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Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Friday, March 4, 2011

El Salvador: The Red Guitar


Will and I flew together from San Francisco to Houston, then on to San Salvador, the others having gone south early to take in-country Spanish lessons or . . . something. I’ve forgotten now.
Margaret had been taking groups to El Salvador at least once a year since before the war ended in 1992.  She gave us each a binder that included some Salvadoran history, many facts about how the country was faring after the peace accords--a sort of left-wing CIA Fact Book--and her own words to the wise.
I still have the binder. The first two pages list things to bring along and general warnings. Mixed messages abound: “The sewage system [at the guest house in the capitol] is terrible. PUT ALL TOILET PAPER IN WASTE BASKET NEXT TO TOILET. If you forget and put paper in the toilet, fish it out and put in waste basket. . . . RELAX, be flexible and enjoy! It’s a great time to grow in patience and understanding and to be inspired by many Salvadorans.”
At the Continental counter in San Francisco, Will and I, despite our binders, failed the first test.
We each had a carry-on bag and, between us, three items to check for Margaret—a suitcase of books for the school in the village, another suitcase of over-the-counter medicines for the clinic, and a red electric guitar for the village band. Margaret was proud of having scored this guitar as a donation, and I knew she was looking forward to presenting it to the kids in the band.
Continental Airlines, however, would allow us to check only one item each.  Margaret had said in no uncertain terms that we were not to pay any shipping charges: “Not a good use of money."
Will and I stared at each other for a few seconds, then handed over the books and medicine.  I carried the red guitar to airport storage, where it would stay, incurring charges, until someone from my church picked it up.
In the Houston airport, while Will wandered off, I sat in the food court and watched a group of twenty or thirty people walk by, mixed ages, all white, wearing matching blue T-shirts with a Bible verse on the back—"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). On my way to the gate I saw two similar groups, one flying to Quito, the other to Guatemala City. It dawned on me that we weren't the only church people traveling south, and I never feel more uncomfortable than as part of a crowd I didn't mean to join. At least we weren’t out to convert anybody. We were going to El Salvador to be converted ourselves--changed, we called it.
It's a long way from Houston to San Salvador. Will and I had plenty of time to get to know each other. We were both from Sacramento, both in our mid-forties, and . . . that was about all, besides this trip, that we had in common. I was married, a Presbyterian, a part-time English instructor at a community college, a very part-time writer, and the mother of three teenagers. Will was single, a Catholic, a lawyer who'd quit his job at a big firm and now practiced immigration law, on behalf of immigrants. 
Uniformed men carrying automatic rifles stood with their backs to every pillar and corner in the San Salvador airport. After we got through customs and claimed Margaret's suitcases, we stepped outside to look for Alejandro--Will knew him--who was picking us up in a van.  
It was about 7:00, dusk fading to dark, and the place was hopping.  Pickups made multiple stops in the arrivals circle, more and more people climbing into the back.
"They load up their pickups here until people are practically falling out.  I don't like it. Somebody's going to get hurt."  He pointed at a black van. "There's Alejandro." As we loaded our bags behind the van's back seat, Will said, "That was the lawyer talking back there."
"What about all the machine guns?" I said.  "Are you okay with those?"
"I don't like those either, but we have those at home."
Six months after 9/11, armed, blank-faced men had adorned Houston and San Francisco airports, but not this many.  And these didn't look quite as blank as ours, although I could have imagined the hostility I saw on their faces.
The air was cloudy with exhaust, but it wasn't as hot as I'd expected.  Along the airport road, where so many bodies had been dumped during the war, abandoned vehicles blazed.  
Alejandro delivered us to the guest house Margaret always used, and she was there to meet us.  Hugs all around.  
"Excuse me, but where is the guitar? Is it still in the van? You didn't leave it at the airport!"
Will and I told our story. 
"I don't care if the rules have changed," Margaret said.  "If I'd been there, I would have made them check that guitar."



Nicaraguan poet Ernest Cardenal's version of Psalm 5, painted on a wall in San Salvador: 
photo by me