El Salvador Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
âThe hope of reward in this line of religion was to be able to gaze with boredom into the big black hole, pausing only to wipe the face of your pocket watch with a clean linen handkerchief so that itâs next owner can trade it in on a new Bulova along with the gold he has knocked out of your indifferent teeth.â
-Thomas McGuane, Ninety-Two in the Shade
I was winging it.
We were next to the bus terminal in San Miguel, eating a surprisingly good lunch. The restaurants that one usually encountered around Salvadoran bus terminals werenât nearly up to this standard.
Passersby gawked at our piles of surfboards and other piles of gear. Even if we hadnât been carrying so much equipment, we would have still been painfully conspicuous. We screamed gringo from every pore: Nick, dumped straight down on the scene off a Southern California beach with no shirt, a mass of chest hair, and baggies hanging halfway down his ass; Matt, a thin, bespectacled, quiet type who was halfway between looking like a surfer and a tropical jungle botanist; Mike, whose retro haircut and growth of stubble made him look like an undercover narc from a seventies TV show; Frank, a muscular, unusually happy-go-lucky German with a ponytail; and me.
There was a dearth of acarreos around the bus terminal, and the first one we asked wanted 200 colones to take us to El Cuco. The only other one around had a bizarre little vehicle which I deemed too small to possibly carry us, but Matt thought otherwise. He only wanted 125 colones, which was fine, but I had a suspicion he didnât understand where we wanted to go. I was trying to explain that we wanted to go to a beach ten kilometres up the coast from El Cuco, to a place called Punta Floral, and he indicated that he knew it. I had a hazy memory of the neighboring beach to El Cuco being called Playa Flores, and I suspected that was what he was thinking of. The others were enthusiastic, though, so I decided that weâd just go for it and see how far we could get him to take us.
Frank, who was typically Teutonic in his handy mastery of anything new he decided to take on, was the best Spanish speaker of us all. Like the Californians, though, he was unfamiliar with the territory, and it didnât help that we were trying to go somewhere that people never asked San Miguel acarreo drivers to take them.
âI think he made it.â
It had the stubby quality of something East German or Russian, perhaps something like a pickup version of the Trabant. The size of it was along the lines of a Lada, with the back seat moved up and the trunk replaced by a tiny little pickup bed. We strapped the boards to the roof, crammed four of us in the interior as passengers, and packed Mike in the bed with the rest of our gear.
The ride out to the coast was fairly uneventful, chugging up the mountain roads at a snailâs pace until we were at the top and the whole coastal panorama revealed itself before us. Before we knew it we were down in El Cuco, and we stopped for cold drinks and supplies at the main tienda of the village. I wasnât surprised when, upon taking the dirt road up the coast, JosĂ© stopped after a half mile and said that we had arrived. We were overlooking Playita Las Flores. Here was where things would get tricky.
âQueremos a ir mucho mas allĂĄ,â I told him, pointing further up the coast.
He shrugged and we climbed back in. He suggested a few different village names that might be the ones we were looking for. I agreed that it was probably whichever one he mentioned that was the farthest one along, trying to buy us some more time. The road kept switching back and forth between smooth, flat sections, and extremely rocky hills. What I remembered was how awful the road got in the later portions, and I didnât think his stubby two wheel drive was capable of running it. We went through a series of âaquĂ?â questions from him at various waypoints, whereupon I would put on a bewildered look and assure him âno, un poquito masâ. Finally we got to an overlook from which I could show him exactly where it was that we were going. The point lay only a few miles further up the coast, and he didnât show any resentment or indicate that it was a problem.
He skillfully maneuvered his little wonder truck through some large ruts and rocks, around oxcarts and herds of cows, and finally up the steepest hill of the journey. Even in first gear it was too steep an incline for the truck. We lurched forward five feet at a time, spinning the wheels, revving the engine, going forward, then backward, then forward again, and it appeared that we might be at the end of the line. Jose would have none of it. What might have been a minor nuisance at first had become a challenge for him. His reputation was based upon getting us to our destination, and nothing was going to stop him now. Inch by inch we progressed until we had cleared the hill, and we didnât stop again until we were on the plateau overlooking the point. Even then, JosĂ© was hacking down large weeds and shrubs with a machete to get the car closer to the cliffâs edge.
We gave him an extra 25 colones for the effort, which didnât satisfy him, so we threw in another fifty.
We made our way down the embankment to the rocky shoreline inside the point, and began to set up our hammocks in the grove of trees that shaded this area.
While the others were occupied tying up their hammocks, a local wandered over from where heâd been lying nearby.
âYou donât want to stay here,â he told me. âItâs not safe to sleep outside. You should stay with the family in the hut over there.â
âEvery group of people who has come here before has been robbed. There is a group of bandidos who come here at night from El Cuco as soon as visitors arrive. For the last six months, this has happened.
I shrugged. This seemed like more rumor-mongering to me, or part of some kind of scam. The last thing I wanted to do was go sleep on the floor of a small, smoky hut.
âWeâre bigger than them,â I said. âWe can look after ourselves.â
He laughed a knowing laugh. Foolish gringos didnât seem new to him.
âIt doesnât matter how big you are when someoneâs pointing a gun at you,â he explained.
Well, that was something. I conceded his point. Guns made a difference, but still I resisted the idea of taking precautions. I couldnât believe the place that I had camped so happily a year before could have changed so. I had a perverse need to be robbed to prove to me that it was real, another flaw in my veteran persona. Until then I wanted to live free of paranoia, by the words of my grandmother:
The others took the warnings more seriously than I did. There was some confusion about what course of action to take. I buried my money and valuables under a few rocks, and declared that I was ready to be robbed. The bandits could have everything I had left. My position was that I would rather suffer the inconvenience of having a gun pointed at me, be relieved of some of my possessions, and get an otherwise good night of sleep, than the alternative of not being robbed and getting a terrible night of sleep.
As Matt was taking his hammock down, he found a scorpion in it. This seemed to be an omen that supported the case for a change of venue. We piled up everything in the small dirt yard in front of the hut, and Frank explained to us the family that lived in it. There were eight children between the ages of two and twelve, their mother, and a stepfather. The original father had deserted them.
The family was desperately poor, and made do as well as they could off their subsistence life. They had a well out behind the house, which gave them ready access to water.
My first look inside of the hut confirmed that we were going to be in for a night of it. It was a space of sixteen feet by sixteen feet, with a number of tiny hammocks already filling up the rear of the hut. Along the back wall and throughout the hut a variety of animal life resided, including ducks, chickens, a kitten, and a mangy dog. Into this residence we moved five gringos, our surfboards, and our vast wealth of gear. Somehow fifteen of us were going to sleep in here. Of all the things the night promised, comfort wasnât going to be one of them. The others strung up their hammocks side by side and on top of each other, and I lay out my sleeping bag on the dirt beneath them.
As soon as I was stretched out comfortably with REMâs Lifeâs Rich Pageant playing, I felt something tickling my feet. I stopped myself just in time from kicking at it when I realized it was the kitten trying to curl up there. An assortment of bug life crawled off the floor onto me. Then I experienced the curious sensation of a webbed foot planting itself on my face, when the majordomo of the ducks decided to waddle out of its corner and clamber right over on me on the way to parts unknown.
âTurn that damn light off,â Matt demanded.
They had worked themselves into such a state of paranoia already that they were hiding under the log when I approached, convinced that I was one of the bandits.
we are young despite the years we are concerned
Someone noticed lights on a hill a few miles down the beach, that looked like car headlights. We ignored them until we saw flashlights on the beach. I downplayed their significance, thinking it was probably locals out collecting turtle eggs or some such endeavor.
âSon los bandidos. Vamos a la casa.â
Until then I had been able to blithely ignore the warnings, but this was the first time Iâd heard actual fear in the tone of any of the locals. The workings of my brain had been a mass of contradictions. I had enough faith in the goodness of the locals to make me doubt that bandits existed in the area, yet the entire thing also struck my more suspicious side as sort of conspiracy between all the locals to.
Mike, the smallest of us, became drunkenly indignant on the way back to the hut and protested that we couldnât let them do this to us.
âNo, man, this is wrong. Letâs take âem out. Ambush them.â
No one else shared his Rambo-like enthusiasm. We trooped back into the hut feeling very small and very tense. The father directed us to hide our money and valuables somewhere that they couldnât be found. There was a row of fishermenâs innertubes and nets stacked up in the rafters, and I put my money belt up on top of one of the tubes. We became as quiet as we could and extinguished our lights, while the father watched through a crack in the thatched door. The only illumination was a candle burning beside the stove, which lit the interior in a soft, eerie glow that matched the tension levels.
Matt stood at a crack in the thatch, and soon reported to us that the lights had gone straight to the area we had been. They had obviously seen my headlamp back before we noticed their lights. Mike was back in the corner, brandishing his knife and still muttering about taking them out. Nick had his small machete at his side, which he was keeping handy more to use on the possibility of a renegade Mike than as defense against the bandits. Frank was crouching back near Mike, keeping a wary eye on him as well. The father had counted eight of the bandits pass by. Matt counted six or seven, but couldnât tell if they had weapons. Failing to find us out on the point, they moved on, but our restiveness remained at the same high levels. We assumed it was only a matter of time before they came looking for us in the hut.
Though I was confused, uneasy, and no doubt somewhat scared, I was still having trouble coming to grips with the situation. Any of the fear that I felt wasnât a result of my own knowledge, but dependent upon the words of others. More than anything it was dependent on the fear and strain that vibrated through the hut with an intensity I had never been surrounded by before. There is a great reluctance to take words seriously, when they cannot be related to oneâs own observations. While surfing in Florida once I watched a ten to twelve foot shark chase a large fish for a hundred yards until it caught it and ripped it in half, the remains of the fish ending up no more than fifty yards from me and another group of surfers. Immediately, all of us started to paddle for a wave to take to the beach. My oldest brother, who hadnât seen the shark, wondered why everyone was going in.
âThis is fucked,â Nick muttered. âWeâre being hunted like dumb animals.â
That feeling was real. I did feel like prey for the first time, a small, insignificant creature holed up with no escape, stupidly waiting to be devoured.
silence means security silence means approval
Where the hell was he when he penned such an idiotic sentiment? As time dragged on and it seemed like we had pulled through safely, I slowly relaxed. Then Mikeâs hammock cord broke and he fell with a thump onto my legs. It hurt like hell, but we laughed for the first time in awhile. I drifted in and out of sleep, but usually for no more than five minutes. Every way I moved, I ran into someone.
I finally located my Walkman among my things and turned it on again. The music was easier to listen to now, and it even started making a little more sense in the situation.
the town is safe again tonight.
the only thing to fear is fearlessness
bigger the weapon greater the fear...
When the morning finally came, we agreed that we had already had quite enough of Punta Floral/Mango/Espina/Number Five.
Matt and Frank went surfing while the rest of us packed. We gave the family the rest of our food and fifty colones for taking the trouble to protect us, and at half past eight we all set out down the beach with the father to guide us. His idea of âjust down the beachâ turned out to be different than ours.
Little man with a gun in his hand. The song was on a live Minutemen tape that I was listening to, courtesy of the Pedro boys. There was another track on the tape called Song for El Salvador. The Minutemen, a legendary band of the early 80âs American punk scene, seemed far more attuned to my surroundings than REM.
Some other things struck me as odd, too. I had become suspicious in the beginning when the man who warned us about sleeping outside had emphasized that the bandits were from El Cuco and werenât local villagers. The father seemed to be indicating otherwise, and it was my feeling that they had originated from one of these outlying villages.
When we reached El Cuco, we found JosĂ© and his bizarre little truck outside the tienda. The hood was up and he was mulling over the engine. He greeted us warmly and we told him we wouldnât need to be picked up the next day, which left him nonplussed. The road out to the point had apparently taxed his vehicle beyond its limits, and his immediate concerns were in bringing it back to life. On the bus ride to San Miguel, a suave teenager with long black ringlets showed Matt a 9mm automatic he had tucked in his waistband. He might have been one of our enemies, casually showing off what he would have used on us had he caught us in a more isolated place. Or he might have been just another of the legion of well-armed criminals that had flourished in El Salvador since the war had ended.
Six hours, a few buses later, and we were almost back to La Libertad, coming down the mountains from San Salvador to the coast. Nick and I were in the back of the bus, which had decided to pick up every human being on the road regardless of capacity. People rode on the rear bumpers clinging to the open back door, the ladders, other people, while inside there was an insane crush of people on either side, on top of us; we were buried under an avalanche of people. The next Minutemen song on my tape started and D Boon howled:
THIS AINâT NO PICNIC!