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Thursday, June 13, 2013

24 hours in San Salvador, El Salvador

(Going offline again, will be back in a few days)

With 4 hours of sleep under my belt, my phone blared out the now all too familiar Marimba at 2:30AM. I quickly turned it off to avoid waking up my 12 neighbors. 

By 2:50, I was ready and waiting for my 3:00 airport shuttle. It was 3:15 when I decided it was time to wake up one of the live-in hostel staff. Eyes bloodshot and staring at me with a "What the hell?" expression on her face, the staff quickly understood the reason for her rude awakening. Hustling downstairs with a determination to quickly head back up to bed, she called the shuttle - within 5 minutes, it arrived. 

The shuttle headed in the same direction as the walk David and I took the previous day. Except instead of the bustling markets, we saw men sitting idly on the backs of trucks reading the paper, and others busily unloading the day's fruits and vegetables to be sold. 

We arrived at the airport about 30 minutes later. First step was to pay the departure tax of $29. Curiously, I didn't get a matching exit stamp on my passport. Instead, it was a stamp on my departure tax receipt.

Flying TACA, I walked to the Avianca check-in line. Avianca and TACA had merged a few years ago, a fact that the airport assumed everyone should know as there were no signs telling TACA passengers to use the Avianca stands. As staff from United and other airlines started to check their passengers in, the Avianca passengers continued to wait for another half hour. During this time, I had the opportunity to chat with the Costa Rican woman in front of me. She loves her country, but was not a big fan of San Jose, believing it is currently too corrupt to be any good. 

When it was my turn to approach the check-in counter, I showed the staff my e-ticket. She asked if I had a paper ticket, to which I responded in the negative. She gave me a smirk that could had only meant trouble, so I asked her to print me a paper ticket. Handing me the ticket, she told me to first use my phone and only use the paper ticket as a backup. I agreed. Oddly, she asked me again. I agreed again. 

Compared to the States, security was quick and easy. IDs were eyeballed quickly with no authentication. Tickets were reviewed and handed back. At least paper tickets. The security guard looked at me in confusion when I handed him my phone.  Wanting to see how it would play out, I held onto my paper ticket, hidden between other sheets of papers. The guard, increasingly nervous, called over one of his colleagues who asked me to read off the ticket information. And that was it! No barcode even needed. 

While eating my expensive $3+ muffin at my gate, I started to take note that a lot of the folks around me were speaking English. It couldn't be - this many Americans people heading to El Salvador? It quickly dawned upon me that El Salvador just happened to be the gateway back to the States. 

Onboard the Airbus A320 for the one hour flight to San Salvador, I was ready to catch up on sleep. But, to my surprise, the crew started serving breakfast - two cookies and a small sandwich - all for a 60 minute flight. My weekly US Airways flights sometimes don't even serve drinks, let alone food. 

Almost as soon as we reached cruising altitude, it was time for the approach to landing. As the plane descended, pockets of dark green turned into groves of trees and grass that appeared nearly trimmed from a distance became a lawn of unevenly cut grass. 

Since El Salvador was not the final destination for most of the passengers on the flight, we parked at a gate that must had been as far away from immigration as possible. Once there, I went in the line for non-El Salvadorians. Standing with me were mostly men in business causal. The larger line next to us, with as many as four times the people, stood those from El Salvador. 

When I handed my passport to the immigration officer, he turned to his colleague next to him and pointed to it. They both chuckled. I wished I knew enough Spanish to ask them what was so funny. Then again, the process for me took much longer than I expected. The immigration officer next to me had passed through 3-4 people already, and I hadn't even paid for the $10 tourist card. I supposed being smart about it wouldn't had done me any good. 

Once I finally passed immigration and customs, it was straight to another ~30 minute taxi ride to the hostel. There wasn't a need to exchange money since El Salvador made the conversion to the US dollar as its primary currency in 2001. Five minutes into the taxi ride, the driver pulled over the side of the road and asked for the address again. It seemed he had feigned knowledge of the whereabouts of the hostel in order to get the fare. Wonderful. Luckily, I had the phone number of the hostel owner, and five minutes later we were on our way. Again. 

To our left stood rows of trees that separated us from oncoming traffic. To our right were several fruit stands, all selling what appeared to be exactly the same fruit. I guess the indecisiveness of drivers passing by determines which stand gets the buy. 

From what I saw alone, it appears this area of El Salvador is predominantly mountainous. Almost abruptly, the fruit stands turned into mountains, upon the sides of which were shanty towns in various stages of development. Although it's the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, El Salvador has the third largest economy in the region. Despite its relative affluence, the country isn't known for its safety, with violent crimes and homicides prevalent throughout the Pacific coast nation. 

At a little past half an hour, the taxi pulled into the parking space in front of the hostel. Ana, the owner, greeted me enthusiastically, and informed the taxi driver that this was a hostel, not a hotel, since be was surprised the address took him to a residential home. 

Speaking excellent English, Ana quickly erased any doubts I had about staying in a hostel in San Salvador. Her energy was infectious, and even before I gave her my passport we already started talking about what my plan of attack should be for the day. Since San Salvador was an extended layover, I had less than 24 hours before I had to be back at the airport. Ana quickly ruled out downtown, saying the environs of the area wasn't the impression she wanted me to have of San Salvador. We narrowed it down to Playa El Tunco, a beach town about 40 minutes away by bus. 

While Ana wrote down the directions for me, I went back outside to a couple doors down to what would be a street food vendor, except there were tables and chairs. It sold only one item - pupusas - pancake-shaped tortillas made with corn or rice with pork, cheese, and beans sandwiched in between like an omelet. Cold slaw soaked in vinegar served as the side. Each for only 40 cents. 

Re-energized, I quickly went back to the hostel and headed back out. It was already 11 and, despite Ana's post-it directions, I knew I was going to get lost so the sooner I left, the more time I would have before it got dark. I walked a couple blocks left out of the door, passing by more small neighborhood restaurants. At the major intersection where I was to turn right was the large white church Ana had told me to expect. It stood there like a three layer cake, with the bottom layer buttressed by six columns forming five arches lined in a tint of gold. In front if the church was a pedestrian bridge, one of many, that crossed above the Pan-American highway. 

On the other side was the bus stop. Former school buses repainted in a variety of colors, with the route number located at the top front center, drove in and out of the stop like the Indy 500. Each bus picked up steam almost as soon as it had just stopped, with passengers getting on and off efficiently and quickly. (LotT, you would have been proud.) 

After waiting 15 minutes in hopes of a direct microbus, I gave up and got in the #102 bus bound for Libertad. The fare was based on distance travelled, and mine was 59 cents. 

If driving and texting is considered dangerous by the authorities in the States, they would be appalled by the bus drivers driving stick, taking fares, giving change, and handing out tickets all at the same time. One man army. 

For 40 minutes I sat there in the hot, crowded bus listening to Rhianna pleading for her lover to stay because whips and chains excite her, presumably those that shine bright like a diamond.

At the Puerto de la Libertad, the first port of El Salvador, the bus pulled onto a street just a block from the pier. As usual, I didn't know where I was going and simply followed the sound of what I assumed were waves busily crashing onto the shore. Passing by a security guard with what appeared to be a shotgun looped around his shoulder, I was suddenly assaulted by the smell of recently caught, raw, and freshly gutted fish flowing through the hot air and hunkering down into my nostrils. The first 30-40 yards of the pier were covered by tarp stretch out upon green metal beams. I couldn't see anything through the opening, but as I approached, large aluminum baskets and red and blue coolers stacked with snappers, tunas, lobsters, crabs, and other seafood came into view. 

Hunched over on a wooden stool, a woman was busily cleaning up the aluminum container of fish at her feet. The smell, thankfully, did not get any stronger, a result of a stuffy nose and the breeze tunneling through. 

On the other half of the pier sat 10-12 fishing boats, each big enough for probably two people and the day's catch.  A man with his face covered by a bandana was fishing the old fashion way, but it didn't seem like he was having any luck. 

I had enough. Back at the bus stop, I waited for #80, which would take me to Tunco for a quarter. I asked the woman sitting in front of me to let me know when the stop for Tunco was, she agreed. Or so I thought, until she walked off the bus. I noticed a second too late that that stop was for Tunco. At the next stop, I hopped off. With no other choice, I stepped to the side of the El Salvadorian highway and walked the half mile. 

A two-way road made for a one-way street led to the Tunco entrance. Two-story hostels and hotels lined both sides of the road.  The beach was on the left, but was completely blocked off by the hostels. Walking half a mile back in the direction I had come from, followed by a couple hundred meters to the left, the road turned to sand, which itself opened up to the Pacific.

There was no beach, at least not what I was expecting. Along the ocean front was a row of restaurants built on top of four feet of concrete that buffered them from the pounding waves, which reached twice as high as those in Leon. I grabbed a table along the edge of one of the restaurants and ordered the house guacamole, coconut smoothie, and coffee. A strange mix. Befitting the small quiet surf town feel of Tunco, service was incredibly slow for what I ordered. As I sat there, I slowly got covered in the hot salty air, carrying microscopic droplets of seawater released by the crashing waves. It was like having a second layer of skin. Though it felt almost as uncomfortable as it sounds, the view more than made up for it.

After a couple hours, it was time to go. Backtracking first to Libertad on #80 and then to San Salvador on #102. This time, the driver's only focus was to drive. Another guy, hissing like Voldemort's snake, went up the bus aisle to collect the fare. At the end of the bus during each stop  he would jump out of the back exit, running forward to the front door as the bus picked up speed. It's a surprise that the bus doesn't sometimes leave without him since the driver doesn't seem to pay attention to anything around him. 

With all the stops looking unfamiliar to me, I missed my stop as expected. I decided to stay on until the last stop, allowing myself a bus tour of San Salvador. Ana was right, it wouldn't had been a great lasting impression of San Salvador. There wasn't much there to describe. Streets stuffed with cars and dense clouds of exhaust in the air were not ideal. 

It was about half an hour before the sunset when the bus finally made its last stop. As I walked around the neighborhood, with the intention to do a little exploring, I noticed that the shoe store was guarded by a man with a shotgun. Interesting. Then I looked more closely and noticed quite a few of the stores were guarded by men with shotguns. On that note, I started looking for a taxi. 

Unfortunately, all the taxis I approached were empty and their drivers were nowhere to be found.
I eventually found am elderly gentleman standing at his cab with his back leaning against the trunk. I gave him the address and asked him to call the hostel for directions. He obliged and went into his cab to do so. He kept getting an error message multiple times, and I realized right away that he wasn't entering the last digit of the phone number so I did it for him. My confidence in his sight was dwindling. 

With the directions, the driver shifted out of park and we went on our way. As with all the Central American cabs I've been in so far, there was conveniently a working seatbelt for the driver and not for any other seat. Excellent. I was apparently quite the distance from the hostel, as it ultimately took us about 20 minutes to get back. Once there, I had to reach out the window to let myself out as the interior was missing a door handle...



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