While Europe is my passion and the focus of my work, Latin America has long held a fascination for me. I took my first trip to the region (to both Nicaragua and El Salvador) in 1988, during El Salvador's civil war. I returned to both countries in 1991, after the war ended, and again to El Salvador in 2005. Here are some impressions I brought back from my most recent visit last Christmas.
Five years ago, when working on my "Travel as a Political Act" book in El Salvador, I visited Beatriz, a hard-working single mother. She was struggling to raise two daughters with dignity in the squalor that results from structural poverty. On this trip, I wanted to get an update on Beatriz and her family since they had been prominently featured in my book. She still lived in her modest home in the capital city of San Salvador -- a single cinder block room with a dirt floor. From the tin roof overhead to the chicken roaming the dusty yard, it seemed unchanged after five years.
In 2005, Beatriz's main concern was government policies in the wake of El Salvador's civil war, a decadelong battle between the leftist FMLN and the victorious, American-backed Salvadoran military government. Now, however, the daily concerns for her and her daughters are crime and the ever-rising cost of living. The daughters spoke of their fear of riding the bus to work. Routinely thieves stop the bus and enter from each end, taking all of the riders' valuables. So now, when the daughters leave home, they don't take anything of value without considering, "Do I want to risk losing this?"
As is typical for women in El Salvador, Beatriz's daughters work in a textile plant sewing garments for international corporations. They work 48-hour weeks and make about $300 per month (roughly $1.50 per hour). Though this is meager, it is nearly double the country's minimum wage. These maquiladora plants, while pretty miserable by U.S. standards, are considered a blessing here, as they bring relatively solid jobs to a land without much industry.
After presenting the family with a copy of the book and watching the girls delightfully read aloud to their illiterate mother, we sat down to a hearty lunch. As I looked around, their Christmas tree seemed a little funny, and they explained that it was only the bottom half of a fake tree that they shared with an uncle. They simply bent one of the big branches up to make it look like the top of the tree.
Driving away from Beatriz's impoverished barrio, it occurred to me that the wealthy elite of El Salvador are hardly mindful of these downtown realities; they can function fine without ever crossing paths with this ugly side of their society. On previous visits, I had driven through rich neighborhoods and marveled at the designer fortifications guarding individual mansions. On this trip, I tried to follow the same route, but I saw only landscaped roads with walls that protected entire neighborhoods. Even parks were behind ramparts, so wealthy kids could safely get a little fresh air with armed guards always near.
To peer over these barricades, I visited La Gran Via, one of several top-end malls. More than just malls, they function as the city center for people living in gated communities. La Gran Via had the shiny fantasy aura of Disney World: a cheerful pedestrian boulevard flanked by two floors of restaurants, shops, children's playgrounds and a multistory garage filled with luxury cars. Little sightseeing trains took visitors on the rounds.
My dinner there was in a T.G.I. Friday's-type restaurant. While sharing a drink with a Salvadoran couple, it became clear to me that in two days of sightseeing I had experienced more of the city's pithy core than these residents had in years. They peppered me with questions about their own city. Since they considered it dangerous to go downtown, it mystified them that I had been there.
I capped my La Gran Via night at the movie theater, enjoying a comedy alongside Salvadorans who consider razor wire lining the tops of their walls as a status symbol. Sitting in that air-conditioned comfort, munching on popcorn, my mind wandered back to Beatriz's dirt floor and handmade tortillas. She and her community, having so little, embrace life with a mind-set of abundance -- thankful for the simple things they do have. In contrast, we Americans and the elite of El Salvador seem to operate with a mind-set of scarcity -- seeking what we don't have and building walls to protect what we might lose.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows that can be seen locally on WNED-TV.