Scene Report: El Salvador, C.A.
I just got back from two weeks in Central America, in girlfriend Patricia's native El Salvador to be specific. For all the traveling I've done, it was my first time venturing outside the safe, comfortable, privileged bubble of the first world, and I fully expected to have my mind blown in all sorts of ways. I did not, however, expect to have my mind blown by cars.
That's what happened, though. It's a fascinating and beautiful place, El Salvador. Largely rural and undeveloped through most of the last century, it spent the duration of the 1980s immersed in civil war and in the twenty years since has invested heavily in infrastructure and modernization. The result is a small country with a big city, San Salvador, filled with glitzy malls that could've been airlifted directly out of the O.C., surrounded by mountainous villages where you see kids and old women roadside, making their way up treacherous hills with giant jugs of wellwater balanced on their heads. Suspended somewhere in between these divergent cultures—between old and new, traditional and modern, the hardscrabble poor and the striving nouveau riche—is one of the most remarkable car cultures I've witnessed anywhere in the world.
Much has been written about Cuba's fleets of pre-1959 American cars, miraculously kept alive through a combination of their keepers' resourcefulness and necessity. El Salvador is kind of like that, except that instead of the cars our parents grew up with, it's full of the cars that you and I grew up with: the '70s and '80s Japanese cars that were ubiquitous through my childhood and adolescence, anyway, and have all but disappeared from the American landscape. The North American landscape, at least. And while there are plenty of Hondas, Mazdas, Mitsubishis and Subarus to go around, make no mistake: in El Salvador, it's Nissan and Toyota and then everybody else, the twin titans still going at it as if it were 1982.
This in itself would be interesting; what makes it fucking amazing is the state toward which many of these vehicles have deteriorated/evolved. It's almost as if decay itself has been appropriated by the cars' owners as a form of customization, an element not to be fixed, fought, or eradicated but instead cultivated and integrated, along with tinted windows (and windshields), hand-painted stripes, chrome hubcaps, colored hubcaps, additional, ornamental rear-view mirrors (mounted as often as not in such a way that it would be impossible for them to reflect anything but sky), sun shades, roof racks, fog lights, driving lights, windshield-washer lights, flashing multicolored license plate frame lights, mud flaps, spoilers, wings, vents, various ground effects, prayers, blessings and benedictions applied via holographic foil, and multiple, randomly-affixed badges—denoting the car's marque or that of another maker entirely, at the owner's discretion. Similarly, body panels themselves are mixed and matched as convenience or opportunity dictates: you need a new grill for your '83 626? Got one from an '81 Colt? If worse comes to worst and you can't replace a fender, it's no problem: just paint the exposed underbody a contrasting color, it'll look awesome. (And it does!) Just be sure to list all your sponsors down the leading edge of your door.
Here's the other thing that's fascinating about cars (and driving) in El Salvador: freedom. Most freedom-loving Americans would be shocked if they knew how much less freedom they enjoy than the citizens of a country that just elected as president a member of the very same FMLN party that their U.S. tax dollars, funneled to a murderous anti-leftist regime during the civil war, once helped suppress. A country of radical, socialist, healthcare-wanting dirty pinko commies, in other words.
Near as I could tell, these people enjoy every single freedom you and I do. Here are some other freedoms they also enjoy: The freedom to ride in the back of a pickup truck, standing up, at highway speeds. The freedom to throw every member of your family, infant to abuelita, in the back of that same pickup truck. The freedom to invite every resident of your pueblo into the back of your pickup truck and drive them around wherever they need to go. The freedom to drive around with your child in your lap. The freedom to honk at anybody who steps out into the path of your vehicle and know that if they don't stop it's not your problem. The freedom to walk, pushing a cart, down the side of the freeway. The freedom to tint your freaking windshield and mount flashing blue lights all over your goddamn car. The freedom to work on your car anywhere you fucking want to, even if it's out in the street blocking an entire lane of a twisting, downhill stretch of highway and it's raining and it's at night. The freedom to pull more lateral gs through a series of high-speed sweepers than I would ever have guessed possible in a forty-year-old schoolbus packed to the absolute rafters. The freedom to hang onto the outside of that bus and ride along even though the bus is full. And I'm just getting started.
And okay, okay, I'm not advocating against child seats. I'm not saying any of the above is a particularly good idea. But goddammit, look at the grin on this kid's face:
Is she smiling because she isn't growing up in a culture that continuously bombards her with images of luxuries she could spend a lifetime trying to acquire, constantly reminding her of what she doesn't have? No. She's smiling because she is riding in the back of a pickup truck, and she is having more fun than any American child—born under George W. Bush or Barack Obama—will ever know again.
Full slideshow, and settle in (and hit full-screen), 'cause this shit is awesome: