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.