Through a woman's eyes: Life in El Salvador [Beverley Conway]
By Cheryl Springer
February 22, 2004
Eighteen months ago Guyanese educator Beverley Conway upped and left for El Salvador. Well, actually, it didn't happen quite like that.
Conway was completing her Masters in Education when one of her professors, who happened to be the Director of the American School of El Salvador, made her an attractive offer to teach English Literature at his school. It was the perfect opportunity for the bilingual, single and, I might add, adventurous sister. But it was also ground-breaking and a bit of a wrench for the private tutor, who had taught English Language and Spanish to secondary school students at her home for almost 12 years. Conway says so far the experience has been "enriching on many levels, but yet challenging in other ways" and has allowed her "significant personal growth."
'Valley of the Hammocks'
El Salvador is Central America's smallest country, but its 20,752 sq km is home to some 6.3 million people, the majority of whom are Roman Catholics, though Protestant and Evangelical groups also flourish. From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador endured a brutal 12-year civil war in which more than 75,000 people are estimated to have died.
Conway lives and works in the capital San Salvador, which is noted for its infrequent but sometimes very destructive earthquakes and its susceptibility to hurricanes. There in the 'Valley of the Hammocks', as it is called, she teaches English Literature to grades nine and ten students aged between 14 and 17 years at the Escuela Americana, a private, co-educational, college-preparatory institution. The academic programmes are primarily based on a US curriculum, but the school also meets the accreditation requirements of the Salvadoran Ministry of Education and offers the Salvadoran Bachillerato.
Her students are all proficient in English, and about 96% of them are local, usually white, Salvadorans from affluent families. This is significant when one considers that the population of El Salvador is made up of 90% Mestizo (mixed), 1% indigenous Indian and 9% White (of European descent from Spain). Conway says she learnt recently that there was a law prohibiting Blacks from settling in El Salvador, which was only revoked in 1992. It means however, that "the attractive ethnic mixes that often characterize West Indian people are not present here", she says.
Compared with many secondary schools in Guyana, Conway's some 21 students per class sounds manageable. But it can be unnerving for a private tutor used to not more than 12 students at a time, particularly when some students have been clinically diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder. However, Conway finds that lesson delivery is not as challenging as classroom management, in that the response to discipline is inconsistent and there is a huge cultural divide with regard to etiquette in speech. Lesson delivery is assisted by the vast technology available: unlimited internet access in the classroom, overhead projector, Photo-copying Department, CD/TV/ DVD/VCR and Power Point facilities.
Escuela Americana international teachers live on campus in a secure housing complex (complejo) about ten minutes walk from the school. Accommodation is free. Electricity, water, sewage, trash, lawn service, and local telephone service are provided at a nominal monthly fee. The campus sits on 50 acres and includes the Lower School (Grades K - 5); the Middle School (Grades 6-8); and the Upper School (Grades 9-12). There are 120 classrooms; a design and publications department; four computer centres; two libraries; eight science labs; two cafeterias; 16 student bathrooms; a double court gymnasium/multi-purpose building; nine outdoor hard surface courts for basketball, volleyball and handball; a 400-metre synthetic¬ surface track; and two large athletic fields. Students also benefit from counselling services, full-time medical attention and remedial tuition after school.
In life generally though, Conway finds some similarities with Guyana. There are two seasons: wet (May to October), when there's usually a downpour every evening and dry (November to April). The lush green landscape and "vibrantly coloured bougainvillea" are also reminiscent of home.
Not so are the telecommunication, internet and cable services, some of the public buildings, the 12-15-storey condominiums, bridges, highways, large American-style malls, stocked supermarkets, underground parking garages and expanding chain of fast food services ranging from McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King, Mr. Donut, Domino's Pizza, Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, Tony Roma's and the soon-to-be-opened TGIF. And these she says bloom near neighbourhoods of abject poverty.
But never mind these, Conway says, when it comes to food, Salvadorans favour a standard daily fare of casamiento (a mixture of rice and red or black beans, accompanied by fried, very ripe plantains). Another popular mainstay is pupusas (a cornmeal pancake stuffed with farmer's cheese, refried red beans or chicharr√≥n [fried pork fat] and tamales). Many of the local dishes use a corn base.
Salvadorans are fiercely passionate about politics and soccer. Conway says general elections, scheduled for March, are keenly contested and excitement is about to reach fever pitch. She says it is not uncommon for women to hold key positions in the political parties and the vice-presidential candidates for two main political parties are women.
Salvadorans are also proud of their national treasures, such as the famous Costa del Sol beach, Coatepeque and Ilopango lakes, the ruins of San Andres and Tazumal and the national flower, the Izote.
Gaily painted and artistically decorated buses run in the city, but Conway has been warned about the dangers of using public transportation. Crime, violent and petty, random and organized, is prevalent in El Salvador. "It's uncommon to see people walking on the streets in the residential neighbourhoods. My students all drive from house to house, even if only a few yards separate them from their friends. They have warned me, with impressively dire premonitions, of what would happen to me if I dared to use the public buses."
And not unlike Guyanese homes with their heavy grill work, Salvadoran residences are surrounded by imposing brick walls "some as high as thirteen feet with barbed and sensor wire," for personal protection. But Conway says kidnappings for ransom now rarely occur and have decreased in frequency since 2001.
Social life consists of drinking, going to the National Stadium for soccer matches, visiting friends for dinner and drinks, going to the beach or lake on weekends, and eating out. The restaurants in San Salvador are impressive, Conway says, both in terms of their numbers as well as quality. The d√©cor tends to vary widely, imposingly elegant to eclectic to quaint and tiny. The cuisine ranges from Thai to Argentine, Peruvian, Mexican, American, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Chilean. There are numerous clubs and bars favoured by "the younger crowd" and an annual Latin American Theatre festival.
Whitewater rafting, volcano climbing, running in local marathons, spinning and yoga attract many of the international teachers. Conway prefers the tea parties she hosts and her frequent trips to the neighbouring Copan ruins in Honduras or to Guatemala, where, like Bogot√°, Colombia, "the colourful and intricately patterned, yet inexpensive, textiles in Antigua have won my heart - and purse."
In January 2001, the US dollar became the legal currency, and the col√≥n is gradually being phased out. Since then inflation has fallen to single digit levels, and total exports have grown substantially. The major industries are textiles, coffee, sugar, beverages, petroleum, chemicals, fertilizer, textiles, and furniture.
Coffee, once the backbone of the economy, had declined following the collapse of worldwide coffee prices. There followed a substantial reduction in coffee production and decreased rural employment. However, Conway says, remittances from Salvadorans working in the United States are the biggest single source of foreign income and these help offset the substantial trade deficit. Remittances transferred through the banking system and, therefore, counted by the Central Bank, have increased steadily in the last decade and reached an all-time high of $1.93 billion in 2002-13.6% of GDP.
Conway leaves El Salvador next year. What she will miss most, she says, is: "The warmth, the courtesy and the respectful service of the people here. Without exception, I have not met people who are as unfailingly courteous, friendly and willing to help." She especially lauded the staff of the national airline and immigration officers at the airport.
Sources: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/central-america/el-salvador/index. htm