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Post A Salvadoran Trek on Foot; from Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 10/23/15 6:30 AM

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A Salvadoran Trek on Foot; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA, 10/23/15 6:30 am)

Gary Moore writes:

This is in reply to John Eipper's considerate suggestion that I write about my walk through El Salvador (see Richard Hancock, 16 October):

As I walked into El Salvador I had a new hat. The old one was long gone. All of my equipment, including a backpack that had endured many a campsite, was lost 300 miles behind me in the jungles of Guatemala (another story). By the time I strolled improbably into the dry-season dust of El Salvador, the wet Guatemalan rain forest was a distant dream (today much of that great Petén forest is gone in a more final way; a highway now slices through bulldozed wasteland where I nearly starved to death in jungle darkness).

It was a long time ago, that quixotic walk, so long that it now sounds like Abraham of Ur. As I was leaving Guatemala and entering El Salvador, it was 1979. No cellphones or GPS, Amigo Sancho. Beyond El Salvador I would have the Nicaraguan Revolution to look forward to. El Salvador's own guerrilla war, like Guatemala's in those days, was more confined to hit-and-run in the secret places. Clear across El Salvador I would see no sign of combat, only tense faces, hushed rumors. People were focused on the apocalypse next door in Nicaragua, dolefully counseling that I must not, under any circumstances, continue walking through the Nicaraguan chaos, with its storied Somoza atrocities and burning towns. I would indeed see combat in Nicaragua.

The walk--a little too geographically prolix, I know, for easy credence--was not really so complicated. Pick one foot up, put it down. Pretty soon you've gotten somewhere. Maybe 20 miles a day along a banal roadside, more like ten over the rain-slippery log piles of the jungle. And all of it rationalized under the tattered flag of journalism-- whether called stunt journalism or nobly getting outside the press conferences. The salient cues in rural El Salvador, the crucial background trivia that construct memory, were the icons provided by nature. The searing dry-season heat on the blistered Pacific littoral joined with the approaching portals of war, all speaking reproach, omen, unwelcome: You sweaty idiot! Such small things: the cliff-like, gullied sides of the ox-cart tracks were of fine white loess-like soil, so fine that each footfall sent up a puff from the track, like the muffled feel of walking in flour. From the coffee plantations came the constant, lunatic whine of chicharras, the insect Greek chorus, stuck maddeningly, inescapably in high C. And from the road-banks, the hooting moans of motmots--birds of irony because their visual beauty--irridescent green with streaming tails--is reprised by auditory dross, a moan weak and ominous, barely murmuring; dubbed guardabarrancas, guardians of the gullies. In all this you can see the sweat-streaked lens through which my larger impressions were being formed--and must be judged.

To me--entering El Salvador illegally by way of the unguarded Acajutla beach, then meeting the many faces one by one in cities and rural somnolence, building up a picture from flashes of experience--the longer history seemed laid out like exhibits in a museum. A special national history seemed to peer again and again from the trail vignettes. In short, El Salvador's special history, despite the rural quiet, has enshrined aggression--ever since Nahuatl-speaking Pipiles took the rich-soiled Pacific coast from less assertive Lencas, who were pushed back into unwanted hill country. After that, a new wave of conquerors, wearing Quixote-style helms, would begin ratifying the boundary, as the assertive Pipil country became El Salvador, and the demoralized Lenca hillbillies were left with larger, poorer Honduras.

On back into the mists, Central America's geographically smallest and most crowded Hispanic nation has had a history of energetic effort that could translate into violence. At the start of World War I, El Salvador was looking forward to a promising future as Central America's likeliest venu for industrial-style progress. But the crowding and pressures, hemmed in by claustrophobic borders, overtook the hopes (with or without consideration of the 1930s massacres). The emerging emblem was the 1969 "Soccer War," which in fact was a naked land grab by assertive El Salvador in a desperate last attempt to find its lebensraum, with Honduras cast as the disdained eastern marches, which, naturally, should go to smart people able to use the land (also a favored Pilgrim argument against the Algonquians). It didn't take long for Honduras to lose the fight--though then the shocked international community (presumably meaning the 800-pound gorrilla in the room), forced El Salvador to retreat back to the old borders. Then its fate was sealed. The lid was clamped shut on El Salvador's over-crowded pressure cooker--too much population in too little room--forming the place I stumbled into.

The rural silences I met were outshone by urban alertness and can-do initiative, but also a mad scuffle of pushing and shoving seemed grimly omnipresent (on languid coffee plantations the elite could stay aloof). Writers from Michener to Theroux have had much the same mutterings. One day in a pensión in San Salvador the synergy of impressions came pouring out of me strangely, via another hat that I wore (when there was time to sit down with a drawing instrument).  For I made a sketch. It was a dream sketch--or a nightmare's--an attempt to capture an atmosphere that seemed everywhere visible, but perhaps never to be defined in the discretions of print.

I little guessed that the far future shape of what I was seeing might someday involve tattoo-covered gangs.

JE comments:  This is travel writing at its poetic best.  The sketch does a masterful job of portraying both the industriousness and overcrowding of the Salvadoran people.  Thank you, Gary!  See below:

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