El Salvador (Part 1)

In last week’s story, I mentioned being hesitant about visiting Haiti.  This was due in part to an experience I had earlier in life. 

In the mid-1980s, our tiny company, Triton Systems, had grown to a dozen or so employees.  We were still struggling to find our way and jumped at nearly any opportunity that presented itself.

So when one of our employees, formerly employed by the State of Mississippi, learned about a new program, we eagerly signed up.  It was sort of a dating service, intended to match up Mississippi entrepreneurs with companies in El Salvador, and it had the funds to pay for us to travel there.  So when we learned that we had been chosen to participate, we packed our bags.

Forgetting our company’s itty bitty size, we knew absolutely nothing about partnering with foreign companies.  Plus, we knew absolutely nothing about El Salvador (or any other Central American country for that matter).  So in all honesty, I cannot say that it made sense for us to be included in the program.  But by gosh, it was a free trip and we were going to take advantage of it.

Appreciating my dearth of knowledge about our destination, my wife went to the library to check out a couple of books so that we could read up on El Salvador.  At the time, the only place I knew about in the entire country was the Sheraton Hotel where I was told that we would be staying.

So as I lay in bed reading the night before our departure, you can imagine my surprise to learn that an American journalist had been kidnapped the year before from … you guessed it, that very hotel.

It seems that El Salvador had been embroiled in a nasty civil war for some time in which guerrillas (bad men with lots of weapons, not big hairy apes) routinely ran around making mischief.  Actually, it was somewhat more than that, as the FMLN guerrilla group had hundreds of thousands of supporters and nearly eight thousand active guerrillas.  They had formed death squads, which were reputed to have killed an average of ten people per day at the height of the conflict.

A typical family spending quality time together.

A typical El Salvadoran family spending quality time together.

Supposedly, the worst of this killing had subsided by the time we were making our trip.  Given that the kidnapped journalist was never seen or heard from again, I suddenly found myself somewhat less enthused about heading south.  But we were committed.

I waited until we boarded our flight before sharing my newfound knowledge with my partners.  I decided to spare them having to willingly board the plane after being fully informed.  That way, I would be the only true idiot.

The first leg of our trip went off without a hitch.  I forget where we landed first, but I do recall having to recheck our bags and noticing that our new luggage tags had the letters “GUA” printed on them.  Now, I’m no airplane luggage handling expert, but I failed to see how that could possibly indicate El Salvador.  So I expressed my concern to the luggage professional in my best broken Spanish.

Having taken Spanish in middle school, I knew that speaking Spanish mainly involved adding a vowel to the end of each word, throwing in an “El” or “La” on occasion, and speaking loudly and slowly.  “El baggo taggo has problemo, no?” I asked, confident that he would immediately understand my concern.  He didn’t.  From the bewildered look on his face, I’m guessing that I had probably asked him if he had an orange platypus.

After another fifteen minutes or so involving most of the airport staff, I learned much to my satisfaction I was right that our bags had been about to be shipped off to Guatemala.  I stood by smugly as they swapped our tags for some clearly indicating El Salvador as the final destination.

By the time we finally arrived at our destination and reclaimed our bags, I felt quite secure.  This was mostly due to my observing that about every ten feet, the government had stationed a scary-looking guy dressed in all black, wearing aviator style sunglasses indoors, and holding an automatic weapon.  Our host had arranged to have his driver pick us up in this really serious-looking Land Rover, which was rigged up more like a modern-day Humvee.

As I opened the door to enter the vehicle, it felt like I was opening a bank vault.  The windows were about an inch thick.  “Impressive vehicle,” I commented. “Those windows sure look … sturdy.”

The driver laughed.  “Yeah, the vehicle is bulletproof.  It’s got dual batteries, a skid plate, and is built like a tank.  They bought it back when we had serious problems in El Salvador. We really don’t need it anymore, but still drive it, mostly out of habit.”

My BS detector was beeping like crazy, but I simply nodded.  I wasn’t sure whether it was a good thing that we no longer needed it, or we were lucky to be riding in it … just in case.

We arrived at an enormous, solid metal rolling gate marking the entrance to our host’s offices, where our driver stopped and blew the horn.  The compound was enclosed by an eight-foot-tall concrete wall, at the top of which broken glass was embedded to discourage anyone who might consider climbing over.  A heavily-armed guard looked down from a bulletproof turret to confirm our identity before opening the gate.

The offices were in what looked like it might have been a private mansion at one time.  As we were escorted to the front door, I noticed that the impressive compound was immaculately kept and attractively landscaped.  We were greeted by members of our host’s family and made our introductions.  A few minutes later the patriarch arrived, making apologies for being late.

He wore perfectly pressed dress slacks and a crisply starched white shirt, but the thing I noticed most was a large leather-looking patch on his belt.  Though I would normally have had no clue what it was, the large .45 caliber automatic sticking through it was a clear indication, even to the totally clueless, that it was a holster.

When he noticed me staring at it, he said, “I got used to wearing it back when we had serious problems in El Salvador.  I really don’t need it anymore, but I wear it out of habit.”  Those words again, I thought.  I nodded politely, ignoring my BS detector, which was now shrieking loudly.

We then were seated in their conference room and began our meeting.  It seems that his family once owned the country’s third-largest bank and were the largest coffee exporter (or vice versa; I can never remember which).  Anyhow, it seems that the Revolutionary Government Junta of El Salvador had taken control of the country in a recent coup d’état. This new government thought it would be a swell idea to nationalize many private companies, much to the chagrin of our host and his family.  So they were interested in pursuing other business opportunities outside of El Salvador, in hopes of reclaiming their former glory.

[End of Part 1]

Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.

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