June 11, 2007

A pleasant last week, and disaster relief of a sort...

I meant to add more to my last post, but the computer at the school in El Salvador was acting really slow and therefore I didn't get a chance to write everything I wanted. Now that I've arrived back home, I feel that some sort of overall wrap-up post is needed.

As I said before, the last week was very pleasant in many ways. I re-read one of my previous posts, and I sounded a bit bitter by the social situation at the school. And indeed I was. The problem was this. I essentially stepped into a group dynamic thing going on at the school. The school, called the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), is different from many schools in Central America because it is flexible about the timing of Spanish study. Many of its Spanish students are also voluntary English teachers to Salvadorans. They teach English at night, and then study Spanish at the school in the morning for half-price. I didn't have the time to do that, so when I arrived, the English cycle had already been going on for four weeks and a number of the Spanish students had been there for a while. So, when I arrived, full of questions and seeking help to get oriented, I felt that they weren't too interested in meeting me and knowing who I was. They had each other. They were also much younger than me. I'm not a needy person, but I don't like to be intentionally excluded from things. Each day in that first week I would come down to find that plans were being made for lunch, for a movie in the evening, or for weekend trips. But as these plans were being made while I was in the room, there was never an invitation floated to me. There was one other person at the school who was older than me and who kept to himself, and I befriended him, and he told me that he felt the same thing, that he might as well have been invisible there. So I was angry -- angry at the British, Canadian, American and European students who just didn't seem to get it and who seemed so exclusionary and unhelpful.

With the departure of most of those students, a small new group came in. Four new young Americans arrived, and a Dutch woman who came earlier and was invited to participate in the previous group but who always was open and nice to me, made things much more pleasant. A British woman who barely talked to me before began to open conversation with me. Suddenly I was invited to bars, and felt included. And that meant a lot. It would have been more helpful had the previous group offered some support and help when I arrived, but certainly for me the environment was now more pleasant since a new group came in.

I managed to squeeze in a few activities in the last week. The most moving and difficult of these was a trip to Berlín, about 100 km east of San Salvador. The rainy season had started very quickly, with a number of torrential thunderstorms that dropped a lot of rain. Such amounts of rain usually don't happen that early in the rainy season, and the area was unprepared. Deforestation in the country, as well as the fact that many villages sit perched on mountainsides, makes for opportunities for disaster. In Berlín, a couple of rivers burst through their normal courses, sending water, mud, and boulders crashing through houses. About 72 families were displaced from their homes. 4 people were killed. The force of the water was so strong that two bodies were found 15 km away from the town. The CIS, which also works with community organizations and had a relationship with community organizations in the town, obtained a small grant to provide packets of basic necessities to the families.

I spoke to a young girl of 15 whose mother was killed in the flooding. She has an older brother, but he was badly hurt and in the hospital, making her the head of her family and responsible for her younger brother and sister. Her aunt was helping her, but since her aunt lost her home too and had to care for her own children, it was difficult. Both families were in a shelter at a local church and both had no idea what they would do. They said they would stay at the church until they were told to leave, and after that, they said they didn't know what would happen.

In this case, the reaction of the government of El Salvador was politically motivated. The town is governed by members of the opposition FMLN. A law passed recently required the El Salvadoran government to coordinate disaster relief with local officials. According to the local officials, the government refused to coordinate with them despite the law. A few mattresses were delivered when the government showed up, but they were left with a local priest who then turned them over to the city. The government officials, according to the local officials, made a big show of speaking to ruling party members, but in the end did not do much for the displaced victims. The city was instead coordinating with NGO's to provide what they could to the victims. In the face of all the need, the small packets of toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, soap, cooking pots, and wash tubs we delivered, while gratefully received, didn't seem to be much.

The rest of my week was spent in school, laboring over my now kindergarten level of Spanish and cursing the need for two different kinds of past tenses and two different forms of the verb "to be." I also indulged in a luxury, seeing El Hombre Araña (Spiderman 3) in English with Spanish subtitles. I brought my host roses for her birthday on Monday (she turned 73) and I took my host family out for a last dinner on Friday, the day before I left. I finally learned something of my host's life, and came away with even more respect for her. I'm sure that her story is not atypical in El Salvador, but it is atypical for me. She lost her husband, a union organizer, sometime before the civil war, I think. I believe he was killed at a demonstration. She lost two of her four children during the war. Still, she continues to be active in organizing and marching and every morning we watched the talk show hosted by the person who many hope will be the leftist candidate for president in 2009, Mauricio Funes, and she would explain to me the many nuances of the political situation in her country. I would only get a little of these conversations, but her passion for her country and her ability to keep going in the face of her many tragedies is inspiring. Lately, she has been caring for her 15 year old granddaughter from Nicaragua whose father died last year and whose mother (my host's daughter) was having difficulty caring for three children by herself.

My time in El Salvador is now at an end, for now. My wife is considering a trip down for a week with a group in January or so, and perhaps I may go along. What did I get out of my trip. I got an appreciation for a country that is so troubled...a capitalist paradise that is plagued by crime, violence, inequality, and poor services even as it aggressively takes free market measures that exacerbate these problems and yet are applauded by our government and the developed world in general. It truly makes you wonder whether this prescription for prosperity will be the undoing of us all, resulting in vast inequalities the world over, and destabilizing and destroying all the good that has been created. I hold great esteem for people there who continue to fight and work for justice and better conditions despite overwhelming odds against them. I obtained some knowledge of a new language. And I added more real-world experience to ideas obtained academically, rounding out and nuancing my own ideas.

Would I encourage people to go to El Salvador? You bet, if only to experience the extreme contrasts in a country that has fulfilled many of the conditions that developed countries have put on it. But moreover, to experience a people that continue to struggle and still manage to smile every day.


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