¿Qué ondas, chele?
The seats in semi trucks have shocks built in.
You bounce along with the topography of the road, cushioned from rude shocks and potholes.
I learned this while hitchhiking from El Salvador to Guatemala.
We could have taken the bus. But it takes longer. It’s sweaty. You have to pay. Even if it’s only a couple dollars for hundreds of miles, we were on the cheap. Counting quarters that could be better invested in tamales and liters of beer.
It was her idea. My Burmese travel partner who everyone here called “la China.” Political correctness hasn’t swayed the simple convenience of generalizations. And Phway didn’t mind. She found it cute. We were a far cry away from Western sensibilities.
Phway is wild. She essentially made it from Mexico to El Salvador hitchhiking. Trim shoulders with a faded flower tattoo. Absolute fearlessness of people. She’d dance with the drunkest guy in the loudest cantina in the smallest pueblo. And she’d laugh the whole time.
I would have opted for the bus. But my own sense of adventure grew next to her. We’d ridden in the back of countless pick up trucks, negotiating ourselves between corn husks, bags of cement, and other fellow passengers. They told us about life there. I became a master at positioning my cap so it wouldn’t fly away in the rushing wind.
The most comfortable ride choice our thumbs afforded us were semis.
On our trip from the far east coast of El Salvador to the southern coast of Guatemala, we rode in four.
Semis afforded the longest potential distances. And of course the bouncy seats. Behind the driver and passenger seat was a bed. Whoever sat shotgun, we were both afforded a far more comfortable ride than being tucked between bags of corn husks.
It also provided easy conversation. Every trucker that picked us up was a pleasure. Attentive hosts. One even went out of his way to drop us off in Esquintla, the closest town with hotels, when we realized we’d misread the map. Horror movies have it all wrong.
The problem with hitchhiking is you don’t always get picked up. Even when you're traveling with a cute Burmese girl in shorts whose legs could crush industrial size cans.
We were standing in the shade of banana trees on the side of the highway. Shade is a valuable resource in Central America. The sun burned me faster than I could sweat.
Playa Dorada. Not so much a town as houses and shops lining the road. Cars passed. Semis passed. But no one picked us up. We hadn’t even seen a bus.
Across the street from us was a little ramada, built with thick barkless branches and a palm thatch roof. There was a group of kids sitting under it. Smoke and steam rose up from a big pot over a wood fire.
The kids looked to be around 14. Skinny guys. White undershirts. Baggy basketball shorts. Flat bill caps propped high up on their heads and tilted to the side.
Their clothes set off a quiet alarm in my head.
Appearances carry a lot of meaning in El Salvador. Every suburban white kid in the states dresses like this. But in El Salvador, it has a much darker association. We don’t give tattoos a second thought in the US. Here, they’re hard for people to separate from gang affiliation. I had a long sleeve on to avoid any sidelong looks. And to protect me from the violent sun.
Phway and I alternated soliciting rides. She with her thumb. Me with the little hand flap I’d learned from a year living in El Salvador. At one point I made eye contact with one of the kids wearing a backwards cap and a gold chain. We gave each other the nod of acknowledgement.
In sweaty desperation we retreated to the shade. You could feel the proximity of the ocean. All I wanted was to jump in.
I noticed one of the skinny kids biking towards us on a small BMX from the right. I looked to the left, and another of them was rolling our way. Coming in from both sides. Here we go, I thought.
They rolled up on us.
“Qué ondas, chele.” More or less the Central American version of “what’s up, whiteboy.”
Then I made my first mistake. I’d picked up on a lot of the local intricacies. In El Salvador, however, you're sometimes better off being seen as an outsider. Tourists mysteriously exist in a protective bubble.
He extended his fist for a fist bump. When faced with this gesture, how many times would you bump fists? Once, you say?
In El Salvador it’s twice. I instinctually gave the kid a double fist bump. Shit. I realized the fuck up immediately. Even as a whiteboy, I now seemed more local to these two. Not to mention that my Spanish had taken on a heavy Salvadoran flare. Being seen as a local was not ideal in this situation.
“De dónde sos?” the kid asked me. The two of them hung their arms casually over the handlebars of their bikes.
I told him I was from California. You know it? They just shook their heads. Very little surprise. The next question confirmed my suspicions.
“Andás tatuajes?” Do you have any tattoos. I could feel the skeleton on the back of my right arm. The guitar on my left bicep. The pelicans on my ribs.
“No, nada,” I responded, pouting my bottom lip to convey dismissal. They just nodded.
“Qué hacen acá.”
I explained we were trying to get a ride. Going to Guatemala. I shifted the dynamic of the conversation. Asked them if they surfed. They told me they hadn’t. Phway stood by silently. I wasn’t sure if she fully grasped what was going on. I think she got the gist of it.
We chatted a bit more. The kids were all smiles, really friendly. The one to our left was high. After a bit more small talk, the kid with the hat explained our situation to us. He was the talker.
“Pues mirá, acá nadie te va recojer. Acá está perro.” He was telling us that no one would pick us up here. That here it was rough. I’m not sure if he meant just in terms of getting a ride, or if he was getting at something more. I wasn’t about to ask for details.
“Ahorita pasa el bus. Como en unos 20 minutos.”
The bus was our only option. That was fine by me. It wasn’t hard to figure out who these kids were.
When your first two questions are where someone’s from and if they have any tattoos, you send a clear message.
I thanked them and they went back to their ramada across the street. Phway and I made no comment about it until the bus finally appeared in the distance of the straightaway. I gave the kids a wave goodbye right before we hopped on.
We bumped along in the dark green pleather seats, the school bus window down to let in air. Our knees dug into the backrest in front of us, patched up with duct tape and sticky patches where duct tape had once been. Our backpack straps danged from the metal rack overhead.
“Did you get what was going on there?” I asked Phway. Her Spanish was good, but not 100%.
“I think so,” she responded.
“Gnarly.” I muttered.
“They’re just kids.”
The following afternoon, we made it our beach destination after a 40 minute walk down a sandy road fully exposed to the unrelenting sunlight. I told Phway that if we died here, it was on her. A joke, mostly.
We spent the next two days drinking tequila in a pool full of orgiastic gringos floating around on giant inflatable flamingos. I surfed the bone crushing beach break in front of the hostel. Broken boards and drugged out cheles abounded. I did my best to mingle with travel-arrogant backpackers, who quietly assured you their experience was more authentic than yours.
We got an early start the morning we left. The red sun rose from the horizon and cast a dim
glow over the sandy road we’d shuffled down before.
Behind us, we saw the headlights of a pickup truck appear. Time to put our thumbs to the test. Luck was on our side.
The truck stopped for us. Our first attempt was a success. We hopped in the bed between boxes and nets. There were two guys back there with us. One was in his early twenties. He’d tucked himself into a corner to take a nap.
The other was a man in his forties, an elegantly dressed cowboy. He had a thick mustache, a tucked in button up, and a clean straw cowboy hat on his head. He was sitting on a cooler. I asked what they’d been up to.
Fishing, he told me.
I naively asked where the fish were. He pointed to a tiny bag by my feet. It seemed like an absurdly small quantity for having been out on the water all night. I looked around the back of the truck. There was hardly any fishing equipment at all. And counting the three men in the front of the pickup, it was a lot of people for one motorboat.
I kept chatting with the cowboy. He was easy to talk to. Engaging. Most of the time he looked into the distance. I studied his outfit further. I noticed what I’d missed.
The handgun tucked into a holster on his belt. Not exactly standard fishing equipment.
Further down the road, the driver stopped at a small store to pick up some sodas. He got out and pulled his pants up around his waist, weighed down by a big belly. He turned around to ask his friend in the back if he wanted anything.
Tucked into the front of his pants was a handgun.
A big one. No holster. Just tucked underneath his belt. It looked to be an ornate piece. Some sort of ivory or shell inlay on the handle.
I’d never seen fisherman quite like these guys. My naivety gave way to more imaginative explanations. They’d been out in a boat the night before. That much I believed.
But catching fish probably hadn’t been the main objective.
We continued down the road. I did my best not to look too often at the cowboy’s gun. We talked more. After less than an hour, we reached Puerto de San José. They dropped us off there. Smiles and waves of goodbye as we made our way to a mototaxi that took us to the bus station.
The rest of the trip was a mix of buses, pick up truck beds, and semis.
Along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Salvadoran coast, we got a ride in a big rig. Our driver talked with us all the way to La Libertad. He offered us water. We offered him snacks we’d picked up along the way. He asked us questions about where we were from, told us about his own origins.
He knew exactly where Burma was.
It became clear we wouldn’t make it to El Cuco before dark, so we decided to stay in a hotel in Usulután. Dinner. Cocktails. A room with a fan. The next morning we took a bus to El Delirio and there caught one last pick up truck ride home.
Back in the comfort of my dank and mosquito infested room, I reflected on what one of my local friends had once said to me. I’d told him we should go on a trip to another part of El Salvador. He’d shaken his head.
You don’t get it, Daniel, he’d told me in Spanish. I can’t just go to other places. They’ll come up to me and start asking where I’m from.
“Para vos que sos gringo es fácil.”
He was right. Being a gringo here was a protective shield. I integrated as much as I could, but I’d always be an outsider. And that was often a good thing.
I could be in the middle of the shit, tattoos blazing. But I remained separated. Walking down the street, I’d meet a local friend and give them a double fist bump.
“Qué ondas, chele?”
“Al suave,” I’d respond.