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Sunday November 28

I have moved to new accommodations!  Jan’s place on the island is very beautiful, as well as quiet and peaceful, but it is also pretty inconvenient.  Everything requires a trip to the mainland and there is only one small boat.  Returning to the island after dark, means struggling to remove the motor and carry it up to the storage shed.  If the tide is low, a great deal of mud is involved.  I don’t want to offend Jan by moving but I also want more contact with local people and more opportunities to practice my Spanish.  Francisco has a small casita in the corner of his compound and he is very keen to have me stay in it.  At first, I turned him down as I didn’t want to disrupt all the arrangements I have made, but on Friday he brings me here to spend the day.  By the time he comes home from work, I decide it would be worth making the change.

Francisco is a building contractor and his yard contains, as well as the casita, his own house, his carpentry shop, equipment and stacks of building materials.  The casita is tucked in one corner of the yard and consists of a little house, a large thatched-roof palapa and a small swimming pool!  How lovely!  The little house is quite spartan, with bare concrete walls and tile floors typical of houses in this country, but it does have a small kitchen, a bedroom with a comfortable bed, a bathroom and a shower.  Like most houses here, it has a large shady porch, where people spend most of their time.

Francisco is delighted when I tell him I want to accept his offer, but I explain that I have a couple of problems to overcome.  I need a printer and a photocopier to prepare lesson sheets for classes.  No problem – he has a scanner/printer/copier and I am welcome to use it.  I need an internet connection.  No problem – Francisco has a USB modem which I can use, if I buy the subscription for it.  I need some way to get back and forth to Misael’s house and the Bahia Resort Hotel for my classes.  No problem – Francisco has a small, battered, Chinese motor scooter which I can use.  Life is good!  For the first time since arriving here, I can come and go without having to depend on other people.  Everybody is wonderful about helping me get around, but there is nothing like having your own transport.  Just putting slowly along the road, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery is a treat in itself.

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My casita

Palapa and pool

My trusty Chinese scooter

I am enjoying simple pleasures such as having electricity all the time instead of just when the generator is running.  I can go for a walk up and down the main road or stop in for a visit with my friends at Misael’s house.  I stroll down the road to a little tienda and buy an ice cream.  An old pensioner is sitting at a table reading the newspaper.  Soon, I am sitting at the table with him, sharing his paper and we are discussing the news.  I can’t think of a better way to pass the time.

 

Saturday December 4

I sometimes have difficulty figuring out which little place is just a tienda or shop, like a corner store; which place is a bar where people sit and drink beer or which place is actually a restaurant where you can sit down and have a meal.  Nearly every little place (and there is one about every fifty feet along the road) has tables and benches to sit on and most have a sign which says comida (food).  Today, I walk a couple of hundred feet along the road to one nearby and ask if I can get breakfast.

Ceci, the proprietress, says:  “No, we don’t have breakfast.  Maybe lunch, if you want to come back later.”
     “No problem, I’ll try somewhere else” and I make a move to leave. 
Now there is consternation, as she sees a few  dollars of potential revenue about to walk out the door.
      “What do you want for breakfast?  I only have some eggs.”
     “Eggs are good!  How about  frijoles …and some platanas?  …maybe a tortilla?  …and some coffee?
     “Sí, sí,  breakfast, no problema!”

I sit down at one of the tables and watch her little girl peddle off on a bicycle.  She returns a few minutes later with a small bag, which I am certain contains my platanas and maybe even my eggs.  Breakfast is everything I could hope for and when I ask for the bill, Ceci says:  “$2.25”.  I give her $3.00 and now the strange gringo from Canada has one more fan.

 

Sunday December 5

Ceci seems to be raising five children by herself.  The oldest is fifteen and the youngest is a precocious three-year-old chatterbox called Ariela.  Ariela is just about too cute for words to describe and provides me with constant entertainment while I eat.  This morning, as I approach, I hear her shout:  “Mama, Mama, theningo is coming!”

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Comedor Ceci

Ceci

My breakfast arriving by special delivery

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Big sister.JPG

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Ariela

An uncharacteristically quiet moment

 Ariela and her big sister

  

Thursday December 9                 

Miguel, Misael’s younger brother, invites me to go along on a trip to the city with him and his friend, Luis.  Little do I realize that I am destined to visit the fleshpots of San Salvador!  Luis has a sporty Mazda and the hour-long journey is fast and comfortable.  We first visit the MetroCenter shopping mall, the equivalent in size and opulence of any shopping centre anywhere.  The shops are crammed with luxury goods of every description and the central concourse features a Christmas tree that must be 60 feet high.  My two companions visit several sporting goods shops and admire the football shoes with longing, but El Salvador uses the American dollar and the prices are the same as in the U.S.  Not many local people can afford to actually buy things in a place like this.  It makes one wonder who actually does have all the money in this country.  There is obviously quite a lot of it around, somewhere.  We stop for a snack at Mister Donut – a treat for the boys from the Costa del Sol – for me, not so much.

Then, enough fooling around; we are off to our real destination for this trip:  El Club Bananas!  I begin to wonder when I see the sign at the door:  “Absolutely no weapons are permitted in this establishment!”  I see!  And just in case anyone was inclined to disregard this warning, we are wanded all over with an airport-type metal detector.  No cameras are permitted inside the club either, so my cell phone is confiscated.  We (actually, I) pay three-dollar cover charges and in we go!

The large, somewhat dingy room has two stages in the center, each with the requisite brass pole.  There are seats ringing the edge of each stage but we choose one of the comfortable couches around the outside of the room.  Before long, a dozen girls troop onto each stage and shake and shimmy to the music.  I guess it is a kind of preview, because no secrets are unveiled and soon they all troop off again.  Shortly, two girls climb onto each stage and the age-old dance begins; no better and no worse than I have seen a hundred times before.  The girls are actually quite attractive; mostly young and fit and some are even decent dancers and/or pole athletes.  If you happen to be sitting at ringside and wish to slip a dollar bill under a garter, you will be treated to the Salvadorean equivalent of a lapdance.  Detailed description would seem inappropriate in this family-oriented story. To me, the most amazing thing is the shoes worn by all the girls:  clear acrylic, with stacked soles and heels eight or ten inches high.  They walk gingerly, as if wearing stilts.  Hardly seems sexy to me, but what do I know?  I'm probably the only one in the room who noticed their shoes!

After each set of girls finishes their turn on stage, they roam the room looking for susceptible customers.  As the only obvious “rich gringo”, I am a preferred target.  One after another, they disregard my two Hispanic companions and drape themselves around me.  I discover that the objective is to convince me to pay fifteen dollars for un privado.  I don’t care to speculate what might happen in there, but apparently, whatever it is, only lasts for twelve minutes.  At first, I pretend to speak and understand only German, but language quickly proves an ineffective barrier.  Next, I use a phrase that always seems to work when shopping:  “No, gracias!  Solo estoy buscando.”  (No thank you, I am only looking).  I realize I am using the wrong verb, with the quick response:  “Ah hah!  So, what is it you are looking for?”  The pitfalls of a foreign language!  I try a new  tack:  “Estoy casado.  Tengo una esposa, de quien amo mucha.”  (I am married.  I have a wife whom I love very much).  The predictable reply shoots back:  Pero, su esposa no esta aqui!"  (But your wife isn’t here!).    One cute little girl who looks about thirteen, but assures me she is 24, suggests I might take her back to Canada in my suitcase.  I ask her what I am going to tell my wife.  She says:  “You could tell her I’m a puppy!”   Eventually, they realize that I am not, in fact, likely to be persuaded by their charms and they go off in search of easier quarry.  With some difficulty, we pry Luis from the clutches of several newly-discovered girlfriends and convince him that it really is time to go home. 

Alan, you would have liked it!

On the way home, Miguel explains that we have only been in the part of San Salvador called the Zona Rosa, an upscale area of the city, not far from the embassy district.  He and his friend, even being locals, do not venture into the city centre at night.  When we stop for gas, he cautions me to keep my window rolled up, even in this relatively safe area.  A few months ago, a car with obvious foreigners in it was attacked and robbed while sitting in a gas station.  This is not a city for the faint-hearted!

The next morning, Francisco tells me he was quite worried by my unexplained absence the previous evening.  He eventually telephoned Misael, who assured him that I was with friends.  I should have told him I was going to be away, but this morning there seems little to be gained by telling my host, a devout evangelical Christian, where I actually was.

 

Friday December 10

Apparently, El Salvador is in the grip of a vicious cold snap.  I discover this startling fact while my dictionary and I are labouring through articles in the local newspaper.  I assume we are enjoying normal dry-season weather: days are hot and sunny with temperatures in the mid- to high 80’s.  However, during the night, the thermometer plunges to a bone-chilling 72°F!  I have to sleep under TWO sheets!

Evidently, this unprecedented weather is all part of the La Nińa phenomenon that is bringing unseasonable snow and cold to mid-Canada and the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.  It is also creating unusually cold temperatures in Europe and torrential rains, flooding and fatal mudslides in Columbia, Nicaragua and, to a lesser degree, other parts of El Salvador.  I find the weather very pleasant, but my students shiver and grouse about the cold when we gather at 6:30 a.m. for our class.

 My time here is winding down.  I teach my last class at the hotel on Thursday and I remind the class at Misael’s house that I will be leaving on Wednesday.  They clamour to know when I am coming back.  I have to come back; I have been adopted by an entire new family, whom I will miss very much.  I just don’t know when it will be.

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Tree with beautiful pink flowers

A lovely old gate

Susan with a new friend

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Kids and adults, working together on a lesson

Stick restaurants with San Vincente volcano

Susan and a ceiba tree

 

Saturday December 11

This morning, at the Bahia resort, I strike up a conversation with two American couples.  With a reasonable degree of subtlety, I suggest that they might enjoy a panga tour of this most beautiful and interesting part of El Salvador.  They are definitely interested, so I quickly phone Misael:  “Venga aqui!  Tengo unas clientes para ti!”  (Come here!  I have some customers for you).  Misael shows up ten minutes later, all dressed up like a businessman and between us, we convince them to book a $150.00, three-hour tour for later in the day.   Even better, the people invite me to go along.  At 3:00 in the afternoon, we dock the panga at the Bahia, collect the people and set off for a wonderful tour of the estuary, the mangrove channels and the area where the Rio Lempa empties into the ocean.  Misael is very personable and does an excellent job of conducting the tour.  The scenery is interesting and beautiful, the mangrove islands and wildlife are fascinating and the people are delighted.  All in all, a successful day!

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Clients on a tour

Mangroves

Stop on a sandbar

 

Monday December 13

As an unexpected bonus, I get an opportunity to do some extra volunteer work.  Both Misael and his younger brother, Miguel, ask me for suggestions to improve their businesses.  This is the kind of work I have done for CESO in the past and it is gratifying to be able to help these wonderful people, who have taken me into their lives.  Misael and his two sons offer tours of the estuary, similar to the trip to the stick restaurant that Susan and I enjoyed so much.  Like good businessmen everywhere, they are anxious to improve their service and offer a product that will appeal to their clients.

Miguel, like many people from this part of the world, spent several years working illegally in the U.S.  He put in long hours as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant in New York City and was able to save enough money to build his own restaurant on his return to El Salvador.  His restaurant is very attractive, a large, thatched-roofed palapa, and is conveniently situated on the main road.  He serves excellent food and he tries very hard to give good service, but he confides to me that he is discouraged because the business is not thriving.  The customers that do come in appear to be happy, but there are rarely more than a handful and some days none at all.  He sees other, more established restaurants similar to his, doing a steady business.  He is beginning to realize that there might be more to running a successful restaurant than one can learn while washing dishes in the kitchen.  Before either of us is quite aware of it, we are engaged in an impromptu strategic planning exercise.  Miguel is amazed at the information that we pull together from a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), but he still isn’t sure how to use it to get more people sitting at his tables.  Part of his difficulty is simple shyness.  He is uncomfortable selling himself and is crushed by a negative response (most of us are, I tell him – suck it up and keep going!)  We (well, mostly me) brainstorm suggestions that he might try and before long, he probably wishes he hadn’t asked.  I offer dozens of small things that he can try to increase awareness and visibility, most of which are simple and cheap:  get business cards and hand them out everywhere, print brochures and take them to the resort hotels, put up posters, try special offers like Happy Hour or a Sunday Afternoon Barbecue, put up small signs on the main road:  “Miguelito’s Restaurant …10 Km …5 Km ….1 Km”.  I suggest some simple things to improve service like greeting customers when they arrive and giving each one a small, complimentary serving of his excellent ceviche.  And, above all, CHASE THE CHICKENS OUT OF THE RESTAURANT!  Mostly, I try to boost his self-confidence by assuring him that his restaurant has excellent potential and he can expect to achieve success if he keeps trying things to improve it … poco a poco!  I tell him that by the time I come back to El Salvador, I expect him to be a rich man!

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Miguelito’s restaurant

Restaurant interior

A handsome fellow – but inappropriate company while dining!

 

Tuesday December 14

I am instructed to appear for dinner at Miguel’s restaurant at 6:00 pm.  Sure enough, the entire class and half the neighbourhood are gathered to say goodbye.  The menu is pupusas – of course?  After the food is consumed, everybody takes a turn to make a little speech, thanking me for my efforts to help them learn English, for coming to visit their country and for becoming part of their family.  Each of the kids has something to contribute, even eight-year-olds Mauricio and Javier are touchingly eloquent; there is some serious hero-worship going on.  I have tears in my eyes.  Dolores, Misael’s seventeen-year-old daughter, presents me with a gift for Susan:  a handmade shoulder bag, which she has been furiously crocheting for weeks, whenever I wasn’t around.  Francisco, too, makes an emotional and heartfelt speech.  I am expected to reply and if I had thought this through a little more carefully, I would have had something prepared – maybe looked up a few useful vocabulary words.  I stumble along as best I can.  My audience is disinclined to criticize my grammar.  I go around the table and give everybody a hug and promise faithfully to come back again next year.

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Mauricio, Miguelito, pupusas and pop.JPG

Carmen and Aricela.JPG

The evening begins

Carlos and his mother

Carmen and Araceli

Mauricio and his little girl.JPG

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Francisco and me.JPG

Mauricio and his little girl

My fan club

Mi amigo, Francisco

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Misael's father, Felipe.JPG

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Dolores’ gift for Susan

Felipe, the family patriarch

A beautiful little girl

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Mauricio, Miguel, pupusas and pop

Saying goodbye to Santos

Ready to ride off into the sunset

 

Wednesday December 15

Up at 04:30 and on the way to the airport by 05:15.  Francisco drives and Felipe comes along to make sure I know how much they appreciate me.  After checking in at Comalapa International Airport, I find a restaurant that serves un desayuno tipico: huevos revueltos, platanas, chorizo, frijoles, pan francesa and café negro.  One last Salvadorean breakfast and I am set for the day.  Three long flights: Houston, Chicago O’Hare and I arrive in Winnipeg in my shirtsleeves, feeling slightly foolish among all the other passengers bundled in parkas and mitts.  Mercifully, my sister is there to meet me with my winter coat, a sweater and gloves and mercifully, it is ONLY -5°C.

The whole trip was an incomparable experience and I can hardly wait to return to this beautiful country with its warm and welcoming people.  I think it’s time to retire!

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