A Week in El Salvador

Well, this is some country. I’m in an internet cafe in Santa Ana that seems to be in the process of being knocked down (literally as I type they’re knocking down a wall), while the Venga Boys is playing loudly out in the street. It’s cracking cheese Gromit. And also the backspace (and most other keys too) on this keyboard seem to somehow be inexplicably connected to the space bar, so hopefully this won’t come out full of spaces.

Salvador really is quite something. It came out of civil war only in 1992, and it only seems to be recently embracing tourists again, after many government warnings from afar suggesting avoiding travel here. There are several museums around that really show the gruesome brutality of the war, and there were no holds barred. However, everyone now seems to have moved on, and are really happy for the tourists (there’s not many). Hence the roving reporter (me) plunging right in.

Well, not exactly. It’s been a nice chilled out week for me really. Also quite boring. I’ve realised I probably left Utila a few days too early – I only left in the first place really cos I knew I could easily stay there for weeks and wouldn’t be able to afford it, so extricating myself altogether became the easiest option. We had a good group of people there, and I’ve been missing them a little, and also properly missing many people from home for the first time too, so what with gloomy museums it’s been a reflective week as well.

I came to Salvador to take up again the Bamba bus ticket that I’d left in Antigua. As I’d already paid for the bus down to Managua from here I thought I’d take it up instead of heading there directly from Utila. That said, it rather confused the bus people when I emailed them about it, as they couldnt believe I’d done some independent travel outside their bussing!

“Where did you say you were?”
“San Salvador”
“But it says you’re still in Antigua.”
“I’m not , I’m in San Salvador.”
“Can’t you get back to Antigua ?”
“What, just to come back to San Salvador? I think not .”
“Hmmm .”

Eventually I was able to talk them round to the fact it made absolutely no sense for me to go all the way back to  Antigua, and that if I had to, I would book their bus from Antigua and deliberately miss it. I leave for Managua on Thursday.

But the downshot of coming to Salvador just for the bus meant that I didn’t really have any plans here, and had sweet FA to do. And a week to kill. And what’s more, it’s SO hot here. Not wishing to rub it in at all, but 30C+ every day is far too hot for me. So not having any plans, I’ve not really been inclined to do much more than laze around in a hammock all week reading books, and generally chillaxing. And while I’d not had any plans, by jove I had larks.

The locals here are genuinely lovely and friendly. Walking past someone in the street and delivering a generic buenas ( good afternoon ), one asked me where I was from. Once I’d replied, he just sat there staring straight ahead repeating “wow, inglaterra, wow”, so I left him. In one of the parks in San Salvador a group of kids came up to me. My first thoughts were ‘ guard your pockets, pal, this is gonna be a rough ride’, thinking it some elaborate tourist scam to crowd them with 10 kids and mob them, take all their possessions and leave them for dead under a sprinkler in the park, but they just wanted a chat and were just very excited to see me (I’m quite a novelty here). One girl I think wanted to take my sunglasses (the little shit ) but I managed to get away unscathed. That was towards the end of last week, and I’m still trying to work out if they took anything now.

After two days in San Salvador (confusingly called here, just like the country, Salvador) I headed north to the lovely little town of Suchitoto, only because someone else in the hostel was. And it was back to the good old chicken buses of Guatemala. The Honduran ones were the same, just somehow less exciting. But this trip was absolutely chocka, people actually getting on with chickens (yes! had been waiting for that all trip!), dogs, a 4′ case of boxes, a tele, all the stuff they’d bought from the market, what at first glance looked like a reel of barbed wire but was actually a reel of normal wire cinched at the top to keep it together. And the merchants who run through the buses trying to sell all manners of fruit, nuts, sweets, notebooks, pencils. agua, potatoes (who wants to buy potatoes when they’ve just got on the bus?!) before a nice hour and a half journey in the heat, where you try and press your face as close to a window as possible and hope it makes as few stops as possible to keep the breeze up.

As fun as lounging in a hammock is for a few hours (and believe me, it’s fun), I was soon getting bored. The next morning I decided to walk down to a nearby waterfall. The guy who ran the hostel said it was perfectly safe, except for a group of Norwegian travellers who got held up there last year. Hmmm. I decided to risk it, and set off to the end of the road, and then down some dirt track, past malnourished cows, and towards a creek at the bottom of a hill. Walking down the path, I thought this was exactly the kind of terrain I’d seen in the photos of the war in the museums, and wondered if somewhere here there was someone watching me pointing a gun at me. Nice safe thoughts, Chris, nice safe thoughts.

At the creek at the bottom, I had a choice to go left or right to find the waterfall (no signs). I took the right path (which was in fact the wrong path) and wandered a bit further, saw a few nice butterflies, but realised I’d gone the wrong way. Now while it’s certain that the people of Salvador are very nice, it’s not also true of the dogs. Upon finding the waterfall, I obviously took a step too far towards it and incurred the barking wrath of a pair of dogs who were there. Not a problem I thought, took a couple of steps back and had another look at it. Ah – for the dogs, it was a problem! Two steps was not enough, and I soon found myself bounding back down the creek shouting god knows what in Spanish to try and get them to stop chasing me and to leave me alone. Sod the guerillas, this was bad enough! I gave up on getting a decent view of the waterfall, and started slowly making my way back towards the path up to the town, where upon after about 30 seconds the dogs made another appearance barking and chasing like crazy, whence I started quickly making my way back towards the path up to town, and even on the path not stopping for much needed water until safely back in the hostel. I’ve been giving every dog I see a wide berth since.

I was due a bit of good luck, and it came in a Mylene Klass lookalike who’d just signed in to the hostel. That afternoon we took a stroll down to the lake (how very Blyton) and did some ziplining (how very Blyton) across to an island in the middle and back. Jackanory, for $5 it was most fabulous good fun. The whole setup seemed a bit ropy (pun most definitely intended), but it held true and was actually a nice bit of breeze in the afternoon sun. Muy bien.

Bored of Suchitoto (and sadly of Mylene – what can I say, she was German), I left the next day literally not knowing where I was going to end up. I had a slight plan, which was the other side of the country. The bus system in Salvador is thankfully very cheap (getting from one side of the country to the other for about $3), and I took a bus firstly to Aguilares, thinking I could get to Santa Ana from there. There was a nice big road on the map in my guidebook, but seemingly no buses make the route. So from there I returned to Salvador, and took 2 buses to get to a different terminal (from terminal oriente to terminal occidente – I only needed one bus, but took another by mistake having glimpsed ter ote. on the side, before I realised I was taking a bus to where I actually was already – muppet), and from there a bus to Santa Ana. This cost all of maybe $1.50.

It was upon arrival in Santa Ana that I realised my Spanish was still pretty shoddy. I got off the bus, and had a little look at the map in the book to find out where the hell I was. Some nice old woman came up to me and started talking about my shoes (on the back of my rucksack). No idea what she was on about. I made the mistake of asking where the cathedral was (for a point of reference), and she ended up taking me there on another bus. Except I didn’t have any change this time so it cost me the $5 note I had less a bit of shrapnel in return. So I’d got across the country for $1.50 then got unwittingly screwed out of $5 by some supposedly helpful old woman. I saw the irony in that once I’d discovered where I was, I pretty much walked back exactly the way I’d came to a hostel.

And there’s really not very much to do here either.

In other news though, exciting is the fact I have a first unknown follower! Unless of course I do know you Johanna, in which case, erm… yeah awkward. But it’s lovely to have you along for the ride, whomsoever you may be. And all you others too. 🙂

¡Hasta luego!


Plunging New Depths

Wow. Add to the list of fantastic things I’ve done on this trip learning to Scuba dive. I’m currently on the Honduran island of Utila (googlemap it, it’s fantastic) where this morning I’ve just become a certified open water scuba diver, which means I can dive anywhere I want in the world up to a depth of 18m! Which is pretty cool.

Have been out in the water for the last four days; the first two learning key skills that you need all the time (what to do if your regulator (mouthpiece) comes out, if your goggles come off etc) and the last two have been out on the boats and over the reef, swimming right through schools (shoals?) of tropical fish, seeing the marine life in the reefs and generally having an absolutely awesome time. The first few days were a bit nervy, after all breathing underwater doesn’t come naturally. The last two days have been incredible. It appears that breathing underwater comes just as naturally as breathing out of water!

I’m out on the water again for a couple more dives tomorrow morning, and after that I’m not too sure. Would love to stay around for a bit longer, but even though this is one of the cheapest places in the world to dive, it’s still a bit out of budget to hang around for too long! So will weigh that up later on.

After I leave, I’m heading down to San Salvador. There’s not really much I want to do there except get a stamp in the passport from there before heading off again into Nicaragua for a couple more weeks.

The last week in Guatemala, and popping into Belize

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a French couple with halitosis. Well, it was actually last Tuesday, but since I’ve added to this I didn’t want to change that fabulous first line. It was interesting for two reason: firstly, I believe I have answered the great open problem of our time, why the French so spectacularly pause in the middle of every sentence, as brilliantly portrayed by everyone’s favourite Frenchman Arsene Wenger; and secondly, uncovered for myself in the same conversation, every linguist’s nightmare. And indeed, the two are fabulously linked. The French only pause because they’re trying not to speak Spanish.

And with this same French couple, I can classify a first for me (and possibly ever) in knowing more languages than a fellow European. In Antigua mixing with other students, the language spoken was English. Even by the Dutch (with the Canadians, the powerhouses of foreign travel), the Germans, the Belgian, the Danes, the Norwegians etc. who could all (presumably) speak their own language too. And normally they spoke German on top. And more often than not French too. And we were all learning Spanish. So I felt first hand the shame of the Englishman abroad, shared only by Americans and English-speaking Canadians, who, quite frankly, we all want to dissociate ourselves from.

I digress. This French couple only spoke French. Merely by having a conversation with them in French, I had trumped them! And I still had Spanish to throw into the mix, which I did, to sheer amazement from the Frenchies (think Elmer Fudd’s jaw dropping to the ground when he realises Buggs is behind him). l’Angleterre 1-0 la France. A European victory of which Brian Clough would have been proud.

However, if I’d have had this conversation four weeks ago, it would have been (relatively) painless. Other than ordering some lunch at Brussels Gare Centrale last year, I haven’t had a meaningful conversation in French for 5 years. Now of course, my brain is brimming with Spanish. Which leads us nicely to our first interesting reason. In the middle of every sentence, just like native Francophones everywhere, I had to stop to make sure what I was about to say was actually French, and not Spanish; which brings us nicely to our second interesting point, trying to remember a word in one language when all you can think of is the same word in another language. Impossible. And interestingly, that too happened ordering lunch at Brussels Gare Centrale last summer. But that’s another story.

Anyway, this conversation was taking place in a minibus on the way to Semuc Champey in central Guatemala, a collection of natural pools in a limestone bridge over a river. Located in the middle of a gorge, there was a half hour walk up to a mirador to take the picture above, which was located right at the top. Luckily, the picture there is only of the top half of me, so you can’t really see the buckets of water that were sweated to get up to the top. But thankfully, once back down to the bottom again, we could go swimming and so had a lovely nice relaxing swim in these cool pools (and used it as a good chance to wash my feet). It was absolutely gorgeous there.

After Semuc, we drove on to see some caves, which were quite frankly disappointing, if only because I thought we were going to some different ones. In Antigua, some Canadians I met said they’d gone to some caves near Semuc where you had to hold a candle and go swimming through them, up rope ladders and a right proper adventure. Sounded brilliant. Little did I know that when I booked the trip saying “it does go to the caves, doesn’t it?” there were actually some shit little other caves near there too. But hey ho. They were your standard stalactite-stalagmite affair, bit dull. I have however removed my job application to Cheddar Gorge forthwith, as I couldn’t make out any of the shapes they were meant to look like, however hard I looked, except for el torre, the tower, which was, well, just like a tower.

The next day, I headed north to the town of Flores, an island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza. I was riding with who turned out to be a Guatemalan archaeologist who used to be a tour guide in Coban, and was very helpful in explaining everything along the way. The road used to be a dirt track until about 8 years ago, and what took just over 5 hours today used to take well over 12 hours before it was paved.

Joining us halfway were Scott and Giona, Scott an American medicine student and Giona an Italian alcohol salesman. They had the same plan as I did, so we went on together. In the morning (4.30am start, eek, supposedly to see the sunrise, but we, ahem, missed it being still in the bus and asleep and all) we went to the Mayan city of Tikal in the middle of what is now a rainforest. It was the main city in the Mayan world between 600BC and 900AD (stretching to well over 6 square miles) when it was just abandoned, for reasons still unknown to experts today. Our guide thought it was just to give us a headache today – why did they leave? just to annoy the future. It was ridiculously impressive, moreso than all the ruins I went to in Mexico. Many of the uncovered pyramids (though they shouldn’t officially be called pyramids cos they don’t have a pointy top) tower over the rainforest, and there was a ladder to the top of one of them (Temple V) 60m above the ground. In typical Guatemalan health and safety, there was only about a 2 foot ledge to stand on at the top, and of course no guide rail. You got the feeling that if there was a sudden gust of air, right down to the bottom you’d tumble.

Scott left us to return back to the capital that evening, and in the morning Giona and I left Flores and headed to Belize.

I had what could probably only be described as a whistle-stop tour of Belize. I came in on Thursday, and was gone on Sunday. I didn’t really have much planned to do there other than have a few days sitting on the beach relaxing, but in the end compared to Guatemala it was far too expensive.

The big thing that all the tourists do in Belize is go to the Cayes, a group of islands just off the coast from Belize City, which are excellent for diving and snorkelling. So Giona and I ignored them and headed south instead, to a town called Dangriga, also on the beach. On the way, we passed through the smallest capital city in the world Belmopan, which was tiny. About the size of Clifton (for the Brizzle readers), or half the size of Paddock Wood (for the Kent readers). Dangriga was smaller still, and there was FA to do there.

We went with a couple of Irish girls from the hostel to a Jaguar Reserve just round the corner for an extortianately priced walk in a forest to try and see some jaguars. The only thing I saw was a one-armed Italian fall into a waterfall. Which was more than enough for me.

I’ll give a quick run-down on public bus services in the two countries. In both cases, there’s a driver and a conductor. Guatemala: the bus ambles from the bus station (read: collection of buses in the middle of the market), slowly through the town, while the conductor shouts both to and at anyone walking on the street where they’re going, in the vain hope that those people may not be going about their business in the town, and could just happen to want to jump on a bus to a different city. After 2 minutes, we stop, while the conductor jumps off and goes and walks around the street shouting at some more people. Then after getting going again, we stop after another 2 minutes to repeat the process. About 20 minutes after leaving the bus station, we actually leave the town, stopping to pick up and drop off people wherever they may be, or wherever they may happen to want to go. I actually think that’s the best bit about the buses. Space isn’t an issue, just budge up if there’s no room, 2 or 3 to a seat. No standing room cos they’ve squeezed so many seats in.

Belize: everyone congregates in the bus station, and when the bus arrives have a massive free-for-all bundle to see who can get the few precious spaces on the bus. No budging up here, if you’re not lucky you wait an hour til the next bus and repeat the process. All the women and children wait an hour til the next bus and repeat the process.

From Dangriga we headed south again to the town of Placencia, a lovely little town on a peninsula, again with FA to do except the beach, but the weather wasn’t too great so we moved on after one day. Taking the bumpiest boat ever (was only a little one and it was going far too quickly, so covered in bruises from all the bumps over the waves) we left Belize to return briefly into Guatemala. There I left Giona, and headed on with a couple of Australians into Honduras, but that’s another story for another time.