Shortly before the Charlie Hebdo affair, I conceived an interest in visiting El Salvador. During and after the Charlie Hebdo affair, this interest was unabated. About the Charlie Hebdo affair, it was instantly clear to me that nothing useful would be done, indeed nothing notable would be written. "Notable" being defined as "containing the phrase 'pyramid of skulls'," or "explaining France's magical ability to convince everyone its problems are the world's foremost," or even "explaining why this attack is any more 'special' than Madrid, or London, or Mumbai, or 9/11, or even Fort Hood." One could hardly do worse writing about El Salvador.

One could of course do better than spend just four days there. But I imagined that would be enough for one stimulating mental exercise: picture what it must have been like to be posted in such a place. El Salvador was one of those places where superpowers chose to find trouble. I am guessing that the civil war's formal end – 1992 – corresponded with one superpower's just tapping out. Whether that was true, I wanted to envision what a Soviet spy or diplomat or "advisor" would have found and felt in this obscure land.

Well, maybe not diplomats – El Salvador did not establish formal relations with Russia until 1992, and never had an embassy in Moscow before 2012. Probably most Soviet machinations were through Cubans and Nicaraguans. Still, it is not unreasonable to imagine a few Russians posted inconspicuously here, and marveling at their lot in life. It should have been a hell of a ride: stoking revolution, and in a sunny place! And yet I suspect Russians didn't feel that at all. Although they are that great rarity nowadays, White People Who Aren't Required To Be Nice, they may never have rejoiced in such a condition, since it also applies to such motley demographics as Chechens, even Gypsies, comparison to whom might be the grossest insult imaginable. Russians certainly crave, if not respectability, then respect; they certainly aren't ever going to enjoy either because their sheer bigness has never amounted to stylishness; this had to be screamingly evident to those on missions in hot crowded violent backwaters. Having neither bandbox elegance nor cowboy swagger, they are at best just functional-looking.

The role I pick for any Russians-on-the-ground is one of auditors, just checking on those Cubans and Nicaraguans. It just sounds like the sort of thing you could trust a sunburned apparatchik to almost do. Be that as it may: what of El Salvador's own appearance?

Anyone posted to El Salvador would certainly be told of its population density, the highest in Latin America. In my own experience, such figures don't mean much: a rural place may feel crowded only if I am bicycling through it, and an urban place may feel depopulated only after I walk it for hours. What a Russian would feel, I don't know, but I do suspect he'd be sensitive to it. I've been in Soviet apartment blocks, and the idea of a stuffed countryside would be a great novelty. Actually, I don't know where El Salvador puts all its people, but they have to be out there somewhere in that raddled landscape.

Anyone professionally aware of El Salvador would know of its high murder rate, and if you've read news even as casually as I have, you know how coolly ferocious the homicides are. I seriously wonder how anyone could tell the difference between peace and war. And yet people seem pleasant. If they have been brutalized, they do not show it. Communism excelled at making human decency look like something for chumps; for very different reasons, El Salvador too makes human decency look disastrously unwise. And yet in Russia and in El Salvador, it survives. Even a Communist would have to notice that.

As Russians might have found in El Salvador an equivalently amoral society, and been amazed, as they should have been back in Russia, that anyone might still struggle for morality, they might also have recognized this as just another country where everything good, sophisticated, polished comes from somewhere else. To varying degrees, South American countries imagined themselves becoming great crucibles of invention and manufacturing, but Central America never kidded itself: the usual patriotic posturing aside, it basically stuck to bananas. Russia imagined itself becoming a great crucible of invention and manufacturing, but it never made anything anyone ever wanted – and so it may as well have skipped the adventure, and like Central America contented itself with the dullest and most direct of moneymakers, in its own case extractive industries. And then just used the cash to buy the cool stuff overseas.

Something a Russian could notice but probably wouldn't is the architecture, or more precisely the urban planning. He could notice it because El Salvador's is about as bad as the U.S.S.R.'s; but he probably wouldn't because he'd likely consider such outrages normal. As for me, I had been interested in SITRAMSS, San Salvador's new bus system that sounds as awful as Bogotá's, but learned nothing inside the one station I'd found by pure luck. It didn't even have a route map. The only thing I do know for sure about SITRAMSS is that a lot of people are unhappy with the way its dedicated roadways are already disrupting traffic and commerce. Since San Salvador is already dreadfully ugly, I cannot say how anyone could tell. Maybe the reason Salvadorans do notice is that their complaints have to do with functionality, not esthetics. Motorists trying to drive somewhere, street vendors trying to sell something: SITRAMSS besets them. In the U.S.S.R., did motorists and vendors even exist?

I see I am not rigorously separating old Soviet ways from modern Russian ones, but I doubt that really confuses anything. Indeed, I suspect all diplomats now posted in El Salvador – and there are many – even Taiwan* has an embassy – see things about the same way. How important can this place be? Nobody's digging a canal through here. (Or if they are, it's stoppin' at Honduras!) I saw an ad on the back of a bus, courtesy of the U.S. Embassy, warning Salvadorans that there is no "connection" to be exploited or "trick" to be pulled when asking for a visa. That's what diplomats are here for: to deal with Salvadorans' national will, which is apparently to escape their nation. I am sure all foreign personnel arrive with their eyes wide open, and none sighs: I came as a buccaneer, I ended up a customer service representative.


*I wonder if I have ever written "Taiwan" without italicizing it, or without putting "even" in front of it.

© 2015 J.A.Hutter

Other travels