A ton of text for this first monster. Future blogs will have photos. And WAY less text!
June 23 – 28, 2017
Day 1 – Central Presbyterian Church delegation.
What a day!
We landed in El Salvador about midnight on the cusp of June 22/23rd. Alfredo had been looping the airport waiting for us and within 2 minutes, he found us! We drove to Casa Antigua Guest House where Medardo (the manager and owner) was waiting to welcome us and settle us into our rooms. We were all asleep by 2 a.m.
We woke before 7 a.m. to begin our day. We had so much on the schedule, we really couldn’t afford to delay our departure. After a yummy breakfast, Alfredo loaded our suitcases into the microbus and we were on our way by 8:30. First stop: Parque Cuscatlán to visit the Wall in memory and honor of the civilians who were killed and disappeared during the 12 year civil war. There is a fantastic mural that depicts the history of the country. We begin here our journey here. Next we went to CIS to purchase some artisan goods to support local women’s groups. That was a quick stop! Then we traveled to the Divina Providencia (a small cancer hospital) where Monseñor Oscar Romero lived when he was arch-bishop and then the chapel where he was assassinated on March 24, 1980. Here we heard the testimony of one of the Carmelite nuns who is dedicated to telling the truth and testimony of his life and martyrdom. From there we went to the UCA. The University of Central America: a private Jesuit university which is the site of the massacre of 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in November 16, 1989. We visited the on-site Museum of the Martyrs and saw the rose garden dedicated in their honor. We also visited the unique chapel on the campus with the graphic and disturbing etchings which create the Stations of the Cross. From there we went to the Artisan Shops for a buffet lunch and some simple shopping for those who needed some gifts for their loved ones. By 2 p.m., we headed to the National Cathedral to visit the tomb of Oscar Romero. Then we were finally off to Berlín. It is a beautiful 2-hour drive to Berlín. Everyone enjoyed the unique (to them) scenery of mountains, volcanos, sugar cane fields, steep corn and bean fields, cows, horses, chickens and little shops right on the Pan-American highway! Alfredo got us there safely!
We were welcomed to the Pastoral House by Cecilia and Margarita. (Blanca and Idalia had already gone home for the day). We settled into our rooms, learned the ‘etiquette’ of the house – the process for a (hopefully) warm shower, how to flush, etc. etc. We had a very tasty dinner, shared our reflections and had a relatively early to bed night. Tomorrow will be another long and busy day!!
Thanks for checking in every day!
Day two with the Central Presbyterian Church delegation!
We drove the 2+ hour trip to El Mozote to listen to María del Fina give the testimony of the massacre of more than 1000 people on December 11th of 1981. Every man, woman and over 460 children, the youngest of which was 3 days old, were savagely murdered. Please read “The Massacre of El Mozote” (R. Bonner). It is one of the many tragic events during the 12-year civil war here in El Salvador. Maria said there were over 375 massacres throughout the country during that time, but El Mozote was the largest. The military lured the people from the surrounding villages saying that the Red Cross was coming to give out food supplies. They gathered everyone in the central square of this small village, separated the men, women and children to different locations then proceeded to massacre them in groups of 20. The men bound, beaten then shot. The women, bound, beaten then shot (the young women between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken up to the hills to be abused and violated prior to being killed). All the adult bodies were thrown into a couple of nearby homes and torched to try to destroy the evidence. The children were not shot. They did not want to waste bullets. The details of those deaths are too disturbing to type here for potential young eyes. One woman managed to escape, hiding in thorny bushes then in all the chaos, crawling between the legs of cattle and through thorn thickets to be able to get away. Her testimony was not believed for a long time. (Read the book.)
From El Mazote, we went to the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution in the town of Perquin. Our guide Oscar introduced us to the 5 rooms dedicated to different aspects of the war: the causes, solidarity, armaments, peace accords and some equipment of Radio Venceremos. We also saw the remains of several helicopters, including the one where Coronel Domingo Monterossa met his end. (Read the book.) We saw the crater of a 500# bomb and the same type bomb that had fallen without exploding. The explosives were carefully removed and used by the guerilla forces to make grenades and other small explosives.
After the museum we visited a mock-up of a mobile guerrilla camp. Our guide showed us how Radio Venceremos was used to communicate between guerilla groups. We saw examples of their mobile kitchen, their makeshift ‘hospital’, a couple of tatus (underground bunkers and tunnels), arms and remains of vehicles and helicopters and two somewhat scary “rope” bridges strung over deep ravines. These bridges have been made safer for the visitors with thick wire and reinforced rope and strong, wooden planks. The originals would have been much more rickety, but easy to dismantle if they needed to quickly move the camp.
From there, we drove down the road a couple of minutes and enjoyed a lovely lunch at Perkin Lenca, a local restaurant, then headed back to Berlín. We arrived back at the Pastoral House around 4:30 pm (5:30 Iowa time). Needless to say, our reflections tonight were pretty heavy!
IF you made it this far, thanks for reading!
Day 3 with the Central Presbyterian Church delegation:
What an incredible day! We got to sleep in a little. Breakfast was at 7 and was massive (eggs, pancakes, beans, novias and fresh French bread rolls. After the dishes were done, we walked to the Berlín market to look around and enjoy the hub-bub of the very active Sunday market. SO many people come in from the villages as well as from outside of town to sell whatever they have: every variety of meat, fish, seafood, fruits, veggies, grains, clothing, shoes, kitchen household needs, undergarments, medicines, eggs, personal hygiene items, batteries, jewelry, tablecloths, machetes. You name it, you could probably find it! It is crowded, bustling, noisy and you come away energized. Lots of greetings, beckoning to come buy and lots of beautiful photo ops!
At 9 a.m., we went to mass in the Berlín cathedral. It doesn’t really matter that the delegation cannot understand what is specifically being said. The presence of God is felt within those walls. The music, the scriptures (which I read in English during breakfast), the prayers are felt in our hearts.
Father Santos was presiding and I think this was the shortest mass I have ever attended here! We were out the door by 10:15 even after taking time to take photos after everyone left. We walked to the overlook for a lovely view down below town then headed back to the Pastoral House for lunch. And a lovely lunch it was! Tasty hamburgers, a smorgasbord of delicious veggies and rice.
After washiing dishes, we hopped into the back of the KIA truck and began out drive out to Muñoces. It is a 45-50 minute ride on progressively bumpier dirt roads. Some areas very steep.
And. Oh. My. Gosh. What a welcome we received! The entire Directiva was there. Normally there is at least one or two people missing! In addition, at least 70% of the residents were there sitting in the yard area in front of the church. In addition, there were home-made pennants strung across the yard area! They created a beautiful archway with palm fronts and crepe paper streamers! In addition! The Muñoces band was playing! A violin, 3 guitars, bass, bongos, ‘scrapers’ and fabulous voices serenaded us in welcome! In addition! There was a table set up in the middle of the yard full of the fruits and veggies that are grown in the community. Corn, beans, platanos, pipian, guisquil, green beans, oranges, jacotes, mimones, mangos (both green and ripe), green pepper, smaller “chicken” peppers, chipilin, yuca and avocados. Amazingly beautiful! After a song, the Directiva introduced themselves and we talked a little about the community. Julie wanted to hear about the students in the community. All the elementary students came forward. Then the middle school students came forward. We shared some good conversation. The community had some questions about us … we had some questions for them. We took a little break. The Pastoral Team and I had a brief visit with all of the Directiva to share with them the accounting books with the balances in their health fund and general fund so they could discuss amongst themselves how best to utilize those funds. While this was happening, the rest of the delegation enjoyed a few more songs. We then all got back together to talk some more – about more personal things. We enjoyed a wee bit of laughter and friendship. The Directiva said that they had prepared a snack. Not just for us, but for the entire community. Everyone enjoyed some fresh watermelon. After this, the community folks went home and we continued a meeting with just the Directiva to talk about the struggles of the community. Most of the Directiva participated and shared things about the difficulties of their children to obtain an education beyond 9th grade. They have to go to Tablón Centro for 7th – 9th grade and all the way to Berlín for high school. We talked about health care. Or the lack thereof. We talked a little about the past. The school in town has only been there for 17 years. Two of the Directiva had their first and second grade ‘classes’ held in the church! Then they went to Tablón Centro for the rest of their education. We talked about farming. We took a short drive and checked out a corn field right across from the school. There, Mauricio gave us a talk about the process from seed to harvest. We asked about all those expenses. It is expensive to grow a crop here! It is so good to hear the testimony of real people explaining the realities of their struggles. I can talk all I want. But the truth from the mouths of those struggling is very powerful.
We are very grateful to these wonderful people for providing us with a very important education. They are very good teachers. The speak truth from their hearts and from their experiences. Thank you Muñoces friends for your time, your warm welcome, your friendship and for voicing your truth.
Day 4 with the Central Presbyterian Church delegation:
We only went to one place today. One would think it would not be too taxing or exhausting – but we are quite tuckered! It was a very good day. We went to Los Yanez. This is a community with only 22 families. The Pastoral House has only been working with them since 2011 (ish). We didn’t know they were there!! Somehow we were introduced. After our first visit there (just Blanca, Cecilia and I), the ladies could not get over their poverty. They said they had never seen anything like it. They are pretty remote – 20 minutes or so (by truck) on a very small road that off-shoots a slightly larger road that off-shoots off the “main” road. All of these roads are not paved. They have areas that are cobblestone but it’s mostly dirt, rock and this time of year, mud.
We arrived after our 50 minute truck ride and as normal, everyone (who was able) was there waiting for us under the shade of a huge amate tree. There are hugs and greetings and many words of welcome for our visit. The people in this community are SO very friendly. They love to hug. They always shower people with God’s blessings. We all introduced ourselves. Most of the Directiva were present. Two were sick and could not be there. One had a commitment at the school. The delegation asked some questions about the community and their needs. We talked about education, health, farming, water issues, electricity, and housing problems. Everyone shared a little about the struggles in that community. We also celebrated some joys.
One very joyful moment was visiting their new little church! It was amazing. They used to worship in a small section of somebody’s dirt floor home. The community worked together to solicit different people/groups and businesses to collaborate to build this little church. City Hall, the owner of the construction materials store, the owner of the gas station, Westminster Church and even the local Parish Church helped out. It is beautiful. Now the community has a proper place to worship. And worship and praise they do! The Los Yanez church band played for us and we shared a heartfelt prayer. Then they played and sang a bit more. They had a small guitar, bongos, a ‘scraper’ and a large three-stringed bass.
From here, we made a slippery trek up to the cave!
This cave is about a 20+ minute walk UP from the main area of the village. It was a long and slippy hike up 3 weeks ago when I went with the Westminster group, but it is deeper into the rainy season and it was way worse! There were several areas where shoes literally got sucked into the mud and bodies slid. The Directiva members accompanying us were so wonderful about taking our hands and helping us traverse the worst spots! It was an adventure in muck but we finally made it. This is a huge cave with walls and ceiling of pure rock. There is a niche/grotto built at the mouth of the cave and another within the cave. A statue of Mary sits there for a while, the community goes up to the cave with band instruments (guitars, violins and even a huge bass) and they pray, sing, reflect and process back down to the central area of the village. During the war, a mortar was shot into the cave and destroyed part of the grotto.
We walked/slid back down to the main area of town and enjoyed a delicious Pupusa lunch.
After a bit of a rest, we began a trek down to visit some homes. Ismael said we went about a kilometer and a half. What a joy to visit these families. We saw the matriarch. She is 90 years old and has leg problems. She had an ulcer that had to be removed quite some time ago and it is still trying to heal! It did look better than 3 weeks ago! It is healing slowly, but seems to be healing well.
We took it slow going back up the ‘road’ because it is quite steep, muddy and lengthy. And it was HOT. We took several small breathers but we managed to finally get to the top.
We rested a bit. Said our good-byes and expressed our gratitude for time and effort and friendship. After many hugs and blessings, we loaded up in the KIA for the 50 minute ride home. We were all a muddy mess so took our baths before supper. And some of us are a wee bit achy (read that: me!).
But oh what a wonderful day!
Day 5 with the Central Presbyterian Church delegation:
Today after our delicious breakfast, we took a drive farther down the road to El Jicaro to visit with and learn about a women’s cooperative. For this trip, we go down the mountain towards Mercedes Umaña (if you like to look at maps, you could find these places!) and then turn down the road which leads to La Geo (the geo-thermal plant). We continue on past Montañita and El Recreo to finally arrive in El Jicaro. This community is part of Mercedes Umaña but the Pastoral Team has been working with this women’s group since 2008.
Susana, the president of the Directiva of the Cooperative, told a bit of the history of this group. There are 35 members. They began organizing in 2003 with the motive to learn about and work to defend the rights of women. The age span of the group is from 18-85. About half the women are single mothers. They meet monthly to support each other with their daily life’s struggles and concerns. They also attend workshops when available to learn about the laws concerning the rights of women. The group became a nationally recognized and legal entity in 2013. They attempted to legalizing via the mayor’s office in Mercedes Umaña, but there was enough of a ‘machismo’ attitude with the people in control, that they were not considered or supported. They ended up working with an organization within the government that supports grass-roots efforts in organizing cooperatives. They really persevered to reach their goal!
Many of the women shared about their lives and their struggles and the struggles within their community. It is a similar story everywhere in this country! The problems to find access to health care. Jicaro has a ‘dispensary’ in the community, but it is only staffed by a health promoter. The doctor from their ECO (community clinic) comes to the dispensary to work only 2 times a month and her focus is for children and pregnant women. And there are NO supplies in this dispensary. The Ministry of Health provided one examination bed, a stand on scale and a metal shelf. The bed, desk, plastic table and few chairs were donated by the Health Promoter from the community. There are no medicines. No first aid supplies.
There is a school in town that goes to 9th grade. Hardly anyone goes on to high school. It is too far away. There is no employment. People are subsistent farmers and survive on what they can grow. That is corn and beans.
The expressed appreciation to the Pastoral Team for their support. From them they have been given chairs for their meetings, fertilizer for their farms, latrines for the families of the cooperative, emergency food relief packets during the 3 year drought, a first aid kit for the dispensary (acetaminophen, etc).
This women’s group works hand in hand with the community Directiva as well. They are in the final steps of a latrine project for 30 more families in the community!
They are a strong and united group of women!
This type of woman’s group is a rarity. There are only two such groups within the Berlín and Mercedes Umaña municipalities! It takes dedication and perseverance! They deserve an applause!
We walked down to the little dispensary and spoke with the doctor (who is serving her ‘social’ year – at half pay. It is like a residency). This was not her day to be in town, but the women’s group asked her to come if she could. And she did! We spoke with her and the health promotor about the specific concerns of the area. Mostly repeating what was spoken about earlier. We were able to ‘tour’ the building and see the sparseness – actually more like the total lack of – supplies and materials.
We walked back to Susana’s house for a delicious vegetable soup and Gallina India with rice and fresh tomato and cucumber. We were able to talk more informally with the doctor and promoter! It was a pleasant visit.
After lunch, we hopped into the KIA and drove about 2 kilometers down the road to the river. It is a wide river that was very calm and not too deep. There were huge rocks that the water cascaded around. We were able to wade a bit in the water and I enjoyed searching for and finding Conacaste seeds. We relaxed at the river for about 45 minutes or so then said our goodbyes to Susana and the 3 women that accompanied us.
We got home relatively early so could walk to a small grocery store for some chips and treats. And Randy wanted to buy some beans and salt to bring home!
We enjoyed our supper of tacos, shared some reflections and high-lights of the day and hit the hay early. Yet another great day!
Day 6 with the Central Presbyterian Church delegation:
This was our last day here in Berlín! :o(
This morning we hopped in the truck to trek up to El Rescate. There are some great projects in the works up there. We thought it important to share with this delegation. They are such a warm, kind and generous people. They are only 17 families but their commitment to work together to improve their situation is very impressive! We arrived to find several people already at their little community house. We greeted and hugged and chit chatted a bit. Then we went inside where the secretary of the Directiva asked us to write our names and sign the ACTA: their official book to record minutes of important meetings. Then they brought everyone a cup of coffee and pan dulce prior to beginning our meeting. When we finally began, the Directiva introduced themselves. Then all the community people stood and said their names. Then we introduced ourselves. The President of the Directiva could not be there with us, so he put a young man in charge of the agenda. Several people had been asked to share a little about different topics. First we received a run-down of the community data; there are 24 men, 16 women, 12 girls, 10 boys. There are 10 girls and 7 boys attending school. It takes them about an hour and a half to walk to Berlín to school. There is a K-3 school up in San Lorenzo (a 45-minute walk) but the older children go all the way to Berlín! Next we received a brief version of the community’s history. There used to be 45-50 families. But since the area was ‘hot’ during the war, most people left. It began to repopulate after the war in spite of being so remote. They worked together as a cooperative (which began its formation during the war. There was a housing project and many nice block homes were built. Then came the 2001 earthquake. And that totally destroyed most of the new houses! Most people moved away since a land assessment deemed the area dangerous. 8 families chose to stay and rebuild. They have grown to 17 families. During the war, they got connected with an organization called COMUS. They were instrumental in helping them develop a cooperative and learn a variety of skills including the formation of a coffee finca (farm). In the years following, COMUS helped them connect with a variety of other organizations. Including organizing and legalizing their community. Intervida (another NGO) was instrumental in that process. Not all communities take advantage of such a ‘gift’ and they expressed gratitude for all they support they received from those institutions.
In just a few short years they have created a decent coffee farm, have learned how to make their coffee crop totally organic – making and using their own recipes for fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides. They learned how to grow from seed their own coffee plants to replenish and grow their finca. They now have a beautiful coffee nursery! They have also begun a project involving cacao thanks to CARITAS. Their dream is to have their own machines and drying patios to process their own coffee to be able to sell their product at a better price. He said that it is important to have hope and to dream!
He continued with a bit of history. Originally this area was a large plantation. This plantation had 3 large water collection tanks which don’t serve their original purpose and are mostly non-functional. With funds from Rainbow of Hope for Children, they repaired the tanks enough to be able to care for their coffee nursery.
Another project they began while Co-Worker Katherine Pater was here (She was instrumental in making that connection!) is a slow drip irrigation system. Several communities received training and the supplies they needed to make a small garden. El Rescate is one of two recipients that actually put it into use. They began during the dry season of this year (which is the idea of the slow drip system – you can grow veggies with minimal water!). They took the gift and training seriously and now have a huge community garden with tomatoes, peppers, green beans, radishes, carrots, mustard, chipilin, onions and cucumbers. Some of these they shared with us for lunch. What an exciting thing to witness such success! El Rescate has a larger garden than originally planned because they received a 2nd set of supplies when another community gave the parts back because they were not going to use it.
Wendy, the ‘Sindica’ (the position that handles all legal matters for the community) spoke briefly about the role of women in the community. She said most of the women work the farms, pick and care for the coffee in addition to caring for their home, children and spouse. And as we could see she said, some of the women have additional responsibilities within the Directiva!
Another man spoke of the needs of the community. He mentioned that there is no electricity nor running water. They have no real place to collect rain water.
Another man spoke of the work they have done with the Pastoral House. They began their relationship in 2012. After meeting and talking, the community agreed that they would like to work with the Pastoral Team and totally agreed with the expectations and ‘regulations’ of the Pastoral House (regulations such as always working with honesty, sincerity, unity, attend the bi-monthly meetings at the Pastoral House, etc.) The first support they received from the Team were chairs for their meetings. Next they received the 2,500 liter water collection tanks for each home. Next they rec’d a solar panel system for their community building. And an Iowa church is collecting money to continue a solar panel system for each home. They were also the connection with Rooted in Hope (the NGO that provided the drip irrigation system). They expressed admiration for the work that the Pastoral Team does every day! Their dream is to one day have an Iowa church partnership! (hint hint!)
We took a break from talking and shared lunch all together! EVERYONE enjoyed the meal of veggie soup, chicken, rice, fresh veggies and tortillas. Delicious! Then we had a piñata party! We brought two. One for the girls and one for the boys! What fun! After the chaos and laughter of the piñata breaking, we had cake to share. What a treat.
Then we went for a little walk to see some coffee plants and learn a little more about that process. We visited the drip irrigation garden and learned even more. We saw the ancient water tanks and saw some of the old earthquake-destroyed homes.
Sadly, we needed to leave. We expressed our gratitude for the time taken to educate us knowing that there is always work to do! They are a very close knit and hard-working community! It was a joy to spend time with them and learn of their lives: their needs, struggles, joys, successes and dreams.
When we got back to the house, we had a little time to visit an old friend who has a shop where he makes shirts tie-dyed and decorated with indigo! Hector learned the process of making the dye from the actual plant. He explained the process to us, showed us the products he has to sell and he even makes special orders. Needless to say, I bought a couple of things and plan to bring other delegations to check out his shop and talent!
The tradition for the final night of a delegation is to take the Pastoral Team out to dinner as an expression of our gratitude. We are all tired at this point! So we enjoy relaxing a bit and sitting all together to share a meal, conversation and some silliness. This delegation was awesome. Serious when needed, attentive to the people, interested in learning, open to all they were hearing, kind, sensitive, funny. It was a great week. Thank you SO much Central Presbyterian Church for sharing these four fabulous people with us. What an honor and privilege for me to be able to accompany them! I’m a lucky gal!
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