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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — Runner-Up Winner

The Happiest Country

This is no country for kvetches. 56% of the population consider themselves to be “very happy”—more than any other country in the world. Add to that another 37% who affirm they are “quite happy” and all that’s left is a piddling, puling minority of misfits, malingerers and malcontents.  No, this is not, as you might expect, some isolated mountain Shangri La, like Bhutan, or a socialist utopia, like Denmark, and it’s certainly not the United States (39% very happy) or the U.K., where only a pitiful 4.1% of its citizenry claim to be very happy, thank you very much.

Descending through layers of fleecy cumulous clouds, from my window seat on the plane I caught a glimpse of pristine beaches, lush scenery, soaring volcanoes and all the trappings of a tropical paradise—but experience tells me that nights of tropical splendor oft lead to trouble in paradise. Still, I am confident that I have not been suckered into this trip by mere promotional patter from a tourist brochure; I am here on a sociological expedition of sorts, to confirm experientially the veracity of the above cited  statistics, which are based on hard scientific evidence documented by the World Values Survey, a worldwide investigation of socio-cultural and political change conducted by teams of social scientists from prestigious universities in more than 80 countries, a serious academic endeavor that determined impartially and empirically that the Happiest Country in the World is…El Salvador.

The baggage carousel shrieked and shuddered to a halt as another bloated cardboard box slammed into the conveyer belt and wedged itself obstinately into a pile-up of luggage behemoths. My fellow passengers, natives all, looked very happy; for them this was the end of the 21st Century Silk Road, where swashbuckling adventurers in polo shirts and jeans returned laden with their booty of blenders and flat-screened TVs. I snatched my anorexic travel bag from a pile dumped unceremoniously on the floor and followed the signs to “Aduana”, expecting a surly customs agent, scowling behind aviator Ray Bans, to rifle through my underwear. Instead, a man in a spotless white uniform waved me through with a smile; I breezed through the doors and was blinded by sunlight brighter than ten thousand popping flashbulbs.

I was dazzled and a wee bit terrified because I had been to El Salvador before, at a time when it was not known as the happiest country on earth. In fact, I had lived there for almost a decade during the 80s and 90s when El Salvador was chiefly known as the country that invented death squads. A civil war ravaged the nation leaving 80,000 dead, and when the war finally ended in 1992, demobilized soldiers turned into mobsters armed with surplus M-16s terrorized the citizenry, along with tattooed gang members deported from South Central LA. My most vivid memories of El Salvador were of days spent spread-eagled on the kitchen floor while guerrillas manned a machine gun nest a few feet from my house and, a few years later, feeling the cold snout of a handgun prod my temple in a hold-up that turned out to be a case of mistaken identity: the bandidos had followed the wrong taxi.

Fortunately, the taxi driver was able to convince the bandidos that I was not worth kidnapping. It all turned out OK. The head bandido even said; “Disculpe, Señora” (excuse me, ma’am) as he handed me back my bag with its meager contents. With the sudden fluency induced by oxygen deprivation I rasped; “No hay de que.” (It’s nothing).

There had been some major changes since then, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the road from the airport was now a four lane highway in excellent condition, saving a lot of miles formerly spent dodging potholes and vagrant cows. I made the trip to Suchitoto, my destination, in record time and at the city hall received a warm welcome from an old friend, Javier Martinez, formerly a fearsome comandante of the FMLN rebel faction, now, the newly-elected mayor of Suchitoto.

Also presente: Gerardo, Javier’s diminutive former chief of communications, a  clever, pocket-sized Einstein who once made a television out of a discarded computer monitor so that his comrades could watch the World Cup out in the trenches. He was still the genial, hippie throwback in his ponytail and sandals.

These two former leftist guerrillas had embarked on a cutting-edge capitalist venture: converting a crumbling colonial mansion into a tourist hotel. La Casona (the Big House) was built in the old style with three foot thick abode walls and a courtyard big enough to pasture a herd of goats. Javier and Gerardo gave me a tour of its immensity. The ten guest rooms were spacious but sparsely furnished with a bed, nightstand, fan and a bathroom with toilet and shower. There was a huge conference room, currently hosting a convention of bats. The kitchen was bigger than my apartment, but equipped only with a small propane stove and a few pots and pans. The contents of the refrigerator were what you would expect for a couple of single guys: beer, a few old tortillas and a dead iguana. The piece de resistance was the bar with its ten foot high windows framed by wooden shutters that looked out on palmy views of a city park and bullet-pocked walls papered over with posters of dead revolutionary heroes and quaint slogans like, “Muerte a los Pusilanames Contrarevolucionarios!’

Clearly the place needed a women’s touch and I wondered if they intended to recruit me for decorating duty. Not a very enticing prospect.  A Martha Stewart makeover would ruin its derelict charm, maybe the Queer Eye boys could do something retro-revolutionary chic, but with no Crate & Barrel within five thousand miles… I liked La Casona just the way it was—it reeked of Macondo and Graham Greeneland: the indolent wooden pillars on the veranda holding up sagging beams, the scattering of curios and war memorabilia (a rusty typewriter, bullet casings), the tangled array of stag horn ferns, mango and lemon trees on the patio, the huge wooden doors painted with rustic landscapes. It all begged to be contemplated for hours and hours, between the chapters of a book or naps in a hammock.

Gerardo demonstrated the bar’s new espresso machine and we fondly remembered when he made me a tasty brew with his “Meester Coffee” (a tin can heated on an open fire) back in the days when his home base was a hammock strung under a tree up on the Guazapa volcano. Javier and Gerardo had been “demobilized” since 1993, when a truce brokered by the United Nations put an end to twelve years of armed conflict and they had successfully made the transition to civilian life, parlaying their technical and organizational skills into jobs at non-profit development organizations. But nostalgia for the old guerrilla days ran deep.

It was siesta time and they gave me one of the hotel rooms to myself. Javier and Gerardo slept in a cavernous space next to the office. Their living quarters were under-furnished and low-maintenance—a couple of thin mattresses thrown on the floor at night. Javier lived out of a suitcase, but his pants and shirts were always carefully pressed and he even had a jacket and tie at hand for visiting dignitaries. He had to look the part of “El Señor Alcalde” (the Lord Mayor), as we insisted on calling him, much to his annoyance. I soon drifted off to sleep. Suchitoto is a very quiet town of cobblestone streets and few vehicles. The only sounds I heard: birds twittering on the patio and occasionally a mango would drop with a dull thud.

That night the bar was hopping. It was the only night life to register on the local social seismograph and all strata of Suchi-society were there to make the scene. Gerardo was tending bar. He had made some tapas out of the iguana and beer was the drink of choice, as well as rum straight up. When I asked for a mojito, he ran out to the patio to look for mint leaves, and not finding any, he threw together a Cuba libre.

Former soldiers mixed with former guerrillas, campesinos cronied up to students, bureaucrats and businessmen. Only women were in short supply. There was a lot of dialogue in the ultra-familiar “vos” form of address and a lot of verbs in the subjunctive: “Si hubieras visto” (If you had seen) “Si hubieramos tenido” (If we only had). The discussion was intense but not antagonistic.

Don Minimo, a slight, weathered campesino with a straw hat was the bar’s bouncer and also tale spinner extraordinaire. (Ask him to tell you the one about how the toad beat the deer in a race). His best story is how he got his name: when he joined the guerrillas, he was told that he had to pick a pseudonym. He mulled this over for awhile and then told his comandante; “I will be called Maximo!” The comandante just laughed and said, “Nobody here is maximo— we will call you “Minimo’.”

Gerardo was getting a bit tipsy by midnight. Later, he confided to me that bartending was like being the town’s only psychotherapist. Everyone came to him to confess their sins, tell their troubles and find relief from inner conflicts. He even consoled a married guy who was in love with another guy, which, I thought showed an amazingly enlightened attitude for a grizzled veteran of a macho, Che Guevara-style guerrilla army, where maricon (queer) was the worst possible insult.

An ecstatic swirl of salsa music set the mood and everyone was happy, more than 57%—I’d say 97%—were very happy, laughing and toasting merrily. I stayed until some rum sodden stumble bum smushed my sandaled toes while dancing the cumbia.

The next morning, Javier and Gerardo left La Casona early for their day jobs (Gerardo installed solar lighting in a remote town that was off the grid and made bio-gas generators that produced methane from cow pies) and I took a stroll around the town.

I was familiar with the place, but amazed to see all the changes that had taken place in the last decade. Suchitoto had always been a well preserved, mid-sized town—but now it was stunning. Somehow, on my last visit years ago, I had missed the fabulous views of the lake and the volcano, the lovely porticos that framed inner gardens, the fine wrought iron work on windows, the delicate pastel shades on the adobe houses. Now there were hotels, some much more luxurious than La Casona, with air conditioning and satellite TV and restaurants with checkered tablecloths and elegant menus beckoning outside. A new art school had been established in the old convent, there was a renovated theater, two art galleries, even a cybercafé on the town square with a view of the five hundred year old baroque church. Suchitoto was poised to become the next San Miguel Allende, the new Oaxaca, Mexico or Antigua, Guatemala. But the only tourists around to witness this transformation were a few sandalistas with backpacks, hanging out on the town square.

The cybercafé belonged to another old friend, Luis, a photographer who had been shot in the hand at a military checkpoint during the war, leaving him with a disability that he overcame by learning to prop his camera on his right arm and shoot with his left. I asked him how business was. Luis hadn’t given up his day job with Reuters yet, but he had high hopes that the cybercafé would soon take off.

“This place is packed on the weekends. A lot of people come form San Salvador. Busses full of tourists from Honduras. And a lot of people have moved here.” He mentioned an ex-pat reporter, a radio announcer from the old clandestine rebel station, among others.

Great, I thought. But where are the euros, where are the MasterCard crowds? Where are the rock stars, the movie stars, the celebrities who could jump start Suchitoto into the next hot tourist destination? It had been many years since El Salvador had been a cause celebre among the politically correct jet set, like Bono (he visited during the war) and Martin Sheen (he came after the war.) Now it was just another under-developed backwater on the backpacker’s trail across Central America.

Not that anyone in Suchitoto really cared. Everyone was happy just to be hanging out in a slightly caffeinated reverie, watching nothing much happening on the town square. Content just to be alive. It must be encoded in their DNA—there is no other plausible explanation for why Salvadorans are so obscenely cheerful against all good sense, in spite of all rational evidence. Years ago, before the war, before the crime wave and kidnappings and gang wars, El Salvador was advertised in its brochures as the “country with a smile”. There didn’t seem to be much to smile about back then and not a helluva lot to smile about now, even though the country is no longer run by wealthy oligarchs and military dictators.

The per capita income is about $5,000 a year, but 45% of the GNP is concentrated in pockets of the richest fifth of the population. A large share of the GNP comes from relatives who immigrated to the States “mojado” (wetback) and struggle to send dollars home from their wages cleaning houses and tending the gardens of McMansions they will never live in. The murder rate is five times that of Detroit.

The glare of the sun on the plaza made me sleepy. It was time for another siesta. Lying in a hammock on the veranda, back at La Casona, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t such a cockeyed idea to sign on to the hotel project. After all, renovating derelict castles and villas was all the rage. And I was feeling so mellow, so relaxed; an odd sensation in a country where formerly my flight or fight response was always set on orange alert.

I didn’t have more than five seconds to think it over before the heat and the soporific drone of the fan smoothed my brain waves into the blip-less beyond-the-beyond state of deep, dreamless sleep.

Javier still had plenty of adrenaline left in his system. El Señor Alcalde had ambitious plans for Suchitoto. The alcaldia was undergoing extensive renovations paid for by the Spanish government. Carpenters and bricklayers scurried around amid the deafening screech of electric saws. He showed me a mock-up for the town square with new benches, landscaping, lighting and a fountain. Javier wanted to make Suchitoto into a center for eco-tourism. A sophisticated recycling program was already in place with the towns people trained to recycle everything—even the peels and rotten vegetables from the market were collected in plastic tubs market “Material Organico” and turned into compost for the city parks.

There was an impressive range of tourist attractions: trails to waterfalls, horseback riding, boat rides to an island where thousands of migrating birds stopped over and even guided guerrilla tours to the remains of old camps and bunkers carved into the Guazapa volcano. I went on a hike to a lovely waterfall that splashed over giant basalt pillars.  Most of the time I spent on the veranda back at La Casona. I was a refugee from an Upper Midwest winter (something like living in a sensory deprivation tank filled with ice cold water) and the joy of lounging outside in a hammock surrounded by exuberant greenery was enough.

One day Gerardo and I made an excursion out to the countryside on the road that hemmed the green skirts of the volcano. The road, as I remembered it, had been a bone-rattling ride, only passable to four wheel drive vehicles and ox carts, but now it was paved with asphalt. We passed through Aguacayo, a town that had been bombed to rubble during the war. It was still a softly shaded ghost town with a ruined shell of a church and abandoned adobe houses melting into mud. The ceiba trees whispered a melancholy samba fit for a cemetery—until we heard the cheery ring of an ice cream cart and all hell broke loose as a horde of children came running from a school that was hidden back in the foliage.

A few miles down the road, we came to the home of Dimas, another old friend and formerly feared and revered comandante. He was snoozing in a hammock on the veranda of his tidy brick house, with a couple of mutts sprawled underneath. The house was on a small parcel of land he had acquired in the resettlement package he received when he hung up his AK 47 for good after the peace accords. The land came with a kitchen table, four chairs, a cheap set of aluminum pot and pans, dishes and a coffee pot. Dimas built his little two room brick house, planted corn and beans and went to work as a security guard at a factory.

Dimas’ wife Melba swooshed away the flies that were napping on the war memento/kitchen table and invited us for lunch. She had prepared for us in advance, and quickly emerged from the kitchen with plates of food: fried fish, platanos and rice. The fish on my plate glared at me reproachfully as I ripped into its succulent flesh beneath the crispy skin. There was a basket of hand made tortillas, thick and so hot that jets of steam escaped as we tore them apart.

In the aftermath of the heavy meal, I lumbered over to the hammock and lay back, enjoying a view of pillowy clouds colliding with the volcano. I was thinking of the days when they were camped up there, near the summit. The army did everything to dislodge them from their aerie, including dropping 500 pound bombs and hurling mortars from cannons in Suchitoto. They survived all that and in the end, a ragtag guerrilla band forced an army of 30,000, backed by a million dollars a day in US aid, to the bargaining table.

“What did you eat up there on the volcano?” I wondered out loud.

“Everything,” Melba said. “Beans, platanos, rice, soup. And we made hundreds of tortillas. But when we were on the move everyone carried a pack of dried milk powder and sugar to keep up their energy.”

“But how did you cook without making any smoke?”

“We used Viet Cong stoves,” Dimas replied. “They are stoves in tunnels dug underground. There was a very long tunnel for the smoke, so that the earth absorbed most of it and you couldn’t see it from a distance.”

“So what did you do when it rained?”

“Oh, everyone was very content,” said Dimas, “Because the enemy wouldn’t be around. So we played cards, or took a siesta.”

“And some liked to make ‘Amor Pijiado’ ” Melba added, smiling mischievously.

Amor Pijiado begged an explanation. “Pijiar” meant “to beat” or “to thrash” as in “The drunken husband beat his wife.” What kind of concoction was a Love Beating?

“It’s something made out of instant coffee and sugar” Melba explained. “You beat them together with a bit of water until they make a kind of dessert.”

Both Dimas and Gerardo enthused about the scrumptiousness of Amor Pijiado.

I didn’t look convinced, so Melba went inside to make a sample. We heard the whirr of an electric mixer and ten minutes later she emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of something that looked like tan-colored whipped cream.

“We used to have to beat it by hand,” she explained, “and then it took a lot longer. That’s why it’s called Amor Pijiado.”

I had expected something frothy, like cappuccino, but this was stiff as meringue and tasted like espresso flavored frosting. It was yummy—but so densely sweet, that after a few bites I had enough.

Then Dimas put on his bullet-proof vest, tossed a rifle on the seat of his pickup, and it was time for him to go to work. The visit came to an end, but the afternoon had a lingering feeling of contentment spiked with caffeine and sugar, that would last until the next siesta.

Now, when I remember El Salvador, I think of two opposite ingredients, one bitter, one sweet, beaten and thrashed until they melded into one astonishingly delicious treat: El Amor Pijiado.