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.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Poem of Love

I went to the Museum of the Word and the Image in San Salvador today.  It’s a place thick with sorrow and an energy that I can’t name, a place where a knot builds in your throat as you catch another glimpse of the incredible violence that this country lived through such a short time ago.  The Salvadoran civil war lasted from 1980 to 1992, and as I was looking at images I tried to place myself somehow in them, like, “this massacre happened when I was in grade 9”. 

I know embarrassingly little about El Salvador’s history.  But what I do know is that the ruling elite which were powerful families backed by the Salvadoran military owned virtually all of the country's wealth while the other 99 percent of El Salvador’s population lived in extreme poverty.  When populist movements tried to rectify this, they were branded communists by the American government who then pumped in money to train more of the country’s youth to kill their own people and maintain the status quo by military force. 

There’s a great little room in the museum called “The cave of the passions” which is a re-creation of the broadcasting booth for “FMLN venceremos”, the official voice of one of the protest movements.  It’s got the broadcasting equipment, and pictures and documents of the FMLN in action. 

But what got me thinking the most was how the US (and Canada, through complicity and silence) sacrificed countless lives in order to maintain Empire (world control and bargain prices for the north American consumer).  And it was an impossible situation for people to live in, so they made dangerous and sometimes deadly journeys to the north in search of a liveable life, just to become the serving class in our caste system.

One of the poems that grabbed me and shook me is by Roque Dalton (1935-1975), and it’s a love poem for his countrymen.

Poem of Love

The ones who widened the Panama Canal
(and were classified “silver roll” and not “gold roll”),
the ones who repaired the Pacific fleet
on the bases of California,
the ones who rotted in the jails of Guatemala,
Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua,
for stealing, smuggling, fraud,
for being hungry,
the always-suspected-of-everything
(“permit me to haul you in
for suspicious streetcorner loitering
with the aggravated charge of being Salvadoran”),
the women who filled the bars and whorehouses
of all the ports and capitals of the Zone
(“The Blue Cavern”, “Panties”, “Happyland”)
the planters of corn deep in foreign jungles,
the kings of the red page,
the ones no one ever knows where they’re from,
the best artisans in the world,
the ones who were stitched apart by bullets crossing the border,
the ones who died of malaria
or of scorpion bites or yellow fever
in the hells of banana plantations,
the ones who drunkenly cry for the national anthem
beneath Pacific cyclones or northern snows,
the moochers, the beggars, the pot-heads,
the guanacos sons of bitches,
the ones who were barely able to return,
the ones with a little more luck,
the eternal undocumented ones,
the jacks-of-all-trades, the salesmen-of-everything, the ones who’ll eat anything,
the first to pull out the knife,
the saddest of the world’s sad,
my compatriots,
my brothers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Honduras y otras cosas

It´s been a really long time since my last post.  Again, so much has happened that I know I´ll never be able to give a real update on what all has taken place.  But some of the highlights have been that I spent some time with my MCC team for a retreat to the Mayan ruins in Copán, Honduras.  I would put captions underneath the pictures but I don't really know much about them.  But they are beautiful and very impressive. 

Some of the other highlights have been that I have finally started giving workshops on my own and really just getting more involved in more aspects of my job.  My first workshop went surprisingly well.  I found the youth to be funny, engaging, very intelligent and eager to learn.  Part of my work with this particular group will also be in starting up a small initiative aimed at making a little bit of money, but more importantly at working together (there are nine youth in this group) to achieve a common vision.  They decided that they wanted to buy a cow with the funds, and that they will be taking turns taking care of it.  They also want to learn to make cheese, probably ¨fresco¨, which is a soft, sharp, salty kind of cheese that usually goes with breakfast, and sometimes lunch and dinner.  Aparently none of us actually know how to make it so I´ll be trying to get someone to give us a workshop on cheese making.

I´ve also given a few other workshops which I haven´t felt quite as positive about.  Although the youth were really great, I think they were more timid and so that made it really hard to lead.  And of coure the more nervous I get, the more I start mumbling and my brain goes blank and I´m trying to think of the right words and how to put them together in Spanish while having everyone look at me either like I´m crazy or some kind of alien.  But I was debriefing with a co-worker and good friend here at ANADES who pointed out that it´s just another environment that I need to get comfortable in.  And I´ve noticed that I really have no fear in speaking spanish in most situations anymore, so what´s one more environment to conquer?

I´ve also been attending the support group for people living with HIV and AIDS.  Part of my role is to provide ¨emotional and spiritual support¨ to the people in this group. That means that at some point I should start also going and visiting them at their homes.  And I want to, I just know from experience what happens to my health when I do too much and burn out.  Anyway, the guy who is in charge of this project told me that they used to have funds for a psychologist to work with this group on a contract basis but no longer have the funds.  He knew that I was a mental health therapist in a former life and so asked me if I´d be willing to lead the group counseling sessions.  That really made my day, and I told him that I can see myself being comfortable doing that in time, maybe 4 months or so.  The difference between that and what I´m doing with the workshops is that you really use a different level of language.  For example, a lot of the workshops are concrete and factual, and I can plan before hand what I want to talk about.  In a counseling session the content is emotional (conditional and all the subjunctive tenses) which is a much more difficult level of language.  And I would just hate to have things happen that I should be responding to but am either not catching or am not able to express emotionally what I want to say.  So there is a future challenge.

Lastly, my brother in law is getting re-married in September and I plan to be back in Canada for the wedding.  I´ve got 3 weeks of vacation for this year and so have just decided to use it all during that time.  I didn´t realize that I was homesick until I started to think about all the thinks I´ve missed from home.  So it´s been really good to have that trip to look forward to.

I hope to see many of you, my faithful readers (haha), when I come back to Canada in September.  Until the next time, take care!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Apartment Photos

Here are the long anticipated photos of my new apartment in San Salvador.  I'll take you on a tour of the neighbourhood and then show you my house.

The Calle Washington where I catch the bus
Walking down the street from the bus, the blue building is a school
A little tienda

The pupuseria where I usually eat supper

This is a little licuado (blended fruit smoothy) place

Here is the pasaje leading to my house

The gate from the outside

The gate from the inside

The yard

More yard

My house!  The upper floor is mine

The pila with clothes soaking for me to wash later

My balcony

View from my balcony

Another view from my balcony, when I've had a hard day I just remember that not everyone gets mango trees and palm trees in their backyard


More kitchen


More bedroom
 Hope you enjoyed the tour!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New Apartment

It’s a long time since I’ve given an update.  I had wanted to write a few posts, one specifically about the civil war memorial wall downtown of which I’ve got some really nice pictures.  But when I sat down to write them the ideas didn’t really make any sense so I’ll let things simmer a little bit longer and learn a little bit more about that whole aspect of life here before I try to dive in again.

Instead, I’ll give an update on the happenings of my life.  I think most people know by now that I’ve got my own place and moved in a couple of weeks ago.  I will take some pictures and post them soon.  It’s got a beautiful courtyard with lots of trees, including a mango tree and a palm tree.  The neighbours are pleasant and I only share my pila with my downstairs neighbours who are a mom and her two teenagers.  For those of you who didn’t see my facebook post, this is a pila:

The instructions on the picture say it all. 

I also have termites and cockroaches which I think are pretty common, but on top of everything else that I am learning now I have to figure out how to deal with this.  So I’m going to the hardware store to ask what I should do.  Oh, and have been without water for a week although last night it was working again for half an hour, so I was able to take a shower.  I’ve mostly been taking buckets of water from the pila up to my shower and splashing myself off that way.  At first I grumble about it and then I think about the people who work longer days than I do and are trying to raise families without having water.  They say it’s going to be shut off for another 2 weeks with brief intervals of being on at night so that people can fill up their pila’s I guess.

Today at lunch I asked a coworker for instructions on how to get somewhere in the city on the bus.  I understood for the most part, except that I took it in the wrong direction!  So when I realized that I got off, asked someone on the street for directions and then got on another bus.  They told me this bus would take me there but it didn’t.  So the bus driver gave me more directions, I got on another bus and eventually got to where I needed to be.  However, once I had gotten what I needed and crossed the street to go back, there were no buses.  You’d think with the amount of times I’ve needed to get to ANADES I would remember the address by now.  But I never do, so there I am stammering away about this place I need to get to with yet another stranger on the street.  But I must be getting fairly eloquent because he told me to walk down a few blocks and catch a different bus, which I did and which took me directly back to ANADES.  As I was looking out the windows of the various buses to locate the places where people had told me to get off, all I could think was that I am happy and that I like living here.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”

The past few days I’ve done a lot of traveling.  It started with a road trip to Guatemala on Saturday with my jefes.  I went along in order to get an extension on my visa at the immigration office in Guatemala.  During the trip we realized that there might be some problems with getting my visa renewed in Guatemala, and decided that I should leave early on Monday morning for Mexico which is outside of the Central American Border Agreement and so by entering Mexico and then Guatemala again I could get another 90 day extension.

On Sunday I went out for coffee and ice cream with two friends from Guatemala and had a good time catching up with them.  Then I went to bed early so I could be up at 5 a.m. to start traveling.  I took a bus to El Carmen which is on the Guatemalan side of the Mexican border and had a good conversation with the guy sitting next to me on the bus.  He is Salvadoran but his mom lives in Guatemala and he came to visit her, and then will be making the trip back to Texas where his wife and children live.  I can only imagine the trip that he’s got ahead of him.  I got through customs at around 2:00 p.m. and hung around the Mexican side of the border for a while and was supposed to meet a friend of a friend there but for some reason that didn’t happen.  It was raining pretty heavily so I ran to the closest restaurant and ate some tacos.  I bided my time there for a couple of hours, not wanting to go straight back through customs again because I thought that might make them a bit suspicious.  Around 4:00 I went back through customs and got my 90 day extension.  There was only one bus company in El Carmen and they told me the earliest bus left at 10:30 pm.  I chatted with some guy on the street who told me that if I took a microbus to Malacatal (about 40 minutes away) I might get an earlier bus back to Guatemala.  So I tried that but by the time I got to Malacatal all the early buses had left and the next bus back to Guatemala was at midnight.  I should mention that the microbus driver was a dink and charged me Q100 (around $10) for the trip, which is pretty much highway robbery but he was getting aggressive and I thought, “screw it, just pay and find something to eat”. 

So I found a restaurant where I ate a hamburger and chatted with the owner for a couple of hours.  We talked about my job (HIV prevention, teaching healthy sexuality, all that fun stuff) and about recent events in Guatemala.  There is a national election here with 26 candidates running for president.  One candidate is wife of the outgoing president who had to get a divorce from her husband in order to constitutionally be able to run.  And I thought Canadian politics was a gong show. 

After that it was getting dark so I went and sat at the bus terminal which was just kind of an open room with a couple of chairs facing the street.  I sat there for about 4 hours with nothing to do.  Did I mention that I’ve got a really bad cold and am hacking up all kinds of stuff about every minute or so?  Yeah, and I had run out of my cold meds and was very tired and miserable.  At this point I had Joni Mitchel singing in my head about traveling on a lonely road and how negativity unravels joy.  It’s funny how all the work I used to do as a mental health therapist with clients (and with myself) around mindfulness, especially in stressful circumstances, was so difficult to practice.  Mindfulness is basically about being present and simply noticing situations, internal responses to the situations, etc. without letting your mind run away with them, which causes more stress and anxiety.  But being mindful helped me put things in a little more perspective which was basically, “Lynden, in the big scheme of things you are still sucking air and nothing insurmountable is happening at this moment.”  Ok.  And at 12:30 a.m. I got on the bus, dozed on and off until Guatemala city (around 6 a.m.) and took a cab to my jefes house.  They had been expecting me at midnight and so were really worried but hadn’t been able to call because my cellphone doesn’t work in Guatemala. 

I slept a bit and then went to the office to check email and get a cash advance.  Then I went to the bus station in Guatemala city around 2 pm, caught the bus out at 4:30 and arrived in San Salvador at 10:30 p.m. last night.

Have I mentioned how much I like El Salvador?  Funny how it already feels like home.  Once I get into the city I notice the landmarks, and once I get to something like El Salvador Del Mundo I know exactly where I am and how to get to where I want to go.  On the other hand I always find traveling stressful because I don’t sleep well on buses, in airplanes or cars, trains, you get the picture.  But there were some interesting and enjoyable points during the trip, mostly getting to talk to people along the way and hear about their lives.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A New Beginning

A friend recently sent me this poem by John O'Donahue.  It's called "For a New Beginning" and it expresses a lot of what was happening while I was making the decision to leave Canada.  Here in El Salvador I've been taking the time to write posts when I'm sick which maybe translates into them being a bit negative and I don't mean for them to be.  The truth is that I wouldn't trade where I'm at right now for anything.  There is some risk, and definitely a new rhythm, to my life here.  But more than anything, as O'Donahue writes, "my soul senses the world that awaits me."

For a New Beginning 

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge. 

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave behind what you had outgrown. 

It watched you play with the seduction of safety,
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this. 

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you. 

Though your destination is not yet clear,
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life´s desires. 

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk,
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

That's how the light gets in

Once again I am sitting in the ANADES office.  Alone.  It’s 20 minutes past the time everyone is supposed to be here and they are always very punctual.  This tells me that, a) it’s Saturday (which it’s not), or, b) once again I have missed some information about when and where I am supposed to be.  But this time I have an excuse because I was sitting in my room sick most of the day yesterday and don’t remember anyone saying anything about this morning.  Most likely they forgot about me and since there is no-one here to get any direction from at the moment, I’ll be creatively productive and write another post.

A few things that I’ve been thinking about recently are homesickness, ordered/disordered attachment (even though social workers aren’t supposed to say things like disordered attachment), and being a privileged guest in an unprivileged society.

I’m sometimes asked if and when I get homesick.  I feel like I haven’t been gone long enough to have had really strong pangs of homesickness, but I’ve noticed that when I’m sick I do miss the comforts and familiarity of home.  I miss sitting on a nice clean couch in front of my own big TV and drinking Canada Dry ginger ale.  I miss having someone to call up and not only be able to say “I’m sick, I think I ate something bad”, but being able to go into vivid detail about exactly how sick I am.  I also miss the last day or two of being sick when I feel good enough to truck out to mom and dad’s house and have someone make me soup and listen to me whine.  Just so I don’t come across as completely egotistical, I’ll say that there are times when I am feeling good and also wish I could sit in my parents’ living room just to hang out when it’s not all about me.  But the feelings are definitely stronger when I get sick. 

Which leads to attachment.  I like to think I have fairly ordered attachment but when I was away this weekend and got sick, instead of missing “home” I was missing my little dormroom at ANADES where I have been all of 2 weeks.  It got me thinking about the little kids I used to work with at Children’s Services who were in such a state of instability that they would form superficial attachments within very brief periods of time, knowing from experience that their living situation would probably change again shortly.  When I accepted this assignment I knew I’d be in Pennsylvania for 2 weeks, then Guatemala for 3 months, then in El Salvador for 3 years.  I didn’t know that I’d have two placements in Guatemala, or that once I got to El Salvador I’d be living in limbo for what looks like might be a while, not knowing when or where I’ll be living next.  And so here I was, missing a little dormroom because after two weeks in the midst of lots of confusion, uncertainty and what sometimes doesn’t feel like much support from anyone, at least the dormroom feels like something familiar.

And lastly, at the end of the day, despite accepting and not judging my responses to life in central America, I need to realize that I have chosen this.  And I was able to choose this because of a lot of privilege like race, socio-economic status, education, place of birth… you get the picture.  This hit home yesterday afternoon when I told my supervisor that I was sick and he got really concerned and took me to the ANADES health clinic.  There I was given a pitcher of coconut milk, some little pills (no idea what they are), a bottle of homeopathic gastrointestinal medicine which went a long way in soothing my stomach, and everything I need to get tested to see what’s wrong with my stomach (I won’t elaborate). 

As I, a white privileged stranger in a very unprivileged society, was sitting there being taken care of by kind and caring people, I felt really humbled.  I live in Mejicanos, an area of San Salvador where there is a lot of poverty, including children and adults who can’t have basic health needs met.  And I felt like here I am, not being able to contribute anything, and just taking resources away from a place that has few.  I could justify it by saying that in the end MCC probably reimburses my expenses and that within some time I will be contributing.  But as they were helping me and providing for my needs, there was no sense that they were thinking, “who is this silly gringo who talks like a 3 year old and thinks he’s helping us?”  Nope.  They were kind and patient and giving.  So with that in mind I will keep plugging away at learning Spanish, I will practice being patient with my living situation, I will keep trying to connect with local people instead of searching out other north Americans, and I will continue to participate whenever and wherever I can, even when it hurts. 

This is from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That is how the light gets in.