PD, Santa Ana (again), El Salvador
Who knew it was possible to become a brakes bore? It’s all about the brakes at the moment – what’s wrong with our melty screechy brakes and why does every mechanic, or bystander, appear to have a different answer?
Jeremy spent a good while at the mechanic’s workshop the last time we blogged from Santa Ana. And here we are again. But with a different mechanic, and a different set of answers. I’m sure you’ll be tuning in to find out what happens in next week’s thrilling episode…
Luckily, however, we are still able to stop.
And we did lots of that during a three-day visit to the coast last week. Hammock-swinging and surfing are the only two things going on in baking hot El Zonte. And we don’t surf so, as our north American cousins might say, you do the math.
We’d camped in the car park of a lovely little hostel called Horizonte, and opted to interpret the name as an instruction. Perfecto.
The only interruption to the tranquility of our stay was Jeremy’s attempt to break the chair-breaking record. As we chatted over a beer there was a loud crack and Jeremy slumped to the side, his camping chair snapped beyond repair. He got the dodgy spare chair out and sat down as I went into the van to make dinner.
About 30 seconds later I heard a string of expletives, and turned to see Jeremy standing up looking wild-eyed, beer dripping everywhere, and a full glass of wine emptied into the remaining functioning chair. As chair number two had snapped he’d grabbed the table (which weighs marginally more than a bag of fresh air) for support and, hey presto, a beer and wine shower. My only regret was that I’d missed the whole slapstick performance.
When we left we crossed much of tiny El Salvador in one day, as we headed up into the northeast corner and into one of the areas we’d most been looking forward to. The mountainous region of Morazán contained the main strongholds of the left-wing guerillas during the country’s brutal 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. It’s the best place to get a sense of the conflict, talk to former guerillas who now offer guided trips, and to pay respect at memorials for the hundreds massacred by government troops.
That kind of phrase – “hundreds massacred by government troops” – can start to feel horribly familiar in this part of the world.
No matter how much you read about it, nothing can compare with standing gazing at a seemingly interminable list of children’s names, all executed in two nightmare days in the village of El Mozote, near Perquín. Several plaques contain details of babies only days old. Those whose bodies were identifiable – 140 under-12s – are buried together, with a rose garden covering the mass grave.
In December 1981 the soldiers rounded up everyone in the village and surrounding areas and killed them all, some 1,000 people, probably more. Children and babies were tossed in the air and bayoneted, and burned alive in ovens. It is grim to read, I know.
The government – who received up to $2m a day in military aid from the US – wanted to erase the guerilla movement, but in the ensuing violence of the next 11 years they never managed to overcome the revolutionaries in the hills around Perquín.
After a day spent at the war museum, in the former FMLN headquarters, we took to the hills with a guide who had been active in the revolutionary movement. It was the kind of day that left us with spinning heads, sadness, inspiration and incredulity.
Along the way our guide Felipe picked up two others – part of a ethical policy to share the income between guides from different villages – to help explain to us the significance of the different sites. Guerilla camps left just as they were when the war ended, one of the cave hideouts where the infamous clandestine radio station Radio Venceremos would broadcast from, village walls still riddled with bullets, enormous bomb craters now filled with vegetation, and the memorials at El Mozote.
We drove from place to place in the van, which was getting heavier and heavier with our increasing number of passengers. The roads were horrendous. Steep unpaved paths, thick with dust and full of rocks. The van screeched, coughed and complained all the way, and justifiably so. Felipe was delighted though. At one stop he took photos of the van with his phone, declaring that it was the first US vehicle to have ever been in Guacamaya. And no wonder!
I’ll be writing a bit more about our day with the guides in the near future.
While exploring we camped in an idyllic spot near Rio Sapo. It was a huge grassy area with tropical flowers and birds, where a big family lived in two houses. Being in such a tranquil place made it impossible to imagine the horrors that had happened on their doorstep. The shy children circled the van from a distance, sweeping the same patch of leaves and craning their necks to see what we were doing. The ‘mama’ brought us fruit and coffee, and gradually the children crept nearer.
The only disadvantage to the place was the road in was just as bad as the others.
We’d seen a local mechanic for a temporary fix, but resolved to visit another in the closest city of San Miguel the day we left. But on arrival I decided I didn’t like it. I had an overwhelming urge to get back to Santa Ana, where we knew a wonderful hostel that we’d stayed in last time – the ideal place to hole up if necessary.
But that meant pushing on for another few hours, in the scorching heat, with a complaining car and a Jeremy who appeared to be wilting due to an infected ankle. It would also mean passing through the, frankly, horrid capital San Salvador in rush hour.
So we pushed on.
It was all going okay. The brakes temporarily went quiet. The check engine light decided to go off. Then we got lost for two hours in San Salvador. The engine sounded unhappy. We were stuck in a jam at the central market, when we saw armed police sprinting towards an incident. As the engine stuttered Jeremy broke the rules and voiced our collective fear: “We really don’t want to break down here.”
I was navigating, and by dusk I had my head on my knees, having reached new levels of despair. I wanted to throw that frigging map out of the window. But we extricated ourselves again, somehow, and pulled into the hostel in Santa Ana after dark.
The owner Carlos flung open the door and welcomed us like old friends, then offered to drive out and get us some dinner. He said he knew a VW mechanic in town. I could have kissed him. We sat down, drank three litres of very cold beer, spilled our woes, and all was right with the world again.
Things we now know to be true: No amount of military hardware and money can break the spirit of the people.