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Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflections of a Week Away

GK Chesterson wrote, "the purpose of a trip is to come home, the purpose of a pilgrimage is to come home transformed."

Sometimes it's hard for people to truly understand their experiences abroad until they return home. Our students reflected on their journey to this point in a sharing circle Thursday night.

Many suggested their new understanding of where our cheap clothing is from and the conditions of maquilas (sweatshops), will require a new approach to consumption back at home. A student said we have lost our ability to be ignorant about the Majority World and the issues here.

One spoke of his need to make more of his own opportunities as he recognized so many in El Salvador have none. Another has become more aware of the time he 'wastes' doing little at home and how that should become more productive time for works.

Furthermore, they talked about being touched by the passion of the people we met. We need to people who live happiness instead of pursuing happiness.

We all talked about becoming people of hope, people of reflection, people of justice. We should live the mantra, "it's important not to have more, but to be more."

The group returns to Canada later tonight

Conversations with local youth

After the excitement of a two hour blackout last night, our crew was eager to get the day started. We met with the Youth wing of the ARDM, an absolutely inspiring bunch of young people.

This group is faced with a multitude of challenges. They spoke about their philosophy of why the youth in Cinquera and adjacent communities require organization. Their parents and grandparents were forced into war, and one day will die. The young people of this area have no choice but to work towards the improvement of their villages. Gabriel suggested, "that we can't just expect seniors and our parents defend our community. It is imperative the youth accept their responsibility to expand the gains achieved from the Civil War."

This organization has coordinated a silk-screening business, a welding coop, a handicraft shop and a drum circle.

Their biggest challenge remains inspiring more young people to care about their community. Evelyn, a member, said, "the capitalist system wants to domesticate us and we need to struggle everyday so that the mass media doesn't indoctrinate us. They throw smoke screens so we don't seen our reality-- that we're hungry or not working of other social problems. ".

Milton explained the difficulty of communicating their issues to the bigger world. "These twin programs are important as the objective is to live together as brothers and sisters in solidarity. Many people lie about the reality of our situation, but I hope you now have a different vision about our communities and will show people the exact reality that we struggle with," he said. "We are beginning the journey of being agents of change because we believe another world is possible. "

Raphael, a former guerilla soldier turned park ranger, was our guide through the Cinquera forest. Students were able to have a first hand experience in seeing the make shift hospitals used by the guerillas during the war. The 'Vietnamese Kitchen' demonstrated the clever tactics of the rebels in hiding their position from the government choppers flying above. Their camps dot the hills and serve as a reminder of the resilience of a people fighting for their freedom.

Roberto, our brilliant translator, explained one reason the Americans wanted to stop funding the war. 'the guerillas,' he said, "required one bullet to kill a man. A soldier: 77." the war had become a cash grab for the men fighting for the oppressive government and had become more wealthy. They weren't interested in ending a conflict in which they profited.

On to Cinquera

Early morning in San Jose Las Flores is a comfortable place. Roosters crow, horses enjoy their breakfast in the street and the friendly folk wave their hellos.

(a typical breakfast meal)

Today we said our goodbyes to our new friends and jumped in the bus to head to Cinquera.

Stops included a solar-powered dehydration facility where students purchased delectable fairly traded, organic fruit products. Here we spoke to a local farmer who, next week, will lose much of his property to the new Longitudinal highway. He was positive, however, as he recognized the economical stimulus for both workers and the businesses along the way. He lamented the loss of the tranquility and clean air. We also hit a fair trade shop where students bought beautifully painted nick-nacks and jewelry created on the Chalentenango folk art style.

A long and winding road lead us through Chalentenango City and then Suchitoto. Outside of the latter, we picked up four police officers who needed a ride to the city. They awkwardly stood in the aisles and tried not to bump their AK-47s on our sleeping students.

Once in Cinquera, we met with the ARDM, the local branch of CRIPDES. this organization coodinates mulitiple programs, including a sewing coop for the maimed from the war, the Eco-tourism park and an iguana farm. They also have an effective scholarship prograM which provides money to students going to university. The expectation is that these students already have a strong relationship with the community and promise to help the organization once their education is complete.

Next we met with a group of high school students. They gave us insight into the lives of the rural poor. One student spoke about his 5am wake ups, his chores with the animals, ironing his uniform and then going to school from 7:10-4:00. His weekend consisted of helping his parents cultivate beans and corn. No student mentioned eating dinner, but rather all underlined the importance of doing their homework. Many of these students returned after dinner to perform a theatrical presentation called, 'social problems.'

A teacher, Mary, volunteered to show us around town she spoke of the history of the village, it's role in the civil war, it's repopulation and it's many more recent joys and successes, including the brand new high school.

Cinqera's beautiful ecolodge provided our home for the night. The mangoes, dropping from the trees above us, hammered the tin roofs. Some of the students tried the iguana for dinner, and many had to be brave to remove the spiders from the corners of their rooms.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Encounters with our partners

To support the women's coop, as well as provide more traditional sleeping experience, our group purchased 8 hammocks. The intention is to leave these beds in San Jose las Flores for future delegations to use.

Monday morning was our meet & greet with Holy Trinity's partner school. We headed down to the escula, where we were welcomed with folk dances and an assembly. This was particularly impressive as the Salvadoran students were on their first day of Santa Samana holidays!

During the tour of the school, led by the principal, Nelson, we saw the classroom they will be making into a computer lab. Next door will be their science lab. The school is under massive construction because, for the first time in 30 years, the new liberal government has allocated funding for infrastructure improvements.

The students all headed down the road to the high school football field where we played three huge games of soccer. Watching the game gave the non- players plenty of time to chat with the members of the community.

Several new friendships were formed and five girls from San Jose Las Flores decided to join us for our activity in the afternoon-- swimming in the Rio Sempul.

That evening, after a traditional meal in the Women's cooperative kitchen, many of the girls bonded with their new friends whilst painting each other's finger & toe nails. Others headed into the square to play soccer. Later we met with students. We shared information on our 'typical days' and the challenges of getting a university education in both countries.

Nelson spoke to the Canadian teachers about the importance of 'education for life' -- curricula expectations which are driven a personal, local and ethical theme. He also told us that his yearly school budget from the Ministy of Education is $3600. This is what our board gets PER STUDENT.

A Day of Contrasts

Today laid in stark contrast to the two previous. We started in the Cathedral of San Salvador where we paid our respects to Oscar Romero at his tomb in the basement. We wondered towards the park opposite of the Cathedral; Roberto told us about the massacre that occurred at Romero's Funeral. Strange to think that such a bustling space could have been the location of so many deaths.

We were then led along the outskirts of the market. Block upon block of merchandise are hocked by people of all ages. Shoes, liberated from sweatshops, baby chickens, belts, electronics, clothing and everything imaginable are sold to the poor of the city. The same products would be sold several times more expensive at the malls, but would be inexcessible to so many for purchase. Witnessing this, for some of the HT/St.FX delegates, was the first real moment of discomfort.

Palm Sunday mass centered around the importance of the poor in Jesus' arrival to Jerusalum. Liberation theology reminded listeners of the gifts waiting for them in the afterlife.

The group then travelled into Chalentango province to spend a few days at Trinity's Partner school community, San Jose Las Flores. This quaint little village has a long history of resistance; it is a stronghold of the leftist FMLN group. Here we met with the Community Council, who enlightened our delegation on the issues they face.

(SeƱor Alamado speaks about the history of San Jose Las Flores before the Peace Agreements in 1992)

The students were captivated by the efforts made by these people to resist mining companies from extracting minerals from their beautiful landscape. The organization of this community was an inspiration to us all. The association was thankful to CRIPDES for their hard work
in helping San Jose Las Flores to achieve all they have.

A late night soccer game and roosters crowing will become the norm.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

El Salvador's Natural and Historical Wealth

Today's overcast sky was a blessing for our hike up to the rim of one of El Salvador's volcanoes. The long walk to the bottom of the crater would take an hour, but the climb back up the 900m hole would take several hours more. Our group preferred to hover around the edge and dream of another time we'd have the physical ability to tackle the hike. We were fascinated by the tropical flowers and the volcanic ash and rock slowly exposing itself under the dry, dusty conditions.

Nicole, a student at Holy Trinity, thought the crater was 'really cool'. She'd never seen such a hole before. Lisa, another Trinity student, remarked, 'it's not as cool unless you're there'. Certainly, pictures didn't do the massive hole justice.

An hour later, the group arrived at San Andres, an ancient Mayan acropolis and trading centre. The structure rises out of the fields of cocoa and coffee, hinting about the civilization once here.

Only 5% of the city has been excavated. The federal government has little money to fund the massive excavation project. Work has been done in similar structures in Mexico, but as of now, no plans are in the works for El Salvador.

Also on this property, a large series of baths are found. These structures represent the earliest colonialization of this area. The natives, subject to Spanish conquistadors, worked the indigo processing plants once operating here. Water circulated through the leaves of the indigo plant and eventally produced a putty, which, when dried, became the dark indigo dye powder.

Two of our teachers - Maureen Bourke and Stephanie Pearson

Friday, April 15, 2011

Day Two sights and sounds of San Salvador

It's hard to believe it's only been twenty-four hours since our arrival. We have settled into the sights and sounds of San Salvador and are learning to drink enough water, have sampled local cuisine, and have continued to try to make friends with whomever will wave.

This morning we were given a brief history of the challenges of the poor against those with money and power. This provided perfect context for the work of Salvaides' partners, CRIDPES and CORDES. Rosilita and Bernardo, the representatives from these organizations, explained how their work helps provide support for rural communities to fight against mining and sweatshops. Riveted by these testimonies and inspired by the grassroots work of these groups, the students learned more about their roles for solidarity.

Stuffed with a delicious meal, our gang proceeded to the Single-mothers cooperative. These women are paid a fair wage for the textiles they produce. They are also provided with groceries, 3 month maternity leaves and other benefits which allows their product to be branded fair trade. Our fundraiser shirts (pictured) were made here.

The bus drove us into a large park. Many Salvadorians enjoyed the benches, play structures and the shade provided by the huge mango trees. At the back, a huge monument looms.

The wall memorializes the civilians murdered and disappeared during the civil war and it's lead up. Almost 27000 names are marked on the black marble; memories of lives lived. This cold stone is a poor metaphor to the warmth once shared between the loved and lovers. Toward the end of the monument, up to and including 1995, a section of the wall highlights the mass graves uncovered by International archeologists. In 2008, an additional 9 panels were added to include an additional 4000 names; names shared by family members only now comfortable enough to share them.

This wall was erected, not by the government, but by a coalition of NGOs and human rights groups who sought to represent the lives lost to injustice.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First Day in El Salvador

The Casa Amistad will provide quaint and quirky home-away-from home for the next several days. The students have warned us the washroom rules will require some getting used to, but they love the space and breezy new digs.

The faces of these new travelers on the ride to the city demonstrated their openness to this new experience. The tropical flowers dotted the landscape between roadside coconut stalls and the informal economy of the streets.

Moved by the testimony of Hermana Bernadettte, the group walked humbly though the Romero house and the chapel where he was assassinated. Prayers and lit candles marked our passing throughout this revered space.

Tonight we dine on rice and beans. We will prepare for our meetings with the NGOs tomorrow.

Student remarks regarding their experiences thus far:
'It is very hot.'
'Everyone is being very friendly'
Another student remarked that 'I don't feel like an outsider here.'

statue of Oscar Romero outside his residence

Holy Trinity and St. Francis Xavier teachers and students leave for El Salvador!

Today a group of excited students and teachers are on their way to El Salvador. We will be publishing regular reports from the group on the Compadres blog. This is the second student trip for Holy Trinity High School and the first for St. FX. Today's blog post comes from one of the teachers - Stephanie Pearson.

With little to no dramas at the airport( the exception being a $20 second bag fee), The group is feeling nervous, excited and ready for the sun. Perhaps the rest of what El sal has to offer remains at the back of these young travelers' minds.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What does Compadres look like now?

Compadres continues to grow and change. This week on Thursday, students and teacher from Holy Trinity and Saint Francis Xavier High schools will be heading down to El Salvador. This will be the second student trip from the Ottawa Catholic School Board. We hope to feature blog posts from some of the students while they are in El Salvador. We know this will be a wonderful experience for the entire group!

We now have 18 people on our e-mail list. This is significant because these are people either heading down with us this summer or who have expressed an interest in coming down at a later date. The list now includes more teachers from the Ottawa Public Board which is terrific! We want to expand beyond the borders of the Catholic Board and this is a great step.

Also, Compadres received a mention in a blog posting from Mawi's Unstoppable Blog This is a great blog that comes out of Chicago - a great read at any time.

Our next event will be a one-day orientation for people coming down this year. All members of the e-mail list will be invited to take part in this day along with members from past trips. We plan to hold the day in early June.