Sunday, January 29, 2012

Quilt makers and indigo dyers

I've been having a good visit with Cathy McKay.  Cathy's an obstetrics and delivery nurse at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, Bellingham.  A couple of years ago she was the nurse on our mission team at San Juan Opico, staying after the mission to spend a couple of months learning Spanish on the island of Tasajera, where Dr. Lauren Herbert, a pediatrician at PeaceHealth Riverbend, has helped to build a clinic.

During Cathy's time on the island, she taught several of the women living there to sew, and started them creating beautiful bags, made from Salvadoran fabric, that are now being sold as Bolsas de Cati.  But, Cathy found it hard to learn as much Spanish as she wanted without formal instruction, so she's come back this year for another stay of several months, taking Spanish classes at the CIS.

She's also interested in learning about indigo dying - for future Bolsas de Cati possibilities - and indigo is a Suchitoto specialty, so she's up here for the weekend.  It was one of those serendipitous moments - the day before she came, I met Marilyn, a Canadian woman who's living for a couple of months to study Spanish, and who also wanted to learn how to dye with indigo.  And even more serendipity: on Saturday, Cathy and I stopped in at the Concertacion de Mujeres, and learned that they were having an indigo-dying workshop on Sunday, and that Cathy and Marilyn would be welcomed.  So they had a great time, learned a lot about indigo, and probably picked up quite a few new words in Spanish along the way.

It's a short hop from indigo dying to quilt making - well, maybe a long hop - but I want to share this photo of a group of women in San Rafael Cedros receiving new quilts for their babies.  Each year, we get a wonderful collection of quilts and baby blankets made by Cindy Hellerstedt's sisters in Minnesota (a good thing to do during the long winters, I'm told), and these become gifts for poor mothers in the towns we visit.  Here's Iris Chacon, our San Rafael Cedros coordinator, in the middle, with the group of women delighting in their new quilts.

I'm not at all "handy" in the sense of being good with needles or cloth - never quite got over rebelling against my mother, an expert with a sewing machine - but I'm glad for the women who are, who make quilts or start other women making bags, whose handiwork makes the world a better place.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The more things change...

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I wouldn't generally agree with that somewhat cynical proverb, but, alas, it's proving true of the disco next door. 

We've had a lovely stretch of peaceful, quiet nights, even on the weekends.  The disco's owner was in San Salvador with his mother for a long time as she recovered from being shot in early December, and then the word came that the whole family had decided to emigrate, I suppose to the United States.  And the disco stayed dark and blessedly quiet.

But today I walked past the door and there was a big sign advertising a Saturday night discoteque, to begin at 9 PM en adelante - from 9 PM on.  Sure enough, it's different music and different voices, but the disco is going again, and I'm about to put on headphones and listen to the next installment of West Wing.

I will just hope it's only going to be Saturday nights, and than en adelante will end before 2 AM. 

On the other hand, if I'd been in Seattle, I'd have been spending the week buried in snowdrifts, en adelante.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chickens, eggs, and the Guacotecti women

I've been waiting for quite a while for the Guacotecti women to get their chicken farm up and running - and so have they!  They found a great property and were able to purchase it with help from some Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace (you know who you are!), but then they had to wait to get the paperwork completed, and wait to negotiate electricity, and wait to be approved by the appropriate government agency.  It's been a long slog, but today I visited them with Leslie Schuld and Iris Alas of CIS, and there's a real chicken farm rising up from the dirt, soon to be home to some 600 cackling hens.  The foundation and walls of the henhouse are in place; a man is coming today to erect the metal framework and roof that completes the structure.  A new well is being dug for the community just a short distance away, and piping will bring water to the farm. 

The women were all there working hard as we bumped up the road - working with pick and shovel and wheelbarrow in the blazing sun, with a couple of guys helping out.  The guys are being paid.  The women have to wait until the chickens come and start laying and the eggs get sold, and they'll keep working hard together every day to make their dream a reality.

We had a short meeting - in the shade by the side of the road - to go over progress and next steps.  They'll be purchasing the hens next week.  It's going to be a real chicken farm.  And I promise to go back for more photos with actual hens involved.  Meanwhile, here's the whole gang, including Leslie and Iris and me and a few kids -

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Grace note

The little bathroom that I use - really a toilet and shower enclosure, about 3 by 4 feet - was getting grubbier and grubbier last year, so I asked my landlord about the possibility of tiling it.  The work was done in November, and I've been enjoying the results ever since. 

I never met the man who did the tile work, but he left behind something I cherish.  Along with a couple of broken tiles and a small group of unused tiles, there was this tile, which he'd cut and shaped:

It's a bird or a palm tree, a few minutes of relaxation, a gift, a grace note.  It comes from a culture where the work of hands is still valued and honored.  Gracias.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Nenzel Sisters

Andrea and Judith (Knight), the two Nenzel sisters, are safely back home in the Northwest - Andrea in Vancouver, WA or somewhere up or down the highways from there on the way to many PeaceHealth meetings, Judith in Nanaimo sorting through photos and memories to share with other family members.

It was a joy to have them both here, and it was fun to get to know them as sisters.  After working for six good years with Andrea, I know her pretty well, but it's always a new light to see the family connections, the shared jokes, the pauses, the likenesses and differences.

As you can see, it's not at all difficult to guess that these two are sisters, and since they're both tall and blond women, I had a rather nice two weeks of being short - not my usual experience in El Salvador.  We also got to hear, from Lita Calderon, Dina Dubon and John Guiliano, some good stories about Andrea's time here at the Calle Real Refugee camp from 1985-87.  My favorite was about Andrea using every one of her inches of height to insist peacefully and with great determination that an unhelpful local priest send a water truck up to Calle Real.  He did. 

It's always a moving experience for me to hear the Calle Real stories as I continue living my part of our Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace history in this country, which now stretches back more than 25 years.  And it's wonderful to see the love and gratitude that greet Andrea and Margaret Jane in this country.  The people remember who was there with them in a dark and uncertain time.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


I've been a fan of permaculture since the late 1970s when I learned about the concept from the work of Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.  It's a concept that calls for designing with, not against, the natural condition of the land; for agriculture based on trees and perennial shrubs instead of cleared land; for respecting and incorporating biodiversity into farmland design.  I've always wanted to see permaculture in action, and at last I have, not more than 10 miles away from my Suchitoto house. 

I'd seen the sign about a permaculture site on the highway, but had just been hoping that somehow I'd connect up.  The time for connecting came when one of the volunteers for our health mission in San José Villanueva, Tomás Chavarria, turned out to work there and visited me to tell me about the farm.  Through Tomás I met Reina Mejia, the coordinator, and arranged a tour for Andrea, Judith and me.  In the photo above, Reina is introducing us to the farm's rabbits, whose pellets become fertilizer for the crops, a typical permaculture natural recyling.

The permacultura farm is on a very steep hillside, which I'd have thought almost impossible to adapt for organic permaculture.  I would have been wrong.  The entire site has been designed very carefully with dikes and catchponds and tree rings to hold rainwater and allow it to soak in, so the ground can continue to be moist even during the dry season (now).  When the NGO acquired the farm, it had been used for a monoculture of citrus trees.  The citrus are still there, but now other trees are planted among them that will eventually create the high canopy that is the natural condition of land here.  The land is further enriched by compost, mulches of dry leaves and plant materials, and the contributions of rabbits, poultry, and composting toilets.  They've been working on it for only five years, and already it looks amazingly fertile by comparison with nearby lands.  The group of men and women who work with this land - I think about 12 people - have all been through a year-long course in design, and are all committed to teaching others how to use the permaculture principles in El Salvador. 

The planting areas, around and under trees, included corn during the rainy season, and now includes beans, but there are a myriad other plants, medicinal or nutritive, planted in small patches, with butterflies dancing among them.  When the group has built structures, they've been simple and ingenious, like this shelter for seedlings, shaded with a thatch of grass.

Here's work that brings the hope for all our futures, and for three years I've been driving by and saying "I've got to visit someday."  Thank God that day came at last.  I know I'll be back.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Feliz Año and all that jazz

It's a bit of a shock to find I haven't posted since New Year's Eve.  But mind you, the silence has only been on the blog channel.  Andrea and Judith and I have been having a wonderful time, first in Antigua, and then in El Salvador, where we visited our February medical mission site in San José Villanueva and last year's site, San Rafael Cedros.  There we had lunch with Mari and her family and enjoyed Richard Stanley looking healthy and happy with his new heart valve working just as it should - and Judith got to see one of our water filters in use.  This was especially nice, because she's donated quite a few of them to PazSalud.

But yesterday was the best, though not at all what we had planned.  We had planned going to visit Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, a home for orphaned and abandoned children that's north of Santa Ana, a fairly long drive from Suchitoto.  We set out, and five minutes later the car announced that it was shutting down - check engine light on, engine coughing, and - we quickly discovered - the temperature up at the ceiling.  We called Peggy, who sent out her friend and car doctor Chamba; Chamba arrived in a pickup, put some water in the radiator which promptly began dripping out again which led to a diagnosis.  He refilled the radiator and drove the X-Trail back into a taller (repair shop) in Suchi, and we followed behind in his pickup, driven by a young friend.  Riding in the back of the pickup was a great treat for Judith, after she'd seen so many Salvadorans in one. 

There we were at home when Peggy called to say she had a special friend of Andrea's who'd just popped in for a visit.  She sent him over, and it was the famous John Guiliano, who'd worked as a volunteer at Calle Real with Andrea and Margaret Jane during the Civil War, decided to stay in El Salvador, married, settled in Guajila, Chalatenango, and is working to engage the young folk of that community in sports.  I'd heard so much about him, and he lived up to billing: joyful, dramatic, very Italian, determined and great fun.  We also got to meet his beautiful 15-year-old daughter Rose, and we all went out to lunch at the Café Guazapa and listened to the stories.  Imagine, if the car hadn't had a breakdown, John would have missed seeing Andrea for the first time in about 25 years.

I was glad, too, because the day at home gave me time to assemble all the materials that I needed to present today for our customs approval - there were three separate packets, lots of paper, lots of details to worry about, and I needed the time.  And today, oh joy, I got each packet into the right office with the right people there to receive it.  Primero Dios, we'll get our franquicia in plenty of time this time... And in any case, gracias a Dios for getting to meet John and share a memorable lunch.  Oh, and the car repair was well done, we've driven all day today with no trouble.  Gracias tambien a Chamba.