May 29, 2007

The Noise

I don´t know if El Salvador is the norm, but I have discovered while being here that it seems like Latin American culture likes a lot of sound. Big sound!

For example, just out on the street, things are loud. Horns honk, even when there is no possible way that honking the horn will make traffic any better. Bus horns have huge booming honks. Microbuses often have tunes in their horns. For example, every morning at 7:00, I can hear from my room two microbuses, one whose horn plays La Cucaracha, and the other bus where the horn plays the theme from The Godfather.

On street corners, music often booms out of speakers placed on the sidewalk at ear splitting levels. My one visit to the Super mall here, the Metro Centro, filled my ears with booming bass and techno at a Digicel vending booth set up in the courtyard.

People in their apartments often have huge stereo systems, like the neighbors to my host, which play music to not only entertain their neighbors, but pretty much the whole neighborhood. I´ve heard everything coming from their apartment, including such US classic rock bands as Queen and Guns ´n´ Roses, all at decibel levels to wake the dead. Lately, some Latin American chica caliente has been riding the top of the airwaves, and these neighbors bought the album and play it over and over again. I can sing you the main tune if you want, I almost know it by heart now. It´s all fine during the day, but not at 6:00 in the morning or 10:30 at night.

In buses, the driver blares out loud techno music for the enjoyment of his passengers, all of whom appear not to care.

The strange thing is, El Salvadorans themselves are not necessarily loud and boisterous. If you have a bunch of El Salvadorans and a couple of ¨gringos¨ on the bus, the gringos invariably will be talking the loudest. I was told that during the civil war, Salvadorans learned to talk fast and low.

Is this the norm in all Latin cultures, or is it just found in El Salvador?

May 28, 2007

I Have So Far Survived all Dangers, Yay Me

There are many dangers in El Salvador, and I feel like I brushed up against all of them this weekend. Everything, regardless of what is happening, always seems threatening in San Salvador. On Saturday morning, I was up at the crack of dawn in order to get to the school by 6 a.m. so that we could make a day trip to La Palma, an arty town in the highlands of Chalatenango. When I got on the bus, I noticed two things. First, the bus was standing, not moving. Second, there was a guy talking to the bus driver, and peering into the bus very intently. Great, I thought, here is where I get accosted. The guy peered in my direction for a moment, then paid the driver and got in. He moved down the aisle of the bus, and I could smell the alcohol he'd been drinking. He sat right behind me, and then started to chat up the young woman who was sitting on the other side and to the right. I breathed a small sigh of relief.

When I reached my stop, I got off and began to walk toward the school. A wizened, bent old woman was walking her little dog. Another large dog, loose, was interested in it and began to sniff at it. Then he saw another dog in the distance, and went to go investigate that. Now, I don't like loose dogs here. God knows what they have, rabies probably, and you don't want to get too close to them. So I wasn't thinking and was very much surprised when as I walked past this woman, keeping my eye on the loose dog off to the right, her little dog launched himself at my leg. With some effort she pulled him back, but as I walked I could feel that he had scratched me. Great, I thought. Rabies shots here I come. But I walked the few blocks to the school and looked. There were two slight scratches on the skin. Then Peter, a nurse, showed up and he said the skin wasn't broken so I was okay--no blood means that even if those were tooth marks on my leg, the rabies would not have entered my bloodstream.

After a very nice day in La Palma, we returned on a standing room only bus packed with people. When we reached San Salvador, me and two others got on a bus that would take us close to where we lived. At some point, the bus stopped and a bus monitor stationed at the stop was talking to the driver. I noticed a young guy hop the turnstile of the bus without paying. Nobody said anything. This wasn´t necessarily surprising, because vendors often hop the turnstile with the bus driver´s assent and sell candy or ask for donations to this or that Christian church. But this guy wasn´t selling anything. As he came back toward us I noticed the tattoo on his arm. Pascal, a Dutch woman with me who had done research on the gangs, said later that she noticed that he had tattoos on his face as well. Tattoos are a sure sign of gang membership. He sat behind us a couple of seats, and then got off a couple of stops later. Obviously he was just interested in transportation and nothing else, but it was unnerving.

When I got home, I immediately was bitten by three mosquitos -- carriers of the deadly Dengue fever. But nothing has happened to me yet, so I guess I´m okay.

They have told me to not anything off the street here, but can you blame me if yesterday, after suffering all these near misses, that I threw caution to the wind and ate a pickled mango with salt and salsa purchased from a street vendor? Nothing to report, my stomach is fine! How much longer can I flirt with danger? To reassure my wife, I really don't want to!

May 25, 2007


Yesterday we met with a student group at the University. In the United States, when you say student group you usually mean a group of students that likes to do social activities together. Sometimes, they are organized more around social problems, and volunteer in the community.

In El Salvador, you are talking about a whole different kind of thing. We met the leader of the student group in the Psychology building at the University of San Salvador. He took us through campus to another building, where we entered a dark and somber room. The walls were hung with pictures of Mao, Che, Fidel, Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, Marx etc. An AK-47 painted on the wall had the words Revolution or Death in Spanish underneath. Another wall had pictures of 7 or 8 students who died in a massacre of protesting students in 1975 and for whom the group was named.

And what does this group do? It fights for larger budgets to the university, which the government continually underfunds, and tries to effect structural change within the university. It also fights for larger structural changes in the society. Occasionally they go out to poor areas and help children celebrate birthdays and holidays. But, if there is a march, they will be in the streets with other students, demanding that the system change.

This type of student group, the kind that doesn't exist just as a social club but also puts itself on the front lines of protest, often at the risk of jail or even death for its members, does not really exist anymore in the American university system. It did in the 1960s, at the height of America´s social movements. Unfortunately, years of prosperity and conservative governments have all but done away with this type of organization in the US. We don´t even want the whiff of communism around. But they are still fighting the fight here in El Salvador. I don´t really want to see a Marxist-Leninist agenda implemented, but I admire they are willing to fight and risk their lives for what they believe in, and their willingness to stand up also gives impetus to other, more moderate political student groups with wider appeal to stand up also to oppression and injustice.

May 23, 2007

Cooperatives, Coffee and Coke

On the outskirts of San Salvador, visible from almost every point in the city, is the San Salvador volcano. It rises about 6,000 feet above the city. Its sides are green and lush and it is quite beautiful on the days that you can see it, i.e. days when it is not hazy or clouded over. Yesterday we got a chance to get on this volcano. The occasion was a ¨field trip¨we usually make in the afternoons to see some political or cultural aspect of El Salvador that we would not see otherwise. We took two buses and a taxi to get to a ¨cafe finca¨on the slopes of the volcano. A finca is a cooperative farm, and this one harvests coffee.

The first thing I noticed was the amazingly colorful flowers that grew out of the hillside. The most amazing purples and yellows and reds were visible. The climate here is tropical, and if El Salvador wasn´t the second most deforested country in the Western Hemisphere (behind Haiti), there would be a rainforest almost as lush as the ones in Costa Rica. The second thing I noticed were the security guards. As usual, this business was protected by security which wielded sawed off shotguns. What most intrigued me however, was the size of the shot in the shells. It was huge. I´ve done some hunting in my younger life with a shotgun. The shot in the shells I used was mostly small pellets meant to kill birds. The shot in these shells were meant to stop something big. Something like a man, or a large bear. Literally, being shot with one of these shells would kill you.

This cooperative farm was established in the early 1980s when the ruling government, trying to defuse some of the guerilla´s reasons for fighting the civil war, passed land reform laws that limited land holdings to a certain amount of hectares per individual. Of course, the ruling party that passed the laws was made up of the very same people that owned most of the land. So, what do you think happened? Bingo, even as they were passing the law they were working their way around it. They basically put individual pieces of land to individual members of each family -- for all intents and purposes it was still owned by one person but in law, by several. Some plots were set aside to redistribute, and some of these plots, like the cafe finca, became cooperative ventures. So now, the cafe finca sits on about, I think 1600 hectares of land on the volcano. It supports roughly 600 families, many of whom care for the coffee trees and pick the coffee beans when they are ready.

The government does not like such cooperatives, and makes trouble for them legislatively when they can. Right now, they are poised to have a law passed that will make further trouble for the cooperatives. But, this cooperative serves more than just as a source of income. It is one of the last vestiges of rain-forest in the city. It serves as a safe harbor for many species that would not have a place to live, or a safe refuge during migration. As such, it is an island of tranquility in the midst of busy, hectic San Salvador.

Oh, and in case you don´t think that Coke is evil, and sometimes I am ashamed I drink it, Coke bills itself as ¨Buena Fuente de Hidratacion.¨ A good source of hydration. Hmmm....I always heard that sugar and caffeine actually dehydrated you. So, Coke sells itself for Salvadoran health.

May 21, 2007

The City that Kindness Forgot?

San Salvador is not a kind city. You are reminded of this every day. The city is constantly on edge. Wherever you go, you can´t let your guard down for a minute. This manifests itself in simple and more complex ways.

For example, there is no pedestrian right of way in El Salvador. Cars are kings of the road. In the States, if you are in a crosswalk, you can expect the cars to stop for you while you walk across. In San Salvador, if you are in a crosswalk, you run the risk of getting run down because the cars won´t stop for you. If they do stop, they will honk their horns at you. You have to make sure that 1) you have the light and 2) despite that, there are no cars coming. They won´t stop for you. Believe me. And if you are hit, for all intents and purposes it´s your fault for walking even if you are in a marked crosswalk.

Another example, a little more complex. Crime is very prevalent here. No matter where you walk, whether you are in a ¨good¨ neighborhood or a ¨rough¨ neighborhood, you will see all the windows barred. Houses are often hidden behind 10 foot walls, with one or two layers of razor wire on top. The apartment in which I am staying resembles a jail cell in front, with an iron-frame door and iron-grill work around. Every morning, when I leave, my host walks out with me to make sure there is nobody hiding underneath the stairs to ¨jack¨ me when I walk out.

Another guy here, a person in his 60s who came down here to teach English and get Spanish lessons at half-price for 10 weeks, said he felt safe withdrawing money at a bank in a shopping center because there was a security guard with a shotgun standing near by. Unfortunately, his bubble was burst when we were told that the security guys won't help you...they are just hired to protect the business they are standing in front of, not to stop crime on you. Chances are they will look the other way.

That's another thing that reminds you that the city is not huggie bears and perfume. In front of many businesses, large and small, stands a guy in uniform with a sawed-off shotgun. They are protecting these businesses, allegedly. I've been told that the biggest security company is a large business interest of the former president of El Salvador, Christiani, who is still very important to the ruling party, ARENA. Thus, there is a disincentive to reduce crime because then it hurts profits to said security company. However, it completely reinforces the notion that you are not ever safe on the street when you walk past so many businesses with razor wire all around, a vicious dog locked inside, and a guy with a sawed off shotgun outside who will do nothing to help you if a bunch of gang members are beating the hell out of you right in front of him -- as long as they don't touch the merchandise inside.

Downtown, the city center is tinged with danger. You get sin and redemption all at the city plaza, where the cathedral and the prostitution business are separated by only a block or so. The market that makes up much of downtown is full of honest people making a business, and theives selling their stolen merchandise. Everyone walks through quickly, eager to get business done and get out, looking all around and holding on to their belongings.

And I've mentioned the gangs before. Everywhere you go, you see gang grafitti. Even near my school, the signs of the notorious MS-13 marks walls.

Why is this so? Because of the extreme inequalities here. In a country that looks good on the UN and World Bank charts, with its better than normal GDP, the inequalities are staggering. The richest people get richer, while the vast majority of poor people struggle to survive. Many leave for the US, where they work crappy jobs and send home remittances. 15% of the GDP comes from Salvadorans living in the US. For those that stay, crime is often the only option to get by.

You might think it is all horrible here. But no, not always. There are random acts of kindness and goodness that pop up from time to time, and make you feel bad for looking at everyone as a possible robber or murderer. Like the nameless woman on the bus who, when I was looking for my stop in the first week here tapped my shoulder and asked A donde vas? Or the completely spontaneous Buenas that come when you pass people on the street. Or the old couple I passed last Sunday and I said Buenos dias and their eyes lit up and they smiled and responded heartily Buenos dias! On Saturday past, a guy I barely know invited me to come to San Vicente with him, underneath a towering volcano, where he and his uncle are fixing up a home that was destroyed in the earthquake of 2001.

Yes, kindness didn't completely forget San Salvador. It occasionally sprouts in the open, but most of the time if you scratch the surface, you'll find it hiding below and waiting for a reason to come out.


May 16, 2007


I spoke of the crowded buses earlier, which I found out aren't operated by the city of San Salvador but are all private. Imagine, all these private buses tooling up and down the street!

I learned a little of the dangers of the crowded buses yesterday. I went to the bus stop. I was a little later than usual. The stop was crowded, meaning a bus hadn't come in a while. I let the first bus pass because it was absolutely packed. The second, a minibus, was very comical. It was packed to, but still a guy who rides with the bus was trying to get people to jump on. And people did while he berated them to hurry up and jam themselves in. By the time he was finished, there were about 6 guys including himself hanging on to the little step into the bus, clinging however they could to keep from falling off while the minibus lurched down the street, dangerously tilted to one side.

A third bus came, and I couldn't wait any longer. I got on. It was very crowded and we were packed in like sardines. At the university, the bus emptied and I took a seat. I got off as usual and walked to the language school.

Four hours later, I decided to get some lunch with a couple of other people. I went to pull out my money, and it was gone. I figure I was picked on the bus, but it also could have been at the stop where I remember a guy stood very near me and another guy brushed me when he walked past. I heard that the pickpockets work in teams, with one providing the distraction while the other reaches in. Fortunately, I wasn't carrying a lot of cash, about $15 in my pocket, so it wasn't a great loss to me though it would have fed me lunch into next week.

It's hard, after experiences like this, to not think that San Salvador is a lawless place. You have to worry about gangs, who have been known to board buses and rob people in broad daylight. You have to worry about walking into the wrong neighborhoods. You have to always look and be vigilant. I've lived in inner-city Milwaukee and in New Orleans, which was practically one big inner-city, and I have never felt so vulnerable as I have here in San Salvador. Of course, getting pick pocketed could have happened in any city on earth. It's just that in San Salvador, well, it just seems like you should expect it, whereas everywhere else it seems a little more random, a little less desperate.

May 15, 2007

Cashew Juice

Yesterday I had juice from the fruit of the cashew tree. I didn´t even know that cashews had fruit, much less you could make juice out of them. But cashews have big fruit.

A few days ago, I had juice made out of the fruit of bayberries. I have no idea what the heck bayberries are, but the juice of the fruit is really good.

I haven´t been lacking for fruit on this trip. Mangos, papayas, strawberries, apples, oranges. My host mama has been making a lot of things for me. She fries bananas and plantains, and makes all kinds of licuados, i.e. fruit smoothies. I was worried that she would make me sick, but it turns out that she has been disinfecting the fruit.

The one thing that she´s only made for me once, which is surprising considering it is the national food, is pupusas. They are basically corn tortillas with beans and/or cheese and sometimes meat inside. They are very good. In our latest trip to the campo, I had a full meal of pupusas and a drink for about 90 cents.

Today I saw something that just boggled my mind. A small minivan, which serves my bus route, pulled up. The buses hadn´t been there in a while and there were a lot of people waiting. This mini bus pulled up and all these people rushed to get on. The bus was already full, and a guy was trying to get them on so the minbus could continue onward. It eventually left, leaning precipitously to one side, with about 5 or 6 guys hanging off on a little step outside. Evidently, there are no laws about overcrowding in this country.

Well, I´m signing off now. Hasta luego.

May 11, 2007

The Buses in San Salvador

Riding the bus in San Salvador is quite an experience. The buses look like old recycled school buses from the U.S., and they appear to having been kept running forever. They are often colorful, though not as colorful as the ones I saw in Bangladesh in the country, but they often contain sayings on them, such as the one I saw this morning reading, in Spanish, ¨Jesus is yesterday, now and always.¨ The numbers on the bus are often hard to read, because they are ¨tricked out¨ in a way, so you have to pay attention if you are on a busy street with many buses. Fortunately, there seems to be no schedule for the buses, and you often have the buses from the same route following right behind one another, so if you miss one there will soon be another. You get on and simply hand a quarter over to the driver.

There is no such thing as a catalytic converter on the buses here. They often belch black smoke which adds to the overall pollution in the air over San Salvador, which is significant. The volcano nearby is often almost shrouded by smog. There is no air conditioning on the bus, so lots of belching buses leads to all that stuff coming in through the open windows of the bus you are riding.

The bus I take in the morning is always crowded, so people are standing in the aisles as well as seated two to a seat. You have to politely but firmly make your way past people, especially when you have to get off. Luckily for me, most of the people empty out at the University, so I usually have a place to sit about halfway through the journey. Getting off is a matter of simply getting up and moving to the door at the back. The driver sees you, and stops at the next available place on the street. If the bus is crowded and the driver can´t see you, or misses where you want to get off, you bang on the wall of the bus so that he can hear you and stop.

But Mike, you are thinking, ¨a quarter?¨ El Salvador has switched over to the dollar, so all transactions are in US currency. The local currency is practically non-existent. The difficulty is that the ATMS give out bills in 10s and 20s, but where you are likely to eat, they usually don´t like to change such large bills. You have to try to have a good supply of dollar bills. It is easier in the city, but in the country, a 10 will not be changed no matter how hard you try. We are going to the country this weekend, and I´m literally going to go to the bank to get 20 ones so I will be able to pay for my food.

So far, I have seen many of the places of violence which occurred during the civil war. A couple of days ago, we went to the University of Central America, where 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed by army forces in a raid in 1989 - it was thought by the army that doing so would end the FMLN´s final offensive in the city. Yesterday, we visited the church where Msgr. Oscar Romero was assassinated, widely assumed by agents of the government, in the early 1980s. Our guide said that this was the catalyst for the armed struggle against the government. This weekend, we will visit the site of the El Mozote massacre.

However, it has not all been doom and gloom. I went to a combined performance, totally free, of the El Salvador Symphony, Choir and a ballet company. The choir and symphony performed Carmina Burana, while the ballet company interpreted it through dance. It brought down the house, and the president of El Salvador took a bow onstage with the company.

I´m hoping to get interviews starting next week on my dissertation -- we´ll see, it has been more difficult than I thought. Y mi español is mejor, pero yo hago aprender mucho.

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May 09, 2007

First week in El Salvador

Hello. This will be a short post on my first week in El Salvador, as I will have to go to class in a moment. I arrived safely, and am now living with a woman and her 15 year old granddaughter in a small apartment in the Mejicanos neighborhood of San Salvador, which borders on the University of El Salvador. The neighborhood is very working class, and looks rougher than it is, I believe. I take a bus for about 15 minutes each morning to the language school, which is located on the other side of the University.

Mrs. Deras, my host, speaks no English. The apartment is very small, not air conditioned. They have given me one room while she and Galia sleep in another. She is a very good cook, and though the meals are small, they are laden with fruits, beans, rice, and even vegetables which she disinfects for me. I am filled each time I eat.

Things are inexpensive here. I can get a meal for $2.50 which would cost me at least $7.00 in the US.

Crime is always a worry. There are gangs roaming around, and they have been known to get on buses and rob people. I was told that they do not want to hurt or kill anyone, they just want money or something they can sell. That is good news -- I always carry $15-$20 to give in case that happens. It probably will not, but it is better to stay safe.

I am gaining a little facility in the language. I understand more than I can speak. It is difficult and frustrating to keep having to look up things in the dictionary. But, hopefully after the 3rd or 4th time, it sinks in.

We visited the University of Central America yesterday, where the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter will killed by the army during the final offensive of the civil war in 1989. It was very sobering and at times gruesome --they have kept all the photos of the aftermath. The university is quite beautiful, however.

Today we are visiting the Anthropological Museum, and then there is a symphony performance for a small donation tonight at the Presidential Theater.

I will write more in a while.

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May 05, 2007

Leaving Today, but news on adoption story

Hi Folks. I'm leaving today for El Salvador. But I just wanted to give you a sort of postscript to my adoption story.

The grand niece of my father, Andy Andraza, happened to be taking a mental break at work and did a google search on her maiden name. She came across one of my adoption posts, and left a message on my blog. You can see her message on My New Identity Crisis, Part 6.

This is a huge break, because it indicates the spelling of the name of my father was correct, and it offers a lot of clues to go on. to the developing world. I will be posting occasionally to this site about my adventures as time allows!

May 02, 2007

San Salvador, City of Lights, City of Dreams!!!

On Saturday, I'm off to El Salvador for 5 weeks. What will I be doing there? I'm going there to do work for my dissertation, mostly conduct interviews on my topic with political leaders. I'm also going to an intense language immersion school. I will be living in a home with a family in the capital city of San Salvador, and attending at least four hours of Spanish class per day.

I'm excited and nervous about it. I'm excited I will finally learn some practical Spanish, and going to another country is always an adventure. I'm nervous because, in my infinite wisdom, I have picked what is arguably the most dangerous country in the Western hemisphere. El Salvador is rife with organized crime on a higher level, and gang crime and violence on a lower level. All those illegal El Salvadoran immigrants that were involved in US gangs that we deported in the late 80s went back to El Salvador and established the gangs there. The MS-13 is probably the most notorious gang, with significant membership in both the US and El Salvador. The city is full of petty and violent crime. I've been warned not to bring anything with me that I couldn't afford to lose, as there is a greater likelihood that I will be held up if I look like I have anything of value on me.

Why did I pick El Salvador? I wanted to go to a cheap language school, which many Central American countries have (I have a friend attending school in a rural area of Guatemala right now) but also I wanted to be near the people I needed to interview, and being in a capital city was the best bet for that.

So, that's the long and short of it. I will be arriving back in the States on June 9th where I will start the drive toward finishing off this dissertation once and for all.

I will try to post on this blog once in a while from down there. I have heard that there are Internet cafes where I can get online, so I will do my best to let you all know that I'm alive and well. In the mean time, if any of you want to contact Megan, feel free. She'll be a little lonely!

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