Thursday, July 30, 2009

A History of Poverty

To help understand why things are the way they are down here, I think we need to talk briefly about the recent history of El Salvador. Some of this information I gathered from various readings on the internet; others came from word-of-mouth (ie. from talking to my principal, who has lived here for 3+ years).

In El Salvador, for many generations the country had no middle class. There were the land-owning elite, namely "the 14 families", who literally divided the entire country into 14 gigantic jigsaw pieces (after driving out the native Indians), and those who were landless and impoverished. To give an idea of how far-reaching the wealth is of those elite families, my principal pointed to the giant volcano that backdrops the city of San Salvador, and said that two-thirds of that mountain is still owned by a single board member of our school today! All of that land teems with coffee plantations, and one can only imagine how much money is associated with that volume of production.

As with any sort of wealth disparity comes social unrest. The country divided itself over time into two parties -- the same two parties that still exist today -- the Republican party, or ARENA, and the Socialist party, or FMLN. Locals simply refer to the latter as Frente, which literally means "Front" and refers to the idea that the FMLN came about as a coalition of smaller populist parties. Over time, both parties began to use violence -- torture, rape, and killings -- to further their cause, and by the late 1970s, the situation had boiled over to a full-blown Civil War.

Because the landless Salvadoreans were sympathizers of Fidel Castro and because this period in Salvadorean history corresponded in timeline to the U.S. fear of the spread of Communism, the U.S. administrations from Carter to Bush Sr. gave a total of 7 billion dollars in aid to El Salvador in support of the ruling elite. Sadly, since this choosing of sides was political in nature, whether it was justified remains questionable. An excerpt from Amnesty International's 1985 annual report states, "Many of the 40,000 people killed in the preceding five years had been murdered, by government forces, who openly dumped mutilated corpses, in an apparent effort, to terrorize the population." --This is not to gloss over the violence brought on by the opposing guerrillas, but simply to state that both sides were definitely violent to an extreme in this internal conflict.

In any case, in 1992 a peace accord was signed, partly because the guerrillas were running out of steam. For a period of 5 years that followed, parts of the land were re-distributed slowly to eligible soldiers on both sides under the supervision of the United Nations, and the guerrillas re-established themselves as a legitimate political party.

In June, the first ever Frente president took over in a legitimate election. It had been expected to be a landslide victory, ever since he had emerged as a popular, moderate, and charismatic candidate. But, the 6 months before the election saw a lot of rumors spreading fear that he was a Communist and was going to drive away all the business owners in the country. In the end, he won by a margin less than 3%. The jury is still out, since he is so new, but we can only hope for the best.


Some worrisome news from a Salvadorean blog I read:

The online periodical Contra Punto reports the latest homicide statistics for the first 7 months of 2009 and they are troubling. Murders are up 37% in El Salvador for the first seven months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. So far in 2009, there have been 2428 violent deaths, compared to 1767 in 2008. These statistics come from the Attorney General's office who asserts that the majority of these murders are gang-related.

Speaking of gangs, supposedly the rampant gang activity down here is, again, closely tied to the history of poverty in this country -- and maybe surprisingly, also related to the Salvadorean immigration to/deportation from the States.

In any case, Geoff's and my neighborhood is relatively safe. Like most of our neighbors, we have 24-hour security guards who hold machine guns behind closed gates -- not that they actually would use the guns in a time of need, but as far as appearances go, I think they give off some sort of a protective vibe, anyway. And for now, Geoff and I have given up on walking home at night, just to be on the safe side. Cab rides are only a few dollars to get to anywhere in the city, so it's really not worth it to walk even 15 minutes in the dark...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Erratum on Taxing and Social Security

The school gave us new international hires a talk on money today, amongst other things. Some of the info I had previously gathered about the social security system wasn't entirely correct, so here is the updated version (Sorry!):

In El Salvador, there is really a three-tiered health care system. The top tier is private healthcare, which only the wealthy locals and the international residents can afford. The middle tier is what is called the Social Security, in which all workers who pay taxes take part. The bottom tier of health care applies to those who make little to no money, ie. the kids who come around to sell you necklaces at the beach. Those "workers" are not covered by the Social Security, because they do not report taxes on their cash income. Maids, who make anywhere between $8 and $12 a day, also fall into this third category, since they typically do not report their earnings.

Deducted from our monthly salary are three things: Salvadorean income tax, Salvadorean Social Security tax, and the Salvadorean pension. The only part that you get back at the end of your service is the pension -- and there is no guarantee on that money, since the newly elected government could opt to pass laws to forbid foreigners from taking that money back. The rest goes to the communal fund, whether for healthcare or otherwise.

Just thought I'd clear that up, in case anyone was curious. I am sure I will continue to learn many things about the tax process as we move along... :)


Also good information to know, speaking of money: Even though El Salvador has a dollarized currency...

1. Regular checks written from local banks are not redeemable in the States.
2. You have to purchase a "draft" check in order to redeem it in the States.
3. Checks written from U.S. banks are redeemable here, but they do take about a month to clear.

Just the way it is. Doing everything takes some time down here, even though most things can be done...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Weekend Excursion

Geoff and I spent the weekend by ourselves, because the rest of the new international teachers were busy settling into their apartments. In El Salvador, we have thus far met a lot of really nice locals, but because of the disparity in income, we think that many of them would not be able to afford the lifestyle that we want to have, ie. going out regularly. To give you an idea of what a "regular Salvadorean" makes in income, Geoff and I could go out and have a FULL meal -- with two pupusas and a drink for each of us -- and the total for BOTH of our meals would be around $2.50. And many "restaurants" and snack stores are holes-in-the-wall that are run literally out of someone's home or front yard. You can get a chocolanana, or frozen chocolate banana, for around 35 cents. Clearly, that's not a very high profit margin; the vendors make those right at home and sell them through a little window that faces the street, in order to keep their costs low.

International school teachers are considered upper-middle class here. In truth, my salary here is far lower than my salary back in NYC, but because the cost of living is so much lower here, our life is much more luxurious than what we once had back in NYC. Geoff and I could afford a 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom apartment here, with a pool and 24-hour security, in a nice neighborhood. In NYC, for the same amount of money, we couldn't even get a single room in a shared apartment in Manhattan!

Anyway, on Friday, we had gone out in Zona Rosa, which is a posh partying district here in the city. After having a delicious steak dinner and drinking in an outdoor bar typical of this area, we checked out another indoors bar, Riconcitos, which had an awesome vibe and a cover band. The band's music was upbeat and diverse -- I think they started out with some electronica and ska, and then wrapped up with some reggaeton and salsa. The crowd was young; here in San Salvador, high-schoolers can go out and drink and party as well, and you definitely can spot their young faces in the hip bars around town. Afterwards, Geoff and I went and danced in another cool little spot across the street, where they were playing some American music, mixed with a lot of merengue. --All in all, a really fun night. :)

We ran some errands on Saturday, and then headed down to the beach. We had our minds set on going to el Tunco, which is a beach named for its giant pig-shaped rock. (Actually, the rock looked awesome, but it also looked more like a whale to us than a pig.) This beach is a famous surf spot, but we didn't get to surf this weekend. Instead, we swam in the ocean and had some delicious pupusas and seafood. We also stayed with a semi-creepy artist at his guesthouse, and that was very interesting. While we were hanging out with him on his porch, the electricity went out for the whole village, and momentarily we were sitting in complete darkness -- with a creepy guy who had already demonstrated his prowess with his machete and had reiterated his love for Asian women! Yikes. ...Fortunately, everything was OK in the end, and we even ran into our friends Alison and José the next day at the beach! :)

On Sunday night, we drove our rental car back to the city and went to a barbeque at the school's complejo, where the rest of the international hires live. That was fun, because teachers are almost always a social bunch. I'm hopeful that once they are settled in, they'll be up for going out and exploring the neighborhoods with us. :)


A pictoral illustration of a crazy bus that went into the lane of on-coming traffic in order to pass cars in our lane; it eventually gave up and came back into our lane. (Taken on the way back from the beach.)


As you might have read, the swine flu has been in full-swing in El Salvador for 4 months. Well, the ministry is closing schools for two weeks -- this week and next week. What that means is that we are not allowed to go into the school itself, and all of the paperwork and professional development meetings we were supposed to have this week have been moved to another location. School will be delayed at least one day in opening, which I'm certainly not complaining about. Other teachers are keeping their fingers crossed that the school will be delayed even further, to allow us a last long weekend before school re-opens.
We'll see about that, I guess. I'm not too worried.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Zones, Roads, and Mail

The country of El Salvador is divided into 14 departamentos, or states. Within each state are many cities, or ciudads. Geoff and I reside in the city of San Salvador, which is also located in the state of San Salvador. This city is the capital city of the country, but even within it there appears to be a vast disparity in wealth. The city further subdivides into zonas, or zones. Our apartment is in Colonia de San Benito, which -- depending on whom you ask -- is either itself a tiny zone spanning a few blocks in diameter, or is embedded in a bigger zone (Zona Rosa). In any case, we finally got some sort of address for the apartment when we signed the lease, but even without it, our mattress delivery guys had figured out where to find us based only on the zone information and the building name. Because the city is so small and compact, things are easy to find here and addresses are not too specific.

That said, we still need to test out our address before we set up permanent mail-forwarding from the States. Geoff has been doing a good amount of research, and it looks like we can either get a service that scans in our mail, or one that forwards them periodically without examining the mail. I think we are going with the latter. For now, all of our mail is sent to and held by Geoff's parents in New Jersey.


Speaking of geography, trying to find a good city map here has been nearly impossible, and I have just about given up on the notion altogether. A free map that we got from a local restaurateur has turned out to be the best thus far. It highlights the roundabouts and major streets, even though it does unfortunately omit certain smaller streets. The roundabouts are important, because here you are very restricted in where you can make left turns. I would say maybe one out of every 6 or 7 streets allows left turns, and -- because the streets themselves curve -- before you know it, you are already going in the wrong direction altogether. The roundabouts are useful in allowing you to make all kinds of turns. Another traffic peculiarity here is that when you come to an intersection of two major streets, where there is no roundabout there is often a road bridge that raises the traffic from one road to be above the other. This avoids unnecessary waiting at the intersection, and is actually very useful, if you're familiar enough with the roads to anticipate the intersection. Their labeling of the roads is different from that of the States. When I get a chance, I'll take a picture. Geoff and I had a wild ride on the first day, trying to figure out what those signs mean and where we were on the map...

But, all is well. :) Still missing internet and phone services, but for now Geoff and I are stealing wireless bandwidth from our neighbor, so things are OK. I also miss dancing, but until we buy a car and are able to get out more regularly, my assignment for myself is to expand my jazz collection and jazz knowledge. It's something I had always wanted to do, but hadn't had time for. If you have killer jazz playlists, please do send them my way. :) Adios!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dinero, Manejo, y Otras Cosas

Everyone here rocks the Hamiltons, or $10. In fact, that is the largest denomination dispursed by the ATM. :)


In El Salvador, since the late 90s there has existed a privatized Social Security system. Anyone who works in El Salvador would see an automatic payroll deduction (for me, I believe it will be roughly 6.5%), but it is money that they can reclaim either at retirement, as pension, or at the time when they permanently leave the country, as a lump sum. Employers also contribute to this Social Security. The same Social Security system also provides a form of socialized health care in this country. Although foreigners like us are also eligible for the ubiquitous health care, they typically go to private doctors to avoid the long lines (and to ensure "better care", whatever that means) -- hence the private health insurance that we pay for. But, it's good to know that the poor is somewhat provided for in this country, at least in theory.


Thus far, Geoff and I have had a fantastic experience in El Salvador! People have been super friendly and helpful -- not to mention extremely patient with our Spanish. Things are definitely much slower here, except when we are driving. As in many developing countries, speed limits and traffic signs/signals work more as recommendations than as hard-and-fast rules here. Even lane divisions aren't so clear-cut; people habitually cross over to the opposite lane (in face of on-coming traffic) in order to pass a slower car. Maybe surprisingly, the craziest drivers appear to be those of busses. On our first day with a car rental, Geoff and I had a few close encounters with busses coming at us at full speeds while we are stopped, or witnessing bus drivers making 3-point turns in the middle of a busy street! Holy mother of God. They are CRAZY! Also crazy is the fact that pedestrians are literally everywhere. In the busier parts of town, at every traffic light there would be teenagers coming up to wash your windshield. They don't take "no" for an answer, even though most cars do not pay them for the unsolicited service. The same goes for street vendors who weave in and out of traffic to sell all kinds of stuff. We even saw a juggler in front of a taxi cab that was stopped at a light. On the way to the beach last weekend, we also saw cows and horses walking unsupervised alongside the cars on the highway. One kid crossed the highway in front of us on a skinny horse, which he was spurring along with a random tree branch. Geoff and I could not stop exclaiming how crazy people are down here, but it seems to be just a way of life for them, no hay drama.

I really like how things are different here. As it turns out, getting an apartment wasn't so hard; obtaining a permanent visa also seems to be fairly straight forward, albeit a matter of time. What Geoff and I have spent the last few days agonizing over, ironically enough, is setting up our phone and internet services. To get those set up, not only do we need a passport and a NIT card, but we also need apartment contracts and formal letters from my school, vouching for my employment contract and salary. And, as you can imagine, pulling those details together is not just a matter of hours, especially down here. It is a bit frustrating, because even though we are gaining basic Spanish proficiency pretty fast, it isn't helping to hurry along the settling-in process, and Geoff is losing time daily for work as long as he does not have reliable internet access at home...

I am holding my breath that everything will be OK by the end of today. The 85-degree ocean is, too, holding its breath...

Friday, July 17, 2009

First Tasks

Upon arrival in El Salvador, the customs officers issue you a 90-day tourist visa at the border. After that, your first order of business should be to obtain a "NIT" card.

The NIT, Número de Identificación Tributaria, is the local equivalent of the Taxpayer Identification Number, issuable to any individual who holds a valid passport -- even if they only have a 90-day tourist visa. It is a stepping stone to doing other important things, like setting up a local bank account.

Fortunately for us, one of the school staffers took Geoff and me to apply for a NIT on the first day. The whole process took about 10 minutes and 50 cents. --You read that right, 50 cents! For both of us combined! The same awesome lady also took me to open a local bank account, which took significantly longer. There were a lot of papers to sign, and it looked like the only reason why things went through so smoothly was because I was backed by the Escuela Americana staffer.

Then, Geoff and I spent the rest of the day looking at apartments (putting what little Spanish we know to the test). Even though there is still paperwork stuff to iron out, we are pretty sure we have found our first home! yay! For future reference, doing everything in El Salvador is about whom you know. There is no Craigslist or real-estate agency... You go look at apartments that are owned by a friend-of-a-friend, or by the mom of a cousin of a co-worker. Pretty funny. :)

Keeping our fingers crossed, Geoff and I will be in our home by Sunday, minimally settled by next week (with cellular phones and internet access all hooked up, and our bed delivered), so that we can start taking surf lessons! :) (As it turns out, one of my new co-workers dates one of the top-ranked surfers in El Salvador, and he offers $10 surf lessons... As you might expect, Geoff has already enthusiastically chatted him up and gotten him to agree to teach us to surf!)


Incidentally, I looked it up briefly out of curiosity, and it looks like the requirements for getting a tax ID number are indeed much stricter in the US than in El Salvador, as one might expect. As a foreigner looking to apply for a Social Security number, you would have to either prove that you have permission to work in the States or prove that you are part of a federal program (ie. federal funding) that requires an SSN.

As for opening US bank accounts as a foreigner, the process is so mind-bogglingly complex that I would have to recommend browsing through this link to get a sense of the difficulties involved. It is pretty insane how unfriendly the US framework is to foreign businesses, and yet how many people still want to do business with us. ...For now, anyway.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Last-minute preparations

Last day before flying out! Perhaps predictably, these last few days have been very busy. Most of it has been purely logistical.

  • Getting follow-up immunization shots. I am now mostly immunized against common illnesses in Central America. Among other things, you can stab me a few times with a rusty knife, and I will still be OK (possibly unhappy, but physically OK).

  • Printing out handy docs. We will be meeting up at the hotel, so we each will need a copy of the hotel reservations to get through customs. We may also need each other's itineraries (in case the customs folks give us trouble) and maps to the hotel...

  • Mailing teaching materials to El Salvador. Note to future mailers of packages: You will need to fill out American customs forms for your goodies, and the items will be held at the Salvadorean customs for me to pick up.

  • Scanning important documents. We are storing all of the actual copies at Geoff's parents' place, but we will be bringing digital versions with us. That includes teaching papers, medical reports, my diploma and transcripts, etc.

  • Doing last rounds of laundry, packing, taking measurements and weights of packages. Even though it differs a bit from airline to airline, generally speaking, we are each allowed two check-in bags weighing 50 lbs, with "linear measurements" of 62 inches or less. Linear measurements indicate length + width + height. Because of the various constraints, we have had to change up our plans and go with regular suitcases instead of the sexy duffel bags. In the end, our suitcases are too wide to sit directly on top of our scales, so Geoff has had to weigh himself standing on top of the scales with and without holding the luggage, in order to find out their weights. It's a good technique to use, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation! :)

  • Storing things at Geoff's parents' place. There are a few sentimental things I needed to keep, like Frankie Manning's signed autobiography, my HKN scrapbook, some baby pictures, and my old records. Besides that, Geoff is storing some clothes and shoes, his guitar, and various paperwork.

  • Booking a hotel. We will be staying temporarily at the Tazumal Guesthouse, hopefully only for a few days while we look for a permanent apartment. It's a pretty cheap place -- $40 a day between the two of us. We are keeping our fingers crossed that they will have reliable internet and allow Geoff to do some work while we are in transit. If you don't hear from us within a week after our arrival in El Salvador, you'll know where to begin looking for missing bodies. --Just kidding! Sort of. harhar.

  • Buying medical supplies. It looks like both CVS and Duane Reade have stopped selling the facial lotion that I use. A bit worrisome, but I bought an alternative type instead. Hopefully it will not make me break out while I am down in San Salvador. We have both replenished our supplies of contact lenses. I have also gone and refilled my inhaler meds. Even though my Albuterol is almost out and so is my prescription for that type of emergency inhaler, I think I will be OK to have just my Advair and the allergy meds for a while, as long as we don't move into a cat farm.

  • Figuring out our insurance plans. Geoff researched various options of international insurance plans, and has hopped on board with Goodhealth already. I will be covered by EduCare, which seems to have a pretty good coverage both within the States and in El Salvador. The best part is that the school covers 75% of the premium for me. The bad part is that dental and vision are not covered. I may have to look around for a vision insurance when I get there. (It's not a big deal in the short term, but I do need to go to the ophthalmologist regularly to check up on my retina. There is a chance that I could need emergency surgery some day, despite my optimism...)

  • Cleaning Geoff's apartment. Living in a transitional place with transitional roommates and no lease is great for commitment-phobes like us, but as you can imagine, the bathroom is grimy! ugh. This was definitely my least favorite part of moving.

  • Bonus: Geoff has had to spend hours dealing with some unexpected technical snafoo. :( Thankfully, it all worked out beautifully in the end.

...But, with all of that said, I think we are finally, finally ready to go. This is where the craziness starts!!


PS. What do you think we are doing in NYC on the eve of our departure? --We are heading up to midtown to grub on Chicken and Rice, and then heading over to Lincoln Center to buy Spanish-English phrasebooks and to watch the midnight showing of Harry Potter! :) There is no doubt that we are going to miss NYC... what a great city.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver

There are some trips that you take with friends or lovers -- adventures to be shared and epic stories to be told -- and then, there are some that you take just for yourself. I had planned my solo NW trip with full intention of it being a breather in between all the craziness; I really wanted things to go at an uber-leisurely pace, with some dancing here and there to fill the time. In fact, for the first time ever, I didn't even try to coordinate anything with friends before arriving in Seattle, and -- as poor Micah could attest to -- I was yet making arrangements to crash at people's places after hugging them hello. :)

But, ironically enough, various parts of the trip turned out to be very busy! I had bizarre / hysterical experiences in both Portland and Vancouver, and I ended up playing things by ear the entire time. God bless the charming Oregonians, and God ought to bless the Canadians. ;) (...I might be biased, since I was detained at the border for 2 hours by the Canadian customs officials, who had the infinite wisdom to suspect that I might be dealing drugs. But, really, all kinds of weird stuff was happening in Vancouver! I even walked into a local bank to find out that it didn't have an ATM on site! And random people you grab on the street usually can't tell you which direction is west. ...WHAT?! I am pretty sure Canadians are all very well-intentioned, but... umm... they seemed like they could use a little logistical help, maybe.)

Funny idiosyncrasies aside, my trip to the NW definitely lived up to all of its promise: warm weather, awesome dancing, beautiful music, and a lovely time catching up with old friends. :)

I love summer traveling. This summer will be cut short because of the big move, but I am still hopeful that we will be able to find an apartment quickly, so that we can drive around El Salvador and explore a bit during my week off in August.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Irish Philosophy of Life

I love this:

In life, there are only two things to worry about:
either you are well, or you are sick.

If you are well, there is nothing to worry about,
but if you are sick, you have two things to worry about:
either you will live, or you will die.

If you live, there is nothing to worry about;
if you die, you have two things to worry about:
either you will go to heaven or to hell.

If you go to heaven, there is nothing to worry about,
but if you go to hell,
you'll be so busy shaking hands with your friends,
you won't have time to worry!

This should be all of our philosophies. :)