San Salvador, El Salvador
Chicken buses, hordes of men with firearms, stops by the police, crashing into a car, the view atop a volcano, lavish lifestyles, a small mountain town, and Shoel's explosive intestines are just a few of the memories I have from my brief time in El Salvador.
After a lingering morning in Santa Rosa de Copán that included a visit to the famed Flor de Copán cigar store (we didn’t have time for the factory itself), Shoel and I began shuffling buses headed towards the Honduran border with El Salvador.
On our first bus of the day I spotted a backpack amidst the locals—a young couple from the States had transferred buses and were headed towards the border. It was uncommon enough to find a pair American backpackers, but when they told me they were both attending the tiny college where I picked up my undergrad (Southern Oregon University) I could scarcely believe it. They had an ambitious (albeit ass-numbing) task they were set on completing: busing from Panama to Oregon over the course of only a handful of weeks.
There's nothing like walking across a border checkpoint with a backpack on to remind you that you're changing countries (and time zones). Backwards and forwards my clocks go every time I cross a border (-1 hour from Mexico to Belize; +1 from Belize to Honduras; -1 from Honduras to El Salvador; and it'll be +1 from El Salvador to Guatemala—yeesh!).
Shall we count how many times our bus was stopped, boarded, and tossed by police on the way to the capital? Not once, not twice, but three times! One such encounter even had the majority of the passengers marched off and lined up along the side of the road.
A young girl sitting next to Shoel said they were looking for contraband, and at one of our stops the cops decided to throw a whole mess of boxes off the bus. I didn't really care that much about the searches (as my bag wasn't of much interest to them), but I did mind sitting in an idle bus in the heat of the afternoon sun.
Inside the Capital
San Salvador (and El Salvador on a whole) is like a thin coin with two very distinct sides: privileged and poor—and I think the likelihood of flipped coin landing on its edge is just about as probable as walking down the street and meeting a middle-class 'Salvadorian.
Upon entering the polluted capital I thought to myself: Hooray! No more mental math! El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency (now). …Oh wait, what's wrong with these prices? Is that a Ferrari dealership?
The three hour bus ride cost only $1.30, but it ended up costing us nearly three times that amount just to make a simple phone call to a cell phone. The recipient: Otto, an El Salvadorian friend of Shoel's who spent a chunk of his life living in Canada.
Otto, by his own admittance, is a "privileged boy." He's got the type of warm and outgoing personality that makes you feel instantly comfortable with him, but was born into a lifestyle where he has yet to ride on the type of transport that Shoel and I arrived in.
San Salvador is so overrun with men toting firearms it feels like martial law was declared—except these aren't the police, they're just masses of shotgun-wielding private security guards camping in front of everything from churches to supermarkets. I honestly think there's more armed guards in San Salvador than there's lawyers in New York. It'd be one thing if these guys were trained, but I get the feeling that someone just tossed an average-Joe a weapon or two, a grey shirt, and a spot to stand in.
On our second night in town we were getting a lift from one of Otto's co-workers from the Canadian embassy when we slammed into another car—T-boning it in the middle of a busy intersection. The car was trying to cross four lanes of stop-and-go traffic, making it all the way to the last lane before we slammed into the passenger side.
Considering the speed at which we were traveling, all were impressed with how well our sedan held up. Thankfully no serious injuries resulted. Apparently you can't move the car after an accident in El Salvador until the police arrive, so for about 25 minutes our vehicle clogged the middle of the intersection. I passed the time by asking Otto how people say the names of car brands in Spanish (since they don't pronounce the letter H and V turns into something like a B)—Chevy was a fun one.
I find that I'm forced to break my keep your passport in the room rule here. The frequency in which I've had to present my identification to law enforcement is the highest of any country I've encountered, and I really don't care for it. Shoel and I were even approached by a cop while idling inside a taxi at stoplight. Crazy.
Shoel has been quite a trooper these past seven days. After he surfaced from one of his advanced dives at Útila he was feeling pretty crummy, and spent much of the following day at the "doctor's" office waiting for an examination. The diagnosis, a parasite had setup shop in his stomach. He had to stop his diving (didn't get to complete the advanced course) and a week later he's still hurting pretty bad.
I know what poor looks like, so I've got a pretty good idea of what it looks like to be poor in El Salvador, but what I was really impressed to see was how the privileged live here. I was eavesdropping on a conversation between some young Canadian travelers at my hotel and a local (who was a friend of someone in the group). The 20-something girl was casually telling her visitors their options for the day: "We could go to my place at the beach, but it's kind of mess from the last party we just had, or we could go up to my lake-house, or we could spend the afternoon at the country club…"
Outside of the notoriously dangerous city center, million-dollar homes dot the landscape, posh condos and chic restaurants line the streets, and multi-story malls filled with expensive stores are as common as the Pizza Hut's. The design and interiors of the some of the malls and restaurants are incredible—I could almost swear I was in California. With a minimum wage of $150 a month, only the upper echelon of the El Salvadorian society can afford to spend in such places.
It seems that governmental instability and the American dollar is ripping the country into two dangerously distinct classes. Without a middle-class to support the economy (the poor don't have any money to spend and the rich invest it elsewhere) I think the society here, much like the awakening volcano that looks down onto the capital city, is a disaster waiting to happen.
I needed a change of view, and the thought of leaving El Salvador after only visiting the capital didn't sit well with either of us, so after successfully navigating unfamiliar city buses we hopped on a (former school) bus headed for the small, out of the way village of Suchitoto.
Suchitoto is about 50 kilometers northeast of San Salvador, and sports simple, cobblestone streets, a mellow pace of life, and a great view of Lake Suchitlán. Tourism doesn't seem to be a problem in El Salvador, so even small towns like this remain relatively intact. I've never had such a hard time finding a postcard in a country before.
We were caught up in quite the afternoon downpour (courtesy of the rainy-season), and were fairly soaked as we caught the last bus headed back into San Salvador. Riding on these old school buses is quite entertaining—it feels like like I'm coming home from a school fieldtrip. It's funny how small the seats are to me now.
I looked across the aisle and back a seat to the sight of a local taking something out of a plastic bag. Were those feathers? I turned around and told a semi-conscious Shoel that I thought the kid had a dead pigeon or something. But only moments after I finished my statement the animal was revealed—a live chicken. Huh, I thought, I guess the nickname "chicken bus" isn't a misnomer after all.
So Long El Salvador
With Shoel, the other half of Delta Force and my enjoyable travel companion for the past two weeks, departing to meet his friend flying into Nicaragua tomorrow I'm left assessing my desire to be here.
I look at the map, research on the Internet, read in my guidebook, and talk with locals, but hard as I try I can't seem to find any particular reason to stay in El Salvador. The constant warnings regarding my personal safety and the disproportional costs needed for me to live in this country curbs my curiosity—especially when I know the inexpensive and rewarding country of Guatemala is so close.
Tomorrow I'm jumping on one of those luxurious buses that, for $11, will take me non-stop to the capital of Guatemala.
I'm moving much too fast. Three nights in Belize, ten nights in Honduras, four nights in El Salvador—this pace is ridiculous. When I hit Guatemala I have every intention of slowing my travel way down. I'm happier when I put myself in places that allow me to (affordably) explore, absorb, and reflect on the environment I'm living in.
I liken travel to strolling through a large art museum. Much like walking past hundreds of works of art, when you move too fast the paintings begin to lose detail and significance.
Pace is an important part of the travel experience. Travelers who try and do an entire region of the world in a few weeks see many exhibits, but most fail to pause long enough to see the brush strokes that make up the cultural paintings before them.
This is why I felt bad for the two kids from SOU busing from Panama to Oregon (mostly in 1st class buses). Sure, it sounds like a neat accomplishment, but they're moving so fast they're hardly able to smell the countries, let alone taste them.
I'm going to take some of my own advice in Guatemala… Saunter slowly, pause, sit, study, absorb, enjoy.
My camera is just about kaput. It's like a victim of a crime that's rapidly losing blood. Turning on only when you hold it at a particular angle, shutting off while I'm composing a shot through the tiny (inaccurate) viewfinder, watching the lens fail to retract into the body—the little guy is a wreck. The past week has left me with a device that's deteriorating so fast that it'll probably be useless by the end of the month.
I've been searching for some type of (temporary?) replacement, but every digital camera I come across is two or three times as expensive as the same model would be in the U.S. (think US$500+ for most). It would probably cost less to have one bought and mailed to me (ouch—US$100 for FedEx) than pick one up here.
I really enjoyed using Shoel's (father's) classic 35mm, and have considered adding the additional weight to my pack and person for such a camera, but still need a digital friend for the convenience (and this Web site).
…What I need to find is the black-market dealer where all the cameras stolen from tourists end up.