Why would you want to go there?

I told a Salvadoran friend of mine that I would be passing through his country, and asked what he thought I should do there. His response surprised me.


El Salvador, backpacking, travel“You’re going to El Salvador? Why do you want to go there? The capital in particular is horrible and dangerous. I guess you could go to the beach, and there are some old ruins…”


Why did I want to go to El Salvador? That’s a fair question. For starters, it was one of the two countries on the continent that I hadn’t visited yet, but I’d like to think I have loftier aims than a checklist to complete. (Though I won’t deny there was a certain urge in that direction.)


But all those headlines over the years, when El Salvador was topping the charts for homicide rates, gangs were running the prisons, and narcotraffickers were blending into an international network of macro-criminals, those stories had made an impression. Basically: Don’t go to El Salvador.


backpacking travel in El Salvador, Ataco market“It’s too dangerous!” said They. The consensus of concerned advisers. And I was inclined to obey. After all, you don’t see me booking flights to Afghanistan, either.


But there is something else too. They also told me it was too dangerous in Zambia, and I found nothing but wonderful people there. They said Northern Sri Lanka was still unsafe for tourists. “It hasn’t been long enough since the Civil War, there are still Tamil Tigers and land mines up there!” But I found a welcome on the streets of Jaffna that gave me smiles and a sense of welcome that are still nestled within me, nearly a year later. And They said Eastern Turkey was a hotbed of extremists and revolutionaries, yet Diyarbakir, and even more so Mardin, quickly ranked among my favorite places on Earth.


backpacking travel in El Salvador, Pueblos VivosYes, a few months after I left Zambia, several people were murdered by a mob in the same town where we stayed. And yes, two days after I left Mardin, 5 kilometers from the border with Syria, a pair of car bombs killed at least 51 people and injured 140 others in a similar town not all that far away.


Those are awful things. The sort of headlines that push people away from a nation, and drive fear and incomprehension into the hearts and minds of foreigners. They make us say “Well, that’s just the sort of thing that happens there. They’re just…used to stuff like that over there.” The casual racism of distance.

El Salvador, ruta de las flores,

They’re just different there…nothing I could ever empathize with…


And what’s the best cure for racism? Both overt and passive? Contact. It’s a lot harder to feel dismissive of a people when you’ve actually stood, talked, and eaten with them. And that’s a much better reason to go someplace than stamp-collecting in your passport.


Maybe I should book a ticket to Afghanistan after all…



(More info on El Salvador, probably far too much in fact, in the first of my posts on the Ethical Traveler website.)