Assault on Your Senses
Visiting El Salvador is a pursuit in exhilaration and exhaustion. As soon as you step off the plane, your senses are assaulted. Heat and humidity welcome you in a wet blanket embrace – a layer of invisible clothing you’ll wear all week. You try to determine the smells carried on the air: fragrance of flowers, diesel exhaust, wood burning (this is across the country), cologne. A riot of colours begs you to scan to the very edges of your sight line for traditional murals, painted front doors, bougainvilleae draping walls, and powerful graffiti images. It’s all coming at you at warp speed.
Is it Safe?
This sensuous experience is simultaneously processed along with a constant nudging at the back of your mind: is this safe? Whether walking down the street, wading through market stalls, or waiting for the bus, you are always ‘on’ especially in San Salvador. I likened it to being mentally on the edge of your seat, scanning your surroundings, being aware of what’s happening. Being in a country plagued by violence requires diligent considerations. I trust my daughter Hannah who reassures me from time to time of when it’s ok to make this move, use the camera here, take a cab in the evening not the bus, etc. Every morning, you only take the money you need for the day. The less you take, the less you’ll lose if you get robbed. Including identification. She knows. She was robbed at gunpoint two years ago right outside her gated house. That event prompted my first visit. This July, I returned with my husband to visit my daughter who is now doing research in El Salvador.
When You’re Out of Your Comfort Zone
It shouldn’t surprise me that I frame some of my thinking in the same ways we speak of learning even in the classroom. Everyday I would rise and ask myself, What might I learn today about the Salvadorans? About myself? It helps me when I face circumstances that challenge my comfort zone. As my family knows, this lesson fails me when I’m ‘hangry.’ Beyond this, however, I know that in order to learn, I have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more true than when navigating a conversation in a language you don’t speak, or perhaps more acutely, when riding a bus in San Salvador.
The edge-of-your-seat urgency I feel the entire time I’m in El Salvador is exacerbated on a bus. For me, I likened it to finding yourself in the wrong scene on a movie set; you signed up for a classic, serene On Golden Pond, and you are witnessing Apocalypse Now. Heart-pumping, horn-blaring, ear-piercing. Loud music escapes out the windows, heavy metal to Christian contemporary in Spanish! It takes just one bus ride in San Salvador to know why Jesus Christo is painted on the sides of most of them. Despite what guidebooks advise, you need to experience a bus ride. It’s a mere .20 cents. A nickel more for a micro-bus but apparently your chances of getting robbed are greater. Often people who sell their wares on the corner, get on the bus to ride just a block or two to offer toothbrushes, candy, watermelon or pens. I venture to guess Salvadorans spend half their day waiting for a bus. Buses here go everywhere. Within San Salvador, buses go to all the outskirt districts; those controlled by rival gangs. From the gritty inner city to the tops of volcanoes, from the Pacific coast to the borders, you watch in disbelief as they climb, skirt, rush, squeeze, spit, stop, sigh. They’re as ubiquitous as the heat, police and cattle (more on that later…).
Bus drivers have a unique language here as well, as expressed through whistles. No, not at girls. It’s a means of communication between the driver and the guy at the back, hanging precariously out the door, whistling to tell the driver when to stop, when to take off, calling to the people at the bus stop what number the bus is. It’s a well-oiled machine of a system that I do not understand at all.
You sear the image into your memory as you can’t pull out your iphone (tucked in a low pocket) to take a picture of the Salvadorenos. You’re dripping with heat in light pants. They are wearing jeans! You’re tightening the elastic in your hair. They are well-coiffed. You carry nothing but a water bottle. They have backpacks, cell phones, children and sometimes chickens.
You wear a mask with a smile because it is the universal language. And they greet you with a ‘buenas’. You breathe again.
And as you are pressed up against the stranger next to you, thigh to thigh, shoulder to shoulder, you want to say sorry (I’m Canadian) as the bus driver stops to let on 5 more! Personal space is a wealthy country’s luxury. Yes, young men do give up their seat for elderly passengers or moms with babies. But the edge of panic could surface were it not for knowing my daughter does this every day, were it not for the friendly faces that seem curious about our presence.
You are caught between two worlds. You are part of the relentless energy, the frenzied whistling, the bass-beat-loud music, the incessant speed, absorbed into the crowd, spilling out the door onto the street.
And yet you are other. Other than my olive-skinned-I-can-fit-in daughter, me and my blue-eyed husband are the only gringos on this bus, on any bus. And I am overcome with that. For how often do we find/put ourselves in that situation? Where you are the outsider.
It begs some questions.
How might such an experience exercise our empathy? How do we welcome visitors or newcomers to our country? Our schools? Our homes?
When is the last time you learned/experienced something new and how did it make you feel?
For me? Grateful, and quite alive.