Biting the Bullet – El Salvador

My brother John and I arrived in the San Salvador airport at around 12:30 local time on Sunday the 10th of September, 2000.

Our guide, Rodrigo, who was supposed to be meeting us at the airport, was late. This gave John and I plenty of time to be propositioned by cab drivers. These guys were pretty clever, trying to con us into taking a cab by saying things like, "You want to go to La Libertad? Your ride went already." Right about when we were about to give up, our guide arrived and drove us to our hotel in the port city of La Libertad.

The Surfing

View from the hotel
The view from our hotel

After arriving at our hotel we dropped off our bags and went to go for a surf. First off we were shown the local breaks right in front of our hotel. There were two right point breaks, one of which, Punta Roca, is world class. Then we hit the road and went up to Sunzal, a surf break to the west of La Libertad that looked like a pretty good point break from the cliff by the road. The break wound up being about a mile from shore, and once we got all the way out, we realized that the peaks were shifting all over the place. It was about head high, but the wave was really lazy, and not breaking with any power at all.

After about two hours of paddling, and maybe one or two good waves out of a dozen, we packed up and went to Zonte, another break to the West. This spot was better with long right lines peeling off a rocky point. It was pretty fun, but it was also getting dark.

On September 11th, we got up early and went back to Zonte, which had gotten smaller overnight, checked another couple spots, and went back out at Sunzal, which was about chest high. Once again the waves didn't really have any power and after surfing for a while, our guide made a suggestion that we go see the Mayan ruins near San Salvador. The idea of a day trip was appealing since the surf was so frustratingly small.

The Volcano

Top of the Volcano
Top of the Volcano (it was kind of chilly). That's me on the left.

By noon we arrived in San Salvador, only to find out that the Mayan ruins were closed (only on Monday). Our guide made another suggestion that we go to the Volcano of San Salvador. The road to the volcano was in really bad condition. It was a narrow dirt road, skirted on either side with squalid little shanties. We had to stop and ask for directions about three times in order to find the correct 4-wheel-drive-mandatory road to the top. Once we arrived near the summit we parked and a boy in a school uniform offered to watch the car for us as we walked up to the observation deck.

The volcano is a classic cartoon-type volcano with a very steep crater that we didn't climb into – experience with volcanoes had taught me that while it may seem like a good idea on the way down, getting back out can really suck. We sat at the rim of the volcano long enough to take two pictures when a man approached us and started talking to our guide. The man worked at the top of the volcano where there were a number of large antennae for TV and radio stations. He told us that there were thieves on the way down that would try to steal things out of the car. So we started walking back to the car, thanking the man for his advice.

We then happened up on another man with a shotgun (it seems like everyone has a shotgun in El Salvador), who stopped us to tell us basically the same thing. He said that the thieves had an "arma larga", which means shotgun in Hillbilly Spanish. Since none of the three of us were dummies, we hustled down to the car. There, I over-tipped the kid that was watching our car, who then also told us about the thieves. Just another person to tell us that we were going to get robbed.

Boqueron, the 'big mouth' crater
Boqueron, the "big mouth" crater

Our guide's name was Ernesto Vladimir something. "Ernesto," he told us, "for Ernesto 'Che' Guevara – do you know him?"
We both nodded.
"Vladimir," he continued, "for Vladimir Lenin."
That could have been our wake-up call – or maybe foreshadowing?

(On a historical note – the U.S.-backed government and the government-backed death-squads fought against Marxist guerillas during El Salvador's recent Civil War.)

The Shooting

On the way down the volcano, Vladimir was driving. I was sitting shotgun (*wink, wink, nudge, nudge*), and John was in the back. We had all resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to get robbed and I prepared my wallet to be stolen. I took twenty dollars out and put it in my shoe, I also made sure that my passport and ATM card were securely hidden under the seat. I figured money would be easy enough to replace, but the passport could be a real problem. We were all still pretty light-hearted, I guess when you know you are going to be robbed it is a little less traumatic. A great deal of the trauma is probably due to being surprised by the events.

We started driving down the volcano, and fast. We passed a couple of shanties and Vlady, as John called him, said; "Civilization, we're okay now." I suppose that the term 'Civilization' is entirely subjective.

Right after we passed the shacks, two guys stepped out of the shrubbery by the side of the road and turned to our car. One of them had a shotgun.

At this moment, I put my hands up, thinking, "If I just give them my money they probably won't hurt us." John, who was in the backseat, and about a million times smarter than me, saw the shotgun and ducked. He recalled later that he was thinking, "That is a homemade shotgun." Our guide decided at this moment to try and outrun the thieves, so he floored the car. The thief with the gun then turned and shot at the guide through my window.

The passenger side window exploded, spraying glass into my face and scratching the cornea of my right eye. The shotgun shot passed in front of my face hitting my left hand and the shoulder of the guide.

Vlady, kept driving his car as fast as possible down the mountain.

Covered with glass and half-blind because of black powder smoke and shards of my window in my eyes, I thought I was dead. I thought that the glass that had hit me in the face and head was actually bullet fragments.

It was at this moment that John sprang into the first of his two of his two emergency modes, First Aid. He said, "You guys are bleeding!"

That was when I realized that I should ask him about the extent of my injuries. I turned my head toward the back of the car, blind and asked, "John, do I have a face?"
"Yes," he said "but it looks like you got hit with glass."

He then pointed out my bleeding hand, and gave me a hammock to put pressure on it. I hadn't noticed it was bleeding, I was concentrating on trying to determine whether or not I had eyes. I could feel water running out of my eyes and thought that my eyeballs had burst and the vitreous humor was running down my cheeks. John then turned his attention to Vlady, and put a towel on his back. After about a minute, the towel fell off. When John tried to put it back on him, Vlady said not to. John then called Vladimir's boss on a cell phone to tell him the situation. Rodrigo, Vladimir's boss, began speaking to John in Spanish, so he handed the phone to me. John's Spanish makes him seem somewhat linguistically challenged, at best. He knows how to introduce himself, ask for a beer and the word for 'coconut'.

John's shot, immediately after we were shot
John's shot, immediately after we were shot

John then went into his second mode: photojournalist.
He pulled his camera out of his backpack and took a picture of the two of us in the front seat. Vlady, blood covered, and myself sitting next to him. The background was a blur of green.

Once we were safely out of range I began asking Vlady to pull over, he had been shot, was in shock (understandably) and was driving rather poorly. I was thinking that if the thieves hadn't killed us the bad roads and erratic driving still could. At one point we almost went of the road into a tree and narrowly missed it when he slammed on his brakes.

We finally made it down the mountain and pulled into the first Clinic that we could find, it turns out that it was for welfare recipients, but, as we would find out later, it was a lot nicer than the regular hospital.

When we got inside the doctors and nurses spirited Vladimir and myself into a room adjoining the waiting room and gave us shots of some lovely, lovely painkiller. After giving Vladimir makeshift bandages for his wounds they irrigated my eyes and wrapped my hand.

The car
The car, note the shattered window

This is when the police and the ambulance arrived. We got in the ambulance and went to San Rafael Hospital. The ambulance was basically a panel/kidnapper van with no AC. If you hadn't needed an ambulance before you got in, there was a pretty good chance that you would need one when you got out.

The Hospital

The hospital was crowded, very, very crowded. There were people lined up outside waiting in every shape of disrepair from bloody to snotty.

We were immediately shooed into the surgery room.

The surgery room was filthy, and I'm not being squeamish. I went to the hospital in Costa Rica and it was ten times better than El Salvador. There was blood on the walls, gurneys, even the ceiling. It was nothing like ER. They had us both sit on two gurneys in a room of about five of them. On one of them was a tiny old man with no pants. On another was a younger guy, mid-teens, who was very obviously dying of something and I hoped it wasn't contagious. The third was empty but covered with blood. The fourth had Vladimir and the fifth was all mine. I didn't see any leeches, but it wouldn't have surprised me. It could have been a holding cell instead of a hospital.

In the hospital, bleeding and smiling
In the hospital, bleeding and smiling

While I was sitting there waiting to be seen, a girl came into the already crowded surgery room with her Grandmother. The grandmother balked at the sight of her gurney covered with blood so the girl touched (!) the blood and said "Esta seco." (It is dry.) Then the woman laid down on the gurney. I sat listening to the muffled groans and crying babies in the hospital. Eventually, I listened as the girl, who was quite striking, explained to the doctor what was wrong with her grandmother. This is when I learned something very valuable – that I am passing along free of charge – if you are in a Third World hospital and you hear the word "Amarillo" do not look in the direction that the sound came from. There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, in a hospital that is "yellow" that you would ever want to see.

Little lessons like this were taught in a way that cause-and-effect played out in a dance in your mind. Another example was John's lesson. At one point, he learned that you don't want to lean your head against the wall in a El Salvadorean hospital unless you want other people's hair, blood and brains stuck in your hair.

I had my wound scrubbed clean and the excess skin cut off after receiving a little bit of lidocaine. I didn't get any stitches because there wasn't anything to stitch together. Just a hole in my hand.

Then the press and the police started to arrive.

The article about us
Click to download the PDF file

After having my shotgun wounds scrubbed clean, I was in the hallway waiting for an x-ray with John and Vladimir. There were three newspapers and about four television stations covering the story. We were interviewed, filmed and photographed. The only actual coverage that we saw though was an article in La Presna, one of the daily papers in San Salvador. Although we were told that we were mentioned in the evening news – a minor story about how sad it was that we were shot, having just arrived in the country. I guess if you are going to get shot, you should have a chance to have a little vacation time beforehand.

My x-rays include the bullet that is to this day lodged in my hand. According to one of my doctors there are lots of people walking around with foreign pieces of metal inside them.

We spent the next few days shuttling to different hospitals with Rodrigo, and having my wounds cleaned. Everywhere we went people knew us from the newspaper or TV coverage. We actually had to autograph a copy of the newspaper at our hotel.

Vlady's Shirt
Vlady's Shirt

After about a day, I realized that if the press had covered it, there were probably people who were wondering about us. I phoned the embassy and talked with a gentleman who offered me money to help us get home, which I refused. Because of this, I think, he then offered me a job with the consulate. I would have likely considered it, if I wasn't more concerned with returning to see a doctor that I could communicate with.

We flew back as soon as possible, which wound up being Wednesday the 13th.

On Friday the 15th, I went to a hand surgeon who has explained to me that if I want feeling in my left pinky I was going to have to have surgery. So I am eagerly awaiting that, which has been scheduled for Sept 26. He told me that I would have to graft skin onto my palm. I am hoping that he uses skin from a hairless vacation, or else I will have some serious explaining to do about my hairy palms.

But Wait… The Saga Continues

My hand
My hand, 5 days after being shot

Some of the following information may make you squirm…

  • September 22nd
    I went to an eye doctor. He pulled five more pieces of glass out of my eye. He seemed pretty good at it, though. They put some anesthetic drops in my eye and then, with a needle, scraped the pieces out of my cornea. I could feel him tugging on my eyeball with the needle. It was gross.
  • September 23rd
    I found three pieces of glass in my face. One in my forehead, one in my nose and one in my cheek. This accident is the gift that keeps on giving!
  • September 26th
    Surgery went swimmingly. They opened up my hand after making sure, not once – or twice – but four times, that I hadn't eaten anything. They opened me up and found… a badly bruised nerve. This is good news, meaning that I should get feeling back in my finger in a few weeks. Aside from that everything is going fine.
  • October 4th
    I was supposed to go to a follow up appointment in Springfield VA, to get my stitches out (I think). Actually, they probably wanted to check up on everything but I am healing fine, no problems. Plus, I can take the stitches out myself. I've done it before. :)
  • November 15th
    This time I pulled a piece of bullet out of my head, I didn't even know that I got pieces of bullet in my head.
  • March 8th, 2001
    My right eye hasn't recovered it's vision completely (I mean it's good, but not back to where it was) and has begun to feel really dry and irritated. And I sometimes have the feeling that something is under my eyelid. The same feeling I had when there was glass in it the first time. I am going to go to another eye doctor. Something tells me there is more glass in my eye.

Now I am off to Ecuador. This time, if I am ambushed on the side of the road, I will duck.

Traveler Article


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