Lost in Santa Tecla

Eileen (and others, list at the end) shared a really crazy story about what she has coined, “megaultrabad” travel. I have no story that even approaches the megaultrabadness that is Eileen’s tale, although I do have a bus-ride from hell story that I shared once before. I also shared this story of snowy roads and bald tires when we did a similar group blog a few months ago. The following tale will not awe you like Eileen’s did, but I hope it will at least entertain you.

But, now I take you to another part of the world, to the small Central American nation of El Salvador, where I spent three months doing a volunteer program in 2006. This story is adapted from an entry I wrote in this blog, but with some embellishments and additional details.

I, a very white, young, naiive 20 year old gringa, lived in a miniscule village called La Florida, which was perched on the side of a jungly mountain about two hours southwest of the capital city of San Salvador. Every few weeks I had to go to San Salvador for volunteer meetings, which required me to take a bus. People complain about Transantiago and Pullman and TurBus. I would like to direct them to El Salvador, where there is no website you can see the routes on, to place to purchase tickets except for the busses themselves and the only way you can know the route is to ask someone who lives there. Also, bus stops? Non-existant. Just wait at the corner or wherever and hope the bus stops. Sometimes it’s even hard to see the bus number because each driver likes to decorate his bus as much as possible. For a gringa with limited Spanish, this system is, well, TERRIFYING.

The first time taking the bus from San Salvador to La Florida by myself I was a little worried, but excited at the same time to be striking out on my own. My program director Tedde brought me to the first bus stop, I hopped on the bus and was off. I successfully got off the bus at the Metrocentro (a huge disgusting shopping mall in the middle of San Salvador) and got onto the 101D, which brought me to San Martin Park in Santa Tecla, a smaller city known as Nueva San Salvador on the map, but all Salvadorans call it by it’s previous name. El Salvador has a big problem with maras (gangs) and it is not uncommon for gang members to get on busses and ask everyone to give them 25 cents. Less commonly (especially at night), gang members will attack the bus drivers, take the money they’ve earned for the day, then burn the bus down. Usually this happens when the bus driver has refused to pay his safe passage fee to the gangs. Unluckily for me, the 101D was well-known for being a target for the maras. Luckily, nothing bad ever happened to me, but I would hold my breath everytime someone selling something would get on the bus.

But I digress. I made it to Santa Tecla just fine and Javier, another program director, had given me directions from there. To tell the truth I wasn’t 100% sure about them, but I figured once I got to Santa Tecla it would be clear. There are two parks in Santa Tecla, and I wasn’t really sure which one I was supposed to get off at, but I thought it was San Martin, so I went for it.

It was clear as mud.

Instead of just wandering of aimlessly, I asked some ladies at a newspaper stand where I could find the bus to Las Granadillas (the name of my cantón, a larger “town” near La Florida). I told them it was bus number 99. A man who was buying a newspaper told me that bus 99 did not exist in this area and that he thought bus 99 was in the Department of Sonsonate (in the far eastern part of the country). I politely informed him that the 99 did exist because I had taken it before (to Mass with my family) and left to ask someone else. I walked across the park to where the Police Academy was, because I remembered Javier had mentioned something about it. It seemed like people were waiting for a bus, so I asked them if the 99 passed by here. Once again, no one knew about the 99. Frustrated, I walked a little farther down and asked a micro-bus assistant if the 99 passed by this road. (Note: In El Salvador there are two types of busses. Regular busses which are usually old school busses from the US and micro-busses, which are smaller and range from the size of large mini-vans to the smaller local buses her in Santiago) He said he thought so but didn’t help me any more than that.

Frustrated, I found pay phone that took coins and called Javier. I had to call his cell phone, which is ridiculously expensive from a payphone, so he had approximately thirty seconds to tell me the directions, which were to walk to Park Daniel Hernandez (the other park). So I walked to that park, which is near the Market, and hence really hectic (think: La Vega). After asking a man selling hammocks if the 99 passed through the park and getting met with a blank stare, I sat down on a park bench and tried not to cry. I weighed my options: go back to San Salvador. Call Javier again (I was running out of coins, so I would have to go buy something to get change) and get another 30 seconds of directions. Ask someone else. All of the options made me nervous. I stuck out like a sore thumb in Santa Tecla and I just wanted to get back home to my Salvadoran family in the mountains, where I also stuck out but everyone knew me.

Then I noticed a line of taxis. I figured that taxi drivers must know the city, so I asked the least-scary looking taxi driver if he knew where the bus to Las Granadillas was. He told me he grew up in Comasaguas (a town past La Florida) and so yes, it was 2 blocks this way and 4 blocks this way and 2 blocks this way or something like that. Needless to say, I started walking and totally forgot his directions. (Note to self: write things down!) So, I walked back to the Hernandez park and was about to call Javier again when the taxi driver tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was lost once again. I said yes, and then asked him to drive me in his taxi to where the bus was.

So he did. It was like, four blocks from where I was but I was so relieved that instead of feeling stupid for not being able to find it, I gave him extra money. And there was the bus, waiting for me. The bus ride to La Florida was always a bit “interesting” was we had to wind our way on dirt roads through the mountains, and there was this one “bridge” that the bus just barely fit on. Also, if I didn’t arrive at least an hour before the bus left (it only left about four times a day, and if I missed the last bus I’d also be screwed) I wouldn’t get a seat, which meant standing in the aisle for an hour.

When I arrived home, my host grandmother was in hysterics, because I was about five hours late and she was sure I had gotten kidnapped by the maras and would never see me again. I assured her I was fine, that I had just gotten a bit lost, but that a nice taxi driver had helped me. She was appalled, because taxi drivers are infamous for being crooked in El Salvador (the Santiago taxi drivers are una taza de leche compared to the Salvadoran ones!).

The next time I had to travel to San Salvador, my grandmother made Y., my future boyfriend then ex-boyfriend come with me, which I didn’t mind so much because at the time I had a huge crush on him, I mean… I knew it would be so much safer.

Check out other participants!

Angry redhead tells her story of shame and woe here.

Sara shares her horror in Mérida with us here

Clare had written one way back in April here!

Emily had a bit of a close call that she talks about here!

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