Friday, July 31, 2009

Sizzling summer

I'm back in Seattle, which oddly enough was hotter than San Salvador for the last two days - hot enough at 103 to make Seattleites grumpy and crazy in a way they won't be again until the winter rains start in November. I thought it was fine, which is proof that I've acclimated to hot weather. It helps that Saint Mary-on-the-Lake in Bellevue, where I live when I'm in the states, is right on Lake Washington. Swimming in the lake is one of the very best ways to enjoy a heat wave.

Driving around and going into stores here feels very strange. I had forgotten that streets in American suburbs, like Bellevue, are almost empty of people. Driving around I saw other cars, some joggers (not too many, it was too hot), almost no pedestrians. A startling contrast to Salvadoran streets which are always full of people, mini-restaurants, sellers of gum and blankets and cell phone covers and artesania, dogs, parked cars. In the supermarket, the gleaming array of 34 different varieties of anything you can imagine was startling because so many varieties had appeared that I'd never seen before - new shampoos in elegantly shaped bottles, new kinds of soft drinks, new magazines, all of which seem to have blossomed during the severest economic crisis in a generation. I'm struck by the overpowering display of goods. It feels excessive, out of control, as if all we can corporately imagine doing is dreaming up yet one more variety of yet one more product.

All of which made it very good to get back to the clean simplicities of Lake Washington.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Today Margaret Jane and I headed down to the Centro Arte para la Paz for a celebration and exhibition. The celebration, which included a concert from the band Exceso de Equipaje (named, I gather, because the men in the band carry a little extra baggage on them). Their lively, politically charged songs were followed by certificates for all the students who had participated in a couple of classes at the Centro, and by an exhibit of the work of one of the groups, calls for earth awareness painted on bright umbrellas and murals.

I missed most of the event, though, because Margaret Jane and I joined Peggy and the sandwich maquila out in the kitchen, helping to make, wrap and stack 400 chicken salad sandwiches. Then I was invited to help fill plastic bags with a tamarind refresco. This is a very Central American way of serving a drink: you put a cup of the drink in a plastic bag, tie the top of the bag, and give it out with a straw for drinking. I've seen these, but never tried to fill one. I can now tell you that it takes a little art to fill the bag without covering yourself with tamarind refresco. I was fairly well covered with tamarind refresco by the time we had 200 little plastic bags bobbing in a big tub.

I'm heading back to Bellevue on Tuesday for vacation, family time, community time and some work time with PeaceHealth. My newly learned skills of pouring liquids into plastic bags are unlikely to be needed there.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

It's a hard life

Thanks to Jen Cowan for this photo from our trip to the ocean at El Zonte. I don't get to loll in a hammock every day (though we do have one in the house, and it's an elegant place for naps on hot afternoons), but this photo tells you something that's probably already obvious to anyone reading my blog: I'm having a great time here. Yes, my Spanish still stumbles, it's hot, there are bugs, and last night I shared my room with a small black bat, but these, too, are adventures. There's always a new person to meet around the corner and a hammock waiting somewhere. I'm thankful.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Check-ups with Dr. Bob

Dr. Bob Rea, who was one of our ophthalmologists for the April surgery mission, was back in El Salvador this past weekend, taking part in a seminar organized by FUDEM - a local non-profit - to teach Salvadoran ophthalmologists a new technique for cataract surgery. Bob also wanted to visit a couple of the patients he had been most concerned about, to see how they were doing post-surgery, so I picked him up at his hotel on Monday and we (Bob, me, and my guest, Patti Moore) went driving out to Sonsonate where we connected with Armando and his son Fidel. Bob had brought Armando some medications, and in turn the family showered us with gifts - I took home a huge bottle of organic honey, which will give us and our guests much delight. Fidel came to lunch with us in Juayua, high up in the mountains above Sonsonate, and showed us some spectacular viewpoints.

Then we drove out to El Paisnal, about two hours away, where we connected with Emilio, another patient who'd had a complicated case. Emilio was surrounded by family and by a varied group of fowl that included chicken, geese, and turkeys. After the successful check-up, Emilio's daughter-in-law told us the painful story of what it had been like in El Paisnal during the war years, when almost everyone left, for Honduras or for the mountains. "I cried for a year," she said "after it was over," crying for the family and friends who had died, and for the guitar player who once made music for their Christian base community.

For me, as for Bob, it was a special joy to see these two men in their own homes. Earlier in the year, they had been the patients and we had been the providers of care. Now they were the hosts, we the guests.

This morning I took my two guests, Patti Moore and Dr. Bob Rea, to the airport for their flights home. It's been lovely having Patti here for two weeks, and Bob's day of check-ups was grand. It's good, too, to return to ordinary work and to build community with Margaret Jane.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Welcome, Margaret Jane!

Yesterday I very happily drove to the airport to pick up Sister Margaret Jane Kling, who is joining me in Suchitoto to create a CSJP community. El Salvador is familiar ground to Margaret Jane, who ministered here in refugee camps and urban communities for five years during the Salvadoran Civil War. She's been back several times since, but this time she's here to stay for awhile, and I couldn't be happier! Patti Moore kindly took this photo of us relaxing in the patio.

Our return had a little extra drama to it: on the way back, I got a call from Patti, telling me that Marta had fallen off the stepladder and hurt her ankle. She had been trying to do some touch-up painting to cover the handmarks left by the electricians; instead Marta and the ladder and the paint all ended up on the floor together. Patti discovered that 911 doesn't work in Suchitoto, and since her Spanish is very limited, managed to find my cell phone number. I called Peggy O'Neill and Peggy got Marta in touch with her sister Orbelina and we hurried back. When we got to the house, we found Patti and Orbelina hard at work cleaning paint off the floor and Marta sitting with ice on her swollen ankle. A trip to the Suchitoto hospital for an X-Ray revealed that - thankfully - this was a sprain, not a break, so now Marta is back home recuperating and the handmarks are still on the wall.

Then I cooked dinner for Margaret Jane and Patti and Peggy O'Neill, and I have to say, as someone who thinks she's a good cook, it was the worst dinner I've ever put together - the steak was as tough as young shoe leather, the rice was soggy, the broccoli got overcooked. Only the salsa, which Patti made, and the watermelon, prepared by God, saved the meal. But everyone ate and was happy....sometimes it's enough just to be with friends.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Suchitoto!

I shot straight out of bed at 6:00 this morning when the firecrackers began to go off. Someone's birthday, I thought, but when I saw the marching bands and the school kids lining up and the drum corps and the baton twirlers at work I asked Felix the electrician, who by this time was putting the final touches on the 220 volt line, what was up. It's Suchitoto's 151st anniversary, he said, and while I imagine the 150th may have been even grander, this anniversary was worth a few bomb blasts and a lot of dances.

And not all for fun: at 11 AM a big crowd of women and men assembled at the Centro Arte para la Paz to talk about the conditions for women in Suchitoto. One woman reported on a study of women in the municipality, which showed high levels of violence experienced by women and low levels of participation by women in the main decision-making bodies of the municipality. This led to a demand for gender equality in all areas of municipal life. Wonderful! I signed on.

Patti Moore and I left after a long talk by the Mayor, and drove out to Ilobasco, about an hour away. When we got back in the late afternoon, the plaza was full of dancers and the celebration was still going strong.

When we came back to the house we discovered that the stove was now working perfectly, but the refrigerator wasn't. So I'll be calling Felix again in the morning.

Happy birthday, Suchitoto!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Saturday morning in Suchitoto

As I walked over to the Centro Arte para la Paz this morning - five blocks from my house - I passed a wedding procession with the bride in full length white satin with a train which her attendants were trying hard to keep up from the cobblestones. Her family was escorting her to the church, where the groom would meet her. A block later, at the school grounds, a group of drummers was practicing along with a group of baton twirlers, and somewhere out of sight a larger drum was sounding.

Then in the Centro Arte a large group was gathered, kids and adults, to watch a demonstration of capoeira, the Afro=Brazilian dance/martial arts form. The movements of capoeira are sinuous and agile, using cartwheels and handstands; the dancing/sparring pairs work within a framework of ritual and discipline that is very beautiful to watch. Then they began to teach the group a few of these moves (photo above)

So that was this Saturday morning in Suchitoto: three different kinds of rituals playing out on these cobblestone streets: the bride moving slowly toward church, the baton twirlers practicing their act, the capoeira dancers cartwheeling in pairs. Joy in motion.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Guests and ghosts

Patti Moore, a friend from Tacoma, flew in last night for a two week visit. She and Jen Cowan are my first guests in the Suchitoto house, and of course I want everything to be perfect for their visit. Not too much hope of that! Shortly after dinner and prayers, the most horrid and ghostly noise - a loud, horrid and ghostly whistling, perfect for the sound track of horror movies - started up. We couldn't figure out where it was coming from, but by a process of elimination figured out it wasn't coming from the house. I went outside and checked with my neighbors, who told me that the building on the other side of our house used to be a movie theater, and there are some big fans up in the top that are turned by the north wind and make that ghostly, ghastly sound. I'm praying for the wind to come from anywhere but the north!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On time

Jennifer Cowan from Bellingham is my first visitor in the Suchitoto house. Jennifer arrived yesterday right on time (the plane was a little early, but customs was slow). What wasn't right on time was the process of getting a 220 volt line into the house for the stove. Felix the electrician told me he could finish all his work yesterday. Ah, I said, then I can use the stove? Well no, he said, CAESS (a subsidiary of the multinational giant AES, and the privatized provider of electricity here) still has to approve the connection to the main line. Oh, I said, I thought that happened already. Well part of it did, he said, they gave approval for the line to be installed, but now they have to approve the work that's been done. By now I was becoming a bit hysterical, as I explained to Felix that I have four guests visiting in July and had planned on being able to boil an egg. Felix said he'd do his best to hurry the process along.

The argument for privatizing electricity, like so many other "public" services here, was that a private company would provide more efficient service at lower prices. The price of electricity is very high here, and there seems to still be plenty of bureaucracy to slow things down.

I've lived in Central America long enough to know it may be quite a while before the stove actually works, so Jennifer and I stopped in San Salvador for lunch and a quick trip to a hardware store where I bought a single burner that does not need 220 volts to operate. Boiled eggs assured, we drove back to Suchitoto where we found Felix and his son and daughter hard at work. Felix told me he'd hooked up a connection for the stove that I could use while I wait for CAESS. Great, I said, let's see how it works! Seems the hookup is to a 110 volt line, so when you turn on a burner the red "on" light glows - but the burner, alas, does not get warm.

Jennifer is the perfect guest for times like this, ready to adapt to any circumstances. We went out walking, ate pasteles (a deep-fat fried potato puff, totally yummy though perhaps not totally healthy) and pupusas, went to the first two thirds of an excellent concert by the El Salvador Youth Orchestra (Jennifer had been up for about 27 hours at that point, so we skipped the last number) and we did not miss the stove at all.

The orchestra's appearance was preceded by the singing of the Salvadoran national anthem which, speaking of time, goes on forever and seems to incorporate about three different songs, in an inverse relationship to the size of this country. We were all ready to sit down when the theatre's owner announced that now we would sing the Suchitoto anthem. Thankfully, it's shorter. Today I'll start cooking on the single burner, and I'll be glad for that boiled egg.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Settling and unsettling

I'm happily back home in Suchitoto after an excellent month in Antigua during which some clarity about verb tenses may have settled in. It feels good to be settling in to the house, good to be listening to the winter rains in the patio. Today's rains were fierce, creating little rivers on their way to the drain and big rivers out in the street.

What's unsettling is watching the U.S. attention span shift with such speed from the coup in Honduras to Michael Jackson's death and the affairs of Governor Sanford. Here in Central America what happened in Honduras, and what happens next, has huge repercussions. All the countries of Central America, except perhaps Costa Rica, have a long history of military coups, mostly backed by previous U.S. governments. But it's been 16 years since the last military coup in Central America, and it has seemed that stable democracy was finally here to stay. But a look at the front page photo in today's Prensa Grafica (above) shows something all too familiar to Latin American readers: the man who was selected, not elected, as President, Roberto Micheletti, ushered forward by the officer right behind him: there, you could say, is his backing!

What has happened so far in international and U.S. and central American reaction has been encouraging. Honduras finds itself isolated and threatened with the loss of financial aid and market access that will be devastating in this very poor country.

In Guatemala and El Salvador, there's been immediate notice and concern that a successful coup in Honduras could lead to others. What happens next will determine how likely that is. Tonight Manuel Zelaya, the elected President of Honduras, is here in El Salvador as the guest of President Mauricio Funes. And tomorrow?