I arrived in Santa Ana, El Salvador pretty late in the evening today (writing on Friday). We shall call it just dusk. I did a few laps of what seem to be downtown hoping to get my bearings and happened to pull over in front of a hotel to check the Lonely Planet book. Santa Ana seemed to have slim pickings but one place sounded OK. The other recommended place was reportedly a little close to the red light district for my liking. My main concern is that where there are pros, there is crime and there is no point in situating myself in that sort of area if I can help it.
I had a discussion with owner of the hotel I am currently in and went to check out another place. I totally misread LP in that I thought they were suggesting that is a tourist place — maybe even a hostel — “Livingston’s”. The rooms were not terrible but the area was still a little seedy. The shear amount of cars parked there, even though there was a gate, made me a little nervous. In the end I went back to the first place — not a LP recommend — and it was pretty good. I believe that I was the only person here. It is run by a nice guy named Orlando who owns it. It is clean, very secure and quite cozey. Orlando even walked me to a nearby fastfood restaurant called “Biggest”. They do a combination of burgers, chicken nuggets/fingers, mexican and some other things. I had burritos — which I desperately needed — as my breakfast of huevos rancheros wore off hours ago. For some reason Orlando was insistent that I would be eating eggs and beans — I’m not sure why — he definitely said “beans and eggs” several times in Spanish to me.
I hit a grocery store on the way back. It was very modern, clean and not like unlike the stores we get back home. This is the first large grocery store I hit since being in Central America so I didn’t know what to expect. The maize and various other latin American food sections are much larger, but it is pretty much set up like any super market, except not as large. Most things can be had. Cheese, bread, cakes, other dairy products, cleaning products, razors and the like, etc. Oh..what I have noticed is that eggs simply are not refigerated in Central America, including Mexico. Certainly meats, fish and seafood are but eggs are out there with flour. Another different is that there is an armed guard at the front of the store.
I must say that I have seen a *lot* of firearms on this trip so far. It probably started in New Mexico with one 20 something who drives a Bimmer also sports what I believe was a Glock as part of his jeans, Converse, t-shirt, Ray Ban and Harley Davidson leather vest ensemble. Strange. I think that I have only seen one civilian with a gun but firearms are certainly present amongst those who hold official positions.
In Antigua, one woman who seemed to be doing traffic duty –ticketing and the like — sported an Uzi. “Sawed off” shotguns are in vogue in Guetamala and El Salvadaor amongst guards. The AK-47 was the choice of the border control officer. Yup. Guns. Guns. Guns. I have to admit that I am almost becoming accustomed to them by this point and while I don’t relish the thought of having all of these firearms around, I suppose the chance of being witness to an armed robbery in a grocery store goes significantly down when there is a guy up front with a gun.
I was thinking about guns when I was sitting in an office today at the Guatemalan/Salvadoran border and how accustomed I am to seeing someone at the door of anywhere official or bearing value. Supermarkets, gas stations and ATMs most often have the presence of an armed guard.
With respects to the border crossing from Guatemala to El Salvador, it was substantially longer than Mexico to Guatemala. The “fixadors” were a little taken that I called them that by name. They and the money changers were more vulture-like than the previous border. There was a fair bit of running around but no costs — other than a photo copy — which at the time, I assumed was due to the CA-4 agreements between four of the Central American countries. That said, I do find it a bit strange that you need to purchase a photo copy of the document from a private tin roof shack that has not affliliation with the government.
Writing on Saturday night from Choluteca, Honduras, I can say that I have now had my fair share of rain. It is raining again. Much of the afternoon was clear, but it rained most of the morning. And I don’t mean drizzle — it was pouring…so much so that I got caught riding near a bus and its spray was literally like having buckets of mud water dumped on my read — I could not see where I was going until it ceased.
The day started by parting the hotel and heading back to Biggest from some breakfast. I grabbed some scrambled eggs and salsa, coffee, a couple fried banana pieces, black beans with rice and a tamale. I hadn’t had a tamale before and it wasn’t bad. There is a certain irony to eating my first tamale — a very ancient and important food staple in much of the “New World” — in a fast food restaurant.
The Wikipedia article on the subject is worth a read. The region relies heavily on corn/maize but much of that is “nixtamalized” or treated with an alkaloid, such a lye, which breaks the maize down and makes makes its nutrients more available. Having touched on the subject in an early civilizations course many years ago, this is why Mesoamerican was able to thrive on maize. On the other hand Europeans imported the plant, but not the preparatory technique, back to Europe — which is essentially cattle feed.
So yes, went from being soaked by rain to being soaked by rain and sweat. Choluteca seems OK. I found a decent hotel which a restaurant attached and checked out a discount supermarket across the street. You can buy most things there from toiletries to food and alcohol to tools, USB keys, cloths and footwear to televisions. Not a bad one stop shopping deal.
Ahhhh Honduras. If it weren’t for several young boys rooting me on and giving me thumbs up and the like, feelings accrued during the border crossing may have followed me throughout the night. The El Salvador/Honduras border at El Amatillo/Santa Claro truly is a shit hole. The exit stamp was easy enough to obtain, even without the “fixador” who forced himself upon me without my consent or final agreement. In the end he proved useful and Honduras proved to be a pretty expensive place to travel — especially for several hours of transit. I am not sure if I got fleeced or not but I spent around $70 in fees. This is a lot given that I thought it was free. After a seemingly inordinate amount of time, it became clear what the fixador was saying. The bank was closed that the official was to collect my money and take it to the bank on Monday. While possibly a scam, I did notice quite a number of forms with cash affixed to it.
In the end, the fixadors behaved like the other accounts I have heard — chasing the bike and approaching you like cockroaches. The particular border official seemed sketchy to. As did the building. There’s no way I would have found it myself as signs for very much lacking. The immigration office was a decrepit building with a leaky roof and at least on odd ball official. I don’t mean that this was like a kiosk. It was a desk in a non-descript building. It was only after quite a while that I was allowed to enter. One official who kept coming and going didn’t help the situation much. What sort of country allows immigration officials to dress in jeans, a random t-shirt, horn rimmed glasses and a baseball cap. The guy looked to me like an eccentric film maker or something. After lots of waiting and being sent all over the place, I was allowed to leave. Don’t get me wrong. This is not some high security compound with a gate or something. It was like a little shanty town. Not many armed guards were present either although I was to present my “permisso” to a cop some 2kms away. He seemed fine.
The the police checkpoint…
I was flagged down by some “cops”. I stopped. I was expecting a search, or at least a request to see my documentation, but the teenage cops (couldn’t have even been mid-20s) were more concerned that I give them “$10 for Coca Colas” than my status as a traveler. The was no mistake made. They want “gifts”. “Come on man — just $10”. And at least two of them were smoking. And I mean in the sense that high school kids do. Like hiding the cigarette under the sleeve and taking quick drags. And the four of them were all draped all over my bike — touching and prodding. I kid you not, I spent some time eying them up and down to decipher whether they were impostures or not. In the end, they all seem to have guns. And trucks and other cars were pulling over so which makes me think they were the real deal. I confirmed that they wanted Cokes so I talked them down to $5. As I said, they had guns — and it was getting late and I didn’t want them to get pissed off and start searching my stuff and causing further delays. If you are a high level Honduran government official, you should feel really embarrassed about the border officials, particularly the (inappropriately) quirky horn rim man, and boys trying to pass as cops. Ridiculous. I’m still in awe.