Like everything in life, with travel there are good and bad days. Traveling abroad is enlightening, adventurous, and educational, but it can also be frustrating as hell. I’ve learned to be patient, not only with myself but with the impossible situations that only traveling abroad can bring. On my recent trip to El Salvador, I experienced my worst day of travel. An array of emotions took place, including terror and desperation. I was trying to leave, but El Salvador wanted to swallow me whole.
The story begins in El Tunco, an El Salvadorian beach town known as a surfer’s paradise. El Tunco is one of the most popular tourist destinations in this often skipped over Central American country. But this article isn’t about the town, the delicious pupusas, or the country of El Salvador. It’s about getting home.
My boyfriend, Nabil, and I were staying in a decent beachside hotel (except the toilet didn’t really work) with a beautiful balcony view. The night before we were scheduled to fly back to the United States, we spoke to a security guard at the front desk about scheduling a taxi pick up. We never saw a hotel receptionist, so we took the security guard as the man of authority. In Spanglish, we secured a taxi pick up for 5 am the following morning. Our flight was at 9 am. The airport was only 40 miles away, so we figured we had plenty of time. That was before everything went wrong.
MY WORST DAY OF TRAVEL
TIME: 5 AM
LOCATION: HOTEL. EL TUNCO, EL SALVADOR
CURRENT MOOD: ABOUT TO GET A RUDE AWAKENING
Nabil and I approached the night-time security guard (a different man than the one with whom we scheduled the taxi). He sat under a covered area near the locked gate surrounding the property. After a few awkward greetings, we attempted our broken Spanish, realizing the guard didn’t speak any English. Nabil’s Spanish is pretty good, but not perfect. We both tried our best.
“Taxi to the airport?” We asked in poor Spanish.
Security Guard: “No taxi.”
“We, umm… spoke to your friend yesterday. He said there would be a taxi for us?”
Security Guard: “No taxi… (a bunch of curt words we didn’t fully understand).”
We try a few more times, asking if he’ll call a taxi or where we should go. The guard ignored us. The hotel is completely dark, and I realized we were at the mercy of this man’s help, which he refused to give. We turned on our phones and tried to find local taxi services, using precious data, but no dice. Maybe there are no taxis in El Salvador? Shit, what do we do now?
Nabil and I stood in silence for a few minutes, next to the statuesque security guard, and then decided to start walking. Maybe we would find someone else to help us.
TIME: 5:20 AM
LOCATION: MAIN STREET, EL TUNCO, EL SALVADOR
CURRENT MOOD: DREAD
The moment we left, the security guard locked the gates behind us. There was no going back. To my horror, the streets of El Tunco were dark and desolate. No one in sight. Not one store open.
Then it started raining. Hard. Within minutes I was wading ankle deep through brown, muddy water. In my drowsy-induced insanity, I laughed out loud in a manic fashion. Really? The situation had gone from bad to worse at an alarming rate! Perhaps even more horrific than being stranded in El Tunco was the fact that my shoulder bag, containing my laptop, was getting soaked. I cradled it under my coat as best I could, wishing I had packed it inside my backpack.
Nabil and I paced downtown El Tunco – which is about the length of two city blocks – a half dozen times. Every hotel was dark with locked gates. There was no one in sight. For a moment, I considered stuffing myself inside of a phone booth for shelter and waiting for rescue. But we needed to make our flight.
As much as I love a good adventure, I had no intention of getting stuck in El Salvador.
We found a police station. The officer inside gave us a funny look, which is understandable. We must have been quite a sight.
“We need a taxi to the airport.” We pleaded. “Do you have a number we can call?”
“There is no taxi that will come here,” He said. “You can walk to the highway and wait for a bus to La Libertad. Maybe you get a ride there.”
So off we went. The highway was a half mile away, and the rain followed us every step of the way.
TIME: 5:50 AM
LOCATION: CHICKEN BUS STOP
CURRENT MOOD: LAUGHING AT THE WIND
In El Salvador (and Guatemala), the local buses are referred to as “Chicken Buses” (repurposed school buses used for public transit). I had been admiring them during our travels through Central America. Each Chicken Bus is an artistic expression, decorated with bright pulsing lights and colorful paint. I was looking forward to riding in one, but I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into.
Our bus arrived, and my heart sank when I saw it was full. Or at least what I would call full. There were 3-4 people in every seat, a million more standing in the center aisle, and a half dozen packed in between the last seat and the emergency exit. Still, the back door swung open and they grabbed us by the arms and pulled us inside.
Nabil is 6’6.” He spent the next 15 minutes in the fetal position, crouched in the nook of my legs with his face smushed between my backpack and the back window of the bus. I was hunched over the back row of seats, with the bars digging deep into my stomach. There was nothing to hang on to, so everyone on the bus swayed and bumped into each other with each stop. The driver must have been speeding, but I couldn’t see out the windows so I have no way of knowing. An old woman in front of me was knitting. Business as usual. I was wide awake now.
Even with the distress and discomfort, I enjoyed the ride. Although, I don’t need to do it again anytime soon!
TIME: 6:10 AM
LOCATION: LA LIBERTAD
CURRENT MOOD: LOST LITTLE BUNNY
La Libertad is not like the tourist town of El Tunco. It’s real. It’s gritty. And, to be honest, a little terrifying. Perhaps the beach is nice. I never saw it. Downtown is smelly, even in the rain. Maybe more so in the rain. There is trash everywhere. At 6 am, people are walking to work or squatting in shop entrances. There are people everywhere. Nabil and I were soaked and walking around aimlessly, with backpacks and shoulder bags, looking like two lost Americans…. which is what we were. I clutched my shoulder bag containing my laptop, passport, and money, cursing myself for not placing these items deep in my backpack.
“Taxi?” We asked anyone who seemed to care, and a few of those who obviously didn’t.
Several people tried to help. A little old woman shook her head in dismay. No taxis. No buses. I couldn’t believe it. How do people get to the airport? A few people claimed there was a taxi stand in the park. But when we got to the park, it was covered in trash and gated. We couldn’t find a taxi stand. So we walked more, and more. Every shop that may have helped us was closed with bars on the doors and windows.
Finally, a friendly local lead us back to the park and showed us the taxi stand. It was a parking spot with no identifying features aside from a taxi symbol painted on the pavement. So we found our taxi stand. But where are the taxis?
TIME: 6:55 AM
LOCATION: TAXI STAND
CURRENT MOOD: PISSING MYSELF
I felt like I was playing some sort of a game and every time I reached the next level, there was another puzzle to unlock. So we found a taxi stand, now what? There was no phone number to call. Maybe a taxi will come here by chance? We waited in the rain. Not sure of what else to do. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around my shoulder bag for more rain protection. I didn’t dare try to reshuffle my belongings out in the open.
Across the street, a few men were leaning against a gated storefront, staring at us. They whispered to each other. I tried to ignore them. One man was holding a rolled up newspaper. After a few minutes, he walked briskly over and stood right next to me. Just a few inches away. I could see something dark hiding in the rolled up newspaper. I was nervous. He was getting drenched and standing too close. Why was he next to me?
He slowly removed the dark thing from the rolled up newspaper. My heart raced, and I physically jumped back when he said –
“Do you want me to call you a taxi?” In perfect English.
He held up his smart phone, which he had been protecting from the rain with the newspaper. I almost cried. I was so relieved, and then I felt ashamed of myself. He was just a nice man, and I felt threatened by him. I was out of my element (to say the least).
“Yes, please..” I whimpered.
“Okay, it will be expensive to get the to airport now.” He warned.
“We don’t care,” Nabil said.
The cost of getting another flight would be enormous, and besides, we were desperate. Our flight was leaving in less than two hours and we were only 30 minutes away. There was still time.
TIME: 7:30 AM
CURRENT MOOD: SO HAPPY I WOULD KISS A TOAD
The “taxi” the nice man called was really a friend of his who owned a vehicle. A nice Ford truck. We didn’t care. The negotiated price was $30 for the 30-minute drive, which was fine by us. We jumped in the truck and threw our backpacks in the cab. I was too relieved to worry if he was about to take me somewhere even worse…
Our driver was a happy man, and he chatted our ears off during the drive. I was so nervous, I barely remember the conversation. The roads were flooded, and we were thankful he had a truck. Most cars wouldn’t have made it. Meanwhile, we were silently praying and tracking ourselves via GPS on our phones. He was taking us to the airport. But would we get there in time?
TIME: 8 AM
LOCATION: AIRPORT, EL SALVADOR
CURRENT MOOD: READY TO PUNCH A DOLPHIN
We frantically busted through the front doors. Two soaking, wild-eyed, ridiculous white people on a mission. We found our gate and began checking in with the computer system. An attendant approached to help.
Airport attendant: “Where are you going?”
“Los Angeles,” I said frantically, hitting the buttons on the screen to print my boarding pass.Flight attendant: “Oh, you’ll never make that. It leaves in one hour.“
I stopped cold. Lady… don’t do this. Can’t you see I’ve had a day?
“We won’t check bags,” I pleaded, glancing at Nabil who was horrified with this revelation. He had purchased a nice bottle of rum to take home as a gift. It would never make it through security.She looked at me apologetically and shook her head.
“Please.“ I begged, “We’ll run! Please…. let us try.”
“Okay….” she said, still not convinced we would make it. “But you have to run.”
TIME: 8:15 AM
LOCATION: AIRPORT HALLWAY
CURRENT MOOD: SORRY NOT SORRY
Our wet sneakers screeched on the floors. Locals gawked at the two crazy, blotchy-faced Americans running for their lives through the airport terminal. Arms swinging, hair in tangles. It was a mess.
“What about the rum?” Nabil yelled over his shoulder.
“Throw it away. It’s not worth the price of another ticket,” I said.
“It’s deep in my bag and wrapped in clothes. I’ll have to take everything out… and we don’t have time”
“Okay…. see if it goes through.”
TIME: 8:35 AM
LOCATION: AIRPORT SECURITY
CURRENT MOOD: READY TO JUMP BETWEEN TRAIN CARS
We threw our bags on the belt, saying a silent prayer to the rum gods – please let the bottle go through. I made it through security and immediately watched as Nabil’s bag went through the x-ray machine. Come on. Just once today, let us catch a break.
Nope. Nabil’s bag was flagged. He looked at me in defeat. But we were so close…
The security agents slowly searched Nabil’s bag. Excruciatingly slow. I wanted to show them where the bottle is hidden, but I didn’t dare intervene.
“Maybe we should check our bags and book another flight,” Nabil said. A defeated man.
“No,” I hissed. “We HAVE to try.” If we didn’t make our flight, we could be stuck in El Salvador for another day… or longer.
Finally, the agent pulled out a tiny pair of scissors from Nabil’s bag, and then returned the bag (and the large bottle of rum hidden within) to Nabil. We looked at the agent with bewilderment. Scissors? That’s what you wanted??
TIME: 8:45 AM
CURRENT MOOD: JOY TO THE WORLD, THEN ONE LAST CRUSHING BLOW
More running. My bags were becoming cumbersome, and I was holding Nabil back. We finally reached our gate and my heart almost burst out of my chest. They are still boarding, I realized with glee. But wait…. what’s this?
ANOTHER SECURITY CHECK POINT!!!??
Apparently, when you fly to the USA from El Salvador, they sometimes have a second security checkpoint at your gate. So here we go again. I could see the end zone, and I was pretty sure we were getting there. But not with rum.
Nabil fished the rum out of his bag, rummaging through clothing items like a madman. Any other time this would have upset his OCD packing methods, which I had teased him for multiple times during the trip. Not today. It was expensive rum, from Guatemala, and I know it pained him to throw it away.
As he gently placed the unopened bottle in the garbage bin, I saw a custodian eyeing it. Good, I thought. Enjoy that buddy.
TIME: 9 AM
LOCATION: BOARDING LINE
CURRENT MOOD: FIST PUMPING
Nabil and I were the last to board the plane. As I handed my ticket to the airport staff member, I let out an exasperated sigh. We made it… Somehow, we made it! I said goodbye to El Salvador while laugh-crying in my sopping wet airplane seat. I’ve never felt more relief in my life. I was going home.
Even my worst day of travel brings a smile to my face.
Travel isn’t always glamorous. Sometimes it’s awful, scary, or frustrating. When I get sick, I have to take strange medicines with packaging in another language. If I get lost, and I have to find my way by reading foreign maps and asking locals. Reservations have been canceled unexpectedly. I have been fooled by a gimmick, and called nasty names when I discovered the truth and refused to be a pawn. I’ve been followed, stolen from, and lied to. Once I was spit on and told to return to my own country just for being American. During these moments, I have to take a breath and remind myself to be okay with the current dilemma and discomfort. It’s a good thing. Because of what comes next…
Adventure isn’t meant to be easy or painless. I didn’t hike the Inca Trail or take a 14-hour 100-degree train ride in Thailand because it was comfortable and luxurious. I did these things for the experience. For the story. And to learn. I travel to crush my insecurities and face my prejudices. So that I remember to be thankful and realize that others don’t have the same priveledges I’ve been given, simply because of luck of the draw. Most of all, I travel so I can grow.
Love your article Jenna.
Gripping story, and real. Emotions run to the extreme during events like this. Glad you made it back to safety. I think your point is well taken (said in my words), that the disparity of privilege creates an imbalance leaving some in despair. You met some of them who refused to help you, not a normal human trait. They were trying to balance that disparity by causing you grief.
Mine is a similar story – getting stranded in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
Communication wires were crossed and we got off our bus 50kms short of our destination in the Mekong, at a tiny gas station at the highway crossroads with no taxis or hotels in sight. Five very curious Vietnamese men appreciate approached us, and through a series of hand gestures we discovered that we were pretty much stranded. They had motorbikes we could get on, but refused to take us to our destination, as it was too far away. I jumped onto google (thank god we had google) and identified the one “hotel” in the town, and asked them to take us there.
The next scene involved us scootering down a tiny mud path along the river to our destination (my knuckles white with anxiety as I had come off a bike in Greece a few years before), bikes laden with our hiking packs, not knowing whether the hotel was even still operating. We got lucky and the owner was home, spoke English, and was able to direct our friends to take us to the local bus station.
We bumped and scootered back through the river side, into town and just as we approached the bus station, I see a bus pull away from the kerb. When I hear the motorcycle engine rev up I realise that our bus has left without us!
Cut to a Bond-like chase scene, where, at break neck speed, swerving in and out through traffic, livestock and pedestrians, we almost reached it only to by blocked by a reversing garbage truck. All traffic slowed and we somehow managed to manoeuvre around said truck and reach the bus, which had finally stopped. I tipped the drivers for their trouble and we reached our destination crammed into a local bus full of locals and livestock.
You can’t buy experiences like this! I love your blog Jenna 🙂 It’s helping me design my own tiny music-studio house!
Awesome (and somewhat horrifying) story! Sometimes you just have to laugh. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have these types of experiences, even the “bad days”
I have to say your lucky and you have balls of steal to go places that can be shady and get back alive. My worst travel started in Florida, I was being booted to the curb by an X girlfriend who didn’t want me around. I found a cheap ticket on the grey hound buss and headed there via a friend who drove me to the station. The money I had only got me to Tennessee and Calif was still a good ways away. Now, I’ve ridden the grey hound a few other times in my life and in those times, the folks on the bus were good folks but this time they were not exactly the kinda folks I like sharing a 15 hour trip with. Seems like the buss stopped at every town between Jacksonville Fl. and Nashville Tn. I tried to sleep a few times but kept waking to find my bag had somehow moved a little ways away from me. After that, I just decided to stay awake the rest of the way in hopes I’d find a hotel to get some rest in.
When I arrived, I discovered some of my cash was gone and I didn’t have enough for a room. I sat on the curb for hours wondering what to do but eventually decided to call my dad who not only got me a room and ordered me a pizza, but he arranged for me to fly the rest of the way to Cailf. The hotel took me to the airport, I got my boarding pass and then I noticed I had a 12 hour layover in Colorado. I had had layovers before so at the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. So off we went but as the pilot told us we were about to land, he also mentioned it was -5 on the ground and I was dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops and had send all my other clothes ahead.
When the pizza arrived at my room in Tennessee I was so happy I tipped the delivery guy without thinking I might want to eat something on my journey but not thinking as I got off the plain in Colorado, I reached into my pocket to pay for a burger and found I was a dime short. It was then that I preyed and I guess god had his hand on my then because when I told the clerk I was short, he laughed and said no problem and gave me the food. To my surprise they had included a bag of fries and I eat them like they were my last meal on earth.
After that I went looking for me gate and a place to sleep a little and wait, but when it’s -5 outside and people are going in and out of doors that lead outside, even the heaters don’t help that much and it was a cold 12 hours before I got on the plan to go home. 10 hours later at the gate, I discover my small rolling bag isn’t included in my flight and so for almost an hour I went from phone call to phone call trying to sort it
out till finally they arranged to let me take it and I boarded to plan.
I think I slept the rest of the flight and when I got off, my brother was waiting with my dad. They took me out to eat before taking me back to my dads house.
Great story! Would probably make a great movie.
My worst day in travel was not during the trip or the trip back. It was when I got back home.
I went to Denver, Colorado to go snowboarding for the first time. The trip was nice, I saw the Broncos training facility and saw plenty of mountains and snow. Something that’s new to me (a native of Miami, Florida). Once snowboarding, I ended up falling pretty bad and breaking my clavicle. Luckily my flight was no more than a day away.
Once I got back, I went to the nearest hospital, and I checked in. A woman checked my blood pressure and asked me what happened. I told her I broke my clavicle, and I want to get it fixed. She gave me a strange look, and told me that she doesn’t know why i came to a hospital for this type of injury. I was already exhausted from flying and in a nice deal of pain. So my tolerance level was at an all time low. So clueless on what to say to someone that tells me that a major hospital can’t treat a broken bone. I repeated the exact statement she told me to let her know how little sense it makes. They ended up giving me an xray and another proscription for pain killers and sent me home (i was there for about four hours in total). I went to a different hospital later and had an appointment for surgery a week later. I was at the second hospital for about 12 hours. Once I got better I left Miami a few months later.
Wow… and that’s in our home country. Sorry you had a bad experience.