Tag Archives: civil war

Give us a brake

28 Mar

PD, Santa Ana (again), El Salvador

Who knew it was possible to become a brakes bore? It’s all about the brakes at the moment – what’s wrong with our melty screechy brakes and why does every mechanic, or bystander, appear to have a different answer?

Jeremy spent a good while at the mechanic’s workshop the last time we blogged from Santa Ana. And here we are again. But with a different mechanic, and a different set of answers. I’m sure you’ll be tuning in to find out what happens in next week’s thrilling episode…

Mechanic looks at the brakes, Perquin

Another day, another mechanic

Luckily, however, we are still able to stop.

And we did lots of that during a three-day visit to the coast last week. Hammock-swinging and surfing are the only two things going on in baking hot El Zonte. And we don’t surf so, as our north American cousins might say, you do the math.

We’d camped in the car park of a lovely little hostel called Horizonte, and opted to interpret the name as an instruction. Perfecto.

The only interruption to the tranquility of our stay was Jeremy’s attempt to break the chair-breaking record. As we chatted over a beer there was a loud crack and Jeremy slumped to the side, his camping chair snapped beyond repair. He got the dodgy spare chair out and sat down as I went into the van to make dinner.

About 30 seconds later I heard a string of expletives, and turned to see Jeremy standing up looking wild-eyed, beer dripping everywhere, and a full glass of wine emptied into the remaining functioning chair. As chair number two had snapped he’d grabbed the table (which weighs marginally more than a bag of fresh air) for support and, hey presto, a beer and wine shower. My only regret was that I’d missed the whole slapstick performance.

Playa El Zonte, El Salvador

Playa El Zonte, where even the dogs are too lazy to get out of their hammocks and bark

When we left we crossed much of tiny El Salvador in one day, as we headed up into the northeast corner and into one of the areas we’d most been looking forward to. The mountainous region of Morazán contained the main strongholds of the left-wing guerillas during the country’s brutal 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. It’s the best place to get a sense of the conflict, talk to former guerillas who now offer guided trips, and to pay respect at memorials for the hundreds massacred by government troops.

That kind of phrase – “hundreds massacred by government troops” – can start to feel horribly familiar in this part of the world.

No matter how much you read about it, nothing can compare with standing gazing at a seemingly interminable list of children’s names, all executed in two nightmare days in the village of El Mozote, near Perquín. Several plaques contain details of babies only days old. Those whose bodies were identifiable – 140 under-12s – are buried together, with a rose garden covering the mass grave.

In December 1981 the soldiers rounded up everyone in the village and surrounding areas and killed them all, some 1,000 people, probably more. Children and babies were tossed in the air and bayoneted, and burned alive in ovens. It is grim to read, I know.

The government – who received up to $2m a day in military aid from the US – wanted to erase the guerilla movement, but in the ensuing violence of the next 11 years they never managed to overcome the revolutionaries in the hills around Perquín.

After a day spent at the war museum, in the former FMLN headquarters, we took to the hills with a guide who had been active in the revolutionary movement. It was the kind of day that left us with spinning heads, sadness, inspiration and incredulity.

Along the way our guide Felipe picked up two others – part of a ethical policy to share the income between guides from different villages – to help explain to us the significance of the different sites. Guerilla camps left just as they were when the war ended, one of the cave hideouts where the infamous clandestine radio station Radio Venceremos would broadcast from, village walls still riddled with bullets, enormous bomb craters now filled with vegetation, and the memorials at El Mozote.

Ernesto, one of our guides in Morazan

One of our guides on Morazan, Ernesto. His father was killed by shrapnel during the war

We drove from place to place in the van, which was getting heavier and heavier with our increasing number of passengers. The roads were horrendous. Steep unpaved paths, thick with dust and full of rocks. The van screeched, coughed and complained all the way, and justifiably so. Felipe was delighted though. At one stop he took photos of the van with his phone, declaring that it was the first US vehicle to have ever been in Guacamaya. And no wonder!

I’ll be writing a bit more about our day with the guides in the near future.

While exploring we camped in an idyllic spot near Rio Sapo. It was a huge grassy area with tropical flowers and birds, where a big family lived in two houses. Being in such a tranquil place made it impossible to imagine the horrors that had happened on their doorstep. The shy children circled the van from a distance, sweeping the same patch of leaves and craning their necks to see what we were doing. The ‘mama’ brought us fruit and coffee, and gradually the children crept nearer.

The only disadvantage to the place was the road in was just as bad as the others.

Jeremy heading for a swim in Rio Sapo

Heading for a swim in the Rio Sapo

We’d seen a local mechanic for a temporary fix, but resolved to visit another in the closest city of San Miguel the day we left. But on arrival I decided I didn’t like it. I had an overwhelming urge to get back to Santa Ana, where we knew a wonderful hostel that we’d stayed in last time – the ideal place to hole up if necessary.

But that meant pushing on for another few hours, in the scorching heat, with a complaining car and a Jeremy who appeared to be wilting due to an infected ankle. It would also mean passing through the, frankly, horrid capital San Salvador in rush hour.

So we pushed on.

It was all going okay. The brakes temporarily went quiet. The check engine light decided to go off. Then we got lost for two hours in San Salvador. The engine sounded unhappy. We were stuck in a jam at the central market, when we saw armed police sprinting towards an incident. As the engine stuttered Jeremy broke the rules and voiced our collective fear: “We really don’t want to break down here.”

I was navigating, and by dusk I had my head on my knees, having reached new levels of despair. I wanted to throw that frigging map out of the window. But we extricated ourselves again, somehow, and pulled into the hostel in Santa Ana after dark.

The owner Carlos flung open the door and welcomed us like old friends, then offered to drive out and get us some dinner. He said he knew a VW mechanic in town. I could have kissed him. We sat down, drank three litres of very cold beer, spilled our woes, and all was right with the world again.

Days: 176
Miles: 7764
Things we now know to be true: No amount of military hardware and money can break the spirit of the people.

Mood swings and roundabouts

25 Jan

PD, Xela, Guatemala

I’m not saying learning a new language is frustrating. All I can say is that yesterday the front cover of our Spanish-English dictionary was mysteriously ripped off its hinges in a freak incident. These things can happen.

School days: Jeremy grapples with possessive pronouns... or something

The last two and a half weeks at school have seen the full spectrum of emotions. We have lurched between total jubilation and utter despair, excitement and frustration, sickness and health, drunkenness and sobriety. I think research on language immersion has proved that learning this way can feel like swings and roundabouts. There have been days where by the end of lessons one or both of us has felt like lying across the lunch table and weeping uncontrollably. How many verb conjugations can a person take?

A few things are certain though.

First, we lucked out by being placed with a lovely couple, whose home we are living in for the whole month. They cook great food for us, are keen to converse, and are willing put up with our mangled toddler-style Spanish at mealtimes. Boris and Guisela are of similar age to us, with three dogs, one parrot and no kids. Bueno. They are kind and welcoming, and when we fell sick Guisela – our ‘madre Guatemalteca’ – nurtured us back to normal with a dietary solution for every stage of our ailments.

Second, we love the city and the school. And even if some days it doesn’t feel like it, we have learned a lot. After two weeks our confidence in speaking has grown markedly. We understand an ever-increasing proportion of the conversations around us. And we are mostly keeping up with the theory – of which there is plenty – even though all the explanations of grammar and structure are given in Spanish.

Despite all of the above we mostly still feel that when we open our mouths, what emerges resemble a dog’s dinner. We live in hope that one day our brains will begin to more efficiently connect with the tongue part.

Que?: Even the dogs at our house can't understand a word we're saying.

Our five-hour one-to-one lessons can be pretty intense. As well as the more formal teaching part, there is a good chunk of conversation each day. We choose the school partly for its left-wing political slant, which is obvious when I look at some of the vocabulary I noted down on my first day. I knew how to say ‘the missing’, ‘the displaced’, ‘dictatorship’ and ‘poverty’ before I was told how to say ‘my name is Paula’. And so it should be.

School activities include sight-seeing trips as well as screenings of political films and documentaries, conferences on social issues and testimonies from friends of the school such as ex-guerillas and political campaigners. Last week we heard from a former member of one of the armed resistance groups in Guatemala. She spent much of the 36-year civil war retrieving injured compadres from the mountains and treating their gruesome wounds at a secret safe-house, despite having no medical experience.

Each week ends with a graduation night for those who have finished their course. The catering alternates between students doing ‘pot luck’ international food one week, and the school providing a typical Guatemalan meal the next. Let me just add that we have met many excellent fellow students at the school, and I don’t wish to point the finger at anyone in particular. But following all the dire warnings about water and food hygiene in Central America, I find it ironic that my first bout of sickness almost certainly resulted from the food cooked by the foreigners!

This led to a pretty disastrous first weekend off school for us. We’d decided to take a little trip away in the van, and soldiered on with the plan even though I awoke on Saturday feeling awful, mistaking my symptoms for a hangover.

I’ll probably spare you the full details. Let’s just say the last thing you want is to be driving down a winding mountain road while suffering from a stomach bug, and having nothing to vomit into but your vegetable storage box. Upon arrival the last thing you want is to camp in a place with no toilets or running water. And having suffered all that the worst thing you could imagine happening would be a spillage incident involving the portable toilet. Wouldn’t it?

On the upside, we got to see the beach. And it was deliciously warm on the coast compared with Xela, which has shockingly cold mornings and chilly evenings.

Happily, weekend number two’s excursion was a total contrast. We travelled to nearby Laguna Chicabal – a volcanic crater lake – with two friends from school, Rob and Amy. En route to our destination we failed to notice an earthquake that registered 6.2 on the Richter scale. Oops!


Guisela whips up another delicious batch of tamalitos.

The road to the laguna’s trailhead was hairy to say the least, and was really only suitable for 4x4s. We pushed the van to its absolute limit, and at several points Rob, Amy and I had to exit the vehicle to lighten the load, while Jeremy went slip-sliding up the steepest dustiest trail we’ve yet attempted. We made it! And celebrated with some improvised satay noodles, wine and tequila, and a few games of cards in the van.

Next morning we got up early to walk to the laguna before the daily mist and clouds descended. After a freezing night we climbed out the van to a magical scene of low mist and sparkling frost, which soon disappeared as the sun warmed the slopes. A steep climb was followed by a sharp 600-step descent to the lake, which was ringed with flower-laden Mayan altars.

It’s hard to find the words to describe it. But then words are not really our friends at the moment.

Days: 105
Miles: 5789.2
Things we now know to be true: Banging your head on the table doesn’t improve your language skills.