Thursday, December 22, 2011

Return to El Salvador...

El Salvador is a sacred place to me.  It is where I truly became a surfer, a spanish speaker, a traveler, an idealist, and a writer.  I had strove to become all of these things for a long time, perhaps I still do, but my prolonged period in El Sal marked a point of marked achievement in all of my pursuits, which I can only ascribe to the peaceful surroundings, compelling company, and epic waves that this tiny Latin American nation consistently provides.

And so coming back here after nearly two years away was an important event in my life.  I had spent months and months learning the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of this country, from the people and the culture to the waves and the weather.  I spent Christmas and new years here for two years in a row, the family that ran the hostel where I stayed became like my own.  It was my home away from home, that one place in Latin America where I felt I could escape to when I felt homesick as I vagabonded around the continent.  And now I was back again, and so much had since changed.

Pulling in to El Tunco the road looked different.  It was no longer that rustic little pueblo with beaten down homes, small tiendas, and typical hostels lining the road.  It had become a classic, developed surf town, complete with a variety of hotels and hostels, restaurants, bars and even tourist agencies.  The night life used to be a single bar, lively only on the weekends when the San Salvadorans left the city to hit the coast, complete with drum circles and fire throwers.  Now every night a different bar or disco would throw a huge party, complete with expensive drinks, pat-downs and cover charges.

It was inevitable I suppose, such is the nature of these surf towns.  They grow in popularity and begin to lose their uniqueness as they try to emulate every other surf tourism destination.  More and more foreigners arrive, more buildings are erected, more parties, more drugs, more surfers... More money.  And really that is what it comes down to in the end, money.  Sustainability is trumped by prosperity, and the ability to see some sort of equilibrium between the two is distorted by the allure of more dollars and  the flawed idea that growth is the only way forward.  But in the end who is to blame? Poverty still remains, and with it desperation.  At least things hadn't gotten completely out of hand here, and hopefully community leaders will take charge and ensure some semblance of balanced growth.  It would be a shame otherwise.

If everything else had changed one thing had remained the same, the wave.  I had been out of the water for too long, save for a few sessions in the lakes and some hurricane waves on the eastern seaboard.  When I arrived mid-afternoon I checked in to a hostel, grabbed a board, and hit the water.  With just a 3 foot swell Sunzal was breaking perfectly, just as I remember it, long and perfectly formed point break waves.  Only this time I had a couple years more of surfing experience behind me and I paddled right out back with the locals, catching my first wave, showing them that I deserved a position in the line up.  I surfed that first day until the sky was dark, my waves only lit by the settling glow of the disappeared sun and the moon shining brightly in the cloudless sky above.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Returning to Guatemala: Part 2

The time had come to deliver the food aid to the affected communities, and so we rose that morning with a sense of purpose, my new friend Fernando picking me up from my hotel exactly at the stated hour – an act unheard of in this part of the world. The sun was already bright in the sky as we cruised down towards the Pacific coast from the highlands of Chimaltenango. The cool air blew against my face as I took in the landscape of towering volcanoes and green hills. We quickly found ourselves on level ground, the hills transforming into yellow-dry plains and the hot, salty air invading our car. It was a welcome change.

The food deliveries were much how one might imagine them to be. The people had received word that we were coming and were all gathered and ready for us, anxious to finally get some relief. Some words were said with the occasional prayer and the lists were checked off. One by one people would carry their heavy food bags away. On bikes, motorcycles, or simply on their backs – they did what they had to in order to get the food to their homes.

The rest of the day was much the same, with the exception of the growing number of local boys joining the caravan on the back of the truck and helping to haul the heavy bags as we moved along. I finished the day feeling satisfied, yet discontent. I had spoken to many families and taken lots of photos, I was starting to conceive just what these people had gone through. The rations I was sure would make a difference in their lives, but that night as I ate my own dinner, I could only think about those numerous families that showed up to the distributions and asked me, the Canadian, why they were not on the list.

The next day we headed in the opposite direction, further up into the Guatemalan highlands. The early morning drives in this country are always stunning. We climbed higher and higher up winding roads through thick fog, until eventually we broke through and fierce orange beams of sunlight began to shoot through the dissipating clouds. I was getting used to driving with Fernando, we had begun to get to know each other quite well and developed an unspoken bond. He was an incredibly kind soul, and despite the seriousness of the work he did, he had a devilish sense of humour and was always down for a laugh. He would tell me his interesting stories from the past as we drove, and as he delivered his numerous punch-lines he would glance at me with a semi-smirk, waiting for my approval before we both broke into hysterics.

This part of the country had been hit even harder, the heavy rains causing unstoppable landslides that killed several people and carried away numerous homes. Every few kilometers along the highway we would see huge cliffs that had crumbled, the rubble of rocks and dirt only recently plowed off of the roads. The people in this region were predominantly indigenous Mayans who wore traditional clothing and who’s first language was K’ichi. They spoke Spanish slowly with a sense of uncertainty yet clarity that I was able to understand so well. I had learned my Spanish years back while living amongst other indigenous Guatemalans, and so I was at ease speaking with them.

They had lost so much over the last few years as a result of the rainy season. In Canada as the fall approaches and we all begin to dread the impending winter, I realize now how lucky we are, and I can’t imagine the anxiety that faces these communities before the rainy season begins for them. Yet they hide it so well. They are all smiles and kindness when we arrive, and they thank us and bless us with a sense of sincerity that is like nothing I’ve witnessed before.

Before we left the last community, the leaders insisted on treating us to a sandwich. I’ve become used to accepting offerings from the people here, despite the fact that I know they are struggling for money. That is their nature, to give as much as they possibly can, even if it means a greater struggle for them the next day.

We had finally finished the food aid distributions and I withdrew to Antigua to rest and gather my thoughts. The retrospection was valuable, and I was able to define exactly what it was that I had learned over the last few days. I had often challenged people back home in Canada who blindly gave their money to aid and development organizations without actually acting on their own or doing the research to know where their money was going. And although I’m still sure there are various negative exceptions, I believe that this was typically what humanitarian aid looked like on the ground. The necessity for this aid and for the funds that brought it about was obvious – the gratefulness alone of the recipients was enough evidence in itself. Although not a long-term solution to the problems here, this aid would give many people a chance to simply stop worrying about feeding their families, even if only for a few weeks.

I had a few days of work ahead of me, but I also had some time for myself, so I decided to hop over the border to my old stomping grounds in El Salvador for some sun and surf, and for what would become an eventful weekend on the coast.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Returning to Guatemala: Part 1

Just ten days ago I was sitting in my friend's warm coffee shop, thinking about my impending life on the west coast, preparing for the next few weeks of cold that was about to hit Toronto, when my phone rang and I was offered a job in Guatemala.  It was just contract work, five days or so, but I was being sent back to Latin America, something I had been longing for, and it was being paid for.  I really couldn’t believe my luck, because really that is what it was.  Sure, I’ve worked hard to gain experience in international development and to become fluent in Spanish, but ultimately me getting this job came down to who I knew and where I was.  That’s how international development works, I suppose that is how most careers work.

I was as tired as usual, that same fatigued and sleepless zombie like state that I always seem to find myself in before I get on a plane and head overseas.  The excitement had kept me up the last two nights, and then waking at 4:45am to catch my flight didn’t help at all.  The three hours from Toronto to Houston was no good for sleep, aisle seats just don’t cut it.  I had to rush to my connecting flight and thankfully I had a window seat and an empty aisle.  I was able to stretch out a bit and catch a few minutes of half-sleep, but nothing substantial enough to change my overall demeanor.  I had a window for my attempted nap, and when I decided to open the shutter as the captain announced our starting descent, the bright sun filled my empty row of seats and the green mountains of Guatemala rolled away beyond the horizon.  I was here, and the open landscape brought with it a flood of memories that warmed my body and left me as anxious as ever to get off the plane.

I was greeted at the exit to the airport by Mardo, my local contact, and his son.  Mardo had the token kindness typical of most Guatemalans, and I instantly felt at ease with him and without hesitation accepted his offer to join him at his grand daughter’s first birthday party.  We drove through the city to what seemed a relatively poor but organized barrio where Mardo’s family lived.  There I was introduced to a flora of characters, from the “Doctor” who was working on commercializing his own take on recycled rubber and readily admitted to his alcoholic tendencies, to the “Captain”, an old navy man that was quick to dismiss the legalization of drugs in the U.S. as a solution to the narco-trafficking problem in Guatemala.  The party was for Mardo’s grand daughter who was turning just one year old, and the whole barrio came over to celebrate in the cul-de-sac that we had commandeered for a few hours.  No one could pass as we sat around in a big circle and watched the children destroy two large piƱatas, each time candy fell the hordes of kids would surge to the middle in a mad dash, like seagulls fighting over food scraps.  I was tired and Mardo knew it, so after a few hours when the party had died down, he drove me downtown to a hotel where I quickly ate a snack and passed out to another restless sleep.

The next day we headed up to Chimaltenango, about an hour outside of the capital city, where the local organization that I would be working with was located.  My job was to observe an emergency food aid distribution for victims of the floodings, shoot photos, and write a story about it all.  So although I'll have to save the details for the official version, I'll try to share some of the more intimate moments.  That first day in Chimaltenango we visited the storage facilities where several people that were hired on for this project were bent over in the sun, counting and packing bags, then loading them onto the big truck to be transported the next morning to the various communities.  I took the photos that I needed then I jumped in, counting and hauling, but admittedly taking more breaks then the rest of them.  The work involved was exhausting, and I applaud the commitment of these people that were working to help others for what was likely very little remuneration.  The organization itself is a very progressive one, founded by Don Marco, a gentleman who I met that day and would later speak to at length.  He had lived through the civil war as an activist and supporter of the uprising against the oligarchic military government, he even played in integral role in the peace talks that ended the war.  The organization was originally created to assist victims of the war, but has since evolved into a diverse community development group of experts.  One employee that I spoke to told me that the name of the organization, Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn), was named after the small pueblo where Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia.

That night I strolled through the Central Park tasting some of the different street foods and watching some local kids play soccer.  The cold of the night, the bustle of the park, and the smell of spiced meat brought me back to my early days in Guatemala, when I lived in a small town in the highlands.  It felt incredible to be back, and I was grateful that I was given such an opportunity.  The next few days would act as a stark reminder that as happy as I was with my life at that moment, there were people here simply struggling to live.