Warm welcomes

I am back in Nicaragua, and I must say I am happy to be again in a place where warm welcomes are given freely. My short time in San Salvador was tainted by fear: getting fixed stares when sitting on a bench in a central square. The men staring at me fixedly for many long minutes and staring still, with no change in expression, when I nodded and smiled. So different from the cheerful greetings from passersby in Nicaragua and Honduras!

When I was sitting in the central square of San Salvador, three people stopped to speak to me. The first was a woman who thought she recognized me from a religious revival taking place that week; she said, ´there are lots of white people there´. The second was a man who wanted to know where I was from, and then what it would take for him to get a visa to The Netherlands. The third was an elderly man who sat down next to me and chatted about the square, the city, my marital state and why I would travel on my own, until I ambled away.

I was afraid to take out my camera and so took a few slightly slanted photos from inside my backpack. The cathedral (with Oscar Romero´s tomb) was closed by an occupation: the cathedral has been occupied for the past two months by some former anti-government soldiers (from the war in the 1980s) who, my visa-desiring visitor said, were demanding land. (The Hispanically Speaking News says instead they are demanding recognition of their trade union, among other demands.)

After I ambled away from my friendly but nosy elderly visitor, I then wandered through the market, where there are apparently 3000 informal traders on a single street (informal trading is banned elsewhere in the city: there are no paper sellers, window-washers, or boys hawking decorated towels as elsewhere in Central America). San Salvador is tidy, well-ordered, and brimming with an atmosphere of discontent.

They do have wonderful museums, though. A new museum of art and a museum of anthropology. And a museum of the military showcasing guns, missiles, and helicoptors – mostly made in the US – used against their own people in the 1980s. Many of the guns were manufactured in 1960 or so. And not all were made in the US: guns from Germany, Belgium, Russia, China, and Israel were also on show. And several tanks made in El Salvador.

It was notable that the only ambulance in the museum was a converted American truck – while external countries were providing killing tools, tools to help rescue the injured from the field apparently were not quite so readily available.

On the third day, I visited Suchitoto with a hired car-and-driver (buses being not recommended for safety reasons). The uprising was strong there, apparently in part because a dam flooded a valley, and no compensation or assistance was given to those who lost homes and land. This is what my driver told me, after showing me photos on his mobile phone of himself as a 14-year old cradling machine guns as part of the uprising. ´We had to defend the village,´he said.

He told me both sides are now friends and that there are no grievances held from the time of war.  Then he suggested we stop for lunch. The cafe had a collection of odds and ends. A bit like some pubs in Galway, in fact: old sewing machines and old irons, a few robbed archaeological finds, and several stones for grinding maize. And guns. Seeing the very plump, middle-aged man cradling a rifle with a wooden stock, beaming as he tried to make sure I knew how important it had been in his youth, this was chilling. The pleasure he took from rubbing the stock of a gun, glowing with the memory of war, this made me wonder how much is resolved and how these experiences can be healed.


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