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Tuesday November 2

Today is a big fiesta day in Latin America, El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead).  Unlike many other Catholic countries, El Salvador doesn’t celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1, but they certainly do celebrate November 2.  Because of the holiday, the hotel is very busy and my Monday and Tuesday classes are postponed until Friday and Saturday.

Felipe is driving me back to the hotel after our class when he asks me how I like living on the island.  I reply that it is very nice, but there is not a lot for me to do and I get bored; plus, there is no opportunity to practice my Spanish on the island.  He immediately asks if I would like to go with his family to the cemetery to celebrate El dia de los Muertos.  Of course, I would!  Before I know it, I am perched in the back of the small 4-door Toyota pick-up, along with an impressive truckload of artificial flowers.  The cab of the truck is equally stuffed with female members of the Molina family.

We travel at a sedate pace (so the visiting maestro de inglés doesn’t fall out) all the way to San Luis La Herradura, the location of the area cemetery.  El cemetario is quite the sight! The street outside is lined with little shops and vendors selling every imaginable hue of artificial flower.  Electric blue and neon scarlet predominate along with the silver that you find on Christmas trees. Side-by-side with the flower vendors are stalls selling hamburgers, grilled meats, tortillas, pupusas, cold drinks, fresh fruit and so on.  The whole atmosphere reminds me of the fall fair.  The graves are above-ground concrete vaults – some plain and simple and some very elaborate.  On the Day of the Dead, families spend pretty much the entire day, tending to the burial places of relatives and loved ones who have passed away.  Here, someone is putting a new coat of bright blue paint on a vault; there, girls are sweeping up fallen leaves and over here, two old trouts are driving in stakes and stringing three strands of barbed wire around a family plot.  I don’t even think to ask.  Like the fall fair, everybody is here.  Misael, who seems to know every person within a twenty-mile radius of his home, takes me on a tour of introduction.  I meet a bewildering array of Molina relatives, some passed away decades ago, some still walking above ground.  I meet his abuelo (grandfather) who died in 1982.  I meet his infant son who only lived a month.  I meet his eldest brother who was killed in a fight in 1995.  I meet uncles and cousins who are here for the day, tending the graves of their family members like everyone else.  Actually, I notice it is pretty much the women and girls who do the tending while the men spend a lot of time shaking hands and clapping each other on the back.

    Street outside the cemetery

Day of the Dead at the cemetery

Fresh coat of bright blue paint on grandmother’s vault

Decorating the Molina family gravesite

The Molina ladies pausing in their labours

Misael(r) and one of his many uncles


After a couple of hours, Misael decides that we should go back home; the women will stay longer.  A cousin of some sort rides in the back seat and he and Misael are speaking rapid-fire Spanish.  I don’t try to keep up, although I am aware that Misael is explaining about me teaching English to his family and friends.  Suddenly, Misael breaks off the conversation and says to me:  “What means in English:  ‘Cayó del cielo’? ”  After some thought, I answer:  “He fell from the sky”.  Misael says:  “Yes, that’s right!  That’s what he say about you!  You fell from the sky, into my family!”  That one comment is enough reward to make my whole trip worthwhile.


Thursday November 4

Four cruising sailboats plan to leave the estero today, heading south to Nicaragua.  The rainy season is essentially over and the cruisers have been back for a week or two getting their boats ready for the next leg of their cruise.

Leaving this safe haven is not a project to be taken lightly, as the bocana, or entrance to the estuary, opens into the ocean in the middle of miles of beach.  The Pacific Ocean swells create impressive surf on these beaches, and on a bad day, can turn the entrance channel into an impassable maelstrom of breaking waves, foam and swirling surf.  The actual channel is only a couple of hundred feet wide and the bar is only fifteen feet deep at high tide.  To make matters worse, the channel shifts with each storm and only the local people know where it is from day to day.  Cruising sailboats watch for a weather window and wait for high tide.  Even then, there is always a local person to guide them, whether entering or leaving.  One of my students, Rogelio, is the Marina Captain and one of his duties is to guide boats in and out.  This morning, he asks me if I would like to go with him when he leads the four sailboats out to the ocean. 

ME:  "Yes!  I would really, really like to do that.  What kind of a boat are we going in?"   (thinking it will be one of the heavy fibreglas pangas that the local fishermen use)

ROGELIO:  "A jet-ski!"

ME:  "GULP!!"

At 11:30 am, just before high tide, the sailboats cast off, I put my sunglasses on, pull my hat down tight, climb on the back of Rogelio’s jet-ski and off we go down the estero towards the bocana.  There is no mention of life jackets and it seems inappropriate for me to bring the subject up.  As we round the point and start though the channel, all I can see are huge breaking waves that probably started out somewhere in the Philippines.  Rogelio pilots his jet-ski like a master and we work our way out to sea.  The jet-ski is probably the perfect craft for this purpose.  It is fast and agile and can bob over smaller waves, dodge around bigger ones and even outrun huge ones if need be.  We are quite comfortable, riding the swells like a seagull, while the heavy sailboats pitch their keels half out of the water.  In twenty minutes or so, the first boat clears the bar and we go back to lead the next one out.  It is phenomenally beautiful out here:  blue skies, deep blue water, brilliant white surf and pelicans flying overhead.  My long-buried dreams of sailing around the world start to quiver and twitch.

The fourth sailboat clears the bar and settles on course and I expect we will turn around and run back to the hotel.  Well we do, but Rogelio has a side trip in mind for me.  Instead of going back through the bocana, Rogelio opens up the jet-ski and we hare off down the coast.  I hang on like grim death and have no idea what our speed is, but it feels FAST and it is VERY bumpy.  About five miles away, the Rio Lempa empties into the ocean, creating another, smaller, entrance to the estero.  This one is far too shallow for sailboats, but just right for a jet ski, drawing about three inches.  Once through the surf, we find ourselves in a maze of narrow channels between dozens of mangrove islands.  As we careen along the narrow, twisting waterways, I sneak a peak over Rogelio’s shoulder at the speedometer:  62!  (that would be miles per hour, not Km!)  It is an awesomely beautiful, pristine environment (at least, when no jet-skis are blasting through).  Some of the islands are inhabited by a few local people eking out a subsistence living, some have vacation properties on them and some are nothing but mangroves.  Here and there, a rickety dock leads back to a tiny restaurant, where on weekends, you can eat fabulously fresh seafood.

All too soon, we are back at the marina.  I pry my fingers loose from the seat strap and with shaky knees, climb ashore.  I thank Rogelio profusely.  He suggests that there is little advantage in mentioning our side-trip to the Rio Lempa to the hotel manager. 

I have never had so much fun with my clothes on!


Thursday November 11

Susan arrives to spend two weeks with me.  I arrange with the hotel for a car to go to the airport and collect her.  The driver is Martin, one of my keener students.  When Susan arrives, I do an introduction because we have been practicing them in class:  “Susan, this is Martin Navas.  Martin, This is Susan Wall”

Martin tries to remember the proper response in English, but gets flustered and finally just mumbles:  “Mucho gusto”.

Fifteen minutes later, as we are driving out of the airport, Martin shouts triumphantly:  “Nice to meet you!”

This morning, Susan comes to class with me where everybody is waiting to meet her.  She finds the kids and adults at Misael’s house just as delightful as I do.

Earlier, I mentioned that I was planning to rent a car for the weekend, so Susan and I could travel around and see some of the country.  Next thing I know, Francisco is insisting that we use his car instead of renting one.  It is a very nice 2002 Hyundai Elantra with air conditioning and we are pleased to accept his offer.  Francisco is a local businessman/building contractor who is absolutely determined to learn as much English as he possibly can while I am here.  He is also absolutely determined to be as kind and generous to me as he possibly can be in return for my volunteer efforts.  Last week he offered me his guest casita totally free.  I declined regretfully. It would solve some of the drawbacks of living on the island but I am settled at Jan’s place now and it would be awkward to move at this point.  If (when) I come back here, I will certainly accept if the offer still stands.


Friday November 12, 2010

Right after class this morning, we pick up Francisco’s car and head out to see some more of El Salvador.  Cunningly choosing a route that bypasses the capital city of San Salvador, we travel east on CA-2, the Carretera del Litoral, to the busy market town of Zacetocoluca.  Here, we miss a turn-off and so get to see somewhat more of this highway than we planned.  Realizing that something is amiss, we retrace our route, find the junction and head north.  This road leads up over the shoulder of the San Vincente volcano, providing us with spectacular views.  We stop in the town of San Vincente to ask directions and walk around the little square, but we prefer the countryside to the towns and we soon move on.

Bell tower in the square in San Vincente 

 Church in San Vincente

  At one of the numerous traffic police checkpoints, we are chosen to be checked.  A very polite policeman struggles to understand why we are driving a car with San Salvador license plates, but I have an Ontario driver’s license; why my wife’s passport has a different entry date than mine; why the vehicle ownership does not seem to have on it the name of mi amigo, Francisco, but the name of some unknown lady.  (Apparently Francisco never bothered to transfer the ownership when he bought the car.) This all causes us concern, but doesn’t faze the policeman in the slightest.  He is much more concerned with asking where we are going and then explaining that, yet once more, we have missed a turn-off and must go back several miles.  Shortly thereafter, we find the turn-off to San Sebastian and are happily climbing the twisty road up into the mountains.

Weaver in San Sebastian

San Sebastian is a small town, famous for weaving and Susan is drawn to it like a moth to a flame.  A weekly market fills the central square in front of the church with noise, colour, people and cheap goods of all descriptions.  Our guidebook is fifteen years old and of little help, but a kindly gentleman gives us directions to the weaving workshops.  Each of these has a small retail shop on the street with all of their products for sale.  In a matter of minutes, Susan has completed her souvenir shopping.  Then we ask if we can watch the weavers at work.  The shop lady leads us back through the kitchen and living area into a large shady yard, filled with primitive looms.  At each loom sits a weaver, who pulls on a cord to make the shuttle fly back and forth.  His feet dance over a dozen foot pedals to raise and lower different warp threads each time the shuttle flies, creating the complicated patterns of the finished product.  The looms look like they are constructed out of odd scraps of ancient wood (and probably are), but the cloth that comes from them is beautiful.

Half a block up the cobblestone street, we find a comedor serving lunch.  We have a delicious bean soup and a piping hot cornmeal tortilla.  We are pretty sure this is authentic local food because we notice one of the weavers that we just watched at his loom, having his lunch at the next table.  Well fortified, we strike out for our final destination of the day.

Suchitoto is a small colonial city with cobblestone streets, red clay tile roofs and a pretty central square with an attractive church on one side.  This town has ambitions to duplicate the success of Antigua, Guatemala and become a tourist destination and possibly a centre for Spanish language training.  It has a ways to go to catch up to Antigua but the possibilities are definitely there. 

As part of my ongoing efforts to impress Susan and convince her that it really is a good idea for me to travel to exotic destinations while she slaves away in the tar sands, I have booked us into the nicest hotel in town.  La Posada is an old colonial building, possibly a convent or maybe just the former residence of a wealthy person.  We drive down a narrow cobblestone street, though a gate with a bell above it and into a quiet, shady courtyard.  The main building containing office, restaurant and bar sits on the very edge of a steep cliff overlooking the Cerron Grande reservoir.  In 1976, the Rio Lempa was dammed to produce hydroelectric power, creating an extensive lake .  The view of the lake down in the valley with layers of mountains above is breathtaking.  We sip a complimentary coctelito (in fact we sip two) on the balcony while taking in the view.  Then we move to the dining room for a lovely meal.  The staff is impeccably trained, the food is excellent and a bottle of Argentinean red wine tops it off.  Our room is in an old building with two-foot thick walls and high ceilings.  Narrow double doors of antique wood open onto a covered gallery.  Beyond are shady gardens with paths and benches and fountains.

Admiring the view of Lake Cerro Grande from the balcony of La Posada

Entrance gate into La Posada

Gallery at La Posada


Saturday November 13

From Suchitoto, we take a narrow, twisty road through the mountains and eventually connect with the Carretera Troncale del Norte, the country’s main north-south route.  We follow this road north, as it rises higher and higher into the mountains, to the little town of La Palma.  A little further and just kilometers from the Honduras border is the resort of Entre Pinos.  True to its name, the resort sits in a small pine forest, made possible by the altitude.  The sun is still hot during the day but the evenings are lovely and cool and it is a treat to sleep under blankets.  In the morning, we hike around the property, enjoying the change from the palm trees and humidity of the Costa del Sol.

Entre Pinos -- walking among the pines

Enjoying the view at Entre Pinos

  Hiking the trails of the resort


Sunday November 14

Late Sunday morning, we set out for home.  El Salvador is sometimes called “the half-hour country” because no place seems to be more than 30 minutes or so from anywhere else.  Our route home inevitably leads us though the capital city and inevitably we lose our way.  It may be possible to find a decent road map in this country but so far we have been unsuccessful.  Our intention was to pass though the eastern edge of the city, staying on the main thoroughfares and avoiding the congested city centre.  Too bad!  At least one wrong guess at an intersection and here we are crawling through the middle of the huge central marketplace and passing right in front of the big cathedral.  Eventually, we find a southbound avenue and soon I begin to recognize places I have seen on previous trips to the city.  Before we know it, we are outside the city and on our way to the coast. 

By this time, we are thinking about lunch and our route takes us past Olocuitla, the “City of Pupusas”.  On a Sunday afternoon, Olocuitla is like a festival.  There is music, entertainers, huge crowds and most of all, hundreds of pupusarias doing firesale business. Susan gets a chance to try what are reputed to be the best pupusas in El Salvador.  Another forty minutes brings us to Francisco’s house.  We return his car with profuse thanks and our weekend is over.

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