Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A la playa, a las montañas

Pat and I spent the weekend exploring some of El Salvador's vacation spots - first the beaches, where we found the Roca Sunzal, a rock oddly formed of composite materials that looks as though it should be demolished in about a day of battering by the tides, but has apparently been a landmark on its playa for a long, long time. This is not the beach season for Salvadorans (that's summer, which begins in another month), so most of the folk hanging around were surfers from Europe and the U.S.

The ocean is warm here - perhaps 80 degrees fahrenheit - very unlike the cold waters I've waded in on the coasts of Washington and Oregon. And it's hot and humid on the beach, especially at this very wet end of the rainy season. But who can resist a beach, especially one with black sand? it was great fun.

Then we headed for the mountains, not very far away, enjoying the cooler air and a string of charming towns called the Ruta de los Flores - the photo is from Concepcion de Ataco, a town famous for weaving and artesania, and for its beautiful Franciscan church.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Welcome Alejandro Emanuel

I am very happy to say that Ani Paula yesterday gave birth to her and Alex's son, Alejandro Emanuel, via a Caesarian section. Since Ani Paula's pregnancy was high-risk (she has kidney disease) she has been in the hospital for about a month, and it's been a hard wait for Alex and all their family. Today the news is wonderful: Alejandro Emanuel weighs 6.5 pounds and is whole and healthy. Ani Paula is recovering well from the C-section and will be released once her doctors determine that her vital functions are all good.

Thanks to all of you who have been holding Alex and Ani Paula in prayer!

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Living with your garden in the middle of your house, as most do here, means living with a few more critters than most North Americans are used to. Tonight Pat and I came back to the house and found a toad sitting in the dining room. How he got here is a mystery - I can't imagine a toad climbing the roofs to get into the garden, and the drain openings seem a little small for this good sized amphibian - but here he undoubtedly was. Pat turns out to have experience in toad removal, fortunately, and trapped him under a yogurt container before decanting him onto the street.

Last night our visitor was a gray and white cat - and she, I know for sure, came and left via the roof tiles. Meanwhile, there are a good number of permanent residents. Among them, when I first moved in, were black bats - and they liked to find a quiet, dark bedroom at about 4 AM and take up residence. We found a little machine that puts out noises that are said to repel bats, and plugged it in. It's worked like a charm, but now a cricket has taken up residence next to the bat repeller - it's probably attracted to the noise, perhaps it's an interspecies romance - and chirps there all through the night.

There are always ants and bees and small bugs (including some that look exactly like green leaves with legs) and no-see-ums around, and because of them we're happy whenever we see or hear one of the family of geckos who live here and snack on them. Birds and butterflies come and go, to my delight.

And then there are the critters who are only heard: the dogs who enter into huge barking contests at night - last night they were howling, the cats who sometimes stage battles on the roofs, the cocks who start calling for sunrise at 2 AM. I'm more conscious here than I ever was in Bellevue of being part of a shared world, one among the creatures who use this tropical space.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reading Monseñor

A while back, I bought one volume of the six-volume set of Monseñor Romero's homilies, the volume that holds his reflections (in Spanish) on the liturgical readings for Cycle B, from June to November, 1979. Thirty years later, we're hearing those same readings proclaimed on Sundays.

Reading Monseñor's 1979 homilies is a multilayered experience. I'm aware of the passion and power of his reflections, of his deep love for scripture and for the church. He also comments every week on what is going on, the increasing repression and reprisals that would lead to his own assassination only a few months later. Reading what he said over the radio to the people of El Salvador (and everybody sat by their radio to listen, I'm told) I feel a great sorrow for the loss that is still to come, the loss of this great and clear and loving voice.

It's powerful to hold these homilies and the terrible times in El Salvador 30 years ago in mind and heart as I look at today's world. Better here, yes, but tonight there's another tense situation in Honduras, and there are places of loss and agony all over the world. I've also just finished The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, a book that took me back 70 years to see and know some of the ordinary lives that were wasted in the Holocaust. Reading Monseñor and Daniel Mendelsohn, one sees the horrible, repetitive, banal quality of evil, of what can be unleashed when the restraints are off, when some humans have become prey, have been seen as less than human because they're Jewish or Tutsi or thought to be communists. The supposedly civilized times of my life have known too much of evil unleashed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thanks to the Lions!

Yesterday, after a great deal of tramites (official business) had been managed by members of the Lions Club of El Salvador, the donations brought in August by Kathy Garcia and Ken Henderson were finally released from the Customs Office. An official from the Department of Health brought the three boxes and the wheelchair to the Lions Club in Santa Tecla, everything was there and in great shape, and the Lions happily presented the A-Scan Ultrasound Probe to Dra. Ana de Burgos, ophthalmologist, and Dra. Soraya Benavidez who accepted it on behalf of San Rafael Hospital (the A-Scan is the machine with a screen that's between the two Doctoras).

Many thanks to the Lions Club for their hard work on this! The experience has certainly taught us that even with small amounts of donated items, in the future we'll be going through the process to obtain a franquisia well in advance of arriving at the airport!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goings and Comings

Yesterday I took Peggy O'Neill and three teachers from El Sitio Cenizero, Rosa, Selena and Eva to the airport for their flight to New Jersey. Rosa, Selena and Eva are Associates of Peggy's Sisters of Charity community, and they are joining her in NJ for the celebration of the Sisters' 150th anniversary. The level of excitement in the car was pretty high, as none of the three had ever been in an airplane before. Because of the Independence Day parades, we gave ourselves extra time, a good thing, because a parade in Apopa had us stopped for a good (or bad) half hour. But they're off, and by now they're soaking in the experience of the eastern U.S.

Later in the day, I picked up my friend Pat, standing under the Centro de Atención Turística - Suchitoto sign. Pat, who lives in Santa Fe, is going to be here for a couple of months, and I'm looking forward to exploring more of El Salvador with her.

Independence Day

Yesterday was El Salvador's Independence Day, a celebration of the break from Spain in 1821. The day is marked everywhere in the country by processions of school kids. I didn't get to see Suchitoto's Tuesday procession, but on Monday night the high school students had their own procession, and just about everyone in town turned out to see it. There were bands, there were many different kinds of dancers, there were flaming torches and flag bearers and costumed mummies and pharaohs - it was glorious, and the central square was packed with families enjoying the party.

Monday, September 14, 2009


This is the rainy season in El Salvador, or it's supposed to be, but we haven't had rain for about four days, which is a very serious matter for the crops on which most of the rural economy depends. The situation is worse in Guatemala - read Sheila McShane's blog to understand some of the devastation that this weather is creating there. And please - pray for regular rains to return to the countries of Central America.

Baby Shower

With Paula Alvarenga still in the hospital - the doctors are waiting as long as possible before giving her a Caesarian section to deliver her baby, who will come into the world with the elegant name Alejandro Emanuel - her family and friends decided to hold the shower anyway, on the very good theory that she's soon going to need those gifts. So I drove down to Soyapango, where following Alex's directions as well as I could didn't do much good - though when I finally called for help, I was at least in the right neighborhood and about 1/4 mile from the house. The house, which belongs to Paula's aunt, slowly filled, mostly with women (like traditional baby showers in the U.S., these are female events) including some very cute babies in frilly dresses and one brand new 3-day-old. We all ate tamales and drank hot cocoa and played silly games (which were even sillier with the mama not there), and Alex and Paula now have a good set of baby clothes and equipment to begin their parenting.

I'm a fairly shy person, and it was hard to make myself get to this event, where Alex would be the only person I knew beforehand. But Salvadorans are friendly and generous people, and they included me with a good will.

Please continue to pray for Paula's health and safe delivery - thank you!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pizzelles and tangos

I took Margaret Jane to the airport today, where she's heading toward a few weeks in New Jersey. When I got back to the house, I thought of a number of useful things I could do - practice Spanish verbs, write letters, iron clothes. Instead, I decided it was time to make pizzelles. In case you don't know, pizzelles are crisp cookies like very thin waffles, made on a special pizzelle iron. Thanks to Sister Grace Didomenicantonio, we have a pizzelle iron that she bought here back in 2002, and thanks to Sister Grace and Sister Angie Picardo, I have quite a collection of pizzelle recipes, but I've never tried to actually make them. Today I tried. The first pizzelle was a disaster: I had to scrape it off the pizzelle iron and then spend a lot of time washing the iron to get rid of the little bits of pizzelle. So then I went on line and read pizzelle instructions and decided I had put too much on the iron and hadn't given the pizzelle enough time. Sure enough, the pizzelles that followed came out just as they should, crisp and beautifully patterned, and I felt almost, well, Italian. Thanks, Grace and Angie!

With a stash of pizzelles tucked away, I walked over to the Teatro de las Ruinas where the program for the evening was glorious Latin dance. The heat of the evening didn't slow the dancers, who gave us everything from sensuous tangos to slow rumbas and quick cha-chas. Hard to imagine how anyone can dance like that in 90 degree heat, but they were a joy to watch. Living in a small city is something new for me, and I like so much that when there's a special event everyone goes to it. I missed things all the time as a city dweller, but here - getting to an event just involves walking a few blocks, and everyone is there. And tonight we'll all be dancing in our dreams.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Las Azulinas

Peggy, Margaret Jane and I headed to Santa Ana yesterday, where Peggy was picking up some 600 embroidered bookmarks from Las Azulinas, a small company founded and run by women that works with indigo dyeing. Indigo dye played a big role in El Salvador's history: indigo (the blue of blue jeans), known here as anil, was the big crop before coffee and sugar cane. In the 20th century chemical dyes replaced natural indigo, but -following the lead of Las Azulinas - there's been an indigo renaissance among Salvadoran artisans.

In the Las Azulinas workshop the women work with white cotton garments that have already been sewn, adding intricate knots and folds to create tie-dyed effects or they appliqué designs on dyed cloths. Their work is beautiful, well-designed and durable, a great contribution to the artisan traditions of El Salvador. It's a good example of a small business here, one run by and employing women.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


PYMES is the acronym here for Pequeñas Y Medianas Empresas - small and medium businesses. Often this gets expanded to Micro, Pequeña y Mediana - micro, small and medium businesses. Here's a good example of the micro businesses that are, in so many ways, the core enterprise in this very entrepreneurial country.

This is one of two small tienditas that serve the students in the government primary school here. Both put their tables right up against the school fence and attach their sunshade plastic roofs to the fence. This and almost all the micro-businesses that involve sales here are run by women, women who wear the characteristic market apron, with its rows of lace and zippered pocket for change.

This tiendita is probably the main income source for the family that runs it, a family that lives in a house right across the street, as I found when I walked by one afternoon when they were moving all the unsold goods back. There was a man of the family helping with that process.

I hope to learn more about how tienditas like this one purchase their stock. Perhaps someone from the family goes down to the tiendona, the huge wholesale marketplace in the old city center of San Salvador, or perhaps they purchase from a middleman (I suspect it would be a man) who sells to many micro enterprises in Suchitoto.

What do they sell? Snacks, candy, soft drinks, gum, stickers, green mango shavings in plastic bags... Prices, I'd guess, range from 5 cents to una cora, a quarter.

This little store is set up every morning on the city sidewalk, a public right-of-way, but no one would think of disputing this family's informal ownership of their spot. No one in the school would think of demanding that these women stop selling to the students (though you can easily imagine both scenarios in the U.S.)

This is how the informal economy is built in El Salvador, and it's a huge part of economic life here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Travelling with Hermana Margarita

Travelling anywhere around Suchitoto - probably anywhere around El Salvador - with Margaret Jane Kling - is glorious. Many, many people in this area remember Margaret Jane well from the Civil War years when she and Andrea Nenzel were the North American presence that kept the refugee population in the Calle Real camp safe, and they are so delighted to see her again, to give her news of their families, to ask where Sister Andrea is, to exchange un abrazo fuerte (a big hug).

Yesterday Margaret Jane and I went with Lita, one of the strong women from Calle Real who now lives near Suchitoto, to visit Fausto and his family in Tenancingo (that's Margaret Jane, Fausto and Lita in the top photo). Fausto became a refugee in Canada after his days in Calle Real, and spent 8 years in the Edmonton area; his two older daughters, now teenagers, are Canadian/Salvadoran citizens, and one of them, Andrea Elizabeth, is named after Andrea Nenzel. The two younger children, a girl and a boy, were born in El Salvador.

Fausto brought out his photo album to show us photos of Margaret Jane and Andrea 20-plus years ago, and the stories about life at Calle Real came thick and fast - the time a depressed young man tried to kill himself with rat poison (they found the antidote), the time the Army came wanting to get the names of everyone there and Andrea and Margaret Jane, who had very little Spanish at that time, had to hold them off, stories of births and deaths and living with daily fear.

Since he came back to El Salvador, Fausto has created a little paradise around his house - many fruit trees (lime, orange, marañon - that's cashew - mango, banana) with orchids and flowering plants beneath them. It's a beautiful place that witnesses his love of life and the artistic touch of his wife, Transito - who also makes the best pupusas I've ever eaten. Though both the older girls want to return to Canada - no doubt for better schooling and better opportunities - and Fausto is working to get papers for the whole family, I wonder if the many positive they'll find in life there can compensate for the loss of this beautiful home.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Suchitoto hosts El Presidente Mauricio Funes

Today was a very big day for Suchitoto, as President Mauricio Funes, his cabinet, and legislative and judicial leaders came to town to inaugurate the Civic Month - September, the month when the country's indepen- dence is celebrated. The event was supposed to start at 9 am, but because there was a demon- stration and tire-burning in San Martin (by a group of campesinos asking for packets of seeds and fertilizer) the cars were re-routed to Aguilares and didn't get here until about 10:30. Meanwhile, the band from Cojute- peque, complete with baton twirlers and dancers, entertained us and the honor guard, in their hot red and black uniforms, had the sense to stand in the shade until the honorables got closer. The women's collective of Suchitoto prepared a huge banner (it reads "Women voted for this government. President Funes, we salute you and hope that you will secure the exercise of our rights.") and many smaller signs; they presented the President and cabinet members with the results of a study of women and demands for greater representation and equality. And yes, that's Sister Peggy O'Neill and Sister Margaret Jane Kling on the right admiring the banner.

Finally the President came in - he's in the center of the bottom photo, the man wearing glasses. I went back home at that point to hear his speech on television, and I could tell that the women would be pleased. He pledged to rebuild the delapidated maternity hospital, to help women secure title to their homes and to find financing to build their businesses. He also said that the liberty of Salvadorans today is menanced not by foreign armies, but by murders, extortion and crime and by the fear and insecurity which these create. Together, he said, Salvadorans can change these conditions. A good challenge for the Civic Month and for the next few years.