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Craftsmanship Shows Culture

SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- The landlord of our apartment complex told us when we moved in that he would have a window put in to fill a little 1.5 foot square portal that was only blocked up with a few bars and a piece of ply board. I just shrugged. The rest of the apartment’s orifices [...]

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- The landlord of our apartment complex told us when we moved in that he would have a window put in to fill a little 1.5 foot square portal that was only blocked up with a few bars and a piece of ply board.

I just shrugged. The rest of the apartment’s orifices where just shut up imperfectly with steel doors — no glass, no bars, no screens, no nothing — there were crevices leading to the outside world all over, it was not my impression that one more mattered too much. Having a window put into this little space seemed to be a moot point. But the landlord insisted.

For a month and a half we were spared the installation routine of having the window put in. Until yesterday.

Early in the morning there was a knock at the door. It was the window installation guy. He was specially hired to do this job. Apparently, he was a professional.

I went back to sleep in a hammock, the guy put in the window.

10 minutes go by and the guy splits.

I looked at the newly installed window. It looks like this:


Window in El Salvador apartment

I wait around for the guy to come back to finish the job. I refused to believe that he would just screwed in an ill-fit window frame — leaving gaping spaces all around — and call his job complete.

He didn’t came back.

He was done, his job was finished: a window was installed.


Each culture has its own idea of what a completed job entails, each culture has its own idea of perfection. Trade laborers and handymen are models for their cultures, they show the depth of their countries: they show was is accepted as being good enough through their work. This model can then be applied to most other tactical areas of the culture, you can then come to expect what will come next, you can start to see a pattern. If you want to see what a culture is made of first look to see if the doors fit nicely into their frames, or if they are just thrown in with gaps and spaces all around.

There are three stages of craftsmanship: bad, good enough, and good.

Most all places in the world function, only the most destitute places have handymen who do bad work — only a truly defunct place has windows being installed that don’t function. But most cultures stop at good enough, only a few go all the way to good. But there is a pattern at work here: the countries whose craftsmanship goes beyond merely good enough tend to be the richest countries on the planet.

Are the people in these countries able to afford to buy additional materials and pay for more labor from a handyman because they are from a prosperous place? Or is it the perspective of having a high standard for work, for going beyond good enough, that is a large part of the nuts and bolts of what makes these cultures powerful and rich?

I ponder this as I look at my new lopsided, shabbily installed window in El Salvador.

The median standard of what is considered a completed job is a lens into the meat of a society. It seems acceptable here to leave spaces, to cut corners, to do things cheap, fast, done merely good enough. The window that was installed in my apartment works, it does what it is suppose to do, it is not beautiful to look at but it is utilitarian — it completes its purpose. Rather than taking two hours and spending extra money for additional materials, the window was just thrown into the frame and screwed in. The dust was left on the floor, the guy who installed the window was gone in 1o minutes: elbows and ass holes. Done.

In some places, a window is not installed until all the gaps and spaces are full and everything runs flush and neatly together. In some places, a window takes two hours to install and is not complete until it can fully close out the outside environment when shut.

El Salvador is not such a place.

I pay $80 a month for my apartment. I don’t live in the places where windows are beautifully installed for a reason: good enough means cheap, and cheap is good enough for me. Who wants to waste time making a window look good? Who wants to spend extra money on appearance? I certainly don’t want to pay extra rent to be able to show my freshly installed, beautiful window off to guests. In point, when you install a window you screw the damn thing in and split. The job is done: simple, quick, cheap. There are more important things in life than spending all day putting in a window.

I like places that know this.

I like this country.


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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, El Salvador

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • FruuGal May 27, 2010, 2:17 pm

    Why did our parents and grandparents tell us over and over, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right”?

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    • Bob L May 27, 2010, 3:24 pm

      FruuGal wrote:
      Why did our parents and grandparents tell us over and over, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right”?

      Interesting point.

      I suppose it was to instill a certain amount of pride in our work and ourselves. Just good enough, especially when compared to other people’s version of just good enough, will keep getting worse and worse until everyone’s work becomes almost good enough.

      Don’t believe that Wade follows this “just good enough” phylosophy. If he did, this website would not look better and better over time, his writing would not be so enjoyable, and he would not have been able to keep the jobs he has done to earn his bean money. Wade is an example of “if you are going to do a job, you should do it right”.

      Bob L

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 28, 2010, 11:37 am

        Oftentimes, people tend to appreciate qualities which they do not possess. I wish I could just do something quick and spend the rest of my day in a hammock, though it does not usually work out like this.

    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 28, 2010, 11:35 am

      Yes, the ideal of a right way and a wrong way is deeply instilled in our culture, and this is something that we seemingly cannot shake.

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  • Debbie Goss May 28, 2010, 9:22 am

    You said that “it does what it was supposed to do”, – What is that?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 28, 2010, 11:43 am

      Honestly, I am not so sure.

      Though it is my impression that the window was put in for the sole purpose of being able to shut to prevent people from looking in rather than acting as a barrier to stand between inside and outside.


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  • Robert D'Avanzo May 30, 2011, 10:03 pm

    I was in Suchitoto May 13-15 2011 and found your comments to be very spot on. Great. Where I was staying had mosquitoes around it so I really wanted all the spaces to the outside blocked up. Never had Dengue, but I’m sure it isn’t fun. There is something about certain countries that they don’t seem to understand that when we pay (however little it is) for a place to stay, we want to be INSIDE. We don’t want big holes in the windows or walls. Or an outdoor shower. Not just in El Salvador, which is lovely, but all of “Latin America” that I’ve seen. And when I left Suchitoto, I went to the beach at La Libertad for a few days- staying at the Hotel Rick. The price for an air conditioned room is higher than without. However, the windows didn’t fully close (those wind out slats are as horrible as the often found “suicide” shower head water heaters…they don’t often work well. ) So I had hot air and bugs coming in while the a/c was constantly working. It might just be cheaper (saving electricity) for the hotel to fix the windows! And while I’m not very shy, I would rather not have doors that don’t meet the frame so that anyone passing can peep in, another common thing I’ve encountered. My guess is that in countries where people like to be outside, they don’t understand this very well.

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    • Wade Shepard May 31, 2011, 7:57 am

      Hello Robert,

      Right on. All too often hotel owners are on another planet as far as knowing what the guests want and need. But, then again, in most of the world hotels only serve as places for sex. Us travelers are the odd clients who actually want to live in the rooms haha.

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