Day 3~June 14
We awoke to another beautiful morning in San Salvador, now joined by two new members of the group, two brothers (by blood) from Texas. We ate a traditional Salvadoran breakfast of rice and beans mixed together, white, crumbly cheese known as queso fresco, fresh fruit and fried plantains which tasted faintly of cinnamon and sugar, though I’m not entirely certain how they were prepared. We are definitely not going hungry on this trip, which is in stark contrast to the people who live within the country in which we are immersed. We are so rich, in so many ways, most of us can’t even see our affluence for what it is. We can toss down a $50 for a single meal with our spouse. Here, it takes nearly two weeks for most people to earn that much money.
Before heading out to our first stop, we took time for reflection and guided meditation, led by one of the group leaders. You may have noticed by now that I rarely include names in my blog--that’s in part out of respect for the privacy of other participants and also in part because many of the people with whom we dialogue on this trip have received death threats because of the work they are doing, and some continue to be at risk.
Our morning consisted of a lesson in the history of El Salvador, offered by a man from an organization called Equipo Maiz, the Corn Team. Just as our faith tradition says we come from earth, so the faith tradition here says people come from corn, hence the significance of the name. Our teacher walked us through the history of El Salvador, dating back hundreds of years, covering the struggle of the indigenous people as they were pushed by the Spanish from parcel of land to parcel of land to no land at all. He then covered more recent history, including the Civil War in El Salvador, the roots of the struggle, and the outcomes. Today, he argued, the situation for the people is even worse than it was before the peace accord was signed because of the economic situation of the people. An average factory worker here will make $157 per month, he explained. The business owner for whom he works skims $10 off that amount, to cover insurance. If the worker must take a bus to work, and most must take 2-6 to get there every day, that’s another $30 per month. The average family has five members, and a conservative estimate of financial need for that family is $650, according to our teacher. He explained that a Dominican economist estimated the need at $810 per month. The government in the last ten years has raised the minimum wage only $5 per month. $5. We complain if we don’t get our 3%. Needless to say, even with both parents working, the income falls far short of the need for an average family. Our teacher explained that this leads to several outcomes and concerns. 1) Common delinquency -- a tendency for people to steal things of little or no value just in order to survive. 2) Youth gangs -- thousands of youth join gangs and steal as gangs, because at least they can eat. 3) Migration to the United States. Our teacher said some estimates show 500 people per day migrate to the U.S., but he says that is a conservative number. And, he pointed out, if the leftist party does not win the next election in 2009, there is fear that number will skyrocket, no matter what physical barriers may stand at the border.
We lunched at a local place with humble wooden tables and a bathroom scene that I’ve become rather accustomed to....though it is not everywhere. There ARE many very nice, clean bathrooms in this country, but I’m including a photo of this one so you can see for yourself....no seat....no flushing capability (you must reach your hand into the back reservoir) and no running water in the sink. There was a sink for washing hands in the dining room area. Dare I say it, the food was good at this restaurant! But if you judge a restaurant’s cleanliness by its bathroom....well...
After lunch we went to POPS, a popular ice cream shop just two blocks from our hotel. Everyone was giddy with the joy of eating this ice cream! I had coconut ice cream, but they had many, many flavors and some members of the group have dedicated themselves to the effort of trying every single one of those flavors before the GATE experience is over. Interestingly, two men with enormous rifles eyeballed us as we ate our ice cream. It didn’t feel unsafe, in fact the one guard in the dining area of the ice cream place actually smiled at me and said ¨Hola.¨ And yet, it’s hard to feel secure with so many guns around. Big guns....and they’re everywhere. Not concealed, just carried.
In the afternoon, we spoke with a Lutheran pastor and two young men who are working toward positive solutions for the situation of the people by offering programs to youth, women and children. The young men spoke at length about the influence of gangs--one of the men said his family actually was forced to move from their home because of the pressure of gangs...they wanted him to join their ranks. They moved to San Salvador, where now this young man and the other work in a discussion group which gathers every Wednesday to talk about issues that affect them...issues like HIV, AIDS, machismo, self-esteem, economics and how to deal with those existing problems. It is a safety valve for them, they say, a chance for them to learn things they need to live life. They also participate in workshops and learn stenciling, graphics, and music. The pastor said this type of work is especially important as the youth are most vulnerable in society. The one weakness of many churches in El Salvador, he argued, is that they are working with youth who currently are members of the church, rather than looking outside its walls. As part of this program, they welcome the entire family in to the discussion. Statistics show 10-13 people are murdered in El Salvador each day, but the numbers are much higher, he said. Most of those who are dying are the youth.
The young men challenged us to start our own discussion groups and talk about what it means to be Christians in the U.S., and also to go forward as messengers of peace and justice, and agents of change for our government.
So, the day was filled with heavy stuff and loads to think about. Some members of the group have been struck by how political our discussions have gotten; I suppose it is almost inevitable here that our discussions would go toward politics, and I had expected it, in fact.
Our dinner consisted of slow-cooked chicken with gravy for the meat eaters, with rice, salad and bread, and I was treated to an omelet with a local ingredient which often appears in pupusas, the owner of the hotel told me. It was green and chopped very small, so I can’t tell you what it looked like, but it tasted sort of like green pepper, though not as strong or sweet. It was very, very good. For desert, we had a sort of Neapolitan-frosted chocolate cake roll. Sounds much more confusing than it was in flavor!
After our group reflections on the day, a few of us headed to a restaurant next door, called Bucaneros and drank the locally-made Pilsener beer, sat in the back yard surrounded by lit torches, and chatted about our lives back home. It was a nice way to release some of the weight of the day, for while it’s important to learn about the culture here, it’s also important to have time for relaxation and gratitude for what we have, and the journey of a lifetime we are experiencing.
If you would like to send a comment, please send email to GATE@fspa.org
"Charish, when I said your smile will make friends, I did not expect that you would be flirting with men carrying guns. I am joking of course. Your last BLOG sounds like you are a little sad at what you see. The details of what you see and how you feel makes your trip important in many ways. You’re carrying a bag full of vitamins for the people are important. Just hearing how other people live teaches us how lucky we are and it encourages us to think about other people in a different way and may encourage some to help out others that need help not only where you are but also here at home. What kind of medical treatment is available to the poor? Does the drug store act as a doctor’s office? When you say there are guns everywhere, are they police or a local gang or some type of military group? Looking forward to your next blog. When you get back I hope you have a get together so we can see more of your pictures."
--Love, Nancy and Larry
Day 4~June 15
You would be amazed at the work ethic of the people at this hotel. They are here every minute I am awake. I spoke with the hotel owner about this and she said when they have a group staying with them, they have staff work extra hours. These people are working at least 15 hour days, six days per week, always with a smile and a cheerful greeting for me. I can’t imagine I would exhibit the same cheerfulness for $157 dollars per month, in fact, I know I wouldn’t. Being here makes me sometimes feel like a very petty and selfish person....it comes in sharp pangs, then flashes of indignation--we work hard for our money! We deserve what we’ve earned! And yet, the disparity is so shocking here, so core-rattling that it forces some difficult questions: are we not one people? Are we not all made of skin that can break and bleed? Do we not all share the same hopes for ourselves: a safe home for our family, food with which to nourish our bodies, reasonably good health, the possibility of improvement for our situation, a small amount of dignity to prop us up when we are faced with challenges that life will inevitably deal us? How, then, to carry these thoughts back with me on that plane that carries me to a land of so many riches we take for granted and turn it, somehow, into good?
This morning one of the cooks allowed me into the kitchen to see what she was preparing, then allowed me to step to the back porch of the hotel, overlooking a valley and many dilapidated buildings. ¨Casas?¨ I asked. ¨Si,¨ she responded. I turned on my video camera to capture them on film, shacks which look like little more than rotting wood beams supporting tin roofs. A rooster crowed. The sun streaked across my lens. I couldn’t speak, as I realized, very likely, this same cook who is working these long hours to provide me with fantastic, healthy meals, likely goes home to one of these shacks. Maybe not....but someone does....many people do...
If you would like to send a comment, please send email to GATE@fspa.org
"Incredible. You are walking us through a very important process. Thank you for your "raw" thoughts."
"Good and Beautiful Charish,
Thank you for your moving, truth-rich, real, solid reflections and summaries of your experiences. I can practically taste the authentic food and hear the cock crow! Keep soaking it all in, remain safe, have fun, and keep asking hard questions. You and the entire group remain in my prayers."
Peace and Love, Julia
It’s been a fascinating day. We started with morning reflection and prayer, as every morning begins, and I wanted to include the text of our reflection from this morning, though many of you may have read it before. It becomes particularly poignant when digesting the complex feast of this cultural experience.
The Final Analysis
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you.
Be honest and frank anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
What you spend years building, someone may destroy overnight;
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It never was between you and them anyway.
- Mother Theresa of Calcutta
With those words, and fueled by a breakfast of fresh fruit, beans or turkey ham, toast and cheese and veggie omelets, we headed, for the first time, outside of San Salvador to the country. It felt great to leave the dark plumes of smoke from the traffic and breathe instead some fresh country air. I must mention that by 8:30 in the morning, I´ve already sweated through my clothes. The humidity and heat can take your breath away....but I love it.
We headed North to the town of El Paisnal, where we visited a memorial site on the side of the road marking the spot where Rutilio Grande was killed. Rutilio Grande was the spiritual advisor for Oscar Romero, the much-loved Archbishop of the common, poor people. It was the death of Rutilio Grande which led to a spiritual awakening for Romero. After Rutilio Grande´s murder, Romero denounced his rich friends, including the country’s president, and began to speak out about the rights of the poor, shining light on the social injustices of the peasant economy. We then visited the grave of Rutilio Grande, housed within a small, but beautiful church in El Paisnal.
A priest spoke with us, along with another group, about the deaths of Romero and Grande, in addition to speaking about the current state for the poor in El Salvador. He told us that Rutilio Grande used the bible to teach literacy to the people and had a large group working in El Paisnal to educate the people. Within six months people were learning to read and write. What’s particularly interesting is that he used common items to help the people learn...a tortilla was shaped like the letter O. A horseshoe represented the U. Sugar cane represented an I. He argued in favor of the education of the poor, and the work of Rutilio Grande and Oscar Romero explaining that God is a God of liberation, and does not support oppression of the people.
But it is not that simple in El Salvador, as evidenced by the murders of these holy men and countless others. Priests who follow the teachings of Oscar Romero are exiled. So, even though many priests believe in Oscar Romero´s teachings, they must abide by the teachings of the archdiocese, which is led by an Archbishop who is Opus Dei.
The morning’s conversation was interactive, and covered a wide variety of topics, from trade agreements with the U.S., particularly CAFTA, to the perception of ¨The American Dream¨ as something Salvadorans believe they can obtain if they cross the border to the U.S., and the challenges that raises for both of our countries. He also touched on violence in El Salvador, and the perception of that violence. He said he once invited attendees at a conference in San Francisco to visit his country, and one individual asked how it would be possible, with all the violence in El Salvador. This priest said--never before has his country attacked another country, never before has one of their boxers bitten the ear of another boxer, their university students don’t kill each other, their country has never started a world war, has never organized a military training academy in Panama to teach torture techniques ( he’s referencing the School of the Americas). Both Romero and Grande were killed with bullets from the U.S. In a 12 year civil war, $1 million per day went toward military spending for the military government in El Salvador from the U.S. So, whose country is more violent? The priest stopped speaking at that point, and the room became silent.
I will mention this, because I think it’s extraordinarily important: while the people of El Salvador, particularly the poor, take issue with U.S. foreign policy and believe that CAFTA benefits only the rich and the landowners here, they are careful to separate the people from the government. I have never felt any animosity toward any member of our group from anyone in El Salvador. Quite the opposite; they welcome us warmly into their humble offices, their churches, and their villages. They engage us in dialogue, and only want us to hear their side of the story, one which has been largely ignored by the mainstream press. Indeed, they have a great deal of respect for the people of the United States, and have told us so, but they do not respect our foreign policy.
The priest concluded by saying ¨We know what we are supposed to do according to the Gospel, but we do not do it, because it is not in our best interest.¨
As we headed out of El Paisnal, we had to drive around several cows who had decided to take a nap in the middle of the major roadway.
We drove through a huge market at Aguilares, and people swarmed around us.
We lunched at a popular local food chain, Pollo Campero, which served primarily chicken. The space was filled with locals. As we approached the building a small boy came up to me, trying to sell me some juicy-looking tomatoes, and I had to decline. He had adorable, deep dimples and the sweetest face. He was one of three children who approached us near the restaurant, all peddling small items ranging from water to vegetables. We’ve been told that many Salvadorans will take out a loan at an interest rate of 20% per day in order to buy goods to sell on the streets. You see them everywhere, on the boulevards on busy highways, on the sidewalks....everywhere. I don’t need to tell you that this is a difficult way to get ahead, yet in a country with a poverty rate over 70%, where 3/4 of families cook over burning wood, this--selling in the streets--is considered work.
We had a short break...well, an hour to be honest, and I decided to walk to the Metrocentro, the big mall about two-three blocks from our hotel. There’s a coffee shop there, and I thought a nice coffee would help me process all of this information, which frankly often becomes overwhelming. I find myself feeling rather ignorant sometimes...uneducated....but I figure going on this trip is a great way to educate myself and open myself to a new understanding of our world. Anyway, I needed to sit in a clean cafe and enjoy a taste from home, so I went for coffee. As I crossed BLVD Los Heroes, a young boy juggled three balls furiously in front of the traffic, stopped at the red light. He then went from car to car to collect change. I gave him a bit of change and took his photo. I think it’s particularly compelling, because this child could be on any street corner here. It is so common to see people working for small change, begging for it, at the stop lights, that it’s easy to become jaded, to be blind to it. But when a young boy, barefoot and dirty, has to juggle to raise money for his family, it’s hard to turn away.
Well, I sat in the cafe and enjoyed my coffee and watched people selling goods to drivers who passed by, everything from small plastic bags of water to flags of El Salvador, and I watched the well dressed and well fed parade down the street as well and the guard with the rifle at the doorway to the mall, and tried to make sense of it. I had an inspiration then. I thought maybe the little boy would like some ice cream...and a little bit of money to give to his mother for food. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, maybe he hadn’t even had a suitable lunch, but I just thought maybe this little boy never gets ice cream, and maybe this would be the one day where he has a happy story to tell his mom when he gets home. I looked outside the mall; he was still there. So, with this crazy thought in my brain, I hustled to the grocery store and bought an ice cream bar covered in chocolate and nuts for him. But while in the checkout line, I noticed the time on the register monitor: 2:45!!!! The bus was set to leave for our afternoon program at 2:30!!! How had time gone so fast? I ran the previous events in my head....the walk to the mall, stopping to watch the boy, drinking coffee, buying ice cream. I hoped that the clock was wrong, but rushed out of the mall. I handed the little boy the ice cream bar and a bit of money, for your mother.....for your mother....I said....for food. I said this in my awful, butchered Spanish, but he seemed to understand. I ran across the BLVD of Heroes, and up the hillside to the hotel. A car pulled in front of me to enter a gate, honked its horn and waited. I was losing precious seconds! I walked in front of it and then I heard a voice....CHARISH! It was the bus! The whole group was in the bus and coming the opposite direction in traffic, so they opened the door for me and I stepped on the bus and all was well. They worried that I’d become lost in the city, or worse.....but no, I’d just been lost in my own mind.
In the afternoon, we chatted with a Sister about AIDS and HIV in El Salvador. As far as the AIDS epidemic is concerned, El Salvador is a country on the cusp of an explosion. This Sister works at a clinic in El Salvador that tries to head off the problem before it explodes. They face many challenges, ranging from attitudes toward women to rampant infidelity in relationships, to molestation of children, to the legal brothels that operate, to bisexuality--something that is practiced, but rarely discussed. There is a saying here, ¨For every Salvadoran Man, there are seven women.¨ There is another saying, ¨There is no Salvadoran man who is faithful to his wife.¨ You can see how deep this problem is set within the culture of this society. She estimated that 1% of the population in El Salvador now has HIV or AIDS. Many don’t know it, and are spreading it to multiple partners.
To demonstrate the spread of AIDS and HIV in the country, she used a palm full of 20 coins and marked three with an X. We tossed them on to the floor, and if the X came up, we theoretically contracted the disease. It was an interesting role playing exercise.
This presentation, to me, was the most hopeful so far. Clinic workers from this organization travel to parishes throughout El Salvador to educate the people. They also journey with people who learn they have AIDS, help them obtain medicines sometimes, even help them deal with their own mortality. They also provide food to those infected, as poor nutrition can speed the incubation of the disease. With 72% of the infected patients served by this clinic earning less than $100 per month, this is help that is desperately needed.
Dinner consisted of tilapia in sauce, salad, rice and garlic bread. I got a special dish of green beans in cheese, formed into a patty. It was delicious and so unexpected. After dinner, we requested a bit of scraps from the kitchen for the resident turtle, Manuelita, and watched her devour it. It was great entertainment!
We wrapped up the day by discussing what we´d learned and sharing our thoughts.