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Monday, December 3, 2012

From Tim's Blog - a great video to be watching at this cold and dreary time of year!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Trip for 2013

We have now officially announced that we will be offering a trip in 2013. Participants on this trip will be able to gain Religious Ed Part II from St. Paul University - this is the first time we are offering this and we are very excited about this new partnership!  Here are some details about the trip:

The price is $1250.00 not including the flight which could add on another $1000.00  We usually leave by July 2 or 3 and we are in El Salvador for 12 days.  We will spend most of our time in San Jose las Flores and we work with the teachers in this community.  The daily schedule depends on what teachers want to focus on.  Last July, we spent time on popular education methods, the history of the war in this area, the impact of the war on teaching and we spent two days on teaching the Salvadoran teachers how to use a computer program. This year the schedule will be somewhat different as we need to work in the requirements for Religion Part II.  There will also be at least two sessions here in Ottawa before leaving.

While in San Jose las Flores we live with families and our afternoons are generally free.  We use this time to debrief from our morning workshops or we sometimes return to work at the school or we have the option of visiting the community pool.

The exact schedule of workshops this year will depend on what our teachers have to offer and what our hosts are interested in and of course the requirements for part II.

Apart for the sharing workshops, we spend three days in San Salvador learning about the recent history of the country and we visit several civil society organizations involved in social justice work.  We also visit several sites associated with Oscar Romero.  At the end of the trip we spend one day at a wonderful beach and we spend time in Suchitoto, a beautiful town that is quickly becoming a cultural center for the country.

This is a very quick breakdown of the trip.  I outline this in more detail at our introductory meeting -  at this point, we are planning this for some time in January.
You should know also that we will only be able to offer this trip if we have 20 participants, so please let your friends know!
I will add you to the new Compadres 2013 e-mail list, you will receive updates on information meetings, new blog posts and other information on the upcoming trip.

With this e-mail, I am attaching our information package that has links to our web site, blog and Facebook Page - all these are great sources of information on El Salvador and Compadres y Comadres.

Thanks for your interest, if you have any questions, please let me know.  I can be reached at

Here are our partners for this year

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why I like Celas Maya

I have just returned from two weeks at Celas Maya in Xela.

My street in Xela

This was my second visit to the school and I loved it! There are three components that make the experience unique. First, wonderful, structured instruction for five hours a day. We start at 8:00 am every day and at the beginning of each week we make a plan for the entire week. The plan is filed with the office and we stick to it throughout the week.

Bird in flight in the nature preserve

Second, the home stay. Both times I have chosen to stay with a family in Xela. We ate three meals a day with them and I learned a lot of my Spanish sitting around the table talking during and after meals. My family was really wonderful and they made me feel at home throughout my stay.


Our visit to the hot springs above Xela

Finally, Celas Maya takes real care to offer activities throughout the week. One of my favorites was movie day - every Tuesday afternoon many of us would gather to watch a movie in Spanish and drink hot chocolate. It was great to spend time with the other students and sip ally good hot chocolate while learning Spanish in a different way! I also took part in one of the weekend trips - these are fabulous. I went with a great group of students to Monte Rico on the Pacific coast. We spent three wonderful days on a beautiful beach. We all enjoyed the lovely scenery and great food. We also took part in a predawn boat ride in a water nature reserve - a real highlight of my stay.

Street on the way to school

I really recommend Celas Maya. You will meet great teachers and interesting students from around the world. I had a great time and I look forward now to continuing my lessons with my teachers Ronnaldo through Skype!














The courtyard of Celas Maya where we have our lessons

Friday, July 13, 2012

Las Fuentes Georginas

Yesterday I took my last excursion out of Xela and it was one of the best. A big group of us took a bus to las Fuentes Georginas, a beautiful hot spring way up in the mountains above Xela. The water from the springs has been collected into a series of pools, the first one so hot that you can only stay in it for a few minutes

Fortunately, the next two pools are a little bit cooler. We climbed in our little bus on a road narrow enough for two cars to barely pass each other. As we climbed the drop off on the right hand side became very dramatic. We met a few cars on the way and we had to stop to let them squeak by.

We reached the pools around 3:30 and we all quickly got into the hot spring water. The water is heated by nearby volcanoes and the water constantly runs from pool to pool and then down the mountain.

A few years ago a hurricane in the area washed most of the pools away. You can still see the remnants of the former buildings down in the ravine below the pools.

This is a really beautiful spot. We all floated around in the pools for over an hour until we all looked a little like prunes. Later we gathered in the little cafe next to the pools and ate French fries. A great way to finish off a visit to a wonderful, peaceful place.


El oro o la vida

Yesterday a group of us sat and watched the excellent film El Oro o la Vida. It is about mining in Guatemala and other Latin American countries and the role that Canada plays in the exploitation of mineral resources in this region.

I was the only Canadian in the room with our Guatemalan teachers and some American students. I don't think I could have asked for a more interesting situation.

The film was difficult to watch, it displayed some of the horrible effects of water pollution from the mines on the people in various villages. It would then cut to a mining executive from Gold Corp confidently explaining how there is not water pollution caused by his mines. It explained also how many Guatemalan and Salvadoran activists have been killed or have simply disappeared during the struggle against the mining corporations.

After the movie was over we talked about what we had seen. As the only Canadian in the room, I was allowed to go first. I tried to explain what I know about the situation using my Spanish - a challenging task! The American students generally were very surprised to learn that Canada is a major player in mining and that we contribute significantly to the violence, unrest and sickness caused by the mines.

People still seem to think that we are the good guys, that we help people around the world. It was an eye- opener for them to learn that we exploit people quite effectively.

I also tried to explain that this situation is not well known even in our own country. Gold Corp seems to be better known in Ottawa for example as a major contributor to the University of Ottawa!

I think it would be a good experience for more Canadians to be here and sit with people and try to explain why we do these things with impunity.

After our discussion our Guatemalan hosts thanked us for contributing.

A great learning experience all around.



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Shopping Day in Xela

Today I have been shopping.

For me this is a major feat! I consider myself someone who is not the best at getting from place to place. However, today I was able to find my way to this wonderful bake shop and I was able to meet all sorts of merchants selling a wonderful variety of items.

Ronnaldo (my teacher) and I started the day by walking to the bake shop. I had never been there, but it was sunny and almost warm, so it was a good day for walk.

I have just started to learn the Subjunctive which is very exciting for me. Ronnaldo quizzed me all the way to the bakery on the present Subjunctive - a challenging task while trying to avoid the cars of the busy narrow streets.

While Ronnaldo got something healthy, I went for the biggest cream filled donut I could find. I really couldn't turn up the opportunity.

Right after class, I met Diego who was selling all sorts of amazing stuff from a village 40 kilometers from here. We talked about the materials that were used in some of the crafts and other things. It was very good to meet him and learn about what he had brought to the city.

The street where I met Diego

Later, I was actually able to make it back to the bake shop - after being there only one time! Unprecedented for me. I bought one of the last pies and brought it home for my family.

Next, I met Maria downtown selling all types of scarves and fabric. Her father was names Pablo and she would have happily sold me all of her wares if I had not moved on.

I continued shopping for family back home. A great day, a wonderful way to meet new people in Xela!

One of the markets in Xela, close to where I met Maria




Monday, July 9, 2012

The central square of Xela

In all the small towns and cities I have visited in Latin America, it is the central squares that I like the most. Always, this is where you will find the people, talking, walking meeting up. I can spend hours in the central square in Xela just watching the people.

Lots of times I will do my homework there as well. It is great to outside and have so many people around you. There is a great sense of community in these public squares and it is easy to feel part of the community as one strolls around the square.

This is something I think we have lost as we plan communities. We need to find spaces where people can collect just to 'be'. Nothing to buy, nothing really to do except to relate to other people.

I think this is truly good for the soul and we in North America need to find ways to do this in our communities.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

The beach at Monterico

One of the things I really wanted to do this time in Guatemala was see more of the country. We certainly did this over the past few days. We took a trip to Monterico, a beautiful spot on the ocean, a good five-hour drive from Xela.

Bird in flight before dawn at Monterico

We stayed at 'Johnny's Place', a very loud collection of rooms with a wonderful restaurant and a place on the ocean. The highlight of the trip was certainly the predawn boat ride we took through the mangrove forests that make up the local nature preserve.

We left at 5:00 am and were taken out in a large canoe-type boat that was poled through the channel by our guide.


The intense heat had not yet set in so we had an hour and a half of the most wonderful ride through the mangroves. Beautiful birds were everywhere. Fishermen were making their early morning catch and the world was beautiful and silent. It was a wonderful experience. It is great to know that there are still areas like this that remain untouched and tranquil.

Later we returned to Johnny's for a full day of lying in hammocks and battling the huge waves here on this coast. The music was loud and grinding. Both nights it kept up till 1:30 am. It will be nice to return to the relative quiet of Xela!


This is a beautiful beach, but a dangerous one too. We were cautioned to keep well away from the waves, the undertow here can pull you out to sea very quickly. Several times I was knocked right off my feet into the waves. Fun, but a little scary.

We returned to Xela today and I am very happy to be out of the heat. The climate of Xela is one of the best in the world and I love the cool days and nights we have here.

Tomorrow starts week two of classes. Ronaldo my instructor says I should be ready for new work - that is if I finish my homework tonight!


Our adventurous group at breakfast at Johnny's place


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Education in Guatemala

Professor Manual Hernandez listens to a question during our session today on rural education.

Today was another really interesting day at Celas Maya. What I really like about this place is that they are open to exposing their students to some social analysis. Today our speaker for the last two hours of lessons was Professor Manual Hernandez, an expert on education in Guatemala.

It was a fascinating talk. He outlined the archaic system of education that exists now in Guatemala. It is a story of powerful invested interests, corruption, attempts at reform and frustration. Prof. Hernandez outlined some of the challenges of a system where rural primary classes can have up to 43 kids in a class. He talked about issues around teacher qualification and tenure and the huge protests that are going on now in Guatemala as education students protest the government's decision to add two more years on to the post secondary education all educators must have.

While it is easy to blame the unions - called the magistry here in Guatemala - and outdated ideas on how schools should work, I think it is more basic than this. In Guatemala as in many other countries, little attention is paid by governments on how education should really work. I would argue that in Ontario this has changed over the past six or seven years, but in Guatemala, vested interests including the rich families who control the government will not allow change to happen. There is no political will here to make a change.

For me this is the greatest tradegy. No country, no people can succeed without a strong, independent, publicly supported school system. Such a system is what builds and nourishes a society. My hope for Guatemala is that the new government will find the political will necessary to make this system flourish!


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The trip to the glass factory

One of the very cool things this year are the trips. On the first day we visited the oldest church in Latin America. Yesterday we watched Motorcycle Diaries in Spanish, today we visited a women's cooperative where they separate and recycle broken glass.

the trips add so much to the experience! I have decided that I can't miss any of them. How can you turn up a crazy ride in a mini bus through the streets of Xela!

Across from the co-op was a vast forestry preserve. The trees are protected to stop the erosion that affects so much of the land around here. The low hanging clouds were still clinging to the mountain tops when we were there.

The co-op was great, the women are doing amazing things with the recycled glass. Once it is fashioned in glassware they export their work to the United States and Europe.

A collection of broken glass, collected and ready to be recycled

One of the great things about being in an immersion program is that you end up doing your own translation! Today one of the American students volunteered to translate for us. She was helped by two other students when she ran into difficulty. A great way to learn!

Our student translator

Tomorrow, a confence on education in Guatemala.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Who comes to Celas Maya?

I am learning lots here. In two days, I have done the equivalent of two and a halt months of Spanish back home.

I am learning a lot about the people who come here also. In two days I have met a young Sami woman from Norway who is specializing in indigenous issues. She is interested in finding out how the situation for the Maya compares to the Sami in Norway.

Today I met a young man who is here working on a Master's thesis studying endemic diseases amongst the Maya.

My room mate is from Georgia and he just got back from a trip to Ecuador where he and a buddy were doing an unpaid internship at a microcredit bank. He speaks great Spanish, but wants to pick up Arabic in the next few years.

There is a first year teacher from Milwaukee who teaches inner city kids Spanish. She is here to learn more to help her with her teaching assignment next year. In the afternoon she volunteers in the city.

There are more stories like this, but I have only been at the school for two days. For me, it just reinforces the strength of our young people and their willingness to learn new things and explore. What is especially heartening is the social conscience these young people all have.

These people are all here to open up the world, it is great to share a few weeks with them!



The streets and doors of Xela

The more I walk through Xela, the more I realize this is a beautiful place. Today after my lesson, I focused on the doors and streets that lead from my house to Celas Maya. This is a beautiful walk and I get to do it several times a day. Xela is really a jumble of houses and streets in some sort of a crazy grid pattern. It works really well and it offers such a relief to the grids and neighborhoods of our home.

Here are just a few of the doors and streets I pass by every day.





Monday, July 2, 2012

Rides on the chicken buses

One of the best things about traveling in Latin America is the buses. Life is at its most frantic as people rush on and off little mini buses or the bigger chicken buses. The fare collector routinely leaves the bus from the back door and climbs around to the front of the bus - all while the bus travels at full speed. Not sure why they do this but it looks pretty cool.

Our buses brought us to a small town just outside of Xela. We were there to visit one of the oldest Spanish churches in Guatemala. Since this is an immersion experience, the story of the church was told to us in Spanish. I am getting better, but I still can't catch everything.

Unfortunately for us, the women who has the key to the oldest church was not to be found. Instead we stared at it and took pictures.

This is OK. This church, like many I have visited in the past is built on the ruins of a Mayan temple. While the church is beautiful and it would be interesting to see inside, maybe it is better to keep away from places like this.

Tomorrow, five more hours of Spanish. I survived the first day, but the more Spanish I take the more I realize I need to learn. This never gets easy, but I am enjoying the struggle!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

In Xela

Have arrived in Xela. Here is a picture of the inner court where the lessons take place. Tomorrow morning it will be full of people speaking Spanish at various levels. I met a young student today from northern Norway. She has just arrived and she will be learning her first words in Spanish tomorrow.

It is rainy and cold in the city today, but the bars of full of people. Spain and Italy are playing in the final Eurocup came today. There are televisions everywhere and the central park, even though rainy is full of life.

My house is a good 10-minute walk from here. I spent the better part of the afternoon trying to figure out routes from my house to Celas Maya. The streets here are a maze. Every street has an 'a' or 'b' associated with it, so you need to follow 4 Calle, not 4a Calle. My way of figuring is to turn left at the really good bakery and then right at the bright yello stucco wall.


Here is my address - mostly taken so I can remember how to find my way back!