Sunday, July 31, 2011

Off the Beaten Path: Road Trip to Tazumal

The bus rolled down the highway, filled with the voices of people chatting, singing and laughing. We were on our way to Tazumal, site of some pretty famous Mayan ruins, and the first stop on our road trip.

To best understand the atmosphere on the bus and the stories and photos from Tazumal and our other field trip destinations, it might be helpful to have a little background information. Five of us had traveled from our homes in the US to visit with our sister church community in El Salvador. As part of our partnership together, we have a scholarship program which enables kids, who may not otherwise be able to go to school, to study. There are 84 kids in the program, including 16 who are studying at the university level. The five travelers are sponsors for one or more students, and the plan for the visit included spending time with scholarship families in their homes, touring the different schools with the students as the guides, and going on field trips with students or parents.

The trip to Tazumal and Santa Ana was one of our field trips. We had moms, grandmas, youth, a few little ones, Francisco (coordinator of the scholarship program) and the the US contingent. One mom brought her elementary school children explaining, "they got permission to miss school today because this is a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity." It was the first time for almost everybody to go to Tazumal. Earlier in the week, we went with three moms to the National Anthropology Museum, and a group of students had taken us to the anthropology museum at the Technological University, so we were ready to see the site where so many of the ancient artifacts had been found.

We pulled into a small town named Chalchuapa, and a couple of blocks into town there it was: The Tazumal pyramid! I am not sure what I expected, but perhaps more of an open field with a volcano in the distance and the pyramid rising up. I guess it makes sense to find an archeological site in the midst of an old town -- this has been a place where people lived and worshiped for a long, long time.

We spilled out of the bus and went to the entrance window to pay our fees. The grandmas among us made sure that we got the senior citizen discount for them, and in we went. We started our tour in the museum, and everyone looked at the artifacts with great interest. There were signs in Spanish, but not a lot of background story. Those of us who could remember the legends told them as best we could, and at one point a caretaker explained the story of Xipe Totec.

After the museum, our college students gave us a tour of the pyramid, and insisted on taking lots of photos! We were all completely tourists - it was great! Half-way around our walk around the pyramid base, some of the ladies were already planning the Scholarship Family Trip Tourist Days for next year. Their goal: visit another amazing archeological site and...visit the playa!! (the beach).

Next stop: Santa Ana

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jammin' to the same Tunes

One by one, the moms, young adults and a couple of little ones climbed into the bus. It was 7:30 am and we were heading out from our sister church community to tour Tazumal and Santa Ana. Delegations often do a day or two of "tourist" activities during a sister church visit, but this delegation was different - it was all about doing things together. So, on this day, the "tourists" were mostly Salvadoran. Out of the 24 people from our sister church community on that bus, only 2 of the young people had been to Tazumal on school field trips, and only one had seen the cathedral in Santa Ana.

We headed for the highway, and not too far down the road one of the young ladies popped up front to chat with the driver. (First of all, it was extremely funny that she knew the driver - in El Salvador I think there are only 2 degrees of separation between people.) She flipped down the DVD player and put in a music DVD. (It was also funny that we have ridden in this coaster many times and did not even know there was a DVD player.)

The first DVD featured a female singer, and the young ladies in the bus all crooned along with her. Then came the música romántica and my friend Julia belted out the lyrics in that deep off-key voice that is so recognizably and beautifully hers. The women teased Julia about her husband and their dating days more than 30 years ago. There was so much singing, and so much laughing -- just what you might expect from a bus full of excited kids on a field trip.

Then came the question, "
¿Te gusta ABBA?"

"ABBA, yeah, I love ABBA!" I replied.

Seriously, I do love ABBA. ABBA Gold is my "go-to" CD when I am scrubbing and dusting and doing laundry and need to get it done fast.

In between songs, Julia leans over and says, "I turn up the volume and listen to ABBA when I am doing the laundry and cleaning my house."

"Really?" I said with surprise, "Me too!"

And so there were were, on a bus to Santa Ana. 24 Salvadorans and 3 North Americans, laughing and teasing and singing along with ABBA.

More about Tazumal and our other excursions in my next story.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Little Miracle

We were getting ready to leave the community after a long and fun day.

"Miss Linda, you have to come over to my house!"

Frankie was insistent, "You really have to come over to my house," he said again, grabbing my hand.

"Hey you guys!" I called out to my group, "I'll be right back. Apparently I have to go to Frankie's house."

I asked Frankie if it was OK with his mom. He assured me that his mom really wanted me to come.

I gingerly climbed down the steep path, grabbing onto the barbed wire for balance. Frankie ran ahead into the house, and then emerged again extending his hand. He led me into the front room of the two room house. Frankie's mom greeted me just inside the door with a big warm hug. She turned toward the big double bed behind her, and with a little gesture presented her new baby daughter, Melissa.

Melissa was sleeping peacefully on a sturdy little waterproof pad, which her mother scooped up and placed into my arms. I could feel her all warm and round and cozy in her little padded nest, and I held her up to my face to smell her and give her a little kiss.

A miracle. This baby is a miracle. "Un milagro. Felicidades," I whispered.

I looked up at Frankie, standing off to the side and grinning ear to ear. I looked toward the doorway of the second room, where his brother, a little older, was smiling shyly. I looked into Mom's eyes, which were teary like mine, and we both smiled great big smiles of pure joy.

"How old is she?"

"Six weeks."

"She is big and happy."

"She is a miracle."

There are no words to describe just how joyful this moment was, nor the wisdom in Frankie's insistence in making this visit happen.

A year and a half ago, Frankie held my hand on the steep path. Frankie and his family and the women of the community were together in this room. Frankie was at my side as I gently lifted the cold body of his baby sister from her small white coffin and held her, and kissed her, and baptized her, and buried her.

I placed Melissa into her mother's arms. "Thank you for inviting me to come."

Frankie handed me a well-worn little stuffed panda. "This is for you," he said.

"Thank you, Frankie."

We climbed hand-in-hand up the steep path.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Say Yes to JELLO!

After church we walked down the hill from the church, past the school to the lunch spot. One of the moms in the community opened her home to our 5-person delegation and about 25 community members. The Family Commission, women leaders from different sectors in the community, came together to cook the celebration feast. It began with soup - big bowls of steaming soup filled with big chunks of vegetables and chicken parts. Stacks of piping hot tortillas were set in the middle of the table and cold grape soda was served in styrofoam cups. The silverware was carefully wrapped in napkins like in a fancy restaurant, and the tables were covered with lace and embroidered tablecloths.

The soup itself was more than sufficient for a meal, but then out came the rice - tasty when added to the soup or piled on a plate. Everyone had china plates, and the women must have gathered them from each of their homes and their friends' homes so that there were enough. One of the women brought around a big pan full of freshly grilled chicken breasts, pounded thin and seasoned lightly. It must have taken hours to grill all of that chicken on the tiny grate over the oil-drum grill.

We weren't expecting dessert, but then it appeared: a tray filled with styrofoam cups with spoon handles sticking straight up and jiggling rapidly as they were served. Yes, it was JELLO - grape JELLO.

To eat it, or not to eat it, that was the question. I did not worry one bit about eating it, and dug in with my white plastic spoon. It was cold and delicious. The other delegation members, well-trained not to drink the local water unless it is boiled were skeptical.

"It's half-boiled," one person reasoned.

"Then I'll only eat half," another replied.

It was hard to refuse such a treat, made with great effort in a very hot place where very few have refrigerators. "That probably means they used ice to make it jell."

Oh no, the dreaded ice - we all know the effects of the dreaded ice.

In the end, everyone ate the grape JELLO, and then came the waiting for the special effects. Gracias a Dios, no ill effects were experienced.

Two days later, we sat around a big table at another home with another set of wonderful cooks, and another serving of JELLO - this time, cherry red. The little boy next to me was so excited, "Gelatina!" he crowed, "just like I told you - it's my favorite food!"

Some ate half, some ate it all, and all was well.

Why this sudden popularity of JELLO - something we had never eaten in El Salvador up to this point in time? Who knows...maybe someone in the community got a refrigerator that works...or maybe they are more skilled at getting JELLO to jell with ice than I am.

And why did we not feel any ill effects of what was certainly made with water that is notorious for causing extreme effects? Well...maybe JELLO made by Lutherans and eaten by Lutherans really is a food made in heaven.

Monday, July 4, 2011

¿Todos somos niñas y niños, verdad?

From the top of the hill we could see yellow and pink and blue balloons, strung in an archway along the side of the path. This was our first sign that the afternoon would be special.

We walked carefully down the steep slope, down the crumbling stairs, across the little ditch, pausing at the ballooned gateway for a "pase, pase", and we entered the front yard of the party house. White plastic chairs, borrowed from the church, were lined up beneath the metal porch roof. We were invited to sit down, which we did for a moment here and a moment there in between standing up to greet each new arrival.

As we were served chilled cola in styrofoam cups, a big box from Mister Pan was carried inside. Soon, china plates with gigantic pieces of cake were handed to each of us. On top of the orange drink, the fruit salad with honey, and the blue frozen treat with gummy worms inside which we had received at our three previous home visits of the day, the cake was the perfect dessert.

We had fun chatting with the kids and parents. It was especially meaningful to two members of our group who sponsor one of the kids from our host family in the church's scholarship program. Before we knew it, a piñata which looked like a cross between a Pooh bear and a Pokemon character was hanging from the bamboo rafters. How fun! A piñata for the kids...or so we thought.

Shouts of "madrina! madrina!" came from the moms who were present.

"No, no," we said, "
piñatas are for the children."

"¿Todos somos niñas y niños, verdad? We are all children, right?" one of the moms said,
and so the scholarship "godmother" reluctantly took the stick in her hands.

With sugar coursing through her veins and the heat of the day giving her face a lovely glow, the madrina took her swings.

"¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Abajo! ¡Abajo!"

Shouts of higher! higher! lower! lower! filled the front porch as one of us padrinos had a turn to swing the big stick at the elusive
piñata. One by one we were called up, blindfolded, spun around five times, and given the stick. One of the moms pulled on the string and the piñata rose up and down, occasionally suffering a big whack and losing first one foot and then another. The head separated from the body, but still it danced through the air. Some kids joined in the fun, and the moms did too. Eventually candy was spilled and tossed into the air, and we all ended up with pockets full of treats.

"I have not laughed so hard in a long time," said the madrina who had taken the first reluctant swings.

Piñatas are for everyone, because we are all children...right!