Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Christmas in El Salvador

Feliz Navidad mis amigos/amigas!  This week I celebrated my first Christmas in El Salvador.  It was a much more low key affair than in Canada, but it certainly had some very special highlights.  On the Friday Dec 16th,  I suggested that my two English students (Edwin and Jimmy)  and I follow a Canadian tradition and have a special lunch before Christmas.  They came to the ADES and collected me and we went in the bus to Sensuntepeque (a city about 5 minutes away).  There we went to Pollo Campero (the Salvadorian equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken - only better).  Then they took me Parque Cabanas, a very pretty park that I had never been to before.  I gave Edwin and Jimmy a "Niagara Falls" t-shirt each, that my family had brought with them when they visited.  Both were slightly embarrassed, Jimmy more so.  He then explained to me that he had never received a Christmas present as an adult.  Wow...   Jimmy and Edwin gave me a beautiful Christmas card with a lovely note from both of them.

The next day I left for Belize (see last week's blog) and I returned to El Salvador on the 23rd.  When I got back to the house, there were notices from the post office that I had two packages waiting for me.  Under the Salvadorian postal system, packages can go anywhere in the city of San Salvador.  They most often end up a post office fairly near to my house, but not always.  In this case they were in a part of San Salvador that I had never been in.  I spent a long time in a cab but we eventually found the place and I was able to retrieve the parcels.  Turns out one was for Christmas and one was an early birthday present!  The package that made it for Christmas contained some of my favorite Christmas CD's that I asked a friend to send to me in El Salvador.  Needless to say Christmas music started in earnest.  Jonathan has decided that he really doesn't like English Christmas music, but Jenny has fallen in love with Josh Groban!

On the 24th, I went to deliver a little present to my friends Lissette and Ignacio.  Lissette cried because she too had never received a Christmas present as an adult.  She took off one of her bracelets and gave it to me, saying that she wanted me to have something to remember her by when I returned to Canada.  After this emotional gift delivery, I came back to Jenny's house to wait for people to start arriving and I waited and I waited.  I thought that people would come in the early afternoon, but it was about 7 pm when people started coming...members of Jenny's extended family.  We enjoyed drinks and conversation and the remnants of  the crackers and cheese that I had brought back from Belize.

Jenny cooked a started out in a fairly traditional way, minus stuffing.  After it was mostly cooked she put into a tomato sauce and boiled it for a while.  When it was done, they took it out of the sauce, cut it up and then poured the sauce and green olives over it.  It is possible to get green olives in El Salvador, but they are fairly rare...except at Christmas when they are everywhere!
Jenny prepares the turkey with her special rub.

Jonathan cuts up the turkey!

Jenny adds the sauce to the turkey!
Later that evening we exchanged gifts.  Jonathan got me an exquisite El Salvadorian nativity scene.  I had mentioned at one point that I had a collection but hadn't  found one from this country that I like.  Interestingly, the one that Jonathan got for me is one I would have bought had I seen it.  Jenny gave me a very special t-shirt with butterflies on it.  She said that butterflies symbolize transformation, like me this year!  Yah, I started crying at that one!

A long standing Salvadorian tradition is that on Christmas Eve children light firecrackers.  There are a few that  have bright coloured lights, but they are expensive, so mostly the firecrackers are just loud.  This goes on all evening and creates a crescendo at midnight.  The fireworks continue long into the night.  I think that I made to bed around 2pm!  Most of the "extraneros" (foreigners) agree that the fireworks are not our favourite part of Salvadorian culture, but the kids love it.  Talking to Salvadorian adults, they often have very special memories of lighting firecrackers on Christmas Eve.  It was great to be able to experience it.

On the 25th, I set off to Church while Jonathan and Jenny relaxed.  Jenny had been sick throughout the holiday, took a day to just sleep and watch movies.  On the 25th, I called to the extended family Christmas at my Aunt  Betty's in Niagara Falls.  I missed everyone this year, but I am deeply fortunate to be able to be in this here, at this time to learn much about Salvadorian culture and what it is like to celebrate a much simpler holiday.  As is the case with so many times here, I  feel incredibly blessed to be a part of this place with these people.  I miss you and look forward to seeing you in 2012, but it has been a very memorable Christmas.

Merry Christmas my friends and family!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent 4 - Love

I don't know what it is about Christmas and Chez Whiz...I don't have any need for the plastic cheese spread at other times of the year.  If  you look way back in my blogs you'll notice I blogged about Chez Whiz last Christmas and sure enough last week I went searching for the this product in the Salvadorian supermarkets.  Both Jonathan and I have enjoyed it.

One of the last things that I did before I started my Christmas vacation (everyone is off for 2 weeks) was to accompany Oscar (the driver) and Edith (my colleague) to a small out of the way community.  It was another community that was really off the beaten track.  We took some toys (balls, colouring books, crayons), a pinata and some cookies.  This very poor community had asked ADES for help in creating a Christmas party.  There is not sufficient money for basics, so there is not money for anything special at Christmas.  What we delivered will be the special "Christmas" things for this community. So we set off to deliver a bit of Christmas joy. We were met, literally at the end of the road, by a couple adults and a few kids who picked up the stuff and hiked it into their community.     This was so different than the Christmas deliveries I have done in Canada.  There was, by comparison, just so little.

Today I am writing to you from Belize.  It is a small country in Central America that is on the Atlantic Ocean side.  I am a little vague on the details, although I know that the Spanish were here, at one point they got kicked out by the British and the natives and British kept the Spanish from coming back.  As a result, Belize was a colony for many years and now is a Constitutional Monarchy like Canada.

I knew Belize was for me, when at the tiny airport there were lovely Christmas decorations and small reggae group playing Christmas music!  Christmas is "bigger" here in Belize than El Salvador although significantly "smaller" than in Canada.  All this week, I have enjoyed hearing Christmas tunes as I wonder the streets and shops of Belize City.

Belizians speak English, sort of.   Walking down the street I understand less of the conversations going on around me than I do in El Salvador!  The British brought in slaves from the Islands and the mixture of Caribbean cultures, with the Spanish, British and various indigenous groups has resulted in a "Creole" language that sounds little like the English I know!  Most Belizians speak "proper" English, creole and many speak Spanish and tribal languages too.

Culturally Belize is more similar to Canada than El Salvador.  I notice small there are street signs (which there aren't in most of San Salvador) and the money is in different colours with pictures of the Queen!  While there is crime and violence in Belize, it is not as significant as in El Salvador.  I have been able to walk a lot during the days, which has been great for me.  I feel like I have really had a vacation and a "break" from my regular life in El Salvador.

One of the highlights of my trip to Belize was the opportunity to worship at a Methodist Church.  It is a large Church with an amazing organ.  I was able to attend a festival of lessons and carols, where we sang a lot of familiar tunes...including an incredible candlelit version of Joy to the World!  At one point I had another experience of awe and wonder where I looked around and thought who ever could have imagined that this white chick from Waterloo, ON would be at Christmas service in Wesley Methodist Church in Belize City, Belize.  Wow, the experiences I've had on my adventure!

This year, I have chosen to be away from the people I love during the holiday.  I wanted to have this experience once in my life...of being away, of being with others and of learning of Christmas celebrations in a different place.  The Christmas story reminds us that although life does not always turn out the way we had hoped, (Mary likely never envisioned her life as being unwed and pregnant), amazing things can result from the unexpected.  While I am not with you in person, know that my prayer (or hope if you prefer) for each of you is that you experience renewal during this Holy Season.  Feliz Navidad - Merry Christmas my friends and family.  Thank you for your support, caring and love this year.

Wesley Methodist Church, Belize City

A Tapir - the National Animal of Belize

Spider Monkey

Bel-Can bridge in Belize City...A gift from the people of Canada!

View looking out to the Atlantic Ocean from Belize City

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent 3 - Joy

This weekend I CIS arranged a trip for students/volunteers.  5 of us, plus Ulyses (a Spanish instructor at CIS and our guide for the weekend) and Jose (our driver, who I called Luis all weekend until he finally told me his name with Jose!  Oops!) went to the eastern part of El  Salvador to visit a number of sites. The trip was a lot of fun and I enjoyed hanging out and being able to speak to people easily in English.  Generally Ulyses refrained from correcting our Spanish except when we asked.  However at one point he very calmly (and without laughing-- at least on the outside) let me know that the word I needed was "punto" (point) not "puto" (male prostitute).  Recently, although I know the difference between these two words, apparently my pronunciation was not as crisp as it needed to be and my word "pena" (sorrow, trouble, problem) sounded more like "pene" (penis).  I am being very careful to clearly pronounce the word "year" which if not pronounced correctly sounds like I am wishing people a "Happy New Anus"! I was relating these stories to friends at CIS and a woman who speaks very good English but for whom Spanish is her first language told me that she never uses the word "beach" in English because she cannot hear the difference in pronunciation between it and "bitch".

Much of the content of the trip was difficult.  We visited El Mazote which is a small village in the mountains.  In December, 2011 a unit of the Salvadorian army perpetrated what is known as the "worst massacre" during the war.   Around a 1000 people including nearly 150 children were tortured and murdered.  The details are beyond horrifying.  This weekend there was an event commemorating the 30th anniversary.  We also visited a museum which commemorates the lives and deaths of many of the guerrillas during the war as well as a re-creation of a guerrilla camp in the mountains.    Life was very difficult for these folks and many of the people were very young.

At one point I lamented that today's blog topic was joy.  Ironically, this is a topic about which I usually have a lot to say.  I had nothing.  At one point, I said a quick prayer that God if you want to write about "Joy" you are going to need to help me here.  My heart is very heavy with all the tragedy and death I am learning about.

Later in the day on Sunday we climbed a mountain.  We passed enormous craters where bombs were dropped  during the war.  We also passes a helicopter landing site that the army used during the war.  The misery that was unleashed on the peasant population from these places was palpable.

We then reached the top of the mountain.  The view of neighbouring Honduras was spectacular.  It was a sunny, warm day and the mountain top was pristine.  There were a few trees so there was the option of shade or sun.  At one point during our time here I realized that I had found my joy.  The simple joy of simply being alive.  The man who was our guide at the museum had lived in a rebel camp for many years.  He talked about how they prayed twice a day...once in the morning to thank God for seeing them through the night and again the evening to thank God for whatever blessings they had received during the day.  It is hard to imagine they received much, including food, during the day, but they remained thankful.  I was deeply reminded of the blessing of life and the joy that comes with simply being alive.  The people that I know that survived the horrors of this war have the gift of life.

As I quietly walked down the mountain, back to "real" life and the challenges of life in El Salvador, my spirit somehow felt lighter for having found a way to rejoice in the midst of such darkness.

And so my friends, I would invite you to take a moment, be still, breathe deeply and feel deep within you the joy of being alive.

Me on the mountain.

Ulyses and the 5 "chicas".

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent 2 - Peace

So of all of The Advent themes, I have always had the least connection to "peace".  Hope, joy and love just seem to have a lot more relevance in my life.  I live in a relatively peaceful country and wars happen in other places.  Then I came to El Salvador.  This weekend I am going on a trip to the 30th anniversary of the worst massacre that occurred in during the war, in a place called El Mazote.  Everywhere,  there are reminders of the brutal civil war that happened here for 12 years.  Although the war ended in 1992,  there are many facets of El Salvadorian life that are still impacted by what happened.  In the tiny village of Cinquera, unexploded bombs are cemented in front of  the church and in the park there is part of a downed aircraft and old guns are attached to the fence.

Park in Cinquera

The Church in Cinquera with the bombs out front.   Note the painting of  Oscar Romero on the  left.

The legacies of the war impact much of El Salvadorian life.  Gangs and narco-trafficing are big business here that grew exponentially after the war.  Why this is, is another long story, which I'll save for another day.  Parts of this country are very, very violent.  Life is organized to protect people from this violence.  As a result, I am rarely out on the street after dark (occasionally on a bus or in a vehicle, but never just wondering around).  There are armed security guards everywhere and there are a lot of police, who travel in groups of 3 or 4.  While I have never been threatened or robbed here, everyday everyone structures their day to minimize this risk.  The risk is almost always present.  Every once and a while you get a bit of a break from this reality and it feeling very safe feels very odd.  Yesterday was one of those of days.

 I had the opportunity to accompany a group of youth and their leads to a water park for the day.  One of my colleages Edith, works at ADES and is studying social work.  She has had her placement working at a youth centre in Zacamil.  This is a very poor, very rough section of San Salvador.  The family situations of these youth are general really bad.  Among other things, there is not enough food for any of these kids.  I was shocked when one "little guy" told me he as 12.  I thought he was about 6 or 7 based on his size.  The future for these kids is not at all certain.  In addition to all their family issues, the area where they live in is controlled by gangs.  There will be a lot of pressure to join and the risk of death if they don't.  Yesterday was not about their reality, it was about having a day away.

So the "chicos" and their adult leaders and I piled into a mini-van and headed for the water park.  It was nothing like what a Canadian water park would be like, but there was 3 different pools complete with water slides and a splash pad area.  None of the water was very deep, so it was very safe.   There was also a park like area that surrounded the pools.  The boys could run and play and they did.  There were bbq areas and so the adults cooked up chicken. and the other leaders had brought rice, salad, tortillas, pop and cookies.  The kids had a huge feed.  I didn't initially understand what was happening when they started coming to ask for plastic bags, I thought they were bagging the garbage.  Then I realized what they were doing was taking food from their plates home.  The leftovers got bagged and the kids took them too.

Once again I was reminded of the lesson that I learn again and again here.  When the big picture is just too overwhelming and too sad, look around.  I was amazed at how kind the "big" kids were to the "little" kids.  This group has become its own "alternative" family.  Maybe this connection the boys will be able insulate each other a little bit from the all of the challenges in their young lives.  At the very least, they had a day away, where they could be kids and where the adults around them were kind and nurturing.  Maybe, this will help these kids to continue to be the peaceful kids they are.  By showing them a different path perhaps they will be able to chose peace rather than the life of violence that surrounds them.

Once again, I feel deeply honoured to have been able to share this "happy" day with the "chicos from Zacamil".

The "chicos" and their leaders

At the pool

Having lunch

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent 1 - Hope

Okay, so my last week's blog wasn't one of my best.  There were a number of reasons - I was tired, I was rushed and I had been feeling a bit hopeless.  The problems in El Salvador are so entrenched and complicated and serious.  There are so many injustices that people live with every day.  It just felt overwhelming and I wasn't ready to share it yet.  I needed some time to process some specific situations and the impact that general life here was having on my soul.  So I cranked the required blog but it didn't gel as well as some others.

Last week there was a conference here of people working with grass roots communities in Central and South America, Mexico and Cuba.  Quite frankly, I was very irritable and found much of it tedious.  I had a huge problem with a number of the accents and found the sessions very hard to follow.  On Friday my boss Gilma  asked if I would support another staff person at an event in the afternoon.  I suspect she sensed my restlessness.   I readily agreed.  When it was time to go, there were some problems with my transportation.  The person I was supposed to go with left without me.  Eventually there was some conversations and they figured out how to get me to the event.  I thought I was going to an event to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against women in Santa Marta, but I ended up at the closing of the Literacy Circles in Sensuntepeque.  I arrived, grumbling to myself, that this was just another example of how little I understand in this culture and I was in a generally foul mood.

I was asked to take pictures.  There were a lot of children present and so I started taking pictures of groups of kids.  I've never done this before and in generally avoid the kids because they don't get my Spanish at all.  However, this was a good day and they laughed at my Spanish and I generally got better, happier pictures.  I would take a picture of a group of kids and show them the picture and then generally there was another looking like they wanted their picture taken.  There was some connection and I realized after a while that I was feeling better.

Then the event started.  It was MC'd by a young man named Denis.  He is quite remarkable to me.  He is 18 and a dedicated, charismatic and passionate community leader and eloquent speaker.  He is a facilitator of a literacy circle in his home community.  He always has a smile and a "hello" for me.  His English does not expand much beyond that, but he really tries to communicate with me, speaking Spanish slowly and clearly.  It is easier now, but he tried really hard when it was really tough to have a conversation with me.  For that reason he will always be very special to me.

Then Juan, the leader of the team that organizes the literacy program, spoke.  He is a teacher and former principal.  He spoke about the importance of being about to read and the worlds that having this skill opens up.  I started to cry.  After feeling hopeless for a while, I had found a little bit of hope.   I thought, no matter what life throws at these people, they now have basic literacy and numeracy skills.  No one can take that away from them.

In the end 140 certificates were presented to people in literacy programs in a number of very small, rural, and poor areas around the ADES office.  There were a lot of older people (50+) who got certificates.   Many of these folks just smiled from ear to ear when their name was called.  They all had children and grandchildren there with them.  I was near the front because I was taking pictures and I was wearing an ADES t-shirt.  I got a number of hugs and thanks you from the participants too.  I hugged back and said "felicitaciones" (congratulations).  There was also some younger people and people in between.  One of the most moving presentations was to a group of people with disabilities.  There are very few services (medical or social) for people with disabilities.  What an accomplishment for the people in this group.  Everyone in the Literacy Program has a story and Carmen the co-ordinator would whisper different things to me as people got their certificates.  So much adversity.  It just makes the successes that much sweeter.

So on  a Friday afternoon, in a well worn, jammed packed meeting room in El Salvador, I found hope.   People and situations can change.  Things can move in a positive direction.  The facilitators come from the same communities as the learners.  Salvadorians are helping Salvadorians, in this small but effective program in rural Northern El Salvadorian.  While ADES receives some money from organizations in Spain to help coordinate the program, this is not a foreign aid program.

Once again I have been reminded that when it all seems hopeless, I need to look around me.  I need to see the people in and around my life.  They truly are amazing and little by little they are making this world a little bit better, a little more just and little fairer for themselves, their children and their communities.  For this opportunity to accompany people in El Salvador, I am deeply blessed.

May you each find hope this week.

Children waiting for the program to begin
Literacy Group Facilitators - Denis is in front with the white shirt

One of the Literacy Circles