Friday, July 30, 2010

3G and Ferrari

 The littlest ice-cream vendor, helping out her father in the market. Ding Ding

I'm heading out of El Salvador soon.  It's been a good trip, traveling to Latin America is a bit like coming home for me.  I found the country to be amazingly well-developed, a lot of work has been done since my last visit some years ago.  The highlights were finding an Apple Store in one of the large, modern malls, a Ferrari dealership is down the street, and 3G and Wi-Fi everywhere.

It's funny what we use as metrics for development.  In the past I've taken notice of a country's children.  In other words, if the children are clean, well-dressed (wearing shoes), and heading to/from school you can bet that that particular country is well on the road to future development.  On the other hand if the children are playing barefoot in a muddy street, wearing the same clothes day in and day out, well…

Now pretty much all of Latin America is fairly development so my metrics are changing; is there 3G, a Starbucks, a mega-bookstore, and restricted smoking areas. That pretty much sums up economic development in this part of the world. Hasta luego.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


I watched a protection detail ride past yesterday.  Four police motorcycles, a large client SUV and a police trail SUV.  I wondered which vehicle the client was in; it was pretty obvious.  My thought was that this was simply the appearance of security and had nothing to do with actually providing or achieving security.  The detail would have been better off dropping the police escort and letting the VIP drive around the city in his unmarked SUV.

Similarly, everywhere you look in San Salvador are uniformed static security guards armed with ill-cared for shotguns.  Even a casual observer could discern again, that the guards are only for appearance sake and have no effective use.  Unfortunately this is all-to common in Latin America, it is better to have the appearance of something, such as security, than actually achieving it.  My previous post on ambulances is another example of the same concept.

The concept of appearance can be extrapolated and used to explain many of the social and cultural aspects of Latin America.  Another example is the appearance of wealth.  A long time ago I lived in Santiago, Chile, and not far from my house was a massive grocery store with unspeakably expensive items imported from all over the world.  Each Saturday countless woman would shop the aisles filling their carts with the most extravagant items. They would then stop off at the coffee bar in the middle of the store to chat with their neighbors about the parties they planned to throw and peer into each others baskets.  At the end of the day they would leave the basket in the aisle and slink out of the store unnoticed by their friends, being totally incapable of purchasing any of the items they had selected. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Good People of Gringolandia

A Salvadorian lady sits behind her door and watches the world walk by

I try to have a chat with every taxi driver that I meet.  Not that they're any great fount of wisdom but they normally have some good insight into politics and the social condition.  Tonight's conversation went like this:

Me: "How's it going tonight?  How's business"?
Driver: "Slow"
Me: "Why's that? The weather"?
Driver:  "No, there's not enough money".
Me: "Oh, why not"?
Driver: "Mr. Obama isn't giving us any money".

The conversation abruptly ended there. What do you say to that?  I suppose I could go into a triad about American tax dollars belong to the American people, i.e. those who actually pay the taxes, but that will have fallen on deaf ears.  (I use "American" to mean the United States… so lets not nit-pick.  I'm fully aware of the technicalities.)

This is a common perception, at least in Latin America, that the United States is "rich", and has an obligation to give money to lesser-developed countries, like whatever one I happen to be in at the time.  I'm all for giving money for development, access, influence… something that benefits the good people of Gringolandia, but to just outright gift U.S. tax dollars goes against my grain.

Squad Cincuenta y Uno

I visited a Salvadorian health fair the other day.  At the entrance were two brightly colored ambulances set out as a static display with all of their associated equipment laid out for the public to view.  The two trucks looked brand spanking new and were marked "Emergency Advanced Cardiac".  Of course I was attracted to this scene like a hungry trout to a fly and rushed right over and started digging around, much to the consternation of the women running the display.

A couple of bags of IV fluid, a ratty cot that was jerry-rigged to lock into floor of the truck, and an automatic defibrillator much like you see in the malls in the United States but wrapped in plastic. One of the physicians/nurses(?) asked if I wanted to stick my arm in the automatic blood pressure cuff to see "what my number was" to determine how healthy I am. Really!!?

I'll admit that the ambulances from the outside were immaculate and very impressive, clearly nicer than what I'm used to in Atlanta, but given what they lacked in equipment would not even be allowed on the streets in the United States or Europe.  This is typical of much of the third world, parts of Latin America specifically; bright, shinny things that give the appearance of competency but with little or no substance underneath.  Someone invested a lot of money in a couple of spiffy ambulances but decided the capability or reason for them was secondary.  Why not take the same money and purchase the needed lifesaving equipment and stick it all on an old, beat-up ambulance? If I'm a seriously sick patient I don't care how nice the truck looks, only that I'm getting an advanced level of care in the back.

Maybe I'm being too critical.  Maybe they have all of drugs, monitors, airway kits, ultrasound, and other gadgets but just chose not to put them out on public display.  Having spent most of my life in and out of this part of the world and having worked in it's ERs…. I doubt it.  My regret was that I didn't take any pictures of the trucks to show my fellow medics in Atlanta.  They were seriously impressive.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Walking Through Oz

Salvadorian family walks through the neighborhood

Walking through San Salvador yesterday I was warned about roving gangs of youths that would rob tourists or other unsuspecting, lucrative targets.  This is a common practice throughout the world but is easily countered with a few simple actions.
  • Find out where the high risk areas are, and avoid them.
  • If you have a guide or driver, trust their judgment.
  • Don't take valuables with you. Hiding them in what you think are clever areas, i.e., belly or waist pouches is a useless tactic.
  • Stay in well-populated areas.  Don't get lured off.
  • Stay together.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  If something doesn't feel right, it's not. Move back to safety.
  • If you have a driver, keep the car handy, know where it is.
  • Be purposeful in your posture, demeanor, and actions.
  • Keep things tucked away; cameras, cell phones, wallets, watches.  If it's out there, it'll get taken.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mi Cuerva

El Salvadorian beach near Puerta Libertad

It rained last night.  I sat in the tiny patio space that is part of the hotel, surrounded by hundreds of tropical plants, an umbrella overhead.  Under my feet were flagstones, wet with the warm rain.  It was a space that people strive for in their own homes and gardens, but few in North America ever fully achieve.  There is nothing contrived in the patio garden just hundreds of plants potted in whatever containers were available at the time. It was like sitting in a room made of vegetation, tight, intimate, and deeply personal.

The first time I saw something like this was at the home of my Spanish language professor in Monterey, California.  He had a small deck that was part of his 2nd floor apartment and he had turned it into a tiny tropical rain forest.  It was really only large enough for two people to sit in, a Mexican terracotta chiminea glowed off to one side, the air smelled of wood smoke.  Plants surrounded you on all sides and covered you above as well.  Hundreds of plants thoughtfully arranged, but with no detectable pattern like the random growth of the forest.  I've always marveled at that tiny space that my professor called mi cueva, and have seen it replicated countless times but always in Latin America. Somehow the gringo mentality, or at least mine, is too contrived to achieve the randomness of nature.

I sat last night, a glass of Cabernet in my hand and feeling the rain come down around me.  It was a very magical yet familiar moment that brought me back many, many years to my professor's cave.  What a great moment.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

El Salvador

 Two brothers pose for a photo

I arrived in El Salvador yesterday and have only taken a few shots with my camera.  I consider it a success that I actually have my Nikon D200 with me on this trip considering my recent track record of leaving it behind

Landing at Comalapa International Airport outside of San Salvador I was immediately struck by two things.  Firstly the country seems to have done well embracing the eco-tourist industry.  I saw few business travelers but loads of backpack totting tourists intent on finding spirituality amidst the breathtaking landscape of El Salvador.  I wish them luck in their wanderlust.

The second thing that caught my attention is the plethora of church missionary groups running around in their uniform-like, matching t-shirts.  They were everywhere, bright-eyed with a tinge of apprehension, ready to spread spirituality and to help the helpless.  I questioned from an economist point of view which the two groups contributes greater to the Salvadorian economy?  I suspect its a fairly close.

More later.