The first thing you notice about El Salvador is the noise.
The music, I mean – music of all kinds, issuing screamingly forth from competing crackly amplifiers of every make on street corners of every make in towns of every make.
Music: everywhere, inescapable, inveterate.
The music in restaurants, music on buses, music on street corners and music in tienda fronts: mariachi and American rap and reggaeton and Guns N’ Roses, all cranked loudly enough to set my Western teeth to rattling.
Consider the beachside town of El Tunco, circa 2012. I land there with a plan to write and work over the course of six solitude-soaked weeks, but the music from the town’s new and many bars quickly puts me of a mind to depart, and fast. I can literally feel the thumping base inside of my heart and stomach. It gives me arrhythmia.
As for sleeping …
An Israeli friend who lives in Tunco says she’s given up on falling asleep before 5 a.m. on the weekends. Instead, she hangs out at an all-night taco restaurant near the beach, chatting with the woman who owns it, smoking a few cigarettes, and wiling the hours till the hard-drinking crowds drop off and pass out.
I am less abiding, so I make plans to decamp for the country’s untried southern beaches. First, though, I spend a number of afternoons wandering the rank and cacophonous streets of nearby La Libertad.
It is a Wild West kind of a town, a small, thrumming regional hub of both legitimate and questionable industry. On main drag Calle El Carvalio, a parked truck back-loaded with one of the aforementioned ubiquitous loudspeaker systems daily blasts one single Phil Collins song. Goes the achingly earnest ballad:
“Oh! Think twice! It’s just another day for you and me in paradise!”
I know this song well. The radio stations played it lots when I was a kid back home in The States. It was the ‘80s, and El Salvador was in the throes of an unimaginably violent civil war I knew nothing about. And this song always really unhinged me, especially when it got to the line about the crazy, crying homeless woman begging for handouts from passers-by:
“She calls out to the man on the street / He can see she’s been crying / She’s got blisters on the soles of her feet / She can’t walk but she’s trying”.
Here in Libertad, where there are real, live actual barefoot children rooting around in the streets just an outstretched arm’s length away, at the places where the sewage drains out; here where the locals are abidingly friendly but laboring under constant threat of extortion and worse; here where the air is thick and occasionally sinister, the longstanding visual shifts from imploring to unplaceable.
The irony is too great. Like something you’d make up, only it’s really happening. Not to you, but in front of you, and that feels in some moments like the same thing.
To be sure, irony coats thick as varnish in these parts. But after a few thrumming weeks, I begin to wonder if perhaps all that irony is merely a mask for some deep and abiding terror.
“Everyone here is afraid,” one expat tells me. “Fear is normal.”
And it’s catching, this Fear. It sneaks up on you. The flash of a tattoo, a sideways hand signal on a crowded bus. Turning a careless corner in an indoor fish market in Libertad, a friend and I find ourselves lost amid a shadowy crowd of shadowy-types, and we get out of the way but fast.
And then there are the less fuzzy potentialities: during our first week in El Tunco, a Canadian girl is robbed at gunpoint while on a late-night beach walk. She gets her teeth kicked in. A security guard is accompanying her at the time, and the thieves – a male-female duo – shoot at the sand near his feet as she runs in terror.
It was drug addicts from San Salvador, according to the rumor circulating town the next day. In retributive fashion, a few locals go and find the culprits, who are, for some bizarre reason, still hanging on the beach. They beat the shit out of them.
Then, a tourist is found dead, floating in the pool of the hostel next door. I hear the screams of the maid who finds his body in the early morning hours, but they barely register through the thickness of tropical dreams.
Tunco buzzes. Prescription drugs and booze and a broken heart killed the man, goes one popular rumor.
Another rumor: Gangs. Just that one word, as if it were an explanation of its own accord, a freestanding abstraction with enough weight to hold itself aright:
“Oh, you know. Gangs.”
I decamp for the southern stretches of the country, hoping for a bit of solitude. Soon, I am tromping through some old guerilla encampments outside Mozote with the son of a long-dead freedom fighter named Ernesto.
When I tell Nesto that I’m heading to Playa Cuco next, he says matter-of-factly, “A family of three was murdered there a month ago. So it will be really quiet.”
When I ask why, how, he turns away from me, hacks back a spit of stubborn jungle vine with his machete, and points to a nearby pit.
He tells me that a house there, too, was blown up, many, many years ago. During the war.
So much has changed since then. So little has changed since then. Every day, the newspapers are awash with tales of families murdered in their sleep, descriptions of the clothing they wore, photos of their bloated, rotting bodies.
Nesto tells me he was named for the Argentinian-born Marxist Revolutionary Che Guevara. He can still remember lying awake in his bed in his family’s small home as a child, listening to the guerillas gathered around the kitchen table, smoking and conspiring to freedom from an increasingly oppressive government.
He can still remember sneaking over the border to Houston when he was a very young man, to find work, after his father died, after the war ended and it became clear that little had changed for him and what remained of his family. On his first day in the United States, he was hit by a car and broke his neck. Nesto spent six months in an American hospital before he was deported back to El Salvador. He shows me the long, pink scar running down his spine.
Resorting to history seems to be a common rhetorical flourish in these parts. The past, querulous and noisy and painful as it may have been, is something solid, concrete. The future, less so.
The idealistic part of me wants to think it’s a mask for some inveterate brand of hope. Nesto references the past, sure, but he spends at least as much time talking about the future – plans for overnight hotels in Mozote, better roads, nicer monuments, a tourist kiosk in town.
He also discusses his personal plans. He’d like to buy a car so he can better accommodate tourists, bringing along food and water and shepherding them up the steepest parts of the road, or back to town should they become injured.
“I am always learning new things about our history,” Ernesto tells me. “When someone asks me a question I can’t answer, I look it up later. I’ll never learn it all. And when there’s nothing left to learn, it will be time to cross over to the other side.”
He laughs when he says it, but I think he really means it.
On the busride out to Playa Cuco, I strike up a conversation with the guy sitting in front of me and my traveling companion, Morgan. This guy in front of us is a vague 20-ish, or maybe 30, with gelled hair, an impossibly white polo, dirty teeth. He makes me just a little bit uncomfortable, and I can barely make out his words over the thumping reggaeton issuing from the souped-up stereo system of our brightly cast chicken bus. But I’m trying to be nice.
“I used to live in Virginia,” he tells me. “When I saw you, I said, to myself, ‘This girl is definitely not from here.’”
“My sister lives in Virginia,” I say.
Morgan is conspicuously silent throughout the conversation.
I take his reticence for annoyance, but later, after my new friend gets off the bus, Morgan tells me that the guy had “M-13” tattooed on his hands.
M-13: El Salvador’s most notorious and violent gang.
I ponder which would have been worse: if he’d wanted me for an enemy, or for a friend.
Enemies, I decide, are always most definitely worse.
Tourism has offered other war-torn countries a blessed way out. El Salvador is bent on burnishing its image, and, indeed, tourists are coming. Slowly, and many with surfboards, but they are coming. I’ve been away from the country for a three-year stretch and I can’t believe the way things have changed. Prices have quadrupled in some parts. Tunco has easily tripled its size. And the term desarollo (development) pops up all over the place. In newspapers, on television soundbites, on signs on the sides of roads outline improvement projects sponsored by Japan, the European Union. And as soon as towns come up by bootstrap, it seems, the largesse is announced with an army of thumping stereo systems.
A lot of foreigners have theories about the mightiness of the timbre. On the outskirts of Cuco, I meet Expat Tom from New York, who is a sucker for one-liners, and has even made up his own joke about El Salvador’s Big Little Noise Problem: “Why do El Salvadorans play their music so loud?”
Goes Tom’s punchline: “To drown out the silence.”
We’re staying at Tom’s hostel complex outside of Playa Cuco, which is huge and sprawling and crawling with rescue pelicans and turtles and lackadaisical local staff.
I’m too remote to work remotely, as was my plan, so Tom offers to drive me each morning to his little apartment in town proper when he heads out to surf. The apartment is a small, windowless bottom floor flat on Playa Cuco’s main drag. Next door, there is a green cerveceria and convenience that moonlights – and also daylights – as a brothel.
The whores there cost $3, Tom tells us.
Across the street from the little apartment, a seafood restaurant begins pumping out music around 7:30 each morning. From my plastic table perch inside the otherwise empty apartment, I can see just where it’s coming from: an old-school jukebox, stuffed to the gills with everything from Mariachi to metal to pop. The songs are invariably changed out halfway through – Despite their penchant for lounging together in a single matrimonial-sized hammock all the morning long, the restaurant waitstaff doesn’t appear to be a patient lot when it comes to their music.
I sit in my airless, furnitureless room, wrestling with the DSL line. I keep the door open for sun and a little breeze, but lock the external door. I watch the brothel customers come and go and try to cover my ears. A taxi parks outside and a middle-aged man in green croc shoes, kakhi shorts and a mesh white shirt steps out of the car and enters the whorehouse.
An hour later, he comes back out, tailed by a plump woman in a skintight black synthetic top.
An old guy in rubber fishermen boots strolls up, sucking on a mango, and the plump woman accompanies him inside.
The machinations of the brothel bother me little. But the noise. Again with the noise: pumping, thumping, making my heart skip and start. The Internet cuts in and out, in and out, until I am ready to rip my eardrums and my eyeballs out both at once.
But I dare not wander too far from the tiny, overheating apartment. Because, as Ernesto predicted, despite its noisy music, this place is unsettlingly quiet. And because, after the noise, the second thing you notice in this country are the weapons.
Not just the literal guns, although those are all over the place: strapped casually across the shoulders of convenience store guards, up on display in stores, tucked into back pockets, tattooed like unsmiling injunctions onto forearms. But also: empty bombshell casings recast as flowerpots. And: look closely at the street artist’s mural and you’ll find that the black blips you mistook for birds are actually little stylized bombs falling from the rendered sky. Bombs and guns, bombs and guns, Everywhere.
Fear. It’s a big, screaming sort of word. It’s a big, screaming sort of feeling. Here, every backfiring engine makes you jump, just a little. Here, every story is shot through with loss.
At Tom’s pool one afternoon, a five-year old girl attired in nothing but pink and white underwear squeezes her chubby fist into the shape of a little gun, points it at her equally chubby brother, and lets loose with a noisy, spittle-laced chorus of “PTHHHHHHHH.”
The sound is surprisingly accurate. The boy pantomimes a fall to the concrete and shakes his body theatrically, in the throes of so very many things. They both giggle.
Every song becomes the right song, if only it’s turned up loud enough. Silence, on the other hand, begets complicity, or, at least, just more silence. The contours of fear, the contours of hope. Take your pick. It’s all of it a raggedy, humdrum atlas of scattershot wildernesses, hemmed in – on all sides – by noise.