Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One day

During my two weeks in Seattle/Bellevue, a lot of people asked me what my typical day would be like. I generally responded to this question by looking confused and a bit stupid: there's no such thing as a typical day here. But I can tell you about today, which was normal and undramatic and busy.

I got up at 6 (it's pretty hard to do anything else, with the sun up and the traffic going and the pigeons cooing), brewed a big pot of coffee and prayed (I have a small prayer table at my bedroom window; I look out onto trees and rooftops and sunshine). During breakfast, I read the paper, La Prensa Grafica - I'm trying to read at least an hour each day in Spanish, mostly reading aloud to work on pronunciation. But not when I'm eating toast.

I made plans to visit Hospital San Rafael tomorrow, in hopes of finally getting a tour of the surgery suite we'll be using. I made plans to visit Comasagua Thursday, taking with me the 24 pairs of prescription glasses, mostly for children, and some food and assistance for Nubia and her family. These arrangements involved a few phone calls, which are my personal bugaboo (imagine listening to a fast talker in the language you're learning when you can't see her face or body language - confusion!)

Then it was time to pay bills at the bank (you can pay utility bills at the company offices or at the bank, but not by mail) and deposit some money. The bank's close by, so I walked (one way to get a bit of exercise) only to discover that I'd brought the wrong account number for the deposit. I walked on to the Archdiocese of San Salvador offices to see Licenciada Vazquez, who is getting the permits for the medications we'll bring in for the eye surgery. She wasn't in, but I managed to find the Spanish to tell Lilian, who keeps that office running, what I needed, and she promised to have the Lda. call me.

I've been wanting to talk with the Caritas staff at the Archdiocese about possible places for next year's mission, so I walked up four flights of stairs to find that only the secretary was in. She took a note and gave me a cell phone number for Margarita, the woman I should talk to.

I walked home and it was time for lunch (and more Spanish reading, this time a novel). Made some additions to our surgery list and sent it out by e-mail. Called Leslie Schuld at CIS to ask for a doctor's name (to go through immigration for El Salvador, I have to have a Salvadoran doctor certify that I'm free of infectious diseases). She knows a great clinic by the Tres Torres - and where are the Tres Torres, said I? Really close to your house, said she. This will mean another of my many expeditions to find something in San Salvador.

Drove to our landlady's house to pay rent and voice a complaint about the portón, the big iron gate in back that is so hard to open. She will send someone to work on it. Maybe. Then I set off to find a police station, because the immigration is also going to require that the local police run a records check on me. But I turned off on the wrong street, and ended up somewhere quite different (this also happens all the time). By the time I relocated myself, I decided to just go to the bank, this time with the right account number, and make my deposit. But by now it was 4 PM, and everyone else was in line with me, so I said the rosary (in Spanish) and practiced the Salvadoran art of waiting patiently. Stopped in PriceSmart, the local version of Costco, to get some staples for Nubia's family (beans, rice, cornmeal, oil). Licenciada Vazquez called me on the cell phone in the middle of aisle 10 to tell me she needed the airline number and date and number of people in our surgery group to complete getting our franchise for the medications.

Rushed back home to e-mail Kathy Garcia for that information and to cook dinner (a Panamanian chicken stew, good recipe). And as the evening continued, I set up a meeting with our lawyer for Thursday afternoon, and promised to meet Carlos, who will be having laser eye surgery, at the doctor's office on Saturday. Got the information from Kathy and wrote up a memo. Gave the monthly money for our guard service to two neighborhood boys who called at the house with the receipt all made out. Somewhere in there I ate dinner and watched a little CNN. And now it's time for bed.

So that's as close to a typical day as I can get, for all those who asked, and for any who've had the patience to follow this long post to the end.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fiestas of joy and memory

I managed to go to two fiestas this weekend, first to Festival Verdad (Truth Festival) at the University of Central America (UCA) with my friend Lorena Cuellar and then to the Fiesta de la Mujer in Suchitoto, where Sister Peggy O'Neill, SC was one of the featured speakers.

At both fiestas, happy crowds heard glorious singing by the Mexican singer Maria Ines Ochoa backed by the group Exceso de Equipaje (Extra Baggage, a grand group of chunky middle-aged musicians led by Guillermo Cuellar, composer of the Misa Salvadoreña and Lorena's brother). Both fiestas had a much more serious side, captured in the image of a nine-year-old girl, Katya Miranda, who was raped and murdered almost ten years ago during Holy Week, with involvement of her politically highly placed father and grandfather. After ten years of failure to investigate and continued calls for "Justicia, ¡Ya!" (justice, now!), the grandfather and several accomplices were arrested last week, just before the 10-year statue of limitations would have prevented prosecution (see Tim's excellent El Salvador blog for more details). Katya's face, the face of the best known of El Salvador's many child victims of violence, floated above the crowd at both events.

But only in Suchitoto did I get to hear Peggy - Hermana Peggy to everyone in Suchitoto - make the stirring proclamation that opened the Fiesta in honor of the International Day of the Woman. Peggy created a call and response with Ana Maria Menjivar, Coordinator of the Concertacion de las Mujeres de Suchitoto (the Suchitoto women's organization founded by Peggy and Sister Pat Farrell). The women of El Salvador, they said, the women of Suchitoto are protagonistas de cambios para transformacion social y artesanos del futuro (protagonists of change for social transformation and artisans of the future); they are the ones who have said and proved that Si, se pudo - Yes, we could - in the testimony of their lives and especially in the recent elections. In following speeches, women's representatives presented demandas on the local and national levels for attention to the needs of women, children and families that will be delivered to the city and national governments. Behind the speakers and musicians flew a banner with the names of some of the Suchitoto women who have been killed and translucent flags with the beautiful, solemn face of Katya Miranda.

As so often here, joy and terrible tragedy, beautiful music and horrifying memories live side by side.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


I'm a fortunate woman to have two homes - though not in the real estate sense. I've spent the last two weeks in Bellevue and Seattle, seeing friends and family and community What a feast of friendships! And what feasts - Thai food, Indian food, glorious gourmet home cooking.

When I'm in Bellevue, I live in a room in Cusack Hall at St. Mary-on-the-Lake. It's been great to have a little room I can call my own when I come home, with my books and my winter clothes and my bed all set up. I left it with some empty drawers and closet space so a visitor or retreatant can use it when I'm not around. And yesterday I got up very early to go to the airport to leave home and to come home. All my motley collection of suitcases arrived in good order with the computer for Walther and the prescription eyeglasses for Comasagua and the vitamins for Nubia's family and the camera/printer for El Centro Arte para la Paz and assorted finger puppets and balls for children and a few more books for me. Fortunately the soccer jerseys didn't arrive, because both of the bags being checked were stuffed to the gills and close to the weight limit.

The immigration forms ask what your country of residence is, and this time, for the first time, I said "El Salvador," which led to a long conversation with the man at the immigration desk. Yes, I live here. And here, as I came back to the San Salvador house, to my summer clothes and more books, to the mail Francisco and Alex saved for me, to my bed all set up, here feels like home.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Monseñor Romero

Today my friends in El Salvador are joining together to remember and honor Monseñor Óscar Romero, martyred 29 years ago and still alive in his people. I am with them in spirit today.

In this icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, San Romero - as he is often called in El Salvador - holds and protects the infant Jesus, imaged as a Salvador child, while the helicopters of the Army and death squads fly overhead.

Below, a brief outline of his life and martyrdom from Wikipedia:

Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (August 15, 1917 – March 24, 1980), commonly known as Monseñor Romero, was a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. He later became prelate archbishop of San Salvador.

As an archbishop, he witnessed numerous violations of human rights and began a ministry speaking out on behalf of the poor and victims of the country's civil war. His brand of political activism was denounced by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and the government of El Salvador. In 1980, he was assassinated by gunshot while consecrating the Eucharist during mass. His death finally provoked international outcry for human rights reform in El Salvador.

In 1997, a cause for beatification and canonization into sainthood was opened for Romero and Pope John Paul II bestowed upon him the title of Servant of God. The process continues. He is considered the unofficial patron saint of the Americas and El Salvador and is often referred to as "San Romero" in El Salvador. Outside of Catholicism Romero is honored by other religious denominations of Christendom, like the Church of England through its Common Worship. He is one of the ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Island Time

In the past week I've had two island days - a visit to Lopez Island, when Andrea Nenzel and I brought a new computer to Judy Tralnes, seeing trumpeter swans and newborn lambs and the old Center Church along the way, and a visit to Whidbey Island with my sister, Kathy Roben. Kathy and I drove the length of the island, from the ferry dock to the roiling waters of Deception Pass, with stops at Fort Casey and other parks for walks with Dakota, a Chinese Crested pooch being dog-sat by Kathy. The day was sunny, the waters of Puget Sound were still and gray and beautiful. Those islands are two of my favorite places in the world, where the crazy pace of life in the USA seems to quiet down, where there's time for beachcombing and long talks and funny coffee bars with book swaps.

The salt waters that fold around Lopez and Whidbey Islands are the same waters that beat along the beaches of El Salvador - though they're surely warmer waters by the time they get to Central America. Maybe when I go back, I'll take time to visit some of El Salvador's islands and find the rhythm of their island time.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Abundance and scarcity

I seem to be accumulating an abundance of things to take back - eyeglasses for 24 Comasagua folk who needed special prescriptions (mostly myopic kids from the school), a laptop for Walther who's going to University in San Salvador, vitamins for Nubia and her family, a set of soccer jerseys from my dental hygienist. Will this all fit inside the small suitcase and backpack I brought back with me? Seems unlikely. I'll have to borrow a big bag.

I'm also noticing the signs of scarcity all around me. Office space for lease, houses for sale everywhere. My friends are planning to work longer, worried about losing their jobs. People are practicing not buying, not consuming. Everyone's wondering how long the recession's going to go on. With all those signs of scarcity, the abundance of gifts I'm bringing back for people in El Salvador is especially meaningful.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Two worlds

I'm living in two worlds. Either I'm in El Salvador, checking on the weather and the news and my friends in the north, or I'm in the northwest, checking on the news and my friends in El Salvador (the weather in El Salvador at this time of year is pretty predictable). In either place the internet makes bilocation seem almost feasible. Thirty-eight years ago, when I spent a year in Norway, the distances were clearer, the spaces more unbridgeable. I remember reading the Herald Tribune in paper copy, and listening to BBC news. Letters took a couple of weeks to arrive. People at home seemed very-far-away.

Now the two worlds jostle and jangle. My laptop shows photos from El Salvador on its desktop. I wake up in the mornings and take a few long seconds to remember what country I'm in and what day it is and what I might have to do in it.

The distances we have erased with such ferocious efficiency are real. They matter. I want to wake up knowing where I am and how I got here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A new day for El Salvador

Yesterday the people of El Salvador went to their voting places and elected Mauricio Funes, of the FMLN, as the next President of the country. This is a historic shift, since the ARENA party has been in power for 17 years. Peaceful transfers of power through a fair and reasonably transparent election system (international observers were pleased with yesterday's process) is something new for El Salvador. The next challenge will be assuring that the transfer of power IS peaceful: it's encouraging that ARENA conceded defeat, and that the leaders of both parties pledged to work together in good faith.

It won't be an easy road for Funes: the economic downturn has hit El Salvador, of course, especially by lessening the remitances from the U.S. on which so many families depend. The legislature is divided. There's huge poverty and unemployment, especially for the young.

In his victory speech, Funes proclaimed a preferential option for the poor, echoing the call of Archbishop Romero. May his work for El Salvador be good news for the poor and for all Salvadorans!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Election Day

It's voting day in El Salvador, and both Eleanor and I have been glued to our computers, checking the news and the blogs, when we weren't in community meetings. For current information in English, look at Tim's El Salvador Blog or the CISPES blog. Many rumors are flying, many many people are turning out to vote. May the people be the winners, with a clear and transparent process, a clear and accepted decision.

Friday, March 13, 2009


My plane from El Salvador landed at the Houston airport where I stared wide-eyed at the astonishing variety of people who live in the United States. In Salvador, it's usually pretty clear at first glance who the Salvadorans are and who the foreigners are. It's rare to see someone with Asian or African features, uncommon to see a tall person (at 5' 4", I'm taller than most Salvadoran women and many Salvadoran men) or a blond. But in the Houston airport, what abundance: dark, light, tall, short, faces from all the corners of the earth - including, of course, a good many Salvadoran faces.

And then there's coming home: what a joy to go down for breakfast at St. Mary's this morning and be greeted with a full round of hugs, to catch up with news, to breathe cold air and to look out my window at the evergreens. It's been a long cold winter and a cold spring - everything is about a month later than it would usually be. Feels comforting, too, to know what usual looks like!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I fly back to Seattle tomorrow, my first trip home. I'm looking forward to seeing my family and my CSJP Sisters and my dear friends. I'm looking forward to being able to open my mouth and talk without thinking about which tense the verb should be in.

I'll miss the heat, and the clicking of the gecko at night, and this house, which has also become home. I'm going to miss the day of the elections - though I will be checking in on the internet - and the celebration of Monseñor Romero on March 24th. I'll be glad to return in time for Holy Week. It's always good - and a very Lenten good - to return.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This girl

During our medical mission in Comasagua, the Unidad de Salud clinic director/doctor pointed out a young girl to me, and told me that she came from a very poor family: her mother works down in Santa Tecla, the girl takes care of her four younger sisters and brothers (later note: turns out there's a younger sister, older brother, and great-grandmother at home). There's no father around. I asked about her again when I returned to Comasagua for follow-up and learned that her name is Nubia. The doctor had persuaded her mother to send her to school, but she has a lot of catching up to do. She's also been doing odd jobs around town, trying to get a little extra money so she and her family will have something to eat. Nubia is 12 but weighs about what a child of six should weigh, according to the doctor.

Nubia lives in a house of lamina, sheets of tin pushed together to make a shelter, the poorest kind of housing in El Salvador. She wants to learn, and she wants to have a better life.

If you're reading my blog, I invite you to join me in helping Nubia to have a life of possibilities instead of defeats. I'm told that $50/month plus money for school clothes and supplies will relieve the extreme poverty of this family without making them dependent. With your help, I will make this gift on condition that the children go to school, and that Nubia does not work outside the home.

If you'd like to help, a donation will be very welcome and well used. Please make checks payable to "PeaceHealth" and note that it's "for Nubia." Checks can be sent to the PeaceHealth El Salvador Health Mission, attn: Kathy Garcia, P.O. Box 10905, Eugene, OR 97440.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Alegría means happiness, and it's also the name of a town in El Salvador, high up in the mountains of the department of Usulutan, east of San Salvador. Ana Lazar and I travelled there yesterday, because her guidebook says it is a gem. Indeed it is, and not just because of its setting, high on a hill overlooking a vast valley, not just because of its beautiful town square, old church, and brightly painted houses. Alegría is a gem most of all because of the warmth and friendliness of the people. We were admiring the view out past the steepest street we'd ever seen, top, and got into conversation with the woman in la tercera edad (Salvadoran term for a senior citizen) who smoothed out her lacy apron to have her photo taken. Then we admired a woman walking down the street with an immense basket of bananas on her head and a melon under one arm. A little while later, as we were climbing up a concrete staircase, some children greeted us and their grandfather asked us to come in and visit. Grandmother turned out to be the same woman, whom I'm happy to salute on this International Day of the Woman. I'll be sending photos of the entire family back to Alegría, that well-named town.

But Alegría has also known tragedy recently. In January, 2008 the young FMLN Mayor, Moises Funes, was shot and killed along with Zulma Rivera, a city official. Political motives were strongly suspected at the time. Now an ex-trustee of Alegría, Carolina Isabel Cortez de Portillo, is on trial with three others for the murder. According to La Prensa Grafica, the motive was control of the municipality's finances.

That dark shadow was not visible to Ana and me as we watched part of a school celebration, walked around the town, and visited the Laguna de Alegría in the crater of the volcano the town is perched on. May this beautiful town have a future of true alegría.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Se hace camino al andar

Caminante, no hay camino / Se hace camino al andar -
Traveller, there is no way. You make the way by walking.

These lines by Spanish poet Antonio Machado have long been a touchstone for me. This week, I've been living in the way that's blocked and in the way that opens when you walk it. This first week on my own, I've been aware of my limitations, especially limitations of language, of culture, of understanding. I've touched into fear - not the rational fears about crime or illness, but childhood fears of being shamed, of being inadequate. And I've found that the only way is to keep walking...to walk through the fear. It comes and it goes. And it goes more quickly if I don't pay too much attention to it, don't feed it, if I keep walking. Se hace camino al andar. Just as long as I keep watching where I put my feet, and try not to fall down any more staircases!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In Santa Tecla

A good, busy day, with many pieces of our coming cataract surgical mission falling into place. I went out to Hospital San Rafael in Santa Tecla, where our Comasagua patients will go for their cataract surgeries. With the help of Cristy, a staff member at CIS who translated for me, I had a good conversation with Licenciada Guardado, the head of nursing, about all the arrangements (Licenciado/a is the term of respectful address for those who've completed University degrees). I look forward in hope to the day when I can have a full and complete conversation about important matters in adequate Spanish - but I'm not there yet. A side benefit of the trip was getting to talk to Cristy - en español - on the way there and back again about her work, life and political passions.

Hospital San Rafael
is the middle of a vast transformation - new surgery suites and wards have been built; an area that was a dustbowl two weeks ago has been transformed into a parking lot. The site is still full of workmen and full of polvo, dust, blowing around in the swift March winds. This is the season of dust: Salvadorans I've talked to think of March and April as the hardest months, when it gets hotter and hotter, and dustier and dustier, and there's no rain to cool things down. We've been lucky this year, catching the tail-end of the cold weather further north in the Americas, to have lots of wind and cooler than usual weather. The Salvadorans think it's cold. I think it's pretty nice. Except for the polvo.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Up the road to Comasagua

I drove up to Comasagua today to meet with Mercedes Arias, the community organizer for CIS who coordinated our medical mission. We went over the list of those who were screened for cataract surgery and planned hiring a bus to take each day's patients in to San Rafael Hospital in Santa Tecla. It's great to work in an organized community - between the CIS organizers and students and the health promoters in the Unidad de Salud clinic, we have really great connections with our patients in their smaller communities.

We walked up to the Unidad de Salud and it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces - Alex, the world's best pharmacy volunteer; Gloria, the clinic pharmacist; Mauricio, who keeps the physical plant in order; and Doctora de Larios, who opened the clinic to us and managed the referrals for patients who needed to be seen at the hospital. There were some people waiting to be seen, but nothing like our crowds. And the water is running again!

Mercedes asked for a ride down to Santa Tecla, and on the way we talked about the earthquake of 2001, which destroyed every house and building in Comasagua. Mercedes and her husband and children lived in a tent for more than a year, until her husband managed to build a very small house, which they are still enlarging and arranging. Much of today's Comasagua, especially the public buildings - the San Mateo church, above, the Alcaldia, the Unidad de Salud, and the Casa Comunal - were built by Venezuelan soldiers. They also rebuilt some houses, but the Salvadoran government decided it was time for them to return home - before they got to Mercedes' house.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Me caí

One of the areas where Spanish is a lot more subtle than English is the reflexive which - forgive me, I'm no linguist - takes the responsibility out of the hands of the speaker and puts it on those stubborn things that trip us up. Literally, in this case. Me caí means I tumbled - but with the shading "I was tumbled." And was I ever tumbled.

The house has a winding staircase, and I was coming down it with an electric broom today when - somehow - I was tumbled, and I ended up in an undignified heap at the bottom of the stairs. Left shoulder and arm, right elbow and hip all sporting considerable bruises, but nothing broken, thank God, except the electric broom, which is now in three pieces and headed for the garbage.

In the course of the day, before me caí, I found out that yesterday's immense traffic tie-up was caused by a big event at the national stadium, Flor Blanco, to welcome home and honor the Salvadoran soldiers who fought in Iraq. There probably aren't many in the U.S. who are aware that tiny El Salvador has had an Army unit in Iraq since 2003. The last troops from El Salvador (also the last from Latin America) returned February 7th. "El Salvador says the troops carried out 353 water treatment, education, health care, road and electricity projects"- skills we hope they'll continue to use at home, where they are badly needed.