People, politics and a poet – scribbles on El Salvador

On our first night in El Salvador, we were asked how much we knew about the country. We had to admit, it was very little. Our journey through the country improved our threadbare knowledge dramatically but still represents a drop in the ocean compared to the reams and reams that could be learned about this fascinating tiny nation. Here are a few tidbits that we picked up on our way through:

1. Salvadorans are hard grafters. They’ve built their country up from the mess of civil war to almost top spot in Central America’s economic league.

Our first 25km in El Salvador were in a bus – both feeling weak with dodgy stomachs and not wanting to delay our couchsurfing host any longer, we’d opted for motorised transport. All buses in this part of the world have ‘ayudantes’, literally ‘helpers’, who take money from passengers and frantically shout out destinations to people waiting on the side of the road. Our ayudante, the first Salvadoran we’d spoken to was smartly dressed in shirt and slacks, loaded our bikes on for us very carefully, issued us with little tickets for the 45 min journey, helped shift baskets on and off, chatted constantly with everyone and pointed out free seats to newcomers throughout. It was all very conscientiously and professionally done. Now, ayudantes might not be the driving force behind El Salvador’s economy (driving force behind busses though!), but this guy was the first person I thought of when we later learned this cultural fact, and he left a lasting first impression on us.

2. Salvadorans are very generous and more than willing to help out a stranger in need.

Later on that day Charlotte and I were having a row – only our first of the day so pretty good going really! We’d just found out our couchsurfing host didn’t live where we were expecting him to be living, but lived another 15km up the side of a rather steep mountain range. It was getting late, so bordering on desperation, I started putting out my thumb to passing pick up trucks. We must have looked a sight – 2 sweaty gringos, one ginger one clad in lycra waving his arms about, the other sat by the side of the road clutching her stomach… Nevertheless, within minutes a guy travelling in the other direction pulled over and stopped. After relaying the situation to him in broken Spanish he immediately told us to hop in (more like a flop), drove to the petrol station, then drove us back up the hill he’d just come down all the way to our destination, and absolutely refused to accept any form of payment. Pretty amazing stuff.

3. Political tensions are still bubbling away.

We had a great encounter one evening with a guy called Ricardo, a friend of our couch-surfing host. A moustachioed, singlet wearing 60 year old who supplied close friends with his home-grown marijuana, it was clear from his chat that he was into his left-wing politics. He described the simmering resentment felt by the poor of the community at the big and glaring disparities in wealth still present in the country, despite the narrow 2009 presidential election victory of the FMLN, a former guerilla organisation founded by Marxists at the end of the civil war, that ended two decades of conservative rule. After I thought I’d had him sussed as a die-hard leftist, he rather enigmatically said that he owned land and was learning how to grow coffee on it – suggesting he was one of the ‘haves’, and placing his sympathies firmly in the conservative camp. Unfortunately, my Spanish wasn’t up to the standard required to quizz this interesting character in any more detail.

Other people suggested similar things to us. A woman from the United States living in El Salvador described how remittance money sent home from the US is causing rifts in previously tightly-knit, politically-cohesive communities. If you have a relative in the States sending money home, (which is common here – 20% of the countries income is from this), you can afford that gas-cooker, TV or even car, while your neighbours are still slaving away over smoky wooden fires to put food on the table. Enough to change political loyalties as people go from having nothing to lose to lots to protect. Enough to end a few friendships too, I imagine.

4. Politically, all is not that meets the eye

The colours of the political parties that you see daubed over the walls of houses in villages here are not as telling as they appear. The right-wing Arena party offers to paint houses in its party colours of red, while and blue. Members of poor communities often willingly accept we were told; happy to put up with their house becoming a piece of political advertising if it means it gets a lick of paint they would never themselves be able to afford.

5. El Salvador has a poet called Roque Dalton

This guy is one of the country’s most celebrated and controversial heroes, and had a more incredible life than hollywood could think up. He escaped not one, but two death-sentences, the first a political coup on the day before his scheduled death spared his life, the second, an earthquake that shattered his cell wall enabling him to escape.  He was finally killed in very mysterious circumstances by members of the his own revolutionary party who wrongly suspected him of being a CIA spy. He is a cult figure on the left, and his poetry, must of it published posthumously, has been described as better than Neruda, Latin America’s most widely known poet.

That’s all folks – you’ll hear from me again in another two months’ time!

What a surprise - another volcano. Maintaining enthusiasm for Central America's most common sightseeing attraction!

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