Savannah trotted to the left of the cart, giddy from the presence of never-ending shade and a wide shoulder. We walked steady and fast. There wasn’t much traffic on the road along the coast of El Salvador because there was a newer, bigger road that funneled the cars to San Salvador.
A mother and daughter were walking towards Savannah and I so we cut onto the road to give them the shoulder. “Hello,” said the mother. The daughter, maybe two, wearing an oversized Yankees cap, waved.
“Morning,” I answered.
It was only six-thirty but it seemed all of El Salvador was awake. People appeared out of the brush and onto the road like pictures falling from an unfinished scrapbook.
From Guatemala the road was flat, but eventually it lifted and wound to follow the mountains sliding into the Pacific.
I pushed my cart continually upwards with practiced determination. My feet struck the ground like irons, my calves braced like metal rods, and thankfully, because of the generous shoulder, I didn’t have to keep my focus on the cars barreling downhill.
When we reached the top of the road a vista broke through the trees and revealed the Pacific. A cliff dropped to the ocean feet in front of me. I extended my arms and tilted my head back to let in the grandness of the ocean. I’d been walking alongside the Pacific since entering Oaxaca, Mexico, but it wasn’t until El Salvador that I was seeing it. The sight felt substantial, I’d reached the other side; started beside the Atlantic and made it to the Pacific.
The road continued its weave with the mountains; rising and falling with the mountains too. Trees leaned over the road. Tunnels bore through rock, they didn’t have finished ceilings but left the damp, dripping earth exposed overhead. Bats fluttered and in the longer tunnels there were only drops of light at either end.
After two days of walking mountains I reached La Libertad, a beach city where the road flattened and ran straight once again. After La Libertad the landscape turned from lush to dry and thorny, there were few trees tall enough to provide shade.
Since entering, my time in El Salvador was a hustle between hotels. A truce had crumbled between El Salvador’s two major gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, and during the time I was walking through there was a murder rate of roughly 104 per 100,000 habitants – second only to the next country I’d be walking through; Honduras. The violence in El Salvador was unprecedented, their highest rate since 1983 when a U.S. backed military dictatorship and leftist guerrillas fought for the country’s future.
I considered not walking through El Salvador at all because of the violence, but knew if I didn’t I’d always regret skipping it. My small insurance policy was to get a hotel room every night while in country. The rooms were about twenty dollars a night, generally auto motels designed for late-night affairs, and usually with silver-dollar-sized cockroaches crawling around – not always though.
On my fifth day in El Salvador there was thirty miles to the next city, about the maximum I could cover in a day with daylight being limited to a little less than eleven hours. It was necessary Savannah and I got going early and didn’t take any extended breaks.
We were up at four-thirty then on the road at five-thirty when it was still dark and cool. By five-thirty humidity hung in the air and by seven I was sweating.
A man on a bike passed on my right, turned back to look at me, and waved. “Morning.”
“Morning.” I waved back.
For living in such an outrageously violent place, the El Salvadorians still managed to be some of the most pleasant people I’d come across.
Hours of steady walking and podcasts went by. We moved faster than the mountainous days before. I didn’t have to strain pushing my cart, but sweat poured out of me, lines of salt formed where my shirt stuck to my skin. Heat wavered on the road and at times I felt the sun reaching through my exposed skin and muscles to heat my bones.
Around noon, after six hours of walking, I felt the strain. The muscles in my legs weren’t the solid things they were at the beginning of the day, but working on a dwindling number of fibers.
“We’ll stop at the next tienda,” I said to Savannah.
Ahead of me a row of parked cars lined the shoulder so during an opening in traffic I cut across the road. A tall, American-sized man with a television camera on his shoulder crossed the street the same time.
Across the road there was a break in the line of cars and through it I saw a crowd and yellow police tape, but at the angle I was at I couldn’t see anything else.
I stopped at the cameraman. “What happened?” I asked.
“A murder, double homicide.”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
The large cameraman smiled, hopefully because he was talking to a gringo, not because he was talking about a double homicide.
“Thanks,” I said.
I pushed the cart a little further to where I could see between the break in the cars and out into the field. A crowd of two dozen people lined the yellow tape while a police officer was walking away from the scene, stripping latex gloves from his fingers, his badge on a necklace hanging at his chest, and donning a full black mask so only his eyes were visible.
I reached into my cart to get my camera, but as I reached people in the crowd pointed at me and took photos. I let go of my camera, waved once, then turned my head and hurried to get away from the scene. My Devil’s Advocate imagined the people taking photos of me were doing so for whatever gang killed those two people. I didn’t want a shred of trouble, or a shred of notoriety. I wanted the picture of the police officer, I wanted to share a crazy moment, but I wasn’t putting an ounce of risk out for it. I was already walking through El Salvador and that was enough.
As I walked away from the scene my mind ran through the possible reasons the gang might come for me now, but other than to rob a gringo, I couldn’t find any reasons that stuck; I hadn’t taken any pictures and hadn’t been any closer to the scene than across the street. Surely, as long as I kept a low profile, I was safe.
The beautiful views I had walking the coast and the delicious papusas I’d bought for a quarter faded from my memory. The double homicide brought me back to the newspaper El Salvador, the El Salvador with a gang problem.
I quickly put a mile between myself and the murders. I didn’t realize it immediately, but a spike of adrenaline had me nearly jogging.
When the adrenaline slowed I remembered how hungry I was and how my legs were overdue for a rest.
But when I looked out to the road I saw nothing but an empty stretch of asphalt bordered by dry fields of earth behind lines of barbed wire.
On the opposite side of the road a large silver pickup roared to a stop and before I formed any thoughts a young man ran towards me with a camera slung on his shoulder.
Then out of the driver’s side ran an overly-handsome middle-aged man with a yellow shirt and safari pants.
“Do you speak Spanish?” he said to me before even setting his feet.
“And where are you walking from?”
“Wow, that’s great. And where are you going?”
“Fantastic. I’m Manuel, a reporter for channel twenty-six. This is my cameraman, Javi. Just keep walking and Javi will get some shots of you then I’ll interview you up the road.”
“Alright.” He spoke so fast and assuredly I could only answer on instinct.
“And do you want to do the interview in English or Spanish?”
“Well, I’d prefer English, but it’s probably better for the viewers that I do it in Spanish.”
“Great. You’re Spanish is good, you’ll do fine. I’ll see you up the road in a minute!”
Then he was off, like a handsome burst of wind, back to the pickup. And a moment later I was walking with a twenty-something cameraman taking backward steps while filming me and wondering how Manuel had me agree to an interview in under a minute.
After a quarter mile I moved into the shade of the only tree tall enough to stand under. Large green fruits green off the bark of the tree like tumors. The camera was in front of me and two new men appeared with notepads and voice recorders.
“How’s you’re dog?”
Savannah was laying beside the cart’s tire with her eyes closed and her chest pulsing up and down.
“Good now,” I said.
“Good. She must be glad we’re not standing in the sun.”
“Hey, I recognize you,” I said to the two men with recorders. “You were at the scene back there.”
The shortest of the men had a thick eyebrows crawling over the rims of his sunglasses. “The scene?”
“About three kilometers that way…I don’t know the word…with the police.”
“Ah yes,” said Manuel, taller than the rest, in English. “The murder.”
“Was it gangs?” I asked him in English.
“That’s what they’re trying to figure out, but they think so. It was a husband and wife. Both shot in the head.”
The imagined scene became clearer to me. Beyond the masked police officer walking towards the street were the husband and wife laid out in a field, holes in their heads, maybe their house broken into the night before and the rest of their family powerless to stop them from being taken.
“Yea,” said Manuel. “There’s a gun problem in El Salvador right now. Aren’t you worried about that walking through here?”
“Of course, a little, but it’s within the gangs isn’t it?”
“Yes, mostly, I doubt anything would happen to you. We don’t see any gringos walking through our country, there are some bicyclists, but you’re the first walker I’ve seen. That’s why we had to stop and talk with you. It’ll be good for the people to see there’s a gringo here. Are you ready to be interviewed?”
“Sure, I don’t know how good it’ll be in Spanish though.”
“Alright,” he turned on his mic and tilted it towards me. “What’s your name and what are you doing?”
“My name is Tom Turcich and I’m walking around the world.”
“Wow, that’s great. When did you start?”
My Spanish was far from fluent, but I’d been asked questions about my walk hundreds of times since crossing into Mexico so my answers to those questions were my most refined Spanish. I did my best to expand my answers more than I normally would though. I wanted be a good interviewee.
While I stumbled into unpracticed territory I watched the three interviewers mouthing my answers as if watching a tightrope walker and praying he wouldn’t fall. Each time I finished an answer the interviewers seemed to catch their breath.
Then, in the reflection of the camera lens, I caught a glimpse of myself; my face was white with salt and my hair had been pressed flat from my hat. I thought of all the old ladies that would be sitting at home laughing at the dirty gringo speaking in Spanish worse than their three-year old granddaughter. Then I thought of the other old ladies that might be defending me, saying, “Look at this gringo, at least he knows some Spanish unlike the rest of ’em. Then I thought of gang members watching the news, seeing me as easy pickings on the side of the road.
Soon the interview ended. My brain relaxed and electrical pulses returned to comfortable pathways as I spoke in English to Manuel.
“The interview will be on channel twenty-six at seven tonight, but I’ll send you a link to the interview too. And there’ll be a write up of you in Monday’s paper.”
“Well, good luck.”
I shook hands with the four men then they broke apart as though magnetically repulsed. They appeared, got their interview, then were gone.
That evening I forgot to watch the interview because football was on, and I never bought a newspaper or was sent the link.
I didn’t know if the interview even ran, I just hoped there weren’t a lot of gang members that watched the evening news to learn about the gringo walking alone through their country.