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August 5, 1997

Honduras, Central America

Update # 13..

PEOPLE POWER - Before I launch into what mischief the Raleigh and I have been up to in the past couple of months traveling through the southern states of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and now Honduras, I wanted to introduce some of the people that we have met along the way and who have become involved with the Expedition in some form or another, either simply helping us on the road south or assisting in the educational activities that we've been setting up along the way.

The guy in the photo is called Edguardo. He is 14 years old and we crossed paths one night a few weeks ago in a small village 100 km south east of San Salvador (capital of El Salvador) - just short of the Honduran border. I'd finished the day's ride from San Salvador, and was needing somewhere secure to bed down for the night. Now the rainy season has set in, sleeping in tunnels under the road like in Mexico is no longer an option. I find it easier and safer now I speak better Spanish to make local friends in the villages and towns long the way; to date people have always offered for me to camp in their backyards or sleep in a backroom of sorts. On this particular occasion I was befriended by Edguardo here who arranged for me to sleep in the store-room of the Shell garage that he work at cleaning windshields for 15 colones day (equivalent to U.S. $1.50).

While we were passing the time before turning in for the night on outr beds of crushed cardboard boxes, I asked him if he'd be interested in paticipating in the the pen-pal program and writing a letter to a friend in a country of his choice. He replied that he'd love to, but would have to get his mum to write the letter because he up until now he hadn't had the money to go to school to learn to read and write. His father was no longer around and he needed to work at the Shell station for the few colones that would feed his mother and younger brother and sister. Jobs are hard to come by in a small village like the one he lives in. He really wanted to go to school but could'nt afford to.

In theory the government are supposed to pay for the schools and provide uniforms and transport to and from schools, but El Salvador - like Guatelmala - is country slowly recovering from a long and exhausting war that erased any educational infrastructure that existed before. Any foreign aid ear-marked for schools tends to have difficulty finding its way past the back pockets of corrupt government officials. So its basically down to the individual.

I got to thinking about Edguardo's situation, about how ridiculous it was that the key years of his life for getting a basic education to facilitate his future are being frittered away in washing car windows in a gas station; something he could do at any time.

I'm riding on a metro in Mexico City, rounding up last minute bits and pieces before heading out on the road to Guatemala, when the train suddenly jams on its brakes. The trains here do this kind of thing quite often, little bunny hops every now and then as if to jolt everyone awake. But this one is a full-on emergency stop sending everyone flying. The moments before we come to a standfull are confused - and very scary; are we about to career straight into the back of another train? I look around at the faces of the other passengers - many of whom are petrified, some openly screaming - very few able to exert the any form of composure in the final seconds. In short there are very few of us in the carriage I am riding in ready to die. In other words there are very few of us really living...

The Lokata Plain's Indians had a saying for when they felt they were really gunning on all four cylinders ... "It's a good day to die". In reciting this they were in a sense reminding themselves of how fragile life was - and how they must try and avoid taking it for granted; something everyone does until we get to the point in life when time starts to run out and we are forced to face and accept our own mortality. Either that or we get involved in a terrible accident or contract some disease/disability, and we are suddenly faced with not having what we have been frittering away for the last God knows how many years. Only then do we in anyway 'wake-up' from our slumber and start to live each day like it could be our last. Only then are we in any way ready to die.

The people of Guatemala and El Salvador that I have been meeting and sharing small chunks of time with in the past two months since the last update have until only a few years ago been living in an atmosphere of terror and oppression. During the long wars in both countries, thousands of indigenous people or those suspected of siding with nationalist guerilla organisations were exterminated; many have no doubt seen Oliver Stone's "Salvador" - which according to some of the people who were there the time - is not a bad reconstructed of what it was like. In Guatemala, where 100,000 people - mainly Indians - were rubbed out, mass graves are still being discovered in the mountain areas. I had the opportunity to listen at length to an English guy who worked for 'Peace-Brigades International' during some of the worst years and met Francisca - a middle-aged woman of Indian descent - who told stories of buses being stopped by the army, a hooded passenger already on the bus pointing out guerrilla sympathisers who were then taken off the bus and never seen again. Both of her brothers were assasinated. Very often these bus incidents were an ideal opportunity for old scores to be settled - someone that insulted someone else's wife or something years ago - having nothing to do with the war itself. Subiquently, according to Fransisca, many died unaware of why. You would wake up each morning prepared for it to be your last. Sounds awful - and to myself having never been in such a situation a bloody nightmare - but there's one interesting thing in common that I picked up on from all the people I've talked to about the war, and that is the feeling of intensity and clarity their lives had. Every minute of every day was somehow heightened in amplitude - possibly being their last. They all say that although they would never want to go back to that kind of living, somehow the focus and brilliance of each moment was something they now lack in their current peacetime lives. It becomes harder and harder for them to wake up each morning and say with all honesty that 'it's a good day to die'.

Posted on August 5, 1997 5:14 AM