Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in El Salvador
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Your temporary mailing address in El Salvador will be:
“Your Name,” PCV
Apartado Postal 1947
Centro de Gobierno
San Salvador, El Salvador
Once you have been assigned to a site and sworn in as a Volunteer, you will be responsible for sending your site address to friends and family.
In general, the mail system between the United States and El Salvador is dependable. Airmail can take anywhere from 10 to 14 days to and from El Salvador; surface mail many times take much longer (2-3 months). Also, the farther you are from a large city, the less dependable the mail. Local mail couriers, such as Urgente Express or DHL, can be used to to send/ receive mail a bit faster, however their service fees are much higher than those of the national post office.
We recommend that you establish a regular for communicating since friends and relatives in the United States may become concerned if they do not hear from you for an extended period of time. However, we have found that after Volunteers have sworn in and moved to their sites, communication habits change as they become more involved in projects and the newness of their lifestyle wears off. A delay in the mail may also be the result of Volunteers being in a more isolated site.
We do not recommend sending money, packages, or airline tickets to Volunteers through the mail. It is usually not worth the effort to get packages from home. Customs duties may exceed the value of the items sent, and the time invested often means an entire day’s travel to the city or airport.
Should it become necessary to have an item sent to you in El Salvador, we recommend that the items be limited to those that can fit in a padded envelope. Padded envelopes are usually not opened by customs officials and are taxed less than other types of packages. The express shipping company DHL International has an office in San Salvador. Packages may be sent to you in care of the Peace Corps office in El Salvador using this service. DHL can be costly and usually requires a phone number and street address. (Packages sent via an express carrier cannot be delivered to a post office box).
The street address of the Peace Corps Office is:
Cuerpo de Paz/El Salvador
Calle Las Dalias #3
Colonia San Francisco
San Salvador, El Salvador
The phone number for the Peace Corps Office in El Salvador is: 011.503.2208.2911
Airline tickets can be prepaid with the airline and someone in the United States can inform you of the reference number so you can pick up the ticket in San Salvador. Many Volunteers prefer to receive tickets via the e-ticket option.
The international phone service to and from El Salvador is very good. AT&T, Sprint, and MCI have direct dial lines from El Salvador to the United States however their service is much more expensive than local long distance companies. Because the national telecommunication system has been privatized, many local telephone companies offer very low rates when calling to the United States. Calls within the country may be made from the primary local phone company, TELECOM, from public telephones, or on cellular telephones. Even very rural communities tend to have access to cellular telephone service. A large percentage of the Volunteers purchase cellular phones for their personal use. However, there are some rural health and sanitation and agroforestry and environmental education Volunteers who live in areas that still do not have access to phones. If you have a cellular telephone from the U.S., and it has a SIM chip, you may be able to use it here in El Salvador.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
E-mail and Internet access are more common and widespread and frequently used by Volunteers, although travel may be required to find Internet cafes. Still, every department has Internet facilities, so access to Internet is never more than two hours away and often times closer. Some Volunteers have their laptops here and appreciate having brought them. This mostly depends on your personal interest, as it is seldom a necessity for your eventual work here.
Housing and Site Location
Peace Corps trainees are not assigned to individual sites until after they have completed their pre-service training. This gives the Peace Corps staff the opportunity to assess each trainee’s technical and language skills prior to assigning sites, in addition to finalizing site selections with their ministry counterparts. If feasible, you may have the opportunity to provide input on your site preferences, including geographical location, distance from other Volunteers, or living conditions. However, keep in mind that many factors influence the site selection process, and the Peace Corps cannot guarantee placement where you might ideally like to be. Most Volunteers will live in small towns or in rural villages but will usually be within 1 hour from the nearest Volunteer. Some sites will require a 6- to 10-hour bus ride from the capital.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Volunteers are expected to live at the same level as the Salvadoran people in their community. They are given a moving-in allowance at the time of swearing-in and receive a monthly stipend as Volunteers. The “living allowance” is to be used to cover daily expenses. Often Volunteers wish to bring additional money for travel to other countries. Credit or debit cards are recommended for this. Traveler’s checks can be used, but there is usually a small charge for cashing them at the banks, and many businesses will not accept them. Cash is not recommended because of the potential of theft. Credit/debit cards and traveler’s checks may be left in the safe at the Peace Corps training center office in San Vicente. As a trainee, the training center will help you open a bank account at a local bank, where you will receive your trainee and Volunteer allowances and where you can deposit any cash or traveler’s checks that you might bring.
Many Salvadoran businesses, especially in the capital and resort areas, take credit cards, including VISA and MasterCard. Other major credit cards are accepted in the major cities, but not as frequently. The U.S. dollar is the official currency so there is no issue of currency exchange.
You may find it advantageous to retain a U.S. checking account, particularly if you can convince your bank to waive service charges during your Peace Corps service.
Food and Diet
Food Availability: Food availability depends on the season and the size of the community and region you live in. Do not arrive in-country expecting to eat the food you ate at home. Come with an open mind about a new diet.
Fruits and Vegetables: Many local varieties of fruits and vegetables are available, and generally of good quality, but it is virtually impossible to wash away all dirt and microorganisms from vegetables with many minute cracks and crevices, such as lettuce, celery, and cauliflower. In markets, these foods are exposed to a variety of flies and other germ-bearing insects, and are handled by numerous individuals unfamiliar with basic hygiene. In addition, vegetables are frequently freshened by sprinkling with water that may be polluted. With this in mind, it becomes obvious that attention must be given to the selection and treatment of these foods prior to ingestion.
All fruits and vegetables that will not be peeled or cooked should be washed in soap and water (any dish detergent will do), rinsed in clean water, and soaked 20 minutes in a bleach-and-water solution. This method will eliminate many of the bacteria, but it is still less than 100 percent effective in destroying ameba cysts.
Meat and Poultry: Many kinds of meat and poultry are available in the local market. Unlike similar products in the United States, they are not properly inspected, aged, or refrigerated. To avoid the risk of infection, meat and poultry must be thoroughly cooked.
Seafood: Seafood, particularly shellfish, carries germs and parasites if grown in contaminated waters. Diseases that can be transmitted by shellfish include typhoid fever, infectious hepatitis, and some types of dysentery. Eat only cooked fish and shellfish. Never eat raw fish or shellfish.
Dairy Products: Locally obtained “raw” milk should be boiled. Store-bought packaged milk and other milk products (e.g., butter, cheese, or ice cream) if pasteurized, are safe to consume. Unpasteurized dairy products provide a favorable culture media for many infectious organisms. All unpasteurized milk should be brought to a rolling boil before drinking.
Food Storage: Heat and humidity cause foods to spoil rapidly. Prepare only what you will eat at one meal. Eliminate leftovers, particularly custards and puddings. Diarrhea is many times caused by spoiled foods.
All foods should obviously be obtained as fresh as possible. It is best to store most foods in the refrigerator, covered in glass or plastic containers. Do not allow cooked food to stand around the kitchen uncovered. Handle food as little as possible.
Beverages: All water must be considered unsafe for drinking and making ice-cubes and should be boiled for at least one minute. Boiled water should be stored in clean glass containers, which are washed and rinsed frequently. Purified bottled water can be purchased only in the larger cities.
Filters remove some of the larger microorganisms and microscopic material, providing aesthetically acceptable water. However, unless the filters are frequently removed, thoroughly washed with a brush, and boiled for 10 minutes, they act as a source of contamination. If filtering is used in conjunction with boiling, the safest procedure is to filter first and follow with boiling. Chlorine also may be used after filtering.
Volunteers contemplating local travel should carry their own purified water or obtain iodine water purification tablets from the health unit.
A variety of carbonated soft drinks are available in El Salvador. These drinks are generally safe because the carbonation process creates an environment unfavorable for the growth of bacteria. Coconut water is enjoyable to some and quite safe to drink. Hot coffee and tea are safe to drink, since the water has been boiled.
Stronger drinks served with ice should be avoided. Alcohol will not disinfect dirty ice. Moreover, many health authorities feel that alcohol is tolerated less well in the tropics than in colder climates. Excessive and daily use can cause salt loss and dehydration, make you more susceptible to dysentery, and reduce your tolerance to stress, heat, and physical activity. As is well-known, excessive alcohol intake can be extremely damaging to your mental and physical health.
Operation of privately owned vehicles is prohibited by Volunteers. Most urban travel is by bus or taxi. Rural travel ranges from buses to mini-buses to trucks to a lot of walking. On very rare occasions, a Volunteer may be asked to drive a sponsor’s vehicle, but this is only with prior written permission of the country director. Should this occur, the Volunteer may obtain a local driver’s license. Your U.S. driver’s license will facilitate the process and will be needed to open your bank account, so please bring it with you. Volunteers in El Salvador do not need to get an international driver’s license.
Geography and Climate
El Salvador is a relatively small country. Covering 8,260 square miles, it is about the size of Massachusetts. The capital city is San Salvador. Mountains separate the country into three distinct regions: the southern coastal belt, the central valleys and plateaus, and the northern mountains. The climate is semi-tropical, with temperatures ranging from 60 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is tropical on the coast and temperate in the highlands. There is a distinct wet season from May through October. November through April is considered the dry season.
The Salvadoran culture is quite warm and hospitable, and most Volunteers find that establishing relationships and participating in local activities is very rewarding. For additional pertinent information on social activities, refer to the section on letters from El Salvador Volunteers.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
The dress standards required of trainees at registration, during training, and of Volunteers in the field reflect what the Peace Corps staff (both U.S. and Salvadoran alike) believes to be culturally acceptable for El Salvador. These standards indicate appropriate dress on the job and in the capital.
Sport sandals or flip-flops, regardless of their cost, are not appropriate for men or women in professional settings. Shoes must be worn at all times. Body piercings, with the exception of earrings on women, should be removed or hidden. Shorts are not appropriate outside the home for most areas, especially around the training center. Camouflage or khaki army equipment, uniforms, and duffel bags should be avoided.
Men should keep hair beards short and neatly trimmed. Pony tails on men are unacceptable and facial hair should be neatly groomed. Shirts with collars are preferable to T-shirts. Women are strongly advised to wear bras at all times outside of the home. All trainees and Volunteers are advised to cover preexisting tattoos whenever possible, as tattoos in El Salvador are commonly associated with gang-related activities.
For some projects, there is a need for more casual and durable clothes appropriate to fieldwork, such as boots, jeans, and work shirts. However, these clothes must be clean and mended, with no patches. The best advice is to follow the lead of the Salvadorans.
In general, casual skirts, dresses and dress pants are acceptable attire for women. Lightweight pants are appropriate for some work and social occasions. Jeans (not torn) are commonly worn by men and women for social occasions and for some fieldwork situations. Trainees should pack at least two “professional” outfits for special occasions.
It is important to remember that your personal tastes and characteristics should be a deciding factor in what to bring. It is not necessary to change your entire wardrobe. You should base your decision on what to bring on your present wardrobe, the type of work you will be doing, and the few suggestions we are passing on to you.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be over-emphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although many Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in El Salvador. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being. Anything short of total commitment to Peace Corps’ safety and security guidance may result in administrative separation, or worse, serious physical danger to the Volunteer.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Due to financial or other challenges, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support promised, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to, and many people are hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys that occur while you adapt to a new culture and environment.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will ever experience. Often you will find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your counterparts with little guidance from supervisors. You may work for months without seeing any visible impact and without receiving feedback on your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress is often seen only after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To approach and overcome these difficulties, you will need commitment, maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. Service in Peace Corps/El Salvador is not an extension of “year-abroad” study. However, Salvadorans are hospitable, friendly, and warm people. The Peace Corps staff, your co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during challenging times as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave El Salvador feeling that they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.