Chapter One. The War At home
It's the kind of feeling you hide away. That horrible sick feeling that despite your best efforts, despite what you know to be true, despite what is etched on your own skin, despite all of these things your life can't be quantified.
Think about how many of you have small trinkets that track your progress through this life. Small, tangible mementos that say to the world "I was here!" I don't have a lot of those. Drawings made as a child, volumes and volumes of photos tracking progress, from babe, to boy, to brat, to bachelor.
Sure I've got a photo album with just enough photos of me as a kid, although not as many as I would like; the odd first school day photo, the selfie-before-the-selfie. I just don't have a lot of them. In my relatively short run on planet earth I've moved many times, sometimes continents, sometimes only metres. Once I was forced to move with nothing but the clothes on my back.
Somewhere between moves from A to B to C to Z a lot of those small tangibles that contextualise a life have been lost. School photos, small trophies, the poorly made artwork of high school, school reports, they've all been left somewhere. An itinerant life wasn't my choice, in fact I blame my constant moving around for my need to establish broad and deep roots everywhere I am. Being ripped out of a place is still unsettling.
I've done so much moving around because I grew up and eventually fled a war zone and partly because the real war was the one I had raging at home. Let me explain, I was born in the General Hospital of the Salvadoran Institute of Social Security at 2pm on Thursday the second of June 1983 in downtown San Salvador.
The Salvadoran Civil War had been brewing for a decade before me and would continue for almost a decade after my birth. The war was mainly concentrated in the mountain ranges in the northern departments of the country, but obviously the whole country was affected somehow. War does that to a country, war does that to a people.
The war officially started in 1979 and ended with the 1992 peace accords in Mexico. As all wars are, this one was brutal and like most wars there wasn't a clear winner or loser. Who lost or not depends on who you ask. Regardless, about eighty thousand died, thousands more disappeared and over 1 million people were displaced as refugees, 500,000 to other countries. My family included.
My father Nelson and my mother Ydes were humble people. My dad was an accountant and I assume he still is, my mother was a saleswoman. Sure they weren't captains of industry but considering that the country was in the warmer phase of a constantly heating hot war they weren't doing too badly.
They were comfortable enough I guess, I don't remember wanting anything that I actually needed. I do remember once stumbling upon my sister's birth certificate which stated that she had been born in the private Gynaecological and Diagnostic Hospital one of the more upmarket private hospitals in the city.
I asked my mum why I hadn't been born in a private hospital, she just said that she didn't have employer provided health cover when she had me. Which is fair enough, but it totally irked me for reasons that I don't understand still. I think it felt that maybe they didn't love me enough to have me in a private hospital. Not that I was a special child that needed special kind of attention but I remember that it just didn't feel fair.
Looking back at it now it all just made sense. My parents were both young, younger than I am today and I was the first child out of their union. Theirs was a new family and I was my father's first boy child- someone to pass down the family name.
Either way, the hospital I was born in has since been demolished after it suffered damage in an earthquake. I always wanted to know what it looked like, maybe out of a belief that it would be tangible proof that I had a past that could be touched and admired. A past that existed outside of my own perception.
I wonder what is there in its place now? A shopping centre maybe? Modernity does that to a country used to war.
Even though I was born in the capital my parents lived in a small town just outside San Salvador called Santo Tomas. That's where I spent the first few years of my life. Even though Santo Tomas was established as part of a monastic village in 1577 it has only been considered large enough to be officially a city since 1996, but even so, calling it a city is a bit rich.
Santo Tomas was, as it is today a place that grew coffee, sugar cane and a variety of fruit. The climate was always cool enough which was a relief in the tropical heat, and something was always in season. I remember at our house alone we had lemon trees, guava trees, bananas, avocados, oranges, chillies and, mangos. The place wasn't massive at all, it's not like we lived in an orchard even though that's what it felt like at the time. The house just was in the tropics so anywhere with dirt was good for growing just about anything.
It's probably a misnomer to call it "our" house. Even today we all refer to it as my dad's house. He built it himself. You can tell too because up until recently the kitchen had absolutely no windows in it. In fact I'm sure the kitchen was really an after thought. It was essentially a long windowless corridor that started as wide as a kitchen should be and then got narrower and narrower as you went down it; to the point that only one medium sized person could fit in the end of the room at any one time.
The poorly designed and built kitchen shows what my father thought of the importance of "the woman's domain" or maybe it shows what he knew about building a house. Or both.
I don't remember a lot of my time growing up there. I remember the colour of the tiles, I remember the lay out of the house and of course I remember the kitchen. According to my Aunt Lillian I learnt to walk in the relatively steep driveway of my dad's house. Or maybe it wasn't steep at all? I really don't remember.
My dad was from Santo Tomas so that's why we ended up there I guess. My mum was born in the La Union department in the east of the country so I guess she just followed my dad. A characteristic that would play itself over and over again until they divorced in 2003.
I could elaborate or embellish my life in Santo Tomas, but as I mentioned before I don't remember it. Or at least I don't think I do. The memories that I have or I think I have are through stories and anecdotes about our time in Santo Tomas I heard many years later. Usually when we would visit my maternal grandmother who still lived in Santo Tomas.
I know through anecdote that my dad would chase possums away from the house because they would ransack the bins. That my father used to lock my mum and my half-brother Giovanni in the house and go philandering through the town. I remember once seeing my brother bleeding from his hands because he managed to somehow accidentally cut himself with my dad's Swiss Army knife. I remember the panic not at the injury, but rather at the fact that my dad would find out someone had used his knife.
We didn't end up living in the Santo Tomas house for too long, my dad's house surrounded by trees of fruit of every type, the white washed house bordered by coffee plantations. Sounds ideal, even in hindsight but for whatever reason my mum, my dad and my brother all packed up and moved to San Salvador.
Maybe my parents wanted to be closer to work, or maybe they were better off and could afford to buy a townhouse in the capital. I don't know, but I do know that that little townhouse in the middle of a city, which itself was in the middle of a little country, in the middle of the Americas is where some of my most painful memories were formed.
I have one memory that I remember so vividly from that house. In fact, it's the one memory that is absolutely concrete in my mind and the one that I tell as my first memory. It's one where my mother had used my cot to barricade herself in my room and my father was trying madly to beat the door down. For whatever reason he wanted to get into my room and hurt me and if not me, my mother. Or both of us. I remember my mum holding me and telling me everything would be ok. All while my father beat the door down blow by blow.
That's some first memory.