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.