About twenty of us from the embassy took a trip last weekend to Morazan, a mountainous peninsula of land in northeast El Salvador jutting north into Honduras. When our caravan rolled through San Francisco Gotera, the small gateway town to Morazan, we were met by a pickup truck with six or seven rifle-toting soldiers in the bed: our security escort. Our route through town was lined by still more cammo'ed guys, weapons at ready. I photographed the dude above out the van window as we eased by -- I feel like he didn't really care for having his photo taken but was under strict orders not to fire on the annoying Americans.
For the next 24 hours, we had the armed escort most everywhere we went. Obviously, the government feels like Morazan is an iffy area, enough so that it doesn't want American diplomats tromping around unescorted. But one of the things about El Salvador that it's hardest for me to put my finger on is how much danger I'm actually in. I'm still learning what it is that I'm looking for when I'm looking for signs that I'm at risk.
Identifying danger was relatively easy in the Middle East, at least for somebody like me who had spent years living in the region and reading fairly voraciously about its culture and politics. I felt like I could generally distinguish a shady dude from a harmless bearded guy, alarming attention from benign double takes in an old city market, a creepy, dangerous desert village to avoid from a sleepy, dusty town where it's safe to stop for chicken and a Coke.
In Morazan, as we bounced along the dirt roads past makeshift houses in the heavy forest, as we relaxed in a tiny town square, my untrained eye only saw old ladies and kids and polite-looking men in button-up shirts and straw hats. But our armed escorts milling about suggested that that I was missing subtle danger under the surface of things. And it's disconcerting to feel like you might be blind to reality, or, alternatively, to feel like reality is actually quite benign but you're being led to believe it isn't for geopolitical reasons far larger than you are.
I think I still have a lot of observation and thought ahead of me before I can wrap my arms around this unfamiliar culture, its history, its social cleavages, the various crosscutting currents that animate the people I pass each day. After getting good and comfortable with Arabs and the Middle Eastern context, it's tough to be culturally blind again, taking wobbly baby steps around this rich and confusing country.