Eso es alcanzar lo más alto,

lo que tal vez nos dará el Cielo:

no admiraciones ni victorias

sino sencillamente ser admitidos

como parte de una Realidad innegable,

como las piedras y los árboles.

Jorge Luis Borges

Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923)

This is the best that can happen,

What heaven perhaps will grant us:

Not to be wondered at or required

To succeed

But simply to be let in

As part of an undeniable Reality,

Like stones of the road, like trees.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Odds and Ends

I don’t think there will be much of a coherent theme to this post, just more or less a bit of updating.

Things with the host family in Guatemala are going well.  They are an older couple who speak about 10 words of English, the rest is pure Spanish.  Because they try to throw in English words sometimes I’m not sure if they’re really speaking Spanish when a word is similar to English.  Pretty much all the words they know in English I know in Spanish so I keep trying to get them to speak only Spanish.  The problem is that they blurt out a really quick stream of words and when I ask them (in Spanish) to please say it slower, they resort to using simple English words that have very little to do with what they originally said.  I have started saying “No hablo Ingles… me no speak no English!”  They laugh at that and are maybe getting the point.

School unfortunately hasn’t been going quite as well.  I’m struggling with the teacher they assigned me but I should be getting a new one tomorrow.  I hope that doesn’t mean starting over at the beginning but it will use up a bit more time and I haven’t been progressing as much as I could be as it is.

Also, I decided to use the Christmas break to go with another MCC’er to Belize.  We are going to travel around Belize and hit the beaches for Christmas which should be pretty fun.  I had saved up some money from when I was working for various things and a few vacations were included in that.  Since I don’t feel like spending my Christmas here only understanding a smattering of Spanish this seemed like a good idea.

This past weekend we went on a team retreat to Antigua, about 45 minutes away from Guatemala City.  It’s a beautiful old colonial town and I think a UNESCO world heritage site.  For anyone who makes the jaunt to Central America to visit me, Antigua (despite the hoards of tourists) will be on the itinerary.

I’m having some bouts of missing home (not High Level!) but all in all am glad to be here.  I haven’t made much in the way of friends which is a bit lonely but I do have the team here and I’m getting to know some of them.  I went to my country leaders’ house yesterday and learned to make pupusas which is the El Salvadoran national food so when I go back to Canada you’ll all be eating them.

Oh, and I bought a guitar yesterday.  It should be fun learning how to play Central American folk songs. Here is a sample of what you’ll be hearing me play soon!  It’s called All I Ask of God and it is like an unofficial anthem in El Salvador.  You can find an English translation here.

**I wanted to add/edit that when I say I don't miss High Level I mean I don't miss the stress I had.  Some of my best friends were/are there and I definitely do miss them!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Future Not My Own

In the midst of all my verb memorization I thought I’d take some time out to do a little bit of an update:

I had the opportunity to spend last week with the guy who is currently doing the HIV educator position in El Salvador.  I had a really great time and saw a lot of the country side which, in terms of sheer beauty, comes close to paradise.  ANADES, the partner organization I’ll be working with directly is mostly focused on children’s health (including a free medical clinic) and education and they have a fair trade coffee plantation which supplements the cost of their children’s programming. However, they also do other community development work and that’s the department I’ll be in.  I got to meet some of the people (mostly women) receiving support from the AIDS support program.  Many were infected by husbands who have either subsequently left or died.  I got a sense of lots of systemic injustice and discrimination including local doctors who switch antiretroviral meds on patients which takes years off their lives simply because they don’t take the time to keep their supplies stocked, even though the drugs are free through the UN, or they even refuse to give basic medical service, refuse to give common decency like shaking hands with clients and workers because of discrimination, etc. 

Before I left El Salvador on Sunday to come back to Guatemala for language school, I had a chance to attend a celebration/memorial mass on Saturday night for 6 Jesuit priests who were massacred by the Salvadorian military (heavily funded by the American government).  Here’s a bit of background:

On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests - Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno, and Amado Lopez - were murdered by the Salvadoran military on the campus of the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador. Their housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celia Marisela Ramos, were murdered there as well. The Jesuits were labeled subversives by the Salvadoran Government for speaking out against the oppressive socioeconomic structure of Salvadoran society. Their assassinations were ordered for their unwavering defense of the poor.
The Jesuits were six of over 70,000 victims who died in El Salvador’s civil war which raged in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The vast majority of these victims were civilians killed by El Salvador’s armed forces and paramilitary death squads. The death of the Jesuits brought international outrage and condemnation upon the Salvadoran Government and pressured them to negotiate an end to their country’s civil war.

The mass, which started off with a march around the UCA campus, also celebrated the life and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was similarly assassinated for his very vocal opposition to the oppression by the military and the oligarchy in El Salvador, as well as other institutions including the church when they neglect their duty to stand in solidarity with the poor.  After the march and the mass, they have a couple bands play.  I stuck around for a bit but I had to go home around midnight because I needed to be up at 4:30 to catch my bus out to Guatemala.  I hear later into the night it gets really fun with people dancing in the street.  Too bad I missed that but I plan to stick around for the whole thing next year.

One of the MCC Staff back in Pennsylvania sent me a poem by Oscar Romero that sums up some of what I hope to understand at it’s most fundamental level during my time here.  It is:


It helps, now and then, to step back

And take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, 

It is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of

The magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,

Which is another way of saying

That the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection…

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

Knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything

And there is a sense of liberation realizing that.

This enables us to do something,

And to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

An opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results…

We are prophets of a future not our own.
(Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated for speaking up for God's Kingdom and justice in 1980.)

Images of the civil war, and the thousands of lives it cost are everywhere.  Even though the war is over in a technical sense, it lives on and is felt in systemic injustice by, for example, women who don’t have access to basic health care and are thwarted in their attempts to stay alive just so that they can eek out an existence for themselves and their children.  So to step back, take the long view, and think about planting seeds for a future not my own is confusing.  But, like Romero says, it’s also liberating. 

Enough said.  I have to get back to my verbs.

Preguntar (ask!)
Jugar (play!)
Soñar (dream!)
Dar (give!)
Llorar (cry!)
Gritar (scream!)
Cantar (sing!)
Construiur (build!)
Preguntar (ask… again!)
Plantar (plant!)
Trabajar (work!)
Reir (laugh!)
Bailar (dance!)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

NYC and a message of hope

Yesterday I went with some fellow orientee's to New York City for the day.  When I first found out about the trip I decided that I would plan to do just a few things there instead of trying to cram too much in, so I booked myself tickets to Wicked , a broadway musical about the "untold" story of the wicked witch of the west.  The underlying message of the musical was about history being the story told by whoever comes out on top.  I quite agree.

Before that I also spent some time wandering around central park.  I was surprised at how huge the park actually is and I managed to lose my way a few times before finding my way back out.  Here are some images from the park:

The trip was meaningful because, as anyone who knew me years ago could attest, I used to be completely obsessed with New York City.  It represented everything that small town northern Alberta definitely was not.  I wanted excitement, energy, new and interesting experiences and to come in contact with people and ideas that could shake me up and make me feel incredibly alive.  Being a musician, I dreamed about a life in the arts, with Broadway being the ultimate dream.  In contrast what I had felt like a dull, dreary world with no change, no excitement, and no way out.  So it was with some confusion that I left NYC yesterday thinking, "well, I guess I can check that off my list" and realizing that I have no great desire to ever go back.

Then today at church instead of a sermon there was a play centered on Luke 24, verses 13-33.  It tells the story, after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, of two men who are traveling and talking about everything that happened.  The drama did a good job of creating two characters in deep pain, including one who was emotionally shaken to the core, and the other who was angry and finding his whole belief system dismantled.  Even though Jesus walked with them for many hours and listened to their pain, their confusion and their questions, he did not reveal himself until they were at their destination.  The travelers did not believe that he had been resurrected and so they could not see him for who he was.  It made me think about how so many times it's hard to see what is new because we are still stuck in the past.  We can't recognize the opportunities we have because we can't let go of preconceived and stubbornly held pictures of what we think we want.  

I never would have thought that NYC could really mean so little to me, or that going to a place like El Salvador to do HIV education could have the potential to engage and excite me on such a deep level.  There is a kind of loss even in that.  I remember the idealized and perfected images I used to have of what would make me happy, and subsequently how they have been painfully knocked out of me one at a time.  I wonder if in the end by not getting what I wanted I got something better.  I think it must be about how we grow into ourselves, and about learning to see opportunities, sometimes even in the midst of loss, and taking life up on them instead of stubbornly clinging to what we think should be.  

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Presents, parties and goodbyes

Things seem to be speeding up toward my departure.  I finished work and sent in the final copy of my thesis all on the same day (Sept 30).  Then last night I had my goodbye party for work out at Cindy and Mark's cabin at the lake.  The staff had raided the ER shelves and so I got lots of medical supplies, some of which I think might cause some questions at the border crossings:
If you can't see in detail everything that's included it's probably for the best.
They also gave me this t-shirt which I can see myself wearing while I'm trying to hitch a ride on some central american highway:
And lastly, this key chain:
It's a poem by Argentine writer and philosopher Jorge Luis Borges and in case you can't read it, it says:

This is the best that can happen-
What heaven perhaps will grant us:
Not to be wondered at or required
To succeed
But simply to be let in
As part of an undeniable Reality,
Like stones of the road, like trees.

It's a poem that really struck me a few years back and I think it's a really good framework to go to Central America with.  It's easy to feel completely inadequate in any social work job because the need is so much greater than any resources we might have to offer.  The problems are always complex and often there are no clear cut solutions.  I know I'll probably feel even more inadequate in El Salvador so I want to keep in mind what's important, which is letting people in.  I'm glad that I've got it on a key chain so I can remind myself of that often!  Here's a link to the article about mental health and social inclusion where I first saw this for anyone who might be so inclined.
Well, I need to get my house packed so I guess that is enough stalling for today.  I've got the next three days to pack everything and bring it to mom and dad's where we'll be having a garage sale on Thursday and Friday and getting rid of almost everything.  Then is Thanksgiving weekend, and I leave the following Sunday.  Like I said, this leaving seems to really be speeding up.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Name That Blog!

I just lost my first attempt to write a post but that's ok because it was kind of boring and serious anyway.  So instead, I'll start with a list of possible names I came up with for this blog.  They are:
  • El Salvawhere?
  • I think I have lost my everloving mind
  • Do volunteers really get paid in tins of guacamole?
  • How do you say, "Don't mug me, the only thing I've got on me is this blue plastic Crohn's bracelet" in Spanish?
However, "I think I missed the turnoff to Pouce Coupe" (poos-koopy) won because me and Shelber came up with it during a fb chat.  For those of you not in the know, Pouce Coupe is a little town up here in the north and we were joking that I was going to wake up in El Salvador one morning and think, "crap, where am I, did I miss the turnoff to Pouce Coupe?", just because really, me going to Pouce Coupe for any reason is about as ridiculous as me going to El Salvador for three years.  The other names are pretty self explanatory.

So for the past few months I have been scrambling like mad to get my thesis finished and defended and now revised.  On top of that I've been working full time as a manager with Alberta Health Services, as well as trying to sell my house, my furniture, my car, and everything else that won't fit into the two suitcases I'll be taking with me on my 3 year journey to El Salvador.  If you are like many people, you may ask where El Salvador is (and hence the first alternative blog name).  Google it.  The second question I get is "why El Salvador?"  Well, basically I've signed up for a three year assignment doing HIV education with a local organization called the New Dawn Association of El Salvador (ANADES) with funding for the position provided by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).  The assignment is partly HIV prevention and partly advocacy for people living with AIDS.  I leave from Edmonton to Pennsylvania on October 17 for an 11 day orientation, then on to Guatemala for a couple of months of language study, and then on to El Salvador.  Quite a few people are interested in what I'll be doing, so I decided to start a blog about the whole process.  And since I haven't really had time to wrap my brain around the fact that I am actually doing this, I decided I'd start the blog before I leave as a way to give myself some time to realize what is about to happen.  I haven't really had much time to spend processing this all, and I've jolted awake a few nights in a bit of panic and craving cigarettes.  I think blogging may be the more emotionally and physically responsible outlet for these feelings.  So here goes, I hope to post lots of pictures because that's usually what I'm interested in, and I also hope to use this blog to talk about what it's like down there without getting too preachy about gluttonous North American Walmart-loving economically enslaving spiritually void masses in their mcmansions.  But that shouldn't be a problem.

So... bon voyage to me and here's to the bit of narcissistic pleasure known as blogging.  Enjoy!