Working in El Salvador at the Close of the Civil War. From the author's newly published memoir, Sun Dream.
In 1991, my husband and I took up posts at an international school in San Salvador. We brought with us our two children who were both then under five. The country was in its last year of civil war. I remember our plane circling over the tiny new airport, its roof a sea of panama hats and small figures dressed in the traditional white garb of Salvadoran fishermen, out for their Sunday entertainment watching the novelty of people daring to come to their still very dangerous country. Boxes of televisions and microwaves– booty brought from Houston as appliances were hard to get hold of– were being unloaded from the plane. I stood inside a barricade of cases with the children as we edged them through customs where their supernumerous plastic toys were declared to be worth a hundred Dollars by sympathetic officials saving their hefty duties for importers of electrical luxuries. As we emerged into arrivals and the crowd saw my son, Tom, in his buggy, there was a shout of, ‘Un nino rubio, que bonito!’ at his blond hair and blue eyes. His older sister, Jane would have attracted the attention, had not her brother upstaged her by virtue of his gender.
The drive up the mountain toward town was discouraging, stuck as we were behind an army convoy, looking up the barrel of a machine gun all the way. The hills were lush; the road cut through deep brown soil, the magically fertile essence of which had been laid down by volcanic eruptions millennia ago, palms, jungle and mountains rose all around. It felt magical after drab Essex. Soon school would start with all the busy, busy business that goes with it. Tom was two and Jane was four; we needed to find a house fast and then a housekeeper to take care of them and it.
Becky, a soon-to-be colleague and an angel on the other end of the telephone, offered unconditional warmth that we seemed to encounter everywhere (but never quite so generously as this first time) and offered to bring us to her home. She lived in the hills above the city zoo in a capacious 1970’s bungalow called El Conacaste, after a rare rainforest tree that overhung her garden full of bright butterflies and birds. She was thirty-four like me and had the beauty of a Polynesian goddess, with shining black hair pushed behind slightly protruding ears and a cheeky smile playing beneath dark, gentle eyes.
Becky arrived at our hotel with a long handled basket on her shoulder, wearing white trousers and tee-shirt and drove us in her van up the steep hills to her beautiful home. There was threat all around and she kept the family of a man with a gun at the bottom of the garden, along with two dogs, two housemaids and a rescued racoon called Julieta, which lived in the roof and disconcertingly swam after you in the pool. Becky’s garden seemed like Eden to me. It had trees I had never seen: mango, guayaba and cacao. She would make exotic juices which we would sip together in the garden. She taught Jane how to make Pupusas, the local form of tortilla, and gave freely of her time, puzzling over what we might like to eat, where we should live and how to find just the right home help. It was Becky who found Teri, the incredible woman who looked after, and looked out, for us for the next two years.
Meanwhile, we had to find somewhere to live. Choices were thin on the ground amidst all the post-war returnees. In the end, we accepted a tin-roofed affair in a neighbourhood called Ciudad Merliot because time was running out. There was a big puddle in the middle of the ugly, dark stone-tiled floor from a leak in the roof that we were assured was already repaired. There were two verandahs and a long strip of green grass festooned in cerise bougainvillea and orchids. On one of our first nights in the house, the rain came down in a wall and the small en-suite bathroom with a tin roof flooded. The water gushed into our room and in seconds the deluge was ankle deep. We escaped, one each to either child’s room for the night. We were despairing that El Salvador might prove as slow as Peru, where we had met ten years previously, when it came to home repairs but all was well the next day.
The school year got off to a bang, literally. Custom was that the students starting the twelfth grade would arrive in a spectacular manner and charge through the school being as disobedient as they could bring themselves to be and making as loud a noise as possible. In a fine demonstration that the moneyed class and its army had won the civil war, a number of helicopters circled in bearing the senior class, whilst dropping fake bombs which exploded with realistic vibration and noise, letting out clouds of bright pink smoke. The students then ran through the corridors, which were open and hung with glorious baskets of maidenhead fern, blowing whistles and bruiting their final year at school. It was an exciting yet frightening spectacle to see and hear. The students had an indulgent attitude toward the squeamishness of those who came from peaceful places.
As soon as we could, we went on excursions; first to Lake Llopango, one of two lakes in El Salvador formed from ancient volcanic craters. Around the entirety of the country, the shores were owned by the oligarchs who sent their kids to the school. The whole coast was closed off by high fences around private beaches sporting jetties for motor yachts, except for one tatty park area for the other ninety-nine percent of the population — the bluntest of object lessons in traditional Latin American distribution of wealth. In that park though, the most vibrant bands played completely original music. Long isolated from the world, their compositions were untainted by western pop and full of the historic rhythms of central America, hot and wild. El Salvador was not like Peru musically. The doleful, soulful piping of the Andean Altiplano was nowhere to be heard in this land of salsa and heat.
Another time we drove up into the cloud forest of Cerro Verde, to a remarkable hotel composed of separate huts, each with a fireplace which a man with the charming title, ‘chimenera’, would light at night. The cloud forest was cold and misty. Its trees held hopping toucans, and fat fluorescent green lizards climbed the cabin walls. The hotel had been built for the fashionable set in the Fifties, where they could observe the activity of the volcano in the distance. The rooms looked directly out upon the magnificent ashen cone of inconceivable size. However, no sooner had the hotel been completed, than the activity stopped, reduced to benign intermittent smoke.
Another time, we drove out to the province San Vicente. Here was a place of iniquitous acts, which had left streets filled with bodies. In an old snap from the trip, a man stares hatefully at our little girl, unwittingly caught on camera as we obliviously cross the town square. That night, we stayed in huts at a beach frequented by blue-bereted soldiers and their prostitutes. El Salvador was barely ready for visitors, but was still safer during that last year of the war than for many years before or after. Once peace was signed between the government and the FMLN, the soldiers went back to their barracks and the spare grenades were pocketed and tossed randomly through windows. Many acts of violence took place and it was unwise to stop at traffic lights.
The second time we planned to go to Cerro Verde, my husband, Dave, went to the bank, with Jane in the pushchair, and on his way back was held up by six armed gunmen. They took his watch, his passport, and, of course, the money their spy had just seen him withdraw. All the time, he remonstrated with them, which made me shudder to hear. A couple of weeks later, this same gang were all either arrested or killed. They had murdered people during their spree, they had not been fooling around. In all my decades of travels, El Salvador was the only time I saw the aftermath of an atrocity. It was like witnessing something out of a hideous Sunday colour supplement, like the ones my parents used to read in Singapore during the height of the Vietnam War. One morning, on the way down to the hot beach at La Libertad, we saw a group of soldiers guarding the bodies of a man and woman who had been shot and left at the side of the road. Their arms were thrown back above their heads, their corpses stiff with rigor mortis, bluish and bloated.
In spite of all this, I loved my lively students in San Salvador. I loved Gerardo who tried to persuade me that Stephen King was a writer of literary classics of canonical standing. I loved his brother who used to break dance to Za Za Zapo and wow the crowd at the raucous Circus on the Dia del Nino, when orphans came to the school. I loved beautiful, rich, languid blonde Lucia, who was so grateful that I took her aside and spoke kindly to her about how hard it was being a teenage girl. I loved tall, lazy Alfredo, the ever-smiling tennis player, who enjoyed being lined up by the serious little disciplinarian that I was, to be shouted at and told off for misbehaving in class. I loved the way the kids empathised if I was sweating and unable to get my point across; ‘Sit down Mrs,’ they used to say, with broad grins.
I loved teaching The Glass Menagerie for the first time, and being taken out to dinner by the students to whom I taught it, who told the waiter it was my birthday, so that he brought out a cake and they all sang Happy Birthday to me as I sat at the head of the table, months away from the real day. When I left, they gave me a kind of elaborate tombstone souvenir with a metal plaque etched into the middle which read, with a bow to the last line of The Glass Menagerie, and a reminder of the English as a second language learners that they were: ‘To you: Mrs Heather Gatley Although perhaps teaching is one of the most noble of professions, few persons do it as well as you have. You’ve proven to be to all of us a friend, to no one an enemy, and to some of us almost a parent. Thank you. Wishing you the greatest of lucks, (although we know you won’t need any) and anxiously awaiting your return. We’ll never forget you. Your English class of 1995. PS.: Blow out your candles Mrs Gatley, and so Good-bye…. San Salvador, Friday 11th June, 1993.’
Teri used to cook us a breakfast of refried beans or pancakes every morning. She cooked dinner at night, never the same dish twice, except Wednesday when we went out for Pollo Campero and brought some back for her. On these occasions, just as in the Pupuseria where Teri used to take him, Tom would be swept up in delight by some soft black-eyed beauty who would make a terrific fuss of him. Teri demanded an emerald green uniform with a white frilly apron. She and her older daughter took my cast-offs and made amazing outfits from them, leaving the house, after a cleaning session or a weekend in Teri’s simple room out the back, looking like fashion models.
Teri knew how to save whole egg shells, put a needle and thread through them, decorate them with silver glitter and hang them on the Christmas tree. She once folded up every page in a discarded telephone book and created a remarkable concertina sculpture. She made flower heads from coloured tissue paper and threaded them through delicate fronds of long grass and put them in a vase. She invited us to dinner at her home, which was a hut with an earthen floor, pounded hard and meticulously swept. She had brought cold beers from the village and served a tough chicken freshly plucked from the yard. She gave Jane a fluffy chick as a present. Teri’s hut lay on land she and the other villagers had merely occupied. When the heavy rains came, her home was in danger of being washed away. We paid for her to have electricity installed, and saw that the equipment was purchased, rather than the money being delivered to her husband in aid of his perpetually bad back. In this way, we hoped that her children could study at night.
At Christmas, we bought a large artificial tree and put gaudy lights all over it, with a bright flashing white star on top. Spontaneously, that year, dressed in their long nighties which were our old tee-shirts, my two sweet children sang in their little voices, as they decorated the tree, ‘Oh Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how lovely are your branches.’ It was a time of abundance and love. It was hot, dry and sunny, 27 degrees every day, every bush in flower. The hammock hung on the front veranda beside two miniature ornately carved hardwood rocking chairs. The house held little more than a bookcase, a fish tank, some pretty curtains made by the caretaker’s wife and Jane’s grown up chick, a rooster nicknamed Podge. It ran in and out of the house and often did good service downing a morning cockroach.
Just before Christmas, we visited Guatemala, staying on the twelfth floor of a hotel with a balcony that sagged alarmingly in the middle. The staff were delighted with Tom and called him, ‘Denis el Travieso,’ Dennis the Menace! We went to the justly renowned city of Antigua and stayed in a couple of gorgeous hotels there, one by Lake Atilan where we were served a sumptuous breakfast of tropical fruits whilst looking down the sloping lawn and bejewelled gardens onto the shimmering surface of the lake, which reflected the perfectly symmetrical volcano above, grey-blue in the searing sun. Antigua is just that – antique. The many churches that were felled during an 18th century earthquake remained, nearly two hundred years later, as rubble at which you could only stare mournfully through chained gates. Horse drawn carriages clopped through the town, which was full of craft shops. Dave and I sat up late and watched the moon rising over the old villa with its dark wood floors and atrium filled with bright plants and occupied by huge macaws. A marimba band played before a Guatemalan Nativity model of simulated mountain terraces filled with animals, all leading up to the crib, waiting for Jesus.
Jane participated in a fashion show at school, training each afternoon to walk like a model, a sight even more ridiculous than usual when performed by a five year old. The drama teacher tore his hair out directing and acting in, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a famously difficult British modern play all about the wickedness of the Spanish conquest of the Inca, in which the students’ parents took no interest at all. The fashion show, however, was a different matter. The TV-news cameras were there. The backdrop for the stage lighting hung huge, billowing and white as sparkling comperes, sixteen year old eleventh graders with media ambitions, regaled the audience with their commendation. The sun was going down and the palm trees stood silhouetted in its last rays when I thought I really had better take Tom home. Suddenly, music blasted out and the catwalk lit up. For at least a month afterward, he sang at the top of his voice, Este Hombre Mio.
During our second year, after a delay of twelve hours in Comolapa airport, we flew to Costa Rica and drove to a national park on the south coast, overlooking the roiling and impossible vastness of an active volcano. We rolled around in the milky waves that charged in amongst the mangroves and palms, while capuchin, howler and spider monkeys watched from the trees. Vivid green land iguanas wandered slowly around the hotel grounds and crocodiles lurked in rivers, seen from the safety of high bridges or palm groves. Just before we left to take up work in safe, dull Switzerland, our neighbours across the road invited us round. It was ever thus, becoming interesting, or maybe a safe bet, just as we were leaving. They talked of how ‘Cold and peaceful’ Switzerland was, adding that, ‘In El Salvador, we like it hot and dangerous.’ They had a brother in Switzerland whose neighbours called the police if he made too much (i.e. any) noise, and who spent their lives peeping from behind their curtains, poised to report any infractions by foreign neighbours to the authorities.
I pick up the photograph from that time, thirty years ago now. Teri stands by the large, black iron gates on the pavement outside our house, with out six-year old daughter and four-year old son, in her coveted green uniform with its white frilly apron, plump and soft, kind and wise. Becky took us back to her house one last time before driving us to the airport. We had asked everything of her and what had we been able to give back? What did these two women think of us, the young restless teachers from cold, rainy England who dragged their children across the world in search of some adventure. It was June 1993 when we left. El Salvador was now technically a nation at peace. But the gang members were already beginning to filter back from America to terrorize the populace anew. Products of broken homes whose mothers had gone away to try to better their lot as maids in the golden land to the north, they had been left to their own devices in the ghettos of American cities. They would succeed in doing what the FMLN guerillas had failed to, bringing to an end the obedient, post-colonial, Catholic peasant society El Salvador had been.
Heather Gatley, who has been a regular contributor to Memoirist, was born in Cyprus to British Forces parents. She has lived and worked on three continents as an English literature teacher. She has had poetry, prose and photographs published in Proximity, Centered on Taipei, The Carmarthen Journal. Her five volumes of poetry comprise: Indigo Sky, Tombs of Gold, Last Boat to Brienzersee, The Cliffs of Qingshui and Twin Soul, the latter being a collaboration with Deborah Nash Ott, also a regular contributor to Memoirist. Heather's memoir, Sun Dream, has debuted this summer. All her books are available from Amazon.