El Salvador's Black Sand Beaches

When Bridges Collapse and Other Stories

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They say: “So much to do in so little time.” In the hitchikers’s case, it’s more like “so much happens in so little time,” regardless of whether it’s necessary that it happen. What does it mean that so much happens? Things are always happening, so the same amount of things are always happening. I think that so much happening means that in a given amount of time, the variety of events that occur is vast. It’s a question of the level of diversity of experiences. In my case, it has everything to do with people and distance.

Where I left you last was in Santa Tecla El Salvador, with Amado. It took me three days to find my way to Honduras, and that was only the first leg of this new adventure.

El Salvador's Black Sand Beaches

El Salvador’s Black Sand Beaches. Source.

From Santa Tecla the road was south, the means was the back of a pick up truck, precariously perched on the tailgate, with 5 other people, jovenes and cousins of each other. There was a little man, maybe 10 years old, who was visiting from Long Beach, and his relatives gaped and awed as we spoke English in front of them. The kids were kind, and I went with them for a half an hour down down down, to the steamy coast of the petit country. I had a mission; I had to see this purported black sand. I parted from the family at a beach called Majahual. Like those Oregonians who thought my calling Lake Michigan beaches beaches was strange, it was hard to award the title to these beaches. The sands were dark gray, and black in some places. The narrow road to the water was wet and slimy with the dark stuff. I was already glad to have come.

The entire length of the beachfront was occupied by cabanas, weakling buildings building of wood pilons and palm leaves. Smoke climbed through the thicket roofs from wood burning stoves, and the thick air smelled of salt and pupusas. The cabanas were open to the water, and I walked through, passing single rentable rooms. These cabanas were not just built on the sand, but some were built so near the water that the surf entered their floorspace. One building built of brick and cement saw waves crashing against it’s staircase.

I didn’t waste time to find a place to sit and enjoy the ominous sky and murky water. I found a cabana where they let me sit at a table facing the ocean. It was Sunday, and there were people running about, swimming in their clothes and laughing at friends’ muddy faces. Some walked in their bathing suits with umbrellas. It was silly, but I will not discredit the greatness of umbrellas. I have more on that, but later.

Sketching in El Salvador beaches

Sketching the black sands of the El Salvadoran coast. These restaurants were built into the surf, and wood stoves burned.

 

Hunger was grumbling for my attention. I showed the small ladies who let me sit there my dollar, and asked for the most food that it would buy. Ten minutes later, a plate filled with shrimp, tortillas, salad, and a strange looking sidedish appeared in front of me. Ive been traveling for a while, and I know prices. This was a gift, one for which I was very thankful, as it had been months since I savoured on shrimp. I dug my toes into the obscure sands, fine as pencil shavings, and feasted.

I didn’t stay longer after my meal. I walked back to the road and quickly attracted a pick up to give me a ride to the other side of La Libertad. As soon as I hopped out the back, I hailed down another pick up. There were two men in the front but I jumped in the back without thinking twice. Not far down the coastal highway we encountered… a little problem. The bridge had collapsed into the river below. Young kids, mabye 6 or 7 years old, ran up screaming to my ride. They were little entrepreneurs, guides to navigate to some other bridge… or something. They hopped in the back with me and we took a detour to the north.

2 minutes later we were 50 yards north of the fallen bridge, the front of the pickup facing the river. It looked about 2 feet deep. Wait a minute.. these kids want us to drive across the river!

In another instant there were about 8 adolescents crowding around the pickup screaming with excitement. One of them I could barely make out was speaking English at the drivers. I guess I must be with some tourists then. Suddenly they all also hop in the back with me, laughing with joy, except for two who started running across the river. So, we started to drive across. Our guides up front were falling up to their waists as they shifted from side to side, showing where the water was still only about a foot deep. It was like navigating a tight rope! But to the other side we did make it. The folks in the truck gave the 10 guides 10 bucks. As they fiddled for a moment, a little kid asked me, “money?” As his elders stared blankly at me. I shrugged and told him “no traigo dinero conmigo,” which was about nearly the truth. Then we were off, but not before I moved into the backseat, leaving my pack in the bed.

The passenger greeted me, “Hey what an adventure huh?” I was in the presence of some compatriots, as it turns out.

“Yeah how cool was that,” I agreed.

I found out that Max, of about 50 years of age, and Dave, of about the same, were “seeing El Salvador today.” Well, it is such a small country, I supposed it’s not too offending to make such a claim.

“What in the hell er you doin’ hitchin’ way down her?” Dave was clearly a Texan. This question prompted an explanation and a few stories on my part, that I was hitching to Chile from Oregon, and that they were some of the first gringos who picked me up in nine months.

Dave was from Texas, and Max from the Valley. Max is the vice president of manufacturing for Underarmor, the clothing that every athlete wears. Dave was an engineer visiting to repair a gaping sinkhole that was threatening the Underarmor factory. I was glad to get to shoot the shit a bit in English, and especially glad to run into these guys, who were a hoot and holler to say the least.

They were on their way to another beach, and alas, invited me along. Sure thing!
Turns out the drive was another hour or so, as the googlemaps map on Dave’s iphone was being glitchy. Not totally surprising given the complete backwater feeling of the roads we were driving. We drove past fields of banana trees that stretched for miles, dozens of cattle with kids on bikes for sheperds, nondescript speedbumps that sent my fragile head into the roof. The shacks were marked “USAID” and the conditions looked wet and humid. At one point we took on 3 cops, because in El Salvador there’s not enough money to give all the cops cars. In Honduras I would see the same thing. Later, the cops jumped out mid -travel and grabbed people at what looked like random.

Finally, the open vastness of the ocean spread across the view, and we drove up onto the dark earth. There was a house built on the beach that very well could be considered the Leaning Tower of Salvador. We admired the silence of the distant waves, the breeze that swept sweat from our foreheads. Max and Dave decided that I needed to drink a beer with them. Then they decided that I should eat a full fish filet dinner with them, and also have another beer. If I thought I’d eaten fresh fish before in my life, I must’ve been mistaken (don’t get me wrong, I’ve eaten great fish before, but…). The meat slid off the bones, and I feasted.

Later, after having driven back to the main coastal highway through the mazes, Max and Dave tossed me some water and gum. I gave them my pop’s email to send some videos that Dave laughingly shot back at the sands. I wished them happy lives, and they were off. As it was night, I found a humid spot to throw up my tent, crawled in, and let sleep fill my eyes.

Go figure. That was only the first day after I left Santa Tecla. Interestingly, the mosquitos that morning were after my pack, and not me. I supposed it’s a dirty sack; after all, it has been sweated on continuously for a year.

A half hour wait back up on the highway, and I was riding in a pickup again. He was going back to the Pan American highway, and I decided I wanted to get out of the steam of the coastal humidity, so I went with, to a town called San Vicente. A short ride with a mecanic slash student and I was back to the big road. The sun was out, breaking the clouds from the night’s weather. It’s rainy season now, but the rains are good about routine; they arrive in the tarde and mostly leave you alone during the daylight hours.

I’d read at Amado’s about a place called El Mozote. It is the site of biggest massacre in Central America. I wanted to go there. It was on a road north from the Pan American about an hour before the Honduran border.

Rides with aid agency workers, a judge, and an ex-army grunt in a gutted out Ford eventually got me to a city called Francisco Gotera. The sun was high now, and beckoned beads of sweat down my neck and face. My single travel shirt is lovely because it tricks me into believing it’s dry. In the Baja Penninsula I’d planned on buying new hiking shoes somewhere because the leather workboots were always making my cotton socks cry hoards of sweat. But now, I just don’t lace my leather workboots up and they self-air condition. Stupid though I was.

Everyone stares, but after months and months, it’s hard to notice. I actually stopped noticing at one point. I think maybe, they stare more in El Salvador (I would learn later that if that was true, then they stare even more in Honduras). A taxi drove by and the four guys inside stared hard.

The guys and I on the walk to El Mozote

The guys and I on the walk to El Mozote

 

I watch it sneak away as I let my outstretched arm and curvy thumb fall to my side. Then, 20 yards away it stopped and reversed all the way back to me in the middle of the road. The hard faces that I’d seen had transformed into smiles and interrogations of “yo hey what are you doing buddy?”

30 minutes later, scrunched between two guys in the back, I’d made myself 4 interesting and eager friends. What a world. There was Mino, and Luis, Alejandro (to whom I kept singing Lady Gaga’s song), and Carlos. Carlos had a lazy eye hidden behind some spectacles, wore an all white suit, and carried a cane for a limp he had. They drove me as far as the entrance road that led to El Mozote, but, well, we were just having so much fun that they decided to come with all the way to the town.

Hitchhiking in El Salvador

Eating that sandwich with the bone

The conversation swung between the righteousness of traveling, the history of the country, and the staple diets of Central America. By the time we’d arrived in El Mozote, we were all the wiser. The road was dirt and bumpy, and we constantly had to get out of the low car so that it could pass over the aspiring mountains in the middle of the camino. I never would have made it there and back to the highway in a day if not for my new friends.

At El Mozote in 1981, the Salvadoran army arrived and ordered all the townspeople and farmers from the surrounding areas to the village square. The women and children were taken into the church where they were strangled to death. The men were shot individually. Over one thousand were killed in a few hours. The order was said to have come from a US general. At the spot where the men were killed there is a rotunda of wooden panels with each victim’s name. In front of that there is a black metal silhouette of a family holding hands. There was one survivor, a young girl who died a woman and is burried next to the memorial. I sat on a bench.

El Mozote, the memorial where thousands were killed

El Mozote, the memorial where thousands were killed

The town has new residents. I can’t help but wonder why they came here, and if maybe, during thunderstorms, they want to leave. My friends and I chatted briefly with an old woman who kept repeating “kill the peasant, kill the revolt”. When we’d had our fill of sorrow we drove down the road to a small pulperia.

My friends bought me a beer, the national beer, which is called “Pilsener”. Pilsner, of course, being the type of beer that is brewed in the Czech Republic. As we sat sipping on our beers I drew circles in the dirt with my umbrella (also from the Czech Republic). Mino handed me a sandwich, which was good, except that the meat still clung to a fat bone, so it was more like the picking of cotton candy than the munching of a burger.

The sun was bright, but the rest of the day was plain. My friends returned me to the highway with promises to connect with me and send me the photos we took. I hitched two pickup rides to a town called Perquin, the first town taken by the rebels in the civil war, and where a small museum of the resistence is maintained. There was lots of information on the war, and several broken weapons and helicopters and other things of death. But the place glorified war far too much. I know that both sides committed atrocities, and none should be condoned. As horrible as the modern system can be, the often-chosen alternatives can be just as destructive of the human soul. For instance, I never liked how popular the figure Che was. Of what I know about him, his early ideas are admirable. It is because of the violence of his resolve that I will not admire him now. He said “Of what importance is the life of one man when humanity is at stake?” It is paradoxical, because humanity is dependent on the single life. It is inhumane to disregard the importance of a human being. In earlier years, Che said, “He who trembles indignation at every injustice is a comrade of mine.” That is admirable.

So I left Perquin on foot, and two pickup rides later I was back at the highway toward the main border crossing with Honduras, at Amatillo. The sun had sunk below the horizon, so I decided to search out a camping place. After eating a dollar meal of eggs, beans, and tortillas in a restaurant, I asked where I could pitch my tent. The women looked at each other, and then said I could stay in the restaurant that night. That I did.

I got a poke in the shoulder for a wakeup call. 10 minutes later I was riding in a car with a guy named Kiki. Kiki lived in the States for 7 years, his English was questionable at best. Meaning, I asked him what he said when he said something. He was excited to introduce me to some other gringos living in his village. Peace Corps volunteers! Unfortunately they werent home when we got to their “house”. I already know a Peace Corps volunteer who lived in El Salvador. His name was Ryan and I met him in Guatemala at a hostel. I asked Kiki if he knew a gringo Ryan, and alas, it was the very gringo Ryan that I knew. The world is that small. That happens often.

Once again back on the highway I flag down a semi with Honduran plates. This was to be the ride that takes me to Honduras. He was a short trucker if ever I saw one! His eyes were fast and his voice was high. His accent was hard to catch at first, very airy. At the border we parted ways. I had to pay 3 bucks to get into the country, so I paid the money and began walking across the bridge. An old man stopped me mid way and screamed “goin to Panama!” He knew what he was talking about.

30 Lempiras, or about a buck fifty, bought me some baleadas, the typical Honduran street food: tortillas with beans and cheese, of course. I walked toward the end of town. I can’t say that I saw a big difference between the streets here and the streets in El Salvador. There were still people, still traffic, still motorized rickshaws bugging me to pay a ride somewhere. Then I noticed. They stare harder here than anywhere I’ve been. The stares burn through clothing, burn through mental barriers.

The border between El Salvador and Honduras

The border between El Salvador and Honduras

A truck sat idle on the side of the road, and a man was stepping down. I walked up and hollered a hello, “Hola trucker friend!”. Rodrigo introduced himself and humbly accepted my request for a ride. He was Costa Rican, and was the father of 6 children, each to a different woman. His current wife was as old as his oldest daughter, 28. He is 50. His reputation in my eyes did not match up; Rodrigo was great! We was kind, open, had buenas vibras, etc. He was on his way back to his country, to San Jose. This would’ve been the big score were I in some kind of hurry to make it to Panama. Alas, I at least had a ride to the intersection where I would head north to the capital, Tegucigalpa. However, before we are underway, a problem with his truck’s papers forces us back to the truck parking lot. No worries, Rodrigo turns a small fan on me, and says he’ll be back. I take the time to sun-dry my smelly sleeping bag and socks on the truck door, slouch in the seat and whistle. A rickshaw drove by. It had a spoiler on it. A trucker is lounging in a hammock strung under the trailer.

2 hours pass and I’m saying goodbye to Rodrigo, his address written down in my Clairefontain (French brand) notebook.

“I live 10 miles from the Panama border.”

“Give me a month, Ill see you there.”

The intersection where he dropped me off was HOT. I dragged my feet to avoid using too much energy, crossing a police barricade to get to the speedbumps toward “Tegu” as the Hondurans call their capital.

Not 5 minutes at the speedbump and Miguel Enamorado (Michael In Love) stopped to pick me up. His car was air conditioned, so how special this ride would be. My intention was to go to Tegucigalpa only and then continue on to Nicaragua. But, as fate would have it, Miguel was going all the way to the north, to a city called San Pedro Sula. I changed my mind and decided to go with him there, and return to Tegus later via northern highways.

Miguel said all the cops know him. He has two daughters in the states and makes a whopping 3800 dollars a month, which is a ton here. We made Tegucigalpa in an hour and a half. The electrical wires in here make those from San Salvador look stringly. Here, they form such a mass that later I would be walking in their shade. We spent two hours navigating through this disaster-impacted city. Flooding is a major problem, because so many trees have been downed from the surrounding hills where tin cities have been constructed. Also, trash thrown into the street clogs the exit pipes for flood waters. The road out of town had a gaping hole about 150 feet wide across both directions of traffic. We went around.

The drive to San Pedro was calm but interesting. Tegus is higher in altitude, and it is fresh there. The hills north to San Pedro are blanketed in pines. However, the occasional banana tree betrays the true locale. We drive through levels of clouds, like from a Mario Bros. game. Occasion shacks with naked children zip by as we speed on. After driving past a 15 square kilometer US military base, we stop at a Texaco, where I am treated to a cappucino, water, and donuts. We take a moment at the station for Miguel to pretend he’s a cop when he calls someone who had tricked an old lady we found complaining at the concession into sending them 800 Lempiras.

Half the country and it’s only lake fly by, and suddenly we’re in San Pedro Sula, the clutches of night having already taken hold. I say my goodbyes to Miguel, and unfortunely leave my brand new umbrella with the fabric from my old one in his car. I feel almost naked without it.

San Pedro Sula in Honduras

San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Miguel had dropped me off at the bus terminal, but it was less hospitable than I wouldve liked. I had to sleep outside on a bench. It wasnt so bad, especially since I chose well; a scorpion stung a kid on the bench I’d planned to sleep on. Before passing out I met Edgar, a Honduran on his way to the US for the fifth time. I has to cross illegally into Mexico, hop a train and pay the bulls as he goes until he reaches the US border, where he’ll walk into the desert. He’s 28 and has 3 children from 2 different women. The pressure is clearly there for him to make money, but I can’t help but consider his case more than partly his own doing.

In the morning I go on a bus that I was told went to a town outside this big city. But they lied. My 5 lempiras only got me deeper into the city center, on the route toward where I was heading. I was heading to Tela, on the northern coast of Honduras. I wanted to see the Gulf again, and listen to Garifuna music. Luckily, after a few more tortillas, a pickup ride took me all the way to Tela. The beach was as beautiful as I could expect. The sand was beige and the waves lapped gently. Here I took my first poop in water, having no other choice and remembering that my Belgian friend in Tulum took shits in water (his nickname became chichi; my nickname in many places had been guacamole, so i was guagua). A garifuna woman wanted to sell me pineapple bread but I told her I was short on funds.

Before I finished that ill-fated explanation, she looked me over and turned, walking away. The Garifuna are the culture that emerged from abandoned black slaves, left along these coasts by the British after an uprising on other Caribbean islands. The music is thumping and hypnotizing and they specialize in carne asada, or barbeque meat.

A boat on the beach of Tela, Honduras.

A boat on the beach of Tela, Honduras. Source.

I left Tela soon after some more tortillas. I’d negotiated with a girl to sell me a new umbrella for 3 bucks instead of 5, so now I was no longer feeling naked. My umbrella is essential. It is good for a variety of things: protection from the sun, from rain, from dogs, it’s a walking stick, a cudgel, a jedi master training sword, it covers my ass when a precarious shit is called for, etc.

Some pickup rides and a flat tire fiasco later, and I was in Ceiba. This is the main access port to get to the famed Bay Islands, where the cheapest diving in the world is found. Oh well. I walked out of town with my arm stretched out. I passed a police barricade where everyone did their darndest to stare at me for as long as possible, only a sharp stare in return to break their trance. I walked over a bridge, high above a swelling river where woman we slapping clothes against rocks. Wooden and sheet metal shacks lined closely to the river banks. I imagine they are not meant to last.

Luis picked me up in his little turquoise car. We didn’t talk so much but the strange scent of rosemary int he car seemed to suggest, somehow, that he had a good heart. I’d thought about trying to get to a highway to camp that night, but it was getting dark. I asked if I could pitch my tent at Luis’ house in a town called Tocoa, and he happily obliged. We drove for two hours, through long stretches of African Palm, whose red fruit bushels are used to make cooking oil. We drove further, beyond fields of banana trees. Dozens of workers rode every which way on their bikes. At one point the American companies in Honduras owned the very land that the product grows on, but today it’s locally owned, but still sold to the same large companies. It’s better that way, because a foreign power ought not have so much.. power.

At Luis’ house I met his lovely wife Sandrine, his son Luis and his daughter Gaby. Their house was spacious but humbly conditioned and furnished. They had several fruit trees on their property, including of course banana trees. We sat around lounging in hammocks while I spilled out story after story. That night, I was to sleep in a bed! Mmmmmm. And with a fan too, to keep the hordes of mosquitos at bay.

I hadn’t eaten much, just some ham sandwiches in Tela and some water that Luis’d bought me (that is, water in a little bag). Alas, I was invited to dinner by the kids. We walked into downtown, past people hanging outside in their lit doorways, through a dark central plaza until we made it to the end of the main road, where a stand selling baleadas was packed with people. I had a meat baleada and a 7-Up. When we returned to the house, we snacked on DELICIOUS cheese and strawberry ice cream in the hammocks, the rain tapping music on the tin roof.

The next morning I said my goodbyes and Luis dropped me off back at the highway toward the other road I was going toward. The palm workers rode past me on their bikes, the stares harder than ever. Strangely comforting since there are so many eyes on me all at once. I hitched a pickup to a town called Saba. There was a veritable lake in the pickup’s bed, but my packs rain cover was on, and I sat high like a king with the wind to the back of my head. When I hopped out at the city, I realized my pack was covered with axel grease. I had some soap from Oaxaca, so I asked a woman cleaning on driveway if I could use some water to wash it off, and she agreed.

One more pickup ride later and I was at the entrance to my highway. This highway turned out to be a dirt road. My destination was La Union, a town south, in the direction of Tegu. I walked over to a sanitation station, where I learned that the ride is not a one hour drive but a three hour drive. Sitting waiting, I was past by one truck in the first hour, and he was only going 5 kilometers. The woman officer from the sanitation station came to chat, and later invited me in for some hot tamales with butter. That was treat! Que rico!

The mountain road on Union road in Honduras.

The mountain road on Union road in Honduras. Source.

A few hours and zero cars later, the woman noticed a truck parked outside. I ran over to ask for a ride and alas, a ride I would get. The truck was a large fruit hauler, with a wooden open-top trailer as tall as a semi. I climbed up and over the wall with my heavy pack. There were some other guys in the back as well when we got underway. I climbed to the top and straddled the wall, bumping along the dirt road with the air breaking over my body, calming the sweat and soul. The other guys climbed up on the walls and we were a gang of cowboys on a big wooden motorized horse. Soon the tropical heat and plants changed to fresh pines and rolling hills. The road climbed higher and the truck bounced on, violently at times. It was taxing to remain on the wall, dodging branches that clattered over the trailer and clenching the wood so as not to be thrown out to the ground.

Hours passed, and within the trailer my hands had been beaten raw trying to balance myself on the rockety trip. We had arrived in La Union. I decided that since there was absolutely no traffic on this road it would be a better idea to go with this truck until it met the main road again. So the journey continued for a total of 7 long hours. It could best be described as uncomfortably pleasant. As I jumped out of the trailer with my pack, the sun was going down. I thanked me drivers and one of them shoved 50 Lempiras into my hand. I hadnt eaten since the tamales 7 hours earlier, nor had much to drink, so I instantly found a comedor and spent it all on a chicken dinner and large bottle of water.

Dusk was past, and the darkness reached out over the sky. I was walking down the dusty road littered with speedbumps, intending to find a camping spot in the forests beyond town. However, after the 3rd warning from concerned passersby I decided to look for a place to camp in town. I walked back to a large property I’d seen. There was a couple outside the very big house, and after a polite request they let me pitch tent on their property. I even had a barking dog companion to guard me. My body ached from the marathon I’d just run, and sleep came swiftly.

In the morning I was packed, tooth-brushed, and shirt-cleaned before the sun tapped the atmosphere. I walked back to the speedbump road and put myself right next to one to ask for rides. I decided not to hitch pickups this time, I needed a rest. The first car I beckoned stopped, and I had a ride to Tegu.

The ride was a 3 hour formula 1 test run, or at least it felt like that, dodging potholes as big as jacuzzis, hundreds of them. The only good parts of the road were “friendship bridges” built by Japan. Best decision I could have made was to not go in the back of a pickup this time. Always follow your instinct, it’s your father in absentia.

The center of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

The center of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

I was dropped off in the center of Tegucigalpa. A short 3 hour walk later I was sitting at the airport. It’s a small airport where to land a pilot needs special licensing. There, I overheard a group of three Americans: “…another thing that you only find in Honduras: a bank with no money! hahahah”. A telephone call and an hour later I was riding in another air-conditioned car with my hosts’ mom back to their place.

It seems to be becoming the way of things for this journey: I disappear on the road for a week, and then rest with new friends through couchsurfing for a spell. Raquel is my host, and she is a doll. Her mother too. Her sister too. I feel as safe as can be as I relax and consider my adventure: there are two guys walking around outside with pistols and assault rifles. Raquel’s dad is the head of the Honduran police force.

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