I came over the border from Honduras by bus. It was a sticky July afternoon. I conversed fitfully with the two Swiss boys I had met. The bus was destined for San Salvador – the capital of the country. I could not bear this bum numbing much longer. We would soon be stopping in a small city – San Miguel, though Memory may play me false. I got out at San Miguel. It was unprepossessing but distinctively Central American. The buildings were mostly white and the architecture was vernacular. The narrow streets were notably uneven.
I checked intoa hotel called Hotel del Centro. I Would give it one star. This says a lot considering it was so central. There was an old man at the reception and a podgy girl in her early 20s. They were laid back and amiable.
One could not flush paper down the lavatory – there was a little bin for that. This speaks volumes about the underdevelopment of the place. It is so hot that the smell of human ordure is especially noxious. I had a very welcome shower and flicked through the channels – it was mostly dross. The usual telenovellas were being broadcast. These domestic melodramas are the staple of Latin American television. They are always set in families that are extraordinarily rich and where everyone is devastatingly attractive. Whether it is a man, a woman, a toddler or an elderly person – they are all utterly ravishing and extremely sharply dressed. The only requirement to appear in such a show is to have the looks. Acting ability is not considered at all. There is a formula for an episode. One scene of crying; one love scene; a fight and then some nailbiting finale. The plots are so hackneyed and predictable. After gawping on these pulp television I decided it was time for some light exercise. I asked the chubster on the desk where the centre was. The old man delighted in the cheekiness of pointing to the sign that read ”Hotel del Centro” – we were in the centre. Nevertheless he directed me to the main street. the Then a stroll around the city. It was delightful to walk around the place despite it being an unbeautiful.
I could not change Nicaraguan currency in the pokey bank. At the bank the security guards asked me if I had a gun on me. There was a special inner door they had to open to allow me access to the bank. I had to give u my phone as I went in. There was an unmistakable menace about the place. Even the smallest corner shop had an armed guard. How much violent crime could there be? I later learnt that Central American countries have among the highest murder rates in the world.
I walked around the market next day. I kept a hand over my wallet and never felt at ease. There were houses of deceased writers and composers who had lived in this town. I decided not to bother visiting. The Plaza de Armas was nothing to write home about although the church there was as typically tranquil and aesthetically satisfying. There was nothing to keep me in this most forgettable of towns. After less than 24 hours in this place it was time to get out of town. I boarded a local bus near Gasolinera El Triangulo. The rickety old bus was almost full. The road was bockety and thick vegetation flourished not far from the road. We passed innumerable villages in which many houses were wooden with straw roofs. At one point a gaggle of young nurses got on. My dream had come true! Or so I thought. One of the brown skinned nurses sat beside me. I eagerly engaged her in conversation. She was so gracious and feminine – the best of Latin American womanhood. She chatted courteously but I was not getting any sense that she was attracted to me. What was wrong with her? I had deluded myself that youthful Salvadorenas would be throwing themselves at a Gringo.
After a few hours the noisy bus pulled into San Salvador. San Salvador is the capital city of El Salvador. I remembered my father had a friend many years before named Bob Avala. He was a Salvadorean doctor who had moved to the United States. He spoke perfect American English. He was always spruce and urbane as those of his original nationality usually are. He was glad to be shot of El Salvador in the 1980s because it was going through an especially horrific civil war.
I got a taxi to a hotel I had picked out of my guidebook. The taxi took me up the steep hill into a very bourgeois area. There were a few small rooms there and a few Western travellers lodged there. The madame d’ spoke no English which provided yet another welcome opportunity for me to test my Spanish. I quickly met some of the guests. I shall only invent names for those I remember. There was a student named Zvi from Ohio and a middle aged man named Spottiswoode from Louisiana. I call him Zvi because I remember he was Jewish and that is about the most Jewish name I can think of. In fact he was not that Jewish – by this I mean that he did not wear the clothes of an Orthodox Jew. That would have been very uncomfortable in the steamy climate of El Salvador and nor did he eat kosher and he had a Gentile girlfriend. The other chap I have baptised Spottiswoode because he was a white American from the Deep South and there are many of Scots descent in those parts. I know that Spottiswoode is a North British surname and I have long pined to invent a character with that as Christian name.
Zvi had a very dark complexion for an American Jew. He was spare and wore sports clothes. He was ebullient and amiable. Spottiswoode had been in El Salvador in the 1980s as a non-denominational missionary. He spoke Spanish as poorly as me but had taught many Salvadorean adults to read. Even in the 1980s a large number of Salvadoreans were illiterate. There was such acute poverty that many people had never spent a day in school. His teaching has been a means to make a connection with people and then to preach the Gospel to them. ”I am here for anyone who wants to come into God’s Kingdom.” Spottiswoode seemed the best sort of Christian missionary. He was a people person and he was driven by compassion and not censoriousness or condescension. He told me he had run a cafe in Louisiana named ‘The Inklings’ and I noted that this was the name for the literary circle that included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. He playfully punched my shoulder in recognition of my knowledge. He was an enthusiast for C S Lewis; Christian apologetics. I did not wish to have Spottiswoode evangelising to me so I told him I was an ardent Christian of the Catholic variety.
I asked the manageress about getting a driving licence. Would it be possible to bribe and get one. She was unsure but with a broad smile she told me about a friend of a foreign hers who had gotten one. She said that her Gringa pal came from ”Norieuga”. I did not recognise that one. I asked her to repeat it. She had to say ”Norieuga” a couple of times for the penny to drop – ”Norway.” The manageress assured me that her friend spoke fluent Spanish and would be able to arrange things for me. Soon I was on the blower to the Norwegian. This Norwegian woman spoke flawless English as is typical for one of her nation. She was phlegmatic and distant. She told me matter of factly that I could only get a licence if I was a resident of El Salvador.
I decided to give it a shot. I took a taxi to the driving licence building. I told the tax driver my intention and he agreed to help me for a little extra money. I had my British provisional licence on em and my plan was to swap this for a substantive Salvadorean licence. There were several lawyers at desks in the open air. They had to validate my licence as a real one. None of them spoke English. A chubby woman carefully examined my provisional licence – never realising that the English word provisional is in Spanish ‘provisional’! She validated it! I forked over the few dollars that was her fee and triumphantly strode off to the building. At the office they told me I needed a NIT – which was a tax number. I would have to go off to the Ministry of Finance for one. So I got in the cab and the chap drove me to the Ministry of Hacienda. It was a skyscraper – the only one I saw in the country. It was remarakably efficient. I know this is not what one expects for El Salvador. Within minutes I had paid my few dollars and got my card. So we hastened back to the licencing building.
At the door a dapper young man greeted me. I told him my situation and he said one needed a residency permit for a driving licence. I meekly accepted it and sloped off. I ought to have asked if it was possible to pay ‘una propina’ and do the residency permit later.
Anyway, that was the end of that ingenious scheme.
I had a look around the city centre on my own. I did not find it attractive. It was crowded and not too unclean. There were no breath taking buildings. I felt unsafe there. This city had little to recommend it.
That evening I had a perambulation around town with Spottiswoode and Zvi. As we strode down a particularly ragged street a short middle aged man approached us. He had fair hair and a beard and he spoke superb English with an American accent. I shall dub him Cristobal. Cristobal was wearing stained clothes and repairing shoes by the road. He heard us speaking English and that was why he came up to us. There was a pitiable expression on his prematurely drawn face. ”Hey, could any of you guys please help me with a couple dollars?” he asked plaintively. Zvi took pity on him. There was a burger place very close and Zvi said he would buy him a meal there. Spottiswoode and I just waited. He observed, ”He must have a softer spot than us.” I would have refused to give him anything. Zvi was giving lie to the anti-Semitic trope about Jews being tight fisted. The Jewish man was being generous to a mendicant and the two Christians had passed by on the other side. We could see through the window that Zvi and Cristobal were having an animated conversation. Later they left and said farewell to each other. We walked on. Zvi told us that Cristobal had told him a moist tale of living in the United States as a child but never becoming a citizen. I wonder if he was an illegal. Cristobal had been found in possession weed and had been deported. Now he was living in El Salvador.
The next day I decided it was time to move on from San Salvador. I had been in Central America for a couple of weeks and had not laid eyes on the ocean. It was high time I went to the beach. From the main bus station I caught a bus to Puerto Libertad – ”Port Liberty.” That blazing hot afternoon I arrived in Puerto Libertad and quickly found a hotel. It was a one star – if that – with a courtyard in the middle. My room was small and dank. The bathroom was very primitive but at least the price of the places was as low as its standards. I was not at all unhappy to be there. There were two Australians staying there – a girl and a man. They were not a couple – they were in separate rooms. The Aussie man was Bruce – so I shall call him just to reinforce Monty Python stereotypes. He was about 30, tough and breezy. He has surfed this wide world o’er and had come to El Salvador in search of new waves. The Australian girl I shall name Clementine just to be tropical. She was in her early 20s. She had long brown hair that she did not look after well. She was softly spoken and a little dreamy. She studied Spanish – among other things – at her university. She spent a while in Mexico as part of her course and was tacking on some time in El Salvador.
I spent two day there walking its byways and swimming in the ocean. Almost no one went to the beach. It was a small and relaxing town. It had nothing to offer but the ocean. Swimming in the Pacific was welcome after so many days sweltering in the hinterland.
Later I used an internet cafe in a tiny shopping centre. I invented a bogus email and sent some vicious mails to Wrinkle Face and I never smile. There is no way they could prove I had used that computer or even been in the country since they do not stamp passports there. My heart was pounding by the end of the mails. I realised how exercised I was by the horrendous mistreament I had suffered at the hands of these arseholes.
There was Chinese-American running the internet cafe and he advised me not to walk down a certain street at night ”you get robbed” he said with a broad smile. I decided his counsel must be sage.
One evening I was so bored I paid to enter the basketball court and watch a match. That is the only time I ever went to a basketball game other than to play.
I went to the bank there for some reason. There was one way glass on the door. As I reached the door is magically opened – it was not a sliding door and there was no sensor on it. The I saw an armed guard on either side. These hard bitten men had been looking through the one way glass to open it for me. It also allowed them to be ready if they saw someone coming whom they expected to be up to no good. It would be quite hard to rob this one. I have often imagined how it could be done – by having two babes in miniskirts and high heels do the Barbie walk in the door. The guards would not be able to think – all the blood having gone to their dicks. The girls would then pull guns on them.
Then i took the bus back to the capital. I hung around the bus station for a ride to Guatemala City. I bought my ticket and checked in airport style. Security was not as stringent. There was a departure lounge though. I met two British boys about my age. Both were blatantly public school educated. They had spent their gap year in Africa. Here they were in Central America with not a word of Spanish between them. They were admirably thick. It was the sort of stupidity that can only be attained through a very expensive education.
The bus was a King Quality one again withair conditioning, huge reclining seats and a lubricious hostess. We barrled along the narrow road. Soon we crossed the frontier into Guatemala.