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 CafĂ© 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.