Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In the Morning

This is a continuation of the previous story, "In the Night"...

The morning started out with tamales for breakfast and the safe return of Julia's husband while we were at Sunday School.  Oh my there were a lot of kids in that small space - maybe 70 kids!  We all have our tricks, and so I pulled a favorite out of my hat:  I sang "Jesus Loves Me" in English (with hand motions), then the children sang it back to me in Spanish (with hand motions), and then we "sang" it using only the hand motions.  The look on Pastor Santiago's face said, "Hey, that worked!"  Yes it did.

After Sunday School we went to Bryan's house for a visit.  Bryan insisted.  I miss Bryan.  I remember him as a very charismatic and precocious 9-year-old.  He and his family moved away from the community because of gang threats to their family.  Bryan's older brother was murdered while working as a fare-taker on a micro-bus.  That happened a few years ago.  I imagine Bryan is a tall teenager by now, but until we meet again I will think of Bryan as the little guy who always wanted to help and was forever by my side pleading in his sing-song voice, "Come over to my house.  Come over to my house."  On that Sunday, after Sunday School, we went to Bryan's house.  He got me a chair.  He gave me a tour of his garden.  He wrote a list of the garden produce in my journal.

After the visit, we went back to Julia's house for lunch - soup with rice and chipilin (a small green leafy herb which grows everywhere in El Salvador).  Bryan and a few other boys ate lunch with us.  This is one of Julia's missions in the community - no matter how little she has, she feeds the boys who have nothing.  After lunch we played UNO - which is a great card game to bring along on any community visit!

Worship was at 4 pm.  During the sermon, Pastor Santiago said something which struck me as strange.  He said he was surprised when I didn't get on the bus with my friends to go back to San Salvador.  (I guess he didn't pay attention to my email messages.)  His words have stuck with me, "Linda is living here, wearing the shoes of the community."  Well, it is one thing to walk in another's shoes for a while, and it is another thing to live in those shoes for a lifetime.  Walking is learning.

To that end - learning, that is, I set aside the last page of my journals for something I call "Julia-isms"  These are the wise sayings which Julia inserts into daily conversation.  I often do not catch them.  I most often have no idea what they mean.  When I do catch one, I ask Julia to repeat it and am treated to a long story with the refr├ín or wise saying at the end.  During these days on my own in the community, I learned...

In a closed mouth, flies do not enter.  

Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.

He who walks with wolves learns to howl.

Machete, be in your sheath.  (keep quiet, sharp words can cut)

Friday, January 25, 2013

In the Night

We waved good-bye.  My friends got on the bus that would take them back to San Salvador, back to the airport, back home to the US.  I was staying.  Sometimes I do this - stay in our sister church community for a while on my own.  Well, I am never really on my own...though at night, it sometimes feels that way.

After dinner, Julia and I sat and talked.  The hour grew late, and her husband had not come home. Recent elections had resulted in a change in the political party which controlled the local municipality, and as a worker affiliated with the losing party, he had lost his job.  After passing six long months with no work and selling off family belongings in order to get money for food, he was finally hired as a delivery truck driver.  This work took him far from home, delivering insulated roofing materials to construction sites.  When far from home after dark, it was safer to find shelter with a friend or to sleep in the truck rather than try to make his way home.  After dark, gangs ruled the roads near the community.

It was time for bed.  We climbed into our beds, Julia in the double and me in the top bunk.  We chatted for a little while.  We couldn't sleep.  Julia got up to light a candle.  "Do you recognize this?" she asked.  "Your husband gave it to me.  When I am home alone and I can't sleep, I light a candle to keep the evil spirits away."

The original candle had long since been melted away.  Julia had filled the tin with new wax.  She struck a match and held it to the inner side of the tin's cover.  "I can still smell the original scent.  Vanilla,"  she said, savoring that last word and taking a big sniff of the interior of the warm cover.  Then she lit the candle wick and placed the tin in the middle of the floor.

She showed me the cover design - una familia de osos - a family of bears.  She was the mama, her husband the papa.  "When I smell the vanilla I think of your husband.  He is like the big bear protecting the house when there is no man at home."

We climbed back into our beds.  Julia was telling a funny story.  I was laughing when suddenly she cried out, "Help me!  Help me!"  It took me a moment to realize that this was not part of the story.   I leaped out of bed and by the light of the candle could see that Julia was sleeping and having a night terror.  I gently called her name and stroked her hand.  At that moment a tree branch fell onto the roof and she startled awake.  Poor Julia was so apologetic.  I suppose I looked a bit frightened. I realized that if it had been a real emergency, I had no way to call for help other than to go outside and try to find a neighbor.  Tomorrow, I thought, I would make sure I knew where Julia kept all of her keys.

Adela and Julia
We settled ourselves back into our beds.  We focused on the candle.  "God, protect us from the evil spirits," Julia prayed.  She fell asleep and was breathing calmly.  I thought about Julia's mother, Adela.  Julia had cared for her mom for many years, following a stroke which had left Adela unable to walk.  Adela had recently passed away.   She too would cry out in the night, "Julia, Juuuuuuuuuuulia," and Julia would get up to comfort her.  Now Julia was often alone in the night.  Well, not really alone.  She has her candle, and sometimes her friends who come from far away, and always, the comfort of knowing that her friends and her God love her very much.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Signs of Sustainability...Part 2

The sun set as our little micro-bus headed inland from the mouth of the Rio Paz.  We opened the windows slightly to diffuse the scents of fresh fish and damp bodies which wafted through the vehicle.  We paused a couple of times to let members of our little group off near their homes.  Then we made our final visit for the day...

We stopped at Flor’s house to see the cosecha.  Flor had accompanied us throughout the day and was as eager to show us the fruits of her harvest as she had been to show us the construction of the levee.  The seeds for the crops were given by the government – wow, what awesome fields!  Since the light was low, we walked along the edges of densely planted fields of corn, maicillo, plantains, and squash.  The kids showed us their radish patch, pet turtle and pet parakeet.  

We stood for a while near the house, slapping mosquitoes as Flor told us about the night the river broke through the levee.  Her family was trapped when the flood water came and was suddenly waist-high.  They had no way to escape and no where to go.  Luckily they had a ladder (a simple homemade one which still stood leaned up against the house). They climbed up to the roof.  They spent 10 days living on the roof.  On the second day, her children were hungry so she picked up the tortillas out from the water, washed the mud off of them in the same water, and they ate them.  Then Pastor Jorge came.  He was going house to house to check on people, presumably in a rowboat.  He made a lasso and some kind of rope system and this was how they got food.  The water went down and they cleaned their house because there was mud everywhere.
The two older children were very quiet and very thin.  The impact of what they had experienced a year ago was still written all over them.  Their dad came home from work as we were preparing to say good-bye.  He rode a bicycle.  On this flat land in the shadow of the river, bicycles make getting from place to place a lot faster.  We took a photo of the family and promised to bring a copy when we return.  They have no photos.  Flor insisted we accept a gift of coconuts to take back for everyone to enjoy back at the retreat center where the Encuentro of international partnerships was happening.  Her husband and son loaded up the back of the bus with the cocos and then we hugged and kissed good-bye.

Later that night, the guy from Canada, the guy from Argentina and the gal from the US gathered at the pastor's house for supper and conversation.  The pastor's wife said that when the floods came, the church and their home were not inundated, but all around them people experienced incredible challenges.  We spent the night sleeping on floor mattresses in the radio station.  Before going to sleep, I wrote this last paragraph for the day in my journal...

 Later that night Ana told us that a woman gave birth to twins up on her roof during the flood.  There was nowhere to go.  Her husband and other kids had to help her. It worked out OK. Eventually they got a rowboat and took the mom and babies to a medical clinic.  What are the signs of sustainability we saw today - the resiliency of the people, the power of people working together in community, and seeds of hope sprouting into new life.
Flor standing on top of the levee she helped to build.

This gives a little better perspective on the height of the levee.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Signs of Sustainability

Three of us were guests in the community - a guy from Canada, a guy from Argentina and a gal from the US (that would be me).  We were there as part of an immersion experience during a gathering of international partners of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church - an event that happens every 3 years or so and is known simply as the Encuentro.  This was not my first visit to Cara Sucia, but it was the first time I had been there since the devastating storms of November 2011.  

I kept a journal during the visit, because I knew from the start that I wanted to remember the amazing women of this church community.  Our theme for the Encuentro was Sustainability - of the church, of the land, of the people.  We were to look for signs of sustainability throughout our immersion visits...

In the corner of the room, fruits of the earth had been carefully placed in a beautiful display...pineapple, watermelon, coconut, corn, banana.  A small altar stood in front of the display.  To the side, a bulletin board was decorated with photos of the Sunday School children, the youth group at various fun and camping events, and the men and women of the community at various marches and demonstrations surrounding the topic of flood control.  We gathered in a circle.  I noticed a little cardboard boat, spray-painted silver, near the fruits of the earth.  Of course, in this coastal zone, there are many fruits of the sea!   We sang and prayed.  Then each leader stood up to share the story of the work of his or her group.  I listened...and I watched.  

The woman who played the guitar was old...one of the grandmas.  She did not play in tune, but she played with enthusiasm, with her whole body rocking and digging into that guitar.  Seated next to her were a mother and her daughter; the daughter looked to be about 16 with the cognitive and behavioral aspects of a 3-year old, and was seated cozily on her mom's lap.  (I later learned the daughter was 26.)  The daughter held a life-like baby doll.  The mother was amazingly loving, amazingly patient and showed the daughter her own love as she taught her how to love and care for that baby doll.  

Each leader took a turn to share stories about the work of the church in community...the strong youth group and radio station (which serves as an emergency warning system and a training ground for young DJ's), the community-based agriculture and animal projects, and the advocacy groups which worked for reconstruction and maintenance of the levees along the nearby Rio Paz (Peace River).  We three guests shared our stories too...

Lunch was fish - well, there was chicken or beef or fish - but in the spirit of enjoying the fruits of the sea, I chose fish.  Delicious fried fish - the best kind you get in El Salvador with the head and fins still on it - and veggies and rice and tortilla and coconut milk.  Dessert was a big bowl of fruit, cut from the fruits which had been placed in the corner.  We chatted with a couple of abuelas during lunch.  "Where do you live - how far away?" we asked.  One said, "Oh, about a 45-minute walk."  The older one said, "About 2 hours away, so I should get going now."  She told us she has more than 60 grandchildren and I think she said 15 great-grandchildren.  Amazing.

After lunch we took a trip along the Rio Paz, beginning at the aduanas (customs point on the highway at the Guatemalan border) and stopping at points along the way.  Tropical Storm 12E caused extreme flooding, so much so that the levees broke and water spilled into the nearby communities.  At our first stop, we looked back toward the highway bridge.  "The flood water wiped out that bridge and really caused a mess with the border crossing," the pastor told us.  At our next stop, he said, "When the water receded, the river had changed its course, moving the border of Guatemala and El Salvador."  So close to Guatemala.  There were islands and sad bars in the middle of the river.  "Those are Guatemalans," someone said, pointing to a couple of guys and their ox cart which were parked in the middle of the river.  As we walked out from that location, we came upon a group of young men loading big rocks into a truck.  The rocks were sitting beside the road, I thought they were to be used to build a levee.  One of the women asked the guys what they were doing.  At that point we understood that the rocks had been taken from the levee and put alongside the road for pick-up.  The pastor did a great job of explaining the illegality of what the guys were doing, but also teaching about why the levees are important.  We got photos of the license plates...

We drove to a little town and walked down a private road to get to the river at another spot.  The pastor and the man were talking about how commercial trucks always want to use the road, so he has to keep blocking it off.  All along the river, the pastor and the advocacy team have worked to build a network of farmers who own land along the river as a citizen network of protectors - people who will watch to make sure big trucks don't come in to take away the rocks from the levees and sand from the banks.  
We drove a little further south and drove right up on top of a new rock levee.  So, we had 3 ladies with us on this excursion and one of them is a grandma with 17 grandkids.  OK, she and Flor and the other lady basically built this huge dike.  Seriously!!  Big machines had come in to move dirt and dump rocks, but they had to construct this thing.  Grandma said on some days she was the only one who showed up to work.  These ladies are a force!  They talked about the faith needed to accomplish this – oh I cannot remember the Bible text Flor quoted…when asked how they learned how to build a levee they shared that they had gone to tons of workshops and the church helped them to form connections with the government.  Impressive.

Our last stop was the beach.  The property at the end of the road was abandoned because it had been wiped out by the flood, but remnants were there (pillars and a swimming pool and random concrete tables walls) and it gave us access to where the river hits the ocean.  We walked along the beach and then stepped into the water in a spot where the river had created a little pool.  It was so warm!  A couple of guys had been fishing there, and so the pastor asked if they had fish to sell.  Everyone agreed that the type of fish they had were really good ones and they were fresh.  We scrounged up a couple of plastic bags from the trash that had accumulated in the swimming pool.  The sun was getting a little low in the sky, and we still had one more stop to make...

If you want to learn more about Cara Sucia, here are a couple of past stories...

To be continued...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Viva El Salvador

The women were surprisingly sexy, waving and smiling as their Vegas-style head-pieces bobbed with each high-heeled step.  Their short skirts were set off by long trains which trailed behind them.  The band was decked out in traditional blue and white, sporting "sombrero azul" cowboy hats and shoulder-to-hip sashes which proudly said "El Salvador."  The musicians marched in the 2013 Tournament of Roses Parade, and for a few moments the streets of Pasadena were filled with shouts of Viva El Salvador.  The band was followed by about a dozen traditional dancers who were running more than dancing, but they still managed to wave their rainbow of large skirts like giant butterfly wings, and they smiled beautifully for the crowds in California and the television cameras which carried their music and images back home.

 It was a fun and fabulous moment for the band members who had worked so hard and traveled so far by bus to get to the parade.  As a former band parent, I could imagine the parents of these high school kids beaming with pride as they watched from near or far.  Salvadorans and North Americans alike were sending messages out via Facebook:  Did you see the band from El Salvador?  LIKE!

As I was watching and listening to the Banda El Salvador, I thought about all of the different occasions when music, dancing and marching through the streets have brought joyful and fun moments to our time in El Salvador.  The development of folkloric dance classes and music classes in schools and churches has increased greatly in the past five to ten years, which has given kids and youth lots of opportunity to express themselves in a positive way and show off their amazing talents for each other, their parents and their communities. The children who hang out with me will probably never have access to a clarinet or a trombone, but a bucket or an old can will serve as a drum and there always seems to be someone with a guitar, a wooden flute or something to shake.  Music is everywhere and a parade is always a possibility.

One day, during our very first visit in El Salvador, a little girl named Marta came out of her house wearing a pair of black boots.  "Watch me," she said.  She twirled her baton a little bit in her hand. My friend Greasy said, "Swooooosh?" and made a motion like tossing up a baton.  Marta followed suit and tossed her baton just a little bit into the air and caught it.  "Do your routine," said her sisters.  So, while Marta hum-dee-dummed the music, she marched with her feet and performed her entire baton routine for us.  Then, she ran into the house and pulled out a little plastic bag which had two photos of her in it.  There she was in full uniform and marching in a parade.  She gave one photo to Greasy and one to me.

Congratulations, Banda El Salvador, and to all the little boys and girls in El Salvador who dance and twirl and march and sing. ¡Viva El Salvador!