The port of Barillas felt like a five star resort: We had access to a small swimming pool, showers, electricity and wireless internet. These facilities were complimented by a small store selling munchies and cold drinks, as well as a bar and restaurant. Perhaps it was a little buggy in the evening, but we relished in the luxury.
On the second day we rented a van from the port to take us into the nearby city of Usulutan. As we drove the bumpy dirt road out of the port of Barillas, we realized how remote we actually were; something not noticed often from a sail boat.
Entering Usulutan was fascinating. Perhaps it was the novelty of a new country, but more so, I believe it was the impact of the civil war, which ended in 1997, that was striking. I ignorantly believed 14 years was an adequate amount of time to recover, at least mostly. But thinking it over, I realized that anyone my age would have been in their mid-teens during the war, a time I remember vividly. This is not to speak of anyone older than that, experiencing the atrocities through some or most of their adulthood.
To our understanding, the basis of the beginning of the war was a class difference: one percent of the country owned 95% of its wealth. Several groups developed in the early part of the 20th century among the common people, in a revolt against the separation. Then in the early 1970’s these groups merged in an attempt to rise up to fight the class segregation. This was the official beginning of the civil war.
To keep the uprising in check, the government regularly undertook random acts of violence against many innocent people. Random kidnappings, killings and attacks to uninvolved local people were regular. These acts were performed by the infamous Death Squad. As the war amplified, the common people acquired weaponry from Fidel Castro to defend themselves and fight back. This may have been the origin of the USA’s involvement in this war. Between the early 70’s and the mid 90’s under Ford, Carter and Reagan the El Salvadorian people’s connection to Castro was seen as a threat to the USA. Therefore the El Salvadorian government and its Death Squad were supported financially by the USA.
Fragments and memories of the war were reflected in buildings and people’s faces. It’s difficult to put a finger on it, but there is a certain stoic air in the behavior and look of the El Salvadorian people. Many buildings were broken and not repaired and many had tall walls with barb wire for protection.
I began noticing a certain portion of the population carrying machetes in beautifully crafted leather sheaths. At first I thought it was related to their work, but considering the large quantity of folk carrying them, as well as the urban setting, I began to wonder. My wonder simply manifested into the desire to own one of these beautiful tools, but I was still curious of its purpose. I asked the driver where we could buy one. After telling us they are cheap and are sold around the corner, we had to at least have a look.
The market we were taken to mostly sold tools and kitchen ware. Sure enough many of the booths sold a variety of machetes along with the attractive leather sheaths. Oddly though, there were several shapes of machete blades for various tasks, but only one sheath shape. It was designed for a thin, sleek blade with a gentle curve and a double sided edge at the sharp point.
The owners of the booth were a father and son duo who obviously focused their lives on making and selling metal craft such as these machetes. As the father was sharpening our newly bought blades on a grind stone, I picked up a differently designed model and asked about its purpose. “For cutting wood”’ he said in rapid Spanish. I picked up the model we had just purchased and asked its purpose. He gave us an odd look and instead of explaining, gestured a well-executed sword fight ending in an obvious stabbing. Two things made sense to me in that moment: (1) the reason those specific blades were the only ones with a leather case was for them to be carried and displayed in daily life and (2) the reason they are presented in this way is for protection. In my opinion: baggage, reflecting dark times, when life contained Death Squads and a war.
In the mere hours we spent in Usulutan, we were exposed to a deep history and vibrant culture. It is inevitable not to be impacted here. It took me a while to process through everything and perhaps it shifted a few priorities around in my mind as we drove back to our comfortable haven.