I’ll start off by saying the wifi internet access in our guest house isn’t doing much for us (okay, it isn’t doing anything). My posts will come as frequently as possible, pending other internet access is found here and there. And with that, on to the main event…
Our trip to El Salvador began this morning with the best sort of travel drama – airport drama. Most everyone arrived at or around 3:30am just as we planned but when we hit the lines, all of Continental’s computers went down and they couldn’t check us in. Domestic flyers? You’re all set. International flights? Not so much. After an hour’s wait or so, they rigged a manual system including hand-written ticket vouchers which we would turn in for real boarding passes at the gate once we went through security. The clock to our 5:20am flight ticked down and I didn’t get through security until 5:20am with several members of the party behind me. The flight was held, however, and everybody made it onboard just fine.
Well, almost everyone. Jenn B.’s travel drama began with a missed alarm… and a missed flight. We tracked down her cell phone number thanks to UTS student Sonja being willing to be roused out of bed at 4:00am and look it up online in the student directory, but Jenn’s phone was off and all we could do was leave messages and pray there was no emergency. Turns out Jenn knew just what to do when she woke up and made the proper calls to the Center for Global Education and is on a flight to join us tomorrow. This is an odd twist of fate for us, as she’s also bringing along a box of t-shirts we had made up for the group that got left behind through it’s own sort of odd traveling drama. Finally, with drama behind us, we got our trip underway.
The flight into Houston was smooth, with many of us sleep-deprived, last-minute packers getting a little shuteye. We also picked up two strays: Professor Chris is usually joined by her friend, Don, on these international trips and his brother, John, flew into Houston from Omaha. Meanwhile, UTS alumnus David flew in from Denver. This was also the first time many of us had met each other, despite our best efforts to get as many of us to attend as many of the information meetings leading up to the trip as possible. And with Jenn joining us tomorrow, we’ll finally have the whole crew all together.
The flight from Houston to El Salvador ended up an hour longer than I thought it would. While El Salvador is in the Central Time Zone, they do not observe Daylight Savings Time. That means when our flight was scheduled from approximately 9:00am-11:00am, it was scheduled 9:00am-12:00pm our time. Still, that meant more opportunity for people to get to know each other on the flight. I sat by a man from Texas who was going to visit a friend who owned private beach front to go deep sea fishing and a woman who left El Salvador when she was seventeen back in 1986. She thought my one phrase of Spanish, “Ma espousa es muoy bonita,” had excellent pronunciation.
When we arrived in San Salvador, the trip through customs was rather quick. The flight crew gave us a form to fill out on the plane about what we had to declare, though we had an almost identical form to fill out once we hit the ground. I flashed my passport and got my very first stamp in it. I feel so worldly.
We walked out of the airport to be greeted by the stares of dozens of Salvadorians lining the fence line, awaiting their loved ones. I felt like an anomaly, a white guy in a sea of Salvadorians. This is fast becoming one of the most intriguing things to me as I participate on this trip: learning what it’s like to be a minority in so many ways. I don’t look like everyone else, I don’t know much about the dominant culture, and I certainly don’t speak the language. I’m fast obtaining a greater appreciation for what it’s like to have the shoe on the other foot.
We met our guide, Christina. She’s lived in El Salvador for twenty years and is serving as both our contact liaison and interpreter for the rest of the week. She walked us to our transport, a smaller, modern-style van and a larger, more rustic-looking van. Now, when I say one van is smaller, it’s not small by any means, it’s a fifteen passenger van. That got all of our luggage while the other van is really more like a bus, one that fit all twenty-three of us just fine. Our driver weaved his way through traffic, cutting it close a few times in that sinking-feeling-in-my-gut way. I was struck by how often I saw a beautiful, immaculate building or business right next door to a dilapidated building hull or an outright pile of rubble. The side-by-side disparity leads me to wonder just how is Salvadorian wealth spread out, or rather, not spread out at all. After around a half-hour on the road, he dropped us off at our guest house.
We’re staying in a series of rooms with two to five beds in each, all with their own semi-private bathroom. Though there are several couples on the trip all of the accommodations are divvied up by gender. I’m bunking up with David, a pastor in Denver, and Dennie, the spouse of fellow UTS student Jackie who is also along on the trip. As for the rest of the guest house, there’s a dining hall, a gathering living room space, and an outdoor patio complete with a garden, plenty of bench seating, and a coveted hammock that’s seen plenty of us taking siesta in our spare moments already. I’ve never stayed in an arrangement like this before and it’s very homey, very comfortable. Our meals are all home-cooked and have been delicious so far – spicy chicken lasagna and tacos with fresh guacamole. I especially dug the guac; something was making it nice and spicy and there were sliced hard-boiled egg in it, a new ingredient to me, that really added something. Between these meals and all the food we were served on the planes (bagel chips, muffins, bananas, and hot pita omelets), we’re definitely filling out stomachs on the trip so far.
After settling in to our new digs, Christina gave us a moment to go around and say why we’re on the trip. There are a lot of profound, noble motives amongst the group. May of us are called to social justice, others find the passion of Romero and/or Sobrino compelling. There are those who have always meant to go on a trip and finally are, others who enjoyed past trips so much they had to try another one, and so on. As for me, I had to confess the truth: when I first saw there was an overseas trip offered through UTS for credit, I said to myself, “Hey, free trip.” (Student loans are helping me out here, I know it’s not free.) I don’t mention this initial mindset to sound callous but to be honest.
When I signed up last fall, I knew nothing of El Salvador. When the deadline passed to refund my $200 deposit, I still knew nothing. And over the last few months, reading assigned reading and understanding the bigger picture more clearly, I’m understanding the potential for the ramifications this trip can have on my life, theology, and calling. With all of this in mind, I’m approaching this trip with as open a mind as possible and so far, it’s lead to pleasant surprises. That said, I have to wonder how many other UTS students look at the trips listed in the course guide with the same thoughts I have. If you’re that student, dear reader, I’m telling you it’s okay and the trip is worth a shot.
We drove out to an educational center to get a history lesson from a man named Carlos who walked us through the struggles of the indigenous people first under Spanish rule and leading up to how the US was complicit in the war in the 1980s. The details Carlos gave of tragedy after tragedy were harrowing, explaining how a demand for indigo and then coffee practically enslaved the people under the “Fourteen Families” and how over $1.6 billion was funneled into El Salvador during the Reagan administration to overthrow the FMLN. When I asked Carlos which of the events he spoke about gave him the most hope and the most frustration, he said last June’s election of El Salvador’s first left-wing president gave him hope because it’s been the hope of so many generations. His biggest frustration, however, was that two of his brothers “disappeared” in the 1980s. I think we were all shocked to hear this man allow himself to be so vulnerable and I appreciated his bringing the war to us on a personal level.
As for our group getting personal, I think we’re making it happen. Small connections are being made (for example, John lives in Omaha where student Kathryn grew up, which leads to plenty of talk of “back home”) and conversations both light and profound are springing up between folks. It’s those moments in-between the itinerary when this is happening, whether it be waiting for everyone to go through the gift shop or on the bus or before, during, and after dinner. I’m already getting to know a few new people though I’m also needing to ask people for their names quite a bit. But that’s just how it works for me.
Other highlights from today include: Chris getting scolded several times by flight attendants for standing in the aisle, trying to do a head count, when the “fasten seat belts” light was on, Glen leading a group of us out to Pop’s Ice Cream (his favorite – he hasn’t had it in over thirty years), Shelley looking like a country rock star lugging Luis’s guitar around the airport, my almost getting run over by a backing-out taxi, taking a moment to listen to everyone explain what compelled them to go on the trip, our group’s first encounters with not flushing toilet paper (seriously, this one is just plain weird to me), playing a ukulele-guitar duo for worship with Luis, and at that same worship service sharing a litany of standing up against what we believe to be wrong and what we proclaim to be right.
Tomorrow is a full day so I’m signing off. Please leave us a comment so I can share it with the group and check out the photo gallery below (click the pic to see a larger version). My internt connection is pretty bad so I hope to add captions another time. Update: lucky you, dear reader, I set my cell phone alarm to wake me up and didn´t discover until after I´d dressed it was still set on Daylight Savings Time-adjusted CST for back home. So much for sleeping in! So the photos have captions now. Comment away!