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Elation in El Salvador
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I’m alive! Yes, I’ve survived adventuring through “Latin America’s Most Violent Country”. Usually these labels are mostly hype, and this is mostly the case here, but here in El Salvador it’s indeed a stigma one can feel, see and even experience. Luckily I did not have to experience any violence personally, but I sure did get close to those who had. So settle in and enjoy the adventure!
My first stop was a city called Santa Tecla, which is just 12km from the wild capital of San Salvador. Santa Tecla is often called the “New San Salvador” and is where many families and middle to upper class settle. I took a miss on Honduras due to the tight schedule so arrived via the infamous TicaBus from Nicaragua. I made my way to my host Amado’s house just before sunset. Amado is a well seasoned Couchsurfing host who has offered his home to dozens of folks over the last 10 years. He mentioned on his profile that he has a goal to show the world that El Salvador is not all about violence and crime. He’s a quiet man in his mid fifties, doing his best to live with Parkinson’s disease, and was extremely helpful in getting me geared up and oriented for my adventures.
The main reason for my visit to San Salvador area was to connect with a group of musicians who call themselves Talticpac (http://benjaminpalomo.com/talticpac). Cristina made contact with them from Spain and we were all excited to meet up. The band plays ancient pre-Colombian instruments mixed with a fusion of modern guitar, flutes and more. Many of their instruments are over 1,500 year old and registered cultural artifacts. I heard some of their samples and was eager to record them for my show. Both of the band leaders Benjamin and Mauricio came over Friday night to Amado’s place to give us a sample of the music, a free CD and to discuss the best filming location. I felt honored to be in the presence of such talent, and with guys who were so passionate about preserving the history of their nation. We decided to record in the town of Santo Domingo de Guzman, which is an indigenous village about 90 minutes by car from town the following morning.
I was up at 5AM Saturday and, for the first time in all of my Latin American and African adventures with musicians, these guys actually showed up on time! Musicians tend to be a bit hard to motivate in the morning, especially in Latin America. But they were even a bit early. We piled in the entire band, my recording equipment, and their instruments and off we went to Santo Domingo. When we arrived a massive panic hit the group when they realized that one of the bags full of ancient flutes had gone missing. We all recalled it being put in the car, but it was nowhere to be found. Everyone assumed it was stolen out of the pickup truck, and the thought of losing these precious works of art was a heavy burden for the band to continue the performance, but they managed to muster up the energy to put on a great show. They performed on the balcony of a local family’s home made of mud, adobe and cow dung with kids giggling and all the sounds and sights of the village to give the recording a nice local touch.
The ride home was a bit quiet as the guys were all worried about the flutes. Mauricio was especially quiet since he and Benjamin were trusted by the government of El Salvador to watch over these cultural pieces. I had a strong feeling they would show up and, I’m happy to say, they did. Somebody forgot to put them in the car and a neighbor found them and they are now safe and sound. You’ll get a chance to see them when the show comes out—they are truly amazing and Maurico really knows how to play them.
That evening I had a second recording gig with a cool cat named Melvin who invited me to record him and a few of his fellow artists at a venue called Luna in San Salvador. I stayed until about midnight then ran out of batteries—both personally and for my cameras. When leaving the club Melvin insisted he drive me in his car a whopping 50 meters to the gas station to catch a cab. You literally can’t walk anywhere at night in San Salvador, and it’s VERY difficult at times to get a cab to take you since there are so many murders and thefts of taxi drivers. Not such a happy vibe, but I made it home safe.
Sunday was my planned day of departure into the countryside. But by the time the bike was built up I got a visit from Mauricio who invited me to eat with his family and celebrate Father’s Day. Since this is indeed the first Father’s Day where I am indeed a father, I decided to dive in and celebrate. Mauricio had the perfect solution to keeping me on schedule too—he had a farm outside of town on my route and offered to drive me there that night to stay with his caretaker Blanca for the night and avoid the nasty city departure. Deal! And, on top of this, we had to celebrate the fact that the missing flutes magically appeared when a neighbor discovered them on the street!
So instead of a lonely, hot and wild departure out of San Salvador I was blessed with watching Brazil play in the World Cup with tons of Mauricio’s friendly family members. There was fresh ceviche, ice cold beer, El Salvadorian style paella and good vibes on this lovely Sunday afternoon. Before heading out of town we met up with Melvin to pass over the video footage of his performance and off we went, heading west out of town. As we drove the road I was grateful I was not on the bike that day since there was no shoulder, fast moving buses and cars and some towns notorious for bad boys on the route. The Angels were indeed in full force!
That afternoon I had my first up close and personal experience with the topic of extortion. Extortion is running rampant in El Salvador and usually involves someone calling an innocent person and saying that they are going to kill them and/or their family unless they pay them money. Sometimes they actually do kill the people, so there is a lot of fear in the community when a call comes in. Well, when I was with Mauricio, he got a call from someone who said they were in front of his mother’s house and they knew her name and the address. He said he was offered $3,000 to kill his mother but he would not do it if Mauricio paid him just $1,000. Mauricio was indeed a bit scared at first and made some calls to the police. But then the guy called again and said he was also offered money to kill Mauricio’s father. This was enough for Mauricio to hang up on the guy since Mauricio’s father has been dead for over a decade. The fact is that many of these calls are coming from prison and people are sneaking in cell phones and SIM cards into jail for these crooks to make money while being locked up! The government is currently deploying the military to the prisons to get things under control. Crazy stuff!
We arrived at Mauricio’s farm, which he was renting in hopes to grow acra, but it was not working out as he had hoped. So his small farm house was being watched for the remainder of his lease by a lovely woman named Blanca. We did an interview at sunset on the topic of extortion and safety, then he left me in the care of the 34 year old grandmother Blanca. Yep, you read that right, she had her first baby girl at 16 and her daughter had her first at 15. We had a lovely evening together chatting about our drastically different lives. She shared her all too common story about her former husband leaving to work in Mexico and the USA. He sent some money for a while, then completely disappeared when he made it to USA, leaving her to raise her daughter Flor by herself. But she was, like many of the single mothers I met while in El Salvador, somehow totally content, accepting and at peace with this reality. It’s just the way it is.
The next morning Blanca made me a typical farm fresh breakfast including fresh tortillas, eggs, black beans, fresh cheese and yummy coffee. She was totally keen to be the host of our fun little cooking show too. The best part of our adventure was when Flor came in with her little daughter Helen. Three generations of friendly, loving El Salvadorians enjoying breakfast with the birds chirping and river flowing nearby is a great way to start my expedition.
Flor has her own little business selling mangos and veggies from the farm. She and Helen drive a cute little cargo bike from the farm to the stall every day. Blanca, on the other hand, has never ridden a bike in her life so she was going to have her chance today. We packed up Flor’s bike with her mangoes, fruits, veggies and my ride with panniers, food and water and off we went. Blanca pedaled like a champ even though she was clearly scared on her first bike experience. We made it to the main road and bid our farewells. I was heading west towards Sonsonate to ride back to Santo Domingo. I felt drawn to this indigenous town, the ancient Nahuas culture and Nahuat language, and was eager to live a day or two amongst the people.
The ride to Sonsonate was on the busy and not so inspiring highway 8. But it felt great to be back on the bike doing some serious riding since my Ometepe trip on Nicaragua was pretty chill. No takers for a lift could be found and I hit Sonsonate during the peak afternoon heat and stopped for a meal. A lovely old man guided me through the town to the road towards Santo Domingo de Guzman and off I went. There’s a steep climb outside of town before the decent and it was here that I met Eyman Flores while shooting a scene for the show. Eyman was pushing his own bike up the steep slope and had several extra pounds in his belly himself to get up the hill. But his warm, curious smile made him a fine candidate for a riding partner that afternoon. I told him I’d be heading up near his house shortly and we’d chat about him coming along.
Almost at the top of the climb I saw Eyman peering through the gate waiting for me to pedal by. Eyman was bringing food to his father who is working as a security guard for a local business owner. I had a brief chat with his father who, like many Central Americans, complained about how poor he was and how the economic crisis was making it very difficult to provide for his family. He makes about $320 per month and has to pay rent, school fees, utilities and more. He would love to help his son to go to university but knows it will not be possible.
Eyman’s father gave him permission to pedal along with me so off we went, hammering up the last part of the climb. Eyman had some muscles in his legs, but he was barely doing his job to carry his weight. But the shaky and wobbly tandem finally hit the top of the hill and I knew it was mostly downhill or flat from there. I decided to run the cameras and have a nice dialogue with him as we coasted down the curvy road. Turns out his father doesn’t have to worry about putting him through university since is main dream is to go into the military, protect the people of El Salvador and join his brother in the armed forces. He was a gentle, innocent soul who truly appreciated the opportunity pedal along on the tandem and share a slice of life with me. We rolled into Santo Domingo about 4PM, just before the afternoon sprinkles began to fall dripping in sweat and just tired enough to call it a day.
I had no idea where I was going to stay or who I would connect with in Santo Domingo de Guzman. I just had a very strong feeling I was meant to return. I was blessed to run into one of the elders of the village Fidalina Cortez who remembered me when I came to film the musicians a few days back. I told her and her husband that last Saturday that I was going to try to return with my bike and they welcomed my return. Fidalina and her friend Consuelo smiled when I offered to buy us all a coconut to discuss the plan of attack.
So Eyman, Fidalina, Consuelo and I sat under a tree as the sprinkles fell and I was curious to know how the indigenous elders viewed the current affairs of El Salvador. Both Fidalina and Consuelo immediately opened up and shared their frustration and sadness with the state of today’s youth. They both speak the native language of Nahuat and feel it’s important to preserve their native language, traditions and rituals. But as each new generation comes it’s clear to them that the youth not only do not want to learn the language or traditions, but they are actually embarrassed and ashamed when their parents and grandparents speak it.
So the question of where I was going to stay was soon answered when Consuelo offered for me to stay with her family in a house she was care taking. So I got my wish to stay with someone who was still speaking and living the Nahuas ways, which I was super grateful. I rode Eyman back to the bus stop, printed him out a sweet photo which he wrapped in two plastic bags for the journey and off he went with a huge smile and long wave goodbye. He was so fired up—you’ll see when you watch the videos later.
So back in town I made my way to Consuelo’s place, cleaned myself up and was able to catch her cooking up the corn to make the dialing tortillas from scratch. Many folks just buy the flour, but trust me, there is nothing better than tortillas made from scratch over an open fire. Consuelo was a natural on camera too, and loved explaining the cooking process in both Spanish and in Nahuat with a smile. I felt right at home and was even given my own bed and makeshift room of my own. Basically the house she was caretaking was one huge room cut into little rooms by some plywood, but I was extremely grateful. I fell in love with her town grandchildren Benda and Nelli too, who’s mom has successfully made her way into the USA and was working and sending money back home. The owners of the house had also successfully made the adventure over the border and were doing their best to live the dream—whatever that is. So I was able to experience the “other side” of the immigration issues.
I made an immediate connection with Consuelo’s former husband Esfrain that first night as well. As the sun was setting we hit the streets to “Pasear”, or take a walk. He felt like an old friend as we meandered the streets together chatting about all sorts of topics. When we got back Benda and Nelli were already counting on taking me to the waterfalls the next morning and I managed to recruit Esfrain to ride with me afterwards so the next day was looking great. I settled into this hybrid indigenous-modern world of Consuelo’s crib that evening with meals, hammock swings and a perfect night sleep in my own bed. Nice.
The next morning we were up early, mowed down a perfect breakfast of fresh tortillas, eggs, beans and coffee and hit the road. The kids had the day off for Teachers Day so my timing was perfect. We strolled the village streets up into the hills until we finally reached a beautiful waterfall that blew me away. After some swimming the kids talked me into heading to the upper section of the falls, which would take me off this ideal “schedule” I had of riding with Esfrain up to San Pedro. But I could not resist. We trekked on up and the view from the top of the falls was truly divine. We waded in the pools as the sun trickled through the trees, had mud fights and I felt like part of the family.
Time stood still. I lost my attachment to ride that morning and just “let it flow”. After our divine adventure to the falls we had a massive lunch ready at the house while watching the World Cup games on TV. The rest of the afternoon was spent spinning the yo yo, taking some local rides, chillin’ in the hammock and eventually readjusting our riding plans to depart the following day. With the new plan in place I settled into my afternoon including a Nahuat language lesson with Fidalina and Consuelo, cooking with Consuelo’s cousin Consuelo Dos, watching the horrific news on TV of a bus being burned with people inside by gang members followed by a final meal of Pupusas out on the calle.
Mauricio told me he was going to be in Sonsonate working on his business the next day so I made a plan to have lunch with him, Esfrain, Consuelo and I that Wednesday afternoon. After a massive breakfast of fried bananas, fresh crème, beans, fresh cheese, tortillas and coffee we mounted up the bike and hit the road. I knew we had mostly climbing to get back up to Sonsonate but Esfrain assured me he was ready to pedal hard. Esfrain is a 47 year old grandfather but it was soon clear that he knew how to work hard. I had to arm wrestle him to put on an Assos riding jersey but could not get him to take off his jeans for the hard ride.
The climbs were steady, hot and steep but we somehow managed to still talk as we hammered up the hills. About half way up I went into filming riding mode and the light and conditions were perfect. During the interview Esfrain really opened up and shared some very personal stories with me. The most shocking was the story of he and his family being robbed and attacked about three years ago. It was a sad story with a sad ending. He was stabbed and then he and his families lives threatened for many months. He eventually had to leave the country in fear of his life and lived in Belize for a few years. Unfortunately, when he finally returned his wife Consuelo had moved and grown accustomed to her life in Santo Domingo and the relationship died. It was sad to hear that the harsh violence that plagues the country affects far more than just the victims—in this case it broke up an entire family.
But both Esfrain and Consuelo were at peace with the way things turned out. They live together in the same house but are not “together”. Esfrain shared that he’s looking forward to the day when he can get back on his own again, but for now he still feels more safe in Santo Domingo hiding out just a bit longer to let the things really mellow out. When we finally pedaled into Sonsonate Consuelo was done with her doctor’s appointment and we made our way to meet Mauricio and Manu at the crossroads to La Libertad as planned.
I decided to change plans and take everyone out to a nice lunch on the ocean in Acajutla. I was hoping that my next adventure partner Manu would be there as well but it wasn’t happening for him. Manu is a surf nut buddy of a friend Ori who has a surf school in Guatemala. Esfrain and I pedaled in just as USA scored to qualify for the next round of the World Cup so spirits were high. It was great to see the ocean again and to treat my friends to a mackin’ meal of fresh seafood. This would be the last of many great meals with Consuelo and Esfrain for a while, and I was beginning to feel a bit sad to say goodbye.
The moment finally came where I had to move on and begin my coastal adventures in El Salvador. Esfrain rode with me to the crossroads where he then took a bus solo to go visit some friends near his old house. Mauricio and Consuelo were so sweet and they followed me with the blinkers flashing all the way to the crossroads to La Libertad. And, jus t like that, I was back on my own again, rolling on a lovely country road in the afternoon.
My goal that day was to arrive in Mizata and meet up with Manu for a sunset surf. Manu told me he was going to arrange some boards and a place for us to stay that night there so I was super excited. We were in contact regularly for the last few days and it seemed all good to go. But when I started getting closer to let him know where I was he was not picking up his phone. Then, when I finally rolled in after a long day or riding and filming he was nowhere to be found. My Angels were clearly with me as I happened to meet a cool cat Jose who came on my bike in town and escorted me to some cheap accommodation. I was a bit let down and even angry, but mostly I hoped Manu was okay. I had called him about 4 times and no response.
Next day I was feeling a bit low, sort of “buzz killed” by my high expectations of riding and surfing with Manu. But I mounted up the tandem for a short 35KM ride to my final destination of my tour El Zonte. Although the ride was short, it was brutally hot and the climbs relentless and plentiful. Between the heat, steep climbs and bitter feelings towards Manu I have to admit I was not in the best of spirits. But once I saw the ocean, take a fresh seafood cocktail and was only 10km from El Zonte my spirts lifted and I was getting excited for some surf.
When I rolled into El Zonte I was heading to an oceanfront surf camp called Horizonte where Ori was due in the next day from Guatemala. Guess who the first person I ran into was? Manu. He greeted me with a huge hug and tons of excitement, as if nothing happened the day before. So I just let it be that for the time being—the way it was and being grateful to finally meet in person. I knew immediately he was a super cool guy and I called him my Hermano El Salvadorano soon enough. I met the owners of the place Saburo and Karol and Saburo immediately connected with my expedition and offered to host me for 3 nights, which I was super grateful.
I wasted no time getting a board and hopping in the water. I had filmed over 17 hours of footage and all my batteries were just about empty. It was recharge time! I dumped off my stinky foul clothes with a smiling staff member, grabbed my board shorts and rashy and off I went. Manu was soon to follow and the surf was super fun. I proceeded to spend the next 24 hours blissed out surfing, eating amazing meals and relaxing in the hammock.
My last few days in El Salvador were truly amazing. I felt proud to have faced my fears and was grateful for my experiences. I still had a few more local rides I wanted to do between surf sessions, one was to give Mauricio his first bike ride in 52 years and to ride with Manu and discuss the differences between the Latin and Western values. Ori came in from Guatemala with his lovely one year old son Daniel and wife Gula so life was good in El Zonte!
Mauricio came out to visit and we indeed got him on the bike for the first time in his 52 year life. He came in spite of the pouring rain and we managed to not only ride but to do some filming too. He had a total blast and it was great to see him again, especially grinning ear to ear on his bike! He’s now a dear friend and I’m excited to see him again my next visit. Manu also came for a final spin around El Zonte and the surrounding villages where to discussed the importance of understanding the differences of cultures to increase the chances of new friendships—great interview, you’ll see it soon.
The weather was not the best, the waves a bit messy, but all in all my last days in El Salvador were just perfect. I’m on my way to Guatemala! I highly recommend a trip to El Salvador! Even with all the negative hype the people are as warm as they come, very open and helpful. And as long as you use some common sense and travel smarts you’ll be plenty safe.
Over n out from Guatemala!
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