They’ve said awful things about it, I’ve always wanted to come here. Not sure if it’s from meeting all the illegal immigrants in Los Angeles, or the pupusas these Salvadorean mothers once prepared for me over five years ago…or…the brutal headlines of the Salvatrucha maras. The gangs are notorious in Los Angeles, extensively tattooed from face to arms, known for their gruesome and grisly murders. And then, going to South America so many times, I saw this wet country from the airport, a stopover, one time when a team of Taiwanese water engineers who chat with me. They didn’t speak Spanish or English, and managed to enjoy their time in El Salvador. So I’ve always wanted to find out for myself, what is El Salvador. Alone.

Suchitoto, the church outside. The name means “Place of Birds and Flowers”

Entering the country from the Panamerican Highway through Honduras there’s nothing particularly striking about the tropical leafy landscape. Cool breezes. Squat houses, very poor houses, a lot of rusting corrugated metal roofs and houses made of cement and sometimes wire fencing. Muddy. Dirt floors. Everyone is barefoot, and carrying around guns: security, officers, even normal people walking around with a semi-automatic on their waist. Without the company of my friends, I am reliant on the company of Salvadoreans, who are noticeably very hardworking, diligent and…honest and kind! I’ve been warned by privileged Salvadoreans never (ever!) to take the public bus. So, I took the public bus. Just to see.

I take very calculated risks. I choose my seat on the bus carefully, and I’m aware that my physique compels machismo chivalry that keeps me safe for the most part. Most people like to hear me speaking Spanish to them, older women instantly protect me like a mother. You know what I notice? As a percentage of the population, more people are amputated and with deep scar tissue from machete cuts than I have noticed in any other Central American country. BY FAR. I mean, parapeligiac strong men with both legs ending at the thigh. Legs that stopped at the ankle, beat up. Missing arms. Grotesque. The civil war which had displaced some three million abroad was obviously unspeakably brutal, but then, the people: remarkably kind and getting on with their lives, even courteous and sweet to me. Very fair, too, I haven’t once felt cheated, harassed or misled.

Upon arrival, El Salvador is a country that makes me grieve. Makes me angry, makes me responsible, and it’s the many settlements of dwellings made of corroding metal and cement blocks. Trash everywhere, and lacking potable water supply and constant electricity. The first impression is that of sorrow mixed with a twinge of admiration. People packed standing in the back of trucks, while rain pours on them. Like other parts of Central America, people suffer from obesity and poor diets.

…And of course, as life turns out, the hotel name that was recommended and I booked reservations for, happens to be a gorgeous Spanish hamlet overlooking forested cliffs and the great Suchitlan lake. There are fluorescent butterflies that are several inches across, and vibrant beetles. I’ve got the spacious upstairs to myself, three rooms with antique furnishings, comforters, bathtub, hot water, elegant ceiling fans in every room, a veranda hammock to overlook the lake, sitting desk to write my private letters. And a fully-equipt Spanish-tile kitchen with electric stove, oven, microwave, and mahogany dining table. I don’t even have to worry about charging my iPod, laundry is taken care of.

I’ve paid $40 for the night. Suchitoto is a world apart from real El Salvador, idyllic stone roads, mango trees, and the occassional drunkard passed out but generally the old colonial flavor.  In this sanctuary I cannot help feeling irremediably guilty for my privilege, so unfairly class conscious. And the only consolation is that at least the money is going into Salvadorean hands, and at least I made it by myself to get to know El Salvador. But even so, it feels flagrant and prolifigate—some 2% own some vast 90% of the country’s riches, and I cannot erase the images of the poor’s living standards: Snarling traffic, gucky markets, thirty-odd vendors climbing on our bus to sell apples or tortillas or candy, crowded streets and putrid smells that remind me of urban recesses of China.
El Salvador is relatively well-paid, people earn far more per week than neighboring Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua. But what amount people earn in dollars, is not reflected in their standard of living. It will take time to understand, but people are more industrious, more resilient, yet poorer. (Comparatively, I now find that the impoverished population in Chiapas, Mexico rather whiny, complainy, and lazy for having relatively many natural resources and riches. Chiapanecos on average seem to not to appreciate what they have.)

San Salvador inspires me. It packs heat. Salvadoreans deserve better, especially in housing and infrastructure. If I become an interpreter, and leverage China’s massive industry with Latin America, I will want to fix this.