Thursday, November 01, 2007


I arrived in El Salvador to be greeted by a tropical downpour. Even in the airport, in front of the customs and immigration agents, the rain was dripping through the roof into buckets arrayed on the floor. If the country wanted to give international visitors the sense of modernity and that it could cope with the elements, it hadn’t made a great start of things.

When I was traveling through Central America in the 1980s, Salvadoran border posts were always the site of a rather anxious lottery. How much would they look through your luggage and what exactly would they find suspicious? How many days would they allow you to stay in the country? I used to stuff anything vaguely incriminating way down at the bottom of my backpack, and try to make sure I was among the very first travelers of the day, in the belief that the guards would be too sleepy or perhaps still with some morning goodwill to bother with all the formalities. With luck, the would let me through without too much hassle, hopefully stamping my passport with at least fifteen days, ideally thirty.

So I still felt a residual sense of tension as I confronted the immigration official, hardly much helped by the sense of some disorder as the rain continued to come down beside me. He asked me if this was my first visit to the country. No, I truthfully said. I was last here a few years ago. When? He asked. Four, five years ago, I said vaguely. He looked for the stamps, but I explained I’d renewed my passport since then. And how long are you planning to stay? Five days, I replied, adding forty eight hours just in case, to give me some leeway. OK, he said. And he stamped, returned my passport, and told me with a smile he’d given me three months. I thanked him and said I if I enjoyed my stay I’d think perhaps of hanging around a little longer.

Central America has a distinctive smell. The Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn described it as “dust and diesel” that “rise like incense from the road.” There’s also the woodsmoke on the breeze, and the special sense of how tropical rain cleanses everything, making it that little bit less grubby. I left the airport terminal and took my time before looking for a trustworthy taxi-driver. I breathed in El Salvador.

I wanted to stay in the Sheraton. For the sake of it, and because of the incident during the 1989 Offensive in which the FMLN guerrilla, during what was perhaps the turning point of the decade-long civil war, took control of the hotel, in the heart of the capital’s exclusive Escalón district. No matter that a night there now would cost me about the same sum as I used to live on for a month way back when. I was a different kind of traveler now. I felt able to indulge myself, and petty sense of symbolism. And no matter really either that the Sheraton now was in a different building altogether, and that what used to be the Sheraton was now a Radisson. I decided that it was the name that counted anyway.

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