Archive for the ‘El Salvador’ Tag

A walk in the Park (and a little Trespassing)   4 comments

No matter how long I live here, I still can’t get over what a paradise it is.   First, being in El Salvador, almost every day is a sunny day.   On top of that, where I live is “fresco” as they call it, which means cooler temperatures, so it gets warm, but not steaming hot like other parts of the country below us.

The whole office is off for three weeks, so I’ve had a chance to re-connect with Los Planes, the house and its garden, and neighborhood, so I’ll share some of the sights on walks nearby with you.   We start at the top of a street near the entrance, and walk downward.   There’s no shortage of views here.   Here’s a man carry a “tambo” of gas on his shoulder.  If he were a woman, he’d be carrying it right on his head, like this woman in the picture below walking with her son.  My husband says men can’t balance things on their head like women can.  Our extra padding on the legs and behind gives us a lower center of gravity, so there may be some truth to it, however, I’m now convinced.  I think men don’t even try the head balancing, because it would look “womanly”.  Gotta carry stuff on your shoulder.   It’s manly, and besides, looks like you’re working  harder.

Throughout the neighborhood one can see banana trees in various places, like this house here.   That works out nicely for the residents around this time of year, because people make lots of tamales for family on the 24th and the 31st.   Tamales in El Salvador are wrapped with banana leaves, unlike the Mexican kind which are typically wrapped in softened corn husks.  The house below has “ojas de guerta,” banana leaves, softening in the sun on the roof.  This picture was taken a couple days before the 31st, so they were getting the leaves ready for tamales to serve to family and likely visitors coming to ring in the New Year.

Shortly after, I walked by this “terreno”, a little patch of land in my ‘hood.  Its been up for sale, heaven knows how long,  with the same sign saying “se vende terreno”  up since I moved here.   Dont’ see any “no trespassing” signs in sight, so what the heck, I decide to sneak in through the fence and check it out…

It’s a houseless piece of land, which starts up at street level, and has “some” room, perhaps, for a house, if you dug into the hill and/or dumped some fill in to make room for a foundation.  Then it soon drops off in an angle downward towards a ravine.  It has winding trails that lead into and around the ravine, with tropical shrubs lining the walkway.  There’s a rusted out abandoned water tank near street level, with a few orange trees close to it, and peppered throughout the terrain are pacaya plants, everywhere.  Salvadorans eat pacaya flowers just as they are sprouting (this one here is too mature) – they dip them in eggs and fry them.

Pacaya plant, about 6 foot tall

Pacaya shoot sprouting

As I walk downward, I’m wondering, “How far does this land go?”  I spot a barbed wire fence marking the territory on one side, the fence moves downward.  As I walk downward with it, I see the fence move somewhere past a dried creek bed below.  From the looks of the angled land going upward, this same creek has slowly been drinking the mud of the earth above it, the hill eroding over time, with small dried water trails and crevices everywhere underfoot, evidencing this fact.

I walk out of the creek bed, and upward, into a type of clearing, with flatter land, marked by a fence ahead of me, and recognize what I see.  Except now I’m seeing it from the other side.  Months back during one of my walks in the neighborhood, I met a neighbor, who introduced herself as Patty.  While talking, she had mentioned, “oh yes, there’s someone who owns ALL THIS back there” – gesturing towards this same clearing.  And here I am now, lurking around, an invisible trespasser, feeling shame that she or another neighbor might see me, so I quickly do a 180 and walk back towards the dry creek….

To my left is a trail that I passed on my way to the clearing.  I take it and move leftward.  Shortly after I find myself in a type of underpass, created by the branches of a large veranera above me, and a cut out piece of land like a wall, meeting the trail I walk on. Dried purple flowers discarded from the veranera have carpeted the underpass, its entrance and exit.   Here is it, I’ll show you, a little magic carpet ride..

Veranera Carpet on the ground

Magic Carpet Ride - click to enlarge

I walk away from the veranera tree and back upwards again, struggling to keep my footing as the earth gets steep again.  I make a note of the foot traffic above, trying to keep myself down low, aware of my trespassing status, as all  the neighbors here know each other, and make note of anyone who’s not “from” here or not “where” they should be.   I creep up the side of the hill, and run into this crazy spikey green fruit, growing right out of the tree trunks of a few different trees here.  It reminds me of the “morro” tree, whose fruit also grows, bizarrely, not from the side or end of a branch,  but literally smack dab off the trunk of the tree (the morro fruit is orgeat, the  main ingredient used to  make Salvadoran horchata with).

Here they are, the strange spikey green fruit in pictures – I don’t yet know it’s name yet, but I’m almost sure it’s NOT stinky durian, as those are super spikey.  When I find out what it is, I’ll let you all know.  CLICK to enlarge.

Here’s one more shot of the neighborhood before I finished my walk.   Guerta / Guineo trees and mountain vistas.

Visit with a Glass Butterfly   Leave a comment

The Mountaintop Rain forest is a continuous wonder in El Salvador.  Periwinkle weeds grew everywhere last September during rainy season, and the glass butterfy loves them.  Click thumb for larger pic:

See more at the Wonderful World of Insects in El Salvador Photo Gallery.

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

The curse of the gringa face   4 comments

We went to the market in Aguilares today, my husband and I, to buy raw cacao beans and spices for family members I plan to visit soon.

At the first stall, we were a bit surprised at the price of the cacao beans – $2.50 a pound.  Not even a year ago they were $1.50 a pound.  I opted to hear the same price repeated to me at a second vendor stall before buying at the now 40 percent increase in price.   Inflation happens here in a more obvious way — Salvadoran red “silk” (seda) beans have recently risen atrociously from 50 or 60 cents a pound to $1.25 a pound.   Chicken was 1.25 about 6 months ago – also now also increased, to 1.35-1.50 a lb.    You  know when beans cost almost as much as chicken by the pound  the “Pueblo Salvadoreno” – Salvadoran people are indeed, in trouble.

My husband told me after we left the second vendor stall,  “This is why I don’t like to go with you to these places – let’s forget it and go back to the car.”     He was sure everyone charged us more because of the case of…

“La Cara Gringa”     /   ” The Gringo Face”

Woops.  All I have to do is stand next to you and it’s the “curse of the cara gringa” – my face is the hidden tariff that sends prices racing to the clouds.   But we know, at least, when it comes to beans, that’s already sky high.   $1.25 and rising, without even a gringo face around!

Posted October 19, 2010 by El Salvador from the Inside in Food, Living in El Salvador

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Delantal (apron)   Leave a comment

Spent the morning with my husband’s mother and learned something new about her.   We were talking about making new seat cushion covers for the chairs, as she just finished a waist-apron (called an delantal) made out of remnants of Christmas tablecloths.  It was neat the way it turned out, with one type of fabric for the main apron, and a different one she used for the “pockets part.” – Wednesday, January 13, 2010.


Christmas apron (delantal) Irene made herself

The Delantal
A delantal is simply an apron.  Women are seen wearing them anywhere and everywhere in El Salvador.  When driving through the country or city, you’ll see women sporting their aprons in markets, pupuserias, restaurants, french fry or other food stands, and on sidewalks as they sell various goods.  Sometimes women wear a delantal when not working, instead of carrying a purse.

The delantal most commonly seen is a waist-level apron that runs partway to the knees, is usually white (or light) with lots of lacey or ribbon fringe on it as decoration.  The utility of the delantal is its multiple pockets, to hold coins, paper money, and small items while a woman works in or outside of the home.

Almost all women sport a delantal, regardless of their age, and sometimes in unexpected places.

On a visit to Panchimalco, I commented to my friend that a lot of old ladies were walking up the street with their aprons on.  “Oh, they’re coming out of church,” she said.  “With an delantal?,” I asked.  She explained that in the country its common custom for older women go to church dressed that way during the week, so as not to change clothes in the middle of the day.

Here are some photos I found from others that show well what women look like wearing a ‘delantal’.

Nice shot, restricted on flickr, so click this link: Mercado Central by hurtadoc777

Photo by Lon and Queta on Flickr

Posted October 8, 2010 by El Salvador from the Inside in Living in El Salvador

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On Paying Bills   5 comments

Jan 4, 2010 – Today we went to Nueva Concepcion to pay our internet/cable bill at the bank.

Boys Standing in Line by Phillip Faulkner. Click pix for more

Most people pay bills in El Salvador either at the bank or directly at the utility provider, and in cash. The other payment option is via credit card, as writing a check is not, I repeat not an option to pay bills here. That cuts out probably 80% or more of the population. A quick review of credit card rates is rather interesting: in a recent visit to Scotiabank I saw a list of interest rates for various cards posted at the service window, all ranging from 16% APR at the lowest for a ‘platinum’ card, to 38% in the highest case. Most were between 22-35%. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

While at the bank, a middle-aged woman walking out was sporting a purse that said “Feels Good,” which struck me as comical. So few people here know any English beyond “hello,” I wondered if she knew what it meant. I bet if it said “Just Farted” she’d be happy all the same.

October 7, 2010 – more on paying bills…

The line for paying bills at lunchtime is often 20 or more people long. Some banks have started requiring one have an account with them to pay a bill, and others are only accepting payments until 2 or 3:00pm. I don’t know what arrangements the banks have with utilities, but I imagine they get a cut for all this servicing. No banks are open on Saturday’s, so you must devote one or more lunch hours each month towards paying bills, and cross your fingers the line isn’t so long you get back to work late. You cannot save up your bills and pay them all at once. Here’s why:

Bills arrive at homes hand-carried by utility employees, and often SO late you must run to the bank during lunch quick-speed within 1-3 days. If you miss that mark, you have a couple more days to pay direct at the utility office; any more delays and you’re risking a late fee. And at $6-$10 a day salaries, even 50 cents hurts.

As for the delivery method: how funny is it that utility companies can afford to have bills HAND CARRIED to houses instead of sending them by mail? The joke is on both Salvadorans, the one who makes sh*t for money delivering the bill, and other who gets it at the brink of being “tardy!” We got our water bill from “ANDA” on September 14, 2010 somewhere after 10:00am – it was slipped under our ‘puerton’ (metal garage door/gate). The bill stated it can be paid at banks “till September 16” and at ANDA directly after the 16th. By the way, September 15 is a national holiday so we had exactly one day to pay the bill at a bank, thereafter must go to an ANDA office. I thought of making a remark to someone there, but the bill comes in cheap enough I better shut well shut my mouth or they’ll find a way to jack it up.

Bills don’t often come cheap with ANDA, and people constantly make complaints. One news story had an interesting and happy ending for water charges. Bills for several families in a very poor neighborhood were showing balances of up to 40 and 60 dollars, outrageous in El Salvador. Turns out while they were paying the bills, a very un-bright employee of ANDA was discarding the receipts and pocketing the money, all the while being filmed by cameras that ANDA always had in place while they were working there. A replay of the footage showed everything.     Duuuuuuuuh.

Posted October 7, 2010 by El Salvador from the Inside in Paying Bills

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Hydro Dams, Mining, Dangers and Protests   1 comment

A lot of controversy exists in El Salvador regarding hydroelectric dams, and even more for mining projects.  Pictured here is an example of what can go ‘wrong’ with hydroelectric dams, especially in developing countries with little regulation who are financially ‘beholden’ to investors.


Chalillo dam in Belize releases damaging sediment - 2009

Two hydro-power dams near completion or under construction in El Salvador: Cimarrón, which was ‘suspended’ by Mauricio Funes in January, 2010, and El Chaparral, under construction, and also causing controversy. As for Cimarrón being “suspended,” well…suspended is not canceled, and we see that CEL (‘the’ hydro company here) will soon pick the project back up:  June 2010 article where CEL announces it will build both dams (?suspended).  Citizens are keeping their ears up for any movement. In fact, this summer I got caught in a traffic jam when a group was protesting against both hydro and mining projects, on the “Truncal Norte” highway, which runs from San Salvador to the Chalatenango region.  Another day, a group of 200 protested in front of the President’s House in May, just before CEL’s June announcement that it “plans on building” both Chaparral and Cimarrón dams.  See article on Protest against El Chaparral, Cimarron dams – May 2010.

Note the price tag for just the Cimarron project alone: “one thousand million”. That’s a billion dollars. And foreign investors are happy to loan all of it to El Salvador.

The hydroelectric plants interrupt the environment, but also place thousands of people in peril, which a typical Westerner many ot be aware of.  Here in El Salvador, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people who use the rivers to wash clothing or dishes, in addition to swimming and fishing. In our neighborhood the water comes to the house, but numerous people just a 7 minute drive up the road in Naranjos and Nances still do not have water piped to their homes.  They carry water to their house in jugs from a nearby well. It is hard work and impractical to haul the many jugs of water needed to do laundry, so instead they walk their clothing to the river, and wash. Women (you’ll never see a man here doing this) also bring their dishes to the river to wash, for the same reason. If they build the Cimarrón hydro-plant upstream from us (a 20 minute drive), washing or swimming in the river becomes perilous. The hydro-electric dams release discharges at various times, often unpredictable and unannounced. Anyone who risks going into the river may suddenly be confronted with a giant wall of water coming at them.  To build the dam a large stretch of land must be cleared (residents are often forced to move via eminent domain), and it is flooded with the “lake” that sits in front of the damn. Fish that live in the river are disturbed by the change, not to mention the random discharges.  Costa Rica is a prime example of a country with extensive hydroelectric dams.  When we visited that country in 2008, we would often see an inviting beautiful river with a sign next to it stating “No swimming! Dangerous Discharges released.” The poor in El Salvador at least have the enjoyment of the river to swim in, and fish which helps their food budget, but not after installing a hydro-plant.

Mining of Gold and Silver is another economic endeavor popular to foreign investors here.  An article I read in “El Norteño” (the Northerner / newspaper for Chalatenango region) in early 2010 discussed the dangers of allowing mining companies into an area. Mining in Chalatenango would create few jobs because the companies bring in their “own” employees and technical professionals, so only vendors and those that service those mining employees would see economic benefit. Few if any actual jobs would be provided to Salvadorans, the nature side would be disrupted for mining and excavation, perhaps even relocating people, and would see possible contamination of local water sources. Then when all the silver is done mined, off they go and no one here is the better for it. Ads seen on the backs of buses and on billboards in the city state “mining is exploitation” with an illustration of a pair of ghoulish looking hands with claws instead of fingernails. A great resource covering mining in El Salvador is Tim’s El Salvador Blog. Here is a recent article

Hydroelectric power is considered by some to be a ‘greener’ form of electricity.  In much of the country, especially the part of Chalatenango where our family is from, the sun shines every day, all day long, even during rainy season where it only rains late pm or night.  How about a solar panel field for starters? And how ’bout them mountains for windmills? Volcanoes everywhere, hmmm….geothermal?

A good article that appears balanced by the “Environment, Health and Safety Online” website  covers the pro’s and con’s of dams:

The article’s discussion explains in part why we see a “silt release” in the Belize dam pictured above – it must have been built with a release at the bottom where silt develops, which is a good thing, but looking at the picture, it appears something went awry.

EHSO discusses the pitfalls of creating large reservoirs (in front of dams) in tropical climates, where dangers of disease are higher.  I will add to their comments that in developing countries, poor planning after the initial budget of a president or dictators “pet dam project” can result in lack of future funds to dredge silt accumulation or perform structural maintenance.   The price tag of these dams can be stupendous, where investors in countries far from the dam make money off the interest of a loan that could take tens of decades for the developing country to pay off, if they ever do.

I await and welcome comments.


A Butterfly is Born   Leave a comment

We got to experience a butterfly in the making, from pupa to wing flight – twice over!  All from our own patio in El Salvador – where else, of course.   We noticed a pupa (we called it a cocoon) hanging from the outside patio ceiling one day, and within a week, another one on the other side of the patio

Early stage pupa late stage pupa – note how the coloring changes We waited with anticipation for almost two weeks, when at last the first lovely butterfly emerged:
Flash picture shows more detail: A week or so later, butterfly number two emerged from its cramped quarters: A picture only a scientist could love: secretions from the chrysalis landed on the tile floor below it, around hatching time:

A scintillating experience, albeit in slow motion.  Originally I believed they were moths, but learned the ‘hanging objects’ in which they metamorphosed were not cocoons, but a pupae.

See a nice time-lapse video showing the whole butterfly life cycle:  Butterfly Time Lapse

Also visit the Wonderful World of Insects in El Salvador Photo Gallery.

Gangs Paralyze Business, Transport for 3 days in El Salvador   Leave a comment

On Monday night, September 6, 2010, a series of events began that was later revealed as a gang-imposed halt (“paro”) of bus routes and businesses throughout El Salvador.  A microbus on route 29-F in Ilopango (colonia Felipe) was burned.  Threatening notes were left for business owners and buses to shut down or else pay the consequences, until further notice. Six gang members who distributed threatening pamphlets were arrested.  See the text of one threatening note at the end of this article in Spanish, and translated to English.

The entire city of San Salvador has been turned upside down, and the country in large part paralyzed.  Pedestrians who normally ride buses are walking where they need to go.  Dozens of bus lines have stopped running, and businesses where shuttered for the day – news footage showed rows of shops closed.  Links below from and translated into English on Google translate describe widespread suspension of bus service:

Buses Suspended (Paro por Maras) – in Spanish
Bus Suspension (b/c of Gangs) – English

A representative from the police interviewed on the news told citizens “not to pay attention” to the threats and to go about their business.  What about people who got a note?  Jails in the country were in a state of emergency.  A priest came out on television news as a spokesman/mediator for jailed gangmembers, voicing their demands.  Apparently, the two major gangs, “18” and “MS,” normally in conflict with each other, actually met to work together to create chaos and make demands.  They communicated to the media they would like to meet with authorities to negotiate.  Police and military chiefs said “no way,” we don’t negotiate with criminals who kill people every day.

At least once or twice a week, a bus is torched in El Salvador (that’s normal, can you believe it?).  But today on route 12, in Chalchuapa, in the department of Santa Ana, a bus was burned; according to authorities this bus line had received threats related to this gang “paro.”

A list of halted bus routes was announced on the news.  Here is what they displayed on the TV, which was a partial list of suspended routes, for those interested:
41a,b,c and 19 – Soyapango….
29 – Ilopango….
20-24 – Cuscatancinco…
11-21 – San Marcos….
38 – Apopa…
17 – Panchimalco (which passes through my town)

I asked a friend who has lived in El Salvador all of her life ‘when was the last time this happened?’.  She said this is the very first time.

Text from a Threatening Note -“PARO” (HALT) imposed by Salvadoran gangs:

“Se hace un llamado a los miembros de este negocio que para el dia mañana sierran [cierran] sus puertas.  Si alguien se encuentra trabajando se tomaran reprisalias de parte de la XV3.  Hasta Nuevo aviso.  Y de lo contrario atenganse a las consecuencias.  Atentamente; 18”

Translation to English:

“The members of this business are being called upon to close their doors tomorrow.  If someone is found working, retaliation will take place from XV3 [roman numerals for 18].  Until further notice.  Otherwise live with the consequences.   Sincerely, 18”

Multi-part series blog.  See other entries:
Gangs Paralyze El Salvador – Day Two – 8 Septiembre 2010

Holey Toledo – Giant Grasshopper   Leave a comment

So my brother-in-law thought it would be cute to surprise me with this new and not so little friend, leaving it on our back patio for me.  I ran for cover when he first alighted, then ran for the camera once he sat still.  He was almost 6 inches long, and so big his neck looks like it belongs on a lobster:

No shortage of natural surprises here in El Salvador.  Seeing is believing.   See more at the Wonderful World of Insects in El Salvador Photo Gallery.

Eating Honey Comb with Niña Heelo   4 comments

After our visit with Marina, on our walk through Naranjos, we stopped by Niña Heelo’s house (I must spell her nickname phonetically, apologies to Spanish-speakers).   She is the grandmother of a boy Carmen is fond of.  What a cheerful woman she is, and always so delighted to see us.

We sat in the corredor at the back side of her house, chatting with her.  Her corredor, a covered patio, is about 8 feet wide and runs the length of the house.  Many houses in El Salvador have a corredor on one or both sides.  A corredor is an type of open-air covered patio covered with a roof, has a tile or ceramic floor, is enclosed with a short cinder block  wall 2-4 feet high and wrought-iron bars from the cinder block to the roof, and usually a wrought-iron door to outside.  Families spend much of their time in the corredor, with each other or entertaining guests, instead of hanging around inside or in front of the TV.   One blessing that makes up for the many difficulties in El Salvador is a constant surplus of sunshine and warm weather.  Often, it is too hot to walk around at length in the sun, but a repose in the shade of the corredor, with a nice breeze to come in, is refreshing and relaxing.

We accompanied Niña Heelo into her kitchen while she made us a fresco**.  We saw her set of “hornillas” (adobe stoves).  An hornilla (pronounced “or-nee-ah”) is a horseshoe-shaped cooking pit, several inches deep and made of adobe / dried mud.  Firewood is inserted on the open side of the horseshoe, and a pot or grill is placed atop the hornilla to cook maize, beans, soup, or place a comal*** to cook tortillas.   We were impressed that she had 3 hornillas.

Heelo also has an old-fashioned grinding stone on which to grind things like maize, chocolate, or maizillo (a grain fed to poultry).  Here is a picture from a great site I found about “how we used to live” in El Salvador, San Jose Las Flores (Click here for translation to ENGLISH with Google Translator ) of an old-fashioned grinder made out of stone just like the one in Heelo’s kitchen:

After we drank our frescos, we walked with Niña Heelo into the backyard area to feed a small calf.  Heelo had a large plastic bottle with a 3-4 inch long nipple, just like a cow’s, filled with milk.  For a  “chibo” (calf) less than one month old, he is quite strong.  While Hello held the bottle, the chibo drank, and would intermittently tug at teh nipple with such force she had the hold the bottle firm with both arms, getting yanked forward every so often.

Back in the corredor, we chatted a bit more, and it turns out that Heelo gave birth to 14 children, just like my mother-in-law.  But unlike our family, where all 14 made it to adulthood and still living today, 5 of Heelo’s children died as children, she told us, of bronchitis.  Of the 9 remaining children she has, 4 are now in the U.S.

Before we left, Heelo pulled out some fresh honey-comb, drenched with honey.  She broke a piece off for me, and said “try it, it’s good, it has honey and the beginnings of ‘babies’ in it.”   You simply chew it, then discard the wax after you’ve eaten all the honey and sweet parts.

I was a bit frightened, especially knowing I might bite into baby bees.   But not wanting to be rude, I chewed a piece.  Having only eaten liquid honey from bottles and jars all my life, it was odd biting into the raw material.

The honey comb was golden-brown looking, and I could see pollen in the pockets.  There were varoius orangy-red colored items throughout it.  I wondered if those were the “babies” and was rather timorous about biting into them.

While working on bite one, Heelo broke off another piece of honey-comb for me, even bigger this time.  “Oh boy!”   So there I was, chewing along, frightened at the thought of a half-dozen bee embryos in my mouth, but heck, one cant be rude, so I kept smacking along and spitting out excess wax, quickly – to extinguish this experience as fast as possible.

I thanked Niña Heelo very much for the snack, and we made our good-byes.

* In El Salvador, older women are addressed with the title Niña in front of their first name; it shows respect for her as an elder and is also endearing.

** fresco = fresh drink usually made out of water mixed with fresh or other fruit juice.  Frescos are often made out of green or ripe mangos, passion fruit, orange juice, or other in-season fruit.  If no fresh fruit available, water mixed with canned or boxed fruit juice doe the trick.

*** comal – a flat pot which functions like a griddle, made out of metal or ceramic (barro) on which to cook tortillas, pupusas, and other griddle-cooked items.

Of Coyotes and Car Crashes (Marathon them In)   2 comments

Carmen and I went for a long walk to the next neighborhood up the road from ours, called Naranjos, 30 minutes by foot and further into the country.  We stopped to visit a woman who owns a small convenience store who has a daughter Carmen’s age.

Marina has 3 children, the last of which is 7, and so severely disabled he will remain an infant forever.  He cannot walk, and has little muscle control – this began shortly after he was born.  Despite his disability, he is a very happy boy.  He sits on his mother’s lap, as if he were a 2 year old.  She is very affectionate with him, and he in turn is very responsive, always smiling and cheerful.

This poor woman was left a widow maybe 5 years back when her husband tried to migrate to the United States.   He was killed in a car accident, along with 6 others, in a car driven by Coyotes while in transit.

If any immigrant family could get permission to migrate via some type of special exception, I think hers would qualify.  I know of no exception in our immigration laws to obtain a work permit for extraordinary circumstances; because truly, the list of persons worldwide who live with a struggle like this is millions of persons long – many more than the approximately 1 million people allowed to legally immigrate to the United States each year.   I think most Americans who could have met this man and know his story would be sympathetic towards his cause, and perhaps even knowingly protect him.   If he made it, that is.

One would think the Coyotes would drive slower, if not for the safety of their passengers, but to avoid getting busted, considering the penalties for human smuggling.  Apparently, greed only drives them harder.  Each warm body is literally thousands of dollars in their pocket – so the faster they marathon immigrants to their destinations, the sooner they return to the frontier to ready up their next load of cargo.

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

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, 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.”

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.

A Trip to the Clinic   2 comments

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.

Priority for Education in El Salvador (or lack thereof)   2 comments

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…)

More…(updated info).
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.

A Humble Abode   3 comments


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 Juant to “El Pueblo” and “El Ranchon”   Leave a comment

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.

Cell Phones, Music, and Tough Meat   Leave a comment

We went to the doctor today.  I’m in the waiting room first, while my husband parks the car.  A young couple also waits for the doctor, the appointment ahead of us.  They are sitting apart, and appear sullen.  The young woman is playing Ranchera music a bit too audible on her cell phone while everyone else in the small waiting room ignores the show of adolescence.  A roment after my husband walks in the doctor is ready for the sullen couple.  Everyone is relieved.   Perhaps an unusual scene at a fertility clinic, but as for the noise, not unusual among young people in El Salvador.

When the house was packed with in-laws and kids over the holidays and New Years, there were at least 2 different cell phones playing music at any point in the day in the house.  Since the i-pod and other imitations are too pricey for most anyone here, anyone who is a teenager runs around with a music-playable cell phone, blasting Reggaeton, M&M, American Hits, or Ranchera music.   It’s a tad noisy, but has a more festive feel than a group of i-podders walking around together in drone silence, listening to music individually but only heard when a microphone shared gets plugged into a friend’s ear.  I saw video footage of a “silent rave” some organizers had put together in a large city once.  We have come too far with individual players and screens.  I prefer the Salvadoran style of music sharing, just not in waiting rooms.

Tough Meat
We ate steak at a restaurant.  The Plants were amazing, but the meat was tough.   Nearly all meat in el Salvador is tough, but as my husband remarks, its “real” meat.  Flavor’s good, you start chewing, and keep chewing, and then chaw chaw chaw a little more.  Finally, you reach a point where you can’t chaw any darn more and either have to swallow the remaining bit, like a hard shredded piece of gum, or clandestinely discard it under a salad leaf.

Don’t get too excited about free-range here, as poultry producers have caught onto “smush-em-in-the-dark” chicken raising (see Food, Inc., a fantastically revealing documentary).  One can find superfat chickens or giant breast and leg parts in just about any grocery store.  The good thing, if you live in the country, is there’s a lady raising chickens around every corner – they cost more than the grocery store and are tougher and skinnier, but you’re happily hormone free.

Posted January 11, 2010 by El Salvador from the Inside in Food, Noise

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A Trip to the Healer (Curandera)   Leave a comment

This morning my sister-in-law’s mother dropped by with our niece, her granddaughter, to bring her to a woman who can help “cure” her, as she has become sick enough to visit the hospital twice recently. Many people in El Salvador use home cures, herbs, and even witchcraft to help cure what ails them.

We drove from our home in Jicaron to Nances, only about 10 minutes, but a good 45 minutes walk by foot.  Nances is a rural neighborhood up the road from us.   The road we drove on goes through neighborhoods Jicaron and los Naranjos, then crosses through (yes, through) the river Metayate to get to Nances, which is on the other side of the river. When the river is engorged in the rainy season, the only road to get there is from Agua Caliente. A hammock bridge for pedestrians crosses the river above the road.

When we got to Nances we asked a neighbor where the healer (called a “Curandera”) lived. She told us which house but that she had gone into town to shop, it being Thursday, the big “market” day in “El Pueblo,” Agua Caliente. So much for timing. A man at the healer’s house answered the door and attempted to entertain us.  He was old and appeared to have Dementia. My relatives said he was “Norteado”. The word literally means “Northed,” and takes its meaning from the commonly used word for wind here: “El Norte,” which translates to “the North”.   One who has been “Norteado” has lost their mind in some way, affected as if the wind has stricken them severely.

Here is a video I found on YouTube of    The Curandera of Teotitlan del Valle

It is curious how this Curandera believes in both Christianity, with emblems and statuettes of Christ in her home, and the often superstitious, indigenous healing practices. Both are integrated into her personal belief and medicinal practice, and she appears to find no conflict between them. I believe these healers can be effective, especially in the use of herbs, which are natural pharmaceuticals. The faith aspect, which she stresses at the end of the video, takes it a long part of the way, when her patients believe she can heal them.


Gringo Music

Later that day, our neighbor Lupe (pronounced “Loo-Pay” and short for Guadalupe), came by and I went for a visit next door. Lupe, 2 older sisters, and 2 brothers were there with their mother. The kids were keen to ask what the lyrics in many American songs meant. They played songs recorded on a cell phone, and Magali, the oldest sister, sang verses from her favorite songs. I was impressed at how  she sang the song refrains, humming and mimicking the words very well considering she doesn’t know a lick of English. I could figure out most of the songs she hummed out, and promised to look up the titles I didn’t know. Hilda played her favorite Britney Spears songs on her cell phone, and I translated live while the songs played out. Everyone got a gas out of that. They told me there were some ‘gringos’ staying in Agua Caliente, the nearest town to us.

The gringos are here to teach English, as part of a program done every year, through the church. Agua Caliente is a rural township with a small town hall, a big white stucco church, a few small shops, and all but dead except on “market” day, which is Thursdays, when dozens of vendors come to sell vegetables, clothing, and odds and ends items for the house like plastic dishes, toilet paper, laundry soap, etc. Sundays see a few vendors, not as much as Thursdays, who come to take advantage of the church congregation.

On Sundays you will find the church in Agua Caliente full, with a small crowd spilling outside of the front and side doors. Part of the excitement is being able to “get out” of the house; a lot of teenage boys and girls stand in the crowd outside the doors, peering here and there to see which other young-folk also came that day. My niece would often ask if I’d go to church, so she could come with. Once we got there, I had to give her “mucho ojo,” or watch her like a hawk, as she spent more time checking out other worshipers than on the worship itself, and wandering off at times.  I suppose that’s to be expected of almost any teenager.

Posted January 7, 2010 by El Salvador from the Inside in Healers

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Hospital Security in El Salvador   2 comments

We went to the hospital today to pick up my sister-in-law, whose baby was treated for an infection.  Security at the hospital is very different from what you’d see in the U.S.  It was quite curious. Each patient is allowed just 2 visitors at a time during visiting hours.  There is a rot-iron gate in front of the hospital, with an armed security guard who lets cars and people in, and checks your purse or bag before you go in. Apparently, carrying firearms is prevalent enough in El Salvador that it warrants a sign at the hospital security station stating: “Please leave your firearm in the caseta (security hut).”

Posted January 3, 2010 by El Salvador from the Inside in Firearms, Healthcare

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