Central America Journal 2004

Nicaragua and El Salvador

April 26, 2004

Dear All,

Greetings from Nicaragua!

I had a chance to come to an internet cafe today, so thought I would take advantage of that fact and send you what might be my last note. The possibilities for internet here are much more limited than in Guatemala. The sister I am staying with when in Ciudad Sandino near Managua is having trouble with her internet connection. After one email it disconnects and you have to boot up the whole system. So I thought I would wait until I got to the orphanage, only to find out that they only have an email account but do not have internet access, but then this opportunity came up.

Unfortunately, I do not know the e-mail address of the orphanage, which is how you would have to reach me this week. That means, probably, that you will not be able to reach me this week. I return to Ciudad Sandino on Friday, and maybe the problem there will be solved. But maybe not. There may be another opportunity to come into town from the orphanage, but, then again, maybe not.

Lago NicaraguaIt is instant summer here in Nicaragua, with about 98 degrees and 98 percent humidity. All day on Sunday I sat and dripped, and finally, last night, just after getting settled in the orphanage (after traveling in an air conditioned truck), we had a good rain, one that lasted about a half hour. It took some of the punch out of the heat and lowered the humidity enough to sleep ok with a fan blowing directly on me. But it brought out the bugs so small that they come through the screens. Since everything is open and screened, there is virtually no protection from them. I am getting bitten much worse than anyone else, all up and down my arms and legs and my face. Antigua, when I left on Friday was hot at mid day, but never humid, and the heat never lasted through the night like it does here. The temperature only changes a few degrees between night and day here! Actually, now that I am out at the orphanage, there is often a breeze off the lake (it sits on the shore of Lake Nicaragua) and that helps it be a bit cooler than Ciudad Sandino, which was simply a sweat bath.

The Spanish here is much different. The swallow all the "s" sounds, talk like they have potatoes in their mouths and use the vos form. I have been able to understand the people from Venezuela and the US quite well, as well as the Mexican man who is the subdirector of the Nicaragua orphanages. But hopefully, with my driver-tour director-conversation partners next week, it will be a little better. I optimistically bought a book about the Sandinista revolution that Sr. Helen said was straightforward Spanish with the hope that I could read it. I will be slow going at first until I get the vocabulary down, but even if I only read a chapter, it will be good. I can't buy newspapers here (we are isolated away from stores out in the country), and besides, I can usually read the paper ok. I need something another step more complicated.

CECIMI finished up my classes on Friday morning. I was doing pretty well with subjunctive exercises, but of course that does not translate directly into being able to speak in subjunctive. The afternoon was going to the airport and getting to Managua, where Sr. Helen met me with the driver of the CECIM, the ministry that she works for. On Saturday, we took a bus into Managua, and went to a mall, and for the shops in it, it could have been a slightly seedy mall in Anywhere, USA. Except that the banks would not cash travelers’ checks of any kind, not just my strange ones, and the cash machine limited me to 600 cordobas, or about $35US. Fortunately, the director of the orphanage took my travelers check and will give me half US dollars and half cordobas, so I will have more than enough money, I should think, for my time here. Except for the expenses of the persons who will work with me next week, my greatest expenses will be my donations to the ministries.

Children Casa AsisLast night I came to the orphanage. The children that I had known before are now in the "grandes" group and all the little children are new, not born at the time I was here, for the most part. They are sweet and loving, most of them, and don't seem to mind that I don't talk well. They just like affection. Today I made myself useful by spending all morning cleaning the kitchen in the house of the volunteers, and I am only half done (or less, depending if I do the cupboards on the inside or just the outside). Here all the houses are open all the time, with windows on all sides, if possible, and as soon as the rains come, so do those clouds of Children, Casatiny bugs that come right through the screens. They are all over the ceilings and floors, and when you sweep them up they look just like dust. I cleaned out the refrigerator and the stove and the small appliances and all the counters as well, but that is only half the room. Tomorrow. Since I am only here such a short time, it seemed a good way to use my time. I also help feed and eat with the children and by tomorrow, I will be going with them on their afternoon walks after their naps. Today, if I get home in time, I am going to help a volunteer from Germany, Maria, age 70, complete a sewing project before she leaves tomorrow. Another pair of volunteers are leaving on Wednesday, and the orphanage is short staffed as it is. I think I will be doing a lot of dishes, which is fine with me.

Lago NicaraguaThe culture is very different in Nica. It is also very poor, but so were a lot of the pueblos we visited in Guatemala. But Managua has never really been rebuilt after the war and all the earthquakes and hurricanes, so it seems much more "ad hoc" as a city. In both of the towns I will be in, a major mode of transportation is horse cart. Horses roam loose along the streets and lanes and graze on the lakeshore where there is sufficient water to grow grass. Yesterday they had a big festival in San Jorge in which horses were all dolled up and ridden through town. These are not show horses, but showy working horses. A horse drawn taxi just went past. The other taxis are bicycles with little cabs in front or little motorbikes with slightly bigger cabs--these we saw in Antigua and Panajachel. Cars too, of course, but fuel is proportionately very expensive and a lot of people have no hope of owning a car. The bus system is similar to the chicken buses of Guatemala in the provenance of the buses and in the amount of diesel that they spew off, but they are not so brightly colored, nor are the seats modified to fit in six or seven (small) bodies across in a row. The Nicagaraguans are bigger, taller and heavier than the average Guatemalteco. They eat more fried foods, I think.

Ciudad SandinoA quick description of church yesterday and then I must quit. The church, about four blocks from Helen's house, across several residential streets in which we had to pick our way through the waste water as there are no sewers, is a large covered ampitheater. It was supposed to have walls all the way around, but the architect made off with the money, so it only has a wall on the side of the altar. It probably seats, on plastic seats, more than a thousand. The ministers, including the music were amplified and hearable (except the priest who talked as if he had a mouth full of potatoes), but the responses and singing of the congregation drifted off into the wind. The birds put up a good competition with the preaching with their singing. Since the Nicaraguan church uses a very different translation for the scripture readings and mass prayers, I was a sea again with my participation. But I could understand the birds!

For those of you who know the Holy Names sisters here, I have now seen them all, as Mary Becker was at Casa Asis when I got there last night. Alanna is fine and a stabilizing figure at Casa Asis. Helen has a good pace worked out for herself in Ciudad Sandino. I look forward to seeing more of what she does next week. Barbara Boudreau was here the first night, but left early the next morning. I did get a quick visit, though.

I leave Nica a week from Thursday, so it is a speedy trip here. I hope I will have the ability to write one more time from here, but who knows.

Bye for now.


May 6, 2004

Dear All,

I seem to have been hit by an internet gremlin while in Nicaragua. The other night I wrote you a long letter bringing you up to date for Nicaragua, but the computer froze on the last sentence. And that was the end of that.

I will try to recap that letter, now that I am safely in El Salvador and trying to figure out what to do for the two days.

I finished off my volunteer time at the orphanage, spending the work time cleaning out three bodegas (storage areas), as well as the volunteer house kitchen. It was HOT work, with the temp at about 40 degrees Centigrade and the humidity usually pretty high too. Fortunately, there was usually a breeze from the lake (the orphanage is on the shore), and I had the good fortune to have the one air conditioned room, so was able to sleep at night. But I have seen enough mouse turds and smelled enough rat poison to last for a few years at least.

Children Casa AsisThere are about 32 children at the orphanage now. Since I was here such a short time, I didn't work much with the children, just ate with them and occasionally played with them. Some of them are very affectionate even with short time volunteers, and others are more cautious. I wore my New Zealand t-shirt which has the words “Brown Kiwi,” along with a picture of the birds, and some other slogans, which they always wanted me to read to them. So when I would arrive there would be shouts of "Brown Kiwi", though many of them also knew my name.

Nicaragua branch of UCAOn Friday, I returned to Ciudad Sandino, a barrio of about 150,000 west and a little North of Managua. To get into the city was almost a hour bus ride (buses are one degree less colorful than Guatemala and just about as old). The terminus of the intercity bus was right in front of the Nicaragua branch of UCA. Until then I didn’t know there was a branch there. I added a picture of the statue of Ignatius of Loyola to my collection of images of Ignatius.Ciudad Sandino

The barrio is very poor, and does not have many paved streets, and lots of open sewage and garbage to go with the ever present dust. Most of these people live from hand to mouth, and the general poverty of Nicaragua is very evident here--actually everywhere.

My regimen here was very different from elsewhere. Since I was trying to keep learning Spanish, the goal here was to get used to the Nica Spanish, which is much more colloquial than Guatemalan Spanish. So Helen arranged for me to hire several people to spend part of the day with me, taking me somewhere and speaking with me as we saw whatever the sight was. I did begin to get the hang of the accent, get a sense of Managua and environs, and to build a bit of the daily vocabulary of Nica life. And I employed a few people for a few hours (everyone is desperate for any kind of job). I could tell that I had made some progress by the end. Also, the first day, Helen took me to a big bookstore and I bought a memoir of the Sandinista revolution, and am trying to actually read a book straight through. Only at the end of the first chapter, but 30 pages is not so bad considering, again, the vocabulary. Sometimes I can read a page pretty well without much hesitation, but other times, I have to look up lots of words to follow the thread... But reading the newspaper is much easier for the practice on the book.

MasayaSo... I went to Masaya where the typical market is (about an hour on the other side of Managua) with Lesbia, the young woman who is working in the library under Helen's supervision; then to the colonial town of Granada with Carolina, an associate candidate who works at Casa Assis but lives in Ciudad Sandino and returns there on the Granadaweekends; then to Mercdado Centrale, the largest market in Central America with a neighbor of Helen's, Aricoeli, (reminded me of the markets in China), but a place one would not venture alone. There were parts we didn't go into because they were peligroso (dangerous even for a local). The last day was to the National Museum, National Museumwhich is down in the part of town leveled by the earthquake, next to the shell of the old Cathedral. This area, with the exception of a new building for the National Assembly, has basically not been rebuilt since, what with the war and natural disasters intervening. The last day, I went to Helen's school on the other side of the barrio.

Centro Educativo Maura ClarkeI should describe the school. We came by bus through Ciudad Sandino to the other side of town. No paved roads, and all very poor houses. Then we came to a section in which there were no houses, and next, to some very small and modest new cement block houses. A private company had put them up and I learned later that they are selling them for $14,000 US. Not very many people could afford that, unless they had someone sending remittances from the US. A couple of blocks after we disembarked the bus showed me that this part of town was not unlike the part Helen lives in: poor houses, no sewer, tons of garbage everywhere, and very poor houses, shacks really. Going through the guarded gate of the school the atmosphere changes. All the students wear uniforms (typical throughout both Guatemala and Nicaragua, and, I expect, other CA countries as well). There are a number of buildings, cement block, and quite basic, yet painted with colorful mosaics. There is a trade school there, which tries to do agriculture, but apparently this generation doesn’t want to have anything to do with farm labor. There were Junior High boys in tailoring and girls in sewing and cooking. Since it was morning, the younger children were in class. During the last half hour, all the mops and brooms came out as the children cleaned and ordered their classrooms for the afternoon session of secondary students. We stopped in to see the farm animals (lots of cute rabbit babies!), and into an assembly room where a class of small children was learning one of the national dances that we had seen the night before at Ballet Folklorico (another paragraph on that below).

LibraryThe library is simple, and the only thing unusual about it is how few books there are. Books are incredibly expensive, and most families don’t own any, nor is there a book reading culture. Children come into the library, sometimes with their teachers for something related to class, or sometimes by themselves during the part of the day they are not in class, for study or enrichment. There were about ten high school students there the morning I was, for example. There are two periods of the day when the library is jammed: just after school is out but before the bus comes—about forty minutes, there are lots of children. They love to work the puzzles, and several always work on the computers. Helen’s challenge is to work with the teachers to find out what they are doing in classes so that she can plan enrichment materials appropriate to the classes. Unfortunately, no phones into the school, so no internet.

Since the library is well underway, Helen usually spends only half the day there. In the afternoons she works at home on her computer on other things needed by the office. She eats her main meal with Isabelita Sanchez, the head of CECIM, and a former religious from Venezuela, who is now an associate candidate with our community. It gives her a good hot (and main) meal, and come community life. Since she lives alone, a few doors from the headquarters of CECIM, Isabelita often comes over in the evening for a snack and conversation.

Children DancingBallet Folklorico was one of several groups that present concerts of local dances with wonderful costumes. These dances are part of the national heritage. This evening’s program was arranged by locale, with the first half of the program as dances from the center of the country and the second half from the Caribbean coast—very different emphases and music! The day I went to the school, I saw the children of about age 7 learning one of the dances I had seen their elders doing with such gusto only a couple of nights before. Another advantage of the evening was getting to see the concert hall, which is in the flattened out part of the non-city center.

CECIM is a subject of a whole letter, but I am not going to have time to write it. I do have a CD-Rom describing the ministry, so could fill you in at another time.

One evening, though, we watched a documentary (made by an Irish film company) that took us through the recent coup deposing Chavez, and his restoration to power two days later. Since Isabelita and her brother in law, who had the CD-Rom, are both Venezuelan, it was interesting to see how much they appreciated Chavez. It was also interesting to see how the media manipulated that coup by simply showing pictures out of context and by controlling the commentary on Chavez that went out over the air. Chavez’s only redress was using the single state-run channel. Very interesting, and something we are not getting good information about in the US.

It is very clear that the US rules here with a big economic stick. Any country that stands up to the US and wants to go its own way is punished in various ways, many of them economic. There are various subtleties and variations on the theme, depending on the country, but there is no let-up of the pressure to be good vassal states of the US. Since so many Central Americans are working in the US (legally or otherwise), everyone is caught in a system that is mutually beneficial—but vastly disproportionally beneficial to the US.

My challenge these two days in El Salvador is to figure out what to see, how to see it, and get myself on the plane two days from now. I am awaiting the head of this facility, which houses lots of delegations to El Salvador, as my contacts said he would help me. My colleague John Endres was at the University last week, and he left me a few tips, but it isn't clear exactly what he arranged for me already. I also have one contact at the University, but a person whom I have not met personally. This, of course, makes my introverted self slightly crazy. But I shall survive.

I am in a room with three bunk beds, and apparently there will be some other women with me too...(note later—no one else here at all, so finally had my privacy), but my Spanish wasn't quite good enough to communicate with the woman who came to make up my bed. We did find the key to the room, and I found the water. And they let me use their computer, which works, and upon which I am writing this missive.

Most likely this will be my last entry, as I leave very early the day after next. It's been full of work, fun, surprises and stresses. I am ready to eat food that I fix myself (no beans and rice or cabbage salad for a while, for example, and lots of vegetables). I am ready to say good bye to the bugs of Nicaragua--something rather hungry made a meal out of me every day at the Orphanage, for example, and I have made my peace with the very large flying cucaracha (cockroach) that lives in the pila drain in Helen's house. It is still alive...

It is time to get back to my writing, and my head is now clear of all that, and full of Spanish instead...

I am going to try to raise my Jesuit contact now. Que vaya bien.


May 7, 2004

Romero Center

Dear All,

This place, CEBES, which stands for Ecclesial Base Communities of El Salvador, makes it very easy to attend to email, and I am on my own schedule here, so I have a few minutes to record my reactions to what I have seen here.

It has not been in my experience previously to visit places of political assassination and of martyrdom, but that is my main purpose here. The Oscar Romero Center, on the campus of the University of Central America, has preserved the memories of those church people in El Salvador, and beyond, who were assassinated because they spoke out Martyrs Memorialagainst violence, injustice and the situation of the poor. They started with Monseñor Oscar Romero, and had a vital center in his memory as the numbers continued to mount, principally the four US churchwomen, and finally the six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter. The tombs of the six Jesuits are next door, in the University Chapel, and their rooms are now rehabilitated for living. They have built the new theology wing next to it so that the original building can house the commemoration room, and the Martyrs Roomtheology library named in honor of one of the six Jesuits. When you see the clothes that they were wearing and the photographs of their bodies, it comes home: these were real people who died doing what they were doing. But they were doing things that the oligarchy didn't like and felt compelled to stop. The place that really touched me was the rose garden which has been placed on the ground where the bodies were found, and the room of the housekeeper, where she and her daughter were assassinated simply because they were there when the assassins arrived.

Romero's RoomYesterday afternoon I went to Romero's room in the hospitalito for incurable cancer patients, and to the chapel where he was saying Mass when he was assassinated. Chapel of AssassinationAgain there are photos taken on the spot—there was a photographer in the congregation. It is impossible not to imagine exactly what happened. This morning, I went to the cathedral where his tomb is now in the crypt. That was a bit disappointing, because it is so unadorned there, just a big concrete area, though the tomb itself is marble. Monseñor Romero is very beloved by the ordinary people, and so I expected more signs of popular devotion here. But the tomb has only been here for less than two years, and there is a bit of opposition to making too much of Romero while the opposition is still alive. Possibly more as the time goes on.

Romero Tomb Martyrs Garden

Again, El Salvador has its own feel, its own culture, its own politics. The first thing I noticed was that the city works like a city, with a central area, streets, social services (though one must again drink agua pura here), and not nearly the garbage problem that plagues Nicaragua. Of course, out here near the University, where CEBES is located, is a better area of town, but so far nothing I have seen from the taxi approaches the tenuousness of life in Managua or Ciudad Sandino. Apparently El Salvador has the largest percentage, of any remittances from relatives in first world countries--remittances. It shows. There are people returning from the US and setting up businesses, so the economy is gaining a new middle class, built upon US money. It is clear that all these countries are US economic satellites, and US trade principles and US political policies are very obvious and heavy-handed here. But the feeling toward the US is complex because so many people have also benefited from the remittances. So it goes. Nothing is as simple as it first seems.

I attended a class taught by Dean Brackley, my Jesuit contact here, whom I met 5 minutes before the class. I understood a good bit of what he was saying, though less of what the students were saying), and afterwards we had a lively conversation about things political and cultural. He is completing a book that employs his experience together with the Spiritual Exercises, and I will probably write a jacket blurb for it. I am interested in his reflections after so many years working here.

This afternoon will be quieter. I have found places to eat, and will go to bed early as 4:00 a.m. will come very early.

Those of you who have persevered to the end of these missives deserve merit in heaven!

Que vaya con Dios, as they often say here.