Last week I had the pleasure of heading down to visit my old friend Country Club Bill at his diplomatic post in El Salvador. It was an exciting trip. Some good times were had, a summary of which is below. I was surprised, pretty much daily, both by how modern and how impoverished San Salvador is. This was my first trip to a third-world country, so I was expecting some of this. Yet, it was still harder than I thought it would be to get used to some things. The smell of burning garbage, for one. El Salvador has some great people, though, and I really enjoyed my time there. Back in undergrad I did some study of the Salvadoran Civil War, so I knew a bit about how nasty things were down there back in the 1980s. Really, the country is pretty remarkable, even with the devastation of the civil war, and the gang wars that rage now.
Day 1 (Saturday): I flew in this afternoon, catching a nice 5:45am flight out of Omaha. Wasn’t too bad getting through immigration and customs, despite getting stuck in the gringo missionary line, and then bumped over to the non-English-speaking line at the last second for some reason. I didn’t have the address where I was staying, which caused them some consternation for a while. There was some negotiation, mostly trying to decide who was asking a question and who was supposed to answer. Finally, a senior agent stepped in to ask me if the friend I was staying with had a house or apartment. Apparently my answering “apartamento” satisfied them. They let me in. CCB said their version of Homeland Security leaves a little to be desired. Although arguing with dumb gringos all day will wear anyone out. …
Customs at the airport was pretty sweet. They had this set up with a traffic light. You held this button, after a few seconds the light either flashed red or green, depending on if your soul is bueno o malo, I guess. It was a pretty exciting ending to the process. I wish US customs had as much flair. … So in my travel-dazed confusion, going out to the Paseo El Carmen in Santa Tecla was quite an experience. I met the Salvadoran Getty Lee, then saw he and his band play a solid set of Rush and Van Halen covers and an Irish bar that served no Irish beer. It was pretty good actually. The quality of cover bands is far superior in Central America than it is in the states. … Was still getting used to the near constant presence of armed guards and armed police. CCB let me know that the armed guards are usually just window-dressing for new shopping centers and gas stations, uneducated locals paid to stand out front with a shotgun. (Although those shotguns occasionally go off accidentally, with hilarious results.) … Earlier in the night we watched the Notre Dame-Boston College football game from the patio of a mountainside Bennigans, overlooking the valley while fireworks randomly shot off. Sufficiently surreal for my first night in country.
Day 3 (Monday): We headed out of the city, out to Costa del Sol to celebrate Veteran’s Day with a crew of foreign service pros at a swim up bar and on the beach. Not too shabby, although the Pacific Ocean did its best to slam a bunch of volcanic sand into my ears. (A nice souvenir to bring home to Nebraska.) … On the way back from the beach, when we pulled off so I could relieve myself at a gas station, I somehow forgot that there would be an armed guard there. It was quite a shock when a young guy, shotgun in hand, popped out of the shadows to greet me, my belt half undone. CCB had a good laugh about it. Just because the guard’s pointing a gun at you it doesn’t mean he’s not a friendly. In fact, he was very encouraging, merely there to watch my back as I urinated on his gas station. … That night we went to Pampas Argentinian steakhouse. It was pretty good, although nothing close to The Drover. You do get a nice cup of broth when you sit down, however, to help fortify your constitution against the harsh plains. That’s a nice touch.
Day 4 (Tuesday): A day after private beach clubs and steakhouses, CCB decided we should cruise the Rutas de Flores up into the mountains and backwood villages. We found a Portland, OR-themed bar in Ataco. (Although the Salvadoran beer and sandwich with six different kinds of meat on it that I had for lunch didn’t make me feel like I was in Portlandia too much.) In Yuajua we saw the black Jesus statue and took a tuc-tuc car up into the mountains to see the waterfalls. I didn’t swim in the freezing water. The little kid between us two gringos in the back of the tuc-tuc was crushed on the rough passage, but he had a good attitude about it. … On the way back we stopped at Trench Town, a reggae and pizza club outside San Salvador. The bar staff was hopelessly disappointed in my inept pot-hipster handshake. Eh.
Day 5 (Wednesday): I twisted my ankle walking down the steps of the slick new shopping center where we had breakfast. Better there than on the edge of a chasm the day before, no doubt. I enjoyed the steers that grazed on the roadside medians around the airport. … Trying to order lunch at the airport Subway was maybe not the best choice by this point. With my accent and awkwardness, the vegetarian sub I tried to order turned into an Italian meat feast. I was just happy to get a sandwich at that point.