Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Updates and Musings

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Next week I will begin a 4 week blog series on Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.  This week I just have a bunch of unrelated stuff I wanted to tell you about.

Last week, they (I need to use this term because the public transportation system in El Salvador is operated by a number of companies and I have no idea how it is all organized, so I will use the generic "they") decided to run a direct bus from San Salvador to Sensuntepeque - one in the morning and one in after work.  For the same cost, I can take a bus that takes an hour or less (rather than the usual 1.5 -1.75 hours) because it only makes 5 stops instead of 25 or 30.  Because there is a "regular" bus at the same time, and the number of customers are split, so there are always seats.  Since it is so quick, generally there are 8-10 ADES staffers on it.  It is quicker, more comfortable, there are lots of people I know  and there is usually great music.  I love the DIRECTO as it is called!

Also for reasons I don't understand, there has been a lot fewer people on my San Salvador bus coming home at night.  This means that I have gotten seat on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the past two weeks.  It still takes about 2 hours.  It does eventually get very, very full.  However, it is nice to be able to sit and to be able to put my back pack on the floor.  Don't know if this will continue, but it is lovely.

There are so many things that are so interesting to me about Christmas in El Salvador.  Here Poinsettias are called Pascuas (Easter).  I find this amusing because it is a Christmas plant.  Last week at the the Mall, there was Santa.  He has a Santa station much like you would see in any Mall in Canada.  I find it amusing that here in this warm country, the Santa House is all decked out with fake snow.  The first time I saw the skinny, Latino Santa speaking Spanish to the kids, I found it kind of odd.  Somehow I hadn't made the leap to a multilingual Santa.  An English speaking Santa would not be useful here!

ADES is hosting a Conference of people who work in agencies working with poor people.   Delegates are arriving today from Mexico, Central and South America.  The Conference will last for 3 days with everyone going home on Sunday.

In general planning is done with a lot less lead time here.  It would be relatively easy to get 4 people together for a meeting early next week here, unlike in Canada where everyone's schedules are likely booked.  I haven't yet seen anyone with a 2012 daytimer, whereas in my office in Canada people have likely been booking 2012 meetings since October.  I became aware of this conference about a month ago.  In my mind, not a lot of time for an International Conference.  The program looks great and I am looking forward to attending a lot of the sessions.

The Conference is being held a former grand hacienda in Guacotecti.  It went from being a private house, to a seminary and now it is being converted into a small rural campus of the Lutheran University of El Salvador.  A group of staff visited the site on Monday.  On Tuesday staff were going to clean and move in furniture.  It is an empty building.  Mattresses, chairs, tables and dining tables are being moved from ADES to the Conference Centre.  Staff also came to assess the stability of the water supply and the adequacy of the plumbing.  In the end, repair work was not required, but we had a plumber on standby.  Also on Tuesday plans were made to spray for mosquitoes as there is a bunch of overgrown vegetation nearby.  I have organized meetings and conferences, but the most set up I have ever done is moving around tables and chairs!
I was at CIS for the "set-up" on Tuesday, but I'll be around and will help with the "clean-up" all day Monday, as will all of the staff who are not otherwise occupied.  Managers, the Executive Director and front line staff will all roll up there sleeves.  A very different experience!

So this has been an interesting couple of weeks.  On November 6th, I participated in a service at Westminster United Church via SKYPE.  It was great to be able to share with people more about what I am doing and thinking about here and to be able to be part of the service at Westminster.  It has been awesome to share this service with my friends Ignatio and Lissette here.  When I showed Lissette the article I had written about the service and I showed her the parts that I had written about her, she cried.  She said that she had never been important enough to be written about before.  The people at ADES want to see the article in Spanish.  My good friend and loyal Spanish/English expert Andrew is working on a translation for me.  I have attached a copy of the newsletter if you want to check it out.    They are pleased that people in Canada want to know about them.  Also, in this month's United Church Observer is an article that I wrote about the mining issue.  I didn't make the on-line version and I forgot to get it scanned.  I will and I will attach that link next week.  I will also work on figuring out how attach the newsletter.  Techie stuff is still not my strength!

Finally, some good news about the "girls".  Katherine, the youngest, is finally on a medication that seems to be clearing up her lung problems.  In fact the improvement is so significant that there is talk that she will have her eye surgery soon.  This is awesome.  She has been so sick for so long that it is great news that finally there has been a correct diagnosis and medication to correct the problems.  Her sister Negeli had a number of complications after her eye surgery including ear and eye infections, but these are clearing up too.  Thank you for all of your prayers and concern for these two children.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Caught by Surprise

Today, I thought I would share with you a number of things that have surprised me recently.

  • The first being, this is my 50th blog post!!!  Who ever would have thought that I would be able to write that many and that you would continue reading them.  Many thanks to my friend Cheryl and her husband who patiently helped me to set it up, when I could barely turn on my new computer!  In terms of my techie accomplishments, I have started texting using my cell phone. Yesterday I learned how to make capital letters!
  • This past week, I was pleased to be able to host my family here in El Salvador.  I was amazed at how open everyone was to trying new things and foods.  In particular I was amazed by the kids and their willingness to explore a new culture.  My family decided that they really liked liche fruit and queso duro (hard cheese that is a very popular food here.  
Lichi fruit.  Peel off the shell and grape like fruit with a pit awaits the eater!
  • What a nervous wreck I was before the outings with my family.  I have not "arranged" things for a while and I found this stressful.   I always very nervous when I know that I am going to have to rely on my level of Spanish.  Everything went really well and we had lovely van drivers.  Javier coped with my Spanish and Jimmy spoke a lot of English and this helped a lot!  Collectively we visited downtown San Salvador (the Cathedral and the crypt of Oscar Romero), Cuscatlan Park - where the kids all bought a plastic bird thing that were huge hits, Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) and their fair trade gift shop (where I happy to report that my family did its share to support artisans in El Salvador!) and had a lunch on the San Salvador volcano.  We did another trip to ADES and a trip to Joya de Ceran (an archeological site where a volcano eruption covered up a village around 500 AD).
My family on the porch of my house in Guactecti.
(L-R) Karen, Rachel, Aunt Betty, Marty, Cindy, Marty, Aunt Susan and Uncle Bruce  

  • The warm welcome that the staff at ADES made for my family.  I wasn't surprised by the warmth of the welcome, but rather by the form.  The Executive Director, Antonio Pacheco made a speech welcoming my family and the ADES staff sang a traditional El Salvadorian song.  Staff from ADES including Jenny and Jonathan made a traditional meal that included chicken, carrots, broccoli, a zucchini like vegetable and yucca, casamiento (beans and rice), queso duro and of course tortillas.  My family all agreed that the lunch at ADES was a highlight of the trip.  
Lunch at ADES

  • At how little common language kids need in order to play together.  Rachel (4) seemed to make friends wherever she went.  She and little girls who only spoke Spanish would smile, hold hands and run together.
Rachel and Alyssa (the daughter of an ADES colleague)

  • By the surprise that ADES staff have at the generosity of my friends and family.  Collectively we have raised $2000 for flood relief.  This is a long way from the $25 000 they estimated that they need for emergency food relief, but it is a good start.  Thanks to everyone who contributed.
A wash out road bridge due to the floods. 

  • How sharing a simple lunch with friends after the skyped church service was the perfect ending to a moving and emotional experience.  On November 6th, with the techie help of Steve Lichti in Canada and Lissette and Ignatio here in El Salvador, I was able to participate via Skype in the service at my home church in Waterloo.  I skyped from the Internet Cafe where Lissette works.  After the service, Ignatio's Mom arrived with lunch and I was invited to partake.  It was so great to end my time with my Westminister folks by doing here what I do there, enjoy lunch and conversation with friends.  
  • My joy at finding an American volunteer who is as outraged as I am about all of things that happen in El Salvador and the complicity of our countries in allowing and assisting it all to happen.  Generally the response of foreigners seems to fall into 2 categories, one of a vague disconnection to it all or the other, an acceptance of the fact that this is the way it is.  Carl and I are both still naive enough to believe that our countries can do better and so we are angered by the stupid, ridiculous and myopic decisions of our governments.  Our latest issue has to do with the American government's refusal to work with the Minister of Security.  It is rumoured that this contributed to him submitting his resignation this week.  The Minister was part of the rebel group during the war and is named as one of the participants in the killing of 4 American Marines at a sidewalk cafe in San Salvador during the Civil War.  I am not condoning this action in any way.  However, let us consider that the United States spent over a million a day arming and training the Army and National Guard during the brutal 12 year civil war.  The Salvadorians have forgiven a lot, perhaps it is time for the American Government to do so too.  

Rachel, Karen and I

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Living the Contradictions

On Monday, 8 members of my immediate and extended family landed in El Salvador.  My sister Karen, niece Rachel (4), Aunt Betty, Uncle Bruce, Aunt Susan and her grandson Bailey (10) and my cousin Cindy and her son Marty (10) all came to visit me.  Some are really wanting to explore the "real" El Salvador and some want more of a beach vacation.  Everybody is getting a mix of both...including me.  I am writing this to you from my beautiful, air conditioned room that has hot water!  On Tuesday all of us set out on an adventure to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.   We visited the Cathedral and Archbishop Romero's crypt, Cuscatlan Park, CIS (the agency where I go to Spanish school and do the Election Observer work) and had lunch at a beautiful restaurant on the San Salvador volcano.  Tomorrow (Friday), we will set out for an adventure that will take us to Cabanas to meet the folks at ADES.

I am enjoying having my family here.  I am loving the "break" of being at the Decameron Resort.  In January, 2009 I came to this resort in El Salvador with a small of group of friends including my sister Karen.  I returned to Canada thinking that I knew something of El Salvador -- which I did, but the story was very incomplete.  This time, I know different things.  The Resort is beautiful.  The grounds are lush and tropical.  There are two lagoons and 5 swimming pools.  There is no indication here that this is a country in a water crisis.  Even the hotdogs are north american.  Here I can only buy chicken/turkey wieners, which are not really to my taste.  At the Decameron the hotdogs taste like home, so they have to be a mix of pork and beef.

My Salvadorian friends would all love to come to the Decameron, but they can't afford it.  By Canadian standards it is a real "deal" at this time of year -- $700 for the flight and the week at a 4 star all inclusive resort.  Nolitours runs charters from Toronto, so it is cheap and easy.  In fact when I can home in August, my flight alone cost more than this.  Given the mixture in ages and health issues, my family group really did need a place that would offer a lot of the comforts of home.  I am very glad my family is here.  I am very glad that they are in a place that is meeting their needs.  I am also aware that there is almost nothing at the Decameron that is the same as the El Salvador that I know.  I am sad that my Salvdorian friends don't get to experience the beauty and awe that is this resort.  I don't know how to do it any differently.  Like many other things here, I live with the contradiction.

Some of you know that a few weeks ago, I had a bit of medical problem.  I developed a painful and gross abscess that needed to be drained.  Long story about how this came to be, but I ended up being treated by a wonderfully kind, English speaking, well trained and well equipped dermatologist.  He is a "private" doctor, which means I paid his receptionist in cash after each visit.  I ended up spending about $200 in medical services and probably close to that on medications and supplies.  Most of this will be reimbursed through my out of country health insurance paid for by the United Church.  I got great care.  However, this cost about the equivalent of  1.5  months of salary for many Salvadorians.  Most people, including the majority of the people I know here, will never be able to pay for this level of care.  As a result, the health care they received through the systems here in general is far from adequate.  Me not getting good health care would not have done anything useful here, but it is another of the contradictions that I live with every day.

I am feeling a bit badly about being at the Decameron, but I am also thankful for the opportunity to share more about what life is like in El Salvador.  Marty (10) is thinking about water and what happens when the water in your house makes you sick if you drink it.  He is asking me lots of questions about that.  It is not surprising that when we were out on our day trip, we stopped to buy cold beverages at one point.  In the fluster of it all, I lost track of how many bottles of water were buying and in the end we were a few short. Before I'd even realized this, Marty offered his water up to Javier our driver and guide for the day.  When we stopped for lunch, I invited Javier to have lunch with us and told him we would pay for his lunch (as is the norm here).  Javier initially sat by himself at a table.  I was just going to go over and invite him to join us when Bailey (10) wanted to know why he was sitting by himself and not with us.  When we stopped places Javier stayed with the vehicle.  Bailey asked me if I thought Javier was bored.  Clearly neither Marty nor Bailey have a sense of "entitlement".  They don't seem to see the world as us and them.  I marvel at this and hope that as they grow they will be able to keep the kindness and compassion that they have as 10 year olds.

My Family in El Salvador

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What Motivates You???

So what motivates you??? This is a question that I have been pondering this week.   Every Monday morning our agency training contains a portion that is technical, focusing on whatever the theme of the week is.  The other portion is designed to motivate us.  This section I have found a bit odd.  Generally it involves singing ballads of the history of El Salvador and chanting slogans.   This week’s training was about how to design and craft this portion of a meeting.  Finally I understood that this section of the meeting is focused on motivation (which I previously didn’t know) and that it likely doesn’t resonate with me (aside from the language issues) because this not my history or my culture.  What does motivate me to do work in social services or to be in El Salvador.  In generally I realized that I like to feel that I am a part of something bigger than me that is working to help the Earth be a better place.

We then had to break into our small groups and talk about ways in which ADES can do this portion better.   Basically our group decided that the staff at ADES need more commitment to the bigger fight for social justice, more respect for each other and more discipline.  It was interesting for me because I think this group of people is incredibly committed and works very, very hard and long hours.   Asking them to do more was not the approach I considered.  Interestingly when most of the other groups presented, their answers were somewhat similar – that staff needed to do more. 
At one point, I offered my idea.  That for me it is important to know about the impact of my actions and work.  The focus here is so communal that there is no individual staff development.   There are no supervision meetings or annual performance appraisals.   My idea of a supervisor having a conversation with their staff individually to talk about why their work is important was a completely new idea.  Jenny really liked it and thinks that she is going to start having these discussions with her staff in the admin department, where the link to the bigger goal of social justice can be a bit harder to see initially than in some other front line service.    I have come to think that in my “regular” life perhaps people are too individually focused, but here I tend to think that people sometimes don’t focus enough on “individuals”. 

For me this was a “motivational experiencing” feeling like I had offered a new idea that people liked and that I was able to explain sufficiently in Spanish.   I have come to realize that a lot of my legacy in El Salvador will not be about great huge acts, but rather asking questions and offering smalls suggestions. 

 Today I had another “motivational” experience.   I again was asked to accompany staff to a court hearing with the justice of the peace as an International Observer.   I was told that the hearing was for some youth from Santa Marta (a nearby rural community).   Staff from Santa Marta came along and I initially thought it was to offer support to the families of the youth from their communities.  Soon I learned that of the 5 youth arrested, one was the son of a colleague and one was the brother of a colleague.  The 5 youth, one aged 16 and the rest 18, were fishing on the weekend.  They were near the Honduran Border and were approached by someone and asked to bring 5 bags back to El Salvador.  In return they would receive $10.  The bags contained Chinese cigarettes.  The youth were arrested and charged with smuggling.    Apparently this is a serious problem here and the police are trying to crack down.  The maximum penalty is 6-8 years in jail.  There is a lot of fear that the Attorney General will try to make an example of this youth and young adults. 
As a result, ADES pulled all the stops.  A lawyer was hired, I was sent as an International Observer and the Human Rights Office in El Salvador was contacted and they send staff to the procedure as well.  The lawyer arrived at the hearing with a package of letters attesting to the good character of the young men.  There were letters from the head of the local “futbol” club, the priest and various community organizations.  It is clear to me, that these are good young men who made a stupid decision and weren’t good at committing a crime and got caught.  El Salvador jail is going to do nothing helpful for these youth. 

They had been at the police station since Saturday and today is Thursday.  While the families have to wait out on the street I spent much of the time in the Justice of the Peace building.  The 4 young men over 18 arrived with a 3 person police escort.  They were handcuffed in pairs and the cuffs were not overly tight.   They were clean, had gel in their hair and had clean and pressed “dressy” clothes.  Obviously they had been allowed to bathe and their families had brought them clothes for today.   In the end,   these 4 young men were released pending further proceedings.    There are some technical problems with the case and it is unclear if it will proceed.  For the moment, the young men are free.  I wanted to get a picture for you, but as soon as they emerged from the building they were mobbed by their families and their Moms were all hugging them and crying.  Taking a picture seemed really intrusive.   Tomorrow the youth under 18 will have his hearing in “minor court” and likely the same thing will happen. 

It is hard for me to believe that I could be part of a good outcome by showing up and saying nothing.  There is much that I am learning about the idea of being quiet.   Sometimes here saying less really is more - a very hard lesson for me.

This Sunday I will be skyping to my home congregation of Westminster.  I am very excited to be a part of the service.  Then on Monday 8 members of my family arrive in El Salvador for a week.   But before all that, there are agency futbol games tonight.  Life is good here!