I was in a poorly lit street in San Salvador; I hadn't a clue where exactly. This was something of a problem. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world and most of these homicides occur in the shadowy back roads of its capital city, where a turf war amongst rival gangs is being fought, one dead body at a time. Since El Salvador's civil war ended in the 1980s and they were thrown out of the States for crimes committed in LA, the heavily tattooed Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs have been bitter enemies. Whilst most of the country is as friendly and welcoming as they come, tourists enter gang territory in San Salvador at their peril.
I was supposed to be taking the five o'clock bus from the colonial town of Santa Ana back to the sleepy neighbourhood bus station from where I had started my day out. Relaxing by the shores of Lake Coatepeque and meandering along the Ruta de las Flores in the heart of coffee country, San Salvador's seedy underbelly had been a world away. It was the irresistible temptation of a second latte in Ataco that had put me behind schedule. I didn't have an inkling that my carefully-laid plans were starting to unravel. Being the only gringa, the locals were inquisitive as to where I was heading. Concern manifested itself as deep furrows on their sunburnt faces as I told them my destination.
"But the last bus leaves at five. You'll never make it!” They squawked animatedly. “It goes from the other end of the market!"
Like a human pass the parcel, I was jostled to the door of the bus. My fellow passengers shouted encouragement through the bus windows as I ran wildly through the dying embers of the market, dodging discarded packing cases and skidding on trampled cabbage leaves.
I missed the bus by a few feet, kicking the dust in frustration. The conductor was still hanging out of the back door, but he wasn't going to stop the driver no matter how much I pleaded. They roared out of town, spewing inky diesel clouds, leaving me to figure out how I was going to get back to San Salvador. I was confidently told there was a slim chance I could flag down a bus by heading to the main road a few blocks up the hill. Still panting, I set off. The news at the top of the hill wasn't good. No buses passed so late on a Sunday.
Explaining my predicament, I asked the maitre d' of a corner restaurant if he could call me a taxi. Soon, having haggled for a decent fare on my behalf, he waved me off like an old friend and I set off for the capital. The drive was uneventful, until we reached the city. Not only did I not have a clue how to get back to my bed and breakfast accommodation, the taxi driver didn't either, being from Santa Ana, and our only map was crap.
And so I found myself in a gloomy backstreet, somewhere in San Salvador. We stopped at a petrol station to ask for directions. No idea. We stopped passers-by. No idea. Increasingly puzzled, realisation dawned that the actual location of the B&B wasn't where it was marked on the map. We were in a completely different neighbourhood and a rather insalubrious one at that. For the first time, I started to worry. My mind started to race with unhappy endings. Every shadowy figure was a potential assassin in my overactive imagination. I was convinced I was soon going to end up the innocent bystander in a gangland shooting. And, judging by the frown on my driver's forehead, so did he. Drastic measures were needed.
Noticing a car parked at the end of the street, we had a simultaneous light bulb moment. It was simple, really, I thought, as the local taxi pulled up at the B&B's gate.