Some stories just need to be told. I will try to keep them as short as possible, but bare with me if I go on a bit in my excitement of reliving the experiences.

But before I get started…here are some statistics on our trip:

Days: 11
Cities: 9
Buses: 26
Miles Covered: 800 (Most of those miles were traveling across Honduras to and from the border, El Salvador is a small country)
Hours on Buses: at least 45
Hours waiting for buses: Approximately 15
Time it would take to drive 800 miles in a car at 60 mph: 13.5 hours
Taxis: 6
Pick – Up Truck Rides: 3



The bus ride from Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras to the border of El Salvador started out as a calm one…green country scenery quickly passing by, Jim nodding in and out of sleep…all was tranquilo! But as soon as we hit the mountainous curvy roads the bus started to have problems. Jim did not notice it as he was sleeping, but I noticed the shaking. I was thinking about it, but not concerned. Then the bus pulled over, and the driver and his assistant got out to work on the front left wheel. I start to get a tiny bit concerned…but not worried. The bus got back on the road, the shaking persisted…Jim was awake and finally noticed the shaking. The bus pulled over again to get what looked like containers of oil, Jim first thought it was brake fluid. For a short while the shaking subsided, we took a deep breath. Then the shaking got worse and the roads got worse too. We saw the driver trying to handle his huge steering wheel that was shaking like San Francisco in 1906. I figured it was a good time to get worried, not just because the driver and his steering wheel, but because the old campesino next to me was making a sign of the cross across his chest and white knuckling the armrest. Not a good sign. Not a good sign at all.

Then the bus stopped again and more fluid was added. Again we were okay for a bit, like 5 minutes or so, but when the bus starting its shaking again we seriously got worried, both of us. At this point, the bus driver was wrestling the steering wheel like it was a bear. For some reason Jim decided this was was a good time to tell me that he thought the bus was losing its steering. Uh, hello, don’t stress your wife out Goobenheimer! I asked him to pray for our lives, as I had already started to, and then I literally started to weep. The stupid thing is that we never got off! Why would Jim NOT get off if he thought the steering was going? Uh, because the death wish driver just kept on going? All said and done, we did get to the border alive and in one piece, but a bit exhausted from the stress.

This is not the bus…but another one!

I have been wondering to myself how could Jim stay pretty calm on this bus for a long period of time when he will not ride on a roller coaster for 30 seconds with me?? It makes no sense to me, and I would take the roller coaster over that bus ride any day!


Like most of you, we knew about the El Salvadoran Civil War, but did not know many of the details until we went there. This war lasted quite the many year in the not too distant past, 1980 – 1992. The time of pogo dancing and big hair for us, but a time for misery for all Guanacans (Slang name for El Salvadorans) and death for 75,000 of them. It was yet another cold murderous event funded by the lovely U S “Not In My Backyard” A thanks to mostly Reagan, although Carter got the ball rolling and old Bush saw it through to the end.

The U.S. spent 7 BILLION dollars on this farce! Communism, give me a freakin’ break! The U.S. basically paid for some U.S. nuns to be raped and killed, the assassination or kidnapping of thousands of children (yes, you read right), bombing of civilian homes, and at one point in time basically wiping out a whole town by killing at least 1000 children, women and men of any age, on top of thousands of other atrocities. Have you ever heard of throwing children up in the air and shooting them like skeet? Well they have seen it here, and the troops that were committing these disgusting acts were trained and funded by the US government.

But this is not my story, my story is about a man and a dog we met at a leftist bar in Suchitoto, named El Necio (The Fool). Mario, with his shaven head, wife beater white tee and jeans, made quite the impression even before we met him. We were in Mara Salvatrucha territory, and he did look the part of what an older un-tattooed gang member could look like, but when we started to hear about his life we thought different. His loving attention to his Boxer dog Tasha (the number of people that hit and kick dogs far outnumber those that pet them in Central America), helped add to my trust, but to be honest with you I was not completely whole heartedly feeling sure about him until we got back to our hotel un-followed, un-harmed and un-robbed. Sorry, but this is life in Central American, my friends, and we were still a bit nervous after our experiences during the preceding days.


Mario grew up with the political unrest that most Salvadorans his age did, and as many young people at the time, he joined up the resistance movement, but more so because he watched 17 of his young friends get murdered by the Military. Like any other normal day after school, the boys would get together to play soccer in the street. On this particular day, while he was inside changing out of school clothes, 17 of his friends were taken at gun point. He ran after them just in time to see the assassination. Yes, he was lucky he was not one of them, but just imagine seeing that atrocity.

When his mother got wind of him joining the resistance she packed him up, gathered funding and sent him off to the United States. He lived there and Canada for 6 years working and traveling until money or homesickness brought him back to El Salvador. Since the Civil War (Click for more info) was in full force, and he felt the same as before he left, he joined the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional – Click for more info).

We did not discuss too many details about what he did in the war itself as many veterans of war do not, but we did talk about a poster that was on the wall of the bar that said, “Where are the Children?” (Click for more info). The “Where are the Children” campaign started after the war because of all the missing children, most killed, some taken by soldiers, and some eventually adopted out around the world. It is just so very sad. The Military conscripted or killed kids at the age of 12 before they joined the Resistance. Although the young were fighting the Military, they should not be killed for just being young.

Mario is a mason now, just living life. He is content with his $12 a day salary, but would like to build a home for his growing family, which as of this post is five kids! He obviously still supports the FMLN, who is finally in political power right now, and is active in helping the people in his very small community. We saw him the next morning working on restoring one of the old buildings on the main square of Suchitoto. We exchanged gifts, he gave Jim a macramed necklace with the centerpiece being a bullet he pulled out of the wall of the building. One of many bullets embedded in the walls around town, reminders of the Civil War. He told us he could tell the difference between a bullet that contacted flesh from those that didn’t, because the blood on it corroded the bullet more than the one without blood on it. And gee, we gave him a bag fully of silly ole’ pastries.

At some point in the night before Mario shyly shared with us when we were talking about the situation in Honduras, “I do not wish war on anyone, but if my part helped the FMLN to get to where we are today, it was worth if for me. The Resistance in Honduras needs to know it takes time and war is not good for anyone.”

This story is not about the huge gang that is not only prominent in El Salvador, but has gained the title of the most dangerous gang in the United States as well, but of our experience with them. The Mara Salvatrucha (Click for info) had a habit of tattooing not only their bodies, but their entire faces with their gang name, hand signs and such. With that done, it was kind of easy for the cops to spot them, especially when the El Salvadoran government put “Operation Super Hard Hand” to effect that allowed the police to arrest anyone with tattoos.

Now that I have the background set, this is our story of our experience with the Maras. After being told by two different people in Suchitoto we need to go to San Salvador to get to Juayua, which was way out of the way, we still decided to take the back road buses there instead. We were thinking we will see more of the REAL El Salvador. It ended up to be more real than we planned for.

We ended up getting on the back of the bus, from Apopa to Santa Ana, as that was where the only space for our packs existed. We sat back there with out packs to keep on eye on them. All was well, until these Chiclets salesmen got on. Chiclets salespeople are are usually little children and they just hold out a small box of the gum to show off to potential buyers. But these guys were throwing them on people’s laps, something that caught our attention, but what surprised us even more was the guy that came next. A short guy with a baseball cap pulled down low on his head, in long sleeves and long pants came down the isle picking up the boxes of Chiclets from the people (or now that I think of it – those people might have been giving him money). As this guy got closer, we noticed a strange look about him, an eerie look. The closer he got, the more we tried not to stare at him, but we did anyway. His whole face was covered heavily with make-up. Not blush and lipstick..just very heavy skin cover up make-up. But once you got past that, you understood why…his whole face was tattooed. He had not covered up his eye lids, forehead or his neck and you could see the low-grade jail tats he had there. The whole thing made him look like a scary clown which I’m sure fueled my husband’s coulrophobia (fear of clowns).

Click here for a Mara Face Tattoo Photo

My first feeling was intense sorrow for this guy, as he had joined a gang earlier in life, tattooed his face and body, and now regrets it and is selling Chiclets…one of the lowest jobs in Central America. At first the whole scene for me was just sad. Yes, I was sad for him, but I was also very worried for our belongings as well because they stood at the back of the bus for awhile right near us, our bags and the back door. On the bus Jim and I only exchanged the words make-up with each other, but discussed it later.

San Salvador

That is when I realized it may have been more than just a couple of ex-Maras trying to etch out a piddle living on selling Chiclets to bus riders. It was a shake down, extortion, crime in action. The painted face guy, who we firmly now believe is a current gang member, exchanged money with the bus worker (the one that collects the money from the passengers) right in front of us in the back of the bus. In a country were vendors on buses have a hard time breaking a dollar bill, this guy had a wad in his wallet. He was given some money so the Maras do not hurt their passengers which in turn will hurt their business. My sadness for this guy went straight to anger and then fear.

I could not get the face of the make-up-ed/attooed Mara guy out of my mind, The more I thought about it, the more scared I got. I had bad dreams as well. For at least 2 days I was looking over my shoulder all the time. I am not one to be afraid of people, even bad people, but this scary clown dude had an impact on me.

A little Video to Lighten the Mood!

Just as I was calming down about the whole thing, we again came in contact with gang members on the back of yet another bus. These were clean, young, tattoo free older teens (although one of the more serious looking boys looked like he had been beaten up pretty bad in the face at some point in the past). Since I have worked a lot with boys that age I noticed there was NOT a social lightness about them that most teens have and this made me concerned. When the eight of them got on the bus and took all of the seats around us at the back of the bus, Jim and I exchanged knowing glances at each other. We were not sitting together since the bus was empty when got on through the back door. We had spread out for comfort, but we stayed at the back because again our packs were back there. Jim sat behind one guy that was on the phone quite a bit and heard some of the conversation which spooked him. That made me more concerned, and the fact that the bus worker did not even try to get money from the 8 guys for the ride. But yet still I was chalking up my fear mostly to what had happened on that earlier bus. I just did not want to be totally scared on every single bus in El Salvador, as we had a lot more bus rides ahead of us!

A local long-haired no-shirt surfer guy got on the bus and wanted to sit next to one of the gang members. The gang member argued with him for a bit and then finally moved to sit next to his homey, but only after some rude remarks were made and all 8 of them were giving evil glances at the surfer guy. Then the surfer guy did not want to pay the bus fee because it looked like he didn’t want anyone to see how much money he had in his pockets. I have to admit…I thought a fight would happen right on top of me as I was between surfer guy and some of the gang guys.

Just as I was calming myself down, Jim jumped up and said, “We are getting out NOW!” as he pushed me towards the back door!” I jumped up scrambling to get my pack out the door before the bus started up again. Outside the bus, I noticed we were no where. Not in a town of any size, but fortunately right in front of a restaurant that over-looked the Pacific Ocean. Jim was more concerned than I really knew and he felt he had to take action before their plans materialized, so he got us off the bus at a public place. My hero!

We were sure, if they were not gang members (many of the young members are being told NOT to get tattoos now due to the Operation Super Hard Hand anti-gang program), they were thieves. The restaurant owner said there are many thieves on that bus route down the beach. After a beer and letting a bus or two pass us, we finally got on another bus. This time and every other bus ride forward we sat in the front of the bus and with packs in lap if we had to. We got to El Tunco safely, but again a bit stress weary.

Note to travelers in Central America, especially in El Salvador, do not sit in the back of the bus OR let bus workers try to separate you from your pack, especially if it is in the back of the bus. Something that most seasoned travelers know, but our comfort level down here with the bus systems led us astray.

El Salvador Stories Part II in next post!

~ by My Gnome Little World on November 19, 2009.


  1. Wow looks like you guys are having an awesome time and many lifetime experiences. Someday you will be able to write a book about your years of adventures. Love reading and looking at your pictures. Take Care – Marsha

  2. […] HenderBalz Blog: El Salvador Story Time […]

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