I arrived in San Salvador nervous and turtle pack heavy, feeling weighed down by bags and laden with worry. I found a lot to love in El Salvador’s sleepy little mountain towns and green hills, as well as some cause for caution, but I’d done just enough background reading to be seriously wary of spending time in the city.
The Salvadorean gang, Mara Savatrucha, or MS-13, is one the most notorious in the world. However, it actually originated in the US not El Salvador.
For many years the US had a policy of exporting illegal immigrants, criminals and gang members en masse to central america, which meant that tens of thousands with no families, jobs, education, or sometimes even Spanish, taking LA gang culture with them.
Predictably violence bloomed in El Salvador, still fragile from civil war, and the country now has the dubious honour of being considered a ‘critical crime threat country’, with one of the highest murders rates in the world.
My route out, south to Nicaragua, was via a bus which left from one of the more questionable parts of San Salvador at 4am, leaving me with the choice of a night in a rough neighbourhood or a trip across town in the small hours.
Moving carrying packs can feel like wearing a flashing ‘rob me’ sign, even in daylight, so I decided I’d rather hunker down in a room above the bus terminal than risk a trip across the city in the dark.
I was pushed off the chicken bus at the edge of god knows where in the city, so I splurged on a five dollar taxi to the bus terminal, where I deposited my bags in a dingy little room and laughed that I was relieved that there were no windows. A guy with a very big gun was standing just outside the door.
I needed a cyber cafe to arrange accommodation in Nicaragua so I picked the most likely looking direction and headed out whilst it was still light.
The neighbourhood visibly went from bad to much much worse within a block or two and I beat a hasty retreat the other way. There I found a few barred up shops and a single internet cafe. But the computers were all in locked booths that guaranteed absolute privacy and a padlock, and that didn’t seem like the best place to be hanging out.
After walking, wandering and stumbling in my attempts to ask for directions and suggestions, I got a bus to shopping mall, a little safe Air Conditioned heaven on a breathless hot day.
I sent my mails on a screen that flashed irritably with psychedelic colours, then left the shopping centre to see the sun edging towards the horizon. It was probably only 4pm, but I had the anxious conviction of a character in a vampire movie that I needed to be indoors well before darkness dropped.
I was hoping for someone to tell me which bus to catch since there were no signs, no maps and no information.
The only person on the street was a guy who wore his baggy jeans and tattoos like a second skin -exactly the look that local gang guys apparently favour. But I had few other choices, so with a shy smile and my best terrible Spanish, I asked him which bus I should take.
He grinned and detailed a tangle of changes, subways, underpasses and suburbs that lost me at the first line. When he laughed at my defeated ‘lo siento, no entiendo’ (I’m sorry, I don’t understand), I explained where I was staying and that I’d been told it was kind of dangerous at night. He assured me that it was not kind of dangerous, but very dangerous, and beckoned me to get on the next bus that stopped.
With no more than a few words and the odd smile, this stranger guided me through my transport tangle with all the patient gentleness of a parent taking a child by the hand. When we reached the right area, he even got off at the bus stop and walked with me until I recognised the right street, then simply said ‘adios’ and walked away.
By the dense fall of dark, I was bolted in my room with a bag of food and a lot more faith in the strengths of the city than I’d had strolling out in the sunshine just a few hours before.
A storm raged overhead, thundering the skies and hurling abuse like blows falling on the tin-can roof, and yet I felt perfectly safe…