As we prepared to leave Miami for El Salvador, the flight attendant who liked my TV show bumped me from coach to first class. Alone among leather seats with my drink in a real glass, I thought about the congestion — noisy families, people trying to jam all their cheap new electronic gadgets overhead — back in economy. I felt more than wealthy. I felt elite. Looking out the window into the Caribbean night, I pondered my privileged position. A chain of lights led to Key West. Then, deep in the blackness, glittered the forbidden city of Havana. The pilot's door was locked and fortified as we flew to El Salvador.
Landing in the capital city, San Salvador, I was met by César, who whisked me away in his car. In his coin dish, I saw shiny Lincolns and Washingtons. I'm never very confident upon arrival in a new country, and this confused me. César explained, "We've been dollarized now since 2001." Since my last visit here, my coins had become the local coins. (In a kind of voluntary colonization, local elites chose to adopt the US currency to avoid losing their personal fortunes in case of a radical change in their government.) My hunch was that much more had changed in El Salvador than just the currency.
Back before my first trip to Central America in 1988, I specifically forbade my heart to get caught up in economic justice issues south of our border. I knew there were leftists fighting American-funded groups and it was a tragic mess, but that was it. There was too much pulling at me, and the competing sides, excuses, and complaints were all too complex and contradictory. I just didn't have the energy to sort it out, and I didn't need it in my life. Then I traveled here and I learned what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote that travel "makes men wiser, but less happy."
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You are reading "Travel Makes You Wiser, But Less Happy", an entry posted on 25 September 2009 by Rick Steves.