Crying in El Salvador

When we went to El Salvador in 1999, I was woefully under-prepared. With a trip to Europe and an afternoon in Tijuana under my belt, I thought I knew what to expect, but El Salvador threw me for a loop.

The weather was hot, I got sunburn and a urinary tract infection, the mosquitoes ate me alive, Suegra arranged for the baptism of my baby without permission, I had to sleep in a hammock, no one in the family had hot running water – (and that’s when the water wasn’t completely shut off), the baby had colic and cried almost non-stop, there were no seat belts so I thought we would all die in a car crash and I was starving because my gringo doctor scared me off eating most of the food saying I could get really sick.

After spending a sleepless night being eaten alive by mosquitoes and trying to hush my colicky baby, Suegra insists we have our son baptized. As you can see, I was crying.

It was unbearably hot and the baby was crying too. Even though I told the Tio not to, he began to strip off the baby’s clothes to cool him down.

More crying. (Carlos and the baby.)

The baby got to bathe in water warmed on the stove. I wasn’t so lucky.

Carlos enjoys a coconut and a break from all the crying.

On a pony… getting ready to cry.

And yet, ever since we left I’ve been saying that I want to go back — I guess I’ve always known that none of this was El Salvador’s fault – it was my fault because I wasn’t ready for it and I was being a spoiled American, (and come on, traveling with a baby can be hell even under the best circumstances.) I could see El Salvador’s beauty even through my tears. There was so much I loved, but I was so completely overwhelmed that I couldn’t take the time to experience it the way I wanted to. The only thing that has prevented another visit has been the expense – year after year, we just haven’t been able to afford it.

More than a decade later, everything has fallen into place so that we’re finally able to return, and the kids, (thankfully at an age that won’t require diaper changes or preparing bottles) – deserve to see where their father came from – a place which probably seems more make-believe than real to them at this point. El Salvador – as if Carlos and I invented a fairytale land of volcanoes, paletas, stray dogs, careening buses, pupusas, debris of war, the sound of green parrots flapping their wings, unexpected downpours which disappear as suddenly as they came.

And so, we re-new our passports with plans to travel sometime in August. We hope to bring back plenty of photos of us smiling, laughing, eating pupusas, climbing a volcano, riding the bus, and abandoning Suegra at a Tio’s house, lest she unexpectedly arrange my forced baptism.


Related Links:

The Pichichi
El Policía

My Salvadoran Crocodile Dundee

[Today is Spanish Friday but I won’t be translating my entire post to Spanish today. Instead I will offer some vocabulary and phrase translations of the Spanish that appears within the dialogue at the end of the post.]

“Is that a snake?”

It was too late to be going anywhere, but Carlos and I were in the car, pulling out of the driveway. The plan was to sneak out and get ice cream without the kids or Suegra tagging along. The headlights lit up something black and twisted by the side of the road near our mailbox.

“Nene, that’s just trash or something.”
“No.” He put the car in park and opened the door, “that’s a snake.”

I got out too, rolling my eyes. That big, black, twisted thing was just a trash bag or something. Where did he think we lived? The Amazon Rainforest? As if a snake that big would just be hanging out near our mailbox.

We walked up to the object. I carelessly walked closer to it than Carlos. The “piece of trash” slithered.

“Oh my God,” I said, backing up and standing behind Carlos, “it’s a snake!”
“I know,” he said, “I need a flashlight, I can’t see it well.” He started back towards the house, leaving me and the snake to entertain each other.

The snake started to move towards our house. I picked up a big rock and threw it in his path, but missed. I threw another rock which landed right in front of his nose. The snake reared back and opened his little mouth. I stood my ground, armed with another rock, freaked out but determined not to let it anywhere near the house, until Carlos returned with a flashlight and a broom, the kids and Suegra trailing behind.

Carlos uncoiled the snake with the broom and it became clear that it was at least 4 feet long and, venomous or not, aggressive. The original plan was to carry the snake on the broom over to the nearby woods but the snake did not cooperate, and instead made every attempt to come at us or go towards our house.

Suegra kept telling Carlos to throw it in the road so the passing cars could run over it.
“Ay! Dejala, hijo,” she pleaded, “Las culebras pueden tirar veneno a tus ojos y vas a quedar ciego!” (She must have seen an episode about spitting cobras on National Geographic en español.)

“I’m going to have to kill it,” Carlos said to me. We didn’t want to, especially not knowing if it was even dangerous, but we didn’t want to take the chance of it getting into our house and hurting the kids.

“Traigame algo por matarla,” Carlos said to no one in particular.

Suegra and our youngest son ran off for the house.

Suegra returned first… with a weed whacker.

“Mamá,” Carlos said, exasperated. “Cómo voy a matarla con eso?”

Our youngest son, an animal lover, came out of the house with the white bucket that Suegra uses for washing her chones.

“Can we just capture it?” he asked, holding out the bucket.
“Cipote!” she said, grabbing it from him, “No! Con mi cumbo, no!”

“Get the machete,” Carlos said. I went to our closet and got the machete.

Carlos chops the head off

Doing away with the body, which was still moving

Head of the snake on the tip of the machete

All of the commotion attracted a crowd of gringo kids who had been playing flashlight tag or something in the neighbor’s yard.

“Dude, what’s going on?” one of the gringo kids said to my older son, seeing Carlos with the machete, looking like some sort of Salvadoran Crocodile Dundee.

“My Dad killed a snake,” my older son answered, his voice calm, as if this was a normal activity for our family.

I really wanted Carlos to ask me if I was alright after the whole snake thing went down so I could be silly and use a line from the movie, but he was too busy putting everything back in the shed that Suegra had thrown all over the yard when she had pulled out the weed whacker.

…but since it’s my blog, I’m going to pretend that he turned to me as he re-sheathed the machete.

“You alright?”
“I’m always alright when I’m with you, Carlos.”

—Vocabulary for this post—

Nene – baby (term of endearment, from woman to man.)
Machete – A big ass knife
Suegra – mother-in-law
Culebra – Snake
Chones – Underwear
Ay! Dejala, hijo – Ay! Leave it, son
Las culebras pueden tirar veneno a tus ojos y vas a quedar ciego – Snakes can spit venom in your eyes and you’ll be left blind
Traigame algo por matarla – Bring me something to kill it
Mamá, Cómo voy a matarla con eso? – Mama, how am I going to kill it with this?
Cipote – kid/male child (Salvadoran slang)
No! Con mi cumbo, no! – No, not with my bucket! (“Cumbo” means container or bucket. Salvadoran slang.)


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Drunk on Happiness

It was sometime last year, during the summer, that I stopped at a gas station downtown while out running errands, having found my tank on empty once again.

Suegra happened to be along for the ride, sitting next to me in the passenger seat. I pulled up to the pump and shut the car off. As I blindly rummaged in my bag to find my debit card, I watched a couple cross the parking lot, laughing so hard that they had to hold onto one another for support as they walked. I began to smile, feeling their infectious happiness, but Suegra clicked her tongue.

“Borrachos,” she muttered, shaking her head.
“Drunks?” I said, “Maybe they’re just happy?”
Suegra looked at me like I was stupid. I shrugged my shoulders and got out of the car.

The rest of the day, and even a year later, I still think about that moment because it so clearly demonstrates how one’s outlook on life can change any situation.

Is your friend a child or a pig?

One day my oldest son was telling Suegra about a classmate, and in describing the classmate, my son mentioned the boy’s height.

“He’s about this tall,” he said in Spanish, holding his hand out flat, palm down.

Suegra snorted.

“Is your friend a child or a pig?”

And with that blunt question, we learned something new – Holding one’s hand out, palm down to suggest height as we do in the United States, is used only to describe the height of animals in El Salvador.

Hand gesture to suggest height of human or animal in the United States, this hand gesture is used only for height of animals in El Salvador.

In El Salvador, if you want to describe the height of a human being, you must hold your hand with your fingers pointed up, palm facing out, (the way we hold our hands to say “stop” in the United States.)

Hold your hand out like this to suggest height of a human when in El Salvador.

Which hand gesture do you use to suggest height? Is the hand gesture different for humans and animals?

Related link: My Hands Speak Spanish, too

Día de las Madres with the Tíos

My Día de las Madres was … not normal.

I will let my tweets tell the story.

11:59 am – Salvadoran relatives just showed up without calling & I’m not wearing a bra. Fantastic.

1:31 pm – now we’re off to the National Mall for the day. Love these last minute plans inlaws come up with.

2:50 pm – Suegra took us to Roy Rogers for lunch & complained it’s too $. Tio is taking fotos of the Fixins Bar ROFL

3:12 pm – OMG Carlos esta pidiendo permission por los tios to take a foto in front of the portrait of Roy Rogers #muriendo

4:42 pm – Just saw a guy taking a photo in front of Washington Monument holding it as if it’s his penis #creativetourist

Unfortunately, I stopped tweeting after that because I was too busy rushing the Tíos through the museums. (Most of them close around 5:30, but of course, since this trip was last minute, nobody thought about that.) … Since I’ve been to the museums a million times I would be like, “Este es el gorro de Presidente Abraham Lincoln,” – then I would rush to the next interesting thing while they took photos, call Carlos on his cell phone and tell him where to meet me next.

My method would have worked better if the Tíos were more obedient, but they kept wandering off. Nine times out of ten we’d find them admiring some type of taxidermy animal.

In case you don’t believe me:

Faces alterted to protect the somewhat innocent.

Thankfully I did have time to take a few more artistic shots that didn’t involve large Arctic animals. I’ve taken a million photos of the Washington Monument, (though I don’t have one where I’m pretending it’s a penis) – so I always try to get a new angle on it… This is my favorite from yesterday.

And my older son took this photo of me and Carlos.

Tracy and Carlos, Washington D.C. 2011

I also filmed inside the METRO station as a souvenir for the Tíos. Surprisingly, the video does not end with me throwing myself in front of the train, but only because it was Mother’s Day and the kids were there.

The music… it helps you.

This post is dedicated to all the musicians out there who make music and share it with the world – the famous and the not so famous. Thank you.

(image source)

The other day I took Suegra on an errand. As is my habit, I started the ignition, put on my seat belt, pressed play on the CD player, turned the volume up, and then checked my mirrors before backing out of the driveway.

Lately I’ve been playing the hell out of my Pitbull CD. I can’t play it around the niños but Suegra doesn’t catch the dirty lyrics. She did say once that she doesn’t like the Pitbull CD, but my car, my rules. (Sometimes I joke with Carlos when he changes the stations on me, “Don’t you ever touch a white girl’s radio, boy!”) [Rush Hour reference – warning: strong language in video]

Suegra knows better than to complain too much though since I don’t like taking her on errands in the first place. Besides, I’ve caught her out of the corner of my eye tapping her fingers to the beat.

This particular day we’re driving along – a gringa and an elderly Salvadoran woman, with Pitbull blasting from the speakers. The sun is shining, I put on my sunglasses, roll the window down a little. Despite being on an errand with my mother-in-law, I’m feeling good. I’m smiling, moving to the beat, sauvecito – just a little – not so much that I look like a loca – happy to be alive and thankful for what I’ve got.

Suegra breaks my trance, yelling to be heard over the music, “Tracy, ya no tomas las pastillas para la tristeza, vá?”

I tell her that no, I haven’t taken medicine for depression for several years now.

Suegra nods, is quiet for a moment. We stop at a red light.

“La música…te ayuda, ¿verdad?” she lifts her chin in the direction of the radio.

Now it’s me who is quiet. I’ve never known Suegra to be especially insightful so I’m shocked into silence by the realization that she understands something so deeply personal about me without me having ever breathed a word of it aloud.

The music…it helps you.

Yes – I answer her. The music helps me.

Patriotism & Hot Dogs

What is more American than hot dogs? – At least that’s what I used to think.

I remember the first time I proudly served Carlos hot dogs. They were perfectly grilled in a nice soft bun. On the table – ketchup, mustard and relish so he could put whichever combination he liked. After we ate I asked him what he thought of our dinner. His response? “They were okay… but I like the hot dogs in El Salvador better.”

Qué qué?! Hot dogs in El Salvador? … When I was actually able to accept that they do indeed eat hot dogs in El Salvador, (and I later found out that there are variations around the world!), I refused to accept that they could be better than AMERICAN hot dogs – because hot dogs are from “AMERICA.” … {Star Spangled Banner plays in the background} … I never knew how patriotic I was until he insulted our hot dogs.

Well, over the years, I’ve come to accept that even though I’ve brainwashed him into liking peanut butter and jelly and other such American delicacies, he will always believe Salvadoran hot dogs are superior to American hot dogs. He still talks about the hot dog vendors in the streets of El Salvador in the same way one would wistfully describe a beloved girlfriend they had left behind.

Sensuntepeque, Cabañas en El Salvador

(image source)


I have even tried to accommodate my husband by preparing the hot dogs in a more Salvadoran fashion. Per Carlos’s instructions, this involves:

• Slicing the hot dogs in a spiral
• Making sure the hot dog is cooked well done (either grilled or fried in oil)
• Toasting the bun
• Preparing a cabbage & mustard topping

I don’t know if that is officially a “Salvadoran hot dog” – but that’s how he’s asked me to make them. Here is how I make the cabbage topping.


Salvadoran Cabbage Topping for Hot Dogs

You need:

1/2 a small cabbage head shredded
yellow mustard
salt and pepper


Heat a few tablespoons of cooking oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add cabbage – frying while stirring for a minute. Add a few tablespoons of mustard. Continue to cook until cabbage caramelizes a bit, but don’t cook until soggy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on top of hot dogs.


As for Suegra, she goes one step further – she eats her hot dog inside of a tortilla.

Suegra's hot dog