Several people can travel on the same trip and be on separate journeys. Today’s full day ride from San Salvador to northern Chalatenango department is a good example.
Knowing ahead of time this will be an all-day adventure I have my pillow laid out to take along. I’m only just recovering from an illness that has had me laid up in bed for close to a week and I want the option to stretch out in the back seat when I need it.
The purpose of my partner’s and my journey today is to conduct an interview with a re-known woman of this country. She is a highly sought interview I never expected to get but was offered unsolicited.
Our friend and translator is her adopted son. His biological mom worked closely with her organizing communities after the war.
He has not returned to this boyhood area since 1979. Today we are privileged to accompany our friend on HIS journey back in time to re-live many memories of his early life. Some memories are extremely painful; others are innocent, carefree childhood memories. It is a beautiful thing to be entrusted to join our friend on his journey today. Overshadowing and preoccupying his thoughts is a million dollar church project he is heading which is causing him much stress. We spend much of our ride trying to offer viable suggestions to help the project as well as de-stress him.
Chalatenango is one of the two departments in the country that was most directly and deeply involved in armed conflict between the military and local forces during the civil war. Its rugged mountains on the Honduras border were known intimately by the locals who were forced to retreat there to survive when the military oppressed them by conducting massacres in their villages and occupying their homes. Entire families became part of the opposition/guerrilla movement in order to survive and protect themselves. Our friend and his family was no exception.
We stop at the Rio Sumpul enroute. Up and down this river massacres took place over many days as Salvadorans desperately tried to cross it into Honduras. If they weren’t shot or strafed by Salvadoran helicopter fire on the home side, they were hit in the river or on the Honduran side by its military. The river flowed red with blood and filled with bodies of innocent women and children. It is one thing to read about it, another thing to see it firsthand. The church in Arcatao has a list of all the names and ages of those innocents lost in the senseless Rio Sumpul massacres. We recognize the names of family members we know personally. It breaks your heart to see ages of the tiny children.
These lush mountains everywhere on either side of the road to my naïve eye all look the same. Our friend’s memory is vivid as he points out specific turns and rock locations where certain key events happened to him. He was only a young pre-teen when they happened, but he remembers well. “A famous guerrilla commander was killed at this spot,” he announces looking for a marker. He shows us where his unit was located when his dad brought food to them. “How did your dad find you when your unit was always on the move?” I ask him. “The guerrillas were very organized,” he responds. Sadly he points out where his best friend was shot and down the road further where his other three friends also were killed. He is the only one of his childhood group to survive.
He points out in the distance where he lived asking if we want to go see it. We walk down a dusty lane, squeeze through a wire fence, and he calls out a greeting to the owner whose dog is barking. It turns out this is the same couple who moved into the house when his family abandoned it to flee into the mountains for their safety during the war. They remember our friend and invite us all in. It is a humble adobe/stone dwelling. “When the helicopters were bombing, everyone in the area came inside this room with us and huddled together here until the bombing stopped,” he recalls. This hollowed-out solid stone room is as close to a bomb shelter as you can get.
He freely moves from room to room as though transported back in time. He doesn’t need to repeat the story we already know about the military coming and killing family members in front of him and throwing him up against the wall. Quickly he moves out into the “yard” where he climbs a tree knocking down several large hard gourds the size of large melons which locals use to carry water and some use for crafts. I try to catch them as he tosses them down to me. He wants to take some home and the woman goes inside to get a large plastic bag with handles.
He reminisces about he and his brother raising pigs in a pen nearby and shows us the spot where he gathered the blood at butcher time to use for a dish his mom prepared. There are still good family memories associated in this home despite the military terror that occurred.
Beside the house is a riverbed where a stream once flowing was filled with fish. Once the war began the local kids scoured its banks daily to collect weapons of the dead to give the locals to hide until the guerrillas came requesting them. All worked in the war effort and yes, they were very organized.
A short distance down the road we stop when our friend spots a familiar elderly woman walking along a path. She is a distant relative who engages in conversation making the connection with his mother. They are pleased to see one another after all these years.
Our final destination is the village near the border where our interview will take place. The road to get there is comprised of hairpin switchback twists and turns on deeply pot-holed dirt roads. It is quite an adventure. We are the only vehicle on the road. No guardrail exists as we climb higher and higher and I gasp at one place where the edge of the road has washed out and the edge is there!
Our interview is scheduled for 4 PM but the woman has a 3 PM radio interview to share a reflection on the Peace Accords because today is January 16th when the country celebrates that occasion. We wait outside her home for awhile and then our friend goes up to the school where he finds her. She needs to talk to and feed her chickens in the back yard before we can begin the interview.
She is obviously so pleased by our friend’s visit and genuinely proud of his accomplishments. “Look at you—speaking two languages!” she says admiringly like a proud mother doting on her son. Our interview is amazing and way too short. Of all the opposition/guerrilla fighters we have spoken to over the years, she is the only one who has been optimistic about the results of the war and uses our friend to illustrate why. “Here is a poor local boy who is able to get an education; to have opportunities.” If it weren’t for the efforts of people like her and his own mother engaged in organizing groups against the injustices of the country at that time leading to the civil war, that may never have happened. (She is far too humble to make this stretch; this is MY observation).
Approaching 6 PM twilight we regretfully bring our interview to an end. The same curvy mountainous dirt roads lying ahead of us will be more difficult to negotiate after dark. Our goal is to reach the paved portion with white lines before total nightfall. When we do get to the smooth road, I am ready to stretch out with my pillow. Oh no; I left it at the guesthouse.
Today’s journey is very fulfilling for my partner and me in terms of meeting the interviewee whom we never expected to meet. She is a reminder that the western stereotype of “guerrilla” fighter never fit the Salvadoran. It connotes an aggressive, detached, militant person. Rather, she is like all the others we have met, a genuinely humble, soft-spoken and kind, “salt of the earth” woman convicted to her beliefs of protecting not only her land and rights, but those of all Salvadorans while protesting the injustices occurring at the time.
I am guessing that our friend’s journey today of re-connecting with his past took him to places of cleansing, self-discovery, validation, and healing. The people of his past never scolded him with guilt of “why have you not returned sooner?” Instead like the prodigal son, they greet him warmly with embraces and unconditional love.
We also hope the change in venue and listening ears is helpful to our stressed friend today. Ironically, our interviewee just finished reading a book on how the body can heal itself of stress. She shares a bit of information on it and sends the book along home with our friend who promises to read it.
Today is his first step in his journey home. Already he is planning subsequent trips including to “Elephant Mountain” – the highest peak in sight—where he was born. Locals tell him there is no road to it. I think I’ll skip that trip.
The same trip; separate journeys. Yet we each support one another.