Corruption and Fraud Isn’t Solely the Province of Government

There’s more to living in an “underdeveloped” country than poverty and blatant corruption. Thankfully, the former doesn’t directly affect me and the second is something I’ve had to get used to. My education in cultural differences has me repeating third-grade for the thirteenth year. Financially, it would make no difference if I were a rich gringo or living in reasonable comfort (which means a hell of a lot better than most Salvadorans, but not as well as I lived at almost any time in the U.S.) as I am.

I’ll begin with some recent purchases and how I have been taken in and astounded by doing business with names that are familiar to me. As a young married man, I subscribed to Consumer’s Guide before purchasing tools, appliances small and large, and vehicles. I was familiar with the reputations of manufacturers and the Guide reinforced my confidence in making decisions before looking for the best deal. I had a car. I lived in proximity to the stores from which I would likely purchase. Shopping was rather easy. Guarantees were reasonable and honored. Insurance policies for life, health, and property were generally not needed but comfortable to have. Problems would be addressed and losses recovered in a timely fashion.

In November, we took advantage of Black November sales and purchased a 43″ Samsung Smart TV at our recently opened Walmart. Two names we all know well. Our son-in-law Milton has access to a pickup and a van. It’s about a half-hour drive to Santa Ana. I paid him $10.00 for gas. We also bought a lovely stand with shelves and doors to cubbies for photos and whatever. I paid with my Visa debit card from my pension account recently flushed with COVID-19 cash. We were elated.

But now my education was about to begin. The TV screen was so big that I needed to turn my head left to right to watch a fútbol game. With my Wi-Fi setup, I could go to YouTube and watch my home-made videos enlarged and with much better sound quality than on our laptops or my Samsung Smart Phone. But before I could achieve the sports channel I was seeking, I was plagued with ads that had to be deleted several times. Some offered me more movies. Others pornography. Lots of games for infantile adults popped up. My favorite was the one in Arabic. Hardly choices based on any interests I might have exposed via the Internet.

Samsung’s “Help” chats did nothing to help me get rid of what my investigating the Internet taught me. I learned that Samsung programs malware and that their Ad Blocker doesn’t block them. Samsung also pre-programs Disney, YouTube, Google, Netflix, Amazon, and other pay-to-use programs in which I have no interest. I further learned that Samsung uses a Tizen browser and a Linux operating system (OS). I can’t download Edge, Google, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, or any commonly used browser to the TV. I also can’t download Ad Block Plus which protects my laptop and phone, because they have no version for Linux. But Samsung gave me a great run-around over the past two months.

I didn’t like the remote control that came with the TV so on another trip to Walmart, I spent $15.00 on a Universal Remote Control. The booklet that came with it was written in Spanish and in the broken English that comes from Asian countries like South Korea and China. I’m fairly well-educated and used to translating poor Spanish into meaningful text—but not in this case. It took a couple of weeks before Milton and my 16-year old daughter Adriana got the new control to turn on and off the TV and to raise and lower the volume. But like its predecessor, the channel changer did not function. We change the channels with the control our provider gave us when we had our antique TV and switched from Claro Satellite TV to Tigo Cable TV.

In trying to reduce the number of remote control devices, I went over the TV reset process but was stuck where it wanted the model number of the cable connection device. It was a chore deciding from the label beneath the device what the TV wanted. I learned that it was manufactured by Kaon, a South Korean entity. When I punched in Kaon on the TV screen, it displayed a list of model numbers. Mine was not on it. This must be why I can’t completely program the remote control. Tomorrow, Monday, Margarita will contact Tigo to request a visit from the technicians who set up our old TV when we switched from Claro. Hopefully, she will be able to get someone to come and get us down to one fully-functioning remote control. My personal problem will be to memorize the vast array of buttons learning their purposes, and hoping that I won’t mess up something by hitting a wrong, tiny, illegible without my other glasses button.

A week or so later.

Well, Margarita made the call to Tigo. The woman she spoke with tried her best to be helpful. It turned out that Tigo’s cable connection box won’t recognize this Samsung TV model. Samsung makes its products for different regions. El Salvador, as usual, is screwed by receiving devices that are not fully compatible with local communications systems. I don’t even try to watch the TV anymore. It’s too much time wasted and then the stream blacks out so I have to keep clicking on Play or Refresh and that starts the whole process over with more ads for children’s games, movie providers, and the Arabic page.

About two weeks ago, I saw advertised on Office Depot’s shop online page a Dell all-in-one computer. I have shopped before in their store near San Salvador. I paid with my Visa Debit Card. I ordered the item and received a confirmation from their headquarters in Mexico. A few days later, I checked my pension account online and found they had returned my payment. After three chats with three different call center advisors, I was told that they don’t accept debit cards, only credit cards. To me that was stupid. They had my money. Why couldn’t they ship the damned computer? I never noticed on any shop-on-line pages anything more about payment than Visa, Master Card, Pay Pal, and American Express cards. But it seems there is small print asking for credit cards only. So, now I’m in a bind. I need a larger screen computer and one with enough gigabytes to do my work.

About this time, Adriana received notification on the tablet on which she’s been receiving her lessons and taking her tests since the pandemic closed our schools, that the following week she’d have Internet classes according to the schedule and she’ll need her laptop. The one I’m writing this on. I’m doing the best I can frantically to see how I can buy the computer I need. My old one doesn’t have the RAM for my programs (Apps) and several of the keys don’t work so I have to use the On-Screen Keyboard and that’s so slow. So now in her second week of classes, she’s still using her tablet.

I’ve been regularly scouring the Internet looking for someone who will sell and ship to me the computer I am looking for. I’m not having any luck. I’m also looking for a cassette to MP3 converter. I want to transfer my music to the computer to make more videos for my many YouTube channels. They only cost about $20.00 but no one here sells them. If I only had a car and a license to drive! But still being a mere Permanent Resident rather than a Naturalized Citizen, and being unwilling to bribe the local DMV to get a license (and not having the money for a vehicle), I can’t go to the big city to shop.

I keep thinking (ignoring all the negative factors) that if I still lived in Granada Hills, CA, I’d have my 1998 Dodge pickup and the nearby Walmart and Office Depot sites to buy and return what I didn’t like and an Internet provider who would be readily available to either instruct me clearly on how to program a remote control or send someone to the house to do it. Customer service is just a term in El Salvador and not really available. As far as Samsung, I will never buy another of their products and will not recommend them to a friend.

Law and Disorder in El Salvador

On the surface, El Salvador appears to have all the ingredients for a modern government. It has a Constitution and a Legislative Assembly to make laws for the country. It also has an Executive Branch including a Cabinet of Ministers to head the departments to carry enforce the laws. There is what to me is a confusing conglomerate of a Judicial Branch to ensure that the laws and presidential orders are consistent with the Constitution. But then it falls apart.

Corruption, graft, and collusion with organized criminals aside for the moment, bribery and extorsion negate laws written to benefit the people.

At the municipal level, one would imagine mayors and their counsels would actively ensure that the laws promulgated at the national level would be enforced. A small community such as El Refugio should have the necessary cooperation from the National Civilian Police to maintain the peace as well as protect lives and property. But some people are allowed to violate civil laws with perhaps a contribution to the mayor’s election campaign fund.

I don’t know how much input the local administration has in zoning the community. But their maps at the Municipal office that I have read are clearly zoned and colored per the zoning ordinance, wherever it was ordained. But the definition of residential and agricultural is clear. There is no question regarding where one can plant corn and beans. We rely on them to feed our families. But “residential” implies all the qualities of a home. It asserts that any buildings constructed are for human dwellings. No commercial enterprises, no factories, no repair shops, or any occupation that inhibits residents from enjoying privacy, tranquility, and an environment that prioritizes their health. There may be special ordinances to accommodate senior citizens. There can be no exceptions in order to maintain the civility of the community. In civilized societies, variances must be approved by the community.

Map showing our house and surrounding neighborhood. It is zoned Residential and Agricultural. That means it is for homes and cultivated lots.

Above is a map of our neighborhood with our home marked. At the head of the yellow pin, you will see a metal rectangle which is the roof of an open air “church” that is directly behind our house. Almost every evening and Sunday afternoon a small group gathers to sing, pray, and hear the pastor’s sermon. During the past three years, the pastor has felt it necessary to include electronic instruments with amplifiers and a primitive but loud sound system. When they play, pray, clap, and shout it is impossible to sleep, watch TV or hear each other speak in our house. It is just as loud in our house as it is in their shanty or on the street throughout the neighborhood and beyond.

Once a month they hold a vigil. It begins at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. and continues until 5:00 a.m. They invite members from other “churches” of their sect, sell food on the street, and accept donations from their brethren. They’ve celebrated birthdays until 2:00 a.m.

My wife and I met with the mediator in Ahuachapán but to no avail. The leader and his followers insist God has spoken to him to preach and no earthly power can stop him. Well, perhaps for the right price no earthly power will stop him.

Remember When You Had to Show Your Parents How to Operate Some New-fangled Gadget?

Remember when you had to show your parents how to operate some new-fangled gadget? It was easy for you to learn to operate a TV with a remote, a microwave oven, even a telephone with no dial. We were technical geniuses back then.

When I lived in Thousand Oaks, CA, my young neighbor taught me how to hotwire my TV so I could watch the Playboy channel. I’ve had computers since the Commodore 64 that my principal donated to me. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of technical stuff from talking to Microsoft techs in Asia. I know where to look on Google and save the sites that answer my queries about things that don’t work right. I’ve gotten so good that when the local computer store techs give up on a problem that I couldn’t solve, I can eventually, logically bring a dead computer back to life.

The cell phone I bought several years ago was a problem from the start. It came with a bunch of games that did not interest me but took up memory. I was constantly bothered by messages from the phone company wanting me to buy something. I never got messages from anyone. The only reason I thought it necessary was to contact Margarita if she or I were not at home but in different locations. Over time, it aggravated me when I’d get strange messages about something not working. Since a cell phone is to a computer what a Piper Cub is to a Boeing-727, I couldn’t begin to do anything with it. If I were motivated, I’d take it to the phone company’s Chalchuapa office and maybe a tech would fix it. But at last, it was in a hospice situation. I couldn’t even keep it charged when not in use. So, once it was safe to travel to Santa Ana, we went to the phone company and bought a new phone.

It’s a Samsung J2 Core phone. That might have some meaning to you regular cell phone users who might go out without your eyeglasses but not your cell phone. Now I’m sure you’ve got more gigabytes and features just like you have on the cars that I’d be afraid to drive because of all the buttons, sound distractions, rear cameras and automatic braking. (Yes, I do see  U.S. car commercials on my laptop.) My main reason for buying this cell phone was to have a cell phone as described above. But also because I need to have a cell phone on to operate WhatsApp on my laptop. Why the laptop if I have a cell phone? My screen is larger. The sound is louder, especially with my headset with a microphone and a volume switch. Then there’s the problem I have if I need to verify my identity and they want to send a code number to my cell phone. I’ve had to use Margarita’s phone number to do that.  

My WhatsApp had only one group, our church’s married couples on it. During the pandemic, Margarita has been keeping me up on the news from the congregants whom we haven’t seen in months. The brothers and sisters post Bible passages with stickers and emojis as regular communication. I’ve now heard my cell phone gong sound too often. I have located two friends and learned how to put them on my WhatsApp. One thing I don’t like about telephones as opposed to social media like Facebook and email is that with the latter two, I never have to worry about being interrupted when I’m writing and trying to keep my thoughts organized. If WhatsApp were to become like an annoying telephone, I’d disconnect it. For me, email is for forwarding the many jokes and mostly interesting videos to people whom I think would enjoy them. Facebook has Messenger to send and receive personal and private messages as well as read people’s political opinions, get some fun notices from the few groups I participate in, and see what Friends are doing via their words, photos and videos.

I still have to discover what all WhatsApp can do. I’ve received short videos along with the colorful messages that take up so much space on the screen. I doubt that I’ve tapped into all the virtues of my cell phone. But that’s all spare-time activity. I will try to keep ahead of my daughter so I don’t have to embarrass myself asking her how to do things. She’s got a tablet that she uses. I haven’t even tried to figure out how she gets Korean dramas with Spanish subtitles or programs with clothing and cooking tips. Maybe the former is something left over from her Tae Kwan Do training days.

I also had to replace the cheap land-line phone that stopped working last year. It’s registered at the U.S. Consulate and with El Salvador’s Immigration and Naturalization office. That was easy to set up. It’s handy for calling out because as long as we call someone who has the same phone company that we use, it’s free. Margarita never has saldo on her phone. That’s what they call the minutes you buy and which expires in three days. So if she wants to call her mother or me if I’m away, she can use the house phone. It also has more modern features that I’ve forgotten about since moving here. It’s a Panasonic, a name which I recognize. It takes three AA batteries and I always have rechargeable batteries here for my camera and the wall clocks.

My New Chair

I spend a lot of time sitting in front of one of our laptops. Too much time in fact. I start my day reading the #real news while enjoying a cold glass of orange juice with pulp and a bowl of cereal.  I read the funnies first as I’ve done most of my life, boy and man, to lighten up my day. Then I check out my news sources, the sports scene, my Facebook pages, and email. I eat slowly and leisurely.

Then depending on how my body has reacted to being awake, I may do the L.A. Times crossword, go outside to see what yard work I can avoid, or opt to ride my bike. But when whatever I choose to do is done, and I’ve showered and put on my lounging shorts, I crank up a computer and get involved.

Outside of the purchase of a rolling office chair I bought many years ago (which like so many of the products one can buy in impoverished El Salvador didn’t last long), I’ve been sitting on the popular plastic chair that sells for about $5.00 and is very versatile in this environment. It is not the most comfortable support for long-term seating. Our church replaced our benches with them so we could have armrests but no place to keep our Bibles and hymn books. No more comfortable than the wooden benches but movable.

I have never been much of a sitter. As a teacher, I preferred to move around my class while lecturing, peeking over shoulders to check for understanding, or just to make sure there was no hanky-panky afoot. I wouldn’t describe myself as antsy but I always preferred doing things with a physical component rather. But I’ve been retired from teaching here since 2010. Being away from an educational environment has surely affected my mental activity and the seemingly sudden demise of my physical capabilities has forced me to either utilize the computer for intellectual stimulation or to become a vegetable like so many of my contemporaries. I needed a chair.

There are few local places to buy many of the common, every-day things that we gringos are used to. Quality comes at a price that most Salvadorans can’t afford. Busing to San Salvador where there are folks with steady jobs, money and recent vintage vehicles who can afford office chairs would be a logistical nightmare. Our computer store in Chalchuapa sells them. It’s such a strikingly modern enterprise that you can go online and see what they’ve got. You can also chat with someone at the store saving you 50 cents in fares on the nightmare express microbus.

For the past few months, we’ve somehow managed not to spend almost all of my Social Security stipend. I’m sure Margarita’s regression to preparing typical foods for her and the kids while feeding me according to my cultural custom has something to do with this end-of-month surplus. She’s also happy with her business of preparing local snacks in our driveway for passersby to purchase. Apparently, it’s profitable and gives her more spending money in addition to the “allowance” that I give her. And so it came to pass that this month I determined to buy a proper chair.

On one of the trips to Chalchuapa that our son-in-law Milton and I made buying lumber for the workbench I’m constructing, we bought the chair. It’s an item very popular with gamers and we know how addicted they are. It came in Rutgers colors and that made it irresistible.

 

I don’t have a bucket list. If I did, this chair would be on it.

Adriana’s Rite of Passage

While impeachment was inevitable based on the character and history of the impeachee, and many Americans are wondering what happened to our honor and commitment to allies, why we’re in bed with despots, and how the NBA blew it with China, here in primitive El Refugio where our new president has accomplished more good for all the people in four months than he-whose-name-shall-not-profane-this-page has done in almost three years, the Brown family is excited about the 9th grade graduation of Luís and Adriana.

It’s all been moving so quickly. Adriana and her mother are more like best friends and I’ve been mostly out of the loop as my daughter has been maturing in ways I couldn’t imagine. Unless you’ve experienced a radical change of cultures in your life you would be as perplexed as I am when family and other social relationships don’t conform with your own normal expectations. So as her final elementary school year is drawing to a close, I deemed it essential to have “Th Talk”. No, not that talk! She already knows more about sex than I suspected at fifteen. I gently expressed to Margarita that parenting is a shared endeavor that entails more than household chores and providing sex for her spouse and my role is not limited to financing their needs and wants. I explained my disappointment in the lack of communication between them and me and especially when important decisions are made without my knowledge and consent. I appreciated that she was a single mom of four for most of her adult life until 9 1/2 years ago but I’ve been the only real father figure that Adriana has known since she was four. They both know that I have always been thinking about her future and putting away for her education. That was all well received by them both.

It was then that my daughter fetched her second trimester report card. Her grade improvements brought tears to my eyes. Instead of her grades just passing, she had 8’s and 9’s (10 is the top and 5 is passing). This led me to the main topic of my concern: which National Institute (high school) will she attend?

Every municipality has one. In our small village it’s a two-year general course program. Neighboring Chalchuapa and Atiquizaya have three-year courses leading toward college and the professions or skilled trades. Our school is two blocks from our house. Most of Adriana’s classmates who pass the European-style entrance exam will go there. A student who has not performed at a higher level than what Adriana has exhibited seemed more likely to choose the easy path. It was then I received my second surprise. My precious child was way ahead of her greenhorn dad. She is interested in forensics. She watches the  North American TV show by that name as well as “Hawaii 5-0” and all the CSI programs. I’m not fond of the realistic carving of bodies scenes or the lab dialogue. She knows the right decision for her is the school in Chalchuapa.

So after hugs and a good night’s sleep, Margarita and I went to the school and were informed of the schedule for enrolling and told to watch for further information on their Facebook page. We’ll find out about scholarships, entrance exams and schedules of courses. I was happy to hear my daughter say she’d even cut back or drop her Taekwondo activities to concentrate on her studies.

Another milestone in the life of our daughter. I am so happy that she has adopted some gringo values like looking into the future and planning for tomorrow. She has no desire to be a baby factory for a series of under-employed “husbands” who will move on when responsibility becomes a bother to them. She is the light of my life. La niña de mis ojos. My reason for living.

Ants in My Laptop

The information age has added perhaps hundreds of new words and phrases to our vocabularies. I remember learning about bytes and their prefixes as storage and transmission capacities grew while mainframes shrunk along with central processing units. My first computer experience came as a graduate student in psychology at Fordham University in the mid-1970s. To compute our statistical data we used IBM cards and submitted them to someone who would process them over a monstrous machine that took up a good portion of a building. We’d have to return after 24 hours (if we were lucky) to see our results. My commute from Milltown, NJ sometimes ended in disappointment including the hours thereby wasted by the four to six-hour two-way commute.

After I moved to California in and began teaching, I was given a Commodore PC for my class around 1982. I had programs for math games which my 4th graders enjoyed. But they and I often found ourselves involved in playing Artillery. You determined the angle of your weapon and the amount of powder needed to propel your shell over a mountain to hit your enemy’s position. You would get points for a direct hit as I recall and maybe some for near misses. Then your enemy had a turn. Each game didn’t last long and several players could practice learning about angles in a period. Very tame by today’s standards. I soon found I could use a C-64 at home and bought one. That was before Al Gore invented the Internet.

Gateway’s computer and local service centers were a blessing and around 2000 I was enjoying the Internet at home. I even took an evening course in programming and created my own web page with its own KountryKing.com. I was able to post photos and make changes thanks to a new and inexpensive service called GoDaddy. But as years passed and social media was dawning, GoDaddy priced itself out of my reach and I had to give up my .com.

I’ve lived in El Salvador since 2008. I brought my Gateway with me and during a visit to the U.S. bought an HP notebook for my travels. Sadly, the Gateway became unable to process the new volumes of data and here where the server service is decades behind the rest of the world, I had to dispose of it. But my HP served me fairly well until about two years ago. The left button wouldn’t click anymore. The letters on the keyboard wore off and I couldn’t teach my growing daughter how to use it. System problems became more frequent and the local repair guys just didn’t have the training to fix them. I found myself researching my problems on Google and using my innate intelligence to resolve them. It was great mental exercise but more time-consuming than I could afford.

When at last I found myself without a computer and needed to use one of our cyber cafés on a regular basis, I went to find a new one. The local computer store had grown over the years into a sales and repair business with several uniformed employees. A mini-Best Buy. I found another HP that I could afford. Well, I really couldn’t afford it. I had to ask my daughter for a loan of $500 to make the purchase. I paid her back but it took six months.

The new one lacked some of the properties of my old one which I tried to get back into workable condition when I had the time. But the first thing I realized was that the keyboard was in Spanish as were all the start-up and systems data. Fortunately, the good people at HP allowed me to download an English version of Windows 10 and a bilingual keyboard. I’d discovered proxy servers on the old machine which allowed me to watch “Jeopardy!” from WABC-TV in New York. I found I could watch the Dodgers play while many L.A. residents were blocked out. I watched my Boston Celtics and F.C. Barcelona play. Oh, joy!

But after about two years, this laptop is wearing out. I now use a wireless mouse because the left key’s erratic functioning has been driving me dafter than my age. I can see some of the letters are wearing off the keyboard. Major League Baseball may be keeping my offshore sports server from supplying my Dodgers games while my other server is looking to charge for their free service. When ESPN’s channels show U.S. sports, they’re announced by two or three Spanish-speaking dudes who spend less time calling the game than talking about other games, other players, and Latin leagues. They have no Spanish equivalent of Vin Scully. But then, neither does the U.S.

El Salvador is a mountainous, tropical country that borders the Pacific Ocean to its south. It’s always hot during the dry season when we have little to no rain for six months. But it’s always just as hot during the rainy season when we either have not enough for the crops we depend on for ourselves and for export, or too much so that homes are destroyed and people die in mudslides. Our flora is always in bloom against the dark green of our bushes and trees. Our fauna is rarely seen due to the denseness of our flora. But we have geckos who climb our interior walls and ceilings after entering through the ventilation spaces. They’re harmless and entertaining as they chase each other and hide under wall decorations. There are opossum relatives that would kill our chickens if we didn’t have their dwellings well fortified and two dogs to keep them away. Due to the construction of houses here and the vagaries of nature, we have mosquitoes who transmit deadly diseases and who flourish when we store water in uncovered containers, flies who enter the kitchen due to the door being left ajar for the two dogs, cockroaches which find a way to survive no matter how clean is the house and covered is any food, fruit flies who maintain a residence in the banana basket despite our attempts to kill or maim them, and tiny ants. Very tiny ants.

Sometimes they’re so tiny that you’re not sure that they’re not dust particles or a bit of the ash that floats in when they burn the sugar cane chaff. They don’t march in a file nor are there usually many at a time. We see them engaged in foraging on a counter for a micro-crumb, a stain from the liquid part of a meal that wasn’t completely wiped up, the slightest atom of human refuse seems to be their target. They are so small and helpless that I almost feel guilty squashing the one or two I’ll come upon with my thumb. But during this hot dry season, when the clay soil is rock hard and there’s virtually no moisture available outside, nature guides them to seek salvation in the house. They pose no threat to our health as do their winged relatives or the cockroaches that come out at night and are only seen dead when we’ve sprayed Raid on their haunts. But now I’m not sure that they’re as innocent as I’ve made them out to be.

I spend a lot of time at his desk with the laptop. Because nobody eats when I eat (cultural differences), I eat my meals at this computer desk with its slide-out shelf. I eat slowly, perhaps typing between bites or sips of tea. I always wipe up any spills I see afterwards. But recently I have not been alone at my desk. I may reach for my napkin that had a slight stain from some salad dressing or salsa that I wiped from my moustache or beard. I’ll spot a little six-legged scavenger so tiny that I have to blink to make sure it’s not just a toast crumb. I can’t tell if it’s black or brown because it’s so small and my eyes are so old and tired. But crumbs don’t move purposefully even when the floor fan behind me is on. So I crush him–or her.

Other times I’ll see one walking across the laptop’s white platform. It doesn’t seem to be interested nor afraid of my quickly moving fingers. Where is it going? What can there be of interest to an ant whose weight on a key would not be noticed by this wonderful instrument of communication, creativity and knowledge. Is it an extraterrestrial member of the advanced guard from the planet Formica? Then suddenly, if I’m not focused on its movement, it’s gone. I’ll search the desktop. Not there. I’ll pick up the laptop, a logical place to hide from the giant with only four appendages. Not there either. So, where did he go?

Like our prehistoric ancestors, I have superstitiously created my personal myth about this unknown phenomenon. It seems logical to me that because of its size, it is able to fit between the keys and the keyboard and enter the bowels of this machine. But I know that because of my excessive use, the internal fan and the external temperature does not allow the laptop to get cool. The heel of my left palm can feel the heat as I work. Why would it go there? How many are in there with him? It must be dry and unattractive to a thirsty creature. Does it and its colony depend on some man-made entity within for water, the staff of all life? Are they the cause of the periodic glitches for which I curse Microsoft regularly. Do Microsoft/Windows/Outlook chat techs have this problem in their protocol manuals for amateur users? They seem to live and work in similar climates like mine. Will Google’s dictionary eventually list only antonyms and delete its synonyms? Will they maintain anthropology, antacids, anthems, antecedents and, gulp, anteaters? How will it all end? (Don’t tune in tomorrow for the next episode. I plan to be in Antigua.)

 

Things Are Looking up in El Refugio

I’ve learned so much since leaving my American box to live in El Salvador. For instance, I no longer try to compare the local economy using U.S. standards. We are a poor country. The world knows that. We know that. But without comparing costs of living, ranges of income, the measures that are important to individuals, families and communities of my former and current worlds, rich, poor, middle class, elites, poverty-stricken, minimum wage and like terms are almost meaningless.

I have noticed the economic changes in El Refugio since my first visit in 2004 and since the establishment of my residency here in 2008. While GDP, GNP, Employment and Unemployment figures, taxes, costs of real estate, health care, life and property insurance figures for the U.S. are readily available nationally, regionally, state-wide and locally, El Salvador is not so transparent and the corrupt government is less than honest about informing the people with meaningful data. We’re told how many people are murdered, given traffic fatalities and injuries, and how many quintales (hundred-weights) of beans, corn and sugar were produced. But you really have to dig for outside sources to approximately understand if we as a nation or as individuals and families have gained or lost in the past year.

My measure of change for El Refugio comes from the changes I’ve seen and photographed as I meander on foot or bicycle through our streets and dirt roads or my meanderings along our stretch of the highway that runs through the middle of our village.

Among the major changes are the number of new businesses which have been established along the highway or in the town center. Some have come and gone several times on the same site. Others have expanded and one can see how their enterprises have grown. While our one restaurant lasted only a short time, we now have a pizza parlor and several thriving businesses that serve meals indoors or at the curb. Even the food vendors who operate from their driveways or a roofed shed along the street have improved their establishments with more comfortable seating and a greater variety in their menus.Trucking businesses have benefitted from a family with one or two heavy-duty trucks to sizeable fleets. They move produce to be processed out-of-town, building materials, and agricultural needs. House-front stores that sell every-day items such as bread, snacks, drinks, first-aid products, over-the-counter remedies and whatnot have increased their sales in what used to be “luxury” items by local standards.

There has been a building boom. Where there used to be vacant lots between homes, now there are new, modern houses going up. Not always at once. But more houses are being completed in less time. Whereas I used to see walls being partially built while interiors suffered a regrowth of  wild plants and even trees, more buildings are getting attention due to the remittances family members have sent from abroad. For many families, their American dream is coming true. For one reason or another, working migrants are returning home to see the fruits of their labors paying off for their mothers, wives and children.

I see more workers able to buy used cars and motorcycles, even though they still use the cheaper method of public transportation to get to their jobs. Everyone has a cell phone. People dress better and can afford more durable clothing for work. I’m happy to see young people taking advantage of school programs and gym offerings that require relatively expensive band and cheerleading uniforms, dance costumes, tae kwan do gear, soccer uniforms, etc.

We as a family have been blessed. We’ve rented in three houses since Margarita and I married in 2010. Each situation has been an improvement over the last one. Our current landlord appreciates the way we take care of and even improve his property. I bring my gringo ethic of responsibility and my desire to “leave the campsite better than I found it” as I learned from my Boy Scout experience decades ago. I take pride in making our garden as formal and beautiful as possible. I don’t follow the local custom of “let stuff grow where it may”. We don’t have a 52″ TV as do other families who don’t have an indoor toilet. Our only vehicles are a ten-year old bike and a wheelbarrow. We don’t have to eat beans, rice and corn tortillas two or three times a day.

We’ve raised chickens since we lived in our first house. I’m not sure we’re ahead economically for having them. Sometimes the hens don’t lay enough eggs for our daily use. I feel silly when Margarita has to buy eggs when we have thirty hens. Their meat isn’t as tender as what we can buy at the super market. We have enlarged our coop spaces and created separate domiciles for our miniature chickens. I have built and remodeled a chiquero out of bamboo and chicken wire for raising baby chicks. Some we’ve bought and others were hatched from our own hens’ eggs. We’ve been able to keep as many as fifty chickens. But bamboo rots in the ground where the frame is buried so they can’t scratch out escape tunnels. Here’s where our “economic growth” comes into play.

03-03 02 Old Chiquero

Old Chiquero to be dismantled

We wanted to have a chiquero that would not weaken from being moved. A more permanent edifice that would be strong. We saw what kinds of metal bars are available in the building materials store in Chalchuapa when we bought a metal support for our ramada. Margarita, who knows everybody and what they do, got in touch with a welder. I made a drawing with dimensions for him and he wrote down what we’d have to buy. We went today with Margarita’s brother and his pickup and bought six 1/2″ rectangular bars that are six meters long. We also bought the welding rods he’ll need. They are all here and ready to be welded. Now we’ll have to wait for him to have the time to do the job.

03-03 01 Bars for new Chiquero

Bars for new Chiquero

(An interesting side point: Here a welder is called a mechanic. As I wrote about my drawing, I realized it was a mechanical drawing. That was a subject taught in my high school and I knew it had to do with blueprints.) 

So here I present a simple upgrade. The materials cost me $35.45. I think the labor will cost me about $40.00. (I’m not sure how that figure got into my head.) But this is something I wouldn’t have thought of investing in five years ago.

Another economic boost came with Adriana’s request to participate in a classmate’s quinceañera party. We attended her older sister’s fiesta a few years ago. Besides the expected gift, Adriana needs a formal dress to match the other girls’, two pairs of shoes, and a blouse and shorts for the dance they are to perform. These extras add up. What has bothered me in the past was having to make a decision that was financially sound or that would make my daughter happy. She’s been in two different dancing schools, a member of the school band’s cheerleading team, a contestant in a beauty pageant, a member of another friend’s quinceañera and for the past few years a tae kwan do practitioner. Except for the latter activity, all have required clothing and shoe purchases for items that would have no further use after the event they were purchased for. Thankfully, I had no qualms about not getting our teeth cleaned, not buying my prescribed medicines, or doing without some rather necessary purchases. So, I see this change as an economic improvement in our family’s finances. I still wonder if Adriana turned down her own fifteenth birthday party to help me save for her girlfriend’s. She can do subtle things that I wouldn’t necessarily expect from her. But that’s what makes me love her so much…among other things.

There are still lots of poor people around us. Many have no running water, indoor toilets, or electricity. But it’s slowly getting better. Many women still cook over a wood fire and they still have to get up early to gather firewood. I can’t measure a family’s economic status by my old standards. Nor should I. Oh, I wonder if Adriana doesn’t get invitations to other girls’ parties because they imagine her gringo father is rich and can afford all the necessary appurtenances. I don’t mind. She’ll only be young once and time goes by quickly. So, despite the mega-corruption, gang murders, poor health services, schools that are falling apart, buses that are potential death traps, and lack of entertainment, good restaurants but a wealth of noisy church-goers, things are looking up in El Refugio

 

 

The Best Years of My Life…Fifty Years Later

 

As happens from time to time, I accidentally happened upon the below URL and spent an hour reliving the best years of my life in country music. The collection of live performances by some of my favorite performers brought back memories of when I was able to sing their songs and make people smile, laugh, applaud and invite me to talk a bit with them. But it was a period unlike music is today. I had one-on-one encounters with some that led to friendships, mutual respect between artists (despite our levels of popularity or success in the business), and even a some brief romantic engagements.

As I look back at young Roger sitting at a table nervously chatting with Marty Robbins, a little older Roger sitting with Waylon Jennings on his bus while he was enjoying a joint, having dinner with several important people, performers and producers, and being asked to share in some decision-making even as I felt like I didn’t belong in the conversation, I am humbled. The many after-show hours I spent with Wanda Jackson in the years before and after I drove to Springfield, MO to see her on Ozark Jubilee. Her asking me if I could drive the bus on their next tour…and me foolishly but responsibly turning down a great career opportunity because I had to get back to the Johnson & Johnson mail room by Monday. I’m sure my mother wouldn’t understand if I disappeared for a week to be with a girl who liked me…even if she was a rising recording star.

Then there’s their music. Country music is something anyone can relate to. You don’t have to be a good old boy or been raised on a farm to experience the joy and heartbreak in country music of the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s…when the music changed. Whether it’s Merle’s “Mama Tried”, Willie’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, Waylon’s “I’ve Always Been Crazy”, or Even Dolly’s “Coat of Many Colors”, I’ve lived it. I remember the Arthur Godfrey Hawaiian shirts my mother made for me when I was in high school. Not quite the style but we couldn’t afford a lot of the regular clothes my classmates wore. And like Wanda’s mom, my mommy made me the western shirts with piping and a separate colored yoke that I was proud to wear for my early gigs at schools and firehouses.

So when I listened to the songs on this video, something touched my heart with almost every verse. Watching Charley Pride reminded me of how we couldn’t tell our Kountry King drummer raised in Georgia that he was black. When he found out, it was all we could do to get him to play his songs. Fortunately, he mellowed in time realizing what a popular talent and blessing to our genre Charley was.

I was always in love with Dolly Parton. When I stood on a long line at a concert to get her autograph and she held my hand while talking to me as if she’d known me for years, it was like I’d died and gone to heaven.

While I was in Springfield, I got to play Sonny James’ Martin guitar when nobody was looking. Of course I picked the opening riff to “Young Love”. That’s when he came out from behind the curtain smiling and we began to talk…again like old friends. But that was how country music was back then. The only rich performer was Eddy Arnold. He somehow learned to invest rather than drink up what little profits even the top recording artists earned from records and tours.

It was a great time for me. It could have been better if I’d made a few wiser decisions and been free to follow where I was being led but didn’t know it.

Whether or not you were and still are a fan of “my” music (although I know some of you are and remember me from school, the local shows I was a part of, the Kountry King days, or might even still be enjoying my YouTube pages, I hope you’ll sit back, close your eyes and remember being young and music that touched your heart and soul as it did and does mine today.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bFTtGWs57Q

Working Hard to Relax

It’s been an exciting and busy past couple of weeks for Margarita and me. The excitement comes from setting some goals and attaining them. We live in a rented house which has been a blessing to us. It’s more contemporary in many ways than the two houses we’ve previously lived in. I’m a person who believes in the old Boy Scouts adage to leave the campground in better condition than you found it.

As poor as my family may have been growing up on School Street in the 1930s and 1940s, we never lived under the conditions that Margarita has endured for most of her life in the rural community of Casa Blanca, about a mile from “downtown” El Refugio. There, the people grow up with dirt floors, open doors, chickens and vermin sharing quarters, garbage tossed below from the porch, preparing food over a wood fire and eating it on the open front porch, leaving uneaten portions for later in uncovered pots or on the plate for the flies to enjoy until the eater gets hungry again, etc. That was never my condition.

Our home for the past 3 1/2 years has been cared for as our own…mostly because of my desire to live this last portion of my life in comfort and good health. Our landlord is ecstatic in having a gringo tenant and family treating his property better than he treats his other house.

One of my first tasks upon moving in was to put screens on the iron doors designed to let fresh air circulate. We suffer from mosquitoes, flies, and moths. But the seasons and our dog ripping the back door screen trying to get in while Margarita and I were out and our teen-age son was “entertaining” a female classmate with the doors locked and the curtains drawn, have taken their toll and it was time to replace them.

12-14 02 Front door with new screens

Front door from street

I removed the old screens. Margarita painted the doors. Then together we mounted the new screens and the 18″ high heavier wire dog-proof screens to keep Buffy and her daughter Kira from doing more damage. This took a few days. I don’t have the endurance and she doesn’t have my perfectionist attitude. I was still not satisfied that we had protection from the mosquitoes.

12-14 05 Back door inside view

Back door from kitchen

The house has designer blocks near the ceiling to allow the flow of air when the doors are closed at night. The openings in the living room are mostly covered by a heavier but more porous screen to keep geckos out. The geckos still come in through the spaces between the wall and the ceiling/roof. I don’t really mind them because they are more entertaining to watch than TV as they scamper up and down the walls and hide behind some of our wall hangings.

12-14 07 Living room window with new screen

Living room windows with new screen

So, my next task was to screen those openings in the living room and bathroom. That wasn’t as easy for me. It involved the use of the aluminum 6′ ladder. Climbing the ladder is difficult for me due to the condition of my knees. They have little “push” when I have to climb. They are always hurting and the pain is worse during and after climbing. But the job had to be done. Now it is done and I am relieved. I couldn’t have done it without Margarita handing me the drill, the screws and the washers so I wouldn’t have to dismount and climb up again so often.

I also have the weekly job of trimming the bushes that are mostly in front of the anchor fence that guards the property along the street. I have been working to lower the level of growth to keep the bushes from growing to the overhead wires, interfering with the fruit trees on the inside of the fence, and to make it easier for me to maintain with minimum use of the ladder. It is a work in progress and I can only climb, stand on and cut for an hour or so at a time before I have to come down and do something else. But I got a lot done amid the other projects.

Margarita maintains the chickens and the garden. Due to the poor soil and the constant erosion during the rainy season, we have given up planting the food crops we grew when we moved in. I miss the corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, and even the stubby carrots we used to grow. Now we’re down to green beans on the trellis and the chili that my daughter loves. But we have our first real crop of avocados and have enjoyed our first lemons from our trees. We are waiting for our limes and tangerines to bear fruit. She spends a great deal of her time under the ramada where we grow güisquil and ayote, two members of the gourd family that are the main vegetable in soups. Since the ramada is made of vertical and horizontal bamboo poles and supported by tree-trunk, PVC pipe, and whatever else tall and strong that she can find, it needs continual maintenance as uprights weaken or need to be moved and as sun, rain, ants, and the weight of the fruit damages the bamboo.

12-14 15 Güisquiles on Ramada

Güisquiles on Ramada

She decided we needed metal supports. We bought two 9′ lengths of 4″ iron tubing. She removed one of the tree trunks and made the hole deeper using a local spear-like tool called a chuso. She kept pouring water into the deepening hole to soften the adobe clay which had hardened now that the dry season is here. Once she got the hole deep and dry enough, we put the tube into the ground and she cemented it. The tube now hosts the brass hook for my new hammock. That was my job.

12-14 08 Polín for Ramada and Hammock

Pole for hammock

It just happens that my English-speaking friend, Miguel, had a hammock he wasn’t using. I asked to see it. It was much better than the old one which dried out and broke when Margarita sat on it one day. It is made from sturdier and softer material and it’s also prettier. I bought it and couldn’t wait to try it out. But it took two days for me to find the right heights on the tube and the brick wall opposite so that I could sit on its edge to get off of it. My knees having no push, my thighs have to be at an angle whereby my hips are higher than my knees. Then I have to lean forward so that the weight of my upper body is above or a little beyond my feet. Old age sucks…even more so when you’ve been as active as I’ve been into my eighties. What joy yesterday when all my chores were done and I took my shower so I could retire to my hammock. There I was amid the gentle clucking of our chickens, beneath the shade of the ramada, enjoying the tranquility of Colonia Santa Marta, and gently rocking serenely. It was worth all the pain and effort to accomplish what we did over the past two weeks.

12-14 23 Me in my new hammock. Photo by Adriana

Now we’re waiting for our son-in-law to run some electricity to the back of the property. All the things he needs were bought a few weeks ago. We’ll have a light and a double outlet on the wall near to where the hammock is attached. The light is for when Margarita hears the chickens stirring unusually at night when the predator tacuazines come looking for eggs or baby chicks. With the outlets, I’ll be able to use my electric tools in the shade of the ramada without having to run two cables to reach. While relaxing on the hammock, I envisioned a wooden shelf on the wall with my laptop plugged into an outlet so I could watch sports, a movie in English, or just listen to Pandora.

I am used to working hard to accomplish more than for remuneration. It’s an ethic I inherited from my parents. It’s an ethic that’s not too common here. The “Arkansas Traveler” ethic prevails which is why I often think of the “Hee Haw” scene with the actors lying about with their coon hound and jugs, jes a-tawkin’ slow as if’n it were a great effort.

A Beautiful Weekend & It’s Only Saturday

Life in El Refugio would be pretty dull and unbearable to most of my compatriots. There’s absolutely nothing to do here outside of the house in the evening. The night belongs to the gangs. And even with a vehicle, which we have not, the restaurants, the concerts, and the one cinema are too far away. So, what keeps a retired gringo going?

Yesterday, Friday, started out like most Fridays. The kids had the day off from school where there was a “Day of the Children” program. Wednesday was my daughter Lorene’s 57th birthday. She’s the baby I delivered at home and she’s special. She doesn’t write much despite the electronic marvels that are designed to bring people closer together. But since my birthday greeting, we’ve been messaging. She’s the only one of my five natural-born and two came-with-the-mother kids who keep in touch with their dad in El Salvador on any kind of irregular basis. When we got into talking about her personal life, I got a chance to share with her some of my experience in a similar situation and to give her some counsel. It was so good to feel like her father after losing her to her mother after our divorce more than a half-century ago. All I ever really wanted back then was to be a father to her and her two older sisters. My morning left me almost giddy with joy.

A little later, our daughter María and her daughter Natalia, now 2 1/2, came to visit. While Margarita, María and Adriana jabbered in the kitchen while preparing lunch, I had the opportunity to entertain my granddaughter. She talks understandably and has been increasing her vocabulary so that we can have meaningful conversations. I spend most of my time on the computer. I have no interest in sitting in the living room with the TV blaring for Adriana while the two older ladies are chattering about people and things of no possible interest to me. But I rarely feel interrupted when Natalia comes over with something to show me that we can play with. And now that we can talk about what we’re doing, it’s even more fun.

But yesterday was special. In the afternoon I was sitting here with a bowl of peanuts and a mug of cold Pepsi Cola when she came in. She asked what was in the bowl. I told her in Spanish, “maní”. She repeated it. I asked her if she wanted one. She looked at me with a little uncertainty. I put one up to her mouth and she took it in. I took one also and said in English, “Crunch, crunch”, as I chewed. She did her best to mimic me. I laughed and so did she.

She asked what I was drinking. I told her “Pepsi Cola”. She repeated it with a little difficulty. Here they call it “Peksi”. But after a few exchanges she had it down. She went into the kitchen and came back with her plastic glass and some Pepsi. I had to teach her to take her swallows and exhale “Aaaahhh!” She laughed and continued to imitate her silly grandfather. Since there were now two glasses and a bowl of peanuts on the desk quite close to the laptop, I put her on my lap so we could continue our refreshment. It was a wonderful bonding experience.

She went to take a nap on Adri’s bed so I took one on mine. When I woke up they had gone home. But it was a glorious day and I thought how I can’t wait for her next visit.

In the evening, while Margarita and Adriana were at the gym helping prepare for Sunday’s Tae Kwan Do at the public school, I took my shower and waited for the Dodgers’ vs. Braves game to begin. When Manny Machado’s home run gave the L.A. team a 2-0 lead, I knew it was going to be a good night. It was. The Dodgers now have a two game lead and only need to win one more to move up to the National League Championship Series. While I’ve always been a Dodgers fan, I now rely on sports events that don’t affect my life as a source of feeling good. Friday was perfect.

Today is Saturday. I was up early. Margarita fixed my Quaker’s Oatmeal and I went outside to the street to cut some too-fast growing branches. It was overcast so I didn’t even work up a sweat. That was good because we had a mid-day date to attend a quinceañera. One of Margarita’s brothers, Jesús, better known as Chus has a wife at home and a wife not far from Casa Blanca. She’s got a daughter who turned fifteen. This is a big deal in Latin America and families who aren’t saving up to pay a coyote to get them to the U.S. will save up to throw as big a bash for their daughters as possible.

Chus picked us up in his rattle-trap pickup around 11:30. I was given the seat of honor next to the driver. Margarita, Adriana and the girl’s mother sat in the bed. We got to the house which is on a family property next to the highway. I had to carefully descend a short 45° driveway of rocks and mud to find level ground. There were two large tents set up with lots of tables and chairs. These were situated between two rows of buildings. Some were obviously inhabited and others were either for the chickens or utility buildings. In the back was a covered cooking area.

We were soon greeted by the young lady wearing a blue gown. She had a plastic chair by her door which was her throne. The yard was adorned with orange-yellow and blue balloons, crepe paper, and other decorations. I saw no one else I knew. We found seats and listened to the loud music from a monster boom box and extra speakers. I kept watching up the driveway to the highway noting the vehicles that were flying by the narrow opening between the vegetation that lined the highway. I smiled as people passed and said hello. Margarita knew some of them and spoke to them. I was even introduced to one gentleman. I was entertained by the many babies and toddlers present. Adults would take turns holding them as is a custom here. I was out of reach with my back up against a tree so I didn’t get to hold or play with them. Also observed among these country folk were the number of fat girls and women. Tortillas and rice will do that to you. Some had very pretty faces and might have been attractive to a much younger me except for their girth. I’m sure they are delightful people, anxious to be good wives to a man with an income, and ready to please them with as many children as he can produce. But!

The lunch, as advertised in the invitation, was typical fare for such an event. There was chicken and rice, a salad, gravy and tortillas. To drink were cans of the cheapest national brand sodas. I enjoyed the food and made the sweet soda do.

After a long break, Chus and Ana María returned from a bakery with the cake. The cake was white with blue trim. There were lots of pictures taken with Tatiana and guests. She even had a rectangular frame decorated in aluminum foil with blue 15s on the foil. She would hold it up in front of the subjects’ faces for the photos. To me it was pretty clever. By the time the woman cut the cake and they loaded it on paper plates to serve, I was ready for dessert. I accidentally got some of the blue icing on my fingers and found that a napkin wouldn’t remove the stain. Spit and a napkin wouldn’t remove the stain. Soap and water at home finally removed the stain.

Tonight we had a special meeting at our church to greet eleven short-term missionaries from Kentucky and Illinois. They will be in El Salvador for the week helping churches, visiting children in school (Yes, they can do that here.), and spending time at a retirement home. If there’s enough time, we’ll accompany them through the community to visit the parents of children who attend our Sunday school. I look forward to participating in as much of the activity as I can.

Tomorrow, Sunday, Margarita and I will be active at the school at the fourth annual event sponsored by Back Ho School of Tae Kwan Do. Our daughter is a yellow belt student. Margarita will be preparing pupusas. I’ll be taking photos and making videos. I’m really sorry I’ll have to miss our church service but in the afternoon, the missionaries will be doing something in our village park. I will be there.

10-07 Back Ho