Sunday, January 02, 2022

A Day in the Life of Three Salvadoran Towns: Suchitoto After Dark

 Dusk is short, it's dark by dinnertime and we have just a single votive and a small lamp on a post nearby to light the table.  Whether January or July, the consistently pleasant weather here allows us to eat outside with the only consideration being the mosquito population. Tonight it's not too bad, despite being the middle of the rainy season.  Tilting the menu to be best lit by the dim light, my husband and I make our selections and give our dinner orders to the young waiter at the hotel's restaurant, and then sit back to take in our surroundings. The dining areas are spread across two courtyards (one poolside and the other surrounding a central fountain), a more formal inside room, and the wooden rooftop balcony we've chosen overlooking it all and over the northern edge of the town.  It's the 4th of July in Suchitoto, El Salvador.  This year the American holiday falls on a Sunday, which means the Embassy is closed tomorrow and we'll have the day off.  Whenever we have an American holiday on a Monday, and the rest of the country will carry on like usual, we head out for a Sunday overnight and generally find we have whichever town, hotel and restaurant to ourselves.  Tonight would be no exception. 

The view north past Lake Suchitlan. 

Hotel Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. 

Beautifully restored interior courtyard.

Staying on a Sunday also means the hotel staff are less busy and more free to chat, and striking up conversations with strangers sits somewhere between an obsession and physical compulsion for me. This habit can make any introvert with me cringe, but I find it always leads to hearing interesting stories and gaining insight into the daily lives, political opinions and weather predictions from the regular folks living where we're visiting.  Again - tonight would be no exception.  Our waiter tells us he's studying to be a teacher, physical education if I recall correctly, and wakes up in the wee morning hours (like 3:00 am) to take a multiple-hour bus trip to the main university in San Salvador from Suchitoto.  Or I should say, he takes buses plural as the trip requires multiple transfers.  But he says the commute is worth it as he can live at home and keep this good job at this hotel, the lovely Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. He'll finish his degree soon and start looking for teaching jobs, but he isn't optimistic that there will be enough to go around for himself and his classmates.  And anything in a school near his home would be even less likely. He'll have to think hard about whether or not he'd take a job out of commuting distance from home and doesn't really have another plan for this eventuality other than to hope that he finds a good placement.  We try to end the conversation on a hopeful note for his career prospects, but sadly expect to find him still waiting tables on our next visit. 

Hotel reception. 

After dinner, we leave the hotel's interior courtyard through tall, 
carved wooden doors set into two-foot thick adobe walls and exit onto a cobbled lane not far from the town plaza.  Suchitoto feels as if it's perched on a plateau given its purview over the expansive Lake Suchitlan below, but the town actually sits at half the altitude of San Salvador where we live. A strategic stronghold in all sorts of wars over the centuries, the town's historic significance has been the motivation to preserve its original architecture, church, cobbled streets and rows of pastel adobe houses. Quaint, yes, but not in a Disney way.  It has preserved and emphasized its cultural heritage well and the community supports multiple museums, arts centers and an historic theater. But beyond that, Suchitoto is a real town that doesn't depend only on tourism to survive. It is populated by all income and education levels, and with enough grit to feel authentic, yet not too much to feel unsafe walking around after dark. And so we did.

Suchitoto streets are lined with classic adobe houses with arched doorways and shuttered windows. 

Row houses from tradtional to formal. 

View over Lake Suchitlan. 

What fascinates me about walking after dark in a warm climate is that I can witness so much life in the house doorways and front living rooms where windows and doors are left wide open to keep the breeze coming in.  I learned this on a trip to Merida, Mexico where looking into every front room while strolling by on the sidewalk started as a curiosity and turned into a compulsion. My husband and I have discussed, to no final conclusion, whether or not there are unspoken rules about this. On the one hand, this rubber-necking could be an intrusion into the privacy of the people minding their own business in their underwear in the own homes.  On the other hand, they did leave the doors and windows wide open - what did they expect? I waver between the two opinions, and in the end find myself unable to stop the quick glances.  It goes back to my conversation urge - I just learn so much about how folks live by seeing them in their natural habitats, as it were. 

A weeknight in a tourist town, or during the off-season when few visitors are about, lets residents regain possession over their streets. Neighbors hang out on front stoops chambreando, watching the kids and dogs play outside and generally letting their hair down after the work day. Women sit on stools and snap peas, a cat or older dog at their feet, and keep an eye on who and what is passing by. There's usually a TV on in the front room, its watcher swinging silently in a hammock strung up corner to corner by heavy hooks sunk into the plaster walls.  Family photos hang above the camelback sofas, themselves covered by crocheted throws. A few framed pictures proclaiming a favorite team, celebrating a recent graduation or stating a religious conviction decorate other walls. Three boys kick a soccer ball under a weak street light and the smell of dinner drifts out onto the street.  

We step off the curb and into the street to pass a cluster of people in front of a small restaurant. The owners keep the doors open after closing time because in all likliehood they live just above or in the back, so it's no problem to hang out a bit longer. A waitress wearing a short, frilly apron over her jeans leans against the doorway and the kitchen staff have joined a group for a few drinks and lively conversation after their shifts. Two teenagers are entwined into each others' arms on a bench in the shadows just out of sight of parents or aunties. The heat of the day has passed; it's time to relax and just sit outside, catch up with neighbors and get ready to do it all again tomorrow. 

We continue to walk without a particular destination, just following the sidewalk, when we're startled by a burst of fireworks above the roofline coming from the plaza in front of the church.  My husband and I stop in the street - there are no cars driving about to watch out for - and enjoy the show, wondering who knew it was the 4th of July? We find some likely culprits among a gathering of men at a sidewalk cafe near the church. I imagine some are Salvadorans come back home to visit from Houston or Silver Springs, treating their friends to a fireworks display for the American holiday. The cardboard debris from the fireworks still sits in the plaza where they were lit, left for the street sweeper woman to deal with tomorrow. She won't mind; she knows it's just how things are done. 

Seeing small towns like Suchitoto when they're not "on display" for visitors lets me experience the authentic place. Walking after dark or early in the morning can feel a bit like peeking through the curtains and seeing the town in its undershirt, before it has smartened up for company. It's the best way to get to know the routines and repeating rhythms of how daily life passes and appreciate places and people more honestly.  So I think I'll keep doing it.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Mid-Tour Home Leave: Remembering How to be American

I learned about providing good customer service working at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation for a few winters not long after college.  Before the mountain opened around Thanksgiving, sometime in about October, all employees new and veteran were summoned to the Sheraton conference center auditorium and given customer service training in no uncertain terms.  This set the tone for what was expected of our behavior and our treatment of the tens of thousands of customers we'd collectively be serving, be it a hot lunch, a brushed-off ski lift, or an expert-level moguls class. I had been hired to work in the ski school office selling lift tickets and arranging ski school lessons for all levels, all ages.  And I mean all ages, as we inquired if the little one was potty trained yet and could bend their arms and legs in their winter bunny suit. 

This was back in the day when we smoked in restaurants and wearing a helmet to ski was laughable unless you planned to be crashing the gates on the slalom course; back before downloading apps and booking online, before the internet, and even before the invention of the instant credit card machine to verify a purchase.  No, this was waaay back when we had a telephone-book to cross-check for reported stolen credit cards and a 1-800 number to call to get (from a live operator) a confirmation code for the purchase which we then hand wrote on the carbon-copy charge slip. 

There were about a dozen of us manning the counter at the ski school ticket office. We were the first stop for the great majority of our visitors who, after flying in from Dallas or New York to our relatively remote Rocky Mountain destination, would shove all their kids into ski suits and boots, their skis into rental cars, then make their way from the distant parking lots on shuttle buses to the base of the resort in order to stand in line in our crowded (but heated) waiting room while my coworkers and I booked a week's worth of expensive fun for the whole family. By the time they appeared at the counter in front of me, two kids already had to go to the bathroom, the mother had pulled off that cute pink pom-pom topped hat she'd matched to her lip gloss and shoved it into a jacket pocket, and the father was starting to swear and already sweating profusely.  It was then my job to determine their needs, describe our package deals and quiz each one about their skiing abilities to place them into appropriate classes so the parents could ditch the kids and finally fergodsake - have some fun. And vice-versa. This is where I learned about customer service.  Because even after I'd booked Mom's private lessons for each morning at 10 with the bronzed Kiwi instructor she liked from last year, the kids into all-day with lunch included teen classes, and Dad into the bumps clinic after lunch where on the last run on Thursday he'd blow out his knee and have to be brought down the mountain by ski patrol - I still had to leave my customers to stand in line for one of our three wall-mounted phones, like in a 1950s boarding house hallway, to make the call to verify their credit card purchase.  

Yes, THIS is where I learned about customer service.  

How both Mom and Dad pictured their ski holiday.

This is also where I learned that to effectively sell something - one had to really know it and be honestly enthusiastic about it.  To accomplish this goal, in their wisdom, the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation gave all employees a free season's pass, and just for ski school employees, all the free lessons we could take.  Yup, if I wanted - I could pop into a lesson every lunch hour and all day on my days off. We got to know the instructors' personalities and teaching styles to match with our customers; we knew which level was best for those capable of stem christie turns versus those comfortable staying parrallel and ready for more advanced terrain. We learned this by taking the lessons ourselves so we could speak from experience to properly match each skier with the appropriate level of instruction so they (and their instructors) could get the most of their time.  Beyond the day spent in the Sheraton auditorium, this was the best customer service training they could've offered us. 

Here is where I draw the connection between working in ski school in the late 1980s to being a Foreign Service Officer in 2021. In order to properly represent the product: America and service to its people, we need to go back home and remember who and what that is exactly. We need to keep taking the ski classes.  Which is precisely why I spent the entire month of October back in the U.S. in four different states on two coasts for my mid-tour home leave.   

Usually home leave comes between overseas tours and requires spending 20 working days - federal holidays not included - inside the U.S. or its territories, meaning this can be taken in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or Guam, too.  (Please don't make me look up the difference between territories, protectorates or possessions; I'm sure you get the idea.) We can visit Canada or Mexico for the day, but not overnight. After all, the whole idea is to come back from the brink of going native and remember what it means to be American.  Given our tour extension to four years, I was directed to take this leave at the mid-tour mark of two years into our time in El Salvador.  I mentioned in an earlier post that this requirement is just mine, as the employee, and does not apply to family members.  They can go as rogue as they want, apparently.  Beyond a requirement, it is also an "allowance," meaning Uncle Sam will sport the round-trip plane ticket for the employee and all family members and throw in an extra checked bag for those who might need enough clothes for say... one month of living out of a suitcase, but that's it.  Sure, I also get my salary but embassy-employed family members do not and have to use vacation leave or leave without pay to join along.  Given that, my husband chose to join me for just one week, after which he returned to the peace and quiet of his routines in our house and garden, to bond with the cats, and to slip back on the yoke at his job while I spent the remaining three weeks visiting family.  

So did it do the trick? In brief, yes, I think it did. 

First of all, I got to see my old friend Autumn again and be reminded what it's like to go through a change in seasons with all the traditions and routines that entails. (P.S. apparently it's okay to capitalize seasons if you're personifying them. So there.)  I'm not talking just "Ooh, there's a chill in the air, let's get a pumpkin spice latte!" kind of autumn experience, although yes, I both said and did that, no - I mean we spent a week during peak leaf-peeping season in New York's Adirondacks along the glassy shore of Long Lake to be astounded by natural beauty. Although it was just the first week of October, staff the handful of stores and just about every restaurant or cafe warned use they'd be closing down today, tomorrow or next Sunday.  We chatted with the cashier at Hoss's General Store, home to every Adirondack souvenir you could imagine and some great local white cheddar cheese, about her plans for the day-after-tomorrow, her last day on this seasonal job.  

"See that light blue rig across the street?" and she pointed to a small RV parked in shady lakeside lot tucked behind the BBQ joint. 

"I'm hitting the road again!" she proclaimed jubilantly. "I'll make my way south of course, but then head west to Arizona; I'm chasing 70!"  I commented that she looked nowhere near 70 and she laughed, "No, 70 degrees!  That's the goal - always keep it at about 70 degrees. I like it up here, they let me park right there and offer me this job all summer, so I'll be back. But when the season ends, I move on to the next gig."  Seeing our interest, she went on to detail the best places to be and when, recommended the most informative "rubber tramp" YouTube channels we'd have to check out, and described how affordably she can live without having to pay rent or maintain a house, emphasizing that she has never felt freer. A truly American option for retirement-aged folks who don't want to be tied to another truly American tradition - the huge mortgage. 

Beyond this conversation, I also took great pleasure in eavesdropping on people at nearby tables in a language I could fully understand to hear what Americans talk about. My husband and I noticed who masked up and who scoffed at mask-wearers. We felt uncertain on what to do where, and my husband swears he got dirty looks when we continued to wear our masks in stores when the signs on the door directed "Must wear a mask if you're not vaccinated."  Did they look askance at us because they thought we weren't vaccinated? Or at the other end, were the looks because we were still wearing masks when we really didn't HAVE to?  It was just awkward. 

Continuing our education, we watched local news and weather reports, paid attention to (i.e. were shocked by) the price of meals, gas and real estate. We visited the Adirondack Experience museum and hiked out to old iron smelter sites and learned about the great era of American industrialism. We visited family in NJ and drove through Norman Rockwell-flavored towns with brick architecture and steepled churches built centuries before some western states were even admitted to the union. And before my husband flew back home, we spent a day in NYC.  It was just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything. 

Cabin along Long Lake, NY

Sitting along the Hudson River got me wanting to listen to Billy Joel. 

More glassy reflective lakes than you could shake a birch branch at. 

Home of Adirondack white cheddar cheese and smell-goody balsam fir gifts. 

Typical Adirondack cabin style. 

View from the top of Mt. Coney

Are the orange and red receptive rods and cones in your eyes burned out yet?

I'll name the chair style for $100, please Alex. 

Flag in foreground lest you had any doubts. 

To me, classic NY architecture as viewed from the Highline. 

I then flew to northern Washington state, a stone's throw from the Canadian border, to see my mother and step-father for a week.  The beauty of the Pacific Northwest, even having known it since the early-1990s, still astounds me. This was followed by two weeks visiting an old friend and 80 percent of my siblings in California. I drove from the central coast at Morro Bay, to Monterey, to Silicon Valley and up to Calistoga in the wine country. I marinated in the differences between the two coasts and even between Washington and California. I'm not referring to political divisions, as those were evident even within each of the states I visited. I mean the subtler differences, like portion sizes in restaurants, regional terms, how friendly people are/aren't, and the most common cars they drove. (Summary, in case you're curious: upstate NY = full-sized trucks; Washington = Subarus; California Bay Area = Teslas). Finally, before my own return to Central America and my life already in progress - I drove myself off the grid to Wilbur Hot Springs for two days of no internet, bring and cook your own food in the communal kitchen, clothing optional soaking in thermal baths. It's a place my father had taken us as kids in the 1970s and I've always wanted to re-visit to see how much had changed.  The answer? Not much. Sure, it's been yuppified, as he'd have said, but it was still as crunchy as ever.  After a meditative walk through a labyrinth marked in stones under the spread of an enormous live oak, I sat for a spell in the windchime garden, not another soul in sight, taking in the smell of the dried grasses and bushes of my childhood, and reflected on all I'd learned and re-learned over the month.  

Given this description of this place - and even if I didn't already mention the state - it's likely you pictured this spot to be in northern California.  You knew that because as a native, you know your country: the stereotypes and idiosyncracies, the flavors, the landscapes, the accents, the houses, the lifestyles and whether one gets their groceries at Publix, Haggen or Safeway. You just know. 

Silver Lake, Whatcom County.  I can see Canada from here. 

It's a subtly different kind of forest reflected in the glassy lake. 

The San Juan Islands of the Puget Sound fill the window view from the little prop plane.

Mt Ranier as I take off from SeaTac Airport. 

San Francisco Bay and one of its bridges with the queue of cargo ships waiting to be unloaded. 

If you've ever been in the U.S. in October, this needs no caption. 

Rugged landscape in south-central coastal California. 

Morro Bay harbor and iconic rock. 

Sea otters being exceptionally cute. 

Hugging the coast up Pacific Coast Highway 1

Calistoga vineyards in their fall foliage.

A horizontal "fog-bow" gives hope and color over Alexander Valley vineyards. 

Wilbur Hot Springs main lodge. Thermal baths behind privacy screens in background.

Dawn off the grid.  This line doesn't go to Wilbur. 

Labyrinth under the live oak. 


After a month, what did I conclude? It's a really, really big country with room for every type of person they make. While I may grumble about what American culture means or what society is coming to these days - and I do - and even though I live abroad and will continue to do so for another decade, it is still the country I was imprinted with and recognize as "home."  Like the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation, Uncle Sam also knows how to keep me enthusiastically representing the product.