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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 fast in flip flops.
Me and all the townsfolk of Suchitoto were 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. There are festivities throughout 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.
It feels like my 50th birthday week in Barcelona all over again. Barcelona is just a little...Gaudi
For this visit to El Salvador, I’ve selected rustic Suchitoto as my ground zero. In the late 1980’s, towns like these were off limits to travelers because of that pesky little Civil War gripping the countryside.
Back then, my friend Linda and I were naively reckless and clung
Surf beach at sunset. Vida Loca!
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 roadways drop down into the endless fields of sugar cane. I am happy. There is an acrid smell in the air that signifies a pending cane harvest. The fluffy tufts wave to me on a breeze. I love sugar cane. It makes rum.
In particular, my tipple, Nicaraguan Flor de Caña 18 which sells for dirt cheap in these parts.
Oh, and Exciting News...
My Guatemalan friend I nicknamed my “Pair of Brown Eyes" is finished work and wants to rendezvous with me in Suchitoto. His exchange on my Whats App while I was still in Honduras was simple. "Buy fireworks. Try not to get busted at the border." He was joking, or was he?
I bummed a ride out of Tegucigalpa with a van load of friendly Aussies staying at my hostel. Their driver was the only one that had carnal knowledge about my cargo. As we backtracked through the Guatemalan border, I felt like a drug mule sitting on a box of $200 worth of explosives.
Salvadoran's favourite snack food. Pupusas are for sale everywhere.
Although not illegal to buy them, I had been told if found out at the border, smile and offer a bribe. No problemo
. I’m quite fluent in stupid tourist.
Pretty sure 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?
I was starting to doubt the information I was given.
It was beginning to rain, and the portly officers seemed irritated by the potential of climbing 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.
On the El Salvador border, it was super lax daisy. Much to my relief. I had been feeling pretty Midnight Express by then, and losing my shit... internally.
Their border officers sitting on the side of the road didn’t even board the chicken bus, nor did I get an entry stamp in my passport.
My Pair of Brown Eyes fields a call from me in hysterics at the mandatory bus rest stop. He is laughing so hard at me he can’t speak. "Fireworks aren’t a big deal.
Baby You're a Firework
Some of my pyrotechnics that put the town to shame!
You’ll be fine."
Turns out fireworks are legal and hugely popular in El Salvador. Like, stupid huge. Popular. They adore them.
My Pair of Brown Eyes knew they are also super expensive to buy here, hence a procurement in Honduras. He was right. It was fine. But Jesus on a Jetski, I think I may have aged a year or two.
El Salvador is like the Wild Wild West of the Central Americas. Anything goes. 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.
I should have booked the cozy, quaint Los Almendaros de San Lorenzo down the street, with an azul pool that’s colder than the Arctic. My Pair of Brown Eyes goes over and charms their bellboy, who for $2, will let me sneak in for a midday swim when it’s stupid humid out. Did I mention how humid El Salvador is?
The vistas overlooking the lake
twilight, the whole town is out and electric. At the main square, the church sits glowing white 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.
But I’m not having much luck getting to know Salvadoran women though, they are literally bat shit obnoxious towards me. 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.” It’s so rude.
When I complain, he shrugs. "Yah, they are known to be quite bitchy here."
Under the lamp standards on the street corners, people are spontaneously dancing. We stop to watch, partaking only when we are the only ones left standing around. It’s a bit embarrassing because everyone is in their Sunday best, we look
Nothing like whiling away the heat playing a game of chance
frumpy in our backpacking couture. Tourists. A juicy target for the town's youth who are wearing monster costumes with machetes and won’t let us pass until we hand over money. They jeer and scream trying to scare the shit out of us. I know it’s all in fun, and this could go horribly wrong if a tourist misinterprets their intentions. We push past them, giving a few Colons to the ones behaving respectfully. My heart was racing a bit, not going lie
For dinner, we are looking for a famous Pupuseria somewhere around here. My Pair of Brown Eyes illogically loves these things and flirts with the owner, asking her if she will teach us how to make them. He gets shuffled into the family kitchen and I tag along, next thing I know I’m wearing an apron and up to my elbows in dough. We get ours for free. Though, I’m going to pull out my entitled White Girl card.
Pupusas are gross, I don’t understand their appeal. It’s like eating raw corn dough stuffed with dried vegetables. And I swear Gloria the owner purposely put chicharrons in mine hoping I’d die a vegan death so she
I want that stuffy
Shooting ducks in Suchitoto
could win over the affections of my Pair of Brown Eyes. He’s oblivious to all her fuss.
The Queen’s procession float goes by the Pupuseria with the whole town following behind singing, so we depart to join in. The crowned winner is stunningly beautiful. She’s called Andrea too. So naturally I feel devoted to her.
As we wander through the dark cobblestones, the crowds thicken. The live band gets louder. There’s a 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, 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.
We fall back into our hotel lobby in hysterics. Weirdly, there are about a dozen millennial hanging out here, they seem overwhelmed by this town’s crazy antics and have taken shelter. I announce our intention of going to the rooftop to fire off my cache of explosives and drink the rest of my Flor de Caña bought earlier at a caged corner store down the street for $7. I
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
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 chuffed. The stuff I purchased is apparently the kind of pyrotechnics you’d get during Vancouver’s Symphony of Lights. 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 town folk ended up abandoning theirs and surrounded our hotel to watch as continuous detonations roar overhead. We can hear their ooohs
as we light ‘em up.
I’m pretty sure some young Aussie is telling of the night this crazy Canadian almost catches the Iglesia Santa Lucia church almost on fire as sparks rain down on it after each powerful boom. My ears are still ringing.
At some point early next morning my eyes fly open, my Pair of Brown Eyes is still snoring but I'm wide awake. No time for hangovers. Vamos!
Up on the rooftop, a cool breeze and sunrise greet me with lovely birds chirping in the lane. I clean up last night’s paper mâché carnage. My Pair of Brown
Carnival's in Town
Waiting on customers to board the merry go round
Eyes won’t be up for a while, so I decide to take a walk on my own through town.
Suchitoto sits perched overlooking the stunning lake Suchitlan. Every vista is beautiful. So are the red crumbly tile roofs and brightly painted houses. I snap a few photos and stroll. Suns up, and so is the humidity, but I can deal.Besides, I’m probably a bit dehydrated and maybe still a bit drunk
. Gangs of school aged children greet me curiously, they have the day off 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, I come across a women’s cooperative that make those amazing midnight blue Indigo products.
Indigofera sufruticosa is a plant that was produced on massive scale in El Salvador during the 1600's until it was replaced by a coffee cash crop. The owner is surprisingly nice to me and explains how their organization is trying to combat violence against women here in
Fish Market La Libertad
Little girl poses a bit when she sees my phone
El Salvador. Women are severely marginalized, and femicide here is the highest rate of the Latin Americas. She asks if I want to make something.
I spend the morning making a scarf with butterflies on it. While we talk about the issues facing Salvadoran women today, she shares her own life story. I struggle a bit with the translation, I’m not quite fluent so we have lots of comfortable silences. She shows me how to painstakingly sew parts of the scarf so that a pattern will occur. I feel so 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 hang my special project.
While having a coffee, I’m introduced to the other women, 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 a Carcelera.
I explain that as a correctional officer I’ve struggled
Fancy little cafe, offering gentrified trendy food
in a man’s domain to prove myself and my worth. A different fight, but they see the familiarity. We bond. 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 bitchiness of these strong Salvadoran women, and appreciate them more.
My Whats App chimes, My Pair of Brown Eyes wants to know where I am.
Some men sweeping street debris 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. I’m trying not to freak out, but today it’s too blistering hot for a hangover, and I’m fading while I wait for my fried Tilapia meal. 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,
Streets of Suchitoto
Townsfolk dancing the night away
who is this old lady? Her love for Salvadorans is evident. Her compound 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. He’s made a few calls and found a waterfall called Cascada de la Tercios. We realized only after the steep descent, that it’s dry season. The hexagon shaped rocks look like Giants Causeway. Amusingly, the park gatekeeper shows us a video of what it usually likes when water is cascading down it. Its too hot and too late to feel gypped. He asks if I like it and I give him my Robert DeNiro nod of approval.
My Pair of Brown Eyes usually runs 5k each morning, so I was surprised when he reluctantly agreed to go kayaking with me in Lago Suchitlan instead. 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 migrating birds. A
The Inglaisa Santa Lucia
The big white glowing church in the town centre
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 then to chicken out. He goes for a run instead. I find a nice German boy to go with me. If anything else he’s eye candy.
About an hour in, we find ourselves trapped in thick weeds making it too difficult to advance, we run the risk becoming bogged down. Besides the bugs are murder. We turn back.
The following day, even though I didn't want to, I tell my Pair of Brown Eyes I'll go for his planned afternoon hike up a mountain to see the guerrilla hideouts camps. 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 the hills
Rickety Ferris Wheel
These traveling circuses rides are probably the most adventure travel you'll ever need
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, We see some of the infrastructure of their war, some dug outs, camps, and left over debris, all being slowly consumed by the jungle. Rafa’s war stories are graphic. I hate any attempt to glorify or justify war, but with his accounts, it seemed a necessary evil.
I love Suchitoto, and after our week here, I especially love 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 ten hard espressos. 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 here. 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
Most stores are behind metal bars, point to what you need.
food I've encountered so far has been ghettoish and bland, like Cuba.
Although this is a cute town, it isn’t all paradise. I've had to step over several drunks. Actually lots. More than 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. 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 embarrassed, like I've learned their dirty secret.
I wish we had more time in El Salvador. Perhaps take a hike in El Impossible National Park or maybe drive through the Ruta de Las Flores. But my plan is to get to the beach 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
The Big Bang Theory
So many fireworks, so little time!
window, not much has improved. Armed guards and razor wire and graffiti. There are a couple pockets of wealth, and I spot three Wendy’s restaurants, a weirdly ominous sign that the USA is deeply embedded here. My Pair of Brown Eyes, who is either sleeping or eating, 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, under a mishmash of colourful tarps they 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. 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, we go back through town in the stifling midday heat wave, to find the correct collectivo to drop us at El Tunco.
El Tunco was a real hot spot for surfing in the 80's. Linda and I spent over three months there, exacting our craft. Hippy surfers and drop
Not all that crafty, but my Indigo scarf will be a keepsake
outs still frequent this beach. Disappointingly, what was a charming little back eddy then, is kind of gross now. I don't know how to explain it. It seems seedy, filthy.
I 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 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 and trash pit. Lots of shady characters loiter about in the corners, looking for new 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 Polaroid. It's me in a bikini carrying my
The Cascada Los Tercios was fascinating, even without water
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. Forward life. Forward thinking.
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 thinks she's gonna surf? How old is she?
They debate on whether they
Winner winner chicken dinner
Hugo trying out for Presidente, didn't make it.
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 rash guard and go. They accompany 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 ten 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. I managed a couple more before I tanked.
For the rest of the morning I just sat out on
We learn how to make Pupuas at Gloria's comedor.
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.
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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