This blog is written solely by Max Greenblum. The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Updates on September and October

During the last weekend of September I organized a three-day workshop for 12 park rangers from 4 different national parks all over eastern El Salvador in order to better train the park guards to facilitate fun, interactive, youth-friendly environmental education activities. 

Very often groups of students come to these national parks or the guards are invited to nearby schools, but in El Salvador it is very rare that they are well-trained to teach environmental stewardship and awareness in an effective fashion. El Salvador is already the second-most environmentally-degraded country in the entire Western Hemisphere (you got us there, Haiti), so a greater awareness and level of education in the youth of the country is undoubtedly important.

Over the last few years Peace Corps has developed a curriculum of 12 educational lesson plans meant to make teaching environmental education much easier, simpler, and more effective. The curriculum is approved by the Salvadoran Ministry of Education and with part of the funding for my project, I was able to print out the curriculum in the form of a book for each park guard to have at the end of the training.

On the first day, 3 other Volunteers and I presented 3 of the lessons from the curriculum to give the park guards a better idea of what the philosophy behind the lesson plans was like. The second day we helped the park guards split into groups and prepare lessons of their own to be presented in a nearby school on the final day of the workshop of a concluding activity. The many lesson plans cover topics such as composting, recycling, extinction, the water cycle, photosynthesis, animal and plant diversity, etc.

We also found some time on the second day to visit a favorite place of mine in El Salvador, conveniently located nearby, called Llano del Muerto (Deadman's Plains). Despite the creepy name, the cool temperatures, gorgeous views, and impressive waterfalls are always worth a visit. We also fit in an "environmental scavenger hunt" for the park guards to participate in, giving them another example for an activity they could replicate with youth in their own respective protected areas.

Below is the complete group of 12 park guards and 4 Peace Corps Volunteers (including me) who completed the workshop. I took the lead role soliciting funding (from USAID) for the training and organizing all the details while the other Volunteers invited park rangers whom all work in areas near their communities.

Above and below are photos from the final portion of the training, when the 12 park rangers split into 4 groups and traveled to a nearby school to actually deliver one of the lessons from the curriculum themselves. It was extremely successful and not only gave the park guards much more confidence returning to their own communities, but also entertained and educated some local students.

Above, all the park rangers with their diplomas after completing the workshop.

And in between all the work, I also had a chance to sneak off to play some paint ball. I had seen a sign advertising paint ball on the side of a highway I often pass on bus, but had never seen anyone entering, leaving, or otherwise even mentioning the place. However, after too many months of curiousity, I finally just decided to get off the bus with a friend of mine and see what it was all about. Turns out we had the place completely to ourselves and they only charged us $5 to play for essentially as long as we liked. The place might not have met all the safety standards required in the States, but that (or the couple of dark-purple welts I came home with) certainly aren't going to stop me going back the next time I have a free afternoon.

After the environmental education workshop with park rangers, I also applied for and received funding for a youth leadership camp for teenage girls. 6 Volunteers from across eastern El Salvador were able to bring 3 to 5 girls from their communities who they thought would most benefit from the camp, which took place over an entire weekend in early October. I organized, and with the help of the other Volunteers, ran trainings on sexual health, family planning, educational and career opportunities, art and creativity, and small business/entrepreneurship basics. Above, another Volunteer and I are facilitating a discussion on sexually-transmitted diseases and safe sex practices.

Above, another Volunteer facilitates a version of the always popular board game, Life, which we re-created to better address the issues facing youth in El Salvador and give the girls a chance to make hypothetical life decisions in the game and see how they later turned out. 

I've also been busy over the last month supporting a group of women who I spent most of August and September training to work as health promoters specializing in HIV/AIDS education and awareness. After finishing the training, the project has gotten a lot more rewarding, as I have been traveling to different communities all over eastern El Salvador and supporting the women I trained as they teach other women's groups about the common myths and perceptions, basic facts, and prevention techniques of HIV/AIDS.

On the way out to one of the most remote communities where I facilitated an HIV/AIDS workshop we passed this huge memorial in memory of the massacre in the nearby community of El Mezote that occurred during the Salvadoran Civil War. It remains the most heartbreaking story from a war that spanned 3 decades and had no shortage of travesty or human rights violations. Although the main memorial to the massacre is located in the central park of the community of El Mezote and I have visited it multiple times, this memorial, very recently completed, is way out there on a road I can't assume more than 3 or 4 cars pass a day. Apparently built by a German monk who came to the area a few years ago and was taken aback by the history of El Mezote, I don't completely understand why it was built where it was, but was nonetheless impressed.

I also particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Gandhi, pictured above, in the monument, who I highly doubt many Salvadorans, especially in this area of the country, could identify or would know anything about. But hey...its Gandhi!

Above, a the view from the back of memorial site out into Honduras. Below, 3 of the women I trained to facilitate HIV/AIDS trainings and I resting and admiring the monument on our way back from one of the workshops.

Sea Turtles!

The video posted above (sorry, you'll just have to look at it sideways--I don't know how to rotate it...) is of a adult female sea turtle laying eggs (52 in total) on a beach in El Salvador. Working with an ex-Volunteer who began working for a Salvadoran sea turtle rescue organization after leaving Peace Corps, I organized a trip of 14 of us Volunteers to the beach to learn more about sea turtles and why they face extinction. First, we walked up and down over 10 kilometers of beach late at night, searching out and witnessing multiple turtles come ashore, make a nest, lay their eggs, camouflage their nests, then head back to sea. The entire egg-laying process lasted about 15 minutes each time and was absolutely breathtaking and unforgettable.

After the mother sea turtle heads back out to sea, the turtle hatchery takes the eggs from the nest and brings them to their own incubation area, where there are no natural predators and the turtles' chances for survival rise substantially.

And after all of this, even later that night, we were also lucky enough to be able to participate in a baby sea turtle release. After approximately 45 days, the turtle eggs hatch and the babies make a mad, haphazard dash for the waves and in turn the deep ocean. Each of us was able to release between 5 and 10 baby turtles, who had originally been found as eggs a month and a half earlier, placing them in the sand a few meters from the tide, giving them a chance to walk on their own a bit before being swept away in the ocean's currents.

Photos were very difficult to take because any flash or bright light would disorient the turtles, but since they are partially colorblind, any red-tinted light is completely allowable. The above video came out the best and shows the enormous size of the turtles and how amazing it is to see them lay their eggs. Female, adult sea turtles weight between 75 and 95 pounds, can live to be upwards of 140 years old, laying 30 to 50 eggs in each nest (they normally lay 3 separate nests a year, every two weeks during their 6-week laying period).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pictures from My Adventures Over the Last Month or Two

The above and below photos are from a night out in Ataco, one of my favorite small towns in El Salvador. It is located high in the mountains, in the middle of El Salvador's best coffee-growing area, much chillier than most of the country, and full of small art galleries, churches, and great restaurants.

One of the few places in the country where textiles are produced by men, during the day the huge looms seen above are buzzing with action, turning out brightly colored and intricately designed fabrics.

Above, the fountain in the middle of the central park. Below, a display or dream catchers in a local art gallery.

While wandering around the weekend food fair in the nearby town of Juayua, I happened upon the Salvadoran Zorro!

Above and below are photos from a trip into Parque Nacional El Imposible. Beyond having the coolest name possible for a national park, it is full of great waterfalls made to be jumped off of.

Above, Stephanie, my first visitor from the States in about a year, and I. We spent a week traveling around El Salvador, checking out lakes, volcanoes, beaches, and the area around where I live.

Above is a group of women I've been working with for over a month, training them to lead HIV/AIDS education and awareness activities and trainings. We meet every Thursday to discuss common stigmas and myths surrounding life with HIV/AIDS, strategies for stopping the spreading of sexually-transmitted diseases, and useful techniques for imparting this knowledge to others. Below, after one month of training, some of the women are finally repeating the training sessions in their own communities, spreading their knowledge to their family members, neighbors, friends, and in their community's schools.

Below is a shot of Playa El Tunco, one of the most popular beaches in the country. Beyond being one of the best surfing breaks in the country and having a great rock to climb on, dive off of, and watch sunsets from, it is one of the few beaches in El Salvador that also has an exciting nightlife. Above is a shot of a real, live puffer-fish a local kid caught while we were hanging out near him. Too poisonous to touch, we had to get it unhooked with a rock then launch it back into the ocean. I think I'd only previously seen puffer-fish on the National Geographic channel, so it was thrilling to see one in real life.

For the last 3 months I've been helping out another Volunteer near me with English-language classes she designed and led for teachers assigned to teach English who don't actually speak it all that well. A common problem in the Salvadoran Ministry of Education, especially schools in rural areas often just don't have English classes, even when it is a part of the required curriculum, because they don't have a teacher to lead the classes. Above, during the graduation ceremony, a few other Volunteers had to step in and sing the Star Spangled Banner, which the Ministry of Education insisted we include after the Salvadoran national anthem, since we forgot to bring it on tape. I decided to save my own vocal chords (and the ears of all the guests) and not sing, since I had to give a speech shortly after (below).

Below, a photo of all the teachers who attended and graduated the 12-week English-language and teaching methodology course.

This time of year marks the corn harvest, which especially in rural communities, is arguable the most important time of year in El Salvador, especially to small farmers. Many communities host festivals in honor of the corn harvest, and a common part of these festivals are parades of local girls wearing dresses made from all parts of the corn plant. Usually each surrounding community, in this case all of the communities around the town of Corinto (where this festival was held), elect a "queen," who was then prepared a dress made of corn (the process often taking over a month), then paraded around town and ultimately judged. 

Above, the young girls, along with members of the community, await the announcement of the winning dress design.

Above, Laguna El Jocotal, an important protected wetlands area near the coast in eastern El Salvador. Below, a view from the south of Volcano Chaparristique. I currently live on the northern side of the volcano, but have a nearly identical view. Volcano Chaparristique, also known as Volcano San Miguel, is currently the most active volcano in El Salvador.

On a recent visit to another Volunteer's site to check up on how all of his projects are progressing, we got side-tracked hiking through the forest with some some young girls who live in his community. They led us to a great little waterfall and river tucked away and up a hill.

Salvadoran Independence Day is September 15th (last Saturday), so to celebrate I checked out the parades made up of the marching bands from all the nearby schools. The parades lasted from early in the morning until noon and made doing anything else nearly impossible, as it was hard to think above the din of 10 to 15 different marching bands playing in all corners of my small town.