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El Salvador – A Tale of Two Countries?

Paula and I entered El Salvador on Saturday, July 18th. We had a smooth border crossing with our friends Janice and Gregor, and were thankful they advised us to take a less busy crossing with them on the CA 8 instead of the busy PanAmerican crossing.

Our rigs at the border entering El Salvador...a little underwhelming which was just fine for us.

Janice and Gregor were checked inside and out. Our guy only looked at our VIN. There is no rhyme or reason at these borders.

And we are in! Hello, El Salvador.

We went in different directions after the border, as Paula and I were off to see a friend of hers (now mine too!) in a suburb of San Salvador, called Santa Tecla. We arrived in the early afternoon, bought some wine at the local (and very nice) strip mall next to where her friend Holly & Andrés live.

Holly and Andrés have just moved into this complex. It’s set in a beautiful park like housing complex. There is a big front gate with guards and Holly arranges to get us permission to camp in our rig in this amazingly safe and quiet place in the middle of what feels like a hectic El Salvadoran city. After we are settled, the four of us sat in their living room and drank wine and talked….and talked……and talked. It was one of those conversations that meander through commonalities, winds through current events, tracks historical paths and future destinations. It was a very nice afternoon followed by a casual dinner down the street.

Camping in Holly and Andres' housing complex. SO weird. All the neighbors came out in the morning walking their dogs and stopped to say hello. A few even came in to check out the camper.

We think the armed guards were more curious than protective but we felt safe having them around all the time.

We biked to breakfast. Inside the compund felt like anywhere in the US. and outside felt very El Salvador.

Breakfast at their favorite place. "Typico" breakfast: rice, beans, eggs, cheese & tortillas. I must have loved it because I look a little crazy here.

Holly and Paula met 5 years ago when they both took a course on sustainable tourism at the University of Vermont. They both stayed at the home of their professor and after the class had some down time together. They clicked enough to stay in touch over the last few years without the benefit of ever living in the same city. In fact, Holly has lived much of the last seven years in San Salvador. Holly’s fiancé, Andreas, is the chef and owner of one of the top restaurants in San Salvador. We think they are both very cool, and we were blown away by their hospitality.

We camped in the complex Saturday night and then headed out to the beach, El Tunco, on Sunday. Holly showed us around a bit and Paula and I got a room at one of the hotels there. Our goal was to spend the week taking surfing lessons and then meet up with Holly and Andreas the following weekend. After checking out the scene and surf for a day we decided that the sandy beach break of El Cuco on the Eastern side of the country would be a better spot for us so we drove the 2.5 hours there on Monday and stayed until Friday. We stayed at a fantastic little surf resort right on the beach with nice rooms and AC! (It’s seriously hot and steamy down at the beach). We did our resort thing and took lessons and maybe, possibly got over a little hump that might, hopefully, lead to some consistency and eventually grant me the ability to call myself a surfer. But not yet. I still have a lot of work to do. But the few days in El Cuco were a very nice respite from camping. We totally enjoyed our creature comforts and I did a couple of hundred pop-ups.

El Tunco. It was HOT. But we were happy to be back at the beach for the first time in months.

El Tunco is really nice but a little too rocky and big for us beginner surfers. We moved on, but had a great day with Holly here.

Our hotel in El Cuco on Las Flores beach.

John and our instructor. John lasted a lot longer than I did.

On Friday, we arranged to meet up again with Holly and Andreas. Friday night we had dinner at Andreas’ restaurant, Esperanto. Paula, Holly and I got dressed up and had an incredible tasting menu that Andreas put together for us with a great bottle of wine. Again, we talked and talked through a 3+ hour dinner. And we forgot to take photos. Andreas was only there for the first portion as he was sort of running the restaurant and kitchen. But the meal, the ambiance of the restaurant and the conversation were all first rate. It felt good to be out in a big city having great food with people that we enjoyed. This was our night out in San Salvador and it was splendid.

Again we camped out in their ‘park’ Friday night. Saturday we headed into the mountains above the town of Juayua. Andreas’ parents have a farmhouse there on a coffee finca (farm). We met up with a couple of their friends, Maren and Pedro, and their little girl Solana. Holly set us up with a mountain bike ride from the top of one of the volcanos, through the coffee fincas and ending up in town. It was an awesome ride – mostly downhill. In town, we bought some beers and climbed into the back of a pickup for the ride back up to the top. It was at the top when Andreas, one of the top chefs in San Salvador, says, “let’s go pig out on papusas!” So we did. We ordered 26 papusas and a few beers for $24 - it fed all 6 of us with lots left over. Delicious.

Volcano and coffee farms in the distance. It was one of our more scenic mountain bike rides.

At the end of our ride, the bikes and us were loaded into a pick up truck and brought back up the mountain.

Thanks for a great ride, you guys!!

El Salvador does the best papusas. Little fried pancakes filled with spinach, chicken, pork, squash, rice, beans.

We could hear the "pop, pop, pop" sound the women's hands make as they prepared the dough in the tiny house/restaurant.

For me, it was exactly one of the experiences I had hoped for on this trip. We had an opportunity to really see and experience a place the way the locals do. But more importantly for me, we were able to ask questions and learn about the current state of politics in the country, the business climate, the crime issues, and the outlook for the future.

Sunday, we toured the farm and then the four of us went for a 3-hour breakfast that was spent with similar discussions. I thoroughly enjoyed my time hanging with Holly and Andreas. It was very interesting to hear stories of their life and building a business and a career in a very foreign place to me (until now).

Morning walk through the coffee farm. Atlas, the guard dog, came with us.

Talkin' and hangin".

Last lunch together. Holly and Adreas have 3 dogs, all rescues. Blu, the boxer/pit mix came with us to the farmhouse. He is a total sweetie.

You're my boy, Blu!

This is the parking lot of our lunch restaurant. Armed guards are everywhere. In the country or city...every restaurant, every store has a guard.

In this tale of two countries/cities, our first San Salvador, is one very similar to any major city in the world. Our friends are two people, in love, getting married, one building a business and another starting a new career. They had a weekly routine centered around work, family and friends. The latter two would suffer due to the focus on the business and career – a similar story for most of us at one time in our life or another. But with all of this normalcy that we experienced, San Salvador is a city (and El Salvador the country) that is a very different place than what most of us could ever imagine.

The other El Salvador, like most countries in Central America, has had its share of corrupt governments, civil wars, flirtation with socialism and distribution of land...and violence. Lots of violence. It would be hard to believe the news stories regarding El Salvador, that came out during our time there, if you experienced what we experienced. But there were indications everywhere that the potential for violence existed. For instance, virtually every business everywhere that we could see, had a security guard with a gun – McDonalds, China Palace, Cadejo Brew Pub, the Thule Rack place, every single business had an armed guard.

In June, there were 677 murders in El Salvador – 635 in May, 421 in April and 481 in March. These were the most violent months since the civil war ended in 1992. The consensus is that most of these murders are the result of turf wars from gangs. The government won’t negotiate with the gangs (the gangs have requested talks) because they won’t negotiate with terrorists. The week we were in El Savador, the gangs told bus drivers to strike and not drive in order to shut down the city. Many obeyed, some didn’t. The gangs shot dead 7 bus drivers that disobeyed. The military was called in to help with protection of the buses and to help commuters get to work. We saw none of this and in fact read about it during our first couple of days in Nicaragua. We were also sent an article from a friend in Mill Valley who grew up in El Salvador, but left with her family during the civil war. She was heartbroken to read about this disturbing violence.

This is the other El Salvador. Our friends there were very aware of the current events and were used to modifying their lifestyle. Interestingly, Andreas’ restaurant didn’t have an armed guard – partly because Andreas didn’t want to give in to the same paranoia that grips the city, and partially because his clientele consisted of the movers and shakers of San Salvador and they came with their own security detail. In one of our conversations, Andreas made this point – the violence is real and it is devastating, but, to a small degree, localized. The paranoia, however, is pervasive and takes on a life and voracity of its own. Unfortunately though the escalation of the gang violence and their recent tactics are affecting everyone, not just other gang members. It seems that, at least for now, the level of violence is starting to reach that heightened and pervasive level of paranoia.

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