VINNIE’S OBSERVATIONS Travel Diary of Vinnie Smalls Born and raised in the suburbs of Paris, Vinnie Smalls likes to embark on solo travels performing absolutely zero research beforehand. On more than a few occasions he has answered “I don’t know” when asked by immigration officers where he would be sleeping that night. He will tell you about seeing the most beautiful landscapes he has ever seen, and about enduring the scariest moments he has been through, after purposefully walking into areas that police have explicitly told him to avoid. From Canada, heading south through to Mexico, going two hundred kilometers an hour on South American highways with no seatbelt and a drunk driver, he will bring you weekly stories of train yards, prostitutes, food poisoning, the Milky Way, gang members, but first and foremost, humanity. EL SALVADOR I get to El Salvador early in the morning. The border crossing from Honduras sets the mood. “You do not get out of the van” says our driver. I’m with 6 other backpackers, all who look shit scared. The money exchange guys knock on the window. “26 to 1 guys, 26 to 1!” Everybody in the van is desperately trying to not look out of the window. In town they will only get 23 to 1, however in the comfortable safety of a gringo exchange office with an armed guard outside. I feel bad for the cash dude, as he is offering the best deal they will get but as they have heard so many horror stories about this place, they recoil at the sight of a local. I get out to stretch my legs and to take a leak. The bathroom is filled with gang graffiti. I go back to get my camera and pay the cleaning lady for a second time, just to go back in and take some pics. I write my name next to an MS-13 tag. Once we get our passports back, I change my last few Pesos in front of a “Absolutely No Cash Exchange in this Zone” sign. The cops shake hands with the the money dudes. One of them breaks some big bills. We stop a few miles after at a gas station for a rest and some breakfast. A guy walks past me with a shiny Desert Eagle tucked in the back of his pants. He sees me reach for my camera and puts his shirt over it. “Narcos…” whispers the driver. I resist the urge to go ask him for a photo shoot. I’m riding shotgun and trying to talk to the driver in broken Spanish. We bond over the Peter Griffin “Bird is the Word” routine. He helpfully points out all the MS-13 graffiti on the highway for me, slowing down so I can flick them. Whenever he sees a stray dog he mimes loading a gun and shooting it. His sound effects are pretty good. The rest of the van is absolutely quiet. I get dropped off at a gas station on the outskirts of El Salvador, the driver hailing a taxi to get me to my hostel. “See you in a week Vato !” he shouts from the window as he takes the other backpackers to Guatemala. “So what about gangs around here?” I ask the cab driver. Two gangs, MS-13, 18th Street. Kill on sight policy. I check into my room and go for a walk. My camera is in my backpack, with a new SD card. If I get jacked at least I don’t lose 3 months worth of pics. Basic white tee, black Dickies pants, shaved head, full sleeves. I get a lot of weird looks. I walk towards downtown, the cops eyeball the shit out of me. A car pulls over next to me. “Hey man, where you going? – Over there. – You shouldn’t go there, it’s dangerous. – Yeah that’s why I’m going. – You should get in the car, I’ll drive you back to your place, it’s not safe here. – I know what I’m doing dude, but I appreciate the offer.” He shakes his head as he drives away. The streets get more and more dirty, the graffiti more and more territorial. The handstyles give way to Old English calligraphy, letters and numbers made infamous by countless documentaries and news reports. Mara Salvatrucha. 18th Street. I’m finally seeing this shit with my own eyes and not through a computer screen. They cross each other out but MS is definitely on top in this neighborhood. I’m hesitant about getting my camera out. I don’t care about being robbed, I’m just not sure how the locals will react to some whiteboy gringo taking pictures of what makes their lives a living hell on a daily basis. The language barrier also makes me nervous. Normally I can speak the lingo, which can help me talk my way out of any situation. Here, I can only vaguely point to my camera and say “Photographico?” Fuck it, I say to myself. I get my camera out and start taking pictures. A man in his 40’s yells something at me. My OCD kicks in and I take twenty pictures of the same tag to get the right angle. I go down an alley and flick another tag. A teenage guy steps out of his house and stares at me. He calls out to another friend and they just stand there glaring at me. I move on quickly. I pass a brothel. The girls stare at me and start catcalling. I honestly think I’m the first gringo they have ever seen. A pretty obvious transvestite is looking at me curiously. I note her tattoos. Another beckons me to come in, I decline with a nervous smile. She jumps on me, grabbing my dick through my pants. I get the fuck out of there with the quickness. I turn a corner and stare at the wall. Six foot high and perfectly executed gothic letters indicate that I have entered a Barrio 18 neighborhood. I start walking and look right. A staircase leads down into a winding path that goes through a favela surrounded by a 15 foot fence. One way in, one way out. I enter the favela and an old lady looks at me inquisitively. I come face to face with a massive X8 mural. I get my camera out and start flicking. A man in a red shirt comes up behind me. “-Where are you from? -France. -You should not be here. -It’s dangerous? -Yeah.” For the first and only time during my whole trip, I actually got freaked out by someone telling me that I am in a bad place. Of course I know I’m not in Candyland taking pictures of flowers, but this guy looks genuinely concerned for my safety. I finish taking my pictures and start to head towards the next gang signs. And from around the corner step out two very angry looking dudes. They make a beeline for me and ask who I am. “Photographico…” I offer meekly to the guy I take to be the shot caller of the pair. He wears a blue sweater and shakes my hand very reluctantly when I offer it. He is looking me up and down, taking note of my tattoos. He focuses on my spiderweb. He seems confused. “Frances” said the guy in the shirt, who now looks even more freaked out. “-You taking pictures? – Si. – What kind of pictures? – The graffiti. – How long you been in Salvador for ? – Es mi primera Dia.” I am very nervous. He seems to be thinking about what to do. By now a bit of a crowd has gathered, watching from a distance. He turns to talk to his friend. I notice a massive tattoo across the top of his back. I can make out Gothic letters and the telltale irregularity of the lines of a homemade tattoo. It looks beautiful. “Yo, can I check out your tattoo ?” I ask eagerly. He looks up at me slowly. “No.” The guy in red gives me a very meaningful look. “-I’m not trying to make any problems here Amigo, I’m just going to leave OK? – Si…” I shake his hand again. The silent one ignores my hand and shakes my wrist. I glance at the guy in the red shirt and give him a nod. I start walking away from them. As soon as I turn a corner I start walking quickly. From the corner of my eye I can see some of the onlookers going through a side street to catch up with me. I speed up and run up the stairs back to the main street. I turn back once I consider to be at a safe distance and see a group of five dudes, headed by the guy in the blue sweater, standing at the end of the street staring at me. I walk down a road and enter a bar. I down my beer in one shot. The security guard comes up to me and strikes up a conversation. He speaks perfect English. He also does not appear to be fucking around. He holds his shotgun like he’s ready to unload at any moment. I tell him about my photo projects. He gets visibly uncomfortable. I ask him if he has any contacts to introduce me to. He gives me a very flat “No” and wishes me a good day in the same breath. I start walking back to my hostel feeling pretty dejected. I’ve been an admirer of the photography works of Christian Poveda for years, and was hoping to get at least one picture of a gang member with face tattoos. I pick up a newspaper and learn that the day before my arrival thirty people were murdered in the country. I aimelessly walk around the side streets, taking pictures of small tags. I walk past two guys carrying an unconscious naked guy, and just dump him on the street behind a car. I get to the Red Light District. Amsterdam, it is not. It’s just one street full of one bedroom apartments with their doors wide open, women of various ages and sizes lie on beds and look out at the passers by. My camera is in my bag, closed. I’m ready to call it a day and go get drunk. I walk past the brothel where I got propositioned earlier on. All the girls recognize me and greet me eagerly. Fuck it. Deep breath. I walk up to the transvestite. I attempt to explain to them what I’m trying to do. No point, they’ve all ganged up on me and are dragging me into the house, feeling me up at the same occasion. I’m trying to be polite but firm. I take out my camera and point at them. “Es possible?” A massive transvestite steps out. She looks like a bodybuilder. I take it she acts as the de facto bodyguard here. She takes out her cell phone and looks at me menacingly. She threatens to call the pimps. I frantically pull out 10 dollars from my pocket. “10 dollar for 5 minutes of photos guys, por favor !!” Smiles all around. One of them snatches the bill, grabs me by the hand and pulls me into the building. It is dark, humid, and moldy. “What the fuck am I doing here” I ask myself, not for the first time. A half naked girl is passed out on a couch. “Take a photo !!” one of them says to me exitedly. “No, es no respecto, si el dormir”. She shrugs. One of them starts pulling me into a room and takes her bra off as she goes. “ -Come, we fuck, come! – Nonononono!! Espera espera! Solamente photos! No fuck!!” She looks bewildered. I point to a well lit part of the building and gesture for her to pose there. A clothes washing sink and a bursting trashbag serve as her props. I start taking pictures. The girls are loving this, they pose, flash their boobs, start getting fully naked. After about 10 minutes of taking pictures and shooting the shit I’m actually enjoying myself. The girl who grabbed my dick the first time starts moving closer and closer to me. They are all pointing to the transvestite and laughing. “You know she’s got a dick right ?” one of them asks me. I smile nervously. The transvestite is looking at me really weirdly. She wants me to take her picture too. I happily oblidge. Half way through one of the girls, the one who was so insistent on taking me into a room, creeps up and snatches her wig. Everybody laughs. And the mood changes. The girls start advancing on me and back me into a corner. “Ok Guapo, photos are finished. Now we fuck” I franticaly pack away everything in my backpack. One of them grabs my dick through my pants and another one takes her bra off. They all move in and start feeling me up. I can see the bodybuilder looking down into the hallway. She does not seem happy. I’m still trying to be polite and respectful at this point, but the reality of the situation is I’ve got 4 Salvadoran prostitutes trying to rape me. I start flailing my arms around to get them off me. “Girls, I’ve got a girfriend! I’m married! I’m gay!!! I’ve got a gay husband!!!” They don’t give a shit. Fuck it. I shove the one in front of me out of the way and start sprinting towards to exit. They are running after me and trying to grab me. I turn around and frontkick one in the leg. She stops and stares at me, shocked. The bodybuilder is glaring at me, but doesn’t say anything. I take a deep breath and start walking briskly up the road. Some locals shout out at me, laughing. I hear a high pitched voice coming up behind me. The transvestite is running after me. I stop and wait for her. “-If you come back tomorrow, it will be just me, she says softly. – Maybe tomorrow then!” A few days later I’ll see that 90% of the pictures are blurry. God fucking dammit. I got a cool story though.