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.
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.
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:
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.