Looking Back

The images above are from my last day at the school.

Now that I’ve been home for a few days, having been in El Salvador almost seems like a dream; a very pleasant dream. It is time to wrap up these posts about my eight weeks in El Salvador. To do so, let’s look at how I did on my three goals:

Maintaining Health and Safety: This was primary because without this the others could not happen. Other than the notable exception of my insistence on using my camera around the markets, I followed all of Joaquin’s other recommendations and had no issues with people bothering me or trying to take my belongings.

I was sick twice, first with a cold and then with a one day bout of GI distress, but expected these to likely occur and went to El Salvador with medications to deal with both. I actually returned leaner and stronger than when I left. Walking several miles a day with a day-pack will have that effect, I guess.

Teaching English in the Local Public School: This is more difficult to judge. My future graduate work will likely provide me with a better framework for evaluating this. Many students were exposed to and demonstrated some learning of new materials. Eight weeks is not a lot of time. All I did was to teach them the bit that I could in that period. Others will come and teach more. It may seem disjointed to have these students learn English from a bunch of volunteers who may or may not have experience in teaching, but there is no formal program teaching English in grades 1 -6. Without Teaching You, there would be nothing for them until Grade 7.

I was successful in engaging the students in learning and was told this repeatedly while I was in El Salvador. My Spanish tutor told me I had to make learning fun. These girls would not sit for lectures on grammar. We played games that I found or developed to teach the concepts I was asked address. The students learned the material in order to win the games. And we had a lot of fun.

Experiencing the Language, Community and Culture: I cannot claim to be fluent in Spanish at this point. I still struggle knowing exactly what is going on. But my skills are much better now than when I arrived. When I shared some food with the police officer on the hike up Volcan de Santa Ana, he was curious and asked me a lot of questions about myself and my thoughts on our two countries. I could manage that in Spanish with no problems. My Spanish is best when I don’t feel pressured or tired.

I tried just about every opportunity that was offered to me to experience the culture in El Salvador. Some things were things that I am not really drawn to in my life here at home, but were worth trying and seeing there. I am glad that I did, but as I said in an earlier post, you can go someplace else but are still the same person you are at home. Ultimately, I embraced more the things that were consistent with my life back here in the US.

Being a part of the community there was one of my favorite parts of my trip. In a small community in which people walk places, you are just always seeing people you know. Over the eight weeks, I developed more friendships and acquaintances than I ever expected. The open and generous nature of the Salvadoran people definitely contributed to this. Helping to serve at the program to feed those who are hungry was one of my favorite parts.

As you can imagine, I feel very positive about my time in El Salvador. I’m glad I went, and was able to experience these things and to help people there. This will be my last post here. If you like the images, I encourage you to check out my other blog, Milford Street. (https://milfordstreet.wordpress.com/) It will go back to being a photo blog starting tomorrow. Often, I have some text but am not as verbose as in this series.

My thanks to Joaquin, Marina, the faculty and staff of Centro Escolar Margarita Duran and all the others who made this trip such a positive experience. My thanks also to my wife and family for their support.

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Outside the School

These images show the streets around the school where I was teaching. There was always an assortment of shops and sellers to check out. Some were there daily and others, like the people selling pots and other kitchen items, every few days. The people selling on the streets all took the same spots each day. I knew where to go if I needed a fan, or a child’s puzzle. Once, I bought a puzzle, for Marina’s nietos (grandchildren). It looked simple, but stymied Marina and I. I also bought a brand of batteries I’ve never heard of and Crest toothpaste on the street. There were other people, not shown here. Joseph sold used electronics and chargers. An old man in an odd hat fixed watches and eyeglasses.

The guy at the car really hustled. He sold wiper blades and car weather stripping. If you pulled into this very popular corner in the city, he would have a word with you about the condition of your wiper blades or how cracked the weather stripping on your car is. He was at it all day every day and seeing a discarded wiper blade or two in the street, let me know if he’d been successful of not.

Volcan Santa Ana

Last Sunday was my last dia libre (free day) in El Salvador. Joaquin and I decided to end it in style with a hike up Volcan de Santa Ana. In case you’re wondering if ‘volcan’ means ‘volcano’, the answer is ‘Si’.

It is not an easy hike and I was a bit nervous. It is the country’s tallest volcano at 7,812 ft or 2,381 m. The city in which I’d been living is very flat. But walking many kilometers each day around the city with a backpack was pretty good training.

Each day, a group gathers to go up together for safety reasons. They assemble about 11:00 to go up with a guide and a police officer. This day, there were about 150 of us. We ascended through jungle to a high desert climate with vegetation similar to what I saw when I hiked the Grand Canyon several years ago. Up to this point, it is straight forward climbing along switchbacks. As the trail transitions from desert like to lava rock, it gets a little tricky to tell the trail from drainage channels and the trail bed is really loose.

The reward is reaching the top. Looking behind you, you see the valley and Izalco volcano. Off to one side is a large lake, partially obscured by haze. In front of you is the crater. And this baby is not extinct; she is only resting. That is steam coming from the water below. As an added treat, there was a Mayan ceremony underway. We snapped some photos, ate our lunch, grabbed a lava rock or two as a souvenir, and treated the policeman to one of our extra sandwiches and Snickers bars. Pretty soon, the guides blew their whistle and it was time to head down.

A Sense of Mastery

Blind Mans Bluff
(Note: I took this image yesterday of a group of girls playing a version of “Blind Man’s Bluff”. It’s nice to see it is still played somewhere.)

When my wife and I take cycle tour vacations the last day has a special sadness. We’ve usually spent a week or more packing our belongings on our bikes each morning, cycling all day, and then setting up at the next inn. At the end of the trip we can do it all with little effort and maximum efficiency. The final day, we are the best we will get this trip. We’ve developed a sense of mastery over this task.

That is how it is now here in El Salvador. I am as good as I will get. I’ve mastered getting ready for school, doing my laundry, teaching a class, getting copies made, finding good food and a thousand other things that I had only the vaguest clue about eight weeks ago. It means I can just enjoy life a bit more these days.

My Spanish is also the best it will be for now. It is far from fluent, but I can handle all of the basic social graces, make small talk and do all the basic things that I struggled with at the beginning of the trip. The other day on a volcano hike, I followed the custom of offering some food to the police officer stationed at the summit. He was curious about me, where I was from, why I was visiting and what I thought of the country. I was able to handle a five minute conversation without missing a beat. I can also better understand when students or teachers speak to me in the school, even with all of the noise.

But tomorrow, I leave for home. Then, I need to stop saying “como” instead of “what” when someone says something I don’t quite hear, and nodding and saying “Si, si” when I do understand. I’ll miss the feeling of mastery that I have gained here, but I’m pleased to know that I achieved these skills during my time here

May I Take Your Order

I’ve continued to help when I can this week at the Posada. After serving the food to a table is six, I’m expected to take the drink order. How challenging can it be to get a drink order right when the options are water or coffee? I mean even if Spanish is not my first language and I’ve never waited tables, is it all that hard?

Well, they can request a large coffee or water. Or they can request a small coffee or water. And they have a special word for the small that I’ve learned to say but can’t imagine how to spell. Some think the coffee is a bit too hot and want coffee with water.

Then there was the lady this morning who decided to have fun with her “Spanish as a second language” (SSL?) waiter and asked for “cafe con leche”. It took me a few seconds to realize she was asking for coffee with milk; something definitely not on the menu. We then both had a good laugh.

I’ve managed to get all of my drink orders correct, so far. But I tend to confuse the heck out of the kitchen staff (pictured above) while placing my order. Sorry!

My Last Week

(The image above is of my final class with Grade 7B. As I went to leave, the girls all made hearts with their hands.)

It is my final week here in El Salvador. It is time to wrap things up and say good bye. It is difficult. There are things that I wanted to work on and do that are not possible because there were no classes last week. My guess is that I would still feel that way even if there had been classes last week.

It’s difficult to say good bye to the students. Despite the fact that they have several volunteers each year coming to their school, they really seem to feel a loss with my departure. In a situation like this, you naturally feel closer to some students. Some, I doubt I’ll ever forget.

Many volunteers at the school are repeat visitors. Several times, I’ve been asked when I’ll return. The honest is answer is that I don’t know. My coming here was part of distinct plan at this point in my life. Currently, I’ve no plans to return. That makes it difficult for both them and me. While it has not always been easy these past seven weeks, there are things here that I will miss.

Of course, I’ll miss the school, and teachers and students. I’ll miss being called “Profe”. I’ll miss the fun you can have in teaching children English that you don’t have in teaching adults where I volunteer back home.


There are other things that I’ll miss also. Sunday was my last festival evening on Paseo El Carmen. Exercising in the open air if El Cafetalon while looking at a volcano will never get old. The hill in the image above mesmerizes me with a beauty I cannot really capture here. It is the view above the courtyard of the school. The gently rolling profile and trees dotting the top are such a peaceful scene. It can quiet my thoughts on even a noisy late afternoon at the school. And there are the countless faces I’ve grown used to in the community.

Goodbyes are all a part of the process; a part of life. And I can continue to tell myself that, but it does not make it any easier.

Posada Santa Maria

This past week while there have been no classes, I have been helping out at the Posada Santa Maria, a program to provide meals to people who don’t have the resources to feed themselves here in Santa Tecla. The program and the dynamics are really quite amazing. Rather than trying to feed everyone all at once with a huge room full of tables, they dedicated about a third of the dining area to being an open air courtyard containing a tropical garden that some of the volunteers help to maintain. It is by far the nicest “soup kitchen” I’ve ever seen. Typically, there are two to three seatings over the course of ninety minutes to make sure that everyone is fed.

They’ve chosen not to serve the food cafeteria style; each volunteer is assigned to be the “servidor” for a single table of six. Once people are seated, the servidor goes up and gets the food from the kitchen where other volunteers put it on plates. The servidor serves it, says grace for the table, gets the drinks for the table (often a choice of coffee, water or fresh juice) and then takes care of cleaning the table.

I thought the hard part would be figuring out how to say grace in Spanish, but I don’t think God needs a lot of fancy words, just thanks. Getting the drink orders right has been more challenging. Serving people there has certainly improved my Spanish and some of them like to practice what English they know.

The really nice aspect is that by staying with the table, I get to know some of the people. Some regularly make a point of greeting me. Prior to starting here, I’d heard stories that some of our students eat there and wondered if it would be awkward. It is one of those things that if you don’t treat it as awkward, it is not awkward. The past couple of days, students have come over to say “hola” and chat. They still call me “teacher” and “profe” there, which makes some of the others wonder.

I was really concerned when I learnt that there would be no classes this week, but this has worked out quite well.

The images here are from my iPhone. They show me in my “servidor” vest and some photos of the room. Some of the people we serve are a bit shy and I chose not to make images of them.