I hope you enjoy another extract form the forthcoming book, ‘A Journal from the End of Times.’
San Salvador, the centre of the Salvadorans capital and it is Indigenous Peoples Day today, 518 years since Christopher Columbus arrived (1492) and changed the course of these people’s history.
I proceed to the demo a few blocks away, it is being held outside the office of a Human Rights organisation. As Mel and I arrive the participants are preparing themselves, a mariachi band sit on chairs and pleasantly set the scene. A ceremonial fire-pit bowl is placed on the pavement in front of the steps leading up to the Human Rights office. Many different coloured headscarves, belts and costumes are adorned, worn and adjusted. There is that buzz in the air. Men and women from many tribes and cultures are well represented here, mainly Central American, but also a few representatives from the North and the South are here also, the fire ceremony is prepared collectively and harmoniously, whether this was prearranged or not is unclear to me.
Conches are blown, shakers are rattled and drums are beaten, a simultaneous cry goes up and the adrenaline increases, this really is quite some spectacle. The fire is lit, chanting and singing adds to the ceremony; at first it is quite cacophonous but soon unifies as the excitement can be seen on all of the participants faces. It is a visual spectacular as I run around paparazzi style, photographing from all angles in a media scrumage, at times it feels like there are as many video and camera journalists here as there are chiefs, but this is the point after all….. To get noticed.
In unison, the ceremony turns to the four points of the compass. The crowd synchronises and faces north, looking up the street for one suspended moment accompanied by chants and prayers, then we all turn east and look out into the traffic, then to the west and back down the street and finally the group turns south and every one unified in this traditional and ancient gathering, with their hands raised and chanting, singing up towards the steps of the Human Rights building. The receptive audience is some bewildered security guards, a few men in suits and their secretaries.
There is no police presence, the only security guards attending are those that would normally be resident here in these buildings. This amazes me, for a country where heavily armed guards patrol restaurants, hotels and petrol stations, where the military appear almost everywhere, but here in the centre of the capital city at an unannounced demonstration of indigenous activists…..nothing.
The chaotic buzz continues with this eclectic bunch performing in their own way; a hairy man with a lazy eye wanders around the crowd swinging a bowl of incense, the fire grows and rises as people bring offerings of fruit and flowers, shells, tobacco and alcohol are all offered to and around the fire, the pavement is beautified.
I am still twitchy, constantly surveying the surroundings, maybe no obvious police or military but surely some kind of secret service or surveillance, I am the sole western white man at this event and feel very conspicuous, I am always on the lookout for unwanted attention. In the UK at almost any form of crowd gathering it is now the norm to expect at least one police camera team present, poking their cameras in the face of every single participant. Video recognition has proved an effective tool in the security services arsenal, video intimidation is yet to be effectively legislated against. Recently at a demo in the UK parents complained that the police were even filming their very small children, it is a fine line between evidence gathering and bullying.
A man suddenly approaches me and is eager to convey a message, I find him hard to understand, he makes me nervous but he is persistent, I can’t make out what he wants. He hands me a piece of paper as I continue to look all around me, there are two pieces of paper sellotaped together. I quickly peruse the paper and at first glance I read peligro (danger), I turn the page and make out something about millions of dollars. This does not help my paranoia, it is a confusing concern and adds to the tension. I slip the note in my pocket and make my distance from this suspicious man.
I have met many of the key figures of this demonstration today and throughout the ceremony I am warmly greeted with handshakes and back slaps, again this rattles my nerves. Am I right to have this fear? I convince myself I am a passing tourist (not that there appear to be many here in this country) who can’t resist a photo opportunity, but I also know that many of these men now dressed in ceremonial costume were dressed in guerrilla combats only a few years ago, military leaders, agitators, activists and possibly cold blooded murderers, it’s not the sort of question you ask people about.
I speak with José as the ceremony naturally begins to subside. I tell José of my amazement at the lack of any police presence and relay the undemocratic state of protest in the UK, He smiles and responds,
“We fought for this”.
I can’t help feeling saddened by the state of how rapidly the UK has deteriorated, no serious blood is being spilt, but the insidious, sinister actions of the state have frightened many a peaceful demonstrator standing up for what they only think is right. You have the democratic right to protest but you will be watched, filmed, kettled, documented and pursued from ground level surveillance cameras and CCTV to invisible drone planes in the sky. Orwell cries from his grave,
“Told you so”.
I find a comfortable place to perch on a low wall, just to the side of the gathering. One by one the members of the ceremony, who are now de-robed and returned to civilian clothing, come and share cigars. We all puff together; some kind of moonshine, posh as it is known locally, is passed around in a half coconut shell. I feel very included in this camaraderie, everyone is beaming smiles and some are almost ecstatic with their achievements. Perhaps it is finally the unity between the various collectives that has occurred today, after so many years of conflict of division and rule, and this new found freedom to perform their ceremonies so openly after many years of oppression. I openly admit I am naive to their plight, I am just happy that they are happy.
I take the note I had stashed in my pocket earlier and ask José to help me translate it, at closer inspection it reads pelicula not peligro. Well that’s my crap Spanish for you, I have confused the word danger for the word film, we are both laughing as José reads on……….
Mr X has a brilliant script for a film and we should help him make it and we could all make millions of dollars!
A crank or I have just missed my chance at making my millions.
Whilst I have been hanging out, drinking and smoking with the men, Mel is still hard at work, opportunistic as ever and acquiring as many interviews as she can. She is with a group of female activists and has a small queue for interviews. I have to give her the usual clock warning as we are leaving El Salvador today and heading into Honduras, it is just past midday and it is another long, hot drive ahead, we gotta go, if we are to make this next country before nightfall.
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