Passion, danger, guns and roses in Soyapango

El Salvador uses the US dollar, and since going to the ATM is always a good opportunity for robbery (by thugs, or even worse: the banks) and/or excessive “I’m Jason Bourne” playtime, I decided to stock up on one, five, and ten dollar bills before heading down there.

The bank teller found this an odd request, but paused before giving in to irritation to ask why I wanted so many small bills. At my response, she had two immediate reactions: “I’m from there!” and “Be careful, it’s dangerous! In particular, stay away from…” she listed several neighborhoods. Unconvinced by my polite nod, she flipped my receipt over and grabbed a pen. “These two are the worst, Ilopango and Soyapango, stay out of those.” She underlined the latter on the paper three times.

I remembered that interaction my first day in El Salvador, as we drove to: Soyapango.

Salvadoran law prohibits campaigning in the three days prior to voting, so this was the last day candidates could actively seek votes, and we were headed to the FMLN’s closing rally, where the presidential candidate would make his final speech before the election.El Salvador, politics, travel, FMLN

I was a few yards behind him, and pictures of the back of someone’s head are rarely interesting, so I pushed forward for a better spot. People were packed in like crayons crammed in the box by a toddler, but I gradually forced my way into the sea of red shirts, waving flags, and air horns blasting a steady percussion of support. I squeezed like toothpaste through the gap between the stage and the speakers, but that proximity threatened permanent hearing loss, so I kept going.

My skull finally stopped rattling when I got to the back of the VIP seats, in front of the barricades holding back the masses. I paced around back there for awhile, as the candidate delivered a long and varied monologue about…everything. It was distinct from a US speech. There were no concise talking points or crafted phrases, he was just up there, shouting and waving his arms, Latin American passion. A bit rambling.

El Salvador, politics, election, FMLN

The First Lady’s not quite as excited as the crowd.

The current First Lady sat behind him, looking more bored than any human I’ve ever seen. It made me respect the tireless performances of US First Ladies, who gaze in unfailing adoration as their heroic husbands deliver the same speech for the 628th time. Granted, she’s married to the current president, not the candidate, but did she really have to look at her watch that often?

Then he was done, and the lady with lungs like bagpipes was howling out the party’s anthem. I wandered up onto the side of the stage for awhile until a self-important functionary objected to my presence and had the guards throw me out. Politely of course, since they had no idea if I’m important or not.

That was the best part.

Back at the entrance I found my host, who nearly fainted when she saw me. “There he is! Oh thank god! This is gangland central, you can’t just walk around! You scared me to death!” Seeing the panic on her face, I felt bad, and could only offer a lame “Um…sorry.”

El Salvador, FLMN, election 2014

Reputation or not, I had felt safe at the rally, where everyone was focused on the stage in universal and monochromatic enthusiasm. It wasn’t until we climbed back into the van, and our bodyguard drove off at his customary NASCAR speed that I felt unsafe. Maybe a desire to calm us informed his musical selections, because to me, Soyapango is a dangerous place of gangs, political rallies, and November Rain, Total Eclipse of the Heart, (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, and Bon Jovi’s Always.

Interesting places, imminent culture, and an inexplicable soundtrack.

I love traveling.


More about El Salvadorans and their political opinions on my second post on the Ethical Traveler website here.