Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Picking Flowers" in the back 40

We had one of those ‘charming’ breakfast discussions the other day … topics that seemingly pop out of mid-air.  Oftentimes they are non-consequential … but sometimes they strike a chord in my heart.

This was one of the latter.  And of all the things to talk about at breakfast: latrines! 

This conversation started because when we were shopping for cement fence posts, Cecilia had asked the cost of the piece of molded cement that serves as the base/floor of a latrine as well as the cement structure that serves as the stool.  Apparently they were pretty inexpensive!   People would also need 2 sheets of metal lamina sheeting to serve as a roof.  The families themselves would construct posts and hang towels or sheets or use heavy plastic sheeting to serve as walls.  The families would also be responsible for digging the hole for their latrine.
This is the base and stool made out of cement.  This is a NICE latrine!  Lamina walls!
Many just have heavy plastic or boards, or sheets or towels which serve as walls

The Pastoral Teams sees a latrine project as something quite necessary in the communities.  I thought there was an NGO currently working on a latrine project because I’ve seen some really nice latrines as we have driven through the cantons.

I asked Blanca about that and her answer was – yes.  ProVida and FISDL had latrine projects.  ProVida and FISDL worked in 3 of our cantons.  But not all the families in those 3 cantons received a latrine.  They didn’t provide them to an entire community.  For example: they might have had a latrine project in Loma Alta … but possibly only 24 of the 70+ families received them. 

I’ve been to MANY of the villages.  And I have walked door to door in many of the villages.  I have seen – and used some of the available facilities in the cantons.  When lucky enough to encounter a ‘real’ latrine – it’s humbling enough.  But when one is in need and encounters a ‘home-made’ structure – or worse … none at all – well.  For those of us accustomed to some of the ‘finer’ things in life – it isn’t a pleasant situation to be in.

There apparently are still many families who literally have to go out to the ‘back 40’ to go to the bathroom. 

So I asked the Pastoral Team to write up a budget for me and here is the synopsis:

$32  total cost for the cement base and stool (this cost includes the transportation to make the purchase)
$16  total for the two sheets of metal lamina sheeting
$2    per toilet for transportation to the communities from the Pastoral House.

So for a grand total of $50 – a family can have a clean and hygienic place to go potty.

$500 would take care of 10 families …
$1000 would take care of 20 families (the whole community of La Llanes for example!!)

So I’m writing this blog to see if anyone wants to ‘adopt a toilet’

Or even on a church-wide level – would a church that has been looking for a manner in which to support the Our Sister Parish mission like to support a few hygienic toilets?

Can’t you just see your next Christmastime efforts?  We at Heartland Presbyterian used to have an “Ángel Tree” for the children of people in prison … and we had a “Mitten Tree.”  This could be the year of the “Toilet Tree”

Hmm.   Maybe not.   There is probably a better way to raise funds for this sort of project.  Someone could bring a (clean) porcelain toilet to church, set it in the foyer and make a sign to put on the raised lid:  “place your $50 donation to provide a toilet to a family who has pee in the back yard

I daresay you might have a more eloquent way in which to create your signage!

I sometimes approach these things a bit tongue in cheek – but – this is a serious question that is coming next:

Anyone (or many ones) or any churches want to take this on?   

This sure makes a statement! (Thank you

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Independence Day

My favorite part of this whole day:

The very first song sung in Alejandria – the first song of the Rosary that was being said in honor and gratitude for the birthday of Jesús’ mom Dolores (but we call her Niña Lola).

It is a common song for the Rosary: a blessing to Mary.   And it is repeated often throughout the Rosary.  This song is beautiful when sung by the voices in Alejandria.

Something about the quality of the voices within this group.  There are a couple of people in the community that have incredibly beautiful voices: Balmore, Jesús, Blanca and Idalia for sure.  But there are several whose voices can be … painful to hear. 


Put them together – all those voices – the good and the bad – and they create a beautiful, and I think, unintentional harmony.

It fills me with peace.

The altar at Lola's house is always lush with flowers from around her home
Beautifully arranged by Jesus

Someone once called this a Lobster Claw

Bird of Paradise

A different variety of Lobster Claw

"maracas" -
ALL of these grow wild in Lola's yard.

Angela - Blanca's mother

I like the placement of the Rosary beads
We surprised Lola with a cake!
Freddy and Jeferson

Lola and Jesus dishing up tamales - a birthday tradition!
Pilar helping in the kitchen - serving up coffee and tamales and then cake!
Aminta was gifted a banana tree to plant in her yard

Everyone enjoyed the and cake



Tuesday, September 11, 2012

If a Tree falls ...

So the question of the day is:

If a tree falls over the road and no one is there to see it (thank God) … did it really fall?


WHO will clear it away??

As we were driving out of town to take Blanca and Idalia home, heading towards Alejandria, someone from another truck yelled that a tree had fallen in the road and wasn’t passable.

They didn’t specify which road and there is a fork heading out of town – one road leads to San Francisco and most of the cantons, and the other road leads to Alejandria and a couple other cantons.  They also said it was a huge ‘amate’ tree that had fallen and Blanca said, there are no amate trees on the way to Alejandria. 

We kept going anyway.  I figured I would get them as far as we could go and they could walk from there and Cecilia and I would just turn around and head back.  We made it about ¾ of the way down to Alejandria.

And sure enough, there was a HUGE ceiba tree (like a kapok) laying across the road.  Actually, it wasn’t the whole tree – just ONE branch with lots of huge limbs.  Had the whole tree fallen, it would have wiped out the power pole on the side of the road.

as far as we could get

getting out to take a closer look!

So we stopped ... there was no other choice.  I wanted to get a closer look and take photos.  And Cecilia ran down the road to someone’s house and came back with axes.  Blanca helped out a bit.

We stayed put till the road was passable.  I got lots of photos and a video.  We waited out the cleaning crew. There were a few men from city hall and lots of people from Alejandria with machetes and axes hacking away at these huge limbs.  It was a slow, hot, muscle aching (I imagine) process.

This could have really hurt someone!

the poor tree ... it was a HUGE branch with many limbs. 
Or is that huge limb with many branches?

There were no power tools. Many of the branches were at least 12" wide and all were cut by machete and axe and hauled to the side by strong men. They did this under the hot ... dodging flying wood debris ... dodging everyone else's machetes ... avoiding bees nests ... (one brave man made a torch and burned a nest that was close to the ground after the fall.

This was amazing to watch them clear away the tree.  They had started not too long before we got there, and we were there about an hour.  Considering the tools on hand, I would say they did pretty rapid work.

This is the main reason I carry a machete in the Pastoral House pick-up truck.  Not that I could handle this type of tree fall – but in the past, we have had to clear smaller debris in our path!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Contrasts - part one

September 9 2012 – Quinceanera

Of all the things I could write about … I have to share briefly about this tradition … it is very different depending upon your economic means.

I went to a very humble ‘sweet 15’ party for Blanca’s niece a couple of years ago.  It was a simple affair held outside in the ‘patio’ area of a neighbor’s house.  Dirt floor … tree trunk posts holding up a large blue tarp for shade … plastic chairs placed around borrowed tables covered with simple cloths.  And a cake.  A single layer cake that was purchased from the local ice-cream store.  There were some streamers and a few balloons as decorations and a small ‘band’ from Las Delicias came to play – mostly religious songs.  The birthday girl was in a borrowed dress and was quite beautiful.
Gabriela y Marielas with gramma to the left and Fr. Santos

Special balloons
A lovely cake!

The first dance with grampa!

The cake topper is a special memento
The Las Delicias band

It was a lovely event.   Full of warmth and love and family and friends and neighbors –

Tonight – I got to see a different ‘sweet 15’ party.  I can’t even imagine how much money was spent on this party.    The girl’s dress alone probably cost more than the other party all together … it was quite beautiful though.  This event reminded me a bit of what I imagine a ‘coming of age’ party would look like in the deep south.

It was held at the girl’s school up the street.  And when we arrived it was already standing room only!  There were tables and chairs set up for (my guess) 300 people.  And it looked like they were all full.  But we were escorted by the dad himself to the table up on the stage in the main area of the school courtyard.  We were at the table near the cake and champagne glasses and the chocolate fountain.   We were also seated at the same table as the Department of Usulután’s ‘Diputado’ – (Representative).  Well then.  Didn’t we feel conspicuous?  Yes we did.

Fortunately there were people there we knew and enjoyed talking to.  Blanca talked ‘business’ with someone from one of our cantons most of the time we were there.  Cecilia and I joked and felt uncomfortable with a woman from another canton. 

The young lady was escorted in by at least 20 young men all in black with bright/light blue ties.  They did a dance routine while she and her father watched.  There was a for real emcee who introduced each activity.  She was presented a pair of shoes for the event.  Her mother ceremoniously placed them on her feet.  She gave some words of gratitude.  Her father gave a little speech in her honor.  There was another group dance and a receiving line for hugs for the dancers and her father.  The first real dance was with her father.  The next dance was for all the young (and not so young) men – people close to the family.   Then came the champagne toast (for family and god-parents, etc.  Then came the dinner.  Everyone was served – catered by the restaurant Cartagena from Alegría.  The rice, potato salad and chimol were good … but the beef was tough.  Even by Blanca and Cecilia’s standards!  They joked afterwards that they wanted to eat like polite society but when they looked over and saw the Deputy himself trying to rip apart the meat with his fingers, they felt relieved. 
view from the back.  It really was quite pretty!

The gentlemen escorting her in ... quite a bit of pomp

The cake

SOME of the crowd in the main section

The presentation of the birthday girl

The Usulutan Diputado

A dance number

We stayed a bit longer to be polite but we were all antsy to leave.  When a couple of other folks took their leave, we decided we could, too.  We said our good-byes and thank you/congratulations and walked back to the Pastoral House.

I’m glad we went … but I would much prefer the more humble celebrations.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Simple Things

We are now without a delegation – it has been 2 weeks full of very wonderful activities.  The first group came after only 3 weeks back from being in Iowa for my son’s wedding and we only had three days in between the two groups so I haven’t gotten much done.  Such is life sometimes in the Pastoral House … and I wouldn’t trade the time with our delegations for naught. 

I could write volumes about the past two weeks with our two groups but I’ll be brief. (haha)

The first delegation was only 2 people – from MY home church of Heartland Presbyterian Church in Clive.  Heartland has been in a partner relationship with Tablón since 2001.  They come twice a year.  This trip, there were only 2 people – but the small size of the group certainly did not ‘minimize’ the quality of our time and activities!  I posted a photo album on Facebook with some of our highlights.

The second delegation was a brand new group.  There were 10 of them plus the two RUMES (PCUSA’s Joining Hands El Salvador) coordinators.  The delegates were from New York and by ‘chance’ … ‘fate’ … God … they made a connection with RUMES.  And RUMES – God bless them – decided we at the Pastoral House could potentially serve their needs as a mission group as well as benefit our communities. 

It was a fabulous four days with this group.  They provided workshops in two elementary schools with a healthy eating and dental care focus.  They also did a biblical re-telling of the Good Shepherd.  Each of the 3 workshops had different age appropriate and hands on activities.   I put a photo album up on Facebook (check out my home page) so you can have a pictorial account of their time here.  It was fabulous (in my humble opinion).

So … here I am today – they left at about 8:30 this morning.  I’m feeling a bit like a zombie (but in a good way) and trying to get a few things done – things that don’t require tons of concentration but important pieces of work nonetheless. 

Aminta and Margarita came to help with the post delegation clean-up and laundry.  With 12 people there are lots of sheets, blankets and towels to hand wash!  As I was working at my desk I heard their chatter and their laughter and the gentle whooshing of their work in the water and suds and bed-clothes.  Very lulling actually – but I managed to keep my eyes open.  I cannot take a nap knowing that the Pastoral Team and our ‘support staff’ - who are also quite tired - are so busy with their physical work.

The tin roof serves as the 'clothes dryer' - there is minimal sun in Berlin during the rainy season.
Putting things on the roof means they will dry in one day potentially!


Late morning, we got a visitor.  Margarita’s daughter Cesi came by.  She didn’t want to be home alone so decided to come and spend the day here since her mom was here working.  She is always a welcomed face.

It was almost lunchtime and the tortillas had not arrived yet … and the ladies asked me to make pizza for supper and we had no cheese.  So I offered to go to the market for the tortillas and look for mozzarella cheese.  Cesi (Margarita’s daughter) accompanied me.  It was a pleasant walk with her.  I think she is 10.  And she is a delightful, charming, sweet, bright, polite (think of all the good personality traits you can and that is her).

We went to several stores and finally found the cheese – but no pizza bread.  French bread will serve fine so that was not a problem.  We found the tortillas.  Then I decided to buy a machete for Mike … and by the time we were done, Cesi and I walked for almost 45 minutes. 

We got back to the house and we all had a simple lunch – mostly eating leftovers … and me just a tortilla with some cheese.  We all continued our various tasks. 

A while later, Cesi came into the office to show me something: a very cool seed pod.  She told me to squeeze it so I did.  And I jumped!  It ‘exploded’ in my fingers and curled into itself and dropped its tiny seeds.  How funny.  We both laughed.  Then, of course, I had to find out which plant produces this fun toy!  They look like impatiens on steroids … very simple flowers but about 4 or 5 feet tall! 

So we spent a little time looking for more pods and me taking pictures and Cesi explaining all about this incredible bit of nature.  Add ‘fine and patient teacher’ to her list of qualities.
The pod has 'seams' - those split and the 4 or 5 sections curl tightly after you squeeze the pod.
Such and incredible piece of nature!

Cesi is an incredibly young person!


It’s been a lovely day.  But now it is 8 p.m. and I’ve had my bit of pizza and now I think it is time for me to go to sleep!  

Post note: I really do miss our delegations when they leave.  I am so blessed to have the opportunity to work with and share time with some very incredible people!

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Most Generous Hearts

I’ve only been back in El Salvador since the 6th of August – having had the joy of being present at the wedding of my son Thom and his new wife Kayla.  I am such a lucky mama.  And Thom is a lucky man to have found a partner such as Kayla – and as an added bonus – he has a whole group of “out-laws” who are absolutely fabulous – from his actual in-laws to the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins … And poor Kayla is stuck with us haha!

Anyway.  I’m back here now and within 3 days we hosted a small but mighty delegation from my own Heartland Presbyterian Church in Clive.  It was a varied and interesting week which flew by.  I posted lots of photos in an album on facebook so please go check them out. 

And tomorrow (the 21st) we get to host a new group of folks who will do dental workshops in a couple of schools.   We will be in Las Delicias and Colon.  We will be with the children at the school in the mornings and with their parents doing workshops in the afternoon.  I’m very much looking forward to learning about this group – their history as well as their hopes for future work.

So – with the couple of days in between our delegations, we had some commitments: some formal (like the great meeting held in Corozal) and some not so formal.  One of the not so formal events is what I want to share today.

We were invited to go to La Llanes.  It was a social invitation.  They wanted to share some sweet corn with us.  This was an invitation out of love and friendship and gratitude.  Some of you who regularly read my blogs have an idea of who they are because I’ve written about them before.  They are a small community of 24 extremely poor families.  Most of them related - as off-shoot communities often are.  Their community is way off the beaten path and down a “road” that scares the be-jeebers out of me even when that “road” is compacted and dry – but WORSE when the “road” is wet and muddy.  Which, of course, it is now – being 3+ months into the rainy season.

Bless the Pastoral Team’s hearts … they asked Alejandro to drive us.  Now, mind you, this does not make the stretch of road any less scary.  I just get to have my heart attack standing in the back of the pick-up rather than driving.  Long story short – we made it safely both in and out of the community – me with my eyes closed and praying as we fish-tailed and danced in the 100 yards that are the worst.  Thank you Alejandro.  I taught you well. But even YOU were scared … admit it!!  Haha.

The trick is to STAY IN THE RUTS!!!!

(And for the record: I don’t mind fish-tailing in mud – there is no getting around that because there is mud everywhere this time of year.  We have a great pick-up truck with a strong engine and 4x4 and I’ve learned quickly how best to not get stuck in spite of the fish-tailing … but when you fish-tail with a mountain you can touch from the driver’s seat on one side and a long drop off within a couple of feet on the other – that is what makes my heart beat fast.)

But I digress from my original intent of this blog …

I LOVE going to La Llanes.  I love the people there.  No offense to anyone else in the communities because I have a great love for all of them – but there is something about these people.  Perhaps it is in part because they are such a small community.  And if there is an event – or you visit … almost everyone shows up. 

And from our very first visit – when we had never even met them – we felt a kinship.  They were warm – greeting us with hugs – they quickly shared their senses of humor (which here often takes a LONG time to emerge with strangers). 

So this day – this invitation to share their sweet corn – we could not refuse.  We didn’t want to refuse.   This invitation is even more special in the fact that we all know that with the drought – corn did not grow very well.  Losses ranged from 25% to 90%.   We know they suffered loss.  But they wanted to share.

Recently, I read an article shared on Facebook saying how the poor seem to be more generous in their charitable giving and generosity proportionate to their income than the rich.  Having lived here permanently for almost four years – this did not surprise me.

But the timing of this invitation was within a couple of days of this article.

We have poor in the States.  No doubt.  But not like the folks in La Llanes. 

On the table there was a ton of foods!  This food was for us as well as the rest of the community – which is another oddity: often we are invited to share a snack or a meal and WE are fed and everyone else looks on or leaves us alone while we eat (such is the custom here in El Salvador).  But here they shared with everyone in the community.  On the table:  a huge bucket of corn on the cob, a huge stack of ‘riguas’ (like a potato pancake but made with corn), atol de elote (a hot and very thick corn based drink), tamales (which I got to help make to the delight of the ladies working) and tortas (a corn based fried patty with sugar on top YUMMY!!)



Atol de elote

Tortas de elote

Was I concerned about consuming so many corn products?  A bit.  But that did not stop me from enjoying all the gifts.  We all sat around the table talking and eating.  Then a man got up and picked up a small ‘guitar’ and started tuning up.  In the corner of the building we were in (which was someone’s house that also serves as their place of worship) there was a regular guitar, a bass, a conga type drum, a ‘set’ of 2 drums with cymbols and a cowbell, and a couple of other traditional percussion instruments. 

People started to pick all those things up.  They were asking people to sing … but no one had the ‘song book’ so no one really wanted to commit to singing … but there happened to be a visitor from San Felipe in the village.  And he has a reputation for singing … (I did not know this – even though I’ve known this man for a very long time!) and he was asked to sing.  After a wee bit of arm twisting (not much really haha) – he said he would.

Within minutes the music was in full swing and we enjoyed at least 8 songs –

What fun. 

Sadly, Cecilia had a meeting she had to attend so we had to leave. 

I very often feel overwhelmed with love here:  friendship, generosity and a welcome that is deeper than I can express. 

It is times like these that make it so hard to leave. 

I have been truly blessed.