Friday, 8 July 2011

Pot Luck

THE BUS WAS jam-packed heading through San Salvador's main streets; heat-shimmer on the blistering tarmac; sweating locals navigating the cracked, hole-strewn pavements and avoiding the gaping manholes, covers nowhere to be seen. If you don't look where you're going in Salvador, it could literally be your downfall. I was keeping my eye out for the the Occidente terminal which serves destinations east of the capital. More and more people crowded onto the 7A bus, the aisle now two people deep. My hair was soaked, sweat trickling into my eyes and stinging as I gauged where I was on the map. So far so good. A couple of yellow buses up ahead at a gas station were marked Suchitoto: I was close. We meandered through traffic and the endless blaring of horns. I still couldn't see the terminal, as we rounded a junction and headed down a highway hill. Coming up the other side, we hit another dense metropolitan sprawl of burger joints, roadside stalls and crowds of people. The signs said Soyopango Centro. Soyopango? Shit. Gangland Central, in other words. I started to sweat even more as we turned left into a side road of markets; several people looking up at me with curiosity, others with mild hostility. This was not good. I asked a man stood in the aisle if we were near the terminal. I couldn't decipher his answer, aside from understanding that it was in the's amazing how a bit of fear scrambles your comprehension of Spanish. He intimated that I had to get off and pointed in the general direction I was to go. I apologetically climbed over the old woman I was sat next to, and scrambled to the back of the bus as it picked up speed. I'd memorised the way we'd come from the highway. As the bus slowed in traffic, I'd barged my way to the rear door and jumped. Cutting through the cars, I avoided the groups of youths hanging out on the corners, and tried not to look like a hunted animal, despite feeling precisely like one. A man across the street shouted something to me and looked for a gap to cross and approach me. I quickened the pace, shouldering my bag...painfully aware that, despite travelling light, all my valuables were in it. As I walked across the next junction, a small battered bus swung around a bend, the magical word Occidente across the top of the windscreen. The lights changed to green, but I waved at the driver as I ran in front of it, gratefully boarded and sat back in relief as Soyopango disappeared in the rearview mirror.

The terminal was a dump. The bus for Suchitoto wasn't ready to leave, and I sat in the dust on top of my bag as I waited. I'd asked a few drivers stood around which one left next, and they'd directed to me to an empty one. The one next to it was filling up, and I jumped on that one, instead. They stood and watched, laughing amongst themselves...having a bit of fun with the gringo, no doubt. Still jittery after my trip to Soyopango, the joke was wasted on me. Just wanted the bus to get moving and leave this squalid place behind.

I rarely time it so that I arrive in a new place after dark, as it makes me a little uncomfortable. But Suchitoto is a delightful little pueblo. The cobbled main square is flanked by delicate trees, the white iglesia a pretty focal point. Small cafes and shops are dotted around. It's rather like a smaller Antigua de Guatemala, with far less tourists. The streets are quiet and clean, pastel-painted, most stencilled with a blackbird and a message decrying violence against women. Locals sit on their steps at all hours of the day, whiling away life. Strolls around town are pleasant, momentary shelter from the sun gained under manicured trees. Things move too slowly to even be called lazy. You could while away some of your own life here.

Laying in a hammock translating some Truman Capote from Spanish, I was admiring the view of the valley and the lake when two fellows came into the tiny garden. We exchanged Hellos. They were Mexican, and one of them was about to start puffing on a chillum. "Que fumas?" I asked, smiling. "Hashish...quieres?" "Claro que si" I said gratefully as he passed it over. We smoked awhile. The lads, Andreas and Emiliano, are both animators from Mexico City. As they were heading down to the lake, I tagged along; the afternoon was pleasant, and we rounded it off with a few beers. They told me that they were heading all the way to Argentina if possible, but would be around in Mexico when I headed back up. It'll be good to have a couple of guides, particularly as they live in the Mexican equivalent of East London: lots of cool bars and bohemian hangouts. I offered to teach Emi to dive if we cross paths; they mentioned that they'd possibly leave their car in Panama if I fancied driving it back up to Mexico? Sounded like a good idea in principle, but in reality I'd be a target for every corrupt bastard on the route up. And it's a long way.

We had a Belgian of my age at our guesthouse, and he came along for a drink one night. His topics of conversation varied, and he always came back to Poverty. And if the Mexicans spoke to him in English, for my benefit, he'd always answer in Spanish. He stayed out while we headed back for beers in our ramshackle garden, and a smoke. "Belgians are weird" decided Andreas, exhaling a cloud of brown smoke. I laughed and agreed. I certainly met a few rare ones in Asia; the best one in the Philippines on a diveboat, who'd loudly declared "I have fought a man in every country I have visited" and bellowed with laughter. Judging by his 50-year old, muscled frame and scarred, weathered face, you believed him. He looked every inch the brawling seaman.

Suchi is definitely on the touristy side, and Apple Mac laptops were in abundance around the square in the mornings. What kind of fool travels with a $2000 laptop? Insane if you ask me. My tiny Acer cost me $300 and, even if it was stolen tomorrow, I'd have paid that by now in web cafe fees. A 15" MacBook Pro getting lifted, on the other hand, would be no laughing matter. I was translating the newspaper one morning, over a cup of coffee. A woman with the naffest, hairiest little dog imaginable was shouting into her Mac's screen on the next table.

" you doing?"
I was fine thirty seconds ago.
"I'm in Suchitoto. Suchitito. S-U-C-H-I-T-O-T-O. El Salvador.EL. SALVADOR. I can't hear you very well...I sure wish I had headphones."
You and me both.
Hopefully your Skype credit is low?
She fed the little dog, which had climbed from her lap onto the table, a piece of meat from her fork.
"Rene is here...say Hi, everyone..."
Rene, understandably, seemed more interested in the meat.
"Oh yeah...yeah...she's having a great time. I'm just updating her blog."
Sounds like a must-read? I think I'd rather read John Grisham's back-catalogue in one sitting. Could be interesting if the dog writes about its solo travels in Korea, though?
"I'll upload some of her pictures to her Facebook...I have some of her in front of all the sights."
This woman was clearly deranged. I suddenly remembered my iPod in my pocket. But playing loud techno to drown out deranged nonsense is not conducive to comprehending Spanish. I left.

There was no respite back at the guesthouse. A scruffy Czech had been there for a few days and was sat at the small table under the shelter facing the lake. He was making a distracting scratching noise. I looked up from my books to see him rolling handfuls of hair between his hands, trying to help them form dreddlocks. Spare me.

He turned and spoke. "Have you got a Nokia smartphone?"
Bizarre opening. "No, mate...why?"
"It's just that I logged into Foursquare, and there is another user nearby..."
"Why would you use an app designed for cities in a remote Salvadorean town?"
"It would be interesting to meet other users here."
"Oh. Good luck finding the other user here."
I noticed he was wearing a Ramones tee-shirt, and couldn't resist.
"So...who's your favourite Ramone?"
"Ah" he paused "I kind of like them all equally. I don't have a favourite."
I doubt you have their records, either.
"So what are you doing in Suchitoto?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Just relaxing, learning a little Spanish. You?"
"I'm looking for peace."
"Well...I hear the war's been over for years, mate."
"No...I mean I want to get into another state" he insisted.
"Get yourself down to the bars tonight, we'll be getting into a right old state" I told him.
" meditation and stuff."
Straight over his head.

The Mexicans departed for Honduras. I was pondering my next move when Motorbike George, the Greek I'd met diving in Belize and had spent some time with in Guatemala, mailed to say he was on his way. Over a few beers, he told me he had no concrete plans in El Salvador, besides heading South. I told him I was travelling light, and he suggested I jump on the back of the bike. I didn't need asking twice.

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