Friday, March 29, 2013

The Litany of the Cross

Tonight during worship, the pastor set 3 nails into a large wooden cross.  Members of the congregation were invited forward, and each one was given the opportunity to pick up a mallet and drive the nail deeper into the wood.  We could all feel the hesitation - the discomfort with acceptance of an invitation to admit guilt, to share in the crucifixion of Jesus.  One by one we went forward.  One by one, "bang, bang, bang" echoed through the sanctuary.

On a day in 1989, the bishop placed a plain white cross in front of the altar.  Members of the congregation were invited forward, and each one was given the opportunity to pick up a black marker and write a sin upon the cross.  This was an act of confession - a confession of the sins that existed in El Salvador: hunger, persecution, violence.  Later that year, the cross was seized by the military as evidence of subversion, and the cross became known as "The Subversive Cross."

The following litany is based on words written a few years ago by Bishop Medardo Gomez.


based upon the words of Bishop Medardo Gómez

Leader:  There is no greater injustice than the one that Jesus suffered in the cross,
People:  No greater suffering, no greater treason, no greater pain.

L:  The Cross is the symbol of the liberation of God.
P:  There is no greater sign of the salvation story than the Cross of Christ.

L:  The Cross was an instrument of Roman punishment;
P:  but as the tool of crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Cross was transformed,

L:  becoming the Cross of Love,
P: The Cross of Faith, the Cross of Hope.

L:  In the presence of the Crucified One, we find consolation,
P:  a refuge from our pains and our worries.

L:  Where there is a Cross, there is a place for prayer
P:  and a place where we can cry out for divine aid.

L:  The sins of the world, all the sins committed by humanity are written in the cross
P:  and for that reason, the Lamb of God was sacrificed.

L:  Before the eyes of evil, the Cross of Jesus is subversive,
P:  because it denounces to the powerful ones, to the rich ones, to the poor
ones, to all men and women … their sins.

L: The Cross means life
P: and has a mission against death and all the projects of death.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Oscar Romero - A Community Remembers

On March 24, 1996, a little group of people carrying a metal cross and palm branches marched up a dusty hillside, and a new community was born.  The hill was claimed for the church, the church was named "Heroes of the Faith" and soon the community became known as "The Heroes."

Now, each March 24th, the community honors its humble beginnings. Throughout the night on March 23rd, the women stir a giant kettle of schuco (a warm beverage made of corn, ground pumpkin or squash seeds and beans).  At 3 am the directiva president sets off fireworks.  Big speakers are set up around the church, and community leaders make inspiring speeches interspersed with musical broadcasts.  As the sky lightens in the east, the women serve up the schuco, which tastes so good in the chilly morning.  The children play with fireworks, with young mothers helping to keep the sparks under control.  After the sun rises, a big group from the  community organizes itself and rides the bus into San Salvador to march in the Monseñor Romero pilgrimage.

In honor of Monseñor Romero, and the community of Los Héroes, I am sharing these special photos which I took in 2010...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: El Churrasco

Photo by Evelyn
The owner is a big guy, super friendly.  He came out to greet us and to make sure we were comfortable.  He told us, "Everything is homemade and fresh."

It took a little while to look over the extensive menu.  Most of us decided to order soup.  While we waited for lunch to be prepared, we took in the scenery -- this is quite a dining room!  The walls are covered with eclectic paintings and decorations, from beer posters to Salvadoran tchotchke to African savanna scenes.  There are two big aquariums bubbling with clear water and tropical fish.  Two of the four walls feature big screen TV's which broadcast a series of distractingly sexy music videos.  Of most interest is the ceiling.  Painted as view into outer space, there are planets and stars and clouds.  An astronaut taking a space walk proudly holds a Salvadoran flag.  A shark swims through space with the name of the restaurant, El Churrasco, tattooed on its underbelly.  Who knew there was a place like this right in downtown Guazapa!

Our soups arrived.  We were a group of about a dozen people with a variety of orders, and it was clear that everything really was homemade!  After just one spoonful of the tortilla soup, I knew this was the best tortilla soup I have ever eaten in my life.  Each person around the table was murmuring, "Yummmmmm."  The owner reappeared, his shirt still bright white, but he was super sweaty and we could tell that he had been working hard.  "How do you like it?" he asked.  We all stopped slurping up our soups to say, "bien rica," which literally translates, "well rich."

Aaaahhhh...nothing like a super-satisfying lunch in a fun place with a group of friends.  I can't wait to visit El Churrasco again!

Note - the restaurant is located in Guazapa, Calle 5 de noviembre 222 and it is on Facebook!
Photo submitted by Beto

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: My Final Day in the Aduanas

At dinner on Wednesday night, I suggested to the group that Thursday might be the day I would need to get angry.  "Really?" someone said, "for me that would have been on Monday."  Pastor Conchi and I had managed to keep our focus, to support each other with patience.  Yet, I think we were both heading into Thursday with the idea that well-placed anger might earn us some justice.

We arrived at the yellow gate in Ilopango a full 20 minutes before it opened.  Conchi and I spotted a woman as she got off of the bus - one of the women who works in the customs office, behind one of the four service windows.  Conchi nodded toward me.  I , wearing my very awesome aqua scrubs and lucky Lutheran cross, casually walked over to the woman and said, "Buenos dias."  She responded, with a somewhat surprised look on her face, "You are back again?"  I gave her the 3-minute version of our story, hoping she would have mercy on us once we were seated in the white plastic chairs beneath her window.

It is somewhat fascinating to watch the container trucks arrive in Ilopango.  As they turn into the road that leads to the yellow gate, the drivers pause long enough to let their GWG (Guys With Guns) hop out (riding "shot-gun" literally means riding with a shotgun).  These guys are clearly rented, probably somewhere in Honduras or Guatemala to ensure safe overland travel.  As soon as their boots hit the pavement these GWG's are on their cell phones making arrangements for their next jobs.

The guard house opened and I went in to fill out the paperwork.  Yes, I am now a pro at this and do not even need a Salvadoran to convince my guardhouse friends that I should be allowed in.  They handed me 3 ID badges and in we went.  Pastor Conchi and I sat in our favorite second row seats at 7:30 AM.  The sign says, "We serve the public from 7:30 AM to 3:30 PM."  The only window with a person behind it was the one with the woman we greeted outside at the gate.  She looked like she wanted to help us, but apparently she needed some kind of permission.  The other window staff arrived.  One put on her make-up.  The guy went to the restroom.  The window boss has a little office to the side.  He looked at us nervously and decided to button up his shirt and put on a tie.  The woman who met us at the gate called us up and took all of our paperwork.  We sat back down and waited.  One hour passed.  Conchi said, "We are making a protest."  "Yes," I said, "Let's pray."  We held our lucky Lutheran crosses in our hands and prayed not in secret.  Necktie guy got more nervous.  The Julia of the Aduanas walked around behind the windows and checked out the situation.  Necktie guy came out to check on us and told us it would only be a few more minutes until the signatures were ready.

At 9:00 AM we received signatures on the amended franquicia.  I boldly walked into the inner office and thanked the Julia of the Aduanas.  "May it go well with you,"  I said.  "God bless you," she said.  I wanted to hug her, and I know she felt it too, but that is not allowed in the aduanas.

Random photo on the road to the airport.
After a while, I started taking photos
so I would have something to show
for the Mission of Healing.
We were giddy and ran to the van.  Off to the airport!  On the way, we stopped in Olocuilta for pupusas.  We were not about to spend another day without food.  This time, we would head off to to the cargo terminal well fed and with full bottles of water.  We arrived at the same waiting area as before, only this time the GWG would not let me in.  I watched Conchi walk right past the secretary window, right past the labyrinth of plastic chairs, and right up to the final window.  She had to come and get some money from me.  It cost us $40 for the privilege of storing our luggage in the aduanas.  She got the signatures and by 10:30 am we walked across the loading dock to the security door.  "Wait here."

The customs warehouse is located near the taxi-ways for the cargo planes.  Airplane noise and airplane fumes are plentiful.  All around the warehouse are cane fields, and on that day, burning cane fields.  Little charred pieces of burnt leaves floated through the air, landing on everything in site.  Our eyes stung from the smoke.  We were called inside, and surrendered our documents as well as our backpacks, water bottles and jewelry.  Pastor Conchi said she never takes off her pastor cross, but they made her take that off too.  The inside was open to the outside, but with the added feature of a hot metal roof.  We were told to ask for Victor.

We found some old broken chairs near a ratty old desk.  Our precious papers were piled onto the desk with about a dozen other paper piles.  Everything we touched was black with soot.  Beyond the "reviewing area" where we were stood rows and rows of shelves with pallets and boxes piled high.  Forklifts whizzed around like crazy, and there was plenty of evidence that they periodically pierced walls and other vehicles.  There were a lot of security guys.  There was a row of about 10 service windows but no one was at any of them.  A man showed up at the desk every now and then to help people process their papers.  We had to wait for Victor at window #8.  He was out at a meeting.

While we watched for our stuff to be delivered to the reviewing area, we made some friends.  Most people had shipped boxes of stuff via air freight.  Some had had their luggage seized like us.  We learned about the process:  the forklift drops off your stuff; you unload it onto dirty tarps, officials pick through it and weigh everything, you pay taxes on the stuff they tell you is taxed; you stuff it all back into the boxes or bags; they take it away until you come back with the money.  Because we had a franquicia we were not expected to pay taxes, but needed to verify the contents of our luggage.

Victor went to lunch.

We watched all of our warehouse friends go through the process.  A grandmother watched as her pots and pans, toys for grandchildren, clothes and shoes were dumped onto tarps.  A young mother watched as baby clothes and blankets were dumped onto the floor.   It was humiliating and disrespectful.  A couple of guys with small businesses were accustomed to the routine.  New clothing is taxed.  Used clothing is taxed.  Shoes are taxed.  "This is the new El Salvador," they said, "tax everything so no one can make a living."

Our suitcases were delivered.  Victor appeared.  He was about to leave again.  "Hey, we have been waiting for more than 3 hours.  When are you going to get to us?"
"I have other work to do first," he said.
"But you are the only one who can process medications?" I inquired.
"Yes."  He left.

At this point the security guy who was guarding our backpacks became our friend.  "Can we drink some water?" Conchi asked him.  "Sure."  We went into our backpacks, grabbed our really hot water, and drank some.  We didn't want to get this far just to keel over from heat exhaustion.

The security guy suggested we open up our suitcases to get a head start on unloading them.  He got us some tarps.  We unloaded everything onto the tarps, thankful that we had packed everything in big mattress pad zipper bags.  We hung out for a while by the security guy.  He was from the town where Conchi has a church.  He remembered the pastor who was there a long time ago, and was excited to here that she was there now.  He said he would go to church there sometime soon.  He said, "I really like the work that the Lutheran Church does in our country."  Huh, imagine that!

I was really hot and really tired, so I went and sat down on the floor in the middle of the medicine piles.  Conchi went and sat on a chair by our papers.  Victor walked in.  In a loud voice, in Spanish, I said, "I am going to make a report about this.  I am documenting every moment"  A few minutes later, a different guy, the narcotics agent,  asked if he could help us.  The desk guy and Conchi came over with the papers.  Victor said we had to unpack all the bags and line up each like item...1000 little bottles of eye drops all in a row.  "No," I said. "The inventories are done by suitcase.  This is all approved."  The narcotics guy agreed with me.  We weighed a few bags, and then packed it all up.  We collected our backpacks and walked back over to an office, carrying the papers which Victor had signed.  The office was air-conditioned.  Heavenly.

The magic number.
Conchi walked right up to the desk, ignoring the queue.  Victor had not completed the paperwork correctly.  We walked back across the loading dock, back to the waiting area.  Security guy could not believe it.  Luckily this was a 10-minute fix and we were back in the office, after making three copies of each of the forms which Victor had signed.  Then, finally, Conchi received...a plastic number!  "All that paperwork and it boils down to this!" she said.  I said, "Let's take a photo!"  The plastic number gave us permission to sit in line at the loading dock.  Two minutes after we received our plastic number, the office closed.

As we sat waiting for our number to be called, guess who walked by?  Victor!  He was all smiles.  "Everything OK?" he asked.
"Yes, we got our number."
"Great, God bless you!"

Conchi and I looked at each other and laughed.  Soon our number was called and we received our suitcases.  There they were:  15 absolutely filthy suitcases in a heap by the curb while we called for our van.  Our driver had parked outside of the area to avoid parking fees.  Soon all the aduanas workers were leaving.  Yes, we had spent a full 7 hours in the airport aduanas.  One of the departing officials stopped by to greet us.  We could not believe it:  it was the ornery woman from the very first day!  She had been so crabby and short with us that she had become somewhat legendary.  "Oh hello," she sang out.
"Good afternoon," said Conchi.
"I see you got your luggage.  You must have gotten the franquicia," stated the ornery woman.
"Yes, and we got the one for the group that is coming in a week," said Conchi.  "Would you like to see it?"  (Smart cookie - that Conchi!)
The woman checked it over.  "It looks to be in order.  See how much better it is to have things done on time?  If you come to the airport early with this, I can start the process so that when the delegation arrives they can just walk right in with their suitcases," she offered.
"Oh, thank you," said Conchi.  I gritted my teeth.
"Hey, do you have transportation?" asked the woman.
"Where are you headed?" she asked.
"San Salvador," we said.

And this is how the story ends:  two patient Lutherans, an aduanas lady formerly known as "ornery", two other familiar aduanas guys, and 15 suitcases full of medications stuffed into a van, driving into San Salvador as the sun sets in the western sky.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: My Week in the Aduanas

This story begins on a Monday, the first day of the Mission of Healing North, which took place in Nejapa.  The back-story featured frustration.  This story is a lesson in patience.

Opening devotional at the Mission of Healing North
We arrived in Nejapa just after 7 am, and quickly dispersed our resources and people.  Doctors divided up among two exam areas.  Nurses set up triage stations close by.  A big kids' activity table was set up under the trees.  The dental charla (teaching chat), dental treatment area, reading glasses table and gynecology area were in one big room -- odd but true, and requiring creative curtain use.  Inside the church we set up the spiritual area (which this year included a mini-orchestra), the HIV-STD charla, the pharmacy, and the reflexology massage area.  As soon as we were set up, we gathered for the opening devotion.  It was beautiful - set up to include the 2 truckloads of patients/participants who had arrived early and were seated in their plastic chair queue.

The group dispersed - off to examine, massage, chat and pray.  Pastor Conchi and I headed off to try to get the franquicia (permission for the medications to enter the country as tax-exempt).  I had suggested we go to the Presidential House in person to try to get the signed document.  We called and made an appointment.  We arrived on time and explained our appointment status to the GWG's (Guys With Guns - they will appear often in this tale.)  We made it through Door #1.  We explained ourselves to the officials behind the desk.  They made a call and handed the phone to Pastor Conchi.  It did not look good for making it through Door #2.  Conchi said a few things and then handed the phone to me:  
  "Buenos días," I say. 
  "Good morning, to whom am I speaking?"   "My name is Linda, I am the North American Coordinator for the Mission of Healing of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  We are waiting for a signature on the franquicia. "
   "The franquicia will be ready today."
   "I am sorry, I do not understand Spanish very well.  Can you repeat that?"
   "The franquicia will be ready today."
   "The document will be signed today?  This very day.  At what time?"

We got a time.  As we walked back to the vehicle, Conchi asked why I said I did not understand Spanish.  "Because I wanted her to repeat her promise," I said.  "You are our good luck angel," she said.

So, we had made an appointment to drive across town to receive a phone call and were given a promise that if we came back later we would get the document with the President's signature.

Next we drove to the airport to claim the lost luggage.  With multiple passports and some convincing I made it inside, only to find no one at the Delta office.  They told us to go back outside and walk all the way around to the ticket counter.  More convincing to get inside.  The ticket counter told us to go all the way back through aduanas security and wait at the office there.  Eventually we claimed the suitcases so that customs could seize them.  At least I came prepared with a big bag and yanked all the toothbrushes and first aid stuff out of the bags and took it with me.

The next morning, the Mission of Healing Team went to heal people.  Pastor Conchi arrived at the hotel with the documents signed by the President, so she and I were off to Ilopango. This is where all of customs offices are, on the site of the old airport.  We jostled our way in between container trucks and  parked by the big yellow gate.  Pastor Conchi went to make copies of the franquicia.  (Making copies, like the GWG's will be a recurring theme.) We explained to the guy in the first little room at the guard house which is guarded by a boatload of GWG's that we were there with a franquicia.  After a bit of arm-twisting, he agreed I could go with Conchi to the next little room in the guard house where we turned over our ID's (passport for me) and got badges for entry.  Once inside the office inside the aduanas compound, we entered data into a computer to get a number in order to sit in the plastic chair queue and wait for the next available window. We waited and waited and waited. We were wearing our Lutheran Church t-shirts, and we stared at the officials. We finally got a turn.  The woman talked to Pastor Conchi for a long time, rearranging and stapling and unstapling our papers.  Finally, the documents passed to the inner office, but the person who needed to sign them was out to lunch.  Then she was just out.  Finally, as the office was about to close, a woman from in the inner office helped us to make a plan for the next day.  (This woman might be called the expediter -- I call her the "Julia of the Aduanas" because she looked and behaved so much like my friend Julia in our sister church community.)

Waiting to enter before the aduanas are open.
The next day we arrived at the yellow gate before it opened.  I waved at the GWG's, signed us in with guard guy #1, gave my passport and the two ID's for Conchi and the driver to the woman in guard house #2.  No questions asked - by this time they knew us.  We sat in the office for 2.5 hours waiting for the signature.  We wondered:  Why are there 4 staffed service windows, each with a sign which says "Pass on to the following window" and only one person is actually working?  We recognized all the other people who were back, like us, for another day in the aduanas.  There was even a guy there from the Unidad de Salud with whom we had chatted back on Monday-- even the government's own health ministry can't get donated medications into the country.  We exited the office before he did with the signed franquicia, just 3 hours after our arrival.  We took a victory photo of ourselves with the document, and headed off to the airport to go get our suitcases out of hock.

We drove to the cargo terminal and convinced the GWG that we had a legitimate franquicia.  We signed in at the secretary window and entered an air-conditioned waiting room.  We waited in plastic chair queue number one until they called us.  We paid a small fee to get some receipts for the luggage.  We waited in plastic chair queue number two until they called us.  We had to make more copies of the franquicia and the receipts and waited until they called us.  We made more copies of our identification documents, then waited in chair queue #3.  We made it to the final window and the woman at the window has the final paperwork in hand and then she says:  "Your franquicia says 16 suitcases were to enter, but you only have receipts for 15 suitcases."  We explained that the group member who was to carry that suitcase had a family emergency and cancelled one day before her flight.  "This is a problem."

We waited to talk to her boss.  In his office, from the other side of a big desk, he explained to us that we could not violate the law.  We could not take in a different number of suitcases than what the document said.  "What if the franquicia had been ready when we arrived ?  The officials at the airport would have let us in with the suitcases from the first flights," I offered.
"What do we need to do?"
"You need to get a new franquicia.  Go back to the Presidential House and get a signature for the right number or suitcases."
Conchi calmly says, "That is not possible.  There is a campaign going on right now."

I feel like crying.  Instead, I say, "We have a team of doctors and nurses treating sick people in Nejapa.  Yesterday, people were diagnosed with serious conditions.  Sick people are suffering because they do not have their medications."  I am glad that I have chosen to wear scrubs.  The boss says if we can get a letter signed by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church Bishop, which explains that he expects to receive 15 suitcases and not 16, we can get our luggage.

We hit the road.  We made it to the Bishop's office and wrote the letter.  The Bishop was in a meeting but finally showed up at 2:50 pm.  We got the signature, made extra copies and ran down to the van.  Thanks to great feats of passing at elevated speed, we made it from the center of San Salvador to the yellow aduanas gate in Ilopango by 3:18 pm.  Conchi and I said "Hi" to guard house guy #1, got ID's from the lady in guard house #2, ran around the yellow gate waving the badges at the GWG's, ran up the stairs and down the stairs to the office, landed in the plastic seats with 5 minutes to closing time.  The women behind the windows showed no mercy.  They closed.  Then, Julia of the Aduanas came out of her office.  I gave her a sad look and she invited us inside.  She got us into her boss's office, and we explained the whole story to another kind woman.  She said she would arrange to have her boss sign the document if we came back first thing in the morning.

Pastor Conchi and I walked out past the yellow gate, waved at the GWG's, returned our badges, and climbed back into the van.  "See you tomorrow."

Stay tuned for the conclusion of My Week in the Aduanas...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Preface to My Week in the Aduanas

Once upon a time, I spent a week in the aduanas.  This is the story of how it all began.  This is not the first time I have written about an experience in the aduanas (customs offices), but it is the first time I have been specifically asked by a Salvadoran friend to write a story for my blog.  That friend is Pastor Conchi, who led the latest Aduanas Adventure.

Over the past few years, Salvadoran officials have increased the requirements or at least their enforcement of the requirements for bringing medical supplies and medications into the country.  This, in itself, is not a bad thing.  For 13 years, we have worked with the Unidad de Salud (the Salvadoran healthcare system).  We bring quality medications with expiration dates at least 9 months beyond our trip date.  We have always had letters of certification that these items are destined for free distribution to patients who need them and were received both by our US churches and by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church as donations.

Three months prior to this year's missions, we prepared the entry documents in the same manner as last year.  We had letters in English and Spanish signed by our Bishop.  We prepared an inventory for each suitcase, listing medications with size and quantity, each item with a different expiration date listed separately.  We allowed three months for Pastor Conchi to obtain the franquicia - the packet of papers which would allow the items to enter the country as tax-exempt.  A couple of weeks later we got an email: "We need to put a cost for each line item on each suitcase inventory."  OK.  This might not seem like a big deal, but with all those tiny tubes of toothpaste and different bottles of different pill counts listed individually with different expiration dates, this was a pain.  We broke out the calculators and used our overall cost list and started dividing.  We sent the new lists.

Then another email: "We need to change botella to frasco."  Really?  We thought we did well just putting these lists into Spanish.  OK, change every "bottle" to "jar" and resend.  Next email:  "We need to list all of the active ingredients."  OK, so we thought we had done that, but apparently customs needed EVERY ingredient on the vitamin bottle labels, not just "multi-vitamins."  Lots of fun typing: resend.  Next email:  "We need a separate donation letter from the Bishop for each suitcase."  New letters: resend.  Yet another email:  "We need to put a total down for each suitcase's value."  Seriously?  Can't you add that?  Apparently not: resend.

So, we were annoyed on our end.  What we did not realize at the time was that each of these emails was preceded by a series of visits to the President House, the customs offices in Ilopango and a visit to the airport by Pastor Conchi.  At different points in her journey, somebody at some office window gave her a new instruction.

Well, we still had more than a month to get the franquicia.  Or so we thought.  Apparently every government official takes one, or two, or three weeks of vacation around the Christmas holidays. Delay.

Fast forward to our Advance Team arrival at the airport with a big pile of suitcases full of medications, and another big pile filled with kits we had assembled with first aid supplies, and a small pile of backpacks with our personal gear for two weeks or a month (for a couple of us) stuffed inside.  Pastor Conchi met us...without a franquicia.   Customs seized our suitcases.  A very ornery woman lectured us on the law and our lack of adequate preparation time and told us that all of the first aid stuff, the reading glasses and the toothbrushes were taxable items too.  This was new news for us.  A kinder guy (who has helped us in the past) let us carry in the first aid stuff without paying taxes.  We rummaged through the medicine suitcases to pick out our personal liquids which we could not carry on, valentines for kids, and anything else we could find that was not medicine.  We stuffed it into the first aid suitcases and our pockets.  We paid taxes on the glasses.  We left. It was Wednesday.

On Thursday, while participating in pre-mission meetings we awaited a phone call letting us know the franquicia was ready.  No call.  On Friday we received word that the franquicia  was in the President's House to be signed.  At noon Pastor Conchi (with no franquicia in hand) and I headed off to the airport to meet two more team members.  The good news is security gave me a tag to get in.  The bad news is three more suitcases headed off into "Aduanas Never Never Land."  The rest of the team would arrive on Saturday.  Sadly, we realized that the franquicia would not arrive before Monday - the first day of the Mission of Healing.  On the bright side, we had stored a quantity of medication from last year in the church warehouse and we had purchased all of the pain medication in El Salvador. We spent the weekend having fun with our sister church and welcoming the rest of our team (but not their luggage - some of which went to the aduanas and some was lost).  We bagged and labeled the medications we had.  As a holistic mission, we knew we could focus on spiritual healing, music, reflexology, HIV education, dental hygiene and natural medicine workshops, and fun activities for kids and adults.  We could start the mission without medications.

On Monday, we would begin the next phase of our Aduanas Adventures.

to be continued...

Monday, March 4, 2013

We Kept Our Promise

We kept our promise.  We went back to the prison on Monday afternoon.

In preparation, we prepared one box full of prenatal vitamins.  We prepared a second box filled with an odd assortment of medications which were left from the Mission of Healing which we had held in Nejapa:  skin creams, children's acetaminophen and amoxicillin, anti-biotics for adults, some medications for diabetes -- a wide variety of items.  We prepared detailed lists, documenting each item with it's size, quantity of tablets, and cost per unit. We thought about the young pharmacist's words:  We have no medicines for children.  We're at the bottom of the list for receiving medications from the government's Unidad de Salud.

We also carefully went through the diagnosis papers for the women who had received check-ups.  We prepared a bag for each woman who needed a medication which we were not able to provide at the time of our first visit.  Each bag was documented with the woman's name, age and the contents of the bag with the unit cost.  The bags will be held by the doctor, like those we prepared on our first visit, and the women will go to the doctor each day to receive their medications for that day. We thought about the women's words:  No one keeps their promises to us.

It's hard to keep promises when resources are not available or too expensive.  We purchased one bottle of scabies lotion for the woman with systemic skin infection.  It cost about $20.

We arrived at the prison - a Salvadoran pastor, the nurse practitioner and I.  We waited in our micro outside the main gate while the guard called to check on our permission for entry.  After a while, the guard motioned for us to come inside.  We grabbed our two big boxes and one small box of patient bags and went inside.  We were ushered to the second main gate.  The happy guard with the long pony-tail poking out from under her cap smiled and said something to her partner.  The partner unlocked the gate and opened it a bit.  "Do you have any cameras, cell phones or memory chips?"  "No," we responded.

We walked right in.  No check of passports.  No metal detector.  No x-rays of body cavities (by the machine which in our stories has now acquired the nickname ass-checker).  The afternoon doctor came and greeted us.  She looked over the contents of the boxes.  The pastor had brought in a black trash bag with boxes of markers and crayons for the preschool.  These did not have a permission list for entry, but the assistant "boss" called his boss and got permission for us to leave those too.  Everyone was happy and excited about our return and the things we brought for the women.  We knew we were not going to be able to see the women in person, but we feel we can trust the doctors and the pharmacist.

The long-term impact of our little Mission of Healing in the women's prison remains to be seen.  It seems like the authorities there are open to continued relationships with the Lutheran Church pastors.  The pastors have learned about the ways in which they can connect with the women in the prison.  We have made plans for a Mission of Healing in the prison in early 2014, and now we know much more about the needs of the women and the children who live there.

It is difficult to think about the more than 2000 women who live in the prison and with whom we did not visit.  The memories of the woman with kidney failure, the woman who will soon lose her remaining leg and then her remaining hand, and the women who have no visitors linger sadly in our minds.  We remember these women, and we share their stories.

Dear God. please multiply three boxes of kept-promises medications and one day of love, caring and singing to create something positive for the women in the Ilopango prison.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Matthew 25

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: Lots of Energy Here

We stopped at the entrance to pay our fees.  "You are the guide, right?  Salvadoran?" they asked me.  I guess I have been to the Mayan ruins at Cihuatán enough times so they recognized me.  "Almost the guide," I grinned, "but North American."  They laughed.  Salvadorans pay $1 to get in.  We paid $3 each.  The museum (with descriptions in English and Spanish), the well-marked and secure grounds and the nice restrooms are worth it.

Our team of physicians, nurses, pharmacists and teachers had been working hard for a week, caring for people during the Mission of Healing.  A small group had stayed an extra day to learn a little bit more about Salvadoran history and culture.  Cihuatán is out in the open country, offering a fresh view of the sky and the landscape. Early in the morning, before the sun beats down hard on the dry plain, you might catch birds roosting in the trees or small animals scurrying in the dry leaves.  We were welcomed by a small group of vultures, who were hopping from ground to limb until our footsteps caused them to take flight.

We walked along the trail marked by white painted rocks.  The temples.  The outer wall.  The ball courts. We chatted about the stories we had read in the museum and imagined the people coming in from the surrounding fields on a Saturday afternoon to watch their teams from the high stone walls beside the field.  We walked through the field.  "Lots of energy here," one woman stated.

Just outside the sauna (even back in the day the athletes had good treatment for their injuries) stands a tall, tall tree.  "Luis," we asked our friend and driver, "what kind of tree is this?"  "Ceiba," he said.  "It is a sacred tree for the Mayans.  When it is young, it has these spikes.  When it is older, the trunk is smooth.  It grows tall and straight.  The canopy reaches up to the heavens.  The roots reach down to the underworld.  The trunk represents our current life here on the earth.  It is the national tree of Guatemala."  

We walked along the one segment of the trail which is in the shade, beneath a grove of trees which stand along a ridge.  Across the small valley and along the next rise, the excavation tents which had been present during my last visit were gone.  Small sections of rock formations stood out next to the smoother hillside.  Cihuatán is still rich with undiscovered structures and artifacts, and it makes good sense to visit this site prior to visiting the Guzman Museum of Anthropology in San Salvador.  As we walked through the grove, we noticed the random piles of basalt rock.  The last time I was here, I was told of the battles which took place here during the Civil War.  Guerrilla fighters hid among the trees, and the rocks were scavenged to create shelters.  Lots of energy here too.

We climbed the stairs up the mound to the main temple site.  The stairs were built with money from the US.  "Our planes bombed the heck out of this place and then we built some stairs,"  commented one of the doctors.  The view from the top was not as clear as sometimes.  The fires from burning cane fields shrouded the vista with gray smokey haze.  Yet to survey the land which was once home to a bustling Mayan community from this vantage point is always impressive.  

We descended and walked past the morra trees and the temple of the wind.  I like to study the morra trees on this walk, and discovered a very still and camouflaged bird.  As the group exited the site, Luis stopped to take a photo.  "Look," he said, "a torogoz."  This is the Salvadoran national bird.  It was well hidden among tree branches, but the distinctive tail feathers stood out well enough to be seen.  Some day I will come back with time just to sit at Cihuatán, to listen and to watch, and to feel the energy of life which is in this place.

Another post of interest...
The Morro Tree