March 11-14, 2010
Earlier this year Lago de Ilopango, El Salvador’s largest fresh water lake just outside of San Salvador, was closed to the public by the police because of a three-day gun batttle that raged in the area between rival gang members. Luckily, by the time Roz and I arrived there after a hot drive from the coast, the place was peaceful again, but still not very inviting. Despite the scenic volcanic backdrop, the water looked murky and the malacon was in the midst of construction, so with a few hours of daylight remaining, we pushed on to the next swimming and camping option – Laguna Apastepeque, near the town of San Vicente, nestled in the beautiful Jiboa Valley.
It took us longer than expected to get there (due to a lack of signage and our poor Spanish skills), but with a fragment of daylight still lingering, we found the Laguna and the Turicentro (recreational complexes scattered throughout El Salvador). Unfortunately, they didn’t allow overnight camping. D’oh! Roz and I surveyed the nearby public beach and contemplated camping there. It seemed peaceful enough, but just to make sure, we asked the lady at the nearby restaurant if it was okay to camp on the beach. She smiled and said it was probably safe, but then she offered to let us camp in her brother’s nearby back yard. Really?! She said sure and took us to meet her bro. Within a half-hour, we had set up our tent under the watchful eyes of the family’s children. I marveled at the generosity of these beautiful people – especially when they wouldn’t take any money from us – and decided I could learn a thing or two from them about unconditional gifting.
That evening we went down to the lake and found ourselves accompanied by the family’s kids, ranging in age from 5 to 12. We skipped rocks together, practiced Spanish and English, and really enjoyed each other’s company. We work up early the next morning to the sounds of a workman tearing down a brick wall behind us and a neighbour’s stereo belting out tunes. Oh well, no rest for the wicked. So we got up to enjoy the early morning light on the Laguna, but in no time the children were at our sides again and insisted that we join them for a walking tour of the area. First we took some pictures of them at the Laguna, then we said hello to the local pig on our way to their farm land. The tour lasted a couple of hours because the kids were constantly stopping to show us something and then tell us the Spanish names of various fruits, vegetables and flowers. By the time we left, they had worked their way into our hearts and, I think, we into theirs.
(ROZ: Truly a highlight for me. These children were so REAL with their smiles and giggles. They never made us feel like “the other”. We were strangers in their midst, but they treated us like long-lost family. They loved posing for pictures and then looking at themselves on the viewfinder afterwards. It was the first time on the journey when I wished we had brought a small, portable printer so we could give them photos (they had no email addresses and the only photo on their wall was a 4×6 unframed, curling picture of their parents’ wedding). They impressed me with their unabashed curiosity, natural intelligence and connection with nature. They were so proud to show us the squash and beans growing in their fields and delighted in introducing me to a new fruit – the tangy “jocote”. After we left, I saw my bag of small gifts (stickers, pins, keychains, etc.) sitting on a shelf in the Samurai. I had brought this bag of gifts specifically for such an occasion and kicked myself for not remembering to offer anything to the children. Trond had to remind me that just by giving of ourselves, we’d already given them enough stories to last a week at school. And they had given me a connection to the people of El Salvador that I will never forget.)
After a cheap breakfast at a highway restaurant, we headed into the mountains still in search of a cool place to swim since we never had a chance to take a dip at Apastepeque. In the growing heat, we slowly climbed a twisty, mountain road and eventually got to the the volcanic crater lake of Laguna de Alegria. I was so hot from the drive that after parking the truck, I absentmindedly left my keys in my swim trunks and jumped into the water. Naturally, I emerged from the lake without my keys. Crap! Luckily, we had a spare set, but it was a reminder to stay sharp even if I’m exhausted from a hot drive.
The cool air of the mountains was so refreshing that we decided to find a hotel in the nearby town of Alegria. The tourist office was helpful in directing us to the Casa de Huespedes la Palma across from the central park. Huespedes (also known as hospedajes) are rentable rooms attached to a family’s house and are quite common in Central America. Also common is the celebration of Semana Santa – a week-long holiday culminating on the Easter weekend. We happened to be there on the first of four Fridays leading up to Semana Santa, so most families were busy setting up religious altars/offerings in front of their homes when we arrived. Later that night, as a procession slowly walked up the steep hill from the church through the town, we heard the amplified, off-tune voice of someone singing religious hymns. Fortunately, it didn’t last long.
(ROZ: Adding to the religious experience, there was also a power outage that night that lasted a few hours. The entire town was draped in blackness, but that didn’t stop the faithful from continuing their off-kilter singing. Perhaps they took it as a sign from god that if they just kept singing, they could bring back the light. It must have worked, because eventually, the power returned. Praise doG!)
We departed Alegria the next day and set our sights on Perquin, home of the FMLN guerrilla museum. As a former soldier, I’ve always been interested in guerrilla warfare, whether it’s Norwegians fighting the Nazis, the Sioux battling the U.S. Cavalry or communist-supported rebels in Central America taking on corrupt dictatorships. They often seem futile, but once in a while, like in Nicaragua in the 1980′s and the United States in the 1700′s, the rebels amazingly win. But before Roz gets in here to say that no one wins in war, I should say that I agree, but also understand the maxim, “I’d rather die on my feet than on my knees.” Our visit to Perquin was a sober reminder that real war sucks no matter how you spin it or try to justify the motives.
(ROZ: Hey, don’t make any assumptions about what I’m going to say. Still, after 20 years of marriage, I guess Trond knows my feelings about war. I’m agin it!! Being raised in a Jewish household, I learned about the holocaust at an early age and have always been shocked and saddened by the horrors that man can inflict on their fellow man – and woman – and child. On the other hand, my Jewish roots gave me a big appreciation for the underdog in any struggle, especially when they are fighting for freedom from tyranny. But innocent lives are always lost and sometimes the values and ideals that were fought for get compromised for political expediency. I asked Jose, our guide at the museum, if it was worth it, if it’s better now in El Salvador because of the war, and he replied that while there is still poverty, people are better off now and have more freedom.)
The FMLN museum sits just above the town of Perquin and used to be a guerrilla strongpoint in the province of Morazan. To our surprise, we were allowed to camp on the museum grounds. After setting up our tent next to a 500-pound bomb crater, we met one of the museum’s guides, Jose, who led us around the multi-building museum. A four-year veteran of the civil war and still limping after four bullets smashed one of his shins to bits, Jose was a great source of info about life during wartime. He showed us rooms full of photos, propaganda posters, a huge array of weapons and a re-creation of Radio Venceremos, the underground radio station that had to bury their gas generators during the war to stay silent. Out back were the remains of three army helicopters that the FMLN had knocked down during the war.
Of the many stories he told us, the most interesting one was of how the guerrillas had killed a high-ranking Colonel of the army. The rebels built a dummy radio station in the mountains and then transmitted a broadcast from it. As anticipated, the army found the station and confiscated its radio equipment. Unbeknownst to the Colonel, who was going to take the captured equipment back to his base, one of the radios contained a bomb. Once the Colonel and the radio were airborne in a helicopter, the rebels detonated the bomb by remote control and destroyed the helicopter. Grisly, but smart.
After the tour, Jose hung out with us in silence as we prepared dinner. It was a bit weird, but we figured he was probably lonely and appreciated our company since he lived on the museum grounds as one of the caretakers. But Jose’s odd unawareness of personal space was repeated the next morning by another one of the guides who hung around us as we prepared breakfast. Eventually, the guy left us, but again, it was kind of strange. After breakfast, we hired Jose to give us a tour of the local mountain that still had trenches and structures maintained after the war. Under the dense forest canopy, there was a hospital structure complete with beds and a nearby bomb shelter. We climbed the mountain to find more bomb craters, slit trenches and machine gun nests used to defend the mountain from attack. We learned that during the war, the nearby town of Perquin was bombed flat in an attempt to destroy the rebel stronghold.
Our final tour was with another guide, Angel (Ahn-hel), who took us through a reconstructed rebel camp in the forest. Structures included sleeping quarters, a bomb-making shop, a makeshift operating table and suspension bridges built to allow quick crossings of deep gullies. During the tour, we met a family from San Salvador who was visiting for the first time. One of the women, who spoke excellent English, explained that they had only heard the government side of the story during the war. This visit was an attempt to learn about the other side. She said that she had no idea of the intensity of the war or of how organized the FMLN rebels were. She also admitted that she had been scared to come here, but felt she had to learn the truth. The final building of the tour included numerous pictures on a wall – one which showed a kid of about 12-years-old. Angel told us that the kid was him and that the other picture of “El Negro” was of his brother. Luckily, both had survived the war.
While the tours at Perquin were somber, our next visit to the nearby town of El Mozote was devastatingly heart-wrenching. On December 11, 1981, government soldiers terrorized and executed the residents of this remote village – many of them women and children. It’s estimated that 757 people died – of the 143 victims uncovered, 131 were children. One young girl, Rufina Amaya, managed to escape and survived to tell the world of the atrocities she witnessed. Now a monument remembers the victims with the hope that history will never be repeated. A volunteer, Rachel, explained to us how the villagers were separated by age and sex, and the manner in which they were murdered around the town. Then she took us to the site of the old church where the children were killed. The exterior wall of the church is now painted with a mural that includes a list of the murdered children’s names and ages (some as young as 3 days old) and the mass grave where some of the children’s bodies were discovered is now a memorial garden. It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the emotion of this place and Roz and I were both moved to tears.
When we were about to leave the village, we bumped into a local kid, Eduardo, who offered to show us some of the other murder sites in the town. We agreed and were led to abandoned buildings whose walls were still peppered by helicopter gunship machine-gun holes. We also saw the site of a building where a mass grave had been exhumed by international aid workers. The army had tried to bomb the building to remove the evidence, but they missed and left a bomb crater nearby. Although we left El Mozote with our spirits heavy with sadness, the visit had been necessary in order to fully understand how ugly war can be, especially when innocent people are killed.
(ROZ: Unlike neighbouring Nicarauga, the FMLN never succeeded in overthrowing the government. There are a variety of reasons for this, which mostly boil down to the air power supplied by the U.S. [All told the U.S. government gave $6 billion to the the Salvadoran government's war effort.] For the guerrillas to instigate a general popular uprising, they had to present themselves as a reasonable alternative government to the one currently in power, which they were ultimately unable to do. As a result, their support among the masses fell below the level necessary to unseat the government. When the U.S. provided the army with helicopters and jets, it enabled the government to bomb large targets like rebel control centers which changed everything. The FMLN were essentially reduced to roving bands of guerrillas (since they were now unable to operate in large groups which would be easily spotted from the air). Where once they were able to seize entire towns, the best the FMLN could do now was to plant a bomb and run. As the majority of poor Salvadorans started to feel the effects of the FMLN’s continued attempts to disrupt the things on which day-to-day life depended – such as power, bridges and roads – popular support for the guerrilla movement waned.
The civil war drove nearly 15% of the population abroad, mostly to the U.S. It’s estimated that over 75,000 people were killed during the 12-year civil war, which formally ended on January 16, 1992 through a UN-mediated peace process. The Peace Agreement allowed the FMLN to be registered as an official political party and also created a National Truth Commission to investigate the worst human rights abuses by both sides; study the issue of military immunity; make legal and political recommendations to prevent a repeat of abuses, and stimulate national reconciliation. The Commission’s work was seen by most segments of society as a great success and enabled El Salvador to do what few Latin American nations have done in similar positions – focus on the future and not waste scarce development resources in revenge or digging up the past.
Final comment – of all the facts I’ve read about the war, the most interesting one is from a book called “On Your Own in El Salvador” by Hank & Bea Weiss: “After 13 years of strict rules forbidding rebels from drinking any alcohol, former FMLN troops celebrated for 4 days straight in San Antonio, near the Guazapa Volcano, and drank the town dry.”)
Roz and I desperately needed to raise our spirits after El Mozote, so we drove to the nearby Rio Sapo and cleansed ourselves in the cool waters that flowed amongst interesting rock formations. It was just what we needed after a difficult day of touring. After our swim, we returned to our vehicle to have some lunch and, once again, experienced the weird social awkwardness (for us, anyway) of having a Salvadoran man hang around us silently as we prepared and ate our lunch. Maybe it’s a northern Salvadoran thing, but some of these people just don’t understand personal space.
Fed and refreshed, if not a little emotionally exhausted, it was time to head to the Honduran border. It was getting late so we stopped at the big, grungy border town of Santa Rosa de Lima on the Salvadoran side and got a hotel room. It wasn’t fancy, but it had air conditioning as well as secure parking (behind the local hearse!). El Salvador had been an amazing discovery for us, full of unexpected pleasures. The people have huge hearts, which is all the more incredible considering their violent past. We loved the country and look forward to coming back. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for Honduras.
Tune in next time for: Honduras Sucks!
END OF PART 16