Saturday, November 14, 2009

El Salvador--Finally!

It's only taken me 2 months to write about my trip to El Salvador! Guess that's what happens when you travel so much, work at a computer, and somehow just can't get the energy to go to the computer one more time.

We went to El Salvador in mid-September: myself and two colleagues. Although we had the dates set for over a month, and our contacts down there knew we had things we needed to accomplish on Tuesday, Wed, and Thurs (flew on Monday), no one bothered to tell us until we got there that Tuesday was Independence Day in El Salvador and everything would be closed! Great, we thought, the people we needed to contact would be at home. Probably true, but the company would not give us a driver or interpreters for Tuesday, since they would all be off.
But, I get ahead of myself. When 3 people are travelling together, on different "tabs", someone has to make the first reservation and send it to everyone else, so I did that. My colleagues definitely were not happy with the 6AM flight, but, hey, I like to get out early, get to where I'm going early and settle in. It took me a while to even pick a flight, because everything went through Texas. But I finally had to swallow my Bush-induced Texas aversion and make a reservation that went through Houston. One of my colleagues is VERY large (probably 6'5" and 280). I, fortunately, had some airline status and got comfy exit row seats; he got squashed into a back middle row. Once we got to Houston, though, I told him to check at the desk for any exit row seats. Sure enough, I was the only one in the exit row, so both my colleagues got a wider, more comfy seat. Hmmm...why so many exit row seats? Remember, we were going to ElSal; me and my colleagues were probably the only gringos on the plane. To sit in exit row: YOU HAVE TO SPEAK ENGLISH!! (I promise there will be pictures soon!)

Our first order of business once we arrived in San Salvador was to get lunch. The hotel recommended a restaurant that served traditional ElSal food, so we went. The national dish of El Salvador is pupusas. I'd always hear about them (from people I interview) but never had them, so I was game. The restaurant was combined with an art gallery, it was open-air, but behind a wall; lush trees and bushes, quite lovely. So we ordered pupusas (about 75 cents apiece; BTW, did you know the official currency of El Sal is the USD??). I had two of them, for a grand lunch total of $1.50 (plus whatever a bottle of water cost; ALWAYS drink the bottled water in Central America, even for brushing teeth, even if you are in a good hotel). Pupusas are a soft, doughy tortilla stuffed (and I use that word advisedly) with cheese, or beans, or a mixture of both with a little bit of what they say is meat. They are NASTY! Little flavor, not much "filling", but I can see how it would be the national dish of a very poor country--probably doesn't cost much to make and fills the stomach, but not in a necessarily good way for a gringa.

We met that evening with representatives of the company, who advised us that we would be taking our lives in our hands if we left the hotel, especially at night. We were told not to go anywhere at night, to always take a cab that the hotel called, even if we were only going a block. Now, El Sal (and SanSalvador) is a dangerous country, but, geez, just to go a block. We did notice as we walked around a little bit (in the afternoon) that in the very nice neighborhood we were in, all the houses were behind walls, on top of the walls is razor wire, and cemented into the top of the walls is broken beer bottles. So, yeah, I guess they do have a crime problem. I won;t say we "ignored" their advise, but we did walk to a plaza behind the hotel for dinner, and across the street another night for dinner. We also drove, one night, to the house of an El Salvador person (who we knew) who invited us for dinner. But, we were with people who could keep us safe.
Since Tuesday was the national holiday, we thought it would be good to absorb some culture (which, in the long run, would help us in what we were doing), so one of the bellprsons (is that even PC??) hooked us up with a driver to give us a tour. We negotiated from $45/person to $100 total (then ended up tipping the driver about $30) and he took us all over the area: to the stadium where the celebrations were going on, to the national memorial, to El Puerto del Diablo. At the stadium, he got us through the police barricade (probably by telling them the Americans wanted to celebrate), then tried to get us to the front of the line to get into the stadium, but we thought it better not to cause an international incident. The area around the stadium was packed: (celebrants coming out of the stadium)
Everyone was dressed in the El Sal colors for this holiday, and enjoying themselves:

(happy to be photographed by "La Gringa")

There was a bridge near the stadium that we climbed on to view the street and a little bit inside the stadium. That was equally packed. There was a vendor using some sort of scraper to make "snocones" from blocks of ice. There was the usual balloon and other vendors.
From the stadium we went to a park that had a memorial commem
orating the murdered and lost from the civil war (approx 1981-1994). It was very similar to the Vietnam Memorial, but astounding in the number of names on it. The park was full of people enjoying the day, much like a park in the US with people celebrating Fourth of July: picnics, kids playing soccer, dog walkers, a few musical groups. We heard some very lively music, so went to the street above and watched some street performers playing drums.

Our driver next took us up a mountain, and up a mountain, and up a mountain! As we were driving up, we kept seeing these mini-vans with lots of people in them, which turned out to be sort of an informal taxi/bus system. You stand on the side of the road until one comes along, you pay your 50 cents (or whatever) and hop in--assuming you can find a spot. When I say these vans had lots of people, I am talking about a regular mini-van (the kind that holds about 7 people) with about 20 people in them. I mean pa
cked! Notwithstanding that most El Sals are small, they were in there like sardines. The driver wanted to take us to a restaurant that served the best pupusas in all of El Sal. So, of course, we had pupusas again. They were a little better, I think the tortilla must have been fresher corn, or perhaps a different oil, but still... The top of this mountain, tho, overlooked parts of the city:

From here, we went to the VERY top of the mountain (I think it is actually a volcano, there are 14 of them in El Salvador) to El Puerto del Diablo. My colleagues climbed up to the top of it, but, given the state of my knees, the narrowness and steepness of the crevice you climbed up (there were steps), I figured I could get up, but coming down would be ridiculous, if I could even make it down. So you will have to settle for a picture of El Puerto:

The next day, we went in search of the persons we needed to interview. We knew it was in a small town, but "town" is not even close to what this was. It was about 2 hours away, we get to the town it is near, which consisted of single story concrete block buildings, none of which looked like they were stores, businesses, or schools. No one in the steets, just desolate. Got lost, had to ask the one person we found where the place was and he sent us to a dirt/rock-pitted/pot-holed road that we drove down for about a mile and a half, all the while everyone in our van getting quieter and quieter, passing oxen-drawn carts (honestly), people walking down the road with machetes slung over their shoulders, until we finally pulled up to a single story, concrete block "home" that appeared to have no running water, and had an outhouse in the back. I simply cannot convey here the abject poverty we saw, not only there, but in other parts of the country. We went into one hovel that was corrugated tin, connected to another corrugated tin home, connected to another, a whole string of them. It had a dirt floor, hammocks for sleeping, no kitchen facilities (the husband was out back tending a fire) and half-naked children running around. It is, to an American, an unimaginably hard life, scrabbling for your food every day. However, in the dirt floored house, there was a TV (no lightbulbs, but a TV) turned on to, what else--the soccer game.

It must have been harvest time because as we drove along, we would see people with corn kernels spread out on the shoulder of the highway for drying (we felt so bad when, on the second day, a rainstorm came, and they scrabbled to protect the corn). We saw real cowboys on horses herding cattle. We also saw teenage boys "herding" 2 or 3 cattle on their bicycle with their iPod earbduds in. We bought sun-roasted cashews
from a roadside vendor--I have never had such good cashews!

(washing dishes in an outdoor "sink")

Coming back to the city, we stopped at the "bottle" house. This house is literally made out of coke bottles (and other types, maybe Pepsi, Nehi, etc):

She sleeps in a hammock in this house; they cook in the bottle house a couple doors over, and there is a "tin can" house in between:

We went to another city the following day--a real city, but a city that had been viciously fought over during the civil war. The person we talked with told us about living there while there was fighting right outside the door and bombs exploding nearby. But this house, although small, had electricity, running water, a kitchen. The street, however, was dirt and rutted. We were a bit worried about getting stuck in the mire if we had to make a quick exit.

Flying out, I noticed more of the country than I had really paid attention to flying in. There is much to feast your eyes on here: the volcanoes, the lakes, the lush forests. I would have loved to have been able to go to the ocean, as I have heard there are beautiful beaches in El Salvador. Unfortunately, the violence and the poverty, make it unlikely the country can capitalize on its natural treasures. I will leave you with one last photo, of the view from my hotel room of the volcano at the foot of which San Salvador lies:

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