Published: May 13th 2008August 30th 2007
Gracias Veronica y Achim!
Danger, danger and more danger!! Before taking off on my Central American journey- this was what I thought of whenever someone mentioned El Salvador. Perhaps it had something to do with my father showing me videotapes of drug lords and gang kidnappings in the tiny Central American country and begging me "please, please whatever you do please do not visit El Salvador" over and over again or the countless other travelers telling stories about how crazy they "heard" the country was.
In the end I decided to go to El Salvador based on many recommendations from other travelers WHO HAD ACTUALLY BEEN TO THE COUNTRY
and spoke very highly of the Salvadoran people. In a place that sees very few tourists due to this so called "danger factor" glorified by the media and the proximity of the ending of its civil war, I have to admit after hearing so many people "warning" me about all of the country's dangers and telling me I'm better off not going there I definitely felt much more on edge upon arrival to the country's capital city. My curiosity got the best of me and I could not pass up exploring this country where few
go and figured I had been seriously warned about many other places before actually arriving and having everything turn out fine. In the end, my experience in this previously feared place would become just another shattered stereotype as my stay in Salvadoran territory proved to be extremely rewarding and memorable- all because of the country's great people.
What a long trip it was to get to San Salvador. I finally arrived after 14 hours of bus rides. Upon crossing the border, the contrasts to Guatemala were immediately very evident- multiple lane highways and much more sophisticated infrastructure are the norm as El Salvador is the most developed country in Central America. I finally got to the city at about 9PM and saw all sorts of fast food restaurants and modern shopping malls. What really struck a nerve were the AMWAY billboards (http://www.amway.com.sv/aw333Main.aspx?Dest=/Main -careful clicking on this link as you might puke all over the keyboard) all over the city- I seriously almost lost my lunch all over the guy in front of me in disgust and disbelief upon realizing the famous pyramid scammers (or "multi level marketers") are preying on people in third world Latin America now!! I am sure they get a great clientele in places where unemployment rates are sky high and it is a struggle everyday to put beans and tortillas on the table- what scumbags!!
I finally made it to my hostel and much to my surprise I ran into Achim and Veronica- my friends from Germany and Spain who I had met previously in Xela, Guatemala who would become my travel buddies for pretty much the remainder of my trip!! What a small world it is!! We caught up for a bit and then I went on a journey to try some Salvadoran cuisine. As I was leaving the hostel I began talking to a guy named Douglas who offered to take me in his truck to his favorite place to eat- a pupusaria a few miles away from the hostel. I took him up on his offer and he was very excited to introduce me to his country's food staple- the pupusa- a kind of pancake shaped concoction made with corn or rice, mixed with beans, cheese or chicharron (pork fat) and fried like a pancake typically eaten with plenty of chile and a side of cabbage. Douglas watched in amusement as I downed three large pupusas with much enthusiasm. I figured he had not eaten yet either but he did not take any of my pupusas that I offered to share with him. What a great gesture of welcome to El Salvador to have someone go out of their way to share their country's food with a foreign traveler like myself!! Douglas and I ended up hanging out in the hostel for a bit before he had to take off and go to sleep as he had to work in the morning so I decided to pass out after such a long day on the road.
The next morning I woke up early excited to check out the city. I took a bus to the central market and quickly found myself in the middle of craziness as you could find people selling anything from fruit to live chicken and other small animals. I grabbed some fruit and hit up a panaderia (bakery) for breakfast and walked around for quite a bit before finding a cybercafe where I burned my pics to a DVD (which later became a lifesaver!). I walked around the city a bit more and eventually found my way to La Plaza de Libertad where I ended up striking up a conversation with a guy named Saol while at a hot chocolate stand- who happened to be one of the most fascinating people I have ever met! As we sipped hot chocolate he began telling me stories about his life, describing his life as muy, muy, duro (very, very, hard). The start of everything occurred when he was 13 years old, while his older brother was working as a university professor in San Salvador during the time of the civil war in the 80s. His brother was an activist in favor of the anti military guerrilla movements and would often speak out in opposition of the corrupt Salvadoran government. Apparently, the military tracked down Saol's brother and violently killed his whole family- leaving Saol as the lone survivor on a stroke of luck. From that moment on he was so infuriated that at the young age of 13 he joined the Salvadorian guerrilla forces to strike vengeance against the military that had taken his family from him! Saol trained for many years learning the guerrilla lifestyle in Nicaragua, Guatemala (who had all endured similar civil wars a few years earlier) Cuba and even Vietnam (where he learned how to live in underground tunnels and ended up living underground for over 9 months doing everything from cooking to sleeping beneath the earth's surface). Saol considers himself a bomb specialist and would often set up mines around military bases throughout El Salvador. For 12 years he fought as a guerrilla and eventually lead a brigade of 6 men. Saol's story is so interesting that he is a star character in a famous Salvadoran book- "Mil y Una Historias de Radio Venceremos" by José Ignacio López Vigil. After his time as an FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) guerrilla, Saol lived in Chicago and Los Angeles for about four years illegally working construction jobs. Saol recounted stories of how he crossed the US- Mexican border swimming through a river by himself in pure darkness at 2AM with a backpack full of clothes on his back for about two hours. Saol now works in El Salvador making shoes for a business and had a computer programming book in his hands as we were talking. He said he went to school for 2 years and studied industrial engineering but did not have the money to finish and now he was trying to learn more about computers. After telling me his unbelievable story he wrote down a long list of Salvadoran food I absolutely had to try. He kept saying that it was such a shame that we did not have more time together and wished he could share more of his stories with me.
What an amazing man- to find the strength to live on and overcome all of the TOUGH situations he endured in his life is truly unbelievable. This really put things in perspective for me as often people in the states talk about how hard life can be paying bills and buying groceries etc- but the reality is that most of us are clueless as to how easy our lives are until we meet someone like Saol.