Leaving Antigua we now go east, towards El Salvador. Driving through Guatemala City seems to take forever, that city is really huge! After a good while we finally reach the border and the money changers descend upon us like ants onto a melting piece of chocolate. Coincidentally, that’s about how we felt out there in the blistering sunlight, waiting around to cross into El Salvador. Annoyingly enough we don’t get any stamps in our passports for this crossing, making it the only one so far.
The drive to San Salvador is a sizable one and rather uneventful. We stop for a late lunch at a large (and incredibly loud) US-style mall and eat at the incredibly US-style food court. We look around some at the stores, but it’s almost like being back home, not very interesting. I do manage to pick up some beer seasoning however, should be interesting to try later on.
We arrive at the hotel in the late afternoon, which is in the not-quite outskirts of San Salvador. There isn’t much to do here but hanging out in the hotel bar, so a few of us decide to go downtown for dinner and to see what it’s like (fully aware of that San Salvador is not considered a very safe city, but we figure that if we keep to the more populated streets we should be fine). The hotel arrange with a couple of “taxis” (basically just some guys they know) to take us downtown. The drive is around 20 minutes and as we get closer to the city center we see a bustling market with lots of people shopping groceries. It actually doesn’t look too bad, maybe the stories are exaggregated? The cars drop us of at the central square and we arrange for them to pick us up two hours later since we wouldn’t want to risk ending up without a taxi when it’s time to head back (or one that doesn’t speak English, or even one that decides to kidnap us, anything is possible).
We start by walking around a couple of blocks just next to the square, but there isn’t much open it seems. So we head for the market street we came in on instead, which is still pretty lively. The first really clear sign that this excursion probably wasn’t a very good idea is when I browse the items at a market stand and suddenly notice that I’m actually looking at pistol holsters. Instead of the usual tourist crap, these people are selling pistol holsters. Riiiiiiight. Moving on… We walk the length of the market, keeping a lookout for a place to eat, but all we see are McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFCs, each with an armed guard at the entrance (yes, a guy with a pump action shotgun). Christian, Jessica and Julia end up eating a Pizza Hut, craving the armed security, Lina, me and Emma want to get something more local and finally find a sort of food court like area, just off the market street that is populated by a bunch of tiny, privately owned, “restaurants”. More appropriate might be to call them open air kitchens. Well, we sit down at one of them and with some gesticulating manage to order us each a delicious sub sandwich type of deal. It’s actually rather cozy.
After a while a guy on the table next to ours strike up a conversation. He introduces himself as Giovanni and is working for a US credit card company that recently transferred him here to head up the San Salvador branch. We end up talking about the country and how it’s not a very safe place these days. Apparently one of the world’s biggest gangs; the Mara Salvatrucha controls most of San Salvador and are known for their brutality. They pretty much run the drug trade coming from South America through here and there are frequent displays of power towards other gangs, usually ending with headless bodies since their weapon of choice is the Machete. He then changes the subject to brag about this very nice beach house his mother owns down by the coast and inviting all thirty of us to stay there for as long as we like.
As we’re talking another guy, seemingly the son of the lady who own this restaurant, sits down at our table and starts adressing Giovanni. The entire conversation is in Spanish, but the way that Giovanni’s demeanor immediately changes to cold distance, the way the guy keeps using words like ‘familia’ and ‘respecto’ and the way he brandishes his many tattoos it’s rather apparent that he is a gang member. After a while he leaves though and Giovanni leans over and tells us that we should probably leave now. We couldn’t agree more and head over to the Pizza Hut to pick up the others. Giovanni tags along to see that we get back to the square safely and while we wait for the others to come down he nods to a couple of high school kids walking by with their back packs. “The youngest generation of Mara members right there.” he says matter-of-factly.
Our Pizza Hut contingent is really suspicious of our ‘escort’ at first but change their opinion rather quickly when they see how deserted the street has become now that all the market stalls have packed up for the night. We make it back to the square without incident (it’s not very far) but you can’t help but see boogeymen in every shadow along the way. It’s not quite yet the time that we were supposed to meet the taxis but we decide to stay put until they get there. A cute and really shy kid gets his picture taken with us by his very enthusiastic family while we sit there and wait. Apparently us whities are a rare enough sight around here we’re considered a photo-op.
The taxis that finally arrives are actually a different set of cars, but after making sure it’s actually the ones we’ve been waiting for we hop in and ride back to safety. Probably not the smartest thing we’ve done, quite the opposite actually. But a very interesting experience in the end. A slightly more dramatic, and hilariously entertaining account of this evening can be found over at Julia and Jessica’s travel blog (unfortunately only in Swedish). The evening is rounded off with a few beers and storytelling back at the hotel. I manage to remember the beer seasoning I bought earlier and we try it out. It is beyond awful! I truly cannot fathom why anyone would want that vile stuff!
Beer and stuff: $?