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.