Sunday, January 24, 2021

Best Laid Plans

Best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  -Robert Burns

I was excited for our plans yesterday to pack our bikes into the back of the car and head to an expansive, hilly park at the base of the San Salvador volcano.  It's not far away from where we live and is criss-crossed with walking and biking paths, but for no good reason we've only been once before and never with our bikes.  Given the blue skies, light breeze and no humidity - it was the perfect day to get out and get moving.

Bike patch sculpture that is surprisingly accurate.

Although we're a few months into the dry season, the landscape is still blooming and the Salvadoran national tree, the maquilishuat has just started opening its pink flowers. I double take each time I see these as they look like huge Japanese cherry trees in bloom.  We headed out along a wide bike path running between a busy highway and the park, cruising under a few maquilishuat trees.  

Lovely day for a bike ride, no?

We'd only been cycling about 15 minutes when we passed a small stable alongside the path.  There was a man delivering full water buckets to the horses, so of course I had to stop and ask him about his charges.  The tidy stable was a mounted police base with four large horse stalls below and living quarters for the officers above.  A clothesline full of uniform pieces and t-shirts waved in the breeze under the trees alongside the stable block, near a stack of firewood, an ashy pile of burned garbage and a small cooking fire heating a pot of something for the officers' lunch.  I chit-chatted with the officer for just a few minutes about the horses, what breed were they? ("criollo" = local horse), which was his? (none, we all switch horses) and some basics about where they patrolled and why.  He told me that besides patrolling the enormous and steep park (i.e. perfect for a mounted patrol), just ahead on the trail there was an underpass tunnel that used to be successful grounds for thieves hoping to relieve joggers and bikers of their possessions, so this extra patrol base was added to help control that "delinquencia."  I thanked him for the information and interruption and we pushed back on down the trail. 


Police horse having some lunch and a fresh bucket of water.

Just a few minutes later the bike path dipped down a hill to the aforementioned underpass tunnel.  Approaching it, I could see every surface covered in graffiti.  My husband was ahead of me and had paused at the exit of the tunnel (only about 20 yards long) to wait for me to catch up.  Next to him was a runner who was stopped and perhaps fiddling with his phone or something.  

The first piece of spray paint art caught my eye immediately and so I paused on my bike to snap a picture of it.  The graffiti looked like a mix of art and turf-claiming tags, and so I was a bit anxious stopping to take the picture. The bird seemed an innocent and beautiful piece, but an expert on reading gang tags I am not. Perhaps MS-13 and Barrio 18 are recruiting new artistic talent these days?  

Pretty graffiti bird and likely some bad stuff I can't read. 

It was a split second later that I heard the BANG! directly at my feet. 

I'm always amazed at the amount of information one's brain can process in a split second.  They say that dreams, which can feel like feature-length movies with unfolding plotlines and complex character development, may really just be minutes long, and using that processing speed, my synapses fired off a few hypotheses: 

First reaction, my go-to when surprised or upon stubbing my toe, was to scream something REALLY LOUDLY that was not particularly family-friendly. May have started with an "f" or "s."

Next my brain conducted a full-body scan to see if/where I'd been shot. No pain, no blood, still standing - good. 

A millisecond later theory two developed: firecracker. El Salvador, especially at holiday time, is all about fireworks, bottle rockets and firecrackers of all descriptions. Wouldn't be hard to believe that someone came across an unexploded something in a pants pocket and put a match to it. With the highway overhead, I figured someone had chucked a lit firecracker out of a passing car, you know - just for laughs. Or were they standing just above me on the overpass even now? Were they watching? Did they choose me on purpose? Why? The bastards!

At that same time, my husband's brain was running through a similar list of possibilities.  He immediately looked at the jogger dude standing next to him, gauging a local's reaction of how possible the bang they heard could've been a gunshot. Completely unperturbed by the noise, the guy just laughed at my scream and did nothing else to react.  My husband's thought process, not saturated with the same surge of adrenaline as mine was finally able to come to the most logical conclusion, which was verified as I scooted up to him. 

Irreparable hole

Damn! The front tire tube had blown out leaving a good-sized hole and the airless tire was already resting on the rim.  

I'd never had this happen before and so that option hadn't even occurred to me. Plus, living in a country with - shall we say - a certain notoriety for violence, it was not completely out of the realm of possibility to think I'd been shot at. (In Juarez that outcome would've been far more likely, but my brain didn't go that far into weighing the relative possibilities.) Quickly comparing notes while I caught my breath, my husband admitted that gun shot was also his first thought, followed by becoming instantly pissed off that the other dude had taken the "sucks to be you" attitude, laughed, adjusted his ear buds and headed on down the trail without so much as a "Como está?"  His calf tattoo "Death is just another great adventure" explained it all. 

Breath caught and senses regained, my husband pulled out his tire repair kit, but his good effort at a gluing a patch on the bust tube proved futile. We decided that I'd walk the bike back (no choice, really), wait with my new police officer friend and horses at the stable (sensible), and he would ride on ahead and return in the car, parking alongside the highway to pick me up (trust me - everyone does this and for far less emergent reasons).  

With our plans for a day of bike riding now shot (too soon?), we decided to make the best of the day and find some lunch instead.  He pointed the car up the road that winds its way up to "El Boqueron," the blow-off part of the San Salvador volcano that rises above the city.  Part-way up, we pulled into Plaza Volcan, a terraced tree-house like complex of little restaurants on the uphill side of the road and plunked ourselves down to enjoy cold drinks and a thin-crust pizza for lunch with an awesome panorama of the city and coastal mountains. 


Frothy basil-infused lemonade? Yes please and thank you!

Now that's a table with a view.

We live down there!

Flowering landscaped terraces and a choice of little restaurants. 

Best laid plans. 

We'd set out for an afternoon of exercise and fresh air.  We ended up with a good story, a tasty thin-crust pizza, and a new favorite spot for a meal.

El Salvador, you never cease to surprise. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

La Canasta Basica

About ten years ago, I read an NY Times article about MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) from around the world and how each country's essentials differed so greatly across cultures. That there are culinary differences is certainly no surprise, but I found it fascinating nonetheless that the Brits chose lamb curry, the Germans liverwurst, the Canadians a Swiss steak in Spanish sauce (?) and somehow the U.S. Army figured out how to reduce to powder and then reconstitute the pork rib. I imagined a lot of research went into the selections: the meal had to be nutritious and a dish so commonly favored in said country that it would be appreciated and eagerly consumed in a warzone. It also got me thinking of what food would I take into battle, what would be my go-to basic ration?  Or, forget the war, what is simply my desert island box of food that says HOME to me? A collection of must-haves to keep me healthily and happily fed.  Hmmm...

Last night we received the Salvadoran version from our neighbors.  

It was past 9:00 pm and I was padding off to brush my teeth before bed when the doorbell rang.  It was our 70-something year old neighbors at the front door, smiling through the intercom camera and holding a huge clear plastic tub with a big blue bow on it.  My husband welcomed them in and they proudly presented us with the Christmas Canasta Basica: a tub of nearly 24 pounds of staples and Salvadoran must-haves to see us through the holidays.  



They're a raucous couple, despite (or perhaps because of?) their age and instantly filled our front hallway with simultaneous, full-voiced chatter about the contents of the tub, including pointing out how we could make our own pupusas and tortillas with the pound of corn masa.  They apologized for popping in so late, but they'd been out into the countryside delivering these tubs of necessities to communities in need. But their late night energy really wasn't a surprise as we'd been hearing them gathering with family (or just their loud TV) over our shared courtyard wall for the past few days since they'd returned to their second home from San Francisco after a long pandemic-induced absence.  Although we barely know them, we've now seen their generosity over two holiday seasons, as last year they surprised us with two bottles of wine. Last night, scrambling to reciprocate, my husband produced a bottle of his homemade Kahlua from the kitchen to send them home with. 

This time of year, the grocery stores capitalize on the spirit of the season (the giving spirit and the buying spirit) by pre-packaging tubs of various sizes with assortments of staples so that those that can buy them for those that can't.  Folks pull up to the front of the grocery store so clerks can shuttle dozens of plastic-wrapped baskets and tubs into the backs of SUVs, to be delivered to guards, housekeepers, teachers, gardeners and, apparently, random American neighbors. Just yesterday I saw some day laborers leaving a job site on my street, each with a tub of goodies and big smiles.  The working man's Harry and David gift basket - what a capital idea!

So let's take a peek inside and see what El Salvador considers culinary necessities and holiday treats, shall we?
  • 1 can of sardines
  • 2 liter bottle of Pepsi
  • Large package of chocolate and vanilla sandwich cookies
  • 1 bottle of chile sauce
  • 1 bottle of Salsa Inglesa (like Worcestershire)
  • 1 bottle of cooking oil
  • 1 small bag of corn flakes cereal
  • 2 packages of spaghetti
  • 1 large foil container of frijoles volteados (refried red beans)
  • 1 bag of huge colored marshmallows
  • 1 pound bag of corn masa (flour)
  • 1 small can of sliced jalapenos
  • 1 instant cup of noodles type soup
  • 1 bottle of ketchup
  • 1 large foil container of mayonnaise
  • 1 small can of corn
  • 2 bags of rice
  • 1 bottle of instant coffee
  • 1 bag of Lays potato chips
  • 1 bag of instant oatmeal
  • 1 box of margarine sticks


Ruminating on this tradition, I'm torn between deciding if this speaks well of the communal generosity of Salvadoran people, or is it a sad reflection of a country where so many hard-working people still struggle to keep the larder basically stocked? I'm sure this dichotomy exists in just about any community around the world, so perhaps this will be the tradition I take away from our time here. I'll just have to learn to adapt it to what the Azeri neighbors want, or the Botswanans, or the Ukrainians...

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

La Vida Playera: Life on the Salvadoran Coast

El Salvador has 230 miles of coastline, which is just about the distance you'd drive hugging the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara.  However, Salvadoran life along that equal stretch of miles, although sharing the same unending Pacific horizon as California - is a very, very different existence.  

We've now been in El Salvador for 14 months (albeit six of those months restricted to a land footprint equal to the range of your average raccoon), and with freedom of movement now unrestricted, my husband and I have been busy catching up on time in the open air.  Time to get back to the beach; time to get back to the mountains. Today I want to share the beach.

First, let me start by defining my terms: beach.  Sounds obvious, what more needs to be defined?  Growing up north of San Francisco, to me "beach" meant 50-something degrees even in June, usually wind, always fog, a jacket, sometimes a scarf, and your father or brother flinging long whips of seaweed at you.  From my husband's perspective, growing up within a few hours' drive of the Gulf of Mexico - the beach meant steamy hot days, broad expanses of sugary sands, and colorful bikinis. "Beach" in the United States equals expensive real estate. "Beach" in El Salvador can certainly be that, too, but for so many, it's simply where the land meets the ocean and subsistence living goes on, just as it does inland. It's where modern resorts and boutique hotels are separated from thatched huts by just a stretch of palms (and usually a tall cinderblock wall topped with concertina wire).  Where oceanside mom-and-pop hotels and restaurants struggle for survival against the natural predators of salt air, humidity and tropical storms, and the economics of relying on a customer base where 95 percent of the population earns less than $7000 per year.  Sprinkle into the mix what I understand is incredible and reliable surfing, and the result is an eclectic combination of nearly vacant stretches of (what would elsewhere be) million-dollar coastline; funky surfer hangouts more reminiscent of Jamaica than Latin America; modern retreats for those who can afford sitting out months of a pandemic teleworking poolside; rental houses at $300/night - which sound expensive until you figure that that rate is being split by four families sleeping six to a room in bunk beds and hammocks; and sand lots where you can park for $2/day and sit on a plastic chair under an umbrella and order shrimp cocktails, fresh agua de coco and $1.25 bottles of beer from a thatch shack. 

All of the above means "beach" in El Salvador.  Let's take a tour of what we've learned so far:

The route we've taken so far. There's lots more to see!

Starting on the far west, near the Guatemalan border, you'll find the tiny town of Barra de Santiago with both oceanside and estuary frontage.  Given this location, it draws visitors not only for the soft sand and easy waves, but to take boat tours of the estuary and mangroves, to jump into a game of soccer, or just to buy dried fish from the fisherman's wife. 

Take an estuary tour on one of these beauties.


Million dollar property?


Spontaneous bouts of soccer or the hokey-pokey?

Forgot your suit? They've got you covered


Dried fish anyone?

Just a short drive east from Barra de Santiago brought us to the Port of Acajutla which is deep enough to welcome fuel tankers, cargo ships and cruise lines alike.  From this launch point, cruise ship passengers are then bussed up past volcanic peaks along the Ruta de las Flores to sample the country in a string of artisanal and coffee-producing towns. Acajutla also has cliffside restaurants perfect (especially in a pandemic-era) for open air seafood lunches and uninterrupted views of Pacific sunsets. 

Open-air restaurant with good food and amazing views in Acajutla. 

Fishermen's Memorial - Acajutla Pier


Port of Acajutla unloading container ships and sunset watchers at waveside.

There it is!

Continuing east, the Carretera Litoral (coastal highway) pulls inland a bit, but turning back to the coast on a smaller road is well worth it to find the fishing village Los Cobanos. Here is the country's only truly golden sand beach, decorated with black lava boulders delivered courtesy of one volcanic eruption or another over the course of time. The sand's coarseness and color is actually ground up coral from the protected and protective coral reef, which at low tide creates calm, shallow soaking pools popular with families.  To top all that, it's also where you can arrange a lancha and two guys to take you on a humpback whale watching trip out past the reef. Provided, that is, you don't mind spending 3-4 hours in essentially a 6-person dinghy (with a canopy!) hoping to come alongside a 45 foot marine mammal. 

Los Cobanos - the quintessential quaint fishing village


Los Cobanos beach with coral sands and volcanic boulders

Low tide wading pools at Los Cobanos

Kitty couple at Los Cobanos seafood spot.

Leaving Los Cobanos, it's a short drive through an incredibly lush valley of palm glades and sugar cane and then back out to the coast to Playa Dorada (Golden Beach). We followed the signs down a muddy track, over garbage heaped desperately into the lane, perhaps in the hope that someone else would come around to collect or burn it, and past small tin-roofed shacks set in dark, swampy lots that were among the most depressing homesteads we'd ever encountered. A sow and her piglets trotted in front of the car en route to root around in the trash piles. We stopped the car in sight of the beach and walked down a walled lane to find a beautifully wide and completely vacant beach.  We may have stayed longer if it weren't for the false advertising in the name Playa Dorada because the sand was actually volcanic near-black and too hot for even the stray dogs to walk on. 

Miravalle in Sonsonate Department

Playa (not) Dorada

Continuing east and the towns are now in easier reach of San Salvador day-trippers and therefore the tourism is better developed.  We pulled off at Mizata and found the road dead-ending at a small, muddy river entering the surf after draining the steep slopes the form the northern curb of the coastal highway.  Kids played unattended in the brackish water. Two boys dragged driftwood into still water, paddling on their homemade surfboards while a girl waded in her dress nearby. 

Mizata - where river meets surf



After watching them playing in the water a bit, I then turned around exactly on the spot and found myself looking straight into the boutique Mizata Point Resort, with wooden bungalows tucked among the jungle and an infinity pool reaching towards the surf.  It is really gorgeous in a funky, eco-friendly way, I must admit, but I wrestle with the idea of ordering a poolside basil-infused lemonade while watching children paddle about in polluted river water. 

Poolside cabana at Mizata Point Resort

Infinity pool with built-in loungers


Thirty-five minutes of winding highway and a handful of tunnels later and you'll hit one of our favorite spots, El Zonte.  The last time we visited El Zonte was pre-pandemic and pre-Tropical Storm Amanda, both of which delivered heavy blows to the village's infrastructure. El Zonte is set in a deep scallop of the coast and offers great surfing waves. A protected little beach is overlooked by a few schmancy cliffside hotels, or you can pay someone a few bucks to park in the sand under a thatched cover. While those on high ground weathered the storm well, the cluster of beachfront surfer pads and lunch spots were nearly taken down to their stick-frames. These pictures are from February. 

Surf practice or just natural enthusiasm?

Surf shop: El Zonte

El Zonte, pre-pandemic and pre-tropical storm



Just a bit further from El Zonte is El Tunco, AKA Surf City.  This stretch of waves was set to host the 2020 ISA World Surfing Games in May, and would have been the last qualifying event before the sport made its debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (thank you Surfer Today magazine!).  Well, by now I think we all know what happened to those big plans. However, I don't think all was lost as this will give the eclectic, crunchy El Tunco a bit more time to finish sprucing up and cobbling the lanes that lead off the highway, past the little hotels, cafes, beach ware and gift shops that bring color and commerce to "Surf City." 

Iconic rock formation at El Tunco

Estuary at El Tunco


El Tunco attracts surfers from all over the world


Making it look effortless

At this point of the coastline, the towns are popping up one after the other and restaurants with spacious decks lure hungry drivers off the road for a meal and incredible views.  Some also offer beach access, although here it's quite stony, or access to their own pool, and others are associated and with neighboring luxury hotels. 

Now THAT'S a wave pool at Cadejo Brewery

From these popular spots, it's less than an hour's drive to San Salvador, through the original tourist town of La Libertad with it's large fishing pier and bustling seafood market.  It's here that we turn north and follow the nicely maintained highway home, past stand after stand of women selling coconuts, floaty inflatables of every description, and when in season - shaved green mangos piled high on plastic plates. 

Typical "comedor" at the busy El Majahual beach - hot food to go

Just east of La Libertad, a young cowoby uses the beach as his highway

From San Salvador, where we live, we then drive inland for a bit down the Comalapa Highway towards the (one) international airport and further to the Costa del Sol.  This stretch of beach is approximately in the middle of the country's coastline and is known for more tranquil waters and wide, sandy beaches.  Families rent "ranchos" for weekends or holidays, usually including the on-site groundskeeper and a housekeeper or cook if requested.  For those who just want to pop down for the day and don't need 12 beds - there are beach and swim clubs with restaurants, some members only and others offering a day use fee.  We've been to two of these and I'll admit it's nice to be able to plunk yourself down under an umbrella, grab a book and a sandwich and not worry about "Who's going to watch the stuff while we swim and where's the bathroom?" 

Costa del Sol beach clubs - very nice!

But too bad about the crowds.


Finally, our furthest point east to visit so far is "La Puntilla," which in English sounds like "the point" but translates to a variety of meanings in Spanish from lace, tack or brad, paring knife, to final blow/last straw. Uncertain if the name was a warning or a physical description, we set off last weekend to explore this skinny tip of a peninsula with ocean on one side and estuary on the other. 

The road dead-ended into a sandy track where we were met by a half-dozen young men hawking restaurants/parking spaces/tours? - it was hard to tell. We pulled the car into a empty spot under the thatched roof of an outdoor restaurant and started looking around.  As most land's ends do, La Puntilla had a scruffy, frontier feeling to it.  If there were doors on the restaurant/bars - they'd have been swinging doors, but instead there were open-air tables and hammocks and women in flip-flops and little lace aprons over their shorts, hustling to serve trays of drinks and sea food to a slightly rowdy crowd.

Always colorful, always friendly - beachside bar and restaurant, La Puntilla

At La Puntilla, a huge estuary, partially fed by the Rio Lempa that cuts El Salvador completely in half, spills out into the Pacific.  This mouth of fresh water brings with it soil and silt from as far away as the border in the Honduran highlands, which then creates a huge semi-circular sand bar just outside the mouth.  This bar, in turn, creates some wild waves and currents that make for tricky navigation and excellent wave watching.  However, once safely inside this bar, the estuary is very calm and has become a long-haul sailboaters' stopover spot.  Coming from around the world, they gather here to talk about... sailboat stuff... or to over-hurricane season their boats in the secure harbor.  Intrigued after learning this, we had to take a look around this estuary. 

It didn't take long to find Carlos and his lancha offering to take us around the estuary for a one-hour tour.  We hopped in and set off to see what there was to see.  Arriving at nearly high-tide, we found a collection of thatched-roof restaurants on stilts and Carlos described that during low tide they would have sand bars beneath that served as little private beaches.  

Boat-up restaurant in the estuary


Beyond the tourist sites, this area also supports a population of over 600 living on a large island across the estuary, but cut off from the mainland.  The only way on and off is by boat, and Carlos described that while there are both fresh water and schools on the island - most people live in stick-frame and palm-thatched houses as any other type of construction materials must be boated in, putting them out of financial reach of the already-subsistence level families.  We stopped for a cold drink at one little restaurant and chatted with the waitress who said she was born and raised on the island and just boated across the estuary to the floating restaurant each day.  With the tourism industry completely shut down for six months due to the height of the pandemic, the community depended completely on their own self-sufficient fishing to survive. 

Life on Isla Tasajera


Finally, Carlos drove us right up into the mangroves that form the mainland coastline inside the estuary.  It looked like someone could possibly explore the mangroves on foot, walking across their roots, but that someone was certainly not going to be me (even though he promised there were no gators or crocs). 

Estuary mangroves

Finally, our last few hours on La Puntilla, Costa del Sol, were spent under a beautifully tattered umbrella, watching the waves, taking turns wading into the water and enjoying a beer or two and an agua de coco. As the tide receded, the umbrella and plastic chair owners in this de facto open-air bar hurriedly pulled up stakes high on the beach and moved them down closer to the tide line. 


They do this all day with the rising and falling tides

The late afternoon and coming sunset acted as a siren's song for more customers to occupy the tables, inching ever closer to the tide. We had a bit of a drive home ahead of us and so had to leave before sunset, but it sure seemed like the place to be. Not fancy, but simple: sand, waves, a breeze to keep away the humidity, and local folks just enjoying the end of the day.  That's our definition of beach.