El Salvador and New Zealand are worlds apart, or specifically one Pacific Ocean– a mere 11,500 kilometers. Yet, both have active volcanoes just hours from brilliant beaches with surf waves. Both countries have equally as harrowing and winding roads. If motivated, in either country, I can climb a volcano in the morning and be at the beach in the afternoon.
What forests are left in El Salvador (13% of land use area) are tropical rainforests; in New Zealand, the Department of Conservation has created trails winding through over the 30% of land covered by temperate broadleaf and mixed forests. This is partly explained by the difference in population densities, while El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Central America with over 6 million people, New Zealand has a much larger land area with a population of 4.5 million. So the very act of walking in the two countries is a very different experience. Overflowing busses and traffic to rival that game where you have to jig-saw blue cars to get the red car over to the other side of the board define one, while ample trails and regulated car emissions define the other.
New Zealand has no native mammals, besides a bat, and many of El Salvador’s native species are locally extinct (good luck finding a monkey here). Luckily, it’s easy enough to encounter earthquakes in the two countries.
Both small countries have rich histories, with El Salvador’s human history extending back thousands of years, while the Maori arrived in New Zealand only 1200 years ago. The Maori in New Zealand are a strong presence (albeit not without the colonial problems and prejudices introduced when the British arrived around 200 years ago), while colonial invasion of El Salvador has totally squashed the Pipil/Nahuat traditional peoples such that much of the native knowledge and expression is gone. I’ve seen archeological pieces displayed in people’s homes in El Salvador, more as change holders than artifacts.
In one country, I can go to any ridgeline and have a good chance of finding an established trail to walk on, while the other country, I have to be conscious of which block I walk down. Bare feet are common equally at beaches as in ice cream shops and supermarkets in New Zealand while the tropical aggression, inadequate disposal of garbage, and ample rivulets of grey water in El Salvador make shoes a requirement for healthcare. Yet in one country, I feel challenged and uncomfortably comfortable, while in the other, I am always at ease aside from when I have to drive on the left side of the road.
It might seem like the obvious choice to stick with comfort. I find this contradictory as I seek to understand the world to create positive change, and I’ve grown to revel in the challenge of understanding my geography.