Deme = give me
Usted = you
Pan = bread
Loco = crazy
Por favor = please
Mas = more
Duro = tough, hard
“It’s hot!” muttered Guy.
And it was hot. It had been an unusually chilly 50 degrees when we’d left Houston, and as we stepped out of the plane into the passenger-loading tunnel 15 feet above the ground, we could feel every one of the 95 degrees the pilot had promised us.
“Wow! We’re foreigners in a foreign country,” I said.
“What if we get lost?” Guy asked.
“We’re supposed to stay together,” I reminded him. “But we’d better practice our Spanish all the same. Deme usted pan, por favor.”
“Give me bread, please”? (This was a phrase we had carefully learned just in case.)
Guy looked relieved. “What are we going to do down here, anyway? We’re the only kids on the trip.”
“We can chew on sugarcane.”
“Mark? Guy?” Dad was ahead of us in the visa line, his beloved old toothmarked Pentax SP500 camera swinging from his neck. “Come and meet some people you don’t know. This is Mrs. Sally Campbell.”
Mrs. Campbell was a small woman with rosy cheeks and blue eyes, carrying a giant guitar case. “Hello there,” she said heartily. “We’ll have to get you boys involved in the Vacation Bible School. We’ll have a translator.”
“And this,” said Dad, “is Pepita Gomez. Mrs. Gomez will be cooking for us. And this is Mrs. Marlene Zeigler.”
Strapped to Mrs. Zeigler’s back was a gigantic backpack with several compartments. She was holding her own camera and staring at it in a puzzled way, but she glanced at us and smiled vaguely.
“Hello,” she said, and then continued speaking, half to herself. “I wish I could understand this camera better. It used to belong to my husband when he was alive, and now it belongs to my son, Bob.” She turned toward a stocky, muscular man next to her. “Do you know anything about cameras?”
“Sorry,” said the man gruffly. He patted a little black pouch clipped to his belt. “I’m a point-and-click man myself.”
“Mr. Al Denton?” asked Dad.
“In the flesh,” said Mr. Denton. “Now, if she’d asked me about movie stunts, I’d be able to help you there, but not with cameras.”
Guy looked alert. “You were a stuntman?”
“Sure was,” the man said. “But that was years ago. Now I’m a roofer.”
“Cameras?” a deep, kindly voice said. “Does someone need help with a camera?” It was Chuck Kinney, who had organized the El Salvador trip. He was a retired missionary who’d spent several years in other Latin American countries. He was the president of the seniors’ group at our church.
“You’re having camera problems, Peter?” asked Mr. Kinney. “I didn’t think Pentaxes broke down.”
“No, this one’s working all right,” Dad said. “It’s Marlene Ziegler’s. She can’t figure out how to work hers.”
The line was moving quickly; soon Guy and I had received our visa papers. We folded them carefully, zipping them into our neck pouches with our passports.
After we got our suitcases from baggage claim, we lucked out when the customs officials just waved us through.
“Look over there,” said Guy. “I think those people have come to meet us.”
Standing by the exit was a tall, thin young man accompanied by a woman and a girl. The girl was about our age and wearing a red T-shirt, jeans, and possibly Reeboks.
“I am Pastor Morales,” said the man in careful English. “This is my wife, Luisa. Welcome to El Salvador. And this is Victoria, a friend of ours.”
“Hi,” said Victoria, smiling. At that word I could hear Guy give a quick sigh of relief. I knew he was thinking the same thing I was: getting acquainted with Victoria would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to keep looking up words in the Spanish dictionary.
Guy and I introduced ourselves.
Victoria said, “Why did you come?”
“To build an orphanage,” I answered.
Victoria shook her head. “The big people will build the–the orphanage. Why did you come?”
“We wanted to help too,” Guy said. “But we also came to see El Salvador.”
Victoria raised her eyebrows and smiled again. “Do you like it?”
She laughed delightfully. “Is the United States–cold?”
“What is ‘cool’?”
“Cool,” I said, “is not cold, but almost cold.”
She nodded quickly. “Cool,” she repeated.
Guy grinned at her. “You,” he said, “seem pretty cool too.”
A tiny furrow appeared between Victoria’s eyebrows. “I am cool?”
“Cool it, Guy,” I said softly.
But she heard me. “What did you say?”
My ears turned red. “I told Guy to cool it.”
“What do you mean?” she demanded. “The weather, it is cool. I am cool. Guy must cool something. What is cool?”
“English,” I said, “is a very loco language.”
Overhearing, Pastor Morales chuckled and then said, “Please bring your suitcases to the bus.” The gathered group of senior class members followed his order.
Two bright-yellow school buses stood in the hot sunshine outside the terminal. We clambered aboard with our luggage, and soon we were rumbling through the streets of the capital city, San Salvador.
“Guy, look!” I pointed. “There’s a Pizza Hut!”
Victoria, who had slipped aboard our bus, came back to stand in the aisle and talk to us. “There is a Wendy’s across the street. See?”
But once those familiar restaurants had disappeared behind us, we saw very few English words. I began to get whiplash from turning my head back and forth trying to read the sunlit billboards as we ascended a hillside road high above the city.
“That sign,” I said to Victoria. “It says that the Ford truck is mas duro. What is mas duro?”
She frowned thoughtfully. “More something . . . I do not know the English.”
“Durable probably,” said Dad from across the aisle. Mas duro probably means ‘more tough.’”
“Tough,” repeated Victoria. “Maybe so.”
We passed a tall, white-plaster church with a silver dome that looked like the pictures of Spanish churches I’d seen. We looked down on long sidewalk markets where men, women, and children sat in the sunshine selling fruit and vegetables.
“See those machetes?” said Guy. “I want to buy a machete if they’ll let me. Dad always wished he had one for gardening.”
“Look, everyone.” Mr. Kinney was sitting two rows ahead. “Look at the guards.”
Standing in the sunshine was a Texaco station that looked exactly like the U.S. stations we’d left behind. But between the station and the pumps four uniformed men stood guard, two with rifles, a third with a shotgun, and a fourth with a machine gun.
“I thought the revolution was over,” Dad said.
“It is,” said Mr. Kinney. “But when the war stopped, quite a few of the government soldiers were let go, and some of them took their weapons with them and formed bandit gangs. So businesses that handle a lot of money hire guards as a precaution.”
Guy and I looked at each other apprehensively.
The farther we got from the city, the bumpier the roads got. We rumbled and jounced along mountainsides and between cliffs.
“Look,” I whispered to him, pointing. On a white stone wall someone had painted four capital letters in red.
“FMLN,” Guy spelled them out. “What’s that?”
I shivered. “Farabundo Marti Liberacion Nacional. That’s the sign of the rebel group.”
Guy’s eyes grew big.
“Those might be old letters.” I took my notebook from my back pocket and began making notes. It was hard because the bus was lurching so much. We had swung into the open and were now passing the high red-painted walls of what looked like a military base. Someone had painted a phrase in six-foot-high letters on the wall, and I copied it into my notebook: “Somos constructores de la paz.” I looked around for Victoria to ask her what it meant, but she had gone up front to carry on a rapid conversation in Spanish with the driver.
“We are coming to the Adventist school,” she said to us when she returned.
Up ahead along the dusty road I saw a teenage boy walking.
“That,” she said, “is Bundo.” (She pronounced it “Boon-doh.”)
“Bundo?” I repeated. “Who’s he?”
“He goes to the Adventist school,” she replied. “But sometimes he runs with a gang.”