Born to wear the Corona

*Corona = Crown

After 8 hours of smiles, presentations, stuffing our faces with El Salvador finest corn based treats and a mild case of heat stroke; I was officially crowned of the Festival de Maiz! The day was long, the stakes were high, there were 30 other candidatas but overall it was a fantastic experience, a way to further integrate into Salvadoran culture and connect more with my community. Overall $8,000 was raised, and the construction of the youth center will begin in the next few months. While the “glamour” of being queen is what drove my competitive spirit, the reason we were all there was much more important than a bedazzled sash and a fantastic photo op (but those things didn’t hurt).  To everyone that helped me raise all the funds through your generous donations, THANK YOU SO MUCH! This youth center will be built with the support of both Salvadoran and Americans, and help to lessen the influence of drugs and gang activity in the pueblo of Sesori. I fully support that extra curricular actives help to keep kids on the right track, and in a country where the influence of the maras is everywhere; I couldn’t be more of a champion for this cause.

  • Preparation for the big day

My equipo de belleza or my beauty team worked tirelessely for a week prepapring our looks for the festival. Now, the past candidatas from my community have been young children, whose tiny dresses and pantsuits require a days worth of work. This year the 6-foot gringa and her equally giant escort presented quite a challenge for the ladies of San Nicolas. They worked for a full week putting together accessories, decorating my skirt and Mario’s outfit. They hand glued/sewed hundreds of pieces of corn onto everything, joking and singing as they worked. Two nights before the pageant I worked with them for 5 hours putting the final touches on every thing while they planned out my hair and make-up. Without these girls none of this would have been possible, and Mario and I would have looked like total amateurs 

Nexy adding the final touches to Mario’s pants 

Look at that detail, I was so lucky to have my little design team! 

  • La Festival

Our day started with a 5:30am wake up call, which no one was happy about. Sandra showed up at my house ready to make me over and to do my host sisters, the 2013 Queen, hair and make-up. Since my campo look is a high bun and no make-up everyone was so excited to see what I looked like when I put on make-up and straightened my hair. The day did have it’s lows, I was upset to realize how much a brunette I have become. After my host mom and Sandra approved our looks we piled into the car to head to the pueblo, unaware that our carriages (cattle carts) were waiting. Now, as a tall white girl in El Salvador I have grown accustom to the constant stares and whispers, but I was naïve to how much more attention the tall white girl in a traditional dress made of corn would attract. The fact that we had a good foot on all of the other pairs didn’t help either.

The Serrano-Canas-Lampi-Lima-Castro clan

Selfie with my beautiful host sister/Queen of 2013

Two stylish hombres 

The parade kicked off with the high school band leading all of the candidatas and their escorts down the main street of the pueblo. We all had to ride in little carts pulled by cows on a poorly paved street as we threw candies to the on lookers. The ride, which was terrifying since every bump we hit made the cart feel like it was going to fall apart, drug on for a painful 30 minutes because the whole procession would halt every time someone took the microphone. Mario and I were able to find the humor in the situation, and feign smiles as we tossed dulces to the crowd.

Our chariot

Queen Estefany on her special carriage

Once we finally made it to center of the pueblo it was time for our first official presentation as candidata and escort to our adoring fans. 

The rest of the day was spent socializing, eating, avoiding the sun and enjoying the local high school band. In order to build suspense each of the candidatas were given an envelope which we used to pass along the money we raised. My host family told me the trick was to give $5 the first round, $10 the second round and then during the last collection put in the rest of the money. The point of this is to keep the competition fair, since no one knows how much money the competition raised. The downside of this system is that it adds an extra 3 hours onto an already long day, because the judges have to count and recount all the money they are handed. 

The high school band playing all the hits-including Rolling in the Deep 

Mario and the lovely ladies of San Nicolas 

Nexy showing off her craftsmanship. All those little corns were individually colored and attached

Posing with fellow candidatas 

And then it was time, the moment we had been waiting all day for, they were FINALLY going to announce who had secured enough votes to take home the crown. All afternoon we had been hearing rumors that someone else had raised $1,300, which sent us into a panic. Things weren’t looking good for the San Nicoals team, and when my host dad came over and gave me an awkward speech about being ok with losing and saying congratulations to the winner, we figured it was clear that this American was coming in second. The head judge proceeded to call up the top 3, the girls who had raised the most money, and Mario and I went up to the stage. I was ready to come in second, there was no way I was going to win, but then, to all of our surprise, the announced the Reina was ME!! I had to look back at Mario to confirm, was I hearing things, was I translating what this women just said correctly, had all the chambre been a trick to scare me? The crowd errupted into cheers, the Father of the Catholic Church escorted me to my throne (a plastic chair) and the crown was placed on my head. I was in shock. 

All hail the Queen 

Thinking to myself “it this real, am I really a Salvadoran Queen?”

I’ll take it from here Father 

The first family of Sesori 

The King and Queen of the Corn, and the best dressed PCV’s in all the land

Posing with the winner of the Best Dress competition

Posing for pictures with the fans 

After the festival ended we piled into my community guides car and headed back to San Nicolas where a grand celebration was waiting for us. Instead of napping and watching movies with some wine, we were treated to a night full of karaoke with all of my favorite community members and my host family. That night I realized this day was not just special for me, but for all of the people that have become my friends and family in site. From start to finish they had a blast supporting me and celebrating with their new American friends! 

Emily and the San Nicolas crew belting out the hits 

The last photo of the night, everyone tired out from a long day and night! 

Preparing for Festival de Maiz domination

Welcome to Agosto, here in San Nicolás I have been I have been busy cooking with the women, planning for year 2 and plotting my upcoming reign as Queen of the Corn (which I will hopefully win this Sunday). Instead of translating information on the life of the “Rural Italian Woman” I have decided to write a little update:

Being sick in the campo really sucks.

With the return of the rain also comes the spread of gripe, an annoying flu like head cold that is a right of passage for anyone trying to integrate into life in rural El Salvador. I had avoided the gripe, despite the fact that every member of my 6-person family has had it at least 4 times during my stay here. On a scale of 0 to dengue, gripe comes in at an annoying 3.8, but my recent round of discomfort has reminded me how much it sucks to be sick when you are away from home. Having to take the bus an hour and a half to San Miguel, to take three different cabs to three different pharmacy’s to find the cold medicine recommended by the doctor, annoying. Having to wait at the seedy bus terminal, being harasses with a pounding headache and the chills, annoying. Having the power go out midday while you are trying to nap/binge watch The West Wing (that means the fan doesn’t work), annoying. That’s the thing you realize when you are feeling under the weather here, everything is just that much harder, and the ladies selling food, drinks, candies, etc. on the bus are that much more annoying.

Cooking our way to Empowerment

I am a big picture person, an idea person, who in the midst of planning and organizing often forgets where her strengths lie. So now that it has come time to execute my grand cooking workshop plan, I realize how lost I would be without my kitchen aid Mario. We kicked off the first round of classes last Saturday and are off to a great start. While I can talk your head off about women’s rights or the social and cultural factors hindering development, I cannot cook. That’s where Mario comes in. He teaches the women how to properly chop veggies, boil chicken and how to measure out spices, while I help the teams out with their duties and the women joke that this workshop is good for me too, because my new skills in the kitchen will help me find a husband. While the women were chowing down on their burritos, we talked about the problems facing women in Mexico and how they are similar/different than those facing the women in El Salvador. When no one wanted to speak I brought up the machismo culture that exists in both countries, and my experience as an outsider dealing with it. It was interesting to hear women, both young and old, say that there has been a change in attitudes here in El Salvador and the machismo attitude was much worse before. Since discussions on the rights of men and women are far and few between in my community, I think it will take a few classes for the women to feel comfortable sharing stories or opinions. Even if vocal participation is limited to a handful, all that matters is that there are 15+ participants, taking time out of their week to be there.

Preparing to be Queen

Now, by far, one of my most memorable experiences in El Salvador will be being a candidata in the Festival de Maiz this Sunday. Whether I win or not, feeling like my life is a scene out of Drop Dead Gorgeous has been pretty enjoyable. My custom decorated corn dress is almost ready, my handmade, hand painted San Nicolas sash came today, and my beauty team (aka the girls who normally paint my nails) have my pageant day look all planned out. Everyone seems to be a little surprised at how excited I am, I guess they didn’t realize how much their gringa loves an excuse to dress up for a theme. I’ll be sure to post a detailed, day of the Festival photo series!

Euro Matt in El Salvador

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My main travel partner in crime, Matt Delima aka Mateo, touched down in El Salvador 2 short weeks ago and now that he is back on American soil and I am back in the campo I finally have time to recap our Salvadoran adventure. My goal for his time here was to show him all the different aspects of my life in El Salvador- from the #PoshCorps beach trips to nights spent playing Ocho loco and Jenga with my host sister, he was able to experience it all.  (He even went the extra mile, coming down with a case of Amoebas, making him an honorary PCV) Matt’s trip here was very different than my mom’s, who briefly suffered through the campo in between resorts. He arrived, 2 hours late, during a downpour and we rushed out of San Salvador the next morning at 5am so I could make it to a meeting on the other side of the country.

So now I present to you the adventures of Euro Matt, Addy Caddy and the Kia!

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The little Kia that could. This baby survived the campo, the city and the beach and we only blew a tire once.

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Driving and eating a pupusa, such skill! 

Chapter 1: Matt and the all carb campo diet. 

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Matt meets the PC gang. 

After a trip to the mountains, hanging with my PC friends and two days of tanning and sampling El Salvador’s selection of beer at Playa Cuco, we headed back to my community, only stopping to pick up Cheesy Poppers and pizza for the family. After getting Matt acclimated with his mosquito tent and his first meeting with Princess Fatima, we ran up to the school, where I threw together an English Class. Matt, being the good sport that he is, put together a presentation about his life in Spanish and English, helped my students with some of their work and was basically my English speaking guinea pig- “ok students your homework is to think of 5 questions for Mateo, Mateo you need to teach them some Portuguese”. It’s always good to have friends who are willing to go with the flow. 

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Hola, mi nombre es Mateo, tengo 25 años…….

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Don Mateo working his English charm on my host sister Estefany, the least interested student in the class

After class I took Matt on a round of house visits, to my favorite chambre queens in the community- mistake number 1. While these ladies have become my favorite people in the community, simply because they have zero shame and always have the best stories, it quickly became clear from the whispers and the looks they were shooting my way that they did not believe me when I said “My friend, just a friend, from America is here”. The news spread faster than wildfire that the ginga had a gringo in town. Such a scandal. When we got back to my house, my host mom had prepared chicken pupusas and everyone had on clean clothes, quite impressive. We passed the night playing cards and playing with Fatima, then after a few secret cups of wine Matt crawled into his little tent and passed out. The rest of his time in my site was packed, he did everything that I did in the first 2 months in 7 days- 5:30 am wake up call to milk cows, check. House visits, where you sit for hours and eat plates on plates of unwanted food, check. Attend a General Assembly and awkwardly introduce yourself to the community, check. Trip to San Miguel to visit the extended host family, check. 

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Campo Mateo learning the ropes from my host brother Kevin 

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My host dad totally likes Mateo more than me. Bros before Bichas i guess?

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The fam and I enjoying some luxury in San Miguel, Thanks Tia Cecy! 

Two of my favorite moments from Matt’s week in my site were our family trip to the water park and his debut as a soccer star. Taking advantage of the Kia, we piled in my host family and drove to Flor del Rio to escape the brutal heat. My expectations were blown away, I had previously avoided going to the water park, thinking it was going to be, well gross, but it was clean, it had 14 pools and hammocks everywhere. We spent the whole day pool hopping with Princess Estefany, convincing my host brothers that they weren’t too cool to play water volleyball and helping little Fatima learn to swim. My host mom even joined in on the fun! Seeing how happy the kids were made the sunburn totally worth it! 

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The crew, ready to swim! Matt fits right in! 

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With my babies

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My host mom, Esperanza, styling at the pool 

Matt also showed off his soccer skills to the local youth, when he decided, well more like he was forced, to play in a game in San Miguel. We traveled with the team to the city, where they were playing an away match in the middle of a field with zero shade. Matt prepared for his debut by enjoying a Big Mac and a few adult beverages- the best mix before running in the 95 degree heat. After jamming his feet into my host brothers 2-sizes-to-small cleats he charged the field, got in a few solid passes and then after 20 minutes of hell subbed out. But that is all it took for all the girls in my community to start swooning. Matt, there is always a jersey here for ya! 

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The look of triumph, and heat stroke?

Matt was such a trooper, we canceled half of our original plans so we could spend more time in my site. Personally, it is great to have someone from my “real” life who can understand the goings on here in El Salvador. Who understands that my room is a sauna, knows what the purple building in Chapeltique is and who can see why I think the people in my community are so special! 

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Matt’s last moments in site, schooling the bichos in soccer. 

What does 1 year in the Peace Corps mean?

On July 24, 2014 the COED 13 cohort celebrated our first big milestone, our one-year anniversary in El Salvador. You are going to have to excuse the delay in a blog; I was busy spending the weekend celebrating in Playa Tunco. But now that I have had a few days to reflect on whom I was when I started this journey and where I am one year later I feel I can put into words what the last year has meant to me. Looking back at my journal entries from my first few months here, I realized that I often found myself wondering what “one year in Peace Corps would look like”. Would I be able to speak Spanish? Would I be integrated? What projects would I have going on? My predictions, for the most part, were completely off base, but nonetheless enjoyable to read. No, past Catherine, in one year you have not brought giant projects to a community nor are you blonde again- but you do have a nice tan! Gauging what I have done in a year is difficult, and giving my self some credit for the things I have done is much harder than focusing on what I haven’t done. So what does this milestone mean to me?

It means less dependence on home, on my old routine, my old life. Now I can’t deny that every now and then I need my American Fix (aka Pizza Hut and Wine) I have become less dependent on the things that were once so crucial to my life. When my friend was visiting he mentioned how “humble” I had become, which I thought was interesting. I now find it hard to be concerned about what is going on in the States when I have to wonder if there will be water in my community, or if this sudden dry spell means that all the milpas will be dried up. That, my friends is integration. 

It means that the people I live with are no longer strangers or tenants they have become family. I realized this a few weeks ago, when I caught myself going on and on about my host sisters, passing around my phone to a semi-interested crowd. When I am out of site for more than two nights, I wonder what they are doing or if they saw the last episode of Trato Hecho. Even though there are things that are so inherently different about our lives and our cultures, we have developed a routine and I applaud their efforts to make me feel as comfortable as possible (and for hosting my non-Spanish speaking house guests).

It means the 13 strangers that I was sitting through training with last July have become my little family. When you are going through an experience so unique, it is extremely comforting to be able to call up someone who understands how frustrating working with an ADESCO is, can laugh with you over the scorpion in your bed and understands that sometimes the only way to fix your problem is to meet up for a Pilsener. These people just get it! 

It means I can speak enough Spanish to make jokes, understand stories, eavesdrop, yell at the members of my women’s group when they don’t show up and tell the bolo who always harasses me to go to hell (in the nicest way possible) with out batting an eyelash. 

It means I have found every WIFI outlet in the pueblos, cities and even figured out which kids in my community have internet packets on their phone, when I desperately need a Facebook fix. 

One year in Peace Corps means a million little and big things, but mostly my time here has been a whirlwind of highs and lows, of success and failures and discovering who I am. 

Cheers to the second, and final leg of this journey! 

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”.