Live Inspired: In this midst of this chaos, a moment of quiet

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

I’m writing this just after midnight on a Wednesday; the world, from my San Salvador balcony is quiet.

The world, here, is never quiet.

Situated on a cliff hanging over a valley that stretches out beneath a frantic highway, my apartment sits in the heart of the vibrant Antiguo Cuscatlán neighborhood — a place where at any moment one can hear the call of street vendors selling paletas and pan; the clamant broadcast of church services, those pastors speaking in tongues via mics connected to far-reaching amps; the roar of traffic and the groan of heavy loads in trucks that have been on the road a few years too long; the long-extending parties that thrive in the event center just across the street.

Quarantined: 14 ideas to keep you from losing your mind at home

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

As the phrase “social distancing,” has become a new, ominous part of our vernacular, I’ve heard an understandable amount of wringing and solemn but depressive consent on Twitter and from friends.

After all, staying confined to our homes is something almost un-American — an unnatural deprivation of the social and consumerist culture that marks our very identities. Here in El Salvador, it defies the local culture, too. Days, here, are typically marked by trips to multiple independent vendors of eggs, produce, tortillas, bread. Breaks for lunch in the neighborhood park, the nucleus of all activity. Stopping for a minuta at the cart on your way home. 

Still, when I first heard that we might need to hunker down, I secretly loved the idea. I’ve always thought I’d do pretty well amidst the bowels of a bomb shelter or in the clutches of zombie apocalypse. Being alone, cooking off of spare ingredients and endlessly entertaining oneself while managing a routine-like schedule? Yeah, we’ve basically just described my personality.

Even as a world traveler, I’ve still maintained the heart of a hermit, gleefully hibernating for days at a time in the midst of editing and writing sessions, cooking with whatever I have on hand and cranking up the music to dance, sola.

When I first wrote this column, a few days ago, I was feeling optimistic. Wartime Amelia and Peacetime Amelia are not that different, I wrote.

However, I’d just been in the midst of a semi-hibernation when the news hit — knowing I had some national and international travel coming up, and attempting to grind and save money as much as possible. I was about at even my own break point. Now, a week into this new reality, it feels different, heavy. The international airport in El Salvador has now closed, cutting off the burgeoning idea that I might venture home. I feel far away from family and friends and — though plans to lift these quarantine measures and reopen the airport are currently scheduled just over two weeks away — I can’t help but wonder just how long it might be until I’m truly able to go. Thinking worst-case scenarios is not necessarily helpful, but they’ve likely crossed most of our minds.

So in an effort to be helpful during this time of solidarity, I thought I’d share some ideas for those of you  secluded in your homes for whom hermit-ing might not come so naturally. And in doing so, I hope to remind myself. All right, quarantine, here we go. Let’s do this.

With Coronavirus impact growing, El Salvador is on lockdown and I’m stress-eating Palitos

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

With no known cases of COVID-19, El Salvador is nonetheless taking dramatic measures as life fluctuates between feelings of normalcy and the bizarre.

The week started out so innocently.

On Sunday morning, before returning from a short beach weekend at the glorious Playa El Jaguey in eastern El Salvador, I was marveling at the sunrise melting over the island-filled bay and just how alone I was on the long, pristine sandbars.

By Wednesday evening, I felt like I was in a real-life version of Contagion — surrounded by hundreds of strangers at the grocery store as the shelves chaotically emptied, and my Twitter feed began pinging me into a panic.

Soon, I’d be marveling at how alone I was once again, but for wildly different reasons.

In the span of a couple hours, life had changed. I’d gone from scoffing at what I felt was “overblown” reaction to COVID-19 to being an unwilling participant in a full-on quarantine — changing travel plans, committing to lost money and wondering what will happen if I unintentionally overstay my visa here.

Around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, someone messaged me that the entire country was on lockdown.

Entrenched in past scars, ex-gang members lack almost every ingredient for hope; they’re baking anyway

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

Both the U.S. and the El Salvador governments call the current gang epidemic in El Salvador a crisis of epic proportions. But opportunities for gang members to escape the cycle of violence — with their lives — remain incredibly dangerous, and rare. This is one unfunded organization that’s trying, anyway.

The young men carefully guided the large, metal trays out of the industrial-sized oven and onto standing racks to cool.

The artisanship was evident: perfect, buttery coils of pan con ajo; creamy-topped novias; rows of soft picudas, their delicate peaks adorned with golden beads of sugar. In the other room, a few others were masterfully shaping the dough before it went into the kiln — twisting spirals to form decadent cachitos; filling jalea-replete gusanitos with the second nature sort of motion that comes only with time, repetition and dedication.

As the air filled with warmth and rich wafts of butter and yeast, I felt like I might be in any typical Salvadoran bakery, except for notable context: all of these delicacies were being made by ex-gang members.

In the back of a makeshift church in one of the most brutally violent territories in the country, these tattooed hands that not so long ago embarked on very different tasks were now rolling out thin ropes of dough, gracefully arranging them in circular designs atop sweetbreads.

Confronting my privilege in my work

Some recent online criticism took me by surprise. It probably shouldn’t have.

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

•••

Last week, Twitter punched me in the gut.

After someone reposted a link to my project explainer, noting that with a white person behind it, it had the chance to go sideways, a small community of Latinx U.S. Americans jumped on board with the criticism, which got pretty extreme in a few cases.

I’m embarrassed to say, it took me by surprise.

I wanted to create this new docu-series exploring U.S. imperialism because I see a real dearth of those kinds of stories in U.S. media — and because these lesser-told accounts that may seem distant and long ago to some are actually critical context for the issues we’re all concerned about today.

In many ways, we’ve forgotten our own history or we were lied to from the start. Revisiting some of those stories and bringing light to them is what I’ve been driven to do.

But since I began the project, I’ve also described, in part, my motivations for what not to do. I’ve talked about being hyper aware of the history of white people in other countries — colonizing and enslaving, diminishing and extorting, profiteering off of faces and experiences and controlling narratives for their own gain.

I’ve explained that as a white person moving through non-white places, one of the few ways I felt I could do good and not harm was to make my work a critique of my own people, my own government; to be a voice in examining that influence so that we can work to change the direction of the tide.

Still, when some of those accusations were slung my way, I was shamefully taken off guard.

Live Inspired mailbag: all things food

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

If you know anything about me, you know that food (and drink!) is a big part of my life. After growing up in my parent’s kitchen — entering cooking contests from the age of 9 — then coming of age in restaurants, then working as a food writer, I’ve always been very motivated by food.

For me, travel is no exception — in fact, food is one of the major inspirations in why I travel. I’m never happier than when wandering through a local market, discovering new produce and new prepared dishes. I believe that the raw origins of a place’s food culture is always evident in its markets; there’s no better venue to get a grasp of the climate and terrain, to understand what and how people eat, to see the various crude ingredients — animal parts, produce, fresh cheese, just-made tortillas — come together skillfully in entire meals at a vendor’s stand around the corner.

While traveling, I’ve also found food to be one of the greatest connectors, which is why cooking and eating will be such a big part of my docu-series project. When we make food for others, we are caring for them in the most primal and fundamental sense. To accept that gift is an intimate exchange; to respect someone’s food is to respect them. And oh the satisfaction of savoring a meal together; do so and you’ll be closer than you were when you sat down.

There is incredible wonder and joy in newness, of experiencing something you never have before. There is incredible comfort and fulfillment in familiarity, in being reminded of our commonality and shared experiences. In food, we have an opportunity to find both: newness and familiarity. We have the chance to feed ourselves physically and mentally, in two wildly different but equally nourishing ways.

With those sentiments in mind, I thought I would focus this latest mailbag on all things edible (and drinkable!). Judging from your responses, food is something you all are passionate about and interested in, too!

By the way, if you’ve missed them, you can find past mailbags about who I am and what I do, about the logistics of my travel and about all things health-and-wellness on the road through the above links.

Live Inspired: La vida es más rica in El Salvador

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

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.

Live Inspired: leaving El Salvador, different from before

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

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.

Live Inspired: 20 lessons from El Salvador

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates •

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.