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An American Girl in El Salvador

Handsome children in El Salvador.
Handsome children in El Salvador at school.

Every Family Has One. Central America Is No Exception.

El Salvador is the red-headed step-child of the Americas. And given that Central America is not a prized member of the Americas Family Tree, that says a lot about El Salvador. Its siblings — Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Nicaragua (well, all right, Nicaragua probably gets the same bum rap as El Salvador), while not exactly exploding with an overload of visitors, enjoy a respectable and relatively stable tourism industry. At this point, the more geographically savvy reader must think, "Aha! You left out Panama! Surely Panama is as unloved and maligned as El Salvador. No?" This reader would be correct. Kind of. Panama is its own freak, more akin to the playboy uncle that spends his days doing playboy-uncle things, showing up at the occasional Christening or holiday gathering. He (Panama) is a family member but has a unique story that separates him somewhat. Anyway, back to the problem of the unloved and much-maligned El Salvador.

Panama has its canal, Belize/Guatemala/Costa Rica (in terms of their vacation appeal, they are relatively interchangeable) has their beaches and snorkeling, and El Salvador has…has what? What does El Salvador have?

Let’s Start At The Beginning

Sitting in class one day, I received a handout advertising a scholarly trip to El Salvador. One wonders what exactly constitutes "scholarly travel?" I'm pretty sure colleges/universities are obliged to tack on "scholarly" to legitimize what would otherwise be a frivolous romp around foreign soil. But it worked on me.

As I have said, I knew next to nothing about El Salvador. What I did know, however, was that in all my faithful viewings of the Travel Channel's "Samantha Brown's Passport to Latin America," not once did I recall Samantha visiting El Salvador. A travel enthusiast, I have subscriptions to National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure. In those, too, I never saw mention of El Salvador. Cute and spunky Sam didn't want to go there; the seasoned writers who have traversed the globe for those magazines didn't want to go there. What was wrong with El Salvador? Why didn't anyone show El Salvador a little love?  

I was to learn that while tourists were rubbing on sunscreen and bobbing around in the warm waters of Belize and Costa Rica, and Panama's canal was flowing along as usual, El Salvador was reeling from the impact of a bloody twelve-year-long civil war. The rise of conflict between military dictatorship and Leftist guerrilla groups was marked by government massacres and the mass killing of civilians — over 75,000 in all. Although the official end to the fighting came in 1992, the country still struggles to recover.

Of course, none of this did I know. In fact, although I'm slightly ashamed to admit it, my decision to apply to the program was based solely on the flyer. A splashy headline, TRAVEL TO EL SALVADOR!! (yes, two exclamation points), and two 2x3 pictures — one depicting a row of slightly misshapen corrugated steel shacks and the other a Technicolor map of Central America with an arrow pointing out a pink El Salvador. It was simple. It was effective. It had excitement (those exclamation points!!), unfamiliar territory (there are no corrugated steel shacks in Western New York), and an exotic locale (the map clearly illustrated the considerable distance from El Salvador to Western New York).

I want to say that I was aware of the shaky condition of El Salvador and its bloody history, but that wasn't the case. However, I did know that I didn't know. El Salvador? Well, that was something I wanted to know. It was okay that Samantha Brown never chatted it up with the locals and that Travel + Leisure never published a top-ten list of El Salvador's hotspots. Now, I wanted to confront my own ignorance. I wanted to chat it up with the Salvadorans. I wanted to compose my own list of "must-sees."

So I went to El Salvador.

Scholarly Travel?

The trip roster was composed of seven students and two professors. The other students were knowledgeable about political and social issues. More impressive was how it wasn't simply a feigned show of worldly compassion and concern. They knew their stuff. During our pre-departure preparatory meetings, ARENA, CAFTA, NGO, and other such acronyms were easily banded about and discussed with considerable depth. Luckily, Andy — a friend who, like me, was lured by the double exclamation points and applied to the program as well – provided me with appropriate nudges or pokes that would jolt me out of my glassy-eyed stare whenever these discussions reached a particularly fevered point. Where was I when my peers were becoming respectable, civic-minded young adults? Probably playing beer pong.  

According to the trip's parameters, we would engage in what was termed an "encounter," whereby we would attempt to, as my trip manual put it, "understand the complex social, political, religious, and cultural reality of El Salvador." Yeah, no biggie. Nothing that a couple weeks of pre-planned excursions with pre-selected individuals couldn't accomplish.

Sorry, but I was skeptical. I wouldn't say I liked the notion of a pre-prescribed experience. El Salvador: The Experience!! (two exclamation points). Furthermore, I wasn't keen on the term "encounter," which made the trip sound like a twisted excursion to the international zoo where we would ogle and point into the El Salvador cage. I worried that this expedition was part of the lurid trend of "cultural voyeurism." We'd go down there for a few weeks, talk to a handful of the poor and repressed, take a few pictures of a shantytown or two, and come back feeling warm and fuzzy about ourselves 'cause we experienced the real world. On the other hand, it was also naïve to expect that one trip could seamlessly unite us in brotherhood with the Salvadorans.

So, what exactly did I expect? 

I Traveled Through Customs, and All I Got was America's Favorite Ribs?

On the bus ride from the airport to San Salvador, the heat is oppressive and seems to condense inside the bus, which doesn't have air conditioning. I fall into a quasi-sleep. My head bobs as I fight the battle against sleep. "Stay awake, you fool! You're finally here! El Salvador!" I want to see everything, and I miss it to nap.

At some point, I am fully awake by a dull roar that has begun filling the bus. We are approaching San Salvador, and everyone is getting antsy. Here it is — Central America. We are seeing something new. We are witnessing something foreign — the tangle of a concrete city nestled inside a sprawling green terrain. We are seeing…. KFC? Yes, we've just reached the city's outskirts, and there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken, big neon bucket and all. My heart sinks. Fried chicken and home-style biscuits in Latin America? Surely no! I take heart, though. I remind myself that the currency in El Salvador is the U.S. dollar and that it is only to be expected that the U.S. will have deposited a fair amount of its culture (though I wince at my own inclusion of KFC as a part of U.S. "culture"). A couple of fast-food chains will not dampen my Central American experience! As we continue along, however, this resolve is put to the test. I keep waiting for Central America; all I see is straight-up America. Stars, stripes, and all. The low point comes as our bus rolls by a mammoth mall with a Tony Roma's boasting its tagline: "America's Favorite Ribs!" I wince and shift awkwardly in my seat, looking away from the offensive display of all-that-is-wrong-and-unholy with globalization. In averting my eyes, I accidentally catch Elise's. She blurts out, "Why ribs? Why Tony Roma's ribs? Couldn't it at least have been… I don't know…donuts?"

"Donuts?" I reply, a little thrown. Elise is a political science/international relations double major and a Fulbright Scholar. What is the wise insight she has to contribute?

"Hell. I mean, donuts… they're innocuous. Ribs, mass produced ribs no less, they're just threatening ya' know? So American. But not good American."

Visions of Dunkin' Donuts fill my head, and I don't feel much better. But I know what she means. It's not about ribs or donuts. It's not even about America, per se. We don't hate America. We hate the shiny, pre-packaged America that has over-stepped its own borders.

Then again, do I really hate it or only hate it because I'm supposed to hate it? I see why even Elise is struggling with her thoughts.

I suddenly feel uncomfortable. 

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Shotgun

We arrived at the international guesthouse, and I felt moody. I need to get out, and I need to see something. It's time for a run.

The air is thick with humidity and feels on the brink of condensing into droplets. Already, a sheen of sweat coats my skin. I abandon my run plans and adopt a pace suited to idle exploration. After the concrete chaos of San Salvador's center, I relish this moment of stillness within a residential pocket of the city. Palm trees and vines spill over the tangle of cable and telephone wires, zigzagging absurdly from building to building. Low cement walls painted bright white, and terra cotta span the length of the street, fencing each block of houses. Around the corner is a tiny walk-up bodega set into the cement wall with faded and peeling signs advertising cigarettes and ice cream novelties plastered about the counter. The proprietress leans against the ledge, the thin straps of her pink dress wilting around her shoulders, and points a hand-held fan toward her face. A car stops at the crossstreet a short way off and then quietly continues on. It's the sleepy hour of midday when everything operates at half-speed.

I round a corner idly lip-synching "Woman from Tokyo" when I nearly run smack into the end of a shotgun. A shotgun! It's not poised and hangs limply from a strap across a man's shoulder. But can one be too far from a shotgun, poised or not? I forget about my woman from Tokyo and shut my mouth tight, picking up speed — just enough to get me quickly past the thing but not enough to attract any undue attention from its possessor.

The man holding the shotgun is in uniform. He's leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette. He's…

"Hola!" the guard says with a big smile and a wave.

"Uh…hol...?" I trail off, feeling silly over my "I'm just a little white girl from the 'burbs, the only place I've ever seen a weapon is in movies like Rambo!". Continuing down the block, I find a group of little girls in their smocked school uniforms drawing stars and cats in chalk on the street.

We only spend one night at the Guest House in San Salvador before heading out to rural El Salvador for a week. After encountering two heavily armed guards stationed at the entrance of the gas station mini-mart, where I go to stock up on cheese and peanut butter crackers for the trip, I cease to be fazed by the presence of such weaponry.

In Which I Unwittingly Have my First Foray into Cultural Voyeurism

Loaded onto the bus, we take off for the Bajo Lempa, the region surrounding the Lempa River in the Usulután department. Our luggage takes up a good third of the small vehicle, and we are packed uncomfortably. The sun burns through the bus windows, melting us into the vinyl seats. El Salvador dips and rises around us as we leave the city behind. The landscape is a hyper-green I've never seen before. I'm unsure whether the dizzying heat has lulled me to a dream-like state or if the green here really is of a more vivid hue.

A green landscape in El Salvador.
A green landscape in El Salvador.

And then I see cows. Not the pasteurized, black and white, strengthens-your-teeth-and-bones kind of cows, but cows. What I imagine as the worn and weary forefathers of the American cow. The skin of the animals is stretched tightly over their ribcages and spines. Their knobby knees look barely able to support the pitiful animals' weight.

A little way further, we see from where the cows came. Like the flyer, there is a stretch of corrugated steel shacks and lean-tos. Here, trash lies in dense piles that serve a genuine purpose as the barrier between the highway and the community.

That wasn’t in the flyer. 

The dull, pixilated picture of the flyer made the shacks appear sterile or a relic of something that was. A museum exhibit. Here, there are potted plants and hammocks. Kids run barefoot in the trash-strewn dirt, kicking a soccer ball. Wash hangs from lines stretched between rooftops, and dogs laze on the dusty roads.

That wasn't in the flyer either. These are homes. The thing on the flyer… that was a symbol. A symbol of poverty. Poverty in its most dry and academic sense. "This is a shack. This is where poor people live."

I feel sick to my stomach. Was that all it would be? Had I said to myself, "Hey, that's something different. This I need to see!"?

Where did I get off accusing the trip coordinators and the majority of the American public of being sick voyeurs?

God, I hate myself. 

Nueva Esperanza

As part of our study of different manifestations of Christianity within El Salvador, we stay in the Christian-based community of Nueva Esperanza. In preparing for the trip, we read the history of the community and learned of its tragic past. In the first few years of the war, many of its families suffered persecution and violence at the hands of the army. In 1980, they escaped to San Salvador. They sought sanctuary in the basement of San Roque Church — 400 people with one bathroom and no bedding, never able to leave the cramped space. For two years, they remained in the basement until being brought to Nicaragua by International Solidarity, remaining there until 1991, when they were finally able to return to their home in El Salvador. Nueva Esperanza was formed by the survivors who wished to build a community that upheld the Christian principles of unity, solidarity, participation, and self-sufficiency.

I am nervous about staying with the community. In preparing for the trip, I also learned how the U.S. provided considerable military aid to the Salvadoran government, responsible for the repression and brutality faced by many Salvadorans during the civil war. I worry that they will be resentful of me, an American. I wouldn't welcome U.S. visitors if I were in their position. In fact, what the hell were we doing? Visiting?! What was this, a vacation?! Again, I am feeling angry with myself and even the whole U.S.

I am angry that a country I am proud to live in could fund such atrocities. U.S. rifles used by U.S. military-trained Salvadoran soldiers killed friends and family of these people.        

I am angry that I wasn't angry before and didn't even know to be angry.

I am angry that I am angry! I feel like a fraud. Up until recently, I knew nothing about El Salvador. Now, I'm suddenly a spokeswoman for the wronged and maligned?

The other members of the group are contending with similar feelings.

"What are we supposed to say?" says Andy. "I'm sorry we suck?"

Organic Toilets. ’Nough Said

We arrive at the community and are greeted by Soledad, a pretty woman in her mid-fifties with long black hair hanging loose to her waist, who will be our primary translator during our stay. She is enthusiastic and eager to settle us, chattering as she rushes around unloading our luggage.

We, however, are dead on our butts. The heat is unbearable. The kind of heat that is thick and heady. My skin is slick with sweat, and my clothes cling uncomfortably and unflatteringly to my body.

We are directed to our delegation center rooms and given time to get situated.


Our rooms are made of cinderblock and have corrugated steel roofs. We have folding cots to sleep on. There is electricity but no central plumbing. Showers consist of scooping out water from holding tanks. Clothing is washed by hand in basins. Organic toilets require the separation of liquid and solid waste. The liquid waste is piped directly to the ground. In contrast, the solid waste is collected underground and later used for fertilizer. Since there is no water to flush and carry the waste away, ashes must be strewn periodically into the hole to aid in the process of decomposition and to neutralize odor.

Beetles the size of quarters hover and zoom around our heads. Mosquitoes come in droves, drawn by the sweet pungency of our sweat. Occasionally, ripe mangos fall with a loud bang on the steel roof overhead. Skinny cows wander lazily through the dirt roads, and chickens peck at the parched grass.

Yes, this is definitely different. 

More Than Just Organic Toilets

Soledad gives us a tour. We cross the dirt road into a building right before the delegation center. Inside there are….computers? Does the town have to separate its liquid and solid waste, but they have a computer lab?

Soledad beams at us, clearly enjoying the look of surprise on our faces. She explains that the community had saved for a long time to get the computers. In a few months, they'll even be able to bring internet to the area.

We walk around the rest of the community, Soledad showing us the library, schools (they offer complete schooling from pre-k to high school), and a medical clinic. She tells us that, like the computer lab, each of these facilities was built through the collective participation of the community without any government funding. Two girls are seated at a table working on homework in the one-room library. A boy is browsing the shelves underneath a hand-drawn poster of SpongeBob SquarePants. The librarian explained that everyone could donate books to the collection. The collection is a small one, but it's steadily growing — they just acquired a complete set of encyclopedias and are now looking to increase the selection of books for young adults.

The clinic is a small room with two cots and a cupboard countertop filled with tongue depressors, swabs, and bandages. Taped to the doors of the cupboards are posters illustrating the various body systems. No one is in the clinic now, but Soledad, who works mornings at the clinic, tells us that a few days before we arrived, the clinic was busy providing tetanus vaccinations to all the children enrolling in elementary school. She then explains that each individual in the community contributes about 25 cents toward basic medical care for anyone who requires it — even those who cannot afford the 25 cents. The service also covers emergency hospitalization in neighboring cities like San Salvador should an individual require care beyond what their clinic can provide.

Soledad brings us to the land cooperatives on the outskirts of the community. She introduces us to Pilar, a man with weathered skin. She wrinkles around the corners of his eyes from constant squinting against the blazing sun. Pilar explains that a land cooperative is a piece of land collectively owned and cultivated by the community. Nueva Esperanza has two primary land cooperatives — coconut groves and sugar cane fields — that are the community's primary income source. The community also works with neighboring cooperatives to obtain the tomatoes, peppers, and corn they do not grow. Unfortunately, CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), which would allow free trade between the United States and Central America, threatens to destroy the cooperatives, which are too small to compete with large subsidized American farms. A month after we leave, CAFTA is passed. A few miles from Nueva Esperanza, a cornfield cooperative is abandoned because it's no longer economically sound to cultivate. They start buying American-grown corn instead.

We Go Home. Sort Of. 

I am lying down on the cool tile of the pavilion with my shirt and pant legs hiked up as far as is publically decent when Pilar comes to invite us to his home. We have toured the community extensively and have had several of its members come to speak to us, but this is our first invitation into a private home. This is not part of the itinerary. Our professors are working out transportation for tomorrow's excursion to a neighboring community. Soledad is busy with her regular job at the clinic and is not around to translate. It's just us students.

We walk to Pilar's home. Like the others in the community, it is made of concrete blocks with corrugated steel roofing. Clothing drapes over barbed wire fencing, drying in the sun. Two dogs with swollen teats lay sprawled and panting on the cool cement of the patio. Hanging from the rafters are potted plants and vines that brush the tops of our heads. A painted wooden cross hangs above the doorway. Adjacent to the house, but still under the protective cover of the patio, is the kitchen, where a woman is preparing food. Pilar introduces the woman as his wife, Gigi. She doesn't look at us but smiles as she spreads oil over a large iron slab resting atop glowing coals. An older woman carrying a baby enters the doorway onto the patio. She nods in welcome and sits in a chair beside the stove.

Finally, after two weeks, seeing the baby gurgle and fidget in its grandmother's arms and Pilar fussing with the oven coals, I feel at home. I want to rush over to Pilar and give him a hug. I want to pull up a chair beside Gigi and tell her about my day. How I accidentally soaked my last pair of clean pants when I sloshed the shower bucket too much. Though I can survive not seeing my boyfriend for a month, I missed him today. I want to tell Gigi all the silly and mundane things you tell your mother because she's your mother, and she cares about all the ridiculous and mundane things you have to say. I am far from my three-bedroom/one-and-a-half-bath/ranch, but I feel like I'm sitting in its kitchen having coffee with my parents.

I shuffle to the back of the group and peek around the doorway into the house. A little girl still in her school regulation polo shirt (school let out about two hours ago) sits on the corner of a bed (four of them), swinging her legs and watching T.V. It's one of those Telemundo-type soap operas. I can tell by the gleaming teeth and heavily penciled lips. The show breaks for commercials. One of those upbeat Coke ads comes on T.V. where the carbonation bubbles fly around and make everyone smile and hug. Happiness in a bottle!

When I watch commercials touting the virtues of Botox, music playing/internet surfing/rocket launching phones, and diet pills that make you drop 75 pounds (and build rock-hard abs!) in a week, I am appalled by the gross metastasis of consumerism. This comes from someone who drinks Starbucks and has at least five catalogs regularly appearing at her house. It seems absurd to watch this girl in her one-room concrete brick home, rapt with attention as the smiling girls and boys frolic in the Coke bubbles.

Gigi is preparing pupusas. She deftly stretches the tortilla dough to a circle the size of her hand, creating a well in the middle that she fills with cheese and beans. The dough is folded over the well and pressed again, creating a stuffed tortilla or pupusa. The process takes seconds, and the iron slab is filled with sizzling pupusas soon. They cook up quickly, and everyone, still crowding around the stove, eagerly reaches for the plate she presents to us. I grab one and pass it between my hands, trying to keep the oil from burning my skin. Not heeding the warning signs, I bite into it and receive a molten bean and cheese, a mouthful of goodness.

The group continues to gobble up the pupusas, some even jumping in to help Gigi by ladling beans and brushing the iron slab with more oil. I rest my burned taste buds and join Roseanne by the wall opposite the large outdoor stove. It's covered nearly from top to bottom with framed photographs. A picture of Jesus hangs at the highest point. The woman who had been holding the baby walks over to us and stands looking at the pictures.

"Mi hijo" ("my son"), she says, pointing to one of the photographs.

Pilar comes over and translates. 

Her son, Pilar's brother, was killed during the war. The government army cut off his head and put it on a bayonet. This one, she says, pointing to another photograph, is another son who disappeared during the war. Pilar was the only son to survive.

She doesn't cry. Her voice doesn't even waver. She says this all as if explaining how her son is a dentist and was recently married, that he doesn't call as often as she'd like, but she knows he's busy, and I'll call when he can.

But he’s not a dentist. And he won’t call.

He was killed and had his head placed on a bayonet. 

My stomach hurts and my chest is tight.    

What can I say? It's just not right. It's not right that this happened. It's not right that it should be told with such frankness like it was simply a fact of life: some people get to have daughters-in-law and nag their sons about not calling; my son just happened to have his head placed on a bayonet.

I want to cry for her. For Pilar. For El Salvador. 

I take a bite of pupusa

I ask Pilar to tell his mother that her sons were handsome men. 

In Which I Have an Epiphany Courtesy of Michael Bolton

We are traveling in a cattle truck to a neighboring Christian-based community. It's mid-morning, and the sun is beginning to burn through the dense haze that covers the countryside. Hanging on to the truck's rails as we make our way down the highway, the wind gives us a reprieve from the oppressive heat.

The truck turned off the highway and headed down dusty, bumpy country roads to the cooperative. We stop at a corner with a tired-looking convenience store so the driver can buy a Coke. Next to us, a group of teenage Salvadoran boys sit at a card table covered with cassette tapes and an old stereo blaring Michael Bolton's "When a Man Loves a Woman." They're actually singing along. Really.

As soon as we stop, they jump up holding several of the tapes. 

“Michael Jackson! Five dollars!”

“George Michael! Five dollars!”

One particularly bold young man blows me a kiss and says, "Michael Bolton for the beautiful girl. Three dollars!"

I smile but shake my head. "No." Michael Bolton? Uh, no, thank you.  

More handsome children in El Salvador.
More handsome children in El Salvador.

The driver returns, and we take off. I thought that I should have purchased the tape. My roommate back at home loves Michael Bolton, and she would get a kick out of it. I always give her a hard time, telling her that Michael Bolton is middle-aged mom music and that she's probably the only person our age who listens to him. Apparently, I am wrong.

I suddenly realized that Michael Bolton is my key to El Salvador. (Bear with me here). I had approached this trip as an opportunity to see something new. To see what there was to see and say I saw it. I got mad when I saw KFC. What a waste that was. I could go down the street back at home and see a KFC. That wasn't El Salvador. Then I saw a shotgun and some shacks and thought, Well, this… this is El Salvador.

Shotguns and shacks are not in El Salvador, either. Not really. El Salvador has shotguns, shacks, and KFC. It's handsome boys who have died or disappeared. It's America's Favorite Ribs, pupusas, and Michael Bolton. It's communities pulling together to rebuild what they lost.

I had been trying hard to pinpoint what El Salvador was. Is. It isn't a vacation destination like Costa Rica or Belize. But that's if your idea of vacation necessitates a beach. It isn't a country in civil war. But it was a country in civil war. It isn't a country free from fast food America. But it is a country that makes killer pupusas.

They don’t have a canal.

They don’t have beaches.

But Salvadorans do have a country with its own story. And they don’t need any beaches or canals to tell it.  

Alison Konecki is an aspiring travel and arts writer intent on experiencing as much of the world's cultural wealth as possible.


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