20.02.2013 - 26.02.2013
In writing this blog I've always had huge difficulties in keeping anywhere close to up to date, but I've never been his behind. This is early October and I'm in Ireland, attempting to write about six days worth of experience in El Salvador last February. There is a part of me tempted to cut it out, but the larger part needs me to write it all down. Six days in El Salvador; so many experiences, so many complexities, so many contradictions. I loved it intensely and I hated it too. I didn't want to leave and I couldn't wait to get out! Where the hell do I begin?
I will begin at the start; the border, my first glimpse of a country and a culture. I saw big fleshy women, lots of them, adorned with lurid blue sparkly eye shadow, identical to the stuff I got free with Jackie magazine in 1978. And lots of trendy young'uns, decked out in street gear that wouldn't go amiss in a happening city anywhere in the world. Passing through the border was quick and courteous. In all my years of travelling I have never experienced the ease and courtesy of these Central American border crossings.
First stop was the town of La Palma, a quiet calm place nestled in the mountains. La Palma is famous for its folk art, brightly painted Naïf style representations of people, village and farm life and religious scenes, painted on wood and pottery. You have probably seen some of the pieces, but never gave a second thought as to where they were from. I bought my first picture in the ferry shop on Cape Clear, County Cork of all places! I was keen to visit where they were made and maybe snap up a masterpiece, at Central American prices. Sadly I couldn't find any of the artesian workshops and the stuff in the shops were tacky and badly made. The afternoon was full of frustrations; the maps in my guidebook were next to useless, asking the locals for directions meant I was walking round in circles for hours and horror of horrors, the cash machine not accepting foreign cards. I was fit to be tied. This was not a total disaster though; the American dollar is the official currency in El Salvador and I had an emergency supply of 200 dollars hidden in my backpack. But accommodation and food were known to be expensive in El Salvador and I was nervous of travelling through a country with only a few Rubles to spare.
Luckily solace was found in the Hotel La Palma, opened in 1952 and reputedly the oldest hotel in El Salvador. The hotel had been held tenderly through the civil war by the delightful Salvador, a man in his sixties who, as well as running the hotel, had been a potter, an attorney, a charity worker for an NGO and a chef, as well as spearheading Eco tourism in the region. Times were still tough for Salvador and the hotel. Next morning he was making a three hour drive to the capital San Salvador to buy meat and vegetables from a big supermarket as it cost him much less than buying locally. It went completely against his principles, but the hotel (which was delightful) had few visitors and he had to watch every penny. After insisting I took a free breakfast (which I refused) Salvador offered me a lift to a town near my next destination. He also took a detour to a business complex which had an ATM, one of only five machines outside the capital. I was eternally grateful. Salvador dropped me to the bus station in Aguilares, escorted me to my seat and waited till the bus pulled out before departing. What a lovely man. An hour of easy travel later I was in Suchitoto. This was all too easy!
Cobbled and colonial Suchitoto was such a delight. A small, calm town with peaceful plazas and broad handsome streets lined with trees and low, red tiled adobe houses. The urban landscape seemed so spacious and airy under the big big blue sky. The intense heat and light created an almost otherworldly feel to the place, like time was ticking at a different speed to usual. As is my want, I spent most of my time aimlessly dandering around town, not quite believing that I had stumbled upon such a gem.
It was high summer in El Salvador and the heat sat on top of you like a lead weight, so it wasn't till late afternoon that I was able to head out of town and down to the lake, Lago de Suchitlan. The route through and out of town took me along cobblestones streets alive with people just living their drowsy, late afternoon lives. People sat outside their houses on makeshift deck chairs, chatting, painting their toenails, playing cards, plaiting hair, sucking mangos, drinking beer. Everyone greeted me with beautiful warm smiles and waves. Nothing moved at more than a snails pace. Except for the evangelical churches of course. Yes, saving souls is a frenetic business. One of the churches had a buffet outside on the street, another had a great guitar player and band, in fact I had initially assumed it was a wedding reception. I was impressed.
By now, Suchitoto had me eating out of the palm of her hand. At twilight, beer in hand, I plonked myself on a bench in the main square. There was so much life around me; people chatting and chilling in the fading light. So many lovely smiles and greetings of hello. I would use the word warmth to convey the quality in these greetings, something which really stands out when you travel in Central America, but especially so in El Salvador.
I was fascinated by all the different Salvadorian faces. Some plump and really attractive, some skinny like in Honduras, and many with really pale skin. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of people with blue eyes and blond haired in the town and rather unusually, quite a number of extremely butch women. Dinner was a feast of fantastic pupusas (including prawn ones, a first for me) and numerous bottles of beer served up at a little stall on the main square. My limited Spanish allowed me to conduct some (limited) conversations with the fellow diners and yet another evening of gentleness ensued. Did I say gentle again. Did I say warm again? I bet warm and gentle would not be the first words that come to mind when you think of El Salvador. Images from the vicious civil war, or perhaps the gang violence of the 1990s are more likely to spring to mind. Well Suchitoto, gentle, gentrified, cultured Suchitoto was a different place in the 1980's. It was the scene of heavy fighting as the army struggled to dislodge FMLN guerrillas from their nearby mountain stronghold and right wing death squads waged terror campaigns on the population. Upwards of ninety percent of the inhabitants left the town, which was largely settled by ex guerrillas after the war. Such is El Salvador, a land of utter contradictions.
I would have loved to stay longer, with hindsight I should have. But I had been on and was on a punishing schedule of pushing through Honduras and El Salvador, so it was with sadness that I tucked into to yet another huge Central American breakfast. Eggs, cheese, refried beans or gallo pinto (rice and beans), plantain and a corn tortilla. It might look disgusting, but it had the thumbs up from me, a life long lover of stodgy food. Another stodgy breakfast before moving on for another days hard travelling.
That day's travelling proved to be long (eleven hours), arduous, sweaty and full of frustration, themes which were to become themes for the rest of my time in El Salvador. The first bus of the day did not take me where it was supposed to and I ended up slap bang in the middle of the capital, San Salvador, a place I had wanted to escape like the plague. I was surrounded by a fair few hustlers as I tried to find my way around the numerous bus stations spread for a mile or so along a chaotic road,but thankfully I survived unscathed.
Four hours later I was in the city of San Miguel, with late afternoon temperatures so oven like I was tempted to douse myself in olive oil and roast myself for dinner. It was there I became unstuck. Cranky and very bothered, I wandered round he bus station trying to find a bus to Perquin, about three hours north. No one knew, no one was bothered, no one was interested. This was quite a shock. In my opinion, the most wonderful thing about Central America is the people; always at hand, always smiling, always keen to help. Whatever difficult situation I found myself in, one of those Central American angels would appear to help me. They must have been on strike in San Miguel that day. I plonked myself down on a metal seat and told myself to cool it. Twenty minutes later my angel arrived. She was a really poor looking woman, a street vendor selling packets of chewing gum. I had seen her earlier and smiled. She had youngish man with her; she had Sussed that he spoke English and had brought him over to rescue me. As luck would have it my rescuer, now a resident of Boston Massachusetts, originally came from outside Perquin. He was home on holidays to visit his relatives and suggested we take a bus to the next town up, where the family jeep was parked. It would then be his pleasure to drive me to Perquin.
That would be my second lift in three days. I was never offered a lift in the whole three months that preceded El Salvador, nor was I offered one after I left it. It's people are absolute darlings. I thought all my troubles were over when Jose dropped me at the bottom of very steep steps up to a lovely hotel. Sadly the lovely hotel was booked out by a NGO for the week and I was laughed at when I enquiries about a taxi. This really was the arse end of nowhere. So, nine hours and nine gallons of sweat after beginning my journey, I and my very heavy rucksack could be seen crawling up the main road; a full three miles of main road, dodging trucks, ill natured dogs and my own temper. When I finally decamped in the village's budget accommodation, the shower facilities aka a bucket of cold water, never caused me à bother. When your blood is at boiling point, both physically and psychologically, a bucket of cold water can do you the world of good.
Perquin and the neighbouring village of El Mozote have a significant place in the history of the civil war. Perquin was the headquarters of the rebel FMLN-FDR and home place of radio Vencermos ('we will overcome'). It was almost obliterated on many occasions. I visited the revolutionary museum, set up by former guerrillas in the wake of the 1992 peace accord. To tell the truth I didn't get much out of it; given it was signed in Spanish, their angle on the civil war was lost on me and I'm not a fan of displays of weapons and artillery. I suppose the crater left by a 500lb bomb dropped on the village was a key 'exhibit', as was a disarmed bomb inside the museum, with 'made in the USA' stencilled on its side.
My visit to El Mozote was different. But I need to give you a bit of background first. Apologies to those of you who are knowledgeable about what happened in the 80's, what follows is no doubt overtly simplified and inaccurate. In December 1981 an elite, US trained army battalion entered the village on the suspicion they were harbouring FMLN guerrillas. The mayor of the village had been tipped off on this event, but had been reassured by the government that the inhabitants would be safe staying put. This was not to be: orders came from the very same government to obtain information and set an example. This was done through three days of torture and rape before every single one of the villagers were executed, including all the children, who were shot in front of their parents. They reckon that a thousand people were executed on those three days, their bodies burnt or buried in mass graves. Apparently El Mozote gets quite a volume of war tourists; as a human being, a psychologist and a person who grew up during the troubles in Northern Ireland, I had really mixed feelings about visiting. But it would many many pages of writing to explain some of that; so I won't.
El Mozote is probably no more than a few kilometres from Perquin, but in keeping with the travel chaos of the previous day, my journey there took two hours and included a bus, a walk, a motorised scooter, a walk and then hitching a lift in the back of a pick up truck, perched on bags of cement. At the entrance to the village I was met by a group of women and brought to a little shop selling handicrafts and key rings, a purchase was obviously expected. From there I was taken by one of the women to the memorial garden, seen in the picture above. It was a very somber sight, simple and unavoidable in its message. The woman then began telling her story. Obviously she only spoke Spanish and I could hardly understood a word, but there was something about her demeanour and affect which seeped into me and before long I was weeping away. It wasn't just about her, it was about the village as it stood now, nothing really there but a memorial of an atrocity over thirty years ago, an atrocity which gets retold every time a tourist arrives. I wondered about my guide's life; a part of her day, every day is to tell a story of a massacre that happened over thirty years ago. What impact does is have on her? Does it help her process her grief, or keep her trapped in it? From both a work and personal perspective I know people whose loss becomes their identity; who never move on from loosing a loved one or become so wrapped up in the events surrounding a tragedy that it takes them over, They forget who they were before. El Mozote felt a bit like that; trapped in its past. It made me think of Northern Ireland a lot; yes there are many people moving forward into the light, but also many choosing to remain firmly rooted in the bitterness arising from their own personal and tribal injustices.
And so I was at the end of my time in El Salvador. The plan for the next day was to head south down towards San Miguel, take another bus east to the border with Honduras, and transit through Honduras for another four hours until I got to the Nicaraguan border. Given the chaos of each journey I had attempted the previous days, feeling nervous about the journey was pretty inevitable.
Five thirty the next morning I was standing in the village square, awaiting the departure of the bus to San Miguel. Three other backpackers were there. Although they had been staying at my hostel for a few nights, they had chosen to ignore me the entire time. The bus pulled up just after five thirty and we clambered onboard. The bus had a sign saying San Miguel on the front, so I didn't double check with the driver. Ten minutes later we took a right turn off the main road and I knew something was wrong. Five minutes later we were crawling along a dirt road, heading up into the mountains. Somehow I managed to ascertain that the bus had come from San Miguel, rather than going to it. In any other country I would have jumped off there and then and waited for something, anything to take me back. But my experiences of the previous few days had warned me against this, furthermore we were on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere and it was still dark outside. In desperation I stumbled down the isle to the other backpackers. Believe it or not the bus was heading to the Honduran border, a border I didn't know even existed, a border that would lead me to a part of Honduras that wasn't in my guidebook and that would add a roughly four hundred kilometre detour to my journey! Bugger.
The journey was horrific; an unpaved dirt road, twisting, turning and ascending all the time, the bus filled with red dust rising from the road. Three hours and a mere 25 kilometres later, we arrived at the border which was basically a shed at the side of the road. In that shed I was surprised to find a handsome and immaculately groomed customs official, who in perfect English, inquired as to how my trip to El Salvador had been. He stamped me out of the country, shook my hand and with a dazzling smile, wished me a pleasant journey in Honduras.
Two hours later the journey was over. I was in a big town, but I had no idea what part of Honduras I was in, what the town was called and how the hell I could get out of it. But first things first, I needed a big feed up and a very long wee. I headed to a decent looking cafe where I had the fortune to bump into three Aussies with a guide book! They had made the same journey on the previous day, having waited at the side of the road for six hours. they too had many tales of woe to tell about their bus journeys in El Salvador, in fact they had shortened their time in the country as they found it too stressful to travel around. With the help of a lovely waitress and a fifteen year old guidebook the Aussies had, I plotted my new route to Nicaragua. There was nothing for it, I had to head into the capital city Tegucigalpa.