El Salvador – Riding the Bus

I’m not used to riding buses – not in El Salvador and not even here in the United States. I don’t understand anything about them – how to know where they’re going, how much to pay, how to get on and off, the proper etiquette when one’s body is pressed up against a stranger in quite intimate ways. Do you share a smile at the awkwardness or avoid eye contact? Do I simply pretend my ass isn’t up against some random guy’s crotch and my breasts aren’t in the face of a little old lady seated next to me?

One bus we rode in San Salvador at night felt more like a discoteca than public transportation. It was dark inside with neon purple running lights along the floor and ceiling. The driver blasted Pitbull’s version of Guantanamera and a cool breeze from open windows kissed the hair plastered to our foreheads with sweat. The bus careened down the street and around corners without slowing – forcing us to lean into strangers as if we were dance partners perfectly in sync.

And sometimes, the excitement of riding buses in El Salvador began before even getting on board. I once stepped onto the bus, grabbing hold of the turnstile to pull myself up the stairs that are always too tall for my short legs.

“¡No, mamá!” the bus driver said, startling me as he grabbed the turnstile in a firm grip. The other passengers, most of whom had been gazing out the windows with boredom, now turned to look at the obvious tourist – me.

The bus driver then explained that the turnstile went twice around and so he’s obliged to charge me double. I knew it wasn’t true. I had grabbed onto it but not pushed or pulled it. I started to argue, but Carlos shook his head and paid – a quarter for himself – but two quarters for me, so we could go sit down. People were staring after all.

Our friend boards the bus behind us with our 9 year old son. He lifts our son high into the air and into his arms. While our son is small for his age, he’s obviously not a toddler. His big untied sneakers dangle from his bony boy legs. Our friend goes through the turnstile with our son over his shoulder like a sack of beans and smiles at the driver as he does so. Two for the price of one. The driver narrows his eyes but says nothing. He accepts that he’s been outsmarted. The bus pulls away from the curb and we laugh as we hold on for dear life.


[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. For English, scroll down! If you participated on your blog, leave your link in comments!]

Muy temprano en este año descubrí un video por internet de un juego hecho a mano que me hizo sentirme muy emocionada. Era un pedazo de madera, plana, con clavos medio metidos – y los niños estaban tomando turnos en empujar un centavito con el dedo. La madera representa una cancha de fútbol, los clavos son fútbolistas, y el centavito es la pelota.

Video credit: ZBalge

Enseñe el video a Carlos y me dijo, “Ah, sí, eso se llama fútbolito. Eso tenemos en El Salvador. Tal vez un día voy a construir uno con los niños.”

Bueno, olvidamos de fútbolito hasta que fuimos a El Salvador y miré uno en venta en la calle. Claro que lo compramos – y mejor porque este fútbolito es bien hecho. Se juega con paletas y una canica.

El fútbolito que compramos en El Salvador / The fútbolito game we bought in El Salvador.

La parte más chévere es que la cancha está bien decorada con la bandera de El Salvador.

Nuestra familia se diverte mucho en tener una Copa Mundial de Fútbolito cada fin de semana.


Earlier this year, I discovered a video on the internet of a homemade game that got me really excited.

It was a flat piece of wood with nails hammered halfway in – and the kids were taking turns flicking a coin with their fingers. The wood represents a soccer field, the nails are the players, and the coin is the ball.

I showed the video to Carlos and he said to me, “Oh yes, that’s called ‘fútbolito.” We have this in El Salvador. Maybe one day I’ll make one with the boys.”

Well, we forgot about fútbolito until we went to El Salvador and I saw one for sale on the street.

Of course we bought it – and it’s a good thing because it’s really well made. This one you play with popsicle sticks and a marble.

The most awesome thing about this fútbolito is that the field is well-decorated with a flag of El Salvador.

Our family has a lot of fun playing “Fútbolito World Cup” tournaments each weekend.

El Salvador – El dentista

Image source: Meredith Farmer

While brushing my teeth a week before we went to El Salvador, a filling broke off a back tooth. I won’t pretend it was the brushing that did it, as it was more likely the JuJuBes candy I had eaten a day or two before. Though I wasn’t happy, we had planned on going to a dentist in El Salvador anyway, so at least it was good timing.

The original plan had been to go to a dentist in Carlos’s neighborhood, but after all the drama that happened the first day, we decided we would have to find a different dentist somewhere else in San Salvador.

That may seem like an inconvenience but the good thing about El Salvador is that whatever you need, a random stranger will have connections to get it for you. In this case, our favorite taxi driver’s son turned out to be a dentist. He was too busy to schedule us in, but he referred us to a colleague of his.

So we went to the office that was recommended by the son of our taxi driver. The office we went to was clean and modern. Of course, clean and modern are very important when choosing a dentist. We knew it would cost a little more than maybe some other offices in El Salvador, but this is one thing you really don’t want to get the best deal on, ya sabes.

The receptionist, dental hygienist, and the dentist himself, were all very nice. The first day they only cleaned our teeth and said we should come back another day due to excessive bleeding and the need for the swelling to go down in our gums. This sounded very logical and professional, so although I wanted to get it all done, I was pleased that this guy definitely knew what he was doing. Two days later we would have to return a second time to have my filling repaired, take care of a new small cavity I didn’t even know I had – and as it turned out, Carlos had a broken crown which was very close to becoming a root canal which he needed fixed too.

After our first appointment, the dentist actually closed up shop and gave us a ride back to our hotel. How’s that for full service?

The second appointment was a little less fun and a little more painful – but nothing out of the ordinary. Towards the end of my time in the dental chair, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

I went to a dentist appointment in El Salvador! I said to myself. I understood everything and the dentist understood me! I learned new words like “Enjuaguese” for “Rinse” and “Relleno” for “Filling” … I’m so clever! I smiled to myself as the dentist finished brushing some terrible tasting “flúor” (flouride) on my teeth and then started to walk away. My mouth was full of saliva but he hadn’t told me “Enjuaguese.” I wanted to spit it out! This stuff was nasty, it seemed like a dangerous idea to swallow it and I was ready to drool on myself.

“Doctor!” I managed to get out.

He turned and looked at me expectantly.

“Puedo… puedo…” My mind went blank.

The dentist cocked his head and waited patiently.

I pointed a finger from my mouth to the little sink.

“Puedo…” Argh! What was the word for spit?!


The dentist looked amused and perplexed, as he took off his gloves and smiled at me. Obviously he didn’t speak Spanglish.

Carlos sat in a chair in the next room through an open doorway. I called to him for help but by now I was definitely drooling.

“CARLOS!” I gurgled, “How you say spit?”

“Um… Tirar saliva?”

Maybe “tirar saliva” was perfectly fine to use, but my mind translated it literally to “throw saliva” and it seemed too rude and reckless so I rejected it immediately.

“No – that’s weird! I want a real verb!”

The dentist looked back forth between us.

“Escupir?” Carlos said.

“YES! Escupir! Doctor, puedo escupir?”

The dentist smiled kindly and said “No” – explaining that I needed to be patient and try to hang in there for a few more minutes. All that panic and drooling on my shirt for nothing. I closed my mouth full of spit until he gave me the okay.

After Carlos’s cleaning I went downstairs to wait with the boys in the other waiting room. While I waited, I noticed that several people who seemed to be friends of the receptionist, came in and sat down. I figured they were just waiting for her to get off work so they could go out together but lost interest in figuring it out when Carlos came downstairs.

We went to the counter to pay. For two cleanings, fluoride for both, one filling replaced, one new cavity filled, and one crown replaced, our total was less than $300.

I said something like “Wow! It would have been more than a thousand in the United States” and Carlos gave me ‘the look’ which means I said something I shouldn’t have. “Do you want them to charge us double next time?” he whispered.

So, we paid, called our ride to come pick us up, and went to wait outside the clinic because from what we understood, we were the last appointment of the day and we didn’t want to hold up the staff if they wanted to close up and go home.

We waited under the narrow awning as it rained but our ride didn’t arrive right away. The receptionist kept opening the door and begging us to come back in and wait comfortably inside. We turned her down twice. The third time, the dentist himself insisted we come back in and “enjoy the movie.”

As we followed him back into the clinic, I whispered to Carlos, “Did he say movie?”

Back in the waiting room, the office staff and friends of the receptionist had rearranged the chairs movie theater-style to face a TV in the corner of the room. We obediently sat down and waited as the dentist started the DVD and sat down to watch with us.

The boys kept looking at me but I avoided eye contact precisely because I knew they wanted to laugh and that they would make me laugh. It isn’t every day you get to watch a movie in the dentist’s office.

The movie was called, “Bosco: La historia de mi secuestro.” It seemed to be a documentary about a real life kidnapping that took place – in other words – very serious subject matter – Which is why I was horrified when I realized Carlos and the boys were shaking silently with laughter, trying to hold it in. Carlos literally had a hand clapped over our younger son’s mouth to keep him quiet. They weren’t laughing at the film, but at the fact that we were watching a movie at the dentist’s office. It was all very surreal and I wanted to laugh too. I needed to get out of there, because if Carlos was laughing, I definitely wasn’t going to be able to hold it in much longer. Thankfully I saw our ride pull up outside just in time and we excused ourselves.

On our ride back to the hotel I smiled at the irony of the situation. Here I had been lamenting the loss of a day at a dentist’s office – disappointed that we would be losing time in which we could have been experiencing something more uniquely Salvadoran. As it turns out, doing the most mundane tasks in El Salvador is always educational and culturally authentic – even going to the dentist.

El Salvador – El Boquerón

El Boquerón is the nickname of the crater of San Salvador’s volcano.

View of the San Salvador volcano from the pasarela in front of Hotel Real Intercontinental

Before we left for El Salvador I told Carlos I wanted to climb to the top of a volcano. He didn’t look enthusiastic. He told me he had gone with his classmates years ago and it was difficult. So I started walking each day, even running at times, trying to build up my endurance. If you know me, you know I’m not a runner. I’m a writer. I like to sit. And write. This just goes to show how much I wanted to climb the volcano.

Despite Carlos’s initial hesitance, I finally did convince him that we should go. As it turns out, he had no reason to worry. The Tourism Department of El Salvador has done a beautiful job making the volcano safe and accessible to tourists. You drive most of the way in your car on a paved road to a parking lot. Near the parking lot, there’s a small visitor center/museum with some information. (And there is even a public bathroom which is modest, but clean.) You pay a small fee to enter the path up to view the crater which was less than a 20 minute walk and not treacherous at all. Carlos said things were very different from the way he remembered them.

On the way up to the parking lot we saw a lot of school children in uniforms walking down the road. One teenager played with a capirucho as he talked with a friend. We stopped part of the way up at a scenic view and got out of the car. Apparently a family lives there and runs a restaurant on the same land. We climbed the steps to an elevated deck to take photos and the man told us, (not unkindly), that if we didn’t intend to buy anything, it was a dollar to take photos. I thought that was more than fair.

There was a tall wooden pole, and on top of it, Cipitillo's hat. (Cipitillo is a legendary character in El Salvador.)

The elevated deck had dichos hung up all over. This one is a little hard to translate but says something like, "Long live my mother-in-law, as long as she lives far away from me."

My younger son trying to sneak up on a chicken.

Back in the car, we drove up to the parking lot. There were a few chuchos aguacateros (street dogs), running around. The aguacateros at the San Salvador volcano probably hang around people a lot because they were much friendlier than their city cousins.

I heart him, and from his expression, I can tell he hearts me too. Look, he's saying, "Take me to the United States!" ... Carlos said no.

Everywhere we went vendors were calling out “Frambuesas!” [Raspberries!] I ended up buying some but we looked like crazy people, gathered around the bag, eating them with so much enthusiasm. “Oh my gosh!” my youngest son said in English with his mouth full of plump raspberries, “These are the best frambuesas EVER!” … and they really were.

(It crossed my mind that they hadn’t been washed, but none of us got sick.)

Even though they were the best frambuesas ever, my youngest son is kind-hearted and gifted one to the aguacatero.

He wasn’t interested.

After agucatero-petting and frambuesa-eating, we went into the visitor center/museum.

There was a wooden box full of typical costumes. We tried some on and Carlos took our photo. When I saw the photo of us, I said to myself, “NO ONE MUST EVER SEE THIS!” – because I look like a gringa India María.

Here is my younger son in traditional Salvadoran dress. He said he was going to pretend he was making soup for the photo, so that’s what he’s doing here.

At the visitor center/museum there was a guest book that I signed.

After we finished playing around, we started up the path to see the crater. The boys bounded ahead of us, leading the way. I managed to keep up with Carlos, but it took some effort. If I hadn’t been sick, it would have been a walk in the park, but since I had Guanaco Gripe, it wasn’t so easy.

Halfway up to the view of the crater, the path split. One sign pointed left, the other pointed right. One said “Difícil” and the other said “Fácil.” We stopped and stared at them.

“Which do you want to take?” Carlos said.
I looked at him sternly, one hand holding my aching ribs as I wiped snot from my runny nose on the back of my other hand, “Which do you think?” I responded.

A man crouched in the dirt nearby, tending to the plants that line the path.

“Disculpe la molestia,” [Sorry to bother you] Carlos said.
The man looked up.
“¿Cuál es más fácil? he asked him, pointing towards the paths and the signs. [Which one is easier?]

I looked at Carlos. What kind of question is that? The sign that says “EASY” is the EASY one! Before I could say something smart, the guy crouching in the dirt shrugged. “Son iguales,” he responded. [They're the same.]

“Only in El Salvador,” I said to myself. We started up the one that said “Fácil” just in case.

When we finally made it to the top, we were very excited.

My younger son looked down into the crater and asked, “Where’s the lava?” … He wasn’t the only one who wondered though. A group of long haired surfer dudes arrived at the top a few minutes later wearing flip flops – not sure how they made it up the path like that. The surfer dudes, (who talked very surfer dude-ish), were some of the only other gringos I saw while we were in El Salvador.

While at the top, we also looked at the radio towers which, according to the security guard who was standing nearby, were used during the war by Radio Venceremos.

We walked back down a path to the parking lot, where a few vendors were calling out the items they were selling … One man selling frambuesas called to me several times. I smiled and waved, shouting out, “Ya compramos frambuesas más temprano y estaban bien deliciosas, gracias!” … ["We already bought raspberries earlier and they were delicious, thank you."] Not only did the man fall quiet, but all the other vendors in the area did too. It was quiet for what felt like forever, though it must have been less than a minute.

Carlos stifled a laugh as we walked towards the car.
“What happened? Did I do something wrong?” I asked quietly.
“No,” Carlos said, “I don’t think they expected you to speak Spanish.”

El Salvador – La Feria

(Today is “Spanish Friday” so I’ll be blogging in Spanish. Scroll all the way down for an English translation! Also, if you participated in Spanish Friday on your own blog, please leave your link in comments!)

Cuando fuimos a El Salvador, era el tiempo de las Fiestas Agostinas. Las Fiestas Agostinas son una celebración nacional que dura una semana durante la primera semana de Agosto. Durante este tiempo mucha gente va a la playa, las ferias, a los malls, al cine, y en general, olvidan por un tiempo el trabajo, la escuela y sus problemas.

Las ferias con ruedas están por todas partes. Cada ciudad en El Salvador tiene ferias, atracciones y conciertos durante las Fiestas Agostinas, pero la más famosa se llama Consuma de San Salvador. No fuimos allá porque Carlos me dijo que es muy moderna y a mi, me gusta ver las cosas más auténticas. En vez de Consuma, fuimos a unas ferias más chiquitas. Mi favorita era una feria en Don Rua que era para la gente más pobre.

Pasamos la feria durante el día cuando estaban todavia preparando todo.

Este hombre estaba armando la rueda de Chicago descalzo. (Tiene sentido para mí. Me siento más segura de pies cuando estoy descalza, también.)

En la noche regresamos. Yo no podia tomar fotos porque era peligroso sacar mi cámara. Fuimos caminando, oliendo los churros, platanos dorados, elotes locos y otras comidas que siempre venden en la feria. Un muchacho vendiendo elotes locos me llamo, diciendo, “Eh, chula!” … Qué listo está el chico. Me daba ganas de comprar un elote loco sólo por escucharme más piropos pero Carlos me dijo, “Sigue caminando.”

En la parte donde tienen las ruedas más simples y baratas me sorprendí ver una “carrusel” que parecia más a un merry-go-round en un patio de recreo. Y en este “carrusel” (que no usaba nada de electricidad, sino un hombre empujandolo), en lugar de los caballos, habia carritos de plástico – los que tenemos en los Estados Unidos al montón y siempre se miran abandonados en yardas de gente que tienen niños chiquitos.

Yo no tenia confianza en las ruedas en esta feria, así que, no subimos a ninguna. Mientras que fuimos caminando y observando todo, el amigo de Carlos me dijo, “Tracy, mira!” y me enseño una jaula de pajaritos.

“¿Para qué son?” dije.

“Sacan su suerte,” dijo el amigo, “pero no es verdad.”

Yo estaba emocionante. “Quiero probarlo!” dije.

Carlos trataba de decirme ‘no’ pero ya estaba yo preguntando el muchacho con la jaula cuánto cuesta.

“Una quarter cada suerte,” me dijo.

Bueno, una quarter no es nada. Entonces, yo dije que sí, quiero que el pajarito saca mi suerte. Primero yo tenia que escoger el pajarito. El muchacho sacó mi pajarito de la jaula y lo guardaba en su puño. Después, el muchacho sacó una cajita llena de papelitos doblados. Me dijo que yo tenia que elegir una categoria – amor, negocios, hogar, vida, y no recuerdo qué más. Yo me puse a pensar, pero el pajarito no tuvo paciencia y empezo a piar en una manera molesta y a morder la mano del muchacho. “Espera, espera,” dijo el muchacho al pajarito. Yo sentia mucha presion por apurarme pero soy muy indecisa a veces. Yo quieria elegir ‘amor’ pero al final, elegi ‘negocios’ – el más aburrido de todos, porque en el momento yo tuve miedo que el pajarito va a sacar algo que me meta en problemas con Carlos, como estaba enojado conmigo.

El muchacho me dijo, “El pajarito elige la suerte – a veces saca una, a veces dos o más.” Después de decirme eso, el pajarito agarro un papelito y paró, pero el muchacho tomó el pajarito y acerco a la caja una vez más y el pajarito fue como loco, sacando cinco papelitos más. Al final, Carlos termino pagando $1.50 por mi montón de suertes. Yo sentia muy tonta, y sentia mal por el gasto también. $1.50 es una cena por alguien en El Salvador, y lo gaste en tonterias. (Y la cosa más jodida es que los olvide en mi bolsa sin leerlos y lavé los pantalones.)

Ni modo, fuimos caminando más y habia una rueda de columpios, (Carlos dice que se llama “rueda voladora”.) Usualmente, esta es mi rueda favorita porque uno se siente como está volando – pero esta me daba mucho miedo sólo por mirarla porque estaba super cerquita a una colina de pura roca. Si alguien alto sube a esta rueda, por cierto sale con piernas quebradas. Aunque era peligroso sacar la cámara, no podria resistir sacando video de la rueda por unos segundos.

Al final de la noche, fuimos caminando a nuestro hotel, pero estaba lejos y todos estaban cansados. En medio de una conversacion sobre si hablamos a unos taxis, un camión pickup paró en un semáfaro unas yardas adelante. El amigo de Carlos fue corriendo por el pickup y pidio un ride. El conductor respondio “Subanse, pues.”

“Apurense!” dijo el amigo de Carlos. Fuimos corriendo y subiendo a la cama del pickup y el conductor salio manejando super rapido, y tomando las cuevas demasiado de prisa. Los niños estaban gritando de miedo y felicidad al mismo tiempo.

Ese pickup fue la rueda más chévere de la feria.


When we went to El Salvador it was time for the Fiestas Agostinas. The Fiestas Agostinas are a national celebration that last for a week during the first week of August. During this time a lot of people go to the beach, fairs, malls, the movie theater, and in general, forget about work, school and their problems for awhile.

The fairs with rides are all over the place. Each city in El Salvador has a fair, attractions, and concerts during the Fiestas Agostinas, but the most famous is called Consuma of San Salvador. We didn’t go there because Carlos told me it’s really modern, and I prefer to see more authentic things. Instead of Consuma, we went to smaller fairs. My favorite was a fair in Don Rua that is for the poorer people.

We passed the fair during the day when they were still getting everything ready.

This man was putting together the Ferris wheel, barefooted. (That makes sense to me. I feel more sure-footed when I’m barefoot, too.)

In the night we came back. I couldn’t take photos because it was dangerous to take out my camera. We went walking, smelling the churros, platanos dorados, elotes locos and other foods they always sell at the fair. A teenage boy selling elotes locos called me over, saying, “Ey, Chula!” (Hey, pretty girl!)… That boy is smart. He made me want to go buy an elote loco just to hear more piropos, but Carlos told me, “Keep walking.”

At the part where the rides are simpler and cheaper, I was surprised to see a “carousel” that looked more like a merry-go-round on a playground. And this “carousel” (that didn’t use any electricity, but instead a man pushing it), in place of horses, had little plastic cars – the kind we have an abundance of here in the United States and you always see abandoned in the yards of people who have young children.

I didn’t trust the rides at this fair, so we didn’t get on any. While we were walking around and observing everything, Carlos’s friend said to me, “Tracy, look!” and he showed me a cage of little birds.

“What are they for?” I said.

“They pick your fortune,” the friend said, “But it’s not for real.”

I was really excited. “I want to try it!” I said.

Carlos tried to say ‘no’ but I was already asking the guy with the cage how much it cost.

“A quarter for each fortune,” he said to me.

Well, a quarter is nothing. So I said, yes, I want the bird to pick my fortune. First I had to choose a bird. The guy took the little bird from the cage and held it in his fist.

After, the guy took out a little box full of little folded papers. He told me I had to pick a category – love, business, home, life, and I can’t remember what else. I started to think about it, but the little bird wasn’t patient and started to chirp in an annoyed way, and bite the guy’s hand. “Wait, wait,” the guy said to the bird. I felt a lot of pressure to hurry up but I can be indecisive sometimes. I wanted to pick “love” but in the end, I picked “business” – the most boring of all, because in that moment I was scared that the little bird would pick a fortune that would cause problems for me with Carlos just because he was mad at me.

The guy told me, “The bird chooses your fortune – sometimes he picks one, sometimes two or more.” After he told me that, the little bird pulled out a little paper and stopped, but the guy put the bird close to the box again and the little bird went crazy, pulling out five more little papers. In the end, Carlos had to pay $1.50 for a whole bunch of fortunes. I felt really foolish, and I felt bad for wasting money, too. $1.50 is a dinner for someone in El Salvador, and I wasted it on such silliness. (And the most screwed up thing is that I forgot the fortunes in my pocket without reading them, and I washed my pants.)

Anyway, we went walking more and there was a swings ride. Usually that’s my favorite because it makes me feel like I’m flying – but this one scared me just by looking at it because it was super close to a hill made out of pure rock. If someone tall got on the ride, for sure they’d get off that ride with broken legs. Even though it was dangerous to take out my camera, I couldn’t resist taking video of this ride for a few seconds.

At the end of the night, we went walking to our hotel but it was really far and we were all getting tired. In the middle of talking about whether we should call some taxis, a pickup truck stopped at a stoplight a few yards ahead. Carlos’s friend ran up to the pickup truck and asked for a ride. The driver said to hop in.

“Hurry up!” Carlos’s friend said. We ran and jumped into the bed of the pickup truck and the driver took off driving really fast, taking the curves much too quickly. The kids were screaming from fear and happiness all at the same time.

That pickup truck was the most awesome ride at the fair.

The Helplessness of Being Here

Last night Carlos called his best friend, Lalo* back in El Salvador. Ever since we’ve come back, Carlos has called daily because this guy is like a brother to him. Our whole family grew very attached to Lalo, his wife Rosy* and their son, Lalito* – We care for them and think of them each day – living back in Soyapango, struggling to survive under difficult circumstances – wishing we could do more for them.

While we were in El Salvador, it was Lalo and his son who would come to our hotel each day to pick us up and take us where we wanted to go. The first day, Lalo apologized for the condition of his car several times, rolled the windows up and put the air conditioner on full blast. He asked me if I was comfortable even though I knew it was putting a great strain on his little, old car to run the A/C.

Squished in the backseat of a vehicle with no shocks as we drove on roads with enormous potholes, with two overgrown teenage boys next to me and my younger son on my lap, I told Lalo we could turn the A/C off – that I liked riding with the windows down because it made it easier for me to take photos. This was totally true, but I also didn’t want him to go to any trouble for me.

From the backseat of Lalo’s car. (I was taking a photo of the sign on the pasarela up ahead, which translates to “Hey you! Use the walkway” …Note the men crossing the street. Clearly the sign isn’t effective.)

At first Lalo showed us around every mall in the city because they were clean, safe, American-looking, air-conditioned, and, in his mind, very impressive.

Inside a mall in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Inside another mall in San Salvador, El Salvador.

You guessed it… a mall.

One day while eating lunch in yet another food court, Lalo put his chin on his fist and looked at me thoughtfully.
“Are you bored with El Salvador?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said, “I love El Salvador.”
He smiled kindly. “No, you are bored. I can see it.”
I chose my words carefully.
“I’m not bored… it’s just that, we have malls in the United States.”

I waited a minute for the words to sink in. His face lit up.
“Of course!” he said, “You have all this in the United States!”

“Yes,” I said, “I like to see Salvadoran things that we don’t have. Volcanos, markets… street dogs.”

He smiled. He understood now.

Over the next few days, Lalo became more comfortable with me as he took us to rough neighborhoods, pointed out street dogs to photograph, brought us into the heart of Parque Hula Hula, on crowded buses, to the fair – and not the big fair in Consuma – the small one on Don Rua which is meant for those who can’t afford the fancy one. He was a natural tour guide with fantastic stories to share, and the entire time, he and his teenage son Lalito, kept us safe – told me when to put the camera away, grabbed my shirt to keep me from being hit by a car.

Lalo could tell that we loved El Salvador – all of it, and he became very proud to show us places tourists don’t usually go – the places he once thought of as ordinary. The places he has walked through a million times.

Streets of San Salvador

People set up for the fair before the week long Fiestas Agostinas.

My younger son gets a piggyback ride from his new “older brother” – Lalito.

Carlos, Lalo and my older son talk on the way to Chalate in a rented minibus.

Lalito and my younger son fell asleep on the way back from Chalate.

One day as we left the hotel, it began to rain very hard. We stood under the awning trying to figure out how to make our way to the pasarela without getting soaked. Rosy, Lalo’s wife, pulled an umbrella from her purse.

“That’s not big enough for all of us,” Lalo said.

Lalito took the umbrella from his mother and opened it.
“I’ll take them over and come back. We’ll go one-by-one,” he said.
“Take Tracy and the little one first,” Lalo said. “We’ll wait here.”

We started out into the rain. Lalito, who at 14 years old, is already much taller than me, walked protectively alongside us, his wide shoulders making him look very much like a bodyguard. He glanced up to make sure the umbrella was sufficiently covering both myself and my little son.

Just as Lalo and Carlos are like brothers, despite our age difference, (and probably due to a good amount of immaturity on my part), Lalito became like the brother I always wished I had. We spent hours talking about music, language, culture – all things I love – and he has a good sense of humor, too.

As we walked under the protection of his umbrella, my youngest son and I devised a quick plan.
“Want to run?” I whispered in English.
My son smiled devilishly.
“Ready, set… GO!”

My son and I ran out from under the umbrella and into the rain with Lalito running behind us yelling, “Ey!! Ey!!”

By the time we made it to the pasarela, we were soaking wet but laughing so hard that the tears were indistinguishable from the rain drops on our faces.

Lalito went back to the hotel and ferried the others across with the umbrella. When Lalo arrived, seeing me soaking wet, (he didn’t approve of getting wet because he feared we’d get sick), he shook a finger at me.

“I see now,” he said, smiling. “You’re adventurous.”

It sounds funny in English. Few people would use such phrasing, but when he said it to me in Spanish that day, it felt like the truest thing in the world. I felt loved and understood and overall, thankful for such incredible friends.

So last night, when Carlos made his daily call to Lalo, and the phone call ended abruptly with a man’s voice shouting, “Put your hands on your neck!” and Rosy’s voice in the background saying, “That’s my—“
…We feared the worst.

It was dark out already, but Lalo and his family had gone down the street to buy pupusas for a late dinner. That’s when Carlos called. They spoke only minutes before Lalo hung up, amongst shouting and shuffling noises.

For thirty agonizing minutes, Carlos called over and over, but Lalo didn’t answer his phone. We hoped it had only been stolen, but in Soyapango, the outcome could easily be much worse. We struggled with the helplessness of being here, so far from our friends.

Finally Lalo answered, short of breath.

They had been attacked, but not by gangs or criminals — by police officers. They had just been standing there minding their own business, waiting for their pupusas, when officers ran up and jumped on Lalito, throwing him to the ground and telling him to put his hands on his neck.

Rosy had been saying, “That’s my son!” when Lalo hung up and asked the police what the hell they were doing.

The police explained that there had been an armed robbery in the neighborhood earlier that evening, and that Lalito matched the description of a man at the scene with a pistol.

Lalo bravely shamed the police officers. “I’ve lived here over 30 years. My house is right over there. This is my son and he’s always with me. You can’t just jump on people like that. He’s just a kid.”

The police officers let Lalito go, but Lalo wasn’t finished.

“My house has been robbed three times. Where were you guys then?”

The police officers didn’t answer and instead walked away. The situation ended as quickly as it had began, but we were left shaken. It’s difficult to love those who are so very far away, knowing that the only protection you can offer them is hope and prayer.

Lalo and his family were there to help us navigate the streets and buses of San Salvador. They were there to literally pull us out of the path of oncoming cars. They were there to hold an umbrella over our heads to shield us from the rain… but we can’t be there for them.

From left to right: Carlos, me, our youngest son, our oldest son, Lalito, Rosy, Lalo

* Lalo and his family’s names have been changed for their own protection.

El Salvador – lavandería (laundry)

[Today is "Spanish Friday" which means the post will be in Spanish. Need an English translation? Scroll down!]

Después de una semana en El Salvador, fue claro que tuvimos que lavar ropa porque no llevemos suficiente. Primero, tratamos de usar el servicio de lavandería de nuestro hotel – pero salio super carísimo. Buscamos un “laundromat” donde podemos lavar la ropa nosotros mismos, pero no encontramos ninguno.

Yo tuve la idea de lavar la ropa a mano en la tina de nuestro cuarto en el hotel. Fui a el super mercado, compre detergente, y una noche tire toda la ropa sucia en la tina por empezar a lavarla.

Después de sólo unas cuantas camisas, dolía mis manos, (tengo el síndrome del túnel carpiano, y mis manos son muy debiles) … Levanto a mi hijo mayor, quien estaba dormiendo, por pedir ayuda.

Yo estaba en la tina, pisando en la ropa como la gente que hacen vino de uvas, y mi hijo estaba escurriendo la ropa que yo ya habia enjuagado.

La marca de detergente que yo compre se llamaba “Más” y mi hijo me dijo, “Sabes porque se llama ‘Más’?”
“No, por qué?” respondí.
“Porque es MÁS complicado lavar la ropa con este,” dijo.

Al fin, (y despues que Carlos venía a ayudar también), pusímos la ropa a secar en varios lugares, colgadas en todas partes de nuestro cuarto. Por dos días dejemos la ropa a secar, pero al final tuve que secarla con mi secadora de pelo porque todavia estaba mojada.

La siguiente vez que tuvimos que lavar ropa, buscamos una mujer que lava ropa en casa. Ella tiene una secadora y no cobro mucho. Nunca voy a tratar de lavar la ropa a mano otra vez.


After a week in El Salvador, it became clear that we would need to wash clothes because we hadn’t brought enough. First we tried to use the hotel laundry service – but it was super expensive. We looked for a laundromat where we could wash our clothes ourselves, but we couldn’t find any.

I had the idea to wash the clothes by hand in the bathtub of our hotel room. I went to the super market, bought detergent, and one night I threw all the dirty clothes into the bathtub to begin washing them.

After only a few shirts, my hands hurt, (I have carpal tunnel syndrome, and my hands are really weak)… I woke up my older son who was sleeping, and asked for his help.

I was in the bathtub, stomping on the clothes like the people who make wine out of grapes, and my son was wringing out the clothes I had already rinsed.

The brand of the detergent that I bought was called “Más” [More] and my son said to me, “Do you know why it’s called ‘Más’?”
“No, why?” I said.
“Because it’s MÁS complicado [more complicated] to wash the clothes like this,” he said.

Finally, (and after Carlos came to help, too), we hung the clothes to dry all around the hotel room. For two days we left the clothes to dry, but in the end, I had to dry them with my hair dryer since they were still wet.

The next time we needed to wash clothes, we found a woman who washes laundry in her house. She has a dryer and doesn’t charge much. I will never try washing clothes by hand again.


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El Salvador – Tín Marín Children’s Museum

My kids have been to plenty of children’s museums so why take them to one while we were in El Salvador? Because they’ve never been to a children’s museum in SPANISH!

I thought it would be funny to get a photo of the kids in front of this part of the entrance sign.

The Tín Marín Museo de los Niños in San Salvador is next to Parque Cuscatlán. Even though we were there on a day when most of the country was off for holidays, there was absolutely no line when we arrived. The friends we brought with us have lived in San Salvador their whole lives but had never been to the museum which opened in 1999. (We suspect because of the cost. Admission is $2.50 plus an extra dollar if you want to go to the planetarium. That’s $3.50 per person – a very good price to us, but unfortunately not affordable for all locals.)

If you’re trying to remember which famous Salvadoran “Tín Marín” is, (like I did) – give your brain a rest. As it turns out, Tín and Marín are invented characters.

Meet Tín (left) and Marín (right)

The staff at Tín Marín are incredibly nice and obviously love working with children. Seeing the way some of the young men engaged the kids at the museum was really cute.

They had a lot of fun things to do – a pretend bank, movie theater, airport, doctor’s office, dentist, volcano, fire station, art area, butterfly garden, and more. The first thing we wanted to do was check out the airplane. They have the actual cockpit and whole first class section of a TACA airplane on the property – but the tours are scheduled as “flights” … So while we waited for our departure time, we checked out a section that teaches kids about cellphone use.

Translation: "Did you know that in El Salvador there are more cellphones than people?"

Translation: "Answer calls at church only if it's an emergency."

I also took my younger son to the “doctor’s office.” A little girl seated at the receptionist desk chatted on a plastic phone. Seeing us at the window, she told us to have a seat. A few seconds later, the doctor, who was all of maybe 3 years old, came out in scrubs. He wordlessly waved us back to the exam room and my son hopped up on the table.

“Buenas tardes, doctor,” I said. “Mi hijo no se siente bien. Está enfermo?” [Good afternoon, doctor. My son doesn't feel well. Is he sick?]

The little doctor whose head barely came above the exam table, reached up and put the stethoscope on my son’s chest and listened for a moment. “Está enfermo,” he said.

“¿Tiene medicina?” I asked. [Do you have medicine?]

The doctor opened and closed an empty drawer. “No hay,” he said. [There isn't any.]

(Apparently we had gone to the public hospital.) We thanked the doctor and told him we’d get his medicine at the pharmacy instead.

Finally it was time for our “flight” – so we lined up. The Tín Marín guide for this tour was a very well-spoken young man and great with the kids. He would give them information and then ask them questions to see if they were paying attention. At one point he explained that you have to get a passport and a visa to travel to the United States. Then he asked the group, “What do you need to go to the United States?”

The kids obediently answered, “A passport and a visa!” … I whispered to Carlos and his friend, “or cash and a coyote.” … So we started laughing like bad kids at the back of the classroom.

Finally we were able to board the airplane. There weren’t quite enough seats so I gave mine up knowing that some of the people, (including our friend’s wife and teenage son), had never been on an airplane and this was special to them.

Carlos smiles for a photo while his friend pays attention to the tour guide.

After we exited the airplane, we went to check out the rest of the museum.

My younger son learns to hang clothes to dry.

My favorite part of the museum was the mini grocery store. They had laminated grocery lists you could use, (this teaches reading skills among other things – and for my kids, Spanish vocabulary) – but there weren’t any hard and fast rules. Kids could play however they wanted. So you get your list, (or not), go around with your little cart, get your groceries, and then go to check-out.

At the check-out, the “cashier” was so great with the kids. He would tell them things like, “Ah, you bought milk. When you drink milk you build healthy bones! Good choice!” … After everything had been scanned and put back into the cart, he told the child the “price” and then asked “Efectivo o crédito?”

“Efectivo” was a new word for me. I knew immediately that it meant “cash” but I had always used the slang word “pisto.” (And now I knew why the waiter at the fancy hotel in San Salvador tried not to laugh at me. One evening while I watched the boys swim I felt so sleepy I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I decided to have coffee delivered poolside. The waiter asked how I’d like to pay. I responded, “En pisto.”)

Anyway – the cashier asked my son “Efectivo o crédito?” – My son looked at me for guidance.

“Mejor efectivo,” I said.

“Efectivo,” my younger son said, pulling imaginary money from his pocket and paying.

When the “cashier” went on break, my younger son took his job at the register.

I loved seeing my kids playing with native Spanish speaking children and not having any problems. My younger son checked out several children at his register and asked them “Efectivo o crédito?” – So cute.

Wait a minute. This customer looks familiar.

My youngest son is actually almost 10 years old but he’s small for his age, and he uses it to his advantage. While other kids his age feel self-conscious playing pretend, he still jumps right in and has fun.

Our younger son works to repair downed power lines.

My teenage son tried to act like he was too cool for the museum, but when he saw our friend’s son, (who is also a teenager) enjoying himself, he started playing too.

Making pupusas... plastic ones.

Is it just me or do Salvadoran teenagers feel less pressured to act “cool” and “mature” when they reach a certain age? … It was really refreshing to hang out with our friend’s teenage son. He taught my teenage son to just have fun and not worry so much about what other people might think. That’s a good lesson for everyone to learn.

El Salvador – The Less Fortunate

While we have plenty of people living in poverty here in the United States, it usually isn’t quite so visible, especially if you live in the suburbs.

Going to El Salvador was eye-opening for the boys, and it reminded Carlos and I to be thankful for what we have, too. There were two encounters we had with people that have especially stuck with me.

The first one happened on our way to a mini-carnival. During the first week of August, carnivals pop up all over El Salvador. This one wasn’t well-known or in any way special, but it was close by so we thought we would walk over and ride a few rides one day.

As I climbed the sidewalk which curved up and around into a parking lot where the carnival had been erected, a half-empty 2 liter bottle of Sprite came rolling to a stop at my feet. I picked it up, and awaited the owner, who I knew must only be seconds behind, chasing it down the hill. Sure enough, the owner of the bottle arrived. A little girl, maybe 8 years old, stood before me. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in days, her face had smears of dirt on it, and her clothes were little more than rags. Next to her stood a little boy, probably her younger brother. He was in a similar condition. Both stood wide-eyed, looking at me, their arms filled with remnants of food they had dug from the trash. I situated the bottle back into the crook of her arm so she wouldn’t drop it. Before I could say anything, she whispered “gracias” and they both disappeared into the crowd.

The second encounter was on our last day. We had walked around the mall buying some last minute souvenirs and then decided to get some paletas. Our youngest son had ordered a paleta de uva and rejected it after his first bite. “This has real grapes in it!” he said, disgusted.

“You ordered grape!” Carlos said angrily.
“But I wanted just regular purple grape,” he said looking sadly at his paleta.
I touched Carlos’s arm gently. “Nene, he didn’t know better. He was expecting artificial grape flavor like American popsicles,” I said.

Carlos sighed, took the paleta for himself even though he didn’t want it, and bought our son another one.

We headed back to the hotel while we ate our paletas. By the time we reached the pasarela stairs, the boys and I had finished ours but Carlos still had a few bites left on the stick.

“Chele,” a woman said to Carlos, as we started up the stairs. She looked up at us, her face pressed between the railings.

“Regalame su paleta,” she said. [Gift me your popsicle.]

Somehow I could tell, the woman wasn’t terribly old, but a rough life had aged her prematurely. She was thin and wrinkled, her hair unwashed for a long time.

Carlos handed her the popsicle.

“Disculpe,” [Forgive me] she said, as she turned away and finished off the paleta.

Carlos and I exchanged looks. We turned back around and rushed to the first fast food counter we could find, ordering her a hot dog and a soda.

$1.70 isn't much to us, but it could mean a lot to someone else.

When we went back to the pasarela, the woman was still in the area, just down the street a little. I gave our younger son the hot dog and our older son the soda. I wanted them to be the ones to hand it to her so they would remember it.

“Hot dog para usted,” our youngest son said, giving her one of his infectious smiles. Our older son handed her the soda wordlessly.

The boys say her face lit up with a smile and she thanked them.

From the top of the pasarela we watched her for a few minutes. She opened the bag that contained the hot dog and stared into it then closed it up tight. She did this several times. The soda she hid under a nearby bush. We couldn’t really make sense of what she was doing. I told Carlos we should keep walking. Regardless of what she ended up doing with the lunch we gave her, we left feeling that we had done something good and that we had given the boys one of the most valuable souvenirs ever.

El Salvador – The Mariachi Story

We went up into the mountains to a place near Parque Balboa in Planes de Renderos because we heard there was a good pupusería up there. Abbi Pupusería is located up the street from a scenic view called El Mirador and was once host to the making of the biggest pupusa which occurs each year on National Pupusa Day.

This is also where I had a humiliating run-in with mariachi that marked me as an obvious tourist in front of dozens of people.

Our driver parked his car in the tiny parking lot, aided by an energetic attendant who seemed to really love his job, directing traffic and fitting the patrons’ vehicles together in an impossible jigsaw puzzle that only he knew how to deconstruct when someone wanted to leave.

We invited our driver to come eat with us because he had become a good friend, and we lined up to order our pupusas. For myself, I ordered two revueltas – one cooked in the traditional corn masa, and another “de arroz” – which I’ve been wanting to try for years.

We chose a seat on the sheltered patio at one of the long, heavy wooden tables with benches and we sat down to wait. The restaurant was really busy – almost every table was full of people either eating or waiting to eat and the atmosphere was really festive. Sitting there that evening in the cool mountain air heavy with the scent of pupusas, everything felt kind of perfect… but that didn’t last very long.

Lost in my own thoughts, Carlos touched my arm and pointed out across the patio to men with instruments in hot pink shirts. “Tracy, mariachi,” he said.

Before Carlos could stop me, I had grabbed my camera and run off to get a good shot. I heard him calling over the noise of the other patrons, “Wait! Wait!” but wait for what? I didn’t want to miss getting a photo of mariachi and decided I’d find out what he wanted when I came back.

The mariachi were playing a song when I sat down right in front of them. While I usually try to be unintrusive when taking photos, I figured these are performers, entertainers – they should love to have their photo taken – so I snapped several photos of them before putting my camera away. To be polite, I stayed until they finished the song. As they finished the song, before I had a chance to go back to my table, they started talking to each other about me.

“Esa mujer sí es bonita,” one said.
“Mira los ojos bien chulos,” another responded.

The lead singer approached me, “Veinte dolares, cuatro canciones,” he said.
I told him I didn’t have money. He smiled and shook his head like I was the cutest little liar he ever saw.
“Veinte dolares, cuatro canciones,” he repeated.
I told him again, seriously, I don’t have money. (And I honestly didn’t. Carlos had all the money.)

At this point my youngest son came up beside me.
“Este es mi cipote,” I said, hoping to change the conversation.
The mariachi said nothing.
“Okay… gracias,” I said getting up and grabbing my son. “Let’s go back to the table, hurry up, come on,” I said to him out the side of my mouth.

The mariachi all started chanting, “Siguela, siguela, siguela” (follow her, follow her, follow her) – and they did. Hot on my heels, they arrived at our table right behind me. Carlos gave me an angry look.
“I told you to wait,” he said in English through clenched teeth.
“You’re the one who said ‘Tracy, mariachi’… How long have you been married to me? What did you think I would do?” I said under my breath, because all eyes were on our table.
“Veinte dolares, cuatro canciones,” the lead singer told Carlos.
“Veinte dolares?” Carlos said, incredulous.
The lead singer nodded and he guitarist strummed his guitar.
“Y por sólo una canción?” Carlos asked.
“Veinte dolares, cuatro canciones,” the lead singer said, completely unwilling to barter and let us buy just one song instead of four.

Carlos sighed and gave me a mean look out the corner of his eye as the entire restaurant watched. He started to pull out his wallet.

The lead singer held up his hand and told him he could pay after.

And so we sat there through four songs. I tried to pretend that it was romantic but by the way Carlos tapped his fingers on the table top I could tell he was annoyed at the whole situation rather than enjoying the music. Meanwhile I felt sick about having wasted $20, (this wouldn’t be the first or last time I had caused us to lose money in El Salvador due to acting like a stupid tourist) – and I was dreading the fight that awaited me once Carlos could talk to me in private.

After the four songs Carlos sighed and opened his wallet, but when he tried to pull out a twenty, some other twenties fell onto the floor. One of the mariachi hissed through his teeth. This made the whole thing even more embarrassing – dropping twenties all over the place like we were rich when we had initially haggled over the price of the songs.

For some reason, (I guess because he was embarrassed about dropping the money), Carlos gave them an extra $5 tip. They insisted this meant we got a 5th song, (a cumbia this time), and so our humiliation was further drawn out a few more minutes.

When our pupusas came, we ate and talked a little but I knew Carlos hadn’t really cooled off. Our driver was siting there at the table with us and Carlos just didn’t want to make a scene in front of him. When we got back to the privacy of our hotel, Carlos had one of his Ricky Ricardo moments and I ended up crying a la Lucy, because what should have been romantic, wasn’t at all.

Thankfully the fight was short-lived and by the next day we were laughing about the whole thing. I imagine the mariachi were also laughing… all the way to the bank.