Life takes funny turns sometimes. Like the unexpected 24 hours that we got to spend in San Salvador last week. We were, of course, a little annoyed that we were rerouted by volcanoes and tropical storms and had to take an unplanned 5 hour bus into a country we had never been to… but that was also the exciting part! We had never been! When would we ever get the sudden chance to visit? It was as good a time as ever.
El Salvador truly is a beautiful and interesting place, despite the fact that most Americans (myself included) know almost nothing about it. As a side note on that subject, it amazed me how little coverage the Guatemalan earthquakes, tropical storm and volcano received in the news back home. I think the only thing that caused them to pick up the story was the unbelievable-looking sinkhole in the city (which I didn’t hear about until I got home), and NOT the fact that nearly 200 people died and that thousands were displaced from their homes. But (sigh) that’s how it is everywhere. Show me a country that doesn’t give the news based on its own interests.
But I digress… back to El Salvador. As we crossed the border via bus from Guatemala and peered out at the jungle-like country along the roadway, everything was green and beautiful. The people working in the fields seemed to be the hard working sort of people who keep things clean, trim and organized. I was impressed. All of the roadways we were on seemed to have drainage ditches and curbs… I typically hadn’t seen that kind of organized infrastructure in other areas of Central America. In any case, I was struck by subtle little things like that… first impressions.
When we reached the city of San Salvador, built on the side of massive volcano (we all groaned slightly when we saw it), we hopped off of our bus and found a taxi. We were absolutely amazed to learn that El Salvador uses US dollars as currency and not their own – it had been that way for the past 11 years or so (who knew?). As we chatted pleasantly in Spanish with our taxi driver on the way to our hotel, a good 30 minutes outside of town, he asked us (in the indirect, long and roundabout polite way of asking as is common in Latin America) whether we’d like a tour of the city. He offered to drive us downtown and to go get some “comida tipica.” As we didn’t have any other better plan, staying way outside of town, and in a strange new city, it seemed the best way as any to see San Salvador without compromising our safety. He seemed nice and trustworthy enough. So we agreed on a price, threw our bags in our hotel room, and jumped back into the taxi to let our new friend Rigoberto show us around his hometown.
Since we were starving after the long bus ride, we suggested that he take us to a place to get some food first. Rigoberto had just the place in mind – he told us that the food that we needed to try was called a “pupusa.” Think of it this way: Mexico is to tacos as El Salvador is to pupusas. So, we drove us up the side of a mountain to a little village, where we arrived at one of his favorite “pupuserias” ready to try the national obsession. This particular pupuseria, I was delighted to learn, was the site of the “World’s Largest Pupusa.” I wonder if it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records?
At any rate we invited Rigoberto to join us and he helped us order a heap of pupusas and tamales. There is nothing else to say other than they were absolutely delicious. We had pupusas made out of cornmeal and ground rice with fillings of cheese, beans and delicious unidentified things like cooked pigskin (definitely not as gross as it sounds – in fact insanely good inside a pupusa). We ate them with homemade vinegar slaw and tomato salsa, following Rigoberto’s lead.
As we ate, we talked about El Salvador. Rigoberto told us that there had been a 12 year civil war going on throughout most of the 80’s and part of the 90’s. Since he was a young man at the time, he was required to join the army for 2 years. He told us about how difficult it was, and about what a setback the war had been to their culture and to the country. He talked a lot about the blessing of peace – and it was apparent that he meant it both theoretically and from personal experience. It’s not often you get to talk to someone about a subject like that and know that they mean it… that kind of thing gets in your face and demands some thought and attention.
We also learned that Rigoberto, himself somewhere in his 40’s, had 4 kids and that in addition to driving a taxi he was a quadruple black belt in taekwondo, and owned a school where he taught the technique, along with his oldest son. He also owned and operated a successful coffee plantation and chicken farm. We watched some videos of his son teaching kids taekwondo on his cell phone. Rigoberto told us that he was a Christian and shared his story with us about how he came to believe. He talked about the men’s group he was involved in and how important it was to him. It was a sweet moment to meet another believer on our unexpected journey in another country, in another language, and (seemingly) coincidentally. Though we knew it wasn’t.
The rest of the afternoon we spent seeing the sights of San Salvador. The main square and old part of the city was somewhat of a disappointment – it’s not the sort of place you’d want to go wandering around in alone. Some of the charm and tidiness that I had seen in the villages in the countryside was lost here, and the streets were cramped and grimy like an old subway station. I wondered if it was still being rebuilt and reclaimed after the war. That said, some of the buildings, especially the cathedral in the main square, were remarkably beautiful and obviously remodeled recently.
After the mini-tour, Rigoberto drove us back to our hotel. We exchanged best wishes and email addresses, bought some of his home-grown coffee to take home, and said goodbye to our new friend. As we walked up the stairs to our hotel room, we reflected on the fact that no meetings are by chance. It was a wonderful day in El Salvador that we’ll never forget.