Monthly Archives: July 2014

El Salvador Journal: Part V – The Final Days

It’s been a really, really long time since I wrote about this trip. I’ll try to make this as clean and to the point as possible due to the content and the fact that I want to finish this damn thing already. It’ll be based on my notes from March 20th to our last day, March 23rd. It may be confusing, but most of the time I’m waking up the next day writing up the night before or writing on the bus ride home from a site in the middle of the day.

Before I start, I want to say how much the people on the trip meant to me then and still mean to me now. These are some of the strongest humans I know.

So this entry goes out to Tim, Courtney, Ryan, and Andrew.

(Deep breath)

3/20 “My voice didn’t come back, but we did have a good day of work despite the long drive to the site. We went to a day care/living compound that was about an hour away from where we were staying. We were told that this group was displaced a number of times and was given these block housing, concrete homes.

It was a pretty scary part of El Salvador. We showed up and guards were at the gates , learning later that they were not always there and were hired to protect us. They were with us the entire day and we weren’t allowed out of their sight. Our job for the day was to give the kids there some attention, paint parts of the compound, and help clean up the school yard.

Before the supplies arrived, we played soccer with the kids: U.S vs El Salvador. It was fun, though I don’t think we won. These kids were good, but we held out own out there. The most important part was the kids loved it and wouldn’t let us stop playing, even when the supplies showed up. I felt bad just standing around most of the time, there weren’t enough paint brushes for everyone, so I rounded up some kids and a box of garbage bags and we walked around cleaning up for an hour or so. It was great to see them get excited about cleaning up their little community. Later on I was able to start painting and it was nice to be in the shade for a little while.

After passing a Walmart/mall on the way to the site, we decided to stop there on the way home. Our search for Cubans continued, but to no avail. We did, however, get ice cream, which is nearly just as good. After getting back to our house and going for a swim in the ocean followed by the pool and a shower it was time for dinner. Chicken, potatoes, beans, and rice.

After dinner,Ryan and I decided it was our turn to wash the dishes for the group and give our cooks a break. After all, there were more than 30 of us on the trip with both groups. A friend of mine told me they did that last year, so I made sure we did it too. Later on was “Skit Night,” created by one of our trip leaders, Tim. I was a judge for no other reason than I was tired and not feeling very creative. All the skits were hilarious, and the five other judges and I, which included parents from the Kansas City group, played the roles of American Idol and Voice characters while critiquing their performances.

As the night wound down, a few of the girls from the KC group started asking me about the last few years of my life and what was next when I got home. When I looked at them, I remembered doing the same thing, asking people older than me what was next and being in awe of what they were doing.

Now that I’m here, it’s not that glamorous. Anyway, it’s time for bed.

3/21 – We started our day a little later today (9am), meaning everyone was much happier with the extra 40 minutes of sleep, mostly me. Today’s site was closer than the others, about 30 minutes away from the house.
We had to dig a 6x6ft hole behind a house for a bathroom. The sun was the hottest it’s been all week, making this job one of the more exhausting ones. It did feel good to do some manual labor and see the finished product for a change. Anyway, it wound up being so hot that we left around 1:30pm as many in the group were severely dehydrated. As much as I needed water, I began to get sick of it. Lesson learned, though- Always bring salty foods to hot places to help absorb water. As much as I drank, I would immediately sweat it out. On the way home we stopped for ice cream (again) and upon our return the normal beach, pool, shower, nap routine continued wonderfully. Currently I’m just hanging out waiting for dinner.

3/22 – Before dinner last night, the 30 of us got into a circle and talked about what the trip has meant to us, our favorite parts, etc. It was hard not to say I, because in reality this trip wasn’t for me- it was for the people here. My personal growth was very secondary to that. Either way, it was nice to hear everyone’s thoughts. Afterwards, of course, it was dinner time. The night turned into round two of 20 questions with the other group as they asked me about Oswego, the snow, school, and my girlfriend gasping at how the snow covered our cars regularly. As the night wore on, the music got a little louder and, despite my voice still being pretty shot, everyone sang along to crummy pop songs and had a good time. By 10, it was time for everyone to hit the sheets, mostly the KC crew because they had to catch their flight north in the morning. As for today, it’ll be a day of sight seeing and whatever else we can manage to fit in. On a side note, while writing this on the balcony at 6:45am, I finally started my idea for a book that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Figure my mind is as clear as it will be for some time so why not get the thoughts out while I could.
Breakfast is in a while, so I’m going to hang out and keep writing until then and start our day.

3/23 – The last 24 hours are something I will not soon forget. Saturday started out like all the others- breakfast, hanging out, and off to the vans. We went to a Mayan ruin museum, had lunch a gorgeous lake, hiked a volcano, and bought souvenirs, which included a hammock, a small picture, and a jewelry box for Leah. The day was pretty amazing.

We got home around 5pm, went to the beach for swim and showered. Earlier in the day we moved our stuff from where we were staying to where we had been eating our meals. We settled in when we got back from sight seeing, but there wasn’t a huge need to unpack as we were leaving in the morning. We ate dinner and went outside in the backyard to hang out, play cards, and smoke cigars that Tim found, though they weren’t Cubans.

As we were winding down our game around 10pm, we heard a really loud crash and saw a guy hit the top of the outhouse and fall to the ground. Next thing we knew, there were 12 to 15 gang members with guns and machetes telling us to get on the ground. Some hopped the 10-12 foot concrete wall with barbed wire while others somehow got through the house. They took everything we had on us as others went through our bags upstairs while we were being held on the ground. Eventually they marched us into a room and told us not to come out for 10 minutes, which we did when we thought they really left and tried our best to take in what had transpired.

No one was hurt and a lot of our stuff was taken including laptops, watches, money, clothes, and backpacks. Personally, I didn’t lose much as I travel pretty lightly. I lost my leather-man, my necklace, a hoodie, the small picture and a hammock I bought earlier in the day, a crummy watch I bought for the trip, and $40. Courtney had 95% of her stuff taken, Tim both of his cellphones, Ryan his shoes and random other things, and Andrew clothes and his laptop. Staying with us that night was a Brazilian girl, Juliana, who had $1000 stolen along with her laptop and her passport. I hope everything works out with her.** My license and debit card weren’t taken because they were in a small pocket with a zipper. Wish I had put some more things in there now that I think of it.

Luckily our passports survived the ordeal.

At the end of the day, everyone being ok is what’s really important. We were really scarred at the end of it all and because my phone was magically not taken (it was charging on the bed and not in my pocket or bag so they didn’t see it) we used it to figure out how to get out of the house. Tim’s whole backpack was taken, meaning all of our contact information for people in El Salvador went with it. The bill will be unreal, but I’m hoping I can figure that out later.*

The experience was eye opening. I have never been in a situation at all like that and I hope I never have to again. After the ordeal and all the phone calls to people back home, we had a van bring us to the organization leader’s home where we stayed for the night. Mike was surprised to hear about what happened and, from what he said, this had never happened to one of his groups before. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I crashed really hard after the adrenaline went down.

The morning came quickly and more conversation and questions about the night before started just as fast. We ate whatever breakfast we could muscle down and off we went to the airport. I was able to FaceTime with Leah at Mike’s and my Dad at the airport to let them know everything was ok. Currently, I’m on the flight to Atlanta and I’ve never been so happy to be going home. Until last night, I really liked being in El Salvador, despite the extreme poverty and huge class gaps. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back, but I need some time to process all of this. Aside from having a gun pointed at me, I was pretty upset about losing my necklace I got when I was 10 and have been wearing ever since. It’s material, sure, but it meant a lot to me. I’m also not happy that I now have negative feelings about a place that needs as much help as possible and, overall, was an amazing experience that I would have spoke very highly about.

I won’t look at all the pictures with the excitement I had when I first took them. The stories won’t feel the same as when I lived them. Spanish will, for a while, be the language of fear. We just had the in-flight lunch and coffee- there’s about 45 minutes left on the flight until we get to Atlanta. I guess this concludes the journal. I really wish the ending was different and cannot think of a non-cliche phrase about “bad things happening to good people” that will aptly describe what took place.”

*AT&T were really cool about it and understood the circumstances. The bill was $30 or so.

** From what I understand, Juliana left El Salvador a few days after we did, but haven’t heard anything since.

The following are my current thoughts on the situation and now, having some time to think about it and multiple conversations over tacos with Tim, Andrew, Ryan, and Courtney, I feel it’s time to say how I really feel about some of the things that went down and how it was handled afterwards.

This does not, in any way, reflect how the rest of the group feels as I am not a representative of them or their thoughts on these events. 

First, none of the organizations involved (Homes From the Heart, The Fuller Center, and SUNY Oswego) did  their homework on this. From what I learned afterwards about the current situation in El Salvador (as far as from January 2014 to the present) we should not have been there. Last year’s trip isn’t this year’s, though that seems pretty simple in so much as you can’t plan on the same things happening each time in a country located in the murder triangle of Central America. Between the high murder rate and the political situation, as much as they need help it wasn’t worth what happened to us to go into that situation. Though we should have done some research, these organizations planned and sent us there meaning they should probably know exactly what the situation is there and make sure the other people involved also understand, to the best of their abilities, what’s going on there. Everyone assumed because nothing had ever happened before that it wouldn’t happen this time.

Second, how all the organizations handled it afterwards may have been even worse. The Fuller Center and Homes From the Heart said “This never happened before and there’s not a ton we can do.” They wound up giving us the trip cost back, but thinking about it now, I would have really liked a public apology on their behalf saying “Hey, we messed up, but this isn’t going to happen again on our watch. We’re sorry.”

SUNY Oswego decided to sweep it under the rug as fast as possible and I regret signing the piece of paper saying I wouldn’t pursue further, though nothing says that none of us can’t with the Fuller Center. At the time, we all wanted to get this over with and move on, and I think they took advantage of that. Also, having us sign something means they know they did something wrong. They too offered us reimbursement for the things we lost, though I later learned they have specific insurance for things like this and decided to not fill us in on or didn’t want to file the claim for whatever reason. The people they had speaking with us from the college were also not exactly who should have been having conversations with us- high enough that they had a title and low enough to not really know anything if we had questions.

Now, I will say that the programs that the Fuller Center puts together as well as SUNY Oswego’s organization of these trips is usually good. It’s just hard to swallow when it seems as simple as double checking that things are the way they should be before we go. Trips like this need to continue to happen and I hope both of these organizations learned a valuable lesson, though I would have preferred it not be at my or any one else’s expense.

A place I spent thousands of dollars at for six years worth of school and held multiple jobs pushing the great ideas of the college now has a sour taste in my mouth along with a place that desperately needs help. It may take a while for that to go away.

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