“I’ll just dress like them, and blend in,” I thought to myself. That was over two and a half years now, and I do not ‘blend.’ I can live here twenty more years, and I’ll still be a gringa. Here are some rules of the road that may help you when visiting (or just moved/moving) to El Salvador, similar to what you’ll read in the Lonely Planet or another travel guide, with color added, for your entertainment.
1. Dress HUMBLE. Even if you are a Salvadoran or Latino by blood, if you’ve been living outside of El Salvador for a long time, here are some appearance guidelines, which basically follow the phrase ‘DO NOT ADVERTISE MONEY’.
- Leave the gold, fancy watches, and expensive jewelry at home.
- Example of what not to do. A girl at a former job (no, not Habitat), sported a G-OR-geous and large diamond ring. I had to comment (being “Metida”), ‘Wow, what a nice engagement ring.’ She corrected me: “Oh, it’s a commitment ring, to stay abstinent until I get married,” she said. Her mother had bought it for her as a birthday gift. It was a choice between that and a new car. Theresa (let’s call her that) was a party girl. Some of us agreed she was probably a bit “spurled” by mummy and daddy – Salvadorans, btw, but she and her brother decided to live here “on their own” for a year or two * to beef up the C.V with ‘international business’ experience, along with their MBA in the works. The partying life nearly cost Theresa her job at call centro a couple of times. Perhaps it caught up with her, because she has since left the call center, and presumably El Salvador. But the twenty-million dollar question is: Did she return home with all ten fingers? **
- Clothing: Avoid pricey name-brands or logos advertising your foreign-ness. If they’re name brand, but worn out/older, you’re probably OK, as pp here buy 2nd hand American clothing here all the time (Variedades Genesis has multiple locations. There are a few used clothing store near the ‘Mercado Central’ including Genesis ).Pants versus shorts— pants first, then check out the scene for shorts.
- Men: some guys wear cargo shorts here. I don’t see ‘golfing’ style much
- Ladies: shorts are worn here, shorter ones get whistles. Bring calf and ankle length pants.
- Tennis Shoes / Sneakers
- Men: leave expensive Adidas, Nike, and Air Jordan (or latest $150 craze) where they belong: at home in your closet, thousands of miles away from El Salvador. Buy a cheapo pair, and replace them with a standard brand that non-ostentatious people wear here after you arrive. It’s ok to look ‘cool’ at home, but here looking cool means “come steal my wallet.” Or the very sneakers you are wearing. People do wear converse style brand and knock-offs here.
- Ladies: it is still not common practice to walk around with “exercise/walking” sneakers as a female in El Salvador unless you’re going to the gym, or wearing the “converse” style that are all the rage. Anything outside of that usually means, “Hey everyone, I’m NOT FROM HERE!!”
- Example: At the Fiestas Patronales recently, it appeared a woman at the next table was ‘visiting.’ Looked like a Salvadoran, as she was among them; who else comes to the boonies in Agua Caliente, Chalatenango? The shorts she wore were shorter, but fair game for El Salvador. It was the paper-white legs inside them, along with American style walking sneakers at the bottom (eeeek! stop sign!) that were a dead give away. That, along with constant camera-clicking, and taking pix of poor children in the snack area. I wondered how many years those legs have gone without proper Tropical sunshine to have turned that hue. My “trigueño” husband, after having lived in the states for 5 years, had all bus lost his indigenous glow, and was almost (dare we say it) lookin’ like a “white guy.”
2. Electronic Equipment. More and more people in El Salvador have access to nicer phones and cameras, but it’s wise to think location, location, location before whipping out electronics. My husband yelled at me the other day when I took out our five year old camera for a couple quick shots at the Mercado Central. I was with him, my personal “vigilante” and willing to chance it would get snatched. Laptops: people I worked with at my last job would not travel on buses with their laptop, opting for a ride with a relative/friend or a cab. And they are Salvadoran. Heed their smart behavior and do the same. If you absolutely “must” travel with a laptop, be smart and camoflouge it inside a backpack or something.
3. Traveling alone, or in small groups – especially in isolated areas.
Have you ever visited a city back home, wandered away from the “tourist area”, and asked yourself, “Hmm..have I gone too far, is this a good area or a BAD area?” Don’t do that here. Common sense at home applies here, too. We do not do a lot of hiking or sightseeing in parks with few people, but when we went to El Imposible the ranger walked on a trail with us – the only clients that afternoon, he was all ours! I literally NEVER hear on TV or radio about tourists getting jumped or accosted here. I read of one incident on a travel site a couple years back of a small group of 2-3 people jumped on a trail, so it’s advised to have a park ranger or tourism police walk with you. Some parks will not allow you to walk alone and you’re obliged to have them as guides.
4. Traveling at night – buses, the country, and the Bronx
Buses at night? VERY Safe area? Maybe. Sketchy/Not sure area? NO NO NO. Take a cab. At call centro where I worked, the company paid for private transportation (mini buses) to take everyone who lived within 30+ minutes of San Salvador, home at the end of shifts ending at night (usually 9pm+) . People who lived in Santa Ana requested, and got, day shifts because they lived outside of the transport area.
In the “safe” areas of the city of San Salvador, it’s fairly safe to travel at night, in a car.
Driving through the country at night: if you KNOW where you are driving – the area, the people, and know its safe to drive there, cool beans. If you do not know what you’re driving through at night, then don’t. I have traveled from “country” Chalatenango to San Salvador in the dark, but 8pm is my limit – tomorrow is another day.
Example. If I wanted to drive from the beach at the Puerto de Libertad to Los Planes, I would see two possible routes on my map. One starts on route 4, and runs past Santa Tecla and Antiguo Cuscatlan, and the city, and up to Los Planes. Another starts on route 2, and then takes some lesser “country roads” but looks shorter and might be faster. As a novice in El Salvador, I decide to take that route, which runs through both Panchimalco and Rosario de Mora, on the way back to the hotel I’m staying at in Los Planes de Renderos. In my naivete, I chose to drive through two very dangerous towns in El Salvador (many gang homicides). My real self, knowing these towns, would never drive through either one at night. Years ago, some people would never drive through the Bronx in New York at night (or daytime). An ex boyfriend from outside NYC, said back in the 1980’s, if your car broke down on the highway there, and you left it to get help, by the time you got back your car would be on blocks, and stripped. Panchimalco and Rosario de Mora are like THE BRONX IN THE COUNTRY and their gang members are scarier. Do you want to run into them when your car breaks down at night?
5. Do not answer unknown numbers ringing your phone or the door for strangers.
Everyone here knows the drill: don’t answer your phone if you don’t recognize the number. Back home, this is to avoid telemarketers. Here, it’s to avoid an extortion threat, someone demanding money or else. It’s not just “gang” members but any yahoo who thinks they can get away with it. I cannot say how frequent this is, but it has happened enough where the rule is: IGNORE UNKNOWN NUMBERS. A gringo from the call center who’s lived here several years said it happened to him once, he hung up, and nothing happened. I answer the door to vendors I recognize, usually women, but …(BAD EXAMPLE) I answered the door to a young man who knocked yesterday, who worked on the road crew in our neighborhood recently. Said his brother was murdered and he was collecting money for his casket. Now, my husband told me a few days ago that a worker asked him for a dollar when he walked past (said he’d spent his busfare on a drink at lunch), so I figured, same guy, new lie. The street workers did NOT work yesterday, and this one, who’s not from here was touring around – very discomforting. I wanted to kick myself for answering the door. I gave him two dollars and said I hope you’re not lying, and if you or someone else comes knocking on the door again, I will not answer it, and good luck. My friend from El Salvador laughed when I told him, said it’s one of the ‘stories’ they use.
* What makes Theresa’s ring-wearing even more odd, is that her brother Michael (let’s call him that) told us a story about something that had happened to them. It was a presentation we had to do in training, tell the group about a “near-death” or most astonishing experience you’ve had. Their family (all Salvadoran) came here for a visit some years back. Having just arrived from the airport, and in their relative’s home, a thug entered the house, and demanded everyone get on the floor. They emerged victorious, a gun and lots of courage were involved, no one died, and everyone lived happily ever after. And Theresa’s parents let her (or she insisted – ?) leave the U.S. of A sporting that big fat momma diamond ring. Go figure.
** My husband had a “close ring-call” in August of 2009. He was on the bus, returning from his English class, in a not-so great area – the “Tiendona.” A group of 7 gang-members boarded the bus and began ordering people to give it up, wielding knives. A marero (gang member) held a knife to my husband’s throat and demanded the goods, including his gold wedding ring. It was too difficult to get off, so the gangmember made threats – like cutting off his finger – and finally came up with a better alternative. He stuck my husband’s finger in his mouth and yanked off the ring with his teeth. To this day my husband will not ride the bus in that area. He’ll walk all the way from the Mercado central up to the street called “5 de Noviembre” to catch a bus heading up to Chalatenango. Even though the streets there are not ‘that safe’ it makes sense. On a bus you are a sitting duck – no where to run. On the street you can run, cross the street, or yell for help. No more Tiendona drama for my husband.
Will this happen to YOU? It’s not August 2009 anymore, and ‘presumably’ the American and Salvadoran economies have improved, but people get robbed on the bus frequently, so ride with few valuables and split your money in multiple places.