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The airplane banked eastward above the ocean and made its descent around the silent and majestic Guazapa Volcano, over the patchwork fields of sugarcane and cotton, and finally towards the single runway of Comalapa International Airport. “Puchica, qué lindo!” Cheryl sighed, staring out the oval window. Several passengers seated near her chuckled and winked at each other upon hearing a gringa use this popular slang, a colorful equivalent of “Damn, that’s beautiful.” It was a break from the tension that everyone was feeling in anticipation of landing in El Salvador.
The aircraft was surprisingly empty so close to the holidays. At Miami Airport where the flight had originated, Cheryl, as she had been instructed, had made a mental note of the other travellers in the waiting area: women mostly, mothers and grandmothers — some clutching squirming toddlers, others lugging bags brimming with Christmas gifts: Nintendos, walkmans, and ghetto-blasters. A few of the older women were holding rosaries and murmuring; others sat in silence, invisible. One woman repeatedly fumbled in her purse, obsessively checking for passport, plane ticket, entry visa. A gaggle of nuns in full habit moved together en masse, while four suited businessmen held their attaché cases at the ready like dedicated soldiers of commerce. Cheryl had carefully studied the only other chelita waiting for the flight, the only girl as fair-haired and noticeably out of place as herself, and had concluded that the girl’s sensible shoes, neatly pressed skirt and blouse, new knapsack, and eyes that couldn’t conceal a mix of conviction and trepidation, were all hallmarks of a human rights worker on her first visit to war-torn Central America.
This was also Cheryl’s first mission. Inspired perhaps by a desire for romantic adventure, and guided by both innocent resolve and the ideals of her Salvadoran partner, Cheryl was going to document what the news back home wasn’t reporting about the rights violations against the people of El Salvador.
Her involvement in “the work” had begun a few months earlier when, bored by yet another antiseptic classroom discussion about democracy, Cheryl escaped her tutorial and accidently stumbled into a presentation about El Salvador hosted by one of the anti-war groups that had sprung up around campus. Over the following months, she attended many such events and met some new compañeros. At one event, one rainy and lonely Sunday afternoon, she met Antonio.