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Published: March 6th 2019
Men on Fire
Mimicking the running of the bulls, enhanced by fireworks.
My first night in El Salvador and I was chased around the cobblestone alleyways by youth wearing fireworks. This is a thing apparently.
Luckily, I had a snoot full of rum, and can run fairly efficiently in flip flops.
Me and all the townsfolk of Suchitoto were happily terrorized for hours by these teens mimicking Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls with exploding pyrotechnics strapped to their backs as they stampede through the darkened streets. I’ve never laughed so hard and been so confused, in all my life.
It just so happens this is the week Suchitoto celebrates their patron saint, the Virgin Lucy. I’ve lucked out again! There are a weeks worth of festivities throughout the town with live music, a carnival, street dances, fireworks, and a beauty contest to crown this year’s Queen of Suchitoto. The place is rife with parades, processions, and more.
Suddenly I’m reliving my 50th birthday week in Barcelona all over again. Barcelona is just a little...Gaudi
For my visit through El Salvador, I’ve selected the rustic pueblo of Suchitoto as my ground zero. Back in the late 1980’s, towns like these were off limits to foreign travelers like me because of that pesky little
Surf beach at sunset. Vida Loca!
Civil War gripping the countryside. My friend Linda and I were naively reckless surfer girls and we clung to the surf coastline, never venturing inland.
Today, I arrive by way of public bus, listening to my music and contemplating out the window as the bumpy roadway drops us down into endless fields of sugar cane. I am chuffed. There is an acrid sweet smell in the air that signifies a pending cane harvest. The fluffy top tufts of the cane stalks wave to me on a breeze.
I love sugar cane. Because it makes rum.
In particular, my tipple, Nicaraguan Flor de Caña 18 which I’ve discovered sells for dirt cheap in these parts. Partaking!
Oh, and Exciting News...My Guatemalan friend I nicknamed my “Pair of Brown Eyes" is finished his work in Antigua and wants to rendezvous with me in Suchitoto. His exchange on my WhatsApp - while I was still in Honduras - was simple. "Buy fireworks. Try not to get busted at the border."
He was joking right? Or was he?
I bummed a ride out of Tegucigalpa with a vanload of friendly Aussies staying at my hostel. Their driver was the
Salvadoran's favourite snack food. Pupusas are for sale everywhere.
only one that had carnal knowledge about my cargo. As we backtracked through to the Guatemalan border, I felt like a drug mule sitting on a box of $200 worth of explosives.
Although it’s not illegal to buy them in Honduras or Guatemala, I had been told if I got found out at the border, to smile and offer a bribe. Okay. No problemo
. I’m fairly fluent at speaking naïve tourist.
I was feeling pretty confident until I saw a bead of sweat cascade down the driver’s brow as he schmoozed the border guards circling our van. What the hell? ARE these legal or not?
Seriously considered unaliving ol’ Brown Eyes.
It was beginning to rain and the portly officers seemed irritated by the potential of having to climb up onto the roof to unload our backpacks secured under tarps. So instead, they lazily waved us through.
I swear I didn’t breathe once during the whole inspection.
At the El Salvador border. Super laxadaisy. Much to my relief. I had been feeling pretty Midnight Express by then, trying not to lose my shit...literally.
Bad breakfast burrito. You know.
Their border officers were sitting on
Baby You're a Firework
Some of my pyrotechnics that put the town to shame!
the side of the road and they didn’t even board the public bus, nor did I get an entry stamp in my passport. Wasn’t going to point that out.
My Pair of Brown Eyes fields a call from me in hysterics at the mandatory truck-stop. He is laughing so hard he can’t speak. "Calm down. Fireworks aren’t a big deal. You’ll be fine."
Turns out fireworks aren’t a big deal and hugely popular, and legal in El Salvador. Like. Stupid. Popular. My Pair of Brown Eyes knew they are also super expensive to buy in San Salvador so hence a procurement in Honduras. He was right. It was fine. Turns out, El Salvador is like the Wild Wild West of the Central Americas. Anything goes here. No one bats an eye. As long as you aren’t waving a gun around, do whatever.
My one star hotel in Suchitoto is sufficient, but it's surrounded by a travelling carnival, making my room lite up with flashing colours and dinging bells from all the gaming trailers, while Despacito is played over and over at an inhumane level.
My Pair of Brown Eyes scolds me, “You should have booked down
The vistas overlooking the lake
the street.” How was I to know there is a cozy, quaint Los Almendaros de San Lorenzo with an azul pool that is colder than the Arctic, he walks over and charms their bellboy, who for $2, will let me sneak in at midday for a swim when it’s stupid humid out. Did I mention how humid El Salvador is?
At twilight, the whole town is out and electric. At the main square, the church sits glowing white under where everyone gathers. It is completely surrounded by kiddy rides and a rickety Ferris Wheel. We shoot plastic ducks and whip balls at targets for $1 to try to win a stuffy.
El Salvador's vibe is completely about community. Families and neighbours hang out and there’s a real pride and purpose in everything they do together.
Unfortunately I notice right away Salvadoran women are snubbing me and I don’t know why. Most of them refuse to acknowledge my existence, let alone answer a question if I ask. I thought I wasn’t pronouncing things right, but they’d look around me to address my Pair of Brown Eyes instead. “Tell her, we don’t have that here.” And then
Nothing like whiling away the heat playing a game of chance
give me a dirty look and retreat. When I point it out to my Pair of Brown Eyes, he shrugs. "Yah, they are known to be quite bitchy to female foreigners."
Under all the lamp standards on the dark street corners, the locals are spontaneously having a dance off. We stop to watch, partaking only when we realize we are the only ones left standing around. It’s a bit embarrassing because everyone is out in their Sunday best and we look frumpy in our backpacking couture.
Us tourists. A juicy target for the town's youth, who are wearing monster costumes and machetes, won’t let us pass by until we hand over money. They jeer and scream trying to scare the shit out of us. I know it’s all in fun, but this could go horribly wrong if a foreigner misinterprets their intentions. We push past them, but I spot My pair of Brown Eyes slide a few Colons to the ones behaving respectfully. Not going to lie, I got a bit torked up, my hyper-vigilance a bit of a liability after 30 years inside a prison with real monsters
For dinner, we are searching for a famous
I want that stuffy
Shooting ducks in Suchitoto
Pupuseria somewhere around here. My Pair of Brown Eyes illogically loves these things and flirts with the owner, asking if she will teach us how to make them. He gets shuffled into the family kitchen and I tag reluctantly along, next thing I know I’m wearing an apron and up to my elbows in dough. We are told ours are for free.
Though, I don’t understand the pupusa’s appeal exactly. It’s like eating raw corn dough stuffed with dried out vegetables. And, I swear Gloria the owner purposely put chicharrones on mine hoping I’d die some dramatic vegan death, maybe so she could steal the affections of my Pair of Brown Eyes. I did say soy vegetariana a few times. She gives me the dagger-eyes every time his back is turned. He is oblivious to all her fuss.
The float for the Queen’s procession goes by the Pupuseria with the whole town following behind singing and dancing, so we depart to join in. The crowned winner is stunningly beautiful. She’s called Andrea too, so naturally I feel strangely devoted to her.
As we wander through the dark cobblestones, the crowds thicken. The live band gets louder. There’s
Stop the Violence against Women
Salvadoran women are trying to start a movement to stop the violence against them. Femicide is highest here in El Salvador
this sheer anticipation you can cut with a knife. Suddenly, here comes a dozen young men dressed like paper mâché bulls, chasing everyone around as fireworks explode.
I’ve already seen this spectacle on my day one, so I don’t panic, but my Pair of Brown Eyes shrieks and runs off. And that pretty much kicks off the rest of our night. I’ve never laughed so hard or drank so much rum in all my life.
At some point, we fall back into our hotel lobby in hysterics. Weirdly, there are about a dozen millennials hanging out, they seem overwhelmed by this town’s crazy antics and have taken shelter. I announce our intention of going up to the rooftop to fire off my cache of explosives and drink the rest of my Flor de Caña I bought earlier at a caged corner store down the street for $7. I invite them to join us.
What ensued next was sheer pandemonium.
“What the hell did you buy!” Delighted my Pair of Brown Eyes.
“I don’t know.” “Fireworks.”
He’s busting. The stuff I purchased is apparently the kind of pyrotechnics you’d get during Vancouver’s Symphony of Lights.
Carnival's in Town
Waiting on customers to board the merry go round
Massive. I didn’t know. Explosions start going off over our heads, putting the town of Suchitoto’s own competing fireworks display to shame. All the townsfolk ended up abandoning theirs and surrounded our hotel to watch as continuous detonations roar overhead. We can hear an audible ooooh
as we light ‘em up.
I’m pretty sure some of those young Aussie will tell of the night this crazy Canadian almost catches the Iglesia Santa Lucia church on fire as the sparks rain down on it after each powerful boom. My Pair of Brown Eyes is hopping around merrily trying to light them off as quickly as he can. My ears are still ringing.
Early the following morning my eyes fly open, my Pair of Brown Eyes is still snoring but I'm wide awake. No time for hangovers. Vámonos!
Up on the rooftop, a cool breeze & spectacular sunrise greet me with lovely birds chirping in the lane. I clean up last night’s paper mâché carnage.
My Pair of Brown Eyes won’t be up for a while, so I decide to take a walk through the town. Suchitoto sits perched, overlooking the stunning lake Suchitlan. Every
Fish Market La Libertad
Little girl poses a bit when she sees my phone
vista is beautiful. So are the red crumbly tile roofs and brightly painted houses. I snap a few photos for Insta and stroll. Suns up, and so is the humidity but I tell myself I can deal.
Gangs of school-aged children greet me curiously, they have the day off today and are looking for trouble. That reminds me, I need to find the post office and mail off a card to my niece. She’s eight now and enjoys getting my posts from around the world, even if they do sometimes arrive a year after I’ve sent them.
In my continuous wanders of the mishmash of streets, I come across a women’s cooperative that makes those amazing midnight blue Indigo products I remember from the 80’s. I admire the frocks blowing in the tienda’s shadows. My Hortie genes kick in.
Indigofera sufruticosa is a plant that was produced on a massive scale in El Salvador during the 1600's until it was replaced by a coffee cash crop.
The shop owner is surprisingly nice to me, and painstakingly explains how their organization is trying to combat violence against women here in El Salvador. Women are severely marginalized, and
Fancy little cafe, offering gentrified trendy food
femicide here is the highest rate of the Latin Americas. She asks if I want to make something.
And just like that, I spend the morning with her making a scarf with butterflies while we discuss the issues facing Salvadoran women today.
She shares her own life story. I struggle a bit with the translation, I’m not quite fluent and she speaks softly, so we have lots of comfortable silences. She shows me how to painstakingly sew parts of the scarf so that a pattern will occur. Suddenly I feel so very crafty.
Then she takes me out back to drums of bubbling liquid, vile green rot wafts up as you give it a mix. Geared up with heavy gloves and smock, I dip my scarf into the vat again and again until the most vivid blue I’ve ever seen materializes. We rinse and then hang up my special project to dry.
While having a coffee, I’m introduced to the other women milling around, all part of the cooperative. They want to know what my life as a woman in Canada is really like.
I try to tell them in my broken Spanish. My job is
Streets of Suchitoto
Townsfolk dancing the night away
a Carcelera. I explain that as a correctional officer, I’ve struggled in a man’s domain to prove myself and my worth. A different fight yes, but they see the familiarity. We bond. We laugh. The posters adorning the walls advertise planned marches and strong slogans that indicate their desire for change. Women Power.
They’ve got the right idea, as long as they stand united together, change will come. It’s all hugs and side kisses for me as I leave. I finally comprehend the general bitchiness vibe I was picking up earlier on. These strong Salvadoran women, although they are a force to be reckoned with, see my touristy privileged self a threat. and now that i know that, I can appreciate them so much more. Warriors, all of them.
My Whats App chimes, my Pair of Brown Eyes wants to know where I am. Some men sweeping street debris from the celebrations of last night had given me directions to an inexpensive lunch Comedor. It’s in a courtyard of what I think might be a school, called Centro Arte para La Paz.
The American Nun in charge sits in the shade with her labradoodle, chatting with each table.
The Inglaisa Santa Lucia
The big white glowing church in the town centre
I’m trying not to freak out, but today it’s too blistering hot for a colossal hangover, and I’m fading fast while I wait for my fried Tilapia and salad to arrive.
Sister Peggy is fully embedded here in Suchitoto, she’s in her 80’s and so vibrant. It was her I saw last night, dancing in the streets. I was like, who is this old lady? She’s fantastic!
Her love for Salvadorans is evident. This compound she runs provides the local youth a safe haven to learn skills in art, music, computers, ESL, cooking, waiting tables. She states plainly, "So they won’t be so tempted to join a gang."
My Pair of Brown Eyes meets up with me and announces we are going on a late afternoon jungle trek. I’m like hell no. He’s made a few calls and found a waterfall called Cascada de la Tercios.
We arrive there by taxi, but it was only after the steep descent, we realized, it’s dry season. No waterfall. The hexagon shaped rocks look like Giants Causeway. Amusingly, the park gatekeeper shows us a video on his phone of what it usually likes when water is cascading down it.
Rickety Ferris Wheel
These traveling circuses rides are probably the most adventure travel you'll ever need
Its too hot and too late in the day to feel gypped. He asks if I liked it and I give him my faked Robert DeNiro nod of approval.
My Pair of Brown Eyes usually runs 5k each morning, so I was kinda surprised when he reluctantly agreed to go kayaking with me instead at Lago Suchitlan the following day. He doesn’t like to get wet. Nor swim. This should be interesting.
Suchitalan lake is man-made and is now a stopover for 200 different species of south migrating birds. A birders paradise. Lots of other critters too. We get down to the shore and drop our rented kayaks in, my Pair of Brown Eyes picks that very moment to chicken out.
He goes for a run instead. I’m like, okay now what? I managed to convince a nice German boy, sporting tiny shorts and a 8 pack to paddle out into the lake with me.If anything else he’ll be eye candy.
About an hour in, we find ourselves trapped in thick weeds making it too difficult to advance and we run the risk becoming bogged down. Besides the bugs are murdering us. We turn back.
Most stores are behind metal bars, point to what you need.
he flaked on me, I wasn’t even going to tell my Pair of Brown Eyes I’m not going on his planned afternoon hike up a mountain to see the guerrilla hideouts camps. But he charmed me, so.
The Salvadoran Civil War was an ugly moment in history that resonates with all those who fought in it. At the trail head we meet up with a man called Don Rafa, he was a rebel fighter in the town of Cinquera, he's now a simple farmer with five children.
I know PTSD when I see it, and this man is rife with it, but he’s managing. This was a guerrilla stronghold back in the day, and he leads us up into his hills to show where he and his comrades fought off the Salvadorian military until there was a peace treaty in 1992.
The boys chat away about munitions, explosives, hostage takings, and violent warfare while I slog along behind. It’s stifling hot. We see some of the infrastructure of their war, some dugouts, camps, and left over debris, all being slowly consumed by the jungle. Rafa’s war stories are graphic. We have coffee on a little campfire and
The Big Bang Theory
So many fireworks, so little time!
I glaze over trying to translate in my head the gory details. Personally, I hate any attempt to glorify or justify wartime but with his firsthand accounts, it seemed it was a necessary evil.
We returned back into town at nightfall. As you can tell, I fell in love with Suchitoto, and after our week here, I especially loved our morning routine that starts with breakfast at Abuelas restaurant near the church. My Pair of Brown Eyes doesn’t function unless he’s had five hard espressos first.
The couple that own this boutique hotel were part of that mass migration to the USA back in the 90’s. Back then almost 20% of all Salvadorans left because of the war. While in California, they learned about tourist hospitality, and brought that knowledge back home. Their crumbling ancestral home was fully renovated, and it stands oddly charming. I get fluffy pancakes with real maple syrup and a fruit smoothie. I'm in heaven because most of the Salvadoran food I've encountered so far has been boring and bland, kinda like Cuba.
Although this town is quaint, I’ve seen it isn’t all paradise. I've had to step over several drunks. Actually lots.
Not all that crafty, but my Indigo scarf will be a keepsake
More than in Honduras. At the doctors clinic, a particularly sad looking fellow was lying out on cement. I watch as his fellow Salvadorans in the lineup take turns caring for him, propping him up, giving him sips of water. Someone actually fetches a mop and cleans up the urine puddle from beneath him. One places a cushion behind his head. He swears a bit and flails but quickly goes back on the nod. This is someone’s father, needing to sleep it off. A few look up at me ashamed, and look away, like I've learned their dirty little secret. I feel horrible.
I wish I had planned for more time in El Salvador. Perhaps take more hikes in El Impossible National Park or maybe drive through the Ruta de Las Flores. But my Central America travel plan is to get to the beach next so I can have a quick walk down memory lane before moving on to the next country.
Complete disinterest kept me out of the city of San Salvador. I’d been there, done that. From my bus window, I see not much has improved. Armed guards and razor wire and graffiti. There are a
The Cascada Los Tercios was fascinating, even without water
couple pockets of wealth, and I spot three Wendy’s restaurants, a weird ominous sign that the USA is deeply embedded here. My Pair of Brown Eyes, who is either sleeping or eating while mobile, snores loudly beside me.
Our bus ticket takes us to the seaside town of La Libertad. Their pier is a main hub taken over by townsfolk, who under a mishmash of colourful tarps have created a makeshift fish market. The smell is beyond anything I’ve experienced in my life. I want to take pictures, but my Pair of Brown Eyes is retching and fleeing. I have to walk briskly too.
At the very end of the pier, skifts have been hoisted up, left to dry in the sun. No one pays me any attention, my tattered backpack signifies I'm not a potential customer. Not much to see here in Libertad, we go back through town in the stifling midday heat wave, to find our collectivo bus that will drop us at El Tunco.
Where? El Tunco was a real hot spot for surfing in the 80's. My friend Linda and I spent over three months exacting our craft. Hippy surfers and drop outs
Winner winner chicken dinner
Hugo trying out for Presidente, didn't make it.
still seem to frequent this beach. Disappointingly was, what used to be a charming little back eddy back then, is kind of gross now. I don't know how to explain it. It seems seedy, filthy.
I immediately miss that old surfer charm.
Our hostel is promising, an unheated pool and a place to cook food. The room is damp, I have to ask the attendant to remove the automated air freshener they use to try and hide the mold smell. Still a bargain for $21 a night.
I spent the afternoon surveying the surf from my barstool perch. My Pair of Brown Eyes can't quite understand what I'm feeling. The same black sand beach I spent hours of my youth on, partying, camping, surfing, is now a festering sewer trash pit. Lots of shady characters loiter about in the corners, looking for new tourist marks. I'm watching the surf.
After a few Cuba Libres, I talk myself into it. I'm going to go surfing tomorrow.
My Pair of Brown Eyes is like, oh hell no
My only evidence I have of me ever being in El Salvador 32 years ago is this one grainy
We learn how to make Pupuas at Gloria's comedor.
Polaroid. It's me in a bikini carrying my long board down a sandy alleyway that leads to the shack I rented with a bunch of other surfers.
I glanced back at the photographer as he yelled something, my expression is a mixture of annoyance and amusement. He must have been cute.
My hair is in pigtails, leash still tied to my ankle. I was fit, my tits were perky, and there was not a trace of cellulite on those tanned thighs. Sigh
. Seems like a million years ago. In another universe far far away. Yet here I was standing on the black sand shores of that very place. It really reaffirms for me that you can't go backwards. Life. Go forth. Never look back.
Early morning came, and I rented a board from the first surf shop I went by. The young, dreadlocked dude on duty has this expression that makes me think he might of shit his pants.
He slyly calls his boss, and this old hippy comes by to size me up. I pretend not to speak any Spanish. As they wax my board they discuss. WTF this crazy fat Gringa, she
The kids of Suchitoto dress in scary costumes and harass people for their change
thinks she's gonna surf? How old is she? They debate on whether they should ask me. Finally, the old dude instructs the surfer boy to take me out to the sandbar and keep an close eye on me. I pull on my rented rash guard and go. He accompanies me down to the shore, tides out. Surf is fair. I'm ready. I did fairly well. Better than I thought I would.
I’m very hyperaware of how much heavier and less athletic I am, and I sure as hell don't have the core strength I used to. But muscle memory can be a cool thing. I rode whitewater right to the rocky shoreline a few times. I heard myself giggling with pure delight.
Unfortunately, I'm also super stubborn. For that I blame my Austrian genes. I was so determined to drop in at least once before I ran out of steam.
Several locals in the lineup were joking amongst themselves, I paddled back out at least four times, but then I caught one. I think they were as surprised as I was. There was this fleeting moment of victory before I fell.
Before I tanked
They are everywhere you look.
I managed to get in a couple more.
But for the rest of the morning, I just sat out on the sandbank in the bathtub warm ocean reminiscing with a girl from Holland, about all my good times here, the ones I could remember
. I wish I could phone Linda.
My Pair of Brown Eyes watches from the shore. I find it amusing that he’s eating an ice cream. This is so not his scene. But he waves proudly. Then some time later, annoyed. He flails his arms.
That’s the signal for me that it’s time to go.
We need to take a chicken bus back to San Salvador so we can get to the airport in time. We’ve just booked our next country.
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