El Salvador: Chapter 1 – Night Flight

“The war is still going on there isn’t it?”

This is the first and most commonly asked question I got when I told people I was bound for El Salvador. The funniest one I got was “Isn’t that where Salvador Dali is from?” While still burnt into people’s minds from its dark days during the ‘80s, El Salvador has been fairly peaceful, in the political sense, for more than a decade. It’s traded civil war for gang warfare that results in some 3,000 homicides a year.

But I’m out of coffee, so…

This trip came to be, like most of mine delightfully do, by chance. I hadn’t planned on going to El Salvador, placing it far below El Capitan and even lower than Chicago’s El on my “things to do” list. But a friend from high school, Tracy Townsend, had crossed my path earlier this year on Facebook. She recently began teaching in San Salvador and sent me a message saying “I have volcanoes for you to climb and an extra hammock with your name on it. When are you coming for a visit?”

As most of you have already come to know, only ask that question if you’re ready for a scruffy redhead with a backpack and goofy smile to show up at your doorstep, tent flap or foxhole.

That’s how I found myself heading to El Salvador. Republic of the Savior. The Rhode Island of Central America (actually it’s about the size of New Jersey). At a mere 150 miles end-to-end it can’t even hold its name on a globe.

With a 5am flight, I gave up on sleep and just rode out the Sunday Vikings victory buzz through the night and chased it with the adrenaline of frantic last minute packing. Yet, when I arrived at the airport two hours early, like a good little international traveler, there was no one there to compliment me on my promptness. The place was totally deserted. In my drowsy haze it was easy to envision it as some sort of Twilight Zone episode with the lone workman clanking away metallically on the scaffolding being some kind of ghost or alien or representation of one of mankind’s maladies. I drifted off into a brief nap before I could figure it out.

I was bounced awake when a husky guy in flip-flops and a pair of those shorts with the strings hanging out the legs that no one ever actually uses for anything hurled his bulk into the end of the row of chairs, nearly catapulting me into the light fixtures. His wife, of a similar build, apparently thought it was a competition and cannonballed her behind into the next seat, but only flung me high enough to get to my feet. Rubbing my eyes, I saw the place had started to come to life a bit. In fact, I was surrounded by young couples in vaguely tropical gear taking pictures of every little detail. Turns out several of them had gotten married in the past week (including a couple who tied the knot just the day before in Grand Forks) and were on their way to honeymoon at a Mexican Sandals resort.

On the plane I tumbled down the spine of sleep while the world heated up from below, sunrise turning the clouds into a glowing orange Bunsen burner. By that time, we were already tenderly tapping our wheels down in Atlanta. The stewardess from Delta went into a five-minute spiel about how they’re committed to service and so happy to be serving us and so glad we’re flying with Delta. It went on so long it began to sound like an apology. I looked around to see if she had accidentally fed us poisoned Spinzers or flew us to Baghdad by mistake.

With under an hour to make my connection I was a tad nervous to discover Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International airport is the largest and busiest in the world. To top it off, my landing gate and departure gate were at two of the terminal’s farthest flung tentacles. But the crowds moved and flowed like we were in a rehearsed music video and I found myself with enough time to get a McGriddle breakfast burrito. I even had enough time to regret getting a McGriddle breakfast burrito.

It was a sparse flight into San Salvador (though not as sparse at the 10:30 to Liberia appeared) and I managed to get a row to myself. Now, let’s kill some of the 45 minutes I spent waiting on the runway with a few fun facts about El Salvador: Let’s see…it has 5.7 million people. It dumped the colón and adopted the U.S. dollar in 2001. The main export used to be indigo, but switched to coffee at the beginning of the 20th century. Over 75,000 people were killed in the 1980-1992 Civil War. You remember the Cold War too, don’t you? That’s even more than the 20-30,000 peasants the military massacred in 1932 to quash a rebellion. Being on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is chockfull of volcanoes. An eruption in 2001 left 20% of the nation’s housing damaged. That same summer a drought killed off 80% of the crops. 90% of the country is mesitzo (mix of Native American and Spanish origin). If it wasn’t for money sent back from the 3.5 million El Salvadorans living abroad, it’s estimated 37% of the country would be living in extreme poverty. And they have one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Yes, this little country has had some big troubles.

Oh, I see we’ve taken off and the in-flight movie has started. It’s Grey Gardens with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Ummm, okay. Why not?

We followed the dangle of Florida’s underside, crossed the cloud fluffed frothing waters of the Caribbean, politely brushed past Belize, and stopped short at El Salvador’s Custacatlan airport.

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The humidity was a hot wet blanket that wrapped you in a welcome embrace the moment you stepped from the plane. I mean like 300% humidity. As in, how can this be the rainy season when there is no more room in the air for anymore liquid? And why is it, the hotter the climate, the more well-dressed the people like to be. The El Salvadoran men were all in long-sleeve dress shirts tucked into well-pressed trousers and nice shoes. It wasn’t as if I was blending in anyways, so I was going to stick with my shorts. Stick to them would be more accurate.

Tracy had arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport and after getting a fresh stamp in the passport, I spotted an El Salvadoran man with my name scrawled on a scrap of paper.

My tiredness and Sesame Street level of Spanish made for a quiet drive for the 50km from the airport to the Escuela Americana Complejo where Tracy lived. It gave me a chance to sit back and take in some initial sites. Some of it felt similar to other places I’d been, but it was still its own unique place. Telephone poles, trees, and street barriers were painted in red, white, and blue bands from the FMLN party that had won the recent election. Old men in beaten baggy pants, raised their straw hats and wiped sweat from their foreheads as they sat next to pyramids of coconuts waiting to be macheted open to share their sweet nectar. Rusty rumbling trucks coughed up hills loaded with pallets held down by shirtless teens.

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This is a poor country, but it looked clean. It had a bright fresh colorful feel to it. White teeth flashed from dark skin. Skirts swayed among roadside stands. Flowers fell from roadside cliffs. Volcanoes slept tucked under ample blankets of lush green.

Tracy and her 12-year old daughter, Aimee, lived at the school in a quiet walled complex with most of the teachers. She had a tidy two-story concrete house with a red tiled roof and a backyard shaded by a prodigious lime tree. The hammock I’d been promised waved ‘hola’ to me in a much appreciated breeze. We’d get acquainted in a few hours as I napped off my jet lag.

Right now, Tracy took me on a tour of the school. It was a sprawling 35-acre campus with wide open breezeways embracing lovely green courtyards filled with hidden sculptures or zen beautiful landscaping or both. The school has about 1,300 students ranging from Pre-K to 12th grade. Classes were firing up in a few days, so the quiet pad of our sandals would soon be drowned out by the universal decibel-defying energy of students excitement and complaints at being educated.

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Later that night, after dinner at a nearby restaurant, Tracy and I sat by the pool watching a bat loop over the water, skimming its surface for dinner. We filled in the years and the twisting turns that stretched from us meeting in high school on the debate team to sharing a beer at a school in San Salvador.

I pictured geography and time spinning their distance away simultaneously in my head until it reached here and now. I raised my sweating can of Suprema to her Corona. “To old friends in new places.”

In our next episode…Who Knows What Evil Waits Aboard the Microbus?!!!!

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6 responses to “El Salvador: Chapter 1 – Night Flight

  1. the war wasn’t between leftist groups and the communist FMLN. the FMLN *IS* the leftist groups and includes the communists. the war was between the leftist FMLN (who are now the government) and the right-wing, including the death squads.

  2. and the FMLN won the recent (presidential) election, not ARENA 🙂

  3. You are both right. I should have caught that. Thank you!

  4. Shit, you’re back, Scott! I’d assumed that you’d gone native on some sub-tropical island. Another great travelogue. Eagerly awaiting the next episode.

  5. But long gone again, Scott. Any danger of a return to Base Camp at some point?

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