Sunday, February 27, 2011

Celebrating la tercera edad

La tercera edad, the third age, is what they call being a senior citizen here in El Salvador - and come to think of it, it makes a lot more sense and poetry than "senior citizen." Last week we had a fiesta for people in la tercera edad at the Centro Arte para la Paz, complete with a band that knew how to play the old Salvadoran standbys for dancing - though when we got into rock tunes, a little later, could see that these are my contemporaries. We all danced to the Beatles back in the 60s, and we all could keep that beat going. Some segunda edad folk even snuck in to enjoy the dancing with us - Arielle on the left in the photo above is one of Peggy O'Neill's full-time volunteers this year. Great fun - there were prizes for all, including the oldest person there, a man of 99 who I often greet on the corner of my street, and the woman with most children - someone claimed she had 14, though when she stood up she only mentioned 10. Other prizes were raffled, even the two piñatas. We were served coffee and a refrigerio (a snack, the first time I met this word I had a terrible time disentangling it from refrigerator, refrigerador) and had a good time.

I knew some of the folk there by name, others by sight, and many were new to me, but it was fun to be among my contemporaries in la tercera edad.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Terror on the roads

In the last three days, a rash of bus accidents have left more than 20 people dead, more than 100 injured in El Salvador. This is a story at least as familiar and as terrifying as the stories of extortion and intimidation by gang members.

In each case some of the bus drivers were going far faster than the speed limit, and in some cases the buses were jockeying with each other for the lead. The result - not surprising given the age and mechanical condition of many buses here - was a disaster for the people on the buses and for the overworked hospital system, but not for the owners of the bus lines. (photo from La Prensa Grafica)

I'm told that the owners of bus lines have no requirement to buy insurance or to indemnify people when they are injured by wild drivers or bad equipment. In other words, they have no serious financial interest in making sure that their buses are well maintained and driven by competent motorists.

Since most Salvadorans have no choice but to take a bus or one of the many pickups that provide para-transit around the country, it's a matter of justice to give the bus route owners some self-interest in safety. There's been a call to require owners to have insurance, which seems like an obvious next step, but that seems to be mired in a tug-of-war between those who favor a public insurance provider and the private insurance market. Meanwhile, the crashes continue.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Today I visited a girl who just might be the cutest 9-year-old on the planet (I know, I know, there are many contestants!). Her name is Gloribel, and our November mission team met her during our eye clinic in San Juan Opico. She is deaf - though apparently she has some level of hearing as I'm told fireworks startle her - and our November team wanted to see how we can help her. We will soon be making an appointment to bring her to San Salvador for hearing tests and fitting with a hearing aid, if that will be helpful. I had missed meeting her in November, so invited myself to a visit today, with help from her neighbor, Carmen Aviles de Mariona who had been one of our grand San Juan Opico volunteers.

On the way to Carmen's I got lost (of course), and with help from local folk, who all know the Marionas, got more or less on the right track again. Stopped to ask for more help, and who was there but Toño, who'd driven all our San Juan Opico surgery patients to Hospital San Rafael - an old friend and neighbor of Carmen's. He hopped in the car and showed me just where to go, and soon I was chatting with Carmen and Chita - they are, by the way, an incredible singing duo, as our March and November, 2010 mission groups can testify. They took me to meet Gloribel, who's a neighbor, and we had a fine time. She's a very bright girl who communicates very well non-verbally - she'll take to sign language like a pro if she gets the opportunity.

Gloribel's mother told me that she had taken Gloribel to FUNTER, a Salvadoran non-profit, for hearing tests and a possible hearing aid. They would have provided a hearing aid, but asked for a payment of $40, which was too much for the very limited resources of this family. I am trusting that we will be able to help Gloribel have a better outcome this time.

I traveled home with Carmen's gift, a sack of beautiful red beans, waved at Toño along the way, and promised to come back soon to visit my new and old Opico friends.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Music, full moon, night in Suchitoto

Tonight began wonderfully with a light supper at our favorite restaurant, la Villa Balanza, followed by a moving and beautiful cello concert by Götz Teutsch (here's a recent photo), part of the annual International Festival of Art and Culture in Suchitoto. In addition to the concert - two Bach Suites for solo cello sandwiching briefer and wilder contemporary music by Dieter Acker and Bernd Alois Zimmerman - we enjoyed a wine reception hosted by the German Embassy.

A magical evening, and the beauty of it continued as Margaret Jane and I walked home under the full moon, stopping at a local hall to pray with Tina, a woman who's one of the leaders of our local church, at the vigil for her mother, who died at 92.

But when we got home the disco next door started up, and the contrast between the beauty of the cello and the angry, relentless rhythms our neighbor fancies was hard to bear. It's still going on, but I'm listening to music I like better on my iPod, remembering the earlier magic of the night, and staying peaceful.

Monday, February 14, 2011

God be with you

Do you know that "goodbye" is a shortening of "God be with you"? This morning Kathy and I hugged our wonderful medical team goodbye and sent them into the airport, knowing that God was with them. By now, they're home and telling their stories to family and friends, as they remember the people and the days of our mission.

We saw 1305 of San Rafael Cedros' citizens during our five days with a total of 2185 clinic visits. A number of our patients had serious illnesses that needed referrals to the local clinic or hospital for follow-up care. I'll be keeping connected to some of those follow-ups, and to our 50 patients for the cataract surgery week in May.

We will all remember different things from the week, different faces - surely this lovely woman in pink will be well remembered by Kathy and Sister Amalia - but we know we've been blessed by the people of San Rafael. And we've been deeply blessed by getting to know each other. By the end of this intense week, the 28 of us had worked together, laughed together, shared stories, wept a little, danced, played cards, enjoyed Salvadoran food, loved the sunshine in February. It was as smooth a week as Kathy and I have experienced, and for this we're grateful both to our great team and to the super-organized local volunteers of San Rafael Cedros. May God be with all those returning home with memories of a week well spent.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

San Rafael Cedros

We had a wonderful week of clinics in San Rafael Cedros, and since a photo is definitely worth a thousand words in this case, I'll let a few photos tell the story. We were in the municipal kindergarten, a small building to hold our group of 28 plus our local volunteers and the patients we were seeing, but it worked beautifully - and coming up on the bus every morning we delighted in seeing Micky and Minnie and the crew.

The first photo shows Dr. Dale Heisinger, a great pediatrician, with Jen Cowan, his interpreter, and one of the many families they saw. While many of our providers needed interpreters, Trevor Moerkerke, a 4th year medical student working under the direction of Dr. Ron Stock, used his excellent Spanish to talk with this mother. Our pharmacists dispensed medications through the elaborate framed window - Moises Lucero, an ER nurse in his day job, patiently explained dosing instructions to each person. The last photo shows Iris Alas, our local coordinator (on right) with some of the great group of local volunteers who organized our patients and kept the lines moving smoothly every day.

We worked hard all day, and each night returned to the Santisima Trinidad Casa de Retiro, a retreat center (not retirement!) overlooking Lake Ilopango, where we enjoyed excellent and traditional Salvadoran food, followed by cribbage, bananagrams, dancing, and a good night's sleep. Today we're at the luxurious Hotel Novo in San Salvador, and I've been listening to our team talking about how important this week has been for them, and how it has recharged them for the work they'll soon be returning to. And that is the idea.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The week ahead

I just talked to Kathy Garcia in Seattle, where the mission team has gathered at the airport. Everything is going well, weather looks OK, and - primero Dios - we will soon be greeting each other in San Salvador.

I will not be posting this week, as we won't have internet access during our clinics, so I'll take this chance to look ahead at what we'll be doing.

Tonight, if we're lucky, we'll get to our retreat house about midnight, and everyone will be more than ready for sleep. On Sunday we head for San Rafael Cedros and begin setting up the clinics in the morning. We'll have lunch in a local restaurant and meet the community volunteers who'll be working with us all week. In the afternoon we train the local volunteers, review the clinics with the mission team, and bag vitamins.

Monday through Thursday, we leave the retreat house at 7 AM, in time to start clinics at 8. We're offering four clinics - General Medicine, Pediatrics, Gynecology and Eyes. Our patients can choose as many as three clinics, and when they've completed their clinics they head to our pharmacy for any medications the doctors have prescribed, as well as vitamins, toothbrushes, and lotion. On Friday we have a half-day of clinics, finishing at noon, pack up, and celebrate with a despedida to thank our local volunteers and the community of San Rafael Cedros. We expect to see about 350 patients each day, between 1500 and 1600 in the course of the week.

Friday night we move to the Hotel Novo in San Salvador and celebrate our week with pupusas. On Saturday the mission team visits the Hospital Divina Providencia where Monseñor Romero lived and where he was assassinated in 1980 and the University of Central America (UCA) where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed in 1989. Shopping time is also included in this day, and we finish up with pizza and coconut ice cream at the CIS (Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad), getting a perspective on contemporary life in El Salvador from CIS Director Leslie Schuld.

Sunday, the team's last day in El Salvador, we'll come to Suchitoto, visit Sr. Peggy O'Neill at the Centro Arte para la Paz, have lunch at our Base House, do a bit more shopping, and return to the Novo to pack. On Monday, everyone's on the bus at 4am, headed for the airport and the long trip home.

That's primero Dios, of course, God willing. There will be surprises, there always are, and laughter and heartbreaking moments - that I know for sure. And in a week, I'll let you know how it's been.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


My favorite get-ready-for-the-mission ritual is ironing: 10 shirts, a few pairs of pants. Korla, who's 23, told me she's maybe used an iron 5 times in her life. This is definitely one of those generational things, but I love the ritual and the smug satisfaction of having a clean shirt ready for every day of the team's visit. I have the additional advantage of not having to pack my ironed shirts - I can just take them over to the retreat house we're staying in on Saturday. Tonight the perfect accompaniment for ironing was a good episode of Law and Order, which runs just as often here as it does in the U.S.

But the best part of today was taking a copy of our franquisia to the customs office at the airport. This is the first time I've ever had it early enough to give them a head start, and we were all pleased. I don't know if this will mean less time standing around on Saturday night, but I'm hoping so.

Meanwhile, up in Oregon, Washington and Alaska, folk are packing up, ironing (or not), Kathy is checking over the tubs and duffel bags, car pools are assembling for the trip to Seattle. Tomorrow night (Friday) is packing night, when everything gets put together at the SeaTac hotel, and on Saturday our team will begin a very long day before the crack of dawn - a day that will end in Candelaria, El Salvador, probably close to midnight. We're all ready!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


It's only Tuesday, the PazSalud volunteers don't arrive until late Saturday evening, and I am in a most uncharacteristic state of having almost everything ready. Our franquisia, customs permission, is in hand and copied. Snacks and soft drinks and coffee and water are sitting in our bodega (storeroom). I've met with our local volunteers and with the women who'll be cooking our lunches, I've talked to the retreat house where we'll be staying the first six nights and the hotel where we'll spend the weekend. I've checked in with the San Rafael Cedros health clinic and with the police and with the Mayor's office.

My to-do list, impressive last week, just has a couple of things left for each day this week. I still do have to print some forms, iron shirts, pack my bag.

I was so delighted to be this close to ready that I celebrated this afternoon with a cooking orgy - made a bean soup with roasted vegetables, roasted red pepper salsa, and a ginger/garlic/honey tea I've been brewing to keep my throat and lungs happy. The house smells amazing. And I'm ready for a week of the best hard work in the best company possible.