Friday, August 31, 2012

The Rice-a-Roni Story

In the early days, the secret goal of any delegation member was to be assigned to Sandra's house.  Even before the days of cinder block and tile floor when the roof leaked and a riverlet channel ran across the width of the dirt floor, Sandra's house provided a much appreciated level of comfort.

Some people are just naturally neat and tidy.  Some people have a knack for creating a cheerful and welcoming space with very basic things.  Some people can turn ordinary ingredients into a gourmet dinner.  Sandra has these gifts by nature, but she has also developed these gifts in order to preserve the precarious life of her son.  Born with a serious heart condition, Sandra's son was not given good expectations for a long or active live.  He is now in high school and has aspirations of becoming a doctor.

So, as Sandra swept debris from her yard to keep the cockroaches and mice away, as Sandra carefully washed her vegetables and dishes in water which she chlorinated, and as Sandra kept her latrine (complete with ceramic toilet over the waste hole) impeccable, as Sandra grew vegetables and medicinal herbs in containers around her home, and as Sandra cooked healthy meals for her family she wasn't exactly setting out to create the best bed and breakfast in the community, as she said, she was "guarding the life of her child."

Sandra's house was one of the gathering places for the women of the community.  This is where we would sometimes have cooking lessons.  Try as she might, Sandra never could teach any of us northern girls how to spin and flatten tortillas in the crooks of our thumbs and forefingers.  "No, not pat-pat-pat...spin, spin spin like this," Sandra would laugh.

One time, Sandra made "meat on a stick."  I have no idea what this is called in El Salvador, but we gave it this descriptive name.  First, you make your tortillas.  If you can't spin them, pat them.  Keep them a little bit thicker than usual.  Set them aside.  Chop up a carrot, some onion, and some tomato (only the fleshy part) into really tiny pieces.  Don't chop like an iron chef, but take your time to cut each tiny piece one by one.  Take some ground meat.  Sometimes in El Salvador it is best not to ask what kind of meat it is, but beef might be a good option.  (If you use turkey or a mixture, just add more seasonings.)  Add salt and some mysterious leaves and twigs which you pick from the garden and chop.  Fresh rosemary and oregano would be close to accurate, but probably any savory herbs you like would work.  Add the chopped stuff, herbs, and an egg to the meat.  Take your tortillas and cut them into strips about 3/4 inch wide.  Mix the meat stuff with your hands until well-mixed.  Form a meatball around the center of each tortilla strip, leaving the ends of the strip poking out of the meat (about 1 inch on each side).  Fry in hot oil until the tortilla ends are golden brown and the meat is cooked through.

Of course meat on a stick is best served with rice.  One time, we asked Sandra what her secret she had for making such delicious rice.  She went to her cupboard and pulled out a box, "Rice-a-Roni," she laughed.  "Seriously?" we wanted to know.  "Yes, the secret is out!" she exclaimed, but of course she added regular rice, and consume de pollo, and her own touches to make a big batch ...

I have lots of fond memories of spending time with Sandra and her family, and have written a couple of stories previously:  A Rain Story and Lessons with the Kids.  Sandra and her husband continue to guard the life of their son, and the lives of their other children.  To escape the violence of the neighborhood, they have relocated to another place in El Salvador.

Author's note:  I was thinking about the moment in which we learned the secret to the tasty rice as I was walking up a steep hill today in San Francisco.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Legend of El Tabudo

After we returned from Lake Coatepeque, I wondered if there were any interesting folk stories about the lake.  It felt like one of those special places - a little bit quiet, hidden in a caldera, deep blue water, lots of fish.  Thanks to Gloria and Guillermo, I learned this story...


The legend of El Tabudo has become very popular among fishermen, residents and visitors to Lake Coatepeque and has spread so much that people tell the same legend of all lakes and lagoons of El Salvador.

It seems that the owner of a beautiful mansion located on the shores of Lake Coatepeque went for a ride in a traditional hand-made canoe.  As he came near the island he was swept away by an underground stream and carried to the realm of the goddess of fresh water, never to be seen alive again. 

A few months later he appeared to the people who were looking after his property which they had inherited. They were astonished and confused when they saw him because his knees had widened so much that looked like a pair of soccer balls and the same with his lips so that he looked like a sea creature more than a human.

Those who saw him told of his appearance and his big “knee knuckles” gave him the name “El Tabudo”. The tabudo is a kind of underwater tycoon.  He will appear to you like a person pretending to be a humble fisherman to earn your trust.  Then he will take you to the depths of the lake, where he turns men into huge goldfish and women into freshwater mermaids.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Off the Beaten Path: A Day at Lake Coatepeque

It was a long drive from the city out to the lake.  We crammed ourselves into a bus and an SUV. According to the advice of the group, we left San Salvador at 6:30 am.  Our first stop was a gas station where more than a few grabbed an early morning coffee and everyone used the bathroom.  Considering the women vastly outnumbered the men, the ladies decided to take over the men's room too.  It's hard to describe how funny this was - the teenage girls needed a lot of convincing that this would be OK. When a gentleman showed up he chuckled at the situation and graciously waited in line for his turn after the ladies finished up.   We were soon on our way and arrived at the ruins of San Andres too early to enter.  No problem! We decided to go to the lake first and the ruins later in the day.

Our next stop (after the gate at San Andres) was at the grocery store in El Congo where a very practical team of  women picked up the fixings for a picnic lunch of ham sandwiches and orange drink.  We took the tree-lined highway to the lake, driving down into the ancient caldera and the lake shore.  The public park we had hoped to access was closed, so we paid a fee to enter a private beach adjacent to the public area.  Hopefully the government will keep its promise to reopen the park so that the public can continue to enjoy this Salvadoran natural treasure.

We gathered on the boat dock for a time of devotion.  It was a pastor's dream...a fisherwoman standing in a rowboat near the shore, casting her nets and pulling in the fish.  We read from the Gospel: Jesus calling his disciples to come, to follow him, to fish for people.  Pastor Santiago asked the Where is our lake?  Where do our little fishies swim?”

“In [our community],” came the reply.

“Who are the little fishies who need to be caught?  What are their names?”  It took a moment, then someone said, “Vanessa.”  Someone else said, “Karla.”

“OK,” said Pastor Santiago. Vanessa and  Karla are two among a group of 6 girls who are “in the streets” of the community.  It was clear that all of our friends know these girls who either do not have parents or whose parents do not attend to them.  “In the streets” means that they are at risk of being recruited by the gangs or harmed by the gangs.  They do not have food.  They are at risk for prostitution and may already be working “in the streets” to survive.

“What is the net that we will use to catch these girls?”  Pastor Santiago continued.

“The Sewing Cooperative?” suggested Sonia.

“Yes, good example,” said Pastor Santiago.  The conversation continued, identifying other fish and other possibilities for nets.  Pastor Santiago said several times that each one of us has a job from God:  fish for people.  It was practical.  It was real.  Fishing for people is not meant to be a metaphor.  Jesus wants us to go out there and really care for the lost ones and to take practical actions which change lives.  We concluded our worship time by singing the "Lakeshore" song.  

Next, it was time to go swimming.  The majority of the group of about 40 people from the community had never been swimming before.  A few had bathing suits.  Some swam in their clothes.  A few were too afraid to try so enjoyed sitting in the cool grass and watching the kids splashing in the shallows.  The water was cool and wonderfully clean!  It was a lot of fun for so many who never had a chance to swim before!  We brought a blow-up raft which provided lots of fun.  Next time we will bring extra swim suits.

At lunch time the grocery team gathered to make sandwiches:  white bread, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato and salad dressing.  Each sandwich was carefully wrapped in a napkin, and when it was time for lunch each person received two.  There were special ones without the fresh veggies for those with sensitive northern tummies.  The sandwiches were delicious. 

After lunch a young man said he would give us a boat ride for $1 per person.  A few teenage girls were eager and with encouragement, some of the mothers and younger kids decided to give it a try.  Luckily I had a $20, and I slipped it to the boat driver so that all 22 who wanted to go could climb on board.  "Linda, you have to come too," they said.  The driver handed me a life jacket.  I passed it on to one of the moms who didn't have one.  Pastor Santiago handed his off to a teen boy so that everyone but the two of us had jackets.  "No worries," I said when a couple of moms looked at us with concern, "Pastor Santiago and I know how to swim."

A couple of the women looked a little worried.  "Are you OK?" I asked.  "I'm nervous," one whispered.  "Me too," said Julia, "I've never been in a boat before."  As it turns out, no one had been in a boat before.  I thought about how at home the landscape is generously dotted with lakes left behind by long ago glaciers.  It's hard to find a person, city or countryside, who has not seen a lake, played by the lake shore, ridden in a boat, or gone swimming.  Sometimes we just take things for granted.

We clipped through the water at a pretty slow pace, but fast enough to enjoy the occasional bump and splash of waves and to feel the wind whipping through our hair.  Half-way out the driver accidentally killed the motor.  The ladies panicked a little, worried we would not make it back to shore.  Soon we were on our way, and we made it back just fine.

A few families bought fish from the local fishers.  We gathered up our clothes and our towels and our fish and loaded up for our trip back up the interior wall of the caldera.  It was fun to see the lake again from above.  We waved good-bye to the water and continued on with our adventure for the day.   It was a good day, a day to remember with a message to remember.