Headed South

Mission to El Salvador Word List:

Como esta usted? /How are you?
Muy bien, gracias. Y usted? /Very well, thank you. And you?
La pluma/the pen (La is one way to say “the”)
El lapiz/the pencil (El is another way to say “the”)
El papel/the paper
La silla/the chair
La ventana/the window
Muy bien!/Very well! Very good!

“No way,” I said foggily.

It was 2:05 the next morning. I closed the last of the El Salvador books I’d borrowed from Mom’s bookshop and turned off my bed lamp.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not a speed reader. Those four El Salvador books were written for junior high and high school kids, and they were mostly pictures. But even though the pictures were beautiful and interesting (especially the volcano cones), three messages came through as loud and clear as the bong of Ye Olde Booke’s doorbell.

First, most of the people are poor. Really poor.

Second, in 1979 a lot of these poor people organized a group called the FMLN and started a revolution against the rich people in the government. Secret army death squads were still capturing a lot of these poor people and causing them to disappear.

Third, the United States (which supported the government for a while because the FMLN was sort of Communist) wasn’t very popular in El Salvador.

And I am a United States citizen.

“No way,” I mumbled sleepily, “am I going to set foot in El Salvador.” And when I finally got to sleep, my four very disturbing dreams didn’t do anything to change my mind.

So by the time I came down to breakfast I was on Mom’s side. But did I get a surprise!

“Start making up your packing list,” Dad said to me. He had his briefcase in hand and was heading for the door.

I glanced quickly at Mom. But she stood calmly at the counter buttering my toast.

“We talked it over last night,” she said. “I found some recent El Salvador material on the Internet. I guess the revolution actually ended in 1992.”

“But what about the FMLN?” I asked.

Both parents looked at me with surprise.

“Where did you hear about the FMLN?” Mom asked.

“Don’t worry about them,” Dad said. “They’ve got their own political party now. Things aren’t perfect in El Salvador, but they’re a whole lot better. No more death squads, at least not like they had before. What do you think, Mark? Want to go?”

I looked from one to the other of them. This recent information made things better, but those dreadful dreams still gnawed at the edges of my mind. “What about school?”

“Most of the trip is during your spring break–you’d only miss a day or two. I’ll talk with Mr. Trent,” Dad said. “I’m sure he’ll let you work ahead.”

Suddenly I had a brilliant idea, one I thought would let me stay home. “Can Guy go along?” I asked.

Dad looked at Mom, then at me. “I don’t know about that,” he said thoughtfully. “He doesn’t have a free ticket.”

“Guy and I do everything together,” I said. “And if he doesn’t go, I’d probably be the only kid on the trip.”

Dad glanced at his watch. “I don’t know if we can work this out, Mark. Bev’s day-care center income probably can’t provide her son’s ticket right now. This time I think you’ll just have to–”

“I’ll pay for it,” Mom said.

Dad jerked his head around. “You?”

“I’ll call Magda. She’s still your travel agent, isn’t she? She’ll find a good deal for Guy. Ye Old Booke has had a good month. I can afford it–and if Magda acts fast, she might be able to get him on the same plane with the rest of you.”

Dad’s jaw dropped. He didn’t say anything, but it was still hanging open as he closed the front door.

El Salvador?” Guy screeched when I told him the news just before school started.

“Will your mom let you?”

Guy shook his head quickly, as if he were clearing out spiderwebs from his brain. “I don’t know. I’m not sure. El Salvador?”

Bev Messerschmidt’s first reaction, when Mom asked her that afternoon, was exactly opposite of what Mom’s had been. Once Bev had been convinced that Mom really wanted to pay for the ticket–and that she might even be able to get a tax write-off since she was donating it to a mission trip–she didn’t hesitate an instant.

“It will be a wonderful opportunity for Guy,” she said. “Ever since Jack was killed in that logging accident, I’ve been trying my best to let his son have opportunities Jack would have given him if he were alive. Thank you so much, Georgia.”

And as Dad had predicted, Mr. Trent didn’t offer much resistance. After giving me a sober lecture on my math workbook (I was several pages behind), he said, “You and Guy will learn a lot more from this trip than you could ever learn in the same amount of time in this classroom. I hereby assign you to bring back a report–with slides or videos if you can. Tell us what you saw. Show us the excitement of mission service.”

The next few weeks went fast. Guy and I got our passports (my photograph was so rotten that I vowed never to show it to anyone except authorized government authorities). We bought little silky white neck bags to carry our passports and traveler’s checks so they wouldn’t be stolen. We got several different kinds of shots and some antimalaria pills.

We bought mosquito lotion and sunscreen and also granola bars in case food supplies ran low. We each packed an empty one-liter plastic soda bottle to carry purified water in. Guy and I were allowed one suitcase and a backpack, and I made sure I packed my brown pocket notebook and several pens. (I wanted to take my big sketchbook, but at the last minute I decided to travel light.)

On the night before we left I was passing the door of Dad’s study in our farmhouse carrying a Berlitz Self-teacher book on Spanish I’d found in Ye Olde Booke.

“Mark,“ he called to me, “do you recognize this?” He was holding an old 35-mm camera.

“Sort of,” I said. “But aren’t you going to take your new one? It’s got autofocus.”

“I know,” he said. “But it would be just my luck to have all that stuff stop working just when I need it most. This is the camera I’m going to take. It’s only a Pentax SP500, but I always liked it better anyway.” He handed it to me. “Don’t you remember it?”

“It seems kind of familiar.” I turned it upside down and saw Dad’s initials and some numbers scratched into the shiny metal base.

“This camera,” he said, a nostalgic note creeping into his voice, “snapped some of the first pictures of our new little baby boy.”

I glanced at him.

“And that,” he said, pointing to a slight dent in the rubber skin on the camera body, “is the mark of one of your very first teeth.”

I snorted. “You know why I bit the camera? It was because you were peering through it taking pictures of me.”

Then I pushed the Berlitz book under his nose. “Guy and I have been learning some stuff from this in study hall every day,” I said. “Como esta usted?

Muy bien, gracias. Y usted?” he said, taking the volume from me. “Great book. Let me quiz you on chapter 1. What’s this?” he held up a pen.

La pluma,” I said, then quickly pointing, one after another, to a pencil, a piece of paper, a chair, and the window, I added, “El lapiz, el papel, la silla, la ventana.

“Nice work,” he said, impressed. “Muy bien! But you don’t want to carry Berlitz with you. Take this instead.” He dug in his desk drawer, pulled out a tiny Spanish-English dictionary, and handed it to me. “And don’t change the subject. We were talking, you’ll remember, about the joys of candid photography. I’m taking along 10 or 12 rolls of slide film so you can give a good report in school when you come back.”

Two afternoons later, after overnighting in Houston and soaring high above the clouds and the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico, my ears began to feel the familiar pressure of descent. We were sinking toward the dense green landscape of El Salvador, with dark volcano cones jutting up on the horizon. The wheels thumped and rumbled on the runway, and the engines reversed with a howl. I saw green, spiky foreign trees flashing past and wondered with all my heart what the future would hold.

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