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.
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.
Hello everyone! If you don’t know me yet, I’m Amelia.
I’m a former newspaper journalist (Boston Globe, Detroit News, Minneapolis Star Tribune), who left my home, my job, my belongings and my safety net in the spring of 2018 to travel full-time and tell the kinds of stories that motivate me to keep studying, reporting and exploring.
I’m a SLOW traveler who has spent the last year and a half in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and now El Salvador, where I have been living and working for the last five months.
Here, I’m launching a new independent docu-series called WATCHED POT that will explore food, culture and U.S. imperialism around the world.
Those first two themes are obvious — food and culture are two of the main reasons most of us love to travel and adventure, to eat new things and learn new traditions.
But for me, especially as a U.S. native, travel comes with a deeper motivation as well — the opportunity to examine the current and historical influence and intervention of my own country in all of these places, and the sometimes disastrous results.
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.
I had read a lot about El Mozote, about this horrible chapter of Salvadoran history and U.S. complicity. Then, I went — and felt the bullet holes, smelled the earth, saw the tears. Here’s what it felt like.
I glared the at the Google map as we got closer.
I stretched and shrunk my screen, checking the estimated arrival time again. I tapped my notebook and looked out the window. The surrounding pueblos faded to pastures and morro groves. The mountains of Morazán looked gray in the distance.
I was anxious.
I was high up in the hills of El Salvador, but I was heading toward a piece of my history. Well, both of our histories. My companion Luis and I were nearing the site of the greatest civilian massacre in modern Latin American history — a three-day horror in which his people were killed … and my government helped.
As the sun settled into the hills behind the twin bell towers of the broad, white Iglesia Santa Lucia, the town came alive.
Candles, encased by glass lanterns in all shades of color, alit the adjacent park and town square, casting golden highlights on strolling silhouettes, on a child’s bouncing coif as she frolicked, on the underbelly of the almond tree branches.
It was Día de los Farolitos — that is, day of the lanterns — and I was not where I was supposed to be. Actually, nothing about the weekend had gone as planned.