Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Landscape of Conflict

As I watched the scenery from the back of the cattle truck, bouncing into the others in the truck with me as the road became rough, I thought how familiar yet strange the landscape looked.  In one moment it reminded me of California, with rolling hills covered with dry, golden grass, and small groves of dusty trees providing some shade to groups of cattle.  The trees, though, were cashew and mango instead of oak and eucalyptus, and instead of brown and white Herefords, many of the cattle had the distinctive neck hump of a crossbred brahmin.  In another instant, the truck careened down a steep pitch and into a small canyon shaded by tall trees festooned with hanging vines trailing in the stony brook, and I saw the cool streambed of the Massachusetts mountains.  Up the hill and around the corner we were presented with a savanna that would not have looked out of place in an African postcard.  Imperialism teaches us that otherness is all, and the differences between landscapes mirror the differences between people, but all I could see were the similarities.

On Wednesday afternoon the cattle truck took us northwest, parallel to the Rio Lempa, on a swooping rollercoaster of dusty roads and sweeping views of the volcanic peaks and the wide river.  The first time we saw the road disappear into a tributary, we all held our breaths in trepidation, but by the third or fourth water crossing, we were prepared, and even shouted a little in excitement.  This time the truck stopped in the shallow water and we got out to walk up a short path to a small, level bluff overlooking the shallow river.  We unloaded the two trucks and set up the chairs and the table for all of the food Morena had packed for us–rice, beans, tortillas, and peanut butter sandwiches.

As we ate I felt overcome by the peacefulness of the area.  The trees provided enough shade and protection from the tropical sun, and a slight breeze rippled the shadows.  The gurgling and chuckling of the water over the stones served as a counterpoint to the splash and slap of a family just upstream at a bend in the river washing their clothes and smacking the wet cloth on rocks.  A couple of little boys were hanging from a branch that stuck out over the water, and they hooted and shouted in little Tarzan voices as they hurled themselves into the river.

After lunch, the women and men who had joined us in the little town near Puente San Marcos began to speak.  Their calm, quiet voices and the pastoral setting belied the import of their stories.  In the 1980s, the Salvadoran government began a Tierra Arrasada, or scorched earth policy, where villages were destroyed in order to get rid of any potential guerillas or guerilla hiding places.  Using planes, helicopters, and artillery thoughtfully provided by the U.S. government, the Salvador military blew up the tiny shacks that housed the people and then set out to gun down any refugees running from the destruction.

One of the women speaking told how she came down the steep hillside behind me and to my left, slipping and tumbling on the steep rocks.  A sick old man walked beside her, and another woman carried her baby in her arms.  To my right and in front of me, the military had set up and sent out a withering cross fire, a murderous barrage of bullets.  One woman hid her baby in a crevice in the rocks, hoping it would survive the onslaught.  The people wandered for days without food, shelter, or water.  The military had poisoned the ground and the river to make it impossible for the people to survive.

One old man, sitting quietly, wearing a red western shirt and white straw cowboy hat spoke even more quietly, his face stony and expressionless.  He, too, had been caught in the strife.  He remembered C-130 Hercules aircraft flying over.  He explained how warplanes strafed the small villages, blowing apart their little houses, and later, how the soldiers came into the villages to knock down what was left of the walls so no one could return safely.  He then told us that his wife and seven children–his entire family–had disappeared, most likely slaughtered, during the war.

Later, we piled back in the truck and backtracked for a while before taking a road that bore northward.  We stopped at the rugged bluff of La Quesera and climbed out again. Between October 20 and 24, 1981, the Salvadoran military massacred between 600 and 800 Salvadoran citizens–civilians, women, children–at this hillside, this Central American Golgotha.

I walked around the site.  At the southern end, the small memorial, built and paid for by the people and a few donations from outside the country.  The government, led by the same political party that had been in power during the massacre, wanted to forget.  The memorial roof is in the shape of a dove holding an olive branch in its beak.  Its outstretched wings guard a curved wall and a mural depicting the hopes and fears of the capmesinos.  Archbishop Romero’s likeness stares out of the center of the mural.  In front a low concrete slab rises about a foot.  On its top are two steel plates, padlocked.  These are the doors that lead to the crypt where the remains of 43 recovered and identified bodies are kept.  Although about 700 died, only this handful of bodies has been recovered, for a variety of reasons.  First, the hogs in the area attacked the bodies, scattering bones down the hillside.  Then the black vultures moved in, followed by the rainy season’s mudslides and wind.  Earthquakes and time have contributed their part to effacing the memory.  But the biggest eraser remains the intransigent government, which still claims that a mere 43 bodies is not enough evidence to support any claims of a massacre and thus further investigation.

I leave the group and walk north.  The ground of the massacre is a level hilltop, roughly oval in shape, and reminds me of the deck of some large ship.  The hillside slopes away on all sides, and I can see other hills rising in the distance.  Every direction I turn I see only hills leading up to craggy volcanic mountains, all covered with lush tropical green.  No human habitation anywhere, in an area that once saw dozens of small villages.  The survivors are, not surprisingly, reluctant to come back.  I walk to the north end, what I think of as the stern of the ship.  A rickety log and corrugated steel structure stands forlornly.  It might be a structure used by the infrequent anthropological teams that come to dig for more victims.  A piece of the steel roof hangs by a nail and waves in the breeze.  The wind blowing through the building creates a low moaning sound, a desolate whistle.

I walk to the port side of the hilltop.  The brilliant sun is blinded by huge clouds, and shadows and golden rays of sunshine alternate.  The wind is the only sound, and I feel an otherworldliness here at this site of slaughter.  My hair blows back in the increasing wind, and I feel a chill despite the tropical heat.  All around I see cloud shadows racing over the hillsides like the shadows of the never forgotten gunships that rained fire and death out of the sky.  The dead have no voice but the low, incessant moaning of the wind.

I go back to the group.  We shake hands, thank the speakers for being so brave to tell their stories.  We pose for pictures.  We eat watermelon and pineapple.  We climb back in the cattle truck and ride back to Tierra Blanca.  We are numb, but later that night, writing in my journal, the pages keep blurring unaccountably, the same way my computer screen does now.


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Still Working

When we first visited the worksites, one of the men from the community at Hacienda said that we would probably not work past 10 o’clock.  I thought this was a wildly pessimistic view.  Sure, most of the students have not done a lot of physical labor recently, but I have been training seriously for bike races so I’m in good shape.  Plus, back in grad school I used to work construction, so I knew my way around hand tools.  Part of the reason for his opinion was the tropic heat: El Salvador is only 12 degrees north of the equator, and that means it’s hot there all year round.  Again, I scoffed inwardly at this.  It gets plenty warm in Connecticut in August, let me tell you.

I can admit it:  I was wrong.

After the engineer’s crew had lined out the foundation, Mino showed me how he wanted me to scratch out lines with the pointed end of the pick to outline the trench that we would then excavate.  Even though I speak no Spanish, we were able to communicate with lots of hand gestures, very simple words, and pantomime.  I scratched out the outline and then set to work with the other end of the pick, churning up the hard, rocky dirt.  Several times Mino and some of the other men offered advice, shouting “Duro!  Duro!” which they reinforced with gestures that made me realize that “duro” meant that I was to chop at the ground even harder.  So I did.

After fifteen minutes I needed a break.  This was not bad at all, though, since my fellow gringos (or gringas, rather) were taking breaks after five or ten minutes.  Then we saw the little kids come in and pick up the shovels to begin scooping the chopped up dirt out of the trenches.  Skinny little barefoot boys and shyly smiling little girls were tossing dirt aside with smooth, economical strokes and were not even breaking a sweat.  That meant it was time to jump back in and work even harder.  “Duro!”

As we were working, we noticed a group of little boys in the field next to us flinging a stick up in a huge tree.  Soon after that, some of the boys had climbed into its branches, swinging and hooting at each other like little boys all over the world pretending to be monkeys.  After a while, one boy walked up holding the bottom hem of his shirt in his teeth to make a carry sack of his shirt.  The shirt was loaded with mangoes that they had gathered from the large tree.  They shyly offered us some and then sat back, sucking on their own mangoes and smiling at us out of the corners of their eyes.

Then we were back to work.  I had applied sunscreen, but it was unnecessary since I was coated with a thick layer of dust and grime that had to add up to an SPF of at least 100.  My t-shirt was drenched with seat and muddy with dust.  The bandanna I was wearing on my head overflowed and dripped sweat into my eyes.  I started checking my watch, waiting for the 10:30 quitting bell that would arrive in the form of the pickup truck that would take us back home.  They were late, though, and we kept at it, laughing at our ineptitude, until after 11.

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At Work in El Salvador

There were three work sites for us:  the chapel site at San Pedro, another chapel site at Hacienda, and the field-clearing about two blocks away.  I really wanted to do something hard, for some reason, and swinging a pick around sounded nice and hard, so I volunteered to go to one of the chapel sites.  San Pedro sounded like the more appealing dig, since, of the two places we had scouted the day before, San Pedro looked prettier.  The clearing for the new chapel was next to the community’s old chapel, a small building of mud bricks, old boards, and corrugated steel roof.  The clearing was at an especially rugged section of rocky, rutted dirt road, across from a house built up of what looked like bamboo sticks and the ubiquitous corrugated steel.  Huge trees partially shaded the area, lending a bucolic air quite different from the poverty-borne squalor that marked so much of the countryside.

But this trip was, for me, at least partly about moving outside my comfort zones, and, since there were no other men going to Hacienda (there were only five of us on the trip), I said I would go there instead.  The site here was more disturbing, less comforting.  For one thing, it was more in the center of the community, which meant that the reality of Salvadoran life for the campesinos could not hide behind some tall trees and shrubs.  A house–really a shack–made of corrugated steel (seeing a pattern here?) stood next to the space devoted to the chapel, and there were some rumblings that the builder of the shack had encroached on the property that rightfully belonged to the church.

The rutted, rocky road leading up to the site was filled with garbage, a sight common throughout the country.  The obnoxious plastic bags we all carry are an insistent presence in Central America, and they reside with their best pals, the empty plastic water or soda bottle.  The scrawny Salvadoran street dogs ran about, and my canine-friendly heart hurt looking at a mother dog, her hip bones poking painfully through her mangy fur, push her single pup away and hobble painfully away from its demanding cries.

Above all, at this site, there would be more people.  At this point, I was still terribly shy about meeting the Salvadorans, and I didn’t know what I could say to them, especially since my Spanish is limited mostly to food items, and I couldn’t very well say to the people, “Tortilla!”  This, actually, would have been appropriate, as there was a small gas-powered mill next door that was churning out the dough to make the small, thick, and very tasty Salvadoran version of tortillas.

We arrived at the work site early, and with a little trepidation.  Someone had expressed a concern that the people from the community would not be there, and if they were not there, we could not work because our mission was not to perform charitable work but to work alongside the people.  We were left with the sense that there was something less than trustworthy about some of the people–maybe they just wouldn’t be interested in showing up.

Despite our worries, we were met at the dusty and already warm site with smiles and friendly waves.  The man in charge greeted each of us with a solemn handshake and a “Buenas.”  He then pointed out the work that needed to be done: the spot where the chapel would one day stand was full of trash, some weeds and brush, and a huge pile of rocks.  All of this would have to move.

A couple of the girls and some of the community people began to rake the trash into a burnable pile, while I surveyed the rocks with some of the other girls.  We all started to bend down to grab the rocks, straighten up, walk over to the place where we would leave the rocks, and then walk back to do it all over again.  I realized right away that this was not efficient, and organized us into a bucket brigade, passing rocks from hand to hand.  The foreman of the job noticed and gave me a slight smile.  I smiled back and nodded.

Soon we had removed the easy rocks on the surface and were down to the harder rocks that were partially buried.  It was time for the pick.  As we got to work digging out more rocks, I was grateful that all of the girls in the crew were jocks–field hockey and soccer, mostly–and they were dedicated to hard work.  After a while we had cleared the site enough for the next stage of the construction project.  Showing remarkably good timing, the crew working with the Roberto, the engineer, showed up and began swinging plumb lines and string to mark out the fifteen by fifteen foot foundation for the new chapel.

Next:  More on working in El Salvador.

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