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!