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Mystery Kidney Disease in Central America

This week my radio story was broadcast on Public Radio International’s “The World.” This was an effort of a reporting project from The Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Please read the excellent article written by Sasha Chavkin and Ronnie Greene for a more in-depth investigation of the story.

The following is an excerpt from the radio piece:

A mysterious epidemic is sweeping Central America – it’s the second biggest cause of death among men in El Salvador, and in Nicaragua it’s a bigger killer of men than HIV and diabetes combined.

It’s unexplained but the latest theory is that the victims are literally working themselves to death.

In the western lowlands of Nicaragua, in a region of vast sugarcane fields, sits the tiny community of La Isla. The small houses are a patchwork of concrete and wood. Pieces of cloth serve as doors.

Maudiel Martinez emerges from his house. He’s pale, and his cheekbones protrude from his face. He hunches over like an old man – but he is only 19-years-old.

“The way this sickness is – you see me now, but in a month I could be gone. It can take you down all of a sudden,” he said.

The story was also published here:

PBS NewsHour online

BBC News in English and Spanish


Can you ever really come back home again?

It is hard for me to let my guard down, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. I am fiercely independent and I value this immensely. I also, up until this moment in my life, have not wanted to sacrifice my own desires to compromise with another person. But fight it as I might, I have fallen for someone and that means letting go a little.

My Aunt Dawn Marie recently said, “Kate, I hope you start blogging about the two of you.” I thought, ‘Oh man, why would I do that?!’ How silly and cheesy. Maybe it is. But then I thought, ‘What’s wrong with that?’  In fact, my blog is a place to share my experiences. Right now, it’s about sharing my experiences from El Salvador and my relationship with this person has influenced my time here. Immensely. Also, I wanted to write something to let him know that he is special to me. Is that a bad?

Chris was just here visiting me. Well his family and me. He is from El Salvador, but left for the United States when he was 18-years-old. He had not been back here in about 7 years, I believe. So this was a big deal for him and I knew that. I watched his emotions as he saw people and places he had not seen in years, with new eyes.

We visited Chris’s old neighborhood in Soyapango- his school, his house. We ate his favorite Salvadoran food. I met a lot of his family. It was great to share all of this with him. He had told me a lot about the country before I left. He has good memories of his childhood here. So even before he came, I saw him in a lot of what I was seeing and experiencing.

He told me so much has changed. His neighborhood is more dangerous, more impacted by gangs. The U.S. influence is more apparent in the higher prices and international businesses that have replaced traditional Salvadoran ones. Friends and family have grown up, gotten married, gotten sick.

I watched Chris face all of this overwhelming change, watched him take in everything that was once so familiar. He has changed too. Still, he tells me, this is home. On his last day we were at his Aunt’s house where he was saying good-bye to a family member who is very sick and he will probably never see again. He was staring out of the open front door of the house with the sun on his face. I asked him what he was thinking and he told me “I don’t want to leave.”

Now I would be completely egotistical if I thought this response was only for me. Yes he would miss me, but I knew he was going to miss all of it. This is the land of his roots, his language. The events that passed here helped shape him. We all know ‘home’ has a significant impact. Whether the thought of home brings happy memories, anger or sadness, it is powerful. It has a way of moving us and making us feel vulnerable in a way nothing else can.

I can’t understand all the emotions he felt or what it must be like to have to leave your country and all you know for a better life. I mean I am still adjusting and I am only going to be here for 6 months. I will go back home. But Chris knew when he left that he wasn’t going to come back again to live.

This is what is beautiful about life. We connect with people from different worlds and we learn from them. We fall in love with them.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know we have this. This experience. I hope he knows how much I care for him. I respect him. That’s not cheesy. That’s real.

I know my Aunt Dawn reads my blog. She is one of my few avid readers. Thank you for the suggestion. He also always reads my blog so, te amo mi amor.

Reflections from a Saturday morning

Last night was a great night. I went to a presentation at the Cultural Center of Spain. My friend is finishing her degree in Graphic Design and she attended a workshop in which she had to make a short film. I couldn’t follow the dialogue completely because it was a bit hard to hear. But basically a young man attempts to rob a young woman who is waiting for the bus. She’s an artist and at first he wants to take her portraits too. Then something about her work and the way she cares for it, moves him. He gives her back her quarter for the bus and without words, they form this mutual understanding, almost a friendship in the 5 minutes they are together.

We went to a party to celebrate the completion of the workshop. People of all ages and artistic backgrounds had participated in the workshop, so it was a good crowd. The party was at the home of a young man, a friend of my friend. He is one of those people whose presence is always known. Distracting at times, but very entertaining to watch. We had beer, food, good music, and a beautiful patio: my kind of party scene. Then it got better.  A drum group showed up. This is something I have been exposed to a number of times here. I think I’ve written about it before. I love it. I can dance for hours to the rhythms of drummers. It is a sound that reverberates through my whole body and I can just feel it inside. That’s El Salvador for me. A house party with a group of 6 people, drums slung low around their waists, moving side to side while people dance happily, freely, disconnected from everything but the deep, rich beat.

This video is of Samba K-Jah. Some of the members of this group played last night, but it was a different group I believe. There were two young women who played and they were amazing.

I met this gentleman from the African Congo. He is traveling around Central America with another guy from Spain doing these workshops in filmmaking. He is a political refugee living in Barcelona. He spoke at the beginning of the party while everyone was giving speeches about the workshop. He said, [“We are here on earth to learn and love. We should treat each day of life as school, an opportunity to learn something new and to learn how to better love one another.”] I said ‘Amen’ to that.

We spoke later outside, he with his rum and peanuts, me with my beer and a bowl of plantain chips. A young woman joined in on our conversation. She had just moved back to El Salvador after living abroad for most of her life. A Salvadoreña by blood, she felt completely isolated living here. She struggles with Spanish and the way of life. She said she loves the country, but she doesn’t fit in and whenever she would visit El Salvador growing up, in her head she always wanted to be somewhere else. This prompted my friend from the Congo to say something that hit me right in the gut. A mantra I need to remind myself of daily.

He told us one of the biggest problems of the human condition is that we are always living in the past or the future, not the present. Our bodies are always physically in the present, but our minds are always going back to the past or thinking towards the future. “If only I HADN’T done that. If only this WOULD happen I WOULD be happy.”

My dad is always reminding me to live in the present. How much we must miss not being in the moment.