Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This is what poverty looks like

Monday, 5-9-11

What a long day it has been. Today we traveled to the caserío of La Llanes which is a part of the canton of San Felipe. There are about 20 families that live there and they are all related. There is one woman in the community, Augustina, who is related to everyone. She is the matriarch, the mother, grandmother, and great-mother. She lives in the community with five of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.

The community does not have an official Directiva (community board recognized by the government) nor do they have a partnership with a church in the States. And they receive basically no help from other institutions in El Salvador. They do have a leadership committee and some of those members came to the house today. The Pastoral Team decided to provide their community with fertilizer for the upcoming crops and the committee had arranged for transportation for fertilizer to be delivered to their community.

We left the house at 9:00am to get the fertilizer and a few other things, and by 9:30am we were on our way to La Llanes. It is about a 45 minute drive there through San Francisco and San Felipe. Some parts of the road are a bit narrow but we made it by just fine. We didn’t rent the really big truck that we’ve used for other communities because there aren’t that many families there and the big truck probably couldn’t handle the narrowness of the road.

Much of the community was waiting for us when we arrived. We said hello and greeted people as we made our way to the house that would be our “home base” for the day. We chatted for a short while with the woman whose house we were in. Then the leader of the community board, Ismael, led us to see a far away house in the community. It wasn’t too bad of a walk but it was quite a ways away. Along the way we ate mangos that were given to us by the community. They were the yellowish ones; the kind where you bite off the skin and suck on the pulp inside. They were absolutely delicious! The pulp gets caught in your teeth but the taste is worth it.

On the road to La Llanes

Scenic view from above

Kind of a road

Hibiscus tree


Eating a mango

When we arrived at the house we learned that the woman who lived there was 46 years old and had 14 children; none of them were twins. She would have had 16 children but two died. She was “accompanied” (which is like being married) and age 12 and probably started having kids shortly after that. I could see right away that the family, like the rest of the community, was very, very poor. Several children came running out of the house to greet us. They were covered in dirt and mud. Two of the little boys were pantless. My heart broke when I looked into their little faces.

You see, the children are dirty not because the children were being bad or the parents are irresponsible, but because obtaining water in this community is extremely challenging. They literally walk for miles over rocky terrain in the scorching heat to obtain water. I could tell that some of the kids probably hadn’t bathed in quite some time. Their clothes probably haven’t been washed for a while either because the families here also lack money for clothing for their children. When you have to choose between drinking water for survival and water to wash your clothes, survival is going to win.

One of the little girls had a small guacal (plastic container) of water which she was using to clean her little brother. Unfortunately, it only seemed to be getting him dirtier, with the dirt on his face quickly turning to mud. The kids were eating some kind of fruit from a pod which I recognized as pepeto. The mother quickly offered us handfuls of pepeto pods to eat. Not wanting to take away the little food the family had we graciously accepted a few pods but did not take them all.

I took some pictures of the kids and then showed them the pictures of themselves. They smiled at the pictures. I always added something like, “Que guapo” (How handsome) or “Muy bonita” (very pretty) when showing them their pictures because the children were indeed beautiful. I could see the generosity and kindness in their faces. The kids in this community also don’t seem to be afraid of gringos and warmed up to us quickly, which is unusual for children who haven’t met many white people before. When it was time to leave I shook the kids’ hands and smiled at them. It was hard to say goodbye. I hope we have a chance to visit them again sometime. I am glad we took the time to walk to their house.

On the way back to town I thought about water. Can you imagine barely having enough water to survive? I’ve seen this kind of poverty and I still cannot conceive of the idea. Forget about basic hygiene like brushing your teeth, bathing, and washing clothes; not having enough water to drink or cook with is something I can’t even fathom. Not only that, but is the closest water source is quite a ways away, and even during the rainy season when water is more accessible they have nothing to use to store water.

Walking to the far away house

Greeted by half-nude, dirty children

One of the girls

This is what poverty looks like

The family's cross used for Dia de la Cruz

Carrying around pepetos

She offered me one

Washing off her brother

A very sad sight

Offering me some of his food

Four of the fourteen children and two parents who live here

A cross and new passion fruit plant

Walking back to town

When we returned to town more people were there and it was time to begin giving away the fertilizer. This is always a happy part of visiting the communities and a time to see everyone together. Cecilia and Blanca sat down with a list of the heads of the households in La Llanes. One by one people were called to sign for their fertilizer. Then someone would come to get the fertilizer. Two men would hoist it onto another guy’s back and he’d carry it a little ways toward the person’s house.

Then a woman came over to the fertilizer bags. Now, neither Kathy nor I have ever seen a woman carry a bag of fertilizer. But sure enough, two guys hoisted up a 220 pound bag of fertilizer onto her back and she carried it away. I was surprised and extremely proud of her. I was proud to be a female. Now that’s my kind of woman!

As the rest of the fertilizer was being passed out I walked around to chat with the kids and take their pictures. Once kids understand the concept of the camera and what it does they love having their picture taken. I loved seeing them smile when I showed them their pictures, but I couldn’t help but notice those who were barefoot and dirty. One boy had a bloated belly, probably as a result of parasites in the water. Another little girl was bathing, using the water collected in a few small barrels that the whole community uses as a water source during the rainy season.

Once the fertilizer had been distributed Kathy and I walked over to see a horse. He looked relatively healthy considering the circumstances of his owner. His owner, a 78-year old man named Hipólito, came over to talk to us about his horse. We learned that his horse’s name is Tito. Then he asked if we wanted to ride it. I decided that sounded like a good idea. So I hopped up on the horse to go for a quick walk. I’ve always wanted to ride a horse in El Salvador and I was happy that the opportunity presented itself. When I finished Kathy decided to go for a ride as well. I think the community had as much fun watching the gringos ride the horse as we did actually riding the horse.

After the horse ride we walked to see where the mother/grandmother/great-grandmother of everyone lived. Augustina was nearby inside her house grinding corn. She’s in her 80s but there’s still work to be done around the house and grinding corn is no easy task. I’ve done it before and it is a difficult, tedious process that produces only small amounts of masa (dough) at a time. Blanca took over grinding corn for her while. We are fortunate enough to have someone who owns a corn grinder here in Berlín so the corn doesn’t have to be ground by hand.

Signing for fertilizer
Those who can't sign use a thumb print

Carrying away the 220 pound bags

The leader of the group helping out

This guy's shoes were falling apart

She's all woman and she is STRONG

Watching the community

Staying close to family at first

Lounging on the fertilizer

The four families who don't own land got food packets

Bloated belly = Parasites

Blanca talking to the group

This guy was funny

A beautiful young lady

Not sure why she had the newspaper
Could be for the bathroom

One of many innocent faces

She warmed up to me

Soon I was getting group photos

Her clothes have seen better days
I hope she will see better days in the future

She liked talking to Cecilia

Talking to the kids about the horse

He offered to let me ride the horse

There I go

I'm sure everyone got a kick out of this

Kathy's turn

Fun for the gringos and the Salvadorans

The mother of the community, Augustina

Grinding corn

The cross at her house

Bathing in middle of town

Then we went to see more houses in the community. Several of us piled into the pickup including the leader of the community board and his two little girls. We drove a long ways down the road. Well, it seemed like a long ways because the road was rough but it was probably only 1 kilometer. When we couldn’t go any further with the truck we parked and hopped out. I was glad that I’d put on sunscreen because it was hot outside and I could feel the heat scorching my skin.

It was a long ways to the very last house on the trail. Probably only a kilometer away but over uneven ground and in the heat it seemed a lot further. Along the way the leader of the group who was carrying fertilizer for one of the families dropped it off at their house. We also saw the house of the man who owns the horse. When we finally reached the end of the trail we came upon a small house that was home to 11 people. We talked to the family for a while about what their lives are like.

Outside was a small pila made of wood. This is where the family washes all of it’s dishes and clothes. In order to get water they either have to walk several kilometers uphill to the town and then further along road to San Felipe. Then they’ll need to walk back to the house with cántaros (plastic jugs) on their heads. Or they can walk down to a nearby river. The problem with that is the route to get there. Apparently the trail is extremely steep and incredibly strenuous. Plus the water is filthy, filled with bacteria and animal waste. So there is no good option for this family.

We took a photo of the family and started back up the hill to see other families. At one of the houses lives a granddaughter of Augustina with her husband and her husband’s mother. Her mother-in-law is old, frail, and sick. She had a bandage wrapped around her dirty, bony feet. I can’t imagine that she’d be able to leave the house often. There is also a sick child at the house who needs medication for convulsions. It costs about $20 a month, $20 that the family doesn’t have. But somehow they manage to scrape together enough money. I wonder what they must give up so that the child can have her much needed medication. Food? Clothes? Metal for the roof?

After saying goodbye to the last house we continued walking the rest of the way up the hill. It was a hard walk up and my legs were burning. My skin was burning from the heat of the sun and I wished I’d remembered to bring my water with me. I was exhausted and thought about the cool, dump shower I would take when we got home. Then I mentally slapped myself in the face. “You selfish, greedy person!! How can you even think about yourself at a time like this?! Here are people with barely enough water to survive and all you’re thinking about the clean, easy access water back at home. Suck it up and keep moving!”

We eventually made it back up to the truck. We said hello to two more families whose homes were nearby. At one of the homes was a tiny baby. He was crying and crying. I could see beads of sweat all over his head. I thought about the heat radiating all around us and how uncomfortable he must have been. It’s hard to know what to think in situations like this. Why this child? Why must children suffer in this world? How can I make a difference? As we walked back to the truck I pondered these questions. I have yet to come up with any satisfying answers.

Pickup rides are fun

Watching us pull up

Playing on the truck

Heading down the hill

He was carrying fertilizer behind us

The house where the man with the horse lives

Walking down the path

11 people live inside this house

The wooden basin where clothes and food are washed

Another house in the community

Time to head back up the hill

It was a long walk

The mother-in-law of one
of Augustina's granddaughters

Talking to us about life in La Llanes

Another precious child

Cross at their home

Feet bandaged with old clothe

He was crying and I could see the
sweat dripping of his little head

The family

Standing by their home made of mud and wood

When we reached our home base in the community we went inside and sat down. They had made us lunch and we were all hungry. We eagerly ate the soup and tortillas they had provided for us. The Pastoral Team had brought food to the community for lunch so they didn’t have to use the little food they had. As we were eating we noticed a large guacal (plastic tub) sitting on the floor. Inside was a pillow and blanket. This was the playpen/crib used for the baby. An empty pop bottle with beans inside served as a rattle.

At 2:00pm we said goodbye to the people of La Llanes. Even though I’d just met them it was hard to say goodbye. My experience in this community will always stay with me. I’m thankful that I had the chance to meet them and learn about their lives. I hope to see them all again soon.

Making us tortillas for lunch

A plastic tub used as a cradle/playpen for the baby.
In the playpen is an old soda bottle with
beans inside that serves as a rattle

Holding onto the chicken given to the
Pastoral House by the community

Saying goodbye to the little boy.
He gave me several big hugs

Adios amiga!

The main road

Standing outside her house as we drove past

Up on a hill

Looking out over the valley

Driving home from Los Llanes

Prayer for the Children
We pray for the children
who sneak popsicles before supper,
who erase holes in math workbooks,
who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers,
who never "counted potatoes,"
who are born in places where we wouldn't be caught dead,
who never go to the circus,
who live in an X-rated world.

We pray for the children
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money.

And we pray for those
who never get dessert,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
who watch their parents watch them die,
who can't find bread to steal,
who don't have rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser,
whose monsters are real.

We pray for the children
who spend their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed,
who never rinse out the tub,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
who squirm in church and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and
whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen dentist,
who aren't spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being

We pray for the children
who want to be carried and for those who must,
who we never give up on and for those who don't get a second chance.

We pray for those we smother and for those who will grab the hand of
anybody kind enough to offer it.

This prayer was written by Ina Hughes, a newspaper reporter for the Knoxville News. The prayer reached a worldwide audience when it was read aloud during UNICEF's World Summit For Children.


Kevin Pokorny said...

Alisha, What a riveting narrative you gave us and the pictures are at times too difficult to look at. I'm glad you were there with them on this day.

Blessings - Kevin

Anonymous said...

Alisha, Thank you for sharing your story and pictures. It reminds us how much we have to be thankful for. And it reminds us that if we all pull together and stay close...we can always find happiness. I'm so glad you guys got to do this. Your Dad would be so proud of you 'lisha! I love you!!

Matt said...

An incredible day to be sure, one I know you will not soon forget. It's hard to believe that the people who live there can find a way to smile for photos. Really makes you think about what is important.