But it’s time for the Christmas eve party. The village hosts a dance in the village hall. A friend of Ramon donated the sound system, a $1500 affair with enough power to reach Guatemala. There was a good turn out, and Peg and I jumped in the moment we arrived. There were some good dancers among the mostly teenage crowd; the adults came later. A teenager maybe about 14 danced with a much taller girl, about 15. They only knew one dance, the merengue, but they did it well and did it to everything. Others did various forms of rock and roll dance and perhaps a salsa or two. Even Doggy got in the act. Doggy is the younger of Lucy’s two dogs and he was priviledge to come along and cower along the side. Nic d.j.’d mostly latin tunes using his laptop (which cost more than most people make in a year in this village) and when he strayed too far, someone yelled out for more Latin numbers. I guess experimentation was not on the floor.
We Gotta Get Out of This Place
We Gotta Get Out of This Place
All of the charm of Nic village is in it’s people. As charming as they are, that was not enough to keep us here for long.
Ramon and Lucy made us several meals. One was a deep fried fish. It was whole and deboned, and quite tasty. On Christmas day she made sandwiches, a local tradition. These consist of slow-cooked beef, as tender as you can get it. It was served in it’s own juices but not so liquid that the Bimbo (that’s the brand name) white, very white and very floppy bread couldn’t hang together long enough for you to eat it. It was very good. For the first time since we’d been here (by now about a week), they served beer. Nic explained that el Salvadorans frown upon drinking. They think that if you drink at all you drink to excess. There is no in between.
Another meal we had some tamales. These tamales, unlike the other’s we’ve had in el Sal, have some meat in them. In one I ate there was chicken, a chicken leg with the a bit of the bone included! As usual, the masa was quite tasty. One day we had a wonderful chicken stew. They chicken was probably running around the yard earlier in the day. Peg ate some of the eggs. The chickens have chosen a spot to lay right next to Nic’s door. It’s easy to see how many eggs you have, and just as easy to step in chicken poop as you walk in and out. Makes you be thankful for shoes and makes you wear them all the time.
Ramon works for someone in the village has some bees. They use some German technology which has significantly boosted production. He says you can work with the Africanized bees. You have to use more smoke and exercise greater caution. Ramon let us taste the honey, served with the comb. It was good honey. Out back he has a coconut tree. He said compared to the coconuts you get in the US, these are much more tender, and much better. He was right about them being more tender, but both Peg, I, Nic and Jeanine find them to be unpleasant, being mushy, and tasteless at best.
We went on several visits during our time in La Dumpa. We met Adepio and Marta and maybe one or two of their eight children and perhaps a batch or two of grandchildren. Marta has been to the US. Nic likes their ‘comida’ the best. I think they severed us some tamales, rice and beans and tortillas, of course.
We ate on our laps. This is a common practice. I recall only once sitting at a table. Here we got to sit on chairs. At Lucy’s we sometimes sat in the hammock. I preferred to sit in the hammock at Lucy’s, because it was indoors while the seats were on the porch, where the two annoying dogs begged, the chickens constantly tried to climb in your lap and if unsuccessful would poop on your shoe.
Another day we visited the House of Women. The mother had five or six daughters, the husband gone or dead. The daughters who had children all had girls and the fathers were gone or dead. They were lovely people; I didn’t suspect them of murdering any of the fathers. They had the most attractive house we’d seen in the village. It was fairly new and paid for largely by remittances from the oldest daughter, who works for Neiman Marcus in personnel. I gathered she made no more than $30,000 a year. She had no high school diploma or if she did, that was all she had, so I could not imagine her making even that much. She rented an apartment for something like $600 a month and had a roommate. But her English was quite good, so she could be very helpful dealing with Spanish speaking employees.
One day Nic took us on a walk up the hill to the cisterns. A previous Peace Corps couple helped set up a water project which brought potable water to the village for the first time. The area mayor put up the $80,000 it took to build the cisterns and lay the pipe. The cisterns are filled from a small stream. The pipes to town, about ½ mile away, are gravity fed. The pipe installed in one cistern was installed too high so that cistern does not feed the system. As a result of this or other issues, there is not enough water pressure to serve the whole village, so only one section at a time has water.
There are three sections. One can be shut off independently, but the other two can not. A villager goes to each house and turns the water on and off. Some villagers want their water on when it’s supposed to be off, so the section being served at that time does not always have enough pressure. By the time we left, the village council had established a fine for anyone who turned their water on during off periods.
Ramon has a well so during off periods you still have water, but you can’t drink it. But since there is water you can take a shower and flush the toilet. But you can’t really flush the toilet by operating the handle because it is clogged. It will flush if you pour enough water in it. No one had gotten to the point where finding a plunger or snake seemed like the thing to do.
Ramon provides Nic with 5 gallon containers of potable water, which Nic uses to directly fill 1 liter bottles. This requires two people when the container is full.
My ‘guests’ chose this time to make their grandest exit. This only involved minor inconveniences unless someone else was in the bathroom. As it happened, I nearly died only once. Nic was trying to get the toilet to drain while I danced around the living room and Jeanine watched my face get increasing pale. As this was going on she explained that PCVs (Peace Corp Volunteers) in el Sal spend a lot of time dealing with issues like this. How lovely.
But at least I was sleeping well. I still can’t figure out why. The bed Peg and I were sharing was at most a single. I spent nights perched on the 2×4 frame edge. But this seemed better than what Nic and Jeanine were doing- sharing the hammock. Not a double wide one, just a single. They looked like they were in hog heaven, and if the sounds coming from the backyard were any indication, that’s exactly where they were.
Within a few days I found myself singing “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”. Jeanine heard me and laughed. Two bus rides later we were in a beach town, El Fuoco. It has to be one of the world’s ugliest beach towns. The beach is lined with tin roofs held up with sticks. Dogs wander about, some looking not too healthy. Our hotel cost $35 a night, with threadbare sheets and no hot water. Just as well. When there is hot water in el Salvador, it’s produced by a device attached to the shower head. We’ve both received shocks when we tried to adjust the water flow or temperature.
We are a lovely dinner in a dumpy hut on the beach (none of the restaurants had names) . It was a deep fried fish, it was great, and it was only $5.00, but we just had to get out of that place.
We’re back in the pickup heading back to San Vincente and on to Nic’s place. On the way, while hanging off the back with his feet on the bumper and sending text messages, Nic explained the situation between him, Jeanine and Wendell. Wendell and Jeanine were in the process of splitting up, and both agreed to the divorce so there were good feelings all around. Nic and Wendell were still good friends. Nic had been worried that we might think he was having an affair with a married woman. Nic forgot we lived through the 70’s when it was shameful if you weren’t!
A seat became available as we talked but I was unaware of nothing but the strange things Nic was doing with his lips. They were pursed and seemed to be pointing. This turns out to be Salvadorans often do when you ask for directions. For example, if you pass their table and ask for the bathroom, they’d purse their lips in the direction of the toilet. The movement is so subtle that at first Nic thought they were just ignoring him.
I think we transferred to another bus in San Vincente and on to San Miguel where we got the bus to to Nic’s site, San Juan. San Juan must be the patron saint of ugly dusty villages. At least it would give him a following, as there are probably tons of these in el Sal. San Juan may be one of the most in need of something, anything at all, that isn’t ugly and dusty, and gotten to by means of an axle busting dirt road that crosses several creeks, dry now but flowing in the rainy season so sometimes you just can’t get through.
The chicken bus that serves this route is the ugliest one I’ve seen. Not a drop of chrome, the seats badly torn and the stuffing long since worn. The hour and a half ride is only $1.00, which under the circumstances explains the condition of the unit. There’s a sign that says, “We’ll be serving you until Jesus comes.” The buses en el Sal (as well as all of Central America) are full of Jesus things. Apparently there are some Jehovah’s witnesses around, as I saw some references to Jehovah. These are my favorite, because of the way Jehovah sounds in Spanish: “Hey ova.”
Chickens scurry, pigs snort, and a herd of cows walks in the middle of the road as we arrive, only grudgingly moving to the side. It’s a short walk past the town hall, a recently completed structure without windows, which is the case with most of the houses here. Several people were painting it as we walked past. Everyone stopped to greet Nic. The kids were especially fond to see him, but everyone greeted him with great warmth, a warmth that contrasted with the dust and trash and dreary concrete huts we passed.
Nic’s concrete house is located off the road. You have to pass through two yards. His landlord lives in one, just 30 feet away. Ramon is in his 40’s, married to his second wife Lucy, who is 19. She’s round faced and round everything else, both friendly and reserved simultaneously. They have a 5 or 6 year old named Marvin (pronounced ‘Mar- VEEN’). Marveen, Lucy and Ramon bath openly in the back yard. There are chickens running everywhere. There’s a pig behind Nic’s place. Nothing but dirt in the yard. It must be awful in the wet season, but even now the smell us unpleasant. My ‘guests’ don’t seem to like it much, but at least Nic and Ramon have flush toilets. Nic’s is permanently clogged, though it does eventually drain. Good, because although I feel better, my friendlies are not ready to leave quite yet.
Nic has a shower. There’s hot water for about 10 seconds because the pipes cross the hot roof. Since it’s about 80 degrees F, the cold water is tolerable. The gray concrete floors and walls don’t exactly make your bathing experience something to be savored, but at least you can get clean.
When he moved in Nic did some painting. There’s a cow with the saying, “La Vaca Sabe” beneath. If no one knows the answer here, they say, ‘the cow knows.’
Nic never has to cook when he’s in San Juan. People are always feeding him. Because he’s very slender he’s an object of concern. Salvadorans are rather plump by choice (can’t blame it on the automobile here!). The first night we are at Ramon’s. I think we had papusas, which are always served with ‘cortido,’ a vinegary coleslaw. They were good as papusas go but I am already sick of them and the ‘guests’ agree. They’re happy, I’m happy, they’re not, neither am I.
On Sunday we took the 6 am bus to San Miguel. Nic has to appear on the English teaching radio show. After Nic went off Peg and I had breakfast at ‘Comedor a la Vista.’ They Comedor offers freshly made papusas from their sidewalk grill but Peg and I took the guests inside. Me and my guests wanted more of the delicious stew. Their coffee is brewed but like everywhere we’ve been so far, they don’t have milk. It’s cremora instead, and this turned out to be the case everywhere. But breakfast for two costs a mere $4.00, a third or less of what you’d have to spend in the US, and it’s very good!
By the time Nic was done and we walked to the bus station, we found that the last bus for San Juan leaves at 10:30 on Sunday. This meant we’d have to walk home from the main road, an hour on the shorter of the two routes. Nic says if anyone comes along they’ll give you a ride. We walked the entire way without seeing anyone. Fortunately it was not too terribly hot, and only a few hills are steep. It actually felt good, although doing that walk once was enough on that barren, dusty route.
El Salvador Part II
My bloated stomach zone liked the idea of tamales, for some reason, which it what I ordered at Comedor a la Vista. The tamale had great flavor, but at least in ‘poor zone’ there’s just a tiny tiny bit of chicken in the masa. If you’re expecting something like what you’d get in the US or Mexico, you’d be disappointed.
Comedor a la Vista might mean ‘Eatery with a view.’ The view consists of a plain concrete wall across the narrow steet filled with cars, a few dogs, throngs of people walking to and fro, vendors who’ve spread their goods on the sidewalks over sheets or blankets or upon a makeshift table, discared paper and bits of trash everywhere. It also might mean you see what you get, since everything food offering is in plain view under glass separators.
After breakfast (yes, tamales for breakfast, or stew) we set out for Hotel Lenca in Perquin, in the mountains area in the eastern part of the country. It was a rebel stronghold during the civil war that decimated this country from 1980-1992. Reagan poured money into this country to keep the right wing in power; the left wing spouted land reform and other populist measures and in general made us look bad. But given how many Salvadorans work in the US and support families back home, I guess our reputation didn’t suffer too much. There’s a well known museum in the town chronicling the war, which is a main reason for going there, the other the wonderful hotel run by a former PC volunteer.
It took us some three hours to get there. During the chicken bus part of the ride the assistant made a boy give me his seat. The attendant even helped me remove my backpack. There are advantages to residing in geezerdom. My amoebas cooperated, amazingly enough, even during the last hour or so in the back of a pickup truck. We took turns sitting on the hard seats as we bounced along in the cool air.
Hotel Lenca sits half way up a steep hill. I dragged my backpack and intestines up the hill and beyond the office to the rooms. The view is wonderful and inside it’s lovingly finished and furnished, and there’s loads of hot water.
The next day we walked back to town. Nic noted that Salvadorans laugh at people walking, figuring they are too poor to pay the pickup truck driver his measly cora. In our case, we just didn’t want to wait for one to come by and didn’t mind the walk, but a pickup passed going the other way and we endured some jeers. Along the way a somewhat aged looking woman came to talk to us, offering rooms for the night. Her place was quite shabby.
We visited the museum after a short walk through the short town. The entrance fee is practically nothing, especially since a guide was with us the entire time. Not that it helped me all that much. His Spanish was accompanied by a whistling sound of some sort, a kind of thick rurual el Salvadoran accent and lots of words I’d never heard before.
Nic and friends did much better. I might beat them on a standard Spanish exam but they’ve been here a year. Nic didn’t understand a word during his first months, but he’s flying high now, so I guess if here long enough I’ll get used to the way they speak. I would have liked to talk to our guide more. He seemed like a nice fellow. He walked with a limp from his war injury; he fought for the left wingers as a teen during the civil war. Many of his friends and collegues died or were seriously injured during the devastation that gripped not just el Sal, but Guatemala and Nicaragua as well. It was the US and Soviet Union at war by proxy, with many poor and lovely people caught in the middle.
El Salvador Part 1
It was 7 am on December 16th, 2008. The lovely young Mexican American woman from Boulder CO we were chatting with yesterday came by to say goodbye. We boarded the van taking us from Antigua to Guatemala City with the very well traveled Swiss woman who was on her way to South America;
The comfortable Tica bus was about an hour late leaving the City but soon we were driving through mountainous, volcanic rural areas strewn with ignacious rock and cinder, dormant (I hoped) volcanic peaks not far off. The roads are better or at least faster than in Mexico, if for no other reason than there are fewer speed bumps along the way. We enjoyed the views in silence because the dvd player thankfully wasn’t working.
At the border immigration and customs came through the bus. Papusas (stuffed tortillas), chicken and other offerings could be found in the tiny booths and tables. The ubiquitous vendors found their way onto the bus offering platanos fritos, sandwiches, water and other beverages. They competed with one another, each in rapid fire conveying the contents of their offering.
As we headed south the landscape flattened and became uglier. It’s the dry season in el Salvador. The vegetation is dead or dying and everything along the road is covered in dust. We passed through many small towns with plain concrete structures with corrugated roofs, small ‘tiendas’ (shops) with friendly sounding names and slogans on the rough concrete walls, many of them general stores selling mostly food. There were lots of car repair shops too, complete with shade trees. On either side there were fields of corn and other vegetables growing in the dust.
The outskirts of San Salvador extend for what seemed like hours. But once at the bus station it was just a 10-15 minute taxi ride to Hotel Simililus near Metro Center, where Nic was to meet us. Nic’s our nephew. He joined the Peace Corps, and is just starting his second and last year here unless he re-commits. The Peace Corps houses volunteers at this hotel. Nic was here last fall when he was recovering from his broken leg. He and the staff are very close- he was here over a month. Leti was at the door to welcome us; Nic had told her about our arrival. He called her Niña Leti, (Daughter Leti). ‘Niña,’ I later learned, is a term similar to ‘Miss,’ and seems to be in lieu of ‘señorita,’ while ‘Señora’ is used only for the very old.
Leti called Nic when we arrived. He told us he would not arrive until tomorrow. He was playing soccer with other volunteers near the Guatemala border.
Our first outing was for dinner. We walked down the hill to Metro Center, a very American looking shopping center. We felt like we were back in the States, especially given what was on offer in the food court and restaurants, the prices and the greenback – the dollar became the official currency of el Salvador in 2001. We finally settled on a restaurant where we ordered pan pizzas and coca light. The bill came to an astounding $18. We could eat for two days in Mexico for that, and this meal would have been cheaper in the States, and better. While we were there the restaurant was playing Christmas music in English, one a rendition of “I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus” by the Jackson 5. Michael must have been about 8 years old. He said “I did, I did!” from time to time. Good grief!
Nic arrived mid-morning the next day, fresh from the chicken buses which go everywhere in this country very cheaply if uncomfortably. We took a chicken bus to have lunch at his favorite ‘torta’ (sandwich) place across town close to Peace Corps headquarters. The tortas were wonderful, served hot and only $1.25 each, and we sat on the sidewalk on plastic chairs next to the tiny green stand.
There were two or three workers busy filling orders. By way of contrast, a bit later near the dentist’s office Nic and I had cappuccinos. They were good but $2.50 each! But unlike tortas, which are everywhere and usually good, coffee in el Salvador is lousy, often instant, so getting a good one turned out to be expensive and rare, despite the fact that coffee grows here. The good stuff is mostly exported.
The lesson we learned here was the two worlds of el Salvador, one very poor and the other quite well to do, the Metro Center/cappuccino world and the sidewalk torta world. Naturally the former outnumbers the latter by a very, very wide margin.
Buses belong to the poor. A ride is $.25, ‘una cora’ in the local lingo, a distortion of ‘quarter.’ Many of the buses are old, and often very old school buses from the US (a few are from Canada). They belch black diesel smoke, have manual transmissions that get you going slowly and noisily (especially if the engines are equipped with blowers), but once going they fly! There are newer, smaller and less polluting mini-buses that cost the same ‘cora.’ Although they run much cleaner and quieter, they are not as pretty as the school buses, which are often highly chromed and fancily painted, giving a special decorative accent to what is otherwise a very dreary place, filled with unattractive shops and dwelling some of which are mere shacks. In fact it’s hard to find anything attractive at all.
Nic thinks the buses are privately owned. This makes sense, given how they handle money. There are no receipts or coin deposits. The money goes into the driver’s hands, or his assistant’s, and into a box or pocket, so there is no reliable way to account for revenues. I imagine the driver leases a route, paying a fixed fee per month, so what he earns is his own affair. The government subsidizes fuel costs, but you are on your own when it comes to repairs. Drivers joke that these buses should not be called chicken buses but egg buses, because they break so easily.
The buses are often very crowded, making me feel a bit claustrophobic so sometimes I stood near the door rather than sit down. On longer rides if you have a seat, Nic told us, you’d often end up holding packages or children for people who are forced to stand. It’s a rather friendly environment filled not only with people but packages and the occasional – yes, you guessed it – chicken. People use the public transport for shopping and deliveries alike, so people wanting to sell a small animal, even regular vendors sometimes ride to market with their goods for sale.
At the Peace Corps office (where you can get aspirin, books and the internet), we met Lisa (I think that’s her name) who planned Nic’s participation in a radio show from San Miguel. This is a weekly program to teach English to Salvadorans. There are enormous numbers of Salvadorans in the US, so there should be a lot of interest in this program. Then we took a bus or two to the hostal where Nic is staying. It’s a lot cheaper than the Simililus but has comfortable seating in the lounge. Most PC volunteers stay here when they have to pick up the tab. Nic says there are private rooms as well as dorms, but Peg wasn’t interested in moving.
That evening we ate dinner at the Euro cafe. It’s just a few minutes walk from our hotel and is in a street crowded with restaurants. I wish we’d known about this area last night. We had dinner for $2.50-3.00 each. Nic ordered a bucket of beers. The order comes in a steel bucket with ice, for about $1.00 each. The price is right but none of the beers have much flavor. Along with the beer comes loud music, but at least it wasn’t the Jackson Five. Some of Nic’s friends joined us, including Jeannine. I began to wonder if something was going on between her and Nic but then I heard that she is married, so I let my curiosity abate, but something about Nic’s behavior was different. He’d been somehow distracted the last time I’d spoken with him, but as it was all none of my business I said nothing.
On Thursday we boarded the bus for San Vicente. I can’t remember why we went there but Jeanine would already be there, which seemed just great to me, since she’s friendly and a lot of fun. The last bit of the journey there involved yet another form of transport: the pickup. It was a small one, perhaps a Nissan, with a steel frame jutting up from the fenders. For una cora or some pittance we drove, some sitting, others standing as we bounced down the steep hill, our luggage at our sides, my graying hair flopping in the breeze. I hope they have a cover for this thing. During the rainy season it rains every day, usually in the evening, so a cover would be essential to keep you from drowning.
I don’t know who San Vicente was, but he cared neither for cleanliness nor beauty if current conditions are any indication. It’s one of the ugliest places I’d ever been, trash everywhere, beauty in design prohibited, loose dogs wandering about. Vendors spread a blanket or sheet on the sidewalk, then arrange their goods on them- at least their arrangements are usually attractive. Amazingly the people are spotlessly clean, their clothes all look like they were washed yesterday, and everyone has bathed very recently.
Nic took us to a hotel without a name. It has a shared bathroom down the way a bit over a dirty looking concrete floor. I think Nic said his PC group stayed in San Vincente during training so that’s how he knew about this place. Nic is in another room across the way. It was now that we learned for sure that he and Jeanine were, shall I say, getting rather close. It was nice to see but I didn’t quite understand the Wendel part. We’d met him and found out he was the husband. Hmmm.
But we were distracted by the amoeba conversation. Wendell told us that PC volunteers spend a great deal of time dealing with intestinal issues. When he first encountered this problem he went to PC headquarters from his site to get some pills. This must have been quite fun given that chicken buses do not come with bathrooms. After a course of treatment you have to go back to the capital for a follow-up visit. Then you get another infestation and do the same thing again. He gave up on the official route for dealing with the critters, and he says everyone does. You just deal with as best as you can, and share your stories with other volunteers over beer. That PC life here. Beer and amoebas.
It wasn’t the talk about all this that caused my intestines to go haywire. I’ve got visitors! My stomach feels like it’s twice its normal size, it’s painful and I’m nauseous to boot. My mouth tastes like old, very old rancid Fritos. Our visit to a papuseria for dinner did not help a bit. I thought maybe drinking coke would help. It didn’t. I suffered through dinner, hungry and sick at the same time, and shuffled back to Hotel La Dumpa. Nic and Jeanine went to their room, the one with its own bathroom.
I got up in the middle of the night. It was that or ruin the sheets. It was pitch black. I did not have a flash light. I managed to find the dirty bathroom in time, and left the light on so I could find my way back to bed. Listening to my stomach noises somehow put me to sleep.