Favorite thing: For some reason that I still do not understand, “organigramas” (organizational flow charts) are all the rage in Salvadoran offices. My Peace Corps supervisor suggested that helping the City Hall create an organigrama might be a good first project and a good way to build goodwill with my new officemates. I didn’t agree with that reasoning, but did agree to go ahead and make an organigrama, so I brought my camera with me one afternoon when I knew everyone would be available and took pictures of the entire City Hall staff. To my surprise, the project turned out to be a success in one way – people who came into City Hall to pick up official documents or meet with staff members seemed to enjoy checking out all the pictures, which were hung near the entrance.
Favorite thing: One of my Peace Corps friends did me one better with the leadership training, organizing a three-day soccer and leadership camp for approximately fifty-five young women in Puerto El Triunfo, Usulután. Along with another volunteer and a Puerto El Triunfo local, I worked on the soccer side of things, serving as a coach for the first two days, and then as referee for the end-of-camp tournament. Great fun; even though the average temperature in Puerto El Triunfo must be around 110 (it felt that way, at least). After the camp ended, we were rewarded with a trip out to an isolated beach, courtesy of the Salvadoran Navy.
Favorite thing: During the time when I was active with the CIVI (the Comité Interinstitucional para la Prevención y Atención de la Violencia Intrafamiliar), I thought it might be a good idea to organize some short hikes so that children from the town of La Laguna would have the opportunity to get to know some of the neighboring villages. It seemed like a worthwhile thing to do because I had noticed that a number of the kids I got to know while working in the local high school (particularly the girls) had never been to many of the cantones and caseríos that are within walking distance of town. A few community members that were also active in the CIVI thought that an organized hike would allow us to talk to kids about domestic violence and related issues. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to convince enough kids to take part, so the CIVI hike never happened. However, I did participate in a similar activity organized by youth groups in the neighboring municipality of Comalapa, joining roughly forty people in a day long hike to La Montañona. And I took five high school students from La Laguna to Llano Grande (a cantón of Concepción Quezaltepeque) to go visit some newly constructed swimming pools. We got there by bus, though, so I suppose it doesn’t really count as a rural “walk.”
Favorite thing: One of the few specific requests that the La Laguna City Hall had when they asked the Peace Corps to send a volunteer to the municipality was that they needed help promoting their projects and activities to members of the surrounding communities. Towards that end, I worked with City Hall in 2001/2002 to promote “Cabildos Abiertos Informativos” that were held in La Laguna and in Concepción Quezaltepeque to inform the local population about the massive road paving project that had been organized by the Mancomunidad La Montañona (a regional governmental entity formed by the seven municipalities that surround the La Montañona forest). For the meeting held in La Laguna, I also organized the cultural activities that formed part of the meeting.
Favorite thing: For some reason, a wave of Brazilophilia swept through El Salvador during the time I lived in the country. One result of this sudden fondness for all things brasileiros was the decision to create the “Primer Gran Carnaval Chalateco do Brasil,” a celebration held in Chalatenango and sponsored by the Brazilian Embassy in San Salvador. Of course, there couldn’t be a celebration without a beauty pageant, so the various municipalities in the department were invited to send candidates. Somehow, it was decided by someone that I should work with La Laguna’s candidate to help her prepare for the interview part of the beauty contest. So I did. I also prepared two pages of information about La Laguna and another page about the candidate which then formed part of the event’s official webpage.
Favorite thing: After FODES and ISDEM (two government institutions that support the activities of El Salvador’s local governments) had prepared an enormous map of the urban center of La Laguna in anticipation of the City Hall’s efforts to collect a newly-minted property tax, I thought it might be a good idea – and something fun to do – to create a digital version of the map. Since simply scanning the original wasn’t an option, I had to draw a scale version by hand and then re-draw that on the computer, using some primitive drawing software. Surprisingly, the final version turned out pretty good, and the fellow in City Hall who was in charge of all matters related to the property tax did end up handing out at least a few copies of the map. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost mine, both the original drawing and the computerized version.
Favorite thing: For some reason, small towns in El Salvador tend to renovate their central plaza once every couple of years. My suspicion is that the reason for these frequent renovations and re-renovations is that, since most of the funds spent on these projects go to pay the salaries of local day laborers, these projects allow local politicians to reward their supporters (and gain new ones) by doling out fairly decent-paying jobs. During the 2002 renovation, I took two series of photos of the work in progress in order to help the supervising architect create a presentation of the project.
Favorite thing: For four months in 2003, the City Hall in La Laguna was abuzz with activity, trying to explain the various irregularities that El Salvador’s “Corte de Cuentas” (a government auditing mechanism) had uncovered during their examination of La Laguna’s paperwork. Since the City Hall staff always treated me well, I agreed to help them put their response together. In the end, working with the municipal secretary, the accountant, the UACI (the fellow responsible for contracting the execution of development projects approved by the city council), and a team of internal auditors, I helped prepare four reports and a total of 179 spreadsheets that were sent to the Corte de Cuentas to fulfill its demands.
Favorite thing: Truth be told, most of the time I spent in City Hall was spent chit-chatting with the rarely busy municipal employees, but I did make myself useful every now and then. One of my contributions was to teach three City Hall employees how to use the internet to download government documents and to access legal information. I also helped them establish an official email account, and later taught two employees how to use Microsoft Excel more efficiently.
Favorite thing: Four months before my Peace Corps service came to an end, I was approached by another volunteer who had been approached by a representative from the Chalatenango office of the Salvadoran Soccer Federation (FEDEFUT), who were looking for help as they began organizing a new project – “Fútbol a la medida del niño” – that consisted of training youth soccer coaches and referees, and organizing soccer camps and tournaments for children aged 12-17. After a pair of meetings in Chalatenango, it was supposedly agreed that the PCV from Comalapa and I would work with the FEDEFUT representative to organize a youth soccer camp, to be held in the departmental capital of Chalatenango, for children from the seven municipalities that form the La Montañona Micro-Region. And that was the last I ever heard about “Fútbol a la medida del niño.” However, La Laguna is now home to a youth soccer school, thanks to the work of a native son who returned home after studying in Cuba.
Favorite thing: At La Laguna’s high school, the INDEL, students have the option of following a 2-year general course of study (bachillerato general) or a 3-year course of study (bachillerato técnico) with a specialization in either secretarial skills or accounting. One of the graduation requirements for 3rd year students is the completion of an internship in some local institution where they can get some relevant on-the-job training. Since there are no formal businesses in La Laguna or any of the surrounding communities, almost all of the 3rd year students end up completing their internships in government offices. During my final year as a volunteer (which was also the first year that the INDEL had any 3rd year students), seven high school students ended up doing their internships in City Hall, where I shared a cubicle with the town’s accountant when I wasn’t out and about working on projects. As such, I ended up working with the accountant to help his five interns learn how to use Microsoft Excel. Also, I helped teach the two secretarial interns how to write up the minutes of a community meeting, and then took them with me to a meeting I had with the Board of Directors of the Women’s Community Bank so that they could put their new abilities into practice.
The basketball game, as I described it at the time in an email message:
I’d said well in advance that I wouldn’t play basketball, because it wouldn’t be fair, because I’m just too good (and too tall) for any of the high school kids to be able to contain. So, I sat with a few students and watched the beginning of the game. The poor 1st year boys only had one kid who could even dribble the ball properly, while the 2nd year class had three kids who actually have some abilities. It wasn’t pretty! Before long, a group of 1st year girls came over to where I was sitting and begged me to play. I did everything I could to avoid playing – I told them that it wouldn’t be fair, that the 2nd year students would complain, and that I wasn’t dressed for it (I was wearing dress pants), but when they grabbed me by the arms and dragged me to mid-court my protests became futile.
When I entered the game, the 1st year boys were losing 18-4. As bad as they were, I didn’t think even my dominating presence would make much of a difference. How wrong I was! I think I only missed one shot in the entire first half, and by halftime we had cut the deficit to 28-20. The second half was much the same –I almost couldn’t miss, and on the few occasions that I did miss I easily gathered my own rebound. We ended up winning 56-48. According to the teacher who was keeping score, I scored 36. When the director announced our victory, I was mobbed by most of the 1st year girls (who’d been chanting my name throughout the second half). It was just like being a star in the NBA, except for the fact that I didn’t take the girls home and **** them two at a time afterwards.
There was a downside, though – the 2nd year girls now all hated me. The boys accepted their defeat, but the girls, they hated me! That afternoon one girl quite deliberately entered a store as I was approaching so that she wouldn’t be obliged to say “buenas tardes.” The next afternoon, a few of the 2nd year boys told me that the girls in their class had spent the entire day talking about how much they all hated me, and that one of them was saying that the next time she saw me she was going to kill me.
On the work side of the equation, my participation in the annual intramural sports competitions in the local high school and in their occasional “convivios” with other high schools in the department of Chalatenango was limited to serving as a soccer and basketball referee. On the fun side of things, I also got the opportunity to play high school sports again a full decade after my own high school graduation.
My first action came in March 2002, during the INDEL’s annual intramural sports competitions, which pit the 1st year students against the 2nd year students. Somehow, it was decided that I would participate on the side of the 1st year boys, to help them out some against the 2nd year class that had many more decent athletes in it. Apparently, my help wasn’t worth much on the soccer pitch; we lost 7-1. Basketball, however, turned out to be an entirely different story (see next tip).
The second and last time I got to relive memories of past high school soccer glory came later that year, when the INDEL traveled to the town of San José Las Flores for a “convivio” (a day-long encounter including sports competitions, artistic presentations, and a dance) with the high school there. Problem is, this high school in San José Las Flores also doubles as a soccer academy; their team apparently trains on a daily basis with an actual coach. After the INDEL boys had slumped to a 5-0 half-time deficit, I was invited to play defense during the second half. Final score, 12-0. Ouch! For future convivios, I stayed firmly anchored to the sidelines.
Favorite thing: Through my collaboration with the local school district, I eventually met the director (and only teacher) of the school in the small community of El Camalote (located alongside the road that leads from La Laguna to El Carrizal, just beyond the turn-off the leads to La Montañona). Like the community itself, this school suffers from a good dose of poverty. During a visit to the school – a small, makeshift wooden structure that had been built by a group of community member – I agreed to help the director in her efforts to identify and contact government institutions and/or non-governmental organizations that might be willing to finance the construction of a permanent classroom. Unfortunately, meetings with a few local officials and communications with a California-based NGO (Seeds of Learning) that supposedly builds schools in the department of Chalatenango accomplished very little, aside from learning that the materials needed to construct a new classroom would probably cost around $5,000.
Favorite thing: In October 2003, I began working with the Women’s Community Bank of La Laguna, an association that had been established earlier that year with the help of Ana, a Spanish psychologist who spent a year and a half living in La Laguna and working on various community projects. My role was to help this group of twenty local women plan and then realize a process of institutional strengthening. In addition to leading them through a leadership training course, I also used materials developed by Asesoría y Consultoría Integral para el Desarrollo (ACID), a Guatemalan NGO, to prepare and present a small-business administration workshop. The women who participated in this workshop learned general management techniques, various low-cost marketing strategies, and basic accounting practices. Beginning in April 2004, when the Bank received confirmation that it had been awarded a $3,605.55 grant by a Spanish bank, I also acted as an economic assessor to the Bank’s Board of Directors as they worked to organize a micro-credit project. During a series of seven meetings, I helped the Board of Directors prepare the group’s legal constitution, the internal regulations that govern the micro-credit project, and all the forms that they use to manage the loan project.