Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ke Teng

In Setswana, there is a phrase: Ke teng.  

Literally, these two words simply mean "I am here". When I first arrived to Botswana almost four years ago, this was one of the first things I learned not only because it was relatively easy to remember, but because it was used multiple times throughout the day. 

Bush Fire, Gobojango, Botswana 2014
If someone asked "how are you?" you could answer "ke teng".  If they asked what you were up to, where you were, etc. the answer was always the same.  

Now, seemingly worlds apart and a plethora of experiences later, I have had the opportunity to meditate a bit on this phrase and its actual pertinence to everyday life.  

Sunset over the Chobe River, Zambia 2014
I have learned that "I am here" isn't as much of a physical state of being as it is a mental one.  To be present, one has to believe every aspect of their surrounding is their reality. In this process, presence leads to self-realization and understanding and establishment of personal norms.  

Stability.  Constance. Permanence.

For the wanderlust-bitten traveler, this realization is a tough pill to swallow (see last month’s post and my personal apprehensions here).  It’s much easier to live life to its fullest when you have no qualms or reservations about making a lasting impression, because you can simply just reload your pack and move on the following day. Never looking back, never questioning "what if".  

Unfortunately, in that practice of constantly looking to the horizon, it is much easier to stumble over your path of the “now”.  Ke teng has no meaning if you’re physically present but mentally yearning for the next adventure.  In my craving for exploration, I have mistaken my recent move to D.C. as a daunting obstacle rather than an opportunity to be here; to be present.  
City street next to National Archives, Washington DC 2015
Regardless of who you are, moving to a new place is always off-setting. It ruins your routine, ruffles your expectations, and injects your reality with dark, oozing anxiety.  For me, my move to D.C. has been a journey of realizations. 

-         I have realized that everything is a matter of perception. Paradigms control the shifting ebbs and flows of change, and even the smallest glint of surprise can alter an intended trajectory.  
-         I have realized that patience is not just a virtue; it is a way of life. And in the toils and reverberations of “big city living”, it is often more arduous to find a moment to oneself to reflect in introspection than it is to bypass it and continue onward.
-         I have realized that my music is abounding to be sung.  This past week, in between the time that I was grueling over scholarly journals for class, I happened upon an inspiring quote from a pundit whom I admire.  Through her musings, this spiritual leader emphasized the phrase, “Don’t die with your music still inside of you”. 

This quote resonated deeply within me; it vibrated between my ribs and sank deeply into my core.  I have met so many people thus far in my journey who wear their music on their face, their smiles echo their inner peace and resonate their playfulness with life.   Oftentimes I’ve realized that these individuals are the ones who have the least material connection to the world: their routines depend on the rising and setting sun, on that year’s harvest, and on the souls they surround themselves with.  
My muse, Samantha Mmapetla, Gobojango, Botswana 2013

Since my move to DC, I have met so many characters who shove their songs so deeply within them that what remains is a shell of a human being, a persona if you will.  Everyone is so focused upon earning the roll of choral director that their actual music has been lost.  

In the effort of being present, I fully intend to release my music, and to share it with those who comprise my surroundings.  

After all, I’m beginning to believe in enjoy this new reality. 
Columbia Heights, Washington DC 2015

Alongside the realizations and encounters thus far, ke teng for the first time in a while. 
Costa Rica, 2015

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Landing for a moment

I am always entranced by the fervidity of a hummingbird.  These remarkable creatures have the capacity to fly left, right, forward, backward, and even upside down.  Their feet are made for perching, and they spend the majority of their life hovering in flight.  Seeing one is always electrifying, because an individual knows that in an instant the bird will be gone, just as quickly as he came.

I saw one once, with her long delicate beak, gulping down the nectar of a blossom in the sticky rainforests of Costa Rica and I realized that my insides resonated with this vibrant bird’s spirit. I have spent the past years of my life flitting from continent to continent, gulping down the nectar of various cultures that I haven’t had a moment to perch.

I've been vagrant for so long, my soul has adapted a bit of a gypsy-like lust to explore and reconnoiter the quilts of land throughout the world.  I covet new places, new foods, new cultures to submerse myself in.  I crave the smells of a South American night by the ocean or the noises of an African rainfall on a tin roof. 

I have currently reached a point in my life where it appears that the past five years have to be tucked gently away in my bag, alongside my clothing, and I must begin to settle…to perch.  In the next six days I will be moving my belongings from my parent’s home in Arizona to Washington D.C. to begin graduate school and two jobs for which I fear I may not be qualified.  Stress seeps her way into my dreams, and worry tickles the back of my neck.  What if I am unhappy? What if this life that I have forged for myself isn’t necessarily what I expected it to be?

I have tried convincing myself these past couple days that a life in the city will be inspiring, a new, dauntless adventure.

Why, then, does this move have me feeling more trepidation then when I relocated my life to a tiny village in an entirely new continent, without knowing a single soul?

I venture that the answer is the one thing I have been avoiding the majority of my life: structure.

During my four years in the Peace Corps, I followed a certain arrangement. There were deadlines I had to abide by, and a mutual goal that was agreed upon.  But in the wake of the daily happenings, there was never a norm.  I set my own schedule, planted seeds and ate the flesh of impulse. My mouth salivated with the anticipation of the unknown.  Split-second decisions were my branches, and the pack on my back became my home.

Traveling has been my longest commitment.  Since we first met, I have grown internally, soulfully, and fear that with this break, we may never be the same again.  I will always long for the butterflies he gave me at daybreak, looking to the sunrise, and the satisfaction of knowing that I lived every day to its fullest as the sun set.  I now must bid travel and that life of whim farewell.  At least for the next two years.

I surrender to the overwhelming standards set by expectation.  But continue to ask why and keep my love affair rife with adventure, with life. I know the white knight of travel will always be waiting for me, gallivanting and boasting his sword of voyage.  

Onward and upward.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A letter to the universe

Dear Universe,

I am writing to honor you for co-creating 2014 with me.

So much has happened this past year, and I need to take this moment to pay tribute.
Club Atami: La Libertad, El Salvador
I also want to invite those who are reading this letter of gratitude to join me in this acknowledgement to our Dear Universe, as we reflect on the past year together.

2014 has served as one of the most transformative years of my life, as I started it off discovering absolute strength, grace and stillness within myself while living in the chaotic wild land that is Botswana. I am ending my year having learned to accept, embrace and heal the  inner turmoil that came about upon my brief return to the United States, facing some tragic realities that have served as my greatest gifts, and embracing an entirely new endeavor altogether by moving to El Salvador.
Learning to Laugh: Gobojango, Botswana
It’s been a year of dissolving boundaries and confronting my every fear, standing amidst a burning flame and choosing not to shrink back; a year of consciously shedding layers of stories I believed, identities I was invested in, roles that defined me, and coming to celebrate who I am beyond the illusion in which I was living.

It has been a year of breaking deeply-rooted patterns letting go of all attachments, graciously surrendering to hardship and supporting myself in times of grief; a year of finally learning to fully love all of myself, feel completely worthy, no longer stuck in a disempowered narrative that had me believing that I am not enough.

You blessed me, Dear Universe, with a year of deep lessons and endless opportunities for massive growth, and I am here to thank you.
Farewell Party: Gobojango, Botswana

I want to thank you for gifting me with the awareness of the extreme dualities of my life thus far, entrusting in me the ability to surrender fully and face each hardship with the utmost courage and grace. What a gift to discover strength and connect to my heart amidst the newfound reality of the highs and lows, the darks and lights. Thank you.

I want to thank you for granting me permission to fall apart, give myself to the darkness, lose myself in the chaos, allow myself to get messy, be broken open, feel every ounce of my emotions. And all the while know that you are with me and that life is unfolding for me.

I want to thank you for invoking in me the parts of my self that have remained dormant all my life, helping me reconnect to them, setting them free, allowing them to integrate, so that I could become the full expression of who I truly am. What an invocation it’s been. I am in awe of who I have become—powerful, strong and bold; yet, soft, feminine and vulnerable.

I want to thank you for inspiring me to trust in you, to jump headfirst into the unknown, to let go of all safety, see beyond the illusions, and connect to what is real. You are the inspiration, and I continue to open myself and embrace vulnerability, knowing that it is the only way to fully live.
I want to thank you for providing me with silver linings in every break of the heart, every painful fall, every intense blunder, every shaken reality, allowing me to keep shouting yes at the top of my lungs to this life, even in the darkest, most frightening of times.
Warrior III: La Libertad, El Salvador
I want to thank you for supporting me in discovering my powerful voice, connecting me to my beautiful body upon which I was inflicting so much judgment and falling in love with all the textures, flavors and colors, that make me me. What freedom I feel, for the first time in my life.
I want to thank you for showing up consistently, divinely orchestrating every synchronistic moment, from the major shit-storms to the highlights of my entire life. I see the divinity in it all.

I see it in the slipping away of loved ones and the appreciation I have developed for the present moment; I see it in the appreciation I have developed for my neglected body; I see it within the evolution of my relationships, the letting go of some of the most profound loves in my life, embracing the breaking of the heart and all the beauty that is on the other side of this. I see you showing up, and it all being so divinely connected and in service to me.
Village sunset: Kang, Botswana
(photo cred Adriana DeMarco)

I want to thank you for guiding me toward every encounter of 2014, transforming my life from the smallest, most “insignificant” interactions with strangers, to introducing me to (the concept and experience of) my soul family, redefining my understanding of "true love". It could have been an afternoon spent in the presence of a stranger, and I walked away feeling more connected to that soul compared to some people I have known my whole life.

Thank you for teaching me to show up authentically and connect from my heart.

I want to thank you for bestowing upon me endless moments of being triggered, providing me with so many beautiful opportunities to fully feel the deep pain that has showed up as shame, anger, grief, loss, fear, sadness and heartbreak. And, in the feeling fully of it all, allowing me to heal it. What a gift to no longer be a victim, but to be taking full responsibility for everything that shows up in my reality. Thank you.

I want to thank you for trusting me to fulfill my mission in this life: to let go of all that I was dependent on, attached to, and sourcing love and validation from (i.e., my poisonous relationships, my success, my career, my image, all of my identities) so that I could viscerally experience my worth independent of external variables and become the embodiment of Woman in all her glory. It is from this place that I am able to authentically assist in serving women, children, and men, guiding them to let go and trust in themselves, seeing them for their Divine Essence, and helping them heal and discover who they truly are. I vow to continue serving my purpose.
Violin Camp: Perquin, El Salvador
Yes, I am grateful, Dear Universe, for this transformative year.

And, I am so looking forward to all that we will manifest together in 2015.

Love always,

Your faithful co-creator

 Inspired by a piece by Jessica Winterstern

Monday, November 10, 2014

Special Feature Post

During mid-October I had the immense opportunity to play host to my parents who came to visit El Salvador for nine days.  Although we endured a 7.3-scale earthquake, fear of a tsunami and evacuation from the beach, and my dad's broken back, we had a blast.  I asked my dad to write an account of his experience here, so you may see this wonderful country in a different view and he graciously accepted.  Below is his recollection of the trip:

After months of having our daughter, Janina Victoria Yates, out in the world on her next big adventure, her mom Maria and I, Bruce, wanted to see how life was in her current country of residence: El Salvador.  My work gave me the "green light" to travel to San Salvador, El Salvador, where we met Nina on October 10th, 2014 during a typical tropical, third-world country night.  We were exhausted from having three separate flights and I had just broken my back at work a mere four days earlier.  Nina was very exited to see us but had a slight  look of worry on her face when we first met.  Apparently the San Salvador Airport had just recovered from a power outage due to heavy, torrential rains. I’m sure she was thinking, “Oh crap, my parents are going land at an airport in the dark!” However, customs for us was great and the people were very friendly.  We kissed and hugged one another and rode the shuttle straight to get our rental car.  Luckily we did not get the Toyota Mini car that we had originally ordered, but a very nice Nissan Standard four-door to hold all of our luggage.  

First stop was a great hotel where all the Peace Corps volunteers stay when they travel to and from San Salvador.  Short of an elevator, it was rather luxurious and spacious.  I have tons of pictures of this and many other places we traveled to with Nina, but this short article would turn into a novel if I include them all.  Because of mainstream media in the United States, El Salvador may appear rather scary to the American gringos; however, Nina showed us many of the wonderful sites that the country has to offer.

Our first destination was Concepcion de Ataco where typical life can be seen within an artistic atmosphere.  Ataco is a gorgeous colonial town which, in the native language Nahuatl, means "high place of springs" and is located on the highly-sought-after Ruta de las Flores. It's a very cheerful village, with lots of local and international tourists from around the world speckling the roads. 
One thing I noticed while our three days here were that the many scenes sprinkled with poverty.  One can encounter individuals of all social classes walking the streets.  Although there is relatively low health services due to a poor economy, the streets are clean and the food is well-prepared in restaurants. 
Unemployment throughout the country, according to Nina, is 28.9%, so the artisans do what they can to live and as I saw that they were happy doing it.

A group of mariachis who serenaded us during lunch one day.
Out next stop was the coast.  Nina had a reservation at a beach hotel that was obviously for the young-hearted surfing crowd.  Unfortunately it was not for us because the bed did not provide enough support for my back.  After settling for a bit, Maria (Mer) and I drove around and found a beautiful resort just down the coast called Atami Beach Club.  It had informed, excellent service.
 Our first lunch on the cliff of the resort overlooking the North Pacific Ocean was fabulous!  We fell in love with the air, the sea breeze, and the nature surrounding us.  Mer loved the clean rooms of the resort and I felt safe with the security at the entrance of the community and at the resort complex itself.  This place had huge swimming pools, a putt-putt golf course (although unmaintained), and a complete and utterly peaceful atmosphere.

Nina taking a much-needed break in one of the luxurious pools.
In fact there was no problems at all except the 7.3 earthquake just off the coast and tsunami warnings that ensued.  We feared the threat of evacuation, but were happy to discover that it wasn't necessary.  Unfortunately, one woman died in the country from having an electrical pole fall on her, but with such a large-scale event, the casualties could have been much higher.  For hours after, I monitored the news through the excellent wi-fi the resort provided.

Our next stop and the place where Mer and I were most interested in discovering was where Nina lives: La Palma.
Nina and Mer standing in front of a building with a passing "mototaxi"
The town is beautiful and serene.  Everyone says hello and “have a good meal” when you're eating at a restaurant, whether they know you or not.  The buildings of the city are covered in paintings in the style of Fernando Llort (El Salvador's national artist). 

Nina took us on a wonderful tour during our time here, and we met many friends, visited her many work sites, and encountered innumerous amounts of loveable people. 

The staff of La Palma's "Casa de Cultura"
Nina's work in El Salvador is focused around music.  She volunteers with music lessons and mentoring at a community history and cultural center called Casa de la Cultura.  For me, the most rewarding place she works at is the school where she teaches. Here, at CE 22 de Junio, Nina has a choir of 23 pupils who eagerly sing and absorb every word she says.  The existence of the choir is vital, it not only offers the students a positive environment to remain at after school, but it also keeps them from getting involved in dangerous gang activity, which is common for out-of-school youth in this country.

Some students at CE 22 de Junio playing basketball during gym class
We met her counterpart Christi who is wonderful and took us in as part of her family right from the get go.  

Nina's counterpart Christina Gardu; a teacher, mother of five, entrepreneur, and overall wonderful person.
I could see how Nina has already made her mark with the hugs from her students and observations during her choir practices.
Janina speaking to one of her students.
Mer and I stayed in a beautiful hotel next to La Palma in San  Ignacio.  It was on over 100 acres in the mountainous region of the North equipped with a gorgeous view of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.  It has an Olympic pool , tennis courts, and a gym where Nina often works out. 

Mer and I were pleasantly honored to meet Nina’s host family.  They were one of the best things about our trip.  I felt as though I had known them for years.

Sofia, Margoth, Janina, Diego, Juan, and Alejandra
Nina lives with them.  They constantly watch over her and I could tell she loves them as well.

Our trip back to the airport was filled with excitement.  We drove though some pretty shady areas and saw a glimpse of what the American news has portrayed regarding poverty El Salvador.  However, that was minimal and we saw the city's Metrocentro shopping center where any American can get what they want and although it doesn’t feel quite like home, it shows the people of El Salvador and their culture. 
By asking directions in a sports shop, we didn’t find how to get to the airport, but how gracious and loving the people of El Salvador can be. 
In fact our whole trip was getting acquainted with a Peace Corps volunteer's life in a third-world country and how she lives and prospers.  Now I know that Nina not only is living the life of a Peace Cops voluteer, she is exemplifying the main themes of a volunteer.  Through getting to know the land and people, she helps where she can, and promotes world peace and friendship by fulfilling the organization's three main goals: she helps the people of El Salvador in meeting their need for trained men and women, she promotes a better understanding of Americans on the part of the Salvadorans, and helps promote a better understanding of Salvadorans on the part of Americans. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sing your Heart Out

“Music can change the world, because it can change people” –Bono

It was a cloudy Monday, not unlike any other morning in the mountainous town of La Palma, Chalatenango.  Students’ voices resonated from every corner of the building, and the school pulsed with vivacity.  As the usual pupils from Centro Escolar 22 de Junio stood in compliance in the great hall watching the Semana Civica presentations, more children clad in varied school uniforms shuffled in, eager with anticipation for the competition that was scheduled to take place.  It was as if the crowd ebbed and flowed with its own rhythm and repartee, and although the banter seemed to dull the nerves within the participants of the Choir Genesis, their uneasy smiles told another story. 
Singing El Salvador's National Anthem in front of a packed auditorium

For the previous two weeks, the members of the newly-formed choir had been practicing daily for this competition and the moment had finally arrived when they would perform El Salvador’s National Anthem (in its entirety) in front of representatives from every school in the city. This also meant that they would be competing for the opportunity to sing at the Independence Day Ceremony the following week.

Now, if you had told me a mere 3 months ago that I would not only be witnessing but directing a choir of 30 students in El Salvador, I probably would have scoffed in your face.  During that time, I was living in the Botswana bush, wrapping up my Peace Corps service and scrambling to pick up the loose ends before my next big adventure.  Thoughts of graduate school and life in the U.S. swirled in my mind and the anticipation of what was to come became an impending weight on my shoulders.  One afternoon, I scrolled listlessly through the Response positions available throughout the world.  (I wasn’t quite ready to commit myself to facing the fast-paced life that awaited me in the U.S.) and I nearly collapsed from my chair when I found a project for a Youth Outreach Music Coordinator in Central America.  It turns out, the position had been open for some time, and they needed me just as much as I needed them. 

The music vocational project was started as a means to give children throughout the Northern catchment of Chalatenango, El Salvador safe after-school activities to keep them out of mischief that could lead to delinquency.  Lack of access to quality education is a critical challenge in the area, and as a result, the privation of job opportunities also exists. Many bright young individuals leave the country to increase their opportunities for personal development, yet fewer than 10% successfully complete high school after settling in their destination country. Those who choose to stay in El Salvador are faced with a number of difficulties, including very little economic opportunities, and often end up joining gangs, becoming involved in drug trafficking, or other criminal activities as a matter of economic survival.

As a result, Peace Corps presence is prominent throughout the area; the volunteers are well-recognized and are generally venerated for assisting in projects focusing on adolescents and youths. When I arrived to La Palma in July, the need for a music program was evident. I was struck by the amount of talent that existed throughout this town, and overjoyed at the sparked interest some students showed. Poco a poco, and through extreme moments of frustration, talk of a music program slowly transformed into a choir consisting of 23 students ranging from ages 7 to 14.

After the participants of the choir sang their last note of the Anthem during the September 8 competition, their faces lifted with pride.  Weeks had passed of tedious hour-long practices and finally they were able to feel the efforts of their labors paying off. After some quick deliberation, and anxious anticipation, the judges announced the winners and the crowd went wild to hear that the Choir Genesis would be singing at the Independence Day Celebrations the following Monday, September 15. 
The participants leapt to their feet and embraced one another with elation as the more prominent singers approached the stage and diffidently accepted the trophy.
Accepting the trophy

From that day on, more students showed interest in joining the choir.  Their sparked curiosity from the competition left them zealous and keen to begin singing.  Every day in the hallways, the participants would bombard me with hugs and inquiries as to when the choir would perform again. 

September 15 marked the long-anticipated Independence Day celebrations.  Teachers from all of the schools in La Palma arrived at the central park at 5:45 in the morning to begin preparations for the day.  The clouds rested close to the ground, the sun hid deep in the dark sky, and over my cup of atol chuco, I wondered if the weather was going to affect the singers’ moods.  When I arrived to the school a couple of hours later, a horde of eager choral students awaited me like a pack of wolves preying upon a fresh rabbit. Their enthusiasm was contagious.  I herded them into a room and we began our usual vocal warm-ups. 

As I took a deep breath, tried to refocus myself, and blocked out the surmounting noise and stress that reverberated throughout the cement classroom, I looked at a seventh-grade student braiding a third grade student’s hair and was overcome by the giggles that escaped their lips.  Their resounding smiles struck a chord deep within me and made me realize something: this choir meant more to them than a simple organized club.  Being in the group gave these children hope, unity, appreciation, and pride.  In a tumultuous world, being a part of a choral team gave them a sense of belonging and comfort where they had probably sought and been rejected before. It didn’t matter that the clouds were prophesying rain outside or that we had not yet practiced how to march for the parade. What mattered most was that they had finally found a niche where they could belong, something that they could hold onto, call their own, and be proud of.
Marching in the Independence Day Parade
The rest of the day passed quickly: the parade with the cheering crowds, the parents that awaited with cameras, and the children crooning the national anthem into microphones…but the faces that they wore throughout the day will remain imprinted in my memory for the rest of my life. I had never seen so much pride and unfettered excitement. The choir continues to gain more students after every performance, and their presentations have now expanded to encompass Día de los Niños as well as the nation-wide Concurso de las Bandas.

The choir proudly showing off their first-place trophy
One thing that the children of the Choir Genesis have taught me in these few short months is the value of music.  Music transcends age, gender, and life experience.  It is encompassing enough that it can touch any life, any subject, in any way.  For the children of La Palma, El Salvador, music has become the haven and the community that they need to begin to change their futures and the world.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Playas, Fiestas y Hospitales

I’m currently sitting in a session put on by the Fire Chief of La Palma about “Control and Circumvention of Fires”.  He started with the history of fires.

In other words…yawn.

Today the students had the day off so that the teachers could all attend this meeting. I’m grumpy and not wanting to be here, so instead I’ll update my blog (after all, there’s no wifi, and nobody around me can really read English to tell the difference between this and notes). 

These past two days have been the first practices of the Choir Genesis. I have been so undoubtedly nervous that I haven’t really realized how quickly they’ve gone.  The first day I had about 18 students show up, and yesterday there were 28! The students are from 1st grade all the way up to 9th grade and since I’ve never directed a choir before, my fear of inadequacies are keeping me preoccupied.  Furthermore, I’ve decided to register the students to sing in a competition on September 8 of El Salvador’s National Anthem.  Although we have little time to attend the competition, I’m trying to meet with them for one hour every day to practice. 

The past few weeks have been pretty up and down.  In the beginning of the month of August I had the opportunity to jump on another volunteers’ vacation train.  I followed a group of 6 other volunteers to a beach called Playa Tunco. 

Now, before I get into the festivities of the beach weekend, allow me to interject here to discuss the downfalls of living in a country with increased security risks.  In Botswana, I was able to travel relatively safely every weekend, hitchhike and take busses throughout the country and even see all of the other 7 SADC countries without much fear of direct violence. (I suppose it’s odd when someone thinks of Africa they expect a number of reservations associated with violence.  Thank you, media and pop culture.) This isn’t necessarily to say that it’s 100% safe in Botswana…because realistically speaking, we all know it’s not…but generally I felt exceptionally safe when traveling throughout the country.

Here in El Salvador, on the other hand, there are common stories of bus drivers being shot, incidences of gang violence, and other security risks that endanger volunteers’ everyday lives.  A few years ago, a volunteer in Honduras was the unfortunate recipient of a ricochet bullet on a bus (she lived, thank goodness) and they had a complete revision of the Central American safety and security policies.  El Salvador was closed as a post and all of the volunteers were either relocated or sent home.  A reassessment of the country occurred two years back, and after discovering that it would be relatively anodyne, it was reopened with increased mitigation policies and volunteers were redistributed throughout towns and villages in the northern part of the country. As a result, Peace Corps has placed a number of security mitigation rules on our service.  Some of these rules are as follows:

1.      There are a number of “red zones” or restricted areas throughout the country where we, as volunteers, are not allowed to go.  The capital, San Salvador (and location of Peace Corps Headquarters) are one of these red zones and volunteers are not allowed, under any circumstance to be found in these zones alone.

2.      We are not allowed to take busses across departments/municipalities. In my opinion, this makes life a lot more difficult (and a lot more expensive…) Rather than jumping on a direct bus from one department to another, I have to wait for certain days that the Peace Corps shuttle is running (see number 3) or pay for my own private transport.  Since we are advised to take the taxi drivers suggested by Peace Corps, we oftentimes pay well over what we would have been paying otherwise

3.      Peace Corps provides a personal shuttle for volunteers on a rotating schedule.  We have to therefore take the local bus to a pickup spot about an hour away (in the town Amayo) then take the shuttle from there.  Some weeks it runs Monday, Tuesday, and Friday.  Other weeks, just Monday and Friday, and other weeks, solely on Monday.  Unless we want to take it directly from La Palma, the shuttle runs once a month.  A schedule has been distributed to all volunteers and we are to refer to it if we ever want to go to another site.  (I’m still figuring it out…it sounds extremely complicated)

4.      We are only allowed to be outside of our site three days every month (as well as our two vacation days per month). This is to say that we are only allowed one weekend a month to visit another location. 

5.      We are supposed to live with host families.  This makes us less of a direct target to robberies, thefts, etc. and also assists in the integration process.

In conclusion, the sense of independence I once had as a volunteer in Botswana has now been replaced by an overall dependency upon outside forces. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the overall system.  I understand the need for it, and would rather pay my entire monthly allowance than face any problem of security (after all, there’s no price for a life)…but it does complicate things quite a bit. 

Okay, to end my rant, let me continue with my adventure to Playa Tunco.  On Friday, I left with three other volunteers from La Palma to San Salvador.  Once settled at a café that not only offered a yummy selection for lunch, but also free wifi, we awaited the other members of our group to arrive.  Around two o’clock, we all departed in a privately-hired minibus to take us to the beach.  The ride was breath-taking and beautiful.  Green surrounded us everywhere. Palm trees cascaded the street view and vendors walked up and down the road selling everything from fresh coconut milk to candy.  Slowly, as we arrived closer and closer to the beach towns, the air became thicker, heavier, and more humid.  When we pulled in front of the Tunco Lodge, we were greeted with grass roofs, a shimmering blue pool, and hammocks stretching lazily across the wooden verandas.  When we migrated to the beach after settling in, I shocked my newly acquired friends by prancing gleefully towards the water and submerging my entire body in the crashing waves.  I didn’t even notice that, rather than mounding sand, the beach was plaited with knolls of rocks the size of my face.  I was so excited to replace the sweat melting from my face with salt water from the ocean that I splashed like a three-year-old in a baby pool. 

“Taking Janina to the ocean is like taking a puppy to a park” I heard my colleague say behind me.  And I didn’t even care, I was so happy to be on the beach again, I frolicked well into the sunset.

Although the beach itself is not beautiful, Tunco is a well-known location for the best left-hand break in the Americas and therefore recognized by surfers around the world.  During our four days there, we met people from Australia, Brazil, Israel, Spain, and Italy.  I practiced my Portuguese until I was blue in the face.  We spent our days absorbing the sun at the pool, only surfacing to eat some fresh fruit or seafood.  Turtles roamed freely around the Lodge, and hammocks harnessed our hangovers.  Our nights were spent swaying on the bar swings, quenching our voracious thirst for excitement, and dancing until our heartbeat pulsed through our thighs. 
One of the wild turtles coming to attack my foot.

Some of the group on the beach
 After the whirlwind of arriving to site, breaking down the barriers of discomfort when arriving to a new country, and breathing through varied adjustments, it was a much-needed break. 

Although my entire body creaked with exhaustion my first day back to La Palma, I awoke with a fright to my host sister banging on my door.  “No quieres ir con nosotros as Consuma?” (Would you like to come with us to Consuma?) escaped her mouth, each word decreasing in volume in response to my scorching, peevish glare.  “No, gracias,” I responded and rolled back into my caressing sheets.  Thinking about what I was going to be missing out on, I slowly picked myself out of the bed, each joint castigating me for my decision, and began to dress. 

Though I had no idea what “Consuma” was, I swallowed my sickness with every curve of the 2 hour car drive. Diego’s pressing questions and the girls’ aimless banter crept under my skin and gnawed on my last nerves.  I found myself regretting my decision for agreeing to go when we pulled up to a huge festival in Sal Salvador.

The rest of the day we spent immersed in crowds, waiting in lines, and enjoying amusement park rides. Consuma turned out to be the largest flea market I’ve ever been to.  I was jubilant to see the $1 bins spilling over with clothing and found myself pulling out my wallet for things that I didn’t even need.  I followed my host sisters onto the amusement park rides and had to stabilize myself as the blood drained from my face due to motion sickness. Any aches that I felt that morning quickly evaporated as I caught myself laughing and enjoying with my host family. In the evening, as a parade passed in front of us with masked performers and characters on stilts, I thanked my inner conscience for forcing me out of the bed that morning.

The following week, the students were on vacation from school, so I spent my days sleeping in and learning about life in El Salvador. I went to a few more gatherings for the Fiestas Patronales in the neighboring town of San Ignacio and relished at the comical costumes that pranced around me.

I started a daily trip to Entrepinos Lodge to go to the gym for one hour.  In the process, I met the owner and manager, Tito.  He took me to a wonderful spot where I could see bean farms, clouds blanketing the mountains of Honduras, jutting rocks in the distance from Guatemala, and a tree whose trunk was as large as a jeep. 

Although I noticed an unsettling body ache throughout the week, I ignored it and passed it off as soreness from the gym.  It wasn’t until that weekend that I awoke with a sweltering fever that I realized that something was really wrong.  I called the Peace Corps doctor and went through all of the motions of traveling to the local laboratory to do blood tests, reading the results to the doctor over the phone, and feeling miserable all the way.  The worry in the doctor’s voice became elevated as he heard my results and he told me to begin packing my bags immediately.  The next morning, he sent a driver to collect me from my house and take me to the hospital in San Salvador. 

It turns out, when I was in Tunco; I had been bitten by a mosquito infected with Dengue Fever and was now in the worst stage of the reaction. 

Boohoo, in pain

This was also the first time that I could remember that I had been admitted to a hospital as an adult. 
Sad to be all alone
Luckily for me, the hospital was EXTREMELY clean; we’re talking U.S.A.-standards clean.  I was assigned my own room with a television, and there was free wifi.  There wasn’t much to complain about here…besides the fact that I was put inside of a mosquito net and felt as if I was in quarantine and all alone.  The nights in the hospital were tumultuous, with nurses checking on me every hour, and I pined to leave.

Once the doctor verified that the worst of the Fever was over, he released me to La Palma again and ordered me to sleep for the next few days. 

The following week, I returned to school and began meeting the students for the choir.  And that brings us up to today, where I’m STILL sitting in a classroom learning about fire extinguishers and the difference between a gas fire and a wood fire…yes…four hours later. 

The air is blowing directly on my left shoulder and I am pausing every few minutes to warm my hands.  I wish I hadn’t worn a skirt today…I wish I had stayed in bed today…

In lighter news, my parents have verified that they’ll be visiting for 10 days in October!  What’s more, is that my good friend Annabelle from college is coming for 2 weeks in November! Although it has its own “catches”, it’s awfully nice living in a country with a beach that’s relatively close to the States.  

Next week I’ll be heading to a town called Ataco with the other Peace Corps Response volunteers from Monday-Wednesday.  There we will learn about the beloved Volunteer Report Form (good Lord…) and convene as a group for the first time since the arrival of the 6 volunteers of my group. 

Anyway, it seems like I’m just rambling now, so thanks for taking the time to read!

Enjoy the rest of your day, and enjoy every second of sunshine!

Until next time,