This fall, our family had the wonderful opportunity to volunteer at the Escuela Libre El Zonte, a small school set in the heart of a quaint surfing village on the coast of El Salvador.

The school is a simple structure, but the furnished 2 bedroom, 3 bathroom living quarters are homey and have everything you need to live comfortably (including a fridge, stove and fans).  There is no hot water, but there is no need for it in the hot climate.  It sits across the road from the beach in a quiet area of El Zonte, where you can enjoy the constant sound of the pounding surf. The evenings are quiet and the skies are filled with constellations, while the ground is covered in fireflies. If you are lucky, you might even witness the stunning phosphorescents in the ocean.

It was the perfect place to go to slow our lives down. The days were hot and sometimes humid , but always accompanied by a wonderful cooling breeze off the ocean  and never failing to end with a dazzling sunset.

The sunsets were well worth the evening stroll to the beach every day.

We arrived on the tail end of the wet season and were able to take in the fierce, downpours (often at night) that produced a bright, lush, tropical landscape before it dried out and turned completely brown in the ‘dry’ season. We also watched the magnificent transformation of the waterfront from a rocky, rugged stone bed to an endless sandy beach.

El Zonte’s rocky beach in the rainy season.

El Zonte’s sandy beach in the dry season.

So here we were, living in the school in a foreign country submerged into a primarily Spanish speaking community. My husband, me and our 3 and 7 year old girls. Immersed in the beauty and culture of the Salvadorian life. For me it was one of the most reassuring times of my life. I could be a part of my children’s education, I could watch them play and interact throughout their day and I could witness them growing so much being exposed to experiences that we would never be able to give them living our city lives in Vancouver, BC.

Living the beach life in El Zonte, El Salvador

We learned not to freak out when greeted by a bat, encountering a small crab in our sink or scorpion on the wall – (btw, the local kids told me to “cut its tail off, it will regrow” ). I got used to gecko poop (looks like mouse poop- who knew?) and the ridiculous amount of noise those tiny lizards make.

The school functions as a homeschool for various families under one roof. The days always begin with a circle time, allowing the kids and teachers the opportunity to connect and check in with each other, and then flow into the academics. It was not uncommon to have any array of bugs (stick insects, praying mantis, caterpillars, grasshoppers) and even a baby boa constrictor join us at Show and Tell in our morning circle.

Show and tell with a baby boa constrictor

Group sharing is encouraged.

The curriculum has a strong foundation in the Arts, including classes such as Gardening, Art, Fitness (everything from Calesthetics to Acroyoga), as well as Math, English, Spanish, Social Studies, Spelling, Creative Writing and Critical Thinking and more.  It was an amazing experience to come up with creative ways of teaching and watching the huge progress in learning in just a few months. It is well set up to accommodate a weekly cooking class, where the kids learn proper kitchen etiquette, how to cook Salvadorian dishes using local vegetables from their on site garden and partake in meals together. My husband worked tirelessly to make not one, but 2 blossoming gardens while we were here.

The kids planted and learned about many diverse fruits and vegetables in the onsite gardens.

Acroyoga with the ‘Big Kids’ and the Preschoolers.

The school playground offers plenty of exercise, maximizing on the bare necessities of swings, monkey bars and tires. The kids here are strong, active, adventurous and almost always bare footed …true locals! They spend their time-off school playing outside, climbing trees, swimming, boogie boarding and surfing. Rarely did an electronic appear and never did anyone suffer from boredom or a lack of things to do in their absence.

Active kids!

The village itself has few amenities, but all you really need comes directly to your door on a regular basis. Every day, starting at 6am, local merchants pass by the school selling fresh bread (5 cents a roll), vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, purified water and even ice cream.

Fresh local goods delivered by hand (and head) to your door. This is the pork lady and her assistant.

You could hear the food truck coming from miles away by his blaring music and repetition of goods through the mounted loudspeaker.

Each vendor has a distinct announcement as they pass by on foot, bike or motorcycle (beeps, horns, music, whistles). Our kids became well attuned to the exact pitches of noise and could easily discriminate between the 5 different bread guys or 2 different ice-cream vendors.

The ice-cream man is a local favourite. $35 cent cones always sounded good.

Happy to support the local economy, we also enjoyed the small variety of restaurants and tried to experience as much of El Salvador as we could during our stay. For suggestions of things to do in El Zonte and surrounding areas, check out this blog.

With no car we walked and bussed everywhere, providing optimum opportunities to get to know the local people, immerse ourselves in the culture, learn their language (Spanish) and be a part of their community. It was awesome.

Walking through ‘downtown’ El Zonte.

Typical bus ride included flashing lights, blaring music and many, many people on board.

So, How Did We Make this Work Financially?
I took the leap of putting my Online Fitness Training business 100% online and away we went. Flights were quite cheap and we also flew on airline points. Accommodation was covered by the school with a 3 month volunteer commitment and the living expenses in El Zonte are minimal.

Is there Aything to Worry About?
We always felt very safe in El Salvador, but we did not wear any jewellery or advertise expensive tastes. Our wedding rings remained at home and my purple Timex Ironman watch was my only accessory. Like any country, there are areas to avoid, but we did not feel remotely limited in our options of things to see and places to go from El Zonte.

There are a scorpions, but they will only sting and not kill you, mosquitos and no-see-ums exist, but tend to be worse in the rainy season. We found the best insect repellant to be  Natrapel -it smells like citronella, is Deet free and is available at MEC) and we used bug nets (kids loved having a princess beds!), which are also available at MEC.

Our girls loved their ‘princess beds’.

It was an amazing experience and adventure to undertake as a family. It brought us closer together and created some amazing lifelong memories!
I am excited to return to British Columbia as it is ‘home’, but El Salvador and the people of El Zonte hold a place in my heart that won’t quickly be forgotten. I can’t wait to see the appreciation we have of our lives on the other side as we settle back into our routines in Canada.

Exploring the caves in El Zonte.

To see more pictures of this beautiful country and learn about the ins and outs of daily life in El Zonte, please visit my Facebook, Instagram pages. If you are interested in embarking on a similar experience or applying to be a part of their volunteer program, click here.

Volunteering is so much fun with this crowd!

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Written by Dawn Joseph
Dawn Joseph is an Online Personal Trainer who focuses on form and function! She loves to travel and kite board. Train with her online or ask her a question here.