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.
Traveling has taught me, over and over, that there is so much unfounded fear in the world. Still, Google and some less-than-ideal experiences in Honduras had shaken me a bit. Just how much of the city, exactly, did the gangs control? And would a woman alone, as this article seemed to suggest, just be immediately robbed? Or worse?
Walking to the complex next to the airport, I found a friendly cab driver who introduced himself, helped me find the ATM and started telling me about the country I’d just arrived in. I agreed to ride with him, but just as we were headed for the car, it occurred to me that he wasn’t wearing any official uniform (not uncommon for independent cabs in Central America) and that in some cities it was dangerous to take an unmarked, government cab. Feeling that tiny scream of fear again, I stopped, and made up an excuse: my friend, I just remembered, was going to be entering the area by bus in a couple hours and I should just wait for her. I asked for my bag, which he was carrying. He saw right through me. He looked sad, and repeated pridefully what he had told me in the beginning — that he had worked at this airport, as a cab driver for more than 30 years — before wishing me luck and walking away.
I’ve since felt sad about that, even though I was only trying to be cautious and protect myself.
I’ve felt sad because in the days and weeks and months following that moment, I learned something I didn’t know then: that the Salvadoran people are some of the kindest, most generous, most sincere I’ve ever met. There, I would and have trusted strangers with my life.
I entered San Salvador open-minded, if slightly nervous. But I had no idea that I was about to fall in love with the country, almost as soon as I stepped foot outside my marked, government cab.
Quickly, I realized that this place was different than it had been billed. My first apartment was attached to the home of a woman who regularly brought me tamales and papaya for breakfast — not with a bill attached, just out of hospitality. When I went to Centro Historíco for the first time, and saw that no one was begging, and no one was cat calling, I felt a blanket of security I hadn’t expected. I wandered over to where a five-piece band was playing in Plaza Libertad; two of the old men offered me a seat and chatted with me amicably while the little old ladies danced.
As the city and the country grew in front of me — showing me its volcanoes and rivers, its beaches and lakes, its cocktail bars and street food, it’s big city moments and small village warmth — my heart grew.
There, I found real routine for the first time since becoming a nomad. I got to know, in a way that it’s hard to in other places, the people involved in the minutia of my daily life. The men at the post office began following along with my journey through the postcards I brought to mail each month, an event that became something of a social occasion rather than a chore. The ladies at my favorite tienda began stocking my favorite beer for me, and soon were calling out to me on the sidewalk when I passed. I found friends for a lifetime, who showed me how to yo-yo, how to fist pound twice and how to cross the street with out getting killed. They taught me that the best beer was Regia, that the traditional toy trompo was impossible to play, about La Mera Verga. They loaned me a guitar, they helped me design postcards, they became my eventual film crew.
Since I began traveling full-time, I’ve relished visiting every place and seeing the world, but I always felt that the U.S. was still the most like home, that probably one day I would return to live there again permanently. In El Salvador, I started to wonder, for the first time, if I actually belong somewhere else. Suddenly leaving — going home — felt like traveling, not returning.
Before arriving, I had read so much of El Salvador’s history, and about what was happening nationally with the election of Nayib Bukele. On the ground, all of those books and articles had context. I walked through the elaborate Parque Cuscatlán project that Bukele had begun as the city’s mayor, spoke to people who said their lives in the grip of gang violence was changing, thanks to his new policies and increased security, and others who were more skeptical about what comes next.
The civil war was the bulk of what I had studied and since participating in a Cincinnati artistic exhibit about the El Mozote massacre, I’d spent a lot of time thinking about that heartbreaking moment in time, and the sheet of paper with a single name on it that I carried.
But after trekking to El Mozote in three different trips for my docu-series project, I know the story in a different way. Those red clay hills and mango groves I read about? I walked through them. Those victims I had cried for, even before arriving — I cooked with their daughters, hiked with their siblings, played soccer with their grandsons. Suddenly, the place I had seen in photos was something real. I know the size of the bullet holes in the last remaining destroyed houses. I know the color of the blue-gray hills when the sun hits them at golden hour. I know the heaviness that one feels when kneeling, with a candle, at the great monument.
That history isn’t history anymore. It’s something tangible, it’s current, it has texture and faces I know and recognize.
It left me, in some ways, a different person than when I came — something I wanted reflected on my body.
I travel, in part, because it changes me. I get tattoos because after something has changed on the inside, it feels wrong to continue without changing on the outside, too.
So I left with ten luciérnagas — or fireflies — on my left arm, a tribute to those who had died in El Mozote, and those who lived, bringing light to a story that was dark for so long.
And I walked into that vaguely familiar airport with an entire country’s worth of new love in my heart.