The Numbers Keep Shifting


 3 4 days in

8 9 bus drivers assassinated

1.8 million San Salvadorans staying home from class, or hitching a ride to work, or walking miles

A bus strike has gripped San Salvador, some say crippled the city; not for wages, not for benefits, but because gangs want to send a message to the government to negotiate with them ( El Salvador bus drivers go on strike, or Bus Drivers Strike in El Salvador after Gang-Related Killings).

In a recent blog I shared the experience of riding a bus in San Salvador, Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable.  Little did I know that within a month that bus system would be the arena where gang violence would yet again flex its muscle and exert its power over the people and its government.  Owing to the population’s reliance on the bus system, I wondered how this is impacting everyday life there. My daughter, Hannah, has had to walk, group cab, and hitch a ride on a pickup truck to get to work.  Here is some of my conversation with my daughter yesterday:

Had soldiers on both my methods of transport today. It’s a little unnerving riding with soldiers. Feels like a warzone.

How do you know what pickup truck to jump on?

They spray paint on their windshields where they’re going.

Hannah's images

Hannah’s images












And the strength, creativity and resilience of a people, and my girl, are stretched again.

It might not last much longer.

The bus companies (may) decide to go back to work.

Ridiculously dangerous.

Yes and no. There’s been 85 bus drivers killed this year.

Strike or no strike.

18 17 days until my daughter returns to Canada.


Identity: Merging Who You Are with What You’ll Learn

I’m interested in how my identity determines how I read the world and conversely, how the world reads me.

At WorkIdentity DNA

All year I’ve been exploring the power of identity on how we choose and make sense of text. In our Journeys into Literacy series, we reflected on and even sketched our identity webs to gain clarity on its impact on our reading lives. Clearly connections to text are made through what a reader brings to text, which is identity and background knowledge.  Of course, my identity reaches far beyond the books I read; it informs and shapes my thinking and judgements. Indeed, the roots of my biases are planted in my identity, whether positive or negative. In school, teachers spend a lot of time getting to know students because identity impacts success. Beyond relationship and community building, exploring diversity, and assessment to determine support, knowing kids cues us to which books to put in kids’ hands.

Before My Trip to El Salvador

I bring what I’ll call ‘background knowledge’ baggage on my trip. The stories of child migration, particularly from Central America, have dominated my reading life and been a catalyst for some inquiry I’ve modelled with teachers with whom I work. One of the stories I’ve read, Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, invites you to join an epic dangerous trip that mirrors the route many young Hondurans, but also Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans embark on to escape violence and despair. A hopeful but treacherous journey that, like their home country, doesn’t necessarily hold a happy ending. The States faces a prickly polarizing issue as thousands of Central American children reach its borders. And El Salvador headlines shout the statistics of 25 deaths per day these past few months.

El Sal Hannah and meWith my daughter living in El Salvador at this time, I recoil, I worry. I am conflicted. Just like two years ago when she was robbed at gunpoint.  I had a choice to make.  Your natural motherly response is to get her on the next plane home!  But I knew that every mom in El Salvador no doubt wishes she could save her children and escape the ongoing threat of potential violence.

Being There

So how does my identity or background knowledge help or hinder my frame of reference? This kind of baggage I carry can’t be checked at the airport. You can’t undo knowing what you know. You have to find a way to merge what you bring with what you’ll learn. You wear your white privilege. How does my power position me? What do I carry with me that is a barrier to really seeing? Certainly my developing Spanish skills create a barrier to understanding. Only because of my daughter living in El Salvador right now do I catch a glimpse of some aspects of life that, as a tourist, I would not have been aware of. El Salvador is not a tourist destination. Not that it couldn’t be with its lush tropical landscape, its rich cultural heritage, and its miles of sandy beach. But right now, no tourists, save a few surfers and backpackers travelling through the country. Its reputation for violence bars most travellers. I came to wonder if Salvadorans may only expect white visitors if they were part of NGO’s working there. Despite this, you cannot walk down the sidewalk without every Salvadoran greeting you.

A dizzying array of economic, socio-political, environmental factors plague this small country of 6 million. I cannot speak to it for I am still learning. I can only share my observations. My understanding filtered through my identity.

El Salvador wall I cannot speak to the weight of years of poverty, violence and hardship.El Salvador wall2

I cannot process the recent memory of the civil war in their families. I can read the names of the 30,000 lives murdered or ‘disappeared’ that have so far been engraved on this memorial wall:  The Wall of Truth and Memory. Respectfully, I can be a bystander to a 3 or 4 generation family visiting the memory of their loved one(s) with a rose, touching their name.

Even Oscar Romero’s name is almost hidden amongst the tens of thousands.El Salvador Romero name on wall

The weight of this history is everywhere.  The displacement of so many fleeing the civil war and then returning, the as yet unhealed wounds, manifests itself in the ubiquitous security…

El Sal police at beachwhether military in fatigues strolling on the beach,

police checkpoints on highways,



police riding in the back of pickups with fingers on machine guns, El Sal military in pickup



El Sal security on streetor security guards with guns at every single business,

even the juice bar.El sal security at juice bar

 Random roadside stops where you slalom between pylons, and police require drivers to pull up their shirts to search for gang tattoos. Identity.

It contributes to my edge-of-your-seat feeling. It’s so beyond my Canadian reality, identity.

Hopeful Change

And you drop off your daughter at the central park in one of the gang-controlled suburbs of San Salvador, Quetzaltepeque, where buildings are emblazoned with graffiti identifying which gang is in charge here, and I see one English phrase: “Welcome to death valley.” (Heat? Violence?) There is a program being pursued in this community funded by USAID. Today, they are celebrating its potential. Now, you don’t pull out your iphone as a GPS, you can’t ask for directions, and we can’t hang around the park to wait for Hannah while she attends.

Worry sits like a weight on my chest all afternoon.

She returns with images, stories and a smile. Young people from the community share their involvement in music and dance as a means of instilling a sense of belonging outside of a gang. A new, a different, identity.

el sal marching bandel sal white balloonsel sal danceAnd hope is ignited again.

A Writer’s Notebook: Seashells, Sand Dollars and Sketches

sand dollarA writer’s notebook is a storehouse of ideas, memories, treasures, or seeds as Anne Elliott calls them. In the past, I often provided my students with notebooks to collect their thinking, more of a learning log than a writer’s notebook really. If I knew then what I know now! I would show them my own, show them I struggle. I would not cripple them with prompts. When you walk down a beach, you grab a stick … to write messages in the sand, to turn over seashells or rocks and examine them more closely, to coax crabs out of their holes. But those fragile sand dollars, you handle with care. A pencil is like that stick, turning over your thoughts and ideas to determine which ones you’ll harvest and others you may discard as you stroll through your notebook pages.

Propelled by the pressure of knowing our literacy team intends to poke and muck about in writing in the coming year, I packed a fresh notebook to El Salvador, fully intending on writing while I was there. In addition, two novels made the cut and were packed in the suitcase.

At least two things I learned about myself while I was away:

  1. When I read, I escape into the pages, fully engaged. When I travelled to El Salvador, I could not pick up a book as I found it distracted me from reading the world I was immersed in. Further, there wasn’t really opportunity through the day to sit and read anywhere. You’re always moving or finely tuned in to your surroundings. By bedtime, I was still replaying the day’s movie.
  2. When I write, it is still a painful time-consuming process. When I travelled, I tried to grab ideas, photos, business cards and tickets, quick jots about what I observed, lists (things not to do in El Salvador). My notebook acted like more of a holding tank for the fresh catches of the day.  I hoped that I would return to sift and select those sand dollars to share with others.

I am slowly working away at drawing out the reflections I have in that scrapbook of ideas, however, today I thought I’d share a sketch I’d drawn after a day of driving from San Salvador to La Playa Esteron. The only reason I chose to sketch was because it’s a means of thinking and recording ideas that is completely foreign to me. I wanted to try it despite my lack of artistic skill because I can appreciate its value to students and adults. I had seen amazing, thought-provoking sketchnotes that captured the essence of a talk or a timeline. A former colleague, Cindy Little (@littles84), is still an artistic marvel to me in sketchnoting. Her notebooks burst with visual renderings of her thinking while she listens and observes. My supervisor, Sue Bruyns, blogged about sketchnoting earlier today:

el salvador sketchnoteMy sketch is mostly a stylized map, but when I look at it, I’m reminded of not only the journey, but the creation of the sketch, what I chose to include, what each image meant to me, where I was sitting when I created it. Words alone would have filled pages. I found a quote on twitter today that called a sketchnote a zip file for knowledge (@cwodtke).


Becoming Comfortable with the Uncomfortable: Take a Bus

Assault on Your Senses

El Salvador mural meVisiting El Salvador is a pursuit in exhilaration and exhaustion. As soon as you step off the plane, your senses are assaulted. Heat and humidity welcome you in a wet blanket embrace – a layer of invisible clothing you’ll wear all week. You try to determine the smells carried on the air: fragrance of flowers, diesel exhaust, wood burning (this is across the country), cologne. A riot of colours begs you to scan to the very edges of your sight line for traditional murals, painted front doors, bougainvilleae draping walls, and powerful graffiti images. It’s all coming at you at warp speed.

El Salvador graffiti

Is it Safe?

This sensuous experience is simultaneously processed along with a constant nudging at the back of your mind: is this safe? Whether walking down the street, wading through market stalls, or waiting for the bus, you are always ‘on’ especially in San Salvador. I likened it to being mentally on the edge of your seat, scanning your surroundings, being aware of what’s happening. Being in a country plagued by violence requires diligent considerations. I trust my daughter Hannah who reassures me from time to time of when it’s ok to make this move, use the camera here, take a cab in the evening not the bus, etc. Every morning, you only take the money you need for the day. The less you take, the less you’ll lose if you get robbed. Including identification. She knows. She was robbed at gunpoint two years ago right outside her gated house. That event prompted my first visit. This July, I returned with my husband to visit my daughter who is now doing research in El Salvador.

El Salvador mural

When You’re Out of Your Comfort Zone

It shouldn’t surprise me that I frame some of my thinking in the same ways we speak of learning even in the classroom. Everyday I would rise and ask myself, What might I learn today about the Salvadorans? About myself? It helps me when I face circumstances that challenge my comfort zone. As my family knows, this lesson fails me when I’m ‘hangry.’ Beyond this, however, I know that in order to learn, I have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more true than when navigating a conversation in a language you don’t speak, or perhaps more acutely, when riding a bus in San Salvador.

El Salvador bus

The Bus

The edge-of-your-seat urgency I feel the entire time I’m in El Salvador is exacerbated on a bus. For me, I likened it to finding yourself in the wrong scene on a movie set; you signed up for a classic, serene On Golden Pond, and you are witnessing Apocalypse Now. Heart-pumping, horn-blaring, ear-piercing. Loud music escapes out the windows, heavy metal to Christian contemporary in Spanish! It takes just one bus ride in San Salvador to know why Jesus Christo is painted on the sides of most of them. Despite what guidebooks advise, you need to experience a bus ride. It’s a mere .20 cents. A nickel more for a micro-bus but apparently your chances of getting robbed are greater. Often people who sell their wares on the corner, get on the bus to ride just a block or two to offer toothbrushes, candy, watermelon or pens.  I venture to guess Salvadorans spend half their day waiting for a bus. Buses here go everywhere. Within San Salvador, buses go to all the outskirt districts; those controlled by rival gangs. From the gritty inner city to the tops of volcanoes, from the Pacific coast to the borders, you watch in disbelief as they climb, skirt, rush, squeeze, spit, stop, sigh. They’re as ubiquitous as the heat, police and cattle (more on that later…).

Bus drivers have a unique language here as well, as expressed through whistles. No, not at girls. It’s a means of communication between the driver and the guy at the back, hanging precariously out the door, whistling to tell the driver when to stop, when to take off, calling to the people at the bus stop what number the bus is. It’s a well-oiled machine of a system that I do not understand at all.

You sear the image into your memory as you can’t pull out your iphone (tucked in a low pocket) to take a picture of the Salvadorenos. You’re dripping with heat in light pants. They are wearing jeans! You’re tightening the elastic in your hair. They are well-coiffed. You carry nothing but a water bottle. They have backpacks, cell phones, children and sometimes chickens.

You wear a mask with a smile because it is the universal language. And they greet you with a ‘buenas’. You breathe again.

And as you are pressed up against the stranger next to you, thigh to thigh, shoulder to shoulder, you want to say sorry (I’m Canadian) as the bus driver stops to let on 5 more! Personal space is a wealthy country’s luxury. Yes, young men do give up their seat for elderly passengers or moms with babies. But the edge of panic could surface were it not for knowing my daughter does this every day, were it not for the friendly faces that seem curious about our presence.

The Other

You are caught between two worlds. You are part of the relentless energy, the frenzied whistling, the bass-beat-loud music, the incessant speed, absorbed into the crowd, spilling out the door onto the street.

And yet you are other. Other than my olive-skinned-I-can-fit-in daughter, me and my blue-eyed husband are the only gringos on this bus, on any bus. And I am overcome with that. For how often do we find/put ourselves in that situation? Where you are the outsider.

It begs some questions.

How might such an experience exercise our empathy? How do we welcome visitors or newcomers to our country? Our schools? Our homes?

When is the last time you learned/experienced something new and how did it make you feel?

For me? Grateful, and quite alive.

El Salvador three of us

Kindness Can Flower in Hardship

Alas, I wrestle to pin down my thinking as I process and share my journey to El Salvador in an upcoming collection of snapshots and insights, through narrative and poetry, with liberal doses of emotion, curiosity, respect, and hopefully, humour.

Kindness Can Flower in Hardship

El Salvador Lago coat

Glimpses of Lago de Coatepeque peek out from the dense wall of foliage, coconut palms giving way to pines, as the road zigzags up the base of the volcano. We tunnel our way through a verdant canopy. Vegetation encroaches on many roads here suddenly revealing cattle, dogs or passengers for the next bus at the last minute. As is often the case in El Salvador, a choice between attempting the cattle trail or following a paved but rough road lies ahead. Few signs assist the traveller but no matter; either path holds the promise of the unexpected. Today the challenge of the climb and the panorama from the Santa Ana volcano calls us higher.

El Salvador mariposa

We are early for the group hike (more to come) so we take in the view: stained-glass-coloured mariposas flutter, flap and soar, Jurassic-sized agave reach to the sky, fruit stands bubble with conversation, is that the Pacific shore in the distance? The vista is arresting. In El Salvador, the sight of gringas, we have learned, is rather unusual, and as we mill about, my daughter and her friend have captured the attention of el baño attendant standing charge of the .15 entrance fee. He has only one arm but with that hand he deftly plucks an hibiscus-like flower in bloom and another bud and says, “La bailarina.” He gifts the dancer to the girls and his smile and kindness spreads to us all.

El Salvador La Bailarina

 And this to me becomes the symbol of the complexity of El Salvador.

You see, the ‘flower dancer’ can hardly be appreciated without considering the man who made it. Though I don’t know his story, with some confidence I imagine he has lost his arm as a result of the brutal civil war (1979-1992). The vestigial remains of this conflict are palpable across the face(s) of this country. I cannot separate the skeins of this history, inevitable migration, sense of community, power of identity, and the current gang reign of terror, or I risk fraying the very fabric of this culture. When I pull on one thread of my journey to examine more closely, I witness the tug of layers of identity. The tension between such startling beauty in people and landscape, against a backdrop of poverty and gang violence creates a knot in my belly. Since my return, I have struggled to come to grips with my experience as I attempt to share the adventure in person or in writing. For to speak only of the gang violence, as newspapers are wont to do ( or, is to deny the warmth of the people and the bracing sights and sounds of their culture and country. To speak only to these sights and sounds as a tourist, however, denies the harsh reality of the Salvadoreño experience.

And so I intend to give voice to some of my reflections, some of the learning and questions that persist after travelling to El Salvador.

El Salvador top of crater eating banana