Cooking our way around the world

Last Thursday marked the 2nd Clase Previa for the Empowered Kitchen Workshop. Once again, I was over the moon when 25 women showed up ON TIME to learn how to make a tres leches cake. Flora, our chef/community member has really found her groove, she told me after the class that she wants to continue helping with community cooking projects- SCORE! What I enjoyed the most about this class is seeing how ideas are beginning to churn in some of the women’s heads. While we waited to enjoy our cake, Del Mira and Christina pulled me aside to complain about the lack of communal space in our community. For these kind of activities we either have to cram 25 women into a small house or wait until the weekend when the school is free. They have begun brainstorming, and discovered a community need I identified a while back. Slowly but surely things are coming along, and I am starting to believe it when they say your second year is your most productive year! Here are a few photos of our DELICIOUS cake and my right hand woman Flora getting her teach on! 

Flora pouring one of the three milks onto the cake 

Yes, that is an electric mixer!

Let the icing begin!

June June June

There is really only one way I can sum up my 11th 

month in country: it is never ending. June has passed by at a glacial pace, I look up at my calendar everyday and think still June, how is it still June. I’ve been busy work wise, I went to the beach, but somehow this month seems as if it is never going to end. Maybe it is because I am right on the heels of July, a month that will bring MATT DELIMA and HILLARY CLINTON (well her latest memoir) to El Salvador. Navigating the down time has proven to quite a challenge, and when my fingers are too cramped from making endless friendship bracelets, I escape to the pueblo to take advantage of the wifi at my secret spot, Panaderia Yani. Before I bore you with talk of projects and attendance, let me first demonstrate what “free time” in Casa de Canas-Serrano-Lampi looks like:

Playing dress up with my girl Estefany. 

Hanging out with these little frogs 

Helping Fatima perfect her super model moves. 

Night time picnics,Hamburguesas de piedras anyone?

Along with my babysitting duties, I have been busy planning my Empowered Kitchen workshop. The project is a series of gender empowerment workshops combined with international cooking classes that will last for six weeks in my community. The workshop will highlight the cultures of India, Italy, El Salvador, China, Mexico and Morocco. Yes, that’s right, the girl who burned french toast and was part of the team that made a pizza the street dogs wouldn’t eat, is going to coach the women in her community through cooking classes. Luckily, I will be filling the role of Suu Chef, and another PCV, who excels in the art of slicing and dicing, has kindly offered to help me out with all of the food prep. We haven’t worked out all the details, but i’m sure his services are going to cost me a few Pilsners.

For most of June I have been running all over the community, re-visiting all of the 300 + houses to chat with the women about participating. I have fallen into a routine here, have developed a circle of friends, and find that I spend most of my time in the center of the community. Visiting the houses at the top and bottom of the community served as a much needed reminder, as I realized how many wonderful people live in my community. My first round of house visits, back in November, were stressful and filled with broken Spanish (on my part) and shyness (on their part). This time around, each house visit was enjoyable and pain free. Conversation flowed, coffee was prepared and the women and girl’s seemed interested in the workshops. 

Views from the other side of the community, not too shabby! 

The truck can’t make it up the road, but this super gringa can! 

A week after house visits, general assembly’s and a presentation at the Iglesia de Dios, our community welcomed the World Connect team, who casually stopped in during their tour of El Salvador to check in on our progress.

https://www.worldconnect-us.org/discoverprojects/empowered-kitchen/  

I pulled together the best representatives of our little group and together we showed off what our little community has to offer. It was such a fun day for everyone, but I have to give props to my ladies- THEY KILLED IT! They were outgoing, open and shed their pena right away. They talked about their goals, their lives and families; how being apart of a group has made them realize that they, as women, matter. I was shocked, I was impressed and I had to hide my tears of joy. I have spent months getting to know these ladies, developing relationships and have had a few “heart to hearts” with them, and was so amazed at how much they had changed in such a short time. In the beginning questions about their dreams, their goals were met with blank stares, or simple answers. Now, they were talking about making their own money, teaching their daughters, and helping themselves! They also mentioned that I was going to get married and stay with them forever, somethings will never change. I wanted to hug each and everyone of them, this was the only “thank you” I need. There isn’t a lot of validation in our work, but in this moment I was filled with pride, I finally felt like I had done something right! 

 

Del Mira getting ready for her close up

Lights, cameras, bromas? 

After the visit, we got down to business and started cooking. Our first pre-workshop class was a lesson on Pizza. Since I can’t even cook campo pizza, I called up Flora, a community member who studied in at a culinary institute in San Miguel, to come and lead the group. I like to think that my lack luster cooking skills are helping to develop local leaders. Flora and I decided to make our pizza’s a little loco and strayed from the traditional cheese and pepperoni, instead choosing to make one Hawaiian and one Supreme. I assure you that the women though I was crazy when I told them the ingredients. While most had eaten pizza once or twice in their life, they had never heard of the pineapple ham combo. Needless to say it was a hit. We expected to have between 10-15 women show up, the average number of attendees at any meeting or activity, so when my house was packed with 30 participants we were over the moon! Turns out food from foreign lands is the key to their hearts! 

Chef Flora prepping the dough 

Look at that crowd. Two pizza’s were not enough! 

Some of the women pitching in, still not sold on the idea of pineapple pizza

Everyone wanted to get in on the pizza making action! 

The Single Girls Guide to Surviving in the Campo: Rainy Season

Conditions have changed here in PC El Salvador and we single ladies need to adapt. Gone are the days of dusty, dry heat, inverano has brought the rains which have turned the streets into pools of mud, brought even more creatures out of the wood work and kept you hostage in your home for hours at a time. Along with the tarantulas, I have had to learn how to peacefully coexist with the infestation of rats, which love to run across the tops of my walls. Precious. As I stated in earlier blogs, the rainy season is quite different when you are missing the comfort of your car, rain boots and a finished roof. During my hikes up the slippery dirt road to the center of the community, I started to brainstorm ways I could improve my muddy, mildew covered life, and here is what I came up with.

Dirt covered toes, dirt covered shoes, dirt covered EVERYTHING!

Make your water smart

Water, during this part of the year, is everywhere and carrying around your Nalgene’s, filled with more plain water has become a chore. Every morning I wake up and drink a full liter of room temperature water, to get my body moving. However, after that first Nalgene, I am ready for something with a little flavor. Avoiding the common sugary frescos, sodas and coffees found in the kitchens and tiendas in our sites, we PCVs are faced with limited options.  Let’s face it, water, the best thing you can give your body, the thing we couldn’t survive without, tends to get quite boring. After you have overdosed on Crystal Light, I never want to see another pomegranate raspberry packet again; you need to find another thirst quenching solution. It is time to infuse your water. Infusing your water is a cheap and easy life hack that will make you feel better and help you to get your daily supply of H2O. If you Google “fruit infused water” a lot if complicated, ingredient heavy recipes will pop up, and I say don’t waste your time. I have found that my favorite mixes have come from experimentation and the times when I have too much fruit to fit into my Rubbermaid jars. Here are my four favorites, really basic, infused favorites.

  • Pineapple-Orange: Throw in a handful of pineapple chunks, half an orange and mix. It is a sweet, citrusy blend that is SUPER refreshing!
  • Cucumber: Light and crisp, cucumber water is fantastic! Just put a few thinly sliced cucumbers in your Nalgene, pop it in the fridge (if you have one) and enjoy!
  • Grapefruit-Orange-Límon: Thinly slice your fruits and pop them in your bottle. I have found that this mix is best when you let it sit overnight, then you can really enjoy all the flavors!
  • Melon-Grape: The baby in our house loves grapes, so they are usually in abundance. Peel the skin, slice them in half and pop them in your water with cubed melon’s (the one’s that cost $1 in the fruit truck)

Happy Mixing!

French Press

While we are on the subject of beverages, let’s talk about the coffee. Unless you are one of the extremely lucky volunteers who lives in a coffee-producing region that doesn’t export all of it’s harvest to the US, you are drinking Nescafé. I had grand delusions, pre-Peace Corps, I was coming to Central America, and I was going to drink cups of fresh, rich coffee. I was wrong. I like my coffee dark, strong; I shouldn’t have to add sugar to taste the flavor. I was unable to accept that I would be feeding my caffeine addiction with these awful little packets for 2 years. Another volunteer, who, from Day 1 has been my role model on how to upgrade your life in the campo, finally convinced me to buy a French Press, and my life has never been the same. French Presses are affordable on a PC budget, compact and allow you to start everyday with a fresh, hot, full-bodied cup of Joe. On the off chance you have a medical visit to the capitol, you can hit the Santa Elena Starbucks and pick up a single cup French Press and a few bags of ground beans. The Coffee Cup also carries a wide variety. One of the benefits of the French Press is that you have the opportunity to try out the Salvadoran blends. On the East side of the country we have the proximity to Perquin, where one volunteer is working with a coffee co-op and I’ve heard you can buy beans.  You can thank me later! 

Develop a new hobby

Next up: World Cup themed pulseras, solo dos corras! 

With all your time trapped indoors, you must fight the urge to bust into your American snack stash, turn away the bottomless pan dulce and avoid the tortillas at all cost. I have found that developing a new hobby, that keeps your hands and mind occupied for hours at a time is the best way to avoid gaining the First Year 15.  Some people draw others dance, but my friends, I have discovered (thanks to Rachel Wolf) that my God given gift is making bracelets. So now, instead going crazy in my cement house, three hours will fly by. Trapped in someone else’s casa, no problem. I just hop in the hammock and work away. Back in May the bracelet guru RW came to visit my site and gave a taller de pulseras to the youth in my community. I wasn’t expecting bracelet fever to spread throughout San Nicolas, but sure enough, the kids wanted more classes, which meant I had to learn more than the basic “v” design. Thus began the addiction, and an organized activity for the youth in my community. I have videos, guides and semi-weekly calls to Rachel, which is how I learn to make more designs. In the States, no self-respecting “tough guy” would be caught dead in a bracelet making class on a Saturday, but in San Nicolás, it is quite the opposite. Attendance is consistent, so we meet, most Saturdays for four hours, to sit in the school, listen to American music and make bracelets. I had tried, with no avail, to start a youth group in the community, but as Peace Corps has shown me, often times it is better to let things form organically. Down the line I’ll try and make something a little more formal out of the little club, but for now it works.

Take things One Day At A Time

I keep my journal on top of my Bridget Jones DVD, for inspiration!

Sometimes, it is really hard to see the positive in your situation. A failed meeting, English class that went terrible or the stress of planning your first grant funded project. The cultural differences, host family beef or two weeks without water can put you in quite a dark state of mind, and living in a site isolated from all of your classic comfort items, makes coping a real bitch. Volunteers, for the most part, are a rather cynical bunch. We come here wide-eyed development virgins, hoping to “be the change” and then, somewhere down the line, we get a hard reality check, and our vision is suddenly clouded with the negatives. It is easy to brush off the small highs, and dwell in the vast pits of missed opportunity and laziness. That is why I love my one line a day journal. Everyday, I write one thing that made me happy, proud or laugh. Something I learned, something that went well, or a future goal. I keep it positive and during the lows all I have to do is open it up to any given day, and I am reminded of SOMETHING good. For example:

May 28, 2014: Watching little Fatima’s face as she opened her birthday present, whisper “Minnie Mouse” and bear hug her new stuffed animal.

June 9, 2014: One of my English students said “Thank You for the classes”. The first genuine “Thank You” I had gotten in a while!

June 17, 2014: During my presentation, when I asked the group of women at the Evangelical Culto who could give me an example of women’s rights, and one women responded with “equality”.

Flip through a few more dates and my mood suddenly changes. It is amazing how quickly we tend to forget the little moments that made us smile, but hold on to the ones that made us angry. All you need is a notebook and five minutes to reflect on your day. 

GET OUT

Just three little PCV’s enjoying a weekend away. 

That’s right, I said it, sometimes you just need to escape. Sure, we have integrated, adjusted and created routines. Everything has become, and I use this word lightly, “normal”.  You have created relationships; even have site friends who you can talk to about more than just the weather. While these amigos may be your lifeline in the community, they, and the rest of the people you live and work with, only know a certain side of you. They know the volunteer side, and as open as you may be about who you are and where you come from, there will always be an aspect of yourself that you have to hide. Whether it is your tattoos, your sailor’s mouth or your opinions on religion and sex education, I have found that Cati and Catherine are two totally different people. When I just need to break free for a few hours, I have two spots that provide me with ample silence, fans and Wi-Fi. I have made the meeting room in the Mayor’s Office my own personal sanctuary. I’ve gotten so comfortable that the people who work there treat me like I am one of the staff, complete with printing privileges. I also discovered a small panaderia in Chapeltique where I can enjoy an orange-pineapple mixto, sandwich for under $3. But when I need a full mental health weekend, complete with English and access to a bar, I have the luxury of living in a department with a beautiful beach that is just two bus rides away. It isn’t hard to convince PCV friends to meet up and spend our three monthly personal days bumming around Playa Cuco. For a weekend we get to pretend we are on vacation, leave the charla papers and agendas behind and relax, without judgment. 

Happy Father’s Day?

Grieving is different in every culture. 

Dealing with the loss of a parent, is by far one of the most difficult experiences you can go through. Dealing with the loss of a parent as a Peace Corps Volunteer, ya it isn’t a walk in the park. Along with navigating the roller coaster of emotions that you face (culture shock, homesickness, mid service crisis) living in another country for 27 months, you are also wading through stages of grief. Having to explain to my host family that I am not crying because of something they did, but because I miss my dad, was a weird conversation. I have been very open in my community, when people ask about my family I tell them that it is just me and my mom, that my dad died, because I made the mistake of hiding the truth from my host family and still have to play along when they ask me questions about “Papa Dave”. Now for those reading this, wondering how in the hell did I convince Peace Corps I was ready to serve, to leave my family behind, just 2 months after my dad had passed away, that they must have some policy or protocol against this. Well they do, and that is why I decided not to tell them. I needed to leave, to keep myself busy, and despite the occasional speed bump, I have made it, I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I should be doing, and hoping that I am making my dad proud.

Death in the Salvadoran culture is an interesting conundrum. When someone falls gravely ill, the community rushes to their side, with prayers, tamales and unconditional support for the spouse/family. When the person passes away, the community once again rises together, scurries to organize the viewing (they keep the body in the living room in plexi-top casket) food, music, chairs, etc. Every afternoon, they come to pray, to sing, and to lend a hand of support to the family. Then, on the last day, there is a processional to the cemetery where they casket is carried by hand or by truck and followed by the mourning. All very beautiful, a nice send off to the after life, but then, it ends. There is no longer discussion of the person; the comforting stops and the tears stop, those who are still suffering are forced to do so in silence. In October/November there is the “Día de Muertos” where Catholics travel to the cemetery with flowers (mostly made of paper and dipped in hot wax) to pay their respects and visit their gravestones of their family members. I had the opportunity to go the cemetery with my community guide Morena and her extended family, and while I was mentally preparing myself for a tearful 48 hours, you can imagine my surprise when I saw that the day was more of a celebration, and event if you will. People were walking between the tombstones selling bracelets and enchiladas, there was an organized soccer tournament and even a dance party at the after hours restaurant in the pueblo.

In America, the death of a loved one is no celebration. Our friends and families sit and listen to our sorrows for weeks, months even. Books on grieving take up hearty real estate in the aisles of bookstores and we are encouraged to seek professional help. Over the past 6 months I was seeing a therapist to deal with my personal grieving process, and my host family thought I was a nut job. Our culture teaches us to talk about our feelings, that it is ok to be sad, to take a personal day (or three) when you need to clear your mind. Grieving doesn’t just last for a week. Talking about my dad dying brought up many a cultural difference. When people would ask me about “the viewing,” I told them we went the cremation route and had a small family gathering. They were horrified. When they ask about his relationship with God, I try to explain his atheist views, and they are horrified. When Christmas, Birthdays, etc. come up and I am noticeably quiet, I am told to think of God’s plan, that this was what he had written. On one of my more brava days, I finally told people that I was mad at God, that his plan was bullshit; they tried to send me to talk to the Father. I have since learned to smile and nod, to say gracias a dios and later vent to a fellow volunteer.

The mentality here is more of a “suck it up, your problems aren’t that bad” as opposed to home, or my therapists office, where I was coached to “let the feelings out”. Sometimes you can hurt yourself more than anyone can hurt you just by keeping all of your feeling hidden.

I feel as though my personal views on death, my grieving process is something that my Salvadoran counterparts will never understand. Likewise, I will never fully comprehend why they seem to brush off death, and the mourning process. To me, it seems that a large part of this problem is our extremely different religious views, because while they are able to simply accept that death is a part of “God’s magnificent plan” there is a part of me that will always be able to contend that point with “Why?” For now, I have stopped looking for an explanation of the differences and have realized that in my 2 years here, this is one thing I have cant change and will never fully understand.  

So, seeing as it is Father’s Day, I have decided to wrap this blog up with a quick list of things I wish I could tell my Dad:   

  • I miss you when I am silently at a plastic table, in the middle of a loud pueblo, eating 3 pupusas for $1, staring at an empty chair.  You would have loved the street food here.
  • I am grateful for your dedication to technology when I am using the passport drive he loaded with bilingual movies, watching Monster Inc. or Toy Story in Spanish with my host sisters. 
  • I wish I could call you and talk for hours when I am scheming, plotting and navigating the ways I can travel around the country, or wistfully dreaming of the places I’ll go next.
  • I miss seeing 7 or 8 emails, in a row, filled with links, videos and articles about my next destination, or his newest, often times crazy, idea. 
  •  I miss talking about train passes, cultures and exchange rates. About the punctuality of German trains, or, his favorite, the Christmas card we sent him from Santa Land in Finland. You were so impressed that a couple of grungy, party hungry backpackers could clean up so nicely. 
  • Black Friday planning, shopping will never be the same. Who else would support their daughter trying to bribe other black Friday shoppers who showed up too late to get the golden ticket for a computer. 

And I wish I could tell you that you were right when you would say, “Catherine, you’re not ready to grow up. You are not meant to be working in an office, chained to a desk. Keep traveling, keep exploring, and keep learning who you are”.

 

Princess Fatima’s 2nd Birthday

 

In my community, aside from the famed quinceañera, are noted with a simple “Feliz cumpleaños,” sometimes a special lunch of chicken soup or a small pastel. The extravagance that comes with the celebration of a Sweet 16 or a 21st birthday is something I would have a hard time justifying to the members of my community. When you are unable to pay your $11 monthly water bill, the idea of celebrating your child’s 6th birthday is a bit obtuse. So when it came time to celebrate Fatima’s 2nd birthday, I wasn’t expecting much. My mom was horrified, with her American blinders still on, she couldn’t and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I mean she did carry Fatima’s birthday present, a Minnie Mouse stuffed animal, in her backpack for two weeks, and she wanted a party. So with a small financial contribution, and a lot of saldo, my host dad put together a Birthday Extravaganza in honor of Princess Fatima. 

About 25 people from my community came to the party (plus Mary, another PCV) so our house was filled with the delightful sounds of women screaming in the kitchen, balloons popping and a mix CD that played on repeat the same 2 children’s songs the whole night. Classic. Chicken sandwiches with coleslaw were made in heaps, everyone was offered 3, while my host brother passes around cups of soda and candies.  

Fatima kinked off the “terrible two’s” in true form, her temper tantrum lasted all through the piñata, which terrified her, up until the birthday cakes. She finally clamed down when we lit the candles, which she blew out about six times before we had to take her away, so Morena could finish singing “Happy Birthday” for 5 minutes. It wasn’t until she opened her gift from Mama Ginger that a smile appeared on her little face. Fatima is obsessed with Minnie Mouse. Every night after the 7pm news, a cartoon comes on telling parents to put their kids to bed, because the novellas are about to start. This cartoon is of Mickey Mouse trying to get a hold of Minnie in order to say Buenos noches. Fatima could be next door, in the grandma’s house and still here the little intro songs. She runs, full speed, launches herself on the couch and stares at Minnie. Then she puts on her Minnie pajamas and shows them to everyone in the house. So when she opened the box to find her very own Minnie Mouse stuffed animal, she was in complete shock. She picked it up, stared at it and whispered Minnie Mouse. The whole room was overwhelmed by the cuteness of the moment, my mom may have shed a tear. 

Then came the dinamicas. Oh did I say dinamicas, I meant party games. If we were in the states, this would have been the point when the adults left to have a few glasses of wine and let the kids work off their sugar highs. But nope, party games are a family affair here in San Nicolas, so Mary, my mom and I played balloon races, forced shy kids to dance and fought off a giant scorpion with the whole group. There was even a sing along. The festivities lasted until 8:30pm, much later than the usual 6:00pm curfew, when the children started to pass out and there was nothing left to sing. Now the running joke is, what are we going to do when Fatima turns 3?

Ginger Does The Campo: Round 2

Round 2 started and ended in the Peace Corps shuttle, which resulted in both laughs and tears. My poor mom is now well versed in the extreme, and at times manic, driving styles that constitute your average cross country journey. We arrive in my site and were immediately greeted by something that has become quite a staple in my home during this rainy season: a tarantula. I was impressed, my mom snatched the shoe out of my trembling hands and smashed that sucker, she wasn’t playing around. Meeting my host family was different this time around. The parents were much more nervous and the language barrier was a hard line that divided them. The kids were the opposite. My host brothers, quite uncharacteristically, hugged my mom and right away started talking at her. Estefani, my 8-year-old host sister took to my mom immediately, instant BFF’s. Little Fatima took a while to warm up; she turned on the tears and pulled out all the pena. This just made my mom more determined to win her love. 

We spent our first night in my site eating pupusas con loroco and having an interesting mix of English to Spanish, Spanish to English conversations. I had once again put on my tour guide/translator hat. After another sleepless night, on her part, we spent the day making bracelets, doing house visits and then had my English Class. My students had their oral exams; my mom had one in Spanish, which helped everyone in the class feel more comfortable with the new gringa in town.

My mom was treated to more cooking classes while in my site, she rather unwilling, ate her way through El Salvador. Along with pupusas, tamales and tortillas, my mom will be able to serve pasteles and enchiladas at her next dinner party. Watching my mom cook outside, over our wood burning “stove” while swatting away beetles was something I never thought I would see. My host mom too was impressed by her attempts at cooking and kept telling me in Spanish that she will have no problem finding a man, because she can cook. My mom was given the best of Salvadoran cuisine during her time in my house, my host family really stepped up their game, they even sent her home with  few pounds of homemade cheese.

What my mom noticed the most was the different levels of poverty (compared to my first community) and as a parent it upset her to see girls as young as 8 taken out of school to care for their younger siblings. Her fresh perspective on the cultural differences reopened my eyes to things that had I had become so accustom to during my time here. She was the one who inspired me to write a grant, which will help me start a reading club (think Box Tops) in my school. She instantly recognized the machismo mentality, but her concerns were less about the division of labor in the home, instead she was confused as to why the women didn’t leave the house, at all. As a stay at home mom, she too “worked from the home” but that didn’t mean she never left her home. It is a difficult concept to explain, because the routines that the women in my community have are based on more than just laziness, as it appeaed to my mom, and more so on cultural and economic stigmas. After many months complaing to her over the phone, telling her how hard it was to get people to show up to meetings or participate in activities, she finally got it. 

As the “Special Visitor,” the “Americana” my mom was also treated to a special meeting with the community leaders, organized by my host dad, in her honor. This was somewhat of a big deal, since the ADESCO had not met for month’s prior, and I had given up hope on them. I played translator as every member of the group went around and sung my praises, explained why they love me, how I am a gift from God. It was a strange ego boost, but also a total shock. Turns out the men in the group just needed time to warm up to a strong-minded gringa, because now they all are trying to work with me. Maybe it was my post-beach glow, my improved Spanish, or the fact that my grant with World Connect got approved, but their “Cati” suddenly dazzled them. Let’s hope this momentum keeps up! My mom once again showed off her newly acquired Spanish, as she presented her self to the group: 

Hola mi nombre es Ginger

Soy de Tampa, Florida

Soy la mama de Catherine

Mi trabajo es un teacher

Trabajo en la escuela

Gracias por trabajar con mi Catherine

Gracias por apoyar mi Catherine

Mi tiempo en El Salvador fue muy lindo

Gracias!

My mom was such a hit that my host family took us to the hotel 40 minutes away for a late night dinner and drinks (Fanta and Pepsi Lite). The kids, high on caffeine and excitement, were talking a mile a minute, explaining everything on the menu, convinced we had never been to a hotel before. Everyone was in such high spirits, and I think my mom was able to understand how these people have become more than just my landlords, but in some way family.

Tourist Tales: Suchitoto

Much of my time in country is spent in site, in the city or at a Peace Corps training in Perquin. With PC El Salvador’s unique transportation restrictions (no intra-departmental busses) it can be a challenge to organize cross-country trips, and it becomes common to stick to the Eastern Departments (San Miguel, Morazan and La Union), only venturing as far as the public bus will take you. Since my mom was coming to visit, I took the opportunity to explore more of the country, to finally be a tourist in El Salvador. Our first stop was the small, touristic town of Suchitoto.

The ride into the town is filled with beautiful mountain views and colorful, culturally relevant art covers many of the buildings that line the road. The pueblo located 20 minutes prior to Suchitoto is covered in murals, which represent the El Salvador we seldom have the opportunity to see. This trip gave me the opportunity to see a very different side of El Salvador, a place where the fears of Mara’s and instability were replaced with artisans and classic charm. This is the picture I had painted in my head before coming to Peace Corps, so it was nice to see that my original expectations of El Salvador weren’t completely off base. Suchitoto is the “cultural gem” of El Salvador. The biggest danger to the unsuspecting tourist in Suchitoto is the shopping. Jewelry makers line the street, their designs incorporating stones, metal and jewels, a total upgrade from the hemp bracelets I can find in my pueblos. Hand made leather goods, bracelets and shoes, all beautiful and all totally impractical for the campo, hang from side stores and carts, while friendly artisans telling you the symbolism of the copper, silver and gold bands. It’s a shopper’s paradise. The men making the jewelry told me they learned their craft “in the streets” and wanted to expand their businesses, because the drop in tourism has made it difficult to survive. In that moment, when they began to probe me suggestions, it was hard not to resent my site placement. How I would love to work with these longhaired hippies, developing a business plan while learning to make rings and anklets in a town with cobblestone streets.

Suchitoto is known for more than shopping, and I would not be doing the town justice if I did not mention three of it’s more recognized touristic attractions: the Suchutlán Lake, it’s Church and the waterfalls. Since we were on a vacation that would fall under the category of “extreme extreme relaxation” we did not venture to the cascadas, however, we did walk to the lake where we enjoyed the views and watched a bunch of gringos attempt to ride the flattest zip line I had ever seen. The large tourist center, which sold more trinkets and an array of overpriced foods, seemed out of place in the otherwise rural setting. Sprinkled with 10 visitors, it felt more like an abandoned Disney World gift shop, than something that should be located in a small colonial town. We enjoyed the views, skipped out on the ferryboats and headed back into town.

We stayed in a beautiful little boutique hotel less than two minutes from the park, the church and the shopping, and let me tell you, I am already drying to go back. If you are looking for a little bit of luxury, Los Almendros de San Lorenzo is where it’s at! The pool, the bar, the restaurant, did I mention the pool? It was a huge step out of reality, and after bucket baths and rats, I think my mom enjoyed it just as much as I did.

Ginger Does the Campo: Round 1

My mom came to El Salvador with few expectations, not knowing what to expect and using my blog (and Facebook posts about tarantulas) as her guide to life in El Salvador. Her final impression- words and photos can only do so much justice to the life of a PCV and the reality of the communities we work in. I tried to ease her into the impending culture shock; we spent her first night in a hotel, enjoyed take-out with my two PCV soul sisters Aisha and Emily and lounged in the air conditioning. Her first night impression: This isn’t so bad.

We hit the road the next morning, leaving behind the hot water and Wi-Fi for bucket baths and Spanish. Our first stop was 7 de Marzo, the community where I lived during our 10 week training, to see my first host family and the puppy I had left behind. For those of you who have never traveled to Nuevo Cuscatlán let me set the scene. The drive up is lined with gated communities, beautiful houses in the hills guarded by machine guns and barbed wire. Shopping centers, nice cars, and the newly designed, very modern Nuevo Cuscatlán logo line the streets. It is a very deceptive image. My mom later told me, the whole way she was thinking “this isn’t so bad, what was Catherine complaining about”. Then you hit the pueblo, and the view changes dramatically. You are hit with a wave of stray dogs, bollos, street food and barred windows. Graffiti, loud music and trash; tin roofs, adobe houses and dirt roads. Too me, these sites were all a welcome home, I recognized the people, spotted my favorite tienda, but to my mom, the separation between the rich and the rest was immediately apparent. My mom was sitting silently in shock as we pulled up to my training site. Too me it was all the same, the only noticeable difference was that my puppy was now the size of a small horse. With no Spanish language skills, she put on the best Iamnotscaredoutofmymind smile and hugged all the family members and neighbors who were gawking at us, stepped into the compound and just like that her adventure had begun.  

If you can remember the stories and pictures from my first months here, you will recall that I was not living in luxury. I was a scared, non-Spanish speaking gringa thrown into a house with a bunch of curious, non-English speaking Salvadorans. My mom was in the same boat. She had me, but, after 7 months, my host mom was not giving me much opportunity to speak English. I wasn’t doing her much good. She sat, smiled and responded to every jumble of Spanish with a smile and “Si”, just as I had done so many months prior. We sat outside and watched the boys play guitar, ate, snacked and ate again (food is love in El Salvador) while Christina and I caught up on all the chambre and she filled me in on all the new merchandise in the tienda. It was if nothing had changed, besides the fact that we could actually communicate. If anyone is looking for a boost in your secondary language ego, I recommend a trip home to your training community, where everyone will “ohhh” and “ahhh” over the fact that you are no longer speaking at a second grade level. It was a strange feeling to be in the house and not be the one completely lost in the translation. My mom had the opportunity to understand what my first weeks in country were like. Christina, being the chatterbox that she is, assumed that the more activities and conversation there was, the faster my mom would learn. I must applaud her efforts, and now understand why I learned so much Spanish in her house. She wants to know where you where, who you saw, what you did, ALL THE TIME. She wants the scoop and she will patiently sit through broken Spanish to get the story. Who knew all those hours spent at her table with pan dulce and coffee was actually Spanish Class Round 2.

Along with the culture shock, 7 de Marzo provided my mom with her introduction to platos tipicos from El Salvador. After her first sleepless night she woke up bright and early to prepare and enjoy pupusas. Pupusas, the pride and joy of Salvadoran cuisine, are, in simple terms, a tortilla filed with cheese, beans, chicken, garlic, etc. Best eaten with cortido and salsa negro, they can be enjoyed morning or night, with a cold beer or a cup of coffee. There is even a song dedicated to the pupusas and how much we all love them. My mom gave them 1.5 out of 5 stars. We were off to a rocky start. That afternoon, while I suffered through a parasite, she was left to fend for herself, and tasted Christina’s chicken soup (3 stars) tortillas (negative 5 stars) and tamales (4 stars). Needless to say, she was looking forward to a change in the menu, and hoping to never see a tortilla again.

My mom was a real trooper, she adopted the attitude that got me through training, which is forcing yourself to laugh at the bad, because you cant change it. Cockroaches covering the latrine, pee outside. Don’t understand anything that is going on, smile and nod. She did a great job pretending to like all the food she was given, and ignore the giant beetles and bird poop.

After her first nights in the campo, the Final Verdict was : I give you all the credit in the world.  

Welcome to the East Side YD2014!! 
Due to safety and security conflicts in the past, Peace Corps El Salvador is a tiny little program that has finally started to grow. When my cohort arrived there were less than 20 volunteers in country. So when I say it is nice to have some fresh faces living on our side of the country I mean it. The Peace Corps friend is a special breed. Someone who you can plan an HIV/AIDS charla with, while complaining about the giant beetles and enjoying the local brews or spend a week trapped in a hotel due to mysterious stomach illnesses or a broken foot. They understand the horrors of a latrine, the pleasure in a silent bus ride and how to crack into any secured wifi network. There is a special kinship between 2 individuals who have suffered dengue or a scorpion sting.
I talk a lot on this blog about work, the people in my community and the things that are “different” but after our Cinco de Mayo fiesta, I feel it is important to give a shout out to my bichos here in El Salv. With our limited transportation, these large group gatherings are rare, but always a welcomed vacation from the daily routines. Even if I show up to site the next day and crawl straight into my bed for 24 hours, it’s always worth it. Thanks friends, for always answering my calls, giving me saldo and being up for a metro centro pizza hut trip! 

Welcome to the East Side YD2014!! 

Due to safety and security conflicts in the past, Peace Corps El Salvador is a tiny little program that has finally started to grow. When my cohort arrived there were less than 20 volunteers in country. So when I say it is nice to have some fresh faces living on our side of the country I mean it. The Peace Corps friend is a special breed. Someone who you can plan an HIV/AIDS charla with, while complaining about the giant beetles and enjoying the local brews or spend a week trapped in a hotel due to mysterious stomach illnesses or a broken foot. They understand the horrors of a latrine, the pleasure in a silent bus ride and how to crack into any secured wifi network. There is a special kinship between 2 individuals who have suffered dengue or a scorpion sting.

I talk a lot on this blog about work, the people in my community and the things that are “different” but after our Cinco de Mayo fiesta, I feel it is important to give a shout out to my bichos here in El Salv. With our limited transportation, these large group gatherings are rare, but always a welcomed vacation from the daily routines. Even if I show up to site the next day and crawl straight into my bed for 24 hours, it’s always worth it. Thanks friends, for always answering my calls, giving me saldo and being up for a metro centro pizza hut trip! 

Happy Mother’s Day! 

In Salvadoran culture Mother’s Day, which takes place on the 10th of May, is one day a year when the extremely hard working mother’s, grandmothers and even great grandmothers are celebrated and appreciated. It is rare in this machismo culture to hear a “por favor” or a “gracias” directed at the woman of the house. She is expected to have the food prepared, the house kept, the cheese made, the kids under control and stay up late into the night, waiting for her husband to return from who knows where, because he will certainty want a snack or another beer. Ok, that is a somewhat jaded picture of the lives of all Salvadoran women, that is based on what I have seen in my home for the past 7 months. Just like American women, Salvadoran women’s lives all cant be clumped together into one stereotypical group. But as a whole, I can say that, the women in San Nicolas WORK, and deserve some serious recognition on the dia de la madre. Since the work of “ama la casa” doesn’t produce material results (money) the work they do is devalued, all praise goes to the men whose work is rewarded with results (money).

So in order to celebrate the hard working women in my community, I switched up my job assignment, took a page out of the Youth Development handbook and did an arts and craft projects with the kids in the Centro Escolar. Thanks to the ladies of the GFWC Women’s Club of New Tampa for graciously funding this little endeavor, you would be surprised how far $100 goes in a Salvadoran craft store. The kids made hearts and used puffy paint and glitter glue to write sweet notes to their mama’s. This activity earned me some serious brownie points with the ladies in my community, and hopefully helped to show the kids how important their mom’s are!