Sunday, May 31, 2009

Views of Suchitoto

So much is going on right now - on the national level, tomorrow is the inauguration of Mauricio Funes, the first FMLN President of El Salvador, and it's going to be a very big day, and a very big celebration in the capital and in Suchitoto, which has long had FMLN Mayors. On the personal level, early Tuesday morning I'll be turning my back on the unpacking and arranging that still needs doing in this house and heading to Antigua, Guatemala for a month of Spanish studies.

There's so much I'd like to talk about, but I'm short on time, so I was delighted when my friend Patti said she'd like to see more photos of Suchitoto and I walked out with the camera. It's Sunday night, and people are relaxing, sitting in their doorways or getting ice cream down at the plaza or sitting around the fountain which wasn't playing tonight. My next door neighbors are in the bottom photo. This is a friendly place where everybody seems connected to everybody else. I've only been here a week, but I'll miss Suchitoto when I'm in Antigua. I'll be here blogging when I can, but probably not very often.

Friday, May 29, 2009

O Still Small Voice

A 7.1 earthquake struck in the Caribbean off the coast of Honduras on Wednesday night and it woke people (including me) up in the middle of the night. Here in Suchitoto it was preceded by the noisiest and most dramatic thunderstorm and rainstorm I've experienced since the year I lived in Oklahoma. The thunderstorm struck at 11:30 and raged at full volume for a very long half hour: then came the rain, a torrent. Finally I went happily back to sleep and just before 2:30 I half awoke, realizing that the pleasant rocking I was experiencing was, in fact, an earthquake. I was too sleepy to pay proper attention, but noted that it was going on for a very long time (someone said ten minutes; someone said two minutes; I'd guess it was more like 30 seconds which seems like eternity during an earthquake). No damage at all here. There was great damage and some deaths, many injuries in Honduras, especially toward the Caribbean coast and islands.

I stayed in my bed because I was too sleepy to figure out what else to do. Peggy O'Neill told me yesterday that I should have gone out into the patio, because people get killed when the roofs fall in on them. Wouldn't take much for that to happen. The roof here has sprung a leak in one bedroom, and Higinia, my landlord's sister and local representative, asked Alcides to come take a look. Alcides works at Peggy's Centro Arte para la Paz, and came over during his lunch hour to see what the problem was. He got on the roof and started removing tiles: it turns out that they're not nailed down or glued down, so you can just take the tiles off and lay them to one side (why don't they all come crashing down in the torrential rains? Got me. Must be quite an art in the placement). Under the tiles and over the roof framing is lamina, the scalloped plastic or tin base roofing, and the lamina over this bedroom had several holes, clearly needed replacing.

So I can understand why getting out into the patio (and as far away from crashing roof tiles as possible) would be the smart thing to do during an earthquake, but you have to wake up first. Instead I turned over, went back to sleep, and thought the next morning of one of my favorite hymns, with words by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier:
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!
It was a night filled with earthquake, wind, torrential rain and the fire of lightning and also with the still, small voice that is always there if we can only stop making noise long enough to listen.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hidden things

The key to the filing cabinet is somewhere - I very carefully put it somewhere so I could be sure to find it. And then forgot where the somewhere is. Unpacking is a chaotic experience. Yesterday I hunted all over the house for a bandaid for the Amnet technician who'd cut his finger while putting in the internet and cable and telephone. Ended up with gauze pads and tape. Today I knew exactly where the bandaids were.

The house is beginning to emerge - here are photos of the sala (living room), comedor (dining room), the chapel, which will double as an extra bedroom, and the patio. The house is big, welcoming, and very Salvadoran and I love it. The biggest challenge is having no closets, but today, walking down the street, I saw an excellent contraption of plastic covered wire for sale that will offer somewhere to hang clothes. Armando did a great job of connecting the fans today, so the air is moving. And the accumulated tiredness of three weeks of moving has caught up with me. I'm headed for bed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

At home in Suchitoto

I've unpacked what seems like thousands of the PazSalud plastic tubs, hung pictures on the wall, unearthed the iron, lost the key to the filing cabinet, and gotten connected to the telephone, cable and internet - in short, I'm at home in Suchitoto. It feels great to be here on the unpacking end of things, and it felt especially great to walk out at 7 this morning through the market and through some of the streets of the city.

Photos will follow, and many of them - this is a very photogenic city - but this is just to let you know that I am back online and at home in Suchitoto.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Grace flew home Saturday, and I'm finding finishing up the last ends of packing dreary on my own. I'm surely grateful for two weeks of help in this process, and for Grace's cheerful presence. And I'm glad we had a bit of fun along the way.

Now it's time to undo the electronics - a complicated lot, most of which will not be used in the Suchitoto house as we've found a simpler way to connect me up to the PeaceHealth network. I'll be offline for a while - not too long, I hope!

In Suchitoto

First night in the Suchitoto house, and it's a good place to spend the night. The buses that rumble up the street on their way out of town can hardly be heard from the bedrooms in the back of the house. There's only one rooster in my immediate area, and he doesn't get going until 4 am. A lot of geckos are working on keeping the mosquito population down. It's hotter in Suchitoto than in San Salvador, but the nights are still cool. No bats appeared.

No oven or refrigerator in the house as yet (that comes Monday), so I invited Marta, who's been doing a magnificent job of cleaning and organizing the house, and her niece Cresaida to dinner. We walked out at 7 pm to get pupusas and tacos at El Gringo (a Salvadoran-Mexican restaurant run by a Gringo-Salvadoran guy named Roberto) and it was great to walk through the well-lighted streets, three women out at night. This isn't a safe thing to do in San Salvador.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Here again, gone again

Today was well-packed.

It began with trips to the Archdiocese and the lawyer to get some of my immigration papers updated and corrected. My lawyer's 96-year-old mother is in the final stages of her life, and Dra. Ramirez told me about calling a couple of parishes for a priest who would come to give her communion and the annointing of the sick. Her local parish said someone would be over, but no one came. Finally she called the Archdiocese, and a few hours later someone appeared. That someone was Monseñor Gregorio Rosa Chavez, Auxilary Bishop of San Salvador. Rosa Chavez scarcely shows up on the Internet, but he is well known and well loved in El Salvador as a champion of peace and justice, a spokesman for the needs of the people. He makes house calls, too, it seems, and that is no surprise. Here is a churchman who lives his calling as the hands and feet of Christ.

Buoyed by that story, and with my corrected papers, I went off to the Ministry of Immigration, where I was approved for temporary residency in record time, photographed, thumb-printed, and sealed. I wish it could ever be this simple for immigrants to my country.

Then I collected Grace and we went dashing off to Suchitoto - my first taste of the kind of quick trip that's going to be part of my normal week. We hadn't set aside enough reading glasses at the higher resolutions, 3.0 and higher, for our cataract patients, and had to seek out the rest in the tub that - of course - had been sent to Suchi. They were, they always are, in the bottom box in the back of the stack of boxes, but we retrieved them, unloaded a bookcase, ate cheese sandwiches, and went dashing back to Santa Tecla and Dra. de Burgos' clinic.

For me there was some sadness in this last meeting with our eye surgery patients, but joy in hearing how well most are doing, how much they are enjoying their new vision. Yesterday one of the older men came out of his consult with Dra. de Burgos, put on his new reading glasses (3.0), pulled out a Bible in very small type, and happily began reading. Some of the women are looking forward to sewing again. A few patients will need follow-up laser surgery with Dra. de Burgos, so I will see them again.

Grace enjoyed meeting the eye surgery patients - here she is with one woman from Comasagua - and collected her share of hugs and thanks. In mid-afternoon, Dra. Daysi Ramirez, whose office is right next door to Dra. de Burgos', suggested we end the day with pupusas, the Salvadoran stuffed tortilla, so we hastened off, following Daysi's car (following anyone in Salvador traffic at rush hour is somewhere between a huge challenge and folly) and arrived live at Margoth's pupuseria where we ate too much and talked in a few languages and had a great time.

Grace goes home tomorrow, and how I will miss her! She's been a huge help, and a lot of fun, turning the dreaded chore of moving into a lighthearted exercise. Thank you seems insufficient, but THANK YOU, Grace!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Almost (again)

I almost live in Suchitoto - furniture, clothes, books, dishes are mostly there, two truckloads with Carlos and Israel today - but Grace and I are in the San Salvador house for two more days. The eye surgery patients have their final checkup with Dra. de Burgos tomorrow and Friday, and I'll be there with reading glasses for all who need them, and to see everyone again. Grace returns to Bellevue on Saturday, and I'll head up to Suchi then to start unpacking, sorting, arranging - the fun end of moving. The final load, including stove and refrigerator, comes Monday.

Coming out of Suchitoto today we had to manuever slowly through a herd of cattle that were owning the road, and all along the way horses and cattle and goats were tethered along the side of the highway, getting fat off the new growth from the beginning of the rainy season. It's good to be (almost) here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Today Carlos came with a big truck and his nephew Omar and they loaded the truck with a small mountain of tubs - both the PazSalud supplies and the many things Grace and I had packed into the empty tubs - and off we went to Suchitoto. Grace and I went up in the car with our delicate optometric instruments and the autoclave and St. Francis. St. Francis, who had a place of honor at our door in San Salvador for the past 8 years looks right at home in the Suchitoto patio. It feels good to be halfway there - and tomorrow the furniture goes.

Monday, May 18, 2009


It strikes me that postings may be scarce the next few days as the move happens. Everything's scarce at this point. I made salad, but the salad bowl is packed. Vilma brought flowers, but the vases are packed. The photos and paintings and santos, the dishes and tablecloths, the books and bowls and utensils are hidden away in rubbermaid tubs. So in lieu of decor, here's a photo of morning sweepings from a courtyard in Suchitoto.

We had a grand time last night - dinner with Dra. Daysi Ramirez Chicas, a long-time friend of Grace and Eleanor, and with all Daysi's family - her husband, two sisters and their husbands, her mother and father, and - star of the show - her niece, beautiful three-year-old Alejandra Sofia, full of life and bounce. We ate pupusas and empanadas and talked and talked while Alejandra danced rings around us all. Salvadoran family life at its most beautiful - it was a joy to be included.

And I had a grand time of another sort this morning, carrying on an argument with my Amnet representative about just what sort of documents I had to present to get my phone hooked up: a grand time only because the argument happened on the phone, and I said my piece fully, and with feeling. Don't know that it did much good, but it was satisfying to have reached the point when I can do more than sputter on the phone.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


We've reached that awful state in the packing process when the cupboards and drawers and closets are empty, many boxes are packed, but there is a lot of stuff just standing around on every available table, ledge and counter. I keep telling myself that this is the FINAL stage in packing (I should know), but that doesn't mean I like it much.

Still, we've taken some good time to see friends, see sights, and have fun. The Memorial to Justice and Truth in Parque Cuscatlan was unveiled after Grace returned to the United States, so I took her to that moving memorial, where the names of some 30,000 (of the estimated 70,000) Salvadorans killed or disappeared during the Civil War are listed. In this memorial the names of the famous dead - Archbishop Romero, the murdered Jesuits, the North American Churchwomen - are simply listed in their year and their alphabetical order with everyone else. I believe this monument lists only non-combatants, the many, many who were killed by death squads or in massacres or who were disappeared.

And yesterday we went to Ataco, the last town in the Ruta de los Flores, a string of lovely mountain towns in the west, to buy locally woven cloth to make room dividers in the new house. It was lovely to get away from the boxes and the mess for a day, and to see such colorful places as the Pupuseria de las Gemelas (the twins' pupuseria). The cloth, by the way, is fuschia with stripes of green and blue and white woven in....definitely colorful!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lights and ladders

Armando came over today to take down the two big ceiling fans that have kept our upstairs area cool. Armando is a friend of Sr. Eleanor from a long time back - he lived in El Despertar, with Jesuit Refugee Services during the Civil War years while receiving treatment for injuries. Currently he lives with his wife and daughter in Zamorano, Usulutan, and puts together sound systems for bands or churches.

Armando helped install the fans back in 2001, and he understands electricity. But we were almost done in because our ladder, which is quite tall enough to terrify me (ladders paralyze me), was not tall enough to reach the high ceiling fan in our upstairs office. We got creative, and built a little pyramid with a table and the ladder. Grace and I held the ladder and prayed while Armando took down the fan (and prayed) and we were all sweating buckets because it was hot and humid.

Then the rains came, and we had beer and pizza, and all was well. The movers (Suchitoto guys with a truck) come next Tuesday, and they'll find us ready. All we have left to pack now is the kitchen. The way it is here, you bring everything into a house you rent - ceiling fans, stove, refrigerator, blinds, even cupboards. This house, which has been the PazSalud Base House for nine years, will soon be an empty shell.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Grace and I spent much of today in the back reaches of the upstairs walk-in storeroom, the place for things that didn't seem to belong anywhere in particular, but were hard to throw away. Somewhere between deciding whether it made sense to take three mosquito nets to Suchitoto and choosing to throw out the two unused and elegant faucet sets with hot and cold (we won't have hot water in Suchitoto), it occurred to us that Eleanor - who had stored the mosquito nets and faucets - was lounging on a beach in Hawaii. Bon voyage, Eleanor, how we wish you were here!

The storeroom is clean and cleaned out! A triumph. This laid the perfect groundwork for an adventurous meal, and I had invited our neighbor, Vilma, to dinner. I decided it was time to try cooking yuca. I consulted Healthy Latin Cooking and came up with a Cuban recipe for yuca in a lime and garlic sauce, paired that with chicken marinated in lime and orange, and the result was muy rico. Yuca (also known as manioc and cassava) tastes like a very good potato, only better, with a buttery and nutty flavor that was perfectly set off by the tartness of the lime. Vilma brought us a bottle of ice wine, which we had for dessert along with the coconut ice cream that everyone loves, and we had a grand evening of eating and talking. Never mind that about half of what Vilma had to say didn't entirely register (she's a fast talker) - it all felt friendly, mellow, and blessed, with the kind of blessing bestowed on those who have cleaned out the back closet.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Working together

Grace and I went up to Suchitoto yesterday to see the new house and it is looking delightful. We took up the potted plants from the garden here and set them in the patio underneath the nance tree and limon. The nance fruits are falling right now, and here's a bag full of them, about the size of large cherries - you eat them after they've fallen, when they're dark red/maroon; they're sweet and a little chewy, and they're one of the many fruits here you won't find in a U.S. supermarket.

Then we headed back to the city and got to work on sorting and packing.

One of the great, and greatly undervalued, joys of life is working together with someone. I've been delighting in working with Grace these past few days as we search the depths of the cupboards, decide on the right destination for obscure objects (an exercise ball that can't be blown up because the stopper is missing; a can of dried and hardened spackle; the top to an electric fry pan - but not the bottom). Sorting and packing/discarding this by myself would be tedious and dusty and a little gloomy. Sorting and packing with Grace is fun and dusty and cheerful. It is so good to be part of a community of friends!

The discarding part is easy: you put things out on the sidewalk, and if they are of any interest to anyone they disappear. If they don't disappear, they'll be picked up by the trash collection tomorrow. Recycling is more a way of life here than a government program.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A gathering of friends

Grace and I went to the Crypt of the Cathedral in El Salvador's Centro for Mass today, heard a fine and fiery homily that dealt, among other things, with the church's failure to treat women equally - a good Mother's Day message! And we met with Estela Garcia, who came to lunch with her daughter Susy, both long-time friends of Grace, Eleanor, Margaret Byrne, and others in our community. Here's Estela, Grace and Susy in our living room.

You couldn't find a much better example of a mother than Estela. Widowed during the Civil War, she has raised Susy on her own and helped her get all the way through college. She's someone you know you could depend on in your darkest hour; her kindness, common sense, and joy in living bring joy to those around her. After our lunch, Estela and Susy went to the hospital to visit Estela's mother, who's been there for a couple of weeks, and to bring her Mother's Day flowers.

Happy Mother's Day, feliz dia de la madre!

Saturday, May 9, 2009


I'm so happy to say that Sister Grace arrived safely on Continental this evening - carrying with her gifts of coffee liqueur, ginger and very sharp cheddar cheese! We will feast! I think it must be because she's doing such a good deed, coming down here to help me pack and move (and bringing yummy gifts as well), but Grace, travelling on miles, got put in first class seats for both flights. A just reward! It's been great to hear the news of St. Mary's and the Sisters - like getting to take a quick trip back there where the rhododendrons are blossoming.

Tomorrow is a celebration of the Province Leadership - Andrea and Beth and Barb Haase. I had my thank-you party in December, before I came down here, and I hope theirs is just as much fun - and full of just as much love.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A change of address

I stopped by the bank today to give them my new address. No problem, a friendly clerk put the new address on the account. Oh, I said, and can you change the name on the account to my name? I'm already an authorized signer, and my checks say "Susan Dewitt / PazSalud." But the name on the account that's sent out every month is still Eleanor Gilmore. Oh no, said the clerk, that would require papers from an attorney... Or perhaps another six months for my Spanish to get good enough for sustained argument. It's always a challenge, operating outside the familiar boundaries of one's own culture, to guess what's going to be possible and what's going to be hard.

Names seem to persist here, whether the owners of the names are present or not. The electricity and water bills for this house come in the name of the long-deceased mother of the present landlady. When I call for a taxi to the airport, the taxi company tells me that I am Eleanor Gilmore (a reasonably challenging name for a Spanish speaker) and I have decided not to dispute that. I can be Eleanor Gilmore whenever that's the path of least resistance. Certainly, for the bank!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Moving here and there

I drove up the cordillera de balsamo to Comasagua today, to take vitamins and some financial help to Nubia and her family (she's enjoying her new glasses and seeing much better in her schoolroom). Along the way I could already see the changes of the season, new grass growing where there were bare patches before, trees leafing out, men working to unblock the big drains.

People who visit El Salvador in the dry season may wonder about the ditches and enormous drains everywhere. Houses and workplaces and schools here are designed to keep people reasonably dry through the rainy season, to keep the water moving away and down. Now, at the beginning of the season, is the time when everyone discovers which drains are blocked and which roads are going to be flooded - lots of work for the road crews.

When the rains set into their everyday pattern - a torrent in the late afternoon or evening or at night - it will be the time for planting corn and beans in the milpas. Now we're not quite there, but the clouds and winds have brought welcome cooler weather.

I'm especially glad of cooler weather as it's time to pack and move again. Again: it's been quite a pattern in my life! I grew up an Army brat and always hated moving every few years. I was sure I'd just find one place as a grownup and stay there. Not quite! While my brother and sister found their communities (Wenatchee and Edmonds, Washington) and stayed put, I seem to have acquired the entire family's portion of wanderlust. I've moved 36 times so far in my life; Suchitoto will be number 37. Excessive? Yes. But I'm good at packing and unpacking. And I'm looking forward to settling in to 4a Avenida Sur, #2, Barrio Calvario, Suchitoto, Cuscatlan, El Salvador and watching the rains fall into the patio.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Seeing with new eyes

Over the last two days I've had the joy of seeing the cataract surgery patients as they came in for a post-op examination with Dra. de Burgos (shown above in her office). I got a multitude of hugs and thanks, and some mangos and avocados, but - as I kept trying to say - the joy was ours, to be part of a group giving back to these strong and beautiful people the gift of their sight. I think of Jesus, making mud with spittle to open the eyes of the blind, and our doctors with their drapes and gloves and sterilized instruments, and it's all healing, restoration.

It was a joy to see Mercedes and Rosa, our peerless organizers again (Mercedes is on the left end of the group photo above, Rosa was still out escorting one last patient) - they had managed to get every last surgery patient from Comasagua on to the bus and down to Dra. de Burgos' office, and they were there with them through all the waiting and examinations.

In Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry by saying:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has annointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
(Luke 4:18)

That's the work of liberation and recovery that Mercedes and Rosa have given their lives to. Those of us fortunate enough to be part of the PazSalud eye surgery brigade were able to share in a bit of their work. What a privilege for us over-privileged ones!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

El Día de la Cruz

It's the day of the cross on May 3rd in El Salvador - it's not an official church holiday, instead a day of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth, a day to ask for the blessings of the coming rains. The tradition calls for a cross made from the arbol de jiote, a wood that easily sprouts again after it has been cut. (I'm told the jiote comes mainly from Suchitoto, where I'll soon be living.) The cross is decorated with flowers and cut paper chains and ; fruits and vegetables are piled at its foot, and visitors are invited to take a fruit home with them. (This photo, from Concepcion de Ataco in 2008 is from the blog La vida Barranquilla...en El Salvador)

It's a tradition with deep roots in the past, according to La Prensa Grafica. Before Spanish colonization, los Guanacos (Salvadorans) celebrated the 3rd of May as the beginning of the rainy season. They adapted the cross to the celebration, and it's now a beloved tradition. A small cross was brought to the altar during the offering procession at the Crypt of the Cathedral today, and fruits and flowers were piled at the base of the altar. But this is less a Sunday event or church event than a thank you to the earth for fruitfulness, a prayer that fruitfulness may continue, that the rains may come.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Welcome to May

I've been away from the blog for a few days, mostly because I came away from the surgical mission with a cold which got complicated by a bad reaction to medication - spent a couple of days mostly not moving much. Glad to say I'm now back to normal! I spent some of that down time talking with Peggy O'Neill about my move to Suchitoto this month - here's a photo of Peggy showing our Eye Surgery Mission team plans for the Centro Arte de la Paz in Suchitoto.

El Salvador is entering in to the winter rainy season, which has brought some very welcome cooling after tremendous heat last week. At this point, the rains are very obliging, coming in the early evening with thunder and lightning and fresh breezes. I'm told that we're not entirely into the rainy season yet, that the rain will probably disappear for a few days and then come back again.

Yesterday was an important holiday here, as it is in most of the world - International Workers Day - and there were big parades in El Salvador, an especially joyful celebration this year as an FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberacion Nacional - the coalition of the political left) President will take office in just a month.

May 1st is also a Feast Day for my community, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker (yes, there's clearly a connection with International Workers Day), and yesterday our new Congregation Leadership Team celebrated the work of Sisters Sheila Lemieux and Terry Donohue over the past six years and began their term in office. May all their time together be richly blessed!