INTERVALS:THE NEWSLETTER OF DAVID LIEBMAN
Missionary Awareness Trip to
El Salvador and Honduras, Central America
In February, 2004 I took part in a “missionary awareness” trip to El Salvador and Honduras traveling with a group from the local church in my town, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The bulk of the travelers were teenagers from several area high schools who participate in a “social awareness” youth group at St.Luke’s Church. They have previously taken part in some construction projects for the poor in West Virginia as well as visiting El Salvador in past years. The combination of being with local people traveling to a part of the world I have never been and being somehow involved with charitable work is something I always wanted to do. Hopefully I could come with my daughter in the future if everything worked out well.
Some background will help to place this trip in perspective for readers since traveling to the Third World is not something most jazz musicians do unless they are performing. Unfortunately even those opportunities have dwindled in the recent past due to economics and the security situation in the world.
In the early 1980s I went through a series of personal while at the same time questioning the direction of my life. I was thirty five years old and I would say those years could be considered the equivalent of a “midlife” crisis. My attitude towards the music business was pretty negative at the time. To me it seemed that there was not much of what I would call “redeeming” value from the jazz life or music business.
By that time I had experienced quite a bit first hand, from working with Miles Davis to leading my own groups, recording and of course massive traveling. I just couldn’t see myself remaining in that milieu for the rest of my life and being fulfilled on a personal level. By necessity there is a certain amount of self centeredness in the music business. There was a part of me that felt I could do something in my life on a broader level that would be of real and practical benefit to people. I wasn’t trying to be a martyr or save the world and it wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the value and effect of artistic music for the world. After all seeing John Coltrane had changed my life in the 1960s and inspired me to pursue this course in the first place. Maybe it was partially a result of my upbringing which among other things emphasized education and the responsibility to do something concrete for society.
I considered the Peace Corps and other organizations which I contacted but obviously there isn’t much need for a jazz musician in the bush. They need engineers, teachers, agricultural experts, medical people, etc. Then I considered that becoming a lawyer could satisfy these feeling I was having. I went so far as taking the LSAT exams which are necessary to get into law school while procuring all my college and high school records, etc. I was accepted to a few schools in the New York area but in the end when I had to sign on the dotted line and give a deposit, several lawyers I personally knew helped dissuade me. They clearly described the frustrating realities of practicing law in the real world, especially if you are attempting to do something positive for your fellow man. I’m sure there are instances of good things happening through the practice of law but it appears to be rare if one is looking for some sort of principled behavior. In any case, this stage ended as it started with more playing, a new relationship with my wife Caris and notably the addition of teaching to my life which helped bring about some satisfaction of the sort I had been looking for. If I could have an affect on one young person in pursuing truth and beauty through this music, I would feel gratified. Of course over the years this has become a real vocation, in some ways even more important than playing itself. In my case “one hand washes the other” as the expression goes.
St. Luke's Group
Remembering those feelings over the years, this trip presented a wonderful opportunity regardless of any trepidation about the possible dangers in that part of the world. As far as the religious connotation of going under the auspices of a Catholic foundation, although I’m Jewish and my wife and daughter are Roman Catholic I attend St. Luke’s on holidays and have had wonderful conversations as well as warm relations with the two priests in charge. I am comfortable with Catholicism and have a lot of respect for the charitable work that derives from the church as an institution. Besides, the cost which was only $650 seemed more than reasonable. (St.Luke’s financed most of the student’s expenses.) What follows is a journal from the trip.
We arrived in El Salvador with the group on a direct flight from Newark leaving Stroudsburg at four in the morning. ”Missionary awareness” means checking out the activities and work done in the field under the auspices of the CFCA (Catholic Foundation for Children and the Aged). The idea behind the trip seems to be quite simple: to bear witness to the work being done and offer positive and warm vibrations to those people we will meet. From what I can see coming from the airport, it is very poor here but the main roads are better than I expected, even compared to parts of Europe I have been to. There is much activity on the sides of the roads with stalls selling food and people walking everywhere. The main mode of transportation is American school busses which are purchased, driven down here, fixed up and painted over in a dazzling array of colors. The physical vibe is very Indian, brown skin, dark hair, basic dress, no hats, no sunglasses and definitely nothing fancy in cars, dress or buildings
I will probably get more sleep this week than in the past many years, since I rarely get more than 6 or 7 normally. I slept from 9PM till 6 AM.
People blow whistles at night which means they are doing a neighborhood patrol and reporting that things are cool. It’s kind of nice to hear them disappear into the distance, much like a passing siren. We are not right in the center of the city but just a bit away in a mostly residential area that doesn’t look too impoverished, just old and worn down. They say security is rough in the country as a whole and as I will see, there are guys with machine guns everywhere, even in fast food places at 7AM when we go for breakfast. Seems that when the revolution ended (1980-92 with 70, 000 killed), they disbanded 30,000 each of rebels and the army. So you have trained killers running around with arms and no work. Also some deported gang members from the LA area. (It seems there are about 2 million Salvadorans in the States, with a concentration in LA, New York and Houston.) The office area is surrounded by barbed wire and shards of glass placed strategically so no one can jump a wall, something I have seen in other Third World countries.
The guy in charge of the office and in fact the whole region (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) is Henry Flores. He is definitely happening; perfect English, clear thinking, a young guy with wife Rosanna and two adorable kids. There are daily prayers at the beginning and end of the day which he and his assistant Umberto conduct, also singing songs in Spanish. There is no pretense or heaviness about it and I don’t feel at all uncomfortable with the Hail Mary’s and Our Father incantations.
The use of drinking of water is strictly prohibited since there are microbes and whatever which will inevitably sicken those not used to it. (In fact a few of the kids did get a bit sick throughout the week) But they say if you intend to stay awhile, you should drink and get any sickness over with, after which you supposedly are ok. We are here too short a time for that. So you keep your mouth closed when you shower and use bottled water for teeth brushing, eat no fruit or vegetables unless they have been washed with bottled water, etc. The bug deal seems far out, thankfully less so at this time of year. From the advanced reading I did, if you get a bite it seems you have the risk of coming down with any number of things even months in the future: yellow fever, malaria, dengue and several unpronounceable names. No question—mosquitoes are bad news!!
Breakfast is at “the Biggest”, which is a McDonald’s type place that filters its water; hence we will go there every morning. It is actually not bad with eggs, pancakes, burritos, fried bananas, beans and as is true everywhere here, great coffee.
Then to Sunday mass at a church off of an alleyway that was very quaint with the service of course all in Spanish, accompanied by a quartet singing and playing that sounded real nice. The drummer was a teenage girl who had a great beat!! The ceremony was as basic as it gets with the participants being mostly old and nicely dressed.
This is not quite the time for me to discourse on my view of organized religion but when you think about it, in its name more people have probably died than any other man made cause other than nationalism which I think tops the list. But with nationalism as a cause, I can comprehend that someone covets the resources, the land or something another country has, whether it is right or wrong. At least it is material in nature. However, to kill in the name of a God which is a concept in the first place is to me beyond the pale. Add to this the fact that all religions more or less say the same thing which is NOT TO KILL but TO LOVE. I just can’t buy organized religion (all faiths), although I see how it serves a strong socializing purpose, especially in a land like El Salvador since on the ground level it gives people something to hang on to. Looking around this little church, I can see that belief is very powerful. Even Jim, the TA worker expresses a desire to go to seminary when he retires.
By the way, it is very good for me to be around people who for the most part don’t really know what I do or who I am (excepting Scott and Frances). It brings back memories of my youth whenever I found myself in groups of strangers and had a feeling of being anonymous. In the end if not in my world of music I am quiet by nature and like to observe and reflect more than anything.
Today we got the real Third World hit; a community where the CFCA does some work called unbelievably “Realidid” (reality?). In this village near Santa Ana, most of the homes don’t even have tin roofs, just some wood or plastic (as in garbage bags).Cooking is a fire anywhere in the abode and water is brought in from miles away to be stored in an open drum if at all. It is poor beyond poor with resignation all over the mother’s faces and the little kids seemingly without a clue. There’s open land across the road but the government keeps it reserved as a recreation area for paying customers which is ridiculous.
Then we went to a center for abused girls. As we walked in they were waiting in line to greet and hug all of us individually. Along with our kids, they played basketball in the courtyard and generally hung out having fun. The nuns here are obviously on the case. In some ways the actual physical situation, the building, chapel, dormitories, etc., looked better than Lydia’s school, Notre Dame in Stroudsburg. The same number of kids which is approximately four hundred at least have room to play!!
I got down with the boss, Henry who lived in LA for nine years and was a DJ in the late 80s at a disco in Hollywood. He returned home after his brother was shot and killed in LA. He fell into this job for which he serves as coordinator for the three countries overseeing some form of aid for 130,000 kids. He spends six to seven months on the road and may soon move with his family to Guatemala where the main office of the area is located, some 5000 feet up in the mountains. Guatemala is unique in that 70% of the population is indigenous, meaning from original Mayan descent. In fact the whole area is descended from the original Indians mixed with the conquering Spanish who came here. El Salvador was founded in the 1500s, but in modern times it has been independent since the early 1800s. Until the recent revolution, it was an oligarchy as most of these countries were, run by a few families who controlled the cash crop, coffee and whatever else came from the land. With coffee prices down worldwide, this economy is not doing well and there are a large number of sweat shops making Wal Mart type stuff, something which we of course will not see on this trip.
Henry filled me in on the organization of the CFCA which is headquartered in Kansas City and been around since the 1980s controlling a yearly budget of around seventy five million dollars. The organization offers services to other denominations like Muslims in India and Africa besides Catholic. They run a very tight fiscal operation spending only an average of twenty four dollars per kid for advertising whereas for example the organization World Vision (which we see lot of on TV with celebrities feeding starving kids, etc) spends three hundred fifty per sponsored child. Only 10% of this budget goes to administration and audits are regularly instituted in both the field offices and headquarters. They have a four star rating which is the best for a charity. Impressive!!
One more aspect of the rural ghetto I saw this morning. Four hundred fifty dollars pays for a tin roof which though it contains the heat does help to keep the rain out. The rainy season beginning in April means that there is a daily downpour in the late afternoon. I cannot imagine what happens to the dirt roads. Even last night there was an unusual rainfall for this time of year and sure enough in one of the huts we saw at Realidad the bed was soaked with a little baby playing on it.
It was a long walk today in the heat and involved crossing over some cesspool action below. I had a little off balance scare but an extended arm from big Jim straightened me out. Henry has a little C flute around the office for me to toot on so we played a few songs together with him on guitar and Umberto singing which was real sweet. By the way, the heat is on for sure, probably high 80s but not particularly humid, though this is winter of course. However because of the nearness to the equator, this is not Pennsylvania sun-you don’t sit out tanning and a hat along with 15 SPF lotion is a must.
“Homes” in Realidid
Getting too much sleep!! Nothing to do at night but read, listen to the whistles and try to find the BBC on my little short wave radio I take on the road. We went to another community called La Montanita which was a similar deal as yesterday, except here St. Luke’s has sponsored the building of a school. From what I could see the new building is a big improvement from the former school which is now used for a day care center. Basically it is a tin roof, rather than plastic or wood and for sure provides some more space for the kids.
The sad thing is the mothers approaching our group carrying these adorable kids dressed up as best they can in order to procure sponsorship from one of us, which could literally save their lives. The twenty dollars per month is the same amount that our family gives to CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) sponsoring a girl in India. But this approaching me feels like a slave market. I say let Kansas City or whoever do the deciding. It’s not our job to judge the needs of people or a place to which we have no direct connection. But of course you can’t negate the feeling of falling in love with a kid and knowing your money is going to him or her. Add the fact that in this case you can come down here and see the sponsored child also. They are gorgeous as kids are everywhere, have smaller frames due to lack of the right food I guess, but they have in their way a quiet dignity. When you see the aging in the mother’s faces, women who are forty but look sixty, you know what is in store in the future unless they can be helped.
The group played soccer in the afternoon on a beautiful field at the Catholic University in town with some Salvadoran students and the CFCA staff. Man, these people can really play that game. It’s like nothing here….everyone does it. I walked around the woods checking out the plants and enjoying the heat.
I brought with me volume three of “Conversations with God” which I feel are the best books I have read on the subject. The main point is that everything is relative and exists for a reason, even the poverty. J’accepte!!
I am getting to talk a little Spanish. For sure a little goes a long way and without it the communication is completely vibration only which is ok but limited. Umberto, the assistant, is a family man who lived and worked in Brooklyn and LA in the late 80s. It seems that a lot of these guys got out during the revolution to make some money. I know for a fact that Salvadorans work in the kitchens of restaurants in New York. My neighbor Jose who lives across the road in Stroudsburg is from Honduras. When I said I am going to El Sal, he noted that the reputation of the people is for being hard workers. A man in the office named Luis was nice to talk to. He is the accountant and wants to get an MBA… very intelligent and ready to go.
The most dust I have ever seen…period!!!!
The St Luke’s group is a nice bunch and the kids are really affected by what they see. They talk at night, cry a bit, commiserate and generally appreciate what they are witnessing. I can’t imagine what I would think coming from our society and seeing this at such a young age. I remember landing in Calcutta in 1975 for a State Department tour with my first group, “Lookout Farm”. When we met the next morning after being driven late at night in separate cars from the airport to the hotel, the look on the band’s faces was something I will never forget. And we were already traveling and touring musicians!! This is good for these kids and they will never forget it. I hope I will come here with my daughter, Lydia in a few years when she is older.
The food we get is ok-rice, chicken, etc. The count is light but cool. I am drinking all water and as I mentioned, even out of the percolator at the office the coffee (black) is killing!!
Sure, there are a lot of platitudes heard: “How terrible the situation is; how cute the kids are; how we (Americans) are so spoiled and isn’t it amazing what CFCA does; the dogs are so skinny and our pets so fat, etc.” But it’s honest and sincere. Most of all to see members of our group meet their sponsored kids and hang with them is definitely touching.
You can’t help but thinking about this screwed up world………these people were probably much cooler till the twentieth century. Then while everything changed in the developed world, nothing changed for them. They could never catch up, everything would have to be ripped down and started over just from the infrastructure standpoint, let alone the mind set itself.
I told our kids at the group meeting tonight about the 1960s and how we all wanted to change the world---Peace Corps, Martin Luther King, Camelot, civil rights movement, etc. But of course with time we realized that the best you can do is one at a time, starting with your family, immediate community and so on. You don’t have to come to El Salvador to help people.
Putting the toilet paper in a wastebasket next to the potty is actually not a bad idea. After a few minutes it really doesn’t smell as you think it would.
I’m not taking pictures of the families in their homes. I feel that this is awkward and there’s no way they are going to say no when you ask. For me the images will always be in my mind. If anyone wants to see photos back home there are plenty of places to go; photographing the poor is a cottage industry of its own.
Church in Honduras
We took an early three hour trip to the northwest corner of Honduras. The mountains are lush and green with less of a jungle vibe than where we left and definitely windier and cooler as well as appearing to have more space. Actually El Salvador is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, six million in a country the size of Massachusetts. We went to the town of Octotepeque and visited a wonderful compound where the branch office is located. It feeds several hundred kids for breakfast and lunch daily, contains a training area for sewing classes and computer education, a library and so on. This situation is very organized and in a beautiful mountain setting. It is definitely a little better off here than we have seen. The sponsored homes being built have some brick and there is electric and water to a degree. The town itself is pretty poor and the hotel we are in for one night, barely ok.
The organization here in Honduras is very together. After showing us around they grilled some food for us last night which was among the best we had all week. As well they put on a show of ethnic dancing and singing. Our kids also did some entertaining and got everyone up to dance. These St. Luke’s teenagers are very generous both to each other and the people. I must say it gives one hope for the future of our society, something that gets me depressed a lot of the time I travel when I am out of the States. Just observing the Honduran teenagers do their quaint and formal dancing, so old, so straight, then reflecting about Janet Jackson at the recent Super Bowl with the whole world watching. No wonder people think we are out of our minds or worse.
It’s the same story. If people don’t know or see better they will keep things straight and simple. But if tempted, they will naturally go for some part of the package and with it all the good and bad that accompanies. Sure you get modern appliances and so on, but you also get the garbage that our culture puts out.
Black Jesus in La Herradura
It is interesting about the bookkeeping of the CFCA with particulars such as how they translate every letter sent to a kid always erasing return addresses on the envelopes to protect the sponsors; they inspect every gift of course and log it; have to use credit until a donation check clears the bank and so on. There is an unbelievable amount of administration just to get twenty dollars to work effectively.
I have to admit I am on “happy” overload---the cute kids (actually one beautiful teenage girl who could be Miss Honduras), the platitudes and so on. But I have to remember this is basically one big PR trip, to make people aware of what is happening as I am doing with this little journal, hoping it will inspire others to donate.
We are surrounded by beautiful mountains and a slight cowboy vibe with a real natural feeling here in Honduras.
By the way, I heard Kenny G both on the radio and as background music during the presentation by the Hondurans in the compound. He actually sounded fairly decent on one tune with chord changes. Also they played “Sounds of Silence” at the morning mass. American pop music is ubiquitous, that is for sure. On the radio they mostly play their own dance music called “cumbia”. It isn’t too much musically speaking and definitely not as hip as the Cuban or Brazilian scene. Three musicians who played last night at the show and today for mass said they used to get paid for gigs with booze and of course became alcoholics. Talk about rough wages!! The church and this organization helped them get out of it. One guy played bass guitar, like what Ronan (Guilfoyle) plays.
The walk was down a steep hill this morning to another village where they make pottery so I hung in the hotel. I had my Indian flute with me and found what are referred to as whistle tones. I also messed around with a little kalimba I brought down tuning it to different scales. Back to El Salvador we stopped at a town called Las Palma which was some sort of headquarters for the revolutionaries during the war. I bought some stuff for Caris and Lydia but there wasn’t much there though I did get a notched flute.
Talk about generous, when I got back to the office Luis the accountant just handed me a CD with a complete MP3 file of every Beatle tune and lyrics-like that. Nicest people!
Making tortillas in
streets of La Herradura
This morning we went to La Herradura, a few hours away on the Pacific Ocean. The village is located on a swampy inlet where they build their houses on sand mounds connected by flimsy log bridges.
The tide comes in every six hours enabling the people to go out about three miles fishing for oysters and clams, sold for one dollar if caught at all. The tide takes all the waste products out each time, so in between it is pretty funky. In fact this was the most serious poverty we saw. The church though was beautiful and the priest had a heavy vibe about him
Outhouse in La Herradura
Walking on the wood bridges was like being on a tightrope. Thankfully, the driver Fredy was my hold during the walking. With the bridge swaying he remarked: ”Bridge Dance”. There it was….a title for THE tune I will write commemorating the trip. I always have to get at least one out of a trip and need a title to get me there. It was definitely a little tough. Don’t look below the “bridge”; focus on each step; slow and easy. I’ve learned my lessons from the ice and all the broken legs I’ve had.
Walking on wooden bridge
We ate at the Biggest twice today. I am
OD’d (overdosed) on eggs, chicken and rice overdose with NO fruit and NO
vegetables at all. Tomorrow we have two flights on Continental and I don’t have
to tell travelers what that means in the food department!!
In the capital, San Salvador (as busy and crazy as cities like this are) we went to the church of Archbishop Romero who was assassinated on the podium as he was delivering a homily sparking the revolution in 1980. The chapel is beautiful with a small opening to the outside where a sniper sitting on a low rooftop shot him. The angle of the shot was incredibly level meaning it had to be a real pro whom of course was never caught.Romero wrote and spoke a lot about the injustices perpetuated on the poor. In South America in general, the church is quite outspoken about politics and many priests are killed, even now. I recall three nuns from America getting killed in El Salvador during the 80s. We also visited his study and bedroom, untouched since that day and the vestments he was wearing covered in blood from the one shot. We were told not to speak about politics or advertise in any way that we were from the U.S. on this trip. After all we supported the army against the peasants, as usual!
Archbishop Romero’s altar where he was assassinated
There was a wonderful hang at night at the office in Santa Ana with everyone performing something for the group. It was a lot of fun and really gave off a nice feeling. I did some music on Indian, Salvadoran and Irish flute with a little rap about improvisation and so on. I also read something from “Conversations” which was apropos: a way to think in life. The usual motif is that we work to possess things and then judge our worth by that standard. The suggestion here is to reverse the formula; strive to be what you want to be first, then you will have more of what you want and will become the result of that work. Actions speak louder than words and if you want to help out, just do it. Benefits derive from the action itself.
Homeward bound which with a small one hour layover for immigration, luggage and security in Houston meant more concentrated fast walking to make the connection to Newark than we did all week. With my brace in some airports in the States (not New York thankfully), they take me to an office where I have to take my pants down and in this case today they even swabbed the brace like they do for the computers. Talk about rushing to make the flight!!
This was a great visit and both reaffirming as to what people can do when they want to help as well as the amount of good feelings that can be so easily spread about. At the same time it is disheartening to witness what conditions people live under and how little help they receive from their governments. The responsibilities of government are to guarantee housing, education, health and culture. How far much of the world is from fulfilling these tasks is unnerving.
The prevailing lesson is as I mentioned to the kids the “one at a time” deal: if you help one, you help all. This is the only practical way to feel. It seems that everyone could afford a paltry twenty dollars per month to sponsor a kid.
Young man of El Salvador.