25 March 2004

El Sal - Week 4 of 5

I’m rolling into my final week here in El Salvador. It’s hard to believe it’s that near the end. It took me a couple weeks to get into the swing of things here and I feel like I’m just starting to be effective. The Spanish tutor I’d planned on didn’t work out so I didn’t make the progress in that department that I’d hoped. I need another month! And pretty much everyone I’ve worked with has asked (repeatedly) when I’m coming back.

The hope here is that they can get an intern type program started. When Bob is back in Iowa in April, he plans to talk to a university about having education or medical students in various fields put in a summer here to teach English, P.E., health, etc. The college students would get some experience and the students here would benefit enormously from the help and attention.

Of course, the big news has been the elections. It’s still a hot topic in the press and in the community. The elections themselves went very quietly and calmly. And the entire process is quite involved.

First, a couple days before the elections, the voter lists were posted on the wall around the Catholic church. The lists contained the photos and names of all the registered voters in the municipality. People needed to find their name (or photo if they couldn’t read) to find out what table they needed to go to when voting. On Election day, 5 blocks worth of streets were cordoned off and 24 tables were set up. Each table was assigned 400 registered voters. At each table were: a vigilante from each party (4 total), registrars from each party, backups for the registrars, and observers. There could be as many as 16 people at any one table just to keep and eye on things and make sure they were going properly.

In the early morning the lines were long as all the people from the cantons came on the early buses to vote. The afternoon lines were shorter…that’s when the town people voted. By 5:00 (poll closing time) the lines were pretty well gone. At that point, officials herded all people except those assigned to tables out of the area and the ballot counting began.

The table official opened the box and, one-by-one, removed a ballot. If everyone agreed that the ballot was valid and who the vote was for, it was handed to the vigilante for that party. If there was a dispute, it was set aside to be determined later. When all the ballots were processed, they were counted up by party, the total count checked against the corners that were snipped off when the ballot was handed to the voter and the totals were logged, copies made for each party rep plus one to fax to the capital, then all the ballots were sealed back in the box with the tally sheet and hand-carried to the capital.

It’s fairly labor and people intensive but all of this is designed to make sure there are enough checks and balances to avoid foul play.

The end result is that a nation-wide voter turnout rate of about 70% resulted in ARENA winning with 56-59% of the vote (depending on which paper you read) and FMLN receiving 36-38%. The other two parties didn’t receive enough votes to remain viable so now there are only 2 parties…ARENA and FMLN.

I had only 1 day of classes at the high school this week. It’s the end of their semester so the week is mostly dedicated to taking exams…no classes. I still have the adult classes in the afternoons. I tallied up the attendance for my afternoon classes and there were a total of 36 students across the 3 classes. Probably half of those attended a week or less of classes total but the rest were pretty regular. And about half of the regular attendees weren’t adults. Of the younger people, most were students at the high school that were either 3rd year students (and not able to take English) or 1st or 2nd year students wanting more English. I did have a few younger students. Olman, one of the best of all the students, is 13. Diana, one of the most regular attendees, is 11. The youngest of the regulars is Geraldo at 8 years old.

The Parish Team is going to do an evaluation after I leave to find out what worked, what didn’t, etc. All to help set the stage for similar future efforts. I’m looking forward to seeing those results. It’ll be really interesting to see what the high school students who came to my adult classes thought. The way classes are taught in the high school is very different from the way I conducted the adult classes. I’d really like to know how they compare. Do they complement each other? Is one more effective than the other? Inquiring minds want to know!

Although, realistically, it’s comparing apples and oranges. The high school classes have 40-50 students for 45 minutes or an hour and 15 minutes once a week. I had (generally) less than 8 students for an hour, 5 days a week. The methods I used simply wouldn’t work on the high school scale and schedule.

In other news, work on the chapel/sewing house continues. About half the wall around the second story is completed and today they’re pouring the concrete for the steps. I suspect that by the time I leave, all the second story walls will be finished and they may have started on the roof.

Pouring the concrete for the second story floor was quite the project. They brought in extra workers and formed a bucket brigade up a ladder from the ground. 4 or 5 guys would work on making and mixing the concrete and filling 5-gallon buckets. The buckets (about 2/3 full) would be passed to a Cezar (one of my high school students in the adult classes) who would pass the bucket up to his younger brother, Javier (also one of my afternoon students) who would pass it to the men on the upper floor who would pour the concrete then toss the bucket back to the ground where it could be filled again. They had a total of about 6 buckets always in motion so there was no real rest for the bucket passers.

It was very heavy, very hard work. The people would rotate jobs occasionally to spell the people passing the buckets up the ladder. They worked through lunch and into the afternoon to get all the concrete poured at once then knocked off for the day. Needless to say, Cezar and Javier didn’t attend class that afternoon. By the time they’d cleaned up and eaten something they were too wiped to do much else…and they live in canton Alejandria, a 45 minute walk from the Parish House.

17 March 2004

El Sal - Week 3 of 5

In my third week here, the big news is the elections. The papers have been full of election polls, news, photo ops, percentages and charts all along. But in this final week before the election on Sunday, the 21st, the media attention goes full bore. The parties ‘close’ their campaigns in the week before the election. I had to ask what that meant. It means that they don’t campaign in the streets, make appearances, that sort of thing, but they do continue media presence.

The two major parties are ARENA (the right-wing party currently in power) and FMLN (the left-wing party formed after the Peace Accords were signed back in the early 90s). There are a couple other, smaller parties. From what I understand, they don’t stand a chance of winning but they are important because, in close elections, the smaller parties may band together to boost their numbers or align themselves with one of the major parties to assure its majority. If no one party gets at least 51% of the votes in this election, they will have a second election between the top 2 candidates in April.

Opinions of the people I’ve asked about this are mixed. There is general agreement that the papers are heavily slanted toward the right, and at least one (of the two major ones) is owned by a candidate. So there is decided skepticism about the coverage printed there. Pretty much the same is true of TV coverage, although I haven’t watched any TV to see what that’s like.
However, that leaves them with trying to decide what to believe when they know they can’t believe the media.

I spoke with one native Salvadoran and he thinks FMLN will win. Then I asked him what he thought would happen after that. He didn’t know but ARENA has had complete control of the country for a long time he couldn’t imagine them willingly or cooperatively turning that power over to anyone else.

I asked a Peace Corps volunteer who has been here for a couple years and he thinks that FMLN will win the big cities but not the whole country. If they should happen to win he sees the potential for unrest and upheaval also. It would be fairly easy for the ousted party to sabotage the incoming administration and blame it on their mismanagement.

A teacher at the school said he didn’t think FMLN would actually win but if they do there will be problems in all the cities…especially Sunday night. He suggested I not leave the house. Which I had planned anyway but he’s the first person to state it so bluntly.

There have been incidents of violence in the cities during the campaigns…people have been hurt and hospitalized. Both parties have been urging people to not be afraid of violence, to go out and vote on election day. I saw a map of voting locations in the paper yesterday and they are cordoning off security zones around voting places in San Salvador and restricting traffic around those.

There is a non-governmental organization here that coordinates ‘election observer’ groups. These are people who come from other countries (the U.S., Canada, European countries) to monitor the elections to make sure they are fairly conducted. In the last week or so, the current administration has been threatening to deport or refuse entry to the election observers but so far I don’t think it has happened. [post script… observers from the U.S. were detained at the airport, some for more than 24 hours. The U.S. embassador personally went to the airport to expedite their release. All observers from the NGO mentioned above were admitted, however, there were some observers from other countries/organizations that were refused entry.] There is a group of four observers that is due to arrive here on Saturday to monitor the elections in Berlin. I hope to find out from them a lot more about how the election observer process works.People show their support for a party by flying that party’s flag over their house. A lot of the flags I’ve seen around Berlin are ARENA. However, there is one house behind the Casa Pastoral that seems to be hedging bets by flying flags of all the parties.

There is an undercurrent of unease as the election approaches because no one knows what may happen. However, people go to the patron saint festival activities, children go to school, women go to the market…and life goes on.

On Tuesday, Erin and I walked up the hill behind the Casa Pastoral to a family she met earlier. The house has 6 people spanning 4 generations…the woman we talked with; her mother; her son, his wife and their little boy; and one other person who was not there when we visited. Their home is in one of the barrios of Berlin and is typical of houses there. Typical in that the walls are made of bamboo and mud with scavenged pieces of tin for the roof and ‘siding.’ The floors are dirt, the doorways have no doors and there are no windows except for a smoke hole in the kitchen area. They sling hammocks across the main room at night for sleeping. They have a sow with a few piglets and some chickens…all of which have run of the house and occasionally get shooed out when they get too bothersome.

Yet, as poor as this family is, this home is ‘upscale’ compared to others in this barrio. Other homes in the area are government-issue ‘temporary’ housing from earthquake relief projects. They have about a 12’ x 12’ footprint and are made of 2x4 framing wrapped with a tarp type material or that plastic/fiber wrap that is used as a wind/vapor barrier under siding on homes in the States. The roofs are corrugated tin. They generally have no windows and only the one, doorless doorway. We were there close to noon and I couldn’t help thinking those huts in the direct tropical sun had to be like ovens.

12 March 2004

El Sal - Week 2 of 5

Construction continues on the chapel/sewing house. The first floor walls are up all the way around and they are beginning to put the supports in place for the second floor. All the block, aggregate, cement, sand, etc has to be carried up a flight of stairs from street level in 5 gallon buckets on the shoulders of the workers. And all the dirt dug up (by hand and shovel) for the foundation goes down the same way. They mix the concrete on the ground…so many buckets of aggregate, so many sacks of cement, so many of sand. It’s heavy, manual labor and they work from 7am until about 4pm with a half hour or so for lunch…7 to noon on Saturdays.

The walls are very solidly built. There is rerod running vertically through the walls at regularly spaced intervals. They lay the layer of mortar then drop the cement blocks over the rods and set the blocks in place. Every 2 courses of block, they run a horizontal rod and wire it to the verticals. Then they pour cement inside the blocks to make a solid wall. All of that is to help stabilize the walls for the earthquakes that are common in this area.

The beams are manufactured on site from rerod and wire. Each beam is made up of 6 lengths of rerod and shorter pieces of rerod that have been bent into square “rings.” The rings are wired to the lengths of rod at evenly spaced intervals. I haven’t measured them but it looks like about 5 or 6 inches. It makes the beams slightly flexible but very strong. After they’re in place, they build forms around them and fill them with concrete. They expect to have construction complete by the end of April.

To really put all of this in perspective, the head foreman gets paid $95 per week. The masons get $65 and the young man doing mostly the grunt work of toting, fetching and hauling gets $35 per week. These wages are typical for this area and this kind of work.

Festivities for the “Fiesta de Patronales” (Patron Saint Festival) continues. Last Saturday Bob and I walked up to the soccer field to see some of the action there. By the time we got there, the games were over for the day but we were just in time to catch the parade of queen contestants. Various businesses and groups sponsored contestants and turned pickups into parade floats for them. The parade ended up at the town square where they had set up a stage (complete with little cabanas and a waterfall) where they would have the final presentation and crowning of the queen. Matt and John and I went into town to catch the queen contest. Time is a very nebulous thing in El Salvador…The crowning event was supposed to start at 6. It finally started around 7:45 and by 9:30 we gave up waiting to see who would be crowned and went to visit Haydee. Around 10:30 when we headed back to the Parish House, it sounded like they were still going.

This weekend things really kick into high gear. I don’t know when the actual day is, the celebration activities last for a couple of weeks. The town square is filled with street vendors, carnival games and rides, and lots of activities. It’s pretty much like a small-town Iowa Fourth of July celebration (that lasts 2 weeks) or a county fair. Except they do the fireworks at 4:30 am. Daily.

In the high school, Facho and I handed out the letters written by the Spanish students from North Polk High School. At first, Facho gave the students a choice about whether or not they wanted to get a letter…most did but some didn’t. We had one girl stand up and read a letter aloud, then everyone wanted a letter. I’ve already received a couple of replies to take back to Iowa with me. They have until I leave to get me their letters. Have I mentioned that time is somewhat nebulous here?

Salvadoran Observations for the week:

The big thing I’ve noticed this week is the different way that Salvadorans view time. A prime example of this is something that happened this morning. I went to the school to catch up with Facho and ran into the principal. He asked me to come to his office where he and the computer teacher showed me the ID cards they are making for the teachers and computer room monitors. He said that I need a card too and need to come in on Monday morning to have my picture taken. I asked what time and they all laughed and said “This is El Salvador.” ‘Monday morning’ is a close as they expect to get.

The other thing is how different the high school here is from what I remember when I was in school. There is no attendance taken at class, no hall passes or monitors. If the teacher is sick or out for whatever reason there is no class. The students are free to go play soccer or whatever. Students may arrive 15 minutes late for class and it’s not commented on. However, the classrooms are kept locked between classes and the entire school is surrounded by a wall and chain link fence. The only access to the school is through the front gate which is also locked except for when students are arriving in the morning or after lunch when teachers and the principal monitor their entry. Students are free to leave whenever but if the gate is closed they have to knock for admittance if they want back in.

Classes are loud, chaotic affairs. There is constant noise from outside the room and inside the room is rarely quiet. People talk over each other all the time. If you wait for a break in the conversation to say your piece, you’ll never get it said. That last part is common to other cultures as well but the overall level of ambient noise throughout the day is something I’m not used to. Radios and music are played at what I consider ear-splitting volume. All day long you can hear music from at least one and sometimes as many as 3 different locations…all competing with each other and at a volume that makes the speakers crackle and distort. Pickups drive around the city with loudspeakers on the cab blasting advertising for the festival activities or goods for sale. Some street vendors set up large speakers and aim them out toward the street. Roosters crow from the wee hours until full light. In the cantones where there is no electricity, there is still some noise…children playing, roosters, birds in the trees, etc but the overall volume is much less.

I’m looking forward to our visit to the canton of San Francisco this afternoon.

04 March 2004

El Sal - Week 1 of 5

It’s been a big week! I arrived in San Salvador on Saturday after a long day of travel. I went to bed almost as soon as I arrived at the Parish House. Neither the (very loud) music from the bar across the street that night nor the chorus of roosters early in the morning disturbed me.

Sunday was a fairly quiet day. I visited the canton (small rural village in the mountains) of El Tablon to see the newly constructed, concrete block sewing house complete with its solar panels and batteries, sewing machines and lots of windows for light and ventilation. The clinic will be used in a plan for systematic health care exams and medical care on a regular basis. The kitchen and bathhouse complete the community center, and have been used several times for community functions.

Monday was when all the excitement really began. I met with Facho (the English teacher at the high school) in the morning to talk about the classes and what my role would be. I said I’d like to just observe the first day and actually start teaching the next day. But, hey, get me in a classroom and I can’t not start working. I was very nervous for the first class but less so for the second. By the second day I was the co-teacher and it went fine.

There are approximately 400 students at the school. 2 years of English is required for almost all of them so during the course of the week I’ll have about 350 students. Most of the classes are 35-50 students each. Some of the classes are 45 minutes and some are 2 hours. I generally have 2-4 classes per morning and will have each individual class either once or twice per week. Classes start at 7am and the students are generally done at 4pm with a hour or so off for lunch (which is not provided by the school but there are concessionaires on campus where students can buy lunch, or they’re free to go home or buy lunch in town).

However, in the afternoons I have adult ESL classes at the Parish House so I don’t work with any of the afternoon students. I leave the high school, usually at noon, and return to the Parish House for lunch. Then I have an hour or so to prepare for the afternoon classes.

My afternoon classes are made up mostly of adults from the community. There are 3 groups that meet 5 days per week for an hour each. They’re an interesting mix of people.

The first group (2:00-3:00) has a local policeman, a woman who works at the police station and her 2 children as well as a couple young adults. The second group (3:30-4:30) is mostly teachers from the smaller barrio schools in Berlin plus a couple of 3rd year students from the high school who can’t get a 3rd year of English but wanted to continue to study it. The third group (5:30-6:30) is the largest and (I fear) still growing. This is the time slot that works for people who have jobs and as people find out about the classes, more and more people ask to join them. Milagro (the Parish Team member who has coordinated the classes for me) has had to tell people the classes are full…the room can only hold so many people and the class materials are limited. But that doesn’t stop people from sitting or standing around the edges of the room or in the doorway to listen. The third class has a woman who works at the bank, 3 police officers, and a couple more 3rd year high school students.

My days are very full!

Other things going on this week…

Monday was groundbreaking for the Monsignor Romero Chapel in the front yard of the Parish House. It will actually be a 2-story structure with the chapel on the ground floor and a large room above that will be dedicated to the sewing project but could also be used for classes or larger meetings. The parish team is very excited about this project. Monsignor Romero is an unofficial saint here. He was martyred at the very beginning of the war because he spoke out for the poor and the injustices committed against them by the forces in power. The process has been started to officially make him a saint but has not yet completed its way through the Catholic Church. That doesn’t matter to the people here. They observe the anniversary of his assassination by honoring him and the many others who were silenced. Having the chapel here dedicated to him is a very big deal for the Parish Team and the people of the community.

Salvadoran observations:

Sunday evening four of us went to a small restaurant up the street from the Parish House here in Berlin to have supper. Between the four of us, we had 4 complete meals, 3 cans of Coke, and 4 bottles of beer. The total for the bill…$13.99.

Also, I was perusing the paper one day and saw an ad for a Domino’s Pizza deal. A “gigantic” pizza, 2.5 liter bottle of pop and a 25 pound cylinder of propane for $13.99. (Free propane when you buy pizza?!?)

Yet, dinner for 4 in San Salvador might cost the same as you’d pay in the U.S. And Bob tells me that some things like cars or clothes are the same price as in the U.S. Other things, like filling up at the gas station, are markedly more expensive than in the U.S.There tends to be the top and bottom of the economic scale but very little in the middle. And even though prices in villages like Berlin are much lower, it’s very much harder for the people here to pay them than it is for the rich in places like San Salvador to pay “U.S.” prices.