Lightning Flashes in El Salvador

Travel Stories: Tracy L. Barnett stepped off a bus, checked into a luxury resort and learned something about the indifferent forces of nature

10.27.10 | 10:02 AM ET

Lago Coatepeque (Tracy L. Barnett)

I met Manuel on the bus to Lago Coatepeque, the cerulean crater lake at the base of Los Volcanes National Park in far west El Salvador. His cheerful young face amid so many closed and tired ones led me to choose him as a seatmate, and he helped me with my overstuffed backpack.

We exchanged pleasantries, but when he found out I was from San Antonio, Texas, the conversation got interesting.

“I know San Antonio,” he said nonchalantly. “I was deported from there once.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d encountered such troubles. On his first trip north, he nearly drowned crossing the Rio Grande. Once he made it to Las Vegas, he was deported. He tried again, and was deported from San Antonio. Now, at 26,  he was being deported from Mexico to the border of El Salvador, and embarking on a five-day walk back home to Honduras.

His pantomime of the terrifying river crossing was comical, and he smiled through most of his story, as if he were talking about a movie with a happy ending.

“Why didn’t you just stay home?” I asked.

“What will I do there? There are no jobs,” he said, and smiled his charming, little boy smile.

He hadn’t eaten since yesterday, I discovered, so I fished out my emergency stash of nuts from my backpack and handed them over. I paid his bus fare and found a $10 bill I could spare, and tucked it in his hand before he left.

Now he must be miles away, I thought as I surveyed this sparkling expanse of blue amid the volcanoes. Just a week ago I’d never even heard of Lago Coatepeque, or Los Volcanes National Park, home to three volcanoes.

I relished the swaying of the palms in the electric breeze, waiting for the storm to arrive. Lightning flashed over Santa Ana Volcano on the far side of the lake—the same volcano I would climb the next day. After weeks of backpacker hostels I had decided to splurge and stay at the Torre Molina, what passed for a luxury resort in these parts, and shelled out the $30. Dining options were limited, so I stayed for dinner.

I ordered grilled tilapia and was savoring the meal along with the sunset out on the balcony overlooking the lake, when Elmer, a friendly hotel staffer, interrupted my reverie.

Ya viene el agua,” he said. “Now the water is coming.”

Elmer had dropped by to make conversation, it seemed. America is the land of opportunity, he told me—that’s why an estimated 4 million Salvadorans live there, more than half the 7 million who live here. There’s just no opportunity here, he said.

“But you have a good job here at Torre Molina, no?” I asked, naively.

Elmer just laughed. “Six dollars a day,” he said. “For that I can rent a room. I can’t have a house. I can’t get married or have kids. Why would I want to bring children into the world when I can’t support them? Why would I want to marry a woman and make her miserable?”

“Oh, that’s so sad, Elmer,” I said.

“Oh, but it’s not so bad. Here at least I meet interesting people—and in the restaurant, they give me food,” he said.

“Oh! That’s good. Like the tilapia?”

“No,” he smiled. “Never! Like, tortillas and beans.”

I looked down at my flaky white tilapia, my salad with slices of avocado and lime, my hand-made tortillas and fresh pineapple licuado. It had been a splurge at $12—two days’ salary for Elmer.

“That’s why we keep coming to your country, no matter how many times you throw us out,” he told me, laughing. “I’m one of the lucky ones—at least I have a job. Those who work at the fincas have it much worse; they earn $50 every 15 days.”

The sunset was vanishing, as was my appetite.

“Speaking of work, I have to do mine,” I said, changing the subject. “Where can I get the best photos of the sunset?”

So Elmer shifted into tour guide mode, showing me the path along the lake, the national flower—izote—and the presidential quinta. He told me of the violent explosion that had obliterated the top of Santa Ana five years earlier, hurling boulders and plumes of lava onto the fields and homes below, killing at least two villagers.

The shore of the lake was lighting up now that the sun was gone, and Elmer explained to me that most of the lights belonged to quintas, or private vacation homes of the wealthy. Lake Coatepeque, unlike Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, is mainly the preserve of the rich. Which, in this context, I am, despite my meager earnings as a freelance writer.

Elmer promised to wake at 5:30 to shoot the sunrise with me, and he said goodnight.

I ordered a coffee and a sorbet. The coffee was Nescafe, but the sorbet was exquisite. The rain pattered around me, an occasional bolt lighting up the volcano beyond this quinta’s arched window.

Their faces flashed before me against the windy sky: Manuel, Elmer, the sad-eyed woman on the street corner clutching a bowl in her twisted hand for coins. There was not a coin I could give her, or any of them, that would change their precarious existence, that would bring them into the warm shelter of a life of privilege.

The thunder crashed. Another flickering glimpse of the crater left behind by the indifferent forces of nature. Another glimpse of Manuel’s sweet smile—and then darkness amid the rain.

Tracy L. Barnett is backpacking her way through Latin America, researching environmental issues for a book and for The Esperanza Project, a bilingual multimedia web project she created.

10 Comments for Lightning Flashes in El Salvador

Grizzly Bear Mom 10.27.10 | 11:21 AM ET

Tracy thank you for your touching story. 

On my travels in South America a naturalist told me that his father had died of cholera, which stunned me.  That is not a disease we encouter or would die of if in the U.S.

Jaime E 10.27.10 | 1:04 PM ET

This is a great story! shows reality at its best!

Nuria Scoggins 10.28.10 | 11:16 AM ET

This is a great story. It brought some tears…..Thank you for such a touching story.

Nuria Scoggins 10.28.10 | 11:22 AM ET

This is a very touching story. I really love it. Would love to read more and see your pictures as well. Thank you it was very touching

P Dugan 10.28.10 | 3:03 PM ET

Very nice story.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to feel sorry for those who were born into tougher circumstances than me or to feel heartless—the way I was raised to feel. This is a cruel world and it is up to those individuals to deal with and flourish in whatever situation they find themselves in. If they don’t, that is their problem.

In the end, I opt for compassion. Stories like this help me preserve my compassion.

Thanks for sharing it, Tracy.

Wayne 10.29.10 | 12:56 PM ET

What a beautifully written story about one of my favorite places in the world. I was a youth exchange student in the ‘70’s when I lived with a family in Santa Ana and would spend weekends and holidays, such as Semana Santa, at Coatepeque. My family’s house there is among the oldest on the lake, and by no means are they wealthy (perhaps they were long ago when the house was bulit). The spirit of the Salvadorean people is exactly what you have described, and it is tragic that amidst the beauty of the country, the generally positive spirit of its people and the - admittedly slow - progress El Salvador is making socially and economically - there are terrible forces at work trying to destroy any hope of betterment. Thanks for the lovely pictures and prose about el Lago!

Tracy Barnett 10.31.10 | 2:01 PM ET

Thanks to all the readers for the kind comments. There is so much more to say about El Salvador… there’s a story around every corner, it seems, and the people who have lived these stories have so much heart, it’s impossible not to be moved by them. I think many of us in more developed countries have no idea what true hardship - and the transcendence of that hardship - really means. Latin Americans are teaching me a lot about that.
I’ve been documenting some of those stories on my travel blog,, and also at The Esperanza Project,, and invite readers to pay a visit and offer their suggestions and comments. Lots more photos there! Thanks again for your attention.

Hotel Santa Monica 11.01.10 | 6:02 PM ET

Great little post.  It must be amazing down there.

richardtede 11.02.10 | 4:57 PM ET

good work .keep it up good. looking some more stuff from you

Rhina 11.07.10 | 10:20 AM ET

Excelent post Thank you for visiting our country.

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