Monday, December 31, 2012


New Year's Eve is as good a time as any to look back on the harvests of last year (in Suchitoto, a great year for corn and beans) and forward to the harvests of next year.  The coffee harvest has begun - and on our way back from a trip to Lago Atitlán we saw coffee trees loaded with ripening berries.  Cutting the berries is just the first step in a very long process that ends in my morning cup of strong coffee, but it's the part of that process that brings a welcome bit of money to highlands communities.  Here's a tree ready for cutting:
Further down the road we saw a man who'd been collecting the berries and paying the workers:
I imagine that some of those earnings turned into the firecrackers and fireworks that are about to brighten the skies here and terrify all the dogs, but surely some also will become tortillas and beans and rice, food for the new year.

Just for the joy of it, here's another kind of 2012 harvest, Sheila McShane with a 3-month old baby.  She helped this little girl's disabled mother through her pregnancy and now gets to cuddle this small charmer - part of the rhythm of life in the Clinica Maxeña, Santo Tomas la Union.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Opico friends

I'm still in Guatemala on holiday, but I'm leaping back a few days to remember a grand Saturday excursion with my friends Dina and Darren to visit some good friends in San Juan Opico.  We brought our medical mission to Opico in 2010, and Dina was the world's best coordinator, helping me get acquainted with people she had been working with for decades.  I invited her to come along with Darren and me on our Saturday excursion to bring Christmas baskets and PazSalud calendars to Opico friends, and, being Dina, she organized the whole day beautifully.

We started out with a visit to Gumersindo and family in Agua Escondida and left with three heaping bags of Antonia's wonderful tamales.  Then we visited Reyna, Sonia, and Sonia's children in Arenal -  here's Jarrison unwrapping a Christmas gift -

The next stop was Chantusnene where Carmen Galdamez and Carmen Orellana, two remarkable women, were waiting for us with a delicious lunch AND sent us off with mandarins and lemons - that's Dina and Carmen O at the table, with Carmen G. below -

Finally we swung back to Agua Escondida to visit the third Carmen, Carmen Aviles, and found her and her family getting ready for what was clearly going to be a very special birthday party for Carmen's granddaughter Andrea - there were TWO enormous piñatas waiting to be bludgeoned and a big crowd of family and friends gathering -
Carmen happily found time to talk with us while the crowd gathered, and fed us some of her glorious quesadilla (not the Mexican quesadilla, this is a sweet, moist cheesy cake) and gave us more to take home.  We were about to go next door to visit Gloribel, Carmen's goddaughter whom we've been helping to get to a school for the deaf in Santa Ana - but then she showed up for the party with her sister, and we happily exchanged presents (that's Gloribel on the left):
As always has happened when I've visited San Juan Opico, we were welcomed like long-lost, sought-after friends and we returned to the city with the car full of good food and grand memories. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In Santo Tomas la Union

This week Maria del Carmen and I are guests of CSJP Associate Sheila McShane, who runs the Clinica Maxeña (that's pronounced mashenya, more or less, and is the Quiche version of Thomas) in Santo Tomas la Union, Suchitepequez, Guatemala.  It's been great to connect with Sheila (working away on her laptop here, in the common dining room) and to see the good work this clinic has been doing for almost fifty years now. 

The Clinica Maxeña is a mission of the Diocese of Helena, Montana and Sheila has been part of it almost from the beginning, though she had to leave for many years during Guatemala's Civil War. Along with Father Kevin, who joined the mission this year, and BVM Sisters Mary and Anna (alas, I don't have their last names!) Sheila forms a small North American community in this very Quiche Mayan community.  Unlike Suchitoto, this is a town where you don't see any foreigners outside the Clinica group and visitors like Maria del Carmen and me. 

Today I toured a very beautiful and very special part of the Clinica Maxeña, the natural medicine garden.  There were some familiar plants - oregano, mint, marigold - but others that seemed fantastic, like this plant with long leaf blades and tiny flowers along the sides of the blades.  It's good for taming parasites, I was told.

Another plant with broad, flat leaves thrust up a group of delicate bell flowers (I didn't learn its purpose):
and the trees hosted their own communities of parasites and collaborators, including a white orchid in bloom:
It's no surprise that the garden was full of butterflies of many different colors, sizes and shapes.  Here's one that was kind enough to pause for a photo:

Indeed, an enchanted garden.  I hope those who work with the traditional medicines made from these plants will be able to keep the knowledge and interest alive among the people of Santo Tomas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Babies with babies

Back in 2009 when I was very new to El Salvador I met a young girl named Nubia, who lived in Comasagua with her mother, brother and sister.  The family was very poor, and we began giving them some regular assistance, with the help of my wonderful Comasagua friend, Rosa Aguiar, who turned my dollars into the groceries the family needed.

Years have passed, and tiny Nubia grew up, found a boyfriend, got pregnant, and just had a baby girl at the age of 15.  This sounds like a terrible event, babies having babies, but in this case there's more to the story.  Nubia's family situation was very difficult, not only because of poverty.  She has been accepted joyfully by her novio's family, and has been living with them during her pregnancy.  They have a good and stable home and are offering both Nubia and her baby family love and care.  They'll also support Nubia returning to school in January.

I got to meet and hold Nubia's new baby girl, whose name seems to be Esmelia (not quite sure I have this right).  Nubia was glowing, and full of maternal pride and care.

Yes, she's too young to have a baby, but this is one of those times when, with the help of God, something beautiful - the love of her new family - has transformed this difficult situation into blessing.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sandra and her teachers

Last week, Rosy Melara and Darren and I met Sandra's new teacher (more on Sandra's story here) -
her name is Sonia Melara (though she's no relation to Rosy - there's a fairly small set of common last names in El Salvador that crop up everywhere).  Sonia (who's on the left in the photo above, standing next to Sandra) will be accompanying Sandra to school four mornings a week.  Sandra has therapy in FUNTER, a rehabilitation non-profit, on the fifth morning.

Sandra's lucky - Sonia graduated from the Universidad Francisco Gavida with a "Profesora" certificate in early childhood education in 2008, but has not been able to find a full-time teaching job - it can be dismally difficult here for new, well-credentialed teachers to find a post.  We are more than happy to give Sonia at least a good part-time position, and to give Sandra the opportunity to learn that she deserves.  School starts at the end of January, which is the end of summer vacation.

Here's to Sandra and Sonia enjoying their new partnership!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Of compost and drainage and trees

I visited the Permacultura demonstration farm again last week with Maryknoll Lay Missioners Peg (Margarita) and Darren and with Peg's colleague Reynaldo.  Peg and Reynaldo are working with farmers in Monte San Juan, a colonia of Cojutepeque, not far from Suchitoto. 

We had a fine tour through all the careful, ingenious and beautiful arrangements that make this steep and challenging site fertile after only four years of soil improvement.  Angelica showed us some of the many preparations that are used as natural fertilizers, including this barrel of fermenting ooze (the process is sometimes smelly, but the results are great).
At Permacultura, everything is captured and used: the droppings of rabbits and chickens, leaves, weeds, friendly bacteria, the products of the composting outhouse.  Instead of chemical fertilizers that deplete the soil, their compost enriches and strengthens it.  Instead of insecticides, aromatic plants help keep insects away.  Instead of cutting down trees to plant corn and beans, they plant these traditional milpa crops (using heritage seeds) around and among the trees.  The rocks pulled out of the slope are re-used to create drainage basins and pathways.  And nothing of this comes from the store or from a catalogue: it's all work done with local knowledge, local plants, the shape of the land and the changes of the seasons.
Peg and Reynaldo left, saying that they'd be back with more of the farmers from Monte San Juan.  I'll hope to bring more visitors to this place, which always gives me hope for the future.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A day in Paradise

Yesterday I was invited to visit the island Tasajera, a place I've heard much about from Dr. Lauren Herbert and Cathy McKay.  About five years ago Lauren, a pediatrician in PeaceHealth's Sacred Heart Medical Center, Eugene, visited the island with Dr. Daniel Perez at the end of one of our medical missions, and she has since been working (along with her church and with the people of Tasajera) to set up a medical clinic and - more recently - to bring wi-fi and the possibility of teleconsulting to the island (through a grant written by Dr. Dany to Conexion, a Salvadoran NGO).  Cathy McKay, a nurse in Bellingham, got involved a couple of years ago, and has helped a group of women on the island to start a sewing cooperative where they make beautiful handbags - the project is named, in her honor, Las Bolsas de Cati. 

Both Lauren and Cathy are visiting Tasajera this week, and they invited me to enjoy Sunday there.  And enjoy it I did, every minute of that day of beauty, peace and serenity - a day in Paradise!

After two hours driving, I finally arrived at La Puntilla, at the very end of the road to the Costa del Sol, where Lauren and Rosa, a health promoter who has the healthiest and most infectious laugh I've ever heard, met me.  We travelled across the estuary by lancha (motor boat) to Tasajera, the name both of the island and the small town at the island's tip, and then boarded a pony cart for the trip to the island's other town, Colorada.
In Colorada, we visited the three-room clinic where Lauren works when she's offering consultas on th island.  A young man was waiting to see her with a long series of problems; he left with a number of medications and instructions:
Then we headed out to lunch, in one of two Colorada comedores, both built out over the estuary, and both run by brothers of Rosa.  Looking out over the river, we ate shrimp, tender shells and all, and the freshest fried fish I've ever tasted.

The comedor's bathroom is also built over the river, a beautiful creation to behold, but I was happy not to need to use it:

From the comedor, we got to see closeup one of the local fishing boats, a true dugout canoe, with two young boys happily fishing (in the background are the mangroves that protect this low-lying island with their barrier of interlaced roots):
Then we got into a lancha and headed out to the confluence, where the Rio Jultepeque joins the big river, Lempa, and they both flow into the ocean.  We swam in the calm salty water of the confluence for a beautiful, dreamlike hour - we had the beaches all to ourselves - then headed back to La Puntilla, passing along the way an enormous number of pelicans, roosting in mangrove trees and in snags on the river:

An amazing, beautiful day.  I came to understand completely why the young folk on the island, when asked if they're interested in going to the capital to study or work say "no."  Who would trade this peaceful and beautiful island, this peaceful and beautiful way of life for the noise and danger of the city?

It wasn't until today that I realized that this place of great natural and human peace and beauty must be one of the thousands of places on our planet endangered by climate change and the rise of ocean level.  This gives me abundant reason to work harder to alter my own ways and to advocate for earth justice.

Gracias, Lauren and Cathy, por un dia en el paraiso and for all you're doing for the people of Tasajera!

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Members of our mission teams often ask Kathy and me what we do when we're not in the middle of one of our mission weeks.  I've always found that a hard question to answer because there are so many different parts to the work, but I know that I always seem to have more work than time, and I know the same is true for Kathy (and will likely be true for Darren next year). 

This week it would be easy to answer the question, because this week I've been focused on getting ready for our February mission.  On Tuesday Darren and I (and my cousin Margaret) went out to Estanzuelas to meet with Marvin, our Estanzuelas coordinator, and the cooks who will be making lunch for the mission team and our local volunteers in February.  My job was to explain to Sonia, the group leader, and to the other women the precautions they'd need to take to make sure that all the gringos stay healthy.  We asked them to use bottled or filtered water to wash fruits and vegetables, to wash hands and knives and pots carefully, to avoid some foods that are hard to keep free of bacteria, like lettuce and strawberries (a suspected culprit for several illnesses last year).  We figured out the menus for each day - typical Salvadoran foods - and agreed on a price, $4 per plate per day, that will allow them to include plenty of fruits with each lunch.  We talked about being sure to include enough non-meat items so our vegetarians won't starve.  We said how much our team members enjoy Salvadoran food and how much we'll all look forward to great lunches.

Then we drove over to Alegria, had a great lunch with Marvin at a restaurant with a stunning view over the valley below, and went through the same discussion with Mélida and Berto who are going to organize breakfasts and suppers for us at the retreat house.  Padre Juan José was, as always, a very gracious host - here he is, from Margaret's iPhone photo:
Tomorrow I head for Estanzuelas again, this time to brief our local volunteers and the health promoters who will be in charge of inviting participants to come to our clinics.  In between, I got briefing papers ready (in Spanish, with help from Maria del Carmen) and copied the invitations that the local volunteers will give to our patients and wrote to Dr. Melendez, our helpful contact with the Ministry of Health and even caught up on e-mail.  A few very satisfying days - it always feels good to have the preparations well in hand before everything shuts down in mid-December. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Down by the seashore

My cousin Margaret Rooker has been visiting this week, and we've had a great time talking and remembering and playing and enjoying El Salvador.  We managed a complete Thanksgiving feast for seven with turkey, an outrageously good cranberry sauce, and appropriate accompaniments - best of all, perhaps, the inside-out apple pie ala mode with a crust of oatmeal, pecans, and the local artesanal cane sugar, dulce de panela.

And then we stuffed all the leftovers in the refrigerator and took off for the beach where we walked and talked and watched the surfers and splashed and dabbled and ate good food....Here's Margaret at Roca Sunzal, basking in the summer sun on the day after Thanksgiving.  Tomorrow we're going to take the turkey out of the refrigerator and feast on with my friends Rosy Melara and Nena Angel.  It's always time for a good party!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sandra's going to school!

Monday was a very special day for me and some of my friends.  On Monday Sandra, the girl in green, was accepted into first grade in her neighborhood school. We met Sandra during our February mission in San José Villanueva - she was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that combines inflexible joints and weak muscles, and while she has received excellent physical and occupational therapy from FUNTER, an  El Salvador Foundation for rehabilitation, she had never been to school in her eleven years.

In an earlier post, I talked about the great gift that my friend and our PazSalud volunteer Rosy Melara gave to Sandra, volunteering to teach her basic reading and writing skills.  Rosy has been working with Sandra two to three days a week since June, and we all agreed that she's ready to start into a regular classroom, with a bit of support.

Monday Rosy, Sandra, Sandra's grandmother (to the left in the photo) and I met with the Director and first grade classroom teacher at the La Serena school, the public school closest to Sandra's house.  Thanks to the kindness of one of our great donors, we will be able to send Sandra to school with a special assistant who can help her adapt tasks and lessons.  When we asked the Director if she knew anyone who'd be a good assistant, thinking of a high-school student perhaps, she said she knew three teachers who didn't have jobs currently, and any one of them would be thrilled to take on this half-time position.  That's a sad reflection of economic realities in El Salvador, but a good blessing for Sandra.  Both the Director and the teacher were happy to welcome Sandra; she will start school along with other new first-graders in January. 

My heart is full of gratitude to our kind donor and to Rosy, who has worked so hard and so lovingly to give Sandra a good start. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Exploring the ruins

A delightful excursion yesterday - the Burgos family invited me to go with them to Tazumal, the largest and grandest of El Salvador's Mayan ruins.  We were joined by Jennifer, a norteamericana newly in El Salvador who teaches English subjects to Camila Burgos and her classmates in a bilingual school. 

Seeing Tazumal and listening to our very knowledgeable guide (above), I was reminded how recent we people of European stock and tradition are in this land's long history.  Tazumal and its surroundings have been continuously inhabited since about (hope I'm remembering this correctly) 1000 B.C.E., and the area is full of unexcavated remains from those earlier days.  Here's the main temple:

That earlier world still survives in many ways - in customs, in agricultural practices, in foods, in ceremonies, in family traditions - though in El Salvador it's been pretty thoroughly "translated" and blended into Latin-American life.  And, of course, that world survives in the people, especially in the campo: even though very few any longer speak Nahuat or Lenca, they carry the history in blood and bone. 

We finished our visit as those ancestors might have, walking across the street for lunch at a restaurant serving yucca, the premier dish of Chalchuapa, where Tazumal is located.   Yucca salchichada con chicharón and yucca frita con curtido - boiled yucca (tastes like the best potato you can imagine, only better) with pork rinds, and fried yucca with vinegar slaw - delicious.  Gracias a los Burgos for a wonderful day.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs

Today is the 23rd anniversary of the martyrdom of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America (UCA).  I hope to be at the annual memorial Mass tomorrow.

(Icon by Br, Robert Lentz, OFM)

Tonight I am remembering them, their courage, their commitment to the people, their faithfulness and their hope.  In the words of Fr. James Martin, S.J.:

Today we remember the six Jesuits and their two companions who were martyred in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989. The Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador stood with the poor and the oppressed in their country, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Liberator, and made the ultimate sacrifice for God, for the church and for their brothers and sisters.

Holy Martyr Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., pray for us.
Holy Martyr Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., pray for us.
Holy Martyr Segundo Montes, S.J., pray for us.
Holy Martyr Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., pray for us.
Holy Martyr Joaquín López y López, S.J., pray for us.
Holy Martyr Amando López, S.J., pray for us.
Holy Martyr Elba Ramos, pray for us.
Holy Martyr Celina Ramos, pray for us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Falling in holes and getting out of them

I'm back in Suchitoto, back in beautiful summer weather, and my two most faithful blog readers have noted grumpily that I have not been blogging much.  True, but I intend reformation, and to prove it, here's a story which probably many car drivers in El Salvador could tell.

Just before my last three weeks in the U.S., I had three consecutive days of driving my car into invisible holes.  On the first day, I was visiting Rosita in El Paraiso, and thought I'd drive out of her colonia on the only paved road, for a change (I usually connect to the highway by a dirt road).  Sounded like a good idea.  Wasn't.  There was a depression running the width of the street - possibly caused by runoff - and I went crashing into it because I didn't see it at all.  No harm done.

The next day I visited Sonia in San Juan Opico, and was turning off a main road onto the dirt road where she has her little tiendita (Sonia sells knickknacks at her children's school).  And there was another hole, also invisible, this one really mean with a pretty good-sized rock at bottom.  Extricated myself and discovered that I'd torn a hole in the bottom of the bumper and dislocated the hood from its proper seating. Otherwise, the car was driving normally, so I drove home to Suchitoto.

And on the third day (there's a scriptural ring to that) I was in San Salvador, driving on a perfectly level and beautifully paved street, driving up to the office of CONFRES, the Salvadoran Conference for Religious (Catholic Sisters, Brothers and Fathers) to pay our dues and buy some books - a blameless task.  I pulled up to park carefully right in front of their building and whump down went the right front tire into what I discovered (once I got out) was an invisible storm drainage entry, about 2 x 4 feet and at least 4 feet deep, missing its cover.  The left rear tire was up in the air, and having 4-wheel drive didn't do a bit of good, though I tried.  A nice young man came along, trying to be helpful, and we decided that I should call my insurance company.  I was in the middle of the call when a guy rode up on a motorscooter - ah, he said, my friend works at the gas station just down the street, he can come and get you out of this.  Great, I said.

While I waited for the friend, I went into CONFRES - might as well do my errand, and I wanted to be sure that they knew they had a car trap in front of their building.  Oh yes, said the very helpful Sister at the desk, someone stole the cover.  We called ANDA (the water company) but they haven't come. Ah, I said, but couldn't you put a tree in the hole to show people that it's there?  (This is the usual way of pointing out perils on the road here - trees, shrubs, big branches stuck in the holes...).  We did, she said, but someone took the tree. 

I went out again to find my moto friend had returned with his friend who jacked up the car expertly and had me back on the level quickly, for which I paid $23, and glad to pay it.  Though it did occur to me to wonder if, just perhaps, one of them was responsible for the disappearance of the drain and then the tree, and they just waited for fools to appear and fall in it...

But fortunately, again, I seemed not to have damaged the essential workings of the car.  Today I put it in the care of Chamba, our Suchitoto auto guru, who took it to a guy in Istagua who has replaced the bumper before.  Probably a good line of business in El Salvador.  He's replacing the bumper again, doing physical therapy on the hood, and realigning - and I think there were some other bits needing to be fixed that were past my Spanish car talk level.  It will cost me $160.  There are some very wonderful things about living here, and, as usual, they more than compensate for the invisible holes.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Introductions and New Possibilities

This long and informative blog post somehow got deleted, probably by me...  So I am trying to recreate what I vaguely remember saying a couple of weeks ago.

It's about Darren Streff, the Maryknoll Lay Missioner who has appeared in a few of my posts.  Darren began his Maryknoll mission in El Salvador with three months of Spanish study at the CIS, and while he was there - by beautiful serendipity, or as I prefer to think by grace of the Holy Spirit - he learned about our El Salvador Health Mission from Marilyn.  Marilyn, who was also studying at the CIS, met me when she was visiting in Suchitoto.  She's an adventurous Canadian, traveling on her own at the age of 80 (a great role model!), and we had connected over lunch at my favorite Suchi restaurant.  I had given Marilyn my e-mail address which she passed on to Darren.

He e-mailed to say that our mission sounded exactly like the kind of work he wanted to do in El Salvador, and could we get together?  We connected when all the Maryknoll Lay Missioners were making a retreat at the Centro Arte para la Paz, and began to talk.   Kathy Garcia and I invited Darren to come to a day of our eye surgery mission in April, and he loved every minute.  We could see how good he was with the patients and how much he enjoyed working with them, and we learned as we continued to work together that he's also reliable, creative, energetic and super-organized.  Here's a photo of Darren from that day.

Darren's background, with years of professional work in health care planning, administration and advocacy, was a great fit with PeaceHealth, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and the El Salvador Health Mission.  Kathy and I had been talking about a succession plan, as my asthma has been slowing me down and making me realize that it's about time for a quieter life.   We saw a few possibilities, but once Darren showed up, we knew that he would be a ideal person to be our new in-country coordinator. 

Happily, PeaceHealth Board President Sister Andrea Nenzel and PeaceHealth CEO and Chief Mission Officer Alan Yordy agreed that Darren will be a great person to carry on the mission that Sister Eleanor Gilmore began 12 years ago.   We were able to introduce Darren to PeaceHealth and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in October and November, in a rapid series of meetings that we all enjoyed.  Darren will be working with me until May, and then will get to take over the car and the bank account and the family support and scholarship programs and the many, many tubs of stored mission materials (his San Salvador house will be bulging!).  I'll continue to be involved with the mission in many ways - helping with fund development, updating the website, and - most important of all - participating in all our missions. 

It's a very happy development, and I'm grateful for Darren, one of the better gifts of the Holy Spirit.  May his work with the El Salvador Health Mission be full of joy and peace.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bureaucratic tangles

Last week I had two brushes with Salvadoran bureaucracy that left me both crazed and awestruck.

Darren and I came out of a meeting at the Ministry of Health - I'd been pleased to find a place to park my car right in front of the building - to find a ticket on the windshield.  I saw that I'd parked by a yellow-painted curb, and down at the other end of the block was a small sign saying that parking was only available for official cars.  Ooops.  It had been raining and the ticket was soaked, so we put it to dry on the back seat.  A couple of stops later we noticed that the car no longer had license plates.  Our first and natural assumption was that they'd been stolen - a good possibility, as the Ministry of Health is in the historic center of town where thieves are said to abound.  Darren called a lawyer friend to ask how we should report this crime, and the lawyer asked if by chance we'd gotten a ticket.  Well.....yes.  And when we looked more closely, we discovered that the ticket - which was listing this parking mishap as the heaviest possible level of transportation crime and assessing a fine of $54, astronomical in Salvadoran terms - had a little checkmark noting that the plates had been removed.

So we called Darren's lawyer friend again and he sent us to an office of the transportation police.  When we got there, the guard at the gate refused to even let us enter; instead, he gave me a one-page paper telling me that I couldn't pay the fine and get my plates back for 24 hours.  I drove back to Suchitoto hoping I wouldn't have to explain myself, and then back into the capital the next day, 24 hours later, to pay the fine.  In Sertracen (where one pays fines and renews licenses) they happily took my $54 and told me to go around the building to the Vice-Ministry of Transportation Office to collect my license plates.  When I got there, the officials on hand looked at my paperwork and looked at their files and informed me that my plates were....somewhere else.  I would have to come back the next day.

And so I drove back to Suchitoto (this time at least I had paperwork to show I'd paid the fine, and a good thing too, as finally the police did stop me to ask why I was driving with no license plates) and back to Sertracen the next morning where I finally got the plates, but not the nuts and bolts that had held them on the car - those had apparently been discarded on site, or in someone's pocket.  I'm still trying to figure out why parking in a forbidden parking space is a crime more heinous than speeding (ticket of about $15 if I remember correctly, and no tinkering with the license plates) or any of the other really dangerous tricks that Salvadoran motorists get up to daily. 

That same day, after retrieving my plates, I went to the Migration office where I'd paid for my year's Residence Visa in January, but had yet to receive it.  I've had to purchase two 3-month temporary visas so I could leave and re-enter the country.  But the best moment in this particular bureaucratic hell was in August when the office called me to come in, and told me that I had to get a letter from the embassy to say that I am really who I say I am because the version of my name was slightly (very, very, very slightly) different in my birth certificate, my police check, and my passport.  Never mind that all three showed the exact same place and date of birth and that the difference was between Susan Vera Dewitt, Susan Vera De Witt, and Susan V. Dewitt.  Not only did I have to go to the embassy for a letter ("we see this all the time," they said, tiredly), I had to pay to have Salvadoran staff in a special little office not far from the embassy to put an apostille on my letter from the embassy to certify that it was genuine.  I had, of course, to pay for that, which may well have been the point. 

This time, in October, I didn't get past the front desk of the Migration office.  The receptionist kindly informed me that my card wasn't ready, and probably wouldn't be, and they were changing the whole process somehow, and things would be different next year, but meantime...meantime....

And then I went home, asked Alcides to attach my license plates, and tried very hard to stay peaceful.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Elemental struggles

I'm back from London, where every street was rich with history, with elaborate architectural detail, with an immense variety of people from all parts of our world.  Thanks to our Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Congregation Programme, we were able to see beyond that beauty and visible wealth to the struggles of those who are just trying to survive, trying to get a foot in the door, or losing their petition for asylum. 

Now I'm back in El Salvador where history is briefer and more ambiguous,where there's less variety of peoples, but where the struggle to survive is often sharper and more challenging.

The problems my Salvadoran friends have to confront and survive make me sad and humble.  One of my friends called to tell me his brother had been arrested, accused of a murder that happened two years ago.  My friend thinks he can prove his brother was at work at the day and hour of the murder, but he has to find money for a lawyer to put those proofs before the court, and his family is poor.

Another friend stopped by with her 18-year-old daughter, who is scheduled for kidney surgery tomorrow.  She's been taking care of her daughter and her father, who has a failing heart.  She makes her family's living by doing laundry, and she's looking pretty desperate right now.

I can help a little, thanks to Sisters and Associates who have generously given money that I save for the needs of people here in Suchitoto, but it's very limited help, and the needs are huge.  I'm painfully aware of the gap between the rich world - in London asylum seekers who were admitted could also get housing and some income support - and the poor world, where the struggle just to put food on the table can be overwhelming. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hospitality, resistance, the Catholic Worker

On Monday and Tuesday, we visited the Guiseppe Conlon Catholic Worker House in Harringay, North London, and the Catholic Worker Farm in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of London.  Both the House and the Farm take in guests - the House offers shelter, food and community to about 17 men who are refused asylum seekers - men from all over the world.

Guiseppe Conlon House is at the back of an old church in a Turkish neighborhood, almost invisible from the street.  Father Martin Newell welcomed us, told us a bit of the Catholic Worker history, talked about the grounding of their work in Catholic Social Teaching, and led us in a Eucharistic celebration.  As a community, they are "ecumenical, pacifist, communitarian and anarchist in the spirit of gentle personalism."  They fed us with the same generosity and community spirit that they offer to their guests - and at least we did help with the cleaning up: Father Terry Moran, CSJP-A on the left and Katrina Alton, CSJP Candidate and soon-to-be novice on the right, with one of the core community members.  Katrina has been part of the Catholic Worker community and has participated in some of their acts of resistance, including a protest at the Ministry of Defense headquarters for which she was arrested (see the posting of September 5, 2012)

At the farm, we met with Scott Albrecht, who shared with us some of the ways his history has led him and his family to choose life as Catholic Workers.  The farmhouse and a couple of acres are leased from the farmer who raises cattle on the farm; the Catholic Worker community has a grand vegetable garden, with plenty of kale, zucchini, chard, beans, tomatoes and potatoes for the community dinners.  Their guests are women and children, again women who are not easily able to get asylum. We were wonderfully fed on lamb stew, tomato soup, and green salad, and we returned home - in sunshine at last - full of admiration for the work of these Catholic Workers, work without salary and with many worries about having money to pay the rent and the light bill, work shared joyfully with friends and guests.

In the top photo above, Scott in front of the fireplace in the 14th century farmhouse; below, the vegetable garden.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

London rain

There's a theme emerging - I last wrote about getting caught out in the rain in Suchitoto, and today all 35 of us were caught out in the rain in the London Wetland Centre, an event totally appropriate to being in the wetlands.

The glorious swans and colorful ducks found it all delightful, but for me it was a rude reminder of just how cold and wet rain can be in a cold climate.  Getting back to St. Katharine's in Limehouse meant riding across almost the entire breadth of London on various Tube lines, but then we were warm and at home, inside, which is the only perfect place to be in a rainstorm.

I am loving the double experience of being in this great city of London, with all its delightful and bewildering variety of peoples and languages and being with my Sisters and Associates of St. Joseph of Peace community, whom I miss greatly when I'm in El Salvador.  Our times of prayer and deep reflection are powerful - and so are the times of laughing over card games and counting noses on the Tube.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Suchitoto to London

Tomorrow morning I get up very, very early to fly to London.  And I have to say that it sounds so unlikely as I sit here, stewing in the wet heat of September - to be going from this quiet village to one of the world's great cities, from this tropical heat to classic British weather (chilly and gray, I believe).  I'm going to be part of a Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Program - we will be learning about responses to climate change, to poverty, to trafficking, hearing from inspiring people, and inspiring each other with our prayers and reflections. 

Today I would have been happy with sunny, hot and humid, the normal mix.  But about an hour after I hung some laundry out to dry, rain started, and I had to rush to take it in, half wet.  I had one errand outside the house, mailing some letters and paying a bill and yes, I got caught in a downpour without an umbrella.  Saved the letters from getting wet, but not myself.  We need the rain here, I'm not complaining... well, not complaining a lot.  I hope Suchitoto will get plenty of daily rain while I'm gone, and I hope I'll come back from London longing for the heat and the warm rain. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

El Rey de las Burbujas

A couple of days ago I picked up Richard Stanley and his mother, Mari, at their home in San Rafael Cedros and drove them in for Richard's appointment with a pediatric cardiologist in Hospital Bloom.  Mari and I were both on edge because the cardiologist had said that Richard might need a pacemaker, and we didn't want this little guy to have surgery again, just a year after he got his new heart valve.  Richard, on the other hand, seemed to be having a great time, observing every car, motorcycle, pickup, dumpster, truck with the passionate attention of a four-year-old male. 

At the Bloom, Richard had an X-ray and an EKG, and he got a prize for being a prize patient: a little bottle and wand to blow bubbles with.  And as only a four-year-old can be, he was completely absorbed by blowing bubbles and trying to catch bubbles and dunking his wand into the bottle for more bubble soap.  Somewhere along the way, he forgot to be afraid of me (I think the fact that I can drive a car and drove a car that he rode in did much to make me an acceptable person) and passed me the bubble wand.  So we blew bubbles at each other happily for about an hour and a half.
Richard even forgot that he's camera-shy and enjoyed seeing this photo of a bubble that he successfully caught on the wand.  Clearly, he's the Rey de las Burbujas, the King of the Bubbles.  And, as you can see, he's also Spiderman, El Hombre Araña. 

I had to leave before Richard had his time with visiting pediatric cardiologists, but it was a joy to hear later from Mari that the visitors checked all the tests, looked at Richard, and concluded that he doesn't need any interventions, either surgical or medical.  I can blow a bubble or two to celebrate that news!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Una Vida Libre de Violencia

There's a motto that you see all over Suchitoto - it's stenciled on many, many houses, the outline of the national bird, the torogoz, sitting on a flower (Suchitoto means bird-flower in Nahuat) and underneath these words: En esta casa queremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres.  In this house, we want a life free of violence against women.  (It's not on my house, alas, but only because the outside got repainted in December and I haven't been able to find anyone who could stencil it again for me).

This motto - it also appears on a big billboard at the entrance to the town - is up on our walls for the sad and necessary reason that there's far too much violence against women in El Salvador, and in our beautiful, apparently tranquil town of Suchitoto. For the wider perspective, there's an excellent recent article on Femicide in Tim's El Salvador Blog, and every day the terrible stories show up in the newspaper and the news shows.

Recently, over the long August holiday weekend, brutal violence almost took the life of a woman I know, a woman who's part of the fabric of Suchitoto, living and working here with her family and among friends.  I don't know the details, except that the assailant was not a stranger, but Luz was stabbed many, many times and only survived thanks to heroic immediate work in the Suchitoto hospital and long weeks of intensive care in the capital.  She's been in a coma through the past month, and has just begun to emerge, facing terrible pain and months of slow work to return to life.

I am praying for Luz, and for all the women, for my friends and neighbors, that here in El Salvador we may begin to find a path out of the brutal violence that haunts every woman's life and every woman's nightmares.  Una vida libre de violencia: this should be the birthright of every woman, man and child.  Until that day, the work continues.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

It's about time

I'm in New Jersey for 5 days this week, for a meeting of the editorial board of Living Peace, our Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace magazine, and I can't help noticing that everyone here is on the same time.  Check the clock in my room: 1:50.  And my cell phone: 1:50.  And the computer: 1:50.  And so on and on...we are always clear about what time it is in the United States.  You might say we're as obsessed by it.

It's not that way in El Salvador.  I don't quite understand it, because I always assumed that all the electronics set themselves automatically to some electronic beam of perfect timing sent out from Greenwich, but there if my cell phone shows 1:50, the computer is likely to say it's 1:58, while the clock on the wall says 1:49, the iPad claims 1:53, and the clock in the car pushes ahead to 2:03.  Every once in a while, I try to reset everything so it's all pointing to the same time (blindly choosing one of those possibilities as the correct, true, Greenwich, gringo time).  Works for a few days, and then they drift apart again. 

Time is just a more flexible concept in El Salvador.  The electronics know it.  After about a year in El Salvador, I stopped apologizing if I was 5 or 10 minutes late for a meeting, because I slowly realized that the meetings usually started about half an hour after the stated time.  Here, as in so much, for Salvadorans relationships matter more than efficiency.  It's hard for a gringa to accept, but I've come to like it that way.  Whatever time it may be in El Salvador, it's always time for a greeting, a conversation, a connection.  In the U.S., it's too often time to run off to the next urgent event.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Chepe y Chui y Chincha y Chita y Chana

I love nicknames here.  To my (gringa) ear they have even less relation to the original name than is usual in English.  For example: the nickname for José is Chepe (or Chepito); Jesus is Chui (sounds to the gringa like Chewy); Geovany is Chincha; Felicita is Chita, and I was delighted to learn that Susana is Chana.  You'd notice a preference for the "ch" sound - and somehow that makes sense to me, all those "ch" names sound friendly.  Of course there are nicknames like Rosy and Mari, and if some of the popular English-sounding names, like Marvin and Nelson and Wilson have standard nicknames, I haven't heard them yet.   I'm tempted to try Charvin or Chelson, but that's probably wishful thinking. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012


I was alone in this huge house for a short time after Margaret Jane returned to New Jersey, and I felt like a small marble in a very big box, just rattling around.  Peggy O'Neill introduced me to Maria del Carmen, who wanted to move to Suchitoto and was looking for a place to stay, and I am so glad that she's moved in.  Here she is in the patio, in the shade of the lemon tree:

A Salvadoran, Maria del Carmen was once a Hermanita de Jesus de Carlos de Foucauld (Little Sister of Jesus of Charles de Foucauld), has been a peacemaker and community organizer in Chalatenango, and supports herself by creating beautiful cards with dried flowers and leaves.  She's my new Spanish teacher - and it makes a great difference to be speaking Spanish at home.  She'll also be volunteering with children at the Centro Arte para la Paz.  And she has amazing stories to share. 

We're going to be joined tomorrow by Melinda from the University of Santa Clara, an artist who's also volunteering at the Centro Arte para la Paz over the next couple of months and who will live here.  Happily she speaks Spanish - I understand her parents are from Mexico - so that will be the language of the house.

Que alegría, what happiness, to share the house with Maria del Carmen and (prospectively) Melinda, to create a new community in this beautiful space.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Checking in

I've been too long away from the blog, not because there's nothing to report, but because so much has been going on.  Last week Kathy Garcia was here and she and Darren and I did a lot of visiting, preparing and talking.  The preparations included a good visit to Estanzuelas, where we'll have our 2013 general medical mission, and then a visit to the hospital at Santiago de Maria, where we hope to have our eye surgery mission.  At the hospital, we all put on scrubs and booties to get a tour of the surgery suite - which looks great for our work.  As we got ready to leave, I stuffed my scrubs in my bag and picked up another set, which I assumed were Darren's.  The next day I pulled them out and discovered to my horror that I'd run off with someone else's scrubs, and furthermore that there was $3 in the pocket - someone's lunch money.  I imagine this poor soul cursing the gringos!  So this week I had to make the long trip back to Santiago de Maria (it's more than 2 hours from Suchitoto) to hand in the scrubs and confess.  It was the nun who did it!

Among the pleasures of Kathy's week here were visits with two scholarship students who were outstanding volunteers in earlier missions: Walther from Panchimalco, now in the 4th year of his engineering program:
and Alex from Comasagua, who's in his first year, studying psychology at the Pedagogical University:
They are both great guys, very deserving of the opportunity.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fiesta de Maíz

Here in Suchitoto, and in many other towns in El Salvador, we celebrate the first corn harvest with a Fiesta de Maíz, which is also a celebration of the many farming villages and communities that are part of the Suchitoto municipality.  Kings and Queens of Maíz from the villages and women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads are part of a joyous procession that winds its way through the town to the church for the main Sunday Mass, after which we all pour into the parque central to stuff ourselves with elote, or fresh corn: tamales de elote, atole (hot corn drink), roasted corn-on-the-cob, elote loco (cooked corn-on-the-cob with decorations of, I think, ketchup and mayonnaise (among others), and riguas, my favorite, corn pancakes wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. 

A glorious party, and a festival that speaks to the central importance of corn - hard, white Salvadoran corn - in everyone's life here.   From the daily tortilla, which is the daily bread of every Salvadoran, to these festival foods it's clear that corn is the staff of life, as it was for the Mayan ancestors centuries ago.  ¡Que viva la Fiesta de Maíz!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Hasta luego, Margaret Jane

I'm taking Margaret Jane to the airport tomorrow for her plane ride home to New Jersey, and this time I don't expect to see her back here until late November.  She's acquired some new responsibilities on a Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace committee or two, and as a new member of the Board of Directors for PeaceHealth.  These meetings come just a little too often for her to come down to El Salvador for the six-week stays that have been her pattern for the last three years.

It's been three wonderful years of sharing household and community in Suchitoto, while I worked on our PazSalud missions and Margaret Jane taught English at the Centro Arte para la Paz.  Her connection with El Salvador is much longer than mine - she was first here during the civil war in the late 1980s - and she has taught me a lot over the years - what to expect, what's reasonable, how to be prepared for water shut-offs and electricity disappearing, how to survive scorpion bites.  Gracias, Margarita, por su compañerisma, sabiduría y por sus grandes historias - thanks for your companionship, wisdom and for your wonderful stories!  Here she is last Thanksgiving, with Peggy and me:

As she flies home, I'll be getting the house ready for Kathy Garcia, who arrives Sunday night: she and Darren Streff and I will be working together through next week.  After that, I'm anticipating a new housemate, Maria del Carmen, who will be doing some volunteering at the Centro Arte para la Paz and working at the house on some artesania - a connection through Peggy O'Neill.  So I won't be too lonely!

And that reminds me to say that Margaret Jane and I have been praying with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious through this week of meetings, and we have been very proud of the clarity, vision and strength they have shown in their public statement today.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


There's rain and then there's RAIN, the serious, drenching, thunderous, crashing rains of the El Salvador winter season.  Everything here is built to handle RAIN - people who visit during the dry season must wonder at the number of ditches around buildings and on the edges of roads.  During winter you don't wonder, you're just glad that they're carrying the water away from your home or school or town.

Our house - like most here in Suchitoto - is built flush to the narrow sidewalk, but we are about three feet above the grade level, for which I'm grateful on nights like this one.  Water surges down both sides of the cobblestone street, on its way to Lago Suchitlan.  My personal criteria for "this is getting really serious" is when the two streams meet and cover the center of the street.  It's almost happening tonight, but not quite, and the electricity is still on (thus blogging becomes possible): a storm, but not a catastrophe.

Inside the house, it's easy to see the wisdom of building houses with interior courtyards.  All the rain - a decent small river of it - runs down the stairs from our deck, runs off the roofs, drips off the trees, and finds the lowest point - the drain that leads out directly to the street, where our contribution of rain joins the rain of every house along the street, and floods the gutters on the way Lago Suchitlan. 

Most houses have their leaks, and ours did too, until yesterday: a drain pipe that made an L in our kitchen on its way to the main drain dripped every time it rained.  But yesterday Darren - who was building us a great new set of shelves for the tubs in our bodega - attacked the problem from the inside with something resembling tar, and the pipe leaks no more.  Another thing to be grateful for!

Farmers with their milpas of corn and beans rely on rain to keep the crops going and growing.  There's been a serious drought in the eastern districts of El Salvador, several weeks without rain and the loss of a lot of the corn crop that will mean a serious shortage in the country in the year ahead.  So I bless the RAIN in its glory and drama, the lifegiving RAIN of winter.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Friends in Agua Escondida

Last week Darren Streff and I visited some of our friends in Agua Escondida - Darren's a Maryknoll Lay Missioner who's volunteering with PazSalud, and I wanted to introduce him to a few favorite folk.  We started with Doña Carmen Aviles, who has been a community volunteer, chef extraordinaire, hostess and ranchera singer for our two missions in San Juan Opico (Agua Escondida is a colonia of San Juan Opico).  Carmen gave us a tour of her family's farm, which included a charming young goat and a pelibuey (a tribe that's explained as half-sheep, half-goat and prized for meat) and a very fruitful orchard, where we found some little red peppers.  Were they hot, we asked? Oh yes, said Carmen.  Darren tried a small bite and said they weren't very hot.  I tried a small bite and went up in flames at about the moment that Darren said "oh, on second thought..."  They are extremely hot, and I can't imagine how Salvadorans, generally resistant to anything too picante use these - perhaps on a one part per million basis in a salsa?  I never leave Carmen's without gifts for the kitchen, and this time we left with peppers, ginger root (Darren's going to start a new plant in his patio) and a pineapple.

Then we went with Carmen to visit Gloribel and her mother Hortensia, who live next door.  With Carmen's help, we've been sending the two of them to a special school for the deaf in Santa Ana, where Gloribel has been able to learn both Spanish and sign language for the first time in her 11 years.  Gloribel was delighted to see us and to show off her notebooks, her certificate for completion of the preschool program (she's now in first grade) and some of her new signs.  And Hortensia added a beautiful squash to our stash in the back seat. 
We followed up with a visit to Iris and her family.  Iris, daughter of Gumersindo, another of our great San Juan Opico volunteers, is headed for two years at North Central Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, thanks to a U.S. AID scholarship.  It turns out that Darren grew up in Stevens Point, about 30 minutes from Wausau, so he was able to tell Iris what a beautiful place she'll soon be living in.  Iris' mother, who makes the best tamales I've tasted in El Salvador, had tamales ready for us to eat - and a big bag to take home. 

Our next stop was a quick one, to visit Sonia and her family.  They usually live in a different colonia, Arenal, but they'd all been sick the past week - sounded like a flu - and were staying with family near Agua Escondida. 

Then we headed up to Huisisilapa (I'm very proud of being able to spell that!), a colonia of San Pablo Tacachico, where we visited with Ylda, who arrived back from a new security job in the Government Center just a few minutes after we got to her house.  (I was relieved to know that she didn't have to tote a gun.)  She, too, had to feed us - tortillas and beans and cheese, with apologies that there wasn't a real almuerzo (lunch) ready.  A good thing, since we were already full of tamales. 

And so we headed back to San Salvador, where I dropped Darren off, full of tamales and tortillas and beans and cheese, with good things for the kitchen and garden.  Altogether, a day full of gifts.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Clean water in the schools

During our February Medical Mission in San José Villanueva, Padre Mario Adin asked us to consider giving Sawyer water filters to each of the public and private schools in Villanueva.  We were delighted to say yes to his request, and today I went to Villanueva with Clelia Estrada of the Caritas office in the Archdiocese of San Salvador and Darren Streff, Maryknoll Lay Missioner to make good on our word.

We met with representatives from the schools and with Health Inspector Miguel Angel Cruz, who'll be doing follow-up to make sure the filters are being properly used and cleaned.  They were a great and very attentive group, watching carefully as Licendiado Cruz demonstrated how to drill a hole in the bucket for the filter connection:
It's hard work!  When I set up the water filter at our house, I was determined to manage the whole process myself, just to know that even a 70-year-old woman could put the filter and bucket together.  I did manage it - though much more slowly than Licenciado Cruz - at the cost of a sizable blister on my thumb. 

Several people wanted to know if it was possible to buy a water filter in El Salvador.  Not yet, I had to say, though I do hope that Sawyer Products will realize that they have a great untapped market in Central America.  Where did I find them in the U.S., and did people in the U.S. use them?  That question rocked me back on my heels for a moment, as I thought about the health gulf between us.  In the United States, filtering your water isn't necessary, though plenty of people do it.  The only place I've seen Sawyer filters in the U.S. is in sports stores, which feature the smaller filters hikers use.  The gulf is the difference between a country where water is purified and tested regularly, held to the highest standards of sanitation and a country where water is almost always contaminated by parasites, bacteria, amoebae, you name it.  Our few water filters only begin to touch the edges of this huge issue of justice.

Still, it's great to know that the schoolchildren of San José Villanueva will have clean water to drink!