May 21, 2007

The City that Kindness Forgot?

San Salvador is not a kind city. You are reminded of this every day. The city is constantly on edge. Wherever you go, you can´t let your guard down for a minute. This manifests itself in simple and more complex ways.

For example, there is no pedestrian right of way in El Salvador. Cars are kings of the road. In the States, if you are in a crosswalk, you can expect the cars to stop for you while you walk across. In San Salvador, if you are in a crosswalk, you run the risk of getting run down because the cars won´t stop for you. If they do stop, they will honk their horns at you. You have to make sure that 1) you have the light and 2) despite that, there are no cars coming. They won´t stop for you. Believe me. And if you are hit, for all intents and purposes it´s your fault for walking even if you are in a marked crosswalk.

Another example, a little more complex. Crime is very prevalent here. No matter where you walk, whether you are in a ¨good¨ neighborhood or a ¨rough¨ neighborhood, you will see all the windows barred. Houses are often hidden behind 10 foot walls, with one or two layers of razor wire on top. The apartment in which I am staying resembles a jail cell in front, with an iron-frame door and iron-grill work around. Every morning, when I leave, my host walks out with me to make sure there is nobody hiding underneath the stairs to ¨jack¨ me when I walk out.

Another guy here, a person in his 60s who came down here to teach English and get Spanish lessons at half-price for 10 weeks, said he felt safe withdrawing money at a bank in a shopping center because there was a security guard with a shotgun standing near by. Unfortunately, his bubble was burst when we were told that the security guys won't help you...they are just hired to protect the business they are standing in front of, not to stop crime on you. Chances are they will look the other way.

That's another thing that reminds you that the city is not huggie bears and perfume. In front of many businesses, large and small, stands a guy in uniform with a sawed-off shotgun. They are protecting these businesses, allegedly. I've been told that the biggest security company is a large business interest of the former president of El Salvador, Christiani, who is still very important to the ruling party, ARENA. Thus, there is a disincentive to reduce crime because then it hurts profits to said security company. However, it completely reinforces the notion that you are not ever safe on the street when you walk past so many businesses with razor wire all around, a vicious dog locked inside, and a guy with a sawed off shotgun outside who will do nothing to help you if a bunch of gang members are beating the hell out of you right in front of him -- as long as they don't touch the merchandise inside.

Downtown, the city center is tinged with danger. You get sin and redemption all at the city plaza, where the cathedral and the prostitution business are separated by only a block or so. The market that makes up much of downtown is full of honest people making a business, and theives selling their stolen merchandise. Everyone walks through quickly, eager to get business done and get out, looking all around and holding on to their belongings.

And I've mentioned the gangs before. Everywhere you go, you see gang grafitti. Even near my school, the signs of the notorious MS-13 marks walls.

Why is this so? Because of the extreme inequalities here. In a country that looks good on the UN and World Bank charts, with its better than normal GDP, the inequalities are staggering. The richest people get richer, while the vast majority of poor people struggle to survive. Many leave for the US, where they work crappy jobs and send home remittances. 15% of the GDP comes from Salvadorans living in the US. For those that stay, crime is often the only option to get by.

You might think it is all horrible here. But no, not always. There are random acts of kindness and goodness that pop up from time to time, and make you feel bad for looking at everyone as a possible robber or murderer. Like the nameless woman on the bus who, when I was looking for my stop in the first week here tapped my shoulder and asked A donde vas? Or the completely spontaneous Buenas that come when you pass people on the street. Or the old couple I passed last Sunday and I said Buenos dias and their eyes lit up and they smiled and responded heartily Buenos dias! On Saturday past, a guy I barely know invited me to come to San Vicente with him, underneath a towering volcano, where he and his uncle are fixing up a home that was destroyed in the earthquake of 2001.

Yes, kindness didn't completely forget San Salvador. It occasionally sprouts in the open, but most of the time if you scratch the surface, you'll find it hiding below and waiting for a reason to come out.



Blogger Mary B. said...

Good post, Mike. I'm glad that kindness can be found in unexpected places.

10:25 AM  

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