SAN SALVADOR--We sat at the hotel Via Real, half watching television and talking about the day when it occured to both Katy and me that we might be becoming slightly jaded. We concurred that, by all accounts it had been a strange day yet neither of us were feeling that much of the cognitive dissonance one normally feels after out-of-the-ordinary experiences...either that or we were both living in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance much as a drunk lives with a constant hangover so that normalacy ends up strange and disconcerting and sobriety painful.
All we really knew when the day began was that we were accompanying Dr. Diane Busch, a dentist from Florida, into Soyapango, a major suburb of San Salvador. Soyapango is a manufacturing and industrial center wherein had orginated some of Latin America´s most vicious gangs. We would be meeting with, and ostensibly under the protection of,the mayor and the ruling political party the FMLN (Frente Ferebundo Marti Liberation Nacional). Diane was supposed to set up some donated dental equipment as well as see patients from among Soyopango´s poor.
We entered the FMLN compound and waited for the mayor under the watchful eyes of that ever-present revolutionary poster boy Ernesto "Che" Guevera. The mayor, Carlos Alberto Garcia Ruiz was a short man with a firm handshake. He wore a bright red FMLN polo shirt and a Castro cap complete with red star, Cuban flag and a pin of Archbishop Romero, El Salvador´s martyr, assasinated in 1980. Ruiz ushered us into a conference room and sat across from us flanked by two larger men, both wearing shirts containing a high percentage of red. Ruiz then launched into a long, rambling speech in which every other word seemed to be that magic catchall, the word everyone is for and no one can argue against, the word that can make gringos begin to hemmorahge donations and go dewy eyed at the prospect of helping: "Development" (or "Desarollo" if ya hable the local lingo) is the word and the only way to improve on the word "development" is to add its magic modifier, "Sustainable."
I wasn´t paying too much attention, to tell the truth. I´d heard variations of this speach several hundred times before and I amused myself by pulling camera after camera out of my bag and shooting several frames with this one, several frames with that one until suddenly the whole tone of the speech changed and Ruiz was talking oil, Venezuala, Chavez, Cuba, Castro, Jorge W. Bush. He went on to tell us that the FMLN in Soyapango and other municipalities was directly cutting deals with their brother leftists for gasoline in exchange for manufactured goods on a long term loan. In essence he was playing a small match of that ever popular Latin American game known colloquially as, "Poke the Gringo." Hugo Chavez is up-and-coming in the sport, Castro the old master, by and large content now to let younger men do the heavy poking but always ready to poke a gringo or two when the situation calls for it.
After this and a round of handshaking the mayor´s men took us into the chaotic local market where I nearly stomped on a chicken with my great big gringo boots (you break it you bought it), checked out the mounds of fresh melons and peppars, avacados, mangos and platters of glistening white chicken feet. Eventually we ended up in front of a locked metal door. "This," one of the red shirts said with a flourish, "Is where the dental clinic used to be!"
I asked if we could see inside but no one addmitted to having a key so we all stood around for a few minutes shuffling our feet and making polite noises of admiration towards the door and whatever might once have been held behind it. Exiting the market we walked to a nearbye building that was to be the new clinic. It was a series of cinderblock rooms, empty save for one that contained several pieces of dissasembled dental equipment. Somebosy mentioned ,"development," and I couldn´t have agreed more. Diane the dentist began to examine the equipment with some fervor as became suddenly obvious that it would be the only patient she would be seeing this trip. With no small amount of horror I noticed a flight of mosquitos launch themselves from a wall and head right at my flesh. And so, while Diane did dentist things and Katy questioned the locals about the frequency of malaria and dengue, I tried to avoid both while providing entertainment as I danced around jumping and slapping myself and the buzzing air around me.
After all that excitement we hopped back in the truck and Domingo drove us through Soyapango, past shops making all manner of things, vending all manner of services, past an airforce base where soldiers stood in the guard towers sighting down their rifles as if preparing for imminent attack. All of a sudden we made a turn at a light and were descending into the bowl of a large caldera lake. This, Domingo said, was lake Ilopango, the remains of a volcano that had exploded only 1,500 years before sending rock and ash all the way up into Mexico. Down near the shore water stood deep in the roads and many of the building had a decrepit, damaged look that we were told was damage from the last devestating hurricane season. Along the shores were shacks and huts selling beer and food. It was barely noon but many little parties were already in progress. Grey effluant poured down rough channels into the otherwise clear water and boys played in the mix while old men soaped up and bathed. A group of young toughs ducked each other and mugged for the camera, guzzling aguardiente and smoking while behind them a blind man was in the process of being baptised, ducked under the surface whlie a small congregation sang hymns of praise. It was all chaotic and messy and alive and there was not a gringo in sight. I wished I could stay and explore this place with the volcano Chinchontapec looming in the distance and the forested Isle of the Ducks over there acorss the gentle silver waves.
Soon, however, we were back on the road driving through midday traffic, through smog so dense that things 30 feet away were slightly indistinct, obscured by a mustard yellow haze and the black belches of buses and trucks. It was lunchtime so we found a restaraunt in a quiet neighborhood not far from our hotel. Its multi-level patios were surrounded by trees and people had gathered to drink beer and watch the soccar match between Madrid and Barcelona on the televisions. When we asked the cheering man at the next table who he favored he smiled, shrugged and replied, "I don´t care. I just love the game."
When we returned to the hotel I was still hungry and needed a few things so we walked two blocks down to the ultra-modern mall. On the way we stopped at Wendy´s so Katy could get a Frosty. We did a little shopping and in the produce section of the grocery store a butterfly sat on the top of a mound of mangos. Katy gently ran her fingertip over the top of its wings and they opened to reveal patterns of orange and black. "It´s the only familiar thing you could find, huh?" she said to the beautiful insect. It waggled its wings and crawled further up the mango.
All of a sudden I had an almost overwhelming need to eat at the Tony Roma´s restaraunt, not so much for the food but for the cool, dark quiet of a deep padded booth. So we went and sat there and I ate a large bleu cheese burger while Brittany Spears looked down on us from a poster and Jason Timberlake emoted on the stereo. Crowds of Salvadoran mall rats passed by the dark tinted windows, all the types youd see in the States, the bleach-streaked hair, the morbidly obese families, the t-shirts with the latest bands. The Cinemark movie theatre was playing "Brokeback Mountain" or, "El Secreto en la Montana," as it is called here and we wondered how well gay cowboy stories go over here.
We sat watching television back at the hotel Via Real while the sunset was made all the more spectacular by the smog and the lights and nightlife of El Salvador switched on.
"It was a strange day, wasn´t it, Katy?" I said.
"Yes, it was."
"Are we becoming jaded?"
"I think maybe. I hope not though."
We were silent for a while, watching Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfieffer resolve their marital difficulties with emotional speeches. Katy switched the channel to CNN and we watched Hugo Chavez poking the gringo.
"Maybe we aren´t jaded," I said after a while, "Maybe when every day is strange, full of the odd and unpredictable, the mind must necessarily turn down the rheostat."
Katy yawned and stretched. "I think I need to go to bed. Why am I so tired? It´s only nine o´clock..."
I looked at my watch and replied, "Nine o'clock means we´ve been up and running for 14 hours now. And it has been a strange day."
"Yes, it has."
"So it´s time to say goodnight."
"Because tommorrow will be strange too," Katy replied with a smile.
"Yes, it will."