MARTE, San Salvador
Arrived in San Salvador, Saturday night, 21st June, 2008.
El Salvador, or San Salvador to be exact... what a difference, and especially compared to Antigua in Guatemala where nearly half of the town is geared towards tourism in some form or another. I left there not knowing what to expect and have been surprised on so many levels. San Salvador is a city filled with contrasts, all within walking distance of each other.
I took off on Sunday morning, to hit the streets, walking 10 or so km to get my bearings. First stop...the money part of town, and also the area where many of the city's art galleries are located. The first thing I wasn't expecting to see were so many ritzy houses, brand new 4WDs zipping around, and high class shops dotting the neighbouhood (Hilton Hotel and all).
I'd just come from the part of town (where I was staying - just north of Boulevard de Los Heroes) where the only thing that came to my mind was...The United States of America. Land of chain stores, drive thrus and super sized malls. An enormous world of fast-food and mass consumerism, the likes of which I've never seen on that scale before. Contrast #1.
From San Benito, through Zona Rosa and then up to Colonia Escalón, I made my way from the 'high-life' into the city, passing through the university area on my way. By that stage my imagination had started to create a mental image that couldn't have been further from the truth had I've tried. I assumed (very incorrectly) that the centre would be where the 'office blocks' were located, with lots of small, local restaurants, shops and a smattering of fast-food joints interspersed within the local businesses.
But...it was mayhem, filled with street stalls, music blaring, people yelling, chickens squawking and cars honking. The market stalls seemed to continue for miles, at times with only a foot or 2 of pedestrian space, and twice the amount of pedestrians that could physically pass by. I was grabbed by several people as I walked past, desperate to get me to look at their stall, men called out to me every 5 metres that I walked by, and mostly in English (I know I said I was slowly getting used to it, but it seemed much more intense here, with one even calling out in his gramophone each time I passed...I soon changed direction). To say that I was overwhelmed was close to the truth, slightly nervous...even closer. It was here that I was most aware of the recent civil war of El Salvador, and the continuing violence that still lurks amongst the poor. Contrast #2. I could instantly feel that downtown was not so safe, that tourists were warned not to go there, and definitely not to stroll the streets after dark, for a reason. What I didn't want, especially here, was to get lost and have to look at my map. I already felt like I was sticking out more than I ever have in my life, especially having not laid eyes on another tourist since arriving into El Salvador.
I've since changed navigational tactics and now ask quietly for verbal directions as opposed to opening my bag and looking lost, and have been offered very clear, friendly directions in San Salvador, and have even had many personal escorts to my destination (albeit without my asking).
In San Salvador, I was impressed by the museum of contemporary art (MARTE), and was super excited to find a hidden treat, filled with miniature surprises... literally (a museum showcasing a local artistic tradition of creating tiny 3D scenes and hiding them in an egg, or inside a miniature colonial house that you can open up to peek inside...surprise!). I stumbled upon a great, laid back bar (always a pleasant find), found a Centro de Cultura de España, which always comes through with the goods (this one had a great photo exhibition of Central American immigrants in the US), spoke with some really lovely, friendly local folk, and I became a big fan of 'pupusas' (hot hand made tortillas stuffed with refried beans and cheese), and stuffed my face in a local pupuseria for less than $1 each morning.
From San Salvador I took a short trip north to a sleepy town called Suchitoto, where I located more pupusas, took a stroll down to the lake and wandered around the plaza again and again...and again. I was keen to get out and explore the lake on a kayak, but no tours were operating because of a lack of tourists in town. I was told if I wanted to go somewhere with a guide I'd have to find a group to go with. This proved to be a tad tricky as I hadn't spotted another tourist since arriving. One of the difficulties of getting away from the hordes I guess. I stayed only 1 night, in a family home that rents out a room or 2, and when I returned in the night after my pupusa feast, the key I'd been given for the front door didn't work. I had several of the neighbours try their luck, but to no avail. So, I waited out on the street for an hour or so, and then just as I was beginning to think that maybe the family had gone away for a few days and I'd be locked outside for the night, a little boy walked up to me with a key. It had taken only 1 hour for word to spread amongst the neighbours, up into the main square, and to the owner of the house who was at work, who then got a young boy, her neighbour, to walk down and let me in. When I asked him how he knew I was locked out he simply replied "people talk".
I returned to San Salvador for another night, explored a few more of the galleries and museums, then took off for the coast, down to Playa El Tunco. It was super cruisy, and a great place to surf (apparently). I succumbed to the latin way..."mañana"...and never got around to getting on a board even once, but instead spent my time reading, swimming and just hangin out. It was such a nice change to be able to swim in the Pacific Ocean again, with waves and a natural liveliness that the Caribbean, in all of its turquise glory never offered.
When my week was up in El Salvador, and I was on my way south towards Nicaragua, I felt slightly sad to be leaving, and knew that there was so much more to explore, and so many great people yet to meet. But, I've got a new travel schedule to keep now, so it's on the road again. 12 hour bus ride, here I come...