El Salvadoran sisters attending online classes up a tree

Matilde and Marlene Pimentel attend a virtual class from a treetop on a hill, where they reach internet signal, in El Tigre, El Salvador August 21, 2020. — AFP pic
Matilde and Marlene Pimentel attend a virtual class from a treetop on a hill, where they reach internet signal, in El Tigre, El Salvador August 21, 2020. — AFP pic

EL TIGRE, Aug 31 — Two sisters in western El Salvador are taking their love of learning to great heights: Every day they climb a mountain, then scramble up an olive tree to get a signal to access their online college lessons.

Thousands of El Salvadorans living in rural areas have faced the same juggling act since March, when authorities closed schools and universities to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

It’s especially hard to get a strong phone signal to access the internet in the El Tigre canton, near the border with Guatemala, where the Matilde and Marlene Pimentel live.

“For most of us living in rural areas it’s difficult (to study.) There’s no (internet) connection,” Matilde, 22, who’s studying mathematics in college, told AFP.

She’s joined on her daily escapade by 19-year-old Marlene, who is studying statistics.

The seventh and eighth of 10 children, these ladies are aiming to be the first members of their family to graduate from the state University of El Salvador.

‘Positive story’

Their touching story came to light when police officer Castro Ruiz stumbled across Matilde “in the middle of nowhere” while patrolling the El Tigre mountain.

Finding the young woman on a path leading to a lush olive tree, “my first impression was that something had happened to her,” Ruiz told AFP.

When he asked her what had happened, her reply stunned him: “I just want to study.”

Touched by such a “positive story,” the officer took a photo and published it on Facebook, where it went viral.

To reach the peak of the mountain in the middle of the rainy season, the sisters walk a kilometre along a slippery path while avoiding snakes hiding in the undergrowth.

They tackle the journey weighed down by a foldable table and chairs, while trying to keep the rain off their heads with an umbrella.

“This is the only way to get a little bit of a signal, and sometimes even here it doesn’t work,” Marlene told AFP, speaking from her perch in the olive tree. 

She admits to being afraid of falling out of the tree, and scared of the “venomous animals” lurking in the grass in this lush area.

When not studying, the sisters sell bread at the weekend to help out their father, who grows sweetcorn, beans and squash.

Fending off mosquitos

Erick Palacios, a university student in Ojo de Agua, around 20 kilometres west of the capital San Salvador, has to climb a hill strewn with rocks and waste to access the internet.

“I came here because I realised it was clear … it gave me a signal,” said the 20-year-old, who is studying to get a degree in communications at the private Jose Matias Delgado university.

Perched on three bricks and covered by an umbrella, Palacios admits that taking classes in this way is “uncomfortable” because of the mosquitos he must fend off.

He’s decided to visit other students in Ojo de Agua to collect signatures to present to internet providers so they can see how many “people are interested in a good service.”

El Salvador is divided almost in half lengthwise by volcanoes that disrupt mobile phone signals.

According to Internet World Status, almost 60 per cent of El Salvador’s 6.6 million resident use the internet.

The coronavirus pandemic has left 463 million children worldwide unable to attend online classes, a Unicef report out Wednesday said. — AFP