Monday, July 6, 2009

One Week in El Salvador

Last week I went to El Salvador for a wedding between two friends of mine from the U.S.A.. The family of the bride comes from there and indeed largely still lives there and so they welcomed all of us with open arms and ecstatic generosity.

El Salvador is a fascinating country with deep mysteries that utterly contrast it's small size. Everywhere I looked I found intrigue and wonder. The first two days I stayed at a ranch maintained by the family on the beach - which was wired with both the local standard outlets and American standard electrical outlets. This was my first hint at the deeply intertwined relationship that El Salvador has with the U.S.A..

I came to understand that not only is a large percentage of their national economy flowing directly from the U.S.A. in the form of money and goods sent back there by immigrants to their families, but in fact their own currency was abandoned in favor of the US Dollar. The scale of this grassroots endeavor can only be begun to be appreciated when you realize that for example - over one million El Salvadorians1 currently reside in Los Angeles, California alone. LA is jokingly referred to as the 15th Department2 of El Salvador for this reason.

Sadly, a large percentage of those people came to the states to escape the military conflicts of the past. Those conflicts are reflected in the architecture of the place to some degree where walled compounds with sturdy gates and armed guards were the norm in the places that I visited3. This was true of both the places where I stayed as well as the restaurants and clubs that we went to.

History and culture are omnipresent in El Salvador. After taking a day-long tour of Mayan ruins I came to realize that almost every small and steep hill that you see anywhere is in fact a pyramid that is buried under about 7 meters of volcanic ash and soil. Only the tiniest amount of these have been studied at all - and those that have been excavated at all end up suffering from extreme erosion due to the lack of care-taking experienced during times of conflict when foreign archaeologists fled the country for a decade or more at a time.

One result of this incredible historical legacy is that construction of any large facilities or even simply houses can and often does grind to a standstill because if you dig just about anywhere you are likely to stumble upon yet another ancient ruin. That makes sustained development rather difficult and worse leads to an unrelenting black market for artifacts fueled by the omnipresent poverty that is slowly erasing an inconceivably enormous unknown history.

Christianity is the only thing more common than poverty in El Salvador. You cannot go anywhere without being surrounded by icons - be they dashboard Saints, placards bearing reaffirming slogans, etchings in car windows, T-Shirts, graffiti, statues, etc. - and you can't really have a conversation without noting subtle reference in the manner in which the idioms and speech patterns reinforce this Faith.

I personally have to wonder if this ecstatic faith helps the poor by providing them Hope or if it keeps them down by reinforcing the Ignorance that keeps them poor to begin with. I did not wonder this out loud. Religious Intolerance is a Real issue in a country of passionate people, a large percentage of whom regularly wield machetes.

It really puts things in perspective when you look at what people complain about in the U.S.A.. I do not know of anywhere in the U.S.A. for example where someone could live for a full year on $3 a day - nevermind your entire life. Yet this is true of the vast majority of the farming community there, who ride in the back of open-air trucks for hours to toil in the fields reaping sugarcane and coffee beans.

While many people in the U.S.A. think disparaging thoughts about El Salvador due to the poverty - there are class-strata ranging from the mind-numbingly poor to the Millionaire level. Maybe that American influence provides the accompanying intolerance and indifference or perhaps it descended from the Spaniards who conquered the place to begin with - likely a combination of both, but those who suffer most are those who are descended from the indigenous people - still referred to by the pejorative term "Pipil" which translates roughly as "people who speak like children".

During my stay I found everyone to be gracious, kind, and generous. Certainly I felt some resentment when visiting the poorest places but it never manifested into anything more than staring, which I expected anyway4. In truth, the only people that I had any problem with were other Americans.

Halfway through a group tour of the Mayan ruins two silver-haired gringos started following us around. I didn't think much of it because our tour guide spoke English and had a fascinating take on everything he described - but when they followed us in their own car to the 3rd site - it started getting weird. When they walked ahead of us 60 feet and absconded our tour guide it got annoying. When they started posing in our pictures it got downright creepy. When they followed us into the local shops one by one I realized the truth - they were stealing the services of the armed guard that was accompanying us for their own protection.

No amount of loud hint-dropping afforded a single dollar to go to our tour crew - instead even as we were leaving they again imposed themselves by hitting up our driver for directions for 10 minutes while we were trying to leave - and again failed to compensate our driver, tour guide and guard.

Contrary to the rhetoric of pin-heads like Bill O'Reilly - people like me do not hate America. But I am utterly embarrassed that our chief cultural exports are selfish morons like our tour-parasites, PizzaHut, Burger King, McDondalds, and WalMart. While I am certain that there are people in El Salvador who do hate America, identifying with their mind-sets in this way fails to make me a 'traitor' - but rather defines me as a 'patriot' who would see his own country live up to their high ideals.

Of course, with AT&T's treatment of iPhone users - it was utterly impossible to use any of the 6 local cellular networks to make or receive a phone call. I could only get a WiFi signal in the lobby of my hotel and all of the web sites that I accessed defaulted to Spanish by identifying my locale. This provided the single news item that filtered down to me: the resignation of Sarah Palin. You can be sure that I will have something to say on that topic soon.

1 The spelling of that word is in great debate so I will defer to my spell-checker
2 'Department' is the local term used that equates to 'County' or 'Parish' in the U.S.A. of which there are 14 in El Salvador
3 Though, to be fair - I wasn't "let off the reservation" during the trip - because I was emphatically told by the locals that it is "Not Safe"
4 When you are walking around with the local equivalent of 6 months salary in your pocket it should be expected.

No comments: