Returning to El Salvador

Charles Nevin adopted his son, Cristian, in war-torn El Salvador in 1991. Eighteen years on, the family returned to discover a very different country

No doubt, San Salvador airport had changed. Where we remembered war-pocked concrete was now marbled up to the highest international standard, with bars and shops quite as splendid and indistinguishable as anywhere else. Not that we were complaining, even though we were one suitcase short of a full trolley. Bland normality is better than edgy normality, unless you are intrepid travellers.

We are not. In fact, we were even more trepidatious than usual, which is setting the trembling bar of trepidation very high indeed. Understandable, though: this was our first trip back to where our two sons, aged 18 (today!) and 14, were born: Cristian here in El Salvador, Luis in neighbouring Guatemala.

Ah, yes, international adoption, a procedure fraught with attitude. There are those, like us, who couldn't have their own children and so decided to adopt from where we thought it might do most good. And then there are those who insist that this is neo-colonial condescension, that children shouldn't be taken from their countries, deprived of their cultures. But ours wouldn't have had much of a life, if any, cultural or otherwise: that's why they needed adopting. A tricky business, this existence, I thought, not for the first time, as I struggled with the lost baggage form.

I could see that Cristian's mind was similarly occupied as we approached passport control. It's tough enough being a teenager, and he had wavered before agreeing to his pushy parents' plans to recharge his Salvadoran side.

The passport officer examined ours and us carefully, lingering over Cristian's British passport, before returning it. "Welcome back to your country," he said, gravely, before breaking into a broad smile. "You can stay as long as you like..." Then, with a gesture and another smile, he said to the rest of us, "And so can you."

All right, all right, I'll keep a grip. Not such an unusual thing, this return of a native to a country with a population of 7 million, which has 2.5 million more living and working in the United States. But the trepidatious tend to remember stories of resentment towards families like ours. And so are commensurately (and a bit soppily, to be honest) delighted to be welcomed, as we were, all over, with warm approval.

Besides, it's rather fine for a tourist to feel liked, rather than tolerated, no matter how efficiently; and to know that you are giving much-needed help to a sector struggling to overcome an image problem.

Which is putting it crassly. Both El Salvador and Guatemala have suffered horribly from the accidents of geography and history that have exposed them not only to the natural disasters of earthquake, eruption and storm, but also to the man-made mayhem of civil wars, fiercely fanned by close proximity to the almost perpetually paranoid superpower to the north.

When we arrived in El Salvador for the first time, in 1991, with army helicopters overhead, it was in the 11th year of a civil war between leftist guerrillas and the US-backed army that cost 75,000 lives. In Guatemala, civil war between leftist guerrillas and the US-backed army lasted nearly four decades and cost 200,000 lives.

"Poor Central America," the saying goes. "So far from God, so close to the United States." The irony of this for a country named after His son has long been exhausted.

But not, remarkably, the people. To visit El Salvador and Guatemala is to experience a great gusting energy of reconstruction and relief at any sort of peace that nearly blows you away. How on earth the cartoon cliché of figures slumbering under sombreros came about is as mysterious as the idea, promoted by visiting writers including Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, that Central Americans, particularly the Mayans, are unsmiling and incorrigibly sullen.

In Guatemala, Huxley wondered at the Maya performing their traditional dance of the conquistadors, a people celebrating its conquest. When I asked a Guatemalan about this, he laughed. "It's a joke," he said.

In a narrow street in El Salvador, we witnessed a small funfair whose Ferris wheel would have seriously harmed a health and safety inspector's health. Passing inches above passers-by, it was powered by what remained of a Datsun, with the operator behind the wheel, face fixed under his bandanna. Then he saw my face, and broke into the widest smile I have ever seen, inviting me to join in his delight at the madness of everything.

This energy, as history shows, can be baleful. The Maras, or street gangs, born among the US émigrés and re-imported, are a vicious and constant threat to order. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The trepidatious take a guide. Ours was Mario, who, like so many others, had left with his parents to escape the

civil war. Now in his thirties, Mario had studied nuclear physics, was now studying psychology, and saw his tour company as a mission to promote El Salvador. All this from $25.

Everywhere in San Salvador were posters for Mauricio Funes, the front-runner in today's presidential elections. Funes would be the first candidate from the FMLN, the former guerrillas, to be elected; a Salvadoran television presenter without a guerrilla past who favours suits over fatigues, he is, according to bias, an El Obama who will export the economic success of the capital to the rest of the country, or a plausible frontman for a hard leftist programme which would make Hugo Chavez cry momentito.

San Salvador Cathedral's plaza fizzed with street life and politics. The cathedral was left unfinished by Archbishop Oscar Romero, Salvador's Becket, who preferred to help the poor. It has now been completed, still bearing the bullet marks from the massacre of 24 demonstrators on the steps in 1979.

Further out is the immaculately preserved and heavily attended hospital chapel where Romero, the placeman who turned, was murdered at mass for his inconvenience. On a nearby wall is a magnificent mural of pain and accusation, painted by a master of the streets: the martyr sits beneath his cross; the people hold out their hands, submissive, all with bloody stigmata; the cruel, suited rich cover their ears and eyes, a cardinal cowers and a soldier sheds a giant tear.

What did our boys make of all this? Well, when asked, they usually replied, "interesting", which is big in the 13-19 sector, where economy of expression and non-commitment are influential. But in another, poorer part of San Salvador, at the Casa Romero, a refuge for street children which exists on money raised by Aces, a small British charity, we watched them moved by lives that could have been theirs, by the sweetness of bruised reserve dissolving into smiles and laughter, by the sadness that such spirit should be forced to be so achingly invincible.

We stayed mostly in San Salvador, at the Hotel Siesta, where we first met Cristian, when I felt obliged by politeness to continue a discussion about the local beer (Suprema, rather good) despite having spotted out of the corner of my eye the arrival of a large part of the rest of my life in a small bundle. It's still very friendly and acceptable, but there are now newer, chain hotels in more convenient locations.

Outside the capital, Salvadoran tourism continues, energetically, naturally, to play catch-up. Surfing has long been a big attraction on its coast, but resorts have now been developed, especially at Costa del Sol, for those who might prefer to ponder the Pacific rather than stand on it. Like everywhere else in Central America's smallest country, it's not far; this and the fewer tourists add to the beguilements of places like Suchitoto, a Spanish colonial gem you might compare to Guatemala's far more renowned Antigua, although you would get into an argument with my Guatemalan.

So, too, with the country's Mayan sites, especially Joya de Ceren, where a Mayan village caught in an eruption 1,400 years ago is as preserved as Pompeii. The only Mayan village to survive, it is close to the San Andres site, where a step pyramid only partly excavated still amazes.

Here, though, I must agree with my Guatemalan, and bow to Tikal, the city whose mighty temples loom out of the northern Guatemala jungle, Ozymandian monuments to that still-mysterious civilisation from which my children descend. As did the shaman, or holy man, we talked to about the prediction that 2012, the end of one of the minutely calculated Mayan calendar cycles, will also bring the end of the world. There was good news and bad news. The world would survive, he said, but there would be bad times first. And as this was early last summer, he seemed some way ahead of the bankers.

Mario took us to La Puerta del Diablo, the Devil's Door, a great gap in the mountains above San Salvador allowing views right to the coast, 30 miles and 10 volcanoes away. On the way, true to his view that a "country without history or memory does not have anything", Mario explained that the spot was now popular for picnics; during the civil war, he said, it had been popular for dumping bodies.

We climbed to the top. In the foreground were the wide waters of Lake Ilopango, by whose shores Cristian had been born. He was deep in thought, as you would be and I was. Later, he said he would be coming back to Salvador. Happy Birthday, Cristian. Peace be with you, El Salvador.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Charles Nevin and his family travelled to El Salvador with Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk), which offers a six-night trip around the country from £1,523 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, B&B and excursions.



Further information

Mario Dominguez, Nahuat Tours ( nahuatours.com).

Aid for Children of El Salvador ( childrenofelsalvador.co.uk).

El Salvador Tourist Board (00 503 2243 7835; elsalvador.travel).

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