Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tales of Greasy and Grubby - don Juan

One of the beautiful formalities which is still practiced in many parts of El Salvador is the use of respectful titles for people: profesora Marta for the teacher, ingeniero Beto for the construction project manager, and el reverendo for the pastor. Women are often called niña María or niña Berta as a sign of endearment and respect. (Niña is usually translated as little girl.)

And then there is don Juan.

One day, Greasy and Grubby were on the lookout to find a good time to sneak out of their jammies and into their clothes for the day. This can be a difficult challenge when staying in a one-room home with plenty of men-folk around. It can be especially difficult when the home is the "hotbed of political action" and all the neighbor guys come over to have long conversations with the man of the house.

It was still before breakfast, and Greasy and Grubby were ready to seize the opportunity to quick-change as soon as the house was empty. They quickly jerked off their jammies and were struggling to yank dresses down over their heads. Of course, it was like a sauna in the house, and sometimes dresses are really hard to yank down over sticky heads and arms. In mid-stick Greasy jokingly said, "Just watch, now will be just the time when some Don Juan will walk in the door." At that very moment, we heard the lady of the house slowly call out, "Buenas días, don Juan."

Yank, yank, tug, pull - in a flurry of flailing arms the dresses were down just in the nick of time.

I remember hearing the name don Juan in cartoons and on "I Love Lucy" when I was young. I knew the name was used for some very romantic dude, and I seriously thought his first name was Don and his last name was Juan. I'm sure this is a common misunderstanding among gringas. Actually, the word don is a respectful term, sort of like mister and formally translated as esquire. In El Salvador, don is still widely used as a term of respect for men, as is doña for women.

Greasy and Grubby could hardly contain themselves from bursting out laughing as they shook hands and greeted Don Juan, "Mucho gusto, don Juan." The two of us, Greasy and Grubby, still laugh out loud when we remember the way in which we first met a real Don Juan, just a nice guy from the neighborhood who happens to be named John.

(The photo of the statue of the legendary don Juan taken in Seville, Spain by Linda)

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Life Story

It was a sweaty night. The door was closed to keep out the mosquitoes. The rain was drumming loudly on the laminate rooftop. The cement block walls were weeping with humidity. It was too hot to go to bed, so the three of us were sitting up.

I asked the man of the house if he could tell me about his life. Here is his story, as best as I could understand it . . .

When I was a little boy, I only wore a cut-off sack from corn or other seeds, tied around the waist with a rope. I didn't have shoes or anything else. When I got a little bigger, I wore some short pants and then I went to school. I paid close attention and the teachers let me pass first and second grade in one year. I lived with my mom and my sister because my parents were separated. I went through 6th grade, and every year I was the model student, so the teachers helped me by giving me food and clothes and supplies. But when I registered for 7th grade, I could only go 2 times because I had to work from 7 am to 7 pm. For a little while I worked selling school supplies and going to school.

When I was a youth, I took up with an older woman and this was really bad. [Maybe they had a child - this part was hard for me to hear.] She left me. So I came to San Salvador and worked all kinds of jobs. First I shoveled garbage in the streets. I always dreamed of being a teacher. I have been together with my
compañera for 32 years. I was without work for 1 year, but now I have a job.

My friend likes to talk, but does not talk about his own life very often.

He and his wife always have a group of neighborhood boys playing in and around their home. They keep these boys safe, encourage them to go to school, and feed them whatever they have to give. They expect them to use good manners and to do a few chores around the house. My friend is a teacher.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tales of Greasy and Grubby - Happy Birthday!

I have a very special friend. She is the kind of friend who is always true to herself and helps me to be true to myself. We are sisters in the Spirit.

During our first trip to El Salvador together, we dubbed ourselves "Greasy" and "Grubby." It was a very hot and humid time of year, and we spent some quality time living out in the campo, and, while our Salvadoran hosts always looked fresh and clean, we did not.

Ever since, we have lovingly referred to ourselves as Greasy and Grubby, and together, we have had, and continue to have, many adventures. Some are tales worth telling.

This one started with a phone call...
"Hi, Greasy."
"What's up?"
"I've had a vision from God, and you were in it."
"O - kaaay"
"I'm supposed to go to El Salvador and knock on doors. And you're supposed to go with me."

Some months later, we were on a plane. God was sending us for some purpose which we did not really know. We just trusted him, and trusted our Salvadoran partner pastor and community to show us the way. We had no concrete plans other than to live in our sister community and to visit families. Grubby spoke no Spanish. Greasy spoke some. We prayed our way through the flight, and were greeted at the Salvadoran airport by 80 friends who came on an old school bus to greet us!

We stayed in our sister church community, hosted and fed by different families. During the day, we visited families and listened to their stories. We learned that our sister pastor had also had a vision, and that he had been given a plan. He led us from home to home, and as we walked, listened and prayed, a circle of women formed, and a trail of children followed. The home visits became a movement of these faithful women and children, and our presence was the catalyst for story-telling. There was a lot of crying, a lot of hugging, and a lot of Spirit-given words of comfort.

One of the women in the circle was also our host near the end of our stay. Her family secretly told us that we would be there for her birthday. Would we like to help celebrate? Of course we would!!

The birthday evening arrived. As it got dark, one of the daughters of the house got out some plain, white candles to place around the house for a bit of light. She did this by lighting one candle and using it to melt the wax on the bottom of another so it would stick to the chair arm, the table, a wall. This stuck me as very practical yet something I would never do in my own house.

The surprise happened when the mariachis arrived! Not trumpet players like in Mexico, but Salvadoran musicians with different sizes of guitars and a marimba. These guys were awesome!

Did I forget to mention that Greasy had brought her guitar, and Grubby had brought her violin? Well, the invitation to join in the fun was made and so out came the instruments. Salvadoran musicians seem to have a realm of notes in between the notes that we use in the north, so even though we tuned ourselves up a bit, we were pretty terrible. But, it was absolutely FUN to make the noise joyfully and to celebrate.

Our hostess was in her mid fifties. It was the very first time she had ever had a birthday cake or a birthday party. The first time, in more than 50 years. What an amazing blessing for us to be a part of that. The music continued on into the night. At one point the grandma of the house (in her 70's) pulled me into her lap and would not let go. She just held onto me, maybe holding onto the moment of seeing her own daughter celebrating a birthday for the first time. Maybe it was her first party too.

Estas son las mañanitas, que cantaba el Rey David,
Hoy por ser día de tu santo, te
las cantamos a ti,
Despierta, mi bien*, despierta,
mira que ya amaneció,
Ya los pajarillos cantan, la l
una ya se metió.

Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte,
Venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte,
Ya viene amaneciendo, ya la luz del día nos dio,
Levántate de mañana, mira que ya amaneció.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Off the Beaten Path - Teotepeque

Sometimes a group of international girls just wants to have an adventure. A little German, a little English, a little Spanish, a local friend with a pick-up truck, a full tank of gas and a free late afternoon - why not drive over to Teotepeque for a visit? We squeezed into the truck, which had to be pointed downhill and given a little push to get started, and headed west, through the department of La Libertad. It was sticky and hot near the coast. We passed by surfer dudes, fishing boats, beach shacks, a few resorts and a fish-processing plant. It was a dog-day afternoon. Seriously, every dog in La Libertad was out on the road for a stroll or a nap.

We turned north and headed up into the mountains, passed through a couple of tunnels, and up a steep dirt road, and finally arrived in downtown Teotepeque - a sleepy little town at the top of a mountain. The people in the area work in agriculture, mostly with coffee and balsam. The town folks mostly make their livings by selling the things which they grow or make in their homes. The newer buildings are block and the older ones and many homes are made of wood.

The name Teotepeque is Nahuat in origin, and means Mountain of God. The town is probably most famous for being the birthplace of Farabundo Martí. (Agustín Farabundo Martí Rodríguez was born on May 5, 1893, and is the man for whom the FMLN - the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front - was named.) Martí grew up on a farm located below the town.

At the time I visited, the mayor of the municipality was from the ARENA party. This created a strange dynamic in the town, with exterior propaganda promoting ARENA, but the posters, hats and flags inside many of the homes were of the FMLN. Probably most striking was the actual birthplace of Farabundo Martí, a humble wooden building with a statue of Farabundo out in front. The statue was missing its nose, and the building was abandoned. We were told that it once held a sewing school and cooperative, but that "there was a snake inside" - a reference to the local mayor. The small plaza in front of the building was surrounded by curbs of red, white and blue (ARENA colors).

We spent the early evening eating cookies and drinking coffee with a friend inside of her home, the walls of which were filled with pictures of Jesus and her family. Then we were back out on the road, driving carefully through the tunnels. There seemed to be a lot of youth crouching or sitting along the road. I felt a little sad for them -- they just seemed to have nothing better to do.

We ended up taking the long way back to the city. We stopped for a quick bite along the way, and I gave my pastor friend back in San Salvador a call (thinking he might be worried). I told him, "I am on an adventure with the German girls." He said, "Of course you are."

I'm glad that I went on this little adventure. Sometimes we are so busy when in El Salvador that we don't get a chance to trek a little bit off of the beaten path. If any of my readers have been to Teotepeque recently, please share any updates.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Coolest Tecomate Ever

I just had to buy it. It's the most awesome tecomate I have ever seen. It's big and beautiful and painted with a bunny, flowers, birds, a butterfly, trees and houses. It's 16" tall with a big old corn cob stopper, and I can sling it over my shoulder with the pink plastic cord. I'm not sure why I like this big tecomate so much. I just do, and I'm glad that the money I paid for it was used to buy food for a homeless shelter in San Salvador.

Maybe you have never had a tecomate of your own. A tecomate is a member of the squash/gourd family, and once it is dried with the seeds and innards cleaned out, it is very lightweight and has an extremely hard shell. For many many generations, campesinos have carried water out to the fields in their canteen tecomates. The tecomate is still used for this purpose, but also appears as a prop in folk-dances and a traditional image in Salvadoran artwork.

I bought my tecomate as a work of art. But the woman who sold it to me said, "It will keep water really cold for a long time. It's like a thermos." Then she gave me the instructions for preparing my tecomate for use:

1. Wash it out with water.
2. Wash it out again.
3. Fill it to the top with water and let it sit over night.
4. The next day, dump it out, fill it to the top with water and let it sit over night again.
5. It's ready.

My awesome big tecomate is not my only tecomate. I have another one which is a little smaller, decorated with a blue ribbon, and was a gift from a friend. About 5 years ago, we were visiting our sister church community in El Salvador. We were using a "stone soup" theme as we visited families and invited them to worship. Kids brought gifts of nature to weave into a communal weaving, and families brought gifts to decorate the altar. The tecomate with the blue ribbon and red roses was one of those gifts. It has a tag on it, "from Gonzalo and Luci with much love."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Close Encounters of the Squirmy Kind

In November a couple of friends and I had the privilege of being invited to serve on a work crew in response to the floods. We worked in Las Animas, San Martín, clearing a road which had been blocked by a landslide.

The invitation came from friends in the mayor's office in Tonacatepeque, which teamed up with the mayor's office in San Martín to put this relief brigade together. It was part of a broad effort by municipalities which were less-affected by the rains to reach out to those who had suffered more, and, from my experience, was something the FMLN was coordinating throughout the country on those first weekends after the flooding.

The brigade was made up of community residents from throughout the area, and included about 50 people. We started out early in the morning, loading ourselves into trucks in Distrito, picking people up at a few stops, gathering more folks in Tonaca, and then making the big rendezvous at the mayor's office in San Martín. It felt like a big rally. Energy was high, red shirts were everywhere, friends greeted friends, candy was passed among truck mates.

We hit the dusty, bumpy road to the job site. Rushing water had caused a landslide to cover a road which was part of a switch-back up the hillside from the river down below. This road seemed to be the only access to a community on the other side of the river. The drive to the site was a little harrowing as the heavy trucks full of equipment and people slid on the loose dirt. As soon as we stopped, everybody hopped out, grabbed tools and got to work. It was so awesome to see grandmas working alongside big guys alongside the mayors' staff alongside a gringa and a couple of pastors.

The strategy was to clear the upper part of the switchback and to dump all of the debris down over the low side. It seemed like the lower part of the road was just going to be abandoned (a good idea, I think). I grabbed pick-axe and and started hacking away at the pile of rocks, roots, tree parts and dirt which filled the road. We developed a good rhythm, with the shovel folks scooping up the stuff we loosened up with the picks, and then the wheel-barrow guys hauling it away. I have never seen such hard-working women with pick-axes and shovels.

One of the challenges was the large amount of plant material tangled up in the dirt. We had to chop away at tree limbs and roots and then grab big piles of this stuff by hand and toss it over the other side. A pair of work gloves would have been a really good thing to have for this, but, spines and all, we just had to pick it up. My first encounter of the squirmy kind came as I picked up a big armload of trees and roots and spines and, from the far side of my pile, out plopped a big snake! I tossed my pile into the road and the lady next to me screamed, "¡culebra!" The big dude next to me, who had a shovel, identified the snake as a boa constrictor, and only about 5 feet long, so not too big. He held it up for me to get a photo, while the lady next to me told me that she almost peed her pants. Then, the culebra was released into the wild on the down-side of the hill so that it could go kill some rats and other bad things.

We picked up our tools and continued working. The woman next to me pick-axed with great enthusiasm and animation as she shared stories of boa constrictors attacking her chickens and having fights with her dog. I stopped picking up piles and used my pick to drag piles of debris across the road to dump them.

A little time passed and then, there it was! A second squirmy encounter, this time with a teeny weeny pink baby snake. I had no idea what kind of snake this was, but when the big dude came over with his shovel and started whacking it to death and chopping off its head, I had a clue that it might be a biter. The woman next to me explained that it was a baby coral snake and that even a baby bite could kill you and that she really almost peed her pants that time. The shovel guy scooped up the dead baby snake and tossed it over the side.

We picked up our tools and got back to work. Pick, pick, pick away at the hillside. Hack, hack, hack away at the roots. I took a big swing, and as a big pile of dirt fell away, a tail end of a snake was protruding out from a hole. It disappeared in an instant and then out shot the head of a snake which landed a short distance in front of me in the dirt. I screeched out, "EEK" (yes, apparently this is really what comes out of your mouth when you have a close encounter of the squirmy and dangerous kind), and slowly backed up. (OK, this is where watching PBS came in really handy - red next to yellow, you're a dead fellow, don't run from a coral snake). The big dude got busy quick and that snake was headless in no time. People gathered, because you do not hear a high-pitched gringa EEK every day of the week, and of course, we took a picture.

The woman next to me said, with a tone of finality, "We're done." Coral snakes come in pairs, and we were NOT going to encounter the other parent snake. It was time to rest. I got to hang out with a really interesting guy who gave me a nice history lesson about Salvadoran radio stations, especially from the time of the war. He was a fascinating guy!

By the time we took our places in the chow line, we were all out of water, and were plenty hot, dirty and tired. Yet, there was an energy and spirit of unity among the group. The simple act of standing in a line, waiting for tortillas and beans which were being served from the back of a pick-up truck, was enough to bring back memories of chow lines during the war. Stories and memories were shared. We ate with our dirty hands, sitting on the ground, and watched the big yellow earth movers come in to finish the road job. Now that the road was widened and the debris removed the earth mover could come in and carve out the hillside a bit more. The job was finished. The road was cleared.

Work gloves are now on the packing list, and, as my pastor friends will tell you, I am more than a little lucky.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Beautiful Orange Toilet Brush?

Sometimes it's really important to get away. Away from the city, away from the noise, away from the work, away from the needs. One of my favorite get-away spots near San Salvador is Parque El Boquerón. The park is beautifully planted with flowers and sculpted bushes, and the temperature is usually pleasant and cool.

I was there recently with a small group from the US and with a Salvadoran friend, who works so hard that he had never had time to visit the top of the San Salvador (or Quezaltepec) volcano before. Despite the fact that it was not pleasantly cool, it was pure joy to be present as our friend marveled at the view and crawled around on the ground to take pictures of the beautiful flowers.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and the gardeners were busy pruning and raking away the debris of the dry season. We had been admiring admiring the flowers, especially a particularly striking orange variety, and like good North American paparazzi, were taking lots of photos. One of the gardeners, who had been watching our antics, kindly cut an orange flower and gave it to a member of our group. Because we are so knowledgeable about flowers, we aptly named it The Beautiful Orange Toilet Brush.

We walked along the rim of the crater, watching light clouds falling down over the rim. We talked about the history of the eruptions. Our friend told us that long ago the volcano had erupted and buried the ancient village of Nejapa (Nixapa) so that a new town was built in its current location. Every year this story is recalled on August 31st with Las Bolas de Fuego, a fireball-throwing event (which Tim's El Salvador Blog once featured). The most recent eruption was in 1917, when the lake inside the Boquerón crater evaporated and the small cinder cone was created. The volcano vented gas through some of its fissures through the 1970's, but has been sleeping since.

As we walked and talked, we received more than a few scrutinizing looks ... because, of course, we were carrying the beautiful orange toilet brush. There is really no good way to hide a gift like the toilet brush without crushing it, and we were the only ones who knew it was a gift. We did not want to be known as the gringos who picked flowers in the park, so we tried to be as discreet as possible, with an every now and then phrase "un regalo" - "a gift" tossed into the air.

The beautiful orange toilet brush survived the walk, graced our prayer circle in the shade of the pine trees, accompanied us on our ride down the volcano on the Quezaltepeque side, through the Nejapa short-cut to Apopa, and back to San Salvador. In the dark of the evening, the beautiful orange toilet brush was quietly placed into a vase on a small home altar. A candle has been burning there for a few months, in honor of a young man who was violently murdered. His photo, the candle, the flowers help this young man's family to remember him as son, husband and father. These small signs of life and light create a space for a communion of saints, across the boundaries of life and death.

The beautiful orange flower
a gift from the earth
a gift from a gardener
a reminder to get away sometimes to laugh and to crawl among the flowers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


It says...

Homework in a happyland notebook, now lost and dirty.

The homework papers in the dirt troubled me so greatly. I wanted to pick the papers up, look for names, take the work to the teachers. I did not want to see lost homework, lost learning, lost time, or the horrific evidence of a lost child.

Three months after a wall of water and mud and boulders rushed in during the middle of the night, the neighborhood of San Antonio in San Vicente still bears the scars of life interrupted and life lost. The town will not be rebuilt. The people are scattered among nearby communities, among family, among shelters. Some survivors seem lost among the ruins where they search, sit, grieve, remember, honor and tell. In telling there is healing. Our Salvadoran Lutheran Church pastor friends know this, and as part of the psycho-social care they give to the community, they bring people like us to be witnesses and to be listeners.

José was sitting nearby when we walked into the green house. It was hard to understand his story because he was crying his way through it. Under the pile of dirt behind this house, he said, a 4 -year old was lost and they haven't found her. Over there the 2 children lost their parents. Each remnant of a home, to him, is the memory of a neighbor family. It's hard to believe that they are lost or buried - gone.

José offered to take us to his house. His home was a lavender shell. He told us that when he heard the water coming, he grabbed two of his children and yelled, "Wake up! Wake up!" He held onto them and held onto the porch post when the water came rushing. "God save us! Mary save us! Jesus save us!" he and his children cried out. His wife and another child (I think) were washed away, but luckily, he learned later, that they washed into the second story of a house down the street. They prayed and God saved them.

José said that we were standing at the site of a miracle. He pointed and told us to look up at the palm tree - the only tree there - the site of a miracle. The woman across the street was in a wheel chair. She was sitting in her chair when the water came. She prayed out loud, "God save me! Mother Mary save me! Lord Jesus save me!" God heard her prayers and when the water came, he picked up her chair and placed it way up high in the branches of that palm tree. That is where the rescuers found her, sitting right in her chair up in that tree. She was not hurt at all. She prayed, God heard her and God saved her. It was a miracle!

Amidst so much death, so much suffering, so much grief, the final word is miracle. José draws strength from the miracles which God worked in the midst of a flood. As José shares his story with us, we are called to share his burden of pain and grief and death, and to receive from him his testimony of faith.

As we left San Antonio, we noticed a corn plant which was poking up out of a 2 meter deep pile of debris. "This is our sign of hope," our Salvadoran pastor said, "This is our sign of life."

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Morro Tree

Cihuatán is an archeological site which lies just north of Aguilares. Amidst the Mayan ruins, which are definitely worth seeing, you will also find some of the local flora and fauna of the area. This area north of Guazapa has become cattle country, and, according to the locals, some of the wealthy cattle producers have their eye on this property. The security guards and barbed wire fences do a pretty good job of keeping cows off of the site, but nothing can keep the goats from enjoying a good run in the field. The wide variety of bird calls, the tinkling of the goat bells, and the low moos in the distance create a peaceful atmosphere in which to enjoy the ruins and have a relaxing, yet very hot, walk with friends.

Surrounding the large hill which was constructed to support the main temple, there is a broad, grassy field, dotted with trees. Pablo, our driver and friend, said that during the war, there was a lot of looting of this site. People drove big trucks in to take the rocks and cut down the trees for wood. Some of the trees which we see now may have grown from seeds or stumps. He thinks that most of them were planted as part of the restoration.

One tree that caught my attention was the morro tree.

For a long time, all I knew about the morro tree was that it made some kind of fruit with a really hard shell. I have a morro shell among my Salvadoran treasures. It was a gift from my friend, Ana Julia. When Julia was little, her family used morro cups and bowls to hold their beverages and soups. Julia had 3 morro cups in her cabinet, and she gave two of them away ... one to me. Whenever I pick up the little morro cup, so light yet so durable, I think about Julia. She is a good teacher, and a good friend, and also, in sort of a sad way, durable.

The strange thing about the morro fruit is that it is connected directly to the trunk and big branches of the tree. The tree looks pretty comical in the dry season, with no leaves and the big green fruits stuck to the trunk. Pablo said that the seeds are used to make horchata. Seriously? You would think that after all of my visits to El Salvador that I would know that Salvadoran horchata is made from morro seeds. You open the fruit, take out the seeds, dry them, grind them up, mix with water, maybe add a pinch of cacao or cinnamon, (although out in the countryside, it is pretty common not to add anything) and you have horchata. What do you do with the fruit itself? Feed it to the cows. Apparently it makes good animal food but not very good people food.

I always wonder about those who first came up with the idea to hack open some weird gourd fruit, save and dry the seeds to make a drink powder, and then taste it. "Hey, it's good!" or "Great, he didn't die!" Let's make it a traditional drink!

Pablo said that he went to one church where they had gigantic morro cups which they used to serve their shuco. Shuco? ... another Salvadoran traditional drink, eaten as a meal, and a story for another day.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I was walking through a prickly dry field in Cihuatán, laughing with Pablo about which one of us was the guide. It was his first time to the site, although he lives not too far away. I asked him a question about a tree, and he shared a lot of information about its fruit and different uses. Interesting stuff - and not printed on the historical brochure. I said, "Hey, I should make a blog and write stories - stories from the people, with occasional recipes, filled with the wisdom of the abuelas and middle age guys like Pablo. I'm going to call it, 'Linda's El Salvador Blog.'"

Now, some readers may be familiar with a pretty famous blog entitled, Tim's El Salvador Blog, which is an amazing source of news and information for English speakers whose lives are connected to El Salvador and her people. Tim is very supportive of my idea to create a different kind of blog, and ... the title? Well, of course Linda's El Salvador Blog had to be the title.

So, welcome to Linda's El Salvador Blog, born on April 1, 2010., this is not a joke!

And ... stay tuned for the post about that tree!