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November 17

Susan seems to be enjoying her holiday in El Salvador.  We aren’t doing anything very exciting and she spends most of her time reading in the sun, taking dips in the pool and enjoying the occasional cold beer from the casita fridge.  One day, she is sitting by the pool about fifty feet away, deeply engrossed in a book.  I pull the tab on a can of beer … instantly, her head whips up like a pointer on a pheasant.  Nothing wrong with her reflexes!

The days are filled with chickens, dogs, a private pool and beer.  The Costa del Sol is hot, sunny and friendly.  It is not, however, quiet.  There is an endless cacophony of sound, 24 hours a day.  We are less than a quarter of a mile from the beach, so the roar and pounding of the Pacific surf serves up a background melody for the life that occurs on the narrow peninsula between the ocean and the estero.  Street vendors and scrap dealers advertise their businesses up and down the main road with loud-speakers, horns and bells.  Young folk on bicycles, chat, laugh and call out, sometimes as many as three on a bike, sharing the road with dogs, cows and the occasional horse or goat, as they run errands, visit with friends, head to the football field or make their way to school.  A variety of birds call throughout the day, some using our pool as a fly-through bird bath, while hummingbirds chatter incessantly, flitting from flower to flower.  Dogs are everywhere barking, yipping and growling.   As soon as darkness falls, they are joined by the neighbourhood roosters, who can’t seem to tell time at all.  Then, somewhere between 3 and 4 am, the clarion calls of the chicken buses join the din, as they roar past  to the end of the road at La Puntilla, their air-horns waking everyone as they go, so they can collect their sleepy-eyed passengers on the way back.  There is no need for an alarm clock; the cycle begins again!

Last year, I had an opportunity to watch baby sea turtles being released into the ocean and Susan dearly wanted to see it, too.  El Salvador has hundreds of miles of Pacific Ocean beaches which are prime sea-turtle nesting ground.  The turtles come ashore during the night and lay their eggs in the sand above the high-tide line.  In a few weeks, the baby sea turtles hatch out and scrabble across the sand, heading for the water.  Anywhere from five to seven years later, the female turtles return to the same beach and lay their eggs within a few feet of where they hatched.  Most unfortunately for sea turtles, their eggs are delicious, although I cannot bring myself to personally verify this fact, and are a much sought-after delicacy in the local diet.  People spend night after night patrolling the beach, watching for a turtle to come ashore.  They follow the turtle until she digs a hole in the sand and collect the eggs as she lays them.  A dozen eggs will fetch a good twenty dollars – easy money in this economy.  A handful of environmental organizations are attempting to improve the survival rate by operating hatcheries on the beach.  These agencies offer to buy eggs from the collectors so the turtles can be hatched out and returned to the ocean.  Although turtle eggs do still appear on local breakfast tables, a typical vivero hatches between two and three hundred thousand baby turtles each nesting season.  It is estimated that the survival rate is only one in a thousand, but hundreds of sea turtles wouldn’t return to lay eggs if it wasn’t for the efforts of the viveros.

 

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Hatchery worker explaining the process

Susan helping the environment

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A journey of a thousand miles begins with a short scrabble!

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The vivero where the turtle eggs are incubated in the sand

Each enclosure contains a batch of incubating eggs

 

November 18

Today is the last day of the school year.  In the afternoon, the teachers are all going on a picnic and they invite Susan and me to join them.  We go to the school at noon and wait while the teachers finish filling out forms and handing in final marks.  Then we all troop down to the estero and climb on board a lancha.  The teachers act like kids let out of school and everyone is a bit giddy.  Our lancha cruises down the estero, past the bocana where the estuary empties out to the ocean and into the narrow winding channels among the small islands and mangroves.  It is much the same route we took last year on our way to the stick restaurant, but the beauty of the scenery, the birds and other wildlife never cease to fascinate us.  Our destination is a spot on the shore of the Rio Lempa, just before it empties into the Pacific.  We have some reservations about the picnic site.  The recent flooding has thrown up massive piles of driftwood on what passes for a beach.  To get rid of the wood, various helpful souls try to burn it.  This does reduce the amount of wood but leaves the sand covered in ashes, charred sticks and branches.  Combine this with a culture that has no concept of cleaning up litter or recycling and it doesn’t look like much of a a picnic spot to us.  Bob and I take a short walk up the beach, picking our way through drift wood, burnt logs, cans, plastic pop bottles, fish carcasses and the most amazing array of abandoned mismatched flip flops.  I marvel at the sheer numbers and wonder how long they will take to break down…or if they ever do.  However, the teachers couldn’t be happier.  Apparently, this is a traditional picnic spot; their families having been coming here for generations.

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Lancha full of teachers

Garza (egret)

 

We wonder what lunch will be.  Out of the boat, comes a huge cauldron of chicken soup, still hot even after the boat ride.  The soup is made from pollo indio or barnyard chicken and is considered to be a great treat.  Pollo indio tends to the tough and stringy side, but it tastes wonderful -- never to be confused with factory chicken from the supermarket or KFC. We all perch on a convenient fallen tree and eat chicken soup until it is dripping from our ears.  A bottomless supply of tortillas helps to soak up the juice and serve as edible napkins.  Several gunny sacks of coconuts appear out of the boat; even a teacher in this country would never go anywhere without a machete.  Soon, the men are happily whacking fresh coconuts open for everyone.  There is just about nothing more refreshing on a hot, sticky day than coconut juice.

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Chicken soup for all

Everyone digs in

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Freddy opening a coconut

Ahhhh!

 

The picnic area is carved out of dense bush and mangroves and it was flooded during the recent rains.  Someone discovers that the damp soil at the back of the clearing is home to many small clams.  Some of the teachers spend time after lunch doing some serious clamming.  I wander over to check out this activity and try to find some clams on my own, but I cannot see them even when they are pointed out to me, unless someone actually digs them up.  I give up and return to the sunlight, leaving both mosquitoes and clams behind.  I watch the busy sea birds flying over the river and the sandbars, try to get a good picture of some of the hundreds of pelicans in flight.  They are graceful and I have many opportunities to get good shots. 

We have our swimsuits along but the “beach” looks singularly unappealing to us, although the silty water doesn’t discourage the men.  They frolic in the river like small boys, until it begins to grow late and the boat captain finally threatens to leave them behind if they don’t come out of the water and get on board.  The return trip through the mangroves is magical.  Hundreds of pelicans return to their roost trees for the night as we glide past.  Egrets, herons large and small, kingfishers, eagles, vultures, hawks and many birds we don’t recognize entertain us.  The sun is poised above the horizon, turning all the light soft and golden and the edge is off the heat of the day.  In a few minutes, the sun will drop out of sight, plunging us into abrupt darkness, so surprising to us who are accustomed to long, leisurely twilights.

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Our lancha

Pelicans roosting for the night

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Stick restaurant

Cruising yachts in the estero

November 19

Saturday morning, we set off in Francisco’s car to see some of the country.  Our destination is the small, isolated village of Perquin, high up in the mountains in the eastern end of the country, just a couple of Km from the border with Honduras.  Perquin is the site of the famous Museum of the Revolution.  It is impossible to spend time in El Salvador without being affected by stories about the brutal civil war that devastated this country between 1980 and 1992.  Perquin was the headquarters of the FMLN, the rebel forces, and the site of their most important training base.  The museum is small and simple, only four rooms, but very impressive.  As we enter, a crippled man hobbles out to greet us and offer his services as our guide.  Our guess that he is a wounded veteran is confirmed when he casually points to an old photograph of soldiers and says:  “That one is me, just before I got shot!"

The number of young women who not only joined the rebel movement but held high level positions of command is astonishing.  I marvel at their courage and determination.  I cannot imagine getting shot at, never mind putting myself in a position where getting shot at would be expected!  The government forces’ practice of marching in and obliterating entire villages (particularly women and children) may well have been the flame that fed the courage of their conviction.  I reflect on the lifestyle that my friends and I were enjoying in the '80s and am completely blown away by the contrast.  The stories are horrifying and I count myself very lucky to have been born in North America.

The U.S. predictably backed the right-wing government forces against the poverty-stricken, indigenous people, who were only striving for an equitable share of the land and resources of this relatively wealthy small country.  The evidence of U.S. involvement is everywhere in the museum:  Vietnam-era guns, mortars and other equipment, but the showpiece is the wreckage of a U.S. helicopter, shot down by the FMLN forces.  The twisted and battered aircraft is displayed under a protective roof.  Twenty years after the end of the war, our guide is still visibly proud of their accomplishment.  An interesting display is a reconstruction of the studio of Radio Venceremos, the clandestine short-wave radio station, with which the rebels tried to inform the world of their struggle.  Most impressive of all, is the huge crater left by a 500 lb. bomb that targeted the radio station and missed it by less than 100 feet.

At the end of the day, the poor people of El Salvador have the last laugh.  As part of the peace negotiations, the FMLN agreed to turn itself into a non-military political party.  In 2009, the FMLN won the national elections under the leadership of Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and formed the government.  My friends tell me that they are reasonably content with this government as it does seem to be trying to improve the lot of the poor people.  For example, schooling is now free and each child is given their textbooks and two uniforms per year.  Previously, many children received no education at all, because their families were too poor to afford the fees or buy the uniforms.  The small group of wealthy businessmen and politicians that still controls most of the resources, is of course, violently opposed and never stops trying to bring the FMLN into disrepute.

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Mountains in Perquin

St. Miguel volcano

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Ox cart loaded with sugar cane stalks

Fierce watchdog at our hotel in Perquin

 

November 20                                                                                

On the way home from Perquin, we detour across country to visit the mountain village of Alegria.  Our guidebook recommends it as an interesting place to visit and for once, it doesn’t lead us wrong!  Alegria means “happiness” and the little mountain village is well-named.  It is located about 1200 meters up, high enough to grow coffee and to provide lovely views out over the surrounding countryside.  Alegria is a town that has figured out the tourist trade.  It is spotlessly clean and tidy, has restaurants and shops and almost every house is a showcase of flowers.  Pretty much every house is also a shop, so Susan wanders in to indulge her fascination with flowers and impress the local people with her ability to speak Plant.  There is a small fiesta going on in the central square with all kinds of food booths, vendors and roving entertainers.  A dusty group of musicians gathers hopefully around our table so we ask them if they know any Cuban songs.  They do – Guantanamera –but only one!  …but they would awfully like to play us some Mexican mariachi music.  We have to go!

 

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