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.
After that conversation, I sat down to think about why. Why is it that life here — a country with lower wages, fewer services and a pervasive, decades-deep gang crisis — feels so much richer than the richest country in the world?
Here, of course, we’re treated to incredible vistas, the blue-gray layers of mountains and the wildflowers blossoming at their feet. There are the palm trees and the fruit trees and the perennially lovely climate. The sensation of a packed market on a Sunday, the produce plump and shining, the smoke from charring tortillas wafting into the rafters. Or the feeling of walking through a lush neighborhood, with a bag of fresh juice in the soft morning sun, the window sills and balconies of the houses all dripping with succulents overflowing from milk cartons. One is never too far from nature, here: from trees, from the breeze. Holes are cut into roofs in homes; rather than windows, cafes simply open a wall.
But that’s not it, exactly. No, that’s beauty, that’s atmosphere, but it isn’t quite what makes El Salvador so rich.
Instead, for me, it comes down to a single word: community.
Life in Latin America, and poignantly in El Salvador, is all about community.
Here, people know their neighbors. They trust and rely on one another. My friend Alejandro, living in an apartment complex of almost 200 units, has never once locked his door.
Around the country, people share. Even people who don’t have much share; perhaps, in fact, they share better than anyone. You almost never see someone begging in the street; petty theft is all but non-existent. I have left my bag alone on cafe tables to use the restroom; I have danced in a park with my bag sitting on the ground. Once, overloaded with things on a bus, a man offered to hold some items, and understanding it was kindness, I said thank you and accepted. These are all things I would never do in the U.S.
Here in El Salvador, kindness is an unspoken policy: in stores, in restaurants, on the streets, in emailed conversations, in which people won’t get down to business before a full paragraph of well wishes. Everyone is worthy of kindness, here, but a special respect and reverence is lauded to the elderly, from the heads of communities to women, often affectionately called madre, cooking at stands on the sidewalks.
In the spirit of such community, its common for strangers to offer their help, whether it’s a loan of an item (I’ve had my fair share), a service or a connection with someone else. I’ve heard stories of healthcare providers treating those without resources inside their own homes. People seem to take pride in treating others to a meal at their own cost, without asking anything in return.
In many ways, dining out in the U.S. has become an activity for the rich — a fact I was strongly reminded of recently when I went to a U.S. restaurant one night that was serving $9 slices of pizza, and when on my way through the Houston airport, I encountered $9 individual “street” tacos. Here in El Salvador, there is a vast network of vendors and comedores dedicated to serving rich, affordable food — not just the delightful pastelitos that one can buy for mere coins, but also full meals with meat, tortillas and multiple accompaniments for less than $3. There are plenty of expensive restaurants here, too. But even at bars, one can find affordable entertainment — beers, on special, can be even cheaper than you’ll find them in the stores; many places offer a list of bocas (snacks for about $1.50 each) that can give one the feeling of a lovely night out without breaking the bank.
Perhaps the best part of this movement of community is the attitude that accompanies it. How many smiles — real, genuine-feeling smiles — do I receive in a single day from strangers? From old and young, women and men, even children who seem to lack the same “stranger danger” mentality I was taught growing up. I lose count, every day.
Honestly, witnessing all of this and reaping the benefits myself — as a white tourist who might not receive so much love elsewhere — has made me a better, more caring and patient person.
As I’m writing this column, I’m sitting in a small mom-and-pop cafe, and they’ve just informed me, with wide smiles, that this is “mi casa,” too, and not in the sort of sickly false way that some servers in the U.S. might assure me they’re “taking care” of me that day.
Here, people help each other out and they love each other. It’s so simple. And yet, coming from the U.S., it feels so novel.
There, it’s true, we have different luxuries — extravagant homes with sound-proof walls and lots of stuff. We have brands and movies and international celebrities. We have a certain expectation of services — hot water and potable water and underground sewers and relentless trash collection (even if sometimes they don’t come through). We have certain assumptions of security (although that might be a false comfort, to some degree). The money that flows through our cities and towns offers a claim to wealth and exclusivity.
But has any of that that made us happier? Has it made us stronger? Has it made us richer?
I say no. And when I go back to visit, I feel it more than ever. Our fear of each other has made us stop saying hello on the street. Our desire for productivity above all else has drawn us inward, further cutting us off from the world around us and from each other. Evidence of our own deficiencies — 40 million people in poverty, tent cities cropping up in major cities from coast to coast and the elderly losing a role in society — are strong hints that we’ve stopped caring for each other, sharing with each other.
And maybe it’s no wonder; in the U.S. it seems like every day there are a few more little ways that human interaction is being removed from our lives. And if we’re not connecting with humans of all sorts in elemental ways on a regular basis, can we still remember what its like to be a good human?
In El Salvador, I’ve found those little moments of humanity are sprinkled throughout every day.
A five-block walk might yield 15 simple salutations. A day of errands includes not just familiar tasks, but familiar faces. People literally greet each other — for the first time — with a kiss; right cheeks planted against each other in an incredibly intimate display of respect and trust. Just imagine, in the U.S., touching someone’s face with yours the first time you encountered them. People would repel. But I’ve come to find the practice lovely. We touch each other’s faces with our own. Perhaps there is no greater acknowledgement of our shared humanity than that.
At first, it took me some time to adjust to the change. As an introvert, and a U.S.-born American, I arrived still wired to go about my business without interruption. Most of us in the U.S. are raised on the idea of efficiency. Getting everything at one store is better. Getting work done faster is better. Getting to the point of every conversation, quicker, is better.
Even though I’ve been traveling through Central America for over a year and a half, it was here where I started to really feel the change, where I started to feel the beauty of slowing down and saying hello.
Soon, a trip to my favorite tienda ignited pleasantries with the women who own it, who began stocking my favorite beer when I told them how much I love it. Visits to my local post office began to linger when I got to know the men who work there, who always ask me about my travels and the photos on the postcards I send. I got to know the women from whom I buy my tortillas. I began to go to different locales to buy my cheese, my produce, my bread, because I knew the faces that handed those things to me, because I could say hello, and that felt nice. It was decidedly less convenient. Less efficient. And yet …it felt so much richer.
By the end of each day, I could feel that. All of those collective smiles, the small conversations and glancing well wishes, they did something, they changed something. It was undeniable. That human interaction, it was feeding my soul.
Earlier this week, I was thinking on this. The whole day — running errands, shopping in a market, working in a cafe, stopping for a beer and a beautiful, simple meal — I had been alone. But as I walked into the complex of my friend’s apartment, I recognized that I wasn’t, not really.
Here for only five months, I was instead part of a community.
Doing this job here, working independently, relying on crowdsourcing and maxed out credit cards, I’m not making a lot of money.
Oh, but I am rich. Porque la vida es más rica aquí.