Thursday, December 30, 2010

An empty place in our hearts

Today in Bellingham, Washington my Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace community said a sad goodbye to Sister Geraldine Collins, who died early in the morning of December 27th in Swedish Hospital. St. Mary-on-the-Lake is going to seem empty without her Irish presence, her friendly ways, her beautiful and distinctive voice. Geraldine loved the morning and evening prayers in our chapel, and she had an "O" at the beginning of many prayers, both lilting and fervent, that I always listened for. She loved getting her exercise, and even after she had to do her walking with the assistance of a walker she would go around and around our meditation garden every day. She has lived at St. Mary-on-the-Lake all the twenty years that I've been in the community, and I can hardly imagine the community without her. This small, gentle and godly woman took all the difficulties of aging with grace and now, with grace, she is freed to walk with God. No walker will be needed.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Then and Now

When Margaret Byrne, CSJP lived in El Despertar, San Salvador, in 1991-92 and worked with Eleanor Gilmore and Jesuit Refugee Services, she formed strong ties with Estela Garcia, Rosita Ayala and Armando Ramirez. One of the joys of the past week has been visiting with each of these old friends and seeing that they are all doing well in the present realities of El Salvador.

Yesterday we visited Armando, his wife Blanca Luz and their daughter Erica in their home in Zamoran, close to the Pacific coast. Armando got to show off his entrepreneurial spirit, as he took us on a tour of the beautiful house he and Blanca Luz designed and built, and of his recently planted orchard, already yielding coconuts, oranges, limes, bananas and plantains, with young mangoes and papayas maturing toward their fruiting time. The newest element in his granja (farm) is a sturdy, cement-floored pen for his two new sows, who will be producing piglets as soon as he's able to introduce them to a boar. These were the cleanest pigs any of us had ever seen. All around us were other healthy animals, chickens, breeding dogs and a charming cat, all testimony to the care Armando brings to his farm. This year the fruits will be extra necessary, as will be the proceeds from Armando's other job, electronics repair, because in the heavy rains and floods his corn and bean crop - the staples of life here - were completely lost.

Armando and Margaret had a very joyful reunion, and we even got to visit briefly with Armando's brother-in-law Ramon before heading back on a very long drive to Suchitoto. This was the last big trip for my visitors, who head back to winter tomorrow, and a splendid experience of Salvadoran hard work and determined intelligence.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Friends and memories

We went visiting today, heading first for Mass in the Crypt of the Cathedral, where the Monseñor Oscar Romero community gathers each Sunday by Monseñor's tomb. When we got there, we found the Cathedral closed, and learned that it had been occupied by a group demanding support for wounded ex-combatants from the civil war. The Mass was held instead in El Rosario, the dramatic modern Dominican church a block away.

There we met by arrangement with Estela Garcia and Susy Solis Garcia: Estela worked with Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Eleanor Gilmore and Margaret Byrne when both were with the Jesuit Refugee Service in El Despertar, near Estela's home on the slopes of the Volcan San Salvador. Margaret knew Susy, Estela's daughter, when she was a little girl of six, and has helped to put her through University. It was a most happy reunion - that's Susy and Estela between me and Margaret - and then we all crammed in the car (Susy in the rear hatchback) to drive to El Paraiso in Chalatenango for another reunion, with Rosita, who was a patient in El Despertar when Margaret worked there. We took a huge bucket of Pollo Campero with us and shared the feast with Rosita and her daughters Lupita and Edith. And all the way back to San Salvador we talked and talked and laughed and remembered. A wonderful day, topped off by dinner at Beto's, San Salvador's famous fish restaurant. By the time we got back to Suchitoto we were all talked out and ready for an early night. ¡Muy buenas noches!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

We had a wonderful time

In Copan, Honduras, and we got there and saw the Mayan ruins and visited the birds and got back with no serious misadventures, though it turned out that we did enter Honduras without stopping at the border office (we couldn't find it) - but were forgiven by a very kind official on the way back.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas visitors

Last night I picked up Sisters Margaret Byrne, Kristin Funari and Charlotte Davenport at the airport & drove them up to Suchitoto, so happy to have them staying with me for Christmas week. Today we went to church at noon and then made our way to La Casa de Escultor, the Argentinian grill run by Margarita and Miguel Martino. Peggy O'Neill joined us for a grand and memorable meal - steak, sausage, lots of grilled vegetables and flan, and we spent most of the rest of this nice, slow day digesting it. Somewhere in the middle of that time Kristin and Margaret woman-handled our biggest ficus up to our rooftop terrace, where we're planning to create a sitting spot. This was a job I thought I'd have to hire local muscle for - pretty impressive these sisters!

Meanwhile, the disco that backs up to our back wall is playing away, but it's for a quinceañera (15th birthday party) and the music is a lot more mellow that usual - it will probably end earlier as well. Or at least, so we hope! And I've had the pleasure of introducing Charlotte and Kristin, who've never been here before, to the town and the local geckos. Margaret ministered here in the first years of the 1990s at the Jesuit Refugee Service center at El Despertar, so she's an old hand on geckos and Salvadoran life.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Celebrating the Incarnation

Now that the feast of Santa Lucia has been duly celebrated, we are beginning the celebrations of Navidad in Suchitoto. For the last two nights, Korla and I have joined the community for Las Posadas, part drama, part pilgrimage, and part celebration. For Las Posadas, we gather at the house that was the destination on the previous evening, and all walk together with the priests, singing Christmas carols, carrying candles (which mostly blow out in the December winds) and blowing on pitos (little ceramic whistles which make quite a piercing shriek) to the next house, in another neighborhood. When we get there, the door is opened just a crack, and a long sung drama begins. On behalf of Mary and Joseph (represented by children, along with shepherds and angels), the priest asks for shelter. Those inside sing in reply, first denying entry - and this goes on, back and forth, for quite a while - but finally the "innkeepers" relent and open the door. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, all of us pour in to see the Christmas tree and the nacimiento, and our hosts bring out hot chocolate and cookies.

I'm trying to catch on to the words of the Christmas carols here - some, of course, have familiar tunes, like Silent Night and the Little Drummer Boy. I remember a few from last year, among them my favorite, La Virgen está lavando. As best I understand it, this song tells about the Virgin washing Jesus' diapers in the river and hanging them up on a rosemary shrub while the angels are singing and the rosemary blooms. And the chorus says:

Pero mira como beben los peces en el río
mira como beben por ver a Dios nacido.
Beben y beben y vuelven a beber,
los peces en el río por ver a Dios nacer.

But look how the fish in the river are drinking,
looking how they're drinking to see God newborn.
They drink and they drink and they keep on drinking,
the fish in the river, to see God being born.

Think for a minute about those diapers being washed in the river, and what are the fish drinking with such ecstasy? What a marvellous, and very Latino, image of the fullness of the incarnation. ¡Beben y beben y vuelven a beber!

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Yesterday I picked up Dina Duvon and drove to San Juan Opico where we had a number of errands, all most successfully concluded. What I didn't expect - what was just bounty - was being invited to the home of Doña Carmen Galdámez, one of our volunteers in our Opico clinics, first for coffee and cookies, and then for lunch (sopa de gallina india, country chicken soup, with chicken and salad and tortillas made from corn Doña Carmen grinds herself with a metate), and then to receive enormous sacks of oranges, big calabazas, and huge papayas. I took a photo of Dina standing next to the Galdámez family's flor de pascua, which is what a poinsettia looks like in its native country when it's all grown up.

Then we took Doña Carmen Orellana - the other Doña Carmen - back to her house, and of course received sacks of oranges from her, and some huevos de gallina india, which came with a story. Apparently you can use the whites of the eggs of country chickens to improve your vision. You brush the egg whites on eyelids and over the eyebrow. Doña Carmen O, who is an immensely sensible woman steeped in the healing traditions of the people, used this remedy and had her vision improve greatly, to the surprise of the ophthalmologist. But only country chicken eggs will do: the tame variety are of no use. She also told us about barro, red clay, which Doña Carmen G. had used to cure a huge swelling in her knee. I got some to see what it could do for my arthritic fingers. Carmen O. presented us each with some of those precious huevos, which are the most beautiful pale cream color.

The car was getting heavy now, but Don Gumersindo, who'd been with us all day, wanted us to stop at his house, beautifully set at the top of a hill and quite a good climb from the road. When he came out with a very live hen wrapped in newspaper, I got worried, but fortunately it was a gift for Dina. The hen rode back with us to Dina's house in Apopa, quiet and perhaps content, with no foreknowledge of its likely future as gallina india. And I took my share of the day's bounty - oranges, squash, papaya, eggs, and happy memories of the most generous people in the world - back to Suchitoto.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

¡Viva Santa Lucia!

Today is the big, gigantic, blow out all the stops fiesta for Santa Lucia, though her actual Saint's day is tomorrow, and tomorrow our church will be packed tighter than seems even possible with people from Suchitoto and elsewhere.

The last couple of days have been dizzying. On Saturday we honored Our Lady of Guadalupe with a procession that included a lot of little kids vestido de indio (dressed as Indians) to honor Juan Diego and the Virgin. The little guys with their mustaches and beards are especially entrancing!

Our Lady of Guadalupe is normally honored on December 12th, of course, but because that was the 3rd Sunday of Advent, her procession and Mass was moved to Saturday evening. The photo shows the procession's entrance into the church, with the portrait of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe hidden behind flowers - which is only appropriate, since she used flowers to announce herself to the unbelieving bishop.

Tonight, on the eve of Santa Lucia's day, another procession walked through the town, carrying an imagine of Saint Lucy. And then the fun began with a huge fireworks display that included toros - bull-shaped carapaces covered with fireworks that are worn by a man who dances around the parque central while the fireworks go off - a very dangerous job, I'd think, but probably pretty prestigious as well. The parque central was overflowing with Suchitotans and people from the capital, and the party is still going on with music, dancing, eating, drinking, and general fun.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fiestas patronales

For the whole of this wonderful week, Suchitoto has been given over to preparation for Santa Lucia's day, December 13th. Each of the central town's seven barrios, or neighborhoods, has a day, and ours was today. Korla and I got up when the firecrackers started at 4 AM, got dressed and walked out into a chilly (for El Salvador: the temperature may have gotten down to 65, and everyone but us was wearing caps and sweaters) and dark morning. We sat on the sidewalks drinking coffee and turning our styrofoam coffee cups into candle holders (it's an art) as everyone gathered. At about 5:15, candles were lit, and the whole neighborhood, I think at least 200 of us, joined in a long slow candlelight procession to the church, singing "Santa Lucia, mi corazon," with four women carrying a statue of Santa Lucia. The pastor, Fr. Carlos Elias Echevarria, met us at the church door, told a little of Lucia's story, and invited us in for Mass.

The rest of each neighborhood's day has some special events - for ours, there was a parade of masked characters (mostly children, who do a version of trick or treat) and a children's festival, as well as a special day for seniors, but this senior was away in the city, doing some essential shopping. And in spite of the fact that everyone in the neighborhood was pretty much up and out by 5 AM (no sense trying to sleep through the firecrackers), there was a parade with the neighborhood's float showcasing our candidate for Queen of Suchitoto at 7 PM, fireworks are going on now, and a Noche Ranchero has just started up a couple of streets over. It's a lot of fun, a combination of civic pride, neighborhood togetherness, loud music, fireworks and religion that would not happen many places in the U.S., but is part of the life of every town in El Salvador.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Horses are a familiar sight around Suchitoto, especially on the country roads, so I wasn't surprised to hear hooves clopping by the house last Saturday - but when it was dozens of hooves clopping I ran to the window and found lots of horses, and their riders, moving past my house.

I've been sure that there would have to be some version of a rodeo here, some games involving horses in this Latin country, so I followed the trail of the horses and found a competition under way on the grounds of the Casa de la Cultura. There was a rope strung up at a level just above the heads of the riders, and what looked for all the world like red plastic clothespins were hanging from the rope. The goal was to grab a clothespin (or whatever it may have been) at full gallop, and this turned out to be pretty hard to do. Each rider took a turn, spurring his horse to a gallop (I'm sorry to say the riders were all men, and my friend Doña Ana confirmed that only men ride - at least in these games), lifting his hand as he approached the rope and grabbing for the prize. Prizes -wrapped gifts - were awarded to all who came away with a clothespin.

This was great fun to watch and great fun to try to photograph - try being the necessary word, because I came back with about 56 photos of blurs, tails, noses and dustclouds. The one horse I got a half-way decent photo of wasn't moving fast, thank goodness: this beautiful white horse had clearly been well schooled, probably in dressage, and both horse and rider were a joy to watch.

The horses I've seen in El Salvador are small and neatly built, not unlike the American mustang, perhaps a close relative (though the information I've found on the web deals mostly with South American horses). Some of the racers were working horses, some were weekend horses - you could tell, pretty much, by the tack and saddles - and they were all a joy to watch.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Meeting the Ecocina

During our November eye screening clinic in San Juan Opico, we had a demon-stration of the Ecocina, a beautifully engineered concrete stove with three important virtues: it uses less than half of the wood needed by a regular wood stove, it is so efficient that it produces no smoke after the first few minutes, and the outside stays cool, so children aren't burned if they touch it.

The Ecocina is the work of Stove Team, International, an organization based in Eugene, Oregon - the location of PeaceHealth's Riverbend and University District Hospitals. Nancy Hughes, the founder, and team members have started factories in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. We were delighted to connect with Gustavo Peña, the manager of the El Salvador factory. Unable to come himself, he sent his son Gustavo, Jr. - Dr. Peña - who not only brought the stove and his fiancee, who demonstrated it, but gave a day of free dental exams and cleanings to over 30 young Opicans.

We acquired the sample stove, and it stayed in the parish hall for a while (the stoves weigh about 100 pounds, not so easy to move). The parish cook tried it out and liked it a lot - and so now a bunch of orders are going to the Ecocina plant from San Juan Opico. The sample went to the Rodriguez family on Friday - here's a photo of Dina Duvon showing them how it works. We're hoping it will contribute to good health for the children - and good meals for the family.

San Rafael Cedros

One of the best days in my busy week last week was Thursday, when I drove to San Rafael Cedros - about 45 minutes from Suchitoto - where our medical clinics will be held in February. Iris Alas, the community organizer for the CIS (Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad) in San Rafael Cedros brought together a group of volunteers from different sectors of the community, and we talked about the clinics - who to invite, which sector will come on each day, and how the local volunteers will be involved. The volunteers - mostly women - asked great questions and are looking forward to the clinic week.

San Rafael Cedros is an attractive town just off a main highway, the center for a rural community. At the moment it lacks a church, because the former church was damaged in the 2001 earthquakes, and the remaining facade was recently demolished. I met the parish priest who said he was trying to raise half a million dollars for a new church - that's an enormous sum in El Salvador. We also met with Doctora Valdez de Perdomo at the local health clinic - they are important partners for us, as we always ask for the loan of a doctor and nurse for the week, the doctor to write referrals for patients who need more specialized care and the nurse to handle the paperwork for pap smears in our gynecology clinic. She was happy to offer their help, to loan us a gynecological exam table, and to write a letter of support. We'll get another letter of support from the Alcalde, Dr. Joaquin Molina. He's a general surgeon when not serving as Mayor, very pleased that we're coming to his town. The letters of support go to the Medical Board here, with our packet of information asking for approval of the clinics, and to donors of medications in the United States.

We finished off our day by having lunch at the town's famous restaurant, Doña Virginia's: it's said to be the best fish restaurant in El Salvador, and judging from my delicious lonja empanizada that may well be true. Working in San Rafael Cedros is going to be a joy!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A long busy week

It's been a long and busy week, and I haven't touched the blog. I've put a lot of miles on the car in visits to Soyapango, Apopa, San Salvador, El Paraiso, San Juan Opico, and San Rafael Cedros. I joined Peggy O'Neill and Margaret Jane on a beautiful day of memory and renewal in Nueva Esperanza, Bajo Lempa, to honor of Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, the North American religious women who gave their lives as martyrs of peace thirty years ago. It's too much to put into one blog post, so I hope to publish several short posts today. Here, to begin with, and from the beginning of the week, is Alejandro, my 14-month old godson, up and walking, with his new short boy haircut. Pretty cute, eh? Hard to believe, but his mother has somehow trained him not to head for the china ornaments you see behind him. Ani Paula and her Salvadoran compañer@s could give parenting lessons to a lot of anxious gringas!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gente de la caña

Cane in flower is a beautiful sight, and at this time of year the graceful cane stalks topped by their white banners are everywhere in the lowlands of El Salvador. Cane and coffee are the two main cash crops in El Salvador, both harvested at the beginning of the dry season, from November through January.

Workers burn the cane fields before harvesting to burn away the dry leaves, leaving the stalk easy to harvest and the roots ready to push up next year's crop. The harvesting is said to be the hardest work in this country filled with hard-working people. A planted field will produce cane for 4-6 years, and then must be replanted.

Burned cane leaves drift into everyone's house throughout the season, leaving little piles of soot in courtyards. Getting stuck behind a huge and very slow truck carrying cane stalks to the refinery where they are processed into table sugar (and molasses and rum) is another predictable misery of these months. Still, the cane is almost emblematic of El Salvador - a current advertising campaign - perhaps produced by the government (though I'm not sure about that) talks about Salvadorans as the gente de la caña, the people of the cane.

Between coffee and cane, and with the added help of yearly bonuses that most employers pay out in December, this is the rich time for Salvadorans, the time of fiestas and firecrackers, dances and gifts and parties.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Felicidades, Moises

Friday, November 26th was a big day for graduations here with several Institutos holding graduations. An Instituto is the equivalent of a high school in the United States, and graduates receive a bachilerato, a coveted degree that is required for entering the police or the army and for most civil service jobs. A bachilerato is also necessary for those wanting to go to the university, of course.

I went to the Instituto Los Almendros, about 20 minutes west of Suchitoto on the road to Aguilares, to see Moises graduate. About 8 years ago, PazSalud's medical clinic was held at the La Mora clinic, and Moises, then about 11, was examined and found to have serious heart valve deficiencies. The doctor who examined him sent replacement heart valves to the Bloom Children's Hospital in San Salvador, where Moises got life-saving surgery. Since then Moises' PeaceHealth doctor has provided the medication he needs to take every day, something that his family would not be able to afford.

So PeaceHealth has a stake in this young man's graduation, and he looked great and was very happy (though you might not be able to tell that from the photo - all Salvadorans tend to adopt a poker face when a camera is pointed at them, and I forgot to go through my "say queso" routine). In the top photo, Moises' mother Reina - who is, I'm sure, the real reason this young man is living and graduating - stands with her son and the fellow student he escorted. In the bottom photo, Moises stands with his family at home - with the blue and white balloons (the national colors) and a huge congratulations sign. Felicidades, Moises, que su futuro sea luminoso - Congratuations, Moises, may your future be bright!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Giving Thanks

Yesterday Margaret Jane and I invited Peggy O'Neill, Frank Cummings (a Quaker who runs a scholarship program here) and five of the six volunteers from the U.S. working at the Centro Arte para la Paz this year (the sixth, Christy, is visiting home) to our house for a Thanksgiving feast. A grand feast to which everyone contributed, it included a brined and roasted turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, beans, corn on the cob, rolls, wine and cranberry sauce; and then there were desserts - arroz con leche, pumpkin pie, and lemon ice. We ate and ate and ate and talked and prayed and enjoyed our special feast day on a day when nothing in particular was happening in Suchitoto.

Here's the turkey before the feast began and the group at the feast's end. And I have to tell you that it seems very strange to be cooking turkey and hosting a Thanksgiving dinner on a bright, sunny day with the temperature somewhere between 85 and 90. In Seattle, my family and friends are recovering from a snow storm, and I gather that it's cold elsewhere in my home country.

But it's always good to pause and give thanks, with or without a feast, and this year I continue to be grateful for being here in Suchitoto, in El Salvador, in Central America where I'm learning so much and growing too (not just from the feast, though that helped!).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Don Francisco at 101 years

He was one of our most impressive patients during our week of medical clinics in San Juan Opico. Don Francisco told us he was 100 years old, but he had the vitality and energy of a much younger man. He carried a heavy bag on his back with his working tools, almost balanced by the big crucifix on his chest, and he was beautiful to look at. Jane Kortz, our photojournalist, took a lot of photos, and this one is on the cover of our 2011 PazSalud calendar.

Last Sunday, I opened our copy of La Prensa Grafica's Sunday supplement, and there was Francisco Ayala on the cover, now 101 years healthy, and still working hard. He told La Prensa, "I've been a builder, carpenter, policeman, foreman, gardener, farmer, baker. I've dug wells, cut cane, I've done a thousand things." Now, because even a man as strong as this has to slow down a bit after 100 years, he can't do hard physical work, but he still has to earn a living - he's a poor man, who even had to sell the coffin he had purchased toward his burial - so he has become a curandero, a healer with local natural medicinal plants. One photo in the article shows him shouldering a heavy load of wood, in another he's selling his natural medicines at the big market in downtown San Salvador. He gets up at 4:30 AM every morning.

I hope our vitamins and tylenol were good for Don Francisco, but I think he's an even better advertisement for those natural medicines he's been using.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harvest and Celebrations

There's been a lot going on in Suchitoto today. This morning Monseñor Rafael Urrutia came to town as the Archbishop's representative to confirm 270 young people from the town and the countryside. Since each of them had at least one sponsor and most had family looking on, the church was packed - but I had a great seat up front at the side of the altar, since Padre Carlos asked me to be a communion minister. I had an eye out for Crisseyda, Martha's niece and my one-time computer student, and she was shining as she received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Later, I joined the family for a lunch celebration.

This afternoon it was the turn of the schools, with 9th grade graduations followed by a special dinner for 400. And in the evening a big dance was advertised outside the Alcaldia (Mayor's Office). Our neighbor with the disco has been going strong all evening, and I've been enjoying the alternative of listening to Carmina Burana on headphones - there may be a quiet place in Suchitoto tonight, but I don't know where it would be.

Meanwhile it's the harvest season here - not for corn or beans, those are harvested in July and August, but for the big cash crops, coffee and sugar cane. Lots of campesinos get most of their cash income for the year - not much - by working the coffee and cane harvests. Here's a photo of a coffee shrub with ripe berries waiting for harvest. Around here, there's more cane than coffee, because coffee is grown at higher altitudes - I'll try to get a photo of the cane fields, which are absolutely beautiful at this time of year, with the tall white blossoms swaying at the head of the stalks.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Our PeaceHealth group visited Parque Cuscatlan in San Salvador last week to see the memorial wall which gives the names of more than 36,000 Salvadoran civilians - men, women and children, priests and sisters, trade unionists and sidewalk vendors - who were killed or disappeared in the Civil War (1977-1992). It's a sad and beautiful memorial, a fitting end to the group's week of experience and discovery in El Salvador.

We got distracted as we walked along by an amazingly colorful bug that was working hard to climb the wall by the names from 1989. I've never seen a creature like this, and when I showed the image to a Salvadoran friend he said that he hadn't, either. I can't quite imagine the evolutionary purposes of his flamboyant markings - I'll just have to say, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Glory be to God for dappled things."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Here are a few photos from the two very good days of our eye clinic in San Juan Opico on November 8th and 9th. We did vision screening and provided glasses, plus vitamins, tylenol, toothbrushes and hand lotion to 250 Opicans, who were pretty happy with the results as these photos show (top left, Dr. Denis Holmes and Andrea Garcia with a patient; top right, Terry Williams looks for just the right glasses for a small girl; bottom, Angie Wolle gets a thank-you handshake). Our two M.D.s, Dr. Jim Boschler and Dr. Steve Cabrales gave talks and answered questions - as well as running our small pharmacy. Dr. Gustavo Peña told Opico children and their moms about the importance of toothbrushing and a healthy diet - and then he cleaned the teeth of about 30 children. And we had demonstrations of the Sawyer water filter and the Ecocina, a wood stove that uses less wood and produces almost no smoke.

We are, as always, grateful to the Bellingham Lions - we had seven on this trip, headed by Ken and Janet Henderson - and the Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center which provides all the prescription glasses for our eye clinics. The Lions also brought walkers, canes for mobility for the blind, used hearing aids for recycling, and low vision magnifiers. Today they've visited the School for the Blind and School for the Deaf in San Salvador, and touched base with the San Salvador Lions Club.

Our PeaceHealth Mission Immersion Group came back to Suchitoto with me and are staying at the Centro Arte para la Paz, where they're learning more about El Salvador's past and present realities and making connections between those realities and their mission as PeaceHealth leaders. It may be a matter of seeing the world through different lenses.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mission in progress

There's been no time to blog, but a quick note before we head off for our last day of eye clinics at San Juan Opico. This photo shows our mission team (half Bellingham Lions and half PeaceHealth) with our local volunteers after a glorious lunch on Sunday at the home of Carmen and Teyo Aviles - this was before we all got to work, which we've been doing with a lot of joy and energy. More to come later!

Saturday, November 6, 2010


I'm doing my usual countdown to the arrival of a mission team: yesterday's meeting with the local volunteers; customs documents in hand; boxes of equipment and supplies assembled; snacks and water ready for the truck; shirts and pants ironed and packed. In half an hour Hernan will arrive with the truck, and we'll be on our way to the airport to meet our team.

In this case, it's two different groups coming together - 7 people from the Bellingham Lions Club, led by Ken and Janet Henderson and 7 people from a PeaceHealth organizational development group, led by Angie Wolle. Kathy Garcia's on the team to organize us and her daughter Andrea will be translating. Tomorrow we all head to San Juan Opico for Mass (for those who want to attend) and to Carmen Aviles' campo home for what is sure to be an amazingly delicious meal, and then we set up the eye clinics. Monday and Tuesday our optometrists will be giving eye exams to people we had to skip last February, and we'll be fitting them with glasses. Meanwhile, there'll be demonstrations of the Sawyer water filter and the ecocina smokeless cookstove, presentations from our PeaceHealth doctors, a tour of the local health clinic, dentist checks for kids, and donations of vitamins, toothbrushes, toothpaste, lotion and body wash. We come bearing gifts!

After Tuesday our group heads in two different directions - the Lions for meetings in San Salvador followed by a trip to Copan, Honduras, and the PeaceHealth group to Suchitoto, where we'll meet with Sister Peggy. I hope to be able to blog as the week unfolds, but that will depend on the timing of everything. It's going to be an amazing week!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dia de los Muertos

On Tuesday, November 2nd, everyone in Suchitoto, and probably everyone in El Salvador, headed to the cemetery to celebrate All Soul's Day, or the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It's a simpler fiesta here than in Mexico (from what I understand), and it's very beautiful. On this day, everyone cleans and paints and decorates the family tomb or tombs (in our local cemetery in Suchitoto there are a variety of gravesites, ranging from the grand and elaborate to the simple mound of earth that one woman was lovingly weeding). Flowers, both artificial and real, are placed on the tombs, families gather to share memories, and mass is celebrated. It's a joyful and sorrowful occasion, all wrapped up in one.

Tonight it was time for another very special fiesta, the Dia del Motorista. Sirens and blowing horns alerted us to something out of the ordinary, and we opened the door to wave to this procession of buses, decorated with balloons and happy passengers. Bus drivers and conductors are the most essential and most endangered occupation in this country; almost everyone relies on the buses for transportation, and they are all too often targets for gangs and extortionists. It was a joy to join in celebrating these ordinary heroes.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

Halloween isn't quite the event here that it is in the U.S. - no trick and treaters here, and people aren't going around in costume. But the sports bar behind our house, which has turned into a disco, is certainly having a noisy party tonight as is the other disco in town. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are much more important here - All Souls is a national holiday, the day when everyone goes to clean and decorate the family graves.

I marked Halloween most appropriately, by watching a local futbol (soccer) team, named - why I don't know - New Place San José - get ready for a game in their gorgeous orange jerseys, recycled from the Everett Evergreen by Ellen Hawks. Ellen is a dental hygienist who cleans my teeth twice a year, and she's also President of a soccer league. So when their coach Alcides (back row, left) asked me if I knew anyone who might help his team get jerseys, I knew just where to go. The sixteen jerseys Ellen donated from the league have now become official good luck charms: before they began wearing them, New Place had lost 5 games. They've had two games in their orange jerseys and won them both. And don't they look great?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A new home

A few weeks ago, I told about finding a sewing machine for Sonia, a mother with four young children, a couple of whom have major health problems. At that time she was squatting with her family in a shack made out of lamina, thin metal sheets propped together, on the edge of a district badly contaminated by lead from a former battery company, and was making her living selling used clothes.

A couple of days ago, I went to visit Sonia and her family in a new home. While I was in the United States, Dina Duvon - the great community organizer who made our San Juan Opico mission possible - had found a house that Sonia could rent for a very small monthly amount. It's a small, sturdy brick house with two rooms, and a big yard with space to grow vegetables and flowers. The family now lives away from the lead contamination zone. They have good neighbors, including Reyna, one of the health promoters who worked with us last year.

Sonia was happy to show me the clothes she's been sewing on her beautiful sewing machine - pants and skirts for children that looked pretty professional to me. I was happy to see them in a healthier and more hopeful situation, and deeply grateful to Dina and Reyna who made it all possible.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A visit to Panchimalco

Three years ago, when our PazSalud medical mission was held in Panchimalco, Walther, one of the main volunteers from Panchimalco, captured the hearts of many on our team. A group of them decided to help him realize what seemed like an impossible dream for a young man from an indigenous family - to become an engineer.

Two and a half years later, Walther is studying hard and doing well at a University in San Salvador with regular support from his friends in the United States. On Sunday, I drove to Panchimalco to bring him a recycled laptop, replacing one that was stolen. The computer, an old PeaceHealth laptop that was ready to be discarded, was refitted with an Ubuntu operating system and open-source software, thanks to Jeff Bruer in PeaceHealth's System Office.

I met Walther and his girlfriend Sarai in the center of Panchimalco, and we drove a few more kilometers to his home in canton La Cruz - a good workout for the X-Trail, which did very well on the dirt roads and in 4-wheel drive. I meet with Walther often, to get him his beca (scholarship) funds, but I'd never visited his home before. It was a joy to meet his family and get them all to pose for a photo. Visiting helped me to realize the distances, physical and psychic, that Walther has to travel on his quest to become a Licenciado in engineering. It takes a lot of strength and character to manage a leap like this without losing touch with your family and your family's values - and Walther has what it takes.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The work of our hands

Korla and I were talking the other day about work we've done and work we've loved. She said that when she was writing her college thesis and working she spent whole long and tiring days in front of a computer screen, but what she really loved was making theater sets, making something you could touch and see at the end of the day's work. It's the same for me: I do a lot of my work in front of the computer, but I feel more engaged, more complete, more myself when I'm cooking or gardening.

That conversation tugged at me, and I remembered the visible joy our PazSalud doctors have in doing hands-on medicine - touching, looking, listening, asking questions - old-fashioned physical medicine without the computers and machines and tests available that are so much a part of their life as doctors in the United States (that's Dr. Anne Welch in the photo from our 2010 medical mission). Those machines and tests are amazing tools, and so is my computer, but there's a hunger we begin to feel when we've spent too much time in front of the screen and away from real bodies, real substances, real work. That's the kind of medicine Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the astonishing novel Cutting for Stone and chair for the theory and practice of medicine at Stanford teaches: the old-fashioned and necessary arts of the physical exam and hands-on medicine.

Handwork - building theater sets, making quilts, practicing yoga, gardening, making music, drawing, tending patients - seems to me essential to our sense of well-being, of being human. The work of our hands is real work - messy, essential and holy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A new(er) car for PazSalud

After a couple of costly repairs to the 1996 Toyota 4Runner last year, Kathy Garcia and I asked PeaceHealth about the possibility of purchasing a somewhat less used car for the project, and were given the go-ahead. Today I finished the purchase of a 2006 Nissan X-Trail (seems to be a car sold in Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, the Phillipines, the UK, and briefly in Canada, but not in the U.S.). It's a crossover SUV that promises to get better gas mileage than the 4Runner, while still being tough enough to manage campo roads and it's a pleasure to drive. It will be good to lighten my carbon footprint a bit! But I felt a little sad as I parked it next to the 4Runner at the Centro Arte para la Paz, remembering the unfailing reliability and toughness of that old workhorse vehicle. Happily the 4Runner is going to be purchased by Berty Rivas and Yanira Cano, the couple who work with Peggy O'Neill to keep the Centro Arte running, so I will still have visitation rights.

Special thanks to Kathy's husband, Victor Garcia, for his help in finding just the right PazSalud vehicle!

I can't resist adding the last paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the 1st generation X-Trail: "In 2006, Nissan launched a Nissan X-Trail Bonavista Edition commercial featuring a Nissan dealer speaking in an incomprehensible Newfoundland accent. The commercial itself backfired when Bonavista Mayor Betty Fitzgerald claimed it had portrayed people in Bonavista as people who cannot speak properly. To further expose the commercial's lack of linguistic authenticity, CBC News reported the sales rep was played by an actor from Cape Breton." I don't think our new car is a Bonavista, thanks be!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

La Memoria Vive

Yesterday I had my first chance to see the new museum that is part of the Centro Arte para la Paz, and I'm delighted and amazed at all that is there, all that has been accom-plished. I haven't had time to do more than a quick look yet (this is one of the 150% of time periods when I'm getting ready for our November eye screening mission), but I can hardly wait to watch the videos and read all the posters and look at all the artifacts.

This museum is called "La Memoria Vive," or Living Memory, and it's a museum of Suchitoto history, with special emphasis on the living history that Suchitoto youth captured in their video interviews with elders, warriors, artisans, campesinos. Interactive video screens are scattered throughout the museum, offering interviews on different topics. And it's all very beautifully and imaginatively put together.

The museum opened September 26th, and already has logged 900 visitors, an impressive number in this small town. Best of all, it's attracting and educating the young people of Suchitoto, helping them to understand their own history. Congratulations to Peggy O'Neill and the talented staff of the Centro Arte who've made yet another dream become reality.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Remembering Catherine

I'm safely back in Suchitoto, but was saddened to learn today that our dear Sister Catherine McInnes died very early this morning. Catherine was one of the grand sisters of our community. Born in Canada, she trained as a nurse before entering the community and for many years was the administrator of PeaceHealth's St. Joseph Medical Center, Bellingham, the first hospital built by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in the northwest (the hospital's Sister Catherine Chapel was named in her honor). After "retiring" from hospital ministry, she was treasurer for the Western Province of the Sisters for eight years. Then she "retired" again, and promptly went to work at St. John Medical Center, where she was a patient advocate until a return of her esophageal cancer a few months ago. Here she is at our 2008 Congregational Chapter.

That tells you a little bit about Catherine, but doesn't begin to capture her. When I learned this summer that Catherine was to undergo a pharyngectomy and larnygectomy, which would mean loss of her natural speaking voice, I spent a long time in prayer, just remembering her voice, her totally distinctive voice and laugh that I knew I would never hear again. She was the best storyteller, always full of fun with a wit that was both dry and droll. She was always a complete lady, never a hair out of place, a great nurse, an excellent and caring administrator - and that laugh lit up every room she was ever in.

Catherine's last months have been voiceless as she endured many surgical procedures until just a couple of weeks ago, when she decided to put herself in hospice care. I was blessed to be able to visit her briefly during my time at home, though I doubt that she was really aware of me. Now we all will be saying goodbye to a dearly loved sister, knowing with relief that her long struggle is at an end, but sorrowed by all she had to endure, and missing her voice, her laugh, her stories.

Friday, October 15, 2010


When I flew north, almost a month ago, I had to take my big, expandable bag as well as my traveling backpack with wheels to fit in all the things I was bringing north - gifts for friends, artesania for our PeaceHealth tables, an ancient laptop that proved to be DOA as well as my very lively MacBook, a few clothes that fit the climate of Seattle better than that of Suchitoto. I thought that maybe on return I could put the backpack inside the big suitcase, check that in, and travel lightly with just the MacBook and a purse.

Unlikely. I've just finished prepacking, and I'm using every inch of both suitcases. The Spanish and bilingual kids' books are in the backpack, along with a few books that attached themselves to me. The water filters, ginger marmalade, assorted medications and vitamins, 80 or so cards with Salvadoran photos, a couple pairs of shoes, the crossword puzzles my sister has carefully saved for Margaret Jane and me, 37 tea bags and assorted clothes are nested in the big suitcase. Everything in both bags is wrapped and surrounded in soccer jerseys - the 16 bright orange soccer jerseys given by my dental hygienist, Ellen Hawks (bless her) for Alcides' equipo de futbol in Suchitoto. I'll check in both bags and carry on my purse and two laptops - one, an ancient-of-days reconstructed by PeaceHealth's peerless Jeff Bruer with Ubuntu software, is for Walther, whose laptop was stolen in a raid on the bus he was riding in. But there's no way to think of myself as traveling light, and I don't suppose there ever will be. I'll just have to content myself with traveling happy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A medley of friends

Today's odd and delightful mixture of meetings and meals reminds me why it's so essential to come back home. I had breakfast with the Sisters (my favorite cereal that Sr. Rose Anna gets for me when I'm back accompanied by a dish of glorious rhubarb sauce that Sr. Joan set out for me), then met with Sue Nies, co-director for our CSJP Associates on the west coast, to talk about ideas for the new Associate program - we opened the Constitutions and Bible and our new magazine, Living Peace, and had a grand time finding resources and making connections.

Then I dashed over to Seattle to have coffee with Lisa Dennison, a good friend from St. Patrick Parish. We talked joyfully over lattes about Ignatian spirituality, the enneagram, our families and a million other subjects. And I dashed back to Bellevue for the monthly lunch of women from the Queen Anne High School (Seattle) class of 1959 - great hugs from some dear lifelong friends and the puzzle of trying to remember what I ought to know about some classmates I haven't seen since we graduated.

Then I drove peacefully back to St. Mary-on-the-Lake where Sister Sukyi Hur treated me to a wonderful hour of acupuncture, massage, and reflexology, designed to strengthen my lungs and soothe an aching shoulder. Renewed, I stopped at PeaceHealth's System Office, in Bellevue, to pick up a reconstructed computer and connect with some fellow staffers. And then I took my nephew Dan Roben out to dinner at The King and I, a long-time Bellevue favorite Thai restaurant.

How could a day hold more than this? Time with friends, Sisters and Associates, family, my PeaceHealth community, food and coffee and conversation, and even acupuncture - what riches! Best of all, I didn't have to stop for a minute to wonder how to say something - I just opened my mouth and English naturally flowed out.

Don't get me wrong - I'm looking forward to going back to my other home in Suchitoto on Saturday, revisiting my Salvadoran friends, basking in the tropical sunshine and continuing the struggle to say it right in Spanish. But I'll go back strengthened and filled by the joys of friendship, community and connection.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Up and Down I-5

This week and next, Kathy Garcia and I are selling artesania from El Salvador at our PeaceHealth regions - yesterday at St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham, today at St. John Hospital in Longview, tomorrow at the System Office in Bellevue, next week at the Riverbend and University District campuses of Sacred Heart Hospital, Eugene. It's been great to see many friends from mission teams, meet some folk who are eager to travel to El Salvador, and sell a few Christmas ornaments. We've been delighted as well to have many contributions to the fund for water filters and to our Support-a-Tub program that pays the cost of shipping our tubs of medications to El Salvador.

It's been fun, too, to travel up and down the I-5 corridor - especially with Kathy in the car, so we could sail along in the HOV lane. But after El Salvador travel, it's almost too peaceful - I've had to drink vast quantities of coffee to stay awake, which has never been a problem in El Salvador, where the many interruptions and potential catastrophes breed hyper-alertness. Not complaining, you understand!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


On Monday, I'm happy to say, my doctor, Anita Shaffer, listened to my lungs and pronounced them clear. It's a joy to be up and about again, doing some of the things I treasure during my trips home. One of them is cooking kale - with garlic and pinenuts and olive oil, braised rapidly, it's a glorious dish, all the better because kale never, ever shows up in Salvadoran markets. I cooked that tonight along with a bean soup that I learned to make in El Salvador - roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic and jalapeños pureed with red beans, ancho chiles and stock, served with avocado, sour cream (or crema in El Salvador), and chives. This was for my sister friends in Prospect House, a community on Capitol Hill that I used to live in, and they loved it. I even found coconut ice cream for dessert, which has always been the PazSalud specialty.

I haven't found a source of chives in El Salvador, so I'm bringing some seeds back, along with seeds for a cherry tomato suited to the tropics, basil, amaranth and endive. It'll be fun to see how it all does, growing in pots up on our sun deck/clothes drying deck. Got to be a sign of good health, creating and rejoicing in favorite flavors. I'm thankful to be enjoying it all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Feliz cumpleaño, Alejandrito

Alejandro Emanuel Alvarenga is one year old today! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Alejandrito, and congratulations to Alex and Ani Paula for being such wonderful parents to this happy, healthy little guy. As any readers of this blog know, Alejandrito is also my godson, and I'm sorry not to be able to celebrate this day with him - though we had our fun a week ago.

The cost of being safe

Every time I come back to the U.S. I have a few days of being stunned by the differences - the empty streets with no food stands, impromptu markets, funerals or parades ! the smooth traffic moving along the loops and lanes of elegant highway with no cars ever parked on the side! the shops with no gun-toting guard posted outside! This time I started thinking about the cost of all those miles of carefully maintained roadways and highways, all the required parking lots in front of stores, all the elaborate security kept carefully out of sight to make you feel safer.

You see, in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, the kind of space and speed and convenience we take for granted in the U.S. is simply too expensive. For example, you consistently enter and exit U.S. highways via exit lanes that end in overpasses, underpasses, clover leaves, each one enormously expensive to build and maintain. They're very safe, because they allow drivers to change direction and exit rapidly (except at rush hours) without colliding with competing traffic. In El Salvador, on most highways you change direction by using a paved U-turn space in the center. You enter the highway by turning right and merging with the traffic flowing in that direction. If you want to go the other direction you wait for 500 meters or so for the next official turning space; you slow down to turn into this, wait for a clear space in traffic going the other direction, turn in that direction and speed up again. As you can imagine, this system means a frequent slowing down and turning from what should be the fast lane, so it's both dangerous and congestive. But it is light-years less expensive to construct than a system of underpasses, overpasses, and one-way exits.

Think about what those choices mean. The U.S. choice is to make speed, flow, and safety hugely important at a huge cost which most U.S. drivers never think about. The Central American choice is to spend a great deal less money for roads that are slower and not as safe, but pretty adequate to move a lot of vehicles and people from one point to another. Which is the saner choice?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


A long blogging delay... I flew back to the Northwest on Saturday, about to enjoy a month-long combination of vacation, CSJP community time and work in cool rainy weather. Instead the cold that showed up last Thursday and was going strong when I got on the plane ripened into pneumonia, so that on Sunday I clocked a temperature of 102.5 - and felt like I was still in the climate of El Salvador. It's much better now, thanks to medication and rest - the temp is gone and I'm no longer coughing, but I have just about enough energy to get from the bed to the chair and back again.

The worst of this is missing the lovely three-day trip to Portland and the Olympic coast my sister and I had planned. The best of it is being at beautiful St. Mary-on-the-Lake where I look out my window onto beautiful old western red cedars and can take a walk around our meditation garden or down to the lake when the sun is out. It's also grand to see my CSJP sisters and have tasty meals cooked for me. But I'll surely be glad to be through this siege and back to normal!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Independence Day

Today is El Salvador's Indepen- dence Day, and it's cause for a fiesta, naturally, and celebration. Last night belonged to the high school kids, from the Instituto Suchito- tense, or INSU, who have their special celebration with a torchlight parade, a long, slow torchlight parade, from the high school at the edge of town to the parque central. The costumes are something to marvel at, the girls coming in groups dressed alike, some in long gowns, some in short cacheporrista (baton twirler) costumes, some in regional dress. The boys this year mostly dressed as Indians, which mostly meant not wearing much clothing and carrying not-very-efficient-looking bows and arrows. Another, smaller group, had decided on medieval armor, a much hotter choice. My personal favorite was the 10-person long Chinese dragon that appeared amidst the elegant senoritas and the nearly naked Indians. It was good to see the beautiful banner that spoke of the need to live in peace, a need everyone here experiences. And then there was a very loud dance that went on until 2 AM.

Today it was the turn of all the schools, more parades, more bands, more costumes, and happily the rain held off until all the speeches had been made and all the children photographed. Our friends Nena and Rossy came for lunch, and we all enjoyed chicken and pasta and great conversation. Happy Independence Day, El Salvador!