Archive for the ‘How the Poor Live’ Category

Times were Hard, Then   6 comments

Last week I got into a conversation with my neighbor Mary, over the fence.   Since she has a new baby (a surprise) along with her 11 year old daughter, we talked about child-raising.  Oh, it’s old hat for me, she says.  I took care of my brothers since I was very young.  I was 13 years old when my parents both left for the United States.  Mary was left all alone to care for her 6 and 7 yr old brothers.   This sounds unheard of in the U.S., but remember El Salvador was at the tail end of a horrible civil war.   Mary didn’t know how to cook, she had to learn.  They were living in a different neighborhood at the time, and the water only ran once a month.  In between you had to go to a small creek to wash clothes or haul water back home when your water ran out.

Stories like these are often told by our grandparents (or great-grandparents, depending on how old you are).   It sounds like something from 50 or 75 years ago.   But this story comes from a woman who is only 33 years old – it was 20 years back.

Since then, Mary’s parents have been able to send money to help their children move to a better house, and were even able to save for her two younger brothers to attend school at university level in the states on a Visa, a major accomplishment for Salvadorans.

The house she lives in is pretty nice, so before today I figured her parents were U.S. residents, probably with a professional type job.  As Mary’s story unfolded, I learned  it is the opposite.   Her parent’s are ‘mojados’ – they are illegal aliens.   I was very surprised to hear this.  I wonder how hard they have worked these last 20 years to give a better life to Mary and her brothers.

Things are much sunnier for Mary’s family now.  We talked about how maybe one day her mom will come back to live here.  Here in a house she helped build, but has never seen, with her daughter, whom she cannot visit in El Salvador.

Yes, times were hard then, and it wasn’t that long ago.

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No Water, No Lights   Leave a comment

The woman who lives on the other side the fence came by to ask last night if she could “buy” water from us.  I remembered the owner’s comments when we moved in about how they “gifted” water to the neighbors next door and “below” us (which I presumed last night, was her).   “Let me know how much it is when you get the bill” she says.    “I think that will work”, I say, since I already give water to our next-door neighbor, since he is quite poor, “but you’ll have to get another hose to connect with mine as it won’t reach over the fence”.    They run a pupusa place on the hill so I think they can handle the hos.e part.

So I mention this to my next door neighbor today, and immediately he says “Don’t trust her.  She’s bad! ”   NOW what have I gotten myself into!   He explained there was some issue with the neighbors down below, and according to him, they hooked up a wire to the electric box.  He colored his profile of her with another detail, saying “She hangs out with ‘brujos’ (witches).”

Later, I caught up with the workman about it, since he started renovating this house from day one after the owner bought it.  With his parochial Spanish I could understand about half the story, but bottom line, there was a dispute, and those neighbors came up “putiando” (swearing) at them and now neither he nor the owner talk with them anymore.

So this is interesting….

The lady down below just ‘moved back in’ a month or so ago, but hadn’t approached me, so I suspect she doesn’t like the price another neighbor is charging her or perhaps…another dispute?

You may have asked yourself  “WHY is your neighbor asking if she can “buy” water from me in the first place?”

Let me illuminate.   Shortly after I moved here, I got the scoop:  the water company did not set up water pipes running from the main pipe to various residents’ homes (either the water company, ANDA did not want to or I’m guessing it was cost prohibitive for the residents).  So Doris, a different neighbor living down below, would buy water from the lady who used to own the house, by the barrel.  She finally got her “water line” set up, which is a small 1 inch PVC pipe running along (on top of, not buried) our neighbors yard, and then up in the “air” over the street below (as the hill drops) before taking a right angle to reach her house.  Doris is very happy now that she doesn’t have to make special arrangements just to have water in her house.

The workman explained that 3 years ago (somewhere in 2008) when he started working on the house, none of the houses below had electricity, which is a bit exaggerated.   The entire street was missing streetlights, and my neighbor below explained this past weekend that yes they have had electricity for some time, but that without street lights it was dangerous and he often walked with a knife to defend himself against the occasional ‘ambush mugging’ one could encounter here in the dark.

It is true that the house directly below us, owned by the woman asking for water, did not have electricity.  We know this because they snuck in and “stole” electricity, connecting a line directly to the breaker box which runs the pump for the reserve water tank next to the house, which initiated the dispute with them.  It is inconceivable for most Americans to build a home without electricity already connected, but here in El Salvador it happens enough; electricity and water may be set up some time afterwards when economics allow for it.

It is quite common for multiple houses on the same property to share the same electric meter.

He may be Poor, but…he’s got the coolest birds and plants around   6 comments

sabas humble home of corrugated metalMy neighbor Sabas may be poor, but he’s got the coolest flower and fauna around.

Here are his digs, a humble house of corrugated metal.  He sells firewood for a living, a scarce commodity in this area.   But don’t feel sorry for him – he doesn’t want your sympathy.   He’s happy have his good health to collect firewood, and he is OLD!   (Seventy-something.  A lot of very old people are seen working throughout El Salvador, but the good news is they’re in much better health than Westerners their age).

Most afternoons you’ll see Sabas stroll down main street with a caretilla (cart) filled with the day’s wood findings, while gleeful upper-class Salvadoran tourists skip along the other side, deciding which bar to thrown down a couple of beers at and enjoy the view on the “Mirador” side of the mountain*.

palm seed pods

Thanks to Hermano Juancito I was able to find this plant’s name: heliconia rostrata.   For amateur botanists, check out National Botanical Tropical Garden.

Does it get any better than this?   A Torogoz, the national bird of El Salvador, hangs out in his backyard every day.

Photo by Ruben Quinonez. Visit http://www.quinonezphotography.com

* El Mirador is one of two major tourist stops in Los Planes de Renderos (San Salvador), El Salvador.  This viewpoint is GORGEOUS both day and night.

The other hot spot is the Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Gate) on the other side of the mountaintop, also with fantastic views.  The area is popular with young couples for ‘romantic jaunts’ but also with families on weekends, who like to enjoy the cooler climate, drink Atol de Elote (sweet corn drink), and eat Riguas and Tortas (pancake-like treats made out of cornmeal).

No Water, No Electricity (What!?)   1 comment

The woman who lives on the other side the fence came by to ask last night if she could “buy” water from us.  I remembered the owner’s comments when we moved in about how they “gifted” water to the neighbors next door and “below” us (which I presumed last night, was her).   “Let me know how much it is when you get the bill” she says.    “I think that will work”, I say, since I already give water to our next-door neighbor, since he is quite poor, “but you’ll have to get another hose to connect with mine as it won’t reach over the fence”.    They run a pupusa place on the hill so I think they can handle the hos.e part.

So I mention this to my next door neighbor today, and immediately he says “Don’t trust her.  She’s bad! ”   NOW what have I gotten myself into!   He explained there was some issue with the neighbors down below, and according to him, they hooked up a wire to the electric box.  He colored his profile of her with another detail, saying “She hangs out with ‘brujos’ (witches).”

Later, I caught up with the workman about it, since he started renovating this house from day one after the owner bought it.  With his parochial Spanish I could understand about half the story, but bottom line, there was a dispute, and those neighbors came up “putiando” (swearing) at them and now neither he nor the owner talk with them anymore.

So this is interesting….

The lady down below just ‘moved back in’ a month or so ago, but hadn’t approached me, so I suspect she doesn’t like the price another neighbor is charging her or perhaps…another dispute?

You may have asked yourself  “WHY is your neighbor asking if she can “buy” water from me in the first place?”

Let me illuminate.   Shortly after I moved here, I got the scoop:  the water company did not set up water pipes running from the main pipe to various residents’ homes (either the water company, ANDA did not want to or I’m guessing it was cost prohibitive for the residents).  So Doris, a different neighbor living down below, would buy water from the lady who used to own the house, by the barrel.  She finally got her “water line” set up, which is a small 1 inch PVC pipe running along (on top of, not buried) our neighbors yard, and then up in the “air” over the street below (as the hill drops) before taking a right angle to reach her house.  Doris is very happy now that she doesn’t have to make special arrangements just to have water in her house.

If you think the water situation was bad, it gets BETTER:

During our talk today the workman explained that 3 years ago (somewhere in 2008) when he started working on the house, NONE of the houses below had ANY electricity.  “Are you serious?” I asked, “when you told me there were no lights, I thought you meant no streetlights.  All this time,  the people down there were living with NO water lines, and NO electricity?”

“Yes”

Unbelievable.   No Water (beg your neighbor to buy it by the barrel), and No Electricity.  How did the live?  So much for a refridgerator, the 6:00 news, let alone a hair dryer.  Whoa.

There are at least 50 -100 people living on that section of the street.  Just Doris’ area alone, which consists of her, 2 adult sons + daughter-in-law + 3 grandkids, her sister, and another 5 or so living behind them, you’re up to 12-15.   Now walk down the street and keep counting.  No Water.  No Electricity.  Wow.

I Like my Mixed Neighborhood   2 comments

We live in a mountaintop area not far from San Salvador, El Salvador.  Our neighborhood has people of mixed economic class, with no “puerton” (gate) and no “vigilante” (security guard).  In most areas in or near the city, living in an un-gated community can be a treacherous proposition, but it is very safe here, “sano” as said in Salvadoran Spanish.  On our stretch of the street, three homes owned by upper class or well-to-do people stand in a row.  However, just next to us is a family in a “casa de lamina” which is a house of corrugated metal for walls and roof, nailed to wood.   They are nice folks, and actually live on the property rent-free, which is owned by another family just down the road in the neighborhood.   This may sound like a “great deal” but comes with one caveat:  there is no water pipe coming from the water system owned by ANDA, and they are required to pay the electric bill.   But their family gets a break and the owners are more secure knowing no undesirable elements or squatters will move into the home.

We give them water from a hose every few days which they fill their barrels with.  They holler over the fence where we sometimes talk together.  My neighbor was telling me today they’d like to move, and wants to buy a refrigerator.  But she is still caring for their 2 year old boy at home, and her husband’s salary is a check for $80 twice a month.  A miracle the two of them and their toddler live on that.  I thought they were ‘really poor’ but when I talked with another friend in the neighborhood later on, learned this is par for the course: her husband, twenty years older than the neighbor’s husband, only makes $40 more a month.  Yikes!  So much for a laborer’s career path in El Salvador…

Along a walk today with my pet dog I met another neighbor.  A nice old man started chatting me up by commenting on my “bonito” dog.  If you want to meet people, buy a dog and start walking, its the perfect ice-breaker!   How long has he been living here, I asked.  Oh…he had to think for a moment…52 years, he said.  “I used to take care of the property here, next door” he showed me, gesturing to the puerton next his house.  “One day the owner said he was moving to the United States.  He sold that part to a doctor, and this piece which goes all the way over there, to me.”   He built the reinforcement wall in front of the now doctor’s property when he was much much younger.  His name is Alfonzo, and he also lives in a house made mostly of corrugated metal.  His dog and mine made friends while we chatted.  He told me he keeps his dog chained because if not, he wanders into the house and sleeps on the furniture.  One day when I came back in the house, there he was lying on the bed, Don Alfonzo told me.   I decided not to tell him about the time I saw his dog, outside in the street, dragging his chain which had broken off, and a moment later struggling to get back IN the front yard, jumping through a gap between the gate and the wall. Don Alfonzo was doing some yard work and sporting appropriate clothing: his white T-shirt was aging, with small tears forming along the collars. It is not uncommon to see small tears or holes in people’s clothing here, and it is OK. Most people in El Salvador, excepting the upper classes, have a shirt they wear with a rip or a stain. It is quite acceptable to wear it, because everyone else has a rip or stain in something they sport so who really cares anyway?

Further down the road from Alfonzo after we turn left at the bend and walk down a steep hill is another humble home.  This one is made out wood and mud.   Thin pieces of wood are encased within dried mud, and horizontal layers of mud with wood dividing them make up the walls.  It seems a variation of the adobe brick homes still found in the country.   Right before the bend in the road is a fantastic vista of the un-housed ravine below it, filled with numerous banana trees, forming a “guerta”, and of the hill on the other side, sporting a few modest sized ‘modern looking’ homes.  Turning at the bend and walking down the hill you are greeted by more banana trees, as you continue down the slope, and walk over a small bridge for a small creek.  The road reaches a dead end, with a few houses on either side and where is tops you see a  ‘pasaje’ which takes you down to a house below, nestled in the trees, near another creek you can hear trickling.

A half dozen little convenience store “chalet” (pronounced like the French word) are peppered throughout the neighborhood, and perhaps a half dozen more I don’t know of are nestled among smaller streets and “pasajes” (passageways).

Our neighborhood also boasts its own Church with a parochial school and Soccer field.   No surprise on the field, they’re partial to soccer here (called “futbol” in Spanish and other languages).

A Christmas Moment to Remember. Mi vecina me dio panes con pollo   Leave a comment

There is nothing more humbling than to have someone 20 times more poor than you hand you a plate of food. My neighbor gave ME “panes con pollo” (chicken sandwiches) just moments ago and I was nearly speechless. It was a Christmas moment to remember.

She lives in the house next door, which is made of scraps of wood and corrugated metal. There are four adults and one little boy, her boy, all living together on a plot 1/3 the size of hours. They do not have a water pipe running from the main water company’s (ANDA) pipe to their home, and it is too costly for them to install, so we give them water when they need it.

It is definitely a humble home, where packed dirt ground outside becomes packed dirt floor inside. My neighbor washes with a fury – I have never seen anyone churn out so many diapers and shirts as fast as her. She does not have a PILA (washing sink). She washes all of her laundry and dishes on the top of an old white metal table. This, and two large metal drums, serves as her “Pila”.

We have been neighbors since July, but only seen each other’s profiles till this week, when I saw her on the sidewalk, and got to chat with her. “Sabas,” the older gentleman of the house does all the water “arrangements” with us. When she offered me the sandwiches I was so grateful; I had just begun to think “what will I eat?,” being alone with the sick dog tonight, when I heard her calling from the other side of the house. A glance from her side of the fence over to mine shows a sheer chasm of wealth between her and me. If anyone should have been giving food, it was me!

But this is not new nor exclusive to here. Worldwide, one will encounter the poorest of the poor in almost any country, sharing what little they have, always an extra portion, whilst the rich sweat through machinations on how to whittle them down to a niggardly wage.

I learned a lot about my neighbor in our 10 minute exchange. She does not want another child and is “planificando” as it is said here (‘planning,’ or taking birth control). The female empowerment cheerleader in my head shook her pom-poms when I heard this. Her little boy has a cold, as it dips down at night these days, so I found some tea bags for her to heat up.

After I ate my sandwiches, I found the set of musical Christmas lights we bought this week at the market. I hung them up on the window at the far corner of the house, nearest theirs, and put up the volume so we could share the blinking lights set to the tunes of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and a One-Horse Open Sleigh.

Christmas Greetings to all from El Salvador

Make Use of What You Have…Nothing Wasted   Leave a comment

A Christmas Delantal

Irene_delantal_small

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.

Barbie Outfits
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.”

Food
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.

Vegetable Truck
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.

Squirrel Away
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.

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