Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Discovering El Salvador, Take 1 -- May 10 - 28, 2014

Flashback Post

We're writing this post almost four months after we left El Salvador and it amazes us how much we've already forgotten about our short time there. Compelling testimony in support of keeping up with a travel diary or blog. So, with that in mind, here are our vague recollections of our time in El Salvador which we are sharing before they become even more vague!

As we post this we are touring the Canadian Maritimes which we're enjoying a lot.  We'll be posting about our adventures here as soon as we can (and hopefully before we forget . . . ). 

Paradise Fishing Lodge and Environs

On May 9, our sad, sodden selves were towed into Paradise Fishing Lodge in the Estero de JualtepequeThe lodge has three guest rooms, ten slips, a small swimming pool and two of the best palapas in the world. When we weren't doing our part to put Abracadabra to rights after the knockdown we were under those palapas taking in the (inconsistent) breeze, eating, making travel arrangements on the internet, reading and napping in the hammocks, and enjoying the occasional post-mosquito-hour beer. 

Home Sweet Palapa

Molly's other favorite reading spot was the swimming pool.

Mosquito Hour Reading

There were two other occupied sailboats at the dock while we were there - s/v Palarran (crew: Tawn and CB) and s/v La Gitana (crew: Josh and Sachi).  We enjoyed sharing the palapas with both crews even though Tawn's sewing machine skills were a bit intimidating to Molly (who flunked Home Economics sometime in the last century).  But the most adorable crew member of all was Sachi, Josh's beautiful Aikido.

Josh and Sachi

Our neighbors were very kind about telling us how to find our way around the estero, by dinghy and by bus.  Josh (without Sachi) took us by dinghy to nearby La Herradura to go grocery shopping one day. There's a good (by small-town Mexico standards) grocery store in La Herradura - vegetables and meat included - as well as a credit union with an ATM.

The fishing lodge is the smaller of the two marinas in the estero.  The majority of cruising sailboats are located on mooring balls near to or at the docks of the Hotel Bahia del Sol. These kind folks welcomed us - in particular Bill and Jean, who are the organizers of the Cruisers Rally to El Salvador.  Everyone made sure we were invited to a lasagna feed at the spectacular home of some California ex-pats, Lynn and Lou.  [The lasagna feed was supposed to be a fish fry but Lou's fishing boat's engine was acting up . . . we told him we understood the engine thing . . . ]  So within 48 hours we were "at home".

Abracadabra was cleaned up and dried out with the help of the three strong, self-motivated and knowledgeable boat handlers employed by the marina. They rinsed the sails and cushion covers in fresh water and hung them from trees to dry; scrubbed the deck; cleaned the bottom; and polished the chrome bits - all in 90 degree/90 percent humidity weather. We staggered about in the heat trying to help and/or stay out of their way.

Once Abracadabra was ready to be left in the hands of the engine repair gurus at the lodge, we headed into San Salvador, the capital, for some tourist activity.

Some Introductory Comments

Below we offer thoughts about how certain aspects of El Salvadorian culture have been affected by the country's prolonged civil war (1980-1992 - reminder: sadly, Molly's tax dollars supported the military). Some are based on something we've read or heard from others (who may or may not know what they are talking about) and others are simply on our observations. We invite you to take all of them for what they really are - the thoughts of curious, first-time, short-term visitors who don't know the country well at all:      
In Mexico everyone is out at night. The streets of every village, town and city are busy until very late in the evening. Not so much in San Salvador. This lack of public activity made it a bit unsettling to walk around the city after dark - even though there are armed guards (mostly carrying ancient, but intimidating short-stock style shotguns) in front of every parking lot and business. We were told this abundance of armed guards is a result of the unemployment that followed the war. What to do with a lot of unemployed guys that know how to shoot guns? Convince every business that it needs a rifle-toting security guard. 

In San Salvador the community has adapted to this lack of public night-life in a couple of interesting ways. There are at least five huge multi-storied shopping malls that are busy until 9:00 pm every night with shoppers (real and window), coffee drinkers and movie goers; it seemed to us that the indoor shopping mall had become the new plaza (air conditioned, fewer trees). We immersed ourselves in the local culture and ate dinner and drank coffee in the two malls near our hotel. Another adaptation is the city's very robust restaurant dinner delivery business. Twice we ate take-out dinners in the hotel's lovely courtyard; one credible Middle-Eastern meal (referred to as "Arabic Food") and one -- something else (see above re: memory lapse due to passage of time).  

The residential architecture of San Salvador is one of fear.  In Mexico, houses are often built behind large walls, many of which are topped with broken glass to discourage uninvited guests. But in affluent areas of town the walls are painted and inset with carved wooden doors or delicate iron work through which a garden can be seen. In San Salvador the walls are concrete block and topped with rolls of razor wire. The doors are metal with an opening that looks like something a prison guard would use to check on the condemned. The word charming is not brought to mind. 

All this may make it sound like we didn't enjoy San Salvador, which is not the case. Aspects of the city were disconcerting, but It was fun being in a big city and some of the public architecture is beautiful.

Our Week in San Salvador

We stayed at the Hotel De La Escalon Morrison which is named after a rather funky tiled stairway (escalon) that winds up to the second floor.  Our room was small and basic but clean and air-conditioned. As with many hotels in Latin America the best feature of this hotel is the courtyard - a green and pleasant place for breakfast and to dine like a San Salvadorian: on take-out food (see above re: why we think take-out is so popular). The staff was very helpful; particularly the day-time desk clerk, Doris. She helped us order food and find our way around town. The night-time desk clerk was also pleasant, but didn't chat much. He wore a side-arm, which we think was intended to comfort us, but mostly made us nervous.  

The city is a great place for museum and church junkies.  We visited only a few:

The Guzman National Museum of Anthropology.  At mid-morning the entry hall to the museum was so crowded with visiting high school students that we asked the guard when we should return to be able to see the museum without so much . . . uh, so much . . .  we were stumped trying to find the Spanish word for chaos. He laughed and suggested that we return in the early afternoon. We did and had about an hour of relative quiet before the afternoon school tours arrived. Apparently it's going to take us several visits before we can feel we have seen all that this extensive museum has to offer. Most memorable exhibit: the history of emigration from El Salvador.     

The Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE). We enjoyed this introduction to El Salvadorian painters and scribbled down the names of Benjamin Canas (technically stunning and really - uh, interesting subject matter) and Mauricio Aguilar to explore further. Notes: not much in the way of English-language signs, and, interestingly very few of the pictures were dated.  

The Museo Forma Fundacion Julia Diaz .  This museum is hard to find if you refer to it at the museo de Julia Diaz rather than just: La Forma.  It is the former residence, and holds the donated private collection, of El Salvadorian artist Julia Diaz.  It also acts as a cultural center where children take drawing, painting and theater lessons.  A theater class was in full swing when we arrived.  A guard was nice enough to open up the museum portion of the house for us even though it had been closed off to protect the exhibits from the energetic young theater and art students. A recollection: few, if any, English-language signs.

Museo Forma Fundacion

A Painting By . . . ?  Gotta Take Better Notes!

The village of Panchimalco

Historic Downtown.  More than a little run down. Most of the old architecture has been lost over the years due to a series of earthquakes. We found the streets and street stalls shabby and the dining options equally sad. There are some isolated jewels - the National Cathedral, Iglesia El Rosario and the Palacio National but we weren't convinced that the downtown area itself is was a place where we wanted to linger.  That said, there was some interesting street art:

Spot Your Favorite Communist
The National Cathedral. The upstairs is a pretty but fairly unremarkable church. The basement houses the tomb of Bishop Oscar Romero, assassinated while serving mass in 1980 at the beginning of the civil war. The basement also houses stunning modern stations of the cross.

Iglesia El Rosario.  Accurately described in one tour guide as looking like an old airplane hanger. But keep going - it is fantastic inside. Here is a picture of the rainbow of stained glass inside the church we found on the internet.  There are also some metal wall sculptures there. We showed up during a mass so our ability to wander freely was zero - best to look up when mass is being celebrated and go some other time.

Palacio National.  This former government building is now a museum of the city and of the building's reconstruction (following a 1980's earthquake). The grounds are beautiful.  Fairly good English-language signs. A good place for a relaxing sit.

Maya Ruins Tour

We hired a private guide through the hotel - Gretchen, the American-born daughter-in-law of the hotel's proprietor. She was the perfect guide for us because in addition to being able to take us to several sites she was able to give us a lot of information about family life in present-day San Salvador. 

We had seen some major Maya ruins before we got to El Salvador and didn't expect much of the fairly small sites in El Salvador.  But while there aren't sites to rival the size or artistry of Chichen Itza or Uxmal, El Salvador has one site that, true to its name, is a jewel: Joya de Ceren (Jewel of Ceren).  Joya de Ceren is the only excavated site of a Maya village.  

The tourist literature likes to call this site "The Pompeii of El Salvador" because it was preserved by layers of volcanic ash and, like Pompeii, offers a unique look into the domestic life of an ancient culture. Happily for the Maya living at Ceren, circa 590 CE, they apparently had more warning of the eruption of the local volcano than did the residents of Pompeii - no human remains have been found during the excavation. However, it's clear that the residents had to leave in somewhat of a hurry because they left behind utensils, ceramics, furniture, food and future food (one poor little duck was left tied to a table leg). This, of course, is invaluable for archaeologists.  

All other excavated Maya ruins are commercial, educational or religious sites - grand, public spaces made of stone. Joya de Ceren is a site of homes and storage buildings which were made of wattle and daub - sticks and mud.  Archaeologists haven't found remains of this construction elsewhere because over time it simply "returns to the earth".  At Ceren the volcanic ash protected the wattle and daub construction.  

We saw several home units, each including three buildings which archaeologists think are a storage building, a sleeping building and a kitchen.  The roofs of these buildings are thought to have been thatch that rested on poles erected outside of the walls.

Structure 3 - The big gouge at the end was made by the backhoe
 of the construction workers that accidentally discovered the site.

The flat spot to the right of the wall would have
served the occupants as a sleeping platform.

A kitchen structure.  Note the small corn field to the left.

Surviving lattice work window!

There is a nice museum at the Joya de Ceren site that displays some of the artifacts recovered, including some beautiful bowls that wouldn't look out of place in a home today (hmmm . . . anyone looking ....?).  The excavation of the site has been done in cooperation with the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Work began in 1978 and continues today, though it paused for about eight years during the war.

We enjoyed the site a lot -- it will help us put the more imposing sites of public spaces in context. 

After Joya de Ceren we visited the nearby archaeological site of the "public space" at San Andres. We imagined the farmers from nearby Ceren walking over the hill to San Andres on market or festival days. 

The site is small, and not fully excavated - but that's a large part of its charm.  It gives the visitor the opportunity to see what a pyramid looks like before it's uncovered and tarted up by tourist site operators.

The next site was another "public space" site - Tazumal.  The most impressive thing about Tazumal for us was its location.  It's surrounded by the town of Chalchuapa.  We drove into town, and parked on a street of small restaurants and tourist shops, looked left and there it was - the pyramid.  It explained a lot about how ancient buildings can get lost -- life goes on, and towns change.  And then they tell your many-greats nephew some five-hundred-plus years later that the hill next to his shop is an archaeological site!

There is an impressive museum at Tazumal.
The God Xipe Totec (or so we're told . . . )
Whoever It Represents - It's Spectacular

With one display that included some ear plugs we are pretty sure we saw worn by a barrista in Portland not long ago . . . 

Maya Ear Plugs
After Tazumal we stopped for lunch overlooking Lago de Coatepeque, a crater lake formed within one of the 22 volcanoes in El Salvador -- which is smaller than Massachusetts.  As an aside - 20 of those volcanoes are considered potentially active and one (San Miguel) which is not far enough from Abracadabra was rumbling during our visit.  We have not asked our marine insurer whether it covers volcano damage . . . 

The view of Coatepeque was beautiful and we hear there are homes to rent along the lake.  We may look into that at some point.

After lunch we had a quick stop in Santa Ana which is a town of considerable colonial-era charm.  We had some great ice cream and toured the local theater (which, unlike every one in Mexico is not named for Angela Peralta).  Our quick stop suggested that Santa Ana may be a place to return to.

These are our take-aways from our brief time in El Salvador.  Despite our rough entry into the country we are looking forward to returning!

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