The shrill, happy notes reverberated through Plaza Libertad, drawing a crowd of a couple dozen, and me — invited by the music and the gleaming red upright bass.
A woman, wearing a bright pink apron and holding a matching ladle, spooned atol — a sweet corn drink — into styrofoam cups to serve. Two other women had staked out territory in front of the little five-piece band and were dancing as though it was their jobs (it might have been; they later worked the crowd for tips).
I whipped out my iPhone, as I always do, with a wave of reluctance. The nature of my job, these days, is to record what’s around me, but documenting other people in other places, especially as a white person, isn’t always popular. I’ve often stopped photographing because I absorb the glares around me. In more than a handful of cases, I’ve actually gotten visceral rebukes.
But on this glorious Friday afternoon, as I eyed the assembly, all I caught were smiles.
Suddenly, a man sprang from the curb in front of me.
“Por favor, toma asiento,” he said, offering me his patch of cement and gesturing at my iPhone. “Es una mejor vista,” it’s a better view.
I had been in El Salvador for about 24 hours. When we touched down from Atlanta, breaching the rocky coast and soaring toward the lush, jungle-laden hills, I’m not sure what I expected to find. But if I’m honest, it wasn’t this — pure warmth and joy radiating from the center of one of the world’s “most dangerous” cities not at war.
Earlier that day, I took an Uber into Centro Histórico with the intention of going to Mercado Central.
“Que, sola?” my driver asked me, insisting it wasn’t safe for a woman alone.
The vendors aren’t pandilleros, gang members, he noted — but many of them were working with the gangs, and the truth is the regular order, so to speak, is a bit shaken up and unpredictable at the moment.
This, I knew. Coming into El Salvador, I realized it was an interesting time to be in the country.
In June, new president — former San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele — took office. A couple weeks later, per his campaign promises, he began aggressively going after the country’s deeply entrenched gangs. He ordered the cell companies to cut off service over the prisons, from where many leaders operated. And he brought in the national guard to attempt to dislodge gangs from long-established territories, while dialing up security within the city’s heart.
Riding around town, I saw evidence of that: military personnel, piled into the back of jeeps, toting machine guns and donning imposing black masks that covered all but their eyes.
Judging from those I’d yet talked to, Bukele seemed to enjoy wide support — but residents, understandably, were nervous about the possible fallout.
Then, of course, there were the realities of crime within the city; my host mom was visibly nervous when I told her I was going to walk with my computer tucked inside my bag. She insisted I never walk at night or wear shorts after dark (I gave up wearing shorts in Central America a while back).
But one day in, I wasn’t feeling any of those worries.
That first full day, opting to walk through the rows of street vendors that lined the main drags of Centro Histórico rather than venture to the market, I stopped at a stall for a fresh juice — only to discover that the drink they were making was an orange juice smoothie with ice, vanilla and a raw egg. (The original Orange Julius??) While the young man assiduously prepared the ingredients, his wife, holding their bubble-cheeked infant, made small talk, grinning and asking where I was from, how I liked their country thus far.
I strolled, now with my drink — served in a plastic bag with a straw — for several blocks, taking photos. I noticed, quickly, that no one was telling me to put my phone away — a warning I’m accustomed to hearing in cities with theft problems. When I took photos, people smiled. I felt no antagonism toward my lens, no antagonism toward me at all. What’s more, cat calling was all but absent — something of a shock after tough learning experiences in Belize and Honduras.
The trend would continue. I knew the city’s difficulties were real: poverty was evident on the streets (though, in a week, not a single person asked me for money) and in the shanty towns, barely more than sheets of plastic thrown over sticks, that cropped up in the hills on the edges of town. Talk of the gang situation was somewhat commonplace. But personally, I encountered only kindness. I conversed, merrily, with every cab driver I had. I made small talk at bars, while marveling at the elite standards of service. I watched, at the night festival in Santa Tecla — a pueblo just beyond the city’s border — as a woman, passing a street musician, threw down her hand bag on the sidewalk to salsa with her man.
I felt incredibly comfortable. Incredibly disarmed. Free to simply walk, to focus on enjoying the beauty around me. And oh, what beauty it was — the colorful colonial architecture, bedecked with iron balconies, the marbled Palacio Nacional, the angel-crested obelisk rising from the sprawling Plaza Libertad, encircled by a static blanket of pigeons that rippled as glee-stricken kids ran through them.
Over by the little park quintet, I sat sandwiched between new acquaintances and leaned back, suddenly unconcerned about clinging to my possessions. It felt as easy as the music itself, the mood of the city blending with the jubilant horns.
When I got up to leave, telling my new friends I would continue my walk, they each earnestly shook my hand.
“Gusto de conocerles,” I told them — so wonderful to meet you.
And it was.