Monday, June 28, 2010

Un año y medio

A year and a half - that's exactly how long I've been living in El Salvador. Good time for an assessment. When I came here at the end of December, 2008, I thought I'd be fluent in Spanish at the end of a year. Alas, I still get the verb forms mixed up, I can misunderstand what someone's trying to tell me, and I'm sometimes misunderstood. I'm still a learner of this beautiful language, and the learning happens more slowly than I wish it did. I can and do carry on conversations, handle business, and even write formal letters in Spanish: I just wish it was elegant Spanish. Helps to remember that I don't expect immigrants to the United States to be fluent in English after a year and half!

On the other hand: I can zip around Suchitoto, San Salvador, and all the areas in between with ease. I know the locations of hospitals, government centers, historical sites, shopping centers, crafts markets, villages; I can do business with a variety of government authorities without sweating any more than is natural in this climate. I know all the thousand and one steps necessary to set up our mission clinics.

Best of all, I have friends here, people I care about who care about me, friends who come to dinner and invite me to their homes, friends who can give me good advice about how to live wisely here. I even have a thriving godson. And always, I'm aware of the community of my Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, present here in the house through Margaret Jane and present in prayer and mail and e-mail messages. I'm sustained by the PeaceHealth community, by Kathy Garcia and our grand volunteers. And I'm sustained by the work, as worth the while as anything I've ever done, of connecting our PeaceHealth and CSJP volunteers with the Salvadoran people that I have come to love.

And the Spanish....well it gets a little better daily. And slowly. Primero Dios.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In the Bajo Lempa

Armando Ramirez is a long-time friend of Sister Eleanor Gilmore - he spent a lot of time at El Despertar, a Jesuit Refugee Service center in the late 1980s for people coming in from the country for medical care. Eleanor was in charge of El Despertar, and Armando was one of her favorite patients.

Armando's war wounds still give him trouble, but he's built a good life for himself down in the Bajo Lempa area (the lower part of the Lempa River, just before it reaches the sea) with his wife Blanca Luz and their daughter Erica. I've met Armando many times, but I'd never seen his home or met his family - nor had I been to the Bajo Lempa. So when I had the chance to help him out by giving him a lift with a new desk chair he'd found, I was delighted.

When we got down to the Bajo Lempa area we found it, as I'd expected, hot and humid and still flooded from the downpours of Tropical Storm Agatha. The seacoast and the coastal plain are the hottest areas of the country - and also among the most beautiful. We got there via a road that's in the process of being improved for tourism - and it really needed the improvements, as navigating the road required swaying the car from side to side to avoid the baches, potholes.

Armando and Blanca Luz proudly showed me around the beautiful home they had built for themselves, and then took me out back, where the young trees of their orchard - coconut, mango, lime, orange, papaya, nance, to name just a few - are beginning to bear fruit. And I had my first chance to drink coconut water directly from a coconut (Armando's cutting down some cocos in the photo above). There's got to be an art to that: I was pretty messy, but I loved it all the same. Armando also sets up audio for festivals and dances, and fixes bum electronics - he's a smart and enterprising man - but their orchard and chickens and his nearby milpa mean that he's got that piece of earth that can sustain the family through the ups and downs of his electronic work.

Salvadoran farm/homesteads like Armando's make me happy because he has something we've almost lost (but perhaps are beginning to rediscover) in the United States - the family-sized self-sufficient farm. Food from home.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Deaths on a bus

Everyone in this country has been shocked by a massacre that took place Sunday night in Mejicanos, a suburb of San Salvador. At 7pm a bus full of people was boarded, almost certainly by gang members, who shot some people, then doused the interior of the bus with gasoline and set it on fire. Fifteen people have died, many remaining unrecognizable. Others who managed to get out are being treated in the hospital. Three other people were shot on a different bus in that area on the same night. Here, where everyone is used to the gang-related extorsions and killings, even to the frequent killings of bus drivers and conductors, this atrocity has shaken us all to the core.

What is the cause of such mindless and heartless violence? How can it be ended? There have been calls to institute the death penalty - as though fear of a death penalty would be likely to deter such an act, as though we could count on a police and legal system as finely tuned as that in the U.S. The violence last Sunday fell on the poor, as is usually the case here. God's beloved community here continues to suffer.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Guests, expected and unexpected

My expected guests this weekend were Dra. Ana Vilma de Burgos, her husband Ernesto and their daughter Camila. Ana Vilma has been our host ophthalmologist (there's a word to spell!) for our eye surgery missions in 2007, 2009 and 2010, and she has been wonderful and generous to us and to our patients. It was great to welcome them to the house for lunch and to Suchitoto - though every fly in town seemed to have decided to visit as well, probably because I had been cooking through the morning and had put all these interesting smells in the air. We waved one hand in the air to keep the flies away and ate with the other, and enjoyed conversation, some of it in English, as Ana Vilma is fluent and Camila is studying English in the American School of San Salvador.

My unexpected guest showed up later that evening, during a downpour. I looked out from my bedroom door and saw the unmistakable shape of a frog or toad hopping across my patio. I have no idea how he could have got there - the patio's surrounded on all sides by high walls - or where he could have gone, as there was no sign of him the next morning. But there he was, beyond question, part of the wild life that keeps reminding me I'm living in the tropics.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Light and darkness

Thursday was a day of disappointment for a 37-year-old man, José Adán, who had received cataract surgeries during our May eye surgery mission. The day before he was scheduled for surgery, José Adán got a required blood glucose test, and discovered that he is a diabetic. The doctors chose to do the surgery anyway, in hopes that his vision could be restored. Because he had a young man's lens - it's gooier, I gather, not a medical term! - all of the clouded lens couldn't be removed, and he needed followup laser surgery. The surgeons thought his chances of having his vision restored by the laser surgery were very good. Meanwhile, José Adán got into treatment for his diabetes and got his blood sugar levels down to normal. Yesterday I gave José Adán and his faithful friend Carlos, who has been acting as his guide, a ride to an eye clinic for the laser surgery. I hoped to see him walking out without needing Carlos' guidance, but that did not happen. Because of the condition of his eyes, probably affected by the undiagnosed diabetes, the laser surgery will give him, at best, a minor improvement in vision.

José Adán is a true gentle man, and in spite of his great disappointment he had nothing but thanks to give the doctors who tried to save his sight.

I was primed for this technological miracle that was going to restore his sight. Like so many North Americans, I love those flashy solutions that have been my people's specialty for more than a century. Again, again, El Salvador is teaching me to put my faith in God, where it belongs, and not in "the work of our hands." It does matter that we tried to help José Adán, even if we were not successful. Success isn't what really counts.

All this was underscored for me when I read yesterday's gospel, from the 6th chapter of Matthew:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,

where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.

But store up treasures in heaven,

where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

“The lamp of the body is the eye.

If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light;

but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness.

And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”

José Adán's eyes are not sound, but still he is filled with light. I ask your prayers for him, that he may get as much improvement of vision as possible, and that he may continue to walk in the light.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup!

I'm in a country obsessed with Futbol (that's soccer in the US) and entirely consumed with the FIFA World Cup games playing in South Africa, so I decided it was past time for me to learn something about this beloved game, THE game in Latin America and in most of the world's countries.

This morning I decided to see which game might be on TV (I could hear the roar from the converted theater that backs up to our house and must be offering a big screen view of the games), and came on the Spain/Switzerland match which almost instantly had me riveted. I knew Spain was one of the heavy favorites going in, and they certainly seemed to be dominating with much more time in possession of the ball...........but, amazingly, the Swiss made the first goal, and even more amazingly the Spanish missed on a number of attempts in the second half and ended up the losers.

I've never been much of a sports fan (except for baseball, where I stubbornly and forlornly root for the Seattle Mariners), but futbol! What a game! I have a lot to learn about it, and happily there's many more World Cup matches to come.

Looking good

A joyful community of seniors (mostly) came to Dra. de Burgos' office yesterday from San Juan Opico for the final post-cataract-surgery checkup - and another group will come today . In this final checkup they receive reading glasses, which they are happily showing off in this photo. Three of the 42 patients need follow-up laser surgery, which Dra. de Burgos has scheduled for Thursday.

One woman told me yesterday how wonderful it is to be able to recognize her family and friends at a distance, how good it is to be able to see what's on the other side of a room. A man said he rejoiced in being able to read the Bible again. Everyone asked me to say a big THANK YOU to the doctors and the team. I just wish I could transmit all the hugs I got.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Children in El Salvador

Last week La Prensa Grafica, one of the major newspapers here, ran a sad graphic. It showed a World Bank index of the opportunities offered to children in health, education, and housing among the different countries of Latin America. Chile led the list, followed by Uruguay, Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Argentina. These countries cover 90% or more of the basic needs of children. Down at the bottom are four Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and - at the bottom - Honduras, where only 50 to 60% of those basic needs are covered.

A report on child labor was also released this week from the Ministry of the Economy here, which concluded that about 10% of Salvadoran children between 5 and 17 work, many of them on family farms or in family businesses. There's a good report on this in Tim's El Salvador blog, and a link to the original study.

Statistics tell a grim story, but there's another story, just as important. I visited a family today that we'd met in our February clinics in San Juan Opico. As so often here, this family with four children between the ages of 11 and 4 is headed by a single mother (the father walked out two years ago and hasn't been heard of since) who works in the informal economy, reselling used clothes, to try to put food on the table. They live in great poverty in a borrowed house made of tin sheeting propped together. But the mother sends all of her children to school (except the four year old - he'll go next year). She knows that education is the only hope for her children to escape the net of poverty, and she's determined that they will be educated.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The church floor

I've been admiring the tiled floor of Santa Lucia, our parish church in Suchitoto, for a long time. The tiling makes a carpet of color down the central aisle, and - what's most surprising - it's not a single pattern, but a slightly different pattern in each row. All the rows use the same set of tile colors: dark red, gold, green, brown, white, but each row is unique in its design. The tiles are chipped and worn, but they still make a beautiful carpet. (I wish the photo was better - my camera doesn't do its best in the low light of the church interior).

It's good to think of the tile setters who could have just chosen one pattern and kept repeating it - so much easier that way - but instead must have looked at their tiles and said, each time, now what can we do with this row? What would look good here? And they made a carpet of tiles to glorify God.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Founder's Day

For the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, today is Founders Day, the day we celebrate our founder, Margaret Anna Cusack, a woman of courage who experienced much conflict in her life, and longed for the gift and blessing of peace. Two special celebrations mark her day this year: our new website has been formally launched, and you can learn more about us and about Margaret Anna Cusack there. And in the western U.S., we celebrated Jubilees today, honoring the commitment, faithfulness and contributions of our eight Jubilarians.

Instead of joining in the celebration, I put Margaret Jane on the plane for New Jersey today - she'll be there for six weeks - and came home to a house that feels very big and very quiet with just me in it. Though, come to think of it, quiet is never long-lasting here, and even now I can hear the kids playing in the street and the buses rumbling past.

I can't be there in person with Cecilia Marie (80 years!), Rita Mary (75 years), Rose Marie and Mary (60 years), and Barbara, Jo-Anne, Margaret and Marilee (50 years), but I'm surely there in spirit with these great sisters of mine. May they each know themselves cherished today and every day. Happy Feast Day!


They danced, they clowned, they did flips and cartwheels, they swung on great ropes of cloth - last Thursday a young version of the circus came to the Centro Arte para la Paz, thanks to Gabriel and Romina of Charivari. Gabriel and Romina are talented Argentinians who have spent a month teaching circus arts to a great group of young Suchitotans. The audience - parents and friends and school kids - was properly impressed and enthusiastic, and the whole scene was captured by the kids in Rachel's photography class.

It's easy to see how much fun this was. The part that's not quite visible is how important this kind of teaching is in giving these teens a sense of their own talents and possibilities. They may not be destined for the Cirque du Soleil (or maybe one of them is, who knows?), but they'll all be walking taller and with a healthy look-at-me attitude. May the circus continue!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Yesterday 20 of our eye surgery patients came to Dra. de Burgos' office in Santa Tecla for a checkup, accompanied by health promoters Reyna Peña and Gumersindo Hernandez. It was great to see them again, looking happy and seeing with much greater clarity. Lots of hugs all around! Today the other patients come in, and then in two weeks there'll be a final post-op check. A couple of patients will need to have follow-up laser surgery, which we will be able to provide through the generosity of our donors.

This week the sun has been shining again, and the country is digging out from the massive rains dumped by Agatha. So far 12 deaths have been reported in El Salvador, with many homes damaged or destroyed, many families in shelters, and some towns cut off by floods or landslides. So far this week, the rains (we are in the rainy season when daily rains are expected) have been very light, a true blessing.