El Salvador

This is the End - Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the End - Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the end. In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van - which we named Wesley - through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

When we first conceived this year-long fairy tale of an overland adventure, we anticipated arriving in Patagonia in Argentina after eleven months and 29 days of driving, hopping in a plane to D.C., and shipping Wesley back to Baltimore.  The trip would have a clearly defined beginning – when we left Alexandria – and ending – when we got on a plane to go home.

One Week and One Thousand Miles

One Week and One Thousand Miles

Since we left El Salvador on June 9 we have driven Wesely over 1,000 miles across Guatemala and Mexico and I’ve got the driver’s tan to prove it - my left forearm is as red as tomato soup. It’s not our style to blow through places so quickly, but at this point in our year long trip we are focused on getting back to Alexandria for better or for worse. Despite our accelerated pace, we’ve managed to squeeze some fun in between our long driving days.

Revolution in El Salvador

Revolution in El Salvador

We try to avoid cities because we hear they are more dangerous, we know there’s more traffic, and we want to go to sleep at night to the sounds of mountain streams and howling dogs not to the sound of honking horns and howling dogs. Sometimes we make exceptions. After leaving Nicaragua and driving all day through Honduras into El Salvador, we spent the next day driving a few hours into the mountains of El Salvador to the town of Perquin. The next day, I had already driven five hours towards our planned destination, and we were still two hours away. I was done. When I saw a sign for Santa Ana, a place I remembered reading about as being worth a visit, I asked R to check out our guidebook to see about it.

The Road Less Traveled - Leaving Nicaragua

The Road Less Traveled - Leaving Nicaragua

We finally left the comfort of Paul and Marisa’s front yard after spending 11 days going to the beach, riding bikes, going to a rodeo, eating home cooked meals, and making natural skin products. Coconut learned to make kombucha, a fermented non-alcoholic hippie drink, and got her own “scoby” to make more, and we even celebrated Paul’s birthday by taking him out to a restaurant in one of the first downpours of the rainy season.

Everyone got along easily and we could have stayed even longer with this generous, fun, and like-minded family but we’ve learned a few things by always being the last to leave the party. One of the things we’ve learned is that eventually you’ve got to leave the party.

Iguana - It's What's for Dinner

Iguana - It's What's for Dinner

As we drove through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, we often saw people standing along the side of the road holding large, spine-backed reptiles bound to a stick. The peoplewould wave these things at us as we drove past as if they were performing some sort of ceremonial blessing. We realized that the people wanted us to buy one or more, but we were not sure what we were supposed to do with the thing once we got it home. One afternoon while I lounged outside Wesley while R and the kids shopped for fruit in the market, I noticed two teen boys with slingshots in their hands gazing intently up into the tree tops.

El Salvador - We Didn't Get Shot

We had no expectations for El Salvador. In fact, our plan was to drive through it only because we had to so we could get to points further south, otherwise we would have skipped it altogether. R has too many clients who have told her things about the gang situation in El Salvador that if we had any expectations at all, it was that we would be held up at gunpoint. R also has a Salvadoran client in Virginia who insisted that we stay at his “rancho” when we got to El Salvador. After we learned that staying at a rancho did not mean we would be playing city slickers, but instead meant we would be lounging in hammocks by the beach for free, the safety issues that loomed so large seemed trivial after all, so we made plans to contact him as we got closer.

When we got to the Guatemala-El Salvador border on Monday afternoon after making better than expected time driving from Antigua along the coastal highway to the border town of Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, there didn’t seem to be any line formed of cars and people waiting to get into El Salvador, so we figured we would just keep going. We left Guatemala where we had been since last year (we entered on December 19) without any fanfare, and frankly, with only a short look back over our collective shoulder.

R is all smiles at the El Salvador border crossing.

Even though the bureacracy was very efficient, and the border people very helpful, by the time we were stamped out of Guatemala and stamped into El Salvador the sun was sinking in the west so we pulled into an auto hotel recommended on our iOverlander app. An auto hotel offers its guests complete anonymity - the building is hidden inside a walled compound and each room is like a small apartment with an attached garage to park your car. When I asked the owner of the auto hotel where we stayed on Friday night, our last night in El Salvador before we crossed the border to Honduras, whether it would get busy that night because it was a weekend, he said, “No. It’s not that kind of business. Most couples come in during the afternoon for just an hour or two.”

Loading up Wesley after spending the night at another auto hotel. We were too big to fit in the garage, but most people just pull in and remain anonymous.

We stay in auto hotels because they are generally clean, low cost, come with a plentiful supply of tissues, and we like to watch ourselves sleep in the big mirror that is on the wall opposite the bed. The kids also like the slide drawer to the outside where the wait staff puts our food and takes our dirty dishes and where we can pay our bill without making eye contact with anyone.

R wasn’t able to get in touch with her client in enough time for his caretaker to immediately get the rancho ready for us, so we spent Tuesday night in El Tunco. El Tunco is a popular surfer hangout along El Salvador’s Pacific Coast which boasts some of the best waves in Central America, so there are a lot of young people walking around barefoot. It is also as hot as Christie Brinkley in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” so J and I alligatored ourselves over the softball size boulders that washed around our ankles with each breaking wave for a high tide swim but decided to get out after we found ourselves about 40 meters from our entry point after only a few minutes in the water.

This rock formation is supposed to look like a pig, which is translated into Spanish as El Tunco. I don't see it, but we liked the town anyway.

During low tide on Wednesday, R and I were able to easily walk over the rocks that were submerged during high tide and then cross about fifteen meters of hot black sand to the water, where we frolicked happily for an hour in the warm, rolling surf while Coconut and J absorbed as much hotel Wifi as they could with hopes they could emit a signal as their own personal hotspots at the rancho.

Wifi access aside, we had high hopes for the rancho. On the one hand, the owner works in the U.S. as an apartment manager, decidedly lower middle class on the pay scale, but on the other hand, things are cheaper in El Salvador so it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that he could have built the Taj Mahal.

Well, he didn’t. Coconut and J took one look at the house and went, “Eh.” J sat on one of the beds and said it felt like it was made out of hay. They both slept in Wesley while R and I braved the rustic accommodations which did not include running water - we flushed the toilet by dumping a bucket of water into it.

We pose with Ignacio, the brother of R's Virginia client, and his son, the Incredible Hulk, in the dining room of the rancho.

But the whole point was that this was a house built by a beach, and with a pool that had a table built into it so we could sit in the pool, instead of around the pool, and play cards, which we couldn’t do in the ocean because the waves were pretty relentless. We loved it.

Coconut and I playing cards in the pool. We played "Spit in the Pool" which is the card game spit, but played while in the pool. Clever, eh?

The one weird thing was that the caretaker and his family lived on the property as well and they must have been under orders to not let us out of their sight because they followed us to the beach and watched us swim, took us to the store when we needed milk, and even served our meals at the restaurant one day when we went for lunch. We felt like celebrities in town with a Secret Service escort.

I helped grandma carry 18 pounds of corn meal back from the mill. She uses the meal to make tortillas and sell them to the many restaurants in town, and also the other families whose women are too lazy to make their own tortillas.

Street signs are really helpful, but you would be surprised at how often they do not exist at intersections. We went left at this one - towards San Miguel. El Coco is supposed to be one of the nicer beaches in the country, but we were crossing

After spending a couple days at the rancho, we made a beeline for the border with Honduras, so we could buzz across that country and into Nicaragua to meet friends on Monday who are flying down from Los Angeles. We would have liked to spend more time in El Salvador because it surprised us with its order and civility - the intersections were all well signed and even the cows ate from troughs, not from trash piles as we’ve seen in other places. The two beaches we visited - El Tunco and Majahual - were great, and are not even the best beaches in the country, and the other small piece of the country we saw while driving through was beautiful and mostly clean. And the people were all very friendly. Not one of them pulled a gun on us.

Migrant Story

With all the free time R and I have had each day after sending the kids to school, I’ve been able to read a lot of books. In addition to Scott O’Dell, Trenton Lee Stewart, and books by someone named J.K.Rowling, that were recommended to me by Coconut and J, I was also able to finish a book titled “Enrique’s Journey” which has particular relevance to us as we make our way south through Mexico and Central America. The book is an account of a Honduran boy’s life and the reasons that compel him to undertake a dangerous journey north through Mexico on top of freight trains and running from gangsters and authorities to find his mother in North Carolina. Enrique’s mother had left him and his sister in the care of family members when Enrique was five and departed for “El Norte” with the hope of making money to feed and support them. After ten years of mostly downs in his life, and overwhelming feelings of loss, abandonment, anger, and despair, and with his own economic prospects dim, Enrique sets off on his own journey north to find his mother. The book is compelling to us for a number of reasons.

First, the story is unfathomable. R and I can’t imagine, and I daresay you can’t either, the despair a mother must feel to leave her children behind to travel thousands of miles with the hope that she can land a job that will allow her to save enough money to, first of all, send money home to feed them, and second of all, either bring the children illegally to the U.S., or return home in a few years with enough money to buy land, build a house, and start a business. It is serendipity that I was born a U.S. citizen and my biggest problem is often whether to order one pizza or two, and what toppings.

In describing Enrique’s journey, the book goes into detail about the many dangers faced by him, and migrants generally, as they travel through Mexico. There is no means for them to immigrate legally so they are reduced to jumping on and off moving trains, losing limbs or their lives when they miss a step or handhold, getting robbed and beaten by gangsters in Chiapas, Mexico, getting robbed and killed by Mexican authorities throughout the country, starving, freezing, and being caught and sent back south (usually to Guatemala) to try again. Enrique was caught by Mexican immigration and sent back to the Mexican-Guatemalan border town seven times.

As we all have no doubt heard from Donald Trump, it’s not a unique thing for people living in Central America, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, to immigrate to the U.S. to look for work. What is often missing from the sound bites, however, is any information on the reasons why people are compelled to leave family and friends behind to travel to a foreign country where they are often discriminated against, taken advantage of, and looked at suspiciously. I mean, let’s get serious, these people are not coming here so they can clean fast food joints’ toilets for minimum wage and then go out and get drunk and rape people and commit other crimes. I’m not an expert on this issue so this blog is not going to get into the many social and economic reasons why people might put their lives and families at risk to get to the U.S.; I encourage you to read the book instead because Sonia Nazario, the author of “Enrique’s Journey”, is a journalist and she does offer explanations. And let’s just say that the U.S. is not innocent - its historical Latin American policies are at least somewhat responsible for the lack of current economic opportunities within the countries. But let’s not go there, or dwell on the fact that our Congress still hasn’t come up with a sensible immigration reform proposal; instead focusing on partisan issues like trying to impeach the Commissioner of the IRS and restrict the sale of oranges at government cafeterias. In somewhat related current events - R and I recently read a NY Times article about how the U.S. has outsourced its border patrol.

A second reason why the book was so compelling to us was that when we leave Oaxaca in a few weeks, we will be heading directly into the belly of the beast - Chiapas state in Mexico - where Central American migrants face the most risk, including at the hands of Mexican immigration officials, who are just as likely to shake a migrant down as a bandit or gangster. Actually, we are more heading into the calf and ankles of the beast because we aren’t going to the places where migrants cross the border and hide in cemeteries and marshes to avoid detection from bandits who rob and beat them and from Mexican authorities who rob and beat and deport them, and we certainly won’t be riding on top of any freight trains, but to see this stuff first hand would be pretty fascinating. This is a pretty good overall summary of the dangers migrants face. There are also heart-warming stories - check this out.

Finally, a few weeks ago when we were driving back from Hierve el Agua, the frozen waterfall, we reached the top of a mountain and there was a guy walking alongside the highway, so we stopped to ask if he needed a ride. I may have stopped because I was still feeling the good will from getting a ride myself that morning after I had walked up from the campground to a store in town to buy some milk for our cereal and someone heading back down the hill stopped and told me to climb in. It turned out the guy at the top of the mountain was heading to Oaxaca city, which was where we were going - an hour’s drive away, so it was good for him that we did stop because even Wesley could get him there a lot faster than it would have taken him to walk there.

This guy had left a wife and two sons in Guatemala a few weeks before and was heading to the U.S. to make enough money to buy land. Two years, he thought. He had just been robbed of his last 400 pesos by a taxi driver who promised to take him to Oaxaca, only to kick him out after driving for a short while, and he hadn’t eaten since the day before. We gave him a few oranges and a can of beans - good hobo grub - and dropped him at the migrant shelter in Oaxaca where he would be able to stay and eat for a few days. Then he would be back on the road, just like we will be in a few weeks. Though, we are each writing very different stories.