El Salvador, 1985
On Christmas Eve day, I stood with my father on the bridge over the Rio Paz. It was no–man's land—a gap between two nations—but children swam in the glittering brown river and birds flitted back and forth, from El Salvador, to Guatemala, and back again. We were nowhere and everywhere.
Actually, my whole family was visiting, my parents and my two younger siblings, both still in college, and my best friend. I had been finagled into hosting the holidays.
"I'm picturing a quaint little white church," my mother imagined aloud. "For midnight mass?"
My mother never goes to mass, midnight or otherwise, and she had never been to El Salvador. I tried to stifle my exasperation. What was white was the wall outside my window: two stories tall and trimmed in razor wire. She might as well have been asking for a chance to dance around a ten–gallon sombrero.
Exhausted merely by the idea of their visit, I had decided to resolve the problem of what to do with my flock in El Salvador–of–all–places by whisking them out of the country as quickly as I could. Maybe it was a cop–out, but at least pretty, touristy Antigua with all its quintessential bougainvillea and tejas roofs might have something that could pass for a quaint little white church.
This is why, on Christmas Eve, my family saw most of what they would of El Salvador—volcanoes, burning cane fields, tin–roofed shanties, pickups buckling under loads of standing passengers—from the surreal vantage point of an over–air–conditioned first class bus, while a stewardess offered them juice boxes and potato chips.
When the impasse came, we were halfway between San Salvador and Guatemala City, at the Las Chinamas border, which straddles the Rio Paz. El Salvador and Guatemala were working to expedite crossings, so we went straight to the Guatemala station, where the stewardess on the bus recited the strict no–wait policy—rumor had it there was nothing so punctual in Central America as a bus leaving you behind.
I suppose it was an oversight—especially with all the time we spent being cut in front of in line—not to notice I had no entrance stamp in my passport from the last time I'd crossed into El Salvador. According to the stamps, I had either stood on that bridge between the countries for three weeks, or I had been in El Salvador illegally.
Guatemala â€“ Honduras border crossing, Flickr photo by oenvoyage
Turned back at the border
This border officer was more thorough. To prove this, he flipped through my battered passport page by page.
When I just stood there looking at him, waiting for him to tell me what to do, he turned my pages a second time.
Eventually I would resort to the old standard: I began to cry, loudly, sniffling.
At last, if only to get rid of me, the border patrolman sent me back across to the Salvadoran side to see someone called El Delegado. I turned off the taps, snatched my offending passport, and rushed out the door.
I planned to cross back alone, to hurry, but my father volunteered to cross back with me. Granted, my father had been to Central America before, and under more frightening circumstances than these, but he wasn't the most obvious ally. He didn't speak Spanish, and while my father is a farmer and accordingly strong, he is slim and not very tall (in those days I was frequently guilty of making off with his blue jeans). He is neither imposing nor forceful, not the way that my implacable mother can be.
After months facing off with problems like this one by myself, however, I found I was relieved to have my father beside me. I batted away tears that I pretended were still related to the face–off in the station behind us as my father hailed a tricycle rickshaw. As we zoomed down the swoop of pitted road across the bridge over the river that was the border, the rest of my family, their crisp passports in order, returned to the bus to wait for us or the bus's departure, whichever came first.
Thirty minutes, the bus stewardess had warned. And thirty minutes were well up already.
Is it safe where Daddy is?
Seventeen years had passed since my father was briefly an observer in Central America, during the wars. It was the only time he'd ever been in a country that wasn't directly adjacent to our own. He'd met with grassroots organizers working to improve the quality of life for the poor through means other than violence. He visited cooperatives and met with economists and government officials. I know from my father's Kodak slides that they visited clinics and small businesses and shantytowns full of war refugees.
I was in first grade, but I remember my father's absence. Or, rather, I remember my mother spinning that fascinating globe with its bumps for mountains and so much blue. I found the Great Lakes where I knew my home was and put my finger there. Then my mother pointed out that thin, multi–colored strip of land.
"Here," she said. "In El Salvador." Or: "In Honduras." Or "In Nicaragua."
I put my other finger on that skinny place where my father was and stretched to touch my thumbs together.
I somehow knew to ask:
"Is that one safe?"
I could not have known at six what "safe" meant in the context of those places in that time. I still don't know.
"Here," my mother told me because I was the oldest and the only one she could tell. She was still reeling from a phone call, her eyes not quite on me but thinking, remembering my father's crackling words in her ears. "He is right here. El Salvador. And everything is okay."
Her pointer finger covered that whole country.
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