declare that law unconstitutional, but also to ‘defend it’.   ”

The Amnesty Law, or Ley de Amnistiá,  protects members of both the former government militia and the guerrilla/resistance fighters of being prosecuted for war crimes.   Although I believe it is a shame for people not be prosecuted for executing massacres, it is recognized that both sides of the civil war committed atrocities.  If everyone were brought to justice, you would have utter chaos in El Salvador, and it could bring the country to the brink of war once again, as it is already very unstable due with constant violent crime, corruption, narcotrafficking inroads, and its people weary and frustrated living with a 30% or higher poverty rate.

As for Funes’ behavior, I can’t figure it out.  On the one hand he bitches about ARENA committing ‘sabatoge’ in vandalizing ANDA main water pipes recently, and here he swiftly sanctions a piece of legislation they crafted which ties the judge’s hands behind their backs.

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