I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Friday, 9 April 2010

Day trips from Santa Ana

¨Cuando tu abras tus ojas por la mañana, expresa que marviloso y bello es tener vida´
Quote from one of the chicken bus mirrors, meaning, ´When you open your eyes in the morning, think how marvelous and beautiful it is to be alive´... inspiring.

I´ve just had a fantastic few days...being based at the construction-site-cum hostel Casa Verde in Santa Ana turned out to be really lucky because of meeting Andrea and the two Carlos´s there. Carlos who runs the place was really lovely, he even gave me a guide book for Mexico, and his cousin Carlos was wicked company and really generous with his time...the day I turned up he drove me and Andrea all over visiting archalogical ruins. The first one was Joya de Cerén, which happened to be all the way back along the carretterra near to San Salvador, it was funny to zip along it so quickly and easily in the car after it being such a struggle on Peggy when I´d be feeling so ill the day before. We saw the remains of a village there that had been buried in ash in the sixth century and was discovered in 1976 - I enjoyed seeing the medicine man´s house, split into three buildings, the ´surgery´, the sleeping area and the kitchen. We then went to the acropolis at San Andrés, which would have been the centre of a Mayan city and was a 21 foot tall platform built on top of the old plaza, which is just starting to be excavated. The Acropolis symbolised the high status of the Mayan ruler and would have housed palaces and funerary temples, a place of exclusive precincts where they lived and vereated ancestors. The third site we went to was Tazmul where there was a structure of five pyramids on top of one another, and which also turned out to be an area of El Salvador reknown for its yucca, so Carlos treated us to the speciality dish, which was really tasty... the yucca is served boiled with salsa, salad and chicharron (sort of like pork scratchings, as in pig skin fat and meat in little cubes, way tastier than it sounds to anyone who´s been put off by pub pork scratchings at home!) .

Once it´s finished off it sounds like the Casa Verde will really be a wicked place to stay, and Andrea and I rekon Carlos will be the socialite of the place. He took us out another night to a few bars in Santa Ana itself. The last place we went to was a beautiful building, and old house with lots of separate rooms around a courtyard that would be perfect for a big club night. It had a really bohemian feel to it...Hendrix and Beatles posters... beanbags and deckchairs... candles in a bathroom and loads of really friendly young folk with lots of dreads, sandles and natural jewellry. We felt really welcome, like I´ve experienced time and again here in El Salvador everyone was very patient with the pigeon-Spanish and were keen to hear if were enjoying their countryand equally keen to knock back shots of tequila with us.

El Salvador´s National park of the volcanoes lies fairly near Santa Ana geographically, although by bus its a hefty trip that drops you off part way up Volcán Cerro Verde, which as its name tells is beautifully green. Andrea and I went there on Friday to climb Volcán Santa Ana (also known as Volcán Ilamatepec, meaning ´old lady mountain´ in the indigenous Nahual language) and back again on Sunday to conquer the slopes of Volcán Izalco, which was a lot steeper and as it is a younger volcano has no vegetation, so is an intimidating scree slope of rock and ashy sand that was pretty slippery to come down. It was the better climb of the two volcanoes because it was tougher so more satisfying (and impressively a 65 year old El Salvadoranean managed it quite happily along with the reast of us). The walk up Santa Ana was the more beautiful, passing through three terrains, firstly forest that gave way to an Alice-in-wonderland-esque greenery srouting with agape or pulque, the plant tequila is made from, which sends up huge flower shoots that tower over you, and lastly barren rocky slopes leading up to the very windy and cold peak. The crater was huge and very deep and the most impressive thing was the stunning turquoise crater lake whose colour is due to the reaction between sulphur and rainwater. You used to be able to hike down to the crater as well, until an explosion in October 1995 destroyed the path, now you would need ropes to absail, which our incredibly friendly police escort Rayo , or José, had done. Rayo was actually far more informative and chatty than the guide, and was very open about his opinions about El Salvador´s political situation which he saw as being unstable due to conflict among the governing party who cannot agree on how left they are. Some are middle left and want to align themselves with Brasil, others are more extreme and identify with Hugo Chavez and Cuba and want to join ALBA. During the war Rayo was conscripted into the army, then joined the police and worked in various divisions, including anti gang and narcotics, before joining the tourist police. He clearly really enjoys his job and told us he had been very disillusioned with the police force, finding it frustrating when he was working against gang crimes, as he recognises that the gangs actually generate a lot of business for the companies that supply private security paid on low wages to guard shops and banks etc, and for the companies supplying the arms they carry. He feels very lucky to have had the opportunity to transfer to the tourist police, which he did a lot of very specific training for including first aid, horse riding and English, and was keen to empasise to us that the police presence on the volcano tours was only partly for crime prevention, and that also their role was to provide information and to make sure we enjoyed our experience. He was very aware how important it is for tourists to have a good impression of El Salvador so that they will encourage friends and family to visit.

Rayo was also enthusiastic about the steam ´saunas´at the top of Izalco, which was what brought us back there on the Sunday. I´ve never had a sauna at all before so to have my first one atop a volcano in El Salvador I reckon is pretty wicked! There is no sulphur, so the steam is rainwater and we sat in clouds of steam on the rocks and sweated buckets (slightly more comfortable for the blokes who could take their shirts off, we women were sat there fully clothed)... supposedly very good for your respiritory system too, grand.

Another of our day trips was to the town of Juayúa, which is famous for its weekend food markets or ´feria gastronomica´s´m where I ate rabbit for the first time and tried chicha de arroz, an alcohol made from rice that was similar to mead but I wasn´t too keen on after the first couple of sips. Juayúa is a really pretty town with lots of street painting, covering walls, trees, lamposts, even bins. There was an artisan market there too and one of the jewellers, a really friendly guy Douglas from Santa Ana who came back on the 4 o´clock bus with us, sold me some cord to use with my seeds, and some raw coconut pieces that will need sanding down
to make into earings. There was also a lot of blue tyedye clothing ... añil, or indigo, is a plant that grows in the area and its green leaves when mixed with water produce blue dye, so I got a cute little dress for Hannah´s Lily, the first shopping I´ve really done on the trip, knowing I have to carry the weight of anything I buy is the best shopping detterrent! One of the big events of the day for El Salvadoraneans was the football match between Barelona and Real Madrid, which I heard was 2 -0 to Barcelona from one of the blokes in this crowd spilling out into the street in Juayúa. In the morning the family I met while drawing their coca-cola draped licuado stall (for Coca-Cola Syndrome postcard no.3 El Salvador) were all decked out in Barcelona shirts too. I love that when I start drawing people become interested, 10 year old Barcelona shirted Marcelo was the first to start looking over my shoulder and when I gave him the rest of my sketchbook to look at him and a couple of friends spent ages pouring over it. I am amazed time and again by the patience of Central Americans, he sat for the whole hour or so it took me to draw until our bus turned up. His older siter Rosa also came by, and Rafael who had sat still staring into space long enough for me to get him in the drawing seemed pretty chuffed with it. I´ve rapidlybeen getting over my shyness of someone watching me drawsince being in Central America, and happily so because it´s such a lovely way to meet people here, and its one of those things that spans all language barriers, I´m really lucky to be able to draw and enjoy it, am really grateful to have that skill.
Finishing the drawing off on the bus got some more little kids and the vendors interested... I find the buses fascinating here, the same old yellow US school buses as in Nicaragua (although you also see more white and green painted ones here too), they are a hub for street vendors who come through in droves selling anything and everything, endless sweets, gum and baked goods, juices underwear, and all sorts of medicineswhich from the vendor´s spiel sound like the cure every possible complaint from stress to pain to flu. I also just love the local markets, busy, noisy and dirty too, especially at the end of the day, but so full of life and colour, and again it is just fascinating seeing all the things on sale and watching the vendors go by with handfulls of live crabs, or drapped in belts or chains or watches, or with huge wicker baskets of produce balanced atop their heads!
Andrea and I actually ended up back in Juayúa yesterday (and seeing as I´m probably going through there again on my route this week it looks like it´ll be another of my three stop places) with a group of lads we met climbing Izalco. The idea was to go for the food market again but by the time we got there all the stalls were clearing up so we had some basic chicken sandwiches, not quite as exciting as the iguana I had heard you could try, but the company was great. They were a group of call centre workers, all from El Salvador and all spoke perfect English that they knew from living in various places in the States. That is another distinctive thing about El Salvador that had been obvious since first crossing the border, it is a lot more bilingual than Nicaragua, although perhaps the majority don´t speak English fluently they will shout hi and bye as often as the ádiós´I´d been used to, and then I´ve met so many individuals who are fluent, like Rodrigo and the drinkerteacher from the pool restraunt who´d lived in LA, even Carlos, as I only found out last night, speaks far better English than my Spanish and taught himself mainly from music, printing out lyrics and learning them by heart. For Rodrigo it is because he went to bilingual school, but for most it seems it is because they moved out of El Salvador with their parents during the war and were brought up in the US, or they moved away as young adults to work, like Geaorge the ex goth who also spent 8 years teaching English in the Czech republic. What is interesting is that the guys we´ve met have moved back here. Sometimes it is because they´ve been deported (the drinkerteacher), others are returning to get to know their country, like yesterday´s Carlos who had moved to the US as a child and returned a year ago and has ´proud to be Salvadoranean´tattoed on his forearms.
It was fascinating to hear their perspective on El Salvador, I was especially interested that they see the dollarization as a negative thing for their country, both symbolically and because the dollar brought higher prices and lower wages, making things even more difficult for a country which has such a huge problem with poverty. A book Carlos at the guest house leant us ´El Salvador 10 years later.. History revealing itself 1992 to 2002´discussed post war policy and had a very pertinent quote ¨Poverty and wealth. Companion of the majority, privilege of the minority¨ Since the end of the war and dollarization the gap between rich and poor has widen even further, as the country´s economic policies have focused on protecting the interests of a small number of business groups connected with the financial industrial industries. Another point George made about the governement is that although it is the left they are not fulfilling the promioses made at the Peace Accords, he was angry that so many people died in vain as he sees it because the party their fought for is compromising its original ideals.
Having met so many emigrant that have returned home it was interesting to hear what they thought of the US, and sadly they all seemed to find it hard, Jersey said the people were very cruel when he was struggling with the language when he fist moved to New Jersey. El Salvador´s biggest export is seen to be its young people, its workforce that move abroad and send money back home, like Jersey and George and Andrea and I had been wondering about what their experience must be like. We were chatting about how often these guys move abroad full of hopes and dreams of a better life and better money but then find themselves far from home and friends, struggling with language in a hostile environment where they are treated as second class citizens and face a lot of discrimination and are paid appalling badly to jobs that the people of those countries think themsellves too good for, a problem made even worse by the fact that often the immigrants have entered the country illegally and so through lack of options end up involved in crime and drugs. It must be incredibly hard, especially considering back home they have often been highly qualified and respected in their professions. I must also be particularly difficult to be so far away from familly when Central American culture sees family as so important. From my experiencesback home I´d say it is a similar thing for Central Americans in the US as it is for Albanians in London, and from what Andrea says the Turkish immigrants in Austria face similar difficulties. These were such a great group of guys, they even drove us all the way back to Santa Ana when we realised we´d missed the last bus, even though it was the opposite direction for them. I hope back home if I ever get the chance I´d treat tourists as well as they treated us.
A sad point for me this weekend was Saturday, 10th April, it was the second anniversary of my Dad´s death. I miss Dad just as much now as I did in those first few months, and often on this trip I wish that he was still alive so I could chat to him about my experiences and all the characters I{m meeting because I know how much he would have loved listening. It seems strange to me as well because in a way I might not be here if Dad had not been ill, because it was Dad´s illness which led me to support Macmillan Cancer Support, and to start with all the long distance cycling. It was the Macmillan ride which brought me out to Panma and got me to Granada and gave me the confidence to set off on my solo part of the trip, and I am still raising money for them in memory of Dad. I actually made it over the 1000 mile mark last week, I meant to photograph my odometer at the time before it reset but didn´t hit the brakesd in time, am at about 1,140 miles now! Even though Saturday was a sad day and the motivation for my journey in that sense is sad, I also feel very strong because in a way that I can´t explain I often feel that Dad is very clode to me physically, there have been times on the trip when I get that sensation very powerfully and that is something that is very comforting and makes me feel safe and also makes me glad that Dad does know what I am doing and is enjoying the trip along with me. I am very glad that I am able to enjoy this travelling because I´m who I am as a result of how wonderful both my Mum and my Dad are, I keep feeling astonished at how lucky I am.
So... I have left Santa Ana this morning for the next part of the journey, and am exciting because I might get some swimming and camping in throuhg the next week. I´m going to be following part of the Ruta las Flores, and am in Ahuachapan right now aiming for a lakeside camping spot tonight, feels like it will be a colourful week after seeing the murals at a licuado shop I´ve just been to...

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