Saturday, September 8, 2018

Day 783 to 793 of the Third Voyage: In which we decide to try the “other cruising” and let someone else do the driving for a change.

Prior to becoming cruisers (as in people who live on boats with dreams of seeing the world, but instead spend most of their time fixing things so they can make it another twenty miles before breaking down again), we were cruisers (as in people who vacation on cruise ships where the likelihood of breaking down is infinitely smaller but if you do, it’s someone else’s problem.)

The first cruise the Deck Boss and I went on was back in 1977—the same year that the Love Boat debuted. Back then, the ships were much smaller—maybe 450-500 passengers—and they still looked “shiply” as opposed to today’s megamonsters that resemble skyscrapers that were tipped over on their side and barged out to sea. Today’s ships carry so many passengers, that you rarely see the same person twice (unless he struts around with his own theme music, in which case you see him every day.) But back in the early days, it was more of an intimate experience where you got to know people and it was not uncommon to hobnob with officers of the ship up to and including the captain, although he tended to be more grizzled Norwegian mariner and less Murray from the Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The cabins were tiny—smaller than our aft cabin on Raven—and there were no balconies, settees, and minifridges. There was one main dining room, a couple of bars, a big lounge, and a shop that sold toiletries and souvenirs sporting the ship’s logo. In lieu of the Broadway-caliber shows they have now, entertainment consisted of lounge singers, second-string comedians, and whatever talent the crew possessed. On the final day at sea, passengers were given access to artsy/craftsy items and invited to participate in a costume contest for the amusement of everyone else. And when my dad rolled up his pant legs, donned a construction paper tutu and wings, walked out on stage as a bargain-basement tooth fairy, and proclaimed in his best Groucho Marx voice, “For these rates, you were expecting George Burns?”, he instantly became my hero for life. (He won the contest, in case you were wondering.)

Nowadays, it’s all about volume. How many people/restaurants/bars/shops/activities you can fit on one ship. And if you need more of those things to one-up your competitors, just build a bigger ship. If your competitor’s ship carries 3600 passengers, you’d better up the ante by at least 10% (20% if you’re a real player.) If they put in a water park, build a bigger one and add a ropes course. They’ll then see your water park and ropes course and raise you a boardwalk, shark tank, and roller coaster.  Editor’s Note: One ship currently plying the seas has a skating rink, so you just know there’s a ship designer somewhere trying to figure out where to incorporate a small ski hill and a Yeti encounter. But that’s not to say the new cruise ships don’t have their place in the world. Sure, they may be huge and loud and full of humanity, but you still get to sample exotic ports of call, eat yourself silly, and (hopefully) relax. Because no matter how big a ship is, it’s still possible to find your own quiet corner of a bar to read, play cards, or just stare out at the endless expanse of sea (mainly because the other 3,960 passengers are jockeying for a spot by the pool.) By consensus, we all still prefer the smaller ships, but as far as vacations go, it’s still a great way to travel. And since it was a cruise ship that got us into our current situation (reference the blog entry titled, “The Eve of the 2nd Voyage”), we thought it might be fun to see what kind of mischief a second one would lead to.

Of course, one can handle only so much mischief at a time.

But, as someone once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So, at this point, I’d like to send a shout out to our new least favorite airline, American, for making sure that first step started out on the wrong foot. So, here’s the scenario…I booked our tickets a good month in advance. They knew we were coming. They knew we were travelling together. So why do we get on board and find a woman with a small child sitting in the Captain’s aisle seat? Because American booked a family of six—a mother, a grandmother, two school-age kids, one baby and one toddler—into four seats and then insisted that the family “must stay together” and that the Captain would have to move so that the grandmother/toddler could sit across from the others. Like they couldn’t figure this out during the reservation/seat assignment stage? What about our family? Do we not rate? Now maybe this seems petty to you, but here’s the kicker…the Captain received free drinks during the flight for the “inconvenience” of having to move. Excuse me? Who was inconvenienced? The Deck Boss and I were the ones that had to sit next to a screaming, squirming toddler for three hours. Where was our free booze? They didn’t even offer a replacement when the wine we paid for was kicked off the tray table by the kid after she had a meltdown when her video stalled. At the very least, where were our complimentary headphones to muffle out the soul-sickening sounds of Elmo en Espanol? Petty? Maybe. But given the cost of a ticket and the expectation of a journey that doesn’t look, sound, and smell like Romper Room on a hot afternoon, I think we’re entitled to be a bit perturbed.

Of course, we were a little agitated even before we set foot on the plane having spent an hour going through the various stages of security in the San Salvador airport aka the “just doing my job-athon”.  Now I get why security is tight and I understand why they must take precautions, so when the security officer asked where my “encendedor” was, I shouldn’t have been surprised except for the fact that I don’t own a lighter. But he had seen it on the scanner, so it must be there. He then proceeded to rummage through my tray, inspect all the contents of my purse and “liquids baggy”, open a bottle of contact lens solution (?), and turn my iPad over and over looking for the offending lighter. He finally gave up, grabbed the Deck Boss’ carry on (?) and herded us over to the inspection table. Everything came out. No lighter. But what’s this? Cuticle nippers? No es permiso. And this? A nail file? No es permiso. And into the trash they went. We repacked and headed for the gate where we got to go through the second security checkpoint. Here, they searched my purse again, pulled out my boat key and we played 21 questions: “What is this? What does it open? What else does it open? Are you sure this is a key? What did you say it opened? Where is the thing that this opens?” And on and on. Finally satisfied with my answers, they turned to the Deck Boss’ purse, pulled out her boat key (identical to mine), asked the same questions, hemmed and hawed, and then sent us on our way. The Captain, meanwhile, had his lighter confiscated. So, to recap…back at the main circus tent, they tossed the Deck Boss’ bag searching for an item they think they saw in my tray for something that went through in the Captain’s backpack. That’s efficiency Salvadoran style! But, in their defense, they did get the job done which is more than TSA can say. Editor’s Note: In case you were wondering, yes…disposable lighters are allowed on airplanes now, although we have found that they still get confiscated about 25% of the time. In other words, we’re pretty sure security approval is revoked when it’s time to go on a smoke break. But whatever. It’s the modern age of security where every old lady with a manicure kit is really a terrorist and Linda the “air hostess” is really Tom Cruise in a latex mask. He’s been instructed to “stop this plane at any cost” up to and including a hard landing on the Vegas Strip because simply snatching an octogenarian off the street would attract too much attention.
Your cuticles or your life!

Pictured:  Boat Key. To be fair…as far as keys go, it is pretty impressive. Besides Raven, it will also unlock the door to any airplane cockpit, the White House, Ft Knox, and Tom Cruise’s summer home. The floatie-fob converts into a mini-sub. 

But I digress….Having finally arrived in Miami, we then had to endure almost two hours at immigration and customs and another 45 minutes huffing car fumes waiting for the shuttle before finally arriving at the hotel… thoroughly irritated, light-headed, and snapping at each other. You know, exactly how you want to start a vacation. Luckily, we had set aside all of Saturday to hang with some good friends and see some sights, so we were in a much better frame of mind come cruise time.
On Sunday, we went to meet our ship, NCL’s Getaway. I’d show you a picture, but I neglected to take one. Mainly because it’s fugly. Seriously. If you don’t feel like Googling it, just picture a low-slung, neo-modern apartment block, stick a stubby bow on it, and slap some “art” on the side and you’ve pretty much got it. But since you don’t have to look at it when you’re on it, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. The inside décor was quite nice and with 21 restaurants, a dozen bars, swimming pools, ropes course, lounges, theaters, arcades, casino, etc. etc. there was plenty to do and see. Passenger count: 3,963 not including crew. 
At this point, I won’t bore you with our day-to-day activities, especially since most of the time was spent decompressing in the various watering holes and stuffing our faces, so please enjoy these craptacular camera-phone photos…

We had been on board all of ten minutes, but as our cabins weren’t ready, the Mixx Bar one floor up seemed the logical place to wait it out. Over the course of the trip, this became our go-to bar in the evenings and we got to be chummy with the bartenders, which was fortuitous when, after a spectacular night of drinking, they had to help me get the Captain upright after he did a Dick Van Dyke and tripped over the furniture slamming into a glass-topped table. He was too far gone to pull off the customary, “Who put that there?” look, but as it was the last night of the cruise, he had nothing to live down. 
Editor’s Note: Since we’ve been on the NCL cruise line numerous times before, we were eligible for certain perks, one of which was an unlimited drinks package which, had they taken a minute to check the bar tabs on our previous cruises, they would have realized was a colossal mistake on their part. They might have broken even on me and the Deck Boss. But with the Captain, they definitely lost money. In fact, I’m pretty sure they had to run into Cozumel and get more rum.
Lifeboat drills:  On smaller ships, your muster station is on deck next to your appointed lifeboat. With 3,963 passengers on board, mustering stations are throughout the public rooms of the ship with the understanding that crew members will lead you to where you need to go in the event of a disaster. Our mustering station was at the Atrium Bar. Because if you’re going to go down, you may as well go down with a nice buzz...
In case of emergency, bring glass.

Meanwhile, back at the cabin…
A staple of all cruise lines, the room stewards like to place a towel animal on your bed in the evenings. Our guy was an awesome dude, but a novice in the art of the towel animal. Either that or he was working on the next generation of Rorschach test. 

This is either an elephant with its head on backwards or the back end of a cat.

And this is either a bunny with mumps, two people discussing geothermal politics, or the back end of a cat.

First port of call…Roatan, Honduras.  When you don’t book a tour and opt to take your chances at a kiosk on the dock, you get this guy…Shelford Dilbert. Don’t let the spit-shine on the twenty-year-old minivan fool you, it was a total POS. The undercarriage was rusted, the upholstery had holes, and when the Captain slid the door closed, half the insulation fell out. But the A/C worked, and Shelford was an excellent guide. We had a blast! He drove us all over the southern half of the island, showed us places only the locals went, took us to an animal sanctuary, bought us local beer, drove us up to the best viewpoint on the island (which happened to be at the rum distillery), and hooked the Deck Boss up with some local noni juice which is supposed to be good for the joints and may just put a little giddy-up in her go. 
At the animal sanctuary. A touching moment between two of the slowest beings on earth.
If you’re going to pull off a monkey suit, do it with confidence.

Sue’s Noni Juice: the cure for whichever of the “300 diseases of the body” ails you.

Second port of call…Harvest Cay, Belize.  Unfortunately, this is not the real Belize, this is a private island that NCL owns and whereas it’s quite nice, it is rather fabricated. There’s a nice beach, a huge swimming pool, t-shirt shops, and restaurants. We checked it out for all of an hour before deciding to head back to the ship and take advantage of the fact that the 3,960 people who are normally jockeying for a place by the pool were now on Harvest Cay jockeying for a spot around that pool. With the ship somewhat deserted, the Captain and I tackled the ropes course. 
If you’re unfamiliar with a ropes course, it’s basically a series of rope bridges, rope walls, thin beams, and all other manner of catwalks that require balance and coordination to successfully cross. Oh…and the course is about 20 feet up in the air, on the 16th deck of the ship, so basically in the stratosphere. Here’s a promo pic from NCL.
In about fifteen seconds, a passing seagull is going to wipe that grin right off his face. 

As you can see from the picture, they insert you into a harness with a long strap up the front, the top of which glides (securely?) along in a track above you, presumably so that if you lose your balance and fall, you’ll hang there like a salami until one the employees can come rescue you. Once on the course, you’re expected to successfully traverse a series of unsteady obstacles despite a stiff wind, a long drop, and an impatient teenager behind you, all the while maintaining some sense of composure. It’s a bit harder than it looks—it takes a lot more muscle strength than expected and it’s amazing how thin and wobbly a rope suddenly gets when it becomes your only conveyance to the next platform. As far as ropes courses go, this certainly isn’t Navy Seals caliber. It probably doesn’t even count toward a merit badge at a scout camp. But when you find yourself inching over a narrow length of rope that’s swaying uneasily underneath you, it’s hard not to feel like a Ninja Warrior. But not the American kind where it’s all about elite fitness. The Japanese version where the legit athletes compete alongside anime cosplayers, C-list celebrities, and some dude dressed as a gummy bear.

The “highlight” of the course is “the plank” as in “walking the plank” as in an eight-foot long by six-inch wide board sticking straight out over the side of the ship. I made it about half way, looked down, gauged the distance between me and the surface of the water, calculated the velocity at which I would ricochet off the top of one the lifeboats, wondered if there’d be anything left to bury, asked myself, “Who the hell am I trying to impress?” and promptly backed up till I reached the safety of the platform.  The Captain, who suffers greatly from acrophobia, walked all the way out to the end, turned around, and walked back. I’m not sure how he managed to pull that off, but I suspect the three rum and cokes he had prior to getting on the course helped. 

Now what they failed to mention at the beginning of the course (looking back, they failed to mention a lot of stuff aside from “keep the strap in front of you” and “try not to fall off”) is that the final obstacle was a zip line from one side of the ship over a three-story chasm behind the smoke stack to a tiny platform on the other side. Now I’ve never done a zip line—careening through space a hundred feet above the ground has never held any appeal. I mean, if the good Lord had meant for us to comfortably fly, he wouldn’t have given us American Airlines. But here I was, and the employee says to me, “Just run off the side.” “I’m sorry, what?” “Just run off the side. But go fast so you don’t get stuck halfway across.” “Oh, F--- that. Can I go back the way I came?” “No. C’mon it’s easy. Just run off the side.” Now I’ve been told to take a flying leap before, but never literally. My mind couldn’t wrap my head around it and my body wasn’t about to go it alone, but there was no other way off the course, and a slew of impatient teenagers had started lining up behind me. So, I did as I was told and ran off the side and screamed my way to the finish line. I don’t think I need to do that again. 

Here's another promo pic from NCL...
Imagine this but with more screaming, swearing, and hyperventilating. I think I was also the first person to do the zip line in a fetal position.

Post ropes course victory round at the Sunset Bar. This was our go-to bar in the late afternoons and where we would inevitably run into “Eastern European Guy”. 

Preface:  In the evenings, they would slip a bulletin under the door with a list of the next day’s activities and other announcements. At the bottom of the front page, in bold letters, it would invariably state, “Please remember that smoking is only permitted in certain areas and to please refrain from audibly playing personal music devices.” … which sounded oddly specific. On our second day, we were enjoying some quite time at the Sunset. The Captain was teaching me cribbage (aka mathsticks) and the Deck Boss was engrossed in her book. Suddenly, in the distance, we heard a guttural rumbling noise and as it neared it got louder and angrier and grittier and then we saw him…six feet of bare chested, gold medallion wearing, Speedo sporting, oily coiffed machismo swaggering through the bar with a small boom box blaring the most obnoxious Polish death metal this side of Warsaw. He looked kind of like a cross between Vladimir Putin and the Southern Comfort Guy. And not in a good way. Despite the daily entreaties on the part of the cruise staff, we saw him loudly parading around. Every. Single. Day. Because surely the bulletin must have been referring to that OTHER guy with the audibly obnoxious soundtrack. To his credit though, out of all the other 3,960 passengers, he’s the only one I remember. So well played, sir.

Third port of call…Costa Maya, Mexico.  We had planned a glass bottom boat/snorkeling tour, but it got cancelled so after a quick perusal of the obviously fabricated Mexican village (albeit in a charming way) at the port, the Captain and I boarded a bus to the nearest town hoping to find a pharmacia.  We had become rather spoiled in Mexico because medications there are cheap. In El Salvador? Not so much. We were hoping to stock up, but alas it was not meant to be. The closest town catered to the tourist trade so the only “pharmacies” were the holes-in-the-wall that sold Viagra, steroids, and Xanax and there wasn’t enough time to get to a proper city. So, we stopped in at a beach bar for a beer but kept the visit short as it was low tide, the exposed kelp was baking in the sun, and the stench was tremendous—like raw sewage with a hint of hot broccoli and cabbage. Not the return to Mexico we were hoping for, but we are still in awe of Mexican ingenuity when it comes to creating revenue streams… 

The proprietress asked if she could take our photo for the bar’s Facebook page. Later, we were presented with this shot glass. We had to buy it to keep it off the “your photo here” display.

Final port of call…Cozumel, Mexico.  We didn’t see much of the port as we had booked an all-day tour exploring the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum.  But first…
The 45-minute ferry ride to the mainland was made enjoyable by the availability of Indio, our favorite Mexican beer. Yes, it was nine in the morning. We were on vacation. Don’t judge us!

As far as ancient ruins go, it may not have the remarkable size and scope of Teotihuacan, but it sure is picturesque. Imagine hiking along a jungle path thick with mango trees and palms, when suddenly you come upon a high stone wall hidden behind the vines with a very narrow opening—wide enough for only one person. You pass through to the other side and find yourself in a vast green field, ancient temples and other ruins dotting the landscape, stones bleached white in the sun, and the bright blue of the Caribbean Sea just beyond.  Or you can just look at these pictures…

Mayan City!

Mayan Temple!

Mayan Fancy Building!
Mayan Privacy Fence! 

Mayan Raccoon Thing!

Like I said…picturesque.  Unfortunately, the 16,000 other people there that day also found it picturesque.  We spent half our time at the ruins stuck in pedestrian traffic jams at the primary points of interest and the other half running the gauntlet of selfie sticks. But this isn’t to say we didn’t thoroughly enjoy ourselves, and if you find yourself on the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s 100% worth the trip. Just go early in the morning to avoid the big crowds. Or start your day with some Indio, and then you just won’t care.
On our last night of the cruise, we went to the Svedka Ice Bar where they give you a neon poncho and send you into a freezer. Literally. Because aside from the TV (?) and the cocktail dispensers, most everything is made of ice: the bar, the art, the fixtures, even the glasses. Patrons are given 45 minutes to experience the coolth, but most don’t make it more than 20. The Captain lasted about 35 minutes before conceding that perhaps flip-flops were not the wisest of footwear choices, but the Deck Boss and I went the distance. Mainly because we got to talking to the bartender, but also because it takes longer to finish a cocktail when it’s in slush form. And if you were ever wondering at what temperature alcohol freezes, the answer is negative 10.
It’d been a long time since I was this cold. Or this fashionable.
We disembarked in Miami the next morning where we had to endure an hour at immigration and customs and another two hours huffing car fumes waiting for the shuttle that never did come before finally grabbing a taxi and arriving back at our hotel…thoroughly irritated, light-headed, and snapping at each other. You know, exactly how you want to end a vacation. But after some decent Chinese food and a drive around Miami to take in some of the sights, we felt much better.
Because nothing brings a family together like sniggering at the fashion fails of a complete stranger. Best laugh we had all week. And the longest. It took us 45 minutes to traverse four blocks in South Beach, which is approximately how long it took this guy as well. But then it’s hard to make good time when you’re wearing “hobble pants”.  
At this point, I’d like to send another shout out to American Airlines who chose to make up for the less-than-stellar flight to Miami by being complete jerks on the way home. How, you ask? Well, have you ever heard of a box ban? No? Neither had we. So, here’s the scenario… we don’t travel light. At least not on the way home. There are just too many things that we need for the boat (and for ourselves) that you just can’t find in Central America. So, we may have arrived in Miami with three carry-ons and two suitcases, but we returned to El Salvador with three carry-ons, two large “purses” (because you are allowed one carry-on and one personal item), a laptop, four large roller bags, and a welder. Yes, we are “those people”. We got to the airport two and a half hours before our flight; blew through the first hour of that waiting in the check-in line; then spent another 45 minutes at the counter trying to get the luggage sorted out. Because it was here that the airline rep took one look at the welder—snuggly packaged in a sturdy, square box—and informed us that “certain countries” are subject to a “box ban” during “select times of the year” and that they couldn’t accept our box. She claimed it was due to “weight distribution” but wouldn’t elaborate, so we were kind of left wondering what it is about late July in El Salvador that throws airplanes off balance, but in the end, it didn’t matter because there is no recourse when you’re already there and the flight leaves in a half hour. But luckily, the Captain had noticed a packaging kiosk right across from the ticket counter and dragged the welder over there. He purchased a square-shaped duffle bag for $40, removed the welder from the box, placed it in the bag, refitted the packing foam around it, and had the whole thing shrink wrapped. We now had a perfectly square bag the same size and shape as the original, but without the offending “box” portion. Good to go. Now while he is taking care of this, the airline rep is having me remove items from one roller bag to put into another so that all four are roughly the same weight. And this has nothing to do with one being grossly overweight while another is markedly underweight. This is just busy-work. Because even though I offered to step aside so she could help another customer while we were getting the welder repackaged, that’s not how American rolls. Because why inconvenience one person when you can inconvenience everyone? Besides, it’s a good way to shift blame away from American if everyone thinks you’re the a-hole holding up the line. All I can say is that it’s a good thing the Captain came back with the welder when he did because I think the rep was about to have the Deck Boss and I start swapping clothes so we would weigh about the same. Editor’s Note: In case you think I’m exaggerating, the woman at the counter next to us was trying to get her dog on an international flight without prior notification and without a health certificate. Instead of helping the next person in line while she got her shit together, the rep waited for her to call her vet, her husband, another vet, American Airlines customer support (?), another vet, her husband again, etc. She was at the counter when we first got in line and was still there when we left—almost two hours. I highly doubt that she made her flight. Which is probably a good thing, because I’m guessing Costa Rica doesn’t want someone that stupid traipsing about their country.
But our customer service experience didn’t end there! When we finally got to the gate, the airline reps stopped the Deck Boss and started grilling her about her carry-on bag (aka the TSA-approved one they had no trouble with on the previous week’s flight.) First, they said it was too big, but when they placed it in the metal “tester” stand, it fit perfectly—and it continued to fit perfectly even after they tried it sideways, face down, upside down, and on top. They then said there was no room on the plane, yet they didn’t say anything to me or the Captain about our carry-ons. Finally, they resorted to the old “the airline rules and regulations state blah blah blah” while wresting the carry-on out of her hands. That we saw it again on the luggage carousel in San Salvador is a miracle in and of itself. But you know what else we saw on the carousel? Boxes. Lots and lots of boxes. Box ban my butt.
On a positive note though, given our past experiences with El Salvador Aduana (customs), we were a little nervous about bringing so much stuff into the country but, as it turned out, we just breezed through the airport with all our luggage. Because apparently there’s nothing suspicious about three gringos coming into the country with three carry-ons, two large “purses”, a laptop, four large roller bags, and a welder.
As long as there are no cuticle nippers, it’s all good.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Day 697 to 782 of the Third Voyage: In which I try desperately to get caught up on the blog (which is made all the more difficult without the letters “ “, “ “, “ “, and “ “. )

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I’ve been a little remiss in my blogging of late. Especially since I’m sure you’re all dying to know if El Salvador is really as dangerous and violent as they report in the news and if it truly is—as someone recently stated—a “shithole.” Well…we’ve been here over three months and so far haven’t experienced any violence or encountered anything I’d call particularly dangerous, but I have seen a shithole. Editor’s Note: If that doesn’t keep you reading, I don’t know what else will.

Most of the “bad hombres” (i.e. the maras or gangs responsible for most of the violence) run rampant in large sections of San Salvador, La Libertad, and other municipalities but, according to our friend Santos, the last two years have seen a decline of gangs in the countryside. This is not to say that all is peachy out here—tall walls, window bars, razor wire, and lots of security guys with guns are a constant reminder that the best offence is still a good defense (and doubly so in the city where the threat is greater and the guns are bigger.) Still, this does not stop the average Salvadoran from being friendly, outgoing, and genuinely helpful. I have never been in a place where someone will cross the street to exchange pleasantries, hold your groceries on their lap if there’s standing room only on the bus (which is frequently), or bring you coconuts and mangos simply because they thought you might like some and not because they expect something in return. They are truly kind and generous. That makes it all the more heartbreaking when you hear of how many are victimized and by the people in their own neighborhoods, because the gangs here are less about drugs and more about extortion and intimidation. At least in Mexico there was a code of sorts. Unless you were in a cartel, did business with a cartel, or hung out in cartel bars, got drunk, and picked fights with cartel members, you were reasonably safe. Here, a lot people are not safe—it’s a pay or die system in many communities —and most have little to begin with. In other words, the gangs here are just assholes all the way around. But I’m no expert. This is just my observation. Do I/we feel safe? Absolutely. We just won’t venture into certain areas or knowingly put ourselves in risky situations. Which is good advice for any place in the world really.

But that’s big picture stuff—and not to be taken lightly. I suspect you’re here for the more intimate snark.

So where are we?  We are about two hours by car outside of San Salvador on the Costa del Sol, which is a seven-mile peninsula in the Department of La Paz (a Department being the equivalent of a State.) The Pacific Ocean borders one side; the Jaltepeque Estuary borders the other; mangroves and palm trees grow thick throughout; volcanos loom in the distance. The nearest town is San Luis La Herradura, an hour and a half by bus or 30-40 minutes up the estuary by dinghy. The slightly larger town of Zacatecoluca is just shy of two hours by bus(es) and has a bank, a couple of grocery stores, and the only Claro office we know of with an English-speaking rep (which is extremely important when you’re negotiating a cell phone plan to get you through Central America.)

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to Costa del Sol—just a two-lane road right down the center with tall walls on either side punctuated by tiny villages, road-side tiendas and the occasional food stand. But behind the walls—through individual gates—are resorts, private residences, businesses, restaurants, a large school, and public parks adjoining the beach. To maximize access to the water, the properties are all extremely narrow yet incredibly long—a good quarter mile from the road to either the ocean or estuary. We are in the marina at the Hotel Bahia del Sol—about a mile from the tip of the peninsula. It’s a nicely-run resort that caters to upper middle-class Salvadorans and frequently hosts large groups and company retreats so it’s not uncommon to stumble upon all manner of people engaging in “team building” exercises that run the gamut from three-legged races, drum circles and scavenger hunts to my personal favorite: drinking in the pool. Editor’s Note: Cruisers in general are very good at “team building”.

What sets this resort apart from the others is that they have property on both sides of the road, so the hotel grounds run the entire width of the peninsula—a good half a mile. The marina is located on the estuary side where there is a restaurant, bar, and a pool.  At the ocean end of the resort, there is another restaurant and bar and an even bigger pool.

Obviously this pool is 30° degrees cooler.

For the most part, we like where we’re at. For one thing, we’re getting a helluva good deal on moorage: $300 per month including electricity. Editor’s Note: Don’t feel bad for them. Yes, they’re losing money due to our astronomical electricity consumption, but are easily making it back in our weekly bar bill. How big is it? Let’s just say when we settled up last week, the guy at reception had to replace the receipt roll halfway through during which time he remarked, “You’re really enjoying yourself!” Six feet of paper later, we’re paid up and leaving and he calls out after us, “Continue to enjoy yourself!” Which is probably hotel-speak for we just covered his salary for the next two months.

Suffice it to say, we frequent the restaurant/bar at the hotel a lot. This is mainly because while there are a lot of restaurants around, none are really within walking distance. Editor’s Note: I should clarify that none are within Deck Boss walking distance. Although in her defense, the closest is over a mile away and we are in the tropics, so it seems more like ten. With a distinct lack of taxis out here, the alternative is chicken bus or dinghy. And as you know, the Deck Boss doesn't do chicken buses and (new rule) will only do fair-weather dinghying. Why a new rule? Every Sunday, a couple of expats host a potluck at their house which is located a few miles up the estuary by dinghy. The last time we went, the return home was not very pleasant (which is a more genteel way of saying it was super shitty.) A rapid outgoing tide clashed with a brisk incoming wind which created small whitecap conditions which are doable on a larger watercraft, but not so much when you’re practically in the water to begin with. We had two choices: fast or wet. Fast would entail trying to plane on top of the waves which would result in an extremely bumpy ride. Wet was slower, but took hip breaking out of the equation. So wet is was. And very much so. The Deck Boss was not happy and gave her customary “Never setting foot in the dinghy again!” proclamation. It took several days, extremely calm weather, and the promise of her very own bucket of beers to get her back in the dinghy, and only to a place that was less than five minutes away.

You may have guessed by now that Bahia del Sol is remote. And you’d be right. Shopping is more of a challenge here. The nearest tienda is about half a mile away and stocks soda, beer, snacks, and a smattering of assorted household items. Basically, it’s geared toward the holiday goer who’s craving a bag of Cheeto knock-offs and the vacation-home owner that forgot to pack napkins. But we like our little tienda. They almost always have eggs, sometimes have bread, and occasionally stock fresh produce or can procure some when the farm truck goes by. 
But there's free WiFi!

There is a Supermercado about 30 minutes by chicken bus up the road—literally in the middle of nowhere. It looks like a modern grocery store, has all the trappings of a modern grocery store, and never has anything you need outside of liquor and mayonnaise. It, too, is obviously geared toward tourists and the vacation-home owner that forgot to pack the cocktail olives because they have flip flops, six different kinds of snack cracker, and weird “party pack” combos (like a two-liter bottle of Coke, a plastic shovel, and a sponge), but not anything of real nutritional value. It does, however, have the world’s fastest ATM. Unlike a typical ATM that buzzes, whirs, shuffles, and has to seriously think about whether or not it really wants to give you money, this thing practically spits bills at you halfway through entering your pin. I guess it doesn’t want to impede on your shopping time. After all, those Vienna Sausages aren’t going to buy themselves.

He ran out of mayonnaise.  And flip flops.

We do our major provisioning in San Salvador where there are Walmarts, Super Selectos, and PriceSmart (which is the Costco of Central America.) We hire Santos for the day and he drives us to doctors appointments, pharmacies, and pet stores. Fun fact: kitty litter gets harder to find the further south you go and even though western-style pet boutiques are springing up everywhere, many have mastered the art of small-dog leisure wear but still can’t fathom why you’d let a cat shit indoors. (Which now that I look at it written down, I can’t fathom either.) Anyhoo…when you find it, buy it all. It’s like gold on the black market. We finish the day provisioning at the large grocery stores which we then supplement with trips to Supermercado and the grocery stores in Zacatecoluca where the stores are decent enough, but you must be prepared to schlepp everything back on the bus. And speaking of…

Unlike Mexico where most of the buses are old touring coaches that are way past their prime, the chicken buses here are tricked-out, repurposed US school buses (and have the original shock absorbers, brake pads, and gum under the seats to prove it.) Each is customized with paint jobs, decals, and stereo systems. Some have mood lighting. Others have fins and spoilers. All come with a very loud horn that you can hear from a mile away to let you know they’re coming. But not a “toot toot” horn. More of a “freight train hurtling down the tracks at 90 mph going to mow you over so get out of the way” horn. Only they don’t want you to get out of the way; they want you to get on.  Because each bus also has a wrangler whose job is to get people on the bus, get them seated and/or squished in the aisle quickly, get them off even faster so he can get more people on, and collect fares. To do this, he is constantly moving around from the front door to the back door, down the aisle, and around the outside, communicating with the driver the whole time through shouts and loud whistles and by banging on the sides. In between stops, he weaves through the crowd shaking a money bag and collecting fares. When the bus is packed, he’ll stand on the lowest stair and hang on to the side-view mirror to make room for the people who are squeezed up against the windshield because that “Do not stand forward of the white line” sign that’s left over from its days as a school bus is now just part of the “American kitsch” decor, as is the “maximum capacity” number. I’m really surprised that no one has thought to put in luggage racks because they could easily fit in another 35 people right there. Although they did take a cue from the airlines and install the seats closer together because four inches in between rows is all anybody needs, right? At least that way the seat bottom—which has inevitably broken off its frame—doesn’t have far to slide.  But in spite of it all, I like the chicken bus. It’s always an adventure and it really is the best way to see the countryside (at 90 mph) and get close to the people (really close to the people). 

Pictured: The back of a typical bus.
Not Pictured: The front. I didn’t want to get run over. An action photographer I am not. 

In case you thought I was exaggerating about the legroom. Upon closer inspection, I think I was being generous.

View of a city bus in San Salvador as it races through an intersection. And yes, that is a picture of Popeye wearing a wife beater and holding back two snarling rottweilers. Because why not? Now get on!!!

Not to be outdone…

Suffice to say that given its remoteness, we spend a lot of time at the resort, which is okay because there’s a lot of work to be done. We came to El Salvador with a healthy list of boat chores—and that was before the debacle now known as “The Journey Here” added a good page of additional projects. So mornings are spent working and afternoons are spent recovering from heat stroke. Editor’s Note: I won’t bore you with how hot it is here.  If you want to know, simply reread the previous blog posts about the heat in Mexico, imagine it a smidge moister, and then add more bugs.

Never get up to use the head at three in the morning. You don’t know what’s lurking out there. It took me three days to get up the courage to see what I had trapped. The Captain said it was a cicada, but I’m going with big, black beetle of death.

The marina itself is of the old wooden dock variety. Shoes are a must to avoid splinters and it’s best to walk straight down the middle because pangas like to zoom through the estuary at Mach One speeds and create such wakes as to cause the docks to buck and bounce and all the boats along with them. The incoming and outgoing tides create huge currents that run as fast as a river a couple times a day, flushing out the estuaries and sometimes necessitating the unsticking of a palm frond or puffer fish out of your fenders. But overall, the docks are safe, regularly maintained, and the power is better than some of the fancier marinas we’ve stayed at. We also have security guards that patrol throughout the day and sit out on a chair in the middle of the dock at night. There are no crime issues here that I’m aware, but I’m sure the marina wants to protect its investment. Nothing keeps a resort going during the slow months better than hot, thirsty gringos.

Really the biggest drawback to our current home base is that it’s not very Otter friendly. What was wonderful about Barra was that there were lots of back roads and large fields for him to run around off leash, a lagoon to frolic in, and dog-friendly restaurants throughout the town where the proprietors knew to bring him a beer because he was the “perro de que le gusta la cerveza” and travelled with his own collapsible bowl. Barra was pupper heaven. Here not so much.

Obviously, he must be kept on leash while on the resort property. Fair enough. Except that even off the property--although we’re out in the middle of nowhere with long stretches of open road--I must keep him on a leash. The problem is all the street dogs. There were street dogs in Barra but, with some exceptions, they pretty much kept a low profile. I guess when you’re reliant on handouts, you don’t want to be “that dog” that starts trouble and gets fed the “meatball” (which is as ominous as you probably think it is and not just because it’s in quotes.) The difference here is that there aren’t a lot of places for them to get regular handouts, so they roam around the vacant properties, rummage through the garbage for food, and tend to be extremely territorial. The resort tries to keep them off the grounds, but they like to congregate under an old palapa at the head of the beach where they sleep under lounge chairs, dig holes in the sand to stay cool, and hope that one of the tourists will drop a Cheeto knock-off. So every time Otter and I want to go to the beach, we must run the gauntlet of these barking, posturing flea bags. Yelling and stamping will keep most of them at bay, but if the alpha is around, a big stick is necessary to let him know that I mean business. Some suggested I carry pepper spray, but I haven’t been able to find any, so if it gets any worse I may resort to carrying a squirt bottle of Fabuloso household cleaner. A couple of shots of lavender-scented degreaser should confuse them enough to let us pass by. (That and it would help with the smell.) Once well past the pack, Otter can be off leash and play in the surf, but I must always be vigilant of any dogs that may be roaming the other properties. It kind of turns “relaxing stroll on the beach” into “keeping your finger on the trigger and an eye out for Charlie”. 

“I’d be nice if I surfed. Maybe then I could drown some of these fleas.”  

But I must admit that I do feel sorry for them. They’re all skin, bones, ticks, and fleas held together with six layers of dirt. They may not have any natural predators on the peninsula, but undernourishment is doing just as good a job at keeping their numbers in check. It’s a tough life, and I am sympathetic to their plight, but make no mistake, I will drop kick one into next Tuesday if it messes with my dog. Part of me wants to start bringing dog biscuits so that they have something to eat besides garbage (and perhaps come to think of Otter as the “provider of food that isn’t three-day old fish skin” and maybe quit giving him such a hard time), but then I don’t want to become the pied piper of the perro and wake up one morning to find half the street dog population gathered outside our boat waiting for their daily Snausage.

But street dogs aren’t the only reason Otter must be leashed at all times. There are also quite a few feral cats on the property that enjoy teasing him, innately aware that he can’t get too close while I have him harnessed up like a farm horse, only now they have upped the ante by giving birth to sizable litters. Evening walks entail pulling him past tiny little furballs that think they’re rearing and hissing but look more like they’re yawning and stretching which only makes them cuter. Part of me wants to start bringing them cat food, but that would inevitably lead to adopting the lot of them and Otter already has one cat at home that likes to kick his butt on a regular basis.

Off the property, temptation lies in the form of goats, horses, lizards and, his new favorite…cows. To him, cows are just big dogs. Except that he can bark at these dogs and instead of barking back, they’ll follow him along the fence until they can’t follow any further and then look on confused as I drag him away. We’re lucky we’re not further up the peninsula where the cattle roam free along the sides of the road or I’d spend half my time trying to return cows to their rightful owners, because apparently cows aren’t too bright and will follow anyone or anything that sounds vaguely authoritative.  

Don’t honk at him. He’ll follow you home.

Oh…so you’re probably wondering about that shithole part of the country?  So out here in the estuary they have what are known as “stick restaurants” and if you’re guessing it’s a restaurant built on wooden pilings in the middle of the water, then you’re spot on because…

The Hooters is next door. No, really.

Unlike its counterparts in New York, London, and Hollywood, the Hard Rock Café here is devoid of kitsch, pretension, and walls. In it’s place, are mismatched plastic tables, hammocks, and a complete disregard for building codes (and copyrights for that matter.) There is a makeshift kitchen, a refrigerator lying on its side for maximum beer storage, and a generator to keep the fridge going. Seafood is the specialty. A lot of times there is no menu. They simply bring out a tray with the day’s catch on it and you point to what you want and tell them how you’d like it prepared. The sides are simple: rice, dried fruits, etc. And the beer is plentiful. In fact, it’s too plentiful. Which is typically when it hits you that a place on stilts in the middle of an estuary with a makeshift kitchen and a fridge lying on its side is probably not going to have running water let alone “proper facilities”. And you’d be right. What they do have is a small walled-in area behind the fridge with a shower curtain for a door and a couple of missing floor boards. No sink, no toilet, no paper, no instruction manual.

 Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. If we were, there’d at least be a corn cob to wipe with.

General consensus about the Hard Rock Jaltepeque:  The ambiance is fantastic, and the food is obviously good—you’re seriously not going to get any fresher than “just caught”—but I spent the rest of that afternoon living in fear of my bladder. Although I must admit, the “bathroom” here was cleaner than the one in Vegas.

Time to tie this back in to the title…

I apologize for the shortness of this post. There is much more to be said, and I will get there eventually, but I am experiencing severe technical difficulties that have turned the blog-writing process into a monumental chore. Namely, the “t” key only works sporadically and the “b” key quit working altogether on my Mexican laptop (I’d say that this was another case of “Mexican’t” except that my last laptop also developed a keyboard problem. So either I type weird or the universe hates my blog and wants it all to stop.) Now obviously, there are “b’s” in the above text or I wouldn’t have been able to type “obviously” but in actuality, I have to type “oviously” and hope that spellcheck finds and corrects it. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Spellcheck trusts me…trusts me to be a big friggin’ idiot who can’t spell. Obviously.

Editor’s Note:  As of this writing, the “f” and the “r” have ceased to work and the “n” is on its way out. The “4” aka “$” conked out long ago. I guess if I ever need to use the words, “eoe”, “ae”, or “oa”, I’m uckig screwed.