San Salvador, El Salvador Report of what it's like to live there - 05/21/10

Personal Experiences from San Salvador, El Salvador

San Salvador, El Salvador 05/21/10


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Geneva, Switzerland.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

There is one direct flight a day with Delta to and from Atlanta which takes about 3 1/3 hours. There are several other options with other carriers.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Embassy people live either in houses in Escalon, about a 15-minute drive to the embassy, or in apartments in Escalon, or in a subdivision about 5 minutes from work. Singles are relegated to high-rise apartments with stellar views but no yards and longer commutes. People with kids or pets are given 1-2 story houses with yards. Escalon has more shopping and restaurants, but it also has the longer commute. The subdivision's commute can't be beat -- some people walk to work. But ALL your neighbors are co-workers, so you will never have any privacy. Got a loud, weird, embarrassing hobby? Ask to live in Escalon.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

It depends on how you shop. You can go to the local markets and get fruits and vegetables for pennies, and while they have meat there too, it's sitting in open bins in an un-air conditioned room, so I don't buy any. The grocery stores have very low prices on locally-produced goods, but shopping like an American can get pricey, since all the foods we're used to are imported. Imported specialty food items are often close to their expiration dates or well past them; I've found families of spiders living in my imported Baker's chocolate on more than one occasion. American-brand products produced for the Central American markets are of lower quality than they are in the States. The meat is also sub-par, most noticeably the beef. Specialty foods like sour cream, whipping cream, lemons, and puff pastry are so seldom for sale that people buy every one available and hoard it.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

I would bring as many frozen USDA American corn-fed rib-eyes, skirt steaks, NY strips, hanger steaks, flank steaks, and standing rib roasts as I could humanly fit on the plane. You also can't get lemons, orzo pasta, puff pastry, Kikkoman soy sauce, lemon olive oil, ant killer, backyard mosquito spray, Swiffer dusters, good furniture polish, makeup in any shade other than bronze goddess, cold-weather fabrics, and many craft supplies. The secret to El Salvador is that many things are available, even dry ice, you just need to know where to look. Which, unless you have a Salvadoran insider, you won't.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is every major American fast food chain here except for Arby's and Chick-Fil-A.There is almost every cuisine available here with the notable exception of Indian food. The most expensive restaurant in the country is probably Citron, and that will run you about $100 a couple. Most restaurants are solidly mediocre at best, with few standouts. But it's cheap, with a 10% tip built in, so you don't feel heartbroken when you get a so-so meal for $12.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Dengue is an increasingly concerning problem. During the rainy season you will get chewed alive by every bug imaginable. Most houses also have a serious sugar-ant problem. One house was (famously) so infested with scorpions that the resident had to move out.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We have access to the diplomatic pouch and the DPO. There is not really an organized postal service in the country. There is DHL and UPS, but you have to pay exorbitant fees to pick up your package, (like $50), and it takes weeks. Woe to the person who doesn't have access to embassy mail.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Maids make upwards of $15 a day, and gardeners are about the same. Live-in maids make less for some reason. Don't be afraid to put people on a probationary period to make sure that you find someone you like.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There is a gym at the embassy. There is also a Gold's Gym around the corner, a Curves nearby, and several karate, yoga, and Pilates studios.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

We only use our cards where we can see them being swiped, i.e. at the grocery or hardware stores. We only pay with cash in restaurants, as there have been an overwhelming number of identity theft cases traced back to popular restaurants. You can get cash at the embassy or almost anywhere in the city once you know where to look.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There is an English-language non-denominational church, and they are building a monstrous Mormon temple. There is also at least one Synagogue. If you're a Catholic and speak Spanish, you're in luck.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

There are no English-language newspapers, but many of the TV channels are in English. However, the feeds are often stolen by Salvadoran cable companies from the satellites in the States, so they can be unpredictable.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

If I did not speak some Spanish this would have been a much more difficult and less rewarding tour. You really do need at least a 2 in Spanish to make this post worthwhile.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

I think a motile disability would be an almost impossible hurdle to overcome here. There are no wheelchair ramps, but there are steep hills and uneven pavement -- where pavement exists. Salvadorans are on the whole very kind and helpful people, (whether you want the help or not), and would try to assist, but someone with a physical disability would be very limited in their activities here.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Absolutely do not take any form of public transportation except for cabs, unless you really want to get mugged and/or shot. The embassy security dispatchers will happily call you a cab, though it's not a good idea to just hail one off the street since many are just dudes in yellow cars. To get from the embassy to the malls costs $6. On the plus side, the micro busses have these really cool neon shark fins on them.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Dear God, don't bring a Volkswagen! Any parts you might need have to be shipped from Guatemala at best, Germany at worst, or might not be available. The VW repair shop attached to the dealership is staffed with cheerful incompetents. While there are lots of capable mechanics, newer, computer-run cars are not the country's specialty. Bring a 10-year-old American-made SUV and you should be golden. Don't bring anything that needs special tires, oil filters, fluids, maintenance. Bring or buy a beater that you don't mind having the hubcaps, emblems, antennas, and spare tires stolen from.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

There is theoretically high-speed internet, but there are so many people on an unsure infrastructure that doing anything as resource-intense as streaming video can make you want to pull your hair out. Remember being "Tigo-ed?" Yeah, they run the cable and the internet, too.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Don't use Tigo! I don't know if you'll have a choice, but everyone here hates Tigo so much it's become a verb, i.e. "I've been Tigo-ed! "I don't know how available and reliable data plans are, but El Salvador is, across the board, 25 years behind the rest of the world. Your iPhone will not work here, but if it did, you'd only be able to watch the Thundercats and ALF on it.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

There is no quarantine required in El Salvador.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are several beloved vets, and they are competent and cheap. Most people choose to board their dogs with friends instead of using kennels, but they do exist.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Do not come here expecting a job of any kind. The embassy says that they have plenty of jobs for family members, but that's not exactly true. Because of the economic differential between the US and El Salvador, you can hire three Salvadorans for what it costs to hire one American. Jobs are written with language requirements so high that only locals qualify. What few jobs are leftover for spouses are administrative at best. Working on the local economy is really only possible if you are natively fluent in Spanish, and you would be extremely lucky to land a job making $15,000 a year. There is so little work for spouses here it was even suggested that I get to work starting a family instead. If you don't have kids and don't want to any time soon, bring a time-consuming hobby if your spouse will be working all day.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

It's pretty casual around here. However, in the city people rarely wear shorts. And while tight clothing is in, it's not usually too revealing. Inexplicably, polyester is king -- in the form of hot and itchy day suits.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

El Salvador is a critical crime post, and is often listed among the murder capitals of the world. There are frequent muggings, and most cars are missing their spare tires and brand emblems. The busses are a definite no-go zone, as are about 10 or 15 other towns and villages due to being gang strongholds. Homes have electrified razor wire atop 10-foot-high walls. The insane drivers could also get you killed. All that being said, I do not feel unsafe here. If you do get mugged and give people what they want, you will walk away from it. There have been a few attempts by inmates to call and extort some embassy staff members, but the security section handles them well. While you do have to be vigilant, keep an eye on your purse, avoid the ganglands, don't drive around with the windows down or leave anything visible in your car, I feel safer living here than I did for the 5 years I lived in New Orleans. There is incalculable violence going on between the gangs, but they're mostly too busy killing each other to bother with you.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue fever is a nightmare no one should have to go through, and it is on the rise. You will become very acquainted with your bathroom, so pack lots of reading materials. Local health care is hit-or-miss, even at the hospitals, so ask around and get recommendations from friends. The health unit at the embassy does not enjoy a very good reputation, and many people choose to find their own healthcare elsewhere.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

I am asthmatic and have not had too hard a time here. However, there are absolutely no emission standards, and people tend to burn their trash. They also burn the sugar cane around December. You should have a good pulmonologist on call.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It is gorgeous all year long. From October to May it's the dry season, i.e. "summer", and from May to October it's the rainy season, i.e. "winter". It rains like clockwork every afternoon from 5:00pm to 6:00 or 7:00pm, and then for 2 hours starting around 10:00 at night. It's sunny all day and in the 80's or 90's year 'round. You might actually find yourself wishing for some actual weather or a nice cool fall day, but you won't get it.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There's the British School and the American School, with various families finding various success with them. You do not need a teaching degree to teach at either of them or at any of the local colleges.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

While there are a few special-needs kids here, I don't think that it's a particularly good post for kids who have special needs of any kind.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

No idea, no kids. Most people just get nannies for the daycare part.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

I know several kids that play soccer and tennis, and I know there are karate and judo lessons available.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Several hundred, but mostly Americans. Our embassy has famously been referred to as a battleship in a duck pond.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There's always something going on, and the CLOs did a great job of organizing events. However, we will soon have a new CLO team in place, and due to budget cuts, they are getting their hours shortened. It remains to be seen how this will affect the community. The American Society plans about one activity a month, and there's always someone going whitewater-rafting, zip-lining, or to the beach.

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3. Morale among expats:

Pretty high. This is just about the best overseas post that USAID has, and the compound is spectacular by anyone's standards. There's a gym, 2 tennis courts, a playground, a soccer field, sand volleyball court, basketball court, running track, kiddy pool, large pool, poolside snack bar and barbeque area. It's pretty hard to beat. The weather is spectacular, the locals are nice, and I think most people really like it here.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

I think that the close-knit community at the embassy is good for families with young kids, though there are few teenagers at post. Singles in the Foreign Service often have a hard time anywhere, and that is true of El Salvador as well. There is such a desperate desire for visas that it can be hard to trust someone's motives. Also, almost no Salvadorans speak more than a few words of English, so there could be a language barrier. Young, adventurous couples, I think, will get the most out of the post because there's surfing, zip-lining, hiking, traveling, and night life.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

El Salvador is a VERY homophobic nation, and few locals are "out". I have gay Salvadoran friends in the States who refuse to return home to visit for fear of persecution. There is one gay bar though, and the embassy community counts several gay partners among its members. I don't think any problems would arise on compound, but they could in the community. Things are changing though, so we'll have to see.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

"La Matanza" in the 1930's resulted in the genocide of anyone of African or obvious indigenous ancestry, and anyone else who wasn't Spanish or mestizo. The result is a very homogenous group of people with little to no variation. There are no blacks, and very few Salvadorans will admit to having any indigenous blood whatsoever, even when it is impossible for everyone to be the 100% Spanish they claim. A *vast* majority of the country is Catholic, with some Mormons and very well-respected Jews thrown into the mix. Women definitely play second fiddle to men here, and it's not unusual for a woman to be completely ignored in a conversion on "men's topics" like cars and politics. I briefly had a gardener who wouldn't do anything I asked of him without checking with "el señor". He did not work for us for long.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

There is a new restaurant on the side of the San Salvador Volcano, called Las Brumas, which has good food and an incredible view of the city. The lakes and beaches are also wonderful.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Hiking, surfing, hanging out at the beach or the lake, going to rural villages, horseback riding, bowling, clubbing, fishing, lost of activities sponsored by the CLO and the American Society.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Black earthenware pottery, Fernando Llort art, hammocks, kitsch. There is MUCH better shopping to be had in Guatemala, and many of the nice things to buy here are actually copies of Guatemalan styles.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

El Salvador is a beautiful country with warm and friendly people. The cost of living here is generally very cheap. You can have a whole new wardrobe custom made for you for about $12 for a seamstress. Custom-made furniture, couch covers, paintings, and handicrafts are all ridiculously cheap by American standards.

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11. Can you save money?

Absolutely, if you don't travel too much.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely. I loved living here. The only thing I would really change about this post is the family member job situation.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Ski pants.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sun block, gastrointestinal soothing aids, favorite foods, bathing suits, bug spray, patience, sense of humor, English-language books, and aggressive driving skills.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Central American guide books are a must, but you can probably hire a real guide for less than the book would have cost.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Sin Nombre

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6. Do you have any other comments?

As long as you know what to expect and keep a situational awareness, San Salvador is a fantastic post. I will spend my first day back in the States rejoicing in Whole Foods, clothing stores, and Indian restaurants. I will spend my second day missing El Salvador.

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