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
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.