Published: August 20th 2010August 18th 2010
(Day 866 on the road)
OK, first things first: I have booked my flight home for the end of October. Puh! It might not sound like much, but it is a big, no, a huge deal for me. Making plans to go home was one of the very last things on my mind for the past two and a half years. Of course I knew the day would arrive eventually, but I didn't image just how much the simple act of booking a flight home (Panama City-Miami-Dusseldorf on October 31st) would affect me mentally. Now I have about two and a half months left on this journey that has become my life. Long by some standards, no time at all when you consider it from my point of view.
Anyway, Kristina and Tino are getting married at the beginning of November in Germany and asked me to be their best man, so what better reason to return to Europe? And if I find there isn't much for me in store back home, I can always continue travelling. At least that's what I keep telling myself. Better not to think about it too much but to live every day to the
fullest whilst it lasts.
And I was trying to do exactly that for our second and final time in El Salvador, this time exploring the eastern part of the country. We entered where we had left it three weeks earlier, at the border to Honduras near Nuevo Octoeque. Our first stop was the country's highest peak, El Petal, which is just a few kilometres from the border and which promised outstanding views form the top. But it wasn't meant to be; the fog at the top was as thick as anything. Shame!
So we pushed onwards to one of El Salvador's main attractions, the colonial and relaxed mountain town of Suchitoto. The town was pretty indeed but nothing overly special. The nearby Lake Suchitoto however was beautiful. We were lucky to bump into two Spanish families and shared the cost of a two-hour boat ride with them across the peaceful lake, spotting countless birds and other wildlife along the way.
Spending any amount of time in El Salvador one cannot fail to notice that El Salvadorians must be one of the most obese people in the world. I don't think I have ever seen such an abundance
of overweight people in any country I have been to. It is not an exaggeration I feel to say that almost every single woman over the age of 25 is not just a little overweight but outright fat. The reason eludes me however, as the food here as such (typical Central American cuisine - tacos, pupusas, beans, rice etc) is not too fatty or calories-intense.
One thing that might have something to do with it is the way the economy works here: More than one third of all El Salvadorians (3 million people) live abroad, the majority of them in the United States, many as illegal immigrants. They send home a whopping 3 billion US$ every year in remittances. The effects on the local economy are immense: With so much money pouring in freely, a large number of people here has no need to work at all, as they are being sustained by their relatives and friends abroad. Most of the money received is spend immediately; experts estimate that 85% of the money goes directly into consumer spending (groceries, designer clothes, western fast food etc).
You don't have to be an economist to image what that does to
the country: Since people aren't saving they are growing ever more dependant on the next check from abroad; the economy is largely built for spending, not for generating revenue; farming of working in general is often highly unattractive when the money pours in so freely, resulting in sky-high unemployment and various related problems (violent gang crime and the world's fourth highest murder rate are just the tip of the iceberg). If the US ever cracked down harder on illegal immigrants, the effects on El Salvador and its feeble economy would be detrimental. Until then, Western Union is having a field day.
Next up for us was Alegria, touted by our guidebook as another one of the country's highlights. Unfortunately, there wasn't very much to see or do there at all, and the constant rain ensured that we almost never had a view of the low lying areas around the town either. So we spend our time playing cards in our hotel, which was actually very nice for a change. I guess it is just as Tino commented: When you write a guidebook and are faced with a small country like El Salvador without any major attractions for tourists, things
that would not even be mentioned in bigger countries suddenly become highlights.
Our last and final stop in the country was in many ways the most interesting. El Mozote (close to Perquin), was the sight the gruesome El Mozote massacre
in 1981 during the El Salvadorian civil war
, where the El Salvadorian army raped, tortured and eventually slaughtered more than 900 villagers, 70% of which were children (the youngest two days old), in an act of retaliation for the strong guerillas activities in the area. The massacre holds the sad title of being the greatest ever human rights abuse in the whole of Central America's troubled history, and is a big sore for many El Salvadorians to this day.
The part of the army responsible for the killing, known as the death squad Batallón Atlacatl, had been trained by the US army. Afterwards, the El Salvadorian and the US military covered the incidence up as best as they could and for years denied it all flat out, the US calling the reports that managed to leak out "gross exaggerations". As the facts slowly emerged it proved to be a huge public embarrassment to the United States, who supported
the El Salvadorian government war efforts in its fight with the left-wing guerillas with a staggering 6 billion US$ between 1982 and 1990, severely prolonging the conflict that claimed 75.000 lives.
Across Central America, the widespread meddling and interference by the US government, who was responsible for or involved in numerous coups and civil wars in the last 50 years or so in most countries here, has caused the US to loose considerable sympathies in the entire region to this date. Ask anyone here in El Salvador or any other neighbouring country how they feel about the United States and they will tell you exactly what they think. It is pretty bad we feel really, so Tino has resorted to making a point of us being "no gringos" whenever we are being mistaken as such (which happens a lot with so many US tourists here).
Anyway, our sobering time in El Mozote brought or time in El Salvador to an end. Whilst the country doesn't hold any major highlights compared to some of its bigger neighbour, the authenticity of the place and the friendliness and openness of the people has certainly made for a very enjoyable and pleasant
Ending this blog in a personal note, I was as close as anything to giving a live interview on BBC's Radio 5 last week on a feature portraying people who escaped "normal life". Me failing to check my email meant that I missed to make the final arrangements, after the producer of the show and me had arranged everything beforehand, to the point of tossing around likely questions and answers. What a bummer - imagine what that would have done to the popularity of this humble blog of mine. Ah...
Next stop: Leon (Nicaragua). Also have a look at my pictures at http://pictures.beiske.com