The Bartman Cometh, and we get it Pupusa Poppin'

El Salvador Travel Blog

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I finally dislodged my lazy ass from San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, my backside, I'm sure, still imprinted with routine, bearing the faint interlaced piecrust pattern of cushy hammock straps. My departure was a forty-eight hour whirlwind of house-hopping, issuing heartfelt goodbyes through chainlink fences and seated around comals burning dekerneled corncobs, promising I'd revisit my surrogate families...sometime. As I passed out photos I'd had printed from my digital camera, I was overwhelmed by reciprocal generosity, collecting a variety of handsewn items: a belt paved by stretches of majestic blues and a rainbow colored handbag adorned with a tiny wooden figurine of a Mayan woman in traditional dress; most touching of all was a plastic bagful of well-past-well-worn schoolbooks, broken spined and sans covers, loose pages rearranged haphazardly, accompanied by a stuffed ladybug and a photo in a frame crudely fashioned from a clear plate of hard plastic, tape and a bit of cardboard bent into a stand, all tied together with a red ribbon and two flowers with wire stems, shyly imparted by my recently befriended neighbor Rosita. Mildred gave me, in addition to a pile of handwritten cards collected in my final weeks, a fluffy stuffed puppy wearing a red heart inscribed with the word LOVE around its neck, and the puppy's paw-squeeze activated tune wavers lazily for a battery fading after who-knows-how-long-on-the-shelf-at-who-knows-what-tienda.

All the beauty of my departure created a karmic imbalance that was reset when I stepped off the bus in Antigua. As my eyes scanned parque central, the grand architecture and spewing fountain impressive as ever, I noticed a man, filthy, his head lolling about, sitting on outlying steps. His faded and tattered pants were spattered with, presumably, urine. On second glance I noticed his penis resting in his lap, jumping into action every few moments with as it was flicked or wagged, like some oddity peeking from its unzippered cave. That mental illness and public intoxication are ignored in Central America is distressing but, to be sure, the wealth of crazed men stumbling about -- singing and shouting incoherently, urinating and exposing themselves without regard to audience or location, rooting through garbage cans with no intention other than transplanting waste onto the surrounding concrete -- make the region a more entertaining place.

Barry showed up shortly, and we proceeded to waste several days in Antigua, Guatemala stalking the streets, ushered into every panaderia and pasteleria and grocery store by my addiction to pastries and cakes, especially those iced and or filled with creams and jellies and frostings. We sucked down a liter of Quezalteca Especial over two nights, amd I ate two to three market-cheap sapotes every day to fill the spaces of time (and the cavernous void of nutrition) between meals defined by saturated fats and simple sugars, or by grease and cheese dripping, salsa-mountain buried pupusas purchased for spare change at the food stalls surrounding the bus station. Submitting to the power of the pupusa, we finally embarked toward the pupusa heartland, El Salvador.

Minds clogged by cheesy pupusas, we nearly handed away our identities at the border between Guatemala and El Salvador, each extending our passports to the decidedly unofficial "officials" clamoring outside the bus' door. But as the images of the pupusa orgy to come began to flicker -- at the sight of our passports being hustled away to some location and with some intention obscured by Spanish, by guys dressed in torn t-shirts -- we simultaneously recovered our senses and snatched back our lives; more importantly our tickets to pupusa heaven.

Hotel Livingston in Santa Ana, El Salvador was our first sweaty stop, one of the first times in my life I haven't bemoaned a lack of hot water showers. We proceeded to pass two days just as we had in Antigua: exercise defined by the miles of cracked concrete walked to various foodstands and the heavy-lifting of pastries filled with thick custards, usually called leche. Genuinely concerned by my inability to refuse cakes and doughnuts (and packages of coconut-cream filled, coconut-flake covered Dinkis) following my departure from cream-and-icing starved San Pedro, I googled diabetes to determine if I could, in fact, overwhelm my system with sugar and induce disease. It seems, assuming I don't forsake exercise entirely and puff up, soft to the touch like any of my favorite pastries, I'll be safe. The halfmoon shaped, blackbean filled pancakes of Pan de Elote, which we devoured hot from the griddle daily in the central park, I have less guilt about eating.

At the end of each day spent sweating toward pastries, the sugar rush and inevitable crash crushing all ambitions but those of appetites unsatiated by white breads and simple sugars, we crawled the ghosttown-come-sunset toward pupusa stands or, on the second night and accompanied by (fellow Davidsonian, friend and current El Salvadoran Peace Corps volunteer) Jim Hooper, toward a local bar. (MS-13 never materialized, but a pirate and a maybe prostitute and a general excess of alcohol dispelled us from that bar rather suddenly.)

Moving southward through Central America, the women grow progressively more tantalizing while remaining completely impervious to accurate-age-determination -- is she 15 or 30? In Juayua, a charming, touristy mountain village on the Ruta de las Flores, where Jim, Barry, and I relocated for it's famed every-weekend food festival, we admired a couple of cute Salvadoran girls who seated themselves across from us while we sipped beers in the central park soon after dusk. We guessed their ages to be no more than 16, but captivated by their beauty and the giggles they unleashed every time we made eye contact, emboldened by a few beers and the fact that hitting on (even severely) underage girls was nothing that would phase the heavily armed police patrolling around the square, Barry and Jim's urgings were entirely sufficient. I approached the duo and ascertained that the first beauty was, indeed, fifteen. But the second, the more stunning of the two, claimed to be twenty, even after confronted with my barrage of stern "No te creo"s. As it was, I found myself a supermodel of a date for the political party sponsored town dance that evening, and shared two hours on a dancefloor, a head taller than anyone else, boring my partner with the same semi-hip-swiveling motion.

And so, Jimbo, Barry, and I passed the time: feasting at the foodstands for the weekend, spending two to five dollars for plates brimming with mouthwatering, generously portioned delicacies: fried yucca and chorizo to rabbit and shrimp, always with a side of thick tortillas. Hiking to a series of impressive waterfalls a few kilometers from town, where many locals were picnicking and swimming, eating too much ice cream and too many pastries, and passing the nights drinking around the town's central fountain. It was vacation, pure and simple, and quite clear that my life could not be better...unless my gorgeous dance partner, Ingrid, emails me, volunteering to nurture my Spanish language development. That is, assuming, my scribbled email address was even legible...

Jim had to return to work and Barry and I have relocated to the stretch of surf spots spanning the Pacific coast. A few chicken bus changes led us to Bus 80, departing La Libertad for Playa El Tunco. The handful of Bus 80s running the coastal route are the usual chicken buses, but ours had been outfitted with a bassy speaker system that showered unwitting El Salvadorans with uncensored American rap, a deluge of odes celebrating the nomenclature of genitalia and the juicy details of romantic strip club encounters. Or maybe the words had been slightly altered for regional appropriateness: "Pupusa poppin' on a handstand."

El Tunco is a quiet beach with a few hostels filled with surfers, a few restaurants, cheap beers, and enchanting sunsets. Walking the road for twenty five minutes we can eat for half the price, and with the all-important option of pupusas, so we trek a few times daily to the dilapitated stands and in-house eateries at the next beach, sharing hours of postmeal conversation seated in the carport/dining area of our favorite mom-and-pop operation.

My vacation within a vacation continues, and I'm completely infatuated with El Salvador, mesmerized by, in this particular order: it's women; their pupusas; and the delightful citizens always quick to converse with a pasty foreigner butchering their language.
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