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.

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

My Last Week

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(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.

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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.

Meet Joaquin Batres

Joaquin 2
I want to introduce you to the man who you’ve all heard mentioned but not met, Joaquin Batres. He is my mentor here in El Salvador. He sent me the information I needed to come here, answered all of my questions, and arranged my housing. We co-teach several classes a week and spent off-time together. When I arrived, he told me how to stay safe and has helped me with difficult situations like problems getting access to cash here. So who is this Salvadoran Obi-Wan Kenobi?

Joaquin manages the Central American sector of Travel to Teach, the program through which I volunteered. He also founded TeachingYou.org, an organization to empower well-rounded young students in the public schools in El Salvador. They inspire and educate them to address life adversities through the learning of languages, skills and values. They also present opportunities to overcome economic disadvantages and be self-sufficient*. I’ve been the sole volunteer these two months and have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Joaquin. He is very serious about the mission of his program but has a very funny and light side also.

Like other 40 year olds in El Salvador, Joaquin grew-up during a bloody civil war and lived through the devastating earthquake of 2001. After the assassination of Cardinal Romero, his family and he were on their way to join the estimated quarter of a million people to be in and around the cathedral for the funeral. They were just a few blocks away from the cathedral when gunfire broke out there killing many. Fortunately, they had not reached the site of the funeral when the shooting began.

Joaquin went on to become a lawyer. He practiced for a few years but was spending his professional life looking at all of the bad things happening in his community. Joaquin is someone who wants to focus on the good in life. He left that profession and began working organizing tours. He is proud of the way he did this and the level of professionalism he bought to it. From the stories he’s told me, it was both fun and challenging. He went back to school for another five years for a degree in this field.

Eventually, he began to manage the volunteer experience for a succession of service organizations, including Travel-To-Teach. At first he managed just the program in Santa Tecla, and now he coordinates all of Latin America. He is very proud of the program here in Santa Tecla. In many other programs, you are simply a helper in the classroom reading stories or playing games with the children. Some other programs are designed so you teach in the morning and surf in the afternoon. Teaching You provides the experience of being a real teaching. I received curriculum topics three months in advance and a profile of my classes. It was expected that I would come prepared with lesson plans.

In 2012, Joaquin started a summer school program, through Teaching You. (The summer here is in December and January.) Summer school was designed to help girls with good academics and the right attitude to get ahead academically and be able to further their education and lives. Teaching You provides an incentive to the parents of the summer school students by covering some of the annual educational costs. This helps the parents to want to further their daughters’ education. It also supports a program to help such students get into better schools through scholarships. These students also get Joaquin’s personal touch. Repeatedly, I’ve seen him dash off to get supplies for one of these girls for a special project for a class using either Teaching You funds or his own.

I am expected to be on-call to the school Monday to Friday during class hours. I teach a total of eighteen classes over a four day week. Joaquin teaches about twenty-four classes a week, including co-teaching twelve with me. He started being a presence in the classroom three years ago when there was a shortage of volunteers in the program. In addition, he spends time working to find volunteers, managing the Central American program and working on a website to promote Teaching You. He has also given generously of his time to me taking me on excursions ranging from a few hours to a fourteen hour trip to La Palma.

After working with him for five weeks, I can say that Joaquin is a guy who knows how to get things done in a place where it can be difficult to get things done. He cares deeply about his country and the children in the program. They go hand-in-hand because Joaquin takes a long view. He knows these children are the future of his country.

The top photo is Joaquin with one of our students at a recent function.

*Adapted from http://www.teachingyou.org/about.html