Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tied up in traffic

Ana Lazar and I set off for the Ruta de las Flores this morning, and found ourselves in a mammoth traffic jam. For some reason - politics, perhaps? the elections are two weeks away, and the tension is mounting - Boulevard de los Heroes, the major street I was planning to use to get out of town was completely blocked. And so, as a result, was pretty much everything else. I wormed my way through, found a way to get to Santa Tecla, and headed west among a stream of grumpy Salvadorans. So it felt great to finally emerge from the city into the countryside, better to climb up into the high hills of the Ruta, and best of all to spend a few hours in beautiful Ataco and to have coffee in this charming cafe.

Speaking of elections, the papers and TV have been full of dueling claims about the polls, illustrated by the poll of choice for the paper or the party advertising. Tim's El Salvador blog has a good summary of the polls, which are all over the map. It seems likely that El Salvador will break with its long history of ARENA (right wing) victories and elect Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the FMLN, the coalition of left wing parties. But it also seems possible that ARENA, which runs TV ads characterizing the FMLN as terrorists and communists, will frighten enough people to win again. At this point, people on both sides are anxious. March 15th, election day, is coming soon.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Garbage and flowers

For gringos, maybe especially for those of us from the west coast where clean streets are the norm, the amount of garbage found on the streets and sidewalks and by-ways of El Salvador and Latin America is an initial shock. When you've been here a while, even a little while, you begin to see a little more. First of all, you see that Salvadorans must be just about the cleanest people in the world when it comes to their persons and their homes. Clothes are washed and hung out to dry daily; people present themselves in the very best attire they can manage for an occasion. Houses are swept and mopped and picked up daily. People may be very poor and have only torn clothes, but those clothes will be clean.

So why all the garbage in the streets? Here's what I've noticed -
  • There are almost no public garbage containers.
  • Garbage, like graffiti, piles up in areas that don't seem to "belong" to anyone.
  • The structure of houses, with walls enclosing all the private space, makes it easy to ignore the sidewalk and planting strip outside, which can easily begin to collect throw-aways.
  • Almost everything anyone buys - including soft drinks - comes wrapped in plastic.
  • I'm guessing there's an attitude among some that the public spaces, streets and sidewalks, are fair game for dumping rubbish.
Garbage collection now is much better than it was in 20o1, when I first visited El Salvador, and you do now see men collecting rubbish from the streets and public places. El Centro is much cleaner than it used to be - that's not to say it's clean!

But if there's more garbage to be seen here (particularly in the dry season - in the wet months, the rain does a great job of street sweeping) than in Seattle, there are also the flowers, amazing flowers. Just down the block from me on the other side of the street are two trees and a vine - yellow and lavender and fuschia flowers. And in the other direction, just a few houses away from ours, this house with its gorgeous clusters of vines: what could be more beautiful?

Thursday, February 26, 2009


This morning very early I took Eleanor to the plane. Rather Don Francisco and I took Eleanor to the plane. He wanted to accompany us, and it seems to me so very appropriate that her last "official" trip to the airport at Comalapa was in the company of a Salvadoran friend and a St. Joseph of Peace Sister.

Then I settled down to an ordinary day - laundry, a little housecleaning, e-mails and letter writing. And I tested myself by driving out to find a couple of places I want to be able to locate - the Artesania on Manuel Araujo where we usually take visitors and Basilea, a charming collection of shops that includes - ah, yes - a bookstore with books and cards in English. I found them both, I'm happy to say, with some interesting misdirections along the way, mostly involving the Zona Rosa, where it's altogether too easy to drive around in widening concentric circles.

Back in Bellevue, in that other life, I worried a bit that I might feel afraid or lonely when Eleanor left. I certainly miss her, but I'm feeling fine. And I'm not even alone in the house - happily, a few days ago Joe Connelly arrived. Joe coordinates a program from the Center for Global Education that brings college students to Central America for a three-month immersion in language, history, environment, politics and culture. The group travels from Guatemala to El Salvador to Nicaragua, and when he's in El Salvador Joe has been staying at our base house. Tonight he came back with pupusas to share. Gracias!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

A day of turning, a day of ashes...

Today was Eleanor's last El Salvador day as a long-term resident (I'm surely planning on her being back for next year's medical mission), and it felt completely appropriate that it is also Ash Wednesday, when we're asked to turn from sin and turn toward God's companionship.

We went to Mass at the Chapel of the UCA, University of Central America, the Chapel that memorializes the martyred Jesuits - and the 20th anniversary of their martyrdom is this year. Padre Dean Brackley gave a fine homily - especially fine for me, as I understood almost every word - in which he asked us all to accept this opportunity for new life and to lay down some of the things (like television, perhaps) that get in the way of God's companionship.

We were dramatically marked with ashes and came home to an omelet and the last bits of packing and the opportunity for new life that's right here to hand for Eleanor and for me.

Here's what T.S, Eliot has to say about this new life that keeps dancing in us (from Ash Wednesday):

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Neighborhood meeting

Last week there was a neighborhood meeting for the 24 houses on our street, and I went. The meeting started at 8:30, and when I gave up and went home at 10:30, it was still going, but jerkily. I've facilitated neighborhood meetings and organized neighborhood meetings, so it was very odd to sit, struck dumb, in a neighborhood meeting where, if I opened my mouth, I would sound like someone's four-year-old who just happened to look like a gray-haired grandmother.

We all sat or stood around the guard house on a variety of plastic chairs. The circle of neighbors extended out into the street, so whenever a car entered half of the meeting had to pick up their chairs and move.

I followed the general thread of the meeting, met some neighbors, and heard some familiar attitudes - the man who valued his time at home and didn't want to go to meetings, the woman who could always think of one more possibility. But there was much I didn't follow, so I listened for language and attitudes. The formality was a surprise: the neighbors carefully addressed each other as Don, Doña or Licenciada (an all purpose title indicating a college graduate). They addressed our guards as Don Alex and Don Francisco.

I've already learned that Salvadorans like wearing uniforms and dressing carefully. This was another indication that the rules of courtesy - rules we've mostly discarded in the United States, where almost everyone is on a first-name basis - are important here. It hadn't occurred to me to say "Don Alex" or "Don Francisco" to our guards: now it does. And I'm getting to like being called "Hermana Susana," though I have never been entirely comfortable with Sister Susan.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gratitude notes

Eleanor's party had some interesting moments that I didn't mention yesterday. First of all, the refrigerator part of our refrigerator stopped working the night before the Saturday party (the freezer was going full blast) so we called the repairmen Saturday morning. Be right over, they said, or the Spanish equivalent. They did make it at noon - the party due to start at 1 PM - and fixed the refrigerator (blocked by ice) in half an hour. Charged $18. Meanwhile James Boyle, who came back from the beach with us on Friday, was hauling in bag after bag of ice to cool down the gaseosas, beer, water and wine. And I was trying to cook the pasta and sauce for lunch.

A little bit into the party, I saw first one Salvadoran guest and then another and then another come into the kitchen, wash the dishes that had accumulated, and quietly leave - Gloria, Oscar, Guadalupe - and with no fuss the dishes were done. It's very Salvadoran, this willingness to turn to and do the work that needs to be done. In much the same way, our volunteers at the Comasagua clinic helped clean up the clinic every morning before we opened - not because they were asked, but because it needed doing, and the one man whose job it was couldn't possibly get it all cleaned and fill the water barrels before we opened.

I can't quite imagine either the refrigerator repair or the dishwashing happening with so little fuss in my homeland. I'm grateful - and I'm challenged to try to live up to this standard of hospitality and helpfulness.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Una despedida dulce y triste

A sweet and sad farewell - Peggy O'Neill and I hosted a luncheon for Eleanor's many Salvadoran friends today - we had about 40 people somehow fitting in to our house, and all of them had something special to say about Eleanor. Some, like Doctor Jorge Cabezas and Estela Garcia, remembered the days during the war at Jesuit Refugee Service, when Eleanor (first with Margaret Jane Kling and then with Margaret Byrne) got up long before dawn to get patients to the hospitals, when she faced being twice arrested with courage. Others, like Margarita, Gloria and Clelia from the Pastoral de Salud of the Archdiocese, talked about what she has done for the people of El Salvador by bringing PazSalud and the medical missions here. Peggy talked about how important it was to have a Sister-friend, and how important it is in the United States that this mission and presence continues.

A note from Guadalupe says beautifully what all were saying: Para mi es un regalo de Dios conocerle. Siempre estara dentro de mi corazon - For me it is a gift of God to know you. You will always be in my heart.

Thank you, Eleanor, for the way you have kept faith with the people of El Salvador these many years. You will always be in their hearts.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The beach

James Boyle, one of our translators on the Comasagua mission, stayed on for a few days at the beach, at the Hotel Roca Sunzal, and gave us a wonderful excuse to drive down for lunch and a walk on the beach. I've been in El Salvador for almost two months now, and the Pacific Ocean is within a 45 minute drive, so it's about time I got there. The Roca Sunzal is familiar because our Tamanique mission group - which I was part of - stayed there, very happily, two years ago. It's a black sand beach and an area beloved by surfers. Large birds flew grandly overhead and refused to identify themselves. Young men leapt dangerously from the Roca, an odd and imposing cobblestone formation, and lived to tell the tale. Children successfully sold us bracelets, but we didn't give the mariachi band that showed up at the end of lunch any encouragement, so they walked on down the beach. Palm trees waved in the wind. A daddy and his daughter meticulously covered their mother with sand. A few surfers caught waves for long, elegant rides. We walked at the edge of the waves.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Tonight is Kathy Garcia's last night on this trip, so we celebrated with coconut ice cream, almond topping and chocolate sauce, a dessert special that's featured on every mission trip. Kathy and Eleanor and I got some good work done after the mission group went home on Monday, some preparation for the eye surgery brigade in October, some work on next year's budget, some thank-you letters. But most of all, we're mindful that this is a time of transition: Kathy's heading back to Eugene now, and Eleanor will be going home in a little more than a week. Me, I'm staying here. Voy a quedarme aqui. I rejoice that I get to continue working with Kathy, and I'm relieved that Eleanor has promised to answer questions via e-mail, but I'm going to miss each of them a lot. This photo from the Comasagua mission shows Eleanor, left, with Bridget Stearns, who was our R.N. and chief-washer-out-of-ears.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Today Eleanor and Kathy and I made some preparations for the cataract surgery mission (co-sponsored by SEE, International) that will be our next big project in April. We wrote some thank you letters, worked on accounts, and compared notes about the Comasagua mission.

I've written a lot about our connection during the week with the people of Comasagua, who have moved each of us deeply. Each person who came on this mission will go back home with a deeper, more heart-felt experience of the realities faced by most peoples in the world. Each of our health providers, back in their super-clean clinics, with pure water available from every tap, will be remembering the difference.

I've said less about two other important purposes of this mission week. We brought together doctors, nurses, physician's assistants, pharmacy techs, interpreters and chaplains (among others) from a variety of PeaceHealth regions, and we brought them together as equals. I love it that on a PazSalud mission all the name tags have first names only (except for Eleanor and I, who have Hna - hermana, Sister - in front of our names. In this trip, Father Ken Olsen was another exception, Padre Ken). The long trips on the bus each day gave everyone time for thoughtful connection and conversation, and the evenings gave us time for fun (as can be seen in the photo above, from our dinner at Beto's: Bob Davis, Nelson Solano, Elba Rivas, James Boyle, Ken Olsen and Elizabeth Lowery gather around Alan and Joan Yordy). So one of the purposes of the missions is to connect PeaceHealth people with each other in ways that reach across the boundaries.

A second, and more important purpose, is simply to remind everyone involved, and many at home who will see the photos and hear the stories, that providing health care is a mission. I've heard many of our PeaceHealth volunteers by now talk about how this week has recharged their own sense of mission, their own dedication to the work. It comes in realizing that you have a gift of healing to give, even without the technology that supports healing in the United States, and in knowing that you give that gift through your respect and kindness, as well as through your skill.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Last day....

Today was our medical mission's last day in El Salvador, a relaxed and joyful day that featured a visit to Suchitoto, a beautiful old town about 50 minutes drive from San Salvador. We ate at La Balanza, then went to visit Sister Peggy O'Neill and the Centro Arte para la Paz. Peggy told us about some of the many projects that are starting at the Centro Arte, and shared stories from her 23 years in El Salvador, stories about the generosity and passion of the people - a generosity and passion all our volunteers recognized from our Comasagua experience. She talked about the gift Eleanor has been in her years in El Salvador and reminded us to take good care of her as she returns to the United States. It was a wonderful and reflective close to our time together. Tomorrow in the very early morning we all go to the airport together and our great volunteers fly home.

I want to share two photos from the week - one is of our great pharmacy crew - Kathy Garcia, Dra. Silvia Pleitez, Ellen Toman and Judy Dupont. They worked fast and meticulously all week in our tiny pharmacy room to fill the prescriptions for each patient. Silvia, especially, was a tower of strength and clarity as she carefully explained to each patient - in good Salvadoran Spanish - just what medications they had and how to use them (including toothbrushing and flossing demonstrations with the kids). Silvia has been with us as a local physician for many medical missions, but this year is different in two ways: she now lives in Los Angeles with her mother (and is studying to become licensed in the U.S. as a doctor) and she has just recently recovered from a serious illness. It was a joy to see her working with such energy all week long!

The second photo is of two of our patients during the week, a lame woman sitting next to a blind man - the lame and the blind, the ones we'd have liked to heal as Jesus did. In a short week, with limited resources, there is much we could not do, and perhaps that's as it should be. In our attempts to help and in our helplessness we gave the gift of ourselves, and we received so much more from the beautiful people of Comasagua.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A last day in Comasagua

We finished our Comasagua mission yesterday (Friday). Driving up in the morning, we saw an enormous crowd waiting for us at the gates of the Unidad de Salud - so many people that Dr. de Larios, the clinic director, had to call for the police to keep order. We can only see about 200 people on the last day, because we also have to pack up, organize our donations to the community, and say goodbye. On Friday, our 200 people stretched to about 270, including a large group of schoolchildren with myopia who needed glasses to be able to read. Still, sadly, there were people who could not get in.

We completed our clinic in the early afternoon, having seen more than 1700 people from Comasagua in the course of the week. We left behind us many of the remaining medications for the Unidad de Salud; we will be giving the remaining eyeglasses to local Lions' Club clinics. The Mayor of Comasagua came in at the end of our clinic time to invite us to a celebration at the Casa Comunal, where we had lunch all week. There gifts and thanks were exchanged - the Mayor gave each of us one of the beautiful images the women of Comasagua have been making with flower petals, and we gave each of the community volunteers who worked with us all week gifts of calendars, pens and the like. We ate cake and drank gaseosas and felt very sad to be saying goodbye to people whose faces had become so familiar and treasured in the course of a week's hard work together: Mercedes, who kept everything pulled together, Alex, who organized the pharmacy lines like a pro, Rosa, who knew how we could get back in touch with every surgery candidate, Lorena who wept when she told us how much she thanked us - and many more. We will miss each other.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Primero Díos

Yesterday PeaceHealth President and Chief Mission Officer Alan Yordy and his wife Joan flew in to spend a few days with our Comasagua mission. This morning, because Alan has a noon telephone conference, I'm here at our Base House so I can drive him up to Comasagua after his conference finishes. Happily, this gives me time to do a little longer posting on the amazing experience of our health mission.

Primero Díos. Yesterday I logged in 14 candidates for cataract surgery during our April 20-24 surgical mission - and because Eleanor was picking up Alan and Joan at the airport, I did this on my own, with only occasional need for help from one of our interpreters. A bit of a baptism of fire, as each candidate was a senior citizen, a couple were hard of hearing, others had strong campo accents, and I had to explain the whole process of the surgery - getting to the hospital, what happens in the surgery, and the after care - in understandable Spanish. It all went well, and was quite a boost for my confidence in Spanish. At the end of each interview, I said "nos vemos 22 abril" - we'll see each other April 22nd. And each Salvador responded, "primero Díos," God first. God first, meaning that our seeing each other in April is first of all in God's hands. God first, meaning let's not get too invested in our plans and programs. God first: what a great lesson for a North American who's used to making plans and carrying them out.

When I wasn't logging in cataract patients, I was delighting in watching our PeaceHealth volunteers connect with the people of Comasagua. Their loving, respectful attention to each person is the very essence of great healthcare - and it's healthcare at its most essential, stripped of the technology and supports that all our providers are used to in the United States. The love and respect is joyfully returned, as can be seen in these photos - of Dr. Dale Heisinger being hugged by a young patient and 4th year medical student Jenny Semadeni-Malcom consulting with a family. It's hard work, long hours, lots more patients in a day than our providers are used to seeing - and everybody loves it.

We've also been blessed with great local volunteers who log in our patients, keep the lines organized, keep people moving through the process, and cook delicious lunches for us (yesterday was bean soup, rice, avocados, and glorious local fruits). Doctora de Larios, the Executive Director of the Comasagua Unidad de Salud, where our clinics are located, has completed many referencias so that patients whose health issues are beyond what we can diagnose and treat will get attention at the national hospital.

Will those who have been referred really get the attention they need? Health budgets are bare bones in this country, and poor patients often have to pay for their medications (which means that they are likely to go without). We can't do everything. Reforming the Salvadoran health system is not within our scope. We do follow up with particular cases when we learn that crucial care cannot be provided (for example, our optometrists will be taking home glasses prescriptions for several patients whose needs can't be met with our donated glasses). We do what we can. Primero Díos.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Faces from the Comasagua mission

No water, much joy

We learned on Sunday that the water in Comasagua (the entire town) was going to be turned off for four days so the leaking town water tanks could be repaired. As you can imagine, this has been a challenge to everyone, but especially to Mauricio, who keeps the Unidad de Salud clinic clean. He's been hauling barrels of water from the cistern to provide essential washing and toileting for staff and volunteers - and all our PeaceHealth volunteers, used to the sparkling clean environment of a U.S. hospital, are managing without a murmur. Well, maybe a little murmur or two - but not so you'd notice. The people are patiently taking it all in stride.

I'm going to add a second post of photos only, because the photos tell the story - especially the story of the niños encantadoros, the beautiful children of El Salvador.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Up and Running

First day of our Comasagua mission - just quick notes! Eleanor and I got to Comasagua at 7:30 AM and left about 7:15 AM, and were in constant motion in between. People were lined up at the clinic before we arrived, and they poured in all day for consultations in general medicine, pediatrics, gynecology and eyes. All day long, people in long lines waited for their consultations, waited to get glasses fitted, waited at the pharmacy for vitamins and medications. No one complained. No one shouted. No mother screamed at her children. A few children cried, but not many. I remembered the words of Monseñor Romero: "con esta gente, no cuesta ser buen pastor" - with this people, it isn't hard to be a good pastor. No cuesta. My feet are tired, my heart is light, and I'm headed for bed.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Setting up

Our mission group of 25 came in on Continental Airlines last night, and it took a lot of serious and lengthy discussion to get them and their 44 tubs of medication through customs. We had the bad luck to start with a Customs agent who was very bureaucratic, and for a while they threatened to lock up the medications until some unspecified time (after the end of our mission?). Then they said they'd have to look into all the tubs. They did, but the sheer overwhelming number of tubs and people meant that this was a very quick look. Finally we were on the road to San Salvador.

This morning, the group went up the winding and scenic road to Comasagua in Hernan's lovely red van (Hernan has been our driver for many mission trips). Those who wanted to joined the Comasagua community for Mass, and a special surprise: a wedding had been incorporated into the Mass. We got there early and had time to stand around and talk and compare footwear (as Melissa Doherty, Olga Orievsky and Kathy Garcia are doing in this photo) before the bride came down the aisle.

Then we went to the Unidad de Salud, the health clinic where we will be working all week, and worked and worked and worked to unpack and sort the tubs, arrange all the clinics, arrange the glasses, organize the pharmacy and bag up vitamins (a month's supply goes to everyone who comes to our clinics). We hear that water is going to be turned off - we don't know why - for the next four days, so we are working with bottled water and great barrels of cistern water for toilets. Feels like we're ready to go - and I'm ready to go to sleep.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Waiting for the mission group to arrive

I've ironed 10 shirts (one for each day of our mission group's time here) and 7 pairs of pants. I walked down to Office Depot (yes, the same one) today to get masking tape and double sided tape and batteries, little extra needs that came up as Eleanor and I reviewed the tubs full of supplies.

The supplies we keep here in big plastic covered tubs between mission groups are the obvious things - equipment for the eye exams, blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, reading glasses and sunglasses, thermometer probe covers, signs, peak flow meters, power strips, shower curtains and clips to create privacy areas, an electric frypan and salt (used by the optician to adjust glasses fit), tongue depressors, baby wipes, vinyl gloves, rope, and more. To these we've added a large order of medical supplies, including speculums, and a large order of medications from the Archdiocesan supply house (we are able to purchase medications from them at a reduced cost because we give them away to the people). All of this will be swept up into a good-sized truck at 7 this evening, and then we will be off to the airport to welcome our 25 members of the PeaceHealth team with all their tubs of medications and equipment. And then the work of this week in Comasagua will begin!

Friday, February 6, 2009


At last - after waiting a week and spending two hours doing more focused waiting in the Sertracen offices - I have a card that shows me, Dewitt, Susan Vera, as owner of the PazSalud car.

Easy to see how my name got scrambled. Any Spanish speaker looking at the name Susan Vera Dewitt would most likely assume that I was Vera de Witt, Susan - that my maiden name was Vera and my married name was Witt. That's how names are constructed in Spanish speaking countries: everyone carries two surnames. For men and unmarried women, those are the father's last name followed by the mother's last name. So because my father's name was Dewitt and my mother's name Hahn, I really should be, in a Spanish-speaking country, Susana Dewitt Hahn (and Dewitt is considered the main last name, el primer apellido). A married woman uses her father's name followed by de and her husband's name. So if I had married someone named Jones, I would be Susana Dewitt de Jones.

This difference in naming leads to endless confusion - the mixup of my name by the authorities at Sertracen, the mixup when Norteamericanos assume someone's mother-name is their real last name. Messes with your assumptions. A healthy thing, even if it leads to long, long waits in line.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


This is Francisco, one of our two vigilantes (guards) and the one who rescued me when I was trapped between the locked front gate and the locked front door. The gun is part of his working uniform. I don't know whether it's loaded or not, though I suppose it is. I do know that when Francisco thinks a situation could be dangerous, he does what I'd do - he calls the police.

After he rescued me, we had a couple of great conversations (en español) about life. Francisco's brothers and sisters mostly went to the United States 30 years ago, and they've prospered and raised families there. People think he should have lots of money because he has all these relatives in the U.S., but they don't come home any more, and all he's ever gotten from any of them was a pair of snakeskin boots and a fancy watch one brother gave him.

Francisco doesn't want to live in the U.S. His life here is not rich, but it's full and real. When he's not protecting us, he goes down to the Alcaldia (City Hall) where his wife has a food stand, and he helps her. They have two teenage children and love them. He's involved with his church and he's part of a group for lisiados, wounded veterans from the civil war - both sides, he says, because no importa which side you were on when you got wounded. He just managed to buy a little bit of land in Apopa that has a ramshackle house on it, so it sounds like he will be spending his precious few hours of time off beginning to build his new house. Buen hombre. A good man.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Mystery

Ana Lazar went up to Comasagua with us yesterday, and on the way she talked about a mystery she walked into one Saturday morning. She was walking along Avenida Gabriela Mistral, and found herself outside a building with large Hebrew letters next to the entry and a sign that proclaimed it the Centro Communtario Shebet Efraim, de Regreso a Israel (the Shebet Efraim Community Center, returning to Israel). Ana looked inside and found a service in full swing, apparently Jewish, with men and women seated separately, the men wearing yarmulkes, prayer shawls and tefillim, the women wearing white headscarves. But the people all seemed to be Salvadorans, and the prayers were not in Hebrew. She asked if this was a Jewish community and was told that it was; none of the adults had been born Jewish, but some of the children had been bar mitzvahed; they had a Rabbi, who was in the process of learning Hebrew.

Ana was puzzled. She's Jewish by background and this service felt Jewish - and didn't. She tried to do some web research, but hadn't written down the name. Eleanor thought it likely that this was an Evangelical group of some kind - it's common here to see the flag of Israel and names from the Hebrew Scriptures used by Evangelical groups.

Today I walked by Shebet Efraim and checked the name on the web when I got home. Apparently the group began in Guatemala: it does seem to be a Christian group that has decided the way to be authentically a follower of Yeshua (Jesus) is to follow the commandments of the Torah and the practices of Judaism. They don't believe in the Trinity, do believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

It's still a mystery to me: how did Shebet Efraim get started, how does this community see itself vis-a-vis the worldwide Jewish community, how has this attracted a Central American community? In El Salvador, I don't see the varieties of racial types and backgrounds that are familiar to me from the United States or Europe - but Shebet Efraim is a good reminder of how various, mysterious and surprising the Salvadoran community - any complex human community - can be.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


This week will be absorbed by preparations for the coming Medical Mission group. Expect short blogs! Today we drove up to Comasagua to meet with the women who will be preparing lunch for us each day. We met in the bakery of a cooperative coffee finca, surrounded by the delicious smell of budín (I think that's probably a version of the English word pudding) - it's a very moist cake, a bit like a bread pudding, flavored with vanilla and cinnamon, and several big trays of budín came out of the oven as we sat and talked about menus and numbers. Then, at the end of our meeting, the baker, Ana Maria, gave each of us a large slice of budín, still warm from the oven, for the drive back to the city. We're going to eat well!

Monday, February 2, 2009

What Things Cost

Eleanor is back from her week in the United States, so we restocked at the supermarket today. Seems like a good time to talk about what things cost here. Depende, a Salvadoran would send: it depends on what you're buying. If you're buying foods imported from North or South American, the cost will be at least what it would be in the U.S., often higher. For example, a couple of weeks ago we bought 5 gorgeous, uniformly orange Valencia oranges from Chile for $2.83. (They weren't very good oranges, either). On the other hand, vegetables grown in Central America, often in Guatemala, are very much less expensive than in the U.S. The local oranges - yellow and green and brown and orange, spotty and unglamorous, unlike the ones in the photograph, are 10 cents apiece, and they make the most glorious fresh orange juice. I noticed a similar pricing difference between the big Chiquita-style bananas, with their uniformly yellow skins, and the smaller local bananas, called guineos or dactilos, which aren't so pretty, but taste just great.

Some other locally grown vegetables: beets, 0.73/lb; red and orange bell peppers, 0.55 each; broccoli, 0.57/lb. Gala apples from Chile were available for $1.10/lb, not bad. But 4 ears of fresh corn, out of season now, and so probably grown in South America or a greenhouse, cost $2.33.

Before you start feeling put out about the higher U.S. prices, consider that the minimum wage in El Salvador was just raised to $208/month for commercial workers, $174/month in maquilas (factories) and $97/month on the farm. And many, many Salvadorans working in the informal economy earn less than that.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Suchitoto day

I visited Sr. Peggy O'Neill this weekend - for those who don't know Peggy, she's a Sister of Charity who has lived in Suchitoto, El Salvador for 22 years now. She's a liberation theologian, a great story teller, and a woman committed to peace and to the people of El Salvador. She's also the center of the universe for a charming Maltipoo named Luna, the same Luna I dragged through a briar patch a couple of weeks ago. Luna, we both agreed, now looks quite elegant in her shorn slenderness. Here's a photo of her and one of Peggy in the courtyard of her house. Peggy has hosted many Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and PeaceHealth Mission teams at the Centro Arte para la Paz (Art Center for Peace) she started in an old Dominican school in Suchitoto.

Suchitoto is a lovely town, laid out in orderly Spanish Colonial fashion with streets marching out from the central core of church, plaza and alcaldia (City Hall). I don't know how many people live there, but I think Peggy knows at least 2/3rds of them, and walking with her through the streets of Suchitoto is a glorious process of starts and stops and conversations and connections. We went to a ballet (The Rites of Spring in a restored adobe mansion) and a party after the ballet, and it felt good to be walking out at night in a friendly community.