Sure, Why Not: Graduation in the Valley of the Angel

It's pretty typical.  I'm checking Facebook in the evening and a message pops up.  

"Want to go to a graduation with me tomorrow afternoon in Valle de Angel?"

Sure, why not?

I don't know any students there.  I imagine Pastor Santiago also does not know any students there.  I imagine this is an act of solidarity related to the work he and local advocates are doing to fight against a massive development project in the valley and protect the aquifer which provides water to more than a million people.

I show up at the church offices early in the morning, as usual.  A co-worker is standing in the parking lot holding a toilet seat and shelving unit.  Another co-worker walks up carrying a toilet.  Just another day at the office.

We head upstairs and get to work.  Pastor Santiago stops by and we chat about some things and decide to get lunch on the way to the graduation.  It's a miracle that his car, La Negra, is still running.  Everything on it that could be broken is broken.  Co-pilot is an important job when there are no mirrors and the transmission is jumpy.  The toilet is in the back seat.  We stop at a favorite spot for chile relleno and refresco de tamarindo (stuffed pepper and tamarind drink).

We head toward Apopa and take a labyrinth of little streets and arrive at the school.  We pull up at the base of a rocky dirt road.  "Can I park inside?" Pastor Santiago asks, gesturing beyond the front gate of the school.

The gatekeeper says we cannot park inside.  Santiago points out that he has a new toilet in the back seat of his car.  The gatekeeper says it's not a problem.  He will keep an eye on the car for us.

The school is named for and supported by one of the wealthy families which has a large sugar cane operation in the valley and is part of the development project.  Despite that, the principal at the school has opened up a space for community organizers to come in and share their perspective in opposition to the development.  The school has a strong ecological education program. 

Mural at the entrance to the school.  Reuse. Recycle. Reduce. Reject. Recover.


Pastor Santiago and a local community leader speak to the parents while their team member hands out pamphlets.  The parents listen as the team describes the year by year destruction of the natural and purportedly protected area in the Valley of the Angel.  Now even the coffee trees have been lost because the valley has gotten warm and dry and they no longer produce.  "With this development, in a few years we will use up the small mantels of water we have left ... all of the moms and dads of this zone need to know this because you will have problems with your water.  Don't you already have problems with your water?"  The parents nod their heads.

The team asks the parents to speak up and implore the Ministry of the Environment not to give permission for the development.  I looked out beyond the courtyard and could see the base of the Nejapa Hill, and could see small patches of corn dotting the dry hillside.

We politely stick around for the beginning of the graduation, and take our leave.  As we walked down the driveway, I turned to snap a quick photo of the hill in the distance.  It's hard to appreciate the immense size of the hill and its proximity to the school from the photo.  I remember last March when the entire hilltop went up in flames at the peak of the dry season.  Deforestation and water depletion create a vicious cycle.

We hop in the car, maneuvering the toilet so a member of the team can get a ride with us.  As we weave our way into Apopa, I realize just how close we were to the center of the city.  The health of these hills and this valley are critical to the health of this urban center.

We drop our friend in the center of town and make our way into a familiar neighborhood.  The toilet has made its way to its new home.

We navigate our way back into San Salvador, and I lean out the car window to grab a photo of the cane in the valley.  In just one week, all of the cane stalks have produced flowers.  Harvesting has begun in a few patches of the fields.  Burning the cane is prohibited in this valley.  Small victories.  Cane production is harmful to the environment, but not nearly as harmful as the construction of 8000 homes and a large commercial center would be.

Cane production in the Valley of the Angel

We take a turn.  "One more stop to sign a document," explains. Pastor Santiago.  That is how these excursions go.  If you are driving, you have to make the most of your trips.  Traffic is horrific, and documents are signed, sealed and carried by hand.  We stop at an NGO (non-governmental organization) office dedicated to healthcare and food security that I have visited upon occasion.  I settle into a random chair while conversation and signing happen.  Suddenly a woman squeals and runs over to my chair.  "Hoooooolaaaaa!"  We share big hugs.  Little visits can mean so much.

Document signed, we head out again.  We take the sneaky route to avoid what is by this time the start of rush hour traffic.   We finally hit a main road.  Elf clowns dart in and out of traffic, handing out chocolate candy near Metro Centro.  Santa does his jolly thing at the stop light on the corner.  Nothing like a little happy encouragement to go Christmas shopping at the mall!

We arrive back at the office, missions completed.

And that is how it goes when one answers an evening Facebook message with, "Sure, why not?"


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