Alas, I wrestle to pin down my thinking as I process and share my journey to El Salvador in an upcoming collection of snapshots and insights, through narrative and poetry, with liberal doses of emotion, curiosity, respect, and hopefully, humour.
Kindness Can Flower in Hardship
Glimpses of Lago de Coatepeque peek out from the dense wall of foliage, coconut palms giving way to pines, as the road zigzags up the base of the volcano. We tunnel our way through a verdant canopy. Vegetation encroaches on many roads here suddenly revealing cattle, dogs or passengers for the next bus at the last minute. As is often the case in El Salvador, a choice between attempting the cattle trail or following a paved but rough road lies ahead. Few signs assist the traveller but no matter; either path holds the promise of the unexpected. Today the challenge of the climb and the panorama from the Santa Ana volcano calls us higher.
We are early for the group hike (more to come) so we take in the view: stained-glass-coloured mariposas flutter, flap and soar, Jurassic-sized agave reach to the sky, fruit stands bubble with conversation, is that the Pacific shore in the distance? The vista is arresting. In El Salvador, the sight of gringas, we have learned, is rather unusual, and as we mill about, my daughter and her friend have captured the attention of el baño attendant standing charge of the .15 entrance fee. He has only one arm but with that hand he deftly plucks an hibiscus-like flower in bloom and another bud and says, “La bailarina.” He gifts the dancer to the girls and his smile and kindness spreads to us all.
And this to me becomes the symbol of the complexity of El Salvador.
You see, the ‘flower dancer’ can hardly be appreciated without considering the man who made it. Though I don’t know his story, with some confidence I imagine he has lost his arm as a result of the brutal civil war (1979-1992). The vestigial remains of this conflict are palpable across the face(s) of this country. I cannot separate the skeins of this history, inevitable migration, sense of community, power of identity, and the current gang reign of terror, or I risk fraying the very fabric of this culture. When I pull on one thread of my journey to examine more closely, I witness the tug of layers of identity. The tension between such startling beauty in people and landscape, against a backdrop of poverty and gang violence creates a knot in my belly. Since my return, I have struggled to come to grips with my experience as I attempt to share the adventure in person or in writing. For to speak only of the gang violence, as newspapers are wont to do (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/03/el-salvador-homicide-killings-gangs or http://blog.apimages.com/2015/06/22/salvador-violence/), is to deny the warmth of the people and the bracing sights and sounds of their culture and country. To speak only to these sights and sounds as a tourist, however, denies the harsh reality of the Salvadoreño experience.
And so I intend to give voice to some of my reflections, some of the learning and questions that persist after travelling to El Salvador.