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November 13, 2011

Susan arrives on Thursday to join me for a two-week vacation.  Sitting on the patio with her Kindle, going for dips in the pool, walking on the beach and visiting with my Salvadorean friends might be the perfect antidote for the sixty-hour work-weeks, stress and traffic jams of Fort McMurray.  Apart from eating fabulous fresh sea-food, we haven’t done anything too exciting, although we are planning a three-day road trip next weekend.  Francisco offers us the use of his car to drive down to the eastern end of the country.

Each day this week, I go to the Bahia Resort, ready to teach a lesson and each day I am told:  “Sorry, there is a big event in the hotel today and everybody is too busy to go to class.”  It is frustrating to me, and also to the students, because they are really keen to improve their English.  They know it is the key to getting a better job and achieving success.  I think the truth of the matter is that the manager of the hotel doesn’t see any personal benefit, so it is not a priority for him.  At any rate, this gives me the opportunity to go back to the school and see if there is anything more I can do to help.

Sr. P. is delighted to see me and gratefully turns his class over to me again.  This one is my favourite, grade 9B, a class that takes to me with enthusiasm.  A tall, lanky girl with an unfortunate bumpy nose immediately becomes the teacher’s pet.  When I pull out my camera, she herds a group of kids together to get their picture (and hers) taken with me.  This class is relatively civilized and they seem to be moderately interested to learn the words and phrases that I try to teach them.  The noise in the classroom is noticeably less deafening and most of them pay attention and at least try to follow my instructions.  It would be really interesting to work with them over a period of time to see what might be accomplished.

Grade 9 fans.JPG

Grade 9 fans 2.JPG

My favourite grade nine class


Another day, Sr. P. tells me that the grade 9B class is writing a final exam and he would like me to help the students.  I ask how I can help them write an exam, but he says that they need help understanding the directions, which are all written in English.  I am quietly horrified.  Why would anyone give an exam to students, with instructions they can’t understand?  Even more relevant: after studying English for a full school-year, why can’t they understand simple directions?  The students have all carried their desks out into the yard and placed them under a shady tree.  It’s a very pleasant place to write an exam.  Sr. P. plants himself in a chair in front of the group, while I circulate around.  Sure enough, the students have no clue what the exam questions ask.  I struggle to figure out a couple of them, myself.  One question gives words in English and asks the students to write their opposites.  Would you know what is the opposite of: “twice”?  I don’t, so I ask the teacher.  He says the correct answer is:  “minus twice”!  Personally, I wouldn’t have guessed that.

Grade 9 English exam.JPG

Sr Penates' exam.JPG

Grade nine outdoor exam


While I am having a cup of coffee in the “cafeteria”, the Director (Principal) sits down with me and says:  “So, what do you think ofSr. P’s classes?”  OMG!  I should have seen this coming, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have been ready.  I try to weasel out by making non-committal comments, but the Director is a bright and personable young man who takes his responsibilities seriously and is devoted to his school and his students.  “Yes, yes, but what is your opinion?”  I take a deep breath and try to tell him what I think, as honestly as I can.  I’m not the least bit comfortable, but I did come down here to try to help in some way.

One of the issues that arises during my conversation with the Director is the question of whether one should use the students’ native language in an English class.  Apparently, the Ministry of Education guidelines insist that only English be spoken in English classes.  Sr. P. adheres strictly to this rule, but since even I struggle to understand his English, the students mostly have no clue as to what is going on.  Certainly, it is their most common complaint.  In the CELTA course, I was taught to use only English, but those were multilingual groups.  A class of twelve students might have eight or ten different language backgrounds:  Chinese, Korean, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese, etc.  It is certainly possible to teach vocabulary and grammar using only English, but it is much more difficult!  Here, all the students speak a common language.  If the teacher can speak that language, too, why not use it?  I use my limited Spanish in class all the time.  It just makes the instruction easier, simpler and more effective.

The school year ends after another week of mostly exams, so I won’t get to spend much more time with these students.  I will miss them.


November 15, 2011


Like most Third World countries, the working people have very little money to spare.  It is difficult to borrow from the banks, but interest rates are very high – upwards of 14%.  Francisco says that if he were to borrow money to buy a new car, he might never pay the loan off in his lifetime.  The interest would accumulate faster than he could make payments.  These economic conditions put a huge premium on the ability to repair old vehicles and equipment – most of which we would consider worthless scrap.  Francisco and his brother, Eliceo, are masters of the art.  When I first arrive, Eliceo is working on two rusty, battered, motor-driven water pumps.  Within a day, he has both of them running smoothly and pumping water like champs.  I say:  “¡Es un milagro!”  (It’s a miracle!).  This becomes our catch-phrase, to Eliceo’s considerable amusement.

Francisco then shows me their next project.  He bought a heavy-duty, jumping-jack packer as scrap for thirty-seven dollars because it had a blown engine.   The machine was made by Wacker, a manufacturer of top-quality construction equipment.  I am intrigued because it has the smallest diesel engine I have ever seen: a 218cc, air-cooled Yanmar, rated at 3.7 hp.  Francisco has a machine shop in San Salvador install a cylinder sleeve and new valves, piston and rings.  With the help of a local mechanic, named Samuel, they reassemble the engine.  Three strong men take turns pulling on the recoil starter for the better part of a day and half.   Samuel adjusts the injector timing, disassembles and reassembles parts of the motor and fiddles with this and that until – finally – a puff of smoke from the exhaust!  More pulling on the recoil – there is a good reason why our lawnmowers don’t have diesel engines – the average person wouldn’t have the strength to pull them over against the compression.  Eventually, the engine roars to life – un milagro mas!  The tiny engine is bolted to a sturdy plank and allowed to putter away for a couple of hours to break in.  Meanwhile, Eliceo and Samuel reassemble the packer.  The engine is reattached onto the packer and Francisco, with a huge grin on his face, takes if for a test hop around the yard.  He estimates this machine is now worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3,500.  To him, because he has upcoming construction projects that need it: priceless!  The alternative is packing the dirt by pounding a heavy post up and down by hand.

reassembling motor.JPG

getting it started.JPG

Chino assembling the motor


Getting it started

Hooray, it runs!.JPG

break-in on the test bed.JPG

Hooray, it runs!

Running-in on the test bed

rebuilding the packer.JPG

refurbished packer.JPG

Eliceo rebuilding the packer

Francisco takes it for a test hop.  In the background, Eliceo puts a new coat of paint on the cement mixer.


A few days ago, I arrive home to find Eliceo putting the finishing touches on yet one more rusty and battered engine.  A few minutes later, it coughs, catches and settles into a steady roar.  I say to Eliceo:  “This is truly a place of many miracles!”  He replies, with a huge grin:  “¡Un Milagro casi todos los días!   A miracle almost every day!"

Nearly every male in El Salvador has a malapodo or nickname.  One typically acquires a malapodo in childhood and it sticks for a lifetime.  Animals are common: conejo or rabbit, is a favourite.  But anyone who inherits the high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes of the indigenous peoples, is inevitably called Chino.  Our nearest equivalent would be Chinaman.  Samuel, the mechanic is Chino.  If you ask around the community for Samuel, no one will have any idea who you mean.  Even his mother phones and asks to speak to ChinoChino learned his trade in the El Salvadorean navy.  He repairs and overhauls gasoline and diesel engines, transmissions and just about any mechanical contraption there might be.  Most amazing to me, is the conditions under which he accomplishes these projects.  Most of them are carried out in the sand, under a tree with almost nothing in the way of shop equipment: a few rusty jacks, a concrete block or two for safety stands, a boxful of rusty, mismatched tools. With a length of rope and a 2X4 for an engine hoist, he can change a clutch, install new crankshaft seals or even do a full engine rebuild.  Chino’s services are in constant demand and he could be quite well off, but Chino is a chronic alcoholic.  After performing daily mechanical miracles for two or three weeks, Chino goes on a bender.  Once he has drunk himself to a literal standstill, Francisco or someone else, carts him home and puts him in a hammock until he dries out again.  In a day or two, he is able to resume work.



Note safety stands

Major engine rebuild under a tree

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