El Salvador under quarantine: desolation, heavy artillery, pupusas and hope

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

A ghoulish light descended on the pupuseras as they worked — the TV glare mixing with fluorescent bulbs as it bounced off green walls. But the aroma was practically heavenly.

Scents of charred quesillo and pork fat dripping onto the griddle and oozing through masa cakes floated through the open sidewalk window and out onto the street. That, and the alluring sizzle made me stop in my tracks after first walking past. I spun around and returned.

“Estoy de vuelta,” I’m back, I said, yanking down my blue, medical mask to show my smile. “Por el olor.” Because of that scent.

I ordered a pair of revuelta pupusas to take with me. And I almost felt something I hadn’t in weeks: normal.

Two Salvadoran ladies mold masa into pupusas in a small restaurant.
The ladies at Pupuseria Tonita, molding masa.

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On March 21, after a week and a half of steadily heightening security measures to control the spread of Coronavirus, the El Salvador government implemented a mandatory 30-day, in-home quarantine for all residents — affectively instigating martial law, and rendering the country’s infectiously vibrant population all but invisible, tucked inside their homes, with their businesses mostly boarded up.

Even as El Salvador’s known cases remain low (as of Wednesday there were 32), the mood of the nation, as experienced from the isolation of isolation of my couch and through a couple press jaunts around the city, felt somber.

A view of a San Salvador neighborhood from atop a hill.
San Salvador’s isolation measures have progressively ramped up in the last three weeks.
A old woman wearing a protective mask sits on a on a sidewalk in front of colorful buildings and stowed food carts.
Street vendors are prohibited from selling their goods during the quarantine.

In public addresses, President Nayib Bukele impressed what we already know: the vulnerability of this country in dealing with even a comparatively small outbreak.

Even as the government continues to construct additional hospital and quarantine spaces, El Salvador lacks the medical capacity and equipment of many more developed countries and is dealing with the same shortages of ventilators, masks and COVID-19 tests that everyone else is, too. Many impoverished communities, such as those already dealing with extreme water shortages that make regular hand-washing all but impossible, have the potential to be crushed were the virus to spread.

Because of those fears, the powerful military was cracking down, arresting more than 250 in the first 24 hours of the quarantine. Striking images showed armed detentions; stories emerged of teenagers being carted off. Everyone leaving the house — even for groceries or medication — required paperwork, and officers set up checkpoints and filled the streets to determine if each resident’s explanation was covered in their interpretation of the law. I scrambled to figure out my own paperwork, press credentials and organize letters from my landlord. The president promised, via Twitter, that those who weren’t legally abiding by the new laws would be sent to containment centers and afterward would be criminally tried and face jail time.

Military and police patrol in front of a park roped off by caution tape.
The military presence in El Salvador has visibly increased in the last few weeks.
An officer wearing a protective mask peers into the open passenger-side window of green hatchback car.
Those who do not comply with the quarantine are arrested.

A military officer standing in front of a colorful tiled wall holds a rifle outside of a pupusería

Offers operate a checkpoint, stopping three cars on a small street.
Checkpoints have been set up all around the city and country. Passengers must show their paperwork to proceed.

As in many places, life here in this tiny Central American country had already been slowly grinding to a standstill for some time. First the borders were shut down — a rare example of a country without any known cases at the time to do so. Bars and restaurants (besides those with delivery options) were shuttered, then malls and call centers, and other businesses deemed to be non-vital. The international airport closed as well, prohibiting even outgoing flights. Finally came the quarantine.

The evolution was swift and stunning. Given the consequences, the population obediently complied.

The changes very impossible to ignore.

In my first press jaunt around the city since the lockdown, we encountered at least a dozen checkpoints. I photographed vacant streets; empty highways; masked and gloved pedestrians in an eerily quiet El Centro; pigeons in Plaza Barrios that were once fed by legions of children now huddled looking hungry and confused.

While some market vendors in Santa Tecla necessarily remained open to service community needs, the main municipal market streets — normally raucously full of life and noise — were hauntingly still; scenes out of movies about the end of the world. Trash lay in piles where crates of mangoes and limes typically sat; gaunt street cats and dogs wandered aimlessly without the usual scraps to appease them.

An empty street shows boarded up store fronts and trash piling.
Typically a vibrant market sector, the heart of Santa Tecla currently has another feel.
Pigeons gather in a plaza in front of a Spanish-classical white church.
Without anyone around to throw them seed, the pigeons of Plaza Barrios wander looking confused.
Street vendors sell tomatoes and bright green limes arranged in red crates.
A handful of produce markets remain open, sprawling onto the sidewalks.
Baskets of plantains sit inside a cramped, dark market space.
Inside a tiny market, baskets of plantains.

A woman wearing a protective mask and a colorful apron stands inside her sidewalk-front market, between crates of carrots and cauliflower.

A street dog walks up a hill in El Salvador, a blue and white pickup truck is seen parked just behind.
Street dogs, without as many pedestrians to feed them, are looking a bit more gaunt than usual.

It was overwhelming in so many ways; saddening and worrying.

I took my second press jaunt at the end of last week — a slow, solo stroll through my own neighborhood that I have come to regard as home over my eight months here.

I walked past the bar on my corner; a favorite writing spot where the patio extends into a parking lot adorned by avocado trees and one is perpetually positioning for a stool, but has now long been clenched up in hibernation. Up the hill was the grocery store, where a line of masked shoppers, some having already snatched up a cart, twisted all the way around the block. Three hundred yards past, the central park, typically filled with stands selling chips and piña in tiny bags to youths leaving school and adults leaving work, was roped off with yellow caution tape. The benches, too.

Grocery shoppers in masks and gloves wait in a line around the block, under palm trees, leaning over carts.
The grocery store lines in my neighborhood are regular in the evenings.
Park benches are roped off with yellow caution tape in a Central American plaza
Parks have been closed since even before the national quarantine.

But into Antiguo’s core, were other sights, too.

As I passed, a woman called to me from her second story window. She was beautiful, peering through the filigree bars encased by purple flowering trees, and I asked her if I could take a photo. She smiled and raised her hands in the symbol of prayer.

She wasn’t the only interaction I had from below, on the street. Angela, another woman, leaning over her terrace, allowed me to take her photo. And a few blocks down, a man who perched on his balcony, too.

“My name is Julio but everyone calls me July,” he said, breaking into smile. He knew English, and asked me if he could test some pickup lines on an audience.

“Did it hurt?” he asked.

“What??” I obliged.

“When you fell from heaven.”

From yards away, we disintegrated into laughter.

A woman in El Salvador leans on an iron-barred patio.
Angela, from her patio.
A open window on a blue-painted wall is covered by bars; inside a lace curtain blows open.
A 30-day, mandatory quarantine has been in place in El Salvador since March 21st.

A man sits on a stoop in front of a closed, colorfully painted barber shop, wearing a protective mask.

A sidewalk in El Salvador is canopied by blooming trees.
The normally busy Antiguo Custcatlán neighborhood is now quiet and empty.
A man leans on his iron-barred balcony adorned with hanging plants.
“July” looked solemn when I first approached, but soon was cracking jokes.

I fell into a conversation with Rafael, a truck driver, who was elbow-bumping his associate as I approached. They were unloading boxes of various hardware parts that had arrived in cargo planes from the airport.

He declined to be photographed, instead preferring to tell me about his children that lived in Massachusetts and Vermont.

“I hope to talk more soon,” he said.

Here, someone was purchasing eggs; there, produce. A woman who usually sold sweet breads from a basket on the street had assumed the open grate of a closed restaurant whose owner she knew. She encouraged me to do whatever I could to be near family in this trying time; she never touted her own goods but when I left I bought four pastries, $0.60 worth. She tucked in an extra sweet bread with a wink, and then packed up her basket to go home — satisfied with the increase in daily sales.

A man in a protective mask purchases cartons of eggs from a small Salvadoran storefront.
Some vital businesses selling produce, sanitation essentials and in this case, eggs, remain open.

A man in a red t-shirt and blue hat unpacks commercial boxes from a truck.

Commuters in protective masks await busses at a colorful corner in El Salvador.
The busses continue to operate in El Salvador. Most board with masks and gloves.

I bought a $0.25 bundle of cilantro from a local market before stopping by my favorite tienda.

“Amelia!” The owners called as I walked up. Unprompted, they apologized for not having my favorite beer in stock — one they’d begun carrying more robustly after I mentioned loving it months ago. They talked of extended hours, trying to sell enough to get by, and got a rise out of my own critiques of the U.S. government’s response to Coronavirus. I purchased six beers and they wrapped them inside one of their own tote bags, noting with a grin that the police wouldn’t give me trouble with this cargo.

A man and a woman, wearing protective masks, sit in plastic chairs outside of a Salvadoran convenience store.
My favorite tienda remains open, though quiet.

As I neared my turn home, the pupusería loomed. Already, I was smiling — some of the first, big, guttural smiles that had surfaced in days. But the familiar scene of smoldering masa sent my mood soaring to new heights.

How was the business? Mas o menos, they said, though at the moment, their griddle was full, their takeout orders booming.

There was a relative in New York they were discussing. The growing infection that threatened life and hospitals there. The local news, on a TV in the back, was blaring its own warnings. Outside and inside, the world had changed, drastically.

But as the thin pillows of smoke filled my senses, there was something familiar, too.

I received the plastic bag, and waved goodbye, anxious to get home before dark fell.

“Hasta la proxima,” they called into the waning daylight. “Con suerte.”

With luck, we’ll see you soon.

12 thoughts on “El Salvador under quarantine: desolation, heavy artillery, pupusas and hope

  1. I worked as a newspaper reporter a long time ago, so I have an idea of what it takes to produce an essay like this one:

    1 part exceptional writing/storytelling talent
    1 part ability to recognize what would make a great story
    1 part elite level talent at synthesizing information and understanding what the real story is
    1 part really hard work
    1 part ability to “see” an image worth capturing
    1 part technical ability to take quality photos
    1 part hard work
    10 parts highly developed sense of empathy
    100 parts of exceptional courage

  2. Fantastic writing and a keen eye for images. As a self-deprecating local, I am not sure we deserve your kindness and quality journalism but it sure is refreshing and life-affirming. Please take take care of yourself wandering about in San Salvador although you probably don’t need my tips – your courage, humor and talent should get you through. El Salvador has always been dichotomous: rich-poor, quiet-loud, beautiful-awful and so on…..thank you for filling in the gaps and reminding us to ride this thing out without losing our humanity.

  3. Oh my! How scary to be there, far from home! The quarantine is good — necessary. But it sounds scary with the harsh military presence. Please, don’t push too much Amelia. I would not trust the military/government. Please stay safe!!

  4. Thanks for the tour of Antiguo. It was nice to visualize the smells, sights and sounds of your neighborhood.

  5. Wow! The article is beautifully written and the way you described everything I felt like I was there. It felt like I was smelling the same air as you and just feeling all the vibes! I miss El Salvador so much, due to finances (starting a family) my last time I was there was 2007!!! I need to get back..

    Thank you.

  6. Although I miss your Gophers coverage, I very much enjoy reading about your journey. You have exquisite talent, Amelia. Godspeed and stay safe on your continued journey!

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