Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Unidentified third world rash, among other fun things

It has been quite an interesting few weeks.  Shortly after I got back from the All Volunteer Conference, I began to notice these red splotches starting on my arms, later spreading to my legs, and eventually covering my entire body.  My host mom told me I probably had sarampion (the measles) because she and my host sister had been sick with it earlier.  Even though I’ve been vaccinated, the Peace Corps doctors were a little concerned about what I might have contracted, especially since the measles has supposedly been eradicated in El Salvador.  So, they sent me to several doctors and labs to try to figure out what was wrong.  In the meantime, I was basically quarantined until the test results came back.  The nice thing was I got to spend about a week in air-conditioned hotel rooms, hot showers, and cable, and even got to spend the weekend chilling at the Country Director’s house eating ice cream, skyping, and watching the Grammy’s!  In the end, the test results came back negative for everything (mono, measles, rubella, etc.) but I’m happy to report that I am now rash free.
                After my medical mystery, I headed out east to Santa Rosa de Lima in La Union to help translate for an eye care campaign.  I have to say it was probably one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my Peace Corps service thus far.  The campaign was comprised of several doctors from all over the US who come to El Salvador each year to do eye exams, surgeries, make false eyes, and provide glasses to those who need them.  I helped by registering people, giving near-sighted eye exams, and translating for the guy who fits/makes false eyes for people.  I learned a few new Spanish words in the process as well, like ‘pegajoso’ which means crusty. Don’t know when I’ll ever use that word again except maybe at the next eye care campaign!  It was also great because I got to see several of my friends whom I haven’t seen in awhile due to all these temporary travel restrictions and see another part of the country.  I wish I had photos but I was living off an overnight bag I packed during the medical frenzy not thinking I would be away from site for two weeks (and I will admit, my clothes were pretty smelly by the end) so of course I didn’t think to pack my camera.  I also got a box of glasses to take back to my community and a t-shirt, which was much needed at the time!
                I attended my first Salvadoran funeral on Saturday.  After returning from the eye care campaign I was notified that an elderly man in my community had passed away the day after I left for San Salvador.  Therefore, I had arrived for the ninth, and final day of the Salvadoran funeral process.  I learned that the first few days, the family keeps the body in the house for the viewing, then there is the burial, then several more days for visitors to come by and give their condolences to the family.  On the ninth day, the one I was there for, there is an evening mass and the family makes tamales and invites the entire community to their house as a final goodbye for the deceased.  My host mom helped and had to wake up at 2am that day to make all of the tamales!  Through talking with others, including the daughter-in-law of the man who died who lives in the US, the Salvadoran funeral tradition is one the culture could probably do without.  It is so stressful to have to make food for so many people and have visitors for nine days after the family member dies.  My only reasoning for this is that it might help the family through the grieving process by keeping them preoccupied and busy in the days after the death.
                I have yet another scorpion story for you: as I was getting ready to go to mass, I grabbed my mary janes that hadn’t been worn for several weeks.  I made sure to shake them out because surely some animalito had made its habitat in there over the last three weeks.  Some dirt came out but that was it so I slipped them on.  After walking around for about 5 minutes, I felt something moving inside my shoe.  I slipped it off to see what it was and found a baby scorpion!  Of course I freaked out and handed the shoe to my host sister who is less afraid of creepy-crawlers to take care of it.  I can’t believe I didn’t get stung though.  Que suerte!
                Not much more news on the security front.  They pushed the security assessment back so it began just yesterday.  The team (made up of 4 people from Washington) will be visiting several current and possible future volunteer sites as well as interviewing many PCVs.  I’m a little disenchanted now because I heard that volunteers had already been notified that they would have an interview with someone from the assessment team.  I feel like my department, Cabanas is plagued to be forgotten forever.  No one has notified me about an interview or anyone coming to visit my site which makes me think that I will likely be forced to move.  It is such a shame because where I live is perfectly safe.  The problem is that there are so few volunteers in this region.  After the group that is scheduled to leave on April 30th, there will only be 2 of us in the entire department.  Only time will tell.  I will hopefully hear the results of this assessment in three weeks or later (bureaucracy is a bitch!) including revised travel rules and if/when I will have to move sites. 
Oh, and that COS option isn’t going to last forever, so if I have to move sites and decide I want to leave, I am only given a month after moving to my new site to make that decision.  I suppose that’s fair but I wouldn’t want to leave a community after only being there for a month and giving them the hopes of having a Peace Corps volunteer and then taking it away from them.  Our boss has also told us that changing sites isn’t for everyone.  I know how hard it is to integrate into a community.  I’ve been here in Palacios for almost 6 months and I am just now gaining trust and really getting to know people and be productive.  Therefore, if I have to move sites, I will have basically lost a year in project development. 
  I would love to stay but I don’t know if I’m willing to put up with the fact that I probably won’t be able to use public transportation nor travel to El Salvador’s bordering countries, and go through all the stress of moving to a new community again.  At the same time, I feel obligated to finish my two years here.  I came into this knowing it wasn’t going to be easy and that I was going to have to make sacrifices, I just wasn’t expecting something like this.  On the other hand, this COS offer is a pretty sweet deal and if I decide to stay, will I kick myself for not taking advantage of it?  My plan is still to just wait and see when this assessment says and make my decision from that, but this next month is going to be HARD.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sticky, Stressful Security Situation

It has been quite a busy week here in El Salvador.  As I mentioned in my previous post, some security changes are going down but the majority of our questions are still unanswered. We had a frustrating all-volunteer conference last week with the jefes from headquarters in Washington in hopes of receiving some answers about the future of Peace Corps El Salvador.  Although it was great to see all of my friends, I was pretty disappointed with the lack of information provided to us.  The most common answer to all of our questions was, "We still do not know." 

Well, this is what we do know/what was presented to us at the conference:

  • In 2011 the northern triangle region of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) saw a spike in crime incidents.
  • The majority of crime toward volunteers happens while volunteers are traveling.
  • Washington is decreasing the number of volunteers in El Salvador from 130 to only 30.  This means that the group of volunteers scheduled to leave in mid-March has been forced to close their service on Feb 20th and the group scheduled to leave in September is now leaving on April 30th.
  • The capital, San Salvador is off-limits aside from medical appointments and business meetings until further notice.
  • The Peace Corps office will be moving outside of San Salvador.  Instead, they will set up regional offices.
  • A security assessment will be taking place starting on February 15th to determine which areas are safe for volunteers to live in and travel to.  They will also determine to what extent we are able to use public transportation.
  • Volunteers will be clustered in these so-called "safe" areas.  This means that some volunteers may have to change sites.

What we still don't know:
  • Where we will be able to travel within the country & whether we will ever be able to travel to the two bordering countries, Honduras and Guatemala since they are also experience security issues.
  • Whether the capital will be off-limits forever.
  • Where these clusters will be and how many we will have.
  • Who will have to change sites.
  • If the training center in San Vicente will have to be moved due to increasing crime in the area.
Our options as Peace Corps volunteers:

  • Obviously, the two groups being forced to leave early don't have much of a say in that decision.  This is quite unfortunate because they were only recently given this information and are having to quickly finish up or abandon projects in their communities.  Many of these communities will be left without volunteer replacements depending on the sites chosen after the security assessment.
  • For the two most recent groups to arrive the country, we have been given the option of early COS.  This means that we could close out our service now, basically stating that we have completed our time here.  We would get all the benefits of COS, such as non-competitive eligibility for federal jobs, eligibility for Peace Corps Fellowships, and per-diem readjustment allowance. This is the first time in history that Peace Corps has provided this for all volunteers in a country, regardless of their time here.
  • Another option given to us was re-enrollment.  This means I could do my entire 27-month service in another country.  I would have more of a say in which country I would be placed in but even if I COSed now, I likely wouldn't start again until September at the earliest.
  • Remain in-country and face the possibility of a site change and much more rigid rules concerning travel and time out of site.  Plus, the uncertainty of a possible shut-down of Peace Corps El Salvador the duration of my service.
Needless to say, I have a lot to think about over the next month.  I feel like it's virtually impossible to make a decision now because I just don't have enough information.  Until I know exactly what these changes will be, I cannot make an informed decision.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Once again, I apologize for my lack of blog entries.  The times I have  internet access are usually when I’m traveling with friends and am busy with other things.  But I wanted to catch you guys up on all that I’ve been doing.  Let’s see…

I’ll start with Thanksgiving since that’s about the time I should’ve posted last.  I spent the holiday with an American family, three other Peace Corps volunteers, and a Salvadoran family that works for  the embassy.   The embassy family graciously invited us to spend the night in their home (air conditioning & hot showers!!!).  I was treated with hummus and Sam Adams upon my arrival and also got to help fix Thanksgiving dinner New Orleans style (with oyster stuffing).  Couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing couple of days. 

I stayed in the capital the weekend after Thanksgiving for my training group’s “Swearing in Party.”  Lots of volunteers were already in San Salvador for Thanksgiving so it was perfect timing for a party and I got to meet several more volunteers from around the country.

December in my site was pretty chill because all of the kids were out of school.  I spent most of my “working days” at the local clinic, which I found out the hard way is about an hour and a half’s walk from my house.  I served as a dental assistant one day, gave a nutrition talk to the seniors, and participated in pupusa-making and gift exchanging at the seniors’ Secret Santa party.
Then it was Christmas.  I’m not gonna lie, I was totally dreading spending Christmas here.  A nurse from the clinic invited me to spend it with her and her family in a nearby pueblo.  She made it sound like they had  many more Navidad celebrations than my tiny caserio but I politely declined because I wouldn’t be able to make it back to my house that day and I really wanted to spend it with my host family here in Palacios.  So I spent the day eating panes rellenos (basically chicken hoagies with slaw) and visiting Mama Chila and Tia Carmen.  Mama Chila is my host mom’s mother who lives about a 45 minute walk from us.  She’s a hoot so I enjoyed going to see her. 

Christmas definitely isn’t as big of a deal here in El Salvador, they basically just celebrate with loud fireworks and tamales, or maybe it was just that I wasn’t with my family so it didn’t seem as much of a celebration…and I don’t like tamales.  I bought small gifts for everyone in my family but gift-giving isn’t so big here.  We did play Secret Santa within the community which I thought was a great idea since most people don’t have a lot they can give and this way, everyone still receives something.  I think the best parts of the evening were spent with my host sisters dancing and then later making s’mores.  My host sister, Wendy, who is in college studying English came back from the pueblo with all of the makings for s’mores and suggested the idea to me but said she needed me to show her how to create them.  What a pleasant surprise! So we made a little bonfire in the front yard and ate yummy s’more sandwiches to finish of the evening.
Since I spent Christmas in my community, I decided I wanted to celebrate the New Year with my fellow volunteers at a popular surfing beach, El Tunco.  I had a blast there, although sadly one of my friends had to remain in the capital because he was diagnosed with dengue.  I met tons of foreigners from the UK and Australia, as well as former Peace Corps volunteers from Belize.  It was so interesting to exchange stories with all of them.  I also took a surfing lesson.  I was proud of myself for standing up a few times and now I’m determined to become an expert surfer by the time I leave in 2 years.

 So now that the holidays are over, I’m back in Palacios trying to get some projects started.  I’ve already had some ups and downs with the ADESCO and experienced what almost every volunteer experiences at least once: no one showing up to their meeting.  I was starting to get really upset with the lack of involvement/compassion within the community.  Yesterday I visited a family whose house had caught on fire and everything inside burned to a crisp.  The family also has two handicapped sons but when we went to visit they seemed surprisingly chipper for someone who just lost everything.  They were sleeping outside with mattresses the mayor had provided them with and only tarps protecting them from the cold.  Yes, it is hot here during the day but there are strong gusts of wind at night which may not seem cold to us but Salvadorans aren’t used to any temperature below 70 degrees.  Needless to say, I decided it was time me and my community got up off our asses to do something for this family.  Today I walked throughout Palacios Centro and neighboring caserio, Limon, going house to house asking the people if they could give anything: clothes, food, money to a family that  had lost everything.  My host mom told me I wouldn’t have much luck because the people here don’t have much and don’t like to give but the help I received was more than I was expecting.  I got $16 and tons of corn, rice, beans, soup, and eggs.  $16 may not seem like much but considering I probably only went to about 20 houses and people here don’t make that much money in a week; it’s a good amount.

I suppose I should mention all the safety/security stuff that’s been going on recently.  You may or may not know that Peace Corps Washington is reassessing the programs here in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  They already sent the Honduran volunteers home for a briefing in January and I have been told that they will only be sending back certain volunteers.  For the rest of us, as of now they are just trying to make it safer.  Although I feel perfectly safe where I live, I can’t say I don’t get nervous on the buses and when I’m in San Salvador.  Some other volunteers are not as lucky as I am and have had security incidents within their sites.  Our country director tells us they’re not going to send us home, just make some major changes with how the program here works, but I don’t think all the staff and volunteers believe him.  I’d like to think they won’t send us home since I’ve only been here 6 months and in my site only about 3 of those but if it is for the sake of our safety and security, I won’t argue.  As for now, I’m just going to keep working as normal until I hear otherwise.

So here I am, doing my weekly grocery shopping in Ilobasco.  I’ve been out of water for a few days now so I hope I haven’t contracted any parasites from drinking tap water given to me by kind souls on my quest for donations yesterday.   I’m dreading lugging the giant puchinga 20 minutes up the hill to where I live but todo es modo-that’s how it is.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Training Round 2

Sorry for being such a slacker and not updating for such a long time.

My asamblea general went pretty well.  I had lots of people show up but I was a little disappointed that the people in my community I was most eager to hear about my project plans like the health promoter, mayor, and my host mom were all unable to attend.  I guess it's a good thing I see them often enough that it isn't a big deal they weren't there.

I've been back in San Vicente for my second round of training for the past week.  It's great to be back with my host family in San Esteban but I've hardly had any time with them because training has been so busy.  I like these training sessions sooo much better than the ones from PST1.  I'm actually learning stuff that I'll be able to use in my community like how to make pinatas, jewelry, recycled purses, how to start a water or latrine project, and how to write grants.  It's all extremely useful and I can't wait to get back to my community so I can get things going!

This next week we're heading to the capital to visit some museums and to a beautiful waterfall and gardens on the western side of the country.  Then I'm back in San Esteban for a few days of English classes, and then back to San Salvador for Thanksgiving at the Embassy and my swearing in party!!  SO much stuff going on but I love it.  I will admit I hate missing the annual Harvey & Mabe-White excursion to Ocean Isle Beach but glad I will still be able to celebrate with Americans (and hot showers!).

I almost forgot to mention I went hiking up a volcano the other week!!!  My friend, the dentist from the clinic, invited me to climb Volcano Izalco in Sonsonate.  I don't know why I was thinking it would be easy but it took us 4 hours to get to the top.  The hardest part wasn't even hiking up Izalco, but going down Cerro Verde (the point of view of this picture) and then back up it again to get to where we parked.  Although I was completely exhausted and aching for days after, it was totally worth the view of practically all of El Salvador and just the feeling of accomplishment after hiking up a volcano.  Not to mention, I was the first person from our group to make it to the top!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Due to persistent torrential downpours, I´ve been forbidden to leave my site since last Tuesday. I am on “standfast” which in Peace Corps lingo signifies, “stay put until we say otherwise.”  I am not allowed to travel because several roads have been washed out and many areas are at risk for landslides.   I have yet to run out of books to read on my Kindle, thanks to Nitisha, but I’m about to run out of programs to watch on my computer.  

Although most days I curse the scorching Salvadoran sun, I do miss it right now.  Without it, I haven’t been able to wash my clothes because there is no sun to dry them.  I have run out of clothes to wear and to make matters worse, I think I have bedbugs.  Bedbugs are hard to get rid of in the first place and it is impossible to eradicate them without being able to do my laundry.  I can’t walk around my site too much because it is really muddy here and since it is the rainy season, the roads are covered in algae, thus extremely slippery.   Plus, the path to my house has turned into a stream.  I also can’t visit many people in my community for the same reasons.  Yet another problem is bathing.  My bathing area is outdoors with only a screen surrounding it.  Although it’s not really cold here, the rain makes it quite unpleasant to bathe.  Thankfully, my host mom has been heating up my bathwater, which makes it bearable. 
I guess I am fortunate that nothing detrimental has happened in my area.  Some homes by the Lempa River have flooded, but that is the worst I have heard.  The president of El Salvador has declared a National Emergency  because of this “tropical depression.”  Many communities have been flooded or have experienced landslides, leaving thousands homeless and in shelters throughout the country, and some dead.  Unfortunately, since I am at the early stages of my time in site, it is difficult for me to organize some sort of community action to help support those in need.  I hope to work with the health clinic nearby, who has been caring for those whose homes have flooded.
In other news, my Asamblea General is next Friday.  This is my official meeting to introduce myself to the community.  I’m a little nervous about making a speech in Spanish but I am excited to introduce myself to everyone in the community whom I haven’t met yet and explain to them what I hope to accomplish and learn through while living and working with them during the next two years.

mi casita

I´m a natural

Papa scorpion (thankfully not the one that stung me)

my swollen thumb
Another interesting tidbit: I got stung by a scorpion last week.  That was fun.  I had just returned home from the All Volunteer Conference in La Palma, Chalatenango.  I set down my luggage and as I reached to close the door to my room, I felt this sharp pain on my thumb.  At first I thought it was a giant splinter but I saw the culprit when I looked at the frame for the missing chunk of wood that was likely embedded in my finger.  Thank goodness I was at home so I yelled, “me picó un alacrán!” and my host mom came running.  She put lime on it and smeared its poop all over the sting.  Apparently that’s supposed to help; it did make me laugh.  I also called my PCMO who instructed me to take an antihistamine and painkillers.  My thumb hurt like hell and swelled to twice its size in first few hours but after that, it just felt numb.  After telling several Salvadorans my story, I was surprised to find out that many of them have never been stung by a scorpion. Thus, I am proud to say I survived my first (and hopefully only!) scorpion sting.  It feels kind of like a rite of passage.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Alive in Palacios

I was recently informed that people are eager to hear how things are going in Palacios, Cabañas.  Sorry I haven´t updated recently, I can only check my email at my site and I only come to the cybercafe in Ilobasco, the closest pueblo, once a week. Things are going well at my site.  The people are really nice and I love the area.  It´s pretty hot but I don´t mind it too much and I´m right beside the beautiful Rio Lempa.  I´ve gone fishing and there´s plenty of hiking to do in Palacios. I caught six fish with a pole made from a branch and a piece of string.  Either American fish are really smart or American fishermen are really stupid for spending so much money on their fancy fishing poles I´ve visited the school several times and I´ve been making house to house visits to get to know everyone in my community.  The only trouble I´m having is with my living situation but I´m hoping to get that figured out soon.  Luckily, I do have my own room but there are some other issues I hope to get resolved.  My host family is great.  My mom, Aracely, her two daughters Estela (22) and Leydi (3), and her neice, Geisy (13).  I would love to write more about Palacios but I´m short on time so I will plan on giving a more in depth update later.  I just wanted everyone to know that I am surviving life in Palacios and I´m living the Peace Corps life for sure.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bring It On

After weeks and weeks of eagerly awaiting my site placement, I was finally informed I will be heading to Cantón Palacios, Jutiapa, Cabañas, El Salvador.  It is on the banks of the Rio Lempa and is a big fishing and cattle-raising community.  My site has no running water and no direct transportation.  All in all, it's pretty friggin' rural. It's about a 2.5 hour drive from where I am now and equidistance to the capital.  Luckily, the closest city, Ilobasco, is just an hour away.  It is a cute artisan town with a SuperSelectos that sells American staples, and most importantly, peanut butter!  I'm also 2.5 hours from the closest person in my training group but there is another volunteer that's just an hour away.

My new home, Palacios!

I will admit that everything was not all sunshine and rainbows on Site Assignment Day and I was dealt the the first real obstacles of my PC experience.  After looking more carefully at my information packet, I read that I will be sharing a room with a girl in my host family.  It was especially hard to hear this after talking with peers who will be living in their own houses.  The one thing I tried to make very clear in my site interviews was that I needed my privacy.  I understand the new policy that we are required to live with a host family for our own safety but it is also Peace Corps policy that every volunteer should have their own room.  Apparently, my family was supposed to build a partition to split her bedroom from mine but it never happened.  Needless to say, I'm not so happy that I will have to share a room with someone for the first two months.     I don't want to come to my site with negative presumptions about my living situation but it's hard enough moving in with strangers in a new community where I don't know anyone, am not fluent in the language, and am the only "gringa" for hours, and to top it all off, NO space of my own.  I'm not a whiner or a quitter so I will deal.  We will see how these first months go and hopefully the situation is better than it sounds or I can move in with another family or build a room of my own.  Furthermore, I am replacing a volunteer who just ETed (early terminated) three weeks ago.  I hope she tactfully explained to the community her reasons for leaving so that I'm not stuck with that, too.

On a more positive note, I spoke with my "community guide" on Friday and she seemed super nice.  I will be meeting with her this Saturday for an orientation in San Salvador and riding back with her to Palacios.  It looks like I will be doing a lot of rural health and youth projects in my community.  I won't know the specifics about my projects until I get there and spend some time getting to know the people in my community and assessing their needs and desires.  I also spoke with the volunteer who is an hour away.  He had some positive things to say about my host family and the surrounding area and we're scheduled to meet up in Ilobasco sometime next week.  Aside from the no privacy thing, I'm pretty excited about moving to my community.  I can't wait to meet everybody and see what Palacios is like!

Jeez, I almost forgot to tell you about the awesome time we had at the Embassy!  Last Wednesday, my training group was invited to a tea with the Ambassador and the DCM, who is actually a friend of a friend of my Mom (small world!)  We had an informal Q & A session and then had REAL coffee and hors d'oeuvres, a refreshing break from instant coffee and tortillas, and chatted some more.  I learned some interesting and slightly scary stats about El Salvador, which are probably best unmentioned until I make it through service.  The ambassador's house is pretty sweet and she's got it all to herself.  Lucky lady!  But I guess she deserves it; being ambassador is a pretty tough job.

Wish me luck in my new site, sounds like I'll need it!  I'll let you all know my address as soon as I figure it out so you can send letters & care packages :)

Me, Jamie & Cory with our Caminanta group & homemade tie-dyed tees!