Posted by Meg Soper, 12-01-2015

“Ola senor! Me llama Meg Soper! Dónde este las claves para hacienda, por favor?”

Those are the words I want to say to the security guard holding the pump action shotgun and the keys to our ocean side vacation rental. The words I actually say are a random jumble of Spanish, English and French that only serve to confuse the person who represents the final hurdle in this marathon like travel day to El Salvador. After 14 grueling hours, the prospect of spending the night camped in our sub-compact with my husband and two young adult kids looms large. I curse myself for not investing a few measly dollars in a Spanish-English phrase book!

Three Simple Rules

This saga really began, oddly enough, on a freezing cold night in Edmonton, Alberta a few weeks earlier. I had presented at a conference and was given a ride to the airport by one of the event organizers, a fine gent by the name of Miguel. I proudly shared plans for our Christmas vacation to El Salvador, which as it turns out was Miguels home country. I could not believe my luck! So I started to grill him for travel tips and advice. However it was soon obvious that it was Miguel who was doing the grilling.

“What time does your flight land?” he asked, his voice conveying concern.

“1:10 p.m.” I said.

“Right then” he says “Three simple rules you need to follow in El Salvador. You listening?”

“Uh huhhhh….”

“Rule #1 – always be home by sundown. Got that?”

“Okayyyy….” I reply, meekly.

“Rule # 2: never drive at night. Got that?”

“Uh huhhhh….”

“And Rule #3” he says, pausing for effect “Rule #3: whenever in doubt refer to Rules 1 and 2.”

Let me assure you his tone of voice was enough to sear the advice onto my cerebellum. Miguel’s words served to confirm that my husbands concerns about personal safety were, perhaps, warranted. Like the fact El Salvador had a notoriously high murder rate, or that the U.S. State Department warned of dangers on roads around the international airport where tourist vehicles were often subject to being rear-ended, and victims then assaulted and robbed by guys with guns and machetes.

OK Jose, Can We Just Get the Keys?

So, I suppose we should have been thankful that we arrived at our vacation destination without major incident. Still we were in a bit of a pickle. Perhaps it was asking too much but I had hoped we would roll up, announce our name, and be granted a warm welcome to our lovely villa on the Pacific. But I guess the guard, whose name we determined to be Jose, didn’t get the memo. It seemed as though our vacation was now hanging in the balance.

At such moments it is easy to let the self talk become decidedly negative. Like why the hell are we here anyway? Had we succumbed to some cruel internet rental scam, leaving us to live like gypsies for our 10 day stay? I remember how I vowed after the travel horror story the previous Christmas (see my blog titled ‘Err Canada’ – January 2014) that I would never ever travel over the holidays again. But then my son decided to go to Central America, and I couldn’t bear the thought of not spending Christmas together. So there you have it. Blame it on maternal instincts. Still the assault on the senses experienced the previous14 hours could best be characterized as part rugby scrum, part root canal, part scavenger hunt. Let me share a few moments of our day with you.

Travel Day Timeline

4:00 a.m. Rise and shine! No need for wakeup call. Airport hotel has all the charm of a coroners office. Onto shuttle bus, barely conscious. People chatter excitedly about escaping the deep freeze. One woman boasts of sipping umbrella drinks in Florida by noon then cheerily asks my husband where he is going. “El Salvador” he mutters, in low baritone conveying a sense of dread. Bus goes quiet.

6:42 a.m. Touch down at Newark airport. Like a city within an airport within a city. Time tight for connection. Hop shuttle bus to another terminal. Kettled through multiple security checks. Feeling decidly like I am at stockyard, but sharpen skills at at removing and replacing footwear without breaking stride.

7:45 Arrive at gate for flight to San Salvador. We are the only three non Spanish speakers on flight. All around us people speak excitedly in mother tongue about pending visit to homeland. My husband looks a trifle concerned. “Don’t seem to be many tourists?” he observed as we boarded.

9:30 a.m. In our seats. Flight delayed. Surrounded by squalling infants. Over the P.A. captain says baggage system kaput – something about a “system wide failure”, then advises us that load calculations needed for flight clearance must be done manually at head office. Great! Our lives are now in the hands of some guy in Chicago learning how to use a slide rule. Bar service would be welcome about now.

10 40 am – Flight departs 2 hours late. ETA for landing now after 3PM. Miguel’s Rule #1 in jeopardy. We have less than 3 hours to clear customs, rent car, buy food, locate son and navigate 75 k of twisty coastal road. Husband is doing mental math re: sundown. Complexion very pale.  Checks watch about every 30 seconds. He is the driver.

3:10 pm. Bienvenudos El Salvador! the sign at the airport exclaims. Collect bags and get cleared through customs. Tickety boo!

3:45 pm Arrive Hertz counter. Hand over rental contract. Right above big bold letters on contract saying “No price increases permitted’ lady adds $162 to our ‘confirmed’ price and pushes it back for approval. Like no big deal, lets play ‘Gouge the Gringo.’ Not happy. Stand off. Crowd gathers. What ensues could be likened to tennis match where each side insists playing by their own rules, but can’t explain what rules are. Meanwhile I notice the sun diving towards the horizon. We are given a choice: “Pagar extra o hasta luego’ (Pay up or take a hike). Game set match. Score: Team Hertz wins 162 to Nil.

4:17 pm. Rattled. Drive out of airport. Roadside is a riot of pedestrians, melon stands, livestock, and feral dogs.Husband holds the steering wheel in death grip. Daughter Maddy in back seat, ear buds in taking in sights, an oasis of calm. Feeling in front more akin to desert storm. After a few minutes daughter says “Hey shoulda hung a left back by Hotel Quality.” She’s right. It wont be the last time parents miss a turn.

4:45 Arrive La Libertad. Only place for groceries within 50 km of our rental. Enter Super Mercado. Crowded, noisy. Shotgun toting security guard watches closely. Yikes! Wild sprint thru ailses like episode of Supermarket Sweep. Hurl items frantically into the cart providing novel form of entertainment to locals.

5:15 Toss provisions hastily in trunk. Drive frantically towards El Tunco to pick up prodigal son. Locate him curb side, cool as can be, hardly looking like kid I know: bleach blond hair, beard, bulked up surfer dude body. Strap board to car and careen up rough cobble road and onto Route 2A. It is now 5:45. Sun is diving below the horizon.

6:15 Darkness descends like a steel curtain. We are in violation of Miguel’s 1st Rule. I get it now! The road is all hills and hairpins, hard by the pacific. Street lights are a rare commodity. Our car has all the power of a Singer sewing machine. Passing is perilous.We encounter huge trucks loaded to hilt with long wood sticks that fly off in steady streams as they careen past us on the downhill sections. Safety first in El Salvador I conclude. We  negotiate a series of tunnels so dark that, once in, time enters a new dimension. We collectively hold our breath hoping to emerge the other side without a dog, horse or human affixed to our grill.

6:48 Arrive at the gate at Bahia Dorada, paradise by the sea. Or so we hope.

All’s Well That End’s Well

Ultimately our young son was able to employ some of his new found skills in Spanish to glean that the door to our villa had been left open and we were welcome to proceed. Whew! And so we made our way along cobbled lanes to our villa, high on the hill overlooking the Pacific. It was an oasis. And thus our marathon day came to a happy conclusion.

When you are in a foreign country, on your own, and not conversant in the native tongue, you hunker down and experience family on a new level. We were pretty much full on in each other’s company for those 10 days, falling into a seamless rhythm – up at daybreak for morning sun at a nearby surf spot, then back to our bit of paradise for lunch and afternoon by the pool, followed by magnificent sunsets at the beach, cards, dinner and movies to end the day.

Sure Florida would have been convenient, easy and perhaps less stressful. But it seems lasting memories are made when you depart your comfort zone. We will never forget our adventure to El Salvador and the lessons learned from its gracious and welcoming people who despite their limited means seemed very genuinely content with life, and living in the moment.

Thank you El Salvador!

About Meg Soper

Meg Soper is a leading motivational humorist for organizations in North America. Her unique perspective combines the insights and experiences of her last thirty years spent as a Registered Nurse, stand-up comedian, and ultimately a motivational speaker. Meg has co-authored two books and appeared on the CBC Television network, Women’s Television network, and Prime TV as well as on radio and at comedy festivals.