Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tales of Greasy and Grubby: Yes, they are waiting...

Waking up on time was not a problem. The rain pounding on the tin roof during the long hours of the night was followed by the roosters crowing and the all-dog alert, so that before the sun came up, we were already finished with any attempt of sleeping. We slithered out of our sleep sacks and peeked into our shoes (hoping a random mouse, cockroach or scorpion had not settled inside for the night) before we slipped them on and headed for the latrine.

That old latrine experience was always an adventure. Weaving in and under the plants, the short little distance to the potty seemed longer than it really was, especially in the dark. The outhouse was just wide and deep enough for the cement seat and a skinny person. The 2-foot step down into the outhouse carried a moment of mystery...would it be squishy full of mud? would the cockroaches scurry up the walls? Greasy had a harder time of it, being so tall that she could not really stand up without bumping her head on who knows what. It was best not to pull the cardboard door across the opening, but to let your best friend stand guard and hold the flashlight while you gingerly lifted the cover off of the pot.

After a tag-team latrine adventure, we slipped back into the house and got dressed and organized ourselves for the new day. We were scheduled to teach in the community school that morning, sharing a mini-VBS experience with the elementary school kids. School started at 8 am, and we were starting to get a little anxious about the time as the early morning wore on. Back then, Greasy spoke a little Spanish, and Grubby did not, and neither wanted to be rude about asking Julia to hurry up the breakfast process. Finally, Greasy said, "We'd better go."

We gathered our stuff, making the move to politely leave. Julia looked at us and said that we couldn't leave without breakfast. "They are waiting for us at the school," Greasy explained.

"Yes," said Julia calmly. "They are waiting."

The tone of voice in that matter-of-fact statement, "yes, they are waiting" really struck us. They will wait. They will start when you get there. You can't teach unless you take care of yourself first. Quit worrying about the clock.

We sat down and ate breakfast. Yes, they were waiting.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Banquet Parable

Our first visit...

We arrived in sister church community in the late afternoon. Seven of us had broken off from the synod delegation to spend time with people we knew through story and the occasional email. A celebration awaited us, but news of a family in mourning had been shared with our sister pastor. We walked down an unfamiliar dirt path, down a hill to a home where many people had gathered. The crowd parted so that we strangers could enter the home. It was very dark inside, and as our eyes adjusted to the candlelight we could see the family members weeping at the loss of their daughter. Maybe she was ten years old. Our sister pastor did not really know the family, but in moments of trouble and grief, there is community and solidarity and faith.

The smell of the candles, the cadence of prayers of the rosary, the sweaty heat of many bodies inside the adobe house, the confusion of not knowing how to behave at a vigil for a little girl in a country we had just met cement this memory into our beings. Our first moments in our sister church community were moments spent in being together. Just being together.

When it felt right, we quietly left. We walked up the dark path toward the light at the top of the hill. The light shone out from the half-walls of a small shed-like building, made of corrugated tin and bamboo slats - the church. We were ushered inside, where a big table almost filled the entire space. The church benches were lined up along the walls, and there was just enough room for us to squeeze past and find seats. After the seven of us were seated, the spaces at the table filled in with men, women and kids from the community. The food was placed in the center of the table. It was incredibly hot, tight with people who were strangers trying to learn about each other despite the barrier of language.

We seemed to be waiting for something and noticed two empty chairs at the head of the table, right at the front of the church, under the cross. We thought we were waiting for the pastor and his wife. We waited.

And we waited.

And then Julia walked in, walking arm in arm with a blind man on her left and his blind wife on her right, weaving carefully around all of the crowded benches as the women, the men and the children made way, to the head of the table. The guests of honor had arrived, and the meal began.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Joy in the Neighborhood

Today I saw this picture, and it brought tears to my eyes.

Yesterday was a great day in our sister church community. The congregation gathered to celebrate the baptism of Luisito, Vanesa's baby brother. Luisito is a miracle baby. He was born more than a month too soon, and was so very little. At two months old, he was still smaller than most newborns, and he seemed not to respond to much. But yesterday, at almost age 1 and thriving, he was baptized, and this photo was taken at the party.

Luisito's story is enough to bring tears, but it was the sight of happy kids with that piñata that got to me. There is another photo from yesterday which tells the story of the piñata - a photo of my friend Julia who recently started a new business making piñatas. In that photo, Julia stands amidst her creations, smiling with a big, huge, happy smile.

This is the smile I remember from before the murder.

More than a year ago, Julia's son was murdered. Dragged out of
his home in the hours before dawn and shot in the street, he was a victim of gang violence and mistaken identity.

This home.

This street.

Today's tears are not grieving tears. Today's tears are tears of thanksgiving that life survives death, that smiles are not gone forever, that God is good. It is good to see a street resurrected by children's laughter. It is good to see my friend Julia's smile resurrected in the work of her piñatas. It is good to see joy in the neighborhood.

Thanks to Tim, of Tim's El Salvador Blog, for sharing these photos with me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tortillas for Thanksgiving

Soon it will be time once again to bake the squash bread, the sweet potato biscuits, the apple pie, and to stuff the turkey. It will be time to fill the house with a big crowd of people, to say grace together, and to enjoy the bounty of the harvest. Cooking on Thanksgiving is something I always do...even when in El Salvador.

Last year, we were in El Salvador for Thanksgiving. We were staying at the guest house for the Lutheran church, along with a couple of other North Americans who were serving as missionaries in El Salvador. Our little group decided to make Thanksgiving dinner. We were graciously given full access to the kitchen, and after a trip to Super Selectos, we cooked for those who usually cook for us.

It wasn't fancy. Pulled chicken in creamy gravy. Mashed potatoes. Dinner rolls. Fresh salad. Fruit salad. We couldn't find onion rings or green beans, so we opted for cooked broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. We gathered to say grace together, in one big circle in Spanish and in English. We gave thanks for family far away and family close by, for friends, for the good bean harvest, for the food. Then a long line formed, and we served platefuls of food. We used every plastic plate, bowl and cup in the house, and there was just enough for all to be fed. At some point tortillas appeared on the table. I guess it just wouldn't be Thanksgiving in El Salvador without tortillas.

It was really fun to have such a large gathering - to meet the extended family and share stories about Thanksgiving traditions in our US families. Our Salvadoran friends were very gracious, but truthfully, I don't think mashed potatoes are going to be a new Salvadoran favorite.

This year, along side the pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes on the dining table, I think my family will find a stack of warm tortillas, wrapped in a striped cotton towel. What a fun new tradition to add to our Thanksgiving celebration!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting Ready for the New Day

When my kids were little they really enjoyed reading Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, and some of the favorite pages showed Little Bear "getting ready for the new day." We all have our routines for getting ready for the new day, and my routine still includes announcing to my dog, "Mommy's going upstairs to get ready for the new day."

I am girly girl. Fifteen years of Boy Scout camping and eleven years of globe-trotting and hanging out in El Salvador have not changed my routine, and getting ready for the new day in El Salvador has brought plenty of children in our sister church community plenty of entertainment.

I wake up to the sounds of roosters and dogs and calls of "paaaan franceeeeés." I tippy toe to the door, which, with its metal latch is not easy to open quietly, and catch a breath of cool fresh air. After a little visit to the latrine, I sneak back into the house and grab my towel and shampoo. Although I am a girly girl, I am also Grubby, so I don't wash my hair every day, but I do try to shower. Wearing my flip flops, I step onto the two cement blocks next to the water barrel. It's best to shower in my jammies, because no matter how early I get up, there is a little line of boys standing along the front wire fence, peaking and giggling. One plastic bowlful of water over the head. Shampoo. Scrub. Soap up. Then a few buckets over the head to rinse off. This takes a bit of bravery, because no matter how hot you are during the night, the water feels a little beyond refreshingly cold.

Dry off. Go inside. Get dressed quietly. Then it is back out to the yard with my hand mirror to fix my hair and do my make-up. The sun provides the best light for this process, and the little boys all join me in the yard to watch. They like to smell the mousse and watch me tip upside down to scrunch up my curly hair. They are no doubt thinking, "wow, this lady is really white!" as I slather on the sun screen. They watch closely as the eye shadow and mascara go on. Then we hang out for a while, chatting about school or the dogs or the ducks.

Later in the morning, I put a clip or some sort of adornment in my hair and bust out the hair spray. Once, Brian gasped and said, "Que gran parfuuuuuuuum!" (What a humungous bottle of perfume!) I laughed and said it was for my hair. He wanted some too, so I gave his head a squirt. It does smell good!

By the time my hair is dry and gorgeous (not), my make-up is already sweaty and sun-screened arms and legs are gritty. No matter. I feel pretty, have provided early morning entertainment, and am ready for whatever fun and adventure the new day brings.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Off the Beaten Path: Tonaca

Our sister church community is located in the municipality of Tonacatepeque, so every now and then we are able to spend a little time in the center of this small city. The locals call it Tonaca, and it is a lovely and quiet town with a bit of colonial personality. The town square is home to a park which features big old trees, benches for resting, a gazebo made from concrete designed to look like a giant tree trunk, scattered small statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a fountain which features a young boy taking an eternal pee.  It is this fountain near the corner entrance to the park that gives visitors a clue to the rich and unique folk history of this little part of El Salvador.

The people of Tonaca are known as jicameros, and jicama is plentiful in the stalls of the local market (which are set up in the mornings along one side of the town square). Ask any of the women in the market or the old men resting in the park about the fountain, and you might get to hear the legend of Cipitio - a little boy who was born as a result of an affair between a goddess and the shining morning star. Cipitio and the goddess were cursed by the goddess' husband, and poor Cipitio was doomed to live as a 10-year old boy forever, with his feet pointing backwards.

The cultural house in Tonaca is a great spot to visit, and the workers there are eager to share the traditions of the town. The stories are full of twists and turns and fantastic characters. The tradition of story-telling is strong among the jicameros, though it is not easy to follow the plots which are shared with grand gestures, crazy voices, riddles and songs. Most of the stories involve scary characters and late night antics. Some of the characters and tales are brought to life each year on November 1st with the celebration of the calabiuza. (I like to call it the celebration of the day of the pumpkin heads.) The cultural house has a collection of giant puppets, masks, hand-puppets used in the celebration and photos of the after-dark procession of floats and characters through the streets of Tonaca.  The huge paper mache heads are worn on top of a person's shoulders, and a little gray panel on the front of the puppet's stomach helps the person underneath to see where he or she is going.

The cultural house is a great place to study or purchase books.  I picked up a book of local legends, and my hope is to understand them a bit better so that I can write a little more about it next year.

Tim's El Salvador blog shared news of this year's celebration.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Little Capes, Big Difference

Earlier this summer we visited a community called Guadalupe. It is a community of people who live each day with eyes toward the sky, looking for the dark clouds that bring rain, and with ears toward the volcano, listening for the rumble that could mean rock slide.

There is a warning system. When the siren blares, often in the night, the moms and dads gather their children and run for the safety of a nearby field - safe from the rocks but not from the rain. The leaders in the community had described the evacuation process, humbly asking us to help with "capitas." In the telling, it was hard for us to figure out exactly what was being asked of us because it seemed like maybe they needed wagons or strollers in which to pile the kids so they could run faster.

As we debriefed on our experience in Guadalupe, we double-checked our dictionary and realized that what they were asking for was "little capes" -- rain ponchos for the children! We took up a small offering among us to help with the capitas.

Yesterday I received an email from Pastora Guadalupe - the Lutheran Church pastor who is provided psycho-social care to the children, youth and adults in Comunidad Guadalupe. She wrote:
Also, I share with you the gratitude that the community leaders in the municipality of San Vicente express. They received the help and it was possible to purchase the little capes for the boys and girls who are evacuated during the intense rains in these communities.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Performers in the Streets

I was reminded by fellow blogger, Tim, of something which we often encounter when driving through the busy intersections in San Salvador -- street performers. I always have mixed feelings when we witness these quick performances. The performers are usually male, often appear to be young teens, and their abilities and showmanship are many times quite amazing! Yet it is sad to me that the young ones are not in school, and it is worrisome to me when they dart out at the change of the stoplight, sometimes late at night, hoping to entertain and hoping to receive a bit of compensation in appreciation of their performances.

I can envision jugglers with bowling pins, boys maneuvering balls on pairs of sticks, a few clowns, and lately, musicians. So, I went on a mission, looking for photos of performers among the many thousands of photos in my "Everything El Salvador" folder . . . and I could only find ONE photo. Of course, I might have some from the pre-digital era, but it really surprised me to only find one in my computer search.

Upon reflection, I think that there are a couple of reasons for this. It's hard to take in a performance if you are too busy snapping photos of it. I am also often stuck inside a bus with the inability to pay the performer, and I really don't think it is right to take a photo of a performance without offering some kind of compensation (and I do pay performers if I can). I'm not sure if local authorities try to restrict performers, particularly children. I once visited a center in Managua which worked with families to encourage kids to stay in school by setting up classes in the morning, extra help in the afternoon, and safe supervision of street performances during rush hours. In an economy which lacks jobs, especially for those without sufficient education, performing in the street is, maybe somewhat sadly, one way in which to put basic foods on the table.