Past and present in a troubled country (Eastern El Salvador)

Published: August 20th 2010
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(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%!o(MISSING)f 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 travelling here.

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).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


20th August 2010

Hi Ben, sorry- was traveling and forgot to answer your last email. Well, we back in Zurich. Ja dieser Flug zurueck war fuer uns auch hart (von HKG nach San Fran), wir sollten uns unbedingt mal sehen, wenndu woeder in Europa bist. ich bin oefter in Muenchen (Family) wuerde gerne mal ein Bierchen zusammen trinken. Und ja geiler Tarvelblock und save travel! Florian
20th August 2010

Totally understand. It was also a BIG deal for us to book our ticket after 14 months on the road. Enjoy the last months. When you're back in Europe, you're always welcome in NL.
20th August 2010

Coming Home
Dear Ben, I am sorry to read this! Of course a wedding is always a good reason to come back home but I have to admit that I will miss your blog. Yes I will ! I hoped that we could meet us next Febr. in Peru. What a pitty ! I hope that we stay in contact when you are back in Germany. Walter
20th August 2010

Living the dream
You are really living the dream. Amazing!
20th August 2010

20th August 2010

every journey must come to an end I suppose, but what a journey it was!!!. Will make sure to savour your final blogs.
21st August 2010

beautiful lands beautiful people
22nd August 2010

Going Home
I'll miss you blogs when you go home but you've got some amazing memories from Living The Dream! This Dream may continue....Best wishes, Dawn
8th September 2010

Really, it 's a strange felling for your reader's blog ;-) as for me I'll be miss about you treveller notes weekly i recieve news about you trevel ;-) I wish you successful to make a break for you tourney and meet with your parents and friends!!!!
17th September 2010

BBC Radio Programme Interview
Dear Ben, I am writing from a radio production company called Tonic Productions, based in London, England. We are currently producing a BBC Radio 5 Live series called Men's Hour with Tim Samuels. In each episode, broadcast live every Sunday at 7.30pm, a group of guys from all walks of life discuss two issues of particular relevance to men. There are also pre-recorded elements in each episode, as well as live phone-in interviews. One of the issues for this week's show, broadcast on Sunday 15th of August, will be hated jobs. We want to hear stories of guys who have left unfulfilling employment to pursue a dream career or lifestyle. I came across your blog and found that you left your job to go travelling, and have been on the road for over two years. Very impressive, and inspiring! We'd like to interview you by phone for this week's show if you'd be willing. We can call your mobile or a nearby landline if you have access to one. We'd like to hear about what motivated you to give up your job and live the dream, and about what you have gained from your experiences. We'd like to inspire our listeners to recognise the possibility of ditching the rat race for a life of adventure. The interview would take place live by phone, and would last around 5 to 10 minutes. This would be a good chance to publicise your blog, and tell the world about your experiences on the road. Let me know your thoughts on this when you can. I look forward to hearing back. Best wishes, Josh Twivy Tonic Productions
15th February 2011

I am a journalist, but my current work is related technology. I was born in El Salvador and lived the years of the war, that experience left a mark on my life. I live in the US now, since 1992. I admire your decision, not all of us can leave behind what we have to start the adventure. Good luck!
8th July 2014

Prejudiced Generazation from a German!
It is sad when someone lists his home country as Germany....a country that murdered millions not too long make such insulting generalizations about both El Salvador (obese, nothing to see) and the USA. I have long protested the actions of the US government but that does not translate down to a blanket hostility toward Americans from Central Americans. In fact, I feel like a movie star in El Salvador and many people are keen to come to the US. You blog is poppycock, sir.
8th July 2014

Maybe to your concentration camp victims! I have had kids and can't go to a gym. Since you say just about every Latina over 25 is fat, I think every piece of chain smoking Euro trash needs some good food.

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