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!