El Salvabore

Trip Start Apr 27, 2006
Trip End Apr 01, 2008

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Flag of El Salvador  ,
Friday, May 30, 2008

I´m growing to like these bus journeys as a way to see the countryside and rural life. This time it was two hours back to Antigua, time for lunch (I know better than to order sandwiches anywhere but the U.S., but forgot my own admonition this time), an hour to Guate, two hours in the Guate terminal because the bus was late and then they had to change a tire, and 5 hours to San Salvador, El Salvador, including the border crossing, which was interesting in itself.  They hauled all the luggage out from below the bus to be searched, which is not unusual, but mine had a lock on it.  I was standing right there when they got to it and started gesturing and looking around.  I indicated that it was my bag and gestured to show that I would undo the lock, but the customs officer just waved me off.  She then searched every other bag.  I had thought it might be a gringo thing, but she searched the bags of a British couple too.  I must exude either a cluelessness, a squareness, or both, that precludes me from being any sort of smuggler.  Hmmm.

The drive itself was interesting for a couple of reasons.  I saw first hand how rugged the Sierra Madre mountains are and how difficult it would be to conventionally defeat guerrillas hiding in them.  There are steep canyons, sheer cliffs, a lot of elevation change, and they are covered with a combination of jungle and forest vegetation.  Plus, I can already tell that these countries (while having a lot of poverty) are nothing like Laos, Cambodia or the place that shall not be named.   And, if the quality of a road, the amount of chain gas stations and fast food on said road, and the size and grandeur of the billboards advertising the same on said road is a measure of a country´s wealth, then El Salvador kicks Guatemala's ass.  I guess they used a lot of the $6 billion the U.S. and CIA spent here to prop up an indefensible regime in the 1980s on infrastructure and Yum Brands franchises (KFC, Pizza Hut, Tony Roma´s, etc.).

El Savador is the size of Massachusetts, but is Central America's third largest economy behind only Mexico and Costa Rica, but it is only starting to encourage tourism.  It follows that there is not a great tourist infrastructure of hotels (other than business hotels like the Intercontinental), hostels or guesthouses.  In fact the country is primarily recommended for two things.  The first is surfing.  Prior to the civil war, the beaches were (and are becoming again) renowned surf beaches with really large North-Shore-of-Hawaii-type waves and consistent curls and breaks.  Unfortunately, Colin don't surf.  The second is the nightlife, which does appeal.  Accordingly, I skipped the beach and decided to just check out the capital and call it a country.  Well, at least from Monday to Wednesday night, San Salvador's nightlife is no great shakes either.

Before I get to that, though, El Salvador does have its charms.  First, they use the dollar (or dollares), having abandoned their currency (and monetary policy) in 2001, which makes conversion easy, and some things are cheeeeeeap to the point that I wish I had brought my change jar of nickels and dimes.  Buses are $0.25.  Bottled water - $0.25.  Happy hour beers at an upscale bar?  $0.75.  Lunch at a place near the university including chicken, rice, tortillas, salad and a drink ... $1.50.  Second, similar to Guatemala, they love their '80s rock and metal, which I will take over Europe's technofetish and Khmer karaoke any day.  Third, everyone I met was really friendly, curious, helpful and outgoing.  I have - again - not experienced any of the "dangers" I have been warned about, but I have also exercised (at least some) common sense.

As noted above, I arrived late on Monday night.  The "hotel" I stayed at was in a niceish residential area (Wogs - it was right next to the Estadio Nacional!) but a quick wander found nothing open within a couple of blocks - not even a place selling beer or a pupusa, which is apparently the national dish of El Salvador.  Every block seems to have a pupuseria or two consisting of a few simple tables and a couple women making the things on a simple barbecue (see pic).  The problem is that pupusas suck.  A corn tortilla with a sliver of filling is only one tiny step above a corn tortilla without filling, and that is the Latino equivalent of rice, bread, oats, grits, taro, potato, pasta or tofu - cheap tasteless carbohydrate filler for the poor.  It is not food; it holds food up.  If it can only be stomached with lots of condiment, seasoning, sauce, butter or sugar, it sucks.  The moment anyone who started poor can afford it, they jettison these bland, but with subtle hints of cardboard and essence of dirt, survival staples in favor of foods with flavor.  Only us idle rich glorify the mundane.  Shredded Wheat!  Grapenuts!  Granola!  Energy Bars!  {Shuddering at the thought}.  At least my room had a TV so I could watch bad softcore porn in Spanish before bed.

The next two days and nights I explored the city, which mostly means I went to malls because that is where the action is here.  One day I walked to one of the Metrocentro mall, allegedly the largest in Central America.  Another night I went to two malls a little outside of town that are called "lifestyle centers" because a lot of people have moved to reside around them so that they can live their lives there at the mall.  And why not, since they have everything the modern Salvadoran needs?  Gyms, restaurants, cinemas, bars, and nightclubs.  Oh, and stores too.  All of which are completely Americanized, including a lot outright American chains like Bennigans, 9 West, and Papa Johns.  If it were not for me not seeing another paleface, I would have thought I was at the [insert American mall name here].  The contrast was when I walked around the old city center, which was like walking around a 100-square block flea market, but with more bootleg CDs, videos, pupusas, and guys with shotguns than one sees in the U.S.  To be fair, though, Guatemala (and now Hondruas) have guys with shotguns everywhere too - it is the preferred way to protect everything from wedding stores to bananas (see pic).

Meanwhile, in the course of all this, I somewhat unintentionally decided to find out if I indeed do have every stomach bug known to man, or, to put it another way, can I open my mouth in the shower?  It started with the $1.50 lunch at the cafeteria-style restaurant outside the university, when I unthinkingly ate the salad and drank the sweet fresca drink undoubtedly both washed and made with the local tap water.  It continued the next day when I went to another cafeteria-style restaurant in the gritty Centro and had the plato del dio (again including salad) and a limonada made with, I'm sure, the local tap water.  I don't know if it is a good or bad thing, but I appear to have passed this dubious test.  I can apparently drink all the polluted local tap water I want without getting the trots.  My poop may come out in the shape of benzene rings and the toilet paper may glow in the wastebasket (the plumbing is often allegedly too delicate for paper so one is directed you to use the bin - gross, but I suppose it is better than a clogged shitter), but I haven't had to carefully totter down the aisle in the bus to the worst of all things - a bus toilet -while clenching my sphincter against pissing out my asshole, and that, my friends, is a good thing.

I did have one good meal and one moderately entertaining night.  Tuesday I went to the Zona Rosa, an upscale area with restaurants and bars and had my best meal in El Salvador at a Peruvian restaurant, the Inka Grill.  Despite being a quasi-chain with seven outlets, my beef hearts and seafood gratin were quite nice.  There was no saving the rest of the evening, though.  Salvador does not party on Tuesdays, or at least not near me.  Wednesday, I ended up at the hipper of the two "lifestyle" malls and checked out its six restaurant/lounge/bar/nightclubs.  Most were dead, but the Thai/Japanese place had live music and a decent crowd of well/dressed 20-somethings.  It wasn't raging and most were in large groups speaking Spanish, but I enjoyed the music, some interesting cocktails (such as vodka, sake, beer, limon, and espresso), and observing the nouveau riche here that can afford several $6.00 cocktails.  It helped that the girls were pretty much the first attractive Salvadorans I had seen, but I have also seen what age and several children do to them, so ...

I don't think I really need to restate that I am in no rush to return, to lie and say my three days were too few, or that it was not with a heavy heart that I departed for:

Tegucigalpa, Honduras
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