Saturday, April 2, 2011

Adventures on the bus

Saturday, 4-2-11

What a long and interesting day it’s been. Today I went on my second ever bus trip in El Salvador. Riding the bus is not something I typically do because Kathy’s here and can drive us places. But she’s in the states so that’s not possible. Cecilia needed to go to Alejandro’s school today for a meeting. The meeting was for parents so she was going as a representative (Cecilia is Ale’s brother). Ale is a student at a 2-year university in the city of Usulután studying auto mechanics. He’s into his second year already so he’ll graduate at the end of the year. I was especially excited for this bus trip because it’s the same route that Ale takes Monday thru Friday to get to classes. I like to have a better understanding of what people’s lives are like.

The bus was scheduled to take off at 7am so I got up at 6:15am to make sure I’d have enough time to get ready. I made myself a banana sandwich to go. Yes, I realize that sounds weird, but I came to enjoy banana sandwiches last year when I was here. A visitor from Spain liked to eat them and told me I should try them. I did and I liked it. So today I grabbed my banana sandwich and was off with Ceci by 6:50am. As we were walking Cecilia looked at me eating my sandwich and said, “Niña” (little girl). “Qué?” (what?) I responded. She asked me if I knew what people said about others who walked in the street eating. No, I had no idea. She said people think if someone is walking in the street eating then they don’t have a home. That makes sense. If someone has a home then they are able to eat breakfast/lunch/dinner at home at a table. It gives me something to think about.

We arrived at the bus just before 7am. There was standing room only on the bus when we got on. After a few minutes someone got up and gave me have his seat. Being a gringa can have its advantages. While we were waiting for the bus to leave several people got on to try to sell candy, ice cream treats, mangos, coconut water, and other various items. I heard a bird squawking and figured someone on the bus had a perico (little parrot) of their own. Though it was early I was already starting to get hot. Of course, regardless of the temperatures outside, none of the buses have air-conditioning. I suppose there are buses somewhere in the country that have air-conditioning. I’m sure you have to buy a ticket ahead of time and shell out a lot of money for those buses. I’m sure they don’t exist outside of big cities for the average person to use.

The bus eventually left at 7:10am. At this time I should explain that people in El Salvador have a different concept of personal space (i.e. it doesn’t really exist). And when you’re on the bus you may as well forget it. You’ve got every seat full and then as many people crammed into the aisle as humanly possible. Forget everything you know about maximum capacity and safety. If there’s no more room someone hangs on to the handles outside the door to go for a ride. It’s either that or wait for the next bus. Or someone will sit on the stairs by the entrance to the bus while the doors are open and we’re going down the road at 40mph.

I wasn’t feeling terribly comfortable because the bus was so packed full and I was really hot. But that’s life here. Then the guy who collects your money started coming around. You see, they don’t collect your money as you on the bus. Someone walks around the bus collecting money from people. This is a continual process because people are constantly getting on and off the bus. Occasionally the guy collecting money would shake his hand in front of someone who’d already paid in which case they just ignored him. This is all happening as you’re driving down the road on a hot, crowded bus. The person taking the money kind of squeezes his way between people as he goes down the aisle. Eventually he makes it to the back of the bus at which point he gets off at the back door and goes back around to the front to start all over again

Also, I need to mention that most of the time there aren’t exactly “bus stops” per se. The bus and passengers seem to know where the normal bus stops are because there are few actually signs that say “bus stop”. If you are not getting off the bus at an actual bus stop or if you want to signal to the driver that you want off, you either whistle or make some sort of noise like “Ay!” It all seems very confusing to me as I’m sure it would to any foreigner who hadn’t ridden the bus here before.

We made it to Santiago de Maria by 7:45. I was confused when Cecilia started leading me off the bus. She let me know that we had to change buses to get to Usulután. We walked over to where we’d pick up the next bus. As we got onto the second bus I decided it needed to be called “Mega Bus.” It had three seats on one side and two seats on the other. I also noticed that none of the windows were open. Uh oh. Not good. Usulután is at a lower elevation and much hotter than Berlín. It’s easily in the 90s most days. I started to worry that I was going to suffocate on the way to there. This was not a good thing to think about because then I felt even hotter. When the guy came by to collect money I asked if I could open the window. He leaned over and opened it for me. I grinned at Cecilia with excitement and she started laughing.

At one stop when we were getting close to Usulután some guy got on. He started talking in a really loud voice. I didn’t pay much attention at first and then it seemed like he was preaching at us. I asked Cecilia why he was on the bus and she told me he was selling some sort of medicine. Ahhh, yes. I remember this from my first bus trip. I started paying attention and heard him talking about a magical cream that makes your pain go away. Then he started walking down the aisle because, of course, we really needed one more person walking down the already crowded aisle full of sweaty people. As he walked by I could smell something like Icy Hot or Bengay. For the second time, I decided against purchasing the miracle cream (I have Icy Hot back at the house).

We got off the bus a little before 8:30am. Then we made our way to another bus stop. At that point I realized we had to board a third bus to get to our destination. We stood on that final bus as music blasted away inside vibrating the floor. I didn’t mind the music because I liked what they were playing. Finally, we reached our destination at 8:45am. So our total time from Berlín to Usulután was 1 hour and 45 minutes.

This experience, this bus ride, is what Alejandro does Monday thru Friday to go to school. So here’s his day in a nutshell: He gets up around 5:00am to get ready for school. He walks to the bus stop and the bus takes off around 6am. He changes buses in Santiago de Maria around 6:40am. He catches a second bus to Usulután and arrives there around 7:30am. He catches a third bus and finally arrives at his destination around 7:45am. Just like our ride, it takes him about 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to school. It’s hot, crowded, and uncomfortable. How many college students do you know that would experience this every day just to get to class?

We walked into his school, which is the “Instituto Technológico de Usulután.” Like many places in El Salvador, the school was surrounded by high cement walls and there were armed guards when we walked inside. We asked some people where to go and were directed to one of the classrooms. When we walked inside I noticed that they had air-conditioning. Yay, yay, yay!!! I was really excited. I remember Alejandro telling me that his classrooms were air-conditioned. The reason being it’s over 90 degrees outside and being inside the classroom, a room without windows or ventilation, you’d fry. Now, it wasn’t super cool. Though the AC was set low, to 65 degrees, it was probably still in the 80s in the room. I attribute this to the door to the outside being left open and people constantly going in and out.

The meeting was scheduled to start at 9:00am. I looked at the letter that was sent home with Alejandro and it said in bold 9:00am. Now, did the meeting actually start at 9:00am? No, of course not. This is El Salvador and things are rarely on time. You go with the flow. We eventually started around 9:30am. Now, I had no idea what this meeting was going to be about and neither did Cecilia. It was hard to hear what the people were saying. They had a power point up but I’m not exactly sure what purpose it served. The print on it was really small and the information didn’t seem especially useful to the parents. They talked about the school itself and the values, mission, and vision of the school. They also talked about how important school was.

I was feeling really tired. The bus ride had done me in and it was still hot inside the classroom. I did my best to stay awake for the presentation hoping at some point there’d be useful information. At one point I leaned over and asked Cecilia what the purpose of the meeting was, thinking that maybe I just wasn’t understanding the Spanish. But she said she didn’t know. Then they put up a video that they’d created for us to watch. It was about the school, but other than that I’m not sure why we were watching it. The movie was set to several different songs. Not entire songs, but 30 second snippets of songs. There were pictures of various clubs and other things but I was still lost about why we were there.

Then something happened that really ticked me off. Some guy who was a professor at the university and was there to help with the presentation sat behind me and turned off the air-conditioning. I realize this might seem silly to you, but picture yourself in this situation and tell me with a straight face that you wouldn’t be upset as well. I just experienced a long, nearly 2 hour bus ride where I was smashed against lots of people and now I was sitting inside a cement room with no ventilation and no air-conditioning. And it was in the mid-90s outside. Yeah, I was kind of mad.

Now, all that being said, if the building didn’t have AC to start with then the situation would be different. When I’m at someone’s house in the cantons and it’s hot outside I don’t complain. But come on, if you have AC then take advantage of it. It’s not like it’s personally costing him money. The air-conditioners are there for a reason and that reason is the heat. Even Alejandro has said that it’d be terrible if they didn’t have AC (and he lives in a canton). Turning off the AC in that situation is like having someone hand you the keys to a new Mercedes and you saying, “No thanks. I’d rather walk barefoot over broken class for a couple miles.”

I leaned over and asked Cecilia why he turned off the air-conditioning. She said it was because he had a cold (he was coughing every once and a while). At this point my sarcastic button switched on and I thought of some really derisive things to say. Thankfully I didn’t know how to say them in Spanish so I kept my mouth shut. I will tone down my sarcasm here and simply say that perhaps he should have moved across to the other side of the room and not sat down right next to the air-conditioner.

Now, I am by no means a wuss. I’ve had my share of interesting and difficult experiences. I camp, backpack, bike, kayak, and love spending time outdoors. I’ve pushed the pickup here out of the mud when it got stuck and I’ve walked up the mountain that Berlín in on from several miles below in the pouring rain. But sometimes the heat can make me irritable and so do people when they don’t consider other’s feelings. When I looked around me at other people in the room I could see they were uncomfortable in the heat as well. Several people where fanning themselves with paper and looking anxiously at the AC. But everyone was too polite to say anything and I didn’t want to look like the whiny gringa so I just kept my mouth shut.

After a while Cecilia told me that I could go outside and wait. I said I didn’t want to miss anything and she told me that it was okay. So at 11am (remember, the meeting started at 9:30) I went outside to walk around. It was hot outside too but at least there I had some air movement. I wondered around a little and eventually found the bathrooms. Then I came upon a food stand. I decided that a cold Pepsi and some cookies were in order. I bought them and walked back to where the classroom was. At 11:15 the meeting was finally over. I still have no clue as to its real purpose.

I thought about not including this air-conditioning experience in my blog because it wasn’t very positive and really showed my ugly side. But I feel like I’m omitting something when I hold back information. And I want people to know how I’m truly feeling when I’m here. Now just the good times, but the bad times as well. Not just the moments when I’m happy, but also the ones when I’m really sad. I will definitely remember this experience in the future and maybe I’ll even see things differently someday. Who knows.

Chelita poking her heard out of her nighttime home

Alejandro's university

Inside the classroom

There's the AC!

Walking around campus

It's very pretty

A picture of the national tree: Maquilishaut

Cecilia had asked me if I wanted to go downtown to go to the supermarket. Of course! I like checking out the stores and markets here. We hopped another bus to the downtown area. We got off and walked a little ways to the supermarket. Now, Berlín doesn’t have a supermarket and the closest one to us is two towns over in Santiago de Maria. The one we were at now was huge!! Well, for El Salvador it was huge. It was probably about half the size of the new Dahl’s store on Ingersoll in Des Moines.

I looked around at all of the things they had. They had a fruit and vegetable section, a dairy section, and entire aisles devoted to cleaning products, hygiene products, etc. There’s nowhere in Berlín where you can find all this stuff and certainly not all together like this. I got some candy, brown sugar, and yogurt. The brown sugar I’m planning to use when I make chocolate chip cookies. Kathy has all the other ingredients that she brought down and now I have the brown sugar. It’s not easy to find in El Salvador and I thought I was going to have to resort to using a recipe without the brown sugar. I’m also excited about the yogurt because, with the exception of cheese and ice cream, I eat no other dairy products here. There is no milk and yogurt is not easy to find either. I looked for peanut butter but the one of the employees told us they didn’t sell it. That’s another product that’s hard to find. No big deal. I think I’ll live.

We purchased our products and headed out to find some lunch. We stopped at Pollo Campero to eat. This was my second time at this restaurant. It’s sort of like a KFC but even more popular. A new Pollo Campero opened up in Berlín but it’s really small and only has about 6 main dishes on the menu. The one in Usulután is huge. We decided to eat there so we sat down at a table and someone came to take our order. Oooo, very nice! We both ordered a chicken sandwich with fries and something to drink. Not too long after we ordered our meal came and we munched away. Cecilia also ordered some chicken to go to take home to Blanca.

We finished up and headed back outside to catch the bus. It was a ways away but I like looking around and at all the things for sale on the streets. We just barely caught the bus at 12:45 that was heading to Santiago de Maria. There was standing room only and I propped myself up against one of the seats. The windows were open so there was lots of air and they were playing some great reggaeton music. Eventually some seats opened up so Ceci and I sat down. I recognized one of the songs and started singing to her. I asked for a quarter but she refused to pay me. Oh well.

We got off at Santiago de Maria and walked quite a ways to our next stop. We got on the bus around 1:40 but it didn’t leave until 2:00pm. Most of the trip back was pleasant. There was some drunk guy on the bus standing in the front. He kept tapping the guy next to him on the shoulder and then leaned over and was tapping a woman on the shoulder as well. I felt bad for them. Unfortunately, that’s definitely not an uncommon sight here. Usually when I see drunk people here in town they’re more annoying than dangerous. Probably because by then their blood alcohol level is so high that they can barely function. It’s not unusual to see people sleeping it off on the sidewalk.

We got off the bus in Berlín and were back at the Pastoral House at 2:40pm. It was quite an experience. I was tired enough to nap but decided against it. I got showered and worked on a couple school things for a while. I chatted with Blanca and Idalia when the pan dulce arrived around 4:30pm. Later we were all out back talking. They were cleaning up the yard and I went out to see what all they were doing. I brought out Chenita and had her pose for a picture on a really cool flower in the yard. I’ve decided that her nickname will be Chiquita, which means “small,” because I’ve heard Aminta and Blanca calling her that. It’s been an interesting day. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

The supermarket


The store mascot?

Walking in downtown Usulutan

They have a Payless here

Pollo Campero

The desserts and drinks

Inside the restaurant

Our food

There's our bus

Swimsuits in Santiago de Maria
I thought this was weird because most people
do not wear swimsuits to the beach

Pollo Campero Queen
Complete with crown and chicken

Chelita pecking around

She still loves mom

Turtle, turtle!

Isn't Chenita beautiful!

Barbara likes to eat Chelita's food.
I love her so much!

1 comment:

Matt said...

What an experience on the bus. It is amazing to think that a lot of people do that every day. Chelita is getting so big and Chenita and Barbara are pretty cute in their pictures.