Strange and Strangely Funny

Published: May 14th 2008
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That being said, I was recently inspired to write about my not-so-glamorous experiences here in hot, flat, rural El Salvador by the ingenious travel writer J. Maarten Troost, author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals ( The Book ). Reading this book and laughing out loud convinced me that it´s indeed okay--and in fact, quite healthy--to express my concerns and, well, deep-seated anxieties about my continuing lifestyle "abroad."

"You´re the inspiration"

So, one night while I was consuming a surprising amount of energy (the lightbulb hanging from the cord that´s connected to the neighbor´s house--incidentally the only source of power in my house--is on, the aqua turquoise fan from cerca 1991 is creaking and whirring, the front cage holding on with strategically placed peices of string, and the radio that never tells the right time is crooning "éxitos" from the 80s that I´ve never heard...most notably, a medley of "Ooh, Baby I love your way" and "Free Bird"--sans Peter Frampton and Lynrd Skynrd, replaced by an unknown female voice), I decided to write.

Every once in a while, the radio surprises
"All will be welcome""All will be welcome""All will be welcome"

I´ve never seen anyone inside this house, but it´s very welcoming!
me with greats like Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson. This makes me stay faithful to this one "English" radio station, versus "Fuego" (said in a whispery, seductive tone), which plays a steady dosage of "Titanic" (My Heart Will Go On) between long stretches of overly gooey latin love songs. Still, "Fuego" is a step up from the morass of reggaeton, cumbia, or ranchera stations--I get enough of those around the campo (blasted early in the morning) or at work. I think the English station just bought an entire store´s worth of "hits" from the 80s and plays the CDs looped until I´m loopy. All this because my cherished mp3 player decided to mysteriously disappear one day (more on that later).

God only knows...

One place where I can be sure to hear some loud music of all kinds is on the bus (once, I even saw a dubbed version of Rambo, followed by reggaeton videos on a suspended TV!). Besides the fact that most of them are old schoolbuses, so that they bring you back in an uncomfortably nostalgic way--and the "cobradores" yelling "DALE DALE DALE! AVISA AVISA! HAY SILLAS HAY SILLAS!! (although there are never seats) VAMOS ADENTRO, COLABOREMOS, VAYA! and whistling shrilly above the motor that slows down for no one, my favorite part about riding the buses is the decorations. One of the classics is "SOLO DIOS SABE SI VOLVERÉ" (Only God Knows if I Will Return), but I saw another one the other day that took the cake: "Este bus tiene su hora de salida--su regreso SOLO DIOS SABE" (This bus has its time of departure, its return ONLY GOD KNOWS). Around these stickers, such things as stuffed animals, Winnie the Pooh and Looney Toons posters with "Te Quiero" written on them, images or carvings of Christ or the Virgin (although a crucifix will usually do just fine) and hanging cloves of garlic are usually arranged in altar-like fashion. Somehow, the more chotchkies that are arranged around the bus drivers´altar, the more secure I feel during the crazy passage. Well, if only God knows, why worry?

("California Dreamin´"- The Mamas and the Papas...ah, how true...)

On a more serious note...

There was a dead man in the road today. He had a flowered sheet and a sombrero laid over his body. Apparently, he was riding his bicycle to the market to pick up items of the "canasta básica" (rice, beans, oil, etc.), when he was side-lined by a truck. When someone tried calling the police, there was no answer. They arrived two hours later, when the man was already dead.

("Dream Weaver" just came on. Every once in a while they know to play the classics.)

The Wonder of the Latrine

I think anyone who has used a latrine for a sustained period of time can attest to its greatness. At least for me, mine is a great place to sit and think--and bird watch. Maybe this is because the only other beings I share my latrine with are flies, maggots, wasps, and the occasional passer-by who obviously recognizes my latrine as being pretty sweet (probably because I keep it stocked with TP, and the stench is somewhat bearable, more than I can say for other latrines I´ve visited). So far, I haven´t had any "special" visitors like Aryeh did, when the next day she found a used contraceptive in the latrine (with a lack of privacy, most young people go to the football field or the least they used a condom.).

Not only is
With the lime treesWith the lime treesWith the lime trees

(The latrine is in the background)
this composting toilet much more environmentally friendly than a water-guzzling one, but it has a great view. Especially in the morning when brightly colored birds flit around in the orange trees, or at night when "luciernigas" (Salvadoran fireflies) light up the darkness like hundreds of fairies or earth-bound stars. Add to this the fact that the latrine is located about a meter above the ground, literally lending to the "sitting on the throne" effect. I´ve definitely become an outhouse advocate.

(Bob Seger. "Down on Main Street." Yesss. Maybe I haven´t gone crazy yet because I´ve always had a serious, un-ironic love for these songs. I know that´s how I survived going to the VFW hall in South St. Paul, Minnesota in order to take advantage of the $2 "Honeyweiss" beers...this love has certainly kept me alive in Latin America.)

The American Embassy

Jillian and I went to the American Embassy on Friday. It bore a frightening resemblance to a tasteless white suburban palace with small, tinted windows. When we finally made it past all the security checks to the "Citizens´Services" area, which was surprisingly small, it made us wonder what the rest of the mansion was used for.
The American EmbassyThe American EmbassyThe American Embassy

(The closest we were allowed to take a picture.)
Lest we forget our dear allies in the War Against Terror, it makes one think when one remembers that one of our allies is El Salvador. May people here certainly don´t think fondly of being allied with the United States.

The only thing more disturbing than seeing the air-brushed faces of Condi, W, and Dickie on my way out was the poster mounted above the water dispenser bearing the phrase "Turning in terrorists is risky--it also has its rewards." Add to this that the poster had an image of an open suitcase filled with Benjamins--implying that if you just sent an innocent person to Guantánamo Bay, a mysterious person from the U.S. Government would be more than happy to drop off a leather case exploding with cash straight to your door. But really, besides these morbid observations, the staff was very helpful and friendly (and fast!), which may be one more aspect to add to the list of allures to the ex-pat.

("Love Hurts"--I´ve heard this one too many times for it to be a novelty anymore.)

I crave "The Hut"

After the embassy visit ("No, no pueden tomar fotos enfrente de la embajada"), we went to Pizza Hut. I had tried to attain a good slice in San Salvador twice before. The first time featured a creative barbeque flavored sauce, the second time the "vegetable" loroco, which I wouldn´t recommend eating outside of pupusas. You must imagine my surprise when Laura (the other ArtCorps artist in El Salvador; her wonderful blog can be found here: Laura´s Blog ) told me: "Go to Pizza Hut. It´s incredible. It will change your life."

I´d had my fair share of Pizza Hut in the U.S., where it´s viewed as a middle of the line restaurant, just a touch above Denny´s. In El Salvador, it´s 5-Star quality. This pizza was the most glorious event for my taste buds in a long time (after the Lebanese restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica...). You may ask, "What´s wrong with rice, beans, and tortillas?" Well, not only does Salvadoran food not have the same invigorating spice and flair of Mexican food (think: salt), but there is very little variation. As a vegetarian, I´ve thought of trying out the freshly plucked chicken that was just a couple hours before pecking around the yard--even shaved pig´s head soup (yes, I´ve watched it being made) for some variety...actually, not the latter. But still. I agree, Laura, Pizza Hut changed my life.

("Lady" by STYX. Now, this is truly wondrous.)

Cute Little Killers and My Rep

My two new kittens, Chica and Mona, are not only entertaining and cute companions (Chica likes to lay in my lap while Mona fights losing battles with the hammock), they´re also wonderfully adept at catching and eating bugs--especially the dreaded GARRAPACHOS. Just as their name seems to portend, these creatures are hideous, big, loud, and stupid. They whirr around aimlessly until they make contact with a wall, object, or unfortunate person´s body--or face. This has happened to me more than once, when I´m trying to read calmly in bed by the light of my flashlight--and all of the sudden, something hits my face, then is tangled and buzzing in my hair, until I´m wiggling, panting, and screeching...then forced to laugh alone at my own plight (I don´t even care about mosquitoes anymore, I´ve gotten used to having constantly itchy ankles).

Still, the cats do a pretty good job, and they like playing with their food live before they kill it, so I reward them with a feast of powdered milk and animal by-products, delicacies in a place where cats are usually fed rice and oil-soaked tortillas (I know how that feels). Unfortunately, I´ve begun to become known to the kids (and probably some adults, as cats aren´t preferable pets here--note how I have two) as The Crazy Gringa Who Lives Alone With Two Cats And Lets Us Steal Mangoes From Her Back Yard. The cute little yells of "Salud, Gringa!" from the sides of the road make my reputation worth it. Sometimes.

(I haven´t recognized the past few songs at all...)

Breaking down...

I am convinced that El Salvador may be a place where things come to break, lose consciousness, or die. Mostly objects, possibly some people (I already lost consciousness and broke last year in Cusco, Peru, so I guess I´m immune now). I´ve just sort of accepted that most--no, all--things I own are not in their proper functioning state. My camera, before it mysteriously disappeared, along with my cherished mp3 player ("You´re the Inspiration" by Chicago is playing--convenient, as I actually had this song on my mp3 player), decided to stop seeing correctly, as the lens was always out of focus. The camera was completely
The "chorro" (faucet) and rag...The "chorro" (faucet) and rag...The "chorro" (faucet) and rag...

a.k.a. my necessary tools for taking a shower.
healthy when I left the U.S. My phone died a slow, painful death, but now I have a new peice of plastic to put up to my ear. The smallest guitar string on my guitar broke in the heat--but I was resourceful and made it into a great cat toy. The computer ArtCorps kindly donated to me decided that the charger cord would just stop working. My memory card (with most of my pictures) caught a virus. Let´s not even go near the subject of my bicycle.

My favorite might be the water faucet outside, though. Not only does the water spray every which a way instead of forming a steady flow of water, but the hose that I´ve worked to lead into the pila doesn´t have a connector--so I started off by taping them together. When my duct tape also mysteriously disappeared, I started to tie a rag around my one source of water (I should mention that it´s also my neighbors´source of water). After a couple attempts at engineering the perfect knot, the water may be flowing orderly enough to make it into the pila. There, scrubbing the dust and sweat out of my clothes on a
Isabel and Karina (my neighbors!)Isabel and Karina (my neighbors!)Isabel and Karina (my neighbors!)

Isabel, at 15, is now married.
slab of stone, I can guarantee the slow death of my cotton garments as well. That is, until the pila starts rocking and I shove a peice of rotting wood underneath it...and then it starts to leak, impacting both my sentiments as a water-conserver and my sense of pride after finally getting my "water pump" contraption to work.

("Africa"--Toto. I exalt in this song whenever it´s played. Which is, luckily, fairly often.)


One of the other really redeeming aspects of my life here (besides the latrine and Toto) is the bucket baths. Aryeh raved about them to me, and I have to agree with her. There´s nothing like being sticky from sweating all day, while the humidity presses on, to motivate one to shamelessly pour buckets of rich, smooth, cold water over one´s head. Especially mixed with watered-down Dr. Bronner´s peppermint "magic soap." The effect, especially after scrubbing your feet clean of dust (and sometimes cow manure) under the shade of an almond tree, is honestly pretty close to magic.

My, how things change!

Maybe my standards have gone down. Bob Seger? Pizza Hut? Cold showers inside walls made of sticks, cloth and corrugated iron? Wildlife
Feels just like home...Feels just like home...Feels just like home...

For a taste of the United States, go no further than San Salvador.
watching from a buzzing outhouse-perch? Nope. This has just slowly become my life.

To finish off, Stevie has come on to say "I just called to say I love you." Thank you to those who have contacted me and lifted me up, reminding me that I have some amazing friends and family. In this "other life," it means more than ever.

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


Mama and her kittiesMama and her kitties
Mama and her kitties

(One of the little ones is Chica!)

15th May 2008

"just calling to say I love it!"
Robyn, you have just communicated the epitome of what I want to say in my blog. This is the life that I am slowly accepting as my own and it is a beautiful, lively, confusing and awakening life that has made me think and rethink so many things. I'm so glad you found pizza hut and were able to enjoy it's many wonders. Did you try the tres leches?! yummm... We'll have to make a pizza hut date some time soon. Lemme know when you'll be in the city next. Be well, Pollita
2nd June 2008

Wud Up Sipotilla. I had read your blog and It made me feel like write you something here. I am from El Salvador but after finishing college in Universidad Nacional de El Salvador in San Salvador I moved to Michigan, USA. that was in 1999. I have lots of great memories from the El Salvadorean country side and reading your blog you bring back these memories. So Please write more. Sorry to hear your MP3 player got lost. try puting an Antenna on a tree so you can listen Radio La Femenina 102.5 fm. I remember it as a good station but its been almost 10 years so I dont know if still good. Please write more :) Salu and be safe.
6th June 2008

Your updates are incredible! Thank you for writing this, and for being honest about the hardships you are going through. :)
10th July 2008

did u feel like an alien????
I tried reading all of your blog but I couldn't help buy stop to re-read certain sections and that just messed with my flow. Well it seems to me that you felt like you were in another world when in fact you were just in El Salvador. I don't really wan't to understand some of your comments but hey you felt weird in a "strange country". If youre lucky enough to travel back to my homeland please leave your sarcasm at home...(i hope i spelled that correctly)

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