Give us a brake

28 Mar

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…

Mechanic looks at the brakes, Perquin

Another day, another mechanic

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.

Playa El Zonte, El Salvador

Playa El Zonte, where even the dogs are too lazy to get out of their hammocks and bark

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.

Ernesto, one of our guides in Morazan

One of our guides on Morazan, Ernesto. His father was killed by shrapnel during the war

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.

Jeremy heading for a swim in Rio Sapo

Heading for a swim in the Rio Sapo

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.

Days: 176
Miles: 7764
Things we now know to be true: No amount of military hardware and money can break the spirit of the people.

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4 Responses to “Give us a brake”

  1. John Chapman March 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Sounds like a great and unforgettable trip guys. Keep it going, best, John.

  2. Jill March 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    I enjoyed this post thoroughly! Great write up of Jeremy’s beer n’ wine shower and the sad truth of the history in Perquin. We just crossed into Nicaragua yesterday. Though on a tight schedule, we were able to hike, swim and rock jump through Somoto Canyon and take a cigar tour in Esteli. Both highly recommended.

    I hope the brake problems work out!
    ❤ Jill and Zach

  3. Gary Rubin March 29, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    Wow, what a grueling/enlightening story………..and again, good on you both for seeking out areas and people( and ideas) that most folks (the first American car there!) wouldn’t do/go/see………..as to the brakes, man, what a drag……………….remember to keep your ‘shoes’ on and your ‘fluids’ up……and don’t let the pads bring you down…..or maybe your cylinder isn’t listening to it’s ‘master’?

    I recall once getting stuck in the middle of the Sahara for 2 1/2 weeks waiting for some small part to be brought down, from Spain, to Morocco and eventually to us in the middle of Algeria so hang in there, and just remember, what doesn’t ‘break’ you, makes you stronger!

    Hopefully your experience in San Salvador will come in handy when you are in San Jose, CR——we got so lost there that we eventually stopped a taxi and with my awful Cuban/Miami Spanish, told him where we were trying to get to (it was on the other side of the country, all we needed to find was this one big road, but we think there is a national law that prevents good easy to read signage- at least in San Jose), then we paid him to simply lead us to the road ( he was shaking his head, laughing but he did it)

    Wait, maybe the signs are taken down by the Cabbies?

    Have fun and keep us posted on those blessed brakes!

    • jeremyandpaula March 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

      Gary, you are so right about those signs! It’s a conspiracy…

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