Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Notes from El Salvador - part 1

Hi everyone,
A group of 6 SLU students and I just got back from a trip to El Salvador, sponsored by campus ministry and hosted by International Partners in Mission, a group that partners with local businesses around the world.

Friday, June 20

In a way quite different from when I arrived in Haiti last summer, I am again confronted by a myriad of responses to this first day in El Salvador. Different, because I don’t have to worry about the “sink or swim” stakes with the language, but now, instead of the constant effort of working in a second language, being the adult in charge of a group of students brings a certain constant low-level awareness of all of the things that could go wrong.
Everyone met in Miami without incident, although the last member of our group showed up at the gate during boarding for the flight to San Salvador, so I had sufficient time to wonder what I would have done if one (or more) of the students’ flights had been delayed. Nevertheless, everything went off without a hitch until we landed in San Salvador. I expected that our guides would have a sign saying “IPM” on it or something, but no luck, and of course I, being the poor planner that I am, realized that I had the number for IPM in the United States, but not for our contact person in San Salvador. Of course, my cell phone didn’t work in El Salvador, so I couldn’t even use it to call the number I did have. Long story short, I was able to find a phone booth that let me connect to the United States, and the IPM representative got me through to one of their people in El Salvador, but by the time she could put a call in to find out where the people who were supposed to meet us were, they met up with the students. It turned out that they had been there the whole time, and they even had a sign with them, but they just didn’t have it out. (*In hindsight, that was the biggest problem we had to deal with all week. After that, IPM was completely on the ball.*) Halfway to the guest house, we stopped for a late lunch at a little roadside restaurant that served pupusas, the local Salvadoran staple, which are like small tortillas stuffed with anything from meat to cheese to beans to vegetables to all of the above. Every table in this place (and in every pupusa restaurant in El Salvador, it seems) had a gigantic glass jar full of spicy pickled cabbage that goes with the pupusas.

From there to the guest house and a brief orientation to the place and the trip before heading back out, this time to a nearby park to see a memorial to those who were killed or disappeared during the civil war. In some ways it reminded me of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington: a long black stone wall with thousands of names inscribed in it. On one hand, I appreciated it because it acknowledges what happened, but the danger is that there are so many names, it can cause a kind of sensory overload, with all those names blurring into a massive background of death and missing the point that each of those names was a real person, not just part of a statistic.

From there we drove up into the mountains and got a panoramic view of the city before hitting another local restaurant and heading back to the guest house to collapse.

I was very surprised at how “Americanized” much of the city is – Burger King, Subway, road crews using the same equipment they would in the United States. I guess I expected it to be more like Port-au-Prince, where I saw NO American franchises and only the shoddiest of upkeep. Our guides tell us that the gap between the wealthy and the poor will be wildly evident when we go out of the city, but at least from what we have seen, globalization is in full swing here.

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