Monday, March 27, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

It was a warm Sunday afternoon.  We parked in the lot behind the art museum (MARTE).  A couple of girls walked by carrying replicas of overstuffed chairs and pink ballet shoes.  We walked to the front of the Presidential Theater alongside a girl with a large, foam teacup costume and a couple of mothers fussing with big, green feathery things.  We wondered if these were cast members or if children were dressing in costume to watch the performance of Bella y La Bestia (Beauty and the Beast).

So, yes, as it turns out we were lining up in front of the theater right alongside the cast members, with their costumes half-in-hand and with their make-up sparkling.  This performance of Beauty and the Beast was a production of the Macholah School of Dance - two shows on one date to benefit a shelter for persons with cancer who live far outside of the capital city of San Salvador and need treatments in city hospitals.  (Visit to learn more about Albergue La Divina Misericordia.)  The cast members included preschool children through high school (or maybe college-age) youth.

It was our first time inside the theater - a very ample space which quickly filled up with proud parents and grandparents, families with children, and a few curious adults like us.  We learned about the play online when looking for something to do over the weekend.  Buying the tickets online was not exactly straightforward, since we had to go pick them up at one of the malls and fill out a bunch of paperwork in person.  In the end, there we were, ready for what we expected to be a performance similar to any school play.

The music was recorded, with a power point background that supplemented the simple stage scenery with with cartoon-like drawings to create the town, the castle and the forest.  It was super easy to follow the plot and the songs, because of course, we all of the songs from the classic animated version of Beauty and the Beast memorized, and how fun to hear these songs in Spanish!  Belle was awesome at lip-syncing, and was both a convincing actress and polished dancer.

We thoroughly enjoyed the entire performance.  The lighting and costumes were fantastic.  The dancers were clearly of varying abilities according to experience and innate talent, but they clearly were very well-rehearsed and many of the dancers were truly outstanding.  The choreography of the "Be Our Guest" number was impressive.  One show highlight were the littlest dancers who were dressed as birds and appeared in a few different scenes including their own dance number (which was absolutely adorable).  And, the replica overstuffed chairs?  Those turned out to be the head-pieces for the dancing furniture who did some pretty great leaps across the stage.

There were plenty of cell phones and cameras taking photos and recording throughout the performance.  I grabbed a couple of quick photos, trying not to be too disruptive (though really, people took hundreds of photos, which are no doubt all over social media).

Maybe going to a dance school production of Beauty and the Beast is not what one might expect to do on a warm weekend in El Salvador, but then again, why not?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Off the Beaten Path: El Tunco

One of our favorite vacation spots in El Salvador is Playa El Tunco.  When we need a little break from community work or city work and want to stay for a few days at a little fancier place, this is where we like to go.  Depending on traffic, it's just a quick (1 hour or less) drive south of San Salvador to Puerto La Libertad, and then just a little further west to El Tunco.

Like many of El Salvador's beaches, the entrance to El Tunco is off of a tiny, one-way, gated road.  There are a few places to stay off of the eastern end of this road, and more in the center of a tiny beach town.  The town has just 2 streets, with lots of local shops and small places to eat.  The beach itself is very narrow and rocky at high tide, but at low tide there are patches of flat, dark sand which provide extra walking space and good material for building castles.  It's not much of a swimming beach for casual swimmers due to the surf and rip currents, although at low tide anyone can jump in the waves.  Low tide is also the time to take a little longer walk along the beach.  Both east and west of the town there are estuaries which connect with the sea at high tide.  When the wind is up, El Tunco provides great fun for surfers and plenty of entertainment for those who like to watch the surfers.

El Tunco is named for the rock formation which at high tide appears as an island and has the form of a pig (or tunco).  At low tide, you can walk out to the rock platform and climb up onto El Tunco and its neighbor rocks.  We watched local fishermen sit out there for long stretches in the morning, fishing with long hand-held lines.  Along the stretch of beach near town, there is a small walkway that connects a line-up of bars and restaurants.  The views are great, the sound of the surf is relaxing, the food is generally delicious, and the prices are what you might expect at a little-bit more touristy site.

Last May we stayed at Boca Olas.   This resort is located on an estuary, with nice little cabins with porches and hammocks.  It is off of the main beach-front, though from our suite we could still see the ocean.  The pool was nice, the restaurant was good and the staff was incredibly friendly.  We had no problem walking to and from the beach and along the road in the day and in the evening, although along the beach near the estuary it is pretty dark (we had flashlights).  The surf was crazy high last May, and actually flooded some of the restaurants.

We recently returned to El Tunco.  The damage from last year's high surf has mostly been repaired with better concrete surf-walls and more rock-dunes to protect the ocean-side businesses.  This time we stayed at Roca Sunzal where we had an ocean-side room that looked right out over El Tunco.  The room was beautiful, with a private deck (though we would have liked a hammock).  The pool was lovely.  The breakfast menu included with the room was generous and tasty.  We enjoyed seafood for dinner, though the service was slow.  Considering we were above a bar and it was spring break, it really was not too crazy at night.   This place is located right next to the estuary just west of town and hosts the best location for viewing sunsets -- in fact, we have pulled off the road at this very spot with groups to get a few sunset photos.

Another dinner and drinks spot which we enjoyed has only been open a few months, but it seems like it will quickly grow to be a hot spot:  OJ's Food on the Beach Restaurant and Blú Bar.  With 3 levels, a dance floor, rooms that can be closed off with glass doors, and a few beachside tables, this place would be ideal for a big party or a business event during the day with casual time in the evening.

El Tunco is one of El Salvador's small treasures.  The perfect place for un relax.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Happy Birthday to Community Rutilio Grande

In a small community not too far from El Paisnal, there is a small hamlet named Comunidad Rutilio Grande.  Every year during the second week of March, this community celebrates its founding as well as the life and work of the Jesuit priest for which it is named.  Each day of the celebration features something special:  a pageant, a dance, a race, a mass.  On March 15th, residents of Comunidad Rutilio Grande mark the exact date on which the community was born.

In 1991 as peace talks were taking place near the end of El Salvador's civil war, negotiations with the government and land-owners created spaces for poor families to rebuild their lives.  The families of Comunidad Rutilio Grande had lived together as refugees at a camp in Nicaragua during the conflict, and on March 15th were flown back to El Salvador where they slowly made their way to the place that would become their new home.

We were invited to the March 15th celebration when we met up with friends from the community during the March 12th pilgrimage from the three crosses to El Paisnal.  Comunidad Rutilio Grande has been connected with the Lutheran Church synod in our US home community for all of its 26 years.  We have accompanied one another in life and especially in the area of education, growing up and growing old with one another.  The relationship is a beautiful example of ecumenism, with Lutheran folks and Roman Catholic folks working together across faith traditions and across country boundaries.

So on March 15th, my husband and I, a friend from the US who is volunteering in El Salvador for the year and a local Lutheran pastor (whose church is close by, whom we saw at the march and whom we invited on a whim) headed out to Comunidad Rutilio Grande.  We were welcomed as if we were rock stars.  We took a little walking tour through the school and down the main street.  It was our friend's first time in the community, but both my husband and I have stayed there several times.  We were a little surprised at just how well-known the Lutheran pastor was - old people and young alike were super excited to see him.

Pretty soon everyone gathered in the community center.  We sat in a middle row, trying not to be too conspicuous.  The President of the community came by and gave us big bags of freshly picked jocotes (sort of like mini-mangoes).  One by one a few guests were called to sit at the mesa de honor (table of honor) up on the stage.  Well, when you rank as "an international guest" and have a long history with the community (which includes almost falling into a big hole during a crazy nighttime rainstorm - but that is another story), you sometimes find yourself seated at the mesa de honor.  Fortunately, my wise husband had contacted a friend from our home city who lived in El Salvador and whose personal story is beautifully woven into the story of Comunidad Rutilio Grande.  She sent us a letter by email, and so I was able to at least sit at the mesa de honor with something to read.

Speakers were interspersed between cultural acts.  Three girls did a traditional folk dance.  Two girls did an extremely well-choreographed (and lengthy) dramatic dance montage depicting the relationship between a man and a woman.  The town queen and her court did a disco routine.  The most impactful speakers were a man and a woman who shared the story of how the families came to the community...

     ...our stuff was shipped over land but we came in by airplane... this very time on that afternoon we walked from Augilares to El Paisnal, with all of the families and all of those children...we had nothing but we made it...
     ...we were singing along the way...
     ...we were accompanied by organizations and a Lutheran pastor... was scary because the armed forces were still in the area...
     ...we had our first meeting to organize ourselves, under the mango tree...

Later, during the car ride home, we learned that the "Lutheran pastor" was indeed the same one who accompanied us to the celebration.  He told us that he traveled with the people from Apopa to Aguilares, praying and singing, and that he led them in worship that very day.  For a time, he and the local priest led worship side by side in Comunidad Rutilio Grande - it was a beautiful experience.

There was a point at which I was invited to the microphone and I read the letter.  Before I could even finish reading the name of its author, there was thunderous applause.  I wished our friend could have been with us to see and hear the love which the community expressed on her behalf.

After the speeches were finished, everyone gathered outside for a small parade.  The drum corps piled into the back of one pick-up truck and the queen with her princesses climbed into the back of the other truck.  Well-stocked with candy for throwing, the princesses waved and tossed treats during the ten-minute parade from the community center to the church and back.  Then everyone lined up for the refrigerio (snack).  We sat in a little circle and enjoyed our chicken sandwiches and cold cans of Coca-Cola.  At one point the Cuban Shuffle came on over the sound system, so our friend and I got up and danced, much to the amusement of a few community members.  No doubt there is video of this episode somewhere on social media.  We were almost finished with our snack when suddenly there was this horrific, beyond-description base sound.  Seriously - a rattle-your-bones, feel-it-in-your-chest, scare-the-elephants base.  The DJ's were testing the sound system for that night's dance.  It was definitely a good time to take our leave.

We said good-bye to our friends and made plans - for the 30th anniversary, we would bring a group and stay the night in the community.

Happy Birthday, Comunidad Rutilio Grande!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My New Charla

Last year, I blogged about my charla at the Mesa Final during the Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair, and I received a surprising amount of feedback from people who found the transcript of my little presentation to be both educational and entertaining.

This year, a pharmacist and my husband took over the charla about antibiotics and super bacteria.  Luckily there was another topic just waiting for its charla debut at the fair:  let me introduce you to my new charla....Menopause!

OK, gentlemen, before you decide not to read this blog post, you should know that there were plenty of men of all ages who very much enjoyed this charla.  So, stick with me here and maybe you will learn a little something and be slightly entertained.

I prepped my little charla space at each of our sites with the following:  a few pink hearts taped up on the wall or hanging from the canopy (because February is the month of amistad y amor), my big pink bag with art supplies for the craft (yes, menopause included a craft), a few paper plates with inspirational quotes (either taped on the bag or whatever surface was handy), and a paper plate sign in plain view which had the title of my charla, "Menopause - My New Normal."

The fair was set up with about 25 stations, and people could go from one charla to the next in any order they wished.  As soon as a little group of 4 to 6 women gathered, I would start the charla.  Women would read the quotes while they waited:

"To complete years is obligatory, to make yourself a little old lady is optional."
"The beautiful young women are accidents of nature, but the beautiful old women are works of art."
"A 20 year old woman can be attractive; a 30 year old - seductive; but only after 40 years can one be irresistible."
"I'm me.  I'm a daughter.  I'm a mom.  I'm a grandma.  I'm a sister.  I'm a daughter of God."

Hello, welcome to my charla, "Menopause - My New Normal."  My name is Linda and I am a volunteer with the Lutheran Church.  Maybe some of you are already having some symptoms of menopause, and maybe some of you have already passed through this stage of life.  And some of you are very young (because there were usually quite a mixture of ladies at my charla), but it's good for you to know this stuff because some day you will have these experiences.  No woman can avoid them.  (Addressing the young ones): Be sure you all go to the menstruation charla over there because it is a really good one.  (Embarrassed looks follow.)

Surprisingly, most of the women knew very little about menopause.  A few were eager to ask questions right away about what age, how long, what symptoms...  

Menopause is a normal change in the body of every woman.  For some it happens in their forties, and some in their fifties.  Each woman is different. The changes come when the level of estrogen decreases in our bodies.  At first we may have changes in our periods, and those can be difficult.  We say menopause begins twelve months after our last menstruation.  Some women have lots of symptoms.  Some women have a few.  It's important for me to know what is normal for me, and for you to know what is normal for you.

One of the symptoms of menopause which I really struggle with is hot sweats (in English, we say hot flashes, but in Spanish, it is hot sweats.  At this point lots of the ladies nod their heads.).  For me, I always get a hot sweat when I am singing.  I don't know why, but I do.  That is normal for me.  Does anyone else get hot sweats at certain times?  At night?  Yes, and does it keep you from getting a good night sleep?  And after being sweaty, do any of you get really cold?  Yes, this is very normal.  

I should tell you a story about my husband.  One day we were at our sister church and I was on one side of the church and my husband was a little distance away talking to our friend.  She told my husband that at night she has a big fever.  It is so bad that her nightclothes get soaking wet.  Then she has chills and she can not get warm.  She says she isn't sick in the day and the doctor says its nothing.  She was very worried.  From across the room I hear my husband say, "Oh, my wife has that all the time.  It's part of menopause and it is really normal.  Nothing to worry about."  Imagine that, my husband was giving our friend a little charla about menopause!  So, hombres, it is good that you are here learning about what is happening to your beloved spouses.

(Next I hand out a half paper plate to each participant.  This is a good way to entertain the children who are at the charla with their moms and grandmas, but it is also a good way to break the ice with the women.)  If you like, you can each make a little craft while we talk about menopause.  Can you guess what it is?  (I grasp the straight side of my half-plate and fan myself with the circle part.)  Yes, it's your personal fan. (The ladies giggle.)  This is something very practical that you can slip into your purse so you are always ready when you have a hot sweat.  You can use these markers and decorate your fan however you like, I know you are all very creative.  I made a big flower on mine, but you can make trees, mountains, houses, whatever you like.  No, don't worry if you are not artistic.  You will make something beautiful for yourself, in your style.  

Let's talk about everyone's favorite topic:  the vagina.  (Depending on the group, I sometimes sent the children off to the side - but mostly the women wanted their little ones to listen.)  With the changes of menopause most women experience dryness in their vagina.  No, it is not fun to have a dry vagina, and it can make sexual relations uncomfortable.  It isn't easy to talk with our partners about these things, but they love us and want to know what is happening.  What are some things we can do to help with this symptom?  Drink water.  We really need lots of water in our bodies.  What else?  There are some foods that have vitamin E in them, and they can help make our skin beautiful and our vaginas more spongey.  Avocado and papaya are really full of vitamin E.  You eat avocado every day?  I thought so, because look how young and beautiful you are!  (Yes, these are actual quotes from my charla.)  

Sometimes the clinic might give you a cream with estrogen in it.  You can see that word estrogen on the label.  If you are very dry it is OK to use a cream like this, but if you have any troubles with breast cancer or other female cancers, this cream is not a good idea.  It is very important that you have your mammograms and your pelvic exams so that you stay healthy, and that you share everything with your doctor. 

Many women like to use a lubricant during relations to be more comfortable. (Eyes widened.) Yes, it is really OK to use a lubricant.  Use one with a water base.  And protect yourself - have you been to the STI/HIV charla?  A lubricant will make relations much more comfortable.  They have it at the pharmacy - even at some Supers.  One woman asked, "I don't have a partner or relations, but can I just use the lubricant myself to feel more comfortable?"  (The women waited for an answer.)  Oh yes, sister, yes you can!  (I give a lot of credit to the women who were brave enough during this charla to ask questions like this.)

After the vagina, I moved onto another favorite topic...

Let's talk about the bladder.  Well, during menopause things get dry inside and this affects the bladder.  It is really important to keep our bodies spongey by drinking plenty of water.  I know we don't like to drink water because then we have to pee more often.  But really, our bladder will work better if we drink plenty of water.  Maybe we all have a little trouble with drips of urine leaking out, like when we sneeze or we laugh a lot.  (All the older women and pregnant women nod.)  Nobody talks about this, but really, many many women have this problem.  It is important that we talk with each other so we know we are not alone with these symptoms.

With the bladder, one thing we need to do is think about using the bathroom.  The last thing we should do before leaving the house is:  use the bathroom.  And the first thing we can do when we arrive in a place after a long bus ride is:  find the bathroom and use it.  When I got here today the first thing I did was find the bathroom.  I didn't feel like I had to go, but I did not want to find myself here in front of you, giving my charla, and doing the little dance (they all cracked up at my little dance), and then run to the bathroom and have an emergency with my pants a little wet. (The women all look at each other and nod.)  No, it is better to plan and use the bathroom regularly to prevent an emergency.  And it's OK if you are going on the bus or out for a long time to put a little towel or pad in your bloomers.

One goal of this charla is to help women realize that many women struggle with these common symptoms and that it is helpful for us as women to talk with each other about the changes we experience in our bodies.

Did you know there is an exercise you can do to help your muscles inside so that you can control the exiting of your urine?  Yes.  The next time you go to the bathroom, start to pee, then stop, then start and then stop - those are the muscles.  You can do the exercise right now in your seat.  OK, everybody squeeze and relax, inside of yourself.  Can you feel that?  No one knows that you are doing this.  It is your private exercise.  When you are riding along in the bus, you can do it 1-2-3-4-5... maybe 10 times and you can think to yourself, "Ha, I am doing my personal exercise and nobody knows it."

The ladies were crazy for the Kegel exercises.  Depending on time and interest we also covered change in humor and difficulty with sleep.  If there were children in the group, I asked them how they could be helpful to their moms or teachers who might have some symptoms.  The kids were cute - with answers like "bring a cup of water" or "bring a chair so my mom can rest."  We talked about heart palpitations and the signs of a heart attack.  I tried to answer their questions.

Many thanks for coming to my charla.  I hope you learned a little something.  If you have any questions about your body, be sure to talk with your doctor or with any of the health workers here.  What beautiful fans!  

Actual quotes following the charla:
"My husband is very attentive.  He doesn't pressure me if I don't feel well."

From a husband who attended the charla:  "We should really know these things too."

"Now I can go home and tell my husband.  Before I did not have the information I needed to explain it to him."

Actual funny story:
A group of teen boys sat down in front of my table.  They noticed the paper plates and markers and thought my charla looked like fun.  In addition, participants were encouraged to attend ALL the charlas, so the boys were being responsible in complying with that directive.  I said, "My name is Linda.  Welcome to my charla.  Do you know what this charla is about?"

"No, no," they said.

"Look around," I said.  "Do you see a sign with the title?"

The boys noticed the paper plate with "Menopause:  My New Normal" written on it.  "Aaaaack," they scream and all but one take off like they had seen a ghost.  The ladies at the nearby Breast Health charla had a good laugh.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

40 Years: Remembering Padre Rutilio Grande

On March 12, 1977, Father Rutilio Grande was driving on the road between Aguilares and El Paisnal. An old man and a boy were riding with him.  Because he was an advocate for education, because he worked to organize poor farmers in his community, because he believed in freedom for the oppressed people around him, Father Rutilio Grande was assassinated.  Every year on the anniversary of his death, people who were and are inspired by Father Rutilio's life work gather to honor his memory.

With friends from communities repopulated after the war, with friends from the Catholic church and with friends from the Lutheran Church, we walked the route from "The Three Crosses" - the memorial by the side of the road, the place where an old man, a boy and their priest lost their lives - to the town of El Paisnal.  We listened, we walked, we hugged, we sang, we held hands, we took photos, and we sat for a while in the church.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Rutilio Grande's death, and there is hope among the faithful people of El Salvador, that Father Rutilio will soon be beatified - a step in the formal process of being named a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Like Monseñor Oscar Romero, Father Rutilio Grande is a role model and an inspiration to many people from a variety of faith traditions.

The banner shown in the photos near the end of this collection, holds the names of many people who lost their lives because they stood up for justice and dignity for all.