A Year Later: El Salvador, Oswego, and Saying Goodbye

10151940_10152274893111550_1680990572_nIt’s been a full year since my trip to El Salvador with SUNY Oswego. My negative feelings for the organizations involved and my alma matter have dissipated, I even started thinking about somehow starting a small fund for history students. I’m not rich, but I was even more broke as a student and would have loved a scholarship, even if it was only for books.

The people I met on the trip and I still connect every now and again, though mostly online. Around the anniversary, a few days ago, I was a little skittish. Whenever I heard a loud noise my heart would start to race. It’s gone away now for the most part, but I think every year at this time (for a while) I’ll be a little jumpy. Further, and perhaps most importantly, I better understand the situation we were in and why it happened. I cannot be mad at those individuals, which I won’t go into here. I realized right away that I had it pretty good because, in reality, I got to leave and no matter how many things were stolen from me, they had to stay.

What I’ve also been thinking about is my connection with SUNY Oswego. I miss it. I spent a lot of time there and made friends and connections that mean a lot to me. From personal to professional growth, it all happened on that campus. I miss being in class (mostly graduate school) and working with students on a daily basis during my graduate assistantship, though I do not miss the lack of pay.

This is all coming to me now because Leah and I are looking at an apartment in Syracuse tomorrow afternoon and as much as we want to move, it’ll be bitter sweet, but I think it’s for the best. The two of us will always have a place in our hearts for SUNY Oswego and the city. We know this place so well and are comfortable here. There aren’t any surprises. We know what to expect no matter where we go. We have a bar, a couple favorite places to eat, and a nice apartment. Unfortunately, tomorrow could be the beginning of the end for our time living there.

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It’s Been A While (Redux)

I keep saying I’m going to start to write here again to get my thoughts out on paper and hopefully clear my head from time to time.

So here it goes…

This morning while looking out of my kitchen window over the Oswego River, I realized something important about why I live my life the way I do. Growing up in a family that never had much, though my mom made sure my brother and I had everything we needed and worked hard to do so, I realized early on the value of hard work and never wanted to struggle like my mom did to raise a family or even just live life the way I want to. I don’t need much and I certainly work hard for what I want, but my struggles aren’t the same as my mother’s were and I’m thankful for that.

My struggles, day to day, include finding time to balance all that I do: A full-time job, a part-time job, being in a band, coaching a hockey team, being on the board of a museum, writing for an Islanders hockey website, having a social life and even alone time. I work two jobs, not because I have to, but because I’d rather have a difficult time balancing the two (and everything else) than finding a way to pay my bills on time (or at all). Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand full well that money doesn’t buy happiness and I know I could stand to “live” life a bit more, but right now I’m trying my best to establish myself. Not with anything or anyone in particular, but with me. I want to feel good about where I am and despite needing to go out and do some stuff like travel and teaching myself things, I think I’m getting there.

The lesson? All struggle is not created equal.

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El Salvador Journal: Part V – The Final Days

It’s been a really, really long time since I wrote about this trip. I’ll try to make this as clean and to the point as possible due to the content and the fact that I want to finish this damn thing already. It’ll be based on my notes from March 20th to our last day, March 23rd. It may be confusing, but most of the time I’m waking up the next day writing up the night before or writing on the bus ride home from a site in the middle of the day.

Before I start, I want to say how much the people on the trip meant to me then and still mean to me now. These are some of the strongest humans I know.

So this entry goes out to Tim, Courtney, Ryan, and Andrew.

(Deep breath)

3/20 “My voice didn’t come back, but we did have a good day of work despite the long drive to the site. We went to a day care/living compound that was about an hour away from where we were staying. We were told that this group was displaced a number of times and was given these block housing, concrete homes.

It was a pretty scary part of El Salvador. We showed up and guards were at the gates , learning later that they were not always there and were hired to protect us. They were with us the entire day and we weren’t allowed out of their sight. Our job for the day was to give the kids there some attention, paint parts of the compound, and help clean up the school yard.

Before the supplies arrived, we played soccer with the kids: U.S vs El Salvador. It was fun, though I don’t think we won. These kids were good, but we held out own out there. The most important part was the kids loved it and wouldn’t let us stop playing, even when the supplies showed up. I felt bad just standing around most of the time, there weren’t enough paint brushes for everyone, so I rounded up some kids and a box of garbage bags and we walked around cleaning up for an hour or so. It was great to see them get excited about cleaning up their little community. Later on I was able to start painting and it was nice to be in the shade for a little while.

After passing a Walmart/mall on the way to the site, we decided to stop there on the way home. Our search for Cubans continued, but to no avail. We did, however, get ice cream, which is nearly just as good. After getting back to our house and going for a swim in the ocean followed by the pool and a shower it was time for dinner. Chicken, potatoes, beans, and rice.

After dinner,Ryan and I decided it was our turn to wash the dishes for the group and give our cooks a break. After all, there were more than 30 of us on the trip with both groups. A friend of mine told me they did that last year, so I made sure we did it too. Later on was “Skit Night,” created by one of our trip leaders, Tim. I was a judge for no other reason than I was tired and not feeling very creative. All the skits were hilarious, and the five other judges and I, which included parents from the Kansas City group, played the roles of American Idol and Voice characters while critiquing their performances.

As the night wound down, a few of the girls from the KC group started asking me about the last few years of my life and what was next when I got home. When I looked at them, I remembered doing the same thing, asking people older than me what was next and being in awe of what they were doing.

Now that I’m here, it’s not that glamorous. Anyway, it’s time for bed.

3/21 – We started our day a little later today (9am), meaning everyone was much happier with the extra 40 minutes of sleep, mostly me. Today’s site was closer than the others, about 30 minutes away from the house.
We had to dig a 6x6ft hole behind a house for a bathroom. The sun was the hottest it’s been all week, making this job one of the more exhausting ones. It did feel good to do some manual labor and see the finished product for a change. Anyway, it wound up being so hot that we left around 1:30pm as many in the group were severely dehydrated. As much as I needed water, I began to get sick of it. Lesson learned, though- Always bring salty foods to hot places to help absorb water. As much as I drank, I would immediately sweat it out. On the way home we stopped for ice cream (again) and upon our return the normal beach, pool, shower, nap routine continued wonderfully. Currently I’m just hanging out waiting for dinner.

3/22 – Before dinner last night, the 30 of us got into a circle and talked about what the trip has meant to us, our favorite parts, etc. It was hard not to say I, because in reality this trip wasn’t for me- it was for the people here. My personal growth was very secondary to that. Either way, it was nice to hear everyone’s thoughts. Afterwards, of course, it was dinner time. The night turned into round two of 20 questions with the other group as they asked me about Oswego, the snow, school, and my girlfriend gasping at how the snow covered our cars regularly. As the night wore on, the music got a little louder and, despite my voice still being pretty shot, everyone sang along to crummy pop songs and had a good time. By 10, it was time for everyone to hit the sheets, mostly the KC crew because they had to catch their flight north in the morning. As for today, it’ll be a day of sight seeing and whatever else we can manage to fit in. On a side note, while writing this on the balcony at 6:45am, I finally started my idea for a book that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Figure my mind is as clear as it will be for some time so why not get the thoughts out while I could.
Breakfast is in a while, so I’m going to hang out and keep writing until then and start our day.

3/23 – The last 24 hours are something I will not soon forget. Saturday started out like all the others- breakfast, hanging out, and off to the vans. We went to a Mayan ruin museum, had lunch a gorgeous lake, hiked a volcano, and bought souvenirs, which included a hammock, a small picture, and a jewelry box for Leah. The day was pretty amazing.

We got home around 5pm, went to the beach for swim and showered. Earlier in the day we moved our stuff from where we were staying to where we had been eating our meals. We settled in when we got back from sight seeing, but there wasn’t a huge need to unpack as we were leaving in the morning. We ate dinner and went outside in the backyard to hang out, play cards, and smoke cigars that Tim found, though they weren’t Cubans.

As we were winding down our game around 10pm, we heard a really loud crash and saw a guy hit the top of the outhouse and fall to the ground. Next thing we knew, there were 12 to 15 gang members with guns and machetes telling us to get on the ground. Some hopped the 10-12 foot concrete wall with barbed wire while others somehow got through the house. They took everything we had on us as others went through our bags upstairs while we were being held on the ground. Eventually they marched us into a room and told us not to come out for 10 minutes, which we did when we thought they really left and tried our best to take in what had transpired.

No one was hurt and a lot of our stuff was taken including laptops, watches, money, clothes, and backpacks. Personally, I didn’t lose much as I travel pretty lightly. I lost my leather-man, my necklace, a hoodie, the small picture and a hammock I bought earlier in the day, a crummy watch I bought for the trip, and $40. Courtney had 95% of her stuff taken, Tim both of his cellphones, Ryan his shoes and random other things, and Andrew clothes and his laptop. Staying with us that night was a Brazilian girl, Juliana, who had $1000 stolen along with her laptop and her passport. I hope everything works out with her.** My license and debit card weren’t taken because they were in a small pocket with a zipper. Wish I had put some more things in there now that I think of it.

Luckily our passports survived the ordeal.

At the end of the day, everyone being ok is what’s really important. We were really scarred at the end of it all and because my phone was magically not taken (it was charging on the bed and not in my pocket or bag so they didn’t see it) we used it to figure out how to get out of the house. Tim’s whole backpack was taken, meaning all of our contact information for people in El Salvador went with it. The bill will be unreal, but I’m hoping I can figure that out later.*

The experience was eye opening. I have never been in a situation at all like that and I hope I never have to again. After the ordeal and all the phone calls to people back home, we had a van bring us to the organization leader’s home where we stayed for the night. Mike was surprised to hear about what happened and, from what he said, this had never happened to one of his groups before. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I crashed really hard after the adrenaline went down.

The morning came quickly and more conversation and questions about the night before started just as fast. We ate whatever breakfast we could muscle down and off we went to the airport. I was able to FaceTime with Leah at Mike’s and my Dad at the airport to let them know everything was ok. Currently, I’m on the flight to Atlanta and I’ve never been so happy to be going home. Until last night, I really liked being in El Salvador, despite the extreme poverty and huge class gaps. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back, but I need some time to process all of this. Aside from having a gun pointed at me, I was pretty upset about losing my necklace I got when I was 10 and have been wearing ever since. It’s material, sure, but it meant a lot to me. I’m also not happy that I now have negative feelings about a place that needs as much help as possible and, overall, was an amazing experience that I would have spoke very highly about.

I won’t look at all the pictures with the excitement I had when I first took them. The stories won’t feel the same as when I lived them. Spanish will, for a while, be the language of fear. We just had the in-flight lunch and coffee- there’s about 45 minutes left on the flight until we get to Atlanta. I guess this concludes the journal. I really wish the ending was different and cannot think of a non-cliche phrase about “bad things happening to good people” that will aptly describe what took place.”

*AT&T were really cool about it and understood the circumstances. The bill was $30 or so.

** From what I understand, Juliana left El Salvador a few days after we did, but haven’t heard anything since.

The following are my current thoughts on the situation and now, having some time to think about it and multiple conversations over tacos with Tim, Andrew, Ryan, and Courtney, I feel it’s time to say how I really feel about some of the things that went down and how it was handled afterwards.

This does not, in any way, reflect how the rest of the group feels as I am not a representative of them or their thoughts on these events. 

First, none of the organizations involved (Homes From the Heart, The Fuller Center, and SUNY Oswego) did  their homework on this. From what I learned afterwards about the current situation in El Salvador (as far as from January 2014 to the present) we should not have been there. Last year’s trip isn’t this year’s, though that seems pretty simple in so much as you can’t plan on the same things happening each time in a country located in the murder triangle of Central America. Between the high murder rate and the political situation, as much as they need help it wasn’t worth what happened to us to go into that situation. Though we should have done some research, these organizations planned and sent us there meaning they should probably know exactly what the situation is there and make sure the other people involved also understand, to the best of their abilities, what’s going on there. Everyone assumed because nothing had ever happened before that it wouldn’t happen this time.

Second, how all the organizations handled it afterwards may have been even worse. The Fuller Center and Homes From the Heart said “This never happened before and there’s not a ton we can do.” They wound up giving us the trip cost back, but thinking about it now, I would have really liked a public apology on their behalf saying “Hey, we messed up, but this isn’t going to happen again on our watch. We’re sorry.”

SUNY Oswego decided to sweep it under the rug as fast as possible and I regret signing the piece of paper saying I wouldn’t pursue further, though nothing says that none of us can’t with the Fuller Center. At the time, we all wanted to get this over with and move on, and I think they took advantage of that. Also, having us sign something means they know they did something wrong. They too offered us reimbursement for the things we lost, though I later learned they have specific insurance for things like this and decided to not fill us in on or didn’t want to file the claim for whatever reason. The people they had speaking with us from the college were also not exactly who should have been having conversations with us- high enough that they had a title and low enough to not really know anything if we had questions.

Now, I will say that the programs that the Fuller Center puts together as well as SUNY Oswego’s organization of these trips is usually good. It’s just hard to swallow when it seems as simple as double checking that things are the way they should be before we go. Trips like this need to continue to happen and I hope both of these organizations learned a valuable lesson, though I would have preferred it not be at my or any one else’s expense.

A place I spent thousands of dollars at for six years worth of school and held multiple jobs pushing the great ideas of the college now has a sour taste in my mouth along with a place that desperately needs help. It may take a while for that to go away.

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Taking My Time

Lately I’ve been getting into things most people could call me a hipster for: records, safety razors, old school haircuts, beer, and whatever else it is that I like nowadays. When I think about it, this started a few years ago when I got into cycling and maybe even before that when I knew I loved history.

And as I sit here and listen to a record and type this, I now realize why I like these things- they take time. Not in the “it takes time because I have time to waste” way, but in the “I’m in no rush” kind of way. Now keep in mind, this doesn’t apply to things like traffic jams, waiting in line, or waiting for my food to come at a restaurant. Frankly, anything that I have to wait for THAT I NEED RIGHT NOW.

Merica.

What I’m trying to say is, some things should take time.

When you sit and listen to a record, you are committing to that album (at least for one side anyway). There’s no skipping to your favorite song or easily switching to another band (not that it’s some type of project to switch records). You carefully decide what you want to listen to and then, well, you just sit and listen.

Shaving with a safety razor takes nearly twice as long as a modern 3+ blade razor. With the former, there are steps and because of how sharp the blade is, going slow is a must, which also helps you do a better job shaving. With the latter, you splash water on your face, throw some shaving cream on, go up, down, sideways and whamo, you’re done. Simple, yes. Quick. You bet. But you’re not present in that moment. You want to get it done quickly to move on to something else. Why not enjoy the 20 minutes you’re taking care of yourself?

I drew this conclusion not too long ago when I realized we’re all getting old. I became terrified I was wasting my life doing, or not doing, things I wanted to do and that one day I would wake up 40 and ask myself what they hell happened. I’m 23 and I’ve been lucky enough to go and do a lot of things in that time, but that doesn’t mean I want to stop now, regardless of starting a career.

I want to start enjoying everything I do. This doesn’t mean my life will only be made up of really exciting adventures, it means that even if I’m doing errands or drinking a beer, I want to be present the whole time. I want to look in the mirror and see myself before I’m not 23 anymore. The last 6 years went by real quick, and even though I had a great time in undergrad and graduate school, I want to re-read this when I’m 29 going on 30 and know that I lived moment to moment and can remember growing older, not just getting older.

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The end, the beginning, and then…

20140504-132636.jpgA lot of things are ending in the next couple of weeks- I’ll be graduating with a master’s degree ending my academic career (for now), my assistantship contract is up ending my job at SUNY Oswego, and my museum internship will be completed with the ending of this semester.

The good news is, there are great things waiting for me on the other side. I start a job at Onondaga Historical Association in a month, I continue my job at a foundation, and I gain the freedom to, well, do whatever I want.

Thinking back, I always had a good excuse for why I didn’t go out: school. Yes, it’s a lot of work. No, I shouldn’t have done that. Now, I’m at a crossroads- I can decide I’m going to be boring and make excuses or I can go out and do something, anything, in the time I make for myself. I can’t keep saying I don’t feel like driving or spending money. If I want to do something I’m going to go for it.

I’m going to go at my jobs with everything I have as well as my personal life.

I want to start projects, books, trips, and whatever else to learn and grow outside of a classroom. I’m going to meet people wherever I go and learn to love to do new things. And sometimes, when the mood strikes, I’ll be a bum and sit around drinking beers at a bar with my friends, but that’s not all I’ll have to look forward to.

I feel good about starting a new chapter in my life. This one needed to end. And then? Well, who knows.

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El Salvador Journal: Part IV

(3/19/2014 2:00pm) “Today, Wednesday, was a day off for our group. I woke up and I seemed to have lost my voice. Not sure how, but it’s already pretty annoying. We slept in a bit, had some breakfast, and packed up for a hike and an afternoon at the beach. 1236390_10152274893066550_1770760958_n We drove about 40 minutes away from where we were staying and up part of a decent sized hill. From there, we climbed up this narrow path through the rocks.   10013925_10152274899311550_183851315_n Eventually, we got to the top and enjoyed the view. 10153249_10152274894446550_791144158_n At the bottom, there were some souvenir shops, where I bought some gifts for myself and Leah- a wooden coffee mug for myself and a bracelet with Leah’s name inscribed. Part of the group had already started making their way up an adjacent hill and soon we followed. This hike was a bit more difficult, but it was worth it. Everyone was posing for pictures at the top and, of course, I needed to get mine taken, too. 1964899_10152272882311550_673637948_n

(Note: I don’t look happy, but I am. This was a really cool part of the trip.)

The sites were amazing and it made me want to go on more hikes when I get home, something Leah will like a lot. The views were unbelievable and despite my fear of tumbling don the massive hill, I enjoyed the climb. The sun wasn’t too bad and, knock on wood, I still haven’t had any sunburn. Now we’re off to the beach that happens to be near our first worksite, about an hour and half away from the hiking spot.

(8:00pm that evening)

The rest of the day was spent at the beach. We hung out at a hostile, which I learned was $8 a night, and despite the really American style lunch that was served, it was a good time. We ate and hung around until everyone was ready to head down to the water. People rented surfboards and others just went for a swim. I tried to surf for the first time, and even though I was unsuccessful, I had a good time trying and look forward to doing it again soon.

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As of now, we just got finished with dinner (spaghetti and sauce) and now everyone is sitting around a bonfire on the beach. I talked to Leah for the first time since I left today. Decided to eat the cost of a few texts and let everyone know I was ok. It was nice to see her name pop up on again on my phone. Back to work tomorrow right and early. Hopefully my voice comes back.

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El Salvador Journal: Part III

10154141_10152274903221550_1206239181_n3/19/2014 (This post will be split in to two. The first will be 3/17 and 3/18 and the second will be 3/19. All of this was written on 3/19.)

“Hopefully I can remember the last two days, they’ve been pretty long.

Monday, St. Patrick’s Day, we went to our first work site at about 8am. Our job was to build latrines (bathrooms, which are more or less 15ft holes in the ground with cinderblocks and cement on top) for the people in this remote mountain area, about 45 minutes from where we are staying.

The ride wasn’t bad other than the swerving around crater-like potholes and nearly in to oncoming traffic. The highway followed the shore pretty closely. It reminded me of the Amalfi coast in Italy- large cliffs, vein like roads connecting each little town along the way with the occasional orange roof in the distance.

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Eventually, we got to a dirt road with a bodega in front of it and the nearly 40 people in our groups exited the vans and into the back of a 1950s era Mercedes pick-up truck and up the mountain we went.

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Unfortunately, our site was only about 20 minutes up the road. Now, I say unfortunately because we passed it and went another 20-25 minutes up the mountain, nearly getting stuck and having to go backwards to try again, only to turn around and find our site. To help put this all in perspective, we couldn’t have traveled more than 7 miles all together. To say it was a slow, bumpy, and scary ride may help put this all together. Most times we wondered if the truck would make it up the suddenly steep hills of loose rock and dirt.

Anyway, on the way up, Andrew  noticed a cemetery. It was much different than what we are used to seeing in the United States. It was colorful, as if truly celebrating a person’s life.

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At the site, it was a long day of mixing concrete on the ground, moving cinder blocks, and avoiding falling into the 15ft whole while carrying buckets of cement and dirt.

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At lunch, Courtney, Tim, Andrew, Ryan and I went down to the river to cool off. Andrew and I dunked our heads in the cool water and climbed some rocks while the rest of the group sought out an entrance to this old, rickety, Indiana Jones type bridge.

Here’s a not so great picture of Courtney on the bridge.

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Lunch was PBJ on subroles and a lot of water. The school kids were huddled around most of the girls as they attempted to speak with them, only to get laughs in return.

After lunch, we were back to work. We were able to finish two latrines for the day, though we cut out pretty early, probably 3:30 or so.

Overall, it was a good experience. A first hand account of the extreme poverty helped to put a lot of the problems we face in the United States into perspective. A large portion of the country deals with these kinds of conditions. What amazed me more than anything was how happy the people, and especially the kids, were. I tried to play around with the kids as much as possible, though I was very determined to finish the task at hand. That is, after all, why we’re  here.

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At the end of our work day, we piled back into the truck and off we went back down the mountain. Here’s a video of us on the way down.

The bodega at the bottom had 40 cent sodas, which were half a liter by the way. So, as most of us did, I enjoyed an ice cold Pepsi on the way home, though I didn’t realize the size until I wasn’t feeling so well.

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By dinner time, my “not feeling so well” turned in to nausea, so I gave the rest of my dinner to Andrew and walked home to see if I could sleep it off.

Spoiler alert, I couldn’t.

A combination of some fruit I had before lunch (cocotte, photo below), the heat, dehydration, exhaustion from the flights and lack of sleep, and the giant soda I had turned me in early, only to wake up every two hours to “pray to the porcelain Gods,” “Drive the big, porcelain school bus…” you get the picture.

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(Cocotte)

The following day it was hard to each much of anything despite the amazing breakfast that was being prepared. I have to admit, I don’t remember what it was because I couldn’t even look at food. I tried to drink as much water as we could before leaving for work- another day of latrine building. I can’t remember what lunch was, though I think it was what was for dinner the night before. I forget.

I started to feel better throughout the day, which was good. I was able to eat dinner when we returned for the evening after a nice shower and my forming post-work ritual of a 20 minute nap. Our nighttime routine had us turn in at about 9:45 to prepare for the next day. Our walks back to our place were pretty scary, but no one was around, or we just didn’t see them.”

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