The Trout Saver Gang; trouble in El Salvador.
If you must type ‘murder rates in Central America‘ in to Google, I’d recommend not doing so just before you are about to drive through on a motorbike. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala show up as an intense, bloody red island in a swirling sea of the pale pinks and off whites that represent other countries in the Americas. Only Venezuela shares the leaky crimson colour and, if you are driving from Canada to Argentina, at least you have the choice to avoid Venezuela and choose Colombia instead which, by comparison is only dusky rose in its bloodlust.
In order to reach Costa Rica where we will meet Jamie’s brother for a three week celebration of prawns and pina coladas, we have to pass through these three cardinal countries whether we like it or not. We are torn between feeling uncomfortable enough about the statistics to ride straight through without stopping and also sad not to have a chance to look around. Since we aren’t in the habit of carrying large quantities of amphetamines around with us, there’s no way to make the 1131km journey without stopping to sleep so we make a bit of a compromise. We will stop here and there on the way for a couple of nights in each place, spend a bit of much needed tourist money in each country and then bugger off again whimpering in statistics based fear to the next place.
We have been told that Central American borders are a nightmarish mix of corruption, forest razing bureaucracy and passport theft so we are understandably a little underwhelmed by the day that lies ahead as we leave Comitan in Mexico. Jamie The Organisational Dreamboat has been purchasing plastic folders to put relevant documents in to. He has brought with us the colour photocopies required of all of our documents and has written down instructions to follow when we get to the border so we don’t need to ask any ‘helpers’. While he has done this, I have written helpful retrospectives on our time in Mexico and eaten sweets. Sometimes I catch him looking at me with an expression that suggests he can’t quite remember why it was he brought me along.
We pull up, after an hours ride to the Mexican customs office where we must have our temporary motorbike importation cancelled and exit stamps put in to our passports.
Right are you ready?
Breathes Jamie through the intercom.
I reply noncommittally. We dismount the bike and enter the cool building, put on our best leaving the country faces and begin the proceedings.
And it is fine. Everybody we deal with is pleasant and helpful. There are no manic queues, no one steals our passport, no one bribes us. The ‘helpers’; notoriously persistent men and boys who show you what to do for cash and often contribute to the document theft, smile and back off when we say no thanks. A few boys hang about next to us until Jamie gives them a handful of sweets. They look at the sweets and then at him and you can see them thinking you have this all mixed up, mate, then they shrug and walk away. Money changers wish us well when we shake our heads at their outrageous rates and wads of limp notes and through it all, the bike remains completely unmolested.
We ride away from the border through a sprawling, overcrowded town and pop like a cork out the other side unable to believe that we have not been scammed or made to wait for 6 hours. The road is, contrary to reports, well paved, new almost and we feel ourselves relax and enjoy the scenery. Guatemala rises straight up in to big, green, jungly mountains and the road loops through them in the mossy shadows cast by their great height. There are lots of wows and appreciative hums and I am starting to think we have made a big mistake missing out on exploring this place when we round a corner. There is a police vehicle parked on the verge and five officers stretching out a large piece of black plastic on the other side. They look up and catch my eye then one guy waves us on, urging us to speed up and clear off. I look at what they are crowding around, about to wrap in plastic. It is a body lying sprawled in the gutter. There is nobody else there, no upset looking driver, no crying sister, brother or mother. There is no one but the five police officers and the body and before our brains have really had time to index the situation, we are gone and the image is already blurred and confused. We are silent for a while, each realising that we have never seen a dead body before.
Perhaps they were run over? Or maybe it was a falling rock from the mountain? Maybe a hit and run in the night?
I say thinking of the small twigs and leaves stuck to the thin legs. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was a body drop. We will never know what happened but we sit quietly letting the road take us, mulling over the implications of what we have just seen, twenty minutes over the border in to Guatemala. I wonder who it was, what their name was and the dirty, bent legs keep appearing in my mind over and over again.
And so we arrive a few hours later in the city Quetzaltenango, a little subdued but eager for first impressions to be proved wrong by this crumbling, pleasant city. We eat plates of chicken sitting in delicious puddles of green and huge, crunchy fried prawns served with avocado, pickles and rice. We drink cold Gallo beers and watch the tiny cockroaches that rule the roost here skitter up the walls. We pop in to the creaking Natural History Museum to giggle quietly at the grinning, bug eyed taxidermy disasters. They even have a chow-chow dog stuffed as though it is a rare and exotic creature and right next to it, a magpie whose eyes have been made from glass beads sewn on wonky and painted black with white pupils as though the taxidermist were merely guessing. There are beautiful, disintegrating stag beetles, butteflies and spiders. A collection of legs has gathered at the bottom of each case and I gaze at them a little sadly, a little disgusted. Wandering the old fashioned museum feels like walking back through time to a slightly dystopian 1920s world where no one can be absolutely sure what a badger looks like. Surprisingly though, the place is busy with young couples hand in hand, groups of smiling women in indigenous costume and school kids. I pause briefly to imagine what they might think of the Natural History Museum in London before we step back out in to the luminescent sunshine of the main square.
The people are friendly for the most part, smiley and helpful. We have a warm welcome at our hotel and eat good food while enjoying the waning but still grand buildings. Most importantly, nobody armed and dangerous gives us the stink eye. Not even one. For this we are exceptionally grateful and remain so throughout all three countries and when the journey to Antigua, Guatemala’s UNESCO World Heritage tourist humdinger passes without a hitch we even allow ourselves to relax a little. We check in to our hotel, lock Robin in a darkened carpark underneath the building that looks oddly like my secondary assembly hall and stride in to town slipping on the cobbles and pointing at things.
We feel perfectly safe, enclosed in this gorgeous town like mice in a cup. The reality though is that Guatemala isn’t so sure. Stationed outside each ATM, bank and, inexplicably, pizza parlour, stands an armed guard clutching a shiny pump action shotgun. I ponder a lot on what they are there for, standing there in their uniforms, holding the unpleasant looking weapons. Is the unseen threat minimised and thus, there’s no problem or are they there because things happen here all the time? Either way, when one guard chats on his phone, laughing and swings the gun round unthinkingly as I walk past, it makes me jump anxiously away from him. I sip on a delicious, slithery cappuccino in the Plaza Central watching the gun totin’ men with interest and decide that, no matter how beautiful a city is, until you don’t need your quattro formaggio guarded with a shotgun, it’s never going to feel right.
The city is overlooked by three huge volcanoes which serve as a constant reminder of the earth sundering activity that has seen this city built, rebuilt and shaken to bits over the centuries. Earthquakes have shaken loose great chunks of masonry that lie now as exhibits inside gated ruins and torn enormous cracks in the ancient facades of churches and convents. The effect is rather pleasing, a little like the centre of Rome where you feel the layers of history weighing down on you but less espresso fueled gesticulation and nonnas.
We watch a glamourous couple, she in the requisite white dress, he in a suit, get photographed in adoring poses inside an old convent where once capuchin nuns lived in total seclusion from the outside world. They leave lilies discarded wherever they sit which I pop in to nooks in the wall and when we have tired of trying to get in the background of all their wedding photos we watch a parade pass by through the locked gates of a big, open room with circular openings to the sky above us. There are enthusiastic marching bands with the straps of their military style hats clinging oddly to the undersides of their noses. Perhaps it is a tradition here to make your marching bands look as silly as possible, we couldn’t really speculate. An obstacle ahead stops the first few rows of musicians but this remains unseen by the back rows who continue trumpeting forward until they walk in to the back of their bandmates, commendably carrying on the tune without missing a beat. Following the marching band are groups of baton twizzling girls in outrageously short skirts and knee high white boots, denim shorted teenaged girls dancing to reggaeton and another, different marching band. Right at the back are another group of women in tight, black leotards with gauzy hankies which they wave half heartedly then roll their hips round a bit and look awkward. I think they are belly dancing but can’t be sure. I thought that Latinos were supposed to be universally ace dancers but it seems not to be the case. We film it on a special setting on our camera that plays back like sped up cinefilm and chuckle later at the zipping marching band and jerking batons.
The highpoint of my time in Antigua comes with the discovery of a huge warehouse full to the brim of Guatemalan indigenous textiles. There are racks and racks of beautiful, hand stitched huipiles or blouses, neat piles of embroidered trousers, scarves, shirts, skirts and belts. Best of all, in the corner there are two huge piles of second hand clothes, a little dirty, sometimes bearing small holes but beautiful nonetheless. Nothing in the big piles costs more than £5 and everything is handwoven and hand embroidered. Even Jamie joins in, there is something mesmeric about rooting through the pile, pulling out beautiful striped shirts and floral skirts. We somehow walk away from the place with 5 blouses which we both know will have to be stashed behind our back protectors in our jackets and shoved in pockets already full of junk from Mexico. Jamie’s brother Michael is in for a treat with his UK bound luggage after visiting us in Costa Rica. We celebrate our stupid but satisfying purchases with a bag of mango for Jamie and one of cucumber and radish sprinkled liberally with powdered, roasted squash seeds, lime juice and chilli for me, then lay the blouses out on the bed to admire throughout the evening.
The bright spark who designed our hotel (which is a hostel with a bowtie and shiny shoes on) clearly hadn’t been introduced to the basic raison d’etre of hotels, namely, to go to sleep in. There is a club on the ground floor of the building which operates until two in the morning, seven days a week. Moreover, this bright spark has ensured that all the rooms in the hotel overlook the tin roof that the majority of the club operates under and finally, has put little, flimsy, aluminium framed windows in the wall nearest said club. At midnight, tired from a hard day of buying handsewn blouses, we give in. Windows closed, earplugs in, the music is still deafening and I pad downstairs to ask a man hard at work on Facebook if we could please possibly move please. He has obviously heard this plea many times and cheerfully gives me a key without hesitation. We heft the panniers and rucksacks all the way to the end of the corridor to a room that is moderately quiet and sigh in moderate relief.
The end of our time in Antigua comes with a mix of regret and pleasure at never having to listen to club classics in bed again. Have I got old and fusty? I wonder. Who cares? I think with gleeful abandon and clamber back on the bike and wave goodbye to the carpark attendant. We are leaving Guatemala behind today for tiny El Salvador, a country in which the rather infamous MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs are also reeking havoc with the legal system. MS13 or Mara Salvatrucha (which I mistakenly but rather satisfyingly translate as The Trout Saver Gang) are perhaps the best known of all the organised gangs in Central America, their name is synonymous with heavily tattooed faces and murder from Canada right down to Panama. We see several spray painted walls bearing the name in threatening, gothically scripted letters as we pass through towns and villages on the bike. 2012 saw a truce between the gangs of El Salvador and thus, a 40% drop in crime but the truce disintegrated and the problems returned. Luis, our kind and generous host in the friendly city of Santa Ana patiently explains that yes, the government is bad news but that there is always hope for something better. There is one man who is a good thing, he tells me, but he is surrounded by corruption and badmouthing and so it is hard for anything good to rise to the surface.
It’s not the same…
But we have a good one too, someone who wants to undo all the bad stuff our government has done in the UK….but he is being badmouthed too.
I add, thinking of Jeremy Corbyn but then I regret saying it. It’s really not the same thing.
But Luis smiles and encourages the conversation, I in Spanish, he in English, the language exchange we have agreed on. Here in the centre of Santa Ana, we are unlikely to encounter a problem, he explains. The problems are out in the poorer neighbourhoods where people do terrible things for money and prestige. The most likely trouble we will get ourselves in to here will be falling in the dark and cracking our heads open. The pavements are knobbly and cracked as in much of Latin America but to a greater degree. On top of that, in the middle of this sociable and fairly affluent city, there are no streetlights to guide you home and it often these, less imminent things that remind me how far from home we really are.
Luis, however, couldn’t be more pleasant to stay with. His guest house, La Casa Vieja, is also his family home. His two sons practice their American inflected English on us, a mother and two girls staying in the room next to us eat suppers in the courtyard with the telly on and limes from the tree thump on the tin roof over the porch. A tiny, slinky cat appears to catch geckos at night and enjoy a little fuss from the foreigners before returning to her two stumbly, one month old kittens who stare at us in wide eyed fascination from the back of the shed with milky blue eyes. We drink rum and coke in the golden light of the patio, ensconced on the sofa (a sofa!!! For us!!) and let the mosquitos have a feast. We have walked the super heated streets to admire the disneylike, brilliant white Gothic cathedral and drunk icey smoothies full of blackberries and strawberries. As ever, the town’s central square is a-buzz with food vendors selling homecooked chips and little plastic cups piled with shaved ice drenched in homemade fruit syrups. There is music playing, big, beautiful trees swaying above us and small children on bicycles everywhere. We sit up on the balcony at Simmer Down, a palm fringed restaurant full of healthy, smiley people are are welcomed by the manager then served a glorious pizza and frozen horchata.
Although Santa Ana is low on sites; there are no museums and, apart from the main square, not much in the way of astounding architecture, we like it here. When people in the streets spot the two foreigners coming towards them they stop for a second, a smile lighting on their faces as though they are just about to say something and then carry on, giving us a nod. As we leave on the bike, one man waves and shouts hello to us, another looks up from his phone with a slow, delighted smile at the sight of the gringo topped motorbike and returns my nod eagerly. Alas, we have the rather more murderous Honduras to cross and two more borders to surmount so we leave Santa Ana, waving goodbye to Luis as his sons head to school, agreeing that El Salvador is a place to come back to. There are plenty of huge problems for the country to surmount before it can become a comfortable place for outsiders to visit at total ease but we leave hoping the best for El Salvador. Watch this space, it seems to be saying, and we will.
Cucumber and radish salad with pepitoria and chilli.
Next time you use a butternut squash, save the seeds! Roast them until they are golden and nutty tasting and then grind them in a coffee grinder until they are a fine powder.
Skin and slice a cucumber; the best you can get, homegrown if possible or failing that, the nice spiky, nobbly ones you can get in organicy shops.
Slice a bunch of decent radishes finely.
Lay the slices out on a platter and cover liberally with freshly squeezed lime juice, a couple of teaspoons of your pepitoria or squash seed powder, a teaspoon or two of mild chilli powder and a good pinch of maldon sea salt. Although not very authentic, I would also drizzle the vegetables in olive oil or perhaps pumpkin oil would be more fitting.
A right nice salad. The powder also goes well on most fruits, especially mango, ripe or green.