Él Salvador – An Unconventional Tale

Él Tunco

Log: 14th July 2016 – 20th July 2016

• As you start travelling people have a tendency to give you their perspective on where you’re going. I could count more the times I was warned about Central America by people who had never been before than I was told to enjoy myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that danger exists in many places and that you shouldn’t walk into any situation with your eyes closed. But I strongly feel that an experiential moment should help create your perspective and not alone the hearsay of others.

Él Salvador has often been portrayed to me as too dangerous to visit and few travellers I have met along the way have bothered to explore the country for that very reason. On leaving Guatemala, Neven and I decided that travelling over two counties and two borders (Guatemala to Nicaragua entails crossing Él Salvador and Honduras) in one day was just not realistic and that we would need to stop somewhere. Knowing that we never keep to a timely manner we agreed we would probably only make it to Él Salvador by night. This would give us a good opportunity to experience the country a little for ourselves.

With late afternoon approaching we arrived in Él Tunco, a place recommended to us by the owner of our previous hostel. Él Tunco is a little community on the beachfront and often attracts many foreigners as the beach is optimal for surfing. Coming across a sign for $2 parking, Neven decided to test our luck to see if we could camp the night. It turns out the parking site was part of a hostel that was still being built. It offered us a toilet, shower, electricity and plenty of shade. Talk about luxury! It had been nearly five months since I last saw a beach and although Él Tunco is more rock than sand, I found a small spot to celebrate. Hooping and yoga tends to draw questioning and curious looks from bystanders but I had no time to worry what others thought when there was sand to be rolled around in. If you don’t look them in the eye, are they even really there?

Like most, our one night stop quickly turned into two and it was on the second day Neven met Don Omar. Don Omar, a local and incredibly kind natured man, well spoken in English, lived in a house on the property. As they conversed Neven expressed his usual desire in seeing the mountains but also his concerns about the safety. Acknowledging the potential dangers within Él Salvador, Don Omar offered to take us to visit friends who lived in a small village in the mountains. He wanted to show us that there were people and places that defied the typical stereotype.

Neven + Don Omar removing beans from their pods.
Neven + Don Omar removing beans from their pods.

We began our trip to the mountains and I sat in the backseat and admired all the stories that Don Omar had to share of his life. The places he’d been, the people he’d met, completely enriched with wisdom, yet never failing to maintain the cheeky and playfulness of a child. Without a doubt this made for a joyous little road trip and plenty of smiles. After a few hours we finally arrived and of course it was breath taking. The weather is cool and crisp, a nice change from the humidity in Él Tunco. The wind carried the scent of sweet pine and breathing the air in only brought happiness to my lungs. A peaceful silence settled as I witnessed villagers go about their afternoon.

Don Omar mentioned that originally the area was colonised by the Germans and that in some of the villages there are locals who are very fair skinned and have ginger hair, no less Él Salvadoran, but with unconventional looks. I see a small boy playing with friends matching this description as we pass through his village.

Now what would you imagine transpiring when arriving to a strangers home who was unaware of your coming? I didn’t know what to expect and I’ve learnt during this trip that if you do have expectations they will always be shattered – remain open to the  unravelling of mystery. Parked up in front of this tiny little white home, we were warmly welcomed inside and Don Omar introduces us. “Meet Neven and Sarah, my new friends! I have brought them to see you and the mountains.” Five minutes barely goes by and the Reyes family, with little consideration,  insisted that we stay with them for the evening, welcoming us like family. The afternoon rolls by and I started to feel like I’m in some sort of comedy, as one by one more children started to come home from their daily activities (7 of the 21 children live in the tiny house!) Each a little confused at first by the foreigners in their home. Pleasantries are exchanged than curious questions and soon enough they are sharing their own stories, laughing and joking and accepting us like we have always been apart of their home. I admit that I am still very timid in conversation, but I listen attentively and my heart is reminded of my own big family back home.

The following day the family suggests we go and see Él Pilas, the highest view point in Él Salvador. You can almost see the whole country from this point and the border and beginnings of Honduras. Lucky for us we were able to hitch a ride up and down the hill! Arriving on top I notice it seems to be a place that attracts many Él Salvadorans. Contrary to belief, there are families and friends all enjoying the beautiful site, people are kind and welcoming in their gestures and not once do I feel unsafe. I think about how often countries are portrayed in such a negative light, not to deny that there is truth in the darker elements, but often there is so little focus on the positive.

Now I believe it has become almost customary for me to experience some sort of sickness in each country I visit. After our climb down from Él Pilas I could feel something was wrong. Don Omar offered to go with Neven and I to the pharmacy in the next village to get some medication. After testing positive for salmonella in Mexico than falling sick again in Guatemala I could only assume I was looking at another dose of antibiotics. The sweet old lady who ran the pharmacy adjoined to her home, went well out of her way to make sure I had everything I needed.  Once again, I’m overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of complete strangers. I want to say my sickness got better before it go worse, but unfortunately I wasn’t that lucky this time around. I’ve never had a fever before but it’s such a dissociating and confusing thing for your body to experience. Paired with urgent needs for the bathroom and pains radiating from the core of your bones, you’re in for a bloody long night! Regardless, the best thing to ever come from falling ill is that moment when you start to feel good. Even if it’s just a small speck going from 0 – 1, you see it, the light at the end of the tunnel. Tastes like heaven on earth. I’ve never relished so much in my health.

While I spent the morning in recovery mode, Neven went out into the fields to help the family harvest their bean crop. Once collected the beans are taken to be sold. The work is hard and the pay is little but an immense amount of humility radiates from this family. They exist with endless happiness and gratitude for the lives they live and the love that pours from them is infectious. When I experience connections like this I’m reminded of my privilege. That I am lucky enough to travel to other countries and see other aspects of this world and that there are others who are not. However what I am envious of is knowing that my life, having always been a constant chaotic overload of stimuli, requires more discipline in appreciating lifes simplicities. Something seemingly easy for the family here to cultivate and a treasure I truly value.

Now my Spanish isn’t amazing and I still get terrible stage fright trying to speak like I’ve gone and thrown away my own voice box. How could I express to the family my appreciation for their kindness when I couldn’t even speak the right language? A picture. A painting. Anyone who knows me well enough knows I’ve struggled with my artwork for years. Never to start out of fear of fail. But I found inspiration in this little mountain village and love from this family so I decided to gift them a painting of their home. Where lacking in technique, was only to be filled with my undying gratitude.

After a sad farewell Don Omar, Neven and I head back to Él Tunco, spending another night to give myself a chance to rest up and time to organise for our next day of travel. The following morning we share one last meal with Don Omar and I can’t help but think how the last few days had unravelled. What if we had listened to the perspective of others who emphasised only the dangers of this country? None of this would’ve transpired. Once again I won’t deny the existence of problematic issues, but there is much significance on this that we limit ourselves to the potential of other experiences and we deny those who completely smash the stereotype. Seek to write and discovery life as your own, and not to follow or do as those who wish to make it for you. You’ll find love and beauty in the most unusual places.

“One of our problems is that very few of us have developed any distinctive personal life. Everything about us seems secondhand, even our emotions. In many cases we have to rely on secondhand information in order to function. I accept the word of a physician, a scientist, a farmer, on trust. I do not like to do this. I have to because they possess vital knowledge of living of which I am ignorant. Secondhand information concerning the state of my kidneys, the effects of cholesterol, and the raising of chickens, I can live with. But when it comes to questions of meaning, purpose, and death, secondhand information will not do. I cannot survive on a secondhand faith in a secondhand God. There has to be a personal word, a unique confrontation, if I am to come alive.” ~ Alan Jones, Theologian

Extra photos:

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