Friday, December 20, 2013

Meet Memena/ Conoce a Memena

(Desplácese hacia abajo para español)

I have an extraordinary friend here in San Salvador named Memena. When I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she just asked for a card. It's a bit unorthodox, I know, but a simple card really can't do this girl justice. So, for the first time ever (at least on this blog), we're doing a Merry Christmas to all and Memena at the same time. Because I'd like you all to have the privilege and delicious honor of meeting one of the most extraordinary human beings in the world, even if you have no plans to travel to El Salvador.

Memena lives a triple life: architect by day, an omnivorous musician by night (among her list of capable talents we have flute, mandolin, piano, cello, voice, drums, saxophone... I could keep going but then you'd think I was lying), and above all a loyal friend in that mysterious in-between space of free time we'd all swear doesn't exist. The first time I met her, I realized she has an extraordinary gift to "see" people. To recreate them exactly as they are, imperfections and gifts wrapped into one package, and with this gift she can make you feel like the guest of honor at a VIP dinner even though you're just running out for pupusas.

Living through this whirlwind the past three and a half months - readjusting to thinking, breathing, dreaming in Spanish, tackling human rights, acclimating to tropical Decembers - it's difficult to find experiences that are just nourishing. That don't require some form of rehabilitation afterwards in the form of terrible movies or reruns of Grey's Anatomy. But somehow my adventures with Memena always do the trick. Here's the formula: Hannah gets a crazy idea (let's see the volcano! let's meet the crazy nun who runs the community center in Suchitoto!), Memena doesn't hesitate to turn this crazy idea into reality, and usually throws in some excellent recommendation on where to eat.

But more than anything, Memena makes me think about generosity. I was on the plane today (going to visit with my parents in Tortola for Christmas!) and the stewardess came up to me in my comfy emergency aisle seat, asking if I wouldn't mind moving 20 aisles back due to a computer glitch. Turns out that that seat 20 aisles back had a crying baby behind it and an overzealous recliner in front of it so I immediately found my good-karma-earning butt in the middle of a discomfort sandwich. And boy was I bitter. No good deed goes unpunished and all that. But then I thought about Memena, about how she seems to be filled the more she gives away - more time, more love, more resources, more music, more smiles. And even though she'll never know how far those little contributions go, they have made all the difference to me. And as I thought more about this - these ripples of good deeds, a benevolent butterfly effect - the psycho baby stopped crying.

I realize a simple thank you Christmas card is what Memena wanted. But it seemed selfish to keep someone so inspiring and wonderful all to myself. My hope is that this post not only serves to convey my gratitude to one of my dearest friends, but maybe even got you thinking about that one person in your life who fills your days with effortless joy. And maybe it's already clear how much they mean to you, but just in case, it's always fun to make absolutely sure they know.

Happy Holidays,

(Traducción en español - con errores gratuitos)

Tengo una amiga extraordinaria aquí en San Salvador quien se llama Memena. Cuando le pregunté qué quería para Navidad, ella sólo pidió para una tarjeta. Es un poco heterodoxo, lo sé, pero sola una tarjeta no puede hacer justicia a esta chica. Así, por la primera vez (bueno, por lo menos en este blog), estoy escribiendo una carta de Navidad a todos y una persona específica al mismo tiempo. Porque a mi me gustaría que todos ustedes tienen el privilegio y el honor de conocer a uno de los seres humanos más extraordinarios en el mundo, aún cuando usted no tiene planes de viajar a El Salvador este año.

Memena vive una triple vida: arquitecto por día, un músico omnívoro por la noche (entre su lista de capacidades tenemos la flauta, mandolina, piano, cello, voz, batería, saxofón ... podría seguir pero se podría pensar que yo estaba tumbado), y sobre todo un amigo leal en ese espacioque intermedio de tiempo libre lo que todos jurarían que no existe. La primera vez que conoci a Memena, me di cuenta de que ella tiene una habilidad extraordinaria para "ver" a la gente. Como recrear exactamente como son, las imperfecciones y los regalos envueltos en un paquete, y con este talento puede hacerle sentir como el invitado de honor en una cena VIP a pesar de que sólo están saliendo para pupusas rápidas.

Vivir a través de este torbellino de los últimos tres meses y medio - readaptarme a pensar, respirar, soñar en español, aprender los derechos humanos, aclimatarme a diciembres tropicales - es difícil encontrar experiencias que son tan nutritivas. Que no requieren algún tipo de rehabilitación después en la forma de películas terribles o repeticiones de Grey's Anatomy. Pero de alguna manera mis aventuras con Memena siempre hacen el truco. Ésta es la fórmula: Hannah obtiene una idea loca (¡vamos a ver el volcán! !Vamoes para conocer la monja fantástica que dirige el centro comunitario en Suchitoto!), Memena no vacila en convertir esta idea loca a la realidad, mientras tanto sugiere una excelente recomendación para un lugar donde tenemos que comer .

Sobre todo, Memena me hace pensar en la generosidad. Yo estaba en un avión hoy (ir a visitar con mis padres en Tortola para la Navidad!) y la azafata se acercó a mí en mi cómodo asiento en el pasillo de emergencia, para preguntar si no me molestaría a mover 20 pasillos de atrás debido a un fallo informático. Resultó que ese asiento 20 pasillos de atrás había un bebé que lloró detrás del asiento y un reclinador entusiasto en frente, así que inmediatamente me encontré con buena karma pero al mismo tiempo en medio de un sándwich de malestar. Y bien amarga. Ninguna buena acción queda sin castigo y todo eso. Pero luego pensé en Memena, sobre cómo ella parece estar llena lo más que se regala - más tiempo, más amor, más recursos, más música, más sonrisas. Y aunque ella nunca lo sabrá hasta dónde llegan esas pequeñas aportaciones, los han hecho toda la diferencia para mí. Y mientras estaba pensando más en esto - estas ondas de buenas obras, un efecto mariposa benevolente - el bebé psico dejó de llorar.

Sé que una carta de agradecimiento simple fue lo que Memena quería. Pero parecía egoísta para mantener a alguien tan inspiradora y maravillosa solo para mi. Mi esperanza es que este blog no solamente sirve para transmitir mi agradecimiento a uno de mis amigos mas queridos, pero tal vez le hace usted a pensar en la persona de su vida que llena sus días de alegría sin esfuerzo. Y tal vez ya es claro como tanto le importa, pero por si acaso, siempre es divertido de estar absolutamente seguro que lo sepan.

Felices fiestas,

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The slow transitions

It's 3 months exactly since I first landed in San Salvador. And just like that first day, I spent this one traveling through airports. Every 90 days I have to renew my tourist visa, and as I drove back to my home in the Miralvalle (after visiting Costa Rica - many thanks to the San Jose Diocesan Office for hosting me!), I was struck by everything that felt familiar... a strange comfort so distinct from that first confusing, disorienting, open-ended ride from the humid coastline to see my new home.

We've just finished Thanksgiving, and now the trees on our street are covered in Christmas lights. I'm listening to the same cheesy holiday music, but for the first time Frank Sinatra's sultry voice is the backdrop to windy palm trees instead of frigid Boston winters. I could draw these parallels all day long, but what I want to share with you after these three months are the slow changes, the ones that are more easily felt than seen or illustrated through black and white parallels.

On my mini visa-renewal vacation, I tried to reflect on these little, but deep, changes. Empirically I knew I would gain more from El Salvador than I could ever give, but now I am starting to understand what that looks like. As I walked through the streets of tourist towns, for the first time I wasn't ashamed to be a white traveler. Not because I felt distinct from the tourists - I was as much a gringa as anyone else - but because it didn't matter. There was no one to impress, nothing to prove, just simply a beautiful country I had the incredible privilege to be in.

I've started to take greater risks in ways I never before considered risky. Being able to say no and truly take care of myself for the first time... starting to own all my gifts, not simply the ones that make me look good at work or with friends. Probably the best illustration I have of this is last week for the first time I published a spoken word piece (you can listen to it here). I know factually it's just a simple internet recording, but putting this up for the world to see (and criticize) was more terrifying than buying my first flight to San Salvador. But if not today, when? As the Genie in Aladdin says, "Beeeeeeee yourself." Now I'm realizing that's a full 360 degree exercise - both incredibly scary yet exhilarating all at the same time - to imagine I might be more than the identity I've come to cultivate and selectively share with others.

I'm beginning to see the inertia of my new lifestyle - the subtle impact of my presence here on the communities I'm a part of. While I was in Costa Rica, I met a wonderful friend who reminded me that the true consequences of our actions are often ones we never get to see. In any sort of community work, I'm constantly questioning whether I truly work for the greater good or just for that heroic feeling of playing the martyr. Working for long-lasting, sustainable change often means having the patience of a saint rather than a hyperactive 24-year old, trying to forcing a result as proof your work is paying off and not for nothing.

Every little moment is surrounded in faith - faith it will work out when it really feels like it won't, trusting my gut rather than experience that says to stick to the tried-and-true same old, same old. More than anything, I want to express my gratitude to all of you who have supported my work here, with no promise of results. To my family who had to imagine all the terrible things that could happen to their baby girl going to what the State Department portrays as the gangiest of the gang-ridden countries in Latin America. To the churches in Olympia and Massachusetts that opened their doors to a complete stranger; to the incredible community of YASC volunteers around the world who answered (and continue to answer) all my nagging questions; to my family here in El Salvador who allow me to make mistakes and then wait around in case I need help to get back up again.

Happy Holidays

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Being Wrong

I’m wrong most of the time. But I also now realize there are varying flavors of wrongness. There’s the time where you realize you said the wrong thing in the moment you said it. Then there’s the more dangerous kind of wrong. The kind where you think you know what’s going on, only to realize days or maybe even weeks later, you had no clue. I’m convinced this is where the palm-to-forehead “D’oh” first came into being.

Walter, one of the main community organizers here at Cristosal, loves to tell me: “Hannah, you don’t listen!” He is always challenging me to repeat what was said, knowing more often than not, I just assumed I knew exactly what was going on, what someone will say, and I just ran with it in my own little world. Because, as most of my family and friends know full well, I know best. Or at least I think I do. I jump to conclusions, I summarize, I assume. Translation… lots of D’oh moments.

I think that about covers it...

It’s not required that you live in a foreign country to experience these various degrees of incorrectness, though speaking and working in a new language certainly helps. It’s humbling to be moving full speed ahead, aglow with confidence and relief that at long last you’re getting a handle on things, only to have your feet knocked out from under you.

But perhaps the best lesson of all has been to slowly learn to relish rather than resist these moments. In capoeira, we’ve come to celebrate those rare conversations when I understand the dirty jokes, the slang, the inside stories, the nicknames. We throw our hands in the air and everyone says with an exaggerated Salvadoran accent: “Lua understands!”

At work, I keep a running mental list of how much I understood at each bimonthly meeting: 15%... 50%... 75%... 90%! It’s so easy to jump to critiques – everything I should be able to do by now. But instead this simple shift from being wrong to being wrong right now has made an enormous difference. I could make it mean so many things – I don’t belong here, I should just keep my mouth shut, don’t try anything new because you’ll just fail. Or it could mean a new chance to start over, to reassess, with more information. It could be a sign that I’m moving forward, that I’m trying new things, that I’m being courageous. I most definitely prefer the second set of interpretations.

This difference shows up most at my job. It’s all brand new and nothing short of fascinating! To move from organic compounds found in petroleum waste to developing social business models based on human rights is a whole new whirlwind of terms and structures and ideas. And one distinct difference (among many): at my former job, there were very clear binaries – very obvious rights and wrongs. Either the numbers add up or they don’t. There was a certain comfort in the redundancy of doing work that someone else could easily check. Now, talking about human rights, about development theory, about how exactly do you accompany a community while at the same time working to inspire and encourage a vision beyond basic survival and near-starvation… well, let’s just say we use very few true/false statements.

Thank goodness for Walter. For my capoeira group for treating me like a sister rather than a stranger to coddle, to tip-toe around. There is a frankness, a raw, abrupt check that makes it nearly impossible to zone out, to default into a rhythm. And I love it. Every day is an invigorating, challenging, wipe-the-board-clean lesson in humility, in learning how to dust off your ego and jump back in with just as much vitality and gusto as before. And through a magical combination of forgiveness, optimism, community, (and a few calls to Mom), I’ve been able to reach out to these moments of wrongness, not with anger and frustration, but with gratitude.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

No Capes! (An Ode to the brilliance of PIXAR)

First a public service announcement:
1. I am super safe (I realize the back-to-back posts of political protesting and death might convey a certain mood of danger + sad)
2. I am super happy

And now to transition to the creators of the greatest superhero movie ever... who doesn't love PIXAR? (This will all come full circle I promise). PIXAR seems to have this magical formula for tugging at your heartstrings... a secret code to unlock those smiles you reserve for small children and adorable puppies. I've seen grown men cry watching UP; sophisticated, too-cool-for-school Ive Leaguers cheer when Woody and his toy friends escape the clutches of an evil stuffed purple bear. 'Tis a gift - a unique ability to convey universal truths and cliches through an entirely new lens so it is both familiar yet impossible to dismiss.

I have always been able to pinpoint from afar why this or that development project didn't work... it's that organization's fault (Thunderhead was not the brightest bulb), with the assumption that surely I could have done it better. But what if I'm not a Superhero? What if the world doesn't need more Superheroes? More than anything, our work at Cristosal demands the ability for community members to give honest (tough-love type honest) feedback - when we are serving their needs, and especially when we're not.

And the tough part about being a Superhero is generally you're some kind of extraterrestrial freak coming to a world where you don't belong. That's why the movies work... Superman didn't have to conduct community diagnostics, Batman didn't do interviews with the women's association. Generally they were antisocial weirdos with a penchant for blowing stuff up, which sucks for the people in the movie, but it's great for those who bought the ticket.

At my current job (aka the Noah Bullock school of graduate development studies/nerd heaven) the major problemo is that most NGO's and aid orgs are first and foremost accountable to donors (aka movie goers), with no tried and true mechanisms for the marginalized communities they serve to provide feedback. Unlike markets or democracies, which measure effectiveness through dollars or votes received, the very nature of serving marginalized communities depends on finding a new feedback mechanism since the people you're working with often lack the money or political voice to demand good governance (hence marginalized).

I think it's about time I put my cape away. It doesn't work. Instead I have to find that uncomfortable balance between being a foreigner, just accepting, shutting up and listening, but also finding where my skill set can be of service. It's not a swoop-in-and-save-the-day-job, it's a slog-through-day-by-day-until-you-find-your-niche job. After all, the designers of PIXAR are successful for a reason. They know their audience. And we don't even know who they are - everyone has left the theater by the time those names roll across the screen. And I think that's what I resist most - the possibility that one day I'm not going to be famous, I won't be one of Time's 100 Most Influential People. For the first time, I'm realizing saving the world and making a difference are two very different things.

"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost."
- Arthur Ashe 

Monday, October 14, 2013

José Caleb Durán Gonzalez

I saw a man today. He was lying face-up on the ground outside of the National University. There was police tape around his body and I could see blood seeping in pools around his arms, under his neck… in the moments I took to walk past the policemen to the security gate, I wondered whether the red on the wall behind him was blood or graffiti.

I found the press release. His name is José Caleb Durán Gonzalez. He was 28, stabbed to death outside the main entrance to the University. He was a vendor – he sold jewelry to students as they walked by.

But all I can think is he has family. He… I don’t know him. I don’t know what he was like, or what he dreamt about or what his favorite food was. I only know it doesn’t matter anymore. But it should. He should be alive.

I feel empty. As if only now I’m realizing every news reel, every novel, every Hollywood film – essentially the social world I swim in – has been a lie. Because it made me believe I could handle seeing a dead body. It made me believe that when I finally came face to face with someone my age, someone dressed like my brother, lying there in the street, the victim of some brutal attack and left in the open for the public to observe, to walk by, to gape at… but just left there, nameless, breathless, and unequivocally dead, unequivocally murdered… that I wouldn’t feel much. And it was one big fat lie.

I curled up on the bathroom floor hugging my knees, wanting to scream but instead I just cried, harder than I’ve cried missing my mom or my friends, harder than I’ve cried when I’ve been frustrated, when I thought someone didn’t like me… I cried because I don’t understand. I don't want to understand, to accept this like something that just happens. To make jokes about it or mask it as something other than it is. So instead, I am just going to share. To share what I saw, what I feel, and hope in some small way we stop taking these things for granted. So when they put up numbers in the newspapers totaling thousands, hundreds of thousands of deaths, we grasp them not as numbers. But kids. Sons, vendors, people with lives. Not bodies.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tutela Legal

If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.

On Sunday I attended a rally at the National Cathedral to support a policy called Tutela Legal. Tutela Legal was a policy started by Archbishop Oscar Romero, an incredible man comparable to Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States, only he was assassinated much more recently back in 1980.

Something you should know about El Salvador if you don’t already (I certainly didn’t): Before and during the Salvadoran Civil War, at least 75,000 civilians were killed. Civilians. Mothers, kids, fathers, students, innocent bystanders indiscriminately murdered, often through organized massacres on the part of the Salvadoran military and indirectly the US. The war ended in 1992. I was three years old.

(There is an excellent PBS Documentary that speaks more about the war and the US’ involvement: Enemies of War).

I realize this is not the usual chipper tone of my blog, but what I’ve had to acknowledge the past few weeks is that this is real. It’s not dramatic, it’s not over-the-top, it is very recent history. A good friend of mine here, only a few years older than me, remembers seeing bodies hanging in city centers or lying facedown in the streets.

Tutela Legal was created by Archbishop Romero to document all the instances of human rights abuses that occurred during and after the Civil War. So far, a pathetic few have been convicted because of an Amnesty Law the President created soon after the Civil War ended, in the name of “reconciliation.” Lawyers have been pushing for the repeal of this Amnesty Law on the grounds of unconstitutionality (and generally blatant corruption and injustice), and it looks like they might succeed! Here’s the problem… the current Archbishop decided that last week would be an excellent time to close the Tutela Legal office and take all these public records and suddenly make them unavailable. Because he can. Without this evidence, those guilty of committing these murders, organizing and ordering the massacre of thousands, cannot be called to account for their crimes. Perhaps more importantly, families of the disappeared stand no chance of finding out what happened to their loved ones.

I joined thousands on Sunday to protest the Archbishop’s actions, surrounded by batucadas (groups of Brazilian drummers), young academics with large painted signs, groups of women dressed in purple who had traveled hours to represent their small village in Usulután… We encircled the cathedral in a large abrazo (hug) just as the Archbishop was beginning his morning mass, holding hands and chanting Queremos obispos a lado de los pobres! (We want Bishops who stand on the side of the poor!)

And we will also rob your history!

Respect for the victims, the archives, and the employees of Tutela Legal!

People carry signs of Archbishop Romero and other martyrs during the rally.

There is much the international community can do. The Archbishop continues to ignore the calls of the public, but he cannot ignore his own Church. If you feel moved to act, please contact your Bishop and ask him to send a letter to the Pope condemning the closure of the Tutela Legal Office. It may seem like a tiny action, but if there is anything I have learned in the last few weeks (or from the Little Mermaid), it is to never abandon my voice, no matter how small it may seem.

Thank you for reading,

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fotos Finalmente!

It's been nearly three weeks and already so much has happened! Rather than give you a laundry list, I have some scrollable photos below. And then there's what you can't see in the photos - being surrounded by Spanish, discovering "the vegetable lady" where you can fill four bags of produce for $8, trying to surf for the first time followed by the world's best fish burrito, or listening to the torrential rain bounce off the tamarind tree while I work.

Beyond just living in an entirely different language, there's the slang. Amid all the Salvadoran words, there's two you should know. "Chivo" means cool. Use it often. The second is "tranqui" (short for "tranquila" or calm). I like it because it also sounds like tranquilizer. 

My housemate Stefano tells me at least 3 times a day, "tranqui Anna... tranqui" because I, the American, am learning to adapt to a world where everything does not operate on my minute-to-minute schedule. I expected to be continually frustrated, but have found that there is an incredible joy and adventure to be found in spontaneity and flexibility.

On Monday, I went to capoeira class (did I mention I found a capoeira group?!) only to find that the teacher wasn't there. He had no cell phone or way to communicate if he would show up... so eventually I left with the other students. Suddenly I had a free evening, and was invited to the friend's home where I met his adorable son, their adorable dog, and drank a delicious cup of coffee offered to me by his professional juggling housemate. And we proceeded to speak in Spanish for the next several hours, listening to the sounds of the rain and watching the dog chew on balloons until they popped.

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. 
Anne Lamott

Preparing lunch with the girls from CoEscucha - a group of expats that meets once every few weeks to recoup and talk about our challenges, our gratitudes, and of course, to eat.

 Two of my wonderful housemates, Bianca and Olivia

 The garden where two of our friends celebrated their baby shower

 Of course, it's not a baby shower unless you hang diapers from the cieling
 ... or if the father-to-be doesn't give a saxophone recital
 These are photos from the latest trip to El Carmen, one of the communities where Cristosal is working on rebuilding the road, forming a water association, and starting the El Carmen Chicken Company! You can find out more about El Carmen and the work Cristosal is doing here.

 The president of the community association in El Carmen, Noah, Director of Cristosal, and Kenia, one of the lawyers on Cristosal's staff.

 A quick side note: The man on the left was one of the two that helped push Noah's truck from the muddy depths of El Carmen's road in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. Without him, we very well might still be trying to get back to San Salvador.

 Practicing capoeira at the local University at sunset (yes, that is a volcano in the background)

 In the absence of a dryer, we hang all the dirty laundry in what I affectionately call "the jungle"
 Buen provecho! (The Salvadoran version of bon appetit!)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


A fellow YASCer just wrote a wonderful piece about humility - she's living in S. Korea, dealing with an entirely different language and culture. Though I'm on the other side of the world, living in a country where I stand a much butter chance of understanding and being understood, and where people greet each other with "amor!" and buseros (bus drivers) poster their private microbuses with enormous, graffiti'd banners with their girlfriends' names on them... I get lonely sometimes. And I figure if you can't mention it on your blog, well bottling it up inside isn't a great alternative.

My first week at work has been a rollercoaster with the requisite incredible highs. And to be honest, not so many lows. My first day we took a round-about hop-along bus ride, jumping from one to the next, to visit the community of Las Anemonas. They're a group of about 200 families that used to live in the mountains of El Salvador, but after a hurricane in 2009, they've been relegated to temporary shacks with tin roofs off the main highway. I visited the neighborhood with Kenia, Cristosal's resident lawyer in training, because... get this... the kids want to have a workshop on breakdancing.

Now I had a whole bunch of thoughts about this. Is that really how we want to spend our efforts? I thought this was a serious development organization, focused on healthcare, education, all that social services mumbo jumbo you see on fliers or hear in the ads where they zoom in on some adorable child with puppy dog eyes. And then I gave myself a little smackdown. Here I am, yelling to the world how capoeira has changed my life, challenged me, given me community, family, and confidence... and these kids want to learn to break dance. Can somebody give me a Hallelujah!

Since coming to work with Cristosal, I've got a whole bunch of thoughts about development should work. Why are we trying to bring people out of poverty when it seems that wealth accumulation is the problem? Isn't that when people get corrupt, dissatisfied, jaded? We don't live on a planet where everyone can live like a middle class American, so how is the work I'm doing, in the long long long term, sustainable in any way? Not to sound cliche, but this linear development scheme ain't gonna work unless we finagle ourselves a new world order. Not that I know what that looks like, but it doesn't look like the United States. Pretending we know what we're doing only goes so far... actually I think that cover was blown decades ago, we just haven't realized it yet.

Noah and I grabbed lunch this afternoon (chicken soup, bottled water, tortillas, extra veggies for $3) and proceeded to go more in depth into development theory than any of my classes at Columbia ever did (or perhaps I was just 1000% more attentive with tortillas at my fingertips). And he cut my internal debate off at the knees. We're not trying to eradicate poverty. That doesn't make you happy, it's impossible to do it for everyone and still have enough resources, and it's just a distraction. Nice idea, but no.

We're working towards something else, something that only recently people have started to measure. The complete recognition, acknowledgement, and respect of people's fundamental human rights (flashing lights - this is gonna be a theme over the next year). Folks are guaranteed the right to shelter, food, all that good stuff... but fundamentally they are guaranteed a voice. Which means most of the time we need to just shut up. But over decades of historical interventions, coups, and generally being ignored by the local, national and international judicial community (including the good old US of A... all those history classes I didn't take would have been real handy right about now), it makes sense that folks get resigned. I saw a moment of it in El Carmen... These are folks who fought as guerrillas in the Civil War - every last one of them - and then when the government they fought for (and lost limbs and family members for) finally came to power, they were given crap land to squat on to make sure the other side couldn't come back and take it freely. I don't know what that's like. But at the very least I can imagine that it's gonna take something to believe in a utopia again.

I don't have answers, far from it. I got a whole bunch of questions, a lot of books Noah gave me to read to make up for the years I spent studying geochemistry instead of Latin American history, journalism, and human rights theory... and luckily a bunch of broccoli, a beer, and some chick flicks to drain my brain at the end of the day. I miss you all, but I wouldn't trade this experience for the world. Sometimes I just want my mom, or to walk around at night without worrying, or just to be in capoeira class again with my mestre. And that's ok. Because for now I'm here, and it's gonna work out, and most of the time, my brain is on fire, my belly isn't nauseous, and I'm surrounded by incredible people who have my back. And that's pretty good.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Green Lens

A good friend of mine recently gave some great advice - something he called "the Green Lens." He said we choose how to see the world, rather than being lucky or having a bad day. Yes, a pigeon pooping on your head might unequivocally suck, but for the most part it all depends on you. When I arrived in San Salvador on Friday, I thought about Scooby Doo, collecting evidence for how incredible this experience could be.

In fact, as I look back over this blur, I feel truly blessed. I remember beautiful, rolling hills whooshing past as we drove from the airport into the city. I remember a small, perfect office, with a garden in the middle and a tamarind tree blossoming just beyond the window near my desk. I remember Olivia, my new co-worker and housemate, graciously answering all my questions, misinterpretations, and guiding my jet-lagged butt to the "super" (grocery store) to buy bananas, lentils, rice, and ingredients for the lasagna we made for my first dinner.

I remember relishing almost every drop of Spanish I've heard since I arrived. Our house has self-imposed rules. With four Americans and two Salvadorenos, we speak Spanish 95% of the time, with designated 30 minute moments for English practice. But everything sounds better in Spanish.

I remember on the drive to the office from the airport, Noah (the Executive Director of Cristosal and my new boss) would point out everything, from the huge political campaigns painted onto the mountainsides, pupuserias lining the highway or the "Zona Franca," an area where most constitutional rights are suspended for the sake of enticing transnational business. I'm starting to realize Noah can see in four dimensions. Whereas you or I might look at something and see what it is (plus an added meaning or two, like "gee that dog is cute" or "that pupusa smells amazing"), Noah sees history... extrapolating far beyond the present into the past and future of what created a situation and where it will likely end up. How someone holds so much knowledge in his brain is beyond me, but I can't wait to begin work on Monday and see how well I can keep up.

Speaking of meanings, I have one last thing to share with you. When I moved into the house, my room was empty except for a bed and some linens left over. And a small picture hanging just outside the door. It is a small wooden box, painted dark blue, with a small white crescent moon watching over a sparsely drawn woman, traveling the seas with another moon for her sail. Call it coincidence, but when I moved to a completely foreign place, I drew incredible comfort from believing this room was made for "Lua."

Olivia and the lasagna

Los tambores del grupo "Las Musas" en nuestra sala

Practicing capoeira in my new abode

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Just around the corner...

First, an enormous thank you is in order.

Because... WE DID IT! WE RAISED $10,000!

I sometimes like to think I can do everything myself. Fundraising for this journey has been an incredible wake-up call and reinforced two little lessons. 1. I don't have to do everything by myself (no, we don't get brownie points at the end if we don't ask for help) and 2. People want to help. Even after donations were sent in, people have continued to follow up, lend their support and empathy as I prepare in earnest for that flight on September 6th. And your words are just as (if not more) valuable than the dollars.

So now it's official. I'm going. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Over the past few months, during fundraising and visiting friends and family, I've been answering the same few questions (Why? When? What are you doing there?) The trouble is, when you tell a story over and over again, it can become mechanical. More than anything else, it becomes impersonal, the way you recount a NY Times article or the latest celebrity gossip. So when I touched down at Logan Airport yesterday in Boston after visiting family in Minnesota (scroll down for pics), I had a nice big, bug-eyed, reality-check-slap-you-upside-the-head-moment in roughly this order:

It's August 18th.
I leave September 6th.
That's... wait... 30 days past September, April, June, and November... in 19 days!!
The next time I'm on a plane, it won't be to visit family or go back to Seattle. It will be to move. Because I'm moving to San Salvador.

Not San Salvador like I've been saying it over and over again for the past few months. But San Salvador as home. San Salvador as a real, physical place, with an apartment building somewhere that will be my apartment building, and a language that will no longer be a neat thing to be fluent in, but suddenly as pervasive as the air I breathe, and the pupusas I eat, and suddenly I'm going to be dunked headfirst into a world I don't even know how to adequately anticipate. Oh boy.

So stay tuned... it's about to get real.


The boys (bros and cousin) revisiting LEGO memories
All the cousins together again!
My cousin Kakia, Mommy, and me

Thursday, August 1, 2013

HP gives her first sermon... in Spanish

Can you believe it's AUGUST?! Already a few YASCers have left to start their service year abroad, and have posted pictures of their first cigar in Cuba, their morning breakfast in South Africa, or their pre-departure jitters before getting on the flight to Tanzania.

Though I haven't left yet, a LOT has happened here near the little town o' Weston, MA. Two events in particular have left me, if possible, more excited and more certain that El Salvador, and specifically Cristosal, is exactly where I want to be.

Last Sunday I had the (slightly nerve-wracking) honor of giving two sermons (same text - one in English, one in Spanish) at Christ Church in Tarrytown, NY with the Rev. Susan Copley. We visited Susan and Christ Church during our 2-week training session at Stony Point. The space is gorgeous, the people there welcomed us with open arms (and incredible food, including homemade drool-inducing empanadas), and Susan's words were always kind, authentic, and eye-opening. When she first emailed me about the opportunity to come back and speak, I was nervous, but very excited to be able to return.

Meeting the Rev. Susan Copley for the first time during our YASC training.
Some words I never thought I'd say: I gave a sermon. I've copied the text (English version) below for those who are interested, and of course, a few photos. I wish I had photos of the Spanish service to share with you - imagine a Spanish guitar in place of the organ, maracas in place of bulky prayer books, and kids running everywhere. I loved it. I loved speaking Spanish (and realizing that I could!), I loved kissing people on the cheek, I loved the warmth and the openness I felt there even though I was new, speaking in a secondary language in a completely new environment. It just felt like home.

Giving the sermon at Christ Church in Tarrytown, NY. Yes, that is a cast on my left hand (removed yesterday!) No, I was not teaching the chicken dance.
Last but not least, I met Noah (Exec. Dir. of Cristosal) yesterday in person for the first time! He's visiting Boston to see family, and we snuck in a quick hello and coffee downtown. We talked about what I will be doing when I arrive in September, where I will live, what Cristosal is up to now... and like my experience at Christ Church, I just new this is exactly where I want to be. I believe working with Noah and Cristosal is the experience and the training I have been looking for, but never believed existed, let alone qualify for once I'd found it. Yet here we are! One month until my flight, and loving every minute of it.


7/28/2013 Sermon at Christ Church, Tarrytown

My name is Hannah Perls, I grew up outside of Boston and I will be spending my next year working for Foundation Cristosal in El Salvador.

I have never given a sermon before, and when the Reverend Susan gave me the readings for today, I have to admit I was a bit lost. But when I got to the final reading, it suddenly clicked. So I want to share with you today a bit of my story, a bit about how and why I am going to El Salvador, with the hope that you hear something for yourselves.

Seek and you shall find.  This is the core of my journey over the past year and a half, and something I definitely want to take with me when I go to El Salvador. But I’ve found that this phrase has taken on new meaning, and here’s why.

Like I said, I grew up in a suburb outside Boston, a very wealthy, relatively isolated, homogenous suburb. I did really well in High School, and then I went to Columbia University where I studied environmental science and sustainable development. And I loved it – I loved the beauty and the simplicity of science, especially chemistry. When the time came to look for a job, I knew I wanted to combine this passion for science with a career that would allow me to make a real difference for others. And I found it – an extraordinary consulting firm called Anchor QEA, and they offered me a spot in New Jersey.

Well no offense to New Jersey, but I really did not want to live there. And so when they offered me a job, against the recommendations of my parents and mentors, I turned it down. And then I went back and asked if they would place me in Seattle instead. And to make a long story short, after a lot of asking, and a lot of bugging, and then really bugging, I got an internship. Then I got my job, my dream career as a scientist fresh out of college doing exactly what I thought I wanted to do.

Ask and you shall receive.

There was only one problem. I think we’ve all had the experience where you sign up for something, thinking it will be the answer, and it’s not. I was unhappy, and I didn’t really know why. I had done everything I was supposed to do. I was sitting at my desk, and I knew that there had to be something more. But I didn’t know what it was. And I couldn’t really talk about it, because I felt like I should be happy.  How can I ask for more, when I don’t even know what it is that’s missing? How can I receive when I don’t know what my question is?

So I sat at my desk for a while, for a year. Some days were great, some days I slugged through. I asked for different jobs, I asked about the opportunities within the company, but none of the answers I found were what I was looking for.

The thing is, I understood what it meant to ask for what you want… that’s how I go the job in the first place. Except this time I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t have a concrete quest or even a good alternative. I just felt something was missing, and as a scientist, it’s really uncomfortable to base anything on feeling.

When I was home in Boston this past Christmas, I met with a dear friend and old employer over coffee. He is an organizer to help inner city youth who aren’t doing so great in school drive their own education – to find their own passions, create their own reasons for going to math or science or music class. I taught environmental science to these kids, we talked about methane gas, global warming and cow farts, how to save polar bears from extinction. 

When I met this ex-boss over Christmas he asked, Hannah how’s work? And probably for the first time I was really honest and I told the truth not only to my friend but to myself. I told him the good, and the not so good, the stuff that wasn’t really going the way I wanted it to. And he said, “well Hannah, what do you really want?” And even though I didn’t have an answer, I gave him a laundry list of moments when I feel the most fulfilled. I said, I want to speak Spanish, I want to travel again! I want to work with kids, I want to teach, I want to be outside, I want to eat really good food… and I just really want to know that what I do makes a difference, I want to have conversations with folks about what really matters to them. And rather than throw up his hands and say, well good luck!, he said, I know a guy. His name’s Noah Bullock, he runs this organization called Cristosal in El Salvador.

Many of you know Noah Bullock, he came and spoke here before, but I wanted to quickly recap what Cristosal does. Cristosal is an independent, faith-based non-profit organization that accompanies, and partners with the people of El Salvador in their struggle for peace and justice and reconciliation. El Salvador is a very conflicted place – their 12-year Civil War ended when I was 3 in 1992, and much of civilian life is defined by gang violence and memories of war. Resources for public education are extraordinarily limited. But when I listened to Noah speak, he didn’t say any of this. He didn’t talk about the overwhelming problems El Salvador faced. He just talked about the folks he worked with, their incredible fortitude, hope, and creativity. I realized that this is an organization that listens.

After speaking with Noah twice, I quit my job, and I left Seattle. I am now a member of the Young Adult Service Corps with the Rev. David Copley, and will move to San Salvador to work with Cristosal on September 6th! And so in the most circuitous way possible, I received. I got my answer. And I realize, not only from this experience but even now, as I’m preparing to leave and am navigating very unfamiliar waters. As I scientist, I learned to ask very well prepared, well-researched, reasonable questions. That’s really comfortable for me. But it was the unreasonable, the scary, the daring to ask what if I don’t go with what I know questions that ironically hold the greatest reward, and reflect who I really am and what I really want. For me, that’s when faith started showing up in my life. I think these are the kind of requests Jesus was talking about.

I share this story with you so I can ask you this – I would like you to join me. There are many ways to do this, through prayer, through communal projects, and through donations. I will be here after the service – please come find me, I would love to hear more about the work you have done with Cristosal so far, and invite you to continue to be a part of next year’s work.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Mil Gracias!

My flight is booked (6am Logan Airport on 9/6/2013!), my arm has been shot up with oodles of antibodies, and we have typhoid pills in the fridge sitting next to the butter and cream cheese.

I wanted to take a quick second to acknowledge everyone who has lent their support and dollars to send me to El Salvador in September. Without you, not only would our fridge be filled exclusively with food instead of pharmaceuticals, but our future work with Cristosal would never happen.

The official fundraising total is now $6,947! Only $3,053 more to go! If you would like to give (and don't forget, most of this money came from small donations), please visit the Support tab on the homepage.

A todos, mil gracias por su apoyo.
Especialmente, gracias a

Bishop Rickel and the Episcopal Church of W. Washington, especially
St. John's in Kirkland
St. Luke's in Ballard
St. Thomas in Medina
Trinity Church in Seattle

And to some stellar individuals:
Anne Perls
Barb Clagett
Beth Roberts
Brittany Holmberg
David Teachout
Eben Pendleton
Elana Riffle
Gadadhara Pandit
Gavin Gourley
Hans Adomeit
the Ismans
Jesse "Dangerface" Hunter
Jessica Breznau
Kyle Bryan
Mark Larsen and Anchor QEA
Mindy and the Spitz family
Paul Bowen
Peter Rowe
Sam and Nancy Riffle
Sam Bernstein
Shelley Mannlev 
Tim and Maureen McQuown
Tom Perls and Leslie Smoot
Travis Perls
Tom Bennett
Victoria Diaz-Bonilla
Zac Accuardi

You're awesome! 

Con amor,

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