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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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Part Two: Mission Impossible?

15 Mar

JD, Lago de Coatepeque, El Salvador

The clue should have been in the name. “Dondé es el parque nacional El Imposible?” we asked out the window for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. Never heard of it, it’s left, it’s right, it doesn’t exist, it’s back the way, it’s straight on. No-one knows. Even our maps had three different marked routes, none of which actually seemed to lead there. At one point a very drunk man crossed his arms and suggested we go in two directions at once, and then asked for money for his help – we almost followed his advice!

Camping at El Imposible

The guided tour of the van didn't take long...

Having spent our first few sweaty hours in El Salvador with our new-found friends and fellow road-trippers Zach and Jill (yes, they’ve had all the jokes) looking for El Imposible, we gave up – temporarily. After driving in to a small ditch – unintentionally – we camped out together at a small coffee finca. Well, it said it was a coffee finca and a camping site on the sign – but when we knocked on the locked gate the man who answered told us they had no coffee and we couldn’t camp. Our powers of persuasion, coupled with our lost foreigner look, prevailed and before long we were set up and toasting our arrival in El Salvador with a well-deserved beer, while daring each other to brave the massive spiders in the toilets.

The next day got worse before it got better. More determined than ever, we set out again for El Imposible and met the same confused responses until finally we got two people to agree there was a way from the town we were in, Tacuba, but only in a 4×4. We don’t have one – but that hasn’t stopped us up to now and we followed Zach and Jill along a frightening but ultimately rewarding trail. Before long we were grinding up an impossibly steep cobblestone drive to a small bare patch of ground a family had invited us to camp on, next to their shop and the local church.

No sooner had we parked than we became the main attraction for not only the family but everyone for miles around, it seemed. Children, adults, dogs all wanted to peer into our vans, watch us cook, eat, set up the bed, chat and share the hottest afternoon and evening so far with us. We must have seemed very odd to them – playing cards and drinking a beer round our camping table in the middle of their football pitch, just one of a series of things that greatly amused them.

If they thought us odd they hid it well, and they could not have been more generous – providing us with camping space, security, water, bringing us chairs to sit on, creating some shade for us with sheets and then bringing us tortillas. We were then invited to take part in their Semana Santa procession. They had nothing but were willing to share it all.

And then, finally, El Imposible! Up at 5am to join our local guide, Clementino, for a punishing 11-mile hike. But wow. From the summit we had sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean in one direction and an exhilarating panorama of mountains and volcanos in the other. Suddenly all the hardships were worth it. Impossible? Huh. Seven hours later, with limbs aching, we had conquered it.

Camping at Lago de Coatepeque

Rooms with a view

A quick al-fresco jungle shower and then on down the Ruta de las Flores to Juayua and the weekend food fair – which because of the elections had just finished. Bugger! But that wasn’t the end of our bad luck. With voting the next day the sale of alcohol was banned for 72 hours. It was a heavy price to pay for democracy and we retreated to our ‘campsite’ – a cul-de-sac at the edge of town – and with Zach and Jill set up our table and chairs in the street, literally, before finishing off the last couple of tepid beers and the remains of the warm white wine. For the next 48 hours we were reduced to putting triple sec in hot chocolate to get our kicks. What a desperate bunch.

With our limbs barely recovered we headed for Parque Nacional Los Volcanes and, after a beautiful and spectacular drive, camped in the national park and watched the sun set behind the perfectly formed crater cone of Volcan Izalco.

Donning the hiking boots once more we headed out to tackle the summit of neighbouring Volcan Santa Ana – an amazing walk up to the crater with incredible views across Lago de Coatepeque and right across to the mountains of Guatemala.

Talking of Guatemala, when we last posted we were still there – and now we’re not. So to recap. After saying farewell to Brian and Christine at the airport we headed to Valhalla – not literally the viking hell, but a picturesque macademia nut plantation on the outskirts of Antigua, where we spent two peaceful nights getting used to life in the van again before heading for the Atitlan nature reserve. Then it was back to Xela for a bit of work (and the chance to catch another football match) and then on to the coast – and the steamy beach town of Monterrico.

The Monterrico Ferry

Don't tell the insurance company about our ferry journey

The drive there was uneventful enough until a few miles short of the town we reached the ferry port. I say ferry, what I mean is effectively a dug-out canoe-thing, a sort of raft with sides, onto which we had to drive the van and float – ok we had a tiny engine – but you get the idea. This was NOT, I repeat NOT a ferry. On the 30-minute journey through the mangroves it creaked, leaked and listed each time another boat passed. I’m sure our insurance company would have said “you did WHAT?” if something had happened.

But it didn’t, and we found yet another odd camping spot in the car park at Johnny’s Place – a beachside hotel and restaurant where we had the great fortune to bump into Zach and Jill. The odd part of it was we had camped in the sandy parking lot, right outside the manager’s cabin and wondered if we were being a bit too cheeky. The manager turned out to be Tony – a Glaswegian hippy who took to the road in the 60s and never quite made it home. After watching a fiery red sunset from the never-ending black sand beach it was easy to see why he chose Guatemala over the Gorbals.

And so back to the present – and future. We spent the past couple of nights, again with Zach and Jill, camped on the shore of Lago de Coatepeque – enjoying the amazing views, swimming, playing cards, laughing at each other’s strange expressions, putting the world to rights, celebrating the end of prohibition with a few (is 45 still a few? – ed.) cold beers and again becoming the centre of attention for curious locals. Zach even managed to be recruited to star in a commercial!

Cooking at Lago de Coatepeque

Whipping up a feast with Zach and Jill

Yesterday we said our goodbyes (or we hope our ‘hasta luego(s)’) as we headed to Santa Ana and they to San Salvador. I’m sure the four of us will share a few more beers and strange adventures over the coming months. We hope so – they’ve been great travelling companions and kindred spirits.

For us, it’s time to meet up again with some old friends we haven’t seen for far, far too long – a shower and a washing machine. Hola, mucho gusto.

Days: 163
Miles: 7368.2
Things we now know to be true: Nothing is impossible

In case you missed the latest pics on Flickr, here they are again: Flickr pics: Xela, Guatemala