A Study of Contradictions

After our wonderful first day at COAR, it was down to work for the next two days.  I found myself thinking after this trip that El Salvador is really a country full of contradictions.  On one hand it is a beautiful country full of lovely people which on the surface seems like a perfect place for some fun in the sun, but lurking just under the surface is political unrest, gang violence and third world infrastructure.

The property that COAR is on used to be a coffee plantation and the plantation house is still standing.  Until 2009, the nuns who ran the village lived in the house.  It is now used as a guesthouse for visitors.  It’s not quite the plantation house that one can find in the southern United States but still beautiful.  My first example of the contradictions, the beauty of these window (my morning view each day) is tempered by the barbed wire just outside which is on top of the cement wall that encircles the village.

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We spent both mornings in meetings with the local people who run the village and the school.  These were quite long and difficult for me as I speak no Spanish.  But, they were very productive.  One interesting thing that came up was this program that the government is running to try and encourage tourism in El Salvador.  They are investing in programs which train locals to work in hotels and restaurants.  This leads to example number 2.  This is a picture I took from the oceanfront restaurant we had lunch at on Monday.

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This picture could have been taken in any beachfront town is any country.  However, if you crossed the street and walked 1 block this is what you find:

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These are the streets of La Libertad, the main beachfront town.  It’s a busy, crowded town full of market stands and crime.  We were there to visit an American priest from Cleveland who is the pastor of the church of in La Libertad.  He told us of the struggles of the people in his community.

Both nights we were there we had very local dinners.  Monday our lunch at the beachfront was later in the afternoon and quite filling.  On our way back to the guesthouse we decided to stop at the grocery store and pick up something to make at the house.  It was after work and the store was bustling full of locals and we even ran into a few friends.  On Tuesday we had a huge lunch which was prepared for us by four nuns who recently came to COAR to serve the children.  They are Spanish and I believe are worse than any Italian grandmother on Christmas when it comes to pushing food.  I think it was a five course lunch.  Needless to say we did not have much room for dinner that night.  We ended up at the Central American version of KFC which is called Pollo Campero.  It’s just like any fast food place here in States, complete with a play area.  These people love their chicken so much there is always at least one person with a box of chicken on the flight home!  Both of these nights, had you told me where I was I would not have known.  Despite all the normalcy, it was made clear that we should be back to the house by 8:00 and we should only be riding around with drivers that we know.  Just calling up and ordering a taxi is also a no-no down there.  The priest we visited would not let us leave until he found us a driver he trusted.  Both nights it just really made me think about how this all seemed so normal but there was serious danger on the streets.

On Tuesday afternoon we went to visit an American couple who has been living down there for a number of years.  They run a mission called Epilogos.  Mike and Susie have a real commitment to the people of El Salvador.  Mike picked us up and took us back to their home.  They told us about the gang activity that has moved into their community.  There are two gangs at war over territory and after it gets dark things get dangerous.  They live in San Jose Villanueva and it’s a cute little town.  It was hard to tell that at night it turned into a war zone.  As we were driving back we drove by a few groups of young men and Mike let us know those were gang members.  I would have never known – they looked like any other group of young people.  Like I said, contradictions.

It was a busy two days and it brought back many memories of my trip in 2007.  How can anyone forget the stop/go light in customs at the airport?  To create an appearance of completely random selection they have a stop/go light in customs, when you get to the desk you push a button and find out if you have been chosen for screening or you are free to go.  I’m not sure it is as completely random as they want you to think but either way I hold my breath until the green light comes on.  It makes me miss small things like street lights (there are none down there), hot water, and water that runs all day and night.

One last story of contradiction, and we really thought there was some sort of sign with this one.  Sunday evening as everyone was playing games one of the kids noticed that a baby bird had fallen out its nest.  Mary quickly interceded and was holding the bird safely in her hands until we could find a ladder to replace the bird in its nest.  The next afternoon as we were visiting the priest we sitting outside at his table which had a ceiling fan above it.  All of a sudden we heard a thud and then it was raining feathers.  Yes, a bird had flown into the fan.  Lucky for us it only caught it’s tail.  But we both thought of the bird she had saved the night before.  You win some, you lose some down there.

Afternoon Fiesta

So, I’ve decided that Tuesdays will be Travel Tuesdays on the blog!  I think that will give me the chance to mix it up and share some of my recent travels on the blog which I have not been able to work in with all the knitting!  The first few Travel Tuesdays will focus on my recent trip to El Salvador.

Way back in 2007 I had the opportunity to visit El Salvador and that trip has stuck with me.  Our youth group was looking a mission trip and, through some connections, we became aware of COAR Children’s Village in Zaragoza, El Salvador.  This project appealed to us because it did not involve building anything and was more of an immersion trip.  We went and spent a week playing with the children who lived at the village and visiting various sites in El Salvador.  When we returned home the first thing I did was sign up to sponsor a child and I’ve continued to support COAR since that time.

In November of last year I was asked to join the board which I was happy to do.  I knew I needed to go back and visit the village.  I remember talking to people before my first trip about how it was down there and everyone I talked to had been there multiple times.  After having been there for a week I thought all those people were crazy.  It’s a scary place down there with none of the first world comforts we have up here.  And yet, on a cold and snowy Saturday I found myself headed back down there along with our executive director and program director.  There is something about the country and the people that pull you back despite all scary stuff.

The Village was started in response to the war that was going on in El Salvador back in 1980 and it took in war orphans. The end of war led to a change in the kids that were being taken in, now they were victims of the crime and gang culture that sprang up at the end of the war.  Families were unable to care for them and they come to us.  Today, the Village is still evolving as the child care laws in El Salvador have changed and we are mostly seeing children who have been victims of abuse and/or neglect at home.  In the States we would say it is more of a foster care system.

Some of those changes are allowing the kids to go home on the weekends.  Because of this we did not know how many children would be there when we arrived on Sunday.  Lucky for us it seemed like many had stayed the weekend.  As we arrived, they were planning for a group of visitors from a parish in Cleveland and had arranged a fiesta.

I should say now I don’t speak any Spanish and these kids only speak a little English so communication is tough but they were so excited to see us!  The kids all knew the staff members I was with and they were anxious to meet me.  While we waited for our visitors to arrive the kids decided to watch a Korean TV show which really confused me – I was watching a Korean show, dubbed in Spanish and could understand none of it!  They have one TV with a DVD player which is kept in the community center.  As I questioned the choice of TV show, I was informed that Korean TV is dubbed and distributed very cheaply – they all loved it!

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Those plastic chairs are everywhere down there!!!  One of the differences from my last visit is that most of our kids are pre-teens or teenagers now as opposed to 2007 when most of the kids were pre-school/elementary school age.  This is somewhat due to the child care law change down there.  And, many of the same girls were still there, I even recognized a few of them.  As with many countries around the world, boys are more highly desirable so we tend to have more girls as they are not “useful” to the family.

Our visitors finally arrived and the kids needed a little time to get their skits and songs together so we took them for a tour of the village before coming back to the community center.  The kids sang a few songs and did a skit and presented the visitors with small gifts they had made.

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And then it was time for a game!  The beauty of games is that the rules can be explained by demonstration and once the game starts no conversation is needed so they bridge the language gap.  I’m not sure I ever heard what they called this game but I’m pretty sure you could not get away with it in the States as the possibility of someone losing an eye is extremely high.  Basically, there were two people who had very long sticks on each side.  The goal was to get the ring around the stick and this involved a sort of basketball like guarding of the stick.  The ring could be passed between teammates and then tossed like a Frisbee towards the stick.  It’s great because it requires no special equipment and no special field – it can be played anywhere with materials you can find around.  Everyone who played had a great time!

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While some played, others gathered around one of our visitors who had brought her guitar and had a sing-a-long!

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After the game, our guests had to leave and we were able to have dinner with the kids.  We had pizza, Coke and tres leches cake which was pretty tasty!  The most interesting thing going on during our dinner was the book list that was circulating around.  Our program director had offered to donate Kindles for the kids to read books but instead the kids wanted actual books (be still my heart, I guess I belong in Central America…)  So, he told them to make a list and make a list they did!  All during dinner kids kept coming up to add books – most of which are popular here in the states, titles such as Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Hunger Games, Divergent and Percy Jackson to name a few.  All excellent choices!  Kids who want to read – it warms the heart!

One last picture for this post – this little girl is new this year and really stole my heart.  Down there the school year runs January – November so it’s still early in the year and she’s still getting used to her new surroundings and is quite shy!

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I’ll be posting more about my trip in upcoming Travel Tuesdays but if you wan to learn more about COAR you can visit our website by clicking here!