El Salvador Day 05 – The Truth of Travel, Meet the Police, and La Palma’s Art Scene

We’ve just past the halfway point of our journey, dear reader. Today we traveled to La Palma and are staying in an immaculate lodge for the evening. Here’s the story…

Traveler’s Truth

Okay, this blog is an honest retelling of our travels, and that means the good and the not-so good. In this spirit, I must say that after four days of relative health I have been stricken with what I’ll codename “traveler’s digestion issues.” It’s a bummer and it was the first health issue listed on our pre-trip literature from the Center for Global Education in terms of what we may face. To put things in perspective, although I’d prefer not to have TDI, it’s better than one of the other possible ailments listed: malaria.

So I took some cipro and have been on a bread and banana diet all day. It was hard at dinner tonight because everyone’s dish – either chicken alfredo or sea bass and rice – looked so delicious. But I’m hoping things will be cleared up soon. I learned I’m not the only one to be stricken with TDI but we’re all in this together, helping each other make sure we’re drinking water and eating the right foods. And I must say, so long as one is proactive about dealing with the ailment, it can be relatively contained. It has left me tired and dehydrated but everyone’s been great about getting me water and checking in with me to make sure I’m not pushing myself beyond my limits. So to this end, it’s yet another community-building exercise for me and the nameless others afflicted.

The Brief History of the Dead

We first went to Monumento A la Memoria Y La Verdad, a memorial which invokes the Vietnam Memorial wall in the US but instead of listings soldiers it lists innocents. A foundation which works to find lost children was part of the collective who put together this forty-seven panel wall filled with names of those who were murdered or who were disappeared from the late 1970s through the end of the civil war in 1992. Families could pay around $3 to have their loved ones’ names put on the wall and beyond the names are a few panels of three-dimensional sculpture of the people, their suffering, and rise above the war.

The group was appropriately stoic in the presence of thousands of names, some of which were denoted by flowers taped up to the wall, roses laid on the ground, and a few names which were colored in red marker. The six Jesuit priests were on the wall, as was Romero. He’s not listed as monsignor or bishop or archbishop but just his full name, like all of the rest of the people. It’s solidarity in stone. The only difference is his name has visibly been worn down just a tad from people reaching out to run their fingers over his name.

The last few panels listed massacres, including La Palma where we were headed to next for the day and El Mozote, which is the basis for a book we’re reading for the class after the trip called The Massacre at El Mozote. The first few panels listed children who were disappeared and also a hopeful list of children who were found. The wall is in a city park and the land was donated by the mayor’s office in 2003 when the FMLN was in power.

The most emotionally resonate part of the wall’s story was why people wanted it so much. Each fall, on Day of the Dead, families had no where to go to remember their loved ones. This is particularly true for those who have disappeared family. Knowing these people now have a place to go to honor the fallen is uplifting.

The Policia

Our next stop was  to Castillo de Policia International, the new Salvadorian police force that came about after the peace accords in the early nineties. The building is large and looks like a castle, with an open plaza in the center surrounded by offices and meeting rooms. A representative of the police, someone high up in rank who knows our guide Christina (I’ll try and catch his name soon), gave us an honest look into the work of the police and the problem of violence in the country. One of the first statistics he gave us was that there are more homicides in a month in San Salvador than in Austin, Texas in one year. If you need that to be more precise, that’s 3,368 homicides in 2009.

An unfortunate effect of creating a new force was that once there was an organized police force in the city and the whole country, crime actually escalated. Part of this was because of the initial approach in “throwing down the hammer” which caused bad feelings and assumptions the police force is under the thumb of the military. However, our speaker made it clear when they work in conjunction with the military, the military only acts as a supportive branch. The fact that he wanted to be clear about the boundaries with us makes me understand how important it is to him that everyone knows the police and military are separate. He expressed there was propaganda expressing the opposite and it was a great concern to the police’s authority.

Crime in El Salvador has strong ties to the US, in that there are gangs of Salvadorians operating in the US ordering murders in El Salvador and vice versa. Some orders even come from some of the most famous gang lords from their prison cell. He explained it’s not uncommon for people to try to take the law into their own hands and kill gang members who threaten their family and gangs have power struggles in El Salvador when US Salvadorian gang members get deported back home and lose their “status” in the gang, causing more issues and more violence.

On the Road (to La Palma)

I can’t tell you very much about the trip to La Palma because I did my best to catch a pseudo-nap. I had a late night last night and while sleeping on that bus on winding roads isn’t easy, I had a wonderful, restful miracle. I hope to tell you more about the trip from what I see tomorrow, though I can tell you it was two hours and the hills and mountains I did see were incredible. Hopefully more to come later.

A Return to Business as (Ethically) Usual

When we arrived in La Palma, we went to an art co-op founded by Fernando Llort where people create painted wooden art. I have photos below and you’ll probably recognize some of the designs. To me, this style of art felt synonymous with Central American and Mexico, though I now understand that has more to do with my ignorance and assumption than knowledge. The main thing we were to take away from this visit is that, no matter what other nations have assimilated the artistic style, it all originated in this small co-op.

We took a tour through each building to see how a piece of wood becomes a finished piece of art. Take a cross, for example. Due to international contracts demanding it, the co-op must have a renewable, sustainable source of wood (unlike many other shops in the town which see artisans hike into the mountains to illegally harvest wood). First it is carefully measured and cut, sanded down, stenciled, stained, painted, then finished with “detail” work. Most of the art is vibrant and colorful, depicting nature, animals, Jesus, Romero, and other uplifting imagery.

Most of the workers that day were women and many of them had small children with them. Our tour guide explained that the co-op is a community, a family, and all are welcome. If you need a day off, you take it off. If you get sick, they don’t have health insurance but your doctor’s bills are paid. Money paid for the artwork goes directly back to the artists. A board of directors meets periodically to ensure the working conditions are well-maintained and while there’s no longer a savings plan they offer loans with interest rates as low as 0.5% for their workers.

It reminded me of a perspective a retired executive told me at my church a few months back. In his day, a company’s priorities were 1. the employee, 2. the customer, and 3. the shareholder. But now that list has inverted, with priorities listed as 1. the shareholder, 2. the customer, and distantly 3. the employee. Listening to how the co-op runs its business, it seems to be a return to an ethical way to do business, to treat its employees. It’s the sort of business model that shows respect, or in other words, solidarity.

Privilege in an Underprivileged Nation

Tonight we’re staying in a lodge called Hotel Entra Pinos (“Between Pines”). I know that because the two Salvadorians two my left told me just now. One speaks a lot of English with a clear accent as he sells a lot of English books. It is a giant lodge-style resort with a restaurant in the balcony, a conference room where we had worship, and several hotel rooms which have amenities we’ve been without for a few days at the guest house: a soap per person, shampoo per person, two pillows per person, a TV, and hot water in the showers.

For a moment, I was conflicted because here we were, staying in relative opulence in a highly-underprivileged nation. But after thinking about it (okay, after Richard offered his perspective), every nation has its privileged and underprivileged areas. We’re seeing both worlds here and really, the guest house we’re staying in is pretty nice, much nicer than many homes we pass by and world’s apart from the shanties of the swindled peoples I wrote of yesterday. Still, in terms of utilizing the privilege we have right now, I don’t even feel like turning on the TV (though we were excited to learn of the Health Care Bill passing in the US!).

Final Notes and Highlights

Highlights from today include: a woman’s jaw dropping in shock when she saw our bus drive through La Palma, Cristina trying to step away from a table only to be pulled back by her lavaliere microphone cord, getting full-grown adults to “tweak a neighbor’s cheek” and “bump another rump” in worship when singing “Ah-La-La-La-La-La-Lei-Lu-Ia (Ah-La-La-La-La-La-Lei-Lui [Hey!]),” plenty of laughter and relaxation over dinner, briefly videotaping a young girl and her mother play a game and then showing it to the girl to her delight, a group of us getting the giggles in our hotel room – threatening to have a party just like high schoolers on a band trip, Luis seeing his old neighborhood and the chapel where he used to ring the bells as a little boy, late night hammock fun with Jenn and Tim, and most everyone buying second-hand sweaters and sweatshirts because it was too windy. I didn’t buy a sweater because if you ask me, the windy highlands of La Palma are just right, a welcomed change from the hot, steamy streets of San Salvador.

Tomorrow we head back to San Salvador and have a full day. I’ll do my best to keep you posted which will hopefully be easier now that we’ve figured out the internet connection. Missing you all of course, as we pass the midway point of the trip, and while many of us joked today that we don’t want to leave here, we can’t wait to come home and share our experiences.

In the meantime, please keep those comments coming. I’m having trouble uploading photos but check back often and I’ll do my best to get them up soon.

-nm

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One thought on “El Salvador Day 05 – The Truth of Travel, Meet the Police, and La Palma’s Art Scene

  1. It sounds like you had another great day. Nate, experience will tell me that you and all others with TDI will get better. Remind me to tell you about ameobeas in India one day!! Enjoy the second half of your trip everyone.

    Peace and Love from Wisconsin,
    Justin

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