Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Short Break in Toronto

After my trip to Havana, I had about three weeks in El Salvador before I had to fly up to Toronto. I’m here for six weeks and am enjoying the summer (although I was freezing last night smoking a cigar on a patio on Yonge Street) but I was quite sad to leave San Salvador. It’s funny how that has become my home and the more I travel, the more I just want to sleep in my own bed.

Eating well including this hamburger I saw on Diners Driveins and Dives that has a piece of grilled Keilbasa on top of a half pound beef patty. My family accused me of being a gorger. Also apparently am eating a lot of Korean food although I was trying to go for sushi last night! Here I am doing the Ddong Jjim salute with one group of friends and the sam gyup sal with the boys after 4 pints of beer. Hmm, and lots of those little green bottles.

I have been in touch with Jane from and have been reading Aighmeigh’s two very different stories about how life is progressing with El Salvador. I think both of them, as well as myself and most of my Canadian and American friends in El Salvador, are non-Salvadorans who were lucky enough to be in relationships with Salvadorans and have decided to try life there for a while. It ended in tragedy for Aighmeigh (whose husband was killed either in a robbery or an extortion retaliation) but has been wonderful for myself and most of my friends here.

With the election of Funes, there is some hope that he is going to do something about the crime in El Salvador. We don’t know what he can do but so long as he tries something! This is such a huge issue and affects so many people. In creates a lot of insecurity for everyone, brings tragedy to too many families, hurts foreign investment, and is the main obstacle to increasing tourism.

At the same time, I don’t want to overstate the problem of crime here. Of course the numbers look terrible but you could say that about a lot of major cities in North America. Unfortunately, El Salvador has this bad reputation which is only exacerbated by the global media. I just saw a show called Ross Kemp on Gangs - a British show that shot a ridiculously one sided episode in El Salvador. Every shot showed this wonderful country as poor, dangerous, f**cked up place where the police are useless and the gangs have all the power. And they gave this clown a Bafta award! So for the sake of good TV (sensationalism and violence) they continue to reinforce the image that El Salvador is dangerous and shouldn’t be visited.

I have lived in El Salvador for two years and have been visiting for a dozen and never had any problems. My friend Ian lived here for 8 years with no problems. Many other friends have lived happily and safely as well. But other friends have been victims of crime. You have to be careful and you have to honour the potential threat. My girlfriend has been incredibly protective of me and I suggest it is better to be overly safe than to ignore the dangers and hope you get lucky. I have two friends that have told me that they have walked great distances at night after leaving bars but I don’t see this as a sign of bravery or intelligence or safety but of luck.

So what happened to my other friends? One was leaving his business around 6:00 p.m. in a good area and a kid came up to him and demanded his cell phone. He ignored the kid and turned to get something and the kid shot him and ran away. Fortunately, it was a very small calibre gun so my friend was able to drive himself to the hospital where they dressed the abdominal wound and he was fine and recovered fully. But a lot of trauma for a $40 phone. When someone is mugging you, hand it over and fast. My other friend was driving his work pick-up, a shiny new vehicle. He got carjacked and was held for several hours before they released him out in the distant burbs. He’s fine though - oh, and he also got his phone stolen in front of his house. Moral of the story? Be careful what, where and when you drive. At night or iffy areas of town, windows up and doors locked. Situational awareness is very important - watch around your car and if someone bad looking approaches at night, back up or drive away (you can go through red lights at night in El Salvador). We drive an old Sentra with very darkly tinted windows so no-one can see inside. Also, if you get bumped or into a fender bender in an isolated area - don’t stop. Drive away and if the other driver follows, go to a gas station or well lit area to trade information.

Another problem that is becoming increasingly common are the telephone extortion attempts. Many people with businesses or are otherwise prominent get phone calls from supposed gang members demanding money or face retribution. Two friends were recently targeted and I mentioned this to other people and was told about several other cases. If the call is real, it could end up badly - a friend of mine from Mexico had to move to Canada for safety. But from what I can tell, the vast majority of the calls are not real but are from people looking to make a fast buck. One friend has been called many many times and he just hangs up on them (mind you, he always carries at least one gun and has a giant German Shepard). Others say to change your telephone numbers and nothing will happen.

The vast majority of murders and a lot of the crime is gang on gang and only in certain areas. Be careful of Soyapango, Apopa, San Marco and maybe Libertad. If you don’t have to go there, then don’t. My girlfriend has family in one of those areas and I used to sleep there until the gang problem got too bad. I still occasionally go but in our darkly tinted car and I am out of there by nightfall. Her nephew who lives there was hit by a richocheting bullet fired by a gang member trying to kill a local drug dealer. Her neice’s boyfriend was in a gang and tried to leave and was killed in front of her.

We hope that Funes and his initiative to put more police on the street will have an affect. There are also a lot of other programs - job creation and bringing organized soccer to communities. My friend Pierre has become head coach of an American football team whose roster is made up of a lot of ex-gang members from the U.S.

El Salvador is a great country. It has wonderful people, most very friendly and kind. My friend Paige was here for a month and traveled on her own through the entire country to research a travel book she is writing (Norton’s Great Destinations) and she didn’t have a single problem. She met many other tourists and didn’t hear of any problems from them either. There are gang issues and there is crime but just be careful, use common sense, err on the side of caution, and listen to well-meaning advice!