El Salvador, December 2008, Part I

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.

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