In July 2014, I accepted a position with Peace Corps Response as a volunteer in El Salvador working at a butterfly exhibit as an Educational Butterfly Farm Management Specialist. My job was to train a few people to cultivate butterflies and to maintain a healthy habitat for them inside the exhibit.
El Salvador is still recuperating from a devastating civil war that wracked the country from 1980 to 1992, leaving at least 75,000 people dead and tens of thousands more displaced. The site where I served as a volunteer, Segundo Montes, is a community made up of five towns in the eastern department of Morazán. Segundo Montes was formed in 1990 by repatriated refugees who’d fled the country’s civil war. After nearly a decade in refugee camps in Honduras, residents returned en masse 28 years ago to reclaim their livelihoods and dignity.
There is a concerted effort to develop tourism along the Ruta de Paz (Peace Highway) from Morazán’s capital of San Francisco Gotera to El Salvador’s border with Honduras, along Highway 7. The butterfly zoo is strategically located along this route and is well-positioned to attract the attention of vacationers headed to the cool air and brilliant sunshine of Perquín, eight miles farther north.
Within a few days of arriving at the site, I, along with my local counterpart and a couple of youth volunteers were driven up the mountainous Ruta de Paz to a small town called Arambala. We were tossed about inside the jeep as we traveled over a rough road to an area where the tiny village of El Mozote once stood. El Mozote is famous today because a beautiful memorial stands in its place to honor the 1,000 civilians, mostly women, children, and elderly men, who were massacred during the civil war.
We climbed out of the jeep with our butterfly nets and backpacks. A small frail-looking granjero (farmer), wearing a worn straw cowboy hat with a machete hung on his belt, met us and proceeded to escort us down a quebrada–a ravine–where apparently we would be able to find some butterflies to capture and place in the butterfly exhibit. We were particularly looking for Blue Morpho butterflies and Malachite butterflies because they are rather colorful with their blues and greens.
I kept slipping and sliding as I tried to navigate down the steep and narrow path. The anciano (elderly man) seemed not to have as much difficulty as I negotiating the trail, so I figured if he could manage, I could too. As I laboriously climbed down through the thick vegetation, I realized I was eventually going to have to climb back up. I had been living in Florida for most of my adult life and had not climbed a mountain in years! How was I going to manage? My knees were already aching. The farther we descended down the mountain, the more worried I became. I could not imagine myself being able to hike back to the vehicle. I was so worried that I could not enjoy the beautiful lush scenery.
Eventually, we came to an area that opened up and leveled out where an abandoned and dilapidated adobe farmhouse stood. The surrounding area was thick with large mango trees, banana trees, and old citrus trees. I was relieved not to have to negotiate the steep trail, but now I kept fumbling as I tried to walk through the overgrown garden.
As I staggered through the vegetation I was elated when I saw several butterflies flying overhead. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, once said, “The highest enjoyment of timelessness is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.” I, like Nabokov, was caught up in that timeless ecstasy as I surveyed my surroundings and looked upon all the beautiful butterflies. I completely forgot about the anticipated climb back to the vehicle.
Many butterflies tend to fly very fast and erratically as a defense against predators such as birds, so they can be quite challenging to catch with a net. It’s easier to catch a butterfly when it stops to nectar on a flower. Some butterflies, such as the Blue Morphos and Malachites, do not stop to nectar on flowers. Instead, they feed on fruit.
I carefully plodded through the thick undergrowth towards some flowers by a tree, hoping to catch some butterflies. I did not see that there were Malachite butterflies feeding on the fallen mangoes beneath my feet until they all fluttered to escape my intrusion. I was encircled in a cloud of emerald-green jewels. It was magical! I began to giggle with sheer delight. Distracted, I failed to catch a single one of those butterflies with my net.
I began to wonder if these butterflies represented those precious children who were massacred years ago. Many indigenous Central American peoples believe that butterflies are the souls of their dead ancestors. For example, in Mexico, the natives in Michoacán State believe that the Monarch butterflies that return to their homeland mountains every year around the Day of the Dead celebrations in early November are their ancestors returning to visit them. Did the souls of these Salvadorian children return to their homeland as butterflies?
My compadres and I did manage to catch many butterflies that day. We protected them in envelopes nested in small boxes inside our backpacks. Once we had enough butterflies, we began our trek back up the mountain, which, as I anticipated, was even more challenging than the hike down. Again the weathered old man led the way. I was huffing and puffing and working up quite a sweat, trying to keep up.
After a while, he turned around to encourage me and said, “Slow and easy, one step at a time. You will make it. We do not need to hurry.” He then began to tell me his story. He was living with his wife and thirteen children in that abandoned farmhouse when the civil war started. After the massacre at El Mozote, he realized he needed to escape, along with others, to a refugee camp in Honduras to protect his family. With just a few clothes and possessions, leaving their home and farm behind, they began the long arduous journey through the mountains to Honduras. I could imagine him leading the way and stopping every now and then and turning around to his children and saying, “Slow and easy, one step at a time. You will make it. We do not need to hurry.”
I did survive the trek up the ravine thanks to the old man’s reassuring words of encouragement and his persistent example. We stopped by the memorial at El Mozote. The memorial stands on top of a hill surrounded by lush green fields and beautiful mountains. Statues of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and Mohandas Gandhi were all represented. I felt privileged not only to be surrounded by great leaders who taught me how to overcome adversity but proud to be standing next to an old Salvadorian farmer who taught me that day how to climb a mountain.
Just as a caterpillar transforms itself into a butterfly, that day I was transformed into a different person by eliminating my self-doubts and overcoming my own personal adversity.