There’s a group of seven us arriving on the same flight for the wedding that weekend. One of the individuals in the group is returning to El Salvador for the first time in a decade after living there for a few years during their civil war.
Seeing her eye the countryside outside the window while we’re en route to the hotel,
I ask, “does it look the same to you or different?”
“Both,” she says. “It’s more developed, but it’s also so much dirtier than I remembered.”
So much dirtier, presumably, than many of us prefer.
“Dirtiness” is a fascinating concept – a subjective evaluation we cast over places that are not our own while traveling. The word – and the environment to which it is assigned – is held at arm’s length, like something we will endure in the short term and not something by which we want ourselves associated.
We cast the “dirty” judgement on places that contradict the “standard” we have established as the default (that which is “dirty” is the opposite of that which is “clean” – and therefore that which is “good.”) The perplexing thing about “clean” is that, in the American mindset, it often belongs to images of suburbia: the white picket fence, the bright green grass, the freshly waxed SUV.
And while these elements are certainly “clean” (that is, largely free of litter, graffiti, homelessness or grime), they are also so resolute in the pursuit of “flawlessness” that they tend to border “sterile.” So while they may not be “dirty,” they also aren’t fully alive.
Humans aren’t perfect; to be fully human is to be a little bit gritty – even “dirty.” Places that maintain their grittiness seem, to me, a more honest extension of the people living there and, as such, more real. In the same sense that we assert that we feel more comfortable around genuine people, it seems we should, by extension, feel comfortable in genuine surroundings.
I know I myself will choose an honest environment over a fake one in any circumstance, and it prevailed even on this trip, when J and I left the luxuries of our hotel to spend an afternoon in Centro – an area densely populated with wooden fruit stands and coconut water, porn videos and electronics – an area so sharply contrasting the plushness of our accommodations, we were informed to stay inside the taxi and lock the doors.
“If you do get out,” the concierge said, “you will have to take your watch off.”
“Done.” I thought. “A few hours of an experience as rich as this or a few hours wearing my watch and talking about celebrities with everyone else out by the pool? That’s an easy one.”
In the end, we did convince the driver to let us walk around.
And, yes, it was dirty. And impoverished. But it was also energized. And full of life.
We came back smelling of body odor, frier oil and city grime.
And we were all the richer and more fortunate for it.