050702; 1851 UTC,
Estero de Jaltepeque y Rio Lempa, El Salvador
N 13 degrees 18.2/W 088 degrees 53.9]
Jake – our ship’s cat for those who are wondering - came home by taxi with us from San Salvador yesterday, a skinnier but again lively cat. He’s been eating tuna and sleeping almost non-stop since arriving back on the boat. We’re thrilled to have him back and to see him happier and healthier. Thanks to all who wrote to express concern for his return to health. We’ll be monitoring him carefully for any signs of additional complications arising from his “adventure” after falling from a boat (where he was being cared for by friends) in the middle of the night and into the brackish water of the estero but hope these are behind us now.
We ended our last tale of our travel adventures by telling you we’d describe a day spent traveling by chicken bus to and shopping in Zacatecoluca (pronounced “Zaaah Caah Tekka Luuka” and meaning “place of owls and herbs” in Náhuat) for market day. The term chicken bus isn’t exactly pejorative; this “Spanglish” name has been adopted throughout Mexico and Central America to describe the tens of thousands of ex-USA school buses that service local routes throughout the region. We recently saw a sign on one of them, in English, that said “Your children’s safety is our only concern”. And, yes, chickens are allowed as we recently saw a live chicken calmly hanging by its feet while its owner rode the bus. When they start calling them “pig busses” is when we will seek alternative transportation.
Chicken buses are owned by individuals, usually the driver, who paints and decorates his bus brightly and elaborately. Owner/entrepreneurs also install huge horns to announce their impending arrival miles ahead of time and even bigger stereo systems that fill the tiny enclosure stuffed full of stoic passengers (three to a seat with lots more standing) with deafening Ladino rock. Shift levers are usually adorned in fringed black leather with carved names of drivers or their sweethearts. The only air is the hot humid stuff that seeps in through the slide-down windows (remember those?). Here in El Salvador and also in Guatemala (from where we’ve just returned), chicken buses are the only public transportation available for short routes (longer distances are serviced by first or second class air conditioned buses). In addition to the driver, there is usually an attendant (“the jammer”) who attempts to lure “pasajeros” aboard but who also stuffs men, women, children and old people onto the bus, stows and retrieves baskets of market commodities and baggage on the roof and collects money (80 cents USD for the trip to Zacate’). Recently, in Ciudad Vieja (old city) Guatemala we watched a chicken bus attendant climb out the back emergency door of the bus, close the door, step across the bumper and climb the ladder to the roof, while the bus was still moving! OSHA certainly isn’t alive in El Salvador. Hell, they don’t even visit. Returning from Zacatecoluca the day we visited we took the 1:30 pm “directo” bus as we were advised it would be “less crowded”. Perhaps we misunderstood the advice because our bus meant to hold 70 or so, had 100+ passengers aboard including vendors of pupusas, spiral peeled oranges, fake IDs (?!) and candy who wiggled their way through the tightly packed, sweaty crowds while rock music blasted and a preacher yelled a soliloquy above the din. At one particular stop when vendors streamed aboard and the evangelist began his sermon, the driver gave a little grin in the mirror and disappeared for a break! Riding a chicken bus is a visual and auditory treat, and for the most part safe, though tales of spectacular accidents abound. The roadside is littered with decorated shrines (small crosses with the names of the accident victims). The shrines are especially abundant near dangerous curves and precipices.
Zacatecoluca is a town diminished by the Salvadoran civil war, though you wouldn’t know this on market day when a huge area surrounding the plain Central Square and cathedral are filled with rickety stands of made of cheap plastic where vendors sell bread, fruit, chicken, meat, abarrotes (groceries), flour, unroasted coffee beans (at $ 0.30 per pound), eggs, veggies, clothing, hardware, backpacks, pirated DVDs ($1), etc. It’s not a picturesque market but it does have nearly everything you might need. You can’t be squeamish though about flies because they are everywhere, particularly around the carne and pollo (meat and chicken) that sit out in the open in 90+ degree humid heat while vendors fan a flyswatter above the food . All around the market are women and girls in fancy lacy delantals (aprons) that are a source of style and pride here in El Salvador. Many women also carry enormous loads on their heads (no hands!) and with their loads even walk casually through crowds, chat with vendors, select product or talk on cell phones! Perhaps that’s the reason why even elderly women here stand straight (though not tall) and show few signs of osteoporosis. Here also we went in search of a haircut for Leslie and found a small shoe store with a salon in the back where she got a pretty good cut with texturizing for $1.75. (Philip gets his haircuts for free and even gets to sleep with his barber.) Zacate is the closest town to Estero Jaltepeque with what you might call a grocery store; the bus ride is 1 ½ hours from our anchorage and you return from a day of heat and activity feeling like you need a good long cool dip and an even longer nap.
As we also mentioned we are planning to stay here in Estero Jaltepeque to see through a project to raze and reconstruct a kindergarten building on adjacent Isla Cordoncillo. Somehow, perhaps because we mustered support and funds for the school on Isla Colorada, we have become the organizers of this undertaking. Slowly, slowly (but surely) we’re getting started and sand for cement should be moved to the island by islanders and cruisers beginning Monday. Isla Cordoncillo has no water or electricity and most islanders are fishermen, laborers or pangeros who run water taxis and who - when they are able to find work - earn $6 to $10 per day. There are 75 children in the school that consists of a block building of two rooms and a metal lean-to for the kindergarten. The latter structure has only a dirt floor that floods when it rains, leaking walls and roof and little to no light or ventilation. You would not want to keep your dog in such an enclosure. Fourteen children currently occupy the room, twenty are expected next year. We have raised almost $1,500 to date, primarily from cruisers who are living on fixed incomes or savings; other funding sources are being pursued to make up the roughly $800 shortfall. A group of cruisers, including the “Cruise Kids Players”, put on a talent show and live auction recently that raised nearly $500. The teachers, the “presidente de la escuela” and many island parents are enthusiastic about the cruisers support and are going to work side by side with our group to make this a reality.
The great news about staying a bit longer is that the weather does seem to be moderating a bit and we enjoy cool (even chilly) nights and frequent rains that are keeping our water tanks full of lovely drinkable water. The bad news of course is that the rainy season brings silt to the estero from runoff and the Rio Lempa, making swimming (except in the pool) unappetizing. The estero is actually quite extensive and has evolved with time and hurricanes and earthquakes. The bocana (estero opening) in fact is placed wrong on most charts since it moved roughly six miles south and east in recent years due to storms. Recently a local man named Jose Luis took us up into the estero to the site of an abandoned village on what’s now a tiny island. (Philip jumped at the chance when offered to accompany Jose Luis in his cayuco; they led the way while two dinghies followed closely behind into the mangrove maze.) Jose Luis told us that the village was Mayan and we have no way to prove or disprove this and know the Maya were here. The mosquito-ridden site included remnants of structures and clear evidence of where treasure hunters had been digging. We found a few shards of pottery, obsidian and even a metate (grinding stone) used for grinding maiz (all like those we’d seen in museums), though none of these gave us confidence in the age of the site since metates are still used today.
Speaking of the Maya, on our recent trip to the highlands of Guatemala, we feasted our eyes on the beautiful indigenous Maya who still speak their native languages (80 are still being used) and dress in bright elaborate group-specific clothing. (Unfortunately, here in El Salvador you rarely if ever see native dress, though the same peoples historically occupied this area.) Other than touring the inland and highland areas, the purpose of our trip, as we mentioned before, was to study Spanish. Antigua de Guatemala has approximately 75 Spanish language schools, some of which are also teaching Mayan languages or “idiomas”, and is spectacularly set amongst three volcanoes high in the mountains about 45 km from Guatemala City. The pleasant historic city of cobbled streets is almost 500 years old and has approximately 38 churches or ruins of churches. The still-lively city with a bucolic Parque Central has been destroyed by earthquakes numbers of times and was also once inundated by a flood when the water-filled caldera of the immediately adjacent Volcan Agua let go of its mother lode and drowned thousands of residents, including the mourning wife of the Spanish conquistador and city founder, Pedro de Alvarado.
In our experience, Spanish immersion in Guatemala is a fabulous way to learn the language at a bargain price, while also getting the chance to experience the lovely green mountainous country and its beautiful people. Our school, called La Union, was founded by a man who has written books about the Spanish language and who along with his brothers and dozens of maestros (teachers), host up to 75 students at 2 locations. Isabel, Leslie’s maestra at La Union, was particularly wonderful, though everyone in our party (six of us) were often flushed with excitement over what we were learning. Most schools, including ours, also arrange for home stays with host families who cook for and eat meals with students. Our host family was the Pasada Ramirez family. Carlos Enrique Pasada and his wife, Delia Ramirez de Pasada live in a small house they built around an open courtyard, the house being nearby to the large cathedral Iglesia de San Francisco in the south end of Antigua. Their daughter, Geraldina (really Delia Geraldina) is a former teacher put out of work by the current government’s policy of downsizing education, who is pursuing a doctorate in psychology in nearby Guatemala City. Son Carlos Jose brings his two year old twins (“gemelos” in Spanish) Sophia and Jose Miguel to stay everyday so the house was constantly filled with loving chatter and the giggles of babies. Carlos and Delia were very kind and spoke very carefully and deliberately to us, were patient as we struggled with conversation and consulted our dictionaries, and asked many, many questions. Each evening after cena (supper), Carlos would sit and talk with us extensively about dozens of topics. And no, he didn’t speak English, though we suspect he understood quite a bit. And Delia served luscious meals! Our favorite was pepián, a Guatemalteco dish of meat or chicken in a blended concoction of roasted peppers, sesame and pumpkin seeds, stick cinnamon, tomatoes, tomatillos, etc. We brought home the recipe and the appropriate supplies (Delia demonstrated the process one evening after cena) but we have been unable to duplicate Delia’s magic. Perhaps something was lost in the translation.
Getting to Antigua from the estero involved a 4 am taxi ride with friends John, Judy, Gaby and Sami of Encanto, a 7 am first class bus (two stories, movie, breakfast) that took four and a half hours to go from San Salvador to Guatemala City and then a 45 minute minivan trip (school owned) to Antigua. Crossing the border (la frontera) involved getting off the bus in El Salvador and obtaining a “salida” stamp in our passports at Migracion. Money changers flooded the doorway selling quetzals as we sleepily descended the stairs into the bright sunlight. Once back on the bus, Guatemala allowed the bus attendants to obtain our passport stamps, so we waited in comfort for a few minutes longer. The trip was relatively painless and we were enjoying the streets of Antigua (after meeting our host families) by 2 pm! One of our favorite haunts in Antigua was place called the Sky Café, located a few doors north of our school where rooftop seating overlooks the whole city and the afternoon rain clouds move swiftly amongst the dramatic volcanoes rising from the south and west of the city. Also spectacular is the central mercado, located on the western edge of town where vendors from dozens of outlying villages offer acres of perfect produce from baskets lined with banana leaves. Market days are three days per week, though the market always seems to go on forever with tiny tiendas in dark nooks down narrow aisles. Here the vendors sell shoes, clothing, kitchen supplies, hardware, cell phones, etc.
About two hours north of Antigua further into the highlands of Guatemala is the caldera Lago (lake) Atitlan. Surrounding Lago Atitlan are three additional volcanoes that overlook the deep pristine lake. The largest town on Lago Atitlan is the uninspiring, sprawling Panajachel (“panna hah chell” or simply “Pana”) where tourists and chapins (Guatemalans) from the city visit on the weekends. We traveled here on Saturday during our stay, in a minivan from our Spanish school, with about thirteen other people. Our driver, Julio, a brother of the school founder, drove us, our friends from Encanto, a teacher from Cleveland, a teenager from New Hampshire (a junior in high school traveling alone!) and a family from Colorado to Pana. Here we were shown into the Hotel Chaparral where we toured rooms and booked a cement cell with a comfy quilt-covered bed and HOT water (wow, what a luxury) for $10 per person. This is not really a bargain for this region, but it came without the bugs associated with some of the $3 per night offerings.
From Panajachel, lanchas are available to outlying villages where Cakchiquel and Tz’utuhil Mayan dialects dominate and Spanish may not be spoken at all. We negotiated for a lancha driven by a pangero named Jorge for a trip to two nearby villages and a hot springs that flows into the lake. The first village was Santa Catalina Palopó where we lunched at restaurant Laguna Azul on Guatemalteco cuisine (pepián, jocóm and pulike sauces on chicken) while the smell of the village’s outflow wafted up and tiny Mayan children hovered nearby for an opportunity to sell us crafts. In the water in front of the village were odd rowboats built from half a tree trunk fitted with crude wooden blunt hulls from which men fished with hand lines. After lunch we wandered up into the village that sprawled up the cultivated mountainside to see the church, again followed by children and women selling crafts. We struck a bargain for a lovely cotton shirt for Philip (to replace his way-too-warm t-shirts) with three miniature girls aged seven and down. We were careful to bargain softly and settled on forty five quetzals (or about $6.50) for the shirt and a photo of these beauties who spoke barely above a whisper as they shyly offered their names and ages. In this town the Mayan dress included lovely indigo velvet head wraps which are elaborately woven and look very similar to turbans.
From Santa Catalina we traveled south, stopped briefly at Agua Caliente (the hot springs) where a young couple, barely clad, clung to each other amongst the cascading car-sized rocks and warm water. Further along, nearby to beds of natural scallions, we saw crowds of women doing laundry on the rocks on the lakeshore just before we arrived at San Antonio Palopó. Here, like in Santa Catalina, Mayan languages dominate and many speak no Spanish at all. From the lakeshore, we traveled up a winding path past women in the doorways of their homes who were weaving on back strap looms. Their dwellings are dirt-floored, have no doors and seem to cling tentatively to the hillside. At the first level spot sat the church on a tiny square overlooking the lake. Again, we were pursued by lovely women selling woven crafts including huipiles (embroidered tunics) and distinctly different bright sparkling head-wraps. From this vantage point we could see San Pedro directly across the lake, where its namesake volcano was engulfed occasionally in dramatic dark rain clouds. Luckily for us, a village elder (likely a prayer leader called a “chuchkajaue”, literally “mother-father”) dressed in rarely-seen dress of Mayan men, arrived at the church and opened the large wooden door to reveal a simple church with few adornments. We all quietly filtered in and sat briefly in silence while young children sat on the long steps watching us carefully. Finally our appointed time arrived and we moved down to the lakefront to meet our lancha amidst a driving rainstorm for the twenty minute wet ride back to Panajachel.
Our last day touring the highlands included the immense Sunday market in the town of Chichicastenango, where Masheños of the Cakchiquel Mayan have been trading for centuries before the Spanish arrived here. Residents of Chichi have harmoniously combined pre-Christian rituals and beliefs with the imposed Catholism and the church, dating from 1540, is simple though inspiring. The stone steps of the church on this Sunday were filled with flowers and worshippers who were enveloped in the estoraque (balsam) incense spread by the chuchkajaue. Following the directions given to us by our guidebook, we respectfully used the side door and entered the church. Simple wooden plank benches lined the floor. We watched as the faithful lit candles, prayed and performed small ceremonies for loved ones. One man lit candles and prayed at three stations and at each site poured a nip of liquor, sprayed perfume and sprinkled rose petals before saying his silent prayers. To our right, two ancient, tiny hunched men struggled up to a religious icon and one clearly prayed for the health of the other, still more frail man. After sitting in silence for a half an hour or more, we heard thunder and torrential rains and slipped out another side door where we waited for the storm to pass along with some villagers under a covered portico. After the rains stopped we made our way back through the chaotic market, with vendor stalls now partially disassembled. Muddy water ran often ankle deep in the streets. At one corner where crowds were thick, Leslie came up behind a Mayan woman who was clinging to the remains of a stall. Saying in Spanish “con permisso” to step around her, the woman, reached out her left arm and whacked Leslie hard in the gut, mumbling something about her shoes getting wet! We laughed later about the vehemence of the woman, though Leslie never even touched her.
Back at our minivan, we compared our handcrafted treasures with our friends (a lovely, hand-embroidered quilt for our boat’s berth and another cool Mayan shirt for Philip) as we listened and watched the spectacle of screaming pigs being loaded into pickups and the traffic gridlock slowly, oh so slowly, dispersing so that we were able to get underway up into the mountains and back to Antigua.
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Philip, Leslie & Jake the cat
lying at anchor outside Bahia Del Sol, El Salvador