El Salvador student takes to treetops to pick up signal for online classes

Lynne M. Centeno

By Nelson Renteria

ATIQUIZAYA, El Salvador, April 22 (Reuters) – When Alexander Contreras and his father planted a guava tree next to their house in rural El Salvador six years ago, he never dreamed that beyond providing shade and food, it would become key to his college education.

But since the government of President Nayib Bukele suspended in-person classes a little over a month ago to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 20-year-old Contreras has been climbing to the top of the tree to get the signal he needs to connect to his online university classes.

Unable to log on from the humble, dirt-floor home he shares with his parents and five other relatives, Contreras said he was frustrated because he knew the clock was ticking and thought he might have to drop a class or even miss the whole school year.

“I told myself I had to find a solution, and thank God I did. I saw the tree and I thought if I climb to the top the signal will probably reach me,” the communications student said.

Scaling the tree was enough to pick up a weak signal in the poor Atiquizaya municipality, about 84 kilometers (52 miles) west of capital city San Salvador.

So Monday through Thursday Contreras has been climbing the tree with a cellphone and headphones in hand, mask on face, perching between two branches for up to four hours at a time to take classes in design, journalism and marketing.

Last week, Bukele shared photos on social media of Contreras studying in the tree and ordered Innovation Secretary Vladimir Handal to contact the young man.

“Connect a device to get him a free and good broadband signal. Tell him I say congratulations,” Bukele wrote in a Twitter post that has garnered over 56,000 likes.

Now, Contreras can take classes from his living room after Bukele’s government sent him a WiFi device, a laptop and a new cellphone.

Others sent Contreras gifts after seeing his photo: a desk, chair, lamp, and a fan to help ease the scorching heat.

“Being up there is very uncomfortable. Sitting for so long… the sun, the heat. I’m going to be a little more comfortable now,” said Contreras. (Writing by Anthony Esposito, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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