“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” – Shirley MacLaine
Days: 15th July – 21th July 2016
Kilometers until 21th July: 21.011
The beans storks were heavy on my back. “More?” Juan asked me. “More!” I said. As my back was completely loaded with the plants´ storks I slowly started walking towards the truck. I unloaded the beans and looked back, where in the distance below us the clouds were swimming among mountain peaks. The rest of the family kept working. They were more motivated than I could ever be – it was their rice and beans they were working for. As they had put it, I was part of their family now (or at least for the several days there). As I thought about the doubts and sceptical expectations to El Salvador as I was crossing the border just five days ago, I had to smile.
Welcome to El Salvador
My good friend, Daniel, had written me not long ago: “Please do me a favour and don´t go to El Salvador!”. Was he right? Wouldn´t it be better if I skip it and drive only through Honduras? Those were the questions that were crossing my mind as I was heading towards the border between Guatemala and El Salvador. But there is something unfair and sad about not giving a country chance just because it has the image of the most dangerous place in Central America…. and just because the statistics show an average of 19 murders per day! Anyway, Sarah and I decided to go for it.
The border police was extremely kind… and slightly curious why we go to El Salvador. We did not have any plan where to go so we headed to the only place we had heard anything about before in Guatemala. El Tunco is a small village on the Pacific where you basically cannot do anything else than walk around and, of course, surf! But it was a safe place and a good starting point. We found a cheap parking/camping for 1$ per person per day and after dropping our stuff directly took a walk to the beach. The stony beach was not the most comfortable place for a walk but a small sand spot provided us just enough for some Spanish learning (me) and some Yoga (Sarah). Soon, the setting sun painted its unique colours on the sky so that the rocks looked somehow mystic. I don´t know if it was the Gladiator movie soundtrack of my earphone or the sky, showing its full spectrum of colours, but right there on the beach I felt that I am truly free. I was in a country I knew nothing about, I had no plan but at the same time it seemed to me that I have all the opportunities in the world open in front of me. I just had to get in my car, put the music on and drive.
New friend, new adventure
Next day was time for relaxation, exercises and Spanish. A Spanish family with three kids and two Argentinian guys were our company at the camp site. In the afternoon, I started a casual small talk with a guy in his sixties who walked through the camp. He turned out to be a local who lived 40 years in USA and another six years in Germany. He mentioned how he is sick and tired of the hot weather on the coast and would like to visit the mountains again. Now, that´s where it got interesting. I asked to recommend me some place in the highlands of El Salvador we could visit. He told me about a local family he knew that lived up in a small village in the mountains, close to the highest point of El Salvador. And there was our plan. At the end of our conversation he said: “Would you take me with you?”
On the next day, Sarah, Don Omar and I were driving slowly but surely up to the El Salvadorian highlands. We passed San Salvador, where Don Omar showed us some of the neighbourhoods. Our only impression of the El Salvador was El Tunco which was very touristy and therefore almost didn´t count. Here in San Salvador, we found the contrast between the modern city parts, with shopping malls, exquisite hotels and tall buildings, and the poor neighbourhood where you wish that your gasoline tank won´t get empty. I did not really feel the danger but Don Omar warned us that just getting into a small side street can have very unpleasant consequences.
After few more hours, we were surrounded only by the fresh green colour of the nature and the mountains, first small and far away in the distance, now stood tall in front of us. As we were getting higher, the weather got colder and our conversations – warmer. Don Omar was a kid trapped in the body of a grown man. Considering some of the jokes, it felt sometimes like talking to a teenager. But in the next moments he would switch and tell us a serious story of his interesting life. With pleasure we realized that our new friend was one of the warmest and kindest people that we had met.
Despite the colder weather, Rocinante got too passionate and overheated a bit so we gave it a rest. Just before sunset we arrived in front of a small door of a small house in a small village, where a big family was coming together after the working day.
El castillo de los Reyes
They weren´t expecting us. After the family greeted us, Don Omar said “I came here with two new friends of mine.” The immediate answer was “Great! Let me show them their room. You can stay as long as you want.” The family of Don Carlos welcomed us warmly. That first night the children came home one after another, so it was as if the family was growing in front of our eyes. Every newcomer had the same reaction – first surprise that there are gringos in the house, then an attempt for a small talk and as they saw that I could understand them and speak to them, – tons of questions about our trip. One by one they came – 4,5,6,7… how many were they? Later, Don Omar answered – Don Carlos had 21 children…. but only 7 lived still in the house.
The house was an obvious evidence that the family lived poorly. Apart from the kitchen, there was one big room, where everyone gathered. The sleeping “department” was separated by sheets hanging from the ceiling. As we all gathered in the big room for dinner (mostly rice and beans but very delicious), the conversations started. Everyone shared their story for the day – what they saw, what the news around the village was. It turned out that about 80% of the village is basically one family – the family of the Reyes. All of their neighbours were close or distant cousins. Despite the closeness of the people in the area, there were obviously new rumours to share. The evening was filled with laughter. And, of course, we got our bit of attention as well. All of them seemed to overcome the initial awkwardness pretty fast and now everyone was pushing my Spanish language skills to the limit. Some also had an obvious interest in Sarah´s yoga techniques.
The village was quite, everyone knew everyone. Criminality was almost unheard of. Just on the contrary of my initial expectations as I entered the country, It was one of the places where I felt safest on my trip.
A family of happiness
The next day, Don Omar, Sarah and I decided to visit the only place nearby worth to be called a tourist attraction – los Pilas, the highest point in El Salvador. Some of the boys accompanied us. The trip was much more about getting to know them and their lifestyle than enjoying the nevertheless beautiful view from the top. Both on the way up and down we were picked up by cars which was apparently the usual form of transport here.
After many hours of talk with different people from the family, I started to have the feeling that I get to recognize the different characters: Frank – the smart one who managed to get a scholarship for a university; Juan (Brujo) – who was more simple but the family expert in animals, plants, cars and who know what more; Silvester – the funny one always smiling and bringing laughter to the others; Carlos – the mysterious one who lived for many years as a kid alone in the forest and new the mountain by heart. Of course, after several days spent with them I cannot claim of knowing them well but I was happy to develop a feeling about who was who in the family.
The family evenings were full with stories about the mountain, their life, the history of the place, the local legends of ghosts and devils (gave me chills) but above all was the laughter. Those people who lived with so few and had to work all day long for their simple meals were absolutely enjoying themselves in every second spent together. I´m sure that they´ve had some very hard moments in their life and unfortunately – probably will in the future as well. But for the time I got to know them – happiness was the dominant emotion.
Don Omar was our guide those days. He enjoyed fully his time in the chilly weather and fresh air of the mountains. Actually, he was planning on moving to the villages of the Reyes soon and promised to send me a key for the house to come whenever I decide. What a guy!
Time to get dirty
On the day of my departure, Don Omar and I decided to help the family gather the beans from a field further up in the mountain. As we arrived, the clouds were floating the lowlands in the distance, way below us. I spent three hours picking up beans storks together with another five of the Reyes. It was also three hours of intense Spanish lesson with Juan who took my language skill development very personally. I still couldn´t grasp perfectly the jokes they were putting every two minutes as we were picking up the beans.
At the end of the bean gathering, the everyone started to load the bean storks on the truck by carrying them on their back. I decided not to play the fragile gringo and insisted on doing the same. Now, this they found absolutely hilarious. Everyone stopped working and laughed. No idea why! I think I was awesome! 🙂
Time to go
Our departure was delayed because Sarah had some stomach issues. The Reyes called a women who was a local healer and her massage (combined with some strong pills) relaxed Sarah´s pain. After another five hours driving, we arrived back in El Tunco where the heat gave us its warm hug and tried to erase our memories of the cold mountain nights. It did not succeed.
We spent another day camping on El Tunco, relaxing and going through all of our memories from the time with Don Carlos and his family. We also needed another day stuffing ourselves with Papusas, a local type of tortillas filled with cheese, beans and garlic. Then one morning, we hopped on Rocinante, took an emotional farewell with Don Omar and galloped to the south. There were new experiences awaiting.
The lesson of El Salvador
Driving south I had time to rethink my El Salvador experience. And here is one of the most important messages I want to send through my blog: A country considered to be one of the most dangerous in Central America offered me such an unforgettable time. I´m far from the claim that El Salvador is a safe country just because I had great several days on a quiet and unproblematic place. No, criminality is a huge problem in the country. But we like to generalize too much about countries, create our image of them based on those generalizations and then spread those images to other. By doing that we leave out people like Don Omar, Don Carlos and his family. And they don´t deserve it. The next time you hear about a place being dangerous or problematic, think of the normal people who are just like most of us – warm, welcoming, laughing and loving. Because, as my trip had proved to me so many times, these people are not the exception but rather the rule!
Thanks to my editor: Natali Kancheva
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