El Salvador – Tight Jeans & Inappropriate Head Massages

Despite the ominous title, te juro – we had an amazing time in El Salvador and I have a lot to share with you. This will be the first of several posts about our adventures. I haven’t really written for two weeks, except for the notes I kept in a small book during our travels. I hope writing is like riding a bicycle, (“Once you learn, you never forget”) – because at the moment I’m finding it difficult to put any of my thoughts and emotions into words.

So much happened in such a short time, I’m not even sure where to start. As soon as I stepped off the plane I was overwhelmed with an urgency to absorb everything – every scent, sight, taste, sound, detail. It’s impossible, of course, but I tried. There was so much I couldn’t capture with my camera, but there were solid rather than poetic reasons for that. In some places/situations, the risk of theft and drawing attention to ourselves was too great – other times I didn’t pull out the camera because I don’t like to make others uncomfortable.

As much as I tried to blend in, it wasn’t possible. At the San Salvador airport, Comalapa, the man who checked over our passports before granting entry, asked Carlos if the boys and I were all his children. I had my hair down to cover my face and wore sunglasses. Carlos told him that I was his wife. I removed my sunglasses so he could compare it to the passport photo and he charged me for a tourist visa. (Carlos and the boys didn’t have to pay even though they’re all U.S. Citizens, too.)

Everywhere we went, people stared completely sin pena. I realized that while gringas married to Latin American men are becoming increasingly common here in the U.S., it’s still something of a novelty in El Salvador. Maybe many people know of a friend or cousin who immigrated to los Uniteds and married a gringa, but, (perhaps due to lack of legal paperwork) – they don’t travel back to El Salvador on vacation. (Or they travel back and don’t bring the wife with them.) I didn’t see a single gringa/Salvadoran couple, (or any interracial/intercultural couple for that matter), the entire time we were there.

I also realized that using a backpack and chanclas definitely wasn’t helping me blend in. While generalities don’t apply to everyone, I’ll say that most women I saw in El Salvador, (especially in the malls) – carried big, fancy-looking purses and wore high heels. Some of the women could barely walk in their shoes. I watched one woman nearly fall down the escalator with her baby because of her platform heels, (her friend grabbed her arm and held onto her until she regained balance.) The women also wear jeans so tight from waist to ankle that I really have no idea how they fit into them, and form fitted tops as well. In El Salvador it doesn’t matter if you’re flaca, curvy, rellenita, or gorda – Tight clothes are what you wear. It was really freeing for me to see women my size and bigger who seemed to have no shame about their panzas. Not only did they have no shame, they seemed proud, walking belly first, head held high, with plenty of confidence. When it came to fashion, there was no attempt to hide or camouflage fat like women here in the United States do.

I noticed that heavy make-up and thinner eyebrows are also common. I definitely felt the need to up my game while in El Salvador. With all the women walking around looking like that, the casual tourist look wasn’t cutting it. I started carrying a big purse instead of the backpack, plucked my eyebrows a little thinner, and began putting on more eye make-up than I thought was decent for daytime. I felt this helped me blend in a little, but I refused to trade my chanclas and regular fitted jeans for high heels and skin-tight pants.

And it wasn’t just the women who looked nice. Most of the men, (again, especially in shopping malls and usually in the 15-30 age range), loved to wear name brand shirts, stylish jeans, (sometimes as tight as the women’s), and either name brand sneakers or pointy-toed shoes. The most popular hairstyle among young men was definitely the faux-hawk.

(Note: Again, this was what I saw in the malls of San Salvador. Out in the markets, on the streets, in areas outside of San Salvador, with older and more religious people – the fashion tended to be more conservative.)

We spent a lot of time walking around Metrocentro, a huge multi-level mall with indoor and outdoor shopping, kiosks, food court, movie theater and a “pasarela” (pedestrian walkway over a busy road) – to connect you to the other half of the mall. I was told that Metrocentro is the “poor people mall.” When I asked how the “poor people” could afford to look so trendy, I was told they prefer to wear name brand shoes and survive on beans and tortillas for breakfast. I don’t know how true that is, but that’s what I was told.

Pasarela to Metrocentro
Carlos and the boys wait while the vendor makes our minutas.
My crema soda flavored minuta was red and tasted spicy – I have no idea why.

In the malls there was an abundance of people trying to sell me cell phones or a weekend at a resort. For the first couple days I was very polite in my response – listening to the vendor’s pitch and then issuing a “no gracias” with a smile. This of course becomes exhausting and I realized why locals just keep walking and usually say nothing.

I admit, at first I thought Salvadorans were rude because they don’t say “excuse me” – I stuck out as a gringa for this reason alone. Walking through crowds I’d say, “Con permiso” and “Perdon” multiple times. Eventually I realized, the locals weren’t being rude, it’s just accepted that with this many people in a small area, you will get bumped and brushed, elbowed and stepped on, by strangers. It’s accepted that you can’t give everyone personal space, (Americans love their bubble of personal space but in El Salvador, be prepared for that bubble to be burst.) … No one says “excuse me” because it would be exhausting to apologize to every person you touched.

Most Salvadorans you encounter working in stores and restaurants provide excellent customer service. You’ll always be greeted warmly with a Buenos días/Buenas tardres/Buenas noches. If you say “gracias” – it will always be met with an “a la orden.” People will thank you for your patronage and wish you “Buen día” – and Carlos was often referred to as “caballero” – (gentleman.) In fact, there was one woman who was too friendly with Carlos and it made me very uncomfortable.

After a week in El Salvador, Carlos’s hair already needed a trim, so I insisted we stop somewhere to get him a haircut. We found a place in Metrocentro and went in to inquire. The cost of the haircut was $6 and apparently it included a massage that seemed, at least to this gringa, to be really inappropriate. You should have seen the way she was touching his head. I think she enjoyed it more than Carlos did. Carlos, to his credit, was very uncomfortable and told her several times that the massage wasn’t necessary. The boys and I sat watching in shock as the young woman massaged Carlos’s head for a good ten minutes. She looked at me while she was doing it, smiled slyly, and started laughing as she continued a conversation with Carlos, asking him if it felt good, etc. A friend later assured us that the massage is a normal part of the haircut and Carlos didn’t receive special treatment. I got over the jealousy after about 15 minutes but for the rest of the trip I teased Carlos saying it was only fair for me to go get my hair cut by a man.

A lot of time was spent absorbing all these cultural differences and then sorting out the resulting thoughts and emotions. Thankfully this time of adjustment didn’t cause me to shutdown the way it did last time I went to El Salvador. During our time there, I was quite often pensive, (as well as fighting a flu which locals insisted was “allergy to the climate”) – but I was always happy. It helped to know the boys, and even Carlos, were trying to make sense of everything right along with me.


  1. Excellent. MetroCentro is a bit crazy. It is one of the older malls. To give you some perspective, it was the ‘in’ place when we were leaving (in 1980) as it had recently been built, but it was only about 1/5 the size of what it is today.

    With regards to:

    “When I asked how the “poor people” could afford to look so trendy, I was told they prefer to wear name brand shoes and survive on beans and tortillas for breakfast. I don’t know how true that is, but that’s what I was told.”

    Unfortunately, it is truer than you would think or would hope. It actually annoys the hell out of me.

    There is a sad aspect of culture here that causes people to be judgmental/envious of others for whatever stupid reason. I am one that doesn’t give a sh*t about what people think about me in regards to these things, so it is not uncommon to see me wandering the neighborhood walking the dog with my PJs and chanclas on. Or I’ll go shopping at the mall in my running clothes immediately after having run 10K. (not exaggerating). LOL

    Sometimes people do things for foreigners thinking they are doing you a favor “to live up to foreign standards” in a way. For example, I’ve had people apologize to me for having a beat up car and giving me a ride in it. As if I would care or I drive a top of the line Mercedes at home. It is difficult to describe, but it exists. Coincidentally, people tend to respond well when they realize that one is somebody that doesn’t place importance on those things and they tend to be even more welcoming and warm towards you.

    The haircut story reminded me of something that happened to my cousin out in the Philippines. Remind me to share that story with you someday.

    • Carlos’s best friend generously gave us rides everywhere and apologized for his car as well the first time. Then he jacked up the A/C even though I know he didn’t use it for himself. It made me feel sad. (I did get him to open the windows and shut the A/C off eventually. I told him it was too hard to take photos with the windows up.) …

      When he’d drive us somewhere and we’d invite him and his family to lunch, he was so embarrassed to accept at first because he didn’t feel he was giving us anything in return. We reassured him that he was giving us more than we were giving him. Not only did he drive us around, but he gave us so much valuable information, showed us places we wouldn’t otherwise have known about or known how to get in/out of safely, etc. Not to mention, he and his teenage son literally saved my life a half dozen times when trying to cross streets.

      We’re missing them a lot right now – we all got very attached.

      • It is a cultural thing. People feel an obligation to do good for you.

        I sometimes have weird exchanges with friends in LA related to similar customs. For example, when I invite someone somewhere. To a Salvadoran, it is implied that the inviting party will cover the costs of whatever it is. All you need to do is show up. Or similarly, if I offer you something, I am offering to give it to you for free, not to sell it to you.

        Sometimes I’ll invite friends to soccer games and they’ll argue with me about paying for the ticket or something. We usually end up coming to an agreement where they won’t pay the ticket, but will pick up the concessions or something.

        Hopefully you’ll get to see your friends again soon. :)

    • Hahaha! I can’t wait to go in December! I have been waiting in anticipation for your blog entries since you’ve left! :)

  2. I’m going to sound mean, but based on how my cunadas look, I totally believe what you say about the “dress code” (or lack thereof.) My husband has been back in El Salvador for four months now (getting teared up-SO not used to it) and said they are dressed so much different from when he left (1988)

    • Sorry your husband is back in ES and you’re not there. {{hugs}} … I can’t imagine.

      If he left in 1988, El Salvador would be shockingly different today. I last went in 1999 and so much has changed even since then. The country has become very Americanized – at least San Salvador – yet it’s Americanized in its own Salvadoran way. It’s kind of surreal. It must be difficult and overwhelming for your husband to adapt.

  3. Tracy,
    I’m so glad your back and so glad you had a nice trip. I could have kept reading and reading…. I’ll be looking forward to your next post! The pictures are very nice. I do not think I would have liked my hubby receiving a head massage like the one you described above either!
    Can’t wait to read more!

    • I can not tell you how sickening it was to sit there and watch him get “massaged” by that perverted hairstylist. LOL. I was so angry.

  4. You made me smile several times just reminding me of my last trip. I was told to leave my hoops and engagement ring at home. No one bothered to tell me to leave my head as well LOL (had it braided in micro braids) It was pulled several times but I heard people in El Salvador were no joke so I kept my little mouth then shut! I also wondered how on earth people could afford to look “like they were going somewhere” all the time. :):) totally looking forward to reading more about your experience. Me distes ganas de minutas pero de tamarindo!!

    • I was told to leave my jewelry, fancy shoes and purses at home too. I packed only a couple pairs of modest earrings, no nice purses, and chanclas and a pair of sneakers so I was very unhappy to see that all the Salvadoran women wore nice, big earrings and carried big purses without fear, as they strutted their stuff in tacones. Here I was with a dorky backpack, cheap chanclas and not much to choose from as far as earring :p .. I was not feeling very sexy. LOL.

      I wore my wedding ring and hoops a lot of the time, but took them off and slipped them into my pocket when riding the bus and in a couple dangerous locations I’ll blog about later. I asked our friend/tour guide before getting on the bus, “Should I remove my earrings?” … He said, “Are they made of real gold?” … I laughed and told him they were worth $2 — their value wasn’t the issue. I told him I didn’t want anyone to rip them out of my ears. He told me I better take them off then.

      People pulled your braids?! ROFL.

      • LOL Does a number on one’s self esteem lol YES! everyone was making fun of me que gran “revolucion” con mis braids. We went to a closed in mercado to find party favors para un bautismo and one of the ladies there pulled my hair and said ” y este es su pelo usted?” I didnt know what to say and just kept walking if one things i have been taught dont you dare try to back talk a mercadera lol Next time you know take your tacones girl haha

  5. Welcome back amiga!!! You were missed! now I can send you your book lol
    I’ve also noticed that people in Mexico dress up more than we do over here. The women look like they get their hair and make up done every day!! They all dress with brand names too, even if they can barely afford it!

    can’t wait to read more about your adventures!

  6. So there was no mention of Suegra…is she here, is she there? Did she behave? ;) Seriously though, I am so glad you got to take this trip. I am sure you will still be debriefing from it for months to come. I too will be esperando mas de esta visita!

  7. I’ve missed reading your blog!!

    Very interesting about the ‘excuse me’ difference…I find it exhausting here as well. Especially with three kids bopping into everyone all the time. And ditto on the clothes in La Paz…super high heels on cobblestone Andes Mtn. streets is quite hard.

    I can’t wait to hear about all your experiences and read your amazing stories.

    ps…we took a trip up to DC this weekend and I dragged the family quickly through the Art museum just to get to that cool light tunnel connecting the two wings. Very fun.

  8. I’m so glad you had a good time!!! My husband is from el campo y me dijo que most of the people he knew that wore brand name clothing either got it sent to them from relatives in the States or else they got them as really cheap seconds from some of the factories there.

  9. Tracy,

    You may as well have been describing a trip to Colombia: tight clothes, makeup, expensive purses, high heels, people spending 50%+ of their income on clothes, crowded spaces.

    I’m happy for you for having this experience again, now probably in a better mindset to appreciate it.

    Funny you should mention the haircut thing. In my case (and mind you, I GREW UP in Colombia), a few years ago I went back to visit and went to get my haircut at a fancy mall (so not at my usual, neighborhood type of place that I would go growing up). But the guy giving me the haircut was a (very effeminate) man. He too gave me a massage (so it is part of the deal) and while it was a little bit awkward (mostly because I wasn’t used to it), it was a nice touch altogether (OK, I’m going down a really weird road with my words here). I told the guy that a haircut in the US started at about $15 US and he was blown away. At the end of the haircut, I left him a big tip (haircut and tip still didn’t even come close to the $15 I would have paid here), which probably made things even more awkward. But anyway, it’s a funny anecdote. But then again, when I was single here in Minneapolis, I also used to get my haircut at a fancy place where most of the hair dressers were young, attractive women and part of the haircut is a scalp massage, so maybe we’re learning something from all these Latinos moving up here. Incidentally, I think my hair is getting a bit shaggy so maybe I should get a haircut from the fancy place again…

    Welcome back!


  10. When you say:

    In the malls there was an abundance of people trying to sell me cell phones or a weekend at a resort. For the first couple days I was very polite in my response – listening to the vendor’s pitch and then issuing a “no gracias” with a smile. This of course becomes exhausting and I realized why locals just keep walking and usually say nothing.

    I admit, at first I thought Salvadorans were rude because they don’t say “excuse me” – I stuck out as a gringa for this reason alone. Walking through crowds I’d say, “Con permiso” and “Perdon” multiple times. Eventually I realized, the locals weren’t being rude, it’s just accepted that with this many people in a small area, you will get bumped and brushed, elbowed and stepped on, by strangers.

    I had exactly the same experience in China! Try to go to the Silk Market in Beijing. At first, you just politely smile and say a few words, “no thank you” whatever. After two hours, you just push the vendors aside to be able to make your way through.

    Same goes with the streets… as you can imagine, China is always crowded so you regularly bump into people and the notion is “personal space” just doesn’t exist.

    We have various experiences traveling as a mixed-race couple. There are tons of Asian girls with white guys but the opposite like us is very rare. One guy in Thailand even congratulated us on starting a new trend (but he may have thought Feng was a prostitute so not sure what to make out of this! :lol:)

    Same goes at whatever border we are at. At the U.S border, if we are driving for the day, the first question we are asked if often “how do you know each other?”. I doubt this question is asked to same race couples.

    Strangely enough, people don’t stare at us so much in China, probably because it is fairly obvious to locals that Feng is not 100% Chinese (well, he is but 25 years of living in Canada sets him aside).

    As for trying to blend in… I gave up in China, although I can easily pass for a Latina with my Italian blood :lol:

  11. El cuerpo de mis hermanas salvadoreñas es muy particular!!! Nos caracteriza un “vientre abultado” also known as PANZA! pero eso no las detiene de ponerse ropa muy ajustada (pretty unsafe for my taste). Si es cierto, aquí la gente anda un poco más “overdressed” que en los USA. Y si, lastimosamente, muchas personas prefieren comer puro frijol con tal de poder comprarse un jeans Levis y unos Puma! Creoq ue piensan que eso les da un “status”. Too bad que no saben que hay otra manera de obtener ese status… EDUCANDOSE!
    Can’t wait for the other posts!

  12. So glad you’re back!! (And btw, what are you feeding N? “Mom, yeah right, he’s in high school!” lol!) So happy for you guys to have had these experiences!!

  13. I’m glad to hear you were able to take it in without feeling completely overwhelmed. I think no matter how open minded we want to be or think we are ahead of time, it’s just a different thing when we are actually plunked down in it. Although my hubby is from Mexico not El Salvador many things you describe are very similar. I had kind of a hard time the first time I was there. In fact I was rather dreading instead of looking forward to going back, and if not for a strong feeling the kids need to visit there regularly, I might not have. But, as so often is the case, the kids dragged me into something that ended up being really good for ME…

    I think you are really onto something by noticing the habits of the people there and trying to figure out if there is a reason why. Some things just won’t work for me; I appreciate this attitude about rejoicing in the female form whether small or large, but I’m simply not wearing my pants that tight. But in other things I went into a different sort of mode for 10 days. For example, I’m very blonde and “natural look” makeup is much more my style, but this last time I visited my hubby’s hometown I just went all-out with the eyeliner & heavy colors, and ignored the “what a tramp” voice in my head while I was seeing myself in the mirror. More sensible with the sweating (this is a region the Mexicans themselves call Tierra Caliente).

    In my case I get a bit of a free pass with that feeling of sticking out so much that you describe. It’s a small town and people don’t stare at me all that much — because they already knew I was coming. I think a lot of them know more about my story than the majority of my coworkers that I see every day. It’s a strange feeling but I definitely feel much safer walking around there than here at home. Without question if I yelped somebody would help.

  14. I have very much enjoyed reading your blog and was looking forward to posts about your trip. I too went to visit ES in 1999 with my husband and our two girls (one was just a baby then). He is from Zacatecoluca. We are thinking about going back in the spring despite the danger because our eldest will be going off to college and this is probably the last time we’ll have to go with her or any money to do it with. I loved hearing about how you attempted to fit in. Easy for you! I’m 5’10” so likely nothing I do will help me fit in…any suggestions are welcome. Thank you for sharing all you do. As another gringa married to a wonderful Salvadoran I love reading your blog. I also enjoy Carlos’ blog when he writes. I always make my husband read it.

  15. As someone said above about Colombia – again – same for Puerto Rico. In the weather there, I do not know how they squeeze into the tightest jeans. It is 100 degrees and their jeans are sprayed on. And there, too, it matters not what size you are – only how you dress. It cracks me up. I don’t stick out much because there are many tourists. I don’t ‘blend in’ perse because I really can’t wear my jeans that tight. lol.

    The ‘snow cones’ are called piraguas in Puerto Rico.

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