Sunday, January 17, 2010

Monteverde first impressions

I made it to Costa Rica even with 5 hours at the costa rican nicaraguan border. I wasnt sure if it was normal and then i saw people laughing and videotaping the line so i knew i was in for quite the day. It all worked out for the best because they didnt check anything and once you were done waiting you got stamped and sent on your merry way.

Monteverde is a much much different place then i am used to. It is an extremely small town. I got lucky that the school is right across the street, literally a minute and a half walk. My family here in Costa Rica owns a cafe/art gallery/spa/internent cafe/rental car company about thirty minutes from our house. They are slowly trying to murder me through gluttony. I eat close to 7 pounds of rice and beans a day and they try to fill in any not eating moments with snacks. I have been laughed at every day for how enormous my lunch is. At one breakfast I told her i was good with two scoops of rice and she shook her head and put on 4 then shook it again until i had about 8 and then decided i might as well finish off the pan. I have been giving myself pep talks before every meal, telling myself that i can get through it and finish this off if i just try my best, so far it has worked most times. Dont get me wrong the food is delicous but im not sure if they know im not a grizzly bear.

School is off to great start. The teacher i am working with is really talented and easy to get along with. She has been very open to my ideas and i have already picked out a bunch of stuff i am going to steal from her when i get back.

The school itself is a great place overall. The classrooms are very open and full of light and the kids are pretty similar to any kids you would find anywhere. The only big difference is that they call you by your first name which is weird at first but you get used to it quick and many of them walk around shoeless which weirds me out a bit but im getting used to it.

It was really drizzly and the wind was ridiculous knock your on your ass kind of wind the first few days i was here but it has all cleared up recently and if it stays sunny here it will be an amazing place to live. Im ok walking 45 minutes for a pepsi as long as the weather holds up like this.

Perquin and El Mozote

Throughout most of the later parts of the 20th century El Salvador found it self in one of the most brutal civil wars in modern memory. The exact rationale for its start are a little foggy, at least to me, but in general it started because some people had everything and others had less than nothing. As people began to speak out and protest for reform they were met with more and more resistance and eventually the two colliding forces took to armed conflict. The guerrillas took to the highlands and a force of us trained soldiers took to snuffing them out. The war has moments of extreme violence including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in public as he was delivering mass and the Mozote massacre.

After spending time at the beach it seemed like a good idea to check out some of the sights of the civil war and learn a little bit more about the history of the country we were staying and enjoying. We headed off for a remote village called Perquin where the rebel army had a base and recently converted some of their headquarters into a museum and walking tour through some of their camps.

The museum was interesting though a little bit scrappy, i guess would be the best adjective. Some rooms looked like they just had a bunch of pictures and tossed them up on the walls well others had authentic machine guns and destroyed parts of helicopters and plains that they shot down. They also had the sight of their radio station. The pictures though they looked just tossed on the walls were pretty interesting, showing some extremely young soldiers and you just wished you could take them out of the picture and put them in school or something.

After the museum we got a quick walking tour through a guerrilla camp. Our guide had fought and made a point to let me know that he was not a soldier, he was a guerrilla. He walked with a severe limp, having taken shrapnel in his chest and extensively in his right leg. He led us through tunnels and over rope bridges,showed us huge craters from bombings and was even nice enough to let everyone in our group know that even though the us is frequently painted as the villain there was a tremendous amount of aid and volunteers who came from the us to help the guerrillas as well as the government money that helped the soldiers.

We then took a quick hike up a mountain where every twenty feet or so tremendous craters lined the way. They were all created from bombing raids during one of the major battles of the war. It was a pretty compelling series of sights, that takes you aback a little. It is nice to see how proud all of the people are of being guerrillas and changing their country the way they did. They have incredible perspective on the situation and i learned alot just from listening.

The next day we headed off for Mozote. At best Mozote is a village of two and a half streets with a church and a school. When we headed in that morning all of the restaurants in the main square were out of breakfast food and we were walked by a tiny girl to her home which was kind of a restaurant but really just a table in their cluttered tin roofed home and we got a breakfast of basically what they had left on the shelves. In the background the family showered and got ready for their day as we ate eggs and sipped coffee, a strange breakfast in deed.

Mozote is the sight of one of the if not the biggest massacre during the war. Im not sure i have all the facts but i will do my best. The military came in looking for guerrillas and really in an effort to intimidate and set a precedent that they were done screwing around. They pulled everyone into the main square and scared the crap out of them for hours and then sent them back to their homes and told them if they step outside they would be shot.

The next day the soldiers tortured and interrogated the men and eventually executed them all over the town. When the finished they raped and executed the girls some as young as 12 years old. When the finished that they shot out the windows of the church and murdered the remaining children both in the church and other locations. After murdering everyone in the town they left the bodies out in the open, presumably to send a message to the guerrillas but no one can be certain exactly why they left the bodies out.

All in all over a thousand people were massacred some children as young as just a few days old were murdered, some of whom had never even been given names. When the army finished they went on to continue there actions in a second village though to a lesser extent. Mozote was destroyed though it served to bring international attention to the situation in El Salvador and shed a negative light on the united states who consequently started distancing themselves from El Salvador. It is widely considered the largest massacre in modern latin american history.

The town has erected two monuments to the citizens who were massacred. One is a garden dedicated to the children who were murdered. The garden is simple, it has a large mural and then a series of plaques with the names and ages of the children who were killed. The plaques are enough to make your stomach churn but they also kept many of the bricks that people were killed on and even though the massacre took place about 20 years ago you can still very much so see the blood stones, it takes you back and leaves you speechless for a good portion of time. The other is dedicated to others who died and includes a shadow figure family looking at tall of the names of the dead while they hold hands.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

El Salvador

So we headed off for El Salvador the day after christmas. Christmas in Antigua was pretty interesting, at midnight on New Years Eve the entire country goes out in the streets and lights off as many firecrackers as they can physically get their hands on and then everyone goes out in the street and hugs everyone they see. I did my fair share of kneeling hugs and received a wicked headbutt in the process. We ate tamales and exchanged gifts with our family, no one really seemed to understand the jokes that i was trying to convey with my gifts which i guess i shouldnt have been surprised at. It was a fun christmas but as i returned home from calling my family the mood was a little more somber in our house and I was told that the father of our homestay mom had passed away. She was really broken up and on top of losing her father she was going to have to travel 6 hours to get to her home in the middle of the night on christmas, just an awful awful thing to happen. Saying goodbye was already sad enough but it was just that little bit sadder with this hanging over everyones heads.

We headed off for El Salvador at 4 in the morning with a little bit of an awkward feeling in the air but arrived in our new country after a surprisingly quick and easy bus trip.

Our hostel was one of the nicest places that i have ever stayed period. It is run by a borderline alcoholic named Javier who is a painter who doesnt paint, a man who loves his fiestas and a man who believes America is a terrible place because we have school shootings every other day. During our stay we had a few political conversations with an Australian hippy named Zen, Javier and then two remarkably interesting and well informed Danish people. Not sure what makes that remarkable maybe it was just the juxtaposition at the table where Zen and Javier liked to come off as supereducated and well informed people but really appeared to just generalize and oversimplify very complex subjects like global politics and religion and the danish couple would break out facts and figures and used that silly little thing called reason. Long story short America is a terrible terrible place with too many guns, fat people, and we need to vote more, so work on that will you.

While we stayed in Santa Ana we took two day trips one to volcan santa ana and another to the lake(i dont remember the name). The volcano was about as anticlimactic as a volcano could be. We climbed up to the top, not a particularly challenging climb(im an expert on challenging volcano climbs and not afraid to brag about it suckers) and when we reached the top the wind was ridiculous. It was treadmill wind where you try to walk but you are stuck in place. I may or may not have fallen down while trying to gracefully sit and losing my footing on some loose rocks. All in all i got a ton of sand and dirt in my mouth and eyes and never was allowed to get to the top of the volcano. The lake was actually pretty nice and we had the capability to swim in it which was different from Atitlan in Guatemala.

The beach, specifically Playa Tunco, was our main reason for heading to El Salvador in the first place and after our brief stay in Santa Ana we caught a series of buses and stood in the back of one pickup at 80mph and arrived at our destination.

Let me preface all of this beach talk with a little background. I am not nor have I ever been a big fan of the beach. I burn to ridiculous life threatening degrees, I cant swim, i sweat to a disgusting degree, Im not that comfortable taking off my shirt in public and im easily annoyed by sand.Ive only been once in the last 5 years and only really enjoyed it because i was with a fantastic person who loves the beach so much you are almost compelled to like it by peer pressure. So one good beach moment in 5 years and now i was headed to a beach for 4 days, doesnt seem like the smartest plan of all time but i said at the beginning of this trip that i would try new things so there you have it.

Well to my surprise i have actually enjoyed the beach. I had some fantasy about surfing but i think that was just a dream based on too many viewings of point break, airborne and riding giants. The second i got in the ocean i realized that i was terrified of it. I mean completely frightened of the water, im not arbitrarily scared of sharks the way some people are(dont get me wrong if there is a shark in the water im not going to go pet him, well maybe if i had one of those sick shark suits) just really petrified of drowning. The second i got in the ocean i realized my dream of surfing was just not going to happen, i dont even like diving under waves and i make a full bodied protective contortion when a wave is too big and comes near me. So surfing not my thing. I mean i am not even joking when i tell you that i am pretty darn proud of myself for going out as deep as i went out. There are times i realize that i am just a little boy and its generally when i realize how proud i get of myself for extremely minor life accomplishments.

Andy on the other hand decided to ride the waves and though he had limited success you have to admire his gusto. Thats one big thing i keep learning more and more about andy, he really is a pretty fearless person when it comes to trying new things. He may do do it all in his own way but he is very willing to try things out of his comfort zone(though not trivia damn it) and you have to admire that. Lindsey as well is quite the adventurer and pretty fearless in general especially when it comes to travel, where i am admittedly a wimp. I know that i would not have experienced half of what i have if not for the two of them and i appreciate them letting me tag along, though im sure they are just about done with me at this point in the trip.

New years was not dramatically different than any other new years i have been to except that it was 80 degrees and there was an impressive impromptu dance contest that involved some serious flips including one off a 15 foot set of speakers. Other than that they lit off firecrackers and everyone drank and either walked on the beach or danced in the open air bars.

There are a couple of things that i have learned from my short time here in el salvador. One would be that el salvadorans are an incredibly nice people in general, sure there are aholes but for the most part they go out of their way to help you. I learned this on the buses where they went out of their way to help me with directions or with my gigantic backpack and on the streets where they would yell anything they knew in english at us, including at one point a very direct i love you from a guy on a bike. The other thing ive learned is that i can enjoy the beach so in the future as long as i am prepared with plenty of incredibly strong sunscreen i am up for trips to the beach.

Well take care everyone i hope you all had a great new years and are busy working on your first new years resolutions. In a day or two we are off for nicaragua and ill write again when something else happens.