El Salvador!

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End Aug 06, 2008

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Hotel Il Guadarno

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Hello again! In what has practically become a ritual over the last few entries of this blog, I must start with an apology for my lack of recent writing. Back on April 19th I admitted that I was thinking of discontinuing the journal altogether, which in hindsight was probably a good idea - not necessarily retiring (or dying...) at the peak of my "career" like Eric Cantona or Jeff Buckley, but at least having the common sense to realise that the blog was on its way out, and that it would be preferential to take a bow whilst still on somewhat of a high. Instead I have allowed it to limp on, like a wounded animal - too stubborn to die a peaceful death, but too weak to retain any of its previous dignity. As a man of extremes who believes in doing something right or not doing it at all, I now come to a set of crossroads - do I attempt to resurrect the blog to its former, frequently-updated status, or officially give up altogether and be free of its burden? Well the fact that you are reading this is probaby a fairly strong hint that I went with the former choice - the correct one, I think, in light of the recent blog entries from my parents, and the fact that my arrival in a new country has provided the option of a fresh start for the blog too.

The truth is that although I did get up to a lot of cool things during the last 2 months or so (most notably living with a Guatemalan family, hiking volcanos, and taking Spanish lessons), the main theme of that time was one of reading and self reflecting, which doesnīt lend itself to funny or interesting anecdotes as well as going out drinking with Mexican convicts does. But, having pretty much done as much reflecting as I think is possible, I hope that my time will now be filled with more blog-friendly events. So, what have I been up to recently? Well....

I wonīt talk too much about the last couple of weeks, as they have pretty much been covered by my parents. But I feel I must give a quick shout out to my Mum and Dad - when I told people that I was going to be spending 2 weeks with them in Guatemala, the majority responded with surprise that they would be willing to come out and visit me in such a supposedly "backward" country. But visit they did, and - at the ages of 50 and 57 respectively - got involved by travelling on chicken buses, making friends with local bums, and hiking cliffs and volcanos. Additionally, after having had the freedom of travelling on my own for about 15 weeks, one would imagine that the arrival of anyone - let alone oneīs parents - could be frustrating due to the restriction of said freedom for 2 weeks. But it is a testimament to them both that we had such a great time together, even though neither of them could get to the grips with the - letīs face it, fairly simple - rules of shithead, despite what must have been over 80 games. So kudos and thanks!

Upon their departure on Friday, I found myself feeling slightly homesick - a feeling that was somewhat strange, considering that there was virtually nothing I missed about being in England. Perhaps it was just that I have suddenly found myself on what seems like the final leg of my trip whereby, instead of being able to enjoy the freedom of going wherever and doing whatever I want, I am suddenly being forced to decide which places and activities I will have to forego due to time constraints.

Anyway, despite this feeling, I was very happy to be in Antigua - a beautiful city if ever I have seen one, and one that also offers a lot of home comforts. The only thing that I am not so keen on in regard to the town, is the MASSES of backpackers. One of the things that I have discovered during my travel-based reflections is that I donīt really like backpacking, or indeed, backpackers. Donīt get me wrong - I love travelling - but having imagined what my trip was going to be like based on Che Guevaraīs 50 year old tales of adventure and culture, and my own experiences of meeting locals and practicing my Spanish 5 years ago in Honduras, there are certain aspects of this trip that have irked me somewhat. For a start, backpacking doesnīt seem to be about adventure or culture - rather it is about spending a week zipping between a countryīs main tourist attractions on newly paved roads, using a public transportation system that seems more efficient than Englandīs, so that one can, to borrow a famous backpacker phrase, proclaim that they have "done" Guatemala. Nor is it about meeting and getting to know locals using their (semi) native language - rather it about discussing said tourist attractions with other English speaking backpackers during the one night that people actually get to know each ther before they speed off towards the next big attraction, like tourists on speed. In fact that is exactly what backpacking is - tourism - with the caveat that backpackers must be seen to buy lots of bracelets, dread or grow their hear, grow crap beards, begin to ignore rules of personal hygeine, and sit around sharing their pretentious thoughts about "those annoying American tourists", or of all their friends back home who are "stuck in the rat race".

Of course, despite all of this, there is the argument that backpacking (and tourism in general) is a good thing because of the money that it brings into these relatively poor countriesīeconomies. But who is this money really going to? Is it trickling down to the people in these countries who need it the most? Of course it isnīt, it is being soaked up either by locals who already had enough wealth to provide a tourist service in the first place or, more commonly, to the foreign owners of the most popular hostels and bars. A case in point is the Casa De La Iguana Hostel in Livinston, whose profits go straight into the pockets of the self proclaimed (yet unproven) well hung former stripper from the UK, who spends all of his time sitting around watching English programs on cable television, whilst presumably daydreaming about the next naked party that he has arranged. Another case in point is the nightlife in Antigua - as I went from bar to bar last Saturday night, I watched as English speaking backpackers from all over the globe poured money into the foreigner-owned establishmentsīcoffers as quickly as they poured beer down their throats, meanwhile gingerly stepping around the homeless locals who were sprawled out on the streets that linked one popular bar to another. Of course the exact same type of thing can be witnessed on a Friday night in Winchester, but somehow it gets to me that much more in a country that is as poor, and that has as unequal a distribution of wealth, as Guatemala. Only a couple of weeks ago I witnessed a bunch of young American women cooing over the "cute" little kids as they fed them marshmellows that theyīd brought to roast at the top of a volcano. Personally I found that "cute" was the last word on my mind as I witnessed these filthy clothed little kids, who couldnīt have been any older than 10, being forced to literally beg for food from their western friends due to the fact that their dayjob of selling sticks to foreigners for 35p wasnīt creating enough of an income for them and their families to eat. But each to their own I guess.

But of course, I am probably the worst kind of backpacker! Because I am yet to have a haircut, have bought at least 1 bracelet, have begun to shower less frequently than once a day, have grown what is definitely a contender for most "pathetic beard that I have seen on my travels", have constantly made use of my lonely planet book to stay in all the reccommended hostels and eat in all the reccommended restaurants, while benefitting from the great transport system, paved roads, and low prices that make travel here so easy... essentially I have done all of the aforementioned things - I just bitch about them whilst I do them! And I didnīt even buy a stick from those little kids, let alone give them any food!

In my defence, the reason that I didnīt give them anything was because I hate the fact that so many locals have to rely on tourists to try and make a living, and in the future I at least want to try and help them to be free of that, through volunteering or otherwise. And the only reason I bitch and moan about all of the above is that I wish things were different - that travelling was the adventure that I imagine it would have been even 20 years ago. But unfortunately it isnīt and so I figure that if I canīt beat them I might as well join them. Plus during my trip I have tried to get off the beaten track and spend more time getting to know each place that I stay, lived with a Guatemalan family, studied and tried to speak as much Spanish as possible, patronise local establishments where possible etc etc etc

*Self-righteous rant over* Annnnyyyywwwhhhhoooo........ as a disclaimer I should make it clear that the above is a one-sided hypocritical ramble that doesnīt really represent my true feelings about backpacking or backpackers, and that I do indeed love travelling - this trip has been an amazing experience so far; one in which I have done a lot of incredible things and met a lot of great people. I just had to get all of that off my chest.

So, again... what have I been up to recently?

Well, I ended up leaving Antigua on Monday morning in order to head to El Salvador. Unfortunately this meant killing a couple of hours in Guatemala City, which truly does live up to its reputation as one of the biggest shitholes in Latin America. The only highlight of my brief stay there was purchasing, and subsequently devouring, the fattest and straightest banana I have ever seen (it looked like a small yellow marrow). Just as the bus that was to take us across the border arrived, a middle aged man sat down next to me and began to attempt to converse in English. Due to linguistic difficulties it wasnīt the best conversation that Iīd ever had, only made worse by the fact that any silence between us was permeated by his Latin tinged-cries of "shit!" and "motherfucker!", and the smashing of one of his fists into the palm of his other hand. Keen not to get murdered by a psychopath, I kindly rejected his offer for me to accompany him as his bus-buddie, and instead chose a seat that was much further to the rear. But, as I closed my eyes and began to drift off to the dulcet tones of Tom Baxter, I felt a tapping on my shoulder; somewhat to my dismay, the old gentleman had followed me to the back of the bus and was now sitting next to me. After a few hours of conversation, I discovered that he lives in the East of El Salvador with his wife and two little kids, where he works as a taxi driver for about 7 dollars a day. And perhaps more interestingly, it became clear that the reason for his previous tourettes-like behaviour was that although he had managed, with the help of his brother in law, to secure a construction job for a company in Canada that would net him a cool 19 dollars an hour, he had just discovered from the Canadian embassy that his temporary work permit had been turned down. The majority of my journey was therefore spent looking through the wealth of paperwork that he pulled out from his Mary Poppins-like briefcase, which ranged from passport photocopies to proof of the ownership of his house; as a gringo, it seemed that he assumed I might be able to help him out in someway, and so not wanting to disappoint him I somewhat arbitrarily suggested that perhaps it was because the two year contract that had been offered to him was deemed too long to be seen as "temporary". He seemed quite enthused about the suggestion and, to cut a long story short, I am now honour bound to look for any relevant information on the internet (he doesnīt know how to use it), in return for which he bought be some delicious cake and invited me to come and meet his family in his home in San Miguel. To be honest I now feel somewhat guilty - he seemed so hopeful that I might be able to help him out, but as of yet I havenīt been able to find any concrete information regarding his work permit. Still, I am planning to go and see him at his home today, so that I can at least go with him to an internet café and help him try and seek the information he needs.

Having said my farewells to Carlos, I arrived in the Western Salvadoran town of Santa Ana, which I had heard was the location of one of the best hostels in Central America (at least in terms of value for money). And I was not let down - "Casa Frolaz" is run by local finca owner Javier who, having both money and free time in abundance, decided a few years ago to begin letting backpackers stay for relative pittance in his relatively beautiful colonial home, complete with TV and DVD collection, ensuite bathrooms and free-to-use kitchen. Although my three days and nights spent here were fairly uneventful, they were far from unpleasant, and I enjoyed the homely feeling that one sometimes misses after 4 months of traveling. Whatīs more is that there were three other people staying there who I already knew - a stoney faced yet friendly Lithuanian who I met in Livinston, and the Aussie couple who I met both at Finca Tatin and Finca El Paraisio. Small world.

As I sat that evening on my own in a Pupusa restaurant (the local delicacy - basically comprising of 2 fried tortillas filled with various delights), my earlier feelings of homesickness had been completely wiped away by my love for travel - a love that is sometimes hard to explain or describe. On my return we all watched the decidedly average film "John Q", whose only real saving grace was Denzel Washington (who, as it happens, I would definitely sleep with if I was gay.... or drunk). Actually the concept itself - revolving around the state of American healthcare - was quite interesting, but Iīve already had one rant this entry and so wonīt go into it. Suffice to say that whilst everyone in England seems to bitch non-stop about the ineptitude of the NHS, we could be much worse off.

The only noteworthy event of Tuesday was my visit to see the cheesy yet fairly entertaining new Indiana Jones movie - the rest of the day comprised of wandering around the city, going on the internet, reading, and chatting to the other backpackers at Casa Frolaz.

In fact, in what can only be attributed to the law of Sod, my travels have been fairly uneventful ever since I decided to revive the blog. I had been planning to hike one of the nearby volcanoes with a Dutch girl and a guy from New Zealand, but we were put off by the constant rain. In fact, due to said rain (among other factors), I have actually decided to skip out a lot of my planned travels in El Salvador, thus reducing my time here from about 25 days to aproximately10.

On Thursday morning I said my farewells to everyone at Casa Frolaz, and hopped onto a bus headed for the capital, San Salvador. Having dropped off my bag at the absolute dump of a hostel (thanks Lonely Planet), I headed to a nearby mall to check out what was on at the cinema. I was hoping to see the new Iron Man movie, but unfortunately they were only showing it in dubbed format, as opposed to in English with Spanish subtitles. I should probably mention that it is almost as if I am destined not to see this film - my first close call came a few weeks ago at Lago Atitlan, where I had noticed it was being shown in one of the bars by the dock. Unfortunately I was persuaded to take magic mushrooms by a somewhat mentally unstable Kiwi (a man from New Zealand, not a furry green fruit) and, due to the ensuing loss of sensation of time, we completely forgot about it. Another setback occurred In Santa Ana where, having checked beforehand on the internet that Iron Man was one of the chosen features, it was only upon my arrival at the theatre that I discovered it was only being shown in Spanish. So after this third failure my determination to see the movie was driven more by frustration than by desire, and my last hope lay with the recently built 11 screen multiplex in the centre of the city. Sure enough, the internet revealed that it was being shown, in English, at 19:30 that evening... hurrah! So Iīm sure you can imagine my dismay when, having walked about 40 minutes to get there, I was informed by the annoyingly attractive lady behind the counter (annoyingly because it meant that I couldnīt get angry at her...) that the movie was now being shown in Spanish instead. However, I wasnīt going to beaten that easily - the 21:45 showing would remain in English, so I decided to wait in the foodcourt and read my book until then. Having already missed an opportunity to see Iron Man four times, my excitement was reaching downright unimaginable levels as the seconds ticked by towards a quarter to ten. I guess I should have foreseen then, that at the last minute they had decided not to show the movie at all, and had replaced it with a "special choice" (whatever that means). I was gobsmacked.

So, what is the moral of the story? That tales about not seeing a film probably donīt make for exciting, or indeed interesting, reading, and almost definitely shouldnīt apear on travel blogs. But unfortunately the tale has already been written, and now it has been read, so we are all just going to have to deal with it.

After returning to read in the foodcourt a little while longer, I decided to head back to the hostel. Now I have to mention here that El Salvador, and particularly the capital, is considered to be an incredibly dangerous place. I had been warned my many a traveller of this considerable danger, but funnily enough all of these warnings came from those who had never actually been to the country. Of every single person that I spoke to who had actually visited, they informed me that they had come across only the warmth and helpfulness of the Savadoran people. I guess in fairness there is good reason to think of San Salvador as a dangerous place - I think that it has one of the highest murder rates in the world (I could be lying...), there was a brutal civil war that only ended in the previous decade, and one can spot shotgun-toting guards at establishments ranging from ice cream parlours to public parks and plazas. But the murder rate is artificially high due to the masses of gang-on-gang killing - the average citizen is rarely involved. And it is hard to believe that so many thousands of people died in such a horrific way in such recent living history - there is no tangible evidence of the civil war as far as I can tell. And Iīm told that the reason for all the armed guards is that following the end of the civil war, there were thousands upon thousands of guns that had to be confiscated or handed in, and it was thought that the best way to utilise them would be to try and improve security.

Anyway, determined to prove all the haters wrong, I ignored the lonely planetīs overly cautious advice of always using taxis after dark and embarked on my trek back "home". And indeed they were proved wrong - apart from the savage bumraping, robbery and assualt, I made it back relatively unscathed.

*I should apologise, as Iīm sure some will say that that rather distasteful joke only serves to tempt fate, but luckily I donīt believe in fate.*

Anyway the only real points of interest during my walk were the sporadic placements of machine gun wielding policemen, and the well dressed ladies who, gathered around on street corners, would exhibit the famous Salvadoran warmth and friendliness by blowing kisses and shaking their boobs at me... must be the new Lynx Iīm wearing. The night was capped off by a fantastic live musical performance - a local bum merrily jigging around whilst playing some sort of flute-like instrument which, due to the lack of any money-collecting device, I can only assume was for pleasure as opposed to work.

The following day was another fairly uneventful one - I basically spent the entire day wandering around the city, occasionally peering into some random museums and other such cultural establishments. After going to see the decidedly average movie 21 Blackjack, I happened across the New Zealander who was staying with me at Casa Frolaz and Santa Ana. We arranged to meet for a beer later, but I ended up getting lost and being unable to find the bar in question.... sorry mate.

On Saturday I did some more wandering, this time in the old City Centre, where I spent the majority of the day sitting in parks and reading, whilst enjoying the background music of some local OAPs playing in their authentic Salvadoran band. That evening was perhaps one of the best of my trip, as I stayed over at the house of a young Salvadoran man that I met on the internet. Now I know what youīre thinking - "Has Elliot finally come out and, having joined an online Salvador dating agency, met the love of his life?" Well actually I remain as straight as ever, and the internet site in question was Couchsurfing.com. For those of you who havenīt heard of it, is basically gives people the opportunity to volunteer to host travellers like myself for the night, free of charge. But as well as a place to stay, it normally gives the chance for one to get to know someone who actually lives in the country that theyīre visiting, as opposed to just other backpackers. My host went by the name of Lucho Zuniga, a 25 year old photographer who lives with his older brother (who happens to be the spitting image of Anthony Anderson, or "Teddy" from Hang Time). By the end of the night I was pretty much in awe of the welcoming and friendly nature of the Zunigas, as well as their friends and, in fact, the Salvadoran people in general. Lucho had picked up his New York dwelling best friend, whom he hadnīt seen for 6 years, that very day, and was happy to invite me - a complete stranger - along for the celebration. We first headed to an American style restaurant where I met a few more of his friends, and ended up heading to a couple of bars and clubs later on. Rather than giving an indepth description of what went on, here are a few highlights:

Insult of the night: "You are a penis erected".
Nickname of the night: Foreskin.
Favourite moment of the night: Persuading an incredibly sexy local woman to dance with me, somewhat erotically.
Least favourite moment of the night: Watching her make her excuses and leave, after approximately 15 seconds of my incompetent attempts at mirroring her somewhat advanced Latino moves.
Favourite aspects of Salvadoran nightlife: That everyone is incredibly friendly, that I didnīt detect a single ounce of aggression the whole night, and that everyone is just there to have fun, as opposed to trying to look "cool".

So overall it was a great night, and although they said I could stay for another couple of days if I wanted to, I decided to head to San Miguel the following day as I have a lot to see in the following weeks. In fact I have so much to see that I am going to have to miss out on Costa Rica and Panama, which makes the title of this blog somewhat of a farce. On the subject of this title, my mum mentioned that my mission to get a tan has been a success; whilst this is partly true, the remainder of my trip will take place during the rainy season, and so unfortunately I think that any colour I may have gained will have dissapeared by the time I return to England. In fact, my dreams of arriving home "tanned, toned and looking healthy" appear less and less likely, considering my recent addiciton to shocking amounts of chocolate based goods, and the fact that my eyes remain drier than Twigīs knuckle skin. But even if I do return home flabby, pasty and bleary eyed, at least I will do so having had a great 6 months.

So today I am writing on what is my second day in San Miguel, which can be described in one word as "hot". Iīve never known anything like it; from the moment I wake up to the moment I drift off to sleep at night, every inch of my body is covered in a thin film of sweat. So much so in fact, that there is a constant white foam under my armpits, presumably created by the mingling of the sweat with my deoderant... yum. An interesting technique that I have noticed the local men using, which I at least presume serves to combat the heat, is to lift oneīs shirt to just above the first bulge of oneīs paunch, and let it rest there, whilst lovingly patting and caressing it when deemed necessary. Unfortunately, despite my sweet tooth, my paunch remains comparatively pathetic, but I hope to have it grow enough by the end of my trip to follow the lead of these portly fellows.

Anyway, I must dash. I hope everyone is well, and look forward to seeing you all back home. Hasta luego.

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