Monday, January 31, 2011

Amazing Amate

Today I drove early in the morning to the port of La Libertad, where some of our November patients from San Juan Opico were going through an eye clinic to see if they would qualify for surgery. There in the courtyard of the Casa Emiliani retreat house was this most amazing tree, an amate, that had put down a secondary trunk and flung up a main limb in midair. It's a tree with the lines of a dancer, a tree with circles and arches and great flowing lines of timber, a tree that hardly seems possible, and is surely unforgettable.

Alas, our three patients did not qualify for this surgery, but all did receive glasses and thorough eye checks. And I am glad to have made the acquaintance of this ancient and glorious tree.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Coming into safety

Last week I shared the hard story of a friend whose family was being extorted by gangsters. I've been praying for her through the week, knowing that the final payment on the amount that had been agreed was due yesterday. I called today, and apparently everything went OK, and she is now feeling some relief from the terror that has seized the family for the last month.

It's hard to know that this family's hard-earned money and everything they could get in loans from other family members and friends has gone to strengthen the gangs that devastate the people of El Salvador. But I am so glad that my friend can begin to feel safe again!

Beyond this immediate relief, it's my prayer that somehow, somehow the people can find ways to trust each other and band together against the gangs - and that the government can work harder and smarter to begin to solve this enormous problem.

Birds of stranger feathers

I went to the nearest mini-mall on Saturday to cash a check and had to stand in line for a while outside the bank. A little come-and-look was set up across the parking lot, with appliances and a large inflated chicken holding balloons for the kids. At first I thought the chicken was simply a balloon itself, but no: on closer inspection, I could see signs of a human form inside. Now it was about 92 degrees and the guy in the chicken suit was standing in the sun, and it didn't seem to me that he could possibly be getting enough money to make it worthwhile to bounce up and down inside that rubber chicken suit and give out balloons. Got my check cashed, did some shopping, came back to take a photo, which I got just as Mr. Chicken was being led away from the pavilion and into the appliance store. If you look closely, you can see that his chicken suit is drooping and looking a bit pathetic. I peeked in the store just in time to see a young man, still alive, emerging from this bird of very strange feathers.

Speaking of chickens, do you know that they like to climb trees and perch in them for the night? Margaret Jane and I sometimes go to a favorite spot for pupusas, the ultimate Salvadoran comfort food, where we can watch the chickens in the next yard climbing up and disposing themselves among the branches of a small tree. Probably a place of greater safety than the ground, as long as a tree-climbing garobo (male iguana) doesn't come after you.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Birds of the sky, singing

Today at the 5 PM Mass at Santa Lucia, Padre Juan Carlos was reading from Mark: "To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade."

At that very moment, the setting sun was shining through the west windows, setting the big 4-lobed pillar in front of the altar ablaze, and at that very moment the community of English sparrows that lives in Santa Lucia burst into rapturous song, cheeping and chittering at top voice through the sermon and through the eucharistic prayer. I have to confess that I gave up trying to follow the sermon and contented myself with following the birds as they flipped from pillar to pillar, singing vespers.

As we walked up for communion, the sunset light faded, the birds quieted and settled in for the night, and the service came peacefully to a close. Alleluia, and thanks be to God.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New works at Centro Arte

The events and openings at the Centro Arte para la Paz this year have been breathtaking - first the beautiful new museum in one wing of the old school, then the skateboard park, the landscaping of the outer grounds, two beautiful new entry gates, the exercise pavilion....and now! Just a few days ago, two relatively recent classrooms that stood on one side of the chapel were demolished, and now the foundations are being dug for a new combination of facilities: a large meeting room, dining room, kitchen, storage area, and two apartments for visitors.

For those who know the Centro Arte, the hostel is in the background of this photo, which looks across the courtyard toward Sister Peggy's house (now painted blue). And you can see a few of the men digging away, happy to be having this great building project to work on.

Peggy is, of course, already planning the next project. And given what I've experienced so far at the Centro Arte para la Paz, I expect it will happen ahead of schedule.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Today was full of satisfactions. First thing in the morning, last thing in the afternoon, I helped some of my favorite scholars get ready: Walther needed some extra cash for lab and materials fees, as he continues his 5-year program toward an engineering degree. Then, in the afternoon, I helped Rosita and her girls, Lupita and Edith, get backpacks and notebooks and colored pencils - they're in 4th and 5th grade.

In between those happy moments, I had the satisfaction of completely understanding a couple of relatively complicated phone calls from strangers - I must really be picking up my level of Spanish, though sometimes it seems as if I'll never master it - finding two challenging locations in the city, and picking up medications and eyeglasses for our clinics. Then I came home and made a stir-fry with roasted red pepper sauce, cooking to my pleasure without a recipe - and it turned out well.

None of this solves the deeper problems of the world or the terrible crises of El Salvador, crises of poverty and crime that I wrote about earlier this week. But it's good to have a day of minor satisfactions. Those, too, are real.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

First day of school

Tomorrow is the first day of school for kids in El Salvador. They're at the end of the their summer vacations, which stretch from mid-November to mid-January; school packets are being handed out to parents for the second year, with uniforms, shoes and notebooks. Today after church we ran into a single mother who Margaret Jane has been helping. Her 12 and 15 year old daughters are entering 2nd grade - because, I imagine, last year was the first time she was able to send them to school properly clothed and with notebooks. This is one government program that's worth more than every penny.

Here's one more student on his way - Moises, a young man who our doctors helped to get successful surgery about 8 years ago is now ready to start university. He's going to be studying computer technology for a couple of years, on his way, we hope, to a good career and a happy life, with the aid of a scholarship from some of his friends in PeaceHealth.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Hard stories

Today I listened to a woman I know here, a friend, tell me about being extorted at gunpoint. Three men showed up at her family home a few days before Christmas, brandished their guns, and said they would kill the family unless they got $5000. She and her husband talked them down to $3000, and even that is way, way beyond this family's means. But imagine negotiating for your life at gunpoint.

They were told that their kids would be killed if the police were called. They didn't call the police. They went to other family members to borrow the money, and managed to put together $2000 which they gave to their extortionists a few days after Christmas. Now they are trying to scrape together the last $1000, which is "due" at the end of this month. They haven't told their neighbors, only their family. Her only trust right now is in her family.

My friend has been living in fear for a month, hardly sleeping, crying, afraid to leave the home. She has some chronic illnesses that have been kicked up by the stress. And she is one of the strong Salvadoran women for whom I have such admiration, someone who's been a pillar of her community and a help to many others.

This is the intolerable situation which too many good people in El Salvador and Central America face daily. Every time money is given, it strengthens the gangs, of course. But if money isn't given? Well, the murders take place daily and are almost never solved.

May God have mercy on the poor who suffer so much here. And may the people and the government find a just way to work against such grinding and relentless evil.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Getting ready

I'm all over the scorpion bite, I'm happy to say, but it was an unforgettable experience. Now taking the flashlight with me AND putting my shoes on when I go to the bathroom in the night. Never mind, the next thing will be something else I don't expect.

We are a little less than three weeks from the arrival of our General Medical Mission, and there's a lot of organizing and preparing on my plate before then. Today I drove over to San Rafael Cedros to talk with Iris Alas, our wonderful local organizer, about food for our hungry team. We met with Doñas Angela, Maria Elena and Mirtala, and I can tell that we will, once again, feast like kings and queens. They've cooked for delegations before and they know what to do to keep our stomachs calm and our hearts happy.

San Rafael Cedros is one of the prettiest Salvadoran towns I've seen - sparklingly clean, with freshly and brightly painted stores. I should have photos to post, but I keep forgetting - eventually some will show up. It's a small town with a lot of surrounding country communities, and it's a well-organized town that has had some great successes recently in combating crime and delinquency. It's going to be a joy to get to know San Rafael Cedros better.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A rougher night

Last night I woke up at about 11:30 - the music was still booming over from the disco next door, but I seem to have learned how to sleep through it - and walked down to the bathroom, which is outside in the patio. Sudden stabbing pain in my heel. There outside the bathroom door I had managed to step on an alacran - that's the name for the local scorpion - and it had stung me. I yelped and carried on enough to wake up Margaret Jane (Korla was out at a local festival) who sat down with me at the kitchen table while we checked out Donde No Hay Doctor (Where There Is No Doctor), the invaluable first aid / health education manual. Alacran venom varies a lot in strength, but it's rarely dangerous for adults. That was the good news, but on the other hand, the pain and swelling can last for weeks or months...

I was beginning to feel altogether strange. My mouth started buzzing, then fingers, arms and legs. Korla got back, and told us that a Salvadoran friend had said to cut off the stinger, soak it in alcohol, and apply that to the wound. We'd killed the alacran by then, so why not? Soaked the stinger in a bit of the very nice brandy my Christmas guests had left and bathed my heel. I stumbled off to bed and spent the next five hours in chills and sweating, staggering when I tried to walk, my skin buzzing with electricity. My body felt light, unfamiliar, unsettled. This had definitely been an alacran which, in spite of being only about 3 inches long, had plenty of strong venom.

Now, twelve hours later, the buzz is still with me, but is lessening. My heel doesn't hurt at all, which suggests that the brandy soak was a good idea. I will definitely be putting shoes on in the future when I head to the bathroom in the dark, and I'll probably carry a flashlight with me for a while. I'm just mostly grateful that the alacran got me, and not Kathy Garcia, who is about half my size and would have had an even worse time with the venom.

I'd like to settle down now for 24 hours of uneventful peace, quiet and recuperation with no wildlife attached.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

One rough day

I put Kathy Garcia on the plane this morning after what has to have been just about her worst day ever in El Salvador. It began with digestive upset & stomach cramps, which left her drinking Gator-Aid and eating toast for the day. Then, when she was lying down in the afternoon, she heard a scrabbling, and looked up to see a couple of rats running along one of the ceiling beams. The usual furor ensued: Kathy yelped, the rats fled, we moved her into a different bedroom. This was a little discouraging for us, as we hadn't seen rats for months and were happily convinced that they'd gone to live elsewhere.

This would have been more than enough, but then at 8 PM our neighbor started up the disco music at top volume, playing until after midnight. Not unreasonable on a Friday night, and usually I would just curl up with year one of The West Wing, which Korla has kindly loaned me - but Kathy and I had to get up at 3 AM to get her to the plane on time. We each got perhaps two hours sleep, but luckily there's no one on the roads at 3 AM, and after dropping her off I dozed for a couple of hours in the airport parking lot, in a blissful quiet interrupted only by the squacking of the grackles that live there.

At about this time, Kathy should be reaching home in Oregon, very, very tired and very, very glad to see her husband and daughter and quiet bed. I hope tomorrow will be perfect enough to make up for Friday.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Working together

It's been great this week to have Kathy Garcia here in Suchitoto and to spend a week working together on our coming missions. Usually Kathy is about 5,000 miles (an extremely rough estimate) north in the much colder regions of Eugene, Oregon, while I'm down here in the sunshine. We connect by e-mail and cell phone all the time, but it's not the same as being in the same place.

Most of our week together has been focused on our coming mission in San Rafael Cedros, a beautiful small town about 50 minutes to the southeast of Suchitoto. Yesterday we visited the beautiful La Santisima Trinidad retreat house in Candelaria, where our groups will stay, and the national hospital in the district capital, Cojutepeque, where our eye surgery group will work in May. Today we checked in with Iris Alas, our local coordinator for San Rafael Cedros, looked again at the municipal kindergarten we'll be using for the clinics, and tried to figure out how to fit all the docs and patients and helpers and translators and chairs and tables and exam tables and eye-screening equipment into a pretty small space. It's going to work, mostly because Kathy is so great at organizing space and flow, Iris is clearly an expert at organizing people, and I've gotten some good experience in organizing the permits. We hope to be a very well-organized group!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A moment to remember

Last Sunday, the day after we heard the terrible news of the shootings in Arizona, I sat in Santa Lucia, waiting for the Noon Mass to begin. Two pews ahead of me was a family - a mother with a four year old boy and her mother, la abuela, holding a boy of perhaps a year and a half with Down's syndrome. A young man I've often seen in church - I think he may be part of the pastoral team for Santa Lucia - was sweeping the aisle, getting ready for Mass. When he came to their pew he looked, stopped, set down his broom, talked to la abuela - probably asking the little boy's name - and within a minute was playing with the child with the greatest delight. He sat and played with the little guy - who loved him right back - for about 10 minutes. The church may not have been so well swept for that Mass, but I don't for a minute doubt that Jesus Christ had just walked through in the loving person of that young man.

How good to set that loving act against the hatred and confusion that led to the Arizona shootings. May the love somehow be stronger.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

From winter to summer

Margaret Jane flew in today from Newark, where it was decidedly winter (12 degrees when she got up very early this morning for her ride to the airport) to Suchitoto, where we're enjoying our own summer "cool" spell, with the thermometer topping out at, maybe, 90 degrees. It's lovely to have her back here, and we hope she'll finish thawing soon.

Our disco neighbor has been active lately, but we're now equipped with noise-blocking headgear, the kind worn by guys jackhammering cement. It helps!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Feliz Año

Happy Year! That's what everyone here is saying to each other. Sometimes "Nuevo" gets added, but mostly it doesn't. Here in Suchitoto we began 2011 with plenty of noise - from the mountain of firecrackers that were lit with a bang in the streets to the dance music pulsating from the disco next door - and everyone proceeded to enjoy the lovely long weekend. I've been enjoying getting to know Susan Masters, Korla's mother and a Lutheran pastor called to a deaf community in Minnesota. Susan goes home tomorrow, and we will settle back into the ordinary times of January for a while.

I looked for an image that might speak of my hopes for 2011, and found this photo of the altar mural in the church at El Paisnal, the church where Padre Rutilio Grande was buried after his assassination in 1977. He was the first of many Salvadoran priests, religious and catechists who were killed during the civil war, and his death turned Monseñor Romero into a prophet for justic. In this mural, Rutilio stands to the right and Monseñor Romero to the left, blessing a table filled with the good things of the Salvadoran earth - fruits and vegetables, tamales, tortillas, a jug with something good to drink - and around them stand the people they loved. The legend - taken from one of Rutilio Grande's sermons - says "una mesa comun para todos" - a shared table for everyone. May we come closer in 2011 to sharing the goods of the earth with everyone, with justice, and may we treat tenderly the earth that blesses us with such bounty.