Perfect timing was to be our bag for the next day. We slept in a bit, then stuffed around a bit getting organised to leave. As we left the hostel we asked what time the bus would be coming past – there was only a couple a day, and we didn't want to wait until the afternoon.
I had asked someone the day before, and they had concurred with the, now increasingly unreliable, Lonely Planet – the bus should come in about 9.
“El autobus? Esta alli” she said as she pointed out the bus just about to leave from near the plaza. Happily they didn't seem to be in too much of a hurry and were happy to wait for four backpackers to crowd in with their stuff.
From Alegría we headed on into the hills and to Santiago de Maria. There was to be a fair few bus changes that day, but it was pretty simple to figure out where to go – you just made sure you were clear on your ultimate destination and people were keen to point you in the right direction. Once, jammed into some seats on a crowded bus with our backpacks
on our laps, we were told to change buses; but I think this was simply a game of 'let's mess with the gringos'.
Our ultimate destination was the small town of Perquín
. To get there we knew we had to go from San Miguel, and somehow we had to get there. First, we arrived in Santiago de Maria, and, following the instructions given to us back in Alegría, walked up the street with the Citibank on the corner to find the bus to San Miguel. Simple. Found the street with the Citibank, but no bus. And, let's be honest, if the Citibank is on the corner there are two streets that those directions will apply to, not to mention which way down the street do you walk?
Not to worry – I accosted some bloke and asked for directions. He pointed us the right way, then stopped.
“Adonde van?” he asked, where are you off to?
“Vamos a Perquín, via San Miguel.”
“Ay, no no no,” he replied, shaking his head ruefully, “Es mejor viajar a El Triunfo de aqui, y de allá va a San Miguel.”
He disagreed with the instructions we had been given, clearly. You
could go from Santiago de Maria direct to San Miguel, thence to Perquín, but the bus was slow and the road terrible. It would be better for us to go to El Triunfo, then grab a passing bus along the Panamerican to San Miguel, then go to Perquín.
We bowed to his superior knowledge – by this stage we had learned by this stage to simply trust people. We headed for Triunfo. Plenty of Spanish practice on the bus, too, as the sellers were fighting each other to yell at us. The music changed as soon as we got on, too, I think for our benefit. Roxette, Air Supply – the hits kept coming.
Arriving at al El Triunfo we found a scattering of stalls and random minbuses at the junction with the Panamerican Highway. We grabbed the first bus we saw going from San Salvador to San Miguel. It wasn't the number we had been told, but it appeared to be going the right way – by now we were going with the flow. It was a Pullman type bus with plush seats and everything. But full, so we stood. The arrival at San Miguel was to
an actual bus station (which, by this stage was a bit of a novelty). The bus to Perquín we were looking for was the 332, and we knew that we had missed it by a good half hour, so we went upstairs to see what we could find for lunch.
Fried chicken, some more fried chicken, and some white poultry cooked in hot oil. We got fried chicken, and took our time with it – the 332 to Perquín would be here in another hour. On going back downstairs we of course discovered that the 332 we had already missed was in fact just pulling out - we managed to get on it and were on our way again. We headed into the mountains, away from the coast, and the country got rougher. Not so much Central American jungle as the familiar dry tropics. And as the country got tougher, the people got friendlier – more smiles, more 'bloke nods', and more FMLN logos painted everywhere – this was left wing country. We jumped off at Perquín, just a touch relieved to be off the 5 different buses. The whole day's travel had cost us less than $2 AUD
Laguna de Alegría
It's supposed to have curative properties - not sure if this extends to old age
Perquín is a little town famous as the stronghold of the FMLN during the nasty civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s.There wasn't that many accommodation options there - the biggest hostel was pretty crappy looking. We had been told to find the famous Abuelita, who seemed to own much of the town. She had a room available at her place, out the back of a cafe/ gift shop, but it had only 2 single beds, so she got her granddaughter to take us down the street where she rents out rooms in an old house that no one lives in any more. It had been converted to a hostel by dint of sticking up bits of plywood to form rooms. Very basic, but it had hot water and there was no one else there, so we had the pick of the rooms and the house to ourselves.
You wouldn't have called the place a touristy town, but there was plenty to do. The FMLN run museum was interesting, and we did spot a few domestic tourists there as well. Many photos and old guns, and it included the remains of a helicopter which had been
brought down during the war. It was also the place to organise a tour around the hills and the old guerilla trails. We met Felipe and he was keen to take us around the following day, from 7.30 am to beat the heat.
Most of the town was closed for dinner, but we found a place a bit down the hill (Perquín Real). It was also a hostel, but also empty. We were again the only gringos in the town. There was a lady there watching a novela on the telly and she said she could cook us a feed. She closed the kitchen door and went back to cook. I spotted her going out the other door and racing up to the shops to get stuff to cook. Good food though.
Up at stupid o'clock once again, we met Felipe at the square and went off to do the walk. First step was a ute down to the next junction, then a chicken bus to Mozote. Mozote was the site of a massacre in 1981. None of us wanted to see it – it's not the sort of thing you feel comfortable gawking at as a tourist.
But it was worth it. They were very keen to show us this part of their history, and happy that a bunch of Australians wanted to see it.
At a time when most Australians were mostly concerned about World Series Cricket and stopping the Franklin Dam El Salvador was embroiled in a vicious civil war. The leftist forces in the country had enough of the US backed right wing administration and a conflict began. As part of this, in 1981 the government forces began an offensive against the guerillas in the Morazán region in the North east of El Salvador. At the time, and now, the region was a stronghold for the leftist guerillas. The army pushed through from San Miguel in the south and ended up at Mozote on 11th Dec 1981. Almost all the men in town were away either working in the coffee plantations or fighting, so, for the next 2 days, the army massacred the population of the town.
(The following paragraph is a bit heavy)The army also rounded up people from the surrounding villages and brought them to the town. The total dead was 1116 people, of which 80% were children. Babies were
thrown into the air and caught on bayonets, all girls older than 9 were separated from the group and raped over the 2 days before being murdered. 3 people escaped, one little girl ran away while her brother was being shot, one woman was holding her child while she was being executed but only her child died and she hid under bodies. Apparently she was never the same afterwards. One other woman escaped as she was the last one in a line of people to be executed and played dead before sneaking away. Her name was Rubia, and she was the one that brought the news of the massacre. She died on 2007 of natural causes and was buried at the memorial.
The scene of the massacre was now a serene and very well looked after memorial. The church in the village had been painted up, and there was a garden out the back very well looked after, under a huge mango tree. The tree had been the scene of some pretty horrific atrocities – women, men and children were found hanging in it – but it was left there as a reminder, and turned into a place a
The whole point was not to forget this sort of thing. Felipe himself was eleven in 1981 and living nearby in Perquín. He pointed out that this was simply the biggest of massacres which occurred in Morazán, and, rather than breaking the will of the guerillas, simply served to ensure that they would never, ever give up the fight.
Felipe also pointed out that it was not all one sided. Both the government and the rebels committed atrocities, and places like Mozote were important to teach the kids of El Salvador, whose responsibility it is to build the country, that you cannot build a country on blood and terror.
Felipe himself went to a training camp in Nicaragua when he was 15 and came back after a year to fight against the government in the hills of Morazán.
He then took us for a walk along some of the bush trails uses during the war, and also used now by jovenes on their way to have a swim in the beautiful Rio Sapo, which was also a strategic point during the civil war. On the way back it was unseasonally hot. Normally it reached a maximum
of 16 here in the hills at this time of the year, but it was easily double that today. Felipe had a theory about global warming being the fault of earthquakes or some such, but by the at time my brain was hurting from so much interpreting for the others (Felipe spoke no English), so I didn't argue. At least he couldn't read Andrew Bolt. Felipe was a top bloke, and he had spent a good 4 hours with us, given us a wealth of information. For all this he asked the princely sum of $20 – well worth it.
Catching the ute back the hill I was actually hanging of the back of the Hilux. It had a frame installed over the top. I, and four other blokes, could fit one foot on the tail gate and one arm on the frame. A bit of fun to start with, by the end of the journey my arm was about to fall off. Dropping off the back would mean a quick roll, then acquaintance with the car behind. No other option but to hang on tight, really. Still, it answered the question I had never really asked – you
can, in fact, fit 38 people into a 2WD Hilux.
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