“I have to get out of here”

Colin and I have high tolerances for discomfort fostered over years of traveling on 3rd-class trains to stay in 1-star hostels. But age or having a salary or the combination thereof are apparently making us soft.

Air quality in China is not very good: some days the sunlight takes on a distinctly orange tint. We have top-quality blue-ribbon air filters in all of the rooms of our apartment, but we also wanted some plants for their added filtration and general zen.

At the end of a metro line, the Lingnan Flower Market spreads out several blocks with individual vendors selling not only apartment plants, orchids, and small trees, but also ceramic planters, bamboo fencing, silk flowers, water features, and popsicles. An old hanger is filled with nothing but cut flowers. Lovely, no?

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Colin took this photo.

The narrow roadway that cut through the market was busy with rumbling trucks delivering plants and silent electric scooters delivering people. Motorcycles with trailers honked their annoyance at pedestrians with nowhere else to walk but the gutters. I had not yet acclimatized to the intense heat and humidity, and the tarpaulin coverings we walked under kept off the worst of the sun but also trapped some of the heat. I was melting.

“This isn’t fun anymore. I want to leave.”

Fast forward to last weekend and our first trip to the big-box store that has been described as the German Costco. A cart each, we loaded up with the greater variety of imported goods: canned tomatoes, pickles, Campari. I noted a gallon of ketchup and 10 kilos of mozzarella, but mostly it was just normal amounts of product at a significantly cheaper price than I can get at the supermarket in our underground mall.

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Can I interest you in 2 kilos of cream cheese?

 

The noise level increased as we approached the frozen section and met a crush of carts and people and women shouting into microphones about… frozen shrimp? Pork dumplings? There were samples of hard-boiled eggs and children playing foursquare with a ball from the outdoor section. Colin looked nauseated by the onslaught and not any better by the time we’d navigated to the dairy. I grabbed my butter for baking; he got his milk for yogurt-making.

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“Do we need anything else?” I eyed the Mission tortillas even though we have no appropriate beans or cheese. “I don’t know anymore. I have to get out of here.”

So we’ve gotten soft. We need cool, calm, quiet environments where there is no risk of being mowed down by teenager with scooter or granny with shopping cart. No problem.

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Old Friends

Our arrival in China has been smooth. From being fetched at the airport to signing up for our own library cards at the top-notch library just a short walk away, everything has gone as expected—some traffic here, a typhoon there, but really well on the whole. Some old friends here have eased our way.

It hasn’t just been the friends from C’s initial training class that we’re overlapping with, though picking their brains has helped enormously. It has also been the familiar sounds and flavors, the feeling of warm rain, of being curiously stared at. The scent of a specific kind of fried chicken took me right back to our night market in Taipei, even as we took a pedestrian overpass above an eight-lane road in our neighborhood.

In meeting new people here, they often want to know, First time in China? And I can see why. This place is foreign from the U.S. in a multitude of ways, sometimes delightful, sometimes frustrating. Our Taiwan frame gives us a reference point on so many of our initial experiences here.

So even though this city of over 15 million makes me feel like a country mouse, and it’s been over 7 years since we left Taiwan, and that technology here lets one pay with the swipe of a phone or hail a taxi with no Chinese ability whatsoever, we have found old friends here, and old friends are nice to have when you’re so far from home.

Summer Vacation: Suchitoto getaway

Two years and three weeks ago, Colin and I threw a big party and said some vows, so three weeks ago we celebrated by visiting a tiny mountain town with stinky lake and one of the best hotels in the country. Suchitoto is only about an hour and a half north from San Salvador and has the distinction of being one of the few towns spared during the civil war, so its streets are cobblestoned and its buildings are one-story and surround small courtyards. We walked from the indeed lovely hotel to the lovely plaza in front of the church. That Friday was a national holiday, Father’s Day, so the plaza was full of families enjoying shaved ices and snapping photos. We had a decent lunch on the square and did a bit of souvenir shopping, picking out a new hammock and a clay pitcher.

Our guidebook, an old copy of Central America On a Budget, suggested walking down to the lake, so we set off in the heat Saturday morning, but about 20 minutes in and soaked with sweat, it occurred to me that our book never would have considered that we might be able to drive our own car down. The lake and its recreation area, once we got down there, proved disappointing. Not actually all that stinky, but definitely nicer to look at from afar. After about 15 minutes spent watching the small ferry boats from a park bench with an empty, open-air food court behind us and a curious family next to us, we took our leave. A dip in the hotel pool and a couple hours reading in the courtyard seemed a better use of our time.

Rainy season

I was told when the rains started again back in May that they were coming late, and I could see El Salvador was parched and needed the relief by the time the rains were falling regularly. I am happy that it’s rainy season again because it makes our little garden happy, it makes the farms across the countryside happy, it makes the lakes and rivers happy, and it brings El Salvador back to the lushly green country we landed in a year ago. It’s a good thing.

It does also mean that our ceiling is leaking again, even though we have over a month of roofers up there after the last rainy season. It also, this time, means our little tomatoes aren’t reaching maturity because the daily pounding rains are too much for them to bear. And most annoying, it means the mosquitoes are out in force and have somehow breached our perimeter, such that I killed five inside the house yesterday and four so far today.

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Couldn’t hang.

Summer Vacation: Recent obsession

Hello world! I’m starting week three of summer vacation, and I honestly don’t have much to show for the enormous amount of free time I’ve suddenly been given. That’s OK, though. I’ve watched some Netflix, read some books, baked a LOT of bread, made some fancier meals, and gotten at least halfway through organizing some of this past year’s school materials to be better prepared for next year.

The first two weeks of vacation, and continuing into this week although to a lesser degree, have been set to the soundtrack of Hamilton, the musical. The Tonys happened the Sunday after the last day of school (do yourself a favor and watch this clip of their performance during the awards show) and so the hugely popular production resurfaced in my consciousness and, acknowledging I will likely never see the show live, I downloaded the original cast recording and blasted it three days straight while I cleaned my classroom. My pal, the third-grade teacher, wasn’t there to make fun or to see me tear up during “Burn” (it was an emotional week).

I tried to mix it up by listening to other musical soundtracks, but the thing that I can do while Colin is around is read 1776 by David McCullough, which follows Gen. Washington during the fight for American independence and barely features Hamilton. Oh well. A riveting story nonetheless.

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I also made this inspirational poster for next year’s second graders. It’s a lyric.

Late to the game, I know, but I’ve got a lot to catch up on coming out of the first year of teaching. So if everyone could stop talking about House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Game of Thrones, that would be great, thnx.

Pen pals

No excuses; no epic, sweeping catch-up post; no promises that this will be regularly updated once again. It’s bad blog practice if even Grandma has given up on you…

We’re doing a really fun (for me) project in class right now–my amazing former mentor teacher agreed to have her class be pen pals with my class, and my students are now writing their second letters to send off to their new Virginia friends. It’s funny to see what eight-year-olds think is worth putting into a letter to a near stranger. It’s funny to hear a comment come out of one child’s mouth and then see it appear in drafts of four other students. Everyone’s favorite movie is Star Wars.

My students lives are not so different from those of the Virginia students, but there are misconceptions on both sides: although the twins in my class at one point had a pet monkey, that was unusual even for here; and my students aren’t real clear about the different weather phenomena likely to hit the Mid-Atlantic region. Sports and games go by different names, but everyone loves art class. (Note to self: incorporate more art projects.) I can say with 100% certainty that more of my students have nannies at home, and also that even though I’m the one teaching at the international school, the Virginia classroom is more diverse.

Anyway, Vicky, I’m doing the best I can. It’s a lot to teach social niceties and grammar and handwriting all in one to the bunch I’ve got. Thanks for your class’s patience.

Rain Days

I got two unexpected days off work this week because Central America got hit by some severe… rain. I have next to nothing to show for my time: some carrot muffins, a pumpkin loaf, the leftovers of an involved fish dinner. I watched more Netflix than I care to admit. I did manage the outline of a plan for how to teach five days’ worth of material in three days. Somehow we’re already in week 10 of the school year–the end of the first quarter. I will have to issue report cards for my little monsters next week. It also marks 10 weeks that we’ve had Cat (and have managed to keep her). IMAG2852

Things that are making me happy this week: Halloween preparations are in full swing! My costume is going to be on the understated side, but I’m looking forward to a fun Friday at school (complete with birthday cake!) and then a nice long weekend with a trip to the lake. All of the family visiting for Christmas now has their flights booked! Colin bought our tickets for the Marine Corps Ball at the end of November. We received a Halloween care package full of lots of fun goodies! It has been decided that we’ll be the hosts for Friendsgiving, so this weekend I allowed myself to start planning that.

Every weekend should last four days: there’s so much more to be positive about when they do!

Priorities

Our days are filled with choices, most of them small. Eat breakfast at home and risk leaving late or take it on the road and risk spilling yogurt in my bag? Cut through the gas station to make my right turn or wait in line like a decent person? Grade papers, plan for tomorrow’s classes, or edit? Frozen lasagna or fried rice? Must I shower tonight or can I go another day? I’ll just check facebook real quick. I’ll blog… next weekend.

Some of the choices are easy: I will forgo mascara today because otherwise we will both be late to work. I will edit for my second job instead of going to bed because doing otherwise affects people and profits beyond me, as well as my professional options looking into the far future. Call Grandma every weekend. Make sure Cat has what she needs. Pack lunches the night before. Spend time doing fun, productive things with the husband.

And some of my choices are not the most responsible: I’m going to spend all of Saturday in the kitchen even though I really ought to figure out how to turn my students into competent readers ahead of their big test this week. Sure, one more glass of wine. I will do anything else before I workout.

My priorities tend toward short-term happiness, but that’s not totally cutting it anymore. This teaching thing requires a LOT of planning. This living abroad life requires regular maintenance of important relationships (and campaigns of persuasion to get people to visit). This getting older business is no joke and I should really choose to make an appointment with the med unit for a check-up. And to exercise.

My week

On Monday, I was setting up my classroom in a small bilingual school here, preparing myself to handle 18 4-year-olds who would arrive next week.

On Tuesday, I found out the international school had lost its second grade teacher and was desperate to find a replacement. I agonized. I applied.

On Wednesday, I was introduced to the rest of the staff at the small bilingual school and finished cutting out the Minion that would welcome my wee ones into our fun room. I was also stealing the wi-fi from across the street to set up an interview with the director of the international school. I interviewed. I accepted.

On Thursday, I went to the director of the small bilingual school with my tail between my legs and explained I was leaving her for another school, the one headed by a man she has known since she was a student herself. I apologized. I apologized. I scooted right out of there and was introduced in a staff meeting at the international school at 9.

On Friday, I worked in my second grade classroom to try to make it inviting. I decided on an ocean theme. I decided on a monster theme. I met four of my students. I decided on a pirate theme. I left after lunch to meet the Peace Corps volunteer who was giving us her cat since she can’t take it with her. I got a flat tire (unrelated to our previous tire issue). I called the embassy. Thank goodness we got my phone working again. Thank goodness we have the spare. Thank goodness it happened in safe area during the day.

Phew. Thank goodness for weekends.

Cat refuses to be roused from her nap.

Cat refuses to be roused from her nap.

El Mozote

Two weeks ago Colin and I piled into a van with 11 of his colleagues and joined a 5-vehicle caravan out to the eastern edge of the country to visit the site of a massacre that happened in 1981, during El Salvador’s civil war. Four hours out of San Salvador through green volcanic landscapes, we arrived in the department of Morazon and were shown two sides of the same story: the massacre of El Mozote.
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On December 10, 1981, Salvadoran soldiers entered the small town of El Mozote, hustled everyone there into the square in front of the church, and for hours made them lay face-down in the dirt while they screamed questions about the guerrillas operating in the area. Eventually, the townspeople were released to the terrified night. The next morning, the soldiers ordered everyone back out of their homes, divided the men from the women from the children, and beheaded, stabbed, raped, burned and hanged everyone.
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Once the soldiers left, the guerrillas came into El Mozote to find the carnage and invited in a couple of journalists to tell the story. Individuals from nearby towns recalled seeing the smoke and hearing the screams. A team of archaeologists ten years after the fact settled the final number of victims at nearly 800. Three people survived: a woman who dropped into the brush in a moment of chaos and a woman and a boy who separately ran for their lives into the thick jungle.

As we entered the department, an army escort joined our caravan for safety in light of the recent surge in gang violence. They ushered us to a base, where we were welcomed with cold sodas and a slideshow that touched on the history of Morazon. There is no dispute that soldiers killed civilians in El Mozote in December 1981, but the army challenges the victim toll and the reliability of the witnesses, the evidence of the crime. So then it was maybe a little weird for everyone when the army escort took us to El Mozote’s town square, where we met a guide who is a former guerrilla to hear his version of story. Neither this guide nor any of the soldiers in our escort were more than little children at the time of the massacre, but emotions around the moment in question run deep.
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The guide in the town square described how people from the surrounding area had streamed into to El Mozote for protection after hearing that the soldiers would be coming through, explaining how a town of roughly 300 could suffer a massacre of more than double that. El Mozote was known for being separate in this desperate civil war. They sided with neither the army nor the guerrillas, though they tolerated and would sell their goods to both. The town was different because of its strong Evangelical leaning, which made it decidedly not communist. But there was a war going on, and the fog of war is thick, and soldiers from all nations from all time periods do terrible things, and the battalion that stopped in El Mozote, that was led by a bright, charismatic figure, that was trained to some extent in America, was no exception to that horrible truth. A former U.S. military guy in our group made the point that any training that happened in America liking had a tempering effect, that this could have somehow been worse than it was, multiplied across other areas, perhaps.
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El Mozote is still a small town, and when we visited on a Saturday as dusk fell, a church service was being held in the small church built upon the ashes of the one that burned on December 11, 1981. Young boys were kicking a soccer ball and gamely allowed a small children from our group to play with them for a while. I bought a packet of toffee peanuts from a girl, and a friend bought 10 raffle tickets to support the church from another girl. A small shop off the square had woven, beaded, leather souvenirs, and there was a stand with old photos too sun-damaged to be clear, which I suspect is for the best. We would spend the night in a rustic lodge, and the next morning walk to the old headquarters of Radio Vencemos, the broadcasting arm of the guerrillas during the war and cause of the demise of the general responsible for the massacre two years later when they booby-trapped a transmitter with explosives and left it for him to discover. The building is now a simple museum that has the ill-fated helicopter the general had been in when he carried off his transmitter prize, as well as the rudimentary medical supplies the guerrillas had used and posters and photos from during the war. Chickens hunt in the bomb craters nearby.
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The weekend was an education on the war, on Colin’s colleagues during our 7 hours in the van, and on El Salvador outside of the city, and certainly was not nearly so grim as this post may make it seem.
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Confession time: I wasn’t able to understand hardly any of what was presented to us during the weekend because my Spanish just can’t yet. This information comes from what people told me the guides said and from this epic and sad expose that was written by Mark Danner for the New Yorker in 1993.