Sunday, May 23, 2010

We are going to the tree

We are going to the tree.

This is what the people in this community say when someone is nearing death. There is a large tree near the entrance to the cemetery -- a tree which has watched caskets and grieving families pass by, journey after journey.

A young man age 18 had been shot in his own home. His pastor said he was not in a gang, that he was a good boy. How could something like this happen to a good boy?

The invitation to attend the boy's funeral came as an interruption. In the midst of a gathering of international guests, the bishop needed to leave in order to conduct the funeral for the family who needed him, and as he excused himself he asked if anyone would like to go with him, to witness and to learn. I looked at the friend who sat next to me. "We need to go to accompany the family." Like a skipped heartbeat we felt it -- we needed to go. The two of us stood up, whispered some instructions to the rest of our group, and left with the bishop and a pastor from Norway.

God knows what God is doing.

We arrived at the church, and when we saw the grieving family I realized that the mother was a friend - a woman I had met during our first visit to El Salvador and who, over the years, had cooked for us, welcomed us with singing, and showered us with hugs and hospitality. How could it be that her teen-age son was the one lying in the coffin? How could it be that this was her second child to be killed in a violent act?

The funeral happened. The pastor from Norway gave the sermon. Where did he get the words, the best words for comforting this grieving mother and family? With no notice, in a foreign language...

God knows what God is doing.

We went to the cemetery. The children crouched near the open tomb. The family members took time to wail and cast themselves over the coffin. A sister fainted with grief. After time for singing, and praying, and reading and reflecting on scripture, the bishop sprinkled dirt in the form of the cross over the glass window in the coffin, and then it was lowered into the tomb. Women from the family climbed down into the cement block hole and arranged all of the funeral flowers around the coffin. The grave diggers mixed cement in a wheel barrow off to the side. Then shovel-fulls of dirt were thrown into the grave.

In the car on the way back to the city, we talked about the differences in the way families grieve in Norway, in the US and in El Salvador. The bishop said that he thinks in El Salvador, grief is not reserved but let out in the open, because this is everyday life in El Salvador.

Later in the week, my friend and I went to our sister church community. We arrived later than expected, attended the end of a parent meeting and learned that a baby had died. We went to the home and payed our respects to the family, and then had to leave because it was dark.

The next day, my friend returned to the US and I went back to our sister community. The women of the community came to tell me that the baby had not yet been baptized. "You can do it," they said, "you are a pastor, right?" Their pastor was out of the country.

"No, I am not a pastor."

"It doesn't matter," said one of the women. "In an emergency anyone can baptize and we want you to do it."

We got a glass of water. I gently picked the baby up from her little white casket. In rickety Spanish I did my best to lead the family and women in prayer and baptized the baby. I placed the baby back into her casket, took off the cross I was wearing, and placed it onto her chest.

The next hour involved renting a truck and figuring out how to get the community to the cemetery in the nearest town. The children of the community rode in the back of a pickup, caring for the baby and holding the flowers as we rode down the bumpy streets.

The grave was a simple dirt hole. I had my Salvadoran hymnal, and chose the same songs that the bishop had chosen earlier in the week. The women offered an additional song for the children. I asked one of the women, a catechist, if she could say some words. She said that she couldn't (she had buried her own young adult son in the same cemetery just a few months before), but we agreed that God would give her words.

God knows what God is doing.

God provided the words, from one grieving mother to a community of grieving mothers. I picked up some dirt and made a cross over the casket, using familiar words in English which were understood. We placed the casket into the grave and the children shoveled dirt over the top. The children and women arranged the flowers over the top of the grave. This is a responsibility of the older children, to help out when a younger one dies. This is everyday life in El Salvador.

I had never been to a funeral in El Salvador before.

God sent me to one. God gave me the strength to be present at another.

After the baby was buried, I took the catechist's hand, and we walked to her son's grave, accompanied by all the women. We cried. Then we turned around and walked out of the cemetery, the children laughing and skipping on ahead of us.

God knows what God is doing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Good Morning Fish!

An early morning on the beach means being welcomed to the new day by the sound of rolling waves, the flutter and call of sea birds, the scent of fish, the chill of the damp morning air, and the friendly greetings of wandering dogs.

As soon as the approaching sun sends out enough light, the fishermen pull their boats to the edge of the water, load up their gear, and head out toward the breakers. The boats need to get up enough speed to blast themselves up and over the crashing waves so that they can get out to deeper water. The small motors are really put to the test, and the pilots make many failed attempts before finally breaking free.

We asked our friend if he had ever gone fishing out in a boat like the ones we were watching. He said that he had gone out one time, riding in the bow of the boat while the fisherman was driving. Getting through the breakers was very scary and he said he almost flew into the water. That was the first and last time that he went fishing out in a boat!

As the sun crept up over the horizon, the air warmed up enough and we headed into the water for a quick swim. Apparently we two gringas have acclimated ourselves to the Salvadoran climate, because, despite swimming many times in lakes up north with much colder air temperatures, we quickly wimped out on the ocean swim. Instead, we sat drying in the sand, enjoying the morning conversation, and giving out little "holas" to the dogs.

The sun was up and it was time to go. We stuck our damp, sandy selves into our clothes (once more affirming our identities as Greasy and Grubby) and walked to the road to seek out transportation. We flagged down a truck (built to carry people and stuff in back) . . . and climbed aboard. And, what would you expect folks to be carrying out to the main road from the beach? Fish! Big plastic and aluminum buckets of fish. We headed back up the dirt road to the highway. Along the way, our friend pointed out the ruins of a couple of abandoned places which had been damaged during the war - remnants of a sad time which created a pensive look in the face of a young man who was born as the Peace Accords were being finalized.

We arrived safely back at our friend's home, with wind-blown hair, sand in our pants, and the vague scent of fish wafting around us. We shared a quick breakfast of cornflakes and milk, gave and received lots of hugs, and said our good-byes.

As we rode back to the city, we were feeling really proud of our young friend. He had spent time living in our homes as part of a Lutheran Church youth program, and had graciously invited us to stay with his family as an act of friendship, hospitality and gratitude. He took us around to see the sights, taught us about his life at home, and took good care of us even when the situation was a little out of his control. We continue to see our friend from time to time, and continue to admire his gentle manner, his leadership and service to others.

(Note: You have probably noticed that in my blog posts I do not use people's names much, nor do I post photos of them. I have adopted this practice in order to respect my friends' privacy, but also to keep them safe. Some of my friends live and work in situations which are difficult. This is a reality of life in some parts of El Salvador.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tales of Greasy and Grubby in Cara Sucia

If you are in Cara Sucia, then you are close to the beach and the opportunity for a beach adventure is always at hand!

Greasy and Grubby were staying with a family in Cara Sucia and were offered just such an adventure - a night at the beach. Our teen-age guide (who is a long-time friend and has actually stayed in both of our homes) suggested that he organize this adventure and his mom thought it was a good idea. Mom took us into town in a moto-taxi (the little red jobs made in Japan) to pick up some sandwich supplies and drinks - soft white bread (think Wonder), processed turkey and cheese, and little juice jugs with foil caps - this is sort of typical beach picnic food.

We packed up our swim suits, towels and beach food and walked up to the main road. There we waited a while, then squeezed into a colorful public bus which took us to the beach road. I sat next to a mom with an adorable little one. I asked if it would be OK if I took a quick photo, and the mom said she would be honored.

At the beach road we met up with a friend of our friend's and so now we were a group of four - a teen boy with two gringa ladies old enough to be his moms and some 40-year-old local guy as our extra chaperone. It was getting dark as we got into another bus which was parked along the side of the road. Apparently the bus waits for a quorum before it runs, so, as we were just sitting there in the dark I decided it would be a good time to call home to let my husband know all was well. We still have the message that I recorded saved on the machine, "Hey, I'm on a bus ... on some road ... headed for the beach ... with our friend and another guy ..." After I hung up I thought perhaps this was not the most reassuring message to leave with my husband, but it did capture the unknown-adventure-nature of the moment.

Eventually the driver got in and we headed down the dirt road to the beach. At the end of the road we got off and walked to our chaperone's uncle's place - but just for a bit. Then, out to the sand and a walk up the beach to a mystery location where we would spend the night. Well, maybe this was not the smartest thing Greasy and Grubby have ever done - walking along a Salvadoran mystery beach to an unknown location in the dark.

It's pretty common to find little places along the Salvadoran beaches where you can rent rooms for the day, or even the night. We stopped at a place like this and our friend made the arrangements to stay. Next it was sandwich time, so we got out our stuff and started to make dinner at a little table outside of the rooms. We were interrupted by a local gentleman who had clearly been enjoying a little too much cerveza. Greasy and Grubby were not up on the latest salty language, but knew enough to know that the gentleman was not being a gentleman (especially when an occasional English word hit the air). Our chaperone sent us to our room and we locked the door, while our friend argued and tried to shoo the pest away. This took a while. Eventually, negotiations led to our escape to the place next door, where a lovely older couple welcomed us and assured us that they would take very good care of us. We got the tour (this way to the beach, this way to the latrine) and it started to rain. We sat on a low wall and finished up our sandwiches. Then it was bedtime. Greasy and Grubby headed into their room, and the guys headed into theirs.

The room had two wood-frame beds strung with rope grids. The first thing we did was shove one bed over to block the door, which did not have a lock. We laughed and wondered what the guys were thinking about the racket we were making. Then we spread out our beach towels over the ropes and got into our beds. Greasy got the wall, I got the bed by the door. Hot, damp, surrounded by the musty smell of wood and rope, uncomfortable ... well, good thing we are best friends and can chat our way through any challenging night.

We got up at 4:45, tossed on our swimsuits, hid our valuables as best we could and headed out to the beach to watch the sunrise. (Packing tip: always bring a ziploc bag for your passport so you can shove it into your swimsuit when you have no other option.) It was drizzly and cold. Our chaperone decided to sleep in, so it was just the three friends sitting on the beach, telling stories and watching a beautiful sunrise...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Off the Beaten Path - Cara Sucia

If you strike out on the highway and head west out of San Salvador, you will eventually end up in Guatemala. It's a nice drive in an old pick-up, maybe a little slow in brightly painted bus with 85 friendly travelers. Depending on the season you might find corn kernels spread out along side of the road to dry, or bright white sugar cane tassels waving in the breeze, or even a few cows in the road.

Before you hit the border you get to Cara Sucia. I have to confess that I don't know too much about the town itself. A local friend told me that the name Cara Sucia (Dirty Face) originated with the Spanish, who noticed that the children who played near the river had dirty faces, so the name stuck. Whether that story is true or not, the nearby Cara Sucia and Paz rivers are sources of both life and challenge to the farmers who live and work near their banks. My friend said that he learned to swim in the river when he was a little boy . . . The water rose up and all of a sudden it came into the house. Then I was in the river. There was furniture going by and trees going by and even a cow. That's how I learned to swim.

If you are staying outside of Cara Sucia you can take take the little moto-taxis into town and back to go to the market. Or, you can grab some local truck transportation for with a Salvadoran friend (for 10 or 20 cents) and share a little slice of life out in the countryside.

First stop - a small brick-making business. Our young Salvadoran friend thought this would be an educational stop for us, and it was! The family showed us the process of mixing the clay, putting it into molds to dry in the sun, stacking, baking in the kiln and stacking again. This is hard work, especially in the rainy season!

Next stop - a bakery. Our friend took us to a home which had a very large oven for cooking bread. The family makes a few different baked items but is famous for their soft and delicious rolls (pictured here).

Next stop - a fisherman's home. We got to watch as the man skillfully wove his fish net from string while talking to us about his home and his work. Recently there was a flood in this area. The water filled the porch where he is sitting now. He goes out fishing with the nets in the early morning. This is how he supports his family. He also has some crops.

Our final stop (for this tour) was a walk through the farm fields. I am not a corn expert, so the discussion about the different varieties of corn, the different planting and harvesting seasons and the different ways in which to store and use the corn were a little tricky to follow. But, it was great to be with a farmer who was so very proud of his crops and so very hopeful that no disaster would take away the promise of a good harvest.

In Cara Sucia, a place very prone to flooding and high winds, farmers, fishermen and business folk alike all place their livelihoods into the hands of God and Mother Earth.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Just Click!

Some of my favorite El Salvador photos happen when I just stick my camera out the window of the bus, car or pick-up and CLICK! I often end up using these photos with kids because they capture the every-day life, work and transportation experiences of Salvadoran families. These photos were all taken during a recent drive around San Salvador.

The images include kids giving a little weight to a fancy table, a load of piƱatas, and guys riding on top of beehives.