I love infographics. Colourful maps of our world that tell us stories through numbers. Data on rainfall, populations, who drinks the most and sometimes even who is happiest, is collected and analysed to create easily digested pictures.
However while theses charts can help to neatly summarise complex histories, demographics and even culture-specific behaviours, they can never tell the whole story. Nations and their people, communities and languages can’t show their true colours and overwhelming diversity in a digital graph.
Statistics will never be able to explain how it feels to sing football chants at a bar in Brazil, help an old farmer collect his chickens on a train in Thailand, or exchange an exasperated glance with a local after yet another traffic jam in Guatemala. To get to know the stories behind the numbers, we must experience these places first-hand.
Look at infographics for El Salvador and you will see red. Red for homicide rates, red for poverty and more often than not, red for tourist safety.
Although red won’t be the colour I’ll remember.
Once I crossed the border the highway became black with a yellow stripe: a well-laid strip of tarmac that I had missed in previous weeks. Along the Ruta de las Flores the predominant colour was deep green, dotted with the bright pinks of bougainvillea. The tranquility of its small pueblos with their white-washed churches belied a tumultuous history. At lake Suchlitlan, my view was a hazy blue past the multicoloured houses of little Suchitoto.
In fact, the only red I’ll remember is that of the small, bright flags of the FMLN political party – the red of the socialist left. A subtle reminder of a time when the country was experiencing the heavy bloodshed of a long civil war.
Statistics can’t ever begin to summarise what this country has endured. The complex societal effects that the Spanish conquest, inequality of land ownership, draining of natural resources and most recently, civil war, have had on El Salvador cannot be rounded up neatly for those of us who were oblivious. All have, of course, left a mark and today some people still have to live alongside gang violence in the barrios of its cities.
Going in with a vague awareness of all of the above, you can imagine what a surprise it was to feel completely safe. And this is the problem with statistics. Nothing I read online told me that I would be approached by helpful people before I even asked for directions. I found no news articles on the art-deco exteriors of San Salvador’s impressive cathedrals. Not one website focused on the country’s beautiful waterfalls.
ECTours who guided me through the capital city on an excellent morning tour have recently adopted the hashtag #dontskipelsalvador and quite rightly so. Of all the countries I’ve visited in Central America El Salvador is by far my favourite. As an all-round backpacker destination it has everything: fabulous hikes, surfing beaches and small towns steeped in history and culture. On a practical note, the welcome of the locals and the great food and accomodation also make it excellent value for money. It therefore saddens me that ECTours’ social media campaign must work so hard to combat the countless internet sources that only seek to highlight the country’s problems.
What El Salvador needs now is thoughtful visitors. Guests from around the globe who will question what’s behind their reading, engage with Salvadoreans and ask them for their opinions. Above all, we must seek out this country’s true colours.
The only way we can fight the case against the infographic, is to experience for ourselves the stories behind that infamous colour red.