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!

Feliz cumpleaño

Yesterday we had a little first birthday party for my godson, Alejandro Alvarenga, a week before his actual birthday, since I'll be in the U.S. then (flying up this Saturday, Sept. 18th and returning Oct. 16th). Alejandrito is now launching himself on brief, breathless totters between one adult and the next, and by the time I'm back he'll be running full out. He enjoyed his present, a turtle pull-toy that plays music when you push buttons (Ani is going to be awfully tired of those tunes in two weeks), but what he really enjoyed most was the wrapping paper, which was fun to eat, and the plastic cups I let him bang around. Why do we even bother buying presents for babies? I'd have to admit that we do it for ourselves. He did get properly involved in his cake, as you can see, and enjoyed playing with Margaret Jane and Korla and me and his folks, and we all had a grand time. You can't quite see it, but the cake is appropriately decorated, in blue, with Feliz Cumpleaño (thank you, Pan Lilian) for that precious one-and-only first year.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A field of dreams

A few months ago - sometime back in the early months of 2010 - Sister Peggy had an inspiration. There was the Centro Arte para la Paz with a big empty field, and there were the kids of Suchitoto with few places to play and use up kid energy in healthy ways. As anyone who knows Peggy can attest, she knows how to turn dreams into realities. Yesterday a small army of Suchitoto kids inaugurated the new skateboard park - a wonderful skateboard park with all the necessary jumps and rolls, painted by this summer's volunteers, waiting for fun.

Camilo showed the kids a skateboard routine including jumps and a handstand, and then it was their turn. Each hopeful skater had to pay attention to a careful list of rules, and each one got to try out the outfit - helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards - and one of the new skateboards or scooters, and they were off to the races, a bit unsteady but learning fast. This morning, Peggy says, there were 42 kids waiting for their turn. This field of dreams has become a field full of joyful energy. Keep dreaming, Peggy!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Across the generations

Over a hundred years ago my grandmother was widowed in rural California with three young children, a tiny pension from my grandfather's service in the Civil War (we have long generations in my family), and the skill as a seamstress she'd learned in England. Working as a seamstress and taking in laundry when she had to, she managed not only to make a life for her little family, but to send each of her three children through college and on to graduate school. She's one of my heroes, Catherine Gibson Hahn, Cassie.

I thought of Cassie many times yesterday, as Dina Duvon and I had the joy of helping Sonia, a single mother of four, get a really serious sewing machine. Sonia has been surviving by selling used clothes, and sometimes has used her old treadle sewing machine - which Cassie could have used - to make clothes. With the help of a couple of wonderful donors, I have been able to bring groceries to the family for a few months, and when I asked Sonia what could help her to make the family more stable, she said she would be able to make much more money if she had a really good sewing machine.

So yesterday we went down to El Centro, the downtown core of El Salvador, and while the gringa stayed in the car (I had a feeling that my presence would raise the price instantly) Dina and Sonia found an amazing machine which we crammed into the 4Runner and installed in Sonia's tiny hut of lamina (sheet metal) with the help of the store's mechanic - here he is in the photo, putting in the finishing touches.

This is no fairy tale: we are still hoping to find better housing for this family, which lives on the edge of a zone of lead contamination and in a battered and unhealthy setting. One of Sonia's daughters has a serious autoimmune disorder, and the others have parasites from the bad water (they'll get a water filter when we bring more down in November). There's no telling whether the sewing machine really will help Sonia to lift her family out of direst poverty. And Sonia is only one among the many, many single parents, mothers mostly, who struggle endlessly to keep tortillas on the table, who love their children and hope for a better future for them. But remembering Cassie, I choose to believe in Sonia and in the strength of women.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


When I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the 1970s, the burning of Zozobra was one of the biggest events of the year, and it continues to be a great tradition. Zozobra, a giant figure symbolizing worry, anxiety and general grumpiness, is burned at the culmination of the Santa Fe fiesta - here's a photo of the creature.

But the zozobra we've experienced this week in El Salvador is far from fun or funny. It began on Tuesday, after gang members had put out the word that any buses operating would be shot up. The speculation is that the gang members were reacting to a recently passed law outlawing gangs, and also to the police seizure of buried barrels of money worth $10 million plus (a great story that, which everyone here has enjoyed: narcobarrels!) The threats and menaces were compelling, and on Tuesday, when I was in the capital, no buses were running and the downtown markets were deserted.

It's shocking to see how completely this series of threats was able to terrify and paralyze the country. The government response has been good - police and military were out in numbers, and official trucks were turned into transportation for the many people trying to make their way to work or home. But even today, Thursday, the bus transportation system - on which probably 80% of the population depends - was not back to normal. Buses are, in many ways, the most vulnerable link: they travel fixed routes, so they're easy to hold up, and they are so frequent here that it would be almost impossible to guard them all. A friend of ours was robbed on the bus just last week, along with all the other passengers. Drivers and conductors are terribly vulnerable, and are subject to extorsion payments, as are the owners of the bus routes. Hearing about the murder of a driver or conductor is a commonplace in the news.

The panico y zozobra, panic and anxiety, show how completely seriously everyone here takes the menace posed by the gangs. Our priest, Father Carlos Elias, talked on Wednesday about the fear that everyone says is perhaps worse than it was during the Civil War. He talked about El Salvador, a country uniquely named for Jesus, as a small country with a powerful history of light and darkness, not unlike Jesus' country two thousand years ago. He talked about our need to rely on God in this time.

Here, we can't burn zozobra. The darkness is too real and the threat is too great.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sad days in San Juan Opico

San Juan Opico, site of our February medical mission this year, has been in the news this week for environmental and human catastrophes. I had learned before our mission that because of lead contamination to the environment, the Ministry of Health shut down the Record Battery Company in 2007. Just this past week, the Ministry of the Environment announced an environmental emergency in a radius of 1,500 meters from the former plant. Mobile water tanks have been installed for clean water in the area; corn and beans in the area have been tested, and show high levels of lead; wells and some houses have been closed. In one sad case, the foundation of a house, now closed, had been filled with soil carried from the factory.

What's not clear from the reports I've read is why it took three years to declare this environmental disaster, or what has happened to the people living in the area in the meantime. It's all too likely that they've been drinking the water, eating the corn, walking over the contaminated fields.

Another completely unrelated tragedy hit the Opico community this week, when three students - two girls and a boy - were killed when a tree fell on the schoolbus they were riding in. The other 13 students, the teacher and the driver were all wounded. A natural disaster from the unending rains of this long, wet rainy season. The natural disaster - but ultimately caused, perhaps, by the human contributions to climate change - and the unnatural disaster of lead contamination caused by negligence and greed. In both cases, the innocent suffer.

I wonder if any of those three students were among our patients in February's clinics. I wonder if any of the ill children our pediatricians saw were suffering the effects of lead poisoning.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Flo among the grasses

Last night, during halftime in the El Salvador - Honduras futbol (soccer) game, I went back to my room and startled a visitor who flew about while I shrieked. First I thought it was a bat, but she settled down, and I could see that I was entertaining the largest grasshopper I had ever seen. She (ah yes, an assumption, that) was about 6 inches long, brown, peaceable, and apparently very contented in my room. She settled on the edge of my night-table and Korla and I took photos. Then we suggested a move to her, and she flew around the room again while we both shrieked. Finally I enticed her into climbing on to a newspaper, which I put on the other side of the patio. And I closed the door.

After El Salvador's loss on overtime penalty kicks (the game itself was a lively 2-2 tie), I found our visitor lurking in the patio outside the bathroom door. "Goodnight," I said, "and go home." But when I woke up this morning to a shriek from Margaret Jane, it was clear that Flo, as we'd named her for her Flojo leaping legs, was still around. She'd tried an assault on Margaret Jane's room that led to upset coffee and Flo sitting peacefully at the foot of our stairs.

After such long acquaintance, we wanted to find her a safe home, far from our house. Korla trapped her in a box and took her to the Centro Arte para la Paz, where there will be actual grasses for her to lurk in. Or if that doesn't entice Flo, there are all the hostel rooms to visit...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Old and new friends

This week I haven't blogged much because Kathy and Victor Garcia have been visiting. Kathy's our PazSalud program manager and Victor, her husband, came down to help us in the process of looking for a newer car (the PazSalud '96 4Runner, a magnificent workhorse, is getting old enough that we began to worry about having to make major repairs). We found the car we wanted, but the owner decided he didn't want to sell, alas.

Meanwhile, we've been able to introduce Victor to many of our friends and helpers here - he met Sister Margaret Jane, of course, and Sister Bernadita, also a native of Honduras, at Hospital Divina Providencia (she is the tiny one in the photo). We took him to visit with Leslie Schuld at CIS, and with Dina Dubon at the Archdiocesis of San Salvador, and we had a splendid lunch with Hernan Merino , our indispensable motorist (Victor is on the left in the photo). Hernan was delighted to meet Victor in person, as they've often talked on the phone. Sister Peggy O'Neill gave us a special tour of the new skateboard park and the soon-to-be-opened museum of Suchitoto life and history at the Centro Arte para la Paz

Meanwhile, Victor was feeling bad because we didn't find a car to buy, so he and Hernan put their heads together and took the 4Runner to a shop Hernan knows where our dim headlights were replaced by much brighter lights, a huge improvement for night drives to Suchitoto. The 4Runner's engine has now been inspected in detail by all the experts and pronounced perfect. The 4Runner no longer has even a single squeak (Victor plus WD-40). Why, I wonder, did we even think about replacing it?

Meanwhile, he and Kathy and I have gone through our enormous collection of supplies and medications to organize things for our November, February and May missions and to figure out what we'll need to bring down here. And Kathy and I have proofread our 2011 calendar, which is going to be glorious. And we've eaten well, talked lots, and enjoyed a relatively cool week with lots of rain showers at all odd times of the day and night.