After returning to El Salvador last week following a little more than half a month in the U.S., I told a friend I was happy to be back and he asked me what felt nice about it.
It was one phrase, that had been clanging through my head all day, that first came to mind:
La vida es más rica aquí.
Life is richer here.
I have been thinking of that little idiom ever since I heard a man I was interviewing in Morazán use it recently. This was a Morazán native (he might not appreciate me naming him without asking so I’ll decline) who has split his time between the U.S. and El Salvador for many years now. In many ways, he seems content with his life in the States. He loves the city he lives in and its Latinx communities, has no interest in criticizing the U.S. government and by all impressions given, is grateful for the opportunity he has there and proud of being the kind of immigrant that he believes the country wouldn’t want to deport. The money he makes there dwarfs what he could in the small village where he is from, and it supplements his life when he returns twice a year.
Even so, as we chatted about the differences between the two worlds and I told him how much I had loved living in El Salvador, he nodded knowingly.
“Es la verdad,” he said. “La vida es más rica aquí.”
Maybe that’s a sentiment that would come as a surprise to some U.S. Americans who think of El Salvador as a developing country, tormented by poverty and violence and lacking many of the comforts or conveniences we take for granted in the States.
But that thought — la vida es más rica aquí — certainly was one, if not yet expressed, that had begun to blossom in my mind.
I’ve spent a lot of time on planes and in airports in the last 15 years or so — from working in newspaper jobs covering first sports and then travel, to my own enthusiastic journeys, to this nomad lifestyle I’ve adopted now.
It occurs to me often that the Sky World, which commences once one enters a building designed to usher people into that universe, is totally different from Land World, and that in many cases, airport culture is almost entirely estranged from the culture of the city that built it. Accents suddenly disappear. Time slows to a halt. Shoe shining is back in vogue. It’s more unusual to *not* get a beer or bloody at 9 a.m. on a weekday than it is to drink three.
Necessarily, then, the rules and customs that govern these Sky World places are unique, too, even if most of them aren’t written or even widely spoken of in the streets (concourses). These rules aren’t arbitrary; they’re here to keep life vaguely decent and vaguely efficient in an experience that has become akin to organized torture.
When I walked into the San Salvador airport, my phone connected to the WiFi, instantly.
My phone recognized the building immediately, but I barely did. It felt like a place I was when I was a different person.
Looking down at my phone, though, sent me down memory lane. I remembered connecting to that public network, anxious that I couldn’t get a SIM card before driving into town. I remembered feeling such anticipation, and walking through the airport taking mental notes.
The Murder Capital of the World sure does have a lovely airport, I thought, strolling past MAC makeup counters, glistening coffee shops and craft breweries. (Side note: what must people feel like when they arrive to the great U.S.A. and land in …LaGuardia?)
But the feeling wasn’t just anticipation. If I’m honest, there was something else I was feeling that day, nearly five months ago. I was a little scared.
When I arrived in El Salvador — a tiny Central American country many in the U.S. think of mostly in terms of pupusas and immigration — I had no idea what to expect.
But after five months of living in its capital city, traveling across its strikingly diverse landscapes and through its charming towns and villages, I have found it to be one of the richest, most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It feels like paradise, and it feels like home.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
The reputation is unfair. If you Google “travel to El Salvador,” you just might come away with the impression that you simply can’t do it; much is made of the gang presence and violence statistics and it leads to an incredibly one-dimensional portrait of the country. In reality, there are more safe areas than unsafe areas, and as a visitor, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d run into any concerning activity. What’s more, petty crime — such as theft — is very low, making many cities, towns and neighborhoods in El Salvador actually much safer and tourist-friendly than other places in the region. For those reasons and others, I felt safer here than I have anywhere.
Here, I take your questions about a particular topic of my nomadic life and give you all the secrets about how I make this crazy existence work.
The theme this month? Health and wellness. Let’s be real, even when we’re stationery it can be hard to juggle all of our physical and mental needs along with work and social activities. Let me tell you, when you’re on the move, it can be even harder.
It took me a full year just to figure out how I could scrap together a daily routine in the midst of travel, even when my apartments, my cities and my work flow are constantly changing. (You can read more about that here.)
Before moving (temporarily) to El Salvador, there was one phrase I heard over and over, from strangers and friends alike:
El Salvador, after all, has a gritty, dangerous reputation, especially in the U.S. where you can hardly Google the country without breaking out in hives. Sample headlines describe it as “murder capital of the world,” and lament “life under gang rule.” The majority of U.S. media coverage of El Salvador centers on migration and thus focuses on the country as a place of poverty, crime and desperation.
Several people, this summer, actually urged me not to come — for my safety.
Now, after living here more than three months, I still hear that phrase from people back home all the time, despite trying to show so many wonderful aspects of the country.
Yes, it’s actually spring here in El Salvador, but my brain still thinks of the calendar on U.S. terms. This year, like the last, I’m vicariously experiencing fall through social media — photos of turning leaves and added layers and Halloween parties.
My birthday, usually an autumn affair, was spent at the beach (not complaining). Instead of Halloween, I’ll again be celebrating Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, later this month.
This fall playlist probably combines those two sentiments — the effervescent, ever-summer feel of Latin America and the moodiness and wistfulness that sinks in with the later U.S. months. OK, there’s probably more “moody” than “bounce” in this one, so maybe draw a hot bath for your listen.
As always, it’s arranged to be played in order, but shuffle if you must (and know that I judge every shuffler among us).