The point of the trip to El Salvador was to spread the word about the effects of climate change (you can read a whole lot of entries on that here), but the sense of community that developed on the trip is something I won’t forget in a hurry. I couldn’t resist picking out a few non-topical moments to throw down on paper to remind me of what things were like. Here’s my top ten:
Those Debates We were sent to talk over and experience climate change, but it diversified, taking in extended discussions in the back of the bus from wide societal issues like education, carers and religion to the finer points of certain well-known individuals. The mix of age groups and intelligent perspectives turned this into a thought-provoking experience far beyond just what we went to see. A particular highlight for me was mulling over the South American perspective on Europe and industrial development with Trocaire’s Bolivian representative Enrique. I won’t repeat it here, as he was representing his company and it wasn’t all polite (we knew each other well enough by that point that it didn’t need to be), but he’s a bright lad and it was a real eye opener.
Truck Riding Above everything else, an amazing ride back from La Tirana in the dark whilst fireflies flitted about the place, the trucks herded cows from the street and the entire Milky Way was visible up above. But I got a bit addicted to riding around in the back of a pick up, and while it’s obviously a fairly stupid idea in the long run (one knock and off you fly), I’ll always associate it with El Salvador. And Thailand, too.
‘The gang bar’ night out I should preface this by saying it’s probably quite unlikely the pub we spent Saturday night in was actually a bar controlled by one of San Salvador’s notorious street gangs, but having left an apparently impressive venue that was completely dead to find somewhere a bit more interesting, it certainly had that buzz. The look Ollie got for trying to buy a mojito from the macho barman was priceless, and those strutting, tattoo-covered locals… yeah.
The way the team bonded There’s a certain inherent risk in heading off with a group of total strangers, and just hoping things all work out well. Thanks to both Trocaire and the incredible attitudes of everyone involved, this really did turn into a positive, outgoing little community of people, and I’d consider every one of them a friend. The entire point was that we come from a variety of worlds, and take home our experiences to different networks and different lives, and taking that into account, the way everyone got on seems every more impressive.
Papusas, and other local cuisine I got a reputation for eating a lot of steak on the trip. I think it was partly because my muscles were in bits post-marathon, but I do also love my steak, and it’s impressively good in El Salvador. What was even better, though, was the real local stuff. We ate papusas, tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans and other stuff, in a local roadside cafe, and loads of beautiful, simple dishes in the communities, where it felt like a real treat to get meat, as it’s simply not commonly eaten out there. The seafood and breakfasts – which featured red bean paste and tropical fruits pretty much every morning – were amazing too. Since returning I’ve also got hold of a proper coffee set up to make use of the organic local stuff I brought back, and it’s fantastic.
The sense of belonging, and gratefulness El Salvador’s citizens are understandably a little embittered towards the western world, having suffered colonialism, abuse by corporate giants and now climate change. At every location, however, we were greeted as friends and offered nothing but kindness. Walking into a tiny, impoverished rural community to be greeted with a feast is something you don’t forget in a hurry.
“Lefty land”: the climate conference I shouldn’t really call the place lefty land, but it was coated in communist murals, has that image of Che Guevara painted next to the stage and largely consisted of impressively left-wing ideals. The thing is, the entire process made a huge amount of sense. It’s hard to see how a corporate, capitalist driven system could come to deal with climate change; the changes necessary are just too full on, and too opposed to what suits large companies. It’s hugely interesting, though, to arrive in a sizable university and find a place that’s a real hotbed for student politics and social movement. I know students are supposed to be like that, and aren’t too bad for it even at home, but this really is another level.
The Day Off Yes, I know the day off is somewhat off point, and in a way it wasn’t really a day off, but a full on history lesson of El Salvador. With such bad publicity surrounding the Catholic church in Ireland, I was delighted to see how much good Oscar Romero did in El Salvador before he was brutally assassinated. It gives some perspective, especially for someone prone to Catholic Church in Ireland rants. The memorial wall – featuring just half the names of the civilians killed in the civil war – was a harrowing sight stretching across perhaps 100 metres of a public park. The seafood restaurant and coastal town we headed to for the second half of the day was a real ‘other side of El Salvador’ experience, too, with mariachi singers round the table and incredible seafood. Lush.
Spanish Progress This was a really nice touch over the trip. Most of us went over with at best modest Spanish, but in rural communities you either translate or you get a bit lost. Our translators were amazing, but the progression of the group’s modest Spanish – which pushed towards introducing ourselves in more and more detail and short conversations away from the translators – was a lot of fun. Oliver won out by a mile, after taking an entire two hour drive to learn an extended spiel for one of the last communities, who looked completely bemused when he got a whole lot of cheers at the end. You probably had to be there.
Hope This trip was such an emotional experience; it smashed down the perceptions of even the more informed amongst us (I’m not including myself in that!), I think, when it comes to social justice and the effects of our actions globally. Equally, though, the sheer volume, knowledge and inspirational attitude of those involved in the conference, and those working for the NGOs on the ground counteracted that. I couldn’t fail to be inspired as much as I was hurt by the reality. I’ve traveled extensively, and only India had anything like the profound effect that El Salvador has had on me. My first trip to India entirely changed my outlook on life. I have a feeling this is going to do the same.