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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Settling into El Salvador at Los Cobanos

Hmm... such a long time since I`ve written that I don`t really know where to start...

I`ve ended up settling into a little nest of El Salvador called los Cobanos... a beautiful spot on the Pacific cost that proudly protects its coral reef, the only one in the stretch of the Pacific running from Panama to Mexico. It makes this the only white sanded beach in Salvador...and also means that all of the goergeous shells with natural perforations that make them ideal for threading into jewellry are protected and can`t be removed from the beach.... actually its a liberating feeling to collect them, oogle at their beauty and variety and imagine all the combinations they could make in bracelets and necklaces, but then to throw them back to the sea... feel somehow like you`re living more for the moment and the pleasure of the present now...

Many a morning José and I take our mugs of morning coffee down to the beach, just the other side of the hostel gate, and just by running our fingers throiugh the sand where we sit come up with endless colours, forms and patterns of shells...some days I`ve made faces with them, other days collect all of the one colour or shape... another day we collected all the worn down seaglass for Kali... sadly each time we come back with armfiulls of washed up rubbish too, especially plastics.. its fascinating the stuff you find, the best one was part of a he-man like toy that Jeremias loved! Little Jeremias is one of the local kids, one morning he and I were tracing our footprints and handprints with stones, which made me romantically start thinking of Anthony Goldsworthy`s non-obtrusive intervention art with nature, though his are apparently gradually removed by time and the elements, whereas ours were wiped out by the dramatic energy of a 3 year old!
So anyway, to go all the way back to Juayua and that rainy afternoon... I spent four pretty lazy days in the town, drawing in the park and reading at the hostel run by lovely French Alex... A former winemaker back home who left France to travel, and spent 2 years a-roaming south and central america before coming to a pretty permanent stop in Juayua. Alex was a chilled bloke who introduced me to the rythyms of French hip hop and the astonishingly raw Brazilian film Ultima PArada 174, about the street kid living in Sao Paulo who survived the Candelaria Masacre and ended up hijacking a bus in 2000.

The other two folk who stand out from my days in Juayua are Mario and Tony. Mario was my young guide for the 7 waterfall tour, ending up at the popular spot Los Chorros where he did an amazing dive from a 7m high rock that got a whole crowd of young visitors applauding. The best part of the tour for me was going through the tunnels that are mostly man made as part of the hydro electric energy plant that runs off the falls... the flow of the water practically sucked you through which for some reason reminded me of a particular episode of baywatch when a kid gets stuck in a typically red-swimsuit-demanding scene... thankfully we were spat out safely on the other side and headed back to town, popping into Mario`s house on the way to pick up a bag of red seeds he offered me for more jewellry making, yay!

Tony was a sadder story... he came up to chat to me as I was drawing in the Central Park one afternoon and our general chatting eventually came round to the subject of his two young daughters, 9 and 3, who are living in Boston with his ex-wife... he shyly asked me if I`d help him write a letter to them in English as they read better in English than Spanish, as it is what they are taught at school. So we sat in a local cafe drinking coffee while Tony dictated his message, telling his daughters he missed them and wished he could be with them... I felt really sad for Tony, as he seemed so vulnerable and lost when talking about the girls, he hopes to go back to he US as soon as possible, but had to leave because of disagreements between himself and their mother, and from the sounds of it his life there was incredibly hard, working 3 different shift jobs to make ends meet. I was reminded of Tony again recently when I got chatting to a security guard at the Sonsonate bus station, Vincent told me he was grateful for his job at the terminal as it kept him busy and stopped him becoming sick with grief at missig his family, including a daughter just a bit younger than me, who he`d had to leave behind in the US when he was deported.
Leaving Juayúa, following up Alex´s recommendation of his friend Kali´s hostel Kalindigo, I headed straight downhill and into the extreme heat of this beach at Los Cobanos where it is possible to be sitting outside in only a bikini at 11pm and still have sweat rolling down into your eyes... luckily there is a pool to hop in and out of and of course the sea at the end of the garden, though I have a helthy level of respect-fear for the strong Pacific currents and with my lopsided-breast-stroke-doggypaddle-mish-mash technique of swimming I never venture too far in.

This really is the most stunningly beautiful place, high palm trees laden with yellow cocunuts, white sands because of the coral reef offshore (the only one in the Central American stretch of the Pacific coast, which is proudly protected by the local Funda Reciffe who also work with turtle conservation) snorkelling amongst the rocks at low tide totally blew my mind the first time, to be eyeballed by a curious fish in the 30% magnification of underwater feeling like you`re in a vast otherworldly realm and then to stand up and realise you`re barely shin deep is a disorientatingly fascinating experience. Also the sunsets here are such a myriad of cloud patterns and the colours ...the colours are just stunning...all the blues and greens, yellows oranges, purples, even fierce blood red some days as if the sky`s on fire... it feels like every day the sky takes on a new personality. I`d have to say this was a perfect idyllic place, if it wasn´t for the persistence of the mosquitoes who feast on me at night and their smaller pesky cousins (sandflies?) who gorge on my open wounds in the mornings...but with my recently reinforced supplies of vscious deet based repellent I can just about forget about that small blip in perfection!

Round the other side of the rocky outcrop to the left is the main bay of los Cobanos where the fishermaen`s lanches bob in front of the shorefront of their homes and comedors where you can eat the most delicious seafood, my favourite being the fried red snapper, though the spicy ceviche comes a close second. Weekends here are really busy, with lots of Salvadoreñan tourists coming down from the cities to enjoy the food and waves, but weekdays are fairly quiet and one of my first days here as I sat drawing a small crowd of locals came to watch. As a handful of boys ran up and down in the sand in front of us training for football some of the older lads looked through my sketchbook, three little girls ran around doing forward rolls in the sand and collecing shells in a polystyrene bowl for me and a slightly older lad Oscar got chatting to me, keen to swap observations of differences between Europeans and Salvadoreños... he thought it peculiar that us tourists spend so much time reading and writing diaries whereas with their freetime Salvadoreños prefer to play football and drink beer, so I tried to explain British pub culture and point out that travellers have an excess of free time and so are not the best example of your average Brit back home. He also had the impression from his brother who`s living in Switzerland that all Western relationships are open or unfaithful, so again I offered a different point of view, whilst thinking it a funny thing that I had been thinking similar things about Latino relationships after hearing so many reports of how the Latino machissmo culture means that it is socially acceptable for a man to have more than one partner here, and often respected.

The morning I arrived at Kalindigo, all hungover, covered in sweat and bike grease and persistently ringing poor Kali at barely 8am to let me in, I showered in salt water, collapsed into the sofa with a superstrong coffee, and began chatting with artist and muisician Sydney, finding myself relaxing into the warm vibes of the place which have kept me here ever since, other than a few jaunts up the road to Sonsonate, Mizata, and Zonte. Sydney is a fantastic person, a US ex-pat who`s been living in Guatemala for the last 3 years and is now setting up here in El Salvador with her father, she has the most incredibly powerful singing voice ... I was well chuffed when she sang Jolleen one night at my request, taking me back to Byam Shaw days...She had just finished a dolphin mural by the pool at Kalindigo when I turned up, and we got to comparing sketchbooks which led to Kali looking through my drawings and offering me a free bed and a blank wall to paint... and so began the weeks of the mural which Anna Maria and Wilfred of Fundareciffe modeled for!

It was also through Sydney that I met José whose been helping me these last weeks with the mural and who it turns out has a real natural skill for painting... he`s like a muse for me with his chilled company (and perhaps a little halp from his pipe!) my painting`s got to a whole new level of detail and trippiness that I haven`t reached for a good few years, and it feels like a great place to be back at, that level of absorption in painting that when you stop to chat to someone it feels like you`re coming back across distance... a meditative space, is that sublimation?

So the first weekend on the coast I helped Sydney and her Dad, Bob, with moving all their stuff from a house they`d been renting to a plot of land they`d just bought where they plan to build a cob house, much like the permaculture house of Maria and Oscar in Lagartillo in Nicarqagua from the sounds of it. It was a long hot day, but in the Karmic scheme of house moves it was definiely my turn to help someone else, and as well as giving me a chance to see more of the coast from the back of their pick up, and an insight into how it is to live as an ex-pat abroad, it also meant I met the family who are the guardians of their plot of land, the Cortez family, whose dad Rossandro had a terrible infected welt on the side of his head yet was still cheerful, showing us his well heavy weights made from food tins filled with cement.... José is the oldest of the family, who are all fantastic individuals who I got to know a lot better when I cycled back to Mizata beach... 2 hours down the road past a giant Coca-Cola can... to set up camp alongside Sydney a few days later.

The camping side of the visit didn´t really go to plan, in that I never actually made it into my tent, since it was flooded out by the first big storm of winter...the word for storm in Spanish is tormento, somehow that seems to fit really well methinks! That night was astonishingly beautiful with the lightning illuminating the entire skyline at times.... in the storms that have followed on other nights I`ve learnt to appreciate just how awe-inspiring lightning displays are...the veins that they shoot out are fantastic. Visual treat though it was, we were soon chased off our beach-log-perch by the cold of the rain added to the cold of wet clothes from night swimming in the powerful waves just before. Luckily I was able to sleep in the outhouse where Sydney and Bob´s stuff was being newly stored and was able to leave the drying off of the tent til the next day back at Kalindigo.

I`d been slightly worried throughout the storm that the mural design that had taken two days to draw up in chalk would have been washed away but luckily most of it was still intact, and even luckier my first helper turned up in the form of lovely Swiss Ladina. Ladina and I had actually met already in Bar Cadejo in Juayúa the night before I same to Cobanos and the reason for the stinking hangover I had when I got here! She´d introduced me to the dice game Yatzee that night and Kali became another keen new recruit, perhaps something to do with how similar the game sounds to the name of her huge-for-a-6-month-old labrabdor Ziatzee, which I can only remembersince being told to imagine it written as C@c. He and tiny kitten Ishka make a hilarious pair to watch, Ishka´s antics reminding me of brilliant Simon´s Cat animations (e.g.

After a couple of days of sponging in the background of the mural Ladina and I headed back to Mizata to leave the hostel free for a group reservation. Again our log-night-sitting was interrupted by a huge storm, although this time we were drier and warmer to start off with since we´d been sat round a palmfrond-bonfire, and got back under shelter quickly, though I was soaked to the skin the next day as the rain continued and continued... it seemed somehow a funnily incongrous image to see hawain-shorted José walking along the palm lined beach carrying an brolly. Rained in we spent a lot of that day drawing and making anklets, Ladina and José both knew different knots for thread jewellry and of course there was an abundance of shells to thread into the the end of the weekend we all had at least one anklet.

Before she had left for a wedding in the US Sydney had suggested I help the lads draw some ideas for a mural of a surfer they want to paint on the kitchen wall, so the afternoon before they´d spent drawing while I drew them. Surfing is one of the big attractions of El Salvador, with the powerful Pacific waves, and at Mizata the waves are always that bit bigger than at the other beaches in the country, and surfing is a huge part of life. José and Henry are really pro, both have their full boards, (I helped Henry with copying a design onto his board while at the same time he gave a surprisingly slick haircut to local gringa Matteo with a pair of what looked like garden shears!) and younger `I´m-going-to-catch-an-iguana´Jayro 13 and volley-ball-Vanessa 11, are already well slick on their body boards... Vanessa took me out one day, doing most of the work for me, and seemed shyly proud when I pointed out how exciting it was that she´d be the first female surfer of Mizata when she upgrades to the full board.

Vanessa and Jayro were a real delight to spend time with, racing and cartwheeling along the beachfront the first morning of fresh sun, the same day that Ladina got her poy out and tried teaching me and Coyote, a cousin of the family. Coyote´s back in Salvador after 5 years in LA and his style of dress and tattoes linking him to gang culture are causing him a lot of trouble with the police, but he had no tough act going on as he tried to spin the ribbons in the wind on the beach, in fact he was more humble and patient than me about it, perhaps because of his crush on Ladina.

Ladina is one of those fellow travellers who I really hope I will see again one day. It seems interesting to me that you come across so many people doing this kind of travelling, and the majority you get on with and have a great time with for a day or so... of those there are a handful who you get on really well with, travel well with and spend more time but when you part ways it seems unlikely you´ll meet again but there´s no saddness in that, it feels natural... and then there are the few people who you make a real strong connection with and when you part ways really hope to cross paths again, and know you´d make the effort to meet in the future, like Jesse, Yukon Dave, now Kali and José. Ladina was also one of those, so when we hugged goodbye at the Zonte surf beach where I didn´t take my first ever surf lesson cause of an ear infection-off-balance-day (another time hey) I was thinking I´m sure we´ll see each other again someday, perhaps even follow up our dream of having our jewellry-making surf-board-painting backpack-decorating travelling business! Ah... dreams....

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kim, I found your blog when I was searching for contact info for Alex in Juayua. While on a trip to El Salvador last month, my girlfriend and I stayed at Alex's hostel, and I told him I'd send him sme info about our city (Austin, Texas, USA), but it seems we lost our notebook in which we were keeping addresses and such. If you have an e-mail address for Alex or remember the name of his hostel, we'd very much appreciate it. Thanks! Tommy Butler -