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.
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.