Thursday, May 21, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: Learning Lessons from Dad

The team carrying record bags and the vaccine cooler
We walked to a ridge on the side of the
volcano, where there was a welcome breeze
"It's not about the numbers, but the person."

The list of visits for the day included the names of 74 children.  Of the 891 persons living in the neighborhood, 74 were under 5 years of age, and their vaccination records needed to be checked.  In communities with health promoters, the vaccination rate is 100%.  Each family receives 8 visits per year, for vaccinations, holistic education, and water monitoring. Keeping track of water storage and disposal is critical in the fight against dengue and chikungunya.

Vaccination records are kept by the promoters in plastic-covered notebooks.  These log books are meticulously scrutinized by the clinic directors, and by the bosses of the clinic directors.  Each child or adult keeps his or her personal book of vaccination and medical records at home.  Children have green books.  Pregnant women have their own special books.  The information in the patient books is cross-checked to be sure that it matches the information in the clinic notebooks.

"It's not about the numbers, but the person."

Elias said that.  He has been a health promoter since 1982.  We walked under umbrellas to fend off the sting of the hot sun.  "Rattle, rattle, rattle," we shook the gate or "knock, knock, knock" we rapped against the metal door.  "Hi, we're here from the Unidad de Salud!  Bring your tarjeta (vaccination record," the nurse sang out.  Sometimes we were invited inside.  Sometimes, vaccination books were poked at us through holes in barbed wire fences.  "There was trash and smelly water EVERYWHERE," I recorded in my journal.

Elias talking with a young mom about hygiene
As we went from home to home, Elias poked his nose into the pilas (water storage basins) and containers, looking for mosquito larvae.  "A few little tilapia will eat those larvae right up."  Tilapia seemed to be the preferred method of pest control here, as opposed to the permethrin sachets which are also commonly used.  Every now and then, Elias would sidle up behind the nurse and female promoter to listen more closely.  "Have you had your annual pap smear?" he would occasionally interject, following up with a little speech about how important it is for women to have annual gynecological exams.  He was very comfortable in his role:  The Team Dad.

Literally, Elias is the Team Dad.  His daughter became a health promoter in 2008, and works right along side her father.  Watching the two of them working together was quite a treat.  He watched his daughter with pride sparkling in his eyes.  She nurtured the relationships which he had grown over the years.    We met families who lived in a wide set of circumstances.  Our route came to its end in a neighborhood which had a wide street and homes made of concrete block.  The morning shift of school let out, and a big group of kids ran down the road to greet us.  "Hello!"  "Good afternoon, how are you?"  Children are always eager to try out their English on a couple of native speakers.  We walked up to the school to visit an adult technical training program for aspiring beauticians.  If we return, they will want to cut and dye our hair!

Beauty School Class
Practically melting from the long walk in the sun, we decided to wait inside a little cafe for the pick-up to come and get us.  The cafe consisted of a few picnic tables under an awning outside of someone's home.  Pupusas were frying on the griddle, but it was too hot to think about eating.  We talked about the morning's visits, marveling that out of all 74 children, only one needed a vaccination in order to be up-to-date.  The conversation became a little more serious as we spoke about struggles with violence in the neighborhood.  Elias was the dad, the protector:  of course it was best to sit inside while waiting for the pick-up. Sometimes we are oblivious to the care which is being given us. The hostess brought out ice cold orange soda for our little group.  She refused payment, just delighted to give us this small gift in gratitude for our visit and for the work of the health team.

Vaccination delivered.
We returned to the clinic, and said our good-byes, and we were all just a little bit sad.  Our week working with the Unidad de Salud in Nejapa was amazing.  We learned so much in just one short week and gained incredible respect for the community-based work of healthcare professionals who bring basic care and education to the people who are most in need.  The openness of the Unidad de Salud to team up with the Salvadoran Lutheran church is a huge blessing and an opportunity to bring improved access to quality healthcare to people who live in poverty.








Monday, May 11, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: A Little Farther Up the Volcano Road

 We hiked back up the rocky trail to the highway, back to our vehicle.  We drove a bit further up the road to our next location.  Not too far off of the highway, we found the 3-year-old girl who was the next one to be weighed and measured by the health promoter.  Before we could attend to the little one, the child’s mother and her sister began to tell us of their own health issues.  One of the young women complained of extreme stomach pain and had a leg injury.  We could tell that she was very swollen around the middle, and the dressing on the leg looked pretty scary.  Promoter Yani was very patient, listened, gave the sisters the speech about HIV and the need for yearly pelvic exams, and helped the sister with the injury to make an appointment at the hospital for the next day.  Yani looked around the large yard and identified a few plants which the family could harvest to improve their nutrition.  Overall though, there were not many fruits or vegetables in sight, though there were various herbs and greens.  The small corn field seemed to belong to someone else and maybe as the caretakers, they were allowed to keep some of the corn.

It was time to examine the little one.  The first order of business was to dump the urine out of the girl’s plastic sandals and to take off her wet panties.  Yani hung her spring scale in a tree, lifted the little girl and placed her into the sling.  She read the weight, scooped her out, gave her a hug, and set her back down to play before recording information in her medical log.  All the while, Yani spoke to the sisters, “It’s important that your daughter learn to use the latrine.  When she has an accident, you need to bathe her.  Wash her bloomers and when you hang them up to dry, be sure to hang them right-side-out so flies do not land on the inside and leave germs which can contaminate her vagina.”  Yani spoke kindly, but in a way that let the sisters know she was serious.

We shared hugs and playful moments with the little girl.  We left worrying that the sister with the swollen belly and leg injury would not keep her appointment at the hospital.

We walked to the highway and went a little further down the road to visit a family with a preschool girl and a 5-year old boy.  The boy was a little gentleman, chasing the two diligent guard dogs to a safe distance and then sitting calmly on the porch in his 5-year-old-sized chair.  His sister was afraid that she would get a shot.  This is one of Yani’s challenges – convincing children that she is more than just the “vaccination lady.”  After the children were weighed and determined to be healthy, we learned about the family kitchen.  The mom and her sister talked about the great amount of time the generations of women in the household spend cooking and telling stories in the kitchen.  Deb and I could feel the love centered within the family kitchen, and thought about how in our own homes, generations of women gather together to cook, share recipes and wash the dishes. 



 

 We visited a family compound which housed more than 25 people, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters with the Grandma and Grandpa heading up the household.  Little ones were weighed and measured while older children got ready for school or watched us with shy smiles.  Moms did laundry – there was laundry hanging everywhere – all washed with collected water.  Water totes, cisterns and barrels were tucked into every corner amidst squash plants and herbs.  The system was designed to catch every bit of rainwater via a system of roofs, troughs and gutters.  The only source of water for this family, as for most of the families who live on the side of the volcano, is the rain.

We walked below a large and low trellis, home to cucumbers and lorroco, and ducked our way into a little patch of sun and into the next home.  A pink bike was parked in the sun, next to a crouched old man.  “Is he OK?” we gently asked Yani.  “He’s just cold,” she replied.  As in every home, we were treated like dignitaries.  Benches were cleared so we could sit.  The grandmother and two young mothers sat and chatted with us.  The grandfather crouched, his feet flat on the ground, his arms clasped around his knees, his head down – he did not move.  The six-year old boy turned the bicycle upside down in the yard.  He turned the pedals and checked the chain.  The babies were weighed, the mothers were counselled, the grandmother chopped onions, and I was mesmerized by the boy with the bicycle.  He went over to a white tool bucket and took out a small tool or two.  Pretty soon he had the bicycle chain off and then on again, had tightened a couple of screws and was riding in tiny circles next to the grandpa.  When it was time to leave, the grandmother presented Deb and I with two big bags full of bananas which they had grown themselves.  We graciously accepted the gift, hugged the adults, kissed the babies, congratulated the bicycle repairman on his excellent work, and bid farewell to the grandfather. 

We made one final stop in a home with another new mom and an adorable baby girl.  The home was located in a small family compound and the family had sufficient resources to purchase a few more fancy items for the baby.  A male relative who had been drinking stood outside and Yani closed the door.  Yani gets her amazing energy by being with her children.  She hugged and cuddled the last little baby girl for a good long time, resting up before heading over to Yani’s satellite office. 

Most afternoons Yani returns to her home community and has office hours in the small clinic there.  The community is just a tiny hamlet with one rocky dirt path, just barely navigable by vehicle.  The community school is just up the hill from the clinic, so as Deb and I sat on the porch, we were able to greet the school kids as the shifts change at midday (little kids go in the morning and big kids in the afternoon).  Yani snuck off behind the clinic to her house to cook us some lunch, so Deb and I poked around the clinic a bit.  We were pretty impressed with the amount of educational material she had, as well as basic medications, an exam table, scale, wall posters and the mandatory wall map of her promoter-zone.  Pretty soon Yani appeared with two plates full of fresh, scrambled eggs, beans, tortillas and crema.   We could not contain our admiration for Yani’s work nor our humble gratitude for her generosity.  She showed us her log books and the way in which she records each patient’s information.  She updates her records every afternoon and is often interrupted by people coming by for advice on a health issue, a check-up or to pick up some condoms.  Yani runs educational workshops for the community, and treats emergency cases until an ambulance arrives.  She is trusted by everyone in her care-zone and beloved in her community.  After lunch, she walked us to her own home, and gave us a tour of her garden.  Cutting bananas from her own tree, she presented us with a gift of fruit.  This is how we said good-bye.

Yani and her patients taught us about life on the side of the volcano.  They taught us about survival in remote places, dependence on family and community, and the vital place health promoters have in in the lives of families which have extremely limited access to healthcare facilities. 


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: Up Volcano Road

We drove up the volcano road, past the familiar turn-off to Parque el Boqueron, to the neighborhoods on the side of the volcano.  To get to these small communities, we parked on the highway and trekked our way in.  Promotora Yani was our guide, we walked from one home to the next, following barely visible paths of mud and rock.  Yani's goal for the day was to weigh and measure all of the children ages 5 and younger.  

Baby being weighed using a spring scale
Our first stop for the day was at the home of a 12-year old boy with a shoulder injury.  He had a sling and had been to the clinic for care.  The injury was the result of an accident.  The father had  been riding his bike, either picking up or taking the kids to school, and the bike crashed into the boy.  It seemed a pick-up truck was somehow involved.  Dad had a fractured finger, which he had "fixed" himself.  Yani checked each of the children over, weighing the little ones, and prescribing acetaminophen and anti-parasite medication for the boy with the hurt shoulder.  As Yani worked, we observed family members emerging from hidden spaces and soon realized that as in many homes, this was a family of several generations working and living tightly together.  The family was very friendly and happy for our visit.


The size of this hill was really much larger in person...
check out the ladder used to climb to the top of it
Our second hike of the day took us deep into the woods, where we had to climb our way to a little community of a few homes perched precariously on the rocky mountainside.  We smelled smoke, and crept down a steep rocky "staircase" which led us to an enormous mound of smoldering wood.  The fire at the center of the hill has probably been burning for years.  The man and the woman both looked older than their ages, and I imagine that they tend the fire day in and day out.  A couple of children climbed onto the pile, picking out the precious charcoal, which is sold to sustain the family.  Los carboneros (charcoal makers) survive by carrying on this ancient profession for those who live on the side of the volcano.  

We greeted the fire-tenders, and continued our walk along a muddy ridge above another house.  A quiet woman stood next to the wood pile - wood to be burned to make more charcoal.  We noticed a fantastic collection of plants growing along the side of her house.  Perhaps these are plants the family has gathered from the forest to sell at the market.  Yani thought maybe the woman gathered them so she could have a beautiful garden.

We arrived at our destination a little further down the path - a tiny home made of mud, sticks and tin.  Mom and Dad were tending a baby who looked to be about 6 months old, the patient on Yani's list for this household.  The family consists of 2 parents and 9 children who share the 1-room home.  We stood outside, and a few of the children tentatively peeked out from the open doorway to see who had arrived on their front porch.  A make-shift table held a large, fire-blackened aluminum bowl full of weak coffee.  We had arrived at breakfast-time.  Some of the children emerged to claim their small cups of coffee and little breads.  We enjoyed talking with the family, especially the dad, who marveled as we did at the great menagerie of exotic birds singing and fluttering in the tree-tops on the hillside below the house.  

I asked the children if it was OK to take their picture, and they agreed.  Some of them ducked behind the beds.  It was the first time foreigners had come to their home.  It was the first time for them to have a picture taken.  One of the girls who was about 13 had already left school to go to work to help support the family.  She and her dad both work in agriculture, spraying insecticide on farm fields.


Part of the rocky path to the Carbonero's home
A small stool on the front porch of the home
with 9 children
Dad and the happy baby
Children having their first picture taken

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Look, Listen and Learn: Mental Health Day!

This is a continuation of the series of stories from the month-long experience my friend and I had shadowing physicians, nurses and health promoters in the Unidad de Salud (public healthcare system) in El Salvador.  

One of the great things about spending a week working out of the same clinic was the opportunity to get a feel for the daily rhythms, to catch a glimpse into the relationships between patients and caregivers, to share in the friendships among the staff, and to experience a bit of the physical and emotional toll which working in public health takes on the workers.

We started our day by walking to the other end of town and wandering through a parking lot with some semi-trucks where we luckily found the community education center.  This is where Pastor Gloria, Deb and I would join half of the local clinic staff for "mental health day."  We sat around with the nurses, doctors, health promoters and other professionals, waiting for the psych team to arrive.  We chatted with a few of the people we knew, and introduced ourselves to others.  Apparently the air-conditioning has only two settings:  OFF or "FROZEN MEAT," so we all ended up sitting along the wall, shoulder to shoulder, shivering.

When the facilitators arrived we realized that the psychologist was someone we had met at a different community clinic during the previous week!  The mental health and art therapy team from that clinic is available to run events for clinic staff throughout the whole region, just as they are available for patients who need them.  For our event, the facilitating mental health team consisted of the highly animated and energetic psychologist we recognized and her quiet psychiatrist sidekick.

Activity #1:  Each of us had to announce what country we would travel to on what kind of animal - and I think they both had to begin with the letters of  our names.  We also had to act out the movement and behavior of the animal, and no repeats were allowed.  I rode a lion.  The Salvadorans laughed and laughed, enjoying each other's antics (and ours too).

Activity #2:  Dynamic psychologist chanted a little rhyme and each person took his turn as a coqueto or her turn as a coqueta wiggling head, shoulders, then hips while walking to the center of the circle (picture doing your best sexy runway walk).  Even a couple of the Salvadorans were shy about this one.  Deb and I wondered if our mental health was improving, and we also agreed what happens in mental health class stays in mental health class.

The psychiatrist led a discussion about the stresses of work.  Each person wrote a short list of things he or she could do to be healthier on a brightly colored piece of paper.  The papers were put up on a board, and all of the ideas were shared.

Then it was on to Activity #3:  Meditation.  "Picture a tree from your childhood, a tree that has special meaning for you..."  There was classical music playing in the background.  I meditated about laying on the green grass in my backyard, looking up at the branches of my favorite elm tree.  I used to construct blanket tents over the clothesline that my dad had attached to a hook in that elm tree.  I thought about Pastor Gloria and her family.  She grew up in Apopa.  There is a gas station there which is THE meeting spot whenever folks need to connect for rides or find one another in the crazy chaos that fills the streets of Apopa.  In fact, we had picked Gloria up at the gasolinera that morning.  When Gloria was young, there was no gas station but instead there stood a giant tree, surrounded by a park and a woods which led down to the river.  Generations of children met up at that tree to organize pick-up games of soccer; families met to coordinate picnics and walks into the woods.  "Let's meet up at the tree!" everyone would say.  I wondered if Gloria would choose that tree.

Activity #4:  Make your tree.  We received piles of scrap paper and some glue.  "Rip the paper into shapes and make your tree," the psychologist instructed.  Well, for me, this activity was just fine.  For Deb, who absolutely hates doing little craft projects, this activity caused more stress than it relieved.  She created a quick tree and was done with it.  To me it was interesting that both Deb's tree and my tree had colorful leaves:  red for the maple, and yellow for the elm.  By the time our month in El Salvador would end, the leaves on the trees at home would be gone and we would have missed the fall colors altogether.  The gallery of trees decorated the wall. We shared and listened as each person described his or her tree.  The Salvadorans marveled at the thought of leaves turning bright yellow. orange and red.

Activity #5:  Balloon Volleyball with needles!  The goal was to pop more balloons that the other team.  The goalies had the needles, everyone else tried to get the balloon to your own needle.  If this sounds a little dangerous, it was!  The Salvadorans were brutal.  Who knew that volley-balloon-needle-ball was a tackle sport?

At the end of the morning we made our way back to the clinic and shared a late lunch in the break room.  Deb and I could see that this morning of diversion really was helpful for the Salvadoran healthcare workers.  Tales from the morning activities filled the lunch conversation.  The experiences from the previous day were still heavy on our hearts.  The TV news (always a fixture during lunch) showed a lengthy serpentine line of people outside of the Rosales (public) Hospital pharmacy -- the reporter feeding the perpetual worry that medication supplies for this or that will run short.  After lunch, we rejoined the routine of the clinic, observing patient care and logistical processes that would help us to coordinate our work with the Lutheran Church healing ministries in a more effective and efficient way with the work of the local clinics.

During our observation time, I took notes.  Patient #2:  older woman; pain in right arm; makes tortillas and washes clothes; 10 children; 2 miscarriages; 3-month-old died; 5-year old child lost during the war but was found through a DNA test - has photos of her but no contact.  Doctor asks lots of questions and repeats them to get to the truth of why woman is here:  Do you live alone?  Is there someone who can give you injections?  Do you have food that you can take with your medicine?

A young couple came in with a baby born 5 weeks early.  The dad was so cute, proudly wearing a pink diaper bag across his shoulder.  The doctor was very patient watching mom and dad carefully undress then diaper and dress the baby.  Doctor says the parents should put baby in the sun for 10 minutes in the morning and in the afternoon, covering her eyes and her genitals.  Dad got a little lecture about watching for signs of depression in the mom.

The last entry in my journal for this day:  "Walked to Mexican restaurant for bread pudding and te de jamaica (hibiscus tea).  Free wifi, and peace and quiet."  We are very privileged to have such mental health moments at the end of our day.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cross Cultural Training?

It was not really in the plans, but for a little while we ended up inviting a Salvadoran mom and a couple of kids to live with us in a place where we were staying.  It was somewhat of an urgent situation, and one for which none of us was quite prepared.

Most people who know me also know that I am a tidy housekeeper.  OK, my kids might say I am a little obsessive.  It is true that as a Boy Scout leader I had the cleanest tent in camp, even with a dirt floor.  One of my secrets:  the throw rug.  No matter where I am staying, tent included, I put a throw rug at the door and that is where the shoes come off.  At home I actually keep a basket of guest slippers by the door (a custom borrowed from my daughter who spent some time living in messy Siberia).

So, back to El Salvador, where, of course, shoes come off at the door.  I have observed that this is a pretty strange custom for most Salvadorans.  It certainly was something new for the mom and her little ones who came to us from the most basic living situation.  Leaving those muddy or dusty shoes (depending on the season) on the throw rug makes a big difference in the amount of floor mopping required, and this point ultimately was not lost on the mom or the kids.  Whenever a knock hit the door, the kids would run quickly to welcome visitors with "come in, and take off your shoes!"

A few months ago, Mom and her kids found their own place to live.  It's way out in the countryside.  My husband and I went to visit.  After a long drive in the hills, the last few miles on rocky terrain that might not actually be called "roads", we arrived.  The little ones were super-excited, dancing around and giving us welcome hugs, eager to show us their new home.  Outside the door I noticed some little pink flip flops, boys' sneakers and women's slip-ons.  "Take off your shoes, " chirped the kids.  Mom stood by the pila in her slippers, laughing.

Later that night, we walked up to a cousin's house for supper.  Outside the front door, everyone paused to take off their shoes. "It makes cleaning the floors so much easier!" the cousin smiled.  The woman said she had thought it was strange when her cousin required everyone to remove their shoes at her house, but then the woman tried it.  Apparently now all the cousins and actually, most of the women in the community, use this custom.

My husband, who is sometimes critical of the clean freak with whom he lives, looked over at me, and I smirked back at him.  I spend quite a lot of time working with church groups and people in the US who are in partnership or companion relationships with people and churches across town or across the globe.  We talk a great deal about listening, learning, tasting, sharing.  We use the words like "accompaniment," "mutuality," and "cross-cultural training."  The idea is to build relationships in which we learn from one another and share and grow together.

I looked at my husband, sitting on a plastic chair in his stocking feet and said, "This is a whole new kind of cross-cultural training."


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Remembering Romero: We March for Peace

At our home church we gather on Monday through Thursday at 11:00 AM in the sanctuary to pray for peace.  We sing a little.  We read the assigned scripture texts for the day.  We read a reflection from the Book of Common Prayer.  We pray.  We pray corporately, we pray silently, we offer petitions and we conclude with the Lord's Prayer.  We pray about many things, but we especially call for prayers for peace.

This practice began a little less than a year ago, when yet another act of gun violence touched our city and our faith community.  As the church, we focus on prayer, on care for the victim's family and on advocacy to change a system which perpetuates injustice.  We look to the wisdom and action of faith heroes like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero as we speak, as we march, as we call for action, as we work for change.

Several years ago, March 24th -- the date on which we remember the death and the life of MonseƱor Oscar Romero -- fell on Palm Sunday.  I was working at a suburban sister church to the urban church where I am currently a member, and with a great team of folks coordinated a Palm Sunday Peace March.  My middle school son pulled out his marching snare and led all the Sunday School kids and brave adults around the block in freezing cold temperatures, singing.  We carried a banner:   When the Power of Love overcomes the Love of Power, the World will know Peace.  We carried cardboard doves on sticks, with peace scriptures and pictures of our peace-heroes glued to the doves.  We carried salt.  We carried light (when the candles were not blowing out).  We marched around that block waving palms, honoring Romero and giving praise to Jesus, the one who brings peace.

Peace Scripture used on the Peace Doves 

 I'm not sure what kinds of seeds were planted in the hearts and minds of the children on that Palm Peace Sunday.  We can march for peace and the march itself can be a good and happy experience, even a learning experience; but how does the march impact who we are, what we say and what we do when we are not marching?  How does marching as a community lead us to live as a peaceful and just community?

As Christians, we believe that our job in the world is to grow peace by planting love.  We plant love with Sunday morning hugs, sack lunches for hungry children and after-school tutoring, with visits and warm meals.  We plant love by marching with grieving families in the streets, by bringing seeds of hate into the light, by nurturing forgiveness and by working for justice.  Romero said, "Peace is not the product of terror or fear.  Peace is not the silence of the cemeteries.  Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.  Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.  Peace is dynamism.  Peace is generosity.  It is right and it is duty."  

After that Palm Sunday Peace March, I folded up the banner and tucked it away, thinking we might use it again someday.  A few years ago, I borrowed it for an All Saints Peace march in the city.  Since then, it has seen more than a few marches and has become the backdrop for gatherings at our church.  When it shows up in a photo on Facebook or in the media, some of the kids (now adults) who painted it send me comments and ask questions and I wonder...what seeds were planted in the hearts and minds of the children as they marched for peace?


Thank you, Oscar Romero, for your light, your witness, your wisdom, your example.

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