Las palabras = the words
Los hombres pobres = the poor men (or poor people)
La revolucion = the revolution
Un poco = a little bit
We had just been arranging our chairs for Friday sundown worship when Mr. Denton startled us. To hear the word “bats,” howled like he howled it caused us to leap from our chairs.
“Bats? Where? What bats?” we were calling excitedly.
We all spilled out into a glorious Salvadoran sunset. Across the sky we could see what looked like small black swallows darting.
“Over here!” bellowed Mr. Denton. He was standing near a dead tree trunk about 100 feet from the door. “This is where they sleep in the daytime, but now they’re emerging!” Out of the hollow trunk, one by one or in bunches of two or three, came the bats. At first they dipped toward the ground; then they curved and soared across the deep orange of the west.
Around me people fumbled with their cameras. Mr. Denton, closest to the tree, was getting the best shots. Mr. Kinney’s was flashing every couple of seconds. Mrs. Ziegler, eye to viewfinder, was clicking vaguely in various directions.
As the last bat swooped out across the sky in search of insects, Dad said, “Wow! What a spectacular way to begin the Sabbath!”
Since there was no junior-earliteen English Sabbath school the next morning, Guy and I, the only visiting kids, sat in chairs at the edge of the dayroom singing along with Sally Campbell’s guitar. Toward the end of the sermon, Victoria, who’d attended Spanish services across campus, slipped in and sat down besides us.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” she whispered after the sermon.
“Shhhh,” Guy whispered. “I think Mr. Kinney’s going to tell us right now.”
“If I could have your attention,” the retired missionary said, “let me give you some information about where we’ll be going today. There’s a beautiful botanical garden in San Salvador.”
Guy looked at me somberly. “Flowers?” he asked.
I nodded gloomily. “But maybe we’ll see cool stuff on the bus ride to get there.”
“Again,” said Mr. Kinney, “just a reminder to stay together, and don’t stray too far away.”
“Can you come?” I asked Victoria.
She nodded. “Maybe. I will ask my teacher.”
Guy looked at her curiously. “You mean your mother.”
“No, my teacher.”
I said, “Oh. Your parents live in another town?”
She shook her head. “My parents are dead. In the revolution.”
Guy’s mouth opened wordlessly. I said, “So you’re–an orphan? Y-you’re one of the orphans we’re building the orphanage for?”
When she’d gone, Guy shook his head slowly and said, “Wow. Maybe I’m lucky after all. I lost my dad, but I’ve still got my mom. Victoria doesn’t have anybody.”
After lunch we found ourselves perched in a rear corner of one of the yellow school buses, jouncing along the rocky roads. Not only had Victoria gotten permission to come along; she’d brought along a bonus: Bundo, who sat with her in the seat in front of Guy and me.
Bundo seemed a bit friendlier to me than he’d been before–probably because he’d had a chance to bail out the Norteamericanos estupidos from a dangerous situation.
“My neck still hurts from the ride from the airport,” I said to him.
He frowned. “Neck?”
I pointed to my neck muscles.
“Because I was turning my head back and forth, trying to see everything.”
His brown eyes closed in a quick squint, and he gave a short, bitter laugh. “Why? What is in El Salvador for a Norteamericano?”
“It’s interesting!” I insisted. “I like to read the billboards.”
“What is billboard?”
I pointed to a passing Exxon oil advertisement. “The sign. Las palabras on the sign.”
He stared at me sourly. “You like to laugh at los hombres pobres.”
Guy glanced at him. “What does that mean?”
“Look.” Bundo gestured out the window.
Our bus was growling its way along a narrow road. On either side were dusty bushes and dark-green trees. But at that moment we were passing shelters made of crude brick walls with sheets of tin or boards on top of them. Once in a while I could see families inside some of them.
When I first got to El Salvador, I’d thought these shelters were little campsites where people could have picnics. But now, with a shock, I realized that these were homes–these people lived in them!
“Los hombres pobres,” Bundo repeated. “The poor people. You like to laugh at the poor people?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Why would I laugh at them?”
“Because you are a rich Norteamericano.”
“I’m not rich.”
“Yes.” Bundo’s scowl deepened. “The rich Estados Unidos made those people poor.”
Guy said tightly, “No, we didn’t.”
Bundo leaned forward like a jaguar about to spring. “Yes. In la revolucion. When the FMLN fought for freedom, los Estados Unidos helped the government soldiers kill us.”
“But Bundo,” I said, “the FMLN was Communist.”
His nostrils flared, and his eyes grew hot. “They were fighting for freedom! Only a few rich families owned the land! Most of the people were poor! The FMLN wanted to give people the land they deserved!”
Guy looked at me. “You’re the one who reads. Is it true?”
“It’s hard to know,” I said under my breath. “But,” I said to Bundo, “isn’t it better now that the revolution is over?”
“Un poco,” he snarled. “A little. But I hate los Estados Unidos. And the El Salvadorans who work on the orphanage hate los Estados Unidos too.“
Victoria, who’d been listening silently, spoke up: “Well, Bundo, some El Salvadorans hate los Estados Unidos, but most do not.”
Bundo shook his head in disagreement and turned his back on her. We traveled the rest of the way in almost total silence.
As Guy and I had suspected, the botanical gardens were fairly dull to us, except for the towering green bamboo grove and some spiky cactus shoots.
Dad was enjoying himself, though; his camera was constantly to his eye. He focused and clicked at every new flower or got people together for group shots. Mr. Kinney wasn’t able to come, and I’d heard Dad promise to take pictures for the retired missionary’s El Salvador photo album.
“Mark! Guy!” Dad called out at one point. “Come here and stand in front of those cacti. It’ll give some idea of how big they are.”
“Have a good day, guys?” Dad asked after we were all in bed. Since it was Saturday night, the academy seniors and sponsors had stayed up to talk and sing.
“Yeah,” we said politely.
“Sorry there wasn’t a zoo or something at the botanical garden.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “Parts of it were pretty cool, but not as good as wild animals in cages.”
Guy murmured sleepily, “With all these bars on the window, we’re the ones in the cages.”
But he didn’t chuckle a couple hours later. Five gunshots suddenly jolted us awake: Bang-bang! Bang! Bang-bang!