Saturday, February 21, 2015

Off the Beaten Path: Crossing Lake Ilopongo

In the dark of the night, el norte began to shake the trees and rattle the windows.  We set out in the early morning, hoping that the coming of the north wind would not prevent us from navigating the waters of Lake Ilopongo.

A Salvadoran friend, whom we have known since she was a little girl, rode along with us as we traveled the highway east of the city.  We descended toward the lake and she pointed out the road to our left, "for the tourists," she said, "everything is more expensive and you have to pay to access the lake."  We took the low road, the one to the right which she called "the way of the dry palms."  Her mom and dad and little sister would come here on weekends to have cook-outs and swim with family and friends.  As we approached the lake shore we could see some new development.  The local municipality built a long concrete patio and rents spaces to small establishments which sell food and beverages.  "Now it has gotten expensive over here, too." our friend said, "Look, $7 for a plate of fish...and all the palm trees are gone.  It's not the same."  She pointed to the restaurant at the corner which featured hundreds of little Pilsener beer flags flapping in the wind.  "Hahaha, this is where we would go dancing and one of our friends would always get free drinks."

Our little group was guarded by two guys with big guns.  We paid them 25 cents per person as to use the restrooms behind the development.  "There is a lot of gang activity here," said our pastor.  He and his nephew had met us at the lake and made the arrangements for our excursion.  "Lots of gang activity" meant "don't walk around here without the group and the friendly GWG's (guys with guns)."  We met up with two lancheros (boatmen) who divided us into two groups.  With life jackets on, everyone was seated and the boats were off.  Our destination:  the opposite shore.  Our purpose:  visit the site of a former refugee camp, a property owned by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.

With the wind at our backs and the sun in our faces, we headed across the lake.  The waves were rolling, which took its toll on a couple of people.  The sun shimmering on the water was beautiful.  "Did you hear about the helicopter full of gringos which crashed into the waters?  Their remains have never been found," stated the boatman.  "Why not?" we asked.  "The lake has no bottom."  As it turns out, the remains of 6 US servicemen killed in 1987 were located after the crash.  Yet apparently the bottom of this deep lake is filled with springs and mud and is rumored to be bottomless.

Lake Ilopongo was formed inside the caldera of the Ilopongo volcano which erupted with great force in the fifth century CE.  When the volcano blew its top, the lava exploded and flowed over surrounding Mayan villages, destroying everything in its wake and leaving behind a great crater which filled with water.  The quality of the water is quite good, due in part to an outflow river which some archaeologists believe was created by the Mayans after the eruption to control the rising lake water and to improve its quality.  As the water drained, the cinder cone island Ilopongo was exposed.  Over the years other events have occurred, as recently as during the late 1800's when a small ridge of islands know as "the burnt islands" formed near the far shore.  As we pushed on through the waves (at a very slow speed), the water seemed really clean and warm.  Four-eyed fish jumped up to greet us every now and then, and birds flocked near the small islands.

At the end of our hour-long ride, we disembarked on the opposite shore.  We were greeted by steeply sloped land, humble buildings, and clear evidence of creative recycling to create homes for chickens and other domesticated animals.  We walked up to the house, the former administrative building of the refugee camp.  There we met two brothers, who have lived in this place since the time of the earthquakes in 2001.  The brothers' story is somewhat of a mystery, but their love for God and love for each other was very apparent.  We shared our feelings about being in this peaceful place, and heard bits and pieces of its history.  During the final years of the civil war, the Lutheran refugee camp near Nejapa was closing down, and families wanted to live out in the country closer to their homelands.  They came to this place to live.  It was not an easy existence: the camp was reachable only by boat since the roads around the ridge at the top of the crater were (and still are) in very poor condition.  The military came on several occasions and took family members away in helicopters.  As we sat in the shade of the trees, listened to the birds, looked out over the water and felt the peaceful breeze, we struggled to imagine the sights and sounds of helicopters, screaming, soldiers, weapons and war.

The brothers brought out their guitars.  They taught themselves to play in order to "get through the desperate times."  They listened and tuned and looked at each other.  Complete synchronicity, complete harmony.  It was magical.  They sang ballads of life and faith and all of us clapped to the rhythm and smiled with joy.

The Lutheran Church is thinking about creating a new kind of camp on this land - a place for youth, a place for visiting delegations, a place for rest, a place for meditation, a place for hiking, a place for growing medicinal and sustainable crops.  We were there in part to share our ideas.  We hiked up the toward the ridge and were impressed by breathtaking views of the lake and variety of vegetation, including remnants of small fields of corn, squash and beans.  The brothers shared their knowledge of the trees and plants.  "This sap is brewed into a tea and after two doses, the person is cured of cholera."  The bark, the leaves, the seeds, the sap...out of necessity and with the wisdom of the ancestors these guys knew how to survive using the gifts of nature.  We climbed back down the hill, making good use of branches whacked into pointed walking sticks by the brothers' sharp machetes.

The wind strength had continued to increase, and as we approached the beach, we could see that our departure would require some prayer and expertise.  The boat lines, tied to logs along the shore, were pulled taut against the wind.  A brother slipped off his boots and pants and jumped into the water.   Members of our team followed suit, pushing the boats to loosen the lines.  We yanked at the ties on our life jackets, tightening them firm around our bodies, removed our shoes, tucked cameras well inside our underwear and grabbed old plastic bottles and containers from the beach.  We took our places inside the boats.  We had to wait for the perfect moment to make a run at the surf, timing it so we would hit the sweet flat spot between two waves.  We held hands and prayed to Jesus who calmed the seas, and we set out.

Our boat made it off the shore, the other boat followed.  The boats separated themselves so that if one got caught in a situation, the other would not meet a similar fate and could go for help.  We sang camp songs.  We sang hymns.  The waves consistently crashed over the bow and we bailed and bailed.  We never doubted, too much, that we would make it.  There were a few great moments when a familiar tune had North Americans and Salvadorans singing together in the harmony of Pentecost.  We made it to the half-way point just as the last of our good bailing containers was whisked overboard, but at that point we felt secure enough to stop bailing and to celebrate by singing El Sombrero Azul  and our favorite Disney songs.  And when we made it to the home shore, we jumped out of the boat, extracted our damp cameras and took a few photos to show that we had survived the crossing with faith, singing and laughter.

One piece of advice for the Lutheran Church:  get bigger boats.

We stood dripping wet,  soaking up the heat of the sun and taking advantage of the warm breeze.  "We haven't seen waves like this in more than 2 years," said one of the boatmen, barely smiling.  During the voyage the men had not seemed too worried.  They have been navigating their small boats, crossing Lake Ilopongo for more than 40 years.

 









I don't often post pics of myself, but, this one was taken as we
came into shore after our adventurous crossing.

Some of the songs we sang:  "How Great Thou Art," "My God is so Great," "Be Bold, Be Strong," "I will call upon the Lord," "You have come down to the Lakeshore," "I the Lord of Sea and Sky," and "Jesus Loves Me"... and only after we were safe, songs from The Little Mermaid

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Off the Beaten Path: Puerta del Diablo

When there is fog, you can see nothing...

When there is rain, the footing is treacherous...

But on a bright, sunny, windy day, you can climb to the top and see the world!

It is not hard to imagine shamans telling tales of this place as ancestors gathered around an evening fire or guerrilla fighters passing long hours in the caves inventing stories of good and evil.

The people of Panchimalco say that long, long ago the devil and the archangel were fighting in their town.  The angel prevailed, casting the devil from the town with great force.  The devil hurled uncontrollably into the rock cliff, his body breaking through the rocks and plummeting to the floor of the valley below.  The great gap in the rocky ridge is known as The Devil's Door.  Some people say that from across the valley, the two sides of the doorway appear to curve upward, like the devil's horns.

Over the years, as we have passed below the Puerta del Diablo in an old bus or car, various storytellers have shared dramatic myths about young lovers throwing themselves off of the cliffs, and  of a young beauty who unknowingly danced with the devil until she looked at her feet and suddenly fell to her death. Modern tales of the dance with the devil include security camera images of the beautiful girl dancing with an invisible partner, and messages written in blood scrawled across the bathroom mirror.

An increase in local and international tourism in this spot has brought some development to the parking lot along the highway, just a short distance south of San Salvador.  Small businesses offer artisan gifts, locally made sweets, a few hot choices for lunch, loud 80's music (in English) and even the occasional Ferris wheel ride (which, if you are brave enough to try the zip line, you might be brave enough to try the Ferris wheel).

There are several pathways up to different heights and look-out points.  Where there are stairs, they are uneven and very slippery in the rain.  Re-bar handrails and cable ropes help climbers in some areas, but you need to be pretty sure-footed to climb up to any of the summits.  Even a partial climb offers great views, archways and secret caves.  The altitude provides slightly cooler temperatures, but can also challenge visitors with crazy strong winds, quickly descending clouds, and mist.  All of this provides for amazing photography opportunities!  If you plan your visit in the late morning, you can then take advantage of lunch and other sight-seeing opportunities in nearby Los Planes de Renderos.  Of course, Los Planes is a great spot to look out over the city of San Salvador in the evening, but it is very much less crowded during the day!














Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mission of Healing 2015

The Misión de Sanación Integral: Norte (Holistic Mission of Healing in the Northern Micro-Region) has concluded.  More than 630 men, women and children received attention, and 66 people volunteered to make the 4-day event happen.  There were a few challenges, as always, but overall the people who came from across the north-central part of the country seemed healthier and more in touch with their local healthcare providers than ever before.

We rented school buses and brought people to Fe y Esperanza - a former refugee camp owned by the Lutheran Church.  Volunteers came from the participating churches, our US companion synod and the Salvadoran healthcare system.  The event was set up as a rotation, and families were invited to pass through different stations during their half-day experience.  Each day brought different communities in the morning and in the afternoon.

Here is a photo diary of this year's Mission of Healing...
The team with the Mission of Healing Banner

Natural Medicine - this year's feature was the aloe plant

Charla about purifying water with UV rays from the sun

The Mesa Final - final table where folks could ask any
questions about medications they received from us
or from their doctors - and heads of households
received family health kits

Children's Area


Dental Charla (Conversation)

The Spiritual Healing Team on Day 1 - Additional pastors rotated
in and out of this team as they accompanied their communities

Local health promoters and nurses and physicians provided
direct care and held educational charlas about HIV, Diabetes
Hypertension and other topics

A little one practices brushing teeth while a member of the
team gives a charla about nutrition and the amount of
sugar and sodium in different beverages

HIV/Aids and Sexually Transmitted illness charla was given to ALL

Plastic dishes!  No disposable items as we work to care
for creation

High school students in their third year of study in
the area of health joined us for one full day - learning
and helping out in all areas

Fun!

Pharmacy

Registration lines as different communities arrive

Waiting for his first reflexology customer
Health checks - photos of exams are not posted for privacy
reasons, but we were blessed to have awesome Salvadoran
physicians with us throughout the week - nurses did triage

Thank you, Unidades de Salud!  We posted photos from
the October visits Deb and Linda did in various health
clinics and folks had fun finding their favorite health
professionals in the photos!
Hurray for artwork!

The adult activity center produced this thank-you banner
which features the names of the participating communities

The series of stories from the adventures of Deb and Linda in the Salvadoran healthcare system will continue after a few posts from the Mission of Healing, which concluded this week. Photos in this post were taken by Linda Muth and Jen Jerbi.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: Outside and Inside the City Limits

There had been a death of a child.  An investigation needed to be made.  We took a bus.  We walked.  I wrote about this at the time it happened, and in reading what I wrote on that day, it breaks my heart.  In retrospect, I remember how serious the team was as we hopped on a city bus and rode into the countryside.  As we descended from the main road into the woods, I remember thinking that we were entering another world.  Just outside the city limits, but like being in the middle of the wilderness.


We passed by a couple of landmarks where the dirt road opened up a bit.  "This is for a statue of a saint," said one of the nurses, as she played the part, scrunching herself into a little roadside altar.  When we looked at the picture, we laughed like crazy when the promoter said, "Looks like Santa Azul is going to the bathroom."  The nurses with a full university degree wear blue uniforms and are affectionately called azules or "blue ones." We walked ahead,
passing a munching cow.  A butterfly landed on the road, a bright spot on the dusty road.  "Love Life!" I thought.

The investigation was made.  It was discussed later that day in a meeting.  Now, some months later, we wonder how the family is doing.  Was anyone able to intervene?

We decided to take the long walk back to town.  We needed the fresh air.  Along the way we noticed gang signs painted on the underpass.  The road we followed was hidden, narrow and wooded.  We asked if it is safe.  "Yes, said the blue nurse, "I have walked alone this way for years and years."  She remembered walking this way during the war.  We trusted her.  We have worked with her on and off for fifteen years because she used to work in the clinic nearest to our sister church.  The shade was calming.

We took a turn at the river and walked along its banks.  During the height of the rainy season, our pathway would be well under water.  We walked past a former "spa-like" place and chatted with neighbors.  We could hear laughing and singing ahead of us, turned a corner and found a group of women washing clothes in stone pilas which had been created in the rocks along the riverbank.  We asked if we could take a photo and they happily said, "Sure!"  It seemed like a cheerful place to do laundry in the company of friends.  Further along we found an abandoned swimming pool.  "Someday," the doctor pondered, "the municipality will find the funds to restore these places."  An older man emerged from the pool, combing his hair, apparently the little bit of water flowing into the pool still serves as a pretty good bathtub.

We returned to the clinic around lunchtime.  We sat at the table with the doctors and nurses, some with lunch boxes like us, and some with food made by a neighbor with a small catering business.  We ordered some great coffee and it was delivered right to us in the lunch room.  The TV in the corner broadcast the latest news - clearly a regular routine providing a little chance for the busy team to catch up on what is going on in the world.

After lunch we headed over to the local radio station for a quick tour.  The community radio is located in an old colonial building, with a courtyard garden, a lot of charm, and more than a few needed repairs.  The doctor does a half-hour educational program each week.  Then it was on to a strategy meeting, which was held in the community youth building.  Chikungunya was the topic of the day, with a review of community clean-up efforts, mosquito larvae abatement and fumigation routes.  The police, youth leaders, local government officials, health department coordinators and several non-profit organizations were represented.  This municipality seems to have its act together, within the city itself and well beyond into the little colonias and countryside surrounding it.  Near the end of our meeting, the doctor brought up the subject of our morning investigation.  Everyone felt the frustration of the situation.  Maybe the police have investigated further.  Hopefully a solution has been found to overcome the limits placed upon authorities by threats of revenge or retribution and protect the victims in the family without endangering the lives of those who are trying to help them.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: The Clinic in Nejapa

We are in the last moments of preparing for the Mission of Healing 2015, and this year’s experience will be fine-tuned according to the learning and planning which took place during the visits Deb and I made to the Unidades de Salud of the northern micro-region.  The visits of October were made possible in large part through the efforts of Doctora Chiquillo, who works at the Unidad in Nejapa.  We spent one full week observing all aspects of work in the Nejapa clinic, learning from the staff, brainstorming ideas with Dra. Chiquillo, and walking through a wide range of climates and environments with the health promotors.  Dra. Chiquillo paved the way for us to meet with the coordinator of SIBASI Norte -- the governmental agency which oversees all of the Unidades and ECOS Familiares in the northern region.  We are extremely grateful for Dra. Chiquillo’s coordination and collaboration as we seek to support through the Mission of Healing the everyday work of healers who have dedicated their lives to caring for those most in need...


After a quick meet and greet in Nejapa, and a fruitful meeting at the SIBASI offices, what would two grandmas most love to do?  Hold babies, of course!  We finished off our first morning in Nejapa by hanging out with the maternal health nurses.  As we had observed elsewhere, the teaching and care offered to mothers was of excellent quality.  One of the primary focal points for the Unidad de Salud in Nejapa is the milk bank.  It is the first (and we believe only) collection site for breast milk.  Mothers change into gowns and carefully clean their breasts before donating their milk.  A mom can feed her baby from one breast while a technical nurse helps to collect milk from the other.  A mom can also manually express milk while a nurse or volunteer holds her baby nearby.  All of this is done in a clean room, designated exclusively for this purpose.  The milk is immediately stored and then taken to Benjamin Bloom children’s hospital where it is used to feed premature babies.  (Upon our return, we were able to gather more than 45 electric breast pumps, which are making their way to El Salvador a few at a time with delegations.  Short gowns (such as mammography capes) would make it a lot easier for the moms and the staff who wash the gowns.  Campaigns are held periodically to sign women up to be donors.  The clinic has also hosted two large collection days in the town.  We will be promoting participant registration in this program during this year's and future Missions of Healing.

Care for babies was followed by listening to a charla (educational talk) about how to prevent pregnancy and transmission  of Sexually Transmitted Illnesses. (Yes, somewhat ironic.) A health promoter from one of the local Lutheran congregations accompanied us to the clinic in order to provide the charla.  She teamed up with a technical nurse from the staff, who hauled out her prop:  a ginormous, carved, wooden penis.  This thought ran through our minds:  Wow, someone had to carve that thing.  Deb said, “Great contraception – any woman who sees that thing will run the other way!”  The audience was captive (waiting for their appointments) and interested.  They asked a good number of questions.

Once the giant penis was put away, our crew (Deb, me, the promoter and a pastor who was volunteering to organize files in the Archivos) walked across town for a late lunch.  It was delicious and gave us energy to walk partway back before the Salvadoran team members hailed a moto-taxi.  During the afternoon we took a complete tour of the clinic, including learning about some of the forms which Salvadoran medical providers use for various referrals and lab results.  The information we gained on the way that clinic personnel organize patients and conduct triage will definitely serve us well as we continue to fine-tune our own triage process.

Day #1 complete.  A night of rest and on to the next day's adventure...


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Just Click: On the Road 2014

Taking a little break from the health clinic stories...as we traveled the highways one community to another, I kept my camera at the ready.  You never know what you might see out the car window...