Friday, January 30, 2009

Elections, part 2

A quick note: I promised to say more about the outcome of the legislative and mayoral elections, and forgot to do that. The basic story is that the two major parties, ARENA (right) and FMLN (left) both came away with bragging points, while the country continues to be sharply divided. For more detailed results and an excellent analysis, visit Tim's El Salvador blog. Now the focus is on the Presidential election, to be held on March 15th: Mauricio Funes, of the FMLN, has been in the lead, but recent polls show ARENA's Rodrigo Avila gaining ground.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

An afternoon to forget and remember

A memorable, crazy afternoon. I set out about 2 PM to go to Sertracen - that's the private company that handles issues car titles and driver's licenses. I was hoping to get the card showing my title to our car (we couldn't put it in the name of PeaceHealth or the Sisters because neither has a legal status in El Salvador). This was my fourth trip, I think (they tend to blur together), and I was confident that it would be the last. I found a huge crowd when I went in with the number I was issued at the entry desk. The man sitting next to me told me that Salvadorans put off all their business until the end of the month and then come rushing in to get it done - which would mean that Salvador is not so unlike the U.S. I went from the first counter to the cashier, where I paid for the title, to the final counter where I would get the card. I got the card, and it said that the owner of the car was Vera, Dewitt Susan.

Now this is a natural mistake in Spanish. Anywhere in Latin America, most people have two last names, one from the father and one from the mother. But when I pointed out that my last name was not Vera, alas (it's my middle name), I was sent back to another counter where, finally at about 5:30 I was told that I could come back for a corrected title (I hope) next week. Meanwhile, I have the title card for Señora Vera, and am wondering if it would be simpler to just change my name.

I came home to the wonderful news that our new Congregational Leadership Team has been chosen, and it's a splendid group! I was e-mailing about it when the front doorbell rang. I rushed out to answer it, and found Freddy, who wanted Eleanor to know how happy he was with his new bifocals - he can see close up AND at a distance now! I told him I'd tell Eleanor, and turned around to discover the front door had slammed behind me. And there I was, locked into the front yard, between the double locked front gate and the locked front door, with my keys inside the house.

Francisco, our valiant guard, was right there. He figured out that the best way to rescue me was to get into the back yard, because I remembered that I hadn't (thank God!) locked the back door. So he borrowed two ladders - one tall and sturdy wood ladder, one short and rickety aluminum ladder. He passed the tall ladder over the front gate to me, and I set it up against the gate. Then he climbed the short ladder, threw a leg over the gate, and somehow managed to connect with the tall ladder on my side. Then he got a friend to pass the short ladder up to him, and he repeated the two-ladder exercise to climb over the razor wire into the back yard. And shortly I was back in the house, clutching my keys, from which I hope never to be separated again.

Francisco said it was nothing - after all, he was wounded by nine bullets in the war (he showed me most of the scars) and climbing a few walls was nothing after that. But it was a lot to me. It was feeling safe in a country that I still don't know very well. It was knowing that I might never get my tramites done, but I wouldn't be stranded between locked doors. Muchisimas gracias, Francisco - you are the kind face of El Salvador for me.

Salvadorans share the hard times

Hard times in the United States are hard times in El Salvador for a number of reasons. First, a lot of families in El Salvador depend on their relatives in the United States to send money - this has been the country's biggest source of income. And now the jobs available to immigrants, with or without papers, have dried up. CNN had a story yesterday about the desperate situation of Latinos, many of them Salvadoran, in New Jersey. Those men aren't sending any money home, and the families here that have depended on them are hurting.

I can't begin to understand all the ways the global recession impacts a small, poor country like El Salvador. But one story in this week's La Prensa Grafica gives a clue. "Faces of Scarcity" talks about people who are postponing chemotherapy or going without post-surgery medications because Hospital Rosales, one of the country's largest hospitals, is out of stock on 85 basic drugs. The alternative is for patients to buy their own medications from a commercial pharmacy. Vitelio González found that it would cost him $600 to purchase for himself the antibiotics he has to take for two chemo sessions. His brother helped find the money for one batch, but that's all that was possible. He's hoping those sessions made him better, because there's no money for more antibiotics.

In the next day's paper the government denied that there was any scarcity.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Summer and winter

Even though El Salvador is north of the equator, this season is called verano, summer, by Salvadorans. Summer is the dry months, from November through April, and some of the things we associate with summer happen then. The school vacations are in November and December, and it's a favorite time for travel and fiestas. These first months of verano are the coolest time here (a relative term - it gets into the high 80s, but cools down nicely at night), especially because there's less humidity in the air. Most people say that March and April are the hardest months because it's very hot and very dusty and there's no rain.
The wet months, from May through October, are called invierno, winter. It's easy enough to get around in the city during the rainy season - everything here is built to handle the rain - and the rain does a wonderful job of sweeping the streets and cooling down the day (as in this August photo from a PazSalud Eye Surgery mission). But out in the campo, the countryside, rain means isolation and difficulty. Unpaved roads turn into swamps. It's hard to get anywhere, and the mud is everywhere. And it's the fungus, mold and mildew season. And the mosquito season. And the hurricane season. So it's winter.
There's no spring, no fall, just the dry summer and the wet winter, and these two seasons we share with countries all around the world at these latitudes: dry time, monsoon time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Tonight I am present in prayer with the delegates to our Congregation Chapter, and especially with the Sisters who have been nominated for leadership. Tomorrow the process of election will begin with the election of the new Congregation leader. May the Spirit be hovering over Elberon, New Jersey, and over each of these women! We will be blessed in the outcome.

On a much more mundane note, my friend Pat wrote to ask who the Próceres are and how they march. She's referring back to yesterday's blog about El Salvador history. A Prócer, my dictionary tells me, is an important person, a great man, a leader. And Los Próceres are the founding fathers of El Salvador. They are memorialized, in the Boulevard de los Próceres, by very large, blocky head-and-shoulder statues without much individuality or expression. I would have tried to photograph one, but stopping on the Boulevard de los Próceres would be a suicidal act.

And on a more joyful note: I went to the La Laguna botanical gardens today with Ana Lazar, who is down here from the University of Southern Maine on a teaching Fulbright. Getting there was quite a challenge, as it's down in the middle of an industrial district, and there are no signs to guide you, but it's a beautiful place where the city feels far away. Above are flowers from the garden, a purple orchid and a red vine flower, colors to make you sing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Very brief history of El Salvador, part 3

During the Spanish colonial era, El Salvador was part of the Captaincy of Guatemala, but by the beginning of the 19th century colonial days were coming to an end. The success of the American and French revolutions provided a powerful example. Spain has been on the losing end of several wars, and was finally invaded by Napoleon, who deposed the king in 1808. Internal causes included the resentment of the creole population (people of Spanish blood born in the Americas) at being excluded from the most important government positions and at the lack of commercial freedom. (Most of the information here is from Wikipedia and the Equipo Maiz History of El Salvador)
The first cry for independence was raised in 1811 by Padre Jose Matias Delgado in San Salvador. Popular uprisings followed, protests against Spanish taxes and heavy-handed authority. The authorities from Guatemala put down this first rebellion, which was followed by other uprisings, led by the Proceres, the notable men who are regarded as El Salvador's founders (and who now march, blockily, along the Boulevard de los Proceres, a major San Salvador street). The Act of Independence of Central America was signed in 1821.
More problems followed quickly. Mexico wanted to annex Central America in the process of creating a Mexican empire, an idea opposed by the Salvadoran leaders. Then, in 1823, La Republica Federal de Centroamérica was founded, with Salvadoran Manuel José Arce (pictured here) as the first President. Dissension and rebellion followed, including an uprising of indigenous people led by the revolutionary Anastasio Aquino, who was betrayed and shot in 1833. After years of internal warfare and struggles, El Salvador became an independent state in 1840 after the dissolution of the Federal Republic. It was, and has remained for most of its history, a country controlled by the wealthy, where the poor, and especially the indigenous people struggled for survival.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The fourth vow ring

Time out here from El Salvador stories (though I want you to know I'm very proud of finding the SuperSelectos on Escalon all by myself, and managing to return with the car intact and only three or so digressions). I want to tell you a story about my vow rings.

Our Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Constitutions say "As a sign of our vowed commitment we wear a silver ring," and so 18 years ago, when I was about to enter the novitiate, I bought a silver ring on a trip to New Mexico. I love New Mexico, where I lived for many years, and I bought a Zuni ring home from New Mexico with thunder and lightning symbols incised in it.

When it came time to make my first vows, a couple of years later, I wasn't sure it was right to use a ring with Zuni symbols on it, and a couple of the Sisters agreed. So I set aside my Zuni ring and bought a nice, plain silver ring and a few months later it fell into the heating duct in the community house in Seattle I was living in. I got another. It fell into the same heating duct, and neither could be retrieved. I bought a third ring, a little more elaborate with a peace dove on it, and I didn't like it. It didn't feel right. I managed to lose it in a car that soon ended up in the wrecking yard (but that's another story). And I took out my Zuni ring and began to wear it.

Now I do lose my Zuni ring periodically, but it always turns up again. Most recently, shortly after coming here, I realized the ring was missing. I searched my room and all the spaces where I thought I might have taken it off. Nothing. I looked in purses, bags, suitcases. Nothing. I checked the pockets in all my clothes. Nothing. But I've learned to be patient about this ring, and I waited for more than a week. Today I put my hand into a jeans pocket I know I looked into before and there was my Zuni ring, turning up again. I think there's a metaphor here, but I leave it to you to find it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

At the gates

Our house, like most houses in middle- or upper-class neighborhoods of San Salvador is clearly separated from the street - in our case, by a tall, sturdy and attractive wrought iron fence and gate (topped, as everywhere in the city where there's anything worth stealing, with loops of vicious razor wire). Inside those is our miniscule front yard, and another set of gates (see the photo) leading to the front door. (And just visible inside the gates are the water bottles waiting to be exchanged for new drinking water.)

There's a doorbell at the outer gate, and someone wanting to visit or wanting help rings the door. Today Armando came to visit. He's a friend of Eleanor's from the days when she worked with Jesuit Refugee Services at El Despertar (in the years just before the 1993 peace accords). Armando lives in Bajo Lempa and had come to the city to visit and to ask for help in getting medicine for his seven-year old daughter. While Armando was sharing lunch with us, the door rang again, and it was an ancient man ewith four teeth who had done some gardening for us before a bus accident left him badly injured. He was hoping for una pastilla, a little tylenol for pain, and Eleanor gave him that and a dollar.

So these gates are a place for welcoming visitors, but they are also a stronghold. My key ring now has eight different keys for getting into and out of this house: one for the front gate, one for the front portón, the big gate that opens up for parking, one for the padlock that's put on the inner gate when we are out of town for more than a day, one for the front door deadbolt, one for the front door lock, one for the back door lock, one for the back door padlock, and one for the back portón, where the car is usually parked. Most of these locks need to be double-locked.

There is, of course, a direct connection between the poverty that makes it so hard for most Salvadorans to find the basic necessities of life, let alone health care, and all these gates and locks and guards and razor wire. If there ever came a time when no one needed to knock on our door for help with getting medicine, the razor wire could come down. That day is far off.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The opposite of organic

Today Eleanor and I drove up to Comasagua for a meeting with Mercedes, who's in charge of organizing the communities, and several of the women who will be volunteering to help. We went first to the finca San Antonio, a community-owned coffee plantation. While we were waiting for the women who would ride into town with us, we had time to talk with Remberto about the finca and the work of growing coffee. They are growers only, harvesting the coffee and then delivering it to the local beneficio (coffee processing plant) where the berries are stripped down to beans and the beans are dried and roasted.

I asked Remberto whether the finca's coffee is organic. No, he said, they had started to set aside some 23 manzanas (one manzana=1.75 acres) as organic, but when they discovered that they would have to grow and harvest the coffee without using any chemicals for three years before they could sell it as organic and get the higher price, they got discouraged, and went back to chemical coffee.

I've often wondered what the opposite of organic should be: inorganic never seemed quite right. Now I know: the opposite of organic is chemical. Think about that the next time you buy some chemical apples or some chemical coffee. I wish the finca San Antonio well all the same, and I wish strong backs and great courage and endurance to the men who walk the coffee up the long steep road that leads to the finca.

Sharing a great day

Yesterday was a once-in-a-lifetime day and I am so glad to have been alive in it, watching with Eleanor and our guests for the day - Dr. Ken Henderson, his wife Janet and friend Craig. We all watched CNN with joy and delight - the inauguration of Barack Obama, the speech, and parts of the parade and balls. In between we went to dinner with Salvadoran Lion's Club officials, with whom Ken, a Bellingham Lion, is working on plans for a program to check the vision and hearing of Salvadoran children under three. It felt just right to turn to this conversation after listening to President Obama say "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."
Our work in El Salvador is a small part of work that's being done all over the world to let farms flourish and waters flow and bodies heal; our collaboration with Ken and the Salvadoran Lion's Club is an opportunity to take that work just a little further. It's glorious to hear our President identify this as the work of our nation.

Thanks be to God for this great day!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Law and injustice

I heard a sad story tonight about some vigilantes (guards) who hadn't been paid in three months because the woman who owned the guard service was in financial trouble. They've been showing up to work faithfully, hoping that something would work out, because it seems that even a job with three months' arrears in pay is better than no job here in El Salvador.

There are laws that require employers to pay their employees, and to pay social security, and to give their employees health coverage, and to give their employees an extra month's pay as a bonus in December. From what I can tell, El Salvador's laws in this and other areas are excellent. But they aren't enforced, and so they aren't followed. An employer who's reported to the the equivalent of the Labor Department might get a slap-on-the-wrist fine - I heard $50 was the likely sum - with no followup to see if the mistreatment of employees had stopped. This kind of law is like a pretty poster covering an ugly hole.

I'm reminded of the words of the English renaissance poet, Samuel Daniel, in an Epistle to the Lord Chief Justice of England (which I'm remembering by heart, probably not entirely accurately):

....even injustice may be regular
And no conjunction can there be betwixt
Our actions which in endless motion are
And the ordinances which are ever fixed.
Ten thousand laws more cannot go so far
But malice lives within and is enmixt
So close with justice that it ever will
Confine, confound and counterfeit her still.

Regular injustice seems to be a hallmark of life here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Municipal and legislative elections occupied everyone in El Salvador today. It's an interesting process and very different from U.S. elections. All liquor sales and liquor service in restaurants are suspended for three days - the day before, election day, and the day after. Everyone who wants to vote has to have a national identity card, the D.U.I., and has to take it to the polling place. Because it costs money to change your address and get a new D.U.I., many Salvadorans are voting from old addresses, often in different cities from the one they live in. Polling places are a lot less frequent here: in San Salvador, a city of 1.6 million people, there were about 16 polling places, and your polling place is assigned not by the district you live in, but by your last name - so all the "C"s go to one location and all the "G"s to another. Once there, you may wait for hours in a very long line, but the polls close at 5:15, whether voters are still waiting or not. It didn't seem that many people were left outside, so I think the Electoral Tribunal has the numbers figured out.

Once in the election center where observers from each party and international observers kept close watch over the process, voters traded their DUI for two election cards, one for the legislative deputy and one for the Mayor of the municipality (I should explain that the municipalities are the equivalent of counties, and the Mayors serve all the smaller communities in the municipality as well as the central town). Each card showed no names, only the banners of the six parties (in color: ARENA is red, white and blue; the FMLN is red; the PDC is blue, and so on). You mark your choice (in a cardboard voting booth) by drawing a big X over the banner of the party you want to vote for. (In an earlier post, I had thought the Xs on the banners on lampposts were done by opposing parties - I got that wrong). Then you deposit your ballots, one in the box for deputies, one in the box for Mayors. You get indelible ink on your finger and your DUI is returned.

When the voting closed, the TV stations (which have been all day, full time on the elections) showed the process of counting ballots: a representative of each party gathered around a table with a tabulator. The ballots were taken out one by one in everyone's view, the tabulator announcing who the vote was for and handing the ballot to the representative of that party. Then the party representatives counted out loud the votes for their party as everyone else watched. The votes were recounted and tabulated. This all happened with great transparency and pretty good speed, so that election results were available by 9 PM.

I'll try and summarize the results after I see tomorrow's paper, but the big news tonight was that ARENA's candidate for Alcalde (Mayor) of San Salvador - Norman Quijano, who promises cleanness, order and security - won, a big loss for the FMLN and for Violeta Menjivar, the current Mayor. And now there are celebrations - music and fireworks and just maybe the odd bit of drinking - going on in our neighborhood. It may be hard to sleep tonight.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Very brief history of El Salvador, part 2

In 1492, as we all know, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and found a new world (to him) of people who thought they were doing just fine without being "discovered." For the native people of the Americas, discovery led to wars, forced conversion, forced labor, forced concubinage and rape, widespread death from newly introduced diseases. It's estimated that between 1500 and 1600 the population of Central America diminished by 90% from all these causes.

In 1524 Pedro de Alvarado, the conquistador of Guatemala, invaded Cuscatlán, present-day El Salvador, and was wounded in a battle with the Pipiles. It took the Spanish 15 years to complete the conquest; in the process, they founded the city of San Salvador (1525) and divided up the land among themselves. During the colonial period, the Spanish introduced livestock, the plough, the water mill, wheat, sugar cane. They exported cocoa, cotton, balsam, and indigo. In the encomienda system of royal land grants, the indigenous people either worked for the dueño (owner) or paid tribute in corn, beans, cotton, honey, wax. During the colonial period - and long after - those with most power were the Spanish or the Creoles, children of Spanish parents born in Central America. Next came the mestizos or ladinos, people of mixed blood who had no right to private property, but were given the better jobs. Finally the indigenous people were the most dominated and exploited.

The Catholic Church was a power parallel to the colonial administration, the center of education and culture, sometimes a power for the good, mediating between the indigenous people and the authorities, but more often demanding conversion, attendance at Mass and work for the church.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A digression with burrs attached

Before I continue with my absurdly brief version of the history of El Salvador (cribbed from Wikipedia and Equipo Maiz), there's a story from yesterday that needs telling. Many of you who read this blog already know Sister Peggy O'Neill, a Sister of Charity from Convent Station who's been on mission in El Salvador for 22 years and who this summer received the Margaret Anna Cusack Peacemaker Award at our Chapter meeting for her great Salvador ministry. Yesterday Peggy showed up with her new little dog, Luna, a Malti-poo (Maltese-poodle cross) of great charm (see above, top, for Luna with Peggy). Luna had a Friday appointment at the vets to be spayed. Peggy had to go out, leaving Luna in Eleanor's and my tender care, and I decided, alas, that she would really love to go for a walk in the little park across the way that belongs to our Urbanizacion Decapolis. I had been wondering why no one every seemed to use it. Luna and I had a great walk, though a brief one because all the neighborhood dogs were insulted and alerted by her presence into great barking choruses.

But when we got back into the light of the house I discovered that Luna and I were both covered with the nastiest little burrs ever seen: they had a hard and many-pointed interior with a covering of velcro-like hairs that attached themselves to anything - and especially to a a small, long-haired puppy. It was easy enough to get the burrs off my jeans and shoes, but Luna was covered with burrs from ears to paws, from mouth to flanks. Eleanor and I got busy with the scissors to cut the worst infestations, wondering between tears and laughter how we were ever going to explain this to Peggy. Lovely long-haired Luna now had patches of short hair and many, many burrs remaining. Peggy, when she returned, was aghast.

Today Luna had both her surgery and a haircut that removed all the burrs and left her looking a bit scrawny and naked, but clean (see above bottom). When we asked our guards the name of the horrid plant that had created these monstrosities one told us mosquillos and the other mosote. Neither name, of course, is to be found in the dictionary. And I have taken a small personal vow not to blithely go walking anywhere that others seem to avoid. Especially not with Luna, or any other dog I may happen to meet.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A very short history of El Salvador, Part I

As someone addicted to words, I can't help thinking that naming this very small country "Provincia De Nuestro Señor Jesucristo El Salvador Del Mundo" (the Province of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World) was asking for trouble. That's not a safe name, and this has never been a safe place.

It's hard to understand El Salvador today without understanding something about the Civil War of the 1970s-1990s. It's hard to understand the Civil War without understanding something about the long history of the Spanish colonizers, the landed families, the generals. And it's necessary to begin even further back, with the Pipiles and the Lenca.

The Pipiles, speaking Nahuat, an Aztec-related language, came from what is now Mexico and settled to the southwest of the Rio Lempa; the Lenca lived north and east of the Lempa. The Pipil, about whom more seems to be known today, lived in well-organized communities, with each family assigned a piece of land to cultivate (the origins of the current milpa or corn field). Both peoples cultivated corn, beans, root vegetables, squash, cacao, and a great variety of fruits; smoked tobacco; made pottery and wove textiles from cotton, palm and bamboo. They practiced slash and burn agriculture. They lived in a class-structured society, with few privileges for the laborers at the bottom of the social order. Some things have not changed much. The principal community of the Pipiles, near present-day San Salvador, was named Cuscatlán, which means "the land of precious things"

The Pipil and Lenca were on the outskirts of the great indigenous civilizations of the Americas, the Inca, Maya and Aztec. Today only a few communities in El Salvador shelter a handful of Nahuat speakers, and there are no Lenca speakers. Both languages are essentially extinct. The knowledge, stories, histories and jokes of the Lenca and the Pipil have been lost, and not through any natural process, but through centuries of fierce repression. But that's the next part of this story.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Eleanor and I paid a visit to Comasagua today, where our February medical mission group will be working. It's going to be a fine location. Comasagua is up in the cafetelera - the coffee-growing mountain country - so the weather is a bit cooler than in San Salvador (still plenty warm and bright for Northwesterners). On the drive up, we passed scenic view upon scenic view, flowers and more flowers, coffee trees laden with red berries.

The town of Comasagua was almost destroyed in the devastating 2001 earthquakes, so much of the building stock is new or substantially repaired (much of the rebuilding, including the church, San Mateo, was done by the Venezuelan army). It's a neat and attractive town, looking well cared for. We talked to the parish priest, Padre Amaya, who has been working with villagers to develop businesses that will allow them to stay in Comasagua instead of taking the long and costly bus ride to the capitol for work.

We met with the Doctora who directs the local clinic. She has kindly opened the clinic to our mission group for the week of February 9-13, and the clinic is big, spacious and very clean. It will be a great place for our work, and an added benefit is that we'll be working side by side with the clinic staff throughout the week. The only thing lacking here is a photograph - because once more, I forgot the camera. But you can be sure to see plenty of photos of Comasagua in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I haven't mentioned it yet, but the big topic in El Salvador now is the elections - coming this Sunday, Jan. 18th, the legislative and municipal elections, to be followed in March by the Presidential election. Everywhere in the country, this means that all the lampposts are covered by posters just showing the party identification - mostly ARENA (the conservative party) and FMLM (the party of the left). This is called pinta y pega according to the papers here - pinta for the signs and pega (I'm guessing here) because each sign is crossed through with a thick black marker by the opposite party almost as soon as it's put up. This causes fights and wild accusations that the other side is using gangs or urging its militants to commit crimes. Somewhere a printer is doing very well out of all this paper going on all these lampposts.

In San Salvador the mayoral contest is between the current FMLN Mayor, Violeta Menjivar, whose signs say Violeta Sigue (Violeta continues!) and the ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano (Seguridad, Orden, Limpieza - security, order, cleanliness). Not only are the signs everywhere, but there are parades, demonstrations, accusations and counter-accusations. The cartoon above comes from a little broadside published by Equipo Maiz and shows a happy FMLN crowd in full swing of demonstrations. I'll let you know what happens - that is, I should be able to let you know if TSE, the Bureau of Elections, manages to get its reporting and tabulating systems running. Sound familiar?

Monday, January 12, 2009

At Home in San Salvador

We're spending a day around the house - waiting for manifests of medications that will come with our February Medical Mission Team - so this seems like a good time to introduce you to the Base House. We rent this townhouse, the corner end house on a small street (Pasaje los Angeles). We're just outside the gate (though the guard is responsible for us as he is for the 16 neighboring houses inside the gate).

Our two-story house is well suited to the climate, with tiled floors that stay cool, open courtyards for drainage in the rainy season, vents at the roofline to let out warm air. Now the windows are mostly closed; in the rainy season, they'll all be open to catch any breeze that comes along. Upstairs the master bedroom has been turned into a guest bedroom with two beds; Eleanor and I occupy small bedrooms at the front of the house. All the upstairs rooms open out onto a big sala, which serves as our office. Downstairs there's a living room (photo), dining room, tiny kitchen. Outside the kitchen is the open courtyard with the pila, the cement water storage tank and connected washtub that you find all over Central America, and on the other side of the courtyard, the muchacha room. That's where the girl from the country is supposed to live, the girl who does the dishes and laundry and cooking and cleaning. We don't have a muchacha (I'm happy to say) so this tiny room (with its own tiny bathroom) mostly gets used for storage. Another Central American specialty is the hammock room (though there, again, we don't have a hammock in it): separated from the outside only by iron grillwork, this room will catch any breeze on a hot night.

There's a parking space behind iron gates in the front and a parking space behind iron gates in the back, some lovely small garden patches. Every window has a handsome, elaborate and practical iron grating and lots and lots of electrified razor wire protect any part of our borders that are not under the guard's watchful eye. And about security, more to come later.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mass in the Crypt

Eleanor and I went to Mass today in the crypt of the Cathedral of San Salvador, the place of Monseñor Oscar Romero's tomb. This photo shows the tomb with the four evangelists at the corners, holding the Gospels, the Word for which Monseñor died. I've been to Mass in the Crypt many times now, and I'm always moved by the music of the Misa Salvadoreña, the offerings that come from the hearts of the people, the liturgy that is both passionate and intimate. Mass in the Crypt has some of the feeling of an underground church - which of course it is, literally. In the divisions which still, sadly, haunt El Salvador 15 years after the signing of the peace accords that ended the uncivil war, this is the people's church, or the left-wing church, depending on who would be looking and describing. There's always a rich combination of people, including pilgrims like me from other countries, people in from the countryside, city people, middle class and poor, old folk and young ones. Today's Mass was powerful and unconventionally inclusive and it left me longing for enough Spanish to understand every last word.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Maps and being mapless

I love maps. When I got my first job with a decent salary attached (I believe it was the grandiose amount of $7,500 per year - this was a very long time ago) my first big purchase, before furniture or a better car was a huge folio-sized atlas of the world published by The Times of London. I loved that atlas and pored over the names and exotic shapes of places I would probably never see - including, no doubt, the tiny country of El Salvador. After years as a city planner and historic preservationist, I'm oriented to maps as a fundamental tool and way of finding myself in the world.

This will not work in El Salvador. Texaco used to put out a pretty good map of the main parts of the city of San Salvador, but two years ago they said they were reprinting it to put in the new ring roads....and now it's just not available. I cling to a much-folded Texaco map on which I am very carefully entering key places - Archdiocesan offices, lawyer's office, landlady, water bill. Google Maps turns out to have an exquisitely detailed map of San Salvador with all the latest roads included, which is comforting. But no one here uses maps. Street names are shown for major streets at major intersections: otherwise you have to know or guess. Directions are mostly given by landmarks or stores.

I've learned a few landmarks, but as yet I have no reliable sense of direction in this city, and all the streets and all the businesses and all the houses look remarkably alike to my gringa eye. Driving is an extra challenge, because there are very few places where you can turn left onto or off of main streets. Some left turns can happen in roundabouts, but in many cases you have to plan an intricate path to get where you want to go. There's nothing but experience that will help you: forget about the map.

Today I walked to the city's biggest mall (and the largest mall in Central America), Metrocentro - it stretches out like an octopus, a wing here, a third story there, a leg to the side: it's immense and intricate and always full of people (who mostly aren't carrying any purchases, just walking and looking). Know how there's a nice map of the mall inside every U.S. shopping center, with a list of stores by type and a "you are here" dot? In MetroCentro there's no map, no directory. But there's lots of helpful people who helped me find a feather pillow and printer ink.

So it seems that I'm going to have to spend a lot of the next weeks getting lost, asking directions, doubling back on my tracks, wondering where I am, asking directions, getting lost. I'll still mark everything on my map. I just know that it's not going to help me much.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A visit to the campo

We visited the countryside today, taking what seemed like a long journey to visit Rosita and her daughters and son in the El Paraiso area of Chalate-nango. It turned out to be only about 42 miles one way, but given that I was driving, getting used to a stick-shift again (turns out to be like riding a bicycle - you don't forget), and navigating the challenging traffic of El Salvador, it felt like a looonnng trip.

Above top, Lupita, Rosita, me, and Edith (pronounced eh DEET, more or less, and I have no idea how she spells it in Spanish), and the two beautiful girls below. Rosita has been connected with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and PeaceHealth since 1989 when she came to Jesuit Refugee Services at El Despertar in San Salvador. She was 11 years old then, and had lost both legs below the knee from crude amputations - perhaps resulting from an infection or gangrene, she didn't really know why. She met Sister Eleanor at El Despertar, and was eventually fitted with prostheses which she uses like a pro today. In the years Eleanor was away from El Salvador (1993 - 2000) Rosita had her three children, but without any lasting relationship to their fathers and no way to support herself, they were mired in deep poverty. Through the help of Eleanor and friends among the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and at PeaceHealth, Rosita has been able to buy a small lot and have a two-room house built, very simple and campo style, but adequate space for her family; she has banana trees on the lot which yield fruit that they can eat and sell, a well, an outhouse, a small flock of chickens tended by a glorious rooster and some scrawny dogs and cats, and her daughters are going to school. It's a life that would still seem like deep poverty to any norteamericano, but for this little family it's security and a bit of hope. It was good to be there and to connect with Rosita.

The other wonderful connection today came when we went to the Archdiocesan offices so I could apply for a carnet - a card identifying me as a Sister. There, by blessed serendipity, Eleanor was able to introduce me to Monseñor Ricardo Urioste, who was Secretary and Vicar General to Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was sad that he had missed seeing Sister Andrea, whom he remembered from her work at the Calle Real refugee camp, and I was sorry too, as it would have been a joy to have witnessed their meeting. Like Oscar Romero, Monseñor Urioste has been a powerful voice for social justice in El Salvador. He is a humble, warm and friendly man, and it was a great honor to meet him.

Both Rosita and Monseñor Urioste remind me that I am living in a country filled with the memory of war, loss, holiness and hope.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Trámites means procedures, paperwork, going through official channels and today - after Eleanor and I put Andrea and Beth on the plane back to Seattle - was dedicated to trámites. I need to get a driver's license, transfer the title to our project car (a sturdy and faithful 1996 Toyota Forerunner) into my name, get my name on our bank statements, order new checks....and this was just the beginning. Thanks to our lawyer, Doctora Consuelo, our banker, Señor Paz, and the young woman who issued me an N.I.T. (No. de Identificacion Tributaria, which I think means something like Tax Identification Number) for the astonishing sum of 23 cents, I am well on the way to becoming a real person in the eyes of the Salvadoran government. What was best, and most astonishing to a Norteamericana, was the generosity and helpfulness of almost everyone we talked to. No one seemed to be rushing to the next task or project. Each person I met took account of my limited Spanish and made sure I understood what I needed to do.

And that's what I'm learning to love about El Salvador: relationships matter more than efficiency.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

At Calle Real

Today was a day for memories and visits. In the morning, we went to the offices of the Archdiocese of San Salvador where Andrea visited with Dina, her friend here from the mid-1980s when Sisters Andrea and Margaret Jane Kling worked together at Calle Real, the Archdiocesan refugee camp outside the city. Sister Eleanor worked there for a month at the beginning of her first time in El Salvador, and shared the memories of what it had been. I've heard several stories about Calle Real, especially on this visit. There was the time Andrea and Margaret Jane were pistol-whipped and had their car stolen by the police (a very effective priest in the Archdiocesan offices persuaded the police to return the vehicle). There were memories of eating beans and rice and the necessary tortilla, nothing more, with a plastic spoon and a bowl, and in the rainy season when water trucks and food trucks couldn't get up the very steep dirt road to Calle Real, even those simple foods weren't to be found. There was the time when the women of the camp would not let the police take men away from the refuge - and the women prevailed.

In the afternoon we visited Calle Real itself, now a retreat center. Little remains that Andrea and Eleanor could identify except the look of the land itself, but we found one ramshackle building with a concrete floor, plywood walls and a tin roof that was probably one of the communal houses. Trees had grown where once there was a clear vista to the north. No one except a gardener seemed to be there, but we felt the presence of all those refugees who had passed through Calle Real and found help and food and friendship there.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back home in El Salvador

After a very, very long bus trip from Guatemala City (we had about 1 1/2 hours pause for what we were told was a parade or demonstration - Andrea and I watched three entire movies en route), we returned to San Salvador and to the base house where we rejoined Eleanor Gilmore and where I am now at home. What a pleasure to wash clothes, begin to arrange my room, and start to live here - even while continuing in vacation mode.

Today we went up to Suchitoto (about an hour north of San Salvador), stopping at Aguilares and El Paisnal for brief visits with doctors who've been part of previous PazSalud missions. Conversation is still a huge challenge for me - I answered "yes" to Doctora Nidia's question only to learn that the question was "When will we meet again?" May all these pits and pitfalls be pure comedy to my gracious Salvadoran hosts.

Aguilares and El Paisnal hold a special memory of the life and martyr's death of Padre Rutilio Grande, SJ, who was Pastor in both towns and was killed in 1977 (along with a young boy and old man who were driving with him) on the way to El Paisnal. In El Paisnal, a new altarpiece (above) shows Archbishop Romero and Padre Rutilio celebrating at a table with Salvadoran friends and foods - Una Mesa para Todos, One Table for All, says the legend. May we all gather at the one table of Jesus, the table of friends.

Photos from Guatemala

Three photos from Guatemala: Above, a mural in the garden of the Franciscan church in Antigua shows a Mayan woman and child, Santo Hermano Pedro, Saint Francis and a Mayan man around a painted cascade that leads to the real fountain. The legend says, "Mother Earth is a gift of God for all: take care of her and share here as brothers. Below, on the left the Directora of the Clinica Maya, the indigenous medicine clinic at Clinica Maxeña, shows us the tres puntas plant, which has worked very well to bring down high blood sugar levels for diabetics. On the right - not a very good photo, but it shows all four of us, Susan, Andrea, Sheila and Beth, under the big Ceiba tree that was planted as a stick forty years ago at Sheila's Clinica Maxeña in Santo Tomas.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Clinica Maxeña

We're back in Antigua after a day's visit to Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Associate Sheila McShane and the Clinica Maxeña (pronounced Mashenia, more or less and shown on right) which she directs in Santo Tomas la Union. Couldn't tell you in miles or kilometers, but it's a 2 1/2 hour often bumpy drive from Antigua, along a route that goes down from high-altitude Antigua, parallels the Pacific through fields of cane, and goes up again toward the Mayan highlands. Santo Tomas has about 15,000 people (I hope I'm remembering this correctly), going up to 80,000 if you count the people in the surrounding cantones for whom Santo Tomas is the political, mercantile, and health center. The population is about half Mayan, half Ladino (Spanish-identified people of mixed heritage) and Sheila says they all get along well these days, with intermarriage increasing.

The Clinica Maxeña (Maxeña is the K'iché - Mayan - word for Thomas) has been serving the people of Santo Tomas for about 40 years now. It's a mission of the Catholic Diocese of Helena, Montana. It's a big clinic, with about 25 Spanish-K'iché bilingual staffers, including a full-time MD. Sheila, an RN who lived in Guatemala in the 1970s -80s and returned two years ago, is the Clinic Director. They are funded by the Diocese, by grants, by payments from patients, and have had to cut back, like so many non-profits, as funds dried up in the economic crunch.

We had a great tour of the clinic, where we were especially intrigued by the separate clinic that grows, dries and distributes the traditional Mayan healing herbs - including one said to be very effective for diabetics, a big problem here as elsewhere in the world. We enjoyed meals with Sheila and Sisters Mary Waddell and Anna Priester, BVM, met Father Jim Hazelton, who's been living in Santo Tomas for 40 years, visited La Asuncion, a school he started which trains teachers, and stayed overnight in the comfortable visitors casita. Best of all, we enjoyed long conversations with Sheila. And then we came back on the Clinic jeep, bumping down the kilometers back to the comforts of Antigua and the Aurora Hotel. Much more to tell, and photographs to share when I return to San Salvador, but for now, I long to be walking or sleeping, anything but sitting!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Relaxing in Antigua

Andrea, Beth and I wandered through the beautiful and confusing streets of Antigua yesterday - beautiful in the repeated simple patterns of adobe walls and ornate doors, confusing because for the newcomer one street looks much like another, and all of them somehow lead to the Cathedral, Plaza and Palacio of ancient Guatemala. We wandered and wandered in search of the restaurant we had liked so much the night before, one with bountiful vegetarian choices for Beth and a delightful courtyard setting, and we finally found it, but found it closed, alas.

Along the way we visited the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose Betancur, open for the holiday. Brother Peter, born a poor man in Tenerife in 1626, made his way to Guatemala and, destitute, joined the Franciscan breadline. Later he tried to study for the priesthood in the local Jesuit college, but couldn't master the subjects. Instead he became a 3rd Order Franciscan and gave the rest of his life to caring for those in great need, opening a hospital and school for the poor, a shelter for the homeless, and a religious order for women teachers, the Bethlehemites. No wonder his tomb and the Franciscan church were full of people praying. In the church, a mural of Franciscan life included portraits of four Franciscan brothers martyred during the civil wars of the 1980s, one in Salvador, one in Nicaragua, two in Guatemala: a potent reminder that the call to give all for Christ continues to be a dangerous invitation.

As we came back to the Plaza we saw a great crowd gathered and heard firecrackers going off in a storm of noise and smoke, young men running through the area of explosions, and then, majestically, a procession with the Holy Sacrament carried reverently around the plaza under a canopy - preceded by firecrackers and followed by devout candlebearers. A very latino combination!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Prospero Año Nuevo

And a happy new year to all! New Year's Eve in Antigua is an amazing experience - the streets full of families and friends, a joyful community celebration. I'm annoyed that I left my camera in the hotel, but the link above will give you a taste. We delighted in Las Abuelitas, a group dressed as old women with an amazing variety of masks (including three ancient nuns in full habit), in Los Gigantes, dancing on stilts as the New Year came in, and in the fireworks. Fireworks in the sky, but also dancers wearing bull's bodies or wings of fireworks, the fireworks exploding as they danced. Definitely would not be allowed in the USA for all those valid concerns about safety, but what a wonderful sight. We went to Mass at 10 PM with the fireworks booming outside, then continued celebrating with the crowd until it became so crowded that we had to very slowly worm our way out, hoping that no-one panicked. Luckily we arrived safely back at our hotel, happy to be in 2009.