Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hola El Salvador!

Ok, so I got sucked into several video games that took up all my time and then fell off of writing this blog.  This is also a really long post so it took me a while.

Let's catch up with my Memorial Day trip to... El Salvador!  Now before you read this story, DISCLAIMER: you will either think I'm extremely stupid, or extremely adventurous. You're welcome to tell me how stupid I am but the fact of the matter is that it happened, and I feel that I'm a better person for it. 

My company gives me Friday AND Monday off for Memorial and Labor day. Woo! 4 day weekend!  So I took a look at what flights I could take that were under $500 for that weekend.

A little about El Salvador, and I am no expert, but when I first started traveling solo in 2006, El Salvador was known as a dangerous destination.  It's a tiny country and usually overshadowed by its bigger neighbors Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and other bigger adventure destinations. It makes awesome coffee and though it's tiny, it has a decent amount of coastline and therefore beaches.   It also went through a quite intense civil war from mid 80s until the early 90s, which left it a bit of a mess and also encouraged a population of Salvadorians to migrate into other parts of the Americas (including the US).  I've met lots of Salvadorians in California and New York, and in Spain! and every single one has been absolutely awesome.  And I love pupusas, so this was a natural decision.

 I arrived in San Salvador International Airport after a ridiculous flight of going from LA to Houston Thursday night on a redeye and sleeping on a floor in the Houston airport. (Thank you American Airlines).  

I am not sure if I've outlined my method of getting a taxi to you all, but I always try to do this. ESPECIALLY if you are a single traveler and you don't know what you're doing there:
  • take a step back. get out of the madhouse of the international terminal of whatever airport I am. This is where all the drivers are waving around signs, people are waiting for their loved ones and taxi drivers push themselves on confused and disoriented flyers.  I hate it.
  • assess the situation from behind and observe who are the tourist predators, who are the real taxis and where the real taxi stand/bus stop is
  • assess whether you can or want to take a taxi from outside of the airport - sometimes its as near as walking down the street and costs like $10 less, also the bus tends to be there if you want to do that
  • THEN, you approach whichever taxista you would like to ask about a fare.   BE AWARE of what a normal fare is before you ask them, your hotel should tell you about the right amount, or have them show you an official sign with the rates on it. they usually have those.
Now, sometimes some or none of these things can happen, and yes, shit happens. Believe me. I got some stories. But generally, I got a taxi no problem, it costs about $30, and I take a drive over to La Libertad.

My initial housing situation had been a hostel called El Balsamo. I found it on hostelbookers or wherever. It was $5 a night for a dorm and was just west of El Tunco. However, I was going to El Tunco in a low season and when we arrived at around 11 am, there was no one to check me in.  It was a house with a yard, hammocks, and some barking dogs, but I couldn't find anyone! And I needed to get some internet work done.  So I got pissed and asked the driver to take me to my backup location, SABAS Beach Resort.  Also very quiet because I was there on a random weekend. 

SABAS was a really cute little hotel.  Only 12 rooms. It has a pool and full bar and restaurant and you can walk out to the beach. The owner was SUPER nice when I just showed up out of the blue and gave me the rate I found on Expedia. However, it was a little weird because I was like, the only person in the hotel. This hotel was also situated EAST of El Tunco, and there appeared to be some sort of, how do I say it nicely, shanty town that was obstructing my easy walk from there to El Tunco. The lady at the hotel got worried when I said I wanted to walk around the beach.  It was also about $50 a night. Not too bad, but like, 1000% more than I was going to pay.  This is what I get for not doing my research.

Oh well.So Thursday and Friday I spent working by the pool, eating these gorgeous shrimp burritos they make there, and having some beer and taking a nap.  I basically did this for like, 2 1/2 days. It was glorious.  But also kind of boring as I wasn't leaving the hotel.

This is where things start to get a bit interesting. On Saturday, after being a gluttonous bum, I went and told the lady that I was going for a walk on the beach, and that I'd go in the opposite direction from the shantytown.  So I walk further east.  I get to the end of the beach. I walk inland and recognize that I am in the other end of the neighborhood as the hotel and consider walking up the highway (its a 2 lane highway, not like the 405) to El Tunco. Then I look at the time, 4pm, sigh, and basically chalk up my experience to be a mess this time as I have no easy transport and its going to be dark soon. It does suck being a girl sometimes. There is a lady standing on the corner selling pupusas on the street. I haven't even had pupusas here yet because I've been stuck in the hotel, so I walk over, she looks at me curiously, and invites me to sit down and wait for my food.

While I'm waiting a neighborhood guy comes over and gets some pupusas too. He's a nice older man named Jorge in his 50s.  We chat in Spanish for a bit, I ask him where the market is so I can buy some water and then we both take off with our food in hand down the street.  On the way, we stop at the same market, I get some water and he gets a Coke.

 This dude was honestly curious about me and kept asking me questions.  We're walking and we stop in front of his house and he... invites me into his house to eat with him.  I hesistate.  Stranger danger!  After speaking to him for a while outside his house, assessing the situation, noting that my hotel is only about 500 m down the street and also observing that this is a really small neighborhood that nothing happens and by now our loud talking has everyone on the street tuned in to the fact there is a Spanish speaking Asian person wandering around, I decide that its safe to go in.  So I enter this very kind man's house.

Jorge owns a piece of land, and his house is reasonably sized, made of cinderblocks.  He has very little furniture and there are no glass on the windows.  He has a very old tube TV which he had plugged in outside, and a futbol game was playing.  Around his yard he has a cute dog (which did try to bite me) surfboards, and a lot of ceramic stuff.

We share Coke and pupusas and Jorge tells me about himself.  He is a ceramic worker, and he makes those little artisan ashtrays and coffee mugs you buy from places in Mexico. He has a full kiln and things in his house.  His family is middle class, he told me his mother and brother live in El Salvador and his brother is a doctor.  He fled El Salvador in the 80s from the war and worked in Guadalajara at a ceramics factory for a long time before returning to El Salvador and wanted to live at the beach, so he bought this piece of land and here he is.  He has a pretty calm life of working on his ceramics, biking around, surfing and doing his thing. I bought some ceramics from him.

I told him my issues with trying to get to El Tunco and he said of course, its hard if you're a woman, you can't walk thru the shanty town (I forgot the name of it) and offered to take me. I hesitated again because its one thing to hang out with someone in the afternoon and then go out at night to some town 3 km away that I dont know how to get there and back.  He convinced me that it was Saturday night and I really should see it, that he knows the owner of the hotel I'm at and we can let them know I'm going. So I said, ok.. but only if we go to the hotel first and I tell them I'm going with you.

We go to the hotel and it becomes very obvious that he knows everyone in the hotel so I calm down, and we set off walking towards El Tunco. We walk along the beach over a small creek and then cut thru the shanty town and then walk across the freeway. Honestly, after seeing the town, I don't know what the big deal is, I've been in worse in my time but I suppose it makes sense the hotel people were concerned for me. It's FAR to El Tunco. 3km on a highway, so nearly a mile. It was dark. I was like where ARE we! But we did make it and I'm glad I went because it was a really cute lively town. Live music playing everywhere and lots of people out.

Jorge shows me a few places in the town I can stay at if I ever decided to come back to El Salvador, and dammit, it was like $10 a night.  Stupid hotel.  We go choose a beachfront bar to sit down and I offer to buy him his beers tonight as it's a bit pricey. $2 a beer. 

We end up in a beer fueled 5 hour conversation where I learned a lot about Salvadorian politics,  got some Cuban cigars from them, got stuck in a downpour and then couldn't find a taxi so we had to run back along the freeway to our place, cut thru the beach, and the creek had then turned into a river.  It was like 2 am and the hotel gates were closed, so there was some banging and yelling before the guard woke up and let me in, and I'm sure we looked absolutely ridiculous, covered in sand and soaked lol.  Jorge went home and I went to sleep.

The next day I hung out at the hotel and stopped in El Tunco again on my own by asking the hotel to drive me there, but its much quieter every other day of the week. Other notable things I ate were more beer, and different cocteles de mariscos (see below).  Read a book, drank some fantastic coffee.  It was a good day.  Before I left on Monday, I stopped by Jorge's house one more time, he was hung over - honestly, I think people underestimate my out-drinking capabilities - and said bye to him before I left.

Now, to sum up my trip, I would go to El Salvador again. As usual, a trip like this is character building and I came out of it positively.
  • Resourcefulness - Taxis, making sure hotels know where you are
  • Reading people and their intentions
  • Understanding your surroundings and your environment
  • Making plans and backups - stupid hotel
  • Practicing a language - I had a Spanish breakthrough on this trip, where after about 8-9 hours of talking to someone, you suddenly start naturally talking in whole paragraphs.  Win!
  • Opening your doors to meet someone not like you
  • Representing YOUR country and culture to others - this is important!
  My trip didn't start out that great, but it ended with meeting a really interesting person, with a lot of stories to tell, I ate a lot of food, relaxed a bunch.  El Tunco is only 30 minutes from the airport, and the price is right.  I would go back again!

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