First of four articles on recognizing coffee origins and meeting the people of El Salvador.
Experienced and written by Christian Lacroix during the first year of discovery on the Coffee Trail.
In El Salvador, Exile for Survival is the Custom
After reaching Panama, traveling through the roads and villages of each country’s Atlantic shoreline, the plan for the return trip was to explore the Pacific Ocean coast of the countries already visited. The aim, to see with our own eyes how environment and geography can influence both coffee cultivation and the way of life of the people who live there. Following an obligatory passage through Honduras, we arrive at the customs post of a country new to us, El Salvador. (El Salvador is the only Central American country that does not border the Atlantic Ocean). With an air “that nothing is unthinkable”: “tramites” (tramite is the title of a person officially recognized by the border service who offers his assistance to guide you through the customs requirements), “personages” who we try to avoid in most cases, question us two kilometers before the border zone. Despite our experience, we agreed to place our trust in them anyway, a young boy who took care of the formalities for leaving Honduras, and then an older one who took charge of the entry into El Salvador. Everything was quickly settled for leaving Honduras. The only other occasion when we hired the services of “tramites” occurred at our entry into Nicaragua on the trip home. We made that decision two minutes after our arrival at the border, after noticing other tourists lost and in desperation from waiting for their passage to be settled. Thanks to this man, who despite everything had a great deal of difficulty getting all our papers, we were able to extract ourselves after a wait of 2.5 hours.
In every country, we have to obtain a temporary permit to import the Westfalia. Often we picked up this document at the border post. For El Salvador, we had to go three kilometers further to obtain it (I learned this later). The other “tramite” extracted money from us to arrange this permit, which was free. The customs agents looked at me contemptuously with their big smiles as we passed before them, without any verification of the Westfalia. Nothing too serious; best just to laugh it off!
With the import permit in hand, we headed for the seaside since we had a bit of time before our first meeting with a coffee cultivator. I love taking time out like this to meet the local people and get an idea of what concerns affect people who live far from the world of coffee.
Turning Point in Understanding the Exile of the Country’s Inhabitants
On the road close to our route was a charming place where we could eat “pupusas”. These are a traditional food made of corn tortilla, from which little pockets are fashioned five or six centimeters around that you stuff with various foods (beef, cheese or chicken). This place is listed on “Ioverlander”, an indispensable application for travelers that lists places to sleep, to eat or simply not to be missed. Annie, with her natural enthusiasm, went to meet the owner to show him his popularity on the travel app. A flush of pride suffused the artisan’s face, and he immediately shared the news with his children. Annie earned a lesson in how to make “pupusas”. Angela, the cantine’s “chef”, told us about her life; an anesthetist who went through a marriage break-up, she has to keep this little counter in order to provide for her family’s needs. Her hope: immigrate to Canada to work, which she had already looked into. Our first question: what will happen to your family? The answer: “I’ll send money so my children can study.”
This exile phenomenon – I had already heard about this during conversations I had had previously with citizens of Honduras. At the time of the American election and of Trump’s victory, someone had told me that, in every family in Honduras, some member was working in the United States. That explained the concerns of the inhabitants of Honduras and El Salvador when Donald was elected. From this meeting, I continued my research. In El Salvador, of a total population of 9 million people, one-third is exiled, most of them to the United States to work there. For El Salvador, these workers represent 20% of the country’s GDP. I had relevant information prior to entering more deeply into the world of coffee production, and for understanding how these people manage to live on such a low income.
Meeting with a Dreamer
The man who takes care of the place we are staying at is named Alberto. This young father lives with his family in a simple modest home on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. In exchange for his work, the family is housed and fed. During a conversation in which Alberto questioned me about the chances and the possibilities of him immigrating to Canada to work there, I answered him, “No doubt there are people in Canada who would exchange lives with you in order to savour your tranquility, with no stress, surrounded by those you love, with both feet in the sand.”
The follow-up to this journey through El Salvador will be published shortly.