[050529; 1832 UTC, Estero de Jaltepeque, El Salvador
N 13 degrees
18.2/W 088 degrees 53.9]
We’re still in El Salvador and even still in Estero Jaltepeque anchored off Bahia Del Sol near the Isla Cordoncillo (Small Cord Island). It’s difficult to account for what’s happened to the time though we’ve done some touring and a whole bunch of projects with friends and with the community. Then of course there was hurricane Adrian. Before we leave here we’re planning to complete the razing and re-building of the kindergarten room in the school on the nearby island and are raising funds to purchase materials and harness skills within the community to make this a reality.
We did hire a taxi cab one day driven by a gentleman named Jose Osorio, who for $40 plus gas, takes you for the entire day with as many stops as necessary. Jose is educated and soft spoken though gregarious. He supports a college-aged daughter (on a scholarship paid for by an American who used Jose’s services when visiting here) and his family on a net of $27 per day plus tips. We joined friends and hired Jose to take us to San Salvador with a long list of stops including one to negotiate and purchase the material for the school uniforms for the village of La Colorada. Jose cheerfully translated as necessary, gave us tips on improving our own Spanish, carried our bags, provided tidbits of information on the country and even teased us by day’s end. Jose is such a warm, generous person that many in the fleet are scheming to replace his problematic cell phone and to give him a day planner to help him to better plan his trips.
San Salvador is a booming city with a decaying though busy downtown that’s the center of a metropolitan area of over 2 million people, roughly a third of the country’s population. Recently its city leaders thought it beneficial to bulldoze adjacent coffee plantations (on Christmas Eve it is rumored) to build a mega-mall with designer stores offering goods at higher-than-American prices. Brightly-painted upscale suburban track-house neighborhoods characterized by complete enclosures of concrete and (sometimes) razor wire are springing up in a country where the minimum wage is $150 per month. We are assured that the peace here is lasting but it may take generations for prosperity to find the majority of people. We are also told that a big part of the booming economy comes from the influx of monies each month from the 1 million legal (and probably some illegal) Salvadorans who live and work in the USA.
Another day we joined ten other cruisers in a van driven by Jorge, an entrepreneur tour guide and former employee of the country’s department of tourism. Jorge, a robust man with dark, thinning hair, small glasses and a quick wit, explained as we drove how difficult it was for him to purchase his van using bank financing and how he eventually found private financing from a wealthy Salvadoran to get his business started. Jorge also explained how his mother, raising her children on her own, traveled to the USA to work and eventually arranged for each of her children, including Jorge, to go to high school in the US. Jorge exudes enthusiasm for El Salvador and is an encyclopedia of history and statistics on this land where most are descendents of the Pipil, relatives of the Náhuatl-speaking tribes of Mexico. Jorge is also one of millions of Salvadorans who have joined Pentecostal Evangelical churches led by charismatic and sometimes dubious leaders. He proudly told us how his preacher led six services each Sunday to nine thousand people each! Jorge also told us how Salvadorans are without a sense of tradition or history because during the latter part of the twentieth century the wearing traditional dress or practicing indigenous cultural rituals were banned and those who did so were summarily executed or at best, incarcerated. As the result, he said, Salvadorans mimic others, primarily Americans or, Salvadorans who have been to America. Unfortunately, Salvadoran gang members deported from American cities have been poor role models for some urban youth in El Salvador making San Salvador a city known for gang violence. To counter this, random road blocks stop vehicles searching for gang tattoos and contraband. Friends in fact were on a bus and were taken off (men only) and everyone was frisked under the watch of soldiers with semi-automatic weapons.
Speaking of weapons, San Salvador has an overabundance usually in the form of wicked-looking 12 gauge shotguns, attached to grim-faced former soldiers who fought in the civil war. Jorge explained that when the peace accord was signed, the military was reduced to 20,000 from 80,000. It is these 60,000 men you see on the streets of the city providing “protection” to local business.
Despite these social problems, Jorge and others anticipate and promote a country emerging to prosperity and re-discovering their cultural roots. After taking us through the sites of San Salvador, Jorge turned his van west and to enter the departments of La Libertad, Sonsonate and then Ahuachapan (meaning “city of oak houses in Náhuat) in the mountainous coffee growing region.
Our first stop was called Joya de Cerén, an archeological site discovered by accident in the 1970s when bulldozers were excavating to construct silos for grain storage. This Mayan village was buried by the hot ash fallout of the eruption of Laguna Caldera volcano in AD 600, and though no human remains were found remnants of corn cobs, beans, sisal, baskets, pottery and other implements of daily life were found preserved. The structures so far excavated reveal thick walled tiny homes with narrow doors only about four and a half feet tall and equally tiny hard sleeping platforms, plus storage and cooking buildings and a structure with an elaborate entry and window, presumably the home of the village witch doctor. The site includes a lovely, though tiny, museum of artifacts including extraordinary samples of elaborately decorated Mayan pottery including one bowl with preserved finger prints left presumably when the villagers fled during the impending cataclysm.
Clamoring back in the van after gathering beneath the pear shaped red fruit and kidney shaped poisonous raw nuts of the ubiquitous cashew tree, Jorge took us onto another Mayan site called the Ruinas de San Andres dating from 600 AD. This acropolis, or raised city, sits above the confluence of two rivers on fertile land and includes up to forty mounds believed to be structures yet to be unearthed. Tombs of the cities rulers are thought to remain undiscovered inside one of the main pyramids; though during the initial excavation exquisite artifacts such the obsidian blade called the “Pedernal Excentrico” were found. The site is peaceful and is believed sacred by many who regularly visit for meditation amongst the brilliant flowers of the arbor de fuego (fire tree), maguey cactus and wild poinsettia, though the day we visited there were hundreds of gleeful school children wearing different variations of uniform climbing amongst the partially excavated adobe pyramids. Many of these children proved quite gregarious and social and dashed in giggling groups up to us and began to speak in English. “HELLO, HOW ARE YOU?” “WHAT IS YOUR NAME? “ One bright chubby little boy came right up to Leslie and put both of his hands on her shoulders and spoke with her in Spanish with fragments of English thrown in, all at very close range.
Jorge explained that El Salvador does not yet have the resources to properly move forward with these sites and others, but is confident that future generations will better understand their cultural roots as this history is revealed through further exploration. Unfortunately many remote sites around the country are being pillaged by those seeking to sell artifacts, many of which carry a curse according to Jorge.
From here we traveled west along highway CA-8 and through the most indigenous town of El Salvador, Izalco (meaning “houses like obsidian” in the Náhuat language), where an Indian elder serves alongside an elected mayor and “las cafradias”, or traditions mixing pre-Christian and native rituals are common. Brujas (witches) using ancient medicinal and magical practices are still common here, so if you are looking to cast a spell, come to Izalco. From here we continued west on our way to prosperous, historic, though shabby Sonsonate and before turning north and climbing into the volcanic mountains and into a building thunderstorm. As we climbed we could see squatter’s hovels built down below the road in drainage ditches and imagined how precarious these lives would be during flash flooding (like El Salvador would suffer only a few days later during hurricane Adrian). Climbing into the mountains we began to see lovely coffee bushes, in flower, growing as undergrowth beneath shading trees and often protected by scenic grids of copalchin trees. Jorge warned us to be on the lookout for men on homemade carts (no brakes!) who collect wood to sell for cooking fires (leña). They drag these carts up into the mountains collecting wood and then, with their carts loaded to capacity, careen down these mountain highways at speeds of forty or fifty miles per hour, inches from the pavement. We saw a few of these men though they passed us so quickly we were unable to see their inevitable and telltale cart-crash scars.
At the site of the highest village in El Salvador, Apaneca (meaning “river of the wind” in Náhuat), we turned off the saturated highway as lightning flashed all around and inched our way into the Santa Leticia coffee plantation at 4400 feet with its grand log cabin restaurant, called La Finca (the country house or plantation), and its hotel where an early-Mayan pot bellied sculpture sits adjacent to the posh accommodations and a heated pool. Coming from the heat and humidity of the coastal region into the mountains in a thunderstorm, we were ill-prepared for the chill of the mountains and quickly ordered rounds of hot Santa Leticia coffee before turning our attention to lunch or the interesting contorted knobby yellow tree trunks that served as beams in the great room of the lodge. From Santa Leticia we continued west to the town of Concepcion de Ataco, where historic homes on cobble streets are being renovated and painted brightly through the support of a townsperson who supplies paint to all who request it. Here we were shown into an artisan shop where weaving looms dominated the back rooms and young artists were busy at work, painting or weaving. We were in awe of how crude-looking wooden looms exhibited brilliant engineering that allowed the weaver to create six or more linear inches of fabric in the short time we watched. This shop is one that is leading the way towards preserving these handcrafts by teaching young men and women these skills and we did our best to support this effort by purchasing hand woven fabrics and other gifts.
Backtracking through Apaneca where we saw many shops selling furniture made of coffee wood and the ruins of the historic church destroyed in the earthquake of 2001. We then spied a beautiful white church steeple in the valley below in a town called Juayúa (meaning “river of purple orchids in Náhuat) which turned out to be our next destination. This coffee processing town is renowned for being the site of ill-fated indigenous uprisings of the 1930s, for weekly feria gastronómicas (food fairs), for possessing a black Christ in its church and for a night market conducted solely by candlelight. Here we visited shops where in the back men were weaving elaborate furniture and baskets or bright soft cotton hammocks. (Think of the elaborate woven “rattan” furniture in Pier 1 Imports at your local mall and you’ll get the idea.)
Returning to Bahia del Sol and tired from our travels, we quickly learned that a tropical depression threatened us and the cruising community sprang into action to prepare. Thankfully for us the hurricane became another good exercise in planning and communication, though for many Salvadorans in the mountains who died as the result of landslides, the hurricane was much more devastating.
Postponed as the result of the hurricane, the village of La Colorada put on their annual Feista de La Madre on Monday May 23. More than fifty cruisers in three pangas and even more dinghies descended on the village at 10 am, the time we had been asked to arrive. Unfortunately, village mothers were still making pupusas (a local delicacy) and decorating the school, so some of our group wandered the village to take photos or offer help, some took out musical instruments and began to entertain children, while others found a soccer ball and began to play soccer or simply curled up in hammocks and snoozed. About 12:30 pm, Jose, the village elder dressed in a starched white tailored shirt and dress slacks ambled through the gate at the school and sat amongst the cruisers asking questions in Spanish while other villagers started to set up a propane griddle and cook pupusas. Soon our abundant potluck offerings of risotto, garlic bread, bean salads, meatballs, etc. were uncovered and we urged arriving villagers to partake. Children were especially curious about, though not always impressed with, our “American” foods.
During the time of the fiesta preparations, Jenni the “presidenta’ of the school, asked if we would participate in games and we said “sure”. Little did we know that this would mean we’d be popping balloons with our bellies while bear hugging a villager or called to dance in front of the entire assembled village, though it was all in good fun and everyone laughed heartily. Jenni also asked that we (Leslie & Philip specifically) sit with Jose at the head table, an honor bestowed upon us because we spearheaded fundraising and purchase of 330 yards of fabric for school uniforms. Two of the cruising kids, Jamila and Gabriella, shyly presented the fabric to the town by reading a speech written in Spanish. Over the course of the afternoon, most of the village children were included in the festivities conducted by the teachers where dozens of gifts were given to the mothers as Jose looked on proudly. Our cruising kids also made 100 sets of bright origami cranes that were strung on strings, wrapped and presented to each of the village mothers, a gesture that seemed to be warmly received.
Slowly the festivities wound down and everyone began to disperse, giving Philip the opportunity to thank Jose for the village’s hospitality to us and to extend a welcome to Jose to visit our home, Carina. Jose beamed and returned the gesture by giving Philip a warm handshake and then bear hug (abrazo) and calling him his “hermano” or brother.
These villagers have had some contact with cruisers in the past but never to this degree. Hopefully we’ve set a pattern for those to follow us who’ll continue to help these wonderful joyous though profoundly poor people to improve their lives. Just yesterday, Michele of the vessel Aquastrian who is a speech therapist, returned to the village with Judy and her daughter Gabby of Encanto and Leslie, to help Jenni with positioning and developmental tools for Jenni’s son Alejandro, aged two and a half years, who is disabled with spina bifida and hydrocephaly (see photo).. (Amazingly Jenni travels alone from her dirt floor home on the isla every three months by panga to La Herradura, then by bus to San Salvador to take Alex to visit a doctor.) Though this household is poor, Jenni is smart and educated and Alex has been well cared for and is much loved by his sisters and cousins though his development has been limited by the fact he spends most of his life in a hammock. Though the language barrier was significant, Michele was able to teach the family to prop Alex up with rolled towels so he could see and so that his neck and pelvic muscles could develop. To facilitate this, we tied a plastic lawn chair to a tree used to support the roof of the small yard and to create a web of line to assure Alex wouldn’t fall to the ground if these materials slipped (see photo). It wasn’t a sophisticated set-up but as the result of Michele’s positioning him, Alex immediately began to respond to bright balls and other toys and to try to communicate. If possible, we’ll gather or construct toys amongst the cruisers to further help the family teach Alex. Jenni, her mother Anna Carmelita and her sister, Carmen, as thanks for Michele’s expertise and assistance, prepared for us a lovely lunch of local fish, rice and tortillas. Jenni also walked us down the long pier to our dinghy and waved until we were out of sight around the corner of mangroves.
We have to tell you about our entertaining but exhausting trip by “chicken bus” on Wednesday to Zacatecoluca (pronounced “Zaaah Caah Tekka Luuka” and meaning “place of owls and herbs” in Náhuat) for market day but we’ll close now and save this story for our next note.
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Philip, Leslie & Jake the cat
lying at anchor outside Bahia Del Sol, El Salvador