Saturday, December 31, 2011

Feliz Año Nuevo

Andrea and Judith and I have spent the morning wandering happily through the streets and markets of Antigua Guatemala, delighting in the cool weather and getting ready to join the crowd in wishing everyone a Feliz Año Nuevo. And now I'm sitting somewhat less happily in the beautiful courtyard of the Hotel Aurora, where we're staying, trying to figure out how to upload a photo of the courtyard into the post via the iPad. It's right here in front of me, and I can't get to it. Grrr! Ah well - this may have to wait until I'm back in El Salvador, but just let me tell you: this is a beautiful city - full of tourists, catering to us, and in that sense a bit artificial like all good tourist cities, but a place full of history, color, delights. I'm posting this mostly to say that as we celebrate the New Year with the Antigüeños I will be praying for the peace that we long for in 2012, peace in our hearts and in our world. May we be blessed with the desire to work for peace.

And here's the photo at last:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Feliz Navidad a tod@s

Christmas this year was a quiet retreat time for me - as quiet as a retreat can be when all of the boyz in town are setting off firecrackers until 3 AM! Very different and very valuable to have this as a time for meditation and prayer - with a fair bit of church interspersed. I wouldn't want to celebrate this way every year, but I'm glad I did find that solitude of spirit amidst the firecrackers. Speaking of the firecrackers: my wonderful landlady said that yes, she would get the front of the house painted before my guests arrived on the 26th, and yes, her husband and a helper showed up on the 23rd to put a bright and fresh blue coat of paint on the house. I rejoiced until I got up on Christmas day and discovered that the kids setting off the firecrackers on Christmas eve had been unable to resist the lovely fresh blue canvas my house represented, and had put a fair bit of inoffensive graffiti on the wall. Happily, it all washed off fairly easily, leaving the paint job just smudged enough to (maybe) make it less interesting on New Year's Eve. Quiet time is now officially over: I met Andrea Nenzel and her sister Judith Knight at the airport on Monday. They're here for a couple of weeks of sightseeing and relaxation and - in Andrea's case - time to see a few old friends from her days here in 1985-87 at the Calle Real Refugee Center. Today we visited with Dina Duvon, one of the wisest women I'll ever know, and explored Suchitoto. Tomorrow, another visit, more exploration, all at a quiet pace with great companions - what more could one ask?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reading the signs

This morning I was peacefully praying in the patio, sitting under the lemon tree.  I came to a moment of clarity and peace in an area that's been a challenge to me and my moment was punctuated by a kind of thump - ah, I thought, a falling lemon, a greeting from Spirit, how wonderful - and continued my prayer.

A little later, as I was sweeping leaves, I saw that what had fallen was indeed a lemon - but a rotten lemon, and it had fallen squishily right in front of the chair I'd been sitting in.  Punctuation indeed!  Perhaps it was fortunate that by this time I couldn't remember exactly what brilliant insight or spiritual awakening had been greeted by a rotten lemon.

It reminds me, though, to read signs lightly.  I do believe we are all connected, the lemon tree and my prayer and the Spirit and the drunk man having a loud conversation in the street outside - but I also believe those connections are deep and strange and subtle, beyond my reading.  Taking that falling lemon as applause - or as disapprobation - is harmless as long as I take it lightly and remember to rejoice in the unimaginable life of the lemon tree which has nothing and everything to do with me.

Monday, December 19, 2011


I had a couple of missions today.  The first and easiest was delivering a Christmas basket to Rosita and her daughters and taking them to El Paraiso, the nearest town, for a little shopping.  Then came the serious mission.  When I was in the Northwest in November I sat down for coffee with Theresa Edwards, daughter of my friends Lisa Dennison and Karl Edwards.  Theresa was with the youth delegation from Seattle's St. Patrick Church that visited Nueva Trinidad in July,   When she returned, full of energy for continuing to study Spanish and planning for her next visits to Central America, she painted a picture of St. Patrick's as a gift for the people she'd met and loved in Nueva Trinidad.  And would I take the picture to them?  Oh yes, I said, nothing to it.

And that was today's second mission.  I headed toward the town of Chalatenango from El Paraiso, thinking that it wouldn't take me long to get to Nueva Trinidad, perhaps 30 kilometers further up the road from Chalatenango.  Sounded simple.  Wasn't.  The map shows the road proceeding smoothly through Chalatenango, but Chalatenango is a frustrating grid of very neatly laid out narrow streets that somehow do not get you where you want to go.  On my first try, I followed a bus that said "Chalatenango - San José" knowing that San José las Flores was on the same road as Nueva Trinidad.  I followed the bus as it twisted and turned through the streets, and I almost followed it into - alas - its parking area.  And then I returned, sheepishly, to the Texaco at the entrance to the town, filled up on gas (this was a brilliant move) and asked them how to get to Nueva Trinidad.  Clearly the guy at the gas pump had never heard of it.  "Arcatao?" I asked, knowing Arcatao is the last town on that very same road.  Oh, he said, you mean Arcatao?  - giving it, I swear, almost the identical pronunciation - yes, yes, Arcatao.  Well, you just go up this street and keep going up.....

I've learned to ask women for directions, and so when I thought I might be headed for the road out of Chalatenango (deeply desired after about 1/2 hour of threading through narrow streets full of trucks unloading and Christmas shoppers) I asked a woman selling fruit.  Ah, she said, you're on the right road, but just give a ride to this woman, she wants to go to las Flores (it's the first of the three towns), and she'll show you the way.  Great idea!  So I invited Roxana into my car and she asked if she could take a few minutes to get some lunch.  A few minutes later she came back with lunch and three other women who needed rides to San José las Flores, and we were off.

Shortly after we left Chalatenango the road got pretty bad - big potholes and crumbled pavement.  I remarked on how "feo" - ugly - the road was.  Wish I'd listened more carefully, because I'm sure I could have learned the Salvadoran version of "You ain't seen nothing yet."  Soon I was shifting into 4-wheel drive and negotiating a road in the process of being built.  I'd heard about the new highway that was being constructed in Chalatenango, but it hadn't occurred to me that it went through Arcatao, Nueva Trinidad and San José las Flores and that it was being constructed under us.  We bumped through gravel, dirt, dirt interspersed with big rocks, work sites with flagwomen directing traffic, patches of pavement, patches of wandering trail, surrounded on all sides by steep hills and steep slopes.  It seemed to take forever, but we did arrive at San José las Flores, where I left my helpful guides (who told me to take the left at the first Y and the right at the second, or was it the other way around?).  The next stretch of road was finished highway, smooth and new and beautiful, but still a mountain road with impressive curves.  And then, abruptly, I was on dirt again, and then on a semi-paved road, and then - milagro - at Nueva Trinidad. 

Theresa told me to ask for Julio Rivera, so I stopped at the Alcaldia and asked a young woman where I could find him.  Oh yes, she said, he's over there at the biblioteca (library), and there he was, blessedly, delighted to receive Theresa's painting, which he said will be placed in just the right spot.  Meanwhile the young woman, Karina, and her cousin Kenia (or that might be spelled Carina and Quenia) asked if they could have a ride back to Chalatenango with me, and I said of course.  We had a grand conversation going back  - I learned how much they appreciated the help that St. Pat's has sent over the years - and they saved me from a couple of wrong turns. 

When I finally got back on the familiar road to the Troncal, the northern trunk road, I felt as if I'd been gone for a couple of weeks, but the journey only took about 3 hours, and it was great fun. And now Nueva Trinidad has a picture of St. Pat's and I have a picture of the path to Nueva Trinidad.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


The title can be Amigos/as, but I like the use of the @ (called the aroba here) to indicate both masculine and feminine.  I visited amig@s today and had the delight of meeting a very brand new friend, Sofia, the tiny (4 day old) granddaughter of Rosa Aguiar in Comasagua.  Sofia came almost four weeks early, but she's healthy and beautiful, delighting Vanessa, her mom, and Rosa and her daddy, who I haven't met yet, but who is reported to be head over heels in love with both Sofi and her mama. 

Then I drove over to Panchimalco, where I brought a gift basket of foods (a very good custom here) to Walther (one of our scholarship students) and his family.  I got there just before Walther and his band were about to go play for a quinceañera (celebration of a girl's 15th birthday, a very big deal), so the photo includes Walther's family, and some of the band members.  I had the honor of transporting all the drums (and they have quite a set!) to the party location - it wasn't far from Walther's house, but would have seemed a long way if you had the drums on your back.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Viva Santa Lucia! Viva Suchitoto!

First and most important, I'm happy to say that my neighbor made it through surgery after being shot, and is now out of danger.  I don't know much more, but that is good news. 

And then today is the vigil of the feastday of Santa Lucia, Suchitoto's patron saint, and it has been wildly full of events.  The Barrio Santa Lucia started the day with loud firecrackers and their morning procession to church.  In the afternoon I went to the Mass honoring Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (her procession, with all the children dressed in traditional outfits, happened yesterday).  Today's Mass was followed by another procession - yes, it does get a bit confusing - this one honoring Santa Lucia.  Down my street they came, first the altar boys with cross and candle, then the brass band, then the priest and a fiesta princess, then a statue of Santa Lucia (not the one in the church which is very old and very beautiful) carried by women, then about 75 people in the procession and finally, bringing up the rear, the Barrio Santa Lucia float, with its waving princess.

What could be better than that?  Fireworks, that's what.  After the procession and Santa Lucia make their way back into the church, it's time for the fiesta to begin.  They'd been set up in advance, both ranks of rockets and a number of figures (there's a representative one here) lavishly dressed in fireworks.  I found what seemed like a great place in the crowded plaza to watch, trying to avoid the hot pupusa stands and not stand too near to the works (it's a scene that would give U.S. fire marshalls instant anxiety attacks).  I hadn't paid enough attention to the wind, though, and the first barrage of fireworks came right in my direction - and CLOSE, so I was brushing cinders off my shirt and out of my eyes.  Then came the toros - men who put on "bull" frames that have been wired with firecrackers and run through the center of the plaza in an explosion of flames and small rockets.  They lit up various figures - a butterfly, a woman, a campesino - each of which had its own drama of sparks and flames and rockets.  And finally, they touched a match to the stage center and it went in a whoosh of colors.  More rockets.  And now there's a big dance going on next to the Alcaldia (City Hall) - just far enough away so I probably can get to sleep.

¡Que viva la fiesta!  ¡Que viva Santa Lucia!  ¡Que viva Suchitoto!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The best of times, the worst of times

Today began so beautifully, with the firecrackers at 4 AM giving notice that it was time for our neighborhood, el Barrio Calvario, to gather for our procession to the church to make our "ofrenda" to Santa Lucia.  We gathered outside the home of my next-door neighbor, Dinora, and drank coffee and ate pan dulce while we waited to begin.  I talked with Martha about how beautiful these celebrations are, how I wish we had such fiestas in my own country.  We walked and sang and carried our candles into the church, where we placed them below one of the santos or at the entrance to the santísimo (the sanctuary).  We participated in the Mass that began at 5:45, and afterwards I walked home, thinking about the possibility of a nap.

Just as I was about to turn the corner onto my street, the peaceful scene was shattered.  I didn't hear a bullet, but I saw my neighbor Dinora come running, crying out that "they killed the Niña Julia."  (Niña is in this case a respectful way to name an older woman).  Julia runs a little restaurant on the corner that's part of the mercado building; her son owns the disco behind our house.  We quickly learned that she wasn't dead, but was seriously wounded; the police arrived to carry her to the local hospital, where her wounds were beyond their capabilities; she was sent on to Hospital Rosales, an hour away in the capital.  I am praying for her to live.

How could such a horror happen in the middle of our fiesta, in the middle of this little town that's usually an oasis from the violence that seems worse every day in El Salvador?  No one knows exactly; there's speculation that she didn't pay the renta (protection money).  It's said that the shooter was an adolescent boy.  I don't know if the bystanders knew who he was, and if they did know, I don't know whether they'll tell the police.

With little trust in the police and even less in the courts, ordinary Salvadorans have no solution to the violence that has become so everyday here.  And they have reason not to trust the police and the courts: just this past week, a judge refused to let a witness appear in a facial mask and refused to have him use voice distorting equipment.  The next day two of the witness' relatives were killed.

My Salvadoran friends will go on, living their lives as best they can in as much peace as they can find, fearing for the future of their sons and daughters, and I will go on accompanying them.  And praying for the life of the Niña Julia.  And praying for peace.

Friday, December 9, 2011


It's fiesta time in Suchitoto, 12 days of daily processions, celebrations, parades, floats, bands, fireworks, dances that lead up to the grand patronal feast of Santa Lucia on December 13th (though I suppose it really should be a matronal feast).  Each neighborhood has its day to get up at 4 in the morning and process to church by candlelight for the 5:45 am mass - ours is tomorrow, and I won't need to set my alarm clock- the firecrackers will let me know it's time.  Each neighborhood also creates a carroza - we'd call it a float - that circulates throughout Suchitoto, visiting each of the neighborhoods, in the evening.  Here's yesterday's offering, from Barrio Concepción - they outdid themselves by creating TWO carrozas.  During the day there are special activities - today Barrio San José offered a celebration for the old folk, which I missed, and a kid's fiesta, and later fireworks and finally a dance.  Their carroza was preceded by Alcides who carried the long forked stick used to hold up the electricity lines so they wouldn't topple the display and followed by a small but marvellous brass band (clarinet, horn, trombone, tuba and a couple of drums). 

I especially enjoyed today's festivities because today we heard one of my favorite Gospel passages, where Jesus says that John the Baptist came fasting and we called him crazy, while the Son of Man came eating and drinking and we called him a glutton and drunkard....(Mt.11, 16-19).  I'm pretty sure that Jesus would love the way people celebrate here in Suchitoto.  I surely do.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Getting around

After almost three years here I'm almost used to the wild and various means of transportation in El Salvador.  Any truck comes with at least two muchachos riding - and often sleeping - on top of the load.  Sometimes the muchachos really have to work, as in the bottom photo of a refrigerator being perilously delivered.  Pickups fill in all the holes in the transportation system, packing in crowds of standing-room-only passengers.  And the buses are many and various, often dangerous - bus drivers and cobradores (the guys who cram yet two more people into overcrowded buses) are often the targets of shootings when the owners of a bus line are late in paying the renta.  Still, they are inescapable, the only way most people here have to get to work or to school or to the doctor. 

I love the names and mottos and icons on our buses.  There's one called "Love and Jope" which doesn't quite work in Spanish or English, but you get the idea.  I recently drove behind a bus that proclaimed in big type, No es culpa mia, it's not my fault.  Decided to pass him quickly before he could live up to the slogan.  And my all-time favorite is a bus with Jesus on the back mirror, in his crown of thorns, like the 2nd photo here.  Underneath a motto: Salí con tu mujer, I went out with your woman.  That reverence and cheeky irreverence, cheerfully combined - muy Salvadoreño.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

La Vida Llena, La Casa Llena

My life here is full of comings and goings.  Margaret Jane goes home to New Jersey this Saturday, a week earlier than she had planned, to help her sister Roberta recover from hip surgery.  Walther arrived today, a guest for a few weeks as he finishes his classes.  Life in his home community got too dangerous, and we're happy to offer him a safe place here.  Hilda will arrive tomorrow for a few days - she has been to Suchitoto often, working with La Concertación de Mujeres in her development work with Mary's Pence.  She usually stays with Peggy, but Peggy's house is full, so we get to enjoy her.  Andrea Nenzel and her sister Judith will be coming at the end of December.

There's something wonderful about having all the bedrooms full, about giving this house a little more company - we surely have the room!  La vida llena, a full life, a full house. 

And one more wonderful thing: it was actually cold, well chilly, this morning - probably about 65.  Everyone's wearing sweaters and caps to protect them from that dangerous cold air.  And the norteamericanas are enjoying it thoroughly.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Getting to Know You

This Sunday and last Sunday I traveled to San José Villanueva, the site of our February Medical Mission, to meet with the volunteers who will be inviting patients to our mission.  Sunday turns out to be the best meeting time, after the early morning mass.  Today there were about 30 people gathered in a big classroom, lots of questions about the mission and about who should be invited.  If only we could see everyone in the community!  But our limit, we've found out over the years, is about 325 people per day, many of them going to two or more clinics.

Today they did the hard work of deciding which communities would come to the clinic on each day.  This is always the point where it begins to seem real and possible to me, so I rejoiced to watch these community leaders at work.  Already we have enough volunteers signed up to work with us throughout the week, which is amazing at this early point.

We're going to be using one wing of the parish school, which includes the meeting room shown in the photo.  It's great space, with a covered area when patients can wait, separate rooms for each clinic, a good pharmacy space and even a break room.  For all the great space, our work will not be easy; this week a report from the World Food Program shows San José Villanueva as having one of the highest levels of malnutrition in the country among children under five years - an estimated 38% of the youngest children in this rural town are small for their age.  What we can do to help in a week of clinics is really limited; our vitamins will do some good, but don't change the poverty that leads to such hunger among children.  And yet, we will be there as witnesses, and witnessing has value.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

So much to give thanks for!  Friends and family and community, work that I love, health that lets me do it, God's daily gifts and blessings.

Today we shared Thanksgiving dinner with Peggy O'Neill, four delightful norteamericanas (Diana, Laura, Molly and Millie) who volunteer at the Centro Arte para la Paz, and Xiomara, a young Salvadoran staying with Peggy while she goes to high school.  Thanks to a store that knows about gringo necessities, I was able to find a frozen turkey and cranberries; my favorite bakery provided pumpkin pie; and I spent a glorious day cooking (Margaret Jane spent a day perhaps somewhat less gloriously, but infinitely more usefully, cleaning up after me). 

We ate and talked and remembered our families in the United States and prayed together the beautiful Thanksgiving prayer that Carmel Little sent out for all the Sisters and Associates of St. Joseph of Peace.  I sent everyone home with bags of turkey and there's still more leftover turkey (and roast vegetables, mashed potates, etc.) than I can imagine using.  Thank goodness for freezers!  I can't imagine cooking like this on any other day - and I can't imagine not creating a Thanksgiving feast.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gracias, Hermana Paquita

It's been a very long week - I've been restocking groceries, getting the car serviced, working on arrangements for our February health mission, and visiting people who get scholarships or family support from PeaceHealth staff. Every errand means a couple of hours of driving time, so the days have been long.

Today the driving time was even longer, but for a couple of very good reasons. In the morning I went to San José Villanueva - our February mission site - with Clelia Estrada from the Caritas office in the Archdiocese. We had a good meeting with Padre Mario Adin, parish staff and volunteers, then stood in the back of the church, standing room only, while lots of beautiful girls and boys made their first communion.

Then I went on to the Bajo Lempa area where a very special Despedida (farewell) was in progress. Providence Sister Fran Stacey, known to her community in the Bajo Lempa as Hermana Paquita, was getting a full-hearted Salvadoran thank you and farewell. Fran retired to Seattle about six months ago, but has returned for a few weeks to visit her many friends, and they - being Salvadoran - decided to put on a full-scale despedida. There were speeches and proclamations and thanks for the remarkable work Fran did during her 16 years in El Salvador, which included founding the Fundación Tierra y Esperanza para el Campesino (Earth and Hope for the Farmer Foundation), working to provide scholarships for local students, and helping raise funds for health emergencies. It seems like she's been a key part of much that's happened in the coastal zone for all those years, and now it was time to say "thank you!"

I had to leave while the thanks were still being spoken, so just got a chance to talk briefly with Fran and tell her thanks also from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. I didn't manage to get a photo of her, but here's one of the dancers getting ready to delight everybody.

Just for the enlightenment of you norteamericanos who may be reading this: the despedida began at 1 PM (more or less, I think it was really just getting under way when I arrived at 2) and was scheduled to go on until 4 PM, with pretty much all that time filled by speeches and presentations. Now that's a serious thank you! Gracias, Hermana Paquita!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I woke up in Suchitoto this morning and it felt natural. The only things that kept waking me from time to time during the night were lemons dropping from the lemon tree onto the tin roof over my tiny bathroom (sounds VERY alarming) and a cricket that sounds all too much like my alarm clock - by tonight, I'll be tuning him? her? out. Didn't hear the cocks crowing or the morning buses going by, woke up to the sounds of the doves (and roosters).

I talked to a lot of friends this morning, and so far have found only one, our friend Armando, whose home and crops were seriously damaged in the torrential rains and floods of October. Suchitoto was spared the worst of these rains, though I'm sure all the roofs were leaking after ten days of rainfall. The damage is very visible in the roads here, and I would expect that they are far worse in parts of the country where the rains were heavier.

I also learned that one friend from this area is on her way to the United States, and I am praying that she will get safely through the grave dangers that migrants face in Guatemala and Mexico and will make it through the border, though I'm also very sad to think of the damage and loss her going causes for the family she left here. I wonder if people who get angry about illegal immigration into the United States ever think about how desperate people become because of lack of money and lack of opportunity in their own countries. I wonder what they would do in similar circumstances?

Saturday, November 12, 2011


My days in the north are drawing to a close with memorable celebrations and life-giving conversations. After several trips when my timing was just wrong, I was able to join the monthly lunch with other women from Queen Anne High School's class of 1959, and, bless their hearts, they brought me lots of vitamins which we'll be giving out to people in San José Villanueva in February. Here's a photo of Marlene and Sue, looking good, looking lively, as aren't we all, even though the class of 1959 is busily turning 70...

Then yesterday, 11/11/11, we celebrated five birthdays with brunch at Prospect House on Capitol Hill in Seattle, where I used to live and am still part of a group that meets for dinner on Wednesday evenings (on those rare Wednesday evenings when I'm in the Seattle area). Eight women celebrating five birthdays meant lots of presents and lots of laughter and an elegant fritatta and three of us taking photos at the same time, which meant that I have lots of photos of folk taking photos (see the bottom photo).

Along the way, I've had time for some wonderful, long, heart-to-heart talks with old and new friends (you know who you are) that replenish me and fill me with joy. I have friends I cherish in El Salvador, but my Spanish, while workable, doesn't have the subtlety and flexibility and shared reference points you need for a great heart-to-heart talk.

Finally, last night was the best celebration of all, as Susan Francois made her final vows as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. What a joy to celebrate this friend and sister who has been walking with us for seven years now! It was a beautiful eucharistic celebration - Father Terry Moran, CSSR and CSJP Associate, was our presider; Margaret Byrne, our Congregation Leader, received Susan's vows; and I was very honored by being asked to give a reflection on the readings. Our chapel at St. Mary on the Lake was filled with Susan's family and many friends, and the celebration continued into the evening with cookies, wine and dancing. Check out our CSJP website for photos and story to come.

So tomorrow I head back to El Salvador, with the memory of all those feasts and conversations going with me, very concerned to learn how my Salvadoran friends have come through the floods.

Friday, November 4, 2011

For the past three weeks I've been selling crafts from El Salvador with Kathy Garcia and Cindy Hellerstedt. It's our annual fall round that takes us to the PeaceHealth hospitals and to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Fall Assembly with 2012 calendars, Christmas ornaments, crosses and bookmarks and small purses and - for each place - a raffle item. It's not just a chance to raise some money for our program, though that's certainly an aim: what matters more is the opportunity to connect with people who've been on one of our health missions or are interested in signing up or are just interested in what we do. We get to talk about El Salvador and the people who've had their lives so damaged by the recent floods, about the water filters we hope to provide for each community we visit and about the essential extras - a replacement heart valve, medications, scholarships, even travel to schools - that are made possible by our donors' generosity. We get to advertise our new website, where, at long last, we can accept donations on-line.

This photo comes from St. John Hospital in Longview, Washington: Kathy is at right, Cindy next to her.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Unnatural Disaster

There's a superb post on Tim's El Salvador Blog about the human role in the disastrous rains and floods El Salvador has experienced this month. I don't think I've seen a better analysis of the complex ties between ecological damage and economic violence to the poor.

He quotes a fierce and superb statement by San Salvador Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez: the disaster caused by the rains demonstrated "the economic vulnerability, that is to say the poverty so many of our countrymen live immersed within, the social vulnerability, characterized by the structural injustice and the ecological vulnerability, for which the great fault lies in the wild ambition that rages against God's creation, this house of all of us which is deteriorating more each day."

I remember that in the 2008 Chapter of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, we struggled to articulate the connection between climate change and the needs of the poor. Well, here it is, in the suffering of thousands of poor people displaced by rain and floods, an unnatural disaster that hardly touches the lives of the middle and upper classes in El Salvador. As Tim says, there are no photos of flooded mansions, no videos of Land Rovers swirling in the overflowing rivers. The land is "the house of all of us," and only the rich can hide from its devastation.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A letter from Comasagua

I got an e-mail today from Alex Hernandez, a friend and a great volunteer in our 2009 medical mission in Comasagua. Alex writes (and I translate, loosely) -

I want to tell you about the week of rains and the chaos in Comasagua because of the tropical storm. Twelve shelters have been opened for people in our municipality [municipalities in El Salvador include all the smaller communities around a central town] and I have been in one of them, caring for 50 people day and night, watching over the women, children and old people sleeping and making sure they get their three meals in the day. This has been a beautiful experience for me because you know that one becomes fond of the people and I feel a love for them as if they were my family. I don't know if you understand me, Sister Susan, it's something that it's not possible to explain.

I'm also working in the church with our priest, helping to organize the assistance that arrives for the people in shelters, and then sharing it out with them. I can tell you it was good to be helping my neighbors because they needed the help, but at the same time sad to see so much suffering, to see the faces of each of them, far from their lands, their houses lost, their crops ruined, exhausted after days of suffering. I'm glad, though, for all the work we have been able to do for them. Comasagua begins a new life.

I do understand, Alex, and I know that the help you're giving your neighbors, your new family, returns as a blessing to you. I thank God that you and so many others are working all over El Salvador to help the people first to survive, and now to begin to return to their homes and start the long hard work of digging out and starting again.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy Seattle

I've been back in the northwest U.S. for a busy week, mostly spent in Eugene, OR selling Salvadoran crafts in the PeaceHealth hospitals and talking to former and potential members of our mission teams. This weekend I'm back in the Seattle area, just in time to join CSJP Sisters and Associates at Occupy Seattle in the Westlake Park. I've read so much about Occupy Wall Street and the companion Occupy movements that it felt very good to be able to be part of one, though briefly.

We found a lively and cheerful group - people of all ages and several races - occupying Westlake Park. No tents in evidence - I think these may have moved to City Hall Park. A group of drummers made the time vibrant and some wildly assorted dancers kept the beat. We were enough of a distinctive group, with our Community Seeking Justice and Peace placards, to get noticed and photographed a fair bit - one man was quite surprised to hear that nuns still existed. And we do: seeking justice and peace.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dean Brackley, October 16, 2011

I learned today via an e-mail from Gene Palumbo that Dean Brackley, S.J. - priest, writer, tireless worker for justice, and great friend of the people of El Salvador - died in Santa Tecla today.

Dean has been a great friend to our El Salvador Health Mission as he has been to every peace and justice-based program that connects people from the U.S. with the people of El Salvador. This photo is from Eleanor Gilmore's farewell party in 2009: Eleanor is on Dean's right and Guadalupe Montalvo Palumbo on his left.

I last saw Dean after our eye surgery mission in May of this year; Kathy Garcia and I talked with him while our group was touring the Romero Center at the UCA (University of Central America). He'd been talking to a delegation - one of the hundreds he met with - and came out to talk about getting some medications for the people he worked with in Jayaque. He was thin and worn looking, and told us that he'd had a colonoscopy that morning and was tired. Soon after that, we learned that he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had metastasized.

Gene says:
As you know, Dean came to El Salvador to help replace the six Jesuits murdered in 1989. Today, his life as a Jesuit ended in the place where their lives as Jesuits began: the Santa Tecla residence, where they did their two-year novitiate.
and he quotes an e-mail from Dean's brother Jesuit, Rafael de Sivatte:
I write to give you the painful and joyful news that God, Father and Mother, has taken to his side our brother, friend, father, and companion in solidarity, Dean. I can tell you that he died so peacefully that those of us who were with him at that moment felt filled with peace ourselves. I send you a fraternal embrace, united with you in prayer and in the commitment to the Kingdom for which he worked and continues to work.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A long and terrible day of rain

Sixteen inches of rain - that's what's fallen in Sonsonate, in the west close to the border with Guatemala, in one long and terrible day. Three deaths have been reported, many homes have been damaged or destroyed, and 4,000 people have been evacuated. This disaster doesn't even get a name, unlike hurricanes: it's registered as Tropical Depression 12 E.

In addition to the communities in the west, all the coastal areas have endured huge downpours and are also endangered by flooding rivers. Here's a recent update from Voices from El Salvador on the current situation in the Baja Lempa area (where the Lempa, El Salvador's biggest river, rolls through flat coast lands on its way to the sea):

The Lempa River is currently flowing over the levee in the northern top of the Namcuchaname Forest and the levee in the community of El Marillo. The levee breech has sent a large current of water through the community and completely flooded the main road cutting off access to the communities downstream. As we reported earlier, the Lempa River has also breeched the levee in the Lotes and Babilonia communities. As of this afternoon, the focus of the evacuations is on the Lotes and Babilonia communities, which have been flooded since yesterday. However, the Civil Protection Agency and other government officials have called on ALL communities in the Lower Lempa, from San Marcos on down, to evacuate. Their plan is to move all residents to a shelter in San Marcos. When that is full they will take people to Tierra Blanca and then on to Jiquilisco. Civil Protection has set up a command post in Ciudad Romero where they are coordinating evacuation and relief efforts. According to our field staff, many government and international agencies are present, including the police, military, Red Cross, Comandos de Salvamento, the mayor’s office, and many, many others. The good news is that they are coordinating better than in past emergencies.

I'm worried about our friend Armando, a hard-working and ambitious farmer, whose farm lies in the area affected by these floods. I pray these floods will spare his house and family, his orchard and chickens and pigs. It's hard to be leaving for the United States tomorrow morning, before I can find out much about what's happened.

Here in Suchitoto, it's seemed like constant rain, but it's nothing in comparison - we had a little under three inches fall between October 11th and 12th. Still, all my friends have leaking roofs and sagging walls. In El Salvador, and in Central America, the people are so very vulnerable to disasters, and the disasters - storms, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions - happen all too often. If you'd like to help people caught in Tropical Depression 12 E, the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services are excellent places to send a donation.

photo from La Prensa Grafica

Monday, October 10, 2011

Roof work

Recently I told our landlady, Higinia, that the walls in one of our bedrooms were damp and that I thought it might have something to do with the little lemon trees that were trying to grow up from the tile roof. Time for roof cleaning! On Sunday Augustin appeared at my door and spent most of the day cleaning and repairing the roof. It's a two-layer roof, with a layer of lamina (the tin or plastic ridged material used everywhere here for roof coverings or house sidings) on the bottom and a layer of clay tiles above. Augustin looked under the clay tiles and found lamina with holes in it, replaced that, and cleaned out all the tiles and gutters filled with dead leaves. He also cut back the lemon tree, so today there's more sun in the patio.

With all that work to do, I thought Augustin might need some good tools, and brought out our "manly" tool box - reformed from its previous status as a wussy toolbox with additions found by Mitch Costin - a regular on our eye surgery mission. But all he needed, it turned out, was a big spoon (a trowel, actually) and a broom. The tile roofs are labor intensive but technologically very simple - and in this climate, very efficient.

I was away in the afternoon and came back afraid I'd find a total mess. Instead, Augustin had carefully swept the dead leaves and soil into one heap and the pruned leaves into another. There was a third pile of many, many lemons - but the lemon tree is still full and seems to respond joyfully to pruning.

This morning I was cramming dead leaves and soil into our compost bucket for the Monday organic pickup, and realized I had far more than I could put out. And then I looked at the pile again and saw....compost. That combination of leaves and ashes and dust has been sitting in sun and rain every day, ideal conditions for composting. So right now Martha is putting this lovely compost into our garden and bundling up the pruned branches. I know that before she leaves the patio will once more shine with cleanliness.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


On Thursday I began the day by providing transportation for a small delegation from Guacotecti, Cabañas, where the women who are hoping to start an egg farm have found the perfect piece of land. They need to raise more money to complete the land purchase and put together the hen house and buy the hens and their feed, and a second grant request is in process. This particular grant requires the approval and signature and seal of the bishop for their diocese, which is San Vicente. So I drove to San Rafael Cedros, picked up Iris Alas and Leslie Schuld of CIS and Elmira and Rosa from Guacotecti, and we drove off to San Vicente where we had an appointment with the Vicar (the Bishop was out of town).

It was a pleasant drive and we were soon in San Vicente where we found that the Vicar, too, was out of town, having been called out on an emergency, so we explained ourselves to his secretary and a helpful young man who had been engaged in plastering the walls of the historic church where the Vicar has his office. The only challenge was the seal: they showed us a seal of the rubber-stamp variety, but this grant required an embossed seal, and we all collaborated together to figure out what that was in Spanish: sello en relieve turned out to be the answer.

My day went on to include a lengthy rumble through the streets near the church everyone knows as Don Rua, though in fact its name is Maria Auxiliadora (photo above). A classic Salvadoran rebranding: it will do you no good to look for Don Rua on a map, but everyone knows where it is. I asked who Don Rua was and someone told me he was the Italian priest who'd built the church - but a bit of web research convinces me that he was the successor to Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesians. I was scouting around Don Rua's neighborhood to find a house I'd visited just a couple of days before that seemed to be in a perfectly obvious location. Unfortunately, it had relocated, or I had. I was trying to drive west in an area near the historic centro where the major streets ran north-south, where one-ways existed with no markings, and where you had to cross the major streets (with no traffic lights helping you) by gunning the motor at the first sign of opportunity. I almost became another traffic statistic, but my guardian angel, my brakes and my reflexes were working overtime, and I finally found the house only a block away.

And then I drove very meekly and properly to Anne and Rafael's new townhouse in Escalon. We walked to a sweet restaurant around the corner located in a vivero, a plant nursery, and had dinner while a video of ABBA (who knows why) played on the restaurant's two big screens. And then I drove home to Suchitoto to find that a huge storm had passed by while I was away, leaving a small lake in the living room and 42 lemons in the patio.

I can't think of a more satisfactory way to spend your 70th birthday. Mission, misdirection, friends and ABBA. Mamma Mia!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sitting in Starbucks and remembering Steve Jobs

I'm sitting in Starbucks in Santa Elena, and I've got mixed feelings about this. Starbucks is such a familiar sight for a Seattleite, and everything here looks just right, the cups, the Starbucks mermaid, the comfy couches, the internet access and (sigh) the prices. So I'm pleased to find this comforting combination. (Here's a photo of Kathy Garcia in front of the Starbucks in the Galeria - another northwestern tickled to find this familiar place.) But - on the other hand - I do wonder if Starbucks is chasing out some of the local coffee places - Viva Espresso, the Coffee Cup, Ben's - where you can get great espresso and buy a variety of Salvadoran coffees, among the best in the world.

I remember what a great hangout Starbucks was for the women who lived in Rose of Lima House, transitional living in Seattle, when I worked there. They'd go around the block to 1st, buy a cup of the coffee of the day, and sit and talk for two hours. It was the closest thing they could afford to being in a nice restaurant, and I always loved Starbucks for being a place where you could just be, even if you were homeless. It doesn't feel at all like that here, of course - clearly the folk who go to any coffee house in El Salvador are doing pretty well. They tend to be the folk who dress up in suits, if just so everyone will know that they work in air-conditioned splendor.

So my feelings on Starbucks here are mixed. But it's a good place to remember and give thanks for Steve Jobs, who's put such liveliness and fun into people's hands. I bought the first Macintosh in the spring after it was introduced; it cost an outrageous amount, you had to swap disks to go from the operating system to the writing and drawing programs, and I loved it. I remember those great fonts - imagine, being able to have fonts on a computer - New York, Chicago and quirky San Francisco - it was such fun for someone who'd been using a very dull word processor. And that, of course, was only the begionning, and now I sit here typing on my iPad on a the wireless keyboard, still having lots and lots of fun (and getting a bit of work done too) thanks to Steve's singular genius and vision. Gracias.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How the beans grow

Visiting Sonia and her family a few days ago, I noticed that the milpa next to their house had changed dramatically. Half the corn had been harvested, and the rest was doblado, turned over so that the remaining ears of corn can dry on the stalk (this happens in the midst of the rainy season, and I can't understand why the corn dries rather than mildews, but the Salvadorans and their forebears have been at this for hundreds of generations, and they know). In between the drying stalks, the recently planted bean vines were popping out of the earth. In a few more weeks it'll be time for the bean harvest, for the vines to be uprooted and dried and threshed so that the small, beautiful red silk beans can emerge. And those beans, in their growing, will have fixed nitrogen in the soil for next year's corn crop. It's a beautiful and valuable cycle.

Alejandrito at 2

My godson Alejandro Emanuel Alvarenga - aka Alejandrito or Junior - turned two last week, and like two-year-olds the world over he has joyfully discovered the word NO, and when Alex, Ani, Alejandrito and I went for a walk he was very determined to walk ahead of us, on his own if you please, until we got close to the busy streets and the parents took over.

Other than issuing the necessary NO from time to time, he seems to be an entirely happy boy. Here he is with his birthday truck, which makes lots of noises - quite satisfactory. What fun to watch this little guy grow up.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

La vida política

I drove back to Suchitoto in the late afternoon yesterday to find a couple of policemen directing me away from my usual route to the Centro Arte para la Paz where I park the car. I turned the corner and found a few more policemen at the next corner. Several corners and several policemen later I was finally able to get to the Centro Arte by making a wide swing around the center of town, noticing on the way several FMLN buses parked. Of course I had to find out what was going on, so I walked back via the Parque Central and noticed that the street that goes past the Alcaldia (City Hall) was set up with a stage, lots and lots of FMLN flags, and a covered area for dancing. A normal enough sight in this city that for the past 24 years has been voting FMLN (this is the party of the left, formed by an alliance of five smaller political parties in 1981, in the early years of the civil war). But the event wasn't normal, and that's why the police were out in force. The FMLN 's central committee has named Pedrina Rivera as the candidate for Mayor in the elections coming in March, 2012, and many in Suchitoto were upset that they had not been consulted and that the current and very popular FMLN Mayor, Javier Martinez, would not be up for re-election. The flags and banners and stage were set up for Pedrina Rivera's opening speech in the campaign, and supporters had been bused in to make the event look festive and popular.

I didn't stay around to witness the event - it seemed like one of those fights in the family where you'd just as soon the guest didn't witness it - but I learned from the paper today that there had been protests and a scuffle, plastic bottles and pop cans had been thrown, and there was enough shouting to drown out the official words. And then, perhaps to everyone's relief, the sky broke open with thunder and lightning and torrential rains and the rally was at an end.

This morning when I walked over to church, the banners and flags were torn and tattered. It had been a hard night in Suchitoto.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

On the road

Just for the fun of it, I made a list today of what I encountered on the road between Suchitoto and San Martin, the nearest town. In the 18 miles of this pretty good two-lane highway I encountered:

kids, families, men, men on horseback, women, women carrying large bundles on their heads, people gathered at bus stops, people sitting on the edge of the road (this last I find unnerving since there's no shoulder, but it makes a good seat when the ground slopes away from the road)

dogs, chickens, goats, horses, oxen, cattle (I sometimes see iguanas, but none today), all of them occasionally moved to cross the road without reference to my car coming down it

cars, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, micro-buses, trucks carrying people, road work machinery, moto-taxis (the 3-wheel vehicles called 'tuk-tuks' in Guatemala)

a man with a vending cart - he seemed to be selling cold drinks of some kind

many houses, many milpas (corn and bean fields), cattle fields, orchards, several pupuserias (roadside eatery selling pupusas, the Salvadoran comfort food), a collection of small brick-making businesses, Catholic and Evangelical churches

many tumulos (traffic-slowing bumps - whatever do we call them in English? - which in El Salvador are essentially a pipe half buried in the roadway, and you'd better slow waaaay down or your shocks will be shocked.)

many baches - aka potholes. They multiply with the rainy season and may get fixed when the dry weather comes.

It's crowded, it's lively, and driving it is always an adventure. I sometimes have to pull off the highway in the U.S. because I get drowsy. Not here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dia de Independencia

September 15, last Thursday, Suchitoto and towns all over Central America celebrated the Dia de la Independencia - Independence Day, celebrating the day in 1821 when Central America declared its freedom from Spain. It was, of course, cause for a good fiesta! The party began Wednesday evening with the traditional procession of the students at InSu, the Instituto de Suchitoto, equivalent to high school, complete with floats and wild costumes. My favorite float, created at the Centro Arte para la Paz, was a version of the famous San Salvador statue of Jesus standing atop the globe, and it had to progress very slowly and carefully so that the wires could be lifted with a long pronged stick as it passed every house. There was an angel (photo above) followed by a corps of dancing angels, a 19th century cart and horse, followed by students in Victorian dress, and the Carreta de la Chillona - Martha tells me that a kind of rattle lets you know when la Chillona is hunting down the living, and her carreta was appropriately decorated with skulls.

The next morning all the school kids in town and many from the colonias marched through the town. We hung out the door and a window as they passed, almost every school with some students in costumes and a marching band. And then there was La Ciguanaba, the old witch who dangles her sausage breasts in vain attempts to catch a lover. And there were these little girls dancing up the street.

I've lived in cities most of my life where parades are very organized rituals with professional floats, and I can't tell you how much fun it is to be part of the crowd hanging out on the edges of these two happy parades. ¡Viva la Independencia!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I'm back in El Salvador, but my heart keeps turning to Albuquerque in the 1970s, when Helen Cooperstein and Patricia Clark Smith were among my best friends. Helen, a beautiful, intense artist, wove beautiful wall hangings and capes. Pat, a fellow Assistant Professor in the English Department at UNM, wrote her discovery of New Mexico's vast spaces and human histories into moving poetry.

I learned before my recent trip to New Mexico that Helen had died a year and a half after being diagnosed with cancer (this photo of her was taken last December). She and I had talked several times during those months - about her son and grandchildren, about our lives, about God. She came into a place of peace in those last months, and it was both joyful and sorrowful to visit with her son Noah, his wife Marta and their two young boys in Albuquerque.

It wasn't until my last day in New Mexico, visiting with my longtime friends Mary and Paul Davis, that I learned of Pat Smith's death in July, 2010. I have so many memories of times with Pat, parties and food and talks and exchanging poems, memories of visiting her when she was teaching on the Navajo reservation or in various Albuquerque homes. I'm sad that I fell out of touch with her.

I grieve the loss of these two friends, these two lights in my life. And I know that Helen and Pat live now not only in my memories and those of other friends, but in the wideness of God's mercy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Labor Day in New York City was clear and beautiful, but then it began raining in New York and New Jersey. I looked forward to escaping to New Mexico, where afternoon rains sometimes happen in summer, but where gray days are practically unheard of.

It must be Seattleite karma, but it has been raining in Santa Fe ever since I arrived on Thursday evening. Now this is grand for New Mexicans - everything greens up, forest fires are no longer a major worry, the rivers are running full - but a little discouraging for visitors, especially since this is the Fiesta weekend in Santa Fe.

All the same, I had a wonderful day yesterday with my friends Pat D'Andrea and Mary Lou Carson, visiting Chimayo, up north from Santa Fe (there we are in the photo). One of my fondest memories is of visiting the Sanctuario de Chimayo with my parents on Holy Saturday, 1969 when I was new to New Mexico. It was a simple adobe chapel then, with the room off to one side where you could find the healing dirt that made Chimayo a pilgrimage site. A tiny old woman asked me to help her in the chapel while my mom and dad were still up in a shop on the main road. When they came in to the Santuario, they were horrified to see me up on a chair doing something to one of the statues, and I had to quickly explain that I was helping out by taking the veils off the statues in preparation for the Easter Vigil (though I wouldn't have known about the Easter Vigil at the time, then being mostly an agnostic).

Yesterday, 42 years and a few months later, it was hard to recognize the Santuario, now surrounded by plazas and car parks, gift shops, and some heavy and unattractive stone crosses within archways (in the background of the photo) that will probably become Stations of the Cross. When we got to the end of the long entry ramp, we found the old chapel of the Sanctuario looking simple and New Mexican, much the same as ever, but it was hard to see it surrounded by all the trappings of a tourist destination. Thankfully, we escaped to the Rancho de Chimayo, where the rain had forced everyone inside from the terraces. We almost didn't get a table, but then were invited to have lunch at the bar, where we feasted on tamales, carne adovada, flautas, posole, frijoles and sopapillas, the very best of New Mexico's wonderful food, and talked as only old friends can talk. The rain couldn't dampen that pleasure!

Later in the day, Pat and I walked down her block to pick up some tamales from her neighbor, Jenny Martinez, who also showed us her lovely collection of images of the Virgin - or the Lady, as Jenny called her. Jenny, who has been praying for me during my breathing crisis and return to health (along with the members of Pat's sangha), shared her memories of Chimayo and sadness at its tourist transformation. And she gave me a little cross to carry back to El Salvador with me. I'll remember Jenny when I hold it, and I'll remember my time in Santa Fe as filled with sunshine of the spirit.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A week in New....

I'm away from El Salvador for a long week - four days in New Jersey for an editor's meeting to plan the next issues of Living Peace, our Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace magazine, followed by four days in New Mexico to visit with my friend Pat D'Andrea and some other dear friends from my 20 years in that state.

Yesterday Corky Muzzy and I crossed under the Hudson on a long bus ride through New Jersey communities and spent Labor Day walking in Central Park - which was gloriously full of New Yorkers of all sizes, ages, and sorts enjoying a grand vacation day. So I'm visiting New Jersey, New York and New Mexico - if only I could get to New Hampshire, I'd have been in all the News. Have to leave that to presidential candidates, I suppose.

On the way to NYC, we passed a number of pupuserias and stores with names like "Sonsonateco." Alicia runs a bakery and pupuseria and a mile or so further on the bus line is the bakery and pupuseria of Las Hijas de Alicia. El Salvador is not so very far away, and Salvadorans are as enterprising - and as fond of pupusas - in New Jersey as at home. Perhaps one of those Salvadorans away from home was the woman who cleans restrooms in the Newark airport, the woman who was singing softly to herself "Pescador de los Hombres," my favorite hymn. It was so grand to hear her that I joined in - even though I have the voice of a crow with laryngitis - and we sang the refrain together happily, and I said "Gracias." And felt at home.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I've been meeting this mare and foal in various places in Suchitoto, running freely through the streets - for me, a city-bred gringa who loves horses, an amazing sight. The other day I saw them as I was driving in to Suchi, and for once I had my camera with me. Then last night I heard hooves passing our house and looked out to see a mounted horseman herding the mare and foal down the street. So apparently they do belong to someone, and their days of mooching around in town are over. I'll miss them!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gloribel hits the books

Last week I had a great visit with Gloribel and her mother. Gloribel and her mother Hortensia have been going to a school for deaf children in Santa Ana since March, and they were delighted to show off Gloribel's learning in a heap of carefully written and beautifully illustrated notebooks - one can be seen in this photo. She's been learning a lot of Salvadoran Sign Language as well, and it was great to watch her signing with her mother and sister (and she taught me a few signs, too). Gloribel's intelligence and ability were so clear, even before she got the opportunity to go to school, that it's no surprise that she's blossoming now.

The trip to school, four days a week, demands a lot from both Gloribel and Hortensia - they have to take three different buses to get there, and it takes about 2 hours each way. But Hortensia is glad to give this time, because she is so eager for her daughter to have the learning and skills she'll need to survive as a deaf woman in El Salvador. And Gloribel: she's just glad to be learning, to be communicating, to be in touch with the world.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fiesta de Maiz

Corn was king today, and queen too, as Suchitoto celebrated the annual Fiesta de Maiz. Truckloads of corn came in from the campo and colonias of Suchi, the church was decorated with corn stalks, and this morning a procession with corn princes and princesses made its way from the Capilla de la Cruz to the church. It's one of the days when the church is crammed with all the side aisles full of folk who stand patiently through the Mass.

Then we all went out into the plaza where food was waiting - elote (corn on the cob) and atol (hot corn drink) and tamales de elote and - my favorite, the thing I wait for all year - riguas, the best fresh corn pancakes imaginable, grilled in banana leaves. They're una cora (a quarter) each, and I restrained myself and bought only two. Wish they were sold every day!

The celebration felt especially good this year because the corn harvest has been excellent - this after two years when the weather interrupted harvests. There's a threat of bad weather coming from hurricanes in the Atlantic, but so far, at least, we've only had the normal pattern of sunny mornings with a downpour in the afternoon or evening. So we celebrated the harvest in bright sunshine.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Home again

Geovany made quick progress once the rods and pins were supplied - his surgery was Thursday, August 11th, and by Sunday he was ready to come home. I volunteered to provide the transportation, and drove into the capital with Geovany's dad, José, and his brother Juan Carlos. At this stage of his journey back from the auto accident Geovany is very thin, with quite a collections of scars, bandages and casts, but he was clearly glad to be going home where he'll get his mama's home cooking and begin to learn to use his legs again. Here he is with his parents on the porch of the family home - getting him there required bouncing down a long dirt road and crossing a rushing brook - fortunately not during a rainstorm. It probably was more than a bit painful for Geovany, but I didn't hear even a squeak.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Richard at home

The last few days have been full of wonderful events and meetings, material for more blog posts than I've had time to write (they'll come along later this week). One of the best times was visiting young Richard Stanley and his mom Mari in their home in San Rafael Cedros. I went with Iris Alas, our San Rafael coordinator, her daughter, and Sergio, one of the community volunteers and Mari's uncle. Richard's new heart valve seems to be behaving well, though getting the medications right has been a challenge. He looks good - more color and more energy than before - and he continues to be a truly squiggly 3-year-old with no interest in having his picture taken. I sneaked in this one when he wasn't looking at me. Mari told me that when all the kids in the hospital were having their pictures taken, Richard was the only one who would have none of it.

Richard and Mari live in the midst of a big Salvadoran family, with Mari's mother and three sisters and a brother and a big bunch of cousins, mostly boys. The family put together the classic almuerzo (luncheon): sopa de gallina india (country hen soup) with a bit of the grilled gallina and salad on the side, with fresh tortillas. It was glorious, and we ate until we could hardly waddle. A great way to celebrate Richard's new life!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Instructions from a master teacher

When we finished our week of clinics in San Rafael Cedros last February, we gave 80 Sawyer Point One water filters to the community, in care of Iris Alas. Last week Iris invited me to a meeting at which she was handing over about 15 of the filters to women who had completed the necessary steps - they'd come to a first meeting where they had learned about the importance of clean water, and about how much it would save the family in medical costs, someone in the family had been tested for parasites and bacteria at the local health center, and they were ready to spend $5 or $10 (depending on means) to defray the cost of the buckets, which the municipality had purchased.

We met at Iris' house, and for the next hour I had the pleasure of watching a master teacher at work. First, Iris went over the details: starting the treatment for parasites once everyone in the family is using the clean water; using the clean water to wash hands and food; keeping the bucket of clean water covered and off the floor; sending the kids to school with bottles of clean water; making refrescos with clean water; backwashing the filter regularly to keep it clean. That's Iris at right in the top photo, and also in that photo, because I couldn't resist, is the family cat, occupying, like every good cat, the exact center of the space. Everyone, I'm here to tell you, carefully walked around the cat, who took this as her due.

Then three CIS volunteers showed how to put the filter and buckets together, and we watched the tap water flow into the bottom bucket, and then each of the women handed over her family member's lab test and the money, and each received two buckets and the filter kit.

It was a joy to see this being done so carefully because, as Iris says, otherwise the filters wouldn't be well used, or they might be sold or be forgotten. These women had to go through some work and pay some money to get their filters, and because of that they're much likelier to use them for the health of their families - and Iris and the local youth who get scholarships from CIS will be checking up in six months.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Buying pins

Last week José knocked on my door and introduced himself. He's a farmer in one of the small communities that are part of the Suchitoto municipality, a former guerrillero and a man with eight children. One of those children, his son Geovany, had been hit by a car in June, and was in Zacamil hospital in San Salvador after being concussed and breaking both legs and an arm. José came to see me, on Sister Peggy's suggestion, because his son's legs needed to be pinned surgically and that could only happen if the family came up with $800 for the pins and rods.

This is a story I've become all too familiar with here: good hospital care and surgery is available without cost, but if healing requires any kind of medical equipment - a heart valve, interocular lenses, surgical pins, special tests, medication the hospital doesn't stock - the family will have to try to find the resources to buy what's needed. For poor families in El Salvador, like José's family, that's often completely impossible.

We were able to help José and Geovany, thanks to some generous donors, so yesterday José and I drove into the capital to make the purchase from Sistemas Biomedicas. We found the address without too much difficulty, but no one answered the doorbell in an office building that was far from the city center. Finally a man came along and explained that the company had moved down into the San Salvador medical center. He called for the address and gave us excellent and clear directions to 124 Boulevard Dr. Hector Silva. Following his directions, we found a likely street, but the street proclaimed that its name was Avenida Maria Elena. And we didn't see #124 anywhere. I drove to the Archdiocese of San Salvador office, not far away, to ask my friends there for some help. They looked up the street on the internet and gave me directions to, yes, the street apparently named Avenida Maria Elena. So we tried again, and this time we rang the bell at the building that seemed most likely to be #124, though it lacked a number, and yes, it was the new home of Sistemas Biomedicas, and yes, they could sell us the rods and pins.

Then we went to visit Geovany in the hospital, and I hoped to take a photo, but that turned out to be against hospital rules. I'll hope to include his photo when he's out of the hospital, working through his physical therapy to get back on his feet. Meanwhile, I'm glad we can help make his recovery possible, and I'm glad to know that Avenida Maria Elena really is Boulevard Dr. Hector Silva.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dog days

In winter, the rainy season (going on right now), we rely on the rain to cut the heat and bring in some natural air cooling, like the swamp coolers I remember from my Albuquerque days. But for the past couple of days, it hasn't rained here in Suchitoto - thunderstorms all around us, but only heat and more heat, humidity and higher humidity here. Over at the Centro Arte para la Paz, Peggy's Luna did what any sensible dog would do in this heat - found the coolest spot on the tile floor and put as much of herself in contact with it as possible. Don't think I haven't considered it!

But I found a better antidote to the heat and humidity of these dog days in the harp music floating out into the courtyard. Wendy is here on one of her regular visits from Ontario, and she was teaching her students a few new songs and techniques. It must be the power of music, but they all look radiant and cooler than cucumbers. A concert's planned for next weekend - Margaret Jane and I will surely be there. Meanwhile, we hope for some rain.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fiesta del Salvador del Mundo

Tomorrow is the feast of the Transfiguration, but here it's celebrated with extra passion and delight as the feast of El Salvador del Mundo, the savior of the world - El Salvador's patronal feast. This is one of three week-long celebrations in El Salvador during which people with government or office jobs get holidays: Christmas/New Year's; Holy Week; and the August vacations on the week that includes August 6th. These are all Christian celebrations, but there's not the separation between church and state here that exists in the U.S.

These three weeks are beautifully scattered through the year, so that every 4th month there's a week-long vacation. Salvadorans take off to other countries, to the beach, to the mountains, and some come to Suchitoto, so we always have extra folk roaming our streets during the vacations. The big celebration, with procession and parades and carnival rides and fireworks is in San Salvador - it's the patronal feast of the city as well as the country, of course.

We had our Suchitoto celebration of the Transfiguration tonight, because Padre Carlos Elias will be concelebrating with the Archbishop in San Salvador tomorrow. Before Margaret Jane and I went out for pupusas, we connected with Ana outside the church, and were happy to see her wearing the gloriously pink shoes Margaret Jane had brought back for her. A great feastday look!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Getting back into connection here in El Salvador, I made a bunch of visits yesterday. I went to Soyapango to see my almost-two-year-old Godson, Alejandro, who has definitely made the move from baby to boy. He's also gotten less shy in the two months I've been away, so I got plenty of smiles, one of them captured here. In the capital I visited with Armando, our Bajo Lempa friend with the fruit orchard and pig farm (he's now added chickens to his mix).

Then I drove to San Juan Opico to visit Sonia and her children. I translated, as best I could, a letter from Dr. Dale Heisinger expressing his sorrow at the death of her daughter Gema, and she gave me a letter she had written for Dr. Dale. You can feel the loss and sadness in the family, especially in Sonia and Julia, now the oldest child, but they've also moved back into the daily rhythms of work and play. Sonia and Julia were working together on making jewelry when I came in; Jarrison was playing in a doctor outfit that Sonia had found in a 2nd hand store, and Kelly was a tiny charmer, as always. The milpa that surrounds their house is full of high-as-an-elephant's-eye corn, the pila is full of water from the rains, and the fruit trees are bearing. Life ongoing.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


For the past two years the harvests of corn and beans, the staple foods of Central America, have been terrible because drought came at the wrong time or because the rains were too heavy. This year we seem to be hitting the "just right" that Goldilocks longed for. The rains started late, but they've been consistent and not too heavy (relatively speaking: a not-too-heavy downpour in the tropics looks like a deluge in the north). The harvests are already beginning to come in, and should continue through the month of August. Yesterday on a walk around Suchitoto I found evidence at this house where the beans have been laid out to dry on the sidewalk, hung over the open door, and draped all over the frame of the family pickup. It's a good reminder that Suchitoto is very much a rural community center as well as a tourist destination.

Gracias a Dios por la cosecha - Thanks be to God for the good harvest, for the tortillas and frijoles that are daily bread for the people. Thanks for the rain.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The path she chose

Things don't always work out the way you'd planned them, as we all know. On Thursday, I got up at 3 AM and drove to Ciudad Arce to pick up Sandra and her grandmother. Sandra was going to enter Hospital Bloom, the national pediatric hospital, for cataract surgery (she has congenital cataracts). Sandra and la abuela were on time at our meeting place, smiling happily at me. We got into San Salvador in time to be among the first entering Bloom, and after waiting an hour and a half for the doctors to arrive, were among the first in to see Dr. Dominguez, Sandra's surgeon, who said that yes, she would have her surgery the next day.

All seemed to be going well, and we had a little break to get breakfast in one of the busy comedors across from el Bloom. We came back in and waited for four hours for a pediatrician who would examine Sandra and other children waiting for admission. Then a nurse showed up with a hospital identification bracelet for Sandra, and we were suddenly in a very difficult situation. She refused the bracelet, ran to the hospital entrance and collapsed into a chair, very distressed. Two understanding nurses talked to her, and so did grandma and I, but she couldn't respond in words until finally she was able to say NO to the surgery. And, we all agreed, at 14 she had the right to say no.

And so I bought us some lunch and then took Sandra and grandma home. Sandra recovered on the way back and was chatting comfortably with her grandmother by the time we reached Ciudad Arce.

For me and for the donors who had generously purchased the interocular lens for her surgery (we'll ask Dr. Dominguez to find another child who needs it) it was a disappointment. But, as so often happens, someone had sent me the right thoughts for dealing with this situation. The someone is Cheryl Sesnon, the new Executive Director of Jubilee Women's Center in Seattle, where I once worked and once served on the Board of this great housing program for homeless women. I'd stopped by to get to know her while I was back in the States, and we'd talked a bit about our times of discouragement as well as our joy in the work. She recently e-mailed me, "Each time I feel despair I just have to remember that I am not in control of others. They each have their own path to follow. and I have my own path, as well."

So as I drove back to Suchitoto, more than 12 hours after leaving, I blessed Sandra on her path, and gave thanks that she was able to express her will so unmistakably. I don't know if I can say this clearly, but it's good for me, a gringa with access to much that's unavailable to most Salvadorans, to be reminded that the path I and my fellow norteamericanos might want to help someone choose isn't always their path.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In Suchitoto

I took the red-eye to Houston just before midnight on Monday, and the morning flight to El Salvador today. Roberto met me at the airport, and soon I was back in Suchitoto - and it feels wonderful to be here.

My two months in the northwest were a blessing of regained health; joyful and renewing time with my Sisters, family and friends; and summer days in the great beauty of western Washington. I realized, though, in the last few days there that the rich, clean, orderly, luxurious and beautiful environment of Bellevue had begun to feel somewhat unreal to me, and I knew I was called back to El Salvador.

On the way back to Suchitoto I noticed the roads crowded with people walking, the pickups overflowing with passengers, broken-down abandoned cars, heaps of rubbish, trees and shrubs and grasses green with the daily rains, dogs and kids and sidewalk restaurants, a poor, messy, chaotic, lively and vital environment. Real. My ankles swelled instantly in the heat and the mosquitoes located me (gringa alert) and went to work. I'm itching. I'm glad to be back.