Fear & Other Drugs: El Salvador

Extended travel will teach you a thing or two about yourself. I, for one, never realized quite how terrifying the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain is for me. In fact, I was quite surprised by my discomfort. I always considered myself particularly easy going in the gray areas, I thrive in situations that have unclear endings and am nearly never bothered by worries of the future. I suppose you could say that’s how I got here in the first place. But here in Backpackland (a name so accurately bestowed by a wise soul sista), uncertainty is about the only thing I can count on…and as such, I spend a lot of time in my fear.

Three months in and that hasn’t really changed, even as I grow more familiar with the unfamiliar. I still wake up to panic attacks in new places or just before we move along. I still feel the powerful and looming weight of dread just beyond the horizon in beautiful new cities. I still watch the shifting eyes of passersby as I walk with my massive Gringa backpack along busy streets of foreign lands. But I have also come closer to understanding this phenomenon. I haven’t “conquered” my fear, and that is not what I came here to do. I am living with my fear, drinking tea with my fear, getting to know my fear. I am slowly finding and sculpting and rendering my tools to keep fear from crippling me; learning how to make space for all of it.

You might say that El Salvador was the peak of all of this, and I might be compelled to agree. With a reputation as the most dangerous, drug trodden country in this corner of the world- the epicenter of infamously most murderous gang, MS-13, and its foes- El Salvador was not exactly on my list of adventures this time around. It’s hard to say exactly why I agreed to go; even if it is amazing, why take any risks when there are so many other amazing destinations? I didn’t want my fears to automatically stop me from experiencing a truly unique culture, so I did some research. Lonely Planet, our guide book for most of the trip, insists that ES is the gem of Central America. As it turns out, I have a few credible sources in my network that also gave me some hope. A friend from college even gave me her mother’s phone number in the capital, San Salvador, should I need any help. As we set up our travel plans, I felt that familiar sting of fear in my gut- the seat of my intuition- but also knew that this was a moment of growth, not doom.

See, the thing about fear + travel is that you want, you crave information. You want someone to tell you that everything will be fine. You want someone to give you a definitive idea of what your experience will be. But that simply is not how it goes. You can survey your entire network, trusted and otherwise, but no one will prophesy your future. You scour the internet looking for stories that you think apply to you, but the craving for certainty will never be satisfied by second-hand advice. I’ve come to realize that this is true whether you are traveling or not. Making decisions can be unnerving, whether in regard to destinations, big purchases, or simply getting dinner. The relativism between this decision making anxiety and our FOMO driven culture is not lost on me…but that’s another story.

Bearing our research in mind, we decided to spend a week in El Salvador…and had a wonderfully peaceful time. There was not a single moment that I felt threatened, and quite to the contrary, the people we met were fantastically friendly. I spent a day hiking with a local named Carlos, a coffee farmer and hiking guide in the sleepy town of Juayua on the Ruta de los Flores. In addition to a lovely hike, Carlos provided rich insight to the complex culture of a country riddled with war and gang violence. Up in the mountains where he grew up, there was little to tell about the violent reputation I was familiar with. He is passionate about the land and often volunteers on clean-up crews around the classic 7-Waterfalls hike. He told me about the hope he has for his country, that there are now programs to rehabilitate imprisoned youth through education, programs to help women who have been victims of violence learn and start businesses with micro-loans, and other community-driven support. He showed us some of the murals that were constructed by the young people of Juayua, displays of dedication to peace and community growth. He talked about the civil war, the people that were displaced, and how easy it was to turn to violence. He did not have a bad attitude towards the United States, even though he had once been deported. Like many folks I’ve met here, he was well versed in the political rhetoric of the US (something I’ll never quite get used to when traveling distant corners of the world) and even had some shockingly kind words to say about policies enacted under the current regime. Irony on Irony.

El Salvador is also home to one of my favorite beaches in all of Central America- El Tunco. Nestled among the rocky shores of the pacific coast line, Tunco is a haven for serious surfers. Reputation has it listed as a party town, but we hit it just as high season was coming to a close and found it immensely peaceful. The beaches are rocky, but tide was low enough to expose the black sand beach. The water was crystal clear shades of the deepest sapphire blue inter-spliced with bright turquoise. The fish was infinite, and the pupusas were cheap. It was its own slice of paradise. After one of the best yoga classes I’ve had on the road, I chatted with the teacher about an imaginary future in which I could successfully convince a US studio to have a retreat there. She laughed and said she knows how it can be hard to get people out and over their fear of new places- she leads retreats in India but can’t convince any of her community in San Salvador that it is safe in India. More irony.

If you should take away anything from this story, it is that this is my unique experience- not to be replicated or held as infallible truth. El Salvador certainly suffers from very real violence. The reputation is not one to be taken lightly. Though every country has its pockets, El Salvador is particularly tricky due to the lack of infrastructure available to help should you need medical or legal support. However, (and that’s a BIG however), the danger is largely localized in particular areas that are not difficult to avoid. We spent more money on a private shuttle rather than public transportation and headed all local warnings. As a rule of thumb, whenever you arrive in a new city (foreign or otherwise), the first thing you should do is ask your host what areas should be avoided. In El Salvador, a large percentage of tourist-involved crime has more to do with wrong-place, wrong-time than specific, targeted attacks. Still doesn’t exactly sound like a frolic in the park, but it is an important distinction when comparing relative dangers between different tourist towns. If you choose to go or you choose to skip it, do so on the basis of an informed decision and exercise extra precaution.

As for the fear, it’s getting better the more often I name it. I find that in situations of uncertainty, my brain will be quick to fill in details with “what ifs” drawn from a lifetime of cop shows, sensational news, and murder mysteries. It’s funny- I thought one of my single biggest fears was snakes. Any time we strayed off a well-beaten path my body would literally freeze in apprehension. Though it may sound silly, this is how I really came to understand and work with my fear. I noticed that I was primarily afraid of snakes only if I hadn’t walked that particular path before; once I had been there and sufficiently surveyed the area, I was fine. As if a snake couldn’t break the laws of my certainty and decide to move into my path. As if my quick search couldn’t possibly have missed an expertly hidden, probably terrified snake. If you do the math, it isn’t the snake the scared me, it was the possibility of a snake. I was almost relieved when I did see one, because that way I knew where it was (and it didn’t kill me…amazing). Transferring this conclusion to other instances of fear, I found that I am simply fearing the possibility of something going wrong- another minuscule yet major distinction. Faith and fear are one in the same. The former is belief that things will go well, while the latter is the belief that they won’t. Either way, you are speculating on something completely out of your control. Rather than sitting in fear and anticipating the worst, small little bits of positivity and lots of deep breaths can help you find your faith.

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