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,

~Nina
 

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