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Day 1 in El Salvador

March 27th, 2009 · 6 Comments · soccer, Sports Journalism

Part 1 of the Latest Hare-Brained Scheme has worked out well enough.

I got to San Salvador alive but groggy, at 5:30 a.m., took five cab rides and two bus rides today, saw a bit of the city, met the vice president of the country, experienced the near-gridlock rush-hour traffic conditions, interviewed three U.S. national team soccer players and one coach, picked up my credential, saw the glorified high school field that serves as El Salvador’s national stadium … and got a strong whiff of the excitement building in this city and country.

Moving within one round of the World Cup is a big deal in El Salvador. An enormous situation. They haven’t been this deep since 1997 (three cycles ago), and they haven’t played in the World Cup since 1970.

With one point in one match (a 2-2 home tie vs. Trinidad & Tobago), Salvadorans hold out hope they still can finish in the top three after the six-nation CONCACAF home-and-home round robin. Don’t count on it. But it would help lots if they could defeat the Americans.

First, something about the bits of Salvador that I saw today.

It’s like Mexico. Except moreso. A bit poorer, a little more ramshackle, a tad more random/ad hoc/chaotic.

If you wonder where those rickety buses go when Mexico decides they’re too far gone? To El Salvador,  apparently.  This is a country where every bus is a 30-year-old, soot-belching monstrosity, often with someone hanging out the front door.

Pickup trucks are for hauling people at least as often as they are for moving anything else. The capital city has signficant tracts of tragic housing.

This is a country with less money than Mexico.  Per capita income here is about $6,400. It’s more than double that, in Mexico.

San Salvador has some rough patches, and even the locals will tell you. I rode on a mini-bus carrying U.S. soccer personnel to a community event on the outskirts of town, and we were accompanied by four policia transito officers along the way. And when we got to the tract of weeds and dying grass that doubles as a field for kids, the adults there said, yes, the kids playing in the soccer academy came from the dangerous part of town. Gang stuff,  mostly.

It was at the soccer clinic that I met the vice president, a woman named Ana Vilma de Escobar, who said the visit from the U.S. delegation would “be something most of these kids will never forget.” Which seemed kind of sad, but then I remembered it’s El Salvador, which is something of a minnow even by Central American standards.

But give the kids and the Salvadorans credit for this: They appreciate that one of the American players who visited, goalkeeper Tim Howard, plays for Everton in the English Premier League. That is, they know it’s a big deal and seemed almost in awe of the guy as they huddled around him hoping for an autograph.

Anyway, the vice president seemed a polite enough lady. She is about to leave office; her center-right party was defeated by a leftist party made up, in part, of former rebels. Not that she was running; I believe you get only one five-year term in El Salvador.

We were out there long enough to cultivate sunburns and appreciate how hot it can be here, even in March — more than 90 degrees, that is. The sun is nearly right over head here, so it’s intense, and burns easily.

Perhaps the strangest part of El Salvador is this: Its regular monetary unit is the U.S. dollar. Something called the “colon” is the official currency, I believe, but in real life everything is in dollars. Even though two countries (Guatemala and Mexico) separate El Salvador from the U.S.

I give dollars to cabbies, to porters, to grocers. I get change in dollars. But this isn’t the U.S. It’s just a little queer. Oh, and the price of gas here ($2.30) is a bit higher than it is back in California.

So, now I’m hunkered down in a nice hotel in an interesting part of town, but I’m far too wasted to go walking around.

I have a story on Landon Donovan on the New York Times Web site, and I’m working on a few more things.

Did I mention that the national stadium not only doesn’t have Internet capability … it doesn’t even have a press box? That is going to make for an interesting evening tomorrow, trying to cover a game with my laptop on my … lap … but no Web access and my batteries running down …

Maybe a little TV, en espanol, see if they run any news with any of the reams of footage the locals seemed to take of Landon and the Lads today.

But, El Salvador. Yes. Think of Mexican squalor and amp it up a little, and that’s what is going on here. With even more environmental damage obvious to the casual visitor. (Those hillsides shouldn’t be denuded.)

Still, my first day among Salvadorans … I have to say they seem fairly cheerful and hopeful. Upbeat. Moreso than people in Mexico, who (to me) can often be gloomy and morbid. Cynical. The Salvadorans may not have much, but there seems to be a sense of optimism, that things are getting better. Is it just a national characteristic? Is it about people who can appreciate the small pleasures in life?

Maybe the optimism comes from having pulled off a democractic election that led to a regime change and no violence. And maybe it’s that their soccer team is one round away from the Big Event. The World Cup.

The stadium was surrounded by thousands of people late this afternoon, more than 24 hours ahead of the game. The ambitious street vendors already had marked out the best spots for selling blue El Salvador shirts, hats and flags. Several guys tried to sell me tickets, too.

I’m telling you, it’s going to be crazy around here tomorrow night if they beat the Yanks. On Day 2 of the Latest Hare-Brained Scheme trip.


6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gina T. // Mar 27, 2009 at 9:41 PM

    My mother’s family is from El Salvador, so I’m semi-familiar with the country. I got the impression they were happy with the results of the election. But probably even happier that they weren’t shot at. I lost a few family members in the Civil War.

    I’m glad they’re happy to see the American team, because at the 1996 Gold Cup in Anaheim, the Salvadorian fans here weren’t so happy. They were furious after losing 2-0 to the Americans. Bill and I were at the game with my parents, and the anger carried out from the stadium, into the parking lot and onto the streets.

    Lots of yelling and screaming, “Feliz Cumpleanos.” Because, obviously, the Americans winning was a gift, and not earned. Also, lots of things being thrown at the Americans on the field.

  • 2 Demko // Mar 28, 2009 at 8:44 AM

    Thanks for making the trip, sir. Great freddy bit. Look forward to more.

  • 3 Chuck Hickey // Mar 28, 2009 at 9:23 AM

    How many American journalists made this trip? You and … anyone else?

  • 4 Guy McCarthy // Mar 28, 2009 at 8:16 PM

    You have quite a match to unravel this evening Paul. Excellent work on the local scene and Hejduk for NYT – some of your stuff is in the print editions according to the web site. El Salvador probably deserved to win but the time-wasting came back to bite’em. Yanks looked dead at 2-0 but Frankie made up for his mistakes. Altidore should have started. Sounded good on Telefutura. Bring some of the Sunday papers back dude!

  • 5 Guy McCarthy // Mar 28, 2009 at 8:24 PM

    Again – got to give it up for El Salvador – their number 10 and 11 played like ghosts of Cienfuegos and that mouthy number 17 schooled Frankie on the second goal. They created two great chances and buried them like hatchets.

  • 6 Ryan // Mar 28, 2009 at 11:32 PM

    That was one of the poorer games the US has played in recent memory. Combine that with an El Salavador team that played very well and we were lucky to win a point.

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