El Salvador Trip
- Country Number 50!! Feb 11, 2023
Taking full advantage of Sharmila not being in the country, I decided to embark on my own international trip. This will get me to the half century mark – 50 countries. El Salvador!!
Why El Salvador? Well, to be honest because I know nothing about the country. Other than the name of the capital. I also have not come across anybody who has been to El Salvador. Have you?
When I went around asking people (in the USA) about El Salvador, the only guidance I got was to be very careful. It is unsafe there. I have a nagging suspicion that the picture portrayed by media does not do justice to the country. (During my trips abroad, I am often stunned by what they think about the USA – from what they see in their media).
We will find out.
There is another thing. Many years back, I was in Spain for some work. Our country head there had pulled me aside and let me know that he would be going back to his motherland – El Salvador by the end of the year. Instinctively, I had told him that I would visit him some day.
If everything goes to plan, he is going to get the surprise of his life today!!
- An uncommon shot of downtown Atlanta Feb 11, 2023
Taking off eastward from Runway 10-28 in Atlanta, you would expect that we would have swung right to head south to El Salvador. Instead, we swung left, circled the city and then headed south. That gave me a clean shot of the city right from the top. You can see the whole stretch of where 85 merges with 75 and then the split again. You can also see the airport to your top stereo left.
And the other thing I spotted? The very reason why we moved the Atlanta. The office I used to go from 2007 to 2014!
- First glimpse of El Salvador Feb 11, 2023
The entire journey from Atlanta over Georgia, Florida, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala – all I could see from my carefully chosen window seat was … clouds. Finally, about 30 minutes away from San Salvador, the clouds started breaking up and I got my first glimpse of the country.
Seems like a very mountainous country. Makes sense – since it is squarely in the Ring of Fire.
Bored by the clouds, I say in my seat and brushed up my Spanish and picked up some trivia about El Salvador. The following might interest you:
1. El Salvador is the smallest Central American country.
2. It is the only Central American country that does not have a Caribbean coast.
3. This blew me away… There are about 10 million Salvadorans. 1 out of 3 of them live in the USA!!! The whole country has same number of people as Greater Atlanta!
- The long beaches along the Pacific Feb 11, 2023
Before we landed, the airplane took us into the Pacific and swing back to align itself to the west-east runway. That gave a chance to see the long beach line all along the country. The town below is La Libertad – which is where I will be going tomorrow. To the right, which we cannot see, is El Tunco – famous for its surf waves.
- Airport Number 154 Feb 11, 2023
- Twelve years later… Feb 11, 2023
“Remember I had promised you in Madrid in 2011 that someday I will come and see you in El Salvador?”
“Of course, senor!”
Today was that day!!
I had kept up with Leonardo – again on his birthdays – thru the years. Then, when he almost died due to Covid two years back (doctors had literally given him another couple of days after many weeks in ICU), I was reminded of that last meet we had.
This January, when I called him to wish him a very happy birthday, little did he know that I had already bought tickets to come and see him.
I always remember Leonardo as the street fighter. He was the ultimate in scrambling. Somehow, in the end, he would pull his numbers thru every quarter.
So, against that mental picture, it was a little jarring for me to realize today that he has made two visits to India – a month each – to spend time in Sai Baba ashram. I did not realize how deep he is into meditation. And Buddhism too!
It was also a little jarring to sit in an upscale restaurant that he had booked in surrounded by Valentine couples at every other table!!
The evening was spent reminiscing the old days of work and the many friends from those days. At the end of the dinner, he took me around to show the city. On a Saturday evening, the city looked vibrant with all sorts of American branded retail and food shops.
- This has disaster written all over it Feb 12, 2023
Normally, I am not the adventurous one when it comes to food. For breakfast, give me my daily fruit and vegetables and peace shall be held the rest of the day. In a pinch, I will resort to eggs and that is about it.
Sharmila, on the other hand, never ceases to try out local food. Which typically means half the time, she will steal food from my plate. And chalk up one more food name to the list that she will not try again. Incidentally, as I sat down for breakfast here in El Salvador, she sent a picture of having a gin and tonic at the hotel bar in Agra. True to form, she is having a local gin (Jaisalmer).
This time though, throwing caution to the winds, I decided to try whatever the lady was making at the end of the breakfast bar. I quickly surveyed and came back. Then I asked Raquel what was the name of the food. I met Raquel yesterday and her English was a bit better than my Spanish. That is something different in this country from every other Spanish speaking country I have been to. Very few people understand English here – even in their best hotel in the capital city.
Armed with no more knowledge than the name of the food, I went back to the stall. And carefully watched the proceedings with the previous customer. Hoping to cut and paste most of the conversation.
In an exchange uncannily reminiscent of Srini and I ordering at a Macdonald’s for the first time after landing in the USA, this is what happened…
“Si, Senora”, I boldly put a quarter of my sum total of known Spanish words forward.
Then she counterattacked with a lot of Spanish words. I was smart enough to understand that there was a question mark in the end. But not smart enough to do anything but stare at her helplessly.
Then she said more things. I got the last word – queso! I knew that word. I avoid cheese.
“No queso!”, I replied with some degree of satisfaction.
Then she volleyed some more Spanish words at me.
This time, I panicked. Summarily abandoning my Spanish, I said “Yes!”. Figured let her put everything else in it and I will just leave the whole Pupusa thing at my table.
My friendly fruits and vegetables was only one stall away.
Now, I am sitting with my misadventure at my table. Lest anybody around me think I am a village bum, I pointedly took some pictures and posted them on my Facebook to show off my sophistication!!
Where is a good masala dosa when you really need it?
- On the road Feb 12, 2023
- First glimpse of the Pacific Ocean Feb 12, 2023
- Huge waves in La Libertad Feb 12, 2023
- This is no Caribbean beach Feb 12, 2023
- El Salvador’s family beach Feb 12, 2023
- El Tunco! Feb 12, 2023
- Surfers in El Tunco Feb 12, 2023
- Spotted a cashew tree by the beach Feb 12, 2023
- My guide and driver in El Salvador Feb 12, 2023
Victor Gabriel Hernandez joins my long list of driver-guide in a foreign country. Like the fourteen before me, he has been teaching me all the details of culture, politics, education and history of the country. Over lunch together, I got to know about his life journey. He has now convinced me to make a 4 hour trek to the top of Santa Ana mountain and back tomorrow!
- We are on the road again!! Feb 13, 2023
Today’s goal is to climb to the topmost point of El Salvador. Got a first glimpse of it as we got out of San Salvador. Of the three mountains, the right one is the tallest one. If I can climb to the top of that 7,812 feet high crater rim of Ilamatepec volcano (also called Santa Ana volcano), I am told there is an amazing view waiting for me. The challenge is that the last one third of the trail after you clear the tree line is less of a trail and more of climbing on rock juttings with no shade whatsoever.
That one last erupted about seventeen years back.
So, two things. I have to survive the trip up and down. And the volcano needs to hold off any more eruptions for a few hours.
Wish me luck!!
- Sugar cane fields as far as the eyes can go Feb 13, 2023
- First stop: Lago de Coatepeque Feb 13, 2023
This beautiful lake was formed about 70 thousand years back due to collapsing of a lot of volcanoes. At the other end of this serene beauty we could see private houses and restaurants. I promised Gabriel that I will treat him to one of those restaurants if he can bring me back alive from the top of the Ilamatepec volcano!!
- Why is the moon up now? Feb 13, 2023
- Finished 30 minutes of steep climbing Feb 13, 2023
- 45 minutes in… Feb 13, 2023
- That is an active volcano!! Feb 13, 2023
Also known as “another excuse from Rajib to take a break”, Volcano Izalco (the left most mountain you would have seen in “We are on the road again”) is the steepest one and is an active volcano. There are folks who have died trying to scale that. We can safely knock my name off folks who might try that in the future. At this moment, I just want Gabriel to think that I am taken in by the beauty – not that I HAD to catch my breath!!
The mouth of the crater is very clearly visible from this height.
- Cerro Verde!! Feb 13, 2023
- Need… some… rest Feb 13, 2023
The last 30 minutes have been incredibly tough for me. The trail simply lost itself and asked to stay close to the rocks with yellow markers. Gabriel was jumping on the rock juttings like a mountain goat. Forget my physical strength. My fear of heights took over. This meant, I had to stay out of the edge of the rocks and stay inside a bit. Which had a lot more pebbles. Which meant I had to be wary of slipping. It did not help that I did slip a couple of times. Plus, I could not look to my right. Acrophobia would freeze me immediately.
Every ten minutes, I stopped and sat down on a rock. Slowly, I would open my eyes and look down to acclimatize myself. And then after a few minutes, I would slowly stand up and stand still. (Quickly getting up would invariably give me the dizziness).
Gabriel, who I suspect realized that I was running on fumes, volunteered to take a picture of me.
- I think I am there!! Feb 13, 2023
By now, the rocks had started flattening out. I could see the rim… and the small silhouettes of people on the top. Could not be more than ten minutes more at that point of time. But at that point of time even one minute felt like a month.
I think the congratulatory board was strategically placed there just for me. For some reason, I thought I was already there.
I was not. But it did not matter. The board told me I was there. The rest was about just taking some nice pictures, right?
- One last look backwards… Feb 13, 2023
I was only ten minutes away from dragging myself to the top. The winds had picked up. I had put my jacket on. The slope had eased up. I was fairly sure I would make it.
But looking back, I saw what I had to come up. You can probably see the folks trying to clamber up. That sight gave me the necessary fillip – if I could do that, the rest was going to be fairly easy.
- Made it!!! Feb 13, 2023
I am on top of the highest point in El Salvador!! You can see the crater lake behind me!!!
I would have jumped up for joy if not for the fact that any jumping up would be a 50-50 toss up between hurling myself down a steep four to five thousand feet of cliff side into a smoldering sulfurous water body or rolling down nearly seven thousand of mountain side bouncing off trees till I drowned in the cold lake.
Opted for a demeanor with far more gravitas.
Internally, I was gyrating between – “I can’t believe I made it” and “How the hell am I going to go down without seriously damaging my knees?”
It was an incredible sight though. And I mean every bit of it.
Took it in as long as I could.
- I cannot imagine what it might really sound like Feb 13, 2023
Standing up on the crater lip, about four to five thousand feet above the hot, sulfurous lake, I was trying to catch as many pictures as I could. The wind was howling around me.
What struck me as odd was a loud hissing noise I could hear. My first reaction was that it was the sound of wind splitting thru some cracks in the mountains creating a corridor effect. But the hissing part did not match with the howling or whistling that I would expect.
I explained my perplexity to Gabriel. He solved it for me.
Way down below – see if you can see the marked red areas – the pictures do not do justice to what the eyes could see – you can see steaming hot sulfurous vapors escaping from a gap in the wall just above the water level. That is the raw heat and furor from the lava layer escaping into the free air!!!
Impressive to even realize the scale!!
- Just when I was feeling good about myself… Feb 13, 2023
I saw this guy asking me “quieres un helado?”
Wait, am I seeing this right? There is a guy selling ice cream on the top of the lip of the crater. How did he get here so easily?
“Soy Rajib. Cual es tu nombre?” I put up a brave front.
For the rest of the conversation, I had to get my interlocutor Gabriel to help.
Turns out Carlos climbs up the volcano … every single day… with 100 ice creams on his shoulder. He charges $1.50 per ice cream.
That is his livelihood.
I could not get past the climbing up to the tallest peak in El Salvador everyday.
I gave him 3 bucks and told him that I do not eat ice cream. But he could offer free ice cream to two customers of his choice on this day.
And that I wanted a picture of him! To which he readily obliged!!
- For my friends in Bengal Feb 13, 2023
Did Didi win in El Salvador too?
(As a background to the rest, after Trinamul party won the elections in West Bengal, their leader, Mamata Banerjee – commonly known as Didi – lit up all the lamp posts in Kolkata with blue and white colors. You can still them if you go to Kolkata).
This was on the drive back from El Tunco to San Salvador after an ocean side dinner.
- New adventures for today Feb 14, 2023
After a great day on the beaches and another day on the volcanoes, today is going to be the day to get to know the country and its people a little more intimately. We are going to visit small towns and see what goes on there. Experience a few local stuff and talk to local people.
Very excited about this part!
We are going to cover from one end to the other end of Rutas de las Flores. The first thing I learnt is that this “Route of the Flowers” does not refer to flowers but coffee plantations. Apparently, this country used to produce a lot of coffee at one point of time. Not as much today.
- We hit the Pan American Highway Feb 14, 2023
This highway – claimed to be the worlds’s longest highway – goes all the way from Alaska to the southernmost tip of Chile. There is a portion of it which is a “gap” in Panama called Darien Gap that is swampy and infested with gangs and cartels. You do not want to be there. One of my friends once cycled on this route and had to give up his bicycle as ransom to get out his kidnapping.
I have been on this road in Chile, Peru and the USA. Now El Salvador gets added to that list.
- The beautiful “maquilishuat” tree Feb 14, 2023
- Railways and El Salvador Feb 14, 2023
El Salvador used to have a fairly active railway system. But it fell into disuse and does not exist any more. Although there is a government department to look after the railway lines that are not being used!! There is currently a proposal to revive railways in El Salvador.
This was one of the unused engine sitting out there in Sonsonate. From the wheel base, it looked like narrow gauge.
- Then there was this guy Feb 14, 2023
- First stop: Nahuizalco Feb 14, 2023
My friend from the hotel – Paola Perez – who had helped me make all my arrangements had insisted that I visit Nahuizalco. I told Gabriel that we need to go there. He told me that it would be our first stop.
Very cute town. One of the colonial towns marked by the church, the central park and the market, it was a great place to observe the local people and their habits.
- Unique experience in Nahuizalco Feb 14, 2023
- Second stop: Salcoatitan Feb 14, 2023
- What are school buses doing all over the country? Feb 14, 2023
I finally blurted it out to Gabriel when I saw this bus in Salcoatitan.
“Gabriel, why are there so many school buses in El Salvador? What is this bus doing at this time here in this town? And none of the passengers look like school kids”.
I was half expecting a story like we had experienced in Gustavo, Alaska. The one school bus in that island ferried us from the tiny airport to the one hotel that was there.
Turns out I learnt a very interesting story.
School buses from USA that are discarded are often sold to El Salvador. In fact, you can even see the school name on this bus. They fix the buses up and then use for inter-city public transportation!! Many of them are painted over. But some like this, are not!!
- Third stop: Juayua Feb 14, 2023
- Joyita, did you come here before me? Feb 14, 2023
- Unique sight in Juayua Feb 14, 2023
There were these sisters (from the church) literally yelling at the top of their voices on the loudspeakers. From the tone of their voices, they seemed to be sternly commanding one and sundry to atone their sins. When I asked Gabriel, he said – “No way – they are gently saying prayers for all the city people”.
- Fourth stop – Apaneca Feb 14, 2023
The Albania Cafe, to be precise. In USA, we would call this an amusement park. One interesting activity I found was biking on ropes. The tire basically has flanges (like a railway car wheel) that keeps you on the rope and then a hanging wire that the bike is tied to ensuring no fall. I am sure riding it over vast spans of air with the tree line hundreds of feet below it is exhilarating. And incredibly fearful for me.
- Flores of Rutas de las Flores Feb 14, 2023
- Fifth stop: Ataco Feb 14, 2023
- Can you guess the manufacturer? Feb 14, 2023
While having lunch with Gabriel in Ataco, I noticed this small car by the street side. He let me know that these cars are often used as taxis in small towns.
“You know, this is an Indian car,” he said.
I was very surprised.
“Is it a Nano?”, I asked. But then, a Nano is a two door car I thought.
Got down from the restaurant and checked out the car brand.
Got a shock of my life. It is a Bajaj!!!
All my friends from India, have you seen anything like this from Bajaj in India ever? Or for that matter, have you ever seen any Bajaj car in India ever?
- Meet my new friend Gustavo Feb 14, 2023
We went to a coffee plantation near Ataco town. There, this young gentleman Gustavo – all of 26 – gave me a tour of the coffee factory and painstakingly explained how coffee is made step by step.
At the end, we sat down to have a cup of coffee and went thru his life history. Grew up with his mother and brother. This, I have found to be fairly common in Latin American countries. Parents separate after having kids and the kids stay with the mother.
I asked him how much studies he had done. It seems he did finish high school but no more. This is another recurring theme I am finding with folks here.
His mom worked in the coffee factory. He joined at the age of 14 to help with money while going to school. And then his brother joined too. The three live as a joint family and live off the earnings from the coffee factory.
We promised to keep in touch in the future.
- Our sixth and final stop – Ahuachapan Feb 14, 2023
Went to the thermal springs – Termales de Santa Teresa. Fairly typical of volcanic countries. I remember seeing these calderas in Azores islands and Costa Rica. For some reason, saw one of these up in the mountains in Jordan too!
Interestingly, here they have the mud to plaster over your body like we saw in Jordan by the Dead Sea. But unlike the Dead Sea, here they have black mud for your body and white mud for your face!!
I had not come prepared. Else, I would have loved to relax in these thermal springs after the hike yesterday and all the walking today!
- Knowledge of language is overrated when it comes to having a good conversation Feb 14, 2023
Long, long time back, I worked with a gentleman called Mauricio Flores. I was in Atlanta. He was in El Salvador. Later he moved to Portugal. You may remember him from a post in 2019 November whenI met him while on a vacation with the family in Azores islands and then Lisbon.
He found out that I was in homeland this week. Got an immediate message that his brother was going to drop a local alcohol for my bar!
When I came back to the hotel, his brother and sister in law – Erick and Blanqui – were waiting for me in the lobby.
Now, my Spanish is nothing to write casa about. (Yes, it gets that bad when I sprinkle in one or two words Spanish words I know in an otherwise clear English sentence). And Erick and Blanqui confessed that their English was the same.
Yet we spend one and a half hours together. Over some loud laughs and a great chat. But mostly getting thrilled every time we made a break thru in communicating successfully our message or question. Often resorting to Google for translation, I was able to put the story together of their lives, their siblings, their daughters – Adriana and Daniela, their aspirations, their trips to the US and other countries.
The bar staff who got curious with all the laugh and chat going on often would have fun watching us struggle to find the right word. And then once in a while, they would get so impatient and excited, that they would blurt out the word for us!!!
Blanqui’s sister lives in Knoxville. I will get in touch with her when I get back to the USA. They were excited to realize that I live in Atlanta. Blanqui brought out many pictures from Georgia Aquarium and Coca Cola Factory on her phone from their trips to the USA!!
Like I said, we spent one and a half hours together without realizing that we had absolutely no idea how to construct a full sentence in each other’s language!! It was that good a meeting.
Thank you Mauricio for your gift and most importantly introducing me to two great people!!
- Remember my breakfast companion in Puerto Rico last month? Feb 15, 2023
(breakfast friend in Puerto Rico)
Well, here it got a little more interesting!!
- He made it his mission not to miss this chance to meet Feb 15, 2023
Ever since I posted about my El Salvador trip on Facebook, Gerardo Urias has been desperately trying to figure out how to meet. He was traveling for work and then when he came back he was stuck with way too many meetings at office.
Finally, we managed to see each other this evening. The reason he absolutely wanted to have the meeting is that this is the first time we met! We have worked in the same company at one point of time and all our meetings were over the phone. These were the days when we did not have Zoom or video calling facilities.
The first time I got to see how he looks like was when he accepted by Facebook request – way after I had left the company.
I am impressed that he remembered me. Even went to the extent of accusing me of being helpful when we worked together!! I am sure his standards have improved since then.
Gerardo has a very interesting life story. Both his parents immigrated from Israel to Honduras and then moved to El Salvador which is where they met each other. I was very impressed to hear about his son – also called Gerardo – who at the age of 24 has a flourishing coffee business!
I am so grateful that he made all the effort to meet me. Otherwise, I would have missed seeing this fine gentleman for God knows how many years!
- Two new friends from El Salvador! Feb 15, 2023
Without the help of Paola Perez, this trip could not have been this successful. I had no idea what to expect other than the fear of security that I had heard while in the USA. Once I booked a room in the Sheraton, I reached out to them to talk to somebody.
Paola – who is in charge of guest relations – answered all sorts of questions from me – including if it was safe for me to move around with my camera!! She offered all sorts of options of places to visit. Once I explained that I am not into architecture or long dead people, she quickly understood what might be interesting to me.
She also arranged for the car and an English speaking guide and driver. As if that was not all, she also left a gift made by local artisans for me.
Had a chance to have dinner with her and her friend Maria Jose today. Learnt how typical life is for twenty somethings in El Salvador. One interesting fact I learnt is that after high school, instead of going to University – which people find costly – often people go to something called an Academy to learn English to improve their job prospects. It is aa 18 month course, I believe. In fact, Paola Perez was with the local airlines Volaris. But she never got a chance to speak English. So, she switched to the Marriott group – this way, she gets more exposure to English thru the guests!
Congratulations Maria Jose on your upcoming wedding. And I hope Paola Perez, you make it to your dream vacation in Colombia!!
Till next time!
- The national liquor of El Salvador – Chaparro Flor de Fuego! Feb 16, 2023
This is the drink Mauricio, Erick and Blanqui gifted me. Some claim that the national liquor of El Salvador is a far more coarse drink called Tic Tack. This one is made from corn and panela which is unrefined whole cane sugar. It has roots way back to the Mayan times. Of course, there was no sugarcane then in this part of the world (till Columbus brought it over from Spain).
Interestingly, the name is derived not from the ingredients but the Chaparro tree whose wood is used during the distillation process. Burning of wood from this tree produces minimal amount of smoke.
Can’t wait to go home and try this!
Thank you Mauricio, Erick and Blanqui !!
- A quiz for the veteran flyers, especially if you fly international often Feb 16, 2023
After clearing immigration and security, I came to the gates in Sal Salvador airport. I was checking out the various duty free stores. And I wanted to check something else out that had struck me when I had come into the airport on Saturday.
Look at the picture. What is amiss in this?
Here is a hint… I originally had the doubt standing at this exact point when I came into the airport on Saturday
See the answer only after you have given it some thought.
Come on… give it some thought… there is a visual clue….
Well, notice the sign for “Immigration” (Migracion). Remember, I am an outbound passenger and I had already cleared immigration. So what was that sign doing there?
As I mentioned in my hint, I was actually standing there when I came in too. I needed that sign to figure out which way to go for immigration. Which means incoming international passengers and outgoing international passengers actually can mingle. Happened with the incoming Delta flight today too – saw all the passengers alight and go past me – just like in a domestic flight.
This is what had struck me when I came into the country. Why was I going past all the duty free shops and restaurants and bars before I could even get to the immigration counter?
Have not seen this in any other country.
Coming to think of it, I cannot see any possibility of security breach. All passengers – incoming and outgoing – had to clear security to get to that point. One interesting side effect though is that if you are connecting to another flight to a different country (e.g. Miami to San Salvador to San Juan in Costa Rica), you do not have to get an immigration stamp on your passport !!
Have any one of you seen this anywhere?
- Another headscratcher Feb 16, 2023
Boarded the plane and sat down in my seat. Tried to get some posts written before they ask us to stow away the laptops.
Do you see anything amiss in my screenshot?
I am in a Delta flight. But the wifi says United Airlines. I cannot see any United plane on my right. I cannot see on my left side (windows closed).
Interestingly, the Delta SSID is nowhere to be found. But I can connect to the United one!!!
- Lake Ilopango Feb 16, 2023
We took off westward from San Salvador and then when we got over the Pacific Ocean the plane took a right turn (Madhu and Michele, please note this) and after completing a full circle, flew back over San Salvador city. With a clean view of Lake Ilopango.
If you can see the runways in the middle of the picture, that is the original San Salvador airport (now called Ilopango airport).