June 20, 2007

Mayles, meet the Mayles, we're a West Virginia family...

I know all of you have been on pins and needles, getting ready for this post. The first meeting between me and the new family I have found. Would there be fireworks? Would I be greeted like a prodigal son? Or would I be cast out in shame?

I'm really hamming this up for effect. Actually, the reception was more of the former than the latter, save for the fact that I am really not the prodigal son, and no shame was involved.

Megan made quite an impression - maybe even bigger than me. She won three contests at the family reunion, and $50. After the third time, they were asking why I brought her! But they really liked her.

I have attached the slideshow below to give you the flavor of the weekend:

Labels: , , ,

June 15, 2007

Off to Meet the New Fam

Today I'm off to meet the new family on my birth mother's side. We were persuaded to go to the reunion in Ohio. I actually feel a little nervous about this. As you know from reading my riveting multi-part series My New Identity Crisis, Parts 1-8 (to reach the first post in that series go here), I never met my birth mother, who died in 1997. However, her two surviving siblings will be at this reunion. I've been told that one of the sisters, Garnett, looks exactly like my birth mother, Ruby. So, for once I've started feeling some emotion.

For their part, the family has welcomed me with open arms, and made a fantastically generous gesture that made it possible for us to attend. This has been more than I ever dreamed would happen when I first embarked on this search.

So, wish me luck. Mayle's, here I come -- I hope you're not disappointed in your prodigal son!

Labels: , , , , , , ,

June 14, 2007

Pictures of El Salvador

Hey everyone, I have pictures of El Salvador. Unfortunately, I didn't bring a digital camera so they were taken with disposables, but I fixed some of them that weren't that good to begin with, and picked the best of the others.

You can find the pictures at the following website:


Hope you enjoy them!


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.

June 08, 2007

A pleasant last week

So, my last week here in El Salvador has been a pleasant one. A new grou of people came in last week and they have been much easier to be with, along with a couple of the previous people who stayed. So my time here has been a little less lonely.

June 06, 2007

Could El Salvador be the face of the future of the United States?

Okay, here is my one political/economic analysis off the cuff for now for this trip. Let me lay out a couple of hypothetical countries first, and then go off on my rant.

Country A is a small country located in the developing world. As per usual, economics and politics are intertwined in this country. The country has a history of military rule, followed by a revolution that failed to overthrow the ruling powers, but did manage to create a stalemate that was followed by peace accords and the integration of the rebels into the political system. Since then, the former rebel force has become a political party with some strength, but has never been able to win enough to govern the country. The country is polarized between a left and a right, with a non-existent center. Since the peace accords, the right has held the presidency exclusively.

Economically, the Country A has mostly been dominated by a few wealthy families, who have combined their wealth and power with the right. They have maintained a corrupt governmental system that advances their economic interests. The country since the peace accords has opened up to global liberalization of trade and finance in the name of development. There have always been poor in Country A, but the domination of the economy and government by the wealthy has increased the number of poor and the gap between the rich and the poor. The civil war was largely fought over the exclusion of the poor from the ability to make a living. Since the peace accords, many things have gotten worse. Many people have given up on the political system. The crime rate has risen, and gangs have multiplied, making the cities some of the most dangerous places in the world. There is no interest in combatting crime, because some of the wealthy are making lots of money off of the insecurity, holding interest in security companies and arms dealing. The trafficking of drugs and other illegal items has become another staple of the economy. Many poor, desperate, have left the country, looking for work in the developing world. If they make it through illegal immigration, they send their remittances back to their families in Country A.

Country B is a large country in the developed world. It has a huge economy which has become more and more dependent on imports from the rest of the world. It has pushed for free trade on its own terms, largely because it feeds its endless need for consumption. Its corporations have established themselves in many developing countries, particularly in that area it considers its back yard. These corporations, in an endless search for profit, demand more concessions from the countries that they establish themselves in, such as exemption from taxes, right to drive down minimum wages, weak regulatory laws and other benefits to them.

Politically, Country B has been veering to the right for decades. The current leader has consolidated power for his party and his administration even further. It is allied with the wealthier segments of the population, and has been steadily cutting back social programs and benefits to the least-well off members of its society. As a result, crime has grown, and people feel less secure economically. The political situation has undergone much polarization, but ordinary people have participated less because they don´t feel that either side offers them much change.

These are brief snapshots. As you may have guessed, Country A is El Salvador and Country B is the United States. However, what I see is that the United States could be El Salvador in a matter of years, particularly if we continue on the present economic and political course we are on. If the gap between rich and poor is allowed to widen, if one party consolidates so much power that it can control the political machinery, if the links between business and political leaders continue to grow, if social programs and benefits to the poor are cut, if the poor have no recourse other than crime, gangs and desperation, if the political system continues to polarize, then we are not far from being El Salvador.

Do we really want that? And how do we make sure it doesn´t happen?

June 01, 2007

One Month in El Salvador

Tomorrow, June 2, 2007 I will have spent one month in El Salvador. After next week it will be the longest I´ve spent in any one country.

What have I learned so far from my Salvadoran experience?

Welll, I have learned some Spanish. Yo puedo hablar, escribir y leer un poco ahora. However, my reading is probably the best. Listening is a problem if people speak normally, and in El Salvador normally is usually very fast and very low. I was told this is a trait they learned in the civil war, when you never knew who was listening. Speaking gives me the most problems. I speak very slowly, with a lot of ums and ahs and often, regardless of what I think, say the wrong form of the verb, use the wrong verb tense, find myself at a loss for words, have to ask others to speak slowly, and generally make a fool of myself using the wrong word. Like the time I said I was embarassed and actually said I was pregnant. Is it my fault that the word for pregnant in Spanish is embarazada, and that the actual word for embarassed is completely different? Often, When I am at a loss for words, I add an ¨o¨ and it works, or a ¨mente¨ as in ¨actualmente.¨ But sometimes it doesn´t.

A second thing I´ve learned is that non-Salvadorans often don´t learn from the Salvadorans they are mixing with. My experience here has been that Salvadorans are open, inclusive, friendly, kind, and are truly interested in you and your life. From the people I spend a lot of time with to the people I meet on the street when I ask for directions, they ask you where you´re from, why you´re here, and what you think of their country. They tell you a little about themselves, such as a cousin or aunt they have in Virginia or Los Angeles and how they´ve gone to visit there once, or hope to go soon.

The non-Salvadorans, mostly Europeans and Americans and Canadians, seemed to me to be closed, suspicious, exclusive, unhelpful and overwhelmingly young. It seems to me that the point of volunteering or paying for language lessons in a school that has the name ¨inter-cambio¨, or interchange, in it is to learn from the culture you are in. Alas, only one or two of the people that I´ve met here that are non-Salvadoran really seemed to take what they have seen in Salvadoran culture and apply it to their life, and the one person I´m really thinking of is really a Chinese woman from Australia.

I´ve also learned that El Salvador is probably on the way to future struggle, and this time, the United States probably won´t be as invested in the country as it has been. Many conditions here are worse than they were when the civil war was raging. Inequality is more stark, the political system is corrupt, the government is corrupt, the richest families have tightened their control on capital and are making millions and millions while most of the population, especially in the rural areas, manages to scrape by. El Salvador is the largest company store in the world. Whether the economic policies of free trade will help in the long run is hard to say, but that is small comfort to the millions that are having a hard time now.

But the US is still invested in a large way. At least a million of Salvadorans, maybe now closer to two million, live in the United States and send money they earn home to their families. If there is an eruption of conflict in the future, you can bet that we will be hearing from those Salvadorans.

I´ll have a couple more posts in this next week before I return to the states. And, I only have 7 days before I can finally take a hot shower again!