El Salvador is as beautiful as ever, with its black sand beaches (and I mean really black sand, from lava rock) to its lush green countryside. Everything was in full bloom, and even though it was the rainy season, we did not have any days marred by rain (it rained mostly at night). They did have a heat wave during the first couple of weeks that we were there, but for the rest of the time we had very pleasant temperatures in the upper 70s and low 80s.
All this beautiful weather is certainly conducive to being outside, and Salvadoreans take advantage of that. We noticed many restaurants with outdoor tables and chairs. And all the restaurants always seemed full. This is strange, considering that the minimum wage is about $5.00 per day, and in most restaurants (or at least in the ones that are U.S. franchises like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendys, etc.) the prices are comparable to U.S. prices - e.g. $3.50 for a happy meal.
Actually prices on most things are comparable to U.S. prices: houses for about $60,000, cars for about $10,000, gasoline for $1.50 per galon of regular and $2.50 for premium. But for people who earn in Colones (at an exchange rate of $1 for ¢8.75 Colones) many of these things are still unatainable luxuries. And the gap between rich and poor still seemed as large as it was when I lived there over 20 years ago, and even after 10 years of civil war fought to combat that same situation. But we did see signs of a growing economy, with many middle class people starting small businesses. We commented this with my friend Marielos, whose family owns a couple of bookstores there, and she says that the economy is not as good as it seemed to us. She ought to know.
We did notice many new roads and overpasses built in the capital city of San Salvador and many of the main highways were in very good shape. Secondary roads are still full of potholes, which take their toll on cars and spirits alike. But I do have to comment positively on the directional signs on the road. They were very good and abundant. The streets also seemed much cleaner than during our last visit, even though there are some places that people still consider rubbish dumps, sometimes right next to a tourist-transited highway.
All this new roads are necessary because the traffic is horrendous. There are just too many cars, and the lanes on most city roads are not marked, which means a pretty much free for all. Thankfully many people take mass transit, which is a problem unto itself: the bus drivers are rude and don't care who they cut off, and since there are quite a few buses on the road, driving is better left to the more courageous. I also noticed the pollution, mainly from badly maintained cars and buses (guess they don't have emissions inspections there). Another thing that is quite noticeable is the high noise level: from honking of car horns (a lot of honking!) to music blaring from every other business (or so it seems) to commercials being shouted from pick-up trucks with amplifiers attached to their roofs. And the noise doesn't end at night, either. People still drive quite fast and honk their horns even at midnight, or early in the mornings (4 and 5 a.m.) It felt very peaceful when we came back and I drove from Hartsfield airport to our house. Nobody honked at me even once!
El Salvador is trying to convert all their currency to U.S. Dollars. When you take money out of the banks, you get dollar bills, and the prices on products in stores are marked both in Colones and in Dollars. This makes for a very confusing transaction when change is expected, or when you don't have enough of one type of currency to pay for your product. This is particularly true for the people who come from the countryside and are not quite savvy about exchange rates, etc. and have to rely on the honesty of the vendor. I did hear statistics saying that more than half of the currency being used is now in Dollars. We also saw many posters nailed to telephone poles stating: NO TO DOLLARIZATION!. It seems that there are a lot of disgruntled people out there. Only time will tell if this economic move will pay off.
We did have a positive experience with the health care system. One evening I slammed the car door on Jonathan's thumb, and we took him to the after-hours emergency room where we were seen promptly, his hand was x-rayed, the doctor read the x-rays, assured us that the thumb was not broken, and gave us a prescription for pain and swelling. Jonathan's thumb was also put in a splint. Total cost: $36.00 (this was the TOTAL cost, as we did not use our health insurance there. What is the story with U.S. hospitals?!?!). I have to mention that the hospitals and health clinics (I took my cousin to a couple of appointments) are very clean and modern.
Something that made me quite sad was seeing that most houses have very high walls topped with barbed wire around their properties. I guess this was started during the civil war, when fighting would break out in the streets, and people have left their tall walls for protection, now from burglars. It does seem like they are all living in jails. I could not get used to living like that.
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