17 April 2006

On Distant Shores

ARCO El ESPINO--Somewhere, far to the south, the Pacific crashes ashore onto black sands. Underneath long roofs of thatch supported by lashed poles old men lie in rows of hammocks and stare out to sea. On the beach your feet sink into the fine sand, driven deeper each time the surf recedes and after so much time spent on the other side of the isthmus absorbing the rhythms of the Carribean, bewitched by its crystalline depths, you have forgotten the majesty and power of the far Pacific. Having looked east and imagined Utila, Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola you have forgotten how it is to look west and think that those waves contain Hawaii, Rapa Nui, Fatu Hiva, The Solomons, Malekula, Australia, Japan...
Here on the coast of El Salvador the mountains descend almost to the sea. There are brief flats with their houses and salt-water mangrove swamps, a line of palms and then black sand and surf. The setting sun explodes the sky into fractured lines of pink and orange which fade to blues and black until suddenly the palms are silloueted against a spray of stars.
As the sun set the children gathered. Several approached and, to my surprise, wrapped their arms around me and gently hugged the tall blonde stranger. This night is a party for them, an after-work-event for these three to thirteen-year-olds. They are a major part of the local economy, these curileros as they are called. In the morning small boats and canoes take them out into the mangroves where they claim small plots of root-twined mud to dig for clams. They cover their copper-colored skins with the black mud and learn to smoke to keep the mosqitoes at bay. For each five clams they dig they are paid 25 cents and if they dig enough sometimes they can go to school.
But tonight they are children not mud-encrusted hunters crawling through malarial swamps. They play soccar in the dust and jump rope and politely line up for care packages. When the sun's light is completely gone we go down to the beach's edge and fireworks are sent aloft. Some burst on the ground sending fire and sparks onto the spectators, others go askew and burst right overhead and some do become spectacular lights in the sky. No one knows whether to hold hands, ooh and ahh or dive for cover but somehow no one is seriously damaged.
When the explosions stop the crash of the Pacific waves almost drowns out the merengue played on worn old speakers, mutes the children's cries and on the wind there is the faintest hint of far off shores.

10 April 2006

Gringo Poking and Oher Sports

SAN SALVADOR--We sat at the hotel Via Real, half watching television and talking about the day when it occured to both Katy and me that we might be becoming slightly jaded. We concurred that, by all accounts it had been a strange day yet neither of us were feeling that much of the cognitive dissonance one normally feels after out-of-the-ordinary experiences...either that or we were both living in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance much as a drunk lives with a constant hangover so that normalacy ends up strange and disconcerting and sobriety painful.

All we really knew when the day began was that we were accompanying Dr. Diane Busch, a dentist from Florida, into Soyapango, a major suburb of San Salvador. Soyapango is a manufacturing and industrial center wherein had orginated some of Latin America´s most vicious gangs. We would be meeting with, and ostensibly under the protection of,the mayor and the ruling political party the FMLN (Frente Ferebundo Marti Liberation Nacional). Diane was supposed to set up some donated dental equipment as well as see patients from among Soyopango´s poor.
We entered the FMLN compound and waited for the mayor under the watchful eyes of that ever-present revolutionary poster boy Ernesto "Che" Guevera. The mayor, Carlos Alberto Garcia Ruiz was a short man with a firm handshake. He wore a bright red FMLN polo shirt and a Castro cap complete with red star, Cuban flag and a pin of Archbishop Romero, El Salvador´s martyr, assasinated in 1980. Ruiz ushered us into a conference room and sat across from us flanked by two larger men, both wearing shirts containing a high percentage of red. Ruiz then launched into a long, rambling speech in which every other word seemed to be that magic catchall, the word everyone is for and no one can argue against, the word that can make gringos begin to hemmorahge donations and go dewy eyed at the prospect of helping: "Development" (or "Desarollo" if ya hable the local lingo) is the word and the only way to improve on the word "development" is to add its magic modifier, "Sustainable."
I wasn´t paying too much attention, to tell the truth. I´d heard variations of this speach several hundred times before and I amused myself by pulling camera after camera out of my bag and shooting several frames with this one, several frames with that one until suddenly the whole tone of the speech changed and Ruiz was talking oil, Venezuala, Chavez, Cuba, Castro, Jorge W. Bush. He went on to tell us that the FMLN in Soyapango and other municipalities was directly cutting deals with their brother leftists for gasoline in exchange for manufactured goods on a long term loan. In essence he was playing a small match of that ever popular Latin American game known colloquially as, "Poke the Gringo." Hugo Chavez is up-and-coming in the sport, Castro the old master, by and large content now to let younger men do the heavy poking but always ready to poke a gringo or two when the situation calls for it.
After this and a round of handshaking the mayor´s men took us into the chaotic local market where I nearly stomped on a chicken with my great big gringo boots (you break it you bought it), checked out the mounds of fresh melons and peppars, avacados, mangos and platters of glistening white chicken feet. Eventually we ended up in front of a locked metal door. "This," one of the red shirts said with a flourish, "Is where the dental clinic used to be!"
I asked if we could see inside but no one addmitted to having a key so we all stood around for a few minutes shuffling our feet and making polite noises of admiration towards the door and whatever might once have been held behind it. Exiting the market we walked to a nearbye building that was to be the new clinic. It was a series of cinderblock rooms, empty save for one that contained several pieces of dissasembled dental equipment. Somebosy mentioned ,"development," and I couldn´t have agreed more. Diane the dentist began to examine the equipment with some fervor as became suddenly obvious that it would be the only patient she would be seeing this trip. With no small amount of horror I noticed a flight of mosquitos launch themselves from a wall and head right at my flesh. And so, while Diane did dentist things and Katy questioned the locals about the frequency of malaria and dengue, I tried to avoid both while providing entertainment as I danced around jumping and slapping myself and the buzzing air around me.
After all that excitement we hopped back in the truck and Domingo drove us through Soyapango, past shops making all manner of things, vending all manner of services, past an airforce base where soldiers stood in the guard towers sighting down their rifles as if preparing for imminent attack. All of a sudden we made a turn at a light and were descending into the bowl of a large caldera lake. This, Domingo said, was lake Ilopango, the remains of a volcano that had exploded only 1,500 years before sending rock and ash all the way up into Mexico. Down near the shore water stood deep in the roads and many of the building had a decrepit, damaged look that we were told was damage from the last devestating hurricane season. Along the shores were shacks and huts selling beer and food. It was barely noon but many little parties were already in progress. Grey effluant poured down rough channels into the otherwise clear water and boys played in the mix while old men soaped up and bathed. A group of young toughs ducked each other and mugged for the camera, guzzling aguardiente and smoking while behind them a blind man was in the process of being baptised, ducked under the surface whlie a small congregation sang hymns of praise. It was all chaotic and messy and alive and there was not a gringo in sight. I wished I could stay and explore this place with the volcano Chinchontapec looming in the distance and the forested Isle of the Ducks over there acorss the gentle silver waves.
Soon, however, we were back on the road driving through midday traffic, through smog so dense that things 30 feet away were slightly indistinct, obscured by a mustard yellow haze and the black belches of buses and trucks. It was lunchtime so we found a restaraunt in a quiet neighborhood not far from our hotel. Its multi-level patios were surrounded by trees and people had gathered to drink beer and watch the soccar match between Madrid and Barcelona on the televisions. When we asked the cheering man at the next table who he favored he smiled, shrugged and replied, "I don´t care. I just love the game."
When we returned to the hotel I was still hungry and needed a few things so we walked two blocks down to the ultra-modern mall. On the way we stopped at Wendy´s so Katy could get a Frosty. We did a little shopping and in the produce section of the grocery store a butterfly sat on the top of a mound of mangos. Katy gently ran her fingertip over the top of its wings and they opened to reveal patterns of orange and black. "It´s the only familiar thing you could find, huh?" she said to the beautiful insect. It waggled its wings and crawled further up the mango.
All of a sudden I had an almost overwhelming need to eat at the Tony Roma´s restaraunt, not so much for the food but for the cool, dark quiet of a deep padded booth. So we went and sat there and I ate a large bleu cheese burger while Brittany Spears looked down on us from a poster and Jason Timberlake emoted on the stereo. Crowds of Salvadoran mall rats passed by the dark tinted windows, all the types youd see in the States, the bleach-streaked hair, the morbidly obese families, the t-shirts with the latest bands. The Cinemark movie theatre was playing "Brokeback Mountain" or, "El Secreto en la Montana," as it is called here and we wondered how well gay cowboy stories go over here.

We sat watching television back at the hotel Via Real while the sunset was made all the more spectacular by the smog and the lights and nightlife of El Salvador switched on.
"It was a strange day, wasn´t it, Katy?" I said.
"Yes, it was."
"Are we becoming jaded?"
"I think maybe. I hope not though."
We were silent for a while, watching Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfieffer resolve their marital difficulties with emotional speeches. Katy switched the channel to CNN and we watched Hugo Chavez poking the gringo.
"Maybe we aren´t jaded," I said after a while, "Maybe when every day is strange, full of the odd and unpredictable, the mind must necessarily turn down the rheostat."
Katy yawned and stretched. "I think I need to go to bed. Why am I so tired? It´s only nine o´clock..."
I looked at my watch and replied, "Nine o'clock means we´ve been up and running for 14 hours now. And it has been a strange day."
"Yes, it has."
"So it´s time to say goodnight."
"Because tommorrow will be strange too," Katy replied with a smile.
"Yes, it will."
"Goodnight Andrew."
"Goodnight Katy."

In El Salvador

AHUACHAPAN--The vultures circle. The vultures circle. The vultures circle in the pale sky above the baked and beaten earth and the twistd limbs of the jocote trees and their meager harvest. The vultures circle over this narrow isthmus connecting two great continents. It is almost all mountains and canyons here, wrinkled and jagged as if broader flat plains were crushed together by the fist of some drunken god.
We stand on a steep hillside overlooking the Rio Paz, The River of Peace. On the other side of that river the mountains are called Guatemala instead of El Salvador. You can imagine midnight crossings, refugees going either way, trying to escape the war in their land by entering the war of another.
The vultures circle and you imagine they hope for the ´92 peace accords fail, for the hills and valleys to agin be strewn with the charnal feast of the dissapeared, for anarchy again to be loosed in a blood dimmed tide.

NEVERNEVERLANDIA--In the Central Park of Antigua, Guatemala the blossoms fall from trees like a soft purple rain. You sit on a bench and watch water spurt from the perfect stone breasts of the fountain statues, watch the Mayan women in their fantasically colored native dress, watch the shoeshine boys chase customers and chase each other with white-toothed smiles and black-stained hands. You hear the music from the bars and restaraunts, the clatter of horse´s hooves on cobblestones and the tinkling bells of ice-cream carts.
You watch the beautiful travelers from all corners of the globe wandering around with happy, dazed, drugged smiles and while those smiles may, in fact, be chemically enhanced it is, more accurately, a condition caused by the eating of the lotus. Lured to this mountain spot the gringos come and fall under a spell like Oddysys´ men of legend. When the living is cheap and the party endless why move onward? Why subject oneself to further adventures when the days slide sideways from morning ´till night under the volcano peaks; when the light slants through golden hours while the clouds shift silently over the mountains.
You can see the answer in those who did stay, those who never stuffed cotton in their ears to mute the siren song, those who always stayed another day to taste again the lotus. You see them shuffling almost invisibly through the park with Rip Van Winkle beards and dazed expression unenlivened by smiles, somehow, suddenly, aged and infirm, wondering how paradise could have ever become so dull and tortuous.

This city always seems curiously displaced from the flow of normal time. It is stunning in its beauty, its color and exoticism. It has been tamed. Shined up for the gringos, streets patrolled to keep them safe and mainly separated from the locals. At times it feels distinctly false, as if it had been carefully constructed in, say, Southern California and if one walks too far in one direction one might enter The Land of Tommorrow, that that nearbye mountain isn´t Pacaya but a scale Matterhorn and that amongst the actors and acctresses playing Guatemalans one might suddenly be accosted by a famous mouse or duck. On every block there are counters selling tickets. There is the Rio Dulce/Livingston Ride and the Utila/Roatan rides which might alternately be called "Hippies of the Carribean." There are the Copan and Tikal rides which might be called, "Mayaland."

As the light slants deeper and the evening hours turn to dark, the travelers come out to play, to dance, to mate. Every corner has a bar from which forth issues a babel of languages melded together until the chatter resembles nothing so much as the shrieking of parrots that some fool has irresponsibly given rum. And the whirl always has a slight hint of madness and desparation, knowing that it exists at the pleasure of the volconos and unstable earth that has flattened this place before and surely will again, when rock and ash fall across the park like black rain.

Paradise Lost

UTILA--The morning light was pink-tinged grey and the moon that had been full a few nights before still hung half-lit in the sky. We walked down the island´s main street, quiet still at this early hour, free of the bikes and scooters, ATVs and pedestrians that would fill it later. We walked to the dock to join the other exiles, feeling vaguely like Adam and Eve being cast out from paradise, sent back to the rough, dusty world on the other side of the water.
I paid $44 to the bored looking female Charon for our tickets and Katy bought coffee from a man festooned with crawling macaws. The outgoing crowd was silent, keeping to their seats, holding on to their memories of island life, underwater gardens, parties, romance and the slow, easy pace that one way or another was changing with this departure. In a few hours the Utila Princess would disgorge us and take on a new load of fresh-faced travelers, island-bound, making new friends, anticipating new adventures both above and below the waves
Utila, along with Roatan and Guanaja, make up the three major Honduran Bay Islands. All are meccas for divers and the conversations invariably circle back down to where one is diving, what fantastic sea creatures one saw that day and what dives one has planned for the coming days and nights. Everywhere you see people with their dive manuals, studying for their courses. I had done several dives on the island the year before and over the last months all I could think about was letting the air from my BCD and slipping beneath the waves.
Perversely, the moment we arrived and found rooms at Rubi´s Guesthouse, I lost all motivation. The idea of leaving my hammock, of deciding which shop to dive with, of strapping on all that gear, seemed suddenly, unbearably, odious in its complexity.
Each day, when I would see Katy in the morning, she would ask me if I was diving that day and each morning I would reply, "Possible manana." And after a few mananas I knew that manana would never come. Intead, when not napping off the trauma of thinking about diving, we explored the island by foot and bicycle. Trails, some more hidden than others, cut through the jungle interior, leading to deserted beaches where waves crash against volcanic rock and palms wave against the golden sun. Deep in the humid forest are caves rumored (of course) to contain pirate treasure. There are beaches to snorkle off of where the reef and all its life begin mere feet from shore and I reaquainted myself with the pleasure of gently gliding over the surface and observing the aquatic world unencumbered by tanks and weights and time tables. Free diving I would propell myself down then shoot the fantastic scenes with my Nikonos as I slowly ascended. I would swim underwater, rolling onto my back to watch Katy swim overhead through schools of fish.
In the evenings we would watch the setting sun over the peaks of the Honduran mainland while sitting at the end of our dock, feeling the wind that once drove pirate ships, watching the stars appear in all their profusion.
Life back in the Western Highlands, amongst the people the English speaking island Hondurans call Spaniards, seemed very far away with its constant clouds of dust, the only water being the pool on top of Hotel Elvir.

But the Utila Princess did finally dock in La Ceiba and the world seemed to speed up, take on a certain reality that the soft-edged island life had lacked. We grabbed a cab driver before one could grab us and tossed our packs in the back of his dented chariot. He grinned at us, wide and gold-rimmed, turned up the radio and skidded out of the parking lot in a shower of gravel.
"Donde?" he asked.
"Home, Juan," I replied.